Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and why it gets a bum rap

I will admit up front that I am a Marvel fanboy. I enjoy D.C. comics and movies as well, but I am a particularly big fan of Marvel. So this is not an unbiased argument I am about to make. Also, if for some reason you are reading this without having watched the show, there may be spoilers.




 I think Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D gets more grief than it deserves. I think it's a pretty good show that is made great by its connection to a larger universe. People complain about how long it took the show to really start telling its story, and start developing its characters. I would argue that a good story takes some time to set the scene and introduce the players. Besides, if you go to Netflix and binge watch the first season, you will see that they started telling the big story very early on. It was just done so subtly that those of us who were watching the original broadcasts mostly did not notice. The alien writing which was such a big part of the plot up to the midway point of the second season was introduced in episode 4.

 Another complaint is that the show took too long for big reveals and stretched the story out too much. I will admit that there were times when it felt the story was being stretched for no good reason. But other times it was necessary to make for a better story. Ward's reveal as a Hydra agent would not have been nearly as impactful if it had taken place in the first few episodes. We needed that time to get to know his character and watch him bond with the rest of the team for that moment to have the effect that it needed to have. That is why that is a "Wow, I can't believe that just happened" moment rather than a "Meh, saw that coming" moment.

 The one thing I read most often about Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that if it were not for its connection to the MCU, it would not be as popular. It probably would not, but this is still a ridiculous statement. Yes, part of the appeal of this show is its connection to the larger movie universe. That connection is a part of the reason the show exists. It is there to tell some of the stories they do not have time to tell in the movies. Saying the show would not be as good without the connection is like saying Sofia Vergara would not be as hot if she had some sort of weird growth right in the middle of her forehead. But she doesn't, so there's not really an argument there. Some try to make the point that they don't want to have to see the movies to enjoy the show. Guess what, you don't. While you will definitely get more out of the show if you watch the movies, you can still follow the story pretty easily without doing so. Personally, I don't understand why someone who doesn't want to watch the MCU movies would want to watch a lower budget version of them on television. It would be like someone who doesn't like Superman trying to watch a show all about Jimmy Olsen. That show would only be interesting to someone who is invested in the Superman universe. The same holds true for S.H.I.E.L.D.

 Finally, the last complaint I kept seeing was that this was a superhero show that did not show any superheroes. My initial response to this was that they were mistaken about the purpose of the show. The Whedons were pretty upfront that they were not making a superhero show. They were making a show about regular people trying to cope in a world where superheroes exist. While there were people around the team with powers, the team themselves were just regular people. That was part of the point. Of course Skye now has powers, so that whole premise has changed. To be honest I'm a little sad that a member of the team has turned out to have powers. But that is overshadowed by my excitement that it appears that the show runners have decided to use S.H.I.E.L.D. to introduce characters and concepts that will be used in the movies down the line. That is super cool. I think a lot of the initial disappointment was due to people thinking that Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans would pop up. That was unrealistic. This show was only ever meant to deepen the background of the MCU a little. In my opinion it has succeeded at that quite well. And Ming Na Wen is hot, just saying.

The X-Files is returning!: Why I am excited, and why I will be inevitably disappointed

It has been confirmed that the X-Files is coming back to t.v.

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The X-Files starred David Duchovny as FBI agent Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson as agent Dana Scully.  Agent Mulder used his job at the FBI to follow his obsession with extraterrestrials and the paranormal, an obsession that was sparked by his sister's abduction when they were children.  Agent Scully was assigned to agent Mulder and the X-Files in order to debunk his work, but ended up becoming his staunchest ally and more.



The stories (involving urban legend monsters, UFO's, and government conspiracies) seemed tailor made to appeal to my interests at the time.  Occasionally they would lighten the mood, and some of those episodes were darkly hilarious.  This was the first show I watched that built a mythology and overarching story-line that spanned not just episodes, but seasons.

This was the greatest show I had ever seen.  Then the Fight the Future movie happened.  It was promised that this movie would move the alien invasion story forward.  Questions were to be answered.  But alas, none of that was to be.  In fact the story was reset back to where it was prior to season 5.

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By Everaldo Coelho (http://findicons.com/icon/248433/11?id=392975) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

In spite of this disappointment I continued to watch this show religiously.  The mythology got so convoluted and sloppy is was impossible to follow.  Then Fox Mulder was abducted.  Half of the formula that made the show work was now gone.  They replaced him with an agent that was as much fun to watch as drying paint.  The moments of humor seemed to just dry up completely.

Then there was a second movie that ignored the alien invasion plot completely.  Which would have been fine had the marketing not been designed to indicate otherwise.

Now the show is coming back with the original stars.  Mulder and Scully will once again be investigating the unknown for the length of a six episode mini-series.  Hosanna and joy!

But then I began to wonder.  Would these new episodes deal with the (already overdue) alien invasion, or would they do as the last movie had done and ignore that story?  Would this be six stand-alone episodes, or would there be a new story that would thread through the six new episodes?

