Summer popcorn movies are hereby put on notice to get crack-a-lackin. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is every rousing, whup-ass thing you want in an escapist adventure. And an additional hint of depth under the dazzle? A little bit.
A superhero should always battle a foe as powerful as he is. Otherwise, there’s no competition. Sounds masochistic? Well, if you look at the history of superhero films, few of them have villains who pop as memorably as their blocky-chested men in capes. There’s Heath Ledger‘s Joker, of course (the leering granddaddy of psychotic bad guys), and also Jack Nicholson‘s Joker, and Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki. Beyond that, the landscape is thick with low-camp cartoons, such as Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, boilerplate CGI treachery, or villains who simply didn’t cut it. In that light, the creators of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have brought off something fresh and bold: They have taken Captain America (Chris Evans), the engagingly square strongman from the flag-waving ‘40s (yes, he’s gorgeous, ladies and gents), and planted him in the black-ops cynicism of the present day, where the villain isn’t some over-the-top mastermind, but, in fact, the very military-industrial complex he’s out to defend. He now faces an ominously faceless evil.
Early on, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the embattled director of S.H.I.E.L.D., dispatches Steve Rogers, aka. Captain America, and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka. Black Widow, on a mission to rescue a naval ship overtaken by pirates. But he also plays the two against each other, and it turns out that it’s Nick himself who’s under siege. In his armored, hooked up SUV, he’s attacked by shadow forces that want to militarize the world and make spying as common as breathing. Sound like anything you’ve read recently? Hmm..
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first superhero film since the terrorist-inflected The Dark Knight that plugs you right into what’s happening now. Told in enjoyably blunt, heavy-duty strokes, the movie doesn’t try for the artistry of The Dark Knight, but rather it’s action-fantasy prose, not poetry. Yet there’s a hell-bent vitality to its paranoia. When the Capt., is surrounded by government officials on an elevator, and he realizes that none of them are on his side, the fight scene that follows isn’t just brutally exciting. It expresses the film’s theme: that you can’t trust anyone in a society that wants to control everyone and everything.
Chris Evans, once again makes our hero a compellingly pensive, furrowed-browed demigod. He moves very quickly, like a reincarnation of Bruce Lee with bionically enhanced aggression, but Evans lets us see how the forces Captain America is up against are weighing him down. It helps to have Robert Redford on hand, wittily cast as a CIA-spirited S.H.I.E.L.D. leader — a cutthroat in a suit who drily understands the mathematics of power. Scarlett Johansson makes Natasha a fast-and-furious flirt, Anthony Mackie (as Falcon) spars nicely with Evans, and Sebastian Stan puts Steve’s old pal Bucky Barnes through a chilling transformation. The film is a bit long, and its token references to the other Avengers are just a forced attempt to join it to a ”larger” story. Yet the film has the zing and purpose that last summer’s Man of Steel lacked, with a sky-high climax that’s a real dazzler. What works here is setting up Captain America in a battle against… well, America. That’s the way to turn a super-square into an awesome antihero.
If anyone remembers it correctly, the story of Noah is a pretty brief one. For one, a lot gets packed into the section of Genesis, all leading up to the mother of all Old Testament climaxes: the flood. Still, there’s hardly enough material there to keep going for a little over two hours. So going in to Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah, the idea of certain storytelling embellishments being made was a given. Not speaking for the audiences as to whether they will be happy with those changes, but that is another story.
In an unpredictable career that’s alternated between telling stories on a small canvas (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler) and a larger one (The Fountain, Black Swan), Aronofsky has always been an audacious and idiosyncratic filmmaker. With all the past ones, Noah is his broadest canvas yet. And it ends up being a schizophrenic experience. On one hand, it’s a remarkably earnest and heartfelt Bible parable, not unlike Martin Scorsese’s darkly pieces. It contains a handful of gut-wrenching small-scale moments, like Noah’s decision to spare his grandchildren from sacrifice, that are so powerful they’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute. On the other, though, it’s an excessively flashy Tinseltown spectacle tarted up with all the eye candy that a nine-figure price tag can buy. It’s as if Aronofsky had so many resources at his disposal, he couldn’t help but give in to the sin of cinematic gluttony. These two competing impulses seem to be battling for Aronofsky’s filmmaking soul. And the result is a disappointing draw.
