Black Mirror Has Nothing Left to Say – Season 5 Review (#42)

Of the now 49 things currently ranked on the Week I Review leaderboard, Black Mirror’s semi-interactive cinematic experience Bandersnatch remains just above the bottom slot, where it has been ever since I reviewed it and Bird Box back in January.

It really felt as though series writer Charlie Brooker just didn’t have anything new to say and was using a gimmick in a failed attempt to cover that up. Which seems inevitable when you have a single man responsible for pumping out more than a dozen disconnected, feature-length scripts over the course of just a few years. The first two seasons, aired on Channel 4 in the UK, had three episodes each, and Netflix doubled that output for its next two. Quantity over quality, it seemed.

But I wanted to believe that Season 5 having just three again signaled a shift back in the other direction: that they would be the three best ideas and not the three only ones.


The show typically sets itself in a vaguely-near-future that is the same as the present but slightly higher tech: things like extremely thin/folding smartphones or translucent computer monitor are common. Really good virtual reality plays a pivotal role in many episodes, but there is usually a more overtly “sci-fi” technology that really drives the story: memory recall devices, human cloning, implants with live brain filters, etc. Whether these things ever happen – some probably will, others probably won’t – isn’t the point: it’s about seeing how technology changes the world.

Unfortunately, this tends to be pretty surface level, so I am typically more interested in the implications of the stories than the stories themselves. My enjoyment of an episode is directly tied to how interesting I think its use of technology is and how it’s integrated into the narrative – even if that narrative is dumb or bad. Because what else is there? So many episodes don’t actually have anything to say about Society – they just want to remind you that everything is bad, you’re going to die, and the internet is going to make that death so much worse.

But that isn’t Season 5, which doesn’t have much of the more fanciful stuff and isn’t there just to cause pain. Indeed, two of the episodes are actually pretty optimistic, and most of its technology exists already. And what doesn’t exist yet isn’t really new, even to this series; indeed, all of it can be found in Season 4’s opener: USS Callister. The high-end VR tech in Season 5’s “Striking Vipers” is the exact implementation seen in that episode. The user puts a little circle on their temple, starts the game, and then their eyes cloud over and they fall back in their seat as they enter the digital world.

But in USS Callister, this was part of the set dressing – existing the same way as all of the other not-quite-real tech but not itself being the driving technology like it is in Striking Vipers. Instead, the Big Thing We Have to Be Worried About is a machine that creates a perfect in-game copy of a person using their DNA, which brings up a lot of interesting questions about consciousness that are… completely ignored.

Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too – Season 5’s final episode – also has a person’s consciousness perfectly recreated, though this time it is added to an robotic home companion instead of a digital crew member of a Star Trek-analogue. And guess what: they don’t do anything with it there either…

Virtual reality is kind of Black Mirror’s bread and butter, which makes sense, because it’s something everyone has dreamed about at some point, and it’s a dream that feels closer and closer each year. So there’s a lot to think about and that is worth thinking about

Striking Vipers might raise some interesting questions about how virtual reality affects real-world relationships, but it doesn’t because the whole thing is just a metaphor for suppressed passions. I mean, the actual message of the episode is Maybe Try Open Relationships. And, like, fine, that’s a message. But it has nothing to do with technology. This is Black Mirror, dude. Compare that to Season 3’s San Junipero, where virtual reality allows for people physically incapable of anything at all to live full lives – have romances that would be literally impossible otherwise. It is why San Junipero is often held up as the best episode of the series, because it is the only time that the show has ever truly woven technology into its thematic fabric while remaining optimistic about that technology. That episode makes good on Black Mirror’s promise.

Striking Vipers does not. As an episode of television, it’s fine. The performances are good, the use of Tetris Effect as a representative of video games in the future is something I found hilarious (and a massive missed opportunity for Danny, since that game is best experienced in Virtual Reality).

But the technology merely offers two characters the means to have an emotional affair. That it’s this tech in particular is not really relevant. It’s missing that integration that I crave.

By the same token, Smithereens must be a failure, because it does not use any new technology or even have a new use for an existing technology. It harkens, then, all the way back to the first episode – also about a hostage situation that was always going to end in with one person free and the other dead. And you know there’s not going to be anything new from the outset, because onscreen text tells you that it’s 2018. We’re talking now about the recent past, not the near-ish-future.

Smithereens takes aim at technology now, at Twitter and Facebook specifically. It’s something of a power fantasy, where the fantasy is finally getting to tell Mark Zuckerberg directly that the thing he made Is Bad. And sure, who hasn’t wanted to have a private audience with Jack Dorsey to go off about how much worse the world is because Twitter exists? Billions of people would jump at the chance. And it is genuinely cathartic to hear Billy Bauer get shut down when he starts to whine about his own problems, though that is undercut slightly by the cop-out that is having him refuse to stand behind his own company.

A generous interpretation is that this represents the constant buck-passing that goes on at the highest levels of these corporations. Nothing is ever their fault, etc. And there is a lot of that to go around in this episode, but the specifics of Bauer’s complaints complicate that cartharsis.

But the real issue is that everything is text: a man is angry that everyone is always on their phones. He wants to yell at the CEO of a technology company to explain why he is angry that everyone is on their phones. So he does that. His story is sad, sure, but it’s really just another excuse to rant about how awful it is that these companies prioritize engagement at the expense of their users’ actual happiness.

Years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I did so because I, like Charlie Brooker, played Bioshock in 2007 and wanted to be able to engage in a conversation about how it followed the Objectivist themes of Rand’s magnum opus. Near the end of the book, the narrative stops so that a character can give a speech that condenses the previous 900 pages into about 80. And you have to wonder: why wasn’t this just an 80 page Manifesto? Why the hell did I just read this? And then you want to burn the book in a fire.

Smithereens is kinda like that except, ya know, shorter and with a less garbage philosophy. Charlie Brooker used to have a series of cultural review shows: Screenwipe, Newswipe, Weekly Wipe. This speech seems like it was intended for a monologue to be used if any of these were still on air, and since they’re not, he decided to put it in his much more popular show and built an entire narrative that would justify someone saying it.

Also, the cinematography is obnoxious.

One interesting question that Smithereens ever-so-briefly raises plays a much larger role in Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, which is widely considered the worst of the season but also happens to be my favorite, and it’s not even close. My my main reason is as superficial as any episode of Black Mirror: I really liked Miley Cyrus-as-Ashley O’s song “On a Roll.” If none of these episodes are going to say anything new about technology, I’m gonna gravitate towards the one with the jams.

But seriously, I do think it’s the one that has the most interesting implications, though before I explain why, I want to acknowledge music site Pitchfork’s review of the episode. They weren’t fans for entirely valid reasons – what it has to say about pop-star-as-prisoner is both well-trodden ground and also something that *is* being changed by the rise of acts like Billie Eilish, who, love her or hate her, is nothing like the perfectly manufactured pop star Ashley O represents – even if the experiences were inspired in part by Cyrus’s own struggles.

But where I think Pitchfork et al don’t give this episode enough credit is the way it captures something profoundly sad about the relationship between celebrity and fan, exemplified by the moment when the titular Rachel, upon seeing pop star Ashley O come out of the coma forced upon her by her evil aunt/manager, cannot think to say anything but “I’m a huge fan.” It’s maybe intended as a joke, but it’s not really fun. Separate from issues of expectation – ya know, Ashley is not allowed to make the music she wants to make because her die-hards will abandon her – those fans don’t see her as a human person with human feelings.

It reminds me of what happens when kids show up at the homes of YouTubers, those YouTubers say, “Please leave me alone,” and then actual adults who somehow were allowed to become parents chastise those YouTubers for wanting to be seen as humans.

And that inhumanity is key to the bigger ethical question of the episode, which has nothing to do with music and everything to do with life after death.

In Smithereens, Hayley struggles with the aftermath of her young daughter’s suicide and has become obsessed with accessing said daughter’s social media, which she wants to see in order to find some kind of closure. This is like a D-Plot, but it raises interesting questions about what we leave behind when we die and whether we should be allowed to control that.

Of course, there will only be more pain on the other side of that log-in – itself the type of thing that this show would make an episode about (in some ways, season 2’s Be Right Back is the logical Black Mirror conclusion of the premise).

But is her daughter owed privacy? Is her grieving mother owed access?

And so we get back to Ashley O, who is intended for replacement by Ashley Eternal, a perfect holographic representation. More than a perfect replication, in fact: the idealized version of the pop star.

Last month, Philip Defranco’s Rogue Rocket posted a video about the future of the holographic concert as more and more late acts are, uh, touring again. It’s a big deal and only getting bigger, and it’s fraut as hell with ethical issues. Unfortunately, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too sidesteps them entirely by making Ashley Eternal the product of a monster.

As mentioned earlier, though, that’s not the big tech we as a society ought to be concerned about. *That* is Ashley Too, a robot doll that has the entire consciousness of Ashley O herself embedded in it, just limited by software to be more like what we think a digital assistant would be. Removing the limiter – an almost hilariously simple process – brings out the “real” Ashley with all of her actual emotions and memories and everything else.

So, that’s kinda horrifying. This is the thing that ties it back to USS Callister:   Is a perfect recreation of a consciousness actually conscious? Is it human? Should it be?

