Quickie Reviews #42

In this edition, we’re taking a look at The Punisher, Mindhunter, Black Mirror, and Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

 

Punisher – Season One

Marvel’s Netflix shows have been all over the map for me. I loved Daredevil, hated Jessica Jones, and found Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders to be different levels of mediocre. After the first few episodes of The Punisher, I was afraid that this would be yet another disappointing entry, but then the top blew off and things got freaking insane.

Season one starts where Frank’s appearance in Daredevil season two left off, with him still tracking down the people responsible for killing his wife and kids. There isn’t a ton of mystery here at first, and the show starts with Frank being a brutal monster murdering bad dudes with no remorse. The action stuff is great, but the show falls into the trap of replaying Frank’s memories ad nauseum in an effort to build sympathy. It just isn’t necessary, and frankly made me care less about his plight because I was getting bored. We get it, your family is dead. I know that sounds harsh, but this is a fictional television show we’re talking about here.

A few episodes in, a new frenemy for Frank is introduced, and his character saved the show for me. David Lieberman is another guy on the run from corrupt government agents. He’s presumed dead, and is using his tech powers to spy on his wife and kids. This is a mild spoiler, but there are some truly amazing moments between Frank and Lieberman’s wife. It’s clear that she wants to move on but is afraid to, and Frank clearly has feelings but doesn’t want to betray the memory of his wife or of his new “friend.” For a show that’s so focused on over the top violence, I was never bored in those smaller moments.

But don’t get me wrong, there’s some very over the top violence in The Punisher. Most of the action sequences here are incredibly intense. Things feel very personal, with Jon Bernthal selling the emotion and exhaustion of his actions. I go back and forth on liking and hating his twitchy, stuttery method of acting, but I think it works for this character. He nails the intensity of every scene.

I also appreciate the variety in action, especially when it comes to direction and cinematography. There’s a fight in the forest that’s partially shot via helmet cam and partially through a flying drone. There’s a gunfight that takes place in the Middle East where you don’t often see the gore, just splatters of blood from offscreen as Frank kills everything in sight. There’s a standoff in a warehouse between two groups where it really felt like I was there.┬áThere’s also a car chase, and while I didn’t think that one is executed all that well, I appreciated the effort.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Dinah Madani, the Homeland Security agent trying to track down Frank while also researching the death of a former friend. The character just wasn’t all that interesting, and I never felt like the actress, Amber Rose Revah, properly conveyed the internal conflict she was supposedly struggling with. Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo was awesome, though. I wanted to hate him, but he was just too damn charming.

There’s a twist near the end where one character betrays another, and I thought it was incredibly contrived. I didn’t think the character motivation was there, but it was one of those things where you just have to accept it and move on. From there, at least, I liked how everything played out. On the other hand, there’s a B story established early on that ends up amounting to basically nothing. It’s a character I never had a reason to care about, and the time you spend with him is meaningless because the resolution to his story has no impact. Honestly, I thought the writers were playing the long game in developing this character as a villain for season two, but nope. It’s just a poorly written B story.

After a somewhat slow start with too much focus on Frank feeling sorry for himself, The Punisher really picks up in the second half. It offers up plenty of the crazy fight and action sequences you’d expect, but also has smaller character moments that you might not. Other than Daredevil, this is my favorite ongoing Marvel/Netflix show. For me, that might not be saying a whole lot, but it’s something.

8.7/10

 

Black Mirror – Season Four

If you read my ranking of the Black Mirror episodes and review where season four’s episodes landed, you can get a pretty good sense for how I feel about Black Mirror season four as a whole. Honestly, it’s the same way I felt about season three. There are a few episodes in there that I really enjoy, a few that I think are okay, and a few that I actively dislike. That’s kind of the nature of the beast with a show like this.

The standout episode is definitely “Hang the DJ,” which focuses on dating in a modern world where relationships are built by technology. It’s also the only true “feel good” episode of the season, which is always a rarity on the show. “USS Callister” is a riff on Star Trek, sci-fi, and video games, and it’s a fun — if not particularly memorable — episode. Jesse Plemons does a great job nailing the real-life dork and fictional Captain Kirk-type characters.

Taken in a positive light, “Black Museum” is a bit like Black Mirror breaking the fourth wall and establishing that at least some of its stories exist in the same world. From a more negative perspective, it comes across a bit like a melding of three stories that couldn’t carry full episodes of their own. “Metalhead” is shot entirely in black and white, which helps sell its aesthetic. I kind of got a Mad Max with robots vibe, and I liked that. All in all, though, it’s one of the less ambitious or unique episodes in recent memory.

