Tuesday, February 28, 2017

4:00 PM - 5:00 PM

24: Legacy slid a bit off the tracks for me this week, allocating time to the different story lines in a bizarre and less-than-compelling way.

With Carter having just broken out of CTU and a big hunt for him presumably underway, the first order of business... was for Rebecca to have a heart-to-heart with Nilaa and apologize for calling her a terrorist. And assuming you count this as a terrorist plot thread, it was still only the third silliest one of the night.

After episodes of hand-wringing about whether or not to be a terrorist, Amira was literally confronted this week with Daddy issues. After an hour of ridiculousness involving soup and duct tape and diabetes, I'm kind of over that whole story line. The writers cougared this one. Perhaps seeing this terror cell actually pressed into action will generate new interest?

Then there was the hour long argument between Jadalla and his number one goon, whether one attack was good enough, or there would have to be fifteen simultaneous attacks. It felt like an argument from the 24 writers' room dramatized on screen. "We've set off a nuclear bomb outside Los Angeles before! Do you really think one terror cell is interesting enough?" "We can't keep topping ourselves all the time, there's nowhere up left to go!" Presumably, this argument didn't end with a bullet in the head as it did on the show.

Speaking of crazy ways to kill time, we actually had a character spend time shaving this week. Grimes somehow convinced Carter that he just had to shave before meeting Gabriel, which just sets up so many questions for me -- none of them within the confines of the story itself. Did the actor get another job he had to shave for? Could that not just wait until he finished his one or two last days filming on this episode before they killed his character? Could they really think of no better way to delay those Grimes and Carter for 10 or 15 minutes of "real time?"

In yet another uninteresting subplot, we got to see Isaac go full Sean Spicer and demand everyone's cell phones so he could get to the bottom of who leaked on him. Nicole was already feeling uncertain about being there, and then Eric told her point blank to go somewhere else. The fact that she still hung around anyway strongly suggests that things between Nicole and Eric really aren't in the best shape; maybe there's still something between Nicole and Isaac after all. "Save the day, lose the girl" for Eric Carter?

Spicer-ing was on display for Daddy Donovan too, who looked Rebecca right in the eye and claimed that the things he said to his son were never said. Where did all of those lie detector sensors CTU hooks people up to go? (Well, I know where they went, we saw him wearing them. The question is, why do they suddenly not work? He can't be that practiced a liar.)

Gabriel turned out not to be a returning 24 character from the past after all. He also turned out not to be anyone of consequence, as he was introduced and killed off in less than half an episode -- yet another development that smacked of killing time to put off bigger developments until next week.

At least, I hope for bigger developments next week. This week was a bit of a snooze. Sorry, 24, you get a C this episode. Try harder next time.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

And the Oscar Snark Goes To...

Miscellaneous things said by friends (or me) at our Oscar viewing party:

Did Justin Timberlake just sing "I've got this feeling in my balls?!"

Michael Shannon is not having this dancing stuff.

Cut to Seth Rogen on the "bowel movement" joke.

So, now it's the Academy Award winning Suicide Squad. Huh.

They had to show all 8+ hours of O.J.: Made in America for a week to qualify it for the Oscars. I watched it and liked it, but I can't imagine sitting through it all that way.

Props to Auli'i Cravalho (from Moana) for taking a thwap in the back of the head from a flag waver and still going.

The president of the Academy looks like a glitter truck drove over her and left the tread marks on her dress.

And speaking of the glitter truck, you have to dress that sparkly for anyone to pay attention to you when you're standing next to Chris Evans.

Mom's looking down on you? If you had that hipster soul patch, your Mom looked down on you while she was here.

Viola Davis has raised the bar. You want to win an Oscar, you're going to have to snot your way to it.

We're willing to go watch movies with Charlize Theron so she doesn't have to sit in an empty theater watching them alone.

Hailee Steinfeld's dress kind of looks like tin foil breast pieces over saran wrap.

Jamie Dornan is trying a mountain man beard to avoid looking like a waiter in a white tux.

You don't have to share your Oscar with your wife; you each got one. (How about sharing the microphone with her?)

Garry from Chicago is trying to put the moves on Nicole Kidman right in front of her husband and his fiancée.

Maybe Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen should keep each other company at the movies.

The winner for Film Editing has teeth meant to be in hidden in a dark room all day.

Silence was up for Best Cinematography. I hear it wasn't very good, but apparently you could really see how terrible it was.

