Monday, March 28, 2016

Berkeley Rep - Macbeth

Lady Macbeth
Didn't I just review Macbeth? Indeed I did, but that was the recent movie version starring Michael Fassbender. I also got to see Berkeley Rep's production yesterday, so here's what I thought about that one.

Overall, I thought it was really good. It's a bit hard for me to evaluate this play, I realized, because I know it so well after having taught it for so many years. I constantly find myself anticipating lines and even thinking which act and scene we happen to be on at any given moment. Still, I found myself getting lost in the story, and this really zipped by. (The entire show was over two hours, which is actually one of Shakespeare's shorter plays.) My wife agreed, and she really liked it a lot. The two ladies sitting next to us seemed to enjoy it too, and I got a chance to talk to them a bit about the play when one of them said to me after the show, "You seem to know a lot about this play." (She overheard some of my comments to my wife during the intermission.) So, I answered some of their questions and got to give a bit of subtext and some of my own interpretation of what's going on.

It was a pretty straightforward telling of the story, keeping the historical setting (anachronisms and all). It made good use of Berkeley Rep's stage and even incorporated some video during the scene where the apparitions deliver their prophecies to Macbeth, but other than that, there was no modern twist. That's neither good nor bad, but I figure worth noting. And while I don't necessarily have the play memorized line-by-line, I know it well enough to know that they really didn't cut out a whole lot. Little bits were trimmed here and there, but it had every scene - minus that one with Hecate that Shakespeare probably didn't even write.

Macduff
One particular wise move that I caught was when Macduff asks Ross to not hold back the truth in the fourth act. The actual line is, "Be not a niggard of your speech." They changed it to "Be not a miser of your speech." That's pretty smart considering that: 1, most people don't know the word "niggard" and don't know that it has no connection to the word "nigger" aside from an unfortunate homophonic coincidence; and 2. both Macduff and Ross were played by black men. Sure, Shakespeare nerds like myself would know that nothing racial was said, but much of the audience would no doubt get distracted by that and taken completely out of a colorblind interpretation where black men can be thanes of Medieval Scotland.

Here's what I thought of the key players in the production:

Conleth Hill as Macbeth - I definitely got to see something here that I haven't seen before. He was actually a pretty jovial guy, which might seem like an odd choice, but Hill was able to also fill him with a nervous sort of energy at the same time. It was like his jolly nature was a cover for the dark thoughts that were constantly percolating deep within him. I did feel like some of his lines toward the end felt more recited than acted, but overall it was a really good performance and he created a believable dramatic arc.

Macbeth, the witches, and an apparition
Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth - She was one of the main reasons why my wife and I wanted to see the show, and I'm pleased to say that she did the entire part in her Fargo accent. Nah, just kidding. She was great, of course. McDormand didn't do anything surprising or risky with the performance, but it was still one of the best parts of the play. The one thing that I did like, which might not have been entirely her but part of a collaboration, was how her madness seemed to stem from the fact that her husband was shutting her out of his plans once the first murder was complete.

Korey Jackson as Macduff - This is an important part to get right. Obviously, Macduff is key to the plot, but you also need to have somebody who contrasts sharply with Macbeth. I don't know if the choice was deliberate, but I love the fact that he wore a red cape throughout the story, which might make a modern audience think of a superhero. Because in many ways, that's what Macduff is. If you ever watch some of those old episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, the story will follow the villain's fall from grace, and then it's up to Batman to come in and stop him (or her). That's Macduff's purpose here as well, and he should carry a certain nobility and sense of decency about him. Jackson was the right choice if that's what they were going for.

Honestly, there wasn't a weak link in the entire production. It was cool seeing a lot of familiar faces from Calshakes as well, and these actors always deliver. Was it cool to see some big-name celebrities? Sure, but everybody else was up to the same level.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Movie Review

I was going to wait a few more days to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but I found myself getting involved in too many online discussions about it that I was getting bombarded with spoilers. So, I seized the opportunity to see it this afternoon and just got back home about an hour ago.

I wasn't in too much of a rush to see this one, honestly. I was disappointed with Man of Steel and this looked to be more of the same from director Zack Snyder. I didn't think that I would hate it, just that it wouldn't live up to its potential. When I started to see the reviews pour in, I really started to fear the worst (actually, that started with a few somewhat lame looking previews).

Basically, I'm disappointed in the direction that DC/Warner is taking with their shared cinematic universe. They're trying to catch up with Marvel Studios, but they're not necessarily learning the right lessons. They see that it's cool to have a bunch of superheroes in one movie, but they don't want to take the time to build up those characters in their own movies first before rushing to the Avengers goal post. Plus, they got off to a rocky start with the aforementioned Man of Steel and the trainwreck that was Green Lantern. (Which I'm pretty sure is considered apocrypha by now.)

