Saturday, April 26, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Some time following the events of the alien invasion chronicled in The Avengers, Steve Rogers has adjusted to life in the 21st century. He is working with Nick Fury, Natasha Romanov (a.k.a. The Black Widow) and SHIELD to prevent terrorist actions around the globe, though without complete knowledge of the exact reasons for many of his team's actions.

It is revealed that SHIELD is close to completing a massive "deterrent" weapon system known as Project Insight, a tremendous troika of aircraft carrier airships with devastating firepower. With the official activation of Insight about to get the green light, Fury recognizes a potential security breach, and all hell breaks loose. He is attacked, and Rogers and Romanov have to go on the run, evading the highly informed intelligence agency and extremely deadly troops with whom they had worked for the past several years. Added to this is a mystery combatant known only as "The Winter Soldier," who possesses powers and abilities to match Rogers's own fantastically enhanced attributes, and who seems to be doing everything in his considerable skill set to stop Rogers, Romanov, and anyone who is attempting to uncover the nefarious elements working within and against SHIELD.

Using all of their skills in espionage, tactics, and combat, the Widow and the Captain must go way off the grid and uncover just who is at the bottom of the immense treachery at SHIELD and learn just what their plans for Project Insight are.

My Take on the Movie (still no spoilers)

The movie is great. I've now seen it twice, and it supplants the first Iron Man as my favorite solo Avenger movie.

The filmmakers went with some very savvy decisions that pay off. Instead of having Rogers wallow in the trauma of being thrust into the 21st century, he's already taking things in very nice stride, right from the opening scenes. This allows the story to get going and remain focused.

The larger themes are nothing tremendously novel, having at their bases political and ethical questions about intelligence agencies, personal privacy, and potential abuses of tremendous power. Of course, The Winter Soldier, just as a comic book superhero movie should, amps everything up to the fantastically epic scale that a summer blockbuster needs to be.

This doesn't mean, however, that everything in the film is large-scale. There are several quieter, interpersonal moments that offset and lend effect to the grander actions. Rogers's meeting and friendship with Sam Wilson, some of his conversations with Natasha, and a few moments of silent reflection on his own distant past are very welcome. These calmer moments help magnify the size and scope of the larger fights and action sequences.
This bout with an Algerian terrorist leader is a blast to watch
and would have been the finale of a weaker movie.
Winter Soldier, it was the first major fight scene.

As for the action, it's tremendous. Whether it's the smaller-scale fisticuffs, a very well-executed car attack/chase scene, or the over-the-top grand finale, these elements are handled extremely well. They nearly all pack the intensity and excitement that you could ask for from one of this type of movie. Carefully choreographed and dynamic one-on-one fights, the monstrous finale in the skies over DC, and everything in between are quite simply a lot of fun to watch. They stand in stark contrast to the Michael Bay approach of just throwing an insane amount of huge objects up on the screen, moving at blinding speed or in slow-motion, smashing into each other, and blowing up. The Winter Soldier is the kind of movie that I bother to go see on the big screen.

As with all of the other Avengers movies, there is plenty of humor sprinkled throughout. Though I can't say that the moments of levity are all five-star comedy material, there are certainly more hits than misses. It may seem to some that Roger's occasional sarcasm is a little misplaced for such a straight-arrow kind of character, but it's never overdone.

All of the elements come together in this one. Anyone who's enjoyed anything about the other Avengers movies should give this one a watch. You should be well pleased.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Looking Over The Avengers Movies

Caveat: This entire post is a full-blown, five-alarm dork-out. If you've no interest in comic book superhero movies, you'll likely want to skip this one. The rest of you...

With the current release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I've been re-watching some and rethinking all of the entire Avengers movie catalog. The Winter Soldier is the ninth in the series, with at least several more coming within the next few years, as well as the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. currently in its first season.