And even if not, it has human-born thoughts and feelings and memories and… we actively limited all of that. What are the ethical implications there? Is this some kind of digitized slavery?

And how far away are we, the actual world, from opening that Pandora’s Box?

Honestly, Black Mirror provides valuable material for an ethics of technology course that every single person in Silicon Valley should be forced to take. Because I would be surprised if in my lifetime we as a society don’t have to reckon with what Siri actually is, and I would like for the people who do that reckoning to have spent some time thinking about it.

Black Mirror is asking some big questions, important ones that we may not need to worry about quite yet but are coming up faster than any of us want to believe.

I just wish it cared more about answering them.

Six Point Two out of Ten

Booksmart Is the Coming-of-Age Movie I Needed in High School – Review #40

I make a concerted effort to not read other reviews before writing my own, lest my opinions be colored by those of people more intelligent than I, but a film-podcast Facebook group I’m a part of pointed me to the genuinely bad take that is Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. I often disagree with Brody, which is fine, but this piece genuinely bothered me, because it fails to do what Glenn Kenny told a group of aspiring film critics – of which I was one – should be the backbone of their writing: talk about what the thing is, not what you think it should be.

It’s bad if anyone does it, but it’s almost painful to read the 71-year-old Brody lecture Booksmart about high school – tell it that it fails to accurately represent *high school*. Which is so obviously ridiculous that saying it out loud basically serves as its own mic drop. Equally bizarre is the opening-paragraphs rant about how the film fails by not explicitly mentioning Trump the way it implicitly mentions powerful, admirable women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elizabeth Warren. Again, it is such a self-evidently stupid thing to say, as though the best part of Mean Girls – to which he compares Booksmart unfavorably – was the one where Lindsay Lohan went on a fifteen-minute rant about the injustices of the Bush administration.

The reason to never talk about what a thing “should” be is that, ultimately, your idealized version doesn’t matter. And a 71-year-old man’s wants for the depiction of a teenage girl’s high school experience could not possibly matter less.

No one who goes into Booksmart is going to see this version with anti-Trump monologues and Mean Girls archetypes, so blathering on about them is genuinely unhelpful to the discourse. And in any case, we should all be thankful, because that movie would suck.

Hello anyone, everyone, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me A Guy Who Doesn’t Actually Think Old People Should Be Canceled, and today I’m talking about Booksmart.

I mentioned to the same colleague referenced in the introduction of my Pokemon Detective Pikachu review that I was a big fan of this film – spoiler, I guess – and he said “Of course you’d say that. You’ve been doing this for literal years. Walking over here –  Edge of Seventeen is the best movie ever! Blockers is the best movie ever! and now this. Come back when you see one of these movies you don’t like.”

So… probably never gonna see him again

Because although I have never been a teenage girl, I often relate to their coming-of-age narratives more than I do teenage boys’. The aforementioned films, alongside some deeper but still fairly recent cuts like Detention and Girl, Asleep do genuinely rank among my favorite films. I just really connect with them on a fundamental level (though my reaction to Eighth Grade, during which I sided pretty heavily with Ellie’s father because HE WAS DOING HIS BEST, suggests that that may be changing).  

And the fact that I can so quickly name all those recent-ish releases is a sign that this back half of the 2010s has marked the beginning of a new era of R-rated teen comedies – now, finally, told from girls’ perspectives.

We’re 15 years removed from Mean Girls, which remains a seminal film but was not, of course, rated R. And that film focused more on overall social dynamics than this newer breed. The way different groups interact will never not be a part of a movie about high school – but so often they are a central focus when to a lot of people they aren’t that big a deal.

Booksmart goes hard in the other direction by arguing that people can’t be typed at all, that they are complicated and we need to stop pretending otherwise.

On her last day of high school, not-very-nice protagonist/class president Molly is forcibly put into proximity with many of the classmates who she has been judging out of hand for years.

And she learns, inevitably, that not everything she thinks she knows about these people is true, and even the stuff that is can’t define them (except the theater kids, who are exactly who you think they are #highschooltheatreREPRESENT).

I found it really interesting, though, to see how people reacted to her. Again, we’re not in a world where people pour milkshakes on losers or leave dead animals in their locker. People react effectively in kind: treating her how she treats them.

Hell, even the one moment that could be seen as this sort of cliché drama, where Molly is in a bathroom stall as three of her peers talk about her, is undercut by one of them openly expressing his attraction to her, if not her personality.

When she confronts them, she tries to go personal, telling them they will never amount to anything, and she is metaphorically smacked down by the most scathing of realizations: that she and her best friend Amy aren’t the only capital-s Smart people in the school. The girl collectively slut-shamed as “AAA” is going to Yale too.

And everyone else of significance to the narrative is going to good schools too, driving Molly into a bit of an existential crisis because she feels like she’s wasted her time and her life: to make up for it, she needs to finally go to a high-school party. Specifically, the party being held by her bro-y vice president, Nick. Hilarity ensues.

Like Molly, I wasn’t particularly pleasant in high school, and I harbored those same deep-seated judgments about people I knew nothing about.

Some of the quote-unquote popular girls who I looked at as Dumb Blondes worked themselves to the bone to get straight As. And they went to Georgetown and Cornell and other schools that you have probably heard of, because they worked for it. And then some people didn’t work that hard and still went to those schools.

And I didn’t go to those schools. If you’ve heard of my alma mater recently, it’s because they were the site of a sex cult now being turned into a movie by Mark Whalberg.

Booksmart is a movie that a decade ago would have been a slap in the face I would have needed but not yet appreciated. Really, I was pretty terrible. Like Molly but with less ambition. So, just mean.

But for all of the things folks get judged for in this film – and it’s a lot, there is significance in the big thing that no one is judged for here that still inspires far too much judgement everywhere: Amy is gay. So are other people. And it’s fine.

Blockers has a whole subplot around Sam’s concerns that her sexuality will result in estrangement from her friends and family. While these fears turn out to be unfounded and it is an emotionally impactful arc, it’s also nice to just see a story where a teen girl is out and has been for years and so what, dude?

Although she’s unsure if her crush, Ryan, feels the same, that whole thing is played in exactly the same way as any other “Do they like me?!” story from any other teen comedy ever. And that’s genuinely powerful. A friend of mine posted on Twitter about how moving it was to see the queer gaze in a mainstream film, and though I can’t say I was moved by that, even I could see its significance.

There are, of course, infinite darker timelines of the same events. Amy’s parents are Christians who aren’t super psyched about the whole thing… but they love their daughter regardless, and that discomfort is played for comedy, not drama. And halle-freaking-lujah for that.

That’s not what this is about. As with everyone else, Amy is much more than her sexuality.

The corollary to Stop Making Assumptions About Other People is Stop Making Things About You, and Booksmart is just as interested in that, exploring it through that central friendship between Amy and Molly. It is genuinely adorable how much the two clearly care for each other… and it’s a little disheartening how much Molly feels she needs to control Amy’s life.

Particularly disheartening for me because Oh Shoot, I’ve Been That too. Amy is pretty content with the life that she has and has had; Molly feels hers has been wasted and that, by extension, Amy’s has too. But she’s projecting that: hard. Amy would have been happy staying home with her parents’ pun-arific congraduations feast. But Molly wasn’t going to let that happen.

This comes to a head in a truly beautiful moment that makes me very curious to see the film’s script – I want to know if it was presented as written, or if that was a bold-as-hell directorial decision.

In either case, I want to commend Olivia Wilde on what she has done here. Actors trying their hand at directing can be something of a mixed bag, but I can’t think of many recent examples as confident as Wilde’s. It’s shocking that this is a debut… but that actually seems to be another part of this new wave: Blockers was Kay Cannon’s debut and The Edge of Seventeen Kelly Fremon Craig’s. And though they’re drama more than comedy, Eighth Grade and Ladybird were Bo Burnham’s first feature and Greta Gerwig’s first solo effort, respectively. These new talents are bursting onto the scene with these amazing depictions of how people in general and girls in particular are coming-of-age in the modern world, and it’s wonderful.

So I’m genuinely saddened by the fact that Booksmart underperformed opening weekend. Every time a good, unique movie like this or, say, Annihilation fails, we get more live action Disney remakes. Films like Booksmart need to succeed so that this new era can truly flourish in the Hollywood system, but Booksmart itself needs to succeed because it’s a movie that people should see and whose lessons we can all learn something from. While I will openly admit that I relate to Molly a bit too much for my liking and so her lessons were more explicitly mine, damn near everyone has at least a little bit of that judgment inside and can get something valuable from the way Booksmart breaks those judgements down.

And even if they don’t? It’s freaking hilarious too.

Nine Point Zero out of Ten

The Night Comes for Us is the only Raid 3 We’re Going to Get – Review #39.2

Last September, director of the The Raid films, Gareth Evans, said there would probably never be another entry in the series, which was kinda devastating to someone who routinely talks about how much he loves The Raid 2 on this channel and just in his / my normal life. As much as I enjoyed his cult-horror film Apostle and think he has proved he needn’t be locked into the action genre, I still want Evans and series star Iko Uwais to come together for another cinematic silat showcase.

But whether that happens or not, fans still need their sweet sweet silat fix. And that’s where actually-Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto has come in.

The Night Comes for Us hit Netflix last September, and though it’s exactly my kind of movie, it was not inevitable that I would see it. That’s because Timo Tjahjanto, alongside Kimo Stambeol – together known as The Mo Brothers – made one of the few films that I genuinely hate: 2014’s Killers.

