Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Continuing its unprecedented success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe marches onward with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This entry falls on the high end of the spectrum, not quite at the level of Iron Man or The Avengers but a good deal better than Iron Man’s two sequels and the Thor movies. The first Captain America was stronger than expected, and this sequel surpasses it. Despite the time gap of 70 years between the two stories, writers found clever ways to connect the films thematically, delivering a sequel that leans heavily on action while still spinning an engaging and worthwhile tale.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has trouble trusting government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. due to director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) numerous secrets. Once the safety of certain S.H.I.E.L.D. members becomes compromised, Captain America partners with Natasha Rominoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to uncover the faces behind the threat, including a masked, super-powered assassin known only as “The Winter Soldier.”

Someone at Marvel has been watching some 1970s political thrillers (and that’s a good thing), because in its tone, The Winter Soldier recalls such classics as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted, not even our own government. Despite having never done a big-budget comic book picture like this, Robert Redford seems right at home as senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce. Casting Redford was a masterstroke, as his very presence further evokes the great political thrillers of old, and his talent helps ground moments that could have come off as silly. The other noteworthy newcomer is Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Anthony Mackie’s energy and likability make Falcon a welcome addition to Marvel’s superhero lineup, and Mackie and Chris Evans have great chemistry.

The best Marvel movies impact the Marvel Universe at large. While Iron Man 2-3 and Thor 2 have their strengths, you could skip them and not need much if any catching up. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a game changer. Major events unfold that will affect not only future movies but also Marvel’s current TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bigger stakes make everything more interesting, action scenes included (of which Winter Soldier has plenty).

The first Captain America took place during World War II: the type of good-vs.-evil setting in which a character like Captain America makes the most sense. For its modern-day sequel, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely found clever ways to not only emotionally connect the two films but also keep Captain America an interesting and relevant figure. Joss Whedon took the character in the right direction in The Avengers, and The Winter Soldier goes further down that path by introducing even more moral ambiguity. In a world of uncertainty and deception, a code-of-ethics man like Captain America can at once become unsure of his role while also providing a moral center the audience can root for.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t go too deep with its political intrigue (it’s first and foremost a superhero movie, after all), but it does tap into two current US initiatives that continue to be causes for concern: the use of drones for assassinations and the mass surveillance of US citizens. Winter Soldier does well to address these issues not only for relevance but also because of all that Captain America stands for. When Nick Fury describes some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s controversial practices, Cap responds, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” While he might have seemed goofy or out of place on screen twenty years ago, a superhero dressed in red, white and blue who represents core American values seems almost refreshing today. As Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) tells Captain America in The Avengers, “With everything that's happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout

Violence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on par with other Marvel films - frequent and occasionally intense but not bloody or graphic. Moral complexity and ambiguity over who’s good and who’s bad could be challenging for younger viewers.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

American Hustle

Like many great crime pictures, American Hustle has no moral compass, no sense of good guys or bad guys. Standing in the rubble of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, American Hustle’s disillusioned crew sees the American Dream as something no longer realized through optimism and elbow grease; it has to be taken and by any means necessary. Based loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation of the late 70s/early 80’s, American Hustle combines one part Goodfellas with one part The Sting (though it’s not quite at the level of either) to tell an engaging tale of schemers, con artists, and the craziness they endure in the pursuit of being somebody.

Opening with the humorous and unapologetic preface, “Some of this actually happened,” American Hustle follows con artist Irving (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams), partners in selling scam loans and forged artwork. Apprehended by Federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), the two agree to aid the government in making other arrests in exchange for their freedom. As the operation deepens, Richie’s personal ambition proves dangerous, and Irving’s unbalanced wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to undo everything.

The opening shot lingers on Irving as he meticulously glues his unimpressive hair piece. There’s an unmistakable futility about it but an even stronger sense of vanity, setting the stage for everything to follow. Here are characters devoid of real happiness and detached from reality. Their focus remains ever inward, and they view those around them (even their would-be friends) as opportunities in the game of getting ahead. Director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) excels at portraying craziness from an inside perspective, tinged with just enough humor to keep things buoyant.

American Hustle boasts a slew of strong performances, but it’s Christian Bale who holds it all together. His Irving repeatedly ties his own noose, yet we root for him to slip out of it again and again. He deserves to answer for his actions, but we hope he doesn’t have to, largely due to likability imbued by Bale. He and Amy Adams have great chemistry, and their characters’ internal narration early in the film is one of many bits that evokes Goodfellas. Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner round out the ensemble with varying brands of selfishness and instability, and Louis C.K. takes a fun turn as the only responsible person in the room.

