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Column Fri Apr 04 2014
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Raid 2, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, Anita & Finding Vivian Maier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The latest installment in the Captain America story reminds us that although the super soldier (still played/embodied by Chris Evans) can make short work out of a cosmically enhanced Red Skull and an invading horde of aliens with his Avengers pals, the greatest threat to mankind is itself. In this case, it's a shadow organization that literally has the means to decide who lives and dies on the planet to make it a more peaceful/docile place to live.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is many things, and most of them work. It's a fit and proper sequel to both Captain America and The Avengers; it's a political thriller steeped in healthy fear of technology; it's a fleshed-out, highly watchable expanded episode of the ABC series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (if you're still watching it, make sure to see this week's episode before you head to Winter Soldier for an added bit of fun); it introduces some of the most interesting and useful new characters (good and bad guys) that we've seen in a while — that includes you, Hawkeye; and it's just a magnificently plotted and paced action film that uses Captain America's past as a device to haunt and alter his present and future.
The film opens with what would probably qualify as a typical mission for Cap and a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including his Avengers teammate Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but before long the world as everyone knows it begins to unravel. There are assassination attempts of major figures, a few hints that the enemy is from within, and even on a smaller, more personal scale, Steve Rogers is still coping with the concept that pretty much everyone he fought beside during World War II is dead. Flashbacks add a nice, somber touch to Rogers' bygone days that were sometimes rough but always seemed black and white when it came to right and wrong. Today, everything and everyone is shady.
Enter Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is heading a S.H.I.E.L.D. program that Captain America is not in favor of — a surveillance plan that operates more like fear mongering than simple monitoring. Even Cap's friend Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seems to be reluctantly in favor of it. While the new world confuses our hero, he meets a V.A. hospital counsellor and combat vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and the two just instantly connect, having both lost good friends during their respective wars and being uncertain who in the world to trust any longer. Even if Wilson didn't become the fighting partner known as the Falcon, his bond with Rogers is really nicely played and quite moving. But as the scope of an evil plan begins to become clear, Wilson also turns out to be the only man Rogers can trust to fight along side him (or more accurately, above him, thanks to pair of rocked-propelled wings).
By now, you probably some idea of who the film's primary villain, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), actually is, but I won't ruin it for you here if you don't. I will say he's an unexpected figure from Captain America's past, and perhaps one of the few people that Rogers would try to capture without hurting too severely. And Winter Soldier reminds us that as much as Captain America is becoming more adept at functioning in the present, he is still very much a creature of the past. It's a wonderful device that provides an emotional base to Cap's plight, while still setting up a large number of epic battle sequences that feel like the most brutal (even a bit bloody at times) we've see in Marvel films.
I'll admit, when I heard that co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo ("Community," "Arrested Development," You, Me and Dupree, Welcome to Collinwood) were at the helm of Winter Soldier, I liked the idea in theory but wasn't sure how they'd pull off something this vast. Turns out that by focusing on their strengths in character-driven stories, the more action-driven stuff took care of itself. Everyone gets a moment here, and it never feels forced. We learn that Black Widow has secrets about her life that she'd rather not have out there; she's also attempting to match-make Rogers with a few of the women at S.H.I.E.L.D.; Fury gets at least one major solo action sequence that gives us a better idea than ever before that he's a soldier first and a spy second; and practically every moment with Falcon does a fantastic job expanding our enjoyment of just having him on screen. If he doesn't play some role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it will be lesser for it. (Winter Soldier final moment makes it pretty clear that Falcon will be a major part of the third Captain America movie.)
But the most interesting and unexpected moments in Winter Soldier are the ones where we witness Captain America slowly lose faith in all that he believed in as a kid from Brooklyn the 1940s. He learns to be distrustful of everyone: the military, government, even Fury (ironically, it's Fury who tells him to trust no one in a particularly critical moment). The film uses Redford's trustworthy demeanor to cleverly keep suspicion off of him for a time, but that doesn't stay true for long. As a result, we actually fear him the most because he seems like a reasonable man; we soon discover this not to be the case.
For true comic book nerds, the film includes a few nice name drops and supporting characters (both familiar and new) scattered throughout that should get you giddy. But what kept me the most fascinated by Captain America: The Winter Soldier was how perfectly in synch everything is with what has come before it and within the realm of Captain America as a symbol of a bygone age whose innocence may not have a place in this world. Of the three Phase 2 Marvel films so far, this feel like the most direct sequel to The Avengers, but it also works best as a stand-alone piece. I know some of you are eagerly awaiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe to truly stumble, but I'm afraid you're going to have to wait a little longer because The Winter Soldier is one of its best chapters.
