Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Is it merely very good, or is it the best of the MarvelVerse movies to be released thus far?

A lot of folks I respect have been arguing the latter (including MightyGodKing’s Chris Bird listing it as #1 in his ranking of all 32 Marvel-based live action movies to be released since 1998), and I’m not sure I’d go that far.  The juxtaposition of Cap in what’s basically a spy movie doesn’t always work, and once you get past the Surprise Reveal of the villain’s identity (admittedly a whopper, and spoiled by a truly hilarious Internet meme), their scheme is … problematic, to say the least.

Granted, Avengers — which remains my favorite of the Marvels — had a similar problem.  But this time there’s no Tony Stark to call-out the big bad and say “WTF?  You know your plan is stupid, right?”  Villain quality has been an issue throughout this otherwise excellent run of movies, with Loki and “The Mandarin” (heh) being the only ones coming close to solving it well.  (I’m calling it now: if any of the Marvel movies luck into a bad guy anywhere near Heath Ledger’s Joker, we’ll have an instant contender for Best Superhero Movie EVAR.)

But.

As somebody who largely doesn’t read comics, I remain delighted by the degree to which I’ve enjoyed the Captain America movies.  An off-the-cuff description — all-American patriot and super-soldier battles America’s enemies — would have me expecting something at best schmaltzy, at worst insultingly jingoistic.  Instead, both his own two movies and Avengers have shown a very human, remarkably relatable character who knows he’s striving for ideals his own side often falls short of.  For me, the defining Cap moment remains “Put on your suit” in the Avengers.  He’s so pissed-off at Tony that he’d like to kick his ass, but doing it mano-a-mano would be the kind of bullying Steve Rogers abhors.  Tony may be a billionaire playboy genius, but outside of his suit, Steve will mop the floor with him.  So, he tells him to put on the suit, even though that doesn’t so much level the playing field as reverse it — in an undamaged Iron Man suit, Tony can go toe-to-toe with gods.

Steve doesn’t care.  He’d rather put himself at a whopping disadvantage than be a bully.

And that’s why sticking him in a spy movie is actually kind of genius.

The days of America’s most dangerous enemies being the obvious ones are well behind us — assuming they ever existed at all.*  The latest Captain America movie doesn’t merely acknowledge this, it makes it central to the plot.  Steve is uncompromised without being either haughty or weak, making him the perfect agent of change to rip the cover off secrets and apply the principle that sunlight makes the best disinfectant.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the action sequences, and honestly, I don’t see what the problem is.  Sure, there’s nothing on the level of the artisanal bloodshed and limb-snapping of The Raid 2, but it’s not like we’re talking spastic, Michael-Bay-at-his-worst shaky-cam, either.  I also liked the reminders that Steve is a SOLDIER, one who will use lethal force without hesitation when the situation calls for it; superheroes don’t normally toss grenades, or throw knives.  I found the action setpieces clear enough to follow and engaging enough to advance the story, and well-grounded in who the characters were.  Works for me.

In fact, I felt like there was considerably more at stake than in most of the Marvel movies.  Cap’s tough, but he’s still only human; put enough bullets into him, and he’ll die.  And his two fellow “superheroes” are even more vulnerable than he is; Black Widow is just a woman who’s damned good at a dangerous job, and Falcon is a dude with a “suit” that Tony Stark famously outclassed in a cave.  (“With a box of scraps!!!”)  And watching the eponymous Winter Soldier tear through a bunch of friendly mooks trying to answer Cap’s call to arms … yeeouch.

What surprised me, though, was how well the movie worked in the quieter moments.  I completely bought the relationship between Steve and his new friend Sam; despite the vast gulf in time and experience between them, they were still brother soldiers and related to each other as such.  When Steve gave Sam a hard time about how “slow” he runs, it felt like a friendly busting of chops when it could easily could have come off as massively dickish.  When Sam decides to join the fight in earnest, his reasons, which could have felt completely hokey, feel well-earned.

Steve’s relationship with Natasha felt similarly real for completely different reasons; they’re nominally on the same side, but their differing world views mean a very natural lack of trust that the movie had to bridge.  And the sexual tension, such as a it was, felt right for two attractive people who know damn well they’d be a horrific romantic mismatch.  (If anything, Natasha tweaking Steve in those moments felt analogous to Steve teasing Sam, and our hero handles it with grace.)

And I loved how Steve’s lawful-good Army rules lawyering revealed a crucial plot element.

And, of course, we FINALLY get to see Samuel L. Jackson be a badass in one of these things.

