Saturday, April 18, 2015

Daredevil Episode 2 Review: Cut Man

[note: This review attempts to contain as little spoilers as possible. However, potential spoilers and plot points may come up. If you haven't seen Daredevil yet, read at your own risk]

If you thought "Into the Ring" got Marvel's Daredevil off to a good start, "Cut Man" takes the show to heights Uwe Boll could only dream of. Building on the grim world established in episode one, "Cut Man" proves Daredevil isn't just here to stay, it's a force to be reckoned with. By the time this episode ended, I was convinced that Daredevil was going to be a special show (spoiler; it is). Somewhere, Josh Whedon is wondering how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't be this good. 

Unlike "Into the Ring", "Cut Man" focuses on three different story arcs. The first follows Matt Murdock trying to save a young boy kidnapped by Russian gangsters, a mission that takes a major detour when he's injured and forced to take shelter in the home of nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). The second arc focuses on Karen Page and Foggy Nelson pub crawling through Hell's Kitchen, an adventure that serves as therapy for the emotionally shattered Karen (obviously still recovering from episode one's wounds). And finally, flashbacks take us back to Matt's childhood, where his father Jack Murdock (John Patrick Hayden) is forced to make a decision that could prove to have fatal consequences for him and his son.

A common thought among film buffs is that a great movie has at least three great scenes. "Cut Man", once again steered by Drew Goddard and Phil Abraham (their last work on the series sadly), contains three such scenes. The first is a brutal interrogation scene featuring Matt, Claire and a Russian gangster, which involves Matt doing something to the gangster that might be the most painful thing I've seen in any form of entertainment. The second is Jack Murdock basking in the glow of winning a fight backstage, despite the fact that he's just double crossed the local mob and is likely facing death. If there's a better example of being content with your fate than that scene, I don't know what is. And finally, the money shot of the episode (and likely the series) is a near five minute long take of Matt fighting his way through a group of gangsters in order to save the kidnapped boy. It's a mixture of brutality, determination and violent poetry unlike anything you've ever seen, and if nothing else serves as the shining example of what Daredevil at its best was capable of.

A preview of that excellent final scene for you

Part of what makes this episode successful is Goddard and Abraham's willingness to keep characters off. Other than the main three roles, no major character from the first episode reappears and there is still no sight of Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk. While this may again disappoint those in favor of seeing big name characters, it's the right move, allowing each arc to have the appropriate amount of time to develop as opposed to being rushed.

As with "Into the Ring", Charlie Cox is magnificent as Murdock, and once again treats the character more as a flawed, non superhuman man than that of his Marvel counterparts. This is the last episode Murdock is truly the center at, but Cox manages to keep him effective, largely because of his performance here and in "Into the Ring". Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Hensen are also good again as Karen and Foggy, though they perhaps get too much screen time that should've gone to the other arcs. Rosario Dawson, held off from the first episode, takes awhile to get going, but eventually gets her footing as Claire (as you'll see and read, Dawson's Claire becomes a real standout as the show continues). The standout is unknown actor John Hayden Patrick, who steals scenes as Matt's father in the flashbacks. An unknown who slightly resembles Father of the Bride star George Newbern, Hayden Patrick nails every beat of "Battlin" Jack, perfectly capturing the essence of a rough, but decent man who is trying to make a better life for him and his son. He proved to be a very valuable secret weapon for Daredevil's first two episodes.

Jack Murdock on the way to the ring

Bottom Line: After a successful debut, "Cut Man" takes what made "Into the Ring" great and turns it into a masterpiece of an episode. Filled with great performances, a compelling three arc story and one of the best closing scenes in recent memory, it's the first Daredevil episode to considered essential. Arguably, "Cut Man" is both the best episode of the series and one of the best episodes of TV you'll see this year. 

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NBA Playoff Preview Part 2: Western Conference First Round

Late last night, I took a look at how the first round of the Eastern Conference would play out. Now, let's take a look at the Western Conference. So what if there's only an hour and a half till the first game from the West? Better late than never right?
Western Conference Preview (First Round Edition)

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans

Major Storyline: MVP candidate vs. MVP candidate. I know, I can't believe there's no question here either! The fact of the matter is that Stephan Curry and Anthony Davis have both been too cool for school this year. Curry is the best point guard/shooter in the game (he might even be the best player in the game) and Davis seems like something Dr. Frankenstein would try and fail to create in his lab. There's no telling what his ceiling is. What more do you need to get excited about other than that match up? Well, other than the fact that you don't have to watch Russell Westbrook do his Allen Iverson impression on the most depressing team in the league. Remember when the Thunder were cool? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Poor Russ

Warriors Player to Watch: Draymond Green. Some would have you believe this is Curry. Stephen A. Smith would have you believe it's Andrew Bogut, for whatever bizarre reason. The reality is that Golden State's biggest key is Green, the rough and rugged power forward who might just win Defensive Player of the Year. More than anything, his insertion into the starting lineup this year (one of the many great moves by first year coach Steve Kerr) has taken the Warriors to another level from where they were under Mark Jackson. If the Warriors want to win this round and the rest, his defensive contributions must continue, and they must start against Davis. Will they?

