At the movies: I know I'm late to the party but... I think Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an odd title, because it makes it sound like Cap is the Soldier. The real title should have been The Agents of SHIELD That Are Actually Awesome. No slight to the show, but this is what a balls-out, Steranko-era SHIELD story would be like in live action. Cap, Black Widow, Falcon, Nick Fury, Maria and Agent 13 (ooh, Emily Van Camp!) all get good roles. The first 15 minutes had me smiling like a loon, all the way up to Batroc, and there were more nerdgasms to come. The action stuff was well done, but the script really understands its characters, and how to balance the tone between light and dark. Not a big fan of Robert Redford as the piece's villain, but he seems smart enough that when he gets finally outplayed, it's as exciting as any superhero slugfest. Huge ramifications for the Marvel movie universe too. I thought Cap 2 would be weaker for losing the WWII setting that made the first one unique, but no, it's a stronger film for all the spy thriller intrigue.
DVDs: After seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel, I realized Wes Anderson was a large blind spot in my movie knowledge. I had Bottle Rocket on my shelf and had seen The Royal Tenenbaums when it came out, but that was it. Bought everything I was missing (pretty cheap too) and started watching. As you'll see, I watched them all in less than a week. Rushmore was the first cult hit, introducing Jason Schwartzman as enthusiastic private school student Max Fischer and garnering rave reviews for Bill Murray as the older businessman whom Max befriends. Max isn't very good academically, but this is a tribute to those who give to student life at the expense of their studies. Part quirky comedy, part impossible love triangle (Olivia Williams is charming as the woman both male leads covet), part coming of age story (or ages, because it's thematically Murray's film as much as Schwartzman's), part buddy picture where the older character isn't a mentor figure, it already showcases Anderson's idiosyncratic style, creating tableaus and portraits in cinematic language, and exploring a nostalgia that isn't dependent on pop culture referencing. The Criterion Collection DVD includes a commentary track featuring Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson, and Schwartzman, though they clearly didn't record it together. There's also a making of, the Max Fischer Players' renditions of several hit films as plays (for the MTV Movie Awards), Murray and Anderson on Charlie Rose (on separate dates), cast audition footage, and lots of pictures, storyboards and art direction elements.
The Royal Tenenbaums perfects the style and tells the story of a peculiar family brought back together when the estranged dad (Gene Hackman) returns for selfish reasons, telling everyone he's dying. His kids were all over-achievers as children, which has made them despondent failures as adults, and though it's all very quirky and exaggerated, there's real heart to it too. The performances are real, and the sadness permeating the film makes the characters genuinely connect even if it wasn't their intention. One of the things I find incredible about Anderson's output is that while Hollywood warns movie makers away from working with children and animals, he always uses both to great effect. The Criterion Collection DVD features a director's commentary track, making of material, outtakes, a featurette on the murals seen in the film, and a bizarre Charlie Rose spoof that had me believing it was the most horrendous cable access show ever until I checked online.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou creates a strange world based on Jacques Cousteau's documentary programs, but which also shares DNA with vintage cartoons like Sealab 2020, and thus its spoof incarnation 2021 and things like the Venture Bros. Bill Murray at last gets the lead, and perhaps that's why this seems to be Anderson's most improvised film. Many call it its weakest, that it meanders etc. That may be, but I also think it's part of the point. Zissou's life meanders, and things go wrong when he tries to take shortcuts. The central metaphor of his quest is somewhat murky, but those underwater metaphors really do fit the situation. He's an Ahab seeking his Moby Dick and a return to glory days, but he'll find his legacy may lie elsewhere, in a possible illegitimate son (Owen Wilson). If it loses focus sometimes, it's so we can explore this crazy world, a world MADE for exploration and beautifully retro-designed. You know what it makes me think of? Norwegian Ninja. And that's a favorite of mine. The Criterion Collection DVD gets Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach talking in the same restaurant where they wrote the screenplay, background atmosphere and all. It also features two making ofs, one official, they other by one of the actors playing an intern, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, loads of pictures and artwork, deleted scenes, a featurette on the music (with Devo's Mark Mothersbough), the full performances of Portuguese David Bowie songs by Seu Jorge, and - they got me again - another spoof chat show, this one from Italy (the film was shot there) with the pretentious host trying to humiliate Anderson and Baumbach as cultureless Americans.
