Sunday, April 27, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Who Is The Real Enemy?

The 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger was part of Marvel’s effort to lay the groundwork for their hit superhero team-up adventure The Avengers. Now the shield-slinging hero returns in his second solo film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The world is a bit bleaker as a result of the alien invasion depicted in The Avengers, and the powerful threats seen in other Marvel tales like the recent sequel Thor: The Dark World. SHIELD (the espionage agency of the Marvel Universe) is spearheading a project called Insight. It will consist of three supercharged SHIELD Helicarriers, which will use computer & satellite data to help eliminate potential threats before they happen. Project Insight, which has been spearheaded by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, in an excellent performance), one of SHIELD’s leaders, makes Captain America nervous: are we now going after people before we know they’re our enemies?

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, in his strongest take on the role to date) sends Cap & The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on a mission to rescue some SHIELD hostages from terrorists. It turns out there’s a secondary objective, which only the Widow knows about; she needs to retrieve some high level data from a hard drive on the terrorists’ ship. Once they return from the mission, the story shifts into high gear. A mysterious killer known only as The Winter Soldier ambushes Fury on the way to a meeting; Fury warns Cap not to trust anyone, and that there’s more to Insight than meets the eye. Suddenly, Fury’s dead, and when Cap won’t turn over the information retrieved on the mission over to Pierce, he’s declared a fugitive from justice, and hunted by SHIELD agents, and the authorities. Just what is going on, and is there another force at work behind the scenes at SHIELD ? Who can our hero trust?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is part superhero film, part espionage thriller & part popcorn movie. Even if you took the superhero element out of the story, this would be a crackerjack political thriller. Fans of espionage & conspiracy movies like Three Days of The Condor should get a kick out of seeing Redford, who starred in that classic 70s film, play a central role here. As the story moves forward, the truth about Insight (and what’s happening to SHIELD) becomes clear, and only Cap, The Black Widow and their new ally, war veteran Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) can stop the villains from carrying out their plan. But another mystery remains: just who is The Winter Soldier? And why does he look so familiar to Cap?

Directors Anthony & Joe Russo, the fraternal team best know for their work on TV’s Arrested Development, keep the film moving at a furious pace, and there are several fantastic action sequences. Of course, the special effects are wonderful, and Cap’s famous shield gets more of a workout in this film than it has previously. The screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely cleverly adapts a storyline that originated in the comic books, but also adds some original elements & wrinkles to the story, and neatly ties the events into Marvel’s cinematic & television universe. The cast is wonderful, and Evans (who also played The Human Torch in Fox’s Fantastic Four films) has grown nicely into the role of Captain America. Evans & Johansson have a casual, easygoing chemistry & Anthony Mackie (as Wilson) makes a nice addition to the team.

What’s most surprising about the film is that it’s a topical political thriller disguised as a superhero movie. The first Captain America film, set during WWII, reflected some of the optimism of that wartime era, when the good guys & bad guys seemed clearcut. In the present, things aren’t so black & white, and that troubles our heroic Captain. The film asks some important questions about how much power the government should have in using surveillance (similar to themes in the TV series, Person Of Interest) and what they should be able to do to prevent acts of terror from happening. What’s also of note is that the movie significantly impacts Marvel’s TV spinoff, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. It will be interesting to see how the film's storyline affect the TV series in the long run. The show had originally avoided too directly tying into the films, opting for standalone stories. But recent episodes have begun a story arc that clearly reflects the events happening in the current Marvel movie universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best efforts yet from Marvel Studios. This is an amazing film that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It was even better than I expected. If you’re a fan, you’re going to have a great time seeing this movie. There are the usual Easter eggs (pay close attention to Nick Fury’s epitaph) & in jokes for fans, and of course, the post credit scenes we’ve come to expect from Marvel’s movies. But even if you’re not a fan, you might enjoy this action packed conspiracy thriller. The film is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Look At The 2014 TCM Film Festival

A certain blogger with TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz
I recently returned from the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, which was held in Hollywood from April 10-13. This is the ultimate event for classic movie fans. The 2014 edition was the 5th year of the festival, which also helped celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the TCM channel. There are screenings of films at several venues, as well as interviews with stars, directors & writers, and other special presentations. The only downside is that it's an embarrassment of riches, and you often have to make a choice between one movie or special event and another that is scheduled at the same time. However, there are no bad choices; you always see something amazing. What follows are just a few highlights from this amazing, incredible experience:

Wednesday, April 9 – Arrived in LA & checked in at the Festival desk at The Roosevelt Hotel. I got to be interviewed by on-air host Ben Mankiewicz, a portion of which aired on TCM over the weekend during their coverage of the event. All of the staff & crew were very friendly & helpful. Spent some time talking movies with several other fans who had arrived early for the Festival. I even got to speak with TCM Ultimate Fan Contest winner Tiffany Vasquez, who got to introduce the film The Naked City at the Festival. By the way, the crowds in NYC's Times Square have nothing on the craziness that is Hollywood Boulevard!

