Friday, April 25, 2014

"Man of Steel"

This is what you get for flying in US
airspace without proper authorisation.
I have to admit that after I first saw the trailer I was kind of hoping that this Superman adaptation would die on its arse for no better reason than because I live in hope that every now and again surely the general audience isn't going to lap up the garbage that Hollywood trough-feeds them several times a year, so when reviews started appearing in 2013 which were hardly giving high praise to Man of Steel I felt as if there wasn't a great need to see the film because evidently I was probably not going to enjoy it. That being said, "controversial" ended up being a better descriptor for Man of Steel because it seemed like lines were fairly divided as to whether it was a refreshing or even necessary new take on Superman or if it was just something Zach Snyder had cooked up on the Watchmen barbecue with the straggly leftovers of Christopher Nolan's imagination. Eventually curiosity got the better of me, however, so I ended up grabbing Man of Steel on DVD so I could check it out, which I just did. So here we go.
Nolan style Red Tornado.
It's not terrible. It's not great. It's not even average. Man of Steel is a really weird film. It feels like half a film, like there are scenes missing, like there are bits left out. With a plot that seems to go from a hyper-extended set up to an equally elongated climax with what I perceived as no identifiable middle ground, filmed on the contemporary digital equivalent of grainy stock, utilising a sparse screenplay, presenting sketchily-developed characters and focusing ultimately on over-the-top CGI action, the film feels vague, dreamlike even. It felt like abstract art to me, the Hollywood superhero equivalent of arthouse or minimalist cinema. Dialogue is heavily plot-driven, generally humourless and interspersed by long periods of silence. Characters talk at each other rather than to each other. I feel like if I had watched it with the sound off I would have still understood what was going on. There is some fairly cack-handed dialogue as well, like Lois blurting out the fact that she's a Pulitzer winner arbitrarily for the sake of the audience and the general asking Superman at the end "Are you effin' stoopid?" How old is he, twelve? I felt like there was little to grasp in the film dramatically, more featuring characters floating in reverie through set pieces. It's a strange.
Obi-Wan finally reaches General Grievous' lair.
Large amounts of the plot, of course, we've seen all before. On Krypton, General Zod and his minions attempt a coup, fail and are trapped in the Phantom Zone. Jor-El and his wife Lara send their son Kal to Earth. Krypton blows up. This is Superman 101. To avoid feeling too repetitious of 1978's "Superman" we see the life of Clark Kent in a series of meaningfully-arranged flashbacks: him discovering his powers, his feelings of isolation, his efforts to discover his identity and his relationship with his foster parents. In this film Pa Kent comes across as a bit of a dick: it seems like he wants Clark to hide himself from the world - or he wants him to just wait until the time is ripe. I don't know, really. Maybe supportive parents like Superman often has in adaptations are too cornball these days or something but Pa just seems irrational here, like he's as scared of change as the people he warns Clark about.
"Zach and Chris thought the old 'cape and tights' wouldn't appeal
to modern audiences, so this is the new Superman costume."
It turns out long ago, before the dark times and the Empire and what not, Kryptonians had outposts all over the galaxy. Superman is seemingly looking for the one on Earth so he can get more information about his origins. He overhears two rather out-of-order soldiers gasbagging about some top secret discovery so I suppose he figures "Hey, might be aliens, I'm an alien, might be to do with me." We have to read this into it, of course. For most of this part of the film adult Clark barely speaks to anyone or expresses anything especially clear about his motivations. Also he wrecks some guy's truck. It's sort of like the bit at the end of "Superman II" where he goes back to the diner and beats up that douchebag in the trucker hat who was mean to him when he didn't have his powers.
Anyway Lois Lane of course turns up and conveniently discovers the alien spaceship as well, but is accosted by alien security. Superman leaves her on the ice where she somehow survives the night and the Kryptonian ship pisses off to the Arctic Circle or something so that Superman can meet the AI replica of his father, who is Russell Crowe channelling Ewan McGregor in the Star Wars prequels. Somehow Superman's costume is on this ancient Kryptonian ship too. I guess while they were chatting about history robo Jor-El got the ship to do a respray job on an old uniform? Jor-El gives Superman a big speech while inspiring music plays in the background about how he can help the human race and so on, Superman flies through a mountain and then proceeds to do... not very much, because then Zod and his goons show up in a space ship and send a threatening but rather fuzzy television message to humanity. For some reason they can send a message that displays on every device in the world in multiple human languages but they can't get a good picture. They want Superman because they think he has the "codex," an ancient Kryptonian database of genetic code Zod needs to rebuild their race. Oh yeah, in this version Kryptonians are all flesh vat babies and Superman was the first natural birth in centuries. They're all programmed with various purposes, but he's a free agent. Zod's purpose is to be a dick.
"Why hast thou forsaken me?"
So Superman hands himself over to the US military so they can hand him over to Zod after giving them a healthy warning about how to not trust Zod. They do so, and Zod's people take Lois with them too for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Zod outlines his master plan to Superman, Lois uses robo Jor-El to escape, Zod attacks Ma Kent, Superman has a huge fight with Faora, a comic character who nonetheless must inevitably be compared to Ursa from "Superman II," and some other big bloke who never takes his helmet off so they can pay him less. In the ensuing brawl they basically wreck Smallville. After some breathing issues Zod's folks retreat and launch a giant gravity machine that is going to turn Earth into a Krypton-like environment somehow, increasing Earth's mass despite introducing no new material. One end of the device conveniently lands in Metropolis. Superman reveals that his rocket crib will launch everything back into the Phantom Zone somehow, so the army fly off to Metropolis to deliver it despite how obviously useless all their equipment is against Zod's forces, and Superman flies off to the other side of the world to have a boring CGI struggle with some metal tentacles defending the opposite end of the gravity device, which he defeats by letting the runtime drag on.
"Miss Lane, you must follow my instructions to the letter
if we are to assemble the telephone cannon in time."
