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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Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
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Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Weeks and weeks of speculation and conspiracies and teasing tweets from Nigel Lythgoe have led to this: The final revealing of this year's So You Think You Can Dance Top 20, or as we like to call it in Nigel-world, the illustrious Green Mile episode.
And it was also the 200th episode of SYTYCD! Who ever would've thought we'd get to this point? Not I. Cat wore a sequined nightshirt made out of a bedspread to celebrate.
In the interest of maintaining the suspense for myself, I avoided spoiler lists all week so I could watch Wednesday's episode with bated breath, like the rest of the world. We started the night with 35 dancers, and by the end of the sort-of-live show, there would be 20. The actual selection process was pretaped, but after each member of the Top 20 was revealed, they performed in small groups on the live stage for the first time this season.
Zooey Deschanel was our guest judge on Wednesday. I wish it was Abby Elliott pretending to be Zooey Deschanel as our guest judge, but I digress. I'm sure her presence on this show has nothing to do with the fact that her show is also on Fox and everything to do with the fact that she's a dancing expert. (Judging by her iPhone commercial.)
The Top 35 came from across the country, each with their own unique story, to Hollywood in order to learn their final fates (dun dun dun!). As the hopefuls processed, one by one, from the holding room into the judges' room, Cat pulled a Heidi Klum and asked, "Are they in? Or are they out?" and right off the bat, we learned that Alexa, our tortured Season 8 veteran, was most definitely in. She was the last lady cut last year, and before she even got the good news, we knew that her manufactured redemption story — not to mention all of that precious screen time — would not go to waste. Still, she got points for arriving at the judging episode dressed like Madonna in "Like A Virgin."
Next up was George Lawrence II, a classical dancer who impressed during his first audition in Atlanta but whom we haven't seen since then. I honestly forgot he existed, but he was added to the Top 20 anyway, as was Will Thomas, who barely even got an intro package.
Megan Branch was the first person cut, but it's okay because I didn't remember her, or Colin Fuller, who was also cut.
Amber Jackson is yet another SYTYCD veteran who was cut during the Season 7 Green Mile episode. Adam Shankman told her it was a strong field of contemporary dancers, and after butchering a moment of would-be suspense, he told her she was one of them. Congrats!
And back to the live show we went! The newest members of the Top 20 gave us the first group performance of the season, choreographed by Tyce Diorio to an acoustic version of "We Found Love" by Jessie J. Interesting. The routine reminded me a lot of the epic dance scene at the end of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, but maybe I'm just cynical. There was lots of leaping over benches and gliding and frolicking through something that was supposed to resemble a frosty forest.
The judges didn't offer a lot in the way of criticism: Nigel told giant Will that he had to learn to move like someone smaller. He told Amber she had to start believing in herself. He told Alexa she had found her internal light. And he told George that he was a shining beacon of light in the dark.
Mary repeated everything Nigel said, and Zooey commended them for being a team “because if one person messed up … the whole thing … would’ve tumbled out of control.” Because generally, you know, that’s the gist of a group routine.
Back to the Green Mile we went to discover the fate of the three remaining ballroom dancers among the Top 35: That would be BFFs Whitney Carson and Lindsay Arnold, plus Nick Carter (no, no that Nick Carter).
Nick was first up, and he wept through his intro package, telling the viewing audiences that he’s felt like he’s been in the shadows his whole life and he’s finally ready to emerge. Once he got in front of the judges, the waterworks began again, creating some profound awkwardness as the judges stared at him blankly. Then, Tyce broke the good news — he was in! — and Nick collapsed in a new heap of tears.
Cat sent Whitney and Lindsay into the judges’ room together, which prompted lots of unbearable and affected squealing from both of them and also eradicated any suspicion that either of them would be eliminated. Mary told them the judges were looking for one ballroom girl, but golly gee, they all adored both girls! What a conundrum. They tried to pull a fast one by admitting Whitney first and then belatedly inviting both ladies to join the Top 20, but I don’t even think Lindsay was faked out.
