Recent Read Round-Up

What with one thing and another lately (mainly it being the end of the school year, which results in a hectic time for me), I realized today I’ve been letting some of my recent reads pile up without having been reviewed. So, today, let me go over four books I’ve read in the past week or so – three copies provided for review, and one for class purposes.

thehalloweenchildren-ebook-largeThe Halloween Children, a collaboration between Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss due out in June, boasts a pretty great structure, and for about 90% of its length, that structure and the unfolding dread of the book will keep you hooked. It’s the story of what happened one Halloween at a suburban apartment complex, with the tale told by two different narrators: a husband and wife duo, writing at two different times. The husband seems to be writing after all of this happened; meanwhile, the wife’s narration is as everything unfolds, in the form of monologues to a marriage counselor. To say the marriage is dysfunctional would be an understatement; there are power games between the two of them, distrust, and favorites between the children (split along gender lines). But through it all, Freeman and Prentiss keep the tension raising, leaving us wondering how these parents are unable to see how wrong and strange things are getting with their children – and in the complex as a whole. And all of it is intriguing and weird, playing like a horror variation on Gone Girl, where we’re not sure which, if either, of our narrators is reliable – that is, until the ending, when everything comes apart. Without getting into spoilers, The Halloween Children ends up throwing both of our narrators under the bus, leaving us unsure whether much of anything happened, before bluntly spelling out a ham-fisted moral and lecturing the reader. It’s a fizzle of an ending, which is a shame, because it’s an engaging, fast read up until that point. Rating: ***

Dean F. Wilson has become a reliable presence in my review book rotation, and a welcome one; over the past couple of years, I devoured his Great Iron War, finding myself swept up in the rich world that he created. 17399863So when Wilson offered me a chance to check out his fantasy series, it wasn’t much of a choice for me – I knew I was on board. Nonetheless, I think I was surprised and deeply impressed by The Call of Agon, which is the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy. This is high fantasy in a Tolkien vein, make no mistake about it; there are epic poems, old legends, numerous races, and dialogue – and narration – that can feel stilted, even archaic, until you get into the rhythms. And yet, once again, Wilson mixes well his world-building and his character work, populating an astonishingly complex and rich fantasy world with interesting characters who veer from their archetypal nature slowly but inexorably. The Call of Agon can feel slow and dense at times, and I can’t say that there weren’t a couple of times that I felt a little overwhelmed with the world-building, the history, and some of the speechifying going on with some of the characters. And yet, the story hooked me in, giving me interesting, flawed characters that I found intriguing, and letting its fantastical epic play out in unexpected, interesting ways that broke from convention appealingly. The Call of Agon may be almost too high fantasy for its own good, but none of that detracts from the incredible world-building, the great character work, and the compelling story that draws you in. And once again, Dean F. Wilson has hooked me in. Rating: ****

Sometimes, a gamble on a review copy pays off. Such is the case with Ray Else’s cover109911-mediumOur Only Chance: An A.I. Chronicle, a book whose description intrigued me enough to check it out. It’s the story of the first true A.I., an entity named Einna. Programmed by a brilliant young woman named Manaka, Einna is a technological breakthrough, but her creation raises any number of questions, ranging from the practical (is there a difference in Einnas if we duplicate the program?) to the metaphysical (does Einna have a soul?). Else’s novel navigates these questions ably and adroitly, tying them into the plot, which involves not only Einna’s evolution as a thinking creation, but the shady Yakuza ties that give the business the money it needed to get started. When I requested Our Only Chance, that Yakuza element made me think that I was getting something more cyberpunk than I got; nonetheless, Our Only Chance won me over surprisingly quickly, letting its story develop and raising fascinating questions without ever becoming preachy or didactic. Instead, Else follows Einna’s quest for self-actualization and lets it dictate the novel’s ideas and thoughts, letting the questions feel organic but no less thoughtfully approached. Indeed, that Yakuza element ends up being the one distracting element of the book, turning the ending into something a little more disappointing than it otherwise would be (without getting into spoiler territory, it turns the book’s final philosophical question into a moral one; moreover, it weighs the scales so heavily that it becomes not even a debate). Still, it’s rich fare, and if it feels like it could use a little more fleshing out, well, that’s to the book’s credit – not enough books leave you feeling like there’s more to say. Rating: ****

