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‘Black Bird’ Review: A Dark Trip to the Depths of Human Depravity

Few, if any, of us know what it’s like to stare into the eyes of a killer. The cold, dead gaze of someone with no regard for another human’s life and, in the case of serial killer Larry DeWayne Hall, enjoys taking that life. On AppleTV+’s upcoming limited series Black Bird, we dive into Hall’s life and view it through the eyes of James Keene, another convict who has been sent to elicit a confession from Hall.

Similar to shows like MindhunterBlack Bird focuses on what makes serial killers do what they do and why they are compelled to do so. Even though it’s a dramatized retelling of actual events, Black Bird is a compelling look into the mind of an absolute monster and how doing something as simple as talking to him can nearly destroy someone in the process.

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Per AppleTV+, “Inspired by actual events, when high school football hero and decorated policeman’s son Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) is sentenced to 10 years in a minimum security prison, he is given the choice of a lifetime — enter a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane and befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), or stay where he is and serve his full sentence with no possibility of parole. Keene quickly realizes his only way out is to elicit a confession and find out where the bodies of several young girls are buried before Hall’s appeal goes through. But is this suspected killer telling the truth? Or is it just another tale from a serial liar?”

For anyone familiar with a Dennis Lehane story—Mystic River, Gone Baby Goneand Shutter Island are among the most notable—you know that he has a talent for creating stories that keep you guessing until the end. Lehane, who developed Black Bird, does the same thing here. Serving as the writer and one of the executive producers, Lehane took this story and molded it into what is one of the best real-life adaptations in recent years.

It’s no secret that prison, especially a maximum security prison, is somewhere no one wants to be. In this story, Lehane paints a picture of what the day-to-day is like in this facility and how someone like Taron Egerton’s character is forced to adapt to a place where he doesn’t belong.

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The story is told through two lenses: One in the prison where Jimmy Keene tries to buddy up to Hall, and the other that follows two detectives (Greg Kinnear and Sepideh Moafi) as they also attempt to garner evidence that will keep Hall in prison. Moafi’s character, FBI Agent Lauren McCauley, also serves as Keene’s handler while he’s in jail.

It can be a bit of a clunky narrative device, especially at the show’s beginning when there are two timelines, but once things settle in, the two stories are almost perfectly in sync. Their investigation helps provide some clarity and backstory to Hall’s murders, and, in essence, we live part of the story through the eyes of his victims.

These scenes can be tough, as most of Hall’s victims were teenage girls, and even though he was only convicted on two of the murders, he was suspected of up to 20. It’s a heartbreaking story, especially considering that it’s all perpetrated by another human being.

What makes someone do this? Why do they seem to hate the world?

Rather than sympathize with someone like Hall, we try to learn what makes him tick. As mentioned above, it’s remarkably similar to Mindhunter, which didn’t make us care about the serial killers or empathize but got to the heart of the psychopathy that lies beneath the surface.

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The real highlight of Black Bird is the acting, most notably a powerhouse performance from Paul Walter Hauser. He is a terrifying villain, one who, in the beginning, you feel a shred of sympathy for due to his upbringing. He speaks with a high-pitched and soft voice, where he doesn’t seem threatening at first.

As you listen to him talk and describe his life and crimes, that’s when you see the man for what he is: a beast beyond redemption. Hauser’s performance is perfect for the role, as you rarely see his true persona bubble to the surface, but you feel a sense of genuine fear when it does. His facial expressions can change on a dime, further hammering how chaotic his personality is.

As he talked about when he was a grave robber in his youth, he said a line that stuck with me throughout the show: “The dead are pleasant; looking into their faces gives me hope that the next world is the good one.” Hearing him saying it is different than reading it, and Hauser nails it.

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Opposite Paul Walter Hauser is Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene, and he is also fantastic as the co-lead. Keene is the polar opposite of Hall: Charismatic, handsome, well-spoken, and well-liked. You can tell that while he is buddying up to Hall and conversing with him, he struggles to identify with his life.

