Saturday, May 20, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4 (2016-2017); Crashing, season 1 (2017)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4 (2016-2017)

Spoiler-Free Section


Another solid season which I suspect will be even more fun to rewatch in binge mode.

This is the first season in which the show clearly divided its 22-episode season into three "pods" of seven or eight episodes each, with each pod focusing on a particular story arc. All of the arcs are, however, connected with an overall narrative. The first pod, "Ghost Rider," introduces a supernatural element into the series. This element, in turn, becomes connected to the "LMD" second pod, which focuses on the creation of Life Model Decoys (basically, artificially intelligent android body doubles). Everything comes together during the third pod, "Agents of Hydra," in which the agents are all trapped within a Matrix-like artificial reality generated and maintained by a massive, virtual reality program known as The Framework.

I found this season a lot of fun. The Ghost Rider arc handles the iconic character well, introducing him as one of the more recent incarnations of the spectral spirit of vengeance. He makes for a presence unique to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, presenting a real test to a SHIELD group that is still adjusting to new leadership. Coulson is back to being a field agent, while the new head of SHIELD is a relatively unknown quantity to long-standing agents almost as much as he's unknown to us viewers. The mystery around him is used well as a story device, and there are a few fun little plot twists regarding this new leader. The story manages to segue the supernatural elements of the Ghost Rider arc into the LMD arc in compelling ways, when an LMD - AIDA - designed by Fitz and fellow scientist Radcliffe reads an other-worldly, evil tome, turning her into something neither completely machine, spirit, nor human. AIDA becomes what I would argue is one of the the single most curious and fascinating characters in the MCU.

AIDA and Fitz in the Framework, where several beloved
characters have undergone radical changes. None more so
than the normally-genteel Leopold Fitz. The shifts allow the
actors to show off their range rather well.
The story is the clear strength of the season. The characters are an ever-more mixed bag, in my view. Fitz and Simmons are now, to me, firmly the best characters on the show. Of everyone, they have always seemed the most empathetic, while also being capable, and showing actual, real growth as people. It doesn't hurt that Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge continue to turn out great performances in the roles. The other regular characters, though, were lackluster to me. Mae does become a bit more humanized, which is nice, but I've never completely enjoyed Mack or even Yo-Yo. This season does nothing to really remedy that. They're not annoying characters, such as I often found Bobbi Morse and Hunter, but they also never leave me with a desire to see any more of them.

The dialogue was also a bit spotty in places in this season, as well. There is one particular episode during the LMD arc in which Mack gets to deliver a slew of hilarious lines about robots taking over the world. There are also a few gems here an there, but for much of the season, I found a lot of the dialogue a bit obvious and unimaginative. Fortunately, it wasn't so bad that it overwhelmed what was otherwise a fun season. I'm definitely looking forward to binge watching the entire run again, once its made available on streaming services, most likely in September or so.

A Few Spoilers Ahead - You've Been Warned

I love the buildup into the third arc, as well as its culmination into the penultimate episode. When AIDA/Ophelia is overwhelmed by rejection, rage, and a desire for vengeance, I was transfixed. While I did find the pacing of the final episode a bit rushed and herky-jerky at times, I thought it wrapped up quite well. My one beef is that I actually would have preferred to see Mack (though not necessarily Yo-Yo) die in the Framework. Mack has probably become my least favorite (but not disliked) character. I've generally found him less interesting than his potential for two full seasons now, and I actually think his self-absorbed rejection of reality would have made for a rather compelling, if tragic, ending to the season. I actually appreciate when this happens, as it raises the stakes for everyone when a major "hero" character doesn't make it, a la Tripp back in season 2.

My one other particular issue with this season is how the entire SHIELD team has turned into hookup central. Why do they feel the need to pair everyone off? Fitz and Simmons made complete sense, right from the show's start back in 2013. Then Mack and Yo-Yo? OK, but neither of them is terribly interesting. The little flirtation between Daisy and Robbie Reyes? Maybe a bit forced, but fortunately I don't see that one going anywhere soon. But now Coulson and Mae? I get it - on paper, it makes some sense, but can't we have just one or two agents who remain complete loners, dedicated solely to the job of protecting people? Those types of characters can bring something different to the show, since we already have a decent amount of romance in what is obviously a fantasy/action/adventure tale.

Again, these are minor gripes that I'm fairly sure won't bother me quite as much when I binge watch this season later. I was really glad to hear that the show was recently renewed for a fifth season. It's hit its stride, to be sure.


Pete, getting some assistance from the eminently crass and
equally generous and kind Sarah Silverman.
Crashing, season 1 (2017)

Solid new comedy on HBO that stays within its unique self quite well.

Created by and starring Pete Holmes, the series draws from Holmes's own life experience as a devout Christian, aspiring stand-up comedian, and recent divorcee in the New York City area. The series begins with Pete discovering that this wife, played by Lauren Lapkus, has been cheating on him with a fellow elementary school teacher. This throws the rather naive Pete into a relative tailspin, sending him running away from their house and into the city. Pete follows some highly misguided advice by a fellow comedian to "work through" his marital sadness on stage. When he inevitably bombs in spectacular fashion, he meets troubled comic legend Artie Lange, who offers Pete a place to crash in exchange for joining him on the road for night, in order to keep the addictive Lange sober. Thus begins a cycle whereby Pete tries to get his personal and professional life back together and benefits from the help of far more successful stand-up comedians, including Lange, T.J. Miller, Sarah Silverman, and others.

