TV Review: Agents of SHIELD – “The Ghost”

Agents of SHIELD - "The Ghost"
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Agents of SHIELD reviews here.
Agents of SHIELD returned in “The Ghost”, a highly anticipated season premiere that largely lived up to expectations.
The big headline coming into this season was the inclusion of Ghost Rider, and Robbie Reyes wasted no time making his presence known. He kicked off the episode with an impressive and violent debut, and capped it off with an intense duel with Daisy. Any worries about wonky television CGI were put to rest. Though the effects were not exactly cinematic, Ghost Rider nevertheless looked very menacing, and Robbie’s first onscreen transformation was particularly effective.
In fact, “The Ghost” as a whole felt darker than Agents of SHIELD used to be. The action was more violent and downright bloody, no doubt a benefit of the 10 p.m. time slot. But the storytelling and characterization was also more grim, and this I feel has less to do with time slots and more with the natural progression of the series. It’s a far cry from the overly jokey tone of early Season 1.
daisy-johnsonDaisy’s journey perfectly exemplifies this. After all she’s experienced, most recently Lincoln’s death, it makes sense that she’s become a lone vigilante who avoids getting close to anyone. Plus, this attitude suits her well, and I look forward to seeing more of her.
In terms of the story, “The Ghost” refreshingly went in a different direction than I would have predicted. Based on how Season 3 ended, I assumed this premiere would be mostly about the team bringing Daisy back into SHIELD and succeeding, perhaps teasing Ghost Rider along the way, but saving the full reveal for later. Instead, not only did Agents of SHIELD double down on its “lone wolf vigilante” storyline with Daisy, but it also led with Ghost Rider right out of the gate.
Meanwhile, things have vastly changed back at SHIELD HQ. SHIELD is back to being government-run in the aftermath of the Sokovia Accords (though I doubt the movies will reference this), forcing Coulson to step down as director. And his still-unnamed replacement has for whatever reason chosen to split up the original band. This led to some tension among the group, but also a fair bit of secrecy, as Coulson and Mack’s search for fugitive Daisy had to be kept private.
Instead of Daisy, though, their search led them to a mysterious box with what appear to be magical properties. Between that McGuffin and Ghost Rider, it’s clear that Agents of SHIELD will be tying into the upcoming release of Doctor Strange thematically with the inclusion of magic and mysticism.
But on the more science-fiction side of things, we finally have Life Model Decoys in the Marvel Cinematic Universe courtesy of Dr. Radcliffe. Fitz’s bewildered reactions elevated those otherwise purely expository scenes. It’s a great nod to the comics, but Agents of SHIELD has to be careful with LMDs as a plot device. You don’t want to overuse the gimmick of seemingly killing off a character only to reveal it to have been a robot decoy. I would love to see that trick used, but perhaps not more than once.
My only complaint about “The Ghost” is that for the moment, the different plot threads—Daisy/Ghost Rider, SHIELD, LMDs—are a bit too disconnected. But judging by last year, it won’t be long before it’s all brought together with a singular focus. That aside, “The Ghost” was a very strong showing for a dependable, entertaining show, with promising developments ahead.

Rating: 4/5 (Great)

TV Review: Gotham – “Better to Reign in Hell”

