Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Who You Gonna Re-Call?

There are many movies that, in retrospect, turned out to be of major significance. But few movies said to be "important" in advance can live up to expectations. And the 2016 version of Ghostbusters was saddled with some impossible "important" baggage -- what started out as yet another 80s remake somehow transformed into a litmus test for feminism.

In that I only just got around to seeing the movie, you might say I failed that test. My defense would be simply that I never bought into the notion of it being a test. This movie's stars -- Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones -- have all been hilarious in other places; this movie didn't need to prove me that they (or certainly, women in general) are funny. Still, funny people can team up to make an unfunny movie, and my read of the critics and the trailers suggested this should be a "wait for home video" movie for me.

That turned out to be exactly the right call. There was enough good here to make the movie worth seeing, and enough bad that I'm glad I didn't pay theater prices for it. This split breaks down almost straight down the middle of the movie, in fact. The first half of the film serves up a number of laughs (and still more grins). But then the tension between comedy and big budget visuals breaks in the other direction. The final act is a nonstop procession of mindless blockbuster action; there's plenty of eye-popping visuals, but it's all wanton destruction justified by technobabble slathered on thicker than a bad Star Trek episode.

Leslie Jones nearly steals the show with several laugh out loud line readings. Kate McKinnon leans as far as she can into the bizarre character she's been given, squeezing out more humor than exists on the page. But Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren't given chances to shine at all. Saddled with the worst of the plot track-laying, they fall well short of their performances in Bridesmaids (to say nothing of their separate work). They have to do all the heavy lifting for this story, rarely getting a chance to riff.

In a cruel irony, because the men don't further the plot much in this feminist movie, they're often free to just be funny. Chris Hemsworth is given most of the movie's best material as the Ghostbusters' "him-bo" receptionist. Zach Woods (of The Office and Silicon Valley) has a tiny role in the first few minutes of the film, but somehow finds many of the biggest laughs in that span. Even Charles Dance gets to shade his stern Tywin Lannister schtick toward comedy in a brief role.

One bonus in waiting to see this on video was that I got to experience some interesting formatting they did for the Blu-ray. The bulk of the movie was presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. (For those not up on the numbers, that means that even on today's standard widescreen TVs, there are black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.) But during key moments -- involving ghost slime, lightning arcs, proton pack shots, and the like -- the visual effects actually broke the frame and extended through the bars to the edge of the screen, creating a sort of no-special-equipment-needed 3D effect. In addition, a short, key sequence at the end of the movie was presented full screen (16:9), omitting the black bars entirely. It's interesting to me that a movie which hadn't been a runaway box office success nevertheless had still more money spent on it to create new effects for home video.

A movie worthy of these stars could have been an A. The same movie that at least didn't descend into mindless destruction for the finale could have been maybe a B+. As it is, though, I think Ghostbusters lands at a B-. It's just in the "watchable" zone for those predisposed to want to, but there's almost certainly not enough here to convert anyone already set against it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Re-Negan on the Deal

There are no specific spoilers in this post.

I wasn't going to write a post about The Walking Dead season premiere. You may have noticed that I haven't been doing weekly posts about the show's new episodes for quite some time. That's because I'd basically decided to stop watching it.

The last truly great episode that stuck with me for any length of time was Carol's soul-crushing late season 4 "look at the flowers" moment. The show has been losing steam for me since then, quite slowly at first, and then with out-of-control freight train force throughout both halves of last season.

First, the show had drifted away from what it did best -- believably putting its characters into horrible situations, forced to make impossible choices. People were skating through the apocalypse with few consequences that felt significant to me, and when there were big character changes, they felt swift and unearned, as though the writers had a narrative destination in mind without any sense of the journey. (Carol's conversion to pacifism last season would be my Exhibit A.)

Second, being unable to effectively provoke emotion in its audience through actual storytelling, the show had decided to go meta, manipulating audience emotion through how it chose to tell stories. 90 minute installments that could have easily been the standard 60. Ploys to generate buzz with what they didn't put on screen -- the month long "Glenn is totally dead" gag, or the moment that got us here: not showing us the victim of Negan's violence at the close of last season.

I'd long since come to feel that the only reason I was still watching The Walking Dead is that people come over to my house on Sunday night to watch TV shows, and that was one of them in the rotation. I was going to watch this season premiere, figuring I'd rather see how they resolved this Negan thing and not just read about it online, and then I'd likely jump ship.

And then a funny thing happened. The show actually served up a solid episode, to me undeniably the best since that "look at the flowers" hour. They did it by getting back to basics. Characters were put in horrible situations with impossible choices and important consequences. Any sudden changes in character behavior from this point forward will be earned, brought about by sudden and extreme events.

As an added bonus, Negan is totally working for me. I guess since one of the problems I'd been having going into the premiere was a lack of belief in all the characters, bringing in a new character is an obvious way to address that. I was poised to dislike Negan, because I feared how nerfed he would be for television. I haven't read any of The Walking Dead comics, but I'm aware of his foul-mouthed, not-for-television nature. For the 10-minute scene that closed season 6, the production had filmed two versions of the sequence, putting an expletive-laden alternative on the DVD/Blu-ray release that couldn't be aired on AMC. If I'm not even getting uncut Negan, I figured, that's one more reason to give up on the show; if I was ever going to watch it at all, I should wait and watch the unfiltered version when it arrives a year later.

