Star-Spangled Man

It’s a point of dispute as to where Marvel Studios exactly took a turn as to pure genre cinema. The Shane Black touch on Iron Man 2? The political thriller aspect of Captain America: The Winter Soldier? It definitely was most prevalent in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what with space operas and heist pics and so on, but I have my own guess.

Captain America: The First Avenger lends its tone and approach 100% to a camp that other modern films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The MummyThe Rocketeer, and The Phantom jump for: The World-War-era Serial. Unlike the latter two, Captain America: The First Avenger hits it bullseye.

It’s why Captain America: The First Avenger was – up until the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, another obvious MCU genre picture – my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film.

But I will get to that in a moment. How about the legend of Captain America (Chris Evans) himself if you’ve lived in a rock and haven’t caught what it is by now? Steve Rogers is a patriotic Brooklyn kid in 1941 who wants to fight for the country against the Nazis, but he’s really disappointing on the physical. After trying to register more times than is legal, German defector scientist Erskine (Stanley Tucci) witnesses Rogers’ tenacity to fight and enters him into a military program that makes Rogers come out the perfect American hero – by which case, they mean ripped as fuh and able to do impossibly crazy tricks with his shield. Now that the US Army has the perfect soldier, what do they intend to do with him?

Use his ass as a mascot to his dismay, yet my joy at hands-down my favorite montage sequence of the film, where he just regrets standing in a mock-up uniform costume and punches a mock-up Hitler while urging citizens to buy war bonds.

But wait, what’s occurring in Europe? My dear friends, I tell you, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is concocting an evil plan with Reich offshoot HYDRA to steal cosmic power for world domination (feeling somewhat like The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. to me). It’s eventually up to Rogers and his allies, Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones stealing the motherfucking show in that “tired of this shit” manner that he can do with his eyes closed), British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and inventor playboy Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to stop Schmidt before he gets what he wants and the world is decimated in the way.

If I read theatrically, that’s because this movie is kind of that amount of theatrics, in its period trappings that just give it the right amount of bearing to feel old and nostalgic while also bold and comic book-like – from the costumes to the set design to the acting (particularly Cooper knows exactly how to hit the right beats of Howard Hughes, way more overtly than the otherwise superior performance of Robert Downey Jr. in the other MCU films as his son).

This lightness of plot and air of cinematic remembrance of an era long past makes the picture a hell of a lot more fun at a time where it seems like every comic book movie except the failure that is the Fantastic Four films feel so much more devoted to making everything so dark and severe by simply trying to throw in bootleg nihilism into their presentation. The primary difference between Captain America: The First Avenger and the Fantastic Four pictures being that Fantastic Four is soulless and empty and going practically nowhere with itself while Captain America: The First Avenger is living through the 40s and moving and all though we know that the whole MCU shoving thing (especially the bookends) are just fan service, they give The First Avenger even more direction on itself than one would have expected it to lead to.

Also, Chris Evans is a lot more tolerable, here…

… Albeit Chris Evans is undoubtedly the worst part of Captain America: The First Avenger. Ah yes, Evans tries to make his Rogers sincere and upstanding without being wooden and less than human and it’s not like he totally fails, it just doesn’t lead to Rogers being the proper emotional surrogate we’d have liked to get into the movie. Which sucks for two reasons – 1) Everybody else in the cast is playing their plastic parts fantastically and 2) it means that we still don’t feel engrossed and surrounded by the film as we’d like to be. The celluloid divide is still there and now it feels like looking at history through glass rather than reliving this corrupted and entirely more exciting history than it should be.

Still Evans’ performance is not enough to derail what a joyous ride Captain America: The First Avenger is. And I will be the first to claim that he totally has improved over the franchise, making Captain America become more of a presence and a person to care for in the universe. And it all begins with the film that immediately follows this one…

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Ye Gods… What the Kcuf?

Ah, behold, ye Gods.

We have come across the first true landmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inauguration with Iron ManThor is the film with a plot that is perhaps most universe-expanding in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and especially one that ought to appeal to me. No longer are we grounded on Earth, we move to the Cosmos, to the realm of Norse Figures considered Gods but made a little bit more dimensional aliens. We begin to not just place heroes in the same closed conceptual space and see how the space expands, we’re also starting to see just how many corners that space can stretch.

