Saturday, 26 March 2016

Celebrating Lewis Litt: The MVP of SUITS

There are some TV shows which, if one element were removed, would be almost unwatchable. Entourage would be a recent example. Without Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold, would anyone care to watch a bunch of obnoxious assholes bombing around LA in sweet rides with beautiful women? Okay, bad example. Moving on...

Suits is a drama-comedy series that has been on-air since 2011. It tells the story of Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams, Helena's (Tatiana Maslany) unlucky BF on Orphan Black), a college drop out with a near-perfect memory who works as a law associate for high-powered attorney Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) despite never attending law school.

Suits has not quite achieved the cultural relevance of Entourage. It's an entertaining show brought up by a good ensemble of actors augmented by some sharp comedic banter. In short, it is a perfectly decent piece of entertainment. On its own, it might be a little forgettable, but like Entourage, it is brought up by one truly great character.

Played by Rick Hoffman, Lewis Litt is Harvey and Mike's on-off antagonist. He is also the best character on the show. In the first season he is the Big Bad, constantly attempting to undermine our heroes at every turn. As the show matured, Lewis moved from villain to anti-hero -- a flawed man who is undermined by his inability to overcome his own ego. In recent seasons, Lewis's struggle to not be his own worst enemy often became the centre of the best storylines, from Harvey's battle to oust co-founder Daniel Hardman (Breaking Bad's David Costabile), to Mike's attempts to stay out of jail when his cover is blown.

And then there is his ongoing friendship with Harvey's sparky assistant Donna (Sarah Rafferty), which contrasts comically with his incompetent, offscreen secretary Norma. Though she is never seen, Norma's death does provide one of the more hilarious and touching episodes (Season 4's 'Not Just a Pretty Face') as Louis tries to disguise his pain by continuing his abuse toward her while he and Donna painstakingly put together her funeral. Litt's ability to be a massive tool and the most sympathetic character on the show is especially strong here.

Of all the characters on the show, Lewis continues to be a fascinating, frustrating presence on the show. One can only hope he does not get written out, because without him Suits would be pretty poor viewing.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Flashdance: The birth of Eighties Style

Even if you have not seen it, you know what Flashdance is.

This movie by itself is not that interesting. A girl is a welder. She wants to be a dancer. She falls in love. She gets her dream. Freeze frame. Credits.

I had not seen this film since I was a kid. Watching it again, I was struck by what a time capsule it was. And not just for 80s hair and fashion.

However, as a portent, Flashdance is a fascinating sign of the direction Hollywood was to take in the post-New Hollywood era. This is thanks to several behind-the-scenes players.

Firstly, Flashdance is the first major credit for Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and signalled the rise of the power-producer.

While on the surface, Flashdance may seem like an unlikely project for the duo, it is filled with images and concepts that would return in their later work:
  •  the garish visual style, with a focus on music-assisted montage
  • a threadbare plot that shunts the character forward without any real conflict or character development
The most important part of the Simpson-Bruckheimer template is the theme of a protagonist who is the best, but wants to be acknowledged as the best is an idea that returns again and again in their films (see Top Gun, The Rock, and Con Air for other examples). Alex (Jennifer Beals) is a self-taught dancer who wants to become a real professional dancer. She's acknowledged as a good dancer from the beginning of the film. She faces no real obstacles, and when she does finally get a chance to audition, she succeeds.

The other important players are the co-producers, Peter Guber and Jon Peters. Between them, these duos would go on to major hits (CaddyshackTop Gun), start franchises (Beverly Hills CopBatman) and re-define the role of the executive in the creative process. With his background in the music business, Peters is especially notable due to his experience with the promotion of movie-related soundtrack albums.

Flashdance is the first major credit from Joe Ezterhas, later to become Hollywood's most highly paid screenwriter and the creator of a series of erotic thrillers that would dominate Hollywood in the early 90s. It was directed by Jonathan Lynne, he was inspired by the visual style of music videos to make the movie a glossy series of set pieces.

Flashdance's major influence is its effect on popular music, especially on MTV. On a stylistic level, the narrative stops for a series of dance sequences to early 80s pop songs. It is a testament to how self-contained these scenes were that they were later released on MTV as music videos. With these 'music videos' and a soundtrack that shot up the charts, Flashdance set off the fashion for every major movie to have a hit theme song.

As stated at the outset, as a film Flashdance is pretty innocuous. However, as a testing ground for the production techniques and stylistic flourishes that would define Hollywood-style entertainment for the next quarter-century.      