Pelicans Player to Watch: Davis. As much as I love Jrue Holiday, he's been injured a good chunk of the year, and like the rest of the Pelicans roster, he likely wouldn't make nearly the difference Davis does. I can't put it into simpler terms; this kid is a freak, a once in a generation who could easily end up dominating this league for years (he's not even 23!). This is his first crack at playoff basketball, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure. If he handles it as he has everything else, watch out; the Pelicans have a chance. If not, at the very least his match up with Draymond Green will be fascinating to those who love one on one matchups.

Pelicans Will Win If...: Davis becomes the best player in basketball and one other player from the Pelicans (be it Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, ect.) steps up as a legit second banana. Davis ascending is likely. The second one isn't.

Prediction: Warriors in five. Would it shock me to see this go six or seven games though? Absolutely not. Here's hoping it does; a Game 7 with a red hot Davis and a Warriors team with more pressure on it than Orlando Bloom performing in any movie would be a sight to behold.

(4) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Major Storyline: Which team stays the healthiest? From what I have been reading, a combined seven players from both the Blazers and Grizzlies will come into the playoffs hurt, never a good sign. The Blazers seem to be the most effected, with five guys coming in banged up or not playing at all (most notably Wesley Matthews, who will miss the whole playoffs with torn left achilles tendon). At the same time, the two players ailing on the Grizzlies are their best defender in Tony Allen and their floor general/second best player in point guard Mike Conley. You know, the guy whose injury concerns have helped derail Memphis' playoff hopes in the years past. Pretty much, whoever can keep their team from dropping like people in The Happening will win this series. Be on alert, team physicians!

Blazers Player to Watch: Damian Lillard. Last year, the young Blazers point guard was busy hitting clutch shots to send Portland into the second around and looked like a future super duper star. This year, he's regressed as a shooter and has taken over for James Harden as one of the more embarrassing defenders in the league (how is it that all these great offensive players suck on defense? I never understand it). LaMarcus Aldridge can't do this all by himself for Portland, especially with Matthews gone, Nic Batum struggling with his shot and Aaron Afflalo disappointing since a deadline deal from Denver. Lillard must return to last year's form if the Blazers wish to win this series.

Grizzlies Player to Watch: Mike Conley. Marc Gasol and Zack Randolf might be Memphis' primary offensive weapons, but Conley is the straw that stirs the drink. More than anything, his health has kept the Grizzlies from making a major difference in the playoffs, and was the biggest reason they lost in the first round just a year ago. Keep him healthy, Memphis will win.

Prediction: Blazers in seven. Our first series predicted to go seven games, and it almost took seven series' to get there! In the end, Portland has just enough talent and Memphis has enough bad luck with health that it'll tip the favor to Portland. Unfortunately, don't expect them to do much damage past this round.

(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

Major Storyline: Bad blood, the one with another d at the end bad like WWE used to do. This could be said about a lot of teams the Rockets played this year, but it's pretty clear these two teams don't like each other. It makes sense, as they both play in Texas, the Mavericks messed up Houston's offseason plan when they stole Chandler Parsons away and, oh yeah, the Rockets seem to piss off everyone they play anyway. This will likely be the series with the most trash talk, shoving and potential brawls that were quickly broken up in this postseason. It'll also feature two exciting teams with a lot to prove, playing at full throttle every night.

Rockets Player to Watch: Dwight Howard. Unless he reverts back to the disappointment he was in the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden will continue to be James Harden, which means he'll continue to be the second best player in the league behind Steph Curry. That makes Howard the key. He was brought to Houston to be the man to take Houston over the top, only Harden has been the guy to do that while Howard spent the year dealing with injuries. He doesn't have to be the guy who was an MVP candidate in Orlando, but if Houston wants to win, Dwight Howard needs to be one of the five best centers in basketball again.

Mavericks Player to Watch: Monta Ellis. The Mavericks resurrected Ellis' career when he joined them two summers ago, and he's managed to be more of his positive qualities (a fearless locomotive heading to the basket) than his negatives (a below average midrange jump shooter). He needs to be their best player to win this series. There might be more question marks about Rajon Rondo and Chandler Parsons facing his old team may intrigue people more, but make no mistake; Dallas will go as far as Ellis and ageless wonder Dirk Nowitzki take them.

