Sunday, November 25, 2018


Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Pablo Schreiber, Roland Møller, Byron Mann, Hannah Quinlivan, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Judged exclusively by its trailers and commercials, you'd be forgiven for thinking the latest Dwayne Johnson action spectacle, Skyscraper, could be the silliest, most ridiculous big budget cash-in yet for the industry's highest paid actor. And the given some of the questionable creative choices he's made over the past five years, that's really saying something. With his movies further widening the gap between actual quality and box office dominance, we have to believe his success is entirely due to his drawing power and innate charisma, as considering the notion those projects did anything right other than give him top billing is a possibility I'm not quite ready to face.

This time, by diving headfirst into its fun premise and embracing it, Skyscraper becomes Johnson's first legitimately worthwhile project in some time. But since the trailers weren't exactly wrong about what's delivered and critics gave him their usual thrashing, it's a mystery why moviegoers stayed far away. Or at least why they decided to this time, since we know what we're getting from him and it never seemed to bother anyone much before.

While it would still be a stretch to declare this Johnson's trip out of his comfort zone, it's at least at the service of a solid story that manages to play within the rules and boundaries of its own universe, as over-the-top as those may be. Drawing some inspiration from the likes of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, it also happens to be a lot of fun. Johnson may not have "needed" this and can't keep doing these types of movies forever, but until he's ready to flip that switch and truly be taken  seriously, this helps prove he's capable, putting his natural strengths as an actor to good use.

Johnson is U.S. Marine war veteran and former FBI Hostage Rescue Team Will Sawyer, fitted with a prosthetic after losing one leg below the knee in an explosion years ago. Now, he works as a security accessor, with his latest account being "The Pearl," the world's tallest skyscraper built in Hong Kong and funded by wealthy Chinese entrepreneur Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Working with Zhao and his friend and fellow ex-FBI agent Ben Gillespie (Pablo Schreiber), Sawyer's in the process of insuring that the building's fire and security systems are a go when he unwittingly becomes the target of international terrorist Kores Botha (Roland Møller). 

Eventually gaining control of Sawyer's tablet, Botha and his men start a fire on the building's 96th floor and disable the extinguishing system. But knowing that his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and two twin children, Georgia and Henry (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) are trapped inside, Sawyer formulates a plan to get above the fire and rescue them. But between being chased by police and targeted by Botha's henchmen, it'll be a race against time, and a rapidly raging inferno.

Once you completely let yourself go and buy into the premise, much of the material works, as does the manner by which writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (2016's Central Intelligence) translates it to the screen. The flashbacks to Sawyer's time in the FBI and the event that took his leg effectively set the stage early for a Johnson action hero that actually has some degree of physical vulnerability, giving him some slightly different notes to hit this time around. It also leads to more than a few clever situations involving the prosthetic limb, which is rarely forgotten about in the heat of the action, despite some of Sawyer's more superhuman feats.

If the conceit of the protagonist's diability seems right out of Screenwriting 101, those involved still deserve credit for making it work and appear substatially less silly than it appeared in previews. Like most everything here, it's CGI, but it's effective, as there were very few instances where the visuals stuck out like a sore thumb or seemed laughably inauthentic. Compared to most entries of its ilk, many of the bigger set pieces hold up well, and at just over an hour and a half, I'd be surprised if anyone would be looking at their phones waiting for it to end. In an era of bloated, nearly three hour cinematic endurance tests, its brevity becomes a relief that can't be understated. And even with very few surprises in the way of plot, there's still something to be said for executing a relatively straightforward story well.

As Sawyer, Johnson is his usual charismatic self, and if that doesn't come off as the most effusive of praise, it's only because he seems to have settled into a rather predictable zone that's likely a side effect of having become such a gigantic star over the past couple of years.The poor returns for this outing could be viewed as less of a reaction to this material than the result of audience burnout from his lesser projects. This at least gives Johnson the opportunity to showcase his action chops and sense of humor in a situation that falls just on the right side of ridiculous, even allowing him to inject an occasional infusion of credibility to the proceedings.

It's worth admiring the completely unexpected, but inspired casting of Neve Campbell as Sarah Sawyer in one of the very few instances of a male action star being paired with an actress who isn't half their age. The character isn't an afterthought either, as her history and relationship to him provides a level of involvement that wouldn't otherwise exist in lesser action spectacles. Unfortunately, what's missing is a truly memorable villain, replaced instead by your run-of-the-mill foreign terrorist baddies that seem ripped from a straight to cable 90's thriller. The only interest in them comes from their relationship to the meglomaniacal billionaire Zao, whom Chin Han plays with his cards close to the vest, providing some doubt as to his true motivations.

There's a visually sensational sequence toward the end of this film that seems to have been altogether ignored by both critics and audiences. In fact, it's so strong that it nearly justifies the project's entire reason for being, even while making you wish the rest of it was as inventive. It's a climax and pay-off to a projection technology introduced by the Zao character, culminating in a hall of mirrors reflection sequence that's notably impressive, regardless of how anyone feels about the story containing it. It's tough to watch that and claim Skyscraper offers nothing, even while continuing to hold out hope for the day when it feels uneccessary to grade Johnson's movies on a curve.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Kindergarten Teacher

Director: Sara Colangelo
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Michael Chernus, Gael García Bernal, Anna Baryshnikov, Ajay Naidu, Rosa Salazar, Sam Jules, Daisy Tahan, Samrat Chakrabarti
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

If the goal of a teacher at all education levels is to help their students reach their fullest potential, just a nudge or push in the right direction can often let them know they're capable of more than they suspected. With the proper guidance, they can get there, and when it happens, this achievement accompanies a realization that the ability was actually in them along, and just needed some nurturing to reveal itself. In Netflix's disturbing and thought-provoking The Kindergarten Teacher, the title character lives and breathes to provide such inspiration for her students.

Under usual circumstances, this kind of devotion is admirable. What's not are the lines she's willing to cross to provide it, calling into question the very definition of the word "teacher," specifically when their involvement in students' lives starts to become about something other than the kids. Most would agree if there's a clear line, she jumps right over it, resulting in disastrous if not potentially dangerous consequences for those directly involved. It also has a lot to say about the pressures adults put on themselves and how easily they're capable of projecting them onto those least equipped to handle it.

Entrusted with a job requiring almost complete selflessness, she instead disappears into her own mind and insecurities, attempting to rectify her failures through an impressionable child. Using him to fill a seemingly unsatiable void in her life, it plays out like a horror movie with a situation that starts innocently, until escalating enough to where the tension reaches a boiling point.

