Thursday, April 10, 2014

Culture Shock 04.10.14: 'Captain America' pits patriotism vs. the government

Since he defrosted 50 years ago in "The Avengers" Vol. 1, No. 4, Captain America has been at odds with his government almost as often as he's been on its payroll.

The world of Vietnam and Watergate into which Steve Rogers awoke is nowhere near as black and white as the world of Hitler and Tojo he left behind. In a 1974 "Captain America" storyline, Rogers becomes so disillusioned he abandons his Captain America alter ego, taking on a new costume and a new name: Nomad. He becomes a patriot without a country.

His Nomad persona was short-lived, but not so the idea behind it. Ever since, Captain America, the iconic symbol of freedom and patriotism, has drawn a bright line between serving America's ideals and serving its government. That's the Captain America we get in the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." And it's one of the franchise's best.

Picking up where "The Avengers" left off, Captain America (Chris Evans) is still working for the global spy agency SHIELD and still catching up on everything he missed since going into deep freeze in 1945. (He still hasn't crossed "Star Wars" off his to-do list.)

Cap's latest mission teams him with an elite SHIELD strike force and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow to rescue a ship hijacked by pirates. From the start things aren't all they seem. The ship isn't just any ship. It's crewed by SHIELD personnel on a classified mission, and Rogers is already getting tired of cleaning up SHIELD's little accidents.

Back at headquarters, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides it's time to bring Cap in on the big secret. SHIELD is about to launch Project Insight. Three specially designed SHIELD helicarriers will stay airborne at all times, identifying and eliminating threats before they happen.

Project Insight is preemptive war meets the National Security Agency, and Rogers is far from convinced. "This isn't freedom," he says in a trailer-worthy summation. "This is fear."

Like the underrated "Iron Man 3," this is a superhero movie with more going on than the surface pyrotechnics. This is the comic book equivalent of a post-Watergate thriller. It's no coincidence that Fury's immediate superior in the SHIELD hierarchy is played by Robert Redford ("Three Days of the Condor," "All the President's Men"). Redford brings more than gravitas; he brings a direct link to 1970s paranoia. But like they say, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?

When an attempt is made on Fury's life, all signs point to an inside job. SHIELD has been compromised, and Cap isn't sure he can trust anyone. Even the Black Widow, who helped Cap save the world during the Battle of New York, isn't above suspicion.

The only person to whom Cap can turn is a fellow Army vet, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and even Sam has a secret, although one that's not a secret to readers of the "Captain America" comic.

All the while, threats from Cap's past keep cropping up, from Hydra, the formerly Nazi-backed super-science cult, to mad scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) to the mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

While that may seem like too much for one movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo skillfully juggle all the balls screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely throw at them. And they still find time to stage some of the best action sequences in any of the Marvel films to date.

In her third supporting outing as the Black Widow, Johansson proves it's past time the Widow got her own movie. And Mackie is instantly likable in his sidekick role. But it's Evans who must and does carry the film, giving Cap a humanity other iconic characters often lack. (I'm thinking of Henry Cavill's Superman in "Man of Steel," who always seems to be faking it.)

By the time "The Winter Soldier" reaches its climax, Captain America stands ready to reveal everyone's dirty secrets. He has become Marvel's Edward Snowden, which is only appropriate, given Snowden has become the real world's Nomad.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Culture Shock 04.03.14: 'Ms. 45' gives audience a lot to think about

Thana is a seamstress working in New York's garment district. Every day after work, she and her co-workers run a gauntlet.

Judging by director Abel Ferrara's 1981 film "Ms. 45," men in New York City have little to do but stand on street corners and hurl lewd comments at every woman who walks by. Thana's friends, being New Yorkers, give as good as they get. But Thana (Zoƫ Lund) is mute. All she can do is passively absorb each unwelcome come-on.

Then Ferrara cuts to Thana shopping in a supermarket. She's in the meat department, of course. She has moved from one kind of meat market to another.

