Thursday, July 28, 2011

Captain America: As Good As It Gets

The word “good” in the title of this review describes not only the movie Captain America, but the character of its hero Steve Rogers. Believe it or not, this is a war movie about decency, and it’s playing a totally different game from not only every other comic book movie you’ve seen, but every other war movie as well. At heart, this is a clear-eyed mash note to the best of what America stands for, which in this movie is epitomized, in a quiet scene between an immigrant who lives in Queens and a kid who comes from Brooklyn, by the single line: “I don’t like bullies.” It’s America as the little guy who stands up for what’s right because that’s what you do, even if you get knocked down or kicked around because of it. A little guy who, when he gets great power, understands implicitly that the use of that power comes with great responsibility.

Remember how Christopher Reeve nailed the goodness of Superman without making him a goody-two-shoes? Chris Evans does the same with Steve Rogers.  He's morally simple and yet still compelling.  Part of it is due to the actor’s reserve, which is a word I never thought I would say about Chris Evans as an actor.  Part of it is due to the writing, which is solid and smart.  But a great deal of it, I think, is due to the stunning special effect of morphing Evans’ face onto a scrawny pre-Cap body,  which is probably the best character use of a special effect I’ve ever seen.  If you’re going to spend millions of dollars in special effects, this is how best to do it--as an investment in humanity, not robotics (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay).  Because you buy Steve Rogers as a 98-pound weakling, and because you care about what he stands for even when he’s too weak to put up a good fight for it, you’re invested in him and his concerns when he CAN fight.  And, weirdly enough, because that scrawny Brooklyn kid is so believable, it’s the bulked-up Chris Evans who looks like the special effect.

I could go on and on, but this is one of those movies you need to see for yourself, so we can talk about it afterwards.  Some high points:  it's one of the best things Tommy Lee Jones has done since Men In Black, mostly because the writers have given him Tommy Lee Jones things to say. Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine is a study in quiet authority--but then all the main characters have it, even Dominic Cooper as the Howards Hughes version of Howard Stark.
There's a clever Gordian knot moment.  There’s a throwaway line that points to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a live-action version of the cover of Captain America #1, where Cap slugs Hitler. (There’s even a cameo of the actual Captain America #1.) Plus there’s a poignant echo to the opening sequence of the Pressberger/Powell film A Matter Of Life And Death*, with the nationalities reversed, and don't you think it wasn't deliberate. 

The only misstep (in my opinion) is at the very end, where what should have been the post-trailer teaser is made part of the pre-credits film itself. That’s just a guess on my part, but I feel in my gut that Johnston’s teaser got bumped back into the actual movie to make room for the Avengers teaser that’s there now.

And speaking of mash notes, here's one to Hayley Atwell, who takes the less out of Thankless Love Interest. Her character, Peggy Carter, is another rarity in this kind of movie--a woman who is smart, capable, beautiful, and--don't all have a heart attack at once, people--she’s respected.  When was the last time you ever saw the female lead in an action movie honestly treated with respect by her peers?  Or even by the script?  Except for her opening scene, where she puts a bully in his place, nobody once questions the fact that Carter deserves to be where she is, or that she's competent at what she does.  To me, the sight of this woman advancing shoulder-to-shoulder with an infantry assault was like getting the answer to a question I never knew I was asking.  "Now THAT is how you do it," I said to myself.  I said that a lot while watching this movie, but never louder than here.

Two other things about this character.
1.  She LOOKS 1940’s. Her hair is parted off-center, and her lipstick is just that little bit too red that women thought was fashionable back then, like they were making themselves up for a black-and-white movie. 

2.  To show you how much thought went into this film, remember the trailer scene where Agent Carter tests Cap’s shield by firing a bunch of bullets at it? There’s actually a WHY to this--it’s not an action moment; it’s a character moment. The whole movie is like that. It has just as many down-time quiet scenes as every other action movie, because we all need to see a lull between explosions--but all these lulls in the action are well-written and well-acted, so they mean something. You never find yourself looking at your watch, like you did every time Hal Jordan was talking to Carol Ferris in Green Lantern.

