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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My 10 Favorite Movies of 2017 (out of what I’ve seen)

(in alphabetical order, and with spoilers)

Alien: Covenant

In Covenant‘s opening scene, we witness android David’s first moments in a ridiculously well-acted scene between him and his creator, Peter Weyland. We are shown the source of David’s curiosity, and of his contempt for humanity. This scene alone would have clarified every action David takes in Prometheus, but is thankfully a perfect opening for Covenant.

Covenant is a story about the responsibilities and dangers of creation. There is a reason why the main human characters are colonists, not the scientists of Prometheus. Their mission is to create a new home for humanity. David’s goal is to create new life, and to destroy anyone or anything that gets in his way, especially the race that created him to be a servant.

Other things I loved about Covenant were the believably stupid (to me) crew of the Covenant, Waterston and McBride breathing life into their characters, the unabashedly gothic vibe of the whole film, and Fassbender getting to play two androids in multiple scenes. Particularly a certain scene involving a flute that contains one of my favorite double entendres I’ve ever heard in a movie.

Despite its many detractors, Covenant is well worth your time, especially if you were disappointed by Prometheus.

Baby Driver

Here’s my review. My take remains the same. I adore this movie.

The Big Sick

It’s one of the best romantic movies I’ve seen in ages, it depicts the challenges of being raised with one culture and experiencing another with sincerity, and also perfectly portrays the monotonous anxiety of being unable to help a loved one who is sick. The Big Sick is an incredibly personal story told with such evident love and care by those who experienced it, and by the performers portraying it. When those real-life photos show at the end credits, it’s difficult not to feel joy for the real-life couple, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, that this movie tells the story of.

Call Me By Your Name

This is one of those movies that I want to live in. Set in the Italian countryside, Call Me By Your Name depicts a love affair between teenage Elio and grad student Oliver. This film, like the 1983 summer it depicts, moves slowly and allows the relationship between these two to just unfold. By the end of the movie, you wish that it didn’t have to end. It’s also one of a couple 2017 films I saw that is unabashedly sexual, even though there are no full sex scenes.

Get Out

Jordan Peele has said that Get Out, a horror movie that effectively portrays and satirizes the various forms of racism still present todayis best experienced with an audience. I was fortunate enough to have that experience with a packed Friday night showing of this movie, weeks after it came out.

One way to communicate the greatness of this movie is describing the audience’s reaction to the ending. There was the expected excitement and cheers for Chris escaping the house and defeating the Armitages. But then those sirens are heard. The entire audience gasped, winced, and shouted “no!”. Everyone felt the horror of this moment, because everyone in this theater knew what happens in real life to black people in this situation. Then that car door opened, and out came Rod. The relief and joy that everyone in this theater felt had to have been audible from the next theater.

Jordan Peele is a born filmmaker, and knows exactly how to play with the audience’s anxieties and expectations. I can’t wait to see everything he does after this.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels more like a character piece than its predecessor, to the point that halfway through the movie, I realized that I actually did not know what the story was building to, or if there was a proper villain. The exploration of parenting and family that Vol. 2 offers is heavy-handed at times, but always earned. Nebula and Gamora delving into the abuse that they suffered as daughters of Thanos is impressively mature material for a blockbuster like this. Also impressive is a sequence where three of our leads joyfully slaughter an entire crew of Ravagers, and we the audience are completely on board with this. For a movie that is technically a Disney production, Vol. 2 manages to get some surprisingly dark material in there.

Whether or not the more sentimental material worked for viewers seems to vary, based on those I’ve discussed the movie with. But I felt that Vol. 2 earned those moments, and that ending: a raccoon shedding a tear for a lost friend, and the knowledge that he hasn’t pushed away the ones he still has.

The Post

One of the easiest ways to annoy me is to tell me that Steven Spielberg is overrated, or is out of his prime as a filmmaker. I am unable to agree with or comprehend such an opinion with Spielberg’s output over the last few years. The Post may appear to be an Oscar-bait film, but I can assure you that it isn’t. It’s a film that calmly draws you into the world and dilemma of its titular newspaper, and the key figures behind it. It builds and builds to a conclusion both satisfying and terrifyingly relevant. Throughout the film, we hear snippets of Nixon and his reactions to the exposure of the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam. By the end of the movie, hearing Nixon’s anger at the Post and press for publishing the Pentagon Papers should induce chills due to our current president’s treatment of the press. It’s very clear why Spielberg fast-tracked making this movie. He remains one of our very best filmmakers, and The Post is one of my favorites of his movies.

The Shape of Water

It’s Guillermo del Toro getting to make a gloriously romantic and timely sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon. It portrays all of its outsider characters with care and humor. It’s the most positive portrayal of sexuality I’ve seen in an American movie since Magic Mike XXL.

Look, I’m frankly not capable of being objective in any way about this movie. Everything about it, the performances, the production design, the score, the cinematography, is perfection to me. More than any other entry in this list, I recommend seeing it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

My review. The best Star Wars film, or at least my favorite.

Wonder Woman

The live-action output of DC superhero films since 2013’s Man of Steel has not been great. I’ve written out my thoughts on that film and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. And the less said about Suicide Squad, one of the most embarrassing studio releases ever, the better. Naturally, this led me to worry about Wonder Woman. Even with a good director like Patty Jenkins behind the camera, I was afraid that credited story writer and producer Zack Snyder’s influence would prevent Wonder Woman from feeling like a separate entity from the previous DC films that he had helmed.

Thankfully, Jenkins and co. knocked this out of the park. Diana is the hopeful and idealistic hero that superhero cinema has been missing since Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh portrayed Superman. (yes, despite Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey being garbage, I still love Superman Returns) Her journey from naive faith in Ares being the cause of World War I, to her acceptance and belief in humanity’s potential for love and good, is everything I could have hoped for from the long-overdue first film with this character.

The No Man’s Land sequence, where Diana shows Steve and the other soldiers what heroism is, remains one of the best action sequences of the year. The theme that Hans Zimmer wrote for Diana in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is developed and earned by Rupert Gregson-Williams’ very excellent score. And also, finally, color is brought to the look of DC on film. Seriously, I cannot emphasize how happy it made me to see a DC superhero movie that made me wonder if the color grading was designed to make the audience feel colorblind.

I love superhero films, but they are very much skewed towards male leads. I’m hoping that the massive success of Wonder Woman helps to change that. I can’t wait to show this movie to my nieces, but I also want more female superheroes for them to look up to.

Honorable Mentions:

Becoming Bond

Blade Runner 2049

Logan

The Mummy (it is the kind of Hollywood trash perfection I adore re: 1994’s The Shadow)

Thor: Ragnarok

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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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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Getting Freaky: An Appreciation of Batman Returns

I rediscovered Batman Returns sometime in the last few months of 2014. This was around the same time I saw Bride of Frankenstein for the first time. And as with Bride, I went crazy for this movie. Out of the original four Batman movies from the 80s and 90s that I had watched as a kid, Returns was the one I had revisited the least. But I never forgot it.

Opening a movie with attempted filicide, following that with a killer circus troupe, and a woman being brought back to life by cats after being pushed out of a window will have that effect on a viewer. Regardless of your personal opinion of the movie, you can’t deny its audacity.

But the most memorable part to me, the part that I never forgot and never stopped loving even as I forgot other parts, was the following exchange that occurs first between Batman and Catwoman, and later Bruce and Selina:

“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”

“But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

There are many many aspects of this movie that I love, but I think this exchange sums up Batman Returns the best. Strange, but beautiful.

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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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