Tagged: movie

John Ostrander: The Super Glass Ceiling


Well, I finally saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier this past week. Yeah, I’m a Johnny-O come lately. Got to see it in my preferred format these days, IMAX 3-D, and I and My Mary had a really good time. To me, Chris Evans’ portrayal of the Star-Spangled Avenger ranks with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman, and that’s top of the heap.

The movie also asked some interesting and morally murky questions. How far should we go to make things “safer”? CA:TWS was a political thriller as much as it was a big time action feature (and it was a big time action feature). It paid homage to its comic book roots, taking elements from comic book continuity, treating them with respect, and frequently bettering them.

There were also great performances all around. How the heck did they get Robert Redford to agree to be in it? One explanation I hear was he has grandchildren but I have to think that the other was he had a well written character and some great lines. It was a good part. Anthony Mackie made Sam Wilson/The Falcon a high flying character and more than a sidekick, as Sebastian Stan did for Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier. And, of course, there was Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, with some choice action sequences, some twists and turns, and a persona that places him morally between Cap and the villains. He was like a male Amanda Waller and I mean that in the bad-assest way.

And then there was Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow. The one question I had as I left the theater (in addition to “When am I going to see it again?”) was “When are they making a Black Widow solo film?” I already knew the answer to that. She’s scheduled to be in the next Avengers outing and she might be in the next Captain America or Iron Man film but there is no solo film yet scheduled for her.

That brings us to this week’s real topic: Why the hell not?

The Black Widow is as badass as they come. She is a consummate fighter and an accomplished spy. She is beautiful, sexy, funny, and with the suggestion of an interesting backstory, she can be ruthless and can hold her own with not only S.H.I.E.L.D. but the The Avengers as well. She’s played by Scarlett Johansson, who is gorgeous and sexy and an incredibly talented and accomplished actress. What more do they want?

They’re making a movie about Ant-Man, for crying out loud. Ant-Man. And a little later this summer they’re bringing out Guardians Of The Galaxy. The previews look like fun and I’ll probably see it, but The Black Widow has got to have better name recognition and so does Ms. Johansson.

Over on the Warner Bros lot, they’re making a film featuring Superman and Batman and shoehorning in several other characters, including Wonder Woman. There is no talk of a Wonder Woman solo film. I read the studio head make a wistful, “We’d like to do it” sort of noise but, again, nothing is on the horizon.

Why the hell not?

I’ve heard the past rationales: they don’t think the audience will support it. They point to Catwoman and Supergirl as proof. Here’s an answer: don’t make a sucky superhero film. Batman And Robin or Superman Returns didn’t kill off those franchises. They gave them pause but both franchises got re-boots and started again. This time, they made good films that found an audience.

Would a movie starring a female protagonist sell? Look at Katniss in The Hunger Games movies. Tough warrior, good with a bow and arrow, complex character and the movies sell. Role model for young girls everywhere. Do they seriously expect us to believe that the Black Widow or Wonder Woman can’t do the same?

We’re left with one conclusion: Wonder Woman, for all her powers, can’t punch her way through the glass ceiling. And that’s a damn shame.

Jen Krueger: Mass, er, Mask Appeal

Jen Krueger: Mass, er, Mask Appeal

A couple weeks ago, I tweeted the rankings I’d give recent comic book movie baddies when it comes to how alluring I find them. Bane took a solid first place, but the gap between the Winter Soldier in second and Loki in third was miniscule. I jokingly added the conclusion to be drawn is that I’m attracted to men with their faces covered or long dark hair (which often obscures a face in its own right), but the thought of masked villains versus unmasked villains kept popping into my mind days later. I realized that the joke I’d made stemmed out of a true preference for bad guys wearing masks, and started to wonder why I like my antagonists so much more when I can see so much less of their face.

The easy answer, of course, is that wearing a mask makes someone mysterious, and anyone from teenage girls to pickup artists could tell you being mysterious is an age-old way to attract others. It’s just human nature to be curious about what someone is thinking, and the more difficult it is to deduce what that might be, the more curious about it we become. Sure, I still like the Winter Soldier in the scenes where he has no mask on in the latest Captain America movie, but in comparison to his masked scenes, my interest in him was almost halved.

