Thursday, May 17, 2012

Avengers Assemble Winning Combination

Hulk prepares to smash. Hulk strongest one there is. ©2012 Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios

When Aristotle said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (but he said it in Greek), who would have guessed he was talking about “The Avengers”? Have no doubt about it, this superhero feature may be the best of its kind.

The Avengers are a Marvel Comics superhero team that has been around since 1963. The team has had a changeable lineup over the years; the film’s lineup comprises Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The Avengers are brought together by Samuel L. Jackson* (expertly played by Samuel L. Jackson) to deal with the threat of global destruction caused by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother, stealing a device called The Tesseract. With this do-dad, Loki intends to open a portal to another dimension, allowing a force of alien Chitauri to help him enslave the Earth. What follows is 143 minutes of super-heroics.

The remarkable thing about “The Avengers” is that it manages to accomplish so much. There’s quite a bit to set up, from the shadowy machinations of S.H.I.E.L.D. , the agency that Jackson works for, to explaining the mumbo-jumbo of how The Tesseract will work its magic. Sandwiched in there are capsule introductions of our half-dozen heroes and the story of how they are brought together. Unlike, for example, 2002’s Spider-Man, which staggered under a tedious telling of the origin of a single hero before getting to the good stuff, “The Avengers” never feels long or laboured. There is sufficient levity to keep the film from bogging down in ponderous nerdity, but not enough to make it a joke, a fine line nicely managed.

Director Joss Whedon, who also has credit for the screenplay, captures the characters well, showing how disparate they are. They may have to work together, but they are not all friends, or even friendly. None of the friction in the team feels forced, but rather a natural product of the characters. Comic-book fans should appreciate that the characters seem true in spirit to themselves. Granted, Thor has an Australian accent, Black Widow doesn’t have a Russian accent, and Hawkeye’s flamboyant purple costume stays in the closet, but these are minor things that don’t get in the way of enjoyment. The purist may complain about Nick Fury, who is the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics, being replaced by Mr. Jackson, but Fury never really was much of a character. Mr. Jackson brings a lot more excitement to the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. head. One suspects the comic book writers would have used Samuel L. Jackson as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. all along if they could have figured out how to use a real person in their comics.

The action scenes, as one would hope are bold and exciting. Keep in mind that I saw this in glorious 2D, so I cannot speak for how it looks in 3D (blurry with a chance of headaches, one suspects). There is a real sense of danger and the heroes rising to the occasion when all seems lost, which is the definition of cinematic heroism.

Performances are good throughout, though Scarlett Johansson stands out. Unlike many other superhero films, we find a capable, believable female character who is not simply eye-candy or a damsel in distress. Whedon can take some credit for having written it and Johansson for bringing it to life. Samuel L. Jackson is a joy to watch as himself, though, sadly, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking aliens on thismotherfucking planet” is a line that seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

Given the awful “Iron Man 2.” the dubious “Thor,” and the so-so “Captain America,” it seemed a possibility that “The Avengers” could have come up short, but it delivers on all fronts: action, character, performances, and even intelligence. Most importantly, it takes us on a genuine journey, as these individual heroes come together and come to appreciate each other. It’s a pleasure from start to finish and the new measure of what a superhero movie should be.

Rating 5/5

*This character is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Nick Fury,” but it is quite certainly Mr. Jackson.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Another Earth No Place Special

copyright 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Another Earth”, a film putatively about second chances, misses its chance to make a point. In this meandering character piece, a mirror version of Earth has been discovered, a world where we each have a duplicate self. What this means, philosophically or practically, to our world is never addressed, as director Mike Cahill chooses to focus his feature-film debut on Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling).

We meet Rhoda at the beginning of the film, when she is a bright 17 year-old student celebrating her acceptance to M.I.T. She leaves the party and is driving home when she hears a report on the radio about the discovery of the planet, which is soon dubbed Earth Two. While drunkenly scanning the sky for a glimpse of the planet, she collides with a car, killing a mother and child and leaving the father in a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is graduating from prison rather than university. She hides herself away from society, taking a job as a custodian at the local high school. The cleaning that she pursues as a heavy-handed metaphor to cleanse herself doesn’t work, leaving her restless. She enters a contest, hoping to win a place on a privately-funded space mission to Earth Two, wanting to escape her actions.

