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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For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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S11E10: Now that the pressure of makeshift performances on group night and solo night is finally clear, the 70 remaining American Idol contestants are whisked away to Las Vegas to form groups once more. This time, they’ll put together costumes and work with vocal coaches to perform assigned 1950s and 1960s songs. Ryan informs us as dramatically as possible that this time, they’ll get immediate results on stage – as if it’s different than every other episode apart from Solo Night.
The wonderful thing about Vegas performances is that they tend to be colorful, theatrical and fun. We see outfits inspired by USO shows and Elvis performances, but dress-up is more fun when you aren’t sent packing in your fuchsia Diana Ross dress. And while 50s and 60s music seems like an easy task because we all know the words and the notes are clean and simple, but these harmonies and melodies are so tight, it’s terribly obvious when they’re not completely pristine.
Luckily, Idol spares us the uglier performances, delivering only the best of them. We’re also seeing the contestants quickly fall into two groups – even within the ones chosen to stay. There are your average contestants with pretty voices, decent ranges, cute faces, etc., but then you’ve got the people who – as cheesy as it sounds – have music in their souls. The split divides the backstreet boys from the people who seem to view music not as a meal ticket or a means of fame, but as part of their identities.
Cari Quoyeser, Colton Dixon, Chase Likens, Skylar Laine
Before this group takes the stage, Skylar worries her trouble with harmonies will hurt her group – yes, we found an Idol hopeful who’s actually worried about someone other than herself. The group kicks off Day 1 with “Dedicated to the One I Love” and the group was easily split into two groups: the talented ones and the other ones. Colton, despite the praise he gets from the judges time and again, just doesn’t do it for me. He’s a boring combination of 1990s Justin Timberlake and Jason Mraz. Snooze. He’s not bad, he’s just not a stand-out other than the fact that the show continues to highlight him. Chase and Skylar blow their cohorts out of the water despite putting their country voices into unfamiliar territory. Lastly, Cari was a bit “shaky” as Jennifer put it – though I have to agree – and she was the first contestant sent home.
David Leathers, Jr, Gabi Carrubba, Jeremy Rosado, Ariel Sprague
One fourth of the next group, contestant Gabi Carrubba, somehow treads an impossible line between diva and sweetheart, complaining that she doesn’t have a decent enough solo while still maintaining respect for her friends and fellow singers. But when it comes time to sing “Rockin’ Robin” she gets to rock a big note at the end. That sounds like the perfect place to show off if you ask me. As usual, David and Jeremy are incredible – no surprise there. The perfectly average Ariel comes out of the gate with a much bigger game this time – she really does belong up there. Despite their middle school glee club choreography, the judges send them all through – which is good because they’re friends and that could get awkward.
Angie Zeiderman, Erika Van Pelt, Adam Brock, Shelby Tweeten
Another split performance comes from this foursome, who spit out “Great Balls of Fire.” It’s no wonder that Adam shined as he sang and plinked away at the piano and Erika found the overboard sweet spot – the dynamic elements of the song suited her tendency to over perform. Angie is having fun and she’s fully committed, but she’s a little sharp and it’s clear she’s not the same caliber singer as her teammates. Shelby is cute and decent singer, but I’ve yet to find her engaging. They all go through, though Randy leaves poor Angie in limbo for what feels like 45 seconds.
Schyler Dixon, Brielle Von Hugel, Molly Hunt
Colton Dixon’s sister Schyler, didn’t fare as well in her routine as her brother did in his. The girls sang “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” in reimagined (see: skimpy) army costumes and Steven says he used to make out to this song, reminding us just how old he really is. The performance is over the top, and Schyler, especially, slides to and from notes too much. Brielle is obnoxious, but strong. They must have cut out Molly’s solo, because we have no evidence of her “weak” performance before she is cut. Jennifer adds that Molly is such a sweetheart. Yes, it hurts to send home the nice girl while the one who terrifies her own mother gets to continue.
Haley Johnson, Elise Testone, Eben Franckewitz, Reed Grimm
This unlikely quartet has “modernized” their song, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and while I’m sure they have an official group name, they should probably change it to The Reed Show. Reed dominates the performance, and whether or not you find his personality obnoxious, his clear talent is unavoidable. Elise is fairly solid – though her voice does crack once – and Haley does alright, but her voice is remarkably vanilla. Eben is cute and sweet, but he’s not as remarkable as he once seemed to be, but at the end, he joins the group in scatting and beat boxing, proving that they’re not just singers, they’re truly musical. They carry it, even if their individual voices aren’t that spectacular. All four are moving on.
Richie Law, Jermaine Jones
After MIT kicked Richie out, the two deep-voiced singers couldn’t find groups. But even when they find each other, they have trouble syncing up. Richie once again thinks he’s couldn’t possibly be wrong and blames his vocal coach’s arrangement. Richie’s annoying qualities aside, they managed to pull it together for their performance. Jermaine sings honestly and sweetly and Richie sings like a Kermit the Frog sound-alike who’s watched too many Tim McGraw and Josh Groban videos. The judges love every bit of it – perhaps they were lulled into a happy place but Jermaine’s voice, because Richie sure didn’t have a pleasant effect on me.