Thursday, 24 March 2016

BITE-SIZE REVIEW: The Star Chamber (1983)

Opening with a terrific foot chase, featuring great performances from Michael Douglas, Yaphet Kotto and Hal Holbrook, The Star Chamber (directed by Peter Hyams) sets itself up to be a great 70s-style thriller before losing its way with a too-neat ending which neuters what had come before.

Douglas stars as a newly-minted judge who has become disillusioned with the limitations of the system after a vicious criminal is let go due to a legal loophole. He falls under the sway of Holbrook's  older judge, who lures the younger man into a small, secret group of jurists -- the Star Chamber of the title.

The Star Chamber has tasked itself with re-trying cases in which guilty suspects were let off on technicalities. Once a verdict has been decided, a hitman goes out and kills the target.

When Douglas bungles a case, and the hitman is sent after innocent parties, he realises the error he has made and tries to foil the Star Chamber's plans.

I've always been a fan of Douglas. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he always seems to take on unconventional projects no obvious commercial possibilities. Films like The Star Chamber and The China Syndrome (1979), while not as strong as his later work, show that he was always willing to take chances on interesting concepts. 

It is rare that a movie starts strong, builds well and then completely falls apart at the end. Like another movie I reviewed last year, Betrayed, I spent the first hour wondering why this movie was not more well known. By the end, it was pretty clear why.
Still, unlike Betrayed, this movie's final act is not as big of a dip in quality, and the movie is still worth a look. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Batman v Superman review: Who am I kidding, you're going to see it anyway

[WARNING: Lots of rambling]

I did not like Man of Steel. I thought it lacked character development, suffered from rushed plotting and repetitive, overlong action sequences. 

Still, going into this movie, I tried to hope for the best. It's pointless to pre-hate a movie before you've seen it. 

Mundanely, it turned out to be what I was expecting: a bloated, overly serious music video promoting a whole series of sequels.

Like MoS, it has a good cast stranded with no characterisation to work with. I still don't understand or care about Cavill, and Affleck, though he looks the part and has some good scenes, comes across as a collection of promo clips for the upcoming sequels rather than a character. 

I wonder why Amy Adams even bothered to turn up -- she spends the whole movie playing a professional hostage. Dump and run, lady -- you're better than this!

The only one vaguely unscathed is Gal Gadot as Diana/Wonder Woman. She gives her part a little bit of spark, but once again she feels like a motion poster for her solo movie.

The plot jerks from one scene to another with no rhyme or reason, flirting from one inconsequential character to the next, with several bizarre ellipses only further muddying the waters.

Everything is art directed to death. The score seems to be played by an orchestra of thrash metal drummers. Snyder crafts every frame like a money shot -- seriously, they all look the same. 

And Snyder seems to confuse a dark tone with dark colour grading.

This movie is filled with silly, comic book stuff, yet plays it with such unblinking, one note seriousness it comes across as parody. Or an Evanescence video.

That's the problem  ultimately -- this movie is just hard, glistening surface with nothing real to draw you in. 

Though fanboys may cheer that whole scenes are lifted from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, they amount to almost nothing -- which is par for the course. Every choice in this movie is all in service of a confusing, limp story with no stakes or human characters to get the viewer over its narrative weaknesses.

There were only two scenes that made a mild impression -- Bruce's infiltration of Luthor's mansion was fun, with Affleck pretending to be a drunken bore, and getting sidetracked when a beautiful woman walks past -- it felt like an old school heist movie, or a Bond flick. The other was Bruce meeting Diana (Gadot) at the museum, which was one of the rare moments where the movie quietened down (not really selling this I know, but it's really hard to think of things I liked). 

Other than those bits, this thing is a slog that left no real impression. 

While you might enjoy the spectacle, the running time is too long for me to recommend it as dumb fun.

BvS is DOA. Or BS. 

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

This movie is genius. Bloody genius.

Starring Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil might be the smartest horror comedy to come along in recent years. I'd even put it a few notches above Cabin in the Woods.

Inverting the traditional 'teens go to the woods and get preyed upon by inbred hillbillies', this movie puts the hillbillies front and centre.

Through an unfortunate chain of events, Tucker (Tyduk) and Dale (Labine) get mistaken for backwoods psychos by a group of hard-partying teens.

As the moronic teens stumble to their own demise, Tucker and Dale are left to try and clean up the mess and ward off increasingly skeptical law enforcement.

Co-starring Katrina Bowden from 30 Rock, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil's humour is pitch black but leavened by the warm, sympathetic performances from its leads.

An overlooked gem. Boot that po-mo Whedon nonsense to the curb, and check this little beauty out.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Final Girls (2015)

Starring a variety of your favourite TV stars, The Final Girls came as a real surprise.