Their previous film, 2009’s Macabre, was thoroughly bland, followed by a solo Tjahjanto short in The ABCs of Death – the entirely unpleasant L Is for Libido – and then a joint effort in V/H/S/2 with none other than Gareth Evans himself for “Safe Haven,” easily the best part of the anthology.

After Safe Haven, they seemed to have switched tracks: Tjahjanto’s films became more action-oriented, while Evans has ended up going full-on horror with Apostle. Killers, though, is a stain on everyone’s record. It is a genuinely mean film, one that takes glee in hurting innocent people because fuck you that’s why. And, like, no. I’m willing to accept pervasive, entirely unjustified cruelty from a film only if it’s accompanied by unmatched talent: something like Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw the Devil or perhaps Takashi Miike’s Lesson of the Evil.

The Mo Brothers are no Kim or Miike.

So I put them out of mind. Even their decision to collaborate with Iko Uwais in 2016 with Headshot wasn’t going to convince me to give them another look.

Then it was late 2018 and Evans had said The Raid was/is through just as Tjahjanto was releasing another solo outing, this time starring Uwais and Joe Taslim, also from The Raid.

I realized much later that the pair of them had mentioned this movie to me when we spoke on the phone about Safe Haven all the way back in 2013 – at the time it was supposed to be Tjahjanto’s next and Evans would be the lead producer and part of the choreography team. Evans said he would, bare minimum, be helping out with the action beats. Obviously, things changed, because his name is not in the credits, but his influence is everywhere.

Hello, by the way, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me A True Believer in the Power of Handheld Camerawork, and today I’m coming very late to The Night Comes For Us party. But first: more Raid talk.

What makes The Raid’s fight sequences stand out is their unique combination of intense shaky-cam and total action clarity. It sounds oxymoronic, since handheld camerawork is so often a way to obscure action, but that’s not what happens here. Shots are typically somewhere between a wide and a medium with the occasional close-up for maximum impact of the impact, but in all cases it’s such that some wobble isn’t going to get in the way of your ability to comprehend what’s onscreen, because Evans is just really, really good at this whole filmmaking thing.

The wobble, then, becomes the tool it was meant for: to unsettle things, ratchet up that tension and keep you on edge.

Despite its reputation, shots in The Raid films aren’t typically that long, but something dramatic happens in each one, so whether it’s ten seconds long or less than one, it matters. I would say that the editing is pretty workman-like – Evans himself takes on the task: not remarkable but entirely serviceable. The reality is that, were pretty much any competent editor given the same footage, the final result would look largely the same, because they don’t shoot coverage. They go from segment to segment, doing each part as many times as necessary until they get it right.

And pretty much all of that applies to Here Comes The Night, though Tjahjanto’s eye has never been as keen as Evans’ – who again I think is genuinely underrated as a not-action director. So the actual photographing of the fights is reminiscent-of but not nearly at the same level that he works at.

That said, this is a huge step up from Headshot, based on the fight scenes from that I have since watched. They were, ya know, fine, but despite the talent onscreen – which is actually mostly the same between movies – it was clearly the work of someone figuring things out. Here Comes the Night is inevitably a more confident production. And a more expensive one. Both show.

Hell, even compared to The Raids, Tjahjanto has turned the intensity here up to 11. The takes are longer, the camera shakier; and the blood flowier.

On the last note: This movie is brutal in a way that is genuinely impressive considering how much of the gore is clearly practical. The logistics of some of those effects must have been a nightmare, but they pay off in the end.

That said, it occasionally feels like the movie is trying too hard. One moment that really stuck out as laughable is in this moment right before the two-on-one ladies-only fight where the white-haired killer walks over to a cross on the wall and then slowly, turns it upside down. (90 minutes)

Like, come on. In a movie with a lot of literal beating people over the head, this metaphorical one feels particularly egregious. And in general, the treatment of the woman fighters by the film isn’t the best.

Their fight is pretty awesome, though.

Speaking of awesome fights, if there is one complaint that can be levied at The Raid 2’s final confrontation – among my favorite one-on-ones ever and the product of literally months of preparation, it’s how one-sided it all is. Though Iko Uwais’s Rama certainly takes some punishment, he is ahead of Cecep Rahman’s assassin from the start and never really loses that momentum. It’s not as egregious as that last battle in the original John Wick, where they briefly attempted to make it seem like this old man had even a glimmer of a chance against the Babayaga, but it is slightly too bad that you never really feel like Rama is in danger.

At the start of Here Comes The Night’s equivalent when Uwais and Taslim finally go head-to-head, it almost feels like they’re going in that direction, except here the bad guy has the way upper hand. So, that can’t be right. And indeed it must even out over the, no joke, twelve minutes that the fight lasts.

That’s right, this battle is twice as long as The Raid 2’s kitchen scene, and it’s not padded to fill that time – they genuinely have twelve minutes of fight in them. And what it lacks in directorial polish is made up for in intensity. Like, you get exhausted just watching the two of them go at it for that long. It’s not the kind of thing you can watch over and over again the way I can and do many of The Raid series’ best, but every time you see it you can’t help but think, “Wow.”

With this film, Timo Tjahjanto has proven himself to be a more-than-capable action director, learning many of the right lessons from one of the best of our time alongside some truly top-tier martial artists. He’s not the most talented writer/director more generally, but I am glad, at bare minimum, that someone has picked up the Silat slack.

Seven Point Nine out of Ten

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum has the actions, not the consquences (Review #39)

In my 2017 review of John Wick Chapter 2 for Flixist dot com, I welcomed with open arms the prospect of a new long-running action franchise.

I concluded, “Why not keeping upping the ante until we hit John Wick: Chapter 8 (running alongside the trailer for Sweet Sixteen & Furious)? I think that it has a few more entries to go before it could really jump the shark, at which point honestly I think an ultra-violent Buster Keaton movie would be pretty awesome.”

And while I still believe in the long-term viability of John Wick, I somehow gave the team both too much and too little credit.

Because boy howdy that shark has already been jumped.

Hello anyone, everyone, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me Oh So Conflicted, because today I’m talking about John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum.

It’s worth noting here that John Wick being franchised marked a significant point in my romantic life. The first movie-date – and the second date period – that Danielle and I went on was to see Chapter 2. After an initial plan fell through due to weather, I went alone, loved it, and then left New York for a little while, quite sure, sadly, that we would never meet again. But when I got back, she still wanted to see what Keanu Reeves had been up to – and the rest is history, or whatever.

Point is, two years later, both of us were extremely excited to see Parabellum opening night.

And afterwards both of us were in agreement that something in the newest installment was… off.

I’ve had some trouble really articulating my issues because of the truth is that this movie is Awesome with a capital a in that it genuinely inspires awe with its action sequences. Even at their weakest, Parabellum’s fight scenes beat the pants off anything else you’d find in Hollywood.

In Chapter 2, I had fixated on a line about the different cultures under the high table: specifically Italians, Russians, and Chinese. Having already dispatched the first two, I was so excited at the prospect that Chapter 3 might bring the Chinese into the fold and presumably with them a much greater focus on hand-to-hand combat. And while it turns out they went more Japanese than Chinese… same difference.

Which is great, because though Parabellum’s predecessors have cool fist/knife fights, they play a clear second fiddle to the pew pew pew. The scale hasn’t tipped entirely in the other direction, but there is a much heavier emphasis on punch punch kick throw kick etc. this time around, and I’m so here for it.

There’s a reason that the legends of John Wick recounted in its first two installments aren’t about how good he is with a gun: It’s about the fact that he killed people with a pencil. And it’s why the moment when he finally kills two people with a pencil in Chapter 2 stands out amongst the literally hundreds of other murders. It’s the same reason that Wick takes down so many people with complex throws and puts them into various locks and what-have-you in the middle of gunfights when he pretty clearly could have just headshotted them like he did everyone else. Because the creative team knows that a genuinely video-game-like corridor of nothing but headshots numbs your mind. They need to mix it up.

It’s why I would argue that the opening fifteen-or-so minutes of Parabellum are basically perfect. Beginning mere moments after Chapter 2 ends, though with sunny skies replaced by rainy night because movies, our hero has less than an hour before he is marked ex-communicado and an open contract for $14 million is placed on his head.

Where can he go? What can he do? He stands in Times Square, and once again the blank face of Buster Keaton appears, just for a moment, high above him… but here, rather than a stunt ending in Keaton flying through a wall, it’s him on the front of a train as it rushes towards the camera. Tick tock, Mr Wick.

A trip to the library results in an excellent start to the festivities, after which someone in the audience shouted “WITH A BOOK?!” Which was annoying but also damn that was cool.

And it just got cooler from there. Until the moment where that sheer perfection gave way to artifice. And that moment is actually in the trailer! It’s right here! I didn’t watch the trailer before going in, though I did see the set photo of Keanu Reeves on a horse. So I knew it was coming, and I was thrilled, but the cut in this trailer is strategic, because half a second after this, that stuntman and his motorcycle turn into an awful pile of CG followed by some terrible green screen work.

I don’t have a fundamental problem with CG enhancement of practical effects. Hell, this series is built on that, what with all of those digital bloodsprays from digital bullets digitally hitting actual people. They may not be quite as visceral as squibs, but they’re generally fine in Hollywood films.