So, what did I think now that I finally saw it? I actually really liked it a lot, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. This isn't to say that it doesn't have problems - because it definitely does. It also doesn't mean that I'm going to echo the cries of "the critics don't know what they're talking about!" Most of the criticism that I read was pretty fair, and while the negative points don't bother me as much as they did some people, I can see how they might detract from somebody's enjoyment of this film.

Here's what I thought about various aspects of the movie, in no particular order. Oh, and SPOILERS.

Batfleck - Unlike a lot of fans, I did not bemoan the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. I thought it was an interesting choice. This doesn't mean that I thought it was a good idea, but I have been surprised by so many unconventional choices (Heath Ledger as the Joker anybody?) that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now it sounds like a lot of people are praising him for his performance. So, what's my verdict? I definitely lean more toward the praise than the lamentation. I don't know if this is the "best" Batman, but I can't say that it's worse than either Christian Bale or Michael Keaton. He certainly looks the part more than Keaton, and his Batman voice is less over the top than Bale's. Overall, good job, Ben. If I ever see you while crashing the movie set to Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season, I shall shout: "Affleck, you were the bomb in Batman v Superman, yo!"

Gal Gadot - I had a good feeling about this casting choice, and those feelings were justified. While I might have preferred a bit more of a muscular Wonder Woman, I can overlook that. (If I can overlook Michael Keaton as Batman, I can get over a more slender Amazon Princess.) Aside from that, she's exactly what I wanted in a Wonder Woman - beautiful and yet totally convincing that she could kick your ass. I also got a bit more than I hoped for, as she has an accent (the character isn't American, after all) and she actually looks Mediterranean. Props to Linda Carter, but we don't need another Wonder Woman who looks like she's of Northern European stock. (Personally, she's one character where I wouldn't mind if they cast a woman of any ethnicity.) Oh, and the best part of her performance was how she clearly relished being in combat. Now THAT'S Wonder Woman.

Luthor - I actually think that this was one of the weak spots of the movie. I was actually pretty excited that an unlikely choice like Jesse Eisenberg got to play the part, but I feel like he's just doing "Generic Super Villain" with this role. I was kind of hoping that he'd basically do what he did in The Social Network only more menacing.

The Story - There's a lot that works. For one, Batman is given a really good motivation for wanting to take down Superman. I'm not sure if his sudden change of heart was all that believable though unless one takes in the entire Batman mythology as a whole. Aside from that, this movie did suffer from trying to cram too much into one movie. The fight with Doomsday would have felt totally anticlimactic if it weren't for the chance to see Wonder Woman kicking some serious butt. I'm sure that with subsequent viewings, I'll notice more plot holes and inconsistencies, as that sort of thing happens when you try and put too much into one movie.

And yes, much of this was a setup for the future Justice League movie. Do those parts work? Yeah, sure. Could the movie have done without them? Yeah. All they needed to do was make a brief mention of the fact that other metahumans exist. We didn't need a whole scene that served as a preview of franchises to come.

I guess I felt the same as I did with Man of Steel. There were parts where I felt emotionally invested, and then there were parts where it just felt like it was dragging on.

Final note - I don't think that it's possible to give an "objective" movie review, as the nature of the beast is subjective. However, when reading my reviews of superhero movies, one should always keep in mind that I'm always going to be partial to them and find something good to say for the sheer fact that they put superheroes up on the screen. Perhaps a good gauge is for me to put it on my list where I rank the comic book adaptations. It would definitely be in the top half - but perhaps not too much higher than that. Time will tell if it rises or drops.

But I will say this - it currently ranks below Affleck's rendition of Daredevil on Rotten Tomatoes. That's crazy. Maybe it's just because the bar has gotten really high since then with the various Marvel studio movies and Christopher Nolan Batman films. But there is not a moment in this movie that's worse than Affleck and his wife fighting on a swingset.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Macbeth (2015) movie review

When I first heard about the latest film adaptation of "The Scottish Play" starring Michael Fassbender, I got pretty excited. I like the actor, and I've been hoping that a new version of the film would come along that I could show to my high school senior English class. I currently show them the 1971 version that Roman Polanski directed. While it still holds up, and I am fairly fond of it, I was hoping that one with a more modern sensibility would come along that my students could relate to a bit better. (The 2006 version starring Sam Worthington couldn't quite cut the mustard, and the 2010 PBS production starring Patrick Stewart, while good, didn't quite give me what I wanted either.)

