Wednesday, September 20, 2017

American Assassin: A Review


There are certain things I must say first before I give an honest view of American Assassin, the first film adaptation of  the late Vince Flynn's MITCH RAPP series of spy thrillers.  First, I don't like MITCH RAPP as written by Flynn, who sadly died at the young age of 47 of prostate cancer.  Having read both American Assassin and Act of Treason, I found MITCH RAPP to be one of the coldest, most uninteresting characters committed to paper.  He has nothing to him: no real passions, no real joys, nothing that would mark him as remotely human.

That has always been my issue with MITCH RAPP as written by Flynn, an author I do respect for creating well-paced stories with good, solid twists in them.  MITCH RAPP was always an aloof figure, terribly inhuman.  The film adaptation of American Assassin does not humanize him, but even with own issues with the character, he deserved better than this misfire.

In case you were wondering, I type it as MITCH RAPP because he is such a staccato character: short-tempered, blunt, generally monosyllabic down to his name.  I'll retire that for the plot summary.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) has just proposed to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on the sunny coast of Spain when terrorists storm the beach and start killing people, including Katrina.  18 months after the attack, Rapp is a dissolute young man with a lot of anger issues.  He beats people with far too much strength at his MMA classes, he throws knives at his apartment at pictures of the terrorists who killed his beloved, and somehow, despite being pretty much bonkers he manages to convince those same terrorists that he is a willing member of their jihad.

Exactly how this guy manages to infiltrate their online cell while being able to type in Arabic the film does not answer (and yes, it is possible he knew Arabic prior to that fateful sojourn in Spain, but it is stretching things to think so).

Anyway, he manages to get to Libya where he meets up with that cell, but before he is offed the Americans come to spoil his carefully laid out plans.  After his capture, he is taken to Deputy CIA Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who sees in Rapp a potential recruit to do secret anti-terrorism operations.  Thus she sends him for training (or in Rapp's case, a refresher course) to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a weather-worn ex-Marine whose job it is to train these secret soldiers.

Hurley dislikes Rapp from the word 'go', but he also sees the promise within, if only Rapp would stop treating everything as a prelude to enacting revenge.  Kennedy then throws Hurley, Rapp, and Victor (Scott Atkins) another of Hurley's trainees, into their mission: to recover weapons-grade plutonium apparently sought out by Iranians bent on Israel's destruction.

It's off to Istanbul, where with the aid of Annika (Shiva Negar), an agent for the U.S., they are to get the plutonium.  However, the mysterious figure known as 'Ghost' is on to them, killing Victor as he makes his getaway when making the sale.  Rapp, as is his want, disobeys orders to pursue the Turk involved in this nefarious scheme.  It leads to Rapp managing to climb five floors from the outside, kill the Turk's mistress and guard before killing the Turk.

Hurley is incensed, but Kennedy points out Rapp did get a laptop that gives them information which sweeps them to Rome.  There, we find that Ghost is going to make the sale, but first needs a physicist to help with the weapon.  It's also here that we find Annika is really a double agent...and the niece of Hurley's Iranian counterpart, who himself is assassinated.

It's now a race to get to Ghost and stop him from selling the weapon, but as it turns out, 'Ghost' (Taylor Kitsch) has an agenda of his own.  It's once again up to Mitch Rapp to stop Ghost and save the world, or at least in this case, the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Perhaps my dislike or rather disappointment with American Assassin is that in this case, I did read the Vince Flynn novel before the movie was made.  As such, I don't understand two aspects of the adaptation.  One, why did the producers find it necessary to have four people adapt the novel?  Two and more important, why did the producers make so many changes to American Assassin as to render it almost unfaithful to both the spirit and the letter of Flynn's origin story to MITCH RAPP (the novel having been written long after Flynn introduced the character)?

In the original novel, MITCH RAPP was a bright Syracuse University student with great athletic skills in lacrosse whose fiancee was murdered in the Pan Am 103 bombing.  As such, he was exceptionally bright, physically strong, and highly motivated by both emotion and patriotism.  As a side note, this might be the only time that I can remember MITCH RAPP having any kind of emotion, but I digress.

The novel also has MITCH RAPP ending his first mission not in Rome, but in the Middle East (Lebanon if memory serves correct, though I won't vouch for that).  He was taking out terrorists, and they weren't Americans, let alone Americans with revenge motivations against Hurley.

In short, I think the changes made to American Assassin from book to screen were so great as to water down the film and make it less than what it could have been if they had stuck closer to the novel.  I figure only those who read the novel would notice; however, in attempting to make it more 'accessible' to those who didn't/hadn't read the novel it took out what made the original a strong thriller.

By making a lot of cliched choices (the 'revenge' motive, using 'Ghost' as an alias when that was the term Hurley used to describe agents killed or captured in the line of duty, throwing in a beautiful femme fatale when MITCH RAPP apparently has little to no desires for pleasures of the flesh or even friendship), it ironically stripped American Assassin from its base and turned it into a substandard action film.

I can't generally fault the casting, though I confess that Adkins, who is killed off quickly and whose name I learned only after he was killed, fit my idea of what MITCH RAPP would look like, more than the muscular but thin O'Brien.  I always pictured MITCH RAPP as square-jawed, muscular, with crisp hair...a bit like Vince Flynn  himself.  Dylan O'Brien, with his facial hair and unkempt hair, was not whom I imagined whenever I read either of the MITCH RAPP books.

It isn't as if O'Brien gave a bad performance.  He's a talented actor who can handle action (The Maze Runner series) though even for an origin film he still looks a bit too young.  Whatever his merits as an actor, the script does him no favors as this version of MITCH RAPP has him come across as genuinely nuts versus the cold straight-shooter who takes nothing from no one and does what he thinks needs doing.

As a side note, that aspect of both American Assassin and the MITCH RAPP series never sat right with me.  Again and again MITCH RAPP would disobey orders and do something that would anger his superiors only to get no reprimand because his actions, as legally dubious or unauthorized were, inevitably gave results.

A major sin is in how it misuses or underuses several actors.  If your film has the benefit of someone like David Suchet, why relegate him to a few scenes?  Same goes for Lathan, who like Suchet appears to have been directed by Michael Cuesta to do little more than look worried or snap at someone.

Another side note: Irene Kennedy knows about MITCH RAPP coming in contact with this terrorist cell, which the CIA has been unable to crack, down to monitoring him with hidden cameras at MITCH RAPP's apartment.  Apart from the wild idea that a civilian could do something the CIA with all its resources couldn't, why Kennedy would let such a loose cannon as MITCH RAPP continue to run roughshod over everything and everyone is never explained.  At least in the novel, she has been observing him while he was a student at Syracuse, which is more logical that the film.

Keaton is swallowing his scenes whole as Hurley, and poor Kitsch (who in another world might have been a better version of the young MITCH RAPP) is stuck doing his version of a low-rent James Bond villain (as if he were the younger American cousin to Christoph Waltz's Blofeld from SPECTRE).

There are good things in American Assassin that might have made it passable: a training sequence involving holograms in particular was a standout.  It's unfortunate though that so much of American Assassin was wasted on a variation of MITCH RAPP.  Rather than the cold, ruthless man with a mission, American Assassin served up a variation of Jason Bourne who is slightly if not totally bonkers and emotionally compromised at every turn.  In the novels, perhaps you can cheer on someone like MITCH RAPP, who gets the job done and never wavers from it even if reason or emotion would suggest otherwise.  In this film, it is harder to cheer on someone who lives up to what Hurley tells him, "You follow orders when it suits you," showing someone more arrogant and reckless than determined.

It is possible a series might be squeaked out by American Assassin, but it needs newer production standards and more faithfulness to the Flynn novels, or we might find this hoped-for franchised is all MITCH RAPP-ed up.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Work: A Review


The Work is an extraordinary film, forcing the viewer to question their ideas of who and what criminals are, what masculinity is, and the ideas of rehabilitation versus incarceration.  It does not shy away from the unsavory aspects of crime and punishment, as well as vulnerable men, something that even now is seen as an oxymoron. Co-directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous,  The Work holds you, makes no statements about what the viewer should think about what the viewer sees, but it gives one pause to ask themselves questions about how they would react and be in similar circumstances.

