Thursday, April 17, 2014

The March of Progress

In various articles about gay rights, journalists often notes that public polling has showed movement faster than any other social issue in history. For an example of how far and fast things have come -- but also of how far we still have to go -- you can turn to the documentary movie Outrage.

Outrage is a documentary made by Kirby Dick, the man who made This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It takes a look at U.S. politics, specifically closeted gay politicians who consistently vote against gay rights. It was made only five years ago in 2009, but is in many ways a time capsule.

The film opens with a look at Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who famously (and rather recently, at the time) solicited gay sex from an undercover policeman in an airport bathroom. He did not seek reelection after the scandal, though he already done plenty of damage in his 18 years in office through his anti-LGBT voting history. The film then moves on to several other public figures including former New York mayor Ed Koch and to then-Florida governor Charlie Crist. Lest the film seem to be tossing around tabloid-like accusations about sexuality, it's worth noting the film also looks at Ken Mehlman, manager of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, who came out one year after the film was made and rededicated himself to advocating pro-gay policies (though only after putting gay marriage bans on the ballot in numerous states, as part of a strategy to secure Bush's reelection).

In any case, trading in gossip isn't really the point of the film. It's in fact pushing several messages. First, it seeks to show how self-destructive it is to be gay and in the closet. The psychology of someone who must deny thousands of others equality as part of denying his own truth is a twisted one indeed. It's a sort of schoolyard mentally where a bully is happy to be picking on someone else as a way to avoid being picked on himself. Highlighting this message are interviews with former Congressmen Jim Kolbe and former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, both of whom attest to the weight lifted in coming out. (And yet, it's telling that neither of them remained in their jobs after doing so.)

Second, the movie looks at the way the media covers gay rumors. If a celebrity or politician is caught up in a sex scandal, it will dominate the new cycle for days or weeks. But if it's a gay sex scandal? The story is quickly swept under the rug. The film makes a compelling case that this double standard, this near-paranoia about outing someone against their will (even if their hypocrisy means they deserve it) serves no one any good.

To a large extent, these attitudes haven't really changed in the five years since the film was made. On the other hand, plenty of other things have. We now have the first openly gay Senator (Tammy Baldwin, interviewed here in this film when she was in the House instead). Marriage equality has been achieved in a dozen more states, including California (where the well-known Proposition 8 was challenged in court). Charlie Crist has lost his governorship in Florida, converted from Republican to Democrat, has reversed to support gay rights, and is now trying to run again for governor. (He still hasn't acknowledged being gay himself, though.)

I imagine in another five years, Outrage will be even more of a curiosity, as gay rights issues move even farther along. But on its way to being an historical chronicle, it serves in the meantime as compelling social commentary. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Providence

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was mostly dedicated to showing us the lay of the land in regards to the villains. It would seem Garrett truly is "the Clairvoyant," no matter how perfect a fit Zola-in-the-machine from The Winter Soldier might have been. That's alright, I think; putting Bill Paxton center stage is not at all a bad thing. (And there may still be an out; see below.) Joining Garrett is a parade of adversaries from earlier in the season, including "Flowers," Quinn, and maybe even corrupt-scientist-trapped-inside-gravitonium-or-whatever-they-called-it.

But more than all that, we're supposed to walk away understanding: Ward is a villain. Some might question how he had too perfect an explanation for all his behavior throughout the season (and that the writers made a point of calling this out), but it seems to me that he's now shot and killed way too many people to be any kind of mole for the good guys. (Brainwashed? Maybe an outside possibility. But he seems a much higher-functioning thinker than brainwashed Bucky Barnes.) Nope, he's just a flat out double agent, with the episode even telling us to think of him as the male Black Widow.

With such a plot-driven agenda, there weren't a lot of moments for good character scenes. Still, we got a few. Skye acknowledged the "what are we agents of?" joke that everyone (myself included) was making last week, in a scene that also pointed out that she was losing something just when she finally belonged. And Clark Gregg again served up a great performance in Coulson's breakdown just before the secret bunker was revealed.

Guest stars! Fans of Heroes got a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance by Adrian Pasdar. He'll surely be back later in the season. And Patton Oswalt, fanboy-in-chief, debuted as the lone agent at the Providence facility.

But mostly, this episode was a bit of a deep breath after the big blowout of last week. There seems to be plenty of neat things in store, though. What's going on with the metal on Garrett's torso? Is he being controlled by someone else, Deathlok style? What fun tension will result from having Ward back with the team? I'm certainly looking forward to next week, though I'd give this episode only a B+.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lion and the Rose

Another wedding on Game of Thrones, another evening of Twitter and Facebook going crazy. But before we get to the big finish, there were plenty of other great elements of the episode to consider.

