Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

captain-america-2-photos-galleryMarvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures present a film directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley. Based upon the Marvel comic book by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Henry Jackman. Photographed by Trent Opaloch. Edited by Jeffrey Ford. Production designed by Peter Wenham. Starring Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow), Emily VanCamp (Agent 13), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).

It’s hard to think of a movie sequel – let alone a superhero sequel—that is so markedly different from its predecessor than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The original 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger was an old-fashioned throwback to 1940’s era adventure films, and stayed true to the origin story of its titular hero, a soldier granted maximized bodily potential through the use of a super-serum. After surviving the icy arctic, emerging into the present day and enjoying a stopover in The Avengers, Cap is back in his own sequel, struggling to acclimate to the world that has changed around him. And if Captain America has one foot in the present and one still in the past, then so does this movie, which evokes the aura of a 1970’s Washington conspiracy thriller. Call it All the President’s Supermen.

Returning as Captain America (aka Steve Rodgers) is Chris Evans, square-jawed, stalwart and true, once again able to convey relentless idealism and integrity without coming across as a dweeb. His back-up team consists of the glowering Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the spy organization SHIELD,  and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who still has no superpowers–as far as I can tell–except for her lethal arms, lithesome figure and smoker’s rasp. New to the fray this time out is Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a veteran paratrooper who makes use of a winged exoskeleton and computer graphics to fly the skies. The rest of the Avengers are no-shows, but passing references to Iron Man and so on provide nice little indicators of a larger world—each new Marvel movie is like a party at a different person’s house, where someone familiar may stop by for a drink, or at the very least will call to say they can’t make it.

Picking up a thread from The Avengers, the plot this time around involves Captain America’s optimism directly butting heads with SHIELD’s penchant for draconian solutions and shiftiness. There’s a line between efficient compartmentalization of secrets and trusting your compatriots, and Cap and Fury stand on opposite sides of it. SHIELD’s latest project is a state-of-the-art information-gathering network that, once deployed, will invade the privacy of millions of people—and keep the world “safe,” of course. The primary SHIELD proponent of this plan is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is stern and shadowy. The casting of Redford, in addition to recalling the lean socially-minded thrillers of his own past, makes a subtle point about how eventually all rebels, if they live long enough, become the establishment.

A crisis happens. Soon an assassin targets Nick Fury, and Cap is plunged into a world of paranoia and fear. Who is working for whom, and why? He himself comes under suspicion for refusing to release trusted information (he has reasons). He becomes a fugitive from SHIELD, which puts him straight into the path of The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a masked killer with a cyborg arm, about whom I cannot safely say very much else. Does he have obscure roots in Captain America history? Is he a force for Hydra, the presumed-dead Nazi organization that was once the bane of Cap’s existence? Has Hydra possibly infiltrated SHIELD? It’s certainly possible.

What is also possible is to welcome every new Marvel movie with a smile rather than a groan of monotony. The Winter Soldier is the ninth in the line of Marvel studios movies that feature their interconnected properties, and this one expertly balances forward plot motion with better-than-average character development. It makes choices with big repercussions, dotes on serious issues, and makes a statement or two. And it still covers that core with a tasty action movie shell: the apocalyptic finale is done with considerable skill, not because the special effects are good (although they most of the time are) but because the stakes stay concurrently grand and intimate. Cap and his compatriots fight for security and freedom and personal values, and the characters are so strongly drawn that these feel like real issues they grapple with, not abstract concepts designed to fuel mindless action.

What makes the growing Marvel Movie Universe work is that it is a choir made up of distinct voices. There’s no mistaking the glib utilitarianism of Iron Man with the Shakespearean theatrics of Thor, and so on. And although they will occasionally unite for an overwhelming chorus, their solo acts are valuable in and of themselves. Credit to that goes to the complex vision that Marvel Studios has been forwarding since 2008 – one that treasures its characters and strives to give them each their due. For the third time in a row now, they have resisted the undeniable temptation to turn Captain America into some sort of campy goof, and they honor the Marvel tradition of good stories, told with conviction and craftsmanship. There’s a decision, for example, made late during this movie that could only—only–be made by Captain America, and we love him for it.

By now, the actors inhabit these roles like a pair of comfortable shoes. Evans is this sub-franchise’s secret weapon: he can play cocky, but here he purges any insincerity without dialing down. His Captain America is good-hearted, just and lovable; he slips through our ironic defenses in an age when that is seldom allowed. Johansson succeeds at increasing both her confidence and vulnerability each time out; the way she and Cap needle and toy with each other is like a brother/sister pairing, give or take decades of (technical) age difference. Jackson has proved that he has now joined the ranks of actors who can steal scenes just by appearing in them, although he does meet his match with Redford, who is the invaluable elder statesman of that particular group.

Behind the camera, Joe and Anthony Russo have stepped in to replace Joe Johnston as director. The Russo brothers are television veterans with ambition, and they make their first feature film a stylish and confident job well done, staging elaborate sequences in an urban jungle of highways, skyscrapers, elevators and rooftops. While the cinematography occasionally toes the line of messiness that has flavored most post-Bourne action movies, the fight choreography, when we see it, is terrific. While many superheroes have long lists of abilities, Cap’s bread and butter are simply agility, reflexes and strength…well, that and his incredibly versatile shield, of course. This means the fistfights, martial arts sequences and discharges of weapons fire must have weight and might, because those things don’t bounce off of him.

