TV: Jessica Jones (Season 1)

jjDespite my unabashed Marvel fandom, I still worry they’re oversaturating the market: that was certainly my immediate reaction to the Netflix deal announcing Jessica Jones. Who, I thought, is Jessica Jones? It felt like going way off the board in an early round of the draft. But surprise suprise, Marvel’s done it again. Jessica Jones is superb television, and easily my favorite MCU series to date: a different kind of superhero story, with a brilliantly sustained thematic vision.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a hard-drinking, sarcastic private investigator eking out her living from the dingy Hell’s Kitchen office of Alias Investigations. Secretly she also has super powers: enhanced strength and jumping abilities that led her briefly down the path of superheroism. But those days are behind her…until she takes a missing persons case from the parents of Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), a young NYU undergraduate who’s fallen off the radar. Jessica’s search for Hope, however, leads her to Kilgrave (David Tennant), the man whose mind control powers shattered her superhero career and left her with PTSD. A fraught, last-minute decision to rescue Hope from Kilgrave’s grasp leads her inexorably into full-on confrontation with her traumatic past.

Structurally Jessica Jones is a refreshing change of pace from the standard Marvel superhero beginning: an origin story after the fact. It’s less interested in pyrotechnics than psychology, chipping away at Jessica’s rough surface to reveal who she is and how she ended up that way. Indeed, it’s sort of a re-origin story, flashing back to her failed superhero beginnings to illuminate the depths of her current struggle, which makes it that much more emotionally investing. This alinear story plays out over an infectious neo-noir PI vibe: as a detective, Jessica Jones slots in nicely with fictional sleuths Jim Rockford, Veronica Mars, and Dex Parios, tough, hard-luck gumshoes working the hazy zones between respectable society and the criminal world. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jessica’s ringtone sounds an awful lot like the pre-credit Rockford Files phone just before the answering machine picks up; an amusing touch!)

But where Jessica Jones really stands out is thematically. Kilgrave is as much a viciously abusive ex-boyfriend as a supervillain, his powers a terrifying metaphor for the evil mindfuckery of “loved ones” who leverage their hold over others with gaslighting and victim-blaming stalkerism. His callous manipulation of Jessica has dramatic physical and external repercussions, of course, but the show focuses more on the psychological scars and emotional brutality inflicted. And it’s not just the escalating war between Jessica and Kilgrave that examines this theme: it persists through subplots involving Jessica’s step-sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), an embroiled police sergeant named Will Simpson (Will Traval), Jessica’s high-powered lawyer connection Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and others. In this area, Jessica Jones is charting new ground, breaking from the cookie-cutter mold of world-saving spectacle to focus more on inner apocalypses.

Through it all, Ritter holds the lead role charismatically, while Tennant is outstanding as the despicable Kilgrave, probably the MCU’s most convincingly monstrous villain. The show gradually builds a fine network of supporting allies for Jones, chiefly from the perfectly cast Mike Colter as Luke Cage, and Taylor’s Trish Walker, whose arc through the season charts her own unlikely path to superheroism. Students of the Marvel universe will find plenty of entertaining easter eggs and lore warps — as well as an inevitable intersection with the world of Netflix’s previous Marvel series Daredevil, for which Jessica Jones is something of a feminist flip-side. (Indeed, Netflix’s Marvel series are building much like the Phase One movies, and far more interestingly: a dark, gritty underside to the MCU, taking advantage of the extended story-telling rhythms and freedoms of non-network television.)

The show does possess its imperfections, alas, chiefly in regards to pacing: later episodes do feel padded with overlong scenes for inessential subplots. And on some level the Daredevil crossover feels inorganic to Jessica’s journey, tacked on to satisfy Marvel’s strategic world-building momentum. But overall it’s an uncommonly powerful season of television, bringing welcome emotional depth and structural variety to the MCU.

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Film: Circle

circleFrom the low-budget, bottle-show school of innovative science fiction filmmaking comes Circle (2015), a rather obvious but nonetheless thought-provoking idea piece that leverages an extended, in-your-face metaphor to supsenseful effect. Fifty people awaken standing in a circle in a dark chamber, not knowing how they got there or why. Then, a mysterious device in the center of the room proceeds to strike them down, one by one, on a set schedule. As the body count increases, the survivors quickly learn that they’re voting on who lives or dies, and can therefore control who lives the longest. Without the time to attach meaning to this cruel exercise, they quickly begin strategizing: some merely to extend their own lives, others to determine who rightfully deserves to survive.

