Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

As a comic book movie, and strictly as a comic book movie, Captain America: Civil War succeeds. The third motion picture in Marvel’s series for Disney based on its patriotic comic book character, co-directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and written by no fewer than five writers, is neither as exciting as 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier nor as character-driven as the 2011 original, Captain America: The First Avenger. Civil War isn’t even about civil war; it’s about a petty superhero spat that gets emotionalistic (on one side, anyway) with hardly any exposition about the principles in dispute. In this sense, it’s like watching two policemen fight over a department procedure.

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Today’s audiences, however, aren’t likely to want exposition or care. It’s not that Civil War is a bad movie—it’s good as escapism—but it is not a bright movie. Starting with a weak introduction of the Black Panther comics character, it’s a bit dim.

The conflict pertains to superhero Iron Man’s contention that the United States must submit to some sort of vague global accord which prohibits harming civilians during war. Captain America (Chris Evans, sharp as ever) thinks that’s an irrational idea and pointedly opposes unilateral abandonment of American sovereignty for an arbitrary accord. But Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr. snapping off lines as usual) apparently has a guilty conscience after an emotional confrontation with a parent (Alfre Woodard, reunited with Downey who appeared with her in 1993’s Hearts and Souls). So the battle begins.

Enter an African monarch (Chadwick Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42) who inexplicably becomes the mysterious Black Panther after a mysterious terrorist attack disrupts his life and threatens his nation. The character is key to the conflict resolution, which comes after Iron Man and Captain America ally with key superheroes—everyone it seems except Thor—leading to the movie’s tag line: whose side are you on?

Again, it’s not the smartest formulation of a question because there’s no contest as to the right answer. The appearance of the Soviet star, the death of a beloved character and an apparent electromagnetic pulse attack come into play with careful plotting and clever lines. From Nigeria to London, Vienna, Bucharest and Berlin, fed from Captain America’s refusal to compromise and choice to go rogue as he did in The Winter Soldier, Iron Man and company stand for the status quo in belief that killing civilians is always wrong (never mind the U.S. winning World War 2 and the American Civil War by demonstrating the willingness to kill civilians). This happens amid flashbacks to Tony Stark’s parents and the assertion of Team Iron Man’s moral imperative that the “collective good” trumps the rights of the individual and the morality of self-interest.

When superheroes clash, though, script and characters are at their best. This is due to dry humor in various matchups and depends to some extent on one’s familiarity with each superhero. See Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Bettany as Vision and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, with the ladies having apparently mastered English so that any trace of a foreign accent has vanished, though this is most obvious with Johansson’s vixen whom I could have sworn had a thick Russian accent, though I could be wrong.

Add to that trio Captain’s long-ago best friend, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan, The Martian), who’s really a moral stand-in for the American war veteran and the film’s best connection to Captain America’s origins and impetus, Anthony Mackie (Black or White) gamely as Falcon, Don Cheadle (Miles Ahead) as War Machine, Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) as Hawkeye and, thankfully, adding zip to the battle scenes, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. Unlike the bloated Avengers movie, more is merrier here. Only some new type of frame by frame hyperkineticism in the action sequences spoils the fun with a stop-start flash and jerk visual that plays like a broken car sputtering to the finish line. The movie’s man to man combat is brutal on the eyes and impossible to follow.

Chase scenes are better and Henry Jackman‘s score heightens excitement as the plot combines humor, a surprise turn by a legendary superhero and friendly fire to reach a climax which folds too neatly into Marvel’s trademark tease for the next movie. What’s left is a depleted Iron Man, frankly, who’s as horny and sarcastic as ever and running on emotionalism. There’s enjoyment to be had, and I laughed out loud throughout the second half, as you probably will, too. Winter Soldier also has good bits at the expense of FDR‘s Lend-Lease Act, The Manchurian Candidate and state-sponsored security theater.

Look for a prolonged Disney fan club plug and don’t think about heroes’ feet-of-clay emotionalism or Black Panther’s magically procuring materials and creating a superhero persona. Plot holes widen to distraction. But this is Captain America: Civil War, which offers light entertainment, not realism, in depicting deep American disunion.