Mavericks Will Win If...: They play their game. Don't let the seven seed fool you; there is enough talent on this team and Rick Carlisle is such a good coach that Dallas could easily walk away with this series, the same way they almost walked away with their first round series against the Spurs last year. It's just a question of whether Houston will allow them too.

Prediction: Rockets in seven. In the end, it'll be close, but James Harden is too good, Dwight Howard will do just enough, and the Rockets will prevail. It'll be entertaining till the end.

(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs

Major Storyline: Is this the Spurs last run? I feel this question is asked every year, and every year it's answered the same way Tyson Tomko answered Christian when he was asked to give him a beat ("no."). That said, Tim Duncan is now pushing 40, Manu Ginobli is nearly 38, Tony Parker isn't Tony Parker anymore, and dammit, at some point this just has to stop right? Is this the year? Perhaps later on, but I'm not banking on it this round. Neither is Tyson Tomko.

Clippers Player to Watch: Chris Paul. He's still the best player, no matter how much Blake Griffin tries to convince you he can work well as a ball handler/mid range shooter. He's also starting to feel the heat from critics, as Paul hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs in his wonderful career. He'll have to be special this year if the Clippers can advance, and he'll have to do it with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders (especially since it's not like the Clippers bench has a whole lot to offer).

Spurs Player to Watch: Kwai Leonard. Have you seen the way he's been playing the last few months? Leonard was always a special player, but he looks poised to become the sort of two way player the likes of LeBron and a healthy Paul George. His continued evolution is exactly what the Spurs need, not just for this year, but for the foreseeable future.

The Spurs Will Win If...: They show up. That's it. I'll let you decide if that means I have too much faith in the Spurs or too little faith in the Clippers.

Prediction: Spurs in five. The first and only upset of the first round, if you can call it an upset. As good a coach as Doc Rivers is, the Clippers lack of depth means that Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan must be superhuman, and that's just not something that's sustained against the Spurs. The defending champs take it, and move onto stronger competition in the quest to defend their title.

That's it everyone. Enjoy the games!

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Friday, April 17, 2015

NBA Playoff Preview Part 1: Eastern Conference First Round

As if the NHL playoffs hadn't been compelling enough, in steps the NBA to turn the sports world into little kids on Christmas morning. Less than twenty four hours from now, the NBA playoffs will begin, kicking off with four match ups spread across ESPN and TNT. There are questions to be answered (like how the hell did Brooklyn weasel their way into the playoffs?), legacies to be made and goats to be created, perhaps all at once. What will happen? Put on Faith No More's song "Epic", grab some pizza Pringles and sit back; it's time to preview the NBA playoffs, starting with the Eastern Conference. Don't worry, we'll get to the Western Conference tomorrow (or today, if you're on the East Coast like me). On with the show!

Eastern Conference Preview (First Round Edition)

(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (8) Brooklyn Nets

Major Storyline: How far can the Hawks go in the playoffs? They've been brilliant all regular season, they have a Coach of the Year candidate in Mike Budenholzer and only the Golden State Warriors have been more fun to watch. That said, the lack of a major star player is giving people pause, especially considering the Hawks will likely have to play Lebron and co in order to make the Finals.

Hawks Player to Watch: Kyle Korver. He's not their best player, he's got no other major skill beyond his three point shot, and that fact that he looks like Ashton Kutcher's distant cousin remains concerning. But he's one of the best perimeter shooters ever, and if he remains as hot in the postseason as he was all season, the Hawks will cruise to the second round.

Nets Player to Watch: Deron Williams. Remember when he was considered one of the best players in the NBA just a few years ago? Pepperidge Farm remembers. For the Nets sake, Williams better if they want a shot of even competing in this series.

Brooklyn Will Win If...: Every member of the Hawks starting five is injured under mysterious circumstances, and if Deron Williams parties like it's 2009. In other words, a miracle.

Prediction: Hawks in 4. Maybe Brooklyn can finally start thinking realistically and rebuild following another disappointing loss.

(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Washington Wizards

Major Storyline: Which team is ready to make the leap? Are either of them? Both Toronto and Washington are talented, but for one reason or another have sort of underachieved this year following a breakout 2013-14 season. Will this series mark the arrival of one of them to prime time? I'm guessing no, but there's always a chance.

