Captain America: The First Avenger

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Time to punch some Nazis!

75/100

Captain America has recently come under fire for a new comic from Ta-Nehisi Coates featuring the star-spangled man with a plan that criticizes the American Dream, with superhero actors Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo accusing Marvel of politicizing Captain America. (This also comes after the villainous Red Skull was depicted with similarities to Jordan Peterson.) Yet, no matter where you stand on the controversies that have followed the Cap comics, from his conception Captain America has been a political construct: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap and had him punching Nazis in the face even before America had entered World War II. Pointedly, Cap has always tried to stand for what America should be, not what it is or has been (except for that arc where a Cap imposter was a Nazi, which caused no drama whatsoever). 

In the MCU, the movies have had to refrain from anything other than sweeping statements like, “Nazis bad,” or “government surveillance bad,” as they cater to a larger audience than the comics, but the spirit of Steve Rogers’ comic origins are still visible enough throughout his cinematic tenure, starting with the pleasantly old-fashioned Captain America: The First Avenger. (It’s also a lot easier to avoid issues of overly aggressive American exceptionalism when your bad guys are literal Nazis.) 

Part of its winsome charm comes from the 1940s setting, making The First Avenger Marvel’s first period piece—though don’t conflate it with the high-falutin dramas that usually populate the genre; it’s still first and foremost a superhero movie. Director Joe Johnston had already balanced these genres in The Rocketeer, so he seemed a natural fit for this MCU entry, and proves himself more than up to the job of balancing the time period with superheroics. It’s all very Indiana Jones. (While Johnston would only direct this film, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely would become mainstays of the MCU.)

America has entered World War II, and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is raring to go fight the good fight but is hampered by his small frame (Leander Deeny acted as Evans’ body double for the first part of the movie, and the head grafting usually looks decent) and litany of health issues. His childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has already been drafted, and Steve’s frustration has grown to where he has begun to lie on his enlistment forms in an effort to somehow join up. His determination to help in any way he can attracts the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist helping the Allies’ war effort by providing them with a serum to create a super soldier. 

Steve gets whisked away to Camp Lehigh in New Jersey, where he meets the prickly colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the no-nonsense Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Marvel often casts unknowns in leading roles, or, if not unknowns, at least someone unexpected; in this case, Chris Evans was mostly known for romcoms and non-MCU Marvel’s Fantastic Four duds. To compensate for their lesser-known leads, the MCU will populate the roles around their heroes with big names: Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo in Thor, and, in The First Avenger, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanely Tucci.

These casting choices generally pay off, giving the audience someone new to fawn over while the veterans keep the performance quality high. Here, Tucci and Jones give some of the most memorable one-off Marvel performances; Erskine in particular, while only appearing in the first third of the movie, has stayed fresh in the minds of audiences: he is, after all, the one who lays down the ethos of Captain America: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

This isn’t to say that The First Avenger’s leading man falls short—not by any means. Chris Evans, in addition to being ridiculously good looking, is ridiculously charming; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, though he initially turned down the role. Evans’ Steve is someone we all want to root for, representing that ideal American gumption and gusto without any of the country’s baggage. Yet while it could be easy to paint Steve Rogers as a goody two-shoes, as someone with a stick up his ass who probably goes to church each Sunday and buttons up his shirt all the way, the character we are presented in the MCU, and the one we are shown by Evans, is much more interesting than that (though Joss Whedon will fall slightly into caricature in The Avengers, unfortunately): the first thing Steve does in The First Avenger is lie. He lies on an enlistment form to boost his chances of helping the war effort, so the lie isn’t a nefarious one, but Steve still consistently bends or outright breaks the rules to follow his own largely unfailing moral compass; he has never been one to simply follow orders and do things by the book. He’s smart, too, and not just some tail-wagging Golden Retriever. If not quite as complex as Tony Stark or Loki, Steve still—to quote a certain green ogre—has plenty of layers. Good is not dumb, nor is it boring.