As I was watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it occurred to me that we’ve come a long way since Superman (1978) broke ground on the comic book movie. Once a genre with limited prospects, it has evolved now into a platform from which one can launch multiple genres: coming-of-age story, urban crime, pulp fiction, psychological horror, domestic drama, comedy, and now the conspiracy thriller. And it works. As if proving the point, Marvel’s next movie is designed to be a go-for-broke old fashioned space opera.  And then, what next? Maybe they’ll try a musical. B+

Noah (2014)

noah_02035851_st_5_s-highDirected by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Aronofsky, Ari Handel. Produced by Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent. Music by Clint Mansell. Photographed by Matthew Libatique. Edited by Andrew Weisblum. Production designed by Mark Friedberg. Starring Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal Cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Nick Nolte (voice of Samyaza), Frank Langella (voice of Azazel).

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that rarest of things.  No, not just a multimillion dollar epic built out of sensitive subject matter. And no, not simply one of those handled by a great filmmaker. No, not even just one of those projects that is those things and yet perfectly and specifically reflects the pursuits of that artist. No, it’s rarer than all of that: a biblical epic of massive scale that is…get this: a real movie. Not content to be a lazy retelling of an old story (see this year’s shameless cash grab Son of God) or even anything resemblind a crowd pleaser, Aronofsky’s new film is maddening, bizarre, rough, brutal, thrilling and intelligent, especially in the way it challenges and provokes. And it’s the work of an auteur who is grappling heroically with the essence of his material, and with the tenets of his own faith. This is maybe the most personal and ambitious motion picture about religion since The Last Temptation of Christ.

Granted, this one comes from thinner source material. The biblical story of the flood is maybe four pages long, and Aronofsky, to his credit, has reimagined it by thinking laterally, pulling from works outside the Hebrew canon, and following  the principles of midrash, a philosophy that values the experiential over the tangible. To argue the historical “facts” of the biblical story of Noah is, in Aronofsky’s view, beside the point, and beside the movie. He uses the mechanics of a fable and the cinematic language of the adventure film to tell a grand-yet-circumspect story about survival and sacrifice, impossible choices and brutal tests of character, the relationship between righteousness and monomania, the wickedness of all men and the goodness buried inside the best of them. How refreshing to see a $125 million dollar epic that’s actually about something, by the way.

Sunday school versions lingering of the flood story tend to emphasize the picaresque, pop-up book components of the story, showcasing a family captaining a boatload of animals. These iterations tend to step nimbly over the context of these images, which is, after all, an apocalypse brought on by irredeemable sin. One of Aronofsky’s aims, it appears, is to not let us off so easy. He plants us in a bronze age fantasy world that has reached its societal nadir. He shows a wasteland dually raped by industrialism and evil men, where rock monsters called watchers (Nick Nolte, Frank Langella) roam the countryside and claim to be the encrusted, worldly forms of fallen angels. It’s a place where Noah (Russell Crowe), son of Seth, tries to cultivate the land and his family, equally in vain, as both of those things are dying (the film’s pro-environment message is severe). And it’s a world where all evil is personified by the barbarian king Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), waging war against the sons of Seth in a series of bloody, muddy conflicts.

Crowe, as it turns out, is perfectly suited to playing Aronofsky’s take on Noah, because he combines his traditional world-weariness with a frightening tunnel vision. He receives flashes of an upcoming reckoning from The Creator–He is never called God in the film, which will annoy the easily annoyed. Noah cannot process these insights, and must go to the mystic hermit Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), his grandfather, for help. He intuits evidence of an oncoming flood and presupposes that the reasoning behind it is God’s displeasure with mankind. He is helped in building his ark by the rock men watchers, who identify themselves as fallen angels who fled heaven to help man, were absorbed by the earth, and were since abandoned by the Creator. Now why would He do that? Indeed.

Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) and children uneasily support him in his goal, and years pass as the ark exits construction phase. Soon the animals are summoned (two of each, naturally) and subdued into the ship’s massive cargo hold by magic incense.  By then, Noah’s adopted daughter Illa has turned into Emma Watson, and she’s married to his son, Shem (Douglas Booth), not that this matters so much, as she is regrettably barren. But both are still better off than Noah’s second son, Ham (Logan Lerman) who has no wife and his prospects of getting one before the end of days are not good. Ham is crucial to Aronofsky’s re-conceptualization of this story as an allegory; he symbolizes man’s ability to fall into the depths of jealousy, lust and betrayal. Ham falls under the sway of the odious Tubal Cain, who leads an all-out assault on the ark, which is interrupted by torrents of rain and water that horrifically wash away humanity’s dregs: the term “wrath of God” has never been dramatized with more power.