We’re also making bold yet shitty choices and being absolutely dafty with our properties apparently. While attempting to be just a teensy bit more ambitious than The Incredible Hulk was, Thor sinks a bit lower to becoming my least favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film to date so far, all based on how much of it is a grand misfire from… OK, it’s not fair to claim it is a grand misfire from the very start or that anything isn’t salvageable of the film, but I will get to that once I let off my steam.

…. Whoosah. I mean, even the soundtrack and I say this as a person who everybody who knew me when I was between 16-20 knew how obsessed I was with Dave Grohl.

Anyway, the tale goes about how Thor (Chris Hemsworth), God of Thunder, brother of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and son of Fragga (Rene Russo) and Odin (Anthony Hopkins – If I need to tell you he phoned this in, you haven’t seen any performance he gave since Titus. My, how the mighty the fallen), is so entitled and spoiled as the Prince of Asgard that he wants to attack the Frost Giants of Jotunheim for “crashing” a party (although I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume not a single partygoer except Odin, Thor, Loki, and Lady Sif and the Warriors Three knew anybody was in Asgard that shouldn’t have been).

That’s not me being cynical to the film, btw, acting like it’s a flaw that Thor is a dislikable prick. That’s deliberate and actually how it goes. At least, I hope it’s deliberate. Whatever, anyway, after picking said fight, retroactively ignoring that Odin tried to clean up any beef he and Frost Giant leader Laufey (Colm Feore), Odin comes to save his ass by expelling him from Asgard and stripping him of his powers until he thinks about what he’s done.

Again, that’s not exaggeration. I promise. That’s the honest truth.

And to prove I’m not involving my bias in this summary, I’m gonna take a deep breath and admit that the movie was kind of getting good at this point. Sure, Kenneth Branagh doesn’t know how to position a camera at all, trying canted angles all over out of his ass (some of those shots so crooked they can’t decide where to stand), and the Bifrost is so underwhelming as just a representation of the way J.J. Abrams thinks of an abyss, but the opening part of Thor suggests a good movie despite all of that. Asgard looks absolutely gorgeous, to my mind recalling a colorful and heightened throwback of the old glorious movie fortress work of Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz if either of those old filmmakers had read anything by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, spacious and golden and physically limitless. Tom Hiddleston existed and, since we live in 2015 now, you know how well Hiddleston inhabits Loki – physically, mentally, emotionally impressive as a power-hungry figure in the plot that is also unfortunately the only performance that seems aware that stakes exist in this film.

And… I’m going to be straight up and state Chris Hemsworth is an absolute flatline to me as a dramatic actor, but he does do smug dickhead very well. Very well. It also helps that he has dashing good looks to be all “yeah, I know I’m hot shit” (which is, y’know, how Thor is meant to be in this movie again… I hope).

OK, so we got all the great advantages of its opening, even if Hopkins feels comatose well before Odin goes into the Odinsleep and Branagh is still directing. But when Thor comes to Earth (with no inhabiting the body of Donald Blake – something I’m fine with because, as cool as that part of Thor’s story is, that would have been one layer too many with this movie), the film really goes downhill.

First… Oh no. Kat Dennings. Like I’m sorry, but not only is she always the worst, but her character has no actual purpose here. That’s a thing that can be taken out of the film so that it’s just Stellan Skarsgard and Natalie Portman shouting arguments that you can write… if you’re like 12 on 4chan or r/atheism… but not say without losing some kind of shred of dignity you have (since von-Trier-collaborator Skarsgard and Portman are both very talented professional actors who aren’t Kat Dennings, they pull this off without losing dignity, but I know I would if that shit came out of my mouth). Seriously, though, Dennings did not need to happen to this film.

But namely, the biggest problem, what makes me hate Thor too much to deal with it, is the absolutely nonsensical lack of control in tone. Like, for fuck’s sake, Branagh, you based your career on how well you (assumed you could) carry Shakespearean works and yet you can’t decide if you want to make this film as grounded and moralistic as any Nolan-ish Batman flick or if you just want the focus of Thor’s sentence on Earth to be shenanigans and lulz.

Like, that’s seriously the one thing that tips it from “OK, I don’t hate this movie” to “get out of my face with this shit”, Thor is an inconsistent mess from Thor sobbing in the mud at not getting Mjolnir back in control to him cheerfully getting hit with ambulances and ruining the breakfast of people around him. And it unfortunately barely gets itself back in gear to y’know complete a story, what with how much time it spends before it even bothers establishing Loki as the antagonist of the whole picture and the sparse spaces between the actually engaging comic book-esque action setpieces that are just dedicated to watching Skarsgard and Hemsworth get into a drinking match to Foo Fighters.