I got even more excited when I saw the trailer. Were we actually going to get the battle scene that the bleeding Captain describes in the first act? It sure looked like it. Perhaps we'd even see poor MacDonwald get "unseamed from the nave to the chops". Other moments got me excited, like the way Fassbender delivers the line about how his mind is "full of scorpions". I've never quite seen it done that way before. Usually he's just lamenting his guilty conscience, but this version carried a "Man, I've really gone and done it THIS time!" vibe.

The big disappointment? It didn't play in any theaters near me. My local theater that would have normally played this sort of a thing closed down a few years ago, and the closest one that was playing it was all the way in San Francisco. (It's about an hour away from me. Not ridiculously far, but a bit inconvenient.) There may or may not have been other means of viewing the film that may or may not have been entirely legal, but those wound up not working out for various quality and/or virus-related issues. 

When I saw that it was coming out on Blu-Ray, I decided to just take a chance and buy the damn thing. (I can provide a receipt!) I figure even if I didn't like it, I'd be voting with my wallet to encourage the film industry to keep making Shakespeare adaptations. I started watching it late last night and finished it this afternoon. In short - I absolutely loved it. I don't want to make a hasty declaration that it's my favorite film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but I wouldn't be surprised if I list it among my favorites a decade or two from now.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there are some SPOILERS. How the heck do you spoil a four hundred year old play? (He dies at the end!) Obviously, I can't spoil the basic story, but the reason why one sees a new version of any of Shakespeare's plays, be it on the stage or on film, is to see how a new director and actors will interpret something that's been done so many times before. Director Justin Kurzel takes a lot of liberties with the text, but I'd be disappointed if he didn't as there are plenty of versions that remain word-for-word the same. (Ever see the 1983 version that PBS did? Holy crap in a bucket but it's more boring than watching an inflatable swimming pool deflate.) Of course, there's always a certain irony in purists complaining about people putting their own spin on Shakespeare's material considering that's what he did with almost every play he wrote. Macbeth may be based in history, but it's even less historical than Mel Gibson's Braveheart. So, I'm going to give away some of the twists and interpretations, and if you want to be surprised, you should stop reading at this point.

I should probably also note that I'm somebody who knows this play backward and forward, and my review is really for people who are already familiar with the play. If you don't know it at all, you'll probably just wind up being confused.

Anyway, here's what I thought about various aspects of it, in no particular order:

The cinematography - Sweet Jeebus, but this is a gorgeous looking film. Watch it on your biggest TV, and be sure to watch it on Blu-Ray. This made me regret not seeing it on the big screen even more, but they really took the time to do what you can only do on film and can't do on the stage. If you're going to translate it to a different medium, then play to that medium's strengths.

Justin Kurzel's vision - I would hope that even people who do not like this version could admit that Kurzel definitely had a vision here and he achieved what he set out to do. It really streamlined what is already a pretty rapidly paced story (for Shakespeare's standards). The focus was sharply on Macbeth and what was going on in his mind, and various political and cultural subtexts are pushed aside.

Marion Cottillard's Lady Macbeth - I have a feeling that this performance will reward repeated viewings. I honestly wasn't thrilled about this piece of casting - not that I think she's a bad actor. Maybe it's just because I was more excited about Fassbender. That said, she and Kurzel created an arc for the character that hadn't ever occurred to me before. Oftentimes Lady Macbeth is portrayed as being totally wicked and just gets in over her head. However, it should be noted that she gets less and less involved with Macbeth's evil plans as the play goes on. I always attributed that to the fact that he shuts her out because of how manipulative and cold she was at the start. With this version, it's not so much that she gets pushed away as she wants less and less to do with him. This ultimately makes everything make even more sense when she completely loses her mind at the end, as she realizes that her initial push merely opened up Pandora's box.

Oh, yeah, what about Fassbender, anyway? - Overall, I think that he did a great job. I'll admit that there were a few parts where it felt like he was reciting lines moreso than performing the part of the character, but the good bits far outweigh the bad, and the REALLY good bits (like the scene with Banquo's ghost) made up for it even more.  I recommend watching the bonus features of the disc, as the actor explains that he was playing the part of a man who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes A LOT of sense when you consider how he was out there fighting on the front lines in a time where the battles were up-close and personal and the blood of your enemy would splatter all over you.

The music - Jed Kurzel's score is hard to ignore, and it really adds to the overall mood of the film. I am reluctant to compare this all to a music video, but there are certainly some comparisons that can be made. You can get a pretty good sense of it if you watch the trailer.



The changes - I'm not going to list off every change/interpretation of this film, but let me just make the general statement that a lot of it involves taking bits that were soliloquies directed to the audience and having the characters say them directly to another character. For instance, when Lady Macbeth talks of her husband being "too full of the milk of human kindness" she says it directly TO HIM. And you know what? It works. It even works better than having it just be her thoughts.