While the basic premise of the show isn't wildly novel, it works extremely well on a couple of levels. One is that it throws the rather sheltered Holmes into some odd and uncomfortable situations. Seeing a 6' 6", dorky, white, devout Christian struggling to keep Artie Lange sober or dealing with degenerate, foul-mouthed comedians is fodder for plenty of laughs. And while Holmes doesn't have the sharp, biting wit or surreal creativity of modern stand-up masters like Louis C.K. or even Maria Bamford and their like, he is a skilled stand-up who knows how to write a deliver some good jokes, in both the stand-up and dramedy portions of the show. I don't know that Holmes could carry the entire season, a modest eight episodes, by himself, so the structure of having other, stronger and stylistically contrasting comedians cycling into and out of the proceedings is a major strength.

Getting scenes and moments pairing the vice-addled Lange
and the straight-arrow Holmes provides more than a few
hilarious "odd couple" moments.
The show is also helped by the fact that there is a fairly compelling tale of personal growth happening throughout. Based on events in his real life, in which he was cheated on by his wife, Holmes's on-screen persona is sent into a crisis of faith and doubts about his chosen profession. A decent amount of depth is offered during Holmes's discussions about his Christian faith and worldview with oddball atheists like Lange and Silverman. One of the novel aspects is that Holmes's doesn't abandon his faith wholesale, but instead begins to alter and expand his understanding of it. The show never becomes overly absorbed with this theme, fortunately, but rather is enhanced by it.

So it's a fun first season, and hardly much of a time commitment. Clocking it at a very modest eight episodes, each being 30 minutes, the first episode is a good indicator of the following seven. I'd recommend that anyone check out the pilot, at the very least. For my part (and my wife's), we're looking forward to the second season. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Fargo, seasons 1 and 2 (2014, 2015)

After being blown away by the recent FX series Legion (see my review here), I had to know what creative mind was responsible for it. Turns out that mind belongs to Noah Hawley, whose surprisingly short writing resume included the FX television series Fargo - a show that I had heard rave reviews about but hadn't gotten around to watching. However, with my desire for more of Hawley's work well and truly stoked, I snapped up the series and watched them in fairly short order. My thoughts:

And so it begins. Lester (left) inadvertently meets Lorne Malvo
and somewhat unwittingly sends him along a brutal path that
doesn't end until dozens are dead.
Season 1 (2014)


An amazing and surprising series that seems to do the impossible: take an iconic, singular film and adapt it into an original story that both emulates the spirit and some elements of the original movie and uses the TV mini-series format to perfectly tell a longer and deeper tale.

The story mostly takes place in and around Bimidji, Minnesota, where impotent insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) somewhat unintentionally kicks off a spree of violence and murder which belies the otherwise sleepy little town. After the middle-aged Lester is bullied by an old high school nemesis, he meets a mysterious drifter in the hospital - Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) - who decides to exact murderous revenge on Nygaard's tormentor. This leads to several unintended murders which eventually pull into their vortex local police officers, including Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). Though rather quiet and unassuming, Solverson has an excellent mind for police work, as well as a staunch willingness to do what is right. Unfortunately, she is taken none to seriously by most of her fellow officers. Although she often penetrates through the murky layers covering up the dark deeds in her town, she is fighting a constant uphill battle to track down Malvo and the other people involved in the carnage.

Firstly, the story itself is the stuff of outstanding noir cinema. The murders are dark and disturbing, cutting into not only the obviously repugnant violence inherent in them, but also the shadowy human desires and weaknesses that cause them. And true to classic noir, there are more twists and turns than could possibly exist in reality. When handled correctly though, as they are in Fargo, these complexities create an engaging portrait of good people attempting to reckon with horrendous villains and atrocities. Elements to the story which may at first seem superfluous or included for mere shock value almost always have a place in the larger tale, and these places are revealed as the episodes unfold.

A few more of the oddball and compelling hardcases running
around the Minnesota countryside in this story.
On top of the framework of the ripping crime story is the characters. True to the film which inspired it, Fargo includes an eminently memorable cast of characters. While there are several ways in which this first TV show season draws from the film, perhaps the deftest way is the creation and handling of these characters. Lester Nygaard is a clear echo of Jerry Lundegaard, both being weak-willed sad sacks whose selfish and foolish decisions unleash hell upon those around them. Deputy Solverson is also another version of Marge Gunderson, the deceptively expert female police officer who ultimately tracks down the vicious criminals in the center of the story. There is also Lorne Malvo, who is arguably a darker, more fleshed-out and frighteningly intelligent version of the stoic, homicidal maniac Gaear Grimsrud. Malvo in particular is quite something, played with award-winning intensity by Billy Bob Thornton. Not unlike Heath Ledger's Joker character in The Dark Knight, Malvo is a self-avowed agent of chaos whose entire existence is predicated upon ignoring the rules of empathetic society. He sees himself as a predator who is well within his rights to take whatever he wants from whomever he wants, including life itself. He even delights in sowing little seeds of discord, simply to break people out of what he sees as idiotic patterns of socially prescribed behavior. It's a character and performance that keeps you itching for him to show up again, just to see exactly what he's going to do, even if some of those things are unspeakably horrible.

One other aspect of the film absorbed into this show was the pace and tone. Making no bones about mimicking the Coen brothers' knack for such things, writer and director Noah Hawley decided not to mess with a good and unique thing, giving us plenty of slow and careful scenes displaying the lonely winter landscapes of Minnesota. The show even uses parts of the original soundtrack, with its eerie, lonely strings moaning along, occasionally punctuated with short, quirky percussive instruments. It creates an oddly playful sense, which actually fits the entire show, as dark as it often gets.

Obviously, I found this first season tremendous. Tremendous enough to dive right into the second season...


