As much as we like to dissect, berate, and praise popular media here on the Fandomentals, every now and again we get the joy of offering a first look at something new. We don’t often get to break news or highlight our contributors, either. So it is with great pleasure that we announce that two of our very own contributing writers—Jessica Naftaly and Shailyn Cotten—have developed an original web series called After Oil.
Premiering this past weekend, May 6th, at the 28th Annual Dusty Film Festival, After Oil follows the story of Briar Dunlap. In the last five years, a global oil crisis that has sunk Briar’s small Appalachian town into a desperate fight for survival. Needing to help, she and her friends deliver food and rations to their neighbors on bike, forming a gang called the “Pahokee Riders”. When one of her youngest Riders goes missing, Briar and her girlfriend Sarah’s fervent search for their friend uncovers a dark secret. Corruption lurks in their small town. A corruption that involves not only the police department but a corporate oil company intent on drilling their land dry.
Check out the teaser trailer here (and if you’re feeling really nice, go watch it on Youtube as well to give them the views).
We’ve talked before about how stories matter. Marginalized communities have to fight tooth and nail for well written, engaging, and nuanced representation. One of the solutions is the creation of our own original content, which is becoming more and more common. Stories written by and about marginalized communities like women of color and LGBT+ persons are increasing as more creators opt out of traditional methods. Web series in particular offer a unique way to reach an underrepresented audience. Shows like Couple-ish, The Fosters, Carmilla, Inconceivable, and, now, After Oil, showcase just how interesting and engaging a web series made by and about LGBT+ characters can be.
You can meet the cast, learn out about the production, and find links to support their work on their website: www.afteroilseries.com. Or, check out their Facebook page and Twitter for updates, news, and other information.
So whether you’re an LGBT+ person yourself or an ally, check out After Oil. It will be premiering online this coming weekend, May 12th.*
*Editor’s Note: Due to changes in production schedule, online release has been delayed until mid-May. To keep to date with information regarding online release, please refer to their website and Facebook. Thank you.*
All Images and Video Courtesy of After Oil
The Punisher Succeeds as Something Unexpected
Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, is best known as a ruthless slaughterer of criminals big and small. He wields the arsenal of a small army to shoot, stab, and blow up anyone who breaks the law. He’s best known for the brutality of his kills and his complete lack of mercy. Sure, he has his own sort of code, and the death of his wife and children haunts him, but the reasoning tends to be second fiddle to the graphic deaths he is responsible for.
The first trailer for Netflix’s adaptation of the character played into this image of the character. It was filled with shootouts and promises of Castle’s ruthless brand of vigilant justice set to a soundtrack of “One” by Metallica. I was excited for this kind of show. Most Punisher fans were.
Then, unfortunately, real life tragedies occurred that dampened enthusiasm for the show we expected. The shooting massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs brought back the conversation of gun culture in America and how it plays into the absurd frequency of these kinds of mass killings. Needless to say, a show about a guy whose main hobby is mowing people down with a gigantic arsenal of guns couldn’t come at a worse time.
Marvel and Netflix seemed to agree, as a planned surprise release of the first season of The Punisher was delayed and given a proper release date. Even still, the delay only paused the question of whether this show was doomed by its content in the aftermath of two mass shootings. I was prepared to write an uncomfortable review focused on the horrible timing to release it.
This was even truer after the opening montage of Castle mowing down bad guys with “fuck yeah” music playing, and a title sequence showing a multitude of guns firing.
By the fourth episode, my expectations had changed drastically. The Punisher is not the show you expected, it’s not the show anyone feared, and it was all the better for it.
Now That the War is Through with Me
Turns out the first trailer did give away exactly what The Punisher would be, but not how most people thought. While everyone focused on how freaking cool it was to match the action to the music, the actual song chosen went overlooked. “One” by Metallica is inspired by the novel Johnny Got His Gun, a story of a soldier hit by an artillery shell and deprived of all four limbs and his entire face, as well as practically all his senses. It’s a story about the horrors of war and how they change a person permanently.
