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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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Arrow 2x6 - "Keep Your Enemies Closer"

"What happens in Russia stays in Russia. Even when it makes no sense whatsoever." - Felicity. Poor Felicity.

Arrow goes international in the intriguing, Diggle-centric "Keep Your Enemies Closer." Team Arrow takes their first field trip together outside of Starling City to rescue John Diggle's wife Lyla Michaels from a Russian gulag. Oh yes, Dig is married, or was married to Lyla, his contact at A.R.G.U.S. They met in Afghanistan but "couldn't figure out how to be married without a war to fight." He returned to Afghanistan, she joined the DC Universe's version of S.H.I.E.L.D. But it was at Diggle's request that Lyla sought intel on Diggle's arch enemy Floyd "Deadshot" Lawton, which lead her to Russia and internment in a gulag. Diggle learns this after he himself is momentarily abducted by A.R.G.U.S. (identifying themselves as Task Force X, overseers of the Suicide Squad) and goes face to face with the top spy in the DC Universe, Amanda Waller. This is definitely the sexy New 52 revamped supermodel version of the lady formerly referred to as "the Wall." (Waller also dropped the knowledge that she is aware of how Diggle and Oliver Queen spends their nights. I guess A.R.G.U.S.'s spies can see through the Hood's guyliner to the obvious.)

Diggle asks for "a few days off" from his duties as Black Driver. By asking, it's more like he just starts packing in front of Oliver and tells him he's leaving for a few days. Oliver won't hear of it; Team Arrow flies together and they rescue pretty birds together. Their bromance is at its bromanciest. Besides, things are getting a little heated in the top floor of Queen Consolidated lately. Isabel Rochev just loves screaming at Oliver in his office and berating him for missing meetings, while Felicity limply excuses him so he can attend to his "evening plans with Mr. Harper." ("We've got to work on your excuses," Oliver scolds his secretary.) Wouldn't you know it, a sudden, unscheduled use of the corporate jet to visit the Moscow office of Queen Consolidated didn't go unnoticed by co-CEO Isabel, and she decided to tag along for the flight to Mother Russia. Arrow did not delight us with what must have been extremely awkward and evasive conversations on the flights to and from Russia. But no matter Oliver Queen's facade as a billionaire playboy, the Queen private jet in all likelihood doesn't have a stripper pole and dancing stewardesses like Tony Stark's jet used to have.

Oliver is in his element in Moscow; he speaks the language fluently, knows the customs, and as a Captain of the Bravta, boy, is he connected, enough to smooth over Diggle's vodka-refusing rough edges. Oliver's Russian underworld contact is his old cell mate from the Amazo freighter days, Anatoli Knyazev. If Oliver Queen were Bruce Wayne, this means he and Knyazev would immediately have to start fighting, because Knyazev went under another name in 1980's Batman comics: the KGBeast. Knyazev and Oliver together speak and translate enough Russian words to make this week's Arrow a fun, educational romp.
The lowdown is Lyla tried to break into the worst gulag in Russia, Koshmar, "the Nightmare," and is being held there. The plan: Black Driver is the New Black. Diggle will be captured in a drug bust ("That's a lot of drugs," Felicity accurately observes when she sees what Knyazev provided) and sent to that very gulag (Russian due process is very, very quick), wherein he will find Lyla, bust her out, and meet Oliver and Felicity at an extraction point. (Unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this week in their Russian adventure, Team Arrow actually planned for an extraction.) Upon arriving in Koshmar, Diggle is told flat out they don't like chernokozhiy (if Borat were there, he might translate this as "chocolate face"), and to prove it, they attack Dig right away in the cafeteria. After going all MMA on one of his assailants, Diggle is dragged to the "cold room" and chained up right in front of his favorite person in the whole wide world, Floyd "Deadshot" Lawton. Small world.

