Thursday, March 31, 2016

Daredevil, Season Two: The Punisher Rises, And Elektra Arrives

Marvel Comics has had great success on the big screen in recent years with their superhero film franchises such as The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America. They’ve also enjoyed some success on the small screen with series such as Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil & Jessica Jones. Daredevil recently premiered its second season on Netflix. The show focuses on the adventures of Matthew Murdock, who was blinded in an accident when he was a child, but finds the rest of his senses are heightened. He fights injustice in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen as a lawyer by day, and the red clad superhero Daredevil by night. The first season focused on Daredevil taking on crime lord Wilson Fisk, otherwise known to comics readers as The Kingpin. It was a well-done arc, nicely balancing action & character development as Matt grows into his role as a hero.

The current season introduces two additional Marvel heroes. In fact, the first half of the season focuses mostly on the take no prisoners vigilante, The Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal, best known to viewers as Shane on The Walking Dead. His lethal style of crime fighting is to take down criminals, permanently, by killing them. This brings him into conflict with Daredevil, who is willing to bring the bad guys to justice, but draws the line at killing. While the character’s origin is changed slightly from the comics, Bernthal is excellent in the role. His physical & verbal sparring sessions with Daredevil (Charlie Cox) are among the high points of the first few episodes. In fact, you could almost call this run of episodes “Punisher: Year One.” It’s a nice counterpoint to Matt’s sometimes angst-ridden heroics to show The Punisher’s revenge-focused, single-minded war on crime.

The other well-known character that shows up this season is Elektra, a deadly ninja who is also Matt’s former love interest. She clearly has a hidden agenda, and draws Matt back into her life, and her intrigues, just as he’s starting a romance with Karen Page, his co-worker at the law firm he founded with his friend Foggy Nelson. I’ve viewed half the episodes from the season thus far, and if you’re a fan of the characters, this is a must see. The series is well cast, well produced & solidly written & directed. If you're an action fan, the fights on the show this year raise the bar on well-choreographed action sequences. Drawing its inspiration from classic comic runs on the character from writers such as Bill Everett, Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis & Ed Brubaker, among others, Marvel's Daredevil is one of the best superhero series on television. Both seasons are now available on Netflix. Here’s a link to a trailer for Season 2:

4/24/13: Review update: I've now seen every episode of this season, and I can honestly say the rest of the storyline lives up to the promise of the first half. The season of Daredevil truly delivers, and builds on the promise of the series first year. This is an excellent run of shows, and fans of the character (as well as newcomers to the Marvel Universe) will not be disappointed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spielberg's Absorbing Cold War Thriller

In a world that is much more focused on the internet, Twitter feeds & reality TV, history is a subject that often seems relegated to the background. Some of you may know about Francis Gary Powers, a pilot who was captured by the Russians after his plane was shot down during a reconnaissance mission in 1960; he was later returned to the United States. But do you know the whole story? Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies gives us the full details of this incident from the days of the Cold War.   The film opens in 1957, with the capture of Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy. Abel refuses to cooperate with the US government and provide information about Soviet intelligence agents, so he is put on trial for treason.

James Donovan, an attorney who worked on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals during the Nuremburg trials, is assigned to defend Abel. Donovan is now an insurance lawyer, and while the government just wants to get things over with and show that Abel was given a “fair trial,” Donovan tries to do right by his client. The attorney is harassed & vilified by the public (and to some extent, the media) for defending a Communist spy. While he loses the case, he succeeds in having Abel’s sentence set to life in prison, arguing that it might be beneficial to have Abel alive in case the Unites States ever needs to do a prisoner exchange. He’s proved right when Francis Gary Powers is shot down & captured by the Soviets. Donovan is enlisted to help guarantee the return of Powers, in exchange for Abel. But it will all have to be done in secret; this is not an "official" mission.

The film charts Donovan’s experiences in Germany as he negotiates for the swap of the two men. While there, he finds himself in the midst of political turmoil as the Berlin Wall goes up, separating the East & the West. Donovan also tries to free an American graduate student named Frederic Pryor, who is captured in East Berlin and branded a spy. He gets little very support from the US, and is caught between the German & Russian governments, who don’t seem motivated to complete the process of making the exchange. Can Donovan help free both men and get them home? And what will happen to Rudolf Abel when he is returned to Russia? That idea also weighs heavily on Donovan’s conscience.

If you’re looking for an action film, this isn’t that type of movie. Bridge of Spies is a more cerebral type of thriller. While it may compress the timeframes & some events, it’s a powerful story that truly gives you a feeling of what the world was like during the height of the Cold War. The movie is less sentimental than some other Spielberg films, but the somber tone fits well with the film’s setting, a time in Americans were worried that a nuclear attack could happen at any moment. Tom Hanks does his usual solid job as Donovan, but Mark Rylance walks away with the acting honors as Rudolf Abel. He recently won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, beating out the sentimental favorite, Sylvester Stallone who reprised his role as Rocky Balboa in Creed.

