Thursday, July 30, 2020

Crawl (2019)

Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma, Morfydd Clark
Running Time: 87 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Anyone familiar with that memorably hilarious and gasp-inducing scene in 1997's Anaconda when Jon Voight's certifiable snake hunter Paul Serone is eaten whole before his winking corpse is regurgitated might soon get flashbacks. It's a spectacular moment in a less-than-amazing, but ridiculously fun film that's best enjoyed in the presence of a game audience in a packed theater. And it's hard not to think of it while watching horror maestro Alexandre Aja's Crawl and assume it had to be somewhere in the back of the director's mind as he crafted a horror disaster entry many assumed would veer closer to Sharknado, but with killer crocs. Instead, it is still somewhat funny and ridiculous, but in the best way possible, and also much better made than those aforementioned titles it seemed destined to resemble in quality. Quentin Tarantino going so far as to name this his favorite film of 2019 might come as a surprise to no one given his eclectic tastes, but he's on to something in that genre movies this well executed are too frequently dismissed out of hand on their premise alone. While I wouldn't rank it nearly that high (or maybe even at all), it's at least easier to appreciate that praise when final product does undeniably deliver a good time. 

After a disappointing practice, University of Florida swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) gets a call from her older sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) from Boston warning her that Category 5 Hurricane Wendy is about to make landfall in Florida and that she should evacuate. But when it occurs to Haley that she should check on her estranged father, Dave (Barry Pepper), she discovers he isn't at his condo, but their old Coral Lake family home she thought he sold when her parents divorced. After deceiving a police officer Beth used to date, she's able to get into the quickly flooding area to find him unconscious and trapped in the crawl space under the house, seriously injured from an alligator attack.

While attempting to drag her dad out, Haley realizes they have more company than anticipated, as multiple alligators have managed to sneak through the storm drain and have them trapped. With a rapidly intensifying storm and flood waters rising, Haley and Dave must fight injury and hungry gators to swim out of the basement to safety. But what's waiting for them outside isn't much of an improvement.

At first glance, it may not be obvious just how effective a thriller this is because so many like it are dumped into theaters each week before disappearing, often justifiably. If the set-up doesn't inspire confidence that we're in for something dramatically different, that's mostly because we're not. And that's okay since Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's straightforward script leaves so little room for missteps, allowing enough leeway for Aja to do what he's done "best" in some of his previous horror entries, frequently to the point of overkill. Usually, dabbling in more mainstream, accessible fare like this would seem to be the kiss of death for a director  synonymous with the disparaging "torture porn" label, but this time around he's considerably more focused on ratcheting up the tension. 

If alligators dining on humans is a major component, the survival story still takes center stage, with some of the best scenes and sequences revolving around this father-daughter tandem putting their heads together while working on their own personal baggage. The gator attack scenes are spectacular, as Aja takes a page out of the Spielberg playbook in resisting the temptation to overexpose them, making their well-timed appearances count. Doing a superior job to most in avoiding to break the rules of the world he's created, the CGI gators aren't some kind of hybrid reptilian mutants gifted with incredible speed, but instead moving how real ones would, and unexpectedly faster if necessary. This leads to many exciting scenes with Haley trying to outswim them as the always underrated Barry Pepper fights for his daughter and powers through the pain to concoct a plan.

Most recently seen as a bi-polar figure skater in Netflix's unfairly cancelled Spinning Out, Kaya Scodelario again makes you wonder how she isn't already a major star, physically and emotionally putting herself through the ringer as an athlete whose grit and credibility ground even the most questionable circumstances in a harsh reality. It's also easy to endorse a thriller that seems so invested in the fate of a dog, with hardly a moment going by where we're not at least made aware of the female terrier's whereabouts. I fully expected to only see the pet once or twice before they decided audiences just wouldn't care or think to remember, only to be thankfully proven wrong.

A young woman trying to save her father from alligators invading a basement during a hurricane explains all that's necessary in determining whether you're up for the ride. And yet that doesn't quite do Crawl justice. For what it is, it's kind of perfect. Strong, resourceful characters, a tight, no-nonsense script, a brisk running time and an impressive lead performance equals escapism done well. With a knowing, self-referential wink, it channels the spirit those cheesy 90's adventure thrillers while successfully managing to top more than a few of them. 

Friday, July 17, 2020


Director: Patrick Vollrath
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Aurélie Thépaut, Paul Wollin
Runing Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
After a four year hiatus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt returns to the screen in Amazon Studios' self-contained hijacking thriller, 7500, a well put together, highly competent action excursion made in a similar vein to United 93. Putting on no false pretenses, writer and first-time feature director Patrick Vollrath makes it clear early he's under no illusions that this will in any way be a mainstream air disaster movie meant to "entertain" audiences with fantastic shootouts, incredible CGI, or villains being sucked into a plane's engine. We already have Liam Neeson movies for that. In his feature directorial debut, Vollrath instead gains points for both honesty and consistency, entering a pact to show a methodical, almost documentary-like account of every pilot and passenger's worst nightmare, without violating common sense. That's harder than it seems, and some more impatient viewers probably won't be along for the ride, which is a shame since the exceptionally tight screenplay builds to a sort of claustrophobic chaos that recalls other single location exercises like Phone Booth, Buried, Frozen and ATM. But mostly to its advantage, this takes itself a little more seriously.

You may as well title this, Cockpit, as all the action that takes place over its running time occurs within that constricted location, with a co-pilot suddenly forced to make life or death decisions when trapped in worst case scenario. There's initially a low-key rythem to the proceedings, but once the inciting event occurs and the focus shifts to JGL having to pull off a fairly challenging role with intelligence and believability, it becomes a pressure cooker. It isn't necessarily full of twists or turns, but is instead a well-paced, efficiently made pot boiler that makes logical sense, proving to be the ideal comeback vehicle for its star, while hopefully serving as a warm-up for another upcoming round of great performances in higher profile projects for him. Due to his work and a tight script, it all comes together surprisingly well, making for a tense 91 minutes.

Co-pilot Tobias Ellis (Gordon-Levitt) is preparing to embark on a flight from Berlin to Paris with pilot Captain Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzinger), with both exchanging pleasantries while doing their checks before take-off. Tobias' girlfriend, Gökce (Aylin Tezel) is one of the flight attendants on board, as well as the mother of their son, and after a brief debate about which school he should attend, they're airborne. Once in flight, the cockpit is infiltrated by terrorist hijackers, who stab Lutzmann to death, while seriously injuring Tobias, who manages to fight them off long enough to lock two out of the cockpit while tying up their unconcious partner in the jumpseat.