Justin Hurwitz's hair seems to be hiding the car radio antenna.

The Memoriam montage seemed much shorter than I would have thought after all the celebrity deaths in 2016.

The Matt Damon trolling is the gift that keeps on giving.

I tell you, these kids today with their clothes and their Oscars.

Ryan Gosling looks like he doesn't understood why they picked that clip of him for the Best Actor presentation.

What the hell did Warren Beatty just do?!

The Oscars end with an M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Self Control

In the LMD story arc on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it seems they saved the best for last. The sustained plot had been engaging throughout, but things kicked up an extra notch for the finale.

There were several fantastic sequences built on pure paranoia. First came Fitz and Simmons, thinking the they were on their own and having to "act natural" around the rest of the team. Each line of dialogue ratcheted up the tension, a verbal game of cat and mouse with all the characters and the audience trying to figure out what everyone actually knew. Was that excuse too flimsy? Would it be seen through?

Then came the wrenching emotional one-on-one between Fitz and Simmons, in which one was revealed to be an LMD. Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge have never been better than they were here, portraying an acute concoction of anguish, fear, and doubt. It would have legitimately been an Emmy reel scene for any show respected enough by the Emmys to get nominated, capped off by the on-a-dime turn revealing that Fitz too had been replaced. And the moment where Simmons was forced to repeatedly stab someone who looked just like the man she loves, as he pleaded with her the entire time? Intense. Awful. Amazing.

Another great moment playing up the paranoia came when Daisy found a room full of her robotic doppelgangers. While I'm not sure what purpose an army of Daisys was really meant to serve in Radcliffe/Aida's master plan, it made for a great visual to instantly upend the real Daisy's world. And still another great moment built on paranoia came when Daisy and Simmons finally reunited, the latter so amped up that she not only couldn't trust Daisy, she couldn't even trust herself.

Betrayal was the other big theme of the hour. Aida turned on Radcliffe, as we all knew was inevitable. (Because Mack has been telling us all along that Evil Robots Gonna Evil.) Radcliffe is not a particularly sympathetic character at this point, but his look of shock at the moment of his betrayal was still a great moment.

The far more emotional betrayal came from the MayBot, who chose to carve out her own identity and defy her programmed one to save the day. The conversation between "May" and "Coulson" was a perfectly written scene, capturing all the strangeness of the sci-fi premise and all the emotion of two long time friends put at odds with one another.

Though Aida herself is still alive and well (and evil), the show is officially closing off the LMD arc here and returning in six weeks to finish off the season in the Framework. They certainly teed up that story with lots of tantalizing teases in the final minutes. May's working for Hydra? Coulson's a xenophobic teacher? Mack has his daughter back? Fitz is some sort of flashy millionaire with a different woman on his arm? Grant Ward is back? (Possibly to be killed for the third time?) Simmons is... buried alive in a coffin?!?!

Can't wait to see what comes next. But I'm also as satisfied by what I've just seen as by anything this season. I give this episode an A.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Broken Home

Tim Burton's latest movie, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, sprinted in and out of theaters too quickly for me to see it there. When I recently caught up with it at home, I could see why. It was a disjointed, lackluster affair.

Based on a book of the same title, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the story of young Jake. He's grown up listening to his grandfather's fanciful stories about non-figurative monsters in World War II, and of paranormal-powered kids living together at a mansion in Wales. When Jake travels to Wales himself and discovers a portal to 1943, he learns that everything he'd been told is true. He's also caught up in the fight to save the children from a group of devouring "wights" and "hollows."

The movie runs just over two hours, and is rather starkly divided into three sections. None stands well on its own, yet neither do any integrate well with the others. The first half hour is a slow introduction with only occasional supernatural elements. It's boringly paced, and pretends the audience doesn't already know what's going to be revealed. (If they've seen any trailer for the movie, or you know, taken note of the title, there's no surprise waiting here.)

The middle hour of the movie is pure Tim Burton sensibilities, the new terminus in a line one could draw through Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland... his whole career, really. Lots of fun and bizarre visuals. It's more dedicated to look and feel than character and plot (though not quite neglectful of them).

The last half hour is a suddenly bonkers showdown between good and evil. It reminded me a bit of Kingsman: The Secret Service, in that it suddenly went more broad, more violent, more scary than anything previous would have suggested. Also in that it featured Samuel L. Jackson as the main bad guy.

