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TV Quickshots #33

Bloodline (Netflix; 2015-2017)

A sweltering, slow-flickering burn of a family-secrets noir set evocatively in the Florida Keys, Bloodline has very much going for it. Anchored by fine performances, strongly directed, summoning emotionally honest moments and occasional political resonances, and above all a wonderfully atmospheric location, Bloodline has all the pieces in places for something special. Despite all of this, the series is marked above all by its consistently frustrating ability, over a foreshortened three-season run (its creators, Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, originally intended the series to run for around twice that number of seasons), to fail to bring its strongest elements together to make the great show that is clearly lurking somewhere in these storylines, locations, themes, and performances.

Bloodline focuses on the Rayburn family, prominent citizens of Islamorada, Florida in the tropical, sea-threatened Keys (there’s a political undercurrent of the threat posed to this place by climate change as a reflection of the Rayburns’ past trangressions coming home to roost, but it stays mostly an undercurrent). Esteemed patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and matriarch Sally (Sissy Spacek) run a popular vacationers’ inn, and their adult children have met with varied degrees of success in their professional and personal lives in the shadow of the family legacy. Favourite son John (Kyle Chandler) is a detective with the local sheriff’s department, happily married to Diana (Jacinda Barrett) with two high-school-age children. Intelligent daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a lawyer in a committed relationship with John’s partner, Marco Diaz (Enrique Murciano). Youngest son Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is a bit more impulsive and wayward, running a financially-troubled local marina and in an on-again, off-again relationship with Belle (Katie Finneran).

But the real wild card among the Rayburn children is eldest son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). Behaviourally unpredictable and emotionally manipulative, black sheep Danny is perpetually in need of money, involved with a litany of troubled women and crime-connected men, and is a generally destabilizing force in the family dynamic. His return to the family orbit in the Keys at the series’ opening precipitates a spiraling crisis that brings past tragedies and lies to the surface and threatens to tear this prominent clan to shreds.

Mendelsohn’s mood-swinging Danny, wavering between chaotic menace and wounded empathy, is Bloodline‘s secret weapon to such a dizzying extent that the series’ writers seem to immediately regret writing him out of the narrative after a strong first campaign largely focused on him and his volatile relationship with his siblings, especially Chandler’s John. Danny quite literally haunts the show as a ghost in the second and third seasons, and an attempt to substitute in his cynical lost son (Owen Teague) after he departs the scene is only fitfully successful and eventually abandoned. John is the central figure thereafter, and his stubborn attempts to keep the Rayburns’ history of violence under wraps threaten his marriage, his family relationships, and his prospects of career advancement when he runs for sheriff in an election against his superior Aguirre (an underutilized David Zayas). As good as Chandler is at suggesting the weight of consequence and John’s struggles with his position and his choices, his role as the series’ lead actor begins to increasingly reflect his character’s archetypal role as the series wears on: the dutiful son left to carry the weight of not only his own mistakes and sins but of those around him as well.

Despite its dense incident and thematic doom-stalking feeling of approaching, dreadful judgement for all of the sins of the characters, Bloodline remains doggedly watchable but never quite absorbing or entirely impressive. Its third season in particular quite literally loses the plot, stabbing about in the aftermath of the second-season cliffhanger, diving into a mid-season courtroom drama arc, and even indulging a baffling alternate-realities episode when it should be tying up loose ends at the series conclusion. Bloodline is extremely far from a bad show, and always provides reasons to keep watching, but it never fulfills its early promise either.

Letterkenny: Seasons 2 & 3 (CraveTV; 2016-Present)

Speaking of early promise, Canadian media giant Bell Media’s CraveTV streaming-platform smash hit Letterkenny had oodles of it. Built on a near-sublime appreciation of the foul-mouthed but ever-inventive language of groups of buddies in a rural setting (be they hick farmers, underground-culture skids, or cocky hockey players), creator/writer/star Jared Keeso’s blisteringly funny comedy series made a considerable impression in its first six-episode run early in 2016.

It would not be precisely true to say that Letterkenny‘s subsequent second and third seasons (as well as a one-off St. Patrick’s Day special released in between them) failed to fulfill that promise. They continued and extended the show’s involved colloquial riffing while introducing sharply funny parodies of Canadian politics (an ad for the election of the president of the local Agricultural Society lampoons the Conservatives’ harshly dismissive “He’s Just Not Ready” attacks ads targetting Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in the 2015 Canadian federal election, which look especially shoddy now that he’s a generally popular Prime Minister) and popular culture (funds inherited from a deceased uncle spark a Dragon’s Den-style presentation competition to determine how they are to be invested).

Letterkenny remains funny in the ways that it was always funny, but nearly too often in precisely those ways. Characters mostly reside in their comedy stock archetypes, without considerable variance. Those riffs of comic dialogue, brilliant as they can be, often carry such a consistent structure that they risk becoming stale: there’s a recurring pass-to-the-next-guy bit with the teammates of hockey players Reilly and Jonesy in Seasons Two and Three that does overstay its welcome, although it is varied a touch with a subtext of raw male insecurity made blatant text. Repeated phrases and bits that began onscreen life as amusingly original utterances become mere catchphrases. The frequent motifs of slow-motion fight scenes or sexy-lady struts scored by aggressive Canadian indie-rock pop up again and again. These tendencies become particularly egregious in the “St. Perfect’s Day” special, which reduces the Letterkenny formula to an uninspired cartoon.