Finally, thanks to my recent class curriculum, I’ve been covering Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it led me to be curious about Huxley’s follow-up, Brave New World Revisited (available for free at 81ldr2bwow7lA series of essays written over 25 years after the initial publication of Brave New WorldRevisited finds Huxley looking at his novel and assessing how accurate he was. His basic thesis? If anything, Brave New World was optimistic in thinking it would take us a few hundred years to get to that point; to the Huxley of Revisited, we’ll be there within decades. Revisited isn’t a novel, and it isn’t interested in being easily accessible; this is political theory, biological discussion, historical analysis, and more, all filtered through Huxley’s unique perspective. Revisited finds Huxley comparing his novel to Orwell’s 1984, discussing how Hitler and Stalin both change – and fail to change – some of his original ideas, noting the growth in advertising and television jingles, and just generally realizing that time has only made Brave New World more and more relevant. Sadly, the same applies to a modern reader, who will find some pain in Huxley’s comments about the perils of democracy being open to manipulation by sound bites and emotional bias, the willingness of people to be distracted by fleeting entertainments while real problems go unaddressed, and the unease of a society to ever be questioned. Yes, some of Huxley’s issues are out of date – he remains preoccupied with subliminal and hypnopaedic teachings, neither of which ever proved successful or worth continuing. But that goes for surprisingly little of this book, which instead draws out much of what makes Brave New World so uncomfortably relevant, allows Huxley’s brilliant and odd mind to shine through, and leaves you uncomfortable and disquieted about the state of the world. A compelling, powerful companion piece to a depressingly relevant novel. Rating: *****

Amazon: The Halloween ChildrenThe Call of AgonOur Only Chance | Brave New World Revisited

Lucio Fulci double feature

Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more into the trashier, more exploitative side of horror, thanks in no small part to the guided curation of the genre by my friend Ryan. And among those dark, nasty side streets, one of my favorite discoveries has been Lucio Fulci. With the one-two punch of Zombie and The Beyond, Fulci won me over; while his plots are nothing to write home about (to put it mildly), his imagery, mood, and visual style are to die for, resulting in some nightmarish, haunting shots that I can never forget, and scratching the itch for me that Argento scratches for so many.

So when a local theater did a Fulci double feature, there was no way I wasn’t going, even if I’d seen one of them before, and recently at that. e0aa74c63cb5fe3c79374218d0b7e17fLuckily, City of the Living Dead (originally titled The Gates of Hell) is worth seeing twice. No, the plot still doesn’t make sense, except on some primal, archetypal level, on which the idea that a priest’s suicide could open the gates of Hell somehow works. (It feels, especially given the nod to Lovecraft in the town name, that Fulci was going for something of that nature; that being said, old Lucio was never one to spend more time than he had to on little things like exposition or story.)

But honestly, that doesn’t matter, because what you go to a Fulci film to see are the images, and Fulci delivers them in spades. From a premature burial gone nightmarishly bad to bloody tears streaming down a face (one of my favorite moments in the film, and a favorite Fulci image, period), from fantastic use of fog to brutal scalpings (and then some), Fulci is in fine form here. And as the movie builds towards its apocalyptic finale, Fulci’s excesses build to gleefully nightmarish effect. Sure, it doesn’t all make sense, and yes, there are some longer dead patches than in Fulci’s masterpieces, and yes, there’s that wonderfully dumb final moment that’s laughably odd. But honestly, when the end product is this unsettling, vicious, and astonishing, it’s hard to complain too much or get caught up in some of the flaws, because for the most part, this is a blast. Rating: ****

Of course, you could make similar comments about The House by the Cemetery, and yet, there’s no denying that this one doesn’t hold up nearly as well as City. Part of it comes from technical issues – more specifically, dubbing issues that result in one of the most distractingly bad child voices I’ve seen in a thbtc2b1Fulci movie…and since the kid is a big part here, that’s an issue. Nor does it help that the plot is bewildering even by Fulci’s loose standards; there’s an undeniable sense that there’s at least twenty minutes of explanation cut out of this that might help to make sense of a mystifying clean-up scene, or a comment by our hero during the climax that otherwise comes out of nowhere. But the biggest issue comes from the fact that Fulci has restricted himself to one environment, and a repetitive structure, which denies him the freedom to go for broke and just throw things at the wall to see what sticks.