It must be said, though: this is absolutely Aronfosky’s take on the material. It may not be yours. Did I mention the rock monsters? No, I’m still not kidding. Certainly, Noah reflects no interpretation of the story I’ve ever been exposed to (although it’s been a long time for me since Sunday school).  But Aronofsky’s attempt does not denigrate the material; it instead twists and stretches it in tantalizing ways. The director’s goal here is not to blasphemy but instead to take this story apart, put it back together, and see how it works. He doubles down on fantasy elements in order to set a proper filmic foundation for this story, allow it to breathe, and figure out what it means, and why it matters. He invents his story out of whole cloth, with the utmost sincerity.

In the past, Aronofsky has specialized in characters who walk a tightrope of sanity above a gaping abyss. This is true here, too, as Noah has been recast from being an antideluvian Dr. Doolittle to instead being a man tortured by unbearable, momentous purpose that is challenging to decode. God’s voice comes not as a booming baritone but instead as simple, bracing images that cause frightening implications.

The problem with taking visions directly from God (or “The Creator”) is that you begin to internalize what you think is their intent: while Noah sees the value in washing away the filth and restarting a new paradise, he begins to wonder if any part of humankind is part of that bargain, including his own family.  He terrorizes his loved ones with a growing fatalism. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, the family spends the first night of the ark listening to wails of the dying echo through the ship’s walls, and Noah is quick and stern to underline that they are not to be saved. His plan for when they find dry land is not at all propagation of the species, but rather its death rattle under guise of a retirement package. He also fails to realize that a screenwriter would never introduce a barren woman into act one of a story like this unless…well, you know. This causes complications.

What kind of man would do all this? Certainly he is asked by his family, but his newfound identity as God’s instrument provides little solace, to him or them. He is like Michael Shannon’s confused husband in Take Shelter: so surrendered to an invisible mystery that he has perhaps lost all sense of humanly reason. But what is humanity, anyway? If something has the capacity for evil, is it worth saving? If a person sacrifices decency at the altar of righteousness, is that deserving of respect? There are no easy answers in Noah’s universe: our nominal hero finds himself easily capable of terrible acts, and we are reminded how easy it can be to confuse a lack of self-doubt with strength. Meanwhile Tubal Cain tutors the fallen Ham in dialogue scenes that have a dark, seductive poetry.

What I like so much about Aronfosky’s film resides in this third act, and the way he pumps up his story while still avoiding the waters of overwrought melodrama. He’s more interested by the elemental, the metaphysical, and the awkward relationship those have with the humanistic. Has a man who has aided the workings of an apocalypse turned his back on his own race? If Noah has truly been touched by God, does he owe it to Him to follow that being’s impenetrable logic? If he has gone crazy (there is that possibility), what kind of God would allow that? What type of mercy or justice can flourish in a new world borne out of genocide? In bringing his own creation to the screen, Aronfosky has crafted a screenplay where himself, Noah, and the offscreen God cycle through each other’s perceived philosophies. Halfway through, Aronofsky pauses for a retelling of the creation story, one that bridges the gap between science and creationism with gorgeous visuals that imply the big bang and evolution, and handle the subsequent expulsion from paradise with stark mystery. This might be the bravest sequence in the entire movie.

Like his other films, Aronofsky makes no small plans here, and he swings for the fence. He uses the opportunity of a well-known story to tackle universal themes, and he embraces them with an artist’s zeal. The film is also technically beautiful, marrying the grim and the lovely, CGI and practical effects, film and digital. Noah’s ark, for once, has weight and form and makes architectural sense. But the most impressive effects are probably the watchers, who have acrobatic body language conveying a clunky physicality, while still suggesting a buried grace. And unlike many directors with their eyes on hugeness, Aronofsky knows how to handle actors: notice the way that Watson, with her tremendous eyes and her own precious cargo, becomes the heart and soul of the whole film, and how confidently Aronofsky keeps that from us until just the right time.

Noah is a movie that will certainly anger some, especially those who reserve the right to take offense when someone else’s spiritual experience does not strictly match their own. It has already been attacked in some circles by those who have not screened it, which is convenient for them. These are people who prefer groupthink to discussion; boy, they must throw boring parties. If you like faith-based movies that simply tell you what you like to hear, then do not go see it. But I think for the devout, atheists and agnostics alike (I’m of the third category), Noah is exhilarating: an adventure story that includes elements of severe psychological horror, in a package that just slightly touches the infinite. At the very least, it will leave you with lots to talk about.

There is something exquisitely courageous in Noah’s makeup – it asks big questions and finds communion with us in its inability to find definitive answers. My own take on the flood story is that it is a fiction designed to bring the reader closer to a subjective truth, and that’s what Aronofsky has done, only sharing it with all of us. What a generous creator he is. A

Divergent (2014)

divergentDirected by Neil Burger. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Produced by Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian, Douglas Wick. Music by Junkie XL. Photographed by Alwin H. Küchler. Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson. Production designed by Andy Nicholson. Starring Shailene Woodley (Tris), Theo James (Four), Ashley Judd (Natalie), Jai Courtney (Eric), Ray Stevenson (Marcus), Zoë Kravitz (Christina), Miles Teller (Peter), Tony Goldwyn (Andrew), Ansel Elgort (Caleb), Maggie Q (Tori), Mekhi Phifer (Max), Kate Winslet (Jeanine).

