The Punisher: Season 1

Spoilers, of course.

Frank Castle is a character that is almost the very definition of problematic. He is a one-man army, an ultimate vengeance fantasy, and could very easily be portrayed in a way that condones murderous vigilantism. When Castle was introduced in the second season of Daredevil, that show smartly introduced him as a foil to Matt Murdock, comparing both characters’ approaches to their pursuits of perceived justice. Unfortunately, that show eventually shifted its focus away from this surprisingly frank (I’m so sorry) discussion on the contradictions and dangers of taking the law into your own hands. Thankfully, this first season of The Punisher does not make the same mistake.

The first three episodes of the show are difficult to get through, not due to the quality of the show, or even because of the violence, but because it is slow. All of the Marvel Netflix shows have this pacing problem; episodes where little happens from a plot or character perspective because of the need to fill that 13 episode order. What’s interesting about how The Punisher approaches this issue is that the first three episodes serve as an extended pilot. An overextended pilot. There are plenty of great parts throughout these three episodes, but it delays any narrative momentum. It is definitely one of those shows that requires the viewer to trust that this is all building to something.

The show begins to find a rhythm around the time that Frank and David join forces. David Lieberman, also known as Micro, is a former NSA analyst who leaked footage of a cold-blooded murder by U.S. military to the victim’s partner, Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani. The leak led to David being framed for a crime and nearly killed by government officials seeking to cover up the murder. Presumed dead, David has remained hidden and recruits Frank to help him take down the parties behind this conspiracy. The fact that Frank was part of that conspiracy, specifically the murder footage that David leaks, complicates matters.

The Punisher‘s first season has a few primary narrative threads: there is the conspiracy being investigated by Frank and David, agent Dinah Madani’s similar investigation, and a young veteran named Lewis’ struggle adjusting to civilian life. Like the show itself, each of these threads start very slow, but gradually build up in tension and intertwine in ways that are surprising and brutal.

I was particularly impressed with how the show managed to contrast Lewis’ eventual turn to vigilantism with Frank’s approach to vigilantism. Lewis’ difficulty dealing with the trauma of his time overseas, and no longer having a war to fight, is depicted with care despite the misguided and murderous turn that he ultimately takes. It’s a tragic and chilling arc.

Another highlight is the partnership and friendship that grows between Frank and David. David initially attempts to recruit Frank through some manipulative methods. Frank responds by figuring out his identity, tracking him down, and torturing him. It’s not a traditional start to a friendship. This introduction happens during the first three episodes, so Frank’s denial that David actually wants Frank’s help to do something good is dragged out a lot.

The biggest surprise to me, and one of the absolute best parts of this show, is agent Dinah Madani. From a plot perspective, the journey that her character goes through could have felt boring or predictable. Madani is a character constantly having to circumnavigate the limitations of her department, and in the first few episodes, the condescension of her new boss. However, unlike another law enforcement character in the Marvel Netflix ‘verse, Madani is written with intelligence and respect, and never used as an obstacle to further the plot or another character’s development.

This take on Frank Castle continues to be given the right balance of anger, sadness, and trauma. The scenes that he shares with David, especially the scene where they drink together and reminisce on how they met their respective wives, allow us to not only see more of Frank’s humanity, but also be effectively reminded of how much the character has lost.

David is also a gem. A fugitive that spends most of his days in a derelict building, watching his family on security cameras because they think he’s dead, is a very tricky sell for a main character. But The Punisher successfully shows the constant pain of what this scenario would actually do to someone. The eventual reunion with his family is given the right amount of time to breathe, and culminates in a sex scene between David and Sarah, his wife, that is one of the most surprisingly heartwarming moments in this show.

The violence throughout the season strikes an impressive balance of brutal without feeling too showy. Blood is spilled, bones are broken, faces are smashed into broken glass. None of it is glamorized or pretty, which helps this show’s portrayal of Castle’s vigilantism a lot. Even the first episode’s opening montage of Castle killing all the gang members involved in his family’s murder is devoid of glorification.

