Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

By Kit
Now we come to the penultimate film of Marvel's Phase One. This film, is not perfect, but it has a charm to it.

The Plot

The movie opens in the modern day with a group of SHIELD agents exploring the Arctic and discovering Captain America. We then flashback to about halfway through America’s involvement in World War 2 (c. Late-1942, early-1943)

The scrawny Steve Rogers is trying to join the war effort, going to recruitment centers all over the greater New York/Newark area —and is rejected by every single one of them. He is small, about 5 feet, has asthma, and an slew of health problems. He also gets into fights with bullies, never backing down but only failing to get the snot beat out of him because of the intervention of his best friend, Bucky.

Eventually, at the Stark Expo, put on by Stark’s father, Bucky picks up Clara Oswald (Really!) and Steve tries to enlist again, but is found out by Abraham Erskine, who somehow figures out about his failed enlistments at other recruitment centers —and promptly enlists him in a top secret government program and thus he is shipped off to an Army boot camp under the purview of Colonel Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones), who heads the program, and the beautiful stiff-upper-lip British Army attaché, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

In Rudy-like manner he quickly proves himself a good soldier and a good man who is brave and willing to think outside the box to find solutions. Oh, and a bit of a romance blossoms between him and Carter. (But you saw that one coming, didn’t you?)

Soon, at the insistence of Erskine, he is picked for the program and taken to a secret lab in Brooklyn where he is given a super-soldier serum and, after taking on a HYDRA saboteur, becomes Captain America —for War Bonds shows.

And is stuck there until he goes on a mission, without higher approval, with Howard Stark and Peggy Carter and single-handedly rescues a group of POWs who become the Howling Commandoes.

About the Movie

This movie is just charming. No matter what its flaws every time I finish it I just get a smile on my face, despite the sadder-than-usual ending. This movie should be utterly bland and yet, it is quite fun.

For one thing, all of the characters feel like a stock character from a 1940s war movie. Steve Rogers is the all-American boy, Peggy Carter is your stiff-upper-lip British officer crossed with 1940s tough gal, and Chester Phillips is your gruff, old American soldier. The same goes for the rest of the Howling Commandoes. Even the villains act like the cheesy villains from a 1940s movie serial or pulp magazine.

Now, this could easily go wrong and result in giving us the cheesiest, blandest, annoying set of characters but it doesn’t. Perhaps because they are so familiar we feel like we know them the moment we see them. This makes the characters, especially the Howling Commandoes, seem incredibly fleshed out. Even though they have only a handful of lines each and probably can’t remember their names without consulting a wiki. Their mannerisms, clothing, and overall demeanor tells us everything we need to know about each of them.

The cinematography, too, adds to the 1940s feel. The scenes depicting Steve Rogers are full of Norman Rockwell-esque colors and lighting.

Like all Marvel movies, this one is a live-action Saturday Morning Cartoon, and it delivers the goods in that department.

But there is one area in which this movie is a tad unique, and that is in the two leads, Steve and Peggy. Throughout the movie, as far as romantic leads go, they are ok. As a couple they are far more interesting than Thor and Jane but not as fun as Tony and Pepper.

But the end of the movie does something that takes them probably the most interesting couple in the Marvel movie universe.

Now, here I’m going to put a SPOILER warning so if you have not seen this movie or Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers 2, or Ant-Man then read no further!

If you’ve seen the movie, or, heck, the ones I just listed, then you might know how it ends. Steve gets stuck in the ice and Peggy grows old without him.

In my opinion, it is after their separation that they became really fascinating. For both of them the other represents the one chance they had for something resembling a normal life, and without each other Two people who were meant to be but never can be.

That added a dynamic to them that was unique to them and unlike any of the other Marvel movie couples. At least for now.


So, in the end, a fun, enjoyable movie.
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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Film Friday: The Godfather (1972)

Back to the 1970’s! Today, I’m going to talk about The Godfather and how my view of it has changed over time. For the longest time, I wasn’t really a fan of this film. It seemed deeply flawed and dull. But I’ve since learned how to watch this movie. Interestingly, more than any other film I’ve seen except Scott Pilgrim v. The World, you need to understand how to watch this film for it to work.
The Godfather was a worldwide phenomena. Baby Boomers LOVE this film. Many of them rate it as one of the ten best films ever. Most film critics agree. I don’t. My generation got to compare it to Goodfellas, and Goodfellas is an amazing film. It does everything right. Moreover, it does everything right that The Godfather does wrong. Consider this...