That's just one example of the somewhat surprising casting here. This movie lined up a lot of actors for parts that seem too small, too one-note, and/or too similar to earlier roles to have plausibly attracted them. Perhaps it's just the allure of working with Tim Burton that recruited Eva Green, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O'Dowd, Samuel L. Jackson, Kim Dickens, Allison Janney, and Rupert Everett. They're all taking a backseat to the child actors here, particularly Asa Butterfield (of Ender's Game) and Ella Purnell.

The movie does work in tiny bursts, but nothing sustains for long. The bond between Jake and his grandfather isn't weighty enough to stir deep emotion. The "peculiarities" of the children aren't played for quite enough wonder or strangeness. The finale strikes a weird balance where it's likely too intense for a young audience, while leaving the villains too ineffective to seem like a threat to an older audience.

I give the movie a C-. It strikes me as one of Tim Burton's more forgettable efforts, one that only his most diehard fans should bother to see.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fence Sitting

I had two Best Picture contenders left to see this past weekend. The conventional wisdom holds that Fences is a sure winner in at least one of Oscar's acting categories, so that tipped the balance for me.

Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson's famous stage play (a multiple award winner in its own right). Set in the 1950s, it's the tale of Troy Maxson, a man of 53 who is haunted and embittered by a past he never got to live -- though he was a gifted baseball player in his younger days, Jackie Robinson had not yet come along to break the color barrier in the major league. Now he works as a garbage collector to provide for a family he alternately loves and resents, and makes fresh mistakes in an attempt to carve out his own identity.

This movie adaptation is essentially committing to film a famous 2010 Broadway revival of the play. The cast from Broadway was brought back for the most part, and it's a heavy-hitting list for stage or screen. Headlining the cast is Denzel Washington, who also directs the movie. Viola Davis plays his wife, and her winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this coming Sunday is the surest bet you could place. Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson also revive their Broadway roles.

Yet I'm not sure it's a good thing that so much of the Broadway cast was retained. A performance modulated for the back row of a theater is a very different thing from a performance meant to be projected on a thirty foot screen. Very few actors can do both well. And while some of the performers here could absolutely make that list, their familiarity with and reverence for this material may be working against them. These actors are reciting words they repeated 8 times a week for weeks on end. And as Denzel Washington himself has stressed in multiple interviews, the driving force of this film was to be faithful to August Wilson's original.

The resulting film is quite difficult to settle into. The performances are loud and boisterous, the personalities of the characters dialed up a notch or two beyond pure realism. The delivery of the highly stylized dialogue is often at a machine gun pace, almost overlapping and rarely (at least in the first hour) giving the audience a chance to really process what's being said. It's almost as though the movie is assuming an audience as familiar as the performers with Wilson's writing. It's exhausting to keep up, and that's on top of the emotional exhaustion that's key to the narrative itself.

I won't fault Viola Davis her Oscar win here. She's great in general, and absolutely the best performer here. Plus, while her Oscar reel will no doubt highlight her big "ugly crying" scene in this movie, she also gives the most nuanced and layered of all the performances. There's more to it than just that "Oscar please" scene.

But the rest of the movie feels more like a chore. Troy is an ultimately unlikable character, with any sympathy he might be due buried beneath a myopic entitlement. The bad things other characters say about him ring more true than the good things he says about himself. And the hurricane (or at least, tropical storm) of misery he kicks up around him doesn't ultimately reveal much of interest. It's a slice of life story that I think may be too familiar to too many people to be either entertaining or illuminating.

I give Fences a D+. It strikes me as an experience best left to the stage, that didn't really make the translation to film.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

3:00 - 4:00 PM

This week's episode of 24: Legacy was rather light on the action. Yet in classic form, everybody sank farther into a mess than where they'd begun the hour.

Starting with the big action sequence that was there, Nicole came back into the spotlight this week with a whole act dedicated to her escape from Aisha and her goon. After stunt falls, some cat-and-mouse, and an oddly cathartic crow bar to the head, Nicole came out out on top and managed to save Isaac life's too. It was another strong showing for the character (after she helped out during the home invasion that started it all in the first episode). Indeed, it was strong enough maybe even to forgive the writers then tangling her up in police custody to put her on the sidelines for the rest of the hour.

The other, more abbreviated action sequence closed out the hour, in which Carter once again channeled Jack Bauer with a crazy plan to go rogue. Stealing from CTU and breaking out of it (though granted, neither of those things looked that hard) to now go off on an unauthorized op with only one person for backup -- a person who can't really be trusted? Yup, that's the brand of nuts we expect from our 24 protagonist. (Side note: I do wish they hadn't so widely advertised that a returning 24 character would be showing up at some point this season, because now I can't help but anticipate that the "Gabriel" they're going to see will turn out to be that character.)