The Darjeeling Limited is the least designed of the films - so it really feels like Anderson is trying to go out of his comfort zone at this point - using Indian locations do the work for him. Three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) go on a spiritual quest aboard a train a year after their father died. They seek enlightenment, but refuse it at every turn, all caught up in their daddy (and mommy) issues. It's not until they get rid of all that being brothers can actually mean something, ironically. I particularly enjoyed Wilson and Brody's relationship, the older brother really being the mom of the group and the younger unable to meet any of his expectations, not for lack of trying. It makes one particularly tragic incident palatable, if laced with black humor. Darjeeling is probably the least mainstream of the films, but one I think may be the most worthy of multiple viewings. The DVD includes the 15-minute short film, Hotel Chevalier, that acts as a French New Wave prequel to Darjeeling (with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman), and a making of documentary.
I'm not a big fan of animated films. I mean, I enjoy them when I see them, but they're not something I actively seek out, and have few in my personal collection. Fantastic Mr. Fox is really something special though. Old school stop-motion with the "mistakes" left in (rippling fur, for example), it is inspired by a Roald Dahl story, but builds on it considerably (the book is the second of the film's three acts, really), and is, regardless, a product of Wes Anderson's imagination. George Clooney voices Mr. Fox, a character right out of Lafontaine's Fables, who just can't seem to break his compulsion to trick people, specifically three evil industrialists. But it's really about fathers and sons (what Anderson film isn't, on some level, or maybe parents and children?), and the difficult relationships between Fox, his eccentric son Ash, and over-achieving nephew Kristofferson are the center of the story and provide emotional context. The message about acceptance and finding one's true calling is appropriate for kids, but this isn't couched in some kind of Wertham-fueled, Care Bear mentality. Characters can be killed or maimed. Not quite Watership Down, but on the edge of that spectrum. Often hilarious, but also touching and real - a must whether you have kids or not. The DVD includes a couple of featurette - adapting the book and puppet animation - and a quick explanation of Whack-Bat which I somehow understand more than I do cricket.
And finally, Moonrise Kingdom. Like Mr. Fox, it's a kids' story, but an unsanitized one, a throwback to kids movies of the 70s and early 80s, and I'm sorry if I can't come up with a well-known American one, but my French-Canadian cousins will know La guerre des tuques (maybe you know it as The Great Snowball War or as The Dog Who Stopped the War), which has the same vibe. With its yellow filters, Moonrise Kingdom even looks like a film of the era it represents (the 60s). It's about a sweet romance between 12-year-olds, one a super-competent but isolated orphan scout, the other a pre-Goth Goth girl who loves books but gets into much trouble at school. They live on a fictional New England island that is a world unto itself, and run away together, at least for as long as they aren't discovered. It's wonderful, and you never know where it's all going to go. I have a friend who claims each new Wes Anderson film is his new favorite, and I think I've just gone through that experience in a matter of days. The DVD's featurettes cover different aspects of making the film, are relatively short, and do include redundant material. The weakest package of the six films reviewed.
Another favorite director of mine is Wong Kar-Wai, and in The Grandmaster, he brings his artful touch to the story of Bruce Lee's mentor, Ip Man. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that Ip Man film starring Donnie Yen is the better ENTERTAINMENT, and I was afraid this new film would feel redundant despite Wong's directorial flourish. It's not, because it only superficially covers the same ground. Wong Kar-Wai has a deep interest in romances conducted at arm's length, something that has come up again and again, most prominently in In the Mood for Love (also starring Tony Leung), but impossible love is prominent in most of his films. So The Grandmaster becomes more about the relationship Ip Man has with Gong Er, the daughter of the Grandmaster he replaced, herself a powerful martial artist (she's played by Zhang Ziyi). We skip through Ip Man's life where this is most relevant - the title cards that effect transitions feel like an American compromise, which could explain why the Chinese version is apparently 25 minutes longer, according to IMDB) - which covers material originally seen in both Ip Man and its sequel. And while it shines best, for me, when the martial artists are talking zen philosophy (it's a very witty film that puts brains over brawn), that's not to say the fight scenes are in any way deficient. Yuen Woo Ping crafts some incredible (and more realistic than usual) choreography filled with double meanings. We're always told that the fight moves inform the audience about the characters, but without a martial arts background, that's very hard to tell. Wong has no martial arts background (beyond the impressive research done for this film), so decodes it for us. It's very much a "pure" martial arts film, in that it is ABOUT martial arts and martial arts philosophy. And of course, there's a lot of image-making, which is Wong's forte. I get the sense that the film's structure is entirely based on a series of photographs taken of the real Ip Man, each reproduced in the film, but the whole thing has a genuinely balletic/operatic/painterly feeling running through it. Sensitive, but eye-catching too. The DVD includes more than an hour's worth of extras, including two making ofs, one American in English where lots of stars sound in on their impressions of the film, and one Chinese, which goes more in depth. You'll also find interviews with Bruce Lee's daughter and with martial arts superfan The RZA (it's a Weinstein release, after all).