So go see this movie. I guarantee you'll be more than pleasantly surprised at how good it is, and you might even walk out of it the way I did, feeling energized and exhilarated.

As my friend Jay said after the film, “This is exactly the movie that character deserves.”

*Also known in this country as Stairway To Heaven, and available here at Amazon.  If you have never seen it, you must.  There is nothing like it.  Talk about movies that play a different game.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Monday Music: It's A Good Thing For Me They Don't Bottle That Stuff

In a perfect world, these three songs would have started to play every time I entered a bar this weekend. 

If you add their ages up, the three of them together are over 100 years old.

Even though every single one of them is, like me, a timeless teenager.

Sing along and think of me.

Devil With A Blue Dress

Nobody But Me

Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer Monday Music: Keep your business in your pocket cuz that's where it belongs

Memory is like a stenographer with delusions of creativity. It records what happens, but somewhere between the actual recording and the version that gets logged into your mental library, the stenographer starts editing things to make it more bearable, less hurtful, more flattering, less forgettable. Or just more fun. And to hell with what really happened.

Case in point: I have a very clear picture in my head of a bunch of women singing along to Rickie Lee Jones back in the days when my friend Tom lived on Norwood Ave in Newton. I can’t pin the memory down to a particular party, or an actual date. But it’s there nevertheless. I can clearly see Debbie and Sue and Donna and Tom bending over at the waist and swaying their shoulders to Rickie singing “Chicken in the pot, chicken in the pot, chicken in the pot.” And right there with them is Sue’s sister Debbie, and Liz, and Rita, and--here’s where it gets crazy--Cheryl (who never went to one of those parties), and Jewel (who I didn’t meet till I got to New York) and Jan and Tracy and Stacy and Susan, and at various times over the last couple of decades, pretty much every woman I call my friend and every waitress and bartender from every local I’ve ever downed a pint at. Plus Tom's two daughters.

Which is insane. Those daughters weren't born and I didn’t meet half those other women till long after Tom moved out of Newton. None of them were there in real life. But I can see them in the living room.  It's about one in the morning.  Half the people there are smoking Newport 100's.  "Danny's All-Star Joint" comes on the mix tape (mix tapes!) and when the first notes play, everybody starts bopping.  The ones who were there and remember. The ones who weren't there that I remember, that I can see as clearly as if they were, because it's that kind of moment, at that kind of party. 

And you’re there too.

Danny's All-Star Joint

Under the Boardwalk

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Secret Origins 2 of 2: Green Lantern

(Continued from this post on X-Men:First Class)

While X-Men: First Class feels like it was created, Green Lantern feels like it was manufactured.  

It’s the third movie in as many months to contain a creation-of-the-universe segment (after Thor and Tree of Life), and it’s the least mystical of them all. Plotwise, we're told right from the top that a bunch of immortal blue aliens created a super police corps to enforce law in the universe with rings that channel and project will-based green energy. We’re introduced to the villain, who channels fear-based yellow energy and escapes from his prison and plots vengeance. We meet a couple of aliens called Abin Sur and Sinestro. Wounded and dying after the villain attacks him, Abin Sur crash lands on Planet Earth, and when he commands his ring to find a worthy successor, the ring, which is never wrong in its choices, picks hotshot test pilot Hal Jordan, who’s been introduced to us as a rule-breaking haunted-by-tragedy womanizer. 

I count three problems in that set-up.

1--Instead of learning about the Green Lantern Corps when Hal Jordan does, we're told about it. 

2--Introducing a character with a villain name like Sinestro, and then not making him the villain, is more than a little confusing if you don't know who he is. 

