Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Movie Review: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" by David Pretty

The Elevator Pitch 

After the events depicted in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, our titular hero starts running some shady operations for Nick Fury and the counter-intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Soon ol' wing-head discovers that the world isn't quite as black and white as it used to be and blindly following orders like a good little soldier might end up compromising your integrity.

In The Wheelhouse 

If you're a fan of the cinematic Marvel Universe this one's a must-see. The movie will also work for anyone who likes a light mystery, some intrigue and a metric shit-ton of creatively-ambitious action sequences.

The Upshots 
  • There's an actual storyline! Unlike, say, Thor: The Dark World the movie kicks off with some disturbing subtext and then segues into an incredibly-engaging conspiracy plot. Throw in plenty of connective tissue with the pre-existing Marvel movie pantheon as well as direct references to Cap's first film and you have a yarn that's on par if not superior to The Avengers.
  • There's actually something going on underneath the hood! What makes Winter Soldier not just good but great is the copious amounts of timely social commentary. Indeed, the script raises some pertinent and squirm-inducing questions about such hot-button topics as unwarranted surveillance, pre-cog anti-terrorism and cabals of secret power brokers who are trying to convince the rest of us that they have our collective best interests in mind. And while some superhero movies do a pretty decent job replicating the tone of a comic book, very few have captured the allegory of the original source material quite like The Winter Soldier.
  • The action sequences are, in technical terms, toadly amazeballz! This also illustrates why I prefer movies about the more moderately-powered Marvel characters compared to the exaggerated  flights of fancy depicted in the Thor films. The early clash between Cap and Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) is just the first in a series of well-plotted, creatively-vicious fight scenes. Then there's the faux-S.W.A.T. team assassination attempt on Nick Fury which features one of the most thrilling car chases I've ever seen on film, period. The Winter Soldier's highway ambush against our heroes is also impossibly thrilling. Bucking the popular trend of shooting in a green fabric insulated controlled studio set, directorial siblings Anthony and Joe Russo and their platoon of stunt and fight coordinators use plenty of practical, on-set choreography, real vehicles and creative camerawork to really amp up the illusion of peril.
  • It's not "epic"! Compared to the interstellar / inter-planar threats posed in Thor: The Dark World and The Avengers, things have mercifully been scaled back here a bit. Of course, "scaled back" still involves three giant rogue flying aircraft carriers and the potential death of millions of people, but, hey, it's a small victory.  
  • Some serious shit goes down! As it is with most licensed products, the writers really aren't at liberty to kill off characters or affect any major change in the milieu. Nevertheless, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have somehow manged to produce a consequential story that will end up altering the cinematic Marvel Universe forever.  
  • We get a central character that we can actually cheer for! Kudos to the producers for finally giving us a protagonist who is truly heroic and not yet another boring, flawed, conflicted anti-hero. By embodying the trepidations of most people right now, Cap becomes a crusader for the habitually-abused, but otherwise oblivious, 99%. At no time does our hero pontificate or come across as self-righteous. This, in turn, really raises the pedigree of the character who, up until recently, had been written off by many contemporary comic books fans as antiquated and pedestrian.
  • The cast is fantastic! It's a damned shame that the Fantastic Four films kinda sucked since Chris Evans was the perfect Johnny Storm / Human Torch. Although my own personal pick for Cap would have been more grizzled and world-weary, Chris Evans acquits himself rather well. His youth and fresh-faced good looks ensure that he'll always come across as a non-preachy and very earnest white knight. Scarlett Johansson also wouldn't have been first choice as Black Widow; I think Angelina Jolie rockin' an Eastern Bloc accent would have been perfect. But that's not to say that Scarlet isn't great; she's sexy, sassy and completely convincing when it comes to all of the ass-kickery. On the other hand, Samuel L. Jackson is Nick Fury in my Marvel Universe. He has full command over this role and also makes the best out of a minor character arc. Rounding out the main cast, Anthony Mackie is a spirited and noble addition to the Marvel roster as Sam Wilson a.k.a. the Falcon, Sebastian Stan is relentless and terrifying as the titular Winter Soldier and *YAY!* we get some greatly-appreciated time with Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. *swoon*
The Down Side
  • As consistently-entertaining and spectacular as the film is, eventually I started to suffer from what I can only describe as "spectacle fatigue". For me, three or four original and inventive action set pieces are plenty enough. By the time the sixth dust-up / explosive CGI-fueled orgy of mayhem and destruction rolls around, my attention span starts to wane. Which is kind of a pity since Captain America: The Winter Soldier raises some truly interesting questions about who's really in charge of our own planet. After all, is there any difference between the comically-villainous secret forces featured at the heart of this film and the blatantly-corrupt profiteers that have clearly hijacked our own government? It's a bold, interesting idea but it's quickly shelved in favor or a new round of punchy / kicky / shooty / stabby / 'splodey. 
The Bottom Line
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, without a doubt, one of the top-tier Marvel superhero movies. It's well-acted, expertly mounted, and, most-importantly, it's got a brain in it's head.         

