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The Man in the High Castle: Truth (2015)
In No Particular Hurry
By the end of this episode, the season is more than two-thirds of the way complete, and there's never been less of a sense of urgency. The big cliffhanger ending of the last episode does not result in any major game-changer when we pick up where the action left off. The show takes the least interesting possible path following the cliffhanger. In this episode, we learn more about Joe without getting to know him any better. There is no other prestige drama with a protagonist as hollow as Joe. The writers are uninterested in giving the actor playing him anything to do besides stare blankly and try to evoke deep internal conflict. Juliana fares better, because she's given more to do. The Trudy storyline that takes over the episode is a little desperate. Maybe there's a payoff coming that makes it all worth it, but the show hasn't earned much trust. As usual, the most interesting parts of Man in the High Castle are happening on the fringes. This is especially true regarding antiques dealer Robert Childan. His and Frank's decision is unexpected, but feels right.
Sets Off Some Fireworks
There's something especially unsettling about a Nazi in a green cardigan. From the beginning, many of the show's most disturbing moments have centered on Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith: even the incongruity between his showy German title and comically ordinary American name reads like a three-word summation of The Man in the High Castle's themes. So it makes sense that the first episode to spotlight the SS officer would be especially effective at encapsulating what makes this alternate world so disquieting when The Man in the High Castle is at its best. The show, at this point, has developed a pattern of using incredibly coincidental chance meetings to drive the narrative. This is on display when Juliana has yet another coincidental crossing of paths with someone. With the end of Three Monkeys, the show has left all of its main characters in intriguing places, all the better to keep us wondering what's next.
Hits the Reset Button
The fifth episode is a little early for a reboot, but the show feels like it's starting over. The first four episodes formed a neo-Western mini-arc that had run its course, but as the title of this episode indicates, Joe and Juliana are back in their own world. The theme hammered home over and over is that these worlds will never be the same. For all the possibilities the show's premise still holds, The Man in the High Castle so far is generally content with standard-issue intrigue. The Tagomi/Wegener arc is a case in point: it's full of generic, boring spy tropes that could play out the exact same way in any context. The most intriguing elements of the pilot (the Grasshopper films and the titular character) have receded into the background. New threads with potential to up the intrigue are presented toward the end of the episode. Here's hoping that a chance encounter between two characters in this episode is the spark that ignites the second half of the season, because that's exactly what the show needs right now.
Snowfall: A Long Time Coming (2017)
Continues Losing Momentum
Inherent in any TV show with a large scope is a certain degree of patience and withholding of narrative information. Snowfall is no exception. Its dramatization of "how crack began" is ambitious in how much it wants to tackle. Not content to tell you the story of how a young, educated kid might get caught up in the business of dealing cocaine, Snowfall hopes to add depth to that by drawing others into the story. Franklin's story may be the obvious entry point into the rise of cocaine in the 80s in LA, but there's more at play. This isn't about a kid wanting to control his destiny and learning that it comes with a cost. It's a story about how all sorts of systems and enablers play their part in the expansion of the cocaine trade. This wide-ranging scope has been Snowfall's greatest flaw. What began as an intriguing look at various players in this game has shifted to a dull slog through too much exposition and not enough consequences. For every bit of compelling business involving the personal stakes of Franklin's search for something better for himself, there's a more complacent counterpart. Last episode saw each set of characters stagnating, and Long Time Coming continues this trend, moving each story forward with zero momentum. Snowfall's problem is that there's no sense of these character's being challenged in any way, a way that will force them to confront their motivations and question their stances. For example, Franklin's increasingly perilous jump into the cocaine-dealing business has been met with its fair share of obstacles. He's keeping secrets from his mother, his uncle is advising him not to deal, his supplier is unhinged and prone to wear a Speedo, and he watched his friend shoot a guy after witnessing a brutal rape. Every sign is telling Franklin to get out of this game before he's killed, or before someone he loves pays the price. Yet he forges on, convinced he's going to be the outlier, the one that makes it to the other side without a scratch. Where snowfall, and particularly this episode, fail is in exploring the motivations behind Franklin's persistence. What drives Franklin to keep selling keys despite the increased violence he's dealing with? Here he's nearly killed by the Mexican gang that controls all of the cocaine-dealing in LA, but there's little doubt he'll be back in that situation again soon. What's feeding his stubbornness? Snowfall is failing to answer that question, resulting in a character arc absent of any tension, intrigue, and growth. There are hints sprinkled around - his musings on the lives of his rich white friends, paired with the mention that his father was a Black Panther and the aggressiveness he witnessed from white cops suggest Franklin is working against oppressive forces and a system that wants to keep him down. But the sprawling narrative and large group of characters means there's no focus, stealing impact from Franklin's arc. That's where Snowfall is at this point. Many of the stories are falling flat, and the show is destined to spin its wheels. Teddy is again trying to bring his family together, promising to distance himself from the operation with Alejandro. But it wasn't long ago that he's re-committed to the project after leaving Alejandro stranded with a bevy of American weapons and a number of serial numbers that needed filing down. What's Teddy's motivation here? Snowfall hasn't provided much insight into his relationship with Jules, and the lack of backstory regarding his dealings with the CIA means that his work life lacks any definition. Without clear motivation and clarity regarding narrative direction, we're left with episode after episode of complacent storytelling. There are signs in this episode of things starting to come together. When Gustavo steps in to save Franklin from the Mexicans he himself has just struck a deal with, there's promise that these two will interact more later, creating an interconnectedness that would benefit the show. Likewise, the tight pots that each character finds themselves in shows potential for meaningful conflict soon. If Snowfall pulls all of these pieces together, it will forge a compelling final four episodes. Until then, the show is stuck in neutral.
