Archive for March 30, 2016

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Seven Minutes in Heaven”

March 30, 2016

Of all the things that “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” the ninth episode of Daredevil’s second season, does well, restaging the sensational hallway fight from Season One with the Punisher as its protagonist may be the smartest. Nothing drives home the moral, philosophical, tactical, and phyiscal differences between the two vigilantes quite like watching each of them tear through a small army of opponents in an enclosed space: With Daredevil, the worst that happens is that one of his foes gets beaned with a flying microwave oven; with Punisher, dudes get their eyeballs gouged out. As if to make the point that this fight scene reveals who Frank Castle really is even clearer, the sequence ends with an ersatz Punisher skull logo emblazoned on the man’s chest. It’s red on white rather than white on black, but I think we get the picture.

I reviewed episode nine of Daredevil season two for Decider.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Guilty as Sin”

March 30, 2016

As a matter of fact, one of Daredevil’s most consistently impressive features is its ability to stage and shoot conversations in a visually engaging and communicative way. Take a look at the exchange between Matt and his mentor Stick in which the old man finally divulges the nature of “the war” he’s been issuing ominous warnings about for decades. First of all, what kind of recruitment technique is that? If you want to indoctrinate at-risk youth into your apocalyptic cult of holy-man assassins, you might try telling them the cool origin story at some point before they grow up and decide you’re a dangerous lunatic.

But second of all, the scene is shot with both intimacy and urgency. As the green-gold light that’s the show’s visual go-to bathes their faces, revealing Stick’s crags and crevices while simplifying Matt’s silhouette into a smooth and elegant series of curves, the camera moves almost constantly, up and down, back and forth, slowly enough not to make you seasick but emphatically enough to convey the lack of solid ground on which these two men’s relationship currently stands. This is only enhanced by the lack of the customary eyeline-match crosscutting; the basic pattern is there, but since these are two blind men, no eye contact is implied, leaving you unmoored in the words rather than rooted in their experience of each other. Throughout, Stick is usually placed at the far left side of the frame, while Matt will alternately be shortsighted toward that end of the screen or situated on the opposite side, again evoking his competing curiosity and skepticism. Forget the ninja stuff — this is fight choreography, alright.

I reviewed episode eight of Daredevil Season Two for Decider.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Inflatable”

March 30, 2016

Better Call Saul a quiet marvel more concerned with doling out little discreet slivers of human behavior, preserved in musical montage sequences like individual slides in a projection reel, than in watching that behavior wreak havoc writ large. And “Inflatable,” last night’s episode, contained the most entertaining montage of the lot. Set to Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band’s “Scorpio,” a staple sample source of hip-hop’s golden age (I recognized it from “Bust a Move” and“Jingling Baby”), the sequence sees Jimmy draw inspiration from one of those godawful inflatable dancing men strip-mall stores use to attract attention to do just that—attract so much attention around the Davis & Main office that they’ll fire him rather than force him to quit and thus lose his bonus. Seventies-style split screen shots spotlight the spectacular sartorial sense associated with Saul Goodman as his prior self starts dressing loud and acting louder, from running a juicer in the breakroom to practicing the bagpipes during office hours to admitting he’s the firm’s phantom pooper. (“That was me.” “Jimmy, I just said I don’t wanna know!” God bless Ed Begley Jr., America’s funniest square.)

I reviewed this week’s Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Semper Fidelis”

March 30, 2016

“Semper Fidelis,” the seventh episode of Daredevil’s second season, was the most subduded and uneventful of the lot. Sure, the show attempts to ratchet up the drama in the beginning, marching the Punisher into court in slow-motion to tune of Inception-style BONNGGGGGGs, and positioning him in front of an American flag with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast. But hey, this is the Punisher we’re talking about. Subtlety is neither his strong suit, nor the strong suit of stories that wish to use his blunt-force allegory effectively.

I reviewed episode seven of Daredevil Season Two for Decider.

