05 November 2011

Leah's Musical Revue: Codes and Keys

    Yes, I meant to write "revue" rather than "review", because in the ideal world of my mind, this is not a post, but rather a segment that has its own little circus-type theme song and is "light theatrical entertainment", as the dictionary definition of "revue" demands. If I write another one, it will be "Leah's Musical Reveille", and it will be a wake up call. Metaphorically or literally? You won't know until it happens. 
    Anyway, while the title might be light and cheery, the subject matter isn't exactly: I'm talking about Death Cab For Cutie's...most recent album (I can't actually call it their new album since it's been out for quite some time). I'm not exactly at the cutting edged forefront of modern music, so it takes me a while to get to these things, so bear with me. I will admit, I do like Death Cab, once I got past its silly name and learned to embrace the emo-ness of most of its music. But all of that being said, this band has a horrifically skewed worldview-- but, to their credit, they don't hide it at all.
     In their new album, Codes and Keys, they (I always get confused here; are bands "it"s or "they"s?) state over and over again their predominant belief-- that love is more important than anything and is the only really true thing in this world. It's the same idea they put forth in Into the Dark, a song about two people in the afterlife:" No blinding lights / no tunnels to gates of white / just our hands clasped so tight / waiting for the hint of a spark," If heaven and hell decide / that they both are satisfied / illuminate the "no"s on their vacancy signs/ if there's no one beside you when your soul embarks, then I'll follow you into the dark".
     This view becomes even more clear as the song continues, as it explores the religious background of the singer: "In Catholic school, / as vicious as Roman rule, / I had my knuckles bruised,/ by a lady in black / I held my tongue / as she told me, 'Listen, son / fear is the heart of love'/ So I never went back."
    I know, I just quoted a lot of the song. I could have shortened it, but that would have messed up the rhyme scheme and I just couldn't bear to do that. And besides, it's important-- you really see where they're coming from here: religion= if not downright evil, at least misused and unnecessary, love= the only ultimate, transcendent reality.
    And that's the same thing that's displayed through Codes and Keys, and it sometimes comes out explicitly: especially in St. Peter's Cathedral (...when our hearts stop ticking, / This is the end and there's nothing past this) and most clearly in Unobstructed Views (There's no eye in the sky, / just our love / No unobstructed view, no perfect truth, / just our love), and I'm pretty sure you can see it in Portable Television, but honestly, I can't make heads or tails of that song. Now, that's a pretty bleak portrait of the world(and also, I'm pretty certain, contextually incorrect, "no unobstructed view" = double negative = obstructed view).
     What's the big problem with it? Well, I don't know if you've read your gossip magazines lately or stopped by Yahoo News on your way to checking all those important emails you have, but Ben Gibbard (the lead singer for Death Cab For Cutie) is splitting up with his wife of 2+ years, actress Zooey Deschanel. So if you carry out Gibbard's viewpoint to its full extent-- and remember, "there's no eye / in the sky / just our love"-- if his love doesn't last, then what is there worth living for?
    Of course, Gibbard isn't going to find the answer pursuing other romantic relationships. And he's not going to find it in the Catholic church or St. Peter's Cathedral. The only place it can be found is in the true gospel of Jesus Christ, but I think Gibbard has been vaccinated against anything he perceives as "religion" (not, of course, that God couldn't change his heart!). But in the meantime, it's interesting-- and saddening-- to see someone with such a skewed worldview "waiting for the hint of a spark".

02 November 2011

Superhero Appreciation 4: X-Men Part 2

    I don't know if I can call this an "appreciation" in good conscience, since it's really more of a disapproving rant, but there you go. I finally watched X-Men: First Class (I know, I'm a sorry excuse for a nerd), and it was...disappointing, to say the least.
    Where to start? Granted, I was watching it with a group of friends, and with a group (especially this group) it's never easy to take a movie too seriously. So my opinion might be bit skewed, but still, you'll get the gist. We ended up fast forwarding basically half of it. There were far more strippers and scenes in strip clubs than were necessary, ever (of course, the necessary number is 0). But even aside from inappropriate elements, the movie is just badly done. What could have been a touching and intriguing look at Erik's and Charles' friendship just devolves into a mass pudding of characters, bad dialogue, and, confused plotlines.
    Did I say bad dialogue? Cause I really mean horrific, cardboard, Lucas-worthy dialogue (and I say that with all love to Lucas, because while his dialogue may be cringe-worthy, he more than makes up for it by being a master of story, which these folks clearly aren't). My favorite line of the movie was Magneto's: "Unfortunately, you killed my mother." That is indeed unfortunate.
     The actors are all good-- in fact, excellent-- but most of their roles were either one dimensional or not given enough screen time to really be explored. Of course, all of the X-Men films have been ensemble movies (except for Wolverine), but they all focused around main characters (like Rogue and Wolverine in the first one; they were clearly the focus, while people like Professor X, Scott, and Jean had clearly defined smaller roles). In First Class, we know that the main focus is supposed to be Erik and Charles, since, after all, they're on the poster, but we couldn't really guess that from the movie. James McAvoy is a thoroughly unlikable Charles Xavier (which is hard to do, considering it's James McAvoy) who really leaves no impression one way or another. He's only interesting because of what we know he becomes, not on his own right. Erik, for his part, is a bit more memorable, but only because he almost exudes evil-- something which, honestly, Magneto shouldn't do at this point in his history, and which kind of ruins the effect when Ian McKellen is far less menacing than his supposedly on-the-good-side earlier incarnation.
    Far more of the focus seems to be on Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, who I found it hard to judge objectively judge since I was so busy trying to imagine her as Katniss. I can say though, that she certainly wore a lot of micro-skirts that not only got in the way of historical accuracy but ran over it with a train), That Nerd Who Becomes Beast Whose Name I Can't Remember, the guy from Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" music video, a chick of dubious profession who has wings and is called Angel (not to be confused with this guy. I know, it's confusing since they're in the same series and have the same name. Although don't get either of them confused with this guy either), and like, I don't know, Kevin Bacon, but he's evil, and he has like this evil red demon guy who can teleport or whatever....
    See? It's character soup. The main focus should be Erik, Charles, and their backstory. Instead, it ends up trying to split screentime between these two groups and really barely every has them interact (end when they do, it feels so awkward: Charles telling Mystique that he's disappointed in her or Erik looking old-man-amused by the young folk's nicknames. In case I'm not making myself clear here (and I have a funny hunch that I'm not), it doesn't work. We end up not investing in any of the characters.
     All of that being said, this movie had one redeeming feature, and it was an important one: the climax/ending. It was really the only time when we saw true emotional conflict, turmoil, and character development between Magneto and Xavier, as we witness Xavier being shot and Magneto choosing to save him even though their goals are clearly polar opposites at this point. While that moment cam close to being worth the whole movie, it mostly just made me wish the whole movie could have been like that. X-Men: First Class is a movie that tried to do too much and failed, while if it had set out to do one thing and do it well, it could have been excellent. 

