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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (5/2/14) 3:11am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Captain America: The Winter Soldier [spoilers], The Piano [spoilers]
TV:  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x15-1x19] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Captain America: The Winter Soldier [spoilers]
This is Marvel's latest superhero movie, in which the cryogenically-preserved 1940s supersoldier teams up with the Black Widow to take on Hydra.

Ah, *finally*.  I finally like a movie *more* than the general public does.  I was starting to feel like the Debbie Downer of cinema, especially with more populist flicks.  I'd watch a tentpole action movie and see nothing but plot holes, amateurish acting, and stories that managed somehow to be both predictable and random.  But I really dug The Winter Soldier, which was quite a surprise; I've been tepid on superhero movies in general and MCU films in particular, and the word on the street was that this was a generic, good-enough superhero movie.

Like the first movie, The Winter Soldier is *about* something.  Again, what makes Captain America unique is his 1940's sense of basic decency, and the script wisely builds the movie around that.  The origin story explained who Captain America is.  Now, the sequel shows how that character clashes with what America is like these days.  So that's good -- we've moved on from exposition to conflict -- and it touches on that weird feeling one has these days that standing up *for* America often means standing up *against* America.

It's like there are two Americas: the one dreamed up by enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century and codified in the Constitution, and the lesser, stumbling one that actually exists here in 2014.  America doesn't torture -- not the America that Jefferson and Madison and the rest conceived of.  It doesn't pre-emptively kill targets who *might* later be a threat.  It doesn't gin up wars over false pretenses.  And when the America we're stuck with in the real world does *all* of these things, it's disillusioning.  It's hopeless.  It's looking in the mirror and asking, "Wait, are we the baddies?"

And The Winter Soldier wades right into that.  I'm surprised it hasn't caused any political fracas, but I suspect that encoding a social statement into superhero form has made it okay.  (See also: The Twilight Zone.)  Nobody likes the notion of using firepower and information-gathering to kill innocent people.  Presumably the Democrats blame George W. Bush for this behavior, the Republicans blame Obama, and the Libertarians blame absolutely everyone, so we can all watch this movie with a happy sense of moral superiority.

That theme gives the movie some weight -- which is useful, since yes, it *is* a crazy, silly superhero adventure.

Also helpful: this movie has remarkably solid acting all-around, almost to the level of Thor.  Somehow they landed Robert Redford as the Big Bad senator.  The bits of stunt casting -- Danny Pudi, Garry Shandling, and (as usual) Stan Lee -- were all well-deployed.  As far as I could tell, the only weak link was Frank Grillo, who played "generic henchman with an unusual amount of screen time".

And the first two acts gave us some scenes that let the characters *breathe* a little.  Movies, especially non-arthouse movies, can be structurally frustrating: everything in the movie is about the hero pursuing the goal.  If it's a movie about winning a hotdog-eating contest, every character is there to either help or hinder the hero's effort to win the hotdog-eating contest, usually to the point that you have no idea what these characters are like when they're "off the clock".[1]  So when a movie can pull off a scene that just lets a character be him- or herself, it makes the world feel a little bigger.  It's nice to know that occasionally, a character has better things to do than to go through the motions of a three-act structure.

So I loved the little 'breathers' in The Winter Soldier.  I loved Steve visiting Peggy Carter at the hospital.[2].  I loved the scenes of Natasha and Steve road-tripping through New Jersey, and I hope that fanfic writers are writing out the whole Before Sunset-esque road movie it implies.  Sometimes you just need to see who people are when they're not getting shot at, y'know?

