Sunday, August 25, 2019

Idiot Boxing, FX Edition: Legion, season 3 (2019); Archer, season 10 (2019)

No Spoilers for either show. Read away!!

Two great shows, one which seems to be nearing its long run, and the other coming to the pre-determined end of its short but amazing run.

The season poster gives you some idea of just how trippy this
show, and particularly this season, can be. 
Legion, season 3 (2019)

One of the most amazing TV shows I've seen in years, and easily the very best show or movie inspired by comic book "superhero" characters.

At this point, virtually every human on earth is aware of Marvel Studio's total domination of the box office, via the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and, until recently, the X-Men series. Even smaller properties like Deadpool have raked in cash. When it's come to their TV shows, however, there hasn't been nearly as much success. The handful of shows on Netflix, such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, have been mixed bags. They've also focused a few shows on even lesser-known characters, such as Cloak and Dagger and Runaways. But no greater leap was taken than when they greenlit a show about a somewhat obscure character from the X-Men comic books of the 1980s and '90s: David Haller. David, also known as "Legion," was the son of immensely powerful telepath Charles "Professor X" Xavier. David was also an incredibly powerful telepath, as well as being a telekinetic of such strength that he could essentially alter nearly all of reality. The terrifying part of all of this is that, in addition to his awesome powers, David was also wildly schizophrenic.

David Haller is hardly the type of character around whom Marvel Studios had built commercial success, so it seemed like an odd longshot to be any sort of winning show. But when the show was given to Noah Hawley and the FX network, magic happened. Hawley, who had won over my massive skepticism with the dazzling work on the TV show Fargo, has done something with Legion that will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for other "comic book" shows to equal or top. He has utilized so many aspects of the audio-visual medium of television and crafted a dazzling, poetic, and often beautifully artistic story that is as touching as it is fantastic.

Amahl "The Shadow King" Farouk returns, though whether
he is an ally or arch-enemy to humanity remains unclear
right up until the final moments of the entire series.
With this third and final season of Legion, we get the completion of the bold and emotionally powerful tale of David, as imagined by Hawley. Through the first two seasons, we see David learn of his immense powers, as well as the fact that he has been harboring the psychic manifestation of Amal Farhouk, an entity known as "The Shadow King" - another mutant with abilities on par with David's. We have also seen Farhouk's "exorcism" from David, and their race for Farhouk's long-buried body. This final season follows David's erratic and reality-bending attempts to undo the damage which he and Farhouk's battles have caused, all while Farhouk constantly turns the tables and plays multiple sides against each other to aims uncertain to everyone, including us viewers. The primary addition to this season was that of the character Switch - a time traveler whom David recruits to help him in his quest to right past wrongs. As you can imagine, this begins to further complicate matters, and it all comes to a complex resolution.

This being a spoiler-free review, I will not get into any details. It would be a great disservice to this show to give anything away, as I felt that one of the great joys of it was waiting to see how its many enigmas and knots revealed and untangled themselves. And make no mistake - this show demands patience and close attention; probably more than nearly any prime-time show out there, and definitely far more than any comic book show has every dared. Certain images appear and actions take place which will leave one baffled; that is, until one, two, or several episodes later when the connections are made clear. And there are more than a few visual and cinematic flights of fancy that are part of the proceedings. These include vibrant, psychedelic dream sequences and even a couple of song-and-dance numbers. I'm normally not one for the latter, but my musical sensibilities seem to align with Noah Hawley well enough, so I was happy to drink in these sequences.

Like previous seasons, this one shows dazzling creativity in terms of narrative structure and horror concepts. Without giving anything away, I can simply say that the Time Eaters are some of the most visually creative, terrifying things I've seen on a TV show in ages. And while using time travel is a tired sci-fi plot device in nearly every case at this point, Legion actually does more than a few wonderfully novel things with it. Things that actually make artistic use of the audio-visual medium of television in ways that I've never seen before.

But the thing that put the show completely over the top for me - the thing that had me getting choked up multiple times during the final episode - is the resolution and how daring it was. Again, no spoilers here, but I cannot think of any comic book-inspired film or TV show, or many TV dramas for that matter, which have shown the guts and heart that Legion did in its finale. Far too many shows take the easy route of offering resolutions that don't challenge us viewers with something different and thought-provoking. Legion does just that, and it is an infinitely greater show for it.

And so ends what may go down as the very best comic book show in history. If any show or movie manages to top it, I only hope that I'm around to see it.

Archer, season 10 (2019)

Another amusing "fantasy" season of Archer, though one that I'm happy to say seems to be the last in the "Archer Coma Dream" arc of seasons.