While it becomes frighteningly apparent just how far this woman can go, we're still not quite sure the distance writer/director Sara Colangelo's script will, or how it can possibly resolve itself without manipulation. And yet it somehow does, in equally observant ways. Nothing that occurs couldn't happen, and it probably has, which only makes it that much more uncomfortable to watch. At its center is a revelatory lead performance from an accomplished but long underrated actress that's a subtle tightrope walk of emotions.

With two decades as an educator already behind her, New York-based kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gylenhaal) is merely going through the motions at home with husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), while barely trying to mask her dissapointment in unambitious teen children Lainie (Daisy Tahan) and Josh (Sam Jules). Determined to become a published poet, she takes night classes, only to find her work routinely picked apart and dismissed by both her peers and their instructor, Simon (Gael García Bernal). Creative salvation soon comes from one of her students, 5 year-old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a child prodigy who's capable of unexpectedly blurting out beautiful poems at will.

Looking to harness and mold Jimmy's untapped potential, Lisa makes him her personal project, rushing for a pen and paper whenever inspiration strikes and even going so far as to actually present his work as her own. The more she smothers him with attention the clearer it becomes that it isn't even really about him anymore. And in trying to "rescue" Jimmy from a passionless world she views as incapable of faciliatating his unique talent, her obsessive mentoring soon crosses into territory from which there's no turning back for either.

Open-hearted, quirky and achingly sincere, Lisa can't seem to comprehend how a child with so much to offer the world isn't being encouraged or intellectually stimulated in any way. But what Colangelo's script (which she based upon the 2014 Israeli film) is good at emphasizing is Lisa's slow-building inability to grasp the reality that this is still a five-year-old we're talking about. He's somewhat shy and withdrawn, but at the end of the day, he just wants to hang out with his friends and and play like all kids his age. It's when she becomes aggressively involved in his home life, making judgments about his frequently absent father (Samrat Chakrabarti) and even the babysitter (Rosa Salazar), that this may be about something else entirely.

Giving her best performance since Secretary, Gyllenhaal plays Lisa as disarmingly normal and competent when we first meet her. Her head may be a bit in the clouds, but we never doubt she's a good teacher, or at least was. It's only when the layers get peeled back with the introduction of this student that she slowly unravels, using him as a vessel to fix what she believes is her own failure of a life. In a memorable scene at home, her daughter even says as much right to her face.

More impressively, Gyllenhaal and young Parker Sevak's scenes manage to find that realistic sweet spot in an extremely disconcerting dynamic that will give all parents another reason to worry about sending their kids off to kindergarten. As Lisa's teacher, Gael García Bernal may not seem to have much of a role, but his character is important in that he's also being manipulated. That he only starts to take both a professional and personal interest in her when she assumes this new persona is further ammunition for Lisa to hate herself more, and double down on the deception. But he's no victim, guilty himself of abusing his position, proving to be in this for more than just the sake of art.      

It takes the characters in the script longer to figure out what's going on than we do, but in this case, that makes sense because it takes a while for Lisa to unravel. Only when Colangelo takes the premise and milks every last minute of queasy suspense from it, do Lisa's intentions and actions arrive at a destination that only in hindsight seems to be the most logical of resolutions. Trapped and with seeimgly no way out, she must come face-to-face with her actions, receiving punishment from the person most affected by them. That even in her lowest, most desperate point, this woman still can't help but teach might be the The Kindergarten Teacher's most powerful and pitifully sad moment. As the true magnitude of her actions settle in, it's a lesson learned too late, but perhaps just in time for those affected by what she's done.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suatamo, Paul Bettany
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Sometimes it pays to go in with reasonably low expectations. Such is the case with Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest in what was planned to be a long line of spin-offs (or "anthology" films) for the franchise, keeping audiences satiated between 2017's The Last Jedi and whatever comes next. Unfortunately, Disney miscalculated just how much recovery time fans would need following that polarizing experience, and despite the enormous success of the previous spin-off, Solo flopped, at least by Star Wars standards. As someone who was never behind the idea of these stand alones (thinking it would lead to oversaturation), but pleasantly surprised by Rogue One, I still entered this with heavy reservations.

From the questionable casting of the younger version of its title character to originally appointed directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller being fired, to hardly a postive word being spoken or written about the project, it really felt safe to assume the worst this time. What I got instead was an extremely enjoyable entry into the franchise's canon, whether taken on its own or compared to the three other entries since Disney bought the property from George Lucas.

While Solo definitely isn't flawless, it's hardly deserving of the vitriole it's received. And if part of that stance truly has to do with expectations, the other half may stem from it just feeling right to get a comparitively low stakes outing after The Last Jedi. That's not to say it's uneventful, but rather all the weight and emotions surrounding Star Wars as a cultural enitity doesn't rest on its shoulders as it did with that film. Even for those who greatly admired what Rian Johnson was trying to do, there's still no denying it's kind of an ordeal. One made by someone who, for better and worse, was ambitious enough put his own stamp on it.

Contrast that with Solo, where Ron Howard is most definitely hired to do a job, a reliable last minute fix due to unforseeable creative issues. He was chosen because he's safe and Disney knew he would deliver a timely, inoffensive, workmanlike piece of mainstream popcorn moviemaking. And you know what? He does. That this a compliment speaks to the film's efficency, immersing us in a simple story that works, sprinkled with familar characters and a consistent tone. The guy knows what he's doing, and after all the thematic heaviness offered up in the franchise, it works as a fun diversion, while peeling back additional layers to the mythology that feel surprisingly organic and necessary.

Taking place ten years prior to the events of A New Hope, a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) flee the planet of Corellia, he escaping on an outgoing transport while she's captured and detained before boarding. Han vows to return to her, but after his expulsion from the Imperial Flight Academy, he falls in with a ragtag group of criminals on Mimban led by smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).

Han soon finds himself recruited by Beckett and his wife Val (Thandie Newton) to join pilot Rio Durant and a Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on a mission to the steal heavily desired hyperspace fuel, coaxium, for scarred Crimson Dawn crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). But when best laid plans disintegrate and Vos threatens their lives, their only chance at survival rests on a dangerous job on the planet Kessel.

Enter smooth-talking, two-faced smuggler and pilot Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), whose reliable Millenium Falcon will provide the means of transportation, while his navigationally gifted droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) rides shotgun. Unfortunately, Han's biggest problem might be Qi'ra, who's now Vos' top lieutenant, and far enough removed from their time together on Corellia to give him pause about where her loyalty lies.     