And what’s left is just another bare stepping stone in the MCU going “Hey, we gots an Avengers movie coming dontcha know?” Well, this was around the point I was starting to get tired of this franchise building without much substance or care for character/plot development (something I feel the MCU suffers from wholly until Phase 2 – only to throw it away again when Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out). Thankfully, I didn’t give up – for the next film turned out to really shock me back into excitement – but man, Thor got me really close to giving up. Really close.

SHORT CUTS TO AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

I am adamant on not giving Avengers: Age of Ultron a review until I finish my reviews for the other feature films in the Marvel Universe that I haven’t reviewed yet (I might give the one-shots and the shows in the Universe a run-around, but that’s a huge “might”. The only show I’ve given a view to is Daredevil).

However, given my obvious speed with these sort of things, I think it’s fair to say the movie might lose relevance by the time I get to that full-length review, even if we’re getting moments like Joss Whedon’s (in my opinion, unwarranted) twitter bashing which are as eventful as anything else that went on in the press tour for the film itself.

So that plus the fact that I’ve been asked by friends almost immediately after the movie premiered for my opinion on the flick, I will be posting another SHORT CUT review for Avengers: Age of Ultron for everyone to get a quick capsule idea of how I thought. And the format will be lifted, based on a very entertaining and enjoyable review of The Avengers thanks to Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy (a blog I very much admire; I don’t know if he knows I exist though).

So try to run with me as I sum up what I can as best and fast as I can:

Most Improved Actor: While I can’t say any actors are worse in their roles than before, I honestly can’t tell you which actor really ended up being better than last time. The closest I can think of is Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, but I am adamant that this feeling is more because Hawkeye actually has shit to do rather than Renner being more in-tune with his character. He’s still the most ordinary performance. I can tell you the actor that most improved the way his character was created and that is, hands down, James Spader as the villain Ultron. Joss Whedon’s writing does Ultron now favors as it force-feeds quips into a large striking villain that could have been so much menacing and threatening if he didn’t feel (deliberately, but still underwhelmingly) like an offshoot of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) personality. And casting the single creepiest actor in Hollywood that isn’t, well, creepy in real life makes it so much more disappointing, but I do insist that Spader’s wit and voice still allows Ultron’s unfortunate dialogue to roll out effortlessly.

Most Improved Character: Like I said, Hawkeye. They may as well have called this movie Avengers: Age of Hawkeye. They finally found a way to fit Clint Barton into the plot and development (well, what little there was). Too bad, he’s the only one.

Least Improved Actor: Once again, they’re more or less the same and while Chris Hemsworth isn’t doing himself any favors as Thor that way, the true LVP of the film goes to Aaron-Taylor Johnson who is still getting more and more closer to being my least favorite actor in film so far. This time it’s because he’s playing Sokovian orphan/activist/political prisoner(?)/guinea pig Pietro Maximoff as a super smug White Privilege poster boy who probably hasn’t heard of a Slavic country in his life, topped off with an atrociously cartoonish accent for the character. Elizabeth Olsen is not hugely better as Pietro’s also-shit-accented twin sister Wanda Maximoff, but at least she’s trying to be darker and brooding.

Least Improved Character: I want to say it’s either Stark, Captain America (Chris Evans), or Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), but I can’t lie. While all of these characters are written in manners so retroactive to their arc and development over the last few movies (Cap almost took this round purely on how annoying the “Language!” running joke got) they’ve appeared in, Black Widow was actually astonishingly well-developed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers after starting off as space-stealing eye candy in Iron Man 2, only to return to damsel in distress mode during the latter part of this movie. That and the moment she talks about her biological past proves to be the only time huge feminist icon Whedon doesn’t really know how to write about woman.

But I don’t think it’s worth the vitriol Whedon has been getting. And I especially don’t think her getting a love interest is a bad thing at all. What the fuck is wrong with you guys?

More or Less the Same: Thor was never any good but he’s not much worse here than he occasionally is. Still criminally underused, even worse than Hawkeye was in The Avengers. Like, what? I don’t want a trailer to Thor: Ragnarok! I want Avengers: Age of Ultron!

Most Impressive Debut: Wait to see me gush about Vision (Paul Bettany).

Aesthetic: Same shit as The Avengers with less freshness to it and a few more weaknesses – namely in sound (oh god, I will rip that sound mix apart!). But hey, there’s some cool long shots that harken back to Spielberg-like shot design. Still overall, Joss Whedon has never particularly been a great director. Nope.