The rest of the episode seemed to be taking us through a series of PSAs, but it managed to weave enough intriguing drama around them to not feel too forced. Donovan learned that his own father was behind the leak that set this season's plot in motion. (On the PSA side, the show used maligned Nilaa to show an innocent, non-terrorist Muslim. No doubt there are some in the 24 audience who think this is the most outlandish plot development of the season. Sigh.) Papa Donovan's motivations in all this don't quite track for me, but then I suppose that he is old enough to remember older days of politics, where it was easier to convince yourself that you could keep a scandal hidden indefinitely.

Another PSA in the making may be brewing about the reasons why CTU director Mullins has it out for analyst Andy. If it turns out to be because Andy is gay, cue the "More You Know" music. Then again, maybe it won't unfold that way. I don't usually get too invested in the office politics subplots of 24, but I'm interested to see if they can avoid stepping in cliche here.

Oh, I almost forgot Amira and the saga of the dead/not-dead/now-definitely-dead Drew. Until we see how this all connects with broader elements of the story, it's hard to say whether it's been worth the time tracking it all in isolation. So.... hold that thought?

I'd say this episode adds up to around a B. The show continues to fall shy of great, but then, 24 in any incarnation hasn't really been great since the early years. At least this reboot has kept on being reasonably entertaining.

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 Monáe. 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


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.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


For the most part, it seems like there are two ways that LGBT characters appear in movies these days. (Which, right there, is admittedly an improvement on the past.) They'll sometimes be shoehorned in among the supporting characters of a more mainstream movie (for comic relief, or to check the diversity box). Or they'll stand front and center in some little-seen art house drama that's courting awards. So when a movie comes along like 4th Man Out, doing neither thing, I feel compelled to take a look.

4th Man Out definitely qualifies as a "little seen indie movie," but it isn't a dramatic piece of award bait. It centers around a foursome of 20-something guys, longtime friends. Three are stereotypical hound dogs -- "red-blooded young men," as the cliche would go. The fourth finally works up the courage to come out to the group as gay. After some initial awkwardness, the other three resolve to help their friend "meet Mr. Right."

Basically, the recipe here is a pinch of rom-com, a dash of raunch-com, and the hope that the focus on a gay character makes the familiar feel a bit novel. And if that reads to you like less than a ringing endorsement, we're mostly on the same page. 4th Man Out isn't as much as it could be, in a lot of ways. It's a decent enough movie, yet not as funny, or raunchy, or romantic, or sweet, or over-the-top as it would need to be to stand out from the pack if it weren't for the gay element. In a weird way, maybe that's the dream: gay characters can star in good-but-not-great movies too!

I would have just filed this movie away as forgettable (and likely with a lower grade)... except that it does have a couple of scenes that do manage to be better. Each is a two character scene addressing the difficulties of coming out to family and friends -- one between the main character and his mother, the other between him and his best friend. Neither scene wrenches the movie too sharply into drama territory, yet both are incredibly honest and realistic moments (and seem all the more so amid the lightweight surroundings). Of course, it's probably not the best thing when the most effective scenes in your comedy make the eyes a bit wet and the throat a bit dry. But they are effective and memorable scenes all the same, and do make the movie stand out in its own modest way.

In the end, I found 4th Man Out to be a decent movie, even though not exceptional. I'd grade it a B. I'm glad a movie like it got made, even if it's not something I'd push anyone and everyone to see.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Two hours into the new 24, and I am enjoying it, mostly. Still, I want to enjoy it more, and I feel like maybe the real world is making it hard to enjoy the schtick the series trades in.

Two hours in, and we have Islamic terrorists popping up everywhere. Highly organized hit squads chasing down our hero. Sleeper cells in our high schools. The most trusted advisor to a candidate for President of the United States. It's patently ridiculous. It's patently ridiculous in a way that should be fun and escapist for being so implausible. Yet our actual president is trumpeting exactly this sort of "Islamic terror" conspiracy as a completely real thing. So the experience is contaminated; watching 24 both is not the escape from reality it should be, and is laughable for trying to depict something insane with a straight face.

