Captain America: The First Avenger

52 Movies: Week 20

I’m changing up the format here. This is obviously not the movie poster, rather a classic Alex Schomburg cover from my own comic collection.

While I have a lot to say about Captain America the character, I don’t have a lot to say about the Captain America the movie.  It was pretty much exactly what one would expect going in.  The cast was excellent and I love that they made it a period piece but the script was very by the numbers.  Out of all of the movies leading up to The Avengers, Captain America felt the most like a bridge to that feature film rather than a feature film in it’s own right.

This is not to say that it was a terrible movie.  I thought Captain America’s origin was well told but, once we got past that, there was not much in the way of dramatic tension.  I wonder how much of this is the fault of the character?

It’s funny — From a philosophical point of view, Superman and Captain America are two of my favorite characters.  I like my heroes to be, well, heroic and, despite their super powers, in the case of both superman and Captain America, it is their strength of character that makes them true heroes.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rodgers tells Dr. Erskine, the scientist developing the super soldier serum that he wants to enlist not because he is particularly anxious to kill anyone but because he hates a bully.  Later, Dr. Erskine tells Steve Rodgers that he was selected for the program because a weak man understands the value of strength.

Superman does not share Captain America’s meek origins but his adopted parents raised him with similar values.  Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both the children of Jewish immigrants and their hero, created in the 1930’s, was a populist crusader, protecting those without a voice and fighting against tyranny and oppression in all its guises.  Similarly, Captain America was co-created by Joe Simon who came from a poor Jewish family and whose father had also immigrated from Europe.  Far from being a jingoistic symbol of nationalism, Captain America also fought for those noblest of American values that early 20th century immigrants valued so highly — Freedom from oppression, opportunity for all and social justice.

These are the values that make characters like Superman and Captain America so much more appealing to me than vengeance fueled vigilantes like Batman. I like the heroes who are Boy Scouts because they appeal to the better angels of our nature, their values reflect my world views and they, quite honestly, inspire me.  Unfortunately, all of these features that make them so appealing to me on a personal level, also make them somewhat boring on a dramatic level.  It’s hard to write compelling fiction featuring heroes who are so perfect and I can count on one hand the number of Superman or Captain America stories that managed to find the right balance.  By contrast, there are countless compelling stories featuring Batman and his ilk, with Christopher Nolan’s soon to be completed trilogy being just the latest example.

I’m looking forward to seeing the Avengers this week.  Writer/director Josh Whedon is a master of group dynamics and if anyone can grab hold of what is essential in Captain America’s character and integrate that into a team-based story, it’s him.  While Captain America: The First Avenger, managed to nail Cap’s origin story, the latter half of the movie ran afoul of the challenges inherent in wringing dramatic tension out of such an iconic hero.  Accordingly, I can only give the movie three stars.

Eternal Summers — The Dawn of Eternal Summers

52 Albums: Week 16

Eternal Summers — The Dawn of Eternal Summers

Eternal Summers describe their music as “Dream Punk” and it’s an appropriate label in that their music combines dream pop with lo-fi indie punk influences.

The Dawn of Eternal Summers is apparently a release of early recordings in anticipation of their second full length album due out in June.    Be that as it may, it’s a full length collection that I’ve been listening to all week so, for the purposes of this blog, I’m considering it a new release album.

As a rule, Dream Pop rarely captures my attention for very long but it’s perfect as background music while working.  Fans of the genre, however, will find a lot to love on this album which is solid throughout.  I would also recommend the track “Able To” to pretty much anyone as it’s one of the better songs I’ve heard all year:

I give the album three and a half stars based on my personal taste but it deserves more so be sure to check it out if you like the track above. I’m looking forward to checking out their new album in June.

Listen to The Dawn of Eternal Summers on Spotify.

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwall

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwall

I don’t know why I have so much trouble reviewing Bernard Cornwall’s books.  He’s one of my favorite authors and I love just about everything I’ve read by him.  Enemy of God is no exception.  When it comes times to write a review, however, my thoughts can generally be summed up  by saying “This book was awesome, just like everything else Cornwall has written.”

Enemy of God is the second book in Cornwall’s take on Arthurian legend.  Like all of his books, (and unlike most other modern re-telling of the Arthur legend), it is full of period accurate historical detail.  Also like all of his other books, it is full of intrigue and fantastic battle scenes.

The subject matter, in this case, is epic on a scale unlike anything else I’ve read by Cornwall.  I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book in the series this Spring.

X-Men: First Class

52 Movies: Week 19

X-Men: First Class

There is a good movie somewhere in here but it is continually undercut by a ham-fisted script.

X-Men:First class is set in 1962 (with some flashbacks to 1942) and it covers the origin of the titular team of super-powered mutants.  I should confess that I am a huge X-Men geek and have been since I was ten so this is an origin story that I know like the back of my hand.  To its credit, X-Men:First Class does a good job at capturing some of what I love about that story.  In particular, the relationship between Eric Lehnsherr (the holocaust survivor who will go on to become the super-villain Magneto) and Charles Xavier (the founder and leader of the X-Men) is a fascinating and tragic story about two friends with very different views on the relationship between mutants and homo-sapiens.

Eric Lehnsherr is played by Michael Fassbender and Charles Xavier is played by James McAvoy.  Both actors do a fantastic job and the scenes featuring the two of them (which comprise the bulk of the movie) are all excellent.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast turn in mostly terrible performances, perhaps hamstrung by the often terrible dialog they are given.  Jennifer Lawrence, who I love, is terrible in X-Men: First Class, even while her character’s arc is mostly interesting.