While Steve fails to impress physically, he proves himself worthy of the super soldier serum when he jumps on a grenade (unaware that it’s a dummy) to absorb its explosion while everyone else runs away, convincing even Colonel Phillips that he can handle the responsibility of Erskine’s super soldier serum. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) arrives to assist, a mirror image of his son: smart, suave, self-important, though with less of the guilt and self-loathing. 

Steve Rogers then gets really, absurdly ripped. If Peggy has already been attracted to his innate goodness, this surely helps that attraction along. 

Unfortunately (though maybe fortunately, so America wouldn’t have a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed super soldiers…), any chance of recreating this effect is dashed when an agent of Hydra (Richard Armitage, who definitely should get brought back for a bigger MCU role), an offshoot of the Nazis, kills Erskine. Steve, instead of getting to sock Nazis in the jaw on the front lines, is then used as a tool of the government to get more war bonds; his tenure as the government’s dancing monkey gives us a great musical number and a chance to lampoon the government: they stifle the real spirit of America, instead packaging some propagandic patriotic prattle in song and dance and costumes. (Again, this “real spirit of America” is much easier to portray during World War II, with clear-cut bad guys. Later on, it gets a little bit more complicated.)

Only with Peggy’s encouragement does he break out and begin to actually do something with his power. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, have been up to no good, capturing Allied forces—including Bucky Barnes—as part of their nefarious work for Hydra, so Steve ditches his role as senator attaché and goes to save his comrades. 

Where Marvel typically tries to tone down some of its comic book origins in order to make the movies more palatable, Red Skull’s design is ripped straight from the comic pages in all its campy, pulpy glory. The preceding MCU movies have all tried to ground themselves even as their subject matter gets more and more outlandish, resulting in something like Thor, which fails to commit fully to its otherworldly premise. The First Avenger marks the first time that Marvel fully embraces its source material: it’s good vs. evil, superhuman vs. superhuman, good old American boy vs. Nazi with a red skull. It throws any pretension away and basks in its absurd comic book glory, a much better movie for it.

To even out the absurdity, we have the very real relationships between the characters. Steve’s close connections with Bucky and the Howling Commandos (Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier, and JJ Feild as James Falsworth aka the superhero Union Jack, though only a normal guy in the films) give him an anchor; his relationship with Bucky in particular will remain important in the MCU and spark the imaginations of thousands of Tumblr and Twitter users, though it’s not given quite enough heft here.

The real heart of the movie, however, is Steve’s relationship with Peggy. Despite only being developed for one film, this relationship has proved to be one of the strongest in the MCU (perhaps too strong, but more on that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame), and due to Hayley Atwell’s vibrant portrayal, Peggy received her own spinoff show, Agent Carter, and appears in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Avengers: Endgame, and two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy and Steve serve as the film’s beating heart, giving the ending a gut punch and real emotional heft that the MCU films have largely lacked so far. It’s a testament to the depth of these characters that they can carry such weight in a movie where the main villain looks like this.

