Monday, May 30, 2016

Movie Review: Zoolander 2

Zoolander 2
Directed by: Ben Stiller.
Written by: Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg based on characters created by Drake Sather & Ben Stiller.
Starring: Ben Stiller (Derek), Owen Wilson (Hansel), Penélope Cruz (Valentina Valencia), Will Ferrell (Jacobim Mugatu), Kristen Wiig (Alexanya Atoz), Kyle Mooney (Don Atari), Cyrus Arnold (Derek Jr.), Christine Taylor (Matilda), Justin Theroux (Evil DJ), Milla Jovovich (Katinka), Billy Zane (Billy Zane), Fred Armisen (VIP), Benedict Cumberbatch (All), Sting (Sting), Nathan Lee Graham (Todd).
When I saw the original Zoolander, in a nearly empty theater back in the fall of 2001, I didn’t laugh very much – I thought it was, to put it mildly, dumb and unfunny. It was the type of dumb comedy that I normally would have never given a second thought to after watching it once and not enjoying it. But, a few years later, my wife wanted to watch it for some reason – and so we did. And she laughed, and I laughed, and by the end, I found I had quite liked it. It became a favorite of my wife’s – and although it never went that far for me, I saw bits and pieces of the film a number of times over the years (and probably the whole movie once and twice more) – and I have to admit, my first impression of the film was wrong. It really is quite funny. It’s dumb, of course, but that’s part of its charm. I don’t know if it’s smart-dumb – like the best of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay movies – or dumb-dumb (like, uh, the worst of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay movies), but to this day, mention a freak gasoline fight accident to me, and I’ll laugh.
I skipped Zoolander 2 in theaters – not just because the reviews were bad, but also because with two kids at home, the number of movies my wife and I get to see in theaters together is limited – and I don’t think either one of us wanted to waste one on it (strangely, we did go to the movies the weekend Zoolander 2 came out – but like everyone else in the world we saw Deadpool instead – good call on our part) – and I figured if I had any chance of enjoying Zoolander 2, it would be with my wife, on the same couch where we have enjoyed the original Zoolander on any number of occasions. Dear reader, it didn’t help. Zoolander 2 is awful.
I’m not going to say I didn’t laugh at all during Zoolander 2 – that wouldn’t be accurate. Every time Kyle Mooney’s Don Atari opened his mouth, I laughed. Mooney is playing a young fashion designer who cheerfully announces that “That’s terrible. I love it”, or some variation on it, every time he opens his mouth, and it’s funny the first time you hear it – and somehow even funnier each successive time. I’d watch a whole movie about him.
But not much else had me as much as smiling throughout the film. The film is ridiculously over plotted – with a vast conspiracy led by Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who has been in fashion jail since the first movie, and centered on Zoolander’s son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who was taken away from him nearly a decade ago after the death of Zoolander’s wife (Christine Taylor – here in ghost form), when it became clear that Zoolander didn’t even know how to make pasta soft. He’s been in hiding ever since – as has Hansel (Owen Wilson) – who is having some problems with his orgy. They are drawn out of hiding, and eventually either enlist the help of, or become enlisted by, Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz), of the Fashion Division of Interpol, who is trying to stop whatever the hell is going on.
Aside from being ridiculously over plotted – the film is also basically a string of celebrity cameos from the Justin Bieber opening on down. Sometimes celebrities are basically doing nothing except standing in the background, and sometimes they have actual roles as themselves, and are admittedly good sports about mocking themselves – including a number of high profile fashion designers at the end, who portray themselves as members of a murderous cult.
To me, the film seemed rather toothless in its view of the fashion industry – an industry I know little about to be honest (whenever I find myself scrolling through those slideshows of the Best/Worst Dressed Celebrities, I end up being stunned about what is seen as good and bad fashion). Zoolander and Hansel are portrayed as empty headed idiots to be sure – but the rest of the industry isn’t. The shots they do take – like those fashion designers as murderous cultists – are so outlandish that they cannot be taken as a serious critique. The parade of celebrity cameos distracts from the film, as it desperately tries to shoehorn everyone in.
The surprising thing about Zoolander 2 is how lazy and slapped together the film feels. This feels like the type of thing that was rushed into production when the original became an unexpected hit, and the studio wants another one the next year to strike when the iron is hot. But the original came out 15 years ago, and has been a cult hit (it didn’t do very well at the box office either for more than a decade – with rumors of a sequel floating around for a long, long time. Stiller is a talented actor – but also a fine director of comedies as well – Tropic Thunder (2008) remains an on-point Hollywood satire for example. Here, he seems like he’s in cruise control – and everyone follows his lead. Now, to be fair, I didn’t like the original when I first saw it – it took me a few years to come around on it. If you want to be an optimist, perhaps the same thing will happen with Zoolander 2 – but I doubt it. For one thing, my wife hated it more than I did (she did not find Kyle Mooney funny) – so I don’t think we’ll be re-watching it again anytime soon.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Films of Todd Haynes: Safe (1995)

Safe (1995)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Carol White), Peter Friedman (Peter Dunning), Xander Berkeley (Greg White), James LeGros (Chris), Susan Norman (Linda), Kate McGregor-Stewart (Claire), Mary Carver (Nell), Steven Gilborn (Dr. Hubbard), April Grace (Susan), Lorna Scott (Marilyn), Jodie Markell (Anita), Brandon Cruz (Steve).
Todd Haynes’ Safe is a film that haunts you for days, if not weeks, after seeing it. It’s a film that gets under your skin, and stays there. It’s such an ambiguous film – but not because it doesn’t provide enough information for the audience, but perhaps because it supplies too much. There are multiple explanations that are plausible based on the evidence in the film, and yet that evidence does not contradict itself – but rather simply supplies an alternate theory. Haynes has always excelled at playing with genre – seemingly feeding audience expectations, and then twisting them completely around. He does that brilliantly in Safe – a film that confused and befuddled audiences in 1995, but has since gone on to be considered a masterpiece (for instance, it placed 1st on the Village Voice 1990s poll). When I first saw the film as a teenager, I don’t think I appreciated just how deep a film, how unsettling a film this is. Watching it again now – for the first time in years, it blew me away.
Safe is a film that is neatly bisected into two halves. The first is almost a domestic horror film, in which Carol White (Julianne Moore) plays rich housewife whose only major problem is that the furniture people have delivered a black couch, when she clearly ordered teal. She leads an orderly, if rather dull life, with her rather dull husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), and his son, her stepson. Haynes quickly establishes how dull their life is a few quick scenes at the beginning of the film, culminating in one of those movie sex scenes that films about bored housewives specialize in – with the husband on top grunting and thrusting away, not noticing his wife’s bored expression through the whole ordeal.
Yet, although Haynes maybe setting up a story of a bored housewife – something we’ve seen before – that’s not where he ends up. It quickly becomes apparent that Carol has deeper problems that a dull life – and that’s even before she starts getting sick in a way no one can understand. Carol is in many ways a cipher – a blank – a woman who has no connection to anyone or anything, and is so meek and quiet that she barely seems to be present in her own life. When she starts getting sick – when everything around her starting making her ill, from gas fumes, to perfume, to pretty much everything else, she has to deal with one patronizing man after another – her husband, who is barely able to control his anger at her for being ill, her family doctor, who condescendingly explains that she’s fine, it’s nothing but stress, to the specialist, who cannot understand what the hell Carol has to be stressed about. But Carol really is sick – you cannot deny that – but whether her symptoms are caused by the outside world, or are psychosomatic, is open for debate.
In the first half of the film, Haynes does a masterful job at directing – using the visuals, sound design and musical cues of a horror film, to gradually increase the tension and suspense, and generally cause audience unease. But Safe doesn’t have a horror movie villain stalking Carol – that villain is the mundane, white, suburban world that surrounds her, slowly choking the life out of her. Safe makes the mundane more horrific than any film I can think of.
That part of the film gives away to something completely different – and at first far more reassuring, although it ends up perhaps even more disturbing than the film’s first half. As Carol gets worse, she decides to head to a remote compound – led by Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a man with AIDS and the same environmental disorder that Carol has. At first, this hippie-like commune seems relaxing and reassuring, but darker undertones start seeping in. Is this a cult? Is Peter blaming people for their own illness? And why does Carol seemingly get worse and worse while she’s there? Haynes, who at the time was one of the leaders of the New Queer Cinema introduces Peter – a supposedly gay character – and at first he seems like a savior. Only gradually do you start to see how messed up things really are on that compound. And if you think this is a journey of rediscovery for Carol – one where the bored housewife rediscovers her lust for life – you’d be wrong there as well. Haynes toys with the audience here – introducing a potential love interest (James LeGros), that he than does nothing with. Carol, it seems, is just as much of a cipher as always – even in one of her final scenes, where she is asked to give a speech to those in the commune, she struggles to do anything other than regurgitate the empty platitudes they have been feeding her.
This is the first time Haynes is working with Julianne Moore – and the result is one of the finest performances of Moore’s career – and one that anchors the movie more than the not so great performances in Haynes’ Poison, which kind of hurt the film. Despite the fact that Carol is a little bit of blank, Moore understands her so completely, and makes her more sympathetic than such a passive character normally would be. This was right near the beginning of Moore’s career – her first real leading role – and it remains one of the great performances of her career – and really of the 1990s.
Safe is pretty obviously an AIDS metaphor – much like part of Poison was. This time though, Haynes makes it harder to turn away, and doesn’t offer the same sort of distancing device as the 1950s B-movie plot of the Horror section of Poison did. Carol really is sick – and getting progressively worse throughout the movie. And even though everyone seems to think they have the answer, they don’t, and Carol ends up even more alone than where she began. Safe is an unsettling masterpiece – an impossible film to pin down, but one that will haunt you. You may love or hate the film – but you won’t forget it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Movie Review: High-Rise

Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Amy Jump based on the novel by J.G. Ballard.
Starring: Tom Hiddleston (Laing), Jeremy Irons (Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte), Luke Evans (Wilder), Elisabeth Moss (Helen), James Purefoy (Pangbourne), Keeley Hawes (Ann), Peter Ferdinando (Cosgrove), Sienna Guillory (Jane), Reece Shearsmith (Steele), Enzo Cilenti (Talbot), Augustus Prew (Munrow), Dan Renton Skinner (Simmons).
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise confirms a few things about the talented British filmmaker. The first is that he is utterly fearless in terms of what topics he’s going to explore, the graphicness of the violence and sex he depicts. The second is that he is a supremely gifted visual stylist – here appropriating some imagery from Stanley Kubrick, but still making it his own. His decision to keep the setting of Ballard’s novel – in the near future of the time when the novel was written in the 1970s – is great in any number of ways – it doesn’t have to strain for contemporary relevance (although it has it) and really does allow Wheatley to play with the idea of what was modern back then. The film really is a master class in production design that is both retro and futuristic. It confirms that Wheatley is gifted at switching tone from one moment to the next – his breakthrough film, Kill List, went from one kind of film to another in each of the three acts (the only connecting tissue is that all three acts are violent), his follow-up, Sightseers, was a pitch black comedy about a murdering British couple. In High-Rise, the film switches tones frequently, often in the same scene, and yet it all feels like the same movie. Unfortunately, it also confirms what is perhaps Wheatley’s biggest problem as a filmmaker – his weakness with narrative. The events of High-Rise are not always clear. But, while that is certainly a flaw, it isn’t a fatal one. After all, even if what sets off some incidents isn’t always clear, it’s still easy to understand class warfare.
The film opens after all the chaos the movie will depict has already happened. Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, who is sitting on the balcony of his luxury apartment, in a building that looks like it has survived a riot, which is what it has. He’s cooking a dog’s leg over a spit and reflecting on everything that led him here, and everything that happened in the building over the last three hectic months – which will make up the bulk of the movie. We flash back to that time, when Laing moves into the luxury building, where the rich live at the top, and the poor at the bottom. Laing is closer to the top than the bottom, surely, but not in the upper echelon. He first meets his upstairs neighbor – Charlotte (Sienna Miller), who he is informed kind of holds everyone together. Everyone knows Charlotte. This is how he’ll meet Wilder (Luke Evans) – a documentary filmmaker from the lower floors, and his very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), and also how he’ll meet Royal (Jeremy Irons), who designed the building, and lives in ridiculous, opulent luxury in the penthouse, who has everything he could ever want – and yet his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes) is still not satisfied.
Hiddleston is in fine form as Laing – who is a good conduit for the audience, neither too high nor too low – and an almost passive character, who doesn’t really take sides. In many movies, this would make him a dull character – but Hiddleston plays him well – he’s more amused by everything around him than anything else, until he starts to slowly slip into insanity, with the rest of the building (although his insanity is perhaps a little bit more private). Hiddleston is always great as Loki in The Avengers movies, but he’s become one of those actors who I look forward to seeing in almost anything. He is well supported by the cast – Sienna Miller, having a welcome career resurgence in the last few years, who is sexy as hell as Charlotte, but who gradually becomes more than that, Luke Evans, all pent-up, class resentment and rage and Elisabeth Moss, doing a fine British accent, and trying hard to be the dutiful housewife. Some of the performances by the upper class – including Irons, Hawes and James Purefoy – pour it on a little too thick for me, but then again, High-Rise is not really about subtlety.
High-Rise has a few problems in it – perhaps most notably that after about an hour or so, the film has said everything it really has to say, and then just keeps going for another hour. This would be a bigger a problem if Wheatley’s style, and the performances, didn’t keep the movie afloat – both as a supreme entertainment, as a disturbing allegory. The political side of the movie is admittedly rather simple –and generic enough that you could use it to attack anyone from Margaret Thatcher (perhaps the intended target) to Donald Trump, or hell, even Bernie Sanders. This dulls the political impact just a little.
Yet, what Wheatley is able to do from the beginning to end of High-Rise is make a film that is entertaining, funny, disturbing and highly stylized. He’s keeping a lot of balls in the air during High-Rise, and for the most part, he keeps them there throughout. High-Rise is a fascinating movie – Wheatley nails Ballard’s tricky tone better than perhaps anyone else has (I think Cronenberg’s Crash is a better film – but it’s as much Cronenberg as it is Ballard), and the chaos Wheatley puts on screen is wonderful. Films like High-Rise are bound to have flaws – but it’s not the flaws of the film you will remember.

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys
Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring: Russell Crowe (Jackson Healy), Ryan Gosling (Holland March), Angourie Rice (Holly March), Matt Bomer (John Boy), Margaret Qualley (Amelia Kuttner), Yaya DaCosta (Tally), Keith David (Older Guy), Beau Knapp (Blueface), Lois Smith (Mrs. Glenn), Murielle Telio (Misty Mountains), Gil Gerard (Bergen Paulsen), Daisy Tahan (Jessica), Kim Basinger (Judith Kuttner), Jack Kilmer (Chet).
Shane Black is probably one of the few writers who have spent their career writing screenplays for action movies who has a readily identifiable style – a distinctive dialogue style – that comes through in each of the films he has written. They are not all good films – and sometimes that dialogue doesn’t work – either because the actor doesn’t get it, the director doesn’t get it, or perhaps, sometimes, it’s just plain bad. But in the right actors hands – like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, or Robert Downey Jr. in Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – the dialogue soars. That’s the case with his third directorial effort – The Nice Guys – as well. In many ways, The Nice Guys is a prototypical buddy action movie/neo noir – with the hard drinking, fast talking Holland March (Ryan Gosling), teamed up with the brute force, straight man Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). But whatever The Nice Guys lacks in terms of originality, it more than makes up for it sheer entertainment value. This movie is fun.
The film opens in 1977, Los Angeles, and we are quickly introduced to the two main characters – that don’t know each other yet. Crowe’s Healy is a tough guy for hire – he’ll beat up anyone for a price, and he’s very good at his job. Gosling’s March is P.I. who is sleazy, but lovably so – he’ll take the job of finding an elderly woman’s “missing” husband, even though he clearly spots his urn on the mantelpiece – but at least he’s nice about it. March has been hired to look for the supposedly dead porn star Misty Mountains – who we know is dead, but whose aunt (Lois Smith) is convinced is alive. His investigation leads him to be looking for one of Misty’s co-workers – named Amelia – who doesn’t want to be found. Amelia hires Healy to get March off her back – which he does. But when Healy is visited by two tough guys, with murder in their eyes, also wanting to find Amelia – who he has now lost track of – he feels responsible for her, and wants to find her himself. But he’s no P.I. – so he hires March to help him. The film then takes a lot of twists and turns – going from a party for the porn industry and another for the auto industry – and introducing more and more characters, none of whom can really be trusted. If Healy and March are The Nice Guys – it’s really only by comparison. They’re not really nice, but each does live by a code, which no one else in the film really seems to – although, to be fair, sometimes March’s 13-year old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice – very good) has to remind them just what that code is. She is also the smartest one in the movie.
The Nice Guys delights in its 1977 setting, not just in the large, gas guzzling cars everyone drives, or the production and costume design, or the period music – which, of course, the movie also has fun with – but in many ways, the attitudes of the films from that decade as well. I wouldn’t really argue with people – particularly women – who don’t like the copious amounts of female nudity in the film – particularly by actresses who don’t get a real character to play, although Black never really judges his characters, and seems to be reveling in, pre-AIDS sexual freedom, where sex was just fun, man (he has more fun poking fun at the moralizes against porn in a few scenes).
The reason to watch the movie is for Gosling and Crowe, who are the least likely comedic pairing I could imagine, and perhaps that’s why it works so well. Crowe is not a naturally funny actor (just watch his episode of Saturday Night Live from a month or so ago for an example of how unfunny someone can be while trying to be funny), but he is perfectly cast as the exasperated straight man in the film. He gets laughs precisely because he doesn’t seem to be trying to get them. Gosling tries for laughs – and gets them – because his character is so goofy and clumsy, and because of his expert delivery of Black’s dialogue – that gives him all the best lines. He does physical comedy as well – a couple of pratfalls for example, and an excellent piece of extended comedy at the climatic shootout. Gosling continues to expand his range as an actor – and he’s wonderful here.
The Nice Guys probably could have used an edit – the film is about two hours long, but it drags in places, and could have been tightened up. The ending feels rushed, in part, I think because Black was having so much fun writing scenes for Gosling and Crowe to play off each other, he sometimes loses sight of the plot (the main bad guy doesn’t even entered the movie until well past the halfway point). Still, the movie isn’t really about its plot – it’s about the dialogue and the performances, and in that way it works. Between Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, Black only directed one film – Iron Man 3. Whether Downey Jr. got him that job because their previous pairing was one of his major comeback vehicles or not, that film felt like watered down Black – there are moments that feel like his, but for the most part – like every other director who enters the Marvel world his personal style is flattened in the Marvel house style. Black should leave those films to others – there’s lots of people who can execute them – but only a few who could write and direct a film as funny and entertaining as The Nice Guys.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Movie Review: Dheepan

Directed by: Jacques Audiard.   
Written by: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré.
