Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bosch, Season 2

It's time again for one of the best opening themes in television again (I'll just wait while you rewatch the Season 1 credits):
That's right, everyone, Bosch is back.
If you don't remember and are too apathetic to read my review of Season 1, Bosch is a police procedural based on the mystery novels of Michael Connolly (fun fact: The Lincoln Lawyer -- the book and the Matthew McConaughey movie -- are a spin-off of the Bosch novels; apparently the Lincoln Lawyer is Bosch's half-brother).

As we left Season 1, Detective Heironymous "Harry" Bosch (played by Titus Welliver) had stopped a serial killer, solved the murder of a little boy, and gotten himself deeply in trouble with the police department for reasons completely unrelated to his gruff personality and "pragmatism" when it comes to police procedure. It's now six months later; Bosch is back to work solving crimes when a mobbed-up Armenian pornographer is found shot dead and stuffed into the trunk of his Bentley.

Suspicion immediately falls on the victim's wife, Victoria Allen (played by Jeri Ryan), as Starfleet is always suspicious of the Borg:

Seriously, though, it's because Tony Allen was a man who launders money for Armenian organized crime and spent a lot of time in Vegas in the company of strippers not his wife. She just maybe was jealous and looking for some of the money.

But clearly she didn't double-tap Tony on a lonely California highway and shove him in his trunk. So who did?

Bosch applies his trademark lack of tact and vengeful need to get the perp to this case, even when it makes him enemies with the mob and the FBI. In the meantime, we continue to follow some of the other characters from Season 1; Deputy Chief Irving is still trying to finagle a chiefship out of Los Angeles politics and his son is working undercover for Internal Affairs. Surprisingly, these plots intersect with Bosch's main case in a way that is neither too brief nor too contrived.

I really enjoy Bosch. It's gritty; Los Angeles in this show is a hot desert full of nasty corrupt people, and that's just the police officers. But each person has a personality, real motivations, and are played well by a cast of people who generally aren't "Hollywood pretty." Even the villains are people, which is refreshing, because that wasn't true even for this show last season.

Last season, Reynard Waits was kidnapping mothers and leaving their infant kids behind in strollers crying. Reynard was a monster; remember that we are introduced to him with a dead prostitute in the back of his literal murder van. There are no monsters this season, just people who have decided to do evil. And the distinction is clear. Bad people still do normal things, like hang out with old friends and then go back to their hideouts to have trouble opening a tin of disgusting-looking Vienna sausages (maybe it was the lighting, but they looked super-gross). The show is better for it.
This gunfight, from the literally explosive final episode, was also one of the most "real" I've seen -- everyone's shooting blind, hitting things by luck alone, and desperately ducking not to get shot.
One warning: this season does not end "tidily." Yes, the bad guys are caught, but it's more of just a thing that happens than a denouement, because life continues to go on. It's interesting, it's plausible, but it's not an NCIS "got the bad guys let's high-five and have some drinks" kind of ending.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Daredevil, Season 2

So, I've watched the new season of Daredevil, the original "Marvel comic book show on Netflix."
It's not much of a spoiler to say this season has more ninjas.
I reviewed the first season some time back, so I thought I'd take first crack at Season 2. However, my thoughts have become long and nitpicky, so I've provided some TL;DR versions up front.

Short review: If you liked the first season, you will continue to like Daredevil. There is a lot of awesome in the show.

Slightly longer review: This is a very entertaining second season that, due to not having the novelty of introducing the character, has to work harder to be as awesome, and it doesn't quite make it. It's good, but not mind-blowing.

The long, rambling review you read this blog for:

Season Two opens some months after Season One; the Kingpin is in prison. Blind but blessed with super-sensory powers -- like the ability to know without actually being able to see how much facial stubble he should have before he stops being sexy and starts being a guy clearly too lazy to shave -- Matt Murdoch continues to prowl the streets at night as Daredevil. During the day, at his law firm of Nelson & Murdoch, Murdoch is flirted with by his office manager, Karen Page. She apparently went for the mysterious hot lawyer in the partnership (Murdoch) instead of the funny, dependable husky one with the pageboy haircut (Frederick "Foggy" Nelson) who was clearly trying to make a connection with her all of Season One, and was perfectly charming doing so, but does not have Charlie Cox's biceps or abs.