Yes, making Bucky Barnes the villainous Winter Soldier was a pretty substantial stretch -- what, are there only, like, eight people in this universe? -- but I'm glad they did that.  Otherwise, we'd have been stuck with yet another forgettable, arbitrary villain with yet another gimmicky superpower (OMG HE HAS A SUPER ARM THAT IS A METAL ARM OMG) and regrettable costume choices ("Oh, honey.  Go march your pouty self back to Hot Topic, return *everything*, and go shop at Baddy McKickass's down the street for some proper villain threads.").  Making him vaguely remember Steve Rogers, only to be 'wiped' and put back in cryogenic storage, and giving him that post-credits vignette where he stared at his own life story, gave that character some real pathos.[2]

Other than that, I have lots of little complaints.  Yes, the "deploy three re-targeting cards" felt pretty silly, and arbitrary, and videogame-like.  A moment's thought will make you realize that running a conspiracy on the level of Hydra is hilariously impossible.  The fact that Steve Rogers just randomly encounters and befriends the Falcon at the start of the film is kind of a stretch.  (Again, there are only eight people in the Captainverse.)  And many of the fight scenes were dull: all short takes, quick edits, and no sense of uniqueness, with no discernible fighting styles.[3]

But honestly, if a movie is *about* something, and the plot makes sense, and it has some scenes that connect with me, then the complaints all fall by the wayside.  It's a good movie, and I really enjoyed it.

The Piano [spoilers]
This is the 1993 Jane Campion romantic drama about a 19th-century mute pianist who immigrates to New Zealand.  The main things you've heard about it are most likely that the film includes (1) Anna Paquin's first acting role (for which she won an Oscar at the ripe old age of 11); and (2) Harvey Keitel's penis.

If I were mean-spirited and reductive, I'd say the piano is the story of Ada, a smart, resolute, talented woman who gets the pleasure of choosing between Baines a man who takes her most prized possession and will only return it in trade for sex, and Alisdair, a man who tries to rape her and later mutilates her with a hatchet.

Ah, romance.

But it's not as simple as that.  The film does a good job setting up Baines as the 'good' suitor, implying repressed attraction on Ada's part, and having Baines at least not be rapey about the arrangement.  And they work at contrasting him with Alisdair, whom Ada is clearly not attracted to, and who seems ill-suited to satisfy anybody (including himself) in bed.

With a little effort, I got on the film's wavelength and for the most part I could watch the movie the way it was intended, being happy when Ada sailed off with Baines, and not taking the whole film as an indictment of 19th-century sexism.

Once I got past that, I arrived at a very standard, formulaic love triangle: Ada is married to Alisdair, but starts a passionate affair with Baines, and then there's a lot of fighting.  A well-worn storyline like that is kind of like a I:IV:V chord progression in a pop song -- it's so straightforward that it sort of fades into the background, and you focus on other elements of the work instead.

In this case, I mostly attended to the setting.  The Piano is the first film I've seen that was shot in New Zealand that does not make me want to immediately move to New Zealand.  The 19th-century settlers have arrived in a place that is mostly mud, with occasional cabins and treacherous-looking forests.  Having taught myself a bit about color-correction lately, I couldn't help but notice the blue cast over many scenes, giving everything a kind of sickly look.  This world looks dangerous, and uncomfortable, and ramshackle in a kind of endearing way.  The Māori are presented from the settlers' point of view -- unpredictable, incomprehensible, unknowable.

It's a fascinating world they depict.

The acting is stellar across the board, as you'd expect for this sort of boutique prestige picture.  The central cast is Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, and Sam Neill, and there are just no weak links there.

So I watched the characters, and I watched New Zealand, and I ignored the weird, rapey vibe, and I let the plot sort of float past.  The ending, where Ada insists on throwing her piano overboard and then tries to commit suicide by attaching its rope to her leg, was one of those grand capital-R Romantic gestures -- "Oh, I am just too fragile a flower for this cruél world, and now I must die" -- that is supposed to be intense and meaningful, but instead just strikes me as entitled and selfish.  When she asked the piano to be thrown overboard: "Wait, you had these Māori carry the damn thing across the island for you, and now you're just going to nullify that?  Couldn't you have gotten rid of it beforehand?  How much backbreaking labor do these hired hands have to provide so you can indulge in your flamboyant, symbolic gesture?"  When she tried to commit suicide: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU HAVE A KID YOU SELFISH GIT."

It was odd, seeing her survive that.