The Inside Circle Foundation conducts group therapy sessions for convicted men. Twice a year the public is invited to join a four-day intensive group therapy session at Folsom State Prison (the one made famous by the Johnny Cash song).  The Work chronicles one such session, focusing on three men 'on the outside': Charles, a bartender, Chris, a museum associate, and Brian, a teacher's assistant. They go in to the prison where they are grouped with men serving time for various crimes from kidnapping to attempted murder.

The convicts agree to leave any and all gang politics and racial segregation outside the sessions.  This affords them a chance to work together in delving into their deepest, most personal issues.  Those on the outside also participate, informally joining with two prisoners they choose with whom they will share their feelings, hurts, and pain.  This smaller group will in turn join a slightly larger group with facilitators who will guide the convicts and free men to open up about all their emotional issues and scars.

During the four days of therapy, both the convicts and free men open up in unsparing, painful ways about their emotions, raw and uncensored.  We see convicts openly weep for their dead sisters and howl in pain about the absence of their fathers (a recurring theme for most if not all the men was either the total absence of their father or the failure of their fathers to be guides in some way).  Both the convicts and free men reveal their innermost emotions in terms that prove shocking and surprising.

After the four days of emotional soul-baring, the free men return to society, more aware of who they are, while those on the inside continue to heal.  The Work ends by noting that in the 17 years the Inside Circle Foundation has been running their program, over 40 convicts who have participated have been released.

Their recidivism rate?


The Work will shock those who have preconceived notions about men in general and convicts in specific.  The notion that someone like the Native American prisoner Dark Cloud, who openly talks about almost chopping a man in half, sobbing uncontrollably over leaving his mother for his father who was no good for him, leaves one almost in disbelief.

While he wants to be vulnerable (his words), at one point he lunges at Brian when he whispers that Dark Cloud is 'gentle' with only the other men holding him back saving Brian.  The inner struggle the convicts have and how they can be so open in a place where emotion is seen as weakness is perhaps startling but also courageous.

Again and we see how for many if not all the men, free and convicted, their fathers are a specter hanging over their lives.  Brian, who says that one of his issues is being quick to judge and has issues when it comes to perceived disrespect, shocks the viewer when he admits he wants to kill when he feels disrespected.  At a certain point, he too becomes so physical that at least seven of these hardened criminals have to hold him down to stop him from doing violence to others or himself.

And he's one of the ones on the outside.

Not that The Work is all somber and dour.  These men can have moments of levity.  After Brian is calmed, it's noted that he got a cut on his forehead.  Someone mentions that he can now tell people he got that injury in a prison fight at Folsom Prison, causing everyone, even Brian, to burst out into laughter. Those moments, however, are few, for The Work is as intense as the therapy sessions the viewer sees.

The rawness, the emotional impact of the film never wavers.

I think the power of The Work comes from the fact that again, it challenges many ideas.  For those who don't know anyone in prison, it is easy to dismiss them as unrepentant, uncaring, unfeeling individuals, even 'non-persons' who are either evil or stupid.  The Work forces the viewer to see that despite having been affiliated with the Bloods, the Crypts, the Aryan Nation, or even other racial prison gangs like The Skins (for Native Americans) or The Others (Pacific Islanders), these men are also sons, husbands, and fathers.  They are individuals with pasts, with hurts, with their own baggage that is doubled by the fact that some may never leave the prison except in a coffin.

As easy it is to dismiss convicts, some of whom committed shocking crimes, as 'out of sight, out of mind', we see that they are also wounded souls; we see them as individuals like you and me, who through their own actions and the actions of others ended up in a place that should be one of total despair, but where they found hope and perhaps emotional peace.

The Work also makes one question preconceived notions of masculinity.  Even in our more open society, men are still expected to be stoic, to not cry, to not show emotion, to keep things within. However, many men, especially fatherless men, have a great wound within them that society does not allow them to show.

The theme of fatherlessness appears over and over again, the specter of absent or disengaged fathers shaping so many of these men.  Near the end of The Work, one talks about doing this for 'the fatherless sons', mentioning how he was a fatherless son, his father was a fatherless son, his grandfather was a fatherless son, and his own son is growing up a fatherless son.  The cycle impacts all the men on the inside and out, and it is something that gives the viewer pause to think.

Over and over we see men sob and wail uncontrollably, their rage and hurt openly expressed.  Even Chris, who said on Day One that he wasn't going to cry or couldn't really relate to the men, ended up in tears when he forced himself to think on his own father.

Chris' father, unlike some of the others like Charles, didn't physically abandon him or failed to provide.  He might even have shown more love than some of the other men's fathers. However, Chris has been directional-less for many years, unsure about what to do with his life.  Near the end, he tells of how on many occasions as a child he wanted to help his father do something like fix the car.  His father would ask Chris for a tool of some kind, but Chris kept bringing the wrong one because he didn't know which one was which.  His dad, finally flustered, told him to just go inside with his mother and he would take care of it.

While to some this comment would be innocuous, to Chris it shaped in him the idea of a lack of worth, of rejection, of not being good.  The Work shows how the other men metaphorically block him from his 'father', who keeps telling Chris to go back into the house to his mother.  It's up to Chris to metaphorically 'break on through to the other side' and reach his father.

The Work hits one emotionally, and what is interesting is that while it does not walk away from the men's actions that brought them there, it does not dwell on them as 'criminals' but as men, wounded men.  It might be tempting to dismiss the work of the Inside Circle Foundation as a lot of New Age hippie-drippy nonsense, healing convicts with candles and a good cry.

As a side note, it does bring to mind a short-lived moment where men would go into the woods, beat drums and howl uncontrollably.  Most people mocked such behavior, but it does feed into the ideas of 'masculinity' that The Work challenges.  The film shows that both those on the inside and outside can  have emotional issues that incarceration does not heal, and which in the end does not help if and when they are released into a society that thinks little to nothing of them.

If one dismisses the work done in The Work, it shows that a certain mindset has set in, which is unfortunate.  Yes, the notion of one of the founders doing some kind of chant with a response, the lighting of candles, sharing various 'daddy issues' or playing a little Music From the Hearts of Space may look bizarre, even laughable.  However, the fact that the Inside Circle Foundation has had a 100% success rate in making the former convicts into members of society shows that perhaps a little group therapy goes a long way.

It would have been nice to have seen some of those who have left prison after they had done 'the work' (maybe a sequel?) and/or seen how Charles, Chris and Brian are doing or how the came to be part of the program.  However, those are minor points in an extraordinary film.

I admit I would be terrified to go into Folsom Prison, let alone pick two convicts to share my deepest emotional issues with (and that's considering I worked in a parole/probation violators center).  However, The Work, in a gripping and powerful way, brings a much-needed human face to those incarcerated.  It is perhaps strange, but also deeply moving, to see these men break down and admit vulnerability.

At a time when prison and criminal justice reform is one of the few issues to find bipartisan support, The Work is an invaluable documentary to show that for too long we have focused on incarceration and not rehabilitation.  Prison was meant for both punishment and reflection, and for too long the focus has been on the former at the expense of the latter.  The Work demonstrates that we should look at both sides and forces us to see men in prison as something people often don't see them as: human. Those on the inside and outside need encouragement, and The Work may turn minds and hearts just as the program has done for those who participate in it.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Gotham: The Complete Third Season Review


At last it looks like the promise that Gotham made at the beginning, that we would not see Bruce Wayne become Batman until the series finale, is if not actually broken at least then slightly altered.  We may not see Wayne don the cowl of The Dark Knight, but for all intents and purposes he is deep into becoming Batman.

It does make one wonder why Gotham didn't just start out being Wayne-centered rather than Gordon-centered.  Making Gordon the central character does make it look a bit like we had to throw in the future villains of Penguin, Riddler, and Mr. Freeze, all of whom are old enough to be Wayne's father.  Even Poison Ivy needed a little more upgrade to be closer to Gordon's age than Bruce's age (and that's considering she started out younger than Wayne when we saw her first).