Even talking with someone like Hall affects Keene’s mental health and well-being, and it’s easy to sympathize with him here. Egerton’s confident swagger mixed with the inner torment of interacting with a psychopath is a true test of his talents as an actor, and he pulls it off incredibly well.

Sadly, the world lost Ray Liotta earlier this year. In his final television performance, he portrays Jimmy’s father “Big Jim” Keene in Black Bird. Part of the reason Jimmy takes the job investigating Hall is that his father suffers a stroke, and he’s unsure if he will live beyond Jimmy’s prison sentence.

Liotta is incredible as his father, and his tragic performance is only made all the more somber given his passing. Big Jim is remarkably similar to his character in Blow, in which he also plays the father of a drug dealer. Both love their sons and try to accept the fallout of their actions and still help them through it all.

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Shows like Black Bird are not for everyone. They are heavy watches that require you to examine a side of humanity that we’d all prefer didn’t exist. And even though they are fictionalized accounts, they are stories that must be told. Not to glamorize the killers but to give their victims the remembrance they deserve.

Black Bird premieres on AppleTV+ on July 8th.

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Popular Culture

‘For All Mankind’ Season 3 Review: A Turbulent, Uneven Trip to Mars

AppleTV+’s series For All Mankind has generally flown under the radar in the pop culture consensus, which is unfortunate considering the first two seasons made for fantastic television.

An alternate history series, For All Mankind explores what might have happened if the USSR beat the United States to the moon and what if the ensuing Space Race never ended. How would humanity progress? How would technology evolve?

The Space Race here has allowed for the advancement of technology at an increased speed, with things like video conferencing becoming the norm even in the 1980s. In addition, the emphasis placed on science and technology successfully allowed humans to combat climate change effectively.

So far, For All Mankind has focused on the moon landings and the establishment of permanent bases by the USSR and USA. It’s a new front of the Cold War, and as so much focus is placed on space, historical events in our timeline, such as the Vietnam War, take a backseat in this alternate one.

Unfortunately, season three of For All Mankind, set to premiere on June 10th, fails to capture much of the magic that made the first two entries so great.

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Per AppleTV+, “In season three, the Red Planet becomes the new frontier in the Space Race not only for the US and the Soviet Union but also an unexpected new entrant with a lot to prove and even more at stake. Our characters find themselves going head-to-head as their ambitions for Mars come into conflict and their loyalties are tested, creating a pressure cooker that builds to a climactic conclusion.”

As seen in the trailer, the “unexpected new entrant” is announced as a private space corporation named Helios. In our world, as companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin begin their attempts to reach space and not be beholden to government oversight, this storyline felt like a natural progression for the series.

Along with the United States and the Soviet Union, Helios and its astronauts aim to be the first ones to land on Mars. They want private citizens to make their mark on history just as much as governments.

It’s an intriguing idea for the series; however, the idea is not explored in any depth that makes sense. Outside of the exposition explaining who they are and why Helios is doing this, Helios astronauts become just another crew racing to Mars. The story also loses the believability of “ordinary citizens” heading to Mars when the crew is primarily ex-astronauts from NASA.

The privatization of space does offer some exciting plot points, though, with Helios’ founder and CEO, Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi,) portraying an Elon Musk type of figure. It’s not explicitly said, but there are moments where the importance of Helios landing first on Mars is as much about his ego as it is about exploration.

How Helios interacts with its international competitors also makes for some great moments. Does a private company need to have any loyalty to the United States when it comes to space? Or are they free to do what they’d like to as if it were any other business deal?

Without revealing too much, the questions that these sort of interactions raises often provide some of the season’s best drama.

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Visually, the show looks as good as ever. With it not actually being filmed in space, on the Moon, or Mars (duh,) the design and set departments had their work cut out for them, and they hit their marks.

Mars, in particular, looks fantastic. Its sweeping hills and mountains, opaque dust storms that incite panic, and plenty of red rocks are visually stunning.