I had not heard of it until early this year, and that was based on Alia Shawkat being part of the cast. She plays Gertie, the sardonic best friend of main character Max (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story).

Max is still dealing with the death of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman). Gertie's brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley) forces the pair to go to a revival screening of her mother's biggest film, the 80s slasher classic Camp Bloodbath. Midway through the screening, Max and her friends find themselves transported into the movie. While the group has to contend with Billy Murphy, the film's antagonist, Max is forced to deal with the character played by her mother, Nancy.

This is a short, sweet genre hybrid. It has a great cast, plenty of laughs, a strong script filled with clever ideas and a surprisingly strong emotional spine in the relationship between Max and Nancy.

This is one slasher movie where I would actually look forward to a sequel.

P.S. Maeby is Funke-ing awesome in this movie.

Monday, 21 March 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Sleep Tight (2011)

Over the last 20 years, Spain has built a fine tradition of cinematic nail biters. I had heard about Sleep Tight a while ago, and finally got a chance to check it out.

A quiet, unassuming doorman at an apartment complex (Luis Tosar, Cell 211) has a secret: he is unhappy. He is so unhappy that he frequently stands on the roof of the building and contemplates suicide.

The only thing that keeps him going is making other people unhappy. His latest target is a young woman whose optimism and high spirits drive him insane with rage. He makes it his mission to break her -- by any means necessary.

This movie is excellent. I have not spoiled what the protagonist does, but suffice it to say that it is extremely odious. It is a testament to how well this movie is made that it never comes off as exploitive.

Luis Tosar, so arresting as the head inmate in Cell 211, delivers an extremely brave, unsympathetic performance as an irredeemable sociopath, an alien predator who watches his unassuming victims without ever betraying his hand. While we learn little of his backstory, the filmmakers fill the film with incidental details through which viewers can infer some very nasty ideas.

From the director of the classic zombie found footage movie REC, Sleep Tight is a disturbing, arresting thriller that is deserving of more exposure.

Check it out. With the lights on.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Daredevil, Season 2 review (Part Two)

Congratulations if you were able to follow my semi-coherent ramblings about Eps 1-7. We're now on the final leg. Bear with me -- I'll try to add more context this time.

Episode Eight: 'Guilty as Sin'
What a way to start an episode: Daredevil's mentor Stick makes a welcome return, as do the Hand -- this time in force. This leads to a great action sequence, with our heroes in a car trying to outrace the Hand's ninjas. Don't know who the guy is driving, but it's a cool scene with a nasty ticking clock (Elektra's chest wound) to add another layer of suspense to proceedings. It's the tensest set piece since the stairway brawl in Ep 3, although here the peril seems greater.

This episode is great for high-powered cameos delivering juicy monologues. First we have Scott Glenn -- he's a great minimalist, and adds a nice edge of irony to his delivery. He offers a terrific reading of the Hand's origin (once again, no flashbacks, which is great).

And then we have Clancy Brown, as Castle's old CO -- basically the Trautman to Castle's Rambo, he offers a great, hardboiled monologue about Frank Castle's wartime service.

This episode sees the addition of a more supernatural element. Thankfully,  it is underplayed. Keeping Daredevil street level makes it more enjoyable. I hope it stays that way.

We do get a nice revelation from Stick: turns out Elektra's relationship with Matt was all part of Stick's plan from the beginning. Matt is justifiably pissed, even more so when Karen barges in and mis-reads the whole 'hot woman in Matt's bed' thing and storms out.

Now Matt has to get his ass back to court, to the two most important people in his life (who he has also pissed off the most).

Back in court, Foggy has been blowing expectations away. Karen manages to convince Castle to take the stand -- however, Matt notes that something is wrong. Something is agitating Frank. Cue a great 'F U' monologue from the Punisher as he announces that he would gladly kill his victims again, if he could. This outburst blows a hole in Foggy's till-now excellent defence and Castle is on his way to jail. It's hilarious and sad, all at the same time.

Meanwhile, Elektra has partially recovered from her injuries and has seemingly had a major change of heart -- she wants to leave Stick and join Matt. She feels that his idealism will rub off on her and help her atone for her sins. You can feel the unease building -- these good vibes can't last. 

It ends with a corker of an ending: Elektra shows her true colours, Matt gets poisoned (and shot through the chest) and Wilson Fisk finally makes a welcome return.

This is pretty interesting episode, tone wise. The cuts between the Elektra and Frank storylines feel a little jarring, although it does make for entertaining viewing. The Punisher section allows for some great moments with Foggy, but overall they pale in comparison with the uneasy truce between Matt and his ex.