See, the plot of House (such as it is) finds a researcher and his family living in the titular house, where a number of murders have taken place. Oh, and when they move in, the basement is boarded up and locked – can’t imagine if those two are connected. But what that means is that every kill, every sequence, involves the same elements – the basement door, the basement stairs, those strange hands, and so forth. And while Fulci stages every sequence to his utmost, it doesn’t take long before the movie starts to feel repetitive and boring, because Fulci hasn’t given himself the freedom to indulge in his surreal, nightmarish excesses, his apocalyptic visions, or his more abstract, strange ideas. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great moments – setting aside some of those sequences, there’s a haunting image of a blood-drenched tombstone that I loved, the creature design is memorably bizarre, and I loved the bleak implications of the ending – but by and large, House manages to be the first Fulci film I’ve seen that I’d describe as “boring” – and given his imagination, that’s disappointing indeed. Rating: ** ½

IMDb: City of the Living Dead | The House by the Cemetery

The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

27209225A few months ago, I stumbled across The Devil’s Detective, which told the story of Thomas Fool, a damned soul doing his best to investigate murders in Hell. It was a book that completely caught me off guard, and blew me away, creating an astonishingly vivid world, and truly committing to its premise – after all, how could you solve murders in a place designed around suffering? Unsworth’s novel embraced that question, turning it into a book in which Fool’s quest for hope and answers is as much a defiance of Hell as it is a murder mystery. It was an incredible, beautifully written book that I loved, and one that I was eager to see followed up.

Now comes The Devil’s Evidence, the second (and hopefully not last) Thomas Fool novel, which picks up some time after the first book. Fool’s stature has continued to grow, but what that means for Hell – which seems to have embraced the idea of Information Men – remains to be seen. Is Fool just a pawn in Hell’s games, or his own man? But before he can deal with that question too much, or work on the series of fires that are breaking out across Hell, he’s drafted into accompanying a delegation of demons into Heaven. And once he arrives, he starts to realize that he’s been brought here to exercise his particular skills all over again – because something horrible is happening in Heaven.

Just as he did in The Devil’s Detective, Unsworth makes his book work by embracing his environment, creating a take on Heaven unlike anything else out there (much as he did with Hell). Unsworth’s Heaven is a beautiful place, but a strange one, with joyful souls in constant waking dreams, and angels unable to perceive anything that might leave them questioning the perfection of their world. It’s a rich, strange world, and as viewed through Fool’s eyes, one that’s both beautiful and utterly alien, both appealing and wholly wrong. More than that, it’s a deeply strange place, much like Unsworth’s Hell; in both places, the idea of religion, sin, or forgiveness feel almost absent and abstract, as though they barely matter at all to the final product.

Once again, though, it’s Unsworth’s rich prose and storytelling skills that make this such a knockout, though. As Fool begins to investigate the horrific crimes throughout Heaven, Unsworth keeps the pressure building, introducing off-kilter angels, ratcheting up the tension between Fool and the demons who resent him, and escalating the stakes far beyond these original murders. Through it all, Unsworth keeps us invested in Fool’s fate – not only his life, but his emotional stakes, his sense of purpose, and his efforts to find something resembling happiness in a horrific life. And once again, that quest for meaning and understanding becomes important as an end unto itself, with knowledge serving both as its own reward and its own curse.

The Devil’s Evidence is a worthy sequel in every way, and that’s no small feat, given how much I loved The Devil’s Detective; it avoids the problem of repetition by letting the story, the world, and the characters evolve and grow, expanding Unsworth’s odd cosmology in the most logical way. And the result is every bit the book that Detective was, working both as horror novel and detective story, as neo-noir and dark fantasy, as bleak crime novel and surreal Barker-esque horror. It’s a wonderfully unique novel, and one that leaves me eager for more Thomas Fool to come.


Chattanooga Film Festival 2017

cff-logo-17-01-emI’m a big fan of the Chattanooga Film Festival, which has been going now for four years, and has yet to really let me down. Maybe it’s just a case where I’m in line with the tastes of the festival runners; maybe it’s just that their love of cinema in every form, from music videos to trashy exploitation, shines through in the festival programming. But whatever the case, the Chattanooga Film Festival has quickly become something I always look forward to, giving me the chance to see a lot of great films that I might never otherwise get the chance to see, to say nothing of exposing me to things that I’d never heard of. And while this year only found me able to attend for two days (really, one and a half), I still managed to fill my time with a lot of great movies – a couple of knockouts, a bunch that were all mostly good, and only one that sort of missed the mark – and even that one wasn’t without its moments. Not a bad streak at all.