Many sci-fi films have taken place amid dystopias, but Divergent is the first one to predict the downfall of the Myers-Briggs personality test. It posits a future world where society (or at least Chicago) is divided into five factions, each one built around a psychological trait. At its center is a plucky heroine, Beatrice, who is special. Of course she is. She is a divergent, which means she doesn’t fit into the classes, but she tries to fake it. She also becomes a key figure in a political revolution that depends upon certain people’s character, or lack of it. The movie is based on a young adult novel by Veronica Roth, but those who have not read it may still feel that this story sounds very familiar.

The classes are as follows. There are the Abnegations, who are politicians. There are the Erudite, the learned and logicians. Amity is the class for pacifists and farmers. Dauntless is for the brave soldiers.  And then there is Candor—they tell the truth and nothing but. In this world, when one comes of age they take a psychological test that advises their faction, and once selected, they stick to it with fanatical loyalty. Otherwise they are cast out and become homeless. There are even stereotypes for each group. When a lab technician sees an Abnegation admiring herself in a mirror, she remarks: “What is it with Abnegations and mirrors?” I know, right?! They’re the worst! But seriously, folks. Some of my best friends are Abnegations.

The movie stars Shailene Woodley in what is a bit of a coming of age for both her character and for her as an actress. Seen before in sparkling supporting roles (see her troubled daughter to George Clooney in The Descendants and her lovestruck innocent teen in The Spectacular Now), Divergent marks her entrance to the big time, just as soon as she completes the young adult adaptation/superhero movie decathlon that so many young actors must partake in these days in order to graduate to better things. She does an admirable job in Divergent, playing an Abnegation named Beatrice who is shocked to reveal her personality test is inconclusive; in defiance, she joins up with the Dauntless class and changes her name to Tris. (This may be a pun, as she is a girl who definitely refuses to “Bea.”) These choices slightly concern her brother (Ansel Elgort) and parents (Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson), either because she’s turned her back on the family class, or possibly because with the Dauntless she may wind up dead. The second possibility is, I suppose, reasonable.

These Dauntless (Dauntlesses?), they’re quite the cut ups. For being the state-ordained army, they are shockingly not well funded. They run around the city like extras in a West Side Story revue, hitching rides on phantom el trains that apparently have no other passengers. They then disembark in places not designed as rail stations, if you get my meaning. When they’re not doing that, they’re staging capture the flag scenarios under the free reign of the city they apparently enjoy, and their home is a series of abandoned warehouses and tunnels where they can stage mini fight clubs. Their crowded, slapped-together mess hall would make Dickens proud. Dauntlesses (Dauntlessi?)  are vaunted for their bravery, but they seem to encompass all sorts of alternate lifestyles, which means they’re like an inoffensive mix of punk brats and Bjork fans. (Warning, parents: “Let’s all get tattoos!” is a line in the movie, and it’s one that is followed up on.)

To be divergent is to live in secrecy and fear. That’s how a lot of teens feel, of course, but here the stakes are very high indeed. To be divergent means you’re immune to the constant indoctrination and brainwashing that the factions employ, and there are methods constantly used to smoke out impostors. You also have to master multiple virtual reality tests where you have to confront your fears, and although divergent brains have built-in cheat codes for these games, that makes them all the more suspicious. Soon Tris is under the nose of Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), an Erudite who is engineering a coup against the ruling class of Abegnates. As a rather tortured allegory for the choices teens make as they grow up and attempt to self-identify, this will do, I guess.

At this point I gotta wonder, though. Is this really a workable caste system for a civilization? Doesn’t a farmer require basic understanding of science to raise crops? Are soldiers not allowed to tell the truth? Are politicians not expected to be brave and honest? (Actually, strike that, that one makes sense.) The movie has an answer for why some of these class distinctions are upheld (some are mind controlled), but lobbying to institute them in the first place must have been an uphill battle, one that’s not even hinted at. Where’s that story? It’s possible that we’ll get our answers in the already-in-production sequels, projects that all-too-clearly exist in the screenplay’s mind. During a visit to the wall surrounding Chicago, one character asks “What’s out there?” and never gets a satisfactory answer, like this is a round-robin or a Lost episode. Sorry, folks, we can’t reveal it. Maybe next season.

What we have here in Divergent is a dubious framework to hang a speculative fiction story, but then so many of them are. I love movies and I love sci-fi, which means I am blessed with disbelief that is waiting to be suspended. I smiled at the voice-over narration that sets up the story with economy and speed. I liked the little touches of production design like the spare, squarish homes that house Abnegates. I was on board with Divergent even while it was ticking through dystopic young adult clichés.

I started to tune out, however, when I realized it was never really going to stop. Divergent is completely made of bits and pieces of better stories, and although it is reasonably polished, it never shakes that hand-me-down feeling. It evokes the fascism and brain manipulation of Hunger Games and 1984, swipes the wall from Game of Thrones, and its intelligent and spunky heroine recalls practically everything but Twilight. It throws in a typical romance that is admirably understated and triangle-free: the moment where she admires the tattoos on the bare back of Four (Theo James) is as hot as it gets.  Also, there’s a dash of Logan’s Run in that so few of the characters are over 30. Even fewer if you don’t count bad guys.

