Category Archives: Movies

Captain America: The First Avenger

52 Movies: Week 20

I’m changing up the format here. This is obviously not the movie poster, rather a classic Alex Schomburg cover from my own comic collection.

While I have a lot to say about Captain America the character, I don’t have a lot to say about the Captain America the movie.  It was pretty much exactly what one would expect going in.  The cast was excellent and I love that they made it a period piece but the script was very by the numbers.  Out of all of the movies leading up to The Avengers, Captain America felt the most like a bridge to that feature film rather than a feature film in it’s own right.

This is not to say that it was a terrible movie.  I thought Captain America’s origin was well told but, once we got past that, there was not much in the way of dramatic tension.  I wonder how much of this is the fault of the character?

It’s funny — From a philosophical point of view, Superman and Captain America are two of my favorite characters.  I like my heroes to be, well, heroic and, despite their super powers, in the case of both superman and Captain America, it is their strength of character that makes them true heroes.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rodgers tells Dr. Erskine, the scientist developing the super soldier serum that he wants to enlist not because he is particularly anxious to kill anyone but because he hates a bully.  Later, Dr. Erskine tells Steve Rodgers that he was selected for the program because a weak man understands the value of strength.

Superman does not share Captain America’s meek origins but his adopted parents raised him with similar values.  Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both the children of Jewish immigrants and their hero, created in the 1930’s, was a populist crusader, protecting those without a voice and fighting against tyranny and oppression in all its guises.  Similarly, Captain America was co-created by Joe Simon who came from a poor Jewish family and whose father had also immigrated from Europe.  Far from being a jingoistic symbol of nationalism, Captain America also fought for those noblest of American values that early 20th century immigrants valued so highly — Freedom from oppression, opportunity for all and social justice.

These are the values that make characters like Superman and Captain America so much more appealing to me than vengeance fueled vigilantes like Batman. I like the heroes who are Boy Scouts because they appeal to the better angels of our nature, their values reflect my world views and they, quite honestly, inspire me.  Unfortunately, all of these features that make them so appealing to me on a personal level, also make them somewhat boring on a dramatic level.  It’s hard to write compelling fiction featuring heroes who are so perfect and I can count on one hand the number of Superman or Captain America stories that managed to find the right balance.  By contrast, there are countless compelling stories featuring Batman and his ilk, with Christopher Nolan’s soon to be completed trilogy being just the latest example.

I’m looking forward to seeing the Avengers this week.  Writer/director Josh Whedon is a master of group dynamics and if anyone can grab hold of what is essential in Captain America’s character and integrate that into a team-based story, it’s him.  While Captain America: The First Avenger, managed to nail Cap’s origin story, the latter half of the movie ran afoul of the challenges inherent in wringing dramatic tension out of such an iconic hero.  Accordingly, I can only give the movie three stars.

X-Men: First Class

52 Movies: Week 19

X-Men: First Class

There is a good movie somewhere in here but it is continually undercut by a ham-fisted script.

X-Men:First class is set in 1962 (with some flashbacks to 1942) and it covers the origin of the titular team of super-powered mutants.  I should confess that I am a huge X-Men geek and have been since I was ten so this is an origin story that I know like the back of my hand.  To its credit, X-Men:First Class does a good job at capturing some of what I love about that story.  In particular, the relationship between Eric Lehnsherr (the holocaust survivor who will go on to become the super-villain Magneto) and Charles Xavier (the founder and leader of the X-Men) is a fascinating and tragic story about two friends with very different views on the relationship between mutants and homo-sapiens.

Eric Lehnsherr is played by Michael Fassbender and Charles Xavier is played by James McAvoy.  Both actors do a fantastic job and the scenes featuring the two of them (which comprise the bulk of the movie) are all excellent.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast turn in mostly terrible performances, perhaps hamstrung by the often terrible dialog they are given.  Jennifer Lawrence, who I love, is terrible in X-Men: First Class, even while her character’s arc is mostly interesting.

Some of the script problems come from having to shoe-horn in a lot of material in a little over 2 hours.  At times, however, I felt like we are being given the dumbed down version of reality that plagued comic book movies for so long until movies like Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman movies and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies showed that you can successfully ground comic book movies in the real world.  X-Men First Class certainly attempts to do just this on the fact of it — The Cuban Missle Crisis is a major plot-point.  But heavy handed dialog from extras who serve only as plot devices undermines this reality and repeatedly pulls the audience out of whatever immersion they may have been feeling.

