Movie/Binge Review 11: The Irishman

Martin Scorsese remains one of the best American filmmakers alive with his dignity intact. Where his contemporaries have put down the camera or resigned themselves to monotony, he has only gotten better with age. He hit his stride with Goodfellas and year after year since he has put out some of the most memorable movies in history. People may not remember Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, but no one has forgotten Gangs of New York or The Departed. And in his 77th year, Scorsese brings it all full circle in a return to his mobster roots.

The Irishman is the culmination of his past work on the genre, cast with the actors that helped Scorsese achieve success. Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a real-life hitman under Russ Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci. Together they contend with Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, a trucker union legend that disappeared in 1975. No one has yet found his remains or trace of what may have happened to him and Irishman attempts to shed some light of what could.

All the hallmarks of a Scorsese film are on display with notable changes. His signature fast editing is mostly non-existent with an emphasis on a slow, contemplative pace throughout. That is not to say the movie is not as snappy or humorous as his previous work. Irishman is serious, but not without cunning Italian wit similar to Goodfellas and Casino. It is a movie that needs to take its time or you miss the whole point, with many long takes that hold on shots.

Irishman is a long film, the longest in Scorsese’s filmography from what I can tell. Almost all of that time is spent making the characters appear human and real. Regardless of the subject matter, whether the characters are mobsters or monsters, they are written and acted in a way that you can almost excuse their crimes. Costello from Departed may have been a paranoid psychopath, but it was very easy to like him. The same can be said for Nicky from Casino.

Sheeran, Russ, and Hoffa are given about as much depth and personality as characters from a long-form television show. Before the movie is over you feel like you have known them for years. Despite all their criminal activity, you care about them, and want to see where they will end up. You have so much fun and want more that the near four-hour runtime feels like nothing.

Those characters are the heart and soul of The Irishman and you should just go watch it without me having to explain more. While I was thankful to have the chance to see the film in a theater, it was always going to come to Netflix. Everyone and their grandmother has Netflix and they have already seen it by now. Unless you live in a foreign country that has restrictions on Internet, you have no reason to not watch this movie. Otherwise, you’re a mook.

Binge Review 9: Marvel’s The Punisher: Season 2

Here we go again.

With Frank’s revenge well and truly gotten, the season that followed was in a great place for introspection. Instead of regurgitating the same “being a killer is wrong” and “why can’t you stop killing” dreck that permeates the Walking Dead from episode to episode, season two of Punisher got into the actual motivation behind Frank’s vigilantism. I would rather not spoil how the show approaches the subject, but if you have read my other Punisher related posts, it would not be hard to imagine.

Season two is a remarkable improvement in quality. The narrative is not convoluted with five different plots happening at the same time and settles for the standard three. First you have Frank’s story, then Jigsaw’s, and a new character named Amy, a teenage con artist on the run from a mysterious hitman. Each episode devotes an equal amount of time to each plot without feeling too bloated, but not as often as anyone would like.

I understand the demand to fill time in 13 one-hour episodes. In school, I was taught you need to not only write complete stories, but also space them out between commercial breaks. All entertainment is based around a blueprint that has worked since Man learned to draw on cave walls. Everyone follows this blueprint, but like all the Marvel Netflix shows, there is a consistent issue of each show having too much space to fill.

While the story is not convoluted, the show spends so much time on its three plotlines that it becomes a slog. Rather than compartmentalize the plots with Frank’s character exploration as a framing device in a comfortable nine episode run, we get thirteen where different elements of each plot tag-teams converge. What you get is a season that flows about as well as bowels packed with concrete. The show is still better than before, but it is a chore to watch.

