Category: movie reviews


Hello, readers!  This post might seem to come from out of nowhere after such a long silence.  But it’s nice to be back.  : )   Anyway, this post came about because a Facebook friend linked to this review of Avengers:Age of Ultron:

Age of Ultron Is Proof Marvel Is Killing the Popcorn Movie by Sady Doyle

(Note:  Captain America wishes to warn readers that the above link contains strong language.)

I hadn’t planned to post it here, as it’s more of a response to this specific review than a complete review of the movie, but another friend of mine asked me to so she could link to it, which was very nice of her!

Anyway, here it is…

I disagree with this review of Avengers: Age of Ultron (Avengers 2 for short)– I not only enjoyed the movie, but I thought it continued a trend of Marvel getting superheroes right in ways that a lot of “deeper, more serious” movies get wrong.

(Spoiler warning:  This review reveals pretty much the whole plot of the movie, so if you still haven’t seen it and want to be surprised, please don’t read on yet!)

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Hello, everyone!

One of the things I wanted to do this new year was write more often on this blog, so here I am, only 22 days into the year!  : )

I finally got to see the movie adaptation of the musical Les Miserables with my family yesterday.  I thought it was terrific!  Most of the reviews I had seen of the movie were mixed, so I was expecting not to like parts of it, but I thought everyone in the cast did a great job.  (Yes, even Russell Crowe as Javert.)

I think it’s unrealistic to compare the movie to the stage production based just on the singing, because the stage actors are among the best in the world at using their voices to express their emotions.  The movie took advantage of its cast’s screen acting ability, often having more subdued singing performances, but a lot more going on with characters’ expressions, actions, and body language.

That meant that it was wise to change some things about the way the movie portrayed events.  For example, when Jean Valjean decides to steal the bishop’s silver, the stage production has Valjean himself describe the event to the audience in song:

He let me eat my fill; I had the lion’s share
The silver in my hand cost twice what I had earned
In all those nineteen years, that lifetime of despair
And yet he trusted me.
The old fool trusted me– He’s done his bit of good
I played the grateful serf and thanked him like I should
But when the house was still, I got up in the night
Took the silver…
Took my flight!

Valjean practically screams the final word of this monologue, giving the audience a sense that he has made a choice that there will be no turning back from– He was imprisoned and enslaved unjustly for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child, but now he has been so beaten down by the world that he has given up and has become a thief indeed.

In the movie, we can see Valjean (Hugh Jackman) steal the bishop’s silver, and having him sing about doing it (loudly, while in fact he is trying not to wake anyone) would likely seem awkward.  So even though this is one of my (many) favorite parts of the musical, it makes sense not to present that part of the story in song.

There are a lot of other changes to the musical.  Some things are left out; others are added.  The order of a lot of songs is changed.  But the impressive thing was that I agreed with virtually every decision.  It made sense for Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” after we see the depths her life has sunk to when she loses her job and has to make sacrifice after sacrifice to earn money for her child Cosette– selling her hair, her teeth, and finally her self.  In the stage production, the song is the introduction to the character Fantine, in which we learn what she is about.  In the movie, we can more easily get an idea of her innocence and vulnerableness through her actions, and the song works better as a summary to get us to think back on what we have seen.

There’s so much more I could say about this story– it really resonates with me because of the central place it gives God.  Without Him, it’s just a sad story, but with Him, it is full of hope.

A lot of what you read about autistic and Asperger’s personalities tends to focus on their typical weaknesses, like social awkwardness and difficulty connecting with other people.  There’s a lot written about how traits like introversion can be a hurdle for autistics trying to fit in to a workplace or to form relationships.

But it’s a huge mistake to dwell only on the negatives.  Let’s ask a different question:  What are the strengths of an Aspie personality?  Can a person with Asperger’s or autism be a good coworker, a good friend?

I believe that the answer is yes, without a doubt!  People with autism, Aspies, shy people– have a lot to offer, especially if others are willing to listen and be patient with them.

I think that the character of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is a great example of some of the strengths of an Aspie personality, and the way her friends accept her is a great example of how to treat others who may seem a bit different.

Speaking as an Aspie, it tends to be hard for us to talk about our strengths because we are so constantly aware of our weaknesses, but I think it’s a little easier to point out the strengths of a fictional character like Luna.