Snowfall: Seven-Four (2017)
Not Sure What Story It's Telling
Seven-Four boasts an intriguing cold open. For the second straight episode, Snowfall begins with an eerie atmosphere. Last week it was the aftermath of a killing, this week Teddy and Alejandro stranded in the Mexican desert. Their plane sitting on a pile of rocks, while Teddy tries to tinker with things on the underside and Alejandro lays in the shade. But it's no beach vacation, as Alejandro is unconscious with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. Identical to last episode, the cold open presents a lot of questions: What happened on the landing? Why did Teddy freak out and change the plan? How long have they been there? Definitely intriguing questions, the problem being that Snowfall isn't interested in providing any answers. Halfway through season one, Snowfall's biggest problem is that it's spread too thin. In the early episodes, especially the pilot, Snowfall's greatest asset was the sprawling story. The pilot felt alive, as the characters came and went and an atmosphere of joy yet impending doom took hold. Now Snowfall is struggling to use all of its pieces in a meaningful way. The narrative is getting lost, because there isn't much focus on how to pace the stories across ten episodes. These pacing issues are most evident in the Teddy/Alejandro storyline. In four episodes we've seen Teddy force himself into a new gig after a timely drug overdose, snag a bunch of US government weapons for anti-communist fighters in Latin America, travel to the jungle to meet said forces, and reconnect and then disconnect from his wife and son. That's a lot of ground to cover in four episodes, and it's robbing the story of any impact. It's hard to care about Alejandro and Teddy's plight in Seven-Four because Snowfall hasn't given us much to connect with. Their goals and motivations are unclear, so stranding them in the desert doesn't feel tense or unpredictable, but dull and contriving. Likewise, pacing issues are evident in Gustavo's story. This episode he's at a Fourth of July party at the command of Pedro. Gustavo's presence serves as a way to get the heat off of Pedro and Lucia, by allowing Pedro to show his father that everything is under control and they have a man they can trust. It makes sense that Gustavo would have to be introduced to the family, but Snowfall doesn't know how to make the moment meaningful. Gustavo just sits in a room with Pedro's father Ramiro, answers two questions, then tells Lucia that he's ready to be an equal partner because he's killed two men for them. This Fourth of July party underscores how quickly Snowfall is becoming stagnant. Franklin's story provides something more substantial. For his Fourth of July, Franklin bails his father out of prison, leading to him showing up at Jerome's party and provoking tension between Cissy and her ex-husband, as well as between Franklin and his mother. It all boils over when a pair of white cops try to break down the party, putting Franklin in a chokehold and nearly killing him before a black officer intervenes. The scene is uncomfortable, but Snowfall isn't sure what to do with it. Snowfall is attempting to show how the current political climate is a result of policies and systems that were refined in the 80s, but there's no punch behind the comparisons. Snowfall could use a little clarity, which is impossible considering how many storyline's it's juggling. The idea is that this run-in with racially charged authority, combined with the criticism of his father, sends Franklin back to Avi, back to a life where he can "become his own man." Identical to last episode's sudden departure from the game, everything is so rushed, resulting in a storyline with the potential to be dramatically entertaining, but hasn't hit that height yet.