After unsuccessfully attempting to revive the pilot as the terrorists bang violently on the cockpit door to get in, Tobias gets in touch with ground control, who inform him he'll need to make an emergency landing and warn not open that door for any reason, even as the hijackers threaten to execute hostages if he doesn't. With the PA system serving as his only conduit to the cabin, he must instruct the passengers while negotiating for their lives with the youngest terrorist, Vedat (Omid Memar), with whom he begins to form a connection. But they want control of the plane, and will stop at nothing to insure Tobias doesn't safely land it. 

The opening close circuit airport footage of the suspicious men who will eventually be revealed as the hijackers announces right up front the kind of film Vollrath intends to make. And he mostly does just that, emphasizing the real-life stakes of the situation with a real-time, stripped down approach free of the usual bells and whistles you'd find in a cheesy thriller. It's much appreciated, especially when dealing with the early interplay between Tobias and Lutzmann, who both seem like friendly, competent pilots who respectfully converse like normal professionals, their focus remaining entirely on getting to their destination. No one's drunk, popping pills, having an affair, going through a divorce, or secretly working with the terrorists, as we've come to expect from action scripts of this sort. With just enough to summise these are decent, hard-working men with families and no more, the hijacking feels even more like like a genuine interruption of their everyday lives, without any other plot device getting in the way of the trauma at hand. And other than fleeting glimpses on the cockpit's monitor, we don't actually see the passengers or cabin, conveying the attack as more immediate and personal for the pilots.

For a while it feels very real, especially when Tobias has to make some serious ethical decisions when the lives of the passengers and flight crew are threatened. Of course, his girlfriend is one of them, and when she's inevitably introduced into the equation the movie starts to go a little more over-the-top. But JGL keeps it grounded as an everyman who's understandably overwhelmed and scared, but clearly determined to do the right thing to get everyone out of this. He rarely wavers on exactly what that is, while remaining flexible enough to make adjustments to that game plan along the way. Everything taking place within only a few feet of space only serves to heighten the claustrophobia within the cockpit as it becomes clear that, despite the many lives in peril, it all rides on Tobias' actions and reactions. 

While movie's synopsis heavily emphasizes the commonalities Tobias discovers he shares with one of his hijackers, it's at best an overstated aspect of the story and at worst a cautious, preemptive apology for depicting foreign terrorists. It's almost as if out of guilt, Vollrath attempt to elicit an enormous amount of sympathy for one of them. He's well-played by Omid Memar in an appropriately panicked performance that adds a lot of juice to the third act as he battles his conscience and fear, but a transparent attempt at trying to show that terrorists are "just like us" is beneath a film as smart as this. That and that old trick of convincing the hijacker they're refueling the plane for their escape are about the only reminders of a popcorn-style crowd pleaser.

So steeped in his commitment to docu-style realism, we don't put it past Vollrath to kill off his protagonist, whom Gordon-Levitt plays with enough desperation and single-minded focus to sell the idea of him saving the lives of these passengers at the expense of his own. But the presentation of the young, frightened hijacker does pretty much foreshadow an ending that occurs exactly how and where it should, heightening the feeling that what we're watching takes place in real time. There's a sense of relief and satisfaction for viewers when that door finally opens, and what could have easily been another routine action entry overperforms, providing a solid template for how this kind of thriller can be executed under the most disciplined of circumstances.    

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

13 Reasons Why (Season 4)

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring:  Dylan Minnette, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Miles Heizer, Christian Navarro, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Justin Prentice, Amy Hargreaves, Timothy Granaderos, Grace Saif, Mark Pellegrino, Tyler Barnhardt, Deaken Bluman, Jan Luis Castellanos, Gary Sinise, Steven Weber, Inde Navarrette, Josh Hamilton, Reed Diamond
Original Airdate: 2020

★★½ (out of ★★★★)

**The Following Review Contains Major Spoilers For The Fourth Season of '13 Reasons Why' **
"Super dark and meandering." That's one character's description of a college application essay in the final episode of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, but they may as well be referring to this entire fourth season, or more specifically, the series finale itself, which clocks in at a punishable, self-indulgent one hour and thirty eight minutes. Note that this comment is being made to a ghost, as the show ventures down a supernatural path it's rarely traveled before, and never to this extent. After last season's whodunnit murder, creator Brian Yorkey takes many detours for these last 10 episodes, moving the show further away from the captivating drama it started as, bombarding us and its characters with nearly every social issue under the sun.

Since the controversial suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) in the show's first season garnered the series justifiable acclaim and attention, it's tried to piggy-back off that success by stretching out what was initially intended as a single season adaptation of Jay Asher's YA novel. And since then, it hasn't been the same, spinning its story in a number of different directions, focusing on the Liberty High students as they confront heavy issues like addiction, rape, murder, school shootings, alcoholism and depression. The results have been mixed, in many ways serving as a case study as to why the most successful showrunners usually have a set end date as to when and how a series will generally end, and work backwards from there. But the Netflix perk of considerably more creative freedom can just as easily cause a show to run amok, overindulging without the presence of dissenting voices to pull back on the reins.

While there's no way to know the exact intentions here, it's undeniable that the writers went all out for its swan song, racheting up the hysteria like never before. Those hoping all the focus would again center around protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) get their wish, even if the show doubles down on the more unsavory aspects of his personality, while also burdening him with anxiety, panic atacks and mental illness.The season's basically an entertaining trainwreck, careening off the tracks by piling so many young adult issues and unwelcomed supernatural elements that it almost becomes a parody of itself.

There are creative bright spots, but it's likely the only thing anyone will be talking about afterwards is what happens in episodes 6 and 8, the latter of which finding the series cursed with almost improbable timing given recent issues in the world. Much like the suicide debate (which saw Netflix fold and remove the potentially triggering scene due to public outcry), many will be claiming the show's stepped in it yet again, as a major plot touching upon civil unrest and protesting represents the first time this series can claim to be ahead of the curve, of sorts. Accidentally. While everyone's mileage on how effectively it's tackled will vary, it's still a pretty unnerving coincidence that further muddies the waters of an already polarizing season. And yet, viewers have seemed more genuinely shaken and offended by the death of a major character that could have ranked among the season's better handled traumas, if not for the other nonsense detracting from it.

