Review: Captain America: Civil War

•May 8, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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In this cinematic climate of ever escalating franchises, perhaps it’s best to evaluate these films as one would another variety of franchise: fast food. If the comparison seems unfair, it is simply a reflection of how these types of films have taken over the popular culture. Much like fast food, these films are meant for mass audiences and thus are consumed by them. Each new outing is about the equivalent of a new item on the menu. There may be some minor variations, but crowds will always return because they know what they like. Sure, in most cases, the films may be tasty and familiar, but is there any actual nutritional value? Marvel has mastered this form of branding better than any other active franchise. Indeed, their films are fairly entertaining, and more importantly to the studio, all of them have enjoyed financial success. Captain America: Civil War stays true to that brand, proficient and even rousing in spurts, but given the stakes such a title forbodes, it also manages to somehow be minimally consequential.

“Actions have consequences” is a well known phrase, but for a while, one could be mistaken for thinking that many of these superhero films left it out of their vernacular. Captain America: Civil War aims to dispel that notion, by taking that issue head on as its own thematic framework. After the past disastrous climaxes in previous Marvel films, the United Nations seeks to put the Avengers in check. An accord is put forth, in which the Avengers should answer to and take orders from the U.N. directly. Those who defy such safeguards will be prosecuted or forced into retirement. This puts the group at odds with itself. On one side is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who once dissolved his own weapons manufacturing when he witnessed its devastating collateral damage. As the bankroller for the Avengers, Stark takes personal responsibility for their collective actions. Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), on the other hand, sees the Avengers as the best equipped to handle their unique missions, and sees the accords as limiting their ability to prevent worse catastrophes. With the reemergence of the Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), lines are drawn between loyalty to friends and loyalty to nations, with conflict sure to follow.

There’s a bit of a strange dichotomy at work with Captain America: Civil War, which is that it is both Marvel’s most thematically compelling film to date, yet it takes safe and occasionally contrived paths in order to reach its conclusion. There’s a key antagonist played by Daniel Bruhl who chooses to expose the brainwashed flaws of Bucky Barnes to wreak havoc, but his motivations and objectives are half baked. A conflict stemming from within the Avengers themselves makes for richer drama rather than manipulation from a new third party. The head arguments between former comrades set the foundation for the sparks that fly later on in actual combat, but the ultimate resolution lacks any real impact or, if Marvel truly took a risk, trauma.

Given how large the cast is, it’s easy to see Civil War as Avengers 2.5 instead of a Captain America film, but it does a good job from being too overcrowded. The supporting characters’ sides in conflict essentially come down to their preexisting loyalty to either Iron Man or Captain America. The new additions here are welcome, even if their integration into the plot varies. Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) brings a stoic honor to super heroism, and the third cinematic iteration of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) feels the most shoehorned, and yet he provides the most dazzle and wit to the entire affair.

When we see all of these heroes drop the gloves and brawl each other, the natural reaction is a fanboy’s wet dream. The action choreography in the German airport showdown is top notch, and the acrobatic camerawork keeps things comprehensible along multiple points of conflict. It’s a visually tremendous sequence, as are a couple of other action scenes, but there’s a lack of melancholy in seeing former allies duke it out. When those emotional cues finally do hit in the late stages of the film, they’re a product of an unfortunate plot contrivance. There’s still a good deal of fun and excitement to be had in Civil War, but as directors, the Russo Brothers seem to be operating at a more baseline proficiency level rather than risk anything major for their heroes. Of course, this is all in service of maintaining the brand for Marvel, which has touted long form storytelling, and has certainly delivered on spectacle, but is also too reliant on tried and true formulas. Sometimes a Big Mac is a Big Mac, and on some days that’s good enough.

Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

•April 3, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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After making one of the great high school films over two decades ago, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Richard Linklater would follow up on good vibes of Dazed and Confused and make a film about college. In the intervening years, it’s been rare to find filmmakers expand upon the proven formula of college films, dominated by lewd humor, gratuitous nudity, and all of the other expected tom foolery. Yes, these things exist in Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater’s ode to the 80’s college experience, but they merely obligatory elements in a film otherwise rife with testosterone loaded competition and camaraderie, and the occasional philosophical nugget to ponder.

