Monthly Archives: August 2022

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

*. I mentioned in my notes on Captain America: The Winter Soldier how I appreciated the simpler storyline, with Cap facing off against human enemies with relatable motivations. Keeping that in mind, I rate these two Captain America movies much higher than the Avengers: Infinity Wars and Endgame all-star doubleheader. Did I really care what Thanos was all about in gathering his chunky infinity-stone gauntlet and rearranging all the deck chairs in the universe? No, I did not.
*. In this movie the whole plot is being masterminded by a regular, even low-key dude named Zemo (Daniel Brühl) who has a hate on for superheroes. And he has his reasons. The narrative here comes from the Civil War storyline that ran in some Marvel comics a decade earlier. I’d actually read those comics and thought the idea — where superheroes fall out over whether or not they should accept government oversight given all the collateral damage they cause — was a good one. A lot more interesting than magic stones that open portals to other dimensions, anyway.
*. Given all the star power here, it’s basically an Avengers film. There are some newbies introduced (including Tom Holland as Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther) while MIA are Thor and Hulk, who were off fighting each other in Jeff Goldblum’s Thunderdome at the time. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is Cap’s main antagonist, being on the side of big government. I thought everyone played well, except for Paul Bettany as Vision, a character I could never warm too. I don’t know why. I liked Vision in the comic books. But in the movies he’s very dull.
*. So what you get is a lot of what Marvel does best. Spectacular fight scenes, like the battle royale that destroys Leipzig airport. Lots of likeable stars humanizing their cartoonish parts. And a story that, for once, I could get on board with. Not only is Zemo motivated, I actually liked the bait and switch at the end where the other super soldiers aren’t awakened, even though I’d been looking forward to this as a climax.
*. The only thing I didn’t like was how Stark couldn’t see through Zemo’s plan to have the Avengers destroy themselves. By this point he knew that Bucky was being controlled by Hydra when he was doing his missions as the Winter Soldier, so why did he have a total meltdown? Yes, he had to watch his parents being killed, but hadn’t he had time to get over that?
*. Instead of an army of mooks being clobbered and a god from another dimension wreaking havoc the heart of the story is the conflict between the obnoxious tech zillionaire in the age of hypercapitalism and a man out of his his time who is deeply uncomfortable about what’s happened to America. No, this isn’t high-level political commentary. But compared to the usual Marvel shenanigans it stood out as at least somewhat meaningful.
*. In short, I see this and the immediately surrounding films as marking the acme of the Marvel years. Nothing I’ve seen since was as good, and given how limited the franchise has been I don’t have high hopes of it evolving into anything interesting going forward.
*. That these movies were decent entertainment though is one thing; that they dominated the box office and transformed the movie business so completely is another. How are we going to look back on all of this sound and fury? Will we care? Will we remember it at all?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

*. In years to come, if we’re still talking about the reign of the Marvel franchise over the film industry in the first decades of the twenty-first century, we may have to take seriously the various “phases” of the MCU. And if we do, I suppose we’d locate the high point of their creative achievement as being somewhere in the middle of Phases Two and Three. Here were the handful of movies I found to be the best, including Ant-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Captain America: Civil War. I am excluding the two-part phase finale of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame because I thought those two were overripe disasters, but that’s another story.
*. The Winter Soldier is the first instalment in a two-part storyline that would be concluded in Civil War. Unfortunately, this saddles it with doing a fair bit of set-up work. I can’t say this was particularly interesting, but I did appreciate the way the story stayed somewhat on the ground. The directing team of the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo wanted an homage to 1970s political thrillers, and while this is depressing to contemplate (the road from The Parallax View and Three Days of Condor led to this?) it still made for something better than the usual MarvelCrap.

*. One big plus is the way the plot focuses on just a couple of bad guys who are at least semi-human (that is, not aliens or gods). Robert Redford feels too old for this shit, and I didn’t think he brought anything to the role, but Sebastian Stan is solid as the brooding killing machine. Given that he’s a zombie he doesn’t have to act much, but he looks the part.
*. Seeing as Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate straight arrow, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is placed in the position of providing most of the comic banter. This felt unusual, but it worked. Also lightening things up somewhat is Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Samuel L. Jackson as the irascible Nick Fury.
*. There’s nothing new here, but it’s all well done. There’s a smash-’em-up car chase that I thought was really good. Cap’s vintage leathers still score style points. Otherwise the Marvel men walk around in tight t-shirts to show that none of them miss biceps day. The climax has giant flying aircraft carriers blasting away at one another and crashing into the Potomac.
*. For straight-up superhero action, The Winter Soldier is perfectly fine. Marvel fans got what they wanted and the rest of the audience at least weren’t bored. If I had to knock it for anything it would be for the sheer silliness of Hydra and the fact that the film is basically just a placeholder. But even so it grades out as slightly above average from this studio.