If you've followed the blog over the last 10 days, you already know what I think of Torchwood: Miracle Day (meh), but I did flip the DVD, so let's talk extras. To start with, the DVD is coded so that each episode is prefaced by a short, blaring "what you're about to see" with Russell T Davies and John Barrowman (mostly) shouting at you from the screen. No direct spoilers - these were iTunes intros - but how annoying! If you feel the need to tell me to be patient because all will eventually be revealed, there's something wrong with your product, you know? Miracle Day already has some of the longest "Next time" trailers I've ever seen to begin with. So what else? Well, commentary tracks by RTD and co-producer Julie Gardner on the first and last episodes - these are frank and fun - featurettes on special effects, characters and the general making of - deleted scenes that play more like outtakes, and the somewhat awful Web of Lies motion comic.
Audio: I continued and finished Jago & Litefoot's second series this week, beginning with its second chapter, The Necropolis Express, by Mark Morris. Following the shocking events of Litefoot and Sanders, our two Victorian friends follow a casket on a train, which is eerie enough, and get embroiled in the machinations of a real-life Dr. Frankenstein. Loaded with macabre atmosphere, the audio also makes more shocking pronouncements to rock the cast of recurring characters, and cements Sanders as the true Moriarty of the series (the Mahogany Man had a false start there, it seems). Jago & Litefoot is definitely a "series" now, with continuing stories that have consequences from one chapter to the next. I'm very happy to listen along.
The Theatre of Dreams by Jonathan Morris is without a doubt my favorite from Series 2. While we often come to these stories from Litefoot's coroner work, this time it's really Jago's realm that gets taken over when strange performers are booked at his theater. In a modern Doctor Who story, this would be the one where it goes all meta-textual on us, and the Doctor's trapped in a TV or something (think Silence in the Library and how editing relates to Donna's virtual life). With Victorian trappings, the writer tries to pull the same kind of tricks with stage theater. The results are immensely satisfying. It's clever, unpredictable, subversive, and you get to learn about the protagonists' dreams and fears in the process. I'm feeling all topsy-turvy now.
Series 2 ends with The Ruthven Inheritance by Andy Lane, in which the villains play havoc with our heroes' lives enough to fill you with a kind of dread about the status quo. One of these villains may be an alien or demon, and he's lured Litefoot and Sacker (who went from jerky antagonist to recurring character I'm happy to see back, but I should be careful what I wish for) to his estate where they become his prey. As usual, the atmosphere is impeccable, the Jago/Litefoot friendship is the happy focus, and the stakes are high. I was hoping to give the audios a rest and start reading again (I do both while walking to and from work, depending on the weather, so winters are audio territory), but the cliffhanger to this one probably means I can't stop now. It made me smile too widely.
Gaming: I've played a couple of games of Ghost Stories in the past couple weeks, a cooperative board game based on things like A Chinese Ghost Story where kung fu meets the supernatural, but I didn't want to discuss it until I actually won one. Yesterday, we got lucky (no really, I can't take the credit). This is a PUNISHING game à la Pandemic, for 1-4 players, where you take on the role of a Shaolin monk who must defend his village from ghosts, ghouls and horrors sent by the super-demon Wu-Feng. He's in the pack of cards as well - one of many variations chosen at random and with completely different powers (this is how we got lucky, it was one of the weakest that showed up, Bone Cracker) - and you just have to keep exorcizing spirits until he shows up, and try not to get overwhelmed. It's a complex game, with lots of powers and enough randomness that strategy necessarily varies from game to game. The monks have their own unique powers, as do the village tiles in the middle, and there are several ways of losing the game (and we only played Initiate level, there are four higher levels, it goes all the way up to Hell). In fact, you're almost expected to. Just how badly you lose is a measure of success in and of itself. But the graphics are beautiful, tension is always quite high as the game moves between "piece of cake" and "oh my god we're overrun!!!" sometimes very quickly. It's actually my first real cooperative game, and I like the experience of teaming up with the other players to beat the system, discuss strategy and debrief on just what went wrong. I'm now really interested in trying others.