3--If the ring never makes a mistake, then why, when Jordan shows up for training, does Sinestro think he's unworthy of replacing Abin Sur? 

Sadly, the answer to problem number 3 points to the problem with the movie as a whole.  The premise of the ring’s infallibility is ignored because if it wasn’t, then the hero wouldn’t have to Prove Himself By Overcoming An Obstacle.  This is fake drama at its best, where you get connect-the-character-beats instead of a story.  Hal Jordan can’t just BE heroic--he has to overcome the doubts of his peers, the doubts of his girlfriend, and his own doubts, which stem from the fact that Hal's test-pilot father died in a plane crash when Hal was a kid--which is why he’s a test pilot in the first place.  (I don’t know about you, but if my test pilot dad died in a plane crash, I would become a bus driver.)  He also has to overcome two villains (shades of Spider-Man) and in his first public appearance, he prevents a helicopter crash (shades of Superman)--all of which, when you throw in the shades-of-Batman death-of-the-father, makes Green Lantern feel like its body parts were stitched together in an echo chamber for continuity-porn addicts.  

Continuty-porn example: Sinestro.  Like Magneto, Sinestro has a comic book backstory that established him as a good guy before he became a bad guy--but he goes by his bad guy name in the movie, which is all kinds of dumb.  Couldn't they have named him Nestro Natu or something?  It's like naming your kid Jack The Ripper; what the hell do you think he's going to grow up to be--a gardener?  (Which is a bad Green Lantern continuity-porn pun.)

Other thoughts: Mark Strong’s Sinestro will make a great villain if there’s ever a sequel, Ryan Reynolds does a better job as Hal than he does as GL (they should have made him wear a real costume instead of applying it digitally--it’s the Halloween Law, wearing a costume ALWAYS makes you embody it) and Blake Lively tries her best, but her part is as confusing as Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes. Is she an equal, an appendage, or just there to be rescued? (All three, actually.) The talk-to-action ratio feels like it's 7 to 3, which shows you how uninteresting the talk is. The score sounds like it was lifted from some low-budget 1980's Erik Estrada action flick. And for a movie about interstellar cops, we spend far too much time on planet Earth, which is like creating a fabulous city and then setting everything in a studio apartment.

So if you haven't seen Green Lantern, and you haven't seen X-Men: First Class, go see the X-Men movie, because in a way you already HAVE seen Green Lantern. The people who made it have forgotten the same thing that the people running DC Comics have forgotten--superheroes don't have character beats; superheroes have adventures.

Secret Origins 1 of 2: X-Men First Class

A few reflections on the two comic book movies that are still out there, before they vanish beneath the juggernaut that is Harry Potter The Last.

First, the label: comic book movie. That only fits one of these guys (Green Lantern) since the other (X-Men: First Class), while titled after a comic book, is actually a prequel of sorts to the previous 3 X-Men movies. So let’s call them superhero movies instead, if only to invite comparison with this spring’s Thor and next week’s Captain America.

Second, a little background: Green Lantern is from DC, home of Superman, Batman, and the Justice League of America. X-Men: First Class is from Marvel, home of Iron-Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. And even though they’ve both been filtered through the Hollywood strainer, each movie reflects the culture of its parent company. To be blunt, X-Men: First Class, like a lot of Marvel comics, feels like it was created by a storyteller, while Green Lantern, like a lot of DC comics, feels like it was created by editorial insemination. This is not the only reason why XM:FC is more fun than GL, but it’s the main one. X-Men: First Class feels like something that holds together; Green Lantern feels like something that’s stitched together.