Some things Gotham simply couldn't do.  They couldn't make Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman and Batman's frenemy/love interest, older.  They couldn't make Jerome Valeska, the (more than likely) future Joker that much older.  Given that Joker and Batman are the primary villain/hero combination, they had to be something like contemporaries.

As a side note, I understand people are working on a Joker origins story.  Why bother, when Gotham has given him a strong one already?

As I take a last look at Season Three before Season Four begins, there are things to admire, things to criticize.  In the former, we have a tighter focus on storylines.  Especially in Season One, things, while good, seemed to be all over the place, with 'freak of the week' stories.  Now, we have a more steady stream where Point A leads to Point B and so on.  Sometimes those storylines do feel like they are dragging, but given there are twenty-two episodes to fill, we can cut them some slack.

Another positive is the performances.  Out of all the actors and actresses on Gotham, I think the best one is David Mazouz as Young Master Bruce.  Especially in Season One, when they were determined to get their Gordon-centered show, Mazouz and Wayne seemed like they were irrelevant.  Now, Mazouz has become a bigger, better player in the goings-on in Gotham (even if he has a strange habit of getting himself kidnapped: thrice at least, once by the Mad Monks of Galavan, once by Jerome, and once by the henchmen of Ra's al Ghoul).

More on that later.

Mazouz this season not only had to play Bruce Wayne, but his doppelganger.  In other hands, this could have come off as almost camp or parody, but Mazouz did such an incredible job, changing his voice and manner to where the whole thing is believable.  Mazouz started out with a weak child in Bruce, which is what he was: he saw his parents get blown away.  Now he makes Wayne a growing man: strong, determined to fight his path in life.

Mazouz is matched by Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle.  Gone are the trappings of calling her 'Cat' or making obvious references to her future role as the conflicted, complex Catwoman.  She, like Mazouz, has given a deeper, more complex and nuanced portrayal.  We see the genuine hurt and sadness within, hidden by the tough exterior.

Whenever these two get together on screen, it becomes an acting dance, seeing two people work so well on screen.

They manage to outshine a good number of the adults, no small feat given that we now have the double-act of Cory Michael Smith and Robin Lord Taylor as Edward Nygma and Oswald Cobblepot respectively, better known by their nom de guerre The Riddler and The Penguin.  I know a few have not been pleased by making the Penguin gay and having him fall in love with the very heterosexual Riddler (to where Penguin had the Vertigo-like romance of Ed's killed).

Let me discuss that a bit.  I'm not such a puritan for Canon that I go all to pieces at the thought of a gay Penguin.  I do, however, think that if you are going to have a gay character, especially a major character, just to have a gay character, just to have 'representation', then that isn't a good reason to have that character be gay.

I've seen this on Doctor Who, where the Companion Bill Potts either mentioned she was a lesbian or her sexual orientation was referenced in 5 out of 12 episodes, and where the main character of The Doctor was changed from male to female 'because it's time we had a female Doctor'.  Representation to have representation gets you only so far.  A character's being eventually has to be more.  You have to have a full person, not just 'the gay person', the 'Asian' or 'Hispanic' person.  A person's sexuality and ethnicity is an important part of who they are, but it can't be all they are.

Nothing on Gotham suggested that Penguin, to quote Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, just 'went gay all of a sudden'.  He never had any romantic or sexual desires shown or mentioned on screen.  As such, he never can be accused of being 'outed' when he was never in or out: his sexual desires, if any, were never brought up.  If anyone could be gay, it could be him.

However, as much as people may celebrate this openness, with reason, we do draw from stereotypes in how Penguin is gay.  He was excessively attached to his mother, down to having her bathe him.  He could be violent, but he also could be extremely weak.  He also went gaga over someone who had never given him the time of day when, as the Master of the Criminal Underworld, there could have been a cacophony of young men to satisfy any sexual urges he never acknowledged openly or showed.

That's the curious thing about Pengy: we never did see him express or show any kind of sexual or romantic desires towards anyone, so now he suddenly loses his mind over someone he knows is totally straight (as far as I can tell, Nygma has never given a clue that he is anything other than straight, let alone bisexual).  If this was a way to make Penguin essentially come out, it seems to me a bit clumsy.  Why not introduce a character who could reciprocate Penguin's love or sexual desire?

It also isn't as if Gotham was starving for gay characters.  We have Barbara Kean and Tabitha Galavan. They form perhaps the strangest love triangle, with Tabby playing with both Bonkers Babs and the very heterosexual Butch Gilzean.  Is it me, or does our wicked pair have their own baggage: the stereotype of the crazed, criminal lesbian?

It's a bit hard to know exactly what Babs is sexually speaking.  In Season One she seemed content with Jim, down to being catatonic, although she had same-sex urges and cheated on Jim with another woman, Detective Montoya.  Once she's unleashed, she goes full lesbian with Tabitha, for as far as I remember she never did have any other relationships, unless you count taunting Jim and going so far as to abducting him for some unhinged white wedding.

I don't think Bonkers Babs was bisexual.  I think she was a lesbian who was obsessed with Jim Gordon, and one can be obsessed with someone without being sexually attracted to him.

To wrap up this side turn, despite their best and commendable efforts it looks a bit like Gotham is relying on stereotypes for their gay characters: for men, the mother-dominated, weak figures, for women, the crazed, criminal figures.  It will be interesting to see where and how things develop.  

In the negative side, sometimes things on Gotham can be a bit repetitive.  There's the aforementioned 'Bruce gets abducted' bit.  Then there's the constant barrage of attacks at the Gotham City Police Headquarters.  The GCPD HQ has been attacked at least four times (the Maniax, the Electrocutioner, the Executioner, and the Mad Monks of Galavan).  You'd think the GCPD would learn by now that it is highly under-protected.  

On a more serious note, one thing that continues to bother me, to trouble me, and to make me wary about Gotham is the extreme level of violence on the show.  We've seen stabbings, beheadings, people shot point blank, blood everywhere, people having their faces removed and then stapled back.  I understand there has to be some level of violence on a show like Gotham, that takes place in a world overrun with darkness and crime.

However, at times they go too far for my point of view.  Some of the beheadings, particularly a dock worker, to me was almost-ISIS like in both its graphic nature and delight in sadism.  Alice Tetch's death by being impaled was similarly gruesome.  Some of the violence, though perhaps not as graphic (such as when Kathryn gets stabbed in the hand and shortly after beheaded), is still highly disturbing to me.

Gotham sometimes goes overboard with how much it shows.  This has been a continuing problem, especially since when we saw a person literally explode.  I hope and urge Gotham to pull back from how it depicts the violence.  Sometimes less is more, and leaving things to the imagination works better versus showing us heads rolling or getting lopped off in really brutal ways.

Gotham Season Four has been highly successful in shaping the Batman mythos to new levels.  It has strong acting throughout, a lot of good stories going about, and its cinematography still remains among the very best on television.  I do strongly urge more restraint when it comes to how violence is shown, and would continue to advise parents that no one under 16 should watch Gotham, Batman or no Batman.

There's so much good within Gotham, but the graphic violence continues to be a source of trouble and worry.

Next Episode: Pax Penguina

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gotham: Prettyheavysoul Review


Perhaps Gotham opted not to title it Pretty Heavy Soul because we weren't too far from the similarly-titled Pretty Hate Machine.  I still find Prettyheavysoul to be a clunky, unwieldy title but the episode itself ends Season Three of our Batman prequel with wild finishes, outlandish ends, and even new beginnings for our various heroes and villains in this dark world.

Ra's al Ghoul (Alexander Siddig) has been looking for his 'knight in the darkness' and believes it is Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz).  Despite himself, Bruce has stabbed his manservant Alfred (Sean Pertwee), an act that horrifies and angers Bruce.  Ghoul makes his getaway, but not before advising Master Bruce to use nearby waters on Alfred.  These waters heal but do not fully cure Alfred, who is rushed to the hospital.

Bruce is not impressed when he sees Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) paying a visit, and she leaves in anger.  Eventually, she finds Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas), who now takes her as a protege, complete with helping her develop Selina's surprisingly good use of a whip.