Gotham - "Better to Reign in Hell"
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Gotham reviews here.
Gotham‘s back, and it’s… about the same as ever, really. Still the show that could best be described with a half-hearted shrug. Still the show that cares less about telling a coherent story than about throwing stuff onto the screen and shouting, “Isn’t this cool?!”
Case in point: “Better to Reign in Hell” didn’t deliver any sort of self-contained narrative, no story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was just a collection of scenes, some related, some not, but with no larger structure connecting it all. And more importantly, no sense of where the season is going, which is somewhat surprising for a premiere.
Yes, there was some indication that Fish Mooney intends to build an army of superpowered villains to do… something. What that “something” is doesn’t matter, though. The whole point is to generate a handful of bad guys to throw at the audience, hoping the recognizable Batman rogues will be enough to satisfy them. It’s the old cliché of all flash and no substance.
But Gotham doesn’t need to change, because by this point, it’s comfortable enough in its own skin, and it’s cultivated an audience that likes it for what it is. And what it is is a hodgepodge showcase of recognizable Batman villains. Look, it’s Mr. Freeze! Over there, the Mad Hatter! And how about we contrive a way to make Poison Ivy suddenly grow up so we can use her too?
Gordon and Valerie ValeIn fact, nothing exemplifies Gotham‘s approach to storytelling as much as opening scene of “Better to Reign in Hell”. A major cliffhanger from last year’s finale was brushed aside in an incredibly brief scene where Jim saw that Lee had moved on and—oh well, that’s enough, cut to six months later! It was an awkward and clumsy way to start an episode, let alone a season.
I’m being too harsh. There’s enough enjoyment to be had from this show. Penguin is still a highlight, though this season had better find something useful for him to do and fast. In “Better to Reign in Hell”, he, Butch, Barbara, and Tabitha were in their own little bubble, separate from the main events of the episode. An entertaining bubble, to be sure, but a distant one nonetheless. I don’t want a repeat of last season, when the show still needed him but couldn’t find a reason to have him there, so they sent him off to discover his family or something. What purpose did that serve again?
The aforementioned “main events” involved Jim Gordon hunting down Fish Mooney, and that part actually wasn’t too bad. I really like Jim as a bounty hunter; it suits this interpretation of the character much more than anything so far. We were also introduced to Valerie Vale, who is a legitimately promising new character. And of course, Bullock is still the best.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne continued his struggle for relevance on a show where he, quite frankly, doesn’t belong. Much as I respect David Mazouz’s efforts and always enjoy Sean Pertwee’s performance as Alfred, the truth is that a show about James Gordon never needed Bruce Wayne for any other reason than “he’s Batman, we must keep him around.”
First, it was the search for his parents’ killer that kept him around. Sure, I can buy that. In Season 2, that evolved into the search for the man behind the man who killed his parents. Fine, I guess. And now it’s the search for the secret society behind the man who was behind the man who killed his parents. Okay, now it’s getting ridiculous.
Yeah, it’s cool that Gotham‘s diving into the Court of Owls. But I’ve yet to be convinced that they are worthy antagonists, more than just a wink at comic readers, like everything else before them. So far, the latter seems to be the case. The Bruce subplot started in a very promising way when he confronted the Wayne Enterprises board, then quickly took a nosedive as we waded back into familiar territory. “Bruce Wayne knows too much! Send someone to kill him! Even though the audience knows he’ll be okay, because he’s Batman! And also because they’ve seen this exact subplot a thousand times before!”
All in all, it wasn’t a disappointing premiere, but only because Gotham‘s bar is not particularly high. “Better to Reign in Hell” was business as usual for a show that desperately needs an overhaul.

Rating: 3/5 (Passable)

Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad had a winning formula that seemed impossible to screw up. A ragtag collection of popular villains and antiheroes played by talented actors teaming up for a wacky mission. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it turns out.
Suicide Squad is not irredeemable. There are enjoyable elements, and even rare flashes of greatness. But the fun romp that was advertised is buried under what is, quite frankly, a mess.
Let’s start with the good, and that begins and ends with the lead characters.
Deadshot, played by Will Smith, lands the most effectively. A versatile actor who has mastered both comedy and drama, Will Smith is the source of Suicide Squad‘s biggest laughs in addition to some poignant moments. Deadshot is also the movie’s most fleshed-out character, tied only with Harley Quinn.
Harley was easily the most popular and anticipated member of Suicide Squad, and Margot Robbie’s performance lives up to the hype. There is simply no better choice for the first major live-action Harley Quinn than Margot Robbie, who takes ownership of the role and dominates her scenes with mischievous relish. For the most part, this is the beloved character come to life.
I say "for the most part" because despite a great performance, some aspects of Harley’s characterization did bug me, most notably how sexualized she is. And it’s not the empowering kind of sexy, either; the camera lingers on her body quite gratuitously, and the flashbacks depict her more as Joker’s arm candy than as his kickass sidekick/demented love interest. Harley is one of the comics’ most complex and strangely endearing characters,Deadshot and Harley Quinn and she’s come a long way, branching out and away from the Joker’s side. So it’s a frustrating disservice to the character to have her fall victim to Suicide Squad‘s faux "edginess".
Speaking of the Joker, Jared Leto’s acting on its own is very good, but I’m not quite sold on Suicide Squad‘s interpretation of the character just yet. Part of that is because his role is so small, we barely get a sense of who he is.
Another standout is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. She’s a perfect fit for this role, a no-nonsense, unlikable authority figure almost as cruel as the villains themselves.
Even some of the secondary characters were fun. Who knew that Jai Courtney, often described as totally lacking in charisma, would absolutely shine as Captain Boomerang?
Despite that, though, most of the team is woefully underdeveloped. Boomerang is good for a few laughs, but that’s it. Katana appears out of nowhere a third of the way in and hardly contributes. Killer Croc just grunts some one-liners. Slipknot is a complete non-entity. The only character with any story arc, and one that actually works well, is El Diablo, which was a welcome surprise.
Characters are the foundation that a team-up movie like Suicide Squad should be built on. The first act focuses entirely on those characters, and it’s all the better for it. Mind you, it’s not too great. The first half hour or so is incredibly choppy, as we’re introduced to the squad individually via expository narration, each entrance accompanied by a different song. It’s a clumsy mishmash, but it at least prioritizes the cast.
At this point you might be thinking, "Hey, this review’s okay so far, maybe the movie isn’t that bad!" Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But then the first act ended. And it all came crashing down.
Once the team is gathered and the mission begins, Suicide Squad devolves into a series of indistinguishable action scenes, interminable stretches of shooting lots of bullets at lots of literally faceless CGI monsters. Everything blurs together in a monotonous muddle, interrupted by out-of-place flashback sequences, all with terrible editing to boot.
I could almost see the scissors and glue, cutting and pasting the film to try to make it salvageable. For example, worse than the Joker’s lack of screen time is the fact that he should have been in this movie even less. Flashbacks aside, his entire subplot adds nothing to the story and should have been omitted entirely.
El DiabloI could also feel the movie being pulled in many directions, resulting in an incoherent narrative and jarring tonal inconsistency. Sometimes it tries to be grim and edgy, but in an ill-conceived, juvenile kind of way. Sometimes it aims for whimsical humour, but some of the jokes that should be funny (like Harley’s) don’t really land, thanks to the wonky editing. This is likely a reflection of the scramble to do damage control after the failure of Batman v Superman and the success of Suicide Squad‘s own comedic trailers. And sometimes it wants to be an epic superhero blockbuster, which is absolutely the wrong way to go.
All of it builds up to the ultimate generic climax: a cataclysmic device shooting a beam of light into the sky. And at the center of it are two truly atrocious villains, one of whom is just a hunk of shoddy CGI. It’s the finale to almost every superhero movie since The Avengers. And the worst part is that Suicide Squad doesn’t even need this kind of ending.
Would it have killed them to go small for this one? The Suicide Squad are not the Avengers or the Justice League. For all of Waller’s talk about metahuman armies, the squad barely has any metahumans in it. Most of their skill sets involve guns and fists, lacking the awe and dazzle of high-profile superpowers. This makes them a poor match for a large-scale, effects-heavy blockbuster. That’s a huge reason why most of the action scenes fall flat.
No, the Suicide Squad works best as more of a ragtag black-ops team undergoing high-risk but covert missions. A smaller-scale operation, like, say, the Assault on Arkham animated movie, or simply having the Joker as the main villain instead of Enchantress, would have been so much better. It would have at least had a more unique, fresh, and interesting formula, fewer bland action scenes, and far more room for character interactions.
Because all of the aforementioned great characters amount to absolutely nothing if they don’t get time to be themselves, to talk, or to bounce off each other. The bar scene from the trailers is the only good part of the movie’s second half for exactly that reason. But Suicide Squad‘s biggest mistake is having next to none of that, squandering the natural chemistry of its talented cast and compelling antiheroes.
Thus Suicide Squad answers the question: how do you make a terrible meal out of incredible ingredients? What’s most disappointing is how great it could have been.

