Monthly Archives: May 2015

‘Babadook’ lives up to the hype

Mommy's just a little stressed right now.

Mommy’s just a little stressed right now.

I probably shouldn’t have to write this, but there will be spoilers.

I wasn’t a big fan of the Evil Dead remake. There are a number of reasons for this – including re-make burnout in general – but what ruffled my feathers the most was that the makers had a smart idea that they just didn’t do much with. Instead of simply making it a movie about a bunch of kids looking for an out-of-the-way spot to party who unearth an ancient evil, the remote spot was chosen because one person in the group was a junkie, and her friends wanted the opportunity to both confront her and force her to go cold turkey. The remote location meant said junkie couldn’t just run off, ignore them, look for a new place to fix. It also meant if shit got heavy, there was no concern about neighbors calling in the cops. Plus, beyond the setting, a drug-crazed pal acts a lot like a person possessed by a demon, giving the filmmakers plenty of parallels to work with. That resulted in a mix was a little bit of brilliance with plenty of potential.

The problem? It felt to me like the Evil Dead folks skated through that set up as quickly as they could to get to the CGI-laden madness that surrounds the Book of the Dead. That drug-crazed/possessed angle should have been pushed to the brink, the druggie fighting like mad to get her friends to believe her, the friends refusing to bite on what they see as more lies until they are confronted so bluntly and forcefully with the truth that it could no longer be ignored. The potential for dramatic tension was great, but the Evil Dead re-boot failed to take advantage of it.

Where Evil Dead failed, The Babadook more than succeeded. The story is about a young boy and his mom. The father is no longer in the picture, having died in a car accident while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth. Young Samuel is now in grade school and having problems. He lives in fear of monsters under his bed or in his closet, even making weapons – weapons with a potential to do serious damage, especially in the hands of a small child – to prepare for his inevitable fight to save his life. His mom, Amelia, is like a lot of single moms. She works a thankless, low-paying job. She’s constantly in a tug-of-war between work and her needy child. It wears her down, physically and emotionally. She has a hard time sleeping and has to leave work frequently to deal with Samuel’s problems.

Then the Babadook enters the picture. The Babadook lives in corner and shadows. Confrontation is a last resort, after he slowly wears down his victims to the point where they welcome the brutality to end the fear and dread.

But is the Babadook real? I’d argue we never quite know. We know Samuel is an imaginative child with emotional problems, so the Babadook could be just his delusion. It could represent his mother, who after years of grieving her husband, supporting her child and sustaining herself, is simply falling apart, a volatile mix of depression, lack of sleep, sadness and rage, a cauldron of ugliness just waiting to boil over. The movie is pretty careful not to tip its hand. Even at points where the viewer might think, “OK, there really is a monster,” it could be the collective hallucination of two people who have sunk so far into their own dysfunction and isolation that they no longer have even a less-than-firm grasp on reality.

To me, that’s where the true terror is. Not the wicked, vile Babadook, a black spectre in a top hat with fingernails like knives. The horror in not knowing whether or not you can trust what you perceive to be reality, that’s truly disturbing.

So, at this point, I think the only thing I have to add is this: Please don’t make a sequel. Don’t besmirch the good name of a fine horror movie by turning it into a machine to crank out cash. But do give writer-director Jennifer Kent the opportunity to go wherever her talent takes her. I know I’m willing to follow.

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Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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Bad trailers=bad movies: 5 summer flicks I have no interest in seeing

5. Teminator: Genisys. I can see why the minds behind this thought it was a good idea, seeing the talent involved. But other than the John Connor twist – which is a pretty huge giveaway for a trailer – most of this looks like it could have been pulled straight out of the first few movies. Yes, you have a rich history to work with, but the last part of the Terminator franchise to escape from that shadow and be something fresh and interesting was the TV series, The Sarah Conner Chronicles. Add to that the problem of the last two Terminator movies having dulled my taste for the franchise, and not even Daenarys Targaryan as Sarah Connor is enough to make me reconsider this one.