21 October 2011

Some Thoughts After a Long Day...

...that promises to be repeated tomorrow. Anyway:
      I spent a good 5 hours sewing today. It's not often that I get to sew in that concentrated an amount, but since it was just addressed LAST WEEK that this year's Reformation Party will deal with the Scottish Reformation rather than Luther and the start of the Protestant Reformation. Which means I have to make a Celtic-y/Highland-y dress, because I can't help myself. Believe me, I tried-- I finished an absolutely gorgeous, medieval-style gown that I am in love with (actually, it's Yvaine's dress from Stardust. The blue one. Stardust is one of those things that I love greatly and inexplicably. Claire Danes herself is another). Anyway.
     In between sewing and studying, I had time to read a few of Chesterton's old articles (I found a book of them at a used book store. Used bookstores rock), and was particularly struck by one on "Victorian Sensibilities and Modern Fiction"...or something like that. I could look it up, but as I've said, it's been a long day. Anyway, in it Chesterton said, and I think it still applies to today's fiction, that most modern authors don't start with basic moral truths, and instead spend their entire book searching for some kind of truth. He compared it to the difference between "searching" and "researching"-- the searcher knows what he is looking for, while the researcher is just seeing what he can find. Someone like Dante had a basis, an assumption of absolute truth from which his stories sprung, while modern authors don't assume this absolute truth and spend their books searching for some kind of moral law. While this can be interesting to read, it's ultimately hallow.
   That's a really fascinating perspective, and I want to apply it to some modern TV shows/movies as well as books, since it's definitely prevalent there.
   Also, just curious, is anyone else as absolutely freaked out as I am by trying to shave while having a leg cramp? It feels like you're gonna slice your calf in half. Truth??

18 October 2011

My Evil Powers

So, you know how sometimes you say something, and the the exact opposite thing happens? The "jinx" effect? Well, I have the reverse of that...if I complain about it, I kill it.
     Case in point (spoiler alert if you've missed out on the past century-and-change), the first time I read The Man in the Iron Mask, I mentioned casually that Porthos was super annoying and pretty useless. You have to admit this is true. The only reason he agreed to do anything in TMITIM (That's an acronym for The Man in the Iron Mask. I thought it would roll off the tongue better.) is because he was convinced he was going to be made a baron-- which is the exact motivation he had ten years earlier in Twenty Years After (I'm right here: do the math with me: Three Musketeers + Twenty Years= Twenty Years After + The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later = The Man in the Iron Mask. Nothing simpler). Anyway, even if he is annoying...and fat...and kind of dumb, Porthos is essentially harmless, and I really didn't wish any harm on him. But after I said that he was useless, LO AND BEHOLD, a few chapters later, Porthos died. I couldn't help but feel partially responsible.
    Which brings me to my next point, which needs some background info (and probably lots more parenthetical statements). I've been watching Doctor Who, the new series that started in 2005, because it's on Netflix, I'd heard it was good, and I needed it to replace my other sci-fi shows which have all been either 1. Cancelled or 2. massively inappropriate after luring me into a sense of false security. Anyway, it is really good, and I'm in love with David Tennant, but a few days ago I mentioned that Rose can be well, kind of annoying. Which is, again, true, but that doesn't mean I don't like her. Annoyingness can be endearing. But after I said that, LO AND BEHOLD (and once again, spoiler alert, but this time only if you've missed out on the past six years or so of super nerdiness) she gets stuck in a parallel universe never to return. Just because I'm occasionally annoyed by her pouty lips and overdone eye makeup doesn't mean I want her in an alternate, Doctor-less universe!!
So from now on, I'm only going to say bad things about characters that I really want to disappear/be killed off. And maybe find some more current franchises.

20 September 2011

Hearing from Lewis

     I love reading authors' letters. It really makes you feel like you know them, and plus, it's just interesting to see how much effort people put into communication back in the day-- you read these beautiful, long letters by these brilliant people who chose their words so carefully, and it kind of makes you regret the two word long Facebook message you just sent.
    I have a book of T.H. White's letters (which is really quite hilarious. He would invite over all the people in the town who didn't get along so that he could sit back and watch them fight rather than try to make conversation), a book of John Keats' letters to Fanny Brown (although I got it at a discount bookstore so it picks up on page 37. Oh well, it's still beautiful), and a book containing a few of Lewis Carroll's. I've also read some of Lewis' Letters to Children (which are so sweet). But what I just found--well, not just, about two months ago actually--is a huge, fat book of C.S. Lewis' letters, addressed to people like his brother and Dorothy Sayers. Anyway....
    All of this long introduction just to share one wonderful quote about writing from a letter Lewis wrote to a lady name Joan Lancaster on June 26, 1956:
"[Wordsworth's] Prelude (you're bound to read it about ten years hence. Don't try it  now, or you'll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer, you'll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across."