Rating: 2.5/5 (Subpar)

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
There are a lot of ways to describe Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s ambitious. It’s different. It’s emotional. It’s borderline crazy. For Harry Potter fans, it’s a lot to digest. But ultimately, it is a triumph. Because at its heart is a story driven by great characters and tied together with powerful themes.
There’s no denying that many Harry Potter fans will feel overwhelmed reading the Cursed Child script. The story goes to places that I doubt any of us expected, which can be both exciting and disorienting. Many presumed rules of the universe are shaken. And several developments and twists challenge our perceptions of the original stories and characters.
Thus, as with any follow-up to a beloved pop culture phenomenon, it’s important to approach Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with an open mind. The original stories must be taken off the legendary pedestal that we’ve placed them on, frozen and untouchable, for the past 9 years. Because Cursed Child is utterly unafraid of playing around in that world. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it uses the past as a springboard for the future.
The loosest outline of the main story, involving kids dealing with magical artifacts and getting into crazy and dangerous situations, is a typical Harry Potter adventure. Yet the adventure itself goes all over the place: backwards, forwards, and sideways, with plenty of unexpected swerves. It’s totally compelling, and its grand ambition works for the most part, but it’s admittedly a lot to take in, and it does hit upon a few confusing plot points (which could have been ironed out had it been a novel). I can’t elaborate without spoilers, but much like the original stories, Cursed Child is a page-turner.
Yet underneath all of the magical bells and whistles and the twists and revelations are the two intertwined pillars supporting the whole thing: characters and themes.
Harry and AlbusHarry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about the relationship between a father and a son: Harry and Albus Severus Potter. It’s a story about legacies and how they define us. About the lingering shadows of the past and their effect on the future. It’s about Harry, the orphan with a traumatic childhood, struggling to raise a troubled child of his own. It’s about Albus, burdened by his father’s legacy that he did not choose—a legacy that includes both triumph and tragedy.
This theme of parenthood spreads across the play, reflected in almost all of the characters, down to the main antagonist. Of these, the second most prominent one is Scorpius Malfoy. Not only must he contend with being the son of Draco Malfoy, who himself was shaped by his relationship with his own father, but also with a rumour about his parentage that haunts him, making Scorpius the bearer of two dark legacies.
Albus and Scorpius are an excellent, well-rounded pair of new leads with a friendship that harkens back to the original trio. Scorpius especially shines, a sweet, caring, and loyal character rife with humour and wit who’s sure to become a new fan favourite.
Much like his son, Draco is one of the most fascinating characters in the play, having experienced so much evolution throughout and since the original stories. Most of the other original characters also return, very much changed but also very much the same. Hermione is even more fierce, intelligent, and passionate than ever. Ron is still loyal and a lovable goofball, but the play reduces him to simple comic relief quite often, which I believe is an unfortunate necessity of the format and story being told.
Harry Potter has always been a flawed hero, and his mistakes as a parent are a major driving factor in Cursed Child. I like that he’s not infallible, and I especially enjoyed seeing that the events of his youth affected the kind of parent he became. The Deathly Hallows epilogue was full of optimism, but there was no way everything had gone so smoothly given what had happened, and I love that the play is an exploration of this idea.
I’m confident Harry Potter and the Cursed Child translates to the stage in a fantastic fashion and makes for an amazing theatrical experience. But this review is of the script: not quite a play, and not quite a novel.
There’s no narration aside from sparse stage direction, which leaves a lot of room for the production to roam free, but also compels the readers to exercise their own imaginations. That’s not to mention the necessary narrative shortcuts taken to get from one scene to the next, letting the readers fill in the blanks. The dialogue is also of a different sort; sometimes more expository, sometimes over the top. There are hints and bits of J. K. Rowling’s snappy wit, but the writing is meant to accommodate the actors’ interpretations as key components necessary to enrich the characters.
Even though the script alone is an incomplete experience, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a compelling read, ambitious enough to play around with the canon, and an overall success thanks to strong characters, whimsical adventure, and emotional, mature themes.

