The Walking Dead 8.01 – Mercy

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When a show reaches a seventh, an eighth, a ninth season, we often begin to notice some changes in the pacing of the story and in the quality of the writing. Truth be told, it’s usually around the fifth season that things start to smell a little funny. This is typically because the show creator, the writers’ room, and the show runners may not, at the very beginning, expected the show to have lasted for so long; the stories become more outlandish and improbable, themes start to repeat themselves, and what may have once been an incendiary and addictive plot begins to wear thin.

This has happened countless times before. When a show proves to be a consistent draw for audiences and ad revenue is consistently high, a show like Dexter or Lost will be renewed for additional seasons again and again, kept on life support until audiences grow weary, until viewership declines and the show dies the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

One antidote to this kind of ‘viewer fatigue’ has been the revitalization of serialized story-telling and television show anthologies like True Detective, American Horror Story, and Fargo, where each season is itself a self-contained story. A story can’t grow old and tiresome if the story only lasts for one season.

The real question for our purposes today is this: Is The Walking Dead beginning to overstay its welcome?

Almost all signs point to “absolutely not.” There have been some misfires along the way, but The Walking Dead seems to have maintained it’s momentum. The most common complaint, stretching all the way back to season two, is about the so-called ‘filler episodes.’ This is a legitimate complaint. The pace of the show slows down, audiences suffer emotionally manipulative cliffhangers, and a tremendous amount of time is spent halting the progress of the story. This has certainly been problematic, but it hasn’t made the story measurably less engaging.

In some regards, these ‘filler-episodes’ have been used to exquisite effect, allowing the writers time to explore the emotional depth and complexity of certain characters. Take, as an example, the season six episode “He’s Not Here,” a flashback episode that reveals Morgan’s journey from the edge of madness and back, after a chance encounter with a lone survivor in the woods. This stand-alone episode, with an extended run time of 62 minutes, was undeniably strong and served to temporarily slow the pace of the show.

One of the main reasons The Walking Dead hasn’t lost its luster is because the story isn’t being improvised season-to-season or episode-to-episode like so many other television shows. Like True Blood and Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead is based on material that existed before plans were ever made to adapt it for television. The narrative connective-tissue is already in place; there is already a tried and true blue-print in place before each episode is scripted and before principle photography begins. In fact, some of the more recent problems with The Walking Dead are directly related to story elements that don’t exist in the graphic novels – like the “heapsters” that live in the landfill. The reason it doesn’t feel like these characters have a place in The Walking Dead is specifically because they didn’t originally exist in the source material.

This is one of the main reasons Fear the Walking Dead has struggled to really get on its feet.

All of that being said, season eight starts things off with a bang, a radical shift from the season seven premier. Where one season ago the group was fragmented, weak, and kneeling in the dirt, we now see unification, strength, and resolve. After the despair at the onset of season seven, this is an interesting way to get things rolling. Shifting back and forth with a bearded Rick in an idyllic suburban home, to Rick standing over the graves of Abraham and Glenn, to Rick delivering a rousing speech before mountain an attack against The Saviors, to Rick with battle-weary red eyes speaking of ‘mercy’ (where the episode gets its title), there is still a pattern of emotional manipulation that most fans will find familiar.

We don’t have a clear idea, with these shifting timelines, precisely what’s going on. We don’t know if ‘old Rick and the cane’ are a fantasy or if they’re a vision of things to come. We don’t know if he’s reflecting on his fallen comrades before the assault on the saviors or reflecting about these events sometime thereafter.

The things this episode does, without digging too deep into the plot, is sets the pace for the ‘All Out War’ narrative from the comic books. It starts things out with a bang, with the unified communities organizing a take-down of Negan and his Saviors. We’re still met with the grinning psychopathic confidence of Negan, and it’s difficult to tell how intense the struggle is going to be. But these are fun questions to ask ourselves – questions that will certainly have people tuning in to see what happens next.

One prediction I do have is that the red-eyed Rick with the glint of light dancing on his face will be seen again in the season finale. I believe that this is the moment when the battle with The Saviors is won. When Rick whispers “my mercy prevails over my wrath,” I am confident that the mercy he speaks of will be a mercy he bestows upon Negan. This episode went to great lengths to remind us that Rick has promised to kill Negan personally. My prediction is that Rick won’t kill Negan – that Negan will find a new home in the cinder-block jail Morgan began building back in season six.

Mark my words, reader. Let’s see if I’m right.