The characters in Goodfellas are some of the most alive and memorable on film. I can rattle off their names off the top of my head without having seen the movie in years. By comparison, the characters in Godfather are mostly dull, slow, old and forgettable. Many of them feel like they are just waiting to die.
Moreover, Goodfellas is packed with really cool camera work that actually becomes part of the movie. All I need to say is “the mobster introduction scene” and most people will think of that amazing tracking shot where we follow young Henry Hill (now played by Ray Liotta) as he makes his way through the restaurant introducing all the mobsters he knows. This is an incredible piece of work as it goes on and on and you marvel at how the director could have set this up so the camera could weave its way through this tight club to let each of the characters introduce themselves.

Godfather has nothing like this. In fact, Godfather is shot in such an amazingly bland and straight forward manner that it has come to feel a lot like a made-for-tv movie; it suffers that it is shot in an identical style as so many of the miniseries of the time. Indeed, not only is the camera work entirely generic, but there are no risks taken with the lighting, no risks taken with the staging, and no risks taken with the soundtrack.

Compare that with Goodfellas which is the first film outside of musicals to truly integrate the soundtrack as a means to light up a scene and mark the passing of time, or how it uses time warps to give scenes a sense of tension (slow motion killing of Samuel L. Jackson from multiple angles) or how its characters hover in unusual places for interesting shots. Think of the bar scene where the two enemy-camps-to-be are twenty feet apart talking down the bar. Had this been done in Godfather, the characters would all be huddled together center stage. Put simply, there is nothing innovative in Godfather, but Goodfellas is innovative from start to finish.
The Godfather story simultaneously feels too dense and too shallow. It is dense because it digs too deeply into too many characters, which makes the plot feel convoluted and full of filler. Yet, at the same time, the story it tells overall feels very narrow. It feels like it is only barely touching on the mafia world. Goodfellas, by comparison, has a driving plot – the life of Henry Hill, it disdains filler, and it weaves the world of the mafia perfectly into the story through the plot and the narrative. The result is that Godfather feels dull, ponderous, and unfulfilling, whereas Goodfellas feels like a wild ride that comes to a shocking conclusion.

So Godfather sucks, right?

Well, no. Godfather is a decent movie. It’s not special enough that I would mention it here except that this is one of those that has a reputation which requires any film buff to see it. But it is a decent movie.
The key to enjoying Godfather is knowing what to look for. When you look at the film from the outside, it seems to be the story of the fall of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) mixed in with his replacement by his son Michael (Al Pacino) and how the family handles that. But that’s not a good way to see this film. If you try to understand the film in that way, it lacks focus and much of it feels like fake drama.

The way to enjoy this film is to understand that it is the ironic story of Michael. Michael is presented initially as a sensitive soul who disdains the murderous ways of his family and seems like he would be the savior of his family if only he were in charge. Unlike Vito, who seems tradition bound in a modern world, Michael is modern and practical. Unlike his hothead brother Sonny (James Caan), Michael comes across as a man who would never drag the family into pointless vendettas and can rationally solve any crisis. The only knock on Michael is that no one is sure he has the strength to issue ugly orders that may need to be issued because he is such a sensitive soul.
But events slowly thrust Michael into the role of head of family. Vito is nearly killed for refusing to embrace the modern world. Sonny is killed because he’s a hothead who doesn’t even know when to lay low. What’s more, the family finds itself betrayed by those who hide behind the family’s tradition of loyalty.
Finally, we get Michael. He’ll save the day, right?

Well, when Michael takes over, he brings an analytical approach that at first rubs the others wrong. It seems like Michael will now get the chance to modernize the family and end the vendettas. He will run the family with logic and dispassion. Only, this doesn’t seem to work. His logic comes across as weakness and it seems like Michael fails to recognize that the other mobsters are truly despicable people who will forsake their own good for the things that Michael has rejected.

But logic is not static. And once Michael understand this, his dispassionate logic tells him to kill everything that stands in his way, without mercy or remorse. In so doing, he splits the family and becomes the brutal tyrant who has ruined his life by becoming everything he hates. We know he can never be happy again, nor can anyone else in the family. We also know that his actions will eventually destroy the family.
If you understand the movie in this manner and watch for it, then the plot will move much more smoothly and the things that seem random or like filler in the lives of Vito and Sonny suddenly take on meaning. And ultimately, this becomes a rather interesting character study. It’s still nowhere near as good as Goodfellas, but it is a decent movie that is worth seeing.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Toon-a-rama: Minions (2015)

We’re taking a break from the 1970’s tonight.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed Minions quite a bit. It was a solid movie with some good laughs and a few memorable moments. It did some clever things and it made me like the Minions even more than I did after the Despicable Me films. Now let me tell you what disappointed me, and let me do it by comparing Minions to Wreck-It-Ralph.

