A Remarkable Turnaround

Judging by the ratings for its debut episode, I wasn’t alone in my anticipation of the television show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Over the years, I’ve become a fan of the sprawling, multi-universe cinematic world that Marvel has created since 2008′s Iron Man, and I was looking forward to what they had to offer on a weekly basis through my television screen. The fact that Joss Whedon, master and commander of a little known film called The Avengers, was at the helm of the first episode only served to heighten my excitement, because not only am I a fan of what he has done in the Marvel universe, but I am also a huge fan of his work in television in general. Therefore, it was with no small amount of eagerness that I looked forward to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere.

Given the show’s subsequent drop off in viewers, I was not among the many who abandoned ship after the first couple of episodes, but I will admit to staying with the show rather begrudgingly. I never looked forward to the next new episode, and instead, they tended to pile up on my DVR, a sure sign of lack of interest on my part. The characters somehow didn’t quite sit right, with many of their relationships and interactions feeling forced and unnatural, while the plot meandered off on a mystery of the week style storytelling, which is inherently boring and predictable. In particular, as I wrote last time, it irked me to no end that Agent Coulson had been miraculously resurrected from his death in The Avengers, and despite my love of Clark Gregg’s portrayal of the character, the narrative implications seemed to be too much for the show to overcome. As a whole, the the series gave off the impression of an unfortunately squandered opportunity, and I was on the verge of throwing in the towel altogether. This is, until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier this past weekend and everything changed.

At the time I saw the movie, I was several episodes behind in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I had no intention of making them a priority in my DVR viewing. However, after seeing Captain America, and its far reaching implications on the Marvel universe, I was instantly determined to catch up and find out how the show would deal with these pressing issues. Last night I burned through the remaining episodes, and by the end of my mini-marathon, I was amazed at how quickly this show had turned itself around. Characters suddenly have depth and dimensionality, their relationships with one another suddenly feel real and genuine, and most importantly, the storytelling has ratcheted up the quality in nearly every way. Whether it’s the overall plot, the week to week stories, the mysteries, or the intrigue, everything is better. It’s almost as if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was desperately trying to figure out what type of show it wanted to be, and as soon as it found something that worked, it just ran with it in the best possible way.

There’s only six more episodes left of the season, and with ABC still mum on whether or not the show will return for a second season, I can only cross my fingers and hope that my wishful thinking works again. In the meantime, I’m thrilled that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has found its storytelling mojo, and is finally delivering on its promise and potential. The show has some pretty important plot points to address in the upcoming episodes, and in a most welcome change from the beginning of the season, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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A Troubling New Trend

*This post is about character deaths on television, and therefore a general spoiler alert is in place for the whole post.

Killing off a major character on a television show used to be unheard of, and usually only occurred if an actor sadly passed away or if there was a salary dispute. Then along came a little show called Lost, which became a breakaway hit back in 2004, and proceeded to kill off its characters with wild abandon. There had been shocking character deaths prior to this, but no show racked up a body count of primary characters quite like Lost, and the landscape of television has never been the same. Today, even so called family shows such as Once Upon A Time kill off a character at least once a season, and while some of these plot twists can be quite effective, heartbreaking, and downright traumatic (I’m looking at you Game of Thrones), there’s a new emerging trend surrounding these deaths that is wholly detrimental to the art of storytelling. Several shows have recently embraced the notion that anyone can come back from the dead, no matter how definitive their deaths may have appeared, and the result is that these once shocking plot twists are quickly losing their story value.

Arrow was one of my favourite new shows last season, and although I still love it, this year Arrow has begun to get a bit repetitive with all of the characters that have come back from the dead. The first time it happened it was a nice twist, but by the third reappearance I barely registered a reaction, and any future deaths on this show will be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a much better show if it didn’t negate the emotional high point of The Avengers right out of the gate. I love Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, but resurrecting him to lead his own TV show completely undermines what was a pretty important plot point in the film, and only serves to ruin future viewings. Finally, the recently aired third season of Sherlock ended with a tease that a character that was officially declared dead by the show’s own creators is instead making a comeback, thereby invalidating his original exit, which was quite frankly a brilliant way to go out.