Which, basically, is the entire theme of The Punisher. This is a story of coming home from war and trying to assimilate back into a society.
Every single main character fits into this mold in some way. Frank, of course, is a veteran of Afghanistan whose life back home was ruined by his family’s murder. His best friend, Curtis, lost a limb to war. His main adversaries, fellow squad mate Billy Russo and their commander William Rawlins, are both veterans of war. So is another adversary for a subplot, Lewis Wilson. Frank’s partner, Micro, did not fight in a war but was intelligence. Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani was intelligence in the field.
Each and every one of these characters provides a different perspective of dealing with returning home. The result is a surprisingly sensitive look at how the hell people deal with returning to society from just about every perspective you’d want. You have the soldiers who try to keep fighting the war, soldiers who move on, the ones who feel betrayed and the ones who make successes of their lives. Some try desperately to forget the injustices of war, while others refuse to let go of them.
Nowhere is this examination more successful than with Frank Castle himself. To be clear, he’s still The Punisher. He’s still a ruthless murderer. He has no mercy for criminals and that never changes. His murders are cold and brutal. However, despite the hero shots of the opening and his “triumphant” victory at the end, Frank Castle’s actions are never glorified. They are called out for what they are, the horrific actions of a dangerous, bad person.
And even better, the show avoids painting him as a perfect person before the murder of his family. What we learn of his family life only adds to the unpleasant picture painted of Castle. His marriage was the rushed result of him getting his wife pregnant. He puts his hands on his son. Clearly they loved each other, and it was portrayed as a close family that loved each other, but it wasn’t like the Punisher was some sudden switch Castle never showed hints towards.
Most people expected Jon Bernthal to make the most of this character, and he sure as hell does, but it helps when the character gives him so much to work with. Frank Castle is a complicated, damaged, immoral man lashing out in pain at the rest of the world. He never came home from war, and it is this aspect of his personality The Punisher focuses on above all else.
Every other character serves as a mirror reflecting aspects of Castle’s personality and motives. Micro has practically the exact same family, except he “died” to keep them safe where Castle lost his. Frank’s interactions with said family inform on his interactions with the one he lost. Dinah has the same single-minded obsession with justice for the death of someone close. Lewis Wilson reflects what might happen if Castle’s deadly skills were turned on society.
There are plenty of issues plot-wise, but one thing The Punisher excels at is comparing and contrasting its characters and how they serve the same main themes.
Those themes are also touched on with a surprising deftness, even if the vehicles delivering them are somewhat bland and unoriginal. By showing so many differing perspectives, the result is a surprisingly comprehensive overview of veterans and how society treats them.
So what about the issue of violence? The thing people worried about most? Well, I won’t pretend the show completely avoids “cool” violence. It is the Punisher, after all. For everything the season does to speak against Frank’s crusade, his eventual revenge is completely over-the-top gruesome and treated as a triumph. He also pays no real consequences for everything he does throughout the season. By the time it happens, though, I think enough has been done to excuse it. Not to mention there are very few fights. They really don’t matter or get much play compared to the attempts to actually discuss something important.
The result is a surprisingly thoughtful show very few people expected.
Even better is how the plot manages to tie so many different perspectives and characters together in a natural way. The way everyone ends up in the same location for the resolution of Lewis’s plotline was awesome and the result made for one of the best episodes of the season. Whether directly or indirectly, time and time again Punisher surprised me with the soft, skilled touch of its characters and plot.
It was all the more surprising because of how blunt and predictable it all is.
Same Old Marvel
For all The Punisher does right, though, it has the same kinds of problems you’d come to expect of Netflix’s Marvel shows at this point. There is not enough story for thirteen episodes. The plot doesn’t make sense at some key moments. Law enforcement is laughably inept. While the acting is mostly solid and has a few excellent standouts, it isn’t anything special.