19 September 2011

Five Random Things

I don't actually have five things in mind as I'm starting this post. It is inspired by a friend who told me I should post more (actually though, now that I think about it, she didn't say I should post more, just pointed out that I didn't post very often. Maybe she thought that was a good thing...). So. I should post more, but I don't have interesting things to post about very often (or some could argue not at all). Which means this is either an exercise in superficiality, or accidentally interesting. Won't it be exciting to see which it is??? (Hint: No, it won't.)
*I have too much homework, but I love it all (except for US History at some points). Right now, my very very favorite is reading St. Augustine's City of God for Omnibus V...it's wonderful when you have to read a book for school and you end up loving it. It's interesting because he'll bring up points I've never thought of, and address points I'm pretty familiar with in such a way as to make me re-examine all of my assumptions about said topics. For example, in his discussion of free will vs. God's sovereignty, he explains that our wills are a part of God's sovereignty...but of course, he says it in a much clearer, better, and more thought-provoking way. Also, his discussion of creation as the origin of time is fascinating-- you'd think it's hard enough to comprehend God existing through all eternity, let alone God existing through all eternity, without time...but it makes sense, because there are no changes in God in eternity and so no need for time to measure anything until changeable creation is formed (but again, he says it much more better-er. It is a drawring of a key. sorry.)
*The Man in the Iron Mask is on Netflix now. Don't watch it. Seriously...because aside from all the unnecessary innapropriateness added, why would any rational human being change Dumas' story....ever? I would even understand adapting it for screen, but just...changing plotlines on a whime?? No sir. If The Man in the Iron Mask ends with only one musketeer dead, you're doing something wrong. Especially if Porthos isn't the one. And what is the rationale for changing Louise's name to Christine? So we could have the unnecessary confusion of another couple with the appellations Raoul and Christine? The movie also turned the character of d'Artagnan completely on its head (not literally, though that would have been far more visually interesting) by having his loyalty to the king outweigh his loyalty to his friends for the majority of the plot. In the book, he struggles between the two but is unswervingly loyal to his friends when push comes to shove. Also, Athos doesn't hate d'Artagnan in the book because the king doesn't command Raoul to go to war-- Raoul goes voluntarily. Also, Athos isn't as creepy in the book because he's not played by John Malkovich.
     Anyway, lots of words to say: Read the book. It's awesome.
*If The Man in the Iron Mask was a point against Netflix, it gains them back by adding the first (and alas, only) season of Running Wilde to its instant queue (and no, you don't want to know how long it just took me to figure out how to spell queue). The latest in Will Arnett's line of cancelled TV shows, it's hilarious and brilliant. But apparently, I am the only person in the world who thinks so. As Will Arnett tweeted upon the show's cancellation, though his version contained more expletives, "I guess America doesn't like jokes". It's really a tremendous show though (and manages to stay fairly appropriate for the most part, mostly due to the 12-year-old narrator). And the best character is the neighbor Fa'ad who gets his "Bs" confused with his "Vs". "Ohhhh... you meant Stebe's cavin!!!" This is FUNNY STUFF PEOPLE. LAUGH DARN IT.
*I watched the Emmys last night. What can I say, I was really tired so even though I should have been reading City of God (see first random article), I watched the Emmys instead. Not all of it, mind you. I think I picked it up at about the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series point. So I was on pins and needles all night wondering whether or not Steve Carell had won (even though I suppose I could have just looked it up. Hindsight is 20/20. Like I said, I was tired). Well, he hadn't....boo Emmys. Although due to it I've had "Hallelujah" stuck in my head all day, and even though that song loses 90% of its magic when sung by more than one person, and especially if it is sung by the group of persons who singing it last night, they retained 10% of magic by singing the Leonard Cohen version as opposed to the Jeff Buckley version with which I'm more familiar, so I hadn't heard a lot of the lyrics before. The additional verses were pretty beautiful, and I'm inspired to maybe listen to some non-Buckley versions
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
*And lastly...hmmmm... fifth random thing...Ohhh. Something artsy/klutzy. Veritas' Art Studio II started up a few weeks ago, greatly exciting me... looking at the syllabus and seeing things like "sculpture" and "book cover/illustration" is just an exciting experience. The first assignment was a self portrait, so I did what any rationally thinking person would do: placed a ridiculously heavy mirror on a skinny art easel (for portability, you know). Well as I'm sure you could predict, the mirror fell (hindsight is, once again, 20/20). I was just happy it didn't break because this mirror is, quite possibly, the coolest thing I own...I got it at a garage sale for $5, and it's made out of wood, and it's circular with a half moon on the side. Anyway, it didn't break but the little clasps that hold the mirror on the back did so there are only two left and actually, as I'm thinking about this, the mirror could fall again at any moment and now I'm kind of looking at it askance.
      That story was a lot more boring and less charmingly entertaining than I had predicted. Hmmm. Anyway. This has been fun, but I think five random things is too much and will lead to many TL,DNRs (Too Long, Did Not Read). Maybe three next time. Or something actually interesting to post about!!

