Thursday, July 5, 2018

New Release! Hereditary (2018) [Spoiler-Free Review]

No Spoilers. Read Away!!

Director: Ari Aster

An excellent horror movie that masterfully blends some of the very best elements of earlier classics of the horror genre.

The story begins with an obituary and funeral service for Leigh Graham, mother of Annie (Toni Collette). Leigh was, by Annie's account, a rather odd, sometimes reclusive, sometimes domineering figure who seemed to have strange plans and goals for her children and grandchildren. With her mother gone, Annie returns to her life as a  professional artist specializing in miniatures, particularly dioramas of homes, buildings, and the people within them. On the surface, Annie seems to have the things that many people would wish for - a beautiful home in a lush forested area, a loving husband, and two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). However, things are far from ideal. Aside from Annie's mother's haunting influence on her life, Peter is a typically frustrated teenage boy, and Charlie is a 13-year old who is oddly detached and seemingly dealing with some sort of intellectual handicap. When horrific tragedy strikes the family, such a short time after Leigh's death, Annie can barely take it. As she tries to keep from losing her grip on sanity, strange things seem to begin happening to her and her family. These events even suggest some sort of horribly sinister conspiracy acting upon all of them.

Though clearly modern in its setting, scripting, and acting, this film is great classic throwback horror. While I'm not an aficionado of the genre, I feel that I've seen many of the classics; in particular, the grittier and more existentially horrifying films that started cropping up in the late 1960s. Hereditary takes the spirit of a film like Rosemary's Baby and updates it masterfully by adding in touches seen in more modern horror flicks like The Babadook. But while the shared elements are fairly obvious, and some of the visual scares are familiar, nothing felt like an outright ripoff. Writer and director Ari Aster does a brilliant job of taking familiar ingredients and working them into something that felt rather fresh and gets back to what I consider genuine horror in more of an H.P. Lovecraft or even Edgar Allen Poe vein. No, this movie doesn't contain some of the wildly fantastic elements of those noted horror writers, but Aster's philosophy of what makes a horror tale is clearly in tune with those early masters.

One of the many excellent aspects of this movie is how it manages to keep you guessing for much of its considerable length. While the movie certainly offers more than a few hints about what, exactly, is behind the dark chaos swirling around Annie, it doesn't fully tip its hand until the appropriate time. And even then, the final ten minutes are bound to shock most viewers - even ones who may have sussed out everything about the plot.

Steve looks over his peculiar daughter Charlie's drawings.
There are plenty of little allusions and pieces of fore-
shadowing all over this movie. But they don't become
clear until it's all steamrolling towards its dark climax.
The acting in this movie is top notch, as one might guess from seeing the top-billed cast. I won't be surprised if Collette isn't nominated for several major awards for this role, despite the movie being in a genre that historically does not get much recognition from the "marquee" award organizations. And the supporting cast is also excellent. Gabriel Byrne, the next most famous actor here, is appropriately muted, but their children played by Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are outstanding. It's actually rare to find such consistently excellent performances in such a dark horror movie, but Hereditary found and great cast and got the most out of them.

The visuals are great. They never utilize much in the way of dazzling special effects, but when visual flourishes are required, they are handled deftly. Sure, a few of the scares will seem very familiar to anyone who's ever seen a haunted house movie. But this movie adds elements of the eerie and psychological, adding extra impact to such scenes.

Fans of more graphic, sensational horror will probably see little to like in this movie, which is why I suspect that fan reception has been vastly more mixed that the glowing critical reception. It does ask for patience from its viewers, along with an appreciation for very slow-burn narratives. Being a fan of such things, I highly recommend it to others with similar tastes. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

New Release! Upgrade (2018) [Spoiler-Free First Section]

Spoiler-Free Section. Read Away!!

Director: Leigh Wannell

Really glad I got a chance to see this one in the theater before it quietly vanished into the world of on-demand and at-home rentals. This was a fun, ripping sci-fi action yarn that actually had one or two nice little tricks up its sleeve.

Written and directed by Australian director Leigh Wannell, best known for horror films such as Saw and Insidious, Upgrade is a fairly striking departure. Taking place in a not-too distant future where technology has become a part of underground bio-enhancements and weaponizations, we follow Grey Trace, a self-professed "low tech" man who prefers rebuilding his 20th century muscle cars with his bare hands, rather than rely on the conveniences of the hyper-smart technology found all around him. When a serious of unfortunate events finds Grey in possession of a cutting-edge tech implant called STEM, his entire existence starts being flung back and forth between his own mission of revenge and a larger, more mysterious conspiracy at work. As the dangers around Grey increase exponentially, the STEM implant continues to reveal shocking abilities which both thrill and terrify its owner Grey.

