Tag Archives: Netflix

The Sorcerer Detective We Need — “Trese”

As I started watching “Trese”, I immediately became worried. It paints its world broadly. The titular Trese tells us who she is a few times in a row in case we missed it. The animation obviously doesn’t have the largest budget. The supernatural “case a week” genre feels overdone by this point. Then Trese steps on the gas. Literally, at one point.

The minute the action happens it all starts to click. Disparate elements fall into place smoothly. Alexandra Trese cuts through monsters from the underworld at lightning pace, but not in a flashy, overstated way. She can take advantage of various magical powers and spells, but each of these is limited. It usually comes down to her and a knife that can harm monsters out of Filipino legend and myth.

Trese is a lakan for humanity, a leader and sorcerer tasked with maintaining peace between humans and a hidden underworld of mythological creatures. She alternates between investigating cases and kicking ass. She has a host of supernatural contacts, some explained and some not. One exchanges information for candy and, perhaps, simply because it’s fun. Others mix information with misinformation. Some respect an old balance between humans and underworld clans that Trese is solely empowered to maintain. Some seek to overthrow those agreements.

Neither is Trese a desperate vigilante. She follows a set of rules agreed upon between a council of underworld leaders. Some trust her, some fear her, some are simply betting for or against her. Many don’t like that she wields such power, or that she’s the one who’s upholding the balance after the death of her father.

She doesn’t protect humanity without question, though. A police friend often calls her in on supernatural cases, but corrupt officials and police are as much of an obstacle for her as any monster from the underworld.

Let’s go back to that action for a second. “Trese” takes advantage of its budget limitations. The whole thing feels animated on the off-beats, in other words at 12 frames-per-second in a style that values the intimation of movement over actual movement. It’s hard to get right. We’ve seen this recently in a big-budget animated film like “Into the Spider-Verse”, but the way “Trese” does it is reminiscent of one of the only animated projects even more hallowed: “Batman: The Animated Series”.

The more obvious comparison that every show like this gets might be “Supernatural”, but “Trese” is pretty far afield from that. Trese is a detective at work, hard-nosed and extremely serious, and the series leans far more into a noir-horror atmosphere. It’s also about the work of doing the job at hand; there’s almost no interpersonal drama. That Filipino myths haven’t really been featured in storytelling that’s made it to the U.S. also helps “Trese” feel unique to a viewer like me.

That’s about more than something simply coming from a foreign place. Horror often draws on myth that’s been built and retold for hundreds of years. American horror only has a few hundred years to draw on. During most of that time, it’s relied on racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism. As it’s forced to rely on those themes less and less, there’s really not much of a historical well left to draw from.

Horror from the U.S. goes a few different directions at this point. To do anything else, it needs to start inventing horror out of religious concerns, or more often co-opts horror from indigenous or exterior cultures in a way that often misunderstands it and strips it of the context that makes it frightening and meaningful. When horror from the U.S. is successful, it’s very often a meta commentary that corrects or critiques a past failure of American horror – think “You’re Next” and its inversion of the home invasion horror, or “It Follows” and how effectively it toys with sexual awakening horror.

It’s not just that Filipino folklore feels unique and different because we haven’t been exposed to it much here. It’s also that it feels different in “Trese” because it’s being told by Filipino creators and actors in a Filipino world that keeps the context of all that folklore intact. It hasn’t been adapted and stripped of what makes it unique. That is something we’re not very used to getting in the U.S.

I want to stress it’s not the style and content that remind me of “Batman: The Animated Series”. It’s the fights and pacing that do. “Trese” follows a solid pace of: she meets with her police contact, picks up the case, gathers evidence, follows a lead, talks to an informant, connects evidence to that information, tracks down where she needs to be, prepares for shit to go down, chaos ensues. That is, to a tee, the pace of any Batman-centered episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”.

That’s not really unique to those two series. A lot of series do this. What’s unique to them is that they both do it so well. It’s difficult to pull off because it’s a very streamlined approach. It requires the central character to be a complete and consistent anchor for a viewer’s trust. It also means that every interview with an informant or witness needs to be unexpected and tense. That requires an absolutely elite rogues gallery of unexpected characters and spaces in which to meet them. “Trese” has that in spades.

The setting needs to drip with so much atmosphere that you develop a sense for what you might see, hear, and feel off-screen. “Trese” can be a little inconsistent on this element at the beginning of some episodes, but the more she has to leave the mundane behind, it escalates into some superbly intriguing places.

The other part of this is that every time the chaos starts, there has to be something so strange and unexpected that it suspends your disbelief that the hero can handle it. Sometimes they don’t, and the solution is just as unexpected as the problem. Sometimes the hero is just a witness, the clean-up, a second too late in understanding something key. Someone gets away. A villain can only be warned, not stopped.

This adherence to story progression at a certain pace might seem strict, but it necessitates so much creativity within those strict spaces. You know the shape of the storytelling space every single time. What you don’t know is what’s going to be inside it. That carries its own intrigue and anticipation. You know how the story’s going to go, you probably know who’ll be standing at the end, but you don’t know everything you’ll see along the way, or what more you’ll understand about the world by that point.

“Trese” isn’t without flaws. The larger story arc to the season itself can slow down when an explanation is at hand, but it’s bolstered by a series of flashbacks strung as episode prologues through most of the season. This history builds Trese as a character for us, and into one of my favorite characters going in a series right now. Those flashbacks shape the larger arc, but they also shape our understanding of Trese, the accords she protects, the people around her, and the world we’re stepping into.

I mentioned at the beginning that the writing is often broad. Dialogue can feel generic in places. I think it works for the most part because we’re hearing those familiar phrases between characters such as a horselike god who disguises himself as a car and a sorcerer detective who kickboxes ghouls. The broadness of the dialogue is noticeable at times, but it also does a lot to ground us in the middle of so many other elements that are unfamiliar.

The more intimate fight scenes play best – a fight in a warehouse or restaurant, stalking through an abandoned studio. The larger a fight gets, the more it can get away from Trese as our anchor within it. This starts to involve powerful creatures and magic spells more, which is exciting but also feels more ordinary in a superhero-saturated market. It’s those more personal conflicts in tighter spaces that really escalate characters’ motives, talents, and tactics.

“Trese” is a good series. I don’t know if it’s a great series, but it’s great at all the things I want a series like this to do. Where it falters, it has enough built up around it to carry that moment through and still make it matter. I never felt my investment in these characters waning, and I was always engrossed in the world it depicts. In particular, Trese as a character quickly goes from a no-nonsense private eye archetype into being one of the more believably complex leads I’ve seen in an animation – not because she changes, but because the series catches us up with her complicated history.

One tip when you watch it: don’t skip the intro. The opening credits are genius. They house you within the show’s mood immediately. The visuals and music are fused perfectly. The opening carries both a sense of threat and enigmatic beauty that got me settled in the exact mindset I wanted to be in to enjoy each episode. I watched the opening credits every time, and I’m glad I did.

“Trese” is both ambitious and imperfect. It can take a minute to understand and sync into its pace and animation style. Once it gets going, though, it is beautifully unique and exciting.

Just as importantly, it fixes a problem in the genre. Many supernatural shows like this have worlds that are wishy-washy and fungible and chiefly exist to bring out the characters’ charm and wit, which in turn can make thin characters who feel less consistent over time.

“Trese” is a story that’s fully intact with its world, and grounded to Trese’s experiences. It’s not piecemeal, and for how structured it is, it doesn’t feel episodic. Instead, it feels like visits to a place, like uncovering a story as you read more, anticipating the next chapter. It asks us to learn about it as we go, which is what a supernatural show housed in mystery should do. Moments should be awe-inspiring, profound, intimidating, and Trese’s knowledge about these things should be impressive. The answers aren’t readily served to us, they’re caught up with – sometimes before we fully understand them. That’s the kind of exciting supernatural show I want, and that’s what “Trese” does best over its six half-hour episodes.