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The Walking Dead 7.10 – New Best Friends

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Inexplicable “hell-raiser” walkers. There’s no sense or reason to most of this episode, and it is painfully disappointing.

This episode, titled “New Best Friends,” is a clear example of the best and worst qualities of The Walking Dead. The small character piece between Daryl and Carol after their long-awaited reunion demonstrates a tendency toward emotional and arresting tension, depth of character, and attention to human detail. On the opposite side of the coin is the introduction of the garbage pickers, a collective of horrendously one-dimensional personalities in an already crowded cast. In these scenes, Rick – one of the only, if not the only, immortal characters – is the one pushed into danger. We already know he’s going to survive, so we don’t care when he’s fighting the most inexplicable and improbable of creatures. Meanwhile, we have characters like Rosita, a small scar on her face, now reduced to a character who is solely defined by her anger.

Roughly half of the episode concerned itself with this new community, who have set up their civilization in a garbage dump. Few details are introduced as to how this community functions – unlike The Hilltop, The Kingdom, and The Sanctuary – and there is little rhyme or reason as to how their leader, a woefully underwritten character, has ascended to a leadership position among them. The stilted language of these people, the icing on the cake, makes the explanation of their survival in the zombie apocalypse even more confusing than their terrible choice of locale.

That’s the bad part. The show hasn’t completely lost its way, and there is a great deal of solid source material – the comic book series – that the television show has to draw from.

Carol’s character is one of the show’s most complex creations, with one of the most engaging character arcs, and actress Melissa McBride has delivered consistently powerful performances. There was a palpable emotional pay-off when she and Daryl are finally reunited, after having been separated for the space of an entire season. Chemistry is real – Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus (who plays Daryl) have it.

The show is setting up, as it often does, all of the chess pieces in preparation for a grand finale. It will likely be a satisfying spectacle, and there’s nothing wrong with moments of levity. It’s just that the show has a tendency to stretch the narrative beyond it’s audience’s patience. As things stand now, not only is the narrative being drawn out, but ridiculous and improbable scenarios are cluttering up the story.

No community is going to risk its safety pouring melted pewter over a walker’s head to create some kind of “super walker” pin-head confection, only to give it up as a sacrificial lamb. Additionally, there is no sense in a community committing itself to war against total strangers (The Saviors) when other strangers (The Alexandrians) arrive and show that they have the gumption to kill their pin-head walker. This isn’t how trust is established, and this isn’t how war is waged. Period.

Rick and the Alexandrians need lots of guns, eh? Well shucks, I guess that’s why Oceanside (equally as underdeveloped as the garbage heap survivors) was introduced during the front-end of the season. Whatever will Tara do? Will she eventually tell Rick? You betcha, she will.

Yes. We all know. She’s going to betray Oceanside’s trust, and they’re probably going to join the fray against The Saviors, too. Because? Plot. Transparent, predictable, underwhelming plot.

I think we all know that Carol is eventually going to learn the truth about her fallen brothers and sisters, too. Daryl might have had her best interests at heart, but the truth will out, creating dramatic tension between these two soul-mates, and it’ll draw Carol into the conflict we all know is coming. There’s nothing wrong with foreshadowing, and there will always be predictable arcs in a serialized drama, but The Walking Dead is going too far. The surprises are never major plot points, but only involved with “which beloved character is going to die next?”

It feels lazy. It feels like the show is disrespecting its audience’s intellect.

Why does it feel like that? Because it absolutely, one-hundred-percent is doing just that.

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Another ‘Suicide Squad’ Trailer

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OTHER POSTS ABOUT SUICIDE SQUAD

For all of the wailing about Batman V Superman, that movie is still a freight train that is on it’s way to hitting the one billion dollar mark. Sure, it was an expensive production and it has proved to be less profitable than Warner Brothers had hoped, but the movie’s still a success. The most vehement critics point to a longer-than-necessary run-time (clocking in at two and a half hours) and a darker-than-necessary tone. These are legitimate criticisms – Superman is supposed to be fun, and this film seemed overly-focused on dragging the Man Of Steel into ‘brooding Batman’ territory, and it simply didn’t work. The film is largely humorless, lacking the kind of heart that audiences had obviously hoped for.

