I’m late to the cult of Snowpiercer, which had a brief appearance in theaters three years ago, but has had a much longer life in online chat rooms. It’s not hard to see why. Like The Matrix and The Hunger Games, movies with which it shares both aesthetic and thematic qualities, Snowpiercer asks Big Questions while serving up stylish and riveting action. The plot is more metaphor than actual story: in the near future, efforts to halt global warming have plunged the world into a deep freeze. All life is extinct, save the passengers on super train that circles the globe once a year. Like the world of the Hunger Games, society is divided between the haves, who live in decadent luxury at the front of the train; and the have-nots, the grimy rabble packed into the rear of the train, subsisting on a diet of protein Jello. The absurdity of the situation is more or less addressed as the movie unfolds and a band of rebels, led by the reluctant, brooding Curtis Everett (surprisingly effective in a non-Captain America role), battles their way car-by-car to the front of the train to seek retribution, or at least redistribution. Despite these narrow confines of story and setting, Snowpiercer succeeds through the vivid, crisp direction of Korea’s Bong Joon Ho, and has enough wrinkles to keep it interesting. The movie’s climax, a confrontation between Everett and the elegant Ed Harris as the train’s creator and engineer, does lurch into some tedious philosophical territory but that’s a failure only of Snowpiercer‘s ambition. The strong cast also features Tilda Swinton as a bizarrely accented enforcer of the social order, and John Hurt as a decrepit Obi Wan Kenobi guiding the rebellion.
Marvel has announced it cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play Dr. Strange in an upcoming movie. I don’t have a problem with it – I would have preferred Clive Owen, but he’s probably past his sell-by date to carry a blockbuster – and Cumberbatch certainly can do arrogant, which is a big part of Strange’s character.
A lot of other people do seem to have a problem with it, at least judging from the comment sections on various fan sites. There are quibbles about Cumberbatch’s acting style and general ubiquity, but the strongest objections are to his being yet another white guy playing the lead in a super hero movie. Here’s a typical comment on the Marvel website:
Ah, yes, because Marvel needed MORE franchises headed by white males.
wanna see the number of lineups for diversity in the superhero roster in MCU movies? White Men: 9 (Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Peter Quill, Drax (kinda he’s half Filipino), ant-man, now DOCTOR STRANGE) White Women: 2 (Black widow, Captain Marvel) Men of color: 2 Black panther, ??Falcon?? (he IS a superhero in comics but in MCU he hasnt had his own movie OR been inducted into an official superhero group yet) Women of color: 1 (Gamora) Misc: 2 (Groot, Rocket Raccoon) so with the addition of cumberface, 9 male white superhero leads, 2 white women superheroes, 2 black male superheroes, 1 green female superhero (played by a black actress), and 1 animal and 2 tree
(The above isn’t actually accurate, as it omits Nick Fury)
This is fraught territory, and sucks in race, politics, identity, and the history of both comic books and movies. The flap over casting Cumberbatch for Strange adds a new wrinkle in the debate over the races of actors. It’s not new – I remember controversy over casting the white Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon – but it’s picked up steam in the age of the superhero flick as black actors were cast as white characters (or characters believed to be white). Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Idris Elba as Heimdall (a Norse God in Thor) and even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in the Hunger Games all provoked storms of mini-outrage. This, however, is the first example I can think of where people are upset by a black actor NOT being cast for a white character.
For those who live outside the nerd bubble, Stephen Strange was an asshole surgeon who lost the use of his hands in a car wreck. Desperate to find a cure, he seeks out the Ancient One, a Tibetan mystic, who teaches him the art of magic, and Strange becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, Earth’s preeminent wizard.
Dr. Strange first appeared in 1963, in a backup story in Strange Tales No. 110, and was created by Stan Lee, who had a hand in almost every Marvel character, and the great artist Steve Ditko, more famous for his work on Spider-Man. Dr. Strange stories were trippy excursions into alternate dimensions and universes, involving ancient artifacts like the Wand of Wattoomb, and epic battles with the Dread Dormammu and Baron Mordo.
Like virtually every character from that era, Strange was white. At least he was drawn as a white man, and while I’m not aware of any explicit discussion of his whiteness, Marvel was not subtle when it came to depicting minorities. If he was intended to be anything other than white, we would have known.
