Sunday, January 26, 2014

Captain America: The First Avenger

I love the Marvel movies, but I am so bad at keeping up with movies that I somehow managed to put off seeing this film until now, a few months before the release of its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Of all the major Marvel heroes, Cap was the one I felt least invested in. This was probably only partly due to his nationalistic origin, because a well-written Cap story isn't really going to be a jingoistic rah-rah "Team America" event. But when Iron Man offers the spectacle of sex-and-booze enthusiast Tony Stark, and Thor has the widescreen mythological action as well as the interpersonal drama between Thor and Loki, Cap pushes fewer of my buttons. So even when I kept hearing it was a really great film, it was still tipped in the "Oh, I'll get around to it" bin. Even after I saw Avengers, which didn't require an exact knowledge of Cap's debut film to follow (becomes Cap, fights, freezes, thaws) I still took until last night, when I had a few hours to spare and a Blu-ray that had been sitting on my shelf for literally a year.

The story has a few matters to handle delicately, at which it really succeeds: one is distinguishing Hydra and the Red Skull from the Nazis proper, framing them as a renegade science division interested in the Tesseract. This is a believable alternate history that helps explain the need for a hero like Cap without rewriting history, Inglourious style, to say he won the war himself. The other is explaining how Cap isn't just a steroided-up poster boy, why Tony is wrong when he says in the Avengers "Everything special about you came out of a bottle." The movie goes to great lengths to establish Steve's character, and why that character matters when determining who is going to be the first subject for Erskine's super-soldier serum. I'm not sure if that's ever been added into his character backstory before now, but it's a great justification for who he is and why. It helps to specifically state that Steve embodies the heart and mind they are looking to enhance, the qualities under the surface that bring out the best in wartime America. Pairing Red Skull with him, changing Schmidt to an earlier prototype gone horribly wrong helps set up the dynamic for how bad things could be if the wrong person was chosen. Comic book movies favour villains with a sort of shared origin with the hero, and if one isn't readily available they'll cut an existing one to fit. Whereas comics have everything set up to explain the plethora of available villains, the movies are more interested in showing why things are the way they are. The best movies cover these explanations with skill, the worst make them feel like dry exposition.

The movie also has a lot of cool stuff around the fringes, like setting up the Howlin' Commandos (in the comics led by Sgt. Fury, 'natch,) and in general the Rocketeer-like atmosphere of Worlds Fair-like wonder (Joe Johnston directed both.) It's a good tone to unambiguously celebrate the mood of the era while also not taking it too far into parody.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers with a great aw-shucks energy, the ideal "greatest generation" underdog hero. I'll admit that I found the CGI used to create pre-Cap Steve unnerving. He kind of acts like he already knows he's going to be Captain America, although that may be the point of why he was chosen. In general I'd like it better if they had him be a tall, skinny, gangly beanpole type so his shoulders suited his head size. I also thought the bit where Peggy sees Cap getting smooched by a secretary and fumes at him was a bit much, an unnecessary obligatory "relationship roadblock" story beat, but that was a minor part of the movie anyway. In any case Peggy and Steve's chemistry made me seriously tear up when the big goodbye moment came.

Captain America is the closest thing Marvel has to Superman, which has as many ups and downsides as the real Superman. It's a silly, corny idea, this guy in primary colours who is just perfect and wants to help any way he can. But we know the world isn't really like that, so why shouldn't we imagine a hero who is? They sidestepped the idea that Captain America exists to show how great America is, and leaned hard in the direction that he exists to show how great we can be. (As my writing about Doctor Who will attest, that is an idea I am into.) The line that sums it all up is when Steve is asked whether he wants to kill Nazis: "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies." I saw a lot in this movie that I later heard was missing from Man of Steel -- I haven't gotten around to that one, either, so I'll take their word. The reason Marvel movies have continued to rule is that they have succeeded, time and again, at finding that exact core of a character and spinning it into an entire adventure.