The DC Cinematic Universe is not as well-oiled as Marvel, but the studio still has plenty of opportunity to course correct. The only concern is the very real possibility that they over-correct. For instance, a well-sourced rumor has begun to circulate the Warner is now re-shooting certain scenes from the upcoming Suicide Squad feature to make it more ‘light’ and ‘funny.’ These kinds of last-minutes changes do not augur well for the franchise. They aren’t ‘inspired’ changes. They’re ‘fearful’ changes. Hopefully this won’t spell disaster for what looks to be a pretty exciting ride.

The newest trailer dropped yesterday, and it’s fun as hell. Check it out HERE.

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Sin City – Nancy Callahan

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I sat down today and watched both of the Sin City films. I’ve been a fan of the comic series ever since I bought a used paperback at ‘Bookman’s Buy-Sell-Trade’ superstore in Tucson when I was a freshmen in college. At the time, the rack was overstuffed with copies, and I nabbed mine for a measly ninety-nine cents. It was cheap enough that I didn’t find it sacrilege at all when I chopped it up and pasted individual frames into my sketchbook.

I was a comic collector since childhood – mostly X-Men titles – and had no idea what Sin City was about. I didn’t even read the book. I just sifted through the pages and appreciated the art. When it was adapted into a feature film, I started paying attention. It had the noir elements, the over-clocked one-liners, trench coats, and fedoras. It was black and white, self-referencing, darkly comedic, and playful. It was a perfect film specifically because it didn’t take itself too seriously – it was engineered to be pulp entertainment. It was designed to be fun.

Sin City was also a throw-away film. It appealed to a niche demographic, not turning too many heads. This is a disappointing revelation because the production was insanely innovative, inventing new film-making techniques that allowed the comic book to come to life. Of all the comic book movies that exist today, I can’t think of a project more true to the source material than Sin City. Most of the film was shot on green-screen, with the background environments inserted in post-production. The violence is stylized, and the black-and-white palette is used with intuitive brilliance.

The sequel, A Dame To Kill For, didn’t perform well at the box office. But it’s a fantastic voyage into the back alleys of Frank Miller’s fictitious city of crime and corruption. Think Gotham, only more fucked up. The vignetted stories are fun, dark, grimly humorous, and worth a look.

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The Walking Dead – “East”

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LAST WEEK’S EPISODE REVIEW HERE

Carol and Daryl, taking things into their own hands, are the catalyst for a host of poor decision-making among the Alexandrians in this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” Carol, broken and weary, leaves a note behind announcing her departure, insisting that nobody come looking for her. Daryl, on the other hand, heads off in another direction, recklessly in pursuit of Dwight to avenge the needless slaughter of Doctor Denise. Rick and Morgan head out to find Carol while Rosita, Michonne, and Sasha head out to stop Daryl.

At this point in the story, “The Walking Dead” isn’t really a horror-genre narrative – it’s a study on survival on recovery. That being said, there are certainly horror tropes that persist, lest we forget that dead cannibalistic corpses continue to roam the countryside. Every character in the show that we have come to know as capable, dependable, and intelligent does the one thing you never do in a horror film: they split up, leaving Alexandria vulnerable. None of this is really in-character, but one might surmise that the storytellers are trying to cement the notion that the Alexandrians are prepared, have united as a community, can face any problem together, et al. But it falls flat. When all is said and done, the audience recognizes that this is an excuse to fragment the group, push forward with the character drama, and leave the principle characters in an exposed position for the [likely] explosive season finale.

The heart of this episode’s themes exist in the interaction between Morgan and Rick. We are reminded of the flimsy morality in the new world as the two characters explain why they have chosen their own particular path toward survival. Morgan refuses to kill the living and Rick sees killing as an inevitability; one message seems sage-like, the other authoritarian. As Morgan expresses how he sees everything as cyclical, explaining to Rick how he saved the Wolf who, in turn, saved Denise, it’s difficult not to view Morgan as the more sympathetic, morally upright person.

“We didn’t finish it like we thought we did, with The Saviors,” Rick says midway through the episode.
“No,” Morgan says. “You started something.”

And we know that Morgan is absolutely correct.

Watching these two talk reminds us that they represent far opposite ends of a moral spectrum. As members of the audience, we know that both of them are right in their thinking, and that it’s the circumstance that lets us know which course of action is the correct one. That’s what the jail cell Morgan built is all about: creating an option other than falling on routine and regular summary execution. The set designers didn’t build that room just for one small scene in last week’s episode – that jail cell is going to get some use. At least, that’s my prediction.