“Billions” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Quality of Life”

March 30, 2016

There are all kinds of reasons why last night’s episode of Billions was the show’s first unmitigated artistic success, so naturally I’m going to start with the most minor and incidental: It quoted The Big Lebowski. And not in the way it usually quotes the touchstones of guy-beloved cinema, either, with one of the series’ machismo-obsessed characters calling themselves Keyser Soze Motherfucker or whatever. This was an honest-to-god homage in which it seems that they called one of their supporting characters Donnie just so they could refer to the beauty of nature “he loved so well” at his funeral, just like Walter Sobchak did when bidding Steve Buscemi’s character Donnie adieu in the Coen Bros. comedy classic. Shit, they even named this Donnie’s husband Walter! Any knucklehead could have had Wags or Axe or any of these other goons shout “this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” or whatever, but it took real planning and a considered affinity for the material to work in a reference to Donnie’s gallows-humor funeral scene in a gallows-humor funeral scene. I didn’t know Billions had it in ’em!

I reviewed this week’s Billions, the show’s best episode so far, for the New York Observer.

“Vinyl” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “The King and I”

March 30, 2016

It lasted no longer than the A-side of a 45. But for a brief, beautiful period on tonight’s Vinyl — titled “The King and I,” because of course it is — it looked for all the world like we were about to enter an alternate timeline in which Elvis Presley invented punk rock.

I reviewed this week’s Vinyl for Rolling Stone.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 46!

March 30, 2016

Forecasting The Winds of Winter, Part 2: Essos

We’re going back to the future with part two of our all-predictions podcast series on The Winds of Winter! This time around we’re traveling to Essos to speculate as to what Volume Six of A Song of Ice and Fire has in store for our old friends, from Braavos to Meereen. What fate will befall the five POV characters currently located east of Westeros—Arya, Barristan, Victarion, Tyrion, and Daenerys? What about supporting players like Jorah Mormont, Moqorro, and Marwyn the Mage? (Forgot about him, didn’t you?) Then, of course, there’s the matter of the dragons to consider, and consider them we do. It winds up being a wide-ranging discussion of lands near and far, futures immediate and distant. Guess along with us!

This episode also features an update on our fundraisers, both our emergency PayPal fund to help fix Sean’s broken laptop and our Patreon drive, where your monthly subscription/donation can help guarantee more episodes, better sound quality, topics of your choosing, and more. We greatly appreciate all our donors and patrons so far, and if you think the podcast’s worth a few bucks a month, we’d be so grateful for you to join their ranks!

Download Episode 46

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“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Regrets Only”

March 26, 2016

Hey, anyone order a full-fledged Kill Bill homage? ‘Cuz in “Regrets Only,” the sixth episode of Daredevil’s second season, that’s what you’re getting. The ep opens with a crew of yakuza assassins in suits and ties zipping through Manhattan on motorcycles. Sure, they lack the Kato masks of the Crazy 88, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Date With the Night” provides the soundtrack instead of Al Hirt’s “Green Hornet” theme, but I mean, c’mon. Then there’s the first of two different fights in which Daredevil and Elektra wind up silhouetted against some kind of strikingly lit backdrop and/or behind some strikingly lit screen. “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” baby!

I reviewed Daredevil’s sixth episode of Season Two for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Two: “Pastor Tim”

March 25, 2016

I’m a reactive audience member when it comes to good TV. I hoot and holler, I gasp and curse, I laugh and cheer, and at the best of times I cry. Even so, it’s not often I get to the end of an episode and literally applaud. But that’s what I did when the closing credits rolled on this week’s installment of The Americans. Normally that’s a reaction reserved for crowded theaters where you’ve just watched a good movie on opening night, or seen the curtain come down on a play whose performers can, you know, actually hear you clap. This time it was just me, sitting in my living room, watching a TV show, spontaneously responding to a job well done.

I reviewed this week’s drum-tight episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode One: “Glanders”

March 25, 2016

“Is everything alright?” “No.” Hashtag: #SummarizeTheAmericansInFourWords. This exchange between Martha Hanson, the hapless administrative assistant who suffered the singular misfortune of working in the wrong FBI office at the wrong time, and Philip Jennings, the spy who seduced her, used her, and has now killed in her name, says pretty much all you need to know about The Americans, television’s most profoundly unhappy show. I mean “profoundly unhappy” in every sense of the phrase, by the way. Most everyone in the series is miserable, and the series’ misery runs deep, cuts deeper, and reveals the ugly buried truth about living a lie, whether personal or political.

I inexplicably forgot to link to this last week, but I’m reviewing The Americans for the New York Observer again this season. If it’s not the best show on television now, it’s a photo-finish.

In “Patience,” Daniel Clowes Looks for Answers to the Big Questions

March 24, 2016

“I wouldn’t be interested in the work of an artist if they didn’t suffer from debilitating anxiety,” Daniel Clowes says. “It’s part of the process.”