The biggest problem (at least for me) was how bland and cliché so many characters ended up being. Honestly, it’s a triumph that The Punisher manages to be as good as it is when no one outside of Frank Castle, Micro, and Karen Page prove the least bit interesting. Everyone else tends to be walking blocks of stock-issue sentences and reactions.
You know who the bad guy will be right away because you’ve seen this bad guy a hundred times before. You know what Dinah’s partner will say in every scenario. Two characters will obviously have sex based on the first time they talk to each other. As a result The Punisher is a wholly predictable show, to a fault. I honestly can’t think of a single moment in the season that surprised me.
This problem also made it difficult for me to really connect to any of the characters. Now, of course, others won’t have that problem. I’ve seen my share of complaints about The Punisher being boring, though, and often because of specifically this issue. When a show focuses so hard on examining the lives of its characters, you need to make sure the audience engages with them. The Punisher is hit or miss in that regard.
That’s not to suggest the characters are unlikable; I think they mostly come across just fine. Karen is still awesome, and Micro definitely lives up to the task of being a believable companion to Castle. Most the characters are fine. They’re just not that interesting.
When they rely so deeply on clichés to the point of complete lack of surprise, though, you’ll have problems. Of course there’s the episode where the hero spends most of it recovering from severe injuries, and you’ll probably groan through parts of it. Of course there’s another episode where a doctor “explains” life-threatening injuries while operating on the hero.
It is what it is. Some will forgive predictability more than others.
It’s also a problem when much of the plot depends on clichés, and not good ones. A huge part of the season involves the politics between federal agencies and political figures, and once again all of it depends on story beats you see coming from a mile away. Not in a good way, either, but because you know these plot points. You’ve seen them too many times before.
I suppose this isn’t inherently a problem, but it is when it makes everyone involved look completely incompetent. While Dinah isn’t the most interesting character in the world, there is something endearing about how often she fails. By the end of the season she reaches a point where I almost wanted to do a Kate Kane-style fail counter. The poor woman tries her best.
Unfortunately, she also reaches a point where her continued career is completely implausible. What federal agency would let someone continue who doesn’t follow orders, keeps secrets, gets people killed after falsifying intelligence, and lets dangerous vigilantes remain free? This issue extends to the government as a whole. What agencies talk to each other like this? Who the hell hears a subordinate admit to heinous war crimes and does nothing? How can Dinah talk like she does to people at the top of the CIA without consequence?
A few instances spread out might be believable. When this kind of absurd “politics” is the rule of the show, you can’t help but notice and focus on the flaws.
At this point inept law enforcement is the standard on Marvel shows, but most of them know better than to focus on law enforcement for that very reason. Homeland Security, the CIA, and the police are central to everything that happens on The Punisher. It’s a shame they weren’t handled better. I can handle a bit of incompetence and stretching of realism, but not this much.
I mean, besides everything Dinah does without somehow killing her career, there’s a point where Homeland Security purposely opens fire on a friendly character wearing a small square of Kevlar in order to fake his death. The sheer incredulity of a federal agency doing that just blows my mind.
So How Does it Compare?
That’s the question, right? The downward trend of the Marvel Netflix shows made many people skeptical who were not when The Punisher was first announced. Luke Cage had promise but ultimately fell off a cliff. Iron Fist was plain awful. The Defenders mostly delivered on entertaining character interactions, but had a god-awful plot cementing the Hand as narcolepsy-inducing pieces of cardboard.
Short answer: yes. This show absolutely belongs up there with those two standouts. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Jessica Jones despite the differences in content.
Now, I’m not arguing The Punisher equals Jessica Jones. It doesn’t. The writing isn’t as sharp, it stubbornly follows tropes where Jessica Jones subverts them, and the overall message isn’t as fresh and underrepresented. However, it is precisely the message that ties them. Not in the content of their messages, but the way both shows were clearly crafted around a social issue and tie everything back to it, and tied their main characters directly to those issues.