Having blown up one end, Superman arrives to stop Zod's ship from destroying the plane with his rocket onboard, the soldiers all sacrifice themselves, the machine and all of Zod's chaps get sucked back into the Phantom Zone, Lois conveniently falls out of the plane, Superman catches her and they have hot sloppy make outs in the middle of a dustbowl. Why was Lois even on the plane? She's just a reporter. Incidentally the gravity machine absolutely wrecks central Metropolis, knocking over numerous buildings and presumably killing tens of thousands in some of the most heinous post-9-11 masturbatory fervour imaginable with modern effects. This is to give Laurence Fishburne's Perry White, some guy, and some girl who might be female Jimmy Olsen something to do in the film where they feel present mostly as lip service. Also, Superman must wear some special Kryptonian concrete in his hair because despite getting thrown through about a hundred buildings in this film he never musses it up.
"We must test the resilience of every part of your body."
Zod's still alive so he and Superman have a final big dust-up in Metropolis where they wreck the place even more, and then Zod forces Superman to kill him in order to save some innocents. I know traditionally Superman doesn't kill, but meh, I mean, Zod was a dick and he was about to be an even bigger dick. Then again, couldn't Superman have, I don't know, flown in the air while keeping him in that headlock? Dunno what he'd do with him then but that's the screenwriter's job. Superman lets out a giant howl of anguish, he puts his head comfortingly against Lois' maternal regions, knocks a drone plane out of the sky because hey, he's Superman and he's a dick, and gets a job at the Daily Planet. Interesting alternative take, by the way - in this version Lois knows Clark is Superman. It's just that everyone else doesn't. I don't mind. I just wish they'd had more dialogue together. Amy Adams is okay as Lois, presenting her as a reasonably competent person doing the best in a situation where she's extremely out of her depth, but at times it does feel like the film is forcing her into the plot without much explanation. Henry Cavill's got a nice, calm, reassuring tone as Superman, and I would have liked to have seen more of that. We see plenty of him doing things, flying around and beating people up, mostly, but not enough of him just being a person, like in the interview scene or the drone plane scene. Also, he seems to transform from being a troubled guy trying to find his place in the world, brooding on his past and occasionally lashing out, to the familiarly calmly-spoken Superman we know who wants to put people at their ease and do the right thing as much as possible, without much of a clear transition. My favourite parts were the conversations where they actually let Superman talk and feel like Superman, and I think we needed a bit more of that so that we could see him change a bit more clearly. Characterisation definitely gets the short straw.
"Kneel, son of Jor-El! Kneel before Zod in his underpants!"
So that's Man of Steel for you. There are definitely some interesting ideas. For example, the notion embodied in Zod is that often "evil" people, for want of a better term, use their "nature" or circumstances as an excuse for their deeds. Faora's remarks about their amorality shows an awareness of their wrongdoing which belies their rationalisation. I don't think we can simply see Zod as misguided because he starts wrecking Earth purely out of impatience and seems to care not so much for the codex and the genetic survival of his race as he does about a Kryptonian existing who is not under his rule. Michael Shannon's a bit of a funny looking fellow but all in all I did find his Zod reasonably compelling. Another notion which the film conveys with ruthless effectiveness is the artificiality and frailty of what many of us take for granted: the modern, especially urban, world. All our technology, organisation and infrastructure of our increasingly complex society despite their fundamental importance to our modern lifestyle are nonetheless existentially brittle. It's effective in taking the kind of thoughtless urban mayhem from recent blockbusters like the Transformers films and The Avengers and exaggerating it to its logical extreme. What meaning have office blocks, freight trains, petrol stations against the raw fury of nature? It's a troubling thought, and might reflect Pa Kent's inconsistent protectiveness of the status quo. In this regard what I fear gets glossed over, however, are any consequences for the film's events. Surely a disaster like this would cripple the nation, with so much of a city being destroyed? Yet it's left unrevealed, suggestions in the media being that it will be explored in the sequel with Batman. Why doesn't Superman try to steer the conflict towards more neutral ground where civilians won't get hurt? Regardless, I found it problematic.
They'll be disappointed it's too late to invade Krypton after this.
As such in my opinion this film needed to pace itself a little better. I feel like there needed to be some middle ground after he became Superman but before Zod showed up, and a less rushed coda. The action is artificial and extremely repetitive - Kryptonians blasting each other through multiple walls or vehicles, and buildings falling over as fleeing civilians are swallowed up in clouds of smoke and dust are the two items on the menu - and it seems to me like Zach Snyder exhausts his bag of tricks by the end of the Smallville battle. Its impression of a two-act structure reminds me more than anything of another 2013 action blockbuster with which it has numerous parallels - "Star Trek Into Darkness" (seriously: the villain is a superhuman who believes in eugenics and genetic superiority, the second half of the film is one giant climax, the protagonist loses a father figure, skyscrapers get knocked over by a big spaceship) - but Man of Steel feels more confused than fatuous like that one.
Superman's new look. He calls it 'Magnum.'
I don't believe that a perfect Superman film has ever been made, but the closest approach is easily the 1978 one. Man of Steel is an interesting film in many ways, but at the same time I personally think it is held back by an ultimately insurmountable insubstantiality in its narrative and dialogue. In fact if anything it actually rather reminds me of 2011's Green Lantern. There are films that are held back by an excessive focus on characterisation - usually, simplistic, manipulative, broadly-drawn characterisation - which limits the development of the ideas and the plot, but this is a film where the plot overrides characterisation, and where occasionally ideas cause the plot to buckle, such as Pa Kent's motivations. As I've said, however, some memorable ideas are conveyed, Henry Cavill's very watchable as Superman when they give him the opportunity to be, and Shannon's Zod is surprisingly effective. There are definitely good bits in here, but they're not capitalised upon sufficiently. This film really needed to step back, take a breath and sort out a better balance of its components. As it is the work feels dimly glimpsed, like a plot synopsis brought to life or a daydream rather than an actual film, and I hope with the sequel and the apparent assembly of a broader DC comics film narrative that the future films take a more grounded approach.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hindsight: A 2013 Cinematic Retrospective

