The Walking Dead 6.14: Twice as Far – Review

The Walking Dead

It was inevitable after a series of strong episodes The Walking Dead would deliver a clunker.

It’s not even that “Twice as Far” is necessarily bad but it was more transitory than previous weeks, feeling more like an echo than a song. It had a conflict with the Saviors, some supply talk nonsense and character movement into positions primed for the season finale, ominously titled “Last Day on Earth.” It just didn’t have quite the narrative momentum of previous weeks and Denise’s death (thankfully taking the arrow, as it were, for Abraham who died the same death in the comics) while sad wasn’t unsurprising in thet least.

The Walking Dead has always been directorially ambitious enough to match its apocalyptic story, going all the way back to the amazing shot in the pilot of Rick riding a horse into a desolate Atlanta. “Twice as Far” gave us an opening montage with an interesting visual dissolve technique. When the story suffers, as it always does on this show, it’s nice to see the filming conventions pushed further.

Speaking Walking Dead stories, the best seem to percolate in the background and have hard time in the foreground. The Carol/Morgan conflict of killing vs. no killing has played off to the side all season but now seems to coming to the fore in the last two episodes, what with Carol leaving Alexandria and Morgan set to find her. For my money, it’s been the best part of the season, a character-driven storyline about moral consequences (albeit with a lame ending to the Wolf’s story back episode 9).

I realized belatedly this episode that Morgan’s actual prison cell he’s been constructing in his house, akin to his friend Eastman’s, will be the future home of (START COMIC SPOILERS) Negan. If it ends up being Morgan instead of Glenn who meets his maker at the hands of Negan in the coming finale, it’ll add some symmetry to Rick’s decision to keep Negan alive after winning the war against him (END COMIC SPOILERS). For those wary of spoilers, what this means is the show thinking ahead to Season 8. Gimple has always been clever, perhaps too much, about his Chekov’s Guns, laying the groundwork well ahead of time for maximum payoff.

“Twice as Far’s” main focus was the twin supply trips of Daryl, Rosita and Denise as well as Abraham and Eugene. While the former searches for medicine, the latter find a factory where Eugene can manufacture bullets. Both are boring in of themselves but it’s the characters’ trajectories that actually at play here. Eugene gets to assert himself to Abraham, Rosita gets to stand aside from Abraham (until she hilariously is upstaged again at the end), and Denise gets her moment in the sun that predictably precedes a death.

 

One cool development that did occur was the return of Dwight (Austin Amelio) last seen in Episode 6 stealing Daryl’s bike and crossbow and christened with a new burn scar as punishment for his previous insurrection. Daryl retrieved his bike from the Saviors’ compound two weeks ago and gets his crossbow back this time but only after Dwight used it to shoot Denise through the eye. He then takes Eugene, who separated from Abraham to prove his mettle, hostage and demands Daryl and Rosita take them to Alexandria.

Fortunately, Abraham followed Eugene and ambushes group allowing  our team to escape. Eugene takes a bullet but survives. Back at Alexandria, boring white boy Spencer tries to get in boring Latina Rosita’s pants, Abraham wants to shack up Sasha, and Carol leaves her new romance with Tobin to depart Alexandria, determining if she’s lost the will to kill, she wants to be away from those she would kill for.

It’s a similar sentiment that Rick banished her for way back in Season 4 and it even gets a reference in Carol’s letter/ending monologue. It could backfire and make this story a retread of last time, but for now, I’ll take anything that bring Lennie James and his stick to the fore.

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The Walking Dead 6.13: The Same Boat – Review

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead continues its Season 6B hot streak. Most impressively, “The Same Boat,” a Carol-centric episode, was a great example of what Season 6A did not do well: highlight specific characters while moving the plot forward.

The episode was laser-focused on Carol and Maggie’s predicament, being kidnapped by the surviving Saviors from last week’s climatic massacre.

But they framed it within the context of the previous week, rather than going off on a unrelated tangent. There’s nothing wrong with bottle episodes; in fact, they can even better than the story proper when done right. And “The Same Boat” does it very right.

The two women find themselves captured by four Saviors – Paula, Michelle, Molly and Donnie – who try to make an exchange with Rick for another captured Savior. They call in backup and hole up at a slaughterhouse (the aforementioned “bottle”).

Paula and Michelle act as effective foils for Carol and Maggie respectively. Alicia Witt, who played Paula, was especially good and reminds me of how another bottle episode feature – the one-off guest star – can actually be a character rather than a cipher or function of the plot.

One of this week’s failings was Carol’s arc in the episode – continuing to come to terms with her body count (20 as of this episode) – felt woefully unearned. Melissa McBride can sell pretty much anything but nonetheless there were pieces missing. This despite the fact that the Carol/Morgan conflict (Lennie James is sadly missing this week) was the best subplot of the first half.

While there was a month between the end of the Alexandria walker invasion and this era of the show and Carol could conceivably begin reflecting during that, the show tells (literally when Carol writes her murder list) rather than shows her growing doubt and regret. This makes it seem to come out of nowhere, particularly when she started as far at the other end of the spectrum as she did during the Wolves’ attack in “JSS.”

But the flaws, few that there are, in this episode are far over shadowed by the good, such as Billy Gierhart’s direction and, man, those performances. Witt and McBride are great and so is Lauren Cohan, thankfully better utilized this half-season than as Glenn griever in the last.