You can watch “Trese” on Netflix.

How Does This Work So Well? “Teenage Bounty Hunters”

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” sounds like the worst aspects of this insipid cultural moment boiled into one jaw-droppingly terrible reality show. It knows this, and often satirizes the very culture that would prize such a thing. Instead, the series is an ambitious and cleverly written hourlong comedy that has real love for its characters and the quickest wit outside of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”.

The pitch for “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is incredibly simple. It’s basically in the name. Twin sisters Sterling and Blair go to a strict, evangelical, private high school while moonlighting as bounty hunters. The show finds easy ways around the “Wait, what?” questions that follow.

How can teenagers be bounty hunters? Their bounty hunter mentor tells everyone else they’re older. How do their parents feel about this? Sterling and Blair keep it a secret from them. Are those parents completely oblivious? Yes, but for a reason. What’s that reason? That’s a secret they’re keeping from Sterling and Blair.

It takes some trust to buy into any show when you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on a core secret, and all the characters on “Teenage Bounty Hunters” quickly assemble two or three shoes to drop throughout the show. It should be a mess with this many characters hiding secrets from everyone else. And yet, the series paces these out and foreshadows them across its 10-episode first season in ways that feel pretty natural.

Series that should be a mess yet somehow aren’t are my favorite kind of show. They have too many plot threads, they’re too stylized, they try to focus on too many characters, they try to tackle too many issues. OK, so that last is a bit of a problem from time to time (more on that in a minute). In terms of the storytelling, presentation, comedy, and dimension of its characters, though, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is a resounding success.

Jokes on Jokes, and Pinpoint Timing

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” relies on quickfire dialogue that barely gives actors a chance to breathe. It would seem like a strength of this approach would be moving on quickly from a joke that doesn’t work. Slap enough at the wall and something will stick, right?

Yet if you look at the history of this kind of comedy on film, the opposite holds true. From Marx Brothers movies to “The West Wing”, “Gilmore Girls”, and the aforementioned “Maisel”, when you’re plastering joke after joke at the audience at record speeds, everything has to stick.

This kind of comedy is like an old string of holiday lights. If one of the bulbs is broken, all the bulbs after it won’t light up. If one joke lands flat, the string that follows won’t work. Every scene acts like a circuit that needs that electricity to keep running through every single joke, look, and pause for the rest to light up.

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” does this just as well as that vaunted group of shows two paragraphs up. Really. Across its writing, performances, and editing, it can go on episodes-long runs before a single joke falls flat. That it can keep its comedy rolling so quickly and effectively means that suspension of disbelief essentially becomes a given.

After some initial ramp-up, the show is nesting comedy beats inside comedy beats. It quickly feels like a top comedy that’s mid-stride in its third or fourth season, where everything lands because every actor is so in sync and the writers are still fresh with ideas.

There are some good reasons for this. If you look at the crew, it’s a combination of newer voices like showrunner Kathleen Jordan, and experienced producers and tech staff who’ve worked on an enormous range of the last few years’ best dramatic comedies. The “GLOW” and “Orange is the New Black” threads are particularly strong:

Executive producer Jenji Kohan was creator and showrunner on “Orange is the New Black”. Cinematographer Mike Berlucchi arrives straight out of “You’re the Worst” and “Mythic Quest”. Editor Amy Fleming has edited series running from “House” to “Orange is the New Black”.

Each episode is directed by someone different. I won’t list all the names, but the talent comes with resumes that include “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, “Dollface”, “Girls”, “The Good Place”, “GLOW”, “One Day at a Time”, “PEN15”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Weeds”, and “You’re the Worst”.

The point is, comedies aren’t supposed to be this sure of themselves straight out of the gate. By the time anything falters, that’s about when you’re realizing this is a show that can also punch you right in the feels. It establishes itself as a much more straight-ahead comedy than some of the shows I’ve mentioned. It’s not a comedy-drama, it’s a comedy, period. That it can pick and choose moments to become emotionally galvanizing without going into drama territory is a testament to how good and emotionally thorough the comedy is here.

The show completely takes the piss out of hypocritical evangelical culture, but in a way where the people making fun of it also inhabit and adhere to it – or at least to portions of it. As teenagers and students, Sterling and Blair have to know how to thrive in it as well as question those hypocrisies. Their bounty hunter mentor, Bowser, is Black. He has to survive it while looking at it from the outside and understanding that it often threatens his safety.

Maddie Phillips Elevates the Whole Thing

The trio of bounty hunters plays incredibly well off each other. Sterling is played by Maddie Phillips. She’s the more responsible teen – or at least the one who follows the rules more often. Blair is played by Anjelica Bette Fellini – a rebel who struggles figuring out who she wants to be. They’re both fairly new names, but they do the heavy lifting on the vast majority of the show’s comedy. In particular, Phillips is giving a clinic on comedy performances.

If you’ll go with me on a quick tangent, I’m re-watching “Scrubs” right now and I remember when that show came around and Zach Braff was being compared to Tom Hanks. (Hanks first became a household name in a sitcom called “Bosom Buddies”.) Now, Braff is fine and all, but I can’t imagine what we were thinking trying to make that comparison. Allow me to make a better one: the performance Phillips is giving in “Teenage Bounty Hunters”? This is early Hanks territory. Whether it’s playing off of Fellini or taking over a conversation with dueling monologues of determination and self-doubt that keep interrupting each other, her performance is a damn announcement.

Most of the projects I’ve mentioned center on a legendary comedic performance surrounded by other strong performances. Even the Marx Brothers wouldn’t have been the Marx Brothers without Groucho. “The West Wing” was a drama first, but it also stands as a generational comedy because it had Bradley Whitford – as well as Martin Sheen and Allison Janney – to carry it just that little bit further on that front. “Gilmore Girls” had Lauren Graham running laps around what was a pretty strong supporting cast. “Maisel” has Rachel Brosnahan in a state of constant acceleration that makes CERN look antique.

Am I putting Maddie Phillips among that group? Right now the only thing separating them is doing it across multiple seasons. I realize that’s asking a lot from Netflix, which never saw a show it didn’t like canceling, but yes – she’s at that level. (EDIT: Yep, Netflix canceled it after one season. I still recommend the hell out of that one season, and I’d have still written 3,000 words telling you so.)

The supporting cast isn’t forgotten either. Fellini plays the comedy more aggressively, and that works for her character. Blair doesn’t get quite the complexity in character development that Sterling does, but where Sterling carries more of the series’ larger arc, Blair carries more of the bounty hunting plot that’s internal to each episode.

Kadeem Hardison plays Bowser. He’s an actor I’m familiar with, but who I haven’t seen in much. Hardison led “A Different World” in the 80s and early 90s. I was a kid then, but I know it was one of the most important comedies of that era. Neither is “Teenage Bounty Hunters” the first dip into this territory for him. He played the father to spy K.C. (Zendaya) in Disney’s “K.C. Undercover”. I can’t tell you how similar this is or isn’t to that role, however. All I have to assess is what he does on-screen. As a triple act with the twins where he plays the comedic straight man, he comes off as a big, gruff teddy bear. The series is wise to give him a complex backstory with his own history and problems so he can be a full character with his own arcs and secrets.

The rest of the cast appears to vary in quality more than it does. Wait, does that sentence even make sense? Let me explain. The twins’ parents are played particularly hokey at first. There’s a good reason for this beyond making comedy out of the moral cowardice of their evangelical hypocrisies, but it takes a while to get there. Where the parents at first come off as annoying and like they’re visiting from a different genre, they eventually become characters who are keenly aware of the concessions they’ve made and what they thought those concessions would protect.

Meanwhile, Sterling and Blair’s life at private school leans toward the clique-ish and political. “Clueless” and “Mean Girls” would be good comparisons, and like those two films, there’s an understanding here of how the meaninglessly superficial blends directly into the dangerously traumatizing.

