Saturday, May 30, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 (2014-2015)

The team at the start of the season. Things do change,
in highly entertaining fashion.
An excellent sophomore season of a show that has really found its footing.

Season 2 of Agents has several interesting stories running through it. The first half, comprising 10 episodes, follows two main stories. One is the attempt of Coulson and the remnants of his team to deal with the remaining Hydra agents in the world, who themselves are attempting to regroup and usurp any advantage which SHIELD might attain. The other story involves the pursuit of Skye's insane father, Kal, and Raina of the strange alien artifact which may hold some key to Skye's origins.

Unlike the first season's initial 10 episodes, season 2 has virtually no tepid "filler" episodes. While there are one or two episodes which stand alone, and do it fairly well, the entire sequence clearly has a long-term purpose in terms of storytelling. The pacing is strong, and it all brings us up to the mid-season break with a great cliff-hanger episode during which a close team member is shockingly killed.

Once the season returned from the hiatus, it picked right back up. The latter half of the season is very much about Skye, who has now had latent superpowers triggered. Her story helped drive the plot along at a nice pace, gaining plenty of momentum by the final three or four episodes.

At this point, the characters are fleshed out well, and we get more insight into the stoic and enigmatic May. The characters introduced in this season begin to shine, as well. While I don't find actress Adrianne Palicki particularly talented in terms of acting, she does certainly have the physique of an intimidating, badass spy. If only the show-runners didn't seem to feel the need to have her hair looking Pantene-perfect in every shot, I might be less annoyed. This is a bugaboo of mine, but when a character has just punched and kicked her way through dozens of heavily-armed adversaries, her hair should not look like it was just primped for a 5-star Glamour Shot sitting.

The revelations and developments of Skye's character
some of the several strengths of this sophomore season.
Little nuisances like this aside, the new and old characters blended and conflicted in highly entertaining ways. The two-part season finale was a great piece of action storytelling, complete with fun twists, clever one-liners, and well-executed fight choreography. Underlying it all is a basic story that has a surprising amount of heft to it, dealing with the concept of pre-emptive strikes. This is something touched upon in Captain America: The Winter Solider, and it is a topic at the heart of the final chapters of this season of Agents. The show-runners work in this rather gray area well, making the ambiguity and chaos of it work for their fantasy tales.

I was very pleased to read, shortly after the season ended, that it has been renewed for a third season. Given the way that this season ended, with more than one fascinating cliff-hanger, I'll be excited to see where the show heads later this year. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New Release! Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The opening scene. Things are about to get totally bananas
over that horizon, Max.
No Spoilers!!

Director: George Miller

This movie is ridiculous fun, with a nice dash of stylish social commentary.

Right off, I'll admit that I've never seen all of the original 1979 Mad Max, though I know the gist of the story. I have seen The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome plenty of times. The former is an all-time great movie, while the latter is solid fun, though with some lamer elements that dilute it. Overall, I was rather curious about this reboot of an iconic and original film series.

My curiosity paid off. Big time.

In brief, Fury Road offers the goods on all sorts of levels. Right from the opening scenes, the action gets pumping right along and never really lets up. Yes, there are a few necessarily slower moments, but they give us time to breath with the characters and never drag any longer than necessary. This is something that went far awry in Thunderdome's second act. No such trouble here.

The entire post-apocalyptic world of the series has been updated marvelously. With modern technology and a massive budget, George Miller absolutely went to town. The set pieces are incredible; the countless props and costumes each suggest stories which beg to be told; and the effects and stunts are everything a summer blockbuster could possibly offer. Though fast cars and explosions do little for me, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the fast-paced and cleverly-shot pursuits that were hallmarks of the original trilogy.

Yes, that's Charlize Theron with a robotic left arm. Yes,
her character Furiosa is even more badass than she looks.
There are, in my estimation, two things that elevate Fury Road beyond a simple slam-bang monster truck rally set in the desert. One is that the tale functions as a clear allegory for modern global problems. It takes a little while to be introduced to all of the elements in it, but they are there in their amusing and disturbing glory. While this could have been executed in very clumsy ways, Miller teases them out through the narrative, piece-by-piece. Once you see the full picture, it may seem rather obvious, but I was glad that I was allowed to do the work myself, rather than have some superfluous exposition ruin the magic of it. It all spoke to a respect for the viewer which I found quite welcome.

The second aspect that sets the movie apart is the character Furiosa, played by the ever-capable Charlize Theron. This is the rare moment when a female is given equal footing with a male in an action movie. One could actually argue that Furiosa is more important to the film than Max. What I loved even more is that, while gender plays a certain key element to the plot, it is never any kind of issue in terms of who Furiosa is or what she does. She's not tough "for a woman." She's just plain old tough. It's great to see.