Episode Nine: 'Seven Minutes in Heaven'
Wilson Fisk! Plus William Forsythe! All in the first five minutes -- this episode is set up for greatness.

To start with, we get a nice flashback showing Wilson's arrival at prison and his encounter with Dutton (Forsythe), the thuggish 'kingpin' of the inmates. His desire to use the Punisher to get rid of his opponent is a nice plot twist. The fact that he is able to convince Frank to basically be his tool is intriguing -- what happens when shit goes south?

Back on the outside, other alliances are falling apart. Matt's rejection of Elektra is understandable (she's basically a sociopath) but probably a bad idea strategically, when he has an army of semi-indestructible ninjas after his blood (probably the only situation where having a sociopath around has its uses).

Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are still reeling from the court loss, and think Matt is totally shirking his responsibilities to the firm and their collective friendship (which he kind of is). For the first time in the show, Matt is really alone. 

With Elektra on the curb, Frank and his demons come back to the fore as he confronts one of the men involved in the death of his family.

Karen and Ben Urich's old editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), meanwhile, are investigating the John Doe whose death was covered up along with that of Frank's family. Both Frank and the investigators discover that the John Doe was an undercover cop and the botched drug transfer was a sting operation gone bad.

This revelation is followed by Frank's one-man assault on the cell block, which is bloody, gore-y and grue-y (that's a word right?). Surprised they didn't try for a single take, but I guess they ran out of money. Still, it's pretty intense.

By contrast, Matt's infiltration of the Farm is a little underwhelming  -- it was a little hard to follow who was who with so little light around. 

In the end, this episode benefits from a lot of Fisk. While Elektra is a nice addition, she is not meant as a villain, and the series needs another mastermind running the show.

Episode Ten: 'The Man in the Box'
With DA Reyes dead and unseen forces on the move, the TV series has completed a slow transition from crime drama to conspiracy thriller. Nice.

I'm still waiting for an underlying plot to turn up. It's hard to figure out what is pushing the series forward. The Frank and Elektra stories felt like tangents, and too distinct to work together. Ten episodes in and these storylines still need to pull together.

The Blacksmith sounds like an interesting antagonist -- at first I thought it was just a moniker Fisk was using,  but now I'm not so sure.

Matt's meeting with Fisk is okay -- basically a reprise of the tension from Season 1, with plenty of 'Vanessa!' and heads being slammed against tables.

Rosario Dawson turns up again to provide a dose of reality and wry humour. She's given one of those Nolan-style monologues about the 'price of being a hero' and nails it. Again. Goddammit, Hollywood. She should be in all the movies and TV shows. She's great.

The Farm is still too abstract to be creepy -- the blood draining is kind of weird, but it still does not get under the skin the way it is supposed to. It seems like there's too many storylines going on here -- what am I supposed to be invested in?

The conspiracy stuff is interesting but still needs room to breathe. The reunion of Karen and Frank is pretty cool, but it still feels like this plot line is treading water. 

At this point I feel like we need a scoreboard showing all the villains in play. Now we have the Hand, Wilson Fisk, the Punisher, Elektra, Stick and the Chaste, and whoever the hell is trying to kill Frank. Too many? Let's see how the season pans out, but I have my suspicions.

Side tangent: How long have Elektra and Jacques been fighting? We cut from them conversing to whole bunch of other scenes, and cut to...

The only reason for this fight seems to just be 'how Elektra got her sais'. 

The episode does pick up at the conclusion, with a nice creepy atmosphere -- the Farm kids turn into zombies while the Hand prepare to assault the building outside, trapping half the main cast inside the building. At least it means Rosario Dawson has to stick around.

It's good set-up for the next episode, but this one still feels half-baked.

Episode Eleven: '.380'
So this episode is basically Matt pissing off every woman on the show. The showdown set up at the end of last episode leads to a pretty solid fight scene, although it's starting to feel formulaic. A bunch of guys appear, Daredevil tackles each one and punches them until they stop moving. Rinse and repeat.

There is a little more peril by having this brawl take place amid a bunch of innocent hospital staff (including MVP Rosario Dawson), but there needs to be more originality here.

I like this Karen-Frank pairing. Like Matt-Elektra, they are yin and yang (although an Elektra-Punisher pairing would be... disturbing). Their conversation in the dinner is a nice reprieve,  and establishes their rapport. The button on the scene -- Karen's realisation that the dinner is just a set-up to ambush the people on their trial -- is hilarious. 

Maybe that's what I've been missing from this version of Castle -- the MAX series offsets its extreme violence with a rich vein of black humour that makes the gore go down smooth. There needs to be more of this irony to Frank. Aside from Elektra and Foggy, this show is full of sourpusses.