But does he need to be white in the movie? Actually, no. Unlike a number of characters whose racial identity is important to our understanding of them – ie., they come from Africa, they are part of a family of super heroes, they are masters of Kung Fu – Dr. Strange’s ethnicity isn’t tied down. He’s not really from anyplace in particular, and he has few connections to the rest of the world. It’s not hard to picture a rich black surgeon with the same issues as Stephen Strange (Eriq La Salle played one for years). Casting a non-white actor would change our perception of him, but not the character.
So should Marvel have cast an actor of color? That’s the trickier question. Marvel and DC have gotten better about creating minority characters but there’s no denying that during the Golden and Silver Ages (roughly, from 1938 to 1970) the most prominent superheroes and villains were white, and they remain the tent pole characters for those companies. They didn’t accurately represent America or the world then, and they don’t now. While undoing the 50 or 70 year history of characters in the comics to correct the imbalance is problematic at best (and offensive at worst), one could argue casting the movies offers a chance for a fresh start.
That argument makes more sense if you approach these characters as primarily a movie goer, with little familiarity of the characters. Dr. Strange is, at best, a second tier hero – he didn’t have his own title for years at a time – and it’s a fair bet the general public has no idea who he is. For them, a black Dr. Strange wouldn’t be as challenging as, say, a black Batman. For Dr. Strange fans, though, undoing a key part of the character’s visual identity would be a lot harder to accept. They’ve followed him faithfully since 1963. Now, when he’s finally getting a movie, they’re told a big part of his appearance is being changed to accommodate a movie-going public that has no investment in the character.
We will be faced with an extreme version of this problem with the casting of the black Michael J. Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in next year’s Fantastic Four. Unlike Strange, the Human Torch doesn’t exist in isolation. The Fantastic Four is a family. His sister is Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman. Tinkering with their races opens up issues so fundamental to the team that it risks invalidating the whole project (Marvel has experience with this: in the 1978 cartoon, it replaced Johnny with H.E.R.B.I.E the Robot) .
To avoid an all-white cinematic super hero universe, it makes sense to cast actors of colors in roles where the characters are less established, and their racial identity is not critical. More importantly, Marvel and Warner Brothers (owner of DC) should identify their existing black characters and develop them into the anchors of potential movies. To an extent, that’s happening, with Black Panther and Cyborg movies planned.
The easiest solution, of course, is to ignore race altogether. The comics have dozens of red androids, green aliens and blue-furred mutants eager for their star turn. Let the debate over casting Red Tornado begin.
We rented this documentary based on the enthusiastic reviews I remembered reading when it came out. I’m a sports fan, but I’ve never been particularly interested in auto racing or Formula 1, and my knowledge of Aryton Senna – the three-time world champion who died in a 1994 crash – was pretty rudimentary. I can confidently say I now know much more about Senna than I did, although I’m not sure the film was otherwise very fulfilling. It’s never boring, but it also never escapes the sports documentary genre in the way that made “Hoop Dreams” or “When We Were Kings” so compelling. “Senna” is told in straight chronological order with no narrator, using tons of racing and interview footage from Senna’s brief, meteoric career. Born to a wealthy Brazilian family, Senna was a phenomenon, racing and winning from a young age with spectacular style. The film is its most riveting as he tears around the tracks in Monte Carlo, Tokyo and Interlagos, Brazil, often from the vantage of a camera perched above his shoulder. As he advanced up the Formula 1 pecking order, Senna won an army of fans and made high-profile enemies, which snarled him in various dramas that played out on video. He was also handsome, charming and articulate in English, which helps the film’s cause of presenting Senna as the sympathetic victim of the corrupt world of auto racing. Cast as the villains are his chief rival, the canny Frenchman, Alain Prost, and the cynical head of the racing association, Jean-Marie Balestre, also a Frenchman, who appear to conspire to confound the brash Senna. We never hear from Prost or Balestre outside the contemporary footage, and this one-sided narrative is the film’s greatest weakness. We gets hints that Senna’s aggressive style meant he was not universally beloved by other drivers, mostly seen in a testy interview with former champion Jackie Stewart, but it’s not enough to dull the hagiographic shine. The film ends with long shots of Senna’s funeral, and interviews with weepy fans, one of which who said with Senna’s death, there would be “no joy” in Brazil. The movie forgets to mention Brazil’s soccer team won the World Cup that year.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” crosses Discovery-channel type documentary with philosophizing art house cinema. While not as gripping as his earlier “Grizzly Man,” it is similarly a canvas for German filmmaker and eccentric Werner Herzog’s ruminations about life and death, man and nature. Here, he is given rare access to film the Chauvet cave in France, rediscovered in 1994 after being completely sealed off by a landslide for 30,000 years. The natural formations of the cavern are spectacular but the real star is the paintings of prehistoric mammals, rendered with amazing vitality and sophistication. Long sections of the movie are devoted to simply filming the art in changing light. Herzog doesn’t dwell on the motivations of the painters, declaring them unknowable, and instead focuses on the abyss of time between us and them. In one section of the cave, carbon dating reveals two similar paintings were completed almost 5,000 years apart, a seeming instant for the artists but an incomprehensible gulf for us. The movie was filmed in 3D, to better capture the art on the cave’s undulations and ridges, and while it still worked in the conventional 2D, I wish I had seen it in its intended format. Herzog closes with an odd, whimsical coda about mutant albino crocodiles invading the cave, which didn’t make much sense but reminds us the film isn’t journalism but a personal vision, and he’s showing us the world as he sees it.
