2014: Part 1

Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. The unquestionable star of this Marvel actioner, even more so than Chris Evans as Cap, is the editing by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt. Because of that team’s expertise, the numerous fight sequences (which are expertly choreographed by James Young) are cut to create maximum excitement. The adrenaline-pumping nature of these scenes overcomes some of the problems with the non-action scenes, such as my issue with there not being nearly enough of the Winter Soldier in a movie named in part after him. (Really, though, Sebastian Stan’s acting in this role has only three requirements other than the physicality: glaring when he’s angry, looking like a deer in headlights when he’s confused/sad and being shirtless, which he’s done plenty of in his career anyway.) I’ve already complained enough about Chris Evans as an anti-thespian this week (see: Snowpiercer review) and there isn’t much to say about Samuel L. Jackson or Scarlett Johansson, who reprise their roles from the other Avengers films, so instead I’ll complain about how depressing it is that Robert Redford, who plays Cap’s main enemy (a wolf in corporate-mogul sheep’s clothing), has skin that now resembles golden raisins. Gone is the beauty of the 60s and 70s… ah, well, it happens to the best of us. To end on a more positive note: there’s a scene in the film which includes one of my all-time favorite songs, a Harry James recording of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Whoever was in charge of pop music choices has good taste.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. Directed by Wes Anderson. For some reason this latest Anderson confection is popular even with non-fans, which puzzles me since it does not engage me emotionally like Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom do. Ralph Fiennes is fabulous in the film’s central role, playing the elegant and fussy head concierge of the hotel, M. Gustave. Fiennes’ performance anchors a chaotic film that is packed to the gills with far too many cameos, even for a Wes Anderson film. Some of the best star appearances include Tony Revolori as Fiennes’ young apprentice in the profession, F. Murray Abraham as an older version of Revolori’s character, Tilda Swinton as an elderly dowager, Jeff Goldblum as an anxious lawyer, Willem Dafoe as a cartoonishly violent heavy, Harvey Keitel as a tattooed prisoner, Mathieu Amalric as a butler with secrets and Léa Seydoux as a maid who works with Amalric. Other actors – chiefly Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson – seem to have been included primarily because of their previous associations with Anderson and not because they actually fit into the look and feel of the story. As beautiful as the design of the film is, from the cinematography to the art direction/set design to the smallest details of the costumes, it is a disappointingly empty film. Considering how the film is dedicated to Stefan Zweig, author of some of the most emotional writing I have ever read, The Grand Budapest Hotel is lacking in any passion other than in the construction of the artifice.

The Lego Movie. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. I’m not big on animated films, but this one had some good moments in it. The directing team of Lord and Miller impressed me more with their live-action comedy 21 Jump Street (2012), but they have proved with The Lego Movie that they don’t need an endless stream of expletives in the dialogue in order to make a project funny. Chris Pratt, soon to be seen in the flesh as the main hero of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (which we’re already familiar with, given the promotional photos), does a great job as the voice of the hero, Emmet Brickowski. Morgan Freeman also embodies the character of Emmet’s mentor very nicely, saying many of the film’s funniest lines. The romance between Emmet and Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) is one of the hero-love interest conventions we’ve come to expect in movies, but since this is a kid’s movie there’s more emphasis put on their camaraderie than on kissing. One of the questionable parts of the film is the brief incorporation of live-action acting toward the end, but I’m a fan of the main actor appearing in those scenes (I won’t spoil the surprise by saying who it is) so I guess I don’t mind it too much. I only wish the film had avoided some of the melodrama associated with the live-action scenes. This is supposed to be a straightforward comedy about children’s building blocks, not Douglas Sirk-lite. Still, for the most part the film has a fresh, modern sense of humor and I appreciate the jabs at how expensive Starbucks coffee is nowadays.

Maleficent. Directed by Robert Stromberg. Maleficent is both hero and villain, to quote the film, and Angelina Jolie’s performance as this title character is as enchanting as the magic spells she casts. The film is based on Charles Perrault’s version of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale, made tamer for a PG rating but still exciting enough to appeal to viewers who are not kids. Besides Jolie, the best acting in the film is by Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora (the sleeping beauty), Sharlto Copley as King Stefan, Maleficent’s enemy and Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting assistant. (I wonder if the casting for Riley’s role called for “cute but in a kind of sadsack way and not threatening to the handsomeness of the royal male characters,” since that’s the way it looked.) It’s a little silly to see Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple miniaturized as fairies, but it seems less embarrassing than when Bob Hoskins & co. played dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman. Other highlights of Maleficent include the costume design by Anna B. Sheppard, the makeup by Rick Baker, the production design/art direction/set decoration by many people, cinematography by Dean Semler, the score by James Newton Howard, Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon a Dream.” All in all, Maleficent is a very good film.

Obvious Child. Directed by Gillian Robespierre. I try to support films directed by women whenever possible, but I’m torn as to how I feel about this comedy. Should I promote it to family, friends and readers because it is a good (but certainly not great) movie with a female protagonist played by the superb Jenny Slate? Or do I caution others about the various aspects of the writing and some performances that do not sit well with me? Some have said that Obvious Child is a “genuine” look at what womanhood and femininity mean today, but Slate’s character is a woman-child, which can be as annoying as when a male actor inhabits a man-child role. It’s one thing to make Slate’s character a stand-up comedian, but it’s another to render her so incapable of making adult decisions that the complications in her life go from humorous to ridiculous. Abortion is not the main concern of Obvious Child; instead the viewer wonders how long it will take for Slate to grow up. I don’t object to happy, free-spirited characters, but I don’t like it when a movie purported to be true to life feels so obviously scripted and written to be funny. Punchlines are preferred at the expense of better character development or more realistic approaches to situations. Director Robespierre and her fellow screenwriters would have done well to show the audience rather than to tell them, letting visuals speak for themselves instead of characters saying “I’m really happy” or “I’m really sad.” Maybe I would have liked the movie better if Richard Kind, who plays Jenny Slate’s caring father, had had more than two scenes. That might have improved the film.

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