Castlevania: A Review of the Netflix Series

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This is a review of the first season of the Netflix Castlevania series, and will container small spoilers.

I’m not a fan of the Castlevania video game series. I’ve tried to play Symphony of the Night a few times, but it seems I’m not mentally capable of playing Metroidvania games. Something about the backtracking. I’ve flirted with a few of the other games in the series, but I’m not immersed in the lore or storyline beyond knowing that that, in this universe, Dracula exists and the Belmonts are a family of vampire hunters who are trying to destroy him.

I mostly started watching the Netflix Castlevania series as a reaction to not wanting to start watching a full, 13 episode run of a new show. The first season of Castlevania consists of only four half hour episodes, so it’s a brisk watch. And I think that might be the best thing about it.

Castlevania is an animated series that details how, after his wife is burned at the stake for being a witch, Dracula seeks vengeance against those responsible. Unleashing demonic monsters upon the country of Wallachia, Dracula seeks to make every citizen pay with their lives. Trevor Belmont, a vampire hunter from a disgraced family of the nobility, works to find a way to defeat Dracula while also restoring his own sense of honor.

It’s a decent set up, one ripped right from the storyline of the games. For positives, I found the animation to be interesting, particularly when scenes became gory and blood filled. The lighting is particularly well done, with a lot of scenes beautifully lit: golden sunlight or red hellfire conveying the mood and atmosphere quite well.

That’s about it for positives, in my opinion.

On the negative side, the pacing is problematic. Going into the series, I had expected the 2 hours of total run time to come across like a movie. I went in expecting, if not complete resolution, a story that would feel complete and satisfying by the end of the season. Unfortunately, the 4 episodes seem to only cover the first act of a much larger story, and they end with a turn of events that changes the direction of the story and implies a much longer adventure. In terms of storytelling, this makes the overall pace of the series feel like it drags, because you spend a lot of time only getting to a point that should happen in the first 20 minutes of a feature length film. This is likely a very personal problem, and if the show has grabbed a hold of you it might not matter as much, but I found it to be very frustrating.

On a character level, Dracula is the clichéd avatar of evil, but he’s hardly in the series at all. The main focus is on Trevor Belmont, who comes across like the dramatic anti-hero of recent TV series, except that he doesn’t have the depth to support his shitty attitude. In internet terms, Trevor could be described as an “edgelord”: he’s moody, difficult to deal with, and mopes about for much of the series, blaming the fall of his family on the people he’s trying to save. He’s also an alcoholic, because why not?

There’s also not much theme, if any at all. The standard plot line of restoring a family’s honor is paid lip service as Trevor realizes his calling in life and gives up the bottle to fight monsters. The church, which runs the country like the mob, is unoriginal and evil to the point of being silly. The Speakers, a movement of magic users, act as foils to the church and provide motivation for Trevor to change his ways.

After the four episodes finish up, a final fight scene (which is quite good) reveals the secret identity of another mysterious character, and our heroes join forces to go after Dracula.

All in all, Castlevania didn’t really deliver what I expected, which was a mature take on an old video game series. It might be the best adaptation of a video game ever produced, but that isn’t saying much about its competition. It’s a by the numbers vampire story that relies on gory animation to make its impact.

The Top 5 Seinfeld Episodes

Seinfeld remains one of my favorite shows of all time. During my high school and college years, it would have definitely placed first in the ranking of my favorite shows of all time, and it certainly would have been in first place on the comedies list, miles ahead of its next closest competitor.

Time moves on, however. I’m not sure Seinfeld even occupies the top spot on my comedy list anymore, a victim to time and exposure to shows like the BBC hit “Peep Show”, and the brilliant, burning on both ends of candle “Arrested Development” (although the third and Netflix produced fourth season did enough damage to knock the sublime first and second seasons of the show down a peg).

