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Lots of spoilery thoughts on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron Monday and have had a lot of thoughts about it, but was too worn out afterward to really focus on a detailed post. It’s a pretty intense, densely packed movie, although in some ways I wish it had been longer (and I look forward to the extended DVD cut).

Oh, where to begin? Well, maybe I should start with how pleased I am with the smooth transition from last week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode to this movie. That episode featured Dr. List — Baron Strucker’s assistant in the Winter Soldier tag scene and here — experimenting with human enhancement, and ended with Agent Coulson discovering the location of Loki’s scepter in List’s files, then transmitting that info to Maria Hill so she could send in the Avengers. In the movie, we find that the Avengers have been together as a team for some time, hunting down Loki’s sceptre while cleaning up the remains of HYDRA. It’s a bit odd that we haven’t heard about their efforts in previous AoS episodes, but HYDRA’s a big, fragmented enough organization (cut off one head, two more grow, etc.) that I can believe that two groups would be involved in hunting them down and that their efforts would rarely overlap.

(Agents didn’t quite stick the dismount, though; last night’s episode following up on Ultron was a bit abrupt, just “Well, that happened; now let’s get back to our own problems.” The transition will be rather jarring on a binge rewatch unless you pause to watch the movie in between episodes.)

Anyway, I figure the Avengers have probably been back together as a team ever since the fall of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. For one thing, they needed to pick up the slack, to fill the void of protection left by SHIELD’s fall; and for another, once HYDRA was exposed, it would’ve been discovered that SHIELD-held assets like the scepter were in HYDRA hands, motivating Thor’s hunt. This is probably also what drew Tony back out of his retirement at the end of Iron Man 3, though it would’ve been nice to have some acknowledgment of this.

Tony Stark’s arc between that movie and this is a bit awkward. It feels like he’s regressed from his growth at the end of that movie. But then, he is an addictive personality, and thus prone to relapse. And he did have a little help. It wasn’t until the Scarlet Witch’s psychic push that he started repeating his old mistakes in earnest and trying to create “a suit of armor around the world.” True, he did have the Iron Legion, an Avengers-branded version of his army of suits from IM3, but they seemed to serve a narrower, more specific function. They were a sign of his potential for relapse, but it took Wanda to push him over the edge. So it’s a plausible personality arc, even if I have to read (or write) between the lines to justify it.

Steve Rogers has less of an arc here; if anything, it’s more the resolution of his arc in the previous few films, as he moves on past his identity as a WWII relic and ex-SHIELD agent and finally embraces being his own man, his own superhero. He’s the rock upon which the Avengers are built (to borrow Ultron’s Biblical allusion), the stalwart moral center, and that’s what Captain America needs to be. And I continue to be impressed at how perfect Chris Evans is in the role. He’s the purest paragon of heroism onscreen since Christopher Reeve, but with more of a soldierly edge, as befits the character.

Thor has even less to do here, mainly just advancing plot threads for this and other movies and providing comic relief with his smugness. The visions that Wanda gave him were mainly about creating an excuse to include Heimdall and Eric Selvig in the movie, and about moving the Infinity Gauntlet arc forward a bit more (although it is neat to see that thread starting to coalesce). Apparently, according to this Whedon interview, this part went on even longer in the original version, but test audiences reponded poorly since it was so peripheral to the film itself, so the pool sequence was cut to the bare minimum.

The bulk of this movie’s character work was for the characters who don’t have their own film series, which makes sense. Black Widow in particular continues to be a dominant presence, as she’s been in every one of her appearances except Iron Man 2. And she’s grown a lot. What we see here is the payoff of Natasha’s arc from The Winter Soldier. There, she told Cap that he might be in the wrong business, because he valued friends more than secrets. As it turned out, she was right, and that movie ended with Cap leaving the spy game (indeed, kicking the whole board over) — and with Natasha following him out. When she told the Congressional committee “You know where to find us,” it was implicit to me that she was talking about Avengers Tower. Now Black Widow the spy has given way to Black Widow the Avenger, and she’s manifestly happier as a superhero — more open, more able to connect to another human being in a way she never allowed herself before. The team’s use of her as the keeper of the “Lullaby” to calm the Hulk probably started as an exploitation of her skills at seducing and manipulating people, but by the time we see them here, it’s grown into something more real to her, given her a human connection she wouldn’t have been open to while working for Fury and playing his games of secrets and lies. Now, I gather there’s some criticism of this plot development putting Widow in a more conventional feminine role than before (discounting her sexualized debut in IM2), making her less “strong” as a character, but I disagree. I think she’s actually stronger here, because she’s grown into a more complete, healthy person, one who’s added honesty and genuine kindness to her repertoire of assets. Real strength doesn’t come from fighting and killing, or from hiding your emotions from yourself or others. Any mindless force of nature can destroy; what enabled humanity to transform the world was our empathy, our ability to bond and work together. That’s real power.

As for Bruce Banner, I found his arc a little unfocused. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble to you UK folks) ended with Bruce apparently coming to terms with the Hulk, recognizing that he could direct the Hulk as a force for good. And come to think of it, The Incredible Hulk ended with the same epiphany, to an extent (“Maybe I can aim it”). How many times is he going to regress to thinking of himself as a monster? And what exactly did Wanda put in his mind to set off his Johannesburg rampage? Hopefully we’ll see that in the extended cut. His departure at the end seemed pretty arbitrary too.

(By the way, there were moments when I was watching Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce and I was struck by how much he reminded me of Bill Bixby. I think it’s the hair, and the way he plays the role. The face isn’t really that similar.)

It’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye who gets the most development here, given that he’s had the fewest appearances of any of the Avengers and spent most of his one previous big appearance under Loki’s mind control (which Whedon acknowledges and corrects here by having Clint be the only one who avoids Wanda’s mind-whammy). Turns out he has a whole hidden domestic life we didn’t know about, and Natasha isn’t his love interest but his best friend and his children’s favorite “aunt.” And Whedon nicely plays with genre cliches here, as he so often does, since he spends much of the movie doing all he can to set up Clint as the one who’s doomed to die — he’s severely injured in the first battle, then he has a family and a pregnant wife, and he’s talking about all his home renovation plans, so that when he steps off the evac shuttle and gives up his ride to safety to rescue that kid, it seems inevitable that he’s going to be killed — and then Quicksilver shows up and changes the narrative. In the interview linked above, Whedon admits that he had great fun playing with that cliche, really pushing all the “Hawkeye’s gonna die” buttons to set us up for the twist.

Beyond that, Pietro never really emerged as that interesting a character, with Wanda carrying the bulk of the emotion and plot agency in their arc (since she’s the one who sets Ultron’s creation in motion). Whedon says he’d always planned to kill off Quicksilver, so that there’d be a real price to what he considered a war story, so maybe that’s why his character development was considered the most expendable (apparently quite a lot of it ended up on the cutting-room floor). I also can’t help but notice: Now there’s no longer a Quicksilver in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there never was a Scarlet Witch in the Fox X-Men movie universe. That would seem to resolve their dispute over the characters and their split rights — they’ve each ended up with half the pair. I’m not sure if that was planned, but it works out nicely for them.

I guess talking about Scarlet Witch brings me to the Vision next. In some ways, bringing about his creation seemed like one thread too many in an already-cluttered film. What made it work was the decision to retcon the Vision into an evolved form of the JARVIS artificial intelligence. JARVIS has been Tony’s stalwart ally from the start of the MCU, so the audience already has an investment in him as a character. And the film established him as a heroic figure in the first two acts, showing him fighting to stop Ultron at the latter’s creation, apparently dying heroically in the attempt, and then turning out to have survived and assisted the Avengers clandestinely in battling Ultron on the Internet. Giving him a body and a fuller sentience is basically a payoff he’s earned through all his prior achievements — although I think Tony underestimated how sentient he was to begin with. JARVIS was never just a voice interface, but had many behaviors that require sophisticated cognition — the ability to recognize and generate humor foremost among them, but also the ability to anticipate Tony’s thoughts, needs, and even feelings. (Like when JARVIS suggested calling Pepper when Tony was about to sacrifice himself in the Chitauri wormhole. No mindless interface could have that kind of empathy.)

And that was Tony’s real mistake here — underestimating the true intelligence of his own creation, so that he felt compelled to do something very stupid and plug an unknown alien AI from an evil sceptre into his mainframe and use it as the basis for his ultimate security system. True, it was Wanda’s amplification of his fears that compelled him to choose the more advanced intelligence, but he still didn’t appreciate the potential of his own “son.” I’m reminded of Harold Finch on Person of Interest and the way he continually underestimates the intelligence and the morality of his own AI creation. The Vision’s creation represents Tony finally trusting that his own brainchildren are good enough, that he doesn’t have to be forever unsatisfied and striving for more. And maybe finally recognizing just how much JARVIS has done for him over the years, and how worthy JARVIS is of being entrusted with the enormous power of the Vision.