The show is finally willing to actually let the audience doubt their characters. Even when the group killed the Terminus cannibals, it was made clear they had it coming. Our group’s morality remained unsullied. That facade seemed to start breaking when Rick and the others got to Alexandria

Now the show has taken a page from the playbook of AMC’s masterpiece Breaking Bad and finally examined the moral relativism, both inside characters. There were hints of this way back in the premiere where Rick seemed edging closer and closer to the selfish, me-first nature of Walter White. It was dark, it was compelling, it was . . . more or less dropped after.

Now, with the conflict with the Saviors in full-swing, Angela Kang’s writing did a great job graying it up, presenting Paula and her group not as cowards like the Termites or savages like the Wolves but people just a few moral gradations away from our protagonists.

“We are all Negan” is not just an obfuscating tactic of their leader’s behalf but a thematic point – they are all human and they are all dedicated. The Governor had to manipulate people to do his bidding. The Saviors’ do Negan’s willingly. And that is what makes them so much more dangerous than anyone Rick’s crew has yet met. These people have been radicalized to the point they all have become “Negan.”

Shivers.

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10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – Review

10 Cloverfield Lane

CREDIT: ComingSoon

First things first, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel (or prequel, or side-quel) to Cloverfield. The films share some themes and details but they’re all tertiary, evidence of the script’s late conversion into a patented J.J. Abrams Mystery Box. It seems that the shared titles are anthological, akin to Abrams’ Twilight Zone of low budget genre films. It’s a little bit bait-and-switch and I was prepared to hate the fact that Abrams’ sold me a false bill of goods. Fortunately, enough of Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut is good that it mitigates that disappointment as well as inevitable story weaknesses.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a troubled engagement (the film’s opening, a wordless montage of her packing her bags and leaving without her ring, immediately establishes Trachtenberg’s prowess for visual storytelling and mise-en-scene). While driving, Michelle is run off the road and awakens in the underground bunker of survivalist Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a paranoid former Navy man and satellite engineer.

He claims to have saved her from the wreck and brought her to his home because an apocalyptic attack has left the outside world inhospitable. While Howard is clearly troubled from the start, Michelle, along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), learn he may be right about the attack, paving the way for escalating tensions as time passes and secrets emerge.

The film largely succeeds on the strength of the performers. Goodman is brilliant in everything he’s a part of (The Flintstones nonwithstanding)  and it’s the case here. While I wish the script had layered more subtlety, especially at the beginning, about Howard’s mental state, Goodman is so good that he allows flickers of humanity to shine through even after, just enough to make us doubt ourselves about this man, who seems to have been proven right about everything.

Winstead is a lady MacGyver. There’s an early scene, when she initially discovers her predicament and she starts crying before steeling and using her own IV as a tool. Her relationship with her savior Howard (or rather, his fixation on her as substitute for his mysteriously-absent daughter Megan) forms the spine of the story, combining feminism and Freud into a mediation Michelle’s feminine empowerment over patriarchy and male impotence.

Gallagher is very good despite being dealt the “third wheel” role. Both the writing and his acting elevate the role above plot function or comic relief and he adds weight to the proceedings, caught between the two leads as an object of Howard’s scorn and Michelle’s affection (though thankfully an unnecessary love story is avoided).

It’s an accomplished debut for Trachtenberg, who got on peoples’ radars, including Abrams’, through a fan film based on the video game series Portal. He makes the most of the bunker’s confined, claustrophobic setting and packs information into most every frame. It isn’t until Act III when Michelle executes her escape that Trachtenberg spends much of his $5 million budget and therein lies what I hate to admit is the film’s weakness.

It’s pretty easy to see where the rewritten elements were added to appease and connect the film to the previous one, because it’s when all the money shows up on screen in the form of CGI. I can confirm there are monsters for fixers like me, but after the ratcheting tension in the bunker, even I felt like the balloon had let the air out, along with common sense and reason. Even if the genre elements feel tacked on and leave something to be desired, the film’s final shot is flat-out amazing.

See, 10 Cloverfield Lane began as The Cellar (and as Valencia during production), an acclaimed spec script with no relation to Cloverfield. Upon development, it was producer Abrams’ idea to make this part of the Cloverfield universe or anthology or brand or whatever the hell he wants to call it, ostensibly to help get the film made in a franchise-driven marketplace.

An actual Cloverfield 2 had only been bandied about by fans and by the off-the-cuff remarks of the creative team, including director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) writer Drew Goddard (The Martian), Abrams, his producing partner Bryan Burk. Ultimately, it seemed none of them had any idea what they wanted to do and so lacked any motivation or enthusiasm to develop it.

Now, with this film’s release, Abrams has been teasing, in varying terminology, about the series and a potential third film. “This is just this movie, and it’s only two films that we’re talking about right now,” Abrams told EW on the film’s press day. “[But] there is something else that we’d like to do, and hopefully we’ll get a shot.”

If Abrams can keep delivering genre films this good, I will consider a potential Cloverfield sequel or return of the Clover monster a bonus rather than a requirement. Considering my resistance to his exploitation of this brand, I’d say that’s my stamp of approval for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Grade: B

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The Walking Dead 6.12: Not Tomorrow Yet – Review

the walking dead

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was delayed by life and other things. Complaints can be transmitted by Morse code only to .. . .. … . . .. . . .. .. . All current technologies are prohibited. Solicitors will be summarily executed.

