CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
The only battle that matters during Captain America: Civil War is deciding which character is the most fun to watch. With relative newbies—such as Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland)—running amongst most of the current Avengers roster, the film is a testament to Marvel’s casting process, if nothing else. All of the performers are impressive in their own ways, whether their focal point is heroism, anxiety, guilt, vengeance or humor. We’ve either grown to care about these characters or at least enjoy the hell out of their company. Marvel has actually gotten to the point where you could remove the action set pieces, and you’d still have a completely entertaining work. But let’s not get any bright ideas…
For example, there are few dynamics I enjoy more in the Marvel universe than that between Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Sam Wilson’s Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They’re great together because they’re cut from the same military cloth, but they also see America for what it really is—broken, but worth fixing. And when they see the potential for a great injustice—such as over-surveillance and eliminating potential threats, rather than actual ones, in Winter Soldier—they act instinctively.
In Civil War, the surface danger is government micromanagement of the heroes themselves. After the massive destruction and casualties we saw in both Avengers films and Winter Soldier, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, returning to his role in The Incredible Hulk) and other world leaders are concerned that superheroes are policing the world under no one’s authority or supervision, and any death and damage they cause has no consequences. An incident in Nigeria at the top of this film (which also closes out Frank Grillo’s Crossbones storyline from Winter Soldier) serves as a reminder that heroes are just as likely to kill innocents as villains. That, coupled with a not-so-chance encounter that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has with the mother of a young man who died in Sokovia, pushes Iron Man in line with the newly drafted Sokovia Accords, an agreement stating that the United Nations would be in charge of dispensing heroes to the world’s trouble spots, rather than having powered people act on their own.
Captain America’s rejection of the Accords partly stem from knowing that the UN would likely send heroes after his old friend Buck Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whose brainwashed assassin identity, Winter Soldier, is slowly regaining his memory of his childhood friendship with Rogers. After a terrorist attack on the signing ceremony for the Accords by someone who appears to be Winter Soldier, lines are drawn among the heroes, with Captain America and Iron Man dividing up the Avengers and recruiting a few new faces as they beef up their teams for the biggest showdown Marvel has ever staged.
A common criticism of even the best Marvel films is that the villains are never nearly as interesting or compelling as the heroes (with Loki being the exception, and they’re saving him for the next Thor movie). But by making the primary adversaries in Civil War characters we already care about, in some cases deeply, there’s a remarkable shift in the feel of the big battle scenes. Each punch, crunch and explosion hurts a little bit more because it’s happening to people we like. There is something like a conventional villain in Civil War as well, and while Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is a familiar name to comic book fans, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (working mostly from the original Civil War storyline by Mark Millar) have given this character a completely different backstory that actually ties him more to the movies than you might expect. And the genius of his plan isn’t that he’s setting some new type of evil upon the world; he’s far too clever for that. The reveal about who he truly is and what his motivations are might be the film’s weakest element, but it certainly drives home the bigger ideas Civil War is embracing.
With such a large cast, you might think some characters get short changed, but honestly, that isn’t the case. Certainly, some characters have more screen time than others, but when the time comes to choose sides, everyone has their moment to ponder the question and go with their gut (except Paul Bettany’s Vision, who seems to be playing the odds—which leads to a great deal of internal conflict for him). Civil War couldn’t be more topical in our current political climate. The film is about the use of force, government intervention, and allowing emotion to rule over reason when it comes to conflict.
We dig deeper into the minds of lesser-known characters like Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Emily Van Camp’s Sharon Carter (whom we find out is the niece of Captain America’s old flame Peggy Carter, who has a presence here as well). A few familiar faces don’t really get much by way of character development—such as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who comes out of retirement to join the fight—but they do report to center stage when the time comes for a blowout action sequence to make up for it. I will admit, I felt a bit bad for Don Cheadle’s War Machine, who gets the least amount to do in terms of action or growing as a person.
