TV Capsule Reviews: Chernobyl, The Haunting of Hill House, Castlevania, Watchmen

I’ve been watching some kickass TV shows lately. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Chernobyl

HBO

HBO’s Chernobyl is five episodes of utterly gut-wrenching television. I missed it when it aired earlier this year and recently watched it on Blu-Ray, and I was blown away. A show about a devastating historical event that took place in another country doesn’t automatically sound like a surefire hit, but it ended up being yet another hit for HBO, and with good reason.

I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the series’ technical or historical accuracy, but I can say that writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck did an amazing job of turning an incredibly complex series of events into riveting television. Craig Mazin’s previous screenwriting credits are mostly screwball comedies such as The Hangover and its sequels, so he’s not necessarily the writer you might expect to create such a traumatizing series. The third episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the last two.

The horrors this show presents are many. People suffering from horrific radiation burns are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the now-infamous sequence where a trio of soldiers are tasked with hunting down and killing every animal in Chernobyl. If you have ever had a pet, this sequence is particularly grueling. I forced myself to watch it, but when I watch this series again I’m going to skip that scene.

But on top of the more visceral images, there’s the omnipresent danger of the radiation itself, the knowledge that all of the show’s characters are being slowly poisoned by it. Throughout all of this, the acting in the show is top-notch. Jared Harris is absolutely terrific, between this and The Terror on AMC, he’s been doing amazing work recently. Stellan Skarsgard is also great as a politician who initially butts heads with Harris’ character, and the friendship that slowly develops between the two men is genuinely moving.

There are many other characters and subplots throughout the series, and it is remarkable that the five episodes don’t feel overstuffed despite everything going on. The pacing is excellent and the series is very watchable, despite the harrowing subject matter. I can see myself eventually watching it again (minus the animal-killing scenes), but not for a while. It is often very difficult to watch, but it is made with skill and incredible attention to detail, the acting is excellent and perhaps most importantly it never forgets the incredible human cost of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and if you can stomach the more gruesome scenes, it’s a very rewarding viewing experience.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series of The Haunting of Hill House IS NOT the same as the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It shares some thematic similarities and character names, but the show is very much its own beast. It’s more inspired by the book than based on it. If you’re a big Shirley Jackson fan who expects the show to be a direct adaptation of the book, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion that’s a good thing, since (and I realize this is a potentially unpopular opinion) I think the book is tremendously overrated. The book is, in a word, BORING. You want to know what happens in the book? Here’s a synopsis: some people spend a few days sitting around a weird old house talking, and then one of them dies in a car crash. The end. The book is often held up as a masterpiece of horror, but I did not find it remotely frightening.

Now if you’re still reading this and don’t hate me for expressing my dislike of a well-regarded novel, let’s move on and talk about the show. The show is great. There were scenes in this series that scared the absolute hell out of me, and the fifth episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the rest of the ten episodes (sound familiar? Man, I followed up Chernobyl with something equally as intense, albeit in different ways). And the eighth episode has the most effective jump scare I’ve ever encountered in a movie or show, it damn near gave me a heart attack.

Mike Flanagan is a well-regarded filmmaker who I’ve heard quite a few good things about, although before I watched Hill House I hadn’t seen any of his work. And the hype about the guy is legit: he is a very, very good director. The sixth episode of Hill House is composed almost entirely of very long tracking shots and is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. If you have the Blu-Ray, I highly recommend watching this episode with Flanagan’s commentary, his eloquent and passionate description of the technical challenges of filming the episode is fascinating, and his appreciation for every member of the cast and crew who worked on it is really touching.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. Let’s back up and talk about what the show is about. The show is about the Crain family: parents Hugh and Olivia, and their children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell. This family, to put it mildly, has ISSUES. Many of these issues stem from the summer the family spent in a haunted house –the titular Hill House. You see, Hugh and Olivia were attempting to restore the house over the summer and the entire family ended up having various paranormal encounters, which scarred them all in different ways.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but I don’t want to give too much away because if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t seen this show yet, you should really check it out. I’m going to sound a bit like a broken record when I say that the acting in this show is tremendous across the board. Many of the actors were previously unknown to me, and I was impressed with all of them. The show is structurally similar to Stephen King’s IT, in that the show weaves back and forth in between two time periods: the past, in which we see the family’s fateful summer in Hill House, and the present, where the kids are all grown up and the family is dealing with the many scars left by that traumatic summer.

I found all of their stories very compelling, and the show gives every character time to develop so that the viewer knows and cares about each one of them, which makes the scary scenes even scarier. The scares are psychological rather than gory, and Flanagan knows exactly how to get under the skin of every character, and by extension the viewer. The show is a harrowing tale of lingering trauma, and is a family drama as much as a horror story.

But make no mistake, this is a horror story. Just ask the ghosts hiding in the backgrounds of every episode. Mike Flanagan has confirmed that there are ghosts hiding in the background of every episode except the sixth, since that episode was so technically complex that they didn’t have time for Easter eggs. I missed the hidden ghosts in the first few episodes, but once I read about them online I started to pay closer attention to the backgrounds, and noticed quite a few of the creepy bastards in the later episodes. I LOVE how Flanagan incorporates these hidden ghosts, there’s never any loud noises or sudden music cues to alert the audience that the ghosts are there. But they are. Watching. Waiting.

I always love it when filmmakers put the extra effort into adding details and then letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I don’t even know if internet sleuths have found every ghost yet. The house itself also looks amazing. Somehow Flanagan and his crew managed to design the house in a way that pays homage to the source novel while still feeling like its own original creation.

If I have one problem with the show, it’s the ending. As good as the show is, Flanagan doesn’t quite stick the landing. The last episode isn’t terrible, but it is somewhat unsatisfying given how good the buildup to it had been. The uneven final episode doesn’t tank the entire show, but it is too bad that it doesn’t go out on a higher note. Flanagan is currently in production on a sequel of sorts: The Haunting of Bly Manor, said to be loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with another famous ghost story.

