J.R.R. Tolkien would not enjoy The Rings of Power.
Wait! Before you roll your eyes and seek out a piece with a less whiny opening line, know that this is a generally favorable review of the Amazon series inspired by Tolkien’s creations. Much has been written already about the liberties taken by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and sure: there are diversions, detours and a significant condensing of the timeline of Middle-Earth throughout the show’s first season, some of which result in frustrating missed opportunities. Entire diatribes have been dedicated to lamenting the fact that the Rings of Power elves have short hair, or that the Númenóreans should technically be like nine feet tall, or that mithril or the palantíri work very differently here (Erik Kain at Forbes has basically made a career these last few months mewling about what a “betrayal” the series is, at least when he’s not writing hard-hitting articles about Today’s Wordle Hints). So enough has been laid in print already detailing Power‘s departures from Tolkien’s source material, and yes, it’s all technically accurate.
And yet I have a hard time believing Tolkien would really give a shit about that. Before diving into why — and before getting to what the author’s real beef with the show would probably be — we’ll first issue a spoiler warning for The Rings of Power‘s first season.
Continue reading The Rings of Power — Season 1
My favorite moments of True Detective, regardless of which season we’re discussing, are those that find an artful way to play with the storytelling devices. Very few television series even attempt something besides linear narrative, but at times ‘Tec goes beyond just a standard bookend flashback structure. At the outset of the first season, “The Long Bright Dark” seemed content to tell a 1995-set story framed by grainy camcorder footage of two characters recounting their experiences in 2012. But by the end of the episode our 2012 lens separated itself from the camcorder, and from that point on the first season had two timelines running with equal weight on both.
The third season has three of those timelines, more of a challenge in maintaining the feeling that each of them is as important, and “If You Have Ghosts” wobbled ever so slightly in juggling all of that. 1990 Wayne may always have been predisposed to snapping into an argumentative holier-than-thou rant, but his fuse in those segments of the story is now almost comically short. “Ghosts” felt like the longest episode of the season (which was actually last week’s 75-minute “The Hour and the Day”), partially because we’re inescapably at the threshold of a big break in all three timelines. We know the Woodard Altercation is linked to the Purcell case in 1980, we know Wayne and Roland do something bad in 1990, and we know 2015 Wayne will experience a revelation in what he does and does not remember about his life’s work. The fact that the specifics of that knowledge are still being withheld is still mostly tantalizing, but slightly frustrating in an episode as “long” as this one.
Continue reading True Detective 3.5 – “If You Have Ghosts”
Jimmy McGill is at any given time more than Jimmy McGill. He’s Slippin’ Jimmy, the scam artist specializing in falling on black ice and selling fake Rolexes. He’s “Charlie Hustle”, according to Howard Hamlin, the scrappy upstart lawyer with an unparalleled relentlessness. Eventually he’s Saul Goodman, the best possible lawyer to have provided you’re guilty. And eventually, in a post-Breaking Bad world, he’s Gene, the manager of the Cinnabon in that mall in Omaha. All of these personalities share what would appear to be major character traits, primarily a highly-charged relationship to the local criminal underworld and a serious gift of gab.
It’s what they don’t share, the traits that Jimmy sheds like dead skin as he moves from label to label, that find purchase in “Switch”. The first season of Better Call Saul surprised pretty much everyone by having a real emotional core to support the wicked humor, something that brought it fully into the deserving company of Breaking Bad. “Switch” strengthened that connective tissue in an important way, in a sort of add-by-subtracting way, drew nearer to it by moving further away. It’s vital that Saul measure up to Bad, but it’s far more vital that Saul stand as a strong series unto itself.
Continue reading Better Call Saul 2.1 – “Switch”
The episodic nature of a show like The Leftovers could be its downfall. Take Tommy and Laurie Garvey, the only two familiar faces in “Off Ramp”, and consider that a) we’ve seen a lot of their respective stories, from backstories to experiences at the moment of the Sudden Departure to their lives in the aftermath, and then consider b) that the episodes featuring them almost always seem like weaker entries. Why? Lost-style episodes on single characters aren’t inherently weak, and in fact “Two Boats and a Helicopter” (about Matt Jamison) and “Guest” (about his sister Nora) were two of the best episodes of the first season of Leftovers.