But in brief flashes, if you can somehow forget about all that, there are some good thrills. In the spirit of a taser as a first solution, our new hero Eric Carter leaps to breaking into a police station evidence room as his best option. This is a big "hold my drink" to even Jack Bauer's more ridiculous escapades (like infiltrating the Russian consulate.) Just so over-the-top that it's kind of awesome. Plus, it included a not-subtle dig at racial stereotyping to almost make you forgive that the story line surrounding Eric's brother Isaac is sort of non-stop racial stereotyping.

That's seems to be kind of the whole season in a nutshell, actually -- inclusivity as cover for stereotyping. We have a black protagonist, a Latino presidential candidate with a white father, and (if I read the hints right near the end of the episode) a pair of gay CTU agents. When the writing digs behind these facades to show us the character, as with Carter trying his best to one-up Jack Bauer's boldness, things start to work. But, being only two hours in, we haven't got there for most of the characters.

I think I'm still entrenched around a B- for now. I'm engaged enough to come back next week... though I can't say there's not maybe a ghoulish "watch the train wreck" element to that. I hope it will get better, I fear it will get worse.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A New 'Day" Dawns... (12:00 PM - 1:00 PM)

For the second time since its series finale, 24 is back -- this time in the form of spin-off 24: Legacy. Kiefer Sutherland is busy presidenting on another network, so Jack Bauer will have to remain indefinitely in Russian captivity. If whispered/shouted "dammits!" is what kept you tuning in, you're out of luck. But otherwise, just about everything else about 24 seems to be back.

I'm a bit nervous right at the outset about how similar this new 24 is, how quickly it settled straight back into some of the old series' more laughable patterns. CTU is back, complete with a possible mole inside the organization. Torture is the go-to threat and Islamic villains the go-to bad guys, moral reckoning over all that be damne.

That said, there are also some reconstituted parts to this 24, and I think they hold some promise for changing up the familiar old roller coaster. Our new hero, Eric Carter, is not a CTU agent. Instead, he's pressed into the "longest day of his life" by being a target of a terrorist organization. Perhaps more interesting still would have been if he weren't an elite trained soldier like Jack Bauer, but I suppose 24 does need a protagonist who can plausibly wreck shop. Actor Corey Hawkins brings the required intensity to the role.

I'm not sure how to feel about "tried to get out, but they pull me back in" CTU director Rebecca Ingram. She's really not much of a political operator if, even knowing that her husband is trying to run for president, her quick think option is to taser a government employee. She couldn't think of any other person she could reach out to for help in her situation? The Lord of the Rings fan in me is happy to see Miranda Otto here in the mix, but her character is starting with an uphill climb.

Speaking of running for president, Jimmy Smits is now back in my life doing that, a decade or so after The West Wing. 24 is never going to be that kind of political show, of course, so we'll see how they wind up using his character. The show hasn't had a presidential candidate in the mix since season one, and then he (David Palmer) was a target.

And that might be about all I have to say about 24: Legacy for the moment. My thoughts aren't fully formed yet. That's in part because we have another installment tonight, but it's also because 24 has never been "thinking" entertainment. (I never used to do long form reviews of it; instead, just doing Dave Barry-esque hot takes because it seemed more fitting.) I'm willing to be entertained here, but I'm also needing to be sold a bit more. I guess I'd grade the premiere a B-.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Terraforming an Opinion

The recent board game Terraforming Mars has been incredibly well received among enthusiasts, and has shot to the top of the rankings at BoardGameGeek. I had a chance to try it out myself not long ago, and while I can see some of the appeal, my own reaction was a bit more cautious.

The on-the-nose title tells you exactly what this game is about. Players manage and deploy resources in an effort to make Mars habitable by raising the temperature, increasing the percentage of oxygen, and introducing large quantities of water. Each turn, players are dealt a number of cards which they must choose to buy into their hands (or discard). Those cards are then paid for and played to manipulate the planet and earn victory points.

There's plenty of good flavor throughout, and a generally satisfying resource system with a few neat quirks -- energy converting into heat, cards being limited by temperature/oxygen requirements, and the like. Each player also gets a starting power that nudges them toward a particular strategy that varies from game to game. It all fits together fairly well, and strikes a good balance of allowing satisfying decisions without making them cripplingly difficult to make.

But I am a bit worried about a snowball effect at work here. Though there are multiple resources in the game, one particular form of "money" rules them all -- it's how you're able to choose which cards to keep each turn, and it's required to play them all too. (Some other resources can discount that cost, but will rarely eliminate it entirely.) This "money" growth does seem to be equal opportunity -- what I do won't generally stop you from what you want to do. But since it's also generated largely from new cards you play, it's literally luck of the draw.