06 September 2011

Superhero Appreciation 3: Iron Man, X-Men, and Marvel's Box Office Success

      Marvel has been doing exceptionally well at the box office lately. I mean...they've had their share of flops: 2008's The Incredible Hulk hulked away without great success, and while Fantastic Four did pretty well in 2004,  its 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, made significantly less. (An aside: how crazy would it be if the Fantastic Four showed up in The Avengers and Chris Evans had to play Captain America and Johnny Storm?). However, by and large they've managed to do far, far better than DC has in the theater (I say by and large because DC still has one major, major franchise going: the new Batman series. But other than that...I mean, movies like The Green Lantern and The Green Hornet, while monochromatic, weren't big box office or critical successes).
     Iron Man was. Which I think kind of surprised everyone, since before that, Iron Man wasn't too well known -- at least, his name wasn't ubiquitous, like Super-Man or Spider-Man. (Aside in which I give up a significant amount of geek cred: it's hard for me to remember that Iron Man is Marvel sometimes, since he doesn't meet my litmus test for Marvel characters which is: "Did I meet/see this character on Marvel Superhero Island at Islands of Adventure? If not, it's probably DC or some anime nonsense"). The point though, is that Iron-Man is Marvel, and his movie did amazingly, probably due in large part to Robert Downey Jr.'s hilarious yet endearing portrayal of Tony Stark (and I also happen to think Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts is one of the best Marvel women out there, far more likable than Mary Jane and more real than Sue Storm). Iron Man was current, humorous, and action-packed--a perfect summer movie.  The only thing it really lacked, in my opinion, was a completely convincing villain (Jeff Bridges is awesome, but the whole weird robots villain duel thing...not really workin' for me). Iron-Man 2 continued the trend of awesomeness, although now that I think of it, I have next to no memory of it. Did Nick Fury or at least Samuel L. Jackson show up and was there a giant donut involved at some point?? Please, somebody help me, I swear I didn't dream this...).
     The X-Men are another of the jewels in Marvel's box office crown. All the movies so far have made quite a bit of money, and while critics and people in general didn't really care for the sloppy third movie, X-Men: The Last Stand, it did better in the box office than any of the other X-Men movies (obviously, since they went on to make two prequels). Interestingly, X-Men: First Class, the most recent movie, was the weakest box office performer. Personally, I enjoy the sequels, but my true devotion is to the first X-Men and is manifested in watching the DVD over and over again. I haven't seen First Class yet, but it comes out on DVD this Friday so I suppose I'll see it at some point here.
    Marvel does character-based superhero movies like nobody else. Think about it: would Iron Man be at all entertaining if Tony Stark acted like Steve Rogers? Would Captain America be anything but cringe-inducing if Chris Rogers acted like Tony Stark? Hypothesis contrary to fact, I know, but the point still remains: these movies are awesome because they have great characters. They don't need to have great stories (although a lot of them-- dare I say even most of them--do). They let us get to know the characters and care about them. Not that they're the only company that does this, of course, every moviemaker tries to employ this strategy. But Marvel has such strong characters already in place that it is easy for them to bring those characters to immediate, believable life on the screen.
    So that's my brief analysis of Marvel and the Box office, one that I am sure does not even begin to scratch the surface of the true reasons these movies have done so well. You of course are welcome to conjecture in your own mind as to what the reason might be. It turns out it's fascinating to compare box office profits. For me of course, probably not you. Since you probably have a 'life' and all that boring stuff.

31 August 2011

Superhero Appreciation 2: Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman

    Superman is, of course, the archetypal, classic superhero. He has awesome powers-- super-speed, flight, X-ray vision, not to mention invulnerability. Speaking of, does anybody else think that Kryptonite shows up waaay more than it has any right to? I mean, writers have to bring it in since it's basically the only thing that can defeat him and add any interest to the story. Without Kryptonite, Superman is just an unkillable dude who goes around saving people. It's nice, but it's not very heroic-- he's not risking anything by fighting for truth, justice, and the American  International Smorgasboard Melting-Diversity Pot Awareness Way. In fact, he'd kind of be a tool if he didn't fight crime. I mean, what was he gonna be like? "Duuuude I can totally  punch this kid in the face and no one will even be able to do anything about it cuz I'm the MAN OF STEEL!"
    But anyway, back to wherever the Kryptonite comes from. I'm certain there are plenty of comic-book explanations, and maybe they even address it in the movies and I just don't remember but...Krypton was destroyed, and yet somehow anyone who's even casually interested in fighting Superman can get a hold of some kryptonite.
     Also, apparently he has an asthmatic son and something about whatever whatever, did anyone even watch Superman Returns?
     Oh, Spider-Man. That superhero of superheroes. That paragon of virtue, patriotism, and strength. Also, he's my favorite.
     Now, I know there's a whole slew of you comic-book lovers out there who look down on my generation for our Sam Raimi-derived impression of Spider-Man and our zealously willing suspension of disbelief that accepts Tobey Maguire as a high-school-aged Peter Parker. But I mean...come on, those movies are awesome! The first one was a classic, the second was considered by some to be the greatest superhero movie of all time (at least until The Dark Knight came out). And the third one...well...it was at least...amusing? I guess? Oh, and it had Bryce Dallas Howard in it.
     But anyway... I know everyone's affection for the webslinger might not be as fervent as mine, so let me get a little more personal for a second and try to explain why Spider-Man resonates so much with me. First reason: Peter Parker. Hard as it may be to believe, especially considering this post's topic, I am a nerd. So of course I love Peter Parker and identify with him (and did so even more when I was twelve).  Even after Peter becomes Spider-Man, he's not perfect. He still messes up, he shrinks from heroism-- but then he tries to do what's right. And while most other superheroes have hallow alter-egos that just kind of fill the space in between crime scenes, you always know that Spider-Man is Peter, and he's going to react like Peter and share the same priorities.
    One other reason the Spider-Man movies are so awesome: the supporting characters aren't cardboard (even if Franco's acting is). Yeah, Mary Jane is super annoying at times (and she totally doesn't deserve Peter at all, but I've gotten over that and I'm not even a little bit bitter even slightly), but she comes across as a real person. Real people can be annoying at times. And yes, Willem Dafoe  is super creepy and all (seriously, freeze frame his face at any given point in the first Spider-Man, especially during those internal monologue scenes? Terrifying.), and I seriously wonder sometimes if Franco's acting is satyric performance art, poking ironic deadpan fun at bad acting-- you know, like he would shoot a scene and then post on some secret password-protected website about it, like, "haha guys, just did a scene under the influence of 3 different drugs-- im still better than tobey lol l8r" and then he'd shoot another scene the same day and be like "Just shot a scene that is, without a doubt, my magnum opus. Never has such perfection, such nuance of emotion, been captured on film by the human hand, soon to reach the human heart." and then later been like, "Lol, just kidding, I was on four drugs when I did that scene". And he only showed that password-protected blog to his three best friends, two homeless guys and a deformed trumpet player, so he could monitor their reactions for the documentary he was planning to do about them. Because that's totally something he would do, and what else could be going on? He just can't act? No no, I saw this man host the Oscars, and he is cinematic and charismatic gold, I am telling you--
    Whoa. I think that paragraph just bit its own paranthetical-statement-laden head off. But anyway, the point is, even if Norman and Harry are unconvincing at times, the tension in their relationship is anything but and really adds a dimension of personal feeling, both to the villain story and Peter and Harry's friendship.
     Or if you want the short answer....I'm just in love with Spider-Man.
Alright, I'm afraid it's hard for me to be objective about superheroes. If I have an abnormal amount of love for Spider-Man, I likewise have an abnormal amount of dislike for Batman. The dislike isn't without basis though, I mean, look-- when any other superhero comes to a crime scene, there's an immediate sense of comfort, relief, and imminent deliverance from danger. When Batman arrives at a crime scene, he makes it at leas 10X creepier. Another pet peeve: his only super power is "having lots of money". He's a superhero only on the absis of equipment, which I understand is kind of a thing now, what with Iron-Man, and even Andrew Garfield is supposed to swing into the May 2012 Spider-Man reboot with mechanical webshooters. But it still just feels like cheating to me.
    Also, Bruce Wayne just isn't that relatable or compelling. His only motivation seemes to be, "parents dead, scared of bats" and his whole alter-ego life consists of social galas and special invitations. Additionally, back to my first point...Batman's just creepy. Tim Burton's stylized, comic-book Batman and the recent, brooding Dark Knight are both wonderful movies with very distinct feels, but they're both dark and they're both creepy in different ways. The only time Batman's not scary is in the movies that came out in the late 90s, like Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. In those, he's just goofy and possibly homosexual.
     A caveat in the anti-Batman screed: The Dark Knight is an amazing movie and deserved every bit of hype and praide it got. It knew the tone it wanted and just went for it-- no attempts to lighten things up, just a plunge into the depths of human nature, sin, and despair. It succeeded because it was so original-- it's not what most superhero movies are like.
     I'm sure Batman Begins was going for a similar dark feel, but I don't think it succeeded. Watching Batman Begins feels kind of like watching the opera that Bruce's parents go to, if you mixed in Kung-Fu Panda, Qui-Gonn Jinn, and set the whole thing on a mountain with Katie HolmesMaggieGyllenhaal noonewillnotice. I did not care for Batman Begins.

So there it is-- as objective a critique as it is humanly possibly for me to write concerning the Big Three of the Superhero Universe.