               Tilt: up.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Movie Review: "Thor: The Dark World"

I hate reviewing sequels since so many of them are just retreads of whatever came before it. Mercifully, there's just enough difference between The Dark World and its predecessor that sitting through this one wasn't a Thor. Er, a chore. Sorry.   

After the destruction of the Bifrost Bridge in the first film, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is now gallivanting around the Nine Realms, tamping down insurrections and fending off attacks from aggressors. In the process he's been forced to leave behind hottie mortal astrophysicist Jane Foster, who bears an uncanny resemblance to  Natalie Portman.

But Jane isn't just sitting around in her jammies eating Häagen-Dazs and watching The Princess Bride over and over again. Along with her saucy intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Darcy's slavish intern (!) Ian (Jonathan Howard), Jane tries to track down the source of some odd energy readings in London. Their search leads them to a warehouse where the laws of physics are going, in scientific parlance, completely batshit nuts. During their investigation, Jane is pulled into the titular Dark World and gets possessed by a blob of malevolent matter.

The goo turns out to be the Aether, an all-powerful source of energy that a Dark Elf warlord named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) once used in an insane bid to end existence. After he was defeated and sent into exile by Odin's dad Bor (Tony Curran), the Aether was sealed away for safekeeping. Upon its release, Malekith returns and attacks Asgard where Thor has taken Jane to convalesce. The Dark Elf is temporarily thwarted but Thor is forced to ally with his duplicitous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to draw the villain out into the open before he can rend the universe asunder.

In many ways, The Dark World is an improvement on the first film. First off, it looks a helluva lot better. The special effects are sharper and it appears as if more practical sets were used, which really helps to sell Asgard as a real location. Of particular note is the relatively-quiet scene in which Thor and his co-conspirators hash out the details of their rebellion in a simple pub setting. It's a refreshing oasis of tranquility amidst all the digital and audio bombast.

The actions scenes are also a lot more dynamic. From the opening scrap which sees Thor squaring off against a marauding troll to our hero's flight from Asgard aboard a high-speed airship to the final Ragnarok-ian battle against Malekith, the movie has a frenetic pace and visual verve that was lacking in its forebearer. By their very definition, high concept fantasy films like Thor: The Dark World are practically built on elaborate visual effects so it really helps to have a director who can stage some energetic virtual set-pieces. 

Even though Taylor does a decent job immersing his actors in their computer-generated environs, the film still feels pretty "video gamey" at times. The prologue, featuring an epic battle between the Dark Elves and the forces of Bor, resembles a cut-scene from Diablo III. Equally hokey is the moment in which Thor and Loki bail out of their airship and land gracefully atop a seemingly-immovable water skiff. And although the climactic battle in Greenwich looks great, things quickly degenerate into a riot of unrestrained green-screenery just as soon as the combatants start flying from one realm to another.

But honestly, what else can you do with these god-like characters? You can't relegate the Asgardian God of Thunder to simple fisticuffs because it would end up looking irredeemably cheesy. The fights need to be appropriately epic and comic-booky, and in order to do that, heavy-duty special effects are required. Even though I understand the rationale behind this perfectly, I also recognize that I'll never by fully invested in what's happening on screen because it's so all friggin' over-the top and abstract.

Another thing that keeps ejecting me from Thor's world is the schizophrenic blend of fantasy and sci-fi which makes the whole thing feel like a high-rent version of Masters of the Universe. I've never been particularly keen on mash-ups since two awesome concepts are perfectly fine by themselves without awkwardly boiler-plating one on the the other. I know, I know...the comics did this too, which kind of explains why I didn't like those very much either. I like my fantasy low and gritty and my sci-fi...slightly less low and gritty.

The screenplay, as penned by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, mainly functions as an edifice to hand action scenes on. And although it does give many of the supporting characters a lot more to do, the script is also chock-a-block with some far-fetched co-incidence. For example, the one person on earth who just so happens to get possessed by the Aether is Thor's main squeeze. Sorry, but the odds of this happening are far more remote than getting struck by a terrestrial bolt of lightning.

Speaking of the Aether, we're given precious little information about it and the whole thing ends up feeling very, very MacGuffin-y. Also, in order to facilitate yet another act of rebellion by Thor, Odin inexplicably decides to turtle instead of taking the fight directly to Malekith. Now, I know that the All-Father isn't nearly as impetuous and hot-headed as his offspring but I'm pretty sure the dude still has his balls. His pacifism is particularly inexplicable in light of what's happened up to that point.

