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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug



Previously, on The Hobbit... a company of thirteen Dwarves, including their once and future king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan), and their hired-on burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), set off to find a mountain full of gold and liberate it from the dragon that sleeps beneath it. They didn't quite get there, for this is a very, very long unexpected journey. Our vertically challenged adventurers are still in the midst of their quest as we catch up with them in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the expansive middle chapter of Peter Jackson's expansive, unexpected trilogy. Jackson himself makes a brief cameo at the onset of The Desolation of Smaug, as we witness a flashback in the Prancing Pony of how Gandalf came upon the company of Thorin Oakenshield. Gandalf's primary function in Smaug is to provide set up for events to come; he later abandons the Dwarves for a side mission where he comes face to face - eye to eye literally - with the returning Sauron. We, of course, can't share in Gandalf's shock and dismay, seeing how we found out a decade ago how it all turns out with Sauron. 

Thorin and his Dwarf chums continue to get in all sorts of sticky wickets. They are chased by a skin changing man bear, cocooned and nearly eaten by giant spiders, imprisoned by Elves, hunted by Orcs, and are nearly roasted alive by a dragon. They get out of most of these fine messes thanks to Bilbo, who has with him the One Ring he took from Gollum in the previous film. The One Ring may be slowly corrupting his soul, but it also makes Bilbo invisible and thus makes sneaking around a lot easier. Dwarves literally can't sneak around to save their own lives; even when Bilbo is breaking them out of the Elven hoosegow in the middle of the night, the Dwarves can't keep their voices down. No such thing as an 'indoor voice' for Dwarves. The Dwarves, however, are known quitters who only try things once and then bail. When their lifelong dream of opening the hidden door of their mountain doesn't quite work out as they thought, they quickly give up and sulk off. It is thanks to Bilbo, who actually thinks about stuff, to figure out how to find the keyhole and open the door to the mountain. The grateful Dwarves respond by pushing Bilbo alone into the mountain to face the dragon, all the while telling him how courageous he is as they sit out in the sidelines. 

So it's easy to understand why the Elves hate Dwarves and vice versa. When the Elves save the Dwarves from the giant spiders and take them prisoner, we meet a proud new Elf king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), the father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Thorin and Thanduil have a brief negotiation that quickly devolves into the two of them yelling at each other. It's terrific to see Legolas again, and, this being set decades before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's more acrobatic and deadly with a bow than ever. Also getting copious amounts of screen time is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly from Lost), the latest hot lady Elf in the tradition of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett. Tauriel inexplicably gets the hots for one of the Dwarves and defies her Elf King to go off and save him from the Orcs, to Legolas' chagrin. Legolas is quick to spring into action and he doesn't quite understand just why he's running across the forest killing Orcs to save Dwarves, but he'll eventually figure everything out; no need to worry about Legolas.

The Desolation of Smaug starts in the middle of something and ends in the middle of something, all the while in fact being the middle of something. The movie consists of a lot things happening that triggers the next thing that happens, while over yonder, other people are finding out about other things that are going to happen that we already know about, but is news to them. Jackson stages a couple of memorable action sequences, the best of which is the Dwarves escaping from and fighting the Orcs in the river rapids while in barrels that would make for a terrific ride in Universal Studios theme parks. The action occasionally pauses for characters to discuss events and grow increasingly forlorn as the odds of their success weigh against them, but these occur in beautifully realized vistas like Thandruil's Elf City, and the stunning city by the lake ruled over by Stephen Fry. Therein, the Dwarves are aided by a smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans), who holds a few secrets tied to that mountain where the dragon rests.

Everything, of course, builds up to Bilbo penetrating the ancient Dwarf city of gold and coming face to face with the dragon Smaug, who talks! Why Smaug, you're so well-spoken. Where did you study? Who was your professor at university? Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is easily these films' most magnificent CGI creation, and meeting him was worth the wait. (Freeman's Bilbo conversing with Cumberbatch's Smaug is also a fun Sherlock and Watson reunion.) For a dragon who has waded like Scrooge McDuck and dozed in incomprehensible wealth beneath a mountain for centuries, Smaug is shockingly up to date on current events. Smaug knew who Thorin Oakenshield was and what he's been up to and seemed well-prepared to meet this incoming invasion of "filthy Dwarves" trying to take back what Smaug rightfully stole and now owns. Smaug is Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen's dream dragon: not just a mighty, fire-breathing bad ass, but he's rich and a provocative conversationalist. Smaug is also the dragon version of Goldfinger or Goldmember; boy, does he love gold. Smaug literally gets stopped in his tracks and forgets to kill Thorin because he got so distracted by staring at the giant golden statue of a Dwarf King he never knew was there. The Desolation of Smaug abruptly stops as Smaug takes wing to murder all of the new characters we met in this movie with fire and blood. But still, Smaug, you're a fine fellow. It was a pleasure speaking with you. See you next year, perhaps over a spot of tea?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Arrow 2x9 - "Three Ghosts"

"Three Ghosts," two deaths, one amazing reveal of a Big Bad One-Eyed Wolf, and the birth of a new superhero unexpectedly happening here and not in his own pilot -- Arrow's midseason finale was an evergreen giving tree of nerdy goodness. Considering his prominence in last week's "The Scientist," it's somewhat surprising how Barry Allen disappeared for much of the episode, shifting the focus squarely on square-jawed Oliver once more. Barry heroically saved Oliver's life from mirakuru poisoning by ingeniously using rat poison to thin the maple syrup his blood was curdling into. Rat Poison: The Cure for the Common Mirakuru. I guess Oliver thought Barry would choke in his big hero moment, judging from how he choked Barry when he came to and then yelled at Felicity for giving away his secret. (Later, Oliver de-hoods himself in places where his identity could easily be seen by others, like right after landing on the ground after repelling from a rooftop meeting with Quentin Lance.) "Never meet your heroes," Felicity wisely advised Barry as Oliver was summoned back to Stately Queen Manor by mother Queen's text message.

Barry's main purpose for the rest of the episode was to wait around for the results of Oliver's blood analysis. He used that idle time to flirt with Felicity and dig around her actual feelings for Oliver Queen, "a billionaire by day who saves the city by night." "Sounds like you want to date him," quips Felicity in the zinger of the night. ("Lighting my menorah" on Christmas is a close second from Ms. Smoak.) Barry also congratulated himself for his accurate guesses last week about why the Vigilante wears green and that he has partners. "He likes to be called the Arrow now," Diggle points out, which is news to me since I believe that's the first time Team Arrow acknowledged what everyone else has been calling Oliver's nom-de-hood for weeks. Barry finally returns to Central City without fanfare, but leaving behind a Christmas present for Oliver: a mask! Finally. One made of micro fibers that will perfectly conform to his facial structure and won't block his vision. The greasepaint/guyliner the Arrow wears is now gone in a flash.

During his quest to find the super powered brute Cyrus Gold, who is a fan of the poem about the seven stages of life that begins "Solomon Grundy was born on a Monday..." Oliver, the Ebenezer Scrooge of Starling City, is visited by the three ghosts of the episode's title.  All of these ghosts represent Oliver's survivor's guilt, as diagnosed by war veteran Diggle. The first ghost was Shado, who visited him in Stately Queen Manor and urged him to live a real life, lest all his loved ones die. (Thea overhead Oliver talking in the hall but conveniently didn't hear him talk about wearing the hood to honor Shado and Yeo Fei's memories.) The second ghost was of Slade Wilson, who dropped by the Arrow Cave (after making a cameo during a rooftop exposition moment between the Vigilante and Quentin Lance). Ghost Slade tore Oliver a new one for being a weakling and a coward before he attacked Oliver and tore up the Arrow Cave. But since it was just a ghost, it was really hallucinating Oliver who was flinging himself through the glass display cases for his Arrow gear. Or was it...? The final ghost was by far the best and most unexpected ghost: during his climactic battle with Cyrus Gold after confronting the masked Brother Blood for the first time, Oliver was defeated until the ghost of Tommy Merlyn(!) appeared to forgive Oliver, tell him he's really a hero, and urged him to get up and fight the way the ghost of Mickey did for Rocky Balboa. That was the best. What a great surprise to see Colin Donnell again. Tommy Merlyn is magic and a happy Christmas miracle (or mirakuru) from Arrow to us.