As for the newest faces to the Avengers world, Paul Rudd gets to keep being funny, small and slightly criminal, and his introduction to these characters (who his Scott Lang clearly idolizes) is charming and amusing. If you think Boseman’s main objective was to get us excited for the stand-alone Black Panther film, then he does a bang-up job at that and then some. His T’Challa, the new ruler of his homeland, the fictional African nation of Wakanda, is a mighty character who has the greatest reason to want Winter Soldier dead, but is also the most willing to admit when he’s wrong and needs an emotional reset. Black Panther’s inclusion here is far from just a commercial for a future film; in many ways, he’s the heart and soul of Winter Solider, and Boseman reaches deep to make that happen.
And then there’s Spider-Man, who I’m going to say very little about, except that he is in this film a lot more than you think, and Tom Holland is already the greatest Spidey we’ve ever had, if only because he’s the right age and can banter with the best of them. I should also mention that it’s great to see Martin Freeman on hand as Everett K. Ross (apparently not related to Hurt’s character, although that’s never explained), a fairly substantial player from the Black Panther comic book universe, although that’s not apparent in this film. It’s a little unclear what such a high-profile actor is doing in a seemingly inconsequential part, but I’m guessing we’ll be educated on that down the road.
Captain America: Civil War is a gloriously executed superhero film that could just as easily have been a complete trainwreck, with so many stories and characters to take into account. But somehow, returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who will also be at the helm of the upcoming, two-part Avengers: Infinity War films) have managed what seems to be the impossible: having every piece fall into place. And they do so without making this feel like it’s all set-up for whatever is next. Sure, we get previews of what’s to come in the Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther films, but they don’t sacrifice the story being told to wedge in the teasers of will be told in future movies. Civil War isn’t just better than most other superhero films; it’s far superior to most other films of its size and scope. It’s lengthy (2 hours, 27 minutes), but nearly every minute is loaded with great details that keep us moving and invite us to look at the social commentary embedded in the entertainment. You know, like the best comic books always do.
THE FAMILY FANG
I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but white people have it rough all over. And few white families have it rougher than the Fangs of upstate New York, a family of somewhat famous performance artists that who would stage fake, often horrific, events (like a fake bank robbery that ends in a shooting) just to capture on camera the reactions of the real-life people who bear witness. Something about their brand of pranks made them recognized for capturing genuine emotions and thus a small piece of the human condition…or so we’re told. The family includes patriarch Caleb (James Butler Harner as a younger man; Christopher Walken as a much older one), mom Camille (Kathryn Hahn; Maryann Plunkett) and siblings Annie (who grows up to be a noted actress, played by Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (who becomes a novelist, played by Jason Bateman, who also happens to have directed The Family Fang).
The adult children are torn, because they know they were severely messed up by the experience of growing up in this environment where you could never tell what was real and what wasn’t, unless you were in on the joke. At some point when they got old enough, the kids started to become the victims in these pranks rather than co-conspirators, and it drove Annie out of the house when she was still a teenager. But Annie and Baxter also realize that they likely would not have excelled in their chosen fields without this background, so they are reluctantly grateful, even though they avoid their parents like the plague. But when Baxter is in an accident that requires hospitalization, the staff gets in touch with his parents. When he finds this out, Baxter calls Annie and asks for a rescue; naturally, they all land up at the hospital at the same time and end up back at the old homestead.
A great deal of The Family Fang is a trip down memory lane. The parents have a stash of VHS tapes containing their hidden camera pranks, which the kids go through to maybe understand their own history and to find out when and why the pranks turned on them and felt far more like attacks. Kidman fares the best in the film, as an actress having self-worth issues long before she is reunited with her family. When the parents decide to take a long weekend in the country and end up disappearing in a part of the state where a great number of truck stop murders have taken place, Annie immediately assumes it’s another gag, while the police and Baxter assume the worst.
Based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson and adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Lindsay-Abaire, The Family Fang’s biggest drawback is that there is no empathetic entry point into this family. Baxter is probably the closest we get, but his bit hangup is writer’s block. Boo hoo, join the club. Something told me very early on that being put back in a room with the two crazy people that raised him would kickstart the creative juices once again. I certainly don’t need a film filled with likable characters for it to be tolerable, but give us someone to care about who doesn’t come across as either a whiney child or a total asshole.