The Punisher successfully continues to ask the questions about morality and vigilantism that Frank Castle’s introduction in Daredevil provided. And thankfully, the show depicts these issues with the appropriate amounts of respect, violence, and horror. Make it through those first few episodes, the show is very much worth it.

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The Cloverfield Paradox

Spoilers, always.

The matter of The Cloverfield Paradox‘s release is unavoidable when talking about it. Regardless of your opinion of the movie itself, releasing a film with only one official piece of marketing, a Super Bowl TV spot, and then releasing it on Netflix the same night is a big move. As the film industry grows and reshapes itself around the new ways we have to make and release films, this kind of high-profile release is going to keep The Cloverfield Paradox an important topic of conversation for a while.

I say this because, unfortunately, the film itself isn’t as interesting as the circumstances of its release.

The Cloverfield franchise began as a relatively straightforward but well-executed found footage monster movie in 2008. Thanks to a solid cast, a script by Drew Goddard, and great direction by Matt Reeves, the original Cloverfield managed to stand out from other entries in both the found footage and monster movie genres by developing its characters and monsters enough for them to stand out from a predictable plot.

Flash-forward to 2016, we get a surprise announcement trailer for a film titled 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s not a found footage movie, but its premise of a group of strangers trapped in a bunker due to some sort of invasion happening outside was presented as somehow linked to the original Cloverfield. The movie itself ended up being an incredible story about breaking self-destructive and abusive cycles, culminating in a finale that made some viewers feel that the claustrophobic suspense of the majority of the film was ruined. Personally, I sided with the take that the openly science-fiction confrontation at the end was an appropriately genre way of acknowledging that surviving and dealing with abuse is a constant battle that never completely leaves you.

The Cloverfield Paradox tells the story of a group of scientists that are working on a space station to perfect a particle accelerator. The purpose of the accelerator is to create a new and unlimited supply of energy for the entire planet. It is revealed to us through various background sources that the planet is suffering from a major energy crisis. We are also told through a TV interview that the dangers of this accelerator going wrong include messing with multiple dimensions, and potentially unleashing monsters or demons into our world.

Paradox contains all of the traits common to this strange franchise. An up-and-coming director behind the camera, a very talented cast, and a science-fiction element to the story. But unlike the earlier entries in this series, Paradox takes too long to make its premise and stakes clear to its audience. We understand that the particle accelerator needs to work, and that it’s taken this crew over two years to try and get it right. But once the accelerator goes wrong, it becomes difficult to understand all of the crazy developments that happen afterwards.

There are some great surreal moments explained away by the particle accelerator malfunction, such as Mundy’s arm being removed by a wall, then returning and moving independently of its former owner. Another, more horrific moment that proves very effective is Mina Jensen’s entrance, when she is found inside the walls of the space station with wiring going through her body. But it isn’t until the film clarifies that the station has been transported to another dimension/parallel universe, that the ultimate trajectory of this story becomes comprehensible.

If it wasn’t for Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance, this movie would fall apart. When the film starts, we are introduced to her character, Ava Hamilton, and her husband, Michael. They discuss how she’s been asked to go work on the station for what they assume will only be a few months. Over the course of the story, we find out that Ava and Michael’s two children died in a fire caused by some power cell that Ava had installed in their home. Mbatha-Raw is given almost all of the emotional heavy-lifting to do in this movie, and, as usual, she does not disappoint.

When we finally understand that the station has been transported to another dimension, Mina Jensen, who is from this other dimension, reveals that Ava’s children are still alive, and live together with this dimension’s Ava and Michael on Earth. Ava, who blames herself for the deaths of her children, almost immediately decides to stay behind in this dimension after she has helped the rest of her crew return to their own Earth.