24 August 2011

Superhero Appreciation 1: Captain America

     I started this post originally as a commentary on superheroes and superhero movies in general, but then I realized it was getting way too long for one post and I'd need to devote several posts to these masked crusaders. And yes, I also realized that I'm a geek. So, up first and most recently, Captain America. Captain America is the only superhero movie I went to this summer--Green Hornet slipped by me (and was not sorely missed), I still do want to see Thor (if only because the titular character will be in Joss Whedon's 2012 The Avengers), and I joined millions of theatergoers in joyfully not seeing The Green Lantern.
    Anyway, even without having seen any others, I think I can venture to guess that Captain America was the best superhero movie out this summer, judging by what the critics have said and how enjoyable it was. I don't know if it "redeemed the superhero genre" as some critics went so far as to say, but it certainly had a fresh, original feel, engaging characters, and a basic element that a lot of superhero movies lately have skipped over-- the protagonist is a decent human being (more on that later).
     One thing I loved about it was the period feel-- and while it was shockingly not the only World War II Superhero movie out this summer (X-Men: First Class shared the setting, if  not quite the box office returns), it's still unusual to see superheroes in an old-timey setting, and it's a lot of fun.
    The best thing about this movie, in many ways, is the protagonist himself-- Steve Rogers/Captain America. He's not angst-ridden and tormented like The Dark Knight's Batman, and he's not snarky and lackadaisical like Iron Man's Tony Stark. He's just a good guy who wants to fight Nazis, and that's kind of refreshing after seeing egotistic heroes in most recent superhero movies-- think Peter Parker's selfish emo transformation in Spider-Man 3 and Wolverine's personal quests and gruffness in Origins and even the first X-Men. But the winner who absolutely takes the cake for least likable protagonist has to be Ryan Reynold's Hal Jordan-- like I said, I skipped The Green Lantern but the trailer alone was enough to reveal that his character was a cringe-inducingly arrogant jerk (which probably contributed to the movie's flop-- most protagonists like Spider-Man and Wolverine, even with their flaws, are deep down likable, while Hal Jordan is...not).
    Some of Captain America's secondary characters are pretty strong too, especially Dr. Abraham, Tony Stark's dad, and Steve's best friend Bucky. However, the few things that fall flat about the movie also come as a result of secondary characters; the love story involving Peggy, the stern British soldier is unconvincing (we're not really too sad to hear that he ended up missing their date by *SPOILER ALERT* 60 years, and he doesn't seem to be either), and the villain (Hugo Weaving, who should probably have taken the blue pill and stayed in the Matrix) is well...silly. At least he is after he pulls his face off-- before, when he's just a regular ol' Nazi, he is genuinely kind of creepifying, but the second that Elrond mask comes off to reveal a crimson Voldemort, he loses all dignity.
   Okay, sidenote: speaking of the villains, and this is probably just me but...the aquatic symbolism in this movie is whack. Okay, so Red Skull's organization is Hydra, but their symbol is an octopus...why?? Octupi have multiple legs, Hydra had multiple heads. Not the same thing. And then towards the end of the movie, Red Skull's ship is shaped like a manta ray, which is super cool but still left me wondering...is every aquatic animal fair game for the Nazis to exploit to represent themselves?
    The storyline is pretty strong, although as some of the reviews point out, the second half lapses mostly into  a lot of indeterminable battle scenes, which is a bit of a disappointment after the unique situations of the first act. Other elements of the plot are not given sufficient explanation, for example, the exact powers and properties of the tesseract are unclear, which is kind of frustrating when it's something so central to the plot. Until further knowledge is revealed I'm just going to have to go the L'Engle route and assume that Red Skull is now chillin with Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. I also have to say, the last scene is genuinely surprising, although I knew something had to happen to get Captain America into (SPOILER ALERT) present day if he was gonna join Iron Man, Thor, and the rest of the crew in The Avengers ( please allow me a *Joss Whedon squee!!!!*).
   Anyway, all in all Captain America is a pretty strong superhero movie and a fairly strong movie in general. It has some language, but other than that ends up being fairly appropriate (since, after all, "fondue is just bread and cheese, buddy"). It actually exemplifies some pretty strong morals, and while it's only "Christian" in the sense that most superheroes are Christ figures, a lot of its core principals are worth holding onto. Self-sacrifice is portrayed clearly, especially one instance when Steve is training at the army camp and a grenade is thrown into his group (the grenade is a dummy, but the soldiers don't know that). The general shouts "Grenade!" and everyone ducks for cover, except for Steve, who jumps on top of the grenade and tells everyone else to run away. Additionally, the night before Steve is to undergo the experiment, Dr. Abraham tells him, Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man." We too have to stay true to who we are in spite of changes and circumstances-- not in a cheesy, follow-your-heart-and-be-whoever-you-want-to-be sort of way, but in an identity-found-in-Christ kind of way.

31 May 2011

The Tides Aren't Really All That Stranger This Time Around

Warning: Here there be spoilers!  
     I think most people will go to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides some time this summer. It's the big summer movie that's out right now and the previous three movies were huge box office (if not critical) successes. However, while the first Pirates movie was original, interesting, and entertaining, after being dragged through the indiscernible muddle that was the sequels, I (and I know that I must not be alone in this) have had considerable trouble drumming up excitement for a new installment. However, a group of my friends decided to go and I had a little extra babysitting money so, I went. And it was okay.
     Which is really all you could expect of it. As the fourth addition to a series that I would argue ran out of clever/original material with the second movie, I don't think anyone is expecting it to be Citizen Cane. It at least has a cohesive, self-contained plot (which cannot be said of 2 and 3) which, while not enormously original, is entertaining enough. Aside from a few clever scenes (the mermaids are genius, even if they were mainly inserted in the film as an excuse to have lots of half-naked bodies slithering across the screen, and one scene where Jack escapes capture in a very innovative way involving a palm tree and rope), there's nothing here that we haven't seen--and that hasn't been done better-- in the previous three films.
     The one way that On Stranger Tides did stand out was in its spiritual content, something on which none of the previous Pirates movies had focused so extensively. The new character that they added (I suppose mainly as a Will Turner replacement) of a young missionary on board Blackbeard's ship was fascinating. I was dissapointed in his storyline though; I thought it was going to be a pretty sharp, beautiful allegory. When the pirates capture a mermaid (because they need her tears to unlock the fountain of life...I told you the plot was easier to follow than that of 2 or 3. That doesn't mean it's a piece of cake), they're all cruel to her except for the missionary. When her tank breaks, the captain tells her to walk or die, but she is unable to walk. The missionary picks her up, and she says to him, "I didn't ask for your help," and he responds, "No, but you need it." Which is, really, an amazing picture of God and us-- we would never on our own come to Him for help, but he helps us anyway. However, after showing compassion to her (and I hoped so very much that her character would be redeemed), their storyline ends when she drags him to the bottom of the sea and drowns him. Bummer.
     Another striking example of the heightened spiritual awareness of this film occurs when Jack and the rest finally do reach the Fountain of Youth. Before any can drink it, the Spanish king comes and destroys it, saying, "Why do you seek here what only God can give?" (eternal life).
     So it had its few good parts and its very few thought provoking parts. But all-in-all, it's just a summer popcorn movie-- and it doesn't really pretend to be anything else. Which I respect. In originality it is totally lacking, not ripping off its precursors alone (I think they may have actually used footage from the Will/Jack Blacksmith Shop Duel scene in the original instead of going to all the trouble of shooting new footage for the Penelope Cruz/Jack Sparrow duel {inter-parenthetical-comment-parenthetical-comment: Yes, I've already forgotten what Penelope Cruz's character was named. No, I don't care to look it up.}) but also ripping off other movies (notably, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The last scene of Pirates is the exact same as the last scene of Crusade, if you replace the Holy Grail with the Fountain of Youth. And Henry Jones Sr. with Blackbeard. And Harrison Ford with Johnny Depp, which you should never, ever do.)
      And finally, (and I think we were leading up to this with 2 and 3), Jack Sparrow just does not work as the sole, main character. A protagonist is supposed to be someone we can identify with, and in the original Pirates we had that with Will Turner (and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth). He was young, impressionable, amazed by all the piratey/supernatural goings-on, yet still courageous and willing to face it. In other words, he was a normal person. Jack Sparrow is a great character, but he is most definitely not normal. And when he is the protagonist that we're supposed to relate to, there's a problem there. Of course, he's become normal to us because 2 and 3 went so over the top crazy with supernatural beings, krakens, giant goddessess--he was the most normal thing around for a while, and that's a problem. The Pirates movies topped themselves out a long time ago, and in the process cheapened a great character-- made someone delighfully abnormal normal.
     And Jack's not the only one they've done it to, they've done it with the whole tone of their movies. In the original Pirates, we weren't sure what genre exactly to expect: it started out as a period romance, turned into a period drama, launched into an action film, dipped briefly into thriller territory...it was its own genre, but by the 2nd and 3rd movies, it knew it was its own genre and so did we, and we knew what to expect in that genre. So what made the first one so interesting, that element of surprise and shock that we feel when Elizabeth stabs Barbossa and he pulls the knife out, unharmed, is completely missing when in every battle fifteen soldiers are killed and come immediately back to life with no explanation (seriously. In the fourth one, at one point they stab a guy and he just pulls the blade out and keeps fighting. No explanation).
    So, while it's a fun movie, On Stranger Tides is predictable and not any sort of cinematic milestone. It kind of knows that, though, and doesn't try to hard to make you think otherwise. So it's a fun movie to see once, just like 2 and 3. However, it's not gonna go down as a classic, which I genuinely think the first one might ("classic" in the Indiana Jones/Jurassic Park sense, not the Gone with the Wind sense. So we're clear).