For all the fuss about Rogue One lacking the legendary opening SW crawl, it's ironically present again here in a film many believe is undeserving of it. It's a small detail to point out (as if there's ever such a thing when talking Star Wars), but a sign that they were positioning this entry to be a big deal, with every intention of having it creatively hold up against the franchise's best. It doesn't, but comes closer than you'd think, while requiring an adjustment in perception in how we view the title character.

Whenever Harrison Ford's performance as Han Solo is discussed by fans, the conversation always comes back to that one scene in The Empire Strikes Back when he's being taken to his carbonite tomb and dryly responding to Leia's sudden declaration of love with a cocky,"I know." For years it's been held up as the ultimate anti-hero move, with Ford's brilliant improvisation exposing Lucas' writing deficiencies. That scene came to stand as the essence of what Solo should stand for and it was understood the actor stepping into Ford's shoes would have to posess that same rebellious charm and sarcastic spirit. In other words, good luck.

The problem with those expectations is that he's not that Han yet. He will be, and the strongest aspect of Solo is how you start to see the blueprint of it through this early adventure, which heavily shapes what he'll later become. For the origin story of Solo, the casting of Ehrenreich works to a certain extent, as he slides deeper into the skin of Han as the film progresses. But the story doesn't ride or die with his performance, and it thankfully isn't another Hayden Christianson situation where the actor isn't only miscast, but wooden, with the material he's given accentuating those weaknesses. 

While the first hour is full of fun little Easter eggs and character cameos and introductions, it isn't until about halfway in where the adventure really starts to rev up. The biggest relief is that the healthy balance of CGI with more practical effects Abrams and team have taken in the new series carries over here. There's a sense of fun surrounding this adventure that not only supplies an entertaining backstory to Han's first encounter with future sidekick Chewbacca, but a rebellious mentor who provides the template for what he'll eventually become, a romance threatened to be torn apart by a formiddable villain, and of course Han's infamous card game with Lando for the Millenium Falcon.

All is of this is solidly presented by Howard, making for an engaging space romp that calls to mind some of the more memorable scenes that took place on that ship and in the Cantina in A New Hope. Everything can't be gloom and doom all the time, so while the action is kept light and the narrative stakes lower than other installments, the thrills come from tracking these previous incarnations of familar characters. It's a small luxury, but one we weren't afforded in Rogue One, which fought and impressively won an uphill creative battle in getting us to care about an entire set of new characters embarking on an ill-fated mission.

While willing to accept a lot of this succeeds despite rather than because of Ehrenreich's performance, the same can't be said of Donald Glover's. On paper, his casting already looked promising, but on screen the Atlanta star becomes Lando, delivering a smooth, comic tour-de-force that's every bit what we've imagined the brash, younger version of the character to be. You can even see shades of Billy Dee Williams in it, as well as an ability to come through in some of the more dramatic moments such as a particularly involving one with an injured L3-37. He and Han's adversarial partnership might be the one big element in this story that successfully tracks with the original films. While I wouldn't go as far as to say it enhances the characters' "later" scenes together in The Empire Strikes Back, it does solidly support them. Even as strange as it is to consider that Ford and Williams were practically as young as Ehrenreich and Glover are now when they filmed them.    

As Qi'ra, Emilia Clarke gamely walks the line between her character's loyalty to Solo and her responsibilties to the sadistic Vos, with whom her survival rests. Originally meant to be depicted as a motion capture alien, they chose the right direction in using a facially scarred Paul Bettany, who has more presence than any technological effect. So does the biggest name in this, Woody Harrelson, who avoids the Samuel L. Jackson trap of making his role feel like a cheap Star Wars celebrity cameo, bringing some much welcome unpredictabilty and zaniness to Beckett.

Toward the third act, the plot takes a few turns that aren't only suprising, but make sense. They also go a long way explaining the type of smuggler and person Han becomes without flat-out explaining it, a flaw that sinks most prequels. There's also a major cameo that adds something and avoids serving as a distraction on the level of Leia's CGI appearence in Rogue One, which became more about technology than story.

In Solo, nearly everything comes down to the story, and one's reaction largely depends on what we wanted to know about the title character's past and how much of what's revealed matches or detracts from the info we already had. Or, more accurately, how pissed off will everyone get?  It's a shame to put it that way, but if The Last Jedi tought us anything, it's that. A closer, more objective look reveals that Howard and writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have a firm grasp on the Solo character, taking the series back to its roots in much the same way the The Force Awakens did. But as we're continuing to learn with this franchise, actual quality can become irrelevant in the face of fans' heightened wishes and desires.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
Running Time: 96 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

As a reality-inspired single location survival story, Adrift makes its biggest mistake in wanting to have its cake and eat it too, jumping between a young romance and harrowing disaster tale, all while making it glaringly obvious which it prefers focusing on. A lot of scenes work when taken separately and each would have made a fine film on its own, but taken together, it comes off as somewhat of a mess.

Hardly helping matters is a plot twist we've seen at least six or seven times before in this genre that sucks out whatever remaining suspense could have been generated from the set-up. But labeling this development "manipulative" almost feels inaccurate, naively implying it comes as any surprise at all. The device has been repeated so frequently we're almost past the point of complaining, and despite a true story at least supporting its inclusion this time, common sense still doesn't.

Even with relatively strong performances from co-leads Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, much of the picture can't help but give off a YA All is Lost vibe, using the same initial premise behind that greatly superior Robert Redford 2013 survival at sea drama to craft a picture that instead shares more similarities with Woodley's own The Fault in our Stars. All is Lost was a movie that was about what it was singularly about and all the more affecting because of it, leading to a open-ended conclusion  that showed respect for its audience and encouraged contemplation.

This treats its survival story as almost window dressing, or a narrative roadblock in the way of the studio reaching their ultimate goal of selling tickets to teens and tweens interested in two attractive young leads staring longingly into each others' eyes. It's not spoiling anything to reveal a rescue eventually comes, or that by the time it arrives the script gets so caught up in the love story that you forget there needs to be one.

It's 1983 when Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) embark on a 6,500 km journey on the yacht "Hazana" from Tahiti to San Diego, sailing directly into the path of Hurricane Raymond. With their boat destroyed and Richard missing, Tami must use her ingenuity and survival instincts to fight off the elements, as well as inevitable starvation and dehydration, while stranded at sea for 41 days. With little hope for rescue, she survives on canned food, builds a makeshift sail and attempts to navigate her way to Hawaii. This ordeal is intercut with flashbacks to her initial meeting with Richard and their developing realtionship, tracing the steps they took that eventually lead to them boarding that boat, a fateful decision that would forever alter both their lives.