Popcorn Movie Value: Again, almost the same damn shit as The Avengers. Hulkbuster vs. Hulk fight is one of the better moments of the film with its balance between slapstick and consequence feeling so fun, and the opening battle is kinetic as fuck. The finale is a mess itself, but it’s also the only moment the film manages to feel as BIG as it tries to be.

Plot: It ain’t overstuffed. It’s undercooked.

Meh, I thought it was ok. If you’re into the MCU (which I’m personally getting tired of), you might love it.

The Straight Story – 6 – Dune

I suck really hard, guys. A lot of stuff came up in the middle of The Straight Story and I wanted to look into Dune as a novel one more time before I explored the film and it just ended up delaying this piece of The Straight Story for a long while. I do intend to get back into gear shortly after I finish reviewing the MCU films up until Avengers: Age of Ultron.

No rush now, given events with the Twin Peaks revival, I guess. Too soon?

Frank Herbert liked Dune.

Granted, Frank Herbert also hates Iron Maiden so there’s that.

Many people consider Dune to be the greatest failure of David Lynch’s career, certainly the picture that killed his three-time acclaim streak starting in and the one that proves that when Lynch isn’t in charge all the way through, what’s going to come out is most likely less than alive or complete.

I personally get an especially weird kick out of watching and can admire a lot of what Lynch and company attempts but the film in itself has so much wrong with it to ever claim it is actually good. It’s actually the sort of ecstasy I witnessed Alejandro Jodorowsky give when he found Lynch messed up Dune himself. That’s the kind of enjoyment I get.

Plus, we got Blue Velvet out of it and well, that’s kind of a magnificent film for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m sure by now we should be aware of a major part of Dune’s troubled development and production history, especially in consideration of the popularity of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I have reviewed previously. So, I hope I’ll be forgiven for jumping from Jodorowsky’s time with the option to film Dune to legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis’ era with it.

After getting the rights, De Laurentiis went to the author of the seminal science fiction classic itself, Frank Herbert himself to draft a script and – as one can espect as indulgence from somebody being asked to adapt his own novel – Herbert returned with a three hour script. Which, I guess I was being mean about, that is surprisingly restrained for such an author.

De Laurentiis then asked Scott to re-write and direct and 7 months and 3 drafts later, Scott found his heart just wasn’t in the work (partly because his older brother had died during that time) and passed on the project.

So then, suddenly, it became 5 years since De Laurentiis had purchased the rights and so he had discovered that the lack of action is setting the rights to expire. De Laurentiis convinced the company however not only to allow him more time to shoot the picture, but also the rights to the entire Dune franchise including future and not-yet-realized books.

Now he had to hunt for a director and fast.

Enter Lynch into this scenario who was really reeling in the success of The Elephant Man as a picture to go ahead and be offered a hefty amount of film productions at his disposal [the most famous of these being Return of the Jedi, the (then-)concluding picture in the Star Wars saga]. Lynch saw Dune is among those offers and picked it as his next project.

Contractually obliged to write and direct, as well as to work on two more projects for De Laurentiis (one of which is a Dune sequel that never surfaced while the other is quite a miraculous work I’m excited to talk about), Lynch had not read the book at the time he agreed to work on the project.

It shows. A lot.

But, that’s beyond looking at how badly Dune is. Dune isn’t a bad flick because its ending famously betrays a hefty amount of themes and its story feels like a The Last Airbender compression of heavy details of the story that lay out the world and nearly everyone in the film looks like a miscasting of the highest order.

I mean, yeah those all help make Dune a bad picture, but that’s not entirely something missing from Jodorowsky’s idealized Dune picture (minus perhaps the story compression) and public opinion by everyone is that the film would have been a masterpiece. Maybe they watched Jodorowsky’s Dune too many times.

But no, the primary energy of Lynch’s Dune is how much of it feels more like an obligation than a passion project. And considering his history with AFI and ABC and with what happened with Showtime, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that Lynch is the absolute worst when it comes to studio interference. They’re always on absolutely separate wavelengths and there’s no way they can come together on the same idea. This is probably explaining why Lynch disowns the film (to my mind, the only feature film he disowned, but I encourage any readers to inform me if I’m wrong).