The Raid 2
Once in a great while, I just get stuck attempting to explain how great a film really is. The usual arsenal of praise and adoration simply doesn't seem like enough, and simply walking through a few of the highlights doesn't really capture the overall impact a particular film had on me. There's little denying that The Raid (or The Raid: Redemption, as it was called in the states) was not only a great film, but one whose impact on action filmmaking will be felt for the next 10 years at least. And now both writer-director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais pick up the story just minutes after the last film ends. In fact, watching the two films back to back seems like the way to go, because the first 30 minutes or so of The Raid 2 allow a quite-necessary decompression from the first film.
Uwais' rookie cop Rama thinks his life can return to normal, but this just isn't the case, as higher-level baddies from the criminal organization he has just disrupted now want his head on a spit, and he lands up being forced to go undercover to stop what will likely be a major threat to his family forever if he doesn't deal with it now. So naturally, he allows himself to be thrown into prison (leading to the mother of all muddy prison riots) so he can befriend a crime lord's son and eventually work his way up the organization's chain of command to cause some real damage. And that's all I really want to tell you about the plot, other than his plan both works and utterly fails, bringing upon him the full wrath of this crime organization, including its unique assassins and resident scene stealers "Hammer Girl" (Julie Estelle) and "Baseball Bat Man" (Very Tri Yulisman), who just pummel like nobody's business.
Evans and Uwais double handedly created the Indonesian action genre, and with Raid 2 they've constructed a very different beast from even the first film, let alone every action movie that has come before it. There are action movies, and then there are The Raid films, which add a layer of pain and brutality that simply wouldn't be acceptable in Western actioners before, but might be soon. But part of the strength of Evans's writing is giving each character a reason for every fight; there's an emotional component to each action sequence, which American films are just beginning to tap into (see Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend for a small taste of it).
One of the most amusing aspects to The Raid 2 is how often Uwais is sidelined to make room for the half-dozen or so other major players in the film, eager to kick his and each other's asses. There are a trio of bad guys, each vying for power and willing to double and triple cross the others to get it. You must remember that Rama isn't just trying to stop the bad guys; he wants them dead and himself alive so he can return to the family he cares about very much, so sometimes simply allowing the villains to take each other out is the right call.
From all accounts, Evans has at least one more of these babies (Raid-bies?) in him, and then I'll be ready to see what else he's got for us. But it's so rare to watch a director establish himself so immediately that you almost don't realize that you're seeing a genre of film being reworked and made better. Whether the rest of the action world tries to follow suit or if Evans ends up being the lone wolf of Indonesia, churning out death-defying/embracing films that you feel in your bones remains to be seen, but The Raid 2 is a step even further over the cliff of greatness.
Island of Lemurs: Madagascar
What's curious and rather bold of Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is that it embraces the science of evolution right from the get-go, but declaring that lemurs may be the animal most closely linked to humans. Through the almost too-obvious choice of Morgan Freeman as narrator and some truly gorgeous photography, director David Douglas (Fires of Kuwait, Wolves, Straight Up: Helicopters in Action) introduces us to the many varieties of lemurs living off the coast of Africa and how man's expansion is endangering their very existence.
The film's primary human character is Dr. Patricia C. Wright, whose spent decades studying and attempting to protect these fascinating creatures that exhibit advanced behaviors that I simply wasn't aware the possessed. She narrates a portion of the film as well, but she comes across like a pre-school teacher communicating with kids who have barely learned to form sentences. I fell like when you're primary purpose is to get across the severity of the potential demise of a population of animal, you should maintain a more serious, less sing-songy tone. Maybe that's just me.
I'm also a little dubious of the title of the film incorporating the name "Madagascar" into it, thus probably confusing many children who love the Madagascar films. Any kid coming into this film will probably still get a kick out of the real thing, but as exotic as these animals are, they're no King Julian with a Sacha Baron Cohen-supplied voice. But that has nothing to do with the film and more to do with marketing.
What's here is good stuff, although with IMAX prices these days, I'm not sure such a short film is worth it any longer. However, I should add that shot-in-IMAX films are some of the few 3-D efforts worth paying extra for. So your enjoyment of Island of Lemurs really depends on how much you dig science, unbearable levels of cuteness, discussion of evolution, and lemurs. If you rank these things high, seek out this short at an IMAX screen near you.
Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2
It's seem like only yesterday (actually it was two weeks ago) that I was waxing poetic about the latest from Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, the superb Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1. Just to be clear, the two Nymphomaniac films (Volume 2 arrives today in many cities) are meant to be seen as a single film; dividing them just made sense. And I believe the complete film actually runs close to an hour longer than the sum of its parts.
I made the point with my discussion of the first half that, despite countless warning about explicit sex in a "mainstream feature film," the first volume works best as a consideration of a woman who uses constant sex as a means to make her remember she's even alive and has some value. Volume 2 is a bit trickier, as it moves its focus from the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) to the one telling her story in flashback (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a self-proclaimed asexual man ( Stellan Skarsgård) who has rescued her after a severe beating.
It's odd that Von Trier has saved his perverse, dark humor for the part of the story that is less about mostly harmless casual sex to a woman attempting to have a serious relationship (with her on-again/off-again lover Jerome, played by Shia Labeouf), which of course leads to two things: any sensation in her vagina disappears, and she becomes obsessed with an S&M expert (Jamie Bell), who whips her ass with a riding cross so severely that her sexual sensations return. I guess that's his version of "Take 2 aspirin and call me when you can sit down again."
Whereas the material in Volume 1 wasn't about shock or testing the limits of taste, the same cannot be said about the second half of the Nymphomaniac. I think at this point, I'm past being shocked, so that isn't the problem with Volume 2. The bigger issue has more to do with Von Trier cheapening himself, lowering the very standards that he set with part one. The quality of the storytelling is still strong and the images continue to be both stark and lovely. But a sequence in which two men are arguing in a language that she doesn't understand about how they are going to have sex with her at the same time while their fully erect penises are flopping around front and center feels obvious, even if it is one of the funniest things Von Trier has ever filmed.
What Volume 2 lacks in personal insight and growth, it makes up for slightly in plot. I liked the brief relationship Joe has with a young woman played by Mia Goth, and a sequence in which Joe gets a job as a debt collector working for a loan shark (Willem Dafoe) is solid, if only because these two have a proven adversarial type of chemistry (as they did in Von Trier's Antichrist). She uses her intimate knowledge of men's desires to do her job more effectively, and it leads to an especially violent encounter that links the flashbacks with the present. This back half of Nymphomaniac is a bit more hit and miss than the opening portion, but it still packs an emotional punch, even if it leaves us feeling a bit cold at times. That's the nature of Von Trier's work as a whole — the heart slips through the thin layer of ice that each character wears, and it almost always results in something unexpected, even brilliant every once and a while. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
I was just out of college, working for American Lawyer magazine in New York City, which was in the process of launching its cable channel Court TV at the time. The channel was going to be the first to air live courtroom proceedings in the their entirety, and had been on the air about three months when the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings took place. I don't honestly remember if Court TV aired those proceedings or not, but nearly every co-worker in the office was watching them on televisions throughout the floor. It was the first time I'd ever watched such hearings, and I knew even then that they were unlike any others, as they thrust the practice, definition and provability of workplace sexual harassment claims into the American spotlight like never before.
I remember watching Anita Hill testify before and answer questions from the Senate judiciary committee — 14 white men, most of whom had already made up their minds to confirm Thomas — and I have a clear memory of thinking, "That woman would rather be anywhere than where she is right now." Those who believed Hill, made the point that she had nothing to gain from her accusations, told in a poised, unblinking manner by a woman I suspected had never been treated with that level of disrespect before, by Thomas or the committee. The whole affair came across as a group of dirty old men trying to get Hill to be more and more graphic. (It should be noted that the committee chairman was Joe Biden, who wrapped up the hearings without calling a second woman to testify who would have corroborated Hill's claims.)
Naturally, Hill had her detractors, and in the end Thomas cleared the process and remains the most predictable, least credible member of the Supreme Court, maybe ever. But I digress. From Oscar-winning director Freida Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) comes the new documentary Antia, which gives us a clear and unfiltered view of what happened to Hill in the years following her testimony. I'm guessing that if you never believed her, you'll have no interest in seeing this film, so I'll direct my attention to those who did.