Meanwhile, when he isn't having back alley meetings with the Russian mob and procuring a stolen police van with his flawless Russian, Oliver bides his time waiting on Diggle by drinking a lot of vodka at the hotel bar. Apparently, vodka is something he and Isabel have in common. Vodka and their obvious up-front sexiness brings glasnost, and Isabel presses on Oliver's relationship with Felicity. After all, a billionaire CEO just suddenly decided to fly his blonde, mini-skirted secretary overseas on a "business trip." "Her skirts aren't that short," Oliver meekly defends. But yes, obviously, everyone at Queen Consolidated assumes Felicity's promotion from I.T. to executive assistant to the CEO has nothing to do with her professional qualifications. We learn a few things about Isabel: that she's very, very flirty and attractive when she's not foaming at the mouth in a board room, she was born in Russia, and moved to America when she was nine. (Or are these all lies if Isabel is secretly, as I suspect, Talia Al-Ghul? Hey, Bruce Wayne was fooled by the exact same thing just two summers ago.) After seeing this new softer side of Isabel, they make to his penthouse suite where Oliver sees all sides of Isabel.
Naturally, Felicity knocks on the door and Isabel makes a show of leaving Oliver's penthouse. We can add Isabel Rochev to Oliver's personal List, along with Sara and Laurel Lance, Shado, McKenna Hall, and Helena Bertinelli. Man, that is a great list. Unless you're Felicity Smoak and your name's not on it, even though you'd like it to be. Or at least on a different, better List, with no other names. I think that's what Felicity hopes for. Later, when the subject is broached back home at Queen Consolidated, we realize that Felicity and Oliver never had that awkward conversation about certain... feelings... between them that always get shoved to the back burner because of the "more important" work of the Hood. But for now, waiting outside the gulag, it's just awkward. Oliver: "So we're not doing 'What happens in Russia stays in Russia?' anymore?" Felicity: "We're still in Russia!"

Diggle face to face with Deadshot, the man he most wants to kill, never seems to result in Diggle killing Deadshot like he says he always wants to. Diggle quickly learns that Lyla came into the gulag for Deadshot himself, and he knows where she is. The deal is Deadshot's help for coming along during the extraction. Working together against the Russian guards, Diggle and Deadshot find and rescue Lyla. All that's left is extraction, which Felicity enabled via the coat Diggle was wearing when he was pinched; they expected the guards to steal Diggle's belongings, so she rigged it with an explosive pin. KA-BLAMMO!! Also, wait, what? Felicity just, like, murdered a few people. What happened to the "No Killing" rule? Oliver's really, really loose on enforcing his new moral code. Oliver takes out the remaining guards so Diggle, Lyla, and Deadshot can vamoose with Oliver, Felicity and Knyazev. If Deadshot is curious what Oliver Queen is doing there, who the blonde is, or really, anything about this weird group with Diggle, he kept it to himself. But one thing Deadshot chose not to keep to himself: the truth about the murder of Diggle's brother. When Diggle lets him loose, Deadshot drops the bomb that Diggle's brother was the target of the hit, and the hit was contracted by H.I.V.E.! (Later, Diggle, like many people including myself, hit their browser to Google H.I.V.E.) And with A.R.G.U.S. and the League of Assassins, there are now three shadowy organizations within the Arrow universe.

And thus, Team Arrow along with Lyla and Isabel arrive from Russia with love. And they land in Boston, too, once again substituting for Starling City.
As the Queen jet opens its doors to disembark its weary, glamorous passengers, we suddenly realize that not once while he was in Russia did Oliver don the green leather of the Hood! Did Felicity even pack his compound recurve bow and arrows?

Back in Starling, where news of protests over that particle accelerator in Central City is all over Channel 52, Moira Queen's attorney Jean Loring (I knew it!) drops by Verdant to politely request Thea stop dating Roy Harper. (Jean must have gotten my many tweets and emails.) She believes gallivanting with a criminal like Roy would hurt the defense her mother is trying to build as a loving parent who had no choice but to aid and abet Malcolm Merlyn's murder of 503 people to save her own children. Roy's recent arrest, after helping the Hood break up an arms deal in the Glades and literally quivering when the Hood appeared from behind him to admonish him for being "exposed," is just the tip of the arrow. (Roy and Quentin Lance come to an understanding after Roy reveals they're both on Team Arrow.) Thea, a good daughter, dutifully dumps Roy. Instead of wondering if this also means he's fired as her bus boy, Roy makes a beeline to Iron Heights and meets the Queen mother for the first time. Moira flat out tells Thea she can date who she wants regardless of whatever her defense attorney thinks is best for the trial. She's a wonderful mother. After all, how many accused mass murderers in prison would allow their billionaire heiress daughter to continue dating a low level criminal and secret informant to a vigilante? Mother of the Year. But you know what, it was a sweet moment in a continuing series of sweet moments between Moira and Thea.