Where Jessica Jones took the subjects of physical and psychological abuse and thoroughly explored the subject, The Punisher tries to do the same with veterans and subjects related to their returns to society. Everything about the show starts off this premise. Every character, every subplot, and ever plot point. Why does Lewis Wilson exist? Because he shows how a disgruntled veteran and those who share his sympathies are vulnerable to radicalization. The same holds true of every aspect of this show.
This stubborn focus on its messages elevates The Punisher above the sum of its parts. I walked away thinking better of the show because of the effort put forth into truly saying something. Too many shows fail to really do say anything. They’ll touch upon subjects but never go deep into them. Daredevil’s second season might want to have a debate about vigilantism, and certainly dedicates ample time to the subject, but it isn’t the point of the show.
Of course, that’s not to say a message alone means your show is better than one lacking. I wouldn’t say any one idea or message drives Daredevil’s first season, but it still ranks as arguably the best season of the Marvel Netflix shows. Still, when a show truly dives into something, it can punch above its weight.
I think The Punisher managed to punch above the weight of the acting, pace, and plot.
Perhaps others will disagree with me, but I appreciate when a show approaches a controversial debate with subtlety or moral certainty. Gun control is not sexual abuse. It is not a clear cut moral issue with an obvious good side to take. Neither is the subject of veterans reintegrating into society or the issues facing them. Every country has veterans. How do you deal with the men and women who come back from war changed? How do you help them?
There is no easy answer. Every veteran has their own experience that affected them differently than even someone they fought alongside. What helps one does not help another. Curtis’s help group existed for this reason. Through him we saw how three separate characters reacted to the idea of therapy. All three had separate feelings.
The Punisher actually holds a conversation within these thirteen episodes. You can argue about the effectiveness, for sure. It absolutely doesn’t cover its subjects the way Jessica Jones did, or Luke Cage tackled Harlem in the first half of its first season. It does hold this conversation, though, and does so well.
Do they do the same for gun control? The issue everyone worried about before release? Eh, that’s debatable. One episode has a strong scene featuring Karen Page on a radio show talking gun control with a stock-issue liberal politician that offers both sides of the argument. Like most things on The Punisher, the debate hits expected points without much new to offer. Unfortunately, the perspectives fall well short compared to the focus on veterans. Before and afterwards, they offer very little on gun control.
Should they have done more? Maybe, but I don’t think we should ever expect The Punisher to tackle gun control too far one way or the other. Not because of fear, but because guns are simply too central to the character.
For those who hoped The Punisher would edge Marvel Netflix back towards the quality of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, I think it did so.
The Punisher has a consistent quality we haven’t seen since Jessica Jones. Every show since has had obvious pitfalls dragging the season down. Daredevil floundered when the Elektra/Hand plot took precedence over the Frank Castle plot. Luke Cage suffered immensely after Cottonmouth’s death. The Defenders made a huge mistake sinking its second half. Iron Fist was…well, horrible.
None of these shows fully committed to what they wanted those seasons to be. For better or worse, The Punisher knew what it wanted to be right away. On one hand, that means that if you don’t enjoy the first few episodes, your opinion likely won’t change. I think it made for a better show.
Fear not, everyone. The Punisher was a good first step back towards the promise of Marvel’s television efforts. It tried to be something different and more than the expectations ahead of time. I think they succeeded.
Images courtesy of Netflix
I Don’t Know About You, But I’m Feeling 1922
Review for Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1922
It’s a good time to be a Stephen King fan if you are following current media trends. With the recent release of titles like IT and The Gunslinger, it seems like King is set to inspire fear and adventure into the hearts of a whole new generation. I’ve consumed my fair share of King novels, short stories, and film adaptations and have come to appreciate his “brand,” for lack of a better term. Although 1922 may be below-the-radar for most casual viewers, it’s sure to gain some recognition and attention from psychological horror fans in general. Netflix’s adaptation, based on the King novella of the same title, brings a chilling tale of murder, paranoia and isolation to life in a simple, grim, well-shot period piece.