By this logic, popping a mask on a character should be a surefire way to get me more invested in him. I thought about other comic book movies and realized that logic does indeed hold…except when it comes to heroes. Give me a scene of Iron Man in his full suit, and a scene of Iron Man either with his face shield down or the camera POV inside the suit with him, and I’ll enjoy the latter option more every time. I find it much more difficult to care about Spider-Man when he’s in his full costume than I do when he’s not wearing his mask. And as much as I like Captain America in his latest movie, put on his mask and I find him downright silly. But if I love masks on villains, why is my response to masks on heroes the polar opposite?

Probably because I need something much different from a hero than I do from a villain. Ideally I should be rooting for the hero of a comic book movie, and it might seem like this is a pretty easy thing to get the audience to do since protagonists in this kind of film tend to be on an irrefutably “good” mission that more or less amounts to saving the world. But with goals that usually boil down to the same altruistic point, I find the mission of any individual comic book movie protagonist rarely varies enough from other works in the genre to get me invested in the achievement of the hero’s goal. It’s enticing me to care about the individual emotional journey of a hero that will get me truly rooting for a protagonist, and to care about what Tony Stark or Peter Parker or Steve Rogers are going through, I need to be able to empathize with them. Their faces are a gateway to their emotions, so connecting with their internal struggle is infinitely easier when they’re not wearing a mask. It makes them more real, and thus makes it more likely I’ll be able to put myself in their shoes.

And that’s exactly what I don’t want when it comes to a comic book movie antagonist. I want the baddie swearing to burn the world down to seem like he could really do it, but with every piece of emotional information revealed about a villain, he becomes more of a real person and less of a threatening force. If I can put myself into the baddie’s shoes, it’s easier to sense not only what he’s going to do, but also what the limits of his capabilities are. Throwing up a wall between me and a villain’s emotional state in the form of a mask, though, helps to keep the baddie mysterious and unpredictable. Sure, this mysteriousness may often translate into me finding a villain physically attractive, but more importantly it means I find the role narratively attractive.

Narrative attractiveness is much harder to rank, though. I’d definitely need more than 140 characters for that.

Jen Krueger: What Is Dead May Never Die

Jen Krueger: What Is Dead May Never Die

Spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t caught up with the season two premiere of Orphan Black!

When it comes to character body count by the end of a first season of TV, Orphan Black is no slouch. Considering the hook of the pilot involves a woman witnessing her doppelganger jump in front of a train, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that by the end of episode ten, the list of dead characters is of a decent length and appears to still be growing. But even though the season one finale added Helena to the show’s list of killed roles, the end of the season two premiere scratches her right back off that list seconds before cutting to the credits. Usually I don’t like seeing characters purported to be dead waltzing back into a tale, and I certainly didn’t like it in this case.

I loved it.

A big part of why I generally can’t stand watching supposedly dead characters brought back to narrative life is that faux deaths meant to fool the audience are almost always too transparent. Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I was surprised the movie would bother trying to convince viewers that Nick Fury was actually dead. Even taking public real world knowledge out of the equation by ignoring the fact that this movie is only the sixth of Samuel L. Jackson’s nine-picture deal with Marvel Studios, Fury is obviously too important to the Marvel Universe to be unceremoniously killed in the middle of the Phase Two releases. Since it’s one of few things I can imagine making Captain America and Black Widow truly trust and rely on each other, I don’t quibble with the movie letting the other characters think the attempt on Fury’s life was successful. But trying to fool the audience into the same misapprehension ruined the emotional resonance this might otherwise have had for me by making the scene in which Black Widow says goodbye to what she believes to be Fury’s dead body seem like it was less about her character than it was about the movie attempting to provide enough evidence to trick the audience into believing Fury’s death. Faux character deaths are too often accompanied by this kind of overt attempt at selling them to the audience, and with a hand clearly trying to pull the wool over my eyes, I’m not likely to look at anything else.