4. Vacation. If I was a huge fan of the Vacation franchise, I probably would have ranked this higher, but I always preferred Chevy Chase in films such as Fletch, Foul Play and Caddyshack over his Clark Griswold performances. This film it looks like it could be worse than The Hangover II and The Zookeeper, combined.

3. Ant-Man. This is the lone time I have had zero interest in seeing flick that’s part of the Avengers’ Marvel universe. I thought Ant-Man was a bad idea when they announced it. Then Marvel kicked director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) off the project, and I really thought it was a bad idea. This trailer does nothing to change my mind. I’ve often thought that there are some things that just won’t translate well from comics, and I think this looks like example No. 1 of that theory. The truly unfortunate thing about all of this is I probably can’t avoid this film because of my daughter’s love of Paul Rudd, aka Bobby Newport from Parks & Recreation.

2. Poltergeist. How bad is this trailer? My 10-year-old, who occasionally will terrify himself so much that he’ll run the 7 feet from his bedroom to our living room at night just to not be in the dark, “scary” hallway, mocks this trailer every time we see it. Poltergeist just looks like another Insidious knock-off, now. An unimaginative, blatant, studio cash grab, nothing more.

1. Jurassic World. OK, so it isn’t just the trailer that makes this flick a no-go. Loved the first one, like a lotta folks, but the second one was awful. In the second Jurassic Park book, Michael Crichton envisions a chameleon-like dinosaur that is able to camouflage itself. When the movie hit theaters, I was excited to see what Steven Spielberg – the king of the big, fx-heavy summer blockbusters – would do with that. The answer: Nothing. And Stevie made up a new, significantly shittier ending. So I’m not getting burned again. This trailer, other than some new dinos, looks to be for a film that has nothing new to offer. Plus, if that one sex joke is the best they’ve given Chris Pratt to work with, the Jurassic minds are even more bereft of imagination than I ever would have expected.

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5 reasons why 30 some years was worth the wait

Big scary dudes? Check. Crazy weapons? Check. Welcome to the apocalypse.

Big scary dudes? Check. Crazy weapons? Check. Using what appears to be someone else’s skin as a mask? Check. Welcome to the Max-pocalypse.

1. A new Max for a new era. Mel Gibson is one of those guys, like Tom Cruise or Will Smith, who sort of screams “movie star” no matter what role he is inhabiting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is. In Road Warrior and Thunderdome in particular, you never get the feeling Max is in all that much trouble, at least not enough trouble that he can’t get himself out of it with his dope hairstyle intact, whether or not his allies survive. In Fury Road, we get a full on PTSD- and depression-ridden Max who seems as if he might do himself in before any of the wacked out psychopaths in his post-apocalyptic world ever get the chance. Tom Hardy has a vulnerability Gibson lacked – particularly after the original Mad Max – and it plays well within the story. Hardy’s Max is damaged goods, unreliable, unstable, unpredictable. As he should be.

Imortan Joe

Imortan Joe is not a fella who takes being betrayed lightly.

2. A worthy opponent. With very little in the way of character development, Fury Road gets a heckuva lot of villain out of Imortan Joe. He controls the water, and with his allies, the ammo and fuel as well. He has two sons, one a shrunken, mutated man who is wheelchair bound, the other a hulking brute of minimal intelligence. Imortan knows neither has what it takes to rule his empire when he’s gone, so he’s desperate for a non-mutant heir. Yes, Imortan is very much a power-hungry cult figure eager to cement his mortality. But he also wants offspring who more closely resemble him, his abilities, just a dad who wants a son he has something in common with, like pretty much every dad on the planet. There is some genuine grief when he loses his child, as well as an immediate thirst for vengeance. In a movie where every villain is an over-the-top comic-book character – including ol’ Imortan Joe himself – that desire for a “normal” child helps round out what might otherwise be a flat character.

Let's hear it for the girls.

Let’s hear it for the girls.