Season 2 (2015)

In an interesting and somewhat bold narrative move, season 2 takes us backwards in time to 27 years before the events depicted in season one. We go to 1979, when Molly Solverson's father and grandfather found themselves in the middle of a shocking outbreak of violence in their normally quiet little Minnesota town.

It's the end of the 1970s, and the United States is in a massive and violent transition period. The specter of the lost "conflict" in Vietnam hovers over many of the men and women who served in that horribly misguided war. Liberation movements abound, and large-scale corporatization is looming on the near horizon. Amid these larger forces, in Luverne, North Dakota, aspiring feminist and more-than-a-little delusional beautician Peggy Blumquist runs into a man stumbling out of a Waffle Hut. Rather than stop, Peggy continues to drive all the way home with the unconscious man on her hood. At home, her husband Ed, the local butcher, discovers the body and is attacked by the still-living hit-and-run victim. Ed kills the man in self-defense, but what neither he nor Peggy yet know is that the man is Rye Gerhadt - the youngest of the three Gerhardt brothers - key members of the most powerful crime family in the Fargo, North Dakota area. Rye's death sets in motion an ever-escalating sequence of violence and pursuit that pits the Gerhardts, local and state police, and an encroaching Kansas City crime syndicate all against each other in the otherwise quiet region of the American North.

This sophomore season is arguably better than the first, which is saying something. While there are a few general themes and character types that are similar to the first season, this prequel season is very much its own tale, with its own rhythms, beats, twists, and larger themes that stand very much on their own. Sure, knowing and seeing the little connections between this season and the previous one can provide some fun little Easter eggs for viewers, but they are far from essential to any of the relevant aspects of the tale. True to the Coen Brothers' cinema spirit, this season takes a mundane setting and sometime rather common and simple people and thrusts it all into a dark, twisted world of violence and brutality that somehow seems, at alternate moments, out of place and right at home. The sparse and frigid landscapes of the Dakotas and Minnesota convey the rugged individualist spirit required to survive in such regions, and this carries through to many of the characters, weak and strong alike. The linguistic and behavioral quirks are right in keeping with the original movie, though the ten-episode format allows for a larger exploration of those cultural oddities.

Mike Milligan and his eerily silent, twin hatchet men - the
Kitchen brothers. Bokeem Woodbine turns in one of several
excellent performances in this season. 
As with the first season, the storytelling is perfectly tight. In short order, we are introduced to several characters who are compelling for their strengths, weaknesses, grand ambitions, or lack thereof. Virtually everyone turns in excellent performances, though I found the standouts to be Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson (father to season one's understated yet brilliant herione, Molly), Kirsten Dunst as Peggy, and Bokeem Woodbine as Kansas City crime syndicate enforcer Mike Milligan. Wilson in particular was a breath of fresh air in many ways. Up to the point, we hadn't really seen a completely assured, competent, and steady police officer character. While the character's daughter, Molly, would later become just as capable a detective and officer as her father, the Molly of season one is still fighting a massive uphill battle against patriarchal gender biases and her relative youth, leading to a bit of uncertainty and tentativeness. In season two, Lou is a seasoned police officer and combat veteran from Vietnam. He calls things as he sees them and doesn't balk at doing the right thing, even when it leads into the heart of danger. But he is merely the standout among many strong, fascinating characters whose interactions make so many scenes in this season thoroughly gripping.

One other note on this season - it became clear just how well creator Noah Hawley is integrating certain little homages to the Coen Brothers' work - not just the original Fargo, but even their other movies. Without ever feeling unoriginal or forced, each of the first two seasons has a handful of moments - they might be brief lines of dialogue, a general character type, the framing of certain shots, or some other aspect of the narrative - that are clearly tips of the cap to other films like Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona, or other Coen masterpieces. It's far from the most important thing, but astute fans of their films will notice and appreciate them.

It's hard to watch these first two seasons and, when added to the number of fantastic TV shows released in the last decade, not agree with the notion that this truly is a "Golden Age" of television. I've already jumped into season 3, and expect equally amazing things from show runner Hawley. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Legion, season 1 (2017); Archer, seasons 1 through 7 (2010-2016)

Legion, season 1 (2017)

Show runner: Noah Hawley

Take note, MCU and DCEU overlords - the bar just got raised. A lot.

The superhero movie and TV show industry has shown no signs of slowing down, still expanding a good 12 years after Batman Begins exploded and nine years after Iron Man officially kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I am still greatly entertained by many of these movies and shows, even the ones which I feel have obvious shortcomings. Being well-versed in many of these offerings, I had come to expect only so much from them.

Then came Legion. This eight-episode series on the FX network blew me away. Yes, it's a "superhero" TV show, but it is so unlike any of the others that I am almost shocked that it got the green light to be produced. The show takes as its subject David Haller, a lesser-known character who first appeared in the New Mutants comic books, a series that sprung off of the far better-known X-Men comic books. The series takes place presumably in the 1970s, based on the general aesthetic, and we begin with David in a psychiatric institution. Seeing much of life from his perspective, we find David to be a troubled man who hears voices, often sees surreal shifts in reality, and is clearly unstable. He falls in a love with a beautiful fellow patient who refuses to be touched by any other person. As the 8-episode series unfolds, we learn that David is, in fact, a wildly powerful mutant with powers that are difficult to describe or define. David also appears to be the object of extreme interest a fear from a secretive agency and some sort of resistance group. However, he is also afflicted with a very real schizophrenia and possibly paranoid delusions. This makes great fun of determining just what is reality and what is in David's addled brain. It also gives us the novel offering of a superhero show featuring a disturbed and extremely complex protagonist.