As a longtime collector of comic books, I’m pre-disposed to like super hero movies. This one was a challenge. A retelling of Superman’s origin from Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), Man of Steel is big, bulky and disjointed, with key points of the story told through distracting flashbacks. A long opening chunk of the movie is set on Krypton, where Superman’s father Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) has been re-imagined as an action hero, flying a winged beast through a collapsing city and battling the evil General Zod over the future of their dying race. In this telling, young Kal-El becomes a symbol of Jor-El’s hope for the species, and Zod vows to hunt him down. If you accept superhero stories are a form of American mythology, there should be room for new interpretations and you can’t get too hung up on any one version being correct. The problem with this approach, though, is that Jor-El never recedes into the background (he reappears after his death as a sort of helpful ghost who engineers plot points) and Superman becomes a pawn in his own story. Structurally, the plot – which ties Superman’s origin to the climactic battle with Zod – obscures the development of much else we associate with the Superman, so we never see Clark Kent at the Daily Planet, his youth is told in flashbacks, and Lois Lane (played with style by Amy Adams) is crammed awkwardly into the narrative. The movie is all first and third acts. Man of Steel also suffers from a gloom that feels borrowed from the last Star Trek movie, and particularly, the Dark Knight trilogy. In the comics, there’s the idea that Gotham City is New York south of 14th St., and Metropolis is the city north of 14th. That tonal difference should be reflected in the characters and their stories. Here, the clouds rarely part and when Superman plays earnest and sincere – asking a skeptical humanity to trust him – he comes across as a naive simpleton.
Saw this on DVD the other night. It was fun and breezy, with enough uncomfortable moments to make it interesting. And I liked the idea of a female loser, which is rare in movies. But star Greta Gerwig seemed too old for the role of an aspiring young dancer, and the whole project, shot in black and white, had the feel of a film student’s first feature, financed with credit cards, not the work of a veteran (Noah Baumbach) with dozens of titles under his belt.
He may be a fitness fanatic, but I suspect to get in shape, and stay in shape, he’s aided by chemistry. And so long as he’s taking them under the supervision of a doctor, that’s fine. Steroids are used in a medical context all the time. We only get bent out of shape about them in sports, when we feel they are being used to create an unfair advantage. (Some people argue that the full legalization of steroids in sports would recreate a level playing field. It might, but it would also distort comparisons with athletes from the past.) We also don’t like it when kids take them, because of health concerns. I have no ethical issue with an actor taking steroids to prepare for a role; there’s no competition at stake here, besides with the egos of other 40-something males, and no party is injured.
But should steroids only be for actors? If they can be taken safely and legally, should others in professions that rely on strength – and where the artificial rules of competition are not enforced – be taking them? Do we want our fireman and soldiers to be as strong as possible, to fulfill their missions? Probably. How about sanitation workers? Would a regimen of safe steroids enhance garbage collection?
And that took me back to Wolverine. In the fictional comic book universe, would super heroes with only normal human strength be on steroids? If you accept the premise that their heroics are protecting lives and saving the world , then shouldn’t they maximize their strength by any (safe) means possible? Maybe some characters would shun them on moral grounds, but even Captain America, that pillar of rectitude, was created by vita-rays, a 1940s version of steroids. I’m guessing characters like Batman and Wolverine, who look for every other advantage, would quite naturally be on the juice.