Based upon Tami Olham's own autobiographical account of events, "Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea," the film's skillfully edited in hopping between the two timelines in a manner that rarely feels jarring or confusing. Still, you can't help but wonder how this would register if instead of jumping between the disaster and meet cute flashbacks, we were given the linear story told to its conclusion. And that's not because the scenes involving Tami and Richard's relationship are poorly conceived, as many are quietly affecting and even occasionally moving, at least as far as screen romances go. But with time being split with the far more engaging survival-at-sea sequences, everything kind of settles into a predictable rythym, the narrative ambling along with no real forward momentum or tension. It's no sooner than when Tami's fighting to stay alive on the damaged vessel, that we're taken back a few months to Richard serenading her in a resturant. And transitions like those happen a lot. 

While it's easy to appreciate what director Baltasar Kormákur was going for in getting us to care about Tami and Richard's bond (and largely succeeding to an extent), the survival aspect of the film isn't given the breathing room it needs to leave its necessary impact. Part of this could be attributed to the PG-13 rating, which really does feel like a concession in that there's a nagging sense that the studio or filmmakers were holding back in some way, at least compared to other more brutal, harrowing on screen depictions of nautical disaster. It isn't lacking in realism so much as pure intensity, most of which is made up for by Woodley's performance.

As the firecely independent, free-spirited, relentlessly creative protagonist, Woodley's depiction of Tami is what the film really has going for it, her authenticity helping to cover that aforementioned imblance and fluff that exists within the narrative. Claflin's a natural too, but most of the workload falls on her in terms of carrying this through. Woodley's put through the emotional ringer and believable enough that her work walks right up to that line of award-level greatness without ever truly crossing it, if only due to the inherent limitations of a script that's frequently undercutting it.

That Tami's survival instincts almost completely hinging on the affections and support of a man results in an experience that couldn't feel less timely or more regressive given the curent cultural climate. If they goal was to make Adrift a full-fledged love story, maybe they just should have done that since it's nothing incredibly special otherwise. Instead, we're left with two halves of what could have been, struggling to form a cohesive whole.      

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Ozark (Season 1)

Creators: Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams
Starring: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Jason Butler Harner, Esai Morales, Peter Mullan, Lisa Emery, Josh Randall, Harris Yulin, Marc Menchaca, Michael Mosley
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"Breaking Bad with Jason Bateman." That's the one-line description you've probably read in every article and review detailing the first season of Netflix's crime drama, Ozark. And I get it, at least on the surface. A seemingly normal middle-aged man gets sucked into the drug dealing business so he can provide for his family. While all the similarities pretty much begin and end there, if you were to describe and convey the concept behind the series as concisely as possible, it's tough to argue those five words don't do that. It does provide a snapshot that makes it easier to determine whether you're the type of viewer likely to give it a watch. But it's still different enough in both tone and execution that you can easily imagine someone who's neither a fan of Breaking Bad or Bateman still enjoying it. Even if "enjoy" probably isn't the best descriptor given its darkly grim, existential tone.

Netflix's Ozark
Ozark packs a lot of story and characters into a single season and is far messier faster-paced than Breaking Bad, but it all comes together, sprinting to the finish line with a thrilling, if somewhat shocking, conclusion that nicely tops off the season while leaving plenty of runway to keep going. Mostly about a flawed man thrust into extraordinary criminal circumstances from which there's seemingly no escape for him or his family, it's not only the best dramatic showcase yet for actor/producer Bateman (who also directed four episodes), but for a setting that's as much a character as anyone in the narrative. If we are still truly in the era of the "anti-hero," then this is a more than serviceable addition, proving that familiar trope is far from wearing out its welcome.

Bateman plays Chicago-based financial advisor Marty Byrde, who's fallen into a dangerous money laundering scheme with his old college roommate and partner at the firm, fast-talking deal-closer Bruce Liddell (Josh Randall).  When their client, Del (a scary Esai Morales), an enforcer for a top Mexican drug cartel, suspects them of skimming cash and kills Bruce, Marty's forced to relocate to the Missouri Ozarks with his cheating wife Wendy (Laura Linney), 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and 13-year-old son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner).

Under the guise of providing financial support to struggling local businesses, Marty must pay off the debt to Del and continue laundering the cartel's cash if he and his family are to survive. But he also must contend with Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) a local 19-year-old burgeoning criminal looking to secure some of Marty's laundered dough for her trailer park family. As well as Jacob and Darlene Snell (Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery), husband and wife crime lords agitated by him infringing on their territory. Watching it all is undercover FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who's infiltrated the Langmore clan determined to find out what brought Marty Byrde and family to the Ozarks from Chicago after his partner turned up dead. And he suspects the worst.

Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde
The series benefits from having a protagonist we're not exactly sure how to read at first. Upon initially meeting Marty, he appears to be an intelligent, capable financial advisor and family man. And strangely, that perception of him doesn't really waver throughout despite some unimaginably poor and downright dangerous choices that land him in his eventual predicament. It speaks volumes about this guy that within the pilot episode's ("Sugarwood") opening minutes, he appears to be watching porn while meeting with a client, until Bruce slides in and effortlessly closes the deal.

As a "numbers guy" we're led to believe Marty's a poor salesman, and maybe he is, but he'll pull off the ultimate sell job later when his back's against the wall and his life's threatened. And boy does he deliver in that moment. We'll also find out pretty early that the adult entertainment he's pulls up on his laptop isn't for his own satisfaction, but rather footage of his wife Wendy's affair provided to him by a private investigator.

All this merely sets the table, providing the context for a man isn't quite comparable to Walter White. He's doesn't need the respect and adulation of his peers or deem himself a failure, mostly because he isn't. Nor does he get into business with the cartel for the adrenaline thrill. There's no forthcoming "I did it for me" speech in the show's final season, whenever that may come.

Del (Esai Morales) takes aim
Marty made a deal with the devil. Plain and simple. He got into to business with Del because he wanted to make more money to better provide for his family, and in doing so stupidly put them all at risk. And the big difference here is that you believe everything Marty says because he's played by Bateman. We want to take him at face value that he knew nothing of the cash the firm was skimming off Del. That he couldn't be that dumb or careless. And yet Bateman gives him a used car salesman sliminess that hints it's very possible.

These two Martys are on full display early when Del's wrath comes down, disposing of Bruce and leaving the trembling accountant to beg for his life. And in the best acted scene of Bateman's entire career, he spins this surprisingly sound business proposal based entirely off an Ozarks travel brochure that falls out of his pocket.

A more deliberate thinker rather than a fast one, Marty's pitch to Del to spare his life with a gun pointed at his head is a great one borne on the spot from sheer desperation. The entire range of emotions that a defeated, exasperated Bateman takes Marty and the viewer through as he plays his only hand left is nothing short of gripping. We believe such a speech would dig him out, which is just about the highest compliment that can be given to the performance and screenwriters Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams. And that's only the beginning.