But good luck pumping the brakes on Letterkenny. Even as its structuring and comic arcs become more familiar, the dialogue is still so unpredictable and inspired, the timing and delivery of the performers so exquisite, the sociological verve of its setting so self-renewing, that it’s always worth watching. Keeso and co-writer and series director Jacob Tierney are quite smart about how to tweak their self-established formulas, and the instances in which they do so (in dialogue, performance, and visuals) are among the funniest moments in the show’s last two seasons.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Season 11 (Netflix; 2017)

The revival season of cult geek-comedy television classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, available since mid-April on Netflix, seems fortuitously timed. Its core concept – mad scientists imprison a jumpsuited factory grunt on an orbital satellite and attempt to pickle his brain with awful movies, to which the average Joe(l) (or Mike, or Jonah) responds by endearingly mocking the bad films with the help of two snarky robots to avoid losing his mind – could be considered a metaphor for cultural survivalism in the post-capitalist news-cycle madness of 2017. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether left-leaning political and cultural snark on television and the internet is an effective form of resistance to the reactionary ideology represented by Donald Trump. Whatever effect (or lack thereof) mockery has had on his election campaign and presidency, laughing at Trump, despite its ease, is undeniably cathartic for those who disagree with him and all that he represents.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to its Silent Majority of dedicated acolytes, known as MSTies) is just such an outlet for comforting catharsis. Laughing at sincerely terrible movies might seem like punching down, but the MST3K model has always carried a measure of disrespect for authority and more than a faint shadow of anti-capitalist sentiment. The concept punctures the faux-mystique around cinema by violating its holiest commandment: Thou Shalt Not Talk in the Theatre. From the breaking of this cultural taboo follow small rebellions against the regard for filmmakers and actors, the suspension of disbelief at hackneyed premises and unconvincing special effects, the acceptance of nonsensical plotting and stilted dialogue; in short, against the very spurious claims to authority undergirding the producers-consumers compact that is the foundation of commercial capitalism. This is the bedrock of MST3K‘s trademarked “riffs”, which frequently spiral off into obscure references, topical jokes, and timeless observational humour in an unpredictable, often giddy manner. But it is also the bedrock for a generalized MST3K philosophy: the world is a mad place and it’s out to chew you up and rob you blind, and the only way to make sense of it is to laugh at it.

MST3K originally aired between 1988 and 1999, beginning on public access television in Minneapolis, Minnesota, moving to an embryonic Comedy Central (then known as the Comedy Channel), shifting to the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), and even finding its way to the very movie theatres it treated with such good-natured disrespect with a feature film in 1996 (which was my own inculcation to the franchise and still, for my money, one of the funniest movies ever made). The brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who also starred as its first host/human experimental subject, the low-budget show’s core scenes took place in a simulated cinema through an effect known as “Shadowrama”, with black silhouettes of the host, the robots, and a row of theatre seats superimposed at the base of the “projected” movie (inspired by an image in the liner notes of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). This allowed for not only the flood of verbal riffs but also elements of performance and even visual gags in “interaction” with the movie. To break up this central motif, various sketches would be interspersed around the commercial breaks, featuring the host and the robots, as well as the so-called “Mads” via videolink.

Hodgson left the show after its fifth season, replaced thereafter as host by head writer Mike Nelson, who also headlined MST3K: The Movie. The voices of the robots, the gumball-machine-like mock-sophisticate Tom Servo and gold-clad Groucho Marx-esque Crow T. Robot, also changed during the decade-long run, as did the actors playing the Mads. A certain Joel vs. Mike schism has thus developed in the fan and critical reception of the show, with some fans preferring Joel’s laid-back, ironical style and preference for prop-based humour and others going to bat for Mike’s more aggressive zingers.

This split has likewise transfered into similarly-pitched post-MST3K projects headed by Hodgson and Nelson and featuring former cast members. Nelson produces and sells online-distributed audio-only comedic commentaries to accompany legal copies of movies (B-movie, Hollywood blockbuster, and otherwise) known as RiffTrax with longtime Tom Servo voice actor Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who played Crow near the end of the show’s run. Hodgson, meanwhile, started a (now discontinued) live movie-riffing tour with accompanying DVDs, which he called Cinematic Titanic, with Trace Beaulieu (a core cast member who played head Mad Dr. Clayton Forrester and voiced Crow up until the final three Sci-Fi Channel seasons), Frank Conniff (Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester, Clayton’s mad-scientist mother), and J. Elvis Weinstein (the first Tom Servo).

With this in mind, the new season of MST3K, largely funded via public donations on Kickstarter (over $5.7 million was raised, a record for the service’s Film & Video section) and distributed by Netflix, is most certainly a Joel Hodgson production. Hodgson directs all 14 episodes of the new season, is on the writing staff (along with head writer Elliott Kalan, Jon Stewart’s former head writer on The Daily Show), makes disguised on-camera appearances, and his sensibility lurks behind the return of the prop-heavy Invention Exchange sketches and other practical effects. Pehl, Corbett, and Murphy also have cameos, but other than that, The Return is marked by a near-total turnover of on-camera talent. The new human subject is Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), with new voice actors for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount), and female robot Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). The Mads have also turned over, with Felicia Day as Kinga, the new scion of the Forrester mad-scientist clan, and Patton Oswalt as Max (a.k.a. TV’s Son of TV’s Frank). Jonah’s prison home, the Satellite of Love, now orbits Kinga’s lunar base, Moon 13, which features a house band, the Skeleton Crew, that doubles as Kinga’s minions.