But that isn’t to say I never care about character deaths when I can tell they’re fake. All it takes to get me to feel for characters that falsely believe somebody’s dead is for the story to simply back off the hard sell about the supposed demise. In Pacific Rim, I had no doubt Mako and Raleigh would have a happy ending, but I still got choked up watching Mako think she lost Raleigh in the last few minutes of the movie. I didn’t buy that he was dead, and I may even have thought to myself that Raleigh actually being dead would make the narrative stronger (I know, I know, I have a real dark streak), but I was able to see the ending as a trope of the genre rather than a genuine attempt at surprising me with his survival, because I didn’t feel like the movie was trying to convince me Raleigh was dead. Even when I’m moved by a fake death though, I can’t help but think how much more I’d enjoy whatever I’m watching or reading if the story managed to unfold without clear attempts at fooling me as Pacific Rim does, yet somehow actually get one over on me in the end as well.

And that’s where Orphan Black hits it out of the park. I was genuinely surprised to see Helena stumble into a hospital at the end of the season two opener after watching Sarah shoot her and presumably leave her for dead in the season one finale. The show didn’t treat Helena’s assumed death with any more or less weight than other deaths that had preceded it, and by not trying to dictate my assumptions about Helena’s fate, Orphan Black kept me from realizing there was anything to assume other than Helena’s actual demise. Of course, just successfully surprising me isn’t enough to make me feel positively about a character returning after seeming to die. In fact, there’s probably no faster way to lose my goodwill as a reader or viewer than by surprising me with the return of a character all logic dictates should be dead (*cough cough* Shameless season four).

Giving credit where credit is due, Tatiana Maslany is so phenomenal in every one of the many roles she plays on Orphan Black that I was ecstatic to realize I’d be seeing more of Helena after all. Sure, there are plenty of other clones with which to watch Maslany show off her acting chops, but she manages to portray each role so uniquely that I sometimes forget I’m watching the same actress in several parts. This made the thought of Helena dying feel like a big loss to the cast, and also makes me think I’d even be fine with the show bringing back other clones that have been offed in previous episodes. It’s a rare case in which my emotional investment overrides narrative logic, but when a show gets me this hooked on its characters, I’m more than happy for the narratively dead to rise so that I can be fooled. Heck, pop a blonde wig on Maslany to give her the part and I’d even accept Aynsley being resurrected.

Box Office Democracy: “Transcendence”

Box Office Democracy: “Transcendence”

I’m always rooting for good dystopian science fiction so it’s hard for me to report that Transcendence does such a bad job, not so much at building a world or introducing key concepts, rather, it fails at telling a story.  Characters swing factional and ideological allegiances rapidly with seemingly no regard to the events going on, there seems to be no memory for specific events after the story gets going, most importantly the movie has no sense of morality at all making a rooting interest nearly impossible.


Dennis O’Neil: Synergy

To the best of my knowledge, it was only done once before, and that was in 1912, when audiences were treated to a simultaneous telling of one story in two media, film and print.  What Happened to Mary (a statement, not a question) was a serialized movie, the kind that was shown in sections, or chapters, stretched over many weeks, the better to lure customers back to find out what happened next. While what was happening to Mary was appearing on local screens, the a prose version of the same story was running, serialized, in McClure’s Magazine.

Voila!  Synergy, 102 years ago!

My Mary information is sketchy at best, and so I don’t know if the stunt did whatever its perpetrators wanted it to do.  Was it successful?  (A question, not a statement.) I can’t say, but I’d guess not, if only because it doesn’t seem to have been repeated, anywhere, any time.

Until now, that is.  The increasingly vast, Disney-nurtured entertainment enterprise that is Marvel, has given us both Captain America: The Winter Soldier,  which has earned $476 million so far, and it is a long way from the finish line, and an episode in the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that tells another part of the same story.  They did it right: you can see either the movie or the video alone, without even knowing of the existence of the other, and get full value.  But see them both and you experience a much fuller version of the story.

The job must have required some thought and effort and the professional yarn spinner in me would like to know exactly what the procedure was.  Outlines?  Flow charts? Computer programs?  What?  Or, oh my gosh, did the writers keep it all in their heads?  Or did the glitches get edited out post-production?

Some mixture of all the above?

The only complaint I have applies only to the movie and its a complaint I’ve offered before.  Hey, guys, ever hear that less is more?  There are so many explosions and other noisy events, and the climactic battles goes on for so long, that sitting there in the dark theater I grew a little weary.  Bang bang and more bang, beyond whatever narrative use could be gotten from all that flash and clash

I wonder: do the creators of superhero movies feel that the explosions are what the audience expects in an era where the ka-blooies of video games may be helping to shape our sensibilities? Do they think that the folk in the seats expect rackety pyrotechnics in massive doses? Or even demand them?  And if so, are they right?  I hope not.