We’re also reminded that, even though Rick and Morgan view the world from radically different lenses, they are on the same side. There are several paths that can lead to the same destination. Thankfully, the end their conversation on peaceful terms instead of thrown punches; they know that they can learn something from one another, temper their philosophies, and survive together, even if this conclusion is explicitly presented.

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Is Daryl Dixon dead? Don’t count on it. That spray of blood was pretty spectacular, but super-fans have Zaprudered it, as have I, and there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the advertisement for the season finale clearly shows Daryl in a scene, so he at the very least isn’t dead yet. More importantly, he is a fan favorite with plenty of qualities rife for further exploration in this increasingly character-driven narrative. I have long predicted that Daryl would eventually be killed because he is one of the few characters who only exists in the television series (not the source material of the graphic novel), but I have actually reversed my position on this. As the show veers further and further away form the source material, characters like Daryl and Carol and Morgan are actually more essential than ever, allowing the show-runners and the writer’s room to keep the story distinct enough from the graphic novel as to keep the show unique.

Who was the man in the barn that Rick and Morgan happen across? He had a spear that was clearly forged by the blacksmith at The Hilltop, and Rick concludes that he must be one of The Saviors. But what about the peculiar armor he’s wearing? It’s my guess that this is the first hint at yet another community wrapped-up in the trade agreement with The Hilltop and The Saviors. It’s my hope that the seed is planted in the season finale – and the brief glimpse of an armored man on horseback in the season finale preview metes this out – and we start to learn more about The Kingdom. There’s no need to spoil anything here, because I could just as easily be wrong, but it’s certainly one of my hopes.

See you next time, after Negan crushes a few skulls with his barb-wired wrapped baseball bat, Lucille.
I’m guessing she’s pretty thirsty…

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Wonder Woman – Rebooted To Perfection?

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As mixed reviews funnel through the infinite avenues of internet film criticism, there does appear to be some consensus on one particular issue: in the new “Batman V Superman” feature, the depiction of Wonder Woman is exceptional. The movie is something of an effects-driven, superficial peek into the DC Cinematic Universe, trying incredibly hard – and failing on a number of tiers – just to try and catch up to the success of Marvel. For comic book enthusiasts and movie freaks, this isn’t news; we already knew, months before the movie was released.

The movie is, in so many ways, a bloated mess.

We see yet another retelling of the Batman origin story, an exercise as silly as approaching a stranger and asking if they know about Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a vacuous sequence that adds nothing to the movie. Anybody interested in doling out twelve bucks for a ticket, let’s face it, already knows the story. It’s the perfect example of a “by committee” decision, made by executives who, unlike fans, have no real emotional connection to the source material. It’s forgivable enough, I suppose, and maybe even a little expected – so be it. It was done well, the slow-motion sequence resembling comic book panels more beautifully and effectively than any other depiction of the origin story. So there’s that.

We also see a newer Batman, older and cynical, more violent and erratic, impotent and resentful in the shadow of the god-like alien from Krypton. We see a subversion of the morality we expect from the Caped Crusader, a war-weary vigilante who views criminals as weeds, perennial inconveniences that always reappear, no matter how many times you try to pluck them from your garden. We see a digital dossier of the “meta-humans” – other superheros in the DC canon – in a ham-fisted set-up presumably for future movies.

The movie has lots of issues, both narratively and tonally.
It happens.

The best part of the movie is a toss-up between Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Both portrayals are phenomenal. Affleck captures the charismatic swagger of the moneyed executive and steps into the cape & cowl with finesse. His relationship with Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) is tenuous, complex, and believable, rivaling the jibber-jabber we saw in the Christopher Nolan films with Michael Cain in the Alfred role. The twenty minutes, give or take, that we get to watch Wonder Woman are arguably the most enjoyable twenty minutes of the entire film. With the tongue-and-cheek television portrayals of yore, the primary colors and glossy idealism, I don’t think anybody had any real expectation that Gadot’s portrayal of the character would bring anything interesting to the film. During the production, there was a lot of “thin-shaming,” with comic book fans insisting that their Wonder Woman is a towering, strong, meaty beast of a woman – that there’s no way that the slim, slinky Miss Israel could ever convincingly present the power and presence necessary to breathe life into the heroine.

Wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The lasso isn’t silly, the strength of body and character are crystal clear. I enjoyed the film, despite its flaws, but I’m actually looking forward to a Wonder Woman solo picture more than ever – something I never would have expected.

