Posts Tagged ‘TV reviews’

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Crossroads”

December 8, 2017

As convoluted as Dark‘s plot can be, forcing you to keep track of a sprawling cast of interrelated characters across multiple timelines, it’s done an impressive job of making that task easier as the show goes along. This is where the show’s emphasis on the emotional struggles of Winden’s townsfolk pays practical dividends as well as dramatic ones. Like Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks, two shows that also boast large casts and complex storylines involving secret identities and family connections, Dark digs painfully deep into the darkest recesses and most burning desires of its characters, which in turn makes figuring out who’s who and what’s what much more intuitive.

I reviewed the seventh episode of Dark for Decider; new reviews will resume Monday. Use that time to catch up over the weekend, please, since this show is one of the best Netflix has ever done. (More on that anon!)

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “eps3.8_stage3.torrent”

December 7, 2017

The reason I singled out the kisses at the start of this review, though, is because they represent something larger. At an impromptu meeting between E Corp CEO Phillip Price, his once and future underling Tyrell Wellick, and Tyrell’s ersatz hacker ally Mr. Robot (who’s just Elliot, as far as Price knows), Price tells Elliot “World catastrophes like this? They aren’t caused by lone wolves like you. They occur because men like me allow them.” Certainly the past year of real life has borne this out. Much as we’d like to pin the rise and fall of campaigns, parties, and countries on rogue actors, who therefore can be isolated and eliminated if we’re smart and good enough, the real fault is systemic, and that system is run by men who make themselves increasingly untouchable with each Supreme Court decision and tax cut.

And yet! Here’s why Phillip Price, Master of the Universe, decided to hire Allsafe, the firm that Elliot and Angela worked for, to handle E Corp’s cyber-security, thus setting all of this in motion:

Stages 1, 2, and 3 happened because Phillip Price fell for Angela Moss at first sight. They happened because Angela and Elliot and Darlene were heartbroken over the deaths of their parents. They happened because Whiterose, as the cracks in her voice betray, is tired of men like Price, who “only understand force, and a lot of it. That is the only currency with these men!” They continue to happen because Grant loves his boss, and because Dom is a lonely person who turned to Darlene for comfort, and on and on and on. Systemic causes trump individual ones, yes. But the personal and the political are inextricable, because external power and internal passion are inescapable. If you want to survive, you must endure them both.

I reviewed the penultimate episode of Mr. Robot Season Three for Decider.

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Sic Mundus Creatus Est”

December 7, 2017

“You don’t really know your parents, do you? What they were like as kids, or teenagers. You’re a family, but you don’t really know anything about each other.” Martha Nielsen says this to her brother Magnus as they lay in bed together, contemplating the disaster area their lives have become following the disappearance of their brother Mikkel. The most moving sequence in “Sic Mundus Creatus Est,” Dark‘s excellent sixth episode, demonstrates the truth in her words to devastating effect.

I reviewed episode six of Dark for Decider.

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Truths”

December 7, 2017

This latest installment of the time-traveling trials of the men, women, and children of Winden is bookended by lengthy splitscreen montages. It’s the most effective, and stylistically bold, use of the technique I’ve seen since Fargo Season Two. And rather than showing us multiple points of view as characters move toward confrontation or through a suspense sequence, the splitscreens are used to compare, contrast, and highlight the emotional reactions of the characters to the romantic and familial trauma they’re experience. It’s like calling in Brian De Palma to cut an Ingmar Bergman film.

I reviewed the fifth episode of Dark for Decider, and this passage about its formal aspects is really just the tip of the iceberg. This is a very challenging and very rewarding show, and I’m proud of the writing I’m doing on it.

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Double Lives”

December 5, 2017

There’s power of a different sort in nearly everything the Dopplers’ daughter Franziska does in this episode. Like a teutonic Laura Palmer, she leads a double life — star student and ribbon-wielding rhythmic gymnast by day, big-money drug dealer by night. The latter truth is uncovered by Mikkel’s goonish older brother Magnus, who’s simultaneously angered, repulsed, and attracted to the mismatch between Franziska’s emotional exterior and interior. Of course, he finds her just as magnetic in her gymnastics uniform, while his anger at her sparks a sudden torrent of truth-telling about the state of her family. The next thing you know, the two frienemies are fucking while fully dressed in the school locker room. Again, this is powerful stuff for a supernatural Netflix show to play with: probing the point at which intense feelings of any kind grow so white-hot that they exceed the capacity of the designated area of the brain to process and wind up fueling sexual energy instead, and depicting sex as a way damaged people can address the things that are damaging them without doing so directly.