The Byrdes discuss their options
Marty's ability to compartmentalize everything in his life comes in handy when he needs to pack up his Chicago-based family and relocate to the Ozarks at literally a moment's notice to make good on his debt to Del. He takes a logical, almost workmanlike approach to uprooting his entire life and existence, as his wife Wendy becoming more financial partner than spouse. It's an arrangement both seem strangely comfortable with, each vaguely masking their mutual contempt for the sake of protecting their family. But they even clash over this, butting heads over how much the kids should be allowed to know about what's happening.

Given her most complex role in years, Linney tackles Wendy with a stubbornness and rigid determination that only increases the deeper she's sinks into Marty's crisis, flipping houses as a realtor and taking advantage of the locals to further facilitate his money laundering. If there are any true victims here, it's the kids, with neither asking for or deserving any of this, as both Charlotte and Jonah's lives are interrupted at particularly crucial stages.

For the angst-ridden Charlotte, whose entire teen life revolves around her friends and phone, the Ozark move represents a social death of sorts, trapping her in a "redneck" environment that couldn't seem further from her relatively privileged existence in Chicago. Since Jonah's younger and still struggling to find an identity, this move causes some of his more eccentric and disturbing tendencies (such as his fascination with dead animals) to surface in uncomfortable ways. also begins to forge a friendship with terminally ill, cranky curmudgeon Buddy Dyker (Harris Yulin), the house's previous owner and current tenant

Greetings from the Missouri Ozarks
Lesser writing would have depicted Charlotte and Jonah as merely spoiled brats, and while Hublitz and Gaertner's introspective, realistic performances go a long way in preventing that, it's also hard not to recognize the toll their parents' choices  have taken on them. Unfortunately, any time either rebels, no matter how justified, it only draws unwanted attention, placing the whole family squarely in Del's cross hairs.

If you're really running with the Breaking Bad comparisons, then Julia Garner's 19-year-old Ruth Langmore would be the Jesse Pinkman to Marty's Walter White. What starts off as the most adversarial of relationships with Ruth stealing Marty's (or rather Del's) money evolves into an unlikely, tenuous business partnership as he provides her opportunities she never knew existed, regardless of his motivations or even hers. Having to fight and claw her way through a rotten life because of incarcerated father Cade (Trevor Long), she's essentially had to babysit two know-nothing uncles, Russ (Marc Menchaca) and Boyd (Christopher James Baker). All while acting as responsible big sister to younger cousins, Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Three (Carson Holmes). The prospect of all this cash represents her only break.

Initially a union built on blackmail and manipulation, it soon becomes clear to both Ruth and Marty they can use one other to reach their desired goals. For the former, it's an influx of funds to rescue her from a dead-end life, while latter senses in his new "employee" a gritty shrewdness that can help him more effectively filter this cash. What's in the way is Ruth's entire family, who simply don't have the intelligence or restraint to be included in any of this.

Marty faces off with Ruth (Julia Garner)
Ruth's turning point comes when she must make the soul-crushing choice between blood relatives and a father figure she never knew she needed in Marty. All this with the sociopathic hand of her real father still strategically trying to control her every move from behind bars. The character's internal complications call on Garner to do a lot in the role and it's impressive just how believably she's able to subtly, and sometimes even not so subtly, convey that struggle depending upon the story's frequently surprising developments.   

Moving at a breakneck pace, the series' biggest joys come in watching Bateman's Marty plot, squirm and scheme on the fly as his options get smaller. And as dark as that sometimes seems, there's also a lot of humor in seeing him attempt to ingratiate himself into this community full of colorful supporting characters, many of whom he's manipulating to launder Del's cash.

In buying a strip club out from under local thug Bobby Dean (Adam Boyer) and financially supporting Rachel Garrison's (Jordana Spiro) Blue Cat Lodge hotel and restaurant, Marty unintentionally rattles the cage of the diabolical Snell family, who have the Ozark market cornered on money laundering, successfully running a heroin distribution ring through an idealistic local riverboat pastor, Mason Young (Michael Mosley). True to form, Marty somehow finds a way to step right in the middle of it.

Jacob Snell (Peter Mullan) stares Marty down
Viewers can both cringe and delight uncomfortably in seeing our exasperated protagonist escape violent, potentially fatal scenarios on his wit alone. And often a lot of luck. He's getting it from all sides, as the Mexican drug cartel, the Snells, the Langmores, and the FBI emerge as simultaneous threats brought upon by his own choices. And Bateman's dry, sarcastic straight man persona been better utilized than when he's attempting to bargain with all of them.

If there's an episode where you can at least momentarily take a breather, it has to be the flashback-centric "Kaleidoscope," which travels to 2007 to give us a glimpse into the lives of the Byrdes before the decision to take Del on as a client destroyed everything. It reveals just enough for us to question the level of blame Marty should be assigned, and just how complicit Wendy was in the initial stages of what then seemed like an exciting, if dangerous business opportunity. Besides shining a light on an incident that became the impetus of their future marital problems, it delves deeper into the somewhat frightening psyche of FBI agent Petty, whose backstory contributes greatly to the unprofessional, sometimes downright illegal, methods he uses to go undercover and immerse himself in the case.

There are points during the season where you think the writers are almost daring you to take what happens seriously, since the unfolding events end up being just so damn fun. And while it still contains many darkly humorous moments, it manages to retain real, escalating stakes and a look and feel that's cold as ice, visually entrenching every frame of the show with enough blue to make Christopher Nolan jealous.
The walls close in on Marty
The show's level of creativity is evident even in the much-discussed opening title card, as four symbols or images (designed by Fred Davis) directly corresponding to that episode's events appear in a giant "O," each spelling out the word "Ozark." On paper, this may seem trivial, but it's ultimately clever foreshadowing that leaves you speculating about how each of the four icons will come into play. Rarely is it a disappointment how they eventually do.

Comparisons to that certain AMC drama with a superficially similar plot were always inevitable, but rather than running from those, Ozark's up to the challenge, gaining its own momentum for reasons that couldn't be further removed from the plot or characters of that series. And it mostly works because of the Emmy-worthy Bateman, whose everyman persona is exploited and challenged in ways we've yet to see until now.

Even with the narrative advantages of Netflix's abbreviated season, there's still the question of how sustainable Ozark can be long-term as it continues to burn through its story at such a rapid rate. Everything catches up with Marty by season's end, as he must decide to flight or fight, struggling to protect his family from the dire situation he's unintentionally trapped them in. With a lot of questions that still need answering, this is one of those shows where you're having too much fun enjoying the ride to even entertain overthinking it.         