The "demon with the yellow eyes" becomes a recurring,
mysterious, and horrifying presence through the series. Its
identity and nature are just two of several layered and
nuanced plot elements in this excellent show.
On top of the great tale and storytelling of the show, Legion uses fantastic visuals. The costumes and sets are carefully selected and curated, and the cinematography is as expert as you'll find on any TV show, network or otherwise. This is in greatest evidence when considering that the show spans a variety of visual tones, from the peaceful and verdant setting of a forested secret base to the claustrophobia of the stifling Clockworks mental institution to the dark and horrific scenes playing out in David's mind ,and sometimes manifesting itself upon others' reality.

As if the story and visuals weren't enough, the acting is incredible. Leading man Dan Stevens is pitch-perfect as the unbalanced David Haller. The role requires Stevens to be convincing as a sweet, meek victim just as much as a menacing force of wicked, unstoppable power, as well as several other equally disparate personas. He pulls them all off amazingly well. The supporting cast is just as strong, with all bringing their strong, odd, and/or enigmatic characters to full life. By this point, any fan of the fantastic superhero genre of movies and shows is very familiar with the typical archetypes and story lines, but Legion lays waste to much of it, and the cast is as large a part of it as anything else.

This show was so impressive to me that I'm now tracking down all other shows that Noah Hawley has written, which has led me to Fargo. I'm several episodes into the first season currently, and it has not disappointed me one bit. My only hope now is that the heads of the larger-scale superhero movies and TV shows take away a few lesson from Legion - namely, that you can tell a challenging, original story about superheroes with every bit of skill, creativity, and sophistication as the finest shows and movies in any genre.


Archer, seasons 1 through 7 (2010-2016)

I was definitely late to the party on this show. Despite Netlflix's algorithms always predicting a near-5 star rating for me on this series, I just never fired it up and gave it a shot. When the mood finally hit me about a year ago, though, it only took one episode to reel me in. Since then, I've steadily worked my way through all seven previous complete seasons (the eighth kicked off several weeks ago).

Basically, Archer is a cartoon parody of machismo-driven spy and action shows and movies from the last 50-odd years. An insanely hilarious one, at that. From the very first scenes of the very first episode, the rapid-fire, jaw-droppingly inappropriate gags come fast and furious. It takes less than 60 seconds to establish that the title character, Sterling Archer, is a narcissistic, self-obsessed slave to his countless vices while also being a maddeningly effective spy. The agency he works for - initially named ISIS but eventually altered for obvious reasons - is headed by his own mother and staffed by an odd crew who each have deep and hilariously disturbing personality defects of their own. Whether it's the HR rep who spends her free time brawling in illegal fight clubs and racing in underground drift gangs or the stuffy accountant who has a titanic sexual addiction, by the middle of the second season, each one develops into a well-formed and uproariously depraved personality.

This show nails so many elements of great shows that it's somewhat astounding, given the pure comedic nature of the entire series. The most obvious strength is the comedy writing. The gags, dialogue, and voice acting are top-notch. The endless insults hurled around and between the mainstay characters never gets old. It's as if the writers are channeling the very best "roasting" comics in history and putting it right into their characters' very fiber. Even the timing, pauses and slow-burn visual gags almost always hit the mark, employing styles which at times are reminiscent of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Liberally peppered throughout the show are also many references to action, spy, and adventure TV shows and movies from the past. Some are as obvious as literally (not figuratively) having Burt Reynolds voice himself for an episode of the show in which his mere presence offers Archer a chance to revel in his hero's magnificence while babbling about lesser Reynold's films like Gator or Stick. Other references are extremely subtle visual or dialogue gags, some so subtle that I have no doubt that I've missed dozens of them over the course of the series.

Scenes such as this are commonplace among the crew of
Archer. Yes, their entire job is to keep America safe from
enemy spies and other ne'er-do-wells. Between their
countless indulgences and endless insults towards one another,
they occasionally manage to get it right once in a while. 
But the one element that probably keeps me coming back to the show so very frequently is the element that any dedicated fan of fantasy fiction adores: continuity. By the middle of the very first season, the show is clearly working with a loose arc in mind, with characters and events from past episodes recurring and impacting future shows. This continues through and across seasons and the entire series, so that by the fourth and fifth seasons, there are plenty of in-jokes that reference things from many episodes or even seasons prior. These are often horrible, degrading things, but can even be innocuous oddities like Sterling's quirky policing of people's grammar. This all creates a cohesion to Archer's world that makes it as much its own realm as Tolkien's Middle Earth. If Tolkien had been an obsessed junkie of James Bond and Burt Reynolds movies. And he had been an alcoholic, comedic genius.

Another feature of note is how a few seasons have adopted certain themes. Season five, known as "Archer Vice," sees the Isis crew get involved in the cocaine trade, offering the show plenty of opportunity to adopt and parody elements of the iconic 1980s show Miami Vice. The seventh season did something similar with L.A. detective crime shows, after Archer and the gang becoming a private detective agency. The currently-airing season is taking on noir tales of literature and movies from the 1940s and '50s. This is yet another way that the writers show their love and appreciation of some of the most notable genres in the history of American storytelling.

