Friday, June 15, 2012

Movies that Tribute Fatherhood

With Fathers' Day this weekend it seemed only appropriate to reflect for the sake of blogging on where the best tributes to fatherhood are in movies. Keep in mind, I'm not pointing out movies for Fathers' Day, but rather looking at the various kinds of dads in films and how they model fatherhood in different ways. Naturally there are tons of movies that could feature such characters, but I have narrowed my list down to specific types of dads.

The Good Father 
To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) - Is there any better father figure in literature or film than Atticus Finch? Debatable. To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of a child, but none of her father’s sterling integrity is lost in the telling. Atticus may initially come off as a stern office drone of a lawyer, but he shows himself to be brave in ways that demand the deepest respect. He stands on the unpopular side in the name of truth and justice. He loves his children and protects their innocence, but he does not shelter them from the truth. He guards their hearts and minds by educating them about life but works hard to defend them from being embittered by it. In terms of untainted character and dignity, Atticus stands tall as a father and role model.

The Dedicated Father
Finding Nemo, Marlin (Albert Brooks) - Marlin may start out as overprotective and compulsive, but he could never be accused of being uncaring or apathetic. Even as a jumpy worrier, Marlin and his son Nemo share an affectionate relationship even before Nemo’s kidnapping. Marlin proves his love for his son in word and deed, battling overwhelming odds to rescue his son, and learning a lot about himself, and parenthood, along the way. Marlin’s determination and unyielding commitment is the heart of what being a good parent is really about, and never would you expect to learn such a powerful lesson from a fish.

The Kick-Butt Father

Taken, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) — "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”


The Sacrificial Father
Road to Perdition, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) —This choice is controversial and I will admit it. Michael Sullivan is a far cry from a model father, and his career choice reaps horrific consequences for his family. What can a man do when his son realizes his father is a hit man? The tagline of the film reads “The innocence of a son is surpassed only by the father’s will to save it.” The heart of Road to Perdition is how far a man will go to save his son from travelling down the road where one loses one's soul. Preserving his son from this path becomes Michael's most important act as a father.

The Adopted Father 
A Simple Twist of Fate, Michael McCann (Steve Martin) — Here is a movie that tributes the relationship between a man and his adopted daughter. Michael begins as a heartbroken and bitter recluse, but his life changes when the gold that was stolen from him is literally replaced by the little girl (shown beautifully in a scene where he opens the drawer where he used to stash his gold, and finds it stuffed full of crayon drawings). Michael proves through his commitment, creativity, and tenderness, the power of nurture.

The Adventurous Father
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Henry Jones (Sean Connery) —Plenty of movies feature fathers who would do anything to save their sons or daughters, but here is the quintessential son-saving-father movie. And Henry Jones doesn’t have just any old Joe Shmoe for a son; he has Indiana Jones! Henry is not exactly the model father with his archeological obsessions and aloof manner towards his son, but the Last Crusade pays homage to the importance of the father-son relationship, regardless of a complicated past. And really, what kid (not just boys) wouldn’t eat their spinach to have the adventure of finding the Holy Grail with their dad? Henry and Junior don’t exactly have an ideal relationship, but Nazis, Knights Templar, rat armies, and the Holy Grail would tend to be a catalyst for building that relationship.

The Unconventional Father 
Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) —If one could point to a tribute to the unconventional father, Daniel Hillard would have to take the cake. Daniel is so determined not to let divorce get in the way of his relationship with his children that he will do anything, including pose as a Scottish maid, to be with his kids as much as possible. Although Daniel’s unorthodox methods would be questionable in the real world, onscreen you can’t help but want him to succeed so he does not have to settle for just seeing his kids on weekends.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Avengers, Assemble!

Anyone who went to the theater for last year’s Captain America or Thor knew that Marvel was just getting origin stories out of the way so that The Avengers could be made. With Iron Man already well-established, a few more Marvel characters couldn’t hurt, especially considering Iron Man might have become the reigning comic book hero of the summer of 2008 had it not been for a certain Dark Knight. And now, they’re back. Fans, assemble!

     If you, my reader, have read my reviews before, you know that I hone in on characters. This review will be no exception, though I promise to not devote an entire paragraph to each individual Avenger or supporting character. A few sentences each will probably suffice, since The Avengers is not a movie for character development—it is a crisis-driven action vehicle that features characters we know and don’t have to acquaint ourselves with. It saves time and leaves more of it for explosions, and let’s be honest: what more do you really want in a superhero movie?

     I’ll start with Tony Stark, who doesn’t need much introduction. He remains shamelessly narcissistic, yet inexplicably likable, and ingeniously played by Robert Downey Jr. In all humility I have to admit that no matter how much I try, no one captures my thoughts on Stark more eloquently than Roger Ebert (4th paragraph of article). Moving on from the highest-grossing (and most spotlight-stealing) individual character, I will confess that I have not seen any Hulk movies, as the character and story never interested me. Therefore I must conclude with no comparison to previous interpretations that Mark Ruffalo does a decent job with Bruce Banner. Banner is awkward, but is so out of fear of himself rather than lack of social skills. To be fair, periodic transformations into a giant monster does present social difficulties. Nevertheless, when Banner is not The Hulk and not smashing things, he is an interesting enough presence. It’s fairly clear that most everyone (except Stark) has a healthy respect for Banner—agent Romanov is especially jumpy around him and often treats him like a stalled grenade that may or may not detonate at any moment. But even in his Hulk persona, he is not universally despised, and has a few good moments as the Hulk worthy of a chuckle (a certain moment with Loki comes to mind).

