Videophiled TVD: The troublesome debut of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

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.

Five episodes are available to stream on Hulu, otherwise the only streaming solutions are Digital purchase, either a la carte or full season.

More TV on disc and digital at Cinephiled

New Release: ‘The Avengers’

The Avengers (Disney), the Marvel comics superhero all-star team, is the most impressive example of synergy in the comic book movie industry to date.

Unlike The X-Men, which arrived full formed in 2000, The Avengers is the comic book version of the supergroup, with stars in their own right coming together (not without some friction and ego-thumping) for a battle royale. So Marvel put together a long term plan, launching their stars in a series of solo films and building an entire universe of heroes and villains for the screen.

They teased audiences with brief cross-overs and then, after years of setting it all up, brought together the team: Robert Downey’s cheeky, cocky Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s warrior prince Thor, Chris Evans’ earnest Captain America, and Mark Ruffalo taking over as Bruce Banner and The Hulk (the third actor in as many films), giving the character a haunted, embittered edge. To round out the team, the film expands the role of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a slinky superagent, from the second “Iron Man” film, and adds Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an archer marksman briefly seen in “Thor.”  Samuel Jackson presides over it all as Nick Fury.

It could have been a disaster, with so many characters to juggle and personalities to respect while engaging  in a big, noisy, apocalyptic battle with no less than gods and aliens. And it was a measured gamble to bring in Joss Whedon, a man with well-earned fan credentials and an affinity for this kind of genre storytelling. No question that he brings smarts and style and self-aware wit to his productions (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV, “Serenity” on film) but his audiences have been, shall we say, small and passionate.

It was the perfect marriage of subject and sensibility. You wouldn’t accuse The Avengers of being good drama but the sprawling, splashy spectacle and its much-much-much-larger-than-life heroes makes for a genuine comic book epic for the big screen.

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New Release: ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate) – There’s more knowing horror comedy and meta-horror commentary than actual tension and thrills in the self-aware, awfully clever love letter to the horror movie fandom from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. That’s fair, because scares or not, I had more fun watching “Cabin” than almost any other film this year.

Whedon, producer and co-writer, first established his fan credentials with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a self-aware, pop-culture strewn horror show in weekly installments, but he and co-writer Goddard, a “Buffy” writer making his directorial debut, take a different approach here. No spoilers, just in case you’ve managed to steer clear of them so far, but the first scene isn’t about the five kids headed off for a weekend in the haunted woods. It begins with the quip-laden banter of lab-coat technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) as they head to work in their quasi corporate bunker culture. That work has something to do with the kids’ weekend plans, and the rest of the film shows us just what and why that is.

As far as the fresh meat college kids go, keep an eye out for the handsome young guy playing Curt, the smarter-than-he-lets​-on football player. Back in 2009, when the film was made (release was delayed by the bankruptcy of MGM, which produced the film), Chris Hemsworth was an up and coming actor with a lot of promise. Now he’s Thor. And he’s still upstaged by Fran Kranz as the twitch stoner Marty, who makes the case that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Unabashed horror movie fans Whedon and Goddard let their monster mash impulses go wild, riffing on every “kids in the woods tormented by supernatural killers” film ever made (with special affection for the “Evil Dead” films) before launching into a pulp rumination on our need for scary stories as a kind of ritual.

Continue  reading at Videodrone

TV on DVD 10/12/10 – Tudors in the Dollhouse, plus the Mentalist and Family Guy

Dollhouse: The Complete Season 2 (Fox) – The second and final season of Joss Whedon’s high-concept action conspiracy series was less a renewal than a brief reprieve. The low rated show about identity, control and people used as empty vessels for corporate power only got an additional 13 episodes before it was cancelled for good, but they are inventive episodes filled with hidden agendas, double-edged writing and characters the ping-pong between personalities. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, the star player in the lineup of human “dolls” uploaded with entire personalities and skill sets, and it becomes clear this season that she is holding on to pieces of her imprints as she goes through her assignments. Harry Lennix, her handler in the first season, is promoted to head of security, Tahmoh Penikett the former FBI agent who joins the company as Echo’s new handler and partner in taking it down and Olivia Williams the head of the Los Angeles branch. Meanwhile the supporting cast of doll operatives (Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, Miracle Laurie and Amy Acker) all evolve and even the resident tech boy nerd genius Topher (Fran Kranz) gets a romantic interest—in guest star Summer Glau (from Whedon’s Firefly).

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Sorting through the motivations and the prime personas working their way through the imprinted personalities gives multiple levels to the drama while the moral implications take on epic proportions when the technology that wipes and imprints personalities is honed to operate at a distance, on civilians as well as dolls. And just wait until you get to finally explore “the attic.” Whedon didn’t have time to create a neat conclusion but he makes the edgy implications of the final episodes zing and caps the show with “Epitaph 2: The Return,” a sequel to the “Dollhouse” apocalypse episode from the first series. The series finale jumps ahead decades and is remarkably satisfying. Though not quite self-contained, the show has a remarkable integrity for being so brief (a mere 26 episodes over two short seasons) and invites repeat viewings.

