The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron


Well, that was... big. No wait, big isn't an adequate enough word. That was huge. After this, I understand why "Avengers: Infinity War" is going to be divided into two movies. If "Age of Ultron" was huge than "Infinity War" has got to be gargantuan. But was "Age of Ultron" good? Having slept on that, my answer is "yes, but..."

It was great to see these characters all come together again. More than that, it's nice to see a film series where characters actually seem to develop as opposed to playing the exact same beats over and over again throughout sequel after sequel. Thor is now a thinker as opposed to a berserker rage warrior, he takes the time needed to get answers instead of going in half-cocked with his hammer. Captain America has grown into his role as the leader of these heroes. The Black Widow has learned to open up and not constantly be on guard and on mode 24/7, but vulnerability leads to heartbreak. Bruce Banner is an even more broken man than he's been before. Tony Stark has created his biggest blunder, and nearly destroyed the world... I hope that when next we see him, he's learned from it; but given that we'll be seeing him next in "Captain America: Civil War", it seems like he's going to be taking responsibility a bit too far (to say the least).

For those of you like me who were disappointed that Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye had way too little to do in previous movies, or felt like an afterthought in the first "Avengers", this movie is one big apology. Hawkeye really gets to shine, we get to know not just Hawkeye but Clint Barton. What motivates him, why he does what he does, and that he is every bit the snarky, sarcastic smart ass that he was in the comic books. Like a lot of other things, it's Ultimate's background with 616's characterization. I was very happy with Hawkeye.

And then there's the villain of the piece, Ultron. I thought he was great, James Spader was great. Genuinely creepy. Menacing. Psychotic. A being of pure rage and hate. Everything the Ultron of the comic books is, but altered since Hank Pym did not create him. An artificial intelligence created to bring peace in our time, and to do that he's decided to destroy humanity, because what greater source of chaos and destruction is there than humanity? It's a story we've seen told with A.I.'s many times, but few of them contain such rage, psychosis, and snarky sarcasm. Now, I've seen a lot of people complain about Ultron being snarky and sarcastic, that he's supposed to be a cold, emotionless killing machine. I ask if these people ever read a comic book, because Ultron is sentient, Ultron laughs, Ultron is rage and hate, and snark and sarcasm. Now, as opposed to the comics, some have complained that he's too snarky and sarcastic. Gee, I don't know, it's almost as if this version of Ultron was created by Tony Stark.

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were fun additions who I wish had gotten more to do, but we'll see more of at least one of them later. The strength of the shared universe aspect of these movies is if you feel a character is getting the short end of the stick, they'll get more time later on; Hawkeye being the prime example at the moment. I thought that Scarlet Witch's powers were really effectively done, especially for a character who's abilities in the comics have always been rather vague and not that well defined. Quicksilver, well, he was a better character here than the version in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" but he didn't have anywhere near as good a sequence as the DOFP version did when they busted Magneto out of prison. So, which version was better? Your mileage may vary. If character means more to you, than AoU Quicksilver was better, if powers mean more, than DOFP is better.

I refuse to spoil Vision, just go see it. All I will say is that I am happy with Vision.

Also, I absolutely loved that the Avengers' first priority during battle scenes was saving lives. Even when it was just Tony Stark against the rampaging Hulk, Tony made it his first priority to get the enraged beast away from civilians, it was easier said than done, but at least he tried. You see, Zack Snyder?! YOU SEE?!

So in terms of basic story and character, I was happy with what we got. For me, the characters are the most important aspect of any movie, and thankfully they got that right. Unfortunately, here comes the "but." And it's a big "but."