Costumes look more like 70s theme-party pieces than authentic period attire, enhancing the overall sense of decadence and detachment from reality. These characters aren’t interested in blending in; their only options are “go big” or “go home.” The artistic choice to exaggerate everything made for a more enjoyable picture than if the material had been presented straight. Filmmakers played loosely with clothes, hair, dialogue and plot details, putting entertainment above accuracy. What began as a true story became “some of this actually happened,” and the movie’s better for it.

With a good deal of humor thrown in the mix, American Hustle effectively portrays criminal life in all its complexity. Highs dip to lows in a flash, and the elusive American Dream remains forever around the next corner. Momentum slows two-thirds through where a little editing would have gone a long way, but the narrative rallies at the finish line with a fun twist, leaving us to reflect on the sheer insanity of it all.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence

Apart from pervasive profanity, overall tone and emotional instability make American Hustle a film for adults. Also, while there isn’t any nudity per se, Amy Adams breasts consistently remain partially exposed.

Friday, January 24, 2014

August: Osage County

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “All women become like their mothers; that is their tragedy. No man does; that is his.” August: Osage County explores many disappointments, but none more so than the displeasure felt by children of emotional abuse upon seeing their parents in the mirror. Based on Tony Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of family dysfunction, August: Osage County may have lost a little electricity in the transfer from stage to screen, but razor-sharp writing and pitch-perfect performances make for a captivating adaptation.

Pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) calls her daughters home after her alcoholic husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing. Ivy, the middle daughter, (Julianne Nicholson) is the only relative already living in town besides Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper). Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), brings her sleazy new fiancĂ©, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Over a period of days, tensions come to a boil as the Westons wrestle with disappointment, loss and the inescapability of family.

For all of their similarities, theater and cinema remain different mediums with different strengths. Live theater offers the intimacy of being present, a movie camera creates intimacy of a different sort, and any movement between those worlds will change the overall impact of the material. That change can be good or bad; recent stage-to-screen adaptations Doubt and Frost/Nixon excelled on the big screen. August: Osage County makes solid use of scenery and setting, but with the performances, the camera cuts both ways. Close-up shots enhance some moments, but for others, I wish the camera had stayed wider to include more faces. Close-ups tell you where to look, but at a play, you look where you want. August has so many master chefs in its kitchen that the camera sometimes seems in the way.

Letts’ dialogue, cutting so deftly between comedy and tragedy, demands great performances, and this ensemble delivers. At the helm stands Meryl Streep, a living legend at the top of her game, chewing scenery in the best sense of the term. She sells Violet as a cruel (“not being mean, just truth tellin’”), domineering woman tipping into instability. As the eldest daughter, Julia Roberts throws fire like I haven’t seen from her in years. Julianne Nicholson breathes quiet, complicated life into Ivy, the daughter who stayed in town and bore the brunt of her mother’s spite. I could go on about every performer; there isn’t a weak link in this chain.

As great theater often does, August: Osage County withholds key information until the right time, hitting the viewer with multiple bombshells. There’s an exhilaration as the tumblers click into place, revealing new layers of sadness just when it seems there can’t be any more. People sometimes laugh in the midst of tragedy, saying that they have to laugh or else they’d cry, and that effectively sums up August: Osage County’s bleak humor. At a certain point, comedy becomes a survival mechanism; there’s humor amidst the madness because there has to be. There’s something in this cornucopia of sadness and dysfunction for everyone to relate to; spanning illness, addiction, emotional abuse, divorce, and above all, disappointment, August: Osage County mimics its main character in exaggerating reality, often harshly, in order to do its own truth tellin’ about life.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material

August: Osage County maintains strong language throughout and deals exclusively in mature themes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ender's Game

Since its release in 1985, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game has amassed a sizable fan base, spawned several sequels, and come to be widely regarded as one of the great science fiction novels (if not the greatest) of the last 30 years.  Scott Card once declared the book “unfilmable,” but writer/director Gavin Hood has risen to the challenge, delivering a satisfying film that falls short of the intelligence and complexity of the source material but that stands on its own and gets the big stuff right.

Years after fighting a war with an alien race, humanity prepares for what it sees as the inevitable next confrontation.  An international military alliance establishes Battle School, an academy designed to produce tactical strategists by subjecting brilliant children to rigorous training.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a gifted 12 year old boy, enlists in Battle School at the urging of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).  As Ender rises within the ranks via a series of war games and simulations, he learns more about his enemy and himself.

The Battle Room makes for some of the book’s most memorable scenes, and the film doesn’t disappoint.  This immense, zero-gravity training ground looks gorgeous onscreen, and the war games the students play come off as simple and complex at once.  Within the vast, glass-enclosed sphere, teams of students attempt to cross to their opponents’ gate while avoiding being shot by weapons that immobilize them.  It’s in these sequences that the film feels most alive, so much so that I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes there.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film is the overall timespan; in the novel, Ender enrolls in Battle School at age six, so by age 12, he’s been training for half his life.  On screen, those six years are condensed into one; the change makes sense (switching actors would be jarring, after all), though it muddies a few plot points, especially Ender’s relationships with his sister and brother.  The scenes on Earth with Ender’s family ring hollow, and without proper explanation and character building, Ender’s relationship with his sister never resonates the way it should.