(An aside: Mike Colter's Luke Cage still has the best-defined chest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

I so want to like the second season of Daredevil more than I do. The acting remains solid, with notable performances by Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle ("The Punisher") and Vincent D'onofrio reprising his role as Wilson Fisk ("The Kingpin").
Jon Bernthal in a scene that does not require a particularly large acting range
Just as everything seems to be going all right -- except for the fact that no one actually pays Nelson & Murdoch except in foodstuffs -- former Marine Frank Castle starts avenging his murdered family by shooting his way through half the organized crime in New York, showing all the restraint of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Murdoch, who (and this is a theme of the season) takes his Catholicism seriously and believes the power to take a life is God's alone (beating them into a brain-damaged concussion is totally within God's plan, though, as I'll mention later), is compelled to intervene.

Simultaneously, there's some business with a ninja-themed magical death cult which brings Matt's super-assassin ex-girlfriend Elektra back into his life. With all the super-tsuris, Murdoch finds it harder and harder to be the Daredevil and be a lawyer, much less a decent boyfriend.

Let me reiterate before I nitpick the hell out of it: I found it decent. It was diverting. Best points:
  • Wilson Fisk's fight choreography is amazing. The Kingpin fights with his weight and strength and it's fascinating to watch. Frankly, the Kingpin episodes in this series were the most interesting to me.
  • There's a scene where the Punisher has to murder his way through a gauntlet of angry men armed only with his fists, and, as grotesque as it is, it demonstrates how Frank Castle's will to survive just keeps him going (unlike some other fight scenes pointed out below).
  • Madam Gao is still (briefly) in the show. She's still amazing as evil tiny grandma. 
The plot moves along at an agreeable pace, and there's lots that's still good, but there are some significant weaknesses:

Last season, we had just the Kingpin. There were some subsidiary baddies, but it was just one plot.

Now, while Matt Murdoch having way too much on his plate is a plot point, there's more more villains than needed for that:
A) The Punisher (an antagonist if not a "villain") is murdering everyone in NYC on his long if ill-defined hit list.
B) The Hand, the aforementioned magical death cult, is doing something apocalyptic in a vaguely Asian way which involves Japanese people and ninja and makes me feel a little bit racist for watching it.
It was a much more sensitive treatment when the Tick and Oedipus faced "The Night of a Million Zillion Ninjas."
C) The Kingpin is rebuilding his empire of crime.
D) There's also a mystery drug dealer who is the proximate cause of the Punisher's family being killed and whose identity is revealed only in the last few episodes at which point you don't care.

You cannot do justice to all of these plots while having four separate antagonists, at least not in 13 episodes (maybe 26, but Agents of Shield continues to show us how to waste a lot of episodes on fanboy references and not enough Clark Gregg). Each villain has associated characters; the Hand brings in Elektra, as well as my least-favorite Daredevil-universe character, Stick (least favorite partly because "blind guy who can hit people accurately with a crossbow" means he isn't "blind" as most people understand the term, but mostly because his plot entwined with the Hand and if you can't tell, I find vaguely-Asian apocalyptic death cults tiresome).

So, remember last time, when I said Daredevil failed the famous "Bechdel test"? 

Still does, and in a crazy blatant manner.

Seriously, there are only a handful of scenes where two women have lines, and in those scenes, the number of times that women speak to each other is even lower. There are only two substantive conversations between women that I counted; both are between Night Nurse and a hospital administrator and, frankly, are irrelevant to the plot.

Let's not get confused and think I'm saying a story must be include the conversations of women to have merit. They don't. It doesn't even mean the stories are sexist, although they often are. 

Here, failing the Bechdel test makes the story weird. Let me give you an example: watching the scenes with Karen Page in them, it feels like Karen Page exists in a world where there are strangely almost no women. 
Typical number of non-Deborah Ann Woll actresses in the same scene with her.
Karen works at a law firm where both lawyers and all the clients who have anything of importance to say are men. All but one of the law enforcement officers she speaks to are men; all of the police officers assigned to protect her in various scenes are men. The journalist she has regular conversations with is a man. When she digs up a source to speak to, that person is always a man. 

Furthermore, there are two other major female characters in this season. Karen Page doesn't speak to either of them. She's in one scene with Elektra where Karen speaks four lines directly to Matt Murdoch, then leaves. Foggy gets to have a long conversation with Claire ("the Night Nurse"), but Karen doesn't even meet her. 

Claire and Elektra are never in the same scene together. 

Remember: this story takes place in modern New York City. Not a North Dakota oil field or on an Alaskan fishing boat. Statistically, there are women in nearly equal proportion to men in NYC.

Now, we get back to Jessica Jones. Even in a show where there weren't that many male characters, it was clear that men existed in New York. Just because Jessica's boss, BFF, craziest next-door-neighbor, doomed client, etc. were women, that didn't mean that she didn't also have conversations with men who were cops, bar owners, drug addicts, crazy mind-controlling sociopaths, etc. It was a New York that seemed, well, not a weird alternate universe version of itself.