The 10th Victim (1965)

*. Futuristic satire sometimes fails because it’s too far ahead of its time. That’s the sort of feeling I had watching The 10th Victim, though less because of the themes it addresses than for an aesthetic sensibility that hadn’t arrived yet.
*. The idea itself wasn’t new in 1965. The movie’s based on a short story by the wonderfully inventive author Robert Sheckley that was published in 1953. I’ve read the story, but not the later novel he expanded it into (which came out right after this movie), or either of the two sequels. In any event, the original story introduces the basic premise: people agree to hunt each other to the death, alternating as hunters and prey chosen by lottery, as a form of televised mass entertainment that allows society to blow off some steam.

*. That sense of the Big Hunt (as it’s called) being “mankind’s safety valve,” is drawn directly from Sheckley’s story, where the hunt is run by the Emotional Catharsis Bureau and is referred to as a purge. A name that would be picked up on in our own time for a dystopic murdertopia franchise.
*. In presenting a state-sponsored death sport that’s broadcast as entertainment, The 10th Victim is often credited with being the first of many similarly themed films, from The Running Man through Battle Royale to The Hunger Games (most recently, the popularity of Squid Game. shows it’s an idea with some life in it yet).
*. Being first counts for something, and it wasn’t just the first, but preceded the mass popularity of this sort of entertainment by several decades. Which gets to the point I started off raising: that The 10th Victim was actually too far ahead of its time.

*. What I mean is that it’s too much a product of the swinging Sixties, without the edge needed to give its satire more bite. I couldn’t stop thinking how much better a job Paul Verhoeven would have made of it, set alongside violent futuristic satires like RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Director Elio Petri was certainly interested in political satire with an edge, but we’re too much in Austin Powers-land here. I’m even pretty sure the bullet-firing bra Ursula Andress wears in the opening scene was the inspiration for the fembots. Zany Bond spoofs were all the rage at the time, and that’s what Petri was really plugging into.
*. Andress plays Caroline, a hunter. She’s a statuesque Nordic stunner (spawned in a Hoboken insemination clinic) who is also a bit of an “iceberg.” Sure to melt her is a Mr. Sexy named Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). He’s Caroline’s prey, but may turn the tables on the former Honey Ryder. Even with his hair cut short and dyed blonde this is a guy who could “teach a course in Latin erotics.” Fire and ice are about to meet!

*. Unfortunately, the two leads have no chemistry and the plot is too stupid to bother with. The whole thing could have, and probably should have, been presented as more of a satire on media bloodlust, with the hitmen being pitchmen selling mint tea, but this angle remains secondary to random jokes on the decline of civilization. Things like Marcello’s mistress having a collection of classic literature that is just old comic books. Or Marcello keeping his parents hidden away in a secret room. Or the California-style cult of the sun worshippers. Or any of the fashionable pads the characters lounge around in, including the yellow yurt at the end that goes on a trip to Rome’s Temple of Venus.

*. So while sending up the media is on the menu here, it’s not given a lot of play, and Caroline and Marcello just aren’t interesting enough for us to care about. It’s all too silly, and the shootout at the end, with Marcello being chased by his wife and mistress, seems a conscious parody of 8 ½ more than social commentary. Somewhere along the way Petri appears to have lost sight of what the movie was about, and never found the proper tone for it. It’s still entertaining nearly sixty years later, but the stakes for this kind of satire have been raised.

King Lear (1910)

*. As an adaptation of King Lear I don’t think this Italian effort, directed by Gerolamo Lo Savio, is any kind of advance over the 1909 Vitagraph version, but it does go down a lot easier.
*. Not that it gives us a happy ending. I don’t know if anyone has ever filmed the Nahum Tate version of King Lear, even though that was the only version people saw for over a hundred years after the Restoration. No, this one has Lear getting ready to expire on Cordelia’s body at the end, though the only print I’ve seen breaks off just as he’s still crawling toward death.
*. What made it work for me? First of all the text has been cut to its bare essentials. There’s no subplot involving Gloucester and his sons. Indeed, none of these characters is even identified. All we get is the inheritance test, Kent in the stocks, the heath, and the tragic climax.
*. Another point that adds to the fun is the colourization. It’s actually quite well done, and the green of the heath makes it look like a great place for a picnic. Of course, that the barren heath maybe shouldn’t look so much like a park is another question. And there’s no storm at all. But then rendering a storm, especially shooting on location, wasn’t easy in 1910. You needed a lot of light. Probably better to stay in studio and use gimmicky effects, as was done by Vitagraph a year earlier.
*. The final thing that made this enjoyable were the moments of perhaps unintentional humour. A couple of examples. First, Lear strikes at a stone to show the hardness of his daughters’ hearts. This hurts his hand. I thought this was funny. Also, even more incongruously, comes the scene at the end where Lear holds what looks like a long stalk of grass (it’s not a feather, as in the play) to Cordelia’s face to check if she is breathing. What makes this funny is the fact that now there really is a storm blowing. Or at least quite a strong wind. The branches in the trees, the men’s robes, and Lear’s hair and beard are all being blown and tossed about. So the idea that holding the grass over Cordelia’s face is obviously ridiculous. You can see it blowing around in Lear’s hand even before he bends down. You could say this only assists his delusion that she’s alive, but it’s still quite funny.
*. A fun bit of history then, but as with the Vitagraph production it’s not a movie that will add much to anyone’s appreciation or understanding of the play or that points in any new directions in the development of film.