My viewing experience of this movie was of the variety which are my favorite - knowing very little about a film, thus having almost no expectations, and being wonderfully entertained. No, it's not a mind-blowing, heady sci-fi classic on the Blade Runner scale, or even more modern greats like Ex Machina. Still, it taps into our culture's concerns about artificial intelligence and whips it into a movie that is plenty of fun for much of its length. And when the fun takes a dark "cautionary tale" turn, it gets even better.

The aesthetic of the movie goes for something akin to a slightly grittier, more cosmopolitan version of something in a sci-fi flick like the outstanding Looper from a few years ago - mostly familiar settings and technology, jazzed up in urban areas by dazzling incorporation of near-futuristic architecture and decoration. But just as much of the real action takes place in neighborhoods, bars, and rundown apartment complexes that would be right at home in the late-20th and early-21st centuries (Upgrade seems to take place sometime in the mid-21st century). It all lends a welcome verisimillitude to a genre which often goes overboard with hyper-polished facades and CGI.

One of the few truly tranquil moments in the film. After this
early basking in the open air and sun, things get dark and
gritty in a hurry.
The action itself is often thrilling, entertaining, and highly kinetic. Utilizing a few different camera techniques, blessedly avoiding slow-motion, and calling for some really frenetic fight choreography, the movie taps into the "John Wick" type of action that I prefer to either the aforementioned slow-motion or the Paul Greengrass "shaky cam" style. Instead, director Wannell makes sure that we can see exactly what's going on, in real time, presented at a riveting pace. There are a a few pretty graphic deaths, but I never felt that it approached grotesque levels of gore - something which I don't particularly care for.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable movie which will have me checking to see what Leigh Wannell does in the future. While his preceding horror movies didn't grab me in any particular way, I'll be looking to see if he does anything as good as Upgrade in the action or sci-fi genres in the years to come.

Spoiler Section! You've Been Warned!!!

Just a few things on the details in the movie.

The "twist" of having Eron be behind Grey's paralysis and his wife's death was easy to see coming from a mile away. What I didn't see coming was that it was actually STEM behind it all. While this plot line has a bit of trouble holding up under very close scrutiny (how exactly did it coerce its own creator into doing its bidding over and over, etc.?), it manages to hold up just well enough not to scuttle the whole thing.

And STEM ultimately winning was a very dark twist that I really did not expect. The general tone for the movie up until the final ten or so minutes had been a tad more playful. Yes, the assault on Grey and his wife was pretty brutal, and the pain of his struggle with quadraplegia was palpable; but once he acquires STEM, the movie felt much more like a rousing 1980s action/revenge flick. It had ass-kicking, a bit of suspense, and even some decent one-liners and gags here and there. But when STEM has fully taken over and relegated Grey's consciousness to a distant corner of his mind and uses Grey's now-usurped body to walk away from everything, it was eerily reminiscent of the unsettling ending of Ex Machina. And I thought that all of this elevated Upgrade beyond being a simple popcorn flick. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

New Release! First Reformed (2018) [Spoiler-Free Review]

No Spoilers! Read Away!!

Director: Paul Schrader

An intense, disturbing gaze into a very troubled soul, but one that is mesmerizing much of the time.

First Reformed was written and directed by Paul Schrader, best known for writing Taxi Driver and co-writing Raging Bull. With his latest film, Schrader calls upon a primary theme of that earlier film - that of a deeply troubled and mentally fractured man whose anger at the world around him drives him into psychological crisis that may become a serious threat to those around him.

The story focuses on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain who is now the pastor of a tiny parish in upstate New York. Although his congregation consists of only a handful of people, the church building itself is of historical significance, being one of the oldest churches in the First Reformed denomination of Christianity. Due to its miniscule congregation, however, the church has recently been bought out by a nearby megachurch. One day, Reverend Toller is asked by a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to speak to her husband. Her husband, Michael, is an ex-con and militant environmentalist whose rage at polluting energy companies seems on the verge of boiling over into violent action. Toller attempts to calm Michael, but the passionate young man seems to open up still-unhealed wounds within the Reverend, who himself is grappling with his own losses and guilt. As the tale unfolds, Toller grows angrier and more desperate for answers as to what is happening around him, and whether he should do something about it. And the nature of what that "something" is grows into its own frightening question.