Castlevania

Netflix

Castlevania is an animated Netflix series based on the classic video game series by Konami. It has everything I like: swords, skeletons, castles, vampires, winged creatures of the night, a cranky badass hero, and lots of blood and gore, all wrapped up in a thoroughly gothic atmosphere. What’s not to like?

But the amazing thing about this show is that you actually care about the characters. I was honestly surprised by how much time the series spent with each character in the second season. The first season was only four episodes and while they were four good episodes, the first season couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a tease. But it’s a tease that pays off in the eight-episode second season. Season 2 introduces several new characters, and at times the pacing can be a bit slow. But the show rewards the viewer’s patience with several action-packed episodes in the second half, which include some of the best animated fight scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

The main antagonist is Dracula, the most famous bloodsucker of all time. But the show’s portrayal of him is very different from other portrayals of the famous vamp. This version of Dracula is not bent on ruling the world just for the hell of it.

This Dracula just wants his wife back.

Wait, what?

Yes, this show’s Dracula is primarily motivated by his grief over the cruel death of his wife, Lisa. In the first scene of the first episode, we meet a young woman named Lisa who wants to be a doctor. She seeks out Dracula for his scientific knowledge. He is impressed by her and agrees to teach her, and she in turn helps him regain some of his humanity. Eventually they marry.

Fast forward twenty years, and Lisa is burned at the stake by a power-crazed bishop who falsely accuses her of witchcraft.

This turns out to be a Very Bad Idea.

Dracula unleashes his hordes of nightmare monsters as punishment for his wife’s death, and the results are spectacularly gruesome. This show is animated, but you probably shouldn’t let your kids watch it. The gore is quite copious, as is the profanity. Every episode was written by Warren Ellis, a well-known comic book writer. His scripts are peppered with f-bombs, which do seem a bit unnecessary at times but the story he’s crafted is excellent so I can give him a pass. And it always amuses me when animated characters say bad words, I don’t know why.

The protagonist is Trevor Belmont, whose family has spent generations fighting Dracula and his minions. When we first meet Trevor, all he wants to do is get drunk. He gets pulled into the escalating conflict and turns out to be a badass monster-killer. He is soon joined by Sypha Belnades, a powerful magic user, and Adrian Tepes, also called Alucard, who is the son of Dracula and Lisa (hint: read “Alucard” backwards). Trevor, Sypha and Alucard are a terrific trio, they bicker and argue at first but soon become friends and grow to rely on each other. Trevor is voiced by Richard Armitage, who played Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, and his deep baritone is perfect for Trevor, a cranky badass with a heart of gold.

But let’s talk more about Dracula, since I’m such a big fan of villains. Dracula spends most of the second season moping around his castle while his generals conspire behind his back. It’s a totally unexpected way of portraying Dracula. You actually feel sorry for him. Losing Lisa robbed him of his ability to feel any kind of emotion at all. He is ostensibly the villain of the series, but he’s ultimately a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. He’s like the reverse of Batman: Bruce Wayne suffered a terrible tragedy, so he fights crime to prevent anyone else from having to suffer the same kind of loss that he experienced when his parents were murdered. Castlevania’s Dracula does the opposite: He suffered a terrible loss, so everyone else is going to have to suffer too.

It’s not until Dracula’s final battle with the heroes that he is able to feel anything again. During a truly epic smackdown, Dracula and Alucard pummel each other viciously and smash each other through walls repeatedly, until Dracula inadvertently tosses Alucard into Alucard’s childhood bedroom. Upon seeing the room, Dracula stops.

“My boy…” he moans. “I’m killing my boy. Lisa…I’m killing our boy!”

He stops fighting and allows his son to stake him in the heart.

It’s a surprisingly poignant moment, a potrayal of a man unable to feel to any emotion until it is far too late, at which point he welcomes death.

Damn. I was not expecting anything like this when I started watching Castlevania. I was expecting to be entertained (and I was) but I was not expecting the characterization to be so good.

I am a big fan of this show. Despite Dracula’s demise at the end of Season 2, Netflix recently gave the green light to a third season and I’m very excited to see where the story goes.

Watchmen

HBO

This show. THIS FREAKING SHOW.

I LOVE IT.

Yet another hit for HBO, Watchmen is a direct sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel. The book was made into a movie by Zack Snyder in 2009, but the show ignores the changes the movie made to the story and is a direct sequel to the book. As such, if you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, you might be confused by certain things, like why everyone is so obsessed with squids and beings from other dimensions.

I had no idea what to expect from the show, but being a fan of the book I decided to check it out and I have been consistently impressed. HBO’s Watchmen is one of the most bizarre, provocative and just plain fearless shows on TV. It’s utterly batshit insane, but in the best possible way. Through the first seven episodes, I’ve lost track of the number of times this show surprised me, shocked me, moved me, and just generally kicked my ass.

That being said, if you try to watch the show without having read the book or seen the movie, you’ll probably have no idea what the bloody hell is going on. The show is packed with references and Easter eggs, and I’ve read a bunch of discussions online where people speculate and theorize and comment on little details they noticed that other people might have missed. I love seeing this kind of reaction, it makes me so happy to see people actually having a dialogue instead of just pissing and moaning. The show seems to have really resonated, and I am absurdly excited to see what surprises the final two episodes have in store.

It’s also a reminder of just how great Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel is. The book was published more than thirty years ago, and its story, themes and characters are every bit as relevant today. There are actually two Watchmen sequels currently going on. The other is Doomsday Clock, a DC Comics series that combines Watchmen characters with current DC continuity (Batman, Superman, etc.). As a comics fan, it’s a real kick to see Watchmen characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach on the same page with Batman and the Joker. But just to be clear, Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen are completely different and not related at all, aside from both being sequels to the original book. It all just goes to show how the book’s influence hasn’t diminished in over three decades.

Another great thing about the show is that it captures the spirit of the book. Alan Moore has long since disowned any adaptations of his work, so who knows if he’s seen the show or not. But if he hasn’t, he should: the show genuinely feels like it’s part of the same universe. It is shockingly bizarre but always compelling. I love the new characters the show adds to the Watchmen universe and it finds fiendishly clever ways to incorporate some of the book’s classic characters. The reveal of one of these characters at the end of the most recent episode left me utterly gobsmacked, but in the best possible way.

