Saturday, 18 April 2015

Daredevil - 1.08 Shadows in the Glass

Writer: Steven S. DeKnight
Director: Stephen Surjik

The name of this episode highlights the subtlety this show has.  They could have quite easily named it “Ghosts of the Past” but it would have been too on the nose.  Shadows in the Glass hints at specters looming over you from the outside and it is perfectly suited to the tone of the episode and the central characters.  This is an episode that is all about duality and the psychology of trauma.

“It’s my fault he’s dead.” grieves the boy, Matt.  Then there’s Wilson.  The overweight, heavily bullied only child of wannabe local politician Bill Fisk (The Wire’s Dominick Lombardozzi) who is subjected to physical, verbal and psychological abuse from his patriarch before one day snapping and doing the ultimate thing about it.  Here we have two central characters, both consider themselves to be doing the right thing for the city, both (at least in their eyes) are responsible for killing their fathers.  Both carry the psychological trauma of patricide and as such both men have a duality of nature.  Matt Murdock & Daredevil, Wilson Fisk & Kingpin.  They clash with one-another because they’re so similar… not the same… similar.  Fisk puts his faith in the secular world, Matt is devoutly Catholic and it is his religion that saves him.  Even when he considers killing Fisk for the good of the city, he knows that there are some smudges that can’t be washed from the soul.  Vanessa sees both men for who they really are (or will in an episode’s time).  She has an acute sense of human nature; perhaps it is her salesperson sensibilities –working in the gallery.  Perhaps it is because she is cut from the same cloth.  She, seemingly, has no issue with Wilson’s line of work; his fondness for extreme displays of physical violence.  She’s a pragmatic woman and as such doesn’t seem to be blinded by values, attitudes or beliefs.

DeKnight’s screenplay is finely tuned.  Having taken over from Drew Goddard as show-runner he took hold of the controls and demonstrated a commendable understanding of the characters.  Some pencilers draw Kingpin as fat.  He’s not.  He’s a block of granite but he is still that fat little child of Bill Fisk’s.  Killing his father has stunted his psychological growth.  Prone to outbursts, tantrums and violence when presented with the word NO, he is both the intelligent crime boss and the child.  Matt’s duality is different.  It would be easy to summarize that losing his father pushed him in the direction of Daredevil but that’s inaccurate.  Jack Murdock never wanted his son to be a “simple pug” like him.  He wanted him to use his brains.  Matt’s trauma has caused him to follow his father’s dream and become a lawyer.  The Murdock DNA is much more comfortable with his vigilante lifestyle than the courthouse.  

Surjik’s construction of this episode demonstrates, perfectly, television’s strengths over cinema.  Where he can theme an episode around duality, layer the narrative of the present over the narrative of Matt’s past, over the narrative of Fisk’s past to paint an incredibly elaborate piece of art; what have we learnt in three movies about the Avenger MM is closest too?  How much do we know about Black Widow that isn’t drawn from her time between the comic pages?  The complexity of 1.08 is staggering.  Put alongside the previous two episodes it is an incredible study of psychology, criminality and the human condition.  It has a level of intellect missing from Law & Order and CSI for more years than are worth counting… and it’s a “comic book” show.  Remarkable.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Batman v Superman: Two Heroes, Two Worlds, One Trailer

Come you down from there right now, Mister!!
In a year when Marvel are ramping up towards Civil War then Infinity Wars, The Force has returned and Daredevil has straight out owned every Netflix stream across the globe, DC have been questioned about their direction as they inch towards a Justice League movie.

