Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Iron Man 2

(Movie Review)

 As usual, I’m a few years late on my movie reviews.

 But it’s worth remembering that when this movie first came out back in 2010 it generated a lot of hype and excitement.

 Which is strange to think about now given what a totally forgettable movie this was.

 It starts out with a pretty lackluster beginning.  It moves into a short and unspectacular action scene.  And then the movie just seems to tread water for an hour while Tony Stark has a personal crisis (yawn) and works through his father issues (double yawn.)
 And then we get to a big climatic action scene at the end which, admittedly, is not half bad.  But I’m sure it looked much better on the big cinema screen.  Much of the flying robots, chases, and explosions were wasted on my small TV screen.

 So, definitely not the best movie I’ve ever seen.

 On the other hand, there were several things that worked well about it.
 Robert Downey Jr. is great, of course, as he was in the first Iron Man.
 A friend of mine recently said, “All these Iron Man movies aren’t that great.  If Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t in them, they would all be awful.”
 Which is probably true.  But so what?  There are tons of movies that are saved purely by the actors that carry them.  And Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man is able to carry a lot of this movie.

 Sam Rockwell is also good playing against Robert Downey Jr.  Rockwell plays Hammer, a man in the same line of work as Tony Stark, and someone who thinks he is able to joke and schmooze just as well as Tony Stark but whose constant jabbering just comes off as annoying instead.
 (For instance, when trying to sell weapons, Hammer jabbers about a special bullet:
 “It’s capable of busting a bunker, under the bunker you just busted.  If it were any smarter, it would write a book.  A book that would make Ulysses look like it was written in crayon.  And then it would read it to you.”)

  But it works because the audience is in on the joke—we know he’s supposed to be annoying, and we see him constantly contrasted against the genuine smoothness of Tony Stark.

 And even though the story lags a bit, the writing is not altogether terrible.
 There’s some clever foreshadowing going on, where Vanko is muttering about how there will be no men in the suit, and how drones are going to be better.  At the end of the movie, we find out exactly why he was planning this, and what he is going to use it for.
 I also thought it was clever that the method by which Iron Man and War Machine defeat Vanko was also something they had discovered by accident earlier in the movie.


 As these Marvel movies lead up to the team-up movie Avengers, there are increasing efforts to tie them together.
 Captain America’s shield makes a cameo appearance.  The Scarlet Widow is introduced in this movie, and Nick Fury has an expanded role. And the post-credit teaser at the end seems to lead into the Thor Movie.
 And yet there are hints that the writers might not have had everything perfectly planned out at the beginning.  (At the end of The Incredible Hulk movie, Tony Stark makes a cameo appearance to say he’s putting a team together, implying he was in charge of recruiting and organizing the Avengers.  This movie now has Stark completely on the outside of that team.)

 It’s a cool idea to take the inter-connected world of comic books and translate it to the big screen.  But if you’re going to do this, then you need to start keeping the actors consistent.
 There are of course, several things beyond the studio’s control. If an actor dies, for instance, or refuses to come back, or has a conflicting contract, or is in drug rehab, et cetera, then all of this can’t be helped.
 But if the actor really wants to come back, but the studio goes ahead and replaces him anyway over that same actor’s objections, then this is really not cool.
 According to Wikipedia
On being replaced, Howard stated, "There was no explanation, apparently the contracts that we write and sign aren't worth the paper that they're printed on sometimes. Promises aren't kept, and good faith negotiations aren't always held up.

 I think it was a mistake to replace the Terrance Howard as James Rhodes with Don Cheadle.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Don Cheadle.  But I think it was more important to keep continuity here.
 It’s water under the bridge now of course, but for what it’s worth, I think this was a terrible decision by the studio.


* So what was the deal with Vanko's bird?  I really thought that was going to develop into a plot point, but it never ended up going anywhere.  He just complained about how he didn’t get the bird he wanted, and then was that just the end of that story thread?  What was the point of that?