Reveals Snowfall's Flaws
If you've watched the show up to Trauma, you're already aware of the show's flaws. However, the first three episodes did a good job at masking those flaws. Because of the primary focus on Franklin, Snowfall was able to deliver three straight compelling episodes. However, you can only rely on shock and action for so long before you must offer up something more meditative in order to deepen the psychology of the characters. Trauma was that meditative episode, but it didn't add layers to the story. It instead exposed the struggles of Snowfall up to this point. Trauma picks up in the aftermath of some big decisions. Franklin is ready to find Carvell and get his money back, while Teddy finds his way in the jungle in order to repair his relationship with Alejandro. Then there's the episode's stunning opening scene. Gustavo, Lucia, and Pedro take in the work they've just completed. Last episode left us with a cliffhanger, as the trio was about to attempt to kill Enrique and frame him for the inter-cartel robbery. The scene is subversive, removing us from the action and allowing us to only see the aftermath. Lucia is bloody, Gustavo is calm, and Pedro is shaken. It's a quiet scene, and doesn't tell us what happened at Enrique's but does give us insight into the emotional state of these characters. In a perfect world, that opening scene would serve as inspiration for how to structure the rest of the episode, as everyone is dealing with the fallout of their actions. It doesn't follow through. It does, however, present two dull stories: Franklin and Leon chasing down Carvell, and Teddy in the jungle. The Teddy storyline is a mess, lacking the attention to detail necessary for a story about complex geopolitical struggles. It's a frustratingly vague story. In addition to the vagueness, Trauma tries to maintain the theme of contemplating the cost of certain actions by having Teddy meet a young boy at camp. He talks to the kid about baseball and tries to learn about his dead father. The twist comes when Teddy discovers an infrared device in the tree where the boy was scouting for trespassers, which can be used by the Sandinistas to locate the camp. He sends the boy to his death by pegging him as working for the Sandinistas. The moment feels rushed. Trauma removes all the complexity of the CIA's attempts to fight communism. Trauam really only hints at a moral reckoning for each character. Pedro gets the most insightful character work. He questions everything he's said about himself after he is unable to kill Enrique when he was choking Lucia. He's having an identity crisis, threatened by Gustavo's presence and his own failures. Pedro's lashing out and falling apart is Trauma's only meaningful character work. Nobody else has to deal with the destruction they've wrought. There is something potentially interesting in that Franklin hunts down Carvell, but ends up letting Leon kill him, because he will eventually have to reckon with the fact that he caused all of this. But that isn't happening right now, and the lack of conflict contributes to the fact that Franklin is untouchable. In addition to that, he walks away from Avi and cocaine dealing. He got shook, and now he's out. That's too easy. Reductive and simplistic storytelling is Trauma's hallmark.
At the end of episode two, Franklin received a rude welcome to the cocaine-dealing business. He was taking his first steps into a bigger, badder world. His mistake was thinking he could waltz into the market without any competition. That attitude got him a beatdown by a couple others looking to sell to Claudia. That physical welcome turns out to be just the beginning, as Franklin is introduced to a higher level of horror. The episode opens in the aftermath of the beatdown outside Claudia's. Franklin picks himself up and stumbles back into the club, wanting to know who those guys were and where to find them. Claudia gives him two names: Lenny and Ray Ray. Franklin enlists Leon, who enlists a bad dude named Carvell, to track down Lenny and Ray Ray to get his money back. Before getting to the outcome of Franklin's quest, the show's best material, let's focus on the other stories, which aren't operated at full steam. It's still early, but Teddy's story is frustrating. It's bogged down with familiar tropes, and overly vague. Snowfall doesn't need to spell out every bit of plot, but I would welcome a little clarity, especially regarding how Teddy and Alejandro are helping each other. It'd be hard to keep up without knowledge of US foreign policy in the 80s. Alejandro seems to be a member of the Contras that were funded by Reagan to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Reagan used CIA to organize coups throughout Latin America, and that seems to be where Teddy fits in. That's all good, and adds a bit of realism to the exaggerated story, but there's still a lack of an explanation that keeps the story emotionally distant. Likewise, Gustavo's storyline is floundering. His struggle with his own morality is interesting. He's a complex character, set on bettering his life but unsure how far he'll go to do so. However, that's all there is to keep the story moving. The problem is that Snowfall is spread too thin. With Franklin demanding much of the focus, there isn't time to explore the intricacies of Teddy's CIA-funded war, or the interworking of Gustavo's cartel. At least Franklin remains compelling, and Slow Hand pushes him to evaluate his decisions. Last week's finale was his first moment of conflict, but this week's interaction with Lenny is something different. Again, Franklin's selfish nature is exposed. When he seeks Carvell to help him get his money, his only thought is getting the money back. He thinks it'll be easy. The retrieval is anything but. After Leon and Franklin cant find the money, Carvell beats the hell out of Leon with a bat, rapes him behind a closed door, and then leaves with Franklin's cash. Franklin has lost much more than money here. Franklin understands that Lenny's rape is on him. He brought in Carvell, without any understanding of what he'd do to get the money. Franklin has treated drug dealing like a game without consequences, that doesn't involve real people. Now, he's confronted with reality. He's left with a choice: keep slinging, make money, and sacrifice his morals, or walk away. This wont be the last difficult decision he faces.