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Game Night

Directors: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Getting a big boost from a clever script that takes some unexpectedly twisted and darkly inspired turns, it's unlikely anyone would walk away from Game Night dissatisfied. And that's exactly how it should be. While this doesn't reinvent the comedy wheel, it  accomplishes what few recent comedies have in delivering a fun time without being burdened by qualifiers that it's overlong or makes boneheaded decisions along the way. Carried by a ridiculously talented cast, it takes a reasonably high concept comedic premise and just runs with it, offering the reassurance that everyone involved knows exactly what they're doing. As it turns out, they do.

When super-competitive gamers Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) meet during trivia night at a bar, it's love at first sight, as the two begin dating and then marry, bonding over their shared obsession with winning. This is exemplified by their traditional weekend "game night" with friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and spouses Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Excluded is creepy, socially awkward cop next door, Gary (Jesse Plemons), who's been uninvited from the festivities ever since his wife left him and is desperately looking to get back in. But when Max's extremely successful and charming brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) reappears on the scene, it causes his lifelong feelings of inadequacy (as well as his inability to conceive a child with Annie) to bubble to the surface.

Looking to once again show up Max, Brooks plans to take game night to a whole new level, staging an elaborate interactive role-playing mystery at his new pad that the participants won't soon forget. The winning prize: His Corvette Stingray. But when things get out of hand, and the line separating what's a game and an actual kidnapping starts to blur, the players must band together to save Brooks and somehow find a way to escape with their lives intact.

What makes all of this work is its premise, or rather co-directors John Francis Daley (best known for playing Sam on Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Goldstein's commitment to keeping the characters and viewers in the dark about what's happening. There are moments in the script where you confidently assume the unfolding events have to be "part of the game," yet you're still not completely sure. The uneasiness surrounding that, and each of the major players' reactions to the escalating crisis, permeate every scene, making for some great comedic exchanges.

Each character seems to have a relatable quirk that's exploited with every catastrophe, allowing the night's "mystery" to act as the perfect platform for their faults. The movie wastes no time, from an ingenious board game-style opening credit sequence that lets us know everything about Max and Annie within minutes, leading right into the "game night" concept. He's insecure. She's hyper-competitive. Brooks is an attention whore so in love with himself that this interactive mystery theater could only be his idea. And with the arrival an "FBI Agent" at the door, we're off to the races.

If you're searching for a comedic or dramatic actor who makes everything around him better by simply being there and logically, matter-of-factly existing as a surrogate voice for the audience, few are better than the largely unheralded Jason Bateman. And you could argue none are as reliable, knowing when you see his name atop the credits he'll deliver exactly what you want and expect, regardless of whether the project itself happens to disappoint. And it definitely doesn't here. Of course, the argument against him is that he always plays the same put-upon straight man. Aside from that being entirely disproven with darker turns in The Gift, Disconnect and his recent best ever work in Netflix's Ozark, I'd still argue variations of that lane is all he needs since it's such an easily adaptable one across all genres.

Bateman's normalcy makes those around him seem scarier, funnier and more entertaining than they would have otherwise been opposite someone else. Ceding the spotlight so co-stars can reap the rewards, no one can look as befuddled, grimace in disgust or dryly deliver a sarcastic dig quite like he can. If the quintessential small screen example of his comedic skills are are found in Arrested Development, then Game Night might stand as his best recent big screen offering of it.

Nearly every sub-plot and one-liner lands, logically furthering a plot that's probably better mapped out that it had any right being. While it's arguable the mere casting of Bateman and Chandler as feuding brothers is enough to carry this, it's surprising how many other elements click into place and manage to play just as well. If only occasionally given the chance to show it in other projects, Rachel McAdams can be devastatingly funny when she needs to be and here she's given the opportunity opposite Bateman to utilize that timing. They bounce off each other so well that they're the rare screen couple that are even funnier when they're in total agreement because their personalities are so competitively obnoxious, yet strangely compatible. They play the whole thing straight, forging forward to win despite obvious signs this isn't a game. Or is it? To these two everything may as well be, which make them the perfect victims/players.   

Even running, throwaway gags like Kevin's unhealthy obsession with guessing the identity of Michelle's secret celebrity hookup and the airheaded Ryan wising up and bringing his super-intelligent ringer date, Sarah (Sharon Horgan) into the game, not only provide a decent amount of laughs, but result in extremely satisfying payoffs that enhance the characters. But the character who makes the most impact and sends the the film's entertainment quotient through the roof is Jesse Plemons' creep cop neighbor, Gary, whose obsession with his ex-wife and her "game night" friends make everyone within his vicinity deeply uncomfortable.

Plemons plays this perfectly, which is to say deadly serious, as if he's Hannibal Lecter wondering why no one's invited him to dinner. Just watching the other actors' react to this is a treat in itself, as everything from his stilted body language to monotone delivery imply a complete sociopath. He completely and unflinchingly commits to it, and the film is all the better as a result. While for many there's a certain level of anticipation in seeing Friday Night Lights alum Plemons reunited with Coach Taylor, he and Chandler share maybe about two scenes together. But it's the latter scene in the third act that will grab the most attention because it's just so completely insane. It isn't often you can say you've seen Chandler, Plemons, Bateman and Michael C. Hall all share the screen together at one time and have it exceed even the wildest of expectations.

It's nice to see a comedy that's as smart as the actors appearing in it since the last one to reach that lofty goal was Shane Black's criminally overlooked The Nice Guys. This isn't quite as laugh-out-loud hilarious and subversively clever as that effort, but it succeeds just the same for what it's aiming for. While there likely will be a sequel looming on the horizon, the idea of this concept being expanded isn't something I'd necessarily roll my eyes at provided it's done right and reunites the cast and creative forces that made this work so well. It isn't often you can say a big, mainstream comedy is even worth the trouble of revisiting, but another Game Night actually doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

13 Reasons Why (Season 2)

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Brenda Strong, Jake Weber, Michele Selene Ang, Ajiona Alexus, Sosie Bacon, Steven Weber, Anne Winters, Samantha Logan
Release Date: 2018

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers From the Second Season of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why**

The biggest challenge facing a second season of Netflix's teen suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why was in convincing audiences it's even necessary. That there was more story left to tell when it appeared to have reached a clear, logical conclusion last year with Hannah Baker's suicide. It was a climax we knew was coming, yet the details surrounding it, recorded on 13 tapes that Hanna left behind, provided the structure and substance behind one of the more complex, intelligent depictions of teens in recent series television. And with that came controversy, as the suicide prevention disclaimers that air before and after each episode this season remind us, bookending a brutally honest show that earned its following by not pulling many punches.