It's easy to read one's sexual politics into "Ms. 45." Ferrara, who also directed the even more controversial "Bad Lieutenant" with Harvey Keitel, and Nicholas St. John, Ferrara's go-to screenwriter, give us a lot to work with. But at its core, "Ms. 45" is simpler than that.

"Ms. 45" is what can happen when the voiceless fight back.

Long out of print, "Ms. 45" returns looking better than ever. Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theater, has restored and released "Ms. 45" on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon's video on demand. And early-'80s New York's grime and seediness have seldom been reproduced in such clarity and detail.

"Ms. 45" deserves no less. While overshadowed by "Bad Lieutenant," "Ms. 45" is Ferrara's masterpiece, anchored by Lund's affecting performance. The multi-talented Lund, who died in 1999, wrote the screenplay for "Bad Lieutenant," but in "Ms. 45," she is Ferrara's muse.

Ferrara wastes no time taking Thana's situation from bad to worse. On one of her walks home, a man in a clown mask (Ferrara) pulls Thana into an alley and sexually assaults her. Afterward, she walks home, dazed, only to walk in on a burglar, who then assaults her a second time.

The double attacks recall the most infamous of rape/revenge films: 1978's "I Spit on Your Grave," which wore its feminist revenge fantasy ambitions on its sleeve when originally released under the title "Day of the Woman."

"Ms. 45" is a direct descendant of "I Spit on Your Grave" and 1972's "The Last House on the Left," although it's more stylish and less lurid then either of those polarizing exploitation flicks.

When Thana turns the tables and kills her second attacker, the symbolism is ripe. First she sends him reeling with a blow from a glass apple paperweight, then she finishes him off with an iron. The overworked symbols of woman's deception and domesticity get their revenge.

And so does Thana.

When she kills a pimp, she strikes a blow for women everywhere. And when she kills an Arab oil sheik looking for a good time, it's almost was if she were standing up for all America. This is just a few years after the Arab oil embargo, after all.

In the film's most memorable scene, Ferrara stages a standoff that could have come out of a Sergio Leone Western. She lures a half dozen would-be attackers into an alley and guns them down with the kind of cold-blooded precision that would impress Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name.

As perversely playful as the scene is, though, it's also a sign Thana has crossed the line. From here, her vigilante justice descends into indiscriminate violence. No man is innocent, and no man is safe. The heroine's dark turn is what sets "Ms. 45" apart from the rape/revenge films that came before it. You might not agree with Camille Keaton's bloody rampage in "I Spit on Your Grave," but you at least know her victims have it coming.

By the time Thana dons her Halloween party costume — a nun's habit — she has become an angel of death. Unable to speak, unable to make others listen, Thana's story comes down to this.

Deprived of her voice for so long, Thana finds it again only at the very end. And in the end, all she can do is scream.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Culture Shock 03.27.14: Lack of facts keeps Flight 370 compelling

Planes similar to Flight 19, which disappeared in 1945 in the Bermuda
Triangle.
It is Sunday. It has been 17 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and CNN's Martin Savidge is still inside the flight simulator.

He always seems to be there. Night or day, CNN anchors throw to him so he can explain what might have happened to Flight 370, based on the latest theories and conjectures, fragments and wild guesses.

"It's official. I am now known on the street as 'The cockpit guy'," he tweets.

This is how reporters become minor celebrities. It's not exactly Bernard Shaw reporting by phone from beneath a table in his hotel room as the missiles rain down on Baghdad during the first Iraq War, but at least there's little risk of becoming collateral damage. That's a plus.

The fate of Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew is morbidly fascinating all out of proportion to its intrinsic newsworthiness. Is the coverage too much? Maybe. But it's not exactly as if a steady stream of cable news pundits war-gaming the Crimean War 2.0 on live TV is particularly enlightening either. If you want to know what's up with Crimea, you're better off reading a history book and drawing your own conclusions.

But if you want to know what's up with that missing airplane in the Indian Ocean, your guess is as good as anyone's, and almost everyone has a guess.