     Thor and Captain America have a curious clash of similarity and dissention. Both men are patriotic and driven by honor and duty. While Captain America fights because he feels he has a responsibility to keep evil at bay, he would rather diplomatically negotiate first, and fight if necessary. Thor on the other hand has such a sterling sense of justice that he can hardly be dissuaded from swinging his mighty hammer at the opposition. That is not to say that Thor is hasty or unreasonable, just much more prone to dive into the action and start knocking aside whatever is in his way. Think of it this way, Captain America’s main article is his shield which is primarily a defensive piece, and Thor’s choice is a hammer which is most decidedly an offensive piece. These objects speak volumes about their bearers, so judging the characters by their weapons would not yield inaccurate results.

    Nick Fury and Natasha Romanov are present, but there isn’t much to them. They both do a good job in their respective roles, and the movie does not devote itself to the worship of Scarlett Johansson’s curves, thankfully. Come to think of it, the movie made a very strange decision and tried to make Pepper Potts seem sultry. She’s only onscreen for a minute or two, but even as Stark’s main squeeze it was out of character. Besides that, someone goofed on Paltrow’s hair and makeup—she looks a little aged. One character whose history is barely alluded to, but is given almost-Avenger status is Clint Barton (otherwise known as Hawkeye). True to the usual roles of Jeremy Renner, he is intense, dark, and distinctly dangerous even as a good guy. But he is intriguing enough that you would want him on your side if you were SHIELD, as the man does not shy away from great danger.

    And finally there is Loki, the premier villain of the film. Loki was introduced in Thor, so we already know as soon as his pallid face appears that he is about to wreak havoc on the weaklings of earth. Loki has come a long way since the revelation that he was not a son of Odin—he is no longer hiding behind a guise of earning father’s approval and has chosen yet another race of evil aliens to ally himself with. Loki finds our Avengers quickly enough and starts unfolding his plan without wasting any time at all. Thor may have some sentiments about Loki being his (adopted) brother, but Loki has no such loyalties. He proves this by expelling Thor from an airborne aircraft carrier in a cell, hurtling towards earth. Furthermore, he has grown insufferably superior in his entitlement—the “I am a god” complex has only gotten bigger if that’s possible. Tom Hiddleston said of his character Loki in an interview “How pleasant an experience is it to disappear into a wormhole that was created by some super-nuclear explosion of his own making? I think by the time Loki shows up he's seen a few things and has bigger things in mind than just his brother and Asgard...."

    Enough about characters. This isn’t a character movie, even though there are many characters in it. By the time the movie starts, the audience is expected to already be familiar with the characters, so the movie doesn’t have to waste time on origins. Moving on, what is the Avengers really about? Action. Lots of action. The movie is made up of long and short fight sequences with humans, super-humans, small monsters, and very big monsters. Crisis after crisis command the attention and skills of our heroes, and one conflict after another ensures that they stay on their toes. Much of the non-fighting sequences are utilized to show how unlikely and complicated they are as a team. Every one of the main Avengers has his own movie to prove that he doesn’t really need a crew to save the world from the powers of evil, but they also can’t deny that this time they’re in over their heads. So they fight. They fight enemies, they fight one another, they fight enemies again, and so the cycle goes. For this being the case, it cannot be denied that the Avengers does a very clean job of sewing the special effects into the camerawork, and does not get so visually busy and overpowering as say, Transformers. Yes the visuals are big and comic-bookish, but the point is that as a viewer, you can stay on top of what’s going on and not have to stop your eyes from spinning amid all the action, explosions, blasts, crashes, and wrecks.

     The writers were kind enough to throw a bone to anyone who may have been engaged in a juvenile debate over who is the best Avenger and who could beat whom in a fight. Iron Man takes on Thor. Thor fights back. There is blasting and many trees are felled in the wake of their spat. Captain American interferes and next thing you know, all three are engaged in an all-out "top this" match against one another. Thor throws his mighty hammer, Captain America throws his mighty shield, and Iron Man does what Iron Man does. It ends with all three of them lying flat on their backs, so really no one wins this one. It was still fun to watch though, because deep down, even I was wondering who was the alpha-male. My bet is for... Thor.

     Action in itself would not be enjoyable in this type of movie without at least some semblance of a plot. Comic book movies in general do not demand a strong plot, only a functional one. Most of these plots fall under the same basic structure of the hero(es) using their powers to defeat evil and save Earth-- otherwise  known as New York City. The Avengers does not really offer anything new on this front, as the basic structure is indeed that there is a villain who wants to enslave earth, which is not a far cry from destroying it like other villains tend to fantasize about as if they were Marvin the Martian. Act One entails the usual gathering of forces and initial conflict, propelling to the finale of Act Two, where we have our first full-blown knock-down drag-out among Avengers, as well as between Avengers and foes. It is in the finale of this section of the movie where Joss Whedon writes his signature on the piece—killing someone. This loss predictably gives the rest the necessary motivation to press on through the finale of Act Three where good and evil come head to head and attempt to pummel each other to death until one cries uncle, and the conflict subsides until the inevitable sequel (alluded to in the epilogue).

     The Avengers is colorful, fun, larger-than-life, and a little ridiculous, but a heck of a lot of fun. It is exactly what one ought to expect from a summer popcorn flick. Of course it isn’t Oscar worthy or even Nolan worthy, but it doesn’t try to be, and therein lies its strength. Depth? Of course not. It is not designed to be critiqued by the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy of Motion Pictures. The Avengers is nothing more or less than a comic book summer blockbuster, complete with bright colors, extravagant machines, ostentatious fights, blatant disregard for realism, and sometimes choppy dialogue, all packed together into one parcel of escapism. Categorized accordingly and accepted within these guidelines, the Avengers ranks in the top achievers of its genre.