Film Review

Captain America: Civil War


Spoilers, natch.

Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching.

Captain America and Iron Man are by far my favorite Marvel characters thus far, and the Avengers I find most interesting. That they find themselves on opposite sides here is made all the more interesting when you realize how both have essentially flip-flopped. Stark, the recalcitrant “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” playing by his own rules but tormented by guilt, now wants controls on their heretofore unchecked power. Rogers, the patriotic soldier desperate to fight for good, now is disillusioned by authoritarian overreach and wary of a corruptible bureaucracy. Neither of them are wrong. The other superheroes who align with or against them have their own reasons for doing so, but fundamentally Civil War concerns itself with this core conflict.

I suppose this puts me on the #TeamIronMan side of things, but I think there absolutely should be some oversight of the burgeoning cadre of “enhanced” persons formerly under the purview of SHIELD. Even after gnashing their teeth about the devastation of Sokovia, it takes like two seconds before this motley crew of all-powerful superheroes with fragile egos and hair-trigger tempers are obliterating an airport or whatever building they happen to be in during their latest squabble. It’s like they’re all early-stage Spider-Man, wracked with teenage insecurity, lacking self-discipline, flailing around while trying to discover and control the extent of their powers. Setting aside the ethical debate over the Sokovian Accords, the cost of their property damage alone warrants reparation and regulation.

As for the film itself, the directors Anthony and Joe Russo mentioned in an interview that they tried not to follow the typical three-act superhero movie structure, which is something I noticed while watching. The film doesn’t resolve where we’re conditioned to expect it; it could have ended at several points but didn’t. Perhaps that’s a product of the ongoing (infinite?) nature of the MCU, wherein each movie doesn’t begin and end in its own self-contained universe like normal movies and needs to set up the next installments. (Which currently include not only the two Avengers: Infinity War films, but offshoot franchises for Black Panther, Spider-Man [again again], Doctor Strange, and a bajillion other products characters.)

However, for the first time in eight years’ worth of movies within Phase 1 and 2 of the MCU, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with, or at least resigned to, winding through the spider’s web of stories with cautious optimism, knowing not every installment will achieve the same balance of thoughtfulness, wit, and dazzling spectacle the best of the MCU display.

As much as it’s true that superhero films are eating Hollywood; as much as it’s true that a fraction of the billions being spent on these franchises could and should be allocated to the smaller, non-serialized films that end up on Oscar ballots and Top 10 lists far more often than the latest comic-book fare… I enjoyed watching superheroes fighting each other. It was fun (if sometimes confusing to determine who was on which side and why), and made the case for being seen on the big screen. For another entrant into an already abundant genre, that’s good enough for me.

America Politics Technology

Bad Tesseractors

Remember in The Avengers when it was revealed that Selvig, a scientist Loki brainwashed to do his bidding, had programmed a failsafe measure into the device he had created to harness the power of the Tesseract, and that failsafe was the villain Loki’s own scepter? Imagine that scenario with the good and evil dynamic reversed and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the new revelation, courtesy of ProPublica and The New York Times, that the NSA has been circumventing many of the encryption and security tools put in place to protect online communications from prying eyes.

NSA agent.
NSA agent.

For this disclosure we can thank former NSA agent and current Russian tourist Edward Snowden, whose data dump contained documents that uncovered the NSA’s secret efforts to undermine Internet security systems using code-breaking super computers and collaboration with tech companies to hack into user computers before their files could be encrypted.

The most nefarious aspect of this revelation, however, is the NSA’s attempt to “introduce weaknesses” into encryption standards used by developers that would allow the agency to easier hack into computers. So now, not only has the NSA flouted basic civil rights and U.S. law, they’re simply playing by their own rules. They couldn’t win the right to insert a “back door” into encryption standards in their 1990s court battles, so they gave the middle finger to the law and tried again anyway, but this time in secret. It’s a betrayal of the social contract the Internet was founded on, says engineer Bruce Schneier, and one that needs to be challenged by engineers who can design a more secure Internet and set up proper governance and strong oversight.

The worst part of all this is that there’s probably some twisted legal justification for this somewhere. Starting in Bush’s administration and continuing into Obama’s, the dark world of “homeland security” has received both tacit and explicit approval from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches for its increasingly Orwellian surveillance techniques — all in the name of “national security.” I’m sure there’s a lot of good being done behind the scenes at the NSA, CIA, and other clandestine organizations, but really, who are we kidding?

Film Review

Favorite Films Of 2012


With a fortnight now between us and 2012, I’ve had time to consider which films I liked in what I think was overall a weaker year for films than previous ones. Keeping in mind I’ve yet to see a few key films, here (in alphabetical order) are seven movies from last year that grabbed hold of me in some way:

The Avengers. How fun was this one? Sure, there was nearly too much going on and the villain was sub par, but this band-of-misfits story was popcorn fare at its most alchemic and thrilling. And though it’s a clear money-grabbing ploy, Marvel’s inter- and multi-film thread between the Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Avengers movies thrills me to no end.

Les Misérables. I hear and understand all of your protestations, Les Mis Haters, but I still don’t care. This being my first experience with the show, I was thoroughly impressed by the simultaneous scope and intimacy in this hugely emotive (if occasionally uneven) epic. Seeing the stage version might change my mind, but right now I’m immensely satisfied with Hugh “The Dancing Wolverine” Jackman and his crooning compatriots.

Lincoln. Ever since this project was originally announced—way back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln—I’ve followed every rumor and development, attempting along the way to telepathically convince Spielberg to stop wasting his time on dumb movies (Tintin and Indiana Jones 4 anyone?) and get to the good stuff. It finally worked, and once Daniel Day-Lewis signed on I knew it would be gold. Seeing those pre-release images of Day-Lewis in half and full Lincoln regalia brought on history-laced tears. My only complaint is that this wasn’t a miniseries; if John Adams can get the 8-hour treatment, why can’t the most documented and revered American figure ever?

Looper. Complaint up front: this seemed like two movies, with the first act feeling like a gritty, sci-fi noir with a great concept, and the second part morphing into a child-centered domestic drama. Despite this uneasy bifurcation, writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) deserves much adulation for crafting such a creative and emotional story, and for boosting Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s already burgeoning career.

The Master. Like other P.T. Anderson films, this was a confounding and compelling narrative that was won by its performances yet greatly supported by a rich production design and savory soundtrack. Casting either Philip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix will give any film a heavy dose of tortured gravitas, so having both of these men together, working at a high level, makes for an intense ride. Though rightly labeled as an enigma, it’s one of those movies that requires multiple viewings for a worthy commentary.

Oslo, August 31st. A Norwegian cinéma vérité-style film, this is an engaging portrait of a man in quiet despair who tries valiantly to get out of it. Roger Ebert said this film was “quietly, profoundly, one of the most observant and sympathetic films” he’s seen, one that spotlights a life of what must be constant brinksmanship and inner turmoil for the recovering drug addict main character. The choices he makes, or doesn’t make, are the same ones we all make in our own lives—if not about drugs, then about the other things that keep us captive.

Zero Dark Thirty. I consider this a “clinical” thriller, because it trimmed all superfluous frills and subplots for the sake of a clean and concise story (despite being 160 minutes). I second Jessica Chastain’s comments at the Golden Globes, which lauded her character as a strong, capable, independent woman who stands on her own—an unfortunate rarity in Hollywood. The debate surrounding the film is a good one to have; meanwhile, I enjoyed this second recent high-wire thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow.

A few of my other favorites: ArgoEnd of Watch, Flight, Frankenweenie, Moonrise Kingdom, Queen of Versailles, 21 Jump Street.