Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Only Light in the Darkness

Last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had several interesting ideas in play, but for the most part there were flaws in the execution.

Let's start with the unfortunate waste of casting Whedon alumni Amy Acker as "the cellist." Were it not for the internet, I would have completely forgotten that Agent Coulson actually had a throwaway line in The Avengers where he mentioned the relationship. Clark Gregg being awesome the way he is in delivering every single line with meaning and soul, this apparently got fans wondering if we'd ever see this "cellist," and this alone inspired the writers to craft this story.

Although both Gregg and Acker struggle mightily to infuse their parts of the story with emotion, the relationship just doesn't get the screen time it needs to be meaningful. We're too busy with the villain of the week, and far too interested in the continuing adventures of Evil Ward. The romance is simply crowded out, and Fitz-Simmons and Triplett just don't have anything invested in their interactions with this guest character of Audrey.

As a villain, Marcus Daniels was a bit of a misfire too. You knew he had to be something from the comics when the camera lingered on his "hospital band" long enough for you to read his name. (Blackout, the internet informed me after the show.) His whole behavior in the show turned on an obsession with Audrey, yet that obsession was never really explained or given even the slightest context. It was just simplistic, King Kong-like animal behavior, the desire to grab a pretty woman and drag her up a building or something.

His death was just as "I guess that's all there is to it." After an hour watching our heroes run from his awesome powers and trying to stop him by shining flashlights at him, in the end they just shined bigger flashlights at him and poof! He turned into dust or something. In short, the "A story" of this episode just felt flat on virtually every level.

Fortunately, the story back at the Providence base was far more compelling. While there was little tension in whether Ward would beat the lie detector (THE lie detector), it was still interesting to watch the cat and mouse between him and the team. It's a shame we had to lose Patton Oswalt's character of Koenig when we were just getting to know him (he certainly seemed fun), but understandable to grease the skids of the plot.

I'm proud of Skye being clever and figuring out the truth, and I admit that seeing the story of her and Ward both trying to outwit each other is the more interesting story to tell. And yet, I think there's no logic in her suspecting Ward when she found Koenig's body. With May having just left, suspiciously, and her having already lied to the team, surely Skye would have suspected her first. (At least, until the moment Ward claimed to have just talked to Koenig when that was clearly impossible.)

As for May, she appears to be the way Cobie Smulders will be brought back soon for a guest appearance as Maria Hill. Thumbs up to that.

In the end, I'll give a bit more weight to the half of the episode that engaged me over the half that didn't. Still, I'd call this episode a B- at best. But at least it seemed to set up for better in the last few weeks to come before the end of the season.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Going Off With a Hitch

The movie Hitchcock is probably best characterized as a biopic at its core, but it doesn't completely slip into that mold. For one thing, despite the title, the film is actually concerned with two subjects: famous director Alfred Hitchcock, and his wife Alma Reville. For another, it's confined to a quite narrow band of time, as much concerned with an "event" as it is with the people involved.

That event is the making of Hitchcock's masterpiece, Psycho. It's 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock has just had considerable success with North by Northwest. Yet despite this success, he feels a need to do something daring to reassert his creativity, and quickly sets his heart on adapting a new novel called Psycho. When no studios will back the plan, Hitchcock slashes his budget to make the film with his own money, straining his relationship with his wife in the process. And when the first cut fails to come together, it is she who must come to the rescue to save the picture.

This movie is based on a non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, an excellent book by all critical accounts that's said to be one of the best examinations ever of the creation of an individual movie. Unfortunately, the film adaptation is less inspired. It rides the line ineffectively and awkwardly between comedy and drama, trying all kinds of narrative models in succession. It's "man against the world," it's romance, it's "the woman behind the man," it's expose, and it's many more things. It's so many things, in fact, that it fails to do any of them particularly well, and thus feels like a disservice to one of the truly good classic movies.

What does redeem the movie, though -- and indeed makes it rather watchable -- is the solid work from the cast. Anthony Hopkins is wonderful as Alfred Hitchcock, turning in an oddly compelling performance that transcends impersonation. Even better is Helen Mirren as Alma Reville. She's the truly sympathetic hero of the piece, and stands out wonderfully despite having the less overtly showy lead role. The supporting cast includes Toni Collette, Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh), Kurtwood Smith, Danny Huston, and Jessica Biel, each of them making a lot of a little screen time.

Still, this muddled telling of How Psycho Was Made was more intriguing than enjoyable. It made me think about hunting down the book to read the real story, where this two-hour condensation couldn't quite satisfy. I give Hitchcock a C+. It may be of interest to film buffs, or to fans of either of the two leads. Everyone else should probably pass.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Breaker of Chains

Last week's episode of Game of Thrones culminated in one of the biggest events of George R.R. Martin's third book in his series, A Storm of Swords. Events this week picked up at the very moment the last episode left off, showing us who was behind the assassination plot on Joffrey (though not the one who actually did the deed): Littlefinger made his grand return. From there, however, the episode was made up mostly of material altered or absent from that source. As usual, the writers of the show did great work with their changes.

