99 Problems But A Dragon Ain’t One

It is a truth universally acknowledged that dragons are awesome.

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I mean, what’s not awesome about dragons? They’re giant, winged, fire-breathing lizards. They may or may not have two heads.

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They are pretty much automatically the best thing about whatever they are in.

Such is the case with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s second installment in the Hobbit trilogy that everybody everywhere except for greedy movie studio executives agrees should have been one movie instead of three.

It is extremely apparent in Desolation of Smaug (I’m going to call it TDOS for short) that a 300-page book does NOT need to made into three movies that are all nearly three hours long. Again, this is something that is immediately obvious to everyone except movie studio executives, whose eyes probably turned into dollar signs at the prospect of another Tolkien-based trilogy. Admittedly, it worked, since both of the first two movies made about a billion dollars apiece.

I’m not going to go into the plot much, because somehow there is way too much of it, and at the same time there is really none at all. The movie is 161 minutes long, and by the end of it I felt hard-pressed to really recall anything important that had happened.

Much is made of the Arkenstone and the King Under the Mountain and there are elves and orcs all over the place, but I found it really hard to care about any of it.

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The problem is that the movie really doesn’t give you enough reason to care about any of it. We all already know how the Lord of the Rings saga plays out, and it is just really really hard to give much of a crap about a bunch of dwarves. Let’s face it, dwarves are kind of boring. There are too many of them, their names are too similar, and it is difficult to care about them individually. The movie tries to get you to care, but for me it just didn’t work. Why is the dwarf-quest important? I dunno, and the movie doesn’t really seem to know either.

But hey, what about that dragon right?

Admittedly, the dragon is awesome. I would have included him on my annual villain round-up, but I hadn’t seen the movie when I wrote that so Smaug was not included. Well, consider him retroactively included, because the filmmakers did a fantastic job bringing Smaug to life in the movie.

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He looks great and he sounds great. Benedict Cumberbatch (who also played one of my other favorite villains in 2013) voiced a pretty awesome dragon. He moves how you would imagine a massive winged beast would move and he has a real sense of size and scale. His fire-breathing is so cool you might be afraid you’ll get singed. Every movie dragon should be this badass.

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The entire movie is a technical triumph, really. Everything in it looks and sounds pretty much flawless. The special effects, costumes, sets, makeup, etc. are all absolutely top-notch.

It really is a shame that they are all in service of a story that feels so insubstantial. A lot of stuff happens in the movie, but to me it ultimately felt like a whole lot of nothing, the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy: nice enough while it lasts, but quickly fades.

The movie is watchable enough, I suppose.  There’s plenty of eye candy, but Peter Jackson seems to have forgotten the story in service of the spectacle. The first Hobbit movie had many of the same flaws as this one, but ultimately I found it to be much more compelling than the second one. It also had the advantage of Gollum, whose scene with Bilbo was a highlight of the movie.

The acting is good, but the two most compelling characters (Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Martin Freeman as Bilbo) don’t get enough to do in TDOS. It’s mostly just dwarves. Orlando Bloom also shows up as Legolas, who does pretty much nothing but kick ass. Seriously, he’s fighting in pretty much every scene he’s in, which is cool and all, but beyond that, there’s no real reason for him to be in the movie.

The action sequences are exciting, I really liked the scene where the dwarves are floating down the river in barrels and being attacked by orcs, but the climactic Smaug battle that takes up much of the last 30-45 minutes of the movie certainly looks great (unsurprisingly) but it goes on too long. It’s full of clanking gears and vats of molten metal and great gouts of flames and conveniently placed chains dangling from the ceiling, but the sense of spatial awareness is off and it is hard to tell where things are in relation to each other, which makes it hard to follow what is even going on.

After spending 2 hours and 41 minutes watching the movie, I did not expect to feel so underwhelmed. And what the hell is even left for a third movie? I’m deluding myself if I say I’m not going to see the third movie, because of course I am at some point or another, but I’m not going to be counting down the days till its release.

Oh, well. At least dragons will never stop being cool.

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Winter is Coming

Now THAT is what I’m talking about.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very good movie. More than good enough to wash out the bad taste in my mouth from the last movie I saw in the theater (Sabotage, which was awful).

But I’m not going to talk about the bad movie. I’m going to talk about the good one! So let’s get started.

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When last we saw him, Steve Rogers had helped Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye repel an alien invasion of New York in a little movie called The Avengers (you may have heard of it, it’s only the third-highest-grossing movie ever made).

We next meet up with Steve in Washington, D.C., literally running rings around Sam Wilson. Who’s Sam Wilson? This is Sam Wilson:

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Steve is now a full-time SHIELD agent, although he is still a little behind on the times. Adorably, he keeps a little notebook full of things he wants to catch up on, which include Thai food, the Berlin Wall, Nirvana, and Star Wars/Star Trek.

I’m not going to say too much about the plot, because the movie is brand-new and I don’t want to spoil anything. I also don’t remember all the details, since the plot is fairly complex and I’ve only seen the movie once, and I don’t want to get anything wrong.

Suffice to say that all is not well at the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, and Captain Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, are not too sure who to trust (they can trust Sam, though, he’s a cool guy).

