Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thoughts on Captain America The First Avenger

Seeing Captain America The First Avenger was a wonderful experience made possible by filmmakers who respect the original material with enough practicality to make it work for the movies.

My only disappointment is the film moving up the time of the story until after the US entered World War II in 1942.  In the comics, Steve Rogers became Captain America in 1941 months before the Pearl Harbor Attack, motivated by a pure idealism that was competing with both larger public indifference and/or isolationist sympathy for the Nazis. Putting into the war itself makes Rogers' ideals a bit less heroic as he rides a larger patriotic fervor in 1942. As it is, the original setting obviously didn't preclude the existence of Project Rebirth anymore than the development of the Rocketeer's jetpack in 1938 in that movie;  both can be justified as the US government's precautionary efforts to create secret weapons for a possible war.

Aside from that, this film was a joy watch to see Captain America done right compared to the unwatchable 1990 film embarrassment, although I found the 1970s live action TV attempts decent ones for the realities of the medium at that time. Just the hidden references to Marvel Comics things like the Original Human Torch, The Invaders and The Howling Commandos are lots of fun to spot.  Furthermore, Chris Evans gives the title character just the right feel of idealism and humanity as he, portrayed in a sickly body that makes Woody Allen look studly, shows how Rogers has all the inner qualities that would make Captain America.  Furthermore, Hugo Weaving is deliciously bad as the Red Skull, a Marvel villain movie adaptation rivaled only by Alfred Molina's Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2.  After, the 1990 movie inexplicably made the character Italian, it was awe inspiring to see such a memorable villain done right.

With all that said and with the film being such a big success, it's time to think of sequels and there are over 40 years of just the character's post-revival comic book stories since the 1960s to consider for adaptations as Cap:
  • The major plot arcs of when Rogers temporarily gave up being Cap in the 1970s and 1980s to become Nomad and The Captain respectively could be easily combined into one story.  For instance, Rogers could feel compelled to give it up in a period of patriotic disillusionment, only to realize that he could still be Cap and fight for the higher ideals of America without blindly supporting his government or public sentiments.  Furthermore, the requisite action can be supplied also by the struggles of John Walker trying to be his replacement only to be pushed over the brink and needs to be rescued by Rogers.  On the other hand, the film could go more black and while by the US government creating Nuke who is the subject of a later attempt to imitate Project Rebirth, only to become an irretrievably insane supervillain Rogers must bring down.
  • The discovery and revival of the 1950s version of Captain America and Bucky, who used a flawed Nazi copy of the Super Soldier Serum and became violently racist and paranoid  and Rogers needs the help of a new friend, Frank Wilson aka The Falcon, to help bring them down. However, Rogers must confront the frightening similarities and fate of his counterpart as he struggles to realize why he is truly better than them.
  • The fight against the Serpent Society, a team of repitlain themed supervillains who are so well organized and slippery that Cap is really frustrated trying to bring them down.
  • The Red Skull's Sleepers, giant robots designed to automatically devastate the world in the event of the Third Reich's defeat.
  • The rise of The Winter Soldier, who is revealed to be Bucky who was captured, modified, preserved and controlled by Soviets for decades and all the emotional baggage coming from that discovery.
So you see there's a wealth of story material to work with it's fun to imagine where this great film series can go.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Life without Jack

Sorry, I missed a post last Thursday, but I write my blog at the library and walking home at noon on the hottest day of the year was too intimidating a thing to do.

It's the day after the leader of my party, Jack Layton, announced that he's taking a leave of absence due to health issues.  To experience this, hopefully temporary loss, is a disheartening development. Yet, all non-partisan well wishing is nicely Canadian in a world where a Norwegian imitates Mark LePine as a murdering lunatic who is but an extreme example of a larger malignancy while US President Obama has to play rhetorical chicken against rightoid ideological  nutcases in the US Congress to prevent a worldwide economic body blow.

At the same time, at least Jack is doing this at the beginning of a very long 4-5 years of Federal Tory majority.  That way, my NDP will have time to adjust and regroup while all the new MPs have their opportunity to come up to speed fully with all the experience they need.  Certainly, Ms. Nycole Turmel has the organizational experience to help protest the wrecking rampage to come with a practiced rhetoric. She's going to need all of that kind of skill against a bunch of ideological hardcases who don't like to be inconvenienced with the facts.

As it is, she seems better than Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, who appears to be promising slightly less than the moon for the upcoming provincial election, albeit with a more rational platform than that Harrisite Tim Hudak.  To be honest, for all complaints about Dalton McGuinty, at least his current promises seem more reasonable at least in concept and I've had few complaints about his performance compared to the horrors of Mike Harris.  Sure, the HST is pain and all the tax cuts are self-evidently destructive in the long run for Ontario as a caring community, but there is at least a glimmer of responsibility and vision as with the green energy initiatives.