After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, she approaches John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man who survived the wreck. She goes intending to apologize for what she has done. She loses her nerve and, through a twist of shaky logic, winds up as his cleaning woman. John is a wreck, living in squalour, having let both the house and himself go. Mapother plays him reluctant and taciturn at the beginning, as if he has almost forgotten how to speak, so deep is his sense of isolation. With him not realizing who she is, the two grow close, Rhoda drawing him out of his despair and he, unknowingly, alleviating her guilt.

The film is ultimately unsatisfying because it fails to address the nature of the pair’s relationship. Rhoda is being unspeakably cruel, seeking to escape her guilt and responsibility rather than accepting it and coming to terms with it. She shows no consideration for the effect of her deceit on John, only wishing to feel better. The character is young, which may explain her self-centeredness, but the question of her narcissism and cruelty is never addressed. We are meant to feel sorry for Rhoda. A tale of redemption must first have the redeemed search for some kind of self-awareness. Jason Reitman deals with narcissistic protagonists in both “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” more successfully, making their narcissism the focus of those films. In “Another Earth”, Cahill seems unaware of Rhoda’s character. One can’t believe Rhoda is ready or deserving of a second chance, either on this Earth or the other—where, she hopes, she didn’t kill anyone—because she hasn’t owned up to her actions. Even the struggle to do so would make her more sympathetic.

Another Earth is a low-budget, indie production and the sets and photography show it. There is nothing in particular to be faulted, but it is not visually distinguished. The focus is on the characters and the performances. Mapother’s performance has the required hint of neediness. Marling does, at times, come across as lost and hanging on the edge of adulthood. The real failing of the film is in the script (which Cahill and Marling co-wrote), not the performances themselves.

Despite a premise that sounds like science fiction, the broader implications of how such a discovery would affect our world, either physically or culturally, is never explored in any depth. The “what if?” element that characterizes good science fiction never comes into play. Putting the story into a broader context of a world facing an existential crisis would have made the mirror Earth central, rather than a contrivance.

“Another Earth” fails to make full use of its premise, fails as a redemption story, and fails to explore the narcissistic cruelty of its protagonist. Maybe the Earth Two version of this film does all of those things, but until it is available, “Another Earth” can be skipped without regret.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Real Mother

Another Mother's Day come and nearly gone. Fields of flowers picked, packed, and presented. Servers at every kind of dining establishment run off their feet. Mountains of chocolates hurriedly purchased at drug store and gas station. I like to think there is an incredible amount of love in the actions undertaken today. I fear, though, that there are far too many who found today a chore, a tiresome burden, or an obligation that consumes a perfectly good Sunday. To anyone who was resentful of having to spend time or thought on your mother today, I'd say I envy you.

My mother, Ruth, died about seven-and-a-half years ago and I only wish there were more days, Mother's Days and others, that I could spend with her. Of course I remember arguments and unhappy days, but as an adult I came to realize just how fortunate I was to have her for a mother. I wonder what kind of person I'd be without her. Had things gone differently, I might have found out, for I was adopted by my parents.

I was an unwanted child and my mother took me in and raised me as her own for the rest of her life. I harbour no resentment for the woman who gave birth to me. I think it was an act of great kindness to allow my mother the chance to raise a child with love and care. If ever I were to meet her, I'd thank her for allowing me the life I had by giving me up.

Speaking to my father today, he told me how, when my parents first got me, my mother was afraid to hold me, afraid she'd drop me or hurt me. How incredible to take in a child from a stranger, when you have no idea what you're about to do, and raise it as your own flesh and blood.

She soon learned to hold me and never stopped holding me in her heart. No matter how far I wandered, I knew she was always thinking of me. Sometimes her thoughtfulness would be expressed in the most inexplicable ways: buying me shirts in colours I detested; shipping parcels of canned goods across the country to make sure I was eating (never mind it would have been cheaper to just send a cheque); sending blankets to me in a tropical country. I realize now that it was simply her taking care of me. It makes me smile.

Sometimes, when I discuss my adoption with people, they will ask me if I know who my "real parents" are. My answer is always the same: "My real parents raised me." They changed my diapers, cleaned up vomit, took me to the doctor, taught me how to ride a bike, worked to make a home and a life for me that, while not extravagant, never left me feeling wanting or unwanted.

Certainly there are mothers who qualify for the title merely because they carried a child to term. Mothers who are cold, uncaring, or abusive to their children. Such parents are terrible and their children are under no obligation to feel affection for them. I consider myself very lucky to have had a mother who truly wanted me and always loved me fully. Whatever good there is in the man I've become, it is because of her. Anyone who can say that about his or her mother should spend more than one Sunday a year to let her know how much she means.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Waring: Somewhat graphic content follows the "Read More" link.

Office Romance

Barbara enjoyed the solitude as she typed at her computer. Having the office to herself, after everyone else went home was the best of both worlds: it made her feel professional but without the demands of maintaining a professional façade with her colleagues. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them. She liked them all well enough. It’s just that she felt something of an imposter. She’d recently rejoined the workforce after taking a few years off to start a family. Now, with her two children in school, she was trying to learn how to relate to adults again.

The rituals of the working world take time and are as intricate as those of the Freemasons, though likely less codified and with fewer funny hats. Except on Funny Hat Day. Barbara didn’t quite understand Funny Hat Day. She liked doing her hair, putting on a flattering dress, chosen for style rather than how easily puke stains would come out of it, and a pair of shoes in which she could never negotiate a Lego-strewn family room. “Why would you want to deliberately mess that up,” she thought? Especially when the day’s work remained unchanged? The hats were just there, peripheral. Three minutes of chuckles and seven hours and fifty seven minutes of hat head.

Fortunately, it wasn’t Funny Hat Day. It was just a regular work day. Barbara liked those. Not that she didn’t enjoy the office’s collegial vibe, but what she really loved was that she was taken seriously, as a capable woman. She wasn’t somebody’s mom, she was somebody.

Barbara saved the draft she was working on and closed the document. She glanced at the picture of her family on her desk as she thought about the e-mail she was about it write. As she sat there, she heard a noise. She’d been hearing noises for about an hour, since the last of her colleagues went home. She had been dismissing them as the building settling, wind, or machinery. It wouldn’t do to let her imagination get the better of her. There was something different about this noise, though. It sounded like the outer door to the stairwell closing with its characteristic clang. There shouldn’t be anybody coming in that door. All the staff entered through the main door, using their electronic pass cards and either took the main stairs or the elevator to the third floor office. The fire stairs were only used as a shortcut to the parking lot when people were leaving at the end of the day.

Barbara sat a moment thinking about what she should do. She thought she could hear footsteps in the stairwell. Her mind raced to scenes of women in heels being chased by killers in countless movies and TV shows. They always tripped or twisted an ankle, their vanity being their undoing. Feeling silly, Barbara reached down and began to unbuckle the straps on her shoes. She’d loved them when she bought them, but the three-inch heels weren’t made for speed.

She heard the fire door open. That was odd. The door was supposed to be locked, only able to be opened from the inside, just like the one at the base of the stairs. She was reaching for her purse, and the phone it contained, when she heard a voice. “Helloooo Barbara,” it sang out. Just as the greeting ended, Tom came into view at the end of the row of cubicles in which Barbara sat.

“Tom, you scared me,” Barbara said, feeling herself relax. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

“Sorry, Barb. I didn’t mean to.”

“My heart is beating a mile a minute.”

“Didn’t mean to, but it’s only fair, since you always have that effect on me,” said Tom as he stopped at Barbara’s cubicle and leaned against the partial wall. She could see the small smile on his face and the subtly raised eyebrow.

Barbara laughed a little and blushed a little. Tom had been flirting with her since a month after she arrived at the office. One of the first conversations they had was him asking her out. This was despite the wedding ring she wore and that, at 34, she was about eight years older than him. She had laughed and blushed that time too. She had to admit to being flattered. Tom, while not overly tall, was a good six inches taller than her and fairly solid, if not muscular. His dark brown hair always looked as if he had just rolled out of bed and run a brush through it once or twice before heading into the office.

“I saw your car in the parking lot and I thought I’d come up and see how you were doing,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Oh, um, fine, really,” replied Barbara, averting her eyes from his gaze.

“In no hurry to get home, huh?” As he said this, Tom moved closer to her and picked up the picture of her family. It had been taken when she and Gary had gone camping with the children. Barbara loved Maria’s smile in that photo. Jake had refused to smile, trying to mimic his father’s look of mock anger at the request to pose for yet another photo. Tom studied it briefly, sitting on the edge of her desk while he did so. Then he placed it on the desk, face down.

“I just wanted to get a few things finished before I head back home. There’s so much to do there, what with making dinner and getting the kids to bed and making sure everything is set for the morning.” Barbara stopped, surprised by how much she had just told Tom. She tended to be on the quiet side when she was in the office. She found herself particularly flustered by Tom, ever since the day he’d casually asked her if she wanted to catch a movie after work. Now here she was just blurting out everything!

“C’mon! It’s got to be nice to get away from the white picket fence and cooking and cleaning and the old Saturday night usual,” he said with a wink. “I wonder how a beautiful woman can live with those constraints.”

He didn’t know the half of it, she thought. Before she’d married, Barbara had lived a life that would probably surprise Tom. In her early twenties, she had been a fixture at the clubs and there wasn’t much she hadn’t tried. Thirteen years of marriage had transformed the lithe, redheaded hellion of her youth into a respectable housewife. She was grateful for that, really. Had she kept at it, she probably would have pushed things too far and paid the price. She nearly had. And Tom was certainly wrong about the “Saturday night usual.” Her husband didn’t approach her for sex anywhere near that frequently. Two or three times a year was more like it, and then it tended to be perfunctorily vanilla. Could he see that in her? Could Tom tell how hungry she was to be taken up, wrapped in flesh and sweat?

“Oh, no, married life is great. I really like it. It suits me. I love the kids and my husband is great. I admit I like coming to the office for the three days a week, though. It’s good to get to act like an adult for a change.”

“I imagine it is. Want to act like adults right now?” Tom lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows as he locked his brown eyes with her green ones.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mayday for May Day?

Hug a union member. May 1st is International Workers' Day, commonly known as May Day, so it’s a fine time to do so, if not to show solidarity, at least to show appreciation. It may no longer be fashionable to admit it, but organized labour has contributed greatly to the quality of life in Canada and many other countries. Furthermore, given the way the government has been treating the labour movement, I’m sure a hug would likely be welcome.
I am baffled by the antipathy shown toward unions by regular working people. It makes sense that business owners and management would be against organized labour; unions give power and money to workers. What I don’t understand is how rank-and-file workers side with management against those who would want to improve the lot of workers. From the 40-hour week to minimum wages, to pensions and benefits, organized labour has been at the forefront in pursuing those goals. Workplace safety, training standards, child-labour laws, and workplace equality are further causes where the influence has been brought to bear. Today we all enjoy many of the benefits that were won by the union movement, often with their blood. In fact, the accomplishments of organized labour are often acknowledged by critics in comments such as this:

Unions and striking were needed before there were governments standards controlling work hours, pay and most importantly, safety. Now unions are about taking advantage of the power of collective bargaining and fighting management, employees that strike these days are not hard done by, they ALL are earning wages above the average income. Posties, Air Canada, OC Transpo, teachers, etc..

Get back to work and be happy you have jobs that pay well, are safe and have benefits at all. If you don't like it, try being your own boss.
In the first breath, there is the acknowledgement of what unions have done, then the idea that there is no further need because everything has been done and it’s over. This poster, Barry, is making a big leap, assuming that we can count on governments to look after us now. Governments were often in strong, sometimes violent opposition to organized labour. Recent anti-union intervention in labour disputes characterize Harper’s Conservative government, including siding with management at Canada Post in ordering workers to return to their duties after the corporation’s management locked out the workers! Harper’s government also gave Air Canada a hand on several ocassions, going so far as to say that if there were to be a strike, it would force workers back. Governments from all parties, both provincial and federal, have had run-ins with labour. It seems naïve to think that government should be left to safeguard the rights of workers on its own.
What the Barrys of the world forget is entropy. Everything is disintegrating and falling apart. It is only through continued effort that what we value in society is maintained. We see this in vicious labour disputes where management does not want a fair settlement, but rather to destroy the union or, worse, destroy the company, gutting it and sucking the marrow from the bones, leaving nothing for those whose sweat built it. Just as no man is an island, no company exists outside of society. We must hold them to account, just as we hold individuals to account. Whatever its flaws, the labour movement has done, and continues to do, that.