The space scenes give you a sense of how alone and in the “wilderness” these astronauts genuinely are. They are headed to Mars for multiple-year missions, and you feel how daunting that prospect is as these ships swim through that endless black ocean.

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Joel Kinnaman, who plays Ed Baldwin, one of the main characters, is a highlight of the show’s acting when it comes to being a serious, gruff, and challenging individual. However, he falls short of coming across as believable when he attempts to do anything that showcases emotions like sadness or grief.

That being said, there is a scene towards the end of the season where he succeeded my expectations when dealing with past pain.
Sadly, Sonya Walger was mostly pushed to the background in the eight episodes provided to the press because her performance as Molly Cobb has always been top-notch. Cobb suffered from a heavy dose of radiation on the moon in season two when she was attempting to rescue a fellow astronaut.

She’s now blind but still serving as the Head of the Astronaut Office at NASA. Following the decision of who will command the mission to Mars, she’s rarely seen again.

Elsewhere, mainstays such as Jodi Balfour and Wrenn Schmidt, who play Ellen Wilson and Margo Madison, respectively, are as solid as always. Both are forced to deal with the inherent sexism in the organizations they are a part of, Ellen as a US Senator and Margo as the head of NASA.

Krys Marshall, who plays astronaut Danielle Poole, gets plenty to work with this season. Despite being one of the first astronauts to be stationed on the moon and a legend of NASA’s space program, she still faces racist attitudes, even amongst those she considers friends.

Even in this alternate history, racism, sexism, and homophobia still play a major part in society. How these characters respond to that bigotry provides some of the season’s best moments.

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It was a minor issue in an otherwise stellar season two, but Karen Baldwin’s (Shantel VanSanten) affair with Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) was a bizarre decision on the part of the writers.

Considering Danny was the son of Karen’s friend Tracy and Ed’s best friend Gordo, the plot point was almost universally panned. It was only a few scenes, so it likely wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they decided to move past it for this season.

This storyline plays a significant part this season, with one character’s behavior coming across as frustrating and, in many cases, incredibly creepy. The writers’ intent was likely to add a layer of character development to those involved. However, there isn’t any real payoff until near the end of the season. Even then, its integration into the season’s bigger narrative felt very clumsy.

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Only eight episodes were made available to the press prior to release, so it is entirely possible that For All Mankind finds its footing as the season wraps up. That being said, it has a lot of ground to make up before the finish.

Speaking as someone who adored the first two seasons, For All Mankind‘s third journey into space has proven that no series bats 1.000. Some questionable narrative choices and some acting that leaves much to be desired cause the show’s quality to stumble but not enough that it isn’t fixable.

Season three of “For All Mankind” premieres on AppleTV+ on June 10th, with new episodes dropping weekly.

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Culture Movies/TV

‘WeCrashed’ Is a Story of Corporate Greed and the Couple At the Center of It All

“Do what you love.”

“Hustle Harder.”

“We are elevating the world’s consciousness.”

These philosophies (if you can call them that) are the ethos of what Adam Neumann believed would make WeWork a trillion-dollar company. He would say that WeWork was not a shared workspace company, but it brought people together and focused on changing the world.

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Per Apple’s description, WeCrashed is “Inspired by actual events — and the love story at the center of it all. WeWork grew from a single coworking space into a global brand worth $47 billion in under a decade. Then, in less than a year, its value plummeted. What happened?”

Neumann (Jared Leto) and Rebekah (Anne Hathaway) attempt to turn WeWork into a company dedicated to not just turning a profit—something they rarely do—but try to change the way the world thinks, acts, and lives. If you think that sounds a little cultish, don’t worry because it does.

As someone says to him in the series, “Dude, you’re renting fucking desks,” so it seems not many people shared his belief, except maybe his wife and “co-founder” Rebekah.

The series bases itself on the podcast WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork by Wondery. That show detailed the meteoric rise of WeWork, an almost unprecedented level of growth, and catastrophic fall down to Earth, almost singlehandedly caused by the two narcissists at the center, Adam and Rebekha.

