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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In just about every one of Kevin Hart's scenes in Ride Along, there's a joke that is just aching to find its way out of the diminutive, rascally comic actor. Hart is a small-scale physical comedian — of the same ilk as Jack Black — who puts nuclear-degree energy into his facial contortions, anatomical outbursts, and the delivery of every gag in general. If only he had material that was crafted with the same energy.
Unfortunately, nothing else about Ride Along seems at all "hard at work." Not the script, which pads a lifeless story with lazy comedy, and certainly not his screen partner Ice Cube, whose only stage direction seems to be "frown, and be taller than Kevin Hart." So lifeless is Ice Cube that even his machismo-obsessed straight man bit doesn't really work. Instead of the virile and intimidating "bad cop," he comes off as a disapproving middle aged dad without much to show for his own life.
But the script pairs the wily, overzealous high school security guard and video game junkie Ben (Hart) with no-nonsense lawman James (Ice Cube) on the titular ride along, with the scrappy cop-wannabe hoping to prove to the force veteran that he's good enough to marry the latter's younger sister. In earnest, he's not. Ben never puts any respectable effort into learning the tools of the trade, insisting on employing his amateur style and controlling the radio despite his proclamations that he wants, and deserves, James' trust. And James is no saint either — he's irresponsible on crime scenes, violent with perps, and disgruntled to the point of being unable to work with anybody else on the force. These are not good police officers... of course, you'll say, this is a comedy. But where are the laughs, then?
They're not absent entirely, you just have to look for them. In a movie so focused with big, broad humor, it's the smaller comedy that actually lands best. Hart's background mutterings and fumblings, his emoticon-laden texts to girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter, whose only stage direction seems to be "smile, and never wear a full outfit of clothing"), and a bizarre repetition of the word "weird" from supporting player John Leguizamo. All good for unexpected chuckles, while jokes like Hart facing off with a pre-teen or being blown backwards into a brick wall after firing a large gun are all lazy, familiar, and flat.
Structurally, the script is a mess. Ride Along spends far too much time on set up — we get it, Hart and his soon-to-be-brother-in-law Ice Cube don't get along — and far too much time on wrap-up — there's a gigantic, dramatic warehouse shootout that, in any other movie, would be the climax, but there's plenty more to go after that — without any cohesive middle to make the movie feel like... a movie.
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Hart, who leaps at every comic opportunity like a kangaroo (wallaby would be more appropriate), is suited just right for a buddy cop comedy, but he needs something fresh with which to work — a real character, an interesting story, actually funny jokes. Even just one of these would be fine!
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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
Oh, the horror of it all.
No one wants to get all mushy at Halloween. We want to cover our eyes at the terrifying sight of zombies slurping on fresh brains and ax-wielding maniacs slicing and dicing promiscuous teens.
Unfortunately for those with a dislike for boy bands, no such homicidal lunatics threaten to dismember 'N Sync's Lance Bass and Joey Fatone, the stars of the romantic comedy On the Line. And Kevin Spacey may present himself as an alien in K-PAX, but he's just as cute and cuddly as E.T. So don't expect costar Jeff Bridges--as Spacey's psychiatrist-- to sire any gut-busting baby Martians.
Shred counter-programming? Or ill-fated endeavors?
Probably the latter.
Like Labor Day, Halloween is not known for generating huge box office results. Indeed, 1994's Stargate holds the Halloween opening weekend record with $16.6 million.
This year might be different, given that many parents are reluctant to take their kids trick or treating in light of recent anthrax-related events.
Still, Spacey and Bridges do not qualify as major draws. Spacey's 2000's Pay It Forward settled for a weak $9.6 million during its pre-Halloween opening. The sugary drama found itself preaching to the converted as it eventually made a modest $33.5 million. The Mirror Has Two Faces gave Bridges his best opening in years, but its $12.2 million tally ranked as a disappointment for a Barbra Streisand vanity project.
