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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"Horror." The label instantly reminds us of the twisted creations filmmakers have whipped up to terrify audiences from the early days of cinema. Vampires, torture chambers, Jason Voorhees, creepy blob creatures — the genre opens the door for a director's imagination to run wild. In turn, the creations do the same to the audience. What's in the closet of that abandoned cabin in the woods? Whatever you're afraid of.
After a scary horror movie, when the spine finally settles from all that tingling, there's a moment of relief. The hey-no-one-really-died-at-the-hands-of-a-knife-fingered-dream-ghost-killer-guy deep breath is the reason why slasher movies, gore fests, and spooky supernatural tales are fun, as opposed to truly terrifying. Genuine horror is achieved when there is no deep breath, which is exactly what makes Compliance 2012's most disturbing, shocking, and gratifying "horror" movie of the year. Craig Zobel sent a shockwave through Sundance when his latest feature played for the first time, evoking such a stirring emotion in its mild-mannered crowd that most write-ups of the film could, initially, only focus on the walkouts and violent criticisms during the Q&A. The immediate response shouted from the crowd was indicative of the general reaction: "Sundance, you can do better!" Compliance doesn't slap audiences with over-the-top, jaw-dropping shocks. Instead, it sticks to ugly truth, forcing people to ask questions about themselves. Really, really, really scary questions.
Based on actual events, Zobel's film chronicles one night at a midwestern fast food joint. The perfect place for a serial killer to trap his victims and pick them off one by one, no? Actually, no. In the case of Zobel's psychological docudrama, the mastermind behind the real life horrors never even steps foot in the restaurant. To work his evil, he just picks up the phone and dials. The film was adapted from a 2004 report in which 18-year-old girl was the victim of several acts of sexual abuse in the backroom of the the Kentucky McDonald's where she worked. The perpetrators were her manager and the manager's fiancee, both acting out orders from a policeman who told them that the teenager reportedly stole money from a customer. The twist: the policeman was no policeman, instead a prankster who called the manager in hopes of convincing her to enact his twisted plan. One would think logic (or better yet, the desperate cries of the teenage victim) would make the manager or fiancee question the "policeman" caller's identity, especially when strip searching becomes involved, but there was never a thought in either person's mind. Obeying the law — no matter how ludicrous — was the number one priority.
Horror films are often an exercise in style, invigorating simple material with flashy camera work or innovative production design to reap the feeling of freshness from viewers all-too-familiar with the tropes. Those recognizable attributes make Compliance difficult to categorize as a horror movie, but that's what it is at its core, albeit one stripped of theatrics. Zobel shoots his adaptation of the events (changing names, places and minor details) like a surgeon; every choice is deeply cinematic, but his restraint never allows it to creep into conventional horror territory. The fear grows organically as the darkest side of human nature is pulled back in three tremendous performers by the film's core trio. Ann Dowd, as the sweet, aging manager Sandra, who just wants to do the right thing from beginning to end. She's blinded by "Officer Daniels'" calm demeanor, the voice of actor Pat Healy, who plays a monster with a soothing voice. The assault on the teenage Becky is a slow, painful burn, actress Dreama Walker (Don't Trust the B) rightfully showing the character's attempts to also comply with the bizarre orders. She's eventually pushed to the tipping point, and the result is devastating.
No one wants to believe that human's possess the ability to do horrible things. In his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo unearthed the potential for regular joes to become instinctually violent, putting 24 university students in the roles of "prisoners" and "guards" and watching their hot-headed personalities culture like ravenous bacteria. The Abu Ghraib torture scandal raised similar questions about the potential of human action, including blunt, big picture inquiries like, "why?" and "how?" Compliance provokes that same line of thinking. It's a challenging film, but an example of the horror film at its best.
The next few months have a lot of potential gems in store for horror buffs, with the wild ghost tale The Possession right around the corner, the haunted house pic Sinister and a fourth Paranormal Activity scheduled for October. But Compliance is a true taste of horror outside-the-box, where that abandoned cabin closet is a real life person, and the terrifying mystery behind what lies behind the door is pure human emotion.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures]
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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.