The success of Circle hinges on a blatant central metaphor: the circle as microcosm for humanity, fractured and divisive as racial, political, and religious factors motivate the players to leverage the cruel game to either their own advantage, or a greater good. At first it seems the premise is destined to grow long in the tooth; who needs ninety minutes of social media arguing in the form of a movie? But in the end the premise is cleverly executed, as each taut round exposes new wrinkles: prejudices revealed, strategies exposed, and twists as to how the “game” works, all of which alter the playing field as the players slowly die off. A largely unknown cast — Julie Benz is the only familiar face, really — does a fine job enacting the unlikely, dialogue-driven scenario, which was evidently inspired by 12 Angry Men. I’m not sure it selected the perfect ending to accentuate its dark message, but overall it slots in nicely above films like Cube and Exam as an idea-driven, filmed stage drama about characters trapped in a baffling, science fictional pressure cooker.

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Film: Dark Places

dark placesAn intriguing central mystery can’t quite elevate Dark Places (2015), a competetent Midwest-set chiller that’s diverting but unremarkable. Libby Day (Charlize Theron) is the lone survivor of the Kansas Prairie Massacre, a horrific outbreak of violence that killed her mother and sisters when she was ten. After years skating by on charitable notoreity, Libby falls out of the spotlight and her financial desperation leads her to accept an invitatation from Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), earnest young member of a true crime puzzle-solving club full of PIs and amateur sleuths fascinated by unsolved cases. Although the murder of Libby’s family was blamed on Libby’s troubled brother Ben (Corey Stoll), the club doesn’t think that adds up — and lures Libby into helping them uncover the truth about that night.

Based on a Gillian Flynn novel, Dark Places gets its hooks in with an interesting early setup, but ultimately never develops into compelling viewing. Theron has more charisma in one cheekbone than most actors do in their entire bodies, so it’s easy to root for her as she delves into her grimdark past, but unfortunately the mystery unfolds in an awkward combination of in-the-dark, first-person narration and third-person omniscient flashback. This unusual tactic felt like an authorial cheat, leaving the viewer selectively informed as the film doles out clues. The performances are solid, at least, with Christina Hendricks and Chloë Grace Moretz standing out in the flashbacks. But the mystery, while interesting, resolves in a clumsy mix of expositional dialogue and offstage deus ex machina. Overall, a polished but unexceptional crime tale.

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Film: Bad Milo!

bad-milo-posterHave plenty of saltines and ginger ale on hand if you watch Bad Milo! (2013), a shameless horror-comedy that leans heavily into its core scatology. It’s the tragic tale of Duncan (Ken Marino), a down-on-his-luck accountant whose job and family life have his nerves on edge. And oh yeah, he also has a disturbing gastrointestinal issue — a terrifying, deadly creature that lives in his digestive tract, emerging only to brutally kill whatever is stressing Duncan out.

This is an utterly silly and horrible idea for a movie, but Marino’s hilarious performance manages to elevate it: he shines, playing every ludicrous scenario brilliantly straight. Accomplished deadpan support from Gillian Jacobs, Patrick Warburton, Mary Kay Place, Kumail Nanjiani, Toby Huss, and Peter Stormare contributes greatly to what laughs there are — and there are a fair number of them. Still, this Gremlins-esque spoof only clears the bar by holding it so very, very low. Recommended primarily for Marino fans and connoisseurs of lowbrow culture.

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Film: Survivor

survivorNo, not the inexplicably immortal reality series, nor the inflictors of “Eye of the Tiger” — Survivor (2015) is a paint-by-numbers thriller that plays out like watered-down, post-9/11 Hitchcock. In London, ace security office Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich) is in charge of vetting suspicious visa candidates preparing travel to the United States. Just as she’s sniffing out a suspicious pattern, though, her entire team is killed. By chance she survives the attack, but she’s mistaken for the primary suspect, and targeted both by the terrorists who tried to kill her and the authorities trying to clean up the mess. Only Kate can stop the next phase of the threat, but only if she can avoid her own people, and the chilly mercenary Nash (Pierce Brosnan) whose assassination attempt she survived.

Aside from a reasonably elegant structure and a game performance by the underrated Jovovich, there’s not much to recommend Survivor, a bland wrong-woman thriller with uninspired dialogue and prefab characters. Among the principle performers only Jovovich comes across at all lifelike, but her supposedly top-notch agent doesn’t live up to her billing. The rest of the cast — which includes the usually reliable Angela Bassett, James D’Arcy, and Robert Forster — comes off robotically, saddled with lifeless, cliché-filled dialogue. Ultimately, reasonable execution can’t save a shallow, derivative script.