Captain Murphy, a character who appeared in the two-part
finale of season 4, titled "Sea Tunt." Voiced by Jon Hamm,
Murphy provided me with more than a few laugh-out-loud
moments through his megalomania.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the voice acting, which is brilliant. The eight mainstay voice actors fully inhabit their characters, depraved and fantastic as they may be. As with all of the very best cartoon shows, these voice actors' timing, rhythms, and reads become as much a part of the show as anything. Throughout the show's many seasons, there have also been many notable celebrities who have lent their voices to the insanity. Some have been single episode one-offs, such as Anthony Bourdain or Burt Reynolds, while others like Jon Hamm or David Cross will voice a character for several episodes. Christian Slater even plays a character who recurs over several seasons. While a few of them such as Bourdain are not as memorable as others, they're all fully immersed in the bungling, depraved world of Sterling Archer and his surrounding cast.

While Archer is certainly not high art by any means, it is a brilliant show for what it is. Spoofing spy and action movies has been done before, but not with this much gonzo zeal for flouting good taste and showing a real knowledge and passion for the genres being lampooned. Now that I'm all caught up on the first 7 seasons (not a tremendous commitment, relatively, given that each season is only 10 to 13 twenty-minute episodes), I've already dived into the currently-airing eighth season, which uses a device taken from the classic British miniseries The Singing Detective. Great start, to be sure. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

New Release! Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (2017) [Spoiler-Free first section]

Spoiler-Free Section

Director: James Gunn

Really fun follow-up to 2014's first Guardians film.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the 15th movie in the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Unlike most of the MCU films in the last several years, though, a viewer does not need to see multiple previous MCU films to fully enjoy this one. Seeing the original Guardians movie is really the only recommended prerequisite to staying up to speed with volume 2.

Volume 2 does a really nice job offering a different narrative from the first movie. Whereas much of the first was a typical "meet the players and get the team together" tale, this one involves seeing how the five "Guardians" deal with themselves and relationships their teammates while being splintered from some of the others. Circumstances force several of them to ally themselves with enemies introduced in the first movie. While this device can feel a bit awkward and forced in other movies, writer and director James Gunn handles it well. We get some fun combinations of heroes, anti-heroes, and outright villains in ways that are often highly entertaining.

Probably the one element that separated the first Guardians movie from other MCU offerings is the highly playful, irreverent tone. The sequel gives us just as much subversiveness as the first, and perhaps even a little more. While there are certainly a few moments that go for sentimentality, they are done fairly well, and they never rob the movie of its seemingly primary goal of kicking the legs out from under many standard tropes of action/adventure movies. It's not an easy balance to maintain, but Gunn has shown himself rather adept at the trick.

Yes, Baby Groot is as cute as advertised. Blessedly, I don't
feel that this adorability was overused. It was close, but
they managed to use him fairly equitably.
The humor is still right on par with the first movie, as well. While not every one-liner or gag lands perfectly, more than enough of them do. It helps to have several actors with solid comic chops, most notably Chris Pratt, Michael Rooker, and Bradley Cooper's voicing of Rocket. These and several other lesser players strike just the right balance between the rollicking intensity and the snarky fun that have become the hallmark of this segment of the MCU. One of my big concerns for this movie, after seeing the trailers, was that the movie would overdo the "cute" factor with Baby Groot. Fortunately, Gunn didn't lean too much on the admittedly adorable tiny version of the ponderous tree creature. Groot certainly has his moments, but I didn't feel that he was shoe-horned into scenes just to keep the attention of viewers under the age of 10.

One of my few issues with the first Guardians film was that the third act devolved into a fairly typical massive-scale fireworks show against a one-dimensional villain. Though Volume 2 certainly ends with plenty of color, explosions, and manic action, the primary adversary shows a little more creativity and novelty than the rather dull Ronan of the first film. This villain isn't exactly the most sophisticated or complex in terms of their grand scheme, but they are a relatively unique entity, not unlike Dormammu in Doctor Strange.

In the grand scheme of the MCU, I have this one in the upper half of the canon. I don't find it quite as consistent, imaginative, or fresh as what I've found to be the very best movies (The Winter Soldier and the first Avengers are still my favorites). But this is still a great popcorn movie that offers fans of the first film the same brand of fun, with a welcome dash of alterations to the original. I'm already planning to go to a second viewing.

In the first film, Nebula is a rather one-dimensional enigma.
In the sequel, fortunately, she becomes more compelling. She
and Yondu add just the right spice that a good sequel needs.
Spoilers Ahead - Fair Warning

So just a couple of things about certain, specific plot and character elements.

Firstly, I'm pretty happy with how the characters were handled, all around. One of my few gripes about the first movie was that we didn't get to see quite enough of Drax or Gamorrah fighting, given that they were reputedly galaxy-class weapons of destruction. We get a somewhat better idea of it in this one. I especially like the showdown between Gamorrah and Nebula on Ego's planet. Nebula reaches the potential suggested in the first movie. As for Drax, I love how he's written and handled - his penchant for bellowing laughter in the most awkward or dangerous situations just doesn't get old to me. Nor does his oblivious disregard for social niceties.

Curiously, I didn't exactly find Ego to be the most compelling villain. I think his nature as "The Living Planet" is actually interesting and creative, but once again Marvel comes up with a villain whose ultimate plan is basically to simply take over the universe. For what, exactly? Well, that's not made completely clear. I will admit that Ego does a better job of justifying and explaining it than certain other superhero movies (I'm looking at you, Thor: The Dark World and Suicide Squad), but it's still nowhere near as fascinating as a well-conceived, if smaller-scale, villain like Civil War's Zemo.