Another interesting bit is when Macbeth speaks to Banquo's murderer just before the dinner/Banquo's ghost scene. In the text, it's all an aside so only those two and the audience can hear. In this one, Macbeth says it loud enough for people to hear, as he's already losing touch with reality.

A more significant change involves the circumstances of Malcolm fleeing to England. (Donalbain is completely cut out of this version.) In the play, he leaves after everybody finds out that his dad has been killed. Honestly, I've always found that to be an all-too convenient plot point. With this version, Macbeth gives the line about how his dad is dead right in front of Duncan's murdered body, as if to say, "Yeah, I'm the one who did this. What the hell are you going to do about it? I'll kill you, too."

While there are a lot of other changes, I never felt like any of them were there just for the sake of doing things differently. Each one either raised the stakes or simply provided me with a new way to think about a play that I've read so many times. If you're a purist, you'll no doubt be upset, but I have a hard time empathizing with that point of view in the first place, as I've already pointed out.

So, will I show this one to my class now? Honestly? No. As much as I loved it, I'm afraid that it will just cause too much confusion. I'm already spending a lot of time emphasizing the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what they see in the Polanski version as it is, and even with that, I still have students write about events in their essays that were merely an interpretation of the director and not what Shakespeare wrote. (They often write about how Lady Macbeth threw herself off a balcony, when the text simply says that she died and it's later revealed that she most likely killed herself.)

With this version, I will have to pause it every ten minutes or so and point out stuff like, "So, in the text, he says this only to the audience." It would get pretty annoying pretty quickly. So, while I won't be showing this, I will definitely recommend it to any of my students who like the play enough to want to explore it further. Perhaps an extra credit review assignment?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Deadpool - Review

Before I get started, I should point out that even though I'm a big fan of comic books, superheroes, and superhero movies, I'm not a huge fan of Deadpool. I don't think that I have any Deadpool comics, and I think that the only ones that I have with him are ones where he's making a guest appearance. It's not that I actively dislike the character, it's just that I never found him appealing enough to follow his book. After 30 years of reading comics, that's true of a lot of major characters though.

As a result, I might have actually skipped this one if it hadn't been for all of the good reviews. After all, I'm a fan of the Fantastic Four, but I didn't bother with the last movie since the reviews were so bad. With so many good comic book movies, why waste your time with what looks like a real stinker?

That certainly didn't seem to be the case with Wade Wilson's feature film, and the people who seemed to like it the most were the comic book fans. Also, it seemed like it was a project that the creative team really believed in and really wanted to get right. So, even as a passive fan of the character, I had to check this one out.

Overall, I really liked it, and it lived up to the hype. It was crude, violent, and hilarious, but they did a good job of creating a character that I could care about, and the love story was better than a lot of movies that are marketed as love stories. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

Ryan Reynolds - After the disappointment that was Green Lantern, I honestly wondered if the guy had what it took to carry a feature film. I think that this was the movie that proved that he can. I actually have a lot of respect for the guy, as I know that he's one of the main reasons why they got this right. He obviously respects the character and the fans, and he wanted to not just make a good movie but to make one that was true to the spirit of the comic book. (Even though I don't own any, I have read a few, so I can say that it succeeded on that level.)

The story structure - I can't think of another superhero film that does a similar thing, but this one began in median res. For those of you not well-versed in Greek epic story structure, that means that it starts in the middle of things. It doesn't waste any time showing Deadpool in his full costume right from the first scene. It then flashes back, catches up to where it started, and then it continues the narrative. I thought that was pretty smart, as most of Deadpool's appeal is in his fighting style, which includes a whole lot of talking too damn much.

The costume - I don't want to hear any more crap about how superhero costumes don't necessarily translate to the screen. If Deadpool doesn't look like he just jumped right off the page, then I don't know what's what. If they can do that, then we can see Wolverine in something a bit closer to the comics.

The wisecracks - The movie proved that you can have flippant remarks while fighting without taking away from the dramatic weight of the situation. While the two recent Spider-Man movies started heading in that direction, now there's really NO reason to not have Spidey be his smartass self in his next feature film.

The R rating - I'm totally fine with an R rated superhero film. There are a lot of adult fans out there. But like some others have commented, I'm worried that Hollywood will learn the wrong lesson and go that route with too many of them. As a father who likes to watch these films with his son (not this particular one just yet - my son's only five) I'm not too happy at the prospect of even more of these being out of his age range. Because believe me, he knows who Deadpool is, and he wants to see the movie. I'm not sure if I like the idea that the next Wolverine will be rated R (especially considering my son is named for him) and the fact that there will be an R rated version of Batman V. Superman on home video has me a bit nervous. (Superman should be accessible to little kids. I'm sorry, but any other way of looking at that is just wrong.)