After collaborating to frame now deceased rapist Monty (Timothy Granaderos) for Bryce's (Justin Prentice) murder at the hands of Alex (Miles Heizer), the gang is ripping apart at the seams, terrified their dangerous secret will be exposed by former Hillcrest student, Winston (Deaken Bluman), transferring to Liberty with potentially damning evidence that would posthumously clear Monty of the crime. Wracked with guilt over the cover-up, Clay is hallucinating, prone to violent fits of rage and suffering from severe anxiety attacks and depression that land him in the office of concerned family therapist Dr. Robert Ellman (Gary Sinise). Girlfriend Ani (Grace Saif) doesn't know how to help him, hiding the news she's moving to Oakland. Tony (Christian Navarro) has thrown himself into boxing as an escape, looking to numb the pain of his family's deportation, as he and Clay worry about the already fragile Tyler's (Devin Druid) state-of-mind after noticing his inexplicable disappearances.

As outspoken class president Jessica (Alisha Boe) prepares to welcome boyfriend Justin (Brandon Flynn) home from rehab following his drug relapse, she discovers things can't just go back to "normal" for them. Haunted by visions of her rapist Bryce, she grows closer to his former teammate Diego (Jan Luis Castellanos), while fearing he's close to exposing the truth. Not handling any of this well is the formerly responible Zach (Ross Butler), whose undergone a massive personality shift, drowning his sorrows in the bottle. All this occurs against the backdrop of a Liberty High that's transformed into a war zone, as Principal Bolan (Steven Weber) installs metal detectors, police officers and a new Dean of Discipline, Hansen Foundry (Reed Diamond), to maintain law and order.  But someone won't stop until Clay's circle of friends are exposed for what they've done.

In what could almost be considered a direct response last season's heavily criticized focus on newly arrived Liberty student and semi-unreliable narrator Ani, she's pushed aside only for the spotlight to return to the embattled Clay as he deals with a myriad of psychological issues stemming from not only his role in framing Monty, but four hellish years of this high school. Proving to be as equally unreliable a narrator as Ani or Hannah, his frequent panic attacks and occasional blackouts are putting everyone on edge, alarming both his concerned parents (Amy Hargreaves and and Josh Hamilton), and most especially, adopted brother Justin, who's going to meetings and desperately trying to stay clean.

The central mystery is a strange one in that so much of the season is built upon the admittedly flawed premise that rapists Bryce and Monty are victims as much as anyone else, somehow deserving of not only being forgiven post-death, but "understood."  As if their heinous actions had no direct correlation to their murders, and everyone even tangentially involved with this cover-up should prepare to be haunted for the rest of their lives. And unfortunately, the series intends that to be taken literally, as the two appear so frequently to various characters as ghosts, hallucinations and in dream sequences, they may as well get top billing on the call sheet. Of course, this isn't the first time the show's done this, with the late Hannah's spirit appearing to Clay in the second season, but that was at least understandable given their relationship.

Despite the writers and Justin Prentice doing an an excellent job fleshing Bryce out as a complicated, multi-dimensional character last season, he still proved himself incapable of change and proudly declared an intent to strike again before Alex offed him. But Monty might even be worse, with his second season bathroom attack on Tyler deserving votes for most disturbing scene of the entire series. This isn't to say the show or characters' positions should be that they "deserved" it, but the school should technically be a lot safer with them gone. As we find out, it isn't. Or maybe the gang doesn't feel guilty so much as they fear getting caught, lending the series' closing message of tolerance an unwanted undercurrent of hypocrisy.

The fourth episode, "Senior Camping Trip," during which Clay's anxiety kicks into overdrive as everyone turns on each other attempting to uncover the culprit behind an incriminating e-mail, represents the season's lowest point, playing like a cross between I Know What You Did Last Summer, Friday the 13th and the worst aspects of CW's Riverdale. It's also where the writers lean too heavily on the supernatural, or more specifically, the increasingly frequent Bryce and Monty appearances.

Few recent teen dramas have attempted to go to the uncomfortable, controversial places this has, but perhaps because of that attention the writers or Netflix seem to have gotten cold feet in recent seasons, more closely resembling a traditional teen soap in narrative execution. While that episode is emblematic of this, flashes of greatness still shine through, most notably in the performances and their handling of specific story arcs like Tyler's turnaround from the brink of emotional self-destruction.

Having come a long way since Clay and Tony rescued him from himself (and his plans to carry out a school shooting), Druid's performance and the writing have done an exceptional job showing how Tyler's gradually maturing past it, while acknowledging the impossibility of ever truly leaving that event behind. The arrival of Monty's shy sister Estela (Inde Navarrette) helps both reopen and close those wounds, interested in finding out the truth about her brother's framing, without overlooking the monstrosity of his attack on Tyler. But if ever there was a trigger for him and everyone else, it's in the Brenda Strong-directed episode, "Thursday," during which the Liberty High goes on lockdown and a Code Red is declared due to another potentially active shooter situation.

Much like the show's first handling of this, it's a tension-filled hour, undercut again by the presence of resident apparitions Bryce and Monty. But the entire purpose of the episode is to drive home Clay's increasing paranoia and split from reality, which is rapidly growing to Tyler Durden-like proportions. In what was probably a well-intended, if over-the-top, attempt to bring attention to his serious psychological issues, the show swerves itself by making him right about pretty much everything.

In uncovering a massive conspiracy involving the school's faculty and parents to "keep students safe" that's too convoluted to even explain, Clay continues unraveling as battle lines are drawn between Principal Bolin's vision for law and order and the students' basic freedoms. This leads to the most uncomfortably timely episode of the series ("Acceptance/Rejection"), as Liberty essentially becomes a police state, giving way to rioting, protesting and violence. The overarching blackmail storyline involving Bryce's murder is now almost fully in the rearview mirror, with the writers basically washing their hands of it as they head down the final stretch. Even diabolically obsessed antagonist Winston seems to lose all interest.