Hodgson and his team filmed the new season in Los Angeles rather than the prior 10 seasons’ production base of Minneapolis, and have a far more generous budget to work with. The sci-fi accoutrements of the filmed sketch segments retain a low-budget aesthetic nonetheless, but technical advances are more evident in the theatre: Tom Servo is now able to fly, opening up any number of new visual gags with his hovering silhouette on the movie screen; Crow has visible legs, and moves around the theatre more as well; and even Gypsy, her robotic head suspended at the end of a thick cable, pops into the theatre with a zinger or two each episode (she had previously only riffed along for a brief time in a 4th season episode). The intermission segments, though no longer strictly required on commercial-free Netflix, are retained as respites, often featuring high-wattage guest star spots (by Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris), limited long-form storytelling (Kinga decides late in the season to grab at bigger ratings by marrying Jonah), and striking faux-cardboard cut-out comedy sequences. These segments even provided MST3K‘s first real meme of the viral video internet era, a hilarious rap rundown of international mythic monsters:

But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is, has, and always will be defined by its riffing along to terrible movies, and it’s the lion’s share of each episode’s running time inside the Mystery Science Theatre (its actual name, revealed in a faux-ad-break bumper) that defines its relative quality. The Return summons some real stinkburgers, and generally speaking, the riffs on these films performed by Ray, Vaughn, and Yount live up to the show’s august geek legacy while adapting tone and material for a contemporary cultural setting that, thanks largely to the internet and the digitally-empowered discourse therein, has moved closer to MST3K‘s barrage of snarky comments than Hodgson must have thought possible back in the still-analog 1980s. For easier consumption, some point-form highlights follow:

  • Episode 1 – “Reptilicus”: The source episode of “Every Country Has a Monster”, this awkwardly-pitched Danish monster rampage flick functions quite ably as a 90-minute assurance to fans that despite the space of years and near-total creative talent turnover, all will be well with MST3K. Featuring super-broad and eminently mockable comedy relief from Danish comic Dirch Passer, “Reptilicus” truly kicks into high cruddy-movie gear as the titular reptilian beast (shoddily executed as a model-scale rubber puppet) runs amok through the Danish countryside and finally in the centre of Copenhagen. The riffs ratchet up during this climax, too, and for me reach a comedic height that the rest of season struggles to match. One fancifully mock-informative behind-the-scenes detail riff from Servo (suggesting that model trees were made from sprigs of rosemary) had me on the floor.
  • Episode 2 – “Cry Wilderness”: Greeted by many viewers as a new MST3K classic, I found this movie’s riffs funny enough but not always up to the genuine loopiness of the film itself. Focusing on a young boy with some sort of psychic link with Bigfoot (who quite enjoys Coke), Cry Wilderness also features repeated forced faux-jocularity laughter and two scenes with a Native-American mystic and his menagerie of animal familiars that looks and feels like something out of Jodorowsky.
  • Episode 4 – “Avalanche”: For me, the revival season’s funniest episode. In this 1970s disaster flick, Rock Hudson (whose besweatered heftiness inspires a litany of jokes about a fondness for lunch buffets) stars as the owner and developer of a ski resort, with Mia Farrow as his ex-wife who visits just prior to the catastrophic titular snowslide. Dialogue-light scenes of furious action are always fine fodder for riffs, and the avalanche sequence in this episode might be the funniest sustained riff run of the season. Bonus points for holding off on the Woody Allen references re: Farrow until a fine extended joke in the final minutes, thus achieving maximum effect. Additionally, Neil Patrick Harris sings a song about online dating with Day (the two co-starred in Joss Whedon’s cult series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) during one intermission but I didn’t much like it.
  • Episode 5 – “The Beast of Hollow Mountain”: With the titular stop-motion beast held offscreen until late in the closing act, this 1956 Western set in Mexico is ribbed mercilessly for its blatant racial stereotypes and insensitive humourous treatment of alcoholism. MST3K at its most woke.
  • Episode 6 – “Starcrash”: An illogical, glacially-paced American-Italian space opera starring frizzy-haired former evangelical preacher Marjoe Gortner, buxom B-movie queen Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, and Christopher Plummer as the Emperor as the Universe, Starcrash has long been a hoped-for target of MST3K riffing among fans. Though the result generally doesn’t disappoint, the riffing can’t quite do the film’s awful weirdness full justice. It does feature the season’s non-kaiju-rap musical comedy high point, a Beach Boys parody called “Come Along Baby In My UFO”, as well as a vaguely baffled Jerry Seinfeld cameo.
  • Episode 7 – “The Land That Time Forgot”: One of two Edgar Rice Burroughs spec-fic adaptations starring Doug McClure (the slightly-puffy B-movie star who was the primary model for the classic Simpsons character Troy McClure) this season, this nutty movie about a WWI German U-Boat taken over by Allied sailors that alights on a hidden prehistoric island edges out the season-ending “At The Earth’s Core”, despite the latter’s eccentric English gentleman sidekick role for Peter Cushing.
  • Episode 9 – “Yongary: Monster from the Deep”: A Korean kaiju movie from the 1960s, “Yongary” features an annoying kid who dances with the rampaging monster shortly before the beast’s climactic death throes, which are disturbingly, uncomfortably drawn out. Jonah and the bots’ discomfort at Yongary’s convincing, squirming agony summoned by the puppeteers pushes through the usual ironic detachment with just the right force.
  • Episodes 10 & 11 – “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I & II”: Amateurish, filmed-in-the-woods sword-and-sorcery non-epics, each with different annoying kids, different vamping villains, and with low-budget kings Bo Svenson and David Carradine as different but equally-diffident legendary swordsmen who can barely be bothered to unsheath their blades. The first is better than the second, for MST3K purposes at least.
  • Episode 12 – “Carnival Magic”: A carnival-set sorta-drama starring a chimpanzee. Some funny stuff, but not enough good riff material to justify such a limp, incorrigibly incoherent movie choice. Good Mark Hamill cameo, though.