The fight in the dinner is extremely brutal -- it's a wonder Frank can still see. He's had so many blows to the face I'm surprised his face isn't mush.

The set piece on the boat is same old, same old. Punisher shoots everybody, Daredevil tells him to stop, Punisher sucker punches DD and finishes the job. This episode is feeling old hat.

Meanwhile, Claire and Foggy meet up again -- he's checking out, and she's just quit her job. I hope these two get together. They're sane and normal.

Elektra is doing a Frank and trying to wipe out Stick and his boys. This drags Matt back into the fray -- can't have anyone dying on his watch, can we?

Episode Twelve: 'The Dark at the End of the Tunnel'
Well, at least this episode starts with something new: a 12 year old kid beating and getting beaten up by 3 tough guys. It ends with young Elektra killing one of her opponents. Young Elektra is pretty wooden, which is kind of a bummer.

Cut to the present: Stick and Elektra go at it in a library(?). Cue DD's arrival AND an army of ninjas. They take Stick, and suddenly it's back to Matt and Elektra, blood brothers/siblings. Cue a big argument and a blood-soaked kiss. Jason Mantzoukas would eat this shit up.

The end of Nelson & Murdock coincides with Foggy gaining a new sense of self-worth. Bad for his friendship with Matt, but good for him nonetheless. Hopefully this forces Matt to not take people for granted in the future. Doubt it, but this show is all about believing in people's abilities to rehabilitate themselves.

Foggy's last piece of advice leads DD somewhere he has not been: abandoned subway tunnels.

Side note: I really like the way the writers have treated Mitchell Ellison this season. In Season One, he was  Ben Urich's spineless editor -- with Ben dead, a little of his fire has re-awakened  Mitchell's crusading spirit. It's a nice shift, well played by Cantor.

The fight in the tunnel feels a little too CG-assisted. There's a few shots marred by poor green screen work. They need to make more of the Hand's stealth abilities -- they cut in and out.

As soon as Clancy Brown turns up again, you know bad shit is about to happen. He's never quite found another villain like the Kurgan (Highlander), and the Blacksmith would be a decent addition to his rogues gallery -- too bad he's doesn't get more screen time.

Stick gets tortured by the Hand; DD rescues him; Stick bites a dude's throat out. Stick finally tells Matt he's proud of him. Elektra turns up to kill Stick. And then the Hand turn up. It would make for a pretty solid finale.

But then we get another flashback to Elektra's childhood -- her first kill. We also get to see exactly how far Stick would go to protect her. It's a short, brutal scene, but well-handled. It folds in nicely with the first flashback, and the climax in the present...

... where Elektra's true origins are finally revealed: she is the Black Sky, the mythical master the Hand has been waiting for. Suddenly, Elektra has a chance to be something truly incredible -- incredibly evil, but remember who we're dealing with here. Made to feel like an outsider her entire life, and pushed out by Matt and Stick for being a loose cannon, the allure of such power is understandable.

Of course, Elektra winds up helping DD and Stick get out of trouble. Ah, the path not taken.

The episode ends with Frank finding a massive armoury -- including a gatling gun. Oh boy.

Episode Thirteen: 'A Cold Day in Hell's Kitchen'
And so we reach the end. The finale. The last dance.

Matt, Elektra and Stick are back at his apartment, waiting for the Hand to turn up. Why the hell do they go to his apartment? Don't the bad guys know where he lives?

As a season finale, it might be better than Season 1 -- certainly the stakes are high (a group of hostages in a building) and the obstacles (an army of ninjas and an immortal swordsman) formidable.

The pre-game talk between Matt and Elektra is one of the best scenes in the season. While we know DD will be back for another season, his survival in this episode is always n doubt. It's a hard trick to pull off, and this episode pulls it off.

Maybe I'm jaded from watching so many episodes back to back, but I tend to switch off during most of the fights. They seem to follow the same basic pattern. You'd think the show runners would figure that most viewers are watching at least a couple episodes back-to-back and either cut back on the action or show more originality in their set pieces. Once again, the show's colour scheme works against coherence -- I could not tell who was who half the time during the ninja battle.

However, these are minor quibbles. One last episode until next year. Time to savour the goodness. Elektra's sacrifice was kind of predictable, but rather poignant.  Stick killing Nobu was great -- having an immortal villain is so annoying, and he was never an interesting enough character to make him a formidable threat.

All in all, a strong finish to a rather slapdash season.

Final thoughts
This season reminded me of when I was a little kid and I tried to get into Marvel comics. But I always felt like I'd been dropped into the middle of an ongoing story, and I'd need to buy about a dozen other titles and issues to figure out what was going on.

