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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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
The Doctor Who Christmas special is an institution. The holiday isn't quite complete until you snap your family out of their food comas and drag them in front of the television to visit with the guy who really knows if you've been naughty or nice this year. This year's episode will be a rough one, as we'll say goodbye to Matt Smith, but we're sure he'll have a worthy send-off. How do the other modern Who specials stand against each other? We've ranked them for you.
8. "The Next Doctor" (2008)
Yes, Walking Dead fans, that is the Governor. It's really too bad he was stuck in this ho-hum Tenth Doctor adventure which we almost always skip during the Christmas Day marathon.
7. "The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe" (2011)
The Eleventh Doctor plays Father Christmas to a war widow who's trying to give her children one last happy holiday before she tells them their father is dead. "Because what's the point in them being happy now if they're going to be sad later. The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later." Merry Christmas, everybody!
6. "The Runaway Bride" (2006)
We get a preview of the fabulous fourth season when the Tenth Doctor meets certified queen Donna Noble on the day of her wedding. He saves her from marrying a slave to a giant alien spider; she sasses him at every opportunity.
5. "A Christmas Carol" (2010)
Eleven helps mean old scrooge Michael Gambon access his feelings — and accidentally gets engaged to Marilyn Monroe — while Rory and Amy are relegated to a subplot on a crashing ship. Some Time Lords have all the fun.
4. "Voyage of the Damned" (2007)
This is what a Doctor Who Christmas should be. Goofy, over-the-top, melodramatic, and packed with weird looking aliens, the ghost of Kylie Minogue, and finally — a guy named Alonso. And for bonus points, David Tennant wearing the hell out of a tux.
3. "The End of Time" (2009)
If you like a little angst with your eggnog, then we've got just the episode for you. It's the Tenth Doctor's farewell tour. And while it's not easy to watch, it's a tour-de-force in all aspects, especially his scenes with Wilf (Bernard Cribbins). Goodbye, Ten. We don't want you to go either.
2. "The Snowmen" (2012)
There's a TARDIS in the clouds, you guys. It's magical.
1. "The Christmas Invasion" (2005)
The 2013 special promises to be slicker than ever, but there's something so charming and comforting about "The Christmas Invasion" and its arts-and-crafts effects. (Remember the spinning tree?) And in his first full episode, Tennant endears himself instantly to a slew of skeptical fans who were assured that yes, this was still their Doctor.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
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What's that? You say these guys are box-office poison? Guess again. Even though they were scratched off the Hollywood A-list a while ago, these names still mean something in places such as Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. And if you'd dropped in here at the weeklong American Film Market, or AFM, wrapping up today, you'd realize that being big in the Netherlands might not be glamorous, but it's nothing to sneeze at.
Case in point: Jeff Fahey.
You might remember Fahey from his supporting roles in movies such as "Silverado" and "Wyatt Earp," or maybe even "The Lawnmower Man." But you might not know that Fahey is a certifiable movie star overseas, top-billed in dozens of thrillers and action films (search the Net and you'll find numerous Web sites paying homage to the hard-working actor). Strolling through the hallways of the Loews Hotel, where distributors at the AFM hawk their wares, you'd have seen posters for some of his latest: "The Sculptress," "Blind Heat" (co-starring the venerable Maria Conchita Alonso) and "Epicenter."
"Jeff's got a lot of movies out there right now," says Anthony J. Lyons, vice president of IFM Film Associates, an Aussie company based in Los Angeles that makes movies for $1 million to $3 million. "He's an internationally known actor, and he's not too expensive to get. Rather than charge $200,000 for one movie, he might charge you $50,000, but he'll get 20 movies instead of two. These days you need known actors to sell your films overseas, and Jeff is a good value."
How many times have you heard an actor praised as a "good value?" Money talks at the AFM, and Fahey is a favorite son here because his films fall into those tried-and-true genres (action movies, thrillers, lowbrow comedy, T-and-A, horror/sci-fi) that cross cultural and language barriers. These kinds of movies appeal to the dozens of international distributors who come here each year looking for stuff to buy. Films that will go straight to video or cable TV in the United States (that is, if they are released here at all) but can pull in a nice chunk of change in overseas markets.