And that moment with Thor’s hammer — I was literally agape and on the edge of my seat after the Vision lifted it. I mean, I knew that much-touted scene where everyone was competing to lift the hammer was bound to be setup for a later scene where someone other than Thor would prove worthy to lift it, but I was expecting it to be Cap. The fact that Vision did it so casually just made it more striking. (Although I love the final bit where Tony and Steve try to comfort Thor about how maybe it didn’t count. “An elevator isn’t worthy.”)

So anyway, Ultron himself… He was a pretty interesting villain, more nuanced and textured than a number of the MCU’s villains (I’ve seen sheets of plastic wrap with more texture and depth than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan), but still kind of rushed in a lot of ways. His creation in particular seemed to happen overnight, although I guess it probably took the Avengers a few days to gather all those party guests together after bringing Strucker down. Even so, it felt kind of abrupt, and a lot of Ultron’s character traits, while fun to watch thanks to James Spader’s performance, seemed a bit unmotivated. Why did he hate the Avengers so much? How did he end up as a reflection of Tony’s own personality, as seemed to be the case? Why did he turn to Wanda and Pietro as his allies? Maybe it would’ve worked better if Ultron had been a more direct outgrowth of Tony’s legion of suits in IM3 — if he’d been established there as a broader global security program, and if Age of Ultron had begun with the Avengers already relying on Ultron drones as a security program to take the place of SHIELD, and if it had been Tony’s effort to improve the system by enhancing it with the sceptre’s software that had pushed it over the edge. Then it wouldn’t have felt quite so abrupt, Ultron rebelling from the instant of his creation. It would’ve required a different ending to IM3, but would’ve unified the films more and helped set up Ultron’s rise better. (I may be influenced by how the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes did it, with Ultron starting out as a set of robot prison guards and security drones for the Avengers before going bad.)

As far as the film’s ties to the broader MCU go, I like it that they managed to include so much, like cameos by Rhodey and Falcon and Peggy and mentions of Pepper and Jane, but I regret that they left out so much, like actual appearances by Pepper and Jane and maybe Darcy. (Although I do like it that Pepper and Jane’s absence was justified by the fact that they were just too awesome and important to have time for being mere extensions of their men’s lives. And I love it that Tony and Thor were competing with each other by boasting about how powerful and amazing their girlfriends were.) And I suspect that a fair amount of Sam/Falcon’s material was cut. In the climax, it felt like he was supposed to be there, providing air support alongside Rhodey, so it was odd that he didn’t show until that brief cameo in costume at the end.

But I’m glad we got the new character of Helen Cho. I recently watched Netflix’s Marco Polo and quite enjoyed Claudia Kim as Khutulun, so it was nice to see her again in another role so soon. And it’s interesting that she’s still around as part of the Avengers’ support team at the end. I wonder if we’ll see her in future films, or maybe in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. guest role.

So… at the end of the film, we see Iron Man step down from the team (justified, as it was his mistake that created the crisis), Thor take a leave of absence to research the Infinity Stones, and Hulk wander off for unclear reasons, while Hawkeye goes home to his family. And now we’ve got a new team of B-listers led by Captain America. This is an homage to the comics’ evolution in which the original Avengers team gave way to “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” of himself, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. The new team at the end of Age of Ultron, by contrast, has Cap and Black Widow as the leaders and War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision as the new recruits. Which is a definite improvement on the all-white, one-female roster we started with. But I wonder if it’ll last. The next film after Ant-Man is Captain America: Civil War, which I’ve heard referred to as essentially Avengers 2 1/2. We know that most of the members of this Avengers roster (except War Machine and Vision, and including Hawkeye) are already confirmed members of its cast. So this is probably the team Cap will be leading at the start of Civil War. Whether it survives those events and continues into Avengers: Infinity War remains to be seen.

Anyway, I mentioned earlier how Cap and Widow have basically graduated from being soldiers/spies to full-on superheroes. Aside from the HYDRA raid at the beginning, the Avengers definitely felt more like superheroes than warriors here. One thing a lot of reviewers have called attention to — and it’s sad that this is unusual enough in movies to need calling attention to — is how much the action sequences focus on protecting civilians. This was something I noticed and liked in the climax of the first Avengers, the way Whedon kept the focus grounded on the reactions of ordinary people and showed us what it was the heroes were fighting for. And it’s an even larger focus here, with so much of the climactic sequence revolving around the logistics and difficulties of evacuating the civilians, and Fury/SHIELD’s Big Damn Hero moment being an act of rescue rather than one of combat. This is something I’m glad to see in any movie, particularly a superhero movie. As I’ve said before, I prefer seeing superheroes as rescuers, not warriors. It’s also a pretty clear “Take that” to Zack Snyder and Man of Steel, and I can totally get behind that. I just hope that Markus, McFeely, and the Russo brothers — the writers and directors of Civil War and Infinity War — follow Whedon’s lead in this regard. I felt they kind of dropped the ball on that front in The Winter Soldier, staging battles with lots of potential or implied civilian casualties and only making the rare token nod to protecting civilians. (Although it was a nice touch in TWS that the one character who was shown urging civilians to get to safety was Black Widow, showing that she had more hero in her than she realized.)

One thing I want to acknowledge in particular is the musical score, by Danny Elfman and an uncredited Brian Tyler (well, semi-credited — there’s a section deep in the credits that has one heading for the musicians who worked on Tyler’s score and one for those who worked on Elfman’s score; I gather Elfman replaced Tyler midway through). One thing the MCU has lacked in the past is musical consistency; they use different composers for the different movies in a given series, so we generally haven’t gotten character themes that have remained consistent from one film to the next. Only Alan Silvestri’s Captain America March has been used consistently, being at least briefly quoted in all four of Cap’s films to date. But with this film, there was more acknowledgment and consolidation of past themes. We got snippets of both Cap’s theme and Tyler’s Iron Man 3 theme at key heroic moments for those characters (and maybe more individual character themes I didn’t catch), and Silvestri’s Avengers motif from the first film was quoted here both in the underscore and in the end titles. It’s good to hear some continuity in the scoring at last, to accompany the continuity in storylines. And the score is solid overall, too. I don’t know how much or which parts Elfman did, but I think he’s become a more mature and versatile composer in recent years, growing beyond the single, somewhat repetitive sound his scores had in the ’80s and ’90s. There was a time when seeing Elfman’s name in a movie’s credits inspired a reaction of “Oh, not again” in me, but that’s no longer the case.

Ooh, what else? Physics! I can talk about physics. The science behind Ultron’s scheme at the end actually made a fair amount of sense, up to a point. The movie recognized that even if the big chunk of Sokovia fell back to Earth from even a relatively low height, at an altitude where people could still breathe fairly easily, the energy release of the impact would be cataclysmic — not enough to wipe out all life on Earth, but certainly enough to devastate the continent. This is something a lot of movies don’t get. In Independence Day, for instance, all those city-sized saucers crashing into the ground even from just a mile or two up would’ve caused an extinction-level event all by itself; heck, the simple act of their deceleration within Earth’s atmosphere would’ve converted enough kinetic energy into heat to devastate the planet. So points for understanding gravitational potential energy. A bit iffier is the fact that if Ultron’s engines were powerful enough to lift that mass against gravity, then they must’ve been capable of generating the same amount of energy that would be released by its impact, and then some (since some of the energy they generated would go into vibration, breakage, heat, noise, etc. rather than lift). So why not just use that device as a bomb and eliminate the middlemassif? But Ultron isn’t a perfectly logical being, and he seems inordinately fixated on symbolism and metaphor. He was thinking in terms of impact events causing mass extinctions, and was irrational and immature enough to focus on recreating that particular type of event rather than recognizing that there was a simpler way. So I can buy that.

The problem is the one you usually get in “stop the asteroid” stories — namely, that blowing up the impactor wouldn’t really help, because you’ve still got the same amount of mass delivering its kinetic energy to the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, just a bit more diffusely. It can actually make things worse, in the way that a shotgun blast can be more damaging than a single bullet hit. In this case, though, it might be somewhat justifiable, since the mass of rock was shattered at the very beginning of its descent. If you blew up an asteroid that was already incoming at high speed, all its fragments would still have that same velocity. But here, the mass is starting from zero velocity (or a low upward velocity). Intact, it would’ve all accelerated at once and would’ve been too massive for air resistance to matter; but with lot of smaller fragments starting from zero, air resistance would be more of a factor. So the millions of fragments wouldn’t be able to build up as much kinetic energy as the one big chunk. It would probably still be a lot worse than shown, but it borders on the plausible.