Jon Bernthal remains the best incarnation of the character since Ray Stevenson. His signature intensity has made his take on Frank wholly his own and I could not be happier. However, Ben Barnes’ version of Jigsaw took me completely by surprise. Instead of a villain that is a little more deranged than your average goodfella, Jigsaw is extremely traumatized from what happened to him last season. He has no recollection why Frank slashed his face and cannot remember events up until the maiming. Jigsaw lashes out at his therapist, has constant mood swings, and endures spats of pain. He is in pieces, but as he puts it all together, he develops into a great foil for Frank’s own journey.

The action scenes received a well-deserved upgrade with more brutal, close-quarters combat. Almost every episode Frank is stabbing or smashing someone and bathing in their blood. He also never walks away unscathed, either sliced or plugged with a hole or two. It is really a credit to the character as a hero that does not care about personal injury or that he is vulnerable. Frank wants to get loud and nasty.

The downside is relegated to the gunfights. As you probably know, I am a gun owner and an Effects Nazi, and I can tell when real blanks and squibs are being used. It is hard to fake unless you have a great VFX team. On the subject of bad gun effects, the Walking Dead does not hide the fact they use fake guns because, somehow, the production could not get real guns and blanks in RURAL FUCKING GEORGIA! There are airsoft weapons that simulate blowback and/or recoil and they could not have bothered buying just a few for less than grand of budget.

Jesus Christ.

Taking into account Punisher was shot in a New York, it is understandable that the best practical weapon effects could not be utilized and the show made due in both seasons. The issue with the gunfights is they are poorly choreographed. Early on no one acts like they know what they are doing. They just stand around holding rifles poorly before getting shot. Then there are scenes where muzzle flashes and accompanying sound effects are out of synch or poorly timed. Actors fall over before they are supposed to be shot or they are shot and do not fall down at the right time. Chalk it up to poor editing, but if maybe the guns functioned in a way the actors could see and hear them go off, you would not have much of a problem to begin with.

I also have a personal problem with how Frank is portrayed in the gunfights. 80% of the time he uses the same pistol over and over in a C.A.R. stance, where he is holding the gun to his face. This method works in the John Wick movies, but it looks stupid and everyone in the show does it. How about hold the gun like you are not trying to give yourself permanent hearing damage? When Frank is given a rifle it is a breath of fresh-air and adds a little diversity. In the comics he uses a variety of weapons depending on the situation, but all he has on the show is a pistol.

Lastly, and this is something I intentionally neglected to mention in my review of the first season, the Punisher costume sucks. In fact, it has sucked since its introduction in Daredevil. Nobody makes body armor like that. Not because it does not look practical, but because it looks stupid. There are exposed adjustable straps at the front, some shell loops that are not big enough for any caliber of ammunition, and there is no webbing for attachments like modern body armor.

This is kind of unfair, but if you look at this shot from the Edmondson/Gerads run of Punisher, Frank is wearing gear that works for his job.

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He has a plate carrier with ammo pouches painted with his signature skull and a hitcoat to protect his arms. The man is dressed practically and it looks cool because Frank makes it look cool. He is a military man that does not need fancy high-tech crap that looks like it was made by a cross-eyed cosplayer. He needs something that will keep working in hazardous situations and there is nothing more practical and foolproof than genuine military gear. I apologize to the costume designers, but if my own Punisher vest looks better than the one you made for a big budget show, it is time to go back to the drawing board.

I thought about going in depth into the pre-release controversy, where people promoting season 2 were saying one of the characters is Alt-Right, but I decided otherwise. I will say, however, the character in question played by Josh Stewart is a reformed Neo-Nazi and born again Christian. That is not Alt-Right. The Alt-Right does not give a shit about Christianity, most of them are Pagans or Atheists, and they care even less for Neo-Nazis, a catchall for gang-bangers that hate each other more than non-whites. This controversy was just manufactured outrage to drum up viewers from a demographic that do not watch these shows in the first place.

Despite the pacing issues and bloated runtime, Punisher season two is a great watch. The lapse in better action takes away from the appeal, but seeing Frank and Jigsaw’s dueling progression into who they really are was better than the best gunfights last season. If you can make it through the slog, the show is worth your time. Oh and be sure to skip over the parts with Madani because they still suck.