The foreign rights to about 350 movies were up for grabs at this year's AFM, and an estimated $400 million in deals were made. Not all the films represented were of the low-budget, guns-and-car-crashes, monsters-and-scantily-clad-babes variety. TFI International was peddling foreign rights to "The Golden Bowl," the forthcoming Merchant-Ivory production starring Uma Thurman and Anjelica Huston; the new Roland Joffe movie "Vatel," with Thurman, Gerard Depardieu and Tim Roth, was also advertised, as was "Brother," the new movie from Japanese director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano.
But it was loads more fun to troll the market for the wreckage of once-thriving acting careers. There was Judge Reinhold from the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies, heading up a slam-bang actioner called "Crackerjack 2: Hostage Train," from North American Releasing. Reinhold plays Jack Wild -- no, not the guy from H.R. Pufnstuf -- a "rogue cop with a mission ... obsessed with capturing the notorious Hans Becker, a '60s-style Red Brigade type who has transformed himself into a '90s-style terrorist for hire," or so says publicity materials from the production. The film co-stars Michael Sarrazin as the bad guy. (Curiously, Reinhold did not appear in "Crackerjack 1," nor is he in the forthcoming "Crackerjack 3." Really.)
Other blasts from the past who have become AFM stalwarts include Steve Guttenberg, who gets the Most Interesting Title award for his directorial debut, "P.S. Your Cat is Dead!" Guttenberg is billed by the film's backers as the "acclaimed star of several billion dollars worth of top box-office and critical winners." Elsewhere, another company was dealing a different Guttenberg film, "Second Chance," a comedy with an all-star lineup of Pauly Shore, Robert Wagner and Tim Conway (no word, however, if Conway did the film in his ever-popular "Dorf" disguise).
If the definition of celebrity is skewed a bit in the films paraded here, the same can be said for the event itself. The American Film Market isn't a film festival -- there are no awards ceremonies, no paparazzi stampedes, and although there are premieres, they don't include big red-carpet entrances for celebrities.
It's not unusual for workaday actors such as Eric Roberts or Gary Busey to show up and do a little press for one of their films here, and they can walk through the hotel without being hassled. And you don't hear about wild antics on the after-hours party scene here. This is about as racy as it gets: One night last week, Jamie Kennedy (the film geek from the "Scream" films) got lost while walking around in search of the buyers' party for "The Specials," his new low-budget superhero comedy -- and he had to ask a bystander for directions.
"I've been to a few festivals before, but I've never been to something quite like this, which is pure marketing," said "Star Trek" actor George Takei, who was here promoting an as-yet unmade sci-fi film, "Overload," made by and starring a crew of former child actors including Tony Dow ("Leave It To Beaver") and Bill Mumy ("Lost in Space"). "But I know what the rules of the game are. I'm here to help sell the movie, which is something I never did with 'Star Trek.'"
If they ever hand out a lifetime achievement award to an actor at the AFM, it should probably go to Karen Black, the veteran of "Five Easy Pieces," "Nashville," "Airport 1975" and other 1970s classics who still works constantly, albeit in the relative obscurity of low-budget offerings, including many titles up for grabs at the market in recent years.
Black does it all -- from children's films ("Malaika," a movie about an elephant), to boring dramas about people over 40 ("The Donor," with David Carradine) and soft-core stuff (such as "Dinosaur Valley Girls," a movie from a few years back, in which she wore a loincloth) -- which makes her a fine role model for some of the other actresses such as Jasmine Guy, Carol Alt and Tahnee Welch following in her footsteps at the market.
"Karen is making a comeback, believe it or not," said Eric Louzil, president of RHG/Lions Share Pictures, which is peddling an independent film called "Oliver Twisted," in which Black stars. "... I've seen her name in quite a few films lately. She's quite a talent."
And at the AFM, a little talent goes a long way.