But it really has to be enhancement. When that motorcycle man got replaced, it was the first time in the entire series that I FELT the change. It just looked bad.

In Parabellum’s defense, this scene is an outlier. There are other motorcycle sequences that don’t have those same issues… but John Wick being on the horse should have exemplified why these films stand out even amongst the upper echelon of modern fight movies, and it didn’t deliver.

But it did push things over the edge. John Wick’s shark-jumping moment is him hanging off a horse while riding down a poorly green screened New York City street.

John Wick the first takes place in this occasionally silly world of assassins but couldn’t really be considered “Silly.” The narrative was serious, the situations were serious, and though John Wick was the babayaga he could be hurt and that actually mattered. Heck, the first action you see is him being beaten up by some goons, unable to fight back. Later, he gets hit by a car, and then they can capture him because he’s down.

The sequel changed that. He gets hit by a car and then he gets back up. Slowly, sure, and with gritted teeth, but he’s fine. There is still some drama here, but the entire thing is far less grounded in reality.

Parabellum goes so much farther than I had expected towards just the genuinely wacky. While one might be tempted to compare Parabellum to Gareth Evans’ ouvre, particularly given some of the casting, it’s much more appropriate to compare it to Jackie Chan’s – who, by the way, has cited Buster Keaton as an influence, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd
– just with a few hundred more gallons of blood.

We’re in full-on action comedy territory at this point, but absolutely brutal, R-rated action comedy. It all feels a little too much too soon. We’re only in the third installment and completely past the point of self-parody. Chapter 2 introduced the idea that literally everyone knows who John Wick is – whether they’re in the Continental or not. Chapter 3 goes farther by making people into actual fans. Again, you see this in the trailer, where it is sort of odd but feels of a piece with how ridiculous the whole thing is. But when we get to that moment in the film, it’s so much stranger.

Parabellum’s world has a weird relationship with its main character. What stuck out to me as actually problematic was just how little weight the events of Chapter 2 seemed to have. Sure, the final act or so set the broader events in motion, but every single time someone talks about John Wick coming out of retirement, they comment on the thing about the dog and the car. No one talks about the fact that Santino D’Antonio destroyed his house and then tried to have him killed for something he had no choice but to do in order to complete his marker.

All of that is immaterial, I guess, when jokes can be made about a car and a dog.

Which retroactively makes Chapter 2 less compelling, because I genuinely liked how the story progressed and expanded in the second outing. But outside of a few key moments towards the end, it turns out to have all been meaningless. Spectacle for its own sake.

And that is built into Parabellum itself. When you look back at this movie’s 130-minute run, you have to wonder what actually happened. Do we end in a place that’s meaningfully different than when we started? No, not really. Could literally everything of consequence be put in its entirety into a 90-second “Last Time On John Wick” at the start of the all-but-guaranteed-considering-that-first-weekend-box-office Chapter 4? It sure feels like it.

This was not inevitable – not yet, anyway. There was more drama to tell from John Wick’s life. The entire Morocco thing could have had impact but… it just doesn’t. Halle Berry’s whole arc should mean something, but nope. And while it is impossible to be anything but impressed by what the team accomplishes on a technical level with the action sequences there – particularly the addition of dogs to the proceedings – it was also the place I felt the least invested. And I think it goes back to what I was saying about guns just not being that interesting. This is the most gun-heavy action sequence of the entire film, with a body count that alone dwarf’s Chapter One’s entire 100 minutes, and it’s genuinely too much. I never thought I would think such a thing about a John Wick movie, but here we are.

The action, as always, is shot in a way that never obscures what’s happening, but there’s just so much death and destruction in this wide-open space that actually trying to keep track is a fool’s errand. Eventually, you just get numb and wait for it to be over.

I liked this sequence at the time, and I still like it now, but I felt cold. I wasn’t excited – just appreciative. And it was practically forgotten by the time Wick left.

Once he got back to the city, I became more invested in the action, because it scaled things down and allowed for a more intimate combat. Here we also get to see The Raid 2’s Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Rahman in action, which is awesome, although having them here makes clear that the actual complexity of the choreography is scaled back a bit from what you’d see in a Gareth Evans production. I mentioned this to my former Flixist EIC, who said, “We can’t compare everything to Gareth Evans or we’re just going to be let down by the entire damn world.”

And he’s not wrong.

But in those opening 15 minutes, it honestly felt to me like this movie could overtake The Raid 2 as my favorite fight movie. I was actually a little concerned, because five years ago I did an entire YouTube video for Flixist about why I gave The Raid 2 a 9.7/10, and what would that have meant for Parabellum’s score?

But it turns out that those first fifteen minutes are Parabellum’s best. After that, it goes from incredible to merely great. And “great” is nothing to sneer at – indeed, it’s something to be celebrated – but when it gives you a glimpse of what it could have been, it’s hard to not be at least a little disappointed about what it actually is.

But only a little.

Eight Point Four out of ten

Pokemon Detective Pikachu Does What I Needed It To Do – Review #38

When Pokemon Detective Pikachu’s first trailer came out, I was at my day job, meaning I had to watch it on the small screen of my cellular telephone. I did so – giddily, and then again and again and again. I stood up, walked over to one of my colleagues who I talk about these sorts of things with and said, “Dude. Pokemon Detective Pikachu. If it is half as good as I want it to be, I’ll see it twice.”

And he said, “Cool.” And then waved me away.

Classic workplace interaction.

But I really meant it. I was so excited by what I had seen in that first trailer that I made sure to never see any subsequent ones and just go into it with expectations unreasonably high. When the initial headlines from folks who saw it early proclaimed it to be a thing of wonder, I. Was. Hype.

So of course I saw it at the first local showing Thursday evening. And then again about 36 hours later.

We established that I went in with high expectations, but what I found so fascinating is that my expectations had very little to do with how I actually felt about the movie. Expectations are “wants,” “would likes,” “nice to haves.” What instead mattered here were my requirements: my “needs” and “must haves.”

So, let me ask you: What do you need from your cinematic nostalgia trip?

I needed joy.

Ha, no, and I knew that this movie was about a kid who had lost his father, so it’s not like I was asking for a 104-minute laugh riot, but I did need this movie based on a series of games about young children being thrown out into the world alone to enslave wild animals and force them to fight for their lives to, like, not go full-on grimdark. Ryme City, as presented in that trailer, looked like it could be pretty dark – the “grim” was slightly up in the air. I mean, Shazam is surely a comedy and ostensibly fun for the whole family… but it also features peoples’ heads being eaten, so.

I liked Shazam, but I needed there to not be any head eating in my animal battle movie, please.

And fortunately, I can report that no heads are eaten. And also that the animal battling is the exception to the rule. Pokemon are much more heavily integrated here: Basically every human has a Pokemon partner. Police officers, journalists, doorpeople. They’re everywhere, just hanging out with their people or even doing their own thing. Ryme City has banned battling entirely and brought Pokemon from the wild into society. Pokemon and humans live and work together in harmony. Which means we get to see a lot of them. A few, like the traffic guard Machamp, have a clear purpose in the world.

Most of them don’t, but they do hit the other thing I needed: that the Pokemon to cute. When protagonist Tim Goodman’s love-interest Lucy comes into the picture, she’s an aspiring journalist furious that she’s being asked to do listicles about the 10 cutest pokemon, a nonsense assignment because They’re All Cute.

And… yeah. For a Pokemon movie to succeed in my eyes, I have to enjoy the act of seeing Pokemon because OH MY GOSH IT’S A SNORLAX / EVEE / BULBASAUR / ETC. BUT IN, LIKE, REAL LIFE KINDA; It was critical to me that each time a new Pokemon came onscreen, I felt something and that that something was “Awwww.”

And it’s largely successful. One thing that I think is key to this is the fact that Pokemon are tiny. You never actually get a sense of this from their more traditionally animated iterations, because everything is unrealistic in proportion. But when they’re transplanted to the quote-unquote “real world,” their size becomes immediately apparent. Pikachu is one-foot-four-inches, and it looks to me like they went with that height. Though this guy is canonically just under twice that, he’s probably two feet tall in the movie and nearly as wide.

And small things are cute. Objectively.

However, there’s another part to this, and that’s whether or not the CGI renditions of beloved characters are “distracting.” It’s a finer line – one that’s a bit more personal, because everyone has a different threshold. I would venture to guess that I’m less forgiving than most, but it’s not like I can’t be fooled by quality work.

Pikachu himself falls into that latter camp. He looks amazing, both from a design perspective and also from a digital integration one. The vast majority of the time, you can forget that he is a bunch of triangles, and the couple of iffy moments don’t spoil the general illusion. I’m sure that as much work went into making sure Pikachu was perfect as most of the other Pokemon combined. He is the most prominent and important of them: he has to work. And he does. I love him.

But then you have, say, Mewtwo, who gets a fair share of screentime as well. And doesn’t look great. First up, he’s not cute. Like, of course he’s not, and it might actually be weirder if he was, but he still doesn’t hit that checkbox, and that makes the bigger problem harder to forgive: he doesn’t look real. At all. There is never a fraction of a second where Mewtwo looks like he is a part of the human world.