I think I didn't expect it because stories from that period would feel an absolute need to punish Ada for adultery, however loveless her marriage was, and however technical an arrangement it was.  In 19th-century terms, sex with Baines made her a 'fallen woman', and tragedy, most likely death, would befall her.  Since Ada was also set up as a good person, that death would have to be as noble as possible.  The noblest possible death, by that society's skewed perspective: punishing herself for her transgression with a beautiful, symbolic suicide.

And structurally, it felt like suicide was the end of the story.  This movie sets up a conflict between two forces: Ada, a woman who absolutely can't live in a world that won't let her live the way she wants; and the 19th-century British empire, which absolutely kept women in subservient roles.  To make that story end (as opposed to just 'stopping'), one side or the other has to win.  Either Ada carves out a little matriarchal fiefdom in the wilds of New Zealand, or she dies.[5]  So the suicide felt like an endpoint: the question is answered, the story is done.

But then the movie kept going.  It canceled its own offer -- "Ada's dead!" "Oh no she isn't!" -- and tacked on a happy ending.  So at this point, the answer to "will Ada win or will society win?" is a non sequitur: "she finds a guy she really likes and settles down".[6]

I guess that means I was watching the movie wrong.  The Piano wasn't about whether Ada would bow to society or not -- it was about whether she'd end up with Alisdair or Baines.

Ah well.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x15-1x19] [spoilers]
I have watched the Marvel TV series up to last week's "The Only Light in the Darkness", where Ward killed Koenig and headed off with Skye in the bus.

I have many, many nice things to say about this latest batch of episodes.

Well, wait, I don't have nice things to say about "Yes Men".  Episode 15 was an exemplar of the dull, dull show that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been up to this point.  There was yet another monster-of-the-week, and yet again, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to have missed the memo that, in a Whedon show -- or indeed, in any decent genre show -- the blah-of-the-week is supposed to be connected to the characters: maybe it exemplifies something in the characters' lives; maybe it causes conflict among the characters.  When "Mrs. Reynolds" comes aboard Serenity, everyone has a different take on how Mal treats his new helpmeet, and that leads to some harsh words.  When Buffy sleeps with Angel, her lover turns into the Big Bad, symbolizing boorish dude-behavior since time immemorial.  Hell, even the horrible swim-team episode of Buffy was a twisted representation of steroid use among teen athletes.

And here, we have Lorelai, who... doesn't really symbolize anything.  It's just another arbitrary threat to deal with, using a series of vacuous plot moves.

But then the appropriately titled "End of the Beginning" started to turn things around.  It got things in place to finish off the "Clairvoyant" storyline, which had been a goddamn albatross since the beginning.  "Ooh, who is the Clairvoyant?  Is it someone we've met?  What powers does he or she have?"  The answer to all of those is, of course, a resounding "OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD NOBODY CARES"[7], but it's good to get the real answers: "It's Garrett"; "nope, he's a guest star"; "he has high-level clearance".  Sure, it all strains credibility (a high-level agent can actually convince smart people that he can read minds?) and it feels a bit ad hoc (uh, it's this new guy we're throwing in! and he did it all with his magic credentials!) but it means that that story arc is *over* with.  We can pat it on the back, tell it that it tried really hard, and send it on its way.

And then the shit hits the fan.

And thank god for that.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a show that's had many problems, but in retrospect I think one of the big ones is the good guys -- our heroes -- have had way *too much power*.  They have a giant freakin' plane.  They have trained super-agents, they have brilliant scientists, they have a hacker who can get into anything.  And beyond that, they can draw on the full resources of an international agency that can deploy anything from SWAT teams to nuclear missiles, which must have caused the writers no end of headaches.[8][9]  Basically, if you throw a problem at this group of people, you don't fret much about whether they can handle it.  (There's a reason the A*Team was on the run from the law.)

And it isn't just a logistics problem.  It's also a relatability problem.  We like the scrappy underdogs, people who handle difficult problems with teamwork and insight, even though they don't have all the material advantages over the bad guys.  We dislike The Man. 