There are numerous other offenders, but the problem remains the same for all, in that by letting these characters come back to life, these shows are losing their narrative suspense. Much like the common compliant among comic book readers, if no one is ever truly dead, these dramatic death scenes come off as cheap stunts used to induce shock and bolster ratings. Character deaths should be dramatic and narratively fraught, and while it is a nice twist to have someone come back from the dead every once in awhile, if it happens with every other character, the element of surprise is lost. I know many people recoil in horror when their favourite characters bite the dust (again, I’m looking at you Game of Thrones), but I enjoy the risk writers take when they do something so drastic, and I like watching the narrative consequences unfold. Take away the consequences, and all you’re left with is something hollow that feels false and unnecessary. Therefore, I know it sounds morbid, but for the sake of the story, from now on can dead characters please stay dead?

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A Writer’s Soundtrack

As a full time writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my computer screen. While most of that time is spent actually typing, there are times when I simply stare at the blank screen, mentally willing my brain to come up with the words that will form aesthetically pleasing sentences. Or at the very least coherent and grammatically correct sentences. Sometimes I need silence for this to happen, but more often than not the silence becomes overbearing, and I need something to fill in the gaps that my brain refuses to fill with words. When this happens, I usually turn to my “Writing” playlist that is filled with orchestral scores from various films and television shows, and although the list of music to choose from is endless, there’s one film score that I can always count on to get the creative juices flowing again: Pacific Rim.

Set in the near future where humans in giant robots battle giant monsters that emerge from under the sea, Pacific Rim, as directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a fun and entertaining spectacle of epic visual effects, rousing speeches, and perfectly cast characters. It also features one of the best character exits I’ve seen on film courtesy of Ron Perlman’s deliciously campy Hannibal Chau. As the credits rolled and the 3D glasses came off, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to the music that was playing as the list of names began to flash across the screen. Featuring an electric guitar fuelled riff, a pounding beat, and a soaring orchestra behind it, I practically danced out of the theatre, and as soon as I got home I quickly downloaded the entire soundtrack.

Discovering that the music was written by composer Ramin Djawadi, I soon realized why I loved it so much, as he has written some of my favourite scores over the years, including Iron Man, Game of Thrones, and Fright Night among others. However, Pacific Rim is by far my favourite, because every piece is fantastic, and the score as a whole can easily be enjoyed by anyone who hasn’t seen the film. From the blistering opening number, to the triumphant “Canceling the Apocalypse”, to the haunting “Mako” featuring the vocal talents of Priscilla Ahn, each track soars, and with the many writing projects that have come my way since last summer, Pacific Rim has racked up a pretty impressive play count. Not only does it get me pumped up to pound through any case of writer’s block that comes my way, but it’s also just plain fun. And yes, I’m listening to it right now, and yes, it’s awesome.

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Instructions For A Life Well Lived

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

Such is the instructions given to a granddaughter by her grandfather in the children’s book Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Little Alice loves hearing her grandfather’s tales of adventures in far away places, and she declares that when she is older, she too will travel the world, and then come back to live by the sea. Her grandfather, however, has one more addition to her life’s plan: Alice must do something to make the world more beautiful. She ultimately succeeds in these goals, and as Alice grows older, she continues her grandfather’s tradition by instilling in the next generation the importance of making the world a more beautiful place.

When I was a child, I adored Miss Rumphius, and my copy of this book was well worn and well loved for many years. I loved the spirit of adventure and wanderlust in Alice, and I dreamed of the day when I would be old enough to travel the globe, work in libraries, visit tropical islands, climb mountains, ride camels, and make new friends all around the world. Alice was the woman I wanted to become, and in re-reading this book as an adult, it is striking just how much I took Alice’s story to heart. I too love to travel, and while I have been fortunate to have visited many different countries during my globetrotting, the list of places still to see grows ever longer with each passing year. I’ve always loved the water, and my dream for my later years is to find a cosy little home on the ocean, preferably one with a room just for books, and spend the summers swimming amongst the waves and the winters watching the storms crash against the shore.

However, there is one more thing I must do if I am to truly live like Alice, and I can’t think of a worthier goal than to try and leave this world a more beautiful place than the one in which I started. Whether or not I succeed has yet to be determined, but I’m not going to give up on that goal anymore than I would give up on my little home by the sea. The world needs more beauty, and when I see Miss Rumphius on my young cousin’s bookshelf, I smile to myself knowing that this powerful and poignant message is being passed on to the next generation of readers. I may not know yet what my contribution to the world’s beauty will be, but I do know that I’ll think of something. In the meantime, I have camels to ride and mountains to climb.

