‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ echos Big Brother themes

Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-man” showed the power of an individual in the age of the Internet. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” discusses the social inequality between the rich and poor. J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness” reminds us of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” in a post-9/11 world — that the shock of terrorism can easily became a catalyst for war.

If the recent slew of superhero blockbusters are anything to go by, superhero movies are a time capsule into the troubles of an era. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also co-wrote “Thor: The Dark World”), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a frightening commentary on current events.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), better known as the super-soldier Captain America,  is adjusting to life in modern-day D.C. after he’s been preserved in a block of ice since 1945 and revived to fight aliens with the Avengers team (consisting of himself, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye). Now, a S.H.I.E.L.D. contractor, he serves his country by running along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and going on covert rescue operations — sometimes with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s spy-assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).

As S.H.I.E.L.D. develops Project Oversight — which uses satellite monitoring technology to observe and kill civilians before they become a threat to national security, Captain America has misgivings on working with the government. Captain America’s reservations echo the feelings of ordinary Americans who read or listened to Edward Snowden’s Big Brother-esque revelations about the NSA for the past 10 months. According to a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll, the majority of Americans oppose the NSA’s collection of metadata.

“This isn’t freedom. This is fear,” Captain America says.

Markus and McFeely’s screenplay (based on Ed Brubaker’s story) illustrates the implications of the elimination of privacy, highlighting the dangers of the immense information stored online. One Orwellian nightmare: Big Brother is always watching you and can kill you anytime from anywhere.

German HYDRA scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) does just that. He created a computer program that could predict a human’s future affiliations and behaviors based on his or her past; this is based on emails, texts, videos, social media and other records of communication. In turn, the program selects S.H.I.E.L.D.’s targets — threats to national security who are preemptively killed by drones.

And who threatens the status quo? Our esteemed forth estate, our whistle-blowers, our activists and superheroes…

Directing duo Anthony and Joe Russo (known for sitcoms “Community” and “Arrested Development”) deliver a scary superhero film — filled with extra-long action sequences and paranoia.

“Trust no one,” warns S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) after he’s ambushed by D.C. police in a long car chase and police shootout.

The scariest part of this film: it resembles our own world.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo based on Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay and Ed Brubaker’s story. The comics were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The story will continue in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”


Lisa D’Amour’s ‘Detroit’ breaks down the American dream

Although the streets of “Detroit” aren’t paved with gold, once upon a time, the Motor City roared with industry and music. Now, the city’s bankrupt and the records skip — scratched by the ugly claws of anxiety and anger.

Written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, the founder and artistic director of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, the 90-minute dark comedy “Detroit” shows how the economic recession chewed up the Horatio Alger myth.  

As Ben (AJ Sage) and Mary (Effie Johnson) get to know their new neighbors, Kenny (Gary Weissbrot) and Sharon (Camilla Schade), through a series of backyard barbeques, we see a tangible desperation.

From left to right: Effie Johnson, AJ Sage, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot in the Readers' Theatre's production of Lisa D'Mour's "Detroit"

From left to right: Effie Johnson, AJ Sage, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot in the Readers’ Theatre’s production of Lisa D’Mour’s “Detroit”

Mary’s frazzled as she tries too hard to impress the older couple, Kenny and Sharon. She struggles to open a patio umbrella and to fit a coffee table through a door. From the audience’s vantage point, Johnson appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she handles the invisible props.

Meanwhile, her husband Ben, a self-proclaimed deadbeat, lost his banking job and decides to start his own online credit consulting business. It’s not doing so well. He’s still working on the website.

“I think we all know some older people who had a hard time with the economic downturn because jobs are harder to find,” Cummings said. “So I thought it was an important element to show in this play.”

Although D’Amour’s Obie Award-winning production was grounded in reality and inspired by the 2009 recession, “Detroit” holds many surrealist elements. Sharon remembers a dream where Ben grows younger and younger until he’s finally a baby. Mary repeats, “This is weird.”

“It starts with a dream,” said Cummings. “It ends with a dream. There’s a dream in the beginning. Mary says, ‘This is not a dream.’ And I think that’s the undercurrent emotion underneath the whole period of time.”

This dreamlike buoyancy is reinforced in D’Amour’s script. “Detroit” takes place on any corner of suburbia, along the “city of lights.” The streets are named Rainbow, Helium, Ultraviolet, and Sunshine. In fact, their entire neighborhood is named for its levity.