Oliver blames himself for events in the present and five years ago on the Island that resulted in tragic deaths. In his questionable mental state, since there was nothing wrong with his blood work and his hallucinations were all psychosomatic, the Arrow asked Officer Lance to take on Cyrus Gold for him. Lance gets his old partner played by Roger Cross to help him go after Gold for old time's sake. I'm not sure we ever learned his full name before; it's Lucas Hilton. The team of Lance and Hilton had the misfortune of adding Brother Blood's man Officer Daily to their unit. Via Daily, Gold knew the cops were coming and slaughters them, murdering Hilton in cold blood while Lance is grievously injured and hospitalized. RIP Detective Lucas Hilton, we hardly knew ye.

As for five years ago on Lian Yu, Anthony Ivo procures himself his long-awaited box of 70 year old mirakuru and takes Sara, Shado and Oliver prisoner literally over Slade's dead body. When Sara pleads for their lives, Ivo forces Oliver to choose whether Ivo will execute Shado or Sara. Oliver couldn't choose between these two hot girls he boned within the last year, and how could he? We waited for Slade to miraculously revive, his blood coursing with super soldier mirakuru, to save Oliver and the girls. But it doesn't happen, or doesn't happen soon enough, and KABLAMMO! This is how Shado dies! Cap popped in the head by Ivo. Shado died on the Island like her father. Slade does revive and delivers serious deathstrokes to Ivo's band of pirates, but he is far too late to save his beloved Shado. "WHY?" Slade demands in agony. Sara, thinking quickly to save her and Oliver's lives from Slade's fury, smartly puts it all on Ivo and throws him under the bus.

The wheels of Arrow's supporting cast who are unaware of the word 'mirakuru' (until Roy Harper discovered the word) kept turning. Oliver finds Roy with the arrow he placed in Roy's leg the night before in agony on Thea's bed, and Oliver tried his best to act surprised. Since he put the arrow there, the least Oliver could do (his words) was remove the arrow, and then awkwardly make excuses for why the Vigilante might have felt the need to do such a thing to innocent young Mr. Harper. Thea and Sin take the Case of Sin's Dead Friend and The Mysterious Blood Bank to Laurel, who used her Assistant District Attorney powers to look into the case and came up empty, except for a lead on psych tests all donors at the Blood Bank underwent. Laurel then went on a strange date with Sebastian Blood (he asked her if she was okay once, she ran away because her father was in the ICU. He asked her a second time, he got a hug. Note: Always ask Laurel if she's okay twice an episode.) In the hospital, Laurel had another touching scene with her father. Katie Cassidy's best scenes are always opposite Paul Blackthorne. The Lances bring out the best in each other.

Meanwhile, injured Roy decides to hobble into the psychologist's office and curiously found people dousing it with gas cans to set it on fire. As he tried to escape to the safety of a dark alley, Roy is clotheslined by Solomon Grundy and soon finds himself tied to a chair in the lair of Brother Blood. Too late to stop Blood from sticking Roy with something pointy, the Arrow Merlyn's up and destroys the centrifuge, injuring Cyrus Gold and chemically deforming him to now resemble the comic book zombie version of Solomon Grundy. Oliver de-hoods again as he tries to resuscitate Roy, who's bleeding from a different orifice than usual, his eyes. But the mirakuru didn't kill Roy, like it didn't kill Slade. Next thing Roy knows, he's safe in Thea's bed, free to not explain to her where he's been, and he's perfectly clean and blood-free. Did Oliver give him a sponge bath in Thea's bed? Why was that scene left on the cutting room floor? But now Roy has mirakuru super strength. In Oliver's words, Team Arrow will need to keep a close eye on him.

To keep Arrow's grateful fanbase warm until January, Arrow unloads a quiver-full of endings Return of the King-style. The Arrow gets his mask. Felicity gets a promise that if she ever decided to walk away from Oliver, Barry would light her menorah. Roy finds his leg mirakuru-ly healed from his arrow wound. But here are the important endings: Brother Blood reports to his benefactor and by his smoky New Zealand accent we know right away the man pulling Blood's strings is none other than Slade Wilson himself! Not only is Slade in Starling City and has been for some time, but he seems to be a wealthy tycoon. Slade makes his intentions clear, to corrupt and destroy every aspect of his "friend" Oliver Queen's life and loved ones until there's nothing left, and then "I'll put an arrow in his eye!"

And if that weren't enough to leave us foaming at the mouth until January, lightning strikes! Barry Allen returns to his lab in Central City during a lightning storm, naturally, where he watches STAR Labs finally turn on their particle accelerator, only to watch it explode, blaze into the sky, and then send a bolt of lightning into Barry's lab to strike Barry! Thus is born the Flash.

Arrow. A superhero mirakuru on television.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1x10 - "The Bridge"

They say you shouldn't burn bridges, but Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does just that, in a good way. "The Bridge," an ante-upping, slam-bang midseason finale, at long last follows up on the story threads woven in the pilot as the Agents once again are hot on the trail of the terrorist group Centipede, last seen in "The Girl in the Flower Dress" back in episode 5. In Skye's words, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been playing whack-a-mole with Centipede since their encounter with the ill-fated, would-be superhero Scorch; forcing Centipede on the run as S.H.I.E.L.D. locates and shuts down their bases of operation. Centipede's Extremis-powered super soldiers are also being jeopardized by being constantly on the run. Thanks to experiments on Scorch, the Extremis has stabilized so the soldiers no longer explode, but there are continuing issues with their technology. We also learn Centipede is responsible for the eye implant technology we saw in "Eye Spy." It's all connected! And it's about to get even more connected, like the dots and four.

Centipede's Extremis soldiers bust Edison Po out of prison. Who is Edison Po? He's the guy we saw in the tag at the end of "The Girl with the Flower Dress." He also seems to be a foodie who really likes his steak. More pertinent, he's both a killer and some sort of tactical expert with direct ties to Centipede's mysterious leader the Clairvoyant, acting as the Clairvoyant's mouth piece. Both Skye and May voice their opinion that they'll need some serious backup from S.H.I.E.L.D. if they're taking on superpowered Extremis soldiers. Instead of a squad of Agents, S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization that must be pinching pennies since their giant island fortress the Triskelion houses multiple flying helicarriers (and those don't come cheap), sends Coulson's group one man: enter M.I.K.E. P.E.T.E.R.S.O.N., Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I won't be typing that again).

Peterson, played with wit and pathos by the J. August Richards, is of course, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first case together and the reason Skye is on the plane. Coulson directly recruits Peterson from the S.H.I.E.L.D. version of Quantico where Peterson has been busy failing to beat Captain America's record for pushing a tractor across a football field. When Coulson tells Mike to "suit up," it turns out he was referring to an actual business suit, which Richards sports with style and aplomb. Meanwhile, Fitz-Simmons, the owners of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Men's Warehouse, apparently (you're gonna like the way you look, they guarantee it), cook up a superhero-esque black uniform for Mike. This after Simmons flirts with him awkwardly. It seems like Fitz-Simmons have been watching Will Smith's Hancock on the Bus because the suit they give Peterson looks a lot like that. May and Skye, both good at math, apparently, again voice the opinion that perhaps they need more backup against Centipede. Mike Peterson has Extremis powers, the Centipede soliders have Extremis powers. 1 < More than 1 = Math. Coulson says, "Hey, the budget of this show is out of my hands" (in effect). Mike's the best (also only special guest star) they've got.

