Marvel Universe

What I'm Watching: Alphas - Season 2

The big moral quandary of the X-Men series always comes down to the same questions: How much trust can humanity put in the hands of people with superpowers? Is a handful of bad apples enough to seek control of the entire superpowered population? Perhaps these questions are handled with depth and thoughtfulness in the graphic novels, but on television and in the movies, these questions are given short shrift in favor of "BOOM! Shit blows up real good!" Which is fine, but I'm often left wanting more in terms of character development.

Enter Alphas, which is essentially an answer to that prayer. Sure, the characters have super abilities, but this time, it's the powers that occupy the back burner, and it's the personal struggles to fit in with society that take center stage. The first season was excellent, and while it didn't get the buzz it deserved, it at least got renewed for a new season.

And that new season just started! Existence of the Alphas is starting to leak out to the general public, and a new threat is starting to coalesce in a gang of baddie Alphas whose intentions aren't quite known yet. Genre shows are especially prone to sophomore slumps, but I'm optimistic that Alphas has plenty of good stories still to tell.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Better off Ted.


Cougar Town.

All of these are eminently entertaining television (apparently - I haven't had the opportunity to see any Bunheads yet), but have a stigma attached: The Curse of the Terribly-Named Show. I didn't catch on to how good Better off Ted was until it had long since been canceled, and I didn't even attempt to watch any Cougar Town, despite hearing all kinds of glowing reviews about it.

Until now! There are always several television shows I want to catch up with hanging around my Netflix queue, and I decided it was time to give Cougar Town a shot. I usually enjoy Bill Lawrence shows, and as it turns out, this one is no exception.

Rarely is a show so determined to not be about anything. Oh sure, there are undertones of romantic relationships in the works, but in general, this show can be summed up as "Neighbors who hang around and drink a lot". That sounds like it could get obnoxious in a hurry, but the tone of Cougar Town is so sunny and light-hearted, it's hard not to like. Infidelity, midlife crises about aging, and lack of financial independence could be weighty topics, but on this show, they're all tackled with some enthusiastic chatter, a big smile, and a gigantic jug of red wine. I've been loading myself up with some pretty depressing dramas lately, and cruising through the first season of this show was just the pick-me-up I needed before plunging back into the emotional horrors of The Wire.

Cougar Town - Season 1: B

Junk Food

Way back when, The Amazing Race was my favorite reality show. A little while after that, Top Chef became my favorite reality show. So when I heard about a new talent competition that would meld the two concepts, I was extremely excited about it. Nothing is guaranteed, however, and as I said back then, a fantastic concept can still fall apart in its execution.

Around the World in 80 Plates fell apart in its execution.

Where to begin with the horrifically poor decisions that were built into the framework of this show? How about with the biggest one? Towards the end of each episode, each team would create a meal for local diners, and the diners would vote on which team was their favorite. Then the losing team would have to vote amongst themselves to decide who got eliminated. Did you catch that? This show that is ostensibly supposed to be about cooking talent hinged entirely on a Survivor-style popularity contest. That is not only a jaw-droppingly terrible idea, but it was one that the contestants had no idea how to deal with, making it a stupid process as well as antithetical to what should have been the show's point.

In one episode, the losing team comprised four chefs, three of which had made some critical error in the cooking challenge. So what happened? They voted off the guy who had done everything right. In another episode, blazing idiot John voted in such a way as to put the sole power of elimination into the hands of someone who could have easily turned around and voted John off. Luckily for him, the other contestant was a blazing idiot as well.

With the winners decided by local diners and the loser chosen by the contestants themselves, hosts Curtis Stone and Cat Cora had little to do but stand around, look pretty, and spout trite exposition and admonishments. You'll also notice that I haven't mentioned a thing about the Amazing Race-style travel component to the show, and that's because it was so underdeveloped as to be almost meaningless.