The noise level on the S.H.I.E.L.D. episode was quite reasonable, possibly because television drama has a more modest gunpowder budget than motion pictures.  Score one for the tube.

So, was the experiment a success?  For me, it was, and I’d be happy too see something like it again.  Only maybe a little more quiet?

Box Office Democracy: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Only Lovers Left Alive is such a waste of a film.  Two hours of nothing happening but Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton looking very attractive and exchanging meaningful glances as they struggle to tolerate the presence of any other characters.  If the main characters can’t seem to care about the people around them or the events happening it’s going to be very hard for me to do it in their stead.  They’re also vampires who do almost zero vampire things, Hiddleston’s Adam moves really fast twice and Swinton’s Eve seems to be able to tell how old a thing is by touching it.  These are not the big moments I expect when I sit down for a movie about vampires.  No one even drinks blood out of a person on camera.  Nosferatu had more action than this movie when it came out 92 years ago.

There’s one of the most flagrant and direct violation of the Chekhov’s gun principle I’ve ever seen.  The whole first section of the movie is devoted to Adam obtaining a wooden bullet, the kind that could kill a vampire, and once he has it that gun never gets fired.  It’s the impetus for a short exchange about how tired Adam is of the actions of humans but that conversation had already happened by that point and is really the entire plot anyway.  The bullet serves to kind of underline his despair but it isn’t good storytelling to show a gun that never gets fired.  I could perhaps forgive it if I was satisfied with the rest of the story, but there was just no satisfaction to be had.

The dialogue is aggressively not clever.  They’re vampires you see so they frequently talk about how old they are.  They talk about all the famous events they were at and how many great things they’ve done.  One of the peripheral vampires wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays.  I expect vampire movies to have enough self-awareness to not feel like they can trot out tropes that were widely mocked in Buffy the Vampire Slayer over a decade ago.

Much like the vampires who inhabit the film Only Lovers Left Alive feels like a movie trapped out of time.  I was struck while watching that the movie reminded me profoundly of movies like Suburbia or Clerks where rather than have a tight plot the movie was more like a loose character study.  If this movie also came out in the mid-90s maybe I would be prepared to feel more generous about it.  As it is, it just feels like an antique.  Also, none of those movies had anything nearly as shiny as vampires to dangle in front of me but never explore.

Mindy Newell: Nerds Unite!

“Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Sometimes the universe borrows from [[[Moonstruck]]], giving you just the slap you need so that you “Snap out of it!”

Case in point…

In last week’s column I talked about how crazy I get when I meet people who aren’t readers, or people who only like to read “happy stories; of how I feel out of step with the people I work with, and, while I didn’t come out and say it directly, how much better I am than them.

Yeah, that last sentence was in there. Read it again. It’s in there, all right, “underneath” the written words. After it was posted, I realized that I had been in a really bad mood when I wrote it; my old friend, Mr. Clinical Depression, had dropped in for a short (very short) visit. My co-workers are not ignoramuses and the surgeons aren’t incredibly narrow-minded and impatient—strike that. A lot of them are. But not all of them.

Last Thursday I was the scrub on an OMFS case. (OMFS stands for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. It’s serious stuff, heavy-duty reconstructive dental and facial work, mostly trauma, and we do a lot of it at my hospital, which is northern New Jersey’s #1 trauma medical center.) Anyway, I don’t remember how the conversation got around to comics—oh, wait, I do remember. One of the residents mentioned to the surgeon that I was from Bayonne.

“Why is that important?” I asked.

“That’s where George R.R. Martin* is from. You know who he is, right?”

I nodded.

The chief resident said, “Dr. C—- is big into Game Of Thrones.”

“Yeah, I’m addicted to it,” said Dr. C—-. “Do you watch it? Did you read the book?”

“No,” I said. “Neither.”

“You really should,” said the surgeon.

I felt dreadfully embarrassed and wanted the earth to swallow me immediately.

“Mindy wrote comics back in the day,” said the chief resident.