3. Grrrl power. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is every bit Max’s equal, possibly even his superior, considering she’s not operating from a place of fear, delusion and shock. The other women of Fury Road, whether they be from Imortan Joe’s harem – the young ladies pictured above – or the rebels from the “green place,” all play key roles. This isn’t a “save the damsel” flick in any traditional sense, and a whole lotta those damsels don’t make it. The fact that the women are part of the chaos and conflict and not just scenery or objects to be protected from harm makes them, and the film, far more interesting than what most American action flicks offer with regards to their leading ladies.

Flying high

As you can see, there’s a whole lotta fury for just one little road.

4. Flying through the air with the greatest of ease. When possible, director George Miller eschewed CGI and went with the real deal. Lots of live stuntmen, lots of shit actually being blown up. It really cranks up the intensity in the action scenes, and there are very few “Whoa that looks fake” moments that plague other big-budget, FX-heavy films. I’ve always wondered why directors went fake when real was a possibility – although some of that probably has to do with safety/insurance concerns – and I suspect that Miller’s new gem will influence other directors to head in that direction in the future.

I can't believe Gwar's touring van is in the movie.

I can’t believe Gwar never thought of this..

5. That crazy guitar-shredding mofo. It’s a dude hung from rubber bands in front of a wall of amps while playing a guitar that shoots flames. Because Wagner blaring from approaching helicopters is so 1969. What’s not to love?

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RiverRoots 2015 festival delivers, again

The Gibson harp guitar. I had the privilige of seeing someone play one of these bad boys at River Roots.

The Gibson harp guitar. I had the privilege of seeing someone play one of these bad boys at River Roots.

* This is my third RiverRoots Festival. Despite the near constant rain Saturday through the early evening hours, me and mine enjoyed the experience again. Saw a lot of good performances from the likes of The Wood Brothers, The Duhks, Haunted Wind Chimes, The Tillers, SHEL, Scythian, Michael Kelsey and Michael Cleveland and the Flamekeeper (more on those last two in a second). And, of course, I enjoyed more than my fair share of Indiana craft beer.

* Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper could have played another set as far as I’m concerned. Seamless, tight bluegrass is going to draw me in every time. Cleveland closed the show by himself, playing a quick fiddle solo. His bow work was flawless, and the song sounded pristine. I’ll be looking to see them again. And since they’re Hoosiers, I’m hoping they’ll be easy to find.

* Imagine Pink Floyd fronted by Ben Folds covering Prince. Kind of sounds like a disaster, right? But when it’s Michael Kelsey on vocals and guitar and his cellist, Tom (never caught the last name; he also played one of the harp guitars shown above), it’s freakin’ magic. Kelsey did all kinds of tricks and nimble fretwork, putting on a guitar clinic, but never got lost in the showiness, making it enjoyable for the audience while integrating his manic skills fully with whatever song he was playing. His cover of When the Doves Cry was both surprising – in that it was really damn good – and bold – that’s not a song you want to do poorly or assholes like me will call you on it. Like I said, this is my third visit to RiverRoots. This is the first time I’ve seen A) a crowd that big both in and around the smaller River Stage tent, and B) actually watched people leave to go grab their friends and drag them back to the tent to bear witness to an electrifying performance. Next time around, we need to see Mr. Kelsey on the big stage, please.

* My lone criticism … the RiverRoots website takes a humorous tone about the weather, noting that it’s always sunny and dry but it never hurts to be prepared for rain. And yet festival organizers somehow doesn’t think this preparation applies to the main stage. This is the second time in three years the main stage has had to stop because there’s nothing covering the performers in case of rain. This year, I was looking forward most to seeing folk singer Willie Watson, who was supposed to play on the main stage. When the rain came, the main stage was shut down, and Watson was moved to the second stage … which I found out about an hour after he finished. I never heard any announcement from the RiverRoots organizers – whether over the PA or via Twitter, which I monitored – instead being informed second-hand from someone else who had also missed Watson. However, if you just put up an awning or something, this interruption and confusion doesn’t have to happen. As my friend John noted, there’s probably 50 good old boys in the crowd who had the equipment with them to rig something up in half an hour and keep the show going. Hell, I’m not a good old boy or very handy, but I had a green plastic tarp with me that we could have added to the front of the stage to keep the music flowing. Time to take your own advice, RiverRoots: Hope for sun, and be ready for the rain.

