Documentary review: Ascension

Jessica Kingdon

I recently watched, on Paramount Plus, the documentary Ascension. The film shows that the people of China are also seeking their version of the American Dream.

Some of the workforce is enticed by factory jobs that may involve no standing, though other jobs require being upright. Lots of propaganda about being team players are sometimes administered harshly. The factory workers include women working on the exacting standards for sex dolls; make sure the color of the areola is right.

We see people training to serve the wealthy in their increasingly capitalistic country. Perhaps they would be servants in fancy homes that require fine dining; Downton Abbey was specifically namechecked. Or maybe they’ll become bodyguards, protecting their would-be employers from assassins.

There are lessons on how to smile, how to be positive that you’ll make lots of money. They too can become influencers. For good and for ill, today’s China is looking a lot like the United States.

Before I saw the film, I watched director Jessica Kingdon interviewed on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He noted that there was no narration by someone trying to steer a particular point of view, which allowed the viewer to see the larger cultural shift.

Ascension is Oscar-nominated as one of the best documentary films of the past year. It’s a little slow in the beginning, but it proves to be a fascinating take on the economic rise of China.

Lynching Postcards

After I watched Ascension, Paramount Plus directed me to a short documentary Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of A Great Day’. Perhaps more unsettling than the lynchings of over 4,000 African Americans by white mobs were the public, festive occasions these murders became. Men, women, and children out having a picnic while watching a hanging and/or burning. The burnings were particularly popular in Texas.

These lynchings were commemorated through souvenir postcards. And people would send messages pointing themselves out in the crowd. ‘Hey, that’s me, third from the right” with the corpse hanging in the background.

One of the images from the film that caught my attention was The Dogwood Tree, a poem that begins
This is only the branch of a Dogwood tree;
An emblem of WHITE SUPREMACY.

The film is only about 15 minutes. Worthwhile.

Ragnarok, more MCU, Phase 3 films

save Asgard!

Thor.RagnarokI’ve now gotten to the part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the release dates and the chronology of the movies – or most of the films – diverge. And the various TV shows, none of which I ever saw save for a handful of SHIELD eps, fit in there as well. Fortunately, I’m going to mostly ignore those facts. The titles in italics I saw in July 2020.

Captain America: Civil War (2016). When I used to read comic books, the creative teams often developed fights among the superheroes. Sometimes it’d be a brief misunderstanding. Occasionally, it’d be a more elaborate brawl. Too often, though, the motivation seemed sketchy. Not here.

The Hero Registration Act, designed to limit the actions of superheroes, was embraced by Tony Stark/Iron Man, but Steve Rogers/Captain America balks. I found this film surprisingly emotional, especially with the big reveal. Why it’s a Captain America movie, I don’t know, since most of the combatants were Avengers, but whatever.

Doctor Strange (2016 ) -it was an origin that took too long to get going. And it felt formulaic. But I did like the weird dimensional stuff, walking on the sides of buildings.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Apparently, this takes place before Avengers: Age of Ultron, not that it particularly matters. Odd that despite the massive amount of comic book violence, the story was much more interesting to me than the first Guardians. Part of that is Kurt Russell as Ego, whose presence makes the Star-Lord character feel less of a Han Solo wannabe. I also like Sly Stallone’s appearance and the curious character of Mantis. And Baby Groot is cuter.

Heck, even when the music was too much on the nose – Fathers and Sons by Cat Stevens, really? – I found it touching. Speaking of music, it also featured my favorite Fleetwood Mac song ever, The Chain.

Dorky high school kid

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – There was a movie called The Birdman starring Michael Keaton as an actor pigeon-holed as someone who had played a superhero. I didn’t love it, though it reviewed well. Yet I projected that character onto his playing the Vulture in THIS movie, and it worked, especially his threat to Peter while the young man was on a date.