She deserves more space here, but Devon Halas also stands out as Sterling’s rival April. One more mention – Method Man has some of the best lines of the show as a competing, egotistical, and endlessly friendly bounty hunter with more resources and his own reality show.

What makes “Teenage Bounty Hunters” particularly special is that our understanding of nearly every character will be turned on its head by the end of the 10-episode first season – this goes for many of the characters who only get a handful of lines here and there. That’s incredibly impressive storytelling. Despite how satirical “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is at points, that storytelling and care for even the minor characters of the show makes things feel lived-in and consequential.

Sounds Perfect, Right?

The show leans increasingly into some soap opera territory, and your mileage may vary on that aspect of it. If you’re buying into the comedy, emotional investment, and satire of the writing by then, it all feels part of the same fun package, and this factor lets those other elements shine. If you haven’t been pushed out by then, I really doubt this is what would do it.

Similarly, one or two of the situations presented veer a little more sitcom and don’t necessarily feel as natural to the show’s reality – they are satire, sure, but one moment shoehorns a very smart character into a bit that feels a little silly even for a series that takes its silly very meaningfully. The presentation and acting sell it, but I was still aware enough to be slightly taken out of the moment. That said, one or two of these moments across 10 episodes isn’t bad by any means.

The one major drawback to “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is that it thinks it’s more woke than it is. An early episode sees our three bounty hunters take a bounty who’s cutting the heads off Confederate statues. The episode uses its opportunities to satirize Confederacy-worshippers pretty well, but the most it’s really addressed directly is when Blair’s boyfriend Miles argues that the vandal herself is causing harm. It doesn’t analyze the moment more than this, and the moment isn’t about the issue itself. It’s about Blair and Miles having a disagreement on an issue where she’s presuming his viewpoint because he’s Black. Well that’s still showing something about Blair’s privilege, right? She assumes his perspective on an issue. Yes, except it’s really only ever addressed as Blair embarrassing herself and what it socially costs her. The depiction of the moment itself conveys a privileged perspective on the show’s part. It’s still about the repercussions for Blair, and not the issue or the Black voices that have something to say about it in the episode.

The most we get is the bounty hunters agreeing with their target’s actions before they proceed to arrest her anyway. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” identifies the root harm in calling out the hypocrisies within evangelical culture, but it uses that to center its story more on its protagonists than on any community impacted by that harm.

Another episode features Sterling competing in a forensic debate meet. The subject is reparations. That’s fine on its surface; it’s something high school forensics teams would debate. Yet the concept of reparations is then turned into a metaphor for Sterling’s mistreatment of a friend in the past – how one white woman has treated another and whether she owes her or not. This is an incredibly irresponsible co-optation of a serious topic, while shirking the topic and its meaning itself.

Neither of these makes “Teenage Bounty Hunters” as an entire series feel like it’s going in the wrong direction, but they are absolutely missteps for a show that clearly wants to be socially conscious. Misusing these real-world issues in these ways can diminish the legitimacy and foster misunderstanding about these serious topics.

Not every show is responsible for handling issues like these, but if you’re going to engage them while centering white characters, then…yes, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” has a responsibility to pay more attention and care more about the details of these topics.

In these two instances, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” treats issues of color as scenery, metaphor, or character development for white characters rather than as something that demands responsibility from the storytellers.

The show’s politics are squarely liberal/progressive, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. In fact, I’d say it’s an exceptionally good show on that front, and more willing to engage certain thorny LGBTQ youth issues than an idealistically presented show like “Love, Victor” (not that an ideal fantasy doesn’t also serve a meaningful purpose).

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” is definitely going in a good direction in general, but it doesn’t always go as far as it thinks it’s going when it brings up social issues that pertain to people of color. The few concerns about race that are brought up tend to center on personal impacts for Sterling and Blair, white characters. The show has the responsibility to follow through more than just that.

I still think this is one of the best comedies in years, and I will argue for it and urge people to watch it, but it makes some missteps and those are worth criticizing. It would make the politics a bit more consistent, and could make the show feel fuller and more inhabited, let alone more accountable. There are both ethical and storytelling arguments for artists doing this better.

One thing the show does handle well is something a lot of shows about teenagers completely fumble:

Let’s Talk About Sex

The advertising for “Teenage Bounty Hunters” seriously undersells the show, focusing chiefly on the girls’ pursuit of sex. And sure, this is one aspect of the show and comedy’s built from it, but it’s not nearly the focus that the marketing makes it out to be. Netflix needs to have a serious conversation with their marketing department lately about portraying projects this way.

Sterling and Blair talk about sex realistically, it’s a part of their lives, and it’s something they alternately pursue, postpone, and discuss. The opening scene skirts a line where you don’t really know whether the show will handle things responsibly. Ultimately, the act of sex at a private evangelical school meets a full range of responses by everyone involved, and not involved. It’s both disappointing and unsurprising just how many damn people think their participation and input are necessary in a teenage girl’s sex life.

It really does feel like “Teenage Bounty Hunters” puts time and care into portraying two girls who are considering these things in a healthy, realistic way. That they have each other to communicate with in a supportive, informative, and non-judgmental way is the difference in a culture that refuses to give any kind of support or education and so leaves teenagers reeling when it comes to this topic.

I think of a show like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” in comparison – a show that I liked, but that did seem to treat high school students having sex as something entertaining and titillating for adults to watch. There’s a complicated conversation about how to handle that responsibly – one that the show gave to Sabrina herself, but threw to the wind the minute it could deliver high school-age characters (often of color) engaging in orgies.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be portrayed in a show – it’s a topic that needs discussion. I’m saying that the way to do it should veer much more in the direction of “Teenage Bounty Hunters” than the direction “Sabrina” or some other shows take it. It’s not titillating in “Teenage Bounty Hunters”. It’s confusing, serious, impactful, eye-opening, healthy, potentially harmful, and worthy of discussion and support among peers.

Characters like this don’t just need to have agency within the story, they also need to have a kind of agency over their portrayal in the story. The topic does come with storytelling responsibilities so that characters have agency and treat it realistically, instead of them just being translated into objects for the audience. Yes, we’re watching adult actors who are in their 20s, but we’re seeing them portray teenagers, and that context matters.

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” initially seems to challenge that line like so many shows, before filling in the mountains of context and consideration these characters have about their own agency, their expectations and position in life, their mental health in relation to sex, their religious community’s attitude toward it, and their own communication with each other about it.

Ultimately, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” offers one of the more complex and layered depictions of teenage romance and sex. It engages complications and a full, healthy range of considerations that teenage romances don’t often explore in genuine depth. Amid the heightened comedy and satire of the show, this feels like real teenagers figuring their way through these things, and made me think to many of the conversations I had with peers at that stage in my life – while it was a different time, and those conversations happen very differently among boys than girls, this is one of the only shows that makes those conversations feel real and necessary instead of just the pretext of popcorn fodder for a thirsty audience.

This Review is Really Long

That I’ve written this much on a show called “Teenage Bounty Hunters” hopefully conveys how complex and well-done it is as a whole. Before anything else, it’s a top-notch, quick-witted comedy. Its dialogue is superb. Its pacing is about as perfect as an hourlong comedy can get. Maddie Phillips gives a stellar performance. The increasingly complex character arcs are often emotionally poignant and pay off as the show goes on. It ends up having a great LGBTQ arc that engages issues not every teen LGBTQ series is willing to engage. It depicts teenagers communicating and making decisions about sex in mentally healthy ways that are too often skipped over in shows with characters this age.

Once or twice, the situation it puts a character in doesn’t quite fly, but the dialogue and performances within the scene always manage it through just fine. It does need to improve on how it engages racism and who’s centered when it does so.

I highly recommend it, and more than a lot of shows, I highly recommend talking about it.

You can watch “Teenage Bounty Hunters” with a Netflix subscription.