But Negan proved the adage that actions speak louder than words. Again and again throughout the season premiere, he grew more vicious, more villainous. And more delicious, thanks to a scenery chewing performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I have no idea whether all of this can be sustained for any length of time, but I find myself wanting to find out.

This could just be another peak, with a valley to follow. At the time "look at the flowers" happened (or really, the back half of season 4 in general), I was also tired of the show and ready to quit. And then things picked up and generated enough interest and goodwill in me to keep me going another two-and-a-half years. I'm not sure if the half life will be as high this time around; if the show continues to pull more fourth-wall breaking cliffhangers that exist solely for the audience and not the characters, I'm going to be looking for the exit. But for the moment, I find myself actually engaged again.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire

I found a lot to like in this week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which managed to nudge forward every ongoing story line while still carving out a lot of time for character.

My favorite thread of the hour was the pairing of Daisy and Simmons. Not only did it demonstrate what the show has been missing this season by forcing Daisy out on her own, it was a real showcase for how great Simmons has become over the run of the show. The interplay between the two was constantly great: Daisy "threatening" Simmons for her assistance, Simmons undercutting Daisy's elaborate heist plan with a simple and effective alternative, and the two both ready to stand together and go down swinging at the end. I don't recall past episodes pairing these two characters, but this made me want more of that.

Coulson and Mack were a fun pair too this week, in large part because Coulson cranked his wry humor dial up to 11. Constant quips, clever investigative work, and an actual car chase of reasonable length made their story breezy fun. And it seems that through their adventures, they've now brought Ghost Rider onto the team in some measure, taking some of the "sub" out of the "subplot" in a way I welcome.

The introduction of a Macguffin (Darkhold) into the "ghosts" storyline did nothing for me, but there will be plenty of time to make that feel important. This episode was more about exploring the Watchdogs. Bringing back a past Inhuman to be the betrayer was a nice development, and I appreciated that it was James, a character who was already a jerk. No hand-wringing over "how could you betray us?!" Just straight to "you've been had."

Compared to all that activity, the thread about May, and whether she'd discover that Ada was a robot, was on low heat. Still, I loved where that story ended this week, with Simmons instantly recognizing Ada for what she was. And through some combination of professional curiosity, protective instinct toward Fitz, and a full day of other secrets she'd have to keep, she was also just as instantly committed to keeping this a secret from the new director. More demonstration of how far she's come as a character.

In truth, this episode was still very much setup for things to come. But it felt like one of the stronger setup episodes the series has had. I grade it a B+.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tests Back from the Lab

A short while back, I wrote about the podcast More Perfect, a spin-off of Radiolab. I've since had the chance to listen more to the "mothership," as it were, and I've found it every bit as enjoyable.

Radiolab is very much like other podcasts I've already become enthralled by -- not just More Perfect, but also the excellent Criminal. The only major difference is topic, in that Radiolab doesn't quite seem to have one. This could have potentially been an issue, except that it's clear after listening to just a few episodes that the eclectic sensibilities of the hosts and reporters suit my own just fine.

So far, I've listened to installments about a woman in legal limbo because her off-the-grid parents never secured her a birth certificate, an unsettling dive into how military spy technology is making its way to the U.S. in law enforcement, a revealing look at how science is beginning to push both the medical and legal boundaries of embryonic research, and the topical tale of a small town so divided politically that it turned to dissolving the town itself as a way of sticking it to the man.

I'd level the same small criticism against Radiolab that I had against the spinoff: they use an editing style that somewhat jarringly injects narration right into the middle of an interview subject's sentences. It's Arrested Development, minus the dry wit. But after a few episodes, I'm starting to get used to it -- and it's not much of a knock on their slick production in any case.

The lack of a distinct niche really makes this show more NPR than podcast, but it's doing things right regardless. I give Radiolab an A-. It's now a regular part of my rotation.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Useless Tool

Swiss Army Man is among the most peculiar movies I've ever seen. To some extent, it's Cast Away with a dead body substituting for Wilson the volleyball. But if you've heard of it, it was probably as "the farting corpse movie."

Hank is marooned on a desert island and in the process of trying to kill himself when a dead body washes ashore. Desperate for any companionship, Hank soon imagines the corpse is able to talk. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. His new friend, Manny, is the Swiss Army Man of the title, useful for all sorts of tasks that might just help Hank survive the ordeal.

There are plenty of movies that have the same commitment to strangeness as this one. Being John Malkovich is a classic; more recently, I've written about The Lobster. Swiss Army Man is as deeply weird as those, yet lacks the thoughtful message that makes the weirdness worthwhile.

The filmmakers did put gags along the way, but ultimately even those aren't enough. Without question, watching a man ride a flatulence-powered corpse like a jet ski is one of the more insane visuals ever committed to film. But the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, making tons of jokes about farting and masturbation while at the same time pretending to be profound. Its ending doesn't come anywhere near profound. It's among the longer 95 minutes you'll ever see, and the journey isn't worth it.