I’m starting to warm up to Tom Holland as this version of the web-slinger. His classmates are appealing, though incredibly patient with Peter. And while he’s hanging out with Tony Stark, he still feels like your friendly neighborhood dude.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Despite the serious theme – save Asgard! – this turned out to be a very funny film, with great action to boot. Even Doctor Strange was fun in a cameo. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is as stubborn as the Thunder God. Hela (Cate Blanchette) appears invincible. The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) is very Goldblumesque. Did I mention the Hulk?

I take it that director Taika Waititi deserves some of the credit. Clearly, the best Thor film.

Black Panther (2018) – I saw it when it came out before I was aware of the events of Captain America: Civil War. This actually makes the accomplishments of this film more impressive. Because the real star of Black Panther is Wakanda itself.

Well, those last two Avengers films and a couple of others will have to wait until next time.

Winter Soldier, other MCU Phase 2 films

A.I.

Winter SoldierMore Marvel Cinematic Universe movie reviews. The ones marked in italics I’ve seen since the summer solstice 2020 in the northern hemisphere.

Iron Man 3 (2013) – Entertaining enough, I suppose, but a bit of a slog. It does bring us the Black Widow for the first time. I don’t love the theoretical villain. “Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?” Yeah, yeah.

There was this recent article about racist terms. Somehow the author determined that “douchebag” could be a slur towards certain white people. I didn’t quite get the argument. Still, it suggested that Tony Stark was a douchebag and that Steve Rogers, Captain America, most assuredly was not. And that’s the underlying annoyance about Iron Man. He’s that guy named Steve in my library school classes who claimed to know everything.

Thor: The Dark World (2013). I suggested to a friend that IM3 was a slog. “Wait until you watch the next one,” they said. I’m afraid they were right. It was confusing keeping track of the nine realms. Any time you have that many screen overlays to try to let you know where you are, it’s usually problematic. Wormholes that lead to where? What? I did like the fiery farewell to one of the characters. And the final fight was a bit of goofy fun.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). This movie was great! You don’t even need to know the characters well to appreciate this conspiracy-laden story. Who ARE the good guys? Nick Fury of SHIELD (Samuel L. Jackson) doesn’t even know. I was holding my breath quite often, particularly when the title pair collide. And Robert Redford’s character is unfortunately quite credible. The introduction of Sam Wilson, the Falcon.

Hooked on a feeling

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). I may not have seen this in the right setting. It was on a bus tripon the way to Indiana in 2019. The movie seemed disjointed and dark. The ’70s soundtrack, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, was often an affectation and a distraction to me. And yet I later bought the album, mostly for the Bowie, 10cc, Redbone, and Five Stairsteps. I don’t suppose it helped that one of my pastors thought the film was pointlessly violent. I should probably watch it again.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Now you’ve done it, Stark. You’ve helped create an Artificial Intelligence that wants to destroy humanity. Earth’s mightiest heroes need to work together. I’m glad I used to read the comics, as I understood better who the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver were. The movie was occasionally confusing, but I got the gist. An overstuffed film which I nevertheless mostly enjoyed.

Ant-Man (2015). As I noted in my review, my wife, who is not a big comic book fan, and I saw this when it came out. I figure that an origin story could stand alone, and it did. We liked it quite a bit. It’s light and funny when so many of these MCU films seem serious and ponderous.

Thor, Cap, and The Avengers, BTW, I watched in one 28-hour period on July 4 and 5 when my blog was down. Viewing them kept me from looking at my URL and wondering, “Is t working yet? Is it working yet? Why isn’t it working yet?”

The Avengers and more MCU, Phase 1

A wait of eight years

On March 13, just a couple hours before the COVID lockdown in New York State, I ran to the Pine Hills branch of the Albany Public Library and grabbed seven Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) DVDs to check out. Sure enough, the library was closed the very next day. Three months later, they remained totally unwatched.

I then decided that Alan David Doane’s very good idea of rewatching all the films in order was going out of the window. I had plenty of movies to see, and not just the seven. Fortunately, every single one that I did not have I could catch on cable.