This week, a number of characters sat on the bench in order to make room for the ones we didn't get to see in the premiere. Of those, I'm particularly intrigued to see what the show is going to do with Bran. His story slows down considerably in this section of the book, with very few chapters dedicated to him. On the show, they're either going to have to leave him unseen for several episodes at a stretch, or invent some new storyline to involve him in.

The show appears to be taking the latter approach when it comes to Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos. The material between Melisandre and Stannis' daughter is entirely new, and seems to be laying track for at least another episode or two. Shireen is set up as a willful little girl, but not insolent to the point of falling out of her father's favor. (Something you definitely don't want to do.) Is Melisandre going to mold her? Break her? How? It's fun to see something depicted on the show that I don't know from the books.

Somewhere between the books and new invention is the material with Theon/Reek. As I mentioned last season, readers didn't get any of him in books three or four. Book five fills in or implies the broad strokes of the horrors visited upon him, but it's an entirely different thing to see them played out. Alfie Allen has an entirely different acting challenge in playing Reek, and is rising to meet it. The scenes at the Dreadfort were very well written. Even knowing Theon was not going to slit Ramsay Snow's throat, the shaving scene was still fun and tense.

But naturally, the most tension of all was in watching the wedding and its reception unfold. There were wonderful performances throughout. Lena Headey excelled as a petulant Cersei, and Pedro Pascal as Oberyn perfectly delivered the barbs that worked her into such a foul mood. Sophie Turner delivered several beautiful moments as Sansa with little or no dialogue, from the pity she took on an embarrassed Tyrion to the horror she contained as she watched Joffrey's awful show unfold. Peter Dinklage too was great as always, trying to endure Joffrey's torment (and he was even better earlier in the episode as he turned on Shea to make her want to leave King's Landing). But a special nod must go to the departing Jack Gleeson, as the departed King Joffrey. His final episode was a showcase of why we all loved to hate his character so much.

Of course, the episodes of Game of Thrones with these huge story developments have a leg up on becoming favorites. Nevertheless, they still have to be executed well... and this one was. This episode gets an A.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Wolf It Down


I'm not one of those film enthusiasts who worships at the altar of Martin Scorsese. He's made a few good films and at least one really great one (The Departed), but he's also made his share of stinkers (does anyone want to try defending The Aviator?). So it was not the director that drew me to last year's The Wolf of Wall Street. I was intrigued by the strong performances the movie was said to showcase.

Perhaps I was also a bit intrigued by the controversy. In the run-up to this year's Academy Award scenario, The Wolf of Wall Street -- though a nominee for Best Picture -- was never said to be seriously in contention. And the reason often cited by critics was the polarizing nature of the movie's characters. The story was stuffed top to bottom with reprehensible people, nobody to root for, and thus the film couldn't ever muster the enthusiasm from the voters to win the top honor. But some of my favorite movies have, let's say, unheroic or unconventional protagonists. I was curious.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a glamorized look inside the stockbroking business, along the lines of Wall Street (which is even mentioned in the film). Of course, Wall Street was a film of its time, where this movie comes to us 25 years later as a "period piece." It is indeed an actors' movie, and has several interesting performances.

Leonardo DiCaprio collaborates with Scorsese once again, in a role that earned him a Best Actor nomination. I don't feel it was deserved. Though his wry narration does inject a lot of the film's humor, his presence on-screen is showy to a degree of being too self-aware. Jonah Hill was also Oscar nominated for this film, an apparent acknowledgement of the weird challenges associated with his performance -- he wore strange teeth, actually got smacked by actor Jon Bernthal, put a live fish in his mouth, and had a particularly notorious scene with a prosthetic. But if physical discomfort alone were enough to earn you an Oscar, Sandra Bullock should have won her second for Gravity. Jonah Hill is good, but in a film stuffed with showy performances (obsessed Kyle Chandler, annoyed Rob Reiner, steroidal Jon Bernthal, oily Jean Dujardin, high-strung Margot Robbie, sympathetic Cristin Milioti), Jonah Hill just isn't really prominent enough to stand out.

If you want to talk about an actor who does a lot with a little, look to Matthew McConaughey. He's in this movie for perhaps five minutes at most, but casts a shadow a mile long. His weird, chest-thumping improv (reportedly an off-camera warm-up Leonario DiCaprio encouraged him to use during a take) has become the signature moment from this film, actually changing the script before rocketing into the zeitgeist.