I wrote about Dark’s very strong fourth episode for Decider. The complex dynamics in the Doppler family — including their extremely awesome and funny deaf daughter Elisabeth — demonstrate how the show puts in the work where other supernatural shows just coast.

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Past and Present”

December 5, 2017

“Past and Present,” the aptly named third episode of Dark, continues its predecessors’ pattern of being hella reminiscent of a past genre work. In this case it’s Richard Kelly’s melancholic cult-classic science fiction film Donnie Darko, which the episode echoes in ways that feel more like homage than out-and-out swipes.

Yes, Mikkel has indeed been transported back in time through some kind of “crossing” (to borrow the term from Jonas’s late father’s map) in the caverns outside of town. After his unpleasant run-in with his parents and grandmother — the former are assholes, the latter is too distraught by her missing son Mads to do anything but grab the kid and beg him for information — he wanders to his school, only decades in the past. As he wanders around in a skeleton costume that looks like the one Donnie wore in the film except a few sizes smaller, the totally-’80s style of the town’s teens are paraded in front of the camera while a Tears for Fears song plays on the soundtrack (“Shout” here, “Head Over Heels” in the movie).

Would it be nice if shows stopped doing this kind of thing? Even good shows? Yes. The Punisher, for example, was strong enough on its own for its in-your-face (ahem) borrowing from the climax of 28 Days Later… in its penultimate episode to feel completely unnecessary, though perhaps not ethically or creatively ruinous. And Dark has enough going on to render this hat tip superfluous. Admittedly, though, the line between homage and theft is a blurry one, particularly in horror, a genre more in conversation with itself than any other. I could rattle off scene-by-scene comparisons in, say, Get Out or The Descent with the movies their filmmakers clearly know and love. But those two films are animated by a spirit that is unmistakably their own. Dark isn’t at that level, but it’s operating with enough sophistication to provide context for nods to its antecedents, instead of simply constructing itself out of nothing but such nods.

I reviewed the third episode of Dark for Decider.

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Lies”

December 5, 2017

Two episodes in and Dark is reminding me of a different touchstone in recent zeitgeisty supernaturally-tinged murder mysteries: True Detective Season One. Co-creator/director Baran bo Odar’s style is not far removed at all from TD‘s original helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga: wide, stately shots of the imposing yet beautiful natural landscape, deep greens, lots of tree imagery, the occasional crazy conspiracy wall. Throw in references to time as circular — “yesterday, today, and tomorrow are not consecutive; they are connected in a neverending circle,” as the pilot’s cold open put it — and you half expect local cop Ulrich Nielsen to call Rust Cohle in for a consult. None of this is blow-you-away amazing, or all that original (duh), but Dark creates a vibe for itself and deploys it effectively, and doesn’t require you to think back fondly on stuff you loved as a kid to do so, unlike certain other shows we could mention.

I reviewed episode two of Dark for Decider.

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Homecoming”

December 5, 2017

The massacre at Blackdom that follows is tougher to justify, or enjoy. For one thing, it’s unnecessary. Frank Griffin’s bona fides as an indiscriminate killer of men, women, and children in any place that crosses him were established in the town of Creede way back before the opening credits rolled on the series premiere, and his likely intention to do it all over again in La Belle was the dramatic underpinning of the entire season that followed. Having him and his gang slaughter the town right next door mere minutes before the final face-off feels like gilding the lily, in blood.

Worse still, it undercuts the stakes of the showdown in La Belle, in an ethically dubious fashion. For seven episodes we’ve wondered if this town of outcasts from an oppressed class of people would be able to stave off an atrocity. What narrative or thematic purpose does answering that question solve if we’ve just seen another town of outcasts from an oppressed class of people succumb to that very atrocity in the same episode? The people of Blackdom may not be our main characters, but it’s not like that’s their fault. Only the nature of the story and script renders their lives more disposable than those of their counterparts in La Belle. Our interest in the showdown at the Hotel La Belle is predicated on whether or not the worst will happen—but as Alice’s horrified glimpse of scores of corpses in Blackdom earlier that day makes clear, the worst already has happened. What difference does it make if if it happened an hour’s ride away?

