Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - Since 2008’sIron Man, Marvel Studios has made eight films (by comparison, there have been 12Star Trekfilms produced since 1979), and their only real strikeout wasThe Incredible Hulk, starring a destined-not-to-be Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. And that can be chalked up to the studio not yet having a good grasp of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was - or what it could become. The studio’s latest,Captain America: The Winter Soldieris another solid base hit - a base runner just waiting to get home once the clean-up batter, in this caseAvengers: Age of Ultron, gets up to the plate next year.
Chris Evans once again puts in a terrific performance as Steve Rogers - an earnest, honest, good-natured individual who embodies all that America can and should be. And yet, he never once comes across as square or old-fashioned. Quite the opposite in fact. He seems several steps ahead, as if he’s better than everyone - and knows it - yet is too humble to let it dictate how he treats people. While true that he’s a legitimate superhero, with super powers, his real super power seems to be his uncompromising morality - his only allegiance, despite what his uniform may lead you to believe, is to ethics and Truth. That doesn’t provide for a lot of character growth, but it does provide for an interesting character.
The story itself is engaging if a bit cliche. In fact, at times, it feels a bit too much like Iron Man Three. Wasn’t the United States government infiltrated by terrorists at the highest levels in that film as well? Oh well, it doesn’t detract from the story on the whole, but there isn’t anything terribly original here. Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable, and the conspiracy at the heart of the plot is the rare one that manages to be as dangerous and incendiary as the lead-up leads you to believe. And it has real repercussions for our characters and our universe, and that is to be applauded. Far too often in genre filmmaking (and television), producers make liberal use of the “reset” button - not the case here (well, not so far, anyway).
Where the film really shines, however, is in the action. While personally, I found the gun violence to be a bit too heavy handed (one of the things I tend to like about super hero films is that the violence isn’t grounded; it’s, by nature, fantastical - here, there are a lot of “real” deaths), the hand-to-hand combat scenes are really quite superb - fast, intense, closely shot, and hard-hitting. There are several times throughout this film where you can “feel” the pain, the nature of the hit. I was never particularly concerned for Thor’s safety during Thor: The Dark World or The Avengers, but here, Steve and company take a beating. It’s refreshing and thrilling to watch.
Though the climax doesn’t quite live up to its promise (one would think that three helicarriers battling it out over Washington, D.C. would top 40 or so Iron Man suits fighting fiery mutants at a desolate Miami port any day of the week, but that isn’t quite the case) and the plot is at times a bit arbitrary and on-the-nose (could not Project Insight simply have been implemented without asking permission from the World Security Counsel? Could not it have been implemented when Nick Fury was out of the country?), this is still a hugely enjoyable political-action thriller. It raises the stakes and the spectacle and leaves me hungry for more - bring on Summer 2015!
Her (2013) - While there’s a lot to praise here - the story is thought-provoking and the performances are superb - what I love most aboutHeris its production design. K.K. Barrett, Spike Jonze, and Casey Storm have done a superb job of conceptualizing and bringing to fruition a recognizable yet equally distant believable near future. From the clothes to the color pallete to the furniture to the industrial design, no small detail has been overlooked - and it looks uniformly amazing.
I love the trousers. I love the shirts. I love the voice-interface computers. I love the UX/UI design of the operating systems. I love the architecture design (an amalgam of current Los Angeles and Shanghai). I love the video game design. I love the furniture design. I love the 747 sculpture. Everything simply looks incredible, and is different enough from the present to unquestionably represent the “other” while not being too different to come across as gimmicky.
Lest I lose my focus or praise the film for the wrong reasons, however, it’s also important to note that the story really is compelling. I may have had preconceived notions about the believably of the story going into it, but coming out of it, it felt natural and intuitive. And unbelievably authentic.
Every range of human emotion is explored here, and the full spectrum of relationship phases is represented with startling authenticity. Being that Spike Jonez wrote the screenplay, I can only surmise that he’s broken up with a partner or two over his time, because that aspect of the story feels completely genuine.
Yet the story only works because it’s brought to life through Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s performances, which are both superb and natural. In particular, Johansson’s voice acting lives up to the hype - it’s as if she were on set reacting in real time.
Whether you view this film with a sci-fi perspective or from a romance perspective, I think you’ll find it delivers. Quite impressive.
THOR: The Dark World (2013) - Humor makes Thor’s universe work, and I’d say the Marvel cinematic universe in general. With Norse demi-gods embroiled in family drama, and terrible plots to destroy the entire universe, you could see the movie going for the “gritty”, “real” formula.
And it does, in how it looks and feels. Nothing feels “unnatural”, in that nothing seems overtly cartoonish. Everything has rich textures and nuances, from the world of Asgard to the costumes and characters themselves. The special effects are nearly flawless, and quite beautiful in some instances.