To Whom it may concern: My name is Wilfred Leland James, and this is my confession…
The adapted screenplay, written by Zak Hilditch, introduces our narrator and protagonist, Wilfred James as he pens a confession from a hotel room in Omaha. We are then transported back to 1922, the year he committed an unforgivable sin…
Wilfred’s wife Arlette James has just inherited a hundred-acre farm in Nebraska afterher father’s passing. The bank has offered her a very hefty sum for the land in order to sell it off to a pork rind company. Her stone-faced husband isn’t too keen on the idea, and the inciting incident reveals the dynamic of Wilfred and Arlette’s relationship.
They don’t exactly get along. In fact, with the news of the inheritance, we come to find out that the James’s are on the cusp of divorce. Arlette wants to sell and move to the city to start her own dress shop. It is her money, after all. She’d give Wilfred half the money and take their son Henry to live with her. He stubbornly refuses the offer and wants to make things as difficult as possible for her. I’m sure their relationship has been long, arduous, and complex (their son is 14) but we as an audience are only privy to the uncomfortable passive aggression that accompanies a failing, resentful marriage.
The dialogue for much of the first act is rather simplistic and heavy on exposition. Luckily, the performances of our main cast within a very authentic-looking set piece, elevate the film and offer some compelling tension and curiosity. The central conflict of the first act revolves around both parents doing their best to manipulate Henry into taking their respective side.
In her portrayal of Arlette, Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood) once again plays a woman whose alluringly kind, maternal features contrast sharply with her ambitious, perhaps even conniving character. Arlette’s situation, however, is more sympathetic than sinister. She’s living an unfulfilled life in a terrible marriage, isolated from society, and her husband is preventing her (emotionally, at first) from starting a new life. She’s written as a rude woman who seemingly doesn’t care that she’s splitting up her family and ruining their lives, and from her the hard-working, uneducated husband’s perspective, she is evil. This drives the clearly unbalanced Wilfred to plot her death.
“I believe there’s another man inside of every man…”
Motivation and Tropes
The problem I have with the murder as a whole is the motive. Dylan Schmid portrays the son Henry as fairly normal and well-adjusted. He’s obviously a talented young actor, but the plot behind the murder felt off to me. Wilfred does take opportunities to manipulate his son further by reminding him that his mother’s plans to sell the farm would split up Henry and his girlfriend Shannon, but given how the characters had been established at this point, I didn’t buy it.
Thomas Jane gives a fantastically dark performance as Wilfred, our tortured protagonist, but so much of his disturbed nature feels internal, which makes it, again, hard for me to believe that this Christian father could outright convince his fairly normal son to aid in murdering his own mother. Much of the motive for Henry to aid in his mother’s death comes out of his fear that he’ll split with his girlfriend…but we aren’t really privy to this relationship enough to care either, so the stakes feel a bit contrived. If Henry had manipulation coming from all aspects of his life: a bitter, ambitious father, a controlling girlfriend, and growing resentment towards his mother, then I’d bite. This was by far my biggest gripe. Give me a more interesting accomplice.
The murder itself happens about twenty-five minutes in. It’s plenty gory and nerve-wracking, and they mix in some rather enjoyable farcical elements when disposing of Arlette’s body. The James boys have clearly gotten themselves into a situation that is far beyond their abilities and comprehension…but they manage to pull it off. From here on out, the rest of the film’s tension and conflict grow out of father and son’s guilt piling on top of their odd, tenuous relationship, and whether or not they’ll be able to cover up the crime. With attorneys, sheriffs, and neighbors constantly popping by to check up on “poor Wilfred James whose wife ran off,” it’s rather inconvenient for him to have to constantly keep up appearances, and there are lots of great character performances from the townsfolkas the cover-up spirals out of control.
