Billions: The Best Show You’re (Probably) Not Watching Returns This Sunday

BILLIONS_S3_PRART_01.R.0A close friend of mine recently commented how the current landscape of TV – including cable channels and streaming services – offers an embarrassment of riches so diverse and overflowing with quality that it has become practically insurmountable to try and tackle even those shows considered essential viewing. Amidst the quarantine, those of us blessed with an abundance of downtime may still find it daunting to navigate the myriad of options when vacillating between the various streaming sites and channels, inundated with binge-worthy options practically oozing out of our devices.

But even amidst this smorgasbord of viewing opportunities, there are shows so fundamentally excellent that they rise like the proverbial cream, overshadowing their rivals by the sheer quality of their execution. Unfortunately, quality alone doesn’t always guarantee widespread success or universal appeal and sometimes, even the best television ends up being marginalized by the general public in favor of more populist, meme-friendly shows.

Billions – a Showtime exclusive – is one such ignored show. Currently about to begin its fifth season this Sunday, Billions is a taught, smartly written, character-driven drama about power, corruption, interpersonal relationships and the collision of these elemental components that invariably leads to chemical, often incendiary reactions. The show centers on two seemingly eternal rivals: Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a hedge fund owner and self-made billionaire with a Machiavellian, winner-take-all ideology that fuels the nucleus of his character and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a hyper-intelligent, ambitious U.S. Attorney who initially targets Axelrod’s potentially criminal malfeasance to buoy his own career.

Lewis plays Axelrod as a ruthless but magnetic genius unfettered by contemporary morality and unrestrained by social norms. Instead of wearing a suit, he dons casual attire and moves with a lithe, predatory gait, as if eternally unsatisfied and in a perpetual state of predatory hunger; a classic by-the-bootstraps self-made man whose rise from humble beginnings has given him a sizeable chip on his shoulder. By contrast, Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades is a child of privilege; a doughy public servant who lacks the boyish good looks and rock star swagger of Axelrod but compensates with a pronounced intellect and acerbic wit that makes him just as captivating.

Complicating matters further is Chuck’s wife Wendy – played by Maggie Siff – a brilliant psychologist who works exclusively for Axe Capital, having helped Bobby Axelrod build the company by providing guidance and emotional nourishment to a building filled mostly with egocentric man-children. This overlap causes immediate tension as Wendy is as smart and cunning as the two most important men in her life and is consistently forced to navigate the tumultuous space between them on a regular basis. At one point in the series she concisely refuses to be a ‘shuttlecock’ batted around by the two warring men and has the intellect and the insight to check their egos at any given time.

Beyond these central characters is a smattering of supporting players, some of whom have grown to becoming integral to the ongoing quality of the show. At the top of this list is Taylor Mason, a fascinating and razor-sharp minded individual who quickly rises to the top of Bobby’s employee pool and proves to be somebody as smart (or perhaps even smarter) than Axelrod himself. Played by the talented non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillion (John Wick 3), Taylor Mason is a mathematical prodigy who sees  every problem through the lens of cool logic and analytics, breaking down even the most potentially emotional complications with an detached yet humane manner that makes for a  profoundly compelling foil to Bobby’s more maverick, devil-may-care style of investing.

What truly differentiates Billions from even some of the best television out there however is the writing, which is smart, tightly woven, and forges very real and nuanced characters who are in an unending state of flux as they forge alliances, break bonds, and navigate a complex, labyrinthine web of intersecting wealth, power, and politics. Instead of heroes or pristine, virtuous protagonists, Billions gives us people who occupy that grey area of humanity; philanthropists who are charitable in public but merciless in private; politicians who preach fortitude and morality even while breaking the law to gain additional purchase. And yet even at their worst, the complexities of these fully formed individuals insulate them from becoming caricatures or two-dimensional soap opera players. As you watch the show you’ll invariably choose sides; perhaps you’ll root for Axelrod because his screw-you approach to finance – which places him at odds with its more traditional gatekeepers – is infectious and his 3D chess is mesmerizing to behold as he manipulates, cajoles and invariably cheats his way through a notoriously cutthroat business. Or maybe you’ll find yourself sympathizing with Rhoades as he tries to bring the enormous ego and unremittent greed that fuels Axe Capital to heel while keeping his loving but complicated marriage from imploding.