I've seen games in which the "he who gets ahead stays ahead" problem is quite pronounced. Terraforming Mars is not at that level. But I do think there may be a problem here, and it gives me pause. Add in a few other cosmetic shortcomings, and I question whether the game would have staying power for me. (The art on the cards, for example, is quite inconsistent -- a mix of photos, photo-realism, and art, and all of it not that great.)

I want to love the game, and I would definitely try it again. But it would take a back seat to a lot of other current game favorites. I'd give Terraforming Mars a B.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Talk About Pop Music

I've seen a few critics who have dared to place an unusual pick on their Top Movie Lists of 2016. Unafraid to be seen endorsing a less highbrow movie, they've given a nod to Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. This movie from the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone) is a fake documentary about Justin Bieber-esque musician "Conner4Real." After breaking away from his old boy band with a monstrously successful solo album, he's now releasing a follow-up... and dealing with the fallout when it turns out to be a massive flop.

Popstar is essentially a This Is Spinal Tap for the current times. That might offend some people that regard This Is Spinal Tap as a classic. Still, no matter how much you might love it, a new take certainly feels called for, given how much the music industry has changed in the last three decades. And while it's debatable whether any of Popstar's dialogue will enter the lexicon alongside "these go to eleven," there are certainly some good laughs here.

The parody of Popstar is quite sharp, taking aim at everything from "surprise" releases, the free U2 album debacle, and promotion through social media to self-aggrandizing "message" music, over-the-top stagecraft, and music documentary movies themselves. There is, quite simply, some damn clever writing here -- and perhaps nowhere more so than in the original songs created for the film. The movie maintains such a breakneck pace that you rarely get to hear more than a bit of each tune, but they're all funny enough to make me want to seek out the Lonely Island album that accompanied the movie.

Cameos abound, used to great effect. Real musicians are ready and willing to mess around with insane comedy premises, or flat-out lampoon their own images. It's sometimes shocking how many music celebrities were willing to risk biting the hand that feeds them... but it also speaks to their appreciation of the overall joke being told here.

Perhaps this movie came and went quickly in theaters because people didn't want to pay for "one long Lonely Island video" when dozens of them can be watched online for free. And to be fair, the movie doesn't quite reach a "can't breathe" level of constant hilarity. But it is worth seeing, assuming you can enjoy its sometimes profane and/or explicit moments.

I give Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping a B. If you laughed at "Dick in a Box," "Lazy Sunday," or any of the Lonely Island's other viral hits, you'll want to check it out.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Hot Potato Soup

It's been a long time since we last saw Patton Oswalt on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but last night gave us a heaping helping of Koenigs to make up for it. The result was a lighter, fun episode that nevertheless included serious developments in the continuing LMD story line.

Among the main cast, things focused on just a few characters this week. Fitz tried to hack his way into the Radcliffe LMD, and was forced to face daddy issues along the way. This felt a little bit out of left field to me; I wanted to convince myself that we'd heard about this bit of his back story before, yet I couldn't specifically remember when. The script smartly used the Fitz-Simmons relationship to sell us on this always having been a thing, but it nevertheless didn't quite click for me. Actually, that may have been because I never really took Fitz's relationship with Radcliffe to have much of a father-son dynamic to it.

Still, if the gravitas was a bit lacking we did at least get a fun performance from John Hannah. Radcliffe's recent mustache twirling evil antics were tweaked a bit into Hannibal Lecter territory when he was playing the L.M.D. You could see the gears turning (pun not intended) as Radcliffe tested gambits for distracting the group.

But the best performance of the episode was Ming-Na Wen as the May duplicate. (The genuine article was nowhere to be seen this week.) There's some tremendous nuance in what she was given to play -- not planning to betray the group, not wanting to when the moment came, but being forced to do it anyway. All of that showed as she got closer than ever to Coulson... and then turned on him.

The plot served up good moments for the other characters too. Coulson's cleverness was kept intact by having him figure out right at the end that May had been replaced. Daisy got the hilarious "so May's a frickin' robot," one of many solid one-liners this week. Everyone got to have fun with the running gag of not exactly explaining the Koenigs while flirting with possible explanations (clones, robots, etc.).

This was an episode that made me smile throughout, thanks in large part to the "here to have a good time" presence of Patton Oswalt. I'd call it a B+.