“How’d you know that?” I asked him.

“I read your stuff.”

God, I felt old.

Then Dr. C— talked about Captain America: The Winter Soldier and how much he had loved it. Everyone who had seen it agreed, and those who hadn’t all said they were looking forward to it. I said, “I love the way Marvel is creating a film universe, just like they have in the comics. Even on TV, the way Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is tying into Winter Soldier.

“Yeah, said my friend the geek surgeon, “It’s cool, isn’t it?”

“I love that show,” somebody said.

“I love Deathlok,” someone else said.

“Phil Coulson is so cool.”

“I love when Samuel Jackson shows up as Nick Fury,” said the medical student.

Then the third year resident said, “I love Deadpool.”

Dr. C—- said, “The X-Men rock! Did you know that they’re making Claremont and Byrne’s Days Of Future Past into a movie?”

The circulator said, “Hugh Jackman rocks!”

“They should make a movie about Gambit,” said the first year resident. “He’s always been my favorite.”

“And Rogue,” I said.

“I like Mystique,” said the rep from the company supplying the implants.

“Yeah,” said Dr. C—-. “Steve likes naked blue-skinned ladies.”

And for the next 90 minutes, as the case progressed, the surgical team talked about the X-Men and Iron Man and Thor and [[[Man Of Steel]]] and all things comics.

Yep, last Thursday the universe snapped me out of it…

And the surgery was successful, too.

  • For those of you who don’t, George R.R. Martin is the award-winning author of the series of books that started with Game Of Thrones.

REVIEW: 47 Ronin

47 RobinProperly channeling Japanese culture for American audiences has been a challenge given how different our tastes and expectations are. We find the content of much of their Manga and anime either not to our taste or outright incomprehensible. So, the challenge of adapting their bushido Edo-era and adding in some powerful fantasy into [[[47 Ronin]]] was going to be a challenge. Mix in American performer Keanu Reeves as a half-breed you have an uphill challenge in making the film palatable to enough moviegoers to justify the $170 million budget.

It has some terrific concepts and incredible visuals but it’s a mess of a movie, with a long, sluggish middle that loses the audience. Even amazing CG and a strong Asian cast can’t support a messy script.

The story, in short: Lord Asano Naganori (Min Tanaka) is disgraced after the efforts of Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), conspires with a shape-shifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi). He commits seppuku and Kira takes charge of Asano’s family by arranging for him to marry Asano’s daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki). She agrees to the marriage but extracts a promise to have a year to mourn her father. Asano’s 47 samurai has acknowledged the deviltry that befell their master and they become ronin, masterless samurai, vowing revenge. Enter Kai (Reeves), who just happens to be in love with Mika, who partners with Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the ronin’s leader.

While the action is swell along with some stuff I have not seen before, the characters are flat, one-dimensional. There are the brooding glances, clichéd dialogue, and predictable character beats that spoil the film’s potential. Much of this is a result of delays in shooting, studio interference and an emphasis on visual wonder and not enough on content. The film was a major bomb in the United States, bringing in under $40 million. As a result, you likely missed this last winter but can make up for it now with the Blu-ray release from Universal Home Entertainment. The video transfer is stunning with equally strong sound.

Clearly, the studio gave up on the film and went with a perfunctory suite of extras including four Deleted Scenes (8:00), which are interesting but easily excised; a brief Re-Forging the Legend (7:00); Keanu & Kai (4:00); Steel Fury (6:00), which looks at the film’s training, swordplay and battles; and Myths, Magic & Monsters (8:00).

The film is a curiosity and there are glimpses of what it could have been.

Dennis O’Neil Wants Credit For Captain America: The Winter Soldier

You probably don’t know this because it almost certainly isn’t in any of the books about the comic book racket and it happened before most you were born — in the neighborhood of 50 years — and even if you’d been there, in the offices of Marvel comics when Marvel was part of a parent company, Magazine Management, you might not have known about it and if you did know about it you might have forgotten by now because we are talking a half-century here, but… I once wrote Captain America and I’m pretty sure I used fewer words than are in this sentence.

And — stand aside now and watch your head — I hereby claim credit for the current, and generally excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film now playing at a theater near you, unless you live somewhere that is seriously rural.