Oh, and I have to mention Peteypedia (hbo.com/peteypedia). If you’re as nuts for this show as I am, check out Peteypedia ASAP. It’s a collection of documents assembled by Agent Dale Petey, a minor character on the show, that flesh out the world the show takes place in. New “files” are uploaded after every new episode, and they are full of all kinds of fascinating tidbits for fans of Watchmen lore. This is also a callback to the book, which featured excerpts from fictional books, magazines, newspapers, etc. that added to the backstory.

HBO’s Watchmen is far stranger and more awesome than I ever could have expected. It’s utterly unpredictable and an absolute blast to watch, although it certainly helps to have some familiarity with the story beforehand. I might revisit this series after the first season ends to talk about more specific spoilery stuff, but until then, bring on those last two episodes!! I can hardly wait.

 

Capsule Reviews, Vol. 1

Here are a couple movies I’ve seen recently that I had some thoughts about, as well as a couple of other random topics.

X-Men Apocalypse

When a movie starts in the year 3600 BC, you know it means business. The latest installment of the X-Men series sees the film debut of Apocalypse, an important character in the comics whose origin begins in ancient Egypt. In the film’s opening he gets buried under a pyramid and eventually reawakens after about 5000 years in modern-day Egypt. By “modern-day” I actually mean some time in the 80’s, which is when the movie takes place.

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The X-Men series has the most convoluted timeline of the major Marvel franchises, and I’m still not sure exactly how the time travel shenanigans in the previous film, Days of Future Past, effected the overall X-Men universe. But I just decided to roll with it, and found Apocalypse to be an enjoyable ride. The plot is messy but not incomprehensible, and the cast and special effects are top-notch.

Movies with as many characters as the X-men movies tend to have can start to feel bloated, and Apocalypse is no exception. Still, it’s nice to see the return of characters like Storm and Nightcrawler, as well as expanded roles for Seminal X-men characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey. There’s even a cameo from everyone’s favorite clawed mutant, whose third solo flick is due out next year and is reported to be R-rated, which is exciting.

Apocalypse is the fourth X-flick to be directed by Bryan Singer, and he has a really good grasp of what makes these characters tick. The movie is both a sequel and a sort of reboot, and could easily have been a mess. The mixed reviews would certainly suggest that the film is a sort of catastrophe (48% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to 91% for Days of Future Past), but as usual I feel like the critics have vastly overstated it. Apocalypse is far from perfect but is still plenty enjoyable and chances are good you’ll enjoy it if you liked the previous films.

And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give a special mention to the movie’s absolutely stunning slow-motion Quicksilver scene. I didn’t think Singer and co. could top the slow-mo sequence from Days of Future Past, but damn if they didn’t knock it out of the park with this one. The sequence where Quicksilver saves the occupants of the X-Mansion from a massive fireball, scored to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, is a showstopper.

It’s a trippy movie (part of the final battle is a sort of mental duel between Apocalypse and Professor X) and it gleefully embraces its comic-book roots. The costumes are more colorful and the whole movie has a slightly surreal feel to it, which may be turn some people off but I for one found quite enjoyable.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This is the rare Michael Bay movie that actually stayed with me after I watched it. I don’t hate the Transformers movies as much as many people seem to, they’re decently entertaining but evaporate from your mind the second they’re over, including the fourth film which is nearly three hours long.

13 Hours has more staying power. The film tells the story of the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the US State Department Compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the American security operators who fought back.

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The movie is full of shootouts and explosions, filmed in hyperkinetic Michael Bay style, but the shootouts and explosions have more dramatic weight than any of the robotic carnage of the Transformers movies. It’s nice to see that Bay can still make an engaging action film that doesn’t overly rely on flashy computer effects.

One word I would use to describe this movie is mature. Bay tends to give in to his worst impulses as a filmmaker and indulge in some really stupid stuff. The Transformers movies (and many of Bay’s other films) are full of broad racial humor, cheesy romance stories, and frequently-ogled nubile young women, and it’s a relief that 13 Hours is devoid of that kind of crap.

The movie is a compelling portrayal of men at war, and it’s one of my favorite modern-combat movies, right up there with Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down. It’s easily one of Bay’s best films and if you’re a fan of the genre you should absolutely check it out.

Ignominious Endings

Okay confession/rant time. I’ve been a fan of the TV show Castle since it started, but by the end of the show’s eighth and final season, I just felt burned out. It was one of the worst endings to ANYTHING, EVER, I HATED it, and here’s why.

The main problem is that, once the show brought its two main characters (writer Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, and NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic) together, the writers clearly had no idea how to create drama, and resorted to increasingly stupid lengths to try to wring some dramatic tension out of the show.

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Once Castle and Beckett actually got together and became a romantic pair, there was this contrived nonsense about the lengths they went to in order to try and prevent their families and colleagues from knowing about the relationship, for some reason. Eventually they gave up on that and decided to get married, which resulted in the appallingly stupid plot twist that Beckett married some guy in Vegas years ago and then forgot about it, which makes no sense and is completely out of character for her.

Once that insipid bullshit was dealt with, the show pulled the rug out from under the feet of its loyal viewers yet again by having Castle get abducted on the way to the wedding, only to reappear a few months later with, you guessed it, the hoariest of hoary plot contrivances, amnesia. That’s right, he had no memory of where he had been or what he had done for the previous couple months. Groan.

At some point later on, not content with the number of previous rug-pulls, the show made up some excuse to get Castle and Beckett mad at each other and separate them for a while, resulting in Castle’s determination to win his wife back, basically sending the show back to square one and the “will they/won’t they” stage of TV character relationships.

Once THAT even MORE insipid bullshit was dealt with and Castle and Beckett got back together, the show tried to make a big deal out of introducing some scary mysterious villain who was operating from the shadows, or something. This plotline made no sense to me and I did not give one holy hand grenade about it, hence my inability to describe it in detail, since whenever the show got back to this storyline I automatically started to tune out.