With that in mind, here are five positive character traits I see in Luna that I think she shares with a lot of Aspies:

1. The fruit of time spent alone in thought.

Aspies tend to need a lot of time alone to sort out our thoughts.  It’s not that we are smarter or deeper thinkers than anyone else, but we are more easily distracted by all of the sensory data bombarding us from every angle and the conscious effort it takes to participate in the give-and-take of interacting with other people.

In some ways, the magical world of Hogwarts seems like it could be a nightmare for someone who is prone to sensory overload.  It has all of the noise and busyness of a school, with people headed every direction all the time.  But I think the most annoying thing would be the pictures.

All of the paintings on the walls at Hogwarts are enchanted, so the people and things in them can move and talk.  So you can be walking down the hall by yourself, and one of the pictures might try to start a conversation with you.  If have a light on late at night, they’ll all start complaining that they’re trying to sleep.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but I think it would get annoying feeling like you’re always being watched.  (And then even if you get away from the pictures, you still have to deal with the ghosts!)

Luna grew up in this sort of magical world, so maybe it doesn’t bother her that much.  On the other hand, it’s not that different from having to contend with blaring advertisements in a crowded mall or airport in the real world.

But she does seem to appreciate time alone.  In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter finds her in the forest feeding thestrals, the silent winged creatures that are invisible to most people.  When Harry asks why no one else seems to see them, Luna explains that she and Harry can see the thestrals because they have seen death– Luna lost her mother at the age of nine in an accident, and Harry was orphaned when he was just a baby.  Just months ago, Harry also witnessed a friend and classmate being murdered by the killer of his parents, the dark lord Voldemort.

At this point in the story, Harry is feeling isolated from his friends and ignored by his mentors.  He knows that Voldemort is about to strike openly and try to seize power, but the authorities are in denial.  They refuse to even speak Voldemort’s name and have published stories in the “respectable” papers portraying Harry as a liar.  Some of the people that Harry thought were his friends are avoiding him, and he has started to avoid them.

Luna quietly observes that perhaps Voldemort wants Harry to feel isolated.  “If I were You-Know-Who,” she says, “I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.

This isn’t the sort of insight that occurs to someone without the benefit of a lot of time spent sorting out her thoughts.  Who would expect a shy little girl to have spent time considering the strategy of a ruthless enemy?  It’s an insight she has arrived at only after a great deal of thinking quietly by herself.  Luna, too, has felt isolated, because of the teasing of the other students and the fact that she has experienced a loss that most children her age can’t relate to.

It turns out to be the insight that Harry most needed at that point in his life.

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Harold Abrahams (#30, played by Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (#14, played by Ian Charleson)

Face blindness can sometimes make watching a movie an interesting puzzle.  Usually, it’s easier to keep track of characters in a movie than it is people in real life– there are usually only a few major characters in a movie, and filmmakers usually try to give the audience a lot of clues about who’s who, knowing that the whole audience is usually being introduced to these characters for the first time.

I usually find that if I make an effort to pay attention to the characters as they are introduced, I don’t have any trouble keeping up with the story.  A scene here or there may confuse me, but 1) often I’m able to piece things together by continuing to watch, and 2) sometimes the filmmakers intend to confuse or unsettle the audience with ambiguity, and that too becomes clear if you just keep watching.

But with some movies, face blindness can give me a lot of trouble.  I was reminded of this when I recently watched 1981 Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of runners who competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games.

I saw the movie for the first time several years ago when we rented it.  It was one of my mother’s favorite movies, and at the end, she started talking about how it did such an effective job of presenting the stories of two athletes alongside each other in a way that caused you to think about the similarities and differences between them.

But I hadn’t picked up on any of that.  In fact, I had a hard time seeing the point of the story, because I had not been able to tell that the movie’s structure focused on the lives of two men in particular, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.

Harold Abrahams was an English Jew who competed in the face of racial and religious prejudice.  His deans at Cambridge refused to support or encourage him, and Abrahams used the desire to prove them wrong as his motivation to become the best runner in the world.  At the same time, though, the prospect of losing a race filled Abrahams with fear.

Eric Liddell was a devout Christian from Scotland who planned to enter the ministry as a missionary, as his parents had before him.  When he began devoting a lot of time to training for competition in the Olympics, his sister worried that he was placing his enjoyment of running (an earthly thing) ahead of doing God’s will.  Surely winning footraces could not be as glorifying to God as being a missionary, could it?