It's been a long day for Tabitha, who has finally joined in helping her part-time lover Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) take out her other part-time lover, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), lovingly known as Bonkers Babs.  Babs and Edward Nygma aka The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) are trying to use Jarvis Tetch aka The Mad Hatter (Benedict Samuel) as a bargaining chip to take over all Gotham.  However, Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), despite the growing power of the Tetch virus on him, knows that Nygma wants one thing one: Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).

In exchange for Penguin, Nygma is willing to trade Tetch, something Pengy is not happy about.  Fortunately for him, Bonkers Babs learns about this secret deal and tries to get Tetch back.  Nygma throws a grenade and in the confusion Penguin manages to take Nygma instead, with Gordon and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) taking Tetch and Babs, Butch and Tabitha all in pursuit of the GCPD.  

It looks like Pengy finally has the upper hand on his frenemy, but then Nygma is a man of some resources.  It looks like Penguin has set himself up for another fall, with Nygma telling him Penguin will always be defeated because he is driven by his base emotions.  Just like it looks like Penguin is finally going out, he gets Nygma to take him back to the dock of the bay so he can truly be 'The Riddler'.

Only one thing: this time Pengy thought things through.  Oswald had removed all the bullets from the gun much earlier, allowed his tiepin to 'fall' into Nygma's hands and used Nygma's own predilections for methodology to defeat his thwarted love.  He even brought reinforcements: Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) and Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow).  Mr. Freeze literally ices Nygma, who will be the star attraction at Pengy's new club, the Iceberg Lounge, with Ivy as his Girl Friday.

Butch, for his part, gets shot in the head by Babs, seemingly finally ending her hated rival.  She also tries to take Tabitha out, but in this duel the whip gives the gun a literally shocking end.  Bonkers Babs is electrocuted by Tabitha.

Gordon and Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) decide to leave Gotham, or rather, Thompkins pushes and uses her feminine wiles to get them out.  One thing Thompkins isn't going to do is use the antidote, finally developed from Tetch's blood which they got from methods unspeakable.  However, as they leave Bullock catches up with them.  In terms tearful and clever, Bullock slips more antidote to Gordon, who pushes his dark side long enough to inject it into both himself and her.  Despite this, Thompkins decides the best thing to do is leave, and does so anyway.

We end with another family about to be robbed and potentially murdered, until a masked figure sweeps in to knock the assailant out.  Up on the rooftops, we find this masked figure is Bruce Wayne, slowly embracing his dark knight of the soul.

There were a few things in Dirtyheavysoul that I wasn't completely buying.  One of them was in how stretched out the Nygma/Cobblepot thing was.  The appeal to Riddler's sense of order seems a bit far-fetched, and reliant on things going a certain way.  What if Riddler had decided not to?  What if Babs got there after the exchange?  A lot Penguin's survival seems to rely on extraordinary luck, and that is asking quite a bit.

It also seems quite a lot to believe that Butch Gilzean would survive getting shot in the head (and getting us more of that Gotham violence that troubles us so).  Granted, seeing how Bonkers Babs went electric wasn't exactly family viewing, though to be fair it wasn't graphic for Gotham.  However, there may be something in that Butch, we learn in Prettyheavysoul, was born Cyrus Gold.

It is too much to ask me, someone who never read comic books and knows not the minutia of Batman mythos, to get excited over Cyrus Gold or whoever he turns out to be.  Even in the bonkers world of Gotham, where we've brought back more dead than any zombie movie, I still find getting shot in the head hard to survive.  

I also thought that both Ivy and Mr. Freeze were woefully underused, and hope that Season Four allows for more work from Geha and Darrow, who have been quite effective in their roles.

We, do however, see a lot of great things in Dirtyheavysoul.  Mazouz has really grown into a strong Bruce Wayne to where we can imagine him as the eventual Batman.  Pertwee as well has strong moments of pathos as Alfred.  Cory Michael Smith is delightfully smug as Edward Nygma to where you almost root for him, though I'm firmly #TeamPengy.

Gotham continues to be one of the best-acted shows, and this has been a strong season finale.

A Knight in the Darkness Rises Indeed...


Next: Gotham Season Three Overview

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Gotham: Destiny Calling Review


It's a bit difficult to give a review to Destiny Calling given that it was part of a two-part season finale for Gotham Season Three.  However, I've opted to do so since technically, they were two episodes put together as one.  Destiny Calling has the city plunging into another crisis, with some repetitive motifs from previous moments, some unexpected and expected twists, and more strong performances.

Gotham City is in chaos thanks to the release of the Tetch virus, which unleashes a person's darkest side.  Acting Captain Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is doing his best to bring order to the city, while his partner/best friend Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is attempting to hold on to his own sanity since he is infected as well.

In order to find an antidote, they have to first find mad scientist Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong), who is determined to flee the city.  Unfortunately for him, it's none other than Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith ) who gets to him first.  She wants Strange to make her the army she wants to take over Gotham.  Gordon and Bullock are powerless to stop Strange's taking.  For help, Mooney turns to an unlikely ally: Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  Pengy is not thrilled to see Strange again, still bitter about all those 'experiments' Strange put him through.  Also not thrilled to see Strange again is Victor Fries aka Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow) and Bridgit Pike aka Firefly (Camila Perez), and now the three of them decide it is time to enact revenge.

Strange is a most popular fellow, for he is also wanted by the Unholy Alliance of Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) and Edward Nygma aka The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith).  They want strange to make them an antidote with which to make massive demands on Gotham, and thus take over the city.  Well, that Bonkers Babs' idea.  Nygma just wants to kill Penguin...again.  Babs' two partners/henchmen, Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) and Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas) are wary of all this, and are wavering on double-crossing them.

Bullock and Gordon are close to finding Strange, who has developed the antidote.  However, ninja assassins and Gordon's uncontrolled rage gets the better of all of them, and Gordon kills Fish, who in turn drops the antidote and destroys it.  Fish, another woman who ends up stabbed with Pengy by her side, urges him to destroy Gotham. There's only one thing for it: to make the antidote now, they need Jarvis Tetch aka The Mad Hatter (Benedict Samuel) to make more antidote.

However, Riddler/Barbara get to Tetch first.

In all this insanity you have the continuing troubles of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) still under the Shaman's spell.  At last, he manages to escape the watchful eye of Alfred (Sean Pertwee) and go find the one he seeks, one Ra's al Ghoul (Alexander Siddig).  He asks Bruce to stab Alfred, which despite his conflict, he does.

I'd say that's a lot to pack into one hour's worth of television, and it's a good thing Destiny Calling didn't feel overwhelming.

One thing that Destiny Calling and Gotham in general has always had has been strong acting, even when it looks like total camp.  In this category, I'd put Wong and Jada Pinkett Smith in.  Not that Hugo Strange and Fish Mooney weren't already slightly camp to begin with: his cold, almost emotional-less manner and her vamping all over the place is simply part of who they are.  That's part of their charm.

However, Wong did get a good moment when for once, he has to face the terror he had inflicted on others, and there is something wonderful about seeing him get a comeuppance.  As for JPS, she never lost her touch as the always outlandish Fish Mooney, but it looks like it's curtains for her.  Now, given that she has already come back from the dead, as have Penguin, Jerome Valeska aka The Joker, and a few others, what is to prevent her from strutting her stuff one last time?

Morena Baccarin as the Tetch-infected Leslie Thompkins, bless her heart, manages to out-camp Jada Pinkett Smith, and part of me thinks she had a great deal of fun being more outlandish than Thompkins usually is.

Mazouz continues to be so strong and wonderful as Bruce, undergoing his own 'dark night of the soul', and he is matched by Pertwee's Alfred, particularly in their scenes in the interrogation room and their final meeting.  The sadness, the pathos of their relationship continues to build into something of beauty.

It's hard to find when Taylor was bad, and here, he wasn't.  Between his scheming for revenge against Strange to his comforting of Mooney (and it is strange to see him cradling another woman stabbed to death), Taylor continues to showcase his impressive range.

Destiny Calling leads to our final episode, which I'm sure will be as deranged as is Gotham's want.