First it was their choice of director.  Zack Snyder did a solid job with Man of Steel but many die-hard Supe fans questioned his laissez faire attitude towards life, property damage and everything; not to mention some of ZS's filmic misses.  Then it was the choice of Batman that sat between the fanboy cross-hairs as Ben Affleck was announced and everyone pointed the finger to remind the world exactly what he had done to Daredevil.  Without doubt the 2003 Daredevil movie was problematic (to be generous) and at the time it was one of the major factors in my own turning away from the man without fear but having watched (and reviewed) the Director’s Cut recently two things have come to the forefront.  1. It’s not as bad as recollection insists and 2. Ben Affleck is not solely to blame for what is wrong.  Sure, he was the wrong choice for Matt Murdock.  He’s the wrong build for starters!  His bulk is certainly better suited to the Dark Knight, but he wasn’t the only wrong choice when it came to characterization.  Jon Favreau was a bad choice, Michael Clarke Duncan was a bad choice, Jennifer Garner was a bad choice, Joe Pantoliano was a bad choice; as was the music and the derivative choreography.  If anyone was to blame it was Mark Steven Johnson for either making the bad choices or not being stronger to resist the Exec that did.
It's not just the car.  Chicks love the mansion and the bank account too.
A lot has been made of the batsuit.  Personally, I think it’s a beautiful looking rendition of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the clearest indicator of the tone that BvS and the overall DC Universe is going to take.  But enough lead in, let’s talk about the trailer.
Oh yeah?  You and whose army?!
Having witnessed the arrival of aliens from somewhere further away than TJ, the U.S. Government appears to be split along party lines; some championing his heroic endeavours against General Zod, others either downright against having him on Earth or at the very least against not being able to use him as the sharpest spear in their military arsenal.  Cue an Alfred voiceover and a lingering shot of Bruce Wayne (Affleck) as he stares at his batsuit… one, which we are led to believe, has been dormant for some time.  Cityscapes and heavy base follows before we see the fully functioning armoured batsuit (no doubt lined with kryptonite) as The Bat asks “Tell me, do you bleed?” pause, pause, pause “You will.”

There are some really gorgeous touches to Snyder’s trailer.  Where Nolan subtly peppered The Dark Knight trilogy with his influences, Snyder is wearing his fanboy colours firmly on his sleeve and I love that.  There’s something incredibly pleasing about clearly seeing his alliances.  Some sources have stated the presence of Jason Todd’s Robin suit in the batcave which creates some interesting threads that impact on everything that’s gone before, or at least all the way back to 1989; and points towards a reason for the hiatus that the Caped Crusader has been on.

The way the late twentieth-century Batman franchise ended always sat awkwardly with me.  Yes, Batman & Robin was beyond terrible.  I mean there were fewer redeeming factors to it than to mass murder but pre-nipples there were some nice elements in two to two-and-a-half of the four movies that seemingly have effectively retconned by Nolan’s back to basics.  What’s great about the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer is that, in a way, it reinstates the Batman “legacy” movies (for lack of a better term) and even strengthens the weaker sections of it (Batman & Robin we’re looking at you!).
I just died in your arms tonight...
In placing the Jason Todd Robin suit inside the batcave not only does it give confirmation of his death at the hands of The Joker and Harley Quinn but that he followed in the footsteps of Dick Grayson.  Gotham City was a neon-clad nightmare in Schumacher’s second outing, Batman –a non menacing PVC dipped C-List celebrity alongside the “Boy Wonder”; who we can only assume was appearing in Celebrity Squares when not fighting crime, such was their accessibility.  Assuming that the Gotham of Schumacher continues on beyond the final credits of the movie; Dick Grayson graduates to Nightwing, Barbara Pennyworth (or Gordon to the rest of us) is crippled and becomes Oracle and, now lonely, George Clooney’s Batman takes a young Jason Todd under his wing.  Made cocky by success (and the light family-friendly colour of Gotham) Batman has not realized he has gotten soft.  Enter Joker!  Killing Jason Todd destroys Bruce Wayne.  Darkens him, transforming him from George Clooney into Ben Affleck (ala Doctor Who) stay with me.  What he vowed would “never happen again” has happened again and upon retreating into his shell allows Gotham to crumble back down into its gritty, crime-riddled best.

Drawing a parallel to Nolan’s final outing, Bruce has become a recluse –that is until terraforming from above begins pancaking Metropolis, New York, Hong Kong, Gotham, the World!  Seeing the destruction that is possible in this New World Order, and the absurd power the man of steel has; the Dark Knight must return!  Yes, this is just a theory… one theory and no doubt there are problems but what it does is filmically create a split in dimensions similar to that of the comic book Earth One and Earth Two.
Come get in my selfie.  Noooooooo!
Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and Batman v Superman all co-exist somewhat harmoniously in Earth One together.  The gradual change in tone, logic and direction is underpinned by reoccurring characters, threads and consequences.  Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises occupy Earth Two as a completed realm –most likely closed off to any further installments as it’s unlikely Christopher Nolan (or anyone else for that matter) will revive his “dead” Bruce Wayne.  Likewise, the Superman movies fall into two worlds, though his narrative progression is a lot less tidy.  As Batman v Superman cleanly occupies Earth One then it stands to reason that Man of Steel also resides here (it being BvS's predecessor).  The problems lie in Earth Two.  Superman, Superman 2, Superman Returns all occupied Earth Two.  The existence of Superman Returns not only retcons Superman 3 and Superman 4, what’s that you say?  They’re notgreat loss?  No, you’re absolutely correct, they are no great loss but here comes the ut-oh!  Earth Two has largely been abandoned in Superman’s lineage.  Lois Lane is raising his super-child and he is an absentee father.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeLane v Superman: A Quest for Alimony more like.  Movie looks great though, can’t wait to see Kal-El bleed.