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What Separates “Home Game” is its Social Awareness

“Home Game” has something special going for it. The docu-series presents sports from around the globe. They’re each unique to a particular place and tradition. If you’re in the U.S. or Europe, you’ll have heard of a few of them: the Highland Games and Roller Derby are both profiled. A number of them may be unfamiliar. Take Kok Boru, for instance. It’s like rugby, but on horseback, and the ball is a dead goat.

As a docu-series, “Home Game” shines when it’s discussing why these sports have survived and how they’re evolving. In the U.S., any sport that becomes popular is quickly devoured by capitalism. We understand that any sport has the ability to create change and impact our social perspective, but we also understand that this will most often be dictated by money.

Colin Kaepernick kneeling through the national anthem at football games mattered the moment he did it, but the biggest step in its normalization in white society may have been Nike signing him to a marketing contract. That doesn’t take away from anything he did, or the pressure he and other players continue to apply to the National Football League and society at large – but the unfortunate truth is that normalization of social change in the U.S. through sports is deeply tied to marketing.

“Home Game” offers something very different, and often forgotten. Sports themselves – and not just the marketing – can be a way of standing up to colonizing forces, or of protecting elements of a culture so that they can’t be assimilated.

“Home Game” doesn’t always focus on this aspect, but it does so more often than not. Sports documentaries are hardly rare these days, but ones that focus on their subjects through a socially aware, inclusive lens – and that often come to their sports primarily through that lens – these aren’t as common.

Take one early episode. In “Freediving”, a competitor enters to spur pride in his indigenous community. The Sama are looked down on in the Philippines. They’re considered thieves, despite being the original inhabitants who’ve had their land – and nearly their way of life – stolen from them. Imam Eldio Gulisan enters the competition in order to remind his Sama community to feel pride, to legitimize his people in the eyes of others, and also to keep freediving alive in his culture.

While he lacks the years of more codified training other divers have, he maintains a tradition of spear hunting underwater. This demands deep dives and long periods of holding his breath – perfect for a freediving competition. His entering the competition is an act of trying to keep a key aspect of his culture alive, and pass it down as something viable to the next generation.

“Home Game” is most powerful when it introduces you to the competitors that episode has chosen to follow. Each episode focuses on a different sport – it translates the rules quickly, so it can get on to the more important job of translating the different motivations people have for participating. We see the everyday lives of these athletes, their day jobs, and what they sacrifice to take part in sports that are rarely professional or paid. They incur injuries and risk death…for what? Sometimes it’s personal pride, or the pride of their city. Sometimes it’s their means of escape from a life that hasn’t offered many opportunities. And sometimes it’s because that sport offers a conduit to keep a key aspect of their culture strong.

There are episodes about evolving a culture, too. “Roller Derby” and “Pehlwani” translate how sports can be a front in feminism. Pehlwani is a traditional Indian style of wrestling, and growing acceptance that women compete in it – often against men – is spearheading both cultural and religious reform.

The series finds a pretty good balance of discussing the change this inclusivity spurs without losing the ground-level view of what that means in athletes’ own words. Ultimately, the athletes know they’re making a difference, and they also just really want to compete. Sometimes they have to make that difference in order to compete in the first place. Sometimes they compete in order to make that difference.

“Home Game” leans into telling these stories through the perspective of each athlete, rather than trying a top-down approach. While not providing a full picture, it does supply an emotionally resonant one that squarely sides with the athletes and their fights for inclusion and equality.

The series is smart about following both experienced and newer competitors, to show steps along the way of expertise. Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to step into a sport. For instance, free diver Wei Zosa is going for a personal best of 37 meters. That doesn’t sound all that far, does it? That might be the distance of walking a couple houses down the street. Then the narrator reminds us that it’s the height of a 12-story building. Suddenly it seems immense.

This also shows us just how wide a world the idea of sports encompasses. The first episode, “Calcio Storico”, focuses on an Italian sport that mixes concepts of rugby and bareknuckle boxing. Adrenaline is key to facing down opponents and ignoring the pain of severe injuries. An athlete couldn’t last long in a competition without adrenaline powering them through.

In “Freediving”, the athletes remind you that any adrenaline will immediately sabotage you. To have a chance of competing, you need to stay absolutely calm. Adrenaline makes you use your oxygen up far too fast, undermining your dive and endangering your life. An athlete can’t free dive if they can’t control their calm and deny that adrenaline spike.

“Home Game” is wise to avoid choosing favorites. It profiles athletes on both sides of a match, usually before some form of championship or record-setting attempt. It gives a little background on each team or athlete, how they’ve done that season, and what the match means to them. As a docu-series, it’s much more invested in the athletes themselves than their teams. This works because it makes us want to see particular people do well in a final match. I often found myself rooting for athletes on both teams.

In each half-hour episode, there’s a good sense of rising tension and genuine excitement for the outcome. Many episodes mirror what a good sports movie will do in leading up to that final, meaningful match.

The series isn’t perfect. The strongest moments are in the show’s interviews, cut together with training and gameplay. Yet when home life is shown, some conversations are presented verite style – these can occasionally feel a bit staged. Even if they aren’t, athletes and their families may feel awkward around cameras and not behave as naturally as these scenes would ask.

You can see “Home Game” figure out its strengths as the 8 half-hour episodes progress, leaning further into the interviews so that athletes can describe their lives, priorities, and motivations in their own words. The verite bits become much more selective, or focus more on presenting training regimens later in the series.

Episodes have a pretty wide range in quality, but they’re all worth watching. The “Highland Games” episode comes off as the worst, but it’s not bad. It feels OK and pleasant, but it lacks the heart-in-mouth moments of the “Calcio Storico”, “Freediving”, or “Kok Boru” episodes.

The show is at times a beautiful and gracious celebration of cultures. There are very touching moments about the meaning of all these sports to their communities. While the sports here may be new to many viewers, that feeling of investment and belief is universal. Sharing it with others, and understanding how others feel it given what’s happening on the field in front of them, is remarkable.

I never thought I’d get wrapped up in water buffalo drag racing across flooded rice fields in “Makepung Lampit”, but the magic of “Home Game” is that by the end of a half hour, I’m right there with the fans in that rush of excitement. What makes “Home Game” special is that by the end of that episode, I don’t just see it as a sport – I see it as an expression of safeguarding cultural elements in the face of colonialism. I see it as a place where a woman can beat men while other men cheer for her. For all the resourcing, marketing, and media that we put into Western professional sports, we still can’t even manage that.

There’s a great deal to learn when looking at the sports other cultures value. “Home Game” approaches each with respect, and a desire to share the sport and what’s fascinating about it. It’s not a perfect series, but it is a unique and needed one. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and it reminds you that enjoying sports can feel different and mean more when all the marketing, fantasy leagues, and constant speculative coverage are stripped away.

You can watch “Home Game” on Netflix.

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Stunning Action, Garbled Heart — “Extraction”

An action movie tells its story through the overcoming of obstacles – that usually translates into the killing of other humans. It doesn’t stop us from watching. The violence itself can be cathartic. A few action movies get to have their cake and eat it, too. They thrill us with their violence while also pointing out how violent cycles are reinforced. This veers into some meta and self-critical territory. After all, by thrilling in an action movie like “Extraction”, we’re partaking in the violence ourselves.

Does having an outlet allow it to escape, or by subscribing to the excitement of it, are we also reinforcing its lessons? Probably a bit of both. Yet action movies rarely find a place to exist within this. It’s easier and often more fulfilling of our expectations to just see the action unfold. The tropes and cliches within these movies help give them structure, but we rarely examine them.

“Extraction” does a bit of this through its writing and Chris Hemsworth’s leading performance. His charm and comedic timing would seem not to come into play for a role as dramatic and dour as this one. Tyler Rake is a mercenary who takes risky assignments in the hope he’ll die on one of them. He still pursues them responsibly, with training, a tactical mind, and a sense of self-preservation. His suicidal desires form one of those structural cliches, a plot shortcut to communicate to audiences a movie’s desperate tone – except “Extraction” pushes this a little bit further at intervals throughout the movie.