Despite the use of some pretty cliche tropes in the script, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. There is undeveloped young love, a brooding brute husband, and a shrill, pontificating wife… but for this intimate, at times claustrophobic, murder story, it is so well-shot and well-acted, that it works despite its flaws. Does it help that Hilditch was adapting a master story teller’s work like King? Well, obviously. This is a barebones script that uses mood, tension, and visuals to tell the bulk of its story. While there is still something to be desired as far as relationship-building, I appreciate that Hilditch for the most part decided to show, rather than tell his version of this story.
I hate rats so much. I’ve encountered plenty of disgusting, scenes in a variety of media forms that pick at my murophobia. When I was a kid, it was that unnecessarily haunting scene in Lady and the Tramp, more recently it was the penultimate chapter in Orwell’s 1984, and now I have 1922 to add to the list. I will say though, if you don’t find rats particularly frightening, some of these scenes may seem rather banal, almost campy, as the shots are not at all sensationalized. They’re just rats being rats. Some individuals, however terrible and wrong, might even find the little slimy vermin cute.
“I’m sorry mister James, the rats got to them before they were found…”
Rats are used as the symbol for guilt. When Wilfred disposes of his wife’s body, there is a rather disturbing scene where he watches rats…do what rats do…to her corpse. This imagery continues to gnaw at him (ha) throughout the entirety of the film. It gets worse and worse and I’m left sitting on my couch going:
King Is Still the King of Horror
I love Stephen King’s body of work, and though I could have used more character development in the first act of this film, Hilditch manages to tell a compelling and creepy period piece worthy of the King name. What I would love to see with the seemingly endless capability of Netflix’s resources would be adaptations of the other novellas in Full Dark, No Stars, the collection which 1922 is from. Keeping good horror in the mainstream is important, and where others fail to understand what draws audiences in, Stephen King will always get me, due to his love and fascination for telling stories about the dark side of humanity that are rarely superficial, and always at least honest within their parameters. Keeping in mind its release as a fairly below-the-radar Netflix original, this film should be considered a success.
Images Courtesy of Netflix
‘Good Girls’ Revolt for a Second Season
Good Girls Revolt debuted on Amazon for its first season, and was then quietly canceled thereafter. The series, produced by TriStar Television (owned by Sony Pictures TV Studios), was seemingly shuttled into the ether with the rest of bygone series. Until now.
While Sony TV does have a tendency to try and shop its shows around longer than other studios, this is a unique situation. Why? The current on-going revelations of sexual harassment in Hollywood. See, Good Girls Revolt‘s plot was all about examining and pushing back against gender discrimination in the workplace. Based on the Lynn Povich novel The Good Girls Revolt and the lawsuit brought to Newsweek by female employees against their employer, the series follows the same story. Stars Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), Genevieve Angelson (Backstrom), Erin Darke (Don’t Think Twice), and Joy Bryant (Parenthood) come together in the ensemble series. Characters level a lawsuit against their boss at “News of the Week” during the social upheaval backdrop of 1969.
At the time, women were shunted to the lowest level positions available in newsrooms. As in other areas (highlighted in the film Hidden Figures), many of these women were more talented, better writers, and better researchers than their male counterparts. And were, predictably, never given credit and paid far, far less (worse if you were a person of color). Good Girls Revolt follows the fight for bylines (article credit), better pay, and better workplace treatment.
With the news coming out of Hollywood and in journalism corporations (FOX News, MSNBC) of harassment, discrimination, and worse—and with no end in sight—it’s not a surprise that this series is suddenly very, very topical. In fact, Amazon’s former head, Roy Price (who had canceled the series) is now out as a result of said unfolding scandal. The series’ cancellation was something of a headscratcher at the time, having posted solid ratings for its first season with 80% of those watching the pilot sticking around to view the series.
In the current media environment, even Amazon with its new head of streaming content could show interest in reviving the show. The Hollywood Reporter lists the following networks currently in the running to potentially up the series: Freeform, ABC, Hulu, USA Network, and Bravo. The show’s creator, Dana Calvo, and the stars have expressed their willingness to return.
Good girls revolt, indeed.