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‘All Cheerleaders Die’: So close, so very, very close

Just your average, All-American girls. Certainly nothing to be afraid of.

Just your average, All-American girls. Certainly nothing to be afraid of.

(Spoilers ahead.)

All Cheerleaders Die has a simple premise that it executes fairly well. Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is recording her childhood friend, cheerleader Alexis, on the last day of school of their junior year. The sassy Alexis is showing how the privileged, beautiful kids have it at their high school, from life in the hallways to cheer practice. When Maddy seems unimpressed in general and particularly unmoved by the squad’s moves, Alexis decides to up the ante, resulting in a horrifying accident that culminates in Alexis’s death.

Fast forward three months to the start of Maddy’s senior year. Maddy, in the wake of her friend’s death, decides to try out for the cheer squad, although apparently for her own, decidedly non-school spirit reasons. Despite their reservations, the cheerleaders welcome her as one of her own. The girls overcome their differences, do each others nails, share pizza and laughs, and everyone lives happily ever after.

OK, not so much. Maddy has a plan to avenge what she sees as the cheer squad’s (and others) betrayal of her dead friend. It doesn’t quite go as planned. There’s rape, murder, attempted murder, witchcraft, zombies, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Sometimes a girl gets hungry. Who are you to judge?

Sometimes a girl gets hungry. Who are you to judge?

If it sounds like a hoot and half, it is … in parts. That’s the elephant in the room with All Cheerleaders Die. Co-writers and co-directors Lucky McPhee and Chris Sivertson craft a smarter film than it would initially appear to be. There’s plenty of laughs, a few surprises, a number of well-crafted scenes. The cast is exactly what they need to be and have the ability to carry out McPhee and Sivertson’s vision.

The problem is said vision. All Cheerleaders Die never seems to decide if it wants to go dark and mean – think Saw, Hostel, Halloween, etc. – or play it for laughs – Army of Darkness, Shaun of the Dead, Kings of Badassdom, etc. When it plays it for laughs, All Cheerleaders Die delivers, such as when quarterback Terry (Tom Williamson) goes from your average evil teenage high school football player to superduperevil something more than human, starts ripping into some human flesh and offers up this gem, “Mmm. Tastes like jelly beans. I’m like the cookie monster up in this bitch. Oh, I hope that shit was gluten-free!” And there are some truly sinister moments, such as when the car filled with football players runs the cheerleaders’ car of the road into a river, and the ball players do nothing but watch the cheer squad drown.

Unfortunately, All Cheerleaders Die never manages to find that horror/humor tonal balance that pushes it from just another pretty good horror film to the pantheon of great ones. While it is reasonably satisfying viewing (if you can get past the Goosebumps-esque special effects, which sometimes get played up a little too much), it’s also frustrating to watch, waiting for the film to break through that storytelling ceiling.

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Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess

Tiger Chen flips, dips and fights his way through a variety of bad-ass fighters in Man of Tai Chi.

Tiger Chen flips, dips and rips his way through a variety of bad-ass fighters in “Man of Tai Chi.”

Oh, Keanu. You were so close.

I enjoyed the genre-smashing 47 Ronin (see here) and had a ball watching the outrageous John Wick (see here). So I was really looking forward to Man of Tai Chi. Keanu directing and playing a bad guy? Sign me up.

But Tai Chi isn’t much of a movie. The fight scenes, with lead Tiger Chen, were damn fine. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen tai chi in a combat setting, so that was new. The movie pits Chen against fighters from a variety of styles, from masters of other martial arts to pure brawlers. So each fight offered unique visuals as the styles went fist to fist.