While "suicide contagion" is real and even directly referenced and discussed during the season, the need for a content warning does seem to be a greater reflection of our current cultural climate of heightened sensitivity than the actual series itself. It's a safe bet we wouldn't have seen it a decade earlier, and after witnessing what occurs in this season's final episode, I'm not sure it's still entirely due to last season's graphic suicide.

"13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can helps viewers start a conversation. But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. And if you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust, call a local helpline, or go to Because the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier."

So, how do you follow a phenomenon that seems entirely self-contained to a single season, setting up and concluding its narrative within its 13 episodes? Luckily, the first season wasn't merely a one-trick pony, successfully mapping out a universe and developing even its most minor characters well enough that's there's still a surprisingly rich well from which to draw, despite now losing most of Jay Asher's YA novel as its guidepost. And after a slow start that makes you wonder whether the producers were more interested in finding ways to shoehorn Golden Globe nominee Katherine Langford back into the show as Hannah, they somehow manage to deliver a sensational, at times jaw-dropping, sophomore season that not only expands the scope of the series, but effectively continues a story many believe had run its course.

By framing the episodes with individual court testimonies, this season provides bigger acting opportunities to a greater number of its hugely impressive cast, still developing into an essential next chapter minus Hannah's tapes or even a particularly sympathetic protagonist. It also benefits from being timelier than its preceding season, tackling more than teen suicide and diving head first into controversial, hot button currently issues facing schools and society as a whole. Everything doesn't work, but with creator Brian Yorkey attempting so much, that was almost inevitable. And while I'm still not sure I'm on board with Netflix's campaign to reframe the completely fictional series as some kind of teaching tool for teens (complete with an accompanying "Beyond The Reasons" special with licensed psychologists), the final result speaks for itself, at least as far as its ability to entertain.

Justin Prentice as serial rapist Bryce Walker
Sometimes just honestly depicting serious issues on screen with raw, believable performances and strong writing is enough. And in the case of this second season, it's more than enough, justifying its existence by confronting rape, suicide, sexual abuse, drug abuse, male privilege, bullying, homophobia, slut shaming, vandalism, racism and school shootings head-on. Is it over-the-top? Maybe, but good luck trying to look away or dismiss the discussions sure to emerge from it.

With Hannah Baker (Langford) now gone and her 13 tapes heard by its intended audience, focus shifts to the court case brought against Liberty High by her grieving, now separated parents Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Andy (Brian d'Arcy James) as well as Clay's (Dylan Minette) attempts to move on following the loss of the best friend he considered the love of his life. But he's not having much luck, talking to hallucinations of Hannah as he reaches his psychological breaking point, consumed with proving popular, privileged baseball captain Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) raped her and exposing a toxic culture of abuse and faculty negligence at Liberty.

Clay will not only have to battle against a legal defense strategy painting Hannah as a slut and a school staff looking to cover their tracks, but enlist the help of the returning Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), who herself was raped by Bryce while her boyfriend and Bryce's best bud, Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) did nothing. Getting her to speak openly about what happened on the stand and tracking down a now homeless, guilt-ridden Justin become Clay's chief objectives, and while good friend Tony (Christian Navarro) tries to help, he's busy struggling with anger management issues of his own.

Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) drowns out the pain
Returning to Liberty with ex-girlfriend Jessica is Alex Standall (Miles Heizer), whose attempted suicide over the pain both caused Hannah has left him physically and emotionally broken, leaning on an unlikely ally for support in kindhearted jock Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler).  One-by-one witnesses take the stand, as new details about Hannah's relationships with each of them that aren't found on the tapes start to surface. As  the true severity of this school's problems are revealed, the battle lines are drawn, with Bryce and his boys willing to do anything to exact revenge on those testifying.

Sick of it all is social outcast, sometimes "peeping tom," Tyler Down (Devin Druid), a bullying target who turns to the rebellious Cyrus (Bryce Cass) for help in striking back. And for guidance counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), the guilt of having routinely dismissed Hannah's cries for help has inspired him to take action like never before, possibly to his own detriment. With tensions reaching their boiling point, it's clear that while Hannah's no longer alive, the underlying causes of her problems are still very prevalent at Liberty.

We should probably breathe a sigh of relief that the writers didn't pull out another batch of 13 more tapes in order to artificially continue Hannah's story. Having each of the witnesses take the stand as previously unseen bits and pieces of their relationship with Hannah unfold works really well, as does this shift of narration from her voice to theirs, leaving us constantly wondering just how reliable their accounts are. And since there's more to her life than was heard through the tapes, it doesn't feel cheap or manipulative that we're now privy to information that wasn't previously accessible.

Clay converses with Ghost Hannah
All this new info angers an already tortured Clay, who listens to painful details about Hannah that not only shatter his idealized image of her, but present her actions and choices in a horrible light. Of course, this is the cornerstone of the defense's case, as they attempt to prove it was a reckless lifestyle full of promiscuity that led her to take her own life rather than the school ignoring or dismissing clear warning signs. If she seems to be the one on trial here, that's exactly the point.

A less effective use of Hannah, or rather Clay's memory of her, is as a ghost with whom he has  frequently heated discussions and arguments. That, and his new doomed relationship with tattooed  barista and estranged childhood friend Skye (Sosie Bacon) comprise some early episode lowlights until the season finds its groove shortly thereafter. The former device starts to make more sense as Clay's psyche further unravels under all the stress of the trial while the latter subplot disappears entirely, replaced with an unlikely bromance that proves to be one of the show's biggest rewards. Those creative hiccups and a bewildering subplot involving Olivia's friendship with an anti-bullying advocate (played by Kelli O'Hara) that seems to go nowhere is all that doesn't really work in these otherwise satisfying and ambitious 13 episodes.

What's conveyed exceptionally is just how hard it is for a rape victim to come forward, regardless of the circumstances or how much or little of a support system they have. The idea that the victim is actually raped twice, once by the perpetrator and again by the legal system and court of public opinion is agonizingly depicted as Jessica must return to Liberty and walk the same halls as her assailant, while Hannah, even in death, is continuously stripped of her dignity in a courtroom because she supposedly "wanted it."

Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) takes the stand
The show would seem to be preaching if it didn't sketch its characters with such depth and so viscerally convey the true extent of complicity that makes any kind of justice for these victims impossible  No one wants to rock the boat and are willing to sweep anything under the rug when the careers and reputations of the school's faculty are on the line. And that's emblematic of this entire season, as kids continue suffering because of either a broken system or apathetic adults determined to maintain the status quo.