Any given shot of him looks like what I would expect from Square Enix in a Final Fantasy: Pokemon movie. Which is to say, good 3D animation, but 3D animation nonetheless. And that goes for a lot of the Pokemon. A few others, almost exclusively furry ones like Psyduck, Snubbull, and Jigglypuff, have moments of reality… but everything with visible skin or scales or what-have-you, are certainly above Nintendo-video-game-fidelity… but you could probably get those Bulbasaur models running around on an Xbox One X.

I know “Ugh, it looks like a video game” has been an offensive statement in CG historically, but video games are looking really gosh darn good nowadays, especially with non-humans… so that’s not the insult it once was. But, when the humans are actually real, it’s a little frustrating that I don’t feel wrong making the comparison. It’s not always an issue, but it is sometimes, and it’s definitely something that stuck out more on my second viewing.

But despite that, Pokemon Detective Pikachu did what I needed it to do. What happened beyond that was going to be gravy. Pretty good gravy.

I think that a lot of the headlines about this have been a bit much, because to be absolutely clear Pokemon Detective Pikachu is not some kind of revelation. It’s not the best video game movie ever (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), nor is it even the best movie based on a video game (Ace Attorney)…

But it makes good on that odd casting choice. I have always been a Ryan Reynolds fan, so I didn’t need to be won over, but I genuinely think that he nails it. Though the marketing gimmicks might have led one to believe that this was Deadpool for children, it’s not. The marketing may be cynical, self-referential, and/or ironic, but the movie is absolutely none of those things. And how could it be? Pokemon isn’t about the loss of innocence and childlike wonder: it’s about keeping those things at all costs.

A Merc with a Mouth but it’s Pikachu would destroy this. Sure, Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu has a mouth. The fundamental joke is how incongruous those quips and the voice they’re delivered with are from the fuzzball they come out. And sometimes those punchlines are clear allusions to the actual real world (most blatantly with a genuinely bizarre reference to climate change that both makes no sense in context and ultimately undermines its own point by the scene’s conclusion. Really not sure what they thought they were accomplishing there).

But even they are technically still in-world. No one is ever turning to the screen to address just how ridiculous things are – with possibly the exception of the brilliant sequence with Mr. Mime, and even that stops being quite so jokey pretty fast. And thank gosh, because serious self-awareness would bring the whole house of cards down.

If you think too hard about the logistics of any Pokemon narrative, you end up with all kinds of “How” questions. In anime and video games, you can more easily brush those off than in a real-world sort of thing where the non-Pokemon protagonist is actually an insurance appraiser.

So… okay: There’s insurance here. Now, let me go down a rabbit hole thinking about the implications of insurance in a world with Pokemon. Except I don’t want to do that. Who do you think I am, Mat Pat?

No, I overthink things, but I don’t want to overthink this thing. And so I actively fought against the thousands of little questions that each new scene inspired – both about the world in general and also about the narrative itself. There is so much here that just doesn’t make sense. And the only way you get through it is to Not Worry About It, because the writers clearly didn’t.

Seeing the film a second time less than 48 hours later made that more difficult, because I could see so clearly where the pieces didn’t quite fit, and the initial wonder of every new moment had faded just a little bit. But I was heartened to know that my enjoyment was not purely fueled by nostalgia. Because even so soon after, when Pokemon Detective Pikachu works, it *really* works.

And when it doesn’t… gosh those Pokemon are cute.

Seven Point Three out of Ten

BLACKPINK Has Great Music and a Sponsored World Tour – Review #37

In 2017, I attended an immersive theatre production called K-POP. Centered on two group acts and a solo artist, we were literally walked through their trials and tribulations as they dealt with cruel trainers and management, fights over cultural identity, and the inevitable fading of relevance as the machine churns out newer and shinier talent.

It was a very cool show, particularly in the way it utilized the immersive format to personalize experiences. At one point, I was pulled into a side room by an actress who told me (and only me) to not trust her agent.

In its final scene, everyone came together for the big show, where they all sang and danced and it was a grand old time. I felt like I had gotten the gist of what a real K-POP performance would be like.


Korean Pop Superstar group Blackpink consists of a paltry four members, Jennie, Jisoo, Leesa, and Rose (versus, say, the 9 in TWICE, 8 in Girls Generation, 7 in BTS, etc.), is a bona-fide sensation. When their most recent single, Kill This Love, hit YouTube, it crushed records for the most viewed music video in 24 hours (56.7 million times seen), fastest song to hit 100-million views (three days), and the largest ever YouTube Premiere (just under one million concurrent viewers in the first minutes it was live).

They are also the highest charting female K-POP group on the Billboard charts and the first K-POP group to play Coachella – a milestone reached while I was at that Dance Gavin Dance concert a few weeks back. They were actually livestreaming the performance in Times Square just a few hundred feet from the concert venue, and I had seriously considered trying to catch part of it after DGD wrapped up, but the weather was bad and also Times Square is awful.

Little did I know, that performance was not a one-off in America and that they had announced some dates for a US tour months ago. Oops.

I literally found out this past Tuesday thanks to an email blast about events near the city that the next two days the group would be performing at the Prudential Center arena in Newark, New Jersey. And while Wednesday I was already set to see a musical satire about abortion that turned out to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years, I didn’t have Thursday plans. What I did have, though, was hardcore FOMO.

You see, a few years back, vocoloid persona Hatsune Miku performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. I missed it. Then, just this past March, I was alerted again two days beforehand that J-Pop group Perfume was doing a show at the same venue. I missed that one too. I don’t have particular love for either group, but I knew they both would have been big spectacle productions. I’m still occasionally sad about missing both

 I wasn’t about to let that happen again, $200-tickets be damned.

Particularly because I really like Blackpink’s music. So much so that they were actually my second-most-listened-to band of last year, and their collaboration with Dua Lipa, Kiss and Make Up, ended up being my third most listened to song despite being released less than two months before Spotify Wrapped the year up.

I have tried at various points over the past five or so years to get into K-Pop as a genre, but it’s often a bit hit-or-miss for me. I really like some songs but rarely entire acts. Blackpink is the exception. I’ll admit that I don’t love all of their music – Whistle, for example, sounds like a bad Kesha song from her dollar sign days, but the songs that I love I really *love*. I sing along to the English, sound along to the Korean, sometimes even try to dance along to their videos… that one never goes well, but I do it.

And that love is shared far and wide as the record-crushing and milestone-setting has proved, and their industry has been happy to oblige the fans, going so far as to literally release a 12-episode TV series called Blackpink House documenting a 100-day vacation taken together in a house provided to them by their agency.

And now they’re on a world tour. And people have come out in droves.

Though the initial email I received had said that the shows in Newark were sold out, that didn’t turn out to be the case. I expect that’s because this was the only stop with multiple nights – so folks got a choice. The arena seats about 11,000, and even with the back section occupied by technical equipment, I would say there were easily 7000 in attendance on Thursday night.

But there was something a little strange that I saw when booking the tickets: the name of the show itself: Blackpink 2019 World Tour With Kia Brackets In Your Area. Bit of a mouthful, right?

Immediately, I went to Spotify, trying to figure out who this mysterious “Kia” was. But after a couple of minutes, I realized that Kia wasn’t an opening act: it was a sponsor.

I was floored by this. It was like something out of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. I mean, can you imagine, say, Taylor Swift putting an ad literally in the name of her tour? I know we’re into some late capitalism over here, but that’s next level.

And, like, cars? Why? Again, it’s a pairing as random as Conner4Real’s with home appliance company Aquaspin.

And it’s not like it was just a name thing: Kia ads played in the arena before and even during the show. The first time, before most people had trickled in, was just a regular old Kia ad. I found it a little funny. I mean, every single person there wepaid minimum $100 (with those pound-of-flesh fees included) to be served with car ads? Dayum.

The second time, the ad was during the minutes preceding their arrival; and it fittingly starred the quartet, increasing the hilarity of the whole thing.

By the time they were occupying an extended costume change in the final part of the show with a Kia-centric short film set to an instrumental of Kill This Love, I was nearly in hysterics. The audience took it upon themselves to add the song’s words, and then they cheered when it was over. It was amazing. And also terrible.

I don’t know how many millions of dollars Kia put into this, but I guarantee you at least fifteen young children told their parents that they needed to buy a new car on their way home. I mean, I’m never not going to think about Blackpink when I pass a dealership.

In the same vein, I saw someone on the floor with a sign that I sadly didn’t get a picture of that said, “Don’t worry Jennie. I use a Samsung” – this because during another show she had recoiled from taking a fan selfie when she realized that someone tried to hand her an iPhone and she is a hardliner for the group’s Samsung endorsement.

It sounds like a joke, because it doesn’t even make sense as a PR move… but nope, it happened. And I’m sure at least three people in that section bought Samsung phones in hopes of getting a photo.

This was Blackpink’s world, and we’re all just shopping in it. On that note, actually, literally all pre- and post-show music was the group’s. I always find it fun to hear what music bands choose to play at concerts to set the tone or whatever, but I guess nothing sets the tone better than listening to the music you’re about to see performed. Then, fifteen minutes before they’re set to go on, their music videos start to play on the huge screens at the sides of the stage. People cheer and sing along. Why even bother having the show at this point?

After half an hour of that, the lights go down. The giant LED wall in the back goes crazy, so does the crowd. Lights, lasers, fog, four women rising from the floor.