17 February 2011

Les Miserables

(A note of apology in advance: This is not very well written or well thought out. My computer is pretty much busted and makes it impossible to spend too long copy editing…)

I know, I know I don't post very often. But if you had any idea how many drafts I've started and abandoned!! I have trouble thinking up blog posts that would actually be interesting. Anyway...
    Les Miserables came down here for about two weeks...and they happened to be the two weeks surrounding my birthday. So my wonderful brother got tickets for us, because he knows that that's my favorite musical/story ever and I had been dropping not-so-subtle hints that I wanted to go for well...several months. (I’m not going to be summarizing the plot in any sort of cohesive way…so you’ll kind of have to be familiar with the story).

    Honestly...I think this is my favorite musical. It's hard to pick because there are so many good ones, but after seeing this one in its entirety (and not just the 10th anniversary DVD where they use microphones and Marius sweats (inter-parenthetical-parenthetical-comment: the 10th anniversary is not the one with whichever Jonas in it. Because ughhh. I mean, he actually did a pretty good job, and was probably less sweaty than Michael Ball was, but...still, it's a Jonas, and I don't want Jonases in my Les Mis. I don't really want Jonases at all, actually) ), I think it's the most satisfying, well-done, beautiful musical out there. (If you followed that last sentence...I love you).

    The first thing I saw when we walked into the theater (other than the awesome French soldiers and not-so-awesome French...ladies that were in the lobby  handing out carnations) was the set-- a gorgeous gray-toned background on which you could just barely make out a cross. Then it started, the prologue with Jean Valjean in the chain gang, and by the end of that I was already almost in tears. Valjean was perfect, even though I couldn't really see his face, his voice and acting were spot-on. The prologue concluded with Jean Valjean's redemption and the spotlight straight up lit the cross...it was beautiful.

I am reaching, but I fall / And the night is closing in / And I stare into the void / To the whirlpool of my sin / I'll escape now from the world / From the world of Jean Valjean / Jean Valjean is nothing now / Another story must begin! 

And all that's just the prologue. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in the first half or so...  and I’m by no means a Les Mis prude. I understand that the story needs to have prostitutes in it (I’ve actually written several papers on the subject), but there was just way more innuendo and just plain…endo than was necessary, and than is even usually in the play. The plebes loved it, however, which is why they put it in I suppose. But even with all that, Fantine was perfect. She actually seemed innocent and vulnerable and made her whole situation believable (gorgeous voice too).  The scene where Jean Valjean takes Fantine in was amazingly touching— after Javert captures her, she sees him and spits in his face, blaming him for what’s happened to her. Instead of leaving her to Javert and prison, Valjean immediately apologizes, commands Javert to free her, and takes her into his own home. 

     Of course, Javert was also introduced briefly in the prologue but we didn’t see much of him until he showed up here, tracking Valjean down and mistreating Fantine. Javert’s voice and character were amazing, but he lacked the trademark sideburns that are really my favorite part of the character L
      Alright, about halfway through the first half we get to meet the Thernardiers!! Mr. Thenardier was…absolutely perfect. He was hysterical (I actually looked up the actor and it turns out he’s been on pretty much every TV show ever made), if kind of inappropriate. Young Cossette was great (I’m also sort of worried that she’s gonna mess up) and the very first scene where she meets Valjean—actually, all the scenes where she and Valjean are together—was absolutely adorable. She’s bringing the bucket of water inside and he comes to help her carry it and hums along with her to Castle on a Cloud. Awwwwwwwww. And then, once he had paid the Thernadiers, he carried her out and twirled her around. Too much adorable.

     Alright so…almost immediately, Cossette grows up. Grown-up Cossette is not nearly as adorable as Young Cossette. I mean, I’m sure she’s a wonderful person and all (she is in the book), but in the musical the only real reason we’re given to like her is that Valjean likes her. Oh, and also Marius likes her.
    Marius…sigh. Marius is perfect. I mean, he’s kind of a jerk… but not on purpose. I enjoyed hearing all the little bits of music that aren’t on my CD, like the introduction to Marius and Eponine, which comes while they’re walking through a busy street, arguing with each other.