The second half of The Walking Dead‘s sixth season is working in all the ways the first half didn’t. The herky-jerky pace is gone, conceivable time is given to building (the Carol/Tobin kiss was a welcome surprise) and severing (Abraham is insane to leave Rosita even if she does have no discernible personality) romantic relationships and characters struggle with weakness without being complete fucking morons.

The midseason premiere succinctly wrapped the zombie herd/Wolves arc a bit too neatly but at least established a clean break for the show to have a “first time again,” as it has multiple times in the past. The group, scattered in the first half and trapped within a timeline of two days stretched over eight episodes, is back together and they stay together. After a trip to Hilltop last week, Rick led another mission of his A-Team to assault one of the Saviors’ compound.

It’s a pulse-pounding action sequence that notably involves zero zombies and utterly successful. Rick’s group has been transformed by his leadership and the zombie apocalypse into a black ops team. Jesus (Tom Payne) continues to be a great addition who adds flavors of mystery and mischief  and I can’t get enough of the Badass Gay that is Aaron (Ross Marquand). More of both, please.

The show doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of Rick’s plan – to preemptively murder all the Saviors for both protection and trade with Hilltop. Since this is The Walking Dead, where there’s a moral question, there will be a black guy to question it (ask T-Dog, Oscar, Tyreese, Bob etc.). Morgan, the latest in the line, is thankfully back after two weeks. His bond with Carol – who told the others to keep the Wolf incident secret – is delightfully complex, as is his no-killing philosophy. The show absolutely needs Morgan’s perspective but given that he died during the zombie invasion in the comics, I fear he’s living on borrowed time.

Speaking of moral quandaries, appropriate gravitas is given to Glenn and Heath taking their first human lives during the attack, Steven Yeun and Corey Hawkins are highly-capable actors coupled with some potent material and direction, specifically the scene where Glenn’s face crumbles as he stabs the head of a sleeping Savior off-screen and then takes Heath’s place to kill another. It’s heartwarming in a Glenn way and then brilliantly followed by the sight of Polaroids, all depicting numerous victims with crushed skulls and brains from what looks like a baseball bat . . .

And how badass has the redemption of Fr. Gabriel been? You couldn’t sink much lower than where that character’s been. He’s been the very definition of a Butt Monkey and Hate Sink, seemingly written specifically to piss people off. This was of course strategic to make the transformation much more satisfying but I doubted it would work. Turns out, both Seth Gilliam and the writing staff paid this character arc off, to the point that the cowardly priest delivered a postmortem one-liner and it worked.

“Amen.”

Grade: A+

 

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House of Cards S4 – Review

House of Cards

Bouncing back after a lethargic and introspective third season, House of Cards – the very definition of a guilty pleasure – continues to comb the dark recesses of vice hidden beyond the surface of Washington, D.C., embodied by the show’s power couple, Frank and Claire Underwood, unrivaled political operators who together climbed the rungs of politics all the way to the White House. This season opens with Frank and Claire separated and posits that, after they destroyed all those in the path to the presidency, their worst enemies are each other.

The show, the last by original showrunner and playwright Beau Willimon, engenders a strong love-hate critical response. Its politics are ludicrous and cynical, its characters gullible and melodramatic, its drama alternatively flaccid and hammy.

On a network, this may be mitigated, but on the wild west of Netflix, there are no rules. Willimon’s eloquence and loquaciousness (two words I’m sure are at the top of his vocabulary list) are on full display. You like it or you don’t. I like it. And judging by the way the season begins, Willimon’s thoughts on masturbatory writing are quite clear to viewers.

I like how operatic it makes it, how mythic the tone is and how it relishes in rule-breaking, both with its characters’ decisions and its dramatic potential. More than anything, every event on House of Cards, no matter how improbable, can be framed by as a choice between “hard” and “soft” sci-fi, i.e. do you want your science fiction realistic as hell or entertaining as hell?

Cards fall firmly in the latter category. Yes, some of the plot leaps can be speculative and tenuous but I have to say, amidst a presidential election stranger than fiction, it’s almost a little hurtful the operatic and melodramatic show didn’t dream up such a vain and vile creature as Donald Drumpf.

Drumpf’s theatrical bombast would fit right in were he to crossover. Indeed, upon re-watching the first three seasons in preparation for the fourth, I found remarkable similarities beyond equally-fictional strongmen – Underwood and Drumpf. And I think the rising tide of American authoritarianism may have something to do with the fact that as consumers, Americans love themselves an Ubermensch.

The frightening state of our reality aside, a ton of Twitter snark is thrown the show’s way by people who look past its addictive nature and binge-watch sheen and see just the ugliness. When I look though, I see a gloriously messy tapestry as unstable and perilous as the title suggests. The way Willimon and his writing team weave their multitude of storylines and the tacit refusal to leave loose ends untied is ambitious and I fully appreciate the effort.

Thus, the show exists to fulfill a simple function: a writer given Washington D.C. as a setting and asking “what could people with no scruples get away with?” With director David Fincher having set the macabre pitch-black humor undercurrent, Frank became our Charon, ferrying audiences through the canals of filth that line the Capitol all the way to the Oval Office. Despite his evil, we root for him.

For a refresher on last season, check out my Season 3 review.