This movie is often powerfully magnetic, with its very relevant themes of environmental destruction and humankind's blame and responsibility for its lasting effects. It is also a thought-provoking look at how a haunted person can latch onto very legitimate causes and use them to rationalize extremely frightening and even violent behavior. Some aspects of this movie feel oversimplified, such as the bombastic and bullying energy company CEO Edward Balq or the snarky Islamophibic teen at a discussion group. But most of the really important characters and interactions are highly nuanced and defy simple analysis. The despair-stricken Michael is obviously on the brink of a psychotic break, but much of his reasoning is sound. The megachurch pastor (Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles) exhibits some of the unsavory characteristics of celebrity ministers, but he also lays out some sound observations and advice for the tormented Toller. The protagonist himself, Toller, is the most complicated of them all - being a man desperate to do the right thing, but a man who is steadily degenerating in several ways, raising questions with few easy answers.

The ending of the movie has stuck with me quite a lot, even a solid week after seeing the film. My initial reactions were those of bafflement and a bit of disappointment. After some time to ruminate on it, though, I realize that it is open to a bit of interpretation, and one of my own interpretations in much more satisfying than what is literally depicted on the screen.

Among the many pale and austere settings depicted in the film,
Rev. Toller's lined, anguished face reflects a soul attempting
to break out of a malaise of despair.
This movie has drawn many comparisons to Schrader's 1976 masterpiece, Taxi Driver, with good reason. Reverend Toller is a version of Travis Bickle, although one who is different in several important ways. Still, the most important traits of being tortured and desperate are obvious in both men, and Schrader's telling of their stories is as gripping as it is disturbing.

The visuals of the film are notable, shot in cold, often pale settings of winter in upstate New York. Done with slow precision, we get exteriors and interiors that often have a rather chilly, blank feeling, at times reflective and other times in contrast to the state of Reverend Toller's troubled soul. There is often something hypnotic about the slow pans and the stationary camera as it offers us tense conversations between Toller and others. It all creates a coherent look and tone to the entire movie, much to the film's benefit.

As with most movies of such dark subject matter, this isn't one that I will likely watch again any time soon. But it was enthralling to see it, and I suspect it will long stand as a great movie among those dealing with environmentalism and questions about religious and spiritual duty. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

New Release! Solo (2018) [Spoiler-Free Review]

Spoiler-Free! Read on without Fear!!

Director: Ron Howard

Maybe it helped that I was going in with very modest expectations, in the wake of the lukewarm reception among critics and fans, but I enjoyed this movie a bit more than I had anticipated. It's not the best Star Wars movie, but I found it to be a solid, entertaining popcorn movie that uses its mythological resources efficiently.

The movie takes place roughly a dozen years before Star Wars: A New Hope Episode IV (a.k.a Episode IV, a.k.a "The original Star Wars movie"), offering us the main backstory of Han Solo, the infamous smuggler-turned-rebel as portrayed by Harrison Ford in the original trilogy. Picking up with a Han approximately 20 years old or so, played by Alden Ehrenreich, we follow his escape from his home planet of Corelia, where he and his girlfriend Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke) had grown up in oppressed poverty. Though Han nearly manages to get Qi'ra out with him, she is held back, leaving him no choice but to enlist in the army to escape capture at the hands of an ever-growing Empire. After three years as an infantryman, Han manages to latch onto a group of thieves led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and he begins to find his true calling as someone who operates well outside the law.

I was impressed by how well this movie hit its marks, without leaning too heavily on "Easter eggs" for fans or being overly familiar. The movie does a nice job telling some of the most well-known aspects of the legendary rogue - how he meets Chewbacca, how he gets the Millenium Falcon - but it doesn't try to explain all of it, as I suspect weaker writers would have done. I was fully expecting explanations for everything we associate with the original trilogy Han, right down to the signature white shirt and black vest. Fortunately, the father/son writing team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan showed effective discretion in this area. Sure, it's a bit silly that many of the things we associate with Han all occur in Han's life within such a short span. But this didn't bother me much. I felt that enough new characters were introduced and that the plot hummed along well enough to be enjoyable.