The assignment he takes is to find a kidnapped boy in Bangladesh. The boy, Ovi, is the son of India’s biggest drug dealer. The kidnappers work for Bangladesh’s biggest drug dealer. A positive view of South Asian culture this isn’t. Of course, what starts as a relatively smooth operation soon goes off the rails. Rake and Ovi find themselves trapped in the city, being chased by both gangs and a corrupt police force.

First, the good: “Extraction” regularly presents dialogue, sequences, and visual motifs of how cycles of violence are reborn and perpetuated. It doesn’t exactly deep dive into it; but these things are bubbling near the surface every time the action relents for a moment. Hemsworth has the ability (and not one I would have guessed at) to use his smile and charm in extremely subtle ways here. I’m confident he’s one of the best comedic actors working, but what it’s sometimes easy to forget is how much those same skills can lend themselves to drama. What we see in Rake is someone who’s depressed and performs brief moments of being OK for the people around him. This is only needed in a few scenes, but it’s enough for Hemsworth to establish a surprisingly full character who feels real. He does a lot with little room for it, and that’s to Hemsworth’s credit. Nothing in what the film pursues here is revolutionary or turns the tropes it uses on their heads, but what is here is effective in making the characters we follow feel substantial.

The action scenes are the standout here. They’re the reason for coming, and they can range from good to exquisite. Expect quick, brutal fistfights, and elongated, roving shootouts. “Extraction” is anchored on a 12-minute one-take in the middle of the movie. What starts as a car chase ranges through fistfights, a tenement foot chase, rooftop parkour, and a street fight, all without a single apparent edit. It’s all one camera shot. Of course, a number of digital edits are cleverly hidden throughout, but the effect is that of one long, unbroken camera shot. The sense of it is audacious.

There’s a lot owed in this kind of filmmaking to Indonesian and Thai action filmmaking. The two “Raid” movies and Kim Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Headshot” come to mind throughout “Extraction”. While tonally very different, there’s also a lot owed to how Thai films like “The Protector” and “Chocolate” developed a sense of action cinema language that could veer from one-take insurance nightmares to rapid-edit broken bone ballets in the space of a scene.

That said, those films have a sense of coming from their own cultures. Even when Welshman Gareth Evans was directing “The Raid” films, the majority of those involved were Indonesian and there was a sense of care placed into its criticisms of government corruption. The franchise presented a disturbing and demented hyper-reality built around the manipulation and abuse of those in poverty at the hands of those with money and power. Even the most lowly henchperson might deserve a cinematic moment of pain and tragedy at their loss, at an alternate story suggested and now disappeared. There were at times operatic moments of loss in those films, particularly in the second one, “The Raid 2: Berandal”. “Extraction” lacks any of this. The people who live in Bangladesh in this film exist either to be shot or to run away and not be seen.

“Headshot”, another Iko Uwais starrer, is brutally violent, realistic enough in physical trauma that it began to go far past its sense of violence as entertainment. While an inherently problematic damsel-in-distress movie, it also might be the best of these ever made, posing a sickening level of violence and cycles of repetition against choices of non-violence and escaping those cycles. It had a point, and nothing was going to stop it from making that point.

In Thai cinema, “The Protector” and “Chocolate” (and “Ong-Bak”, “Raging Phoenix”, “The Kick”, the list goes on) are all about protecting something – a loved one, a sacred artifact, a disappearing culture. They’re also squarely some of the most bluntly anti-colonialist popular cinema out there. They’re films about sacrifice.

“Extraction” poses Tyler Rake as having lost his own son. Even after the mission’s a wash, he decides to protect Ovi and get them both out of the city – but it’s not a sacrifice. It’s a coping mechanism. Ovi’s purpose is chiefly to offer Rake redemption – both in his own eyes and ours. How is Rake going to get this Indian boy out of Bangladesh? By killing a lot of Bangladeshis. The film never makes anything more out of this, and it’s an idiotic and cowardly choice to cover the faces of nearly all the Bangladeshi police. By having no face, they seem inhuman, in a film built from disposing of them as if their humanity is inconsequential.

This lacks a certain consistency, and responsibilities both to viewers to its own characters. If Rake is an anti-hero, let him be one. If he’s telling Ovi that he’s not a hero and that he’s done bad things, too, I’m going to believe him. So let us see it, warts and all. Don’t just tell the audience that and expect us to disbelieve it because Chris Hemsworth is playing him. If you’re going to tell us he does bad things, then don’t pretend this isn’t in certain ways one of them.

One of the most overlooked elements of “The Raid” movies is that they afforded a heartbreaking humanity to even the most random, disposable henchpeople. They weren’t always bad people, they were often just people trying to live, who took a paycheck from the corrupt employer our protagonist was fighting instead of the corrupt employer our protagonist took his paycheck from. That element of those films stunned. It gave them gravitas that most action films don’t even think about.

And while yes, “Extraction” is a successfully built action movie with terrific action scenes, it’s also one that wants to be more. It wants to have David Harbour monologue about moments of innocence lost minutes before we witness one. It wants to have Chris Hemsworth attempt to talk about PTSD and violence as a coward’s choice in between the audience going, “Wow, look at that awesome violence”. It wants to show how embarrassment helps draft a young man into the thrall of a drug lord.

That it never follows through enough on these doesn’t stop me from enjoying the action scenes, but it does undermine the movie as a whole. It makes me wish “Extraction” had explored the humanity it wants to discuss more. It makes me wish the film remembered that others beyond the one white dude also possess that humanity. When it does so, it’s well written and well acted, but without more of it, it lacks the supporting infrastructure to stand. The action becomes good action instead of something that exists as amazing action and commentary that each elevate the other.

And while it may be unfair to compare “Extraction” to some of Southeast Asia’s best films, if you want to take up that cinematic language and use it, you’ve got to be compared to it, too. Those cinematic evolutions serve a purpose, and that purpose is very often to fight colonialism, imperialism, and hyper-capitalism. To simply adapt that cinematic language shorn of its meanings and stripped of the reasons it exists fails to adapt that cinematic language at all.

This might all sound like I dislike “Extraction”. I did enjoy it. I’d like to see it again at some point. Hemsworth is particularly good. The action and technical elements are sometimes a marvel. And while it may be damning with faint praise, I also have to recognize that most action movies have very similar problems. Yet that doesn’t change that “Extraction” is deeply problematic and somewhat emptier than the performances within it deserve. “Extraction” is a really good diorama for action movie violence, but it lacks depth and breadth that could have made it more – a more that it seems fleetingly interested in exploring.

“Extraction” wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants to be an action movie that also examines cycles of violence. It gets a few steps in the right direction. It could have gone much further without sacrificing its action elements – and perhaps even elevating them. It only gets halfway there because it ultimately isn’t about corruption, or PTSD, or preserving an endangered culture. It misuses the cinematic art of Southeast Asian action because it ditches what that cinema was developed to address in order to focus on a much more Western concept of everything revolving around the protagonist.

In the end, only one character really exists or matters in this, and that’s Rake. Ovi exists to be saved as a fill-in for Rake’s lost son, and for his redemption in the eyes of the audience. Golshifteh Farahani’s Nik Khan, who’s Rake’s handler, exists essentially to worry about him. Bangladeshis in the film exist essentially to commit atrocities, sneer, be corrupt, or get shot.

“Extraction” takes so much of what makes Southeast Asian action cinema profound, but replaces the movie DNA that makes it so revolutionary in the first place with a Western conceit that doesn’t fit or serve it. The technical elements of both are there. The deeper meanings of both are there. The only problem is that those technical elements serve the deeper intent of the film, and “Extraction” is trying to fuse a Western character conceit that Southeast Asian action developed in part around criticizing and opposing.