I reviewed the pointless-seeming finale of Godless for the A.V. Club. It was interesting to find most of the commenters (who are basically unavoidable when you use AVC’s back end to file your reviews) agreeing with me as the season progressed.

“Dark” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Secrets”

December 1, 2017

The opening credits for DarkNetflix’s first German-language original series, are simple but striking. Eschewing the “here is a significant object and/or an image of one of the cast members’ faces, slowly moving through a black field, with some cool coloring” technique beloved by so many shows for the past few years, the title sequence reflects moments seemingly plucked from throughout the series back on one another, symmetrically — the mirror effect from “When Doves Cry,” basically. Like a kaleidoscopic rorschach test, it renders the familiar suddenly weird and angular as if it’s being sucked into or ejected from an invisible portal in the middle of the frame, simply by repeating what you see and smushing it back in on itself.

If that ain’t the Netflix model, I don’t know what is.

Created by Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar and directed in its entirety by bo Odar, Dark sure feels familiar. “Secrets,” its series premiere, is set in a small town surrounded by a forest that borders a nuclear power plant, where teenagers and their adult parents are forced to come to grips with the unexplained disappearance of a young boy. And based on a brief glimpse we’re given of the plight of a previously vanished teenager, it seems he might be subjected to strange psychological and physical experiments designed by a mysterious lone captor. In other words, if you watched Stranger Things and The OA, this is Recommended for You: The Series.

Yet Dark does not feel nearly as derivative as it could, or perhaps even should. For starters, it’s dealing with much more emotionally fraught material than Stranger Things, the show to which it will no doubt most frequently be compared. (Including by me, apparently.)

I’m covering Dark for Decider, starting with my review of the series premiere. Could be a pip, could be a pip.

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Shot the Head Off a Snake”

December 1, 2017

Another series of flashbacks reveal how Roy came to be the ward of Frank Griffin in the first place, but this too is mishandled. The episode’s cold open shows Frank and a young-adult Roy getting caught red-handed with stolen horses, nearly getting hanged before their associate Gatz Brown comes to the rescue. Frank tells Roy to finish off the angry ranch owner whom Gatz had merely wounded; this is his first kill, and Frank rewards him with a gun, indicating that both his skill with the weapon and his willingness to use it are relatively recent developments. There’s something vampiric about this induction into Frank’s bloody brotherhood.

The next flashback segment jumps us way back in time to Roy’s childhood, showing the day he departed from Sister Lucy Cole’s orphanage when it became clear his brother Jim was never coming back from his job hunt in California. From there, we follow him to a town where he steals a horse that winds up belonging to Frank, who takes a shine to the kid as a fellow orphan. When Roy first meets the rest of the Griffin gang, then a much smaller bunch, Frank describes them as one big happy family. “These are your brothers,” he tells Roy. “And I am to be your pappy. A good one, too. I won’t mistreat you, I won’t beat you, and I won’t ever lie to you, ever.” As best we can tell by how they’re shown interacting during the horse-theft episode several years later, Frank kept these promises.

But that’s the problem: We already know how things go. The first-kill incident is the logical conclusion of Roy’s origin story, but the show places it first, removing any sense of mystery or anticipation about how this innocent but resilient little kid became a crack-shot lieutenant of one of the West’s most notorious outlaws. You might be curious about what came before, but you’re not worried or intrigued or frightened or moved or anything more substantial. Once again, a ton of time is dedicated to building up to a foregone conclusion.

I reviewed episode five of Godless for the A.V. Club. It’s fascinating to see all the ways this show manages to be not-great but also not bad at the same time.

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Fathers & Sons”

December 1, 2017

[Circumstances bring] Sheriff Bill within striking distance of Frank for the first time…which the bandit sees coming, presumably thanks to his own scouts and trackers, and responds to by lying in wait. A tense conversation ensues, in which Bill first dissembles about his business, then comes clean when it’s clear the jig is up. Bill talks a tough enough game, but Frank nevertheless senses that something’s wrong with him on a spirit-deep level. Echoing the Native American characters who’ve told the Sheriff he’s lost his shadow, Griffin says “the life has gone out of your face,” and speculates that the true goal of his hunt is to get himself gunned down at Griffin’s hands (er, hand), so he “can die attached to a purpose.” Bill denies this, and Frank seems disinclined to offer him that dark deliverance no matter what.

