Friday, February 17, 2017

Crime Report

I've written before of my love for the podcast Criminal. It remains one of my favorite podcasts; I've worked all the way through the back episodes and now eagerly await each new one every two weeks.

It was while listening to Criminal that I heard about a new podcast, Crime Town. Focused on organized crime, this podcast aims to run multiple seasons -- each season centering on a different city's checkered past. The first season is all about Providence, Rhode Island, and the corrupt mayor who worked in tandem with the mob during the late 70s and early 80s. This show was billed to Criminal listeners as right up their alley, and maybe for the average listener it is. But for some reason, I've always been somewhat put off by movies and TV about the mob, and whatever reason that is seems to extend in large measure to podcasts too.

Much like Serial, Crime Town aims to be telling one story over the course of multiple episodes. Unlike Serial, I'm not sure I have a clear sense of what that story is. Just one or two episodes into the two seasons (so far) of Serial, I already felt deeply interested in the story being unspooled. With Crime Town, I don't feel clear on how any given week's piece of the tale fits into the big picture. "Characters" recur over time, but often go missing for several episodes at a stretch, and don't always return with reminders of where we left them last. I find myself experiencing each episode as an island unto itself.

As a fan of Criminal, a podcast that is exactly "an island unto itself" with each episode, that's not inherently a problem. But Criminal uses this format to tell wildly different stories from a broad range of perspectives -- and this is a huge part of the appeal. Every episode of Crime Town, by contrast, is about tails, wiretaps, hits, bribery... not quite repetitious, but not quite different either. Because Crime Town lives in this space between Serial and Criminal, it's not as engaging to me as either one of those series.

That's not to say I think Crime Town is without merit. It's a well produced show that includes lots of rare archival material and new interviews. Nine episodes in (out of an announced 20), I'm still listening to new installments. But that is largely in the hopes that I'll get caught up in it more deeply.

If you're a mobster fan, you should absolutely check it out. For everyone else, I'll tag the podcast with a tepid B-. If I'm still hanging onto it by the time season one has wrapped and season two has begun, I'll probably be back with a more enthusiastic update.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Go Figures

My journey through this year's Oscar contenders for Best Picture continued recently with a movie I would have seen with or without the nomination: Hidden Figures. This film about the early days of the U.S. space program actually offers a fresh new look at this well chronicled history, by focusing on a previously (and sadly) overlooked aspect of it -- the contribution of women of color in the race for space.

I'm a sucker for entertainment about the space race. Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies, I'm quite fond of The Right Stuff, and I loved the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. I especially enjoy a story that tells me something about the history of space flight that I didn't know -- and that doesn't happen all that often. In short, I was predisposed to like this movie.

Add to all that the compelling civil rights tale being told here. The three protagonists of this movie are victims twice over; we see them discriminated against both for their race and their gender. (One of the three is an underdog in yet another way, as her job is at risk of elimination with the advent of computers.) It's a powerful example: just how brilliant these three women were, how they were in a field that routinely recognized and rewarded such brilliance, and yet they still struggled to rise to the top.

It's made even easier to root for these women thanks to the winning performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle MonĂ¡e. Henson is the nominal lead, but all three have their own story lines, and the trio together has a number of great scenes. The film's ensemble is further fleshed out by heroes (Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali) and heels (Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons), but that core triad remains the focus throughout.

The resulting concoction is sometimes dramatic and sometimes funny. It provokes thrills of triumph and makes you bristle at injustice. Some would argue the film is formulaic -- but if so, the formula is executed very well. I give Hidden Figures an A-. It's my favorite so far of the Oscar contenders, and it even earns a spot on my Top 10 Movies of 2016.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Man Behind the Shield

Though plenty of stuff happened in this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it still seemed like a less aggressively plotted episode than the ones we've had of late.

For me, the strongest element was the series of flashbacks to Coulson and May on an early mission together. There were just so many little details contributing to make it fun. We saw a Coulson trying to project his trademark swagger, but without all the chops to completely pull it off. We saw a less severe May, in another of this season's great, nuanced performance from Ming-Na Wen. Subtle changes to hair and makeup actually made them look younger too. And each scene (especially the final one) really played up the relationship between them that might have been.