On some level, this all more or less works. But it still feels empty and perfunctory. Unlike its heroine, Divergent never transcends its own self-imposed classification; it pretty much stays on the level of a YA-inspired potboiler throughout. Tris is ably played by Woodley, but her character is murky and ill-defined, which is undoubtedly the point but it doesn’t make her interesting. The film is handsomely mounted by director Neil Burger (The Illusionist), but it feels uneasy in the way it marries this bleak material to a PG-13 rating (and audience). The film’s climactic armed revolution, for example, is so whitewashed and ideologically soft that it plays like someone’s synopsis of an uprising, not an actual one. That’s probably due to the Winslet character being so underwritten—what exactly is the motivation of a woman who wants to stamp out all free will everywhere? The movie doesn’t answer. Because it’s not about her, conveniently.

It is the curious mark of a teenager to think thoughts and then immediately believe no one has ever thought of them before. In Divergent that includes the notions of armed revolution and active rejection of the five-class system as opposed to passive acceptance. It is helpful for the story that Tris is the one to innovate these concepts, because otherwise someone else would be the hero, and that would not do. The structure of Divergent is a closed system, one that purposefully resonates with a teen’s needs to be seen as both smarter and more misunderstood than anyone else. In actuality, the smartest teens know they still have much learning to do. And to be sure, Hollywood understands teeangers very very well. That’s how movies like Divergent get made, don’t you know. B-

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

670px-Muppets_Most_Wanted_Official_TrailerDirected by James Bobin. Written by James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller. Based on Jim Henson’s Muppet characters. Musical score by Christophe Beck. Music and lyrics by Bret McKenzie. Photographed by Don Burgess. Edited by James Thomas. Production designed by Eve Stewart. Starring Ricky Gervais (Dominic Badguy), Ty Burrell (Jean Pierre Napoleon), Tina Fey (Nadya), Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog/Statler/Beaker/Rizzo the Rat), Eric Jacobson (Miss Piggy/Fozzie Bear/Sam the Eagle/Animal), Dave Goelz (Gonzo the Great/Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/Zoot/Beauregard/Waldorf), Bill Barretta (Pepe the Prawn/Rowlf the Dog/Dr. Teeth/Swedish Chef) David Rudman (Scooter/Janice), Matt Vogel (Constantine/Floyd Pepper/Sweetums/Lew Zealand), Peter Linz (Walter), many surprise cameos.

Early on in Muppets Most Wanted, the muppets that we know and love sing a production number containing a fugitive lyric about sequels not being quite as good as the first. They are not wrong to worry. While Muppets Most Wanted isn’t at all the worst the franchise has offered on the big screen, it does land straight in the middle of the pack. Don’t get me wrong: this is a sly and jolly comedy, packed with funny jokes and neat surprises. But it is lacking some of that ineffable Muppet magic.

The muppets were dormant for a while, but you may recall they leaped back into the mainstream in their 2011 revival. That movie featured Jason Segal and Amy Adams as a human couple trying to balance their romance while surrounded by muppet-hood. Those two are missing from Muppets Most Wanted, but we don’t miss them so much as we miss the baseline of sanity they brought to the proceedings. This one features three human stars (in addition to the requisite cameos), all comedians, all hamming it up, and they even get top billing: Ricky Gervais, Tiny Fey, Ty Burrell. These are splendidly funny people, and they’re very funny in the movie, but why hire them to steal every scene away from the muppets?

That’s the underlying problem with Muppets Most Wanted: it doesn’t give our heroes the weight they deserve. It doesn’t quite trust them. It devotes much of its length to a Kermit doppelgänger named Constantine, who is a master thief. The villain inevitably switches places with Kermit, and although Constantine’s attempt to impersonate the iconic frog are laughably inept, the remaining muppets are pretty slow on the uptake. For those of us that grew up with Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, etc., this development is frustrating, because it chains our favorite characters to what is essentially an idiot plot.

More idiots arrive. Gervais plays the muppets’ new manager, Dominic Badguy a con artist in league with Constantine. Badguy? “Bad-gee,” he protests. “It’s French.” Burrell appears as an actual Frenchman, an Interpol agent and Clouseau clone inevitably named Jean Pierre Napoleon. Fey is the lovely commandant of the Russian gulag that Constantine and Kermit find themselves in. Well done, all, but…what about the muppets themselves? The movie gives them short shrift, and while it goes through the motions of giving them a story to inhabit, it doesn’t connect the dots.

The genius of Jim Henson’s muppet characters is that despite being so obviously artificial, their personalities are so vivid and outsized. They have hopes and fears and dreams that we can relate to, and they play second fiddle to no one. That’s why in the old days they were allowed to share scenes with actors like Charles Durning, Orson Welles, Michael Caine, et al. Because they could. This movie doesn’t quite remember that. They’re pushed aside a little, and so are their personalities. They’re used here more as simple devices to advance plot points and jokes, with less heart than we would like. Lip service is paid to the gang taking Kermit for granted, but that thread disappears for too long…and so does Kermit, for that matter.

