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Out in Theaters: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson cropped up in an eye patch in Iron Man’s post-credits, Marvel films have had their eye firmly planted on the future. Setting up incoming installments has been a precarious process, resulting in such face-palmingly clunky sequences as the infamous “Thor in a Bath Tub” scene and the entirety of Iron Man 2. When not preoccupied with teasing the oncoming comic strata or hogtying in easter eggs for uber-nerds to dissect and debate, Marvel has admittedly done fine work developing their roster of heroes, taking careful stock in ensuring that its non-comic reading audience has at the bare minimum a working sense of what drives these supers to strap into spandex and save the world. With Captain America: Civil War, a direct sequel to the events of Captain America: Winter Solider that employs nearly the entirety of The Avengers, those characters turn to the rear view to take stock of what has been lost along the way. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE PURGE: ANARCHY

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The Purge
had a fascinating conceit – that society was allowed to kill, steal, and rape with carte blanche for one 12 hour period annually – but was ultimately a bitter disappointment. The characters were thin, the home invasion plot familiar and it just generally lacked on tension and legitimate scares. For having launched from such a strong starting block, it face-planted like an Olympic athlete with her shoelaces tied together.

The second installment could have picked up the pieces, returning to the franchise’s promising main premise and course correcting those faltering elements into something more thoughtful, nuanced, unsettling and all around riskier and more rewarding. Instead, The Purge: Anarchy, the second in a planned 18-wheeler of a franchise, phones it in like a 1980s stock broker. In truth, it’s an impoverished, impossibly dull affair that deserves to be put down like a sick dog.

Writer and director Frank DeMonaco returns to helm this shit-ship, adding little to the intriguing foundation he laid out just last year (again, that intrigue exists only in the basic idea of the purge, not the execution). From one scene to the next, DeMonaco captures his footage as if by accident. The camera is never in the right place, bobbing for all the wrong reasons, and scurrying to keep up with the impossibly dull happenings. It’s as if DeMonaco only had one take with each scene and yet was still bustling behind trying to keep up with anything and everything going on. It’s as visually interesting as a Bob Ross painting, had the same hole of a soul and seemed to take about as long to make.

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Going beyond just boring his audience, DeMonaco’s film seems intent on actively offending them as well. His offsetting penchant for masochism and violent sexual assaults are the most horrifying elements in his thematically sour construct, but not for the reasons he thinks. Watching a yellow-toothed, tatted-up Mexican cholo chase a neighbor around her apartment, salivating at his opportunity to finally get a piece of “dat ass” is unsettling on the most basic of levels. The aggressively distressing aspect of DeMonaco’s persisting thirst for wanton rape though is his passive depiction of said acts. While he’s not glorifying them (at least not so far as I can tell), there’s some twisted reveling going down that I don’t want to even begin psychoanalyzing. Without any semblance of irony or a significant contribution to larger thematic elements, this recurring motif shows warped sadism and make us question why we’re justifying his “art” by watching it in the first place.

This is largely because there’s nothing intelligible about DeMonaco’s unencumbered violence against women; it’s sickening, twisted and without meaning. This ever-looming threat of rape goes on to be a central concern for the two female leads of the film and one that they look around every corner for. And yet this seems to disregard the fact that the real bulk of the film seem to be centered on this idea of the rich versus the poor; the 99% rising up and claiming back what is theirs. In a proverbial sense, the rich rape the poor; buying them up to purge in designer garments with pinkies upturned or auctioning them off for a most dangerous game scenario. That’s a metaphor I can buy into but spare me the perverted grotesqueries.

As the film progresses, so does our need to check the time. Perhaps DeMonaco’s offense against our good sensibilities can be forgiven given the gruff subject matter and R-rating but his proclivity for boring us to tears cannot be written off so easily. Each character is as flat as a blueberry pancake and just as cliche: the feuding young couple, the snarky teenager, the stronger-than-she-thinks momma bear, the crusty loner. They’re six degrees of bland; tropes of tropes of tropes. Watching them axed off isn’t so much a relief as it is a dull inevitability. Frank Grillo as the mysterious, combative man on a mission is the only one worth watching but even he is saddled with dialogue so stale that it feels like he’s spitting it out through mouthful of old bread. So it goes.

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And even though we’re told danger is omnipresent on this most heinous of holidays, there’s never a sense of dread left to prevail. The characters kick and scream but we in the audience are left in fits of yawning. For a movie billed as a horror thriller, I was never once horrified (at least in the way that I ought to be), never once thrilled.