I thought the editing was lousy. Too much was happening at too fast a pace with too many people to keep up, and for me as a guy who lives and breathes Marvel, this is a pretty big problem. I mentioned this on Facebook last night and a friend of mine, a Mr. Frank Paur (who you might remember as the Supervising Director of "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes") had this to say: "I can understand why Joss Whedon wouldn't take another Marvel movie right now. It's hard to top Avengers 1, and the sheer magnitude of all the characters has got to be a nightmare. I completely understand the editing choices". And he is right. Considering everything, I do understand the editing choices, but it was too big a movie for the run time, and I wish that announcement by Amazon that the Blu-ray was going to be an extended edition hadn't been debunked, because this movie needed more time to breathe, and more time with everybody. This is why I am glad that "Avengers: Infinity War" will be two parts instead of one, because just about everybody will be coming back along with Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, and the Guardians of the Galaxy along with Thanos, Loki, and who knows what other villains. "Lord of the Rings" didn't have a cast as big as "Avengers: Infinity War" is going to.

I also didn't care for how the action sequences were filmed. Why? Too much Michael Bay shaky-cam. The worst offender being Iron Man in his Hulkbuster armor vs. Hulk. Not that there weren't moments there that I didn't enjoy, mostly brought about by Tony Stark as a character, but I didn't like how it was shot. The first "Avengers" movie had a much cleaner, far less kinetic style of photography to it. There were moments where the only reason I was able to tell what was happening or who was who were the different colors everybody was wearing. Also, there was one action sequence too many, there should have been more of a break before the final battle sequence... which, I do admit, was one of the coolest set pieces I've seen in a movie in a long time.

Another big issue, and this is an issue that's been building up for a long time, a few paragraphs up I mentioned a strength of the shared universe aspect. But, sadly, the shared universe has become a double-edged sword. There was so much set-up for future movies, it often came at the expense of this one. Remember how big a problem this was for "Iron Man 2"? Yeah, it's kind of like that. While worrying about Ultron, the seeds for "Captain America: Civil War", "Thor: Ragnorak", and "Avengers: Infinity War" are being sowed, which is fine, but I could have done with less sowing. I'm sure this will play better when all the Blu-rays are on my shelf and I am re-watching them, but when you're waiting years for the seeds to bear fruit, it's annoying. This was very much a middle episode. But, unlike some other middle episodes ("Desolation of Smaug", I'm looking at you!) at least it had a beginning, middle, and end (which makes me realize I was way too kind to "Desolation of Smaug", this movie was even more packed than that but managed to be a lot more self-contained). Once again, thank gods that "Infinity War" will be in two parts, after seeing this, that's the only way to do a movie that huge.

The worst part of the viewing experience wasn't the movie itself, it was two things. The audience we sat with was very obnoxious. Teenagers who wouldn't shut up, wouldn't stop laughing at inappropriate moments, and thought their own jokes were so damn funny. This happened the first time I saw "Captain America: The First Avenger", which killed my enjoyment... of course further viewings without such an audience improved the movie's quality for me, so I hope a future viewing of "Age of Ultron" without an audience will allow me to pay closer attention to what was going on, and make it more coherent for me. The second problem was, someone in the projection booth messed up during the last ten minutes, and the picture and audio fell completely out of sync. I'm talking about picture at least forty-five seconds before sound... at first I wondered if it was a strange editing choice, but nope. Thankfully, they let us re-watch the last fifteen minutes after a thirty minute wait. But these two unfortunate elements really sucked the fun out of the evening.

And, I realize this is a cop out, but I am not giving the movie an overall grade at this time. I need a second viewing because I initially wrote a very negative review of "Captain America: The First Avenger" only to re-evaluate it later with a second, better viewing. So, you'll get my grade when I do my end of the year grading, and have seen the movie on Blu-ray in my own house on my sixty-five inch HD-TV.

Farewell, Joss. Russo Brothers, it's your turn.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Vindication!


Joss Whedon is my master now.

Yes, the TV show that I have hated more than any other, the one that most disgusted me, that I couldn't help but look down on people who like it because it is so terrible has been Goliath Chronicled!

I think I'll quote Joss right now.
The Coulson thing was, I think, a little anomalous just because that really came from the television division, which is sort of considered to be its own subsection of the Marvel universe. As far as the fiction of the movies, Coulson is dead.
So, there you have it. There's more out there, but Joss Whedon has declared that "Special Snowflake & The S.H.I.T. Squad" is not canon to the movies. You will never ever see Coulson in a movie again. You will never see Agent May in a movie. You will never see the two annoying scientists in a movie. You will never see HYDRA's Block of Wood in a movie. You will never see Special Snowflake in a movie. The show itself does not matter.