Starring: Jesuthasan Antonythasan (Dheepan/ Sivadhasan), Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Yalini), Claudine Vinasithamby (Illayaal), Vincent Rottiers (Brahim), Faouzi Bensaïdi (Monsieur Habib), Marc Zinga (Youssouf), Bass Dhem (Azziz), Franck Falise (Janitor of Hall C), Joséphine de Meaux (Headmistress), Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux (jurist), Nathan Anthonypillai (Interpreter), Vasanth Selvam (Colonel Cheran).
Dheepan is three quarters of a great movie, where, unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to know how the story should end, so they tack on an action movie climax to an otherwise quiet, closely observed character study. The film was directed by Jacques Audiard – who also did The Beat My Heart Skipped, A Prophet and Rust & Bone – and it must be said that he knows how to direct that action movie climax brilliantly – doing so in a way that isn’t quite like anything in a Hollywood action movie, while still be viscerally satisfying. Still, it’s disappointing that the film goes there instead of trying to do something more complex – like the rest of the film is.
The movie opens in Sri Lanka, which is where we first meet Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) – a member of the Tamil Tigers, whose first action is to cover up some dead bodies with palm leaves as they are set on fire. Flash forward to a refugee camp where a young woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) is searching for a girl who can pass for 9-years old – any girl will do. She finally finds one (Claudine Vinasithamby), and takes her to a shack where she, the girl and Sivadhasan, are all given new passports – taken from dead bodies. They are now to pose as a family – Sivadhasan is now Dheepan, the young woman is now his wife Yalini and the girl is Illayaal – and they are shipped off to France as refugees. Dheepan ends up getting a job as a caretaker of a huge housing project that is basically run by drug dealers, who do nothing to hide their actions from him or anyone else. He’s been told to ignore them, and work around them, and that’s what he does. Yalini longs to leave, and go to a cousin in England, but Dheepan wants her to stay – the only way their ruse will work is if she sticks it out. She eventually gets a job cooking and cleaning for an invalid in one of the buildings – although a scary drug dealer, Brahaim (Vincent Rottiers) basically uses that apartment as a front. Yalini feels nothing for Dheepan – or their “daughter” – at least not at first. Illayaal is scared – which is natural – and has some trouble at school, before she settles in. She is also the only one who initially knows any French, and she tries her best to translate for her new parents.
In the first couple of acts of Dheepan, the film does a masterful job at showing how these three characters interact with the world outside their apartment – and with each other inside of it. Outside, they try their best to put on a happy front, but it’s hard. The movie shows how these characters are dislocated from everything they know – how hard it is to fit in a country where you do not speak the language, and the difficulty on maintaining their charade. The drug dealers who run the project look straight through Dheepan – like he isn’t even there. His past in Sri Lanka is never more than hinted it – both in terms of what exactly he did in the war – how many people he killed, etc. – and his personal life, including a perhaps dead family. Antonythasan is terrific in the role – that echoes his own story (although he fled far younger than his character did) – as he registers so much of his pain on his face. Srinivasan is his equal as Yalini – we know absolutely nothing about her past – and her gradual softening towards both Dheepan and Illayaal – she used them to get away from Sri Lanka – but has no intent of sticking around. But being in such close proximity will inevitably do something to you. There are tender moments between her and Dheepan. Her “friendship” with Brahim is interesting as well – when she first enters that building, she is terrified – the long stairway she has to ascend is dark, there are drug dealers and chained up pit bulls around every corner. Brahim seems nice at times – and there is a terrific scene where she reveals things to him that she never does anyone else in the film – and she only does so because she knows he cannot understand a word she is saying. Rottiers is terrific as Brahim – he can be very charming and likable, but he’s able to flip a switch, and violence flares into his eyes, and you know he is capable of killing anyone who maybe a threat to him. Vinasithamby as Illayaal is quite good, in what is ultimately an underwritten role. The film seems to lose interest in her story fairly on, which is a shame. After all, if Dheepan and Yalini are struggling to assimilate, and hold onto themselves, how much more difficult would that be for a child, who has lost everything, and is now thrust into a new “family” in a country she does not understand.
Dheepan fits in very neatly with the other Audiard films I mentioned above – all of which, on some level, are about violent people who try to leave that behind, and gain some sort of redemption. Audiard does a great job in Dheepan of showing how these three people leave chaos in their own country, and enter a completely new kind of chaos in what was supposed to be a more peaceful, civilized place. He draws two excellent performances out of his non-experienced leading actors. But the ending really does not work – or to put it more bluntly, is far too conventional an ending for everything that leads up to it. That Dheepan has violence in him was something known from the beginning – but the way it explodes out of him seems rather arbitrary and contrived, no matter how well staged it was by Audiard. I’m not sure what to make of the very last shot in the movie either – which is, I think, an attempt to return to what was happening before the violence – but I’m not sure quite works.
Dheepan won the Palme D’or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – arguably the most prestigious award in all of cinema. That in a year where the official competition contain films like Son of Sail, Mountains May Depart, The Assassin, Sicario, The Lobster and Carol that Dheepan would be judged to be the best is, to me, rather obviously wrong. Yet, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to like about Dheepan – from its performances, to almost everything in first three quarters of the film, to even the staging of the action in the last act. Yes, I think Audiard has made better films before, and the ending here hits the wrong notes. But everything until then is excellent.

Movie Review: The Angry Birds Movie

The Angry Birds Movie
Directed by: Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly   
Written by: Jon Vitti.
Starring: Jason Sudeikis (Red), Josh Gad  (Chuck), Danny McBride (Bomb), Maya Rudolph (Matilda), Bill Hader (Leonard), Peter Dinklage (Mighty Eagle), Sean Penn (Terence), Keegan-Michael Key (Judge Peckinpah), Kate McKinnon (Stella / Eva the Birthday Mom), Tony Hale Ross / Cyrus / Mime), Hannibal Buress (Edward the Birthday Dad), Ike Barinholtz (Tiny), Tituss Burgess (Photog), Ian Hecox (Bubbles), Anthony Padilla (Hal), Jillian Bell (Helene the Lunch Mom / Yoga Instructor), Billy Eichner (Chef Pig / Phillip), Danielle Brooks (Olive Blue / Monica the Crossing Guard), Blake Shelton (Earl Pig), Charli XCX (Willow).
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve wasted more than a few hours of my life playing various versions of Angry Birds on my various iPhones over the years – from the original to Star Wars to a Rio inspired one, etc. The game is simple – a huge slingshot allows you to fire birds, all of which have different abilities, at various structures and buildings – all of which are rather unsteady if birds can break them – and are inhabited by green pigs, who it is your mission to kill. Why birds and pigs are mortal enemies, I do not know, and when playing the game, I don’t much care. The game is fun, and so I play it. There really is no reason why anyone should want to take this game and turn it into a big budget, animated movie for kids – beside money of course – but there also isn’t any real reason why doing so had to result in a bad movie. After all, the idea of a Lego movie sounded stupid at first – and it turned out to be one of the original and entertaining animated films in years.
