Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
America was at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wanted to enlist in the army. There were multiple problems. He had been rejected from joining for the fifth time because of his short stature, frail demeanor, and various health problems. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American scientist, overheard Steve telling his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), about why he wanted to serve his country, he was convinced that Steve was the right man for his experiment: creating a super soldier. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston, suffered from a lack of focus in terms of characterization and motivation. For instance, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull, worked for Adolf Hitler by searching for artifacts which could help the Nazis win the war. Naturally, Red Skull eventually wanted all the power for himself but his methods confounded me. In order to take over the world, he wanted to destroy it by attacking most of the world’s major cities. But why? It was confusing to me because I didn’t have a picture of what kind of world he wanted. If he wished to lead a world lacking in technology, making the cities go boom would somewhat make sense. But it didn’t seem like that was the kind of world he wanted, especially in the way he depended on technology to gain more power. He was megalomaniacal but the reasons behind his actions should not have been confusing. If I was a super villain, it’d be simple: I would assert my power by making sure that everyone paid attention to the one city I intended on destroying. The film was action-packed, gorgeously shot, especially the slow-motion montages where Captain America and the American troops demolished Nazi camps like an unwavering tornado. It was almost like watching a well-done commercial aimed to convince young people to sign up for the military. However, character development done right was critical for this movie because it had an underlying message about the costs of war. That is, in terrible times of war, the umbilical cord of friendships could be cut in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a bullet, wild or perfectly aimed, puncturing the body’s critical spot and the person drops dead. Since the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not efficient in terms of developing supporting characters with subtlety, they were either only good or only bad, the scenes when an important character was about to die felt rather flat, almost unconvincing. To make room for those necessary details, the romance between Steve and Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a woman in the military, could have been either watered down or taken out completely. The scenes in which one of them would get jealous of the other when one interacted with the opposite sex a certain way were not fun and completely predictable. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had several great moments, namely the action sequences, but it needed to work on the story of the man behind Captain America’s mask, through those who cared for him, in the latter half. If those two are equally strong, then the material becomes more than a movie which happens to have a superhero in it.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) decided to enlist in the Army to go to Vietnam and fight for American ideals. The film was divided into three sections: the innocence prior to the war, the three friends’ participation in the war, and how the characters viewed their hometown after they returned from war. Initially, I didn’t understand why the picture felt the need to focus on a wedding for a running time of about an hour. I felt as though it simply wanted to be an epic movie by being three hours long. But once our protagonists reached Vietnam and realized that going war for something they did not fully understand was their most critical misstep, the events that transpired during the wedding felt necessary. It served as a mirror so that, as active viewers, we were able to understand how deep certain friendships ran, the rivalry between Michael and Nick over the girl-next-door Linda (Meryl Streep), and, despite the guys having a strong connection to their Russian culture, they were true Americans and we should not blame them for wanting to, despite not fully weighing the pros and cons, defend our country for reasons they thought was right. As the film went on, it became more powerful because it had a solid grasp of tension, the suspense in terms of the picture’s imagery and the friction between the characters. In the middle portion, I felt an overwhelming sadness when Michael, Steven and Nick were captured and forced to play Russian roulette. The way they worked as a team to escape the Vietnamese was nail-biting because they knew, as well as we did, they were as good as dead if they continued to play by the rules. The scene in which the three of them sailed down the river using a dead tree was one of those images that would remain in my mind for a long time. Toward the end, I felt almost numb because the men who managed to come back to their hometown, although more complex because they were more experienced, felt almost hollow because they could not relate to the people around them. There were classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder but I admired the fact that it was shown in sublte way. Another image that I was able to extract myriads meaning from was when Michael chose not to shoot a deer when he had a chance. To me, Michael saw the animal as a symbol for freedom–something that he felt was out of his reach (and will always be out of his reach) even though he was, arguably, able to return home as a whole. Directed by Michael Cimino, “The Deer Hunter” is an atypical war picture because it focused more on the personal struggles instead of the horror of being surrounded by flying bullets and explosions. It argued that returning home could feel just as dangerous as standing alone in the battlefield.