Being a formerly serious comic book superhero geek, I still have a great affinity for well-done superhero tales. The wave of film adaptations done in the last 15 years or so has been impressive, with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man series, Bryan Singer X-Men series, and Christopher Nolan Batman series being the exemplars. and the entire "Marvel Cinematic Universe" is an amazingly ambitious project. It's a venture that does have its problems, but has overall produced a solid, in not completely consistent, set of movies that allows for constant evolution.

Here's my own personal ranking of all nine films, from weakest to strongest, with a few brief thoughts on each:

#9: Iron Man 2 (2010)

Easily the weakest in the entire series. Though Downey Jr. carries much of the film with his phenomenal acting and delivery skills and natural fit for the Tony Stark character, there's far too much nonsense. The Ivan Vanko character was slightly intriguing, but too much of a contradictory enigma to really breed much interest. Justin Hammer was made out to be too dumb to run a Waffle House, much less a multi-billion dollar arms company. The grand finale of the movie was massive smash-up of armored suits, which amounted to a dull fireworks show in my eyes. Between all of these things were a lot of half-baked ideas and action set-ups.

In short, it lacked the intelligence and solid writing of its predecessor, making it a movie only worth watching if you're an Avengers completist or a very serious fan of the Iron Man movies.

#8: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The attempt to reboot this classic Marvel character fell flat,
yet again. It wouldn't be until Joss Whedon got his hands
on him that the Hulk would reach his full awesomeness. 
Ed Norton could have been a perfect Bruce Banner to carry this into a solid film franchise. As it was, the movie was pretty mediocre. Liv Tyler's breathy, doe-eyed etherealism seemed far out of place in this movie. The basic story was decent enough, but it tried to do a little too much by having two classic nemeses in General "Thunderbolt" Ross AND Emil Blonsky, a.k.a The Abomination, neither of whom was given enough time to develop into an interesting adversary. The writing was a bit lazy, too, with a lot of pseudo-science, and my biggest pet-peeve: far too many wink-wink, nudge-nudge "homages" to the classic TV series. One would have been enough, but this movie had at least three, only one of which was mildly clever. The final fight with the Abomination wasn't terribly impressive, either.

This one was a missed opportunity that, in some ways, was outdone by the also-flawed Ang Lee Hulk movie that preceded it by five years.

#7: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Definitely better that Iron Man 2, but not nearly as tight as the first installment. Brings back some of the smarts of the first, though not completely. Some missed opportunities in how they deal with Tony Stark's PTSD after the events of The Avengers. A slightly longer review is here.

#6: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first on my list to be a "good" movie that I would continue to rewatch every year or two. It actually has more genuine heart than any of the other Avengers movies, and it nails exactly what makes the Steve Rogers character primarily a "super man" rather than just being a "superman." It has a good blend of humor and action, balanced fairly well throughout. There are a few odd jumps in pacing, and one thing that I truly missed: his training. It's one thing to be turned into a physical specimen and be given a badass shield. It's another to learn how to fight and command troops. We never got to see just how Steve Rogers learned how to do those things, which could have been tremendous fun to see.

#5 Thor (2011)

The Avengers character with by far the
richest history in actual human myth
has been given solid treatment.

Really fun movie. It did drag in a few places, and I have trouble buying Natalie Portman as a brilliant astro-physicist, but it's overall a good action/adventure movie. Chris Hemsworth was a perfect choice for the Norse god of thunder, as he exudes the physical presence, majesty, and joy of warfare that the mythical character demands. From the initial team attack into the Frost Giants' world, to Loki's exile, to the final battle against the Destroyer, there was plenty to like about the movie. There were a few slower, duller moments, but they didn't overly muck up the movie.

#4: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Some may find me odd for liking the sequel over the original, but I do. Not by much, but I do. See my full-length review here.

#3: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

I finished watching this not two days before I write this. Longer review forthcoming. After consultation with a fellow comic geek, my main issue concerning what seemed to be a serious plot hole is mostly smoothed over. With that mostly rectified, I place this one very high on the list, as it has so much of what has made the absolute best Avengers movies so much fun.