I'm already plotting my second viewing of this dusty monster, envisioning just how much more fun it will be to behold in 3D. I recommend this one to just about anyone who doesn't mind some visceral action and disturbing implications underlying their action movies.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Retro Trio: A Fish Called Wanda (1988); The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997); Killing Them Softly (2012)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Director: Charles Chrichton & John Cleese

A 1980s classic comedy that still has it.

I watched this movie plenty of times as a kid, but it had been at least 10 years since I last saw it. Though there are a few dated elements, in terms of the visuals, the dash of sappiness, and even a bit of the acting, A Fish Called Wanda is still a brilliant blend of British and U.S. humor.

For those who may not have seen it, the story mostly follows Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), a con woman who uses her beauty and wiles to horn in on a bank heist, with the intention of stealing the prized diamonds from the primary thieves. Using sex and emotional manipulation, she coldly plays every man involved - the mastermind George, the weapons man Otto (Kevin Kline), the stuttering henchman Ken (Michael Palin), and the repressed and unwitting lawyer Archie (John Cleese).

What allows the movie to stand the test of time rests on the script and the performances. The interactions between the more liberal and maverick Americans - Wanda and Otto - and their British cohorts are hilarious and eminently quotable. The standout scenes are typically between Otto and any of the English characters, whom he despises out of his own small-minded xenophobia and latent inferiority complex. Otto's supremely "ugly American" personifies every laughably obnoxious trait of U.S. travellers that has been the butt of jokes for decades, right up to the present.

Otto may not have been as memorable had it not been for an Academy Award-winning performance by Kevin Kline, which is a rare feat for a comedy film, but completely worthy. He often makes the movie, and his stand-offs with John Cleese's barrister Archie Leach and Michael Palin's Ken are perfection.

Great movie that is still great 25 years later, and will likely be great for decades to come.

The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)

Director: Jon Amiel

A pretty fun, if not outstanding, little comedy.

I had never seen this one before, and I must admit that I could see why it was never hailed as a "great" comedy, despite having a great cast. The movie is a spoof on the spy thriller genre, following goofy American tourist Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray) who goes to London and is unwittingly pulled into a plot between English and Russian forces to resurrect the Cold War status quo. Ritchie, however, is sucked into the entire affair, believing that he is the center of a popular television show on which the central "actor" is an average person who must play along with the professional actors around him, ad libbing along the way.

This premise isn't a bad one, as far as spoofs go, though the political elements do seem a few years too late for a film made in 1997. Even still, there was plenty of fodder for better political satire which went unused. That aside, there are plenty of solid setups for the comedic misunderstandings that drive the movie.

Instead of focusing more on the political humor, the film focused almost solely on its star, and one could do far worse than Bill Murray. Even when the dialogue or set-ups fall flat, Murray can carry a scene or an exchange with his hilarious deliveries, reactions, and physical comedy. It's easy to forget, given Murray's strengths with extremely dry and deadpan humor, that he can act the oblivious fool extremely well.

As a whole, though, the humor and goofiness wore thin by the third act. Despite being an obvious parody, the silliness level ramped up a little too high to remain effective. The grand finale scene consists of an overly long dance routine that borders on feeling interminable. And instead of leaving well enough alone and having Wally go on his merry way, we're left with him being recruited by the C.I.A. It was a bit too juvenile for my liking.

Had the script been a bit more clever and abandoned the more slapstick elements, this movie could very well have been a classic. As it is, it offers a few laughs, but doesn't warrant multiple viewings for me.

The social commentary is clumsy, but it
is curious enough to provoke thought.
Killing Them Softly (2012)

Director: Andrew Dominik

I was disappointed, but not necessarily because the movie is bad.

Killing Them Softly was released in 2012 and had a short and quiet run in theaters, despite solid critical acclaim. By the time of its video release, it had attained status as an "underrated film" and "sleeper pick" by critics in many quarters. With all of this "in the know" hype, I had very high hopes. The movie is quite good, but not without its flaws.

I will admit that the movie is fairly original, in terms of its grittiness and willingness to look at the more unglamorous aspects of criminality. The story takes place in a horribly bleak part of Boston, where a couple of dim, low rent street guys rob a high stakes poker game which includes members of the local mob. This sets off a chaotic attempt to assess blame and levy punishment, with noted hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) brought in to sort the entire mess out.

The novelty of the story is that it does look at the disorganization and brutality of "organized" crime. The characters come off as extremely authentic, with all of their weaknesses on full display. Whether it's simple base greed, lust, or substance addiction, a viewer gets the sense that the grim and nasty picture painted for us is far closer to the reality than the more palatable portraits given us by more mainstream gangster movies. Instead of the ultra-slick, hyper-intelligent criminals, we see the sad, flawed, and ultimately doomed thugs and lowlifes who stand no real chance at getting what they want. Easily the most poised character is Jackie, who spends far more energy battling his disgust for the stupidity and indecision around him than on actually cleaning up the various messes created by foolish thugs and Jackie's waffling employers.