However things never get bogged down in a self-serious tone. Jokes are cracked throughout, and it reminds people that this whole trip is supposed to be fun. THOR relies heavily on that, because his universe is so outlandish and requires genuine laughs for people to keep their belief suspended. It helps when most of the wisecracks are coming from the charismatic villain/rogue/trickster Loki, whom the audience loves. I think Marvel has learned to trust in that tactic for the rest of their films as well - if you keep the laughs going, the audience will return for a fun time. Iron Man 3, for all its pathos, still had some really funny moments.
Perhaps Marvel will try to make its great tragedy someday, its own “The Dark Knight”, full of pedigree, sweeping emotions and staying power. But for now, Marvel is content making a slew of great movies that aren’t timeless classics, but are immensely entertaining.
Brilliantly enough, by consistently pumping these movies out across a connected cinematic universe, Marvel has serialized movies. They’ve become epic comic books. Now people love Thor and Loki, not Thor’s first movie or the second. People didn’t like Iron Man 2? Well they love Iron Man, so they’re coming back for more when he comes back. But I doubt people will watch Iron Man 3 in 30 years the same way people watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade now. In other words, I think people will look back and remember the characters Marvel’s created more than their individual movies… and the whole will probably be greater (and more profitable) than the sum of its parts.
Five Easy Pieces (1970) - A beautifully simple, naturalistic, and character-driven film, Five Easy Pieces in many ways represents a bygone era. I know that’s cliche, but I can’t help but think that it’s true. Such character-centric films are a rarity these days. Especially films that focus on such morally ambiguous individuals as Jack Nicholson’s Robert.
It should be stated plainly that Jack Nicholson is superb in this film. It is performances like this one that really serve to demonstrate that he is far more than just a gregarious personality - he’s a damn good actor too. Robert has little redeeming qualities (if any) and yet the viewer is drawn to him. I think the character is so engaging because he’s not outrightly looking to hurt or offend - he simply can’t help himself.
The story - of a once promising prodigy trying to find his way in the world as a “commoner” and reconcile with his estranged father while holding down a relationship - is engaging and authentic. And it is brought to life brilliantly through the acting and cinematography. The photography here is natural and free of unnecessary artifice, and it shines. The 70s is so well captured that the film acts as a sort of time machine.
I was really quite impressed with this film. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances; he plays a quite reprehensible character at times and yet you can’t help but watch. Highly recommended.
Captain Phillips (2013) - Paul Greengrass’ shooting style seems to consist of getting as much coverage as possible and then putting it together in the editing room in 1-2 second clips. And yet, this seemingly haphazard approach to filmmaking works quite well, because like United 93andThe Bourne Supremacybefore it,Captain Phillips just works. There’s no denying it. Shaky cam and all, it simply works.
This film possesses a real and palpable tension. Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, that you know the outcome beforehand doesn’t diminish the tension that the film manages to cast. Much of this success comes as a direct result of the score, which is perfectly in pitch with whatever tone the scene is trying to convey. I imagine if you watched this film without the music, it would lose much of its punch (like most films, admittedly). But with quick editing, an uninterrupted musical beat, and situations that possess a genuine gravity, don’t be surprised if you find yourself at the edge of your seat more often than not. It also helps that though I knew the outcome of the story, I didn’t have a good knowledge of the details.
The film is truly carried on the shoulders of Tom Hanks though, it must be said. Though the film doesn’t really find its feet until we’re out at sea with Captain Phillips and his crew (a brief prologue of sorts showing the captain and his wife driving to the airport could be from any primetime drama or miniseries, such was its mediocrity), once it does, Tom Hanks shines. I can’t say for sure how this performance ranks among his very best (the man, like Daniel Day-Lewis, has many, many good performances under his belt), but I can say that the last five minutes is Tom Hanks at his most raw and vulnerable since perhaps Philadelphia or the iconic funeral scene of Forrest Gump. It’s a truly emotionally stirring scene that had me feeling genuine and sincere sympathy for the character.
This is a well-made, beautifully photographed film. The stakes and action are real (everything here has been done practically; the ships and the helicopters and the ocean you see are all real), and the acting is at times superb. It should be noted also that the actors playing the Somali pirates do a superb job, to the point of eliciting empathy on their behalf. That they were non-actors scouted from a casting call in Minneapolis is remarkable.
Gravity (2013) - An absolute tour de force. Superlative in every manner which by a film can be judged. A film that pushes the art form forward and which will likely be seen as Cuaron’s masterpiece for the remainder of his career. I was thoroughly blown away. As an amateur filmmaker, I sat watching humbled and in awe.
Boy (2010) - Having seen both Eagle Vs. Shark and Boy, I think I can now say that I’m an unabashed fan of Taika Waititi. Though some may deride his films as being too heavily influenced by the likes of Wes Anderson and Jared Hess, I think such a blanket statement is unfair. While it’s true that his films are quirky and idiosyncratic, they are also wholly his own and show a love for New Zealand, Maori native culture, and the importance of Character.
