The Reviews: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel typically struggles with its sequels. With the exception of Iron Man 3 – a film I enjoyed a lot more the second time around – they’ve struggled without the direction of an origin story. This is usually the opposite in blockbuster franchises that spend too much time focusing on exposition and in the case of superhero films, the origin story. This left me with low expectations for Captain America: The Winter Soldier a follow-up to one of the weaker films staring the most vanilla character in Marvel’s “Phase One,” line-up. Thankfully, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds hidden resources in its character and incorporates some intense action sequences using the titular villain to make the best Marvel film yet and one of the better for the superhero genre.

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The film follows Captain America aka Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) who is still adjusting to life in the modern times. He’s become the main agent at S.H.E.I.L.D but is still searching for a life outside his “work.” His closest friends are his boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and colleague Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)but all of his friends are dead or at the end of their life – there’s a touching scene where he spends time with his love-interest from the first film. Unfortunately his professional life seems to be falling apart as S.H.E.I.L.D is developing technology that will allow them to monitor humanity’s every activity in the name of a protection – betraying our hero’s belief in America’s nobility which may be tied to potential corruption in the organization. When Rodgers digs too deep into these theories, the organization – headed up by Robert Redford in a casting callback to the government conspiracy films of the declares him and those closest to him fugitives, sending the Winter Soldier to hunt them down.

It’s a lot of plot – there’s even more that I glossed over in the interest of avoiding spoilers – which actually works towards the film’s benefit since the Captain America character doesn’t have the personal demons of Tony Stark or Bruce Banner. Breaking his already shattered world gives him much-needed depth. The film even compares him to returning veterans as he observes a support group led by franchise-addition Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Unfortunately, this depth results in an over-reliance on a teary-eyed Evans staring into the distance.

I have a hard time blaming Evans for the repetitive tendencies because he delivers in all other aspects of the character. Also receiving more dimensions is Black Widow who has grown with every film appearance. Hopefully Mackie’s Wilson gets the same treatment in subsequent films because he’s proven to be a great presence in the likes of The Hurt Locker and Pain & Gain. Both Jackson and Redford give solid performances as well but other than Redford’s movie star-presence there isn’t much another actor couldn’t contribute.

The two biggest strengths of the film are tied to the addition of the Winter Soldier. Taking cues from Robert Patrick’s T-1000, The Winter Soldier is a stone-cold-killer that is the most bad-ass and best incarnation of a character since The Incredible Hulk in The Avengers. With the villain’s ruthlessness comes some amazing action scenes that consist mainly of guns grenades and gauntlets. It’s not just the incorporation of real-world-weapons that make the action refreshingly grown-up. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo reportedly used Heat and The Raid as inspiration for their action scenes and its evident in all the best ways as each sequence is as intense as the last. The only downside to these sequences is they greatly outshine the plot which is predictable especially if you’ve seen the previous entries in the Marvel cinematic universe.

I’m torn whether I can recommend this film to those unfamiliar with the Marvel series – despite the box office receipts there are some who fit into this category.  The action sequences and mere presence of Winter Soldier are tons of fun and will prove to the detractors that these movies aren’t simply for the fanboys but there are some key plot points that will lack the impact for the dedicated will appreciate. Regardless, this will be a tough film to top by even the best summer blockbusters.

****/*****

The Reviews: Gravity

It’s taken longer for the IMAX format to take off in the way my nine-year old mind thought it would back in 1996. After seeing the likes of Alaska: Spirit of the Wild, Fantasia 2000 and Cyberworld 3D even my young mind realized this format was reserved for documentaries and other “spectacle films,” leaving “real” movies on the smaller screen. While Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequels have adopted the format for each of their action sequences and James Cameron’s Avatar was soley spectacle, neither fully embraced the format.

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Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity comes closer than any other at meeting this medium even if Cuaron is more dedicated to the Dolby ATMOS sound system than the display format and while critics and audiences are rightfully applauding the visuals – more on those in bit – the sound design is a marvel. I didn’t think think anything could top the races in Rush in the sonic department but whether it’s Steven Price’s score, or minimal sounds of space that follow the ever-moving camera.

It’s hard to imagine long-time Cuaron cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki would ever top the long takes in Children of Men. The fluidity in the opening sequence as it follows our three astronauts moving in and out of first-person as if the camera in zero-gravity is the closest younger viewers will ever come to seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1966. For the best visual experience, I can’t stress this enough: See this in 3D, on the biggest screen possible. On a full-size IMAX projection, there is no screen as so much a window that offers an experience rival to any major theme park ride.