All of this led to what turned out to be the series finale. The shadow villain turned out to be some random chucklehead who had only been in one previous episode, and in the last scene, Castle and Beckett are celebrating their victory when they both get shot. As they’re lying there on the floor bleeding, the scene fades out, only to fade back in with the subtitle “Five years later” at the bottom of the screen (maybe it was more, I forget) and shows Castle and Beckett horsing around with a few little kids. Then it ends.

Wait, what?

The most obvious explanation for this abrupt conclusion was that the show got cancelled by ABC before the season was over, so the writers had to tack on an extra scene at the very end for what ended up being the series finale. The transition from “Castle and Beckett get shot” to “Castle and Beckett happy with their kids years later” is sudden and startling and not remotely satisfying, and it’s emblematic of the show’s storytelling problems as a whole.

The show always struggled with balancing the requirements of the case-of-the-week stories with the larger overall storylines, and in the end it just fell apart. It makes me really sad to say all this, because I still like the show’s earlier seasons, and it’s a shame the writers couldn’t think of more compelling storylines once the early ones were resolved. I’m glad the show is over though, since Stana Katic said before the show got cancelled that she wouldn’t be back for another season, and if the showrunners had tried to continue the show without her it wouldn’t have been the same.

Oh, well. I can still enjoy the early seasons while choosing to ignore the mistakes of the regrettable later seasons, and part of me will still miss the show now that it’s gone.

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin

Speaking of missing things that are gone, it saddened me deeply to learn yesterday of the death of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, who died in a bizarre accident. He was a very talented young actor that left us far too soon, and I’m going to re-watch some of his movies. I haven’t seen his recent film Green Room yet, which was a brutal indie thriller where Yelchin played a member of a punk-rock band whose band comes under attack by vicious Neo-Nazis, the leader of which is played by Patrick Stewart. Green Room got great reviews and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it becomes available, and will be sure to post a review when I can.

I will always fondly remember him for his wonderful portrayal of Pavel Chekov in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films (the third of which comes out next month) and especially his delightful pronunciation of “Vulcan” and “Victor Victor.”

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R.I.P. Anton.

Comparative Exponential Religiosity/Keanu Kraze: John Constantine (Into the Light I Command Thee)

Lately, I’ve had John Constantine on the brain.

As far as I can tell, this came from a couple of different places. I read a lot of comics, and for a while it seemed like all I was reading was Batman comics. I love Batman comics, but a few months ago I started to want something different. I remembered that a few years ago, I had tried to read some of the Hellblazer comics, which was Constantine’s first solo series, but at the time they were just too weird for me and I gave up.

But I decided, what the heck, there’s no time like the present, so I went out and picked up some Hellblazer comics. I’ve really been enjoying them, even though I’m not always entirely sure what’s going on and I’m sure that some of the social commentary in the comics has completely escaped me, since Hellblazer was originally published in 1988, which also just so happened to be the year I was born, so needless to say I wasn’t exactly aware of the political and social landscape of the time. Please don’t judge me too harshly, as I had only recently been born.

constantine original sins

Anyway, on the off chance that you have absolutely no idea what the bloody hell I’m talking about, let me explain who John Constantine is. I think Wikipedia describes him very well, so allow me to quote: “Constantine is a working class magician, occult detective and con man stationed in London. He is known for his endless cynicism, deadpan snarking, ruthless cunning and constant chain smoking, but is also a passionate humanist driven by a heartfelt desire to do some good in his life.”

I love that description, and I love the character of Constantine. He’s a great big bundle of glorious contradictions, a frequently self-loathing, hard-smoking British sorcerer who nonetheless is driven by a strong desire to help those around him. He’s a cantankerous bastard, and it’s frequently not a good idea to be his friend, since good things don’t usually end up happening to friends of John Constantine.

In the comics, Constantine is no action hero. He gets involved in all kinds of trouble with demons and other supernatural entities, but he talks or cons his way out of trouble, and as a result he frequently makes more enemies than he defeats, and creates more trouble for himself and his friends. His cynicism is somewhat understandable, since all of his attempts to solve problems always end up causing more. This makes him a relatable character, despite all of the supernatural goings-on that surround him.

constantine portrait

The Hellblazer comics are wonderfully weird, and even though the exact details of some of the stories occasionally escape me, I always enjoy the experience. One of the things I enjoy most about the comics is that no two page layouts are ever exactly the same. Sometimes the panels are laid out in such a way that it can be a bit of a challenge at first to figure out the right order in which to read them. But, the right order will eventually present itself, and reading the comics always provides a unique and enjoyable experience.

There have been a couple of screen adaptations of Constantine. The first was the much-maligned 2005 movie version starring Keanu Reeves. The movie made the puzzling decision to take Constantine, who in the comics was blond and British (Sting was the original visual inspiration for the character), and have him be played by Keanu Reeves, who is quite spectacularly neither blond nor British. The movie presents an Americanized version of Constantine who is based in Los Angeles rather than London and has more of an action-hero vibe, who has his own version of James Bond’s Q who supplies him with anti-demon gadgets.

constantine psotre

The movie version is widely hated by Hellblazer fans, and it’s not hard to see why. Pretty much the only aspects of the character that carry over to the movie are Constantine’s cynical nature and constant chain-smoking.

I’ll talk more about the movie in a bit, but first I want to mention the other screen adaptation of Constantine, the TV version which unfortunately only ran for one season on NBC before it was cancelled. I quite liked the TV version, and from what I read the show’s creators tried their best to save it, but NBC wasn’t listening and cancelled it anyway. It’s really too bad, since the show’s portrayal of Constantine is much more in keeping with the Hellblazer comics, with several episodes of the show being more or less direct adaptations of stories from the comics. The only thing the show didn’t have was Constantine’s relentless smoking habit, and that’s probably because smoking onscreen is a bit of a taboo these days.