Raptors Player to Watch: Jonas Valančiūnas. The easy answer would be either DeMar DeRozen or Kyle Lowry, but both members of the Raptors backcourt proved their reliability in the playoffs last year. The 6'11 Valančiūnas remains the Raptor with the most potential for greatness, and if he continues to build off his best NBA season yet, the Raptors will be dangerous.

Wizards Player to Watch: Bradley Beal. The young shooting guard only played in 63 games this season due to various ailments, continuing Beal's unfortunate trend of failing to play a full season during his three year career. When he's been right, the Wizards have been at his best. John Wall may be the Wizards best player, but Beal is the key. When he hasn't the team has struggled. Will he remain right long enough for the Wizards to advance?

Prediction: Raptors in 6. In the end, Duane Casey is a much better coach than Randy Wittman, and that's enough for Toronto to eek out the series. Have you seen Wittman coach? Know wonder Batman doesn't like him.

Sorry Batman, you can't

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics

Major Storyline: Can the Cavs live up to expectations? Since LeBron James returned home last summer, Cleveland has been expected to compete in the NBA Finals, regardless of all the chemistry, coaching and media issues that came along the season. Are they the team the experts think they are? Or do they need one more year before the Cavs become the team everyone believes they can be?

Cavs Player to Watch: Kevin Love. Let's be real here guys; of all the guys in this serious who need to answer questions, Love has the most. LeBron, aside from a brief period at the beginning of the season, was LeBron. The same goes for Kyrie Irving. Only Love the third part of the dynamic trio, has failed to live up to the hype, spending most games with a look that's part sulk, part "get me out of this hell hole now!". Has he been used correctly by head coach David Blatt? Perhaps not. But whatever the reason, Love doesn't look like the same guy who averaged 26 and 14 last year in Minnesota. He needs to be if he wants to win a title and wants LeBron to stop rolling his eyes at him after every blown defensive possession.

Celtics Player to Watch: Evan Turner. Isaiah Thomas might be flashier, but the former number two pick Turner has quietly been a surprise for the out of nowhere Celtics, hitting clutch shots and excelling in the role of power forward. He'll have the touch assignment of both guarding LeBron and trying to run the offense against LeBron. If he hangs, Boston will hang. Simple as that.

Celtics Will Win If...: Brad Stevens has the series of his life as a coach (highly possible), Turner continues his hot play, Thomas plays out of his mind and one of the young guns like Marcus Smart or Kelly Olynyk takes the leap.  In other words, they need a Doug Flutie Hail Mary situation.

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. It'll be entertaining though, as Boston gives Cleveland all they got and proves they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.

(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks

Major Storyline: Is this the beginning of a major long term NBA rivalry? Chicago and Milwaukee are separated by less than 100 miles, and the despite a late season swoon, the Bucks possess both the coach (Jason Kidd) and the youth to be a serious threat in the East in the coming years. I expect this series to be more physical than people expect, and if the Bucks push Chicago further than many expect, this could be the beginning of yet another hot NBA rivalry. Here's hoping!

Bulls Player to Watch: Derek Rose. Duh. The former league MVP seemingly hasn't been healthy since the second Transformer film was released, and the lack of him on the court has derailed the Bulls title hopes for years now. He's recently just returned from yet another injury, and wasn't exactly lighting it up before he was hurt. Can he return to NBA form? Can he at least come close? Chicago needs him to if they expect to challenge Cleveland or Atlanta.

Bucks Player to Watch: Can I just call him the Greek Freak? Alright, I'll give it a whirl; Giannis... Antetokounmpo. Boom, totally nailed it (and by nailed it, I mean I totally looked it up). With Brandon Knight now enjoying the Phoenix Sun (pun fully intended) and Jabari Parker out for the postseason, the 20 year old Giannis represents the closing thing to a potential star in the Bucks future. He's still more of an athlete than a basketball player, and there's a better chance a new Turok game will be made than Giannis hitting a perimeter shot. At the very least though, the Greek Freak's dunk skills, long length and uber athleticism should make him fun to watch in this series.

Bucks Will Win If...: The Greek Freak turns into a complete player overnight. Excuse me while I order Turok: The Return of the Son of Stone.

You know he regrets nothing

Prediction: Bulls in 5, though the Bucks will hang tough like the Celtics. Don't worry guys and gals, there's always the Western Conference to produce a seven game series.

Till tomorrow (or technically later today)!

