Sunday, April 27, 2014

Gladiator (2000)

This month appears to be sword and sandal month at the AMC Classic scheduling center. Last week there was "The Ten Commandments", this week "Gladiator" and in the next couple of weeks we are going to get "Ben-Hur" and "Spartucus". Somewhere, Captain Oveur is smiling and thinking of Joey in ways that we cannot mention. This is an opportunity to write about a film I have loved since it came out, but have never posted on before. Given that it stars Russell Crowe, was directed by Ridley Scott and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, that seems a little strange to me.

"Gladiator" is only fourteen years old, yet it already feels like a classic because it launched a hundred imitators. Before 2000, it would have been a long time between historical epics featuring legions of ancient warriors conducting combat with swords and spears. After this picture succeeded, we got "Troy", "300", Kingdom of Heaven", "The Eagle", "Pompeii", remakes of Conan and cable series based on "Spartacus" plus a dozen others that don't pop into my mind at the moment. This film was hugely influential on the subject matter of films in the last decade and a half and also on their style.

Russell Crowe won the lone Oscar of his career in this centerpiece of a three picture Oscar nominated run. His turn in "A Beautiful Mind" might have been deserving, but his work in "Gladiator" is what made him the biggest star in the world for about five years. You would need to go back to 1959 to find a winning performance in an action film. This is a raw, bloodthirsty part that required physical agility, and intellectual engagement with the motivations of the character. Maybe if you count John Wayne in "True Grit", you'd get a film role that won because the character was a hero who used violence in an active way to achieve his character's purpose. Maximus starts the film as a warrior general. Not content to sit on the sidelines but charging into battle, swinging a sword and getting bloodied up close. His moment of despair at discovering the fate of his family, reaches our hearts and hardens them to the villain of the piece, who before this may have simply been a misunderstood wannabe. The challenge he issues to the crowd in the second of his five scenes in the arena, " Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?" is both an indictment and an incitement and Crowe has just the right take on it. Everyone who has seen the movie knows that the passage that won him the award was his self revelation to the Emperor at the conclusion of the first Coliseum fight. His controlled fury is the point at which the story has been tightened to it's greatest capacity, and we await the outcome because his voice told us it would be coming, in this world or the next.

As I listened to the music, there were several passages that sounded just like the themes from "Pirates of the Caribbean" and it is with good reason. Hans Zimmer recycled some of those heroic motifs from this film in the lighter pirate movie just a couple of years later. There are some great details in the production. The dusty red hued out post that is Proximo's home feels exotic and dangerous. The blue-grey tint to the battles in Germania were cold to contemplate and you could feel the dirt on your body. The golden shaded views of Rome and the gladiator contests themselves make the setting the center-point of all the proceedings.  Richard Harris leaves the film early but still makes an impression. Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus has a terrific scene with Harris, that makes us temporarily sympathetic. He manages to turn that into revulsion by delivering the provocative description of the fate of Maximus' family in a tone that makes the words even more horrible. His work contributed to Crowe's performance substantially in that section. Oliver Reed leaves this planet with what might have been his finest performance. This movie has dozens of great elements to it that make it so worthwhile.

It was just me and one other guy in the theater today. AMC needs to build this programming up a little more. I could not figure out why I was not seeing trailers for the other films coming up in this series, instead of the two art house releases that may never make it to these local theaters. The cashier in the Box Office, was surprised when I ordered my ticket, she did not even know the fim was playing. That is at least the third time I've had that reaction when I went up to the ticket window for these showings. AMC, you are doing a great thing with this program, but get the promotion up to speed and let's get a few more seats filled. There are others like me who would make the effort a couple extra steps were taken in letting people know what is happening.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Other Woman

I think everybody knows the answer to this before it opened, but I'll go ahead and ask and answer the question anyway. Is there any way that this movie will be any good?     No.

I have liked Leslie Mann in other films, she is an every day kind of attractive. She is a talented comedic actress. She should have looked at this script and run the other way. Having made the movie, she should now sue the producers for turning her into a whining, needy, idiot, character who is made to look unattractive and stupid in nearly every sequence in the film. I have always had a thing for women in hats, maybe I saw Casablanca and and fell in love with Ingrid Bergman at a young age. This movie may have cured me of that fetish. Whenever the director wanted her to look awful, he put her in a hat that not even Bergman could have sold.