Terrorism experts suspect terrorism. Engineers suspect mechanical failure.

Before the plane's debris was found in the ocean, a retired general known for his off-the-wall views was sure the plane was hijacked and taken to Pakistan because something something al-Qaida.

Did you know UFO sightings in and around Malaysia surged right before Flight 370 disappeared? I read that on the Internet, which is great if you believe everything you read on the Internet.

Is it possible Flight 370 went through a wormhole caused by the Large Hadron Collider? I just made that up, but does that make it not true? You can't prove it isn't.

The Flight 370 story is ill-suited to continuous, 24/7 news coverage. We know almost nothing. Facts we think we know one day end up disproved the next. And as far as American viewers are concerned, it's all taking place a world away. When it's daytime here, it's nighttime there. Most of our speculation occurs during the dead period when the search has been scaled back for the night.

When it comes to Flight 370, most of our "breaking news" is neither.

But CNN's ratings spike doesn't lie. A lot of us are addicted to Flight 370 news, even when it isn't news. Maybe especially when it isn't news.

It's the mystery that captivates because it's so unlikely. A large passenger jet vanishes for 17 days with barely a trace? In 2014? The government has spy satellites that can read your mail from orbit. So, how does a Boeing 777 just disappear?

Mundane explanations, the sort that invoke the science of how things like satellites and GPS and cellphones really work, don't satisfy. Never mind if they're true. Psychologically speaking, big mysteries demand big answers. Missing airplanes are by definition big mysteries. That's how we get six seasons of "Lost" on TV and Stephen King's "The Langoliers."

That's how we get the Bermuda Triangle. In 1945, Flight 19, composed of five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, disappeared in the triangle. The most likely explanation is the pilots, mostly trainees, got lost and ditched their plans in rough waters as they ran out of fuel. The pilots and their planes were never found, but they were last seen in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

You disappear into history, and you reappear as mythology.

Before there were airplanes, there were ships. The Mary Celeste was discovered adrift at sea, its crew missing. Books and movies followed, but few hard facts.

Hard facts would only get in the way. When there are facts, everyone gets to call it a day.

If only there were more facts, Martin Savidge might get to go home.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Culture Shock 03.20.14: New 'Cosmos' gets A for science, D- for history

Neil deGrasse Tyson takes the conn.
Astrophysicist and science populizer Neil deGrasse Tyson begins our tour of the cosmos — and his new Fox TV series "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey" — with a trip through the solar system.

Past Mars we go, then on to the outer planets: the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and finally Neptune, discovered only in 1846, which should tell you something about the reliability of the 4,000-year-old practice of astrology.

Next, on to the icy bodies beyond the planets. One of those icy bodies is Pluto, cast out of the planetary pantheon in part because of Tyson's tireless anti-Pluto campaign. The murderer has returned to the scene of his crime.

My personal grudge aside, Tyson is the natural successor to Carl Sagan, who brought the wonders of the universe, from faraway stars to the atoms in our bodies, into our living rooms in his 1980 PBS series "Cosmos."

To an 8-year-old, even one watching on a snowy, rabbit-eared, black-and-white TV, Sagan's "Cosmos" was enthralling and illuminating. It was even a little bit haunting, thanks to liberal use of music by ambient composer Vangelis ("Chariots of Fire") and Sagan's reminders of just how small we are compared to the immensity of the cosmos.

Sagan's "Cosmos" was filled with spiritual awe. Like Albert Einstein before him, Sagan flirted with the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, the heretical, 17th century Jewish philosopher.

Spinoza defined the cosmos and God as one and the same. That view doesn't put humanity at the center of the universe, but it does give us a crucial role.

"We're made of star-stuff," Sagan said. "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

We are still getting to know the cosmos, and Tyson gives us a refresher course.

If Sagan was a spiritualist, Tyson is a kid in a candy store, a wide-eyed 8-year-old with an adult astrophysicist's knowledge and a natural storyteller's gifts. He's no less in awe of the universe, but he is equally in awe of following in Sagan's footsteps on what Sagan called the "shore of the cosmic ocean."