Saturday kicked off with the animated film My Life as a Zucchini, which tells the story of a young boy who finds himself in a foster home after the accidental death of his alcoholic, abusive mother. my_life_as_a_zucchini_posterThat sounds like it’s setting you up for a grim experience, but Zucchini nicely walks a difficult, narrow line, managing to make a warm, joyous experience that simultaneously deals with the awful circumstances that brought each of these children to this house. My Life as a Zucchini isn’t a film about foster care reform; indeed, the house here is a good one, and the children thrive under the loving care they receive. More to the point, the film generally avoids easy characterizations, letting even its bully character evolve into something funnier and more interesting very quickly. At its core, this is a film about finding a family, like so many other children’s films; for all of that, there’s a warmth and kindness here, and a willingness to face up not only to the darker sides of childhood, but also of the weird edges (lots of conversations between young boys trying to figure out sex) that give it a rich, honest feel. Not a film for young kids, but a charming film nonetheless, and one that won me over quickly. Rating: ****

The next film may also have been animated, but apart from that, they couldn’t be more different in pretty much every way. Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a silly mock epic, the story of a high school that, we1032268-hssposterwebll, is literally sinking into the sea. In theory, this allows the film to trade on the sort of apocalyptic adolescent imagery that made Donnie Darko or The Age of Miracles so effective, turning a coming of age into a literal end of the world. In practice, though, My Entire High School is a bit of a mess, with low-tech animation that doesn’t add much to the story, a decent voice cast that doesn’t get to do much, and a jumbled plot that feels sort of cobbled together. For all of that, it’s still often very funny – Shaw has a knack for absurdity, and brings out some great details, including a Lord of the Flies riff where the senior athletes set up their own society, or the weird backstory of a hardcore cafeteria worker. The absurdity works better than the film, though, resulting in something that feels like it wouldn’t be out of place as an Adult Swim series, but doesn’t have enough meat to work as a film. Rating: ** ½

Luckily, I followed the weakest film of my festival run with one of the best. Liam Davis’s A Dark Song is a haunting, deeply unsettling film – adark_song_poster_final horror film more concerned with psychological dread and unease than it is with scares, though it more than provides those. It’s the story of a woman who has decided to engage in a dark ritual, one that can last up to eight months, and once started, forbids the participants from leaving the salt circle which sets the boundaries of the ritual. What that means is that, for the vast majority of its running time, this is a film about two people, in a closed-off house, and the stresses of their occult ritual. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, both unknown to me before this, play their parts incredibly, with Walker slowly revealing the trauma that led her to request this dark rite, and Oram playing the part of an expert whose experiences have helped him to understand what he calls the “architecture” of this world. Davis, not content to let A Dark Song simply be a horror film, lets his characters breathe and converse freely, becoming more than just archetypes, and grappling with questions ranging from grief and coping with loss to metaphysical, religious questions raised by the nature of the rites they’re engaging in. And if that’s not enough, it’s also beautifully shot, whether in our brief glances at the Welsh environs or the shadowy interiors of the house. But at its core, this is a horror film, even if it’s one with more on its mind than simple scares. And it builds to one of the most memorable images I’ve ever seen in a horror film, one that elevates A Dark Song to nearly a whole different genre in its final moments, and creating an instantly iconic moment. I truly loved this film; it’s not like much else out there (the closest thing I could compare it to would be The Witch, with its lived-in feel and low-key approach to its horrors, as well as its fascination with ritual and religion; nonetheless, this is too modern and minimalistic to make a perfect comparison there), has some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a long time, and tells a wholly unique, strange story that I loved. Rating: *****