At the end of season 7, Archer was sent into a coma, thus kicking off a series of seasons which take place completely inside Sterling Archer's coma-imprisoned brain. Season 8 saw all of the characters placed in a world of film and literature noir of the 1940s and '50s, and season 9 took its setting and plot elements from the exotic action/adventure tales popular in the 1920s and '30s. In this season, the gang is sent into a completely different genre - that of science-fiction. Dubbed "Archer 1999," it uses many of the elements seen in popular sci-fi action movies, most obviously Alien, but also including tons from other well-known and lesser-well-known sci-fi TV shows and films such as Battlestar Galactica, The Herculoids, Forbidden Planet, and tons of others. A bit more in keeping with the earlier, "real" seasons, this season doesn't have a single plot thread that runs through all episodes, being rather a collection of self-contained episodes.

This season was pretty fun. Moreso, I found, than the previous "Danger Island" or "Dreamland" seasons. Those was were amusing, to be sure, but I found 1999 to be a bit more consistently funny and even more creative from episode to episode. These "coma" seasons have always had fun in taking regular cast members and thrusting them into new roles of varying zaniness, but 1999 probably had the most entertaining and spot-on re-imaginings of everyone, whether it was Ray Gillette taking on the "courtesan" role as inspired by Firefly or the mad scientist Krieger as an android obviously inspired by Ian Holmes's deranged synthetic in Alien, the writers set themselves up to have a blast.

Mr. Deadly - the title character from my favorite episode. With
a combination of great comedy writing and hilarious voice
acting by Matt Berry, this was one of the best
Archer episodes
I had seen in several seasons.
The individual stories, while rarely living up to the best episodes of the first several seasons of the show, are solid. My particular favorite was episode 5, "Mr. Deadly Goes to Town," in which the crew discover a robot which is actually a walking, talking doomsday device voiced brilliantly by Matt Berry, whom I know and love from the What We Do in the Shadows TV series. This was the standout episode for me, but nearly all of the others gave me some good laughs, even if some of the standard gags in the Archer series have long since been a tad played out.

The show has been renewed for an 11th season, beginning this September, which I'm glad to see. But not as glad as knowing that it is finally, after over three years, returning to the "reality" of having Sterling and his cohorts back in the real world, being humans and presumably getting back to their cartoonish approach to being some sort of spy organization. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Idiot Boxing, HBO Finales Edition: Game of Thrones, season 8 (2019); Veep, season 8 (2019); Crashing, season 3 (2019)

The dour faces depicted here match what many viewers felt
about this final season of the titanically popular series.
Game of Thrones, season 8

Spoilers Coming (which frankly, you deserve if you haven't caught up and watched the show by now)

Well, that was a bit of a letdown.

Not that we couldn't see it coming, but the final season of the insanely popular fantasy TV show maintained the high-gloss, rather puzzling mediocrity that had been set up during the previous season.

The end of season 7 of the show saw Daenerys joining her forces with Jon Snow and several northern factions, including wildlings from beyond The Wall and other assorted motley bands. These uneasy and unlikely alliances gather at Winterfell to try and fend off the Night King and his ever-growing army of White Walkers, including a zombie ice dragon. Meanwhile, Cersei is down south in King's Landing. Though she had promised to send soldiers to the north to assist the presumptive Targaryen queen, it is all a sham, as Cersei plans to wait for the Night King's forces to, if not defeat, then at least weaken the northern forces before they attempt to wrest the Iron Throne from the domineering Queen Lannister.

Season 8, further winnowing down the established 10-episode pattern of the first 6 seasons, restricted itself to 6 episodes, the last four of which clocked in at nearly 90 minutes each. Despite having about the same running length as most previous seasons, this final season featured the sloppiest, choppiest hacking and slashing away of nearly every subtle, nuanced plot and character point built up during the show's first five or six seasons. There was evidence of this in the penultimate season, but it is often painfully obvious in this one. I needn't go through them all, as more dedicated and sensitive GoT geeks have done all of that legwork for me and unleashed their ire upon every social media outlet known to man. For my part, I agree with much of the frustration felt, though I hardly take it as personally as many seem to have. I'll stick to just a few major points.

One of a few cringe-worthy moments of romantic cheese in
this season. In hindsight, it may have been a clumsy attempt
to throw viewers off the scent of where the story was going.
Firstly, the idea of Daenerys "breaking bad" was very poorly executed. I don't think it's a terrible idea to run with the notion of "power corrupting," and even throw the audience a curve-ball by having a beloved character get warped into a dark version of themselves. But Daenerys's turn into a murderous, egomaniacal tyrant is barely organic in any way. Like so many things about this season, it felt as if the writers started with a contrived concept, and then worked backwards to shoehorn a "they'll never see this coming" notion into an incredibly undersized time allotment. I think Daenerys's arc could have worked, if it had been set up and alluded to more delicately along the way. As it is, it felt like it was tacked onto the end for shock value more than anything that served genuine character development.

