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A Challenge

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) by Joe Johnston

It was just after this movie came out that I think I realized the scope of the MCU for the first time. That there would always be more movies and more stories. And I was reluctant to enter into something that asked for a commitment. So this is one of the movies I skipped at the movies and it wasn’t really a hard choice. I mean, with Iron Man I was curious what Robert Downey Jr. still had in him; The Incredible Hulk I also did not see at the movies because I really didn’t care and didn’t know the movies would be connected. With Thor, there was my interest in mythic stories (I’m more of a Greek myth person, really, but I don’t mind the Norse Gods at all) and it was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

When I finally did watch Captain America, I did like it and also him but my initial reluctance may actually be linked to a bigger problem the first avenger faces worldwide.

What happens in the movie?

Skinny little Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to fight in World War II but being skinny and little are only two problems that have recruitment bureaus rejecting him. Seeing his buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in his uniform doesn’t exactly boost Steve’s confidence but then a chance encounter with Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) lands Steve one of the top spots in a very special recruitment competition – one to make a supersoldier.

Suffice it to say, Steve wins that competition – not by being the best or strongest but by being compassionate and smart. He becomes a supersoldier but he remains the first and only one because Erskine is assassinated right after making Steve big and strong. The army loses interest in an experiment that can’t be continued and Steve is forced to help the war effort by selling war bonds. Until the day he learns that his friend Bucky has been captured and possibly killed by the enemy.

It’s strange looking at the concept of this film and realizing how many boxes it ticks with me. I don’t necessarily come from a superhero-loving background but the 1940s have a special place in my heart – movie-wise. I’m also interested in history, especially WWII. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Captain America, though? The hero’s title doesn’t really invite international audiences, does it? You don’t need to be anti-American to be little enthused about a hero that seems to embody America’s special brand of patriotism. The German distributor of Marvel films actually chose to drop the Captain America-part for the second and third movies, calling them The Return of the First Avenger and The First Avenger: Civil War respectively. This first outing of Captain America made around 370 million Dollars worldwide, only The Incredible Hulk made less. Successful? Yes, but not an instant hit.

Many of us probably only started liking Steve Rogers when he became part of the avengers. It’s a pity, though, because Captain America: The First Avenger is a great movie. Steve is instantly likable, even as he struggles with multiple illnesses that keep him on the short side. He wants to fight, he thinks he has no right to stay home when others lay down their lives. He’s a good guy and that’s what makes him the perfect candidate for the supersoldier program.

The likability of the character is an important factor, especially considering international audiences. But it also makes Steve a little bit bland. He operates in a politically divisive climate and the filmmakers were very aware to make Steve inoffensive. This is not about killing Nazis, really, it’s about modern audiences viewing a time in which it was not just okay but necessary to kill Nazis. Having a good guy kill people (and Captain America probably killed more people than any of the other Avengers) is problematic. And so Steve is a nice guy, a guy we trust in to do the right thing. To further us being okay with him killing Nazis, they made Hydra a faceless mass (yes, they went a step further by making the main antagonist literally faceless), they’re just people in black combat uniform with masks over their faces.

I guess all this explains why the first avenger is also the last to arrive on the scene, just before The Avengers is released. So much was build on how successful Iron Man was but it was also crucial that the other avengers did well. Making Steve inoffensive, making Hydra faceless, at the same time making The Howling Commandoes more diverse (with an Asian-American, a French, and a British soldier in their mix) than they were in the comics, and going as far as giving Steve a Britsh love interest in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), everything was designed to appeal to a wide audience. Only, in Captain America, it shows more than in the other movies.

It’s still a great movie, underrated I think. I really like Steve Rogers but I LOVE Peggy Carter. Maybe it’s because, thanks to the tv show Agent Carter, I’ve spent more time with her than with Steve or any of the other avengers. It’s really a pity that she’s stuck in her time period and thus less accessible to the wider MCU stories. They put her in as often as they could and I’m glad for it. Agent Carter should’ve had a longer run, Peggy’s one of my faves.