Next Episode: Dirtyheavysoul

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Gotham: Pretty Hate Machine Review


We have literal bombs with countdowns, two of Jim Gordon's exes in full bonkers mode, and Fish Mooney returns!

Despite all that, I was left slightly disappointed by Pretty Hate Machine.  It might have to do with the fact that in some ways, Jada Pinkett Smith's return as the always camp Fish Mooney was probably more restrained in her performance than some of the regulars.

It's hard to out-camp Fish, but somehow, a few did.

The Shaman (Raymond J. Barry) has brought a special guest to the Court of Owls: Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), son of the man and wife they had killed.  Bruce, despite him hypnotized state, could not give the order to kill the Court, but no worries: the Shaman did.  Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), along with Bruce's manservant Alfred (Sean Pertwee) get there too late, but in time enough for one of the Court to tell what happened.

Now it's a race to both get to the bomb the Court has created with the Tetch virus and rescue Bruce, a tough order.  The GCPD does manage to find Professor Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong), but the mad scientist is oddly the least of their problems.

Dr. Leslie 'Lee' Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) has decided to go bonkers, and has taken care of Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  She's buried him alive, so they can't technically arrest her for murder.  She's even given Jim a way out: a little of the virus with which to inject himself.  That way, he'll have the strength to force his way out of the coffin but he'll also be infected.  He doesn't want to and Bullock, already overwhelmed with things, rushes to rescue his buddy.

Into this mad mix comes the Fearsome Foursome: Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas), Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell), and Edward Nygma aka The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith).  This unholy alliance is after Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), who is finding himself without his monsters and is enraged.  Only Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) is loyal to him, while her BFF Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) is asked to find Firefly and Mr. Freeze.  Selina is highly interested in finding her old friend Brigit, but Ed and Butch raid Pengy's safe-house before
much can be done.  Selina in a rare moment finds herself caught by Tabitha, but Riddler didn't count on Pengy having a few tricks up his sleeve.

That's the thing about Pengy: he can be down but he is never out.  Well, at least out for the count, for in other ways he's totally out.

Alfred gets Bullock to agree to let him 'talk' to Strange in exchange for information on Bruce, and after some 'friendly persuasion' Strange reveals the wild goings on.  True to his word, Alfred lets Strange soon as he wakes up from getting punched.

Penguin wallows in self-pity and drink while with Ivy, commiserating that at least his former nemesis Fish Mooney and the Dons: Falcone and Maroni, had codes, while Bonkers Babs, her minions and Ed are just running amok.  So this is probably a bad time for all of them to show up.

Edward won't kill Penguin until he calls him 'The Riddler', which Pengy flat-out refuses to do.  This issue with Edward's nom de guerre is such a sticking point for Nygma that he insists he'll torture Pengy until he gives in.  Bonkers Babs just wants to kill him right then and there, and this is a constant source of irritation for everyone.

Just as Penguin's luck appears to have run out, enter our Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).  As camp as always, she brought some of her own muscle to spirit her little Penguin away with her.  With her usual aplomb and panache, she leaves the others, Riddler looking surprisingly sad.  As per their agreement with Selina, Ivy is left unharmed.

Gordon finally succumbs and injects himself, freeing him from his prison but also making him dangerous.  He knows where the bomb is and rushes to get there, but in the ensuing chaos of the GCPD HQ, Lee too escapes.  Just as Jim is about to disarm the bomb, Lee sweeps in to stop him.  Things are not helped when Bruce and The Shaman are watching the impending chaos when Alfred sweeps in to stop them.  Bruce is wavering on hitting the button, but as soon as the Shaman forces his hand Alfred shoots him dead.  This enrages Bruce, but no matter: the bomb has gone off and the Tetch virus is sweeping Gotham.

That's a lot of craziness for one Gotham hour, and yet for some reason I was not overwhelmed with things here.

I think it might have to do with a few details.  Oddly, one of them isn't Smith's return as our favorite camp vamp.  Her performance from Season One was always on the campy side, and there was no reason why she needed to change now.  She devours the scenery, but that is how Fish Mooney always was.  I know a lot of Gotham fans hated her role, but I never found it horrifying or bad.

I think if anything was wrong with Fish Mooney's return, is that it does seem to come out of nowhere and for reasons that are slightly unclear.  WHY is Fish Mooney there?  WHY does she want to rescue Pengy?  Wasn't he, like, responsible for killing her? How did she get there in time to save Penguin?  Who told her where to find him?  Had she been following him for some time?

There are a lot of unanswered questions here, and maybe we won't get the answers or I just missed a lot of them.

Wong as Strange is also a touch camp, though I think his flat demeanor as Strange is right for the role.  Still, I can't help think that a bit of Wong gets that Strange is supposed to be a bit too cold and even snobbish.  When surrounded by the GCPD, he calmly looks at Bullock, raises his hands and says, 'I obviously surrender' in such a cold, dispassionate manner one wonders whether Strange is taking this seriously or is so detached from everything.

He does take the 'hanging around with Alfred' seriously enough, which I did find a touch creepy.

As a side note, at least the violence here was not as overt and graphic as in other episodes, though the buried alive bit was uncomfortable.

I also think the entire Lee storyline a little Strange.  I'm still not buying that Thompkins was that distraught over things as to force Gordon to use the virus, but it does give Baccarin a chance to vamp it all over the place, showing her bad side.  What is it about James Gordon that unleashes his exes to turn crazy: both Barbara and Leslie are now essentially bonkers.

I also wasn't overwhelmed this week with McKenzie's performance, even his resurrection seemed a bit boring and cliched.

However, I was impressed by Mazouz, who has turned into one of Gotham's best players.  In his conflict between the will of the Shaman and his own morals, Mazouz gives a fully-rounded performance.  Taylor too was fun: nothing is better than seeing an enraged Pengy.  Smith brought a little bit of humor to his Edward/Riddler, looking even a little sad when Fish manages to outflank him.

Richards is never as good as when she's being bad, and seeing her and Bicondova act childishly with each other was a lot of fun.  Logue too continues to be one of my favorites, whether he is doing the right thing for Gotham or when spouting off one-lines, such as when he decides to question Strange, whom he calls 'Baldy-locks'.

Perhaps some of the things that bothered me about Pretty Hate Machine had to do with the number of 'coincidences': how one Court member was still alive when Gordon and Bullock got there, how the bomb was set at the same time that Gordon was buried alive, how Lee showed up just at the exact time to stop Gordon from disarming the bomb, how Fish plopped up just when it looked like curtains for Pengy.

A touch too much for me, but at least we didn't see heads roll, so that's a plus.


Next Episode: Destiny Calling

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gotham: All Will Be Judged Review


Politics, Shakespeare wrote, makes for strange bedfellows.  The alliance of Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, and his thwarted love Edward Nygma, now known as The Riddler, makes for stranger bedfellows (though Pengy would have preferred a literal bedfellow).  All Will Be Judged, to me, seems like a slight slip on our way to Gotham's season finale, mostly due to a plot point that I am not for one minute buying.

Oswald (Robin Lord Taylor) and Edward (Cory Michael Smith) find themselves prisoners of the Court of Owls.  Their dislike and downright hatred for the other knows no bounds, with one constantly upstaging the other.  Pengy won't use the title 'The Riddler' for/to Ed, finding it idiotic and knowing it annoys him that Penguin won't call him that.  Ed doing all he can to thwart Pengy's plans. This plotting/counter-plotting reaches a nadir when Ed manages to get a pick to unlock himself, drugging Penguin so that he can escape.  Defiant and bitter to the end, Penguin makes enough noise before passing out to attract the guard's attention at Ed's escape attempt, which they punish severely.

They decide that the only way they can escape is to have a truce and work together.  In exchange for not sabotaging the other and a six hour window where they won't kill each after they escape, they manage to break out of the Court's grasp.  Once out, their war continues, with Pengy giving Ed a bit of news: he has an army, from the monsters of Indian Hill.

They will meet again.

Meanwhile, the Court has more important matters to attend, planning that attack on Gotham.  To help them stop Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and acting Captain Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), they send their former Captain, Nathaniel Barnes, now known as The Executioner (Michael Chiklis).  The Executioner will enact justice on James Gordon, down to having a 'trial' where he will be found guilty.

