TV Review: Agents of SHIELD Season 4 – “LMD”

LMD
“LMD”, the second pod of Agents of SHIELD‘s fourth season, has just concluded in spectacular fashion. Picking up from where the strong Ghost Rider pod left off in the fall, Season 4 continued its upward trajectory, setting up a tantalizing final batch of episodes ahead.
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Agents of SHIELD reviews here.
One of this arc’s smarter decisions occurred early on, at the end of the winter premiere, “Broken Promises”. A bait-and-switch reveal that the true villain corrupted by the Darkhold was not Aida, but Radcliffe himself. This cleverly avoided rehashing the cliche “evil robot” story—one that already happened in the MCU in Age of Ultron. Instead, the pod had more of a “mad scientist” vibe, allowing John Hannah to use his talents in new ways, as a main antagonist who truly believes he’s doing the right thing. It also gave Mallory Jansen’s chilling portrayal of Aida additional dimensions.
The main appeal of LMDs isn’t that they’re evil robots, anyway. It’s in the name: “Life Model Decoy“. They are androids that can take the appearance of anyone, and SHIELD used this to great effect. For example, replacing May with an LMD infiltrator. Aside from the inherent suspense, the fact that LMayD initially didn’t even know she was an android also led to some great character drama, especially with Coulson and May’s feelings for him. AidaBy the final episode, four of the main cast were replaced with LMDs. This led to a gripping Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario, with none of the characters—or the audience—knowing whom to trust.
Meanwhile, the Watchdogs storyline continued brewing. Through an alliance with Radcliffe, we finally met the Superior, played by the charismatic Zach McGowan, and learned of his vendetta not just against Inhumans but Coulson as well. Senator Nadeer enjoyed a strong character-focused episode as she grappled with her prejudice in the face of family, eventually murdering her own Inhuman brother. She too was finally killed when one of her henchmen turned out to be a rather explosive Inhuman. SHIELD‘s Inhumans-as-minorities metaphor isn’t as strong as in X-Men, but still led to interesting stories. How does a Watchdog react to an Inhuman family member? Does a Watchdog’s loyalty waver when he himself becomes Inhuman?
Director Mace also experienced some character growth, thanks to the reveal that he was in fact not an Inhuman at all. The earlier episodes of the season implied a sinister backstory, but this pod revealed his deceptions to be well-meaning. In the end, he was a sympathetic do-gooder who exhibited strength and bravery even without superpowers.
Everything eventually culminated in “Self Control”, the final episode of the LMD pod and one of SHIELD‘s best hours to date. This episode alone elevated the whole pod from good to great in retrospect. It was packed with powerful material, as Simmons and Daisy fought their way out of a SHIELD base controlled by LMD replicas of their friends. A standout edge-of-your-seat sequence saw Fitz and Simmons confronting each other—one of them was an LMD, but which? Both actors excelled in that scene, but Elizabeth Henstridge shone brightest (and almost carried the episode singlehandedly) as she confronted and tearfully, brutally “killed” a duplicate of the man she loved. LMayD also had a great final scene, May’s personality coming through as she sacrificed herself to allow Jemma and Daisy to escape. Not to mention the final montage, a snapshot of the agents’ lives inside “the Framework”: Radcliffe’s virtual reality, a world without regrets.
That montage teased SHIELD‘s final pod of Season 4, which will focus on Daisy and Jemma helping the agents escape from the Framework before the showdown against Aida and the Superior. One can only hope for the return of Ghost Rider to tie the whole season together. For now, Agents of SHIELD is on a well-earned six-week break after delivering yet another strong batch of episodes in a stellar season.