(SPOILER WARNING FOR HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON 4. DON’T READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU HAVE WATCHED ALL OF SEASON 4!)

After growing more tyrannical as his presidency drags on, Frank (Kevin Spacey) managed to drive away most of his allies, including Claire (Robin Wright) who up and leaves him for sanctuary with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) at her family home in Texas. Meanwhile, Frank is hanging on by a thread in his bid for the Democratic nomination against Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). And to make things worse, old grudges and faces long thought buried bubble back to the surface, threatening to reveal the rotten foundation that could bring the Underwood’s house of cards crashing down.

Despite its aspirations as a dark mirror West Wing, what it actually does is take B-movie grime to the capital, dirtying whatever image of propriety Washington, D.C. had left. It revels in unmasking the presidential as the pernicious and puerile while simultaneously making the viewer question basic morality in the face of Frank’s brand of ruthless pragmatism.

It covers the Oval Office in spittle and coffee, piss and shit, smoke and slime. It’s portrayed as Giger-meets-Lovecraft, a deliberately-disgusting blend manifesting as a Freudian nightmare, literally in the case of Chapter 44. Said nightmare, taking place while Frank is in a coma post-assassination attempt, also showcases a brilliant use of the cameo to bring back the specters of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), Frank’s playthings he murdered along his dark voyage.

I was dully surprised by how the mega-cliffhanger of Claire leaving Frank is resolved within three or four episodes. Surprised because why was it such a big deal to end a season if it’s gonna be resolved immediately and dully because of course Claire isn’t going to leave Frank unless she suddenly stopped liking power. Someone as politically-minded as Claire and with the desire for significance she has would know better than to divorce Frank.

It was good to see her assert herself in the relationship and ultimately for Frank to recognize her validity. For all his monstrosity, Frank bond with Claire is immeasurably human. Breaking that down last year, while perhaps dramatically necessary, denied fans – and Frank – what they needed, which was Claire’s partnership and trust (although, truthfully, it was also that the show took 13 hours over somewhat-repetitive marital strife to get there. Not cost-effective storytelling by any means).

Another way the series recovers from Season 3 is by putting Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) at Frank’s side. Like Claire, the unshakable trust between the two men is vicariously how we care about Frank. Perhaps more importantly, Frank’s plotting is boring without Doug carrying it out. Likewise, Claire hires a whip-smart Texan campaign strategist Leann Harey (a welcome-if-underutilized Neve Campbell) to be her Girl Doug. It’s a big happy fucked-up family – which also includes novelist/new Meechum Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks).

The show embraces the farcical aspect of nominating Claire as Frank’s VP (in reality, the Bobby Kennedy Act prevents people who are related from appointing each other or running together) and works it into the characters. The Underwoods, when hatching the plan, act as the voices of the writers, basically saying “We know this is ridiculous but the show is about us and we just spent 3 years murdering and scheming our way to the presidency without anyone stopping us so fuck it, let’s go for it.”

Speaking of the election, the second half of the season focuses on a fictional 2016 race that looks comparatively sane next to reality. It’s hard to cast adversaries for the Underwoods and make them seem formidable when we all know they’ll steamroll them eventually, but the Conways come close.

William Conway (Joel Kinnaman, fantastic casting here) is exactly the candidate the Republicans of our world wish they had – a 40-year-old ex-Marine and Governor of the very blue state of New York. He embraces new media, shoving pictures and videos of his British wife and kids on his Twitter and Instagram. Despite their youthful, family-centric veneer, the couple is not so different from the Underwoods; one the latter practice secrecy, Conway’s facade is hidden in plain sight and he is a slave to the attention.

The other major storyline concerns the journalists and the growing web of broken people the Underwoods have created. In addition to Stoll and Mara, Sebastian Arcelus (Lucas Goodwin), Constance Zimmer (Janine Skorsky), Boris McGiver (Tom Hammerschmidt) Michel Gill (fmr. president Garrett Walker) and Gerald McRaney (businessman Raymond Tusk) are among the many Season 1 and 2 players to make reappearances. Like the recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, it’s good to see old-fashioned investigative journalism given relevance and clarity in popular culture.

It’s a good ending and a good way for Beau Willimon to bow out, as this is his last season. He spent a presidential term at the helm of one of planet Earth’s most popular shows as a first-time showrunner. It can’t have been easy. Just like his characters, he goes for broke this season, leaving it all on the field, and (insert third sports metaphor).

The finale, penned by Willimon, pulls the thread on the Underwoods’ cover-ups, exposing them to the world. But instead of a decisive end, it does what the show does best – let Frank and Claire pull a rabbit out of the hat to survive. This rabbit just so happens to be war. 

(Re-watching Season 3, I got chills when Frank told audiences in one of his asides he would kill Putin expy Viktor Petrov if it wouldn’t trigger World War III. At the time I thought world war was too outlandish even for this show but now? I think it’s genius that the question was queued)

We don’t want the Underwoods to lose. We don’t want the game to be over. And, seeing as the show as renewed weeks prior to the premiere, Netflix agrees.

Grade: B+

Ranking the seasons:

  1. Season 1 – A
  2. Season 4 – B+
  3. Season 2 – B
  4. Season 3 – C
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The Walking Dead 6.11: Knots Untie – Review

the walking dead

The Walking Dead is feeling delightfully retro these days. We got a Rick/Daryl pairing last week, Richonne was consummated, and now this week we got on a mission in an RV. It’s Season 1 and 2 all over again.