There's a kernel of a good show hidden underneath all this dross, but you'd really have to dig for it. Anything good was buried under an avalanche of poor casting, poor challenge design, and poor rule structure. Top Chef may be starting to show the strain of old age, but at least it had several good seasons first. This show, on the other hand, was fatally flawed the minute it left the gate. While it's not beyond saving with a major overhaul, I won't be sticking around to find out.

Around the World in 80 Plates: C-

Knight Time

I just returned from a weekend camping trip, and felt the need to reacclimate myself to civilization as quickly as possible. What better way than by heading out to a highly-anticipated movie so I can get it under my belt before the inevitable internet spoilers ruin it?

Since I was without phone or internet for several days, I didn't hear about the shooting at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises until a few hours before I went to the theater. It's an intensely sad story, but one that news and entertainment outlets have covered at length far better than I ever could. The news did not seem to slow the anticipation for the movie; the showing I was at was easily sold out.

Even if this hadn't been the last movie in a well-regarded trilogy, and even if the culture-at-large hadn't been anticipating it for months, you know I'd be first in line, for obvious reasons.

Thankfully, I was able to walk into this movie knowing almost none of the details and none of the critical response - I tend to be a bit too easily swayed by other people's opinions, both good and bad. The Dark Knight Rises clocks in at almost three hours, and although long running times make me suspicious, the movie didn't seem bloated at all. There are a lot of characters on all points of the moral spectrum, and each of them gets a chance to shine. Christian Bale is reliably good as always, but the supporting cast is equally impressive. One by one, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Bane (Tom Hardy), and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) take center stage, and all of them do a fantastic job.

The film wasn't a total home run for me, but the issues I had were relatively minor: This is a Batman film that doesn't have a whole lot of scenes featuring...Batman. Bane's voice is a bit too reminiscent of Darrell Hammond impersonating Sean Connery. There was too much of a focus on Alfred, who works best in a background capacity. But like I said, none of this detracted from my overall enjoyment of the movie as a whole. If The Avengers is the superhero movie to beat in terms of pure popcorn fun, this one is the heavy hitter in terms of tone and thoughtfulness.

The Dark Knight Rises: B+

Shorties #2

It's summer! It's too hot outside! There are all sorts of pop-culture things to catch up on!

#1: "Good Time" - Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen: Not content to have sewn up the annual Song of Summer contest, Carly Rae Jepsen is apparently attempting to be featured in every earworm that will infect you this year. And it's working. Blending her light-hearted vocals with Adam Young's synthesized backbeats is a good meld. "Good Time" will never be heralded as lyrical poetry, but as far as bouncy summer tunes to jam out to, I enjoy it. (Grade: B+)

#2: Sherlock - Season 2: The second trio of super-sized episodes have all aired now, and this show continues to be my favorite adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes property to date. The middle episode, an update to "The Hound of the Baskervilles", was a little disappointing, but the thrilling finale of "The Reichenbach Fall" more than made up for it. (Grade: A-)

#3: Weekend: Films about gay relationships used to be uniformly terrible. That undoubtedly had to do more with the societal attitudes surrounding the subject matter than the talent of the filmmakers, but they were wretched movies nonetheless. Thankfully, that seems to be changing rapidly. After reading some positive reviews of this 2011 British romantic drama, I decided to give it a watch.

It's a refreshingly small story. Just a couple of guys who hook up and feel an immediate connection with one another. The one-night-stand turning into a full-fledged relationship is well-worn territory, but in this case, any long-term prospects are doomed at the outset. One of the characters is almost literally on the eve of leaving the country for two years, so their brief encounter over a couple of days is potentially all they'll ever have. Nobody dies. Nothing explodes. It's simply a quiet movie about a realistic romance. (Grade: B)

#4: Thor: Having really enjoyed The Avengers, I thought I'd go back and fill in some of my Marvel superhero movie gaps. I have no interest in Iron Man 2, but thought I should at least get Thor and Captain America under my belt. The Captain still resides in my Netflix queue, but when Thor became available on Instant Viewing, I jumped on it. Oof. I really admire Kenneth Branagh, but perhaps this wasn't the best project for him to direct. I'm not one of those guys that demands boobs and cursing and big, shiny explosions every thirty seconds in an action movie, but there needs to be some, you know... ACTION. Never have I seen such a talky, meandering bore masquerading as a summer blockbuster. (Grade: C)