Apparently I didn't see as many films in 2013 as I did in 2012, so I suppose I can claim that as a small victory. Yeah, take that Hollywood, your billion-dollar coffers ended up about sixty dollars less than they were the year before. That would generally mean I couldn't do quite as expansive a gaze as I might otherwise would have, but let's not permit reality to get in the way of a good article and begin with my "Main 5 films you might have expected me to see but I didn't."

Main 5 Films You might have Expected Me to See but I Didn't
5. Kick Ass 2: I read the original comic, saw the original film, film wasn't as good as the comic (quelle surprise). Was I going to bother reading the sequel comic? No way, Mark Millar's one of those boring writers these days who took the wrong lesson from Watchmen and thinks that it's cool and edgy to have superheroes swear and molest each other. Why would I see the film?
"What's all the hubbub, bub?"

4. The Wolverine: The first Wolverine-only film (and no I don't mean X-Men 1) was pretty crap, especially if you're the kind of person who cares that they messed up Deadpool (I am not one of those people). Before it got taken down, I watched the post-credits sequence from this new one with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen setting up X-Men: Days of Future Past, but there was no way I was going to watch the whole film. Life's just too short.

3. Pacific Rim: If I want to see giant CGI robots fighting giant CGI dinosaurs - oh wait, I have absolutely no interest in seeing that.

2. The Great Gatsby: I very much like the book, as you'd expect, but I couldn't be arsed seeing some over-the-top Baz Luhrmann extravaganza with a modern soundtrack. C'mon, Gatsby in 3D? Fitzgerald's original novel was about the superificality of interbellum culture. It seems kind of blinkered to adapt it as a flashy one hundred million dollar film.

"I'm always around."
1. Man of Steel: I was originally optimistic about a Snyder-directed, Nolan-produced Superman film, but then I saw The Dark Knight Rises and I realised that if there was anything I wanted less than any more of the Nolan treatment on Batman, it was the Nolan treatment on Superman. I'll probably catch it on DVD one day but at the time I didn't have anywhere near sufficient motivation to bother with typical Hollywood dark, angsty crap, especially applied to Superman of all people. Maybe it's a good film, but somehow I doubt it.

Main 1 Film I didn't see which also has a very easy to parody name
"The Secret Life of Walter Shitty"
Yeah, I know it's based on a short story, but still, it was all too perfect given that anyone could see about five seconds of the trailer for this and know that it would be a disaster. No offence to Ben Stiller, but he can piss off. 

Middle 5 Films of 2013:
These are five films I happened to see in 2013, none of which really seriously impressed me, but none of which are going to go into the "bottom three" either.

Gangster Squad: Yeah, this is a 2013 film. I was surprised too, given how long ago it feels like it has been since I saw it. Was it a particularly good film? Not especially. Was it a particularly bad film? By no means. You know what I went into Gangster Squad expecting? A film about a bunch of guys in suits and fedoras in the 1940s gunning down gangsters with tommy guns. You know what I got? Exactly that. Yeah, it could have been better, but I enjoyed it well enough, and the brain-to-burger-patty gag was kind of funny.

Mama: Written by Neil Cross, who wrote some of 2013's episodes of New Who, this was an okay horror film that kind of turned into borderline fantasy by the end. Featuring some decent moments of tension and some pretty disturbing imagery concerning two little girls being raised in an isolated cabin by a ghost, it probably gave the resident spook a bit too much attention at the end, lessening some of the creature's impact. Also the psychologist goes off to the haunted cabin by himself, which is pretty cliché.

The World's End: I don't know what it was, but this film just didn't do it for me. It wasn't funny enough. Yes, it had a certain bite that the previous films arguably didn't have, but frankly I just didn't find the parody to be sufficiently effective or noteworthy and as a general rule I don't think the premise lent itself to comedy that well. Hot Fuzz is still the best of these films by a mile, and I think I would probably prefer Shaun of the Dead to this one as well.

Thor: The Dark World: I have a bit of a soft spot for the original Thor so I was relatively optimistic about this one, and I think it's a decent if not especially memorable instalment. It probably sells itself a bit too shamelessly to the fandom's obsession with Loki and the proper villain, Malekith, is a waste of Christopher Eccleston in a silly role. I thought the ending was far stronger than the opening, when the film basically turned into an action comedy with portals. I didn't like Selvig going crazy but for some reason Darcy really did it for me in this one. I thought Frigga's murder was forced angst but I really enjoyed Chris Evans' cameo as Loki-as-Cap. How does Chris O'Dowd manage to get into everything?