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine Shines

There’s nothing more fun to watch than a television show that grows into its promise and potential; churning out ever stronger episodes as the season progresses. Such is the case with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of the many new television shows that debuted last fall, and easily my favourite of the season so far. However, it took awhile for this show to earn that crown, because it wasn’t high on my list of new season prospects back in September, and the pilot did not do a very good job of forecasting the brilliant comedy that would later unfold. Instead, the show grew organically, growing into its characters and premise, and crafting episodes that just got better as they went along, proving that first impressions aren’t always correct.

Set in the fictional 99th precinct of the New York City Police Department, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a workplace comedy in line with The Office, and as such, it is populated with a wonderfully eclectic assortment of characters. Every episode has cases to be solved, and there is the occasional police chase, but at its heart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a character driven show, with most of its comedy coming from the relationships between the characters and their oddball personalities. The cast is headed up by Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live and The Lonely Island fame and Andre Braugher from Homicide: Life on the Streets, but there isn’t a weak link to found among the supporting players, including Melissa Fumero’s wonderfully uptight and neurotic Detective Santiago, Stephanie Beatriz’s hilariously deadpan and prone to outbursts Detective Diaz, Terry Crews’ commanding yet soft-hearted Sergeant Jeffords, and Joe Lo Truglio’s food obsessed Detective Boyle. And then there’s Chelsea Peretti who steals every scene she’s in as Gina, the precinct’s civilian administrator who has a talent for avoiding work and is armed with lethal one liners.

Taken together, this cast is one of the most diverse casts on television, and not only do they all work incredibly well off of each other, but every character has become more and more defined throughout the season. Clearly the writers are having a ball with each character’s neurosis and eccentricities. Earlier this year Brooklyn Nine-Nine took home two Golden Globe Awards, including Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, which gives me hope that despite its lukewarm ratings, Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be back for a second season of hilarity, character quirks, and laugh out loud moments. In the meantime, I’ll be savouring the four remaining episodes of this season and keeping my fingers crossed.

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The Happy Hero

Yesterday I went and saw Frozen for the third time, and I’m not the less bit ashamed of that fact. My lack of shame is partly because I unabashedly love and adore all things Disney, but mostly it’s because Frozen is a fantastic movie that leaves me with a great big dopey grin on my face every time I see it. There are so many things to love about this film, including its positive portrayal of female friendship and sisterhood, its message of self-acceptance, and its spoof of the Disney princess motif. I’ve already written about “Let It Go”, the soaring empowerment anthem that over the past couple of months has become a pop culture zeitgeist unto its own, inspiring countless covers, spoofs, and parodies, but in re-watching Frozen yesterday, it dawned on me just why I find this film so delightfully refreshing. The answer is entirely due to a certain snowman with a heart of gold.

Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad, is a magical snowman who introduces himself as a someone who likes warm hugs, and that is a perfectly fitting description for this wonderful character. Full of joy and almost deliriously happy to be alive, Olaf makes his way through the film with an expression of pure awe on his face, an unlimited supply of optimism, and an unwavering determination to help his friends. He finds the good in everyone and every situation, even when he is inadvertently impaled by an icicle, and he doesn’t think twice about risking his own life to save a friend. I wrote before that Olaf is one of the most joyously innocent and blissfully free from cynicism characters that I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I’ve come to realize that this is precisely why Frozen has resonated with me so deeply.

Today, the main currency in creating characters is the anti-hero; the conflicted and flawed protagonist who will ultimately save the day, but who has to wade through a mountain of baggage before they can do so. These characters are often fascinating to watch, but over time they have become more and more damaged, and as Hollywood continues to produce its never-ending series of dark and gritty reboots of once bright franchises, I’ve grown weary of all of the melancholy, sorrow, and misery. But then along came Olaf. A sincere, big-hearted, and uplifting character who is the complete antithesis of the current norm, and a most welcome change of pace. From now on, whenever I grow tired of the usual parade of cynics, pessimists, and angst-ridden anti-heroes, I’ll return to Olaf and his special brand of happiness. Something tells me there’s a lot more Frozen in my future.

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It’s Bobsled Time!