Five years ago on Amazo, Oliver bids goodbye to his cage neighbor Anatoly Knyazev, is dragged into Anthony Ivo's chambers and comes face to face with Sara (Yay! She's still on the show!) Lance. Oliver falls for Sara's trick of offering him an olive branch and letting him radio Slade (recovering from half his face being burned off) and Shado, confirming they are alive and not in fact dead like Oliver lied. Ivo also drops some intriguing hints as to what Amazo is doing searching the Island: Ivo is looking for a World War II Japanese version of a super soldier serum buried somewhere on Lian Yu. In Sara's defense, she's been living a year as the prisoner and girl friday of Ivo, and she did come up with a way to spare Oliver's life. But this super soldier serum ("mirakuru" or "miracle") is intriguing; no doubt a vial of it is soon meant for Slade to turn him into Deathstroke. Ivo informs Oliver that he's going back to the Island! Well, it was fun being shot and imprisoned on Amazo while it lasted...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1x7 - "The Hub"

"The Hub" is the James Bond-iest episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet. Specifically, Goldeneye, if Q had joined 007 on the mission to Russia and brought along a prosciutto sandwich. Our intrepid young heroes are charged with the task of finding and disabling yet another super weapon that would be disastrous if it fell into the wrong hands, but unlike the 084 in "084," it is not alien technology. However, like the 084, the MacGuffan is a rather uninteresting handheld device that shoots energy. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fares far better when it concerns itself with humans developing superpowers than it does ill-defined dangerous objects that blast people with blast-y things. But the point of "The Hub" is really team building, pairing up our Agents in a couple of new Marvel Team-Up iterations, while digging deeper into the show's two major concurrent mysteries. Along the way, "The Hub" is also our most intimate look yet at just how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates.

Welcome to The Hub, a major S.H.I.E.L.D. base in a classified location. It's impressive and bustling with men in identical black suits but as Simmons tells Skye, "this is nothing, you should see the Triskelion." Yes, please! I would very much like to see the Triskelion. And we will in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At The Hub, S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol is at its protocol-iest, with all of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tight-lipped, heads down, and happily doing their business according to what Level they are ranked. Coulson, Melinda, and Ward are granted temporary Level 8 access for their mission briefing, we learn Simmons and Fitz are Level 5, and Skye is not anything. She is not an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. so I guess she's Level 0. Plus she's wearing The Scarlet Wristband That Isn't Scarlet for her little dabble with treason, so she gets to be magnetically chained to wall access panels from time to time.

Skye bristles at being treated like a second class citizen in a third world nation. She may as well be a Fourth World Hunger Dog. But I do love that Skye questions everything she's seeing and how everyone is behaving because in a way, Skye is right: S.H.I.E.L.D. is cool, but they are also a creepy organization of spybots and they are abnormal and weird. Thor's human friends Jane Foster and Darcy would agree; they're not fans of S.H.I.E.L.D. either. But in another, more accurate way, as we learn throughout the episode, Skye is also not right. S.H.I.E.L.D., as a spy organization, operates on compartmentalization and secrecy, this "need to know" system is in order to protect the lives of their Agents, so that if an Agent is compromised, no one Agent can bring the whole system down. "Trust the system," Coulson repeatedly asks of Skye. Nope, she can't. Skye was recruited by Coulson to "think outside the box" and she professes she wants to be an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. but to be an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. means living in and loving the box. Take Simmons, she just wants to keep her head down and do her job. So of course, Skye gets Simmons to go off book and violate protocol in order to find out what's happening to Ward and Fitz in Russia. This leads comedy. Simmons, who's probably a horrible poker player, gets caught immediately by Agent Sitwell (who is bald - any relation to Stan Sitwell on Arrested Development?). Simmons panics and shoots Sitwell in the chest with the Night Night Gun. "I'm going to get court marshaled for this!" Simmons fears. Her fears are unfounded.

Coulson deals with another major S.H.I.E.L.D. top gun, Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows). You know she's important because she's Level 8 and wears a pants suit. Otherwise, she's just like everyone else in S.H.I.E.L.D., hiding something, quick to enforce protocol and regulations, and devoid of personality. (But also secretly impressed by acts of heroism.) Hand's presence in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes one wonder where exactly Maria Hill falls in the hierarchy. In the comics, Maria Hill is the top dog, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. In the Marvel Studios universe, Hill's rank is more ambiguous. (Is How I Met Your Mother the main reason Maria Hill's career trajectory is so muddy?) One thing that's interesting, from Hill's deleted scene in The Avengers, and an offhand (pun unintended) comment Hand made about Nick Fury, both of these high-powered female Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. take a bit of a withering view towards the Director. Maybe they don't like his leather pimpcoat. Hand takes a couple of little shots at Coulson as one of "Fury's favorites," and questions whether he's glad to be "off that plane" and "back in the big leagues." Coulson says he never left the big leagues. Oh, I'm not sure about that. Coulson's seemingly kneejerk response to the mention of Tahiti - "It's a... magical place..." - stopped him cold this time around.

