A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.
The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete First Season (ABC, Blu-ray, DVD) is a problematic debut season. I think we can all agree on that. Critics have been less kind and fans more indulgent but the fact is, this series took most of the season to find its mojo. Perhaps it’s because creator Joss Whedon, who also directed the pilot, left the show in the hands of regular collaborators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen while he directed his focus on the second Avengers film.
The first TV series set within the fabric of the Marvel Universe of the movies takes place in the aftermath of The Avengers, where the superheroes and god and monsters exist and the world knows all about it, and it resurrects Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in that movie. The series teases out the secret of his resurrection throughout the season as he forges his own special operations team that includes bad-ass battle veteran Melinda May (Ming-na Wen), hunky field agent Ward (Brett Dalton), science squad Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), and rebel hacktivist Skye (Chloe Bennet), who has her own secrets teased through the season as the loner learns to become a team player. Their mission is to find and help “gifted” beings before the bad guys (namely Hydra) get to them. Which leads to colorful but routine types of episodes: capers, computer hacks, undercover operations, and the occasional mission to retrieve alien technology or supernatural artefact.
The series was never actually bad but it was often just a cut above mundane and it kept tripping over its squad of poorly-defined characters and lively but routine team dynamics. Gregg is great fun as Coulson, embracing his unconventional approach to the S.H.I.E.L.D. super-agent with a legendary past, and Wen brings confidence and focus to her role as the legendary agent who earned the nickname “The Cavalry” (the story behind the name is so mired in myth that no one actually knows where it came from) and has to be coaxed back into the field. But the young agents are not very interesting and the actors fail to give them any grit, the episodes rehash familiar stories and situations, and the show spins its wheels for most of the season without forging its own distinct sensibility or identity. It has great production values, impressive actions scenes, some memorable guest stars from the movies (including Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury), and of course the Whedon brand of pop culture riffing and humor, but no sense of a bigger picture beyond the basic idea of the maverick squad fighting the interference of organization commanders as well as taking on the threat of the week.
The season’s storyline pivots around the events of the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier and that’s where the show finally gets interesting: the maverick unit becomes the rogue team battling the S.H.I.E.L.D. takeover and the traitors who have sided with Hydra and the intrigue within the squad itself takes some unexpected turns. Bill Paxton added his brand of enthusiasm as a recurring character, Angel alumnus J. August Richards became an interesting (if not fully satisfying) tragic figure, and comedian and comic book fan Patton Oswalt gets to geek out by getting his own distinctive role in the Marvel superhero universe. The final episodes finally deliver an engaging series with a promise of a better second season. It rewarded fans who stuck with it, brought other fans back to the show, and gave the critics reason to take a second look. The second season launches this month with hope that the new direction, with Coulson faced with rebuilding the organization from the ground up, continues at the level established in the final episodes of the season.
22 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary on multiple episodes, the TV special “Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe,” featurettes on five episodes, the 2013 Comic-Con panel presentation.
The Hatfields and the McCoys turned the most famous family feud in American history into a personal war right out of a Shakespeare tragedy. The names themselves have become an instant cliché understood by everyone, even while the actual history behind it was forgotten in all the satirical appropriations of the story for movies and TV comedies.
Hatfields & McCoys (Sony), the most watched program ever on The History Channel, is a fine attempt to create engaging drama while remaining true to the history. Handsome and well-produced (with Romania quite effectively standing in for the wilds of Kentucky and West Virginia), and anchored by a superb cast led by Kevin Costner as “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, it steers clear of the clichés and the distortions to dig into the complicated history of the infamous blood feud.
The roots go back to the Civil War — Anse and Randall fought side by side for the Confederacy but other members of the McCoy clan fought for the North — and the grievances in the post-war years that escalated into violent clashes and legal confrontations. These aren’t the backwards hillbillies of so many comic incarnations but rural folk with strong clan allegiances who tangle the law and the state governments into their fight, each maneuvering to get the stamp of legal approval on their campaign. And yes, there is a “Romeo and Juliet”-styled romance between a Hatfield son and a McCoy daughter, another real-life strand in the story, but even that is just another complication that stirs up indignation.