Then there's Bran ending up on the Iron Throne. Again, this perhaps could have been an intriguing and satisfying story element had Bran done anything more than sit around in a wheelchair, staring blankly into space for 99% of the last two seasons. While his powers are intriguing, they were never explored or much explained, and Tyrion's grand speech about Bran "having the greatest story of them all" is baldly insulting. For me, this was yet another idea that seemed to be included for the sole purpose of keeping us viewers off balance. Having surprises in a story is great, but they have to feel logical within the story. Bran ending up on the throne felt far from that. You want a great story, Tyrion? How about your wife Sansa, who matured and survived the machinations of several of the most devious and evil bastards in all of Westeros? Or how about Jon Snow, the guy who was literally brought back from the dead and saved everyone from the savior-turned-psycho Danaerys? That's a pretty good story, eh? But no, let's wheel out the catatonic weirdo that barely anyone knows and have him rule the joint. Makes sense.

There were moments and elements of this eighth season that I did enjoy. The quieter second episode had some strong moments of interpersonal dialogue in it, and some of the battle scenes and fights were quite memorable. On the whole, though, I have to say that this was easily the weakest season of the entire series. Now granted, for a show that set such an incredibly high bar, this was almost inevitable. But the dropoff was more precipitous than I had expected.

The good news for people like me, who had been avidly reading the source books for many years before the show existed, is that there are still two more novels to come (if the George R.R. Martin eventually gets around to them). And I feel confident that they will be far more satisfying in their conclusions than the show was. Perhaps the saddest thing about the HBO adaptation is that, despite how incredibly strong the first five seasons are, I doubt that I'll ever bother re-watching the series due to the knowledge that it all ends with a bit of a "thud."

Selena Meyer, along with a few of her brutally incompetent
staff. In the finale season, Selena tries one more shot at
winning the presidency.
Veep, season 7 (final season)

In a fortunate contrast to the far more famous Game of Thrones, the scathing HBO comedy series Veep went out on a hilarious high note.
After what I found to be relatively more mean-spirited and narratively scattershot 6th and 7th seasons, the final season of the political parody show found that great groove that it had in its stronger earlier seasons. Despite every sign in the world telling Selena Myer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) not to make yet another run at the presidency, her unfailing ego and narcissism saw her once again ignore any sense of reality or what might be best for the country as she kicks off her campaign at the beginning of Season 8.
This season made full use of the political realities at work in the United States over the last several years, featuring thinly-veiled references to Russian interference in elections, the frighteningly broad appeal of ignorant bigots like the current Commander in Chief, and the crippling identity politics of the far left. Many characters who had previously been smaller players become concentrated versions of figures who we know all too well in reality. The moronic Jonah Ryan actually finds a support base for his platform of toxic idiocy. The oblivious Jordan Spleth finds himself backing up the political ladder through a series of gaffs and accidents on the parts of leaders above him. And plenty of others with no business making public policy are whipped around by the vortex of their own reckless ambitions within the maelstrom of U.S. politics. I’ll have to go back and watch the earlier seasons again, but my initial reaction was that this last season may have been the show’s best, which is really saying something.
The humor was fully back on point here, too. As stated, I found some of the humor in the previous two seasons a bit dark and disturbing to be terribly funny. While season eight certainly keeps things cynical, I felt that it rediscovered the right balance in order to keep things humorous rather than downright upsetting. In this final season, the political and social commentary and the vicious insults come as fast, furious, and hilarious as any of the best seasons earlier in the show's run.

I'm not sure what can be said about the cast that one wouldn't have already seen in any of the previous seven seasons. Nearly a decade ago, virtually the entire cast came into this series as well-seasoned comedy acting pros, so it was no surprise that they finished the run just as strongly as they all started. One could spend multiple paragraphs breaking down the hilarity behind the various characters and the actors' portrayal of them, but I'll reserve it for the star Julia Louis Dreyfus, who is arguably on the Mount Rushmore of modern era TV comedy. Just between her turn as Elaine on Seinfeld and Selina Meyer on Veep, she's a living legend in the field, never mind some of her great turns on lesser-known shows and movies. It was great to see her end such a great series on top.

There is no doubt that before long, my wife and I will go back and do a steady rewatch of this show over several weeks or a couple of months. From the very first moments we began watching years ago, we knew that we were missing certain moments because we were laughing so hard and the jokes were coming so fast. That's a mark of great comedy, and I'm already looking forward to the time when we work out way through the over-the-top madness of this show again.

Crashing, season 3 (2019)
Pete's new girlfriend, Kat. Pete may be getting his professional
comedy feet under him, but his relationships can still be messy.

Unlike the previous two HBO shows reviewed, this season was not expected to be the show's final one, with it being officially cancelled shortly before the end of this third season. This is unfortunate, as both my wife and I highly enjoyed all three seasons of this stand-up comedy-focused series.

This third season sees Pete Holmes continue to make a more serious living out of stand-up comedy. At the start of the season, he has wrapped up the lucrative-but-limiting college comedy tour that he netted at the end of the previous season. Through this season, he keeps trying to find a bigger break at more noted comedy clubs. This doesn't immediately go very well, but Pete finds romance with a strong, free-spirited woman, Kat (Madeline Wise). Pete has some successes and failures, both professionally and personally, and by season's end, he does find himself in a better place than at season's start. He's certainly not "big time" yet, but he is a solid, professional stand-up.