As for Ward and Fitz, they're the classic odd couple on their secret incursion into Russia. Fitz's motormouth annoys Ward but "The Hub" goes out of its way to give Fitz ample ways to be useful and heroic, whether it's getting in good with Russian gangsters by fixing the electricity in the bar so they can watch football, or busting out his Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak and cool X-Ray Vision Wall Thingie. Ward, the perfect S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, a stickler for protocol who follows orders and wants to execute missions perfectly, took the prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella with a hint of pesto alioli sandwich Simmons lovingly packed for Fitz and chucked it into the muck. What. The. Hell. That was completely out of line and the first time I was sternly on Fitz's side about anything. Yet Ward was also right to do so; they were behind enemy lines and being hunted by dogs who would be able to smell that sandwich a mile away. Everything a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent does has a reason, though they're often kind of dicks about it and explain later, if at all. As the episode continues, the point that Ward gradually comes to respect Fitz's ability and courage is spelled out for us. Ward is nothing if not fond of the nerds he's stuck on a plane with and yes, he will lay down his life to protect them.

Meanwhile, Skye violates every S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol by hacking into their system (so The Scarlet Bracelet That Isn't Scarlet doesn't work when the plot requires it not to?) and learning that there is no extraction plan in place for Ward and Fitz. She also finds the mysterious redacted file about her past but with only seconds to go before she's discovered, she chooses to concentrate on saving her friends. Despite May's confusing non-expressions - Skye's "Which non-expression is this?" is the best line in the episode - May backs up her team, and so does Coulson, after a bit of soul searching and a moment where he calls out Hand for her secrecy. It's like there's no honor between Level 8s! Coulson's dream team boards The Bus and makes for Mother Russia, rather impressively making the save for Ward and Fitz by hovering The Bus over the Russian soldiers about to shoot them and using the VTOL (Vertical Take off and Landing) engines to blow those Russian bad boys back. Our Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never return to The Hub, never get yelled at for their actions. They just zoom off into the wild blue yonder, not looking back. Back at The Hub, Hand acts impressed or pleased or something, as if they're doing just what she expected them to. S.H.I.E.L.D. Who can figure these guys out?

Another thing that separates Skye from the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D.: She's a hugger. If Skye ever ascends past Level 0 and someday becomes Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., I'll bet she turns it into a very huggy organization. Coulson promised Skye he would look into the redacted file about her past and true to his word, he did just that for his favorite troublemaking, follow-the-rules-and-trusting-the-system-notting hacktivist: He found out the woman who dropped off Skye at the orphanage, who may or may not be Skye's mother, was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. But also true himself being a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, he held information back. Only Coulson and May are aware that the woman who is a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who may or may not be Skye's mother and dropped her off at the orphanage was brutally, bloodily murdered. Coulson vows to get answers, but first, something more pressing: answers about himself and Tahiti. A dismayed Coulson is told on the phone by S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ that despite his Level 8 access, he is not authorized to have information about himself. "Would you like us to make a formal request to Director Fury?" asks the voice on the phone. "No," Coulson replies. Well, maybe he'll see Fury in the movies again, some day.

And lastly, I agree with Chloe Bennet, who agrees with me. Just a couple of Level 0s.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thor: The Dark World



Thor walks into an apartment... actually, the London flat of his human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)... and greets some old friends he hasn't seen in a while, Portman's effervescent assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and newly batty physicist-cum-nudist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Immediately noticing a coat rack, Thor considerately hangs his hammer Mjolnir on a hook. It's hilarious. And we see in that instant, Thor has come a long way from the lout who used to smash coffee cups on the floor in diners.

Humorous, clever moments like this pepper the splendidly muscular Thor: The Dark World, director Alan Taylor's (Game of Thrones) smashing follow up to Kenneth Branagh's 2011 original which introduced the gods of Asgard into the Marvel cinematic universe. "We are not gods!" bellows stern Odin All-Father (Anthony Hopkins). "We have a beginning and an end." It's true, while incredibly long-lived, the -- er, aliens doesn't sound right, let's stick with gods -- of Asgard are not immune to death. Thor: The Dark World is a marvelous escalation of what came before, raising the stakes not just of Thor's cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe, but ultimately, for all of the Marvel movies to follow.

Hopkins' Odin fills us in on long-lost Asgardian lore: millenia ago, Odin's father defeated creatures called the Dark Elves, who sought to use a power source called the Aether to plunge the universe into eternal darkness. Now, on the occasion of the Convergence, an event that occurs every 5,000 years where the Nine Realms line up perfectly, weakening the barriers between the realities, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the Dark Elves, has awakened and seeks to use the Aether to finish what he started. Because space-time is topsy turvy and worm holes are opening up between the worlds, astro-physicist Jane Foster stumbles through a wormhole and is infected by the Aether. (For a simple human female, she handles being the host of a catastrophically powerful energy source like a champ. Just blackened eyes and the need for an occasional nap.) 