On the opposite side of things were all the repetitive scenes between "the Superior" and a captive Mace. It was just lots of villanous mustache twirling set opposite desperate stoicism. Side note: there is something truly strange about the Superior's facial expressions, and not having really seen actor Zach McGowan elsewhere (that I can recall), I'm not sure if it's him or this character. I feel like close-up shots on him, in the dimly lit interiors his character routinely inhabits, somehow make me think of the creepy CG Tarkin of Rogue One, and consider that it maybe wasn't so unrealistic after all.

The final twist of the episode is not where I thought things were going. After an hour in which we saw inside the "Framework," had Mack rant about the creepiness of the "Framework," learned that Radcliffe has found a way to power the "Framework" globally like a SETI screen saver, and had Simmons give Fitz a pep talk about how he's not responsible for any evil fallout from the existence of the "Framework,"can you blame me for thinking "Framework, Framework, Framework?" As Simmons struggled at the end to piece together a plausible timeline of the mission, I was sure her conclusion was going to be that she had been captured and as was now struck inside Radcliffe's Matrix. Instead, we seem to be teed up for Fitz and Simmons versus the rest of the team, which has been traded out for LMDs. Well, I love me some Fitz and Simmons, so sure, bring it on!

I give this week's installment a B. It was a bit of a backslide for me, but it did set up for a great final few chapters in the LMD story.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2:00 PM - 3:00 PM

The ride continues, with our new 24 hero Eric Carter continuing his real time adventures. It was, as 24 so often has been, a mix of "that was cool"s and "oh come on"s, but I think the balance generally tipped in the right direction.


Mostly it did so thanks to some fun and intense action scenes this week. Watching Carter literally blast his way out of the police station (and nearly get all the way out of the building) was entertaining. (Though I'm not sure if I'm disappointed that CTU got all back together on the same page before things could go full Jack Bauer crazy.) Later in the episode, the cloak and dagger business of the train served up some good moments of tension. And the final foot race actually made me jump a bit in my seat with some great photography and editing as Carter ran over cars and eventually got hit by one.

I also enjoyed some of the quieter character moments sprinkled throughout the episode, something 24 has had mixed success with in the past. Rebecca's willingness to come into the interrogation of her husband's aide with at least a tiny bit of an open mind softened her edges, and felt true for someone who'd actually know her interrogatee for a long time. The loyalty between Carter and Grimes, despite the situation, was a nice 180 from the ruthlessness of later 24 seasons. And while the CTU office romance subplot was a bit of a distraction, I appreciate a bit of LGBT inclusiveness that's far away from the stereotypes.

On the other hand, I was rolling my eyes a bit at another "secretly evil Dad" (though it will be fun to watch Gerald McRaney play him). And the whole "he's not dead yet" revelation in the school terrorist cell subplot was a silly reveal in an already silly story line; that element of the season is feeling like a parody of 24 more than the real thing. The far-reaching surveillance powers of CTU were a bit laughable too. Or maybe alarming. Probably both.

I'd give the episode a B+. Three episodes in, and this new season has built up enough momentum to (gently) hook me.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Boom

Backtracking to last week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before the next installment comes along...

We got some big and unexpected shake-ups in the LMD storyline. Topping both the "big" and "unexpected" list for me was the sudden death of Senator Nadeer. Despite Radcliffe ultimately being the "Big Bad" in all this, Nadeer had certainly been set up as a notable character. She'd been featured in many episodes, given a back story (that both humanized and dehumanized her), and it seemed like she was in it for the long haul. But Shockley's sudden transformation into an Inhuman abruptly took her out of the mix.

If there had been more time, it would have been interesting to probe Shockley's mindset a bit more deeply. I wouldn't have expected him to instantly become a pom-pom waving cheerleader for Inhumans, but I would have liked to understand the flavor of Kool-Aid a little better -- the Kool-Aid he drank that convinced him to stay fully in the "kill all Inhumans camp" even after becoming one.

But we didn't get that time because another interesting bit of history was being explored: that between Radcliffe and his former partner, Agnes. I'd never stopped to imagine whether Aida was based on a real person or not... though in retrospect, the answer to that seems like an obvious "of course," given that every other LMD we've seen has been. (And that, you know, they're "Life Model Decoys.") This revelation gave actress Mallory Jansen something quite different to play, and she really did an excellent job with it. I think I also liked that "she might later betray Radcliffe and help the good guys" was just taken right off the table, by killing Agnes off at the conclusion of the episode.