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WeWork wasn’t the first company to embrace the “Millennial” approach to working if such a thing exists. WeWork was a commercial real estate company, but they wanted to be the cool commercial real estate company.

As it gets off the ground and builds out its first few spaces, Neumann emphasizes that he wants bars, kombucha on tap, music blasting, etc., he wants people to come to WeWork because it’s the cool place to work. Nowhere is this better exemplified than when Adam interrupts a meeting to join his employees in making a “Harlem Shake” video, a scene that is horrifyingly cringeworthy.

Leto’s Neumann runs around as an agent of chaos and demands that the builders around construct things with money he doesn’t have, sinking the company into debt before they even have a single customer. He orders the builders around and is controlling over the company’s co-founder Miguel McKelvey (Kyle Marvin.) Despite being partners, Neumann makes all the decisions even with Miguel’s constant protests.

Scenes such as this are the show’s strength, in which Leto and Hathaway’s performances are the foundation. If you find these characters insufferable, just remember they are based on real people. Some scenes in the show are ripped straight from real life, including Rebekah’s podcast interview and Adam’s attempt to make an informational video.

Perhaps the show’s real star is Hathaway, the self-help and lifestyle guru, who is also a yoga teacher that becomes the Chief Branding Officer of WeWork, only after orchestrating the firing of her friend who had been in the role.

Hathaway portrays the role exceptionally well, almost to the point of parody, which generally would be a bad thing, but Neumann is so comically aloof and oblivious in real life that she’s beyond parody. One need only watch this interview with Neumann to get an idea of what she is like.

She began a school for children (that charged tens of thousands of dollars in tuition), with the stated goal of “unleashing every human’s superpowers,” whatever that means.

Neumann also comes from wealth, a characteristic that carries over into Hathaway’s portrayal. She is ignorant and callous in how she interacts with other people but comes off as someone that cares. One scene, in particular, emphasizes this, when she is leaving the WeWork summer camp and going back to her “cabin” with the head of the company’s communications, Neumann tells her to “bring the bags in.”

And after she makes a comment on stage that proves to be controversial and nearly upends the entire summer camp event, she blames the Head of Communications for the resulting firestorm. Instead of taking the blame, Neumann fires her.

There are numerous other instances like this throughout the show, with Hathaway performing them fantastically.

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Playing off her is Jared Leto, who is also perfectly cast as Adam Neumann. Leto shows a particular talent for portraying the sort of man that sees himself above the rest of society and is in a position to elevate them all to his level.

Keep in mind he owns and operates a commercial real estate company. His main issue is his desire to become the next Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk, but he does not have the patience to become those men. In most scenes, Leto towers over the other actors, not physically but most definitely in ferociousness and belief in what the character is trying to achieve.

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The show’s most glaring issue is with its pacing. It moves at breakneck speed, with the title cards informing the audience that years have passed by, and they quickly roll by the company’s growth.

As fast as Adam Neumann tried to grow WeWork, it is as fast as the series moves along. They go from one office to 10 offices to 100 offices and on and on before you get a chance to get your bearings. Once you settle in, you can pick up where they are in the timeline, but a bit of a deeper dive into specific aspects would have been welcome.

Also, the show suffers from a lack of character development outside of Adam and Rebekah. People are hired, laid off, and shuffled around so much that it becomes difficult to keep track of who they are and why we’re supposed to care so much about them.

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As with most stories of corporate greed, it is the employees of the company and not the actual perpetrators who suffer the most. The failure of the IPO and the fact that WeWork never posted a profit while Neumann was in charge, led to layoffs and the loss of massive potential earnings for employees when the stock value tanked.

We see employees go from thinking they are about to earn millions one day only to lose their jobs the next, all due to Adam and Rebekah’s actions.

WeCrashed is the story of just one company’s downfall but is a tale that has happened many times over. Hopefully, it does not repeat too often in the future.