So Frank and company ride on, sparing Sheriff Bill’s life…because it’s the dramatic thing to do, I guess. Honestly, I can’t think of any other reason a mass murderer who presided over the execution of an even more senior lawman several days prior would let a cop who’d just announced plans to kill him a chance to continue his quest. You could say it’s Frank’s vision of his own death that does it, giving him confidence that no one with a badge will be the one to do him in. Or you could say it has to do with his screwy moral code: tending to smallpox victims and quoting the Bible one moment, massacring entire towns and proclaiming the supremacy of “the god of the locust” the next. But both of these factors are just different ways of saying the same thing. Frank spares Bill, because he’s written that way, because it makes him a cooler villain and gives the story more (horse-)operatic stakes.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Most of the time, even the best genre works come with a side of corn. But nothing we’ve seen on the show so far has added anything of real sustenance to this particular meal. Godless boasts solid, if not spectacular, performances from a suite of likeable TV veterans — Merritt Wever, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Jeff Daniels, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster most notably. They speak clever but not particularly quotable dialogue. Their story is overburdened with B-plots, but it’s still heading toward an inevitable, and I’m guessing entertaining, climactic confrontation. This happens against a backdrop of beautiful Western scenery, shot with an eye for light that’s most welcome when contrasted with your typical murky green prestige-TV palette. All of that is what keeps the show from ever sinking below that little B- grade you see above. But it has yet to reveal any signs that it will get substantially higher, either. Frank’s comic-book behavior and all the show’s other tics and flaws would be easier to accept if it had.

I reviewed episode four of Godless, the very definition of a B- show, for the A.V. Club. 

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Wisdom of the Horse”

December 1, 2017

From its title (“Wisdom of the Horse”) on down, Godless’s third episode is full of horse shit. I don’t mean that it’s bad! I just mean that in terms of story and screentime, it is simply consumed by shit about horses. Roping horses. Breaking horses. Riding horses. Falling off horses. Getting back on horses. Searching for missing horses. Worrying about abused horses. If you’re a Dothraki screamer or a Rider of Rohan, then boy oh boy have I got the episode for you. The rest of us? I dunno, pardner.

I reviewed episode three of Godless for the A.V. Club. I want to apologize to all the horse-loving members of ASoIaF/GoT fandom in advance. Read it and you’ll see where I’m coming from no matter how much of an equestrian you are, I promise!

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “The Ladies of La Belle”

December 1, 2017

Truth be told, you could maybe get a good show out of Frank’s hunt for Roy, and Marshall Cooke’s hunt for Frank, and maybe Alice’s decision to take in and fight for Roy when push comes to shove. Or you could get a good show out of Bill, a sheriff who’s slowly going blind, and Maggie, his queer widowed sister, and the complicated family dynamic they have, with either a mass murderer or an unscrupulous mining company providing an antagonistic spark. Or you could get a good show out of a town full of widows coming together to fend off either the killer or the capitalists, and requiring the talents of women they’ve looked down on because of the race or gender of the people they love, i.e. Alice and Maggie respectively.

At this point, however, I’m not convinced you can get a good show out of all of those things at once. Despite the hour-plus running time of both episodes so far, it still feels like Godless is in a necessarily big hurry to whip from one storyline to the next, which in turn necessitates a shallow reading of each set of characters. The dinner scene in which Merritt Wever’s Maggie tries and fails to singlehandedly prevent her town from getting swindled by a sweet-talking mining company is a highlight of the hour, but I’d happily have followed her for an entire episode to see how she’s maintained a leadership position among her fellow widows despite her unorthodox, masculine style of dress and her relationship with local schoolteacher Callie Dunne, I also could have stood to spend more time in the company of Alice, and to learn the story of her lethal land feud from something other than an expository infodump between young hotshot deputy Whitey Winn and the incarcerated Roy Goode. I could have settled for either a look at life in a frontier town without men surrounded by a hostile world full of them — the kind of story promised by the episode’s title, “The Ladies of La Belle” — or a more straightforward Western thriller centered on the Frank/Roy business. As it stands, I got just enough of each to tantalize, and not enough of any to satisfy.