Upon revisiting The First Avenger, it’s remarkable how well the film has aged; while Iron Man deserves props (or boos, depending on your view of the MCU as an entity) for kickstarting the MCU, it feels largely rote when compared against the slew of other films that come after. The First Avenger, on the other hand, has a unique setting, and while it still lays the foundation for future entries, the film is still largely self-contained. Reverberations from its events can be found all over the MCU, but it’s less concerned with setup for the future and more so with payoff for the now, making it a satisfying entry on its own. It can get a little too silly at times, but it’s always fun and upbeat, a reminder of what Captain America can look like without the 21st century cynicism he becomes riddled with in later entries. Looking back after ten years, this may hold up better than Iron Man—this is a spicy and hot take, I know—and certainly helped reset the trajectory of the MCU after some more lackluster entries, setting them on firm ground before they take a big risk with The Avengers.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Hey, it’s the Tesseract with an Infinity Stone inside. Wonder if that will be important later.
  • Hey, the Red Skull used aforementioned Infinity Stone and got sucked up into space. Wonder if he will show up later. (He will, but not as Hugo Weaving, who has been open about the pay disputes with Marvel that led to Ross Marquand appearing as Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.)
  • Hey, no more super soldier serum exists. Wonder if anyone will make knockoffs and that will be important later.
  • Before the Hydra base is blown up, Zola rescues some blueprints for what looks like a robot, a nod to his comic look; in Winter Soldier, they will adapt this so that Zola lives through a computer program as a head on a screen.
  • Boy, sure hope hiring Zola and other Hydra members to help the United States doesn’t bite anyone in the ass.
  • There’s a common saying that “the only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” That has now been whittled down to only Uncle Ben, as Bucky gets revived as the Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker, a fate that will befall our filmic Bucky as well (and Jason Todd is also alive now, coming back as the Red Hood in DC comics). No one knew at the time if The First Avenger would get a sequel or if it would even adapt the Winter Soldier arc, so they filmed two versions of Bucky’s fall: one where Sebastian Stan had a green screen sleeve on his arm, and one without. Though they ended up using the latter, Bucky will still appear sans an arm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Howard and the Howling Commandos show up in Agent Carter, and some Howling Commandos show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Peggy. Will I be able to bring up S.H.I.E.L.D. in every retrospective? Stay tuned!
  • Kenneth Choi, who played Howling Commando Jim Morita, shows up in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Mortia’s grandson.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Dr. Erskine and Steve have a chat before the procedure, producing that classic MCU line: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The First Avenger (I welcome your Twitter arguments), 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: The First Avenger Trailer

Captain America: The First Avenger is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Please Give

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Explores more facets of life within its specific milieu in a swift ninety minutes than most films do in over two hours, and without any idea or character forcibly shoehorned in. Is at its best though when it’s looking at middle-class guilt through Kate (Keener, always wonderful), whose emergent conscience about running a second-hand furniture business that benefits when people die prompts her to volunteer and give to the homeless as means of redemption. Two highlights here: her trip to a facility for the elderly (“She’s really hunched”, Kate says concernedly as a woman shuffles by), and her crying when she volunteers with the disabled (“Uh, you should go”, says her supervisor, embarrassed as Kate starts tearing up). Holofcener finds the humor in both scenarios without being condescending.

I can’t help but also call out my two grumbles: Kate’s trip to her competitor’s store, where a fellow patron’s talk about furniture “having ghosts” unnecessarily verbalizes an idea Holofcener already sufficiently implied, and Kate later envisioning a dead woman sitting in a chair across from her, which undercuts the power of the preceding shot of the chair empty, weighed down by the absence of the woman who died in it.

Mortality isn’t in every plot strand, but it does seem to weave its way through the movie’s periphery by implication, and occasionally comes to the fore. Everyone’s talking about going upstate to see the Fall leaves, beautiful as they die, Rebecca Hall’s character’s job as an assistant radiologist involves testing patients for a deadly disease, Kate and Alex’s economic future hinges on the inevitability of people dying and their furniture moving on. That the movie is so light on its feet and digestible as it alludes to the most profound aspects of human experience is remarkable.

Please Give Trailer

Please Give is currently available to rent on multiple streaming platforms.

AFI Docs 2021 Film Festival Review: Stevie (2002)

Written by Taylor Baker

90/100

Stevie starts off with Steve James, the director of the film–best known for Hoop Dreams and Prefontaine; framing his guilty conscience of leaving his little brother Stevie(Stephen Fielding) from the “Big Brother” program as he went off the college and it taking 7 years for him to return. It’s roughly twenty years after the film’s initial release now, but the sense of place, isolation, and humanity that must have been ripe at it’s release are still laid wide today. Hearing Stevie’s Grandmother recount his mother whipping him when he was a little boy, his hip turning green, and him losing his ability to speak feels otherworldly. It’s untenable. She lays it out as plainly as she remarks on his difficulty with speech to this day. We revisit this and many other stories from the Fielding family as the Documentary progresses. It’s contents are heartbreaking, gut wrenching, painful, and seemingly insurmountable. To say Stevie’s lived a hard life, is just the beginning of his story.

