Monday, March 20, 2017

Maybe the Superhero Show You Should Be Watching is "Legion"

Jay here.

Noah Hawley is one of the best showrunner's currently in television. He proved to all the naysayers that he could take a beloved film, like the Coen Brother's, Fargo, already considered one of the very best American movies ever made, and turn it into a recurring mini-series that is arguably even better than that darkly violent and comical picture. After two seasons, FX's Fargo is the best television has to offer.

Hawley, most likely, had the power to green light any project he wanted to. What he did though was take a bit of left turn and instead tackle of genre which many would say is in serious jeopardy of overexposure . . . . the comic book, superhero one.

But, being Noah Hawley, he would obviously choose one of the most obscure and unlikely comic book characters to focus his attention on;  David Haller, a.k.a. Legion, the estranged son of Professor Charles Xavier, founder of the X-Men.

My first thought when I heard this news was . . . . "Huh?"

Legion? Really??

Not exactly a guy that is going to win the award for "Most Awesomely Badass Comicbook Character Ever Award", you would be hard-pressed to find a solid Marvel fan who had heard of him.

Created by the legendary writer of The Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont, Legion first appeared in 1985 in New Mutants #25. He is the son of Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller. He is significant because he is, arguably, the most powerful mutant in existence due to his extraordinary psychic powers and ability to absorbs the psyche of others into his own, along with their powers. What makes him unique, though, and what most likely attracted Hawley to him for his new show, is that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder which manifests itself in his multiple personalities and severe mental illness.

 Taking on a character with superhuman powers who also happens to be severely schizophrenic allows Hawley to do so much creatively and artistic with a lot of aspects of the show. Watching the first episode I was immediately taken by the art direction and editing. If he was obviously channeling the Coen Brothers with Fargo, it seems to me that he is certainly drawing on aspects of the films of Wes Anderson and even Stanley Kubrick for the visual style of Legion.

David (Dan Stevens) and Syd (Rachel Keller) meet at the Clockworks Mental Hospital. Hmmmmm . . . "Clockworks"? I'm sure there is nothing to that . . . .

The show takes place in a indeterminate time period. There is plenty 60's and 70's era design on display in frame after frame, but the technology used would indicate we are still in modern times. Also the music selection is purposeful and spot-on with several key moments involving actual musical numbers for the characters to perform.

All of these stylistic choices serve the overall story very well. We are introduced to David Haller (Dan Stevens), an obviously troubled young man who is trying hard to overcome the schizophrenia he has been diagnosed with. Committed to the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital he spends his days working though his problems with his therapist and making fun of the other inmates with his best friend among the patients, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza).

Then David meets Sydney Barrett (an homage to Pink Floyd's original front man, Syd Barrett, who quit the band due to a crippling psychosis possibly brought on by experimenting with LSD) a young woman, new to the hospital, who tries to tell him that he is actually a mutant and so is she. Like the X-Men character, Rogue, Syd cannot touch skin-to-skin or her power will manifest itself. Unlike Rogue, contact with Syd results in switch places with her. Think, Freaky Friday.

Syd and David ultimately end up in the company a team of mutants, led by Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) who are determined to help him control his awesome powers which they firmly believe is the cause of his mental issues, not schizophrenia.

The questions around his fractured mind and weather or not he is truly psychotic is the central theme of Legion and it allows Hawley to have a lot of fun with the narrative structure. Many scenes take place inside David's mind (or do they?) and the twists and turns the writers can employ here are nearly limitless. Let me clear, even though this story does take place within the X-Men universe, it' connections to it are slim to none and just inferred. Hawley is not interested in simply making an X-Men TV show, he is much more concerned with playing with realties and unrealities of being a man who could be them most powerful mutant in the world or just simply a madman.

It works so well on so many levels and is the most cleverly written hour of television your likely to find today.

Kerry Loudermilk (Amber Midthunder) is one of the mutants determined to help David and then use him to take down the evil "Division 3".