But as for the film? Well, it's style over substance. And a lot of it, clocking in at nearly three hours. There are certainly entertaining moments sprinkled throughout, but there's also a lot of down time in between. Some people will have the patience to sit through and extract these juicy morsels, but most are probably better off taking a pass. I give The Wolf of Wall Street a C-.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Big Day in Court

Yesterday, I had the chance to witness possible history in the making.

But first, some background. Depending on where you get your news, you may be aware of the significant number of court rulings on same-sex marriage in the United States over the last four months. Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio have all made headlines with a federal court judge issuing a ruling on the subject. Differences in each case have led to rulings of different scopes, but in each of these rulings (made in the wake of last summer's Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. United States), marriage equality has a perfect record.

Challenging a law like this in federal court is inevitably a three step process. First, a court at the state level hears the case and rules. That's the step each of the seven states I mentioned above represented. The third and final step is a trip to the Supreme Court. In between are the Federal Courts of Appeal, divided into a number of Circuits. Lose your argument at the State level, and you're off to whichever Circuit includes your state.

In the case of Utah and Oklahoma, that's the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. And it happens that the Tenth Circuit is located right here in Denver. The oral arguments in the Utah case were scheduled for yesterday (and are scheduled in the Oklahoma case for next Thursday), and though seating is limited, court proceedings like this are open to the public.

Now I'm certainly no expert. But I've been following these various court proceedings with understandable interest, and so I'm going to lay claim to a deeper understanding of the cases and laws at issue than the average layman. And if I'm asked to place a bet, I'd say there's a very good chance that of all these various cases, this case from Utah (known as "Kitchen v. Herbert") will be the one that ends up before the Supreme Court in 2015 to settle the matter of same-sex marriage nationwide. So, on that chance, I decided to wake up early yesterday morning, drive down to the court, and see if I could get into one of those limited public seats.

I did.

You can listen to an audio recording of the one hour proceeding here, at the Tenth Circuit's web site. But there was something special about being there in person. I wound up crammed into a bench with a gay couple on my right, and a Salt Lake City-based morning radio personality on my left. All of us were hoping for the same outcome, and so the hearing itself became an odd cross between church (maintain a respectful silence) and a sporting event (cheer for your side!).

A panel of three judges heard the case. You can find commentary all over the internet now, people musing over the disposition of those judges during the hearing. You'll find just as much commentary advising you not to read too much into the questions asked by judges during such a hearing.

That said, there was simply no room for doubt that one of the judges, Carlos Lucero, could not be more supportive of "our side." Whenever he'd direct a particularly withering question to Utah's lawyer, the couple on my right would pump their fists, and the radio personality to my left would star her notes with a flourish. There was another judge, Paul Kelly, who seemed to want to rule the other way, in support of the marriage ban, but Lucero's questions clearly painted the box that any such ruling would have to fit into:

How do you even make such a ruling here when the Supreme Court's opinion in the Windsor case seemed to clearly state that such discrimination is unconstitutional?

If banning same-sex marriage is supposedly for "the good of the kids," how can you possibly square that with the fact that same-sex couples are also raising children?

But near the end of the hearing, Lucero dropped a real bomb that I've never heard of coming up in any other marriage equality case. He compared Utah's refusal to recognize a same-sex marriage from another state (Iowa, in this case) to the most notorious Supreme Court ruling in history, Dred Scott -- the ruling that upheld slavery and precipitated the Civil War. Yeah... he went there. And there was an audible gasp in the courtroom when he did.

Commentators have seized on how the third judge, Jerome Holmes, is thus now positioned as the "swing vote." In my opinion, there's little cause for concern. Though he did ask pointed questions of both sides, he happens to be one of the judges who in December ruled not to stay the original ruling in this very case. That refusal led to a period of a few weeks where same-sex marriages actually took place in Utah before the other side ran to the Supreme Court for their stay. It simply defies reason to imagine this judge would not stay a ruling if he would choose to overturn it, given the chance.

Well, here's his chance, and his questions seemed mostly to do with the questions of scrutiny (whether or not, to win this case, gays and lesbians have to be defined officially for the first time as a suspect class worthy of additional legal protections) and of standing (essentially, whether this case could wind up being thrown out by the Supreme Court on a technicality similar to the one that prevented last year's California case from being the one that settled this issue).