This time though the big news is the introduction of Hilltop Colony (looking ripped directly from the comics), the community of Paul “Jesus” Rovia, whom we met last week, and run by the creepy Gregory (professional creep Xander Berkeley). After Jesus interrupted post-coital cuddling last week, Rick and Michonne gathered their team including Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, and Abraham.

The last few weeks have done a good job of making the show thematically strong. From Abraham’s ongoing internal struggle to Maggie’s pregnancy to the significant chunk of the show spent introducing Hilltop, the show finally has a focus that allows it to explore its characters organically.

As much as I like Michael Cudlitz and his Abraham, his love triangle subplot is lacking. I find Sasha a boring character and Rosita might as well be called Nameless Hispanic Chick for all the characterization she’s gotten. At least they’re trying to give these people stuff to do, but it doesn’t really serve either female character and its not like Cudlitz is getting meaty material.

Meanwhile, for a comics fan like me, there was plenty of foreshadowing this week that added another layer to the proceedings. When Rick’s group rescued a Hilltop crew in distress, Glenn and Maggie find one of them is obstetrician and by the end of the episode the couple are viewing an ultrasound of their baby.

This nice touch was made ominous by drawing the battle lines in the coming conflict in this new world that’s constantly being talked about. Negan and his Saviors have had Hilltop under their thumb since the beginning of the apocalypse and this episode alone saw some residents driven to attempt to kill Gregory because of the Saviors’ blackmail.

But while Glenn and Maggie’s happiness seems set to be inevitably crushed, it was also troubling when Daryl spoke up so adamantly to take out Negan. His eagerness and Rick’s confidence could lead to disastrous results if they underestimate the threat Negan is. That consequence? Likely Glenn or Daryl’s death.

The best thing an adaptation can do is make the audience question the source material in new ways. And the fact that I don’t know if it will follow it and go with Glenn or diverge and go with Daryl is, simply, awesome. Both will hurt but the show isn’t playing unfairly (this time).

After a couple episodes out of focus, the rest of the Alexandrian community comes back into view next week when the deal – take out the Saviors in exchange for Hilltop’s resources – is brought to their attention. Carol got only a small cameo tonight but mostly, I’ve missed Morgan as well as their ongoing conflict.

Also, with five episodes left in the season and the playing board seemingly set, I’m in the dark as to how the attack on the Saviors plays out, since Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan isn’t due to appear until the April 3 finale. That’s a lot of time in between. Will we see back-and-forth attacks? Is any Alexandria drama going to bubble up? What about the new Hilltop alliance? Is it Sunday yet?

 

 

 

 

 

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Who Will Win And Who Should Win At The Oscars 2016

Oscars

I was debating whether the Oscars were worth writing about. I worked a lot the last few days, I’m tired, and, at this point, host Chris Rock’s joke that they’re the “White BET awards” seems entirely accurate.

Still, people would not care if the Oscars did not matter. It’s why whether Iron Fist is white or Asian is a huge topic. It’s why whether or not Idris Elba can play James Bond seems like an entirely legitimate question and the determination that he’s too “street” an entirely legitimate answer.

Nonetheless, I offer you two-for-one predictions: who will win at the Ocars in the big categories I have insight in and who, in my humble opinion, should win among the uniformly pale options provided by the Academy.

Also, there’s a chance I could get these predictions right. Sometimes, bragging rights are worth it.

Best Picture

“The Big Short”
“Bridge Of Spies”
“Brooklyn”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Room”
“Spotlight”

Who Will Win: Spotlight

I’ll admit this isn’t a total slamdunk and I’m biased but Spotlight is the movie to beat in my opinion. An issues movie with a stellar ensemble, it’s only rivaled in this “lane” by Bridge of Spies, which is great but not as provocative or timely. The Revenant won the Golden Globe but I simply can’t stand the idea of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu winning Best Picture and Best Director two years in a row. Spread the love for Christ’s sake.

Who Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Don’t fight me on this.

Best Director
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – “The Revenant”
Adam McKay – “The Big Short”
George Miller – “Mad Max Fury Road”
Lenny Abrahamson – “Room”
Tom McCarthy – “Spotlight”

Who Will Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

The Academy loves to split the categories when there isn’t a clear frontrunner. Gonzalez won last year as well as his film Birdman and he and The Revenant has momentum with Golden Globe wins but I don’t see the Oscars repeating the exact same results as last year. Given the present backlash, I can only imagine that would add to the narrative that the Oscars are the same, year-in, year-out.

Who Should Win: George Miller

What 70 year-old George Miller was able to accomplish was nothing short of genius.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston – “Trumbo”
Matt Damon – “The Martian”
Leonardo DiCaprio – “The Revenant”
Michael Fassbender – “Steve Jobs”
Eddie Redmayne – “The Danish Girl”

Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio

He died in the ocean, he pissed in jars, and this year he suffered frostbite and slept in a buffalo carcass. He’ll win as the youngest “you earned it” legacy vote ever. It’s disappointing and predictable so let’s just rip this bandaid off and move the fuck on.