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In the show, Constantine was played by a Welsh actor named Matt Ryan, who was pretty much perfect in the role. He did a great job encapsulating the character’s world-weary cynicism while still conveying his innate humanity and desire to help people under threat from supernatural forces. Even though NBC cancelled the show, there’s clearly still some love for Ryan’s portrayal of the character, since he recently reprised the role in an episode of the popular TV series Arrow. I watched the episode, even though I had never watched an episode of Arrow before, and despite the fact that I didn’t really know what was going on, I still enjoyed seeing Ryan play Constantine again, he really is the perfect actor for the role.

Since I had been thinking about Constantine a lot from all this, I re-watched the movie the day before I started working on this post, and, well, there are quite a few things to be said about the movie.

Much like the comics, the movie is a deeply strange piece of work and the plot is a bit of a mess. But the movie is bolstered by mostly solid special effects (although some of the CGI does look a bit shonky by today’s standards) and a really great supporting performance from Rachel Weisz. Some of the movie’s casting is a bit weird (aside from Keanu), since the movie casts rocker Gavin Rossdale (lead singer of the band Bush) as a demon named Balthazar, and casts Shia LaBeouf as Constantine’s sidekick Chas.

Constantine the movie is an interesting case. As an adaptation of the source material, it more or less completely fails, but taken as a movie on its own terms, it actually works pretty well. Even though the movie’s version of Constantine the character doesn’t have much in common with his comic book counterpart, his cynicism and world-weariness are very much intact.

And, again, not that surprising. In the movie, God and Lucifer are embroiled in a war for the souls of all mankind, and angels and demons are able to possess and influence humans as half-breeds. As a child, movie Constantine was able to see angels and demons in our world. These visions haunted him, and at 15 he attempted suicide. He was officially dead for two minutes before he was revived, and spent those two minutes in hell. As a result of his suicide attempt, his soul is now bound for hell because of this mortal sin. He now spends his days exorcising demons and banishing (aka killing) half-breeds in an attempt to shore up enough favors with God to earn his way into heaven.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a Comparative Exponential Religiosity Post. I originally called this little series Comparative Exponential Religiosity Crap, but I decided to leave out the “Crap” part because I don’t want it to seem like I don’t take this subject seriously, or that I don’t respect it, because I do.

Now that that’s cleared up, let’s get on with the movie. In some ways, the movie’s view of matters of faith is somewhat black and white. The movie is heavy on the Catholicism, and since Constantine’s suicide attempt was a mortal sin, his soul is condemned to hell no matter what he does. And his time is running out, since his incessant chain-smoking has given him terminal lung cancer. His predicament is explained in Constantine’s conversation with the angel Gabriel (played by Tilda Swinton, a chameleon of an actor if ever there was one). Now, I’m not saying suicide is or is not something that will instantly condemn your soul to hell, but in order for the plot of the movie to work it kind of has to be. I don’t mean to offend anybody, since I know suicide is a touchy subject, I’m simply trying to examine the film based on its own philosophy.

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Going back to Gabriel, he (she? The movie’s version of Gabriel is intentionally androgynous) tells John that, due to his mortal sin, his soul is going to hell and he can’t do anything about it. His revival after his suicide attempt only gave him a brief reprieve from hell.

But there’s a really interesting idea buried in here. John was in hell for two minutes, and he’s always been able to see angels and demons. He therefore knows conclusively that God and the Devil exist. But since he knows that, is he even capable of having true faith? Is it possible to have faith in something that you know to be real, or is the very concept of faith based on not being able to know something for sure? And if John isn’t capable of having true faith, is he even capable of repentance?

It’s shocking to me that a Hollywood movie raises these questions, and in some ways it’s amazing that this movie ever got made in the first place. Not just because of the religious content, but also because the movie is just so damn strange. In one scene, John, goes to hell by putting his feet into a bucket of water and staring into the eyes of a cat on his lap. This somehow allows him to enter hell, which the movie portrays as a sort of apocalyptic Los Angeles full of crawling demons. During the hell scene, there’s even a brief shot of what appear to be souls writhing in torment. It’s very Dante-esque, and the film doesn’t linger on the image, it’s there and then gone. In some ways it’s a brave movie, since it goes to a lot of places most movies don’t, both literally and figuratively.

constantine hell

And Keanu is really not that bad in the role. It’s maybe better to view Keanu’s portrayal of Constantine as a character inspired by the comic book version of Constantine, rather than directly based on it. I still hold that Keanu can be a good actor when he wants to be, and his performance in the movie really sells Constantine’s increasing desperation. He just doesn’t look healthy, and as the movie progresses he begins to look downright gaunt.

He is told that Satan wants his soul so badly that his is the only soul Satan would come down to collect himself. Because of all this, he is increasingly unable to see a way out of his predicament, until a detective named Angela, played by Rachel Weisz, comes to him with a unique problem, that just may give him the key to his own salvation.

Angela’s twin sister Isabel (also played by Weisz) has recently killed herself by jumping off the roof of the psychiatric hospital she was a patient at. Despite camera footage showing this, Angela refuses to believe her sister would have killed herself, since Isabel was a devout Catholic and Angela doesn’t believe she would have willingly condemned her own soul to hell. As Angela tells a priest, Isabel never would have killed herself and sent her soul to hell on purpose because “God was the only one she ever believed loved her.”

It turns out that Angela is carrying a lot of grief about her sister’s death, and also how she treated her when she was alive. When they were kids, Isabel and Angela could both see things, like John could, but when Isabel tried to tell people about it Angela would never say that she could see them too. Eventually, Isabel was committed and Angela lost the ability to see the things that both John and her sister are able to see into their adulthood.

I won’t go in to too much detail about the rest of the plot, if all of this trippy stuff sounds interesting and you haven’t already seen the movie it is worth checking out. It may not be a great adaptation of the source material, but as a sort of supernatural neo-noir it works pretty well. Constantine is kind of an occult Philip Marlowe (another character known for his cynicism), and Keanu mutters every line in a way that suggests he may have given up already.

