Saturday, 13 September 2014


Saturday, 13 September 2014
★★★★ (out of five)

I was concerned after CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER that the character wouldn't work once removed from his period 1940s setting, but it's actually a boon for this excellent sequel, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Ironically, Marvel's Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a better Superman than DC's current Man of Steel, as they've found a way to maintain his old-fashioned patriotism and boy scout morals without it feeling antiquated and naïve in the 21st-century. They do this by ensuring the Captain represents the best of us, and a lot of this sequel's conflict is between idealism and realism.

In CAPTAIN 2, Rogers is now an active and invaluable member of S.H.I.E.L.D's counter-terrorism strike team, taking point on audacious missions alongside Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). It's a great use of his super-abilities, but Rogers is conflicted about his role when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives him a sneak peek at S.H.I.E.L.D's new Project Insight—the launch of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites, with the ability to eliminate threats pre-emptively. Rogers believes the whole idea erodes the freedom he fought for in WWII, and instead aims to keep innocent people in line through fear.

This is the first Marvel movie since IRON MAN that feels like it's actually commenting on modern, real-world concerns, and it felt very refreshing as a consequence of that. Clearly inspired by 1970s political thrillers like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (Robert Redford's even cast as a S.H.I.E.L.D bigwig Alexander Pierce), melded to the comic's own Winter Soldier storyline—where the Captain goes up against a similarly powerful mystery man, with a surprising real identity—CAPTAIN 2 had me hooked all the way through.

The broad strokes of the storyline wasn't very surprising (not least because I saw this after TV's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, which dealt with a lot of the film's aftermath), but there's enough here to keep you invested and engaged. It has the usual Marvel-powered action spectaculars—including a fantastic, edge-of-your-seat car chase with Fury set upon by vehicular assassins—but there's more intelligence and heart here than I've noticed in recent Marvel efforts.

I particularly liked Rogers going to see Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) on her deathbed in 2014, how he psyched himself up by visiting a museum exhibition about himself, and the unexpectedly lovely repartee between Rogers and 'Black Widow' (who's constantly trying to set him up on dates). And just as some of these superhero movies were beginning to feel stale, CAPTAIN 2 has shaken up the Earth-bound situation by dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D, and this summer's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY successfully expanded the scope to a truly intergalactic level.

Funny, exciting, occasionally exhilarating, but what sets CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER about is how relevant and doom-laden it felt. The story got real juice out of the Winter Soldier component (especially once the villain's mask quite literally fell off), and Evans somehow managed to make a potentially dull straight-arrow personality incredibly charming and complex. Definitely amongst the best of the Marvel movies (including Fox's X-MEN's and Sony's SPIDER-MAN's), I'm looking forward to the Captain's return in THE AVENGERS 2 and another solo sequel.

★ (out of five)

A cult curio from 1984, this brilliantly-titled piece of sci-fi weirdness is absolutely crazy and brimming with then-famous, now-famous, and were-famous actors. I desperately wanted to love BUCKAROO BANZAI, because the concept of a modern-day Renaissance man (rock star, physicist, surgeon, test pilot) fighting inter-dimensional creatures with the help of his eccentric band-mates (The Hong Kong Cavaliers), just screams outrageous fun.

In better hands, it may have lived up to its own title—but this is actually a tiresome stream of nonsense, trying far too hard to be wacky. There's very little to grab onto, character-wise or narratively, so it just gets increasingly torturous to watch. Time hasn't been kind in many ways, but I expected it to look cheap and silly, so what disappointed me was how none of the amazing actors (Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Clancy Brown, Ellen Barkin, Christopher Lloyd, John Lithgow) elevate the weak material.

That it comes from director W.D Richter (who wrote the excellent INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS from 1978 and co-wrote BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA a few years later) only disappoints me more. Maybe this just needed a better director to funnel all the madness into a better shape.

Strangely, I'd love to see a TV series based on this whole idea, as there's something about it that resonates... maybe that's why it's now a cult favourite.

★★ (out of five)

I was born in 1979, when the '70s heyday of THE MUPPETS SHOW was reaching its end on television; so my childhood memories of Jim Henson-made shows are more along the lines of SESAME STREET, FRAGGLE ROCK, LABYRINTH, etc.

It's not that Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy were unknown to me as a boy in the 1980s, but for whatever reason the original TV series and early films (THE MUPPET MOVIE, THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN) were never a big part of my development. Even 1992's A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (sort of a comeback for the Muppets after 8 years away) was released when I was entering my teenage years... so being entertained by felt puppets wasn't seen as very cool.

THE MUPPETS sequel/reboot/comeback of 2011 was perfectly fine, because it felt like it was made by people who deeply cared about the franchise, and wanted to bring newcomers into the fold. I can respect that, and what lifelong fan Jason Segel managed to do certainly worked—although it wasn't enough of a modernisation for me. I still don't see why the Muppets are stuck doing variety shows in theatres, when that's such an antiquated art-form in many ways. I guess having a YouTube channel just isn't cinematic enough, which is fair enough. The 2011 movie just about worked, because it had a "let's put on a show!" enthusiasm to carry it through, and sort of embraced the Muppets old-fashioned origins.

This direct sequel, MUPPETS MOST WANTED, has a more entertaining storyline, but that's the only real improvement. Ricky Gervais (another lifelong fan) is the leading human co-star this time, but he's surprisingly unfunny and doesn't seem to communicate what was undoubtedly a childhood dream come true making this film. Gervais is Dominic Badguy (pronounced "bad-jee"), a slimy theatrical agent who talks the Muppets into going on an expensive world tour, just so he can break into various museums and art galleries situated next-door to each venue. See, Badguy's the "number two" of notorious Russian criminal frog Constantine; who escapes from a hellish Gulag, swaps identities with his doppelgänger Kermit (that old chestnut), then tags along with the Muppets as cover for his criminal masterplan—following a treasure trail of clues in order to steal the Crown Jewels of England.

The premise is a little awkward and ungainly, but it's just a skeleton to hang lots of silly situations and copious celebrity cameos. Unfortunately, I didn't really find much of the comedy very funny, even as I attempted to adjust my brain to that of an 7-year-old this stuff is clearly aimed at. But should you really have to do that? There are plenty of animations that work for all ages, but there's just something about The Muppets that doesn't work for me.

Maybe it's that lack of attachment to them from my own youth, or the fact puppets just feel like a more childish thing than animated characters. There's obviously a lot of technical skill and joy in seeing the puppeteers do their thing, but when you're not laughing very often, and none of the songs are proving memorable... this sequel felt like a failure in a lot of ways. One problem was definitely the amount of time spent on Gervais and amphibious boss Constantine—who were both intensely dull, horrible characters.

It just wasn't much fun, really.

There was a muted box-office response to MUPPETS MOST WANTED when it was released in 2014, too—which suggests ticket-paying parents were happy to see a throwback to their youth in 2011, but don't actually have much of an appetite for new adventures every three years. This sequel made $78m from a $50 budget, so profiting gets shady when you factor in marketing costs, and chances of another film rest solely on DVD/TV sales.

Ironically, at the box-office it was Muppets Least Wanted.
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