Paul Bettany was a clear strength in the film. The character
Dryden Vos and Bettany's portrayal were intense in a way
that I found highly enjoyable.
The acting was perfectly fine. Sure, it's a bit odd seeing Woody Harrelson in a Star Wars movie, but he was cast well as the cynical, gun-slinging thief Beckett. Donald Glover, who simply can't seem to miss these days, is nearly perfect as a young Lando Calrissian, and even smaller parts played by Thandie Newton and Emilia Clarke are handled well. Probably the most pleasant surprise for me was the performance of Paul Bettany as ganglord Dryden Vos. Surprising not because I didn't expect Bettany to be good, but simply because I didn't know he was in the movie. He plays a frighteningly intense, intelligent, and murderous adversary who, despite not being a classic "Sith" villain, is rather intimidating.

Solo is a film that, while not doing anything exceptionally well, does nearly everything pretty well, and doesn't have any major missteps. Though it's not as wildly entertaining as The Force Awakens, or as novel as Rogue One, it's more cohesive and consistent than The Last Jedi. It's one I'll gladly watch again in time, even if it's never going to be among the very best Star Wars movies. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Idiot Boxing: Atlanta, season 1 (2016); Agents of SHIELD, season 5 (2017-2018)

Alfred, Darius, and Earn - just three guys trying to get by.
Atlanta, season 1 (2016)

Atlanta is the brainchild of co-creator/writer/actor/stand-up comedian/musician Donald Glover. I remember hearing about it back when it was first airing on FX, in the autumn of 2016. It sounded interesting, and it was receiving more than a little glowing praise, but I just never quite worked it into my rotation. Now that I got around to watching the very manageable season of ten 25-minute episodes, it's become one of my new favorites.

The show mostly follows Earnest "Earn" Marks (Glover), a local Atlanta guy who has dropped out of Princeton to return home and try to make his way. The smart but rudderless Earn is floundering in a lame job in an effort to support his infant daughter and maintain a healthy though complicated relationship with Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his daughter. Earn decides his best chance for financial security is to try and manage the budding rap career of his cousin Alfred, known better by his rap alias "Paper Boi." Alfred is a low-level weed dealer in the area, and his very modest success as a rapper just barely allows him to keep his head afloat. Though skeptical of Earn's qualifications to manage him, Alfred gives Earn a shot. Around this central story, the show is an avenue for Donald Glover to comment on African-American culture in Atlanta through both intimate relationships between close friends and the wider lens of the chaos swirling around impoverished minority peoples and modern entertainment culture.

If you read or hear anything about Atlanta, you are likely to come across phrases such as "one-of-a-kind" and "unlike anything else." Such descriptions are very well earned, as I can only think of a few shows that Atlanta resembles. It really is its own animal, being an engaging blend of comedy, surreality, sharp social commentary, and poignant drama. The closest thing that I've seen to it is Louis C.K.'s hit show Louis, which was also on FX. In that show, we often got the now-shamed comedian's slanted, bizarre, and insightful takes on living in New York City, his life as a father, his career as a stand-up comedian, and occasionally his views on certain areas of friction within our society, all done from C.K.'s keenly odd and creative perspective. Atlanta shares that same scope and willingness to use the strange to illustrate just how confounding life can be at times. It also shares the ability to regularly make its viewers break down laughing.

Delving into the specifics of plot or character of this first season is somewhat pointless, as this show goes far beyond any simple breakdown of what the characters want and how they get there. Yes, the goal of Earn and Alfred to become successful in the rap world is compelling, but it's much more about what Alfred's rap means to him and those on his periphery, and how those views can differ wildly. Yes, the relationship between Earn and Van is an emotional anchor of sorts, but it is hardly a traditional drama tale. And then there are the eminently quirky but oh-so-familiar characters like Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a sort of Cosmo Kramer in Glover's vision of Atlanta. Darius is a brilliant space cadet, and in other, lesser shows, such a character would probably be more prominently featured and likely overused. Here, though, he is an efficiently-used accent piece to the odd and generally amiable fellows who you can find in places a little higher on the "stress" scale.

The hype is justified on this one, and I'm eager to get into the second season.

The crew spend most of the first half of this season in a future
where things have gone horribly wrong for Earth.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 5 (2017-2018)

Spoiler-Free Section

Another highly enjoyable season of Marvel's flagship "Cinematic Universe" TV show, and one that would have served a solid final act for the entire series, had it come to that.