Keeping the film from treading too far into spectacle for it’s own sake is the in the performances, specifically Sandra Bullock who carries most of the weight. Looking back on the last five year’s who could have called the lead from The Proposal and All About Steve would not only star in the biggest sci-fi movie of the year but also give the best performance of her career. She finds the truth – as they say – in her performance which is all the more impressive considering the meticulous blocking and timing used during the shoot. While the comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley are apt, I couldn’t help but think of Anna Scott (Julia Robers in Notting Hill) who is characterized as a star because she’s in a “space movie.” I have never been the biggest fan of Bullock. That has changed.

As much as I could rave about my experience, I can’t help but wonder if I would be as enthusiastic had I merely seen it in 3D or *gasp* old fashioned 2D. James Cameron’s Avatar left me equally enthusiastic. I haven’t revisited the two and a half hour epic since then, not even when stumbling upon it on cable. I imagine I will revisit Gravity in the next year before I give Cameron’s film any thought beyond this review because it’s a much better film but it won’t ever live up to that first viewing, even on a large TV with an excellent sound system.

The Reviews: Kick-Ass 2

Defining what counts as “satire,” seems to be more and more difficult, especially in the cynical internet-age where “irony,” and “sarcasm,” are losing their meaning by the tweet. Seth MacFarlene’s biggest detractors point to his Oscar hosting gig where he got away with making racist jokes or singing songs like “We Saw Your Boobs,” by making fun of immaturity and ignorance at the same time. In the end , the jokes are out there and those who don’t understand the intent and even those who do still laugh at them.

Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) face-off against The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in the disappointing Kick-Ass 2.

Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) face-off against The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in the disappointing Kick-Ass 2.

2010’s Kick-Ass managed to balance between making fun of the superhero blockbuster while still having plenty of ultra violence. In the sequel, new director Jeff Wadlow fails to find the balance of the first film by fully committing to making an action film. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the film didn’t believe it was still lampooning the genre.

The film opens on the familiar narration from Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that followed through the first film though it’s less used in the sequel as he takes a back seat to Hit-Girl/Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is starting her freshman year of high school by cutting to train Kick-Ass so they can patrol the streets together, honoring her superhero-father’s legacy. Mindy’s adopted father (Morris Chestnut) puts the squeeze on this in an attempt to protect from the life her father led and caused his murder.

This is one of the areas where the film succeeds. The idea of these heroes being as responsible for their enemies crimes was touched on int The Dark Knight but is actually addressed more head-on here. When we get to the final showdown between the make-shift Justice League, Justice Forever and an equally amature League of Doom, it’s just a gang fight (two of the older superheros in the group even bring this up). While the brawl mines some inspiring moments from the minor Justice Forever heroes fighting together, the true motivations make it a selfish endeavor. Kick-Ass just wants to end the personal attacks from the worlds first real super villain, The Motherfucker/Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who seeks revenge from for Kick-Ass killing his mobster father at the end of the first film…and fame.

D’Amico and his alter-ego should be addressed because his character is one of the most problematic to come out of a summer blockbuster in a long time. Mintz-Plasse is very good at turning the spoiled D’Amico into a sinister super villain however the character is exemplary of the films reveling in violence. The scene that’s getting the most attention is a poorly conceived rape joke where D’Amico can’t get aroused to assault a female member of Justice Forever. The intent is to prove D’Mico is a true pretender but once he says a line showing his intentions, he becomes a rapist, regardless of his motivations or the outcome. Furthermore, his “failing,” the first go around doesn’t justify his successful attack later on.

Both of these attacks are meant to target the titular hero but the script belongs to Moretz despite Taylor Johnson making the most with not much to do. The best material in the film follows Hit-Girl’s transition into high school. Her Heathers experience with the local mean girls is a lot of fun and the script hits that annoying teenage girl character perfectly. Moretz is also the only actor asked to go through any internal arc and she handles it perfectly. Its her arc and performance that makes the penultimate scene find the films only truly touching moment.

Supposedly, the film’s message is “We Could Be Heroes,” but it’s in the stylings of The Wallflowers cover, not the David Bowie original. For some reason that song was on the Godzilla (1997) soundtrack and like that cover, the irony is lost, choosing to embrace the violence that was only a small piece of the charm of the original.

**/*****

The Reviews: Blue Jasmine

With Blue Jasmine (opening in wide release this weekend) writer/director Woody Allen combines the duel plots his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, an upper-class Manhattan socialite who can’t imagine a life without designer fashions and a guest home in The Hamptons. She’s forced to move-in with Ginger (Sally Hawkins) her blue-collar step-sister. Jasmine is dead broke – though she can fly first-class – because her late-husband (Alec Baldwin) was arrested for running a Bernie Madoff-esque operation that she’s willing to turn a blind-eye to because it funded her lifestyle.