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TV: Humans (Season 1)

humans-premiere-announcement-1200For a show with so much going for it, Humans unfortunately doesn’t amount to much. Based on a Swedish series called Real Humans, this one paints a world in which lifelike synthetic robots (“synths”) have become a ubiquitous underclass revolutionizing industries ranging from domestic assistance to home healthcare to prostitution. After years without one, the Hawkins family acquires its own synth when overwhelmed stay-at-home dad Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) finally gets fed up with the workaholism of his lawyer wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson). The synth, Anita (Gemma Chan), seems at first the solution to all the family’s problems — while also exposing several new ones. Meanwhile, Anita isn’t exactly what she seems: there’s something off about her, and her plight is tied into the motivations of several encroaching players destined to converge on the Hawkins household.

At its best, Humans is polished and professional, an attractive production generally well performed. The show is particularly good at selling the creepy, Uncanny Valley vibe of the synths. For a role necessarily flat and affectless, Chan is exceptional at walking the line between robot and human, and while the Hawkins family is painfully generic, Parkinson and Carless, at least, show sparks of personality. The support is adequate, if unremarkable, on all fronts; most likeable, perhaps, is William Hurt as an aging pioneer technologist, although his role is sadly inessential.

In a world swamped with excellent viewing options, though, I’m looking for more than polished and professional, so I probably won’t continue with this show. Humans lacks that certain something. It has all the earmarks of being the next Orphan Black, without any of the heart, charm, or structural ambition. But chief among its problems is that its take on the premise is superficial and unsurprising. Not only doesn’t it look deeply enough at the surface world-building of its synth-transformed landscape, but it fails to leverage that premise to deeper thematic impact. And this, despite ripe opportunity, for certainly the callous and inhumane abuses heaped on the synths in the show parallel the unjust political conditions and power dynamics of the real world. Alas, Humans has precious little to say about that.

The result is reasonably watchable, but not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. The science fictional ideas here are more effectively and succinctly explored elsewhere (Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” among others), and more engaging drama can easily be found elsewhere.

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Album: Breaking Brain by Panzerballett

Panzerballett-Breaking-Brain-460x460With its latest wild release Breaking Brain (2015), Panzerballett retains its dubious distinction as my favorite band. This complex German jazz-funk-metal quintet refuses to show any signs of jumping the shark after five studio albums; it continues to win my heart by laying down intense, Zappaesque melodies over swinging jazz walks, comical funk grooves, and chugging math-metal intricacy.

If their previous release, Tank Goodness, herky-jerks around with random-seeming rhythmic perversity, Breaking Brain reins in that inaccessible streak a smidge and re-finds a steadier pulse — albeit a polyrhythmic, djent-inspired one. It’s also not as cover-happy as the last several releases. On that score they go way off the map with a deeply weird, comic reinterpreation of “Mah Nà Mah Nà” (here called “Mahna Mahna”) and a scorching rendition of Trilok Gurtu’s “Shunyai.” The only over-familiar cover is a case of self-cannibalization: an even darker, grungier cover of their own cover of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther,” which is interesting but inessential.

There’s plenty of fresh, inventive, and technically ambitious original material on display, though, from the opening aggresion of “Euroblast” to the heavy jazz-metal of “Der Saxdiktator” and “Frantik Nervesaw Massacre.” My favorite tracks, though, are the dark metallic beats of “Smoochy Borg Funk,” in which a rare four-four time signature is complexified by orchestrated guitar-sax interplay, and the insanely dense “Typewriter II,” which is…well, see for yourself, in a music video so nonsensical it might have been made during the early days of MTV:

Overall, it’s another mindblowing collection from one of the funniest, heaviest, and most technically accomplished bands out there. The fact that a band this bizarre and unique actually exists still makes me a little giddy.

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Novel: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

In Aurora (2015) the ever-impressive Kim Stanley Robinson tackles the generation ship story. His spin on this common trope begins in expected ways, rife with Robinson’s familiar characteristics — epic scope, detailed scientific speculation, intense environmentalism — but ultimately it takes surprising turns. The result is dark but mind-expanding, and it possesses a remarkable quality: it feels like more than a novel somehow. It’s like a metanovel, with several additional layers of reflection beyond its surface story, probing inward at the mysteries of the human condition and outward at the mind-blowing vastness of the universe. Of course, I suppose science fiction novels do this all the time, or strive for it, but I never feel it quite so strongly as I do in Robinson’s best work.

As Aurora begins, a starship makes its final approach to the Tau Ceti system, after generations adrift. Their goal is to colonize the vaguely Earth-like world of Aurora. Largely through the eyes of Freya, daughter of the chief engineer Devi, the final years of the journey show just how difficult it’s been for them, the ship’s connected biomes in a tenuous state of balance right up the moment of landfall. But the ship’s passengers have even more tough challenges ahead as they face the hardships of a precarious new environment, and unexpected conflict and political strife over what to do now that they’ve arrived at the new world.