Who Should Win: Michael Fassbender

He is simply the most exciting actor of the moment and of every film he’s in. That’s especially true of Steve Jobs, where he shoulders the title character with aplomb and fires the Aaron Sorkin dialogue like an expert rifleman, with careful aim and skillful precision.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett – “Carol”
Brie Larson – “Room”
Jennifer Lawrence – “Joy”
Charlotte Rampling – “45 Years”
Saoirse Ronan – “Brooklyn”

Who Will Win: Brie Larson

She won a Golden Globe. She’s Jennifer Lawrence 2.0. There ya go.

Who Should Win: Brie Larson

She won a Golden Globe. She’s Jennifer Lawrence 2.0. There ya go.*

*Alternatively, Charlotte Rampling would be my pick but I know Hollywood better. If it’s not Helen Mirren or Judi Dench, elderly women aren’t winning Oscars.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – “The Hateful Eight”
Rooney Mara – “Carol”
Rachel McAdams – “Spotlight” –
Alicia Vikander – “The Danish Girl”
Kate Winslet – “Steve Jobs”

Who Will Win: Kate Winslet

 There’s always one gratuitous award. Last year, it was Cate Blanchett who won her second Oscar. This year, Winslet. Additionally, because DiCaprio is a lock and Sorkin not nominated for Best Screenplay, the Academy gets to recognize Steve Jobs in a small way.

Who Should Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh

Leigh’s Daisy Domergue was a wonderfully unique woman, a murdress without shame and a cackling laugh. Her rapport with Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight was one of the best parts of that film as well as her role in the bloody detente that forms the film’s climax. This would also be a Tarantino recognition vote, if the Academy can be convinced of this by tomorrow.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – “The Big Short”
Tom Hardy – “The Revenant”
Mark Ruffalo – “Spotlight”
Mark Rylance – “Bridge Of Spies”
Sylvester Stallone – “Creed”

Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone

Stallone is a legendary figure and his Rocky Balboa character holds a special place for him and for generations. He deserves this award. The fact that neither the film nor the director Ryan Coogler or star Michael B. Jordan are nominated is a crime but in this small way, Creed will be recognized and Stallone can rightfully be congratulated for his 40+ years in Hollywood. Also, you can be sure he definitely will not forget to thank Coogler and Jordan this time.

Who Should Win: Sylvester Stallone

See above.

 

 

 

Best Adapted Screenplay
Drew Goddard – “The Martian”
Nick Hornby – “Brooklyn”
Adam McKay & Charles Randolph – “The Big Short”
Phyllis Nagy – “Carol”
Emma Donoghue – “Room”

Who Will Win: The Big Short

An unexpected Oscars contender, writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph took the unenviable task of adapting a tale of the white guys who saw the Great Recession coming, with all the financy-smancy words that come with it. With the help of a naked Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez, they succeed. Pay the man, Johnny.

Who Should Win: The Big Short

I’m tempted to say The Martian but The Big Short is just such a perfectly distilled script on a challenging subject that I want to reward the effort.

Best Original Screenplay
Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen – “Bridge Of Spies”
Alex Garland – “Ex Machina”
Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve – “Inside Out”
Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer – “Spotlight”
Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savage – “Straight Outta Compton”

Who Will Win: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer.

They have momentum with a WGA award and a Spirit Award just today. But all of that is political nonsense because Marty Baron himself (portrayed by Liev Schrieber in the film) said he was impressed by their writing process and the result that came from it. If Spotlight is the Best Picture frontrunner I think it is, it’s a good bet it’s got this too.

Who Should Win: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

See above.

Got your own predictions? Share them in the comments.

 

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A Few Thoughts on The X-Files – Season 10

The X-Files Season 10, despite some reviews saying it lost a step, couldn’t have more captured the original show. It was the classic mixture of absolutely-off-the-cuff bullshit sold as its “mythology,” a single genius episode buried within, a couple worthy standalones, and one absolutely atrocious piece of garbage. A.K.A. Season 10 was a microcosm of the original 202 episodes that aired from 1993 to 2002.

Episodes

  1. My Struggle
  2. Founder’s Mutation
  3. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster
  4. Home Again
  5. Babylon
  6. My Struggle II

By my estimation, the show went 3-for-3, its biggest strength being the reunion of talent behind and in front of the camera. All of the good stuff was done the two returning stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, though Anderson unsurprisingly does better work, and by X-Files veterans like James Wong and Darin Morgan who return to the material like no time has passed (despite all the show’s flaws, its writer’s room was often exemplary).

Morgan previously wrote four classic X-Files episodes, “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “The War of the Coprophrages” and played the fan-favorite Flukeman in Season 2’s “The Host.” So it’s no surprise that his written-and-directed episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was head-and-shoulders above the rest. It is a brilliant exercise in existential absurdism that embodies everything about the best X-Files episodes, with the added tragicomedy inherent in Morgan’s writing.

“Home Again” (NOT a sequel to the classic Season 4 “Home” as many like me hoped) is a Wong joint and brought horror elements missing from other installments. Like most episodes, its plot is shaky and a little weak but its themes and perverse tone manage to overcome it. Any day there’s a trash monster going around ripping people apart by hand, it’s a good day in my book.

Meanwhile, “Founder’s Mutation” was a little more generic but was a welcome shift to standalones after the astonishingly-bad, mythology-heavy opener (DIGRESSION: Chris Carter, if you’re reading, the show should just be standalones. Seriously, fuck this mythology. It would give a pretzel a heart attack: END DIGRESSION).