Mina eventually reveals her malicious intentions, explaining that this station’s appearance in her dimension destroyed her station/crew. She wants to kill our dimension’s crew and keep the station in order to save her own dimension from its own energy crisis. Elizabeth Debicki is really good in her scenes with Mbatha-Raw, both when she’s seemingly bonding with Ava, or calmly explaining to her that killing three people to save her dimension’s Earth isn’t a hard decision to make. Even though Mina is ultimately an antagonistic character, Debicki conveys the weight of her actions well enough that the character doesn’t feel two-dimensional.

The rest of the cast, however, feels underutilized, even with Michael getting a subplot on Earth where some sort of attack or invasion happens. He rescues a young girl from a destroyed hospital, and takes her to a friend’s bunker while waiting for news about Ava and the station. The moments he shares with the girl are nice, and inform his character’s eventually-stated desire to have kids again, but the subplot itself is almost a literal checklist of the other Cloverfields‘ premises. Monster attack? Check. Underground bunker? Check.

And then there’s that ending. What could have been a solid end to Ava’s arc of accepting the death of her children by staying in our dimension, and sending a message to her other self about appreciating her time with the children, is sidelined by the monster reveal at the end.

I will fully admit that the shot of Clover/the monster gave me goosebumps, but that’s because of my love of that monster. Unlike the finale to 10 Cloverfield Lane, this doesn’t feel like an element that fits naturally into the story. It feels tacked on. It feels like an obligatory forced connection to the Cloverfield series. It also makes the end of this film feel like a cliffhanger. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that we’re eventually getting a Cloverfield film that brings together members of the various cast members from all of the series’ entries.

But that should not be the last thought going through my mind at the end of a movie. It should feel like a complete story was told. And despite an amazing performance from Mbatha-Raw and some solid sci-fi scares, the forced connections to Cloverfield ultimately prevents Paradox from being a functional film.

I wish director Julius Onah all the best, because there is genuine craftsmanship on display in this film. Hopefully in a future project, his talents will be better served by a story without the strange franchise restrictions that Paradox has.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As always, spoilers follow.

When I saw The Last Jedi for the first time, I knew that I loved it, and I also thought I knew why there would be some that wouldn’t. I assumed that the characterization of Luke would be too different from others’ perception or take on the character. And I understood why. But I was not prepared for the level of disconnect there was between how I felt about this movie, and how others did.

I’ve talked with a lot of people I know about The Last Jedi. And there is not one consistent criticism among even two of them. Not one of these takes had a common thread of why it didn’t work for them, or what was consistently good. And while no two people can have the exact same opinion, I found that the closest thing to a constant in all of these discussions about The Last Jedi was that (with one exception) the people I discussed the film with felt, at best, mixed about it.

It’s become one of these instances where I feel like I saw a different movie than almost everyone I’ve spoken with.

There is so much about The Last Jedi that, to me, is objectively great filmmaking. For example, I can’t think of the last blockbuster I saw that handled its finale as well as this movie does. Each faction of our group of characters is in the middle of a constantly escalating battle that successfully kept me engaged and worried about what was going to happen next. And that is because of the amount of times that things go wrong.

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IT

Going into a film adaptation of a book you love is tricky. No matter what the movie does right, it is not going to be exactly the way that you imagined the story in your head. Which is why it’s taken me so long to get to this review. Stephen King is one of those storytellers that I have trouble being objective with. Every book of his that I have read, I’ve devoured (or, depending on your point of view, devoured me). I have lost many hours of sleep to his writing, not out of terror, but from an inability to stop reading.

IT was one of his books that I hadn’t read prior to 2017. But despite its 1400+ page length, I read this book in two weeks. Then I gave the 1990 TV adaptation a watch. And almost immediately afterwards, I saw this new adaptation.

The 1990 version has not aged particularly well. It’s a very well-intended attempt to take this beautiful but violent horror story and adapt it for broadcast television. The 1990 adaptation isn’t a disaster, but it comes across as a summary of the story of IT instead of an adaptation. Each scene feels like a part of the story that needs to be checked off of a list; never as a moment or scene given the room to breathe and play out. And because this is a broadcast television-friendly version, a lot of the more horrifying aspects of the story are either dialed down or removed altogether.

