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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Paramount via Everett Collection
With so many different awards organizations announcing their nominations one after the other, it's difficult to remember how heavily to weigh each one's picks when filling out your Oscar pool sheet. Generally speaking, the BAFTAs are a fairly safe guide when it comes to the Best Picture category. Since 2008, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts has accurately predicted the Academy's top winners, with (even more impressively) only two discrepancies in Best Picture nominations throughout those five years (both in 2012, interestingly enough). Looking at this latest batch of BAFTA's chief nominees — which includes...
American Hustle,Captain Phillips,Gravity,Philomena,and 12 Years a Slave
— we're not especially surprised by any of the films included in as much as we are a bit displaced over the absence of one of this past year's biggest titles: The Wolf of Wall Street. By now, everyone with his ear close to the conversation is predicting that Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is a lock for the Best Picture Oscar, but the consideration rarely comes without honorable mention of Martin Scorsese's Wolf. Still, the satirical picture is far from awards fodder. Called far too "extreme" for the Academy's liking, the 3-hour tour de force of mortifying hedonism would be a far cry from an Oscar even without the competition of 12 Years. Instead, as suggested by BAFTA's list of Best Picture nods, organizations are leaning towards the safer, sweeter, more palatable, less controversial, and effectively less good spiritual counterpart to Wolf of Wall Street: American Hustle.
Hustle is a fine movie all its own — it's fun, dynamic, well-acted, and does indeed feel "lived in." But it falls shy of the artistic reach represented by fellow con man epic Wolf, to which comparisons are inevitable (you can hear a terrific discussion on the matter on the latest episode of Fighting in the War Room). While we'd be hard pressed to deny David O. Russell's funny, campy, emotionally charged picture its due recognition of quality, the choice to nominate it for Best Picture over Wolf of Wall Street seems like a statement of fear: "We don't want to nominate that large, messy, outrageous picture that's got everybody all in a huff," mutters a nervous BAFTA. "But what about the one with the hair? That's sorta like Wolf of Wall Street, but cleaner. Jolly good!"
The choice is a scary one, if only that it suggests the possibility that BAFTA has veered away from Wolf of Wall Street due to the volatility associated with the movie rather than due to the quality therein. By this token, would a few more Armond Whites have robbed 12 Years a Slave of its nomination? How about a few more Neil deGrasse Tysons stealing the nod from Gravity?
Hopefully, the Academy will not emulate this aversion to Scorsese's movie — one that more than deserves mention, and would even take home a few trophies in a just system. Peruse the rest of BAFTA's nominations below (which also, obscenely, omit Her in the Original Screenplay category) and share your thoughts on the matter.
BEST FILM12 YEARS A SLAVE Anthony Katagas, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueenAMERICAN HUSTLE Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan GordonCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De LucaGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, David HeymanPHILOMENA Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward
DIRECTOR12 YEARS A SLAVE Steve McQueenAMERICAN HUSTLE David O. RussellCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Paul GreengrassGRAVITY Alfonso CuarónTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET Martin Scorsese
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAYAMERICAN HUSTLE Eric Warren Singer, David O. RussellBLUE JASMINE Woody AllenGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás CuarónINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Joel Coen, Ethan CoenNEBRASKA Bob Nelson
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY12 YEARS A SLAVE John RidleyBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Richard LaGraveneseCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Billy RayPHILOMENA Steve Coogan, Jeff PopeTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET Terence Winter
LEADING ACTORBRUCE DERN NebraskaCHIWETEL EJIOFOR 12 Years a SlaveCHRISTIAN BALE American HustleLEONARDO DICAPRIO The Wolf of Wall StreetTOM HANKS Captain Phillips
LEADING ACTRESSAMY ADAMS American HustleCATE BLANCHETT Blue JasmineEMMA THOMPSON Saving Mr. BanksJUDI DENCH PhilomenaSANDRA BULLOCK Gravity
SUPPORTING ACTORBARKHAD ABDI Captain PhillipsBRADLEY COOPER American HustleDANIEL BRÜHL RushMATT DAMON Behind the CandelabraMICHAEL FASSBENDER 12 Years a Slave