When I first saw this film last year as part of a documentary film festival, it had the subtitle Speaking Truth to Power, which was also the name of Hill's autobiography, and I think that typifies the kind of person she was trying to be in 1991. She didn't come forward to gain anything; she simply wanted the nation to know what kind of person they were about to place in the highest court in the land. She certainly wasn't trying to make it about race; Thomas was the one who drummed up stereotypes and accusations of "high-tech lynching," a phrase that was clearly fed to him by supporters. Anita does a great job of letting us know where Hill came from before she was exposed to this level of harassment and where she has taken her life for the last 20-plus years, while attempting to help others in similar situations while maintaining an academic career, teaching the law.
Director Mock's greatest strength as a filmmaker for this particular work is access. Hill opens up her life, and we meet her family and friends, and continues to discuss her treatment in an office with Thomas and in the years that followed. The film lays out the controversy and the debate that ensued, as well as the shameful behavior of Oklahoma lawmakers who attempted to get Hill fired from the college where she taught after the hearings ended. Anita is a straight-forward, searing profile of an American shame that has yet to be fully acknowledged or made right, but it also shows the strength of a woman who came out the other side of this outrage still standing upright, with history on her side. The film opens exclusively in Chicago today at the AMC River East theaters.
Finding Vivian Maier
One of the most unbelievable and captivating stories to come out of Chicago in recent memory is the story of the late Vivian Maier, who is now deemed by many to be one of the last century's premiere street photographers. When she died in 2007, several collectors, including a young man named John Maloof, purchased the contents of her storage locker at an auction, and discovered prints, negatives, undeveloped roles of film, audio tapes and home movies belonging to Maier. Being the master organizer that he was (or came to be), Maloof began the long yet rewarding process of scanning in her prints, developing film, and making contact sheets of the negatives to discover some incredible work just waiting to be discovered, which it was by art lovers as soon as Maloof posted online about 200 images from the collection that easily contains tens of thousands of as-yet-unseen images.
When he realized he might have found something special, Maloof made two decisions: to document his discovery and try to find out just who this mysterious photographer was and why she'd gone unnoticed until now. With the help of co-director Charlie Siskel and executive producer (and great comic actor) Jeff Garlin, Maloof has pieced together Finding Vivian Maier, one of the greatest investigative documentaries in recent memory, partly because Maloof's tenacity is infectious and impressive, but also because what he discovers is at times shocking, amazing and above all, quite revealing. I won't say too much (although for Chicagoans, some of these revelations have been well documented), but it turns out Maier was a career nanny for several prominent family in Chicago and elsewhere; her "career" as a street photographer began in the 1950s; she seemed to have no use for men or any type of romantic entanglements; and she had a somewhat unhealthy paranoia about the government and nosy people in general.
Most revealing is a brief period of about a year when Maier took a trip around the world, including a visit to a particular town in France where her few remaining relatives still live and give more information about her than Maloof and his team could have hoped for. (She had a French accent that some were convinced was fake.)
A great deal of time is spent attempting to deal with the odd fact that no major museum in the U.S. would display her work or fund Maloof's efforts to develop and print hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. Many theories are given as to why they won't accept her work or even acknowledge her place in the street photography world. But other art experts fully praise her work, which is undeniably beautiful and captures her subjects (often destitute men and women) in perfectly framed and composed shots. Finding Vivian Maier is the perfect blend of mystery-solving and artistic portrait. But through many interviews with the now-grown children she cared for, the movie also reveals that Maier may have been growing more and more mentally unstable with age, with some even accusing her of being physically abusive (although I have to admit, that particular claim comes from only one person, who clearly has issues of her own).
I truly hope that this documentary opens up a place for Maier's work into the mainstream art world, but more importantly, I'd love for ordinary people (art lover or not) to see her stunning photos and be moved that the person who took them didn't seem to make fame or recognition a priority. She just wanted to capture life, in all of its beauty and sorrow. She probably saw a lot of herself in her subjects, as her handful of self-portraits seemed to reveal. It's a great, entertaining movie, whose inherent drama makes it a cut above other art-themed docs. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Co-director Charlie Siskel and producer Jeff Garlin will appear in person on Friday, April 4 at the 7:30pm (now sold out) and 10pm shows at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Co-director John Maloof will appear in person on Saturday, April 5 at the 7:30pm show, and will be joined by Siskel at the 10pm show. Maloof, Siskel and Garlin also will appear in person on Friday, April 4 for a Q&A after the 5:40pm show at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.