Binge Review 8: Bodyguard

In a world of Mary Sues entertainment media is going through a draught of flawed protagonists. What I mean is characters that are damaged, not ones that can take damage like John Wick or Marvel heroes. There is nothing more relatable than a character that is a little broken, not a perfect Adonis with everything going right in life that knows all the right answers. Real people feel fear and anxiety and there are not a whole lot of protagonists that contemporary writer’s are brave enough to bend and break. David Budd from Netflix’s Bodyguard is who we have been looking for.

About the same time I am writing this, actor Richard Madden just received a Golden Globe for his performance as Budd. To say it is totally deserved would be an understatement. Those six episodes had some of the finest examples of acting in recent memory. Madden went from a very run-of-the-mill part on Game of Thrones to a deeply complex and harrowing role. The range on display throughout Bodyguard is a credit not only to him, but the writer that put Budd on paper.

What you get is a character with a long history of trauma from his service in the military that destroyed his marriage. Instead of his experience making him an expert like we see all too often, it actively hinders his ability to function. That is not to say he fails constantly, but his anxiety affects how he responds to various situations. Each episode he struggles to maintain the appearance of composure, even as he is panicking and the odds are stacked against him.

Wrapped around the complexity of Budd is one of the best political/action thrillers out there. For any otaku reading this, imagine Jin-Roh if it were set in modern day Britain, and involved Muslim terrorists. It is not just a show about a guy protecting a VIP from would-be conspirators, but a layered narrative of intrigue. One way or another, everyone involved has something to do with something, and maybe not in the ways you think. The whole affair is surprisingly easy to follow as the show goes on.

There is also a consistent feeling of satisfaction from episode to episode. It is hard to explain, but you feel so fulfilled by what happens because you learn so much about the mystery, and Budd’s character. There is never a dull moment with scenes of tension replacing potential action sequences. Bodyguard could have been a procedural action show, but miraculous makes scenes of dialog and intrigue easily consumable and intense. For me personally, it was also satisfying to see a Scotsman surpasses Englishmen in competence despite his issues. It is like Braveheart, but with a smaller body count.

If you watched the Golden Globes and wondered who and why Richard Madden won Best Actor in a Drama Series, you owe it to yourself to check out Bodyguard. There are many movies and shows that do the same thing, but thanks to one fantastic performance and a very well written narrative, this show is stands above the rest. If you have a subscription to Netflix, you have no excuse to not look it up.

Binge Review 7: The Haunting of Hill House

I have said on more than one occasion that good horror is in short supply. These days it is all jump-scares and cheap thrills devoid of creativity. Back then making a great horror movie took craft and effort that resulted in some of the greatest classics of all time. Only recently we seem to be on the verge of a genre renaissance as more studios realize the potential of quality horror. The good stuff is few and far between, but when something like The Haunting of Hill House comes along, it is worth your attention.

Haunted house movies saw a massive resurgence after James Won’s The Conjuring. Not only was the film economic, but also well put together, and actually scary without too jump-scares. Since then everyone has been trying to emulate its success, only to come up short. However, given the recent revival of good horror, more and more writers and directors are learning lessons from the past.

Hill House has a very heavy emphasis on gothic imagery without gore or elements that are overtly horrific in general. The house is a fantastic set littered with old statues, intricate wall moldings, and random antiques to supplement the atmosphere. The ghosts seen throughout the series carry a macabre aesthetic. One is a very tall man with a bowler hat and cane, another a flapper in a silk dress, and others are classically rotten with green and black skin.

The icing on the cake is the drama of the characters. Hill House is centered upon the Crains, the original inhabitants of the titular house. Each episode jumps between what happened in the family’s past to how they are now after their experiences in the house. The epicenter of the drama is the night the Crains had to leave and how their father dealt with the fallout. Furthermore, being a haunted location, each Crain child had personal dealings with the supernatural, informing how they turned out as adults.

