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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Minor spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises follow.
When Christopher Nolan decided to take the filming of his final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, to downtown Manhattan in late 2011, he opened Pandora’s Box. At that moment, the location was synonymous with one of the biggest grassroots movements our country has seen in the last decade: Occupy Wall Street. Months later, the first major trailer landed, featuring Selina Kyle (Anne Hathway) whispering “A storm is coming … you’re going to wonder how it is that you lived so large for so long and didn’t leave enough for the rest of us” in Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) ear, scenes of violence in the streets, and the stock market flashed intermittently. Suddenly, The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t simply the epic conclusion to a series we’ve all followed rabidly; it was a direct commentary on the OWS movement — reality of the story’s actual origins in the French Revolution be damned. Out of that apparently inescapable connection comes a confounding question: where does Batman stand? Is he the 99 or one percent?
By now, most of us know consciously that the film’s premise and OWS are independent of each other and in truth, any real connection between the two movements dies with revolutionary Bane’s penchant for violence and mayhem. Perhaps that’s why Nolan has worked so hard to express that the film is not in any way associated with the movement, instead pointing to its roots in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Equating Bane’s upheaval to the OWS movement in the real world would be an unflattering comparison, a sentiment Occupy Chicago activist Michael Ehrenreich shares. He tells Hollywood.com, “As far as OWS is concerned, [Nolan] seems to regard populist uprising negatively, judging by the reaction of Catwoman to the excesses of the ‘revolution' and the kangaroo court Cillian Murphy presides over … It's hard to tell where the Nolan brothers' political allegiances lie, but it's hard to see a positive portrayal of OWS in this film.”
But the film isn’t actually making any comment on the real-life movement. As TDKR producer Michael E. Uslan says, “The film is emotionally impactful and thematically important.” It’s not aimed at any specifics of modern U.S. politics. But while filmmakers have reiterated that fact time and again, the echo is hard to silence. That’s because none of us can avoid the fact that the issues of both the film and the OWS movement are unavoidably connected.
“Nolan directly confronts the issue of income inequality, corporate malfeasance and, to a small extent, police overreach,” says Ehrenreich. “We all know that the script was written and most of the principal footage was shot before the outbreak of OWS, but these are ongoing political questions, especially since the 2008 crash,” he adds. While the film drops its big ideas when Batman eventually saves the day in a blaze of assumed martyrdom, Nolan’s film weighs those political and social questions. We encounter the notion of Gotham’s inhospitable environment nurturing a new class of desperate, downtrodden criminals, forced to formulate their plan below the city streets in the sewer system. These unfortunate souls join the ranks of Bane’s revolution forcing us, the audience, to contemplate the society circumstances that led them there. We find a shiny politician Harvey Dent being wrongfully upheld and memorialized in order to promote his act, which wills Gotham into a police state and eschews the usual due process in order to eradicate crime.
The film also offers up the larger question of pursuit of wealth versus humanity, showing characters who seek nothing more than money as weak pawns in Bruce Wayne’s, Selina Kyle’s, and Bane’s plans. Bane even responds to a Wayne Industries board member’s cry that he paid him “a lot of money” with the retort, “And this gives you power over me?”
To some extent, the film upholds the starry notion of achieving the American Dream, the childlike idea of being all that we can be. When Bruce makes the impossible climb out of the subterranean prison, Selina finally manages to wipe her slate clean and live happily with Bruce. We also see it to some extent when Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes his meteoric rise from former orphan and police peon to Batman’s successor rising up into the Batcave.
But a proliferation of thematic and topical similarities doesn’t necessarily create a bridge between OWS and TDKR. Professor Bryan Waterman of New York University, who specializes in New York literature and history including Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, says that while the connection seems obvious, it’s actually a stretch. “Conservatives will make the same easy connection and think Bane represents Occupy. But even though the scenes of police clashing with scraggly punks on Wall Street may bring up recent memories of similar events, Bane’s crowd resembles OWS even less than Gotham’s virtuous police force under attack resembles the NYPD.”
To be fair to those who might find contemporary issues in the plot, the events in Gotham and Batman as a character have always been difficult to get a definite read on, especially in Nolan’s complex film series. “The Nolan movies don’t offer any easy political readings … Starting as he does from a question that takes the Batman legend seriously — What does it mean to make a mentally damaged hero a figure of American justice? — the film led to all sorts of conflicting readings of Nolan's hero,” says Waterman.