So for the longest time, many people I've talked to about this show have agreed about one thing: eventually, somehow, the team has to break off from S.H.I.E.L.D.  It would be the only way to make the team relatable.  It would be the only way to make the monsters-of-the-week genuinely threatening.  It would be the only way to properly pay off Coulson's mounting distrust of his own agency.  It would be a sensible way to move the show to a new 'place', so they're not just doing monsters-of-the-week until they completely burn out.

So instead, we get Captain America: The Winter Soldier: S.H.I.E.L.D. is all but destroyed, Hydra is running rampant, and our heroes are on the run from the law.  Perfect.

I'm not going to say "Turn, Turn, Turn" hit a home run with how they *handled* this plot development.  The "nobody trusts anybody" scenes on the bus were just so many empty plot moves, and the resolution of May's "secret purpose" on the team was kind of a head-scratcher.  Okay, May had a cover story that she wanted to keep Coulson from the truth, but she was secretly there to make sure that Coulson wasn't reprogrammed by Hydra?  *sigh*  Fine, that'll do, just so it *ends* that story arc, and it can go to a farm where it can play with the Clairvoyant story arc and never bother us again.  Hand's double-bluff, pretending to be a member of Hydra, was just silly.

I really loved the notion that Simmons was stuck at the Hub and had no idea what was going on.  In my perfect alternate universe, they introduced the Hydra strike with an episode that just followed Simmons for the whole damn running time, trying desperately to stay alive and slowly piecing together the horrible thing that had happened.[10]  And their execution with the Simmons storyline was fine.

And then there's the final reveal that Ward is a Hydra agent.

I have strongly conflicting feelings about this.  From a script perspective, it's brilliant.  It shakes up the show's usual dynamics.  It adds fascinating dimensionality to the show's flattest, least interesting character.  It gives the show an easy way to bounce back and forth between the agents and the bad guys.  It creates a villain that we care about.  And it's a punch-to-the-gut betrayal on the level of Angel going evil after sleeping with Buffy (a sensible comparison, since Brett Dalton seems to be the show's David Boreanz clone).  This is the sort of move I associate with Whedon (or Tim Minear).

All that said, I don't think Brett Dalton is up to this task.

There's a very cruel and unfair game we can play here called "Imagine Michael Emerson delivering these lines."  It's horrible to compare Mr. Dalton to arguably the best actor on television, but it's instructive, because Michael Emerson played this exact type of character arc on LOST.  So humor me, and imagine giving Mr. Emerson this line:

You'd be surprised how often you get invited to the party when you don't want to go. "Sir, I was trained from day one as a specialist. I go in alone, I get it done. This 'team' thing?  Not my speed."

This should make it clear just how much more you can draw from a line like that -- the wry, perceptive intelligence in the 'invited to the party' bit.  The sharp, 'putting on a character' aspect of "'Sir, I was trained...'" -- and also the sense of preening, of showing off, of "Do you see?  Do you see how *amazing* I am at pretending to be Grant Ward?"

As far as I can tell, at this point in his career, the actor playing Ward just can't *do* that.  And so I'm left in an odd quandary.  This storyline with Ward is, on paper, the first brilliant thing this show has done.  But Mr. Dalton can't deliver on this villainous, conflicted, chameleonic character that they're writing.  And this brings us to the following koan: if you're writing a good script, but you're writing it for an actor who can't play it, are you *really* writing a good script?

There's an analogous problem with Skye.  Granted, they still haven't given Skye much of a character[11], but they've still given her some fascinating material to play.  The end of "The Only Light in the Darkness" is forcing Chloe Bennet to play (1) aghast at the murder of Koeing; (2) terrified of Ward; (3) playing it absolutely calm to avoid getting garroted; and (4) thinking very hard about how to spin a consistent lie.  I'm fond of saying that any actor can play sad or happy -- the challenge is when an actor has to play sad and happy at the same time.  And this is that exact scenario.  I'm convinced that even the best actors would be hard-pressed to nail Skye's scene with Ward outside the storage locker.  And Chloe Bennet, for whatever reason, just isn't fully playing the material she's given.