#5: Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013: Geek though I am, I've never played Magic: The Gathering before. When I read a review of this game that noted that it was very kind to beginners and was extremely affordable, I took it as a sign that I had to give it a try. I'm pretty satisfied with it so far - I set it on the easiest level and can slowly explore what the decks/cards can do. The game has a couple of issues: Sometimes I can't zoom in on my opponent's card, so I have no idea what just happened to me. Certain cards have named powers written on them, but no explanation of what those powers entail. Still, it's a relief to be able to play without the pressure and ridicule I'd get from a human opponent. (Grade: B)

Mini Movie Review: Magic Mike

-1:35 PM
It's been a rough weekend so far. What better way to give it a positive jolt than by seeing the male stripper movie?

-1:38 PM
Esquire theater. Check. Soda purchased? Check. Room left at the top of the cup for the addition of another liquid? Check.

-1:40 PM
There aren't many people in the theater other than me, the five female friends who are beside me, and a few other ladies. I am the only male present.

-1:42 PM
Previews. There are approximately seventeen of them. At least some of these movies look better than the previews we saw before Joyful Noise.

-2:00 PM
Five seconds into the movie, and we've got topless Olivia Munn and Channing Tatum's ass. Just in case you were unsure of what kind of movie this is going to be.

-2:17 PM
It's nice that Cody Horn has finally been discovered, because if someone's going to play Alex Pettyfer's sibling, they really need to rise to his level of being completely wooden and bland.

-2:25 PM
Joe Manganiello sits at a sewing machine in a bandana and chunky glasses, stitching up a thong. It's completely charming.

-2:31 PM
Blurry, corner-view cock shot. Alex Pettyfer's one shining moment in the movie comes as he tries his damndest not to look, but can't resist giving it the side-eye anyway.

-2:37 PM
Matthew McConaughey says "All right, all right, all right..." several times, because this movie has the good grace to have a sense of humor about itself.

-2:45 PM
Holy shit, they have him play the bongos, too!

-2:55 PM
One of the minor characters carries a pig around with her. Ooh, come here, cute piggy! I want a pig!

-3:02 PM
I could have done without the "Haha! Check out this fat chick!" joke.

-3:12 PM
There's not enough Matthew Bomer in this movie! In fact, why not just cut Cody Horn out completely and make it entirely about the guys who work at the club? And I say this not just as a fan of hot dudes, but as a fan of good acting.

-3:33 PM
You can tell this is a fictional movie because all of the male strippers and the customers they perform for are straight.

-4:00 PM
Channing Tatum rides off into the sunset with Blandy McWhiteBread. Hooray!

-4:12 PM
Still buzzing on the Captain Morgan in my soda, we excitedly dissect the movie in the lobby.

Limecrete: "Someone needs to get an Oscar for creating a movie in which Matthew McConaughey is actually good!"
Tiffany: "Truly, this is his Gandhi."

I liked this movie, as I tend to like most Steven Soderbergh movies. Any film about strippers runs the risk of either being exploitative to the detriment of the plot, or a trite rehash of the age-old saw about strippers beings the castoffs of society. This movie did neither. It portrayed male stripping as it mostly is; a legitimately viable business for those who treat it as a job, and a potential landmine for those who have no self-control.

Not everything worked. I don't know who decided that Alex Pettyfer is a person that needs to be continually cast as a lead actor in a bunch of movies, but they need to stop. Soderbergh seems to have a soft spot for vacant, bored-looking actresses, and Cody Horn is the newest one to join the club. Still, I enjoyed Channing Tatum far more than I thought I was going to, and getting me to like Matthew McConaughey is no small feat. Gyrating beefcake is always fun, but hey, it turns out that the movie beneath it is pretty great, too.