So what else is there to say? Mainly that Joss Whedon, in his interviews lately, sounds really, really tired. He worked damn hard to make this movie work, and he managed to pull it off, but he’s earned a good rest. I can’t blame him at all for choosing to step down from the MCU and go back to his own, more manageably sized projects. At this point, he can probably do whatever he wants in Hollywood. It’s impressive that he’s already gone back to focusing on his writing (which is apparently the real reason he left Twitter, despite certain claims that have been made — here’s the link, but watch out for “language,” as Cap would say!). I just hope the Russo brothers don’t burn out doing three big Marvel films pretty much in a row. At least there are two of them, so hopefully that’ll ease the workload.

(By the way, would Cap really have had an issue with his teammates using profanity? I mean, sure, he’s wholesome and clean-cut and a literal poster boy, but he was also a soldier in the trenches in WWII, so I’m sure he’s quite used to being around heavy cursers. He would’ve been uncomfortable with such language being used in front of a woman, but he’s been teamed with Natasha long enough to think of her as a fellow soldier. So that bit, while funny, didn’t quite ring true for me.)

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS review (spoilers)

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is the third movie in the New 52-based continuity that the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line has adopted in the past couple of years. As I remarked before, I really disliked the first one, Justice League: War, and found the second, Son of Batman, to be better but still deeply flawed and excessively violent. So I wasn’t expecting much from ToA, and wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it at all. Fortunately, it’s a great improvement on the previous JL installment, even while being a direct continuation of it.

As the title indicates, it’s mainly the story of how Arthur Curry discovers his birthright as Aquaman and battles with his half-brother, the evil Orm (Ocean Master), for the rule of Atlantis, with Orm trying to engineer a war with the surface world as a means to gain power. But it’s also a continuation of the story of the Justice League coming together, its disparate members learning to work together and commit more to the team. The character work is thus rather better this time out. The action still tends to be bloodier than I like, but at least there’s more character exploration going on between and during the action. There are some pretty good moments in the script by Heath Corson.

Although there are a couple of bits that don’t make much sense at all — spoiler alert. One, when Queen Atlanna (Aquaman’s mother) realizes that Orm and Black Manta are attempting to overthrow her, she stands with her back to Orm while speechifying, leaving herself totally open to being stabbed. Now, maybe I misread the scene and she thought that only Manta was involved, still trusting her son, but I don’t think that was the case. The other, more serious logic problem is toward the climax, when Orm is sending a tsunami to wipe out Metropolis and Gotham and the heroes fear there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Now, first off, between them, Superman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and the Flash should be able to stop a tsunami in its tracks. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, just as the tidal wave is cresting and about to smash into Metropolis, Orm stops it in its tracks, then parts it Moses-style to reveal… a bunch of infantry soldiers who invade the city on foot. I’m sorry? That tidal wave could’ve done a hundred times as much damage to the city as that entire army, a hundred times faster, without a single Atlantean life being at risk. Orm had a weapon of mass destruction at his disposal. But he didn’t use it, and instead launched a far smaller, conventional attack that was much easier for the heroes to fight back against. The whole tidal-wave thing was a total fakeout. That’s just lame.

Although it’s in continuity with War, a number of the voices have been recast. Returning are Jason O’Mara as Batman, Sean Astin as Shazam, Christopher Gorham as the Flash, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, and George Newbern (Superman from the Justice League/JL Unlimited TV series) in a small role as Steve Trevor. But Alan Tudyk has been replaced as Superman by Jerry O’Connell (who was Captain Marvel/Shazam in JLU), Justin Kirk has been replaced by Nathan Fillion in his fourth DC Universe iteration of Hal Jordan (fifth if you count Robot Chicken), and best of all, Wonder Woman is now Rosario Dawson (who was Artemis in the DCU Wonder Woman movie), taking over from Michelle Monaghan, who was simply awful in the role in JL: War. Fillion and Dawson are improvements, but I’m not sure about O’Connell. I wasn’t too impressed with Tudyk as Superman in JLW, but that’s probably because he had so little to work with. I wouldn’t have minded hearing him get another shot with better material. (And honestly, Dawson is kind of mediocre as Wonder Woman, but better mediocre than dreadful.)

The new characters are pretty well-cast. Arthur/Aquaman is Matt Lanter, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Roman from The CW’s Star-Crossed. His ally and future queen Mera is Sumalee Montano, who was Katana in Beware the Batman. And Orm is Sam Witwer — aka Crashdown from Battlestar Galactica, Davis/Doomsday from Smallville, Darth Maul from The Clone Wars, and soon to be Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: Rebels. This is a great choice, because Witwer is a fantastic voice actor, bringing a lot of operatic menace to his villain roles. Harry Lennix is Black Manta, Sirena Irwin (Mera from Batman: The Brave and the Bold) is Atlanna, and Juliet Landau has a minor role as Lois Lane, who’s quite marginalized due to the decision to pair Superman up with Wonder Woman in this continuity.

This is the first time the DC Universe movies have reached three installments in a single continuity — unless you count Batman: Year One and their 2-part The Dark Knight Returns as a common reality, but I’m not sure that flies in either the comics or the movies. (Maybe this even counts as a fourth installment, since The Flashpoint Paradox was based on the comics storyline that created the New 52. But there’s been nothing in the movies themselves to link that one to this new series, and not even any voices in common until now, with Fillion reprising GL and Steve Blum reprising Lex Luthor in the post-credits teaser.) Anyway, using continuity has given the DCU filmmakers opportunities they didn’t have in the previous standalone films, the chance to develop the characters and relationships over time and establish arcs and running gags. I appreciated the sense of continuity and growth that the links to JLW provided, even though I hated JLW itself. I’m hopeful that as the line continues, the chance to develop the world and the characters more fully will continue to enrich it, making sure we never get anything as superficial and dumb as JLW ever again.

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Just saw THE HOBBIT Part 3… (Spoilers)

January 2, 2015 1 comment

I wasn’t sure how eager I was to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, given the lukewarm reviews. But I was moderately interested in it as a technical achievement; I actually like the high frame rate and the realistic feel it creates, reminding me of watching a videotaped BBC drama. And I was interested in it for some of the actors, particularly Martin Freeman. I figured I should see it in the theater, even if I didn’t expect much.

And it was okay. It really didn’t feel like it lasted two and a half hours, because, let’s face it, not that many things happened. I was actually surprised when I realized the story was wrapping up, because it didn’t seem I’d been in the theater that long. There weren’t even that many parts that felt to me like they were going on too long or too slowly, even though I have felt that way about other Peter Jackson movies. The one part that did seem to drag for me was the aftermath of the battle of Laketown. After Smaug was killed, and before the conflict over the mountain started, it all felt like denouement. And in retrospect, I have to question whether there was really a point in giving so much screen time to Alfrid, the sleazy assistant to the late Master. Sure, he provided some comic relief in a film that was generally devoid of it, but he got more screen time than a lot of the dwarves, than Galadriel or Radagast or Saruman… it almost feels like his screen time rivalled Bilbo’s. And he had no arc. He didn’t change or evolve in any way, didn’t get any comeuppance or resolution — he was just there until he left. I think they could’ve cut his role down considerably.

And while it was a reasonably entertaining experience, it’s very much a fragment of an experience. It isn’t really a story of its own, it’s a bridge between The Desolation of Smaug and The Fellowship of the Ring. Basically, to borrow a term from comic books, Peter Jackson is writing for the trade — telling a decompressed, serial story with an eye toward how it will work when collected and experienced straight through, rather than making each individual installment a complete experience on its own. The film even opens without any preliminaries, just assuming the viewer knows what happened in TDoS and picking right up as if it had just come back from a commercial break. And while the final scenes do serve to wrap up Bilbo’s journey to an extent, they feel like they have more of an eye toward setting up Fellowship.

But the film was worthwhile for the performances. Martin Freeman is an amazingly talented actor — and an amazingly gifted reactor, which is one of his greatest assets. He can convey volumes just by the way he listens and silently reacts to other people’s words or actions. Which is great, because it adds a lot to the film’s rather thin storytelling and Bilbo’s fairly sidelined role in it. The rest of the cast is impressive too, but Freeman’s the real standout for me.