I reviewed episode two of Godless for the A.V. Club. Looking over this piece, I’m pretty pleased with all the different things I was able to say about the show, good and bad. Please do give it a full read.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko”

December 1, 2017

mr-robot-s3-ep8-04

Mr. Robot may have bobbled the immediate aftermath of Stage 2, the mass murder at the center of its Season 3 storyline. But in its own melancholy way, the follow-up feels like the show has found itself again.

Entitled “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” this week’s episode avoids the pitfalls of the previous installment. Last week, most of the characters were too blasé about the terrorist attacks they’d either unwittingly helped unleash or failed to prevent, with the exception of Angela, whose regression into childlike magical thinking felt cartoonishly severe. This time around, characters do what people really do, a couple of weeks into the new normal following a catastrophe. They drift apart, or drift together; they settle on self-destruction, or rebound to self-improvement; they watch movies they love, from The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie to Back to the Future. They act like we’ve all been acting for a year now.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Mr. Robot for Decider. Man, look at that fuckin’ shot.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Thirteen: “Memento Mori”

December 1, 2017

There’s really only one thing I want to talk about where the season finale of The Punisher is concerned:

“You know, long as I was at war, y’know, I never thought about, uh, what would happen next, what I was gonna do when it was over. But I guess that’s it, y’know. I think that might be the hardest part: the silence. The silence when the gunfire ends. How do…how do you live in that? I guess…I guess that’s what you’re trying to figure out, huh? It’s what you guys are doing. You’re working on it. I respect that. I just…Um, if you’re gonna look at yourself, really look in the mirror, you gotta…yeah, you gotta admit who you are. But not just to yourself — you gotta admit it to everybody else. First time, as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I guess if I’m gonna be honest, I just…I’m scared.”

These remarkable words end the onscreen saga of Marvel’s most brutal antihero, a cold-blooded killer of Bad Guys whose logo has become literally emblematic of men, many of whom have been trained and authorized by the state to pursue a career in fully sanctioned bad-guy killing at home or abroad. They cut that whole dark myth off at the knees. More than that, they stand as a rebuke to the whole superhero genre, which as inspiring and uplifting as it can be nevertheless boils down to the idea that extrajudicial violence can put the world to rights. Here’s a superhero who wields that violence more effectively and remorselessly than any other — indeed, his proficiency in that violence is his sole superpower. And the message his show wants to leave us with about him? The note it chooses to end on? He kills because he’s scared not to.

I really can’t say enough about how stunning the final words of “Memento Mori,” The Punisher’s Season One finale, were to me when they slipped out of Frank’s mouth just before that last cut to black. There’s not a single live-action superhero adaptation I can think of that comes anywhere near that level of self-critique, or has anything approaching its courage to question the very wish-fulfillment elements its audience has come to see.

[…]

But that’s the story of The Punisher’s Netflix incarnation: A series that’s much better than it needed to be, could have been, and quite possibly even should have been when you consider the character’s pop culture profile. Its thoughtful approach to potentially fascistic subject matter, its suite of quietly powerful performances, its undercurrent of sexual and romantic tension, and its willingness to hold its protagonist’s feet of clay to the fire make it one of the best superhero adaptations of all time.

I reviewed the season finale of The Punisher for Decider. What a pleasant surprise this show turned out to be.

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “An Incident at Creede”

November 28, 2017

Godless has two major factors in its favor: the sun and the stars. The former glares into the mud-caked eyes of Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), a lawman who’s secretly going blind, then shines down on a field where he collects flowers to place on his late wife’s grave with a brightness that echoes his still-warm sentiments. (“I can see just fine,” he announces as he picks primroses and whatnot, to no one in particular except perhaps the sunlight itself.) It burns like the fire of fate itself when bandit-turned-babyface Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) exits the barn where he’s recuperating from gunshot wounds and sees the silhouetted form of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), the outcast widow who shot and then saved him. It creates an ironic, halo-like nimbus around the head of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), the one-armed madman robbing and slaughtering his way through the mining towns of 1884 Colorado in search of loot and his one-time apprentice Roy, when he rides his horse right into a rural church and promises he’ll rain the wrath of God Himself on the parishioners should they ever lend his rogue ally their aid. It’s reduced to a dim, dun haze by the dust swirling around the site of Griffin’s latest massacre, dust from which mustachioed Marshall John Cooke (Sam Waterston) emerges to gaze in penitent horror at Frank’s grim handiwork. Finally, it reflects off the water that splashes and sprays from beneath the hooves of the horses ridden by Griffin’s and his gang as they cross a river in slow motion, dazzling and luminous and, it seems, imbued with the sheer joy of filmmaking within a beloved genre.

