Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
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But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
You know those nights where you just fall into a YouTube hole watching video after video in the "related" sidebar until you look up and it's 2 AM and you have nothing but a sore mouse finger and tired eyes? Well, when that happens to me, I'm more often then not watching clips of performances from musicals at the Tony Awards. Since stage shows are so rarely recorded, the Tonys offer us a rare occasion to get some of the greatest production numbers on tape. Since we're talking Broadway, the production is absolutely insane. Flying witches, men riding camels, dancing grannies, and tap dancing sailors. It's enough to make your mind absolutely dizzy (and giddy) with craziness.
Before we see Neil Patrick Harris' sure to be amazing opening number at Sunday's Tony Awards show, here are 10 of my all-time favorite, ridiculously amazing Tony Award performance numbers ranked in order of absolutely insanity. (And, no, I did not include Bret Michaels busting his head open on a set.)
Dreamgirls, "And I'm Telling You": Before Jennifer Hudson made it famous in the movie, this power ballad was belted out by Jennifer Holliday on the Great White Way. The only thing crazy here is how good her voice is.
Ridiculousness Rating: 1
Anything Goes, "Anything Goes": Who doesn't love sailors? Who doesn't love a huge tap number? Who doesn't love sailors in a huge tap number? There's a reason this Cole Porter musical picked up the trophy for Best Revival at least year's ceremony (and the tune is still stuck in my head). Oh, and don't be tempted to click on the Patti LuPone version that will pop up after you watch it. She can't hold a candle to Sutton Foster. (Blasphemy!)
Ridiculousness Rating: 2
Evita, "A New Argentina": Speaking of Ms. LuPone, check out her completely insane hairdo when she played the original Eva Peron back in the '80s. My favorite moment (thanks to Broadway legend Seth Rudetsky who pointed it out) is at the end when Patti goes to link arms with her husband but he's a step too far away and she totally whiffs. It's just a millisecond — but now that you know about it, you will always see it.
Ridiculousness Rating: 3
Sunset Boulevard, "As If We Never Said Goodbye": Now we're getting into serious camp territory with Glenn Close performing the big number from Andrew Lloyd Webber's doomed '90s musical. What I love is that there is this huge set filled with extras and props, but the only person moving or singing is Close. She is ready for her Close up, and no one better interfere.
Ridiculousness Rating: 4
Wicked, "Defying Gravity": Wow, this is our second Joel Grey introduction on the list, but by far the crazier production. I mean, one of the women is painted green and she's riding on a broomstick. This video was definitely an influence on Glee's Kurt Hummel in his formative years which explains a lot of his wardrobe choices. As insane as this is, try not to melt like a witch in water when Idina Menzel sours up in the air for her big finale.
Ridiculousness Rating: 5
The Producers, "Little Old Lady Land": Every wonder what The Rockettes will look like when they have walkers? No, I'm sure you haven't — but this musical does. We get Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, and a kick line full of knickers. There's nothing else like it.
Ridiculousness Rating: 6
Hairspray, "You Can't Stop the Beat": Who ever thought a movie by "Pope of sleaze" John Waters would be a crowd-pleasing, family friendly musical? Thankfully, they kept the crazy wigs, wacky costumes, and a drag queen hiding in a huge can of hairspray. There's nothing better than a song with a good tune and a better message... except maybe a drag queen.
Ridiculousness Rating: 7
Grey Gardens, "Revolutionary Costume for Today": This musical — based on a documentary about an eccentric (and possibly mentally ill) mother and daughter related to the Kennedy clan and living in squalor — wasn't a box office hit, but it did win Christine Ebersole a well-deserved trophy for her staunch performance bonkers recluse "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale. (Oh, and if you haven't seen Grey Gardens the documentary or the movie with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, get yourself to Netflix, stat).
Ridiculousness Rating: 8
Into the Woods, "Children Will Listen": Into the Woods is probably Stephen Sondheim's strangest musical, and considering he wrote a show about a cannibalistic barber, that is some feat. This medley starts with the show's opening where a bunch of fairy tale characters (including a plastic cow) head into the woods and ends with Claire Huxtable, turning from a witch into a princess who sings the ballad "Children Will Listen." It's a tonal shift that you can't find anywhere else. And Jessica Fletcher introduces the song. I'm surprised someone in the audience didn't turn up murdered.
Ridiculousness Rating: 9
The Boy From Oz, "Not the Boy Next Door": OK, first we have Hugh Jackman in a leopard print shirt and bulgetastic tight gold lamé pants, riding a camel. To repeat: Hugh Jackman, leopard, bulge, gold pants, camel. Then he makes a penis joke. Then he gyrates all over the stage. Then he ambushes Sarah Jessica Parker (seated next to a pre-gray hair Andy Cohen) and drags her up on stage to do some gyrating of her own. I mean, this is Tony zaniness legend, right here.
Ridiculousness Rating: 10
Oh, because I couldn't leave this one out:
Cats, "Memory": It is a woman dressed up as a singing cat!
Ridiculousness Rating: 11
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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