I'm curious to see just how the Guardians tie into next year's Infinity Gauntlet, seeing as how Starlord presumably no longer has the power to handle Infinity Stones. I feel that Nebula is more likely to play some sort of direct role in the tale, given her burning desire to avenge herself upon her sadistic, adopted father Thanos. This was a nice setup to that massive picture for next year, without having it feel terribly forced in this one. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Before I Die #600: Citizenfour (2014)

This is the 600th movie that I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

Director: Laura Poitras

Snowden explains some of his massive secrets to journalist
Glenn Greenwald. The immensity of Snowden's story builds
as the documentary progresses, even if some of the techno-
jargon can be a bit of barrier at times.
An incredible documentary that has the kind of first-hand, in-the-moment access that very few documentaries capture. Of course, the larger issue is the still-highly-relevent subject of U.S. government surveillance of its citizens and the world at large.

Before watching this, I had only a passing knowledge of the entire Edward Snowden affair. I knew he was a whistleblower on the National Security Agency (NSA), that he had revealed just how deeply into citizens' information trails the NSA had been digging, and that he has since been on the run from extradition.

This movie offers an incredibly and possibly unprecedented first-hand, real-time look at a person blowing the whistle on a massive system which he feels is unethical. Imagine if we had actual footage of Woodward interviewing Deepthroat? Or live film of the first time Jeffrey Wigand talked with people from 60 minutes about his inside knowledge of the Phillip Morris tobacco company? Well that's what we get with Citizenfour, in a hotel room where Snowden was holed up and beginning to share his top-secret knowledge to documentarian Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greewald, among a few others. This aspect of the movie alone makes it rather gripping, given how personal privacy and security are still, and will continue to be, highly relevent topics.

I must say, however, that director Poitras could have done a better job helping out some of us lay-people a bit more. The film gives some rudimentary information about Snowden, his job, and the other people involved, but it doesn't offer enough. I understand that many of the great documentaries simply let their human subjects speak for themselves, with little to no interference from the filmmakers. However, this should not be the case when the subject matter is a bit more arcane or technical. Such is the case with this film, which covers topics of cryptography, technology of the highest order, and much of the jargon that goes along with such heady topics. We viewers are offered very little in the way of explanations or definitions of some of the slang which Snowden and even the reporting journalists know and understand. On top of that, we get email exchanges between Snowden and Poitras, some of which are relatively clear and engaging, but others of which are difficult ot decipher. I seem to recall that one of the criticisms of this movie when it was released was a sense of self-importance on the part of the filmmakers, and I can see what those critics meant. It can occassionally seem as if Poitras assumes that viewers should already be aware of and familiar with her plight and the issues of privacy and security which Snowden is dealing with. The result is that some aspects of the movie can be vague and frustrating.

Still, it is easy to see the struggle that Snowden is going through. He is still and will probably always be a controversial figure. However, when one watches this movie, one cannot doubt that he knew full well what he was giving up by sharing his secrets with the world. His entire life was turned upside down. He knew it would happen, but his ethics compelled him to action. Seeing this unfold with such grand consequences is a very rare thing, and it is one that is worth watching for everyone.

That's 600 movies down. Only 587 more to go before I can die. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Retro Trio: Eastern Promises (2007); Repo Man (1984); They Live (1988)

So you think you've had a stressful promotion interview or
two in your day? They're nothing compared to what Nikolai
goes through in the ultra-ruthless world of the Russian mob.
Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg

First time I had watched this one since it was out in theaters. Still a really tight, harrowing piece of crime cinema, though not one that offers viewers any convenient answers about the problems of deep-seeded and systemic criminality and violence.

The story takes place in London, where local nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) has to assist in an emergency birth of a child born by an abused 15-year old girl from Russia.The mother dies giving birth, but she leaves behind a diary in which she details the horrors of her life in London. Being the child of Russian immigrants, Anna takes the diary to her mother and uncle. As Anna learns more about the men who were responsible for the girl's death, she becomes partially involved in a vicious power struggle within a local sect of the Russian mafia. The man with whom she has the most contact is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a chauffeur to the local mob leader's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Nikolai is a quiet but intense and intimidating presence who seems to have far more knowledge and ability than he lets on as a mere driver and sometimes-assistant in the mob's criminal dealings. By interacting with Nikolai and his bosses, Anna unwittingly and rather quickly finds the lives of herself, the newborn baby, and her relatives are all in serious danger.

Eastern Promises was David Cronenberg's next film after 2005's  A History of Violence, and the two make for excellent companion pieces. Aside from both starring Viggo Mortensen, both are skilled, unflinching looks at the nature of violence and how it can manifest itself in individuals and cultures. The differences between the two lie mostly in the type of general story and the particular focus of each. The former film looked at one man's deeply buried violent past and nature, while the latter examines a type of violence that runs throughout an entire cultural group and is deeply enough embedded to be woven into other, more accepted traditions and rituals.

In terms of narrative, Eastern Promises uses suspense as a major device, with the lives of Anna, the newborn baby, and Anna's family all at stake as the Russian mob slowly closes in. There is also the element of mystery thrown in, as the Nikolai character is slowly revealed to be more than a stoic, detached chauffeur. These alone make the movie strong enough. Added to all of this, though, is the same bold and brutal depiction of violence which Cronenberg employed in A History of Violence. While I wouldn't say the movie is oozing violence, there are a handful of scenes that are violent, some of them extremely so. And Cronenberg strips away any pretense at glamorizing the brutality. This is an approach which I appreciate in movies such as this, as it drives home the point that nothing that these people are doing should in any way be seen as anything but horrendous. Cinematically, it also adds to the tension of the movie, as we understand the threat that characters like Anna are under.

This movie is one of many that has made me a tremendous fan of Viggo Mortensen, who does a brilliant job here. He and Cronenberg seem to make excellent collaborators, and I hope they can find another story strong enough to pair themselves up again in the future.


