Captain America: The Winter Soldier trailer

The first trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit the internet yesterday, a day after the first poster was released, showing Cap about to jump off a plane. In fact, the opening scene of the trailer essentially kicks off from the poster, with Cap having a quick word with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, looking a bit more ‘homely’ with a new straight hairdo). He then jumps off and the two SHIELD guys point out that he’s jumped without a parachute!

We then shift to the political elements of the trailer with both Robert Redford’s character, Alexander Pierce and Nick Fury speaking to Cap. Right through, you know that both these guys are trying to use Cap to their own ends and purposes and Cap in turn is trying to get to the truth and do what he feels is right.

Then come shots of the inside of the SHIELD heli-carrier and soon after that begin the action sequences, including the introduction of Anthony Mackie as the Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The latter character is Cap’s ex-sidekick Bucky who was presumed KIA in the first movie, but now returns as a brainwashed assassin. The other new character is the mercenary code-named Crossbones, who features in the trailer in an interesting action snippet inside a lift.

The look of all the super-characters have been ‘normalized’ to fit into a real-world environment. So there are no fantastic costumes on display, just lots of drab looking armor. This is a bit disappointing, because I always thought The Falcon had a pretty cool costume in the comic books, whereas in the film he just looks like any other guy (good or bad) clad in black and grey. Even the brief glimpse of his wings snapping out as he jumps off a building didn’t seem that impressive.

So, unlike the technicolor WW2 period film that Captain America: The First Avenger was, the sequel seems to be a monochrome contemporary political action-thriller with no fantastical elements. Clearly, Marvel is trying to find a positioning for each of its films, with Thor (and the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy) on one end of the spectrum and the Captain America sequel on the other end. And of course, The Avengers sits in the middle with the full package – aliens, robots, mutations and gods – all fighting it out on modern-day Earth.

Getting back to The Winter Soldier trailer, it shows the apparent destruction of the SHIELD heli-carrier and I echoed the thoughts of many other online commentators who said “Oh no, not again! How do they have the money to keep rebuilding this thing!”. The final shot where Cap throws his shield at a fleeing Bucky/ Winter Soldier, who then whips around and catches the shield edge-on is pretty impressive. This is a big break for brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who have mainly directed TV shows so far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be the first of 4 Marvel films being released in 2014. It comes out in April, followed by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the multi-starrer X-Men: Days of Future Past in May (the latter released a 6 sec Vine teaser today) and Guardians of the Galaxy in August.


2 books in 3 days!

After struggling through two-thirds of Cloud Atlas and ultimately keeping it aside for another day (I can’t bring myself to admit that I might have abandoned it!), I started off on another episodic award winning novel, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. This book addresses a fascinating premise – “What if successive epidemics of the Black Plague had wiped out almost the entire population of Europe by the 15th century?” We end up with an alternate history in which Islam conquers all of Europe and becomes one of the 3 major global powers along with the Chinese and the Indians; the non-existent Europeans never colonize the Americas (although the Chinese do occupy parts of it), leaving the indigenous population to flourish and form a democratic league of Native American nations. It all sounds very interesting, but somehow KSR’s long-winded style of writing unfettered perhaps by the lack of a tougher editor led to a novel that I felt was a couple of hundred pages too long.

Anyway, I finally finished the book last week after labouring through it off and on for several months. As I said, I immensely enjoyed the premise and the overall ebbs and flows of alternate history, but not so much the writing style. I therefore felt that I had to move on to something much simpler as a follow-up. So I settled on a book that I should have read 3 decades or more ago – the Newbery medal winner from Hugh Lofting, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. I had watched and tremendously enjoyed the Rex Harrison musical as a child and several years later, the reasonably entertaining Eddie Murphy vehicle from 1998. I had assumed that the Rex Harrison version from 1967 was true to the source material. While almost all elements from that movie are indeed taken from the books, I discovered that the good doctor himself is physically quite different from the version portrayed by Mr. Harrison. He is rather short and round compared to Rex Harrison’s tall and strapping build. It was an enjoyable experience to reacquaint myself with all the human and animal characters, to compare and contrast the plotlines of the book with variations in the 1967 movie. Needless to say, as a children’s book of only 200+ pages length, I was able to finish it in little more than a day.