I interviewed Daniel Clowes about anxiety, religion, violence, the death of his best friend, and his new book Patience for the New York Observer.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Kinbaku”

March 24, 2016

Amazingly, Daredevil has joined Mad MenThe Affair, and Outlander in the pantheon of television shows that accurately convey the feeling of what my friend and favorite cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg once described as “fuck fever”—an all-consuming lust so strong an actual human connection forms around it. Watching young Matt and Elektra together, or hearing them jokingly describe a future when they’re married with children whom they blow off in order to “spend our time doing better things…like sex,” you can see how sex really is enough fuel to sustain a relationship, even a serious one—at least until Elektra’s sociopathy intervenes and brings Matt to the brink of killing someone.

Daredevil is the sexiest show on television (or whatever Netflix is) right now, and I explained why in my review of Season 2′s fifth episode for Decider.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Penny and Dime”

March 24, 2016

Okay, so maybe it’s overstepping to name this review after both the subject of the greatest Mad Men Don Draper pitch of all time and the title of the episode it came in. Entire books have been written on that series using the Carousel—Kodak’s slide-projector product and Don’s speech’s central metaphor for the mental time-travel loop of nostalgia—as an emblem. But consider the alternatives: I could have gone with “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or “Face-Off.” You’re welcome!

Put the ultraviolence aside, though, provided the images aren’t lodged in your brain. What makes “Penny and Dime,” the fourth and best episode of Daredevil’s excellent second season so far, so effective really is Draperesque. What is Frank Castle, after all, but a tall dark and handsome antihero with a shadowy past, hypercompetent at his job but discovering this cannot compensate for the happy family he’s been denied? And what is the Central Park Carousel but a larger version of the slideshow Don uses to remind himself of the people he loves, and the poor job he’s done at loving them?

I reviewed the fourth episode of Daredevil season two for Decider.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Bali Ha’i”

March 24, 2016

Visually speaking, Kim’s face was the image that defined the episode. This began early, with a long-held look at her as she sits on her bed, listening to Jimmy serenade her answering machine with a reedy rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific. Saul’s a show that doesn’t mind sitting with a supporting character as she sits quietly and soaks in the goofball charm of its protagonist, a guy with whom at this point she’s both furious and, despite herself, infatuated. Using this as the payoff for her morning routine, during which it becomes increasingly apparent she was waiting for him to call despite having no intention of picking up, was a lovely idea, and director Michael Slovis’s execution was inspired.

I reviewed this week’s Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.

“Vinyl” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Cyclone”

March 24, 2016

As the late great David Bowie himself once sang, “Don’t lean on me, man.” Would that Vinyl had listened: The show’s sixth episode — “Cyclone” — was also its weakest, the first where its tales of excess and ecstasy threatened to just fall apart completely. You can’t blame Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde, who seem to pour body and soul into every scene. But despite the high-decibel dedication and all that boundlessly destructive physical energy, their performances are practically drowned out by the pyrotechnics of twisty reveals and the clunky incorporation of IRL icons.

I didn’t much care for this week’s Vinyl, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “New York’s Finest”

March 22, 2016

The most compelling thing about Daredevil and Punisher’s rooftop heart-to-heart is what doesn’t get said. As many critics have noted, their argument centers on the relative lethality of their respective brands of vigilante justice: The Punisher kills, Daredevil doesn’t. Anywhere outside a superhero story, this is a pretty thin reed on which to hang a system of morality, since Daredevil routinely beats the living shit out of people, and tortures someone for information at least as often as Sarah Koenig posts new episodes of Serial Season Two. No matter how much Matt waxes eloquent about hope and redemption, forces that Frank snuffs out when he takes life, isn’t this a ridiculous, hair-splitting argument to have with a masked man who hurts people in the name of helping people?

