Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Marvel film studio has done an outstanding job making comic book movies the most exciting and lucrative genre released today. Yeah, they don't own every comic book film that comes out (not even some of the Marvel characters) but the reason why the other studios cough up so much money to make these films now with increasingly impressive quality is because the amount that they're pulling in is more and more. Nowhere is that more impressive than what Marvel and Disney are doing with the ever expanding world of The Avengers. A total of nine films have been released, all of them linked together, and a rumored plan to release more until the year 2028! However, with all those swings you're bound to strike out here and there.
One thing that I like what Marvel/Disney is doing is righting a wrong even when it's been financially successful. For instance, the first Captain America film made a butt load of cash but it wasn't very good. Granted, it was hard to pull off a period comic book film starring (in my opinion) the dullest of The Avenger characters. Knowing those were the hurdles, maybe that's why they went with a low risk but high boring choice of Joe Johnston as director. The guy has expierence doing big budget action films like Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman but hasn't made a really good one since Jumanji or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. So what Marvel did was not ask him to do this but instead brought in the unconventional choice of brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who's expierence consist mostly of quirky TV sitcoms like Community, Up All Night and Happy Endings.
The switch in tone totally works and although Winter Soldier isn't funny or has a focus on comedy at all, it does feel lighter and less heavy. This compliments the script which is more of a government espionage story than the usual superheros smashing cities in an attempt to defend the planet. You kinda have to tell Captain America stories that way since the character doesn't really lend himselt to a whole lot of excitement. He doesn't turn into a green montster, he's not a robot filled with swag and he's not a god from outer space. He's just Steve; a normal boy scout who happened to luck out with some extra special performance-enhancing drugs. But the Russos pull it off better than Johnston did.
Putting S.H.I.E.L.D., Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johanson at the forefront more than they have in any of the other films was a major asset. Those two actors have the chemistry and screen presence to offset Captain America's derpiness in every scene where there isn't action. The addition of Robert Redford (All is Lost, All the President's Men) was odd but enjoyable and Anthony Mackie (8 Mile, Million Dollar Baby) was enjoyable but odd. It was almost as if Mackie's character of The Falcon was added simply to be buzzworthy since he feels shoehorned into the film; I mean that as a character not as an actor.
When this entire Avengers canon is finished and we look back at the collection, I wonder which ones will stand out as the best. It's interesting because none of the films have been bad yet and even the ones that are at the bottom of the list have still been flashy and thrilling. Is Captain America: The Winter Soldier a film that will thrill audiences and catapult the franchise even further into the stratosphere? I don't think so but it still makes for fine popcorn chomping faire. It's gorgeous actors shooting guns, blowing stuff up and driving fast cars in a world of corrupt politicians; what could be more American than that?
Listen to Gavin's interview with one of the stars of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony Mackie:
When I heard that director Darren Aronofsky was directing a film version of the biblical story of Noah's Ark I crapped all over it right away. Here you have the director (and an atheist) of films like Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, two of the most provacative films of the last 20 years, jumping in on the bandwagon of Christian movies hoping to finally secure box office success and go for the easy material in hopes of cashing in on the religious demographic that will blindly support something of this ilk. When I sat at a screening for this film, it was hard to get comfortable in my seat with such a smug chip on my shoulder. It got easier as the film wore on because that chip melted away until I found myself fully enjoying Noah.
At this point, it's cliche to say that this isn't the story you were told in Sunday School. This version is an aggressive tour-de-force that challenges everything you know about the story and about your own theology. The basic tale of a man and his family building an ark to save two of every species on the planet from a global flood is there but there is so much more; some added for the film and some taken right from The Bible, yet most people either don't know or try to forget. It's hard to discuss that any further without giving some major spoilers away but just know that the most ridiculous and shocking part of the film is NOT made up by Aronofsky but taken from scripture. Let's just say it'll be a GIANT ROCK hard detail for some people to overcome but it's the only way a HUGE plot point in the story can be explained.
This is part of a bigger decision that Aronofsky made to set Noah in a world that could have taken place on any planet. The world of this film feels as much like Earth as Middle-Earth does in Lord of the Rings. If you go into it thinking this is a Sci-Fi or Fantasy film, you'll enjoy it even more. And let's be honest, that's the tone that such a fantastical story should be told in. Telling Noah's Ark as an historical non-fiction would've been so crazy that it was a smarter choice to commit to the crazy and make an epic that sells that. This does not mean that it alienates Christians though; on the contrary, this is the tale of faith that they all believe. Fantaics, however, on both the believers and non-believers alike will hate this film. But anyone with a mind open to artistic choices will fully enjoy it.
Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream) are great. Connelly especially gives a stellar, Oscar-worthy performance as Noah's wife. But as wonderful as everyone's performances are though, that's not why you see this film. Noah is important just as much as it is intriguing. There are statesments made that are direct messages about how Christians should treat the earth better and how non-believers should think about the importance of miracles. Aronofsky also bluntly makes the argument that the two philosophies are congruent in their beliefs, despite national debates, in a 3:00 segment about the creation of everything that is worth the price of admission alone.
The backlash against Noah will be a tidal wave (pun intended) but that's never stopped Aronofsky before. He's a true artistic auteur who relishes in pushing the envelope in ways that make you affected by what you see. Noah, like so many of his other films, is a movie you don't sit and enjoy; you sit and soak in. Everyone who leaves the theater will be forced into a discussion with each other that is crucial. Questions like "what does 'good' mean?" and "should their be limits to faith?" These are questions that are tackled head-on by a movie that has no true good or bad guy. In fact, since Aronofsky is so aware that everyone knows the story already, he makes a statement about religious fanaticism that forces Noah to do horrible things that you will hate him for purely BECAUSE he is the hero of the story. It's a story we're only used to hearing in black and white being told by a director who injects some much needed and realistic shades of grey and for that, Noah is excellent.