The two stars do give go-for-broke performances. Paul Dano is a suitably mopey Hank, and Daniel Radcliffe wrings out a few extra laughs as Manny apart from the sight gags. But they're still essentially fighting to balloon an idea for a 10-minute short film to almost 10 times that length. I just wasn't having it.

Tantalizing premise, lackluster execution. I give Swiss Army Man a D-. Best to avoid this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


I found this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. intriguing in how it managed to simultaneously maintain a rapid pace while effectively pumping the brakes on a lot of plot threads that may have been moving too quickly this season.

I mean, you can hardly call it a "slow" episode when it featured multiple ticking clocks -- the race to save May's life, the threat of the Watchdogs in general, and the particular threat posed to Yo-Yo. Plus, the episode concluded with Director Mace announcing the return of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the world. There was plenty of momentum here.

But on the other hand (and all to the good, I think) Robbie's brother Gabe threw a wrench in the Ghost Rider/Quake team-up plot thread (that was needing more time for me anyway). No progress at all was made in tracking the "ghosts" that made May insane -- there was no time for that with her life on the line and another global crisis in play. And when it seemed likely that Radcliffe would bring out his "Life Model Decoy" in the final act to save May's life (rapidly accelerating that plot line in the process by revealing his invention to Simmons), he instead brought out just the battery that powers it, leaving bigger revelations for another day.

I was definitely entertained most by the Watchdogs story line, even acknowledging the raft of cliches it incorporated. Blackouts are an old standard from the book of TV tropes, only slightly behind villains with convenient identifying tattoos. Then there's the particular comic book trope of the evil senator with a hatred of super-powered people -- though it's a welcome and meaningful twist for that character to not be a white male.

Familiar though it all may have been, the show managed to serve it up into a satisfying way. Coulson, Fitz, and Mac were a fun field team, and the little character details mattered -- Coulson's hand locked on the steering wheel, Fitz going "old school" to solve the EMP problem, Mack waiting until the crisis was actually over to pursue his grievance with Yo-Yo. Plus the Inhuman "coming out" metaphor, portrayed when Yo-Yo's friend rejected her once her powers were revealed, hit its message just right.

I'd call this week's episode a B+. It pulled me back on board for what's to come.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Child of the Theater

I may be behind the times compared to many of you, but I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

On the off chance there are a few of you even further behind the times than me, I'll briefly note what this recently published book is and is not. It is an official continuation of the Harry Potter story line, picking up 20 years after The Deathly Hallows. It is not an actual novel, but is instead the rehearsal script of the new two-part play now on an open-ended run in the West End. It is not written by J.K. Rowling; the script is by Jack Thorne (though the story is credited to Thorne, Rowling, and director John Tiffany).

In as minimally spoilery a way as possible, the story is as follows. (But skip this paragraph if you're at all concerned about learning something you'd rather not.) Picking up exactly where epilogue of The Deathly Hallows leaves off, the play focuses on the son of Harry and Ginny, Albus Severus Potter. Resentful and rebellious, Albus has a strained relationship with his famous father. The more Albus learns of his father's past, the lower his opinion sinks. And soon it leads the boy to rash action to right a perceived injustice, action that will threaten the wizarding world as nothing since the defeat of Voldemort.

There are some interesting aspects to this story that make it a worthwhile extension of the Harry Potter universe. While the story of Albus and his closest friend could be seen as "Potter: The Next Generation," a redux of the saga we already know, that's not the only element in play here. The Harry Potter stories have always focused on the young characters, with adults moved to some extent to the margins. Here, Harry is an adult (along with other returning characters), and has as many scenes to play as his son. Thus, this story gets into new (or barely touched) material: the challenges of parenting, dealing with survivor's guilt over the long haul, changing relationships with childhood friends (and enemies), and more.

The catch is, this is a stage script, so we don't get to be inside any character's head. We don't have an actor's performance to shade the dialogue either. In short, if the themes above aren't expressly explored in the text, then the reader has to do all the heavy lifting. And frankly, the script distracts the reader in other ways, making it hard to focus on such things. In short, you spend less time combing for subtext than you do wondering how what is described in the text would actually work.

I can't imagine, 20 to 30 years from now, your local rep company or your kid's high school tackling a production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There are too many wild stage directions that casually describe wizards flinging bolts of magic at each other, the stage transforming wildly in an instant, set components being flung about, cast members being levitated or transformed, and so much more. Every other scene includes a moment where you wonder how it would be achieved on anything less than the exorbitant budgets of the West End or Broadway. It reads more like a magic show with a plot than a stage play.

Actually; scratch that. What it reads like is a movie script. Each act of the play approaches 20 distinct scenes, and most of these rarely run more than two or three pages. It has the swift pacing and sweeping array of locations that feel tailor-made for the screen, and very much at odds with the unities of time, place, and action that typically govern a theatrical production.

None of this is to say that I thought the story itself was bad. I just didn't think an unadorned script was the proper format for it. Stage may not be either, but I'd reserve judgment on that for the possible day I might actually get to see this performed. As it stands, though, I'd grade this experience -- reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- a B-.