Before, during, and after encountering Centipede, our Agents deal with a lot of personal stuff, all to the angry scowls of May, who would like to focus 100% on the mission and reacts with fury at everyone trying to weave subplots into the episode. May doesn't want Ward making goo goo eyes at her while sparring or taking hits for her during combat in the field (despite Ward explaining the latter was entirely tactical), and she does NOT want to deal with Skye's continuing search for her birth mother. May really lays into Skye, forcing her into her bunk and making her cry. Coulson is torn throughout the episode about which of the Agents under his charge to give calm, fatherly advice to. For once, he leaves Skye be and chooses the fellas: Coulson and Ward driving Lola on an undercover mission have an interesting conversation about Coulson's love life and the toll his dying took on that girl in Portland who plays the cello he told Tony Stark and Pepper Potts about in The Avengers. (We also learn the Avengers still think Coulson is dead.) Coulson also takes the time to counsel Peterson about his son Ace and why Mike hasn't seen his son since the events in the pilot. Skye does the same, since she and Peterson have that "We were the focus of the pilot" connection. We realize that Peterson is kind of unique on this show: an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who actually has family he cares about and a personal life. Most S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents seem to lack that, including significant others.

It seems like Peterson is the person Centipede actually wants to capture. Turns out when Ward shot Peterson in the pilot, the tech in whatever Fitz-Simmons armed the gun with was what stabilized Peterson's Extremis so he could control it. Going right for his Achilles Heel in that way Spider-Man always dreads, hence the secret identity, Centipede kidnaps Peterson's son and arranges a trade on a bridge for Peterson. But man oh man, did S.H.I.E.L.D. get played: Turns out Centipede didn't want Peterson -- it was Coulson they wanted all along! And Peterson helped set Coulson up to save his son. Once Coulson understood, he took the betrayal rather calmly. Poor Mike Peterson, a guy who tries to do good but is forced into moral compromises that betrays his friends. He'll never be like the Heroes of New York Avengers action figures he bought his son. While Mike does retrieve Ace and leaves him safely with Skye, Mike attempts to save Coulson from Centipede and is blown up in the process, sparing him the indignity of being imprisoned by S.H.I.E.L.D. or worse yet, being forced to wear an Internet Nanny Bracelet of Treason like Skye. Centipede, with Coulson taken prisoner by Raina, the Girl in the Flower Dress, and Edison Po (they of the creepy finger-touching interaction), escape via helicopter and open fire on Ward, injuring him, as Skye screams in terror and May looks on, helpless and scowlier than ever.

Why did Centipede want Coulson all along? Because they, like everyone watching at home, want to know exactly what happened the day after Coulson died. Kudos to Centipede, then, for not sitting around waiting for answers and going out and doing something about getting some. That sort of makes Centipede heroes, I suppose. But not really. They're very Big Bads. Thus ends the first half (more or less) of season one of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in rather intriguing The Empire Strikes Back-esque fashion.

Looking very much forward to Return of the Coulson in January.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Live Tweeting the 2013 WWE Slammy Awards

The WWE's annual award show tradition, the Slammys, was last night. Watch my mood sink from jovial to dissension as the show continued for three grueling, crock-of-shit hours.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Arrow 2x8 - "The Scientist"

Barry Allen. An unassuming yet earth-shattering (in a different way from the Undertaking) name introduced into the Arrow television universe. Here he is, played by Grant Gustin in all his boyish (pointed out several times by gruff, square-jawed and manly Oliver) and nerdy charm. He's always late for trains, "not good on his feet," reads Scientist Showcase magazine (issue number 4, no doubt), doesn't seem to have the same hots for Felicity (in the Roy Harper way) that she does for him, he worships the Starling City Vigilante, and he's not what he says he is. Posing as a CSI scientist from Central City, Allen is indeed a scientist, but merely an assistant looking for answers to his mother's murder and his father's wrongful imprisonment for that murder. We're now in brand new Barry Allen territory here, with a tragic past where one senses the guiding hand of DC Comics' chief creative Geoff Johns. 11 year old Barry was attacked in his home by "a blur," in which he saw a man (was it this guy?). His mother was killed and his father was blamed for the crime. (Allen could unwittingly be talking about the Red Tornado for all we know.) Now, Barry Allen has come to Starling searching for answers, and though he does not yet don the scarlet of the speedster he will soon become, the Arrow universe will never be the same.

The best gag in the episode was the wink wink to the Flash's comic book origin: Barry Allen, standing in front of a window during a lightning storm, complaining to Felicity about how the chemicals in the Queen Consolidated lab are dangerously shelved. While the presence of the future Flash is the harbinger of the introduction of superpowers into what has up til now been a gritty and 'realistic' Arrow universe, it turns out superpowers are already here and beat the Flash to the party. Oliver, Felicity, and Diggle are called in to investigate a mysterious break in at the Queen Consolidated Applied Sciences warehouse. None of them appreciated Detective Lance's crack about Queen Consolidated having another earthquake machine lying around. A huge, muscular brute who looked kind of like Bane but is probably the yet-unnamed Solomon Grundy (brother Cyrus, as Brother Blood called him last week) bashed his way in, murdered security, and walked off with a centrifuge. (Cue a lot of exposition about what a centrifuge is plus a shout out to Kord Industries.) While Felicity is taken by the nerdy science talkin' ways of young Mr. Allen, Oliver knows way, way more than he's letting on and is being his typical withholding-vital-information-from-his-team self.

In the most direct collision of events five years ago on Lian Yu affecting events in present day yet, it turns out the centrifuge theft is part of an overall scheme to manufacture more mirakuru ("miracle," someone always helpfully adds.) Mirakuru is the super soldier serum hidden on the errant Japanese World War II sub somewhere on Lian Yu, which five years ago-Oliver, five years ago-Sara, Shado and dying on his feet-Slade are able to locate. Despite Professor Ivo and his merry band of pirates hot on their heels, our Island heroes have time to play 'catch up on personal relationships' games where Shado learns Oliver slept with Sara, the sister of the girl Oliver says he's in love with and can produce a photo of at the drop of a hat, while Slade confesses his own feelings towards Shado. Our Island heroes find the mirakuru in the sub even faster than they found the sub itself, and despite lacking a necessary sedative and never questioning whether a 70 year old serum would even be potent, the options are watch Slade die a slow death or inject him with mirakuru and watch him die quickly with bloody eyes. Or it could cure him and make him super. It didn't, at least not as far as we saw before Ivo and the pirates burst in pointing guns at everyone.

All of these things Oliver remembers like it was yesterday, or one scene ago, but he kept it all to himself until after a mack truck confrontation with Solomon Grundy (no one calls him that) where the Arrow (who doesn't call himself that yet) got his clock cleaned. Outmatched and finally feeling like sharing with his loyal helpers, Oliver clues Diggle and Felicity in on the events five years ago and why the word 'mirakuru' is suddenly so important and dangerous. "Why couldn't you have been marooned on Aruba?" asks Felicity. I know, right? Or Tahiti. I hear it's a magical place. When Felicity, with a lot of assistance from Barry (who accurately deduced the methodology of the Vigilante - not just why he wears green but how he must have help from someone brilliant in computer science), located the A.R.G.U.S. warehouse where Grundy must have hidden the centrifuge, the Arrow goes in half-cocked and again gets his clock cleaned. Though admittedly, Oliver was doing pretty well for himself in the fight, until Grundy tossed him around like a pile of garbage and Oliver ended up with syringes of mirakuru stuck in his leg. The only person who can save Oliver now is Barry Allen. Rather than ask him, Diggle and Felicity did it the Oliver way: they drugged him with a poisoned dart until he awoke in the Arrow Cave to see the billionaire playboy who didn't like him very much unconscious on a slab wearing the green leather of the Vigilante Barry so admires. It's now up to Barry Allen to save his fellow future Justice Leaguer. And he'd better do it fast.