The Winter Olympics have been in full swing for over a week now, and so far we’ve witnessed the joy and euphoria of victors realizing a lifelong dream, the agony of defeat where mere hundredths of a second is the difference between the podium and going home empty handed, and the highly emotional reactions from the athletes as they battle for medals, personal bests, or redemption after past heartbreak. It’s like the world’s best sports movie on steroids and I couldn’t love it more. This year, there’s even the Jamacian bobsled team, back at the Olympics for the first time since 2002, and as I watched their two man team take their second run last night and come in dead last, a run that included the broken helmet visor of driver Winston Watts flapping in the wind, I was reminded of one of my favourite sports movies of all time: Cool Runnings.

Released in 1993, Cool Runnings is based on the story of Jamaica’s first foray into the Winter Olympics at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Known as the ultimate underdogs, the Jamaican bobsled team became very popular during their time in Calgary, and although the team did not complete the competition after crashing during one of their runs, their story was intriguing enough to inspire a film treatment. Starring the late John Candy as the Jamaican’s coach, and Doug E. Doug, Malik Yoba, Rawle D. Lewis, and Leon as the four man bobsled team, Cool Runnings is a fun and comically whimsical sports film that chronicles the challenges the team faced in trying to gain respect as Olympic competitors, and reminds viewers what the true Olympic spirit is all about. While the film’s plot does take many liberties with the actual story, the result is a wonderfully charming and inspirational film that has been a favourite of mine for over 20 years.

Tonight, the Jamaican two man team will compete in their remaining runs, and I for one will be watching and cheering them on. Just like in Calgary, it would appear that history is repeating itself in Sochi, with many reports claiming that the Jamaicans are enjoying rock star status among fellow athletes, spectators, and volunteers in Sochi. These reports just make me smile, because it’s nice to know that even in one of the most competitive sporting environments around, people can still be inspired by and celebrate the sheer determination to simply compete at the Olympic Games. As Cool Runnings says in what is possibly one of my favourite movie scenes ever, “It doesn’t matter if they come in first or fiftieth. Those guys have earned the right to represent their country. They’ve earned the right to march into that stadium and wave their nation’s flag…That’s what the Olympics are about.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Becoming A Watcher of the Sky

I was meant to see this film. A part of me wishes that I hadn’t, because then I would have been spared the two hours of tears, but the bigger, more important part of me knows that I was supposed to see this film. It spurred something deep within me, and as the credits rolled, I knew that I would never be the same. That’s the power of film, and it’s the reason why I love documentary films in particular. I’ll be forever grateful to the Sundance Film Festival for its unfailing support for documentary filmmaking, because their support is the reason I get to see films like Watchers of the Sky, by Edet Belzberg. Incredibly amazing films that have the potential to change the world.

Watchers of the Sky tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word “genocide”. Lemkin believed that by giving a name to the mass atrocities that have been committed against entire populations throughout history, then the law could use that term to hold people accountable for their actions. Lemkin believed in a world where international law could combat crimes against humanity, and he lobbied the United Nations to make genocide a punishable offence. Lemkin’s tireless work laid the foundation for the International Criminal Court, and his persistence brought considerable attention to the issue. Despite his relentless efforts and many recognitions, Lemkin’s story has been largely forgotten today, and at the time of his death from a heart attack in 1959, a mere seven people attended his funeral.

Lemkin’s story was interwoven throughout the film with the stories of four incredible campaigners in the struggle against genocide and the cycle of violence throughout the decades. These advocates include Benjamin Ferencz, a human rights lawyer who has lobbied for 60 years to make war-making a crime against humanity, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the first Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who now runs three of the largest refugee camps in Eastern Chad, and Samantha Power, a US Representative to the United Nations, and whose book A Problem From Hell inspired this film. All four are extraordinarily remarkable individuals who spend their lives advocating to outlaw genocide and hold those responsible accountable.

It is hard to watch this film and not feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the stories of those on screen and the history of genocide. From the past 100 years alone there is a long list of brutal crimes to account for, and it is easy to become complacent and wonder what sort of a difference just one person can make. However, despite being overwhelmed by emotion and the weight of history, Watchers of the Sky is also incredibly inspiring, because it offers hope that one person can in fact make quite the difference. As the website for this film states, a Watcher of the Sky is “An individual who recognizes the moral imperative of ending cycles of violence &/or works to improve the quality of life for forgotten populations.” Anyone and everyone can help put a stop to these crimes, because when they are committed, they destroy the very foundations of what makes us all human. I may not know exactly what I’m going to do just yet, but this film has moved within me something very powerful, and I cannot sit back in apathy any longer. I will join the cause, I will raise my voice, and I will become a Watcher of the Sky.