After a separation of over two years, during which both pined for the other from across the stars, Thor returns to Jane, and The Dark World returns to the brainy human girl meets studly thunder god romantic comedy that was the winning heart of the first Thor movie. "Where have you been? I saw you in New York," Jane scolds, being one of billions who saw Thor assemble with The Avengers and save the world from aliens. But Thor has been busy indeed, fighting wars and forging peace in the Nine Realms while preparing to assume the throne as King of Asgard. It's as good an excuse as any in the universe for not coming back for your human girlfriend. Because she's the host of the Aether, which will eventually kill her, Thor whisks Jane off to Asgard to meet the family. ("We have to do that again!" she beams after riding the Rainbow Bridge.)

Asgard, the golden city, looks better than ever, grander and more populated (it seemed oddly barren of life in the first movie.) There is even an Asgardian version of Lake Como where Thor takes Jane on a date, which is both a sly reference to and a huge improvement over a similar movie date Portman had with another blond son of destiny named Anakin Skywalker over a decade ago. Thor didn't utter any creepy declarations of love while complaining about the coarseness of sand. Odin disapproves of Thor's affection for this mortal female (Jane: "You told your dad about me?"), though Thor's mother Frigga (Rene Russo) takes a shine to her. Odin is not entirely incorrect that the comely warrior woman Sif (Jaimie Alexander) is a better match for Thor. What Sif thinks, she keeps to herself. After all, she does have all the time in the universe to find Thor's hammer between her loins.

When Asgard is attacked by the Dark Elves, the golden city unveils defensive weaponry that wouldn't be out of place on a Death Star. In the contest of superhero sci-fi home worlds, sorry, Superman, but Asgard trumps Krypton in Man of Steel, just for the glorious Viking funerals alone. Malekith invades the castle of Odin searching for the Aether, and we see in her final act of courage that Frigga is no helpless maiden but a formidable warrior herself. Thor's retaliation for the murder of his mother is to use Mjolner's lightning to scar Malekith, turning him into the evil space elf version of Harvey Two-Face from The Dark Knight. But Thor is now an Avenger and he must Avenge, as well as save Jane from the Aether. To do this, he has to defy Odin's wishes to engage Malekith and destroy the Aether. Which means he must commit treason. And if you need to commit treason, you need Loki (Tom Hiddleston), imprisoned and seething in resentment in Asgard's dungeons.

The relationship between the princely brothers of Asgard, Thor and Loki, takes center stage in The Dark World and we find they are even more entertaining as odd couple partners than they are as adversaries. No one trusts Loki, nor should they. ("I wouldn't," Loki concurs.) There's an amusing runner of each of Thor's friends threatening to kill Loki if he betrays Thor. "It seems there'll be a line," Loki quips. Loki's running banter cheerfully provides comic relief for the stoic Thor, but Thor finds moments to one up his scheming brother, like pushing him out of their airship while he's in mid-snark. When Loki does what everyone expects and betrays Thor -- cutting his hand off! (the second Star Wars reference in the movie) -- I must admit, they totally fooled me with their ruse. Loki making the ultimate sacrifice, or so it seemed, to save his brother made for a genuine emotional moment between the two. At least for Thor it was genuine, though some deeply hidden part of Loki probably does appreciate his brother's love for him. In his third go around as thorn in Thor's side, Hiddleston's Loki shines brightest of all, tricking his way into his ultimate goal unbeknownst to his brother and his Asgardian brethren.

For such supremely powerful beings, the final battle between Thor and Malekith was remarkably scaled down in terms of wonton destruction. The novelty of the two gods falling through wormholes between Earth and the Dark World created some terrific comedy asides, the best of which was Thor landing in the Underground and experiencing riding the tube back to the battle (with a lovely lady grasping him for balance.) All of the action in The Dark World was worlds improved from the original, using the template The Avengers laid down for balancing the mayhem with bits of levity. Speaking of The Avengers, Loki's shape shifting allowed for a mocking star spangled cameo of sorts that brought the house down. Thor's celebrity status as an Avenger also means that no way can he be in the midst of battle on Earth without people whipping out their cell phones to record him in action. "That's Thor! And he's swinging his hammer around!" The requisite post-credits sequence also provocatively established the Infinity Gems and throws down the gauntlet - i.e., Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet!