For my money, Wreck-It-Ralph is the best animated film in a very long time, if not ever. It is nearly perfectly written. It is beautifully drawn. And it does all the things the best stories ever do. Indeed, let me explain what makes it such a special film.
Several things make Ralph such an amazing film. What underlies them all, however, is the nearly perfect writing. First of all, the story idea is brilliant. The idea that video characters have these real lives once the arcade shuts down is super creative. The only thing I’ve ever seen with a similar concept is Toy Story, but the characters in Toy Story are much narrower because their lives revolve around being toys, whereas the characters in Ralph are more like real people, complete with neuroses and infighting and different levels of self-awareness. This makes for a much richer world with many more possibilities. They are also capable of a much wider range of emotions, which make them more interesting.

Indeed, Ralph is much more interesting than Woody because Ralph is not the archetype Woody is. Ralph is a flawed character who is unhappy with himself and must figure out what he truly believes. By comparison, Woody just needs to protect the other toys. Because of this, there is never a moment where you feel genuine emotion for Woody, but I guarantee you that you will cry when Ralph decides to sacrifice himself and he repeats the Bad Guy Affirmation with a whole new meaning to let the audience know what has motivated him:
“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”
Minions sadly, doesn’t have great characters. Yes, the three lead minions are funny and you like watching them, but there’s little you get out of them in the way of emotions. (The humans are, frankly, dull.) Why? Because they don’t grow. Ralph began as a villain with a hole in his soul. He tried to fill that hole in all the wrong ways and found himself a failure, seemingly doomed to be the same miserable Ralph forever. But then he finally comes to realize how to fill that hole, but doing so requires him to give up his life to save a little girl. His moment of epiphany is also a moment of tremendous tragedy. That’s why you cry.
The Minions never have that. There is no hole within them. There is no epiphany. And there is nothing to suggest that any losses they suffer matter in the least. So while the characters are fun and funny, they are ultimately emotionally empty.

Just as importantly, the humor in Ralph is just perfect. Every joke seems to fit the situation perfectly. And what helps cause that is that the culture references are done right. Cultural references have become the go-to form of humor, but few do them right. To do them right, you need to do what Ralph does.

In Ralph, the references are much more personal in nature. These references tended to be shared experiences rather than generic cultural references, e.g. recognizing the way characters slid along walls on the PS2 or the secret code on the Coleco or the difference between low rez and high rez worlds. All of those were things that gamers got because they were things we laughed about along the way. By comparison, bad films simply provide cultural references that anyone can get from watching a History Channel or MTV show about the particular period. They are the most obvious iconic moments of an era, so everyone can get the joke, but they means nothing to anyone. The Ralph references, on the other hand, invoke the hours of game play we experienced and the things we laughed about with our friends. It is the difference between a loving trip down memory lane versus a dull read through a history book.
Minions, unfortunately, is full of these generic references. For example, the film takes place in the 1960’s, so you will see a reference to a much referenced Beatles album cover. You will recognize it immediately, as will everyone else, but it will have no personal meaning to you. What’s more, these references aren’t even tied to the story in any meaningful way, they just appear. It’s a lot like a David Letterman joke where he makes some reference, smirks like a jackass, and let’s his gullible audience pretend that he told a joke when all he really did was make a reference... the Emperor’s New Clothes phenomena.

Ralph never does that. Its references fit the action perfectly and they always result in a punch line. They become how the point to the scene gets across, rather than just appearing as an aside.
What’s more, the jokes in Ralph are deeply layered. Consider the line where Ralph angrily denounces Pac-Man as “that cherry chomping dot muncher.” To kids, the visual speaks for itself as Pac-Man eats dots and cherries; indeed, Ralph has previously stolen a cherry from him. But adults also recognize this as a double reference to giving oral sex to a female... something the kids will never get. Notice too how perfect the reference is too that it describes Pac-Man entirely accurately yet uses virtually the exact words used for the oral sex reference. This reference is so perfect that it’s almost as if Pac-Man’s choice of foods was intentionally chosen to make the sexual reference. That is inspired writing!
Putting all of this together, in Ralph, you can laugh at the reference, if you get it, or at the joke if you don’t. And if you get the reference, then you can also enjoy the cleverness of how they worked the reference into the story, how they often twisted it slightly to fit the film, and the cleverness of how they turned the reference into a joke the kids get even if they don’t get the real reference. That’s a lot of humor packed into each joke. Minions had none of that. You either got the reference or you didn’t. There was no joke to go along with it, except that the Minions inserted themselves into the reference. There was no dual meaning either, with maybe only two exceptions (both visual jokes). Ultimately, the difference because of this is that you will laugh for many reasons at everything Ralph pokes fun at, whereas you will just recognize the things Minions references but you will feel no attachment to them.
This is what bothered me. Minions was fun and interesting, though it had the air of an Austin Powers copy, but it was ultimately very shallow and unsatisfying. It was good, but not great with only a couple memorable moments and nothing that raised emotions. Ralph on the other hand, grips you, makes you smile, digs deep into your memory and pulls out strong emotions.

Studying Ralph could have helped Minions a lot.

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