Some of the Clay material, while ridiculous, does deliver, mainly due to Minnette's unfledgling commitment to the role. Alex's guilt, as well as his coming out as gay, also hits some strong notes, but this has all really been about Justin. After pushing Jessica away to focus on his sobriety, he's had to watch her not only fall into the arms of another guy for revenge, but stand by helplessly as Clay spins out of control. Post-Hannah, the writers have effortlessly nailed the evolving sibling bond that's connected Justin and Clay when the Jensens took in the latter after he was homeless, shooting heroin and selling himself on the street. We knew this, just as we're warned in the season opener of a funeral, so Justin's AIDS reveal isn't so much a complete shock as a devastating gut punch, especially given his tortured journey over the past two seasons.

Fans won't like any of this, arguing that Justin Foley's death comes at the show's eleventh hour for shock value and could have just as easily been presented as a story about living with, and even triumphing over, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And while that could have be done, it may not have landed with the same effect, or given the talented Brandon Flynn such an emotional showcase. And at least the show tried not to fall into the series finale trap of sending every character off skipping into the sunset. Claiming a decision is wrong because fans are sad that their favorite died usually only proves that the writers did their jobs. The best recent example is the brilliant, unfairly Veronica Mars finale, which took a big gamble in doing what was creatively right for the show, knowing the inevitable backlash ahead. But this season is such a mess that it'll be a lot harder extending a similar courtesy. And it's especially difficult when they spend over an hour and a half apologizing for it. 

Even as the series finale ("Graduation") keeps with the show's tendency to honestly confront tragedy head-on, I still wish they didn't take so long to do it, coddling its audience and letting them know that everything will be okay. Plus, it's just too much to have a death, funeral, and graduation all in the span of a single episode that also follows a prom and unsuccessfully manages to shoehorn Hannah Baker back into the proceedings. The finale isn't a complete failure by any means, featuring a great Gary Sinise performance and speech as Dr. Ellman that helps provide sufficient closure to Clay's story. But that, and seeing Hannah, however briefly and pointlessly, only serves to remind us how strong this series used to be.      

The good news is that while 13 Reasons Why clearly overstayed its welcome, we were spared the indignity of following these characters to college, since we already know the diminishing returns of that approach. Having each of the series' four seasons correspond to their years at Liberty was logical, and this still wasn't enough of a botch to tarnish the legacy of a show that should be fondly remembered, primarily off the back of its spectacular inaugural season. But even the show's strongest defenders would have a hard time arguing this went out at the top of its game. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Charlie's Angels (2019)

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Noah Centineo
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Maybe it was a happy accident for me to have recently caught the opening minutes of the 2003 version of Charlie's Angels in passing before seeing last year's reboot. In many ways it served as an eye-opening reminder that there's a certain level of quality this franchise can attain regardless of the cast, director, script or marketing. Barring a complete overhaul of the original material that inspired it, we'll probably never get a great Charlie's Angels movie, which almost seems appropriate. And now, judging from the reception to writer/director Elizabeth Banks' updated take, we may not get another one at all, at least for a very long time.

Many aren't losing sleep over the film's tepid reaction, but it's still kind of a shame considering how tough it is to determine what viewers expected or even wanted from this. Bashed as a feminist propaganda piece showing us how women have been held down by men, Banks was criticized for crafting an empty manifesto protesting the sexual objectification of the Angels by male moviegoers and filmmakers everywhere. With her excuses for its box office implosion doing little to change this perception, you could imagine my surprise at discovering that's not even close to what we get. It's light, mindless fun, in line with previous incarnations, but with a slightly less ridiculous tone.

Save for some occasionally cringe-worthy dialogue, no messages are being shoved down our throats, as the joke would have been on Banks considering the franchise will always be viewed for exactly what it is: escapist entertainment both genders watch for the women and action. In the end, all that actually matters is whether the film's any good. And this works as well or better than the others, with some minor missteps along the way. Declaring it mildly recommendable may seem like damning with faint praise, but the two hours fly by and the casting and performances result in a interesting dynamic between the leads. The trio may even be the most distinctive in terms of personalities, with the seemingly odd Angel out really rising to the occasion and silencing the skeptics. Chalk it up to lowered expectations, but this is a good time, surprisingly delivering exactly what it should, and maybe even a little more

A year after a team of Angels led by the Townsend Agency's Edgar "Bosley," (Djimon Hounsou) successfully capture international criminal Jonny Smith (Chris Pang), engineer Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) helps develop a groundbreaking energy conservation device called Calisto for entrepreneur Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin). But after uncovering a plot by her boss, Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon), to hide its potentially fatal side effects, she brings her findings Edgar to investigate. But when he's murdered by a mysterious, tattooed assassin named Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), this brings in the Angels, wise-cracking Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and Edgar's ass-kicking protege, Jane Kano (Ella Balinska).

The Angels are given their new assignment by Charlie's assistant Rebekah (Banks), an ex-Angel who's taken over for Edgar and risen up the ranks following the retirement of senior operative John Bosley (Patrick Stewart). Using Elena as their undercover decoy, Sabina And Jane must now break into the corporate headquarters to steal the Calisto prototypes before they can be duplicated and eventually weaponized. But the plot ends up running deeper than any of them anticipated as they fight against and unseen mastermind whose motivations may be more personal than expected.

Casting can be a real difference maker if the script's a mess, but luckily Banks' screenplay, while a bit convoluted, does mostly deliver the goods after brief stalling at its mid-point before the action kicks into high gear. On paper, Kristen Stewart was always going to be the wild card since she just isn't an actress most would associate with a buddy female action comedy or really any light, mainstream entertainment audiences consider "fun."

Rightly or not, Stewart's been frequently picked apart for having a dour, awkward onscreen presence cultivated from appearing in the dark indie dramas she's gravitated toward since becoming a household name from Twilight. Now, she's gone so far in the other direction, with impressive results, that it seems impossible to believe she's even in a franchise movie again, especially one that seems so sharply opposed to her substance-over-style career approach. And that's exactly why she ends up being the shot in the arm this project needs, as there's no denying that as Sabina she displays a goofy, comedic edge and charm that's rarely been evident in even her lightest of roles.

If the general consensus was that Banks was trolling fanboys by casting an actress they couldn't objectify, she must have known something since Stewart gives the film's liveliest performance. By making her a total, unabashed goofball who quickly flips the switch to get down to business when the situation calls for it, she redefines the concept of an Angel, with her character providing a perfect contrast to the more stoic Jane. Played by English actress Ella Balinska, she's the more prototypical choice, box-checking what's been the long-established franchise template of crushing bad guys while managing to look great doing it. As a character, she's presented more seriously than many of her predecessors, with combat skills being emphasized over looks, the latter of which few would blame her for coasting on. But she doesn't.