Link(s) of the Day
Issues that Obama and Romney Avoid 
Also--Whisky Prajer is always worth reading, but his latest post on the election is really a must read--
Billy Graham's Endorsement Of Romney Gives Morally-Bankrupt Mainstream Christians A Reason To Hope!
Also--this article actually explains an awful lot
5 Logical Fallacies That Make You Wrong More Than You Think

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Star Trek: Enterprise—Not that Bad Actually

            I’ve written on this blog before that I was obsessed with Star Trek in my youth, but I quit watching Star Trek in 1996. 
            I quit watching for a variety of reasons really.  For one thing it had just become too time consuming.  When I first became a Star Trek fan in 4th grade, there had only been one show on the air to watch every week.  Only getting a small taste of your favorite show every week is rare enough to keep it a special event, and to keep you from getting sick of it.  But by 1996, there were two Star Trek shows currently on the air, and two more in re-runs, and I just got burnt out by it all.  Plus it all got to seem the same after a while.  The original 1960s series aside (the original series has always been its own unique animal) the basic structure, plots and characters of the 3 modern Star Treks were all very similar to each other.  I just started to get bored with it all.
            I never saw Star Trek: Enterprise.  By the time it came out I wasn’t particularly interested in Star Trek anymore, and besides I was in Japan when it came out, so I wouldn’t have been able to watch it even if I wanted to.  But I did read numerous bad reviews of it, both from Star Trek fans and the general public.
            By the time it became available on DVD (and for illegal downloading on the Internet) it had gotten so many bad reviews that I decided not to bother. 

            But, on a whim the other day I decided to give it a try.
            A co-worker of mine (and fellow Star Trek fan) told me that the last season was when the writers finally figured out what they were doing, and the show finally started to get good.  So rather than risk wasting my time with 3 potential awful seasons just to get to the good stuff, I decided to start right out with the 4th season. 

            At this point, I still haven’t seen the first 3 seasons.  They may well be as bad as everyone says they are.  I don’t know.
            But what I can say with confidence is that Star Trek: Enterprise season 4 is good. 
            Inevitably, some of the episodes in the 4th season are better than others.  But when they are good, they are really good.  And when they are mediocre—well, they’re certainly no worse than any of the other Star Trek series on a bad day.

            There’s plenty of action, the stories are suspenseful, the pacing excellent, the characters likeable enough.  And for fans of the original 1960s show, I really enjoyed all the fun nods back to the original.  Many alien races and concepts that were introduced on the original Star Trek, and then subsequently ignored by the next 3 Star Trek incarnations, are given a lot of screen time on Enterprise, like the Andorians, the Orions, the Gorn, the Tholians, and the Mirror Universe.
            I was worried a prequel series would mess with Star Trek continuity, but they was pleasantly surprised how the writers took great care to match everything up.  (I’m told the previous 3 seasons were very sloppy about continuity, but at the moment I can only vouch for the 4th season.).
            The 4th season is definitely worth watching, I guess that’s all I’m trying to say.  Now I just have to get around to watching the other 3 one of these days.

Link of the Day 
The Week the World Stood Still

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Captain America: The First Avenger

(Movie Review)

A couple years ago, back when this movie was still in production, I was eating pizza with some Canadian and Australian friends when we got to talking about upcoming movies, and the production of this movie came up.
One of the Canadian girls must not have been very into comic books, because she had never heard of Captain America before. When she heard that the American film industry was making a movie about a superhero named Captain America, she didn’t know whether to find it funny or be outraged, and so she alternated between the two emotions as she grilled me on what we Americans were thinking.
“Captain America? CAPTAIN America? Captain AMERICA?” Each inflection of her voice showed increasing incredulity. “You guys actually had to go and make a superhero called Captain America?”

Being a comic book geek, I tried to stick up for Captain America. “Well, look, you’ve got to view these old superheroes as kind of time-pieces from a different era. He was created during World War II. It was fashionable back then to have all sorts of patriotic themed superheroes fighting the Nazis. You had Liberty Belle (W), Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (W), the Star Spangled Kid (W) ….”

“Yes, but you’re still making movies about Captain America in the 21st century? World War II is over.”

“Well, Captain America went out of fashion for a time after the war ended. But then during the 1960s he got thawed out from the frozen ice he was trapped inside, and …”

“What? Did you need to thaw him out for the Vietnam War then?” she said sarcastically.

I never did succeed in winning her around to the side of Captain America.