#2: Iron Man (2008)

The first "Avengers" movie and still the best single-character film of the entire series. It blended the intelligence of the Nolan Batman trilogy with the fun of Singer's X-Men films, and allowed Robert Downey Jr. to take it all home. While the final battle between Stark and Obadiah Stane isn't all that interesting, everything else leading up to it is a blast.

Watching Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark reinvent himself and construct
 the Iron Man armor and character is still the most entertaining 
of all of the Avengers solo flicks.
#1: The Avengers (2012)

I knew Joss Whedon had a way with comic book/fantasy/science-fiction on film, but I had no idea that I could still have that much fun at the movies, even at a somewhat cynical (then) 36-years old. I could gripe about a thing or two here or there, but I just rewatched this movie (for the fifth time) about a week ago and am not even close to getting tired of it. Slightly longer review here.

Random Avengers-Related Stuff:

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series (2013 - current)

I've seen most of the episodes of this show, of which there are about 15 right now. It's been fairly average, so far, though it seems to be heading in an interesting direction. The core characters are interesting enough and played fairly well, though I feel as if Ming-Na Wen is trying way too hard to act tough all the time, with her permanent scowl long past old for me.

So far, the individual episodes have been teasing a larger and much more intriguing plot at an agonizingly slow pace, but this is the curse of the 22-episode network television series model. My hope is that, during these final 5 or 6 episodes, a solid payoff is coming. As of now, it's no better than the more mediocre Avengers films.

Avengers: Phase 2:

So Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it might be a fun ride. I'm not exactly sure how it's going to tie into the rest of the cinematic universe, but the trailer seems to convey a playful tone that could make for a very entertaining science fiction flick that may hearken back to the days of sillier, more light-hearted space travel adventure movies.

Avengers: The Age of Ultron has my hopes set extremely high. So high, in fact, that I'm bound to be disappointed. I have a lot of faith in Joss Whedon, but I do have a fear that the film might bite off even more than his fertile and agile mind can chew.

Avengers: Phase 3:

The lineup for the next wave of Avengers movies has been put out. After the Age of Ultron, the next series of films in the cinematic universe will include (in no particular order) Ant-Man, Thor 3, Captain America 3, and Doctor Strange. Notably absent are Iron Man and the Hulk, the latter of whom created a ton of interest due to how well he was handled in The Avengers. Thor and Captain America are virtual no-brainers, as the characters are strong enough to carry more stand-alone stories. The choices of Ant-Man and Dr. Strange, though seemingly odd ones, do emphasize just how flexible the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be. As actors grow older or weary of playing a character, others characters can be written in to keep the team concept going for as long as it remains profitable for the movie studios. And, judging from the mountains of cash the movies have made so far, that doesn't seem to be ending any time soon.

One potential problem that the entire concept of the "shared film universe" has is that it may continue to grow more and more difficult to maintain the individual characters' integrity as having their own stories. Case in point: in Iron Man 3, which takes place after The Avengers, one has to wonder why, at some point when all hell is breaking loose and Tony Stark's entire mansion is being blown to bits and he and his lady friend Pepper Potts are in perilous danger, he doesn't just call his bff Bruce Banner (who works in his R & D Department at Stark Industries) to Hulk up and help a brother out. Or how about a phone call to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or Captain America? Anyone? As Marvel keeps adding more and more interesting super-powered characters to the roll call, this kind of question is just going to multiply, unless the stories are very carefully plotted in ways that would preclude the interference of the other super-powered characters. And if it's one thing you don't want to do, it's start annoying overly analytic fanboys and girls by mucking up the logic and continuity of their imaginary universes. Bad things follow.

The Avengers series hasn't been a streak of brilliant cinematic gems, but it certainly has been consistent enough and epic enough to keep me very entertained and interested. I'll be right there with them for at least the next few films, and hopefully beyond. It's pure escapism, which we all need from time to time. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Noah (2014)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Let me get two things right out of the way: (1) I really like this film. (2) I know that plenty of people will dislike and even hate it, for all sorts of reasons. I don't care. See (1).