Cameron Diaz is still an attractive woman, but she is a little older now and sometimes looks a bit well worn at times. Her smile still twinkles, and her hair is cute in whatever form it shows up in, but either the sun or plastic surgery have given her a tougher look than she probably deserves. Now I will say there was a trailer for "The Sex Tape" playing before this movie and she looked terrific in that, so maybe the director of photography needs to share some of the blame here. She has been funny in a dozen movies. Many of which I liked but others have dismissed (eg. "Knight and Day") Here she has nothing funny to do or say. There are moments when I wondered if she knew what the tone of the film was supposed to be.

I don't really know Kate Upton. She is a beautiful woman and apparently world famous, probably for being beautiful. It turns out she has made three films now and I have seen all three of them. I have no memory of her from the other two at all. So while beauty is certainly a calling card, it is not a memory card, because unless she is on the beach in a bikini, I suspect her acting career will be limited. I hope that doesn't sound too mean, I don't want it to. I was just not convinced that she needed to even be in this movie.

This could almost be a remake of "The First Wives Club" from 1996. Except instead of three philanderers, we have one serial philanderer and the women he has cheated on. It's a woman's empowerment revenge story. Unfortunately, none of the main characters is likable enough to feel much sympathy for and at times they are downright irritating. The male character in the story is played with a tone that guns from suave James Bond sex machine to doofus Jeff Daniels in "Dumb and Dumber". Nothing in the way any of these characters act is in the realm of reality, which would be alright if it was all revenge fantasy, but it isn't. There is another romance shoehorned onto the story, a superfluous character played by Don Johnson, who looks great by the way, that is distracting and totally predictable, and some cultural references to  the French that might have worked if the story had stuck to the comedy and not veered into melodrama.

It doesn't work. I did not expect it to, and the two women who went with me agreed. It's the only new wide release this weekend, so maybe it will make some money, but you can look for a quick exit from theaters and an even quicker exit from your memory.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Ten Commandments

Nothing celebrates Easter and Passover like "The Ten Commandments". Getting a chance to see it on the big screen is also a treat. I may have done this with my kids back in the late eighties or early nineties but I can't quite remember. I do know that if I did, it was not in the pristine digital form that the movie was delivered to us today in. Although it was a theatrical release for one day, I am pretty sure this was the home Blu-ray version, complete with Entrance and Exit Music, and an intermission. The problem was that they really did not take a break at the intermission, the music played briefly and then the entr'acte for the second half started. After the whole experience was over, as I was waiting for my family to exit the ladies room, I heard a young woman speaking to her father about how long the movie was that they had just seen. It sounded like they saw "Heaven is for Real". The dad was explaining why he thought it was just long enough and she said it could have been longer. Her phrase was something like "I've seen a movie that was two hours thirteen minutes, so this could have bee longer and it would not be a problem". Having just come out of a movie that runs three hours and forty minutes, I chuckled to myself and thought about how lucky I am that I can be enraptured for that long without starting to feel ADD.

A Screen Shot from the entry way to show that I really was in the theater watching this.
The spectacle of "The Ten Commandments" starts with a stirring speech by director Cecil B. DeMille. It extols the virtues of the story as the beginning of real freedom and he makes a very pointed comparison to some of the political issues of 1956. It turns out that he sees it as a very anti-communist film because it concerns totalitarianism by one man over the rule of law that governs all men. It was an apt message then and it is equally important today. Although the photographic effects are not as impressive as they once were because of the more sophisticated tools now available, they still pack a wallop and if you are caught up in the story, the imperfections hardly matter.  The characters are quite different but you can see the seeds of Ben Hur in Charlton Heston's Moses. It was an impressive performance in the first half, but once the make-up and hair took over in the second half, he was more a cardboard hero than he had been before.