Muppets Most Wanted
Every time a Muppet movie comes out, I cringe. I know that's a really weird thing for the (self-proclaimed) biggest Muppet fan you'll ever meet to say but it's true. The reason why is because I feel like so much is riding on it to be a huge success. In case you didn't know, The Muppets were once one of the biggest cultural icons with a primetime TV show and movies that came our regularly and were critical and financial successes. But after Muppet creator Jim Henson tragically died in 1990 shortly after he sold the franchise to Disney, the quality went down and so the success followed. It wasn't until, of all people, Jason Segel and writer/director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshal, Get Him to the Greek) sold Disney on letting them take a shot at redemption. They succeeded but ever since then, I feel like The Muppets have been on thin ice.
I got really nervous when I started to see ads and trailers come out for Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel (although it's the 7th Muppet film) to Segel's masterpiece. The reason why was because I wasn't seeing anything funny or clever. I saw a Kermit look-a-like with a mole and his pinkie in his mouth like Dr. Evil which wouldn't have even been funny when Austin Powers jokes were still funny. The good news is that that character, named Constantine, doesn't do that in the film but more importantly, the film is really, really funny.
The movie starts literally seconds after the last one ends with a really clever musical number about how sequels aren't as good as the originals. It's brilliant and catchy which is exactly what one should expect from The Muppets. After that, the story involves a world tour after their new success which is actually a ploy for a jewel heist, plotted by Constantine and Dominic Badguy, played fearlessly by Ricky Gervais. The two other human leads are Ty Burrell (ABC's Modern Family, Mr. Peabody and Sherman) and Tina Fey. Both are capable of being funnier but mostly still have moments of comedy gold. The real laughs from humans comes from any of the countless celebrity cameos that spans all the way from Ray Liotta to Lady Gaga to Celine Dion.
What made me enjoy 2011's The Muppets so amazingly was that it was not only really funny but a self aware reflection of lost fame. It also had solid signals it sent out to hardcore Muppet fans like me who got choked up seeing pictures of Jim Henson and hearing the whole cast sing "Rainbow Connection" again. None of that is in Muppets Most Wanted and I'm okay with that. We don't need the sentiment because Muppet fans were won over with the last one and now they just simply focus on being the funniest movie they could make. They succeed.
Director James Bobin (HBO's Flight of the Conchords, Da Ali G Show) is a comedic genius and he kills it once again. He navigates us through Muppets Most Wanted with jokes that kids will mostly get but whispers and sight gags that adults will absolutely die from laughing. And if you're a Muppet elitist like me, there are still moments where you'll have to wipe away a tear or two but this time it's from laughing too hard at inside Muppet jokes. It makes me so happy to know that the characters that introduced me (and most comedians under the age of 45) to comedy are in the hands of Bobin and Stoller; two guys who have earned my trust. They respect them as much as I do and have the chops to give them the rebirth they so earnestly deserve. Thanks for playing the music and lighting the lights, guys!
Listen to Gavin's exclusive interview with the star of "Muppet's Most Wanted", Miss Piggy:
Gavin also got to interview Kermit the Frog, back in 2011, before the release of the last "Muppets" movie:
The Harry Potter films were some of favorites to come out in the last ten years. I was way late reading the series and didn't pick the books up until the fourth movie had come out but I consumed it all and am not afraid to admit that I cried at the final moments. However, I'm starting to hate them but not for anything that they did on purpose. The unprecedented success of those films opened up Pandora's Box and Hollywood has set out to feast on every single Young Adult novel series that's out there. I'm starting to think that the books don't even have to be good or successful for Hollywood monsters to gobble the rights to them up whole. Divergent is the latest and it might be the swan song for the trend.
I have not read the book series for which Divergent is based on. After seeing the movie, I don't want to either. I'm not quite sure I made any sense out of the story. The film takes place in the future where, after a large war, the last survivors are placed into five different vocations based on their natural traits that decide everything about your life, yet you can still choose which group you want to be in. Divergents are people who don't have a distinct trait and don't fit in anywhere. They, for some reason, are a threat to the whole system. This is never really explained why and because of that, the motivations for every character in the story seems pointless and unclear.
Even if Divergent didn't have a murky plot, it's grotesquely unoriginal. Every Young Adult novel that was turned into a movie in the last ten years can be found here; such as Harry Potter (they're divided up into groups/houses based on a test), Hunger Games (it's post-apocalyptic), Twilight (there's a love story), Ender's Game (80% of the film is a sci-fi basic training) even Diary of a Wimpy Kid (it's all about not fitting in). I understand that some people enjoy seeing the same thing over and over again but not me. When I watch something new and it feels like I've seen it before (let alone many times over), I get mad that a studio would try to take advantage of people that way.
The performances in Divergent are good. Shailene Woodley (The Decendents, The Spectacular Now) shows leading ladies in other Young Adult films how it's done with some scenes that, given the target audience, is pretty intense. Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher, A Good Day to Die Hard) and Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment, 21 & Over) play decent-enough baddies but Kate Winslet, who should be the shining star in this, proves that she's really good at phoning in a villainous performance.
Of course Divergent will make tons of money since it already has legions of screaming fangirls clammering to be first in line. But if The Mortal Instruments and Percy Jackson has taught us anything it's that you can whip up the masses into a pre-release frenzy but if you don't produce something that lives up to their expectations, you'll see that passion die out quickly. If director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) thinks the way to do that is hit these girls with a movie that's over 2-and-a-half hours long that drags like no other and confuses those desperately trying to make sense of it all, he may not be back for the rest of the series.