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Review: Game of Thrones: Season Three

The series feels like it has some firm footing and a newfound sense of certain direction that was lacking intermittently in the second season.

3.0

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Game of Thrones: Season Three

Up until now, Game of Thrones has been marginally rewarding as a big, ambitious entertainment, but the series has never been as satisfying as its massive popularity and outpouring of critical praise would suggest. Unless one found solace in the show’s marginal surface pleasures (lively production and set design, rampant nudity, bloodshed as far as the eye can see, tortures fit for the Crusades), the series has been defined by one thing: struggle of the most slow-burning sort. Dragons hatched, heroes literally lost their heads, kings and warriors died, betrayals boiled over, but every moment of catharsis seemed to breed a slew of new harrowing ordeals, each of which moved forward at its own lumbering pace.

So, it comes as a thrilling surprise that, within the first few episodes of season three, the series seems lighter on its feet than ever before. The dense interplay of storylines, hemmed down from the endless sprawl of George R. R. Martin’s venerable fantasy novels, plays more decisively, each exterior and interior conflict having finally come out the other end of its gestation period and allowed to begin to bloom. This begins with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who now finds himself at the behest of Mance Rayder (Ciáran Hinds), the King Beyond the Wall, who takes Snow as a lead recruit for his army of giants, maniacs, and outcasts.

Snow’s half-brother, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), also finds himself in a new community of outcasts and coming into new knowledge of his true self, thanks largely to the introduction of a mysterious young man. Many of the show’s conflicts, however, have been compounded by its revitalized interest in the women of Westeros. Yes, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues her march toward the throne with her trio of dragons circling overhead and breathing fire, but equally remarkable is the budding relationship between Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), her usurper. (Spoiler alert.) And Brienne of Tarth’s (Gwendoline Christie) journey with Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) grows far more emotionally complicated when they’re captured and, while attempting to prevent Briennes’s rape, the “Kingslayer” has his favored sword-wielding hand chopped off. It’s a fine bit of castration symbolism, suggesting a shedding of Jaime’s skin as a perverse and calculating sadist and a turn toward a more substantial and conflicted character.

Other than Jaime, the adult Lannisters take a backseat throughout the season’s first four episodes, and the same can be said of the backbone of the Stark clan, namely Queen Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and her eldest son, King Robb Stark (Richard Madden). The brief, formative steps toward a bond between Catelyn and Robb’s queen, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), however, further highlights the show creators’ continuing fascination with what it takes to both tame a ruler and raise those born to lead, while keeping one’s own femininity and persona intact. The series has aligned itself nicely with a growing trend of television shows built on complex relationships between strong, stunningly mercurial women.

The show’s drama feels smartly refocused on its chief thematic concern with roleplaying and how allegiances, lies, and familial betrayals can reshape accepted roles. Snow’s time beyond the wall allows him to reassess his place as the bastard of the Stark family and by extension helps him locate his true, singular identity. In contrast, Margaery quickly assumes a new fabricated role in hopes of getting closer to Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) by appealing to his interest in weapons and pain. The uniformly excellent cast bolsters the show’s talky, myth-ridden stretches, but the action hardly suffers. Though nothing in the first few episodes rivals the Battle of the Blackwater in terms of big, busy, and chaotically violent set pieces, swordplay dominates the sequences involving the Night’s Watch, as well as Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) sojourn through the woods as an anonymous exile.

If Game of Thrones still feels like it’s just a bit weighed down by the sheer heft of its narrative strands, to say nothing of the seemingly endless backstories and mythologies, the series at least now feels like it has some firm footing and a newfound sense of certain direction that was lacking intermittently in the second season. In nearly every frame, there’s the feeling of gathering, impending force, as if the whole of Westeros is about to erupt into violent, ceaseless madness and death. The sense of interweaving communities, formed by legacy, prophecy, love, and alienation, feels full and alive, but as the dragons start showing off some new talents, it becomes clearly inevitable that earth is going to get scorched.