The ballroomers performed to “Dance Again” (what would a Fox show be without a little JLo?), and it honestly seemed under-rehearsed and a little frantic, but it was still more entertaining than the forest-prance from earlier. Mary was so impressed that she had to fan down Nigel, and then Zooey told Nick she feared for his life as he attempted to contend with the two “firecrackers” onstage with him. Nigel, tragically, wasn’t given an opportunity to speak.
Back to Green Mile we went to learn the fates of the three classical dancers. The girl, Eliana, was up first, but she looks so much like Brittany Murphy pre-makeover in Clueless that it was hard to focus on what she was saying. After she was added to the Top 20, it was time to decide between the two boys, both of whom make careers of dancing: There’s David Baker, otherwise known as the Australian version of Sean from The Bachelorette, and Chehon, who was repeatedly told during Vegas Week that he needed to loosen up.
Nigel told the two of them that they put the judges in a quandary: They couldn’t decide whether to choose consistency or flashes of sheer brilliance. But just like they did with the ballroom girls, the judges tried to fake out the boys and ended up putting both of them through.
Next: A life performance straight out of Riverdance.In their live performance, Eliana wore a tutu made of shards of glass and the boys wore nothing but tights, and there were lots of bass-enhanced flashing lights that made a slow-starting routine come alive into something almost Riverdance-y. That’s a compliment.
They got a standing O from the judges, and Mary called Eliana a ballet warrior and didn’t say anything about the boys, instead choosing to WOOOO at them excessively.
The two jazz dancers were up next at the Green Mile, and it would be Tiffany versus Audrey, who look so much alike that it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart when they’re talking. You might remember Audrey, however, as the girl who makes farting noises with her arm, which helps.
They faced the judges separately, and when Tiffany got the good news and then reentered the holding room squealing and screaming, Audrey looked positively ill. But have no fear! She made it, too, which led me to wonder whether the judges actually planned on cutting anyone during Wednesday’s episode.
And they would! They cut a girl named Abigail and three other ladies, all of whom went unseen and unheard in Vegas.
Then it was time for Janelle Isis, who was gunning to become the first-ever belly-dancer in the SYTYCD Top 20. Obviously, she made it — but not just because she’s the front-runner to become the judges’ pet. She’s one of the only dancers I’ve remembered every week. Not only is she unique, but she’s captivating to watch, and she also bumped her head on the doorframe as she left the judges’ room, which solidified her awesomeness.
Janelle didn’t perform on the live show because she fell mysteriously ill, and instead, Audrey and Tiffany dressed as Na’vi and performed to “Sail,” which you might remember was Chehon’s audition song. Zooey told them they were amazing and that the choreography was incredible (it was — good job, Sonya!) and she commended the ladies for not trying to upstage each other. She then referred to Tiffany as “embodied,” which I’m pretty sure isn’t an adjective.
The second hour of the 200th show began with Joshua Alexander, who you may remember as the guy who attempted a back-flip backstage before the final solos in Vegas and landed flat on his back before being whisked off in an ambulance. The judges told him they thought he was very good and were glad he could stand again, but he wouldn’t be part of the Top 20. Thanks for the closure, though. After Joshua, Blake, Jasmine and Daniel were also cut.
Matthew Kazmierczak was immediately admitted to the Top 20, and then it was judgment time for Dareian Kujawa, the guy who earned the terrible-feet decree from Nigel during his first audition. Apparently, he “softened his bricks” enough to advance in the competition.
Then, it was down to three girls, and there were two spots left. Janaya French was first up to visit the judges. She auditioned in L.A. and was told by Nigel that she had everything going for her; during Vegas week, Adam told her that he’d never noticed her before but she really stood out. Still, she seemed to fly under the radar (possibly because 83 percent of all Vegas screen time was afforded to Alexa) and worried she was done for as she waited in the holding room.
But she made it! And that left two girls and one spot: Amelia, the wannabe silent movie actress, versus Jill Johnson, for whom the judges had no complaints but who still seemed dangerously anonymous to those of us watching at home. There was a moment of comedy when, in the midst of their pre-juding interview package with Cat, Janaya burst into the holding room and announced that she made it. Both Amelia and Jill pretended to be happy for her, but their FML expressions were far more telling than their words.