MCU, Phase One

I saw all of these within the year of their release, except IM 2 and The Avengers. I’ve not rewatched any of them.

Iron Man (2008). I liked it quite a bit, as I noted.

The Incredible Hulk (2008). I never saw the 2003 movie directed by Ang Lee. My recollection of this film, which starred Edward Norton as the scientist Bruce Banner, was that it was murky. It looked weird, the storyline was confusing, and the behemoth was unimpressive.

Iron Man 2 (2010). It wasn’t as good as the previous one, but I saw it on video, not the big screen. Don Cheadle replaced Terrance Howard as James Rhodes.

Thor (2011). I remember liking it well enough. Yer basic god kicked out of Asgard and set straight.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Now, THIS film I unabashedly liked a LOT. A great telling of the origin story. The Red Skull. Government experimentation. A man out of time. Chris Evans played Johnny Storm in those non-MCU FF movies; this is quite a step up.

Put the brakes on

But then I stopped watching the MCU films. There was a great dispute at the time over the credit that the late Jack Kirby, co-creator of almost all the Marvel characters, should receive for the films. (The general consensus: Jack was owed a LOT, including monetarily.) When the situation was finally settled in 2014, I never got back to see the ones I missed. Until now.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), which I watched in late June 2020. Having all those characters in one film could have been a recipe for disaster. It’s a bit slow as the formation of the group develops. But it turns out to be an entertaining enterprise, filled with action. And it had a REASON to get together and fight as a team, “to stop the mischievous Loki and his alien army from enslaving humanity.”

A lot of its success involves the humor among the disparate characters. It may have been the most fully realized comic book to hit the screen to that time. The action sequence, which must go on for a good half hour I allowed myself to get sucked into.

The graphic novel as learning tool

Meryl Jaffe is the rock star in the graphic novel as an educational tool genre. She’s been to New York Comic Con, promoting the gospel.

Worth A Thousand WordsAs you may know, I used to work at a comic book store called FantaCo on Central Avenue in Albany for 8.5 years, May 1980 to November 1988. It was the second-longest job I ever had.

During this period, Marvel put out something they called a graphic novel. It was a squarebound comic book of the X-Men, 81/2″ by 11″, with much nicer paper, and a price of $4.95, when regular comics were still under $1.

How the graphic novel has changed. I came across Meryl Jaffe through her participation in the ABC Wednesday meme. She has a blog Departing the Text, which is still interesting, although she has’t updated it in a few years. She wrote Using Content Area Graphic Texts for Learning: A Guide for Middle-Level Educators (2012), which is more readable that the title might suggest.

Meryl is the rock star in the graphic novel as an educational tool genre. She’s been to New York Comic Con, promoting the gospel. Yet she makes a confession in the preface of her new book, with Talia Hurwich, Worth a Thousand Words: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Visual and Verbal Literacy (2019).

“Until fairly recently, I didn’t think graphic novels were appropriate for my classroom or for my kids’ reading at home.” But her children, “as comfortable reading Neil Gaiman as Alexandre Dumas,” gave her I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Nimura, and Meryl did a 180. BTW, Talia Hurwich is Meryl’s daughter.

Chapter 1 addresses the fears of using the graphic novel in the educational setting. Chapter 2 is the necessarily “scholarfied” stuff to sell the concept to the principal or school board. It uses the word “multimodal.” Several times.

After that, Worth A Thousand Words is a great read, very practical and hands-on. The book has sections on how to interpret the elements of graphic novels – narrative and thought balloons, e.g.

The authors show how to teach reading, but also how to do create instruction in writing, with students encouraged to create their own illustrative narratives. And it’s not just for prose, but social studies, science, even math. I realize that my creative daughter might be able to use the tools laid out therein.


A commercial: I will be reviewing March, Books One, Two, & Three, graphic novels by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell for the Friends of the Albany Public Library on April 16 at noon at 161 Washington Avenue. Not incidentally, the March books are cited in Worth A Thousand Words.

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