Seinfeld seems a little dated at this point, a victim of The Seinfeld Is Unfunny Effect. The first three seasons remind me in some ways of the first two seasons of The Next Generation (even though TNG was much, much, much worse): everything about the production screams late ’80s or early ’90s. The shows just don’t feel modern. The episodes look grainy, the pacing is wrong, the editing is slow and drawn out. Despite that, the fourth through seventh seasons remain some of the strongest sitcom seasons in television history. For a few brief years the show found its legendary stride and created some of the most memorable jokes and story lines that still exist in the culture today.

With the entire Seinfeld library having recently moved to Hulu, I embarked on a minor mission to see how the show held up. It’s surprising, and mildly distressing, how easy it is to burn through multiple seasons of half hour sitcoms, but in the end I narrowed down my list of the top five Seinfeld episodes, and ultimately my favorite season of the show. Four of the five episodes are from season five, which I now consider to be the turning point in the shows tone. With the addition of some new writers, the show moved away from its hyper realistic tone of the earlier seasons and began to embrace stories that were clearly conceived by writers but were still very grounded in normal, day to day life. The topics were familiar and from real life experiences, but the plot and characters became a bit more broad and the series began to work diligently to have their complicated plots weave together by the end of each episode.

That said, here are my top five episodes of Seinfeld.

5. The Puffy Shirt

Puffy Shisrt

The second episode of season five, “The Puffy Shirt” was written by Larry David, who considers the episode to be one of his favorites. Kramer dates a “low-talker” who asks an unsuspecting Jerry to wear some of her new clothing line on The Today Show, where he’ll be promoting a benefit to clothe the homeless. In the second storyline, George’s luck starts to turn around as he’s found to be a remarkable hand model, one with hands so spectacular that they remind everyone of Ray McKigney, a hand model ruined after he found that no woman could match the beauty of his own hand.

The scene where Kramer reveals the Puffy Shirt is outstanding. Jerry’s reaction to the shirt, and Kramer’s pleasure at revealing it, are wonderful. The business of Kramer forcing the shirt at a reluctant Jerry is topped off with the memorable, “But I don’t wanna be a pirate!” line as Jerry tries to stop himself from laughing.

In addition, we’ve got a great Mr and Mrs Costanza scene in the restaurant. It’s tough to not have the best episodes of the show include these two breakout stars, and here we get to experience the origin of George’s paranoia as Frank Costanza insists that the waiter sees them, he just doesn’t want to serve them.

It all culminates in Jerry ruining the low talker’s life when he slams her business on The Today Show, George burns his hands on a hot iron after insulting the shirt in front of its creator, and all the pre-ordered Puffy Shirts at the factory (“They’re making these?”) are distributed to the homeless.

It’s really not a bad looking shirt.

4. The Marine Biologist

Marine Biologist

What did I just say about story lines colliding? “The Marine Biologist”, written by Ron Hauge and Charlie Rubin, is peak Seinfeld. To impress a former classmate, Jerry spins a yarn about George having become a marine biologist. Unfortunately for George, the lie works and he and the classmate begin to date, all under the false pretense that George had made something of his life since college, and that he was an expert about all things fish and whale related.

The George plot is so outstanding that it covers over the weakest part of the episode: Elaine’s plot about meeting a famous Russian author and having her new digital organizer (very ’90s) annoy him to the point where he throws it out the limousine window and injures a passerby. The plot doesn’t really work, and it doesn’t tie into the greater story in any meaningful way.

The Kramer arc exists just to set up the climax of the episode. Kramer comes into a huge collection of golf balls, and travels down to the beach to hit them into the ocean. Unfortunately, Kramer’s golf game has left him and he only hit “one really good one, that went way out there”.

After George and his new lady friend stumble upon a beached whale as they’re out walking on the beach (“Is anyone here a marine biologist?”), George becomes a hero by saving the day. Reaching into the whale’s blowhole, he felt an obstruction and pulled out… a golf ball. A Titleist.