The film takes a hard turn, after the initial visit we see in the introduction Steve once again finds ways to avoid coming back to see Stevie for two years. And when he finally does turn up Stevie has been booked with charges for sexually assaulting a minor. The minor is Stevie’s cousin. These charges are the backdrop of the rest of the film. Will Stevie go to prison or not? Should he go to prison or not? It’s hard to frame the previous minutes with Stevie after this revelation. The rug is not only pulled out from under us but we’re seemingly rolled up in it. How do we personally reconcile the previous time we spent hearing what happened to Stevie and his own abuse as a child now? This is a question that doesn’t go away but rather continues to perpetuate the film.

We meet Tonya Gregory, Stevie’s Fiance. She ponders occasionally at the prompting of others and sometimes at her own thinking as to who Stevie is and whether or not he’s a “good” guy. Her voice and how she sees him often frames him better than any narration Steve offers. Insightful, guilty, longing, and clear; the rivulets of thought she sheds through to the very end of the film often seemed as if they were my own. We discover that after Stevie’s initial foster parents left for better prospects he was sexually abused. And while meeting with those initial parents years later toward the end of the film we come to find they’d barely stopped multiple sexual situations from happening to Stevie before they’d left. We also learn that Stevie has hurt his own sister, though the events are never clearly described leaving us to wonder horrified at each interaction they share.

We meet some of Stevie’s friends during the film and people from town that have been around him his whole life. They go fishing, his sister helps with his Social Security money, he stops into the Post Office and talks with the clerk who’d been there since he was a boy. But likewise there is a dark side to Stevie of vitriolic hurt and anger, we learn he used to hit his first wife, that he has a lust to see someone dead before moving on when he feels he’s been wronged. He has a conversation with a White Nationalist Leader about getting protection inside prison if he’s convicted. There’s so much to the film that can’t be properly summarized in words. It’s better seen than explained, felt than read, experienced than heard. It’s a personal meditation of what friendship and family look like, and how you to stick by someone even when they’re in the wrong and show them love.

Stevie Trailer

Recommended

Stevie was screened as part of the AFI Docs 2021 Film Festival.

AFI Docs 2021 Review: Naomi Osaka: Episode 1

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100 

Naomi Osaka is a phenom! I have been invested in Naomi’s story since her victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final. This first episode of a three part documentary series, directed by Garrett Bradley, is even more important after Naomi’s recent forced withdrawal from the Roland Garros after she released a pre-tournament statement saying she would not agree to post-match interviews because it was detrimental to her mental health. Subsequently, she has also withdrawn from Wimbledon so she can take time to focus on herself. However she still plans to represent her native Japan in the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics. These decisions made me admire Naomi even more. 

In this first episode, we are able to see the growth of a young woman and athlete that is coming into her own both on and off the court. As Naomi puts it she is still trying to figure stuff out and keep adjusting to whatever life throws at her. This awareness is very clear when Naomi states that the amount of attention she receives is ridiculous. “This is the one aspect no one prepares you for.”, she says. Naomi finds this idolatry around her is really weird. 

Episode one also gives insight into Naomi outside off the court. We see her adjusting to living by herself, in California, after purchasing her first home. Her close relationship with her father, her first coach, her mom, and sister which will hopefully be explored more in subsequent episodes.

We also see the work Naomi put in to remain on top as she returned to defend her title among spectators like Kobe Bryant, a mentor which she would later form a strong bond with, Colin Kaepernick, and her musician boyfriend Cordae. Just as important, this episode starts to give us insight into Osaka’s relationship with the press and the fan fair that surrounds her. It is really incredible that through it all Naomi remains humble as she starts to understand when she should push her limits. Naomi also starts to realize what she means for young girls around the world and how challenging life in the limelight can really be. I recommend this first episode and am excited to uncover more about Osaka’s journey and offer a complete detailed write up once all 3 episodes are out. 

Recommended

The Naomi Osaka Limited Docu-Series will begin streaming on Netflix on July 13th.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Interview: Producer Natalie Metzger Talks “Werewolves Within” and “The Beta Test”

Interview by Anna Harrison

Natalie Metzger is an award-winning director, writer, and producer based in Los Angeles and known for films such as Werewolves Within and The Beta Test, both of which had their premieres at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Additionally, she has produced The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Thunder Road, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW.