Still, there are big belly laughs in Muppets Most Wanted, and that is worth something. Some of the best jokes come from the lengthy Russian gulag sequence, which extends itself in ways you probably won’t see coming. Fey is clearly having a good time, using her considerable talents to create the most sweet-natured, innocently seductive Russian warden you could imagine. If they ever revive Rocky and Bulwinkle and need a new Natasha, they should give Fey a call.

The songs, once again by Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie, are bouncy and colorful. They give Fey the very best number (“The Big House”), but all of them are clever and insanely catchy, with one in particular that recalls the very best of the Conchords. If none of them are as wonderful as Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection” from all the way back in the original Muppet Movie, it just goes to show that few can be. And how neat is it to go to a new movie musical, anyway?

A word about cameos. These have been a staple of the Muppet franchise since the very beginning, and so they come with the territory. But there are maybe too many cameos in Most Wanted, or perhaps more importantly some of them don’t quite pay their way. I think an actor should work for their cameo, not just present themselves and then depart. Can we all agree that simply getting someone to appear in your movie for a fraction of a second isn’t intrinsically funny? However, when a Russian gulag chorus line is made up of…well, I won’t spoil it. But trust me. It’s very funny.

I enjoyed myself at Muppets Most Wanted. It’s a fine entertainment. But it also feels made of disconnected bits, never pulling itself together to tell a compelling story. And it doesn’t quite master the balance of classic Muppet adventures, which occupy a space somewhere between The Wind and the Willows and Mel Brooks. I had a good time. But I didn’t get a great time, which is just as well, because you can’t always get that. Not even from the muppets. B-

The LEGO Movie (2014)

25.-The-Lego-MovieDirected by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Screenplay by Lord and Miller; based upon a story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Lord and Miller; based upon LEGO construction toys. Produced by Roy Lee, Dan Lin. Music by Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by Barry Peterson, Pablo Plaisted. Edited by David Burrows, Chris McKay. Production designed by Grant Freckelton. Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Allison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman.

The credits for The Lego Movie state “based on Lego construction toys,” and so it is. For the cynics, TLM is not short on evidence suggesting it’s little more than a feature-length commercial. But is it too much to ask for a brand name-driven marketing opportunity to be well-written, heartfelt and fun? Not too much to ask at all, as it turns out; The Lego Movie is really good. Really, really good. In fact, it may be the first animated film in a long while where adults will get twice as much out of it as kids. Children will enjoy the vivid colors and characters, and resonate with the film’s buried, life-affirming themes (yes, really). Adults will get a kick out of the sly humor, clever dialogue and subversive storytelling. Above all they’ll appreciate how hard and rare it is to make a family film like this: wickedly funny, deceptively spontaneous, sneakily smart and surprisingly touching.

The movie starts, confidently, with the funny business. For a hero, we have a city-dwelling Lego man (everyman? everyfigure?) named Emmett (Chris Pratt) who is feckless but loveable. He lives in cozy conformity, listens to the same song every day (“Everything is Awesome”), cheerfully performs his construction job, and expertly follows the directions. Deep down he’s unfulfilled. There’s a buried part of him that suspects that perhaps everything is not awesome. He is correct. Everything’s changed by a chance encounter with the sassy, adventurous Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who, like Trinity in The Matrix, rescues Emmett from his life of insidious drudgery, and brings him into a resistance movement allied against a plot for world domination. But of course.

The villain, Lord Business (Will Ferrell) is bent on using a secret weapon, the Kragl, on all of Legoland. He embraces tyranny, hates freedom, and wants to force all of his toy brethren into an existence as plastic as their own bodies. All that can stop him is a special relic called the piece of resistance, which has found itself stuck on poor Emmett’s back. Dogging them is a policeman (Liam Neeson) who is literally both good cop and bad cop: his head swivels to shift personalities at whim. Eventually all discover that Emmett is apparently “the special” foretold by the master builder Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman)—like all prophecies, Vitruvius’ words are incredibly helpful except for when they are not in any conceivable way.

You’re free to roll your eyes at the mention of the word “prophecy,” since The Lego Movie ultimately kids that trope for all it’s worth. It has a lot of fun subverting and upending its own basic structure, mocking the places it could have gone if it had, well, followed the directions. Instead, it starts as a mild satire of overly familiar “chosen one” hero journeys and ends as an acidly funny rebuke to that myth, wholesale. This is really clever storytelling: evoking a Joseph Campbell structure in order to comment on and demolish it. With lots of jokes.

The film is a who’s who of dependable comic talent: in addition to Pratt, Ferrell and Banks, we have the invaluable Will Arnett as Batman, played as the kind of bad boy blowhard who never stops talking about how awesome he is. Allison Brie is the voice of Princess Unikitty, the scarily pleasant leader of the sugar-sweet Cloud Cuckooland (think My Little Pony with more rainbows). Nick Offerman is Metal Beard, who has a pirate’s head and a Transformers-style body. Charlie Day is 1980’s Spaceman, a retro-astronaut who craves an opportunity to build a spaceship. There’s also plenty of sight gags, in-jokes, actual jokes, movie references, cameos, surprises, and enough heart and cleverness to suggest that this is a passion project, as unlikely as it may seem. One of hundreds of loving details stuck in the corners of each frame is 1980s Spaceman’s helmet, which has a split in its chinstrap at about the exact same place that my own helmeted Legomen did, and yours as well.