'N Sync's popularity--still strong, but waning--won't assist On the Line. The romance, starring Bass as an adman who spots the girl of his dreams on Chicago's L train, arrives at a modest 820 theaters. Distributor Miramax clearly sees no appeal for On the Line beyond the adolescent girls still hung up on the prefab five. Bass also has the misfortune to follow Mariah Carey's starring debut, Glitter, which earned a less-than-melodious $2.4 million at 1,202 theaters during its opening weekend.
This means that audiences will no doubt head to theaters looking for a good fright. No. 1 champ From Hell, though, faces frightful competition from 13 Ghosts, a remake of the old William Castle chiller from producers Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver. Castle obviously remains an inspiration to the producers, who remade his The House on Haunted Hill in 1999 and scared up $40.8 million for their trouble. If 13 Ghosts scores, can we soon expect Zemeckis and Silver to resurrect The Tingler?
Like The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts unleashes ghoul after ghoul upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of a uniquely constructed home. In this case, Tony Shalhoub, Shannon Elizabeth and Matthew Lillard fend off the ghosts that terrorize a house made out of glass. Zemeckis and Silver employed the same formula with The House on Haunted Hill--special effects over star power-and enjoyed a $15.9 million opening.
What worked for The House on Haunted Hill will likely work for 13 Ghosts. That leaves Johnny Depp's From Hell in a precarious position. The Hughes Brothers' stylish but strained Jack the Ripper thriller carved up just $11 million in its opening weekend, with its total standing at $13.8 million through Wednesday. That bests the openings for two other Depp horror misfires, The Astronaut's Wife and The Ninth Gate. But if interest remains slight, then From Hell may not earn much more than the $30 million that Depp's Sleepy Hollow generated in its opening weekend in 1999.
From Hell also receives a slight threat from Bones, a ghost story marking rapper Snoop Dogg's starring debut. Bones opened Wednesday with $431,000 million in only 800-plus theaters, but Snoop Dogg's presence should guarantee initial interest from those who like nothing better than kicking it back with some "Gin and Juice." Bones dig up about $3 million this weekend.
Snoop Dogg's pretty busy these days. He enjoys a brief but memorable cameo as a wheelchair-bound crack dealer in Training Day. The gritty good-cop-vs.-corrupt-cop saga continues to arrest audiences, having made $59.2 million through Wednesday.
MGM's assertion that Bandits was a victim of anthrax-related threats doesn't seem to hold much weight these days. The critically acclaimed heist yarn, starring Bruce Willis and directed by Barry Levinson, tumbled from $13 million during its opening weekend to $8.3 million last weekend. Its total is $26.5 million through Wednesday. Once one of fall's highly touted offerings, Bandits may end up as something of a disappointment for all concerned. Bandits certainly won't surpass the $57.2 million that Willis' other crime caper, The Whole Nine Yards, made last year.
Riding In Cars With Boys, a dramatic detour for Drew Barrymore, overcame negative reviews to make $10.4 million last weekend and a total $12.4 million through Wednesday. That's more than the $10.5 million that Home Fries--also featuring Barrymore as an unwedded mother-to-be--earned in November 1998. Yet it's no match for such Barrymore comedies as The Wedding Singer and Never Been Kissed. Riding In Cars With Boys should match or slightly exceed the $23.4 million that her Boys on the Side made in 1996. And it also could mark director Penny Marshall's third consecutive box office disappointment, following Renaissance Man and The Preacher's Wife.
Apathy greeted Robert Redford's return to prison, with The Last Castle earning $7 million last weekend and a total $8.6 million through Wednesday. In contrast, Brubaker, starring Redford as a reform-minded prison warden, made $37.1 million in 1980. The Rod Lurie-directed military drama looks set to make a little more than the $17.8 million that his The Contender made last year. Redford will no doubt experience a better response to this month's Spy Game. Of course, it helps that his costar is another golden boy, Brad Pitt, and not burly thugs with a penchant for homemade tattoos and the occasional conjugal visit.