Ultimately, I likely will be volunteering for the NDP in the upcoming campaign yet again, but it will be harder if Jack isn't able to return to public life soon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Western Space Grounding

As of now, Shuttle Atlantis has disengaged from the International Space Station and is preparing for re-entry and landing.  With that, NASA's space shuttle program comes to an end after 30 years, which also means the end of manned US space missions for the foreseeable future.  Now, the Russian space program is going to have to carry the whole load to maintain the ISS and it seems like big Western space dreams are grounded for now.

The hard part about this is that I've read the arguments against the usefulness of manned space flights and they have some merits.  For instance, the Shuttle program was supposed to be a low cost delivery system get people into space and that has never been the case with massive cost overruns with a vehicle that was an economy design compromise from the beginning. After all, wouldn't it have made more sense for the Shuttle to be able to have powered atmospheric flight when coming down, instead of being the super expensive glider it is on the return trip? 

Even worse, when NASA tried to maintain the kind of schedule to justify the program in the 1980s, that led to a bureaucratic mentality that led them to ignore safety problems that led to the Challenger explosion. The whole age and the fragility of the vehicles that led to the destruction of the Columbia because its heat shield tiles were damaged; obviously if a space vehicle requires a life-or-death EVA examination of its integrity on every trip, then it is simply not acceptable. What I do fault NASA for is that they should have been working on a successor vehicle for the Shuttles decades ago and thus have a viable replacement ready to go.  As much as I am aware about budgetary realities, the tragedy of not acting on that kind of basic foresight is obvious. I just wish the secondary benefits of NASA's operation like new inventions like teflon being just the most obvious could be played up more to see how space exploration can be worth it in other and more subtle ways.

Furthermore, I've read that even the ISS is not that useful as a scientific research complex.  The sheer constant vibrations the thing makes with its essential systems apparently is a major pain for astronomical observations and other experiments.  On the other hand, the use of remote probes like Pathfinder and Opportunity have gotten great results in exploration with far more economy to say nothing about the Hubble Telescope's spectacular visuals (albeit at least after the shuttle mission to fix its lens defects). 

The problem is that manned missions are inspiring and in the long run necessary for the future of the human species, but it would be easier to think that way if there can be some definite short term advantage to having human crews while we're at it.  For instance, if there had something valuable on the Moon like some precious and/or useful mineral that would be worth going there regularly, then we'd obviously have a Moon base there by now. That said, the old premise from Space: 1999 of using it as a nuclear waste dump would seem broadly logical before economic and safety realities (which does NOT include the dumps exploding and deorbiting the satellite) come to mind.

I just hope that China might be able to embarrass the US to take their own space program seriously such as a successful manned moon mission for instance.  I certainly don't have much faith that the proposed private sector space operations will come to anything since they obviously can't indulge in the grand visions that NASA had in its glory years. As it, any new US moon mission has the problem that the vehicles were built with contracted aerospace companies, many of which are long gone. This has led to the jawdropping fact that NASA simply does not have the complete schematics of their own vehicles, such as the Saturn V Rocket so it would have to practically start from scratch as far as equipment goes.  I shake my head at such lack of vision to that can lead an organization of such smart people to come to that situation.

So here we are, effectively grounded from outer space on this hemisphere of a planet, waiting for someone to dream the dreams of the Final Frontier and to push to reach for a destiny that is still there for us to take.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I prefer it on my radio

It's remarkable how dramatically your tastes can change over the years.

For instance, there was a time when I simply watched too much TV to the consternation of my parents. In fact my earliest memories include coming home from kindergarten and making a beeline to see Sesame Street every day.  When my parents wanted to punish me, the most memorable penalties were weeks long TV bans, which were agony in their own way.  In fact, one of the most memorable things in my life was watching Magic Shadows on TVO on Friday nights in the 1980s when the classic Republic Pictures serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel were played and eating a personal pan pizza my mother cooked by hand that night.

Yet, now my TV is unplugged most of the time and disconnected my cable subscription 2 years ago and I don't miss it all that much. Instead, I listen to CBC radio and various podcasts instead. In fact, the biggest treat when I have Saturday mornings free is for that rare opportunity to listen to CBC Radio One's shows.  Any video I want to see is more likely than not available online and DVD and I feel happier about that situation than I ever thought I would be 20 years ago. I do know that I mentioned this state of affairs to my parents, they looked at me as if I had gone insane at doing something so out of character in their eyes.

As for reasons, I don't need hindsight to tell me why.  For instance, my first move was when I heard about the story of Ronald Reagan's press secretary congratualating a major TV news show for a negative story on him, gloating that since the visual footage was flattering, no one was going to listen to the truth they were saying about him.  At that moment, I vowed I would largely avoid TV news and get my news from the radio so I would focus on what is being said and I have largely kept to that ever to my benefit.