Oh. That’s why.

The 75 minutes that followed were dazzling. I’ve only seen a handful of arena shows in my life, but none of them were anything like this. Aside from the pageantry and pyrotechnics, it was just amazing to see these women work. I like music videos, of course, but I’ve always preferred the dance practice videos where you can see the choreography without distraction.

As with everyone who makes it through the K-pop curation process, they are obscenely talented. Everyone involved is. From them to their backup dancers to their designers to the totally unexpected jam band who showed up like halfway through and did some soloing while we waited for the next leg of the show. This part was super unexpected, but it was also awesome.

It also went even further towards justifying the ticket price. Because we weren’t just getting all of Blackpink’s songs done live (though we did get all of them). Aside from the jams, we got Rose singing a mashup of Let It Be with some songs I’ve never heard and Leesa doing a badass dance routine and Jisoo covering Zedd’s “Clarity.” This was really what it was all about for me: getting to see these little extra moments that play more to who these people are.

I really felt that during the encore. When the lights went down after what they claimed to be their last song, I did think that was it. I wasn’t sure that they had any other songs except, like, the new remix of Ddu-ddu-du.

(Guess what they came back out to.)

While I think this is a less interesting version of the song, both it and what followed were genuinely special in their disorganization. There is apparently no dance for the remix, or for Hope Not – which actually ended the show. So instead of something flawlessly choreographed and performed like we had seen so far, they just walked around the stage: waving, blowing kisses, doing silly little dance moves just because the music inspired some movement. There was a little bit of that at the tail end of As If It’s Your Last, but here even the backup dancers just came out and freestyled.

Look, Blackpink is a product, perfectly manufactured by YG Entertainment to sell Kia cars and Samsung phones and cheap plastic hammers with lights in them for 45 freaking dollars. But it’s made of actual people. And in these final songs, the façade fell just a bit: we could see these superstars bask in the moment as thousands of screaming fans cheered for them.

After all of the flawless manufacturing, it was nice to see something human.

Eight-Point-Nine out of Ten

Burn This on Broadway Is an Adam Driver Showcase (Is That a Good Thing?) – Review #36.2

I first heard about Langford Wilson’s play Burn This from my mom. In her life, she’s seen a fair number of broadway plays, but she told me that I absolutely had to go see this one; because it is among the only shows to really stick with her – and it’s been 30 years. So, I looked into it… and saw that it was being led by Adam Freaking Driver.

So I went.

Hello everyone, anyone, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me A Guy Who Takes Life Advice From Kylo Ren (But Not In the Way You Think), and today I’m talking about the current Broadway production of Burn This.

Though I actually saw the show a little bit ago, I wanted to discuss it the same week that I put out my review of Nassim because both of them trade heavily on celebrity. That one in having a different person of note at each performance, and this one by plastering those noteworthy names all over the place.

If you see a lot of such shows, you notice that something kind of odd happens when a famous-outside-of-the-theatre-community person comes onstage: the audience claps. They don’t do this for regular stage actors, of course, but when Tony Shaloub comes on in The Band’s Visit, Daniel Craig appears in Othello, Chris Evans walks into Lobby Hero, or any of the myriad others, their appearance forces a pause because the Royal We, I guess, want famous people to know that we know that they are famous – in case they were worried about that. In case they thought we had come to see the recent revival of True West for any reason other than to watch Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke.

But here’s the thing: Mark Ruffalo is a great on screen, but he noticeably flubbed multiple lines when I saw him in The Price. Monk is lovely, but Tony Shalloub’s accent in The Band’s Visit was distracting as hell. Keri Russell may have been an anchor in The Americans, but some of her most emotional moments in Burn This just fall flat.

And yet, the presence of these stars in starring roles only grows. It feels like every new show that opens does so with someone you have probably heard of in the leading role – and maybe several of them. Most are limited runs, going exactly as long as folks can take before their next big shoot.

And it’s not like this is totally new. Even the 1987 production of Burn This was led by John Malkovich, already an Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee by that time, although he actually got his start in the theatre and had two Obie awards before he touched the screen. But it feels exponential now.

In a way, Broadway has become the new indie cinema – where quote-unquote “Serious” actors go when they’re tired of the Hollywood machine. And that’s kinda frustrating, because as discussed earlier, they’re not always the right people for the job. You dig through New York’s enormous talent pool and you’re going to find someone whose blood, sweat, and tears are in the theatre. But acting on camera is a massively different skill from performing for an audience, and I think some of these household names overestimate themselves. Broadway marketing teams, on the other hand, are content to let that be.

Why? Because I saw Burn This in large part because I wanted to see Adam Driver. So… I’m a hypocrite. How can I really complain about the rise of celebrities onstage when I paid to see Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo in Othello because gosh darn if I didn’t have to see Daniel Craig be Iago. Sometimes they really are worth it, as in Othello.

Adam Driver here is another example, and how couldn’t he have been? He is one of the most interesting actors working today, killing it both as a whiny baby boy in Star Wars and a poet / bus driver in Paterson.

In person, Driver is larger than I realized – especially when put beside the unexpectedly tiny Keri Russell, and the oversized suits just make him a big ol’ presence. And, ya know, he was present long before got onstage. (Conceptually.)

Because his absence from the first scene is conspicuous: Driver gets top billing, so you may reasonably expect his character, Pale, to be there at the outset – or at least soon after. But Pale isn’t technically the protagonist of this show: Keri Russell’s Anna is. She is the center around which the drama takes place: it’s her roommate, Larry; her romantic interest, Burton; and the brother of her deceased other roommate/dance partner (Pale) who round out the cast. She has more stage time than anyone else…

But it’s still not her show. Do you remember A Star Is Born, that movie from last year? It was a big deal. The one ostensibly about the birth of a star but actually about her failure of a husband’s reaction to her success? This reminded me of that. Though not quite as bad, Anna is ultimately a pretty passive entity who gets to say a lot but not really do much.

A Star is Born is a story told four-plus times, dating back to at least 1937 and arguably even earlier. This one most closely relates to its previous incarnation, from 1976. But there is a fundamental difference: A Star Is Born 2018 is not the script of A Star Is Born 76 reenacted.

But Burn This 2019 is. Such is the nature of theatre revivals. There may be tweaks to language, but the text on stage three decades ago is the text I saw as well.

No one is making new movies with 30-plus-year-old scripts.

Even the one real exception to this rule, that Shakespeare’s many-hundred-years-old words end up on both stage and screen, exemplifies this fundamental difference between the artforms. It’s telling that the transplanting of language and time in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo Plus Juliet stood out as it did. That Othello I keep mentioning was set in a military barracks in a time when soldiers literally play guitar hero onstage while the audience goes to their seats. And last year, Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar made a whole bunch of people who didn’t understand the show angry by literally dressing it into a more modern political context.

This is par for the course onstage, and it is easy for Theatre to have such temporal fluidity. A movie, however, is a facsimile, attempting to actually depict rather than just represent. And depictions of the 1980s made in the 2010s just don’t quite match those made in the 80s. Because 80s films were 80s by necessity (or, at least, convenience); now, it’s a deliberate choice.

The current production of Burn This is set in 1987 by convenience as well, because it was written in that present. And outside of some awkward and distracting musical transitions, there’s not much to highlight its time period. As there shouldn’t be; it doesn’t *really* matter that it’s in the 80s. Though plenty has changed since then, a whole lot has stayed exactly the same, and this show is still relevant thirty years later. I mean, there’s a reason they decided to bring it back. And, all things considered, it’s great. (My mom was quite right.)

As much as I wish Anna was a more active participant in her own drama, I can’t deny the quality of Lanford Wilson’s dialogue or Michael Mayer’s direction. Or the absolute force of nature that is Adam Driver. From the second he bangs on the door from offstage at the start of the second scene, he commands all the attention. But his co-stars are all worthy of praise, even Russell, who nails it about 97% of the time.

I laughed, I was moved (though not quite to tears), I was shocked by the single most realistic stage punch I have ever seen followed by the second most realistic stage punch I have ever seen.

I mean, it’s just a quality way to see Adam Driver do his thing for a few hours.

It’s unfortunate that that’s the conclusion I draw – that that’s really what I was there for. I don’t like this trend, but I can’t really fault them for it. I’m part of the problem.

Eight-Point-Three out of Ten

Nassim Is An Awkward, Amazing Language Lesson – Review #36.1

In 2016 and 2017, I did successive one-time-only performance pieces that involved ultra-personal hour-long stories of my life being read out to me for the first time in front of an audience.

The first, dubbed “Nobody’s idea of a good time,” was a recording of my own voice I had made six months prior and never listened to. The second, “Nobody thought this needed a sequel,” was a cold read by someone I cast from Backstage – again, six months later.

This is the only existing image of the first. There is nothing from the second.

While looking for actors for the sequel, at least a half dozen people noted in their applications that the concept reminded them of playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s show White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. I had never heard of it, but I was fascinated: Soleimanpour had written the show while he was unable to leave his home country of Iran because of his refusal to join the military. But he wanted his words to be told around the world, and he felt compelled to make a play that could be done without him there while making his absence clearly felt. It would be a show with no director or rehearsal; each night would be a new actor.