Black with twinkly bits.
Gravity: There was a lot of buzz around this film. I guess it looks nice, but other than the effects it's fairly insubstantial and the scenario is absurdly contrived. Sandra Bullock puts in a perfectly adequate performance in the lead role but the film sorely misses George Clooney after his character is killed off at the end of the first act, which I'm sure was a largely conscious decision to enhance our sense of isolation and despair with the dour Ryan. The film has a decent amount of tension but there's not much to say in terms of story and character, and in my opinion impressive effects do not an impressive film make, especially when they're all cooked up in a computer anyway.

Bottom 3 Films of 2013
These are the three films I saw in 2013 that I was disappointed by or I consider to have wasted my time. The last instalment gets my award for worst film of 2013.

Where does his nose go?
Iron Man 3: This isn't a terrible film but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as everyone else seems to. I feel like I'm expected to relate to Tony Stark's problems, but I don't. He's rich, he has loads of armoured suits and he's dating Gwyneth Paltrow. Sure, he had to fly through a space hole in The Avengers carrying a nuclear missile, but so what? Why was that so traumatic? The main villain, Killian, is boring, Iron Man spends ages hanging around with a little kid, and the finale is a typical "spend the CGI budget" anaesthetic disaster of Stark jumping in and out of flying suits that never appeared before or since. Unlike some people, I didn't care about the twist regarding the Mandarin, but I would still have taken events in a different direction. I actually liked the menace of Ben Kingsley's character's performances and, if played straight, I think the character could have been a far superior alternative to Guy Pearce breathing fire. The film could also, I feel, have taken a more apocalyptic tone as in the Mandarin's broadcasts, which were what I found most compelling about the film. Seriously, how long does he spend out of the suit? I might need to rewatch this but I wasn't impressed.
Smaug with his gold.

Okay, I rewatched it. It's better than I remembered but it's still not great.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: I've already reviewed this in exhaustive detail here. Put simply, it's too long, it's boring, it plays a really weird game with the source material, it doesn't live up even to the other films, there's too much CGI, it's still too unfocused from the title character and it feels incredibly schizophrenic, as if it can't decide if it's a serious or comedic film. It's crap.

And thus my award for worst film of 2013 goes to:

"Just Khan? Nothing else?"
Star Trek Into Darkness: Like the previous film, my review of this film provides, I think, sufficient detail. To sum it up, however, this is a boring, lowbrow, CGI-ridden action film puppeteering the long-dead corpse of a franchise that used to have some kind of satirical or reflective purpose but is now nothing more than brainless, crass exploitation. The script is mediocre, the performances are all uninspiring and it tries to score points by blatantly ripping stuff off from the vastly, stratospherically superior The Wrath of Khan. It's the utterly worst, most abysmal, sleazily corporate forced-geek-nostalgia garbage I can imagine for an audience that prefers to be told what to enjoy and be interested in than actually make their own decisions. This is junk cinema that represents everything that is wrong with modern Hollywood and modern Western pop culture in general.

Top Film of 2013
I did not enjoy drawing this.
So with that out of the way, there's only one option left for my top film of 2013, and it's more earned that spot by a process of elimination than anything else because I honestly didn't even like it that much. I just can't think of another film it'd be worth giving this spot to, except maybe Thor: The Dark World, and I definitely didn't enjoy that to a huge extent so what choice do I have?

The Conjuring: Yep, it's a horror film by James Wan starring Patrick Wilson. It was spooky with a nice sense of tension and in my opinion effectively set up the notion of a haunted location in a way that didn't seem too predictable. Making a scenario featuring a large family and consequently large cast still give a frustrating sense of isolation and abandonment work was quite impressive in my view and the relative complexity of the plot worked in its favour, along with a healthy dose of 1970s atmosphere which served to keep things interesting. I'll be curious to see the sequel.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

"Remember kids, the minimum requirement for wearing a helmet
is jumping out of a low-flying aircraft. Don't bother with one when,
say, riding a big heavy motorcycle, for instance."
Ed Brubaker's essential run writing Captain America from 2005 to 2012 was always a prime candidate for adaptation, being one of the most memorable and innovative periods for the character in recent years. Most crucial to this era was Brubaker's resurrection of Cap's long-dead sidekick Bucky as the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed and regularly-hibernated Soviet assassin who had, through conditioning and mind control, operated against his country of origin for many years. He eventually comes into the control of the Red Skull, who has used a Cosmic Cube (the "Tesseract" of the film universe) to cheat death at the last minute by transferring his consciousness into the mind of Russian businessman Aleksander Lukin, the Winter Soldier's current owner, who had in fact been attempting to use the Soldier to kill the Skull himself. In the course of the story Cap encounters his former friend numerous times, finally using the Cosmic Cube to restore Bucky's memory and original personality in order to break his handlers' control over him. In the course of the story, Cap had to confront his past, and eventually Bucky did as well. Featuring Cap, Bucky, Red Skull, Arnim Zola, Sharon Carter, Falcon, Baron Zemo, flashbacks to the war and to long-past Captain America storylines like "Secret Empire" and "The Grand Director" it's a loving tribute to the history of the character as well as shaking up the formula and telling a compelling story of its own. It's a pretty good example of serialised comic book fiction done right.
"Mr Pierce, please stop staring at my massive belt buckle."
I guessed that the second Captain America film would bear the subtitle "The Winter Soldier" and I wasn't wrong. My review of "Captain America: The First Avenger" is more negative than I really feel about that film now. I rewatch it somewhat regularly, and I'm actually very fond of it. As such I was hopeful that "The Winter Soldier" would be a worthy sequel to "The First Avenger." That being said, having seen trailers, I was not entirely optimistic. "The Winter Soldier" looked to me like it was going to be a fairly generic action film, and unfortunately that's more or less exactly what I think it ended up being. As far as sequels go, it's superior in my opinion to "Iron Man 2", not a difficult task, and probably on more or less the same level as "Thor: The Dark World." I thought that "The Dark World" didn't start well but ended reasonably effectively. The opposite is more or less true in this case. In my opinion "The Winter Soldier" has a strong opening act but doesn't sustain it all the way through, and to avoid a disjointed and rambling review, I'll give my feelings on why this is the case first before examining what I thought were the memorable and effective elements of the film.