I saw that my blogging friend Eric, learned all of his Jewish traditions from this film. I guess I'd have to say that this was pretty close to my education on the matter as well. DeMille assures us at the beginning that although there is a large period of time in which we do not know the history of Moses, that his film is based on historical works by ancient scholars and theologians. I'll take him, at his word, it seems unlikely that he committed any heresy that would get him in the same hot water with religious groups as Darren Aronofsky got into with the recent "Noah". The film has stood the test of time, so there is not a lot to add. If you don't care for biblical epics, this will be a burden to you, but if you are inspired by the events of the old or new testament, than this should be a treat that you can savor for a long time (3:40 to be exact).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cuban Fury

I looked at two other blog sites today that both reviewed this movie. That is something I do not usually do before seeing a film. I want my perspective to be untainted as much as possible. The thing of it is though, I had no plan to see this movie before today. I'd only heard of it a day or two ago, and I knew next to nothing about it except that it featured dancing and Nick Frost. I let my curiosity get the better of me and I peeked at what others had said. It was not promising. The reviews that I saw were not terrible but they were at best lukewarm to the movie. They did however fill in enough details to let me know that this might be a movie I would appreciate.

Since I have the week off at one of my work sites, I thought I'd be able to take some time and sneak in several films. No such luck and to be honest I was not excited about anything I'd not already seen. I took my AMC Stubbs points, marched down and caught the matinee of this movie. I'm 56 years old and I was the youngest person in the theater. It was on one of the four big screens at the multiplex with 17 screens. There were maybe a half dozen of us there so the house seemed cavernous. All that said, everybody had a pretty good time. I heard the 70 year old ladies a dozen seats down from me laugh several times and I was doing the same. The film was a little predictable, but all romantic comedies are. What sets this apart from most of the others is the salsa-dancing background and the star.

For some reason I have usually enjoyed movie dancing. From the classic Hollywood musicals of the golden age, to the 80's revisionism of Fame, Flashdance and Footloose (the three big "Fs" of the 80s), a little fancy footwork seemed to do it for me. This film takes a big dose of "Strictly Ballroom" and crosses it with a goofball comedy sensibility to entertain for the nearly two hours that it ran. A dancer who has lost his way and seems to have settled for a more mundane existence, gets a chance to reconnect with his roots. All the while being slighted by an obnoxious co-worker and romantic rival. I liked the dialogue that reveals what a pig the rival really is and the performance of Chris O'Dowd  as the odious Drew was at least a third of the fun in the movie. So it is an underdog story set in England centered around salsa dancing.

The underdog here is Nick Frost, as Bruce, the man who gave up salsa as a child when bullied by a group of other boys. His sweetheart of a sister was his dancing partner and she still bravely faces the world with her own quirky way of coping. It is the arrival of a pretty new American woman who stirs Bruce's romantic inclinations, and when he discovers that she also salsas, he returns to the art, twenty-five years out of practice. Frost is best known to me as Simon Pegg's counterpart in the "Cornetto Trilogy"(there is a "blink and you'll miss it" appearance by Mr. Pegg in this film as well). He is a sweet faced, overweight, lump of an actor, who manages to bring real personality to his roles and sweep aside the stereotypes of his visual image. In this film, the whole goal is to subvert those sterotypes while also exploiting them for laughs. It worked really well for me.

It is not a classic that you will want to return to over and over again, but it has it's moments. There are some great scenes with an effeminate Persian man who encourages Bruce that are very funny. The showdown between Bruce and Drew is hysterically staged and full of mad ingenuity. The peripheral characters, including Ian McShane as Bruce's old salsa coach, fill the movie with little bits of charm and mild laughter. It was better than I was expecting and the credit has to go to Nick Frost, who manages to make us care that a dumpy guy might have bigger dreams than what he seems doomed to live out. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Academy Conversations: The Adventures of Robin Hood

So a few weeks ago, I was given a heads up by one on my friends on line that my Favorite movie was to be a subject of a Special Presentation at the TCM Film Festival. I had unfortunately not planned well enough to go to the whole festival, an issue I hope to repair next year. After looking on line for individual tickets, I discovered that you have to line up for standby on the day of the event at the venue. The screening and discussion were scheduled for  9:15 on a Sunday morning, so I felt pretty confident that we could get in, but I was concerned about where we would be able to sit, and my wife has a little trouble navigating the steep walkways and dark stairs at the Egyptian Theater.  We trekked down to Hollywood and Arrived before 8:00, just to be sure. The parking lot attendant had not yet arrived and they were just putting up the Stand-by line directions for our screening, so we ended up one and two in line. Of course that is after all the VIPs, Pass holders and other Festival attendees have been let in. Fortunately, we had a guardian angel. My friend who had told me about the screening was also attending as a Festival Pass Holder. We made plans to meet before the movie.