Technically, it was pretty impressive as long as you can accept that much of it is essentially a photorealistic animated cartoon. I did feel there was too much CGI and too many swooping camera moves, although it wasn’t as bad as some of the scenes in the first Hobbit film that felt like video-game cutscenes. The 3D generally worked pretty well, but sometimes (especially in the CGI scenes) the characters seemed toy-sized; and there were a few overly self-conscious 3D gimmicks, like the bit where Thorin was advancing on Azog with the point of his sword sticking right out toward the camera. But then, self-indulgence is Jackson’s stock in trade these days.

Speaking of indulgence, the theater I was in has been refitted with cushy, reclining seats and wider aisles. I’ve seen that other theaters are doing that lately; I guess that, in this age of huge widescreen TVs and surround sound systems, theaters have to try harder to compete with people’s living rooms, and comfy recliners are a way to do that. But I actually didn’t benefit much from the experience, due to my health issues; the soft seat back wasn’t good for my lower back, and my feet cramp if they’re elevated and unsupported for too long. Plus, the whirring of motors as other moviegoers adjusted their recliners during the film was distracting.  Also, I was nonplussed by the need to preselect a seat at the ticket counter, like ordering an airline ticket, rather than just taking whatever seat I wanted. Since I didn’t know how big the theater would be, I couldn’t adequately estimate where a good place to sit would be, and I ended up maybe a row further back than I would’ve liked.

So anyway, I guess that’s it for Jackson’s Tolkien film series — for now. Maybe someday I’ll rent the expanded editions and go through the whole experience, but I don’t really feel strongly motivated to do so. If anything, I should probably reread the books first.

Rediscovering ROBOCOP: THE ANIMATED SERIES

Back in my post a few years ago about my enduring fondness for the 1994 RoboCop: The Series, I talked briefly about how none of the other film and TV adaptations of RoboCop had really worked for me. I mentioned the 1988 animated series from Marvel Productions, which I had little memory of beyond an impression of it as “decent but nothing special, notable mainly for being unusually dark for a Saturday morning cartoon.” I wasn’t able to find it on video anywhere, so I couldn’t assess it beyond those vague recollections.

But today, I discovered that all 12 episodes of RoboCop: The Animated Series (or just RoboCop, as it was titled onscreen) are available on YouTube, and since that’s only a bit over 4 hours of content, I was able to get through it all in one day. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up as well as I remembered. It is pretty faithful to the premise and approach of the original movie, as filtered through ’80s Saturday-morning cartoon sensibilities — lasers instead of bullets, no death, lots of robot fights, the occasional heavyhanded moral message. It’s not quite as dark as I remember, and not that unlike the live-action series in its storytelling approach. Unlike R:TS, though, it actually had the rights to all of the movie characters: Robo/Murphy, Anne Lewis, Sgt. Reed, the Old Man (by that name), etc. It also makes prominent recurring players out of several minor characters from the original film. Lt. Hedgecock, head of the SWAT team that tried to kill Robo in the movie, is his recurring foil in the series (voiced by Len Carlson), shown as a capable officer who’s blinded by his bigotry toward RoboCop as a cyborg and resentment at being upstaged by Robo’s superior police work. Dr. Tyler, the brunette woman in large glasses who was seen in the POV montage of Robo’s construction, is retconned as RoboCop’s actual designer, a stern woman who sees Robo as merely a piece of hardware. And oddly, Dr. McNamara, head of the team that failed to control ED-209 in its disastrous boardroom debut, becomes a cyborg-armed nemesis to Robo; he champions the ED-260 project (no word on what happened to the intervening 50 models) and is willing to hire criminals to attack or discredit RoboCop in hopes of getting ED approved as his replacement.

Robo himself is characterized pretty well, a logical and disciplined officer with an undercurrent of humanity, rather than the cartoony wisecracking action hero the second animated series (and the awful Prime Directives miniseries) turned him into. Dan Hennessey (the voice of Chief Quimby on Inspector Gadget) does a fairly good job playing him, echoing Peter Weller’s performance pretty well. However, R:TAS somewhat modifies Robo’s nature in a way that presages the 2014 reboot. Rather than being killed and having his brain used as a component of RoboCop, this version of Murphy is more like a quadruple amputee with robotic replacements for his missing parts. He’s capable of human things like eating normal food and catching a cold, and at least in the first 2-3 episodes he’s able to remove and put on his helmet as if it were just a motorcycle helmet, rather than something bolted to his skull. Also, for some reason, they reversed the order of his second and third prime directives, putting “Uphold the law” second and “Protect the innocent” third.  I find that rather disturbing. For all that OCP is an amoral, greedy corporation, one thing they got right in RoboCop’s programming is that protecting the innocent should be a higher priority than upholding the letter of the law. Reversing that order implies a more ruthlessly authoritarian system. It never comes up as a plot point, of course, but the reversal rubs me the wrong way.

Lewis doesn’t come off very well here. She’s frequently a damsel in distress and Robo sometimes condescends to her, though she sometimes makes a good showing of herself and saves Murphy. But she’s very stridently voiced by Susan Roman (Callisto in the ’90s X-Men), who constantly delivers her lines as if she were shouting to someone in the next room. There’s also a disturbing tendency to hint at an unresolved romantic undercurrent between her and Murphy, rather than playing them as proper partners. She’s often trying to get him to confess to feelings for her or jealousy toward another suitor, which he denies, and at one point she even takes him on a date and is quite unprofessionally upset when he needs to go stop a crime. Basically, she was a rather annoying character. As for Sgt. Reed, he’s mainly just the guy bossing people around, although he does get one focus episode.

The stories are mostly pretty typical ’80s cartoon fare, but there are occasional glimmers of intelligence, such as an episode where Murphy and Lewis are at odds over how to deal with a Robin Hood-style vigilante who attacks OCP on behalf of the poor (although of course he turns out to be a corporate rival trying to ruin OCP). And there’s some attempt at the corporate and cultural satire of the movie, including an episode built around a sleazy journalist based on Geraldo Rivera (reminiscent of the live-action series’ Umberto Ortega, only more overtly villainous). But it’s just so ’80s-cartoon, and even writers like Rich Fogel and Marv Wolfman can’t elevate it much above that level. The finale is particularly weird. As I mentioned before, it retcons the movie so that Clarence Boddicker and his gang are still alive, and it does go kind of dark as Robo pursues Boddicker relentlessly and comes close to killing him in revenge. But I realize that Robo already faced that choice in the middle of the movie, when he busted Boddicker’s drug lab and chose his duty as a cop over revenge. So it’s kind of rehashing an old plot point, although, admittedly, one that most of the young viewing audience presumably wouldn’t have seen yet. (But then, why even bring back Boddicker?) Also, there’s no real characterization of Boddicker as more than a routine villain, and the story is mainly about chasing down Boddicker’s super-helicopter with help from the Ultra Police, a team of sidekick characters created for the toy line but mercifully only seen in this one episode. It’s an odd mismatch between the serious themes of murder and revenge and the blatant toy-commercial treatment of the rest of the plot.

I could cite other complaints, like the failure to research Detroit; a couple of episodes claim that Detroit once had a subway system, which it never has, and the Geraldo-esque reporter works for TV station KRUD, even though Detroit is east of the Mississippi and thus uses broadcast call signs starting with W. But the biggest problem I haven’t mentioned yet is the animation, done by Akom, which was probably the worst animation house that worked on ’80s and ’90s American TV, and yet one of the most prolific. (They did most of the ’90s X-Men series and several seasons of The Simpsons, as well as all of Exosquad and plenty of others.) Their animation here is their typical sloppy, ugly, jerky, error-laden work. Which is a shame, since there are some impressive names in the storyboard department, people who’d go on to do terrific work for Warner Bros. and elsewhere in the ’90s, such as future directors Boyd Kirkland and Frank Paur. Their talent must have been buried under Akom’s shoddy execution.

In sum, R:TAS is still better than Alpha Commando or Prime Directives, but it’s objectively not very good. It was a decent try in its way to be faithful to the concepts and style of the movie while adapting them to the needs of an ’80s kidvid show, but it isn’t really a good fit, and the quality of ’80s kidvid cartoons on the whole was not that great compared to the work that some of the show’s own staffers would do in the ’90s and ’00s. So it’s an interesting footnote, but not that enjoyable an experience.

More old SFTV: REBOOT (Spoilers)

Recently I’ve heard that there are plans to revive the old series ReBoot, the first computer-animated TV cartoon, which debuted a full two decades ago, way back in 1994. I hear a lot of praise for the later seasons of that show, but I only caught the first couple of seasons back in the day, and I didn’t remember being that impressed by them (though I thought more highly of later Mainframe Entertainment shows like Transformers: Beast Wars). Apparently, though, the subsequent seasons (produced after the show was dropped by ABC and moved to syndication/cable) got more serious and complex and skewed toward an older audience. So when I found the show was available in full on Hulu, I decided to check it out and see what I’d missed.