The excellent supporting cast includes Amy Ryan, Alan Alda and Jesse Plemons. The appropriately moody cinematography is by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The evocative screenplay is by Matt Charman, and Joel & Ethan Cohen. Bridge of Spies is an engrossing tale of Cold War espionage that also sheds light on some important events in our past. It tells the story of one man’s determination to see that justice is done, and that we do right by (and keep our word to) our fellow countrymen who are in need of help. Highly recommended. The film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and various on demand services. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

This week's post is dedicated to KR, a friend of this blog who's going through some tough times & health issues right now. Thanks for all the support, KR and hope you feel better soon!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Blog Flashback: The 1st "Covers Gallery"

Since next month is the official 5th Anniversary of the blog, we're re-featuring some posts from the past. This entry (originally from 2011) was the first in our "Covers Gallery" playlist series, which looks at a group of noteworthy cover versions of well-known songs:

1. "Last Train To Clarksville" by Cassandra Wilson from New Moon Daughter. Jazz singer Wilson re-interprets The Monkees classic in a hip, funky style.
2. "Hit Me Baby One More Time" by Travis from the Turn single. Travis takes the Britney Spears hit and recasts it as a mournful ballad.
3. "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" by Freedy Johnston from Right Between the Promises. A faithful, poppy cover of the Edison Lighthouse song from 1970.
4. "Money" by The Beatles from With The Beatles. The Beatles recorded a bunch of covers on their early albums. John shreds his vocal cords belting out the Barrett Strong classic.
5. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Santa Esmerelda from Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. A wild, ten minute disco version of the The Animals hit. Quentin Tarantino used this song on the soundtrack of Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003).
6. "You Know That I'm No Good" by Wanda Jackson from The Party Ain't Over. Jack White of The White Stripes produces rockabilly singer Jackson performing the Amy Winehouse hit.
7. "Your Own Special Way" by Steve Hackett from Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited. Paul Carrack (Squeeze, Mike & The Mechanics) handles the vocals on this one. It's from an album of re-interpretations of songs that guitarist Hackett originally recorded with Genesis back in their progressive rock days.
8. "I Will Survive" by Cake from Fashion Nugget. Cake twists the Gloria Gaynor classic into a slowed down, darker direction.
9. "Smooth Criminal" by Alien Ant Farm from ANThology. The alternative rockers kick out the jams on this Michael Jackson cover.
10."Comfortably Numb" by Scissors Sisters from Scissors Sisters. very different version of the Pink Floyd classic.
11. "The Man Who Sold The World" by Nirvana from Unplugged. Great live version of the David Bowie original.
12. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Aretha Franklin from 30 Greatest Hits.  Amazing version of the Simon and Garfunkel song by The Queen of Soul.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Blog Flashback: Boorman's Excalibur

Since April 2016 is the 5th anniversary of the blog, for the next couple of weeks, we'll be looking at some posts from the past. This time out, here's a (slightly updated) review of Excalibur from 2011.

Some viewers may have found the 2011 Starz Network series Camelot surprising because it used a fair amount of sex & violence in its retelling of the saga of a young King Arthur. That show ran shortly before series like Game of Thrones re-defined fantasy storytelling on television. But there was a previous adult take on the Arthurian legend. The 1981 film Excalibur related the oft retold story with an overtly sexual & violent tone. This visually stunning version of the tale was directed by John Boorman (Deliverance). The film was co-written by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, based on the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory tale, Le Morte D'ArthurThe movie relates the classic story of young Arthur (Nigel Terry), as he pulls the sword from the stone and with Merlin's help, becomes king. We see his marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) the start of his friendship with Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and the founding of the Knights of The Round Table. All the high points of the legend are here: The Quest for The Holy Grail, Lancelot's affair with Guenevere, and the evil schemes of Arthur's half sister, Morgana, who wants to destroy Camelot.

It's all lushly filmed (on location in Ireland) by Boorman, with great cinematography by Alex Thomson. The effective score by Trevor Jones also makes use of classical music by Richard Wagner and Carl Orff. However, it is a violent, R-rated version of the tale, and may not be for all tastes. In fact, when the film was originally in theaters, a PG-rated version of the movie was also released and later shown on some television stations, removing some of the more graphic violence and sex. The unedited, R-rated version is available on DVD & Blu-Ray. The film is a bit over the top at times, but it all helps to serve the fantastical tone of the story. We've seen so many versions of this tale now (including the classic comedic take on the story, Monty Python & The Holy Grail) that the movie has lost a bit of its freshness. But it's still one of my favorite versions of the legend of Arthur. The cast features a gallery of "stars to be" in supporting roles, including Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and the excellent Helen Mirren as Morgana, Arthur's evil half sister. Nicol Williamson plays Merlin, and gets many of the film's best lines.

If check out the film on DVD or Blu-Ray, the audio commentary by director Boorman is well worth a listen, as you get to find out a lot of interesting information about the production, including the fact that Nicol Williamson & Helen Mirren didn't get along, and how Boorman used those feelings for showing the antagonism between their characters. I highly recommend Excalibur if you're a fan of fantasy films (and the Arthurian legend). And if you're a devotee of the current cycle of adult-oriented fantasy television series, such as Game of Thrones or Vikings, you might enjoy it as well. Here's a link to the film's trailer:

Movie Quote of the Day:
Merlin (To Arthur): You brought me back. Your love brought me back. Back to where you are now. In the land of dreams. 
Arthur: Are you a dream, Merlin? 
MerlinA dream to some.  A nightmare to others!

Arthur (Nigel Terry) and Merlin (Nicol Williamson) in Excalibur (1981)