Keep up with Natalie and her projects on Facebook, IMDb, Instagram, Twitter, Vimeo, and her website.

Werewolves Within and The Beta Test both premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.​ You can read Anna’s review of Werewolves Within here.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Black Widow

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Over a year since it was first slated to come out, Black Widow has finally arrived on our screens, marking the first Marvel Cinematic Universe property to grace theaters since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July of 2019. Its titular character has been through quite the wringer with Marvel: introduced as little more than kickass eye candy in Iron Man 2, shoved into an inorganic romance with the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and then killed—albeit in a poignant and affecting fashion—in Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally has her own movie, replete with posed superhero landings galore. Even if it’s not quite worth the wait, Black Widow provides more than enough fun to warrant its existence, helped by a handful of exhilarating fight scenes and a stellar supporting cast.

Black Widow opens in atypical Marvel fashion: a cookie-cutter family in suburban Ohio sitting down to eat, the mother preparing dinner and kissing her daughters’ scrapes and bruises, the father coming home from a long day of work to greet his family. Then, slowly and then all at once, things go awry. 

As S.H.I.E.L.D. comes for them, the family rushes to get to their hidden plan and off the ground; in the ensuing fight, the mother is shot in the side but they all manage to escape and make their way to Cuba. There, things start to get even thornier: these aren’t Americans at all, and they aren’t a family, either. A group of Russians take away the “mother,” Melina (Rachel Weisz), on a stretcher; when they come for the youngest daughter, Yelena (Violet McGraw as a child, Florence Pugh as an adult), the elder Natasha (played by Ever Anderson as a child) refuses to let them take her until “father” Alexei (David Harbour) calms her down, only for the two children immediately to be whisked away. What follows is an opening credit sequence clearly taking cues from the James Bond films and other spy capers, names layered over a montage of young Natasha receiving spy training and overlaid with a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that classic anthem of apathetic American youth juxtaposed with the horrors of what Natasha undergoes. 

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The opening act of the film is arguably its strongest, setting us up for a Marvel film of a different breed, one rooted more in espionage and familial relationships than quips and big fight scenes. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise set by its opening. 21 years later, Black Widow—set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War so they have a living protagonist and not a corpse left on Vormir—finds Natasha on the run, hunted by Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from prior movies) after she refused to sign the Sokovia Accords. 

Her “sister,” Yelena, finds a way to contact Natasha, letting her know of a chemical compound that was planted in some other graduates of the Red Room program that Natasha and Yelena went through. This compound allows the nefarious Red Room director, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to control his various female spies around the globe with what amounts to mind control. Yelena has discovered a way to stop it, and so the gang gets back together again: Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina.

The plot itself is fairly standard and more than a little bit ludicrous (and Natasha survives countless injuries that should have left her dead, superhero or not); in other words, it’s standard action fare. The movie does best when director Cate Shortland allows it to breathe, such as in a standout dinner table scene between the fractured family, and when she lets her stellar actors bounce off of each other. Florence Pugh in particular stands out, giving a performance that is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and David Harbour excels as his former superhero gone to seed, providing the best moments of humor in the film. 

Unfortunately, the others do so well that despite this being Natasha’s film, and despite Johansson turning in a strong performance, she gets outshone by her supporting cast, due more so to the writing than any flaw in Johansson. Part of this comes from the fact that Natasha is dead in the present day MCU, having sacrificed herself to retrieve the Soul Stone in Endgame, so there are no stakes for her; furthermore, her character arc has already been completed, and while this can fill in some gaps, Natasha’s arc doesn’t satisfy as it should. 

What could have been an intriguing commentary on agency, the lack of control women often have over their own bodies, how they are used and discarded by men in power, et cetera, is reduced to a joke about Fallopian tubes and a few throwaway lines about making choices. Had the film marinated a bit more in some of its weightier themes and allowed Natasha to truly grapple with her past outside a handful of scenes, it could have been an MCU caper on the level of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As it is, it’s a fun movie to get back to theaters with and serves as a decent swan song, but Natasha deserves something just a little bit better.

