Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Pretty Frustrating Movie

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Don’t get me wrong, I walked out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier pretty satisfied back in April, 2014. Really cool choreography for the hand-to-hand combat sequences, a pretty fun story and a cool performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I got my money’s worth for sure.

But I’ve never had the urge to go back and watch it again. Any urge I’ve had was satisfied by watching some of the fight scenes on the internet and that’s about it. I once tried watching it again, not out of a strong desire to do so, but just to see why I never wanted to. And now I know why: for a movie that’s touted as one of the absolute best MCU films… it’s kind of dull. Like I said before, the action is spot on and the overall story is a fun adventure but this movie is pretty devoid of anything human or interesting.

Captain America is a pretty dull superhero, and frankly, I find all his solo outings to be pretty dull. Each one is better than the one before it but Civil War is only better because he has to share the screen with some Avengers with more interesting motivations and personalities; other than that, it falls victim to the same bland issues that The Winter Soldier does. I always hear about how this movie finally “challenges” Captain America’s morality. Did I watch a different movie? This movie is about a dude who is morally unshakable, believes one thing to be true and in the end is proven completely right and everyone who tried to steer him away was wrong. Very captivating.

I don’t necessarily need a hardened anti-hero, but it would be nice to have your protagonist… learn? Grow? Change? Homer’s Odyssey is interesting because even though Odysseus is undoubtedly a hero, he is also marred by his hubris, but over time, learns from his mistakes. Captain America is perfect at the beginning and equally perfect at the end.

Look, this movie is light years ahead of the first one, which was legitimately just boring. At least here, we do get some thrills. It’s just a shame that a pair like the Russo Brothers, who are known for directing irreverent comedy television, were relegated to such a soulless script.

“But it does have a soul! What about Cap’s conflicting relationship with Bucky?!”

Who’s Bucky? Oh, the character from the first movie that had no personality or charisma? The character that we barely spent any time with and had no real chemistry with Chris Evans?

I genuinely dislike it when people claim MCU movies are too interconnected and they can’t remember who is who or what happened in previous films; these are movies that are built for mass audiences that really exist to sell toys… the connections between them are really surface-level and can mostly be made without even having seen previous films, based on context alone (I didn’t see Ant Man but I wasn’t thrown in a tizzy when he showed up in Civil War). Having said that, the reveal that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes from the first movie had no effect on me because I genuinely forgot who he was. Now, I understand, some of that is on me. I would argue that Captain America: The First Avenger is maybe not the worst, but definitely the dullest movie in the MCU and I have not revisited it or thought much about it since I saw it. So, the scene where his identity is revealed, is supposed to have a lot of emotional heft and make both Cap and the audience stop dead in their tracks. All I could think was “who cares? Kill him… he’s killing everyone else.”

Bucky Barnes was a slightly duller character in the first movie but now because he’s brainwashed, he is completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever. So now I’m in the middle of a movie where the big emotional pull comes between the world’s dullest superhero and is even duller friend. Thankfully the movie is smart enough to know not to linger on this wasted attempt at emotion and just have them go into a brilliantly-executed hand-to-hand fight.

What really sucks is that all of this supposed “emotion” bleeds over into Civil War, where the film wants us to root for Bucky to get better and reunite with Cap. Once again: I have spent no meaningful time with this character; you are asking me to root heavily for a friendship that I saw a few scattered moments of, that didn’t really even work that well, in a boring movie from five years earlier. If you want me to care, then show me why I should care, but having Cap say “he’s my friend,” over and over doesn’t convince me.

Overlooked Gems from the Last Few Years

Most people like to discuss their top ten favorite or least favorite movies of the year and that’s fine; I’ll fall for that clickbait every single time. But the real reason we click on those is because we know we’re gonna be pissed off by it and work ourselves into a fury about how stupid the writer is and that they have no taste. It’s great. It’s the journalistic version of Chipotle: you have a great, delicious experience but by the end, you’re burning out of your ass.