On the plus side, the regulars got more to do -- more lawyering for Foggy, more investigating for Karen, and the addition of Elektra brought out a different side of Matt. The new elements (Frank and Elektra) are cool, although the way they are weaved into the story did not always feel consistent or well thought out. The lack of a strong antagonist, or at least a rogues gallery, certainly worked against it.

For next season, I hope they provide a stronger main storyline. The ingredients are still all there for greatness, but this season doesn't quite hit the bar of the first one.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Daredevil, Season 2 review (Part One)

"I caught a glimpse of heaven once. The Angels showed me. 
The idea was I'd kill for them. Clean up their mistakes on Earth. 
Eventually redeem myself.

Tried it. 
Didn't like it. 
Told them where to stick it."
                                      -- Frank Castle, Welcome Back, Frank 

Man, I loved the first season of Daredevil. Sure, there is definitely a dip midway through the season, and the showdown with Kingpin was pat, but overall it was a terrific piece of work.

With another change in backstage personnel (creator Drew Goddard was booted two episodes into the first season, and show runner Steven DeKnight left at the end of the season), I was intrigued at what Season 2 would bring us.

Without further ado, here are my rushed, unvarnished thoughts on Season 2...

Episode One: 'Bang'

This one starts at a clip. The opening sequence is terrific. No flashback to catch us up, no narration. Just a brief, brutal sequence in which Daredevil takes down a gang of bank robbers.

No beat is lingered on, and the filmmakers have the restraint to not indulge in a one-take punch-up ala Season One. All we get is a few shadows, the flash of a gauntlet to a noggin and a terse 'call 911'.

All in all, a great, economical re-intro to our hero climaxing in that most Daredevilish of locations: a church lit by candles.

Speaking of grand entrances, the introduction of the Punisher is even better. This is where the transfer to another medium really works to the character's advantage. The whole episode plays like a slow-burn reveal, as an unseen maniac plows through the gangs of Hell's Kitchen with extreme prejudice.

His appearance at the hospital is perfect -- the way he disarms the policeman and keeps walking is a great piece of short hand. In that one bit of action, we learn everything we need to about our new antagonist.

This is the first adaptation to treat the Punisher right. He is not a rich character with an arc -- he is not a character that you can build a traditional action franchise around. He is better as a counter-point to another character, and as a foil for Matt Murdock, the character has room to breathe.

In the end, this is a fairly tight episode that gets the ball rolling. There are a few pieces of dialogue which feel a little precious, but no complaints so far. No sign of Elektra, but that's to the good. It would have clogged up the episode (and the season) with too many characters competing for attention.  

Episode Two: "Dogs to a Gunfight"

With Matt out of action, it gives the other characters a chance to shine. Foggy's showdown with the DA is great, and is a sign that the writer's room is willing to flesh out the rest of the supporting cast. Here's hoping they take more chances with these guys.

This episode continues the restrained reveal of the Punisher. His scenes are relatively short and sparse on dialogue, which works for the character. One good beat is when he turns on the sleazy pawnshop owner, which feels straight out of his MAX series.

The writers don't treat him like a tortured soul. Here, he is more like Jaws -- rarely seen, but always lurking on the periphery.

In terms of structure, this episode does feel a little more of a bridge between the first and third episodes. Aside from the DA, nothing new is introduced. It feels a little like the new show runners are still getting the hang of things, but there is a slackness to the overall flow of the episode when compared with the season premiere.

Episode Three: 'New York's Finest'

This episode is basically two men yelling on a rooftop. Okay, there's more to it than that, but for a good portion of the runtime this episode feels like a two-hander, which gives the characters a chance to develop a dynamic based on their conflicting philosophies. 

Interestingly, the episode boils down to two parallel standoffs: Frank vs Matt and Foggy vs two gang members in hospital. Foggy Nelson gets another chance to show what a fighter he is, and endears himself to Claire Temple. Rosario Dawson makes a welcome return as the night nurse -- here's hoping she gets more appearances. It's always a pleasure, and she always delivers.

The final fight is great -- sure, it's a reprise of Season 1's hallway scuffle, but the location and stakes make it more than just a carbon copy. Daredevil puts an unconscious Frank in a service elevator and then battles his way down a stairwell to meet at the ground floor. Excessive? A little. It certainly hammers the point home that while Matt may not kill, he will do everything but.

Episode Four: 'Penny and Dime'

If John Wick taught us one thing, it's not to mess with a man's dog.

This series has a good way of filling out its supporting antagonists, but Irish mobster Finn is a little weak sauce. On the plus side, he does get a decent introduction, with an impromptu eye gouge, but overall the character has more than a whiff of the 'lucky charms' about him.