Overall, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 revival is a welcome development, and sidles in alongside the revered previous seasons of the show with a reasonable claim to living up to its name. It’s a snarky but generally good-natured comedic balm for political, social, and cultural times that are particularly discouraging for the species of insouciant subcultural smart-asses for whom the show is a shared talisman.

Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews, Television

Television Review: Fargo – Season Two

After initially assessing and at least partially dismissing the first season of Noah Hawley’s television adaptation of the Oscar-winning American film classic Fargo for FX as half-baked, comically-challenged Coen Brothers fan fiction, I returned to reconsider. While I did not find a work that rose to the level of the original source material (which, to be fair, is one of the great American films of the past quarter-century), watching the full season on its own terms allowed a unique, idiosyncratic work to emerge of its own accord. It was a more pitiless and sensationalist violent crime potboiler than the Coens’ Fargo (or any of their films, really), and although often funny and amusing, it could never convincingly approximate the Coens’ comic voice.

We can forgive this and resist characterizing it as a failure, given the exceptional nature of the brothers’ precisely modulated, entirely singular writing style. But Fargo the TV show was carried through by strong writing nonetheless, as well as a batch of excellent performances from the likes of Allison Tolman, Keith Carradine, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and even an oblique, seemingly-improvised supporting appearance from comedy duo Key and Peele.

The second season of Fargo therefore became a more anticipated event, especially when reviews and returns labelled it as being far better than the first, even a veritable television classic. Imagine my concern, then, when after observing how the show wore down my preliminary objections as its first season went on, I found those objections creeping inescapably back in as its second season moved forward. The television Fargo is undeniably its own beast with its own ideas and appealing features, regardless of how many themes, character types, plot elements, settings, musical selections, writing and storytelling devices, or filmmaking techniques it borrows, recycles, or repurposes from the Coens canon. But with every callback and reference to the Fargo film or another Coens joint, its fanfic core became harder to transcend, especially when its own extrapolations on top of that core rely so heavily on standard-issue crime drama gangland dick-measuring clichés.

Set in 1979, about 35 years before the roughly current-day events of the first season, Fargo Season Two fills in a darkly hinted-at portion of that narrative’s backstory. In Season One, Lou Solverson is a retired Minnesota state trooper (played by Carradine), father to keen local cop Molly Solverson (Tolman), who is the central detective figure unravelling that season’s web of crime. Recurring dialogue references back to a disturbing and violent event that took place in Sioux Falls, Minnesota while Lou was on active duty as a younger man. The most he ever brings himself to say about what happened there, during a tense conversation at his roadside diner with cold-blooded contract killer Lorne Malvo (Thornton), is that it was more “animal” than human.

The viewer of Season Two, when judging the all-too-human errors, betrayals, pride, and resentments that lead up to a bloodbath at a motor motel in the penultimate episode that caps a series of murders strewn across three states, might find that the older Solverson’s description constitutes a certain abdication of responsibility. Fargo, like the Coens canon it is in creative conversation with, is fundamentally concerned with human choice and the dimensions of morality, but like the Coens’ work it also recognizes, with a bitter ironic sting, the limits of human agency and the ambivalent caprices of an arbitrary universe. Actions have consequences in the world of Fargo, but just as often, those consequences arise unbidden, manifesting not as karmic justice but as cosmic randomness. This combination of human fallibility and forces beyond our comprehension inevitably leads to catastrophe.

This particular catastrophe stems from an organized crime turf war in the snowy northern Midwest (actually shot in and around Calgary, Alberta, like the show’s first season). When the steely, aged patriarch of the Gerhardt family crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota suffers a debilitating stroke around the same time the youngest of his sons, Rye (Kieran Culkin), goes missing after murdering a hostile judge and a pair of witnesses in a diner, the Kansas City mafia decides to exploit this moment of perceived weakness to expand into the family’s sovereign territory. Represented by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), encyclopedically-minded Mike Milligan (a bemusedly verbose Bokeem Woodbine), and an imposing, mute pair of twin brother enforcers (Brad and Todd Mann), Kansas City seeks to negotiate a favourable settlement of spheres of influence with the interim boss of the Gerhardt clan, matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), whole rule is supported by her middle son Bear (Angus Sampson), but any attempts at peaceful resolution are undercut and turned towards an all-out war by the belligerence and violence of her eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand man, sinister Native American tracker and triggerman Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon). Meanwhile, Dodd’s rebellious daughter Simone (Rachel Keller) tries to play both sides, and Bear’s son Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) chafes at his father’s protectiveness and yearns to participate in what he sees as the glamourous life of the family criminal business.

Into this volatile situation drops Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst, who’s rarely been better), a small-town beautician with a resourceful but semi-delusional mania for self-actualization, and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons as a deep sigh in human form), who has modest dreams of saving up to buy the main-street butcher shop in which he works as an assistant. Peggy strikes Rye with her car after he commits the Waffle Hut murders, and rather than go to the police, she and Ed follow a string of decisions that lead to Rye’s death and their pursuit by the vengeful Gerhardts and the inquiring police for their deepening involvement in the gang war. Those police include not only the young Lou Solverson (that perennially underrated gem of a quasi-leading man, Patrick Wilson), whose wife Besty (Cristin Milioti) is dying of cancer, but his stalwart, wry sheriff father-in-law Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and the squirming, unreliable Fargo PD Detective Ben Schmidt (Keir O’Donnell). Nick Offerman also shows up for a clutch of episodes as an alcoholic local lawyer and, like Solverson, a Vietnam vet with a key role to play.