Finally, there is the Mighty Thor himself, embodied by Chris Hemsworth with a new kind of confident swagger. This isn't the vain, greedy, arrogant Thor of yore. Love of a bright, beautiful human woman and fighting alongside the Avengers as matured Thor, tempered his hale heartiness. Thor today is more noble and self-sacrificing than ever; he'd rather be a protector than a monarch. After all, one cannot be an Avenger while sitting worlds away on a throne. In all, Thor: The Dark World is a grand triumph of Marvel Studio's planned Phase Two, leading up to the return of The Avengers in Age of Ultron. If you ask me, The Dark World truly brings the thunder. It's the finest Marvel movie that doesn't feature all of the Avengers assembled. It is Thor-oughly entertaining.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Arrow: The People of Starling City v. Moira Queen

As loyal viewers of Arrow know, Moira Queen, matriarch of the Queen family and former CEO of Queen Consolidated, is behind bars in Iron Heights prison. She awaits trial for her role in "the Undertaking," the criminal conspiracy masterminded by the late Malcolm Merlyn where he used a UNIDAC machine to generate an earthquake to level the Glades section of Starling City. Over 500 people were murdered during the Undertaking.

The District Attorney of Starling City, Adam Donner, is seeking the death penalty for Mrs. Queen. The Queen family rejected an offer by Assistant District Attorney Laurel Lance to reduce the sentence to life in prison with possibility of parole. It's all or nothing for Moira Queen, with her life on the line. But what is she truly guilty of? And can the D.A. actually pin the entire Undertaking on Moira and put her in the gas chamber for it?

Here's where having a lifelong friend who is a successful attorney and an avid fan of Arrow comes in handy. I posed my lawyer friend the following question, with his compelling legal response:

From a legal point of view, what is your take on the prosecution and defense in the case of The People of Starling City v. Moira Queen?
 I will confess to having given zero thought to the case of The People of Starling City v. Moria Queen prior to your question.  Now I can’t stop thinking about it.

First, I am hamstrung by the fact that I am not sure what she is actually charged with.  Let’s assume some kind of conspiracy to commit an act of terror, or to use a WMD, or to commit murder; as well as aiding and abetting those criminal acts.  No matter what she is charged with, we know she is guilty. That’s exactly what she did.  She conspired with The Undertaking to kill lots of people with a fucking earthquake device.  

That said, does the prosecution actually have any evidence of her guilt?  Yes, there was her televised confession, but it is a well-settled legal principle that an uncorroborated confession, standing alone, is insufficient evidence to establish guilt.  So what corroborating evidence is there?  Anyone who could have testified against her is dead.  DA Donner said they have subpoenaed phone records, letters, emails etc., so I am assuming they do not currently have any documentary evidence establishing Moria’s role in the conspiracy.  And was The Undertaking stupid enough to leave a paper trail that would establish the guilt of individual members?  I just don't see how the prosecution proves its case.  

But let’s assume that they do have evidence.  Then Moria is fucked.  Her attorney mentioned two potential defenses: withdrawal from the conspiracy and duress.  A valid withdrawal defense requires that a member of the conspiracy withdraw from the conspiracy and seek to thwart its intended goal prior to a member of the conspiracy committing an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.  That doesn’t apply.  While Moria attempted to withdraw from the conspiracy and thwart its goal before the earthquake machine went off, many overt acts had already taken place to advance the goal of the conspiracy, including bring the earthquake machine to Starling City.  Even if the police/the Hood had stopped the device from going off, Moria would still be guilty of a criminal conspiracy.  The conspiracy does not need to succeed for the conspirators to be guilty of conspiring to commit a crime.  All that is required is an agreement to commit a criminal act and an overt act in furtherance of that agreement.  

That brings us to duress, or the “Malcolm Merlyn made me do it” defense.  That requires (1) that there was an unlawful and present immediate and impending threat of death or serious bodily harm to the defendant or another and (2) that the defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law. Basically, the duress defense is designed for literally a situation where there is a gun to someone’s head.  If at any point Moria could have gone to the police rather than going through with The Undertaking, then she has no defense.  The very fact that she held a fucking press conference and told the police “go arrest Malcolm Merlyn” proves that she was not under duress.  Bottom line, I don’t know if the prosecution has a case, but I do know that Moria doesn’t have a defense if they do.