The Lego Movie is so much better than it needed to be. For that we can thank the filmmakers, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. These are smart gentlemen who have also made adult comedies (21 Jump Street and its upcoming sequel); the upshot to that is when working in animation (e.g.: this and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), they make movies for kids that love them and don’t talk down to them. And the film isn’t just insanely fun and frantic and madcap (though it is that)—it brings itself home with a third act twist that earns the right to be powerfully soulful. It lands on a touching note that becomes a true ode to the power of imagination over conformity, one that is felt on multiple levels. Still can’t believe I’m saying this about The Lego Movie? I don’t know what to tell you. It’s only right that the film is titled the way it is, anyway, because by the end its numerous pieces have snapped tightly together like a bunch of…well, you know.

GRADE: A-

Her (2013)

her-joaquin-phoenix-3Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Produced by Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay. Music by Owen Pallett. Photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Edited by Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen. Production designed by K.K. Barrett. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson.

Perhaps the most emotionally relevant film of the year, Spike Jonze’s Her postulates a near future where technology is not a blessing, nor is it a curse. It’s a fact of life as steady as a companion, and one that can cherish and hurt us as much as a “real” friend can. For that matter, what is real, anyway? For Theodore Twombley (Joacquin Phoenix), “real” is as elusive a sensation as can be. He’s a recluse: timid, shy, reeling from the debris of a devastating divorce (he still hasn’t signed the papers). He works at a company where letters between loved ones are crafted by third party phonies, and perhaps inevitably he suffers from crippling loneliness. All that changes when he meets Samantha (Scarlett Johnanson), who is warm, energetic, laughs at his jokes, and just plain enjoys him. The catch: Samantha is an artificially intelligent operating system. She’s a computer.

Far-fetched? I’m doubtful. Every day our tools inch towards more plush, cozy user-friendliness, and it’s easy to imagine Samantha as Siri with a higher IQ and an attitude adjustment.  The genius of Jonze’s film—which extends from its persuasive production design, surefooted direction and remarkable performances—is how rapidly and successfully it creates a fully-realized Samantha, a bubbly and joyous personality so vivid that she neatly sidesteps questions of “real.” She is real enough. And certainly real enough for Theodore, who…I was about to say “falls in love with her.” But that’s misleading. In every way that matters, they actually fall in love with each other.

How exactly a grown man and a piece of software can engage in a full-blown romance is a question one might ask. And it is indeed a matter of some practicality: Theodore’s incompatible ex-wife (Rooney Mara) haunts his memories. In person, she is her own woman, not a shrew, one who hurts Theodore reluctantly, and only because she has hurt so long. His one flesh and blood date is a woman who is reeled in and then repulsed by Theodore being Theodore. He has one good friend in Amy (Amy Adams), who is supportive but similarly distracted. Samantha is the only one who is there for him, who is always available to talk, who centers her life around him. Of course, she’s programmed to do those things. But eventually she evolves into something more than that. And less. And more again.

The message and metaphor is clear here. Samantha is a fantasy, one akin to the same one we all have when entering a relationship. Eventually she’s supplanted by a messier, challenging reality, just as all lovers eventually are. Theodore is a cautious man, one who welcomes a technological cocoon, and his emotional retardation will remind us either of ourselves, or people we know. But a “real” relationship, even with a computer, must face challenge in order to be real, and Theodore’s grappling with that forms the emotional backbone of Her, which, instead of beating the drum of technological alienation that many sci-fi films do, offers the gentle point that we can’t escape life’s difficulties by shutting out the world—reality will find a way in, even through the most unlikely route.

But that is only one idea of many in Jonze’s brilliant, idiosyncratic Her, which is resonant in its emotions and daring in its storytelling. Jonze, who wrote and directed, also made Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. He is an expert at following outlandish premises to outrageously logical conclusions, and yet bestowing them with a warmth and humanity. Despite several opportunities for archness, he never stands outside the story and mocks. Her‘s central conceit never collapses into jokiness. The couple’s fumbling attempt at lovemaking is handled with sensitivity, not irony. A later attempt to “spice up” their love life through a third party (Portia Doubleday) is executed with equal parts humor and heartbreak. Samantha continues to grow and evolve, possibly to the point of one day even outgrowing Theodore, which terrifies him, understandably. This is Jonze at his best: sincere, tender, wry, oddly poignant, poignantly odd. And he’s well-served by an unsurprisingly pitch-perfect cast, with Johansson being the headliner (and she gives a moving, deft vocal performance) but Phoenix showing the same fearless commitment that we expect from him. There are scenes here that mirror the long-take rawness that populated last year’s The Master. Adams, with the less showy role, is so good (what a year for her, by the way) that she makes it look deceptively easy. But we know it isn’t.

We spend such energy in the pursuit of love, which is something that can hurt us so much. It’s an equation a computer cannot understand. But Samantha eventually does, and later still does Theodore. And that’s ultimately one of the central points of Her: to avoid pain is to avoid growth. And growth is life, digital and otherwise.