I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the performance of Aubrey Plaza as well. It is tough to write much about her without going into SPOILER territory. So, if you plan on watching Legion and don't want anything spoiled please skip this next paragraph . . . .

The first season is not quite over but I'm pretty sure that Aubrey Plaza's character of Lenny, who happens to live in David's head and appears to him at various moments, is actually Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King. A creature of pure psychic energy and a parasite that lives off the suffering of telepaths, Farouk was an early nemesis of Professor Xavier. Their early clashes led the Professor to form the X-Men. In this show the Shadow King has taken on several forms in David's mind. The most used is as Lenny, who David and Syd inadvertently killed in the very first episode. Plaza is obviously having a blast playing the villain and she dives into the role with menace and humor. I can't wait to see what she has in store for her mutant adversaries.

Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), posing as his therapist, confronts David (Dan Stevens) with a sliver of truth about who and what she really is.
So, to sum up, if you are looking for an inventive, unique and deeper-than-most take on the superhero genre then Legion is definitely your show. It proves again that Noah Hawley is one of the most original voices bring smart and creative programming to the small screen.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Jay Makes the Case for Christmas and Die Hard

Jay here.

I am here to make the case for Die Hard as a Christmas movie.

At the dinner table tonight as one of the fam declared Elf as his favorite holiday film, I brought up Die Hard as a personal fav of mine. Everyone stopped eating and looked at me. 

“I don't think that's a serious Christmas movie.”

‘What the hell?’, I thought. How could anyone not see that Die Hard is a perfect movie for the holidays? In fact, I submit to you, the jury, that John McTiernan’s 1988 action masterpiece about a group of terrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper and hold 30-40 hostages at gunpoint on Christmas Eve, has all of the essential qualities that make it America’s and Santa Claus’s himself, first choice to watch on December 24th with a glass of eggnog and a fully loaded Beretta 92F by your side.

To prove it I will now list the ways that Die Hard meets all the necessary criteria for holiday categorization:

1. It takes place on Christmas Eve (duh!). Yes, it's California, but we still do celebrate it out here in our beautiful 60 degree weather.

2. It has a kick-ass Xmas soundtrack with such breakaway hits like Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”, “Let it Snow” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

3. At its heart, Die Hard is really a movie about family and how the McLane’s are brought back together by John’s undying commitment to save his estranged wife by ensuring she gets home to their kids. Even if it means he has to kill every single terrorist on every single floor of Nakatomi Plaza.

4. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.”

5. Every character has been living with a moral crisis of some kind (Al killed a kid and can't bring himself to shoot someone again, John is a misogynist who can't come to grips with the fact his wife is more successful than him, the Deputy Chief, Dwayne T. Robinson is just a douchebag) but they all are changed irrevocably by this most important of holidays. Al blasts Karl away, John saves everyone and his wife learns her place, and Deputy Chief, Dwayne T. Robinson? Well, he's still a douchebag, but he met some FBI guys who were bigger a-holes then him.

6. Hans Gruber (played by the late, great Alan Rickman) is possibly the greatest Christmas villain of all time. F the Grinch and his plans for Whoville. You think Mr. Potter was evil? Hans is out to destroy everyone’s holiday (and make a few hundred mil in the process) by blowing up a building with dozens of innocent people inside. And, by the way, death by Rolex is the most 80’s way to bite it on any day of the year.

7. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.”

8. So, Matt has picked It's A Wonderful Life as his favorite Christmas film of all time. A solid choice, I must say. But let me ask you this, Matt, do you think George Bailey could take John McClane in straight up fight? Because that's what's really important here. Bruce Willis would backhand Jimmy Stewart off of that bridge and tell him to stop f’n whining damnit! Do you think McClane would have given up when things got tough? No way! Old Johnny Boy doesn't need any Clarence the Angel to tell him how bitchin’ he is. He would have lifted Mr. Potter out of that wheelchair and pistol whipped him through the streets of Bedford Falls.