Eponine: “ 'Ere, wotcher do with all them books? / I could have been a student too! / Don't judge a girl on how she looks. / I know a lot of things, I do!
Marius: Poor Eponine, the things you know /You wouldn't find in books like these.
Eponine: I like the way you grow your hair
Marius: I like the way you always tease
Eponine: Little he knows! / Little he sees!

Which is a great introduction, because you get an immediate idea of the characters and their relationship from just that one piece of music.  I guess now is as good a time as any to… confess? Reveal? Disclose? That, besides Jean Valjean, Eponine is my favorite character. I mean…she’s amazing. Just trust me on that…you’ll understand why soon. And she was great, playing both the humorous and the tragic sides well. And speaking of humorous/ tragic, Gavroche!!! I have to admit, usually that kid annoys me…but here, he was so tiny, so adorable, so perfect at his part…I loved him. He was amazing.

    Anyways, back to Grown-up Cossette… of course, Marius sees her and falls in love with her, and Eponine shows him the way to her house (cause Eponine’s awesome). A Heart Full of Love is one of those songs that’s way more fun to see than to hear, and that/I Saw Him Once/In My Life were beautiful and one of the very best parts.
      Enjolras was great, a trifle gangly, but great voice, and he always seems so earnest it’s impossible not to like him. Red and Black is, I think, one of the funniest and simultaneously most stirring songs in the musical…

It is time for us all / To decide who we are / Do we fight for the right / To a night at the opera now? / Have you asked of yourselves / What's the price you might pay? / Is it simply a game / For rich young boys to play? / The color of the world / Is changing day by day...

etc. A sidebar if you will: one of the most amazing parts of Les Mis is that we don’t really care about the student revolution at all. We aren’t invested in it, and if you really think about it, you’ll realize pretty quickly that it’s kind of silly. We stay interested because we’re invested in the characters—Marius, Enjolras, Gavroche, and the others—who are fighting, and we understand that it’s important enough to them to die for, and understand its connection to the French Revolution. Just thought that was interesting…. But that’s probably because it’s pretty late and my brain isn’t quite functioning.

     Anywhoozle, so we now have Thernardier discovering the house at Rue Plumet, ‘Ponine saving the day, and Cossette and Valjean leaving. So Marius decides to fight with the students (and I mean “with” as in, “ally himself with”, not “get into a fight with”).
    Alright, I’ll admit…this was the first part to actually make me cry. I mean…I love Marius. I love him. But it’s really, really hard to watch this part and like him. Eponine comes to the barricade to be with him, and he sends her with a letter for Cossette and while she’s delivering it, she gets shot. I MEAN SERIOUSLY WHO DOES THAT. And how is Eponine so awesome?? How does she not throw the letter in his face and say, “I’m not delivering anything to your ditzy blond girlfriend!! Can’t you see everything I’ve done for you???” But, as it turns out, Eponine is awesome. And then she dies in his arms.

Don’t you fret, M’siuer Marius / I don’t feel any pain / A little fall of rain / Can hardly hurt me now / You’re here, that’s all I need to know / And you will keep me safe / and You will keep me close / and rain will make the flowers grow.

The revolutionaries honor her as the first fallen, and treat her as a sort of inspiration to them all… which again shows how very little anyone cares about the student revolution. Eponine wasn’t fighting for liberty, she was at the barricade because even though “I know this is no place for me, / still I would rather be with you”. Anyway, Eponine’s death is one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever seen.

   Valjean comes when he sees the letter and realizes that Cossette loves Marius. He stands by the boys and helps them fight and refuses to kill Javert when he has the chance, setting him free. Most of the boys (including Gavroche L ) are killed, and Marius is injured. The iconic walk through the sewer was amazing. They used a…film? I guess? On a kind of projector… I know nothing about theater sets, does it show? Anyway, the picture in the background was moving and it looked awesome and there was fog and everything and Valjean’s pretty darn heroic.

     The one other breathtaking special effect was Javert’s suicide, which I assumed from the CD would just be him leaping offstage or behind a prop bridge. But what they did was, when he sings, “There is no way to go ooooooooon” the screen behind him moves so it looks like he’s falling, and we see him drown.
      Another of those sweet scenes that isn’t on the CD (I have the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but I actually downloaded this song from the London Cast after I saw it because it’s so sweet) is right after Marius is back from the barricades…it’s a reprise of A Heart Full of Love, but with Valjean taking Eponine’s place.

Cosette: I saw you waiting and I knew.
Marius: Waiting for you / At your feet
Cosette: At your call
Both: And it wasn't a dream / Not a dream after all
Valjean (interjecting, to himself): She was never mine to keep. / She is youthful, she is free. / Love is the garden of the young / Let it be... let it be... / A heart full of love / This I give you on this day.

     And then of course, there’s the wedding, the lovely wedding where Marius learns all that Valjean has done for them, and they arrive at his house just before his death (by the way, Valjean’s death was the other part that made me cry). And when he dies, all the characters we’ve seen die throughout the play come out, starting with Fantine, who is joined by Eponine…

Take my hand / and lead me to salvation / Take my love / For love is everlasting / And remember the truth that once was spoken / To love another person is to see the face of God….

     And then they all come in, all the boys from the barricade and all the other characters, with a hopeful reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing.

    So…all in all, it was amazing, and this doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It was entirely sung, with only two lines of dialogue spoken (“General LeMarc is dead” and “Long live the Republic!” if you were wondering). It retains all of the redemptive qualities of the book and even strengthens some of them. I have to say…amazing, amazing play. Probably you should just go see it instead of reading my dumb thoughts on it!!