I’m probably going to lose all my hip, liberal, credentials for saying this (not to mention all my Canadian friends) but I actually like Captain America. I don’t agree with the jingoism of all the 1940s patriotic superheroes, but I recognize them as relics from a former era. And as a comic book geek I think they have their charm in a cheesy kitschy way. And a certain part of me thinks comic books are all the cooler for keeping these outdated superheroes going. That’s what makes comic books such a unique medium. Every generation creates its own superheroes which match the sensibilities of the time, but the superheroes from previous decades are never discarded. The old superheroes are just interwoven into the new stories and so both Marvel and DC have found ways to keep alive their superheroes from the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s all together in the same interwoven story. Some people may call me a geek, but I think that’s kind of cool.

What Stan Lee did with Captain America in the 1960s was particularly interesting. Instead of just modernizing Captain America and dropping him off in the 1960s as if he had been there all along (like DC did with some of their 1940 Superheroes), Stan Lee decided Captain America had been trapped in ice for 20 years. When he was finally unfrozen, he had a fair amount of angst about being 20 years behind on the world, and finding out how much had changed in his absence.
Stan Lee also decided that Captain America’s kid sidekick Bucky had been killed in their last mission right before Captain America got frozen in ice. So in addition to being disoriented by the time skip, Captain America had to deal with the guilt of his dead sidekick.
(This was in keeping with Stan Lee’s standard practice in the 1960s and making sure each character had some sort of angst to keep them interesting for the reader.)

So the character has some interesting history to him.
I also like how Captain America has been used as the liberal voice at Marvel Comic Books over the past 50 years. The fact that his very name is Captain America allows the writers to get away with putting a lot of liberal views into his mouth in an “Only-Nixon-Can-Go-to-China” type way. After all, who is going to accuse Captain America of being anti-American?
So during the 1960s, Captain America was sympathetic to the hippies. During the lead up to the Iraq War, he spoke out against all the anti-French sentiment going on in America.

However, at the end of the day, all of this doesn’t change the fact that Captain America, as he was originally created in the 1940s, was propagandizing kids into supporting war. Which ought to disturb us.

And so I go into this movie with mixed feelings. The comic book geek in me loves Captain America. The anti-military side of me is ambivalent about what sort of political message this movie is sending.

Ordinarily when I walk into Hollywood action movies, I try and turn the political side of my brain off, and just focus on the entertainment value and try and ignore all the politics I disagree with. But how much is this movie going to let me do that, and how much is it going to hit me over the head with its patriotic message?

The Movie Review

Let’s start with the easiest questions first, and work our way back from there: How did this movie work just as a mindless action flick?

Okay, I guess. I mean it wasn’t bad or anything.

Although it did have kind of a long slow boring start. And then even once the action did start, it seemed a little bit episodic to me. There are various little mini climaxes, but the movie didn’t do a good job of keeping the tension or the momentum going between action scenes, causing me to get a little bit bored. The final confrontation with the Red Skull was really a disappointment. Here was someone who had the same strength and ability Captain America had—it could have been a great fight scene, and yet it really just fizzled out with a resolution that seemed way too borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Also, the cool thing about Captain America has always been that he fights all his battles with his own strength, agility, and his special shield. So I think it was a mistake that in some of these action scenes he’s shooting bad guys with a gun. Whose idea was it to give Captain America a gun?

Bucky Barnes
Also, the character of Bucky really felt pointless in this movie.
I know what a large role the death of Bucky plays in Captain America’s story in the comic books, but in the movie he didn’t really justify his inclusion.
Also, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to agonizing over Bucky’s death, once is enough.
Such a big deal is made out of the fact that Bucky might be dead behind enemy lines. Captain America goes in for a heroic rescue attempt. And then there’s relief when Bucky is found alive and well.
And then, after all that, Bucky is killed off a second time, so Captain America can feel sad for Bucky all over again.
All of this for someone who (at least as he is portrayed in the movie) is just the generic buddy character and never developed beyond that, and consequently someone the audience wouldn’t really care about except that we’re told we have to care about him because Captain America does.
Well, I can just about manage to maybe make myself care a little bit about Bucky the first time he is M.I.A. behind enemy lines, but when we lose him for the second time, I just couldn’t be bothered caring anymore.