The premise of the show is a lot like TRON: Its characters are sentient computer programs who live in Mainframe, a computer system within the larger Net. They come in three types: binomes, the ordinary citizens, which are basically personified, robotlike ones and zeroes (tall, boxy, and cyclopean for the ones, short and spherical for the zeroes); sprites, the rarer, generally more humanoid entities who are the main characters; and viruses, the villains. The series focuses on Bob (Michael Benyaer), a Guardian who came from the more advanced Supercomputer to defend Mainframe; Dot Matrix (Kathleen Barr), whose nebulously defined role is somewhere between Mainframe’s leading business magnate and its de facto leader (basically a pro-business conservative’s dream); and her kid brother Enzo (initially Jesse Moss, later Matthew Sinclair and Christopher Gray), the obligatory cute kid who worships Bob and is always getting in trouble. They battle the evil virus Megabyte (the late Tony Jay), who’s constantly trying to gain access to the Supercomputer that only Bob can reach, and occasionally the “chaos virus” Hexadecimal (Shirley Millner), who’s incredibly powerful but insane and unfocused. And they’re aided by Phong (Michael Donovan), a more robotic-looking sprite who’s basically a wise-Asian-mentor stereotype and who runs the Principal Office, the administrative center of Mainframe.

They also have to contend with games sent by the User — presumably a human being running computer games on the network that contains Mainframe. A game is a cube that descends on a sector of Mainframe and transforms it into a game environment, where the sprites and binomes trapped inside “reboot” themselves into game characters (the original usage of the word “sprite,” I gather), gaining suitable costumes, equipment, and in-game knowledge and skills. If they lose, the entire sector is “nullified” — the buildings are destroyed and the occupants are reduced to mindless slugs called Nulls. Bob’s usual role, along with Dot and often Enzo, is to go into the games and win them in order to protect the Mainframers. Basically these people are at the mercy of cruel gods who torment them for their sport. It’s odd that they’re shown to enjoy playing games even outside the cubes; you’d think they’d see games as a terrifying natural disaster, the way we’d see a hurricane or earthquake.

The first season is pretty awful. Granted, this was the first time anyone had ever tried to make a TV cartoon in 3D computer animation, so one has to cut them some slack; but even so, the animation in the first few episodes is barely watchable. It’s not just a matter of technological deficiencies; they also feature bad camera work, bad timing, poorly done character movements and expressions, and the like. The writing throughout the first season is superficial; it’s geared almost entirely for comedy, and the humor is hit-and-miss. There’s also little attempt to explain and establish the world and the characters; it feels like coming into the middle of a story that assumes the audience already knows the basics. We don’t even hear the name of Megabyte’s headquarters (Silicon Tor) until the first-season finale.

The narration used in the first two seasons’ main titles is also pretty weird and a poor fit to the show. Let’s go through it:

I come from the net. Through systems, peoples and cities… to this place: Mainframe.

Okay, awkward and vague wording.

My format: Guardian. To mend and defend.

Paralleling a noun to a verb phrase — clunky. It feels like there’s a missing “My purpose:” or something in between.

To defend my newfound friends.

What do you mean, “newfound?” There’s no indication that Bob is a recent arrival. Indeed, his origin flashback in season 4 (by which point this narration had been dropped) reveals that he actually arrived in Mainframe a significant amount of time before season 1.

Their hopes and dreams. To defend them from… their enemies.

Wow, generic much? And here I thought you were going to defend them from their friends and family. At least it kinda rhymes.

They say the user lives outside the net, and inputs games for pleasure. No one knows for sure, but I intend to find out.

No, you don’t! At no point in the entire series does Bob express the slightest interest in finding this out. It’s like this was a first-draft narration written before they’d scripted the series, and somehow they forgot to rewrite it. It really doesn’t work at all. Fortunately, it’s dropped after season 2 and replaced with various successive narrations, although they’re all based on the structure of the original (minus the whole “I intend to find out” passage).

Anyway, there are some occasional amusing moments in season 1, including a ton of in-jokes and genre parodies, and it does introduce a few running gags that carry forward later, but you could pretty much skip the whole thing without losing much. It’s in season 2 that the show starts pulling itself together. The animation improves, and the storytelling starts to gain more continuity and complexity midway through the season, after an initial set of standalone episodes that would work fine to establish the basics of the show if you did skip season 1. The writing staff benefits from the inclusion of a number of comic-book authors including Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Dan DiDio. At the start of the back half of season 2 (episode 6 of 10), we finally learn some backstory about why there are so few sprites in Mainframe and get some long-delayed exposition about how the games work, and Enzo makes a friend, an artificially intelligent game sprite called AndrAIa (Andrea Libman), who stays behind after the game ends. Then a story arc kicks in for the final four episodes of the season, the first of the seven 4-part arcs that would make up the remainder of the series. Things get more serious as Mainframe is invaded by monsters from the Web (which is a nasty, toxic, alien realm — really not that far from the truth!), and the season ends with Megabyte trapping Bob in the Web. From here on, the tone of the series gets darker and more sophisticated, although there’s still a lot of parody and humor.

Anyway, season 3 begins with Enzo trying to fill Bob’s shoes as an apprentice Guardian, but at the end, he and AndrAIa are trapped in a game and taken away with it at the end. In between story arcs, they wander from game to system (apparently games are one of the only ways short of Guardian portals to travel from system to system — odd that Megabyte never thought of it) and age at an accelerated rate, turning into adult characters as the show geared itself toward a teen audience. Enzo grows into Matrix (Paul Dobson), a bitter, angry, musclebound antihero hardened by subjective years of constant game combat and despair at his failures in Mainframe. AndrAIa, by contrast, grows into a slim, sexy, scantily clad adult woman (Sharon Alexander) who’s just as good a fighter but has a warmer, more nurturing personality. Very much a gendered cliche, but I suppose I can buy AndrAIa needing to become patient and nurturing to serve as a check on Matrix’s rage and keep him from going totally off the deep end. With his green complexion and ultra-muscular frame, Matrix is basically the Hulk playing Rambo. A huge departure from the happy kid he used to be, but actually a plausible persona for a lost child who had to grow up without adult supervision to teach him impulse control. There is some pretty nuanced characterization in the later seasons.

(Although the underlying premise is inconsistent. The claim is that game time runs faster than system time, so Enzo and AndrAIa grew up while Dot and the others hardly aged at all. But Mainframe seems to run much faster than real time; they use nanoseconds they way we use seconds, and seconds are more like days or weeks. Of course, that doesn’t add up, since if a nanosecond were like a second, a full second would be nearly 32 years. Regardless, we’re supposed to accept that Mainframe time runs a lot faster than ours. So if the Users are human beings playing computer games, shouldn’t game time be enormously slowed down compared to Mainframe time, rather than sped up?)

Anyway, we get a story arc with Matrix and AndrAIa wandering from system to system, then a story arc where they finally reach the Web to track down Bob — who’s rediscovered in altered form, giving him a more detailed character design (and now voiced by Ian James Corlett). Season 3 culminates in a really dark story arc about the final battle to liberate the devastated Mainframe from Megabyte’s rule. It ends on a high note that could’ve been a series finale, but then we got two more story arcs that were originally released as movies. (And made in widescreen. Hulu’s editions are squished horizontally to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio, but better-quality versions are available on YouTube.) The first season 4 story arc/movie, Daemon Rising, involves the battle against Daemon, a supervirus that’s conquering the whole Net and has taken over the Guardians, as established in the second arc of season 3. The portrayal of Daemon is totally different from what I expected and really imaginative and effective, and it showcases how much the quality of the character animation has improved since season 1. By this point, the show is rather beautiful to look at, and the stories and characterizations are much richer. The story also provides flashbacks to the origin of the main characters, finally filling in a lot of the blanks left over from the first season.

I would’ve liked it if they’d ended here, really, since the final movie/arc, My Two Bobs, is devoted mainly to resetting things to the earlier status quo. Bob is reverted to his original, simpler character design (although the rendering is better) and his original voice actor, Megabyte is restored as the big bad (albeit with a new design and powers), and — since season 4 was cut down to two story arcs from the originally intended three — the movie ends on a rather unsatisfying cliffhanger. It’s still a ton better than the first couple of seasons, with much more character depth for the leads, but after Daemon Rising it’s rather anticlimactic, and it’s not a good place to have left things.