Oliver was in rare form in this episode, in that he was incompetent and pig-headed in an almost catastrophic level. Beyond his misadventures as the Arrow, Oliver insisted on bringing Moira back to sit in on high level Queen Consolidated board meetings. This didn't sit well with Isabel Rochev, who once more uttered her trademark line, "Mr. Queen, may I have a word with you?" Do Oliver's butt cheeks clench every time Isabel asks to have a word with him? Isabel was right when she pointed out acquitted but still publicly disgraced Moira Queen has no place in Queen Consolidated, but Oliver is such a mama's boy that he wouldn't hear of Starling City not loving his mommy dearest the way he does. Oliver decides the first swanky party of season 2 at Stately Queen Manor is just what Moira needs, only to find hardly anyone showed (not even Walter Steele,) even though Oliver looked very dashing in his tuxedo and Thea looked amazing in her evening clothes. Meanwhile, Oliver felt pangs of jealousy for the first time when another rooster seemed to be strutting around Felicity's hen house;  he instructed Diggle to dig through all of his Who's Who issues to get the lowdown on Barry Allen. His angry confrontation with Barry, calling him a liar liar pants on fire, blew up in his face when Barry emotionally narrated his Tragic Past Which Is Necessary For A Superhero's Origin. Even Felicity was super pissed at him, though Oliver smoothed it over by inviting Barry to be her prom date at Moira's disastrous party.

Oliver's penchant for withholding came from his loving mother, who is back to her old tricks of lying to her children's faces. The resurrected Malcolm Merlyn is now making a habit of climbing through Stately Queen Manor's windows and making threats. He wants his daughter Thea "prepared" for him, whatever that means. But loose lips sink ships and Malcolm is too keen to blab details about why he left Starling City and abandoned young Tommy after his affair with Moira 20 years ago. When Malcolm told her he went to Nanda Parbat, it gave Moira the idea to ask a Mysterious Man to send Ra's Al-Ghul a message. (How does one send Ra's a message? Do the League of Assassins have a Twitter or Tumblr?) It turns out Malcolm is not popular with the League of Assassins, who, despite having the word 'Assassins' right in their company name, have some sort of code of honor that somehow doesn't include murdering 503 people with an earthquake machine. (Though the Ra's Al-Ghul of Batman Begins would have been all for it.) Thanks to Moira, Ra's Al-Ghul now knows Malcolm Merlyn is alive and wants to kill him. Merlyn Daddy-Daughter Day will have to wait for another time.

The girl who is unwittingly Thea Merlyn, meanwhile, gave Roy her approval to resume his crime fighting ways in the Glades. To Roy's chagrin, Thea insists on tagging along and being the Scooby to his Shaggy when the Canary's girl friday Sin contacted him to help her look into a missing friend. Their investigation ends up intersecting with Oliver's investigation into the centrifuge and draws the attention of one of the Starling City cops who is secretly a henchman for Brother Blood. When Roy leaves an arrow out to call on his good friend the Vigilante, Roy and the Arrow get into a bizarre spur of the moment argument that hilariously ended with the Arrow putting an arrow in Roy's leg. You could say that's the end of their bromance, but a bromance tends to be a two way street and Oliver never really liked that kid to begin with. Maybe Roy can ask Laurel to help him sue the Vigilante.

P.S. Loved the joke where Barry asked Oliver if he knows anything about how to break someone's neck. Oh, you Justice Leaguers and your neck snapping...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1x9 - "Repairs"

Curious: Is there some kind of fishbowl containing TV plots that showrunners pull their stories from? In the same week as Sleepy Hollow does a smashing haunted house episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. puts its Agents through what's essentially a haunted plane episode. Just a couple of weeks ago, both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow sent their casts to Russia. In that same week when Fitz was obsessing over a prosciutto sandwich, Boyle became a foodie on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (Also, Simmons could give Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Santiago a run for her money as a cover girl for Hair Pulled Back magazine.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. missed its chance last week to be sympatico with Almost Human and do a sex bot episode. (I would actually enjoy watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tackle sex bots, but let's save that for fanfic forums. Or, rather, let's not.)

If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were interested, in a meta-way, of addressing the numerous complaints of many viewers, the title "Repairs" would suggest the show is looking to make adjustments towards some of its deficiencies. Instead, "Repairs" centers around the mysterious past of Melinda May and how she became the stone faced action figure that she is. It's also about Skye looking for something to do - seriously, the bulk of Skye's arc in the episode is her making multiple suggestions for ways she could contribute to the case this week and being told to do nothing - until she uses her [Registered: Gifted] power of Human Empathy to suss out the answers to the Problem of the Week. She also bonds with May after being the most confrontational she ever has been to the Tiger Mom of the Bus.

The Problem of the Week is a young woman named Hannah who has become the pariah of her small town. Hannah is blamed as the cause of a catastrophe her church-going small town suffered when there was an fatal accident at their local particle accelerator. Wait, what? A small American town just happens to have a particle accelerator? A particle accelerator. (Coulson helpfully explains exactly what a particle accelerator does.) Where was this particle accelerator located, between the Walmart and the Hardee's? And Hannah, who looks and sounds like Blake Lively, is the safety inspector, the Homer Simpson? Also, an accident that killed a dozen people would have been national news and S.H.I.E.L.D. in this universe would have swarmed it with Agents to secure it. But no, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. only arrive to find out whether Hannah is a telekinetic, acting out like Carrie White in Carrie, all the while pooh-poohing once again that telekinesis exists.

After a near-fatal crowd riot at Hannah's home that plays kind of like a scene from X-Men (people angry at a suspected dangerous telekinetic, a car being launched as a weapon a la Magneto), May shoots Hannah to sedate her and Coulson locks Hannah up in the secure, All-Purpose Room on The Bus for her safety. When Coulson and May play Good Cop, Tiger Mom and question Hannah about her suspected telekinesis, they learn Hannah believes she's being punished by God, sir. But there is no telekinesis and there is no God. What there is, instead, is a g-g-g-ghost! Well, not really. It's actually a man named Tobias, Hannah's co-worker at the particle accelerator, who is now caught between dimensions* (another shout out to Thor: The Dark World and how Thor bounced between dimensions when fighting Malekith - who again is never mentioned. What does S.H.I.E.L.D. have against Malekith? Is he like Voldemort? Speaking of Voldemort, Skye had the best line when, taunted by Fitz-Simmons for never attending S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy, she said, "Okay, I never went to your stupid S.H.I.E.L.D. Hogwarts or whatever." World's longest parenthetical aside.)

So Tobias is not a ghost but he does bounce around the Bus "haunting" it by sabotaging the plane's systems and occasionally choking or bonking the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with a wrench. For the second time in the last 8 weeks, the Bus is in danger of crashing and it's super tense for like a minute, but no, May lands the plane fine, no problem. Uh. Whew? Despite all the wires he pulls out of walls, tables he smashes, and Agents he wrench-bonks, Tobias still can't get inside the All-Purpose Room (note restraint from calling it the Room of Requirement - this Bus is not Hogwarts) to get to Hannah. May absconds with her and hides her in a nearby barn to draw Tobias out, wherein May goes womano-e-mano with a dimension-jumping blue collar worker and, after some difficulty, cleans his clock. Luckily, back on the Bus, Skye used her Empathy analyze the evidence and realize that Tobias was not trying to harm Hannah. Rather, he was hurting everyone else trying to hurt Hannah, to protect her. Because he likes her! Awww. In the end, May talks Tobias into letting Hannah go and leave this dimension and return to the unspeakable hell of the Dark World or wherever he teleports to, forever.  No, Tobias, we Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will not help you or figure out how to save you from what's happening to you! Get lost, Tobias! And he does. Problem (of the Week) solved!