Aronofsky’s wisest move was casting Russell Crowe as Noah. As one of the last descendants of the peaceful line of Seth, Noah is a faithful husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a loving father of Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and the adopted Ila (Emma Watson). He’s the rare pious man in a god-forsaken world of wickedness lorded over by the evil offspring of Cain (led by Ray Winstone). And Crowe plays this virtuous ascetic with a fiery, half-mad intensity and moral weight he hasn’t shown in a very long time — maybe since Gladiator. The problem is that Aronofsky seems to be less interested in his flesh-and-blood characters than the fantastical CGI ones, such as, a strange, trippy race of fallen-angel stone creatures called Watchers who look like gigantic piles of smoldering charcoal Transformers and speak with the growly voices of Frank Langella and Nick Nolte. Plainly ridiculous.
As the film begins, Noah has a vision of a serpent and an apple and humanity drowning in a watery death. He senses that this is a prophecy. That the Creator is going to destroy the world and wash away all of the wicked. Before that hard rain comes, though, Noah and his righteous family must prepare. So the ark is built with the help of the Watchers, and the animals are gathered in a computer-generated sequence. Meanwhile, Shem couples off with Ila, the devilish Ham is seduced by Tubal-Cain, and Jopheth…well, it’s Jopheth.
It’s difficult to reduce the fire-and-brimstone wrath of God to a third-act Hollywood money shot, but when the flood comes it’s an event of haunting beauty. The family holes up inside the ark that’s being tossed like a cork, while the heathens outside howl and scream in anguish. Such is the price to cleanse humanity of its trespasses and start over. Noah is a movie about big ideas (environmentalism, heavenly obedience versus earthly love) and even bigger directorial ambitions. But, in the end, it was also a disappointment. Maybe not one of Biblical proportions, but a disappointment nonetheless.
Hey MMC (Midnight Movie Crew) fans,
It certainly has been a long time since anything’s been posted. Due to some difficulties, everything was stalled.
But not to worry, MMC is officially back in action with NEW staff!! Especially with all that’s coming out this year.
Thanks again for your support towards MMC!!
Even if it doesn’t entirely clear away the stench of its misbegotten predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this latest adventure of grizzled mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) feels like a return to form for the oft-erratic “X-Men” series. To wipe the slate clean, Jackman and director James Mangold (Knight and Day; Girl, Interrupted) have teamed up to bring out the claws once again in The Wolverine. While it’s definitely a more entertaining and far deeper film than the last Wolverine outing, it still falls short of the top tier of Marvel tentpoles like Iron Man and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s much-loved 1982 comic-book arc, The Wolverine is an existential (and at times soddenly heavy) story about our razor-taloned hero grappling with the burden of immortality and loss. But before we wade into that therapy session, the film opens with a harrowing sequence set, like most of the film, in Japan. It’s WWII, and Jackman’s Logan is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp in Nagasaki as B-29s fly overhead to deliver the atomic bomb. During the blast he saves one of his captors, a soldier named Yashida, who, during the explosion, learns of Wolverine’s invincibility and ability to heal his own wounds.
Decades later, Logan, who hasn’t aged a day, has renounced violence and lives as a hermit bonding with grizzlies in the Yukon. There, he’s tracked down by a punky, red-haired Japanese girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who informs him that the man he saved back in the prison camp is now a powerful industrialist on his deathbed. He’s requesting Logan’s presence to thank him and settle the karmic debt that he believes he owes him.
Logan heads to Japan to pay his respects and discovers not only that the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) wants to steal the secret to Logan’s immortality, but also that he has a granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who’s about to inherit his fortune and is in need of Logan’s unique brand of badass protection. Why Logan complies is never really explained, perhaps because of justice? Regardless, Logan and Mariko are on the run from a lethal posse of tattooed Yakuza and some other samurai-style baddies straight out of the Kill Bill playbook, including Yashida’s femme fatale blonde nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who possesses certain viper-y gifts of her own. Although Logan doesn’t even speak one lick of Japanese in any of the scenes.