Michael and I had never met in person before but he and I know each other well from our respective blogs. He had let me know that he would be wearing a distinctive shirt that day, much like carrying a book and a rose to meet Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. As we waited at the front of the line (alone I might add), I saw him approaching and recognized the shirt immediately. He had just as easy a time finding me since my presence on the internet has a variety of pictures of me and he showed me the smiling image from my gmail account on his phone. After spending a few minutes talking about the Festival that he had been attending, he offered to save us some seats when he went in. I am so grateful to him for that kindness, it made it much easier for us to relax and the seats he picked out were easily accessible for my wonderful spouse who is on her second year of vertigo.

The program started up and we were introduced to two Academy Award winning legends, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. They were in great form as they joked and talked about the festival and the movie. They had a wonderful presentation for us that reviewed the making of "The Adventures of Robin Hood". It began with the well known story that originally Jimmy Cagney was cast in the role and the movie was to be more comedic. The director of the movie, William Keighley was replaced during the shoot and there was a clearer explanation of that than I have seen before. Craig Barron  made a point to note that Keighley had done all the work that had set up each of the main characters and that while his contribution is sometimes minimized, he really did have a substantial impact on the tone and look of the film. Being the Special effects guy, Barron led us through a visualization of the three color process used by Technicolor. There was a smooth use of tri-color graphics being merged to give us the spectacular color that then comes off of the screen. We also got a review of some of the matte work that was done for the picture. Both he and Burtt spent time out in the former Warner's Ranch location, which is now a housing development and golf course, to try and locate the hills and set locations. They made the trip entertaining as all get out by referencing the celebrities that now occupy some of that space and revealing that they did get pulled over for speeding on the road that was earlier used by the raiding party at the end to sneak into Nottingham castle.

Ben Burtt took over for a while as the discussion shifted to the sound design process for the film. He began by looking at the location sound trucks that Warner's used and he had a clever piece of history concerning the remaining trucks and their actual colors. You could hear the geek side come out in him as he longed to have one of those trucks for his own. The mock up version using a Chevy HHR looked cool but you could tell it would not have cut it as far as his lust was concerned. The most intriguing part of the tale involved his attempt to identify how the sounds of the arrows were made in the movie. There were very distinctive references in the original script to what the sound of the war arrows should be, and the effect on screen is amazingly appropriate. Burtt attempted a series of tests to try to lock down the source of the sound. Only someone as obsessed with sound as the designer of the sounds for the Star Wars films, could find this necessary and finally succeeded in discovering the truth. It turns out that the arrows used by the archery master on the film, had distinct feathering and the feathers were cut in a specific way which helped make the dramatic impact we hear from the screen. Michael shared with me a couple of secrets about velocity and rotation that made the talk more interesting as well. The next time the film gets remastered, updated, special presentation formatted or generally packaged to get fans to buy it again, I would strongly urge the producers track down a recoding of this talk, or have the two gentlemen recreate it, because it was splendid introduction to the movie itself.

After that great presentation, which was worth the trip down to Hollywood and the ticket price, all by itself, we got to take in a screening of "The Adventures of Robin Hood". We could see and hear all of the elements that had just been talked about and of course we got to cheer for Errol Flynn. As each character arrived on screen there was applause from the audience and the reactions to the actors performances was as fresh as it might have been 76 years ago. Claude Raines picking at the pomegranate, Rathbone scowling with distaste at the mere presence of Robin, and Flynn's maniacal gleam, right before the spear comes through the back of his seat, all of these set the audience ablaze with laughter and expectation. Even after seeing the film as many times as I have, I was able to notice things I missed before. The murderous Dickon was one of the men, robbed of his clothing and sent back in rags to Nottingham. He is in the background and I had not realized that he was in this sequence. I also heard the name of the tavern keeper where Marion finds the men of Sherwood and helps them plan his escape. The name was there every time I've seen it before but it stood out for some reason this time, Humility Prim.