Magic Mike: B

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #4: A Game of Thrones

When it comes to the fantasy genre, I'm halfway between casual fan and hardcore geek. I can't quote Tolkien by heart, but love fantasy MMORPGs. I've never picked up a Wheel of Time book, but am timidly exploring Magic: The Gathering. I'm like the Persephone of the fantasy world, spending half my year happily nerding out, and half my year scratching my head over the properties coming out of Comic-Con.

Since there seems to be an endless stream of books and games in the fantasy realm these days, I'm not surprised that the Game of Thrones series didn't catch my attention until it became a big deal in the mainstream. I probably wouldn't have given it a second glance if it hadn't caught on with such a wide segment of pop culture enthusiasts. But it did, so it had to go on the Pop Culture Homework Project list. The HBO series looks fascinating, but my aversion to gory movies and television means I'll probably never see it, so I turned to the book that inspired the widespread popularity in the first place.

Because the story is so sprawling, trying to describe the plot with any amount of specificity would take forever. Simply put, there are multiple lords, all of whom serve under a high king. Not everyone likes their monarch, though, and there are several characters who plot to overthrow him, and that includes the greedy, power-hungry family he's married into. This first book mostly revolves around three families: The noble Starks, the deposed Targaryens, and the aforementioned greedy, power-hungry Lannisters. You won't want for detail in this book. Every family has loads of members, and there are scores of tertiary characters as well, all with their own motives.

As with many things I'm catching up to late, I had a few issues figuring out just exactly why something is as popular as it is. Not that this book was bad; I enjoyed it, and am already on to the second book in the series. Still, nothing really stood out as special enough to capture the nation's collective interest. An interesting story is still an interesting story, but there wasn't anything new here. In fact, I think I counted at least four lines that appear word-for-word in I, Claudius.

Perhaps this series uses the first book to lay groundwork that pays off later, much like the first season of Mad Men. If not, I may never understand why this book caught fire in the popular consciousness, but as far as mega-violent, epic series go, you could do a whole lot worse.

A Game of Thrones: B

Brave New World

Whenever a Pixar movie gets released, it always comes with a truckload of expectation heaped on top of it. That extra scrutiny generally results in a perfectly acceptable movie being labeled as "disappointing" and a fairly good movie being labeled as a mesmerizing landmark that has changed the face of cinema. Those are the stakes when you're at the top of the field, I guess. Most of the press and reviews I've been reading about Brave put it into the former category, and it's a shame, because the newest member to the Pixar clubhouse is highly enjoyable.

The entire second half of this movie could be construed as spoilers, so read further at your own peril.

Everyone has discussed to death the fact that this is the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist, but I'm pleased to report that the movie doesn't treat this as a Big Honking Deal, and it's better for that. Merida is not my favorite character Pixar has ever dreamed up, but neither is she a walking seminar on girl power. In fact, both of the main characters in Brave are confident, strong women, and the movie just lets them be that instead of having to announce it.

Brave is essentially two movies in one. The first half is about Princess Merida and her mother Elinor at odds with each other. Elinor is trying to raise her daughter to be a proper lady, but Merida takes after her rambunctious, effusive father Fergus instead. Three mischievous triplets round out the family. This first half is rather slow, but it is always refreshing to see a movie family in which everyone actually loves each other.

The second half is where the movie picks up speed. When three suitors come to vie for Merida's hand in marriage, she rebels by entering the competition herself. This angers her mother, of course, so Merida runs into the forest, where she encounters a witch that gives her a spell to "change her mother's perspective". Naturally, the spell has unintended consequences, transforming the queen into a bear.

Thus begins the Merida and BearElinor's adventure to change her back, and it's in this section of the story that Brave truly shines. Action scenes are, of course, part of the package, but the heart of this movie is really about the love and deepening understanding between a mother and her daughter. While it may not belong at the top of the Pixar echelon, compared to most movies, it's a delight.

Brave: B+
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