Not all of the MarvelVerse movies have been great, but even at their worst (likely Iron Man 2), they’ve still been watchable and enjoyable.  They’ve hit that Pixar stage where, until they shit their version of Cars 2 onto the screen, I’m going to be there for each and every one of them, no questions asked.

This is a comic book movie to its core, from the bloodless fight scenes to the grandiose villainy.  If you don’t like that kind of movie, sit this one out.  But if you do, this is damn near as good as it gets.  Highly recommended.

* — Something the first Cap movie slyly acknowledges by making the scientist who buffs-out Steve German himself.

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A Brief Review: The Raid 2

I went in expecting a high-octane wall-to-wall action movie, and definitely got it.  If you’ve seen The Raid: Redemption, you know what to expect:  intense, creative, brutal, bloody fights, and lots and lots of them.  If you like extended martial-arts smackdown, you’ll dig it.

This movie operates on a much larger canvas than its predecessor, and I’m not completely convinced it actually served the movie that well.  The first benefited from an admirable sense of focus:  Here’s a bunch of heavily-armed cops looking to arrest some bad guys, here’s a high-rise filled with even-more-heavily-armed bad guys who would just as soon not be arrested, go!  Rama, the rookie badass from the first movie, now does the deep-undercover cop thing, and enters a world of corruption and deceit and blah blah blah blah you’ve seen this before.

I appreciate that the sequel is trying to add more depth and context to the explosive fight scenes, but it’s only sporadically effective.  This is a tough movie to follow; I’m reasonably confident I got most of it, but there are some key plot points I’m very, very fuzzy on.  The police corruption angle felt strangely grafted-on for something that was ostensibly central to the plot.

It’s more ambitious than its predecessor, but doesn’t fully realize those ambitions and is actually a small step down; it’s just not as good as the movie it follows.  But, still, you can be not as good as The Raid: Redemption and still be a damn fine movie, and The Raid 2 is.  For fans of epic fisticuffs, recommended.

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Burgertime!

I love Bob’s Burgers.  Season 3 recently made its way to Netflix, and it’s a blast.

And I love how their twenty-second opening credits manage to encapsulate the spirit of the show:

Everything is jaunty and cheerful, even as things keep going to shit over and over behind them.  Because that’s what the Belchers do, dammit: they just keep trying.

Fun show.  Give it a look sometime.

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A Treatise on Giant Robots and Their Efficacy Punching Giant Monsters in the Region of Their Giant Monster Faces

So here’s MovieBob both explaining WHY Pacific Rim is awesome and getting you into the exact right mindset to appreciate its awesomeness.

Here’s the deal: Originally, Guillermo del Toro was going to direct The Hobbit. But then one day, Guillermo had to send an unfortunate email to executive producer Peter Jackson. “Sorry, dood,” the email probably said, “but ur taking waaaaay 2 long putting this 2gether. I got another thing that’s all like move it or lose it. Sorry, but I have 2 go work on a movie about GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE. Wish this hobbit thing coulda worked. Sorry!!!! :( :( :( ”

Peter Jackson went on to make the okay-but-bloated-and-visually-bizarre Hobbit Trilogy, of which only one third has yet come out. (Seriously? The fucking Hobbit NEEDS to be a trilogy? Really?) Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro has made the best movie about GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE humanity has yet produced, and you need to go see it in the biggest, loudest goddamn theater you get get yourself to.

Because, seriously. The PROLOGUE to this movie covers all the territory that a lesser director would have turned into an entire move — a movie that’s not as good as this one, because there would have been less GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE. Here’s a thing that appeared one day. Monsters started pouring out of it. Shooting them with tanks and airplanes proved inefficient. So we built some GIANT ROBOTS with which to PUNCH said MONSTERS right IN THEir monster goddamn FACEs. Begin movie!

This is a movie that understands the best way to convey tragic, traumatic backstory is to do it with GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE. This movie believes the best way to introduce supporting characters is by showing them in GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE. This movie understands what it does well, so it’s really a series of build-ups to GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE and, when said face-punching starts happening, makes the GIANT ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS IN THE FACE as spectacular, creative, and fucking epic as it possibly can.

Which, for a director like Guillermo del Toro, is quite spectacular, creative, and fucking epic indeed.

Jasmine and I saw it in IMAX 3D last night. We’re probably going to see it again. In IMAX 3D. Because watching it on our home theater (which we’re going to, at least as often as The Avengers) just won’t be the same.

Look, you already know whether the trailers intrigued you. And if they left you cold, sit this one out. This movie is exactly what it looks like.