Problem is, other than the combat, there’s not much to love. The plot isn’t much, and stylistically, Reeves’ choices seem to be to cool or conservative when he should be letting things get out of control and crazy, one example being Chen’s final underground fight of the film against Iko Uwais of The Raid and The Raid 2 fame, which is a dud despite it being the most promising battle of the film. Keanu is serviceable as Donaka, the man behind the fight club, but the script doesn’t give him much to work with. The final battle versus Donaka is good, but a bit of a let-down. And so on.

Bummer. Still, it’s been nice to ride the Keanu train as long as I have. It’ll be interesting to see where it stops next.

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‘Saul’ essence of good storytelling

It was good to see Tuco again.

It was good to see the meditative, calming presence of Tuco again. Man, I missed him.

(Spoilers ahead. You were warned.)

HOW DID SAUL GOODMAN end up in a position where he was working with psychotic, slimebag druglords like Tuco Salamanca and Walter White?

You get a sense of how Saul found himself where he found himself in Breaking Bad. Saul’s got that greed, to be sure, but he’s also an opportunist with an adrenaline addiction. He clearly likes to be on the edge, only to get a serious case of the nerves when he gets there. But while Saul is a scene-stealing character on that show, he’s not a primary character, one whose background gets much thought because it’s not really pertinent to that particular story. Sure, it would be fun to know what’s made Saul the man he is, but with all of Walt’s and Jesse’s death-defying hijinks, that wasn’t something Breaking Bad could or should have explored.

But Better Call Saul can and does mine that rich vein of Saul’s past. We get to me the real Saul, Slippin’ Jimmy, a low-rent con artist from Cicero, Ill., who ends up in jail because he takes a dump in the sunroof of a luxury car owned by the guy who was sleeping with his wife … only to find out, too late, that the cheating dick’s son and a fellow Cub scout were sitting in the back seat of the car when the felonious deuce was dropped. Jimmy gets out by promising his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), that he’ll leave the Chicagoland area and go with Chuck to Albuquerque to start over fresh.

When we meet Saul, it’s years later. He’s a lawyer now, hustling small-time cases and scraping together a living. Chuck, a partner in a big-time law firm, can’t leave his house because of a unique form of agoraphobia. Saul is serving all of Chuck’s needs while trying to scrape by a living mostly with public defender cases. Then, Slippin’ Jimmy gets lucky. A multi-million dollar, class-action lawsuit falls in his lap, and now Saul has leverage to get his foot in the door with Chuck’s firm, HHM. The firm agrees to take on the case, and although he is going to receive a hefty payday, he won’t get a job with the firm, and he won’t be allowed to work the case.

Saul is furious. He believes that, once again, Chuck’s partner Howard has kept him on the outside looking in. He won’t allow HHM to have the case, ranting and flailing, unsure of what to do next.

Then the truth reveals itself. Howard has never been against Saul. Turns out, Chuck has refused to allow HHM to hire Saul has anything more than a mailroom clerk. Chuck says Saul’s not a “real lawyer,” and that he is what he’s always been: Slippin’ Jimmy.

That moment, that seminal moment, combined with the death of a close friend from his Slippin’ Jimmy days, seals it. Saul was inspired by his brother to go legit, to cease walking, running down the path that would surely lead to prison or an early grave. But as viewers could see from Breaking Bad, that path less traveled never quite worked for him. That other path, the path of deceit, scheming and double-dealing, well, that’s the path that suits Saul best. And now, finally, he understands who he is, and he embraces it.

Mike Ehrmantaut was one of my favorite characters from

Mike Ehrmantraut was one of my favorite characters from “Breaking Bad.” I’ve seen nothing in “Better Call Saul” that dulls my affection one iota.

BUT WHAT REALLY PUTS Better Call Saul over the top isn’t Saul diving head first into the Slippin’ Jimmy, attorney at law, persona. It’s Mike Ehrmantraut. Because not only do we see the moment were Saul chooses the dark side, we get to see that same moment with Mike. He’d done dark things before he arrived in Albuquerque, but that was behind him. The future of his granddaughter and daughter-in-law, all he has left after the death of his son, now depends on him. And Mike will do whatever it takes – whatever it takes – to make their lives better. Where Saul is wishy-washy, taking years to find satori, Mike knows who he is and knows what matters to him. To him, there is no decision to be made. It is only time to set a course of action to make need or want become reality fulfilled. And so he does just that.