Once again, the show was hilarious from start to finish. From the jump, Crashing had the built-in humor of having an aspiring comedian interacting with well-known, well-established, extremely funny stand-up comedians. This season is no different, although at this point, the show relied less on famous guests and allowed Pete and a few other, lesser-known characters take more center stage. We also continue to get a bit more insight into the world of stand-up comedy, where success or failure can sometimes be infuriatingly out of one's control, even if a person is genuinely funny. I also found the fourth episode engaging, as it focused on the changing perception of offensive, Andrew Dice Clay-type "shock comics" who were big in the 1990s but who have lost nearly all favor in the wake of social movement such as #MeToo.

Although the creators of the show were planning on further seasons and HBO's cancellation was a surprise for them, this season did actually have some sense of closure to it. For a show whose plug was unexpectedly pulled, this is about all one could ask for. I'll be grateful to Pete Holmes and everyone involved for putting together such a fun show and introducing my wife and I to several comics whom we hadn't heard of before but whom we are now fans of. I still highly recommend this show to anyone who digs stand-up comedy. In a very manageable twenty-seven episodes at about 30 minutes each, it's easy to dive into the whole series and get plenty of great laughs.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Idiot Boxing, MCU TV shows edition: Cloak & Dagger, season 2 (2019); Jessica Jones, season 3 (2019) Agents of SHIELD, season 6 (2019)

Cloak & Dagger, season 2

I’m growing more wary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s TV shows, and season two of Cloak & Dagger illustrates most of the reasons why.
The first season of Cloak & Dagger introduced two fairly compelling characters, in a novel setting for the MCU, and threw them into a story with more than a little potential. Tandy Bowen (“Dagger”) and Tyrone Johnson (“Cloak”) had been granted bizarre, connected powers after a freak accident which took the lives of both Tandy’s father and Tyrone’s older brother. By that initial season’s end, they had discovered each other and the basic natures of their powers, although there were still plenty of questions to be answered.
Season two sees Tyrone hiding from the law after being framed for murder in season one, with Tandy helping him while also trying to help her mother and others recover from abuses of various kinds, including self-inflicted. While these two deal with their issues, frightening character Andre Deschaine emerges. Deschaine is a formerly-great jazz trumpeter who mysteriously lost his ability to play while trying to tap into a sort of metaphysical “zone” while playing one night. This event also caused Deschaine to start experiencing head-splitting headaches, but it also gave him the ability to seek out and find relief in the pain of others. The sinister part is that in order to find the relief from his own pain, Deschaine must force other people to maintain and sometimes relive their own pain.
I give the show credit for trying different elements and tackling some very uncomfortable subjects, from personal loss to abuse of some very disturbing types. And the very nature of the super powers in the show is more enigmatic than any other MCU film or TV show out there. The abilities to tap into other people’s hopes, fears, and pain lend themselves to more emotional stories, which is a rather bold move for a genre predicated on muscled-up characters usually hitting each other very hard in order to get their points across. By going a different route, Cloak & Dagger walks along its own path in the ever-expanding MCU.
Just one of many "minimalist" sets that would indicate that
the budget of the show is incredibly limited. While it works
at times, eventually it becomes a visual bore.
That said, my enthusiasm in watching the show never rose much above being moderately engaged. Part of this is the rather bland visuals of the show. Like all other MCU shows outside of Agents of SHIELD and Runaways, Cloak & Dagger is often dark, dull, and just plain monotonous in its aesthetic. I don’t need all of my shows to be flashy, but a bit of variety in the color palette and settings would be nice. I chalk this up to what I assume is a rather limited budget, which is somewhat shocking considering how much money the MCU as a whole rakes in these days.
My other issues stem from something not as connected to budget – the writing and pacing. Though the show will have some decent verbal exchanges and deal with some compelling topics, it never feels very crisp or engaging. This is even more obvious when the pace is unnecessarily drawn out over more episodes than the script can fill. Like the more mediocre MCU offerings on Netflix like Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Cloak & Dagger was using at least 25% more air time than the story or characters required. The result of all this is that I often found myself multi-taking on my phone or laptop while the episodes played in the background. This is something I’ve almost never done when watching consistently stronger shows like Daredevil or Agents of SHIELD.
To this point, I’ve been a rabid MCU completionist. I’ve made a point of watching every MCU film and TV show. I even forced myself to sit through the entire, insufferably poor Inhumans series, if that gives you an idea of my dedication. But I think I’m at a crossroads. Now that we’ve had more than a few middle-of-the road MCU TV shows released, and with more and more new shows in the works, I may have to give up the ghost and start getting more selective. If I do, Cloak & Dagger may end up on the scrap heap of my watch list. It’s not a bad TV show; but these days, there’s simply too much excellent television out there and too little time for a person to bother with anything but shows with they feel compelled, rather than obliged, to watch.

Jessica Jones, season 3 (2019)

And so ends the MCU's partnership with Netflix. It was actually a decent ending, if not one that ended on an especially spectacular note.
Trish and Jessica's relationship becomes even more focal and
strained in this, the final season of not only this series, but the
entire MCU's set of shows on Netflix.

