Tuesday, May 30, 2017

New Release! Alien: Covenant (2017) [Spoiler-Free 1st Section]

Spoiler-Free Section

Director: Ridley Scott

Much like the previous Alien movie, Prometheus, Covenant is an uneven tale with some magnificent visuals.

My full review of 2012's Prometheus is here, but for those who don't know, can't remember, or have willfully wiped their memory of it, the basic tale is thus: in the year 2093, a crew of space explorers arrives on a distant planet, where various clues on Earth have guided them. The working theory is that this new planet may provide further hints about an alien race which may have created all life on Earth. When the crew arrive, they find a massive spacecraft filled with wonderfully advanced and terrifyingly lethal biological weaponry. This weaponry, which includes creatures seen in the previous Alien movies, kills all but two members of the crew: Doctor Elizabeth Shaw and the android David. Shaw and David narrowly escape the planet, with the intent of finding the beings that left behind such nefarious creatures of pure destruction.

Flash forward a decade. The massive spacecraft Covenant is on its way to a new planet, filled with a couple thousand human colonists and the ship's crew, all under stasis for the long trip. When things go wrong, the crew is awoken and they find themselves heading towards a planet from which they receive strange audio which sounds like music from Earth. Once on the planet of origin, they make discoveries as to the fate of the survivors of the Prometheus disaster a decade before their voyage.

Right off, I have to say that Covenant does address one of my beefs about Prometheus, regarding the nature of the android David. And while is is annoying to learn that these were left for a sequel to explain, I did find the explanations quite satisfactory. In fact, the explanations become the primary plot point and arguably most interesting element of Covenant.

Another merit of the movie is, unsurprisingly, the visuals. Between some marvelous set pieces, stunning landscapes, slick costumes, and excellent CGI, the movie looks great. There are also a few action sequences that were far better than anything I recall from Prometheus, including the penultimate showdown with the obligatory xenomorph. No, none of it comes close to topping the many great scenes in James Cameron's Aliens, but there was improvement, to be sure.

Viewers should also not be surprised to learn that the acting is solid. Michael Fassbinder is the headliner, and of course he continues his chilly portrayal of the androids David and Walter. The rest of the cast is also strong, even if Billy Crudup's neurotic performance didn't do his character any real favors. And this brings up the characters.

The crew of the Covenant. Unfortunately, many of them
often seemed like they played hooky during what I assume
should have been rigorous psychological testing and
space exploration training.
One of my major problems with Prometheus was the lack of characters who were either really intelligent or at least worth caring about. I was disappointed to learn that Covenant did not make any real strides in this department. Much like the crew of the Prometheus, the crew of the Covenant come off as bafflingly ill-equipped to deal with difficult situations. Anyone who does just a little homework on space travel knows that astronauts go through rigorous training and are very closely vetted for their abilities to remain cool under pressure. This includes when things go terribly wrong, including losing fellow crew members. Yet, several members of the Covenant seem to lack that even keel, breaking down and over-reacting to nearly every crisis. There is also a lack of organic emotion in the story, with deeply-felt bonds being forced down our throats rather than allowed to emerge more naturally. This is a real shame, as it takes much of the steam out of scenes that are meant to be moving or at least tense.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of the movie is that too many components felt like mere retreads of ideas long since overused in the Alien film series and copied by lesser imitators. While there are some concepts and themes that are new to these tales, many of the horror elements are all too familiar and far too easy to anticipate.

The litmus test for me with science-fiction movies has always been the strength of my desire to watch them again after my first viewing. Covenant does pass this basic subjective requirement, although just barely. As stunning as many of the visuals are, I won't bother seeing it again in the theater, rather waiting for home release. In doing a tad bit of research on the future of the series, I did come across a few somewhat disconcerting quotes from series honcho Ridley Scott, implying that he may just be spinning the entire series into a possibly endless "franchise" - a term which he seems to use almost disdainfully. On paper, the quotes almost suggest that the mere existence of these recent Alien movies are at least in some form a middle finger from Scott to the viewing public, which might explain the lack of creativity, relative to the earliest and best entries into the series. I hope this isn't the case, and that any future films can realize their full potential more completely. Prometheus and Covenant have come up a bit short, even if they are just engaging enough to merit more than one viewing.