I was a strong supporter of Bateman’s directing debut, Bad Words, both because of his nasty performance and his well-crafted direction. But something is missing from The Family Fang, which is a shame because there are a few great elements floating around in its running time, chief among them Kidman’s performance, who turns out to be great as a neurotic actress on the verge of total collapse. There’s a message in here (however muddled) about coming to terms with who we are and who made us that way, for better or worse (I’ll let you guess which one dominates this film), and when a legitimate, cohesive thought escapes from these players, you feel it. But most of the time, you just want to kick them in the throat for being so annoying and clueless about how human beings work and connect. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY
Attempting to use a visual medium to tell a story involving a process of the mind in an interesting manner is one of the most difficult exercises known to all of filmdom. But that doesn’t seem to stop filmmakers from trying to make it work, likely because, when it’s done well, it can be quite exhilarating. The latest example of this belongs to The Man Who Knew Infinity, the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, HBO’s “The Newsroom”), an Indian math genius living in the early part of the 1900s, whose work is still the foundation of much study decades later.
He began his professional career as a lowly clerk with no formal education, working for accountant Sir Francis Spring (Stephen Fry), who saw great potential in the young man. Ramanujan was also newly married, still living with his mother, who did not get along with wife Janaki (Devika Bhise). And all of them were living in poverty. Sir Francis has enough confidence in Ramanujan to allow him to send a letter explaining some of his theorem to Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who is astonished by the examples sent to him. Ramanujan is invited to study at Trinity College at Cambridge, and the two men form a friendship built almost entirely on a very pure love of the worlds that mathematics opens up to them.
Facing a great deal of racism among the faculty and students, Ramanujan also feels hindered by having to learn the basics of presenting results, rather than simply giving them. Hardy’s primary task is getting his pupil taken seriously and eventually published, but the young man has never written out the proofs that would form the building blocks of his calculations. He also has no skills in actual lecturing and presentation of his formulas, so he must be taught that as well, which he feels is a waste of his mind and time. The Man Who Knew Infinity is equal parts a story about Hardy letting Ramanujan set his mind free to expand his knowledge, and about Ramanujan learning to rein in his all-seeing brain and focus on showing his work. There’s a moment in the film when one of Hardy’s well-meaning colleagues (played by Toby Jones) finds errors in one of Ramanujan’s formulas, and it’s a humbling lesson for the young man, who has gone his entire life believing that if he saw it in his head, it was right.
The final third of the film concerns Ramanujan’s struggles when he contracts tuberculosis during the winter months at school, and it’s only then that Hardy realizes that this young Indian student may be his only friend. A subplot involving letters between Ramanujan and his wife never reaching each other might be entirely based on fact, but it doesn’t make the film any more interesting. The most fascinating moments in The Man Who Knew Infinity revolve around the work and the struggle Ramanujan faces to be taken seriously by the skeptical faculty, and any time the movie strays from that, it suffers.
The film also gives Irons one of his best roles in decades, playing a fully fleshed out character with actual human emotions and a pulse, and not just a vague authoritative type with a weighty voice. Patel is also quite exceptional in this piece, as a man torn between several worlds and always looking for ways to make himself a little less homesick for India and his wife. Avoiding sentimentality at all costs, director Matt Brown (whose only other film is the 2000 release Ropewalk) and writer Matt Brown (working from the biography by Robert Kanigel) focus on that small number of individuals who find emotional satisfaction in knowledge, while keeping a safe distance from A Beautiful Mind territory. The Man Who Knew Infinity is a mostly solid endeavor that certainly offers up a story you’ve likely never been exposed to. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Part Cinderella story, part family tragedy, Viva, Ireland’s selection for Best Foreign Language Film, is actually set entirely in Cuba and centers on the magical-realistic world of drag performers in Havana. Young Jesus (Héctor Medina) does hair and makeup for some of the performers, but has aspirations of being a performer one day. When the club’s manager and lead performer Mama (Luis Alberto García) decides to give the kid a break and do a number, the transformation is staggering and a new star is born in the form of Viva, who walks into the crowd and is promptly punched in the face by a customer who is unfamiliar to any of the performers.