By now you’ve probably picked up on the “stars” side of the equation. The series premiere of writer-director-creator Scott Frank’s Godless, “An Incident at Creede” (referring to the aforementioned massacre), parades its cast of familiar and friendly faces before the camera in all their well-worn Western finery like a herd of prize cattle. One of the big under-covered pleasures of the past few years of Peak TV is getting to see its stars re-mixed and re-mingled once they’re freed from the commitments of shows that launched and ended earlier in the era. Want to watch Halt and Catch Fire’s Gordon Clark confess his love to Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Crawley? I know I do! Want to see Sam Waterston play Old West Batman to Jeff Daniels’s horse-opera Joker, like the weirdest reboot of The Newsroom imaginable? Now’s your chance! Years of totally omnipresent TV culture have turned its actors into one giant repertory company where we viewers are concerned; it’s often delightful, as it is here, to sit down and see what this season’s production will give them to do, even if you’re not nuts about the end result.

In Godless’s case there’s not much to disappoint you just yet. The show falls very, very, very squarely within the confines of its genre; it’s an old-school oater the new-school aspect of which, namely nasty (and sometimes sexual) violence, hasn’t actually been new at least since The Wild Bunch rode into town nearly fifty years ago. Thus, while it’s hard for the show to knock your socks off, it’s equally difficult for it to shit the bed. Soup-strainer facial hair, stern-faced gunslingers filmed against big sky, metaphorically biblical imagery and literally Biblical dialogue: If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like. And that’s exactly the experienced the algorithmed-out-the-wazoo metrics by which Netflix judges its programming are designed to deliver.

I reviewed the series premiere of Godless for the A.V. Club, where I’ll be covering the show’s first season. Yee-haw!

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eleven: “Danger Close”

November 28, 2017

When I said in my review of the previous episode that Frank’s hotel battle was the all-out action extravaganza we were waiting for, I now realize I was wrong. It’s not action that a Punisher show promises—it’s punishment. And punishment is what we get. From director Kevin Hook’s eerie establishing shots of his nearly-abandoned headquarters’ empty rooms and corridors through the moment Frank suits up in his skull-emblazoned armor and into the ensuing massacre itself, the show positions Frank as an executioner rather than a soldier.

And he’s starring not in an adventure film but a horror flick. The way Castle dispatches the first few goons one by one, emerging from behind as if he’s a part of the walls themselves that somehow came alive, evokes the slaughter of the Colonial Marines when they enter the hive in Aliens. The industrial-basement setting is obviously a favorite of any number of forgettable genre flicks and shows by now, but when you factor in the gore and sadism you’re not far removed from mid-‘00s torture porn like Saw or Hostel. Meanwhile, Frank’s imposing physical comportment and even some of the music cues (I swear I heard a few Friday the 13th-style “chh chh chh”s) are straight-up slasher stuff, even before you see him walking around with a severed head.

Oh yeah, did I not mention the severed head? Maybe I should have led with that.

Frank Castle may draw on, and parallel, a long tradition of violent macho men famous during the character’s initial flourishing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But neither John McClane nor John Rambo nor even the Terminator ever severed all the muscles in a man’s legs, allowing him to crawl across the floor leaving a snail trail of blood before finally plugging him in the head. The point is that while Frank’s rampage is thrilling in the sense of getting your blood up, you’ll never mistake it for anything but murder, as prolonged and ugly as it gets.

I reviewed the extremely violent eleventh episode of The Punisher for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Virtue of the Vicious”

November 26, 2017

“Virtue of the Vicious” is the knock-down drag-out action extravaganza we’ve been waiting for all season. Almost all of our major players — Frank Castle, Billy Russo, Dinah Madani, Karen Page, Lewis Wilson — are concentrated in a high-rise hotel, fighting through explosions, tear gas, and the gunfire of half a dozen different agencies and free agents in kill-or-be-killed scenarios. Secrets are revealed. Antagonists are killed. The Punisher escapes capture using a firehose and a zipline like a homicidal Tarzan. If that’s all the episode did, it would be fun to watch. But to my continued delight, it does much, much more than it has to.