Black Widow Trailer

Black Widow is currently playing in wide theatrical release and on Disney+

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Son

Written by Alexander Reams

49/100

Horror films have always had the good old reliable tropes that they can rely on. Such as haunted houses, killer on the loose, and one that recently seems to be used more than any other, possessed children. Whether that is demonic, medical, vampirism, or witchcraft. Son, from fairly new director Ivan Kavanagh, relies heavily on the latter trope. The film’s plot, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past. Sounds familiar? Well that’s because it is a rehash of countless horror films, most prestigiously being The Conjuring 1 & 2

A pair of performances in the film shine brightly. Matichak (Halloween) as the mother of the possessed child brings something that has been seen before, but her delivery of the script seeps care and love for her son throughout. This is shown especially in the home invasion scene. Matichak’s facial expressions and body movement as she tries to rescue her son from forces in her home. Hirsch (Speed Racer, Once Upon a Time.. in Hollywood) as the detective chasing them brings a no nonsense aura that fits perfectly in a film filled with worthless dialogue and nonsensical performances. His kindness towards Matichak develops to a romantic interest, but not in the traditional sense, his feelings towards her never get in the way of his job. A trope that is not shown enough with detective characters which does add a layer of freshness. 

The screenplay, also by Kavanagh, is mediocre and filled with vapid lines that truly mean nothing to the story and try to draw your attention from the abysmal performances by everyone except Matichak and Hirsch. The actor playing “David”, Luke David Blumm is another reason why there is such a negative stigma against child actors. He overplays every scene, losing any chance at building stakes and emotional connection. Emotional connections between characters is a two way street, and while Matichak has one with Blumm on screen, he has nothing, no connection, or any resemblance to a relationship with Matichak echoing back. Even with great performances from Andi Matichak and Emile Hirsch, the film stumbles in its pacing, direction, screenplay, and every performance outside the top billed duo.

Son Trailer

Son is currently streaming on Shudder.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Long Shot

Written by Michael Clawson

70/100

Voting in favor of this one. Gets away with making Fred (Fred Flarsky that is, what a name) both a mildly schlubby pothead constantly in the same athleisurewear (which becomes a joke in itself) and a principled journalist with a flair for speech-writing, because Rogen evenly puffs life into both sides of the character. Early stages of the relationship are sweet and pleasant because they’re more platonic than romantic; intimations of stronger feelings are wisely put off until the end of the globetrotting portion, most of which is free of real conflict and instead concentrated on Fred and Charlotte simply becoming good friends. The soundtrack is just right in that stretch, with gentle but upbeat tunes (The Cure’s “Close to Me” is the first that comes to mind) playing quietly below the dialogue, never too emotionally emphatic. 

Laughs come at an impressively regular cadence, the highlights being small-scale quips and gags (e.g. Fred’s half-complete swastika tattoo becoming a stick figure dubbed “Adolf Stickler”, Jackson’s character revealing he’s a Republican: “I’m in the GOP…yeah you know me”, Fred’s astonishment at Charlotte asking for rough sex). The broader, physical bits – Fred diving out a window to escape neo-nazis, falling down the stairs after telling off a corrupt media tycoon, Fred and Charlotte together fleeing from a hotel under siege – feel a tad lazier, but still earned chuckles. Super fun to see Theron be so goofy, ducking behind aides to scarf a chicken skewer or managing a hostage crisis while high on molly. No complaints about the film championing integrity and humorously deriding how women are expected to present themselves in the public eye, but the script needed a much sharper pen for those aspects to culminate in any emotional way. As is though, a perfectly diverting rom-com.

Long Shot Trailer

Long Shot is currently available to rent on major VOD platforms.

Eat a Bowl of Tea

Written by Patrick Hao

73/100

Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea begins with narration discussing the predicament that Chinese American communities found themselves in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 had prevented many Chinese men from bringing to America their wives and daughters. This created a “Bachelor Society ” in the various Chinatown’s, stunted by the lack of single Chinese women and the taboo of inter-racial dating. However, with World War II, China as allies, and the returning Chinese G.I.’s, America was loosening its immigration policies and beginning to allow veterans to bring home Chinese wives.