The premise of the X-Men movie: a bunch of outcasts with incredible powers band together to save humanity from another outcast. But there’s more than just plot going on here. One one level, we’re being invited to flash-backward from Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. On another level, we’re invited to treat the mutants-in-the-60’s premise as an allegory for blacks in the 60’s. Which means that, on a third level, one that occurred to me while I was watching the film, we’re being shown the story of how Martin Luther King and Malcolm X took two different approaches to the same problem. I don’t think the racial analogy is stretching it, either. One of the weightier character subplots is centered around Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, the shape-changer who constantly appears in human form instead of displaying her natural blue scaly skin. Fassbender’s Magneto makes a powerful point about how she’s, in effect, “passing” whenever she does this, like a high blue instead of a high yella. Can you get more obvious, without being “obvious?” I don’t think so.

The central character subplot is that between McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr, and it’s worth noting, for comparison purposes with Green Lantern, that their backstory, with Erik as a concentration camp survivor and Erik and Charles meeting as friends, did not become part of the X-Men canon until about 20 years after the series began. But it’s logical, and it embodies both the political and the personal, with Magneto the chief beneficiary. A bad guy who does evil because he likes it and a bad guy who does evil because he believes in the words “Never again!” are two completely different characters. In fact, it’s safe to say that one of them isn’t really a character at all, while the other one, the one who does evil for a good motive and then has to live with it, is THE political character of the 20th century. (Yeah, I exaggerate, but hmm--who or what would embody the political history of the 20th century?  Somebody who does evil and then justifies it?  Somebody who goes along with the crowd?  People lined up against a wall waiting to be shot?  Let me mull it over and get back to you.)

Other thoughts: Michael Fassbender makes Magneto live.  He’s at the top of the acting pyramid in this one, with Kevin Bacon and McAvoy a close second, and January Jones, who is clad as scantily as she is talented, at the bottom.  The 60’s setting is cleverly done (although the sideburns are 1972, not 1962), and noticeably  James Bondy (an unavoidable echo when the Bad Guy has his own private nuclear submarine), as well as blatantly sexist.  It’s too bad Jones can’t act, because she gets some choice moments to show what could have been priceless reactions to the male behavior around her, and she stone-faces every single one of them.  (Fashion note: in 1962, women wore fake eyelashes, bright lipstick, and bras that looked like upside-down ice-cream cones.  Get it right for the sequel, okay?)  And there are a couple of totally unexpected cameos that, if you're familiar with the previous X-Men movies, will definitely make you squee.

Which is something you will not do during Green Lantern.

(To be continued)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Monday Music: Now I know a lot of you are out there thinkin "Man, are those girls fools?"

Folls?  Hell no.  Not judging by their music, and not judging by this picture, either.  Those are the five things I want to do while I'm taking a bath.  And with maybe only two or three different people.

Seriously though: is there anything that says "Summer's here!" better than the three songs below?

Our Lips Are Sealed


We Got The Beat

Answer: Nope.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Ester

An ester is what makes the rose smell sweet --
   A compound gushing from the labyrinth
Of bud and bloom to make a fragrant treat
   Of cowslip, marigold or hyacinth.
There’s one for every iris that you see:
   It’s in there, making scents out of the blue,
Slaving away at the olfactory--
   But not one works its magic more than you,
My Ester, with your own complex bouquet --
   Tender and heady; soothing, sharp and lush.
With lily’s grace and orchid’s bold display,
  The oak’s integrity, the lilac’s blush,
      This life’s a damask rose beyond compare
      Because within it blossoms Ester Clare.

 Copyright 2011 Matthew J Wells

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July

We are not living in America

We are living in a definition of America
that has replaced America
and become the America
that everyone thinks is America
because it’s what the people who argue about America
mean when they say America

And every time we use the word “America”
even to say it’s not America
we start by pointing out that your America
is not and never will be our America
which is the victory of their America
and leaves us with nothing but a lost America:

a country that’s been kidnapped, and must be
rescued by us--

a nation splintered by
a standing civil war about a word--

the bastard son of Jefferson and Heminges--
an Edmund who (great thing of us forgot)
will kill the innocent Cordelia
in all of us, and then salute the flag.

Copyright 2011 Matthew J Wells

Saturday, July 2, 2011