I then switched immediately back to science fiction, this time picking up Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, one of my favorite scifi authors. Mr. Wilson’s books tend to have extraordinary events take place in an everyday world, such as the disappearance of Europe in Darwinia, or the appearance of mysterious stone monoliths in The Chronoliths or the disappearance of stars from the sky in Spin. All these books have been award-winners and Blind Lake itself was nominated for a Hugo in 2004. It deals with a government research facility which has created a telescope powered by a quantum matter device. This device allows scientists to remotely observe an alien civilzation on a distant planet, almost like a ‘candid camera reality show’. One night, the research base goes into ‘quarantine mode’ for unexplained reasons and is effectively shut off from the outside world. The rest of the book deals with uncovering the reasons for the cut-off while following the lives of the people trapped inside. It increasingly becomes clear that these events are connected with some sort of quantum feedback coming from the observed world 51 light years away.

Blind Lake turned out to be a page-turner much in the vein of Mr. Wilson’s other books. With both Darwinia and The Chronoliths, I felt that the author was much better at setting up a jaw-dropping premise than he was at bringing it to a satisfying and coherent conclusion… almost as if he loses his patience after all the heavy lifting in the first half of his books and wants to somehow end it quickly thereafter. Blind Lake suffers from a bit of that, but nevertheless ended up being a very satisfying read.

Doubly satisfying was the fact that I had managed to finish 2 books in 3 days and can now think about which book to move on to next. Options include Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (scheduled to be released as a movie in 2015) or a Jack Reacher novel or Philip K Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Zatoichi is the lead character from one of Japan’s most beloved movie series, consisting of 26 films which ran from 1962 to 1989. The films tell the story of a blind masseur who earns his living wandering from village to village. But the twist is that he is also an expert swordsman, his sense of hearing in particular having become hyper-acute over the years to compensate for his lack of sight. In addition, he is also a compulsive gambler, making much more money from playing the dice than he does from being a masseuse, his hearing allowing him to figure out how the dice fall!

Last week I watched one of the Zatoichi films, interestingly not one from the ‘official series’, but a remake released in 2003, directed by the multi-talented Japanese cultural icon Takesh Kitano (a.k.a. Beat Takeshi).

Titled Zatoichi, it is an extraordinary film and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in 2 hours of entertainment involving a mix of drama, humour and action.

The most unexpected feature of the film is the incorporation of Japanese tap-dance group The Stripes into various sequences in the film. These are incidental or background sequences lasting no more than a minute, which have no bearing on the plot but are pretty entertaining. The first of sequences can be found here; in the first few seconds, I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or if there really was some pattern to the sounds of the 4 farmers digging the field. Then as the pattern settled in, of course it became clear that it was all orchestrated. There is a similar scene with the same 4 farmers dancing in the rain, then one at the end with 4 masons building a house. The film ends with a full-on performance by the entire troupe, masquerading as some sort of temple festival dance…as incongruous as the song-and-dance sequences we see in Indian films, but utterly charming and enjoyable.

Coming back to this remake, it has a ‘by-the-numbers plot’, similar in many ways to the classic samurai films like Yojimbo, which itself was an homage to the classic Western – itinerant wanderer comes into town, is taken in by innocent downtrodden resident, takes on the local bad guys and wipes them out, then walks off into the sunset, leaving behind eternally grateful beneficiary.

But although the story is typical, the charm lies in the execution; I loved the way the different characters were quickly introduced at the beginning, each with his/her backstory told in quick-flashback style. The fight sequences feature a fair bit of blood (in contrast to traditional samurai films which almost never show any), but it is so obviously CGI that the violence seems cartoonish and ‘acceptable’. The supporting cast are all very good, featuring some big names from the industry – ‘Japanese Johnny Depp’ Tadanobu Asano, respected character actress Michiyo Okusu and comedian ‘Guadalcanal’ Taka. But most of all, it is Takeshi Kitano himself, playing Zatoichi who is magnetic and eerily disturbing in this role.

After I finished this film, I decided to watch one of the originals; I picked Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo, which had the blind swordsman pitted against the iconic Yojimbo character from the Kurosawa films and actually played by Toshiro Mifune himself. But I was quite disappointed to see the original Zatoichi, having now accepted Takeshi Kitano’s version as my template. Compared to the superhuman Kitano version, the original Zatoichi played by the beloved Shintaro Katsu came across as some sort of bumbling, chubby-cheeked village idiot.

Recently, I came across this descriptive and revealing interview, in which Takeshi Kitano explains how he came to take on this project and what sort of liberties he took with this remake. Having read this, I have a better appreciation for why the remake is so different from the original. I am going to try and watch a couple of the original films, but I suspect that Kitano’s version will remain my favourite. What a pity I had to watch the remake first…26 films from the original series ruined forever!