It carves out a core meaning of Southeast Asian action cinema in order to supplant it with a storytelling focus this action cinema grew and developed around rejecting. No matter how good everything else in “Extraction” is, it’s build around this core inconsistency. That fundamental fracture splinters throughout what they build on top of it – something that may be a problematic fave, but is ultimately not anywhere near what it could have been and what it momentarily wants to be.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Extraction” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Golshifteh Farahani plays Nik Khan. Neha Mahajan plays Neysa.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No. Rayna Campbell is also listed, and may’ve been part of Nik Khan’s handling team, but if she spoke, it was only a line or two. Nik Khan and Neysa never meet.

3. About something other than a man?

Nope. Since the women never meet, they can’t really talk, let alone about anything other than Rake (Hemsworth). Again, Rayna Campbell’s character may’ve had a line or two that I can’t remember, but in the spirit of the questions, two and three should be understood as “No” answers.

The most that can be said about the representation of women in this movie is that Farahani has some badass moments as Nik Khan. She’s Rake’s handler, and she engages in several modes of combat at one point in the film. Nonetheless, her primary role in “Extraction” is to revolve around Rake and worry about him. It’s faintly suggested in that amorphously referenced kind of way that they may have been romantically involved at one point or other.

Neysa is the wife of the Indian gangster’s head henchman, and exists to have her life threatened if he doesn’t get Ovi back.

This film flunks this test in specifics and in spirit.

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The Stark and the Sumptuous — “The Witcher”

“The Witcher” as a Netflix series feels like walking into the middle of a “Final Fantasy” cutscene halfway through the game. Halfway through means about 70 hours in. It’s stunning, it’s emotional, it’s riveting, you’re missing a ton of context into the scope of why it matters, everyone’s hair is amazing, and 10 minutes later you’re going to put it all on hold to race Chocobos.

If you’ve never played a “Final Fantasy” game, “The Witcher” feels a lot like my opening paragraph. It’s willfully inaccessible, borders on the absurd, and despite that you’ve already read the second one.

“The Witcher” follows Geralt. Witchers are men like him, mutated at a young age to specialize in monster hunting in this medieval fantasy world. We also meet a hunchbacked young woman named Yennefer, who becomes a sorceress-in-training against her will. Finally, there’s Ciri – a child princess on the run from an invading empire.

Know that what I’m reacting to is the first three episodes. This is a review about how “The Witcher” is introducing itself, not the entire first season.

The show is sometimes ridiculous. It’s episodic. It careens through different tones. It’s grounded in straightforward plot that’s very serious until you meet the character who sees if you’re quick enough to pick up on his modern colloquialisms and meta jokes. Then it takes itself extremely seriously again. The occasional effect or wig looks ever so slightly silly. Then somebody’s arm is withering off or you’re confronted with a creature that would feel at home in a Guillermo Del Toro movie and you’re rooted to the spot. These things shouldn’t work together, but thankfully nobody told this to showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich.

The “Game of Thrones” comparisons are silly. “Game of Thrones” was a drama that proved to take itself too seriously in the end, obsessed with the detail of blood, grime, nudity, incest, and murder while forgetting the detail of its world and the people who lived in it.

“The Witcher” presents an exquisitely detailed world full of realistic people annoyed that the protagonist is interrupting their day. It’s a world that you want to stay in and investigate.

It still has all the blood, grime, nudity, incest, and murder that you could want, but these are usually incidental to solving a problem. Aside from some phenomenally crisp fight choreography, all these things are used as clues to larger mysteries – not as set pieces in and of themselves.

The show’s painted in broad strokes, but it’s filled with detailed design and nuanced performances. The plot is political and historical in a world where you know very little of the politics and history. That’s OK because the storytelling is always centered on the characters. These characters don’t always care and aren’t always informed about the politics and history. They’re often misinformed about that history, and the show quickly delves into genocides and massacres being painted over with propaganda.

Let me describe it this way. “Game of Thrones” was a show that always moved plot forward. Sometimes that meant losing consistency in its characters, because they were always serving the plot. Sometimes it meant forgetting about a character for ages because they weren’t important to the plot. That’s all well and fine, but then why should I care about that character? Sooner or later, it means you’re undermining your plot because no one remembers how those characters are supposed to act.

In other words, it’s fine for characters to be pieces on a chessboard. It’s a travesty when the writers begin thinking of them that way for their own purposes. If they show up and do something because it’s needed for the plot, and not because it’s what they choose to do, then that character is just a useful piece of scenery.

“The Witcher” is a show about characters moving through vast, complicated plots. Sometimes they only brush their way through the barest edge of someone else’s complex story. Sometimes, they’re the focal point of a plot that moves empires. The focus is rarely about what’s going to happen in this world or who’s going to be in power. The focus is what these characters are going to do to get through the damn day. What is Geralt going to do to solve a mystery, what is Ciri going to do to find safety, and what is Yennefer going to do to realize who she wants to be? The show gives us characters who actively resist a world that wants to treat them as chess pieces – Geralt through measure and information, Ciri through desperation, Yennefer through determination and anger. That’s a lot more interesting to me.

“Game of Thrones” was a show about who was going to rule an empire through conquest and political manipulation. It increasingly boiled down to rooting for a team and amping everyone up for the bloodiest matches.

“The Witcher” is a show about a guy who kills monsters for coin and has really bad days because he keeps on trying to do the right thing. His course seems to be guiding him toward a handful of other people who are also extremely good at their jobs and who also keep having really shitty days despite it.

I know that the characters on “The Witcher” will get more politically involved down the road, but these are still two really different shows. They shouldn’t be compared. This isn’t the new “Game of Thrones”, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.

I’m coming to “The Witcher” as a fan of the exquisitely realized games. They started off atmospheric, convoluted, and problematic. The most recent delved into complex themes of othering, abuse, and systemic corruption while painting a gorgeous world to explore.

Some viewers will be coming to the show having played one or more of the games. The show’s based on the series of short story collections and novels that precede the games. It’s a joy to fill in some confusing blanks. You get to see certain legendary characters realized, and the origins of the ones you know best.

The most difficult part of shifting from the games to the show is that the games let you explore to your heart’s content. I have 240 hours in the third “Witcher” game and its expansions. That’s 10 real-time days of my life. And you know what? They’re really well spent – it’s a profound and often heart-wrenching piece of art. Yet because you have agency in the games, you can absorb the atmosphere of a moment and sit inside it. You can exhale after a harrowing moral decision and simply watch the sun set. You know what the water and wind in a frequently visited area sound like. You can appreciate a view. Some philosophical conversations with morally gray characters might take half an hour. A single mystery might unthread itself over hours and hours of playtime.

A TV show doesn’t have the time for that. It can’t do that unless it’s trading another big focus away. The show presents so many stark and beautiful vistas that you’d love to sit in, to feel, to explore. Yet you can’t. It’s the nature of being a show.

The advantage of being a show is just how much character and plot are conveyed. The first episode hits the ground running: “The End’s Beginning” feels like a mid-season episode in a show’s third season. There are advantages to that so long as you’re willing to trust the pace of “The Witcher” and let it take you. There are some things you’ll catch up on along the way – the important thing is to appreciate the character detail inside each scene and the movement of the plot overall.

After the second episode, “Four Marks”, I sat and thought about how complex an arc sorceress-in-training Yennefer had endured in just a few episodes. Then I realized she’d only been introduced that episode.

The third episode is the show hitting what I hope is its stride. “Betrayer Moon” is absolutely magnificent, tying together some threads begun in prior episodes while delivering elements of horror and mystery.

The world itself is one that’s medieval in nature, composed of often warring empires. Magic exists but is accessible only to a few. It requires extensive and dangerous training. Medical science is very advanced along particular avenues, to the point where the educated have access to knowledge about mutations and genetics. These in turn can be fiddled with when aided by magic.