While I like to read those pieces, I find it more interesting to look at movies that maybe weren’t that great or no one really saw but had an undeniable charm or personality to them. Those are the ones I find myself reflecting on more often than others. I’m not going to confine these next examples to a particular year… these are just movies that came out in the last few years that you may want to take a second look at.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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This movie is legitimately great. There hasn’t been a funnier movie since it came out. I honestly do believe if this movie had a little more of a marketing push, word of mouth would have carried it to the finish line. It is literally built for millennials and not just because it essentially works as “The Lonely Island Movie” but it is so representative of the popular music scene right now. The music industry is and always has been a bloated, self-aggrandizing world, so satirizing it is as easy as doing a slam dunk with the hoop on the lowest height. For some reason, audiences do not turn out to see comedies about the music industry; if you want an audience for your music movie, it needs to be as straightforward and unflinchingly self-serious like “Ray” or “Walk the Line.”

Popstar isn’t just a string of new music videos from The Lonely Island, it does have a legitimate story to tell about friendship and success. Of course, beyond all of this… it’s insanely hilarious and its true feat is that it isn’t just one kind of comedy. When you watch a Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen movie, you get the exact same tone and style of comedy all throughout. Popstar looks for comedy down all sorts of different avenues. It manages to make excessive cameos funny. 99 times out of 100, when a movie relies heavily on cameos (Zoolander 2), it means the script sucks. In Popstar, the cameos help build the reality of the movie; it helps to have A$AP Rocky, Carrie Underwood, Ringo and many more discuss the fictional band in the movie… it feels real.

Out of the Furnace

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I get why this one never permeated the culture. Out of the Furnace is bleak. It meanders quite a bit in the first half and even when it sets the final plot in motion, it is still very patient to move. Having said all that, this movie is great. I don’t always love Christian Bale, especially when he uses his monotone American accent; everything he says sounds like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But here it seems like he’s comfortable enough to get a little rangey with his accent; he puts on more of a small-town twinge to it and somehow that allows him to emote a bit more.

The rest of the cast is great as well –it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen Forest Whitaker do in years. What really sells the movie though, is the non-stop rising of tension. It’s remarkable how tense it gets despite how quiet the whole thing is. It lets you agonize over every crunch, bullet and punch you see as it all crescendos to the finale.

A friend of mine said a few weeks ago that director Scott Cooper is a master “at taking scripts with lots of potential and making them as mediocre as possible.” I would agree with that for films like Crazy Heart and Black Mass but I believe he’s tapped into some kind of beautiful, soaring brutality with Out of the Furnace. This movie doesn’t care if you think it’s slow; if you tried to cut it down then you’d all complain that it was too rushed. Take some time with this one; it’s worth the wait.

The Judge

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I imagine I’m really the only big fan of this movie (I’m well aware it isn’t that great) but I seriously love it and I know exactly why. This movie came out right around the time when I was moving out of my parents’ house in suburbia, where I had lived my whole life (other than my college years), to New York City. Of course, on some level, I was proud of myself; many people from my life were staying in the area we grew up in, but I was moving on to BIG things down in the city and one day I could come back as a big city hotshot and look down on everyone still living their quaint little lives… that’s the fantasy anyway.

The Judge has some key elements of that plot: Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) moves away from his little town as soon as he can and becomes a bigshot lawyer in Chicago. He’s forced to return to his hometown for his mother’s funeral but it takes a huge turn when a legal issue regarding his estranged father arises, and he is forced to spend weeks back home to defend him in court, oh and his dad is the TOWN’S JUDGE! While he stays there, he is forced to reconcile with his own past in the fictional town of Carlinville, Indiana, as well as make amends with those he’s left behind, all while desperately trying to get back to his old life in Chicago. “You’re just a boy from Indiana, trying to do whatever it takes to pretend that’s not true,” his old high school girlfriend tells him in a very on-the-nose sequence.

I get it. This one plays into my own personal fantasy more so than it does for others. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of worth here. We get legitimately great performances out of Robert Duvall (who was nominated for an Oscar) and Robert Downey Jr. Watching them go back and forth throughout the movie is an absolute delight to see. There’s even a solid Vincent D’Onofrio performance in there, along with delightful offerings from Dax Shepard and Vera Farmiga. This movie is long and it probably doesn’t earn its runtime but I love spending time in this fictional town; it feels very real. Robert Downey Jr. aside, the people look like normal people rather than a town of gorgeous movie stars. The setting feels authentic and it overall is just a nice place to live for the entire run of the movie. I’m always down to go back.