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TV on DVD: Dollhouse – Season One

Joss Whedon’s new series had a rocky road to TV. The network rejected his original pilot and he created a new one from scratch – same concept, same characters, same cast, even the same sets but a new way into the story – that resembled a more traditional action series. The series was a slow starter as a result and I confess I stuck through largely out of loyalty to Whedon and confidence that he was developing something interesting behind the more conventional episodes. And it paid off: the high-concept show about a (quite literally) underground company that imprints entire personalities and sets of skills onto its otherwise blank roster of operatives developed into one of the most intriguing shows of the 2009 season. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, the star player in this lineup (they’re called actuals) who are programmed to be everything from sexual fantasies to secret agents, but she may be holding on to pieces of her imprints as she goes through her assignments. Harry Lennix is her handler, protective of his charge and suspicious of the moral implications of the business, and Olivia Williams the company boss, though we discover that she’s merely in charge of this franchise in a covert business with locations all over. The show was a surprise renewal (the higher rated Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles didn’t survive, thanks to its much more lavish budget) and Fox has rewarded the fans who stuck through with a pretty special DVD release.

The Dollhouse cast
The Dollhouse cast

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DVDs for 6/2/09 – Playing Shakespeare, playing Wallander, singing along with Dr. Horrible

Playing Shakespeare debuts on DVD
Playing Shakespeare debuts on DVD

One of the finest nonfiction series about art debuts on home video this week.  Playing Shakespeare (Athena/Acord), a 1984 production written and presented by Royal Shakespeare Company founder John Barton and featuring featuring members of the company, is more than simply a master class in acting (as if that’s not enough in itself). Part master class presentation, part workshop, part Socratic dialogue, it plays out in the manner of an actor’s workshop, where exercises are staged with actors and the results discussed by all involved. But it’s also about theater today and in Shakespeare’s time, about conventions and ideas of realism, about language, about history and culture, about how actors try to bring them together, and finally it’s about getting to the heart of the words and characters of Shakespeare and illustrating how and why his work lends itself to multiple interpretations, each with its own insight to the art. It’s a remarkably approachable documentary with brilliant insights into the craft of acting from the likes of Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Judy Dench, David Suchet, Patrick Stewart and Sinead Cusack (among many other equally fine if less famous performers), who don’t merely illustrate the lessons with performances but discuss their approach and their tools with Barton and with each other. Particularly insightful is episode four, focused on a single character – Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – with two actors who have played the role on stage and prepared their interpretations for this episode: David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. The entire show is Barton (who originally directed them both in the role) with the two actors, and it is riveting television and a brilliant discussion of art and theater as they address the five scenes in which Shylock appears in the play. And it’s serious without becoming self-serious; an episode on Shakespeare’s language, and his words, is introduced by way of a comedy sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. As in the best of documentary presentations, it is both a brilliant study in its subject – theater and the work of Shakespeare – and an illustration of the power and importance of art. In the words of Shakespeare, it is as if a mirror held up to nature. Nine episodes on four discs in a box set of three thinpak cases, along with a 20-page study guide.

Speaking of the Royal  Shakespeare Company, one of its most illustrious veterans returns to British TV with one of the best mystery series of the past decade: Henning Mankell’s Wallander (BBC). Kenneth Branagh plays Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander in a trio of mysteries made for British television and seen in the U.S. on Masterpiece Mystery! Wallander is close to burnout from corruption and cruelty he’s seen and the toll its taken on his personal life and Branagh gives his most restrained yet evocative performance in years: there is such loneliness and disillusionment in his Wallander, but he’s still roused to seek justice. The episodes are beautifully produced on location in Sweden (two of them shot by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle). Three feature-length telefilms on two discs, along with featurettes and interviews.
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‘Dr Horrible’ – Conquering the world in song!

Forget Mamma Mia! The musical to see this weekend is a low-budget production created for and available solely on the Internet by Joss Whedon. He wrote, produced and directed the Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog during the writer’s strike. It’s up now, free for a limited time and then via iTunes.

Neil Patrick Harris stars as aspiring supervillain Dr. Horrible, a nice guy with a rather misplaced sense of ambition who is in love with cute girl-next-door (Felicia Day, from the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Nathan Fillion is his arrogant nemesis, a jerk of a musclebound superhero.

Act I went live on July 15, Act II on July 17, and Act II will be posted on July 19. All are free until July 20. Visit now. It’s fun, it’s funny, and Whedon writes better songs than you’ll hear in most new Broadway shows.

The episodes, along with other news and information, can be found here.