Somehow, despite its gaps and gags, the ominously cautionary moral comes through.

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Preview: Oliver Stone’s Snowden

Oliver Stone’s new movie about Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose act of defiance against the Obama administration led to his persecution and exile and awareness of the surveillance state, debuts on September 16.

The title is Snowden. The tagline: “The only safe place is on the run.”

snowden-movie-poster-useJudging by the polished, paranoia-themed trailer, Snowden will be typical of Stone, the Academy Award®-winning director of Platoon, AlexanderBorn on the Fourth of July, JFK, Wall Street and World Trade Center. The trailer looks like it bears his usual marks; creative license apparently taken with what’s known about Snowden’s motives, relationships and life, to the extent this is discernible, Stone’s dark, moody look and an all-star cast including Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man), Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider), Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins), Shailene Woodley of the Divergent series and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Walk, Mysterious Skin, Lincoln) as Edward Snowden (watch Snowden‘s trailer here and read my thoughts on Edward Snowden here.)

At least Gordon-Levitt, an excellent actor (he’s marvelous in the exquisite The Walk), is a fine choice as the lead. Also, in this case, unlike leftist Stone’s compelling but flawed JFK, the movie’s apparent subject, the essential story of the man who unmasked the American surveillance state, is, in fact, a conspiracy, by the government’s admission. Snowden is a hero if you think, as I do, that the United States is becoming totally controlled by the state, and a traitor if you believe that the state’s proper role is security regardless of individual rights. What he did, whatever your philosophy, has an undeniable impact on Americans’ lives and liberty, including influence on Apple’s courageous decision to defy the government, and Snowden could be better than Stone’s previous pictures, including Alexander, his mixed and wrongly maligned 2004 movie about Alexander the Great.

 

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Preview: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

This week, Hollywood returns to its idealistic, enterprising and glamorous origins, welcoming those who really power the motion picture industry with TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival. I attended for the first time last year and wrote about it here.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbFor four days, the best movies (and, admittedly, others, too) take over Hollywood’s most legendary and best movie theaters to be seen, discovered and enjoyed uncut and commercial-free, to borrow the phrase made famous by Ted Turner’s namesake Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Films from the silent era with Buster Keaton to the Golden Age with Doris Day, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper and through the modern era with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett will be studied, examined and discussed by fans, filmmakers and movie stars.

This year’s event passes are sold out, though individual tickets are available as the festival encourages passholders to choose from among several competing movies.

For instance, on the festival’s first night, one can see 1964’s movie about interracial marriage One Potato, Two Potato with leading actress Barbara Barrie discussing it with a film historian afterwards or watch a 40th anniversary screening of All the President’s Men (1976) and hear thoughts on journalism from both the men who made Oscar’s recent Best Picture winner about journalism, Spotlight, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, and the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, portrayed in the movie by Dustin Hoffman.

But one could also choose from among three other movies in the same time frame: Harold Lloyd’s 1925 classic The FreshmanDark Victory (1939) starring Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis, and Elia Kazan’s 1945 adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Here, the best is showcased in abundance.

Billy Dee Williams will talk about Brian’s Song (1971). The boy who gave voice to Walt Disney’s Bambi (1947), Donnie Dunagan, recalls making the animated classic. Faye Dunaway appears at an anniversary screening of Paddy Chayefsky’s biting and brilliant 1976 satire, Network.

Guests include archivists, scholars, authors and other artists and intellectuals. See the actor who played the boy in 1989’s Cinema Paradiso. See 1989’s Field of Dreams. Indulge in discussion of dogs in films, an examination of the movie score, a conversation with Elliot Gould about acting, thoughts on playing opposite Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? from co-star Katharine Houghton or an appearance by Angela Lansbury at a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Get to know Truth‘s Mary Mapes and James Vanderbilt, The King and I‘s Rita Moreno, Leonard MaltinChildren of a Lesser God‘s Marlee Matlin, Carl Reiner, the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, Trapeze‘s Gina Lollobrigida, Rocky‘s Talia Shire, or On the Waterfront‘s Eva Marie Saint remembering 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

The theme for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival is Moving Pictures, meaning there’s an emphasis on movies that move the audience to think, to feel, to act.