I was worried about following up A Dark Song with Lake Bodom, simply for fear that it wouldn’t be able to hold up against the comparison; when you follow one horror movie with another, you can’t help but make comparisons. bodom-posterFortunately, Lake Bodom couldn’t be more different from A Dark Song, preferring gore, violence, and old-fashioned slasher atmosphere over A Dark Song‘s headier fare. But don’t hold that against Lake Bodom, because it does all of that stuff incredibly well, delivering a stylish, fun movie that wears its influences on its sleeve (a bit of Carrie here, a bit of High Tension there, a lot of Friday the 13th throughout) and just encourages you to have a darkly violent time. Based on a real incident in Finland, in which a group of teenagers were butchered at a lake as they camped by a still unknown suspect, Lake Bodom follows a group of teenagers as they go to camp at the killing spot in order to check out some theories. But there are other tensions here, even apart from the constant sexual tension between two guys and two girls out in the woods apart from parents; there are hints of a deep disgrace that’s led to one of the girls becoming a social pariah, and then there’s that one kid who just seems super obsessed with the murders…you get the idea. Lake Bodom isn’t anything groundbreaking, but what it does, it does well, delivering several big twists and reveals that keep the movie transforming before your eyes into something else, all before ending with a frustrating epilogue that I kind of hated, but whose purpose I understood more after reading up on the original events and realizing what they were trying to do. More than that, though, Lake Bodom has style to spare, using its shadows and darkness with art and style (there’s an underwater shot late in the film that I absolutely adored), and doling out its scares and violence nicely. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well, with style, grit, and relentlessness, and the constant shifts in the story keep it moving like a sick, bleak rocket ride to hell. Rating: ****

What came next couldn’t have been more different – and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The closest way I can possibly describe the joyous, funny, wonderful Dave Made a Mazeposter is to tell you to imagine that Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Michel Gondry got together to watch Labyrinth and thought, “I bet we could do something even more fun than this.” Because how else can I describe a movie in which a struggling artist builds a cardboard labyrinth in his house, only to find that it’s much bigger on the inside, and he may have gotten lost…oh, and there may be traps that are killing people. If that sounds dark, it shouldn’t; Dave Made a Maze is an absolute joy, delivering laugh-out-loud dialogue, boundless imagination, and even staging the deaths with a burst of inspired lunacy. Director Bill Watterson, who makes his debut here (and that is insane, given how inspired this film is), stages the action wonderfully, never missing the chance to go both for a joke and a bit of incredible imagination, and using cardboard and household craft supplies to incredible effect. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is uniformly great (or that I will never not enjoy James Urbaniak in things, and letting him play a documentary filmmaker who’s directing all of the action around him only gives him more to do), but more than anything, this is just pure fun, with enough emotional heft to keep you invested, and more than enough imagination, style, and joy to keep you smiling throughout. It’s maybe my favorite movie from the whole festival, and I can’t wait for it to open wide so it can become the cult hit it’s destined to be. Rating: *****

Mind you, as imaginative and wonderful as Dave Made a Maze was, it doesn’t even begin to approach the sheer insane weirdness of Angieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which is almost definitely the best Polish disco musical about murderous, man-eating mermaids ever made. lure_poster_900Words can’t possibly do justice to the insanity of this movie, which is – naturally, as you’ve assumed by now – a super loose retelling of The Little Mermaid, which follows two young mermaids as they make a name for themselves into a disco nightclub, find romance, and struggle to figure out their place in the world. How this results in bizarre surgeries, full-on musical numbers, massively uncomfortable sexual imagery, and more – well, it should really be experienced, rather than explained, because there’s no way I can convey what it’s like to watch this movie. (I feel like critic David Ehrlich saying that he watched the movie on Ambien, and had to go and rewatch it to confirm that he didn’t hallucinate some of it, makes good sense.) The Lure doesn’t always work; its weirdness can be a bit much at times, and you’ll start to see that, underneath it all, it’s a story you kind of know already, and it’s going about like you think it will. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth seeing, though; whatever else you may think of The Lure, it’s astonishing to watch, with some absolutely incredible sequences that hold their own against the numbers of La La Land, some surreal comedy that never failed to crack me up, and just the sheer insanity of it. Just, you know. Brace yourself. Rating: **** ½