The danger with a screening like this is that I will want to see films presented like this always. My life will disappear into a darkened theater even more often if I give in to this temptation. I should join the Cinematique, I need to plan the TCM Festival next year. I want to book some classic movie cruises in the future. The Brotherhood of the Popcorn should expect a membership application from me any day. OK, those are all dreams that I have. For now I have this recent experience, which included meeting a couple of fellow bloggers and finding out that one I was sure was a good guy, turned out to be just as thoughtful as I imagined.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

I read "Dune" when I was the same age as Paul in the story, and it was one of the best things I ever spent time with. I'd heard that the movie was being planned but in 1974 or 75, I did not follow the trades, keep up with gossip and of course there was no internet, so I had no idea what was going on. This movie reveals exactly what happened. Along with the Kubrick version of Napoleon, Jodorowsky's Dune is one of the great movies that was never made, and to hear him tell it, it is the greatest movie in history. After watching this documentary, you may very well agree with that assessment.

Alejandro Jodorowsky was an avant garde artist in the sixties who turned to film making and was responsible for El Topo, the original midnight movie cult classic.  He has a dramatic visual eye and on odd philosophical perspective. After he had another smash hit in Europe with "The Holy Mountain" (a movie that features a character who can poop gold) he was asked by his producer what he would like to do next, and his answer was the Science Fiction classic "Dune" a book that he had never even read. If you were a fan of the book, you were likely to have come across drawings by H.R. Gieger that imagined what some of the worlds of "Dune" would look like. Those images came from the project that Jodorowsky was trying to put together in the mid-seventies. This movie is a compelling story about the man who tried to make a film he thought would be transformative and instead ended up being invisible for almost forty years. No scenes were shot, but a whole crew of artists, craftsmen and unlikely actors were poised to make what might very well have been an amazing movie, when the money simply did not show up to execute the project.

This film works because Jodorowsky is a natural raconteur, who has incredible stories to share about Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd and a half dozen other major figures of the pop culture at the time. This movie is full of talking heads but they are all saying something interesting and Jodo, as he is referred to as, says some of the funniest things with a dry wit and sardonic smile. Even though his heavily accented English needed subtitles at times, you knew what he was saying and how he wanted you to respond to that story. For the most part you can see that he is a passionate madman. The ethos of the early seventies possessed him and he believed that he was searching for spiritual warriors to accompany him on this quest to make a movie that would enlighten the world. Yes, he really did speak that way and he did so with a fervor that might even convince you that he was right. However, the money men in Hollywood must have looked at him aghast because he is a missionary rather than a maker of product. When he does react on camera, to the unwillingness of Hollywood Studios to back his project, you can see the messianic nut job that the studios probably feared. His fit does not last long, but coming here forty years after the experience, it was intense, I imagine it was even more so in 1975.

The director of "Drive", Nicolas Winding Refn, shares an experience of visiting Jodorowsky at his home and being invited to watch "Dune". What happened is that Jodo, got out the elaborate production portfolio he had created to guide the film he planned and then led Refn through the story of the movie, using storyboards, costume designs, publicity photos and assorted other minutia. Refn may be the only person in the world to have seen "Jodorowky's film of "Dune" even though it was only in this form, but as he puts it in his interview, "it was awesome!". We are given glimpses of how terrific it could have been by creative photography of the story board drawings. The opening sequence was to have been a long shot like the take Orson Welles used in "Touch of Evil" only it occurs as the whole Universe is explored and then we pull in on a battle with a pirate spice freighter in space. The way this was shown in the film, makes your mouth water for the complete visual experience. There are several other sections that are also nicely brought to life, even though they are just still frames of drawings and Jodo speaking passionately.

Towards the end of the movie there is a montage of images from films that were made after this version of "Dune" collapsed. Many of the elements in the visualizations from the "Dune" portfolio appear to have influenced two decades worth of film makers after this, including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and the King of the World himself, James Cameron.  Jodorowsky takes admittedly self satisfying gratification in the failure of David Lynch's version of the story. That is another story that could be told in a different documentary, but it could not be nearly as entertaining as this movie was, because it would lack the insane vision and story telling prowess of the completely nuts but utterly charming Jodorowsky himself.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I suppose everyone knows that Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. He has directed thirteen films and I have only seen five of them. I enjoyed "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore", I was largely indifferent to "The Royal Tennenbaums" despite the presence of my favorite actor, Gene Hackman, and I really enjoyed "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". For some reason I have been unable to work up enough enthusiasm for "Moonrise Kingdom". So I have not been pulled into the hypnotic world of his movies entirely, but I can say that I am not an novice either. The current offering does however threaten to drag me into the pool with the other Anderson fanatics, because "The Grand Budapest Hotel" works incredibly well for my sensibilities and I expect that it will be a movie that I return to on many occasions in the future.  