At the end of the second season, we had seen Jessica's recently-discovered mother killed by Jessica's adopted sister Trish. It was a twisted tale, as Jessica's mother was super-powered but also murderously unhinged, all leaving a severe wedge between the two sisters.

This final season sees Jessica and Trish alternately working with and against each other, now that Trish has discovered that, thanks to subjecting herself to an experiment, she has supernatural speed and agility. She begins to use these powers to enact vigilante justice in the area - something that Jessica sees as a horrible mistake. These become secondary considerations, however, when they both become the target of an unusually intelligent serial killer who has a special sort of hatred for super-powered individuals, seeing them as "cheaters" who have circumvented the hard work of normal humans.

This season was decent enough. I actually found it stronger than season two, which was a bit more meandering. Season three brought back a bit more of the noir detective elements and the creepy tension seen in the first season, when Jones squared off against Kilgrave. This season also has some fairly creative twists in plot and character development, most notably with how Trish evolves (or devolves, one could argue).
This season's nemesis, Sallinger. He carries through the self-
important, homicidal psychopath role well enough, even if his
overall logic doesn't completely hold up to close scrutiny.

But still, the show follows in the footsteps of many of its MCU Netflix brethren in feeling under-funded, a bit dull at times, and lacking in any really game-changing elements. Even before this season, I had long grown tired of Jeri Hogarth and her "self-absorbed, controlling" lawyer routine. I felt that way too much of this season's time was spent on her and her selfish, utterly predictable machinations. Sure, they did tie into the main plot, but I think that this was more contrived and forced than because the plot actually demanded it. The character has never really changed from the moment they introduced her years ago, aside from her getting a crippling disease, and predictable characters are just boring. Neighbor Malcolm's story is a bit more interesting, as he does go through some actual development, but it's only so engaging.

The villain, Sallinger, certainly feels menacing and despicable enough, thanks to a strong performance by Jeremy Bobb. But I don't know that his entire "your powers make you a cheater" motivation completely stands up, especially for such an intelligent character. Still, there is a certain cat-and-mouse game reminiscent of the early seasons of Dexter that keeps things compelling. It helps that the show doesn't pull any punches when it comes to getting pitch dark in terms of tone, and having some unexpected consequences for a couple of regular characters.

This finale of Jessica Jones and the MCU's foray on Netflix wasn't as grand as one would hope. Among all of the seasons of all of the shows, it is certainly among the better half. But it didn't leave me feeling as if I'm going to be missing much. Perhaps the characters will be picked up and get another chance on Hulu or some other streaming service. If so, I hope they make some positive tweaks to a set of shows that often had several strong elements but very rarely pulled everything together to make the best shows that they could.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 6 (2019)

Another fun season from the very first, and easily most consistent, MCU TV show out there.

This season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AoS) picks up with Daisy "Quake" Johnson and a small unit searching space for Fitz, who was left adrift at the end of the previous season. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Mack and the rest of the team face down a mysterious group who materialize from out of nowhere and begin tracking down and killing humans, seemingly at random. The real kicker is that their leader, a man who goes only by "Sarge," looks exactly like the now-deceased Phil Coulson.
The crew is back, with many of them still traipsing through
deep space, still picking up the pieces of last season. 

As always, AoS remains a heavily plot-driven show, and season 6 is no different. It keeps viewers off-balance with some fun narrative curve-balls, and this season in particular does a great job of tying plot elements together, not just within this season but even going back to some of the show's earliest seasons. For fans like me, who prize continuity as the glue that holds a fantasy universe together, I've always appreciated AoS's efforts in this department. And the story itself is another rollicking adventure, with a few solid cliff-hangers and revelations. My one gripe is that the show flirted just a tad too closely to reusing its favorite overall plot device - the "enemy among us" trope, whereby the team discovers that one of its members is actually an impostor or a traitor of some sort. It was done a tad differently this season, and only in a couple of the final few episodes, but it smacked just a bit of being a worn-out idea. On the plus side, this season was a shortened 13 episodes, which suits it well. While it had done a good job in seasons two through five of using the full 22-episode format, it's nice to get a tighter, leaner viewing schedule, which keeps things moving along.

The show has also always been as much about the characters and their relationships as the plot, although I personally don't think that these have always been as strong or as compelling as they could be. Frankly, as much as I've loved the arc of Simmons and Fitz, I was really glad that the "pursue him/her across the galaxy" nerd romance finally reached its end (for now). Ever since Simmons got hurtled across the universe back at the end of season 4, the two were constantly separated by distance, making for the low-hanging fruit of "connected and driven by love" romance angle. With the end of the series coming soon, it was past time that all of that wrapped itself up. Regardless, Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge are still the best actors on the entire show, just as they have been since the beginning. Leave it to the Brits, eh?