Alien: Covenant has a Very Simple Job that it Does Horribly Wrong (A VERY Timely Review)

To put it plainly: Alien: Covenant is crushed by the weight of its own self-importance. It’s strange to think that a franchise like Alien would find its demise seeking out the exact opposite of what attempted to accomplish at the outset. When Alien premiered nearly 40 years ago, it was lauded for being a simple concept, executed with precision: a haunted house in space. There is a crew on a spaceship and one by one they all get picked off by a stowaway alien. How did we end up here? Alien: Covenant is far more concerned with giving you a very on-the-nose Philosophy 101 lesson, that tries so hard to convince you it came right from the mouth of Dante. It trades scary aliens for god-complexes, a simple premise with unneeded backstory, and gore with philosophy. Those are all terrible trades.

 Coming in on the back of Prometheus, the cinematic equivalent of undercooked chicken, Alien: Covenant attempts to right its wrongs. In the title alone, it promises one thing: aliens. Initially it seems to make good on its promise; the major flaw in Prometheus was that it was all philosophy and asking big questions and then choosing to not only not answer them but actually go out if its way to not answer them, teasing you at the end that the sequel will give you the answers you crave. Covenant brings you some alien creatures in the first act, and it’s disappointing to see the bar is so low, that all you have to do to impress the audience is give us a small taste of what we came to see.

Yes, the characters (who are supposedly the top scientists from Earth) are obscenely stupid and make awful decisions, but that’s how a horror movie works: we need the dumb decisions to lead us to the scary. If the characters were smart, they would kill and capture all of the aliens as soon as they landed, but that isn’t fun for us to watch; we want to see no-name characters get ripped apart in the most disgusting fashion over and over again, rinse and repeat. It’s not hard.

For a while the movie rolls along nicely enough. We get some good deaths, some good flesh ripping, some gross aliens, who can complain? Then the movie decides once it has you hooked, it’s going to make a hard turn. Covenantis like starting to eat a pizza and having it replaced with vegetables after two slices. Once it gets going, it decides it’s going to re-introduce David, the robot character that made no sense in Prometheus, and still really makes no sense now. Apparently, Ridley Scott read a few more philosophy texts since the last go around, since David seems to be drawing inspiration from different thinkers this time.

Now, once again, we need to sit through Ridley Scott musing about what it means to be alive and the mysterious possibilities of a divine being existing. Anything you may have been able to classify as interesting about Prometheusis thrown away in a quick flashback scene that feels very tacked on. “Oh didn’t we tell them David was going to the Engineers’ planet to find out why and how they created humans? Shit. Just add a scene where they all die.”

The central problem is that Scott keeps insisting he has something to say about life but decides to never tell us, leading us to believe that he probably doesn’t have anything to say at all and he’s just as confused as the rest of us. He’s the guy that has a “girlfriend that goes to a different school.” Oh? Can we see a picture of her? “No.”

After what feels like hours of philosophy 101, we are rewarded for being good students and get to end with an alien, in an extended sequence that really wasn’t worth the wait. We sat through Professor Scott’s class for two hours, show us some alien cinematics that we’ve never seen before. Scott quickly tries to cram an entire Alien’s-worth of thrills into the last 15 minutes so we can leave the theater being tricked into satisfaction, but there’s nothing in this sequence you haven’t seen already seen in another Alien movie.

In the end, Scott doesn’t realize that no one really ever cared about the alien’s backstory. It doesn’t matter where it came from! I just want to watch it rip people apart. If you want to make a movie that mopes around, wondering what life is all about, go ahead and make that movie, but there is no reason to try to squeeze it into an Alien movie. They just don’t go together. They can both be great but not together. You’re trying to mix a filet mignon with ice cream and while separately they’re great, no one wants them together. Don’t merge your trashy space-horror movie with a middling attempt at profundity.

Best Picture Framing Breakdown

Each year most people divide their Best Picture Oscar breakdown into two categories: “what will win” and “what should win.” The meaning of “what will win” goes without saying but “what should win” typically means the person’s favorite movie of the year… the one they want to win.

