Sunday, January 31, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ***1/2

In “Captain America: The First Avenger,” we met Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the little guy with a big heart who gets turned into a strapping superhero by an experimental serum. He fought Nazis and an underground organization called Hydra during WWII, then wound up getting frozen in suspended animation. Seventy years later, he was unfrozen and recruited by SHIELD to help the Avengers save the earth again in “The Avengers.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Cap, ever dutiful, working faithfully for SHIELD, even as he is troubled by the secretiveness of Commander Nick Fury. He is especially troubled by SHIELD's paternalistic, “trust us” approach to both its agents and the humanity it is supposedly protecting. SHIELD takes things a bridge too far when they build an armada of hovercraft gunships that can patrol the earth constantly, monitoring everything, and killing terrorist threats before they have a chance to strike. It's an incredibly powerful tool, with incredible potential for misuse. Captain Rogers is rightfully chilled by the prospect, and his concerns are proven justified when it turns out SHIELD has been infiltrated.

The Captain also runs into an old friend, now turned foe. I don't think it's a huge spoiler at this point to say that his childhood friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), didn't die in that fall in the first movie. It turns out he was rescued by Hydra and the Russians, who wiped out his memory and turned him into a metal-armed killing machine they called the Winter Soldier, storing him in suspended animation until they needed him to fight people like Captain America. The whole thing is highly improbable, but it's easy to just go with it.

That's the good thing about this movie. It's full-on popcorn action, but the plot and characters make just enough sense for a grown person to enjoy watching it. It's also that rare thing, a sequel that is probably better than the original movie. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, relative newcomers known for their work on the quirky TV comedy “Community,” the movie bears a sense of humor that is a little smarter than that found in “The Avengers,” and less smugly cynical than what you get in “Iron Man.” The earnest Captain is the perfect straight-man for Scarlett Johansson's sarcastic Black Widow. “The Winter Soldier” also introduces a new hero, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie.)

These comic-book franchises tend to have a motif in the midst of all that action. The X-men films are about a misunderstood minority fighting for the right to be themselves, basically a thinly-veiled allegory about gay people. Spiderman has that whole”With great power comes great responsibility” thing. Captain America explores the tension between individuality and collective authority. Steve Rogers' defining trait is his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, but the choice to make that sacrifice is always HIS choice. He fights against Hydra, which seeks to establish the kind of worldwide, totalitarian regime in which the State would decide who gets sacrificed for whom. “The Winter Soldier” is complex enough to allow Cap to butt up against SHIELD, which is supposedly benevolent, but is taking on ever more authoritarian overtones. Much like some of our government agencies today, SHIELD works behind the scenes to keep people safe. Since their intentions are good, the leaders of SHIELD believe there should be no limits to their activities. It's hard for Captain America (and for us in the audience) to know exactly where the line should be drawn between law enforcement and individual freedom, but he instinctively resists SHIELD's unlimited spying and lack of accountability.

Whether you watch it for the geopolitical commentary, the non-stop action, or Scarlett Johansson's skin-tight outfits, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is good entertainment for any season.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mean Girls (2004) ***1/2

It's a shame that historical events have turned Tina Fey's “Mean Girls” into a movie most remembered for its sad commentary on the downfall of a child star. It basically marks the last moment when Lindsay Lohan appeared, in the public eye, to still be sweet, pretty, and fresh, and an upcoming talent. Re-watching it now, I can see that she wasn't a Streep-level actress, but she was more than competent enough for a comedy like “Mean Girls,” with potential to spare. Over the last decade, of course, Lohan has devolved into a cautionary tale of drugs and skankiness, but what of “Mean Girls”? How has IT aged? Pretty well, as it turns out. This is still a mostly tightly-woven critique of teenage girl culture.

Cady (Lohan) is the new girl in school. She has trouble fitting in until she is befriended by outsiders Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese). Cady is pretty hot, though, so eventually a group of pretty girls called the Plastics take notice of her. Janis encourages Cady to hang out with the Plastics just to spy on them. Cady is initially reluctant, but she finds herself enjoying being one of the pretty people, and striving for these girls' approval.

Then Cady gets interested in Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), a popular guy, and everything goes to hell. Cady is a good student, but she starts pretending to be dumb to get Aaron's attention. This actually works, and Regina (Rachel McAdams), the leader of the Plastics, gets jealous. Girl drama ensues. Soon these girls are sniping behind each others' backs and turning other friends on each other. The fight snowballs to involve most of the school, and a sensible teacher (Tina Fey) has to stage an intervention.

The film starts to get slightly preachy in that scene, but fortunately, Tina Fey, who also adapted the screenplay, is classy and funny enough to keep it out of Movie-of-the-Week territory. Everything else in “Mean Girls” is spot-on, with a tight plot and excellent acting, especially from Lohan, Caplan, and McAdams. Even though the film pre-dates the widespread use of social media, the sniping that goes on between these girls looks very similar to the bullying you hear about on Facebook and Instagram nowadays. It goes to show that the formats and even cultures change, but basic, human nature remains the same. There are always people like Regina who simply have an instinct for manipulating others, and for selecting whom to include and whom to exclude from the group. Weaker people follow these bullies, largely out of fear of being selected for bullying themselves.