9. So, I said this is America’s Christmas movie and that's true. Think about it. An off-duty New York cop, takes on a group of foreigners who dare to come into OUR country and ruin the Christmas Party of corporate America. All he has is a pistol, a wife beater, no shoes and the grit and determination to outsmart all of them. Thank goodness, that in the future, thanks to “extreme vetting” no groups like Hans Gruber’s killers will get through our borders and allow another Nakatomi to happen. 

10. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.”

So, that's my case for Die Hard as the best Xmas movie to watch with the family this year and every year. Force them if you have to. And if you still think it doesn't qualify, then ……

Yippie-Kay-Yay, motherfucker! 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Matt's Top 16 Picks for Best Crime Documentaries on Netflix & Hulu

Matt here!

I'm a huge fan of true crime TV -- particularly the ID Channel! Which is ironic since I'm not a big fan of fictional police procedural shows. Seeing how I got rid of cable TV about four years ago, the ID Channel is no longer a regular watch. Thankfully, Netflix and Hulu are jammed full of numerous quality crime documentaries! And here's a list of the crime docs I LOVE the most:

13 Families: Life After Columbine (2009)

One of the best documentaries about the tragic 1999 Columbine High School massacre, with interviews primarily with the victims' families as well as eyewitnesses who were there that day. It's a heartbreaking film but one that must be watched.

The Central Park Five (2012)

On April 19, 1989, a woman was attacked and raped while jogging through Central Park in New York at night, thus leaving her in a coma for 12 days. However, that same night, five young African American teenage males were arrested and charged with the assault. All five confessed on tape to the attack and were sentenced to prison. Open-and-shut case, right? Well, this documentary by master documentarian Ken Burns proves – like most cases – this story isn’t so black and white. The documentary follows the entire case as well as features interviews with all kinds of suspects, witnesses, lawyers, and law enforcement officials who were there. This film is a thought-provoking, intense story told with all the right footage and interview testimony to make even the biggest Law & Order fan’s jaw drop!

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008)

Do yourself a favor and do NOT read anything about this before you watch it. Just watch it! I got so emotionally invested in this true crime film and felt such strong emotions of anger and sadness and love. I've never felt so moved by a documentary – let alone a film – than with this one! There is so much to this doc that it almost seems like a piece of fiction. Sadly, it isn't. Director Kurt Kuenne is an exceptional filmmaker, creating an important film that is well-done with excellent editing, pacing and personal, heartfelt interviews. There are no pulled punches when it comes to presenting the facts and every available video, audio or photograph that Kuenne could unearth about his friend, Andrew Bagby. I fully support the Bagbys (without even knowing them personally) and my heart truly goes out to them. This film should truly be seen by everyone!

(30 for 30) Fantastic Lies (2016)

Exploring the infamous March 2006 Duke University Lacrosse Team supposed rape of a stripper, ESPN Films meticulously interviews many of those involved in this case -- from the parents of the accused lacrosse players to attorneys and reporters, as well as Duke students and the lacrosse players' next-door neighbor; as well as archival interviews of those accused. This case has it all: racial tension, class warfare, town/gown conflict, sports player privilege, rape cover-up by the university officials, and the outcry of hate from the talking heads and public. Like real-life, the film begins with the feel of the players being guilty of their crime, but it soon turns to the sad reality of what happens when the accuser is dishonest. The film is a testament to not just learning to be less accusing until the facts have fully come to light, but also on how the public, news and universities oftentimes can dishonestly cover a crime story.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013)

One of the weirdest, yet fascinating, stories I’ve seen. And what’s weirder about it is that not many people even know something like this really happened! It’s the tale of a handful of European idealists whose relocation to the Galapagos Islands turned tragic with murder, missing people and strange rivalries. The documentary – and its story it reports – proves how men’s wickedness can follow wherever men may go. It’s Murder on the Orient Express meets Lord of the Flies. The film specifically follows three sets of visitors to one of the Galapagos Islands in the early 1930s, looking to start a life away from the things of man, only to bring one of the most brutal traits of mankind to the island paradise: murder.