I realized that I really want some closure on the alien invasion, but the mythology is such a mess at this point that there is almost no way to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.  And while stand-alone episodes like Jose Chung and War of the Coprophages were some of my favorites, I would be distressed if they acted as though the imminent alien invasion was a non-event and just ignored it.

So the show seems to be in a no win scenario.  No matter how they approach this mini-series they are sure to disappoint fans.  Hopefully they can pull off a Captain Kirk and beat this Kobayashi Maru.  This is one time I would be delighted to be proven wrong.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Throne of Blood review

Throne Of Blood takes a great story written by a great playwright and turns it into a great film made by a great director. I have only ever seen one Kurosawa movie that I did not think was amazing, and this is probably my favorite of them all. It is a very dark and intense movie. In myh opinion, this is not only Kurosawa's best movie, but also the best screen adaptation of Macbeth ever made. This movie may not have had some of the industry changing techniques that Rashomon had, or the storytelling tropes that defined western cinema like Seven Samurai, but for performance, intensity, and entertainment value I put this at the top You should watch it immediately. Then once you are done, watch the other two I mentioned. Then watch any Kurosawa movie, they are all good. Ran is the only one that doesn't hold up to the standard of the others, and even it is decent.
Mike Nelson's Movie MegacheeseMike Nelson's Movie Megacheese by Michael J. Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the book that gave me the phrase "flaming pile of squirrel vomit" and for that I'll be forever grateful. I am a big fan of Mike Nelson's humor, and this book made me laugh even though the movies it reviews were all old by the time I read it.

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Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My favorite sci-fi novel. Epic on a scale you normally only get in fantasy novels. I don't even know what to say about this book that hasn't been said a million times. In my opinion one of the best books I have ever read.

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Triplanetary (Lensman, #1)Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kind of old fashioned and corny, but still fun to read. The author had trouble at times making his statements clear, but I kept reminding myself that he didn't have the shared lexicon of sci-fi that we enjoy today to rely on.

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Spider-Man: BlueSpider-Man: Blue by Jeph Loeb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My favorite Spiderman book, and I felt the first time they really gave Gwen's death the emotional weight that it deserved.

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Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'ArtSacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was great! I have been a fan for years, but these last couple of books have both been so different and unexpected. I even enjoyed all the shameless name dropping of the artists throughout.

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HornsHorns by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As much as I tried, I could not keep the knowledge that this is Stephen King's son from coloring my view of this book. Luckily it lived up to the standard. Not scary like most of his dad's stuff, but interesting. I did think the last flashback sequence was badly placed and brought the proceedings to a screeching halt just when they should have reached that inexorable rush to the climax. But still a really good book, and looking forward to seeing the movie with Daniel Radcliffe.

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Children of the Mind (The Ender Quintet, #4)Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my opinion this was the best of the Ender books. In the others it felt like the story got a little lost under the weight of the authors attempt to impart "great ideas". This still had some interesting ideas and questions, but the story moved at a brisk pace. It is also nice to red a sci-fi book that doesn't end with a giant space battle, but with the protagonists figuring out a better way.

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Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this book more for nostalgia and its hippy ethic than because of how it is written. It comes across now as old fashioned and hokey, but this book was so much a part of my teenage years, and deep inside of me there is still a dirty little hippy that is all about free love and peace and understanding. Plus there are parts of it that still make me laugh.

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Ghostbusters: The ReturnGhostbusters: The Return by Sholly Fisch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was o.k., not great. The parts about Peter running for mayor were kind of slow, and the final showdown felt anti-climactic. But it was still fun to read a new Ghostbusters story, they should put out more of these.

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The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid/The Golden Apple/LeviathanThe Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid/The Golden Apple/Leviathan by Robert Shea
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favorite books of all time. I first read this in high school and have re-read it several times. I also recommend it to all of my friends. It is very funny, one of the few books to ever make me laugh out loud. I really enjoyed the way it is written, though I can understand why it is difficult for some people to follow. It also introduced me to discordianism, the Fugs, and Robert Anton Wilson's rather unique views on philosophy and spirituality, which I have to admit heavily influenced my own. And while it did not introduce me to Aleister Crowley, it did peak my curiosity to the point to actually start reading his books.

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Marvel Comics: The Untold StoryMarvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting. I would have liked more about what they did with the characters, this seemed to focus most of its energies on all the fighting that took place. The end seemed rushed too, sort of "then they made Iron Man and then the Avengers into movies, the end." But it was kind of neat getting more back story on the Mighty Marvel Bullpen and some of the artists and writers who created and/or developed these characters over the years. I remember the comic book store boom and bust,so it was interesting getting the scoop on that. Overall a decent read, just not everything I hoped it would be.

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The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and HoaxesThe Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes by Robert E. Bartholomew
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Was entertaining to start, but started to feel repetitive toward the end. Most of the stories I was familiar with, as well as the facts debunking them. Overall it was o.k. but not terribly exciting.