The three bad episodes of the revival have one thing in common: creator Chris Carter. As an extraordinarily hands-off showrunner, his show has always cultivated an auteur flavor, giving television writers like Morgan, Frank Spotnitz and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan the chance to imprint it with their passions and personal flavor. Carter’s auterism, however, is didactic and often boring.

Let’s be blunt: the “My Struggle” two-parter was not good. In fact, they were pretty awful in almost every way. Carter, who wrote and directed both as well as the also-terrible “Babylon,” is the George Lucas of The X-Files, i.e. a creator totally divorced from what makes his work great.

In the premiere alone, Mulder gives the most muddled conspiratorial speech since the end of JFK, unconvincingly rewriting the last 20 years of the show’s mythology. Carter madly tries to fit the show’s many catchphrases (I want to believe! The truth is out there!) wherever it is needlessly obvious. Meanwhile Joel McHale’s right-wing personality Tad O’Malley convinces him of 21st conspiracies like 9/11-was-a-false-flag seem unnecessarily politicized for this show. Conspiracies in the 90s – aliens! monsters! demons! – were a lot less offensive.

The aformentioned “Babylon” is truly one of the worst hours of television I have witnessed. From the disgusting blend of casual racism and Islamophobia, to the nonsense “plot” of giving Mulder magic mushrooms to make a psychic connection with a comatose terrorist (it’s even worse in action) to the fiftieth set of Mulder-Scully dopplegangers, Miller and Einstein played by Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose. Carter tried to wedge comedy in with the new agents and Mulder’s trip (which includes a dance number). None of it worked.

Despite all of these flaws, I will watch this show ad infinitum just to discover gems like “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” I’m bullish but I’d be lying if I said this revival wasn’t discouraging. Yet, I feel each truly-great X-Files episodes makes it all worth it and it’s not a feeling I have about almost any other show. So I’m glad despite the underwhelming nature of Season 10, there is already talk of another go-around.

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The Walking Dead 6.10: The Next World – Review

Richonne happened!

The two warriors, badly damaged by the zombie apocalypse, finally realized they were what the other wanted after an episode of palate-cleansing misadventures. Rick and Daryl encountered a stranger named Jesus (new series regular Tom Payne) on a supply run and Michonne, with an assist from Carl, helped Spencer find closure by ending his zombified mother Deanna (an unexpected final appearance by Tovah Feldshuh).

The romance is another example of showrunner Scott Gimple’s remix approach, which has been largely embraced by fans. Around this point in the comics, Rick begins a relationship with longtime companion Andrea (dead since the Season 3 finale in the show).

As I mentioned in last week’s recap, The Walking Dead is, for better or worse, a predictable show by virtue of its construction (eight episode batches every spring and fall) and its own folly. That said, this episode was unique. It was lighter in a way few episodes of this show are. Starting with the classical pairing of Rick/Daryl, the addition of comic fan-favorite Jesus and the consummation of Richonne, there was humor, normalcy and even sex – things usually absent or in short supply from this perpetual survival tale.

It plays into the theme of this back half – that of a “larger world” and figuring out where Alexandria fits in it. It reminds the characters (and thus the audience) that there is more to the world, this world, than constant decapitations and a growing numbness to horror. That is a beautiful thing and I can’t think of a more beautiful summation of this idea than the concluding shot, with Rick and Michonne artfully entwined after lovemaking. Of course, in another Dead theme, the moment was all-too-brief, with Jesus entering and insisting he and Rick talk.

For all intents and purposes, this was “breather” episode. The aftermath and cleanup from last week’s Battle for Alexandria is skipped, as is Carl’s recovery from his de-eyeballing. Rick and Daryl’s misadventures with Jesus echo a buddy cop dynamic and their camaraderie was sorely missing from the first half of the season. And speaking of Gimple’s remix method, the scenes of Carl with Enid (and her with Glenn last week) seemed to continue setting her up as a surrogate for Sophia (a character killed in Season 2 yet still alive in the comics, like Andrea) who becomes a daughter figure to Maggie, especially after some upcoming tragic events occur.

Some point to Rick hooking up with Michonne so soon after the tragedy with Jessie as gross, but that discounts the time skip between “No Way Out” and this episode, as well as the relationship between the two that’s been evolving since they met in Season 3. It’s not like they introduced a new chick for Rick to bang for this episode. Most importantly, it felt like the Jessie storyline mattered. She got Rick to open up one emotional place to another where he was looking for romance.

What was lovely was how natural instead of gimmicky the Danai Gurira and Andrew Lincoln made it feel, against Internet odds wherein Richonne shippers have existed for years. Together, they collectively clued the audience to the unspoken truth the characters were only now acknowledging. It’s the benefit of strong actors combined with longform storytelling, so kudos to Gimple for doing this story right.

I’ve been burned too many times by the show to say that The Walking Dead has conquered its lingering problems. Still, there’s too much good to ever write the show off, even if it succeeds on a case-by-case basis. This chapter is good addition to the canon, accomplishing the feat of introducing new elements, moving pieces into place and paying off long-running arcs.

Loving this show, like loving most things, means learning to accept them as part of the imperfect whole, in this case the whole is planet Earth’s favorite TV show.