All of that having been said, the movie’s action set pieces are well done and there are moments that really scored a direct hit with my inner comic geek.  (The first appearance of the team in uniform was almost worth the price of admission alone.)  X-Men: First Class is better than other movies in the X-Men franchise and it is entertaining for fans of the genre.  It’s still a disappointment, however, as there are the makings of a truly great movie here and it never quite comes together.  Three stars out of five.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

52 Movies: Week 18

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an adaptation of John LeCarre’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole embedded in the highest rank’s of Britain’s MI-6. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, is best known for Let The Right One In, the original film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel of the same name. Let The Right One In was notable for being a patient character study masquerading as a genre film, and for being an impeccable period piece, capturing the look and feel of 80’s Norway with apparent verisimilitude. These strengths are again on display in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

John LeCarre actually spent time in British intelligence prior to becoming a a writer and was, himself, betrayed by a Russian mole. His novels bear no resemblance to Robert Ludlum’s terrible Bourne books. LeCarre’s stories are nuanced character studies, well grounded in a place and time that he knows well. Alfredson was, accordingly, the perfect director to adapt his work and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as exceptional as Let The Right One In.

Gary Oldman received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of George Smiley, the intelligence agent who is surreptitiously brought out of forced retirement to hunt down the mole. Smiley is a taciturn character and Oldman’s performance is one of those masterpieces of minimalism, not unlike Billy Bob Thorton’s work in The Man Who Wasn’t There. There is a real art to being able to convey great depth with such a quiet performance and it’s always thrilling to see an actor pull it off. These sorts of performances do not insult the audience by spelling everything out and, indeed, the movie as a whole shares some of these characteristics. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a measured movie and the complex plot developments are rarely spelled out. This is, accordingly, not a movie for everyone. This is a spy movie of the cloak and dagger variety, not the action adventure type.

That caveat aside, the entire cast turns in incredible performances, (with Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy being particularly noteworthy), and I personally loved this movie. Four stars out of five. Next week I will try to see Captain America so I may (finally) have a less than glowing review! There are so many good movies lined up in my Netflix queue, however, that it’s hard to avoid picking things I suspect I’m really going to like each week.

The Cabin In The Woods

52 Movies: Week 17

The Cabin In The Woods

The Cabin In The Woods is a smart, funny deconstruction of the slasher movie genre.

This is the second movie I have seen in the last month that subverts expectations of the classic “teenagers in a cabin on the lake” slasher film plot.  Tucker and Dale vs Evil was a much more good-spirited movie but, once the central premise was revealed, events unfolded in a fairly obvious direction.  The Cabin In The Woods, by contrast, is a much more sophisticated deconstruction of the genre with a plot that unfolds like a puzzle box over the course of the movie’s hour and a half run time.

This sort of complex plot, featuring continuous reveals, is just what audiences would expect of writer director Drew Goddard who worked on the first four seasons of Lost, as well as Alias and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  Buffy The Vampire Slayer was, of course, the brainchild of Josh Whedon and his presence as a co-writer on Cabin In The Woods is felt in the subversive humor that pervades.

The Cabin In The Woods is a very funny movie and the excellent cast, featuring Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Kristen Connolly and Chris Hemsworth, among others, does a great job with the material.  The less I say about the specific plot points the better.  Suffice to say that I highly recommend Cabin In The Woods and suggest avoiding trailers or reviews until after you’ve seen the film.

The Cabin In The Woods continues the streak of excellent movies I’ve been seeing lately and I give it four stars out of five.

The Secret World of Arrietty

52 Movies: Week 16

The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty is the American dub of the Studio Ghibli film titled The Borrower Arrietty.  As the Japanese name implies, the movie is based on Mary Norton’s novel, The Borrowers about little people who live in the walls of houses and eke out an existence by borrowing things that will not be missed.

The fascination in the movie is the same as in the book — Seeing how the borrowers make innovative used of our everyday items.  A pin becomes a sword, staples serve as a utility ladder, postage stamps adorn the walls and double-sided tape can be used to scale cabinets.

