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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Not too long ago, a small group of filmmakers was responsible for not just some of the best films of its generation but of all time. Today, although its degree of permanence remains to be seen, a similar group of directors is leading the charge, serving up memorable masterpieces both mainstream and indie. While there hasn't been any clear-cut torch passing (since many past greats are still currently releasing movies), there are some obvious connections and influences that are too obvious to ignore between the teachers of yesterday and their disciples of today. Here's how we see it.
Teacher: Steven Spielberg Disciple: J.J. Abrams
In the race to be unofficially crowned the Next Spielberg, Abrams has to be considered the front runner (sorry, Michael Bay, Peter Jackson and a sea of others). Abrams, like Spielberg, will always have sci-fi in his heart – and mass appeal in his brain. It's a sort of dichotomy that virtually no other director can lay claim to, and one that has resulted in not mere projects but “events”: Lost, Star Trek and to a lesser degree, Alias, Mission: Impossible III and Armageddon, the latter of which he co-wrote. With Super 8, a somewhat thinly veiled homage to E.T.-era Spielberg (who fittingly serves as a humongous-name producer), we'll get our best idea yet of just how Spielbergian he can be – and whether or not his last name, too, can be turned into an adjective.
Teacher: Martin Scorsese Disciple: David Fincher
Scorsesephiles might cry blasphemy with this comparison (“You're mentioning the Benjamin Button guy and the greatest living director in the same sentence? Umm, die?”), but to be clear, we're not anointing Fincher the “next” … anything; that'd be unfair to him, too. But Fincher, like Scorsese, seems to be drawn primarily to darker subject matter, and both filmmakers blend style and substance – and music – unlike virtually any of their peers. No, Fincher will probably never do a mafia movie, but The Social Network might've just been his Goodfellas.
Teacher: George Lucas Disciple: James Cameron
Star Wars was the impetus behind Cameron's decision to become a filmmaker, so we have George Lucas to thank on some level for Cameron's many shining moments (it bears mentioning, though, that not all of his moments have shone). They haven't exactly had the same career paths, but their sci-fi, uh, swords have probably crossed paths a few times. Plus, there's little doubt that Cameron was hoping Avatar would be this century's Star Wars. Financially, if nothing else, his hopes came true.
Teacher: Stanley Kubrick Disciple: Paul Thomas Anderson
While their thematic interests lie very far apart, Stanley Kubrick and and Paul Thomas Anderson are probably the most uncompromising auteurs of their respective generations. With There Will Be Blood, P.T.A. didn't just inch closer to, but leapt into Kubrick territory (he previously seemed more destined for Robert Altmantown), with his willingness to tell a story that doesn't appeal to the masses and do so in his way only – a way that is probably considered downright criminal by any film-school or how-to-get-a-movie-made standards; there's no talking for several minutes to start the movie, for God's sake! Kubrick and Anderson are each singular in an industry whose professionals strive for parity.
Teacher: David Lynch Disciples: The Coen Brothers
As with almost everyone on this list, we're not saying Lynch and the Coens are father-sons in film-lineage speak, but they share a striking bond, and that is a fascination with all things weird. While both groups have dabbled in mainstream territory (Lynch with Twin Peaks and the Coens with True Grit among other minor hits), they are art-house directors at their core, and that allows/compels them to aim toward left field and swing for the fences. More times than not, the results have been mind-melting home runs; dark, twisted masterpieces, in fact, haven't been uncommon.
HARDER TO TRACE
Arguably the best of his own generation, Tarantino tires of the same genre quickly and changes drastically with each successive movie, thus making his many influences tough to pin down. Perhaps his cinematic father is a cross between Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone and … Robert Altman?
He has influenced too many directors to pick just one – plus, he's still the best and most prolific of his kind!
Francis Ford Coppola
He boast two of the best movies ever, yet they're so disparate in many ways – as is much of his other work – that it's impossible to choose his chief disciple?
You can easily trace her musical tastes as well as her actual lineage, but movie-wise, her influences aren't abundantly clear.
He's done it all, but while Memento and his other noirish films are perhaps slightly Hitchockian, his Batman movies are flat-out original. And then there's Inception, of which studios themselves are probably the main disciples!
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.
After the phenomenal success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was a cinch that the studio would want to bring The Hobbit to the big screen. What followed was a project plagued by as many problems as Middle Earth itself. Peter Jackson, titanic director of the three existing films, backed out in order to pursue other endeavors and Guillermo del Toro stepped in; much to the delight of fans everywhere given his beautiful, fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth and the balls out action romp Hellboy II. All seemed well in The Shire until just this week, when it was announced that del Toro has also abdicated the director’s chair. The geek world is emitting a deafening buzz right now over who should replace Guillermo. To wit, I humbly submit my top candidates for the job.
One of the things that made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so indelible was how well Peter Jackson was able to transport us visually to Middle Earth. The cinematography in those films was just as breathtaking as the full-scale battles or snarling beasts. If there is one director who has demonstrated a unique visual style and prowess of form, light, and color, it’s Darren Aronofsky. Not only that, but with The Fountain, Aronofsky was able to merge that visual adeptness with a fantasy motif so I don’t feel he would be completely overwhelmed by the material.
Is he the first name that pops up in the rumor mill regarding this project? Of course not! However, Danny Boyle is one of the most versatile directors working today. He has skipped merrily from genre to genre and delivered almost every single time. Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire are all fantastic films though they could not be more different. I would love to see this genre mastery applied to an epic fantasy piece, one of the few in which he hasn’t dabbled, and the prospect of all his finite touches in the world of Tolkien is more than a bit titillating.
I am an enormous fan of the film The Good, the Bad, and the Weird; the Korean remake of the classic Sergio Leone film. It is a wild, madcap, and ultimately gorgeous retelling of the story with some marked Asian cinema flairs that only enhance the flavor. That being said, I think Ji-woon Kim’s qualifications for directing The Hobbit far exceed my personal bias towards his film. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is about a bumbling thief who gets in way over his head and has to fight his way out of a number of sticky situations using both wit and weapon. Sound familiar? I would also love to see what landscape Ji-woon would use for Middle Earth as he did such an incredible job making the deserts of Mongolia as much a character in the film as the thief.
This will probably seem the most obvious and convenient choice, but Nolan is also a perfect choice when we consider exactly what this project would be. Peter Jackson’s trilogy was so monumentally successful and well received that in order for the studio to get any more mileage out of this tale, someone would have to come in and give us something we’ve never seen before while still rooting it within the canon. Not only that, but we’re talking about a prequel that must explore complex origins and reboot a franchise. I don’t need to tell you that Nolan has already shown unbelievable skill in both of those arenas. Beyond that, the reason I love every Christopher Nolan film I have ever seen is because the guy is an old-school director who understands the beauty and technique of storytelling. If your intention is to bring characters from the page to life, why not put that task in the hands of someone who already writes remarkable, fully realized characters?
If Peter Jackson isn’t going to step back up to the plate, who better than his protégé to give us the final, though technically first, chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga? What Blomkamp was able to create with District 9 with so meager a budget is astounding and I will not make the argument that he would therefore accomplish more with limitless funds at his disposable. Instead, what I would like to see is Blomkamp apply the same ingenuity and creativity to undertaking what would otherwise be a mega-budget production. We’ve seen the grandiose battles, the myriad effects, and the larger-than-life production designs. Trying to top that would prove a futile effort, but how great would it be to see a more intimate, yet still very exciting take on the story? Besides, Blomkamp is a giant geek and how can any of us say we wouldn’t want our beloved fantasy novel in the hands of a geek? I think Jackson can attest to this.