Morning Mixtape: ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ by LCD Soundsystem

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I heard this song by LCD Soundsystem on NPR on a Tuesday afternoon. I don’t listen to NPR often. I enjoy it in small doses. Mostly I am put off NPR by other NPR listeners. There is a lot of piety in these groups. They act as if they are in a special club of very smart people who have everything figured out because they listen to NPR, sort of like fans of the band Rush. NPR is just a radio station. Rush is just a band. And “New York, I Love You But You’re Brinigng Me Down” is a pretty good song. Enjoy.

TV Review: ‘The Americans: New Car’

Season 2, Episode 8: “New Car” | Original air date: April 23, 2014

The Americans” picked up the pace after a multi-episode lull with “New Car.”

Husband and wife Soviet spies Phil (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings struggle with the trappings of capitalism when Phil buys a new Camaro.

The_Americans_PosterDedicated communist Elizabeth believes Phil enjoys their lives in the United States too much.Phil forces Elizabeth to admit that the American way — buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have — is easier, but not better than the communist way.

Sandanistan freedom fighter Luisa (Aimee Carrero) seeks revenge on the U.S. official who trained the rebels who tortured her father. Elizabeth is forced to let Luisa die in order to maintain a mission to discredit the Americans for attempting to topple the government in Luisa’s home country.

The Jennings are further rocked by the news the plans for a submarine propellor they stole caused a submarine to sink, killing all 160 sailors aboard. The plans were fake, part of a massive counterintelligence plan by the U.S. government. The Jennings feel guilty.

Meanwhile, their kids are growing up just like their parents. Young Henry (Keidrich Sellati) has been using the neighbor’s key to sneak in and play their Colecovision. He breaks into tears, saying he’s not a bad person.

But his parents are. They’re killers. Hard-core killers. Breaking into the neighbors’ house to play video games is a day care play date for these people. How do they discipline a kid for a crime that’s so menial in scope compared to theirs that it’s barely worth mentioning?

“The Americans” works best when it shows how small we all are in the grand scheme of things. Even the Jennings, spies who work more directly for the people who run the world than most of us do, are adrift in the games rich men play with the fate of the planet.

They’re swayed by propaganda just as deeply and profoundly as the Americans they pretend to be. It’s just a different flavor of lie they’re being sold. The truth is elusive, deeply hidden and profoundly misunderstood.

The Jennings are spies, murderers and zealots. But they’re also parents and partners in too deep in a job they’re very good at but have so little control over they may as well be incompetent. They’re just like us really, except for the body count.

TV Review: ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Only Light in the Darkness’

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Season 1, Episode 19: “The Only Light in the Darkness” | Air date: April 22, 2014

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” reminds me of variation of the old running gag: “Are we there yet?” Except with each passing episode of this season, the question is: “Is it over yet?”

The critical flaw that’s dragged this show into mediocrity all season is that the story takes place in a world where there are interesting people. Unfortunately, this is a show about very dull people.

Look, I like Clark Gregg. His Agent Phil Coulson is a good man. I know this because he gives lots of patriotic, chest-thumping speeches. Also, other characters tell me he’s a good man. Often. Even the villains. Everybody loves Phil. I’m starting to hate Phil a little bit because everyone is telling me what a great guy Phil is.

This week, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” essentially made useless by the events of the film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” tries to revert to chasing super-powered bad guys.

You remember the film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It’s the No. 1 movie in the United States for three weeks running. It’s a damned good movie. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” for the last three weeks anyway, essentially has been a 3-hour postscript for that movie.

Only the postscript does not involve Captain America, Black Widow or Nick Fury. Hell, it doesn’t even involve the Falcon. It does involve Skye (Chloe Bennet), the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who “thinks different” because she uses the Internet to solve problems, making a big speech to guest-star Patton Oswalt in which she references Captain America.

In the world of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” a reference to an interesting character is as close as you’re going to get to seeing an interesting character.

Anyway, Coulson and the two annoying British people go to stop a guy who uses dark energy or some such nonsense. He’s obsessed with a cellist (Amy Acker) whom Phil used to date. The cellist believes Phil is dead because of the events in the film “The Avengers.”

You remember “The Avengers,” a 2012 movie about a ragtag team of superheroes who save the world. It made billions of dollars. It was an awesome movie. This show is a 22-hour postscript to that movie, except without all the interesting characters. You may be seeing  a pattern here.

Phil and the annoying British boy (Iain De Caestecker) use some “Ghostbusters”-like stage lights to kill the bad guy. The British boy mentions that the technology was designed by Bruce Banner. Bruce Banner is the Hulk. The Hulk was in his own movie, which was not as good as the other two movies referenced, but he was also in “The Avengers,” which was pretty good and, thus, he gets a reference.

Maybe I’m supposed to squeal with excitement each time one of these names are dropped, but I have a large DVD collection and access to a variety of digital streaming services. If I wanted to see the Hulk, Captain America, the Avengers or any of the sundry characters the show mentions, I could.

Instead, I see these references for what they are: an effort to distract us from how boring this program really is.

Meanwhile, Grant (Brett Dalton) works for HYDRA. He’s taken poor, dumb Skye off into the wild blue yonder so she can decrypt the hard drive with all of Team Coulson’s data on it. Phil is mad at May (Ming-Na Wen) for selling out the team to Nick Fury.

Nick Fury is a character in a number of Marvel Studios movies, most recently seen in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It’s still in theaters, folks. Go see it again for the first time.

So May pouts and quits the team. She asks her mom for help. Her mom apparently was a secret agent. I think she was the lady who gave the family from “The Incredibles” their outfits. I don’t know. Anyway, May wants to talk to Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

Maria Hill is a character from “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” She’s going to be on the show next week. Her character is not as interesting as other characters in movies.

But Maria Hill is played by Cobie Smulders. And I support any television show who gives us more of Cobie Smulders. Well, except “How I Met Your Mother,” which was awful.

So for at least one more week, thanks to Smulders, make mine Marvel.

Morning Mixtape: ‘The Moth’ by Aimee Mann

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Aimee Mann is one of my favorite vocalists, maybe my very favorite. Her voice really speaks to me. I can’t explain it better than that. “The Moth” comes from her 2002 album “Lost in Space.” It’s terrific. Oh, a bit of Mann trivia: She is the girlfriend of the nihilists who sacrifices her toe in order to blackmail Jeffrey Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski.” I love this song. I hope you like it too. Enjoy.

TV Review: ‘Fargo: The Crocodile’s Dilemma’

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Season 1, Episode 1: “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” | Original air date: April 15, 2014

Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) of Bemidji, Minn., is a lousy insurance salesman with a wobbly washing machine he can’t fix, a wife who henpecks him to the brink of emasculation and he’s still bullied by his high school menace as “Fargo,” the new FX series based on the film of the same name, opens.

Lester seethes in a that peculiar Minnesota dialect made popular by the film. But he is a hapless soul, bereft of the kind of gumption needed to make a change in his life.

After the run-in with the bully and his sons, Lester finds himself in the emergency room next to Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a coldly cruel man who seems to enjoy screwing with people.

Malvo advises Lester to kill his longtime tormentor. Lester suggests Malvo do it. He’s joking. But he’s not joking. Lester would love to see the bully dead. But he is not strong enough to do it. He senses, however, that perhaps this Malvo man is.

Malvo confronts the bully at his trucking company. We later learn he’s a heavy for a crime syndicate out of Fargo, N.D. Malvo insults the thug’s dimwitted children and takes measure of the man in moment of great menace.

This is Thornton at his very best. He renders Malvo — almost a play on malevolent — as a blank-faced, vacant-eyed killer with a moral compass point straight toward evil.

Malvo later murders the bully while the bully is having sex with a stripper in the backroom of a gentleman’s club. He stabs the man in the skull with a Rambo knife and watches him die.

Lester learns of the murder and is horrified. Malvo assures him he is more man now than before. Lester takes this to heart and goes home to fix his wobbly washing machine. He fails in front of his nagging wife. She verbally eviscerates him. He beats her to death with a ball-peen hammer.

He calls Malvo for help. But the local police chief shows up first to ask questions about Lester’s run-in with Malvo at the hospital. The chief, who has a pregnant wife at home, sees the mangled corpse of Lester’s wife. The chief calls for backup. Malvo shows up and kills the chief with a Lester’s long gun.