Remarkably, the episode takes a fractured approach to its narrative structure, splitting itself between mutliple, overlapping, sometimes contradictory points of view and bouncing back and forth in time to cover the periods before, during, and after the attack. The effect is part Rashomon, part Lost, and all impressive in its willingness to break the Marvel/Netflix mold by risking confusion on the part of its audience, who could otherwise assume that when the show starts talking about an attack that had already happened, we’d somehow skipped an episode. (I had to double-check myself.) Like Vincent D’Onofrio’s bizarre stop-start vocal cadence for Wilson Fisk, or Tom Hardy’s Falstaffian theatricality as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, anything a live-action superhero adaptation does that’s more than the bare necessary-and-sufficient minimum to convey ideas and images should be celebrated.

I reviewed the hotel-fight episode of The Punisher for Decider. It’s nuts how strong the Frank/Karen – Bernthal/Woll stuff is, by the way.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk”

November 26, 2017

The Dark Army’s plan may have worked, but for the first time this season, Mr. Robot’s plan failed. This week’s episode, “eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk,” follows all of the major players — including a few we haven’t seen since last year — in the hours immediately following the 71 simultaneous bombings of E Corp storage facilities that constitute the dreaded Stage 2. Yet the soul-crushing dread and despair you’d expect, particularly if you remember weathering similar tragedies, is missing in action. Usually surefooted even when traveling the most treacherous and tricky narrative paths, Mr. Robot’s storytelling seems to have stumbled the second it got past the finish line.

Much of the problem lies with the protagonist, or more accurately the lack thereof. Mr. Robot is Elliot Alderson’s story, and the catastrophic success of Stage 2 is something he’s spent the entire season trying to prevent. The past two episodes in particular chronicled Elliot’s attempts to physically put a stop to the operation in practically real-time detail. Yet now that the trigger has been pulled, we cut away from Elliot almost immediately: No sooner does he make it to the office of his therapist, Krista, than he’s subsumed by his sardonic Mr. Robot persona before he can mutter more than a few broken sentences about his role in the attacks. The show pushes him aside at the exact moment he should be front and center.

Hell, he’s not even our gateway into the episode itself. That would be Leon, the sociopathic sitcom fan who serves as the Dark Army’s main American assassin. The hour’s cold open depicts him with Trenton and Mobley, the fsociety members last seen living under assumed names until Leon approaches them in the parking lot of the big-box electronics store where they work in the post-credits stinger for the Season 2 finale. While the country reels from what incessant news reports describe as the deadliest attack in its history, Leon does a deadpan comedy routine about how Frasier Crane’s success with women strains credulity, paling in comparison to the prophetic realism of (drumroll please) Knight Rider. Indeed, the familiar synth-pop theme song for that old-school techno-thriller about a talking car and its Hasselhoffian driver plays over the opening credits. I get the ironic effect the show is going for here, and both the theme song and Joey Bada$$’s performance as Leon are as big a hoot as ever. But with the success of Stage 2, Mr. Robot had the chance to examine the trauma, terror, and grief of its own personal 9/11. Dropping that ball feels like more than just a missed opportunity — it’s almost a dereliction of duty.

I reviewed last week’s episode of Mr. Robot, the first one this season I felt didn’t work, for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Front Toward Enemy”

November 26, 2017

“Front Toward Enemy” makes the now-standard Marvel/Netflix move of bringing a secondary antagonist to the forefront of the narrative for a while, something the shows wouldn’t need to do if they had shorter seasons. This particular baddie, wayward young Travis Bickle wannabe Lewis Wilson, is most reminiscent of Jessica Jones’ mad supersoldier Will Simpson, aka Nuke, a veteran turned cop who goes berserk when his puppetmasters pump him full of performance-enhancing drugs. That character was given short shrift by his show, though, which despite all the pains it had taken to show he was a decent person driven to violence by forces out of his control wound up treating him like just another abusive creep. By contrast, no matter how bad Lewis’s crimes get — blowing up government offices, horrifically beating Frank’s friend Curtis before turning him into a human IED, hanging out in a house with the stinking corpse of the man he stabbed to death for days at a time — and no matter how reactionary the ideas he spouts in ranting sic semper tyrannis, give me liberty or give me death letters and phone calls get, he’s always shown as a guy who was broken and thrown away before he became anything else.

I reviewed episode nine of The Punisher, still quite a show, for Decider.