One of the interesting things about the filmmakers’ choice to focus on these two runners is the fact that their paths don’t cross very many times during the story.  Abrahams and Liddell only compete against each other in the same race once, and that is not in the Olympics.  Once they both arrive in Paris, they each have their own concerns to deal with and don’t interact much with each other.  So it’s mostly an artistic choice to tell their stories in parallel, by cutting from one to the other.
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Harry Potter shows his "new" textbook to his friends Ron and Hermione.

Harry Potter shows his "new" textbook to his friends Ron and Hermione.

The movie adaptation of J. K. Rowling‘s sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is the most serious and intense of the series so far.  The forces of evil are beginning to attack openly, and the film ends quite somberly with the death of a beloved character and the sense that things are about to get worse.

Director David Yates does a good job for the second movie in a row of bringing Rowling’s magical world to life in a way that fits the mood of the story.  The greatest strength of the movie is in the interaction between the characters– the students and teachers of Hogwarts that we have come to know over the course of the series.  Yates wisely includes a good amount of humor in the scenes between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, which helps to keep the grim tone from totally overwhelming the movie.

Overall, I still count the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as my favorite of the movies so far.  It had a coherent focus and message, and a real sense of accomplishment by the heroes.  It may not be fair to judge the movies the same way, as they play different roles in the overall scheme of the series.  Half-Blood Prince is less suited to stand alone, as it is mostly a buildup for the conflict about to take place in the last two films, and as a result, it leaves a lot of things unresolved.

Still, I think some things about Half-Blood Prince could have been handled better.  My main criticism of the film is that it feels rushed.  This is likely a result of each Harry Potter novel being longer than the last, and therefore harder to condense into a single movie.  (That’s one reason why the seventh and final novel is being made into two movies.)  At times, the plot seems to press forward as if it is ticking through a list of the major events that need to take place, and there isn’t enough time to explain their significance or to give the audience a good sense of how much time has passed.

At this point, I should probably come clean and admit that I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books– my familiarity with the series comes entirely from the movies (and from a family who are all huge fans of the books!)  So I’m looking just at what I know from the movies in this review.  You are invited to discount any huge mistakes I make in Harry Potter knowledge, and to disregard any complaints that are based on my ignorance of the books– I certainly remember being on the other side of this when people who hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings complained about misunderstanding things in Peter Jackson’s films that were much more clear in the books!

Warning:  there are spoilers ahead!

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Star Trek

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

Producer J.J. Abrams has brought Star Trek back to life with a film full of action and spectacle that ranks among the best summer popcorn movies for filmgoers looking to have fun at the theater.  But what really makes Star Trek a success is how much its story is grounded in the character qualities of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise.  Don’t let the flashiness and fast pace of the story fool you– this movie works because it recaptures the spirit of the original Star Trek series.  The only major criticism I have is that the plot relies too much on coincidences during the middle of the story.

One of the smartest things that Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did was to wipe the slate clean and retell the story from the beginning.  I love the various Star Trek series and can go on about them for hours, but I don’t have trouble admitting that adhering mechanically to every bit of minutia in the Star Trek Encyclopedia tends to restrict storytelling and drive new fans away.

Take Captain Kirk’s backstory, for example.  Several episodes of the show back in the 60s alluded to Kirk having served on this or that ship, or having lived on a certain colony, in order to give Kirk a personal connection to whatever the story was about.  About the only common thread was that none of these stories matched with what was said about Kirk’s past in any of the other episodes.  (Let’s not even get into how many times old girlfriends of his show up without ever having been mentioned before!)

Of course, Star Trek fans have been able to piece together a coherent story about Kirk’s past from all of these separate little mentions.  And a few of them feared that any movie that didn’t carefully follow that story would somehow mess up Star Trek’s history– even though Kirk’s backstory had never really been intentionally written; it just sort of “grew” out of the work of many different writers!

Mercifully, the new Star Trek movie ignores all of that concern from the very beginning, in a breathtaking battle sequence that drives home the danger of space travel and the nobility expected of a starship captain, and forever reshapes the life of the young James T. Kirk.  The characters are the same, but this is a new story, and anything can happen!

Let me assure you– even if you have never watched any Star Trek before, you won’t be left out of the story– this movie is the beginning, and no Star Trek Encyclopedia is necessary.

There are spoilers in the remainder of my review.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see the movie right now! 🙂

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