Rating: (4.5/5)

Lego Batman Wasn’t Just a Great Parody: It Was a Great Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego Batman Movie is a great animated comedy. It’s energetic, funny, and sharp, with eye-popping animation, exciting action, and quick-fire humour at 60 jokes a minute. But more than that, it’s a legitimately great Batman movie.
Through walking, talking Lego bricks, Lego Batman dives deep into Bruce Wayne’s psyche and delivers a genuine and affecting tale of loneliness and isolation. This Batman may be a caricature of himself, but it’s a parody that nails the core of Batman’s characterization. It also captures the essence of classic Batman stories—especially those that deal with Batman’s seclusion and the growth of the “Bat family” (like Dark Victory and Robin / Batgirl: Year One).
If you’d told me last year that an excellent Batman character study was coming not from Batman v Superman, but from The Lego Batman Movie, I would… probably have believed you, actually.
And even as it pays tribute to the Batman mythology, full of references to everything from lines to props to obscure villains, Lego Batman isn’t afraid to make fun of it either. It cleverly pokes holes at recurring Batman tropes and throws the more ridiculous elements of his 78-year legacy under the bus.
If you’re a Batman fan, you’re bound to be delighted by this clever yet thoughtful take on the character. And if not, you will enjoy The Lego Batman Movie for the charming, hilarious, and action-packed animated adventure it is.

Rating: (4/5)

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Different, but familiar. That’s the first thing I can think of to describe Rogue One. And that’s exactly what the Star Wars standalone movies, of which Rogue One is the first, should be. Having the liberty to break out of the mold of the saga films to play around in different styles and genres, while also feeling very much like Star Wars.
In Rogue One‘s case, it is a war movie. It’s a more intense and gritty experience than any Star Wars entry yet. The tone is more serious, the characters are raw, and the action is visceral.
Nothing exemplifies that approach more than Rogue One‘s final half hour. A spectacular sequence expertly cutting between an intense ground assault, a soaring space battle, and a suspenseful heist all at once. The balance between those three parallel threads as well as the characters’ individual roles in the large tapestry of this climactic battle is deftly handled, thanks to impeccable editing. So, too, is the incredible and well-staged action itself. This sequence is clearly Rogue One‘s centrepiece, and stands as its crowning achievement. Director Gareth Edwards and the rest of the crew have outdone themselves, topping all the battles seen in previous Star Wars films.
Chirrut ImweRogue One‘s ending will leave audiences buzzing, but the rest of the movie holds up strongly as well. Visually, it’s a beautiful film, from the adoring shots of the Death Star to the enthralling cinematography and grounded feel of the various planets and locations. And Michael Giacchino’s musical score shines, a perfect mixture of new themes with a few well-placed nods to John Williams’s legendary work.
But Rogue One is not without flaws. For instance, the first act is pretty choppy and unstructured. It hops from one planet to the next as it hurries to introduce the film’s many characters, bringing them together in a less-than-seamless way.
But once assembled, Rogue One‘s cast proves to be pretty great. This is definitely Jyn Erso’s movie. Her strong arc from apathetic runaway to fervent rebel drives the story, carried by Felicity Jones’s performance. But the rest of the ensemble, refreshingly diverse despite the annoying lack of other women, are also highlights. Chirrut Îmwe, whose unique blend of fighting skills and unwavering spirituality, is an instantly memorable standout. K-2SO, the reprogrammed Imperial droid, provides most of the laughs in an otherwise grim movie.
Rebel pilot and intelligence officer Cassian Andor also undergoes a transformation, and his path to redemption is symbolic of one of the film’s main themes. Rogue One introduces murky morality to a story that was often accused of being too black and white. The Rebellion’s desperation is truly sold by the questionable and decidedly anti-heroic deeds they commit in pursuit of their cause. And the question of extreme measures and what lines should and shouldn’t be crossed hangs over the movie, down to the extremist resistance group on Jedha. What makes the Rebels’ last-ditch fight so effective is that it’s not just about stealing the Death Star plans. It’s about legitimately doing what is right, and being worthy of the nobility of their cause.
Darth Vader and KrennicOn the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn’s considerable talent allows Orson Krennic to succeed as a villain. I had hoped to see a little more of him, especially after having read the tie-in book Catalyst. Still, I enjoyed the cutthroat competitive nature of the Empire’s military hierarchy. It’s something the novels and animated series touched on, but the live-action movies never got the chance to depict.
And of course, Darth Vader. The iconic Sith Lord’s extended cameo is awe-inspiring and fan-pleasing in every way, down to his spine-chilling entrance. He is rightfully depicted like a horror movie monster, so that even someone new to the saga would feel the same fear young fans did in 1977. My breath caught in my throat whenever he was onscreen (no pun intended).
And that’s where the familiar comes in. Rogue One‘s placement in the timeline means it’s loaded with ties to the main saga, as it naturally overlaps with previously established elements. Of course, the biggest are those that relate to A New Hope. But there are also plenty of bits lifted from other parts of the universe, like the inclusion of Saw Gerrera from The Clone Wars as a prominent character. It’s the first time that a live-action Star Wars movie truly made me forget the concept of the prequel/sequel/original “eras”. By drawing from everything that came before, it brought cohesion to the saga.
Most of these ties enhance the experience of Star Wars fans, but I don’t expect them to be a hindrance to newcomers. The story is told in such a way that you don’t need to know who Mon Mothma or Darth Vader are to follow along and enjoy it as a sci-fi war movie. You’ll just get an extra thrill if you do.
There are, however, a couple of Easter eggs that don’t quite land. And some of the ones that do work are still a bit too “in-your-face”, as if the movie’s nudging you in the ribs while you watch. This could bother newcomers who might wonder why the camera’s lingering so long on this bit or that. Finally, there’s one major element borrowed from A New Hope that I loved, but whose shaky execution is sure to be a source of debate among fans for a long time.
Rogue One in many ways feels like an Expanded Universe novel or a comic book come to life. A standalone story with new characters that weaves through the canvas of the main films, acting as the connecting tissue between them, and daring to try something new. It is a welcome change to the Star Wars formula that ensures the longevity of the franchise. If this is the model for standalone films to come, then I welcome them with open arms.