Thanks to Arrow executive producers Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim for hitting us back:


Arrow 2x5 - "League of Assassins"

"League of Assassins," the very best episode of Arrow yet produced, delivers what the title promised, the introduction of the fabled DC Comics sect of villains into the Arrow universe, but it turns out that's just the tip of the arrow. The episode title of two weeks ago, "Broken Dolls," would also have been an apt title for this episode, which delves deeply into the shattered psyches of the two young daughters of Officer Quentin Lance. "League of Assassins" is actually a sequel to "Broken Dolls" and solidifies what became evident in "Dolls": the secret weapon of Arrow is Paul Blackthorne's beleaguered policeman and loving father Quentin (who is still referred to as "Detective" by his friends, out of respect, and as a subtle nod to how in the comics, Ra's Al-Ghul always referred to Batman as "Detective.") Blackthorne and his two television daughters, Caity Lotz and Katie Cassidy, bring the Lance family drama center stage with gripping emotion and heartbreak. We get a Lance family reunion, though not every Lance is invited, and we learn both Lance sisters, Laurel and Sara, bear crippling issues regarding their own self-worth.

In many ways, Sara Lance had it even worse than Oliver Queen did during those five years they were missing from Starling City and presumed dead. We know that on board the Queen's Gambit, Sara was lying to her father about her whereabouts while making sexy time with Oliver when the weather started getting rough and the tiny ship was tossed. If not for her own will to survive, Sara would have been lost, as she was presumed to be, but we witness the Gambit sinking from Sara's perspective, her Kate Winslet-like survival floating on debris (she saw a yellow canary), and her rescue by the freighter ship Amazo. As callow as Oliver was when he was first shipwrecked, Sara was even more terrified and helpless, dragged into a metal cage by frightful, burly pirates, fearing death, rape, or God knows what. She's taken under the care of a man named Professor Anthony Ivo, who in DC Comics is a mad scientist genius who created the android Amazo, which had all of the powers of the Justice League. Seemingly kind at first, Ivo's face soon contorts to show he's kind of nuts, offering Sara the chance to help him "save the world." Those are just the first days of Sara's five year ordeal.

In present day, staying in the ornate luxury of an empty Stately Queen Manor, Sara remains traumatized by the things she did and bears ungodly amounts of guilt for. When a member of the League, Al-Owal, smashes through Stately Queen Manor and battles Oliver looking to retrieve Sara, there's really no more keeping the secrets Sara's held close to her bosom. Bottom line is: she is a murderer, and a member of the League of Assassins. (By his outfit, Oliver mistakes Al-Owal for a resurrected Malcolm Merlyn, revealing Merlyn was also an Assassin Leaguer.) Oliver really lets Sara in when he takes her to the Arrow Cave. Sara name drops Shado as the first person who wore Oliver's hood. (She never met Yao Fei, then.) Oliver is always at his best - and proudest - when showing off his cool ass crimefighting set up to the newest hot girl vigilante in town. Unlike Helena Bertinelli, Sara liked Felicity right away. "You're cute." Ooh, cue keyboards clacking away at Salicity fan fic. Even Diggle didn't violently object, like he did to the Huntress. After all, Sara Lance is family. (In a lot of ways, Caity Lotz as Canary is the perfected version of the idea of the damaged female vigilante introduced last season by Jessica De Gouw as the Huntress.) Oliver even momentarily forgot his no-killing rule when he declared the guy who attacked them at Queen Manor can "follow Malcolm Merlyn right into a grave."

When, thanks to Felicity, the Hood and the Canary are able to track Al-Owal to an abandoned warehouse, we learn just what they're up against in the League of Assassins: a million ninjas! Well, potentially. Here, only three. But still, three of the deadliest killers in the world, who mock Oliver's preference for arrows and more than have the ability to kill our heroes and everyone they hold dear. The League of Assassins is presented as the most dangerous enemies Starling City has ever faced, and we haven't even met their leader Ra's Al-Ghul yet. The League also comes with a terrific Middle Eastern inspired musical score by composer Blake Neely. After catching an arrow in mid-air, Al-Owal taunts Oliver, Sara, and the audience with tantalizing clues and DC Comics name drops that went over Oliver's head but send the nerds at home (yo!) into nerdgasmic convulsions:

Sara was taken to Nanda Parbat and trained as an assassin by the League!
Sara chose an Arabic name for herself, that translates to "Canary."
The "child of Ra's Al-Ghul" wants Sara back!
Sara is "the beloved," and the favorite!
Is Sara mired in some sort of power struggle between father and daughter? Al-Ghul Family Matters?

Al-Owal and the League lay down a pretty straightforward ultimatum: Sara goes back with them or her daddy and sister she's been stalking and have actually put in danger while stalking are dead meat. Team Arrow splits up to cover the Lances, with Felicity humorously not entirely thinking through why exactly she's asking Officer Lance to suddenly leave town. "I probably shouldn't have lead with 'League of Assassins'." It does sound ridiculous when said out loud to the uninitiated. Meanwhile, Oliver takes Laurel out for dinner and gives off all the wrong signals. No no, he doesn't want to be her boyfriend again, he just wants to protect her from a cult of killer ninjas who targeted her for death, but without actually telling her any of that. Poor girl's been through a lot lately.