Many of the 100 featured films do exactly that and, in today’s disturbing times, several stand out as extraordinarily relevant. From questions raised and dramatized about so-called income inequality in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows and blacks’ lives depicted in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood to the penetrating portrait of media complicity in enabling the rise of a charismatic power-luster seeking government influence in Elia Kazan’s prophetic 1957 masterpiece A Face in the Crowd, the best pictures earn renewed respect over time.

Turner Classic Movies, honoring its creator, Ted Turner—a media titan who once bought billboards asking “Who is John Galt?” the philosophical challenge from Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged and created TCM because he loves movies, particularly Gone With the Wind (1939)—continues to earn respect, too. With a wine club, movie-themed Disney cruise, forthcoming app with the Criterion Collection for streaming classic movies and original programming and publishing, TCM skillfully brands itself as an expression of passion for movies which exists with outlets in reality, not as some obscurity for dilettantes pondering the avant-garde.

This week’s film festival is the best example, bringing together people who make and watch movies and doing so with a sense of joy, humor and especially with seriousness for thinking about what moves the world—which is exactly what ultimately moves and makes the best movies.

TCM fundamentally thrives as a source for great movies. But it also serves as a reminder and catalyst for today’s Hollywood to consider and honor its exciting and productive past and move the audience, studio and filmmaker alike to project into the future. Its annual presence in Hollywood gathers and converges the industry’s most loyal patrons and producers to worship what’s glamorous, grand and magnificent about movies, ensuring that industrialization carries on.

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Book Review: Keep Calm (2016)

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An exciting debut novel by filmmaker Mike Binder, Keep Calm, combines travel, politics and an act of war to serve a redemptive and cautionary theme about securing one’s country and family.

The action begins in London, with a female politician named Georgia Turnbull who immediately calls to mind one of Binder’s many strong movie characters for women.

Georgia’s tough-minded in a time of crisis, demonstrating the title’s directive after the United Kingdom is hit by an explosion at 10 Downing Street. With the British prime minister seriously wounded, Georgia, the chancellor of the exchequer, is basically propelled into running the country.

Propulsion is Binder’s top skill in this first novel, as the thrills originate with organic plot points, development and characterization. What happens stems from the story progression. Nothing is included to deceive, confuse or distract, though the reader may succumb to any of these thanks to Binder’s clever use of a timing device, as he reconfigures the bombing timeline to maximum effect, and deploys certain hints, lines and clues. Keep Calm, which is not without flaws, is always fresh and often surprising.

But it is never dull and the story, as with screenwriter and director Binder’s best motion pictures (The Upside of Anger, Indian Summer, Black or White), peels back peculiar yet discoverable characteristics, secrets and motivations. As the prime minister’s life teeters on expiration, and the prospect of a woman prime minister looms, Binder spins several characters into separately rotating orbits, each revolving around the mystery of Keep Calm: who attacked and why?

Chief among these are American Midwesterner Adam Tatum who’s traveling to London on business with his Brit wife and their kids, hotshot investigator Davina Steel and crony statist billionaire David Heaton. Subsidiary characters, such as a father-in-law, a male secretary and assorted Londoners, foreigners, policemen, policewomen and thugs figure into the plot, too, with shocking or thrilling results.

To say more is to say too much and I do not want to spoil the plot. I don’t want to be too vague or minimize the plot, either, though, a more common problem in the favorable book review. A lot happens in Keep Calm, and it happens at a steady and purposeful pace with good characterization, dialogue and transition. There are flashbacks of a helicopter crash, subtle clues, shifting allegiance and, prominently, checkered Adam Tatum’s family on the run from both the British government and the culprits who may have set him up for implication in the attack.

Young detective Steel, under watchful orders from the British state, must rely on her own judgment and everything from Islamic terrorism, sexual assault, addiction, detachment from the European Union (EU), power-lusting members of Parliament and lesbian eroticism comes into play.