Daredevil - 1.07 Stick

Writer: Douglas Petrie
Director: Brad Turner

A crucial figure from Matt Murdock’s past has returned looking assistance to combat a new foe that’s arrived in Hell’s Kitchen and threatening to upset the apple cart.  As past and present bleed into one another the future of the city depends on these two men, who once shared an ideology, getting along.

The episode title, at least for Daredevil fans, is a ready-made spoiler.  Stick has returned to Hell’s Kitchen.  The man who instructed the devil is back and on a crucial assignment.  The significance of Stick’s appearance in the series is only ever so slightly trumped by placing his key episode in the middle of the series.  Stick (as a character) was a bridge between Matt’s past, his father, death, blindness, and his future as urban crime-fighter/vigilante.  Stick (the episode) likewise is a bridge between Matt’s past, origin, training and his future as the finished product –Daredevil.  Petrie’s (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) script in extremely smart and sympathetic, not only, to the series-running and guest characters but to the sub-genres these characters occupy in the Daredevil comic book oeuvre.  Netflix, in using The Man without Fear and Born Again, as creative inspiration is taking the DD world down a modern-realism path but it handles some of the other genre-based characters in a wonderfully considered and earnest way.  More of that in later reviews.

Scott Glenn is perfect as Stick.  He has the screen presence, authority and believability of a Carradine without any of the emotional/cinematic baggage and the way he fills the screen is magical.  Even viewers of the show who have little-to-no exposure to Stick can understand the significance of his arrival, such is his physical dominance of the mise-en-shot (kudos to Brad Turner).  The father-son relationship between Stick and Matt draws a beautiful parallel between Jack and Matt.  Both fathers are blind (in their own way), Stick literally, Jack figuratively as the ramifications of entering into a relationship with “The Fixer” were unseen to him but that is as much as these two men are likely to have in common.  Jack wants his son to be mentally tough, mentally fast, agile, mentally successful.  Stick on the other hand “wants a soldier”.  There is no clear way to make both father figures proud.  One must be disappointed and it is these feelings of disappointment, inadequacy and helplessness that Stick’s return draws to the surface of Matt.  His biggest challenge to date was not the epic corridor fight in Cut Man (still loving this!) but winning the approval of his former master.

There’s more to Stick’s arrival than simply triggering more of Matt’s origin (which I’m so glad they teased out rather than stacking all upfront).  Stick’s appearance opens the door for other adversaries from other genres.  The modern-realism feel of the show allows for Gladiator (Matt Gerald), Bullseye, Black Widow and maybe even Mr. Hyde if done right but Stick and his groundings in Eastern mysticism lays a path for a fully fleshed out Elektra, The Hand, Death-Stalker and Typhoid Mary.  Handled with the amount of care and sensitivity that Daredevil Season 1 has and ALL of these characters are on the table; especially when you consider this is a modern-realistic New York that has recently been leveled by alien-invaders.  It’s impressive how Drew Goddard, Steven DeKnight and co have managed to align these two incredibly contradictory genres without undermining one.

We shouted out a quick kudos to Brad Turner earlier and it really couldn’t be underlined enough.  This is an absolutely critical episode to get right.  Sure, if it wasn’t perfect it’s unlikely to harm the rest of the season however future seasons could suffer from poor execution but Turner has an amazing understanding of “the visual”.  Cards on the table –I’m a big fan of Brad Turner.  He did some sterling work on 24, so much so that when Jon Cassar left the show Turner took over showrunner duties.  It’s usual, if not a requirement, for television shows to be running multiple storylines through episodes but it’s the way Turner weaves the two Matt and Stick stories together.  There are some beautiful juxtapositions that tease out underlying meanings, comparisons and has an almost dream-like fluidity. 

1.07 Stick is nothing short of amazing.  Petrie’s script has all the core, advanced, and fanatical elements to please die-hard Horn Head fans (including a Stick and Stone scene) but does it in such a way that is welcoming… no… inviting to new fans.  Praise could not fall consistently enough.  Daredevil’s bridging episode is as close to perfect television as you are likely to get.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Daredevil - 1.06 Condemned

Writer: Joe Pokaski and Marco Ramirez
Director: Guy Ferland

As we advance towards the mid-season point it is time to take stock, not just for an audience but for the writers, directors, and actors involved in the show but more importantly; the characters.  Every television show with aspirations of detailing a season long narrative thread reaches an episode when exploration recedes in favour of exposition so that gears can be changed, audiences refreshed and characters enlightened.  24 over its eight days and one half day (for good behaviour) had some truly remarkable “broom closet” episodes –or episodes in which the central character was either trapped or limited in mobility therefore forcing them to further the narrative through means other than action.

In Guy Ferland (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield, The Walking Dead and Homeland), Daredevil has a director skilled at delivering the long-haul goal line passes that allow the show to switch gears, refine direction and do so in a way that’s entertaining and thrilling.  Similarly Pokaski (Heroes) and Ramirez’s (Orange is the New Black) script has a delicate touch that prevents the exposition from becoming pedestrian.  A good pilot is essential to get show green lit, but a great “broom closet” episode is vital to keep an audience until the final fade-out and thus guarantee a second season.  Condemned is that “broom closet” episode.

Trapped in a derelict building with an injured Russian mobster, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) must figure a way out for both of them while navigating the corrupt cops circling outside, the media who can smell blood, and Wilson Fisk who quite literally has his finger on the trigger as New York burns from a series of explosions.

They say the most difficult thing to shoot is talking heads, primarily because there’s only so many ways you can frame two guys talking before it stops being interesting.  Ferland’s experience on several long running series gives Daredevil 1.06 the collective skills gained in creating an almost perfect visual story.  As Matt and Vlad find themselves bunkered in and forced to descend into the depths of the city we’re struck by how restricted our field of vision is.  The use of heavy-set shadows around the parameter of the mise-en-shot encases the two (newly aligned) characters within a fading spotlight.  The use of handheld camera stitches the audience into the fabric of the episode in a way that conjures a voyeuristic claustrophobia from deep within us.  This is real fight or flight stuff, only we’re tethered to these characters.  Condemned men in a condemned building, in a condemned part of town, in an ailing city.  Could the shadows get any thicker?  What works incredibly well in this scenario is Matt.  More specifically, what we know about Matt.  As our vision narrows inside the shadowy crypt within Hell’s Kitchen, Matt’s only increases.  As our heart rate increases, his decreases.  He gets calmer in moments of high pressure.  He sees clearer in the stilled darkness and it is these qualities that Vlad sees in him, and wanting revenge for his brother, shares the information on how to hit Fisk where it hurts –his money… or more specifically, his money-man.

Bob Gunton (as Leland Owlsley) is perhaps the finest piece of support casting there’s been on television.  He has played a similar kind of character before, in Shawshank Redemption, but what you get with Gunton’s portrayal is the representation of everything that Wilson Fisk is not.  A representation of the New York of old, the New York he’s determined to tear down.  There’s an almost gentlemanly way to Leland and the way he does business which is charming.  That’s not to say he’s not as dangerous as Fisk, he is.  He hasn’t survived this long in his line of work without getting dirt under his fingernails but where Fisk will smash your head in with a car door; Leland will find other ways to cripple you… largely financial.  He’s the old guard who are being shepherded from the top table to a fold out by the kitchen and his contempt for it, and Fisk, and Wesley is beautifully played and underpinned not just by his dialogue but his pacing.  It’s where in the sentence he takes a breath, how appropriately timed his interjections are.  He’s never surface aggressive but he’s a spitting cobra in his own way.  What they did with Owlsley is great. 

In comic book form The Owl had elements of his villainy that were interesting, certainly until the arrival of Kingpin and Bullseye he was the most complete villain Horn Head was pitched against (sorry Leapfrog) but there were elements to him that were problematic; namely the theatricality of his appearance.  In pairing him back the show-runners have given the underworld a rich, astute, string-puller who also serves as an example of how things were.  Those ways are gone now, condemned to the aging and discarded newspapers.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Daredevil - 1.05 World on Fire

Writer: Luke Kalteux
Director: Farren Blackburn

The pressure that’s been building in Hell’s Kitchen has to release eventually.  Gradual release and the effects are minimal but leave it unchecked and they become explosive.  World on Fire, aside from taking its name from how Matt sees the world, is a perfect example of what can and will happen in a vacuum when one or more volatile agents are introduced.

As Wilson Fisk (D’Onofrio) pushes forward with his aggressive “restoration” plans for the city, Nelson and Murdock are involved in a tenant dispute between the lovely old Mrs. Cardenas and an unseen slumlord with connections to our Kingpin; but as Daredevil begins to piece together the pieces he quickly discovers he’s become the mouse to Fisk’s cat and it is more than a game.

Having brutally murdered Vlad’s brother using his car door, Fisk sends trusty right-hand James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) to point the filthy finger of blame towards “the man in the mask” in an attempt to have the Russian Mob do what Fisk’s own people have been unsuccessful with thus far; kill the devil.  This episode is interesting for several reasons.  Many of which we’ll touch on but the main reason is this the “birth” episode for Horn Head.  Up until this point he has been a story, vague and without form to the vast majority of New Yorkers.  He has even been operating without a name.  His existence has only really been witnessed by two factions.  “The Order” (law enforcement, paramedics, etc) and “The Disorder” (the criminal element).  World on Fire not only presents him to the mass public but does so in a way that is ambiguous.  Is he friend or foe?  Savior or slayer?  Like Batman, this is the most interesting period of Daredevil’s existence (at least for me).  The ground level victims know his good deeds; Karen in 1.01 for example, but the establishment (and yes we’re including Franklin Nelson in that) like Foggy are more reserved in accepting his particular brand or order realignment.  Even the Police, dirty and otherwise, are uncertain of his motives; but the city is in need of a hero.  NB. Though DD is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe there does not appear to be a Spider-Man in that equation yet, nor a Daily Bugle as Urich works for the NY Bulletin.  It is also the first time he is given a name other than “the masked man” when he is dubbed “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” by the press. 

At first glance this may seem like a negative title but consider how fitting it is.  How sympathetic it is to the geography he occupies.  In many respects it’s a positive, complimentary title as to avoid running into “the devil” you’ll have to be on your best behaviour.  With this label attached, and us moving closer to the “Daredevil” we know, how fitting is it that his vision is of a world perpetually on fire?  Yes, the calming blue vision of Mark Steven Johnson’s movie demonstrated DD’s sight in a beautifully fluid way that almost represented how it would look to interact with a radar display but it ran contradictory to the character’s motif and motives.  Seeing a city, your friends, your life in a constant blaze must have been harrowing to get used to.  It points to the tenacity of the character and though he’s constantly attempting to put the blaze out for others he is never able to do that for himself.  Think of that for a moment.  There’s a level of sacrifice there that is almost painful to entertain.  But he is needed.  Post-Avengers New York carries many of the hallmarks of a city in trauma.  Where many cities across Japan have stopped procreating due to the feeling of inevitability after several major nuclear incidents; New York is a city where the police have stopped policing.  Seeing Loki and co overhead has instilled a level of institutional hopelessness.  Suddenly a vigilante seems the lesser of two evils; better the devil you know after all.

Introduced long before his boss, Wesley is as deceptive as he is smartly dressed.  To call him a smiling assassin would be to insult the honourable occupation of killer for hire.  Wesley, on the surface, is passive, calm and non-confrontational but watch a scene with him; be it with Nelson & Murdock, Gao, Nobu or Leland Owlsley.  Watch him interact with the Russians and you’ll see the true cut of the man.  Moore plays him like a shark.  Dead behind the eyes and always moving, whether that be physically or mentally.  Presented with aggressive threats, he smiles, welcoming them in.  What sport!  He’s a high functioning sociopath who relishes the chance to be underestimated.  Those moments when thugs in tracksuits realise that this man in the designer clothing is simply wearing a human suit are beautifully menacing.  He is actuality a carnivorous animal with blood in his nostrils and an appetite for destruction.  Moore’s Wesley is, in my mind, a lot like Ian Fleming’s Bond.  Though he wears the suit well, speaks many languages and handles himself like a gentleman you get the impression he has been trained to be that way.  That his natural instincts are a lot more primal and in that respect, he is constantly striving to seek acceptance from the establishment while thumbing his nose to their threats… or is it smiling?

There are some excellent combat set-pieces in 1.05 which Blackburn maps out and pieces together beautifully.  Daredevil versus the Russians ran the risk of feeling either repetitive or redundant (or both) after Cut Man’s breath-taking corridor sequence and which involved me having to remind myself to breathe; but the choreography is fast-paced and almost graceful in its brutality while Blackburn’s camera hangs back at key moments in order to remind the audience he is one man against many.

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