"Who the Buck is Fu- wait..."
The Winter Soldier
Perhaps the greatest issue I have with the film is that the titular Winter Soldier is introduced too late in the film, isn't given sufficient attention, and never has his narrative resolved in the scope of the on-screen narrative. He first appears as a sinister henchman of Alexander Pierce, the film's main villain, and only after several encounters is revealed to be Bucky, Cap's presumed-deceased friend of decades earlier. This is much like the comics, but a film doesn't have the time allocation a comic series does. We get scraps of backstory - the implication is that in this continuity he was resurrected not by the Soviets but by HYDRA - but by the end of the film, after his confrontation with Steve, he never actually recovers his identity. We don't get any closure on the situation, and it's in fact left hanging for a sequel. Personally I found this to be rather bizarre. Cap doesn't even get much time in the film to attempt to deal with discovering the survival of his friend or the state he has been in for the last seventy years or so. I think that had they focused more on the Winter Soldier himself, perhaps with the revelation of his identity early in the second act rather than at its conclusion, we might have been able to tell a more personal story. It ends up, however, being Cap fighting to save the world rather than to save Bucky, and I feel like the film doesn't play to the strengths of its narrative in that regard. That being said, perhaps it's a story almost impossible to tell effectively in the scope of a single feature film. In addition, straggly longish hair and overgrown stubble really don't suit Sebastian Stan, who deprived of his mask looks a bit like an adolescent who's responding to recently finishing school by rarely shaving or getting a haircut. I would have preferred a more sinister clean-cut look with the original domino mask. The rest of the costume's fine, though, and the bionic arm's done well, although in this adaptation the Soviet star on the shoulder is rather inexplicable.
Hello, old sport.
This is my other major objection with the story. The main problem with the storyline as it stands is that instead of simply having it focused on Cap's objections to an increasingly intrusive, paranoid and ruthless SHIELD, this quality has to be attributed instead to HYDRA, the Red Skull's evil organisation from the previous film, which infiltrated SHIELD upon the incorporation of Arnim Zola and others into its power structure. My main issues with this are twofold: firstly in reference to the previous film, where HYDRA seemed to largely be a vehicle for the Red Skull to enact his own rather personal designs of megalomania and where Zola himself seemed to have very little personal investment in the cause, and secondly because I don't think we need a sinister conspiracy for this storyline to work. I actually would have preferred Cap to cut ties with SHIELD because of things SHIELD was doing entirely legitimately. I think this would have given the surveillance issue far more bite than simply attributing an evil scheme to an obviously evil organisation. While I appreciate that HYDRA is an ongoing presence in the actual Marvel comics universe, I also feel that this ties the narrative too closely to the plot of the previous film instead of telling something new. I didn't like the idea that HYDRA was responsible for things like Howard Stark's death, and generally thought the betrayal from within was a bit of a cliché, not unlike Stane's betrayal of Stark in "Iron Man". It all seemed excessively orchestrated. It also limits the impact of the Winter Soldier's already truncated storyline. I think it would have been more interesting to see Cap dealing with how the random accumulation of events can cause a situation to spiral out of control. It probably owes something to the "Secret Empire" storyline of the 70s, but that was effective because it tapped into America's anxiety about its own leadership after Watergate by implying that the President himself was the real villain. Using fictional organisations like SHIELD and HYDRA instead of the US Government, the Soviets and so on makes the story feel a bit toothless in my opinion, sort of like HYDRA substituting for the actual Nazis in the previous film. Pierce isn't a very memorable villain to my mind, and with Winter Soldier as just a stooge I would have preferred a proper Cap villain like Baron Zemo or Strucker, who appeared altogether distinctively and memorably in the mid-credits sequence, as someone against whom Cap could face off.

Hopefully he's getting too old for this.
Supporting Cast
At times this film feels more like "Avengers One and a Half." We have Cap, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, SHIELD agents and the introduction of new characters Falcon and Agent 13. Pierce is observed to be a character basically outranking Nick Fury who has an enforcer loosely based on the Crossbones character from the comic, which almost makes the Winter Soldier feel unnecessary. Black Widow is okay as a supporting character for Cap, but given her presence in the film Falcon seems a bit redundant, Hill moreso. Poor old Scarlett Johansson sadly has to slip back into the same tight catsuit, a bad wig and the familiar old role of being exploited on film with, for example, an egregious posterior shot and an even more egregious bosom shot that comes out of nowhere towards the end. While the character works effectively as a foil for Cap, at times I found her exasperatingly dry. Falcon's fine, but doesn't undergo much development, and as I've said feels a touch redundant, and his storyline helping other retired soldiers deal with civilian life doesn't seem to pay off much. Robin, I mean Maria Hill, seems basically there for the sake of someone to operate the computer at the end, and there's a missed opportunity for some Bechdel-passing dialogue between her and Widow. As for Nick Fury, I could do without him. I feel like we're meant to think that Samuel L. Jackson is this cool "badass" but frankly I find him typecast and dull. The most underutilised presence is undoubtedly Emily VanCamp as Agent 13. She's set up as Cap's new love interest but never really gets to do anything. Poor Hayley Atwell also has to get slathered in old lady makeup in a cliché old, bedridden scene with Steve. Some of these characters probably needed to be dropped to give the others room to breathe.