Even more impressive is how unpredictable the show has been over the course of four seasons. Alliances shatter, intimate relationships are betrayed, and characters often shift abruptly for motivations ranging from decency to self-preservation. And yet, as jarring as some of these seismic shifts are, they are never cheap or unearned dramatic flourished but rather the result of a carefully scripted narrative that allows us to understand (and often sympathize) why these decisions are made by these flawed but so very compelling individuals.

Billions will never be a zeitgeist-type TV show as it lacks the bombast and melodrama that seems to fuel so much of our entertainment these days yet, for those looking for slow-burn drama buoyed by some of the best-written characters around, this show is required viewing and is arguably the best drama series currently on TV, rivaling even AMC’s Better Call Saul. (Which just finished another brilliant season)

Billions airs on Showtime on Sundays evenings and is available through Showtime on Demand.


Re-Enter the Dragon


Criterion’s Upcoming Bruce Lee Collection is an Exciting And Definitive Release

Criterion recently announced a definitive box set of all five films by legendary martial artist Bruce Lee. Scheduled to be released on July 14th, the box set will include not only Criterion’s trademark excellent quality transfers but will also contain a robust smattering of supplementals. To my knowledge, this is the first time all of Lee’s films have been bundled together in a singular package and this news is doubly impressive given the pedigree of the Criterion label.

The specs and content of the seven-disc set are as follows:

  • 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Game of Death, and The Way of the Dragon, with uncompressed original monaural soundtracks
  • New 2K digital restoration of the rarely-seen 99-minute 1973 theatrical version of Enter the Dragon, with uncompressed original monaural soundtrack
  • 2K digital restoration of the 102-minute “special-edition” version of Enter the Dragon
  • Alternate audio soundtracks for the films, including original English-dubbed tracks and a 5.1 surround soundtrack for the special-edition version of Enter the Dragon
  • Six audio commentaries: on The Big Boss by Bruce Lee expert Brandon Bentley; on The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Game of Death, and The Way of the Dragon by Hong Kong–film expert Mike Leeder; and on the special-edition version of Enter the Dragon by producer Paul Heller
  • High-definition presentation of Game of Death II, the 1981 sequel to Game of Death
  • Game of Death Redux, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage, produced by Alan Canvan
  • New interviews on all five films with Lee biographer Matthew Polly
  • New interview with producer Andre Morgan about Golden Harvest, the company behind Hong Kong’s top martial-arts stars, including Lee
  • New program about English-language dubbing with voice performers Michael Kaye (the English-speaking voice of Lee’s Chen Zhen in Fist of Fury) and Vaughan Savidge
  • New interview with author Grady Hendrix about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre that followed Lee’s death, and a selection of Bruceploitation trailers
  • Blood and Steel, a 2004 documentary about the making of Enter the Dragon
  • Multiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, including Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998)
  • Interviews with Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widow, and many of Lee’s collaborators and admirers, including actors Jon T. Benn, Riki Hashimoto, Nora Miao, Robert Wall, Yuen Wah, and Simon Yam and directors Clarence Fok, Sammo Hung, and Wong Jing
  • Promotional materials
  • New English subtitle translations and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Jeff Chan

Pro-Tip – Barnes and Nobles typically does a 50% off Criterion sale in July so the timing for this one is looking perfect. 

A Return

Sorry about that lengthy delay…

But I’m back now. And I’m looking forward to talking about all the cool and wonderful stuff out there in quarantine land.

Check back soon as content is forthcoming.

Stay safe and stay healthy. 🙂

Hellraiser: Judgment Review

Gary Tunnicliffe’s sequel is a flawed but earnest and important addition to the franchise.

Pinhead 2

As an enthusiast of horror, there is no franchise that I love more than Hellraiser. The original film, based on Clive Barker’s sharply written novella The Hellbound Heart, was an interesting and bold fusion of hedonism and gore tinged with the author’s signature flare for evocatively surrealistic imagery. Barker wrote and directed the adaptation of his novella and in the process, gave birth to Pinhead, one of the most iconic horror screen villains of the twentieth century

Flanked by the Cenobites, an entourage of equally scarred and devout acolytes, Pinhead was an atypical horror villain in comparison to his pop culture counterparts of the era. Neither a silent killer who slaughtered indiscriminately like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers nor a cackling trickster espousing quips and puns like Freddy Kruger, Pinhead was a stoic, deliberate presence. Authoritative and regal, he commanded immediate respect and his visage suggested nary a shred of hypocrisy.