Boy is engaging and clever from the start. A clear homage to Taika’s childhood (that the 1980s made up the bulk of his adolescence couldn’t be made more clear), the film is heartwarming, sincere, funny, sad, authentic, and playful all at once. Carried on the shoulder’s of James Rolleston and writer/director Taika Waititi, the film sings due to strong performances and real heart.
The film is a (rare) shining example of a movie that manages to be both character-driven and aesthetically-driven at the same time. Far too often, films only manage to achieve half of that equation: beautiful films come at the sacrifice of character and story while character-driven stories come at the expense of truly artistic direction and cinematography. Not the case here; there can be little doubt that every facet of the movie comes about as a result of a deliberately minded decision - something I applaud.
With all of the quirk of Eagle Vs. Shark but far more accessibility and more approachable characters, Boy represents a stellar sophomore effort from Taika Waititi. Suffice to say, he is a director to look out for and I anxiously await his next effort. The performances here are superb (James Rolleston in particular is truly special in the title role), the humor fresh and funny, and heart of the film firmly in place. I highly recommend it.
Sign Painters (2013) - This film lacks focus and a clear narrative (it’s primarily structured around a series of connected and not-so-connected vignettes, with the major supporting arch being that of sign painters discussing their craft), but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely engrossed. It is well shot, the individuals interviewed are compelling and original, and the film cleverly integrates custom lettering in a manner that is visually arresting and fitting of the subject matter.
Though I thought the film had its flaws, I still found it to be quite enjoyable. Nonetheless, I was definitely left wanting more. Perhaps because I have a deep appreciation for arts and crafts, or perhaps because I have an appreciation for individuals who pursue their passions to their farthest points, I was fully engaged with the film throughout. It pays beautiful homage to a dying art and makes a compelling case for the need to reintegrate art, crafts, aesthetics, design, and curation into modern society and culture.
The argument will always be made that it was better in “the old days” - it’s a tired argument, to be sure - but one gets the sense that in this particular case, the argument is valid and true. In today’s ever-changing world of lowest common denominator marketing, services, and product development, advertising is disposable more often than not, and the byproduct of that approach is a loss of quality. There is little doubt in my mind that subjectively, and perhaps objectively as well when one considers the overall effectiveness of the message being presented, hand-painted signs are far superior to today’s modern vinyl alternatives.
Sign Painters will make you love hand-painted signs. On my way home from the movie, I couldn’t help but be drawn to those outliers in the sea of clutter - beautifully painted signs. I wish I had a need for one in my life!
Blue Jasmine (2013) - It’s such a pleasure when I see character-driven films in cinemas these days. After all, at their heart and core, all films should be character-driven, but all too often, it seems that the opposite is true; films are plot-driven and the characters are merely along for the ride.
With Blue Jasmine, not only has Woody Allen put character first, but he’s put one of the most genuinely damaged, contemptible, fascinating, and engaging characters to screen since Daniel Plainview graced the screens in Paul Thomas Anderson’s incomparable There Will Be Blood. Mind you, the characters of Jasmine and Daniel Plainview share only superficial similarities. Nonetheless, the comparison is worth making if only to point out that both are emotionally damaged, their own worst enemies, and really quite loathsome people. And yet, they are our protagonists, the very people we’re supposed to be, if not rooting for, at the very least engaged with.
In Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen had the good fortune to find Cate Blanchett to bring this trying character to life, and I can’t envision anyone more suited for the role. She delivers a powerhouse of a performance; at every moment where you feel she has overcome some past transgression, Cate Blanchett brings her crashing down again, in dramatic and believable fashion. It’s quite a bear to witness, at points, as it feels genuine. As a human, your natural capacity for empathy can’t help but take hold; and yet, at the same time, you can’t help but get a feeling that the character is reaping what she sowed. This push-pull is what makes the character so interesting.
The authenticity and real world nature of the film are among its strongest traits. Films that don’t rely on special effects, heavily choreographed action sequences, murder plot devices, or shootouts seem to be the minority these days. With Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen has put character first and left us with a movie intended at adults. I was quite smitten.
It should be pointed out that all involved do a stellar job, including Andrew Dice Clay, Alec Baldwin, Louis CK, Peter Sarsgaard, Sally Hawkins, and Bobby Cannavale. Also of particular note, Michael Stuhlbarg of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man was born to play a dentist.
SAMSARA (2011) - Not many films can encapsulate the scope of human existence in a realistic, non-theoretical way. SAMSARA (the documentary from the creators of BARAKA) with a bit of patience and open-mindedness from the viewer, does just that.
Filmed in 70mm, the cinematography is breathtakingly superb. Which is lucky, because the film relies wholly on images and music - there’s no dialogue whatsoever. I believe this makes the film more contemplative and allows the viewer to get lost in it as an observer. Connections are made through the juxtaposition of the images, and their meanings are almost always clear.
I did feel some of the observations (fat Americans in a McDonald’s) were overdone - but when it’s proceeded by seeing the actual mechanics of the immense machinery that sustains that, it’s soul-wrenching.
Now available on Netflix Instant, I highly, highly recommend watching this film (experience enhancing additives welcome).