Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

(dir. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

Walt Disney Pictures

“Captain, in order to build a better world, sometimes means tearing the old one down… and that makes enemies.”  

              Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about strings—who’s pulling them and what happens when they’re cut. The film is a sharply plotted political-thriller that successfully merges real-world issues with the action-adventure from Ed Brubaker’s run on the comics. Picking up nearly two years after the events of The Avengers (2012), Captain America, Steve Rogers, is working for S.H.E.I.L.D. under the direction of superspy Nick Fury. Returning to fight alongside him is the Black Widow, whose secrets and ulterior motives cause Steve to question S.H.E.I.D.’s peacekeeping methods. His crisis of conscience is complicated by the arrival of the mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier. Hunted by former allies and old enemies, Captain America is made an enemy of the very country he’s trying to protect.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far more allegorical than Marvel’s usual output and it is evident that the studio is becoming more comfortable with challenging the conventions of the superhero genre. Captain America lends itself well to this challenge. The most successful writers of the character’s 73 year history have understood that the character works best when facing real world political issues whether the threat is Hitler or Nixon. The Russos and screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have a strong understanding of this, and their use of recent NSA surveillance dilemmas provide a complex conflict. Captain America is yesterday’s hero, but as he discovers in the film, yesterday isn’t quite so different from today. While the technology may make things murkier, and the villains may not have red skulls, at the end of the day there are still those in power playing at being gods.

But the film is not all politics and allegory. The Russos balance tension and levity well, refraining from leaning too heavily on the later as Marvel is known to do in some of their more recent ventures. The fight scenes and hand-to-hand combat are some of the best in any superhero film. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Captain America and The Winter Soldier, two sides of the idea of a good soldier. The Winter Soldier isn’t given much to say (this stays true to his initial appearance in the comics), but he is a convincingly menacing and sympathetic foil to Captain America. It is the relationship between these two soldiers that prevents the climax from becoming just a sequence of well-executed explosions.  If you’ve yet to see the movie and haven’t read the comic storyline on which the movie is based, avoid spoilers (which may be nearly impossible given the film’s marketing) on the exact nature of that relationship.

Like all the Marvel Studios films it is the well cast performances that really bring the film together. Chris Evans once again captures the earnest patriotism of Steve Rogers and gives the character a real sense of personality beyond being a good-natured boy scout. Scarlett Johannson plays the Black Widow with a bit more of an edge than we’ve seen her have in previous films, though there is still something a bit too American about her performance to be fully convincing as an ex-Russian spy who spent years traveling the world. Samuel L. Jackson is even more comfortable in his role as Nick Fury and it’s evident he’s having fun with the character as he adds more layers to the man. Robert Redford has some great scenes as S.H.E.I.L.D. official, Alexander Pierce. His casting and the role he plays is made even greater by the fact he would have made a perfect 70s era Captain America. The stand-out performance though really belongs to Anthony Mackie’s instantly likable portrayal as comics’ first African-American superhero, The Falcon.  It’s certain that we’ll be seeing more of him in future Marvel films. While Captain America is never overshadowed and it is his actions that drive the plot, the film works well as an ensemble piece.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of Marvel’s best. The consequences from the film’s climax really will change the shape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And as the mid-credits scene shows, things are only going to get more interesting going forward.

Grade: A+

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Noah Review

(dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Paramount Pictures

“A great flood is coming! We build a vessel to survive the fall!”

There is madness in Noah. Both the titular protagonist and the film itself shift over the course of the 2 hour and 20 minute run time. What the trailers for the film have withheld is the scope of the film; it’s far crazier and grander than you might expect. What’s crazier than a man gathering animals two by two into an ark? Well some surprises are better left for the film, but I’ll say that the film’s take on angels--called Watchers--is definitely one of the film’s more unexpected explorations.

Noah is daring in the sheer amount of themes it takes on. In that regard the film shares many attributes with Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006). But unlike The Fountain, Noah has one foot firmly planted in big-budget spectacle.  Despite some reviews that have suggested otherwise, Noah is not The Lord of the Rings, nor is it attempting to be. But the film is more mythical than biblical. That factor is perhaps one of the more divisive aspects of the film. But the core themes of the story are still there and the religious message comes across in the end, the film just takes a roundabout way of getting there. But despite the plethora of themes and the high-budget, Aronofsky has not left the characters behind.

Darren Aronofsky tells stories about obsession, an individual’s drive towards perfection that offers enlightenment that is often self-destructive. Noah is no different and is a companion piece to the rest of Aronofsky’s work. Noah is the story of life and death, but also a look at the consequences faced when deciding who will live and who will die.  Russell Crowe delivers one of his best performances as he transforms over the course of the story. Like Aronoksky’s previous film Black Swan (2010), it is duality that drives the film to its revelations.  Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Douglas Booth are strong in their supporting roles. It is in the relationship with his family that Noah is able to exist beyond his Biblical trappings and become a human being who is both admirable and flawed. Anthony Hopkins’ Methuselah is an eccentric mystic who mostly exists to drive the plot and add some levity to the story’s dark proceedings. Ray Winstone gives a near scenery-chewing performance as the film’s villain Tubal-cain, but gives the character weight in his desperation to live. He provides a perfect foil to the thoughtful and restrained Noah

            Noah is in a way many films. It is an exploration of the origins of life and evolution. It is a message about Earth’s resources and environmentalism. It is a claustrophobic thriller that plunges its hands into humanity’s darkest capabilities. And it is a blockbuster that embraces the fantastic nature of its source material. There is something primal about Noah in its explorations of humanity. It feels as if this story is the seed from which all Aronoksky’s other films have sprung, the beginnings of his cinematic universe with all the rules laid out. While the film may attempt to take on too much for its runtime, the sense that the story is deeply personal is felt. Noah is personal in all the best ways in that it is not only a reflection of the filmmaker’s work but a reflection of us, our past, our future and our mad drive for purpose and understanding in the great sea that surrounds us.

Grade: A