The revival series currently in development, ReBoot: The Guardian Code, was referred to in the press release as “an all-new ReBoot universe.” This implies that we may be getting, well, a reboot — a new continuity rather than a continuation of the original. If so, I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it would be good to get the cliffhanger’s loose ends belatedly tied up. On the other hand, Tony Jay is no longer with us, and Megabyte just wouldn’t be the same without his awesome voice. In any case, hopefully the writing will be more in line with the later seasons of the original. After all, it’s the later seasons that the fans remember more fondly. However, network TV animation these days seems to have little room for shows targeted at teen viewers. So we’ll have to wait and see.

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Reflections on ALIAS and FRINGE (Spoilers)

December 16, 2014 2 comments

Recently, I decided to rewatch J.J. Abrams’s spy series Alias on Netflix streaming, and once I was done binge-watching that, I wanted to continue in the same vein, so I went on to binge-watch Abrams’s next series, Fringe, which he co-created with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. I thought I’d share my reactions.

Alias was kind of a mess of a series, starting out pretty strong but subjected to a lot of format changes at the behest of ABC executives, so it jumped around a lot. I rewatched out of curiosity, to refresh my memory about how the show had evolved and changed, about what had worked and what hadn’t.

The show centered on Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a graduate student who also happened to be a globetrotting spy working for SD-6, which she believed to be a secret black-ops division of the CIA but that she discovered was actually a criminal organization run by Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). She teamed up with real CIA agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) to bring SD-6 down from the inside, discovering that her estranged father Jack (Victor Garber) was also a CIA mole within SD-6. Meanwhile, she tried to balance her spy responsibilities with her studies and social life, while keeping her secrets both from her college friends (Bradley Cooper and Merrin Dungey) and her fellow SD-6 coworkers who still thought they were working for the good guys, including her partner Dixon (a shamefully underused Carl Lumbly) and comic-relief tech guy Marshall (Kevin Weisman). It was an incredibly convoluted premise to begin with, and the spy missions often focused on Milo Rambaldi, a 15th-century Leonardo/Nostradamus mashup who made accurate prophecies and invented technologies centuries ahead of their time. Sloane was obsessed with Rambaldi artifacts, and so were most of the villains over the course of the series. It was an odd fantasy element to build the spy stories around, and I always found it rather silly. Sloane also cared for Sydney as if she were his own daughter, although this wasn’t established until midway through the first season. But it helped explain how Sydney got away with sabotaging all her SD-6 missions without being exposed as a mole, since Sloane, her worst enemy, was also her staunchest defender. Rather convenient, but it helped add to the nuances that made Sloane the most interesting character on the show.

Garner was at the center, though, and the series focused heavily on her multiple disguises and sexy role-playing in her spy work; but I never found her all that impressive as an actress, or even all that sexy (definitely quite attractive and fit, but never really intriguing me as much as her female co-stars did). In the early episodes, she was ridiculously broad and overemotional in a way that no experienced professional would ever be — so much so that they actually did an episode midway through season 1 in which Vaughn taught Syd to control her emotions to pass a lie-detector test, after which she was more believably restrained. As for the rest of the cast, the standouts were Garber and Rifkin. Jack was a cold, often ruthless character who gradually softened toward his daughter but remained a nasty piece of work otherwise, but Garber did a superb job and I admired his acting even when I grew to hate his character. And Rifkin did a great job making Sloane a complex and sympathetic villain. At the start of the second season, Lena Olin was added to the cast as Sydney’s mother, an enemy agent named Irina Derevko, and did very well as a nuanced, ambiguous character who gradually won over her daughter and ex-husband but still had her own hidden agendas.

Midway through season 2, ABC apparently ordered a retool to resolve the complex ongoing arc, and SD-6 and the criminal Alliance it worked for were brought down with implausible haste, although it was justified in that Sloane himself — who turned out to be aware that Sydney was a double agent — engineered the fall of the Alliance for his own reasons. For the rest of season 2, Sloane became a more overt villain and the stories got a little more unfocused. The episode right after the end of the SD-6 arc was particularly random, with the characters going on an out-of-the-blue mission with no explanation for why they in particular were assigned to it. I think it was a Super Bowl episode, which was why it was so standalone, but it was a weird and pointless interlude between the end of one phase of the story and the beginning of the next — although it did introduce an advanced disguise technology that would be relevant later in the series.

The next retool was at the end of season 2, where Sydney was abducted and woke up 2 years later with no memory of the intervening time. She came back to find Vaughn married to Lauren Reed (the gorgeous Melissa George, who has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard), who naturally turned out to be evil eventually. And Sloane, in a deeply implausible plot twist, had been pardoned in exchange for his testimony and become the leader of a charity. It was unclear whether he’d really reformed or was just putting on an act. Irina was gone due to Lena Olin’s desire to spend more time with her family, so they invented a sister Katya (Isabella Rosselini) to fill in for her from time to time. The season focused on the pursuit of new villains (Lauren’s employers) for the most part, but late in the season, Sloane discovered his and Irina’s illegitimate daughter Nadia (Mia Maestro), i.e. Syd’s half-sister, whom he thought was the key to Rambaldi’s secrets, so he went bad again and abducted and used her to find the ultimate Rambaldi treasure.

The biggest, most whiplash-inducing retool came between seasons 3 and 4, though. In the season 3 finale, Lauren told Syd about a secret document revealing something that had been done to her and Nadia as children, explaining why they had both ended up becoming spies. The file was dated in the 1970s and clearly involved something unforgiveable that Jack had done at the time. And yet, when season 4 began, this was incredibly clumsily retconned to be a file stating that Jack had recently had Irina assassinated (though of course she later came back). Moreover, Sloane had apparently renounced Rambaldi for good and not only been re-pardoned, but actually put in charge of APO (Authorized Personnel Only), an SD-6 like group that actually was working for the CIA this time, and that incorporated all the major SD-6 and CIA characters in its roster. It was a really, really clumsy and implausible attempt to return the show to its roots, albeit with Nadia now a regular character.

And yet, it turned out to be my favorite season of the series. Despite the dumb setup, the writing was better (thanks largely to Drew Goddard’s addition to the staff) and the missions were a lot of fun, often with a strong Mission: Impossible vibe. The complex interplay between Syd, Nadia, and Sloane was intriguing, as Syd was torn between her love for her half-sister and her hatred and distrust for the father that Nadia loved. But it seemed that fatherhood had genuinely transformed Sloane. I liked Sloane as a repentant man trying to make amends for his past much better than I liked him as a villain.

The fifth season went through more changes, partly since network-mandated budget cuts required cast changes, but also because of Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy. Rachel Nichols, later of Continuum, was brought in as novice agent Rachel Gibson, who started out as a parallel for Syd (working for bad guys she thought were the good guys), and bore the brunt of the action during Garner’s pregnancy. Nichols was luminously beautiful and charming in the role, and I would’ve been happy to see her replace Garner completely. However, the back end of the season was delayed for months to coincide with Garner’s maternity leave, so Rachel ended up getting sidelined in the final episodes.

Also, they treated Nadia awfully, putting her in a coma for the majority of the final season and giving her story an unfortunate end. Not only that, but the season’s villains co-opted Sloane and lured him back to the dark side in exchange for the promise to cure Nadia. In the final few episodes, the writers basically discarded all of Sloane’s character-building, revealed that he’d been obsessed with Rambaldi all along, and reduced him to a cartoony big bad in the final few episodes — although Irina became an even more cartoony archvillain at the end, her whole personality tossed aside to accommodate a by-the-numbers good-vs.-evil final battle. And the series finale gave us another facepalm-inducing retcon. Late in season 4, when Sloane had confronted a villain who’d been pursuing Rambaldi technology, he asked why he’d been drawn into it and, when the man said he’d been promised eternal life, Sloane was disgusted that anyone could think Rambaldi’s endgame had been anything as jejune as immortality. And yet, in the series finale, the ultimate Rambaldi achievement that Sloane had been pursuing for most of his life was revealed to be… an immortality potion. Arrrggghhh!! The show really lost it at the end.

Overall, the main thing I enjoyed about Alias — aside from the cast members I praised above and others like Gina Torres and Amy Acker — was the music by Michael Giacchino, a big, bold adventure score that I really enjoyed, built around the kind of melodic leitmotifs that had fallen out of favor in live-action TV/film scoring before Giacchino brought them back with a vengeance. Actually the music in the first three seasons often frustrated me, because there was heavy dependence on pop songs, and all the orchestral action music was accompanied by a relentless, repetitive synth percussion beat like that used in the very mediocre title theme composed by Abrams. I often found myself wishing I could hear the orchestral score without the synth beat getting in the way. Fortunately, in the final two seasons, they finally let Giacchino drop the synth beat and just go wild with his fantastic orchestral scoring, which was heavily influenced by Mission: Impossible and foreshadowed Giacchino’s future work in the film franchise of the same name. The “APO era” featured a new recurring motif which strongly evoked Lalo Schifrin’s M:I theme and served much the same role as Schifrin’s “The Plot” motif in M:I, accompanying the scenes of the spy capers unfolding. Its apotheosis was in the opening of the 2-part series finale, where it’s gloriously developed in a cue that’s fully six and a third minutes long (7:10 if you count the prelude before the caper theme kicks in) as the APO team tracks down the leaders of the evil organization and takes photos of them. The sequence makes no damn sense from a story standpoint — how do they know where to find the leaders and photograph them if they don’t already know who they are? — but it’s a lot of fun and the music is fantastic. I wish there were a soundtrack release of it, but unfortunately the only score releases were from the first two seasons.