Unfortunately, The Angry Birds Movie is not the second coming of the Lego Movie. It’s more like, well, pretty much any movie based on a video game you can think of (now that I think about it, it’s actually one of the best movies ever to be based on a video game – but considering the list of good movies based on video games is essentially one film long – Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within – that’s not much of an accomplishment). It is an animated film aimed at kids that also tries very hard to be entertaining for the parents as well – the movie, like the Shrek films, peppers lots of adult jokes alongside all the kiddie stuff. The mix never really works, although admittedly, there are a few clever sight gags throughout (which I won’t spoil – if you’re stuck seeing this with your kids, you may as enjoy the surprise of those).
The story involves Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) – who has never really fit in with his bird brethren on Bird Island. Everyone else is seemingly happy all the time, and Red isn’t. After an incident at a child’s birthday party, a judge sentences him to Anger Management classes – where he meets Chuck (Josh Gag) – a speedy yellow bird- and Bomb, a, uh, bomb (Danny McBride) – who will become his sidekicks of a sort, and Matilda (Maya Rudolph), their overly cheerful teacher, who lets her suppressed rage slip out occasionally. Things go from bad to worse when a couple of pigs – led by Leonard (Bill Hader) arrive in ships, apparently arriving as friends. But as more and more pigs reveal themselves, Red grows more and more suspicious – although he’s the only one. He is, of course, right – and eventually the birds will have to attack the pigs on their turf using, you guessed it, a giant slingshot.
I’m not going to try and say that Angry Birds is a horrible movie. It really isn’t – and it moves quickly enough that you’re probably not going to be bored by it. The animation is at least reasonably well done, and if the message is tried and true, it’s also effective. Your kids will probably love it – my almost five year old did (mind you, last summer, she said that Minions was better than Inside Out, so I have some serious doubts about your critical acumen).
But the movie really isn’t very good – it’s merely “good enough”. Good enough to entertain kids who are not very demanding of their entertainment, and good enough for the parents that it won’t be overly painful to sit through it. Nothing here is headache inducing, and at least the film isn’t one of those sickly sweet animated film either. The film is an exercise in brand extension, and little else. Then again, that’s all it was trying to be.

Movie Review: Creative Control

Creative Control
Directed by: Benjamin Dickinson.
Written by: Micah Bloomberg & Benjamin Dickinson.
Starring: Benjamin Dickinson (David), Nora Zehetner (Juliette), Dan Gill (Wim), Alexia Rasmussen (Sophie), Reggie Watts (Reggie Watts), Gavin McInnes (Scott), Paul Manza (Govindas / Brett), Jay Eisenberg (Hollis), Himanshu Suri (Reny), Meredith Hagner (Becky), Jake Lodwick (Gabe).

In case you had any doubts about, Creative Control confirms it – in the near future, Brooklyn hipsters will still be insufferable. The film takes place in that world of ironic beards and tech companies and yoga instructors and etc. that you know from a lot of indie movies – some of them even good. It is the “near future”, and the main character is David (Benjamin Dickinson – who also co-wrote and directed the film). He’s an ad agency executive, whose latest client is “Augmenta” – which is a company that has created a pair of glasses, like Google Glass, that allows you to everything your smart phone can do, while having the added benefit of making you look like a tool. The new development is what the company calls “Augmented Reality” that the try to explain why it’s different than virtual reality, but I don’t think I ever quite get why it is except its better. But there’s already a bigger Virtual Reality company out there, so David’s job will be to find a way to make Augmenta the cooler company – which of course means he hires Reggie Watts, playing himself, to be the spokesperson and do all sorts of cool things with the technology. If there’s one way to get hipsters on board, apparently it’s Reggie Watts - who, admittedly, is very talented – although this movie doesn’t really give a chance to show that. That’s because the movie loses sight of the technology itself, as David spirals downward into obsession.
David is living with Juliette (Nora Zehetner) – a yoga instructor, with a penchant for large, floppy hats. He is best friends with Wim (Dan Gill) – a womanizing photographer, who sends David all sort of texts with pictures of himself engaged in sex acts with whatever model is willing to fuck him. Wim does have a steady girlfriend when he isn’t banging models – this is Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen) – an artist, who David has a crush on, and will eventually bring to work with him at the ad agency. His crush starts growing more and more – and reaches obsessive heights when he uploads her image into his Augmenta glasses – and immediately starts having that image fuck him. He loses site of everything else around him – his job is in jeopardy, he drives Juliette away, he alienates Wim, and the real Sophie, but he cannot stop.
I can see how a movie like Creative Control could work – and, to be fair, I’m perhaps being a little snarkier than the movie actually deserves, as it did hold by attention in the first half of its 97 minute runtime as I wondered where it was headed. Its premise isn’t all that different than Spike Jonze’s her for example – and both films are really about becoming so lost in technology that we lose sight of the actual people around us on a daily basis. After a while though, it becomes clear that Creative Control doesn’t really have anything to say on its subjects. The glasses do not turn David into a dick – he was a dick before he put on those glasses – and Wim is even worse. The two main female characters are not sketched with any real depth to make them believable. Juliette’s own spiral down, because of David’s growing distance from her, never real feels believable – especially not as becomes loopy near the end and sleeps with another yoga instructor in a sexual experience she describes as having her see angels - unfortunately, while there is quite a lot of sex in the movie, this sex scene happens off camera, which is a shame, because I would have loved to see a sex scene that made someone see angels and have a previously sane character like Juliette start sounding like a cult member. I think the fact that the movie makes Rasmussen’s Sophie so much a cipher is deliberate – she is hard to read, because the film wants to make clear that David isn’t in love with her – just in the version of her he creates for himself to fuck. It’s still a shame though, since Rasmussen was so good in Zack Parker’s criminally under seen (and underrated) horror film Proxy, and I was hoping to see her into something great again. Oh well.
The film does look great though – I’ll give it that. I’m a sucker for new movies shot in black and white to begin with, but Dickinson and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra do in fact find inventive ways to shoot the city, especially in some of the party scenes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dickinson made a really good movie one day – he’s got visual chops, and some interesting ideas. But Creative Control never really goes anywhere, and it runs out of steam on its way to its obvious conclusion.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Films of Todd Haynes: Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)

Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes.
