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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Here's a feat: taking what is likely the oldest, most well-known story in the world, and making a retelling feel inventive. Over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Darren Aronofsky's Noah takes many forms — Tolkien-esque fantasy, trippy psychological thriller, merciless dissection of the dark points of abject faith — never feeling too rigidly confined to the parameters of the familiar tale that we've all experienced in the form of bedtime stories, religious education lessons, and vegetable-laden cartoons. As many forms as the parable has taken over the past few thousand years, Aronofsky manages to find a few new takes.
The director's thumbprint is branded boldly on Russell Crowe's Noah, a man who begins his journey as a simple pawn of God and evolves into a dimensional human as tortured as Natalie Portman's ballerina or Jared Leto's smack head. Noah's obsession and crisis: his faith. The peak of the righteous descendant of Seth (that's Adam and Eve's third son — the one who didn't die or bash his brother's head in with a rock), Noah is determined to carry out the heavenly mission imparted upon him via ambiguous, psychedelic visions. God wants him to do something — spoilers: build an ark — and he will do it. No matter what.
No matter what it means to his family, to his lineage, to his fellow man, to the world. He's going to do it. No matter what. The depths to which Aronofsky explores this simple concept — the nature of unmitigated devotion — makes what we all knew as a simplistic A-to-B children's story so gripping. While the throughline is not a far cry from the themes explored in his previous works, the application of his Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan ideas in this movie does not feel like a rehashing. Experiencing such modern, humane ideas in biblical epic is, in fact, a thrill-ride.
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Although Aronofsky accesses some highly guttural stuff inside of his title character, he lets whimsy and imagination take hold of the world outside of him. Jumping headfirst into the fantastical, the director lines his magical realm with rock monsters — "Watcher" angels encased in Earth-anchored prisons as punishment for their betrayal of God — and a variety of fauna that range in innovation from your traditional white dove to some kind of horned, scaled dog bastardization.
But the most winning elements of Noah, and easily the most surprising, come when Aronofsky goes cosmic. He jumps beyond the literal to send us coursing through eons to watch the creation of God's universe, matter exploding from oblivion, a line of creatures evolving (in earnest) into one another as the planet progresses to the point at which we meet our tortured seafarer. Aronofsky's imagination, his aptitude as a cinematic magician, peak (not just in terms of the film, but in terms of his career) in these scenes.
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With all this propped against the stark humanity of his story — not just in terms of Crowe's existential spiral, but in character beats like grandfather Methuselah's relationship with the youngsters, in little Ham's playful teasing of his new rock monster pet — Aronofsky manages something we never could have anticipated from Noah. It's scientific, cathartic, humane. Impressively, this age-old tale, here, is new. And beyond that feat, it's a pretty winning spin.
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Holiday movies really are a genre unto themselves. The holiday season functions not merely as a setting for the various Christmas adventures, but instead it actually dominates the narrative and thematic structures of these movies. We adopt a different set of standards and expectations for holiday movies, and as a result, our response to them is unique to any other classification of film. There are so many examples of Christmas movies that one could easily assign them to tiers of varying quality.
So much like that iconic, corpulent elf/toy magnate, we’ve constructed a naughty and nice list respectively celebrating the best and the worst of holiday cinema. Every week this month we will pair one against the other to see if, despite their divergent levels of merit, they share any commonalities. Welcome to Naughty vs. Nice:
Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life
Dir: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers
Plot: A guardian angel is sent to prevent a downtrodden family man from taking his life by showing him what the world would be like if he had never existed.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantastic Christmas movie that often also finds comfortable purchase high on lists of the all time greatest American films. Frank Capra had a knack for cutting straight the emotional and benevolent core of his characters. His films have been criticized as being overly sentimental, and this may be the primary example of his steadfast belief in the capacity for redemption. However, what some may read as quaint, hokey naiveté, truly plays out as crucial optimism for our national identity; especially given the United States was just emerging from World War II.
And yet that admirable optimism harbors a certain timeless quality. In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life is sort of the counter to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Instead of three spirits informing the detestable Mr. Scrooge of what has been and what will be if he does not mend his wicked ways, Clarence reveals to the amiable, but desperate George Bailey of what would never have been. It is impressed upon him that the world would be far worse off without him. In this way, Capra, like Dickens, is extrapolating the true meaning of Christmas into a more universal appraisal of one’s place within their community.
Apart from its stirring cinematography and stellar performances, what It’s a Wonderful Life does is reexamine the concept of the self to find its more intrinsic value. It poses the very audacious notion that perhaps our worth as an individual is measured by the impact we have on our surrounding world. Conversely, Jingle All the Way sees the figurative conception of the self as something that can only truly be enhanced by the acquisition of material possessions, giving the film as fleeting an impression upon cultural consciousness as is insubstantial its central plot.
Naughty: Jingle All the Way
Dir: Brian LeVant
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Jack Lloyd
Plot: Just days before Christmas, a busy dad hunts for the most popular toy on the market; battling the frenzy of last-minute holiday shopping in the hopes of narrowing the slowly growing void between himself and his son.
While no one would argue that 1996’s Jingle All the Way is a quality film on any level, it seems to inexplicably make the rounds on network, and sometimes even cable, television stations every December. In many ways, Jingle All the Way exists on the exact opposite end of the Christmas movie spectrum from It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these films are about fathers who find themselves at the ends of their respective ropes during the holiday season. Both films also deal with the idea of absence. Whereas Stewart is afforded the chance to see what life would have been like were his existence entirely erased, Jingle All the Way centers on a father whose devotion to his career largely removes him from his own son’s life.
Much like Wonderful Life, Jingle All the Way delves in to what it perceives as the true reason for the season. The difference of course is that where Capra’s film sees the meaning of the holiday to be a vital reassessment of one’s place in the world and the importance of family and friends, Jingle All the Way is an unabashed celebration of the commercialization of Christmas. While some may argue the comedy in the film, as Arnold sinks to lower and lower tactics to obtain the hot ticket toy item for this son for Christmas, is actually an indictment of materialism, with its inept writing and lackluster performances, the only thing Jingle All the Way succeeds in satirizing is itself.
The interesting thing about comparing these two films is how they handle the subject of greed. Capra loved to tackle stories about the common man contending with the basic vices often usually broadstroke associated with mankind. The villain of It’s a Wonderful Life is the greedy Mr. Potter who is willing to jeopardize the financial security of an entire town, not to mention frame its favored citizen, just to increase his already considerable wealth. It is the clearest of condemnations of avarice. Jingle All the Way on the other hand treats greed as a natural and all-consuming motivation for mankind. Is it more realistic in that regard? Perhaps, but its refusal to strive for anything more than pessimistic and reductive observations about humanity is at the heart of Jingle’s innumerable shortcomings.
That and, you know, Sinbad.
[Photo Credit: RKO Pictures; 20th Century Fox]
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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.