As the Angel who's yet to earn her wings, recent Power Rangers and Aladdin star, Naomi Scott, brings the goofiness as clumsy brainiac Elena, the "origin" in this origin story. In over her head and guided through a criminal ordeal unlike anything her naive character's experienced, Scott is earnestly likeable as the eyes and ears of the audience, making up her own rules as she goes along. Of course, after some fun interplay, she'll eventually earn the begrudging respect of Bosley and the Angels, with all sharing surprisingly solid chemistry together.

The plot takes a number of twists and turns, some more expected than others, but comes out on the high-end in terms of minimizing the nonsense typically associated with a franchise that's always had a problem with tone, frequently straddling the lines of what it wants to be. This fares better than most. As for the action sequences, they're competently filmed and hold your attention, while fully acknowledging this probably won't be confused with the latest John Wick anytime soon. The good news is that these scenes play considerably better than the music video-style trailers and commercials teased, or threatened, in the lead-up to its release. 

The closing minutes hint that Banks had her creative engine revving for a follow-up and you can't really fault her optimism since that was undoubtedly the plan. Now, she'll have to shelve it as studio executives scratch their heads wondering what happened, surely contemplating another brilliant idea for rebooting this property. There's not a whole lot wrong with this, so unless they have this fresh, new approach to re-purposing a 1970's female-lead action-comedy adventure series on the big screen, it might be a better idea to just hire everyone back with a better, tighter script. Then again, it's entirely possible no one wants to see any Charlie's Angels movie, even one that manages to get a lot right.


Saturday, June 6, 2020

Uncut Gems

Directors: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher, Abel Tesfaye, Mike Francesa
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In the Safdie brothers' crime thriller Uncut Gems, a new bar is set for unlikable, self-destructive protagonists, as Adam Sandler's jeweler and gambling addict Howard Ratner proves incapable of encountering any situation he can't make worse by lying, cheating, screaming, swearing or scamming. Whether it's his own family, celebrities or employees, they're all forced to just look on with annoyed exasperation at his antics, which demonstrate the lowest levels of self-control and human decency. It's nearly impossible to turn away from the wildly entertaining train wreck that is Howard's life, with its awfulness and unpredictability escalating with each passing scene, culminating an almost unbearably tense finale.

Heralded as the return of Sandler to what's increasingly become one of his rare "serious" roles, this dramatic departure really can't be listed alongside other his other excursions like Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, even as it surely will. The draw in those was seeing the actor dialed way down, while this feels more in line with his recognizable lunacy. But the huge exception this time is the unusually high quality of the Safdies' darkly comic material, which channels those qualities into dramatic strengths rather than exploiting them for cheap gags or toilet humor.

Reconciling the two Sandlers has always been a tricky proposition, both for fans, and possibly for him, as the disappointing box office receipts for his more challenging efforts have frequently found him crawling back to the familiar safety of mainstream low-brow comedies. You could say it's for the money, or maybe even the emotional exhaustion of putting himself out there only to find audiences just want the hits. That's why this feels like the ultimate compromise that should please both camps while successfully litigating the many facets of Sandler's onscreen persona. And yet, the picture remains extremely polarizing, so far out there in its delivery that it's as much an ordeal as an experience.

After a brief flashback to 2010 where a group of Ethiopian miners retrive a rare black opal stone in an African mine, we jump forward two years later to the KMH jewelry store in New York City's Diamond District, as owner Howard is struggling to pay off his gambling debts. Still owing $100,000 to loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), his relationship with estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) has crumbled in the midst of his ongoing affair with jewelry store employee, Julia (Julia Fox). But when Howard's associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself) into the store to shop, that rare African black opal arrives.

As Howard makes plans to put the special stone up for auction, Garnett becomes almost hypnotically captivated by the gem, insisting to hold on to it for good luck in his game before giving a reluctant Howard his 2008 Championship ring as collateral. But after pawning it to place a six-way parlay bet on Garnett's game performance, Howard's troubles really start, as Arno and his hired bodyguards are coming to collect. Discovering it may be more complicated than he thought to get the opal back from Garnett, Howard makes plans to place another huge bet that would turn his fortunes around. But with the clock rapidly ticking on his chaotic personal and professional life, it won't be easy.

While it isn't completely inaccurate to label to label this a dramatic crime thriller, there are plenty of laughs stemming from Howard's inability to read people and situations, almost obnoxiously bulldozing forward toward what he always believes will be certain success. He basically digs this huge hole for himself, inexplicably keeps digging in hopes of a turnaround, and ends up in a far worse position than he started in. The pattern repeats more than a few times, which is unsurprising given his gambling addiction, but Sandler keeps finding new ways to make it compulsively watchable with an unhinged performance that grips you right from the start and doesn't let go until the credits roll.

The jewelry store itself, with all its cramped chaos and malfunctioning security doors, feels like a powder keg primed to explode from all the nervous tension within, providing the perfect visual and atmospheric metaphor for the wheeling, dealing life of its owner. But fast-talking "Howie," with his schmoozing and empty promises, meets his match in Garnett, who's used to getting what he wants when he wants it. That's par the course for his celebrity clients, but the exception here being the value of this rare stone and Howard's obsession with leveraging it into a huge gambling opportunity destined to end badly just based on the number of people he's screwing over.

Seemingly everyone but Howard can sense his toxicity and uncontrollable temper, which sabotages every potential transaction, business or otherwise. You haven't seen anything until witnessing Howard attack a pre-fame The Weeknd in a club bathroom, trying to bribe his bookie, Gary (Mike Francesa) with a watch or manipulating his father (Judd Hirsch) to bid for him at an auction. If it's easy to believe that just the chance to appear alongside Garnett, The Weeknd and Francesa in a sports-related project was one of Sandler's main motivations for taking the part, we can at least take solace in the fact this is one of the more successful examples of outside celebrities being seamlessly incorporated into a film.