SUPPORTING ACTRESSJENNIFER LAWRENCE American HustleJULIA ROBERTS August: Osage CountyLUPITA NYONG’O 12 Years a SlaveOPRAH WINFREY The ButlerSALLY HAWKINS Blue Jasmine
OUTSTANDING BRITISH FILMGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman, Jonás CuarónMANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM Justin Chadwick, Anant Singh, David M. Thompson, William NicholsonPHILOMENA Stephen Frears, Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Jeff PopeRUSH Ron Howard, Andrew Eaton, Peter MorganSAVING MR. BANKS John Lee Hancock, Alison Owen, Ian Collie, Philip Steuer, Kelly Marcel, Sue SmithTHE SELFISH GIANT: Clio Barnard, Tracy O’Riordan
OUTSTANDING DEBUT BY A BRITISH WRITER, DIRECTOR OR PRODUCERCOLIN CARBERRY (Writer), GLENN PATTERSON (Writer) Good VibrationsKELLY MARCEL (Writer) Saving Mr. BanksKIERAN EVANS (Director/Writer) Kelly + VictorPAUL WRIGHT (Director/Writer), POLLY STOKES (Producer) For Those in PerilSCOTT GRAHAM (Director/Writer) Shell
FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGETHE ACT OF KILLING Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge SørensenBLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR Abdellatif Kechiche, Brahim Chioua, Vincent MaravalTHE GREAT BEAUTY Paolo Sorrentino, Nicola Giuliano, Francesca CimaMETRO MANILA Sean Ellis, Mathilde CharpentierWADJDA Haifaa Al-Mansour, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
DOCUMENTARYTHE ACT OF KILLING Joshua OppenheimerTHE ARMSTRONG LIE Alex GibneyBLACKFISH Gabriela CowperthwaiteTIM’S VERMEER Teller, Penn Jillette, Farley ZieglerWE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS Alex GibneyANIMATED FILMDESPICABLE ME 2 Chris Renaud, Pierre CoffinFROZEN Chris Buck, Jennifer LeeMONSTERS UNIVERSITY Dan Scanlon
ORIGINAL MUSIC12 YEARS A SLAVE Hans ZimmerTHE BOOK THIEF John WilliamsCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Henry JackmanGRAVITY Steven PriceSAVING MR. BANKS Thomas Newman
CINEMATOGRAPHY12 YEARS A SLAVE Sean BobbittCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Barry AckroydGRAVITY Emmanuel LubezkiINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Bruno DelbonnelNEBRASKA Phedon Papamichael
EDITING12 YEARS A SLAVE Joe WalkerCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Christopher RouseGRAVITY Alfonso Cuarón, Mark SangerRUSH Dan Hanley, Mike HillTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET Thelma Schoonmaker
PRODUCTION DESIGN12 YEARS A SLAVE Adam Stockhausen, Alice BakerAMERICAN HUSTLE Judy Becker, Heather LoefflerBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Howard CummingsGRAVITY Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne WoodlardTHE GREAT GATSBY Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn
COSTUME DESIGNAMERICAN HUSTLE Michael WilkinsonBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Ellen MirojnickTHE GREAT GATSBY Catherine MartinTHE INVISIBLE WOMAN Michael O’ConnorSAVING MR. BANKS Daniel Orlandi
MAKE UP & HAIRAMERICAN HUSTLE Evelyne Noraz, Lori McCoy-BellBEHIND THE CANDELABRA Kate Biscoe, Marie LarkinTHE BUTLER Debra Denson, Beverly Jo Pryor, Candace NealTHE GREAT GATSBY Maurizio Silvi, Kerry WarnTHE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Peter Swords King, Richard Taylor, Rick Findlater
SOUNDALL IS LOST Richard Hymns, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, Micah Bloomberg, Gillian ArthurCAPTAIN PHILLIPS Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro, Oliver TarneyGRAVITY Glenn Freemantle, Skip Lievsay, Christopher Benstead, Niv Adiri, Chris MunroINSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Peter F. Kurland, Skip Lievsay, Greg OrloffRUSH Danny Hambrook, Martin Steyer, Stefan Korte, Markus Stemler, Frank Kruse
SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTSGRAVITY Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould, Nikki PennyTHE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric ReynoldsIRON MAN 3 Bryan Grill, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Dan SudickPACIFIC RIM Hal Hickel, John Knoll, Lindy De Quattro, Nigel SumnerSTAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton, Patrick Tubach, Roger Guyett
BRITISH SHORT ANIMATIONEVERYTHING I CAN SEE FROM HERE Bjorn-Erik Aschim, Friederike Nicolaus, Sam TaylorI AM TOM MOODY Ainslie HendersonSLEEPING WITH THE FISHES James Walker, Sarah Woolner, Yousif Al-Khalifa
BRITISH SHORT FILMISLAND QUEEN Ben Mallaby, Nat LuurtsemaKEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES Megan Rubens, Michael Pearce, Selina LimORBIT EVER AFTER Chee-Lan Chan, Jamie Stone, Len RowlesROOM 8 James W. Griffiths, Sophie VennerSEA VIEW Anna Duffield, Jane Linfoot
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
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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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
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.