I am going to join the prevailing chorus in predicting a 2-1 win for our side here. But I think there's an outside chance of a 3-0 win too, if Judge Kelly tries to write the opinion no other judge since Windsor has been able to and finds he can't credibly do it either. Perhaps we'll get further insight into the thinking of these three judges next week when they also hear the Oklahoma appeal.

If this does wind up being the case that goes to the Supreme Court, then I had a chance to watch the parade drive by here in Denver on the way to that final destination. And even if it turns out to be one of the other cases, it was still an encouraging morning, watching a handful of people fight for their rights, my rights, and the rights of thousands of others like me.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Turn, Turn, Turn

Last November, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plugged an episode that would cross over with the events of the latest Marvel film, Thor: The Dark World. Though the episode itself was decent, the connection to the film was... well, it would be generous to call it much more than non-existent. But this week's connection to Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Well, suffice it to say, the show is forever changed. What to even call it now? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Whatever it is, the show once again topped itself and delivered its best episode yet. As with last week's hour, which was essentially the first half of a two-parter, paranoia was everywhere. The episode really put you in Coulson's head, and at some point or another, every single other main character (but Skye) was someone he wasn't sure he could trust.

The episode was so full of reveals that even if you anticipated one or two of them, several more were still to come. As expected, May's role as informant on the team was fairly benign. Still, it was interesting the way the writers took the opportunity to explain the somewhat odd makeup of Coulson's team. Why so many eggheads? Because that's the way May (and Nick Fury) wanted it, to monitor his condition.

Expected by some (including me), Agent Garrett was revealed as a villain. But there was more to the story than the surprise; the characters' reactions to it was just as important. Clark Gregg as Coulson was given a tough job as an actor, playing a familiar "you just gave yourself away" scene. But his performance was powerful enough to forgive the cliche. In the same scene, Iain de Caestecker as Fitz may have been even better. The tear that rolled down his cheek as Garrett threatened him told you all you needed to know: Fitz had lost all hope.

Speaking of Garrett's big reveal, I'm by no means convinced that things are as simple as "he's the Clairvoyant." Given how thoroughly the TV series has integrated with The Winter Soldier, it seems to me that the sprawling underground computer Captain America and Black Widow discovered has to play a role. Dr. Zola as "brain in a jar" was describing exactly the sort of far-reaching data-mining that would explain the "Clairvoyant's" powers. It would also explain why the Clairvoyant has only communicated with his minions in the TV series by phone or text, never in person. On the other hand, Cap and Black Widow destroyed said computer in the movie, and it's not like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.would want to have its season-long big villain killed (for them) off screen. We'll just have to see.

Of course, to really bring the HYDRA reveal close to home and really change the show, the thing to do would be to make one of our people a double agent after all. And it seems we got that. I suppose there's still a chance to Ward has cooked up some kind of reverse super double-cross thing with Coulson, but it's not like past Whedon shows have shied away from making one of the main characters a villain. (In fact, all of his shows have done that at some point.) Either way, the writers seemed to be engaging snarky fans directly in this episode -- the ones who have whined how boring a character Ward is -- and retorted, "oh yeah?"

How cool was this episode? I've never read a comic about SHIELD or HYDRA in my life, and even I thought the final moment was pretty sweet, where the traditional closing SHIELD logo was replaced with the HYDRA symbol.

This was the series' first grade A episode. Now let's just hope that the buzz leading into it brought back some of the viewers who have drifted away.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Medium Heat

Sandra Bullock received wide praise (and an Oscar nomination) for her performance in Gravity last year, but that was one of two recent movies to feature her. From the "and now for something completely different" file, we have The Heat.

The movie treads almost painfully familiar "buddy cop comedy" ground. Two talented law enforcement officials. One is straight-laced, the other rebellious. The two are forced to work together, and hate every minute of it until they each gain a grudging respect for the other. There's really nothing unique about this movie. And yet there's one quite unique thing about it: the two leads are female.

It's frankly sad that it's taken so long to see a movie like this headlined by two women. And unfortunately, the script basically takes this one bit of "originality" and calls it a day. It's really just not a very clever or entertaining film otherwise. But then, to a large extent, I suppose every movie of this genre begins and ends with the casting of its two leads.

Any shortcomings of the movies aren't really the fault of these two leads, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Both have strong comic chops. Their styles complement each other, and they definitely cut loose and have fun with the roles. But it's as though the two have to manufacture most of the laughs themselves. The best moments in the movie feel improvised, caught in the odd "one more take" or in the seconds after the director called "cut."

All told, I'd only rate The Heat somewhere around a C-. I'm not sure that much better could have come from such a simple premise, but I wish it had.