Thursday, April 10 – The Festival officially opens. Attended a fun one hour chat with director Joe (Gremlins) Dante & Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick (An American Werewolf in London) Baker, entitled Sons of Gods & Monsters. They talked about the influence of classic horror movies (like the Universal Monster films & 50s sci-fi movies) on a younger generation such as themselves, who later went on to make their own genre films. They also discussed their favorite films, as well as genre icons like Ray Harryhausen & Rod Serling, and recalled reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine as monster-movie loving kids. Later on, I also made it to a poolside screening of American Graffiti, which featured an appearance by three of the film’s stars: Candy Clark, Paul LeMat & Bo Hopkins. They spoke with TCM host Mankiewicz and told some behind the scenes stories about the making of the film, and working with writer-director George Lucas & co-star Richard Dreyfuss (who also appeared at the Festival, but not at this screening).

Film writer/historian Eddie Muller interviews William Friedkin
Friday, April 11 – Saw the mystery/comedy classic The Thin Man, introduced by film noir historian Eddie Muller, who told us about the wonderful on screen chemistry between stars William Powell & Myrna Loy, as well the story’s origins in the writings of Dashiell Hammett. I also viewed a restored print of the film noir classic Touch of Evil, presented by co-star Charlton Heston’s son Fraser. This version of the film was cut closer to director Orson Welles’ original vision for the movie, based on notes left by the late director. Later on, it was time for a one-hour session with William (The French Connection, The Exorcist) Friedkin, who had a great sense of humor, shared some interesting anecdotes about his career with host Muller. Then, it was time for a viewing of another noir classic, Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, hosted by TCM’s Robert Osborne. Osborne spoke about the making of the movie, and how the characters portrayed by both MacMurray and Stanwyck were very much against type for the actors at the time. Ending the evening was one of the highlights of the entire event for me: a screening of Blazing Saddles, preceded by an interview with Mel Brooks, conducted by Osborne. Brooks was charming & funny; he walked in serenading the audience with the movie’s theme song. He talked about the origins of the film, and some of the casting changes that occurred: Gig Young was originally cast as the Waco Kid (the part played by Gene Wilder) and Richard Pryor (one of the screenplays’ co-authors) wanted to play the Sheriff, though his part eventually went to Cleavon Little The production company could not insure the film if Pryor played the part, due to his drug problems. It was really a blast to see this comedy with an appreciative audience of fellow fans.

Saturday, April 12 – First film seen this day was a screening of the original 1954 Japanese Godzilla (aka Gojira), featuring an appearance by Gareth Edwards, who directed the upcoming remake/reboot of the franchise. It’s a much darker movie than the re-cut American edit of the film, which added scenes with Raymond Burr, and is the version most familiar to American audiences. This original edition of the movie has a much more pointed anti-nuclear message, and alludes to the then recent A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. A powerful film which is much more than a giant monster movie, and has a different feel than the the American cut (entitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters) or the later, light-hearted sequels. After the screening, film historian/preservationist Bruce Goldstein highlighted the differences between the Japanese & US versions of the film, in an in-depth presentation using clips from both versions of the movie.

Then it was on to an interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked on every Martin Scorsese film since Raging Bull. She was full of energy, and told some fantastic stories about her long collaboration with Scorsese and her marriage to filmmaker/producer Michael (The Red Shoes) Powell. She specifically focused on Raging Bull, and talked at length about some of the techniques used in that classic boxing film. There were also some cool stories about Woodstock (1970), a film that she & Scorsese worked on early in their careers. A wonderful conversation with a delightful, energetic, talented woman.

Another great day of movies & filmmaking lore was climaxed by a screening of a restored print of A Hard Day’s Night, hosted by Alec Baldwin & music producer Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan), with additional comments by Beatles historian Martin Lewis. They all discussed the enduring legacy of the The Fab Four, and how The Beatles music still affects people of all ages. Watching a new print of this classic film on an IMAX screen was like seeing & hearing The Beatles for the first time: it was astonishing. After Beatles mania redux, it was time for a viewing of Friedkin’s suspense tale Sorcerer, a remake of the French Film The Wages of Fear. While the movie was (unjustly) ignored and considered a flop when it came out in 1977, it has since gained a cult reputation. It’s an interesting & very well-directed thriller that is worth a look when it’s released on Blu-ray this month.