And Rachel Weisz is just terrific in the dual role of twin sisters. Angela (it occurred to me that her name is not coincidental) is a woman of strong faith who encounters something she doesn’t know how to deal with and isn’t willing to accept. Rather than doing nothing about it, she reaches out to someone, and, even though that someone can be kind of a jerk, it ends up leading to something bigger for both her and John. Interestingly, John and Angela are never romantically involved, and even after they stop Satan’s son from entering our world and causing hell on earth, they never even kiss. Weisz is very beautiful, but to the film’s credit she’s not impossibly beautiful. She looks like an actual person that you might see walking down the street. The movie as a whole doesn’t glamorize any of its subject matter or characters, although I guess it wouldn’t be much good as a noir if it did.

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The movie was the directorial debut of Francis Lawrence, who went on to quite a bit of success with the Will Smith-starring sci-fi hit I Am Legend, and has directed three of the four Hunger Games films. Constantine is uneven but overall it’s not a bad effort for a debut feature, it shows he’s got the chops as a visual stylist who doesn’t forget about the importance of character.

And I would be amiss if I failed to mention the great Swedish character actor Peter Stormare (he who put Steve Buscemi through the wood chipper in Fargo) as Public Enemy No. 1, Satan himself. He appears to collect John’s soul at the film’s climax, and has to be one of cinema’s most memorable portrayals of the Prince of Darkness. Clad in a white suit, with tattoos creeping up his neck and bare feet dripping with ichor, he exudes menace and appears slightly steamy, as if he only recently emerged from somewhere a bit toasty. Stormare is fantastic at playing Satan’s leering glee at finally being able to collect his most-desired soul, and even though he is only in the movie for one scene near the end he is still able to neatly steal the entire film.

constantine satan

So, there are my thoughts about the various incarnations of John Constantine across different media. He’s a fascinating character, and he always keeps you guessing. Sure, he helps people, but how much of that is altruism and how much of it is purely for his own gain? No version of the character ever definitively answers this question, because where would the fun be in that? Constantine can be a charmer or a complete asshole, but somehow he remains very appealing. His popularity has endured for several decades and clearly he still has a substantial fanbase, so who knows what the future might hold for everyone’s favorite British chain-smoking sorcerer?

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Creepy Halloween Fun on TV

When I saw the first trailers for Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” I made fun of them. I said things like “Ha ha! How stupid!” and things of that nature.

But, alas, I am a hypocrite, because even as I made fun of the commercials I thought to myself, “Who am I kidding. If this show goes up on Hulu I’m gonna watch it.”

Which it did, and I did.

And I was very pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was.

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In the very first episode, you’ve got time travel, multiple decapitations, revisionist American history, a machine-gun-wielding Headless Horseman, and the phrase “Headless Horseman of the Apocalypse.”

And if reading the phrase “Headless Horseman of the Apocalypse” didn’t make you smile just now, then this probably isn’t the show for you.

But if it did, then you are in for a good time. Seriously, I really like this show. It’s a strange, unwieldy beast to be sure, but it is a heck of a lot of fun, and it fulfills all the requirements of good television.

Likable, engaging leads with good chemistry? Check.

sleepy hollow characters

Creative premise? Check.

Fun storylines with a lot of variation each week? Check.

Briefly, the show reimagines Ichabod Crane as a British Revolutionary War soldier, who defected to the American side for some reason that currently escapes me. In battle, he fights this guy…

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And lops his head off, but is killed himself in the process. He wakes up in the modern-day town of Sleepy Hollow, and is understandably baffled by cars, electricity, and the like. Turns out Ichabod’s wife was a (good) witch, who put some kind of spell on him. His fight with the Horseman (pictured above) has left the two of them connected somehow, since their blood mixed on the battlefield or something. The Horseman has also awakened in the present day, which is why Ichabod awakens at the same time.

So there are some weird things going on in Sleepy Hollow, and Ichabod soon meets the show’s other protagonist, Lieutenant Abby Mills, a cop with a troubled history who has her own reasons for believing Ichabod’s story of having come from the 18th century. Together, Abby and Ichabod fight monsters.

If this all sounds ridiculous, that’s because it absolutely is. But holy crap is it entertaining.

After watching this week’s episode on Hulu yesterday, I realized something else about why I like it so much.

And that is the aforementioned variation. The show is completely different each week. It’s a lot less predictable than other shows. There’s so much batshit craziness that it’s impossible to predict what will happen next.

This addresses one of the problems I have with a lot of TV shows, which is that they’re more or less the same every week. Even with shows I really like, such as Castle or Burn Notice, they still follow the same “Case-of-the-Week” or “Crime-of-the-Week” format. With Sleepy Hollow, it’s more of a “Monster-of-the-Week” setup.

For me, this is awesome, since you never know what kind of evil our heroes will be battling next. With crime shows and police procedurals and such, you know there’s going to be a murder, there’s going to be investigating, questioning suspects, talking to the medical examiner, blah blah blah, and by the end of the episode the killer will have been caught and everything will be fine, only for some other poor sap to be creatively murdered in the next episode. It’s a formula that works, which is why so many shows have used it. But it starts to feel a bit stale after you’ve seen it a couple dozen times.

Through the five episodes of Sleepy Hollow that have aired so far, our heroes have already battled the Headless Horseman, a witch, and a faceless nightmare monster, they’ve stopped some evil cult dudes from opening a portal to hell that would unleash 72 evil demons (are there such things as good demons?), and in this week’s episode they prevented a creepy virus caused by the Horseman of Pestilence from wiping out the whole town of Sleepy Hollow. Not bad for a few weeks’ work.

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You see what I’m getting at here? I love the variation of this show. Who knows what Lovecraftian horrors await our heroes next week? I find myself really looking forward to finding out every week, which is pretty important for serialized television.

There are also some really cool monster designs. This is important for a “Monster-of-the-Week” show. Take the Sandman from the third episode…

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Gah! I wouldn’t want this dude haunting my dreams. He wouldn’t be out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro movie. (speaking of Uncle Guillermo, I watched Pacific Rim again last night and it was awesome. It’s on Blu-Ray now so go see it if you haven’t already. Seriously.)