But if your inner 13-year-old perked-up at the trailers, THIS MOVIE IS EXACTLY WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE. It’s GIANT ROBOTS. PUNCHING MONSTERS. IN THE FACE. And it is AWESOME. Go get some.

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Spoilers of Thrones

For any “Game of Thrones” fans still reeling from The Red Wedding:

You may well resent us book readers for keeping this spoiler from you.  Or for giggling uncontrollably at your pain.  But in case you’re thinking of giving the hell up on the show, there’s hope!  Not all spoilers are coming catastrophes!

There is justice in George RR Martin’s world.  It is rarely either cheap or timely.  But if you’re concerned the story to come is naught but a nihilistic gloomfest where the cruel are rewarded and the kind systematically ground to dust … not so much.

Here are some spoilers that, through five books of the series, you may yet look forward to without a looming sense of dread:

Spoilers!

Of course, some horrible things are going to happen, too.  It IS Game of Thrones, you know.

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The Derping Dead

(WARNING:  Spoilers for The Walking Dead, seasons 2 and 3.)

I feel like my reaction to Season 3 of The Walking Dead can be best summarized by my reaction to the SECOND-to-last episode — as opposed to the finale, which I gather is the one drawing a larger amount of Internet Controversy.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the penultimate episode filled me with rage and despair, both as somebody who consumes and produces works of fiction. It was SO. GODDAMN. STUPID. On every level imaginable. After deducing — correctly! — at the end of the prior episode that the Governor’s offer was a pile of bullshit, Rick suddenly decides the Governor might be on the level (which makes him — yet again — an idiot) and that if he delivers a gift-wrapped Michonne to be tortured to death, he might be able to save everybody (making him utterly contemptible).

This is awful writing on every conceivable level. It does nothing to advance Rick as a character; indeed, it only contributes to the season-long trend where Rick flails stupidly from one half-baked idea to the next. I suspect the writers thought they were showing Rick as conflicted and struggling; they only showed him, and themselves, to be fucking idiots. It alienates the audience from a character who’s already very difficult to give two shits about; this is a Very Bad Thing when that character is the protagonist.

But what does it set up? It gives us a scene where Michonne and Merle connect with each other as human beings — and that was huge. Merle rarely rose above the level of belligerent racist dumb-fuck. Michonne was too often more an interesting idea than an interesting character — when she wasn’t a zombie-slaying badass samurai, all she did (until the final third of the season) was glower and snarl. (Hell, she managed to come off as an unreasonable asshole even when seeing through the false charms of a character the audience pegged as a villain from a mile away; it takes a special kind of tedious jerkass to pull that off.) And yet, Merl and Michonne in a car together, him about to deliver her to the slaughter, produced by far the best character moments for them all season.

And Merle’s Last Stand … my God. That was everything awesome this show is capable of all wrapped up in one tidy little package. It surprised me; I was quite certain Merle was going to get a traitor’s death after revealing himself as the Governor’s mole. It it was goddamn CLEVER. Merle assembling a mini-horde (to the tune of Motorhead, no less) and kiting them into the meet/ambush site, and using the ensuing hail of gunfire as cover to pick off the Governor’s goons one by one … FUCK. YES. I didn’t realize what he was doing until he was doing it, and it was GLORIOUS.

And finally, the Governor’s impromptu revenge, and Darryl having to put down his own brother, nailed that fiction sweet spot of something I didn’t see coming, but looking back, don’t think could have happened any other way.

Now, does a balls-out awesome final third of an episode redeem a first third that was insultingly terrible? NO. Good writers figure out a way to get to the Glittering Plain of Awesome without forcing the audience to trudge through the Reeking Swamps of Suck first. I still definitely hold that first third against the show.

But at the same time, I have to give it credit for giving me something no other show on television could.

As for the third season finale … it was all right. Not very satisfying, and actually kind of annoying in some ways, but all right. Team Rick’s plan of “Lure them into the tombs, then scare the living shit out of them with flash-bangs, alarms, and zombies” was all right, but I was expecting (and would have preferred) something considerably deadlier.

The ultimate defeat of the Woodbury Army coming at the hands of an unhinged Governor makes sense, I guess. The dude’s a murderous control-obsessed wack job, and I would expect a very bad reaction to his half-trained army being too freaked out to go back to the prison. And I suppose it ties in with the season’s unofficial theme of “When your leader is dangerously incompetent, you need to stop letting him lead you or very bad things will happen.” But it really hammered home the fact that he has Script Immunity (which was also on display the prior week, when a writer had to throw a zombie at Merle to keep him from assassinating the asshole) when he was able to gun down over a dozen people armed with automatic weapons without any of them sending so much as a single bullet back at him.