Jackie spends an awful lot of time in this kind of situation -
explaining a lot of harsh realities to dim or weak wanna-be
criminals. They provide much of the movie's power.
As far as the cleaning up of those messes, they do provide some excellent on-screen suspense and power. There are more than a few scenes that can effectively stun you with their impact. Unfortunately, there are also a few plot lines and scenes that seem to drag endlessly. The main one is the entire character Mickey, played by James Gandolfini in one of his final roles before his death. Mickey is an aging hitman who Jackie brings in to help him, but it soon becomes apparent that Mickey is a broken shell of what he once was. The point of Mickey's descent, though, is belabored so much that it is taxing to watch, and it almost resulted in my completely checking out of the film. Blessedly, it does end, and the main story picks back up in the movie's final 20 minutes.

A greater enigma hanging over the entire movie is the completely unsubtle social commentary. Right from the jump, we see dashes of political posters with Obama and Romney on them, in the throes of the 2008 presidential race. The blatantly obvious message is that the United States is in a state of free-for-all chaos, with our little crime story meant as a microcosm of the entire quagmire. It's not a terrible suggestion, but it could have been handled with far more deftness. It does, however, set up an absolutely classic final line to the movie, which may be one of the most memorable in all of crime cinema.

Killing Them Softly is, despite its weaknesses, a nice addition to the genre of crime films. It does stand apart from most of its ilk, and the performances are more than strong enough to carry a viewer through it. Definitely recommended to any fan of gangster movies. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Director: Joss Whedon

Spoiler-Free Review

Good fun, but dare I say that the thrill is gone?

I suppose that this was inevitable. I absolutely loved (and still love) the first Avengers. I loved it so much that, despite my very best efforts to temper my enthusiasm, the sequel was bound to disappoint me. The good news is that it isn't more than a minor letdown, which in reality is a "win".

Age of Ultron gives fans all of the superhero action that they could want, with plenty to spare. Of course, this isn't what set the first one apart, and it's not what sets this one apart. This movie has some great set pieces, well-choreographed fights (albeit often composed mostly of CGI constructs), and confrontations which are compelling due to the combantants' motives. The battle that takes place in the middle/end of the second act is worth the price of admission, alone. I never found the finale to be as much pure fun as that of the first movie, but it is certainly impressive and entertaining.

What may turn some people off a tad is the complexity of the story. It's actually rather clever and intriguing, and the more I dwell on it, the more I like it. However, like much of the movie, the points are often laid out rather quickly, leaving viewers scrambling to catch up a little too often. I also couldn't help but think that Joss Whedon was having to work a little too hard to connect all of the dots of characters and story lines from other movies and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Again, he's probably one of the very few who could even manage it in any way. His weaving of these various elements is rather well done, but it does seem to have put a bit of a strain on the pace and rhythm of the story.

The movie definitely fell prey to one of my greatest worries going in - character overload. There are simply WAY too many characters. Even the first Avengers was a bit of a stretch, giving us six "main" characters who have to come together. In Ultron, we get the six primary Avengers, two minor heroes from other MCU movies, and three new wildcard, superpowered characters. There simply isn't enough screen time to build any real connection with the newer additions. I will, however, say that I appreciated how the story focused a little more on characters and relationships that got short shrift in earlier movies. Whedon was clearly not content to simply revisit old ground, which keeps the movie fresher than it might have been.

He looks pretty cool, is certainly powerful, and has a unique
backstory. But it's a little tough to get past Ultron's moving
"lips" and the one-liners.
I did find a slight lack of satisfaction in the villain Ultron. He's actually curious and compelling in many ways, but a few aspects of the character strike odd chords. Most obvious is the robot's dialogue. Ultron mostly speaks in imposing dicta, though he will throw in glib one-liners here and there. It strikes an odd note, given his grand plans of mass destruction. There may be an explanation for this, though I have to work rather hard to get to this "maybe." Such unresolved conundrums are not what I look for in a superhero flick.

The ultimate test of the MCU movies to me is whether I feel like watching them a second time. For me, with Age of Ultron, it's a definite "yes." However, unlike the first movie, I'm unsure as to whether my opinion will improve or degrade upon repeat viewing.

Update!! (Still no Spoilers!!!)

I saw the movie again. Two things:

1. I can't recommend the 3D and/or IMAX viewing enough. My first viewing was on a smaller screen, in standard visuals. I splurged for the 3D IMAX experience this second time, and was blown away with how much it added. I typically don't care about such things, but the scale and planning of this movie lent itself to massive 3D visuals.

2. The movie holds up quite well upon watching again. Many of the weaknesses described above still stand, though a few of the more subtle plot points became clearer when seen again. This is actually a positive to me, since I appreciate tales that reward second or even third exposures.

I was quite glad to have my return trip rewarded. I have to give the movie a solid, if not wildly enthusiastic, recommendation.