A little sidenote: I’m glad, Captain America: The First Avenger didn’t have American actors attempt to speak German. It’s really difficult to understand them in most cases because their speech rhythm is usually off. Instead, they opted for the ‘German’ characters to have German accents in their English. Hugo Weaving does an especially good job at this. They probably did it for English-speaking audiences but as a German viewer, I’m ever so grateful.

Well, if you can make time and give this a rewatch I’m sure you won’t regret it. In light of what happened in Endgame, I think it’s nice to see how Steve and Peggy’s romance started (I like them together, of course, if I had a say in it I would’ve liked for Steve to be with Bucky and Peggy to be with Angie but as long as it has to be heteronormative…).

Next: The Avengers (where everything comes together)

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Les Misérables

Les Misérables (2012) by Tom Hooper

lesmis-tix

Finally, Les Mis opened in Germany! Finally, I watched it!

You might think that this has been a livelong dream of mine, that I could think of nothing else while waiting for it to happen, that I was thrilled by the choices of actors – or devastated. But you would be wrong. I knew very little of Les Misßerables before, and I don’t feel that I know a lot more now. Sure, the plot is fairly clear now, some quotes that I may have heard before make sense – but I have never read the novel by Victor Hugo, I haven’t seen a version of the musical before now.

lesmis4And still, when people started talking about it on the blogosphere, I became intrigued and I wanted to see it – even more so when I heard that Helena Bonham Carter would be in it, singing once again as she had already done on Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Anne Hathaway? Can she sing? Russell Crowe? Can HE sing? Hugh Jackman? Awesome, he can sing! The list of cast just got better and better and then I waited, patiently. Until yesterday:

The year is 1815, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has spent 19 years in prison, five for stealing a loaf of bread, 14 more because he tried to escape. Now he’s on parole and he’s given the chance to better himself. But he can’t do that while still wearing the stigma of a con – so, he makes his former self disappear and builds a new identity. One, that becomes mayor of some city and a respected businessman. At his factory works a young woman by the name of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is dismissed by Valjean’s foreman after finding out that she has an illegitimate child.

Fantine takes to the street while Valjean has to face his past in the figure of lesmis2Javert (Russell Crowe) who was a guard at prison and recognizes the man. Valjean finds Fantine and takes her to the hospital where she dies after Valjean promises her to find her daughter, Cosette, and care for her. He does but has to flee with the small girl (Isabelle Allen) because Javert is after him again. Nine years later in Paris, Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) live in hiding. Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionist, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Javert once again enters their lives. Trying to escape they are caught up in the machinisms of a revolution and everybody has choices to make, debts to pay.

The story isn’t the greatest part of it, and I’m not even sure if it’s Hugo’s doing or simply the script of even the musical version, but there are certainly a few questions that are left unanswered, a little too many coincidences happening. But these probably shouldn’t even be mentioned in the light of a fantastic cast lesmis3giving a breathtaking performance. Yes, they can all sing and they do. And while they’re all really wonderful, it is Anne Hathaway who blows everyone else out of the water. Oscar-worthy performance? Abso-fucking-lutely (pardon my French, and the pun)! There are no words to discribe her intensity. She makes the audience feel lost with her, makes everyone want to reach out and protect her. She is the face that has been ruined, not by her own doing but by others judging her. She should have lived where others died but she doesn’t. She dies and the audience cries for her.

Luckily, they bring Anne Hathaway back for the grand finale because by then you have missed her – not because it had all turned boring and lame by now but simply because she was THAT good.

Whoelse was good? Well, you guessed it: Helena Bonham Carter. It doesn’t really matter what she does, she does it all fabulously. And the weight of not letting the whole show drudge into misery and sorrow lay heavy on her and Sacha Baron Cohen’s shoulders and they pulled it off and making it look effortlessly.

