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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 2. 0-8-4

October 3, 2013 2 comments

Marvels Agents of Shield

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 Episode 2. 0-8-4 comes with a health warning attached to it. Having begun with a ho-hum episode which had some style but little substance, the series must either raise its game or begin shedding viewers. The first and most obvious question marks arise over two features. The first is the running time of just over 40 minutes screen time. This is even less than usual for what’s billed as a one-hour show. All it does is show optimism over the ability to sell advertising before the quality of the show has been established. The second issue is the use of the extended flashback format, i.e. the crisis is shown up-front and then we switch back to nineteen hours earlier. This is one of my least favourite plotting devices. I see no benefit from revealing the fact of a midair explosion at the outset. It seems to me far more powerful if we’re being carried along by exciting events on the ground and then, when everything seems resolved and the team take-off, the explosion will come as a shock and a challenge to be overcome. There’s no benefit to removing the shock and defusing suspense. All we viewers do is wait for the bomb to go off again.

Well, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) has added Skye (Chloe Bennet) to the team as a consultant, “. . .because she doesn’t think like S.H.I.E.L.D agents”. What better way to have an outsider’s view of events than to recruit an outsider who can act as a buffer between the shoot-and-fight types, Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), and the science geeks, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge)? Now we’re off to investigate an “object of unknown origin” (Code-named 0-8-4) in Peru. The last one was a hammer as in Thor (2011) (big hint there that we might just be about to see something awesome or merely something cheap CGI can generate on a television episode budget — the suspense is killing). I’m beginning to find the British science geeks annoying. I suppose they are intended to be endearing with their endless enthusiasm for all things scientific, but I do wish they would shut down every now and then to think about basic issues like food and access to toilet facilities in a remote jungle location. This is particularly important when the national police troops come. The fighters are in their element, of course. The others may have a brown emission issue. But it turns out Coulson knows the babe in charge. It makes a change from having a stereotypical South American male authority figure.

No expense spared on the Bus

No expense spared on the Bus

Anyway, when rebels with guns also turn up, the gung-ho fighter picks up the object and makes a run for it. None of the scientific niceties for him when there are bullets flying and explosions outside the temple complex (so far no CGI — just flashing lights on the thingy). As if we needed the stakes raising, we’re still in Captain America territory with a piece of German technology which pumps out gamma radiation if provoked. Being thrown around during a chase has obviously not improved thingy’s mood. At this point, we get into plotting 101 with the most obvious possible sequence of events plodding across the screen. The simplest way to discuss this without spoilers is to say the outcome at the end of 40 minutes has to be a better team so, whatever happens, has to break down their mutual animosity and create a more co-operative spirit. This involves problem solving. Assume the individuals start out at a disadvantage and then have to work together to avoid the explosion bringing down the plane.

Samuel L Jackson puts in a cameo at the end to prove this is a real S.H.I.E.L.D show and then that’s the end of this week’s completely unexciting and uninvolving episode. I think I have one more episode in the tank. If it’s no better, I’ll go back to reading. PS I forgot to mention the aeroplane carrying this band of so far useless bodies is a CGI construct. The show’s producers have spared no expense to bring real excitement to the screen as the modified cargo plane lumbers across the sky.

For a review of other episodes, see:
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 1. Pilot
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 3. The Asset
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 4. Eye-Spy
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 6. FZZT
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 7. The Hub.

Django Unchained (2012)

django-unchained-poster3

There are times when my local cinemas beat the rest of the world, opening new Hollywood offerings on a Thursday to give us a 24-hour head start over the American audiences. On other occasions, it can be weeks or months before a title reaches us. Some titles are never shown here. Django Unchained (2012) was slow in arriving here and I was then slow in making time to see it. It’s a dog-ate-my-homework kind of excuse, but it’s the best I’ve got for this tardy review. So rather than follow the usual pattern, I thought it might be interesting to examine it as a contemporary commentary on the history of racism in America. The first and most obvious question is why Quentin Tarantino, a leading director, should choose this time to make a film about slavery. We have the first African American as President of the United States so, if this is the highest job in the land, I suppose we might declare prejudice dead. That this is now a post-racial America. Except, of course, America is obsessed by questions of race and its implications.

Jamie Foxx turns his back on the fight

Jamie Foxx turns his back on the fight

 

So far in 2013, the Supreme Court has heard two cases on race: one on affirmative action in university admissions, the second on whether voting practices have improved to such a point there’s no longer a need for federal laws to protect the minorities. The timing of these cases is somewhat ironic because America is almost at the tipping point when whites will become the minority in population terms. This makes it rather important to lay down markers for civil rights as the demographic landscape changes. Hence a film that, for the purposes of entertainment, deals with the reality of racism and discrimination as part of history, is inevitably holding up a mirror for society to see how far it has progressed since that time. We see black poverty then and note blacks are three times more likely than whites to be below the poverty line today. As then, so today, the wealth gap between the white and the other races remains wide. Significantly, all the current surveys confirm that anti-black sentiment has actually been stirred up by President Obama’s election. It’s just we’re more civilised about how we choose to discuss the relationship between the different groups today.