What happens to Hannah now? Who will explain to the denizens of her town that wanted her driven out or burned at the stake that it was really Tobias dimensionally shifting from between Earth and the Dark World who caused all the mayhem because he had a schoolboy crush on Hannah? It doesn't matter. What does matter is that, YES! Ward and May did some horizontal Avenger-ing in Ireland, and neither will speak of it. What matters even more is how May got the name The Cavalry. Fitz-Simmons decide that it's time to haze Skye into S.H.I.E.L.D. with pranks, and they do a rather rotten job of it. Best prank these two brainiacs could come up with was a cockamamie story about May killing 100 enemies single handed while riding a horse, which Skye bought. (Fitz's follow up prank involving a scary mop jumping out of a broom closet only succeeded in spooking himself, Ward, and Simmons.) Fitz-Simmons, when pulling pranks in the future, learn from these two.

It was Coulson who gave Skye the lowdown on the real story, and it was far less exciting than the legends: May did take out some enemy agents in Bahrain, and in the process she lost her smile. Or as Coulson puts it, she lost "herself." Heavy, man. You know, if this were Firefly, we would have actually seen flashbacks of what happened to May instead of talkie scenes where four people just tell the story to Skye. But this is the Bus, not Serenity. Coulson also gives Skye the attagirl she's been waiting weeks for, since her Empathy was instrumental in figuring out all the weird shit that went on. Maybe her Empathy will one day take her all the way to the top. (I'm telling you, this series or Skye's career will conclude with Skye as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Finally, Skye and May reach some kind of silent understanding, thanks again to the power of Empathy. It's not often you see a network television show end with two Asian women in the cockpit of a plane.

Epilogue: May learns to prank again!

Epilogue to epilogue: God is love. - Nuns to Skye, Skye to Hannah

* Boy, that's shitty. In Arrow's world, being caught in a particle accelerator will grant a man superspeed and not only turn him into The Flash but get him his own TV show. Tobias is in the wrong comic book television universe. And he can't dimension shift into the DC Universe. Poor Tobias. Ah, who cares.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire




"Did you see that?" Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) asks Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) when their victory train whisks by graffiti emblazoned on the walls of one of the Districts of Panem. Things are changing. The graffiti is evidence of this: the symbol of the Mockingjay, the gold pin worn by Katniss in The Hunger Games, is now appearing everywhere, marking a growing tide of unrest all over the nation.The people are resentful, increasingly hostile. Panem is a powderkeg waiting to explode. "The Odds Are Never In Our Favor!" is a feeling widespread by all of the people who've spent generations ground under the boot of the totalitarian Capitol. No one understands the odds not being in her favor more than Katniss Everdeen herself.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a furious juggernaut, a tome of palpable anger, heartache, and defiance. Taking over The Hunger Games franchise from Gary Ross, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) helms Catching Fire like a runner accepting the Olympic torch and going farther, faster and harder than his predecessor. Lawrence impressively expands the universe of Panem, redesigning the Capitol as much more of a futuristic megalopolis and designing new locales like the Pink House President Snow resides in. Catching Fire's costume design is stunning, especially the wedding dress that transforms into a Mockingjay worn by Katniss and the white and black jumpsuits worn by the Tributes in the Arena. Gone is the unsightly CGI of the creatures in the first Hunger Games; this time around the effects are seamlessly integrated, and the creatures, like the ferocious baboons Katniss and her allies battle are lifelike enough to make audience members jump in their seat.

Already blessed and privileged with Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence as his star and centerpiece, Francis Lawrence (no relation) surrounds his namesake with top tier thesps like Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new Games Master Plutarch Weatherby, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as fellow Victors forced to return to competition in the Hunger Games, and Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, a furious sparkplug who swings a mean axe. Returning as well are franchise stalwarts Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, the other devoted love interest in Katniss' life, Willow Shields as Katniss' young sister Prim, Elizabeth Banks as the ineffable Effie Trinkett, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' courageous stylist Cinna, Woody Harrelson as Katniss' loveable drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Stanley Tucci as the delightfully preening master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman, and Donald Sutherland as the malevolent President Snow. The supporting characters are given much more depth in Catching Fire. Young Prim emerges as a stronger, more competent potential doctor and Gale, relegated to the sidelines in The Hunger Games, shows sparks of the rebel leader he wishes to become. Malone's first encounter with Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, shamelessly stripping in front of them in an elevator, is the best comedy in the movie, especially thanks to Jennifer Lawrence's reactions.

A year after her "victory" in the Hunger Games ("There are no victors," Haymitch scolds Katniss. "Only survivors"), Katniss Everdeen is a world famous, wealthy celebrity and more miserable than ever, tormented by guilt and suffering from untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the horrors she endured in the Hunger Games. She's drinking more too. President Snow, who hates Katniss' guts more than anyone else on Panem, personally visits her in her Capitol-granted mansion just to bully her and force her to tow the line. Katniss fails to see the honor of being personally intimidated by the most powerful man in Panem. But Katniss is a problem for Snow; she has become an unwelcome symbol of dissidence to the Capitol and a figure of hope to the people of Panem, neither of which she wishes to be. Nor does Katniss wish to continue her feigned public love affair with Peeta. Snow makes it clear as day he'll kill her and everyone she cares about if she doesn't play ball. "I'll convince them," Katniss promises. "No," Snow retorts. "Convince me." Easier said than done, especially since, unlike the woman who portrays her, Katniss is a lousy actress.

Touring the Districts, Katniss unwittingly sparks unrest and rebellion, with the Capitol's white stormtroopers enforcing public executions to quell the rabble. Meanwhile, Snow and Weatherby plot strategems against the fire rising in their midst and savvy their master plan: The 75th Hunger Games, also known as the Quarter Quell, will be comprised of the surviving victors from each District, an unfair and complete betrayal of the promises made to everyone fortunate enough to survive the Hunger Games. The Reaping for District 12 is a mockery, with a forlorn Katniss' as the only woman on the female side and Peeta volunteering to replace Haymitch as the male Tribute. But perhaps even more angry are the other District Tribute Victors; collectively, they attempt to sabotage the Games, to no avail. Katniss' act of defiance, creating a hanged man mock up of the late Games Master Seneca Crane, is her best FU; a retaliation for the constant mindfucks inflicted on her by Snow like taunting her with the image of the dead Rue whenever they get the chance. Snow also makes sure Katniss is helpless to watch Cinna get beaten to a pulp in front of her.

Though quite a lot is thrown into the boiling pot of Catching Fire, everything builds to the Hunger Games fought in the Arena, the crucible Katniss must again survive. Unlike the previous Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell is fought by adults with Katniss and Peeta as the youngest combatants, secretly allied to help each other -- though there are no secrets within the Arena that can be kept from the omniscient Plutarch and Snow. Or are there? This time, the Arena is an ingenious concoction: a clock under a dome timed to attack the Tributes every hour. Killer baboons and poisonous, boil-inducing fog replace the mutant attack dogs and fire balls from the previous Hunger Games. Katniss doesn't realize until the very end, when she manages to crash the Arena's system with an electric arrow and bring the dome crashing down, just how much of a pawn she has been for each side in what is now officially a Rebellion. More important to Katniss is the survival of Peeta, the devoted baker's boy she must crouch down for so as not tower over him and who loves her unconditionally and defiantly.