The previous season of SHIELD had ended with the crew extricating themselves from the Matrix-like artificial world of "The Framework" and defeating the powerful synthetic human, Aida. No sooner had Phil Coulson and his team been able to enjoy their return to reality than they were whisked off to an unknown place by some mysterious figure. Season five reveals that that unknown place was a slave colony on a floating asteroid, and that the mysterious when was approximately 60 years into the future. Even more horrifying is that the asteroid colony, known as "The Lighthouse," is one of the last remnants of a planet Earth that has been completely torn apart by some being or force known only as "The Destroyer of Worlds."

This season of the show was basically divided into two parts: the first telling how Coulson and the team escape the nightmare future they've been pulled into, and the second being a race to prevent that hellish future from happening. It's a structure that the show-runners and writers have used well in earlier seasons, and this one follows suit. One of the primary strengths of this show has, initial ten or so episode aside, always been the plotting and pace. The most recent season only further solidifies my opinion in this regard, as the arc unfolds in a very satisfactory way, with each and every episode adding or building on fascinating revelations and surprises. It was also a ton of fun to see the show-runners, who had stated that they were approaching this season as if it were going to be the final one, pull together many of the elements and still-dangling threads from earlier seasons into a fairly cohesive whole.

Now, I will readily admit that Agents of SHIELD has never been the very best MCU show in terms of sophisticated, realistic relationships or complex issues. Yes, it does play around in some gray and even darker areas enough to keep things interesting for a discerning adult like me, but it has never been nor should it be dealing with the mature themes that the Netflix MCU shows like Jessica Jones or The Punisher. Agents of SHIELD has always been more about likable secret agents and their super-powered allies stopping equally secretive and powerful forces of evil. While there is some compelling character development (the Fitzsimmons arc has always been the best, by far), certain characters have always felt a bit dull to me. While there are often some thoughtful and funny lines, it can just as often feel a bit forced or even hokey. Any shortcomings, though, I find are easily overlooked in light of the general fun of the fantasy/action/suspense story that runs through each 22-episode season. It is all but impossible to guess exactly where season five ends up, based on where it begins, and the surprises are often satisfying. This is what I want from this kind of show, and SHIELD gave it to me again. Despite an even tighter budget than previous seasons, it showed what good writers and actors can do with limited resources in terms of sets and costumes, further emphasizing what an epic fail the rightfully-canceled Inhumans show was.

I was glad to read recently that the show has, indeed, been renewed for a sixth season. I would actually like to see it get a little more support from ABC, but I doubt that will happen. It looks like SHIELD has truly moved on from a couple of mainstay characters, allowing some of the younger ones to develop and take over, which is a move that I'll be glad to see play out, for the most part. I also just saw that the next season is slated for a significantly-shorter 13-episodes. This could actually be a very good thing, with the writers not having to use any filler or tack on less-than-engaging secondary plots, such as this season's dynamic between General Hale and her daughter. Five seasons and over 100 episodes on, and I'm still all-on on this show.

I found Kasius a rather boring villain - he was your pretty
standard arrogant, aristocratic sadist. We've seen plenty of
those in TV shows and films over the years.
Spoiler Section!!

A few thoughts on specific plot points and other developments.

During the first half of the season, I found the Kasius character mostly annoying and fairly boring. Then again, I've always found purely evil, power-hungry sadists boring. Sure, they tend to make for a pretty satisfying "revenge kill" when they inevitably get taken down, but they're rather predictable.

The first half of the season, in "future space," was definitely the weaker part of the season. While I thought the overall time-jumping plot was good, especially with how they worked Fitz back into it, I found the setting a bit drab and the villains not nearly as compelling as others we've seen over the show's history.

While this season saw the welcome return of certain characters like Carl "The Absorbing Man" Creel and a few others, I really disliked the writing and casting for Ruby. Former Disney star Dove Cameron seems like a decent enough actor, but I never for a moment bought her as the sadistic, psychotic, superpowered ninja that she was meant to be. Partly it was the writing, but it was also simply that her doll-like face and curvy body just aesthetically did not fit the role for me. Catherine Dent as her mother General Hale, on the other hand, was excellent.