Might as well call it a Kangaroo Court rather than Court of Owls.

There's another problem awaiting everyone.  Faux Bruce has been unmasked thanks to Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), though it took a little longer to convince Alfred (Sean Pertwee) of this. Faux Bruce escapes, while Real Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is still under the spell of The Shaman (Raymond J. Barry), who has worked his magic on him to where he is now totally within his power.

Bruce's destiny, as prescribed by The Shaman, awaits.

Throwing in all this wildness around The Executioner, who has sprouted a hand with a blade capable of cutting heads off as he demonstrated during his raid on the GCPD HQ by working his magic on an unsuspecting and disbelieving Kathryn (Leslie Hendrix), we had another crime at HQ.  Dr. Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) has decided she is responsible for what happened to Mario, and decides the way to atone is to inject herself with the Tetch virus, unleashing her own dark side.

Smart move, Doctor.

I think part of my if not dislike but disinterest in All Will Be Judged has to do with the non-Penguin/Riddler storylines.  The Nygmogglepot storyline was good, and the double-act of RLT & CMS continues to do well.  To see these two constantly thwart and needle and mock each other was both amusing and slightly disturbing.  Smith does such great work whenever he finds that Pengy won't call him by his chosen name, a surprisingly touchy subject for our Riddler.  Taylor for his part matches him as he seems determined to play at being powerful despite all evidence to the contrary.

I even think that the use of red Jello as the 'blood' for when they escape may be a wry commentary on those of us who criticize Gotham for its graphic violence.  Perhaps they showed us that, while it looks convincing, we know it isn't real.

That may be reading too much into it, but Gotham still has a surprising level of graphic, I daresay, gruesome amount of violence.  Seeing Kathryn decapitated was not as graphic as when the dock worker was beheaded in These Delicate and Dark Obsessions a few episodes back, but it still was a bit much for my tastes. And that comes after watching Alfred stab Kathryn in the hand, where Gotham didn't pull back...and seeing a dream sequence where Lee's late husband Mario Calvi (James Carpinello) cuts his wrists and serves her his tainted blood.

That's an awful lot of bloodletting for one hour.

I also question why Kathryn didn't just run off during the chaos at the GCPD HQ (and as a side note, is this the third or fourth time the GCPD HQ has been attacked?  I lose count).  Her all but ordering The Executioner to get her out of there when she was perfectly capable of doing it herself strikes me as dumb.

As does the GCPD facing yet another attack.
As does Lee injecting herself with the Tetch virus.
As does the last-minute rescues of Jim Gordon.
As does The Shaman's continuing Wisdom-Speak gobbledygook.

I also found Chiklis to be quite camp as The Executioner.  Now, I grant that I'm not well-versed with Batman lore as others are, but something about Chiklis here I find endlessly amusing versus threatening, as if I'm supposed to laugh at The Executioner's outlandishness rather than be terrified by his twisted sense of justice.

I found Baccarin a bit camp too as the tormented Dr. Thompkins.  Look, I get that you are still upset and conflicted about the whole 'ex killed husband on wedding night even if said husband was insane' thing.  I can even get that you feel some sense of guilt over the whole sad, sorry affair.  However, injecting yourself with that same virus still never struck me as a smart move, let alone a sensible, rational, or plausible one.

I can sense a bit of a slow pace, particularly with Gordon's 'trial', which felt a bit drawn out.

There were good things within All Will Be Judged: the Taylor/Smith duel (Penguin telling Riddler, 'in shooting me, you have me something to live for: revenge' was a good line and good line reading), the epic fight between Faux Bruce/Selina/Alfred.

However, I figure that some things don't ring true (the camp Executioner, Lee doing her version of self-medication), some things find themselves repetitive (one would think the Gotham City Police Department Headquarters would have done some work to keep the crazies out), and some things flat-out bonkers (dear Kathryn, after getting stabbed in the hand, it's not a good idea to argue with a man with a blade for a hand).


Next Episode: Pretty Hate Machine

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gotham: Light the Wick Review


Light the Wick keeps jumping from one point to another, but in this case that's a good thing. Our Gotham story involves mad scientists, potential mass murder, shrewd moves by its (alleged) central character, and more strong acting.

The Court of Owls is now working on its efforts to 'cleanse' Gotham City from its corrupting influences.  For that, they need two people: Captain Nathaniel Barnes (Michael Chiklis) and mad scientist Dr. Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong).  The latter will draw the Tetch virus from the former, which the Court will use to weaponize the virus and spread it around Gotham.  As the newest Court member, Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) looks to participate in this horror, which will cause the citizens to unleash their darkness and go all Purge on each other.

At this point, I'd argue that maybe the Court's plans are a little misguided, if not flat-out bonkers, but who am I to question the Court of Owls?

As if Gordon's problems aren't already big enough, he now has to contend with Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), back from the dead, again, and out to find Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), whom he wants to revenge himself.  Penguin too wants to find this 'Court' and will stop at nothing to get to him.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the mountains, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is training with The Shaman (Raymond J. Barry), who is still speaking in Wisdom-Speak: terms that sound deep but can be a little frustrating to interpret.  "Rage and pain are two sides of the same coin," he tells Master Bruce, who is working out his issues with his parents' murder as he too is prepared to be a weapon to 'cleanse' Gotham.

Looks like our Shaman is in cahoots with the Court.

Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) is not helping Pengy out this time, as she has more important matters.  Finding Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) in the hospital close to death, she is determined to save her friend who has saved her many times before.  She uses her botanical skills to care for her old friend, and Selina does recover.  She also wants to kill the Faux Bruce.

The Court's main girl, Kathryn Monroe (Leslie Hendrix), is displeased to find Gordon at her house.  Quick on his feet, he tells her that Penguin is now onto them, threatening to go on a tear to get to Ed, which could mean exposing the Court.  She is not overly concerned with this news, but thanks him for it.

She also has Gordon come up to the Daughters of Gotham charity event, where the Court will test out the Tetch virus in aerial form.  Gordon is being watched by Talon, the ninja assassin who won't let him get help.  Fortunately, again quick on his feet, Gordon gets hold of Penguin, who comes to the soiree with Firefly (Camila Perez), looking for the Court.  Gordon uses Penguin to crash the joint, saving everyone.

Later, as an enraged Penguin wonders whether Jim pulled a fast one on him and rails against both Ivy and 'The Human Popsicle', he finds himself abducted, where he is caged, right next to a shocked Edward Nygma.

With Gordon's duplicity known, it's time for Barnes to be his Executioner.

It's as if the entire subplot of Dr. Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) growing more disillusioned with the GCPD is a moot point.  Not that it wasn't important, but it didn't seem all that much in Light the Wick.  I really hated the final moments of the Daughters of Gotham fete, where Gordon has to save a crying little girl who fell and can't find her mother.

Is it me, or is that a trifle cliche?  At least it was filmed to where we didn't see the girl, but I sometimes wonder why people, in their rush, simply don't pick up the girl as they flee.  Hasn't anyone ever done that?

One great positive in Light the Wick is in how it showcases Gordon's growing intelligence.  It isn't that he was stupid, but it is nice to see that twice, he uses his wits to get out of seemingly impossible situations.  He knows he's trapped, either at Kathryn's house or the Daughters of Gotham event, but he uses whatever he has (both times involving Penguin) to get out of danger.  I really enjoy this aspect of the show.

A standout is also Geha as Ivy.  We got to see a softer, gentler, more innocent side to her character, the child inside the woman.  I can question the logic of how plants could revive someone pushed off a building, which didn't flat-out kill her instantly, or that it did it so quickly, or that Selina could pretty much jump up and say, "hey, I'm going to kill someone at Wayne Manor", but in this case, I'll roll with the punches.

There was a lot of logic in Light the Wick, whether in how Gordon saved the day or when he and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) realize that either killing or holding Strange would not be to their advantage.  "You logical bastard," Bullock growls when Strange's logic comes into play.