Short of cancellation, I cannot think of a more vicious blow to strike against this disgusting TV show. I mean, those of us with good taste and common sense knew it didn't matter, but damn, even Joss Whedon doesn't like it. Yes, this put a big ol' grin on my face.

Oh, joygasm!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky


"I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again. But you took something that wasn’t yours, and you sold it for a profit. You’re now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you."

And that quote, from the great Mike Ehrmantraut, defines how, not only the world created by Vince Gilligan works, but perhaps how our real world works as well.

As I have mentioned previously, I looked forward to this show with a lot of trepidation. Lightning seldom strikes twice in the world of pop culture. Sequels and spin-offs are a dime a dozen, but good sequels and spin-offs are a rare jewel. "Better Call Saul" is something even rarer, not just a good prequel, but a great prequel. I hope George Lucas is paying attention, because this is how it's done.

I've heard some criticize this first season by saying that it didn't really know what it wanted to be. Was it a crime show? Was it a lawyer show? What was this show? Why did it take so long to find its footing? Unlike many other shows which struggle in their first season, I have to believe this was deliberate. It wasn't the show that didn't know what it wanted to be, it was Jimmy McGill who didn't really know what he wanted to be. Did he want to be the respectable attorney, James M. McGill, Esq for himself, or because he wanted his brother, Chuck to be proud of him? Or was Slippin' Jimmy really who he wanted to be? Exactly who is Jimmy McGill? I don't think he honestly knew, until he stood in that parking lot, James M. McGill, Esq in front of him, Slippin' Jimmy behind him, and thought about his respectable blood brother, Chuck, who would always see him as a scumbag, and his brother from another mother, Marco, who did love and respect him. The choice was as clear as day, and Bob Odenkirk deserves an Emmy nomination, although I suspect he will lose to Jon Hamm this fall.

Michael McKean, who plays Chuck McGill, summed up Jimmy's new outlook appropriately when, in an interview with Salon when he called it "the American escape hatch", and he said the following: "If everything else goes off in your face, if your family can’t stand the sight of you, if you can’t hold a job, if you can’t stay away from drugs and booze, well, at least you can make a lot of money and have all this f-you money stacked up." And it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Chuck did say that "Slippin' Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun," and the grand tragedy being that it didn't have to be this way. Had Chuck given Jimmy a chance, just a small chance, Jimmy would never have become Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer. But now, his path is just beginning, a path to Walter White and, maybe ultimately, maybe not, a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. I just hope that Chuck gets over his mental condition in time to see the first Saul Goodman commercial.

Jonathan Banks' return to this world as Mike Ehrmentraut was more than welcome... suck it, "Community" fans, Jonathan Banks is our's MWA HA HA! But hey, you guys have Keith David now, I think that's a fair trade. Anyway, Mike's return is more than welcome and, as a good prequel should do, makes his death during "Breaking Bad" all the more tragic. We knew he was motivated to provide for his granddaughter, but we didn't know exactly why. Banks himself, when they were filming "Breaking Bad" contributed the idea that would later become the key to his arc in this prequel, that Kaylee's mother wasn't Mike's daughter. And since we never saw a sign of Kaylee's father in "Breaking Bad", that meant one of two things, which eventually culminated in one of this season's highlights, the episode "Five-O" where we learn that Mike blames himself, in part, for his son's death in a performance that should earn Jonathan Banks an Emmy. Jimmy and Mike, although not allied yet, will make a great duo. This one man who doesn't quite know who he is, and another who knows exactly who he is.

If there is one hope I have for the second season, I hope Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, has more to do. I am confident she will, because her own history with Jimmy is still pretty nebulous, and probably by design. Are they just friends? Were they more than friends? It's clear that Jimmy has stronger feelings for her than friendship, and she probably does as well. As the season closed, she practically handed Jimmy the chance to be James M. McGill, Esq. A chance he didn't take as he chose the path that will lead to Saul Goodman, if he isn't Saul Goodman in all but name already. Will there be fall out? Why do I ask? This is Vince Gilligan's universe, a universe very much like our own, of course there will be.