Through it all, the focus of Catching Fire, as it must be, is on Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire. Once more, Jennifer Lawrence captures all of Katniss' emotions, flaws, torment, and that steely core of self-sacrificing heroism beneath it all, and projects it for all to see. Also returning are Katniss' snarls, the best snarls in the business, when she coils back the string on her bow and lets loose her arrows. Though Katniss shares a larger canvas now with her closest allies, Peeta, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Gale, and survives the Arena thanks to the other Tributes, Lawrence is the sole center of gravity of Catching Fire. She persuasively brings to even greater life probably the most complex female superhero-who-isn't-a-superhero to ever star in a billion-dollar franchise. Burly, rebellious, and incendiary, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire takes its place as one of the great second acts in motion picture franchise history, for real.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Arrow 2x7 - "State v. Queen"

All rise, all rise. Wait no, sit down. Why read this standing up? We're here to watch the trial and the verdict rendered in the case of State v. Moira Queen, wherein Moira Dearden Queen, mother of two and former CEO of Queen Consolidated, is charged with accessory to 503 counts of murder and of willingly aiding and abetting the late madman Malcolm Merlyn in the so-called Undertaking which caused the destruction of the Glades. District Attorney Adam Donner is feeling pretty confident going into the trial, holding a trump card close to the vest, even away from his assistant Laurel. The trial only takes a day or two and the only witness called for the prosecution on day one is Thea Queen, whom Donner manipulates into admitting what she really can't hide very well, that she was furious at her mother and it took her over five months to see her in prison and forgive her. (Are we not noting, your honor, that in those five months the witness Thea Queen, a renowned "party girl" who cavorts with a known felon - that didn't come up despite last week's brouhaha - now runs a successful nightclub despite being under legal drinking age?) Oh, it looked bad for Thea and for Moira there for a second, but luckily, like Tom Hanks collapsing in the courtroom in Philadelphia, D.A. Donner dropped like a bad habit.

No, Donner doesn't have AIDS. He has what many denizens of Starling City have suddenly become afflicted with, a terrible illness that was distributed via flu shots from mobile health trucks. Even Diggle is sick, as noted by both Oliver and by Felicity. And it's a good thing Felicity is a brilliant hacker and not a doctor because her bedside manner kind of sucks . ("You look disgusting." Later: "Try heroin.") The perpetrator of this rampant disease? Hello hello, our old friend Count Vertigo! (He was just the Count before, now he has fully adopted his DC Comics nom de crime.) For you see, as Moira Queen was making her televised confession, Vertigo, behaving even more like a Eurotrash Joker than ever, busted out of Iron Heights when its walls were cracked (in the shape of an arrowhead) during the Undertaking. Since then, he allied with a mysterious benefactor to enact this scheme to make Starling City sick. The only cure for the disease? Vertigo, and a lifetime addiction to it. It's a fiendish plot. With Oliver distracted by his mother on trial for her life, sick Diggle and healthy Felicity do the necessary detective work after Donner is abducted by Count Vertigo and made a public mockery of. Noting that he's bouncing his TV signal from a STAR Labs satellite and he could even be in Markovia (DC Comics shout outs), Felicity susses out the secret headquarters of the Count in Starling City and the Hood saves Donner, all the while being mocked by Count Vertigo for his new No Killing rule.

Back to the trial, Laurel finds herself as the new prosecutor and discovers just what Donner had on Moira. For her part, Moira refuses to testify but is urged to by her attorney Jean Loring, who, we see in this episode, is really not so great an attorney. I mean, she's no Barry Zuckerkorn, but it's pretty obvious Moira is going to lose this trial. Of course, she really has no defense. Laurel approaches Moira and pleads with her not to take the stand, lest Laurel be forced to do her job competently and use this secret new evidence. But as a stripper on The Office once said, and it's true, "secret secrets are no fun, secret secrets hurt someone." It's time Moira came clean to her children, which she really should have done with Human League's "Human" playing in the background for emphasis: Many years ago (how many? Oh, say 19 or 20 - this will be relevant in a bit) when Robert Queen was having his extramarital affairs, Moira did the same. With her best friend, Malcolm Merlyn. It was just a one time thing, she explains to shocked Thea, who point blank asked her about this in season one.

While the Queen family remains united despite this devastating revelation, on trial day two, Laurel goes on the offensive, doing a worthy job of smashing holes in Moira's insistence that Malcolm would have harmed her or her children as she feared. Though yes, Malcolm had Robert, his best friend, murdered, Malcolm did not kill Moira's second husband Walter Steele despite holding him in captivity for six months because Moira urged him not to. If someone wanted to put Laurel on the stand and was a competent interrogator himself, holes could easily be punched in the theory that a dangerous, psychotic like Malcolm Merlyn would not have harmed Moira, Oliver or Thea if he felt compelled to, but that's not how our justice system works. Laurel rests her case (without actually saying it.) Things look bad for Moira, you can tell by the looks Oliver and Laurel exchange.

As the jury deliberates one of the fastest trials of this scope and nature in history, Oliver approaches Laurel for his weekly session of asking her if she's okay. Laurel is going through one of her new weekly bouts of "I'm a terrible person not worthy of anyone, people run away from me, so run away from me." Oliver's not mad at her for doing her job, even if her job is to send his mother to the gas chamber. But Oliver does run away from her, and from a flabbergasted Thea, because something suddenly came up. That something is needing to save Felicity, who went out on the field to get a sample of this new version of Vertigo that doesn't respond to Oliver's season one antidote. She is captured by Count Vertigo and she talked. Count Vertigo is holding her hostage in Oliver's office at Queen Consolidated, "ipso facto, Arrow!" Wait, he called the Hood "Arrow." Later, Brother Blood, who is revealed as Count Vertigo's mysterious benefactor and seems to have used whatever he's doing with his experiments to create Solomon Grundy (it must be a Monday), also called the Hood "the Arrow." Did Quentin Lance send out an email blast or something? Or did the super villains of Starling City just independently decide to start calling their enemy the Arrow?

With the jig up, Oliver arrives to confront Count Vertigo and save Felicity in full Arrow gear but sans hood and guyliner. Face to face, as it were. Surely, if he's prancing around his own office de-hooded in his superhero gear, Oliver had the foresight to turn the security cameras off. Count Vertigo's brilliant Plan A is to shoot Oliver, but that doesn't work since Oliver does things like dodge and hide behind couches. The Count's better Plan B is to stick a few syringes of Vertigo in Felicity's neck unless the Arrow drops his bow. But when The Count makes his move, Oliver makes his - with extreme prejudice! One arrow! Two arrows! Three arrows! Right in the Count's chest! And crash and down goes Vertigo, taking a long death plunge onto a car many stories below! So long, Count Vertigo. "The Arrow Kills Again!" soon reads the Channel 52 headline, one of many crazy headlines from the past couple of days. (Another one is about the Central City particle accelerator being on schedule - in two weeks, December 4th.) So now the TV news also calls him the Arrow? Maybe Lance really did send an email blast. Back in the Arrow Cave later, Felicity is just fine and had Queen Consolidated Applied Sciences whip up a new, non-addictive antidote to the killer flu lickety-split. Ah, complicated comic book science that happens in minutes! Felicity is saddened it was her incompetence that forced Oliver to break his No Killing rule after a mere 8 episodes but Oliver sweetly assures her there was no choice to make. Oliver Queen will kill for Felicity Smoak any day of the week, especially Wednesdays. Aww. #Olicity

Roy comes up with a novel way to help Thea cope with the difficulty of the trial: he brings her boxing gloves and urges her to hit him. He didn't buy a heavy bag for her to pound, he wants her to pound on him. Roy explains, part of the reason for his nocturnal rumblings with dangerous men in dark alleys wasn't just to help the city, but because stuff would boil inside him and just needs a release. The kind of release that only comes from one's extremities. So Thea, who punches like a girl, does what he asks and starts whaling away on Roy's front. Well, it's a start. Soon, Thea is back at the courthouse and wondering where Oliver was when he split. Oliver has no explanation besides, "You'll see it on the news." But there's more news to make as the jury has reached a verdict: NOT GUILTY. On all charges, NOT GUILTY. In the case of State v. Queen, Queen wins! It's unbelievable. Literally. Even Oliver can't believe it. "She should have lost," he admits to Diggle and Felicity. Also, this kind of makes Laurel look really bad at her job for losing this case they shouldn't have lost.