Mike Binder is at his best with heart-thumping chases into London’s Underground, gunfights, nighttime dalliances, a kidnapping, a showdown in the country and a climactic compound siege and his London streets and landmark details are a treat for fans of that grand metropolis. The propulsive plot does come at the expense of the novel’s underdeveloped theme, which fades and leaves a hurried and unfinished resolution. Sometimes, character actions strain plausibility. A few plot loops close too neatly or dart too quickly into another subplot as London becomes the center of epic intrigue. I found one character’s violation to be gratuitous and thematically self-defeating.

As always, however, with this intelligently gripping literary debut, Binder—who’s already adapting Keep Calm as a movie on location in London—writes with passion and purpose. Binder’s theme that the government’s urge to keep calm, with its profound and eloquent place in Britain’s history, ought to be viewed with doubt and scrutiny, makes his first novel a promising start and enticing source for a major motion picture.

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Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

Alternately exciting and sluggish, Disney’s live action version of The Jungle Book, adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s adventure tales, ultimately succeeds as a matinee or home video adventure. Director Jon Favreau (Chef, Zathura, Cowboys & Aliens) has a knack for these types of daring movies and, with a few twists and reconfigurations of Walt Disney’s 1967 animated motion picture (read my movie and DVD review of the classic here), which this closely resembles with some modifications, The Jungle Book delivers generic entertainment.

Action scenes are too close up and jumbled. There’s a steadiness to the script by Justin Marks that lulls the audience into a kind of slumber and it sags between pulsating action sequences which pop up at expected intervals. Marks and Favreau make every plot point so predictable and safe that it depletes the wispy plot and characters of tension, depth and conflict.

JungleBook2016PosterMowgli (a debut by Neel Sethi) is a gangly kid left to make his way in the Asian jungle—the backstory comes into play—and, like Tarzan, Bomba and other human males among wild animals in exotic locations, he bonds with animals and nature. Disney’s original picture spun this coming of age tale with music and humor and, amid modern demands for new forms of excitement, there’s much less of both which doesn’t help. Baloo the layabout bear is voiced by Bill Murray (Aloha, St. Vincent, Ghostbusters), who is fine, and Bagheera the paternal black panther is voiced by Ben Kingsley (The Walk, Schindler’s List), who is also sufficient. The same goes for Idris Elba (TV’s Lucifer and Thor) as the villainous tiger Shere Khan, Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars, 12 Years a Slave) as the wolf and everyone else including the late Garry Shandling doing a voiceover, too.

No one, however, generates emotional power from the screenplay. Any moment or scene that comes close to achieving or earning an emotional response, such as when mother wolf must let the human boy leave the pack, falls flat or starts to swirl and then spins out with the next scene. This is through no fault of composer John Debney, whose score services the adventure movie even when it overwhelms what’s on screen. I think it’s partly caused by the Mowgli character, who is underplayed, the writing, which is underdeveloped, and Favreau’s direction, which is underdone. Finally, without animation, the computer generated setting is hyper-realistic which makes The Jungle Book visually arresting and thematically formulaic, contrasting stronger visuals with weaker characters, lines and themes.

For example, a cliched phrase about sticking together explicitly comes into Jungle Book about halfway through and is then put at the plot climax’s center, way out of proportion to its thin and poorly executed development, so the climax is less than credible or involving because it’s been more told than shown. Scarlett Johansson (Her) has a cameo as a snake and she unfortunately sings during the end credits which is almost as bad as Christopher Walken’s singing primate, who just about stops the movie’s plot momentum.

Despite the shortcomings, Mowgli’s interactions with elephants, trees and mentors, surrogate family and jungle inhabitants of all kinds is interesting and often thrilling, perhaps more so if you get a tickle from the animated version. Favreau almost always has a positive theme and The Jungle Book is no exception but it isn’t cohesively challenging and at times it’s barely interesting. Shere Khan’s relationship to the wolf pack, as provocatively depicted, parallels today’s Islamic terrorist threat—but it’s left dangling. Other promising points dissipate as well.

The 1967 version‘s loose, jaunty quality was tonic in the turbulent times of its release. In these more ominous times, remaking Kipling’s cautionary tales and layering them with tenderness, a sense of danger and an overarching theme of the outsider enshrouded with universal love is at once more realistic and more prosaic.

Available in 3D, I saw The Jungle Book without 3D glasses and I have no regrets.

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