And in the case of Garnett, it's even better than that, with him adding a legitimacy that couldn't have come if they used a fictitious player or had another actor step in.  It just makes the proceedings feel real, especially when he goes toe-to-toe with Sandler in a handful of intense scenes. But the tragedy in Howard's story comes not from his interactions with sports figures and business associates like Lakeith Stanfield's wildly mercurial Demany, but his mistreatment of his estranged wife and kids and a stone-faced brother-in-law who's been burned by his relative so many times he's essentially had to resort to hiring hitmen to scare him into paying.

But what emotionally lands the hardest is his relationship with Julia, since it's the only aspect of his life where he doesn't appear to playing some kind of short con game. Julia Fox really gives a break-out performance as the feisty girlfriend who stands by him unconditionally, at points making us wonder if there really is more to this guy than weasely bluster, since their quieter moments is when he acts and appears most human, approaching something that almost nearly resembles likability. Of course, he manages to somehow mess that up too, leading to a scene where everything hits Howard at once, bloody and collapsing in ball of tears in his office chair being consoled by the only person left who cares. After all this guy's done, that Sandler can wring out empathy for this guy and have us rooting for his victory is a testament to how many gears he truly has as an actor, and a reminder how infrequently we've seen him display it.

That Sandler has the Safdies as directors sure helps, with them taking an unusually frenetic approach to this kind of material, with oddly effective choices that elevate both Sandler and the script. Between the breakneck editing pace and Daniel Lopatin's ambient, electronic score that seems to jarringly contrast with the picture's unnerving tone, there's really nothing quite like it. And it's capped with a literal and figurative buzzer beater of a finale that has Howard doubling down on his very worst tendencies, so optimistically smitten by his own hype that he can't see the many horrible ways his big bet can go wrong, this time with a participatory audience gathered for his self-destruction. That it bookends a film bizarre enough to open with the main character's colonoscopy should have been clue enough as to what we were getting into. But Sandler's unique take on this exhausting conman proves why each new dramatic role he tackles remains so highly anticipated. This is one of his best, even if it might be too stressful to watch again.  

Thursday, May 28, 2020

It Chapter Two

Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Martell, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård
Running Time: 170 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Endings have never been Stephen King's strong suit. This is worth mentioning since It Chapter Two seems to allude to that numerous times with a wink and a nod, as if audiences were already going into Andy Muschietti's sequel to his really great 2017 film adaptation of King's epic novel prepared for disappointment. After all, they've experienced it before, with 1990's underwhelming It TV miniseries having a particularly problematic second half marred by a wretched conclusion. But to lay the blame entirely at King's feet rather than the filmmakers tasked with translating his work through the years, isn't exactly fair.

You need only see The Mist or The Shawshank Redemption to realize how taking creative license with King's material can yield extremely satisfying results that enhance the themes of his storytelling. Muschietti's It was one of the good ones, delivering a Stand By Me meets Stranger Things vibe bolstered by the 80's era setting, perfectly calibrated child performances, and Bill Skarsgård's demonic turn as Pennywise The Clown. Part-horror, part coming-of-age nostalgia, you could call it the quintessential King adaptation in how it streamlines the author's over-indulgences while accenting his strengths.

Chapter Two was always going to be challenging in that it couldn't be a period piece with the same young actors, unless there's a big deviation from the novel preventing the inevitable time jump that sees all the roles recast with adult counterparts. Plus, there's just something about kids at that age being confronted with supernatural horror, just as their imaginations and emotions are already running rampant. Not only does everything seem more important during adolescence, but the stakes just feel higher when pre-teens experience a loss of innocence, forcing them to grow into who they'll eventually become, whether they're ready or not.

Now, we find out exactly who these kids become in a solid, if a little messy, sequel that does a lot right in avoiding many expected pitfalls. It helps that the same director returns with a nearly identical vision, and while it may take viewers a bit to get acclimated to the cast, Muschietti employs a very similar structure that works heavily in its favor, making for an effective, but undeniably overlong experience. But it's a testament to him that the nearly three-hour running time doesn't feel like the drag it so easily could have.

It's 2016 in Derry, Maine when a man is brutally attacked by a gang of homophobic youths at the town's carnival and thrown off a bridge, into the waiting arms of the murderous Pennywise (Skarsgård). After investigating the crime, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) realizes the clown has returned 27 years later and takes it upon himself to contact childhood friends Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) and Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), summoning them back home to honor the promise they all made in 1989 as members of the Losers' Club to kill the clown if he ever returned.

All but Stan arrive back in Derry, but soon discover they only have partial memories of what occurred over two decades ago. But with Mike's help, everything comes flooding back and they're soon tormented by Pennywise with hallucinations from their own past and visions of the future, even as their tormentor seeks out new victims. Making matters worse is that teen sociopath Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) survived his fall into the well and is out for revenge, having recently escaped the mental hospital where he's been confined for his father's murder. Formulating a plan to stop Pennywise for good, the gang will have to make sacrifices of their own, retracing their steps as kids, and coming face-to-face with the painful memories they'd rather have remain buried. Only then, can they be prepared for what could be their final confrontation with Pennywise.

The film's opening is almost shockingly violent, and a reminder that this was a story that never played it safe or compromised in its first installment, and certainly not now, with the characters having long aged out of childhood. Homophobic attacks and sexual abuse aren't usually the first things that come to mind when considering King's catalogue, and while this entry does seem to be unusually hung up on the former, Muschietti deserves credit again for revolving Pennywise's supernatural reign of terror around the true-to-life challenges his victims face. Like its prequel, it doesn't hold back, again earning an 'R' which admittedly carried more of an impact the first time around with a cast comprised entirely of kids. While the genuine sense of danger, the ear for how the gang talked and felt, and Pennywise's attacks heightened the scare factor of the 2017 film, this seems more like a reunion, or greatest hits compilation of all the scariest story beats and scenes from that outing with a new cast.

The more the action gets going, the better it gets, as after all pleasantries are exchanged and we get a deeper read on the characters, you start to appreciate the tiny details and continuity that link the adult losers club protagonists to their childhood counterparts. Whether it's Bill's guilt over little brother Georgie's death at the hands of Pennnywise, Beverly's abusive upbringing, Ben's impossible crush on her, Richie's inability to fit in, or the long-term consequences of Eddie's terminally overprotective mother.