The judges chose Amelia based on “star quality,” and then she, Dareian, Janaya and Matthew performed in something that seemed like a reprise of the opening-number forest dance, though slightly more engaging. They got a standing O, too, and Zooey told them she felt like she was watching a painting. It was at that point that it started to become painful to listen to her speak.
That gave us 17 confirmed finalists and three remaining spots, all of which would go to guys. Among the remaining hopefuls was martial arts-fusion dancer Cole Horibe. As he appeared before the panel, Mary told him she’d never seen anyone like him and he showed virtually no weaknesses, so he got one well-deserved spot. Sadly, that meant tappers Aaron and Zach were cut, making this year’s Top 20 tragically tapper-less.
Steppers Devon McCullough and Brandon Mitchell, both of whom I swear I’ve never seen before even though I’ve watched every episode, entered the judges’ room together, well aware that only one of them would make it out alive. Brandon was the chosen one, but Devon was adorably happy for him, so it wasn’t too sad.
And then we had one spot — one measly spot left — and two dancers: It came down to Cyrus, the super-awesome animator who struggled through much of the choreography during Vegas week, and Feliciano, who seemed to fly through Vegas with flying colors. Why did I feel like Cyrus would be the one to make it through anyway? The star-quality argument, perhaps. And the fact that I’m pretty sure this is the first we’ve seen of Feliciano. And I would be right. I’m pretty happy about it, though, since Cyrus is my unabashed fave.
Cyrus, Brandon and Cole danced a tribute to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game to be held on Fox in July (no, I'm not joking), and aside from the shameless cross-promotion, it was by far the best routine of the night. They all wore mock baseball uniforms, and a PA announcer read cute little bios about them before they started dancing. The part where they broke their bats over their knees was pretty baller, too.
Cyrus didn’t appear to be struggling with the choreography at all, though Cole definitely was the standout — he seemed like the most versatile and the most agile. The whole routine was gimmicky but super cute, and now the date of the All-Star Game (JULY 10 JULY 10 JULY 10) is drilled into my head forevermore.
At the end of the show, we got a performance from all 10 girls, choreographed by Travis Wall and based on the journey of advancing throughout all of the audition rounds to reach the pinnacle. Travis said he threw in a bunch of hard tricks because he was confident the girls could do them, and he wasn't wrong. They floated and arched and leapt their ways back and forth through a giant white door sitting in the middle of the stage, and though the routine was a bit morose on the heels of the awesome baseball-themed number (and a tiny bit cheesy), it was still enjoyable.
Nigel said that the routine flowed and had a lot of body to it, and then Cat asked Zooey if she thought it was ethereal. Zooey didn't know what that meant so she just pulled a Paula Abdul and called them all beautiful.
The Top 10 boys performed a routine choreographed by Sonya, meant to portray "the fight it would take to maintain themselves on the show." Sonya said she loves blood, sweat, and tears, so that is what she tried to evoke. Rawr. She made all of the guys take off their shirts, and despite protests from Will — who felt "jiggly” — Sonya insisted because she wanted all the guys to feel like they had nothing to hide.
Cole must have felt right at home in this routine because it seemed to have a lot of martial arts-influence, and it also had some male-on-male partnering, which was unexpected but made the whole spectacle far more dynamic. As they cut to Sonya aggressively fist-pumping during the applause, I found myself simultaneously amused and terrified.
Nigel told the guys they proved how much athleticism it takes to be a male dancer, and Zooey said, "Wow," and that's pretty much it.
The final routine of the night was a Top 20 party choreographed by Mia Michaels. All of the contestants wore black leotards and Star Trek glasses, and much of the routine involved them standing in a line and, one by one, pushing their glasses on top of their heads. Poetic. It seemed a bit dull and chaotic to me (and confusing, apparently, to Zooey, whose eyes darted nervously as she was forced to applaud), but the judges were too enthralled with Mia Michaels to give a critique.
And there you have it, folks. Your Top 20. What did you think of the selections? Is there anyone missing from this crew? Who's your early pick to win?
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