Tyson starts where Sagan did. We tour the universe in a "spaceship of the imagination," only with better special effects. We see what all of cosmic history would look like compressed into a single year.

Hint: All of our written history takes place in the last minute of the last hour of the last day.

Science moves on. New discoveries happen all the time, and we've learned a lot since 1980. Back then Pluto was still a planet.

The new "Cosmos" also adds animated history lessons. They dramatize the lives of scientists who have expanded our knowledge. This is where we most see the influence of executive producer Seth MacFarlane (yes, the creator of "Family Guy").

Unfortunately, this is also where the new "Cosmos" trips up.

The first episode focuses on 16th century Italian friar Giordano Bruno, who believed, contrary to prevailing views of the time, that the universe was infinite. The Roman Inquisition burned Bruno at the stake, and "Cosmos" holds him up as a martyr for free inquiry.

Actually, Bruno's theological — not scientific — speculation about the universe's size played little role in his ending up on the Inquisition’s naughty list. The church was more put off by his heretical views on the divinity of Christ. Anyone can Google it, so there is no excuse for "Cosmos" getting it wrong.

The second episode is on more solid ground, in more ways than one. The action shifts from outer space to inner space, to the molecular processes that drive evolution. What humans did over thousands of years, turning wolves into every breed of dog we see, natural selection did over hundreds of millions of years, turning single cells into every plant, every animal and every slime mold.

The story of the cosmos remains as vibrant now as when Sagan was our guide, and not just because today's 8-year-olds get to watch on better TVs.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Culture Shock 03.13.14: '300' follow-up unaware of its own absurdity

"300: Rise of an Empire" won't win any awards for truth in labeling. It probably won't win any awards at all, unless there is an award for sheer ferocity of screen presence. In that case, Eva Green has it all sown up.

The "300" refers to the 300 Spartans who died at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Their story was told in Zack Snyder's 2006 film "300," but this follow-up isn't about them.

"The Rise of an Empire" could refer to the Persians, led by the "god-king" Xerxes, ruler of history's largest empire up to that time. But this is a tale of the Persian Empire at its greatest extent, not during its rise to glory.

Maybe "Rise of an Empire" refers to the rise of the Athenian Empire? That would make sense.

After defending its freedom from the encroaching Persians, the Athenian democracy would go on to lord it over most of the other city-states in the Athenian sphere of influence. That would precipitate a disastrous war with Sparta and ultimately leave Greece vulnerable to the Macedonians, who conquered Greece, then Persia and finally all of the known world.

History is full of ironies like that. Nations become what they most hate and fear, then fall because of it. One might even draw parallels to the present day, if one were moderately ambitious.

But "300: Rise of an Empire" isn't ambitious at all. It's a movie about people hacking other people to bits in slow motion, while director Noam Murro splashes CGI blood on the screen like a homicidal Jackson Pollock. Either that is your sort of thing or prepare to be bored after the first five minutes. Like the "Matrix" films' "bullet time," the slow-fast-slow butchery of the "300" franchise gets old fast.

There's no shame in making a mindless action movie, even if a little extra effort could produce something more. But there is something shameful about making a mindless action movie that takes itself far too seriously. "300: Rise of an Empire" never cracks a smile, much less a joke. It's all deadly serious business, no matter how absurd it gets. And boy does it get absurd.

When the Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) recounts Xerxes' origin story, it sounds like the prologue to one of Stephen Sommers' "Mummy" films. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) goes on a vision quest and returns a bald giant who thinks he's a god. This Xerxes, a caricature created by comic-book auteur Frank Miller, is more supervillain than historical figure. Yet Murro and co-screenwriter/co-producer Snyder intend us to think of Xerxes as terrifying rather than laughable.

Also too serious for his own good is the Greek leader Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). In "300," the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is so over the top he explodes into scene-chewing camp. Stapleton's level-headed Athenian is too sober for that. He's a better leader and also a more introspective one, although that isn't saying much. But he isn't exactly interesting to watch.