General Constructive Comments
The film in my opinion is just too busy. I don't think we have enough time to show Cap dealing with modern life, which already didn't get that much time in "The Avengers", or to introduce Falcon and establish his relationship with Cap, deal with SHIELD being taken over by HYDRA, give the numerous other secondary protagonists much attention and deal with what's notionally the film's chief focus, the Winter Soldier. As I've said, I would have largely dropped the SHIELD elements - at times it feels like "SHIELD: The Film" - and presented a more personal story for Cap about his efforts to find his place in the modern world, having to deal with the revival of his friend as a mindless killer. Otherwise, I would have just had Cap dealing with SHIELD. I think the film tries to have two main plots and in the end the more interesting one, the Winter Soldier, gets shafted for the more ticket-selling one, the action extravaganza of a SHIELD civil war. There are too many interchangeable urban action scenes, the ending is a pretty routine CGI-'em-up with three giant airships firing hundreds of shots at each other and it feels too constrained to the SHIELD Triskelion. The pacing is too frantic, eschewing more opportunities for breathing room which I think would have made things more poignant. This is a film which tries to do too much and ends up unfulfilled in each element. And seriously, how many times have we seen movie terrorists cause big multi-car pileups on highways? And what's with the bit where Steve calls out HYDRA over the radio? Didn't he consider that publicly announcing to the loyal SHIELD agents what was going on would probably start a massive, confused, treacherous battle where loads of them would get killed? The evacuation shot where crowds are running in three different directions like headless chickens was pretty risible too.

Well that's enough of what I thought didn't work in the film. So what did I like?

The Opening and other quiet moments
I thought the film started quite well. I liked that we started with Cap himself and I felt like Falcon was introduced effectively. I thought Washington was a visually unique setting and I enjoyed Cap visiting the Smithsonian exhibit, as well as the general feeling of his efforts to live in the modern world. The film was actually most successful, I think, in the scenes shot in the evening, which I felt gave the environment a particular atmosphere equivalent to some degree to the historical setting of the previous film. I quite liked the part where Cap and Widow went to the Apple store to investigate their information, even if the product placement was pretty blatant, and the scene in the car where Steve and Natasha were driving out to Camp Lehigh was a massively important piece of, as I keep saying, breathing room in a film with an enormous quantity of action scenes. In this regard I appreciated the moments where Steve seemed alone or isolated, relying on his convictions where the authorities and hierarchy had failed.

"Uh... it was you."
Captain America himself
In 2011 I thought that Chris Evans was well-cast as Captain America, and this film didn't change that opinion. Captain America is portrayed as a sincere, decent, moral person in a world gone mad with similar effectiveness to the previous film and once again Chris Evans provided a believable sense of a humble, self-deprecating character whose greatest strengths are his loyalty to his own aforementioned convictions and his ability to bring out that side in others. He has a good rapport with the rest of the cast, and I think that his scenes were almost always the strongest. He provides a solid, dependable core to the film much like the Captain himself.

Arnim Zola
Apart from the other scenes I've mentioned, one of my favourite moments in the film was when Cap and Widow discover the enormous 1970s-style old fashioned computer room where the intelligence of Arnim Zola was stored. Not only was this scene incredibly atmospheric, it also paid homage to the character's nature in the comics in an interesting way that wasn't managed in the previous film. I appreciated both the design and, despite the implausibility of the situation, the realistically huge amount of antiquated technology implied to be necessary to achieve something that the film depicts in modern times with holograms and clouds of light out of nowhere.

Essential Line
The exchange:
"Who the hell is 'Bucky'?"
is mandatory dialogue from the original comic so I'm glad it was retained in this.

Sky Captain meets The Spirit?
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" isn't a terrible film but I think it's a film which doesn't recognise its own strengths and suffers as a result. As objectionable as many would find this complaint, there's too much action, or the action scenes are too repetitious. The attack on Fury on the streets, for instance, feels too similar to the attack on Cap, Widow and Falcon later in the film. The airborne finale feels too similar to the finale of the first film. This is a film which would have benefited from a deeper focus on a smaller cast, greater selectivity of narrative, and more moderated pacing to allow for moments of introspection. I often complain about modern cinema and TV prioritising character too far ahead of plot. This is a film which puts plot too far ahead of character. It's a little cold and lacking atmosphere except in the few scenes I already mentioned, the ending is a bit "forced climax" and too routine as a big battle full of CGI explosions. My opinion on the first film changed as well, so I'm prepared to change my mind about this one, but at the moment I'm not convinced that it's much more than a fairly generic action film or that it really lives up to the praise it has thus far received elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thoughts After 'How I Met Your Mother'