So it looks like they're finally going to have another major character die, with Coulson's incurable disease seemingly going to do him in. I'm quite fine with that, but I cannot say that I'm thrilled with Mack taking over. While I've always liked the idea of Mack - a powerfully built gentle giant who's a top-notch engineer - I've also found him to be somewhat dull. Oddly, the final two episodes really let him get pretty "Jesusy" on us, even spouting out lines like, "You only need faith in the Good Book!" And I still, even after four seasons of the character, feel like we don't have a completely accurate handle on who the guy is. He fires off some of the best one-liners, but he's also a massive wet blanket at times. Oh, and the shotgun ax really is one of the dumbest, least-practical attempts I've ever seen at a "signature" weapon in a TV show or movie. I don't hate the character, but he's never been as compelling to me as Fitz, Simmons, or nearly any of the rest of the SHIELD roster.

While I found the end of the season satisfying, I thought they could have shown a little more creativity in some of the resolutions to the major issues. For the entire season, we're being told of how time is immutable. This is actually one of the more fascinating conundrums that the team has to face - how will they somehow change what seems to be scientifically inevitable? Well, the show never really does completely explain that. It just...has Daisy win. And the way that she beats Talbot (his breaking bad was a plot turn, by the way, that I really enjoyed) wasn't particularly clever, either. I must admit, though, that quaking the guy right through the atmosphere and into space was pretty cool. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Idiot Boxing, HBO shows: Barry, season 1 (2018); Silicon Valley, season 5 (2018)

Barry, season 1 (2018)

An excellent dark comedy from the mind of Bill Hader and Alex Berg.

The show follows the eponymous Barry Berkman (Hader), a former marine-turned-hitman who lives in Cleveland and shows signs of detached depression. This begins to change when Barry is sent to Hollywood on a job, where he inadvertently finds himself catching the acting bug after seeing a run-of-the-mill acting class in progress. The maladjusted Barry begins to try and dip his toes in the waters of the self-obsessed and artificial world of aspiring actors, all while trying to divest himself from his excessively violent occupation.

Hader as Barry (left) and Henry Winkler as his dramatic
acting teacher, Gene Cousineau. Unlike Gene and his
oblivious classmates, Barry comes by his haunted look and
demeanor all too honestly.
In a recent interview, show star and co-creator Bill Hader said that he and fellow creator Alex Berg pitched the Barry character to HBO as "Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven, but in a community theater acting class." And that's a pretty good description of what you get here. Like Eastwood's Will Munney character in that Western classic, Barry is a truly tortured man will a preternatural skill for assassination. Seeing such a dark and disturbed man in the middle of an acting class is bound to go one of two ways: be a completely awkward and potentially offensive disaster, or make for genius black comedy. Barry is clearly the latter.

There are a few reasons that black comedies are rare. One is that, while well-done dark comedies have dedicated fans, they simply don't appeal to a mass audience. Hence, there simply isn't a great profit motive out there for major TV networks and movie studios to support them. The greater reason, though, is that they are extremely difficult to pull off. Dark subject matter like violent death, murder, and depression don't typically mesh well with humor. And yet, when handled correctly, it really makes its mark. Movies like Dr. Strangelove or Fargo show that one can laugh at the most horrific circumstances if the story is told with the correct tone and approach. Barry follows in the footsteps of those other great films and gives us a sometimes disturbing look at what amounts to a severely - possibly irredeemably - damaged, murderous human being. And it can be hilarious.

In short, the most imposing darkness is seeded deep within Barry - a former marine who seems to have never been good at anything but killing. And he's frighteningly good at it. Other dark elements are to be found in the words and actions of some of his associates - his main contact Fuches (Stephen Root), the Chechnyan gangsters he works with, and a few others. The comedy springs mostly from two places. One is the contrast between the ridiculously out-of-touch and self-involved actors in the acting class Barry finds himself enamored of and his own all-too authentic pain and mental distress. Another is from the oft-hapless Chechnyans and their bumbling through the process of trying to make their mark on the criminal underworld of Hollywood. Not every character or situation is as funny as I think it was meant to be, but there are plenty of great laughs to be had, along with a handful of truly disturbing murders.

The cast is great, with special mention needed for Henry Winkler. The man who is probably still best-known as "The Fonz" from Happy Days in the 1970s once again shows his pure comedic chops here as Gene Cousineau, the acting instructor with hilariously outsized confidence. Thanks to great writing and Winkler's brilliant performance, Cousineau quickly becomes one of those characters who threaten to steal nearly every scene they're in, and Winkler usually does. All of the other parts are played well, too, though I did find the character NoHo Hank overly silly most of the time.

I'm not sure just how long the writers will be able to spin this tale out, but there's definitely still enough material for another short season (this one was a mere eight episodes). It has already been renewed, and I'm happy to know it.