And it’s dramatically unsatisfying. The villain was defeated mostly through his own incompetence. That’s fair, I guess, given all the flaming incompetence Team Rick has to put up with from their fearless leader, but it’s not FUN, dammit. Sure, Sarah Conner could have won when the Terminator’s CPU melted down because his cheap-ass cooling fan had been manufactured by the lowest bidder, but I much prefer the ending where her bravery and ingenuity caused her to win instead of just keeping her alive long enough for her foe to self-destruct.

And the Governor is still alive as a recurring villain, I suppose. After revealing himself as so crazy and stupid that he gunned-down his own army (as opposed to, say, making a few examples of them? waiting for them to calm down a bit?), his script immunity is now the only scary thing about him, so forgive me if I’m not aquiver with anticipation for the rematch.

And Carl (who I actually liked a lot this season) got in a FANTASTIC “I learned it by watching you!” exchange with his dipshit father. Not only did I feel like yes, Carl has VERY DEFINITELY LEARNED that he who hesitates makes his loved ones zombie chow, after the show I realized he was actually far righter than he knew. That kid was taking his sweet fucking time getting rid of his weapon, and Carl didn’t know it but that’s the exact same game his father played to turn the tables on and kill Shane one season ago. (Moral of the story: when somebody you just tried to murder gets the jump on you and orders you to drop your weapon, DROP THAT SHIT LIKE IT’S MADE OF FUCKING LAVA.)

And I appreciated that neither Maggie nor Glenn got ganked, despite having the temerity to have a happy, hopeful moment in the prior episode. (And I don’t know what’s more awesome; Glenn’s method of shopping for an engagement ring, or Maggie accepting it without hesitation despite having to know EXACTLY how he got the thing.)

And I’ll buy moving Woodbury’s kids & senior citizens to the jail rather than the other way around. Yes, Woodbury is a far more pleasant place to live. When a zombie horde like the one that flattened Hershel’s farm shows up, I know which one I’d prefer to defend.

So the finale? Could have been better. But honestly, despite all the places it fucked-up, I’m willing to put it in the “Win” column.

Kind of like “The Walking Dead” in general, come to think of it.

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An Open Letter to AmericInn

Dear AmericInn,

I’m having a nice time staying at your hotel in Grundy Center, Iowa.  The bed is comfy, the room clean, the indoor pool fun and the breakfast waffles tasty.  So why are you messing with my good opinion of you by censoring my internet usage?

I tried to read an article on Sports Illustrated’s site this morning, only to find that it was blocked.  Good heavens, why?  The only clue I have is a message stating “This site was categorized in: News/Media, Sports, Lingerie/Bikini”.  I presume it’s that last one that presents you with the problem.  Are you worried that viewing brazen hussies clad only in their swimwear will damage my developing mind?  Or do you fear pictorial representations of mountains of heavily-muscled manflesh will give me a fatal case of Teh Gays?

And setting aside the absurdity of classifying Sports Illustrated as pornographic, why on earth are you fretting over what I’m viewing at all?  I assure you, I’m a grown man, traveling in the company of a lovely woman who takes pride in exposing me to innocence-shattering displays of nudity on a regular basis; puritanizing my site selection will do nothing to shield me from the terror of boobs.

Are you afraid that, if you don’t censor your guests’ internet usage, children might see something naughty?  I assure you that, if those particular parents are so inept at managing their kids’ on-line activities they can’t keep those kids away from porn on a laptop they control in a room where everybody can see what everybody else is doing, those kids are already downloading whatever they want whenever they want.  They’ve already found a proxy site you haven’t blocked and are, at this moment, resuming their ongoing multimedia game of Grosser Than Gross.  And after that site with the goats, the six-year-old is about to barf in a wastebasket.

Meanwhile, those of us who’d like to read a summary of the weekend’s football games are shit outta luck.

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Lincoln

So Jasmine and I saw Lincoln a few weeks ago. I was very interested in seeing it; I’m fascinated by that period of American history, and the movie’s been getting great reviews.

The movie warns you with its first scene that it has no patience for how the American Civil War normally gets presented on screen. Union troops, mostly black, are doing battle with the Confederates in a shallow river during a pouring rainstorm. There’s no misty-eyed “Brother Versus Brother” tragedy, no haughty “Lost Cause” revisionism cluttering things up. These guys are going at it with bayonets, rifle butts, knives, fists, boots; this is dirty, brutal, and personal.