Rating: 4/5 (Great)

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek Beyond is an excellent summer blockbuster: a fun adventure that expertly balances exhilarating action with great character dynamics and humour. It continues the rebooted series’ tradition of being dependably great action movies, while bringing the new films closer to the original spirit of the franchise.
Star Trek Beyond is in many ways a reclamation of the spirit Star Trek, which many fans felt the rebooted series (especially Into Darkness) wandered away from in its quest for wider audience appeal. Star Trek Beyond has been accurately described by its cast and crew as feeling like a big-budget, movie-length episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. It is a self-contained adventure set right in the middle of the Enterprise‘s five-year mission in deep space. More importantly, it emphasizes exploration and adventure, the characters and their relationships, and a wide-eyed, unwavering sense of optimism in humanity’s future.
One great example happens early on when the Enterprise arrives at a space station called Yorktown, and it is an absolutely beautiful scene thanks to the incredible production design, stellar camera work, and sublime music by the legendary Michael Giacchino. For the first time in the rebooted series, we get a sequence that exemplifies the kind of science fiction Star Trek is supposed to be: one that presents an optimistic view of the future, and a world that makes the audience say, "I want to live there."
JaylahAnother example is the villain. I can’t get into his motivation without hitting on spoilers, but thematically speaking, the film’s conflict reaffirms the idealistic future of Star Trek. A future based not on war and conflict, but on peace, scientific exploration, and unity.
It is an important message especially in today’s political climate where xenophobia and warmongering reign supreme (though the movie didn’t push it hard enough to count as a legitimate political message). But it also works in a meta sense, successfully addressing the criticisms that the reboot has received.
And yet Star Trek Beyond does not at all renounce the rebooted series’ approach—it remains firmly entrenched in the post-reboot mentality of delivering adrenaline-pumping action set amidst a tight, briskly paced narrative. This is great, because I personally adore the 2009 film and believe it did nothing but good for Star Trek, breathing new life into the franchise with a much-needed burst of freshness.
If anything, Star Trek Beyond proves that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It finds the right balance between the two camps of Star Trek fans, and proves that you can make a "traditional" Star Trek movie without eschewing mainstream appeal, and vice versa.
Justin Lin, the director who reinvigorated the Fast and Furious franchise, proves to be an excellent choice to direct Star Trek Beyond. J.J. Abrams still has the slight edge, But Lin’s undeniable talent for intense, high-octane action makes for several thrilling sequences that keep the film energized.
Connecting the dazzling action set pieces are the character interactions that constitute the meat of the film. The last two movies did a fantastic job exploring the characters of Kirk and Spock and their powerful relationship, and this is again true in Star Trek Beyond, which gives each of them a strong story arc across the film.
This time, though, the rest of the Enterprise crew got a bit more spotlight, reaffirming what a great cast of characters they are individually and as a crew. The film’s structure forces them to be split up into pairs, and the best of those is Spock and Bones, whose amusing back-and-forth is absolutely a highlight of the film. I’m especially happy that Karl Urban got more to do this time around.
Meanwhile, a new face is introduced: Jaylah, who is absolutely the movie’s breakout character. She is paired up with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, who gets to be more than just great comic relief this time, and the two prove to be another successful duo. Jaylah’s success as a lovable character is almost entirely thanks to actress Sofia Boutella, who plays her with a great combination of strength and humour.
The other major new character Krall, the villain played by Idris Elba, who projects an imposing sense of danger to his performance even when his face is hidden behind prosthetics. Earlier I praised his motivations and what they represent thematically, but my biggest problem with Star Trek Beyond is that those motivations aren’t revealed until late in the movie, by which time it’s difficult to explore them properly. The intent was great, but the execution was poor.
In the end, I would say that Beyond is a big improvement over Into Darkness, if not quite as stellar as the 2009 Star Trek (which, to be fair, I consider a near-perfect summer movie). Star Trek Beyond is a major step in the right direction for the franchise, and an excellent blockbuster in its own right.

Rating: 4.5/5 (Excellent)