Starring: J. Evan Bonifant (Steven Gale), Barbara Garrick (Lorraine Gale), Julie Halston (Dottie Frank), Robert Pall (Steven's Father), Harriet Sansom Harris (Sharon's Mother), Irving Metzman (TV Show Guide), Ashley Chapman (Sharon), Rhea Silver-Smith (Darcy), Gina Gallagher (Kim), Adam Arkin (Dick Gordon), Richard DeDomenico (Dream Messenger).
There are many superlatives that can be used to describe Todd Haynes, but funny usually isn’t one of them. Out of all of his work, it’s really only the 30 minute TV short Dottie Gets Spanked that could be described as a comedy – and even then, Dottie Gets Spanked is actually a pretty serious comedy – one that addresses issues of identity and exclusion that Haynes has focused on throughout his career. His feature debut, Poison, was all about social outcasts – and the violence and oppression they endure. Dottie Gets Spanked approaches similar subject matter – but in a much lighter way – and ends up being even better for it.
The film, like much of Haynes work, takes place in American suburbia (this time, in the 1960s). Young Steven is around 10 or 11 years old, and he is obsessed with Dottie – a Lucille Ball like comedienne, with a sitcom where cartoonish husband often spanks her when she does something wrong. The girl’s in Steven’s class are likewise obsessed with Dottie – but that’s okay, because they are girls. Steven keeps his fandom to himself – sensing that it isn’t something that he should really be broadcasting to the other kids. His mother is supportive, as all mothers in idyllic suburbia are, but the father worries about his son obsessing over the girl show.
It would be tempting to read Dottie Gets Spanked as another allegory for homosexuality – that Steven fears reprisals for exposing who he really is, and you can certainly make that argument. But the sexuality on display in Dottie Gets Spanked is far more innocent than that – Steven lusts after Dottie in the way that only a kid who has no understanding of sex can – he sometimes imagining he is spanking her, and sometimes the other way around (at one point, Dottie is dressed as a man doing that, which may only suggest a more fluid kind of sexuality).
The film works in many ways. It certainly does foreshadow Haynes’ recreation of 1950s suburbia in Far From Heaven (that film is, of course, far more detailed than this one), and also looks backwards toward Poison, with its story of someone fearing be forced out of society for their feelings. But Dottie Gets Spanked doesn’t beat you over the head with its message like Poison does – and nor is it the parade of misery that Poison can sometimes be. In my review of Poison, I referred to it more as a “blunt instrument” than most Haynes films – and that is true. Dottie Gets Spanked certainly has a softer view of society – Steven never gets punished the way the protagonists in Poison are – and more subtle. It also benefits from not having to cut back and forth between different stories like Poison did – so the film has a chance to build throughout its 30 minute runtime. While much of the film is quite amusing – the end certainly strikes a note of melancholy (the symbolism in the final shots may be a touch heavy, but not too much).
Dottie Gets Spanked, which aired on PBS in 1993, shows real growth for Haynes – taking his ideas in a more subtle direction, while still showcasing his skills. Obviously, a 30 minute short doesn’t have the breadth of one of his best features – but there’s plenty here to admire. As many with oddities in directors filmographies – non-feature work – this tends to get overlooked (for instance, I’ve been a fan of Haynes for well more than a decade, and didn’t see it until recently). That should change – as while Dottie Gets Spanked doesn’t rank among Haynes’ very best work – it’s still a key film in his progression.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Movie Review: Money Monster

Money Monster
Directed by: Jodie Foster.
Written by: Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf.
Starring: George Clooney (Lee Gates), Julia Roberts (Patty Fenn), Jack O'Connell (Kyle Budwell), Dominic West (Walt Camby), Caitriona Balfe (Diane Lester), Giancarlo Esposito (Captain Powell), Christopher Denham (Ron Sprecher), Lenny Venito (Lenny - The Cameraman), Chris Bauer (Lt. Nelson), Dennis Boutsikaris (Avery Goodloe CFO), Emily Meade (Molly), Condola Rashad (Bree - The Assistant).
Watching Money Monster is kind of like being trapped in a room with an angry Bernie Sanders supporter for 97 minutes – you may be sympathetic to what they have to say, agree with much of it even, but the experience is still shrill and disagreeable. The people involved with making Money Monster are all talented – George Clooney and Julia Roberts are effortlessly charming and likable, and have good chemistry together, and young Jack O’Connell once again shows why he is a star in the making – even if he’s saddled with an impossible role. Jodie Foster has proven herself to be a fine director – sure more for her TV work than film, but her direction here is fine. The main problem is the screenplay which seems to be wanting to say a whole hell of a lot – combining elements of classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Wall Street – but not really having anything of interest to add to the conversations. Worse, it tries to wrap up everything in a neat little bow at the end – and put everything right in a world where we know it wouldn’t happen.
The story is about Lee Gates (Clooney) – a Jim Cramer-like host of a stock trading TV show called Money Monster. Because shows like Cramer’s Mad Money are already so over-the-top, the show in the movie that takes its name, has to go even further – and as Clooney dances around in gold top hats, with giant a giant money necklace, hitting buttons that deliver sound effects even the hackiest morning DJ would reject, you know the movie is in trouble before it even really gets going. Lee’s director is Patty (Roberts) – who likes him, but is tired of the shenanigans, so of course she’s just taken a job “across the street” – and will be leaving soon. That’s all before Kyle (O’Connell) comes storming into the studio – where the show is going out live – with a gun and takes Lee hostage. He makes him strap a bomb vest on, and tells Lee that he’s holding a dead man’s switch – essentially, if Kyle dies, the bomb goes off and everyone else dies as well. Kyle wants answers – the company that Lee had touted as being “safer than a savings account” had just tanked – losing $800 million in an afternoon. They’re trying to blame it all on a glitch in one of their high frequency trading algorithms – but are fuzzy on the details. The CEO of the company – Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be in studio for an interview – but at the last minute, he cancels – and is now on a plane somewhere, apparently unreachable. But Kyle – who lost his life savings in the crash – isn’t going anywhere until he gets answers. And wouldn’t you know it, Lee and his team – who have long ago given up doing any sort of actual journalism – start digging, and start finding that something isn’t right.