Silicon Valley, season 5 (2018)

Still one of the best comedies on TV.

And then there were four. Though Erlich Bachman's absence
may be conspicuous in the first episode or two, I found that
the bombastic character was hardly missed. The rest of the
crew, plus Monica Hall, easily picked up any slack.
Season 5 of the show picks up with Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his Pied Piper crew trying to get their "New Internet," or "Pipernet," truly off the ground after their near-disastrous program leak at the end of season four. The fledgling company's issue now is how to find enough up-and-coming online companies to get the necessary usage to kick-start the entire thing. It all involves a high level of salesmanship and hobnobbing - two things that are far from the painfully awkward Richard's forte. As with previous seasons, the main Pied Piper crew of Richard, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Jarod have to navigate through and around the predatory environment of Silicon Valley and its vicious raiders. The carrot dangling is that the New Internet, if it can get far enough off the ground to achieve a certain exit velocity, could potentially dwarf any online revolution that the world has ever seen. And that potential prize attracts a lot of envious and thoroughly unscrupulous eyes.

The general arc of this season follows a path similar to previous ones: the guys have a grand idea that they're trying to get off the ground, they meet various difficulties along the way, and they triumph in some fashion. But also in keeping with tradition, Pied Piper's triumph is often in a fashion that none of its members quite expect, and it often opens up new issues that they hadn't yet anticipated. It's a time-tested formula that show creators Mike Judge and Alex Berg have perfected. Even though it's nothing especially novel, the journey is well worth it, thanks mostly to the characters.

This season is right on par with any previous ones, despite being only eight episodes (all previous seasons have been ten). I also didn't miss, for a moment, T.J. Miller as Erlich Bachman, who was written off the show for well-publicized issues with the show-runners. For my part, I often found the Erlich character more of a nuisance, although he did provide some solid laughs thanks to Miller's spot-on performance as the insanely overconfident braggart. But he was always used best very sparingly. Now that he is completely gone (the character is lazing in a never-ending opium stupor somewhere in Tibet). The rest of the cast more than picks up the slack. Kumail Nanjiani ratchets up the desperation as Dinesh, madly looking for any opportunity to show off the slightest bit of success, while his in-office arch-nemesis Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) continues to stoically and relentlessly egg him on. The seventh episode of the season is actually one of the greatest "Gilfoyle" episodes ever, as he fires off multiple fantastic digs and observations. And as usual, Zach Woods kills it as Donald 'Jared' Dunn, the soft-spoken but oddly intense Chief Operating Officer with a wild past. It was also nice to see a return of the Monica Hall character by season's end - a more prominent character in the first couple of seasons but who had faded in seasons three and four.

The only way one could say that this show is slowing down is merely in the 20% reduction in episodes. Aside from that, the series is an astounding five-for-five, with not a single season being anything less than great. Season six can't get here soon enough. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

New Release! Deadpool 2 (2018) [Spoiler-Free First Section]

Spoiler-Free Section

Director: David Leitch

Good, bloody, foul-mouthed fun, if perhaps not quite as good or fresh as the first Deadpool.

The first film was highly entertaining, offering a adaptation of the popular comic anti-hero/anti-villain that aimed to offer plenty of fun while roasting nearly everything about the world of now-ubiquitous comic book superhero movies. Deadpool found a great balance between providing a solid enough story and offering rousing action, while also consistently making fun of the tropes associated with the superhero genre. Amid all of this, it also managed to include just the right amount of appropriate heart, focusing on the twisted but touching relationship between assassin-for-hire Wade "Deadpool" Wilson and his ex-stripper girlfriend Vanessa.

In this sequel, the wildly irreverent tone and non-stop gags continue, mostly to good effect. Without giving anything important away, Deadpool finds himself wrapped up in a surprising bid to save the life of a young and very angry mutant, Russell (Julian Dennison). This all becomes much more difficult when a grim, highly powerful mutant from the future, Cable (Josh Brolin) becomes involved. Unable to deal with everything on his own, Deadpool enlists the aid of a few other mutants who may be familiar to readers of the 1990s and 2000s X-Force comics.