Hayao Miyazaki working on the script and produced the movie which was directed by first time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  As would be expected from a Studio Ghibili film, the animation is superb.  The subject matter, in a strange way, grounds the film so some of the more fantastic and beautiful elements of my favorite Ghibli films, such as Ponyo and Spirited Away, are absent.  The Borrowers world is our own to a large extent, only smaller.  Even the plot seems scaled down from some of the more lofty Ghibli films but it’s still a very good movie.

Indeed, despite the fact that this is a quiet, patient film without much in the way of action,  I saw it in a theater full of children, some as young as four, and you could have heard a pin drop.  There was no restlessness or talking — Just a theater full of children held in rapt attention.  The two nine year olds I saw the movie with liked it every bit as much as I did.  If you are looking for something to watch with your kids that you will enjoy as well, (or if you are just a fan of Studio Ghibli films), The Secret World of Arrietty is appropriate for any age.

Another positive recommendation from me — Four stars out of five.

50/50

52 Movies: Week 15

50/50

50/50 is a comedy about dealing with cancer that manages to be simultaneously funny and moving without ever getting sappy or desperate for laughs.

In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in another phenomenal performance on a very human scale as Adam, a 24 year old editor for public radio who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  Seth Rogan provides comic relief as Adam’s best friend and the movie is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser who is friends with Rogan in real life and was, himself, diagnosed with a spinal tumor.

Likely owing to these real-life experiences, 50/50 manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that could sink a movie of this sort, though credit is also due to the actors and director Johnathan Levine.  The scale of this movie is very human.  There are no rousing speeches and no one has the perfect line at the perfect moment.  Indeed, the central theme of the movie is that there may not be “the right thing to say” in this situation.  Platitudes are empty and loved ones are only human.  People deal as best they are able but it is an almost impossible situation to navigate and in the end, what’s most important is that the people in your life who love you are along on the ride with you.

50/50 manages to avoid a descent into melodrama or even sappiness. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the humor never becomes needy or forced.  The emotions are real throughout and no one in the extremely likable cast ever overplays his or her hand.

This movie deserves a lot more attention than it received and I highly recommend it.  4 and a half stars out of five.

13 Assassins

52 Movies: Week 14 

13 Assassins

13 Assassins is a masterpiece of the samurai genre, quite possibly the samurai movie to end all samurai movies.

13 Assassins is set in the middle of the 19th century as the era of the shoguns and samurai begins to wane.  Veteran samurai Shinzaemon is given a covert order to assassinate the shogun’s brother, the sadistic and immoral Lord Naritsugu, before he can ascend to a position of greater authority.  Naritsugu is well-protected so Shinzaemon sets about putting together a team for what will most likely be a suicide mission.  This gathering of the heroes is a trope that movie buffs should know well from movies such as The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen but, of course, it has its origins in Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai.

13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name.  I can’t speak to the original but Takashi Miike’s remake definitely pays homage to Seven Samurai.  Apart from the gathering of heroes, we also have the fortifying of the mountain village, the desperate fight against impossible odds and even the unlikely rural clown turned hero, echoing Seven Samurai’s Kikuchiyo.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece and one of the most influential movies of all time but it is also a product of its time in that the standards of the era did not allow for graphic depictions of violence. The contrast to 13 Assassins in this regard is striking.  13 Assassins takes its time illustrating the politics at play and, critically, developing its characters.  When the fighting begins in earnest, however, it is stunning and relentless.  (I am reminded of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, another movie which pushed the boundaries of violence in its genre.)

The choreography and cinematography of this final battle is fantastic.  The action is clear and easy to follow.   Because the characters have all been so well developed by this point, we are able to follow individual skirmishes as they play out and understand the strengths of the heroes, their motivations and their relationships with one another.  While the battle may resemble typical action movie fare at its onset, it becomes increasingly brutal as it progresses.

It’s hard to make a samurai movie that does not romanticize death to some extent but, unlike The Hunger Games or movies of an earlier era, 13 Assassins does not sanitize death.  As the carnage becomes increasingly graphic, the effect on the viewer is somewhat like the climax of Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre in Unforgiven. The end of the Samurai era is drawing near and, standing amid the ruins and bloodstained streets, one character surely reflects that this may not be a bad thing.

I love Seven Samurai and while few movies can approach it in terms of importance and influence, I will say that 13 Assassins is my new favorite samurai  film.  I give 13 Assassins 5 stars out of 5 and highly recommend it to fans of the genre.