I am not kidding when I say that basically all of the Punisher's facial bruising in this scene can be attributed to Daredevil or someone else punching him in the face repeatedly to try to knock him unconscious.
Daredevil's fights are brutal. In small doses, this is "realism." In large doses, it's tiresome. 

Culture blog The Mary Sue loves a five minute fight scene that takes place down a flight of stairs, calling it an iteration of the "hallway fight" from Season One. I hate it and think it's all that's self-indulgent about the violence and fight choreography of Season Two.

If you don't remember Season One, early on in the season Daredevil has to rescue a child from some criminals. He breaks into their place and fights three rooms full of them in a scene that takes place mostly in the confines of a claustrophobic hallway. It was pretty badass.

It also was early in the show, establishing Daredevil's facility with hand-to-hand combat. Also, in that scene, he's basically wearing black exercise clothes as his superhero outfit, which you can see is torn in places from violence. And even in that scene, there are times where Daredevil pops into a room with a bad guy and the exact method of his dispatch is left to your and the foley artist's imagination.

So, in this new fight scene, Daredevil has, for reasons too spoilery to explain, to fight his way through an entire biker gang down about twelve flights of stairs with an object duct-taped into one hand and holding a chain in the other. No surprise: he does so.

Unlike the scene in Season One, it's now been pretty well established that Daredevil, even injured, can mop the floor with anyone who isn't a Navy SEAL or trained by ninja or something similar. Remember at the end of Season One, where a dirty cop who was about to get shot in the head closed his eyes and then, without the camera leaving his face, there were a bunch of punching noises so that when he opened his eyes Daredevil was standing there and all the people who wanted to kill him were beat down? I don't know how else to say it -- it is not a surprise that Daredevil can beat up a building full of "mere mortal" criminals. There's really no tension to this scene; you know he's going to plow through all of these guys because it's been done on- and off-camera for a season and a half. 

Furthermore, as of the end of Season One, Daredevil wears bullet- and knife-resistant armor, so the risk he takes in fighting an entire biker gang is significantly diminished. Not only do we know that he's going to go like a weed-whacker through these guys, we know that, unless one of them is super-lucky, they can't really even hurt him much. 

And on top of the lack of dramatic tension, there are no rooms where Daredevil can fall in with a guy and you not have to watch him "realistically" beat a person into unconsciousness. Look, I appreciate that Daredevil is a show where, often, it's clear that you usually can't knock a person unconscious with a single blow to the head, but watching a fight where Daredevil delivers "I know your concussed, but now stay down" blows to people's heads is just not that much fun. I sat through it saying to myself, "okay, so when do we get to the bottom of the stairs?"

The excruciatingly long stairway fight is only the apex of watching Daredevil cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy to nearly every baddie he encounters. We see lots of fight scenes that go on for a long time because they have to literally beat the bad guys into submission. It gets old and I just don't enjoy it. 

Separately, I counted at least three separate stabbings in the eye with a sharp object, one of which was waaaaay more drawn out than it had to be. If your fight choreography go to is "stab him in the eye," you need to work on your creativity. 

If you're going to have Daredevil fight a weird supervillain, the Spot is way more interesting than a mystical Asian death cult.
  • New York criminal procedure doesn't work that way.
  • Small law office finances, especially dealing with New York City rents, don't work that way. 
  • That thing with the sorta-zombies was never adequately explained.
  • I'm still not sure how the ninjas are so silent that they mask all the things that Daredevil might be able to hear, but still need to breathe audibly. In the quiet places where Daredevil more than occasionally fights them, shouldn't Daredevil be able to hear the synovial fluid squirting back and forth in their joints? If they can silence that, why's breathing a problem? 
  • Daredevil's mask is really unattractive and distracting. It's like a mutant Captain America mask.

Daredevil's fine. It's diverting and well-acted. You won't regret watching it. It's just doesn't rise to hoped-for greatness. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016


I've been lazy. And distracted. But mostly lazy. You've probably noticed the lack of updates, and that's the unfortunate result of my laziness. The fortunate answer is that I have awesome friends who are also awesome writers and who love to watch television. So please enjoy this beautifully written guest-post from Trisha, covering the mini-series, 11.22.63, based on the Stephen King novel and brought to you by executive producer, J.J. Abrams. --Maggie Cats

There is nothing like the fixation of a kid.  I think parents today can agree with that when they are watching Frozen for the n-teenth time, or trying to wash an article of clothing that has been worn every day for a month.  This graduates into boy bands, which for my generation meant head-sized buttons of various members of New Kids on the Block pinned all over jean jackets and vests.  I think my parents could have only dreamed of something so normal, but instead they got me.