I was and am sad that I missed it – these auditions having been held just over two months after its New York run had ended – but there was nothing to be done about it, so I put it out of my mind. Until about a month ago, when I finally checked my auto-diverted “theater announcements” email folder and saw something about a show called Nassim. I didn’t realize immediately – but fortunately did before it was too late – that this was by the same man who made White Rabbit Red Rabbit, that this was the man’s self-titled follow-up to that show, and that it  had the same conceit of a new actor each night. I made it in right under the wire – during the last week of the run. And, fortunately, able to do so with an actor I like: Lee Pace – either Ronan the Accuser or Thranduil the Elvenking, depending on which kind of nerd you are.

Anyways, I’m here to talk aabout Nassim – the show but by extension the man (For clarity and also out of respect, I will say Nassim only when referring to the play and Soleimanpour when referring to its author and silent second player).

The set is minimal: on one side, a chair sits behind a desk, upon which is a box bearing the guest actor’s name. On the other side, a microphone stand. Between them, an X is taped on the floor. A projector screen is at the back.

The house lights rarely go down.

The show begins with a producer coming out and awkwardly introducing Lee Pace; she is reading a script and doing so poorly. It gives us the background – to Pace as well, since he knows exactly as much as we do and quite possibly less.

Nassim is 465 pages, we are told, which sounds like a joke, considering the previously announced 75-minute runtime. Also, it’s written in Farsi.

But don’t worry: It has been translated… mostly – though we’re not told that caveat.

The script, says the producer before departing, is in that box on the desk, easily big enough for 465 pages. But, there is just a single sheet. Clap, it tells Pace. And the projector turns on.


It’s not.

Performances of White Rabbit Red Rabbit left an empty seat in the front row to symbolize Soleimanpour’s forced absence. But with the show that bears his name, he is sitting backstage, directing with nothing but paper, a pen, and his hands – his confinement having ended in 2013.

It’s incredible how much can be expressed with so little.

Nassim is about language. And connection. And how language connects us. It was written in Farsi, but it has never been performed that way – indeed, it wouldn’t really make sense that way.

For us, it was in English, but Nassim has played all over the world in a variety of languages in the two years since it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe: Germany, Italy, Belgium, Chile, Korea, Japan, China – each in that country’s tongue.


Farsi is not just the show’s original language – it is also a central focus. Many, many pages of the script are dedicated to the teaching of a simple story in a language that not-so-many Americans have probably even heard.

Yeki bood. Yeki nabood: Once upon a time. And if you think it’s weird hearing me stumble over those words after having several days to think them over, imagine Lee Pace flailing his way through his first time ever seen them. Or any of the other folks who did this.

That’s the show.

Though I know it showed in other languages, I can’t help but feel it’s most powerful in America and other English-speaking countries. Because even though most of us are asked to take a language in school, how many people really take that seriously? How many need to?

In 2015, I was taking an overnight train from Prague to Budapest. In my car was a couple: a Czech man and Hungarian woman. Yet they spoke to each other in English. Because English is the closest thing this world has to a universal language, something I was vaguely aware of but had never truly appreciated until I heard these two express affection in my mother tongue and not theirs.

People all over the world are raised at least bilingual – and even those who aren’t are endlessly subjected to, if nothing else, English-language media; they have a greater understanding and presumably appreciation for language than someone like me who can take his English for granted.

I don’t know if Lee Pace knows any other languages, but I can guarantee that many of the people who graced that stage over the months did not. And to see them struggle with this unexpected language lesson gives a profound sense of how everyone else in the world feels or has felt. At the very least, how Soleimanpour has.

Again, this has been performed all over the world. And at every performance he has asked the audience to give him an interesting word, one that he then adds to this global compendium. Someone recommends onomatopoeia, a word I have remembered how to spell since third grade because on-o-mat-o-poe-i-a; Pace misspells it, forgetting the fourth “o”; Soleimanpour shows us the book as he looks for the next open spot; words in Mandarin, Korean, German, Spanish. In English in all countries, we see how many others had given the same word – mostly with the same misspelling, because we are collectively failing this man.

He gets to New York, the only American city in which it’s played, and points out each instance of the most common word: Impeachment

Because that man is failing us.

Pace is asked to say and then define his favorite swear – in verb form, please. And we watch a grown man awkwardly shift around because he feels uncomfortable telling a room of adults what “fuck” means. Eventually, he comes up with just, ya know, “to fuck.”

And that’s what we’re all really here to see: thid guest actor struggling through the tasks given to him over these 465 sheets of paper by at first by a disembodied pair of hands and eventually Soleimanpour himself.

To me, the total visibility of the script is really what makes Nassim stand out: everything is on display; there are no tricks that the audience can’t see that the guest actor can. It guarantees a radically honest show and a radically honest performance.

My own cold read was not quite that. While the reader had indeed never seen a word of it, she went in prepared for the trick that we would both be playing on the audience. Early on, she would tell them that she was allowed to go off-book. She would then make an off-hand comment to prove it.

What only the two of us knew is that I wrote that comment. And all of her “improvised” asides.

This show was about revealing things I didn’t want to reveal but did anyway because capital-a Art; and to really get at the heart of the internal turmoil I was trying to convey, I had to lie to my audience of five.

Ya know, lying to tell the truth: the very heart of narrative storytelling

And there are likely some mistruths in Nassim for the same reason – a couple of staged moments feel like just that, but what goes on within the confines of this black box is an almost magical purity of performance unlike anything I have ever seen. I’m not even sure I want to call it a performance. Because performance here would imply that there’s something deeper beneath this real-time reaction. I have no doubt that Lee Pace expected to give a performance when he walked into the room, but I genuinely believe that we were just watching the man himself struggle.

I mean, if we weren’t, we would have gotten a better definition of “Fuck.”

Nine-Point-Two out of Ten

The Criterion Channel Is a Great Collection Companion – Review #35

In early 2016, I went to the Criterion Collection offices for a press screening of Agnieszka Smoczynska’s mermaid murder musical The Lure. I was curious about the film, but I attended the screening almost entirely because of its location; getting to walk the halls where *The* Criterion was collection-ed? A dream. And sure, they’re not particularly long halls, but so what? They’re covered in big beautiful 24x36s of cinema’s truest classics.

On the way to the bathroom, I passed through what I assume was the filling room. Discs overflowed the shelves and littered the tables. I was told that there was some overstock and that kids from underprivileged neighborhoods were going to be coming in to take it off their hands.

I wanted so badly to take some for myself.

In case you don’t know what the gosh darn heck I’m talking about: the Criterion Collection was founded back in the mid-80s as a company dedicated to “Deepen[ing] the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.”

If you ever wondered how special features became a thing – Criterion did it first back in the Laserdisc days, then moving into DVD and Blu-ray. And now, their own streaming platform.

But it’s been a long road to get here.

Back when I first started subscribing to Hulu Plus, I did so in part because they had a partnership with Criterion, and many of the Collection’s films were included with the price of entry. It made the already-pretty-good-deal very good indeed, though I didn’t use it nearly as much as I should have. So, when the deal ended and Criterion went over to TCM’s Filmstruck, I didn’t follow.

Folks like me are probably the reason that Filmstruck is dead. Sorry. But from its ashes rose the only thing I cared about, that independent service dedicated to the Collection: the Criterion Channel, which officially launched just a couple weeks ago.

As someone who is watching this video, you have the technology necessary to access the Channel. It’s pretty much everywhere except game consoles. At the time of recording, actually doing so can be an occasionally frustrating experience… but I’m not interested in that here. Bugs get quashed. Features get added. Static video reviews become obsolete.

But not this one!

Because what matters to me is not the execution of The Criterion Channel’s Roku interface but that of its purpose. How well it channels that mission to “Deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.”

Spoiler alert: Pretty well.

See, what makes the Criterion Channel unique is not just the catalog – though that’s at least above average and something we will discuss in a bit – but everything that comes with it. You can feel confident when watching a Criterion release that it is the highest quality transfer available, which can be something of a gamble on other services, particularly when it comes to more niche or foreign films. But even more significantly, many films have extras taken straight from their home release: commentary tracks, interviews, feature-length retrospective documentaries, et cetera.

For example, I inaugurated the service for myself with the 1923 Harold Lloyd vehicle Safety Last! I’m ashamed to admit that I had never seen any of his films before, despite my general appreciation for silent comedies, and this seemed like a good opportunity to right that wrong. If you’ve missed out as well, the film is well worth watching, and not just for its iconic clock-hanging shot. Nearly 100 years later, it is still a hilarious and relatable-ish tale of a man who will go to incredible lengths to convince the love of his life that he isn’t actually a total shmuck.

And how can you watch that without immediately needing to know more? Fortunately, the Criterion Channel was happy to oblige. I went with “Locations and Effects,” a 20-minute documentary about the production of Lloyd’s more harrowing stunts, using Safety Last! as the prime but not exclusive example while also giving some greater context for how others used the same or similar techniques. But I could have gone so much deeper. Also available are a Safety Last! commentary track, a nearly-two-hour-long documentary about Harold Lloyd, three shorts starring Lloyd, and more.

And that’s the value here. Where Netflix et al make decisions based on algorithm, the Criterion Channel is a distinctly human affair. Discovery doesn’t happen by scrolling through buckets of weirdly specific genres based on a complex tagging system: it happens by trusting people who have dedicated their lives to cinema.