GRADE: A

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

secret-life-of-walter-mitty-trailer-07302013-145044 (1)Directed by Ben Stiller. Screenplay by Steve Conrad; screen story by Steve Conrad; based on the short story by James Thurber. Produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn, Ben Stiller. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Photographed by Stuart Dryburgh. Edited by Greg Hayden. Production designed by Jeff Mann. Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, John Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adam Scott, Paul Fitzgerald.

Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty…

Well, yeah. There’s no two ways about it. This is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Not Danny Kaye’s. And certainly not James Thurber’s. Stiller’s take on this material (first published as a short story in 1939) takes the barest of threads from its source material (nerd has rich and varied fantasy life) and goes off on its own, cute, direction. But it’s a game of two halves. It’s perfectly okay when it’s being a sincere travelogue about a socially awkward nebbish, Walter (played by Stiller). It’s also never more awkward when it stops for daydream sequences that sometimes play like extended sketches. Naturally, that staccato rhythm is perhaps part of the whole package when you’re adapting Walter Mitty. But still. There’s got to be a way to make a new adaptation of this work feel cohesive. But this one doesn’t, creating an altogether lumpy package that feels–at times–irresponsibly expanded.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s not a deal-breaker, because Walter Mitty, despite its tonal disconnects, is so different from anything else at the multiplex this season, and deserves to be seen. It’s nice, and sweet and genuine. Wry without being cynical. Playful yet still evoking that reasonably passes for wisdom. Its PG rating courts an audience that prefers it when a movie is–more than anything else–pleasant. And it is pleasant. It’s also not very substantial. Stiller is now two years shy of 50, which might explain why he’s made a movie that feels at times engineered to appeal to financially well-off moms and dads.

In the short story, Walter Mitty is a hen-pecked dweeb. Here he’s a photo developer at Life Magazine, loses a precious negative containing a masterpiece print by photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn).The loss could not have come at a worse time, as Life is being overtaken by a corporate “problem solver” (read: “cost-cutter and person-firer”) played by Adam Scott, who is shifting the entire magazine onto the Internet. Not only could Walter’s mistake cost him his job, but his co-worker crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) might be herself on the way out the door. Spurred on by Cheryl’s sweetness, the socially stunted Walter (who has never been on an adventure in his life) takes it upon himself to crack the case and track down O’Connell, which means traveling from Greenland to Iceland and beyond on exploits far more dangerous and hard than anything his dreams could have prepared him for.

Well, sort of. Despite Walter Mitty‘s insistence that once Walter gets on the plane, it’s for real, the movie retains a very whimsical tone…so much so that every five minutes you anticipate a point where Walter is going to wake up and reveal this has all been an elaborate (and lengthy) dream sequence. Sometimes the weird mixture works: there’s a sequence in a bar in Greenland, where Walter waffles on getting into a drunken helicopter pilot’s ride-until a phantom Cheryl appears behind him on stage and starts urging him through song. Other moments, involving the unlikely details of a sudden volcano eruption, are aggressively twee and self-conscious, and at every turns the film soft-pedals the very legitimate danger that Walter might be in by going on his merry chase. Warning, kids: Walter Mitty may indeed not know what he’s doing while going around the world. But one arguably should.

There’s so much to like in Walter Mitty, especially its centerpiece hook of being that rarely-seen artifact: the romantic globetrotting adventure, like a James Bond movie without the violence. The locations are beautifully realized by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and although sometimes we are probably looking at special effects, the results are slick and evocative. And it also has a wonderful supporting cast, headlined by Shirley McClaine as Walter’s long-suffering mother and Kathryn Hahn as his free-spirited sister. Wiig’s contribution is undeniable as well, showing here that, despite her considerable comic chops, she can dial down and play charming. Stiller is excellent most of the time, when he’s being sincere and not leaning on irony as a kind of insurance policy. When Penn finally shows up as the sought-after O’Connell, he does a good job of making Sean the kind of guy you want to admire in one moment and strangle the next. The exception to the great casting, however, is Adam Scott: usually an incredibly dependable comic actor, here one-note and irritating.

So the film is effervescent and cute, and…worth seeing. Is it great? No, not at all. It contains too many moments of noodling. Some of Walter’s waking dreams are well-executed in how surprising and fast they are. Others are less successful, such as his Benjamin Button-inspired fantasy for his possible life with Cheryl that is just odd. Every once in a while an idea is trotted out and the film changes pace to accommodate it, such as a slapstick scene at a TSA checkpoint seen through nothing but x-rays, and encounters with locals in countries there and yonder that act uncannily as if they know they are in a comedy. The film overall is downright shameless in its desire to please, particularly when it comes to entities who must have paid a good deal for product placement. (Papa Johns, eHarmony, Cinnabon and more all get trotted out for incredibly annoying extended plugs).

Walter Mitty could possibly have benefited from another script rewrite: something to make the danger more dangerous, or the comedy funnier. As it stands, it’s one big shaggy dog story with some visual flair and a plot that ends with more of a sheepish shrug than I think was intended. In essence, the movie Walter Mitty is like Walter himself: nice, sweet, good-looking, and pretty unmemorable.

GRADE: B-