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Review: The Knick: Season One

Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is informed by a hypnotic sense of old newness that’s reminiscent of Deadwood.

4.0

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The Knick: Season One

Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is exhilaratingly alien. Though the series is set in a rundown hospital in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century, the director doesn’t invite us to dutifully nod off to another dull wax-museum period piece that renders the past insufferably safe and platitudinous. The show’s so dangerously alive that it inspires gratitude that our society has somehow existed this long, as there’s a palpable sense here of the precarious strangeness of life, both on a micro and macro level. The doctors of the Knickerbocker Hospital are shown to engage in daily gladiatorial battles with the limitations of their own knowledge and of the human body, and their inevitable feelings of grandiosity are frequently cut down by the brutal, humbling biological, technical, and political specifics of their occupation.

In many medical shows, the procedures are abstractions, things that sort of happen while the characters spout expository information about themselves. The Knick places us disconcertingly up close to the operations, which, in 1900, are still terrifyingly reminiscent of the work performed in field hospitals. Soderbergh astutely parses out incidental details that stick and expand in the imagination: the thrumming of a pumping machine that sucks the blood out of patients’ wounds; the subtle drip-dropping sound of water in the background of the Knickerbocker’s operating theater, which affirms the institution’s worn-down fragility; a close-up of a needle, seemingly briefly suspended in time, before it’s to be stuck in someone’s spine as an act of administering a make-shift anesthetic. There’s a close-up, with all the gothic power of a fairy tale, of a woman who has her forearm’s skin sewn to her face to help graft over the hole where the nose she lost to syphilis used to be. There are other close-ups of metallic instruments, which the doctors sometimes appear to invent nearly on the fly while lecturing on the specifics of ruptured bowels and knotted-up hernias, which are also seen in images that merge the poetic with the rational. The hospital’s physicians often resemble a cross between magicians, an association exasperated by a supporting character’s bald head and sculpted pointy beard, and auto mechanics.

The Knick is informed by a hypnotic sense of old newness that’s reminiscent of Deadwood. Soderbergh conjures a past era and parallels to present-day United States in a tour of a still-relevant caste system that allows the audience to sort out the contemporary resonances for itself. There’s a great feeling of discovery to the series. The evocative opening image, for instance, highlights a doctor’s white shoes propped up in the foreground, pointedly and boldly alone, while the background reveals the setting to be a lamp-lit brothel den. A nude Chinese whore then crosses the room toward the white shoes in a gesture of movement that serves as the image through line. It’s a telling, compact encapsulation of the show’s estranged classist themes. Tracking shots frequently tie characters together with a grace that’s reminiscent of a Robert Altman film, while establishing shots are positioned from low to the ground, rather than from a typically high birds’-eye vantage point, so as to foster closer audience proximity with the characters and the setting.

We’re also often taken, in unbroken shots, from the foreground to the background of the image as the camera piggybacks on a character who assumes the brief position of a first-person surrogate so as to heighten the tangibility of the sets as part of something that’s living and breathing. It’s an impression that’s affirmed by composer Cliff Martinez’s great, throbbing, insinuating score. The period recreations of 1900s New York are as lush as you’d expect from a prestige show, but there’s a greater awareness than usual of the rot and stink of the business of maintaining a social infrastructure (we see the shit and garbage on the streets, as well as the stretch marks and scars on the patients), which complements the social outrage with the rich white prigs who speak to women and African-Americans as if they’re children or cattle. Human pretensions do little to disguise the fact that we’re all animals who eat and shit and fuck like most others, and certain diseases, such as typhoid fever, have a fashion of blowing away our erected façades of civility.

The Knick ideally suits the intention that governs all of Soderbergh’s work, which is defined by a pragmatic focus on processes as a route toward expressing traditional emotions in a fashion that’s new, or, at least, devoid of cheaply impersonal and easy Hallmark sentiment. His emphasis on tactility grounds the show’s melodrama in the quotidian, while the melodrama wraps the gory, real-life reporting up in a commanding soap-operatic structure. That combination, reminiscent of Dickens, and also of the director’s less confident Traffic, is weirdly, amazingly effective here: Soderbergh stages some of the expected scenes of the hospital serial with a misleading offhandedness that’s heartbreaking.

There’s a particularly astonishing short scene with a young girl who’s tasked with translating a doctor’s diagnosis to her dying mother, who only speaks her native Polish. The girl is strong and matter-of-fact, and that’s what’s so fiercely poignant. (Soderbergh’s one of the few contemporary mainstream American directors who understands that tragedy emotionally hits you on the rebound.) We’re seeing a girl adopt a stiff upper lip in a child-parent role reversal in a new culture that’s beyond her range of experience and imagination. Like the doctors, she excels without making a show of excelling. She’s seeing a brief glimpse of the business of casual miracles that aren’t so casual. And we, in a fleeting instance, see that she has to bite back tears between hearing of her mother’s tubercular diagnosis from the doctors and relating of the message to her mother. This is Soderbergh at the zenith of his powers as an entertainer: Revealing character through a devotion to process (in this case, navigating the tedium of multiple language translations at a quick, urgent clip) that also respects the character’s dignity.

That sort of moment is worth a hundred newspaper articles about the plight of the immigrants’ crossing over into America, and each episode has about half a dozen such scenes, which also elaborate on the physical and emotional contours of the ambulance drivers (who also sell bodies and rob graves), the nuns, the doctors, and even the often vilified upper class. The pathos and the attention to detail come to be wonderfully overwhelming, and Soderbergh eventually develops a habit of cutting away to a specific character, Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), as a shorthand of evoking a feeling of protective empathy. She’s both our dream girl, principled and gorgeous, as well as our Every Human who reflects our own discombobulated entrance into this past era that’s anything but quaint. Soderbergh takes us to the depths of known hell, and then occasionally cuts to Lucy’s face to show that the battles these professionals are waging are worth the risk. Her visage represents Soderbergh’s one indulgence of unqualified sentimentality—of hope that may or may not be rational—and he earns it because he shows you the work and bravery of maintaining such idealism.

Cast: Clive Owen, André Holland, Eve Hewson, Jeremy Bobb, Eric Johnson, Juliet Rylance, Cara Seymour, Chris Sullivan, Grainger Hines, David Fierro, Maya Kazan, Danny Hoch Airtime: Cinemax, Fridays @ 10 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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