Well, yes, it is — and just as it always has, the show knows this. “I don’t do this to hurt people,” Matt tells Frank, who responds with skepticism: “Yeah, so what is that, just a job perk?” “I don’t kill anyone.” “Is that why you think you’re better than me?” Frank presses. “No.” “Is that why you think you’re a big hero?” “It doesn’t matter what I think or what I am,” Matt insists “Is that a fact?” When pushed on the question of whether beating people is heroic, Matt simply refuses to answer. It’s just like when instead of telling Wilson Fisk that yes, one man really could change the system, he simply knocked the dude out. Daredevil the show knows that Daredevil the heroic figure is a mess of contradictions and impossibilities, and to its credit it never shies away from this, nor offers a half-assed explanation or excuse. It goes out of its way to point this out repeatedly, both in dialogue scenes like this one, and in its use of violence, which is uniformly ugly rather than antiseptically thrilling. Like Game of Thrones, it brings to the audience’s attention the brutality that genre pieces of its ilk usually would like you to forget, and like Game of Thrones it gets lambasted under the assumption that depiction equals exploitation, if not endorsement. But it’s the only superhero show I can think of that asks us to think about what happens when people hit people to stop them hitting back.

I wrote about Daredevil’s willingness to stare vigilantism straight in the face for Decider.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “Dogs to a Gunfight”

March 21, 2016

They call him the Punisher, and he’s got the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe in his crosshairs.

Don’t get me wrong: In “Dogs to a Gunfight,” the second episode ofDaredevil’s second season, the vigilante’s victims are still primarily career criminals, with the consciences of less lethal extralegal do-gooders like Matt Mudock (Charlie Cox) and company serving as collateral damage. But a character like the Punisher (Jon Bernthal) doesn’t just challenge the acceptable bounds of superhero violence and morality — he threatens the structural integrity of the shared superhero universe itself.

Fictional worlds like the MCU thrive on the idea that its characters can meet, team up, and/or fight, whether those crossovers are theoretical or actual. But in general — particularly in the comics, where massive “event” crossovers, however common, are still dwarfed in number by the month-to-month sagas of individual series — every hero stays in their own backyard, dealing with their own stable of villains, many of whom just so happen to be mass murderers. The Punisher, a mass murderer of murderers, upsets the applecart. With this guy floating around, why are the Green Goblins and the Wilson Fisks, the Jokers and the Lex Luthors, still alive and kicking? Wouldn’t he make tracking them down and taking them out a priority? Wouldn’t that force the other heroes to defend their worst enemies, vicious killers all — or reveal those heroes as choke artists, whose precious but deeply weird morality (punching people into unconsciousness or dangling them off rooftops for information is fine, killing mass murderers in the midst of a firefight is beyond the pale) is a meaningless, if not outrightly deceptive, fig leaf over the choice to let monsters roam free for the sake of further adventures?

This, even more than the violence he perpetrates, is what makes the Punisher such a fearsome figure. Superhero comics have numerous cracks in their suspension-of-disbelief bridges upon which it is ill-advised to lean too heavily: mutants, for example, have served as inspiring and empathetic audience-identification figures for generations of outcast groups — black, Jewish, queer, disabled, merely geeky, you name it — by fighting to protect both themselves and the world that hates and fears them. But none of the aforementioned groups can shoot laserbeams from their eyeballs, you know? There’s a reasonthe people of the Marvel Universe hate and fear mutants: They’re dangerous as fuck! This makes their appeal as a metaphor for civil rights or what have you more emotional than intellectual. We simply agree to look past that, the same way (say) we accept that a superheroic society in which gods and ghosts and sorcerers supreme routinely roam around in city streets is fundamentally the same as our own, in which the existence of the supernatural remains resolutely unverifiable. The Punisher, then, is a one-man distillation of a similar faultline in the superhero-universe metafiction, a perplexingly undeployed human drone strike against the countless metahuman Bin Ladens whom the Avengers or the Justice League allow to roam free. In his way he’s as threatening to the fabric of superhero-universe reality as a Lovecraftian god or Lynchian demon is to ours. He should not be, yet there he is.

I went long on the role of the Punisher as shared-universe spoiler in my review of Daredevil Season Two’s second episode for Decider.

“Billions” thought, Season One, Episode Nine: “Where the Fuck Is Donnie?”

March 21, 2016

On this week’s episode of Billions, someone spraypaints “FUCK YOU PIG$” on Bobby Axelrod’s car, which is the least any right-thinking person could do. He and his wife Lara and his henchmen Wags and Hall and even his enemy Chuck Rhoades can quibble about the legality, but the fact of the matter is Axe had the sangfroid to make himself rich while nearly everyone he knew roasted alive and the world turned upside down on 9/11. What a horrible, upsetting, frightening incident it must have been for him to have this pointed out in graffiti on his luxury car! What quick thinking to call one of his many servants and instruct them to bring one of his other luxury cars to replace it before his beloved children could see!

