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Review

Among Amazon pilots, 'The Cosmopolitans' a promising diversion

TelevisionEntertainmentColumnMoviesTelevision IndustryRon PerlmanCraig Roberts
Amazon's latest batch of pilots now up for greenlight discussion, with 'The Cosmopolitans' leading the pack
Get ready for 3rd round of Amazon pilots: 'The Cosmopolitans,' 'Red Oaks,' 'Really,' 'Hand of God,' 'Hysteria'
It's a new season of Amazon pilots and the pickings are, well, you be the judge

Here comes the third round of Amazon pilots, even before we've seen the fruits of the second. The first gave the world Garry Trudeau's (neologism alert) Republicom "Alpha House," whose second season began filming in July. Jill Soloway's "Transparent," one of four green-lighted pilots from the last batch, arrives as a series to stream via Amazon.com in late September.

It's useful to remember that pilots are only pilots. They are ideas made flesh in order to see whether those ideas are good or not, or how they might be tweaked in order to become good. The twist with Amazon's endeavor, which is as much of a marketing idea as a process, is that the public is invited into the process early, to rate and comment on the works.

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FOR THE RECORD

An Aug. 28 Calendar review of upcoming television pilots from Amazon said that actress Chloe Sevigny starred in Whit Stillman’s “Barcelona.” She was not in that movie. Rather, she starred in Whitman’s “The Last Days of Disco.”

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On the whole, the episodes are both impressively professional and a little eccentric: They look very much like Real TV Shows, but some seem slightly distorted: a little overstuffed here, a little undercooked there, as if conversations usual to the development of a television pilot had never taken place.

As a fan of Whit Stillman's dry, cheerful, talky romantic comedies, I have been looking forward to "The Cosmopolitans" since it was first announced back in April. There are not a lot of Stillman movies around — he has made four since 1990, his most recent being 2011's "Damsels in Distress" — so this addition to the oeuvre feels like a gift. And though it is very much the beginning of something, were there no subsequent episodes to come, this could nearly stand alone as a short film.

Stillman, whose movies have the quality of seeming at once unreal and naturalistic, is a filmmaker whose approach remains remarkably consistent from picture to picture. Indeed, "Cosmopolitans," which is set among expatriates in present-day Paris, could have been made a week after 1990's New York-set "Metropolitan," they are aesthetically and textually so much of a piece.

Here, as elsewhere, the characters have a lot of theories about life, which they compulsively share in dialogue whose proper cadences seem slightly out of time, or foreign, as if you had stumbled into a lost world where some earlier form of English was still spoken. The cast includes Adam Brody and Carrie MacLemore, who were in "Damsels," and Chloe Sevigny, who was in Stillman's "Barcelona." As ever, there are parties.

Directed by David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express") and written by Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs, with Steven Soderbergh as a producer, "Red Oaks" is a semi-gloss pastiche of a 1980s coming-of-age film, set at a New Jersey country club where Craig Roberts ("Submarine") is employed over the summer as an assistant tennis pro. Cleaving so faithfully to form — there are the comical-philosophical stoner, the disreputable mentor, the deep-well possible future girlfriend (dark), the hot but simple and probably soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (blond), a dumb jock — it is remarkably predictable, yet also very well executed. Richard Kind plays Roberts' father, Jennifer Grey his mother, Paul Reiser the country club president. Some of the dialogue I spoke aloud before the characters got there; other lines made me laugh.

Jay Chandrasekhar, who directed one of the better Group 2 pilots ("The Rebels," not picked up), created and stars in the tiring "Really," about a pack of coupled friends confronting the horrors of early middle age. A great cast, including Sarah Chalke, Selma Blair and Luka Jones, delivers jokes mostly about sex or the lack of it, which is to say, masturbation. Alcoholism also gets a tonally jarring, impressively messy look-in. Chandrasekhar, interestingly, is the sole person of color here; that may reflect his own life, for all I know, but it also makes him seem like the token Indian guy in his own series.

Neither of the dramas worked for me, though they show a lot of craft and put the money on the screen.

"Hand of God," written by Ben Watkins (a "Burn Notice" veteran) and helmed by big-screen director Marc Forster ("World War Z"), is the more interesting of the two, though it feels like a decade's dark cable dramas run through a blender. Ron Perlman plays a powerful, arrogant, morally dubious judge who has a breakdown after the attempted suicide of his son — brain dead and on life support but still talking to the old man, who has experienced a religious conversion at the hands of a shady preacher. Dana Delaney is his practical shark of a wife; Garret Dillahunt, the standout here, is a born-again, still-psycho ex-con who crosses Perlman's path. There are no characters to like among the main cast, and while likability may be overrated, it is also true that there are no characters to like among the main cast.

"Hysteria," which comes from Shaun Cassidy, has Texas teens becoming uncontrollably twitchy, a contagious syndrome that neurologist Mena Suvari recognizes, possibly from personal experience. (We may never now.) Dark business — an unfaithful cop, a man in prison covered in burns, the tattooed hands of an otherwise unseen antagonist making viral videos on a laptop — fills the corners. The climactic scene, in which social media is fingered as the facilitating villain, is probably not supposed to be as amusing as I found it.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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