This episode is sublime. The collision of plot strands in the end is arguably the finest use of the trick that the show ever did (that one yelp of audience laughter as George reveals the golf ball!), and even the use of the phrase “marine biologist” seems just so Seinfeld-y. During the shows run, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated an affection for odd sounding words and phrases. It doesn’t even sound like a real job! And Larry David’s voice over on the timeless “Is anyone here a marine biologist?” line is simply perfect.

3. The Opposite

The Opposite

Season five ends with an ingenious twist on the George character: if everything you’ve done in the past has been wrong, then doesn’t the opposite have to be right?

When George hits his breaking point, he decides to do “the opposite”. Whatever his gut tells him to do, he’ll do the opposite of that. Telling a woman he just met that he’s unemployed and lives with his parents? No problem. Not getting upset when a jackass driver cuts him off? Easy. Yelling at the owner of the New York Yankees during a job interview? He’ll do it!

Elaine, on the other hand, finds her life falling apart. She gets evicted from her apartment, causes her employer Pendant Publishing to fold, and ends up, to her horror, “becoming George”.

Jerry’s plot line details how everything always works out for him. He loses a gig only to get another one for the same day and pay only moments later. He throws money out the window only to have it come back into his life (albeit with George). His story ends with the realization that as an “Even Steven”, when one friend is up (George), another one is down (Elaine).

Kramer’s plot is mostly forgettable, as he begins a book tour on Regis and Kathie Lee. The most memorable moment from this scene is Regis’ bizarre, “This guy’s bonkos!” line, which, according to Philbin, was performed against his will and at the insistence of the Seinfeld writers.

But really, this episode lives and dies on the George storyline. Every scene with him is hilarious, each getting better and better, until it all culminates in the scene where he screams at Steinbrenner for ruining the Yankees organization. In the episode’s final twist, Steinbrenners response is “Hire this man!” and thus we see the genesis of many great plot lines involving George and the New York Yankees.

2. The Hamptons

Hamptons

“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”

It’s one of the most quoted Seinfeld lines, sold with delicious zeal by Jason Alexander. This episode is mostly known for the “shrinkage” story, yet another example of the show’s language infecting the cultural zeitgeist. Do women know about shrinkage?

But honestly, the George story is only one of a few excellent threads that run through this one. For some reason, sitcom episodes that involve the beach are always a favorite of mine. Any show that runs for a few seasons inevitably ends up at the beach, and these episodes always tickle my fancy. Here, the entire cast gets a weekend at the Hamptons, home of world famous tomatoes and topless beaches. George is trying to get laid, Kramer wants some lobster, Elaine meets a man with a curious vocabulary, and Jerry mostly acts as a smirking foil to his co-star’s plots.

For me, the Elaine story is… breathtaking. A simple joke that builds around the idea that sometimes “people say things just to be nice”, it’s Seinfeld’s observational humor at it’s best. The wordplay is funny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is outstanding, and the guest actor playing the soap opera-esque doctor fits the bill perfectly.

Kramer’s lobster story is solid, and worth the wait just for his unaware, happy waving at the end when the police come to arrest him for poaching.

Of course, the George story is the episode’s backbone. He tries to see his new girlfriend naked, is foiled by her exhibitionist ways, and then tries to see Jerry’s girlfriend topless to “even the score”. When that fails, he is instead embarrassed after he takes a dip in the cold ocean and, well, nature takes its course.

A very strong episode with tremendous plots for everyone involved, a catch phrase that endures today, and the beach. It’s almost perfect.

And 1… The Gum

The Gum

Is this a sleeper choice? The only episode not from the fifth season on this list, The Gum can instead be found in the middle of season seven.

Written by the underrated writing team of Tom Gammill and Max Pross, The Gum is a nearly perfect sitcom script. It’s a master class in writing.

Building around a George plot line where he tries to convince his old friend Deena that he is not, in fact, crazy and obsessed with the returning Lloyd Braun, the other threads of the story all combine to make George’s life that much more difficult. “Crazy” Lloyd Braun made his first appearance in The Low Fat Yogurt, and he appears in this episode having just been released from a mental institution. As Kramer doesn’t want to upset Lloyd, he goes out of his way to accommodate him by endorsing all of his odd behavior, including the excessive buying and chewing of gum.