Rating:(4/5)

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is back in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a delightful and charming if imperfect movie with wondrous creatures, lovable characters, and the same dazzling magic that made us fall in love with the Harry Potter world in the first place.
Fantastic Beasts tells the story of magizoologist Newt Scamander, who arrives in New York with a case full of magical creatures. A case that is accidentally opened, letting its inhabitants loose and sending Newt and his new allies on an adventure to find the titular fantastic beasts. At the same time, a mysterious dark force is wreaking havoc in the city, threatening to expose the magical community and start a war with the non-magical world.
If there’s a flaw to Fantastic Beasts, it’s the dissonance between those two parallel but mostly unrelated and tonally different narratives. The two plot threads overlap and eventually intersect when the magical creatures are accused of causing the dark force’s mayhem, pulling Newt into the other, larger narrative halfway through the movie. But even then they feel like two stories that cross paths rather than coming together seamlessly.
Luckily, Fantastic Beasts manages to make up for its structural issues.
One of the film’s biggest successes is the charming cast of main characters. From the eccentric Newt Scamander, excellently portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, to down-to-Earth ex-Auror Tina Goldstein and her chirpy Legilimens sister, Queenie. Even the magical creatures are characters in their own right, like the clingy Bowtruckle or the adorable and hilarious Niffler that stole every scene it was in.
NifflerBut the heart of the main cast is Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj (a.k.a. Muggle) who is accidentally drawn into the Wizarding World. He acts as the audience surrogate, reacting with awe and wonder at the magic around him, as well as the comic relief. And comedian Fogler nails both the humour and Jacob’s endearing likeability and sweetness.
On the darker side of things, Colin Farrell excels as the charismatic yet menacing Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves. Also notable is Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, a reclusive boy raised by a zealous anti-witch adoptive mother. With Credence, Fantastic Beasts comes very close to making a metaphor for repressed teenagers and fanatical parents, but doesn’t quite go all the way.
Another one of Fantastic Beasts‘s strengths, and a treat for Harry Potter fans, is its imagination and world-building. The fantastic beasts themselves do not disappoint, not just in design but also in creative magical attributes. I was delighted to see creatures I’d only read about, like the size-changing Occamy, the often-invisible Demiguise, and the majestic, weather-changing Thunderbird. The sequence that takes place inside Newt’s suitcase/natural preserve is a standout.
Fantastic Beasts is also an excellent expansion of the Wizarding World, showing us both a new location and time period of the magical community. It adds elements to the existing mythology, often contrasting them with what we know from Harry Potter. The Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) is an example of this, drawing comparisons to the Ministry of Magic yet dazzling in its own right. But Rowling also takes familiar elements and puts a different spin on them in this new environment, with ideas like house-elf bartenders or a goblin gangster (played by Ron Perlman). In that regard, Newt Scamander is as much of an audience stand-in for Harry Potter fans seeing this fresh side of the magical world as Jacob Kowalski is to newcomers unfamiliar with it.
Between the rich, detailed world, the creativity, the creatures, the characters’ quirks and even their names, this movie has J. K. Rowling written all over it. Fans of hers will recognize and delight at her trademark voice. It’s also clear that this is her first script, as indicated by the aforementioned dissonant narrative and the slightly uneven pacing. But for a first attempt at a new medium, Fantastic Beasts is a worthy effort by the beloved novelist.
Fans will also find plenty of tidbits to dissect and speculate about in anticipation for the sequel. Though Fantastic Beasts works surprisingly well as a standalone adventure, it also lays the groundwork for the future. By the end of the film the trajectory of this series begins to take shape, reassuring us that maybe five movies isn’t stretching it too thin after all. Time will tell how the story will grow, but for now I am happy to slip back into the Wizarding World like a warm, familiar blanket.