This is the one episode that feels short-changed. The montage showing the Irish tracking Frank down is cool, but the way they find his apartment feels too easy (especially after Daredevil did the same thing a few episodes back). I was expecting some kind of security mechanism to trip them up -- a booby trap or something. 

However, while the build up feels abridged, this episode does provide some sweet Punishment. 

The showdown with the Irish is good value -- we get to see how messed up Frank really is, and the amount of pain he is willing to take just to piss Finn off.

The creepiest part is not even the torture scene: it's Karen's investigation of the Castle house, unchanged since his family died. it's an eerie, effective sequence that conveys Frank's pain better than all three of his theatrical outings.

Beranthal's final monologue is a great button on his origin. The lack of flashbacks are big help -- they are a cliche of revenge stories, and the more restrained approach makes Castle feel more relatable.

The final scene with Karen and Matt in the rain was a little overwrought in the sound design and direction. The close-ups of Matt's finger tracing up Karen's arm, intercut with her new-orgasmic reactions is unintentionally hilarious.

It was so over-the-top, it actually made me hope they did not get together.

On the plus side, we finally get a look at Season 2's other heavy hitter...

Episode Five: 'Kinbaku'

Five in and the first flashback of the season. Nice work.

This episode made me realise that, aside from his other senses, Matt  has 'sex-dar' -- he is able to pick out Elektra by the clink of her bracelet. Insane.

Elodie Yung's Elektra -- hmm, interesting. I haven't read too many Daredevil comics so I'm not really clued in on her character, but Yung's iteration is arresting. She's more of a femme fatale than Jennifer Garner's iteration from the 2003 picture, which makes for a more interesting rapport with Charlie Cox.

I really enjoyed the flashbacks -- Matt and Elektra's bond is based on danger and excitement, and their bout in the ring was a good way of symbolising their relationship. With her erratic, thrill-seeking behaviour and eroticisation of violence, Yung felt like a spiritual sister to GoldenEye's Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen). 

Less than an episode in and Elektra's taken over the show. Good thing Beranthal is on hiatus -- the emphasis here is on a the broken carcass of Matt and Elektra's relationship: it's gross, it's messy and very fun to watch.

There's a dark sense of fun to this episode that has been missing from the 'Castle' episodes. It's a result of the differences between their characters, but one which confirmed, for me at least, the limitations of the Punisher's appeal: Depthless rage is fine, but only in small doses. Elektra is running on a few other fuels -- batshit crazy being the most obvious.

The last couple episodes have felt kind a loose, but this one felt really tight. The addition of Elektra feels like the completion of a moral triangle, with Matt and Frank Castle as the other points.

The finale in her penthouse is fantastically noirish, with Elektra's red night gown stark against shadows. It also signals the arrival of that most noir of plot points -- the uneasy alliance between the fall guy and the femme fatale.

It's a cool dynamic. Let's see how far the writers take it.

Episode Six: 'Regrets Only'

This episode made me laugh -- not out loud mind, but there is a nice vein of schadenfreude running through this episode. Having Elektra around gives the show something's it's been missing: anarchy.

The way she keeps dragging Matt into the middle of danger is glorious. Matt is so stoic and solemn by himself -- he needs someone to spark off (that's why Foggy is around). It is probably why Matt and Karen don't make sense to me -- they feel cut from the same damp, dull cloth.

The Lecter-like security around Castle's room is a nice touch. The DA, Reyes, is a nice spin on the Big Bad (one of them at least) -- politically motivated, her grasp of justice is somewhat shaky, to say the least. She's a nice addition to the rogue's gallery. It will be interesting to see just how tied in she is to the mystery around Frank's past.

Back to the lady (and man) in red: Two episodes in and the Elektra-Matt dynamic has me hooked. When they stroll into the ball room, it just feels right -- like we've been watching five seasons of these two, not a couple of episodes. Chalk it up to solid writing and chemistry between the actors.

Yung's French-English accent is very reminiscent of Eva Green. Combined with the suit-and-tie locale, and the heist aspect of this episode, I started wondering what Charlie Cox would be like as James Bond. Interesting possibility. 

But the fun must end. The shadow of Frank Castle's trial looms large as the credits roll.

Episode Seven: 'Semper Fidelis'

This episode is pretty effective at oscillating between the Frank and Elektra storylines, but it also highlights an underlying flaw: the lack of one, definable antagonist. The tension does not feel as taut as it should be -- the constant back-and-forth means the two storylines suck up too much oxygen for either to work as well as they could. 