Hendrix and Wong kept to one emotion: coldness, but both of them were so assured in their characterizations of these nuts that it made perfect sense.  Taylor too kept that balance between menacing and mirth, from threatening Gordon to barking out his query about Ivy and 'the Human Popsicle', a line that had me laughing out loud.

I can't say much for the Thompkins' subplot, or what should be a bigger aspect with Wayne learning from 'The Shaman', who still speaks in grandiose terms.  However, things are slowly developing which should yield positive turns, at least we hope.

Light the Wick holds back on the violence, which is good, though more out of not having the free-for-all at the DOG event (yes, the Daughters of Gotham can be abbreviated to DOG).  It wasn't free of it: seeing Talon be set aflame by Firefly wasn't the greatest, but given the show's penchant for going really wild, it was tame and restrained from them.

Good but not great episode, but what was there worked really well.


Next Episode: All Will Be Judged

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Gotham: The Primal Riddle Review


We go into the final Gotham Season Four episodes rushing towards epic confrontations: between Penguin and the Unholy Alliance of Barbara/Tabitha/Butch and Ed Nygma, between Jim Gordon and the Court of Owls, and between Bruce and whoever the Shaman is building him up for.  The Primal Riddle gives us more wild turns, rather outlandish villains, and a bit of wry humor.

Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and his newest girl Friday, Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) are now about to form their own Union of Freaks so Pengy can strike back at all his enemies.  He finds two completely different figures in Dr. Victor Fries aka Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow), who has a smoking hot body for a cold guy, and Brigit aka Firefly (Camila Perez), who has the power of fire.

Talk about a Song of Ice and Fire...

Penguin forms his group and begins to plot revenge, and when he sees Edward Nygma with the newly christened name of  'Riddler' (Cory Michael Smith) he is not amused by it, wisecracking how long did it take him to come up with that name.

Riddler, for his part, has become obsessed to find out who is controlling Gotham City itself.  He becomes more and more outlandish, I daresay, camp, in order to find out this mystery.  He crashes a Hamlet performance and abducts Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) in a wildly elaborate manner to cajole the mysterious 'Court' to reveal themselves (he's not aware of the Owls bit).

Aiding Riddler is Barbara Kean, lovingly known here as Bonkers Babs (Erin Richards), who wants to know who is above her.  Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) her partner/partner, is wary of all this and dislikes Nygma and his ridiculous braggadocio, but Babs seems to have a soft spot for him, or at least, trying to play a long game.

Meanwhile, Faux Bruce (David Mazouz) is dying, but at least he knows his work for the Court will be done and the Real Bruce will return by the time he's kaput.  The Court has something wicked in mind, but Faux Bruce wants to save Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  Selina, despite her anger at Bruce, knows that Faux Bruce could not be the real Bruce because the real Bruce, for all his flaws, would want to save everyone, not just one.  Faux Bruce tells her he will stop her.  When she asks how, he responds by pushing her out the window.  It looks like Selina is dead, but soon, cats start converging on her.

Gordon manages to outwit The Riddler, much to Ed and later Babs' irritation.  He takes Nygma to The Court, and The Court finally inducts James Gordon among their ranks.

The Primal Riddle has some surprising humor within its dark walls.  When Penguin and his cohorts in crime arrive at his estate, we can see that Fire and Ice do not mix well, each making comments about the other.  As Penguin looks on his defaced portrait, Mr. Freeze almost innocently says, "There's a question mark on your face," the double meaning amusing.  Pengy's retort, "You can sleep in the freezer," makes it funnier.

Earlier, Pengy offers to kill Firefly's boss to sweeten the deal of her joining forces, and Taylor delivers this offer in such an almost endearing manner it makes this more amusing.

I think it's the acting that really elevates The Primal Riddle.  We got Taylor's performance, mixing a touch of comedy with snide sarcasm (his views on his protege's name).  The lion's share of the success comes from Smith, vamping and camping it up to the Nth degree.  It's almost as if with his new persona of 'The Riddler', he has embraced such an outlandish, over-the-top characterization that he cannot help himself.  From his lair which looks like a disco on meth to his Hamlet crashing, with wild hand gestures and exaggerated speechifying, The Riddler is almost deliberately obnoxious, and Smith pushes him to heights of camp that only a supervillain can get away with.  From his awareness of his outlandishness to his pet names for his adversaries ('Foxy' and 'Jimbo'), Smith's so wild that it makes for fascinating viewing.

The Primal Riddle also helps in McKenzie's portrayal of Gordon.  In his facing off against The Riddler, we can see that Gordon is remarkably shrewd and intelligent, aware of where the weakness of his adversaries are.  At least they didn't blow up Mayor James' head, but how he disarms The Riddler's wild plan showcases Gordon's brightness, something all Gotham villains may not be prepared for.  His scenes with the equally strong Smith were a highlight of the episode, Bicondova/Mazouz being the other.

It also throws in an homage to Batman Returns when we see poor Selina apparently dead, surrounded by cats.  It does veer dangerously close to repeating that somewhat offbeat method of reviving the dead, but whether it was a deliberate misdirect or an homage I leave up to the viewer.

Bicondova and Mazouz continue to be among the best younger actors, their scene having the pathos of tortured love along with a really unexpected twist when Bruce pushes Selina out the window.  This is the rare time when Selina is genuinely caught off-guard, so off-guard that her cat-like skills fail her. With Faux Bruce, Mazouz makes his concern for Selina along with his acceptance of his impending death real, almost heartbreaking.

While guest stars Darrow and Perez don't have as much as I would have liked them to have had, the fact that Freeze and Firefly have returned bodes well.  I do confess at how well Darrow looks.  This ain't the exaggerated Schwarzenegger body or the pudgy looks of Eli Wallach/George Sanders/Otto Preminger Mr. Freezes.

I do hope that future Gotham episodes make good use of Darrow.  I also hope Perez's Firefly gets more than her few moments, for it's hard to give a solid basis on how well she's do based on what we saw.  The fact that it's not the same actress doesn't make things easier, though the transition from Michelle Ventimiglia to Camila Perez is not a dealbreaker.

Gotham also will wrap up the Barbara/Tabitha/Butch story, one of if not the strangest menage a trois ever, and give a satisfying conclusion to the Unholy Alliance of Babs and Riddly.

With its strong performances, wry humor, and shocking moments (along with a surprising lack of graphic violence not counting the poor Hamlet actor's stabbing and uncharacteristically bad puns from Donal Logue's Harvey Bullock), The Primal Riddle is another standout for a strong Gotham season.  Smith's camp take on Riddler did veer a bit close to the bad Jim Carrey take from Batman Forever (I still think Frank Gorshin's version is the best, with CMS in second), but those are minor points.


Next Episode: Light the Wick

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Gotham: These Delicate and Dark Obsessions Review


These Delicate and Dark Obsessions is the directorial debut of Gotham star Ben McKenzie.  By and large, whenever an actor decides to 'direct' an episode we get many visual flourishes and little quality.  While this episode does not showcase McKenzie as an auteur, it does show he is shrewd enough not to wander too far from Gotham's formula, even if it is to its detriment.

Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is BACK, and most definitely with a vengeance.  He wants to get back at all his enemies, so he gets his loyal aide-de-camp Gabe (Alex Corrado) to bring some men to begin his army.  Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) who has saved him and seems to have a soft spot for Pengy, insists something is amiss.  Penguin refuses to listen, and for once he comes across as flat-out stupid.  Gabe is not on his side, and now has taken Penguin but won't kill him right away.  Instead, he wants to auction him off to the highest bidder.

Penguin, in turns enraged and hurt, doesn't know how he'll get out of this.  Enter Ivy, who uses her herbal skills to get one of Gabe's henchmen to her side, and promptly Penguin kills them save for Gabe.  Pengy, he's a softy.

However, he learns thanks to Ivy's truth perfume that Gabe doesn't respect Penguin.  He now isn't even afraid of him, even though it was fear and not respect that kept people by Pengy's side.  Enraged, Oswald kills him in a fit of fury, later admitting that maybe he went overboard in his reaction.  As upset as he is about this, Ivy comes up with a better idea: an army of freaks, and she knows whom to find.