The Hunting Ground (2015)

One of the most frightening crimes is the one that doesn't involve murder: rape. This documentary showcases some of the brave young women who come forward to tell their stories, as well as the criminal cover-up that major colleges and universities put up in order to keep the money rolling in. This documentary should be required watching for everyone -- especially anyone who has a daughter!

The Imposter (2012)

The term “stranger than fiction” was made for such a film as this! The Imposter starts off seeming so simple in its description, but, what follows as one watches the film, is a discombobulated avenue of so many twists and turns, you can’t help but keep your eyes locked on it. On its face, the story is about 23-year-old Frederic Bourdin, a Frenchman living in Spain, who poses as 16-year-old Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay, who had been missing for 3 years. Despite Bourdin’s physical differences from Barclay, he is welcomed into Barclay’s family’s home and lives the life of a teenage high school boy. Hear from Barclay’s family, the detectives, child welfare officer, and Bourdin himself as to this strange-but-true tale which takes a wickedly weirder turn as something stranger and more sinister may be lying underneath the surface of this con.

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Truly one of the most captivating documentaries I've had the pleasure of watching! Director Jason Osder takes previously unreleased archival footage, new footage, and public hearing meeting footage, and edits it together to make a masterpiece of documentary cinema. The film centers on the May 13, 1985, assault on a radical group called MOVE in a Philadelphia neighborhood, which created a six-alarm blaze, destroying 61 homes, and killing 5 children and 6 adults. What's worse is that the blaze was started – and allowed to persist – by Town officials and police. This documentary perfectly captures how intolerance, prejudice and fear can lead to incredible violence. It is a bipartisan film that focuses on the wrongdoings of both sides – the town and police officials, and the MOVE members. I could not take my eyes off of every interview and scene presented – even though they were recorded some 28 years ago! The music is powerfully affective and this documentary is essential viewing about a tragedy in America's history which most in this country either have no knowledge of, or have completely forgotten!

Making a Murderer (2015)

Netflix's programming has not only given fictional TV series on the primetime TV channels a run for their money, but the company is also starting to get into the documentary game as well. And with entries like Making a Murderer in its resume, the ID Channel better look out! Taking somewhat of a cue from HBO's wildly successful The Jinx (which followed accused killer Robert Durst), Murderer spans 10 episodes, with filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi spending 10 years following Steven Avery as he was once wrongfully convicted of a rape he didn't commit. Then, when he is about to take the arresting county police to court to sue them for a large sum of money, a gruesome murder points the same police force -- along with a neighboring town's police force -- to investigate him, making him their number one suspect! I've never seen a crime documentary with so many twists and turns! Of course, the documentary is mostly shot from Avery's and his family's point of view, but there is some compelling evidence to make the audience think that what some would pass off as "conspiracy theories" are actual truths! In a day and age with past cases such as the West Memphis Three, the Central Park Five, and other various wrongfully convicted inmates, this doc adds to the genre! However, there may not be the absolution one looks for. That's what makes this documentary so fascinating and also so addicting to watch! If there is one crime doc to watch, it's this one!

A Murder in the Park (2014)

Most of these types of documentaries are about the wrong man -- an innocent man -- being imprisoned and having to be set free. However, A Murder in the Park is not just about that, but also about a guilty man being set free via the Innocence Project, the American organization aimed toward freeing innocent people who are imprisoned. This documentary showcases how sometimes even the other side of the coin -- those with the best intentions -- are afraid to admit to their mistakes.

My Brother's Bomber (2015)

Filmmaker Ken Dornstein lost his older brother, David, who died on the Pan Am Flight 103, which was bombed and crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. In this 3-part documentary, Dornstein sets out to discover who exactly was behind the bombing (i.e., who financed it, who built the bomb, who set it, etc.) and hopefully bring him -- or them -- to justice. Along the way, he meets allies in his quest, but his journey also takes him to countries such as Zurich and Libya, meeting and talking with shady characters who may or may not have intelligence community ties! This PBS Frontline doc is suspenseful as much as it is intriguing! One man's search for truth and justice may be a trip from which he can never return -- not just physically, but also emotionally!