One of the most verbose movie
posters I've ever seen. Ironic, given
how Otto is not exactly a young man
of letters, shall we say.
Repo Man (1984)

Director: Alex Cox

I didn't first see this movie until around 2005, and I enjoyed it. This second viewing confirmed my enjoyment, and it confirmed to me why this movie is still a cult classic.

Emilio Estevez plays Otto, an 18-year old punk rocker who is disgusted by his dull suburban life. He quits his job at a supermarket and is soon taken into the car repossession business by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran of the trade. Otto's fellow repo men are all social misfits of one form or another, each with his own bizarre code of independence and rebellion. Otto eventually gets mixed up with a strange maelstrom of activity surrounding a Chevy Malibu housing a radioactive alien in its trunk. Mysterious secret operatives are involved, and Otto's fellow repo men get involved in the bizarre pursuit.

The movie is an oddity that could only have come from the middle of the Reagan-era United States, made all the more odd by the fact that it still holds up as a great cult movie, even in 2017. English writer and director Alex Cox (it's always foreigners who nail the American tale in movies) crafted an oft-times hilarious take on American rebellion in the face of and encroaching popular culture of conformity. Otto is a straight up punk-rocker - a kid who has no idea what he wants but knows that he hates nearly everything about his life and the world around him. When he meets a gaggle of curmudgeonly rebels in the repossession business, their interactions are downright hilarious at times. While all of the repo men are great characters, legend Harry Dean Stanton takes the cake as Bud. Bud is a true, died-in-the-wool libertarian who thinks any real American can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, put life in a headlock, and give the middle finger to anyone who thinks otherwise. One of his many gems is his response to Otto pointing out that Russians don't pay for anything: "All free? Free my ass," replies Bud, "What are you, a fuckin' commie? Huh?...Well, you better not be. I don't want no commies in my car...No Christians, either." Kind of says it all, right there, really.

Sure, the story, characters, dialogue, and acting can sometimes be a little frayed around the edges, but those don't overpower the gonzo, in-your-face fun of this movie. With it's rebel attitude and d.i.y. approach to characters and dialogue, it conveys a punk rock perspective that is rarely matched. Interestingly enough, the actual cinematography is high quality, which makes the movie generally pleasing to take in. While it's not a movie I need to watch over and over, it's a great little work of its time that holds up rather well.


They Live (1988)

Director: John Carpenter

Talk about a great premise, with some great moments, dragged down by some questionable elements and a limited budget.

In They Live, Carpenter adapted the Ray Nelson short story "Three O'Clock in the Morning" into a solid cult movie. The tale follows Nada ("Rowdy" Roddy Piper), an out-of-work drifter who comes across a secret resistance movement fighting against an unseen cabal of aliens who use subliminal messaging to keep humanity locked in a state of consumption and laze. Once Nada accidentally gets a hold of specially-made sunglasses which allow him to see the ghoulish aliens, he has to flee and attempt to convince people to join him in resisting their plot.

Like a few other Carpenter movies, They Live is a perfect example of a mediocre movie that would have made a fantastic TV episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps with a better budget and a stronger script, it could have been a great 90-minute movie. As it was, though, some sharp editing could have pared it down to a brilliant 50-minute show. There is some great commentary on rampant consumerism driven by economic elites, which is as relevant now as it was at the height of Reagan-era excess. And the science-fiction devices work fairly well, with even the clearly-underbudgeted makeup effects creating the necessary creepiness. And the movie does provide us with a couple of classic one-liners, including the gem "I've come to kick ass and chew bubblegum...and I'm all out of bubblegum."

What keeps the movie from being all it could have been comes down to two things, really. One is several sluggish, filler-type sequences that gobble up far more screen time than necessary. Most egregious is the back alley fistfight between Nada and Frank (played by the ever-solid Keith David). The pro wrestling-style brawl goes on for over five minutes, but it feels like three or four times that. Add in that it is far from essential to the primary plot, and you get a nasty speed bump in the middle of what is occasionally a well-paced movie. The second issue is that the script simply isn't terribly creative or tight. The brilliant premise and basic framework aside, there just aren't many verbal exchanges or expositions that are terribly compelling or memorable. Equally dubious are some of the threads that are meant to tie the story together, which can be frayed in more than one part of the film.

They Live is a fun little slice of 1980s dystopian social commentary, to be sure. It's not much of a time commitment at right around 90 minutes, so it's worth checking out for anyone who enjoys a clever sci-fi premise, even if the technical merits of the movie are lacking in several aspects. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Documentary Fest: Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (2013); OJ: Made in America (2016)

Some of the best moments are when Tyson is recounting his
moments as a boxer- the profession in which he achieved
historic greatness.
Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (2013)

Director: Spike Lee

OK, so technically this isn't a "documentary," but I don't often review recordings of Broadway shows. This category seems to fit as well as any.

Not long ago, I did post on the documentary Tyson, which was released a couple of years before The Undisputed Truth. In that post, I describe how Tyson has always been a  rather fascinating figure to me, as an unstoppable boxing force of nature when I was a kid, right up through all of the troubling and bizarre trials and tribulations that would dog him for the decades following his loss of the heavyweight title. So I was surprised that it took me so long to get around to watching the one-man show that he put on several years ago on Broadway.

The Undisputed Truth can be a somewhat strange viewing experience that is likely to be enjoyable for fans and supporter of Tyson but probably won't win over any new supporters. In fact, there are some segments of the show that emphasize some of the less appealing aspects of Tyson's nature which he seems to still harbor.