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Finding the Funny When Life Gets Messy

I’ve always appreciated the ability of people to laugh in the face of life’s absurdities. Life can throw you curveballs, and sometimes it can get you down, but while there are times to be sad, angry, or even outraged, I’ve often found that the best way to deal with the many challenges life can throw at you is to laugh. Perhaps that is why one of my favourite films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Obvious Child, a comedy written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, because it does precisely that; it deals with a challenging situation through laughter. I attended an early morning screening of this film earlier this week, and it quickly jumped to the top of my Sundance favourites list.

Obvious Child tells the story of Donna Stern, a New Yorker who works at a second hand bookstore by day, and as a stand up comedian by night. After being systematically dumped and then fired, Donna embarks on a series of coping mechanisms that culminates in a drunken one night stand, one which leads to what is quite possibly the worst Valentine’s Day ever. While the above description may not sound like a comedy, this film revels in finding the funny where you least expect it, and it manages to strike the perfect balance of humour and gravitas its subject matter deserves. The cast is across the board fantastic, but it is Jenny Slate as Donna who truly shines as a woman trying to deal with the hand she’s been dealt with a smile on her face. Slate’s performance is both hysterically funny and movingly authentic, and Donna’s friendship with Gaby Hoffman’s Nellie is one of the most genuine portrayals of female friendship I’ve seen onscreen in a long time.

Today, the 2014 Sundance Film Festival comes to a close, and as I reflect back on the many wonderful films I’ve seen in the past 10 days, it’s clear to me that this was a banner year for the festival. I loved each and every film that I saw for a myriad of reasons, and the quality of stories and filmmaking that I witnessed was incredible. But in picking my favourites, I keep coming back to that early morning screening of Obvious Child. I knew nothing about the film going in, but as I came out, my spirits were high and my cheeks ached from laughing, and I commend the filmmakers, cast, and crew for creating this wonderfully hilarious and poignant film that reminds us that when life gets messy, laughter truly is the best medicine.

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Worth Waking Up For

Last night I attended a midnight screening of the world premiere of Cooties, a comedy set in an elementary school that is in the midst of a zombie outbreak among the young students. It was subversive, hilarious, and thrilling, and it was one of those movies that had you laughing out loud one minute, and gasping in shock the next. In short, it was well worth the late night, but as I tucked myself into bed at nearly 3AM, I grimly set my alarm for a mere four hours later, as I had a ticket for an early screening this morning. I would be lying if I didn’t say that just four hours of sleep hurt, but I simply reminded myself that this is Sundance, and you have to experience everything you can. By 11AM this morning, a mere eight hours later, I was never so happy to be sleep deprived.

The film at the root of my sleep deprivation was I Origins, the second feature film from writer/director/editor Mike Cahill, and it is a film that is nearly impossible to describe. Part love story, part science fiction, part mystery, part travel odyssey, and part philosophical reflection on the ideological conflict between science and religion, I Origins is completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen. I know I will still be thinking about this film months from now, and I’m pretty sure that I still won’t know how to describe it even then.

I Origins tells the story of scientist Ian Gray, a molecular biologist who is working to prove that the human eye can be scientifically traced back through evolution, and thereby negate the religious argument that the human eye’s design is proof of an intelligent creator. Through his life and work, his discoveries uncover more than he ever thought possible, and as the film examines the differences between religious faith and scientific fact, it posits the question: What would it take for you to renounce your beliefs, be they religious or scientific?

The cast is uniformly superb, led by actors Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and Steven Yeun, but it is Michael Pitt as Ian Gray who anchors the film in a brilliant performance as a character of steely conviction, but one with just enough subtle cracks to allow him to embrace the wide eyed wonder of his discoveries. A steadfast believer in the absolute facts that science dictates, Ian is also an advocate for questioning, learning, and revision of those facts as new evidence presents itself, and when the laws of science fail him, the result is breathtaking.

During the Q&A after the film, an audience member declared that this was the best film she had ever seen, and I have to say, I’m hard pressed to disagree with her. I Origins is a stunning film that tells a complex, moving, and utterly unpredictable story; one which makes you think about the capacities of your beliefs and your convictions in their boundaries. Furthermore, this film offers up a haunting look at a possible future that is limitless but also unnerving, and reminds us all that for every scientific breakthrough, there are consequences lying in wait. All in all, this is a film that I will not soon forget, and I will be forever thankful that I didn’t ignore the alarm clock this morning.

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