To its benefit, the narrative is flashback-heavy, cutting back and forth between the past and present, filling in details we weren't previously privy to, which takes some pressure off the new faces to top their predecessors. The biggest surprise is just how much the younger originals are in this, even if some of their scenes carry a visual awkwardness resulting from them having noticeably aged a couple of years. But mostly, it's done well, with each character's 2016 story mirroring the 1989 version, bolstering the unifying the two installments while further linking the chains that connect their traumatic childhood and adult experiences.

If there's one thing everyone knew we needed in this sequel, it was Jessica Chastain stepping in to continue Sophia Lillis' extraordinary work as Beverly. Rarely does a fan casting choice feel so obviously right on every level, and when the possibility of her playing the part suddenly became real, that hook was reason enough to continue. She doesn't disappoint, transforming young Bev's quirks into a darker, more psychologically wounded woman, while still retaining the character's tomboy spirit. In other words, she delivers exactly as predicted, with the added bonus of that uncanny physical resemblance to Lillis. Her and James McAvoy predictably shine, with the latter most registering when he needs to confront guilt-ridden Bill's mental anguish over his responsibility in Georgie's death.

Bill's career as a writer also becomes a clever meta device to reference Stephen King's aforementioned battles with endings, with the author himself even getting in on the joke with one of his more memorable screen cameos. The rest of the cast have varying degrees of success, with Bill Hader channeling the goofy eccentricities younger counterpart Finn Wolfhard brought to Richie and infusing it with an angrier adult sensibility. The bond between Ben and Beverly is revisited, this time with Jay Ryan attempting to project the formally awkward, bullied overweight new kid's insecurities as a handsome, successful architect. This sub-plot, which works better in flashbacks then present-day, should have been deeply affecting, but Ryan's kind of bland opposite Chastain, thus undercutting its impact as the story's big redemptive arc. There's also a distracting exposition dump involving Mike's theories on Pennywise's origins that make little sense and should have been excised entirely.

The cast does gel, just not to the level the kids did in the previous film, causing viewers to possibly readjust their expectations for a sequel already saddled with the burden of having to follow one of the best recent King adaptations. But Muscietti manages to tie things together at the film's most important point, and an extremely long third act where the narrative should be losing steam ends up being its highlight, aided in part by Skarsgård's less present, but still scary, performance as Pennywise and a strangely compelling final showdown wherein the script simultaneously juggles numerous narratives in the past and present. If nothing else, it's actually a well-edited three hours that doesn't leave you with that sinking feeling of disappointment prevalent in so many of the author's multi-part adaptations. Still a far cry from its first chapter, It's second half functions well enough as a companion piece to prove it was a story worth finishing.     

Saturday, May 23, 2020

13 Reasons Why (Season 3)

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Grace Saif, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brenda Strong, Timothy Granaderos
Original Airdate: 2019

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

With a current rating of 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it's tough to recall a bigger collective groan accompanying an additional season order and trailer for a show as popular as 13 Reasons Why, and one only in its third season at that. The general consensus is that there's just no need to continue, which is a tough pill to swallow considering how a seemingly innocuous YA adaptation developed by Brian Yorkey and produced by Selena Gomez both captivated and angered audiences of all ages three years ago, as the deceased teen narrator Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) left 13 cassette tape recordings detailing the reasons she ended her own life. Teen suicide rates spiked, mental health experts argued and advocacy groups raged, making their case that the show's content was "triggering" for at-risk youths.  Despite the media's pronouncement of the show's waning popularity, the controversy continued, with the cast appearing in what amounts to public service announcements before and after each episode. Only recently, and perhaps tired of battling, Netflix threw their hands up in the air and removed the disturbing suicide scene.

The second season wasn't as strong, shoehorning Hannah's ghost into the proceedings while the show's loyal, avenging protagonist, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) sought justice for his friend and Hannah's grieving, irate mother attempted to hold her daughter's classmates legally responsible for her death. At a school as messed up as Liberty High, that should have been easy. But that's precisely why it wasn't. Exposing a jock rape culture at the school carried consequences, but lost in the analysis was how expertly the writers handled two extremely challenging storylines centering around drug abuse and school shootings, the latter of which was brilliantly realized, culminating in last season's cliffhanger.

Hard to watch and painfully realistic, Tyler Down's (Devin Druid) deterioration from bullied oddball outsider to armed gunman made a startling amount of sense, and with a traumatic event finally pushing him over the edge, he walks right up to that line right before Clay stops him from crossing it. The season played like a frightening step-by-step psychological dissection of a shooters' mind and the institutional pressures that create them. And if the series didn't carry the media stigma it did, Druid's scary yet heartbreaking slow-burn performance would have been recognized at Emmy time. But most were still too busy complaining about the previous season's suicide to even notice an active shooter storyline, and an even more brutal rape scene, both of which you'd figure would send the public into a frenzy once more.

As Netflix continues to manage this selective outrage, it's easy to forget that the series, at its best and worst, tackles issues most shows are afraid to touch, and frequently does it with brutally honest performances and writing. As messy as Season 3 initially appears to be, it's still no exception, and even quite straightforward once you get past its odd start. Reinventing itself as a murder mystery, it revolves around the question of who killed the series' main antagonist, serial rapist, Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). And even that's drawn criticism, with the showrunners facing accusations that they spent an entire season humanizing a rapist to engender our sympathies. But that's not what's going on here, with the writers taking a previously one-note rich jock character and squeezing more out of him than most expected was possible during the first couple of seasons. He was guilty of multiple rapes, somehow got away with it and now must live with that fact, as do his victims.

If anything, Bryce's character arc is one of futility, as he wrestles with the realization that no matter how much he tries to make amends or change as a person, it's useless. He'll always be defined by this. He'll always be rapist. Prentice's work conveying this is one of many reasons to stick around, as is Druid's as Tyler, with the latter coping with the deep psychological ramifications of the school shooting he almost carried out, as well as the brutal assault that helped lead him down the dark path to attempt it. The third season's sub-title may as well be "Recovery," since that seems to be what all the characters are going through in some form or another.