Because of this hilarious catering to Lloyd’s whims, Jerry is forced to wear glasses that make him blind, and Elaine’s wardrobe malfunction causes her to send mixed messages. When Lloyd and Jerry buy “a lot of gum”, George can’t get the blinded Jerry to respond to his greeting. When Deena doubts George’s sanity, as she knows that Jerry doesn’t wear glasses, George loses it. “Don’t you see!”, he yells, “He was doing it to fool Lloyd Braun!”

It’s a difficult episode to explain. It’s tremendously scripted, and very, very tight. All of the plot threads come together in a totally natural way, and it’s difficult to watch the episode and see the strings being pulled to get to the resolution. It takes the Seinfeld conceit of intersecting plot lines and takes the idea to its absolute apex.

It’s hysterical, and it’s my absolute favorite episode in a show filled with them.

Chaos on the Bridge

“The Pensky Podcast”, my show that is currently running through all 178 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, continues! In a little bit of a side track, Clay and I watched “Chaos on the Bridge”, the William Shatner produced documentary that explores the first three years of the TNG era.

It’s an interesting, if scattershot, documentary that examines all of the tumult and interpersonal conflicts that plagued the show in its early years. We get a lot of conflicting stories, polite insults, and a few inner thoughts of people that existed on the fringe of popular culture for about 75 hour long television episodes.

In the video above, we breakdown what we think about the documentary, including our favorite writers, best stories, and which bit of juicy gossip got us the most excited! In all seriousness, the documentary is a worthwhile purchase (on Vimeo) that will probably have a few bits of information that even the most dedicated Trekkie might know.

Highly recommended!

Creep

Creep is a 2014 indie… horror… uh… comedy… um…

…movie…?

It’s something, that’s for certain.

Written by and starring Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass (of FX’s The League), Creep is a low budget film that combines horror and comedy into a completely unique package that will leave you in fits of both screaming and laughing.

Brice plays Aaron, a videographer who responds to an ad on Craigslist that promises $1,000 for a day of work filming an individual out in the wilderness. That individual turns out to be Josef (Duplass), a man stricken with terminal cancer. Aaron is told that he’s been hired to film Josef’s final farewell. Josef has only months to live and he wishes to leave the video tape behind for his unborn child as a memorial.

A few twists and turns carry the rest of the narrative, which involves an ax, a wolf mask, and a horrific yet hilarious story heard only through audio.

Creep is a clever take on the found footage genre. However, instead of subverting the idea of found footage, Creep instead subverts the idea of what is scary about that style of narrative. Fans of the genre are well accustomed to the jump scares that clutter up every found footage story. Whenever a character is wandering through the woods or an empty house, meekly calling out someone else’s name, you can rest assured that a jump scare is imminent. The scare might not be a legitimate threat. It might just be a cat knocking over something, or the wind gusting through a window.

Creep cleverly manipulates this trope of the genre. Josef is a disturbed individual, but the scares in the movie come from his inopportune sense of playfulness, not really a true sense of terror. The movie builds to a hilarious final scare, which is played as a sort of meta joke/scare that details the entire theme.

The movie is genuinely frightening, as most of the jump scares are well done (and demonstrate that 90% of a jump scare is the audio mixing). As the story develops, the meta aspect begins to break through, leaving the third act a very dark comedy that still leaves you unsettled.

By the end, the story has wrapped up and one character begins to question why certain events unfolded like they did. To us in the audience, it’s a clever coda to a well done joke. To the character asking the question, it becomes a raison d’etre.

And a wonderful addition to his collection.

Daredevil

The fight scene that closes out the second episode of Netflix’s Daredevil series is the defining moment of the show. To rescue a kidnapped child from the clutches of a Russian gang, blind New York lawyer Matt Murdock dons “the mask” and becomes his alter ego, a vigilante who will soon come to be called “Daredevil”. Sneaking into the gangs lair, Murdock uses his super powered senses to locate the child, determine the number of his enemies and where they are, and then pummel the baddies into submission.