It’s three days before the start of the first semester, and Jake (Blake Jenner), has just pulled up to the baseball house that he’ll learn to call home presumably over the next four years. The rules of this house are simple but strict: no alcohol and no girls upstairs. Naturally, the anxious and rabble rousing residents pay no heed to these laws, for the next 72 hours are all about jamming in as much fun as possible. It’s evident that they’re all at the school for baseball rather than academics anyway. While most of his teammates are welcoming enough, some are also biased against Jake for being a pitcher, fostering some playful taunting. Jake himself is all about having good time, but he’s not a dumb jock, quietly hiding a more discerning persona under the athletic exterior, one that catches the eyes of one or two girls on campus.

If you’re going into Everybody Wants Some!! looking for a plot or college sports action, then know that Richard Linklater has no intention of conveying anything generic or expected. The film moves casually along at its own pace, driven by the energy of these young lads discovering the freedoms of their new, largely unsupervised lives. They throw crazy parties, get thrown out of bars, go dancing in three wildly different locales, and one up each other at every opportunity. The film’s perspective comes from the eye view of the post-adolescent male and all that it entails, so that’s where the obligatory raunchiness comes into play. It goes without saying that Linklater captures the college atmosphere to a tee, albeit one from three decades ago, bereft of the internet and cell phones with their electronic screens.

The cast is uniformly terrific throughout, even if at least half of them look too old to be college baseball players. Nevertheless, their rapport is instantly infectious, a testament to the casting and Linklater’s facile grasp of the interplay that happens in tightly knit groups, especially sports teams. What’s even more amazing is how Linklater rounds out identities for over ten different characters, refusing to conform to easy stereotypes. They’re all made up of contradictions and strange quirks, and Linklater celebrates them for those presumed flaws. Indeed, embracing one’s weirdness is one of the many little thematic gems Everybody Wants Some!! has to offer. Linklater’s trademark philosophizing is sprinkled throughout the film, with all sorts of various insights applicable to the scenes on hand, never obtrusive and always perceptive.

Richard Linklater has never been known to be a particularly cinematically fussy director, but Everybody Wants Some!! might be one of his most adventurous outings to date. Granted, he doesn’t go over the top with editing or photography, but he layers his shots more deeply, yielding a few long takes with multiple planes of action amongst his actors. It’s a subtle but highly impressive way of showing the boundaries expanding for these young men minute by minute. Of course, the soundtrack is jam packed with dozens of late 70’s and early 80’s staples, from the title stolen from Van Halen, to Blondie, Pat Benatar and Pattie Smith. Above all, there may be not be a more delightful scene this year than seeing the guys cruise around campus to “Rapper’s Delight.” It’s moments like these that so many filmmakers strive to emulate, and Linklater does it effortlessly. Indeed, as any pro athlete would attest, making it look easy is a telltale sign of someone who is clearly among the best at what they do.

Review: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

•March 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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If the movie sounds as self serious yet obnoxious as the title, you’re not far off target. And yet, for all of the dour pretensions that seep through most of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, there’s just enough narrative and thematic justification to warrant the morbid tone. The purported greatest throw down between two comic book icons comes more or less as advertised, but also invests a surprising amount of story to not only build up this climactic face-off, but the inevitable conflicts to come. Even with an overblown third act and several unnecessary story tangents, Batman V Superman is fairly straightforward in providing simple yet logical motivations to ignite its clash of titans.

Thankfully, the very worst scene of Batman V Superman is its first, as director Zack Snyder gives us yet another iteration of the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, edited in parallel with Bruce falling into pit and becoming baptized by bats. Cut over the opening credits, there’s little that this montage adds to the film, and worse, feels like a direct lift from Batman Begins. Much stronger is the very next scene, perhaps the film’s best, in which the apocalyptic climax from Man of Steel is seen from the eyes of the adult Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). One of Wayne’s towers in nestled right in the heart of Metropolis, and so he drives headfirst into the city, hoping to prevent it from meeting the destruction brought upon by the warring Kryptonians. As he helplessly watches his tower come crumbling down, Bruce looks to the skies. It’s clear to him that Superman (Henry Cavill) poses a threat to not just the safety of the nation, but, as another character puts it, to “planetary security.” That other figure is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whose seemingly endless resources have uncovered Kryptonite from the fallen Kryptonian vessels in Metropolis and India, perhaps the key to defeating the Man of Steel. As public opinion of Superman grows more divisive, Luthor sees a perfect opportunity to bring a god to his knees.

