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.