His bald head adorned with nails driven directly into his skull, one understood on appearance alone that whatever he was going to do to you he had likely already done to himself. As much a theologian as a monster, Pinhead and his minions were devoted to the purest explorations of experience and sensation and clearly believed in the inviolability of their endeavors.


Barker laid a cerebral and potentially complex foundation when creating the Cenobites, crafting a more nuanced doctrine of hell and its demons. And although some of this was explored in the sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the character and franchise unfortunately devolved into a simplistic commodity. Rather than being expounded upon in any meaningful way, the series was merely exploited for profit. Both Hellraiser III and Bloodline were entertaining films but they were also the product of studio interference and an attempt to commoditize and mainstream something that was, inherently, niche. After Bloodline, the franchise was regulated to direct-to-video offerings, the quality ranging from mediocre to downright abysmal. The only saving grace of these b-tier flicks was the magnetic and compelling work of Doug Bradley, whose ability to deliver poignancy and elevate the pabulum surrounding him made the drudgery of these films palatable.

The series’ low-point was 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, an ashcan film that was only made because Dimension studios was contractually obligated to generate a movie or lose the film rights to the franchise. Knowing the film would be unconscionably poor, Doug Bradley opted out of playing Pinhead and the film was shot quickly and cheaply. The final product was to be screened only once for staff and crew. Unfortunately, the executives at Dimension allowed their more mercenary instincts to override common sense and made the unwise decision to release the film on streaming services and home video.

Needless to say, the few critics who bothered to review Revelations tore the film asunder in a manner that would have made the Hell Priest blush.

In the years since, the persistent rumors of a possible remake or reboot of the franchise have come and gone. Clive Barker, who penned his own farewell to the character of Pinhead in his 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels, reportedly wrote a script for the remake that was – to the dismay of the fanbase –  rejected by Dimension.

The reason I’m prefacing this review with a brief historical survey of the franchise is to demonstrate that those of us who are passionate about Hellraiser have suffered innumerable indignities regarding our beloved series. This is true even as other horror mainstays have enjoyed revivals to varying degrees of success. And even if you believe that the Nightmare on Elm Street remake was a soulless cash-grab or that Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot was an affront to Carpenter’s classic, these films are practically high art next to the bulk of Hellraiser’s direct-to-video bargain bin tripe.

With all of this in mind, I approached Gary Tunnicliffe’s Hellraiser: Judgment with a certain degree of trepidation. Reports about his film seemed promising despite the lack of money fueling it.

Tunnicliffe’s bona fides with regards to the Hellraiser property are interesting. He wrote the original script for Revelations yet insisted it was butchered by Dimension. He also produced an unofficial Hellraiser short entitled No More Souls which posited a dour and listless Pinhead occupying a post-apocalyptic world where all of humanity has perished from nuclear war. With no more humans left to slake the sadistic thirst of his minions, Pinhead has no other choice but to offer himself as a final sacrament. Competent and creative, the short was one of the best fan films I’ve ever come across.

no more

Given the quality of No More Souls, I had hopes that Tunnicliffe might bring something unique to a franchise that has essentially been strip-mined and largely disregarded.

As it turns out, I was correct.

Now to be perfectly clear, Hellraiser: Judgment is an incredibly flawed film. And to be fair, many of these failings are due directly to the threadbare budget of the movie. The cost-cuts bleed through in various places and expose seams which are jarring and, at times, unintentionally funny. But beyond this admittedly rough exterior, Tunnicliffe has delivered a Hellraiser experience that is not only very much faithful to the original spirit of Barker’s work but manages to add some of its own interesting mythology to the equation.

The film opens with Pinhead (Paul T. Taylor) and The Auditor, (played by Tunnicliffe himself) discussing their difficulty in luring new victims. Technology has outmoded the likes of the Lament Configuration and they seek new ways to bait their human prey. From here we are made privy to an induction of sorts as a sadistic murderer finds himself strapped to a chair while the Auditor – a bald, sunglass-bespectacled monstrosity whose face and head are covered with deep, crimson lacerations – efficiently catalogues his transgressions on an ancient typewriter. We are then given access to the very ordered yet bizarre process by which these crimes are tallied, processed, aggregated and ultimately ruled upon by an esoteric cast of grotesqueries. This procedure, while not for the squeamish, is a fascinating combination of bureaucracy and pagan ritualism culminating in a grisly scene that pays tacit homage to the original film.