The privileged existence of Bryce Walker (who Justin Prentice plays with a terrifying smugness) contaminates everything around him, his popularity and family connections helping to protect a culture of rape and bullying that's become accepted as the norm. And the jocks follow him like sheep, covering his tracks even while we learn just how prevalent and far-reaching his crimes are. It even engulfs his new girlfriend, the almost equally popular Chlöe (Anne Winters), who remains in the dark and eventually in denial about who she's really with. When confronted with indisputable evidence, we're reminded yet again why so many rapists go free, as even those with the strength to come forward always end up sacrificing the most in the process.

One of the season's more cleverly constructed devices involves Bryce's secret "Clubhouse," where damning Polaroid photographs take the place of Hannah's cassette tapes as this season's retro tech smoking gun, providing evidence of his and the team's sexual assaults. Clay and company being able to obtain that evidence and get it into court will prove to be one of their biggest challenges.

Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) returns to Liberty High
One of Bryce's most loyal followers was troubled childhood friend, Justin, but as his disappearance and subsequent descent into addiction prove, he can no longer bare the burden of having done nothing to help Jessica. Much of the season revolves around Clay bringing Justin back to testify, and the roadblocks preventing it. Justin's emotional instability tops the list, while also leading to one of the more unlikely, genuine friendships of the series with him and polar opposite Clay. And to a lesser extent, even his relationship with the Jensens (Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton) who, along with the rest of the parents, seem more actively involved this time around.

If many of the supporting characters benefit from Hannah and Clay ceding their spotlight within this new storytelling structure, so too do the actors playing them. While Katherine Langford was heralded as the show's breakout star with her turbulent, controversial role, you could easily argue Alisha Boe continues to evolve as the show's strongest acting presence, as Jessica's fight with PTSD is brought to the surface with the pressure to out Bryce as her rapist. One of the season's powerful moments comes when she realizes that if white, girl-next-door Hannah's reputation is being dragged through the mud in court, what could happen to her, as a black girl, if she chooses to come forward?

Brandon Flynn does equally powerful work as Justin, plumbing the depths as a heroine addict with a toxic family life who leaves all traces of his former popularity alongside Bryce behind, determined to do right by Jessica, even if he destroys himself in the process. Physically, Miles Heizer's Alex is in the worst shape of all, having survived his suicide attempt only to discover the broken pieces of himself he's left for both friends and family. Barely able to walk and isolating those closest to him out of pride, his extensive memory loss limits any potentially meaningful contributions he could make in the court case.

Mr. Porter threatens Bryce
The only adult who senses the full gravity of the situation and is actively attempting to make a difference in these teens' lives is embattled guidance counselor Kevin Porter, who's torn apart by the guilt he could have done more to help Hannah when she came to his office. Derek Luke really nails the role, infusing one of last season's more frustrating, one-dimensional characters with a renewed moral compass, wrestling with the realization he's on the wrong end of this case, defending a school system that didn't do enough.

Realizing his days at Liberty are numbered and determined to clean up the school with his own form of vigilante heroics, it's clear he stopped caring about consequences a while ago, pissing off the apathetic principal and doing everything he can to take down the Bryce and his cronies. It's kind of thrilling to watch, especially his big moment of truth on the stand, which reveals what happened to Hannah was as much the school's responsibility as his, failing to provide the tools and training necessary for him to effectively do his job.

From the very start, you can almost sense these episodes heading in an ugly direction that will elicit more debate and controversy. You can argue it started at the end of last season when Devin Druid's Tyler revealed a chest full of automatic weaponry and ammunition that uncomfortably invoked everyone's worst recollections of Columbine's Harris and Klebold. We eventually see the chest again, but it's the inciting series of events surrounding Tyler throughout the season that makes its reappearance so terrifying. While the yearbook photographer was established as an eccentric loner from the series' start, harboring an unhealthy, potentially stalkerish obsession with Hannah, a dangerous combination of chronic insecurity and mistreatment soon lead Tyler down an even darker path.

Tyler Down (Devin Druid) hits rock-bottom
The Emmy-worthy Druid might have the toughest role of any actor in the cast since it isn't often we're unknowingly given a 26-episode glimpse into what both makes up and creates a school shooter. He gives us clues both subtle and obvious, until the subtlety ends and we're just left with a bathroom assault scene that rivals Hannah's suicide for sheer emotional terror.

It isn't the scene's violence that gets to to us as much as Tyler's desperation, attempting and failing to utilize the tools he was told would help him improve as a person. It seems that every time he comes close to a breakthrough, he sabotages himself. This time he didn't and actually tried to do the right thing, only to receive the worst, most humiliating punishment imaginable for his efforts. And that's what sends him over the edge.

It's natural to understand critics' and audiences' discomfort with the season-closing arc, which pushes us to feel empathy for someone we suspect is about to commit an unthinkably evil act. But there's no denying that the writers and Druid's performance attach a very specific, slow burning "how," "why," "where" "when" to it, which is far more than can be said for most depictions of senseless violence on screen. That it never gets that far only seemed to increase the criticisms, with many accusing the show of using a potential school shooting situation as cliffhanger bait. But that's missing the point.

That it's Clay, still traumatized from his inability to prevent Hannah from taking her own life, who ends up talking down Tyler makes a lot of sense since they always seemed cut from a similar cloth in how they handle perceived injustices. And anyone who thinks the show's endorsing the idea of confronting active shooter probably shouldn't be watching. This isn't a school safety training video. It's a drama that's only obligation is to its story and characters. That Netflix hasn't buckled under the pressure of politically correct resistance has served the series well, continually keeping its emotions grounded in reality, regardless of how heightened the circumstances become. 

Clay speaks at Hannah's memorial
The Hannah Baker suicide is undoubtedly put to bed in the final, powerful episode of the season, as it should be. While it's inaccurate to say that the single inciting event that most impacted and shaped all these characters and their stories could ever truly go away, it was admittedly a little awkward to have Hannah's (or rather Katherine Langford's) physical presence still occupying such a huge chunk of the series. If Clay is to continue being the show's anchor, she has to be completely gone, especially since so many of the supporting players have been developed to the point that this now revolves around them. Plus, her story's over, as Clay clearly found his own type of painful closure both at the school dance and her memorial service.

While this season wasn't as clearly defined as it's last and even a little messier, the 13 Reasons is in no need of any type of creative rehabilitation and calls for a return to first season form are not only needlessly premature, but sort of ridiculous when you consider how many more moving parts it now has. If the series has supposedly stirred up all this outrage, it's brought to the forefront just as many necessary conversations, whether people are ready to have them or not. For a show everyone claims to hate, it's sure giving us a lot to consider.