This is where the series works best. The writing and acting when the young and old characters are interacting with the house are the best parts. There is such realism in their collective plight and how it defines them as people. The dad in particular, played by Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton, has a compelling arc as a patriarch trying to protect his children from the past, even as they hate him.

The children characters are comparably compelling, but I would rather not give it away. In fact, that is all I am going to say about The Haunting of Hill House. It is one of those series that is so good I do not want to ruin it by explaining why it is good. I recommend it for everyone, even if you are not a fan of the genre. The series is more about the drama of the family with the gothic imagery and horror informing the characters. That is not to say it is not scary. Keep that in mind if you decide to stream it on Netflix.

Binge Review 6: Apostle

One of the drawbacks of Netflix is the sheer amount of content that becomes available on a monthly basis. I know the site excises shows and movies on the regular, but the volume of present media is so enormous, a lot of the new stuff gets lost in the shuffle. Of course, there is advertising to consider, but for some reason, I had no idea that one of the dozen films I have anticipated this year came out two weeks ago.

Apostle is directed by Gareth Evans, the man behind the amazing Raid movies. To my knowledge this is his first English language film and a dramatic departure from his previous work. Instead of another visceral action thriller, we get a macabre horror movie. Taking place in the early 20th Century we follow Thomas, played by Dan Stevens, who travels to an island to rescue his sister from a cult. As he investigates her whereabouts, Thomas unravels the dark mystery behind the cult’s beliefs.

From the outset Apostle is obvious about its macabre nature. Livestock is sacrificed, people are butchered, and others bleed themselves into jars. The film has no illusions about what it is; it knows you have seen Wicker Man or read Shadow Over Innsmouth, two of its biggest influences. Even the three main leaders of the cult are open about the faults in their beliefs like they are critiquing the script. What makes the movie stand apart from its artistic peers is how it handles these ideas.

The real truth behind what is going on is kept in the dark until roughly three-quarters in. The build up is focused on establishing a sense of relative unease. You understand the cult’s island community is oppressed and on the verge of collapse. The people are doing weird things to themselves and each other and it is difficult to figure if what is going on is supernatural. Given how the leaders are charlatans in way over their heads, you cannot tell if they are scamming people or it is real.

The horror elements are both kept to a minimum and saved for later. At first Apostle is very bloody with people cutting themselves or getting cut. What it means I cannot give away, but it does a great job of setting up what is to come. Even when the gore grows more intense it is not overtly emphasized like torture porn. Actual physical violence, however, is blatant and does not shy away from brutality. With Evans’ action background, these scenes are shown with visceral flair, compounded by the fact all the characters use knives.

Of the performances Stevens is the best. From The Guest to Legion, the man is a practiced character actor that steals the show. In every scene he sells Thomas’s pain and anguish from past trauma written on his face and in his actions without over doing it. Michael Sheen and Mark Lewis Jones provide great support as two of the cult leaders. The former tries to keep everything together while the latter is a loose cannon tired of playing second banana. Jones was also the admiral in the opening of Last Jedi and the voice of Letho in the Witcher games. Thought I should mention that if he seems familiar to you.

Apostle was a pleasant surprise. Being such a departure from his previous work, Evans could have mishandled this and trashed his career with only two other features to his name. In a world saturated in content and a lack of quality horror films, Apostle is just what we need. If you have Netflix, give it a watch. It is also makes for a great Halloween movie and I am going to watch it a second time.

Netflix Review 4: Altered Carbon

As a writer, cyberpunk is one of those genres I was hesitant to explore because there is a lot to unpack. You cannot just have cyborgs, super-corporations, and hacking and call it cyberpunk. There is more to consider in terms of how those things affect the setting and characters, as well as a mystery aspect with other prerequisites. I am actually writing my own cyberpunk story and going through a similar learning process. With the release of Blade Runner 2049 we are on the cusp of a resurgence of the genre. Last year we got a cyberpunk horror game called Observer, Duncan Jones’ Mute will be out soon, and Alita: Battle Angel is months away. For now we have Altered Carbon, a serialized adaptation of author Richard K. Morgan‘s cyberpunk classic.