Hawley and his writers maintain a strong ear for the accented speech and polite understatement that constitutes the verbal element of “Minnesota Nice”. If it’s not the Coens’ ear, well, see the disclaimer in the second paragraph, but it’s still quite good. The dialogue approximates their indie-film avatars’ fondness for contrasting polite middlebrow misunderstandings with vicious crimeland hostility, as well as digressive but thematically/metaphorically reflective monologues and speeches (the writers really like those; some characters, such as Milligan, express themselves almost entirely in them). Punctuated by outbursts of gory violence, such tone and material can veer closer to the influence of Quentin Tarantino as opposed to the Coens, a bit of an easier creative touchstone to try to copy.

A braver and more difficult choice in Season Two’s construction, indeed its most contentious turn, is the way Hawley and his writers insert fantastical science fiction into their essentially realist (although fictionally exaggerated) crime narrative. At two key junctures in the plot – following Rye’s massacre at the waffle house and during the Sioux City shootout – a UFO appears in the night sky, distracting characters at important moments with fateful results. Hawley has only offered vague, cultural-history-type justifications of the flying saucer’s appearances, which vlogger Ryan Hollinger attempts to make sense of here (a little dissatisfactorily, I must admit). I do agree that the UFO has a precedent in the Coens-verse (Billy Bob Thornton sees one in The Man Who Wasn’t There, though its function there is more symbolic or metaphorical and has no direct bearing on the plot, as it does in the show), and that the alien visitation can be understood in terms of the concept of random, extra-human forces acting upon human lives, also a frequent Coens theme, as discussed.

But I can’t shake the thought that the flying saucer, integrated into the world of Fargo as it is, is a device for meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling and plotting itself. It’s a species of atomic-age deus ex machina for a world (in 1979 as in our own times) that can’t bring itself to trust gods to exist, let alone to intervene in human affairs for any sense of greater good. Its interference is nearly indirect; it hovers and spotlights characters, but their paralyzed awe (and the ability of others around them to overcome that sense of awe to act) carries the consequences, not extraterrestrial chess-mastering. In an America absorbed in wishful, fantastical thinking in its blockbuster entertainments (Star Wars and the sci-fi wave of the late 1970s; the superhero-driven speculative explosion of contemporary Hollywood) as well as in the supposedly more sober political sphere (Donald Trump now; Ronald Reagan in 1979, played here in a masterful satirical cameo by Bruce Campbell), a UFO as catalyst for human drama, for tragic, pointless slaughter, is an apt image, both reflective and a subtle critique of rampant fantasism. Contrary to popular blather about destiny and fate, Fargo and its UFO shine a spotlight (quite literally) on fraught human decisions. The responsibility for, and thus the crushing weight of, those decisions lies with us, not with lights in the sky, divine, extraterrestrial, or otherwise.

With such ideas in play, I can’t be entirely clear-cut in declaring Fargo an elaborate but pale Coens homage as opposed to a sophisticated and original (if highly referential) engagement and exploration of the world and the themes of their films. There are times, in the space of a single episode for certain and even in the space of a single scene, at which in can be both. Doubts aside, Fargo remains a rewarding watch. Even pale Coens homages are superior to a vast swath of what’s on television screens, just as their films are greatly superior to a vast swath of what’s on movie screens.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #32

January 15, 2017 1 comment

Hannibal (NBC; 2013-2015)

Bryan Fuller’s ornately gory and boldly intriguing take on the world of Thomas Harris’ serial-killer novels is magnificently stylish and written with simultaneous obscuring sophistication and bloody-minded brutality, much like its titular genius psychologist and murderer-cannibal, played with coldly-controlled unpredictability by Mads Mikkelsen. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s viscera-splattered psycho-dramatic pas à deux with FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, an average-to-good actor who appears woefully inadequate next to Mikkelsen’s magisterial work) unfolded over three seasons on NBC, and the impressive feat of sliding quite so much artful gore (not to mention so much gory art) onto American network hannibaltvtelevision was tempered by the critically-favoured but insufficiently-watched show’s cancellation, which unfortunately truncates its narrative.

Though perhaps three servings was enough of this particularly rich dish. The flavours were suitably changed after each season: Season One took the fundamentally generic form of a murder-of-the-week procedural, Season Two batted that form around before moving into more baroque thriller-horror territory, and Season Three went in whole other directions entirely. Despite its variation, its fearlessness, its visual invention, its evolving symbology and slippery metaphorical implications, Hannibal is a dinner guest that wears out its welcome to some extent by the end of its second season, in my estimation.

But until then – and even mostly after that point, if we’re being honest – Hannibal is engrossing and frequently gorgeous television that genuinely draws blood. It can take itself too seriously by half, and the morbid gallows humour of its early episodes (mostly the domain of the crime scene lab rats played by Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson) drains away as the psychological duel between Hannibal and Will gains in dimension and importance, pivoting ever more into the involved inner mythology of the show. It increasingly relies on recurring guest stars (most prominently Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson, and Raúl Esparza as various figures in the Lecter-verse) for new narrative direction and thematic impact, as well.

But the ingredients of the remarkable cinematography, acute writing, and Mikkelsen’s impeccable, dangerously unreadably Lecter are so consistently strong and uniformly constant that even a misguided episode or two can’t embitter the intoxicating brew. Hannibal may not be truly great, but it’s about as close as a show can get without grabbing that top rung, especially on network TV, with its peculiar artistic constraints.