Spoiler Section - You've Been Warned

A few specific reactions:

One of several tense moments in which the crew needs to
think and act quickly. Odds are, at least one person is going
to make a horribly ill-advised decision, which seems to be
a theme in the two recent Alien films.
Firstly, I think one problem I have regards the pace. In very short order, things start to go tragically wrong, with protagonist Daniels losing her husband in a brutal, fiery accident. From that horrible moment, there is a dark shadow lurking over the film that even the few attempts at levity can't escape. When one looks at the best science-fiction/action/adventure/thriller movies, including Alien and Aliens, there was always a slow buildup to the disaster and terror. Those movies spend a good thirty minutes or more allowing us to know the characters in more relaxed and often humorous scenes. We never get that with Covenant, which lowers the emotional stakes. As other crew members start dropping like flies, I can't say that I knew or cared much about any of them, which is a far cry from how I felt about many of the deaths in the first two movies. When the crew members of the Nostromo or the space marines in Aliens start dying, there was a real sense of loss. Covenant didn't offer nearly as much of that as I had hoped.

Just how is it that the writers of Prometheus and Covenant either can't or won't write authentic characters? There are plenty of examples in this most recent film, but one standout example will suffice to make my point. After Daniels's husband, who is also the crew captain, is killed in the accident, Oram assumes command. However, right from the jump, he shows a lack of backbone and leadership acumen that is baffling to say the least. This is a man who was supposedly tested and vetted to be second in command of what I assume is a trillion-dollar colonization mission on a distant planet. And at the first sign that he'll have to actually lead people, he crumbles like an eight-year-old who forgot his book report. This was yet another area where the original two films cast these more recent ones in such poor light - nearly all of the characters actually make the right decisions and show great survival instincts and skills; it's just that the xenomorph(s) are frighteningly adept killing machines.

As for the originality, it seems as though Ridley Scott and his chosen writers are tapped out of ideas when it comes to the xenomorphs themselves. Yes, we get an air-born, inhalant version of a xenomorph, and a couple of creatures that bear a different complexion and slightly different body structures. But mostly, we get the same types of chest-burster, face-hugger, and drop-from-the-rafters scenes that we've had in nearly every other Alien movie. Even though Prometheus introduces the ideas of an array of variant pathogens and lethal organisms, the movies seem to just rest on what was successful long in the past.

The android David is central to the film, and his is the most
engaging element of the film. Trying to puzzle out just what
is going though his synthetic brain is easily the most
compelling aspect of
It wasn't all bad, though. I actually like what they did with David's story. While the notions about artificial intelligence going rogue would probably have been fresher about 15 or 20 years ago, it is still a fascinating topic, and the enigma of David and his goals is intriguing enough to keep much of the story interesting. Upon further reflection, it does seem that the film could have revealed David's secrets more gradually and skillfully, creating greater tension. As it was, though, it was fairly compelling.

I'll also say that the penultimate action sequence was solid. While other elements of the movie were not terribly original, the fight on the landing platform between Daniels and the xenomorph, with the craft attempting to escape the planet, is the stuff of excellent big-screen, blockbuster action. It was actually far more memorable and exciting than any of the action sequences in Prometheus, which was sadly lacking in that department.

The "twist" at the end? Come on. Is there anyone who couldn't see that coming from a mile away? I'm not always the swiftest to pick up on such things, but even I knew that Walter was David from the moment we didn't actually see the end of their hand-to-hand fight. On top of that, is there an Alien movie with more of a downer ending than this one? Maybe Alien3, but at least that film concluded on an act of self-sacrificing heroism. I'm not against downer endings, when there is a greater message or suggestion being presented, but this one just seemed downright twisted. I suppose that the nearly-inevitable sequel could help take the edge off of it, and it may actually be a great straight-up action movie a la Aliens, but seeing David basically win does leave a bitter taste in the mouth. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Brockmire, season 1 (2017); Archer, season 8 (2017)

Brockmire, season 1 (2017)

I wasn't completely sure that the concept behind this show would carry an entire season, but it fortunately proved me wrong. Credit to Hank Azaria and the writers for taking a funny little short sketch and expanding into a larger world and narrative that maintains it humor well beyond its humble origins on Funny or Die.

Brockmire follows the titular baseball announcer attempting a comeback after an all-time great fall from fame. The show opens with this very fall: it's 2007 and Kent Brockmire is doing play-by-play for the Kansas City Royals, where he has done the job for many years. As usual, he is imbibing alcohol during his broadcast, but unlike previous ones, this time Brockmire confesses to the entire listening audience that he had just earlier that day walked in on his wife having an orgy. This triggers a full-blown, on-the-air, profanity-laden meltdown that leads to Brockmire's dismissal and eventual departure from the United States altogether. Flash forward to 2017. Brockmire arrives in a fictionalized version of Morristown, Pennsylvania, where he has been offered a gig as the public address announcer for the Morristown Frackers, a bottom of the barrel minor league team in an impoverished, burned out town of no consequence. Although he wants to try to work his way back to the big leagues, Brockmire still carries with him virtually every vice known to mankind.