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Batman V Superman – Spoiler Free

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When watching a spectacle film like “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” it can be difficult to distinguish between the experience of watching the film and the actual quality of the film. Even more interesting, I find it both important and interesting that I have to mention that this is a spoiler-free review. Judging from the content-dense film trailers, it didn’t appear that there would be any surprises to spoil, a woeful trend in modern movie marketing (see video below). The trailers already reveal the action sets, the super-villains (Doomsday and Lex Luthor), both the fight and reconciliation between the film’s two protagonists, and even what would have been a spectacular surprise introduction of Wonder Woman. Regardless, there are three plot-critical events that are likely to catch most moviegoers completely off-guard, and it was satisfying to see that this latest entry into the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe actually managed to surprise me.

Those three events will not be mentioned here. Neither will a synopsis, for that matter, because in that regard the trailers really are enough.

Critic reviews have been mixed at best, but many filmmakers are more finely tuned to the desires of their audience than the sometimes over-stuffed attitudes of their critics. The modern era of superhero movies makes reviewing them a different kind of activity; the fan-base is already built in and the source materials for most of these properties have been around for decades. Many film reviewers aren’t able to lose themselves in these narratives as easily as ‘true believers,’ which is why I think a lot of reviews are murky. With regards to criticism of “Batman V Superman,” there are some salient observations out there, pointing to obvious flaws and questionable decisions made by director Zack Snyder. Despite some of the movie’s shortcomings, no one thing leeches too much joy from the overall experience. This movie is well-worth the price of admission.

The biggest complaint out there is that the movie is bloated with needless or distracting content, taking longer than it needs trying to achieve, what some might argue, is far too much in the first place. In many regards, three separate (and good) movies could be made from what this one feature aspires to do all by itself. The main attempt, as most of us are already aware, is to hit the reset button on the DC properties and setting up an expanded cinematic universe. Disney has had a seat at the table for years, beginning with the first “Iron Man” film, and Warner Brothers has been struggling for years to crack the code. This year, we have two major titles in the DC Universe, “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad.” Beyond that, there are nine separate films currently in the works, all to be released within the next five years. All nine of thee will share a point of origin with this year’s two films. This is arguably the biggest problem with the production: it takes too much time trying to set up other movies and not focusing enough on resolving its own central story.

Are we going to see Cyborg, Flash, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman in future titles? It looks like a certainty, but that all may hinge on the success of “Batman V Superman.” Sadly, the movie is too distracted setting up these other projects, shoe-horning most of them in pretty clumsily, disrupting the pace of the film. The only other issue I have may be a personal one, but I swear if I have to watch yet another depiction of Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunning down, in slow motion, in front of a movie theater, with pearls scattering and falling to the gutter, I may pledge to never see a Batman movie ever again. Scenes like this are part of the bloat, and do little to serve to actual story of the film.

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The conflicting ideologies of the two main characters in “Batman V Superman” – the brooding, gritty street-justice approach of Batman paired with the idealistic, heartland-of-America spirit of Superman – gives the film an interesting texture. This is a story of day and night, good versus evil, but it points to how even good can get muddled, that justice is not a black and white issue. Watching the two characters explore their moral philosophies and confront inconvenient realities about their morality is one of the more satisfying elements of the film.

Ben Affleck turns in a stupendous performance as an aging and increasingly cruel and bitter vigilante, inspired by “The Dark Night Returns” comic series and the decidedly darker tone established by comic artist & writer Frank Miller. Some fans may not like this new Batman and his obvious descent into moral ambiguity. He still fights crime, but his ethics are looser in this depiction than at any other time. This is a Batman that kills, which is something we’ve never seen on the silver screen before, and the jury is still out on how audiences feel about that. Nevertheless, this makes the comparison with Superman and his squeaky-clean demeanor all-the-more fascinating, adding layers of complexity to their conflict.

By far my favorite part of the film was the introduction of Wonder Woman (played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot), a character I have never really liked, never found interesting, and never thought could be made to be as fun, relatable, and believably hard-hitting; this Wonder Woman is a force of nature, and her springing into action in the third act is, by far, my favorite moment in the film. The art direction and casting for the entire feature is admirable, the action set-pieces exciting and fun to watch, and the characters are all truly three-dimensional – they are all uniquely conflicted, navigating their lives and predicaments with agency.

Box office numbers will be high. My prediction is that this will easily be a billion-dollar movie. This might finally be the shot of adrenaline to the heart of Warner Brothers and DC. They may never catch up with Marvel, but I think the competition just got a little stiffer.

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