Candice Glover, Jessica Sanchez, Deandre Brackensick
The trio sings “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and first up, Jessica, overdoes her performance with overdone vibrato, but she does prove to have a decent set of pipes. Deandre’s falcetto is a little hard to hear at first, but it’s lovely. It would lovelier without that mop, though. Candice is solid and acts as the final piece sending the whole group through to the next round.
But they can’t show every performance, so we learn of a few keepers and departures in rapid fire montaged. Strong singers Hallie Day, Baylie Brown, and Chelsea Sorrell will stick around for another day, while Wayne Wilson, Ashley Robles, Stephanie Renae, Aubrey Deickmeyer, Tonya Torrez, and Janelle Arthur are all sent home. But the Day 1 folks learn that at the end of Day 2, they’ll all be brought in for a second round of sudden cuts. Get ready for tears.
Scott Dangerfield, Clayton Farhat, Adam Lee Decker, Curtis Cray
These guys were a lot of fun, in their matching little “Jailhouse Rock” 50s ne’er-do-well get-ups, but it was obvious that the talent wasn’t even across the board. Clayton had fun by the was a little thin and Scott and Adam are the strongest. Curtis was sharp, Jennifer points out that he didn’t make use of dynamics. Curtis is out and while they’re nice as a group, none of them really stand out, vocally or personality-wise.
Jessica Phillips, Brittnee Kellogg, Courtney Williams
These over-confident ladies don’t practice with the band or vocal coaches because they sing for a living, so they don’t “need” the help. They delve into “Keep Me Hanging On” and immediately, Courtney has irregular switches between falcetto and vibrato. Jessica attempts a similar feat but with less risk. Randy calls it “A little much” – and that’s putting it lightly. The judges say both Courtney and Jessica took risks that didn’t pay off. I think that’s more true for Courtney than Jessica. Brittnee and Courtney make it through by some miracle and Jessica is sent home. I’m sorry but were we listening to the same thing? Courtney should be on the road right now. But Jessica is a poor loser, saying that she’s a real artist and calling out people who aren’t real artists, bashes the TV show saying she doesn’t care about it, she only cares about a recording contract. We loved Jessica and felt for her story, but unsportsmanlike behavior is not helping us feel badly for her.
Lauren Gray, Mathenee Treco, Wendy Taylor
This trio clashes hard with their vocal coach, causing her to make a reference to A League of Their Own which seems to do little more than confuse everyone. Lauren is losing her voice, the vocal coach is merciless, but that’s probably for the best. They sing “Will You Still Love Me” and Lauren does well, though it certainly sounds like she’s sick. Mathenee is good, but why are all of his solos in falcetto? That’s not a good way to show off. They cut Mathenee.
Jairon Jackson, Neco Starr, Phil Phillips, Heejun Han
Some Idol genius paired Heejun with Peggy Blue, but she’s actually sweet with him. Their little tete-a-tete is the best part of the coaching bits. “You were scary last year, what’s up with that?” “You’re sweet.” “You’re sweet too…now.” Isn’t that just adorable? And the reason Peggy was so nice is because the group just clicked. Neco’s performance is lovely. Heejun delivers a nice solo, but lacks his usual fire. And Phil actually has to sing sweetly – something he never really does, but he pulls it off. And it’s likable. Peggy actually gets a shout out – what planet is this? Randy messes with them, calls them forward one by one and then phrases the final verdict as if they’re cut. But duh, they all make it through. My favorite jokester lives to see another day.
Nick Boddington, Jen Hirsch, Creighton Fraker, Aaron Marcellus
The foursome is still coping with the loss of their old teammate, Reed Grimm, but they still whip out a rousing rendition of “Sealed With a Kiss.” And it would see my opinion of Creighton Fraker is pretty sealed. I liked him a bit more after “What a Wonderful World” but this week he’s back to delivering his voice as 10 shades of overkill. Jen Hirsch once again blows our minds – where has that voice been hiding? And Aaron is consistent as always. Nick is the only one who can’t really compare to the others and he’s sent home. And to be fair, if he’s overshadowed here, he’ll be overshadowed in the bigger competition too.
Also making it through are Caleb Johnson, Joshua Sanders, Joshua Ledet and Shannon Magrane.
Finally, they bring all the contestants on stage to humiliate them. They stand with groups and are eliminated or kept right then and there. It’s so cruel, but they need to get to 40 (they only make it to 42, but next week they have to get down to 24). And the major cuts are: Gabi Carrubba, Schyler Dixon (whose brother made it after JLo forced him to audition), Angie Zeiderman, Candice Glover, Johnny Keyser, Jairson Jackson, and Britnee Kellogg. But how they can keep a subpar singer like Richie around, in light of those cuts, is beyond me.
Next week, it’s the last chance before the top 24 are chosen. Who do you think will make it?