Since the events of the first film have virtually no bearing on anything that comes to fruition in this second installment, don’t let unfamiliarity steer you away from it. Instead, you can avoid The Purge: Anarchy purely because it’s a plain and simple bad movie. It’s a poorly executed snuff film with potty-level writing, improbably flat characters and badgered, bandaged direction. But it’s a shame really, as I continue to believe that there is a good film that could come from DeMonaco’s “crime hall pass” premise. Unfortunately, this guy steering the boat may as well be blind in both eyes. So please just go ahead and call it quits. Pack it up people, pull the plug. We’re done here.

D-

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Out in Theaters: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones
Adventure, Action, Sci-Fi
136 Mins
PG-13

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Growing up in the 1940s gives Steve Rogers an excuse to not understand the mechanics of speed dial. But when neo-Nazi’s threaten the freedom of the entire world, you have to wonder why he’s not more focused on contacting his nuclear suit-wearing chum, Tony Stark, or the bad Shakespeare in the park actor/Norse God, Thor. Unless he’s gone on some spirit journey to be explained away in extra Blu-Ray bonus material, Tony’s probably just shambling around Stark Towers in his drawers. His billionaire skyline must be literally cast in shadow by the helicarriers of doom that Captain America’s trying to take down with the only weapons at his disposal: record-breaking sprinting skills and a shield.  The fate of the entire world is at stake and here’s good hearted Steve clearly taking a hell of an ass-whopping and he still doesn’t see fit to call up his Avengers pals? Or at least try? I’m sorry but you lost me there.

The one thing that Kevin Fiege and his Marvel Movie Universe croonies tend to get right is they suit the adventure to the adventurer. The threats Iron Man faced in his third outing were largely personal. A wronged colleague becomes a viable villain, he’s forced to deal with PDST from a near death experience and his personal arsenal of humanoid WMDs transforms him from a private citizen into national defense mascot numero uno. There were larger implications at play had he not gotten his guy but Stark at least felt well equipped to handle the charge. Thor’s arc in The Dark World involves intergalactic worm holes, gigantic frost monsters and 8-foot tall Dark Elves. But Thor wields a hammer forged in a dying star that gives him the ability to fly around like a blonde, bearded Superman. Being, you know, a god, Thor was the Avenger best equipped to handle such a mark. Sure, having other Supers alongside wouldn’t have hurt but this was a mission that suited Thor’s pedigree. Equipped only with a hunky body, a pure heart and strips of pure sinew for legs (made for putting fellow long distance runners to shame), Captain America (Chris Evans) just seems out of his depths.

Look at him in The Winter Soldier. His big mission involves a retread task (one we already saw a version of in The Avengers) that he’s simply unfit to handle because, well, his superpowers aren’t really that super. His third act heroics necessitate a flying wingman because he’s simply not equipped to handle the mission solo. Joining him is snarky sidekick Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-Marine with a winged exoskeleton, because calling up Tony Stark or Thor was just… out of the question?

Part and parcel of enjoying these Marvel movies is digesting them with a spoonful of salt, especially when we’re looking at them from a logical standpoint and not a logistical one. Omissions are necessary from a budgetary standpoint and we have to be willing to overlook that… to some degree. But rather than make these shortcomings apparent, smart screenwriting would try to mask the need for the whole gang. This is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier fails hardest; an especially sad reality when contrasted to the contained spy thriller that it’s established as.

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Since the events of The Avengers, Cap and his shield shield S.H.I.E.L.D. Before this, Iron Man 2 was the first MMU film to tackle the build towards The Avengers head on and got far too bogged down in the goings on at that shadowy organization to stand as a film itself. The Winter Soldier has becomes it’s Phase 2 predecessor. Like Iron Man 2, it suffers from a fatal diagnosis of teaser syndrome. It’s all about what’s to come, not what’s happening in the now. By the end of the film, the chapter isn’t closed, it’s just beginning. Even it’s titular character, that mysterious Winter Soldier (played by a hollowed out Sebastian Stan), is relegated to a minor role with only an inkling of character.

If only Marvel would realize that not ever venture needed a third-act calamity, that millions must not be dumped on visual effects and that telling a self-contained story is a virtue in itself, then this could have been a rousing triumph. As it is, Cap 2 works so much better when its sights are centered on the smaller scale, when Steve and Scar Jo‘s Black Widow are traipsing around hunting for clues, trying to put a name to faceless villainy.

Give me more super-noir, less hapless explosions. Give me the humor and tragedy of Cap being a man lost in time. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show savvy sneaking in some current political hot buttons as subtext but fail to tell the more personal story of a lost man adapting to a whole damn new century. But this is bane of the Russo Bros’ film; it takes one step forward, two steps back. Every cheer is followed up with a few jeers. With character resolution left dealt with in post-credit stingers and a third act that may as well have been helidropped in from some other movie, the modest enjoyment one gets from Captain America: The Winter Soldier just doesn’t justify the $170 million dollars spent. It’s too busy shoulder tapping you to go see The Avengers 2.

C

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