After waking up in a new body 250 years after his death Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman, is hired by the powerful Bancroft, played by James Purefoy, to solve the mystery of his apparent suicide. The investigation takes Kovacs to the darkest corners of Bay City, an overgrown metropolis that used to be San Francisco.

Carbon feels like it belongs on television. The look, structure of each episode, and even the actors and sets scream Sci-Fi Channel Original Series. However, given Netflix’s loose restrictions and freedom afforded to creators, Carbon is like an HBO show with the budget of Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1. If that sounds like a deal-breaker, keep reading; it is not as bad as you think.

The story is a noir style mystery with all the tropes you expect. The femme fatale, hard-boiled protagonist, some corrupt cops, and a ton of red herrings. There are many details that do not appear connected until all the clues come together at the finale. With that said, it is difficult to keep track of everything going on. There are ten episodes, each an hour long, and the amount of information throughout is overwhelming. It is hard to focus on one thing when there are 15 other clues from three episodes ago.

This is not a knock against Carbon because the real star is the world. The dilapidated, neon bleached, dystopian environments are full of physical details that make the world feel real. You get this sense of how centuries of progress and growth have contributed to a mass degradation of humanity and believe it. People take drugs in the open, sell their bodies, and have an apathetic outlook on life. Corporations and the super-rich are a major influence, but we see life at the ground level in all the nooks and crannies.

The premise of the show informs not only the world, but also the mystery. Sometime in the distant past, humanity figured out how to download the contents and consciousness of the human brain onto a stack, a data storage unit the size of a vertebra. It is even possible to transfer yourself onto other stacks and control the respective body or “sleeve.” Everyone has a stack and they have been a part of humanity for about a thousand years. This allows people to be immortal because they do not technically die. Sleeves can be replaced if there are available bodies and live for how ever long the body will last. You can go on for centuries without a body and wake up in a new sleeve like it was a dream, but if your stack is destroyed, you are dead forever.

Because you can get a new sleeve if you are ever killed or hurt, violence and murder is treated with a nonchalant attitude. Blood sports are a common occurrence, but regulated. Murder is still prohibited, but it is referred to as “sleeve death,” and bodily harm is called “organic damage” that gets you a slap on the wrist. The Neo Catholics of Carbon regard the stacks as an affront to spirituality. They believe when your body dies, you are dead for good, and avoid “re-sleeving.” With Kovacs, he used to be an Envoy, a soldier that can transfer into other sleeves to wreak havoc or conduct military operations. As for the mystery, Bancroft has a backup system that copies his stack every 48 hours and he killed himself ten minutes before the process took place. He cannot account for the two days before his death, leaving Kovacs to pick up the pieces.

Carbon is not all mystery and world building. Breaking up the slow noir are nice doses of action throughout. Sparse and delivered in quick bursts, the action scenes stay within the realm of reality. Most are gunfights with hand-to-hand combat in between. One scene takes place in an artificial gravity well and another in a cloning facility where copy after copy is woken up and sent to die. The action is well shot, choreographed, and fairly brutal in some cases. The fifth episode has an elevator fight that will make you cringe.

The possibility of a resurgence in cyberpunk gives me hope for the future. It is a unique genre and it deserves as much exposure as possible. Both Blade Runner movies are a great introduction, but Altered Carbon is so complex and fully realized that it doubles as a cyberpunk bible. If you are interested in exploring the genre and understanding its nuances, there is no better show to get started.