Jesus does what he can to survive, after being abandoned by his father at a young age and having his mother die on him when he was still a youngster. He does hair in the neighborhood when he’s not at the club, and when money is tight, he sometimes hustles in the local gay pick-up park, where his young, striking features make him a favorite among the visitors. It should come as no surprise that the stranger that punched Jesus is his father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría), who has been in jail and otherwise absent from his son’s life for 15 years, but comes back expecting to run the roost again. He starts by forbidding his son from performing any longer, and since the usually supportive Mama doesn’t want any trouble in the club, he honors the father’s demand, which breaks Jesus’ heart.
Writer Mark O’Halloran and director Paddy Breathnach (I Went Down, Blow Dry) have a wonderful grasp of the desolation of modern Cuba, which occasionally gives way to great beauty. A former boxer, long out of training, Angel believes he can get a job back at the gym at which he used to train, but a severe drinking problem, and even more troubling rage issues, make that impossible, making him even more of a burden on Jesus’ way of living. There is a strange kind of love between the two men that stems from Jesus wanting to be a dutiful son (if only to get his father to allow him to perform again) and Angel wishing he wasn’t such a human disaster so that he could counsel his son properly.
The drag shows are hypnotic, especially when Viva is on stage, and the rest of the film throws a sobering spotlight on lives lived on the brink of homelessness, prostitution, starvation and bodily harm. I could listen to Mama and the other performers all day, as they discuss their lives outside the club, gossiping about other performers, men they’ve dated, and other backstage secrets that we rarely are privy to, even in documentaries about these glamour queens. At its best, Viva transports us to another place so completely that it feels like another planet; but when it sees fit, it hurls us back down to the lowest depths of this world as well. It alternates from exotic to all-too-familiar with seamless transitions and staggering performances at its core, until you find yourself immersed in the sights and sounds of every corner of Havana, which is on the verge of dramatic change. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
This visionary animated work imagines a world in which the greatest inventive scientific minds of the 19th and early-20th centuries are removed from society, resulting in a world fueled entirely by coal and charcoal. Yes, steam punk has entered children’s films in that stunning April and the Extraordinary World, a French, Belgian and Canadian co-production that is perhaps one of the most visually creative and expressive animated work I’ve seen outside of Studio Ghibli.
Young Avril (or April, in English) and her parents are working on a formula to make certain animals indestructible, and instead make them intelligent enough to speak. This development sparks a revolution of sorts in which scientists go missing and, by 1941, Napoleon V is the ruler of France, while the world is left in an invention-less limbo—no televisions, no flight beyond large zeppelins on cables, no conventional electricity, and certainly nothing powered by petroleum-based products. Now a young woman, Avril (voiced by Marion Cotillard) is still searching for her missing parents, while some unknown force is pursuing her, hoping she can finish the invincibility formula, which sets her on the run with her talking cat, Darwin (Philippe Katerine); her grandfather Pops (Jean Rochefort); and a young rapscallion Julius (Marc-Andre Katerine).
April and the Extraordinary World is co-directed by Christian Desmares (animation coordinator on Persepolis) and Franck Ekinci, working from the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, and the scope and realization of the technology on display here is almost too much to take in with just one viewing. Perhaps the most shocking aspect to the movie is that many of the world’s animals have been exposed to the intelligence formula and have been talking and inventing ways to make themselves stronger and more dangerous through technology for decades. Every frame of this work is magnificent and beautifully executed world building and genuinely innovative design work. Most true animation lovers are constantly looking outside of the U.S. for truly inspired works of art, and April and the Extraordinary World is true science-fiction accomplishment.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Some screenings are in French with English subtitles, with voices by Cotillard, Rochefort and Olivier Gourmet. Other showings are dubbed in English, with voices by Susan Sarandon, Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, and J.K. Simmons. Check showtimes to see which version of April and the Extraordinary World is playing when.