As Logan and his charge hit the road, sparks fly, ninjas attack, and Wolverine begins to experience something he never has before — the actual fear of death. You get to see how he’s both physically and emotionally vulnerable. In other words, human. All of this makes for a Wolverine tale that’s more loaded with psychological questions (his immortality is seen as a curse) and makes the haunted character more interesting. Still, that’s no excuse for the film’s gauzy dream sequences with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey haunting him from the beyond.
Still, in the final wash, The Wolverine provides a compelling look into a beloved screen character and offers up enough excitement to merit its existence. That said, it’s worth pointing out two things that The Wolverine gets right (aside from Jackman’s always excellent, strong-and-silent-type performance as Logan). The first is an action sequence that occurs mid-way in the film, when Wolverine is being pursued on top of a bullet train. By now, we’ve all seen so many beat-downs atop locomotives that they’ve become numbingly similar. But the one in The Wolverine is so frantic and adrenalized (not to mention the only part of the film that takes advantage of 3-D) that the familiar becomes new again. The film also sticks the landing on a brief teaser scene after the end credits that hints at future developments in the X-Men universe. I won’t spoil the pleasure of what happens. But you have to hand it to Marvel for managing to leave audiences breathless in anticipation of a sequel after making them sit through two-plus hours of merely satisfactory storytelling.
I’m pretty sure that being Superman isn’t as simple as it once was. Not only does he stand for truth, justice, and the American way, he also has a virtual monopoly on the men-in-tights genre. Didn’t director Bryan Singer already pay due diligence in 2006′s Superman Returns with Brandon Routh? The box office can’t be the only reason to revive a franchise.
“We needed to juice him up,” admits director Zack Snyder. I’ll say. With Batman getting all the bad-boy love, Supes needed to roughen his do-gooder image into something towards a cooler, more conflicted image. And here he is in Man of Steel, directed by Snyder, with story input from producer Christopher Nolan, the sinister genius behind the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan knows from moody. Snyder knows from fireworks. Nolan knows from holding back. Snyder, uh, doesn’t. Together, they could have spawned a movie at war with itself, which admittedly this one often is. Against those odds, Man of Steel soars high on its own schizoid ambition. Lacking the old-school humor and charm of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance, Man of Steel pretty much starts from scratch.
At the risk of damning Henry Cavill with faint praise, the British actor wisely takes on the role as if it’s never been played before. Fellow Brits like Christian Bale (Batman) and Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man) took the same approach. Cavill can do hunky in his sleep (Immortals or The Tudors). It’s the banked fires he brings to Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, that make his performance such a potent surprise. Cavill, square-jawed with a hip sense of alienation, doesn’t let the suit act for him. Hell, he doesn’t put it on till halfway into the movie. This Clark is a haunted loner grappling with issues, an alien from the planet Krypton, raised on the Kansas farm of the Kents – Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane, finding depth where there isn’t any).
How’d he get there? As told in DC Comics, Krypton is nearing extinction due to not having enough natural resources to suffice the planet. The scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant son, Kal-El, off to Earth. Enter the Kents, his adoptive parents, then Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon, nostrils flaring), the Krypton fascist who follows Kal-El to take over the planet. Blah. Blah. Blah. What else is new?
In approach, lots. Snyder follows no linear pattern. Baby Kal in the rocket is followed by a smash cut to Clark, age 33, as a sort of existential loner who drifts from town to town. Flashbacks fill in the rest. Papa Kent – Costner’s heartfelt portrayal lifts the film – tells Clark to hide his special gifts under wraps. Out of fear of becoming popular, Clark never smiles or makes friends. He’s made for bigger things. Before the gloom can settle, Snyder overkills with Hans Zimmer sound and FX fury as Supes rescues humans from fire, flood and twister.