In the weeks after The Dark Knight was released, Batman/Bruce Wayne endured a bevy of theories about his political stance. His ominous sonar/wire-tapping device encroached on the privacy of an entire city, but he created it in order to stop the Joker. Could this be a metaphor defending George W. Bush for his tactics in executing his war on terror? Similarly, it’s Batman’s decision to uphold Dent in the public eye, which then provides a foundation for the Dent Act in The Dark Knight Rises, which in turn makes Gotham into a police state. By this logic, Batman is a de facto advocate for tighter government control, yet he operates outside of it. So, can Bruce Wayne be a strictly conservative hero? Do his methods make him a symbol of the wealthy and powerful?
Not necessarily. Wayne treads a very murky line between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. On one hand, he’s born into privilege but he’s robbed of his parents as a young boy, thus struggling to adulthood as an orphan. The character, especially in TDKR, serves as both a benefactor and supporter of the culture of wealth within Gotham and a beacon of hope to the young displaced boys at the St. Swithin’s home, including grown orphan John Blake.
Political blogger Jim Newell has an idea about why this back and forth is so difficult. “It’s hard to look at the politics of superheroes because superheroes, in general, are very illiberal. The solution to problems is never having people organize and find out solutions democratically. It’s always about turning power over to one sovereign who solves it himself, so it’s very paternalistic,” he says. It’s true, Nolan’s Batman operates under the notion that he’s “whatever Gotham needs me to be,” but it’s largely Batman who’s deciding what it is Gotham needs and it’s his wealth and resources that determine the outcome. It’s a problem Ehrenriech sees with the hero as well. “Batman represents the belief that we need elites, that we need representatives, that we depend on the rich and powerful,” he says.
But despite the criticism that Batman puts us in a situation of deferring the solutions to a few members of the wealthy elite, he still has the super human trait that helps to serve as the great equalizer: his humanity. “Nolan’s Gotham is so real … we believe in this man [Bruce Wayne] and we believe in this city,” says Uslan. Bruce’s constant inner conflict and his desire to do good amid his wealth of multidirectional traits creates a unique phenomenon for those looking to dissect the hero. “He’s a blank slate … we project our viewpoints onto Batman,” says Uslan.
We see this in both film and comic form in Frank Miller’s 1980’s revival of the Dark Knight. Batman occupies a space that’s not as easy to situate in a socio-political context. On one hand, he upholds the notion of tight control and regulation in the city of Gotham, policing its streets through heavy surveillance and excessive force. He’s a seeming advocate of tight municipal control. On the other hand, he’s strongly against gun violence — a reaction to his parents being killed at gunpoint — and he operates outside of the city governments laws, acting as a vigilante when governmental measures prove ineffective. His acts are in some ways selfish, as many Gothamites see him as the instigator of the dangers that plague the city while others insist he’s simply brave enough to fight against the wave of crime and fear in Gotham that most of the public has accepted as part of the immovable landscape.
Batman complicates his position a bit further in The Dark Knight Rises when he loses his fortune, essentially joining the 99 percent. He finds himself in a prison lodged deep below the earth’s surface, with a tower he must conquer with only his personal might and perseverance in order to regain his position as Gotham’s savior and Dark Knight. (If that’s not a metaphor, I’m not sure what is.) In that respect, while his inherited wealth is technically what got him to this point, it’s his own blood, sweat, and tears that allow him to truly earn back the position and act as a savior.
If these elements add up to anything, it’s that Batman’s not a character that actually fits into one category or the other, and if his constant bouts of self-doubt and reflection are any indication, even he’s not sure where he fits in the grand scheme of things: the only part of his character that we can really hone in on his humanity. Thus, our interpretations are bound to be determined by our own views as we process the idea of the caped hero.
While he is not easily categorized, Batman/Bruce Wayne does feel more real than many of our other fictional, flying saviors. Perhaps that’s why we strive to find so much political significance in his adventures. However, just as Bane’s revolution is more of a thug’s anarchic initiative than a reference to OWS, Batman is not a hero for one side or the other, but rather the hero for the occasion. His millions do not make him a member of the one percent any more than his status as an orphan makes him a member of the oppressed 99 percent. He is as he promises, simply “the hero we need him to be.”
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler.
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
In quasi-celebrity news today, Britain's Prince William -- who's famous 'cause he was, well, born -- joins the rank of really, really rich men today, turning 18. Wills previously was among the ranks of really, really rich boys.
The object of popster's Britney Spears' affections will mark his birthday at school -- taking exams at Eton College.
William is the son of the late Princess Diana, who was famous because she was, you know, so fashionable, and Prince Charles, who's famous because he was, well, born.