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Jack Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Ciarin Hinds, Alfie Allen, Liam Cunningham, Stephen Dillane, Natalie Dormer, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Carice Van Houten, Isaac Hampstead Wright, James Cosmo, Gwendoline Christie, Jerome Flynn, Aidan Gillen, Conleth Hill, Sibel Kekilli, Rose Leslie, Rory McCann, Charles Dance Airtime: HBO, Sundays @ 9 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: In Season Two, Barry Draws Dark, Heartfelt Comedy from a Man’s Trauma

The season’s storylines cohere around the myriad factors which comprise the masks people present to the world.

4

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Barry
Photo: HBO

Right out the gate, the stakes are high in the second season of HBO’s Barry, which begins with Barry (Bill Hader) desperate to maintain normalcy after having murdered Paula Newsome’s Detective Moss in last season’s finale. As soon as police begin to suspect Barry’s involvement in the crime, the new season settles into a propulsive narrative that, similar to the first season, unfolds as a comedy of errors. And while the new episodes maintain the show’s satiric view of self-interested Hollywood types, a poignant theme emerges which represents an evolution for the series. As an introspective Barry takes inventory of his past misdeeds, the show’s storylines cohere around the reflexive lies people tell themselves, and the myriad factors which comprise the masks they present to the world.

Barry’s world is in flux as he attempts to avoid the police, dodge the Chechen mob, and abstain from violence. He even offers to train soldiers for the Chechen mob’s new leader, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), rather than carry out another hit himself. The conceit leads to a scene that derives much humor from the Chechen trainees’ ineptitude at shooting, and while similar comedy abounds in Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from the crime world, the series is ultimately more interested in why Barry is so desperate for change. Though in the first season the character strove to mimic the people whom he viewed as good, this season finds him grappling with, and motivated by, the idea that he’s inherently evil.

In one of the new season’s central storylines, Barry must craft a one-man performance based on his first kill in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. While he resolves to portray the event as a moral reckoning, flashbacks reveal that it was actually one of the happiest moments of his life—a fact which places an upsettingly irreconcilable paradox at the heart of Barry. In an inspired bit of absurdism, the series underlines the extent of the man’s denial when his acting coach, Gene (Henry Winkler), appears in one of Barry’s war flashbacks, offering notes on his student’s recollection. Hilariously, the other soldiers in the flashback chime in as well—a chorus chiding Barry for his attempt to whitewash reality.

Such surreal flourishes lace the show’s new season, conveying in exacting but moving fashion how Barry’s trauma has caused him to live in a fugue state. But the show’s dark comedy is still largely derived from stark juxtapositions of violence and humor. When Barry finds himself in a shootout with a Burmese gang disguised as monks, the incongruity of the gang’s costumes adds a dash of farce to the proceedings. And when Barry declines a job offer from the bald and tattooed Hank, the spurned mobster asks in his characteristically fragmented English, “What do you want me to do, walk into John Wick assassin hotel with ‘Help Wanted’ sign?”

While the series portrays its underworld as the province of bumbling and affable lords, its directors frame violence with a matter-of-fact sensibility, emphasizing the yawning gap between whimsy and outright danger in Barry’s world. When Barry flees a shootout in the season’s second episode, director Hiro Murai embeds his camera in the car alongside Barry, eschewing adrenalized, eye-catching flourishes in favor of stark naturalism. Relatively peaceful moments pass before the first bullets come, and then, without fanfare, they arrive in a hail. The effect is startling and gripping. The discord in Barry’s life similarly informs the way Barry captures Los Angeles, with wide shots that juxtapose the city’s beckoning blue sky and towering palm trees with the generic, nondescript buildings that ensconce Barry. In such moments, the gap between his reality and his ambitions is rendered literal.