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team of commandos (Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Shane Black) take up a mission to rescue fellow members of the army from the Latin American jungle. Schwarzenegger’s old pal (Carl Weathers) who now worked for the CIA also came along with them to put his own agendas into motion. But little did they know that from a distance, an alien creature was observing their every move and mimicking their voices and expressions. Right from the very beginning, it was obvious that this was a “guy movie” because of its great focus on showing the military lifestyle, its weapons and artilleries, and men acting nothing short of masculine. But what makes it better than most typical films targeted for men is that it had a strong ability to build tension while at the same time still delivering the glorious violence and buckets of blood. Directed by John McTiernan, he didn’t let The Predator reveal itself until thirty to forty-five minutes into the picture. It simply observed from afar via the soldiers’ and the surroundings’ heat signatures while trying to practice certain human qualities. As the commandos started dying one by one, each scene became that much more intense because it meant that the final duel between Schwarzenegger and The Predator was that much closer. Acting-wise, this movie didn’t have much to offer because all the actors had to do was either look tough or scared. Nevertheless, I was engaged and curious what would happen next because the soldiers were pretty much fighting a creature who was a master of camouflage. I thought the strongest part of the film was the final twenty minutes. The dialogue was minimal because Schwarzenegger was the last man standing and he had to stay quiet in order to avoid attracting the alien who loves to hunt. The movie then had no choice but to rely on both the movements of the camera and that of the lead actor’s as he tried to find ways to trap and hopefully kill his enemy. Its special and visual effects may seem a bit dated now but with older films, what’s important to me is the concept. I believe “Predator” more than delivers because it was entertaining, sometimes smart, suspenseful and at times downright terrifying. This is a prime example of a sci-fi action flick that learned something from the horror genre.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” moved me in a number of ways and I found it to be strange because I find that to be a rarity in most historical films. Queen Elizabeth I (played by the ever-talented Cate Blanchett) must quickly take control of England and the lands it possesses after the death of her half-sister Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke). But it proves to be a clincher of a task because England was divided by religion, increasing poverty, a lack of men to form a proper army to defend itself from those who were hungry for power, and not to mention those who wanted to assassinate her. I really felt for Blanchett’s character because I saw her change from this warm, free-spirited woman who was open to love and idealism into a fierce queen who learned how to set her heart aside and make difficult decisions. Blanchett was the perfect actor to play the role because I’ve always seen her as warm but having the capacity to turn in an ice queen in a second. I enjoyed how the picture managed to balance the romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), the insidious affairs of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), and the eventual revelation of the secretive Sir Francis Walshingham’s (Geoffrey Rush) intentions. I was so engaged with the story because each scene had a purpose and something crucial was always at the forefront. Aside from the acting, I admired the picture’s use of lighting (especially the scenes inside the palace during the day), stunning set pieces and wardrobes. I cannot believe “Shakespeare in Love” won against this film because this one is far superior in every respect. I did enjoy “Shakespeare in Love” in some ways but it did not quite take me in a rollercoaster of emotions as “Elizabeth” did. This is far more complex especially with the issues it tried to tackle such as feminism during a time when men dominated the scene and how religion was often used as an excuse to justify sinful actions (in the least). While I do admit that I do not know much about the history of Queen Elizabeth I, I am now that much more curious to read up on her accomplishments.
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This sequel to the highly successful “Night at the Museum” finds Ben Stiller, once a night museum guard in the first film, as a thriving businessman. But after he gets ahold of the news that the museum where he met the historical-figures-turned-to-life is to be closed, he feels like he must do something in order to repay them for inspiring him to do something better with his life. More conflict ensue when Stiller gets a call from Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), obviously in danger because Kahmunrah (the hilarious Hank Azaria) and his Egyptian army wants the artifact which turns everything in a museum into life to pursue his dream of world domination. Like the first installment, what I love about this picture is its energy. It’s not afraid to put disparate and random elements into the picture so it constantly surprised me. If I were to pick highlights from the film, I would definitely pick any scene when Stiller and Amy Adams (as the charming Amelia Earhart) would talk because they do have genuine chemistry. By the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen between them even though we all know that she’s going to turn into a statue when the sun rises. I would also point out that one scene when the both of them decided to jump into a popular photograph (a soldier/sailor and a woman kissing during the end of a war) and everything turned into black and white. During those scenes, I felt like I was watching more than a family-friendly film with funny one-liners. Having Azaria and his Axis of Evil (Steve Coogan as Octavius, Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible, and Jon Bernthal as Al Capone) was absolutely brilliant because of his well-timed sense of humor. Every time he spoke (lisp and all), I couldn’t help but laugh because of that one scene where he (too enthusiastically) declared, “I have… come back… to life!” That bit when he tried to decide whether Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch were evil enough to join his team was pretty darn amusing. Still, I wished that Rami Malek (as Ahkmenrah) was in it more because he really was very funny in the first movie. His increased appearance would’ve also made sense because his older brother (Azaria) was the main villain here. Yes, the slapstick is still present (though in lesser amount compared to the first) but I really didn’t mind it because everything was happening all at once. The historical and pop culture figures may have been portrayed in a cliché manner but I think that’s half the fun of it. I say this one is just as good as the original even though it feels like it doesn’t have a profound story, just one funny scene after another. If they do make a second sequel, I’ll still be interested in watching it.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I haven’t seen the 1951 version by the time I wrote this review so I’m not going to compare the 2008 version to that one. That said, it’s interesting to me how Keanu Reeves can be so good at playing robotic characters (like Neo in “The Matrix” franchise) but so bad at playing real people that are supposed to be emotionally crippled or conflicted (as Alex Wyler in “The Lake House” and Detective Tom Ludlow in “Street Kings”). I thought he was effective here as Klaatu, a humanoid whose role is to determine whether the human species need to be obliterated in order to save the Earth. He was creepy, convincingly powerful, and had a definite sense of purpose. He claims that if the Earth dies, everything else will perish along with it but if all humans die, the Earth and everything that it nurtures will go on living. I thought that was a decent reasoning so I went along with it. What’s unforgivable, however, is its lack of human emotional core. That’s when Jennifer Connely and her step-son (Jaden Smith) come in. Their backstory isn’t enough to convince me why Reeves should spare the human race. In the end, I wanted to see an apocalypse because humans are portrayed as violent people (the United States army) and incapable of standing up to authority, such as when Kathy Bates (as the president’s Secretary of Defense) followed what the president wanted her to do despite her best instincts. There are only four things I liked about the movie which saved it from utter failure: the somewhat brilliant visual effects, Gort as Klaatu’s automaton companion, the idea of humans’ nature regarding a precipice and change, and John Cleese as the Nobel prize-winning professor who we meet in the middle of the picture. The rest is junk, which is a shame because the movie is started off very well. The director, Scott Derrickson, could’ve made a superior film that is more character-driven and less visually impressive. After all, the story is about humanity and why we should be saved from extinction. Since the director lost that core (or maybe he didn’t find it in the first place), the final product is a mess. This picture can be an enjoyable Netflix rental on an uneventful Friday night but do not go rushing into the cinema to see it.