SO I GUESS YOU COULD SAY I’m really looking forward to Season 2. And, hopefully, more Tuco.

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‘Avengers’ films stand alone

You'd think, at some point, the military would figure out that shooting bullets at the Hulk really doesn't help. At All.

You’d think, at some point, the world’s soldiers and military leaders would figure out that shooting bullets at the Hulk really doesn’t help. At all.

I won’t go in to the long and the short of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s worth watching and better than the first. As I look at the films from the Marvel-verse – not counting the Sony flicks – the two Avengers films stand out from the pack. I think it comes down to two things:

JOSS WHEDON: ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTE. The mind behind a whole lotta great shows has made that work on the big screen. Whedon understands ensemble drama better than most in Hollywood right now. Avengers worked because it was about people with god-like powers figuring out how to relate on a human level. Ultron works because while there are relationships in place and certain concessions have been made (e.g. Captain America is now the acknowledged leader of The Avengers), the happy chatter and synchronized ass-kicking mask the fact that there’s still a general lack of trust among our heroes, which almost breaks apart the group from within. Whedon makes it look effortless. If it was, everyone would be doing it. And they’re not. I find it a little bit sad that Whedon won’t be behind the camera for the third/fourth Avengers flicks, but I look forward to seeing what else he does with his time (including a rumored project with Warren Ellis).

THE HULK. It’s sad that Ang Lee had to make such a horrible Hulk movie, and that Edward Norton just didn’t quite work in the Hulk re-boot, because Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is dying for a stand-alone. Ruffalo is a far better Banner than Eric Bana ever was, and he reveals a dark sense of humor lacking from Norton’s portrayal. The way Ruffalo has become sort of an ever-willing confidante and co-worker of Tony Stark has added dimension to the role, and having he and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow start to fall in love with each other was a minor stroke of brilliance, adding yet another ripple in the Hulk’s hard-luck story. Ruffalo’s less-than-jolly green giant also looms over both Avengers flicks, the violent chaos that none of the heroes can stop should it be unleashed, uncontrolled. The “other guy” is always there, in the back of everyone’s minds, a force that no one wants to think about, yet alone deal with. A lot of credit goes to Whedon here, of course, for writing the role, but Ruffalo makes it work in a way that Bana, Norton and even my childhood favorite, Bill Bixby, could not.

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Spy vs. spy: ‘Agent Carter’ and ‘The Americans’

Agent Carter bested her fellow, modern Agents of Shield during the limited run of her show.

Agent Carter bested her fellow, modern “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” during the limited run of her show.

CONGRATULATIONS, MARVEL MINDS. You took Peggy Carter, a secondary character from one of your tent-pole films and spun her story into a brief, interesting – if occasionally uneven – run, one that deserves at least one more season.

Bet the folks over at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are jealous. Because, you see, they are Heroes-ing the fuck out of Agent Colson and his crew. What started as a show with a solid core group of characters working together to defeat those foul soldiers of Hydra is now bloated with guest stars and unnecessary characters, spinning the people we truly care about all over the planet to face threats and fellow good guys who are part of muddled storylines that I’m not sure anyone can keep track of and – worse – stories that fans may not even be interested in anymore, except for the hardcore geeks seeking clues to how this whole multi-level Marvel thing will play out. “Save the cheerleader / save the world” should be on a huge banner hanging in the S.H.I.E.L.D. writers room to remind them of what they don’t want the show to become. Although it may be too late to dig out of that hole. I’m not sure even Commander Adama can save them now.