My childhood obsession was the Kennedy assassination.  I was a weird kid.

Those who know me as a weird adult are probably not that surprised.  My dad was a bit of an enabler for this, talking theories, letting me stay up past my bedtime to finish cable channel documentaries, buying me books, planning a family trip to Dallas; my mom spent a few years perpetually rolling her eyes, which she still does every time I bring it up.  So when it comes to Kennedy assassination fiction and non-fiction, books, TV shows, movies (JFK twice in the theatre), I am fairly well versed in the genre, and always excited to add to my random “expertise.”

Full disclosure: if I had known 11.22.63 was a book, I would have read it first.  I missed that memo though, so here I go, even though the book is always, always better (except for 50 Shades of Grey).

In 2016, in Lisbon, Maine, Jake Epping (James Franco) enters a TARDIS in the closet of his friend’s diner that transports him back to October 21, 1960.  The episode is called Rabbit Hole, but I prefer thinking that the Doctor and the TARDIS are somehow camping in the diner closet as opposed to a late white rabbit. Call it a personal preference.

Jake's friend, the always brilliant Chris Cooper, explains the rules: no matter how much time you spend in the past, only two minutes pass in 2016.  And every time you enter the TARDIS you go back to October 21, 1960, and everything you did during the prior visit resets.  Chris Cooper wanted to stop the Kennedy assassination, which would somehow butterfly to no Vietnam War and a more perfect union today.
This explanation was a little tenuous to me, but I do not have the personal demons of a Vietnam veteran.

For spoilery reasons Chris Cooper cannot complete this mission, and implores Jake to continue on with all of the information he gathered during his prior visits to the past.  Jake, fresh off signing his divorce papers and burying his dad, acquiesces.

The past brings us James Franco sans scruffy goatee, so I already like it.  The first few scenes were so typically Franco that I had flashbacks to Never Been Kissed and Whatever It Takes (holy crap, James Franco was in Never Been Kissed!--MC), and not in a good way. Jake makes his way to Dallas to start positioning for changing the future/past, but as Chris Cooper warned, the past doesn’t like to be changed.  It strikes back in minor, and then major ways, and a shattered Jake finds himself reassessing his mission, and the potential tragedies of the next three years as he works towards this end.

I love the ambiance of Stephen King’s writing, and that shows like Haven (a personal favorite) and 11.22.63 work to bring that slight, surreal tinge to the screen, the not-quite-normal undercurrent that keeps you fully concentrating on the minute details, because who knows when they may reappear.  This isn’t an on-in-the-background show, especially in the first two episodes, which detour away from the plot that the previews promote.

In the second episode Jake finds himself positioned to right a wrong from his 2016 life, and his interactions surrounding this decision drive his character forward, but not the Kennedy story.  James Franco gives an amazing performance, especially when he is listening to others.  I am not a huge Franco fan, but in this setting his perfectly practiced micro-expressions are spot on.  At first during this episode I was tempted to call it a throwaway, and if I wasn’t so excited about Dallas, November 1963, I might have turned it off.

But the supporting cast performances are worth the entire watch, and the ending reveals a Jake much better equipped to move forward; even though it might not be his decision alone to do so.

Since Jake is in the past, Chris Cooper is confined to flash-backs (flash-forwards?).  He is so good that I always want more, and to see him outside of his tour guide role.  Josh Duhamel is more successful than Franco at ditching his high school hunk past and is genuinely creepy, albeit with perfect hair.  Credits list T.R. Knight who has not appeared yet, but I’m hopeful and eager for a Franco interaction.  Franco is best in this series when he is confronted with people whose motivations he is trying to process.

I’m writing this while starting Episode 3, which is still set in 1960.  I’m waiting for the time jump which I assume is coming, as there are only 8 episodes.  I’m waiting for the introduction of the historical characters that I know, and the conspiracy theories I love to debate.  I’m waiting for Chris Cooper to reappear in the past, though that is completely against the rules of the TARDIS.  I will keep watching until the end, and right now it is for more than just seeing Stephen King’s take on Oswald, the grassy knoll, and the assassination conspiracies, though that definitely helps.  Right now I’m eager for more interaction with new characters, and hopefully old ones, and a main character whose decisions surprise me.  That doesn’t happen often.

The first five episodes of 11.22.63 are streaming on Hulu.  A new episode is available every Monday.