For a long time I've considered writing some articles or reviews of How I Met Your Mother, which concluded yesterday as of my writing this. They'd be season reviews: the show's gone for nine seasons and two hundred and eight episodes, and any attempt to review it would be monolithic, but with the finale fresh in my mind I thought that I could at least get the ball rolling on any future writing I might do on the subject with this post.
Let's pretend it's nearly a decade ago with hairstyles!
The first episode of How I Met Your Mother that I ever saw was the second episode of the first series, "Purple Giraffe," where Ted throws three consecutive parties to contrive an encounter with Robin. I thought it was charming and reasonably funny and it got me interested in the series proper. Maybe it was because I watched all of them in a few back to back sessions after they'd completely aired, but I always thought that the show's first four seasons were vastly superior to the last four, with the middle season being of equally middling quality - some extremely memorable and humorous episodes, and some very poor ones. As such I really think of How I Met Your Mother as a game of halves. By the end of the series, I was more watching out of a sense of investment in the storyline than any genuine pleasure, because in my opinion the show had switched tracks at some point from being a chuckle-inducing sitcom with some touching dramatic moments to being a schizophrenic presentation which lurched from moment to moment as either a deeply serious romantic drama with a few comic touches or a grotesque, unfunny farce with incredibly laboured humour. I don't really know what went wrong, in my opinion at least, with the show somewhere between 2009 and 2010, so I won't explore that here, but I think it comes down largely to the relationship between Robin and Barney.
Seriously, read Moby Dick. It's good.
You'll probably hear me voicing this elsewhere, but personally I always felt like Robin and Barney's romance was not something believable on screen let alone a plausible or necessary narrative development, but rather lazy "pair the spares" writing in an effort to give a lagging formula a bit of a jolt four years in. It had its novelty value in season five, but when resurrected in season eight it made my skin crawl. I thought Barney being in love with Robin in season four was a very effective, interesting and funny character development, but I always thought it should never have been more than an unrequited infatuation or obsession. At the end of season four I think Barney should have confronted Robin about his feelings, and Robin should have rejected him: either because she couldn't trust him and didn't have romantic feelings for him, or more brutally that, apart from her moment of madness in season three which probably could have been retained, she simply didn't find him attractive. That could still have facilitated classic episodes like "The Playbook" and "Girls Versus Suits" without some boring, frankly rather disturbing romance. I know a lot of people really got behind that plot, and thought that Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders had a lot of "chemistry" onscreen (which would probably be a pretty substantial testament to NPH's acting talents, all things considered) but personally I never thought so. I always thought that the chemistry onscreen between Robin and Ted was a lot more apparent, in the first two seasons at least, and that the best instance of interaction between Barney and Robin actually occurred in the season one episode "Zip, Zip, Zip" where they hung out as friends while Ted was dating Victoria. I actually think a plausible scenario of Barney being "in love" with Robin could have developed more realistically from his emotional struggle to be in a close platonic friendship with a woman, especially a single woman.
"We always went to Robots vs Wrestlers.
Except for that one year where I contemplated going alone
and then hallucinated future me and Barney."
With that in mind, let's discuss the finale. It certainly wasn't what I expected, although it was predictable, because people had been discussing for a long time, and certainly with some enthusiasm since the early 2013 episode "The Time Travelers", that the trajectory of the narrative might very well be that The Mother was dead by 2030 and in addition that Ted was finally going to get together with Robin. It may have been surprising to some, but as a person with an eye for fan theories I'd heard most of it before. Now I'm not going to criticise the finale for not living up to my expectations, because that's obviously unfair, but at the same time I suppose I would have preferred the finale to be triumphant rather than bittersweet. I had come to think that the theme of the final season of the show was not going to be a sense that life goes on and we need to appreciate the good times while they're there. I was more expecting, from various scenes like the flash forward in the second episode of the ninth season, "Coming Back", that the final season was going to explore more esoteric themes. I was actually anticipating a focus on Ted's sense of dejection and isolation at his friends' wedding, and how an extremely low point for him in terms of hope and happiness would come directly before the incident that would completely revolutionise his life. I had hoped, in fact, that ultimately the ninth season's concern with these particularly acute feelings and the idea of how we feel moment to moment compared to the big picture would give the show, in the end, a certain rarefied air. In the same way I was assuming that the focus of the finale would be Ted's long years of patience and fidelity to his ideals finally paying off in a climactic moment of "destiny."
The Mother's planet needs her.
But it was not to be. The finale we received does, of course, work, and I think my main objections, beyond structural ones, are largely sentimental. The creators of the show were perhaps too successful with their introduction of the titular Mother in the final season. The expectation had always been that she could never live up to viewers' expectations. In actual fact, for the overwhelming majority of the audience as far as I can determine, the writing for the character and Cristin Milioti's performance massively exceeded what was expected, presenting Tracy, the Mother, as an endearing character who seemed ideal as Ted's eventual soul mate. It's perhaps for that reason that I find her rather rapid elimination in the finale to an extent objectionable. She "got sick" and that's it. Of course the kids were around for this. They know it all already so there's no sense dwelling on it. That being said from an audience point of view I don't fully understand the rationale behind actually introducing the character only to give no real closure for the viewer. That's why I think The Mother was too successful. By the end, she was my favourite character in the show, and I cared more about her than I did about Ted or Robin. I daresay that probably wasn't the intention of the writers.
"Your Mom got sick with 'sprouting vestigial bass guitars' disease."
But if poor old "Mom" had to die, then that's the way it goes, and in the end if Robin and Ted were both lonely and Ted's kids were cool with it, it's not like it doesn't make sense as an ending. It's a far more sad ending than I anticipated, but given the narrative we were presented with in the last two episodes I suppose it fits. I just feel like they had to do a lot of work in those last two episodes to alter the apparent trajectory of the story, so in that regard I can't help but feel that the finale bit off a little more than it could chew. Maybe we might have benefited from a bit less filler during the ninth season, or perhaps for the last several seasons, to make those developments hold a little bit more weight. Seeing Barney and Robin get divorced despite the show banging on about their marriage since, realistically speaking, the start of the sixth season, felt in particular to me like the writers wanted to have their cake and eat it too: draw in viewers with this storyline, but still give Ted the ending they'd filmed eight years ago. As such I can't help but feel like just as the show outgrew its original boundaries, perhaps the narrative "plan" also needed the flexibility to change and grow based on the way the characters had developed. A lot of the finale felt, to me, like a concerted effort to undo plot devices to accommodate an ending that didn't really make sense anymore even though it undoubtedly did back in 2006 when the scenes with the kids were filmed. That being said, they still made it work in my opinion, albeit not in the enormously successful way I think the premise really deserved. While I wasn't especially happy with Barney regressing, I did think his having a child as having the most significant impact on his life was an effective resolution for his story. I was less impressed with the idea of Marshall eventually getting what he wanted while Lily basically seemed to have no purpose except having babies. What happened to her career?
Anyway now I want to respond to a few arguments I've seen floating around both supporting and opposing the finale.