Five years ago on Lian Yu, Anthony Ivo, Sara Lance, and his raggedy band of pirates lead their prisoner Oliver to the wreckage of the plane that was the base of Shado and Slade. Firebombing the plane didn't draw them out, so Ivo has Oliver lead them to the cave where the Japanese soldiers' corpses are. It must be just left of the Three Toed Statue, south of the Hatch. At the cave, Ivo is incensed when that thing he's looking for isn't there. What's he looking for? An arrowhead, of course. Everything's a freakin' arrow on this show! Slade, melted face painted half black like Frank Gorshin on Star Trek or Rowdy Roddy Piper, and Shado appear and rescue Oliver, who also decides to rescue Sara. After they escape amidst time bombs and explosives, we learn that Shado (wearing the green hood of Yao Fei, marking the first time Sara sees the green hood) is wearing the arrowhead around her neck. On it are coordinates: 30-30-175-12. As Hurley flees in terror through the jungle, Sara reveals they're coordinates to a World War II Japanese submarine which contains the super soldier serum. "Will it save him?" Oliver wonders aloud about melty Slade.

Finally, after many months in the clink, Moira Queen is a free woman. And almost immediately, she learns she is not free at all, as her mysterious driver she has never seen before and accepts a limousine ride from doesn't take her home to Stately Queen Manor, but to a parking lot she has never been to before. And then the driver is shot, and Arrow reveals one of its greatest reveals ever: Malcolm Merlyn is alive! How? "There are parts of the world where death is an illusion. I've been to one. I've learned to be very convincing." To have John Barrowman back on the show is one of the greatest things, and he hasn't missed a malevolent beat. Merlyn reveals that it was he who (probably hired Gene Hackman like in The Runaway Jury - and how awesome would that have been?) finessed the jury to render that frankly ridiculous and unlikely verdict. For Merlyn has connections within the D.A. offices and he learned something else not revealed in the trial: Moira has lied for almost 20 years about who the father of her daughter is! "Imagine my joy in learning Thea is my daughter!" Amazing twist, confirming a sneaking suspicion I've had since season one but never had any evidence for. Malcolm may have lost a son, but he's gained a daughter, whether Thea likes it or not! Daddy Dearest has come home!

And in two weeks: Flash! Ah-haaa!

As for the now-concluded case of State v. Queen, my lawyer's follow up to the trial and verdict:

Well, I think my legal analysis proved pretty darn accurate.  Beyond her press conference confession, the State had no evidence corroborating Moria Queen’s knowing and willful participation in The Undertaking.  As far as we know, the only witness the State called was Thea Queen.  Thea had no knowledge of Moria’s role in The Undertaking prior to the press conference.  She only testified about her own emotional reaction to the confession itself.  Her entire testimony was irrelevant and inadmissible.  If the only evidence against Moria was the tape of her confession and the testimony of Thea, then the judge should have dismissed the case when the State rested for lack of evidence.  On the other hand, once the defense was forced to put on a case, Laurel easily demonstrated that Moria’s duress defense was garbage.  Laurel didn’t even need the evidence of the affair with Malcolm Merlyn to do that, although that certainly was the last nail in the coffin of Moria’s defense.  

Neither Harvey Dent nor Matt Murdock could have done better.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1x8 - "The Well"

So, who saw Thor: The Dark World? Pretty great, huh? Action-packed, humorous, cosmic, just about everything you could want in a Marvel movie. Unfortunately for the denizens of the Bus, they missed the boat on Thor: The Dark World and drew clean up duty in Greenwich, England, site of the big conflagration between Thor and the Dark Elf Malekith (who is never mentioned.) Fitz complained that any monkey could pick up shards of alien metal and place them in secure S.H.I.E.L.D. casings for future analysis and storage -- and he would be correct. Why is Coulson's team doing this dirty work, exactly? Maybe Coulson just wants to be riding on Avengers coattails for old time's sake, you know, to stay on the cusp of the big leagues? Exposition from Simmons and Skye as to the nature of Asgardians as aliens and whether other cultures' gods ("Vishnu. Gotta be, right?" says Skye) are also aliens quickly and rather expectedly segueways into how handsome dreamy Thor is. May and Skye agree on this point, just like every woman I know in real life who has seen any or all of the three movies starring Thor. But if we're expecting to see Thor (besides footage of his boots in a montage) or any of his Asgardian buddies from the movies -- Odin, Sif, Heimdall, Loki -- nay, verily, look elsewhere, mortals of Midgard. The God of Thunder is officially "off the grid."

Not to say there is nothing Asgardian in "The Well," which turns out to be not so much influenced by any Thor movie. Rather, "The Well" strangely resembles The Da Vinci Code. Besides the globehopping -- Greenwich to Norway to Seville to Ireland -- and the presence of a mysterious academic who is not who he seems to be, there are also, in an attempt to shine a light on the torment buried within the action figure man named Agent Grant Ward, flashbacks to his most deeply buried memory of a child being trapped in a well. (Just like how Dan Brown's tweedy hero Robert Langdon was trapped in a well as a child.) There are also the villains of the piece, a fanatical "Norse-pagan hate group" who could be stand ins for the religious fanatic Silas, all chasing after the MacGuffan of the story, in this case the three pieces of an Asgardian Berserker staff instead of a mysterious Codex. But I mean, close enough. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is definitely playing in Da Vinci Code territory here.

So Dark The Con of S.H.I.E.L.D.

One piece of the Berserker staff was found by a couple in the forests of Norway, leaders of the aforementioned Norse-pagan hate group. These Norse-pagan haters (meaning that they are Norse-pagans who are full of hate, not that they hate Norse-pagans -- because wouldn't the latter definition make almost everyone else in the world a Norse-pagan hate group?) are fearful and envious of the aliens and superheroes now appearing in this Marvel world and want to cause riots to take the world back, or something. Point is, with the Berserker staff, they are violent and fancy themselves gods. All of the exposition about Norse mythology and the Berserker staff is provided by "one of the world's leading experts in Norse mythology," and before anyone gets excited about seeing Thor's friend, daffy nudist scientist Dr. Erik Selvig, in this episode, no, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't get him either. Nope, instead we get Dr. Eliot Randolph (guest star Peter MacNichol), who takes an immediate shine to pretty, skeptical Simmons, and regales the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with a tale of an Asgardian warrior who arrived on Earth in the 10th century, fought many wars, but fell in love with Midgard and never left. Instead, this mysterious warrior broke his Berserker staff into three pieces and hid them in three places in Western Europe.

The Berserker staff, when touched, elicits rage. It makes the holder see bad stuff within them and then gets them to, in Marvel terms, "Hulk out." (But not anywhere even close to the level of rage Bruce Banner reaches when he Hulks out.) This is exactly what happens to Ward when he and Skye are in the dungeons beneath Seville searching for the second piece of the Berserker staff and Ward runs into the mysterious Dr. Randolph, who absconds with the piece before running into the Norse-pagan haters. While Randolph is held captive on the Bus for interrogation, for the ladies watching who are still hoping for a glimpse of Thor, Ward tries to fill Thor's shoes by losing his shirt. But Ward is infected by the lingering effects of the staff and the madder Ward gets, the... er... madder Ward stays...? Point is, Ward's angry, and no attempts by Skye to reason with him with how cute she is seems to help. Ward is aware of his condition - now haunted as he is of flashbacks to the little boy trapped in the well - and he asks Coulson to be relieved of duty. Instead, the two of them savvy the mysterious secret behind the mysterious Dr. Eliot Randolph.

Ready for it?

Dr. Eliot Randolph is Asgardian! Didn't see what coming, did you? Why in the world would you, conditioned as we are to seeing Asgardians looking like Thor, Loki, and Sif, all beautiful, perfect physical specimens? But no, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would have us willingly accept that Peter MacNichol's nebbish was the Asgardian warrior who remained behind on Midgard and then moved silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, no one ever aware for a thousand years he is an Asgardian god in our midst. To help explain, Eliot was a mason on Asgard who answered a call to battle on Midgard, and no (as our hearts sink further), he doesn't know Thor nor ever palled around with the future king of Asgard. This creates an opportunity for Coulson to feel big since he does know Thor, even though he can't call him or get him to appear on his show. Later, after Randoph is stabbed through the heart with a piece of the Berserker staff, with Fitz-Simmons fretting about not knowing Asgardian anatomy (how different could it be besides probably not at all?), Coulson plunges his hand into Randolph's chest and keeps his heart from bleeding, or something. What's important is Randolph is able to regenerate (Asgardian healing factor) so that Coulson can commiserate that he too was once stabbed through the heart by an Asgardian weapon and came back to life. Coulson now makes a regular thing of telling strangers his "I died in The Avengers and woke up in Tahiti and I don't feel right!" sob story.