For the first time (at least the first time I can think of), I have actually split “what should win” in two and now have three separate designations bouncing around in my mind: “what will win,” “what should win” and “what I want to win.”

The separation of the last two might be confusing. If you want a movie to win, wouldn’t that mean you think it should win? Most of the time yes, but it can vary based on what you think makes a movie the Best Picture of the year. Some define it simply as the best movie that came out in the given year, but sometimes I find the best isn’t always my favorite. Some see it as the movie that defined Hollywood in that given year; the movie that represents the cultural conversation of the time. For some, it can mean the movie that is most representative of the filmgoing experience: something that cannot be done in any medium other than film; a testament to what is possible in film alone.

In years past, the last two ideas usually coincide. I thought an air-tight, cinematic political thriller like “Argo” was not just something designed solely for the big screen that wouldn’t work as anything else than a movie but also represented a Hollywood shift back to prestige filmmaking with a beefier budget that was more prevalent that year along with other films such as “Django Unchained,” “Les Misesrables,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and even “The Avengers.” It spat in the faces of movies that felt like they were built for awards, like previous winners “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech.” It was a big screen achievement that also represented what Hollywood stood for that year.

This year isn’t so simple.

We know that in all likelihood, “The Shape of Water” will go home with the Best Picture trophy on Sunday. It will win. It shouldn’t win, because it isn’t a film that has permeated the culture in any significant way and I definitely don’t want it to win simply because I just didn’t really connect with it, but it will win. This is the type of movie that most people in the Academy can agree is pretty good. It will rank somewhere in the top 5 Best Picture contenders for most members and the because the new Best Picture preferential voting system awards the movie that finds the nicest medium consensus, it will take home the statue.

The movie that should win is “Get Out.” I saw “Get Out” a while after I had already heard the uproarious hype and adoration it received, so I went in with expectations that probably could not be met… and thus they were not met, though I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It is one of the best movies of the year and certainly better than “The Shape of Water.” The reason “Get Out” should win is because of what it represents in culture both in and out of Hollywood. Beyond the fact that it is a milestone for diverse filmmaking in Hollywood, it is also a movie that came out over a year ago that people are still talking about today. That simply does not happen anymore. Even movies that are supposedly a big deal don’t stay in the cultural conversation that long; no one is talking about “The Last Jedi” or “Thor: Ragnarok” anymore, and those came out just a few months ago. The culture exploded into conversation about those films and already that conversation has faded. People are still talking about “Get Out;” in that sense alone, how can you rob it of the top prize? Think of all the Best Picture winners that everyone forgot about just weeks later: no one was still thinking about “The Artist,” “Spotlight” or even something as idiosyncratic as “Birdman” after they took home the gold. “Get Out” is a horror movie, a genre that the Academy makes a point to eschew from consideration, that is nominated for Best Picture, that is still culturally relevant.

This obviously brings me to what I want to win. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It operates on a plane high above anything we’ve seen in years, maybe ever. It can only exist in film. It wouldn’t work on paper or as a miniseries; the way in which the story is told can only function in a tight, 100-minute feature film. It is a soaring achievement, where not only the interweaving plotlines elevate each other but it is synced brilliantly with Hans Zimmer’s score to constantly ratchet up the tension. You cannot pause this movie. You cannot go to the bathroom during this movie. You cannot look at your phone during this movie. Any small fracture you put into your viewing experience would irrevocably disrupt the tension. The degree of difficulty is so high, you would imagine Nolan would at least pad it with bankable stars or at least some “Spielberg” moments of triumph and spectacle to rest on for a moment but he doesn’t. He is so confident in the lean muscle of his concept that he lets this juggernaut break all the rules, and thus rise to a triumph more impressive than anything else we’ve seen. “Dunkirk” is the pinnacle of what film can be, and that is why I want it to win. It makes it all the more criminal that he at least won’t win the Best Director statue either.

I loved “Lady Bird” and would be absolutely delighted to see it win. While I was initially taken with “Three Billboards,” I’ve soured on it since viewing it. I appreciated much of what “Call Me By Your Name” had to offer. I would still prefer any one of those films to be awarded Best Picture of “The Shape of Water,” which is still a pretty good movie, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could walk away from Hollywood’s night meant to award the best of its industry feeling better than just pretty good?