That said, I just watched the Street Fighter movie last month, and I noticed some interesting similarities between the plots, if anyone wants to discuss...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Music: My Top 5 of 2013

Year-end lists are all the rage all the time, and while mine's a little late, here is my Top 5 list for 2013.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Second verse, same as the first: Inside Llewyn Davis

"If it was never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song," Llewyn Davis says after performing one of the various traditional standards in his repertoire. Someone once told me, or maybe I'm just making it up, that the key to folk music is familiarity: repetition, bringing people in. Everything that happens in Llewyn Davis' life seems to be happening for the second time, at least. He's gotten another girl in trouble. He's considering re-joining the Merchant Marines. He's peddling his second album, after the tragic loss of the partner with whom he recorded his first. He spends his time cycling through the same few friends who'll let him crash on his couch. He even repeatedly has run-ins with orange cats. He's stuck in these patterns because he's stuck in himself, unwilling to reach out or let anyone reach out to him. Consider a scene where he freaks out on his host for joining in on harmony after pressuring him into singing for the dinner party. Folk music is supposed to be able to join people together, but Llewyn's inability to relate is what relegates him to being an also-ran in the burgeoning Village folk scene.

This is just my take, and you can forget it if you want, but there's no denying that Llewyn, played with heavy-lidded disaffection by Oscar Isaac, does not play well with others, and is largely the source of his own misery. Even his friends (or supposed ones, like Jean played by Carey Mulligan,) can see his trapped. Unlike other Coen Bros. movies (the underrated "A Serious Man" comes to mind) he is not an innocent tormented by a cruel universe. Llewyn invites disaster by living a slapdash half-existence between gigs, scrounging for money, begging, conniving as best he can. He doesn't even own a winter coat.

Along the way, there are about a jillion classic Coen moments: statements and reactions that are so appropriate yet so left-field, turns of events that are first fortunate, then cumbersome. A plot that can best be described as "a bunch of stuff that happens." True to the Coen touch, its themes and, importantly in this case, its structure (especially in its repetition of actual scenes that make you wonder where we came in) are only incidental to the enjoyment of the film. There's plenty there to entertain and provoke thought for its own accord. There's a lot of fat to chew, but it doesn't keep the meat from tasting great.

My favourite scene, in a movie comprised almost entirely of great ones, is Llewyn's studio gig performing on his friend Justin Timberlake's novelty folk composition. As he goes over the instructions, trying to suss out the logic behind the exact syntax of the cutesy background vox he has to perform, another musician named Al Cody (GIRLS' Adam Driver) is going over his own part. Llewyn seems embarrassed to be there, but he needs the money, and waives his rights to royalties in order to get the fast cash. Then he asks if he can crash on Cody's couch. Classic Llewyn.

Does this mean that Llewyn would be a success if he sacrificed his integrity? I don't think that's the movie's message, if I understand the "cameo" at the end of the movie. There's just something that Llewyn himself is missing, that keeps him between worlds, doomed to repeat. (Hint: That something is that he's kind of an asshole.)

[dot dot dot] TV Thoughts for January 20, 2014

Here are some thoughts that are too long to tweet, too short to fill an article.