Colossus - Even though it wasn't horrible what they did with him in the X-Men movies, it was nice to see a Colossus who was recognizable from the comics. I was a bit worried that he was going to be all grim and gritty as well, but he made for a nice foil for Deadpool with his earnest and heroic attitude.

The love story/ending - SPOILER ALERT - I really liked the relationship in this film, but I think that they should have taken more of a chance with the ending. I can believe that Vanessa would want him back, but they should have saved that for the next film. She was obviously hurt with him disappearing on her like that, and believing that he was dead took a toll on her. I would have found it perfectly believable if she would have told him that she loved him despite his deformity but could no longer be with him because of how hurt she was. The movie took so many chances in so many other ways that it would have been nice to see it do something a little more unconventional with the love story. That's a minor complaint, mind you.

The tone - This is probably the most incredible part of the movie. It's hard to pull off a movie that switches from comedy to drama as much as this one did, but it really pulled it off. Somehow I completely accepted the absurdity of some of the situations, but when everything took a dramatic turn, I was still invested in the characters.

I guess the only real shame is that even though this is a Marvel property, it's not part of Marvel's movie studio. It would be cool to see him interact with The Avengers, but I guess that's just not to be.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Force Awakens - Review

Let's get a couple of things out of the way. First, this will not be a proper review. I'm just going to rattle on about this film because the basic feeling I have about it is that I simply loved it.

Second? I'm not a prequel hater. I recognize their flaws, but there is still a lot that I like about them.

Third? Hell yeah The Force Awakens was leaps and bounds better than the prequels - in pretty much every respect.

Fourth? Spoilers. Total spoilers. This is for Star Wars fans who have seen the movie already. You probably don't need to be a full-on Star Wars geek, but if you don't even know the difference between an Ewok and a Wookie, you should move on.

So, here are some thoughts:

The fact that this movie even exists: Let's all be honest. When it comes to the story behind Star Wars and what George Lucas originally intended, the fact is that he changed his mind all the time. Like that line where Uncle Owen says that he's "afraid of" the notion that Luke is too much like his father? Well, it only became cool when Lucas finally decided to make Vader Luke's father, and that was while he was working on The Empire Strikes Back.

I remember when I was a kid that there supposed to be nine movies, as though that was the plan all along. I remember nearly wanting to kill myself after reading an article in the newspaper that said that there probably wouldn't be a new Star Wars for at least another five years. Oh, and that was in 1983 when Return of the Jedi came out. Insert boisterous chuckle here.

For a time there, it sure seemed like we'd never see any more Star Wars movies, but finally the prequels came along and Lucas claimed that the plan was for there to be six movies all along. Nine? That's crazy talk. It's always been six.

While I didn't believe that as an official story, I figured it was doubtful that we'd ever see a new movie anytime soon. But here we are, and despite the fact that Disney didn't seem very interested in using the treatment that Lucas gave them for a new trilogy, we've got ourselves a new one (plus a bunch of spinoff films).

I didn't expect for this to happen, but the one thing that I never thought I'd see is the old cast coming back. I sure as hell never expected Harrison Ford to return as Han Solo considering he always seemed somewhat ambivalent about the character and even said in interviews that he had no interest in returning to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. (But he was always eager to be Indiana Jones again.)

And yet here we are. More on the old fogeys later.

Daisy Ridley as Rey - Would it have been just as good to get a known actress for this part? I don't know. But I do know that you couldn't have gotten anybody better than her. I realize that this sounds like a billion other reviews out there, but she really managed to capture the mix of being both innocent and capable at the same time. She was instantly likable, and I was rooting for her the whole time - and yeah, I got choked up when the lightsaber flew into her hand and the familiar music played. In that moment, I loved her in the same way I love Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, etc. Yeah, they're fictional, but they're a part of who I am.

John Boyega as Finn - The previews made him seem like an interesting character. A stormtrooper who deserts? They were always so anonymous and existed to be shot down by the heroes. But here's one with a conscience. Cool enough, right? Well, the trailers didn't do him justice. The thing is, he was funny but never in a way that came at the expense of the story. Even if Rey wasn't in this movie and he had to carry the whole thing, it would still be great.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron - Did you know that his parents were a couple of rebels who likely conceived him in an one of those Ewok houses? If not, you should read the comic books. Aside from that, he was a really cool character and my only complaint is that he wasn't in the film more. I'm hoping for a bigger part for him next time. In a way, he was our entry into the movie, and he set the tone for this new generation of films. I'd say he did aces in that role.