The entire world is built on an original genocide – it was an elven world until a magical event took place centuries ago. It brought humans and monsters from other worlds there. The elves taught people how to survive, even sharing magic with them, and were in turn massacred and pushed out of their lands.

It’s a remarkable thing to hear a young man in a refugee camp talk about his pride in killing elves on land his people stole, while also talking about how he’ll rise against an invading empire that’s just taken his family’s home and land.

A lot of this is coded in from a place you might not expect. The original novels are by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Poland has a centuries-long history of being invaded, taken over, warred over by neighboring German and Russian kingdoms, and fighting and negotiating its way toward independence.

You’ll recognize the standout aspects of the show quickly. Its design is gorgeous and exceptionally varied. The cinematography works with that design in a sumptuous and textured way. The dialogue gets to the point and reveals character detail with deft skill.

The fight choreography is incredible – particularly the fights involving Geralt. Unlike “Game of Thrones”, it seems to remember that the purpose of armor is to be impenetrable to a sword, so strikes have to focus on exposed areas. It makes for a precise and efficient choreography that works with guards, redirection, and leverage. It’s fantastical because Geralt is fantastical, but it also makes so much more sense than the gritty but often shoddy fight choreography in “Game of Thrones”. That’s no knock on their fight choreographer, by the way. Vladimir Furdik led the fight choreography on both shows. It’s a knock on what was asked of him from other showrunners.

One of the most unique aspects of the show is that you keep a distance from these characters. It’s a strange but effective way of appreciating emotional investment. There are very few close-ups. Part of this reinforces the nature of these characters: Geralt’s mutations as a witcher have dulled his emotions, Yennefer possesses both exceptional vulnerability and power. They both keep people at arm’s length as a way of protecting themselves.

These are characters who don’t get close to people, so why should the audience be treated any differently? The show feels very protective of them, and that translates a level of care centered around their presentation in the story. The characters aren’t written or shown as trying to play on our emotions. They do emotional things sometimes, but for themselves – not us. They’re too busy trying to survive to worry about the audience. Instead, they act as those characters act in that moment. It makes them feel real in a world that draws from a challenging range of influences.

It’s a risky approach because it demands a lot from filmmakers and actors alike. They pull it off exceedingly well.

We’re grounded in the characters and the show’s care for them. We believe the world and the number of experiences and places thrown at them because they’re trying to get through it all. Henry Cavill does strong work as Geralt, and the job is deceptively hard given he needs to carry stories while limiting emotion. Anya Chalotra is the show’s standout, though. This is her show as much as Geralt’s from the minute she appears as Yennefer.

I don’t believe it’s an easy show or one that automatically caters to any and all viewers. At first I wrote that there’s a learning curve starting out, but I don’t think that’s really the case. It’s more that there’s a level of trust required on the part of the viewer. Put faith in where it’s going to take you, and the show impresses and rewards. That faith helps you enter into an incredible range of world-building influences, internal history, and complex moral stories. Three episodes in and I’m already resisting the urge to binge through it all so I can re-watch it in greater detail. That day will come, but I really want to take my time and enjoy it.

I’ve cried at “The Witcher” already, I’ve watched it with awe and glee, I’ve become wrapped up in it because this is what I didn’t know I wanted the show to be: rangy yet precise, both emotional and guarded, complexly layered yet efficiently told, beautiful yet deceptive, the stark cutting through the sumptuous. It tells tales of people surviving a world that ruins them, and that holds value now. It always holds value because somewhere somebody always needs to hear that story.

I love that the show guards these characters. I love that “The Witcher” gives them range within its story to act as they will, rather than play to the audience. I love that everyone in the show is concerned with what’s in front of them, a problem to solve, a day to get through, a situation to endure.

What communicates in “The Witcher” is that sometimes people surviving in a world that ruins them are pitted against each other for that survival. In those moments, that world doesn’t feel fantastical anymore. We wish those problems could be solved by slaying the occasional monster, but “The Witcher” is deeply interested in the human actions that cause those monsters to arise.

This is where the show’s already at its most compelling. You can beat the obvious monster in that moment, at a cost, exhausted, spent, and bloodied. Yet they were only created by someone else’s abuse, corruption, and greed, and those will continue churning out monsters that keep everyone pitted at each others’ throats for their own survival.

Sometimes we yearn for the world a work of fantasy gives us. We begin to feel separated from it when we set it down. The best works of fantasy can break our hearts this way. This is not at all what “The Witcher” does.

“The Witcher” yearns for a fantasy world: its tales evoke how separate we feel from our own. I don’t think it can break our hearts as much as its heart is already broken for us.

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Like a Storm on the Horizon – “GLOW” Season 3

by Gabriel Valdez

I finished season 3 of “GLOW” as a thunderstorm moved in. You could see strobes of lightning shimmer from cloud to cloud. Where they parted, a branching fork seared an after-image when the sky went dark again.

The storm moved in an hour later, rained and thundered and split the sky. And then it was passed, this terrifying moment. You knew you were safe, yet there’s always some primal awareness that digs in during moments like these. It can feel fun.

Before the storm came, you marveled. You watched it rage on the horizon. There’s a sense of stillness when you can see what’s coming, and yet still anticipate it.

It was fitting because a storm can build and build before unleashing that rage, or withering away, before pelting you or keeping its distance on the horizon. Yet when it hits, and you knew it was going to, it’s not the fury of it that digs into you.

It’s the calm spaces in between that make you most unsettled. It’s the apprehension of what’s to come. It’s that stillness inside you feel so rarely these days that’s most out of place, most alarming.

Season 3 of “GLOW” builds and builds until the calm spaces in between are the ones that frighten you the most, that all of what’s been managed in these beautiful people’s lives will come falling apart. It’s a masterpiece of tension, in a comedy about wrestlers.

What makes it work is the knowledge that something’s going to hit, but you don’t know when, or how, or whether it will fizzle out or rage. And after, everyone still needs to continue. Everyone still needs to take the next step forward, sometimes together, sometimes apart. The show goes on.

It can do this as a comedy, as a drama, as a wrestling match, as a satire, as a sitcom, as a music video, as an art piece, as an ensemble comedy in some scenes and in others as a one woman show that rotates whose storm it is in that moment.

When I started watching season 3, the first few episodes felt like they were a little slow. The tension of the first two seasons so often rests in whether their mess of a show will succeed or fall apart at the seams. Now it’s not a mess. Now it’s professional. It’s relatively stable. To come together, the wrestlers often have to make it a mess because it’s inside that chaos where they work best as a community. That chaos is where they trust each other most.

Yet season 3 is all about the build-up, about those storms on the horizon. Where the show they put on is stable, the chaos is now in people’s lives. The stability even bores the characters sometimes, because it’s within that chaos when they know they have each others’ backs.

The step forward that “GLOW” takes in its third season isn’t about increased stakes. It’s about setting the viewer and the characters at odds. It has countless moments where what the viewer wants is directly opposed to what a character wants. That forces you to have to listen to them. Most storytelling strives to make you identify with someone. They do the work to make characters understandable and accessible. “GLOW” did a lot of that in its first two seasons. Its third says that’s all well and good, but what happens when the viewer has to do the work?

We’re all trained with story expectations, of who ends up where and why. What if a character wants something different? What if a character has needs that those expectations can’t fulfill? Then the familiar plot points that make us satisfied with the stories we see are at odds with what a character wants. If we care about that character, and we do, then we have to work to deprogram the story expectations we have.

Is season 3 as satisfying as the first two seasons are? No. That’s the point. I’d read that season 3 ends on a cliffhanger; I’ll be vague to avoid direct spoilers here. The season hints continually that it may be a life or death situation, or it may involve violence, but it copes with these things along the way. The cliffhanger is simply about one of the leads wanting something different from the other. It’s at direct odds to what the audience wants, and yet we know it’s the right thing for that character.

