Saturday, May 14, 2016

Captain America: Civil War, Eye in the Sky, Money Monster, Miles Ahead Reviews

Captain America: Civil War
Dir. Joe & Anthony Russo

Only a couple months ago we saw a blockbuster comic book film that presented a central conflict between two superheroes, being manipulated by an outside evil force, while examining the philosophy and repercussions of the civilian casualties caused by the heroes' big battles and also setting up future movies in a mega-budget franchise. I'm of course talking about DC's Batman v Superman, and it's crazy to think how similar in structure Civil War is...and how much better it pulls off the same ideas.

The story surrounds the accountability of the Avengers' actions around the globe. While they are a peace-keeping superhero team, they're responsible for an amount of collateral damage that would make even Superman balk. The resulting political pressure results in a divide between the team's members; Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) believes in government oversight for their actions, while Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) disagrees and supports the idea that superheroes should remain free to defend humanity. Both sides of the argument brilliantly stem from their actions of the previous films and shows a real growth of their characters; with Stark, he began as a hotheaded, unchecked force of nature in the original Iron Man, but realized the dangers of his power especially in Iron Man 3. Rogers likewise literally started as a soldier in WWII, but his experiences have colored his worldview as well, and now Cap fights for individual freedom more than anything else.

Captain America: Civil War is unabashedly a movie for fans. It builds off of all the relationships and history established between the 10+ Marvel films that have come before, and if you're uninitiated with the MCU, you'll probably be either overwhelmed or lost. There are countless callbacks and echoes to previous films - some of which I even forgot about - that will undoubtedly frustrate most casual moviegoers (the older couple sitting next to me in the theater kept whispering to each other: "Who is that?" "I don't know.") That being said, those of you who have had a long-term relationship with these characters over the years will be rewarded, and practically every character crammed into this 2.5 hour behemoth gets at least one badass moment. 

What I love most about the film (besides its climactic "airport battle" that is perhaps the best action scene in any MCU movie thus far) is that its central conflict between Cap and Iron Man doesn't have a clear cut "winner" at the outset. As fun as the action scenes are, my favorite aspects of Civil War involved characters sitting in a room and debating for what they think is right. Both ideologies bring valid points, and I found myself throughout the film going back and forth between the two of them. I'm not used to seeing this kind of grey zone of morality in my superhero films (Batman v Superman tried something similar but failed). The conflict also nicely ties in with real-life debates about American foreign policy, and the Russo Brothers are smart enough to realize the inherent politics necessary to bring to a film called "Captain America," and the connotations that name has around the globe.

I henceforth completely trust The Avengers properties with the Russo Brothers; unlike Age of Ultron, Civil War somehow manages to cohesively bring its ridiculous amount of elements together in a graceful, never superfluous way. Though it still suffers from being overstuffed - there's really no time to breathe - it manages to provide fantastic and logical ends to these stories, and does so with amazing action set pieces. This film is so ridiculously complicated, and couldn't exist without Marvel's brilliantly executed 13-film "long con" plan of slowly introducing its characters and then teaming them up; it shouldn't work, but somehow it does. 

The action scenes are incredible as well; somehow the Russos are still able to find fun and interesting things to do with Cap's shield, and I loved the ways some of the characters combined their powers together. Besides some iffy CGI here and there, and a little too much "shaky cam" stuff early on, the action is legible and the effects look relatively convincing (there's one "flashback" scene with Robert Downey Jr. processed to look like a teenager, and it's crazy how authentic it feels). All in all, this is exactly what I was hoping to get out of this movie, and I'm super-excited to see how the Russos handle the more cosmic side of things when Thanos finally gets involved in the next Avengers joint. 

Rating: A-

Eye in the Sky
Dir. Gavin Hood
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Surprisingly similar to Captain America: Civil War, Eye in the Sky from director Gavin Hood (who is no stranger to superhero films himself with the painful X-Men Origins: Wolverine) also presents a tense, philosophical grey zone drenched in contemporary American foreign policy. The film follows a number of perspectives during a high-risk, top secret drone strike mission. British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has been on the trail of a terrorist group for four years, and has finally tracked them down in Nairobi, Kenya. Through remote surveillance and on-the-ground intel, Powell discovers that the group is planning a suicide bombing, turning her mission from "capture" to "kill." However, American pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), as he is about to engage the target, notices a 9-year-old girl selling bread within the radius of the kill zone.

Most of the film centers on this incredibly intense debate between engaging the target at a 60% risk of severely injuring the girl, or not to engage, and risk that the bombers will potentially kill up to 80 people with their suicide vests. Jumping between wildly different perspectives on the conflict from those involved, connected from different parts of the world, this impossibly difficult judgment call that no one wants to bear responsibility for is happening while the clock is ticking.

Eye in the Sky, in my mind, defines the "edge of your seat" thriller. It's pretty much one, long rubber band slowly being pulled to its snapping point. It's well acted (featuring Alan Rickman in one of his final roles), the music was tense, and, like Civil War, I was going back and forth in my mind throughout the movie from one side's argument to the next. Probably the worst-remembered aspect of Obama's presidency will be his use of drones, and Eye in the Sky captures a disturbing aspect of American defense strategies in an intense, cinematic way. I don't know why this film isn't getting more buzz; it's definitely one of the best of the year so far!

Rating: A

Money Monster
Dir. Jodie Foster
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Wow, the third movie in a row that attempts to capture a moment of modern American anxieties through the use of a thriller! "Money Monster" is the name of a television show led by Lee Gates (George Clooney), a Wall Street guru not unlike Jim Cramer on CNN's Mad Money. During one of his live broadcasts, a disgruntled investor, Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) breaks in and takes Lee hostage. Kyle lost a substantial amount of money based on one of Lee's "tips," and places a homemade suicide vest on Lee while threatening to detonate it unless he is compensated for both his and other investors' losses (of around $800 million...yeah, he's not necessarily in a reasonable state of mind). All the while Lee is using an earpiece to connect with his producer (Julia Roberts) to try and diffuse the situation.

This movie has a lot going for it and has a great "b movie" starting place, but it simply loses steam in its execution. Firstly, you have to suspend your disbelief to an insane degree to believe that this random crazy dude would be able to get into the TV studio in the first place. Secondly, the idea that this one company lost $800 million based off what its CEO (Dominic West) calls a "computer glitch" is also pretty ridiculous. Thirdly, it's a real stretch to believe that the NYPD would allow a TV director to take primary control over the situation.

I enjoyed the look of the film, especially at the beginning; the actual Money Monster show looks like it could be a real cable news show, and the acting is great. Clooney is perfect as the in-over-his-head TV host, O'Connell presents just the right amount of believable mental imbalance where you can see where his unreasonable anger is coming from (even though he makes some unsympathetically terrible decisions), and Roberts treats the intense situation calmly and coolly in a way that seems appropriate for a live TV director. But, like I said, Money Monster gets bogged down with its own logic, and what should have been Dog Day Afternoon meets The Big Short, is really just a decent hostage flick fit to watch on an airplane.

Rating: C+

Miles Ahead
Dir. Don Cheadle
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I'm not really a big "jazz" guy - it's a little too mellow for my taste. I feel more at home tapping my toes to thrash metal. So I didn't really know that much about Miles Davis before seeing this biopic, which marks Don Cheadle's directorial debut. I was hoping to get a sense of why this man is heralded as one of the key musicians of all time, and what made him stand out as a unique artist. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really accomplish this at all (unlike the much better Beach Boys bio Love and Mercy), and its best moments, I feel, are when it strays away from reality and turns into more or less a fun buddy action comedy between Miles Davis and Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor).

The movie cuts back and forth between Miles' later five-year hiatus period and his past, though we surprisingly don't see him play music too often. Most of the time he's living the rock and roll lifestyle: smoking, snorting cocaine, even cocking a gun in the face of anyone who irritates him. The movie also repeatedly flashes back to memories of Davis' beautiful ex-wife, who left him after he was a complete ass to her. Although Cheadle is fantastic in the lead role, and his rapport with McGregor makes me want to see a movie solely about their relationship (like a jazzy version of The End of the Tour), none of the elements especially click together here.

The dream-like narrative structure that floats between Miles' early and later careers doesn't work as well as it should (it feels jarring and unmotivated), and framing Davis's musical hiatus around the loss of his wife, in my opinion, belittles his musical genius. I felt the same exact way about the recent Hitchcock film starring Anthony Hopkins - Hitchcock is possibly the greatest filmmaker who ever lived - why does the film have to be about his spousal relationship? That film should have been about the art of filmmaking, the way Miles Ahead should have been about the most interesting and important part of Miles Davis's life: his music.

Rating: C+

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