Meanwhile, Detective Jim Gordon (McKenzie) is still working to find what the Court of Owls is up to, and that means unfortunately calling on help from his ex, Barbara Kean aka Bonkers Babs (Erin Richards), who is now Queen of the Criminal Underworld.  Using her connections, she goes to the docks to find what is being brought in to Dock 9-C, and she and Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) come close, until a ninja assassin comes at them.

There is something there, something from Indian Hill, which can't be good.  Gordon also has to deal with his Uncle Frank (James Remar), who is playing a dangerous game with the Court.  Which side will Frank and Jim go to, and will the Court ever be none the wiser?

Finally, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) continues his strange esoteric training with 'The Shaman' (Raymond J. Barry), who continues to guide Bruce beyond his fears while speaking in gobbledygook.

These Delicate and Dark Obsessions has a major focus the story of Penguin, or at least that was the part I thought worked best.  I think it helps when you have RLT playing it.  I don't think Penguin could have been better cast as Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, aka Pengy.  He makes Penguin in turns sympathetic and brutal, someone you want to take care of and someone you're terrified of.

Whether he's being a jerk to Ivy, who is being perfectly sensible, even pleasant, or murdering in uncontrolled wrath and fury, Taylor never hits a wrong note (and in last week's episode, never hits a wrong note musically either).  He's frightening and fierce, but also oddly endearing.

Meha too has done wonders with the revamped Ivy Pepper, who lets the little girl she is slip through the vixen she appears to be.  She's clever with the plants, but she also has an exuberance that is also endearing.

Speaking of vamps, Richards is so delightfully wicked as Barbara, so much better and beloved than when she was the blank, boring girlfriend to Gordon.  Her scenes, whether aware she is being asked for a favor or torturing the dock worker, show off the evil and delight she takes from it.  Fortunately, Richards (and McKenzie here) never let her be so over-the-top that she loses her actually rational planning and plotting.

There were aspects I wasn't thrilled about.  While the Wayne subplot worked well, I do tire of shamans and gurus speaking in what I call 'Wisdom-speak', all these rather grand esoteric phrases that at times sound almost daft.

Then comes the violence.  I congratulate McKenzie for having some wonderful visual moments and not going overboard (no spinning cameras as is the want of many a first-time actor/director).  However, the beheading of the dock worker was simply way too graphic. It veers dangerously close to an ISIS video in my view.  Violence, especially the graphic nature of it, has always been an issue between Gotham and myself, and while McKenzie at least wasn't graphic with Uncle Frank's end other parts went too far or up to the line.

Penguin's offing of Gabe wasn't too bad, leaving more to the imagination though not by much.  However, the beheading was simply way too much, up there with the man literally exploding.  That, granted, might never be topped or equaled (and I don't want it to be topped or equaled).  I just was pretty shocked at seeing his neck sliced and then his head roll off.

Not good, Ben.  Not good.

McKenzie proved himself a competent director, though to by fair I think the production staff wasn't going to let him go very far in what he could do.  I trust the actors to do their job and they did it remarkably well.  I wish he had taken the opportunity to be more subtle about the violence on Gotham.  Apart from that, These Delicate and Dark Obsessions sets things up for more thrills on what has been a most excellent season.


Next Episode: The Primal Riddle

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Gotham: How The Riddler Got His Name Review


I guess with a title like How The Riddler Got His Name, we can pretty much guess where the focus of this Gotham episode is.  Fortunately, this episode also brought us some fine work from other cast members, gave others a chance to shine, and gave us more wild twists.

Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) has been struggling in finding a worthy mentor to help him develop his growing criminal persona.  He's also seeing images of Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), whom he always sees dripping wet due to that 'killing best friend and dumping him into Gotham Harbor' bit.  Nygma wants to prove that he is his own man and now someone who was, or is, dependent on Penguin.

He then shifts his attention to finding, not a mentor, but an enemy, someone he can do battle with.  He first sets his eyes on Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), but then enters Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk), who works for the GCPD.  He is the only one Nygma has found who comes close to Nygma's view of his intellectual prowess, and our dear Ed decides Fox, whom he calls 'Foxy' (and I leave it to you to decide the what and why for this nickname) will be the perfect advisory.

Up at Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) still pines for Selina Kyle, and appears to have received a note from her.  She denies it, and here, Bruce finds himself abducted and replaced by his Indian Hill-created doppelganger.  When False Bruce shows up, Alfred (Sean Pertwee) senses something is wrong, but can't quite put his finger on it.  Gordon, for his part, is attempting to bond with his long-lost Uncle Fred (James Remar), but it's not going well.  Fred tells Jim about the Court of Owls, and their hand in the death of Jim's father.

Fortunately for everyone, we find that Pengy is very much alive, having been saved by none other than Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha).  He is finally awake and alive, and ready to kill someone.  Bruce finds himself lost in a mountain temple of some kind, and after talking with Fox, Nygma finally becomes 'The Riddler'.

How the Riddler Got His Name has some simply wild moments, moments that pretty much leave one if not shocked at least astonished at their brazenness.  Perhaps one of the wildest moments in all Gotham history is the sight of Robin Lord Taylor getting his Emcee from Cabaret on, doing a weird, I daresay, unhinged rendition of Wake Up Alone to a drugged-out Nygma.  Apart from showing the technical skills RLT has an actor (and apparently, a singer too, his musical versatility already having been shown on Gotham), it is a flat-out bonkers scene, coming so far out of left field it all but stuns you.

With the dominance of red, the Dutch angles and sketchy shots, it looks like a fever dream from the bowels of Hell itself.  The cinematography of Gotham has always been brilliant, but few times has it been as well-crafted and displayed as it is here.  When Nygma finally reveals his nom de guerre, the lighting on it looks almost divine without being exaggerated.  I do wonder, however, if Fox should have known to look in the back of his car.

How the Riddler Got His Name isn't just a showcase for Smith, though it is that.  Smith's Nygma fully embraces the dangerous, demonic, diseased brilliance of our formerly meek puzzle-master.  He is in turns gleefully wicked and completely unhinged, drugged out bonkers and coolly rational, a complete performance.  The aforementioned RLT also seems to be having fun and being a bit naughty as our 'drug induced hallucination', one who tells it like it is without worry (and throwing in a little soft shoe just for funsies).

It also gives an expanded role to Chalk's Lucius Fox, who at times seemed to be almost forgotten.  Here, we see that Fox is bright but a bit of a square, someone who is genuinely puzzled when Donal Logue's Captain Bullock suggests he beat a suspect.  He manages to hold his own against the tornado that is Smith as Nygma, the cool rational figure to the crazed supervillain.

Logue too manages his own great moments, whether it's his attention to his speech at the GCPD Academy graduation or in how he throws off one-liners without sounding ridiculous.  As he is barely hanging on to dear life with three ropes holding him from plunging to his death while Fox and Nygma have a battle of wits, he screams, "Why is it always three lines?  Why can't it be four?"  When Fox approaches Bullock about the seven people he suspects have been murdered for reasons unknown, Bullock asks, "You think there's a serial killer of smart people?"

I might not have gotten the quotes exactly right, but that gives you an idea of how Logue has made Bullock into the wisecracking policeman who manages to keep things both in perspective and relatively sane.

It almost seems that the Wayne story and the Gordon family story are kind of lost there, and with reason: How the Riddler Got His Name should be Nygma-focused.  They are just setting up their stories here.  Also, it seems that poor Pengy has an odd habit of being saved by a supervillain.  Last time, he was saved by none other than Edward Nygma.  Now he gets saved by Ivy Pepper, though given Penguin's predilections, it's unlikely he will fall in love with the future Poison Ivy.

With great performances all around (particularly from Smith, Taylor, and Chalk) and a surprisingly low level of violence (unless you count that bonkers showstopping number from a dead Pengy), How the Riddler Got His Name is a standout Gotham episode.  It was brought down a bit by two subplots that while necessary, didn't add all that much to the wild and weird goings-on.

Maybe if Jim Gordon had dusted off a top hat and belted out You Know I'm No Good...


Next Episode: These Delicate and Dark Obsessions