And now it looks like they'll spin out the story with Ward for as long as they can, perhaps even keeping him in the main cast as a Baltar-like figure.  This makes me sad, both because they don't have the courage to remove a main character, and because they're giving a lot of airtime to an actor who isn't really delivering.

Meanwhile, Patton Oswalt.

His guest appearance was just glorious.  I badly want to know if any of his lines are improvised, because he's delivering funnier material than this show has ever had.  And it's not those terrible, jokey attempts at verbal wit that permeate the rest of the show -- no, this is just Mr. Oswalt playing a very specific character, and the humor just emanating from that.  By the time he delivers the line "Additional lanyards will be delivered on a case-by-case basis." -- a line that looks like flabby, lifeless exposition on the page -- he's made the rest of the characters look like vague blobs of nothing, by comparison.  I know who Koenig is, to an extent that I will never know who Ward is, or who Skye is, or who May is, and he's only been onscreen for five goddamn minutes.

Aaaand then they killed him off.  This makes sense, I guess, and the limited commitment was probably the only way to get Oswalt for the gig, but it makes me (again) sad.  This trend -- killing off characters played by good actors and giving expanded roles to characters played by bad actors -- cannot be good for the show.  Then again, if they can keep writing characters like Koenig, and keep casting guest stars like Patton Oswalt, then maybe that bodes well.

They did less well with Amy Acker.  She's a great actress -- her work on Dollhouse was *amazing* -- but she plays a simple damsel in distress here, with no real personality beyond thinking Coulson is dreamy.[12]  I suppose their new monster-of-the-week format is a Pokémon-like effort to catch all the supers who were freed from the Fridge, and this first effort felt pretty phoned in.  And that's sad, because it pretty much wastes the "cellist in Portland".  We've all wondered who she was since she was mentioned in Iron Man, and this was a kind of 'meh' answer to our questions.

So moving forward, I'm guessing that the monsters-of-the-week will be as flat as they've always been.  I'm guessing that the Skye/Ward storyline will be brilliantly written but only passably acted.  And I'm guessing that the show on the whole will be a lot better, because now our heroes are the scrappy underdogs.

I'm having a hell of a good time watching this show try to find itself.

For next week: watching David Mamet's 1986 directorial debut, House of Games.

[1] "Yes, I *know* you're the hero's main competitor in the hotdog-eating contest, but do you have *anything* else going on in your life, or your soul?  When all the hotdogs are eaten, do you just vanish into the aether, your purpose in the universe fulfilled?"
[2] Of course, having watched my own mom die of Alzheimer's, it makes sense that this scene would speak to me.
[3] I do wonder if the actor is really up to playing that level of internal conflict, though -- his utterly blank affect in his post-credits scene didn't fill me with confidence.
[4] The Wilson-Rumlow fight in act three felt especially like it was just marking time until something more interesting happened.
[5] Or maybe she lives on, but in a way that's broken, that inner flame extinguished utterly.
[6] Apparently earlier drafts had her drown with the piano, and ended the movie there.
[7] Something that would make me so happy: commentary tracks for every Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, done by Lewis Black.
[8] "But why doesn't the team just call S.H.I.E.L.D. central and have them drone-strike the bad guy into the stone age?"  This may explain why the communications system on the Bus seems a bit unreliable.
[9] I suspect that this is why "F.Z.Z.T." worked so well -- there was such a narrow timeframe, and it was so difficult to get additional scientists to help that it made things look genuinely dire for the good guys.
[10] Then you could follow it up with an episode that backtracks, shows what the *rest* of team did, and reunites them with Simmons at the end.  (Yes, it's possible I am *too* big of a fan of LOST.)
[11] ... or rather, they continue to give her different characters from week to week, resulting in a cumulative muddle.
[12] Also, as Lindsey points out, she plays a woman -- a woman who was previously stalked, no less -- who decides to go jogging in an empty park, alone, at night, while listening to music on headphones.  Maurissa Tancharoen must have been on vacation, because there were surely no ladies in that writers' room.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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