(Muh book: http://a.co/gR6nlr7)

Netflix Review 2: Devilman Crybaby

Like any good thing, not all anime is worth a watch. For me, there are just a handful of titles that have left a lasting impression. FLCL, Samurai Champloo, and Cowboy Bebop are a few I remember and revisit. This has made me very picky when it comes to picking up new shows. To give you an example, I watched the first season of Attack on Titan in 2013, discovered Drifters in 2016 thanks to a friend, and suffered through the new Berserk (yeah, I’m not linking you to that shit). I also watched Kill la Kill four years late. You can boil this down to personal taste, but when picking up a new show, I need to actually have an interest in sitting down and watching it first. With Devilman Crybaby, I saw a short review on YouTube and thought I would check it out. Did it grab me like a lollicon nightmare or does it belong in the garbage with Naruto?

After being reunited with an old friend, Akira goes through a radical change that opens his eyes to a hidden world of evil. Endowed with the powers of a demon, he takes it upon himself to protect humanity.

Devilman attempts to examine the nature of man by pondering the notion of a devil with the heart of a human. Akira starts off as a rather Beta teenager before he is possessed by the demon Amon. Akira takes control of Amon and adopts his extraordinary powers. He gains superhuman speed, strength, and the ability to transform into a winged demon form at will. The only drawback is his hunger for sex and violence. Devilman explores this idea by pitting Akira against other demons and his personal life. He treasures his friends and family and struggles to control his urges on a daily basis. At any moment he could literally fuck his friend Miki to death and eat her corpse. However, by embracing the demonic side as a part of his being, he keeps himself in check.

This stays in line with the show’s theme of human nature. Devilman is up front about Man being ignorant and depraved. It does not shy away from showing intense, graphic acts of sex and violence in each episode to let you know what it is trying to say. It is the villains that remain totally demonic and the humans totally human, whereas Akira is both. How can you function if you do not understand the evil you are capable of? By knowing his capacity for violence, Akira can choose to be good. Everyone else is either one or the other and remains black or white on the moral spectrum. All of this comes to head in the second half of the show where there is a radical tonal shift in how far Devilman goes to make its point.

Without spoiling it the final three pivotal episodes, imagine the eclipse from Berserk if it were 90 minutes long.

It was beyond refreshing to see a hand-drawn anime again. After the new Berserk and that trash Blame! movie it blew my mind to see animations that people put real effort into making. The movements are fluid, clean, and extensive in some places, while also exaggerated when appropriate. In one part, a character is rapping for what seems like three minutes straight. His whole body moves and none of the animations repeat. Granted, the rap was okay, but it was a treat for my eyes after years CG.

The style of Devilman is almost meant to be hand-drawn. Characters and props are sparse when it comes to complex elements like shading and basic details. It is very similar to the show’s manga origins from 1972, where the art style had a lot in common with Astro Boy. Rather than lean into the blown-out, exaggerated designs, Devilman takes on qualities of the classic and contemporary. Everything looks like it belongs in a modern anime, but there is a distinct anachronistic feel with high color contrast and lack of detail. I have never seen a style like this before and if it helps usher in a new era of hand-drawn anime, I do not have a problem with that.

This is a matter of personal taste, but the soundtrack was pretty great. It is a mix of techno, monastic chanting, and standard melodramatic J-pop during the more emotional moments. It is not for everyone, but I was so captivated that I had to mention it. After a certain sequence in the last episode, the track Night Hawk became a part of my personal playlist.

It is not everyday you find an anime that will stick with you for years to come. In the flood of moè torture porn and endless shonen that has taken over the medium, there comes along a title that transcends the norm. It is the kind of anime that harkens back to a time when the medium was about artistic achievement instead of profit. I probably did not emphasize this enough, but Devilman Crybaby will test your tolerance for intensity. It grabs you by the balls and does not let go until the end. I recommend it to not just anime fans, but viewers that would otherwise ignore the medium. It is a perfect example of what happens when anime is pushed to its full potential as this generation’s Cowboy Bebop.

(Muh book: http://a.co/gR6nlr7)