As Barry reaches for and clings to a sense of normalcy, Hader portrays the character with a mixture of fear and shame. During one monologue, in which Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), triumphantly declares that she’ll never date another violent man, the camera lingers poignantly on Barry’s quietly downcast reaction. The crux of this season isn’t whether Barry can find happiness from acting, or whether he’ll outsmart the cops, but whether he’s inherently broken and capable of repair. As he strives to bridge the gap between the person he is and the one he wants to be, the show’s central source of pathos is his (and our) dawning understanding that it may not be possible, and that he may not even deserve it.

Cast: Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, D’Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson Airtime: HBO

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Review: Amazon’s Hanna Quickly Exhausts the Novelty of Its Premise

The series fails to uphold, subvert, or otherwise comment on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

1.5

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Hanna
Photo: Amazon Prime

Like the 2011 film upon which it’s based, Amazon’s Hanna follows the eponymous teen (Esme Creed-Miles) as she embarks on a revenge mission against a shadowy spy agency. The series milks visceral thrills from Hanna’s fight skills as she kicks, punches, shoots, and kills burly adult men. But where Joe Wright’s film was distinguished by its thumping Chemical Brothers score, bluntly filmed and brutal action scenes, and strikingly lensed locations, the series neither carves a unique path for itself nor upholds, subverts, or otherwise comments on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

After an opening sequence that sees Hanna’s parents fleeing for their lives from the spy agency, the series flashes forward to regard Hanna training with her ex-military father, Erik (Joel Kinnaman), in the woods where they live in solitude. When the duo is eventually forced to flee their safe haven, Erik reveals to Hanna that he’s actually been preparing her to hunt and kill a villainous C.I.A. agent named Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos). While Marissa is shown in flashback to be nefariously connected to Hanna’s childhood, Erik tells Hanna nothing else about her target. Consequently, the central mystery of Hanna’s origin, and Marissa’s role in it, is predicated on the secrets that Erik keeps from her for reasons that are never made clear.

Every episode of the series more or less follows the same format, as slow-burning cloak-and-dagger spy games eventually yield a few more revelations about Hanna’s past before leading to an eruptive and often incoherently filmed climax. The season’s middle stretch is particularly dull, as Erik and Hanna’s first attempt to kill Marissa goes awry and the teen finds herself stranded with a vacationing English family. Hanna attempts to use the relationship which emerges between Hanna and the family’s daughter, Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), to yoke a violent revenge plot to a coming-of-age teenage drama—which doesn’t work, chiefly because it’s impossible to understand why the otherwise unremarkable Sophie would be suddenly obsessed with Hanna, who’s nearly feral and prone to extreme violence.

Of course, Sophie’s fascination with her new friend is mysterious in part because Hanna herself is purposefully difficult to know, with Creed-Miles uses her open face and wide eyes to portray Hanna with a faraway look and a curious intelligence. The girl is inscrutable by Erik’s design, but less understandable is why the adults in the series, particularly Marissa, are similarly vague. Throughout, Hanna goes to great lengths to make its villain, who’s shown committing heinous acts, more sympathetic to the viewer. Certain plot twists suggest that Marissa may be ready to deal with her guilt over the nature of Hanna’s being, yet Enos’s severe, unsmiling performance and the season’s hectic third act go a long way toward muddying our sense of whatever change of heart the woman may be experiencing.

This muddled depiction of Marissa’s ostensible moral transformation, along with the introduction of a cabal of more menacing villains operating alongside her, rob the season finale of catharsis—which is about the only quality otherwise still preserved in the vicious retributions doled out by Hanna. Just as the series struggles to define Marissa’s motivations, it doesn’t hint at what might eventually happen to the rest her shadowy organization. The season’s conclusion asks as many questions as it answers, appearing to exist only so that Hanna may sustain itself, offering more henchman bones for Hanna to snap without wondering whether the character should, or even wants to, keep snapping them.

Cast: Esme Creed-Miles, Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Khalid Abdalla, Rhianne Barreto, Benno Fürmann, Sam C. Wilson, Félicien Juttner Airtime: Amazon Prime

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