As far as the other characters? They were mostly fine. Of the remaining primary team, Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May is the strongest and most interesting of the group, and Chloe Bennet has been solid as the ever-stronger Daisy "Quake" Johnson. But frankly, I've never completely bought into the relationship between Mack and Elena "Yo-Yo" Rodriguez. I've always found Mack a relatively boring character (although he's had some of the best lines in the show's history), and I've never sensed any real chemistry between the two characters. Like the previous season, I was actually excited for a moment towards the end, as I thought that something immensely dramatic was going to happen to one or both of them, only to have the show take the safe route once again. There was also Deke, Fitz and Simmons's grandson from the apocalyptic future explored in the previous season. Deke is supposed to be a humorous goof, obviously, but I found him more annoying than any sort of charming. Alas, he seems to be here to stay through the bitter end.
Carry-over from last season, Deke. He's meant mostly as
comic relief, but I actually found the character annoying and
almost completely disposable.

It was announced that this season is to be the show's penultimate, which feels about right. As the MCU films only grow in size and scope, it raises a few too many questions about its smaller shows, especially one in the middle ground like AoS. The team has often dealt with global extinction-level crises, which more and more begs the question, "Why the hell aren't they calling the Avengers in on this? Or at least Scarlet Witch or someone who can lend a friggin' hand?" And if Daisy is powerful enough to annihilate massive swaths of land, perhaps even the entire planet, why isn't she an Avenger herself?

Rumor has it that MCU chief Kevin Feige will be overseeing a shift in how MCU TV shows are dealt with in terms of their connection to the films, which is needed. Regardless of what the moves are going forward, I expect a fun finale next year from a show that paved the way and weathered a few storms.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

New Release! Maiden (2019)

Director: Alex Holmes

An excellent documentary on something which I knew nothing about - the very first all-woman crew to sail in the Whitbread Round the World yachting race between 1989 and 1990.

The film mostly follows Tracy Edwards, an Englishwoman with a rather turbulent childhood who, at age 24, gathered the world's first all-woman crew for one of the most famous and prestigious boat races in the world. It was a race that takes the better part of a full year, taking the competitors along five "legs," each consisting of anywhere from 10 days up to several months at sea. It's a grueling test of a crew's skills, even in the best of circumstances. But Edwards and her entire crew faced an even stiffer uphill battle just to find funding and respect in a sport that, until that time, had been thoroughly dominated by men and completely all-male crews.

The chronicle of Edwards' family background does a great job of creating the profile of the type of person it might take to accomplish such a feat, though it does not unfold quite how you might expect. There were certain elements in her background that clearly explain how she was able to accomplish what she did, but there are also some massive obstacles and personal demons which she had to overcome to even get into a position to start realistically mustering a crew and a ship for the race. There's plenty of great historical footage of the planning, preparations, and the race itself, but having Tracy Edwards offering her current recollections and reflections on herself and the entire venture is priceless.

Another wonderful thing about the documentary is that nearly every woman who was part of the crew offers current commentary on the entire experience, so you get a great multi-perspective view from everyone. Even better is that the crew was made up of women from various countries: Ireland, England, Wales, the U.S., Germany, and France, and many of them have brilliant personalities that come through in their interviews. While a fair bit of the humor is of a rather dry, British variety, it certainly elicits more than a few solid chuckles and laughs along the way.

Maiden also obliges with plenty of great original footage taken during the preparations and the actual race itself. This coveys some sense of just how arduous the circumnavigation really is, and allows us to see most of those involved, as the story unfolds. The perils of the journey are far more palpable when you're seeing the crew have to forge their way through polar storms and between treacherous icebergs. Ultimately, I was actually left wanting to know more about some of the seafaring aspects of the race, as it is something that I know almost nothing about, but this may have detracted from the primary story of Edwards's and her crew's struggle against the seas and, at times, their own psyches.

Check this one out, if you're at all interested in good documentaries. My wife went in with only a passing interest, but came out fairly amazed at the story and the women involved. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

New Release: Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood (2019)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino's purest love letter to 1960s B-list action leading men and the stuntmen who helped make them, Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood is an expertly-crafted - if hardly urgent - piece of cinema.

Taking place over the course of several month during the first half of a semi-fictional 1969 Los Angeles. It follows fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his closest friend and stuntman fill-in Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is a former leading action star of B-level (or A-minus at best) movies, but his star has faded to the point that he is now playing lesser roles as arch villains in TV shows. Dalton's feelings of inadequacy are brought into even clearer focus when the house next to his is bought by arguably the hottest couple in Hollywood - the very real director Roman Polanski and his young, beautiful wife, actor Sharon Tate. While Dalton's personal story unfolds, a much more sinister situation - also based on real events - is brewing not far outside of L.A., where Charles Manson and his "family" of violent and devoted followers are hatching their plot to send a murderous message to the wealthy and glamorous of the nearby City of Angels.