“Arkangel” and “Crocodile” are my two least favorite episodes from season four, and that mostly comes down the concepts. Where “Metalhead” feels a bit derivative, at least it’s executed well. Arkangel doesn’t have a particularly unique set up, with its focus on technology that allows parents to censor things for their children. But its characters are also boring, and the eventual climax feels completely unjustified. “Crocodile” is more a victim of just being a bit dumb. The acting from Andrea Riseborough is the strongest part, but the story doesn’t do her any favors. In a show about how technology will eventually kill us all in creative ways, it’s saying something for me to say that I didn’t buy the plot of “Crocodile” whatsoever.

Black Mirror is inherently a show that takes risks. It’s a collection of often disparate episodes with different concepts, writers, directors, actors, themes, and stories. That’s part of what makes it a special show to watch. But while I always appreciate what each episode sets out to do, the quality of execution varies wildly. And I feel like this becomes more true with each season.

Still, I can’t imagine a time where I’ll be sick of watching new episodes. While they may disappoint as often as they delight, there’s always something cool to take away and talk about.

7.8/10

 

Mindhunter – Season One

I wanted to like Mindhunter more than I did. The concept is interesting — it’s the early days of psychoanalysis for the FBI, and a small team goes around interviewing serial killers to learn more about how they think. And that part of the show really is fascinating, due in no small part to the strong performances by the jailed killers.

Unfortunately, because this is a tv show, an inordinate amount of time is spent developing our main character — and to put it frankly, he’s boring as hell. I don’t think this comes down to the writing or the way the character was developed, but rather the performance by Jonathan Groff. I don’t have anything against the guy — in fact, his Tony Award-nominated performance in Spring Awakening was phenomenal, but something doesn’t translate here. His acting choices are too small, and he constantly has this slightly bemused, slightly bored look on his face, no matter what is happening.

This problem is compounded whenever his character, Holden, is with his girlfriend. She’s also painfully uninteresting to watch, and when the two of them are on screen together, it’s like a black hole of boring. I just didn’t care about their relationship whatsoever, and the show kept shoving it down my throat. They’re together, they fight, they break up, they get back together, and I didn’t care for a second.

Thankfully, the rest of the cast is much better. Holt McCallany saves the whole thing as Holden’s partner, Bill Tench. He has this gruff voice and doesn’t fully believe in what they’re doing — or Holden’s methods. He’s also struggling at home with his son, and that story was something I’d like to see more developed in the inevitable season two.

Honestly, I liked Mindhunter in spite of itself. It’s a perfect example of being more than the sum of its parts. The first season also builds this mystery in its cold opens about a guy that seems to be a new serial killer, but there’s no resolution to that tease. Even the way the finale ends feels like it was episode 10 in a 12 episode season. There’s no sense of finality or even a true climax. The final scenes do offer some great character moments for Holden, and that’s where Groff’s best acting comes to bear. Hopefully we get more of that in season two because, at this point, I’m kind of hoping for a recasting of the lead.

7.5/10

 

Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode Two

I get frustrated when I think about Life is Strange: Before the Storm. The game truly has so much potential in its character moments and scene development, but it drops the ball in too many ways to ignore.

At the end of the day, most of the writing still feels like it’s coming from a bunch of old white dudes trying to write for angsty teens. In the proper Life is Strange season one, I could look past this because the characters were still interesting and the game’s hook was strong enough to carry me through to the end. But with Before the Storm, the main character is mostly annoying and there isn’t that greater mystery that I’m looking to see resolved.

The “insult” minigame from episode one returns, and it still sucks. I don’t even know what else to say about that mechanic anymore other than it’s lame and honestly often feels shoehorned into situations where it isn’t appropriate. It’s like the developers needed more gameplay to be present and this is the best they could come up with.

Still, I find myself wanting to see this thing through to the end. I’m certainly more excited to play episode three now than I was after finishing the first episode. The Chloe/Rachel relationship is just so strong, and Rachel really brings out the best in Chloe. She’s still a hipster asshole, but you can tell that at least part of that is an act.

There’s a phenomenal scene built around Rachel acting in their school’s version of The Tempest, and that moment stands up against the best stuff from Life is Strange season one. If the finale can deliver more of those moments, my time with Before the Storm will have been well spent. It’s just a shame that the writing so often falls flat, because this unneeded sequel could have been something surprisingly special.

7.8/10

 

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