Clooney is an actor who is so effortlessly charming, that you don’t really realize that he’s all wrong for the role of Lee Gates. He’s one of those actors who exudes charm and intelligence, and he doesn’t look right in those early scenes when Lee is prancing around TV like a clown. Lee is a character who is supposed to find his moral compass again, after having lost it for years to make a quick buck – and while Clooney is very good after that conversion, the conversion comes way too fast, and everything before it seems rushed. Clooney is endlessly watchable in the film – but the role needed an actor better able of being slimy and amoral at the beginning of the film, to have that conversion mean anything. Roberts fares better, if only because her role isn’t nearly as complex – she’s someone who has tired of churning out the crap being asked of her on a daily basis – who immediately switches into high gear when she gets a chance to do real work again. With this, and Secret in Their Eyes last year, Roberts has actually done two very good performances in a row, in movies that are both quite bad. O’Connell’s role as Kyle – the crazed gunman, who’s crazy conspiracy may actually be true, has an impossible role to play. Why does he do what he does? What is his ultimate plan? Even if he gets what he wants, so what? As we get more information about him later on, his actions make even less sense. Still, O’Connell is a talented actor, and he does what he can with the role – which is a hell of a lot more than it deserves.
Money Monster is trying very hard to be a satire – it starts at over-the-top, and just keeps going. One of the good things about the movie is its frantic pace – this movie moves along at such a brisk clip, that you may not find you have much time to think about how little the film is actually saying. We’ve seen hostage movies before, we’ve seen media satires before, we’ve seen stories of Wall Street greed before – the movie somehow manages to combine all three, and yet not have anything of interest to say about any of them. Even as the reality behind the financial shenanigans comes out, it’s far more elaborate and unrealistic that the everyday greed we see on Wall Street – something that The Big Short did an excellent job of showing just a few months ago. No one would think of a scheme this complex to make money – simply because they don’t have to. News has become entertainment, with no one really asking questions anymore? Network got there 40 years ago – hell A Face in the Crowd got there 60 years ago – if you don’t have much else to say other than that, why bother?
There is a lot of talent on screen in Money Monster – and behind the scenes as well. I’ll say this for the movie – it’s a watchable bad movie, not painful in any real way, because Clooney and Roberts are so charming, O’Connell sympathetic, and Foster’s direction keeps things moving. The movie practically yells in your face for 97 minutes, but it doesn’t have anything to say.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Movie Review: A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino.
Written by: David Kajganich and Alain Page.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Marianne Lane), Matthias Schoenaerts (Paul De Smedt), Ralph Fiennes (Harry Hawkes), Dakota Johnson (Penelope Lannier), Lily McMenamy (Sylvie), Aurore Clément (Mireille), Elena Bucci (Clara), Corrado Guzzanti (Maresciallo).
A Bigger Splash is a movie about four incredibly self-involved people, who spend the entire film needling each other. No matter what two – or more – characters are on screen at any one point, the threat that they could just stop talking and start fucking is very real. They are on an estate, on a beautiful, sunbaked Italian island, oblivious to anyone or anything outside of their own little world. They are all beautiful, rich and white, so of course, they do not have to care about anyone but themselves. By the end of the movie, you may well have concluded that they are all awful people – but you won’t be sorry that you spent two hours in their company – in fact, you may well wish you could do it in real life.
Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a rock star in the David Bowie vein (they’re playing with us here to be sure, as everyone knows we not only want, but need to see a Bowie biopic with Swinton in the lead role) – who has just had surgery on her vocal chords, that will hopefully repair them, although there is a risk that she’ll never sing again if they don’t heal right. She cannot speak above a whisper – and doesn’t do that often, but it doesn’t matter, because Swinton doesn’t need dialogue to be a mesmerizing screen presence. She’s at her house with her hunky, younger boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker and photographer, who is caring for her, even though he has some deep issues of his own he’s still working through. In the few brief scenes we see of them together, it looks like they’re in their own personal oasis – nothing is going to get in the way of their sundrenched, mud soaked orgy of indulgence. But, of course, it does. Harry (Ralph Fiennes) – Marianne’s former producer and boyfriend – calls and basically invites himself, and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), to stay with them. Penelope is 22, but only came into Harry’s life the previous year- before then, they didn’t know each other existed. Harry is wildly exuberant – he’s constantly on, constantly needing to be the life of the party, in a way that is initially charming, but eventually would become exhausting – which is the impression we get as to why he and Marianne are no longer together. It was Harry who introduced Marianne to Paul all those years ago – and the quieter, more laid back man seems to be more her speed, much to the chagrin of Harry, who thinks he’s a dullard.
All of these characters will have a chance to pair off at one point or another in scenes dripping with sexual tension – yes, even between father and daughter. Each of these interactions feel like they could either end in sex or violence, even if the dialogue seems rather innocent quite often. The four performances are all brilliant, in very different ways. Fiennes has no issues going completely over-the-top as Harry, and he can be a whirling dervish of unbridled energy. In his scenes with Swinton though, darker sides come out – he isn’t “on” as it were, but lets his real motivations for being there come out in full force. He’s a man trying to go backwards in time – and seems frustrated that Marianne has moved on. She has real love for him, but can no longer keep up with him – or more accurately, no longer wants to. Schoenaerts is the brooding figure, hiding his past, which doesn’t work, since everyone already knows about it. He has the intensity of Tom Hardy, and seems on the verge of either exploding, or imploding, depending on what happens next. Dakota Johnson is terrific here – playing what is admittedly, a clichéd role – the young, flirty sexpot, who knows precisely what sort of power her sexuality has, and uses it to her advantage. 50 Shades of Grey was a horrible movie – but in it, Johnson showed some real talent. Here, it’s put too much better use.
The film is directed by Luca Guadagnino, who took far too long following his wonderful I Am Love (2010) with this film. Watching that film, I was reminded of Italian master Luchinio Visconti, with its luscious colors, and opulent settings, and it’s in portrait of the familial and political, all at once. A Bigger Splash is perhaps a warmer version of an Antonioni film – with its shallow characters not caring about anything outside of themselves. But Guadagnino admits something that Antonioni didn’t in some of those films – that living like this can be fun, not just an opportunity to drown in existential angst.
It’s almost a shame when the film takes some left turns in terms of plot in the third act, which is also when it strains itself a little bit to underline its points about these characters living in a bubble of their own making, that it doesn’t really need to. It’s almost as if after two acts of just inhabiting the same space as these characters, Guadagnino and his screenwriters felt the need to impose some sort of plot of the characters that isn’t needed. At the same time, we start to overhear muffled TV/radio reports about drowning migrants and refugees, exposing the audience to the real world that these characters refuse to engage with (if any of the characters hear these reports, they don’t acknowledge them). To a certain extent, these elements are perhaps necessary – or else many would think that it’s the film, not the characters, who are oblivious to them. But they are rather ham fisted in adding them.