It's been nearly a week since I watched Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood, and the more I dwell on it, the more I like it. Back when I saw Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, I wrote in my review about how I would love to see if Tarantino could tone himself down enough to do something a little more grounded, such as his underrated Jackie Brown back in 1997. Though this new movie certainly isn't as small-scale or grounded as that earlier picture, this one has far more authentic feeling and far fewer over-the-top, cartoonish elements to it than any movie he's done since then. Rather than the mythically simple and homicidal characters populating movies like The Hateful Eight or, to a lesser extent, Inglorious Basterds, this latest picture focuses on a character who evokes actual empathy and even sympathy, even if it is often done in humorous ways. Rick Dalton may not be the most admirable of people, but there is a genuine vulnerability to him which makes him different from nearly any Tarantino protagonist which I can think of.

The story itself is a rather fun "alternate history" re-imagining of the infamous Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and a family friend who happened to be staying at her and husband Roman Polanski's home while Polanski was away working. I also have to cite NPR film critic Justin Chang for articulating something which I only vaguely realized - that DiCarpio's Nick Dalton character can be seen as a version of Clint Eastwood, had Eastwood never really hit it big in Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name" spaghetti westerns of the mid-1960s. The result is a tale which, though obviously the stuff of pure fantasy in its liberties, is an extremely satisfying combination that probably only Quentin Tarantino could have even imagined combining in a movie.

Very much of the story is a buddy movie between Rick and Cliff,
and the chemistry between the two is endearing.
If you know anything about the cast, you shouldn't be surprised to be told that the acting is outstanding. Though most of the secondary characters play relatively limited roles, they all do them perfectly well. From Margot Robbie's turn as the wide-eyed, charming Sharon Tate to Mike Mo's performance as the iconic Bruce Lee, to all of the actors portraying the vicious little hippies at Charles Manson's eerie compound, everyone enhances the movie. Brad Pitt unsurprisingly nails his turn as straight-talking tough-guy Cliff Booth, even if the role doesn't require much of him beyond a certain easy swagger and smugness. Leonardo DiCaprio, though, has yet again proven to me that he has long gone far, far beyond the pretty boy, teeny-bopper idol whom we all saw back in the 1990s. He may spend a majority of his screen time giving us laughs with his desperation and depression over his fading stardom, but there are several wonderfully captivating sequences where he breaks down in anger or sadness, and DiCaprio completely sells every moment of it. I will all but guarantee that he will receive an Oscar nomination for this role, strong as it is.

There weren't many things that I didn't like about the movie, but a couple come to mind. One is simply that there were a few sequences that felt as if they were drawn out a bit too long. Not terribly so, but noticeably so. In particular, the moments when Cliff Booth shows up at the Manson Family compound, senses something amiss, and expresses his desire to sniff around a bit. There is certainly genuine tension built here, but at a certain point a few of the scenes felt as if they could have been trimmed a bit here or there. There were a few other moments such as this, but they hardly ruin the overall pace and fun of the film.

The only other "issue" I have with the movie is more of an observation that can be leveled at any Tarantino flick, and it is that there is no greater purpose to the film beyond being a love letter to a bygone era as well as a reminder of a brutally dark moment in U.S. history. Tarantino most likely would agree with me, but his films are never about more than watching strong, entertaining characters get mixed up with each other. There's never any greater message, deeper thoughts involved, or even any especially creative cinematic artistry. Tarantino is just exceptionally good at a variety of already-established film techniques, and he knows how to tell a ripping good story about amusing characters. In the sense that he knows how to find phenomenal cinematographers, costume designers, actors, and editors to bring his vibrant stories to life is a testament to how good a director he is, even if he offers very little in the way of intellectual or spiritual stimulation. Alas, it is a movie about movies, and that always plays well with critics and movie-lovers such as me.

I'll most likely go out to see this one again on the big screen, and I may even be able to convince my wife to join me. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

New Release: Sword of Trust (2019)

No Spoilers. Read Freely.

Director: Lynn Shelton

A really fun, though a bit tonally inconsistent, independent film that hits its comedic marks a bit better than its dramatic ones.

The movie follows two pairs of fairly normal folks who meet under highly unusual circumstances in modern day Birmingham, Alabama. Mel (Marc Maron) runs a pawn shop in town, and there is assisted by his conspiracy-theory-minded young clerk Nathaniel (Jon Bass). A couple - Mary and Cynthia (Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell) - come in one day to valuate and perhaps sell an antique Civil War Union Army sword which was left to Cynthia by her recently-deceased grandfather. When Mel does a little research, he discovers that the sword, in addition to seeming genuine, is the type of item highly coveted by Confederate-supporting, Civil War "truthers" who seek any hard evidence for the rather dubious notion that the South had in fact won the Civil War. Cynthia's sword seems to be just such an item, making it exceptionally valuable to this bizarre community. This all sends Mel, Nathaniel, Mary, and Cynthia along a path that puts them in very close contact with some strange, disturbing, and ultimately dangerous individuals who will stop at very little to get their hands on Cynthia's sword.