Thankfully, this new adaptation makes crystal clear during its pre-titles sequence that no punches will be pulled. The iconic encounter between Georgie and Pennywise is one of the most perfectly executed scenes in the movie, giving everything that comes after it a high standard to maintain. From establishing the closeness of Bill and Georgie, to the false scare in the basement, to the almost whimsical rainstorm voyage of the paper sailboat, and finally to the storm drain. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is instantly creepy, yet believably appealing and charming to Georgie during this scene. Right up to the moment where Pennywise chomps off his arm and pulls him into the sewer.

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Baby Driver

This is going to be a short review because I don’t have much to say about Baby Driver that isn’t positive. I knew that the combination of this movie’s premise with Edgar Wright as the director would most likely result in an experience of profound joy. As someone who considers their first viewing of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive to be one of the closest things to a religious experience that they’ve ever had, I am already on-board with well-made movies about quirky getaway drivers that like listening to music while they work. But the level at which Wright integrates the music into this movie was something I was truly unprepared for.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World demonstrated Wright’s ability to handle musical moments with both songs and fight sequences, but what Baby Driver does isn’t just a rehash of that movie’s technique. The lead character, “Baby”, picks specific songs to drive/work/escape to during heists. And when those songs start, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING that’s happening in the movie is following the trajectory of the song. Every gunshot, every car movement, every background noise. In Baby Driver, the characters don’t burst into song, the world of the movie does. And it is done with just the right balance of cool and ridiculous, and so seamlessly that it never once becomes annoying or overwhelming.

Part of the reason this works so well is Ansel Elgort’s performance as “Baby”. Elgort’s many moments throughout the film where he joyfully sings and dances along to the music that he loves and needs so much instantly win you over from the very first scene. His sweet romance with Lily James’ character, Debora, is highlighted by him performing songs centered on her name in front of his deaf foster father, Joseph (played by CJ Jones), and their first date in a laundromat, where the camera swirls around them like a dance sequence. Their chemistry is charming, and easily sells a romance centered around two people that just want to escape their respective jobs.

All of the supporting turns from Spacey, Hamm, González, and Foxx are equally fun and menacing, providing further balance to Baby Driver‘s tone. These characters are both exactly what you expect and very surprising in certain scenes.

I have missed Edgar Wright so very much, and I am very happy that he is back with a movie as joyful, musical, and exciting as this.

A Surprisingly Fun But Frustrating Mess: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I used to be a big Harry Potter fan. I was gifted the first book by both my aunt and grandma when I was 6, and some of the few happy memories that I have of my family pre-divorce are of my dad reading the first three books to me. Together with the film adaptations being released every few years, I was in love with this universe. At least until 2007. After the books finished, my enthusiasm for the series waned. The story was over, and I found that I didn’t like David Yates’ entries in the film series.

So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced, I was completely apathetic to its existence. David Yates was back to direct a Harry Potter prequel that Warner Brothers wanted to become a series. OK, whatever. When the first trailer was in front of a number of movies I saw in theaters, I had the same reaction.

Even the reveal that Grindelwald and Dumbledore would eventually be characters in the series didn’t elicit any interest. As for Johnny Depp’s casting… I’ll get to that in a bit.

When I did go to see Fantastic Beasts, I had heard good things from a couple friends and early reviews. So I managed to have a little curiosity by the time the movie started.

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Star Trek Beyond: I Really Wanted to Like This Movie

I’m seriously surprised at how much I didn’t like Star Trek Beyond. As of this writing, I’ve made my way through two-thirds of The Original Series, in addition to two seasons of The Next Generation and all-but-two of the Trek films. I make no claim to be a hardcore or lifelong fan of this franchise/universe, but I love it very much.

Which is why I’m wondering if I saw a different movie than everyone else who has reviewed Star Trek Beyond and sung its praises.

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