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With his supplanted character, Allen returns to his fascination with class divide – even by having his main character move from one of the most expensive American cities to another – Jasmine still clings to her designer outfits and luggage, while Ginger owns her bohemian fashions. If there’s a positive personality quality in Jasmine, she looks down on her sister’s lifestyle, not her sister. “You could always do so much better,” Jasmine repeats throughout. She has reason to say it. Ginger is divorced with to kids by her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay, in one of the film’s strongest performances) whom Jasmine suspects hit Ginger at least once. Ginger’s new boyfriend (Bobby Canavale) doesn’t register any better with Jasmine. She can’t imagine anyone not constantly striving for that elegant lifestyle though it’s clear she repeats because she has nothing else to say to Ginger.

While the repetition offers some characterization for Jasmine and sends us to the ending, it’s also the films biggest flaw. As with most rehashes, the material here is far weaker than it’s predecessors. Allen’s best work has a strong respect for the audience so the only reason for the repetition seems to be to fill time. The story arc isn’t clear and it certainly didn’t need to be but it’s far from compelling and when we get to the big reveal, it results in a shrug rather than a gasp.

It’s a shame because the acting is top-notch across the board. Blanchett continues to prove she is the best actress working today. She treads the line between trauma and insanity to its sweaty, murmuring, Stoli-downing perfection. Her performance allows the transition to the aforementioned ending to move smoother than it should. Beyond the lead, Louis C.K. is at his most charming as an alternative love interest for Ginger. It might be this reviewer’s love for C.K. but his short time on-screen is a joy to watch. Even Peter Sarsgaard, who has been spotty  as of late, fits into Allen’s writing style cleanly.

That’s what makes Blue Jasmine a win for Allen and as he continues to release a film every year, it’s what we have come to expect. They might be sloppy or derivative of his own work but thankfully there will always be actors ready to give him everything they have and make the most of what’s on the page.

*** 1/2 / *****

The Reviews: Fruitvale Station

True- story films, be they biopics or historical dramas have the difficult task of balancing fact and drama. On one end you have films akin to the The Social Network which favors the later. For the former, there’s United 93 which presents itself, particularly the actions on the plane at face value. Both of these examples are excellent films, partially because they commit to primarily one side of the spectrum. The more traditional entries of the genre – particularly the long stretch of biopics in the early 2000s – struggle with finding this balance. First-time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is one of the best out of that traditional group. There’s room for improvement as it occasionally falls into the same trappings of the genre but the performances elevate the film to the sobering experience many strive for, but few achieve.

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The most noticeable problems are when the drama interferes with real life. There are plenty of moments of foreshadowing that remove the reality. Two that stand out are a scene in which Tatyana tells Oscar she’s scared of the fireworks because they sound like guns and she’s worried about him getting shot, the other is where Ms. Grant encourages her son take the train into the city. The latter likely happened given the involvement of the Grant family in the film’s production but had that not been publicized at the film’s release, the scene feels like Coogler is using hindsight to remind us where this is going – though the excellent choice to open with the real-life video footage is impossible to forget , even if the audience has already seen it. The scene with his daughter is another story as it feels and in all likelyhood is made for the film.

Michael B. Jordan rises above these genre trappings though as he never loses the real life qualities that make the film strong. Very few actors could take a role that’s this complex and hit every note with as much skill as the last. Throughout his last day, he goes from charming, to angry, to compassionate and vulnerable. Even in the film’s lone flashback during a visit with his mom while he serves time in prison. His hardened demeanor jumps to desperation as he’s pulled away from his mother. It’s rewarding to see Jordan has evolved the talents that made him so memorable in both “The Wire,” and “Friday Night Lights,” while making this performance stand on its own.

It would be impossible for any actor to come out from Jordan’s performance so it’s forgivable that no one rises above it here. While Spencer struggles through the majority of the movie, although she isn’t given much to do. The film’s final fifteen minutes are a reminder of why she has an Oscar on her resume as she becomes the central character.

Credit has to be given to Coogler for the way the police are portrayed in the films climax. At the start of the sequence, it looks like we’re getting a stereotypical villan played by Kevin Durand. While there’s no attempt to justify his actions he clearly Grant’s murder crosses even his line. There’s even a shot of the guilty cop – a different one – during the sequence who’s clearly overwhelmed by what he had just done. In just a matter of minutes, Coogler creates a well-rounded recreation of the incident without justifying any of it.

That commitment to fully formed characters and moments – even the smallest – is what makes Fruitvale Station a successful film. Jordan’s performance makes it stick with you long after leaving the theater.

****/*****

The Reviews: Mud Perfectly Captures The Adolescent Experience

This review was originally published on TopicalTodd.com 5/21/2013

With Mud, the latest from writer/director Jeff Nichols ­ and the first to not have Michael Shannon in the lead role, ­he taps into the nostalgia we associate with both the start of our adolescence and the end of our childhood. While this doesn’t seem difficult since they come hand in hand, it’s rare to capture both with such high reverence. A lesser script would focus on either the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood or the joys of being a child one last time but here, each romanticized while also full of disheartening clarity when we see how the world works in both the good and the bad. Its portrayal of the early teen years is one we see as our own even though it’s merely one we wish we had.