Snowfall: Make Them Birds Fly (2017)
Solid, If Middling
"Freedom is mine, and I know how I feel. It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me. And I'm feeling good." - Feeling Good by Nina Simone. These are the words that decorate the opening scene of Make Them Birds Fly. Snowfall has a knack for the obvious music cue, but here the words are appropriate. The swinging beat underscores the vibe in Franklin's bedroom as he looks at the money from selling a kilo of cocaine. In the pilot, Franklin says that he wants his freedom, and Nina Simone echoes that sentiment. Franklin believes he's found his freedom. He's riding high, stepping up in an uncertain moment. It wont be long before he comes crashing back to reality. Freedom isn't easily earned, especially considering Franklin's current company. The connective thread here starts anew here though. Franklin takes in his newfound cash flow, while Teddy wakes up to start over as a key part of the CIA's drug war, and Gustavo now has blood on his hands. The pilot established these characters, and this episode challenges them to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. For Franklin, that means walking into Avi's house fully confident, only to be tasked with driving a man to the hospital. Avi is impressed that he sold the cocaine so quickly, but Franklin isn't his top priority. There's a dangerous disconnect there for Franklin. He's overestimating his importance. Avi could find countless guys to work the way Franklin does now that he knows there's a market in the community, even without the Claudia connection. Franklin doesn't realize that he's disposable. He already views himself as a kingpin, but he's just a foot soldier. Where Franklin is blind to his surroundings, Gustavo is paying attention to the cartel family he's working his way into. He tells Pedro and Lucia that he's not ready to hand over the stolen money because he doesn't trust them, and says he'll be holding the money in a safe place until he gets some answers. Likewise, Teddy is changing his arrangement with Alejandro and Avi. He wants more control, so he calls for a new stash house, orders Alejandro to pack up the cocaine, and joins in on a meeting with Avi. Unlike Franklin, Teddy's brashness pays off. He confronts Avi and doesn't back down. It's a solid start for a story line that seemed already dead in the pilot, but it still lacks form. Teddy's endgame is easy to understand, but it remains unclear how everyone else fits in, which robs that story line of vital tension. The lack of tension is the most worrisome aspect of the episode, especially regarding Franklin. Fortunately, this is addressed in the episode's final moments. The problem throughout the episode is that Franklin seems untouchable. He was running the risk of being too capable, which leads to complacent plotting. That risk is still present, but as the episode closes, Franklin is beaten and bloody, with his backpack, motorcycle, and money stolen. The consequences of his blind confidence and intrusion on someone else's turf have arrived. Snowfall needs to keep the conflict coming. It's the only way to make sure Franklin's story, the heart of the show, has high enough stakes to keep it compelling.
The title Revelations is an overstatement, as there aren't exactly any revelations made at any point in the episode. However, after both Sunrise and The Illustrated Woman stalled, Revelations does offer the series some momentum again. The cross-cutting suspense sequence that serves as the episode's finale is certainly a step in the right direction for the show. The episode's final ten minutes are the best the show has been since the pilot. Frank's final scene of the episode adds a higher level of mystery as to what is next for him. It is, however, time for the show to make more clear what Tagomi and Wegener are trying to accomplish. Juliana's final scene of the episode does at least give the idea the show has somewhere that it is progressing toward. Getting away from Canon City at some point would most definitely be a good thing.
Just Killing Time
Three episodes in, and the show still has no direction. The Illustrated Woman offers little new of interest. There is, however, one major addition who sticks out like a sore thumb. That addition is a spaghetti western character complete with Stetson and rasp. He's essentially a bounty hunter/terminator of the Neutral Zone. He does not fit in tonally with the other characters, and would be more suited for a fantasy or sci-fi show. However, as broad as the Marshal is, at least he isn't boring. This is a contrast with the other, more prominently featured characters. Joe can be whatever you want him to be, because the writers and performance have given us nothing. Juliana is only slightly more developed, since we have seen evidence of her personal stake in the drama. There is no emotional weight behind anything Joe says because it all may be a lie. Frank is a much easier character to grasp. Plenty of potential speculation for his future plans by episode's end. The episode does show signs of life in its final minutes, with the scene in Copper Gulch Mine. The cliffhanger ending feels desperate, but at least something is happening. When the show was more dense and immersive, the flawed characters could be overlooked, but now that the budget has been lowered, the productions elements have been scaled back. Now its the same sets, with exteriors primarily confined to Canon City. The show will have to compensate for the lack of visual feast with more compelling drama.
Sunrise falls victim to a common issue with second episodes: much of the air time is devoted to reinforcing concepts from the pilot. It also cracks under the pressure of having to set expectations for the seasons pace and momentum. The momentum of the pilot, with Joe and Juliana moving toward their shared goal, stalls somewhat with them now settled in Canon City. Like the pilot, Sunrise shines when the grim alternate reality is grounded in the every day familiarity of mid-century America. The family breakfast scene with Obergruppenfuhrer Smith is essentially Ozzie and Harriet with Nazi armbands. Smith, if not for the Nazi armbands, could pass as a cop or fireman. The moment is particularly disturbing due to the context. For this show to transition into a very good series, it must maintain this nauseous tone consistently.
Great world-building, poor character building
Disclosure: I have not read the novel which serves as this show's source text, so don't expect a review comparing the series with the book. The show could best be described as an alternate reality period piece. The pilot episode is certainly intriguing enough to give the show hope for the rest of the season. In regards to world-building, the show has a strong start. As far as character-building goes, it still has quite a way to go. The premise is a classic "what if?" Essentially, Hitler and the Axis powers won WWII and split the US into the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States, with a Neutral Zone in the middle. In general, people have accustomed to the occupation, and life seems fairly normal. However, a Resistance does exist. The premise itself has great potential, but the characters seem rather boring. Set in the 60s, the main characters don't seem to fit as flawlessly as the cast of say, Mad Men. Neither of the two main characters demands attention from the beginning. There are, however, more interesting characters on the periphery. The characters need work, but the world they exist in does not. The alternate 1962 is very detailed. Some design elements are definitely eye-catching, but some of the more impressive details are more subtle. For example, some structures are visibly newer than others, and some glimpses of what was formerly America peek through. There have also been subtle changes to the pop culture of the time, such as an invented game show titled Guess My Game with a Nazi soldier as a guest. Its the intermingling of the everyday and the unthinkable that makes the show chilling, such as when a trooper offhandedly remarks that the ash in the air is from the burning of cripples and the terminally ill at the local hospital, referring to them as drags on the state. The shows biggest challenge is making me care about the characters as much as I do their alternate reality world.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
Lightning doesn't strike thrice
The minds behind this installment of the franchise didn't mess with the formula, so there's nothing fresh or surprising. If the formula is what you want, this big spectacular doesn't disappoint. Neither Steven Spielberg nor Michael Crichton showed up, but the movie could've written and directed itself. The bad news: Despite the contributions of Alexander Payne, the characters and script are strictly by-the-numbers and the sentimental goo that justifies the mayhem is poured on thick. Anyone who isn't bitten in half by a dinosaur grows as a person, and a broken family is reassembled amid the running and screaming. The good news is the dinos: Rather than rely solely on CGI, the movie features full-scale animatronic props constructed by Stan Winston.
Retro western worth watching to see Scott Eastwood
Lawrence Roeck's second feature has the skeleton of an interesting symbolic western -- at times even a western psychological thriller -- but the screenplay never provides flesh or a beating heart. The attempt feels like a rough draft. Despite its short running time and dislike for extra details, it locks into a loose rhythm in the early going. Walton Goggins' character, played with a wicked spirit, brings a great deal of life to the film in his brief scenes. Goggins' presence begs for comparisons to The Hateful Eight, which wouldn't be in Diablo's favor. Eastwood, upstaged by Goggins and Glover, takes a bold move in his willingness to so directly invoke his father. The two look uncannily alike. His primary acting strengths lie elsewhere, but the flimsiness of his character here can be chalked up to poor writing. Technical credits are strong, and despite a somewhat foreboding score, the film looks excellent for its budget.