The curation takes a variety of forms. Perhaps it’s a full-on series, like the six woman-directed shorts programmed together as part of their ongoing “Shorts for Days” segment, or “Columbia Noir,” a showcase of 11 noirs produced by Columbia Pictures between 1945 and 1962. Or perhaps it’s a more traditional double feature or even a short+feature pairing of the type you only see at festivals or with a Pixar release.

With each, a filmed introduction explains the vision for the collection and how it came to be. A personal favorite from these first few weeks is dubbed L’amour Kung Fu, putting Jacques Demy’s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg alongside John Woo’s swordsman-out-for-revenge-r Last Hurrah for Chivalry – a pairing justified by none other than Grady Hendrix, who you may not know but is literally one of my favorite people in the world and I was so excited to see him on my television.

And more are constantly being added, with the plan being that every single day is some new thing being highlighted for you to watch. It may not be programmatically personalized, but it is programmed.

Of course, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the actual catalog of the Criterion Channel. As I said, this selection is at least above average and I’m underselling it there. Sight largely unseen, I would say there’s probably not a single bad film on the service. Or perhaps that there aren’t any not worth your time.  And for those who may think that it’s a purely pretentious enterprise: don’t. Ten of Ishiro Honda’s Japanese monster movies spanning two decades, from 1954’s Godzilla to 1975’s Terror of Mecha-Godzilla, are available to stream. As are all four films from Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku, which are films I’ve wanted to check out ever since I missed the Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell screening at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

It is awesome that that is all available to me now.

But there are well over 1000 films in the Criterion Collection, and though the Channel claims similar raw numbers, there’s just a lot that’s missing. And there always will be, for two reasons:

  1. Rights are complicated. Just because the Criterion Collection was able to release a special edition DVD of something a decade ago doesn’t mean they have any claim to that film now; and even if they do, that agreement probably doesn’t cover streaming rights.
  2. The Criterion Channel is in direct competition with the Criterion Collection.

To explain what I mean, let’s take, uh, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. It’s incredible, one of my favorites of all time, as evidenced by the fact that I have a framed poster of it. So I have been anxiously awaiting a high-def home release ever since I first saw it back in 2010 and was, of course, ecstatic when it was announced that the film would finally be getting a proper Blu-ray in January of this year. And, of course, I bought it.

But what if I had known it was going to be on the Criterion Channel so soon after release? Would I still have done so? Maybe, but probably not. Criterion discs are expensive, and also the company’s main business; they can’t really afford to completely cannibalize that.

And so every film that is or isn’t available says something. You can stream Guillermo Del Toro’s Kronos, but not The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, despite the fact that the three together formed a box set a couple years back. Though 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days cannot be streamed, Mungiu’s follow-up Beyond the Hills can be.

The first criterion disc I ever bought, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, isn’t available, nor is anything by Richard Linklater.

And while it’s possible that in time at least some of these will pop up on the service, who knows how long any given film will be available; the Channel, as with all things digital, will see films come and go to augment it’s Permanent Collection – whatever that actually consists of.

So, to answer the critical question: No, the Criterion Channel is not a replacement for the Criterion Collection as a whole. And as the ending of the deal with Hulu and the collapse of Filmstruck indicate, there is a level of precariousness to the entire enterprise. Hausu may be on the channel, but I feel good about having just bought a Blu-ray copy nonetheless.

All that said, taken as its own entity, the Channel has already justified its place in the ever-more-crowded streaming space.

Unlike the competition, the Criterion Channel is focused on celebrating history rather than defining the future. It is there to make the film canon accessible by way of a not-low-but-perfectly-reasonable-especially-in-context-with-the-cost-of-their-physical-releases monthly fee. And even in these early stages, it has succeeded. I have no doubt it will only get better from here.

Eight-Point-Two Out of Ten

Dance Gavin Dance Has It All Figured Out – Review #34

The way I listen to music, I have been told, is… odd. Oftentimes, I will find a single track that just grabs me and listen to nothing else for literal days. On rare occasions, I will fall in love with an entire album, and walk the streets of Seoul for four days exclusively to The Bunny The Bear’s The Way We Rust.

I genuinely enjoy that, the repeating of a great song over and over again until it turns into danceable white noise.

Which is what happens: I’m not studying or even attempting to retain these songs. Heck, there are songs I have listened to upwards of a thousand times that I still don’t know the words to – though in my defense, I listen to a lot of music where the lyrics can be difficult to decipher.

Hello, and welcome to The Week I Review. My name is The Kinda Guy Who Sits During Metal Shows, and today I’m talking about a band that has put together a number of songs that I have lost days to and also went to see perform approximately 59 hours before this video is getting posted: Dance Gavin Dance.

DGD, as the cool kids probably call them, was actually introduced to me by my girlfriend, which was a clarifying moment both musically and romantically. She played for me Chucky vs. the Giant Tortoise from their 2016 release Mothership, which she had developed an obsession of her own for. And right from the opening I was hooked.

The most immediately arresting thing isn’t the virtuosic instrumentalism but the incredible contrast between Tilian Pearson’s awesomely high notes and Jon Mess’s guttural growls. Two great tastes that truly taste great together.

Now, that’s a fairly common combination in post-hardcore, so much so that it could almost be seen as a defining characteristic of the genre… but no one does it better. And it’s really thanks to Pearson, because his vocal quality is unique in general but particularly with this kind of music.

A lot of clean vocalists in the genre are pretty interchangeable. That isn’t to say untalented, but there’s this raw intensity that kinda locks these folks into post-hardcore or something heavier. Because intense vocals like that practically require music that matches their viscerality. Even when the music gets lighter, it can never really leave the genre because of their voices.

Pearson, who took over in 2012 from less-unique-though-still-certainly-talented vocalists, is actually kind of the opposite. While he can do intensity, as evidenced on songs like Mothership’s “Inspire the Liars,” that’s not typical. Instead, he just sounds comfortable up on those crazy high notes, no strain or push – a little breathy, perhaps, but certainly not in a bad way. It’s a voice that could show up in any genre and stand out only for the right reasons.

Which is good, because their songs swing from heavy as hell to groovy as heck at a moment’s notice, and if you were to listen to the first minute of, say, Instant Gratifications “Death of a Strawberry,” you would just assume they were alt-rock. Only when Jon Mess comes 85 seconds into the track would you think something was different. Of course, this in direct contrast to the way they handle Chucky vs. the Giant Tortoise or Artificial Selection’s penultimate track, Bloodsucker, which opens with 30 seconds of intensity and screaming before Pearson comes in, but even here he comes in over this more intense music and *he* is the one who sounds out of place.

But that’s precisely why it works. Because his voice in that context is so unexpected but so objectively impressive that you’re caught off guard and immediately enamored. The way the two are integrated with or actively contrast against the melodies underneath is what makes the band so dynamic and fun to listen to.

And fun to see, too.

There was a video passed around on Twitter a couple weeks ago of a security guy at a Dance Gavin Dance show completely bewildered by Chucky vs. the Giant Tortoise; Pearson called him a Legend.

It’s a good reaction, one that makes sense if you’re being thrown into this sort of thing for the first time. Especially because of the joy with which it’s performed. One thing I like about their live show is the little electronic interludes that are played between tracks. Sometimes they’re like distorted versions of songs, while others it seems like something else entirely, but it keeps the energy up even while folks are changing instruments or telling New York how much they appreciate us all coming out.

And then, once they get into the songs, they *crush* it.

I have long preferred a quality live performance to a studio one, but not every band can really hack it live. Immediately before Dance Gavin Dance on Friday was Periphery, a band who I have now seen and been underwhelmed by twice. While I think Spencer Sotelo’s scream is cooler live, his clean vocals are too weak by comparison, and it’s frustrating.

On the other hand, both Pearson and Mess sound fantastic. Mess sounds exactly the same as he does on the record, while the minor dip from perfection on Pearson’s part is more than made up for by his performative energy.

It’s kinda funny, actually, how different the two singers are in performance as well as style. Mess just doesn’t move around much, and he absolutely locks in place while he’s screaming. Pearson, on the other hand, is more typical in that he constantly moves across the stage, whether he’s singing or not. Especially when he’s not, because he uses Mess’s verses as a time to practice some incredibly sensual body rolls. It’s all a little silly.

Much moreso if you actually look into what they’re saying –Mess in particular. Chucky vs The Giant Tortoise is a pretty good example, what with the line “Riding a rhino pico de gallo,” but I think the perfect verse is his first from Artificial Selection’s Midnight Crusade:

Brontosaurs fear of art is torn apart by making
Good mistakes and branching out he switch it up like baking
The more I tried to sleep it off the more I started thinking
I wanna live in mushroom park, do unrestricted shrinking

That’s hilarious. And Pearson? Well, he threatens to take your confetti away.

This ability to be light amidst all the angsty anger of their genre is so refreshing. A lot of their music deals with pretty heavy themes, but there’s a levity to their own production that really brings it all together. They don’t take things too seriously, and their work is so much better for it.

And that’s, ultimately, what it comes down to. Dance Gavin Dance feels like a band that hasn’t compromised. That they’re actually just a bunch of weird dudes who really like making weird music and have somehow found this huge success in the process. Like they’re getting away with something crazy. You listen to their music and you see them perform and it’s so clear how much they love what they’re doing. You just have to love it too.

Or, at least, I do.

Nine-Point-Three out of Ten