Sunday, April 13 – Kicked off the final day of the festival seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), starring Errol Flynn. It was great seeing this classic adventure tale on the big screen. The pre-film presentation, by sound editor Ben (Star Wars) Burtt & special effects artist Craig Barron was excellent, covering every aspect of the film’s production. Other events included attending Robert Osborne’s fascinating in-depth talk with Oscar winner Alan Arkin, who was self-effacing, charming and well spoken. The interview was taped for a later airing on TCM. Then it was off to a showing of the Pre-Code film Employees’ Entrance, starring Loretta Young and Warren William (which featured a discussion on Pre-Code Hollywood called "Pre-Code 101" by film expert Goldstein, who had also spoken about Godzilla) then catching most of Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, co-starring Rita Hayworth (and with an informative pre-film discussion by Muller) before having to jet back home on the redeye. All in all it was a wonderful few days of movies, discussions, wonderful moments & unexpected surprises. For instance: Sorcerer turned out to be a much better film than its reputation would suggest, and seeing it introduced by Friedkin was a special treat.
Many of the films shown sported newly created digital prints, and were nothing short of spectacular. As film noir historian Muller noted at one screening, TCM is now at the forefront of preserving our film legacy. The presenters were all knowledgeable people who are passionate about their interests, and were very approachable; many were walking around the Festival, and graciously spent time talking with attendees, including myself. I also met movie fans from all over the country, either hanging out at the events or standing in line for the screenings. I had a blast talking to them about old favorites & discussing suggestions for additional films to check out. It proves that, like rock & roll, movies are an art form that can unite people from totally different places & backgrounds, and create common ground by sharing their love of the movies.

Obviously, there were many other films & events at the Festival that I just couldn’t get to because of time constraints, or schedule conflicts. Stars like Jerry Lewis, Shirley Jones, Richard Dreyfuss & producer/musician Quincy Jones were also on hand. If you’re a classic movie fan, this event is a must. It’s well run by the TCM organization and their partners/sponsors, and is an enjoyable experience from beginning to end. Of course, it's great to see hosts Osborne & Mankiewicz doing their thing; they're both just as likable in person as they are on the air. I’ve really just touched the tip of the iceberg regarding my wonderful experience in this overview, but I recommend attending the TCM Classic Film Festival in the future. Here are links to some TCM videos on the event, including clips from various presentations & screenings:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An Oscar Double Feature: 2 Brief Reviews

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give fine performances in this powerful, fact-based drama. McConaughey portrays Ron Woodruff, a Texan who contracts AIDS through unprotected sex with a prostitute in 1985. Since this is the beginning of the AIDS crisis, the only drug available is AZT. The side effects of that medication are almost as bad as the disease. Woodruff is given 30 days to live, but defies expectations by importing unapproved drugs from Mexico, and treating himself. With the help of Rayon, a transgender woman and fellow patient, Woodruff creates the “Dallas Buyers Club” and provides the drugs to other patients for a price, which also helps finance his purchases of the medications.

This isn’t the usual “feel good” story about a man completely changing his views on life due to a personal issue. Woodruff starts out as homophobic,and something of a jerk, but by the film’s end he does grow up a bit. Still, there’s no “overnight change” to his character. He does have charm & wit, and is able to use these qualities to get what he wants. Through his actions, even if they start out as selfishly motivated, he ends up saving a lot of lives. The two leads portray fully realized characters;  McConaughey & Leto deservedly took home Oscars for their amazing work in the film. There’s also good supporting work from Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare and Steve Zahn. The solid direction is by Jean Marc-Vallée and the insightful screenplay was written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack. One of 2013's best films. Highly recommended.

Blue Jasmine (2013) – There’s some good acting in this comedy-drama written & directed by Woody Allen, but the characters are somewhat neurotic & the story is not well developed. Cate Blanchett starts as Jasmine, a New York society wife whose financier husband (Alec Baldwin) goes to prison for fraud. Suddenly, the well to do life she’s known is gone; she heads to California to reconnect with her sister (Sally Hawkins) and start over. But she can’t seem to shake off her old life. Stories & secrets about her past are revealed in flashback. She meddles in her sister Ginger's life (and lies about her own to a new romantic interest) with almost disastrous results.

There’s an all-star supporting cast including Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay (who’s very good) as Jasmine’s former brother-in-law. But the lead character isn’t very likable (despite a great performance from Oscar winner Blanchett) and you find it hard to care about any of these people. Jasmine is so self centered (and self deluded) that it’s tough to feel sympathy for her. I haven’t seen a lot of Allen’s recent films, but I found this one tough to like. You can’t fault the actors, who are uniformly excellent. They’re the reason to watch this so-so film; Blanchett did take home the 2013 Best Actress Oscar for her work in the movie, and Hawkins was nominated as Best Supporting Actress. Both films are currently available on Blu-ray & DVD, and for digital viewing: here's a link to the trailers for Dallas Buyers Club & Blue Jasmine