“Mean Girls” is a funny movie, but it was striving to be a little more, to bring some awareness to the messed-up dynamic of bullying and insincerity that teenage girls have to deal with, even as they perpetuate it. Did the movie make a difference? I don't know. Maybe it at least became a part of the lexicon, a touchstone for explaining to girls how not to be. In the meantime, it made us laugh with lines like “He's too gay to function” and “Stop trying to make 'Fetch' happen. It's not going to happen.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Star Wars Episode Seven: The Force Awakens (2015) ***

Well, the great miracle has arrived. The film that was prophesied is here, the one that will bring balance between the Old trilogy and the New. The new Star Wars movie is a spectacle for both young and old, beyond all criticism or judgment.

I'm a bit late to the party. I waited a bit for the crowds to die down (slightly), and three weeks into it's run, I'm just seeing it, while many of my friends are seeing it for the second or third time. The film seems to be universally beloved, but I have to admit to being underwhelmed.

The latest installment in the series takes place about 3 decades after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Despite that great victory, in which the Evil Emperor Palpatine was killed and the second Death Star destroyed, the remnants of the Empire persist. The storm troopers now fight for something called the First Order, ruled by a shadowy, Dark-side Supreme Leader and his disciple Kylo Ren. Princess Lea is now a general in the Resistance, split up from Han Solo, who has gone back to his smuggler's ways. Luke Skywalker has disappeared entirely, and the Resistance is desperate to find him and enlist his help against the rising First Order.

The Resistance get some help from a disillusioned storm trooper named Finn and a scrappy desert-girl named Rey. These two find themselves in possession of a droid that contains a map to Luke Skywalker's location. They must not only get the droid to the Resistance, but help find a way to destroy the First Order's new weapon, a planet-sized base that can destroy entire star systems.

The whole thing is so derivative of the original films that it is hard to believe I am not describing the plot of Mel Brooks's “Spaceballs.” I mean, we have a desert-dwelling orphan, looking out over the sands with nameless longing. We have a droid that has to be delivered to the Resistance. Sound familiar? The movie actually acknowledges its retreaded nature in the scene in which the Resistance commander explains that the Starkiller Base is different from the old Death Star in that it is much LARGER. One of the pilots points out, “This thing must have a weakness,” and sure enough, the thing has a weak spot that x-wing fighters can go shoot at. When “The Force Awakens” isn't recycling old plot elements, it is manufacturing ludicrous coincidences to advance to the plot, such as the scene in which Han Solo rediscovers the Millennium Falcon.

None of this is to suggest that there aren't things to love in “The Force Awakens.” I love me some Star Wars, and this one is infinitely better than Episodes I and II (although you have to give those films credit for at least being complex. The Force Awakens, in contrast, is written on a third-grade reading level.) It's a real delight to see Lea and Han again, and Harrison Ford tries to bring some of the old swagger. John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey are both charming, and Adam Driver is appropriately dark as Kylo Ren. I expect good things of these actors. Finally, the movie is action-packed enough to make most people ignore its flaws.

Maybe I had unrealistic expectations for this film. After years of hype, great reviews, and all those shattered box office records, I though this would be more than just an action film. I was expecting another “The Empire Strikes Back,” but what I got was “Transformers.”

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Even the Rain (Tambien la Lluvia, 2010) ***

When Gael Garcia Bernal is in a movie, you pretty much figure it's going to be about oppressed peoples struggling against their oppressor. “Even the Rain” manages to fit in two stories along those lines.

Bernal plays Sebastian, a film director making a movie about Columbus, Columbus's enslavement of Indian natives, and the Spanish priests who spoke out against the Indians' treatment. Sebastian's producer, Costa (Luis Tosar) takes them to Bolivia to film in an environment of low overhead and cheap extras. Those impoverished extras, it turns out, are locked in a battle with the Bolivian government over access to water. The government has joined with a multinational corporation on a water project, and the people are no longer allowed to pump water from the ground, collect it from rivers, or even capture the rain that falls on their own roofs. Sebastian and Costa try to stay out of the politics and focus on getting their film completed. The more they try to turn a blind eye to the natives' plight, however, the more hypocritical that blindness feels in light of the movie they are making.

Gael Garcia Bernal is always good, but “Even the Rain” is stolen by two other actors: Luis Tosar as the money-man who finds his conscience, and Juan Carlos Aduviri as Daniel, the native leader of the water uprising. Both actors are magnetic on the screen, and the tense friendship that grows between them is touching, in a manly way.

“Even the Rain” is nothing spectacular, but it's a good, little story about the irony of telling a story about past oppression while becoming a part of present oppression. If you are up for a small, serious, Spanish-language movie with excellent performances, this is a good one.

3 stars out of 5