I’m mentioning these two actresses but I should mention everyone involved. lesmis9The cast was fabulous. I think I was most surprised by the role of Javert. It would have been easy to have him being the villain, somebody who doesn’t care. But Javert does care. He really believes that Valjean belongs in prison, that he’s a dangerous man. He also believes in the system, in the law, and that’s exactly why he must fail in the end – because the system fails him. He is confronted with the question of right and wrong and must admit to himself that he has been wrong all along, because he has put himself on the wrong side. I feel, that his is really the most complex of roles, more so than Valjean’s, because Valjean has the opportunity to redeem himself – Javert doesn’t. And Crowe is really great at protraying this.

There’s another interpretation that lends itself to these two characters, of course. It feels a little like a love story between the two men. None of them seems to have any other romantic linkages but one is always following the other, watching for him. Yes, there’s antagonism but there’s also honor and a sense of one coin with two sides. One is Valjean, the other Javert (their names are eerily similar with the prominant Vj/Jv sounds in them). It’s really a kind of symbioses that binds them, they cannot let go, they cannot carry on.

lesmis8

There is so much in the story, there’s so much in the songs, there are emotions and thoughts. I will watch it again and listen to the soundtrack and maybe even read the novel – hopefully it will all make sense at some point, or at least the things that I found a little lacking in the plot. It was the only thing that lacked anything really, as this was a brilliant movie. Now go see, if you haven’t already.

lesmis1

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Anonymous

Anonymous (2011) by Roland Emmerich

Shakespeare and I have a history (and yes, this is going to be a longer post, so go make some tea and get comfy). I was 13 when I had the splendid idea that I should read Shakespeare (in the German translation), and I chose Macbeth (and yes, it was a mistake). I read three pages and threw it into a corner where it lay for about three years (no, I did not allow anybody to pick it up, I wanted it to feel as shamed and embarrassed as I did when I didn’t understand it).

So, three years passed, and I watched Much Ado About Nothing, and I suddenly understood Shakespeare (or Branagh’s version of it). And I tried to read Macbeth again and gave up after two pages. I bought Much Ado and I understood that – so, the moral of this is probably that not every Shakespeare-play is for me. (Meanwhile I had to read Macbeth, and though I do understand it now – it is actually easier to understand in English than in its German translation – it is still no favorite of mine.)

Of course, I was thrilled when I read that there was to be a movie about the identity of the world’s greatest poet. I love most of his work, I have read different accounts on who he was and I am fascinated with his story. So, here’s the trailer:

Anonymous trailer

I personally see Shakespeare as more of an institution than a man. Surely, there was a man named William Shakespeare working as an actor in London at the time but it is fairly doubtful that he was THE William Shakespeare who wrote those plays. Even if he did, this script would have gone through many hands afterwards, would have been revised by other writers during production. But, of course, the idea of some nobleman (or -woman?) having written these plays is more likely since he must have been able to write, known some Greek tragedies, a little bit of the world… Maybe there were even more than one person involved in writing the plays?

This movie by Roland Emerich picks up a common theory among academics: Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower) was Shakespeare. The movie shows him as an unlucky fellow who had to marry a girl he did not love but then falls in love with Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson) and she with him – and then she gets pregnant.

This is also the story of the very influential Cecil family (lead by William Cecil played by David Thewlis) who behind the scenes protected the Queen’s secrets and kept her save from her enemies.

There is also the son of Oxford and Elizabeth – it is actually believed that Elizabeth had several children from a multitude of lovers – who is not even considered for the throne because he, of course, did not know he was the queen’s son. The story is told on several time lines. We see Oxford as a man in his forties, who is obsessed with writing plays and has them played out under a different name – it is more of a coincidence that it is Shakespeare – and not Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) – who claims to have written the plays. Then there is the younger Oxford who lives with the family of Cecil and marries their daughter. He wants to make a name for himself but William Cecil always interferes and spends a good part of his fortune.

It is also the story of Ben Johnson who wants to become a great playwrite himself (and he certainly was that) but today he is most famous for the inscription on the First Folio.