The fight scene itself is marvelous: ostensibly a version of the Old Boy hallway fight, a single take (or perhaps multiple takes cleverly edited together to hide any seams, a la True Detective) captures Murdock punching and kicking and blocking his way to become the last man standing. While heavily dramatized, the scene is also realistically stylized. Murdock grows weary during the brawl, sometimes leaning against the wall to catch his breath. He lets his opponents come to him, baiting them with his exhaustion. The vision-impaired hero manages to dodge dozens of bullets and spinning heel kicks, while still becoming injured from the blows that his enemies land on him. It’s the old and the new mixing together, the abilities and powers of the comic’s pulp pages smashing directly into the gritty, realistic world that now seems a prerequisite to host these modern retellings. The grit and drama is heavy over the entire production, masking the silly fantasy of the Marvel Universe.

It’s also the reason that Daredevil sometimes doesn’t work.

To be fair, much of Daredevil does work. The fight scenes are outstanding, even if they have the fleeting feeling of being amazing for the first few seconds and then slowly becoming normal and laborious or tedious to watch. Despite the fact that it is distracting to have almost every combatant be a master martial artist, the choreography of the fights scenes is excellent and the lighting and set pieces frequently add a level of creative polish to the entire production.

The acting is quite good, with Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of antagonist Wilson Fisk being a particular stand out. Fisk’s scenes stand out strongly against everyone else, sometimes unfortunately so. D’Onofrio plays the pleasantly plump “Kingpin” as a meticulous planner and strategist, but also as a nervous child, one prone to throwing tantrums when he’s upset. As Fisk attempts to rebuild Hells Kitchen in his own vision, he cannot understand why his allies attempt to take advantage of him. As Daredevil tries to come up with a means of outing Fisk as the center of a web of corruption, he cannot come to terms with where his actions may lead.

The inner turmoil of the Murdock/Daredevil character is a good example of the overall issue the series has to get around. As it has one foot firmly entrenched in source material, the show sometimes makes odd choices in terms of how much back story is brought to the plot. In the comics, Murdock is a devout Catholic and the nature of his faith creates a level of drama when he’s forced to balance it against his desire to combat the criminal underbelly of the city. In the show, Murdock’s faith feels like a tacked on bit of trivia that is too central to the character to leave out, but isn’t a driving force behind any of the series narrative. The Murdock of the television show seems to only be Catholic when he’s in scenes with his local priest. It doesn’t carry over into the narrative of the rest of the show, and it ends up feeling like something that the creators had to insert into the proceedings because the source material demanded it. They started out with a unique creation and then felt obligated to temper it with a fan expectation.

In a similar vein, the tone of the series is difficult to establish. The show is going for a gritty, dark mood. Fight scenes involving knives always end with someone cut and bleeding, and Daredevil is no exception, frequently taking beatings and spending the rest of the episode healing. Unfortunately, since the source material is a comic book, this realistic perspective on fighting is undone by the final battle between Daredevil and Fisk, where the comic book roots start to sneak in. The fight turns into a traditional, hyper violent comic book fight scene. Fisk, in particular, takes multiple blows to the head with a night stick and shakes it off like it’s a minor nuisance. The stylized realism that the show developed early on smashes head first into the expectations of its source material. A show that has tried to make the implications of violence stand in the forefront is undone by a surreal alleyway fight where two super human characters repeatedly smash each other with billy clubs and dumpsters.