Let me divide my comments into three particular sections so that you will be able to see the discrete joys contained in each element of the film. I'll start with the look of the movie. Anderson has shot this for a nearly square ratio. I don't remember if his other films have been does this way or not but I did think it worked pretty well for this story. This film is set for the most part in the early years of the Twentieth Century, when movies were presented in the nearly square format that became standard for televisions and was retaliated against by movie makers in the fifties by using widescreen formats. Even though the film is presented in a muted palate of colors, it still feels like a traditional thirties film in many ways. The set design and costumes also recall the grand days of Europe before the war with attentive concierges and lobby boys dressed in smart uniforms that contrasted well with the elegant designs of the hotels they worked in. There is wall paper in some of the rooms that recalls the complex geometric design of the carpets from the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining". The worn down modern designs in the lobby and the baths suggest a standard of beauty and wealth that are no longer within reach of the times or the culture.

Still on the look of the film, it would be unwise to ignore the photographic styles that are used to achieve some of the effects in the movie. There are clever animated bits with ski lifts and trollies that look just normal enough to fit into the movie but also just ethereal enough to make the images look slightly magical. The stairwells and kitchens also have an otherworldly film on them which makes the story feel distinctive. The prison is a cinematic tribute to movies from the past with convicts in striped uniforms and barred doors that look like meat lockers. The escape using two different ladders is completed by exaggerating each one in a way that is comic and acknowledges the cinematic roots of the comedy we are watching. There are a thousand little details that make the look of the film so distinctive. I would say that it bears more in common with the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" than it does with most of the other films of Anderson's that I have seen.

The second element that demands a recommendation is the script. The plot itself is clever enough and it is reminds me of one of those stacking Russian dolls, with another doll contained inside the first and than another inside the second. For instance, Tom Wilkinson plays a writer as an older man, who is portrayed by Jude Law as a younger version, who interacts with F. Murray Abraham who is portrayed as a younger man by newcomer Tony Revolori. It does not quite go back infinitely, but the story definitely reflects three distinct time periods and two of those get quite a bit of development. I won't say that the story is unimportant but I will say that what is most memorable for me is the dialogue. There are passages of script that just demand to be listened to. Much like Quentin Tarantino, the spoken word is poetry in the hands of Wes Anderson. Where Tarantino speaks the language of pop culture with lines that burn like lyrics to a song that you can't get out of your head, Anderson's dialogue is more like poetry. In fact the lead character speaks poetry on a regular basis but the poems are never completed although the thoughts behind them are always clear. There is great humor in the language and the way it is used in context and frequently broken up by the context as well. It always feels like there is narration, even when the narration has stopped because the characters style of talking is so in sync with the style of story telling.

Finally, I'd like to mention the depth of acting quality that permeates the film. Take a look at the cast and you will see nineteen Academy Award nominated performers and four winners lurking in the foreground, background and center stage of the film. Ralph Fiennes is a comic revelation, his manner is controlled mania. He eyes the other characters with the view of a man used to evaluating others and being able to sum them up in an instant, but still not understand how to appropriately interact with them. His manner is winning, even in the face of circumstances that should have his character screaming and running away. That's what makes those moments when he does just that feel so great, because he breaks free of the mannered style that he is accustomed to. F. Murray Abraham should work more in films. His career has not achieved the level of excellence we might have expected after his Salieri, but he has a weight to his presence and a manner in his voice that makes him perfect for his role as the older version of Zero the Lobby Boy that is Fienne"s protege. Saoirse Ronan has a lovely demeanor that shines through even though she has only a small amount of dialogue and has to work with a splotch on her face in the shape of Mexico. There are a dozen other surpises along the way and the casting is ninety percent of the success here.