But Lost still had its dreaded Sun episodes, or its Shannon/Boone episodes, or a f*cking Rose & Bernard episode right in the middle of a major action arc, and that last example gets to the heart of the problem: some great characters just slow the action down. Tommy and Laurie always kind of did that in the first season, involved with their little cults of various ilks and mindsets, and we always had to cut away to get to them. Cutting away, of course, implies that the stuff we actually care about will be waiting when we get back. It’s not that Tommy or Laurie walked on screen and sucked the life out of the show, but even in their best moments the structure was such that you’d still be waiting to cut back.
Continue reading The Leftovers 2.3 – “Off Ramp”
The 53rd New York Film Festival came to a close Saturday night with the world premiere of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s longtime passion project about the late great Miles Davis. An actor of Cheadle’s caliber attached so fully to a single film might be a rarity, and in this case it’s the lead role, the directing, and the writing that all fall in the man’s wheelhouse…and he co-produced and wrote original music for the film. And he was in Avengers: Age of Ultron just a few months back.
Interestingly, the similarities between the vigilante War Machine and the musician Miles Davis make it evident what Cheadle saw in both charac…just kidding. Miles Ahead is the best thing Cheadle’s done since Hotel Rwanda, or at the very least the most substantial role since then, and thus an overdue reminder that Cheadle is a fantastically likable leading man. He’s likable even when he’s playing Davis at his lowest point, a five-year creative drought fueled by cocaine and loneliness that makes up the majority of Miles Ahead, and through all the stubbornness and figurative horn-tooting (sorry) Cheadle still conveys the fact that Davis was overflowing with passion for his art. It’s fitting that the actor, who took eight years to craft Miles, matches the musician in passion for his own art.
Continue reading Miles Ahead (2015)
Sometimes drama is hard. Part of the reason why people are throwing around phrases like The Golden Age of Television is because great drama often implies a certain longevity, a depth not only of feeling but of space and time as well. Rust Cohle’s True Detective arc spans more than a decade, and we’re allowed insight into that arc for eight hours rather than for the limited runtime of a film. Walter White’s (d)evolution is likewise more effective for the time it takes building itself. In the coldest sense television allows what comic book chronology allows, simply more, and thus more of a compounding effect in the later hours or later seasons. True Detective and Breaking Bad are intense in their final sequences mostly due to brilliant writing, brilliant directing, brilliant acting — nothing replaces storytelling (preach!) — but partially due to what came before.
And yes: sometimes drama is easy. Fabricated drama isn’t hard to find. Heck, take Best Picture winner Argo, which climaxes with a harrowing scene at the airport where the heroes are really just standing in a room sweating as to whether they’re about to be let out of the country or not. Quick cuts are made to the drama, vehicles holding the bad guys hurtling along the tarmac. It’s all spiced up, and usually when you have to spice up your scene with cuts to action that simply happen faster and faster as the music plays faster and faster — well, maybe there’s another way to extract drama, a less easy way, an infinitely more effective way. Argo is hardly the worst example. The cringeworthiest one that leaps to mind is all the extraneous shit going down at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, because Spidey battling his enemy isn’t enough. And Spidey battling two enemies isn’t enough. And Spidey battling two enemies while a hospital full of people is in danger and a plane full of people is about to crash isn’t even enough, so throw Gwen Stacey in there. There we go: amazing.
Continue reading The Leftovers 1.10 – “The Prodigal Son Returns”
Solace indeed. The first half of the rookie season of The Leftovers hurtles forward at breakneck speed, propelled by a whole lot of pain, a whole lot of angst, a whole lot of doom and gloom, and just a little tiny bit of hope. It’s fairly characteristic, actually, for an intense episode of this show to contain one small but valuable nugget of joy within the dark folds, although I’m not sure the darkest episode “Gladys” had anything of the sort. “Guest“, the sixth and best episode of the season, showed Nora more broken and identityless than she’s ever been — and yet her connection with Wayne (“Will I forget them?” “Never.“) was one of the most life-affirming moments in the entire season. Her brother Matt endured a series of cruelly hellish occurrences in “Two Boats and a Helicopter“, and yet his win at the roulette table probably elicited a smile as large as his out of most viewers. The previous episode “Penguin One, Us Zero” showed us just how tragic it could be to lost your bagel, and then it showed us just how exhilirating it can be to find it again.