If you’re feeling like there’s a lot of style in these films, there undeniably is, making for a rich theme for the weekend. Nowhere was there more style – but sadly, less substance – than in The Void, voida piece of cosmic horror that gave me some incredible images and moments, but falls apart in its weak final act. Set almost entirely in a rural hospital that’s only a few days away from shutting down completely, The Void follows a small group of survivors – some medical personnel, a local sheriff, a few assorted patients, and a couple of others – as they find themselves under siege by a strange, cloak-wearing cult that seems to have surrounded the hospital out there in the darkness. With some fantastic creature design, and glimpses of a nightmarish cosmology, it doesn’t take The Void long to show its true colors – this is horror in the vein of Lovecraft and Barker, and its dark themes are pretty gripping and interesting ones. However, the film feels about thirty minutes longer than it is, and that’s before the never-ending “bad guy monologue” that starts to close out of the film. I liked The Void more than most of the people I saw it with, but I’m not going to deny that it’s got some big problems with regard to pacing and storytelling. (There are two characters whose involvement in the story never ends up making much sense, once you learn why they’re there.) Still, if you can give yourself over to its style, there’s a lot there to love, with some fantastic images and some truly disturbing moments. But it feels like the first work of a directorial team whose best work is still ahead of them. Rating: *** ½

The final film of my film fest experience was one I was looking forward to, mainly because of a film I had seen at an earlier Chattanooga Film Festival. A couple of years ago, I saw E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a gleefully nasty, darkly comedic little thriller that followed a pair of friends who found themselves squaring off in a visceral competition of wills. It was an absolute blast, and made Katz someone to watch. With his second film, the great Small Crimes, screen-shot-2016-05-05-at-9-26-11-amhe goes from “a director of interest” to “man, this guy is fantastic.” Co-written by Macon Blair (who’s worked with Jeremy Saulnier on his films), Small Crimes follows a convict named Joe Denton (played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as he’s released from prison and tries to figure out what to do next. Small Crimes feels like a 70’s noir in many ways, complete with a dark antihero who uses just about anyone in his path, lies constantly, and is capable of horrifying actions; more than that, though, it’s also a story about the way we struggle to redeem ourselves, and to escape our pasts. How that escalates into an increasingly violent series of events should be seen rather than told; suffice to say, there’s a noir-like sensibility to the film that I loved, with bad men doing bad things in a bad time. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the film has a knockout cast, with supporting roles by Blair, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Jacki Weaver, and best of all, Robert Forster as Denton’s father, trying to understand how his son came out this way. Small Crimes is gritty stuff, with a rich, lived-in feel, a complicated take on morality, and a nicely complex plot that keeps you gripped throughout (though there’s one big exception in the end, with a single plot thread that feels a bit arbitrarily ended). It’s great stuff, and I hope it picks up an audience; it’s fantastic work, and even better than Cheap ThrillsRating: **** ½

IMDb: My Life as a Zucchini | My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea | A Dark Song | Lake Bodom | Dave Made a Maze | The Lure | The Void | Small Crimes

Review (Season 3)

review“Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”

So begins every episode of Review, Andy Daly’s nightmarishly dark comedy, which follows professional reviewer Forrest MacNeil as he reviews different life experiences. From this basic premise, Andy Daly and his team have assembled one of the most darkly, viciously funny comedies in years, following Forrest as he’s reviewed everything from prejudice to religious cults, from madness to…well, all sorts of horrible things.

But more than that, what made Review so incredible was the choice to make the series more or less a running, coherent story, as Forrest’s desire to review experiences results in the constant destruction of his own life. It’s a choice that the show made early in season one (in a justly acclaimed and praised episode), and has never backed away from since. And so, unlike so many comedies, it felt right that Review actually got to come to an ending, giving Forrest the chance to make the choice between his life and his “calling”.

For all of that, Review‘s final season was frustratingly brief, lasting only three episodes. It’s not that they were bad episodes – far from it. But Review is a show that excelled in the escalation of things, letting things start dark and just going further and further from there. And with barely an hour of show time this season, the show never got to push things quite as far as I would have enjoyed seeing it go. Worst, it felt like the show ended just as it was starting to get into its usual rhythm of madness.

Again, not to say that the final season was bad. Indeed, it felt like the show getting to play with some ideas that it had been holding off on for some time, ranging from a day in the life of Forrest’s co-host to some reviews that forced Forrest to come to terms with some of his actions over the previous two seasons. And mixed in with those were the usual Review insanity, including a review of pet euthanasia, what it was like to be Helen Keller, and more. Even in its short run, Review remained hilarious, committing utterly to its choices and never backing down, and anchored by Daly’s ever positive, enthusiastic performance.

And as for the ending, it’s the perfect ending for Review, following the show and its characters to a satisfying conclusion that feels right for the show. Comedy Central’s efforts to keep the number of episodes under wraps is an odd one, considering that the final episode is even funnier and more surprising if you know that it’s the final one (given that it’s frequently unclear which way the episode will go as it ends). But the final choice feels right – it feels like the way the show should have ended, and for a comedy that’s as dark as Review to get the right ending is an unexpected treat.