 

The other more general question is why Quentin Tarantino has elected to wrap an exploration of American attitudes towards race in an essentially European vehicle. The basis of the plot is clearly signalled at an early stage as a version of the myth of Siegfried and Brunhilde, drawn from Icelandic, Norse and German sources. We’re told Django (Jamie Foxx) has to go through the fire and use his sword to kill the dragon Fafnir to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington). Or, if you prefer to look past the overt mythology, this is a fictionalised version of America’s past filtered through the cinematic style pioneered by Sergio Leone, one of Europe’s most interesting film-makers (although the original film titled Django was actually directed by Sergio Corbucci). I suppose these attempts at universalisation allow American audiences greater cultural distance by staging a “One Upon a Time in the Wild South”. Perhaps telling a more parochial and hence realistic story would have been too painful. Although it’s interesting to note how casually all the characters use the word “nigger”. In itself, this is a challenge to contemporary political correctness which prefers to sanitise language to avoid reminding people of the past and show respect to those who have survived into the present.

Christoph Waltz anticipates bounty

Christoph Waltz anticipates bounty

 

The opening sequence shows us the chattel side of the transaction with two men herding some slaves across the landscape like walking meat. There are two questions arising from this set of scenes. Django is a man with sand. For all his terrible experiences, he’s relatively unbowed and walks proud as soon as he has the chance. He’s also unsympathetic to the others in chains. He could argue for their freedom or offer encouragement to their escape, but he’s indifferent. This is repeated when he attends a “Mandingo” fight-to-the-death between two slaves. Although he has the excuse that he’s playing a role and it would be dangerous for him to break character, there’s no indication he cares what happens to either fighter. The second point of interest is the reaction of the two white slavers to the uppity European, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Because of his superior manners and more sophisticated use of language, they feel he’s patronising them. Out of insecurity, they react to his offer to buy Django with threats of violence. As a well-armed bounty hunter, the foreign visitor is able to assert himself. As to the morality of bounty hunting, Django’s later analysis is appropriate. Killing white folk and getting paid for it. What’s not to like?

 

Big Daddy (Don Johnson) is asked a very pertinent question when he agrees to send one of his slave women to show Django around the estate. Do you want me to treat him as a white man? Ah, now that really would be a step too far, wouldn’t it. There has to be an intermediate category into which a free African American can be slotted that’s somehow better than a slave but not equal to a master. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) opines that exceptional Black Americans can rise to form a new class. So while they can never be equal because of their colour, they can have a better status. As he says, the sun rises up and shines on all equally. Yet, of course, advocating this new class makes all blacks more free because it gives them hope of advancement. Consequently, this makes Candie a threat to local whites and a more equivocal target for Django. Except, of course, his subsequent behaviour clearly shows he deserves to die, e.g. because he promotes “Mandingo fighting”. It’s perhaps relevant to point out that slaves fighting each other to the death is fiction. With so much money tied up in slaves, they were far too valuable to sacrifice in this way. This is not to say slaves did not fight and their owners bet often quite larger sums of money. Tom Molineaux won his freedom through fighting and emigrated to Britain. It’s curious Quentin Tarantino should have wanted to make Candie more brutal. I thought having dogs rip a slave to pieces was doing the job well enough. This leaves one other stereotype to include in the film. Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the Uncle Tom figure who’s deeply resentful of anything that disturbs the natural order of things. And, of course, he’s cute enough to see through the plot to buy Broomhilda and alert his master. Collaborators are always more dangerous than their masters because they see both sides of the fence more clearly.

Leonardo Dicaprio a bad man despite the smoke screen

Leonardo Dicaprio a bad man despite the smoke screen

 

And the moral of this somewhat overblown epic? In this dog-eat-dog (or human) world, the only ones who get to the top are those who can shoot better than the other guys. And if guns aren’t enough, dynamite gets the job done on a more industrial scale. The film is not, you understand, a political road map for reconciliation, for finding an accommodation between the different points of view. Every man on display here reaches the point where discussions end and killing begins. This is reinforced by stereotypes. The KKK is mocked over the question of using bags as masks, but is not condemned for being homicidally inclined. For this purpose, many of the white underclass are shown as more incoherent and stupid than their black counterparts. Yet the slaves are overly submissive or active collaborators. They earn Django’s contemptuous indifference. Put another way, if Django is one of the new class of superior African Americans who rises to the top both on his own terms and in the eyes of others, he can’t afford to be sentimental about the plight of any of his inferiors, regardless of colour. In the end, he will kill both black and white if that’s the price of getting what he wants. Schultz says, “I’ve never given anyone their freedom before and now I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.” That’s the European’s view of equality. But there’s no sign Django has any comparable emotion at the end. He may have liberated a major group of slaves, but he has absolutely no interest in what happens to them. Indeed, tomorrow, all the local plantation owners, fearing these surviving slaves may be the catalyst for rebellion on their own estates, ride over the horizon and kill every last one of them. But Django and his wife are long gone, riding off into the sunset. I’m not quite sure what the message of the film is supposed to be nor quite who it’s addressed to, but one thing is clear. Django Unchained is not a message of hope.

 

The Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

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