Sara, who bears the same types of scars and scabs all over her body as Oliver does - being a superhero in Arrow's universe means a full body photoshop if they ever pose for a magazine - turns down Diggle's offer for a team up between Black Canary and Black Driver. (She actually threatened to put Black Driver down.) The look on Diggle's face was as dejected as my own. But Diggle didn't need to be part of what Sara really wanted, to come clean and face her father after six years to show she's alive. Honestly, God, what a moment between Sara and Quentin, and Caity Lotz and Paul Blackthorne as actors. Sara, jumpy and terrified, ready to pounce, blade in hand, at any sound made in the Chinese restaurant they took refuge in, still couldn't tell her dad all the details of what happened to her for six years. But Quentin is indeed a detective and he quickly pieced together that Sara is the mysterious woman in the mask beating up criminal in the Glades. "You know the Arrow," Quentin concludes, keeping Oliver's future crimefighting moniker within the Lance family.

Sara takes Quentin to the clocktower where the League is waiting for them, but Sara is no fool and learned her lessons well, the same lessons Ra's taught a young Bruce Wayne: "mind your surroundings." The clocktower is bobby trapped! Swallowing her fear, Sara engages the League in combat. The timely intervention of the Hood evened the odds and we thrill to one of Arrow's very best action sequences (and in Caity Lotz, we have a godsend actress who's also versed in dance and stunts, more than capable of holding up her share of the fighting.) But the best moment belongs to Quentin, mocked by one of the Assassins after losing his gun. "Who are you without your gun?" BLAM BLAM! "A guy with a spare!" Quentin Lance is fantastic.

The fight ends in a snap for Al-Owal, courtesy of Sara snapping his neck. The Hood didn't protest that but he did freak out when it looked like Sara would also make the last Assassin's head spin. Instead, she gave him a kick in the rear and let him bail with a parting message meant for Ra's Al-Ghul. In the end, Sara learned that despite her fears that what she became, what she did, and who she is now are irredeemable, she can be forgiven and her family wants her back. But she can't stay because her presence makes her father and sister a target, and Ra's Al-Ghul is certain to retaliate. Quentin brings the waterworks to the audience when he lets his daughter go again, promising to keep her secret from Laurel. "I don't know how you live like this," he says to the Arrow. Neither can Oliver, who finally, over a bottle of vodka (straight, no ice, no mixers), comes clean to his best friend Diggle that he was not always on the Island for those five years. He was, in fact, once a prisoner of Sara and Ivo on the Amazo!

As for the other broken doll in the Lance family, Laurel has the less glamorous (in writing, not in hair, makeup or wardrobe) role of carrying her own guilt and issues of her self-worth but without the benefit of being an asskicking superhero beating up DC Comics guest starring villains. It's easy to overlook Laurel, or even hate her, but there's a great complexity here, as she finally revealed to Oliver that has serious abandonment issues. In her mind, everyone runs from her, as fast as they can. (Dollars to donuts she'll fall for visiting guest star Barry Allen in three weeks and he'll end up running from her the fastest of all.) Poor Laurel has the toughest row to hoe on the show, and she's being kept in the dark about her sister being alive. Laurel was also the subject of angry glares from every member of the Queen family when she joined the prosecution in the case of The People of Starling City vs. Moira Queen. None of the Queens are grateful that she pushed for a deal to instead have Moira serve life in prison with possibility of parole, while her boss District Attorney Donner wants to seek the death penalty and hold Moira accountable for the 503 souls who died in the Undertaking. At best, Laurel can claim she's not an alcoholic like her father, but no one (maybe Sara watching from the window) sees her poppin' pills to make the pain go away. At least she's not cutting.

Finally, there's Moira, matriarch of the Queen family, who has more secrets she wants to stay buried, but Oliver learned his lessons from the Lance family drama and put family first. Thea, who has rapidly matured into adulthood since season one, also stands by their mom. Okay, no deal, Mr. Donner. The Queens will go to court and fight for Moira's freedom. Together. (Although Oliver will show up late from time to time. It's his thing.) In Arrow,  be it the Queens, the Lances, and soon (fingers crossed) the Al-Ghuls, family comes first. Family matters.

For the first time since his introduction, no Roy Harper this week. Unless you count "Blood Rush," the first of a series of shorts starring Roy and Felicity. And you should, because it's terrific.