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 film started off with General George Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) delivering a speech about war and the importance of winning being embedded in the American culture with the gigantic United States flag on the background. It was probably one of the most patriotic scenes I’ve seen portrayed on screen, but at the same time I felt that the picture was making fun of itself. The scene aimed to establish our main character: He was intimidating because he was obsessed with discipline and excellence. His reputation as being one of the feared generals, especially by the Nazis, was well-earned because he was an uncompromising man. Fear sometimes generates respect. The film was beautifully shot. In war pictures, I find it uncommon that I notice the environment because, to me, at least with the more recent war movies I’ve seen, the environ is simply a template where we get to see bombs exploding like there’s no tomorrow. But in “Patton,” I found the second scene outstanding because it featured a peaceful landscape in the Arabian desert where American soldiers’ bodies laid lifeless as Arabian people stole the soldiers’ clothes and other belongings. Again, there was the theme of duality. On one hand, it was sad to see those dead and rotting soliders. On the other hand, we could look at the Arabian people and see that looting was their chance for survival because they obviously didn’t have much. The film is different than other war movies. With “Patton,” we don’t follow any soldier in the battlefield or realize any of his personal struggles. It simply followed the general during his glory days as he tried to compete against British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates), attempted to outsmart German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), his probation because he slapped a soldier around for complaining about being afraid of the sounds of war, up until he regained his footing in the military. Throughout his journey, we learned so much about him such as his passion for poetry and penchant for history. The latter was his strength but at the same time it was his weakness. His enemies who didn’t know much about history often lost but those who were knowledgeable thought Patton was predictable and almost pretentious. Naturally, his strongest enemies were the ones who were just as smart as him. No one can argue against Patton’s biggest weakness being his mouth. He had no filter; he didn’t think he needed one so he was prone to saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune time. “Patton,” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and partly written by Francis Ford Coppola, won seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor) not only because of its epic scale but also because of its small details that made this biopic all the more personal.
The Crazies (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 original of the same name, “The Crazies” was about a man (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife’s (Radha Mitchell) struggle for survival when a strange chemical started affecting their friends and neighbors. At first, the infected would have a fever but after two days, they would exhibit strange behaviors which ranged from catatonia to full-on violence like killing their families or random strangers. I was surprised with how good this movie was because most of the reviews I read expressed disappointment. I really liked that this film, directed by Breck Eisner, knew how to build suspense and had a pay-off every ten to fifteen minutes so I was engaged with what would happen next. I loved the way it used tight spaces to its advantage, such as the horrifyingly terrific scenes in the morgue and the car wash. When at its best, it reminded me of the relentless scenes in “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later.” Unfortunately, the film had its drawbacks thirty minutes into it when the military started taking over the small town. Prior to that, I thought the movie was fantastic because it felt personal. The main characters had no idea what was going on and slowly but surely, the safe life they were so used to living was broken by very strange and creepy happenings which started during a baseball game. With the military in the picture, it became cold and impersonal. Having said that, since this was a remake, I knew that it still had to remain loyal to its original source. However, I felt as though the movie could have minimized the military scenes, which they did during the last twenty or so minutes. But maybe this version minimized the politics as much as they could. I’m not sure because I haven’t seen the original. The movie was at its best when the lead characters who were easy to root for were placed in paranoid situations in which they either had to hide from an infected or think that a friend had the virus and it was only a matter of time until they wouldn’t be on the same side anymore. “The Crazies” was fun to watch because when it’s serious, it gets pretty scary, but it had unintentionally funny lines. It reminded me of a hybrid among the zombie pictures mentioned earlier, “The Happening” and the highly underrated “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” back in 2003. It could have used a little more brain and character development but those elements were the furthest things in my mind when the characters were being attacked from left and right in the most gruesome ways possible.
Beau Travail (1999)
★ / ★★★★
This movie about French soldiers stationed in Djibouti left a big question mark in my head. At first I thought Claire Denis, the director, was trying to establish the characters via showing us the ennui of military life: from ironing clothes, making the perfect creases to the every day physical and mental training the soldiers had to endure. But half-way through the picture, nothing much changed and I felt myself becoming more and more frustrated with it. I wanted to know more about what made the characters tick. Instead, by the end of the picture, I couldn’t tell them apart (especially since they all have the same haircuts but that’s beside the point), I didn’t know anything about their motivations, and I didn’t know anything about their lives outside of the military. In a nutshell, it felt very one-dimensional. That feeling of detachment made me not care and watching the film was like pulling teeth. I’ve read some summaries from other reviews and they somehow found a story that the film tried to tell. Upon reading those reviews, I really felt like I watched a completely different movie because none of those descriptions matched what I saw (which was pretty much half-naked guys runnning around all over the desert). Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy movies that are stripped down with minimal dialogue but they have to have sort of emotional resonance. I didn’t find that in this picture despite my best efforts to look underneath the surface. The only scene that I genuinely enjoyed was the last when Denis Lavant broke into a dance. It felt like a huge sigh of relief because the rest of the movie felt so controlled, cold and tough. If they had more scenes like that, this train-wreck would’ve been saved. Unfortunately, it was too little too late.
★★★ / ★★★★
Some people say that the portrayal of the US Naval Academy was unrealistic, but I really wasn’t looking for realism when I decided to see this film. I went to see it to gauge James Franco’s acting ability in his lesser-known or less critically-acclaimed movies. I love stories about underestimated people who dream of big things but are born in poor families. This is a perfect example of that and, aside from some of its overdramatic scenes (especially before a boxing match), pretty much everything worked. I thought it was interesting how the filmmakers related life to a boxing match–how a strong person gets hit countless times and sometimes falls but is never defeated unless he decides to not stand back up. And throughout this picture, that’s the overall tone: a challenge is presented to Franco’s character, how he learns to deal with those challenges and build a reputation between his peers and higher officers. It’s also about learning to ask for help and when it’s the right time to help others even if they don’t want any help. I thought Donnie Wahlberg is brilliant as a higher officer who believes in Franco even though he doesn’t have that many scenes. In a way, he seemed like a father figure who provides support but is also there to provide some tough love. Jordana Brewster as Franco’s love interest is surprisingly effective because the two of them actually have chemistry. She managed to balance sensitivity and toughness well. As for Tyrese Gibson, at first I thought he was going to be an archetypal baddie but over time, we learn that he had to be tough because of the things he experienced in the past; even though he ultimately cares, it’s difficult for him to portray what he’s really feeling–a trait that a lot of people have. I think a lot of critics were harsh on this film because it does have elements from other (better) movies about a person who overcomes challenges in the Academy/military. For me, it’s more important to treat a movie as its own instead of comparing it to similar movies that came before (especially if it’s not a sequel or a part of a series).