Trapped (RÚV; 2015-2016)

Created and partially directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), Trapped is a moody, darkling murder mystery drama set in a remote Icelandic town full of dark and deadly secrets. Seyðisfjörður (not going to help you pronounce that, sorry) might seem like a sleepy, isolated settlement at the end of a fjord on Iceland’s east coast that only springs trapped_icelandtvbriefly to mild life when a regular international ferry from Denmark via the Faroe Islands docks at its small port and disgorges a pack of passengers. The town doesn’t need much of a police force, subsisting on a mere three members of the national police (Lögreglan) to keep the order: the hefty, bearded Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a former hotshot Reykjavík detective hiding out in the boonies after a failure on a past case and struggling through a divorce with Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), the mother of his two daughters, and his deputies Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and Ásgeir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Still, whispers of past traumas haunt Seyðisfjörður, namely a fire at the local fish factory seven years before the start of the series that claimed the life of Agnes’s younger sister and lead to the imprisonment and ostracizing of her boyfriend Hjörtur (Baltasar Breki Samper), who was blamed for the blaze.

Those ghosts of the town’s past and the demons of its present, which sees the town’s prominent citizens scheming with government figures to buy up fjord-fronting land in anticipation of a potential moonshot deal for a Chinese-funded shipping superport, surface uncomfortably along with a headless, limbless torso found floating in the water in conjunction with the arrival of the Smyril Line ferry. A simultaneous snowstorm closes the only mountain pass road into town, forcing Andri and his overburdened team to alone investigate the murder of the mutilated body and the increasingly sprawling web of crime around it.

Trapped controls its visuals and its keen sense of place with confidence, and fits snugly into the contemporary, internationally-recognized renaissance of Scandinavian television mysteries known as Nordic noir. It draws you in with its impressive scope and tantalizing unknowns, but the interest it earns withers disappointingly on the vine well before its final tenth episode. It’s at least two and maybe even three or four episodes too long, and fills the extra time with subplots (often pointless or perfunctorily resolved ones), misdirections, and half-related scenes of danger and peril: Andri gets stuck in a freezer, Andri gets stuck in an avalanche, Andri wrestles with the most dangerous man in the Faroe Islands (a character actually gives the guy that title, which sounds laughable but might actually be pretty impressive, if you consider what they do to pilot whales on that remote archipelago).

The dialogue, at least in English subtitled translation, also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to expressiveness and subtlety. Perhaps some nuances are lost from the Icelandic, I can’t rightly say, but the cast of domestically-based Icelandic actors don’t exactly plumb the depths of the script’s possibilities either. Few of them stand out and demonstrate distinctive personalities, let alone constitute memorable performances, and with a cast of characters as large as this one, this can lead to confusion and uncertainty about their relationships to one another and therefore can muddy the wider plot.

Trapped isn’t great, and is often no better than passable. What it does provide is a resonant (if not precisely attractive or tourism-encouraging) portrait of its setting, though it could do with some greater depth of social context in this vein: for example, the clutch of deaths and law-breaking acts that afflict the town would equal several years’ worth of total criminal output for the whole of Iceland, a country with an incredibly low violent crime rate. As with so many mystery shows from international television, Trapped is best as a prismatic view into life in a different, unique place well apart from our own location and experience.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: Westworld – Season One

January 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Westworld – Season One (HBO; 2016)

Based on a cult 1970s film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, Westworld imagines a theme park of the near-future that utilizes human-like androids to replicate America’s Wild West (at least in its Hollywood Western mythos iteration) for paying vacationers. While Crichton’s film was a pulp B-movie take on this intriguing premise, this HBO series version co-created and showrun by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan (brother of and frequent screenwriter for acclaimed director Christopher Nolan) delves into its thematic and intellectual possibilities.

Featuring the large ensemble cast and sprawling world-creation imperatives of many other HBO dramas, Westworld focuses on many characters and storylines in and around this theme park, inculcating its guests, robotic “hosts”, corporate overseers, creative directors, and low-level technicians into its processes and meanings. At the westworld2top of Westworld’s pyramid is Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park and, despite his advanced years and secretive practices, still an active if inscrutable presence in the crafting of the park’s immersive, interactive experiences and storylines, known as “narratives”.

Ford’s plans for a grand new narrative are treated with skepticism by operations manager Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and later by Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a savvy and ruthless envoy from the board of Delos, the corporate overlords of Westworld, whose interest in the park goes beyond simple tourist business. Below Ford is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), whose team, including the sharp-tongue Elsie (Shannon Woodward), monitors and tweaks the behavior of the hosts. Bernard is also involved sexually with Cullen and continues to the haunted by the death of his young son. There’s also an arrogant writer of narratives (Simon Quarterman), a square-jawed head of security (Luke Hemsworth), and a pair of bickering, host-repairing lab techs (Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) onsite in the vast behind-the-scenes complex.

Inside the park is much more intriguing (and, outside of Hopkins and Wright, the location of most of the better performances). The hosts – the lifelike, Turing Test-passing robot denizens of Westworld – while away day after day in the park in endless repetitive loops, used by the guests however they see fit: killed, maimed, beaten, screwed, then reset, mended and returned to the start of their pre-set path without any memory of what was done to them. Although specific hosts may play a series of roles over the decades (or may indeed be retired to a spooky, light-flickering basement vault), those we meet at the opening of the series fill a series of Western archetypes. There’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the virtuous farmer’s daughter romantically yearning for a fresh horizon; Teddy (James Marsden), the gunslinging man of action tending an unrequited (and unrequitable) flame for Dolores as well as a dark, violent secret in his past; Maeve (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten saloon/brothel madam with a history of painful loss; and in the background, the usual coterie of ruthless, colourful outlaws and killers, lawmen and laymen, Mexican peasants and Indian raiders, Confederate Army guerrilla dead-enders and Union soldiers.