The show is a great vehicle for "man of a million voices" Hank Azaria, probably best known for his over-a-dozen characters on the Simpsons (including Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum, and tons of others), delivers that classic, smooth-as-silk and overly polished pipes of the classic baseball broadcasters in the vein of Vin Scully. Hearing that American-as-apple-pie voice delivering some of the degenerate and self-reviling existential musings of a broken man is just as funny as you think it might be. There are a few moments when the show almost veers too far into depression to make a successful turn back, but it always manages to end on humorous notes.

At the end of a long, beer-soaked baseball/drinking game,
Jules, Brockmire, and Charles celebrate a big win.
If Azaria and the Brockmire character were all there was to the show, it would probably wear thin pretty quickly. Fortunately, the supporting cast and characters are almost equally entertaining. Amanda Peet plays Jules James, the owner of the Frackers who is desperate to keep the pathetic team alive as one of the few emotional buoys in the failed town. Jules is nearly as depraved as Brockmire, able to keep up with his immense appetites for booze and sex, making them quite the pair. Then there's Charles, the goofy, nerdy, millennial kid who assists Brockmire in the booth (and who knows and cares little about baseball). The play between the two is often gold.

The structure of the show is solid, as well. Almost every episode is a flashback to a period during Brockmire's dark decade - the 10 year period between 2007 and 2017, when he was off the grid calling oddball sporting events in foreign countries. While also hilarious, these manage to flesh out the character a little more. And rather than just be eight episodes of Brockmire spewing raunchy observations, which would get somewhat tired, there is an actual arc to the season. Human drama is hardly the point of the show, but it does offer a welcome touch of depth.

Final verdict is that the wife and I liked it (and the wife isn't always on board with shows about sports and the disgusting characters who populate the world of sports). Thanks to some sharp writing and all-in performances by the cast, I'm looking forward to the second season, already scheduled for next year.

Archer, season 8 (2017)
The theme of season 8 draws deep from the vast well of
noir tales from the '40s and '50s. 

After playing catchup on this series by binging the first seven seasons over the course of a few months, this was the first season that I watched as it aired. For the most part, I wasn't disappointed.

Being subtitled "Dreamland", season 8 picks up directly after the cliffhanger ending of season 7, and we now have Sterling in a coma. Using the brilliant device from the classic 1980s British crime TV series The Singing Detective, this season takes place almost completely inside Sterling's mind, wherein he plays a version of himself in the Los Angeles of late 1940s noir cinema. Instead of a spy, he is a private detective and World War II veteran who tries to track down the killers of his partner, Woodhouse (who in his real life was his horribly abused butler). The other regular characters of the show are now altered versions of themselves, each now occupying a role typical of the noir films and novels. Cyril is now a stuffy, crooked cop, Lana is an undercover U.S. Treasury agent, Pam (who is, hilariously, a man in Archer's coma dream), and all of the other characters see similar shifts, including Malory as a crime lord known conveniently as "Mother."

The show features all of the lightning-quick zingers and depravity of the previous seven seasons, but there are so many extra layers to be enjoyed for fans of noir fiction. True to the genre, there is an overly complicated plot, made only the more complex by the various characters' bungling and idiocy. A little off-beat spice is added by including Kruger as a former Nazi scientist conducting his typically insane experiments, perhaps as a tip of the cap to the emerging popularity of the science-fiction genre in the late 1940s.

The real-world Pam, known only as Poovey in Archer's
coma dream, is now a male cop. It's one of the better
alternative takes on what is one of my favorite characters
in the show's entire run. 
I will say that this season was perhaps not quite as thoroughly satisfying as some of its predecessors. Part of this is due to the season's brevity - only eight episodes as opposed to the normal 13 or even 10 of seasons one through seven. There are also a few gags and sequences that don't quite hit, which is a little surprising given the smaller number of episodes. The expected trade-off of a shorter season is that the writing will be even tighter than more protracted seasons, but such is not quite the case here.

The only other minor disappointment for me with this season was that it did not end with the typical lead-in to the next season. Given the atypical, fantasy nature of this arc, I was fully expecting to get at least a quick teaser for what season nine might have in store. Alas, it was not to be. I suppose we fans of the show will simply have to wait and guess at what direction the show will take next. Regardless, I'll be ready and eager for it. 

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.