Some of the script problems come from having to shoe-horn in a lot of material in a little over 2 hours.  At times, however, I felt like we are being given the dumbed down version of reality that plagued comic book movies for so long until movies like Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman movies and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies showed that you can successfully ground comic book movies in the real world.  X-Men First Class certainly attempts to do just this on the fact of it — The Cuban Missle Crisis is a major plot-point.  But heavy handed dialog from extras who serve only as plot devices undermines this reality and repeatedly pulls the audience out of whatever immersion they may have been feeling.

All of that having been said, the movie’s action set pieces are well done and there are moments that really scored a direct hit with my inner comic geek.  (The first appearance of the team in uniform was almost worth the price of admission alone.)  X-Men: First Class is better than other movies in the X-Men franchise and it is entertaining for fans of the genre.  It’s still a disappointment, however, as there are the makings of a truly great movie here and it never quite comes together.  Three stars out of five.

Spiritualized — Sweet Heart Sweet Light

52 Albums: Week 15

Spiritualized — Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Sweet Heart Light Heart is a sweeping album, successfully blending Shoegaze, Britpop, Rock-Gospel, Blues and large scale orchestral arrangements into a grand, cohesive whole.  Spiritualized has been around since the early 90’s and while Sweet Heart Light Heart draws on some of the groups earlier sounds, the efforts are focused by singer/guitarist Jason Pierce’s near death experiences and medical treatment while writing and mixing the album.

The album’s highlights are among the best songs I’ve heard all year.  Take the track ‘Mary’ for example:

The song starts out in a Slowcore, Dreampop vein reminiscent of Low but, over the course of six minutes, it builds into something entirely epic featuring strings, noisy, angular guitars and horns. This ambition and richness of sound is present throughout Sweet Heart Sweet Light. The album’s best song is “Sweet Jane” and, if you have ten minutes to spare, I highly recommend director AG Rojas’ excellent, long-form video. (Elements of the video are NSFW.)

Good as this album is, ambient, shoe-gazy music sometimes tries my patience and the album sags a little bit from time to time.  I give Sweet Heart Sweet Light four stars out of five.  It will be interesting to see if it sticks around in my rotation long enough to make my year-end top ten albums or if those duller songs turn me off enough over time to drive me away from the album.

Listen to Sweet Heart Sweet Light on Spotify.

Playlist: A Month And a Half

Inspired by my favorite music podcast, Rock Solid, I have put together this play list featuring days of the week.  Six weeks worth of songs, to be precise:

Listen to A Month And a Half on Spotify.

This is a long playlist, perfect for listening to at work, or on a lazy Sunday morning.  (Something about songs featuring days of the week — A lot of them are contemplative.)  There are some obvious choices missing from this list — You can safely assume I hate those songs.  (Elton John, Steeley Dan, etc.)  Here’s the full playlist:

  • Sunday Morning Wednesday Night — Spoon
  • I Don’t Like Monday’s — The Boomtown Rats
  • Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning — Cowboy Junkies
  • Waiting For Wednesday — Lisa Loeb
  • Like a Summer Thursday — Alela Diane
  • Friday XIII — Deer Tick
  • Saturday — Built To Spill

  • Sunday Bloody Sunday — U2
  • Blue Monday — New Order
  • c u next tuesday — Ke$ha
  • Wednesday (No Se Apoye) — Mike Doughty
  • Thursday — Asobi Seksu
  • Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) — Katy Perry
  • Come Saturday — The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

  • Sunday Best — Agustana
  • Monday Morning — Fleetwood Mac
  • Ruby Tuesday — The Rolling Stones
  • Wednesday — Drive-by Truckers
  • Blackouts on Thursday — Les Savy Fav
  • DUI Friday — Fishbone
  • Saturday Come Slow — Massive Attack

  • Sunday — Bloc Party
  • Monday Morning — Death Cab for Cutie
  • Tuesday Night — Social Plaza
  • Wednesday — Tori Amos
  • Holy Thursday — David Axelrod
  • Jebidiah Moonshine’s Friday Night Shack Party — Audra Mae
  • Saturday Night — Misfits

  • Sunday Morning, Coming Down — Johnny Cash
  • On a Monday — Ry Cooder
  • Tuesday Morning — Michelle Branch
  • Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. — Simon & Garfunkel
  • Thursday — Jim Croce
  • Friday’s Child — Nancy Sinatra
  • The Heart of Saturday Night — Tom Waits

  • Pleasant Valley Sunday — The Monkees
  • Monday — The Jam
  • Tuesday’s Gone — Leonard Skynyrd
  • Ash Wednesday — Elvis Perkins
  • Thursday Evening Swing — The Cats & The Fiddle
  • Black Friday Rule — Flogging Molly
  • Finch On Saturday — Horse Feathers
  • One Sunday Morning — Wilco

Last Stand at Saber River by Elmore Leonard

Last Stand at Saber River by Elmore Leonard

Leonard’s laconic style is well suited to Westerns. The writing in this novel is as terse as the characters. It is those characters that make this novel what it is. While Leonard does not waste a lot of words, his characters are always well fleshed out, complex and, most importantly, believable. It goes without saying that people are complex and Leonard captures this complexity as well as any novelist writing today.

Last Stand at Saber River is, on some levels a deconstruction of the classic Western. Leonard sets up a classic confrontation and, while the novel does not shy away from violence, the morality of that violence does not go unexplored. War is war, self-defense is self-defense and murder is murder. When those lines start to blur, a moral man will weigh his actions carefully and that conflict is the heart of this book.