We learn how personal in the very next scene, where Lincoln is chatting with a couple of the soldiers (both black) who’d participated in the battle. It was payback, you see. Not too long before, the Confederates had won a battle and declined to take any prisoners, simply executing any blacks who’d either surrendered or lay wounded. The troops who’d lived to fight another day were eager to return the favor.

Yeah. Fuck your Lost Cause. For Lincoln, the war has become what it had always been for America’s black residents: a crusade to put an end to a monstrous injustice.

From there the movie turns to Washington, and the fight to pass the 13th Amendment — the one abolishing slavery in the US. And that’s where it stays, up until a few scenes at the very end. And that’s where problems start showing up.

Jasmine hated it; she was bored stiff. My reaction was somewhere between Jasmine and all the Oscar buzz. I enjoyed myself, but is it overrated? Unfortunately, yes.

Jasmine’s issue (please correct me if I’m wrong, love) was that it was so interminably talky. She compared it to C-SPAN as a costume drama. She’s not wrong; the movie focuses on all the political wrangling and arm twisting behind the passage of the 13th Amendment. I thought this was very interesting; I was not aware it was such a contentious issue even with the South no longer participating in the debate. (Well, not participating in the debate in Congress, anyway. They were arguing their case with rifles and cannons.) I didn’t realize the Emancipation Proclamation was, from a legal standpoint, based on insane troll logic and would almost certainly have imploded under the scrutiny of a peacetime court.  And I thought the parallels between the politics of then and now (partisan loathing, favors pushing the boundaries of legality, purists bitching over the compromises being made) were clear enough to be interesting without beating you over the head. If none of that sounds interesting to you, sit this one out; whatever the movie’s other strengths, they won’t be enough to keep you engaged.

But here’s where I thought the movie went wrong: it never decided whether it was about Abraham Lincoln or about the passage of the 13th Amendment.

There’s a scene late in the movie after the amendment passes (spoiler alert: slavery is illegal now) when Lincoln is sitting down with a Confederate peace delegation. Their leader, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, thinks he knows what this “13th Amendment” nonsense is all about. It may have passed Congress, but it still needs to be ratified by the states. And if the South surrenders and is allowed back into the Union soon enough, they’ll have more than enough votes to squash it. It’s a threat, a negotiating ploy: end the war, or your worst fear becomes a reality. And given that the war is going badly for the South, he is indeed ready to discuss surrender if it means preserving slavery.

Except he’s wrong. It’s not a ploy. It’s not a threat. Lincoln doesn’t so much as hint at budging: the 13th Amendment is going to happen. Slavery is about to be abolished in the United States. Also, the South needs to surrender.

The movie misses one hell of an opportunity. A mere two years earlier, Abraham Lincoln would have taken the deal. He’d been adamant, from the beginning, that slavery was a price he was willing to pay if it meant the preservation of the Union. Hell, the Emancipation Proclamation itself contained an olive branch. It specified that if any of the rebelling states would lay down arms before January 1, 1863 — more than three months after it was issued — it would not apply to them.

None of the Confederate states took him up on it, and no wonder; at the time, they were winning. But that’s not the point. The point is, something changed. Was it a function of the North now looking like it was going to win? Or had Lincoln gone from a slavery-tolerating pragmatist to True Believer?

Showing that journey would, I think, have been fascinating, and would have added real impact to a gut-punch moment late in the movie when Lincoln is touring a battlefield and witnessing the thousands of mutilated corpses who might all still be live men if he’d been willing to compromise.

That’s not a journey the movie is interested in taking — and, if you accept that it’s about the 13th Amendment, that is indeed outside the movie’s scope. But if that’s what it’s really about, why do some of the key figures in that fight sometimes seem so cursory? Tommy Lee Jones steals damn near every scene he’s in as fire-breathing abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. I could watch an entire movie of him verbally curb-stomping his pro-slavery colleagues in Congress. Yet his final scene, where we get a look at what’s driving the man, is the most touching and human in the movie. “A gift for you…. Read it to me again, my love.”

He is, in short, a fabulous character. I wish we’d seen more of him. But the movie’s not about him, it’s about Abraham Lincoln … except it’s not really about Abraham Lincoln, it’s about the 13th Amendment … except….

Yeah. It’s a muddled movie.

It is, to me, still a very good movie, and Daniel Day Lewis does indeed completely vanish into the title role. If what I’ve described sounds interesting, by all means check it out.

But if it doesn’t, give it a miss.

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