The first three episodes of WeCrashed premiere on AppleTV+ on March 18th, with new episodes following weekly.

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Culture Movies/TV

AppleTV+’s ‘The Afterparty’ Is a Genre Mixing Take On a Murder-Mystery

High School reunions are a, let’s say, eclectic mix of nostalgia, catching up, and, most definitely, awkwardness.

Oh God, the awkwardness.

So what happens when someone is killed at the afterparty of a high school reunion? In AppleTV+’s new comedy/murder-mystery series The Afterparty, we try to answer that very question.

The game is afoot.

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Created primarily by Christopher Miller along with his creative partner Phil Lord, “The Afterparty is a genre-defying series centered on a murder mystery at a high school reunion. Each episode explores a different character’s account of the fateful evening in question, all through the lens of popular film genres and unique visuals to match the storyteller’s perspective.”

Featuring an incredible cast that includes Tiffany Haddish, Sam Richardson, Ike Barinholtz, Zoë Chao, Ben Schwartz, Ilana Glazer, Dave Franco, and Jamie Demetriou, The Afterparty doesn’t reinvent the murder-mystery genre by any means. Still, it does succeed at putting a hilarious spin on it.

The Afterparty tells most of the story in flashbacks with Tiffany Haddish’s Detective Danner interviewing the party’s attendees one by one. As mentioned in the official synopsis, every episode follows a different character as they recount the events of the reunion and the afterparty at Dave Franco’s character Xavier’s house.

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The first three episodes follow Aniq, Brett (Ike Barinholtz), and Yasper (Ben Schwartz) as they run through the evening’s events—well, at least how they choose to remember them.

Aniq is attempting to win the heart of his high school crush Zoe (Zoë Chao), who is in the middle of an impending divorce with Brett. Meanwhile, Brett wants to persuade Zoe to call off the divorce and get back together.

And then there is Yasper, who simply wants to get pop superstar Xavier (Dave Franco) to “bless his track” so he can finally get his music career going.

Each episode embodies a different film or TV genre that, mostly, works. For example, Aniq’s episode serves as the introduction to the series, following all the standard arcs of a romantic comedy.

It is a little unfortunate that they decided to use this episode to introduce the series as it feels a little underserved compared to the other two episodes included in this review. It tries to juggle both the need to introduce the characters and parody romantic comedies and struggles to do so at times.

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Where the show succeeds, though, is in its performances. 

Sam Richardson is fantastic as the awkward, nerdy guy Aniq whose day job is designing escape rooms, and who is still chasing his high school crush after all these years.

Ike Barinholtz is as good as ever as the over-the-top, tough guy who but who also is a surprisingly great Dad. His episode, a parody of action, noir films, was probably my favorite of the first three. Barinholtz couldn’t be having more fun as the dude living out his action fantasy recounting his evening to Detective Danner.

And as an unabashed of the Fast and Furious franchise, I couldn’t help but appreciate the recurring joke of Brett’s dedication to his “Family.”

In the episode centered around Schwartz’s Yasper, his talents for comedy and improv are on full display. His musical-centric episode, complete with songs that you’ll no doubt be singing after the credits roll, is most definitely another highlight for the show.

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Tiffany Haddish also displays a great ability to balance off all her fellow actors very well, going from being fully engrossed in Aniq’s romantic comedy to straight-up struggling to get through Yasper’s musical numbers.

In many ways, she is used as an on-screen audience, complete with her own review of each story. She has an episode devoted to her later in the season, but she excels in her supporting role for now.

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For fans of Christopher Miller’s earlier work, such as 21 Jump Street and its sequel, 22 Jump Street, as well as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the success of his latest entry into the “high school” movie/show world should come as no surprise. He and Phil Lord have a great eye for what can make these sorts of productions so fun to watch, and they definitely succeed with The Afterparty.

The first three episodes of The Afterparty premiere on AppleTV+ on January 28th, with a new episode releasing weekly until February 25th.