The movie tells a lot of stories, it is about a man who has to write but is not supposed to write, a man who cannot write and is supposed to be the best playwrite of his time, a man who did write but was never the best of his profession, and a woman who was a queen and a lover but was never allowed to be a mother.

The cast is great and, I must say, I have seen so many Elizabeth I but Vanessa Redgrave… holy mess! She is fantastic. The idea to cast her daughter Joely Richardson as her younger self is brilliant, of course. The movie is great and far more interesting than I make it out, believe me. It has fighting, and flight, and things explode and burn (this is Roland Emmerich, after all). People die. I was once again captivated by the performance of Jamie Campbell Bower who I though great in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and who made for a really good young Oxford, arrogant, tortured, lost.

The introduction of the movie certainly is referential to Branagh’s Henry V, as it begins with Derek Jacobi as prologue. It is actually a little disconcerting seeing this film that has been made by Emmerich and Thor which has been done by Branagh. One might rather think that the two films had been done by the other… Anyways, it is – as always – a pleasure to see Shakespeare and it is certainly interesting to know and understand some of the debate that the poet himself inspired. Who was Shakespeare? I don’t know and it is not crucial for me to know but this movie showed an interesting theory, so I felt thoroughly entertained.

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Just dropping a note: The Conspirator

The Conspirator (2010) by Robert Redford

The Trailer:

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have seen this – busy weeks to be precise – but I still wanted to write something about it, ’cause it was actually really good.

It was a tough decision to go watch it. I had seen the trailor – as I have mentioned in my post about Robin Wright – and liked it. But when I sat at home that evening thinking about it again, I remembered it as belonging to a trope  in which a woman is judged by a room full of men – and I do so get tired of movies like that.

Going to the movies seems to involve a lot of convincing on my part lately. But I am glad, I convinced myself to watch The Conspirator. For once, it is an interesting piece of history. Everybody knows the name of Lincoln’s assassin but the story that followed is not so very well known and it is rather a sad testament of law taken into the hands of vengeful men.

The acting is brilliant. Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood showed great performances of Southern women who – possibly – didn’t do anything wrong but are still blamed for the wrongdoings of the the men in their lives. James McAvoy shows another strong performance, and Kevin Kline – who is and always will be one of my favorite actors – is so brilliant that I only recognized him halfway through the movie. And playing an arrogant tyrant becomes him quite well.

The weak point of the film is probably that it is a story about a woman told through the story of a man. McAvoy’s character, Frederick Aiken, is also the main character. His fight for justice in the face of a paralyzing crime takes center stage, while the struggle of the woman he is fighting for, Mary Surratt, is pushed to the sidelines. And we are talking about the first woman who had been lawfully executed in the United States (and it is just possible that she was “innocent”) while Aiken quit practicing law after her trial. One wonders who the more heroic figure of the two was… (in case you are still wondering: it was her!).

The supporting cast was another strong point of the film (you really cannot complain about the casting). Beside Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, and Tom Wilkinson, Trekkers will rejoice in seeing Colm Meaney, while Gleeks will cheer for Jonathan Groff (who I don’t like any better now than when he first appeared on Glee).

If you got the time, give this film some attention. It deserves it, and it is certainly not just for people who study the subject – as I do.

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Just dropping a note: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech (2010) by Tom Hooper

Well, I watched The King’s Speech this week but don’t really feel like writing a whole long blog post. So I thought I just drop a note that I have watched it and that I thought it is a great movie, with excellent actors. It is also about male bonding, that is, about a friendship between King George VI (Colin Firth) and Lionel (Geoffrey Rush), his speech therapist.

Of course, we all know that Colin Firth won an Oscar for his role as King George VI, but everybody was very well cast. The best moment for me, though (if you consider that the stopping of one’s heart is a sign for having a good time), was when I realized that Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy were in the same room together. Cryptic enough? Well, Jennifer Ehle who played Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC-version of Pride and Prejudice (1995) played Geoffrey Rush’s wife and she and the king (and Colin Firth played Darcy in the same production, as you probably know) meet once briefly and I almost swallowed my tongue watching.