The show is built around Tyson giving his autobiography while on stage, with visual images projected behind him onto a large screen. He start with his birth and covers many of the major turning points of his life, both in his historic boxing career and in his infamous and well-documented
When Tyson gets humorous, such as when he recounts his
first meeting with a very young Brad Pitt, the comedy some-
times gets unintentionally awkward.
personal struggles. For much of the show, Tyson doesn't lay blame for his failings anywhere but with himself. There are, however, some moments when he intentionally lapses back into the ultra-macho, street fighter mentality when recounting more barbaric encounters like his admittedlly humorous run-ins with Mitch "Blood" Green. Green was a former heavyweight fighter and notorious meat-head whom Tyson pummeled both inside the ring and outside of the ring, the latter tale is one which Tyson clearly relishes in telling. It's one of a few stories that are meant for pure comic effect, and it does work to an extent. There are times, though, when the humor didn't hit, at least not with me. When he tells of seeing his ex-wife Robin Givens riding around with a very young, up-and-coming actor named Brad Pitt and says that he didn't know whether "to fuck him or fight him," it smacks of the type of unsavory machismo that doesn't appeal to me. In moments like this, he was clearly playing to his crowd, which was composed of no small amount of NYC locals who are obviously in his corner.

Many other segments of the show are more serious in tone, as Tyson speaks of his rape conviction and the accidental, freak death of his young daughter. During these moments, there is a vulnerability to the man that is what has often made him a deeper and sometimes more tragic figure than many people have admitted. Anyone who has really listened to Mike Tyson, going back many years, could see that there was more to him than just a thug who was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Amid the mental chaos that he experienced (he has long since admitted suffering from clinical mental disorders) was an intelligent and often even thoughtful and empathetic person. These things can and do shine through at times, including in this one-man show.

While I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, those with the slightest curiosity about Tyson will likely find something of interest in the performance.


O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Director: Ezra Edelman

Incredibly brilliant, deeply disturbing, and immensely informative. These are what documentaries can be, when done with a broad persepctive, in skilled hands.

Like many, when I heard about this documentary, I presumed that it was another barely-necessary rehashing of one of the most infamous celebrity court cases in the history of the United States. I expected a simple rundown of the murder case, done in an almost Law & Order style summary palatable for the morbidly curious. What we all got, though, is an in-depth study of the making of a celebrity who put his immense charisma and skills as an athlete to his own purpose of transcending race and repressing his own background. It also ties all of this together with the larger and vastly more uncomfortable topic of race relations in the United States, in Los Angeles in particular.

At this point, any American over the age of twenty knows the basic O.J. Simpson story. He was a superstar athlete who achieved phenomenal glory on the football field in the 1960s and '70s. He also expanded into being a highly successful endorser of various big-name products, and even had a notable acting career. In 1994, though, he was arrested for the brutal murder of his separated wife and her then-boyfriend. O.J. would go through a bizarre apprehension and trial, which resulted in his acquittal, despite the fact that evidence strongly suggested his guilt. He went free, but his life would spiral in odd ways, until he was again arrested in 2007 for a gang-style show of strength aimed at reclaiming sporting memorabilia which he believed to have been stolen from him. He currently remains behind bars.

Those are the bare bones of the tale, and it's one that has been recapped hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the last decade. What director Ezra Edelman did with O.J.: Made In America was to look at the larger picture surrounding such a singularly tragic story. While weaker documentaries work hard to paint a very particular and often biased picture based on the director's subjective vision, the very best documentaries reveal truths which are much more difficult to argue against. Edelman crafted an excellent film that reveals much about American society and the nature of especially narcissistic and self-obsessed individuals. The focus begins on Simpson at the University of Southern California (USC), where he first attained national stardom as an award-winning running back for their powerhouse football team. Then we shift back briefly to Simpson's childhood in Oakland, where he grew up impoverished in an all-black neighborhood. From that moment, the film shifts back and forth, between O.J.'s rise to and through superstardom and the larger conflicts between the poor black community in Los Angeles and the L.A. Police Department. As one gains a larger understanding of that societal conflict, the seemingly illogical attitudes of certain groups during and after the murder trial become far more comprehensible.

Simpson and his attornies react to the verdict that polarized
the nation like few, if any, ever have. The full context around
the decision and reactions offers a fascinating and
disturbing look at the darker aspects of the American soul
and the human condition.
Beyond the most important facts that the film illuminates about race in the U.S. is the fascinating look into the nature of celebrity and narcissism. A theme throughout the entire series is that Simpson was, from an early age, virtually obsessed with appealing to the widest possible audience in order to attain and maintain fame. Seemingly born with dazzling charisma to go along with his physical gifts as an athlete, he was able to charm millions and millions of people not only through his sports and acting careers, but even through and after the horror that was the double murder of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman. Hearing the testimony of Simpson's former friends and associates is highly compelling, if ultimately greatly disturbing. We are allowed insight into the nature of a diabolical character - one who quite literally was so charming that he could get away with murder. And we are not allowed the comfort of forgetting just how horrendous the murder was, with the crime scene photos shown repeatedly. This decision by Edelmen feels completely appropriate, lest we viewers lose sight of the real loss among the peculiar and morbidly fascinating characters that Simpson morphed from and into.

O.J.: Made in America is no small viewing chore. Whereas most of the films in ESPN's excellent 30 for 30 series run between 60 and 90 minutes, this one was released as five separate episodes, clocking in at a grand total of seven-and-a-half hours. Honestly, though, I was hypnotized by it. There wasn't a single aspect or segment of the film that dragged or seemed superfluous. Anyone who enjoys well-done documentaries, even ones that cover unsavory topics, would do well to take this one in. It's a masterpiece.