“Even the setting is giving a sort of ethereal nature with the Feather Boulevards and the bright houses,” said Sage. “It seems to be a more idyllic place than ever actually existed in the world.”

Like the streets and houses, the American dream is misleading. Immigrants flocking to see streets paved with gold only found that they were they were the ones to pave them. D’Amour’s haunting script reinforces this broken dream.

This gilded image hides the cavities and tumors within the rotting city. Sharon and Kenny admit they are “white trash” (Sharon’s works at a phone bank; Kenny in a warehouse). But they want something more. “I’m 55 years old and I’m still eating ramen noodles for dinner a lot,” says Sharon.

They all aren’t where they imagined. Mary, a paralegal by day, self medicates with alcohol and dreams of camping.

Ben falls through a deck and breaks his leg.

Cummings places the play in the realm of Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee and the theatre of the absurd.

“Unlike a modern play like ‘God of Carnage’ by Yasmina Reza,” Cummings said, “these couples for the most part aren’t hiding truths from one another and what connects them are their loneliness in a world where communication isn’t what it used to be.”

Cummings breaks down space and communication further by breaking the forth wall. Johnson, Sage, Schade and Weissbrot face the audience rather than each other.

“You have to use your ears and imagine the other person’s face,” said Sage.

“Detroit” is very lyrical, moving between dream and reality — stationary repetitious movement and dance. At one point, Schade and Weissbrot sway in place as Johnson and Sage converse. At another point, Johnson and Schade are running in place at one side of the stage as Sage and Weissbrot tango in another. The rhythm of Johnson and Schade’s stomping quickens, creating a pounding desperation.

And before you know it, the record’s over.

“Detroit” was written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring AJ Sage, Effie Johnson, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot. Assistant director Chris Dell narrates the play; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from May 2-4 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y.

Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. Tickets will be $12 for students (with student ID) and $15 for adults at the door. “Detroit” is the last play in the Readers’ Theatre’s 2013-2014 season.

The hollow women living in ‘August: Osage County’

“Life is very long,” begins the elderly poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), quoting T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” That’s the epigraph to Tracy Letts’ 3-hour-and-10-minute Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, “August: Osage County.”

It’s a fitting epigraph — although Beverly’s screen time is short. In director John Well’s 121-minute film adaptation of Letts’ play, you see glimpses of his very long life — stuffed by alcohol and hollowed from years tiptoeing around his volatile “prickly pear” of a wife, Violet (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep).

Based on Letts’ own grandmother, Violet doesn’t cushion the truth with little white lies. There’s a bite to her bark and it stings. “You look like a lesbian,” she tells her middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) — the only one who hasn’t moved away.

“I’m just truth-telling,” she says at the dinner table.

Addled with a cocktail of pain pills, Violet drives away her husband; his disappearance reunites the dysfunctional Weston family of Oklahoma. There’s Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale); her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their spineless 30-something-year-old son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s her out-of-town oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts); her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor); and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). There’s her youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiancee, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). And there’s her middle daughter, Ivy.

All of them return under one roof in the suffocating August heat.

It’d be easy to hate Violet. She mean, overbearing and judgmental. And women are often demonized for being bossy. (Margaret Thatcher or Nurse Ratched, anyone?) But Letts’ screenplay and Streep’s acting humanizes the jaded old lady. She can be awful, but she’s also incredibly sharp, funny and self aware. Although she’s not cloaked in Prada, you still want Violet to like you. And even if you don’t like her, you empathize with her.

This is particularly clear when Violet tells her daughters about a memory of her mother and a pair of cowboy boots she wanted for Christmas. Long story short: “My momma was a nasty-mean old lady,” she says. “I suppose that’s where I get it from.”

Although Beverly can be compared to a “hollowed man,” he isn’t the only one haunted by “death’s kingdom.” In their own way, each of the characters are trapped by their own demons. Violet and Barbara can’t escape the shadows of their mothers. Ivy and Karen are running away from the truth in front of them.

Wells’ direction, Adriano Goldman cinematography and Stephen Mirrione’s editing capture these feelings of confinement. In several scenes, we watch a car drive along the hilly Oklahoma landscape. The journey is slow. Although the land is vast, we’re stuck in Barbara’s car as she’s driving her sisters and mother home from the doctor. The car slows and stops when Violet says she’s about to throw up. When she gets out of the car, though, she bolts — running through yellow fields. Barbara chases her mother and eventually, they both collapse from exhaustion.

“There’s no where to go,” Barbara tells Violet.

No where except death’s kingdom.

“August: Osage County” was written by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells.