Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Noah, Muppets: Most Wanted, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo

I am tired of these superhero movies.  This is the ninth entry in the "Marvel Studios" franchise of films in only 6 years, and that doesn't even count all the DC and Marvel characters still under contract at other studios (like X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man).  There's only so many of these things I can take before it gets monotonous - but I do like the idea behind Marvel's plan.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier was decidedly marketed as more of a "political thriller" than a typical "hero's journey" sort of movie.  Although Winter Soldier actually is that prototypical superhero film, I do admire the extra effort to give it a sort of "Bourne" sheen.

The movie has Captain America (Chris Evans) now in the present and working for SHIELD under Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford, who somehow got talked into doing this), a high-ranking SHIELD offical and long-time "friend" of Nick Fury, is spearheading Project Insight: three giant helicarriers loaded with artillery used to eliminate threats before they even are threats (kind of like a half-explained version of Minority Report).  Obviously the controversial connotations of this death machine aren't up Cap's alley, and kind of obvious SPOILER here, but Pierce is not exactly working for the same team, if you catch my drift.  

I thought Winter Soldier, though vastly superior to both the first Captain America and Thor: The Dark World, still felt kind of ho-hum.  After hearing so much about how this was taking a 'political thriller' angle, I was really hoping it would use more of that stuff, but the film is ultimately still a rock-em sock-em action movie with just a sprinkling of politics. But I do have to admit, the action aspects of Winter Soldier are amazing. As opposed to Thor, who has these all-powerful god-powers, Captain America is more or less just a super-powerful guy, so the movie featured some fantastic hand-to-hand (and fist-to-face) action. Though I do wish the camera wasn't so shaky in parts (and it doesn't come anywhere close to The Raid), this film is worth watching just for the fun action set pieces.  One complaint I had about the first Captain America film is that he didn't utilize his shield very much - in this one, that shield is the coolest thing ever. Black Widow also gets a lot more to work with in this film than ever before, and Anthony Mackie is pretty great as the Falcon.  I do think though, that while the villain (the winter solider) was a physically intimidating force, was a pretty boring villain (pretty much exists for action purposes and to possibly set up the story for Captain America 3).  Overall, I did have fun with this movie, and I think fans of the Marvel films will love it, but ultimately I'm just growing tired of this genre as a whole.  I mean, there were three Marvel trailers playing before this movie...my God.

Rating: B-

Dir. Darren Aronofsky
Watch Trailer

One thing is for sure: when Darren Aronofsky makes a movie about Noah's Ark, it won't exactly be the "cute smiling animals with a rainbow" version taught in Sunday School.  With Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Wrestler, and The Fountain, in my mind Aronofsky has never disappointed, so I was very interested in this huge undertaking from a relatively "indie" director.  Now, I'm definitely no bible-buff, and I identify as an atheist so I don't have much opinion coming from a biblical standpoint, but I do think this was a fascinating film, and really did make an experience that shows how cruel "God" can be, and the decisions Noah has to make about saving animals over other people was thought-provoking and upsetting.

While I do wish this aspect was played up a little more and the fantastical elements toned down (there are literally giant rock things that walk around like the ents in Lord of the Rings), I think Aronofsky knew how to ground this biblical epic on a human level.  Russell Crowe is a bit of predictable casting, but no one is better than Crowe at delivering these types of performances.  Jennifer Connolly, playing Noah's wife, and Emma Watson, playing his adopted daughter, are also major stand-outs, and the final third of this film, though at times melodramatic, to me was extremely intense and dramatic between the family members left on the boat.  Aronofsky doesn't have a problem bringing up the issues with Noah himself, and how radical one's belief must be to basically kill off most of humanity.  The movie looks beautiful (though the animal CG was a little iffy) and I thought it was still distinctly an "Aronofsky" film, even though it's a big studio movie.  It may be one of my least favorites of his, but a lesser Aronofsky movie is still better than most directors' best.

Rating: B

Muppets: Most Wanted
Dir. James Bobin
Watch Trailer

James Bobin and co. had a tough act to follow with The Muppets, which was a true comeback for the talking puppet franchise in every sense - it had fantastic music that rivaled that in any of the other films, it was perfectly sweet and nostalgic, and it was genuinely hilarious.  It just felt so great to see my favorite childhood characters re-introduced in such a grand way.  The problem with doing a sequel, however, is figuring out which direction to head in after that initial nostalgia factor has worn off; the story of The Muppets is all about the original gang getting back together - now that they are together it's tough to keep the fire burning.  What initially concerned me was the writers came up with a ridiculously cliche and "safe" choice: an "international heist" movie.  Even the parodies of this genre are past their prime, so I was pretty nervous about this one - but seriously, this is still a fantastic Muppet film that retains all that sharp self-aware wit and sing-along music (again supervised by Bret McKenzie).

The plot is basically about a Russian doppelganger frog, Constantine, who pretends to be Kermit (getting him out of the way by putting him in prison) and uses the Muppets' new tour as an excuse to steal various jewels and paintings around the world.  While the plot itself is pretty lame, it's more or less an excuse to have a constant springboard for jokes.  Along with the Muppet gang, there are tons of funny human characters in here as well, including Ricky Gervais as Constantine's "number two" man, Tina Fey as a Russian prison guard with a passion for musical theater, and dozens of celebrity cameos that I wouldn't dare spoil for your virgin ears.  So basically, it's everything I sort of wanted out of a Muppet sequel.  It may lack that same energy as its predecessor, and strangely feels much lower budgeted - but there's a joke-a-minute, ranging from word play to hilariously specific pop culture references to plenty of self-depricating humor.  I didn't expect that much (especially after that AWFUL trailer), but Muppets: Most Wanted is a solid follow-up to The Muppets.

Rating: B+

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