Furthermore, I've found that radio as a broadcast medium is simply more convinient;  it's a medium that allows me largely to do any number of things while I am listening, although reading is a challenge with the divided attention. For instance, I can walk or work outside with my MP3 player's radio function going and I can keep going just fine. By contrast, TV demands you stay in one place and focus all your attention to the screen; for many things, that is a shackling I will not have. Furthermore, I grew tired of comforming my life to a TV broadcast schedule and even with recording tech, I've let the recordings pile up.  In that case, online video I could access at will has become far more to my taste and even DVDs seem to be becoming more and more a bother in themselves.

Also there is the fact that CBC Radio One provides largely all of what I want in broadcasting such as news like Ontario Morning and The Current and entertainment like the Vinyl Cafe, Vinyl Tap and Afghanada. It's gotten to the point where their summer replacement shows are the chief things I look forward to in the summer and the fact that I can have all this without commercials is wonderful in itself.  While I enjoy other podcasts, they are a separate medium in my mind to some extent, much like audiobooks; there is a certain delay to them while radio has an immediacy that is compelling itself.

That makes the upcoming budget review developments in Ottawa matter of foreboding with Tony Clemente with his treasury axe with a deficit pretext to bury any protest.  The Conservatives' loathing for the CBC has been obvious for years and its disheartening to read/hear ignorant rightoids screach about it being "biased" when those blatherings seem usually the result of a bullying arrogance that can't stand seeing their views being challenged even in a fair forum. Any radio network perported to be "leftist" and yet have a notorious rightwing reporter like Barbara Frum be one of their top journalists while her son David and even Preston Manning have hosted CBC's marquee current affairs radio show, The Current, occassionally is more fair than they want to admit.

That said, Harper and his cronies aren't all that interested in realties when their self-serving ideologies say otherwise. After all, if they acted like really rational beings they would have left the long form census alone knowing that killing a essential form of societal research because of a handful complaints is nonsensical. Now with a majority government, I don't know what is going to happen next, but I hope the lobby group I've contributed to, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, might be able to protect the CBC, or at least the radio portion from people who can't hear a bigger picture.

In any case, I will enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sunfest thoughts

It was great to hear that Sunfest 2011 has proven a rousing success with over 200,000 visitors and I have no doubts it has become London's supreme cultural event. I just hope the city groundskeepers can find a way to keep the grass alive with all those events with Home County and Rib Fest coming up.

My only regret that yet again, there is no dealer in alternative books as there used to be with Marginal Distribution before they went out of business and that smaller stand that used to be there for the last two years. That was always something special about that festival that I could get something to read that would typically be difficult to get in downtown London and then get my chair in the shadow of the Victoria Park bandshell for some serious reading. On other hand, I really put my Sony Ebook Reader really through its paces some great Watchmen fanfics.

 The other thing is the food booths are getting really expensive like a typical food combo deal is $8.  I realize this probably partially because of the high rents Sunfest and other festivals have to charge since they cannot charge admission, but it still stings. To that end, I can partially sympathize with the idea that Home County Folk Festival is going to really and essentially push $5 "We Gave" stickers to visitors to help with financing; his complaint that all the free festivals are devaluing live music performances has real merit to it and the arts in this city are having a tough time as it is.  The fact that there is a great arts center like the The Arts Project is downtown and even the patrons of the Palace Theatre predominately won't go there.

It was also great to see Mark Konrad with his human rights petition booth, although I wish he could work more with the separate Amnesty International local chapter booth.  Oh well, just telling him of the CBC Radio One summer show, Know Your Rights, was a thrill in itself if only to give him the resource he needs to know about his rights as a new Canadian citizen.

Anyways, July is a vibrant month for this city and for all the compromises necessary for these kinds of arts events, I should enjoy while I know they are still here.  With the Harper majority in Ottawa and the probable Tim Hudak government in Queens Park this fall and Fontana's idiotic tax freeze for this city, all these events have an uncertain future to varying degrees.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

It's amazing how one book can enflame an interest and put things in a magical perspective, I finally have to write about a film history book which is simply the best book of its kind I have ever read, actually listened to as an audiobook, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris.

I have listened to this book over and over again and I have never experienced an art history tale with such entrancing details in every possible way. 

For instance, reading about Robert Benton and David Newman's obsession with French new wave movies and the lengths they went to experience them puts a whole new perspective on there was a whole different feel of being a moviegoer then, decades before home video.  Seeing movies for them, in the big urban centers at least, was like a treasure hunt that was opening up a new whole way of appreciating films with other intellectuals face to face in discussions about their message and artistry where arguments had to be carefully thought out ahead of time to avoid looking ridiculous.