When Clark finally puts on the suit, its colors are muted, like he is. Maybe that’s why Snyder has him punching everything in sight, with one exception: In the Arctic, to find the codex holding the key to (what else?) global domination, the Man of Steel falls for Daily Planet’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Lois Lane (a tough, terrific Amy Adams). You don’t hire four-time Oscar nominee Adams to play Lois if you want a compliant bimbo who can’t see the superman behind Clark’s glasses. But there’s a distinct lack of heat between Adams and Cavill, and their stabs at sub-sitcom humor fall flat. Even when Snyder pulls out every computer-generated trick in a climax that won’t quit while it’s ahead, there are moments where Cavill and Adams give the movie a beating heart. It needs it. Caught in the slipstream between action and angst, Man of Steel is a bumpy ride for sure. But there’s no way to stay blind to its wonders.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a thrilling set piece on Nibiru, a primitive planet, where Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Bones (the sly, loose-limbed Karl Urban) are on the run from a tribe of angry natives on the planet. Meanwhile, a raging volcano, in mid-eruption, that threatens to destroy Nibiru and its inhabitants, traps First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) around a boiling ocean of lava. Naturally, the Vulcan stays cool as a cucumber, ready to die to save his crew — an impeccably logical decision, but also building to a classic “Trek” standoff between Vulcan logic and impulsive human emotion. But Capt. Kirk has other plans. He’ll rescue Spock, even if that means violating a Federation rule that says the Enterprise can’t be exposed to the planet’s uncivilized hordes. Kirk, who never met a regulation he couldn’t trash or care for, guides the starship up into the air and over to where his comrade is about to perish, and the warriors, decked out in head stare at the ship as if it were a god. It’s a sensation that the movie transmits to the audience, since the Enterprise, emitting an awesome thrummm, never looked quite so massive.
Like Abrams‘ first Trek movie, this one is positioned as a prequel to the original TV series and subsequent films, though it also lifts (and twists) elements from that sacred text, 1982′s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock, each following his own nature (hothead, detached logical brainiac), are usually at loggerheads, but even when they wind up coming to the same conclusion, they can’t stop arguing about how they got there. The film builds particularly well on their burgeoning friendship and that’s part of the movie’s texture of cocky one-upmanship. The whole Enterprise crew has become a collection of colliding egos. Zoë Saldana’s badass Uhura, who’s in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel with Spock; John Cho as the so-stoic-he’s-cool Sulu; Simon Pegg’s frantically funny and resourceful Scotty. But make no mistake — these characters pop out at us with a new dynamism. Plus, they all confront a villain who has been brilliantly retrofitted to throw everyone, including the audience, off guard.
This dastardly dude is a boyish-looking rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison, who starts off by striking a note of urban chaos. He’s played by rising British star Benedict Cumberbatch in a totally original way, with the physicality of a dancer and an eager, slippery, yet puckish sincerity, when given the chance, ingeniously disguises his vengeful mission. Once Harrison’s been captured and placed in a cell, Kirk has to listen to his own hunches about who this man is and what he wants. That’s the real ”darkness” the film’s title is referring to: the place where you’re no longer certain what the right thing to do is and that’s a place of genuine excitement. Into Darkness is a sleek, thrilling, beautifully modulated and sustained epic that’s also a triumphantly witty popcorn morality play. It’s everything you could want in a Star Trek movie.
The Great Gatsby. The title raises two immediate questions, one of which is easily answered. Why is Gatsby great? Because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel embraces all the urgencies of the decade he dubbed “the Jazz Age”: the fast cars and easy money, the plentiful cheap booze and available sex, the nexus of big businesses on Wall Street and in the underworld, all appraised in luscious prose.
A second, thornier question: Why is Gatsby great? Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious figure in Manhattan and Long Island lore, attracts thousands of revelers to his sensational parties either because the guests don’t know the source of his wealth or because they do, and that knowledge gives them the thrill of vicarious outlawry. Born as James Gatz (“gat” was ’20s slang for a gangster’s pistol) to a Midwestern family of no particular means, he reinvents himself as a successful bootlegger with a dandy’s suave manners. He accumulated all this class and notoriety in hopes of winning back Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan), the girl he left behind in Louisville, and who is now married to the aristocratic “polo player” Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Daisy’s second cousin and the book’s narrator, sees greatness in Gatsby’s abounding “hope”. But to Tom, and perhaps to even Daisy, Gatsby’s new money is just tainted, and so is he.
