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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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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A little back story - the Black List is not a “best of” list by any regard. Instead it is referred to as a “most liked” list. Each year Franklin Leonard asks several members of the entertainment industry elite - top agents, managers, executives, people like that - to vote for their favorite unproduced screenplays and each year he publishes the resulting list. Several of your favorite unique movies of the past few years (Juno, 500 Days of Summer, Lars and The Real Girl) appeared on the list and it has helped launch quite a few careers.
Having said that, there is a caveat. While the criteria calls for the screenplay to be “unproduced” several of these works have either been optioned and/or are in production. In fact, a few have already been made. And there have been whispers that some agencies and managers stack the list for their own clients so this is by no means a fair or accurate list. But alas, that’s Hollywood baby.
Anyway, on to the most promising sounding scripts!
College Republicans - Wes Jones. Taking the top spot this year is the true story of Karl Rove running for the presidency of the College Of Republicans under the guidance of Lee Atwater. Rove is one of the most devious little bastards of the American political system in the past two decades. It’ll be interesting to see this story translated to screen. Shia LaBeouf and Paul Dano are loosely attached to the project.
Jackie - Noah Oppenheim. The second place script follows Jackie Kennedy in the immediate week following JFK’s assassination. While the nation mourned the loss of its leader, she mourned the death of her husband...intriguing to say the least. Sounds heartwrenching. Steven Spielberg is on board to executive produce through Amblin, with Rachel Weisz in talks to star.
All You Need is Kill - Dante Harper. Third place goes to the first skeptical inclusion, an adaptation of a graphic novel. Its high ranking somewhat ensures that it is indeed good, but still the fact that it isn’t original isn’t promising. The story follows a soldier in the future who finds himself caught in a time loop after dying on the battlefield. His tactical skills become more concise after each "death". Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) to direct.
999 - Matt Cook. A group of corrupt cops have to shoot a fellow officer in order to get away. How can you not like the sound of that? John Hillcoat to direct, Chris Pine in talks to star.
Margin Call - JC Chandor. Our first produced screenplay! This one stars Kevin Spacey and a gaggle of gifted performers. You’ll be able to see it next year as it premieres at Sundance.
American Bullshit - Eric Warren Singer. Another true story of an FBI sting in the US Congress. This is a perfect example of the unwritten rule of the Black List: if you want your film on it, give its title a little dirty word.
The Last Son of Isaac Lemay - Greg Johnson. An aging outlaw is convinced his children are evil and sets off to kill him. However, his worst fears come to life when he meets his last remaining son. Sounds a lot like Dexter and I’m completely okay with that.
Die in a Gun Fight - Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari. A contemporary take on the Romeo & Juliet tale. This one just had Zac Efron attached to it and has a good chance of getting made.
Imagine - Dan Fogelman. You’ll be seeing this one soon enough with Steve Carell as the son of an aging rockstar discovers the life of his father he never knew existed.
Chronicle - Max Landis. Three teens discovers they have gained superpowers after contact with a mysterious substance in the woods. Things start off all fun and games until they start to turn on each other. Finally! Something not involving politics!
Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch - Brian Duffeld. A guy agrees to be a groomsman for his sister’s wedding only to discover the woman who broke his heart is also a part of the wedding. Why the guy (or the sister for that matter) didn’t see this coming remains to be seen. But again, put a dirty word in your title = recognition.
What Happened To Monday? - Max Botkin. A group of identical septuplets has to investigate the disappearance of one their siblings when the government forces families to only conceive one child due to population overcrowding. The possibilities of this seem amazing and due to the title it seems likely each sibling is named after a day of the week. Go me.
The Butler - Danny Strong. A black butler in the White House services eight US Presidents. Could be Forrest Gump. Could be TMZ. Either way, I’m there.
One Day - David Nicholls. Here’s the official Black List summary, “Dexter and Emma meet for the first time on college graduation day in 1988 and proceed to reunite one day a year for the next 20 years.” Here’s my official reactiong, “Bluuuuurgh.” This one is in post-production with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess starring. Lone Scherfig (An Education) directs.
Murder of a Cat - Christian Magalhars & Robert Snow. A dark comedy about a guy investigating his cat’s death? Why hasn’t this been made sooner?
Can You Keep A Secret - Megan Martin. A woman spills all of her secrets to the stranger on a rough plane ride. Turns out the stranger is the CEO of her company. This logline actually made me laugh out loud. I really hope it gets made.
Cinema Verite - David Seltzer. “Based on the PBS series ‘An American Family,’ cameras follow a family as they go about their daily life.” I’m sorry, I couldn’t make it through that sentence. I had to copy and paste.
The Girl With Something Extra - Terrence Michael. A girl enters high school and suddenly realizes she’s a boy who has been raised his whole life to believe he is a girl? Talk about an awkward first day of gym class.
Ricky Stanicky - Jeff Bushell. Three childhood friends invent someone to take the blame for all of their shenanigans. Eventually their wives demand to meet this person and they hire and actor to play him. Sounds like a Farrelly Brothers movie and I mean that in the most sincere way possible. James Franco is attached.
Zombie Baby - Andy Jones. You don’t need to know anything other than the title. Trust me.
Boy Scouts Vs. Zombies - Carrie Evans & Emi Mochizuko. Again, no other information necessary.
Prom - Katie Wech. “High school students prepare for their prom.” No, seriously. That is all there is to it.
Fucking Jane Austen - Blake Bruns. Again, use a dirty word, get Black Listed. But this one actually lives up to its title. Two men are pissed at Austen for creating unrealistic expectations about love among women (preach it brothers!) so they get sent back in time. Unfortunately the only way for them to get back is to have Jane Austen fall in love and sleep with one of them.
Paint - Brit McAdams. From the list, “A Bob Ross-esque PBS painting show host must fight for his career when his station brings in a rival painting host.” Stop, you had me a Bob Ross-esque.