Captain America: The Man Who Was More Himself

The problem with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that there’s no room for a bathroom break. Other Marvel movies have spots that slow down or drag, but Winter Soldier manages to make every moment plot-relevant and engaging. It’s one reason why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for two and a half weeks, and why I’ll be seeing it for a third time this afternoon.

I was never a big Cap fan: Thor was the one that grabbed me from the moment the lights came up, with its Shakespearean grandeur, self-effacing humor and immensely compelling brothers-at-war plot. I saw Captain America: The First Avenger opening weekend — a group of friends and I dressed up as ’40s ladies — and wanted to love it, since Band of Brothers was and is so important to me. I enjoyed it at the time, but thought it was over-long. The Avengers, released almost a year later, I found emotionally vacant, the cinematic equivalent of banging action figures together. The Thor sequel and the Iron Man films were fine, but they didn’t move me. I was really expecting similar from Winter Soldier.

Oh boy wow, was I wrong.

General praise first: Anthony and Joe Russo, primarily known before this for directing TV like Community and Arrested Development, did something we didn’t expect but should have seen coming — they made an entirely character-driven story. The fight scenes are spectacular (and all very distinct), but they’re also critiques of fight scenes and the military industrial complex that drives their demand. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is deeply uncomfortable with his role within SHIELD and its workings, as well he should be: the movie is really about drone strikes and the NSA. When Rogers needs help, between Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Sam “Falcon” Wilson (the standout Anthony Mackie), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), he’s literally the only white man at the table. There’s no romantic subplot, and that’s thrilling: all the women are competent, fully-fleshed and motivated by more than sharing screen time with Cap.

Oh yes, and the Winter Soldier himself blows me out of the water. Spoilers below, as well as more discussion of character, U.S. history you’ve probably never been taught and why I’m reevaluating the Captain America franchise. Continue reading “Captain America: The Man Who Was More Himself”

Branson beats the house blend

"This energizing tea is perfect for an early morning foxhunt or preparing for the dramas of the day."
“This energizing tea is perfect for an early morning foxhunt or preparing for the dramas of the day.”

Here is the thing about Republic of Tea’s Downton Abbey Grantham Breakfast Blend: it’s really quite nice for about ten minutes. The label promises a sort of “sticky ginger pudding” experience with a splash of milk. And it’s true, the tea tastes pretty good at first, while it’s still piping hot. Better drink it quickly, though — or maybe let it steep longer than the suggested four to six minutes. It gets as dull and pointless as the Earl himself once it starts to cool.

You don’t need to be the acid-tongued Dowager Countess to see a one-liner there, so I’ll just leave things at this: I have switched back to my other Republic of Tea favorite, their Lucky Irish Breakfast black, which does, in fact, have the kick that makes you want to riot for suffrage and elope to Dublin. (Maybe not die in childbirth, though.)

I’ve been up to more than just having conversations with myself about tea. Last weekend I had the chance to see actual live theater that isn’t improv, which was a lovely outing. The show is running in Chicago now, and if its title, Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, doesn’t intrigue you, the fact that it’s about creating a triad lesbian relationship while also confronting terminal cancer in a way that actually works might. Plus the dioramas are freaking hysterical — absolutely worth the price of admission. And of course, there are mammoths.

You may have noticed that I have missed a week, and that this is a bit late. There’s a good reason for that, and a nice one too. I’m doing some behind-the-scenes work as a copy editor at PolicyMic, which is a super hopping news site by and for Millennials. I’m still not over seeing stories on the front page and having a proud little moment of “Hey, I edited that!” But yeah, journalism work! I’m really pleased to be part of the PM team, who have been great to a person. Three cheers for work in your chosen field! (This is, incidentally, a classic example of burying the lede.)

It’s a good week to feel inspired by other working journalists, and I’ve got some amazing stories to share this time around, so hopefully the wait was worth it.  Continue reading “Branson beats the house blend”

A Field Guide to Formative Albums and Gut-Punch Love

I never do those Facebook memes. I don’t even have to explain them — you know the ones. But I surprised myself when my A+ friend Megan, who has a lot of amazing feelings and opinions about music, posted the following:

In your status update, list 12 albums that have stayed with you over the years in some way. Don’t take too long on this list. – Just a few minutes. These don’t have to be great records, or critical darlings, just ones that mean something to you personally.

For whatever reason, this one became a compulsion. So, here’s my list, with a whole bunch of videos. I think it’s very revealing in interesting ways, and not just because 1995 to 1997 were very big years for me. Oh, and I couldn’t stop at 12. But 18 is a nice number. So. Continue reading “A Field Guide to Formative Albums and Gut-Punch Love”

Big Block of Cheese Day is now real.

This was actually going to be a review of my rewatch of Season 3 of The West Wing, but I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge that this seems to have dropped tonight, and it’s real. Let’s just contemplate that for a moment.

That was kind of great, wasn’t it?