I'm a tremendous fan of Darren Aronofsky. I like all of his films, to one degree or another. Topically, they all seem very different. Pi is about a mathematical genius; Requiem for a Dream is about various forms of addiction; The Fountain is a science-fiction/love story with deep romantic roots (pardon the pun, those who know the film); The Wrestler is about an aged WWF-style professional wrestler; and Black Swan is about an ambitious, perfectionist ballerina. And now Aronofsky turns his skills onto one of the oldest stories in human history - that of the great flood and the man chosen by a god to preserve life in its aftermath.

I think the movie does a splendid job of it.

We've already heard about the protests against the film. Of course, many of these are being staged by religious fanatics who are upset that the film does anything other than present a literal interpretation of the Old Testament story. These people are horribly misguided. What many of them don't know, or willingly choose to ignore, is that they have no monopoly on the flood myth. It's found in every ancient culture around the world, with one of the better known being that of Utnapishtim of Mesopotamian legend. The idea of one man feeling tasked to survive a divine cleansing of the world is far greater in scope than even the massive Jewish and Christian religions and their mythology can contain. Aronofsky's film seeks to be more inclusive by not restricting his version to Pentateuch canon.

The fellow surrounded by water here is a character that is at least as old as the Noah story - Utnapishtim, whose exploits are told in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

On top of shaking off the constricting details of the Old Testament story, Aronofsky decides to incorporate some ideas that have only been given clear definitions in more modern times. This sets up another element that some people will likely scoff and sneer at - the "vegetarian warrior" aspect of Noah and his family in the film. I admit that I'm still not completely sold on this part of the story, as it seems just a tiny bit forced. Still, it is woven extremely well into the logic of the movie. This version of the tale pits Noah and his family against the "evils of the rest of humanity," which are exhibited by brutal violence and an insatiable desire to possess and/or consume everything in their path. Obviously, this is a concept that is as old as humankind itself; it's just that Aronofsky's Noah includes the consumption of other creatures' flesh into mankind's catalog of evil as defined by senseless destruction.

Probably the final major complaint that people level against the movie is regarding the "rock monsters." If you haven't seen the movie and plan to, I won't ruin this for you by explaining the details. Just know that there are Lord of the Rings-like, craggy creatures featured through the first half of the movie. Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this notion, though, I will tell you that they are explained in an way that I found blends with the movie. Sure, they may have been added simply to mix in some fantastic, adventurous, family-friendly spice to the film, but they represent more than mere eye-catchers for the kids. And even though they figure heavily into some of the more epic action sequences, I hardly found them frivolous appendages to the plot. If one wants to think in terms of the actual story as relayed in the book of Genesis, they make a good deal of sense. And really, if a person wants to obsess over a "deviation from the source," go back and read Genesis. Wrestling angels and women turning into pillars of salt is completely plausible, but some hulking rock creatures aren't?

The twisted rock creatures known as "Watchers" seem to be a contentious addition to the film. 
I found that they added much to the story.

One thing I think most people can agree is excellent about the movie is the psychological and emotional weight that is carried throughout. Through the screenwriting and the strong acting, we do get a sense of how one man and his family's incomprehensibly massive burden is borne. Aronofsky blends in elements of several other Old Testament tales, such as Adam and Eve as well as Abraham and Isaac, which shows the coherence between these mythic prophets of Judeo-Christian belief. The gravitas has always been a large part of these characters, just as they have been with most characters who have endured for millennia. This movie is able to harness and express it in ways more palpable than any film representation that I know of.

And so, with this weighty theme of supreme religious devotion and sense of grand purpose, we come full circle. Just as with Aronofsky's other films, the protagonist is driven to obsession by a single purpose. Such characters often drive stories, and Noah is no different. Though not without some flaws, I think it's merits far outweigh them and make it a strong, thoughtful and intelligent cinematic tale.

I will likely see the movie again, sooner rather than later. I will be curious to see how it holds up to a second viewing. So far, the movie has stayed with me and I enjoy pondering it various elements and the way they were constructed. I recommend that everyone check it out and form their own opinion, for everyone surely should have an opinion on it.