Nanking (2007)

Nanking tells the often-underplayed history of the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, most referred to as “The Rape of Nanking.” By utilizing diary entries, film archives, photographs (CAUTION: some of the photos are very graphic and disturbingly violent), and interviews with actual survivors of the event, as well as actors portraying the eyewitnesses there, this emotional documentary follows the events which led to the destruction of the once-serene city at the hands of the Japanese army, beginning with the relentless bombing and the eventual foot invasion. There were thousands of rapes of girls and women of all ages, as well as the killing of thousands of innocent lives. Nanking perfectly captures one of the most horrific events in human history (along with the Jewish Holocaust), but, there is hope – and it is found in those who stood against the Japanese by cordoning off a section of the city which was a refuge for Chinese civilians. Among such good Samaritans were a few American missionaries who refused to leave the city even though they could have, a German businessman who believed even Hitler would put a stop to all of the atrocities the Japanese were executing, and an American doctor – all heroes. The film is essential viewing for fully realizing and understanding the scope of the last necessary war.

Shenandoah (2012)

Filmed in the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, this documentary centers on four high school star football players and their being charged with the hate crime death of an innocent Latino immigrant, as well as the alleged cover-up and shocking court verdicts. Both sides of the issue are represented as the filmmakers interview the victim’s family and friends, as well as the accused teenagers’ parents and friends. Shenandoah is proof positive of the old adage: “Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The film is gripping and emotionally resonating – everything a good documentary should be.

Team Foxcatcher (2016)

This documentary uses real-life home video footage as well as archived interviews and current interviews regarding billionaire John E. DuPont (most, if not all, of you Delaware folks know about the DuPont family!) and the events leading up to his killing one of his one-time best friends, Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. The film follows the wrestling community living on DuPont's Pennsylvania estate and how his paranoia began fracturing his world. Even though the story is known, the journey there is no less heartbreaking and tragic.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Sure, this documentary was not released in the past 10 years, but, being a huge true crime fan (and if you are too), you must check out this film by now-legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. The film centers on Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life for a murder he says he didn’t commit. The story goes that Adams ran out of gas one nigh out on the town in Texas, and was picked up by 16-year-old David Ray Harris. Somewhere during the night, a police officer is killed and the investigators apprehend Harris. Harris, in turn, accuses Adams of the crime and what follows is the story into whether Adams played any part in the police officer’s murder. There are plenty of interviews with the accused, eyewitnesses, lawyers, investigators and others close to the case, plus reenactments based on testimony. This documentary is where a lot of scripted crime dramas and true-life crime documentaries today have gotten their formula.

The Thread (2015)

Not just a well-done documentary about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, The Thread also speaks to how easy it is for anyone to make any news real in today's 24-hours internet news era. Specifically, the doc showcases the bombing, the eyewitness accounts, the manhunt for the suspects as reported from armchair detectives and journalists, and how their guessing could easily persuade national legitimate news agencies to report on the wrong man. The best thing about this film is how it showcases how loosely today's supposed respectable cable news outlets report a story -- mostly without any actual facts.

TWA Flight 800 (2013)

Of all the documentaries I’ve recently watched, this one may very well be the most important, angering, and heartrending I've seen. The film follows independent investigator and physicist Dr. Tom Stalcup as he enlists the assistance of actual National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators who worked on the investigation of TWA Flight 800 when it crashed in July 1996. After much in-depth research and hundreds of eyewitness interviews, they come to the conclusion that Flight 800 did not crash as a result of a mechanical failure or malfunction of the fuel tank, but rather because of a missile attack. Most may say it sounds crazy or use that "c" word, but, trust me, just watch this once and you'll seriously be questioning what the public was told then, and is still told today by the NTSB and the FBI. A powerfully intense documentary that will keep you thinking about it for several days, weeks, months after watching it.