Once Elektra starts interfering with Castle's trial, the two storylines begin to mesh -- her actions are finally starting to affect Matt's 'daylight' existence -- but there's needs to be more ties.

This episode has one of my favourite action movie cliches: beaten all to hell, our heroes strip down and tend to each other's wounds. Thankfully, it does not lead to the horizontal mambo -- a cliche too far, and the current dynamic between Matt and Elektra is much more interesting without the hanky panky.

Enough monkey business. Into court. 

Matt's continued truancy pays dividends for Foggy. Elden Henson has always been great as the comic relief, but ever since the middle of last season (the 'Murdock v. Nelson' episode), he has been given more opportunities to really flesh out Foggy in interesting ways.

His opening statement to court is great, and forces the character to show his mettle -- Foggy is far from being Matt's wingman. He's a character to root for.

The finale, with a rather brutal standoff between Daredevil and Elektra, is a nice escalation. After a couple episodes of making nice, it was past time for Elektra's BS to trigger a reaction from old Red. Thankfully, he does not do a Jake the Muss, and takes his rage out on some people who deserve it.

This leads to another Yakuza beatdown and a really big hole. So now we have two mysteries to solve:

a) who covered up the deaths of Frank Castle's family?

b) why are the Japanese Mob (or the Hand, or whoever they are) digging this big hole?

Talk about some cliffhangers!

Overall thoughts

Pretty good so far -- the dual antagonists approach is a little awkward, but Beranthal and Yung are worthy additions. However the show has a Fisk sized hole in the bad guy corner. How about Silvermane, the Rose or the Black Tarantula (thank you Wikipedia)?

The supporting players are getting more to do (give Foggy his own show!), the action is solid (if a tad repetitive) and the Frank Castle trial looks set to lead to all sorts of upsets and plot twists.

Anyway, there are six more episodes to go, and it feels like all the pieces are in place for a crackerjack finale.

Check back soon to find out my thoughts on the rest of Season 2...

PS If you are waiting for the next part of my Russ Meyer retrospective, don't worry. It's on the way. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

A RAMBLIN' RANT: The death of the third act in Hollywood

You might have noticed this phenomenon. Hollywood movies have no endings any more. They have just become the middle act in endless multi-million dollar soap operas.

I remember the first moment I became aware of this trend. I was reading The Hunger Games and was nearing the  ending -- I was locked in and ready for a real humdinger of a climax. If you've read the book or seen the film, you'll know what really happens: an unsatisfying cliffhanger that forces you to hang on for a sequel. 

Having had to deal with this in most of the movies I had been seeing lately, I threw the book away. Enough of the cliffhanger, enough of the sequel. If your story can stand on its own feet, come up with an ending. THEN, if you have an idea for a follow up, do it. I do not know if author Suzanne Collins had planned out The Hunger Games as a series, but she really shafted what could have been a decent teen sci-fi with a pair of sequels that, based on general consensus, are regarded as considerably weaker than the opening instalment.

The rise of the Marvel cinematic universe is a major reason for this new focus on franchises. And even though it has been a huge success, there have been stumbles along the way -- and the flaws of the approach are readily apparent across the franchise.

Iron Man 2 almost stopped the MCU dead with its bloated, formless story and poor characterisation -- it felt top-loaded with extraneous bullshit.

The ending of Captain America: The First Avenger still bugs me -- Steve Rogers saves the world and promptly gets frozen for 70 years, waking up in the future of 2011. You spend the whole movie putting this guy through the ringer, and just as he saves the world, you fudge it so that everything he just fought for means nothing. All the characters and relationships of the previous 2 hours are just wiped away with no resolution, sacrifices for the incoming Avengers movie.

When The Avengers hit big, that signalled the industry-wide shift toward multi-film franchises.

What does this spell for creativity?

Studios are always looking for sure things, and converting existing IP into multi-media franchises looks like easy money. This means original content has even less of a chance to get the green light -- there's no guarantee of success. Studios feel safer going for something with name recognition.

Singular, self-contained stories won't get made, or will be drastically altered to make way for potential sequels -- even if those revisions lead to movies that feel half-baked and unsatisfying. No movie can be singular any more -- even the brilliantly self-contained John Wick will get a sequel. 

One of the first real casualties of this new status quo is the latest James Bond film, Spectre. The Bond franchise has been a pretty good barometer of what's hot in Hollywood, for good or ill. The bloated, retcon fest of Spectre is ironically a spectre of what looms for these other stabs at multi-film franchises. 

We'll have to wait and see what happens with the DC, Universal Monsters and Transformers/GI Joe/Bayhem mega-franchises, but the odds are not in their favour (Callback!).

End of rant.