Questions about who lives and whether the show will survive are already answered, at least for the foreseeable future. Instead, we’re left waiting to see whether what we want wins out, or what the character wants wins out. It defines the season as a whole, and operates as a stunning cliffhanger.

If the audience gets to see what we want, it’s a failure for one of the characters. If the character gets what they want, it means the audience doesn’t get something we want. The cliffhanger is less about what happens in the story, and more about what happens in the viewer.

You’re not left in the middle of a storm, within drama or rage, tension or action. There were plenty of opportunities for this season to do exactly that. Instead, you’re left in one of the story’s quiet moments, in the calm and still space in between.

Netflix: What’s New on Streaming (April 2015)

The best resource online to find out what’s new on Netflix is Justine Baron’s monthly segment. She does a more complete list than any mainstream site I’ve found. Covering the US, UK, and Canada, here’s what’s new this April.

Justine's Movie Blog

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Here are the US, Canada and UK lists for new movie and TV titles that have been added to Netflix streaming this month of April. I will try to keep this list updated as I find more titles are being added later on in the month. In the meantime, you can see what new was added last month and what expired recently. Enjoy!

Netflix US

4/1
29 Palms (2003)
50 First Dates (2004)
Affluenza (2014)
Agora (2009)
All Relative (2014)
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho 2 (2002)
Anatomy of a Love Seen (2014)
And Now…Ladies and Gentlemen… (2002)
Angela’s Ashes (1999)
Another Woman (1988)
Approaching the Elephant (2014)
Autumn in New York (2000)
Bandolero! (1968)
Barnyard (2006)
The Beautician and the Beast (1997)
Bebe’s Kids (1992)
Bella (2006)
Belly (1998)
Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I – The Egg of the King (2012)
Beyond…

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Netflix: Expiring Soon (March 2015)

If you use Netflix, take a look at the movies you have two weeks left to watch.

via Justine Baron.

Justine's Movie Blog

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Below you will find lists of titles expiring on Netflix during this month (March) in the US, Canada, and the UK. For anyone wanting to know what has been added this month, you can find that list here. I try to keep it as updated as possible.

As usual, if anyone comes across any expiration dates that are not on this list, leave the title in the comments and I will add it. Enjoy!

Note: Unless any of these titles are renewed, the dates below represent the date of the last day these titles will be available for you to watch.

Netflix US

3/19
House Hunting (2013)
Miss Dial (2013)
Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (2011)
3/20
The Silence (2010)
3/21
Entre Nos (2009)
My Way (2011)
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
3/23
Edgar – 1 Season (2007) (TV)
Family Affair (2010)
Love Free or Die (2012)
Upside Down (2012)
3/24

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Is Canceling “The Cosby Show” Right?

The image above is an Ansel Adams photograph. We will not feature the image of a rapist, alleged or otherwise, when it adds a celebrity factor which is inappropriate for the discussion at hand. We instead chose the most calming photo at hand to accompany this post.

by Gabriel Valdez

Fifteen women have accused comedian and actor Bill Cosby of rape. NBC and Netflix have pulled current projects involving the comedian.

When NBC and Netflix, supposedly forward-thinking and progressive networks, first began developing those new projects, the number stood at 13. At least now we know how many women both those companies will tolerate being raped before they have second thoughts.

TV Land, which relies on syndicated programming popular in prior decades, has canceled reruns of The Cosby Show.

First off, let’s get one contention out of the way. Bill Cosby is African-American, and many have complained this sort of treatment is not shown to white TV stars. TV has a lot of issues to account for when it comes to racial fairness and diversity. This is not one of them. Networks similarly pulled reruns of 7th Heaven when lead actor Stephen Collins was accused of child molestation. The idiot network (their name is such an oxymoron I refuse to repeat it) that ran Here Comes Honey Boo Boo pulled current production on a new season when similar accusations plagued their show.

The other contention is that Cosby hasn’t been found guilty by any court of law. Many of these acts happened 30 years ago. The statute of limitations has run out. Evidence of rape that women hid because of Cosby’s fame won’t have lasted three decades. Cosby’s been accused by, what, 15 women now? What’s the magic number we have to reach before people finally admit, yeah, he’s likely guilty even if our court system isn’t built to handle this situation?

As much as I’d like to suggest it, we’re not talking about sending him to jail. We’re talking about whether a TV show should be canceled or not. Legal arguments have no ramification on this discussion.

As for canceling reruns of The Cosby Show, I’m of two minds about it. Part of me says pull it from rotation. His name’s in the damn title and it communicates his celebrity overrides such a heinous crime as rape.

The other part says it’s not as if fellow actors, such as Phylicia Rashad or Malcolm Jamal Warner, ever did anything wrong. It’s not just Cosby’s show; it belongs to other cast and crew, too. Yet they’re having their biggest claims to fame pulled from syndication.

I don’t know that there is a blanket right or wrong answer for what TV Land – or any network – should do in this situation. When there is no right or wrong answer, I tend to ask myself, what makes the most difference now? What helps the most?

The Cosby Show was important to racial politics in the United States. It helped change how African-Americans and their families were perceived by white America, particularly among middle class and suburban households. Those same households engaged in discussions about race and prejudice in a way they might not have without The Cosby Show. It also gave African-Americans positive, non-stereotypical role models on television. There is no denying that and there is no overstating the difference that it made.

There’s a key word in there, however. It “was” important. It still is to some extent, but it’s had 30 years to make its difference and communicate its message. One of TV Land’s roles is to act as a museum, yes, but the role of museums is to use their function to help shape and educate the culture of tomorrow. Is the role of The Cosby Show today more important than the act of canceling it can be?

In light of how our society dismisses women in situations of rape by ignoring and discrediting them, I think The Cosby Show can play just as important a role today as it once did. It can be sacrificed. It can carry a second message forward, one holding perpetrators of sexual violence more accountable for their actions no matter their stature, wealth, or position of power. The Cosby Show can now help change perceptions in male America. It can start discussions about gender equality and sexual violence in households that otherwise might not have them.

Whether it’s their intent or not (and they certainly kept The Cosby Show running when the number was at 13), TV Land is sending a message by canceling The Cosby Show now. That message is one of greater accountability. It is not the end of a conversation, nor the beginning of it, but it will include more people in that conversation.

Going forward, TV Land should replace The Cosby Show with a show that stars an African-American cast and communicates similar messages of racial equality. The Cosby Show has engendered many worthy successors in communicating acceptance. It would be a shame if it were to be replaced by, say, reruns of Friends. I won’t pretend to be an expert on African-American roles on television. If I were to make suggestions for replacement shows, it would be from a more limited scope of knowledge than someone who is. TV Land should communicate with African-American men and women who are experts in order to decide on a worthy replacement.

What’s New, What’s Expiring on Netflix

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by Gabriel Valdez

I notice a lot of people sharing what’s expiring on Netflix. Typically, it’s Daily Dot and Huffington Post (makes sign of the cross, sprinkles holy water around) links being thrown around, but these are usually half-assed and only cover what’s expiring on the last of the month, not what’s expiring mid-month.

There’s more complete information out there from more independent sources, and Justine Baron at JustBMovies writes monthly rundowns on What’s Expiring Soon and What’s New on Streaming. She covers all dates, not just the first and the last of the month (most sources miss this little nuance).

If you’re Canadian or British, first off: congratulations, that’s awesome, cause my god, I love your accent, but secondly, she’s got you covered, too.

The What’s Expiring Soon is current and her newest What’s New usually comes out on the first. Best of all, you don’t have to wait 500 years for Huffington Post (smears garlic on face, jumps in a colloidal silver bath) to load 13,666 ads for things you don’t need while torpedoing your computer or phone with third-party cookies (mmm…third-party cookies.)

JustBMovies also features some pretty solid movie reviews and regular rankings of your favorite directors and stars.