The series is probably three or four episodes too long, as it only has enough plot for nine or ten episodes. When Fisk isn’t on screen, the action grinds to a halt. Murdock and his associates are serviceable, but ultimately a bit generic as we’ve seen it before. Daredevil has a vaguely Batman-ish reaction towards what he’s doing and his reluctance to kill. Murdock’s lawyer buddy Foggy and their secretary Karen are a semi-funny comic relief and plot device, respectively. Ultimately, the show starts to develop something with Fisk, who is unique as a villain in that he’s one of the first villains to make me wonder if what he’s doing is even wrong. Daredevil’s response to Fisk, in fact, is so furious and oppositional that at some points it makes the story and characters feel disconnected. Fisk cleans up a Russian drug gang and Daredevil seems to find this to be more problematic than it was to continue having the gang around. Fisk’s ultimate plans are fairly unclear, and it does seem like he is sometimes at the mercy of the Asian gangsters he associates with, but his ultimate goal of improving the neighborhood seems to match Murdock’s. Fisk is more prone to bouts of violence to achieve his aims, but he seems fairly harmless to citizens. He’s essentially a bad landlord, and that gets Murdock and company all riled up.

In the end, Daredevil felt like something I was simply trying to get through. I enjoyed the novelty of the first two episodes, but the slow middle derailed my enjoyment too much to even recover in the final episode or two. A few unearned deaths later (possibly to the chagrin of the creators who were then given a second season), and Daredevil ended with a new, slightly over the top costume and a new office plaque. Fisk ended up staring at the walls of his prison, a call back to something his abusive father used to make him do as a child. As usual, even the Fisk scenes in the ending montage were the best the show had to offer.

The True Detective Finale

Amy and I recently watched the final episode of the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”. We had some thoughts to share, and some disagreements to hash out, so we figured there is no better way to do that (other than marriage counseling) than a podcast.

This final episode ends the Woody Harrelson / Matthew McConaughey pairing for the show. The next season is going to “reboot” the franchise by bringing in a brand new cast and story to satiate our detective story lust. I’m looking forward to it.

The Genius of Peep Show

So much of human interaction is hidden behind the scenes, outside of the normal mode of communication of language. The true meaning of most conversations exists outside of the “script” of what is said, and instead can be more fully understood as a complex combination of words, thoughts, emotions and judgment. The words we say are maybe only 10% of the total package, the vast majority of meaning and truth exists only in our minds, almost always unknown by the other half in our conversations.

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True Detective

About a quarter of the way into the premiere episode of HBO’s “True Detective”, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a detective named Rust Cohle, beings to wax poetic. Riding as the passenger in a prototypical detective sedan, Cohle stares glumly out the window and rambles on as his partner, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, listens in:

“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”

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House of Cards

Netflix doesn’t want to be an “online Blockbuster” anymore. The DVD rental and streaming behemoth has spend years dealing with content providers, haggling deals and increasing payouts customers latch onto the idea of non physical media being beamed directly into their TVs. All of Netflix’s recent actions, including the ill-conceived (although business-logical) Qwickster service, have been a part of the company’s realization that the money in television and movies doesn’t come from leasing content from production companies. Netflix has realized that the real money comes from creating content.

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My Perestroika

“Perestroika” literally means restructuring in Russian, and it was also the term used to define the political and social changes that followed the collapse of the USSR. This documentary, “My Perestroika”, captures the ideology and feelings of a small group of Russians who are of the right age to remember the zeitgeist of Russia both before and after the wall fell. Incredible archival footage shows the society that the Communist Party was trying to build, and it is wonderfully inter cut with the directors modern footage to build the case that Russia is Russia, and it seems like it will always be that way, regardless of who is running the show. The cast of characters who are interviewed are intelligent, well spoken, and well read; this despite their various backgrounds and current situations that are all over the map (Despite the horrors of certain aspects of communism, I think this says something about the quality of the education in that system). Their opinions about the old guard and their new, more Western society are diverse, with some seeming pleased with the recent changes and others pining, ever so slightly, for the stability that the USSR offered. One last point: after watching this film, I found it impossible to ignore how similar the USSR and the USA were during the Cold War. For all of the teachings we’ve been given about how the evil empire was trying to conquer the world and it was up to the inherent purity of the US to stand against this threat, Russian children were being told the exact same thing. Hearing the kids say such in the archival footage is chilling. It makes you wonder if paranoia is the foundation for a lot of global issues.