(4/5)

TV Review: Arrow – “What We Leave Behind”

Arrow - "What We Leave Behind"
Arrow rounded off the remarkably strong first half of its fifth season with an excellent winter finale in “What We Leave Behind”.
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Arrow reviews here.
“What We Leave Behind” was all about Prometheus. With this episode, the Season 5 villain has already joined the ranks of Slade Wilson and Malcolm Merlyn as an incredibly effective and memorable antagonist. What separates those 3 villains from Damien Darhk and Ra’s Al Ghul is simple: the conflict is personal.
Ra’s was a powerful enemy, but he was otherworldly and aloof, with ill-defined goals. Damien Darhk’s goal was destroying the world. It’s hard to get emotionally invested in either of those situations.
Prometheus, on the other hand, has a very specific vendetta against Oliver Queen. And his grudge stems directly from Oliver’s actions during Season 1—actions like ones that we, the viewers, witnessed 4 years ago. Those are tangible and personal stakes that take advantage of the show’s 5-season history.
This history is what made the flashbacks so great this week, because they depicted events that happened not during the “5 years in hell”, but during Season 1. It was both a testament to how far the show and the characters have come, but also a nice nostalgic throwback. It was fun seeing elements like the list, the original costume, the grease paint around the eyes, the more brutal fight scenes… But is Prometheus truly the vengeful orphaned son of some random guy on the list? Or is that another misdirect, confronting Oliver with his dark past?
PrometheusTo that end, Prometheus engaged in riveting psychological warfare against Oliver in “What We Leave Behind”. He left a trail of breadcrumbs, haunting reminders of Oliver’s sins during a that previously unseen mission. Including recreating one of Oliver’s crime scenes, complete with dead bodies used as props, placed in the exact positions as Oliver’s victims at the time. Now that’s dedication.
Through these suspenseful scenes, Prometheus aimed to show Oliver one thing: that he destroys everything he comes into contact with. Starting with Artemis, who turned traitor out of disillusionment with Oliver thanks to his past as a killer. And Curtis, whose husband left him because of his involvement with the Green Arrow. And Diggle, who was now a fugitive, and got arrested at the end of the episode.
And of course, Felicity. Whose boyfriend was killed in this episode by Oliver himself. That was dark, and a major gut-wrenching moment. Granted, Malone was dressed up to look like Prometheus, so it was an accident. But it was a clear condemnation of Oliver abandoning his no-killing rule and his vicious Season 1 self.
And the aftermath is a mark of the improvement that Season 5 has been. As recently as last year, Oliver would have kept Malone’s cause of death a secret from Felicity, causing unnecessary drama that eventually blows up in his face. But in “What We Leave Behind”, he was forthcoming with her, and her reaction was grief-stricken but rational, blaming Prometheus and not Oliver. On a CW show. Truly, a miraculous time.
In fact, the only weak element of “What We Leave Behind” was Curtis’s subplot with his disgruntled husband. But in the end even that tied into the “Oliver ruins everything” theme—and accompanying montage—so it paid off.
Finally, what midseason finale is complete without a cliffhanger? Because hey, Laurel’s alive! We think? I mean there she was, standing in the Arrow cave in a definite jaw-dropping moment. The punchline to Felicity’s earlier line: “In our town, people who were dead end up being secretly alive almost every Wednesday.”
A this point, the death and resurrection of the Lance sisters really is a big cosmic joke. And yet, for all the criticisms about death as a revolving door in comic books, I really did not want Laurel to die last year. So if she truly is alive, I’d be extremely happy. Welcome back, Black Canary—hope your dad survives the experience!