Malvo gets away. Lester knocks himself unconscious to trick the police into thinking the scene was a home invasion.

The body count is high for a first episode, but the characters are well-drawn and sharp. The dialect gets to be a bit much after a bit and the pacing is deliberately slow. But Thornton is so good, as is Freeman.

Thornton plays Malvo almost like the devil whispering into Lester’s ear. And Lester is obeying all too well. One can almost see the seeds of Walter White in this twitchy Lester. He lacks the pure meanness that Walter had at the end. That all belongs to Malvo. But “Breaking Bad” proved the corruption of a sadsack makes for as fine a drama as can be produced.

I wouldn’t burden a series with the monicker of “the next ‘Breaking Bad’” after its pilot. The tone is much too different. But it definitely feels like the next great basic cable series has arrived.

Morning Mixtape: ‘Mr. Roboto’ by Styx

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People act like Daft Punk invented being on stage in a robot masks. But that stuff has been around for years. Peter Gabriel turned Genesis into weird performance art in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the band Styx churned out a bizarre concept album called “Killroy was Here.” The biggest song off that album was “Mr. Roboto,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. The video featured dancers in funky robot costumes. I have no idea what it means. I don’t think anybody else did either. But it’s a catchy tune that endures in pop culture today. Enjoy.

Comic Book Report: ‘Battle of the Atom’ and ‘Uncanny Avengers’

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Battle of the Atom” | Marvel Comics | Trade paperback: $34.99 | June 2014 | WritersBrian Michael BendisJason Aaron and Brian Wood | ArtistsFrank ChoStuart ImmonenChris BachaloDavid Lopez and Giuseppe Camuncoli.

Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1: The Red Shadow” | Trade paperback: $19.99 | April 2014 | WriterRick Remender | ArtistJohn Cassaday and Steve McNiven.

The slogan of Marvel Comics used to be “The House of Ideas.” They lived up to that once, but the “Battle of the Atom” crossover and the first five issues of “Uncanny Avengers” show just how few ideas they have left.

Just take the title of “Uncanny Avengers.” I’ll be there’s some genius in a Marvel editorial meeting saying, “Oh, look. This will show readers how committed to the idea we are of having mutant and human heroes work together to solve problems as Avengers. We’ll switch the adjectives in the titles.”

That guy (or gal, let’s not be sexist, for women, too, can have terrible ideas) probably got a raise on the spot. “Uncanny,” of course, was the adjective used to describe the main X-Men title for nearly 50 years. “Mighty” was the preferred intensifier for “The Avengers,” until the early 2000s, when the age of Brian Michael Bendis arrived and Avengers were disassembled, reassembled and ultimately at civil war with one another.

X-Men_v1_141But that is an old gripe. That’s OK. “Battle of the Atom” is an old story. It’s another bloated, meandering, sloppy and unsatisfying rehash of “Days of Future Past,” a brilliant story from 1980 by the dean of X-Men writers, Chris Claremont, and the one of the finest comic artists of any generation, John Byrne.

In “Days of Future Past,” an adult Kitty Pryde travels back in time to warn the X-Men that the planned assassination of a U.S. Senator will ignite a war against mutants that will lead to them all being interred in forced labor camps or outright murdered by the government. Giant Sentinel robots will kill enslave earth and kill human and mutant hero alike. It’s up to the X-Men of the present to prevent the deadly future.

The story is an agreed-upon classic and proved to be the last collaboration between Byrne and Claremont in a long and amazing run in “Uncanny X-Men.” The story, by the way, was two issues. “Battle of the Atom” is 10 issues long and spills into half a dozen other titles.

Why make two good comics when you can make 10 mediocre ones? It’s the new Marvel way.

“Battle of the Atom” takes place after the events of the 2012 “Avengers vs. X-Men” crossover, yet another Bendis rehash of a Claremont, Byrne and Dave Cockrum storyline. The original was called “Phoenix Saga” and is a masterpiece of the genre.

Bendis never met a story by someone else he didn’t think he could improve by making it longer and adding lots of exposition. If you don’t believe me, go reread any story from “Ultimate Spider-Man.”

“Avengers vs. X-Men” boils down to this: The Phoenix Force comes back to earth, turns Cyclops into Dark Phoenix and Cyclops kills Professor X.