Margaery Tyrell had a wonderful scene about the way that kings seem to wind up dead around her, filled as always with pearls of wit from Lady Olenna. The development of these two characters, far above and beyond their depiction in the original book, continues to be one of my favorite improvements in the show.

Next came the longest scene of the episode, in a gorgeously created set representing the Great Sept of Baelor. Tywin's council to Tommen was a wonderful addition, revealing so much about all the characters -- even Cersei, who though nearly silent, seemed to be effectively screaming "must we do this now, in front of my dead son?" Of course, that sentiment would be amplified moments later, when Jamie arrived in the scene. Jack Gleeson gave one last amazing performance as Joffrey, remaining motionless as Jamie forced himself on Cersei, right then and there. This piece had foundation in the book, yet also represents a major departure. The incestuous siblings did have a reunion, but here it was a rape. Whereas the book by this point had fairly well thrown the switch on making Jamie one of the "good guys" (maybe "better guys" is more accurate?), the TV series makes this dramatic alteration to remind us that Jamie isn't necessarily one to be rooting for.

Then came more of the wonderful buddy road movie that is the adventures of the Hound and Arya -- and it was another study in "don't think this bad guy has really turned good." The Hound and Arya have certainly been rubbing off on each other, but the former's treatment of the poor farmer and his daughter showed us: not as much as you might think.

The plots involving Sam and Davos were among my least favorites in the book, and the episode did lag for me a bit as the show turned its eye to them. Still, the writers are doing a good job (particularly with Davos) in building interest in what's going to happen next.

Another new scene followed, between Tywin and Oberyn. Charles Dance as Tywin has played so many great two-person scenes throughout his time on the show, and here was another. Both the character and it seems the actor are at their best in a scene where Tywin and some other party are each trying to extract some advantage from each other -- each fully aware of what the other is doing. Though Tywin's past verbal jousts with Olenna have wound up as ties, it certainly felt like he got the upper hand of Oberyn here.

Tyrion's dungeon scene was wonderful. I can't remember whether this particular scene appeared in the novel or not, largely because I can hardly remember the character of Podrick Payne from the book. He hasn't been all that much a presence on the show either, really, but in a testament to Peter Dinklage's skill, I certainly cared about this scene between Tyrion and Podrick. Last week, Tyrion had to send away Shae by masking his true feelings. Here, Tyrion reveals them for and to Podrick, and it's strangely touching.

Another added scene depicts the savagery of the Wildlings as they massacre a village south of the Wall. This scene not only does a good job of showing how credible a threat they are to Jon Snow and the Night's Watch, it also showed us how Ygritte has nothing but vengeance in her heart now, as her arrow (through the throat!) was the first volley in the attack.

Finally, we had an extended sequence in which Dany arrives at Meereen. It gave us a great moment for Daario to be a badass, followed by an even greater moment in which Daenerys was even more of a badass -- the launching of the catapults loaded with broken slave collars was a powerful moment on which to end the episode.

Another solid episode of Game of Thrones. I give it an A-, the "minus" probably only owing to my lack of interest in the Sam plot.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Phillips, Crew Driver

In the mid-90s, Tom Hanks was the Oscar King. Not only did he win back to back Best Actor awards, but every movie in which he appeared instantly picked up award buzz. His cachet subsequently faded a bit, but kicked back up last year with the one-two punch of Saving Mr. Banks and Best Picture contender Captain Phillips.

Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the film depicts the battle of wits between the ill-prepared crew of an American shipping vessel and a desperate band of Somali pirates. Moreover, it's the clash of wills between the leaders of both groups, Abduwali Muse and the titular Richard Phillips.

The movie does run aground a bit on the problem plaguing many "based on true story" movies: it generally has difficulty generating tension because the outcome is known. But director Paul Greengrass certainly managed to overcome this when he made United 93, making him the right man for the job here. While this film is less successful on that front, it's still interesting and worthwhile for a few other reasons.

First, the script manages to take what seems like an inherently limited premise and really keep things varied and moving. The trailers for the film made it seem like it would be a long standoff on the bridge of the freighter, but this is actually only a small piece in the puzzle. In fact, the nature of the conflict changes several times throughout the story, well before the audience has time to feel any sense of stagnation.

Second, the film is buoyed by a pair of strong performances. Tom Hanks excels in the title role, though it's truly the second half of the film where he comes alive. A minor plot spoiler here, but Phillips ends up taken aboard a "life raft" by the pirates, separated from his crew and stuck on his own. This makes for a final hour where the character is slowly stripped of the confidence he once had, and culminates in a total breakdown that should have won Hanks another Oscar nomination. (Swap out Leonardo DiCaprio from the nominee list, I say.)

Then there's newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Though he has the obvious advantage of being unknown to his audience here, he nevertheless slips convincingly and completely into his role. He imbues the ostensible villain with a great deal of humanity and desperation. Though you hardly root for him to "win," you empathize with his plight. The movie does try a bit for a "there's two sides to every story" element, and to whatever degree that actually succeeds, it's owed to Abdi.

Though Captain Phillips was never thought to be a serious contender among the year's nine Best Picture nominees, it was actually among the better ones. I give it a B+.

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.