He's a bundle of warrior cliches, and Snyder's script calls on him to give not one, but two "rally the troops" speeches. Even Shakespeare’s King Henry V wasn't so bold as to give more than one.

None of the characters are developed, and we don't care who lives and who dies. We know the Greeks will win despite the odds, relying on their faster ships, superior strategy and seemingly divine luck. But Murro reduces all that to severed limbs and smashed ships.

The one thing that stands out is Eva Green's portrayal of the Persian naval commander Artemisia.

Green's feral warrior queen, a Greek with a grudge against the Greeks, is a welcome change from the first film's overbearing machismo. Artemisia prowls through every scene like a great cat, owning each second of her screen time. Alone among the cast and crew, Green knows "Rise of an Empire" is a joke. She brings a delightful madness to Artemisia's quest for revenge.

Artemisia has no time for hollow platitudes about democracy or freedom, and when she gleefully kisses the severed head of a general who has failed her, it almost makes enduring the rest of the movie worthwhile. Almost.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Culture Shock 03.06.14: Ramis reflected America's love of the little guy

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a Twinkie is just a Twinkie.

But sometimes a Twinkie is a metaphor for all the smiles and laughter a talented individual gave to the world. In the case of Harold Ramis, that was a big Twinkie.

As a writer, director and actor, Ramis, who died Feb. 24 at age 69, was at least partly responsible for some of the greatest film comedies of his generation, if not ever. "Caddyshack," "Stripes" and his most accomplished work, "Groundhog Day," are classics. Ramis perfected the smart dumb film. Or maybe the dumb smart film, if there's a difference.

With few exceptions, "Groundhog Day" being one of them, Ramis' films pitted ordinary, down-to-earth working stiffs against the humorless bluenoses of the Establishment. The Establishment could be the Army or it could be the old-money fossils who run the country club. It didn't matter. Ramis was on the side of the irreverent Everyman, forever pointing and laughing at the emperor's general state of undress. And we laughed along with him.

Of course we did. Audiences have been on the side of the little guy since Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

The late Pauline Kael often wrote that movies are our most democratic art form. It might chafe the egos of certain auteurs, but movies reflect the culture far, far more than they influence it.

As the 1980s got into full swing, Ramis didn't waver in his devotion to the little guy. He just found a different little guy.

The result was the film that first pops to mind at the mention of the name "Harold Ramis."

"Ghostbusters" is the ultimate comedy for the age of the blockbuster. It and "Back to the Future," released a year later in 1985, were comedies for the "Star Wars" generation. They had big budgets and glossy special effects. But they never forgot they were comedies.

And as Ronald Reagan cruised to a re-election landslide, Ramis, along with co-screenwriter Dan Aykroyd and director Ivan Reitman, tapped into the ascendant libertarian strain of standing up for the little guy and sticking it to The Man.

"Ghostbusters" isn't an explicitly political movie. It just reflects its time and place. Start with the brilliantly simple premise of pest exterminators who hunt ghosts instead of cockroaches or mice, and everything else follows. But sometimes a Twinkie has a creamy filling of political subtext.

Like most pest controllers, the Ghostbusters are small businessmen, and who is the enemy of small business? The government, which comes along with petty regulations and needless bureaucracy. In "Ghostbusters," the government is embodied by the humorless and self-righteous Walter Peck, portrayed by a pitch perfect William Atherton.

Peck represents the Environmental Protection Agency. Other Hollywood movies treat the EPA as almost saintly. Those films, however, aren't comedies but allegedly serious dramas.

Lefty writer David Sirota says "Ghostbusters" is a "cinematic version of what would later become the very real Blackwater — and what would be the anti-government, privatize-everything narrative of the twenty-first century." That's like saying just because pest control isn't nationalized, therefore Blackwater. Never mind that the private sector and government contractors aren't a 1-to-1 correlation.