If anything, “Where the Fuck Is Donnie?”, last night’s ep, underestimates how deeply, deeply satisfying it is to watch these smug rich bastards get their comeuppance. By all means, vandalize their car. Picket their office and throw shit at the people who pop out to shout insults back. Shut down their fancy-pants expensive-hobby restaurant and tear up their artisanal organic tax-dodge farm. We are under no obligation to believe, as the Axelrods seem to, that this is an existential crisis for them; their unimaginable wealth insulates them from actual consequences in a way that’s unimaginable to people whose yearly salaries are substantially less expensive than the weird cold-air bath machine Axe uses to psyche himself into stealing more millions. The very least they can do is suffer some inconvenience and humiliation, since economic justice remains a total pipedream.

I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer.

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “Bang”

March 19, 2016

Time to give the ’devil his due: Season One of the Marvel/Netflix Daredevilseries was the best live-action superhero adaptation since Tim Burton’s firstBatman movie in 1989. In Charlie CoxDeborah Ann WollRosario Dawson, Vondie Curtis Hall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ayelet Zurer, Toby Leonard Moore, and (eventually) Elden Henson, it boasted the strongest cast of any Marvel project; The company’s actors are virtually always charismatic, but rarely are they called on to deliver the shading and subtlety these people were capable of. D’Onofrio in particular just slew it as Wilson Fisk, his pause-laden pressured speech and overgrown-baby bulk as far from a cookie-cutter villain as the genre has ever risked going. The cinematography enhanced the more restrained and refined mood created by the performances, lighting their faces like some DiBlasio-era Rembrandt.

The story, too, zoomed past the traditional good guy vs. bad guy set-up to tell the tale of two surrogate familes formed in the New York City crucible — one centered on Matt Murdock and his crime-fighting alter ego, the other on magnate/philanthropist/crime boss Wilson Fisk. Like any circle of friends, both groups truly cared about the city, and about each other. It’s just that for the latter crew, that love was ultimately selfish, toxic, and lethal. Their conflict was ultimately expressed in fight scenes that featured the finest choreography in any superhero film or TV show ever, hands down. Like all great fight scenes, they made spatial sense, took advantage of their unique environments, and served as physical metaphors for emotional turmoil. Put it all together and you have one of the vanishingly few superhero projects outside of comics that feel, to quote Boogie Nights, like “a real film, Jack.”

So yeah, you could say I’m a fan.

All this preamble is a way to lay down my markers for my review of Daredevil’sSeason Two premiere for Decider.

The 10 Best Underworld Songs

March 18, 2016

9. “Always Loved a Film” (from Barking, 2010)

From “lager lager lager” to “crazy crazy crazy” to “you bring light in,” repetition has always figured prominently in singer Karl Hyde’s lyrics. But it’s never done so more revealingly than in “Always Loved A Film,” a standout track from their last studio album, 2010’s Barking. The words that get the most play here? “The rhythm” and “Heaven,” two concepts that for Underworld are largely synonymous. The track itself is one of the most conventional verse/chorus/verse affairs in their discography (they get reflexively tagged by critics for their traditional rock-songwriting style way more often than they actually write traditional rock songs), with guest producers Mark Knight and D. Ramirez adding a crunchy texture that befits the song’s structural solidity. Like “Two Months Off,” it’s a love song that uses the imagery of light radiating outward in a sleight-of-hand substitution for the intense emotion being directed inward. This time, though, the celestial metaphor is brought down from the sky to the earth by anchoring it to the memory of walking down a hot summer street: “The rhythm of keys swinging in your hand, the rhythm of light coming out of your fingers.” When the chorus hits, it’s a million miles from the elusive and inscrutable lyrics Hyde usually indulges in, hitting as hard and direct as anything on pop radio at the time — “Heeeeaven, heavennnnnnn — can you feel iiiiit?” could have been a Lady Gaga lyric. The highlight, though, may be the acoustic-guitar-accompanied bridge, which adds an element of uncertainty — “I don’t know if I love you more than the way you used to love me” — a la George Harrison’s “You’re asking me will our love grow / I don’t know, I don’t know” from “Something.” Both songs trust love to be big enough to accommodate doubt, bright enough to risk some shadow.

In honor of Underworld’s terrific new record Barbara Barbara, we face a shining futureI named The 10 Best Underworld Songs for my Stereogum debut.