 

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The Walking Dead 6.9: No Way Out – Review

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is my 100th post for the Slog. To all my readers, thank you for following along. To all my non-readers, you’re not reading this, so I can say with impunity I fucked your mom last night after making her pay for a seafood dinner. And I’m not calling her back.

The dead are back to walking as AMC’s flagship hit shambles back for the second half of its sixth season. No Way Out is an exciting piece of television but its impact not what it could be thanks to the show’s missteps, most egregious being last fall’s whole #IsGlennDead debacle.

In what has become an all-too predictable pattern, the show blasts out of the gates strong (with excellent premieres like Season 5’s “No Sanctuary” and this year’s “First Time Again“) but the momentum from those big episodes is almost always drained by fluff stretched to a breaking point to get to the next “event” episode, in this case the finale, which already promises the introduction of much-heralded Big Bad Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The Walking Dead‘s constant struggle has been making these interludes between the zombie-and-human mayhem interesting.

This half-season, subtitled “A Larger World” after the comic book arc (similarly, this episode’s title is also straight from the comics) promises a new era on the show: one less constrained by the formula of finding sanctuary, losing it, finding another etc. and more by rebuilding civilization, one Medieval brick at a time. The wording is no coincidence; the worldbuilding of different factions, their alliances and history echoes its rival for television omnipotence, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

However, those aren’t issues “No Way Out” has to deal with because it graciously drops us right where we left off. The zombie herd has invaded Alexandria. Rick, Carl, baby Judith, Michonne, Father Gabriel, Jessie and her sons Ron and Sam covered themselves in zombie guts to sneak through the undead crowd. Tara, Rosita and Eugene are holed up with the unconscious Carol and Morgan after the wounded Wolf took Denise hostage and left. Maggie is trapped on a guard tower while Glenn and Enid try to save her. As if that’s not enough, Daryl, Sasha and Abraham are stopped on the road back to Alexandria by a bunch of Negan’s biker henchman who call themselves the Saviors.

This opening encounter was teased extensively prior but it resolves itself very quickly via RPG explosion courtesy of Daryl, who gets another badass RPG-hero moment at the end of the episode when the trio finally get back to Alexandria and join in on the climatic melee against the horde.

Prior however, we were treated to Glenn and Enid’s continued adventure in empowerment blah blah blah. After #IsGlennDead, I am burned the fuck out on Glenn/Maggie separation drama so his rescue of Maggie lacked any dramatic tension whatsoever. The best we can hope for is for the show to put this behind it and use Deanna’s (Tovah Feldshuh) death to elevate Maggie to a position of power. And the show felt downright trolly when Glenn and Maggie’s “reunion” (really just her seeing him) nearly ended with Glenn about to be devoured by walkers. Again. But Glenn’s execution (by baseball bat, specifically) was stayed by the machine gun fire of big damn heroes Sasha and Abraham.

Speaking of heroes, the question of who is a hero and who can be a hero was an enjoyable if unsubtle theme to tonight’s episode. Carol and Morgan recovered after their fight over the Wolf’s life while he held Denise hostage in the midst of the horde. This storyline was always intriguing but a tad frustrating, as if the writers’ were uncertain how it would play out. Ultimately, the Wolf actually saves Denise from a walker before being bit himself. He seems almost perplexed by his actions but, change achieved, Carol takes him out but not before witnessing him save her again. Denise returns to the infirmary changed as well, newly confident in her abilities.

I was thrown by how awfully inconsistent the rules of talking around zombies appeared. To me, it was fairly evident the midseason finale last fall implied Sam was blowing the whole thing by talking. But instead we get several conversations in the midst of crisis like it’s no big deal until of course, it is. After night descends, little Sam’s wailing does indeed get the better of him and the zombies get him. Jessie refuses to let him go and gets caught herself. Her death grip on Carl forces Rick to make another sanity-shattering decision to save his son – by cutting her arm off. This guy just cannot catch a break.

The show feels the need to further drive this point home via a bullet to Carl’s eye, shot by a vengeful Ron who was aiming at Rick. Michonne, not one to fuck around, kills Ron while Rick carries the unconscious Carl to the infirmary where Aaron, Spencer and Heath were hiding out. Denise, fresh from her ordeal with the Wolf, has found her confidence and immediately goes to work to save Carl’s life. Rick is left in shock, no doubt realizing that, no matter the zombie apocalypse, getting your kid shot twice before he’s finished puberty is shitty parenting.

Rick, for want of a better phrase, goes apeshit. After handing off his one-eyed son to Denise, he walks outside and goes to town. Soon joined by Michonne and the others, the group of fighters swells with much of the main cast. Carol, Morgan, Tara, Rosita even Eugene and Fr. Gabriel (who had protected Judith at great risk) step up to the plate, with the latter leading his church denizens.

The sequence was a great example of how when the show does things right, it does them very right. Starting with the impeccably costumed walkers, hundreds in number, corralled by famous makeup artist/producer/director Greg Nicotero. His flourishes with Rick’s reaction to Jessie’s death and Alexandria’s fight back against the horde were highlights.

The theme of change was wrapped up nicely by the final scene with Rick by Carl’s bedside as he lays comatose. Andrew Lincoln sells the shit out of yet another of Rick’s speeches (this was a subgenre: Rick by Injured Carl’s Side Speech). He saw that people can change and the world can change with them. They aren’t controlled by the zombies anymore. They can fight them. And win. They can start over in “the new world.”

 

 

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