“Battle of the Atom” takes place after that. The Beast is depressed. Instead of taking Prozac like everybody else, he uses a time machine to bring the original X-Men — Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman and Angel — to the present. The idea is seeing their younger, innocent selves might shock the present-day Cyclops out of his mentor-murdering mood.

But then other teams of X-Men from the future show up with dire warnings. The original X-Men must go home, they say. Then yet another set of future X-Men show up and say the original X-Men must stay. Then the time machine breaks and the original X-Men are stuck. Or something. Cripes, I don’t know.

And I really don’t care. I’m so exhausted by all the low-rent writing, mediocre art and deja vu of seeing the same idea cloned and rehashed umpteen times, I just throw the $35 trade paperback in my pile to sell to the used book store for quick cash.

The most annoying part of “Battle of the Atom” is all the posturing. Wolverine and Storm and their X-Men don’t want to fight present-day Cyclops and his team of X-Men, who wear black and, when possible, show as much female breast as possible without making it a mature readers comic.

Storm says she won’t condone mutant-on-mutant violence. It seems to me that all the X-Men have ever done is fight other mutants. The cover of “Uncanny X-Men” No. 1 shows the original X-Men fighting Magneto, another mutant. That’s the entire point of X-Men comics. Professor X is Martin Luther King Jr. Magneto is Malcolm X.

But now they don’t want to fight. Sure. Why would they? I mean it’s not like it’s a superhero comic book. It’s not like we paid a bunch of money — really, far more than necessary — to see superheroes fight villains. But in the Bendis Marvel Universe, heroes only fight other heroes. There aren’t even villains. Don’t believe me? Reread “Civil War.”

The seismic shift at the end of “Battle of the Atom” is Kitty Pryde decides to go hang out with the new kind of bad guy Cyclops and his home for girls who like to show their boobs. The original X-Men go with her, because, sure, why not.

“Uncanny X-Men” starts so well. Rick Remender writes with narration. When is the last time you saw narration in a comic that was the internal thoughts of a character? It’s wonderful. Remender takes the one kernel of a good idea that Bendis farted out from “Avengers vs. X-Men” and turns it into an interesting idea.

In “Avengers vs. X-Men,” Cyclops asks Captain America why he and the Avengers never helped mutants in their struggle against racism, or speciesism or whatever. It was a good point. So Cap puts together a team of mutant and human heroes called the Unity Avengers. It’s hokey, but I can see some human resources department coming up with a name like that for diversity training, so sure.

The team is Cap, Thor, Wolverine, Scarlet Witch, Rogue and the leader is Havok, brother to Cyclops, who is in prison at the beginning of this story. And Remender gets it all right from the start. He brings back the Red Skull, who steals the body of Professor X and surgically removes Xavier’s mutant brain — which happened to be the most powerful telepathic mind on earth.

Skull has Professor X’s brain grafted onto his own and uses his telepathic powers to inspire hate against mutants and riots. The Unity Avengers try to stop it, but get smacked around pretty good by the Red Skull and his flunkies. There’s a great battle in the middle of New York City.

I actually love this story. It makes perfect sense to use the Red Skull as a genetic supremacist who wants to wipe out the mutants. He’s a Nazi. He’s big on genocide. It’s a great idea. This an excellent use of a villain that’s nearly 75 years old.

So of course they go and ruin it.

 

The Red Skull uses his newfound telepathy to sway the mind of Captain America to seeing a future when Americans hunt and destroy the mutant menace. Cap sees a series of images of what this future would be like. And right in the middle of a full-page splash Remender undoes all the goodwill he built up in the previous pages.

He writes in another damn homage to the cover of “Uncanny X-Men” No. 141, the one where Wolverine and Kitty Pryde stand caught in a spotlight, presumably from a Sentinel, in front of a poster showing all the X-Men who’ve been killed or captured. It’s a classic cover. It’s been parodied and redrawn scores of times.

And here it is again. Marvel is selling me the same story with a few new tweaks. Why bother doing something new when you can just crank out another greatest hits package? Nobody sees the Rolling Stones on tour to hear their new album. They want the classics. So who can blame Marvel for trying to sell us basically the same song that Claremont and Byrne gave us 30 years ago?