This was also a big episode for yet another guest star, as Director Mace had to face the deadliness of the serum that's been giving him strength, and was captured at the end of the hour. Indeed, I might have been a bit disappointed at the overall guest star focus this week, but the episode did a fairly good job of at least giving a moment or two that counted to everyone. (Except May, who remained trapped in cyberland for the episode.) Particularly fun moments to me included Simmons berating Fitz for risking his life, and Coulson pulling back and securing Agnes' cooperation with a raw emotional appeal rather than coercion.

I'd say this episode rated a B+, but it was right on the cusp of scoring higher. It might have been the strongest episode of the LMD story line so far, and I hope that signals the direction it will take in the weeks ahead.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Another Day

I've had Green Day's latest album, Revolution Radio, for a little while now. I've been unable to muster the enthusiasm to review it before; even now, "enthusiasm" would be overstating it. That all probably makes it sound like I don't like the album, but that too would be overstating it. My problem is that Revolution Radio is both likeable and forgettable.

Prime Green Day is certainly long past us. Longtime "purist" fans would probably point to their album Dookie as their peak; most would probably say American Idiot was their best effort. Either way, there's been a high degree of similarity in all their work since. Their lyrics shift in deference to the topical sentiment (as in one of this album's best tracks, "Still Breathing"), but their musical style remains pretty much the same.

Take the album opener, "Somewhere Now." It's not quite "three chord rock," but it is a chord progression Green Day has used before. Or "Bang Bang," that opens with audio clips just like "East Jesus Nowhere" on a previous album. Or "Forever Now," the kind of double-length, medley style song now expected after that kind of track was a hit on American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown.

There are fun moments scattered throughout the album -- the machine gun snare of the album's title track, the simple but catchy chorus of "Youngblood," and others. Yet ultimately, this is an album that might please, but surely could not thrill, a Green Day fan. If you like Green Day, you'll like this album -- but you also won't need this album. You'll feel like you already have it.

All that's a hard sentiment to put a letter grade on. I figure it works out to maybe a B-? The truth is, if this album is for you, you probably already have it.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Ridge Lines

I don't generally care much for war movies. While there have been exceptions over the years, it was nevertheless with some reluctance that I went to cross Hacksaw Ridge off my Oscar viewing list.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of World War II soldier Desmond Doss, who sought to serve as a combat medic despite being a conscientious objector who refused to kill or carry a weapon. The Best Picture nominee follows the Full Metal Jacket formula of dividing the film between basic training and field deployment. In fact, in structure and plotting, it's a rigidly conventional war movie. What makes it work to revisit this familiar form yet again is that Desmond Doss is equally rigid -- he will not conform to the stereotypes. Thus, every expected scene is turned on its head. Training vignettes about breaking a man down don't break him down. Notions of battlefield glory that normally stand front and center in these films aren't a consideration for him.

Because this one character is what makes this movie distinct, the actor playing him has the chance to shine. It's no surprise that Andrew Garfield earned a Best Actor nomination for his performance. It's both a physically and emotionally demanding role, and very few of his scenes are "even handed" in giving another performer equal weight. He has to carry the movie, and he is up it.

That said, there are a couple other performances worthy of note. Hugo Weaving plays Desmond's father, a haunted World War I veteran who has to deal with alcoholism, anger, and the desire to keep his sons from experiencing the horror he lived. Then there's the drill sergeant character (every one of these movies has one), played by Vince Vaughn. Both of these actors have been cast in roles quite outside their norm, and both have a lot of expected cliche to hit in their performances. Both are great despite these challenges.

I actually enjoyed the film more than I expected. Still, there were a few sections I thought missed the mark. I noted that the film works because it centers on a protagonist who defies war movie tropes. The initial stages of the titular battle, however, are pure "horrors of war" stuff, and Desmond Doss goes missing from them entirely for long stretches. (His story is really about what happens after the battle.) This material embodies a lot of what I don't generally like about war movies, and is in no way distinct in this war movie.

Then there are a few directorial choices made by Mel Gibson. Given the history of Gibson the man, and past projects by Gibson the director, I was expecting this movie to be awash in Christ imagery throughout. Instead, there was remarkable restraint here... lulling me into a false sense of security until the last half hour. Suddenly, the visual metaphors started piling on in a distracting avalanche. There's also a scene that quite uncomfortably juxtaposes prayer with intent to kill, played quite nobly and without any trace of irony or moral ambiguity. Possibly that's on the screenwriters and not Gibson, but either way its a powerfully discordant note.

Hacksaw Ridge wouldn't make my list of the 10 "Best Pictures" of 2016. Still, I found it a worthier film than some on Oscar's list. I give it a B.