BB8 - Look, I don't hate Jar Jar, but this is how you do a character that's cute and for kids. Were there some cutesy moments with him? Absolutely. However, they all came right out of the story. Also, there was something likable about him and that was his sense of loyalty.

Han Solo - Like I said, I never thought I'd see this happen. Maybe Harrison Ford agreed to do it because he knew that they'd finally kill off the character, and that's what he always wanted. Maybe it was the paycheck. Maybe he genuinely liked what JJ Abrams was doing with this movie. Maybe it's all of those reasons. Who cares? He was back, and that was awesome.

What was really cool was seeing him be both the rogue and mentor archetypes rolled into one. That way we got something both familiar and new with him. Also, it was great to see the skeptic, who didn't believe in the force, confirm that it's all true. (Because like a good skeptic, objective evidence changed his mind.) And as much as I liked the bit from the trailers where he explains that the whole thing is real, the best line was his rebuke to Finn, "That's not how the Force works!"

Princess Leia - It was good to see her even though she didn't have too much to do. Still, she definitely belonged and while she basically was only a more fleshed-out Mon Mothma to a new generation, us old school fans were all no doubt happy to see that she continues to fight the good fight.

Luke Skywalker - He didn't have much to do, but he sure did a lot with it. What exactly does that look on his face indicate? He obviously doesn't just think that Rey is some random person handing him a lightsaber. (And dammit, they had better explain how it was found!) But what has him so surprised? Is that Rey is his daughter? Is it that he didn't think he'd be found?

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren - How do you create a villain who doesn't feel anticlimactic after the defeat of Darth Vader and Darth Sidious? That's how, dammit. So much was riding on creating the perfect villain, and even though he might seem like a poor man's Vader in the previews, he definitely has his own thing going for him. Now that he's killed the guy who's arguably the most popular character in the entire series, it's pretty damn easy to root against this guy. Are they going to try and redeem him by the end of this trilogy? I don't know if it's possible, and I might not even want to see him redeemed.

Snoke - Who is this guy? What's his deal? Kylo Ren isn't Sith, but maybe this guy is? Maybe he's Darth Plagueis and Sidious was lying when he said he killed him? (Or just mistaken?) There better be more to him than just "one more dark Jedi". I'm fine with not knowing too much with this movie, but I hope that they have something interesting in store for us in the next couple of movies.

The prequels live - While I didn't want this new series to be a slave to the prequels, as we don't need discussions about midichlorians, I didn't want them to be completely disregarded either. As a fan of comic books, one thing I don't like is when new writers take over a series and dump all over what previous creative teams have done. I think that this movie has just enough to satisfy fans of Episodes I - III without getting bogged down in a time period that is basically just legend for all of the new characters. The references were subtle, but we got a line at the beginning about "balance to the force" and then there was a bit of a throwaway reference to using clone troopers. It also turns out that Ewan McGregor was brought in to record a line that was used in Rey's discovery of her force connection.

Is it too much like the original? Certainly there are a lot of parallels to the original (Episode IV to you youngsters) but I felt like there was plenty of new stuff to make me care about what was going on. I do hope that they really branch into some new territory with Episode VIII though. We've all accepted Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB8 as our new cast, and we're willing to go to the unfamiliar with them.

Do I have more to say? Probably, but I need to go to bed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Captain America versus Fox News

I'm a bit late to the party here, as I picked up the latest issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America a week late, and I didn't get a chance to write about this until today. For those of you even slower on the draw than me, the latest adventure of Captain America seems to have some Fox News heads in a tizzy. Here's the video, in case you hate yourself enough to watch it:



They already start to lose me when their "expert" claims that comics are "struggling" lately. From my understanding, sales are pretty solid. Just like a lot of businesses, they have seen their highs and lows over the decades, and I know that they were predicting the end of them back in the 1990s. I certainly wouldn't think of the present as being one of the "low"periods. I also seem to recall reading that while most print publications are losing ground to electronic media, comics are one of the few that are actually up. So, yeah, that's Fox for you.

In the issue, Cap goes up against the Sons of the Serpent, a white supremacist group with ties to some classic Captain America villains with a similar agenda. The Sons are attacking people who cross the U.S. border with Mexico, and they speak in a lot of right-wing cliches:
"Also, you know how you make me press a one for English at the beginning of every call to my satellite provider? That is something I cannot abide!" 
"Look who it is, y'all! Captain Socialism is here to save the day!" 
"Are you really so far ahead on appeasing terrorists and apologizing for our country's greatness that you have the time to come down here and flout still more of our laws?"
Tucker Carlson describes the villain as being simply a concerned citizen who's worried about unchecked illegal immigration. Umm...no. He's a guy who attacks vulnerable people. What Carlson doesn't understand is that you can be a person who's concerned with illegal immigration and STILL view the Sons of the Serpent as being bad guys. The best villains usually speak a bit of truth. After all, isn't Poison Ivy, a Batman villain, just somebody who's concerned about the environment? Same with another Batman villain, Ra's al Ghul. He's concerned with the damage that humanity is causing.