I can. Because this used to be the House of Ideas, not the House of Rehash. Look, I get it. One of the Marvel Studios movies coming out this summer is “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which is another “re-imagining” of the original two-issue story.

Everything at Marvel, now a part of Disney, is about branding and pushing product. Keep “Days of Future Past” fresh in the minds of comics. And, hell, I admit that I’m old. I’ve read a lot of comics, probably too many. So this effort to sell me the same stuff again, which sadly was successful, ticks me off. I want new stories. I want innovation.

If I’m putting $4 for a single issue or $35 for a collected edition, I want something new. I want to be entertained. I don’t want reruns. And that’s what “Battle of the Atom” and “Uncanny Avengers” are. Reruns. Rehashes. Remakes.

I get that new readers might not have a clue about the original “Days of Future Past” from 1980. So here’s my suggestion. Go buy “Essential X-Men” Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. They cost $20 apiece. They’re cheaper if you buy them used through Amazon or Thriftbooks. Read those. That’s the original. And it’s much better.

I hope Marvel at least cuts Claremont and Byrne checks for constantly reusing their ideas. It’s the least they can do since they clearly can’t come up with any on their own.

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TV Report: ‘Mad Men: A Day’s Work’

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Season 7, Episode 2: “A Day’s Work” | Original air date: April 20, 2014

Elisabeth Olson shines as Peggy Olson on the brink of collapse in “A Day’s Work,” the second episode of the seventh and final season of the superb AMC drama “Mad Men.”

Peggy is a woman alone. She’s adrift in her own misery. Her former pals from the creative bullpen, Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), can barely stand to see her. Ginsberg refuses to hold the elevator and makes a crack about her masturbating alone on Valentine’s Day.

Peggy seems incapable of showing any human kindness. She finds flowers on her secretary’s desk. She assumes they’re for her. Stan says, “Look at you being all girl.” She scolds him: “Is this a joke? Because I don’t want to have to fire you later.”

The flowers aren’t for Peggy. They’re for her secretary, who is engaged. Peggy assumes they’re from one-time lover Ted (Kevin Rahm), who ran away to California with his wife to escape a the doom of his marriage rather than continue an affair with Peggy.

Peggy calls Ted and leaves a cryptic message about the flowers to Ted’s secretary. Later, Peggy orders the flowers thrown away. Finally her secretary reveals the flowers were, in fact, for her. Peggy flips out and berates her secretary, saying the assistant flaunts her engagement in order to make others feel small.

Peggy goes into her office. Her face twists in anger and frustration. She has never been lower, even when she denied a pregnancy until its full term. She is lashing out in all directions. She flails in her job. She is completely unmoored and totally unpleasant.

Moss renders it all with great skill. She has always shined in the roll, but her work the last two episodes is especially noteworthy. It is not easy to play the bitch. Ask January Jones, who plays Don’s ex-wife, Betty.

Don (Jon Hamm) is caught in a lie by daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). She blows off a burial ceremony for the mother of a schoolmate to go shopping in the East Village. She loses her purse. She goes to the office and discovers her dad isn’t in his office. She shows up at Don’s cockroach-riddled apartment.

Don fronts that he was at the office. She knows this isn’t true. But loyal secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris) calls her boss to warn him Sally was at the office. Don asks: “How could you let me lie to you like that?” Sally: “Because it’s more embarrassing to catch you in the lie.” Don scowls: “So you lie in wait, like your mother?”

At a dinner, Don tries telling the truth to his daughter. They seemed to bond, especially when she reveals she was uncomfortable at the funeral. Don teases Sally that they’re going to run out on the check. Her eyes go wide.

She seems thrilled by the prospect and horrified. Is Dad broke? Then he peels off money to pay. She appears to enjoy the jest. It’s a joke, but also a lie. It seems, as is the case for all of “Mad Men,” that lying isn’t the problem. It’s just which lie you’re being told and how well it’s told to you.

Don remains mysterious. We want to know if he’s doing better, if he’s getting it figured out and being kind with his daughter, faithful to his wife and good at his job. But Don, like all the characters of “Mad Men,” is not going to give us those answers easily, if ever.

There are no heroes in “Mad Men,” only people in various states of decay and agony.