The enthusiastic cast is certainly game and collectively they elevate this B-grade material. As Thor, Helmsworth doesn't have a juicy arc like he did in the first film but he is required to exhibit a spectrum of emotions as his marginal support system gets whittled down. He's still fantastic, embodying the role in a way I never thought possible; I just wish they'd give him something more interesting to do. Indeed, the only problem that Thor can't hammer into oblivion is the threat of being appointed King, a responsibility that he's justifiably allergic to.

Thanks to those previously-mentioned script conveniences, Natalie Portman gets a bit more screen time here. Honestly, it's probably a good thing that she plays host to the Aether, otherwise her only other function would be to spout the occasional burst of pseudo-scientific exposition. Even though she does get to punch Loki square in the mush and bandy semantics with an Asgardian healer (played by former Borg Queen Alice Krige), essentially her main function is to act as "MacGuffin courier". Her role in the film makes me think about that old writer's adage: if you're struggling to find things for a character to do, then the best thing that character can do is go away.   

As to be expected Tom Hiddleston runs rings around his peers. Let's face it, compared to ol' Goldilocks, Loki's a much more interesting character. Since he swaps allegiances more frequently then the average Asgardian changes pantaloons, we're always kept guessing as to where his loyalties truly lie. He sells a mid-point fracas with his big bro so effectively that even when the scene dials down it's still tough to gauge his motivations. Whether he's getting up in Odin's grill, stringing along his moms, or tempting Thor in an awesome cameo-riffic disguise, it's pretty clear that Tom really relishes this role.

Anthony Hopkins could easily have phoned in his performance as Odin, but he's consistently surprising here. He manages to deliver the most innocuous and utilitarian lines of dialogue with nuance and style, even eliciting involuntary verbal reactions from me on occasion. His scenes with Hemsworth are particularly good, namely  the relatively-tranquil balcony scene which contrasts nicely with the genuine ire he exhibits when Thor goes rogue.

Of all the principal actors, Christopher Eccleston gets a pretty crappy deal as Malekith. Just like every other blockbuster movie villain lately, his motivations are downright sketchy and his endgame is idiotic at best. In interviews, Eccleston has hinted at an originally-scripted back-story in which Malekith lost his entire family in some undisclosed tragedy, but this isn't depicted on screen nor is it even mentioned. Perish forbid you slow down the movie's breakneck pace for a second and try to make your villain something more interesting then a stern-talking punching bag.

As a result, his hellbent motivation to end the universe makes no sense whatsoever. Then there's the large band of suicidal misfits Malekith has managed to gather together, all of whom are seemingly perfectly content to march unquestionably to their doom on a whim. Despite being rendered virtually unrecognizable underneath a mountain of Nosferatu-style make-up, Eccleston does his best with the flyweight material. Indeed, his presence is commanding and his deliveries are all appropriately menacing.

The supporting characters are all great. Stellan Skarsgaard is gloriously frenetic and chronically under-dressed as resident eccentric scientist Dr. Erik Selvig. After his close encounter with Loki in The Avengers, Skarsgaard gets a chance to be extra-loopy here. Idris Elba, criminally underused as Bifrost Gate guardian Heimdal in the first film, gets a few more on-screen duties. Whether he's alerting Thor to Jane's disappearance, single-handedly destroying an enemy airship or getting confrontational with Odin, he commands attention via a wellspring of understated calm.

Cat Dennings is great as Darcy, providing some much-needed comedy relief and acting as a cute foil for all the Wagnerian seriousness. Some viewers might find her annoying but I say fuck 'em, I like her. Rene Russo's brief screen time also makes me lament her near-absence from films lately. She's got talent, Hollywood, give her some more jobs already! The brief moment she shares with Loki is one of the most emotionally-genuine scenes in either of the two films. 

Finally, Thor's returning band of knock-abouts are really fun to watch. Ray Stevenson is boisterous and brave as uber-viking Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano is coolly-measured as Hogun and original pick for Fandral, Zachary Levi, segues nicely into the role, replacing Joshua Dallas from the first film. Indeed, he strikes the perfect balance between swashbuckler, dandy and ultra-pimp ladies man. And even though Jaimie Alexander does get a chance to shoot some eye-daggers at Jane as Sif, this simmering source of conflict never goes anywhere beyond grade-school histrionics.

There isn't anything glaringly wrong with Thor: The Dark World, but there isn't anything earth-shattering about it either. It is what it is: a sequel that's slightly less clunky and a bit more fun then its predecessor.

Bottom line, it's a decent little time-waster that'll kill a few hours as you wait for the new Captain America and / or Avengers movie.  

             Tilt: up.