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Nightingale's Lament (Nightside, #3)Nightingale's Lament by Simon R. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an improvement on the last 2 books. The main character is starting to get fleshed out a little bit more. But mostly, it introduced new characters and locations, something the last book did not bother with. Some of the repetitive phrases about John and the Nightside get a bit old, since they get used 3 or 4 times per book. But I know that not everyone would have read the other 2 books, and he wants to make sure they understand just how treacherous the Nightside is. Overall I really enjoyed this one.

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Hex and the City (Nightside, #4)Hex and the City by Simon R. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series continues to get better. When I started the first book I feared that the large, important mysteries it alluded to would be allowed to hang around indefinitely to add ambiance to the series. This book addressed them directly, and significant changes take place to the status quo. It is also good to see John Taylor actually do some things to show that he deserves the reputation he has, as in the first couple of books I was left wondering "Why would any of these powerful beings be afraid of him?" This book delivered a good story and is the first one where I wanted to start the next book as soon as possible to find out what happens next.

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Agents of Light and Darkness (Nightside, #2)Agents of Light and Darkness by Simon R. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a big improvement from the first book. The story felt more important. The characters felt more fleshed out. I still feel like the author takes the easy way out by just insisting that the Nightside is a scary place, but not ever really showing why. It doesn't come off as being as scary as some cities I've been to. But he is starting to slowly develop this world and these characters. It was also nice to see John do a couple of things that show he earned his reputation, because in the first book I really could not understand why everyone was so intimidated by him. Here's hoping that each book is as much better than the last as this one was.

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A couple of pleasant Netflix surprises

I came across two movies recently on Netflix that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. (Which was admittedly not at all)  You may be asking why I would watch movies that I did not expect to be good. I am one of those people who can get suckered into watching something by an especially well written synopsis, or if the movie looks like it was based on an interesting idea but was cheaply or badly made.  I thought that would be the case for these two movies, but I was (mostly) wrong.




"The ABCs Of Death" was the first movie.  Actually, it is a collection of 26 short films made by different directors about death and featuring a word starting with the appropriate letter.  For instance "A is for Apocalypse" or "C is for Cycle" or"Q is for Quack".  All of these are real titles from the movie by the way.

Of course being made by 26 different film makers means that some segments are stronger than others, some are not thought out as well as they could be, and some are downright weird. (The Japanese directed "F is for Fart" is so strange  that it is entertaining, while once again making me exclaim "WTF Japan?")  Overall though an interesting and fun movie that really only became dull when film makers tried to get all "meta", like in "Q is for Quack", which still managed to make me chuckle with its silly ending.  I don't expect the concept to hold up for the sequel, but it is on my list so we'll see.

The other movie was "It's a Disaster" starring Julia Stiles and David Cross.  The story begins with Julia's character bringing David's character to a couple's brunch to introduce him to her friends.  There is a lot personal drama going on amongst the couples.  During the course of brunch they find out that a series of dirty bombs have been set off across the country, and that their death is imminent. Rather than putting a halt on the personal drama, this news just puts an interesting spin on it all.

The movie was funny and took a couple of unexpected turns.  I also thought it was well acted and managed to play out the doomsday scenario without showing anything particularly horrifying or having to break the budget with special effects.  Actually the ordinariness of the setting and quiet of the neighborhood are what give the movie it's only touch of creepiness.  My only complaint is that the movie just could not seem to commit to it's dark ending, and left it a bit ambivalent.




Movies and Patriotism

Movies to me are about escapism.  Life can be awful and depressing, and movies are a way to take myself out of that and, for a couple of hours, be in a world where things aren't so serious.  Even if the movie is a drama or an action movie, it is not real and so it is safe.




Politics is something that I have ab interest in in the real world.  In fact there have been times in my life when I allowed myself to get entirely too wrapped up in politics.  However I have never liked it when politics impinged on my enjoyment of a movie.

American Sniper was recently a big movie.  Initially I was interested in seeing it, because I had heard it was well made and Bradley Cooper turned in a good performance.  Then I started to get people telling me that if I love my country I had to see this movie.  They would insist that anyone with even the tiniest amount of patriotism would see this movie and love it,  To them supporting the movie became supporting the war effort in the Middle East.

When choosing to see or not see a movie becomes a litmus test for your patriotism, the line has been crossed from entertainment to propaganda.  Now, I don't think this movie was made with the intention of being pro-war propaganda, but that is how it is being used.  I realize that there have always been political and social statements in movies.  Some are better at getting their point across while still being entertaining than others are.  And politics have always been divisive and partisans on both sides have always taken things to extremes and been unreasonable.

It just makes me a little sad to think that there are people out there who can't enjoy a movie unless it espouses a worldview that they agree with,  And I really hope that we never get so mired down in politics that the simple act of watching a movie gets bogged down in debate and rancor.  Let me have my 2 hours of escapism, the other 22 hours are horror filled enough to make up for it.