  • As much as I was sympathetic to the fourth season of Community, there's no denying the genuine article. Dan Harmon has firmly re-established the soul of that show, and if there was any question about that, then the David Fincher send-up of "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" settled that. Not only did it realize that those tropes were there to be bundled up and satirized, but it laid it over a pretty good reintroduction/examination of the Jeff/Annie dynamic and got laughs both expected (the number of times "butts" was said, Abed's takedown of TV's detectives-with-disorders subgenre) and unexpected (Ben Folds' cameo, Jeff's defense of Dave Matthews.) It then continued the trend with the kind of character introspection in 5.04 ("Cooperative Polygraphy") that the S4 crew was just not up to. It's that kind of full-service television experience that had been missing since Harmon's 2012 ouster.
    • That said, my defense of Season 4 will basically boil down to the fact that I really liked the Troy/Abed body switching episode as a way to address the Troy-Britta relationship.
  • After winning a pair of significant Golden Globes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine came back from the break swinging. My favourite new show of the season picked back up on the Peralta-Santiago angle it introduced way back in the pilot, then let simmer in the background while it did the heavy lifting of familiarizing us with the rest of its cast. As the grandson on The Office via Parks & Recreation, it has a slick professionalism to the way they've learned how to handle rolling out these storylines and properly utilizing its great cast. The Boyle "Truth bombs" subplot was a great pair to the "Disaster date" Jake had planned ("Do you know why little boys pull little girls' pigtails?" "Because they're so easy to grab and just asking for it?")
  • How I Met Your Mother, man... listen, I love that show, but there's no way in our present era that that episode (9.14, "Slapsgiving 2: Slappointment in Slapmarra") should have left the writer's room without someone at least thinking "Hey, is this cool to do?"
  • While we're on the subject of racial sensitivity (hoo boy, here comes the white guy to preach) SNL came back in 2014 with a new castmember: Sasheer Zamata, its first African-American female since Maya Rudolph left seven years ago. It's laudable, in a way, (if transparent) that they would go out of their way to correct something that everyone pegged them on at the beginning of the season. This show has never been particularly kind to black female performers, or with some exceptions its black male ones. With Drake as host she got ample opportunities to jump in headfirst.
  • Speaking of... is it weird that New Girl having two black male castmembers feels damn near revolutionary to me? A weird casting hiccup had Coach replace with Winston after the pilot (Happy Endings being renewed at the time, now cancelled) but they seem intent to keep Damon Wayans Jr. around for at least a while. Maybe I shouldn't pat them on the back too hard, but we've come a ways from the cast of Friends and Seinfeld roaming Manhattan for years on end without encountering a single black person. For their parts, Winston and Coach both bring something to the table and I'm glad Wayans is sticking.
  • Parks & Recreation continues to be excellent.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

As far as I'm concerned, Arcade Fire are a bunch of geniuses. And the beauty of a music review is that I could simply say that, point to a few examples from their current album and let it speak for itself, and if you agree you agree and if you don't then we don't really need to talk about it. Since I don't see that many people coming after Arcade Fire, I'm forced to conclude that this is not a scandalous opinion, but I'll tell you right away that it's mostly for reasons only indirectly connected to the actual music they make.

The music is great, of course. They have a knack. Sure, it's not all that tough to make music that somebody thinks is great but it's nearly impossible to hit this level of acclaim and sustain it for so long. I may be picky, but I'm easily impressed. But four albums in, every one of their albums has precious few detractors. And not a single one of them repeats the tricks of the previous. They all sound like the work of the same band, and yet they all stand markedly distinct. Every new move is cheered, rather than picked apart. They have stayed ahead of their audience. They are a band who has gotten the rarest of statures: they are bringing people along for their ride.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cover: Macy Gray, "Wake Up" (Arcade Fire 2004)

If you've been reading me since back in the SOTW days (and of course you have) you'll know I have a pet fascination with the entire concept of the cover. Especially these days, when the norm is for an artist to generate one's own material, I like to sit down and listen to what a new artist does with a piece, think about what it means that they picked this one and what they did with it.

A while ago, I noticed Macy Gray (who has scarcely been heard from since "I Try,") had an album of covers out. I didn't get to listen to any of it until recently, but what I found striking was her choice. This soul singer with a new-classic rasp opted for covers by Radiohead, Metallica, My Chemical Romance and this gem from Arcade Fire's first album. It's a canny move, like Charles Bradley's cover of Nirvana, because there's a lot of room for the vocalist to put her stamp of these tunes. In particular, I liked this one because it scales back the ostentatious nature of the original for a more playful, whimsical delivery that actually gets a bit more out of the lyrics themselves by playing down the overwhelming backdrop of the original - one of my faves to begin with.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

109 Things Millennials Have Never EVER Heard Of!

Have you heard? The Millennials have arrived! Where have they come from, and what do they plan for us? Will these mystical sun-children save our race or destroy it? Only time will tell. But even as they bring new ideas, innovations and ways of life to our culture, they also lack the benefit of a great deal of history. Will their great conquest of our planet be hindered by a dearth of perspective brought on by a limited understanding of where we humans have been? What secrets will die with the last pre-millennial generation? Important knowledge such as:

  1. The typewriter
  2. The Warsaw Pact
  3. The steam engine
  4. The Holy Roman Empire
  5. Former Presidents Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and John Tyler
  6. Polio
  7. The original voices of all the Muppets, Looney Tunes and Disney characters
  8. The Threepenny Opera
  9. Webcrawler
  10. Metacrawler
  11. Any search engine besides Google, including Yahoo!
  12. Angelfire, Geocities and Tripod
  13. 10-10-321
  14. "Whoomp! There It Is" by Tag Team
  15. Miss Cleo
  16. How to tie a sheepshank knot
  17. TNBC
  18. Lady Death
  19. European Imperialism
  20. Giant 90s pants
  21. Phil Hartman
  22. Candidate Obama
  23. Hard Copy
  24. Venus De Milo (the female Ninja Turtle)
  25. Really good episodes of The Simpsons
  26. The Bayeux Tapestry
  27. "Yo Quiero Taco Bell"
  28. Milli
  29. Vanilli
  30. Those weren't their names, guy, it was Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan
  31. Articles not in list form
  32. Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson's "Scream"
  33. The Wiemar Republic
  34. Unironic, non-charity mustaches
  35. AIDS stigma
  36. Bernie Goetz
  37. The Cola Wars
  38. Anything referenced in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire," up to and including Billy Joel himself.
  39. Kevin Costner as Robin Hood
  40. George Lazenby as James Bond
  41. Christopher Daniel Barnes as Spider-Man
  42. Rolling Stone magazine
  43. MAD Magazine
  44. Cracked Magazine
  45. TV Guide Magazine
  46. The TV Guide channel
  47. Realplayer
  48. Agent Orange
  49. Retirement
  50. O-Town
  51. What Color Is Your Parachute?
  52. The 1974 Oakland A's
  53. Adam Walsh
  54. Jayne Mansfield
  55. Pontiac Sunfire
  56. Hale-Bopp
  57. Kristy Swanson
  58. Dr. Laura
  59. Bo Jackson
  60. Bruce Jenner: Olympian
  61. Hard work, am I right?
  62. The intended soundtrack to WKRP in Cincinnati
  63. Kenny Rogers Roasters
  64. Don Bluth
  65. Meg Ryan
  66. Racist old cartoons
  67. Barry Goldwater
  68. "Curly Joe" Da Rita
  69. The Napoleonic Code
  70. The Hays Code
  71. Buster Keaton
  72. Buster Douglas
  73. Buster Poindexter
  74. Senses-shattering first issue! Holofoil cover collectible!
  75. Call waiting
  76. John Turner
  77. Freudian analysis
  78. Spider-Man's Amazing Friends
  79. Laraine Newman
  80. Lonesome George
  81. Rave culture
  82. Joe C.
  83. Sun Tzu
  84. Final Fight
  85. Popular Mechanics For Kids
  86. Repo Man (both the Alex Cox cult film starring Emilio Estevez and the Barry Darsow wrestling character)
  87. Andie McDowell
  88. Pony express
  89. Breaking Away
  90. The phrase "shellshock"
  91. Batman Forever POGs
  92. Gene Rayburn
  93. Thalidomide
  94. Video dating
  95. Snoop Doggy Dogg 
  96. Slobodan Milošević
  97. Jonathan Silverman
  98. Jonathan Winters
  99. Overhead projectors
  100. Encarta
  101. Dean Cain
  102. "This program has been filmed in front of a live studio audience"
  103. Sega Activator
  104. The Two Jakes
  105. Christina Ricci
  106. Nicole Eggert
  107. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House
  108. John Belushi
  109. Rotating restaurants 
Now that you mention it, many of those arbitrarily-chosen and organized things have limited cultural value to begin with, several are still common knowledge to this day despite seemingly being rooted in a specific time and place, and all of them can be looked up on Wikipedia... it's entirely possible the importance we place on our own "era" is entirely subjective and that ultimately anything of real value beyond shallow nostalgia truly does stand the test of time, and that ascribing general values to an entire generation says more about the previous generation than the new one.


Although... how far are you going to get in life if you can't name more than two Christina Ricci movies? Seriously.

Late additions:

Turns out these lists are insanely easy to write, here's a bunch of other random crap:
  • Geoffrey the Butler from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
  • McPizza
  • The Club
  • The Urge to Herbal
  • Xtina