Agent Carter, however, was a breath of fresh air. The original Captain America film might be my favorite (outside of the two Avengers flicks) from the current Marvel run, in large part because the WWII-era setting of the proceedings and the stylistic choices of director Joe Johnston. Peggy Carter was a huge part of that world, the dame who was smarter and more gutsy than pretty much everyone around her and not afraid to let everyone know it, even if sometimes she did it so subtly the numbskulls that work with her missed the burn. The casting choices for Agent Carter were solid. Chad Michael Murray as her faux-hero, big swinging dick co-worker was dead-on. Murray plays a complete douche better than anyone in Hollywood (anyone remember him as Tristan on Gilmore Girls?), and his betrayal and willingness to accept credit for a job he didn’t do was both inevitable and well-played. Shea Whigam as Roger Dooley, Carter’s hard-nosed, old-school boss, had maybe the toughest role on the program and handled it with grace. James D’Arcy as Jarvis and Dominic Cooper returning in his role as Howard Stark helped keep it light and fun when it got dark.

So I’m advocating for a second season. I think the first was good, not great. I loved the glimpse into the 1940s, ladies-take-a-back-seat boys club of the working world. Hayley Atwell embodies our heroine Peggy, our female Colson, the one without powers, the one who just wants to be part of the battle because it’s a fight worth fighting. Yes, Agent Carter did slow down a bit in the middle episodes, but a lot of that had to do with the necessity of setting up Peggy’s world and giving us some insight into the characters surrounding her. Plus, the show worked better when Stark was in the picture, and considering the plot of Season 1 was all about him being a traitor on the run, he can now be worked in to the entirety of a Season 2. With all of the set-up of the series now out of the way, a second season should move more quickly and easily. It’s not like ABC’s hitting out of the park with anything except Modern Family and its surrounding sit-coms. Carter comes with a built-in audience, one that could be stimulated by a more free-flowing run the second time around.

Just your average, upwardly mobile Americans from the early 1980s who are really Russian deep cover operatives.

Just your average, upwardly mobile Americans from the early 1980s who are really Russian deep cover operatives.

WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE WATCHING THE AMERICANS? What is your problem? Well, not you, you obviously – as a reader of this blog – have great taste in all things. But the rest of you, you have no excuse. The 1980’s spy drama is second-to-none compared to any show I’m watching, and for me, it’s become must-see viewing, akin to my love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel at the height of their respective runs.

Here are the three things that I think The Americans have going for it:

* The Cold War. I was in grade school when The Americans takes place. I remember that fear of impending nuclear disaster, but I was unaware and too immature to understand most of the politics, diplomacy and gamesmanship that went on. As a half-assed political junkie, that sort of thing helps draw me into the story.

* No James Bond gadgets here. It’s old-school spying for the Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. That means planting recording devices, then return later to get the tape. That means intimate, personal contact is vital, as human assets can get closer to the action and secrets than the tech of the time will allow. That means when you’re trying to snatch up a double agent in the streets, the lookout has no cellphone to text or call the two agents ready to ambush; the lookout must bribe her way into a neighboring apartment and signal the target is nearing with the tugging of a drape. This lack of tech really helps increase the intensity of each mission, even the simpler ones.

* Love and marriage. Philip (Michael Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell, who should be carrying home Emmys for her work) were trained in the Soviet Union as agents to imitate Americans, and they were introduced and married just before their mission started. When we meet them, Philip is clearly very much in love with his wife and is every bit the doting suburban dad. He’s having doubts about his children’s future, mainly with the idea that they would be better off as Americans than they would be as citizens of the U.S.S.R. Elizabeth is still every bit a soldier for the Soviet Union, loyal to the motherland without a doubt. She has affection for Philip, but all her love is for another man. As the show evolves, Philip and Elizabeth get closer and they find a comfortable love that they work to nurture. But their feelings about their mission – Philip’s doubts about the horrible things he has to do and whether or not it truly helps their cause, Elizabeth’s near-blind obedience to any order issued to their Soviet bosses – are what add to the tension and cause rifts in the relationship. As their children get older and closer to the truth about their parents, this divide grows. I find that I can’t think of another show I’ve ever seen where a marriage has been more thruthfully protrayed on the small screen.

So the nine months or so until Season 4 starts can’t go fast enough for me. I’m ready for the Cold War to get back in full swing.

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