So if you like cool, creepy monsters; fun, unpredictable stories; likable, engaging protagonists; and a healthy dose of unpredictability, then check out Sleepy Hollow and be thoroughly entertained. Unlike The Following, which was the last Fox show I watched (it sucked), Sleepy Hollow is actually really fun.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a TV show or two to watch. There are some really good ones out there now.

Don’t Follow The Following, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bacon

If you watched any of the NFL playoffs on Fox over the past couple of weeks, you’ve been bombarded with ads for their new show “The Following,” starring Kevin Bacon as a retired FBI agent temporarily brought back to the field. I initially had no desire to watch this show, from the ads it looked more concerned with shock value than telling a good story. But wouldn’t you know that when I went on Hulu last week to watch my weekly episode of Castle (big Nathan Fillion fan), there was the pilot episode, so, against my better judgment, I watched it, and I watched the second episode this week as well.

It’s not very good. I don’t really know why I watched the second episode, since I wasn’t very impressed with the first one. I’ll probably watch the third episode next week.

But again, I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because I’m curious as to what fresh heights of absurdity the show will reach in the coming weeks.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a retired FBI agent recalled to duty after the escape of Joe Carroll, an infamous serial killer. Ryan was the man who caught Carroll however many years ago, and he knows him better than anyone. Carroll has developed something of an obsession with Ryan, so the feds of course track Ryan down to help find Carroll. Ryan wrote a book about Carroll while he was in prison, and is now a drunk blah blah blah.

I’m sorry, I just lost interest in summarizing the plot. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Every single element of this show’s plot has been done a million times before, and done better nine times out of ten.

Charismatic, calculating serial killer? Check.

Convoluted romantic entanglements? Check.

Houses with weird crap written all over the walls and bodies buried behind said walls? Check.

Lots of interrogation scenes that try really hard to be intense and mostly fail? Check.

Jaded, alcoholic ex-FBI guy brought back to track down the nutbag he caught because he knows him better than anyone else et cetera et cetera et cetera? Check, Check, Check.

It almost seems like the writers realize how clichéd all of this is, since they add a new wrinkle that they hope will differentiate the show from the many, many other films, books, TV shows etc. that it rips off. Serial killer Joe Carroll is a Charles Manson-like cult figure, who has inspired all kinds of fellow whack-jobs to join his demented cause. This is the “Following” of the title, but what it really amounts to is spectacularly lazy and cheap storytelling, since ANYONE COULD BE EVIL AT ANY TIME.

Take the first episode: the prison guard is evil, the friendly gay neighbors of Carroll’s escaped last victim are evil (and not gay…well, maybe one of them is), and the nanny of Joe’s son is evil. This, to me, feels incredibly lazy, since you can pretty much make someone evil whenever you want to in order to attempt to surprise people, logic be damned. It’s another cliché as well, since SO-AND-SO WAS ACTUALLY EVIL ALL ALONG has also been done before dozens of times.

It also completely muddles the plot, since whenever the show randomly makes someone evil, they spend a lot of time trying to explain why they’re evil. Much of the second episode was composed of showing the background for the evil nanny, who isn’t a very compelling character and is hard to care about in the first place. I really don’t care about why she’s evil. Another problem is that most of these explanations as to why people are randomly evil are pretty much going to have to turn out to be mostly the same anyway: they were seduced in one way or another by the smooth-talking, charismatic Joe, and that’s mostly it.

And speaking of Joe, man, what an amalgamation of clichés. He’s handsome and charismatic and smart and all that, and of course he’s also completely batshit crazy. Hannibal Lecter, anyone? He’s also a former English professor who’s obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe, and there are all kinds of ridiculous Poe references. When Ryan and his pals walk into the aforementioned house with crazy stuff written on the walls and NEVERMORE scrawled all over the place and they promptly, randomly find the body of the evil nanny’s dead mother in the wall, Ryan mumbles, “Classic Poe.” Um, okay.

Evil Joe is played by James Purefoy, a talented British actor I’ve liked in films I’ve seen him in, and he does what he can with what he’s given, which here isn’t very much. Maybe I’m being too harsh on this show based on just two episodes, but so far we haven’t really seen much to show why or how he could inspire such fanatical devotion in people. There are a lot of interrogation scenes between Joe and Ryan that all try to recapture the terrifying, magical intensity of the famous interrogation scene in The Dark Knight, and all of them fail. The acting is generally decent, though Bacon always seems a bit flat to me. But I’ve never been a member (or follower, if you will) of the Church of Bacon so maybe I’m biased.

The show also has an annoying tendency to over-rely on flashbacks to tell the story. There’s an annoyingly-placed flashback whenever the show feels like it needs to explain something, which distracts from the main plot and provides backstory that isn’t even very interesting in the first place. Ryan had an affair with Joe’s hot wife. Yawn. The evil nanny killed her mother. Boring. Joe is all charismatic and whatever. Is there something else on?

There’s also an inordinate amount of gruesome violence. I’m not usually one to talk about violence on television (my two favorite shows are Spartacus and The Walking Dead, for crying out loud, probably two of the goriest television programs of all time), but to me the violence in The Following feels designed to shock more than anything else. Bloody murder scenes, eyes gouged out, decaying corpses, people set on fire…it really seems like Fox is trying to show how cool and hip they are by showing all of this, but it really doesn’t have any impact past the initial shock. The fact that much of the violence is directed towards women provides an additionally sour taste.

The Following is a mess of clichés, lazy plotting, and occasional outbursts of graphic violence. So why am I watching it? I don’t really know. I suppose part of me is curious to see how all of this nonsense plays out, and there’s always the (admittedly slim) chance that the show will eventually manage to pull its head out of its ass, but for now I’m in just to see how dumb things will get. To give you an example, the second episode ends with a man dressed in a stupid-looking Poe mask walking up to a random dude in public and lighting him on fire, then walking away as nobody tries to stop him. I can’t wait to see how this ties in to evil Joe’s master plan.