The movie is, first and foremost, a comedy, and it is very funny. Marc Maron has long been a great stand-up comedian, and has recently been turning in great acting performances, most notably on the Netflix series GLOW. In Sword of Trust, he plays another version of himself, though it is one that allows him to expand his range a bit and have a few dramatic scenes. He pulls them of brilliantly, even if the scenes themselves don't help create a cohesive, overall tone for the movie. As Mel, he carries the knowing, world-weary sarcasm of a man who has seen his dreams die mostly by his own hand, but is still able to use biting humor to keep himself afloat. His cynicism is most immediately counter-balanced in the film by Nathaniel, a rather sweet but dim young fellow who easily buys into whatever attractive conspiracy theory is floating around the Internet. The two co-workers make for a solid comedy pairing, and when Mary and Cynthia turn up with their own push/pull dynamic and bizarre story, things only get more curious.

Cynthia, Mary, Mel, and Nathaniel. Things get stranger and
(mostly) funnier for these two pairs the further they descend
into the rabbit hole of Confederate "truthers."
The film certainly takes on a unique subject in the staunch believers in a Confederacy that is now dead for over 150 years. The film explores the twisted ignorance behind these beliefs to a degree, but mostly it serves as fodder for the humor in the show. In fact, things get borderline goofy by the movie's end, which feels a bit odd given how very real, backwards, ignorant racism so desperately seeks to find legitimacy through means such as the titular sword in this film. My wife and I were still laughing at the gags right through to the end, even though when one steps back, it might become clear that there are elements of truth there which are no laughing matter.

The other side plot is that between Mel and local woman Deirdre (Lynn Shelton). I won't give anything away, as the story between these two is only first hinted at, but then revealed about halfway through the film. And the story and performances feel perfectly organic and touching. The problem is that it's difficult to find a connection between their more somber, dramatic relationship and the greater comedy tale that is spun around it.

Despite my little gripes about a lack of cohesion, this was still a good little movie. I'm very glad that my wife and I went out to see it. It was well worth the money and time, and it's exactly the type of smaller-scale, smaller-budget independent movie that I would like to see studios support and produce more often. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

New Release! The Farewell (2019)

Billi (middle) and her family. To a person, the nearly all-
Chinese cast is brilliant.
Director: Lulu Wang

An excellent dramedy that takes a look at something that nearly every family has had to deal with but is almost never given time on the silver screen.

Comedian Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American whose family immigrated to New York City when she was a  young girl but who still have many relatives back in China. When Billi learns that her grandmother, "Nai Nai," has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she is deeply saddened but infinitely more shocked by her family's decision not to inform Nai Nai about her fatal condition - something that is rather common in East Asian cultures. Billi chases her parents over to China in order to see her Nai Nai one last time, but must wrestle with the choice of whether to maintain the charade that her family is keeping in place or to let the cat out of the bag and tell her beloved Nai Nai that she has a very limited time to live.

The Farewell is an outstanding example of a movie that blends comedy and drama while it subtly reveals something very genuine about the human condition and how different cultures have adapted to it. On its surface, the premise seems very obvious: a granddaughter loves her grandma and is sad to know that she is dying. Fairly standard, run-of-the-mill drama stuff, right? Maybe, but there is so much that The Farewell does right with this basic notion that it has an impact that can almost blindside you.

Firstly, the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai just becomes more and more endearing as the movie progresses. From the opening moments, it's clear that they're both quite amicable and that they have a meaningful bond with each other. But as the movie goes along and we get to see them interact with each other, this bond becomes ever more clearly organic, charming, and touching. As we see Nai Nai interact with Billie and the rest of her family, we can see why she is so beloved. There is an easy humor about her that combines the best characteristics of a traditional grandparent and a charming, quirky friend. This makes is far easier to understand why Billie struggles so hard to go along with her family's wishes not to tell Nai Nai of her impending death.

Nai Nai and Billi. It doesn't take long to see why the relation-
ship means so much to each of them, despite their being
separated by half the world for over two decades.
When a movie isn't relying on big-budget set pieces, spectacular CGI, or elaborate costumes or choreography, it needs to find its strength in story and acting. The acting in The Farewell is as good as it gets. Yes, there is a nice amount of humor and levity throughout, but this movie is still primarily a drama, and the cast - nearly all Chinese - is amazing. Like most in the U.S., I was only familiar with Awkwafina and only familiar with her as a comedian. Well, her turn as Billi proves that she's a more than capable dramatic actor as well. Those who play her family, especially Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai and Tzi Ma as Billi's father, are all outstanding. They bring their characters and Wang's script to all of its fleshed-out, three-dimensional life with the subtleties and ranges of their performances. It was no surprise when I later learned from an interview with Wang that the actors were surprisingly costly to hire, contrary to her previous belief. They were worth it, though.

There were so many ways that this movie could have gone broader, going for cheaper, simpler, one- or two-dimensional characters in order to get cheap laughs. Writer and director Lulu Wang avoids every one of such pitfalls that matters, giving us a warm-but-challenging tale that does a rare thing for movies these days - it uses its drama to reveal a new perspective on a nearly universal situation. At least, it's new to us in the West. This is what the very best independent films can do - go out on a bit of a limb, take a risk, and bring new stories to audiences who haven't seen their like before.