The writing is as sharp as anything else on television and, just like "Breaking Bad" before it, the cinematography is second to none on television. As a film school graduate, I cannot think of a set I would rather work on than this one. It's the most beautifully shot show on television, and every shot is calculated to mean just as much to the narrative as any line of dialogue. This is why audio-visual technology was invented in the first place. The best show on television? Easily.

Not bad for a show that started out as a joke in the writer's room. My overall grade for this season? I give it a Saul, because it's all good, man.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I won't watch that, it's live-action!

Growing up as a fan of various animated TV shows, I would often have people look down their noses at it because it was animated. "Oi, why should I watch a cartoon. Cartoons are for kids", and I always, always believed those people were being closed-minded and missing out on some damn good television.

Now, as a thirty-three year-old man, I am finding the same attitude from some animation fans towards live action. They won't watch a show because it's live action, just aren't interested. Which is their prerogative, but they are closing themselves off to some damn fine television. But what gets me is this, I know they've heard similar about animation while growing up, and one would think they would learn to not be so closed-minded.

Then I ask myself if I've become anti-animation. I do not think so, there just doesn't happen to be any animated shows currently on the air that appeal to me, aside from waiting for the sixth season of "The Venture Bros." I hated "Legend of Korra", was kinda lukewarm towards "Star Wars Rebels", and I think Marvel's current animation output is atrocious. I still don't understand "Adventure Time", nor do I care about "Gravity Falls". I'm sure another animated series that I care about will come along eventually, but aside from "The Venture Bros.", it just doesn't exist at this moment in time.

Meanwhile, I think "Better Call Saul" is turning out to be a masterpiece. I really enjoyed the third season of "House of Cards", I was very pleasantly surprised by "Agent Carter" and "Arrow". I await the fifth season of "Game of Thrones" with breathless anticipation, and I look forward to the Netflix "Daredevil" series. But gods knows there's a lot of crap on live action. My feelings for a certain show airing on ABC are a matter of public record now, and I thought "Gotham" turned out to be crap.

What's next for animation? There's really nothing in the pipe I'm looking forward to, except for when Greg Weisman's next series is announced. Aside from that, the number of shows that appeal to me are practically zero. Meanwhile I've recently re-visited "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes", "Young Justice", "Avatar: The Last Airbender", and I re-visit "Spectacular Spider-Man" constantly for my podcast; and I'm planning a "Gargoyles" re-watch soon as well as one for "Batman: The Animated Series" and "Transformers Animated". All shows I really enjoyed and still enjoy.

I love animated shows and I love live action shows. I do not believe one medium is inherently superior to the other, but at the end of the day, mediums aside, "Breaking Bad" is superior to "Transformers" and "My Little Pony". It just is.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Agent Carter - Season One


What can I say, I loved it! I thought it was great! It left me wanting more. I wish I could write a longer review, but it's difficult when all you're saying is "I loved it", because I could find no fault in this series.

Marvel's greatest heroes are not and never have been about their powers or costumes. Spider-Man is about responsibility. The X-Men are about overcoming bigotry. Iron Man is about being a hero despite your personal flaws. The Fantastic Four are about family. Peggy Carter is about succeeding in a world that would rather patronize you. In the wrong hands, this could easily be heavy handed, but "Agent Carter" was woven by talented people both in front of and behind the camera, and I am glad they went in the direction they did, as we have sadly seen that this is a message that bears repeating.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the bromance between Peggy and Jarvis is the greatest platonic friendship between a woman and a man that I've ever seen on television. It's actually tragic how rare this sort of thing is, but never, not once, did I ever think about these two getting together while watching it. And what makes this even more amazing is that there is chemistry oozing between these two, but it's not romantic chemistry at all. Hell, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have more erotic chemistry between them than Peggy and Jarvis. Well done.

Although her real name wasn't revealed, I still believe that Dottie Underwood is Yelena Belova. As an antagonist, she was great with a genuine sense of menace. As was her boss, Johann Fennhoff (Dr. Faustus in the comic books), a genuinely creepy villain seeking vengeance against Howard Stark... Dr. Faustus, now there's a character I didn't believe would ever appear outside the comics.

I know that, as a viewer and a critic, I've had a difficult relationship with Marvel's Television division. I do not need to reiterate my thoughts on their TV output over the last three years, and as I've previously said, I went into this show with a chip on my shoulder. And now, while it's not the greatest TV series I have ever seen, that doesn't mean I didn't think it was great television. It did more than alleviate my fears, they made a timeless classic... and in a day and age where very few of the TV shows I watch don't star a villain protagonist, it's nice to have the leading character be a genuine role model, someone to look up to. I give the series an A+ and I am sitting here, biting my nails, hoping for a second season.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Star Wars Rebels


And so that was season one... my feelings about this show are pretty mixed, I must admit.

The voice cast was fantastic. I'll start with my favorite character, and cast member. Vanessa Marshall is bringing a lot of passion to the character of Hera, passion that matches her own for this franchise. I've attended the "Star Wars Rebels" panel at New York Comic Con that she was on, and her passion and fandom for "Star Wars" and this show is infectious. It is always delightful to see someone who loves their work the way Ms. Marshall does. She brings her all to this show, and it more than pays off. Hera is a terrific character.

I raised an eyebrow when I heard that Freddie Prinze Jr. was cast as Kanan, mostly because I will admit that he's an actor I've always underestimated. But he did well, he brought a lot of humanity to a Jedi, after George Lucas spent the better part of the 2000's stripping them of any humanity they had. I rather liked the idea of this guy who never really finished his training being forced to take on an apprentice. We've seen the wise mentor a million times already, so a mentor with just as much to learn was a nice change of pace.

Tiya Sircar as Sabine and Steve Blum as Zeb bring a fun element to two characters who could have easily been annoying comic relief sidekicks, Zeb especially. They all round out a cast that feels like a Y7 "Firefly" cast, and I did enjoy them.

Unfortunately, most shows have a weak link, and this show's is Ezra. It's not voice actor, Taylor Gray's fault, he does well. But I don't think the character ever recovered from a very weak introduction, where he was a more annoying Aladdin, right down to being referred to more than once as "street rat". Ezra is the audience surrogate character, and a fine line needs to be walked, otherwise you end up with another Wesley Crusher, which this show, sadly, did. Before the season finale aired, a friend of mine speculated that Kanan was going to die, and I responded with "can't they kill Ezra instead?" He's not unsalvagable, but going forward, I think the wise move would be to downplay him, but as he is the lead, that's unlikely.

Finally, we have the Inquisitor. Jason Isaacs was terrific, he had a terrific visual, and there were moments where he was genuinely menacing, particularly in his first appearance and his last appearance. Unfortunately, somewhere in between, he began to feel very Saturday morning, as villain decay set in pretty quickly. Considering how powerful he seemed in his introduction, it began to strain credibility that he couldn't catch these rebels. More than that, I wanted to know more about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? How did he become so adept at the Dark Side of the Force? Was he an apprentice of Darth Vader? Did he have greater ambitions? What was his deal? Well, considering how the season ended, I doubt we'll find out now. All the ingredients were there, I just wish they were taken farther.

The show's last three episodes were probably its best, when Grand Moff Tarkin arrived and made the Empire formidable after many episodes of being, well, very Saturday Morning. There was an epic feel to it that felt like the original films. But it was a little too late to maintain my interest in a second season. But that's okay, the way the season ends, it feels like it could lead in to "A New Hope" pretty seamlessly, both in learning about the existence of a larger Rebel Alliance, as well as the final scene with Grand Moff Tarkin bringing Darth Vader in to help him hunt down them all down.

Overall, it's a B-/C+ show. It's the most I've enjoyed "Star Wars" since the 1980's. But, it's really not for me. I think the main protagonist is weak, and I do not care for 3-D animation, which I find much more limiting than traditional animation. But there is a lot of good in there, despite some big glaring flaws. It's one of the better entries in a franchise that broke my heart a very long time ago, in a theater that isn't so far away.