So my West Wing rewatch sort of began by accident. I have two tons of DVDs that I never watch, and it seemed like I should pare them down a little, which is still a less intimidating job than writing cover letters and setting up informational interviews. What I’ve learned is that Desperately Seeking Susan is still perfect, but The Illusionist, unfortunately, is not. I’m never getting rid of my West Wing box sets: that’s not the point. But when I return to episodes, they’re usually in the first two seasons. (Isn’t it a shame that show ended after Season 4? Maybe someday I’ll push through the non-Sorkin seasons, since I hear it got sort of good again towards the end, but for now, I’ll stick with what I’ve got.)

Here’s what I’ve learned from watching Season 3 in mumblemumble a few days.

Continue reading “Big Block of Cheese Day is now real.”

Things I’d never done before

One thing about funemployment is that you find all kinds of amazing ways to entertain yourself and to avoid the grueling, soul-sucking work of looking for and applying for jobs. Chicago also continues to be gruesome weather-wise — my dad keeps informing me that we’re due for an Alberta Clipper this weekend, followed by another polar vortex. I’m thisclose to setting myself up with a light therapy lamp, because it’s just so easy to lose inspiration to do anything much more than hang out under the covers and loaf.

On the other hand, I’m trying and experiencing a lot of things for the first time, because hey, it’s better than facing the alsdjkfhalkjsfh number of tabs from Media Bistro in the other window, right? Continue reading “Things I’d never done before”

We few, we happy few: Rewatching Band of Brothers

PBS starts airing The Hollow Crown in the United States this week, which of course will culminate with Henry V, source of the above and many other inspirational quotes. I have a lot of feelings about these productions, and if I can get my act together, I’ll post them as each episode airs. I’ll have a few other balls in the air by then, though: not only does my final quarter at Medill start a week from today, but I also plan on revisiting one of my great storytelling loves of all time, HBO’s Band of Brothers.

In some ways, I’m in journalism school because of this show. I owe my interest in oral histories to a friend who, knowing I liked this miniseries, shoved Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” into my hands and told me I had to read it. During my newsroom quarter, I focused on reporting on veterans and military families, which is, I’ve discovered, a beat for which I maintain a passion. If I’m honest, my interest in the paratroopers of the 1940s pushed me to seek out the stories of today’s service members, to whom I’m very grateful for their trust.

Michael Cudlitz (Bull Randleman) and I can do it!
Michael Cudlitz (Bull Randleman) and I can do it!

For about a year and a half, I was one of those people who watched Band of Brothers on loop. I’ve read all the books (Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends by Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere remains my favorite), I’ve visited museums, I’ve noticed dates that otherwise would have passed me by. And I’ve remained captivated by the process of building and assembling and creating a work like that. When history is so messy, and the way we remember even messier, how do you still tell a good story? How do you, as a writer or actor or producer, balance such profound and delicate responsibilities? Everything about Band of Brothers fascinates me, bottom to top. (The actors still hang out and call each other by their character names, did you know that? More than a decade later, they’re that close.)

I’m looking forward to coming back with a fresh set of eyes. I don’t think I’ve seen an episode for at least a year and a half, and it’s probably been two or three years since I last saw the whole series. But I’ll admit to some hesitation about diving back in. Caring about Band of Brothers means you also care about the surviving men of Easy Company. You hear about it when their health fails or they pass away, and even if you knew an actor’s portrayal instead of the man himself, your heart still aches a little. Many of the websites and forums that used to post notices seem to have gone quiet in the intervening years; I almost don’t want to know who we’ve lost since I last checked in.

Actors filming Episode 5, "Crossroads"
Actors filming Episode 5, “Crossroads”

I also wonder about the place of Band of Brothers in U.S. American society itself. No matter how harrowing the art, war and art are always going to be different. It’s the art that tends to become part of our mythology, though, and I have a lot of questions about that.

There’s a lot of art in Band of Brothers, and sometimes it demands that history steps aside. Not all of this is instigated by the producers: the men of Easy Company had decades to shape their own stories before Stephen Ambrose interviewed a one of them. At a certain point, the viewer has to accept that this story is going to be a collage rather than a photograph. Surely some postmodern philosopher-critic can come up with a pithy quote about truth and experience and record and the act of telling a story. (Suggestions welcome; comment away!)

I have the language to talk about Band of Brothers as a work of art; I will attempt to address some of the other attending issues, but I will probably mess up and miss the mark, so please, feel free to engage me in the comments when that happens. (Feel free to do so even if you don’t disagree with me! Even if it’s just “Oh my heart, that scene!” or “My favorite character!”)

I kept extensive (though not always useful) notes about my earlier rewatches. This is one of the useful bits:

Each episode has a focal character, a foil character and a clear theme. “Day of Days” is Winters, Guarnere and seeing the elephant. “Carentan” is Blithe, Harry Welsh and coping with fear. “Replacements” is Bull, Garcia/Hashey/Babe and taking care of each other, and so on. We have the first and last episodes that are really about everybody, and serve an explicitly narrative purpose — establishment (“Currahee”) and denouement (“Points”) — though even those had their themes, first among which I would say is unity. Other series themes include politicking and power dynamics (“The Last Patrol”), disillusionment and sudden truths (“Why We Fight”), and leadership and transitions (“Crossroads”).