This socio-political dynamic is the backdrop of Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a woefully underseen film by a woefully under-discussed filmmaker. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Louis Chu, the film centers on Ben Loy (Russell Wong), a GI returning from WWII in New York City’s Chinatown, who is sent by his father Wang Wah Gay (played by frequent Wang collaborator Victor Wong), back to his hometown in China to bring back an arranged bride, Mei Oh (played by Wang’s wife Cora Miao), the daughter of one Wah Gay’s gambling buddies. As one of the first couples in New York Chinatown of child bearing age, they are expected to produce offspring to continue the survival of a community. 

“I feel like everyone is watching,” Ben admits to his Mei at one point in the film. This concept of a community gawking is prevalent throughout the film. When Ben goes to China to meet his bride, he is met with the curious eyes of many of the Chinese villagers who have never met an American Chinese before. Rumors abound that an American GI would not have all four limbs, and be mangled by war. At the wedding banquet back in New York City, the young couple are met with the prying eyes of hundreds of geriatric Chinese men as they represent the future of a dying community and as the source of Ben’s father’s newfound reputational prestige within the community. The pressure from the community for a baby manifests itself in Ben’s impotence. And for Mei, being in a new country with no true community of her own, loneliness.

Yet, despite the weightiness of these themes, Wang’s film is breezy and casually funny, couching the politics of diaspora and gender in the structure of a Classic Hollywood romantic comedy. Wang’s power as a filmmaker is his richly textured observation of a people in a time and place. His subtle gestures and characterizations of the community gives them specificity, which in turn, becomes universal. The film almost becomes a series of vignettes as it jumps from a gaggle of old men joking and gossiping in the barbershop to Ben stopping fights in the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant he comes to manage. In doing so, Wang paints a beautiful tableau of a community in transition, affecting family, sex, and culture. 

Eat a Bowl of Tea seems particularly informed by Classic Hollywood films in more ways than just genre. Wang seems to be in conversation with films of Classic Hollywood. In one particularly clever critique of Classic Hollywood, Ben and Mei share their first kiss silhouetted by Ronald Colman’s face from Lost Horizon. In another scene, during the height of his impotence, Ben is especially titillated by Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point he rushed home with his wife to take advantage. These two films being used is especially pointed for being representative of pop culture’s blatant exoticisism of the “Orient.” The two films are also representative of the two desires that inform the themes of Eat a Bowl of Tea – the desire for preservation of a community and the desire for sex. 

However, this is by no means a perfect film. Russell Wong is in the Henry Goulding camp of handsome but uncharismatic leading men. The original novel is also sadder and more caustic. Wang and screenwriter, Judith Roscoe, purposefully sanded off some of the edges of the source material to be lighter and more winsome. The results are the loss of some of Mei’s interiority and a third act that feels a bit too tidy. Wang himself has tinkered with edits of the film in re-screenings, including a less “happy ending” that was foisted upon him by the studio.

However, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wayne Wang’s career feel ripe for rediscovery. The recent retrospectives on The Joy Luck Club and focus on AAPI-centric filmmakers always feels light in its consideration of Wang and his career. Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wang’s other works such as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, Chan is Missing, and more recent independent works like Princess Nebraska should make him a name that is worth considering in line with Ang Lee and the recent crop of Asian American filmmakers like Alice Wu, Lulu Wang, and Andrew Ahn.

Eat a Bowl of Tea is especially notable for its place as one of the first studio films to have an all-Chinese cast. The only white person with a speaking role is an uncredited Jessica Harper. More importantly, the film feels enlightening in its depiction of a period of Chinese American history that is often ignored, and its frank depiction of the politics intersecting sex, gender, and tradition. Yet it never becomes a film that feels like its purpose is to deliver a didactic “message” or a history lesson. Wang’s film is lived in with all the thorniness and haphazardness of real life. Much like a bowl of tea in its idiomatic title, all that bitterness of the film’s themes goes down surrounded by the warmth of Wang’s rich filmmaking.

Eat a Bowl of Tea Trailer

Eat a Bowl of Tea is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.

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