Rating: (4.5/5)

TV Review: Star Wars Rebels – “An Inside Man”

An Inside Man
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Star Wars Rebels reviews here.
After being mostly absent for several episodes, Thrawn returned in full force to Star Wars Rebels, and his presence absolutely elevated “An Inside Man”. He was undoubtedly the standout this week, as ruthless, efficient, and incredibly intelligent as promised.
The Rebels returned to Lothal in “An Inside Man”, teaming up with the growing resistance on that planet (led by Ryder Azadi) to infiltrate an Imperial factory. A factory that Thrawn, one step ahead as usual, had come to investigate due to the presence of insurgents in the workforce sabotaging the vehicles and equipment.
It would have been easy to demonstrate Thrawn’s villainy by having him kill off nameless Rebels and subordinates. But “An Inside Man” took advantage of the return to Lothal to raise the stakes as well as the audience’s emotional investment by unleashing Thrawn’s wrath on a familiar character from Season 1: Ezra’s friend, Mr. Sumar.Ezra and Kanan And the way Thrawn killed Sumar, by forcing him to operate a speeder bike Sumar had sabotaged, was incredibly effective.
Ezra and Kanan only managed to escape Thrawn’s clutches thanks to an unexpected ally: Agent Kallus, the titular inside man, who was also revealed to be the new Fulcrum. Several fans had predicted this twist, which made the reveal gratifying, especially relatively early in the season. I also liked the Rebels’ general unease about trusting Kallus. Not to mention the hilarious scene where Ezra Force-pushed Kallus through a sheet of glass to “make it look convincing”. Being an animated series really gives Rebels the freedom to do great physical comedy.
Kallus’s betrayal did not go unnoticed. The ever-shrewd Thrawn immediately suspected a traitor in the Empire, and though he didn’t name Kallus specifically, he clearly had his eye on him. This not only puts Kallus in a very dangerous position down the line, but also spells trouble for the Rebels. There’s a reason Thrawn hasn’t acted on Kallus’s betrayal yet: he intends to use the inside man to his advantage.
Also worth mentioning is the action in “An Inside Man”. The episode kicked off with an awesome and exhilarating speeder chase scene, and ended with a great AT-AT battle too. That last battle was very clever, with bits like Ezra’s chicken walker hiding behind the legs of a larger AT-AT for cover, or the AT-AT “sitting” on Ezra and Kanan’s walker to crush them. Which of course backfired when the two Jedi use their lightsabers to escape into the AT-AT through its belly.
The Kallus reveal and an abundance of Thrawn made for a notably great Rebels episode. That being said, I can’t wait until Thrawn is done passively observing and starts putting his plans in motion. His effectiveness as a villain will truly be determined by how hard the hammer falls when that time comes.

Rating: (4/5)