Monday, May 19, 2014

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

Cap is in some tough straights. His first film was of decided low ambition. It was fantasy thriller. By which I mean the characters gestured at some vague political message while punching each other. His role in the Avengers is easily overlooked, as his super powers don’t yet seem active and he became a naive idealist following World War II…  Wellp, someone fixed all that. Cap shoulder checks his critics and rallies the faithful around a something they can say “That’s why I love the Cap!”

I mean, Ok, a genuine political thriller it is not. But Cap 2 is a lot smarter about what to use. Absurd Nazi scientists are given minor roles before being mercilessly stomped out of canon. Most of the weaker story elements are carry-overs from the comics. They feel like ritual homage. Cap 2 doesn’t celebrate its comic history as much as pass it like a kidney stone. It wants to be better, smarter, but is saddled. It does its best to setup the factions and technology with modern sensibilities but when the punch line is “brainwashed Russian solider”… How is that ever going to feel rational? Larger themes come half-way to respectable. Issues like government overreach born out of zero oversight are hot. Again, the film does so much to come at these ideas honestly but in the end the comic booky-ness steps in and says “Helicarriers with, like, A THOUSAND GUNS!!!”.

Here’s what’s cool and will blow your mind. Captain America actually has badass super powers. I think the highlights from the first movie were 1) Cap running 40mph and 2) Him punching a car window. In The Avengers he nearly died fighting, what, six aliens? Fighting one brainwashed agent with a gun was touch and go. It’s every little thing here. His morning run is something to behold. And no matter how many times its Cap vs a squad of elite soldiers with guns, he makes it fresh. He rampages. I’m watching these sequences in theater wishing so badly I could rewind to see it again. I’m very nearly shouting in my seat. There is not a single bad action piece in the movie. They just get better. I don’t buy movies to own anymore. I see a lot so it’s always “on to the next one”. I cannot wait to rewatch The Winter Soldier. Everything was done Right. He fights like a soldier. But he moves with power well beyond human levels.

That feeling of Rightness is what I found so compelling. Finally, the potential of the concept is realized. Not only the fighting. The relationship between Cap and Black Widow is dramatically different. It’s apparent in the trailer. These characters aren’t a few special effects on top of a stream of shitty one-liners. They’re much more human than other characters in any Marvel movie. The banter is fun, not filler. There isn’t Dead Time. Those moments between major set pieces. If Cap and Widow are going to talk, it’s an honest talk with purpose. When they’re traveling, it’s with style. Even Nick Fury! Who has been the greatest disappointment to me in each film. It’s Samuel L. Jackson! Why is not doing anything Samuel L. Jackson would do? Well, now he does.

Same with Falcon / Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). I thought he was going to get his abrupt little origin. Cap would give him a high-five so audiences would know he’s a good guy. Go see his movie whenever that comes out. No. Captain America does the unthinkable in an action / superhero movie and makes use of its supporting cast. Falcon is integral. What’s more, Mackie is supremely comfortable. He doesn’t try to get a mini Me Too action moment. Or be the funny guy. Or whatever one dimensional archetype. He elevates the movie through simple, authentic, acting. Who the fuck would have thought more actors in a superhero movies would make it stronger?

For my money, Captain America is wearing the crown as far as Superheroes go. Forget Avengers 2 or hoping for another Iron Man movie. What I most want is Cap 3. The universe building was so smart that I hope, so much, that the writers can transition away from the camp (crap) that is holding back Cap from becoming a legitimate movie. ‘Cause The Winter Soldier wasn’t just good comic book movie, it was straight up Good. Restoring my faith the genre won’t become a parody of itself. Contenting itself with lazy plots so long as there is gratuitous fan service to ward off criticism.