Pinhead and Autitor

After this admittedly compelling opening, things slow considerably. The low production values and clunky script, centered around a biblically-inspired killer who derives homicidal inspiration from the Ten Commandments, threatens to derail the film entirely. This element is tired and derivative and Tunnicliffe lacks the budgetary resources to bring any real credence or viability to the storyline. Instead of being filled with forensics investigators and busy police officers, a crime scene contains only the principle actors. A police precinct office interior looks like a rented trailer and is notably incongruous with an exterior establishing shot. Compounding these logistical problems are some very wonky dialogue choices and hackneyed thriller tropes.

As much as I respect the director’s ambition, I can’t help but think that winnowing down the scope of this film would have been a wise decision given the meager funds available. In some ways, Hellraiser: Judgment feels like two distinctive films, one of which is boring, languid and difficult to watch.

The other film, taking up less screen time, is gruesomely enjoyable. This better part of Judgment is a deft exploration of an ethereal realm and its intrigues the likes of which hasn’t been glimpsed in the franchise since Hellraiser II. While Tunnicliffe’s rendition of the hellish afterlife is markedly different in many ways, his creative decisions still feel very much in proportion with both Barker’s cinematic and written work. Unlike the clunky, cliché-ridden detective story wraparound, the sequences in hell (or it’s earthy proxy as it appears in the movie) are fresh, interesting and populated with startling imagery and compelling characters.

Paul T. Taylor as Pinhead proves himself to be a solid replacement for Bradley. While the latter will always be known for the role and rightly credited for nurturing the character’s growth into something truly special, Taylor cuts his own swath as the Hell Priest and possesses both the acting chops and the onscreen presence to make the role his own.


Perhaps the biggest surprise however is Tunnicliffe’s work as the Auditor. The director plays him as a bookish, nervous being, one whose officious demeanor sits atop a darker, nastier layer of potential violence. Looking like a cross between a Cenobite and one of their victims, the Auditor speaks with a slight and hesitant European accent. It makes him both menacing and vaguely endearing, especially when contrasted with the stoicism of his demonic colleague. What could easily have been a throwaway addition is instead a character I would very much enjoy seeing integrated into future installations of the franchise.

Tunnicliffe, once he draws back the uninspired veil of the serial killer plotline and gives us access to the supernatural underpinnings of the film, delivers these macabre images and scenarios with gusto and a steady hand. For all of the budgetary restrictions foisted onto this production, little of those shortcomings are evident in the exceptional makeup and costume design. The dialogue likewise is mostly on point. While a few stilted lines of fanservice stick out from time to time, the overall flow of these scenes carry both pathos and a familiarity rooted in the aesthetics and tone of first two films.

Tunnicliffe even manages to extrapolate on Barker’s work, including elements and ideas not seen in previous installments but alluded to in The Hellbound Heart and The Scarlet Gospels. Unlike previous sequels where the mythology was clumsily attached to a mediocre plotline, Hellraiser: Judgment feels like a genuine entry in the series. It offers something new even to the most devout and longtime fans. There is an indelible pulse at the heart of Tunnicliffe’s work here; a passion that is evident even when obscured by the shoestring budget or the questionable structural and narrative choices.

Some may be quick to dismiss this film as another cheap cash-in or ashcan movie. But the more I reflect on Hellraiser: Judgment, the more I’m convinced that the movie, despite its problems, possesses some of the greatest highs of the franchise since Hellraiser II. When looking at the film with an eye for what could be improved, it is evident that the majority of the problems are largely financial. All things considered, I’m impressed that Tunnicliffe was able to squeeze out as much blood from this particular turnip as he did.

If the execs over at Dimension have even the slightest respect for the franchise, they’d hand Tunnicliffe a halfway-modest production budget and allow him to make a film without such ridiculously anemic financial restraints. Regardless, Hellraiser: Judgement, despite its flaws, is the best thing to happen to this franchise in a very long time. With any luck, somebody with decision-making clout is watching carefully.

Hellraiser: Judgment is out today on Blu-ray, DVD, and Video on Demand.

Box Art