So all in all, Alias was a deeply inconsistent series with parts that were very entertaining and parts that were frustrating and disappointing. Jennifer Garner herself was one of its weakest links, not nearly as versatile an actress as was called for by her master-of-disguises role or the emotional roller coaster her character routinely went through. The frequent retools and absurd plot twists that justified them were hard to swallow as well. I’m glad I got to see (and hear) the good parts again, but I had to wade through a lot of bad parts.

I moved on to Fringe because I wanted something similar, but it proved a very different experience. It focused on an FBI team dedicated to investigating “fringe science” phenomena, weird sci-fi cases in an X-Files sort of vein. Australian actress Anna Torv starred as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, with Joshua Jackson as genius con artist Peter Bishop, whom Olivia co-opted as keeper for her fringe-science consultant, his father Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a mentally unstable genius (frankly, a mad scientist) whose past work turned out to have connections to a lot of the fringe cases, particularly the work he did with his old partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, in infrequent appearances) before Bell went on to found Massive Dynamic, the most advanced tech firm on the planet, run in Bell’s absence by the morally ambiguous Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). Lance Reddick struck an imposing presence as the Fringe team’s boss, Agent Phillip Broyles, and Jasika Nicole played Walter’s adorable and long-suffering assistant Astrid Farnsworth.

This is a show that also evolved and changed format a lot over its 5-year run. The first season is the least interesting and least cohesive, built around horrific weird-science crimes-of-the-week that have tenuous and unclear goals underlying them, along with the mystery behind the betrayal of Olivia’s dead boyfriend John Scott (the perennially wooden Mark Valley), whose evil in the pilot episode (including a cold-blooded murder) was sloppily and unsatisfactorily retconned to redeem him as a double agent within the villains’ organization.

By the end of season 1, the villains behind most of the weird crimes were revealed as a group believing our universe was threatened by invaders from a parallel reality, as predicted in a manifesto that Walter himself wrote, though he’d long since forgotten it. They were trying both to get the manifesto author’s attention with their public and shocking science crimes, and to “activate” certain people that Walter and Bell had experimented on as children, giving them cortexiphan, a fictional drug that awakened various mental superpowers, in an attempt to create supersoldiers to fight the coming war. In a coincidence that was never adequately explained, Olivia herself turned out to be one of Walter’s cortexiphan test subjects, something neither of them remembered when Olivia first chose to bring Walter in as a consultant. (I suppose it’s possible, though, that Olivia had some subconscious memory that drew her to Walter, and perhaps that Nina Sharp had pulled some strings to get her assigned in the first place. But the show itself never addressed the contrivance.) This put the core group of Olivia, Walter, and Peter at the heart of everything that was going on. The season finale had Bell bringing Olivia to “The Other Side” — an alternate universe where the World Trade Center’s twin towers are still standing and people travel in zeppelins, because alternate universes always need zeppelins — to explain the nature of the coming war, although she conveniently forgot what he’d told her once she returned, only gradually recovering the memories.

The transition to season 2 is actually pretty sloppy, with an apparent discontinuity in the events of Olivia’s transition between universes, and with an abortive attempt to introduce a new supporting character who’s set up in the first two episodes as a major player but then abruptly vanishes. (Also, in DVD/Netflix order, there’s a “leftover” season 1 episode, “Unearthed,” between the season 1 finale and the season 2 premiere. It doesn’t belong there, and was originally aired midway through season 2, where it was even more out of place. It’s completely standalone and can be watched just about anywhere in mid-season 1, or skipped altogether.) But the season advances the story by having the invaders from the other universe start to appear, in the form of cyborg shapeshifters, since most people can’t safely cross over. More importantly, this is the season where we learn the truth of how Walter is responsible for the whole crisis in the first place, and how, in his effort to save the life of his son, he inadvertently caused his alternate self (nicknamed “Walternate”) to lose his own Peter and caused increasing damage to the fabric of the universe on the other side. By the end of the season, we discover that Walternate and those on the other side see themselves as defending against invaders from our universe.

And it’s in the season 2 finale that the series finally starts to get awesome. Much of it is from the perspective of the alternate Fringe team, including a version of Olivia (nicknamed Fauxlivia) who’s far more upbeat and cheerful than our version, having never gone through the cortexiphan trials and other tragedies. At the very end, Fauxlivia abducts Olivia and takes her place, and the first third of season 3 is amazing as it alternates between episodes set on our side (with Fauxlivia impersonating Olivia and becoming romantically involved with Peter) and episodes set on the other side (with Walternate brainwashing Olivia to believe she is Fauxlivia, so that he can convince her to use her cortexiphan-enabled universe-crossing powers for his benefit). Anna Torv does an amazing job playing effectively four distinct personalities (the two very different Oliviae as themselves and as each other) and differentiating them marvelously. It rivals Tatiana Maslany’s astonishing work playing multiple clones on Orphan Black. Also, the alternate Fringe team is arguably even more likeable than the main team, and the worldbuilding of the other side is really creative and interesting. Even when the Oliviae switch back, we still get periodic episodes set on the other side as both sides build up toward the ultimate confrontation and our two sets of heroes try to avert the destruction of one or both universes.

Which leads to the next reinvention in season 4, where the show does much the same thing Eureka did in its fourth season, rewriting the timeline and carrying forward in a permanently altered history. But, whereas in Eureka the main regulars all retained their memories, in this case only Peter remembers the original timeline, and he isn’t even present for the first several episodes. Both universes are still in play, interacting more regularly, but both remember their history differently due to the changes, and several characters are substantially different. Eventually, due to cortexiphan weirdness, Olivia recovers her original memories, and she and Peter end up together. Unfortunately, the main villain of season 4 — actually an altered-history version of a villain killed off in season 1, since season 4 digs deep into the show’s history and makes the first couple of seasons feel more cohesive in retrospect — has a plan to destroy both universes and start over, and saving the universes requires isolating them once again, bringing the two-universes arc to a conclusion.

Which is an understandable decision, since the show was on the bubble of cancellation at this point. But FOX was no longer run by the same executives that fandom blames for cancelling Firefly, and the new executives gave the series every chance to survive and complete its run. So they let the series do an abbreviated final season which introduced a whole new twist on reality. Now, the show jumped forward in time a quarter-century, to a dystopian future in which the Observers — mysterious, detached bald guys in suits who were present as enigmatic watchers in many of the series’ events since the very beginning, and who turned out to be time-jumping scouts from the future — invaded our era in force and conquered the world. (At least one Observer, usually the main one played by Michael Cerveris, had at least a cameo appearance in every episode of the show, one of many hidden Easter eggs that the puzzle-loving Abrams put in the series.)  Our main cast was conveniently in suspended animation the whole time and thus didn’t age, although Broyles and Nina were reduced to recurring roles due to the slashed budget. Still, they were able to tell an effective miniseries about the struggle against the invaders, one that again dug deep into the show’s early continuity and brought everything together so neatly that it felt like they’d planned it that way all along, even though they probably hadn’t. The season also added Georgina Haig as Olivia and Peter’s grown-up daughter, which was great casting; she was both utterly gorgeous and utterly convincing as Olivia’s daughter in appearance and performance.

All told, I found Fringe very impressive on a revisit. On the initial run, the show often felt unfocused to me; for some reason, I had a pretty poor memory for past episodes, so when a character or plot point recurred, I’d struggle to remember it. But on a binge-rewatch, I can see how it all ties together and it feels like a cohesive saga. It reinvented itself as frequently as Alias did, but in a way that felt far more organic and unified. Not to mention far bolder and more creative in the way the producers played around with the nature of the show’s reality. Not only did they jump between alternate universes and alter the timeline, but they’d do occasional episodes set in the past before jumping to the future. Not to mention the occasional episode built around Walter’s fondness for psychedelic drugs. (This includes the show’s biggest misfire, an anemic attempt at a musical episode called “Brown Betty,” but works out much better in the final season’s “Black Blotter.”) They even did a hallucinatory episode that was largely an animated cartoon — evidently to deal with Nimoy’s inability to appear in person in a William Bell-heavy episode, since only the scenes featuring Bell were animated. Unfortunately, it was rather clunky cel-shaded 3D done by Zoic Studios. Which was frustrating, since Fringe was a Warner Bros. show, and WB Television Animation is one of the best 2D animation studios around. I always wondered why they didn’t take advantage of that.