Randolph reveals that the third missing piece of the Berserker staff is hidden in a monastery in Ireland so off the Bus whisks to the Emerald Isle. Wouldn't you know it, the Norse-pagans beat the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to it! And pause for a moment to ask, "What? How?" Instead of being distracted by tales of Asgard and magical rage rods, why aren't the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remotely curious about how these Norse-pagans, who are all over the news as terrorists, are able to instantly travel from Norway to Spain to Ireland? (My explanation? Heimdall was watching and was bored and opened some Bifrosts for them to travel. Hell, it's better than no explanation.) After Randolph is stabbed through the heart, Rage Ward takes on the Norse-pagans in a super fight. But Rage Ward is overwhelmed by the rage of the Berserker staff as the Norse-pagans' cavalry arrives. Luckily, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have their own cavalry, The Cavalry: May grabs the Beserker staff, assembles it into a whole, and then provides a serious Rage May beatdown on the rest of the Norse-pagans. How did May not get overwhelmed by the rage of the Berserker staff? May answers it's because she sees the things that enrage her every day. ("That's the secret," Bruce Banner once said before the Battle of New York, "I'm always angry.") If they had the budget, May punching a Chitauri giant space worm in the face would be pretty cool.

Instead of recruiting Randolph as an asset for future Asgardian incursions, Coulson lets Randolph off scot free to reinvent himself and live some other new life. Whatever, there's no room for that guy on the Bus anyway, and S.H.I.E.L.D. can keep tabs on him. Meanwhile, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. earn some downtime and a rare overnighter in a bed and breakfast. Simmons is finally able to speak to her mum and dad after ignoring their calls for weeks, in perhaps the most banal of C subplots. Despite putting out all of the signals, Skye completely bombs in picking up Ward in an Irish pub. Ward retires to his room but sees May enter hers with a bottle of wine, leaving the door open for him. Ward follows her in. What's this? Rage May horny? Rage Ward and Rage May getting it on, mayhaps? So much for all of the online Skye-Ward 'shipping, which apparently is named Skyward. Looks like Mayward is the 'ship. That actually makes more sense, the two older, mature, action figures on the team knocking boots. Someone else not getting any sleep is Coulson, who dreams about his relaxing days in the magical place called Tahiti and wakes up in a cold sweat. Oh, and all that stuff about the kid in the well? The swerve was that it wasn't Grant Ward in the well, it was Grant who put his little brother in the well. Either way, this is for the Ward in The Well. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Wolverine



"There's always pain," explains Wolverine to Yashida, a young Japanese officer whose life he saved while a prisoner during World War II. Both for Wolverine, someone whose mutant powers of healing is triggered by pain, and for fans of his movies, pain is a thing to endure. A superior follow up to the miserable dreck of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and a sequel to the putrid X-Men: The Last Stand, James Mangold's The Wolverine is a splendidly photographed, more accomplished motion picture than those two predecessors. There are sublime homages to the films of Wong Kar-Wai and Ridley Scott, and yet The Wolverine still leaves one feeling brain dead as if shot in the skull with an adamantium bullet.

Wolverine was present during the bombing of Nagasaki, stuck in a well and forced to reveal himself as a mutant to his captor Yashida. This act of heroism turned out to have major ramifications for Japan. Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) went on to become that nation's richest and most powerful industrialist. Now on his high tech death bed, Yashida summons Wolverine from the cave in the wilds of Northern Canada he was living in to Tokyo, offering to use his technology to rid Wolverine of his mutant healing factor, and thus the "curse" of immortality and being forced to continue on after all your loved ones die. Wolverine impolitely refuses and soon finds himself embroiled in a bizarre power struggle involving Yashida's ignoble son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), his granddaughter Mariko, a corrupt politician, the Yakuza, and a cadre of ninjas called the Black Clan. An assassination attempt on Mariko, the chosen heir to the Yashida empire, sends Wolverine into Protection Mode, and sends the movie into a cycle of repetition: Wolverine and Mariko run, she gets kidnapped, he saves her, she gets kidnapped again, he saves her, she gets kidnapped again, he saves her again.

Every Japanese with a Y chromosome hates Wolverine on sight and tries to kill him, usually while calling him a "gai-jin." Naturally, the two Japanese with X chromosomes in the movie take a shine to Wolverine: Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a cheerful sprite of a deadly warrior who can see the future, and the radiant Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who takes her time falling for Wolverine, though fall for him she must, as Mariko is one of Wolverine's great loves in the comics. Unfortunately, Wolverine is haunted by the Phoenix Force Ghost of his other great love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears whenever he falls asleep and urges him to shuffle off his mortal coil and join her in the Great Beyond of Sexytime. "Who is Jean?" Mariko repeatedly asks Wolverine, who cries out in his sleep every night. Though he honors her with no answers, Wolverine still pops a bone claw in Mariko's loins, but he isn't so devoted that he decides not to bail out of Japan on the first corporate jet available. Yukio and Wolverine's Marvel Team Up sequences are the most fun and energetic, but Yukio is disappointingly benched for half the movie while Wolverine lengthily absconds with Mariko. The Wolverine's super villainess, the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), is a green suited, acid-tongued cypher. In a movie where everything the evil Japanese are doing is confusing, the evil white mutant lady's motivations for why she does anything she does are the most inscrutable of all.

The Wolverine's main novelty beyond the exotic Japan setting is denying Wolverine his greatest asset, his mutant healing factor, for most of the movie. Apparently, a tentacled robot thingie grappled to his heart can suppress a mutant's powers. Now "vulnerable," or as vulnerable as Wolverine can be while still possessing a skeleton grafted with adamantium and deadly razor sharp claws, Wolverine is shot and stabbed repeatedly, suffering every injury without his usual insta-fix-it. This really does a number on Wolverine's swagger; he's a limping, bleeding, shell of himself for most of the movie. Wolverine performing open heart surgery on himself to destroy the tentacled robot thingie while Yukio has a samurai sword fight with Shingen is probably the most bonzo bananas action sequence in any X-Men movie thus far. Even after his healing factor is returned to him, Wolverine reveals he's no tactical genius -- stomping into a trap laid by dozens of ninjas with no plan and getting captured. The Wolverine later neuters Wolverine again by eliminating his adamantium claws, though he does regenerate the bone claws beneath the metal.

Playing Wolverine for the upteenth time, Hugh Jackman is more chiseled than ever. Apparently, FOX opted not to go with the full title: The Wolverine Takes His Shirt Off Repeatedly. Jackman also has better Wolverine hair than ever, and by now has Wolverine's surly ferocity down cold. The Wolverine forces Wolverine to confront weighty issues like the cost of his seemingly eternal life, his commitment to a world that hates and fears him, his guilt over being forced to kill the insane Jean Grey, and the love of two women, and yet Wolverine remains distant and stoic. He takes perfunctory action when called upon and endures inhuman amounts of punishment, yet there's no passion or burning ember in Wolverine. He's certainly not loquacious. The Wolverine's reveal that his old friend Yashida is in fact the true villain behind all of his troubles, trying to steal his healing factor while wearing a giant Silver Samurai robot suit (the Japanese and their giant robots...), is as cynical as it gets: to Yashida, Wolverine, the man who saved his life, is a commodity to exploit and nothing more. In the requisite Marvel mid-credits scene set two years later, Wolverine meets a resurgent Magneto and an inexplicably alive Charles Xavier, setting up next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past, speaking of commodities to X-ploit.