As DC races to catch up with the multi narrative form of storytelling that Marvel began, it’s clear that it has no problems borrowing certain templates from its rival. Batman V Superman is quite clearly doing it’s own spin on the Avengers narrative, in which an outside malevolent party seeks to put our heroes in conflict rather than unite them. The three key points of view here are fairly clear if not equally as strong. Batman’s personal vendetta against Superman carries weight given the strength of the Metropolis destruction flashback, and so his preemptive strikes are a justifiable consequence. Affleck makes for a respectably solid Wayne/Batman, favoring underplaying and simplicity over texturing the billionaire vigilante. There’s another motivation for Wayne in the form of a bizarre dream sequence, but its inclusion is excessive, solely existing to foreshadow future DC film installments.

Henry Cavill continues to do a fine if unremarkable job portraying Superman, but the character himself is less fascinating than the public perception of him. The contrast between those who deify Superman and those who despise him comes to a head in a Congressional hearing which is graced by the Man of Steel’s presence, and whose outcome deserved to have greater consequences than the film ultimately explores. It’s during one particular shot in this hearing that one can see Kal-El questioning whether anything he does on Earth will have a positive outcome. As to his own conflicts with Batman, those motivations are murkier. As Clark Kent, he intends on investigating Batman’s vigilante methods further, much to the chagrin of Daily Planet head honcho Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne). If anything, Superman simply becomes a pawn in Luthor’s schemes in order to incite further catastrophe upon the world.

Lex Luthor isn’t really looking out for the world. In fact, he’s just out to raise his own profile. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is likely to be one of the film’s most divisive elements, but he gives the character an erratic petulance that works as a nice foil to the masculine stoicism on display from his two muscle bound opponents. Luthor’s ultimate plans are to create a new weapon from his own blood and that of the fallen General Zod. In the process, he births Doomsday, a fairly generic, forgettable humanoid monster that our heroes must defeat. Despite the tired, over the top third act, Eisenberg’s jangled performance is one of this self serious film’s eccentric highlights.

All of the other supporting cast function strictly in terms of moving the story along without much developing much themselves.. Jeremy Irons’ take on butler and apparent tech expert Alfred doesn’t bring much new to the table other than questioning Wayne’s moral decisions. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is mostly relegated to investigating a subplot which the film might have been able to do without, and her relationship with Clark doesn’t develop much beyond love interest. Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman pops up here and there throughout the film, but her involvement doesn’t add much beyond the inevitable third act. Her full and proper introduction is memorable, but Wonder Woman’s inclusion feels obligatory to future films rather than organic to this one.

Zack Snyder has never been known for his subtlety, and his style has only become more fanciful and outlandish with each passing film. Thankfully, he saves most of his theatrics for the film’s final half hour, only peppering a couple of action sequences throughout the film’s first two acts. For as many characters at he has to juggle, Snyder and editor David Brenner keep the story moving at a propulsive clip, even if they’re too reliant on fade outs and cuts to black to move in and out of scenes. Larry Fong’s photography is largely monochromatic, whether that’s in envisioning the grey remains of Wayne Manor or the nighttime blues of the climactic Gotham showdown. Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg’s score delivers all the sound and fury expected from a film of this scale, while not quite delivering anything as memorable from previous Batman or Superman outings. The actual tussle between the two title characters is quite entertaining if  shorter than expected. What makes it work best is that both combatants become increasingly exhausted with each punch and footfall, not merely two unstoppable forces pummeling each other endlessly. The final outcome of that fight may be contrived, but it has far greater impact than the glazed messiness that pervades every frame of the final Doomsday battle, perhaps a final nihilistic display of nothing less than CGI pornography.

Ultimately, Batman V Superman is both unwaveringly serious and yet irrepressibly or unintentionally goofy. Maybe it’s worth embracing that dichotomy. It’s reliance on referencing myths or legends of past millennia remind us that those stories were also as outlandish in their time, but of course, they had the benefit of being told in simpler visual or literary terms. Like so many of these expanding cinematic universes, Batman V Superman is just another stepping stone to telling the larger DC mythology. Even as it tries too hard to needlessly forge complexity, Batman V Superman strives to bring the elemental conflicts between gods and men into our modern era.