Mostly doing away with cassettes, Polaroids or any other retro tech successfully used as framing devices for the previous seasons, the circumstances surrounding Bryce Walker's murder is told almost entirely via flashbacks. So much so that it's often difficult to tell where those flashbacks end and the present-day investigation begins, with a constant cutting back-and-forth between two time timelines that really aren't all that far apart. And when the writers start incorporating multiple suspects and overlapping stories, it's a confusing introduction. That's not even mentioning that all the events are being narrated within an interrogation room by a character we've never seen before. Her name is Ani Achola (Grace Saif), a British exchange student who during her short time at Liberty has seemed to forge close relationships with everyone, especially Clay. For a while, the jury's still out on the exact nature of their friendship, but if we know anything, he'll be overanalyzing and obsessing over it. 

It's admittedly jarring seeing this much screen time and prominence allotted to an entirely new character that fans have mistakenly labeled as the "new Hannah." She's actually nothing of the sort, as the extent of her involvement more closely rivals Clay's in that she knows everything about everyone and isn't afraid to stick her nose where it doesn't belong And while her abrupt introduction is more than a little shaky and confounding, there's something to be said for just throwing Ani in there right away as the lead and committing to it, eventually resulting in a successful cast addition and framing device. But as far as unreliable narrators go, she probably even has Hannah beat.

It helps that Saif is a really talented actress, frequently rising way above the material she's given. It's through her we get everyone's stories and the details surrounding Bryce's murder start to take shape. And she would know. Residing at the Walker estate with her mom, who's taken a job as full-time caregiver for Nora Walker's (Brenda Strong) ailing father, she's one of the few to get a close-up look at Bryce's life after leaving left Liberty in shame following his meager, slap-on-the-wrist sentencing for raping Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe).

Of course, given all the other girls he raped, lives he destroyed and chaos he caused, few would feel sorry for the fact that he's emotionally struggling come to terms with his heinous actions. Newly enrolled at Hillcrest Academy, the bully is now the bullied, as Bryce is ostracized in his new surroundings, spending most of his free time at home drowning his sorrows in a bottle.

Aside from football, Bryce's only lifeline is Ani, the only person holding no preconceived notions about who he is and observes him wanting and trying to be better. Even if just about everyone else in Crestmont, especially those he hurt, would strongly disagree. All that anger eventually comes to a head the night he's killed, following an extremely controversial Homecoming game.

The list of suspects is plentiful, with each of their stories designated an episode. There's Clay, whose jealousy over Bryce's bond with Ani could have pushed him over the edge, much like it did before when he threatened him over Hannah's rape. There's also some damning evidence linking him to the crime, and the fact that Mrs. Walker and the D.A. seem convinced he's their guy. Bryce's former teammate and current captain Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) always differed with him philosophically, but their feud escalated after he provided support for his ex-girlfriend Chlöe (Anne Winters) during a particularly challenging time.

Perhaps no one has more motive than the strong-willed Jessica, whose sexual assault at the hands of Bryce has led her to become a women's rights champion as student council president, and more determined than ever to put a permanent end to the toxic jock culture at Liberty. That she and Bryce were in contact before his death makes her the most likely suspect on motivation alone. Another rape victim, Tyler, whose traumatic bathroom attack by Monty de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), and thwarted plans to carry out a mass shooting, can both be traced back to his issues with Bryce. Despite making strides in his recovery, the fact that he still owns a gun worries many in his support system. But as Monty's anger issues escalate, Bryce's knowledge of his attack on Tyler and his threats to expose it, make a cornered Monty as dangerous as ever.

For Alex Standall (Miles Heizer), lingering anger over his physical limitations and rocky relationship with Jessica, have him turning to an unlikely friend in Bryce, even as he heads down a dangrous path of drug addiction and suicidal depression. The mysterious appearance of Tony Padilla's (Christian Navarro) trademark red Mustang in the Walker garage sets off an argument between Ani and Clay, with the latter denying his best friend could have had anything to do with Bryce's death. This even as Tony's shocking personal crisis may indicate the opposite.

Despite finding a home with the Jensens, and a new brother in Clay, Justin Foley's (Brandon Flynn) failure to kick his drug habit and continued inability to forgive himself for letting best friend Bryce rape Jessica has sent him into a freefall. But who he goes to for help is what's so surprising, and ends up making him a key suspect in the murder. The returns of terminated guidance counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke) and Hannah's mom, Olivia (Kate Walsh), to Crestmont for different reasons also raise red flags, as both have a contentious histories with Bryce, with the latter still very much wanting to see her daughter's rapist dead and buried.  

This is a lot to take in, and while the almost comical descriptions of these suspects and their motives do little to dispel the belief that these 13 episodes are laying it on a little thick, when this show hits on something, it really hits. And if those criticizing it weren't too busy calling for its producers to apologize for every little thing they do, they'd probably notice that. While plagued with undeniable narrative issues, there are many things it still does well, if not as well or better than the preceding one.

The aftermath of Tyler's attempted mass shooting was handled just about as well as anything the show's done thus far, never tiptoeing around the ramifications of how it affected him and those with the direct knowledge of what he almost did. Hardly ever do we see an aborted mass shooting in any series, with no one hurt or the gunman being talked down and safely returned home. One of the season's more powerful scenes involve Tyler being walked back to his room by Clay, finding the suicide note he wrote only hours earlier, and facing the parents he thought he'd never see again. It's heavy, emotional material matched only by how Clay, Jessica, Alex's rotating supervision of Tyler, fearing he still poses a risk to both himself and others. That they do this while also attempting to privately get him the help he so desperately needs makes it land even harder.

As for Bryce, we get answers, with the culmination of the mystery surrounding his murder coming to a satisfying end in the season finale, "Let the Dead Bury the Dead. It's a fitting title, and a proper send-off for the character's complicated legacy, as the writers don't beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the killer, or exploring the possible fall-out for those harboring knowledge about it. These secrets are sure to extend into the following season, set to be its last, and boy does that ever seem to be a good idea. You literally can't imagine the series extending past that, with this one feeling as if they're stretching it out already.

Credit the writers for at least realizing they had to go in a completely different direction following Hannah's suicide, even if it feels as if the show lost its top two protagonists in the process with her, and now Clay, who kind of took a backseat this season with the introduction of a new narrator and further development of the supporting characters It wouldn't be a bad idea to have the action circle back around around to him again for the last run of episodes. You may have more trouble now coming up with 13 reasons to keep watching, but Minnette's performance as Clay would have to be among them, along with a handful of others. But having long already exhausted the blueprint left by Jay Asher's source material, they're going to need more than a few new tricks up their sleeves to go out on the creative high this series premiered at.