But do you ever hear liberals coming forward and complaining that Batman is attacking liberals? Not from what I understand. That's probably because most people (including a lot of conservatives, I reckon, as these doofuses probably aren't the best representation of them) understand that it's not necessarily the motivation that makes a villain but the method. If Tucker Carlson sees a similarity between himself and the Sons of the Serpent, then that says more about him than it does the comic book.

The talking heads then go on to create a strawman, insisting that the message of the comic is that everyone in "the middle of America" is some kind of a small-minded bigot. That's hardly what's going on. Plus, they point out how the Sons cite the "crime and disease" of illegal immigrants as something that's actually a legitimate problem. Well, those are only concerns about illegals if you don't have your facts, as they are less likely to commit crimes. And call me crazy, but I'm more worried about diseases from anti-vaccination cranks who tend to be upper middle class white people.

Then you get a suggestion about how they should do a comic book on people guarding the border, supposedly keeping us safe. Do these people not realize that under a capitalistic society, such a comic book WOULD exist if anybody thought it would sell? Why should Marvel publish that? Since when is a business obligated to "tell both sides"? I realize that Fox likes to pretend that's what they do, but nobody's making them give equal time to the opposite of what they do, which would be giving actual facts.

It all gets wrapped up with the absurd notion that Captain America comics used to be free from politics, citing the front cover of the first issue where he punched out Hitler. Yeah, no politics there. I think that Trevor Noah has already covered this:


Then it ends with the completely daft "Keep politics out of comic books; that's what I say." What kind of crap is THAT? Do you read comic books, lady who is not Gretchen Carlson? Why don't you let the people who read them decide what goes in them and what doesn't? And they can decide with their wallets.

With all this said, as a fan of the comics, the first issue of this new series was a great read. I have had my misgivings about replacing Steve Rogers with Sam Wilson as the title character, but I've changed my mind. I said that I would change my mind if Marvel had the guts to make the story mirror the sort of freak-out that happened when Obama became President, and it turns out that's exactly what they did. And sure enough, I've changed my mind. Personally, I love the fact that they're pulling no punches when it comes to addressing politics and current events.

I also didn't make the connection when this series was first solicited that it was written by Nick Spencer, who's been doing some great work lately in general. His Superior Foes of Spider-Man was a hoot and a half, and he's actually made me care enough about Ant-Man to follow the new series. They definitely picked the right guy for the book, and while I liked Rick Remender's run well enough to read it all the way through, I haven't felt this excited about Captain America since Ed Brubaker was writing the series.

It also helps that artist Daniel Acuña is doing some great work on the title. I've always enjoyed his work, but this is probably the best I've seen from him. The one thing I loved about the last run with Remender was the top-quality art from Stuart Immonen (who's now rocking it on Star Wars).

While it still feels too recent since the last time Captain America was replaced, I'm on board for this particular direction. Even though we're not living in the 1940s, it seems to me that if you're going to switch Steve Rogers with somebody else, then that person has to be different. And while I still like Sam Wilson better as The Falcon, they're doing a good job of showing how things would be different with him carrying the shield.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cal Shakes - King Lear

It only took a few minutes into King Lear at Cal Shakes for me (and my wife, as I found out later) to notice that things were a bit different from most other shows. Whether it's Shakespeare's writing, the talents behind this particular production, or a mixture of the two (most likely), it was clear that this was going to be more of an experience than anything else.

Honestly, I didn't have high hopes for this one. I was a bit disappointed with this year's Twelfth Night, and I figured that the main problem was that I was barely familiar with the source material. The other two shows at Cal Shakes this year didn't do too much for me either. I liked Life is a Dream just fine, and it was nice to be introduced to some Spanish drama. However, I didn't have enough to say about it in order to write a blog post. The Mystery of Irma Vep didn't really do it for me though. It's not that I disliked it, and I'm not saying it was bad. I'm just not a very big fan of that type of humor. I'm not quite sure how to describe it other than "schticky".