Captain America has a brief sad scene with a bottle of alcohol after Bucky dies, and then after that he promptly forgets about Bucky as well and no one ever mentions him again.

(It’s possible this is all set up for future dead Bucky angst in the sequels, and I’ll have to wait and see how the writers develop this in the future movies. But as far as this movie goes, Bucky was completely pointless.)

Okay, so much for the entertainment value of the film. Now we get to the more sticky questions.

The Jingoism
I’m a bit conflicted on this, because (and again I say this as a comic book geek) there really is something to be said for authenticity.
It’s all too easy to imagine a movie studio wanting to update Captain America or put him into the 21st Century.
So this movie gets some credit from me for following the original comic books, and putting Captain America back where he belongs in the 1940s.

The angsty man-confused-because-he’s-in-the-wrong-time period Captain America of Stan Lee might be more interesting than 1940s war hero Captain America, but you can’t have the one without first setting up the other. And from the way this movie ends, it’s clear that they plan to follow the Stan Lee storyline in the future.

If you are going for authenticity, then I think there’s a fine line to be walked here. You have to show that Captain America came from a more jingoistic period of American history, but you don’t want to make the movie itself jingoistic. I admit, it’s not an easy task. Had I been one of the writers, I’m not sure I would have done any better.

There’s another consideration as well. Whatever your views are on the military, you don’t want to trivialize the suffering that the soldiers went through by making World War II look like just one big fun adventure.
On the other hand, there’s a long pulp comic book tradition, dating all the way back to the 1940s itself, of making World War II look like just one big fun adventure.

I think part of the key is that Captain America doesn’t exist in the real world—he exists in the comic book world. As long as things stay firmly in the pulp comic book world, it is kind of okay.
The comic book world is not concerned with the serious side of the war. Instead it’s filled with killer Nazi robots, evil Nazi doctors, Nazi spies who have secret submarine boats located just outside New York that nobody notices for some reason, and fights with Nazis on speeding trains, et cetera. You want the heroes to not be fighting real people, but mindless evil Nazis. And, in fact, if you can do one better than mindless evil Nazis, and make them into HYDRA, an even eviler cult within Nazism, then you’re doing one better.
This movie has all these elements, so it is somewhat on the right track.

But it also has scenes of Steve Rogers (Captain America) scolding people in movie theaters for not showing proper respect to newsreel footage of American soldiers. It has an overly long introduction where we are repeatedly hit over the head with the theme of a pure-of-heart ordinary American kid who just wants to join the army so he can stand up to foreign bullies.
It shows Steve Rogers repeatedly trying to enlist for the army, and repeatedly mentioning his desire to join the war, and it makes this out as a noble trait. At times, this movie almost plays like a commercial for army recruiting.
And then even after Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, he still is obsessed with getting to the fighting.

In fact, the first time I attempted to watched this movie, I turned it off after 45 minutes and said, “Yeah, I get it. He can’t wait to join the war, and just he really loves America.”
(But, the next night, there was nothing good on TV, so I ended up finishing this movie out of boredom.)

The studio executives must have decided that these scenes would play well in America’s heartland. And they probably did. But they had me rolling my eyes. And (since all Hollywood movies are essentially international releases now anyway) I can only imagine what the reaction of the rest of the world is.
I’m glad my Canadian friend never saw this movie, because I would have trouble defending it to her.

Geek Notes

* As a comic book geek, I’m glad to see the movie found an excuse to include Dum Dum Dugan and the other members of the Howling Commandos, even if they didn’t really add anything to the story.

* In another nod to comic book fans, the movie also found a cool way to reference the iconic first cover of Captain America [See Here].

* For all its faults, this is probably the best Captain America movie comic books fans had the hope of getting. It didn’t hit every note perfectly, but it managed to include all the major parts of Captain America’s story: his World War II origin, the death of Bucky, and his being frozen in ice.
Hopefully the character will become more interesting in future movies.

Link of the Day
Obama, Campus Activism, Mexico and the Middle East. Also Lundy Khoy Barely Escaped Pol Pot's Purge; Now the U.S. Is Threatening to Deport Her for a Decade-Old Drug Charge