Ghostbusters is capitalism. Blackwater is crony capitalism. Ghostbusters is the outsider. Blackwater is the Platonic ideal of a politically connected insider, trading on special favors rather than entrepreneurship.

Even more so than drama, comedy must reflect the culture. Otherwise no one gets the joke and no one laughs. Ramis always knew that America is the culture of the little guy, even — and especially — in the '80s.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Culture Shock 02.27.14: 'Witchboard' returns but the chill is gone

The best movie based on a board game is "Clue." The worst is "Battleship." Somewhere in between is "Witchboard," based on the popular Parker Brothers game Ouija, in which players pretend to communicate with the dead.

Think of Ouija as the home version of such television shows as "Crossing Over with John Edward" or "Ghost Hunters." It's a lovely parting gift for the dearly departed.

Some people will believe anything, including that a $19.99 novelty item available at Toys R Us is a good way to carry on conversations with ghosts. In my experience, Ouija boards are mostly a good way for tipsy partygoers to get a shriek out of their more gullible, more inebriated friends.

When it comes to shrieks, Ouija boards are more successful than 1986's "Witchboard," which is disappointingly timid when it comes to delivering the goods. Chalk it up as another movie that was better when I was a teenager. Twenty-eight years later, the chill is gone. But "Witchboard" is back, new to Blu-ray and DVD from Shout Factory as part of the label's deep dive into 1980s horror.

"Witchboard" opens at (where else?) a party, where we meet our three leads. There's Jim (Todd Allen), his girlfriend Linda (Tawny Kitaen, of Whitesnake music video fame and "Celebrity Rehab" infamy) and her ex, Brandon (soap star Stephen Nichols of "Days of Our Lives").

"Jim, His Girlfriend and Her Ex" almost sounds like an Italian sex comedy, or a sitcom set in a pizza parlor, maybe. But I digress.

Jim and Brandon are also former friends, and there's so much simmering resentment in the room you wonder how Brandon got invited to the party in the first place.

That's when Brandon breaks out his Ouija board, because demonstrating one's occult prowess is always a good way to prove that your ex picked the wrong guy. Anyway, Brandon makes contact with the spirit of a 10-year-old boy, which Jim immediately ticks off by asking stupid questions.

Linda, however, is impressed. The next morning she starts fooling around with the Ouija board on her own, which, as it turns out, is something you should never, never do. (Don't board games come with instructions?) Before long, she's exhibiting strange behavior, such as using profanity. As "The Exorcist" taught us, talking dirty is a sure sign of a woman possessed.

It comes down to a race against time. Can Linda's boyfriend and her ex put aside their differences before she ends up the host of an evil spirit? More importantly, why would she date either of these jerks in the first place? (Spoiler: They eventually act less like jerks, but the question stands.)

Writer/director Kevin Tenney hit pay dirt with "Witchboard," which was popular enough to spawn two sequels, one of which he directed. Tenney is currently seeking to finance a remake.

But nostalgic fondness aside, the film has not aged well. It's not suspenseful, the jump scenes barely register and the comic relief falls flat.

The comedy mostly comes from Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite), a psychic whom Brandon enlists to exorcise Linda's apartment. Imagine if Steve Urkel died and was reincarnated as a white woman. That's Zarabeth. After she awakes from her exorcism trance, you expect her to look around the room, see the resulting mess and ask, "Did I do that?" Now that's scary.

Even the unintentional humor doesn't go far. At best, we get to snicker at the '80s hair. There are so many mullets in "Witchboard" you might think you're at a hockey game in Manitoba.

But on to what you really want to know: Does Kitaen take her clothes off? Yes, yes she does, in a shower scene that exists just for that purpose. But if a topless Tawny is what you want, you're better served tracking down a copy of 1984's "Gwendoline," with Kitaen in the titular role. Believe me, in "Gwendoline" she can hardly Kitaen herself.

I apologize for the previous paragraph. I was briefly possessed by the spirit of Gene Shalit.

What do you mean Gene Shalit isn't dead?