In any case, because Herbert’s classic novel is so damn sprawling and the story is essentially a generation-spanning narrative, I had trouble summing up the plot for myself. So I looked to IMDb to try and lift their explanation of the film’s plot:

A Duke’s son leads desert warriors against the galactic emperor and his father’s evil nemesis when they assassinate his father and free their desert world from the emperor’s rule.

cough. That’s only the second half of the damn picture. Which actually helps me with a point I wanted to make: For a picture that goes out of its way to crush its storyline with narration and rushed timeframes, it actually also takes forever to get to its damn point: the fall and resurrection of the House Atreides, in the middle of it, the young son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan in the first of his career collaborations with Lynch and certainly the least inspired of them all) avenging the betrayal and death of his father Leto (Jurgen Prochnow… who I’m guessing was riding off his success from Das Boot at the time).

Anyway, if jumping in cast from the All-American MacLachlan to the then-international star Prochnow isn’t much of a showcase for how absolutely out of it the casting is, I would like to enlighten you further on the casting decisions: Police frontman Sting is Feyd-Rautha, Jose Ferrer is Emperor Shaddam (Lynch would later cast his son Miguel in Twin Peaks and to better use), Virginia Madsen is Princess Irulan, and these are all off-beat and kind of work because of how insanely the cast dedicates themselves to the role (except for Ferrer, who comes off as lazy acting for a legend, but given the opening scene of the film it works for him to be bumbling). Then we get Jack Nance as Captain Nefud, Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, Sean Young… The only casting choices that come off as inspired are Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen and Brad Dourif as De Vries and both of them also are caked in some foully outrageous make-up that serves as almost too distracting from their performances.

Baron Harkonnen himself has been the source of much controversy as his scenes were called out as ‘homophobic’. I can’t comment personally on whether or not I think Lynch is a homophobe as I’ve never seen evidence one way or the other, but I can completely see how one would read the savage large and pus ridden Harkonnen who gets the majority of the gore in the film as a homophobic setting, especially in 1984.

In the meanwhile, the actors all themselves do not do as much favors to the artifice of the films. Many of them look like they barely understand the shit they are saying and others feel like being on set is simply an obligation, a feeling probably shared by Lynch. They are as fake and unbelievable about the film as the green screen looking lounge of the Harkonnens which looks like somebody forgot to insert a backdrop for them or the blocky shields Paul spars the Gurney with (an unexciting spar spurred on by a then-not-as-renowned Patrick Stewart). Even the stuff that doesn’t feel like the creator of the designs fell asleep are just absolute polar opposites in aesthetic that have not leeway to mesh with each other nor any truly distinguishable quality to make the sets stand out – from the cavernous locale of the Fremen to the inconsequential stoneyness of the House Atreides, all underscored by a boisterously ambitious but unfortunately overshot score by the otherwise fantastic Toto.

Clearly De Laurentiis didn’t feel he got his money’s worth, but I also feel like the book Dune is in itself is strictly unadaptable. It’s a difficult large book just as blocky as those shields or the designs. So he should have known what he was getting into.

But there is one thing that keeps it from being a total loss to me and it is that, whether Lynch accepts it or not, we can easily tell it is a Lynch film. There is a manic personality brought out by his frustration that gives the film personality and character, even if it isn’t the observational character of the literature itself. It’s curious but I can’t think it’s a mere accident that (even though it falls into Last Airbender territory of telling instead of showing) we open on a woman’s superimposed face in the starry blackness of wonder speaking hypnotically to us – much like The Elephant Man bookended itself except one of which is in color and one is not. Events – most notably in the middle when Harkonnen and Atreides go into conflict for the first time and we watch the siege begin or Harkonnen’s gleeful bloody sexual pastime – like raw begin to up the ante in energy, cinematography (with Freddie Francis’ return) and editing wise, in an inorganic manner that only Lynch could maybe sometimes get away with and it’s also where the actors begin overacting heavily for the sake of the mood.

And given how much of its ending is an extreme betrayal of Dune‘s commentary about religion, I really honestly think Lynch did that as a final middle finger to the production. Which is admirable, but in the end, still kind of irritating in the same manner that Watchmen as a film gets the plot details right but the themes all wrong.

For that reason, I don’t think Dune is a total waste of space. The most heavily invested of Lynch fanatics, which are there, could certainly use it as a yardstick to see how far you can stress Lynch out before he breaks and even trying to make the film in a way that leaks his own mind doesn’t entirely save the picture. Too many things go wrong. I thought I was one of those Lynch fanatics that could love it, but it seems I am not.

At least we’ll have Blue Velvet