The show’s main title sequence even changed to fit the varying settings in time and space. The blue-tinged titles became red-tinged in the parallel universe and gold-tinged in the altered reality of season 4; there was an ’80s-CGI-styled title sequence for the two ’80s-flashback episodes; and the titles for the future-dystopia episodes were redesigned to suit that setting, gray and oppressive with the fringe-science topics flashed onscreen in earlier seasons (stuff like “Astral Projection” and “Clairvoyance”) replaced with words like “Due Process” and “Freedom” — conveying that those things were now seen as fringe ideas and improbable myths. It was fun to see the ways they played around with their own format, and it’s one of the things that made the show so distinctive.

The cast deserves a lot of credit. I’ve already mentioned how impressive Anna Torv was as the various incarnations of Olivia — and I haven’t even mentioned the episodes where Olivia was possessed by William Bell and Torv did a superb, often eerily perfect Leonard Nimoy impression. Jennifer Garner fell far short playing a master of disguise and impersonation, but Anna Torv was everything Garner failed to be. John Noble was amazing as Walter Bishop, a reformed mad scientist racked with guilt and self-doubt, childlike and struggling with sanity, and driven by deep devotion to his son. Those two really carried the show, since Joshua Jackson was a rather bland, monotonous performer by contrast. But it had a solid supporting cast, also including Kirk Acevedo and Seth Gabel. The music, by Giacchino and his orchestrator Chris Tilton, is subtler than Giacchino’s Alias scores, often in the sort of eerie horror/thriller vein that I’m not too fond of, but with some effective thematic work, including a leitmotif for the protagonists that uses the same chord structure as Abrams’s main title theme (which is much better than his annoying Alias theme), and a recurring Observer motif that becomes more villainous in the final season.

Watching Alias and Fringe back-to-back, I noticed that they both followed similar beats with their main characters’ romantic lives. In both series, the female lead has her pre-existing love interest die in the pilot, then works platonically with the male lead until they begin to act on their attraction toward the end of season 2. Then something happens to separate them, and when she returns, she finds that he’s been sleeping with another woman who turns out to have been working for the enemy; but they’re back together by the end of season 3. Later, the leading lady is separated from her love interest for most of a season, although Alias waits until season 5 while Fringe does it in season 4. And both couples end up becoming parents, though it unfolds quite differently in the two cases. Also, the main parental figure in Alias is the female lead’s father, but in Fringe it’s the male lead’s father, and the two couldn’t be more opposite in temperament. Although in both series, everything that happens, no matter how global or cosmic its impact, ends up revolving around the family of one of the leads. In many ways, the shows couldn’t be more different, but that’s why the recurring patterns struck me.

When I first started watching Fringe, I wondered if I could pretend that it and Alias were in the same universe — maybe all that silly Rambaldi stuff in the earlier show could be justified as a consequence of the time travels and weird science of the later show. There aren’t any real points of overlap between the two, nothing where they either reinforce or contradict each other. And for two consecutive shows from the same producers, they’re surprisingly lacking in common actors, the only one I noticed being Kevin Weisman, who appeared as an evil shapeshifter in one episode of Fringe. (No doubt largely because Alias was filmed in LA while Fringe was filmed in New York City in season 1 and Vancouver thereafter.) So I suppose one could pretend they went together if one wanted, but they don’t really feel like they go together. And I liked Fringe so much better than Alias that I ultimately didn’t want to bother. Let them stay separate.

Finally saw MUPPETS MOST WANTED

December 13, 2014 1 comment

As my longtime readers (all 17 of you) may recall, I was underwhelmed by The Muppets when it came out two years ago. I felt it was too dependent on nostalgia, and I particularly disliked the way it enfeebled Kermit as a character, making him passive and defeatist so they could build up the new character Walter as the main protagonist. So I wasn’t interested enough in Muppets Most Wanted to go see it at the theater, and thus it’s only now that it’s reached the top of my Netflix queue.

But MMW is a much, much better movie than its predecessor. Now that they’ve gotten the nostalgic let’s-get-the-band-back-together stuff out of the way, the filmmakers were free to tell a new story, and it’s a fun one, in which Kermit is replaced by the lookalike Constantine, The World’s Most Dangerous Frog, who uses the Muppets as a cover for his heist of the century while Kermit is stuck in a Siberian gulag. There’s a lot of fun action and stuff going on, and some entertaining character work. Constantine is constantly putting down his second-in-command Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), insisting he’ll never be more than “Number 2″ even though Dominic’s clearly the smarter one and the guy doing all the work. But Constantine and Dominic keep the Muppets fooled — despite Constantine’s terrible Kermit impression — by giving them everything they want, up to and including Constantine proposing to Miss Piggy. But some of the Muppets gradually catch on that something’s wrong with “Kermit.” Meanwhile, the real Kermit wins over the gang at the gulag — primarily Tina Fey as its commandant Nadya, and with inmates including Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta, and Danny Trejo (as himself, apparently) — by helping them organize their talent show. Meanwhile, CIA agent Sam the Eagle and a vaguely Clouseau-like Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) are tracking the thieves, and it all builds up to an epic action climax at the Tower of London, where the various plot threads converge with surprising coherence (although the festering resentment Dominic feels for Constantine has a weak payoff).

At first, I was afraid we were getting the same passive, pessimistic Kermit that the previous film gave us; indeed, it was arguably his initial weakness and negativity that made it so easy for Dominic to sway the Muppets into preferring his indulgent approach. But once Kermit had been in the gulag for a while, he finally found that old backbone and started asserting himself again, getting the unruly inmates in order the way the old Kermit did with the Muppet troupe — by yelling at them with fairness and respect. Once he started putting his flipper down, he became the Kermit I remember again (or a reasonable facsimile), and that renewed assertiveness really came to the fore in the climax, where he went full action-hero to rescue Piggy and the others. It’s like the filmmakers realized how they’d mishandled Kermit the last time and used this story to put him back on track. (There’s even a funny moment where Rizzo comments on how the last movie put so much focus on Walter at the expense of established characters such as himself and Robin.) And there’s good character interplay with the other Muppets, an effective sense that these are people with a lot of history and nuance to their relationships.

The cast did a pretty good job this time out, even though hardly any of the classic Muppet performers are left. Steve Whitmire’s Kermit will never quite be Jim Henson’s Kermit, but he’s been playing the role for over 2/3 as long as Henson did, so he has made it his own now. Eric Jacobson is now doing all of Frank Oz’s characters, but he does them very well, and he’s actually a better singer than Oz, especially as Piggy. In her big solo number here, Piggy hits high notes I don’t think Oz ever managed. Constantine is played by Matt Vogel, who’s inherited Jerry Nelson’s characters (e.g. Floyd, Robin, and Lew Zealand), yet also manages to do a pretty good job with Constantine’s impersonation of Kermit (which is bad but not entirely un-Kermit-like). Tina Fey is effective and rather lovely as Nadya, Ty Burrell is good as the inspector, and Ricky Gervais is okay as Dominic, though not really a standout.

I have mixed feelings about the songs. Some of them don’t seem to be in quite the right style; they’re all in a similar breezy and upbeat vein even when some of them could stand to vary it up a little, like the gulag song, which could’ve used more of a Russian flavor, and Constantine’s “I’m Number One” song putting Dominic down, which could’ve used more of a harsh edge. There’s a certain sameness to their music after a while, though it has its moments. But the lyrics were very clever and there were some fun visual gags.

The character design for Constantine deserves mention too. In theory, he was supposed to be a dead ringer for Kermit aside from his mole, and there was a funny running gag about how that tiny mole completely changed the Muppets’ perception of his face; but the designers put in some subtle differences, like molding his mouth in more of a frown, making his eye markings more horizontal to suggest a more haughty and sinister expression, and making his neck ruff shorter. (This poster shows the differences pretty well.) Aside from the mole and the ruff, they’re more differences in expression than anything else, so it fits the conceit of them being identical while still giving them very different looks.

So now that they’ve gotten past trying to convince new audiences how cool the Muppets were and just gone ahead and made a Muppet movie, they got a much better movie out of it. I’m inclined to call this one of my favorite Muppet movies of all, though maybe it’s just because it’s such a refreshing improvement over its predecessor.

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