Friday, April 4, 2014

Worth Mentioning - In Heroes We Trust / The Price of Freedom

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody marvels at an American hero and a classic Western.


Steve Rogers is a man out of time.

2011's Captain America: The First Avenger told the story of how this regular kid from Brooklyn with the heart of a hero was so determined to serve his country and fight the forces of evil during World War II that the short, scrawny asthmatic agreed to be the guinea pig in the Super Soldier experiment. Dr. Abraham Erskine's Super Solider Serum enhanced Rogers' physicality to superheroic proportions, and the young man became Captain America. Backed up by a squad called The Howling Commandos, Cap was a great aid to the war effort and ultimately brought an end to the evil schemes of Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. The Red Skull, leader of the rogue Nazi offshoot Hydra. Unfortunately, after defeating The Red Skull, Rogers was stuck on a plane full of dangerous weapons and was forced to crash it into the Arctic. The plane wreckage was lost in the icy wasteland for decades, Captain America frozen on board.

Thawed out in modern day, Rogers is now struggling to adjust to a world that has advanced seventy years without him. While 2012's The Avengers showed him returning to active duty in a big way, the film had to juggle so many characters that it largely had to gloss over the issues Rogers was dealing with. Now that he's back in the lead for his second starring vehicle, the filmmakers are able to give more attention to the personal problems Captain America is faced with. Not only does he spend his downtime trying to catch up on all of the best movies, music, and TV shows he missed, he also has to cope with the fact that almost everyone he ever knew is dead... Everyone except Peggy Carter, the girl who owed him a dance when he disappeared in the Arctic and who he visits in a very poignant scene. He's still youthful and extraordinarily fit, she's now a bedridden ninety-something.

An agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), Cap is regularly sent on anti-terrorist missions around the globe, backed up by other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents like fellow Avengers member Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow. But even the ways battles are fought and threats dealt with have changed since Rogers' day, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new initiative called Project Insight, which involves satellite-linked, DNA-reading, heavily armed warships that will perpetually patrol the skies, doesn't sit well with our heroic representative of the American spirit.

Rogers was right to question S.H.I.E.L.D. Soon its director Nick Fury is shut out of the system, attacked by an immensely strong, metal-armed assassin called The Winter Soldier (who has fifty years of kills on his résumé), and accused of being a traitor. S.H.I.E.L.D. bigwig Alexander Pierce then orders the agents under his authority to track down Captain America and Black Widow because of their close working relationship with Fury. Their own organization working against them, Cap and Widow have to go on the run, seeking to clear Fury's name and get to the bottom of what's truly going on at S.H.I.E.L.D.

Along the way, they find an ally in war veteran Sam Wilson, who dons a winged flight suit to become the hero called Falcon, and Rogers makes shocking discoveries about several characters, including the villainous Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The First Avenger was a straightforward 1940s comic book adventure and my favorite of Marvel's "Phase One" set of movies that built up to The Avengers. As of now (there is still this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy to come before next year's Avengers sequel), Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favorite of "Phase Two". It's also a much different film than its predecessor, shifting gears to fit our more convoluted times and dropping our noble hero into the middle of a darker, more serious political espionage thriller... Albeit one that still has plenty of outlandish comic book elements.

TWS even does something that I wish comic book movies did more often - it includes a lower-level villain from the source material in a "hero doing his job" sequence. Ever since 2002's Spider-Man, I've wanted to see bad guys who aren't necessary fit to be a movie's main villain turn up in these movies just long enough to be thwarted. Why not start off a Spidey movie with an action sequence in which someone like Shocker is put out of commission, or instead of having him face off against random bank robbers in the middle of a movie, why not have have the bank robber be Rhino? Well, they do something like that in this movie, having Cap free a hijacked ship from the clutches of a group of mercenaries led by comic book villain Batroc the Leaper in the first action sequence.

I was also quite glad to see Brock Rumlow, a.k.a. Crossbones, a villain I've had a soft spot for since reading Cap comics in my childhood, established with a prominent role in this film, although he's not yet calling himself Crossbones.

The scope of the film is massive, the action plentiful and awesome. Captain America's enhanced physical abilities are well displayed during the fights, as is just how cool and useful his vibranium shield can be. Black Widow is no slouch, either. Sam Wilson/Falcon is a very likeable character and a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Winter Soldier himself is a very powerful force, his threatening presence bolstered by a creepy theme in the score provided by Henry Jackman.

While continuing to expand the MCU, the story of this film also takes things in some very surprising, universe-shaking directions. Risks are taken that leave this world in a very interesting place as the Marvel machine steams forward... It also leaves viewers with the question, where was Hawkeye when all of this was happening? It's hard to believe Clint Barton wouldn't turn up to help Rogers and Romanoff if he heard they were in trouble.

And I'm left wishing I were Captain America/Steve Rogers. He is my favorite of this assemblage of heroes. He's such a good, pure, noble man, dedicated to doing the right thing no matter the cost, even if it requires self sacrifice. He's an aspirational character, he makes me want to be a better person. And to get into much better shape.