Although it doesn’t scrimp on eye-widening sense of wonder, Aurora steps back from Robinson’s frequent utopian idealism, instead focusing on the sheer, astronomical challenges of such an ambitious undertaking, if not the near impossibility of its success. As a result it lacks the fanciful exuberance that often characterizes Robinson’s work, in favor of an even more serious, Mundane-adjacent message. The takeaway is bleaker and more grounded, then, but not at the expense of amazing, perspective-shifting depictions of the universe’s brain-exploding majesty. If this means several of the novella-sized chapters, particularly late in the book, feel like more of a slog, it’s a strategic slog, servicing the novel’s message.

Readers in search of escapist science fictional fare about a starfaring humanity will probably find Aurora wanting for comforting optimism. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful or awe-inspiring a vision, another breathtaking accomplishment from Robinson.

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TV: Master of None (Season 1)

monBy greenlighting interesting projects and taking new chances, Netflix has become the new HBO, transforming the landscape of TV much as HBO did back before its success ossified them into making over-produced, underwhelming product. The new Aziz Ansari series Master of None is another quirky, different project from the Netflix stable: a breezy one-camera sitcom on the surface, that turns out to also be a charming examination of modern society through the eyes of a refreshingly self-aware comedian.

Ansari plays Dev, a cavalier young actor in New York City, looking for love while muddling through life on odd-job roles and commercial royalties. An early hookup with music PR rep Rachel (Noël Wells) turns out to be the awkward start of an important relationship in Dev’s life, as he transitions from the aimless hedonism of his twenties to a pre-midlife search for his calling.

Master of None has some rocky patches: an awkward pace here, an amateur performance there, a misguided joke or two. But overlooking these minor glitches is easy enough, because the show is otherwise such a joy. Ansari steps beyond his fast-talking Parks and Rec persona to prove he can be an unconventional leading man, and while Dev is clearly an Aziz analogue, it doesn’t matter, nor does that fact that the lines occasionally exchange like stand-up monologue ricocheting between multiple characters. Ansari has a keen eye for observation, and he trains it unflinchingly on relevant issues: everything from relationships and family to racism and rape culture. The results are often hilarious, but also true and earnest. And if Ansari occasionally displays his sociopolitical blind spots, he also seems the type of guy to take himself for task for it; indeed, much of the material stems from his own failings and personal growth as he tries to see past his perspective and figure it all out. And that, perhaps, is the most winning thing about the series. The world needs more shows like this, where people examine their perspectives, adapt and learn, and grow to be better people. For a series that could easily have been light, throwaway comedy, that’s an unexpectedly uplifting takeaway. Highly recommended.

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Film: Bridge of Spies

bosI’m more or less contractually obligated to watch a film titled Bridge of Spies (2015). The product of an unlikely collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, this one is certainly good enough to climb onto the lower ranks of a hypothetically revised Spy 100 list, but make no mistake: it’s a Spielberg movie first, a spy movie second, and a Coen Brothers script at a distant third.

In 1957, when the FBI apprehends Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the government needs a competent defense attorney to legitimize their show trial. This no-win task falls to Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a slick but principled insurance lawyer, who does almost too good a job defending Abel before the guilty verdict — a foregone conclusion — lands. He’s so tenacious, though, that when the pilot of an American spy plane is shot down over Soviet soil, both sides want him to negotiate a clandestine prisoner exchange: the American pilot for Abel. This sends Donovan to a hostile, newly divided Berlin, an amateur spy in enemy territory, trying to keep everyone alive — including himself.

Based on actual events, Bridge of Spies is a gripping enough tale of intrigue, and like most Spielberg product it’s finely rendered. The Cold War backdrop is vivid and convincing, particularly when the action shifts to Berlin, where the desperation of an ideologically divided world is writ large. It’s classic spy fare, and the plot has plenty of murky motives and requisite twists of fate. Hanks holds the stage adeptly, in a familiar noble scoundrel role, and Rylance brings a dry, winning touch to his supporting role.

Alas, the Spielberg-Coen flavors interact weirdly. The script only winks at the quirky, dark genius of the Coens, which is anyway at cross purposes with Spielberg’s broad-appeal patriotism and emotional manipulation . The result is off-balance: the subject matter’s naturally cynical foundation built high with obvious Hollywood hero worship.  This isn’t to say the film is unsatisfying; indeed, Spielberg’s sensibility provides a varied tone in a genre that often feels repetitive. But it does feel overly finessed, its physical realism and historic verisimilitude undercut by a veneer of emotional falseness.

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