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There are quite a few major plot revelations in this movie. Harry Potter-style plot revelations that make you rethink quite a bit of what you saw in earlier movies. Large-scale plot revelations of this type aren’t easy to pull off, but writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first Captain America movie) manage it with aplomb.

And God bless Chris Evans. This is his third time playing the Captain, and the role fits him like a glove (or maybe it’s the other way around). He takes a potentially one-note character and turns him into a likable, fully-formed hero, complete with flaws and shortcomings.

I’m not trying to dis the character of Captain America, mind you. He’s an iconic character with good reason, but he potentially suffers from what I like to call “Superman Syndrome.” Superman Syndrome occurs when you have a protagonist who is such a relentlessly good person that they become kind of boring after a while.

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I mean, let’s face it: really good people are kind of boring in fiction. Why do you think everyone remembers Lancelot and never talks about Galahad? Lancelot is the guy who has awesome adventures and falls in love with the wrong woman and eventually dies for love. Galahad is pure and perfect and boring. I mean, good for Galahad. He was a stand-up guy and all, but no real human being is ever that perfect. We identify with flawed characters because they have that unmistakable ring of truth to them. Lancelot is an icon, Galahad is a footnote (sorry, Galahad).

So good for Chris Evans. He avoids Superman Syndrome (I guess you could also call it Galahad Syndrome, but Superman Syndrome has that nice alliteration to it so we’ll just stick with that) by giving good old Steve Rogers a real personality. He is a relentlessly good person, but he’s not perfect. He’s naïve, and not just because he was frozen in ice for like 70 years. He wants to believe in the inherent goodness of people, and he wants to believe that his superiors at SHIELD have people’s best interests at heart, but in this movie, he is in for a rude awakening.

In my opinion, Captain America: The Winter Soldier almost has more in common with a James Bond movie than it does with The Avengers. It’s a lot more grounded than previous Marvel movies, and it’s very in touch with the current political landscape without seeming like it has some sort of agenda.

Take that bit about groundedness with a grain of salt, of course. This is still a superhero movie, and as such it has a guy with flapping metal wings who can fly (see above), a cyborg assassin with a metal arm and not one but at least THREE of those awesome flying helicarriers.

But compared to the first Captain America movie, which had robo-Nazis with laser guns that were somehow derived from an ancient Norse artifact, and it maybe makes just a bit more sense when I say the sequel is more grounded.

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I love the first movie by the way, but if the first one is closer to a Pierce Brosnan Bond flick, the sequel is much closer to Daniel Craig.

It also benefits from strong supporting performances. Scarlett Johansson is awesome as Black Widow, and she fits right into the story, since Natasha Romanoff is already a person who doesn’t trust anyone. She is both a solid ally for Steve and something of a foil, since Natasha’s and Steve’s personalities are really quite different. The two of them make a really good team.

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Some Hollywood artifice creeps in, since however many gunfights and car chases she goes through, her hair remains impossibly perfect throughout the movie, with nary a strand out of place. Seriously, it’s almost like she could jump off a bridge with cars exploding behind her and bad guys shooting machine guns at her, and still look gorgeous afterwards!

Oh, wait. That actually happens in the movie.

Ah, what the heck. I’m okay with it.

There’s also Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, whose metal wings are, it must be said, extremely cool. Cool bit of trivia: the Falcon is mainstream comics’ first African-American superhero. It’s good to see him in the movie, especially since he’s played by Anthony Mackie, a really great actor who was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Hurt Locker (also, go see The Hurt Locker if you haven’t already. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?)

And of course, there’s the ever-reliable Samuel L. Jackson as grizzled badass Nick Fury, who also has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.

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New to the movie is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a shady high-ranking SHIELD officer. The movie’s directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, have said in interviews that they wanted to make the kind of conspiracy/paranoia thriller Redford was known for. In this they have succeeded, as Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds as both an action-packed comic book superhero movie and intelligent political thriller.

And I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention how awesome the action scenes are in this movie. The fights in this movie are tremendously well done, with both the large-scale effects-driven destructiveness of The Avengers and the sort of up-close-and-personal hand-to-hand combat you might see in a Bourne movie.

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And, of course, there is one more thing I need to mention: the titular (hehe, titular) Winter Soldier. This is the aforementioned cyborg super assassin who may or may not have a link to Steve Rogers’ past (again, I’m trying to keep this as non-spoilery as possible).

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This guy is one of the most bad-ass mofos I’ve seen on the big screen in quite some time. He’s kind of like Captain America’s version of Bane. He’s just wickedly cool, and is currently tied with Eva Green’s Artemisia for The Zombie Room’s Best-Villain-of-2014-So-Far Award.

Remember what I said earlier about really good characters maybe being boring? That’s why I like writing about villains. That’s why I do the Year in Villainy instead of the Year in Heroism. Villains are interesting. Villains are cool. Villains are mysterious. The Winter Soldier is all of these things, and then some.

What makes a villain evil? To me, that question is a lot more interesting than asking what makes a hero good, since the answer as to why someone is evil is always more complex, and therefore more interesting. I need to explore this topic more in-depth.

So anyway, go see this movie. If you’re a fan of these Marvel movies you will love it. If you don’t really go in for these sorts of movies, you should see it anyway and chances are you will still find something to enjoy.

And be sure to stay until the end. Yes, ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE END CREDITS.

Trust me on this one.

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