So, as a season, the final season of Review was fine. Not great, not the best, but still gleefully demented and hilarious, and only really hampered by the lack of episodes and the short length. But as a final cap on the series, it’s a great ending, even if it’s a sad reminder that we won’t be getting any more of this great show.


Legion (Season 1) / *****

15590692_10154747020132488_2201604669235057392_oNoah Hawley has a truly unique niche at this point in TV: taking projects that have no reason to be even good, and turning them into something great. There was no reason, for example, that there needed to be an anthology series based off of the Coen brothers’ superb masterpiece Fargo. And when it came out that the show was more of a spiritual successor than a true tie-in, I wondered what the point was. And yet, Fargo the series turned out to be a masterpiece, a twisty, idiosyncratic, amazing exploration of morality, violence, and goodness in a universe that defies easy categorization.

All of which goes to show, I shouldn’t have doubted Hawley when he announced that he’d be doing a TV series called Legion, based off of a somewhat obscure character from the X-Men universe. But I was, and you can hardly blame me. With the cookie-cutter, bland world of the Marvel films, and the seemingly overbearing need to tie everything together into one narrative, the idea of forcing someone as talented as Hawley into that world seemed silly. And that wasn’t even getting into whether you could hang a series on the odd comic book character of David Haller, an astonishingly  powerful telepath/telekinetic whose powers have driven him into madness.

But I shouldn’t have doubted. Not at all. Because Legion turned out to be a true joy, a mindbending, surreal, genre-defying, truly weird (in the best way) show that I loved, refusing to cave in to the demands of the Marvelverse and instead making its own defiant stand for its own weirdness. More than that, it worked as great television, telling a story that was part character study, part superhero origin tale, part tale of good vs. evil…but more than any of that, it was wildly unclassifiable. What other show could feature Bollywood-style musical numbers, silent film interludes, exposition delivered by a character educating himself in a literal classroom – oh, and also feature some of the most unsettling, horrifying scenes I’ve seen in a television series this side of Twin Peaks?

Yes, of course much of that quality comes thanks to Hawley’s confident hand, and his decision to approach Legion with confidence and style, trusting that his audience will keep up and follow his twisting road. And given how surreal Legion‘s story is – given that its protagonist and point of view may be insane, may be a mutant, or may be both, and everything we see is filtered through his fractured brain – that takes guts, both on the parts of Hawley and of the network. Indeed, at any given point, Legion is both trying to understand the deeply damaged brain of its titular hero, expanding the strange corner of the world it’s created, and telling a whole other story that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the season. That it manages to do all three of these simultaneously, and do them all well, is no small thing.

But it undeniably helps that Hawley is assisted by his spectacular cast. It’s hard to find a weak link here; Dan Stevens, as David Haller, has to do much of the heavy lifting, but holds up beautifully underneath it all, following David through his highs and lows, his hopeless time in the asylum and his newfound purpose – all of it. But he’s backed up by a fantastic supporting cast, including Jean Smart as a matriarch-type figure who’s running a mutant organization attempting to help David and those like him; Rachel Keller as love interest, teammate, and heroine Syd Barrett (and how great is the in-joke of that name?); Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder as a uniquely connected pair of mutants, and so many more, including a fantastic small role by one of my favorite comedic presences. But the undeniable MVP is Aubrey Plaza, who plays Dan’s best friend (and fellow asylum patient) Lenny. Without getting into spoiler territory, Plaza gets a chance to shine in this role, which constantly evolves and shifts over the course of the series, letting her show more than her comedic chops, and delivering everything from unease to sex appeal, from unchecked power to seething anger. Plaza owns every moment of the show she’s in – and given how great the show is, that’s no small feat either.

But more than anything, Legion is a show that’s best watched and experienced, coming to life thanks to its style and its execution. From the incredible “Bolero” sequence (which may be the best sequence I’ve seen in a TV show in years) to that silent film stretch, from that nightmarish presence in a dark hotel room to an incredible use of soundtrack, it’s television for those who love their media with style, confidence, and storytelling prowess. And if you’re worried that this is just more Marvel material, rest assured, Legion works not because it’s a Marvel show, but in spite of it.