I read a comment online on a review about this show that summed up its logic thusly: “2+2 =5. OMG IN THE HOUSE!!!” That about sums it up.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie (or TV show) to watch.

2012: The Year in Villainy, Part One

It’s hard to be a villain. A villain has to accomplish a lot of things: he has to be a plausible threat for a hero, he has to create a conflict for the hero to resolve, and he has to be evil enough that you root for the hero to beat him (though it is fun to root for the bad guys sometimes). Frequently, villains are underdeveloped, which can make a story seem unsatisfying if the hero does not have to overcome a plausible threat. There is a lot riding on a villain. Here, then, are my picks for the best television and video game villains of 2012 (movie villains coming soon).

Vaas and Hoyt in Far Cry 3

In the game Far Cry 3, you play as Jason Brody, a regular Joe on a tropical vacation with his pals, when, wouldn’t you know it, you end up captured by a terrifying pirate named Vaas. Vaas kind of reminded me of the Joker in The Dark Knight, he’s terrifying but you kind of miss him when he’s not around. Vaas captures your friends and intends to sell them into slavery, so you spend the first half of the game rescuing them. I was kind of sad in a twisted sort of way when you kill Vaas halfway through the game, the story doesn’t have as much energy without him. But in the second half of the game, you go after Hoyt, Vaas’ boss, a psychotic drug runner and human trafficker, who forces civilians to run through minefields and later cuts off one of Jason Brody’s fingers. The storyline in Far Cry 3 was a little wonky overall, but Vaas and Hoyt were two of the more memorably nasty video game villains of 2012.

The Didact in Halo 4

The Didact is a classic example of how the threat of the villain needs to match the strength of the hero. The Master Chief is a genetically-enhanced supersoldier in a totally sweet suit of armor who has slaughtered aliens across the galaxy, so it takes a sizable bad guy to pose a threat to him. The Didact fits this description. He’s some sort of evil alien who’s been imprisoned for a really long time, and when those silly humans manage to awaken him, wouldn’t you know he’s got all kinds of evil plans. The story of Halo 4 was a bit muddled in my opinion, I had a hard time figuring it out, but I knew I had to stop the Didact from digitizing the entire human race (which would be bad). When your evil plans involve the destruction (or something) of nothing less than the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE, you know you’ve got a very evil villain on your hands.

Raul Menendez in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Menendez is the most well-developed video game villain of the year. He’s extremely evil, but he manages to come off as a human being instead of a cardboard cutout. He does some horrible things, but knowing about his backstory makes you sympathize with him to some degree, which is impressive. There are even a few parts of the story where you play as him, which is a first for the Call of Duty series. He’s much more interesting than the villains from the first Black Ops game, Dragovich and Kravchenko, who were certainly evil but not much more than stereotypical Russian Cold War bad guys in the vein of early James Bond flicks. At the end of Black Ops 2 you can choose to either kill or capture Menendez, and it is a legitimately tough choice to make, which really speaks to how well his character is developed.

Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2

The wonderfully-named Handsome Jack is one of those sarcastic, snide, taunting bad guys that really makes you hate him. He calls you periodically throughout the game to taunt you, and his taunts are well-written and well-delivered. Whoever voiced him really did a great job. The first Borderlands game lacked a central villain which made it feel unfocused sometimes, but the addition of Handsome Jack to Borderlands 2 added a clear sense of meaning to your actions, and it upped the stakes considerably. He’s a bit cartoonish which is in keeping with the rest of the game, but his taunting gives the player a strong motivation to get rid of him.

Derek C. Simmons in Resident Evil 6

Wait, what? Simmons? If you’re like me, you think that Simmons is the absolute lamest name for a villain in the history of the universe (though there was villain named Irving in Resident Evil 5, which is also pretty lame). This freaking guy looks like Colonel Sanders and is about as threatening as a pile of used Kleenexes. Sure, he’s evil, unleashing zombie viruses and whatnot, but the plot of RE6 made no sense whatsoever, and Simmons never emerges as anything more than a moustache-twirling villain, who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. I’m half-surprised he never tied someone to railroad tracks and cackled with glee. So why am I including him? Well, he is memorable in the sense of being a complete joke, though not in the sense of being memorably evil. I mean seriously, Simmons? Worst. Villain name. Ever.

The Governor in The Walking Dead

Ah, the Governor. The most infamous villain from the comics, he finally made his debut in the third season of the hit TV series. He seems okay at first, offering a safe haven to some of our main characters. But he is soon revealed to be pure evil, keeping severed zombie heads in fish tanks and brutally interrogating two of the most likable protagonists. He took a shard of glass to the eye in the midseason finale a few weeks ago, and I am looking forward to finding out what kind of brutal vengeance he has in store in the second half of the season, which I think starts in February. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead also lacked a central villain (other than, you know, the zombies) and the addition of the Governor to the show has given it a boost it sorely needed after the slow-moving second season. Much of the credit goes to actor David Morrissey for giving him the right balance of likability on the surface and dangerous insanity within. The third season of the show has been, in my opinion, the best so far, and the Governor has a lot to do with that.

Glaber and Ashur in Spartacus: Vengeance

I love Spartacus. To the uninitiated it is little more than a delivery vehicle for copious amounts of gore and nudity, and while there are indeed plenty of both of those, there is also a surprisingly deep and resonant story, populated by a cast of memorable characters. That many of these memorable characters also happen to be evil as sin works out pretty well for my current purposes. Gaius Claudius Glaber is the main villain, at whom much of the titular vengeance is aimed. He is the man responsible for selling Spartacus and his wife into slavery, and Spartacus holds him responsible for the death of his beloved wife Sura. Glaber is another one of those sneering villains who is just utterly detestable. Ashur, the treacherous Syrian, who survived the massacre that ended the show’s first season, also returns to cause all kinds of trouble. I might write more about these two at some point in the future, since I love this show and have been wanting to write about it for a while, but for now let’s just say that the final season of Spartacus, subtitled War of the Damned, is one of my most-anticipated entertainments of 2013.

COMING SOON: My favorite movie villains of 2012, and a nice cheery New Year’s movie.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.