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Daredevil Episode 1: Into the Ring Review

 [note: This review attempts to contain as little spoilers as possible. However, there is no guarantee that certain plot points won't be brought up that could be considered a spoiler. If you haven't seen Daredevil yet, read at your own risk]

If nothing else, I fully expected Marvel's Daredevil, the latest installment in Marvel's now hilariously epic sized MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), to erase the painful memory of the 2003 film that famously started Ben Affleck's mid career swan dive. I mean, it wasn't like that would be hard; have you seen that Daredevil film? It was less of an adaption of the famed character and more of a cross between an MTV music video and a watered down version of The Crow. Thus, it was no surprise that the first episode of Daredevil's second chance, "Into the Ring", erased most of the wrongs Affleck's film created. What was surprising was how "Into the Ring" set the tone for a series that would not only redefine Daredevil in the media of TV and film, but would become the best thing Marvel has done since Robert Redford lampooned his 1970's political conspiracy era in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Keep your Iron Man films, I'm rolling with the blind lawyer from Hell's Kitchen.

"Into the Ring" serves as an origin story that really isn't an origin story. There is a brief glimpse of the aftermath of the accident that makes young Matt Murdock (Skylar Gaertner), but we don't see the accident itself, and Matt's childhood is in fact kept to a limited amount of flashbacks. Instead, writer Drew Goddard and episode director Phil Abraham spend the majority of the time in the present, where Matt (Charlie Cox) and his partner/best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Hensen) are just starting out as lawyers. Their first case is defending Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary framed for murder because who knows too much about a real estate conspiracy. A conspiracy, by the way, that involves a Japanese businessman (Peter Shinkoda), two Russian gangsters (Nikolai Nikolaeff and Gideon Emery), an elderly Chinese drug lord (Wai Ching Ho), a corrupt financial expert (Bob Gutton) and the mysterious employer of yuppie James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore). Yes, I am aware that sounds like the beginning of the worst joke since Dane Cook's last stand up special.

For those wondering, yes, Matt is a vigilante at the start of the season, and "Into the Ring" features two excellent fight scenes that book end the episode. If you're expecting to see Daredevil in his iconic red suit however, prepare for disappointment, as Matt's early costume resembles that of a ninja more than his more famous alter ego. While I'll admit that I was disappointed upon learning this, it definitely was the right call by Goddard and show runner Steven DeKnight (who took over for Goddard after he bolted to direct the now defunct Sinister Six film for Sony). Not only is it a homage to Frank Miller's excellent The Man Without Fear origin comic (where the character starts out in a similar costume he does here), but it perfectly highlights just how the character is going to be handled. Arguably, the Daredevil comics have never really been a superhero story; you could easily describe it as a crime saga in Hell's Kitchen that happens to involve a masked vigilante whose ideals are always being pushed closer to the edge (music and lyrics by 30 Seconds to Mars). Goddard, DeKnight and their crew understood that, and acted accordingly. The biggest reason why "Into the Ring" works is because it's not a superhero story, it's a story of Matt Murdock and how he learns to become his own man. Sure, there are mentions to other MCU events within the show (the Battle of New York is in fact the main catalyst for the real estate conspiracy), but in terms of influence, Daredevil and "Into the Ring" owes a lot more to the groundbreaking show The Wire than The Avengers (not a coincidence, made clear by long time Wire director Abraham's involvement in this and the second episode). This isn't a show for the faint of heart.

Of the cast, Bob Gutton's Leland Owlsly (a long time nemesis in the comics) is the only character that comes off flat here, and at times I felt the character bordered on camp. The rest of the group is excellent, particularly the three leads Cox, Woll and Hensen.  While he'll take a step back in later episodes to allow other characters to shine, "Into the Rings" and the follow up episode "Cut Man" belong to Cox,  who uses the time to establish Matt as an idealistic, determined, but flawed man who is a lot closer to the criminals he loathes then he likes to admit. He also takes a massive beating, a welcome idea to a Universe where the heroes are at times presented as too superhuman. Woll, who last starred in True Blood, equals Cox in every way. Karen Page has always been a complicated character in comic book lore, but Woll's version here has more layers than a cake, and she's splendid at playing a tortured victim who has a lot of good and a lot of darkness inside her. Hensen, most famous for playing Fulton Reed in the Mighty Ducks films, strikes a perfect balance of comic relief and seriousness as Foggy, though you will see more impressive work from him as the series goes on. Those expecting Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk here will be disappointed, as he is only heard briefly during a telephone conversation with Wesley.


Bottom Line: "Into the Ring", despite being a title that makes me want to type Into the Woods repeatedly, is a great start for Daredevil, blending a character driven narrative with a gritty setting to create a compelling world. Those who prefer numerous comic book references and seeing big name characters will be disappointed, but those who enjoy great drama will not. In short, "Into the Ring" lays the ground work for what will surely be the best thing Marvel produces all year. Sorry Age of Ultron!

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