Any movie of Fitzgerald’s novel has to take Nick’s view: that Gatsby is the noble man and Tom the thug; that Gatsby’s ambition to reclaim Daisy is not new money chasing old but rather a romantic, chivalric quest; and that the prize may not be worth the effort. Hollywood is well suited to dramatize these issues. It spends vast sums on the veneer of class, swank, luxe. It loves love. It is Gatsby.
The novel’s Nick has retreated to his own Midwestern home after his New York interlude to consider what made Gatsby great. In the movie, Nick has taken residence in a sanitarium, where he spills out the tipsy story of what happened during the summer of 1922 to Dr. Perkins (Jack Thompson) and begins putting his thoughts on paper — a memoir that will become The Great Gatsby.
For the film’s first half-hour, Gatsby is known only through his ravishing parties and the outlandish stories that have turned his biography into instant urban legend. This early section of the movie shows Baz Luhrmann rampant. Phones literally jiggle when they ring; passages from the novel are scrawled across the 3-D screen, like fevered entries in a schoolgirl’s diary. The proletarian night town where Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) lives with her mechanic husband George (Jason Clarke) is spiffed up with a black gentleman blowing sax on a fire escape across from the garage. The camera of cinematographer Simon Duggan seems to think it can’t simply capture an image; only rarely do you notice it in a pronounced way and yet it really does add something to the experience, drawing you in as if escorting you through a series of opening gates, doors and emotional states.
Gatsby’s parties are Ziegfeld Follies raised to orgasmic pitch. The Cirque du Soleil-style party scenes with hundreds of swells, flappers and ’20s celebrities dance madly to purposefully anachronistic songs by Jay Z and Beyoncé, as the night sky erupts into fireworks and a blizzard of confetti. The precision and economy of Fitzgerald’s style gets coverted into the famous Luhrmann flair, expressed in art-direction adjectives and visual exclamation points.
In a way, this excess of opulence suits the setting. From Wall Street to the Long Island suburb of West Egg, where the ostentatious mansion Gatsby owns abuts Nick’s more modest rental, to the old-money East Egg across the bay, Fitzgerald’s New Yorkers think too much is never enough. So more drinks, gamier sex, and posher clothes. The Great Gatsby, in novel or film form, shows a young man’s instant attraction to a town radiant with promise and threat. That’s one thing the movies have always been able to do: put the money on the screen.
Gatsby, when he finally materializes, is money incarnate: a true golden boy if you will. His character does something that such a serious actor like Leonardo DiCaprio, who often seems to flee from his charm, hasn’t tried in ages: smile. Gatsby claims to be from old money, to have studied at Oxford and dabbled in painting, like the best class of America’s postwar emigres in Europe. He calls Nick “Old Sport,” in a clubby drawl, no doubt carefully cultivated to disguise his origins. Nick can see through Gatsby’s pretense, but he warms to the native gentility, the dogged hopefulness behind the affected airs and dirty business deals. If the story is about Gatsby’s love for Daisy, it is even more vital and convincing about Nick’s love for Gatsby. The narrator has fallen for his new friend’s star quality.
When Gatsby the man seizes control from Gatsby the rumor, Luhrmann slows down, content to play out the rest of the story. It’s people talking in rooms — gorgeously appointed rooms, filled with smartly dressed folks. Hearts and flowers, mountains of flowers, eventually cede to heartbreak, in the grand Luhrmann tradition, and the actors emote up a summer storm. Maguire’s otherworldly coolness suits the observer drawn into a story he might prefer only to watch. DiCaprio is persuasive as the little boy amongst the grown-ups lost impersonating a tough guy, and Mulligan finds ways to express Daisy’s magnetism and weakness.
Yet the emotions stirred here are not nearly so volcanic and the reason might be that, this time, only one of the parties can imagine dying for love. But it’s also because Daisy understands that her feeling for Gatsby could be as fictional as the imaginary ideal he has tried to embody.
I suspect that it’s been a while since most folks have reread a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel, so I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that like the giddy period it chronicles, the fizzy high comes with an inevitable crash. There’s a reason The Great Gatsby continues to be taught in classrooms nearly 90 years after it was written. It’s a dazzling time capsule of a shimmering era and a devastating look into the dark side of the American dream.