So “Solace for Tired Feet” is just that: a breather. It’s not built with such intentionality, of course, and if anything it’s structured as a set-up to the final stroke of the season. “Tired Feet” says here is where everyone is, here is where they seem to be headed, and here is how they are all connected. The first two points are necessary to orient us towards the end of the season’s arc, but it’s the third point — the ways in which all of the characters are connected — that’s most impressive in this otherwise slow hour. To boot, instead of a full episode of straight-up intensity, “Tired Feet” provides a blend of hopefulness, revelation, and some intriguing Lost-style question marks.
Continue reading The Leftovers 1.7 – “Solace for Tired Feet”
The first scene of “Guest” perfectly encapsulates the special kind of world we talked about in our review of the previous episode “Gladys“. Sure, the second scene steals the show: Nora leafs through a newspaper, makes an appointment with a prostitute advertised under the headline Nothing is Forbidden, invites the scantily-clad girl into her home, plants a pistol in her hand, dons a bulletproof vest, then demands the girl shoot her directly in the chest. Nora’s done this before, she assures the prostitute, although the last girl she got to shoot her “said she’d never do it again”. Thousands of dollars change hands, as do a great number of understandable health-related concerns. Tears fall. Eventually the gun goes off and Nora lurches backwards onto the blow-up air mattress. The hooker flees. After a long moment, Nora gasps a breath of fresh air.
Hell of a scene, no? Even if you aren’t sold on Nora’s self-help methods as a kind of New Grief — as if the old methods of grieving for lost loved ones no longer cut it — the intensity of the scene is still powerful. It builds moment by moment, starting as the prostitute steps over the threshold and holding an inhale as she darts back over it after the gunshot, finally exhaling at the same time Nora does. But a large part of the intensity of the scene might be attributed to the fact that this is the second scene of “Guest”, and the first is so deceptively twisted and unimaginably tragic that the gunshot scene almost becomes inevitable.
Continue reading The Leftovers 1.6 – “Guest”
One might have hoped that the second season of True Detective would end up being something more than it appeared to be at the outset. Not just that the overall story would improve or that the episode-by-episode characterizations would gradually become more palatable — many hoped that the end of the sophomore outing would shine a light back on the beginning in such a way that a second viewing might be more rewarding than the first. This kind of retroactive structuring isn’t impossible, but it is pretty damn rare. The example I always use is Lost (yeah, I use Lost as a barometer for pretty much everything) which had an ending that might not have pleased everyone but managed to turn back and gracefully incorporate disparate elements from the first few seasons.
Did True Detective do that? The answer’s probably more No than Yes, and although the one major Yes is worth discussing the Nos just seem to pile atop one another immediately after watching the finale. Spoilers follow for “Omega Station”.
Continue reading True Detective 2.8 – “Omega Station”
Sense8 seems like the kind of show that began with the title, then developed an edgy concept to match/justify the title, then built a plot around the concept, then sort of accumulated characters to fill the whole thing out. That’s conjecture, of course, and of course there’s no “right” way to build a lasting story in the medium of television or otherwise. Lana and Andy Wachowski have been around the block, too, with the Matrix series, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas and their most recent film Jupiter Ascending among the numerous entries on their joint résumé. Their sci-fi movies are big, loud, and undeniably ambitious, and while the jury’s mostly still out on whether those movies are any good or not it’s certainly true that their concepts are highly original.
The concept of Sense8 is simultaneously the best thing about the series and the most frustrating. Eight people, spread across the world from San Francisco to Chicago to Mexico City to London to Berlin to Nairobi to Mumbai to Seoul, make a fascinating discovery about themselves: they are able to sense each other. Thoughts, feelings, secrets, emotions — regardless of the distance between them, these “Sensates” (get it?) share a bond that no one else can understand. They themselves don’t understand it for some time, and by the end of the first season there’s still a lot left to explore about the connection these eight people share.
Continue reading Sense8 – Season 1