There are also three guests of particular note: uninhibited park vet and corporate investor Logan (Ben Barnes) and his more timid and morally conscious future-brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson), a park neophyte through whose eyes the depths of the place are revealed; and the mysterious, cruel, implacable Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest of long standing who has wearied of even Westworld’s more involved entertainments and is searching doggedly for the secret meaning at the end of the park’s metaphorical “Maze”, supposedly planted there by Ford’s now-deceased co-founder, Arnold. Logan and William’s adventures coincide with what seems to be a scattershot awakening of sentient self-awareness for Dolores, while Maeve likewise begins to remember things and question her reality and the park’s patriarch Ford is increasingly threatened with removal by Delos’ reps.

Westworld‘s storytelling is of the puzzle-box variety, and like the most notable examples of that type (Lost comes particularly to mind), frequently employs subterfuge and delay and obscuring incident to kick the can containing its core mysteries down the road. This can be frustrating, but their revelation in later episodes (especially the finale) as the pieces come together cannot be said to be unsatisfying. There are some strong performances: Wood, Wright, and the ever-underrated Newton are all quite good, though the elite-level work of longtime veteran actor Hopkins – who can turn a simple dialogue scene into a thespianic masterclass – outshines the lot. The musical selections by Ramin Djawadi include contemporary pop-rock songs in re-orchestration (Maeve’s eye-opening tour of the backroom facilities is lovelily scored by Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”) and in arrangements on player-piano (which doubles as a recurring metaphor for the hosts’ invisible automation) which subtly comment on Westworld’s eeriely artificial nature. Indeed, the show’s entire premise presents an obvious opportunity to critique the American mythmaking project around westward expansion. But Joy and Nolan are less interesting in that artificial creation than the God-proxy intellectual implications of creating artificial intelligence and the invisible dance of freedom and control.

More than anything, Westworld is keenly aware of the milieu in which it is presented and signals that awareness in its thematic construction. As a showpiece prestige HBO drama, Westworld displays the hallmarks of that once-bulletproof, now-faded honorific: noted for its graphic violence, nudity and sex, and general adult content, but redeemed from mere cynical sensationalism by a self-serious core of anxiously questing meaning, a quasi-literary focus on the Big Questions about society, morality, and human nature. From Oz through The Sopranos and The Wire up to the network’s current juggernaut Game of Thrones, top-shelf Emmy-favoured drama series have shared this character and grappled with its baseline dichotomy.

Interestingly, Westworld enacts this fundamental framing of the HBO drama, which presupposes a critical view that inclines to the negative, within its very text. The elaborate Old West theme park is a romantic but detailed simulacrum of its historical setting, inhabited by intelligent robots painstakingly programmed to exhibit convincing – if simulated – human expression and emotion, its daily rhythms directed by constructed narratives rooted in base drives, governing passions, social conflicts, and moral choice. But despite all this focus on the skilled crafting of meaning, most of the guests at this intricate attraction are understood as only being crassly interested in fucking and killing, both of which they can (and do) engage in with the artificial hosts with impunity.

Of course, Westworld certainly is about the deeper questions. Its creators’ intent of representing not merely hedonistic excess but exploring philosophical quandaries about artificial intelligence, consciousness, memory, and the nature of sentient existence is carried out, just as the similar intent of Ford and Arnold endures through the visceral amusements favoured by the guests. Perhaps even the struggles and conflicts of the park’s creative element with their grasping corporate overlords are meant to reflect the not-dissimilar negotiation of artistic and capitalist interests that the show’s brain trust experienced at HBO, a network in dire need of the non-Westerosi drama division success that Westworld represented. For its steely meta-intelligence as well as its dogged watchability, Westworld is enough of a success to do the trick, for HBO and for discerning television audiences.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #31

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Mr. Robot (USA; 2015-Present)

Opening its first season with a blast of consumerism-critiquing iconoclasm and highly particular potentiality, this acclaimed series about troubled anti-corporate computer hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his inculcation in a daring, revolutionary hacktivist plot led by the unpredictable titular figure (played by Christian Slater) reverts to soapy melodramatic plot turns before too long (murder! sadomasochism! gangland intrigue! murder again! secret family connections!). But it never abandons its sharply questing writing, its uneasily-framed cinematography, and its committed, mercurial performances. And it is always eminently watchable.

Working as an engineer at cyber security firm Allsafe, Elliot’s practical and intellectual brilliance melds with near-debilitating psychological problems and social awkwardness. Perhaps to assuage manifest misanthropic tendencies as well as to address latent guilt about past family trauma and corporate servitude, Elliott hacks the people around him, learning every private detail of their lives through email, social media, bank and credit card records, and anything else about them that is within his digital reach: his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), her doofus boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport), his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his neighbour, drug dealer, and semi-girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), even his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben).

Elliott also wields his hacking prowess as a tool for social justice and personal retribution. The series’ arresting opening scene shows him exposing the child pornography habit of a coffee shop franchise owner to police; he later blackmails the married man having an affair with Krista into breaking it off (and giving Elliott his dog) and gets Shayla’s drug-lord supplier jailed for this crimes as well. But his true outlet is an insurrectionist anti-corporate hacktivist cell known as fsociety, helmed by a loose-cannon fanatic known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and also including a firebrand hacker named Darlene (Carly Chaikin). fsociety recruits Elliott (or is it vice versa?) for a grand anarchist scheme to infiltrate the vast server farms of the world’s largest corporation, technology and financial giant E Corp (nicknamed Evil Corp by Elliott and other critics of its activities, and sometimes even by its employees), and permanently wipe the reams of data stored there.

Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is such a particular piece of television craft with such rich and often nuanced things to say about modern corporatism and technology-inf(l)ected life that it’s easy to miss its clear influences. David Fincher is the most obvious point of reference. The chilling noir-ish view of digital age alienation suggests The Social Network, whose memorable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is taken as a model for Mac Quayle’s flittering (and, if anything, superior) electronic soundtrack to Elliott’s mounting troubles. Fight Club is an even bigger inspiration, although Mr. Robot thankfully leaves out its tendency towards fascistic masculinity. It does borrow a key portion of Fight Club‘s revolutionary activist group Project Mayhem’s grand plan to undermine corporate capitalism by wiping out all consumer debt, as well as (double spoiler coming) the protagonist’s disassociative identity disorder. The show tips its hat to these roots by utilizing an instrumental version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”, featured at the conclusion of Fight Club, at a key moment late in the first season.

Mr. Robot‘s dominant tones of paranoia and alienation are consistently, strikingly conveyed through its cinematography, and specifically through its framing, technically referred to as lower-quadrant framing. Without getting too deeply into the technical visual theory (which James Manning does for us in this helpful video essay), this show looks different from anything else on television on a consistent basis and therefore feels different. Its characters are stranded and disoriented within the frame, especially the wide-eyed, heavy-lidded Egyptian-American Malek, who finds the distinction between reality and fantasy, the tangible and the digital, ever more difficult to discern. Mr. Robot has its foibles and its melodramatic tangents and can take it self too seriously by half, but it might be the sharpest and most trenchant narrative and metaphorical exploration of how we live now airing on American TV.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: Stranger Things

October 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Stranger Things (Netflix; 2016)

The early fall’s undisputed internet buzz champion of online video streaming series, the Duffer Brothers’ exercise in nostalgic Spielbergian/Carpenterian genre film homage has generated far more involved discussion than has been strictly earned by the text itself. Despite its sci-fi subject matter of telekinetic abilities and shadow dimensions inhabited by predatory monsters, Stranger Things is predominantly concerned with broad, conventional themes: high school hierarchies, teenage hormones, secretive and oppressive authorities, grief and loss, family and friendship. But when those recognizable themes and speculative elements are put together with narrative verve, visual flair, and solid characters played by likable actors, a slightly-above-average success in genre entertainment can present as much more.

Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, and from its period clothes and technology to its pulsating synthesizer soundtrack and constellation of popular culture references and period movie homages, it doesn’t let the viewer forget it for a moment. In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, two concurrent mysteries arise simultaneously: a boy disappears, and a girl appears. The boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), vanishes from the vicinity of the run-down home he shares with his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) on the edge of the woods, after leaving an evening game of Dungeons & Dragons (the game’s fantasy nomenclature provides the boys with frames of reference with which to discuss the odd happenings to come) with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Around the same time, a wordless young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) with a shaved head wearing a hospital gown wanders into a roadside diner. Both children and their mysterious ordeals have something to do with a well-guarded Department of Energy laboratory on the edge of town, lorded over by the white-haired Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

Joyce remains convinced that her son is alive and has been communicating with her, even when presented with firm evidence to the contrary and disagreement on that point with Jonathan. She outfits their home with strings of Christmas lights, believing (and not wrongly, it seems) that Will, wherever he might be imagined to be, can blink out messages to her through lightbulbs. Also convinced of their friend’s endurance are Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into whose protection the girl, soon dubbed Eleven (“El” for short), drifts after fleeing pursuit at the diner. She speaks few words, shows little understanding of the world, and displays an impressive and unexplained ability to, well, do things with her mind. Additional allies include Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) disappears soon after Will does, and the Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose astute investigative skills lead him to suspect that there is more to both disappearances than meet the eye.

What proceeds from this premise, and indeed what informs it, is fairly standard genre classics of the time period, much of it telegraphed through overt allusive references: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Mike’s crew rockets around town and outskirts on their bikes, hiding their precious visitor from the sinister government authorities that wish to capture her), John Carpenter’s The Thing (the movie poster is conspicuous in Mike’s basement), Stephen King (in one scene, a suburban mom is reading It). Other reference points are not signposted quite so clearly but are still hard to miss: the shadow-dimension of the Upside-Down from which the titular stranger things emanate is a slavish (and thus distinctly unimaginative) homage to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Nancy even enters it at one point by crawling through a goopy aperture in a tree trunk), and the monster that inhabits it is a hybrid of that film’s terrifying Pale Man, the xenomorph from Alien, and the carnivorous plant from The Little Shop of Horrors.

Another 1980s film totem for the Duffers would appear to be John Hughes high school movies, and much of Stranger Things‘ episode runtimes is taken up in school social politics. Nancy, a bit of a staid straight-A student, is dating rich, opular big-man-on-campus Steve (Joe Keery) but increasingly feels a tug towards awkward loner Jonathan, whom Steve and his dickweed friends pick on, as their shared paranormal mission heats up. Mike and his friends are harrassed by a pair of bullies as well, and Eleven’s telekinetic powers help to even the score.

Indeed, for the most part, Stranger Things‘ character interactions and sci-fi mythology serve to build up to big, dramatically-satisfying standoffs that are resolved with violence: Jonathan against Steve, Nancy and Jonathan (and a special, redeemed guest!) against the creature who snatched those close to them, Eleven against that monster, the school bullies, the DoE thugs, and her surrogate father Dr. Brennan. That these resolutions are telegraphed does not make them unenjoyable or dissatisfying, but the inevitability hews to a generalized feeling while watching Stranger Things. It’s a reasonably involving experience (though like a lot of narratives with a secret enigma at its heart, it becomes less engaging the more of its central mystery is revealed) that is well-made and well-acted (Brown is a particularly riveting young actress, and Ryder is excellent as a mom who refuses to give in to grief, no matter how outlandish her reasons for hope become) but could benefit greatly from pushing at the boundaries of its formula, of expanding its borders at least a little. Stranger Things could, in other words, stand to be stranger.

Categories: Reviews, Television