HIGH NOON (1952)

One of the most famous and highly regarded Westerns ever made, High Noon began as an idea that screenwriter Carl Foreman had to tell a story that would play out on the screen in real time.

The set-up is quite simple; Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, who up until the day the film is set on has been the marshal in Hadleyville, New Mexico. But Kane's life is changing now, his introductory scene is set at his wedding as he's married to a young woman named Amy Fowler (future princess Grace Kelly, who was 28 years Cooper's junior). Kane plans to retire from being a lawman and move away to lead a quiet, simple life with his bride.

Concurrent to Kane and Amy making their vows, three members of an outlaw gang (one of whom is played by future spaghetti Western star Lee Van Cleef) are riding into Hadleyville in preparation for the arrival of the noon train. On that train will be Frank Miller, the leader of the gang, a man who Kane brought to justice five years earlier... Or so it seemed at the time. Miller was sentenced to hang for his crimes, a sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment. But now he's been released on a technicality, and he's coming back to Hadleyville to seek revenge, revenge he swore he'd take on Kane when he was in the courtroom.

Upon first hearing of Miller's imminent arrival, Kane takes the advice of others, jumps on a wagon with Amy and starts to make a run for it. But he's barely out of town when he feels he has to turn back. He's never run from a confrontation before, he needs to keep his town safe, and even if he isn't there when Miller arrives, the criminal will just keep coming after him until they do have their confrontation. Kane needs to meet this threat head on.

His decision to return to Hadleyville stirs up a lot of drama between himself and those around him and brings him a lot of disappointment. As a Quaker, Amy doesn't agree with the sort of life Kane has led and certainly doesn't want him to be fighting on their wedding day. She intends to leave town at noon whether he's with her or not. The judge who gave Miller the death sentence is running. The deputy (Lloyd Bridges) won't help Kane because he won't recommend him as the new marshal. Kane thought he'd be able to deputize a posse to face the Miller gang with him, but none of the townspeople are willing to fight, either too afraid or not a friend of Kane's to begin with.

As time ticks down to noon the feelings of tension, dread, and desperation escalate. Ultimately, Kane finds himself standing alone in a showdown with Frank Miller and his three associates.

Being an 85 minute movie that occurs over the course of 100 minutes, the "real time" concept isn't stuck with entirely, partly due to a deleted subplot, but a good portion of the film does play out in real time.

But the screenplay Foreman wrote wasn't just an experiment in real time storytelling, it's also an allegory for what was going on in his life at the time. Foreman had briefly been a member of the American Communist Party, which made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee as they investigated the film industry. The character of Will Kane stands in for Foreman himself, knowing that danger is bearing down on him, Frank Miller in place of the HUAC. The townspeople who won't help Kane represent Foreman's friends in Hollywood who wouldn't back him up and speak out in his favor.

Foreman was soon blacklisted by the studios, one of over three hundred people in the entertainment industry who lost their jobs during that age of Red Scare. Foreman was one of the lucky ones, as he was able to move to England and continue his writing career there, working on films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone. Most people affected by the blacklisting were never able to work again.

The film was a financial and critical success, receiving several Golden Globe nominations and winning in the categories of black & white cinematography (Floyd Crosby), score (Dimitri Tiomkin), Best Actor (Gary Cooper), and Best Supporting Actress (Katy Jurado as Hadleyville resident Helen Ramírez, who over the years has had personal relationships with Frank Miller, Will Kane, and his deputy).

Academy Award nominations followed, and that 1953 ceremony was the first Oscars show to be televized. As audiences watched the awards being handed out for the first time ever, Gary Cooper won for Best Actor, Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad won for Best Editing, and Dimitri Tiomkin won for his score and shared the Best Original Song win with lyricist Ned Washington for the theme song "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'", which was performed for the film by Tex Ritter, father of the legendary John Ritter and grandfather of Jason Ritter.

Foreman was nominated for Best Screenplay and Fred Zinnemann for Best Director, but neither took home the award. Foreman's issues with the HUAC were well known, the blacklist allegory of the film's story was apparent, and many believed that the only reason High Noon lost to director Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth in the Best Picture category is because DeMille was a staunch anti-Communist.

Although High Noon riled some conservatives with its release, with John Wayne being particularly agitated by it (despite describing the movie as the most anti-American thing he had ever seen, Wayne still accepted the absent Cooper's Oscar on his behalf), the film has gone on to be the most requested film for viewing by sitting Presidents in the White House screening room. Eisenhower was a fan, so was Reagan, and during his eight years in office Clinton viewed the movie seventeen times.

A great classic with a behind-the-scenes story that's just as interesting, if not even more so, as what happens on the screen, High Noon is well worth watching. Maybe not as often as Clinton watched it, but it's definitely worth an occasional revisit, too.

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