That was certainly would have been better that what I got going to the Huron County Museum's Chaplin film series in 1989 where every attempt at a discussion about the films after screenings was brushed off by everyone while they nattered on irrelevancies. Back then, serious filmgoing sounded more precious if only because you had so little opportunity to see them at your convenience.  However, their story gives the whole cinematic experience of a whole different level of enjoyment for me, just trying to imagine something doing that for myself, and having a job relaxed enough that could allow for such pursuits.  Just their entry into movies as screenwriters was inspiring enough to see them struggle, learn about the screenwriting craft the hard way and ultimately succeed against such long odds.

However, the book has so much more than that with a wealth of concurrent stories such as the struggles of Sidney Poitier to be more than the token black actor in Hollywood even while he was so conscious of wanting to be a good example to change White America's mind about black actors.  At the same time, there is Dustin Hoffman's story of a struggling actor who couldn't get work at all until a series of chance encounters led to his big break in The Graduate that would blow the doors off that were shutting out actors who didn't resemble WASP paragons.

There is the sad story of Stanley Kramer, a man with lofty ideals of cinema as social commentary, only to have his greatest commercial success with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner being undermined by the fact that it was a creaky production with condescending assumptions and embarrassing stereotypes and inhuman ciphers for characters. Just hearing him trying to lecture college student and finding that they had no common interest with him is a powerful moment of a changing time that would make Kramer irrelevant.

On the lighter side, there is Doctor Dolittle, a literary true life farce of a cinematic debacle with an obnoxious lead with Rex Harrison in a troubled production of rife with ridiculous procrastination by a deadbeat writer being just the first stumble in the string of incompetence by the whole crew with the most idiotic mistakes until their preview screening finally drove the whole blunder home.  Furthermore, that was capped off by even more stupid errors that led to a multi-million dollar lawsuit because of a error the screenwriter should have avoided in beginning and the racism of the original books that should have been a red flag for the studio to stay away from the property in the first place.

Yet, there also stories of triumph such as film artists finally standing up to the tyrannical production code, 14 years after the US Supreme Court's Miracle Decision finally gave film the Freedom of Speech after so long.  First there was The Pawnbroker and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf successfully forcing the code to bend until MGM outright defied it to release Blowup that gave it the final deathblow as a credible Hollywood institution. For all the current complaints about the MPAA's rating system and the notorious failure of Paul Verhouven's Showgirls to loosen it up, it still is heartening to learn of a time when a tyrannical censorship was defied after so long.

Even explorations of the technical sides of the films is fascinating such as in In the Heat of the Night when the lighting head created welcome innovations such realizing that Black actors needed differently arranged lighting to be photographed well, or the blistering montages and other cinematic elements of Bonnie and Clyde which took French ideas and gave them a uniquely American style.

However, the most exciting part of the book is seeing how the North American film audience, at least for a while, became at least partially more sophisticated and there was an eagerness to see challenging films beyond the Oscar season. 

I have listened to this book at least 5 times in its entirety and I can't get enough about this book about a time when American film was invaded by people who wanted to stretch the medium and eventually won for their time.  It would be great if it could happen again, even if feature animation has that experience to some degree now.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

When I read my news sites each morning, primarily The Toronto Star, the local news on the London Free Press and a quick scan of among others, I try to save time by skipping celebrity fluff and apolitical crime stories beyond occasionally glancing at the headline links.

Unfortunately concerning the former, that has proven easier to do of late. While I am sure that Prince William and Lady Kate of Cambridge are very nice people and so far have been less embarrassing than Prince Harry for instance, I just don't want all this attention at the expense of more important news. For instance, the Canadian ship's attempt to run the blockade of Gaza is easily more important the LFP's CanadaWorld section's front page than seeing those two on a Dragon Boat or Will piloting a Sea King Helicopter, although the latter is practically an act of heroism considering the state of those military choppers today.

It was really galling that I was looking forward to listening to Cross Country Checkup last Sunday and hearing that the royal couple will be the subject of discussion, even if the host was being apologetic about it as a backdoor tactic to start a debate about the monarchy in Canada. As it is, I agree with Jiam Ghomeshi opening monologue's on Q calling for the big media to pull on the lapdog treatment of the royals. At least the fact that they are British royalty at least gives them some shade of relevance to Canada than any Hollywood celebrity any day. Just all that idiotic obsession with Paris Hilton's arrest years ago was as repellent an example as anything I'm referring to; I just hope that female TV anchor who literally burning the sheet about it on air got a promotion for it. I just hope that CCC can deal with something more substantive as it should. I know this is hardly some radical opinion, but I can't stay quiet either, even if I should do the same for any number of more important subjects.

At least, most of the rest of CBC Radio's programming at least has more integrity than that such as The Current which were discussing the Gaza blockade and a reporter's interview with a Khmer Rouge big shot while the summer programming is as fascinating as always like today's Out of Their Minds about eccentric scientists and inventors and Strange Animal, a fun show exploring elements of human nature. That is something I need and I hope I can do the same someday.