Lead performances are strong with a mix from the sides.  Asa Butterfield’s performance effectively suggests the combination of insecurity and superiority inherent in a young genius.  Harrison Ford and Viola Davis lend credibility as high-ranking military officers, and Ben Kingsley (the disclosure of whose character name would constitute a spoiler) brings some needed dramatic weight to the film’s third act.  Haliee Steinfeld, who was so memorable as Mattie in True Grit (2010), does well with what she’s given as Petra, one of Ender’s best friends in the school.  Unfortunately, some side characters come off more like caricatures than real people, undermining the seriousness of the setting.

The story addresses the moral complexities of war and of placing belief systems on children, with the finale being especially thought-provoking.  Ender’s Game achieves momentary greatness when firing on all cylinders, but little cracks in the presentation (occasional weaknesses in dialogue, acting, or visuals that look more like polished effects than gritty, wartime realities) prevent the film from meeting its full potential.  A few tweaks could have improved it, but Ender’s Game retains the crucial components that made the book a phenomenon.  I hope it turns viewers toward the source material, as anyone intrigued by the questions raised onscreen would find even more to love on paper.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material

Ender’s Game contains some violence, though not as much as the book. You don’t see much blood, but as Ender faces bullying from his classmates, he fights back pretty viciously to defend himself.  Even though the hero gets in some fights (he has adopted a military mindset, after all), retaliatory and preemptive violence is not necessarily celebrated.  It’s a morally complex story.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Muslims Are Coming

In the years since September 11, 2001, Muslims have become the most feared minority in America.  It’s not unusual to hear politicians or commentators voice broad concerns about Muslims, using now-commonplace words rarely heard in the Clinton years, such as jihad, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Sharia Law.  There’s an abundance of American misinformation about Islam, and while countering that ignorance with humor might not be the first strategy you’d expect (especially given Islam’s reputation as a religion that takes itself too seriously), it makes sense.  Getting to know people has always been the best way to break misconceptions, and nothing brings people together like laughter.

The Muslims Are Coming follows a nationwide tour by a group of Muslim-American comedians led by Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah.  Hoping to combat Islamophobia through humor, these comedians visit some of the most conservative areas in the country, from rural Alabama to Salt Lake City.  Their stand-up routines elicit plenty of laughs, but the film’s real gems are the street interviews conducted before or after the stand-up performances.  The comedians visit with patrons at a gun show.  They man a street-side booth titled, “Ask a Muslim,” where people can ask them anything.  In Salt Lake City, they offer free hugs beneath a “Hug a Muslim” sign.  These social experiments yield interesting results.

In some cases, the comedians are met with open hostility, but those are the exceptions.  Some people need to feel things out first; one woman asks, “What did you think of 9/11?” prompting a later reflection by Negin Farsad: “How could there be more than one answer to that question?”  For the most part, people are friendly.  The Muslims encounter more uncertainty than hate, and as they leave each city, you see more than the minds of the townspeople changing; you see the Muslim comedians’ perception of America changing as well.

The stand-up routines and side interviews highlight Muslim diversity.  Some Muslims enjoy poking fun at themselves and some don’t.  Some devoutly practice more conservative forms of Islam, while others stand on the agnostic fringes.  Islam has that diversity in common with every major religion, but the many faces of Islam pose a challenge to those who would foster understanding, especially when mainstream media so frequently focus on the faith’s most extreme practitioners.  The Muslims Are Coming opens with a hilarious montage of fear mongering clips from Fox News and CNN, but it’s no wonder watching it why so many Americans are confused or afraid.

Negin Farsad’s unique position as a female Muslim comedian carries its own difficulties; a poignant scene comes when a group of Muslim women walk out during one of Farsad’s sexually explicit routines.  “I wish I had more support from certain corners of the Muslim community, but I just don’t.”  The Muslims Are Coming mixes thought-provoking insight with some hilarious moments, and interviews with journalists and comedians such as Jon Stewart, David Cross, Rachel Maddow, and Soledad O’Brien further explore how current perceptions of Islam developed.  Ultimately heartwarming, The Muslims Are Coming celebrates American diversity and tolerance, exposing encouraging sides of both America and Islam that viewers may not have seen before.  And it’s also really funny.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Unrated

The Muslims Are Coming features frequent profanity of all sorts, including sexually-explicit jokes and occasional examples of hate speech.