This film will need to be seen a second or third time for me to absorb all the intricate pieces of film making that delighted me. It has an off beat charm and it provoked laughter in both visual and auditory stimuli. As I started off saying, the Wes Anderson filmography may be a little off putting for some, but if you are looking for a starting place, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a delightful and amusing way to start an addiction to his weird charms.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I loved the first Captain America movie. I thought that the World War Two setting and the idealistic persona of Steve Rodgers was exactly what it should have been. The movie was very straightforward about the good guys and the bad guys. I'm also a big fan of The Avengers, I thought the splicing of the character into the modern story and the SHIELD organization took what we were given and ran with it. The mix of the super heroes helps keep some of the issues that Cap faces in the background, but the groundwork was being laid for future stories and an inevitable conflict between the Dudley Doo Right manner of our idealistic super hero and the harsh realities of the modern world and the spies that inhabit it.

"The Winter Soldier" puts Steve Rodgers back into the complicated position he found himself in during the Avenger's film. He sees that there are enemies, but he also has to question the methods of those charged with fighting those enemies. A confrontation between Rodgers and SHIELD's Nick Fury is brewing and we are being lead to believe that the spy organization is more malevolent than it originally appeared. It has been a popular pastime since the War on Terror became an official and public mandate, to question the means by which that war is being fought. Heck, those challenges have always existed even before 9/11. Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington went head to head over strategy on terror in "The Siege" back in 1998. Last year in "Star Trek Into Darkness", another allegorical story questioning the wisdom of aggressive policies on terror was crossed with a pop culture icon. I was somewhat concerned about the moralizing that goes on, getting in the way of a story about a good man, given a chance to do good, being lost in this symbolism. Fortunately, it works out for the best because the story here subverts that self questioning canard, with an insidious plot that allows the hero to be the good guy by actually fighting actively against an identifiable conspiracy rather than his own left hand.

Chris Evans was born to play this part. Like Hugh Jackman before him, the character is molded to fit the actor and the actor submerges himself in the character. The Wolverine character has often been better than the movies he was featured in, and this film has the same double edged sword. "The Winter Soldier" is not on a par with "The First Avenger", but the character of Captain America and the performance of Chris Evans, raises it to a level of excellence that will satisfy the fans. The plot is very convoluted and the twists are best left out of the discussion so that an audience can discover their pleasures and frustrations on their own. I will say that there are two things that are set up as reverse twists, that you will see coming a mile away. So, it is not quite as clever as it wants to be. That aside, the motivations and actions of the characters are even less clear than those in the first big screen "Mission Impossible" which was famously filled with "huh?" moments. You will ultimately figure it out, but it will confuse you and there is still at least one major question that does not get clarified. It is only of minor concern for the film because ultimately this will be judged as an action piece and at that it succeeds admirably.

The early action sequence involves Cap and the Black Widow, again played by a nicely amusing Scarlett Johansson, engaging in a rescue mission on the high seas. It turns out that the mission has multiple components to it that set up the rest of the plot, but the execution of the action was fun and the combination of teamwork by the SHIELD insertion group and the Captain was just enough to get us started and to show what we will eventually see as a necessary precursor to the plot. Later in the film, Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury gets a long chase segment and he uses the technology and wily experience available to a spy to bring off a pretty impressive stunt based scene. There are two follow up sections in the movie that also involve driving chases and they are solid as well but sometimes feel a little repetitive. The final battle scene is long and complicated and it looks spectacular, even though it is a little over the top. There are some clever plot twists that take place during the battle that make it a lot of fun as well. The movie does manage to keep some of the spirit of fun that made the first Captain America so effective. There is some sparring dialogue between Cap and the Widow, and a new character adds some comic relief as well as some grounding to the proceedings.

The plot line of the character of "The Winter Soldier" is set up dramatically, and the payoff is realistic in the end rather than sentimental. Key players from the first movie make welcome returns here and the conditions of each of those characters is a nice realization of the goals of the story. Fans of the comics will already know one of those characters but the other two were solid resurrections that while not essential for plotting, do contribute to giving the stories a sense of continuity. I could still use a few more light hearted contributions from a Tommy Lee Jones or a Stanley Tucchi like character. The presence of Robert Redford adds some gravitas to the story but not the energy that a movie like this could really use.  I did enjoy the sudden insertion of a more engaged Jenny Agutter for a moment or two, and Emily VanCamp could be a successful addition to the franchise with the right follow up. The real hero of the story is the honest soul of Captain Steve Rogers. His impromptu speech and rallying of the troops is exactly the kind of leadership that his character is supposed to inspire. I for one am completely ready to follow him on the next adventure.