(Note: I didn't directly talk about the Winter Soldier because he fits into the "lousy comic book elements" paragraph and the "hype fighting" one. So, there.)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2

I don’t get it. I thought this reboot was more focused on realism. So why is science thrown out at every turn? I thought, maybe stupidly, that the lead actor should sorta kinda set the tone for a film. Right? Don’t cast Arnold’s Mr. Freeze opposite Christian Bale’s Batman. So why is Jamie Foxx’s character, in his downtrodden nerd form, the most unbelievable thing in a movie about a kid who gets spider powers? It feels like everyone and everything is working against Andrew Garfield’s stellar portrayal of Peter Parker. With a plot that feels equal parts inevitable and filler. This movie was meant as the groundwork towards building Spidey his own universe to play in. As rich as what Marvel is doing with The Avengers. Yet the bigger this one gets, the less focus on Garfield, who was the saving grace of Amazing Spider-Man.

The absurdity of Foxx’s take on Max Dillon cannot be overstated. It is so stupid and over-the-top… but that’s Jamie Foxx. The man has only been good in two movies and in each he mostly kept his mouth shut and let the stronger lead carry his worthless ass for two hours (Collateral, The Soloist). Thankfully when he becomes Electro he does shut-up, and lets his pulsing blue skin do all the characterization for him.

There is fun to be had, though.  The first act is a riot. It was a genuine pleasure watching Spidey be Spidey. The action was fresh, at times exhilarating, that smartly used the CG effects. Even Paul Giamotti’s atrocious take on Rhino can’t really dampen the high spirits. Spider-Man saving a young dork from bullies? Genius! Offers to walk him home? My heart melted. This is where Spider-Man shines. He doesn’t have the powers or time to be saving the world. He’s your buddy who’s also a Superhero. And the filmmakers blew every ounce of creative juice they had for this first act. So enjoy it. What follows may cause you to smirk, or nod your head in sympathy, but it will lack any power to really excite or move you.

Emma Stone is there. I feel like all of her dialogue with Garfield is made-up on the spot. It reaches toward something poignant, funny, but falls short. They talk in circles, padding out the few arguments, but never addressing the core issues. I would kill for ONE! direct conversation. It’s nothing new either. “Oh Peter, I wished you saved fewer lives so you had more time to indulge me”. Might be better if they framed it in terms of Peter protecting his personal life (a la Batman), since losing his mind will become a real issue when groups of villains unite to kill him. And it’d make Gwen seem less The Most Selfish Person on Earth.

The Parker Parents subplot isn’t really allowed to move anywhere. Peter is frustrated, Aunt May is cryptic and unhelpful, I’m frustrated, then a breakthrough! But it’s fragile. If anyone calls Peter, or the fancy catches him to do anything else, or this whole thing takes more than 10 minutes screen time, he’ll drop the mystery of his parent’s death in a heartbeat. Never to rejoin those narrative threads until, presumably, Amazing Spider-Man 3. I want to care but, when the whole thing is used as filler, I can’t.

Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) invigorates the middle act. Like, maybe things will get back on track! The guy is fun, pretty weird, but puts a good tension into Peter’s relationships. Plus, the kid just has a look. If this is your first Spider-Man movie you will point to DeHaan and say “Oh yeah, he turns into something, doesn’t he?”. A lot of the work DeHaan does is by implication. He just seems like a guy who would have a ball running a giant corporation. Or doing whatever he wants around town. Peeks are offered, hints, but the dude should have gotten more screen time. Huge asset.

Then Amazing Spider-Man 2 becomes a turd. I hate to be so crude in describing it. The fighting, though? Becomes really video gamey. There’s one obvious way to damage the boss, so Spidey has to jump through a few hoops before it happens. At one point Goblin holds Spidey’s girlfriend above his head, taunting him. Are we back in Elementary school? The trashy form of CG comes out full force. I feel bad for the artist who meticulously “drew” those buildings fall to pieces over who-knows how many hours but I glazed over it. I’ve seen it a few times before. Thank you Norman Osborn for having a form-fitting rubber suit with lightning accents ready to go. I don’t know if it was the weak script or DeHaan but the Harry Osborn character falls apart. Grinning villains were thrown out decades ago, bud. At least he didn’t speak in puns… The shame is that Garfield could play off a competent adversary so well! He’s not even given a chance.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 doubled down on every mistake from the previous movie. Reneges on its predecessor’s promise of authenticity. It is, unequivocally, a step backwards for Spider-Man.