Flash forward to 2014: "How I Met Your Dad's been cancelled!"
"It's a realistic ending. HIMYM was a realistic show."
Well it's no more realistic than any other ending, and HIMYM was never that realistic. Just because it was grim, with Robin becoming lonely and jaded and Ted losing his wife to a mysterious illness, doesn't make it any more realistic than imaginable alternatives. Additionally, How I Met Your Mother was full of implausible things; Ted making it rain, for instance (even if it was a coincidence), or Barney's unrealistic success with women. In fact I think the entire ninth season was unrealistic. I think that to argue the ending was a "realistic" ending that correlated with a generally "realistic" tone across the show is to argue a pair of false premises.

"It was always about Ted and Robin in the end."
Was it? I thought as late as the one where she floated away like a balloon in one of the series' most cringe-inducing moments that the show was determined to display Ted getting over Robin and moving on with his life, and that The Mother represented that. The argument is he wouldn't have started the story with meeting Robin if it wasn't ultimately about her, but of course that's to ignore the chain of events that meeting Robin set off. Meeting Robin caused Ted to date Robin, after which they broke up, which caused Ted to get drunk and get the tramp stamp, which caused him to meet Stella, which caused him to meet Tony, which caused him to get the job at the University, which caused him to meet Cindy, which caused him to Meet Your Mother (eventually). It's interesting to observe that all that was set up by season five, during which the rot set in as the story started essentially treading water.

"One more take and some of us can resume our careers!"
"It's a sitcom. It should have a happy ending."
This is the typical fatuous declaration of insecurity. There's no requirement for anything to have a happy ending. Many of the greatest works of literature from all of human history do not have happy endings. I wouldn't have objected to one, but it's by no means demanded by the genre, especially in a finale. HIMYM often had sad or emotionally confronting moments, like the death of Marshall's father or Ted getting left at the altar. It wasn't exactly beyond the scope of the show as it existed to end on a less than ecstatic note; even various season finales had used fairly ambiguous moments in their conclusions. In fact the very first season finale, featuring Ted thrilled with having finally gotten together with Robin coming home to discover Marshall on the step with Lily's engagement ring, had a similar tone.

"It didn't fit at all and ruined the characters and retroactively ruined the whole show."
Yeah calm down. It doesn't kill all the funny and successful parts that people might have enjoyed in earlier episodes even if they didn't enjoy this one. Even though it's not the ending I would have done had I been in the position of Bays and Thomas, I think it's hard to argue that it doesn't fit or make sense at all within the narrative. Ted was, after all, telling his kids this story about his life before he met their mother for a reason.

"And kids, this is where a lot of angry people on
the internet think the story should have ended."
I think there are definitely some valid objections to the finale in terms of structure and pacing, but I think the main issue with the finale and the final season over all is that the Mother was, as I've said, too successful as a character, which made the Robin-centric conclusion unpalatable for some. I actually thought it was a bit cliché personally, like the Mother was one of those "too good for this sinful earth" characters that couldn't last specifically because she seemed too perfect. There were some missteps in making her too similar to Ted, but then again they'd started turning Robin into the female Barney eventually as well. My fond memories of How I Met Your Mother will probably continue to be those most consistent first four seasons, along with a few isolated episodes here and there, including the episode "How Your Mother Met Me", which was probably the best episode of the entire second half of the show. The thing is, not unlike losing touch with a friend, over time How I Met Your Mother just didn't mean as much to me as it might have because I didn't especially enjoy the new material, so in the end I didn't take the show's conclusion as badly as I might have. I do think it could have ended in a more uplifting way, but I suppose that isn't what they wanted.

The final thing I wanted to address which we shouldn't sweep under the rug is the fact that, for all my enthusiasm at least for its first half, is that How I Met Your Mother is a pretty dodgy show in regards to its presentation of gender and sex, and especially of women. There's definitely a double standard regarding promiscuity. Despite friendly jibes and insults, Barney's activities are seen as a source of comedy that the other characters even enable, while the women he pursues are largely, and moreso after the fourth season, seen as just objects. I guess I seem a little hypocritical for thinking that the season five episodes I mentioned earlier were good. That being said, women in the show often do seem to lack agency. There's also the whole angle of Ted incessantly badgering Robin to go out with him being presented as romantically positive, the aspersions cast upon Robin prioritising her career over her relationships, Lily ending up basically just cranking out babies and the Mother dying offscreen for the sake of Ted's narrative. Someone who was an expert on this could analyse it better, but for a while now I've been bothered by the implications of a lot of the show's core elements. It's not something I feel especially qualified to talk about, but it's worth considering in one's reflection upon a series which is a bit of a sacred cow in the eyes of many viewers.