Each episode has a very distinct cinematic and directorial flavor: “Crossroads” has Tom Hanks and his typewriters and the differing visual styles between frame story and flashback; “Bastogne” is a largely silent fairy tale; “The Breaking Point” has all those quick asides and intimate conversations; “Why We Fight” has the broken elegance of gentile Germany paired with the horror movie of finding the camp.

This is some of what I hope to focus on during this rewatch.

The real Doc Roe, Liebgott and Christenson at Eindhoven, September 1944
The real Doc Roe, Liebgott and Christenson at Eindhoven, September 1944

Before I close out, here are two links I unearthed that interest me, and may inform some of my thinking going forward:

Any further recommendations, links or articles or books or documentaries, would be most welcome. I also hope to reread Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, and, if I do the timing right, at least a few of the biographies, autobiographies and oral histories from the veterans themselves.

A Super Beginner’s Guide to Beating the Zombie Apocalypse

First things first: I’m making this post because Zombies, Run! is having a great sale for their apps, and if you think you’d enjoy a story-driven 5K training app or a running app, even if (like me) you don’t enjoy zombies, you should go for it before Tuesday, September 3.

Okay, that’s the context, though if you read to the end you’ll get to see the worst selfie taken in the history of the world, so maybe that can compel you to listen to me yammer about why I dig running now when I’ve never quite managed to latch onto it before.


I’m one of those creative types who’s spent most of my life resisting exercise. Not really out of an inherent laziness (though there is that, to a certain extent), but sports was always something only worth a shrug in my house growing up, if it was acknowledged at all. Neither of my parents enjoyed or sought out physical activity, and there was always this simmering resentment of sports culture (and how our losing sports teams in the city school system always seemed to get more funding than the arts) that meant I was never encouraged to want it or enjoy it.

Continue reading “A Super Beginner’s Guide to Beating the Zombie Apocalypse”

A Stranger in Olondria: I wouldn’t go for a visit.

Can we talk about how great the "X% done | N hours left" feature is? Because when a book is dragging, it's pretty much a godsend.
Can we talk about how great the “X% done | N hours left” feature is? Because when a book is dragging, it’s pretty much a godsend.

I’ve finished my second whole book on the Kobo and am plowing into my third. Yet for the past few days I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I had to read a couple outside reviews to nail down my feelings. The positive one points out that it’s a love letter to books and reading, while at the same time exploring the tension between history, literate societies and oral societies. The frustrated one more mirrors my own experience, in that I spent most of the novel irritated by the ponderously layered language and cultural constructs, and by the “boy meets dying girl, dead girl haunts boy, boy falls in love but must set both of them free” plot.

That’s not actually a spoiler, that’s the jacket summary, but I came to this book knowing nothing about it, only that it was supposed to be good and that it featured a non-European fantasy world, which, hurrah! And as I was reading, it occurs to me how much media I consume in which I sort of know what’s coming — you’ve read the book before you watch the movie, or it’s a remake or a mash-up or it’s based on a fairy tale, or you can see the plot coming a mile away. I didn’t have a clue what the book would be about for the first hundred or so (ebook) pages. It gets off to a very slow start with little indication of what the story will become.

The experience of reading the book gave me much more to chew on than the book itself. Let me try and break it down. I found myself dealing with three main threads:

  • What’s the world look like?
  • Is a haunting plot the same as a colonialism/globalization plot?
  • Why do I keep reading books that, in the end, I cannot connect with?

Continue reading “A Stranger in Olondria: I wouldn’t go for a visit.”

Alif and ereaders: A paired adventure for the 21st century

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen, the debut novel from G. Willow Wilson, scores big for me on world-building but not so much on pacing, plotting, characterization and the mechanics of writing.

I’m going to be reviewing two experiences here today. One is the debut novel of journalist/essayist/graphic novelist G. Willow Wilson, and the other is reading my first novel on an ereader — in this case, a Kobo Glo. Both have their ups and downs, but I’m finding one more fulfilling than the other. Continue reading “Alif and ereaders: A paired adventure for the 21st century”

This story the world may read in me: Esther’s many feelings about Cymbeline

This past Memorial Day weekend I corrected a longstanding tragedy, which was that I had never seen Cymbeline performed. I’ve read it numerous times, but there’s a particular thrill in seeing a text you love interpreted in another medium—in this case, its right medium. The fabulous Alex agreed to trek down to Hyde Park during her visit to Chicago, and we showed up, full of dinner from a favorite college haunt, for an outdoor performance at the new (and stunning) Logan Center for the Arts. Continue reading “This story the world may read in me: Esther’s many feelings about Cymbeline”