I was probably most impressed at how Deadpool 2 avoids most of the pitfalls of comedy sequels (and really, Deadpool was much more a comedy than anything else). Namely, leaning too heavily on the most well-received jokes from the first movie. Yes, the sequel does call back to a few of the best gags from the first one, but it mostly relies on coming up with new material. I do feel that one marginal but memorable character from the original movie is overused in the follow-up, but it's hardly a deal-breaker. The other problem many sequels can have, comedy and action alike, is retreading plots and ideas from a successful first film. Deadpool 2 does well with this, offering a story that is quite different from the first movie. I can't say that it provides any more depth than the first film, but the theme does give something different from the straightforward revenge/rescue tale of Deadpool.

Zazie Beets and Josh Brolin bring plenty to the table in their
performances as Domino and Cable.
I've already seen one or two comments on social media expressing the view that the humor in Deadpool 2 is "trying too hard." I understand the sentiment, but I disagree. The Deadpool character of the comics was always a motor-mouthed wise-cracker. Wade Wilson never shuts up, and the movie writers and Ryan Reynolds have always loved and respected this. As such, both movies have given us an endless barrage of verbal jabs from "The Merc with a Mouth." Given the sheer volume of jokes, it's always stood to reason to me that not every one of them will be a great joke, and sometimes not even good one. But for me, about half of them land pretty well. Since the frequency of wisecracks was so very high, I found myself with a smile on my face for most of the movie, even laughing out loud several times. This sequel does go a bit heavier on the "meta," fourth-wall-breaking commentary, which I think works better in lighter doses, as in the first film. It hardly spoils the soup that is the sequel, though.

The action in the movie is also entertaining enough, if not exactly standout. Like the overall plot, the filmmakers didn't rest on the laurels of the first film, and instead offer us newer and grander action sequences here. As with any superhero movie, we viewers want to see dazzling displays of the characters' fantastic abilities, and Deadpool 2 does a fine job of it, despite there only being a handful of truly stunning and exciting moments.

It's pretty simple: your feelings about the first Deadpool can tell you whether you'll enjoy the second. Though the plot and primary theme are different, the tone, irreverent attitude, and loving embrace of filthy language and cartoon-like gore are all there to attract or revolt just as much as the original.

Spoiler Section!!

A few thoughts on specific details:

I know better than to overthink any story which uses time travel as a device, especially in a silly movie like Deadpool 2, but I'm surprised that the hyper-aware, fourth-wall breaking Wilson didn't at least comment on the fact that Cable's altering the future by not killing Russell would result in Cable's never having been there in the first place. But again, thinking about time loops is an exercise in futility. I won't lose any sleep over it.

I actually liked the decision to kill Vanessa early, as I really didn't see it coming. Kind of a shame that they just went ahead and undid it all at the end, using Cable's aforementioned, plot-breaking time travel gadget.

Deadpool and the newly recruited "X-Force." This plot line
didn't go quite where I expected, for the better.
The assembly and rapid demise of "X-Force" was hilarious. The movie actually got me on this one, as I genuinely thought that this would be a team that would carry through the rest of the film. Having nearly all of them, including mainstay characters from the comics such as Shatterstar, meet grisly deaths not ten minutes after their introductions, was a high-point idea to me.

Also from the X-Force mini-plotline, Zazie Beets was great as Domino. I only recently became aware of Beetz from her role as Van in the brilliant TV show Atlanta, but her portrayal of the luck-imbued mutant in Deadpool 2 was a blast.

I thought the inclusion of Dopinder was unnecessary and mostly not very funny. This was the one clear case of a sequel taking a fun little bit from the first film and running it well into the ground by asking way too much of it.

This was, by far, the best rendering of The Juggernaut that we've seen. I know that this isn't saying much, as really the only previous one was the laughable presentation in X-Men 3: X-Men United - the one which gave us the oft-lambasted Vinnie Jones line "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" While this new one is a purely CGI-job, we did at least get the sense of the character's real presence as an unstoppable physical force of unbridled, violent destruction. It also gave us the hilariously operatic theme music, featuring lyrics like "You can't stop this motherf****r!!" along with the background chorus of "Holy! S**tballs!!" on repeat. I can't recall a movie where the over-the-top, epic soundtrack was included in the gag.

Josh Brolin was great as Cable. The writers did a pretty decent job of using his overly grim demeanor as a foil for Deadpool's utter lack of seriousness, though I do feel a few jokes might have been left on the table with this dynamic.

The mid-credit sequence of Deadpool jumping back in time to right the wrongs of the past was outstanding. One has to admire just how self-deprecating Reynolds can be. He clearly has no problem highlighting past failings, if it might get a laugh.