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The film follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) who live in a small Arkansas town along the Mississippi River. Ellis lives on a houseboat with his parents who have their own matrimonial troubles. He’s reserved, perceptive but still has thoughts and desires of his age. Neckbone is younger both in stature and personality. He lives with his womanizing uncle (Michael Shannon) who enjoys a regular jam session with his drinking buddies.

One day the boys take a boat out to an island on the river and discover a tree­-stranded boat from a previous flood. Their first actions when they discover the ship is a brilliant representation of the differences in their personalities. ­ Neckbone is fascinated with the “Penthouse” collection ” on-­board while Ellis is preoccupied with the signs the last owner left behind. Ellis quickly realizes  someone is lives in their new hideout. Turns out it’s a runaway who goes by Mud (Matthew McConaughey).

Those who bought awards stock on McConaughey ten years ago when it was at its lowest thanks to films like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days should get ready to cash out soon. He’s the best he’s ever been here and proves his excellent work in last year’s Bernie and Magic Mike weren’t flukes. Mud is an awards bait roll but not an awards bait performance. He’s charismatic which definitely helps gain the trust of our protagonists but more importantly, he treats them as equals. McConaughey makes us believe the character sees the boys as such, while still carefully calculating which bits of his past to reveal to convince the boys help him find what he needs to make his getaway. Those two necessities are an engine for the boat and his life­-long love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) – one of her best performances as well.

Ellis needs to believe Mud and Juniper are supposed to be together because he needs to believe in true love. He’s just met his first love – a girl a year older – and his parents are setting a poor example as they inch closer to divorce. His clinging to predestined love is the perfect metaphor for growing up. He’s been told of its existence from the moment he was born but as soon as he reaches an age where he can experience it ourselves, he discovers it’s more complicated than he thought. It’s another way the film shows us how our parents affect our worldview.

Sheridan and Loftland’s performances who second only to the script. There’s a trend in independent film to direct child actors, particularly the younger batch, to stress naturalism. While there are excellent performances from that school of thought, it’s as much  the result of  direction as it is the performance. It’s the opposite here with both actors. This is Loftland’s first role and his timing, both comedic and dramatic, is spot on. I look forward to seeing him in his next role. Rightfully though, this is Sheridan’s movie. He first caught audiences attention in The Tree of Life and everything he showed in that film, he brings here tenfold. His performance creates a childhood that isn’t your own but we believe it was all the way to the end.

Speaking of the end, there were pieces that felt false as I walked out of the theater. Some of that still lingers but those moments exist as part of a larger whole and the film is more complete for them.

****1/2 / *****

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The Reviews: Iron Man 3

This review was originally published on TopicalTodd.com 5/7/2013

With it’s hype and box office performance, Marvel’s aim for Iron Man 3 to top last summer’s The Avengers. For the most part it succeeds. The latest from the franchise is one the studio’s best, especially when it explores the main character’s darker tendencies, but it falls to prey to the films unmemorable tendencies that keep the film from being something special.

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As the first film in Marvel’s “Phase Two,” line of films – which also includes Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers 2Iron Man 3 is very much its own film thus eliminating one of the problems of the previous film and Captain America, both of which were mainly set-up for The Avengers. Here, the events of that film are used to great effect by asking how someone reconciles fighting aliens with a god, a cryogenically preserved soldier and a Hulk then return to a normal life. This is likely because Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the most three dimensional character of S.H.E.I.L.D’s band of heroes.

Downey has been quoted as saying he believes the character has been exhausted and might not return to the character many more times. He’s played him four times now but the character hasn’t been as interesting (or as fun) here since the first film. As much as Downey brings to the performance credit is due to director Shane Black who worked with the actor in the excellent buddy cop comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black’s familiarity with Downey and infuses an irreverent humor which works well with the films darker tone.

Speaking of the darker tone, it’s one of the films strengths and its biggest weaknesses. Marvel’s films have created a reputation of being the “fun” superhero movies where as DC (read: Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) are much more serious. While the Marvel tone allowed for Downey to give a performance that’s rightfully made him a star, it also makes the villains and periphery characters feel inconsequential. Guy Pearce is very good as Aldrich Killian the greasy business man who may have ties to the terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) – who’s also great – but there’s nothing memorable about him.

The same goes for Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) or his best friend Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Both have significantly richer roles than in the past films but their characters don’t bring anything unique. The same goes for many of the films action sequences – with the exception of a sky diving rescue mission which was shot using actual stuntmen. When I think about the finale or the attack on casa de Stark, there are stand out moments but nothing is memorable on its own.

That’s the film’s defining characteristic. It’s usually fun thanks to the Downey and the writing but it isn’t memorable which keeps the film from being the true event of the summer.

*** 1/2 / *****