As for King Lear, I attempted to read it a few years ago and kinda slogged through it. I just couldn't feel any momentum coming from the text. I also tried watching a version that was essentially a filmed stage production, and that wasn't doing it for me either. (Not sure if I even finished it.) I had a bit of a better time with the graphic novel adaptation by Gareth Hinds. Still, I wasn't too enthused about the play itself, even though a friend of mine adores it, and I know that it's considered by many to be Shakespeare's best. With that, I only briefly re-familiarized myself with the play before seeing this performance because I just couldn't drum up the enthusiasm.

By the end of today's performance by Cal Shakes, I can now safely say the following:

I absolutely love King Lear.

Sometimes when I really love something, it's difficult to explain exactly why, and I feel like when I try to explain it, I'm somehow cheapening the experience. I think that I'm going to try anyway, even though I know that I'll never fully get across my feelings.

For those who don't know, the plot of King Lear is pretty simple. An old king prepares to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters, but he winds up disowning one of them. Why? The other two shamelessly exaggerate their love for him, but she tells him like it is. After she leaves, we find out that the other two daughters were all talk, and the one who was plain speaking was the one who actually loved him best (that last bit being mostly clear from the start). There's a subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester, who's also pretty bad at recognizing sincere love, as he trusts his scheming, bastard son over his other, loyal one.

Basically, like all great stories, it touches on universal themes about being human. In this case, it's all about how, when it comes to love, what matters is our actions toward others much more than the words that we say. Ever have somebody tell you that they respect you, yet it's so totally obvious that they don't? I know that I have.

There really wasn't a weak link in this entire production. Anthony Heald, who you might recognize from various TV and movie roles, did the one thing that's probably the most challenging thing for any actor who's doing Shakespeare. He managed to capture the poetry of the language while making it sound like something somebody would actually say. I have to imagine that this is toughest during the play's more emotional moments. Nobody speaks iambic pentameter when they grieve, yet you'd be convinced  that they do when you see this play.

Another standout was Aldo Billingslea, who played Lear's advisor, Kent. There is a moment in the play where he unloads a string of insults, and his delivery was nothing short of brilliant. I don't think that anybody could have done a better job, as it was totally in-character, yet his love for the language couldn't have come across any clearer. It was funny and beautiful at the same time. Lucky for me, I got a chance to talk to the man for a few moments after the play was over, and I got to tell him just how much I loved it.

As I said, I'm not as familiar with this play as I am with others by Shakespeare. Alter a line or two in Macbeth, and I'm going to catch it. With this, you can turn things all around, and unless it totally alters the story, I won't notice. However, the one thing that I caught was that they had Kjerstine Rose Anderson play the role of both Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter (and the one who got disowned) and Lear's clown. In fact, it's not so much that it was the same actor, as this production had the clown BE Cordelia. How could such a thing be? Well, the clown was totally in Lear's head. After speaking with Aldo Billinslea after the show, I learned that the text had to be altered in order to make it seem like the clown was completely in Lear's head. I found that to be an interesting move, as it provides a really clear reason why the clown is the only one who can speak so plainly to Lear and get away with it.

I almost feel bad singling out a few actors in this play, because as I said, there wasn't a weak link in the bunch. Nobody's performance took me out of the reality that was being created on stage. Also, by the time it was all said and done, my wife and I had to just sit while everybody exited the theater, as we felt like we were still absorbing it all. (We were two of just a few people who gave a standing ovation. What the hell was up with that? Did these people not recognize brilliance when they saw it.)

I've seen a lot of plays at Cal Shakes. Some I've loved, some I've liked, and a few I've been a bit "blah" about. (Never flat-out hated anything though.) I think that this one might be my favorite, and I don't remember any other play stirring my emotions nearly as much as this one. Let's just say that I had to wipe my eyes a few times during the production. No! I wasn't crying! YOU WERE CRYING!


Another good indicator as to how brilliant this was is how my wife felt. While I don't consider myself a Shakespeare scholar, I am somewhat immersed in his work as I've taught five of his plays. I'm also pretty familiar with quite a few more, and I've been known to read one here and there just to increase my familiarity with the canon. My wife, however, likes his stuff, and goes to all of these shows with me. She's usually the one who takes the time to make sure that we have our tickets, and she's always more than willing to see a movie adaptation. So, she definitely likes him, but she doesn't know any of his plays backward and forward like I do with some of them.

What was her reaction to this play then? Exactly the same as mine. She told me that she felt like telling me within the first five minutes, "Damn. This is really good!" She didn't though, but we both looked at each other during intermission and concurred that we were witnessing something really special.

The thing is with Shakespeare is that it doesn't just belong to just the playwright. It also doesn't just belong to him and the fans. It's a collaborative effort, and it lives on with each new production, constantly shifting and adapting over the years. With Cal Shakes's production of King Lear, it once again proves what Ben Jonson said so long ago about the man: "He was not of an age but for all time!"