The Punisher Season 2 Review

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People would probably consider a review of this kind of content to be a far cry from the content which I last reviewed, however, I like to consider myself omnivorous in taste. Also, there is more than meets the eye where it comes to this Marvel Netflix series. Frank Castle aka The Punisher, a Marvel Comics vigilante, first appeared in this Marvel Netflix Universe in the second season of Daredevil as a vengeful man looking to eradicate anyone involved in the death of his wife and children. After his success in Daredevil in large part due to the excellent writing of The Punisher episodes and the fantastic performance by Jon Bernthal, the character received his own Netflix show. Particularly known as a character that discriminately kills bad people with a wide arsenal of guns, the first season of The Punisher was surprisingly quiet and gradual in its storytelling. Rather than come off the bat with blazing action and over the top gore, the show took its time, building the story as a slow political thriller rather than an intense action series. More than that, the show was also unafraid to shy away from controversial content. It focused heavily on the treatment of veterans in our modern American society and the importance of overcoming traumatic experiences through support, and how neglecting to give that support means turning our backs on people. It also was able to have a real, rational discussion on gun laws and the different sides of the argument. In the end, it was still able to stay true to the character’s violent roots and deliver the rampage and fiery destruction that everyone wanted to see. To date, it is my favorite season of a Marvel show.

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Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher

The Punisher Season 2 continues the first season’s formula of having a reflective and steady build to the story. It starts with Frank lying low after brutally taking down his former friend Billy Russo, who betrayed Frank and was involved in the death of Frank’s family. An interesting start to the season occurs when Frank meets a woman named Beth, played by Alexa Davalos, and the two develop a relationship. It’s the first time that Frank can be seen as moving on from his vengeful motives, but unfortunately, trouble eventually rears its ugly head. This time, it comes in the form of a girl named Amy, who is on the run from a group of hired goons led by a chilling preacher-looking character named John Pilgrim. Meanwhile, Homeland Security agent, Dinah Madani, is still recovering from her manipulation at the hands of Billy Russo, when he escapes from a hospital. The season itself feels very bisected in that the first half involves Frank and Amy running from Pilgrim and the second half deals with Billy Russo more. However, both arcs in the season somehow don’t seem to intrude upon each other, and while they aren’t necessarily perfect at being complementary, they nevertheless seem to work well together. It’s inexplicable, but the narrative doesn’t feel like it’s all over the place even though it technically is all over the place. Part of it may have to do with the excellent acting and charisma by the leads. Amy, played by Giorgia Wigham, develops a strong rapport with Frank as the series progresses. I was initially skeptical about how well they would play off of each other, especially considering the character of Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, had as good chemistry with Frank in the first season as you could find in any TV show. Another character that gets a bigger role in the second season is Curtis, one of Frank’s war buddies formerly in the Navy and now operating a PTSD counseling group. Though featured in the previous season, Curtis tags along with Frank this time around and through their actions and interactions, the dichotomy between the two characters is accentuated. Frank’s destructive, violent, uncompromising, kill-happy personality contrasts with Curtis’s generosity, willingness to see good in others, and belief in healing those that society has rejected. It’s clear that Curtis just wants to make it out alive and to help Frank move on from his vigilante ways.

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Giorgia Wigham plays the character of Amy Bendix
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Jason Moore as Curtis Hoyle

 

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Ben Barnes as Billy Russo/Jigsaw

Ben Barnes returns as Billy Russo, now with a somewhat scarred face after being brutally beaten by Frank. The character of Billy Russo aka Jigsaw is known in the comics for having a severely scarred and disfigured face. Fans of the comics might be disappointed, since the show decides to have a different take on the character, showing Russo as more psychologically scarred than he is physically. Again, despite all accounts suggesting that the decisions made by the showrunners shouldn’t work, it comes off as convincing and in line with the character that they had established in the first season. Josh Stewart delivers a cold and eerie performance as John Pilgrim. Pilgrim as a character walks a line that is closer to Frank’s, however, he is a conduit for more powerful forces that run abound in the background. Both the villains, Russo and Pilgrim, seem to be dark reflections of Frank Castle himself, and it causes Frank to reflect on his ways. However, this Frank, unlike in Season 1 and Daredevil, is done trying to find his identity. He is sure of who and what he is. Of course, what he is, is an unhinged and brutal killer who doesn’t give a second thought to taking a life yet he and everyone else around him knows that. The Punisher isn’t watered down or shown to secretly have a soft heart. It is clear that Frank is willing to cross the lines that others wouldn’t be willing to cross, and what separates him from his enemies in the end, is his compassion for innocent people and his ability to care about other people and put his life on the line for them. His biggest fight has been against a system that he believes is wrong, allowing powerful people to abuse their positions and create chaos that ripples across the city and negatively affects the innocent bystanders.

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Since this will most likely be the end of The Punisher Netflix series, I’d like to mention how unique the show was. It took a character that is a rampaging vigilante and added layers to his story and identity. It immersed viewers into a complex world where the lines are blurred and good people trying to do the right thing don’t always get the best results. It also continues to highlight the plight of veterans living in America, and the idea of being forgotten. The Punisher is bold in its stance. It acknowledges that there are parts of our infrastructure and society that are harsh and uncompromising; not simply in terms of crime and poverty, but more because of the people in power and the games that they play, power struggles for selfish gains with the lives of the powerless caught in the crossfire.

 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2 Review

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Really? Is that it? Surely there must be more right? These were the questions manifesting in my head after another stellar season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show that provides far too much joy and entertainment in such small doses. The first season of this show was as close to a masterpiece as masterpieces go. We were introduced to the character of Mrs. Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950’s Jewish woman in her 20’s with two supportive parents, a happy marriage and two children. Unfortunately, her world gets flipped upside down when her husband Joel admits to having an affair and leaves her. Fueled by the problems of her personal life, Midge discovers an outlet through stand-up comedy and meets the irreverent but hilarious Susie Myerson, a tomboyish club manager who decides to become Midge’s manager. What was magical about the first season of the show was how relatable of a character Midge was. Like any millennial today, she’s a true multitasker, trying to balance her family life, kids, a job, and of course, her passion for comedy. Her pursuit of her comedy career, however, is where we see the difficulty she has to go through in being not only a woman in a male-dominated society but also a woman in a male-dominated industry. Seeing how she overcame these challenges and struggles was a highlight of the show. Unfortunately for her, the challenges she faces especially in regards to her gender are only amplified in Season 2 alongside all of the family drama that is constantly surrounding her.

Season 2 picks up right where the first season left off and carries the same amount of charm and wit and style. One important thing to note is how lived in the world feels. 1950’s New York has never been replicated so well on television. From the fast-moving upper West Side to the lower streets of Greenwich Village, every setting is filled with activity. It’s truly effective in reminding the viewer of the living history of New York City. On top of the rich atmosphere, the characters themselves are perfectly embedded into this breathing world. Mrs. Maisel walks with the typical gate of women of that time period, and Joel Maisel quips in the fast-talking style typical of the 1950s. There isn’t a modern idiom or suggestion in sight. In fact, the entire show comes off more like an old movie or a stage play from the 50’s itself. In short, there could not be a more perfect period piece for this era.

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Combined with the perfect setting is some absolutely brilliant directing. This season also decided to become slightly more experimental with long takes, sweeping shots, extreme long shots where characters are spouting dialogue moving in and out of a house, and many more interesting and unique ways to convey the experience. The music is excellent as always, the soundtrack brings in many more key pieces appropriate to the time period. The score itself adds to the levity or intensity of each scene. I noticed a few musical references calling back to earlier tracks from the first season during scenes that were also harkening back to moments from the first season. The show also switches things up by changing locations and having part of the season take place in Paris as well as at a family getaway in the Catskills. The Catskills was actually a prominent vacation spot for Jewish Americans at the time and so, of course, that also had to be captured as a living and breathing locale by the show. It’s another example of how excellently this series integrates its fictional characters with real-life locations as well as some real-life characters as well (i.e. Lenny Bruce).

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Speaking of characters, now we get to the real heart of the show. Rachel Brosnahan delivers another phenomenal performance as Mrs. Maisel, and Alex Bornstein continues being awesome as Susie. Their chemistry together also continues in stride however this time around with a little more conflict. One character that stole the show in the first season and comes back again for a full course is Abe Weissman, Midge’s fastidious father. Some of the best humor from the first season resulted from Tony Shalhoub’s portrayal of Abe, and the same case applies for season 2. Joel continues to be a character of contention, garnering sympathy at times while also coming off as a bit of a loser. It’s clear that since the first season he has realized his mistake and is now afraid to let go of his love for Midge. Some new characters also grace the screen, Zachary Levi of Chuck fame is particularly noteworthy as a character with a major role.

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Despite the constant barrage of humor, there is an equally impressive display of drama. In fact, another feature of the show’s brilliance is how it manages to blend drama and comedy so deftly. There will be moments where you will cry, and moments where you will laugh. There will be moments where you immediately go from laughing to crying, from crying to laughing, and doing both at the same time. At times, it can start to feel like everything is too episodic in nature and that there is a stagnating of the narrative, however, the very moment that you might feel that is when the narrative hits the hardest. There is very little fault to be found in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season. If there were anything to nitpick about, it would be that the season concludes with another cliffhanger of an ending in a similar way to the first season. Still, the ending is understandable as a means to build anticipation for the already confirmed third season.

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There are a million more things to say about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel but all of these things can’t convey what can be conveyed by simply watching the show. If you haven’t seen it yet and have Amazon Prime, watch it. It’s a magnificent period piece, a witty comedy, a socially aware drama, and a wonderful work of television.

 

 

Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.