All in all, it is a good movie, very solid, but also not out of the ordinary. It is another film about a monarch who had some struggles and overcame them with the help of a friend, nothing we haven’t seen a gazillion of times already. Of course, I cherish every movie with Helena Bonham Carter (wasn’t it her cousin Crispin who played Bingley on the same version of Pride and Prejudice?) but I came out of the theater knowing that I would struggle to remember what I had watched the next day – and I did. The word “forgettable” comes to mind.

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Robin Hood – She was no maid!

Robin Hood (2010) by Ridley Scott

Well, I am in Berlin (at the moment) and I promised myself not to go to the movies… and then I did it anyway. Sometimes it’s a little bit shocking how easily I am forgiven when I break a promise to myself – at least those who include watching or not watching movies.

Anywho, I watched Robin Hood, a movie I was not in the least curious about when I first saw the trailer. Then they said “by Ridley Scott, the director of ‘Gladiator'” and I chanted at the screen: “Alien. The director of Alien. Whoever saw Gladiotor? I certainly didn’t…” Well, I guess I am a tiny bit obsessed when it comes to Alien. Especially since a fifth is in the making (without Ripley? Are you guys serious?) Word has it that it will be in 3D although Scott is not convinced by it (neither am I, I might add). Why do it then?

Okay, back to Robin Hood. It is a good movie. Solid. An old story told differently. Enlightening in some ways, demystefying in others – especially when Lady Marianne reveals that she was no maid when she married Loxley – who is not the real Robin Hood…

It’s all very shocking. Eleanor of Aquitaine is still alive (mother of Richard and John and six more) and well and is treating John like the scum he is, mainly. Richard is little better than his brother, searching for lost glory in Jerusalem and getting himself killed on his pillaging way back to England (by a French cook, nonetheless). His crown is sent to England with his guard and their leader: Robert of Loxley. He dies too but before he does he gives his sword to one Robin Longstride and tells him to bring the sword to his father. Robin does and is adopted by the blind Walter of Loxley… seems Lady Marianne (Loxley junior’s wife) is part of the deal – or maybe she falls in love with him (if it pleases Hollywood!). Englishmen get killed because John trusted the wrong man and then the French king sails over to invade… but, alas, Robin of the Hood has finally brought the barons of England under one banner again (for a promise of King John to give everybody more rights) and beats the Frenchmen. Happy ending? Oh, contraire, John breaks his word and is from now on the stupidest King John in Hollywood history – but who cares since Robin and Marianne and their friends have abondoned the windy castle walls and live now in a forest – what was its name again?

I like the new movie although I must confess I am a sucker for the 1938 movie with Errol Flynn (there is a scene where one can see striped boxers through green tights – it’s a classic). Russell Crowe doesn’t wear tights, of course, which is good (I wouldn’t want to see him wearing them, I am sure you wouldn’t either). Lady Marianne is an absolut improvement, too, she is feisty, witty, strong and hot, a true feminist. And Cate gives her more than the literary figure bargained for, I am telling you.

Ridley Scott fortunately makes for great femals characters. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he put Eleanor in his movie (although a Hepburn-fan like me gets a little sentimental seeing her portraid by somebody else even though the job was well done by Eileen Atkins). Even John’s girlfriend turning queen is a strong female character. And then there is Marianne, cocking bows, swinging swords, and mainly being what women in those times should have been but probably weren’t. And she kills the man who is trying to rape her, for a change… (if we keep this up we might never again have to endure another scene that even indicates rape… wouldn’t that be great? it wouldn’t be historically correct but it would still be great!)

I liked the movie. It wasn’t the best ever but the story is new, the characters evolved, the setting stunning, and though I will never again be a fan of Russell Crowe he is capable… and has a great voice (remember: in Germany movies are dubbed and I have never watched one with Crowe in English.)

Battle On!