Overall though, A Bigger Splash works remarkably well – anchored by four great performances, and a director who knows just what to do with them – and the camera. It doesn’t reach the heights of I Am Love – but it comes close enough.

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War
Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based on comic books by Mark Millar and Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Don Cheadle (Lieutenant James Rhodes / War Machine), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton / Hawkeye), Chadwick Boseman (T'Challa / Black Panther), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang / Ant-Man), Emily VanCamp (Sharon Carter), Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Daniel Brühl (Zemo), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow / Crossbones), William Hurt (Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross), Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), John Kani (King T'Chaka), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Hope Davis (Maria Stark), Alfre Woodard (Miriam), Gene Farber (Karpov), Kerry Condon (Friday - voice).
You have to hand it to Marvel – and the various filmmakers – responsible for their larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are now 13 films – and 8 years - into this franchise, and the quality has been remarkably consistent over that time period. It’s easy to be cynical – and sometimes, I am – about the control that Marvel maintains over each of the films, which often seems to frustrate individual directors – sending more idiosyncratic directors like Edgar Wright off the projects, in favor of more directors with TV backgrounds, who will essentially execute the movies the way Marvel wants them to. Yes, there are differences in how the Russo brothers – directors of this and last Captain America movie – shoot compared to say Joss Whedon, who did the two Avengers films (mainly in terms of action sequences) – but not very much. This series really has become a big budget television series, with only two new, very long episodes per year. You turn up for these movies, pay your money, and like a weekly TV series, you know what you’re going to get before you sit down – and as long as Marvel delivers, you’ll turn up the next time as well. Remarkably, Marvel almost always seem to deliver. This cannot be easy – as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice proved just a couple of months ago. That film was a giant, humorless, confused, overstuffed monstrosity, and has sent Marvel’s rival, DC, and company scrambling back to the drawing board to figure out how to make something better, less cumbersome next time. They could just watch Captain America: Civil War for that. The two films are very similar in many ways, as it ends up setting two superheroes, who should be on the same side, against each other for an epic royal rumble, and brings along approximately 10 other superheroes – some we’ve seen before, some we haven’t – along for the ride as well. Remarkably, it all works – and that’s because it’s building off many of those previous films, so that even though some characters aren’t in the movie very long, we know who they are, and why they are fighting. Most importantly, it maintains a sense of humor throughout. I’ll probably always have mixed feelings on the Marvel movies – because I don’t like how everyone seems to be copying them, with lesser results – but there’s no real denying that they deliver fairly consistently.
The story of Civil War pits Captain America and Iron Man against each other. After the fallout of what happened in Avengers: Age of Ultron – where the villain created by Tony Stark dropped a city, and the Avengers did what they could, saving many lives, but not all of them – and another tragic incident that opens this film, where the Avengers fight against another old foe in an Africa nation – leading to some more deaths – the countries of the world has had enough. They want to bring the Avengers under some sort of control – make them answerable to someone. Stark leads the charge on this – it was, after all, his doing that create Ultron, and his crime fighting may be costing him everything he proclaims to love. Others share his concerns, and quickly sign on. But Captain America doesn’t – he distrusts the government – any government – and doesn’t want to be ordered he has to do something he doesn’t agree with, or be ordered not to do something he thinks he should. This is brought down to a more personal level, when his old friend Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier – is the prime suspect in a bombing that kills some very important people, and needs to be brought in. Cap knows they’ll kill him – and wants to do anything he can to prevent that from happening. In order to do that however, he has to become a criminal.
So that’s the setup – and its one that makes sense because of everything that we’ve seen the Captain American and Iron Man go through so far in this series. One of the most interesting things about this series is how they have portrayed Captain America – a square jawed, old fashioned character who stands for everything America should stand for, who finds himself at odds with much of what America now stands for – the country has changed so much since his WWII days. He has seen SHIELD destroyed, and fought against a high ranking government man who wanted to commit mass murder. His stance makes sense. As far as Iron Man goes, he is tired and just wants his life back. He has done some horrible things – in creating his weapons, and in creating Ultron – and to a certain extent, doesn’t trust himself with the power he has – and doesn’t really trust anyone else either. His position also makes sense. And, for the most part, where the other superheroes come down on the issue – from War Machine to Falcon to Ant-Man to Vision to Scarlet Witch to the Winter Soldier himself – makes sense as well (Hawkeye and Black Widow do seem to kind of randomly choose sides, but whatever).
The movie introduces two new characters to this universe – Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and both come off well. Black Panther gets far more screen time – as the film quickly sketches his relationship to his father, before they kill him, and his motivations for doing what he does. Black Panther will, of course, get his own movie in a couple of years, directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) – although Coogler is the best director who has ever been attached to a Marvel movie, so I’m practically dreading the inevitable “creative differences” press release. Boseman was the best part of two mediocre biopics – playing Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up, and he’s quite good here. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man only gets a couple of scenes – but he’s so good in them, and the portrayal of Spider-Man so fresh and fun – that it actually has me looking forward to his stand-alone movie as well (and thankfully, it seems like Uncle Ben is already dead – so hopefully, we get to skip hearing that story for the third time in recent years).
The action sequences are also really well handled. The big one happens at an airport, where everyone faces off against each other, and while it is fan service (like Iron Man vs. Hulk in Age of Ultron) – it’s still really well handled, a hell of a lot of fun (Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man responsible for much of that) that you don’t much care. The final showdown is much more small scale and intimate – and works all the better for it.
There are a few problems with the movie – of course. Marvel still has a villain problem. We’re 13 films in, and Loki remains the one truly memorable bad guy – and Daniel Bruhl’s bad guy here seems destined to join the ranks of Sam Rockwell, Guy Pearce et al in bad guys we completely forget about by the next movie. I also regret, a little, that we don’t get more of Captain America by himself. His first two stand alone movies are probably my two favorites of all the Marvel movies – and this one basically feels like another Avengers movie – slightly over packed, but still largely enjoyable. And perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t help but hope that sooner or later one of these Marvel movies explicitly address the homoeroticism in the air and have two male characters kiss – there are so many moments where Cap and Bucky stare into each other’s eyes for absurdly long periods of time, that you know if its was a man and woman, they would just get it over with and kiss already.
Basically, though, Captain America: Civil War works very well. It’s fun, fast paced and hugely enjoyable. It’s an example of this genre done right – and after the awful Batman v. Superman, it looks even better than it probably actually is on its own terms.