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🎥 ESJ's Movie Project: Captain America, Bad Times at the El Royale and more

Thanks to everyone who responded with positive feedback to my last email re: how I should share these
🎥 ESJ's Movie Project: Captain America, Bad Times at the El Royale and more
By Eric Johnson • Issue #15 • View online
Thanks to everyone who responded with positive feedback to my last email re: how I should share these movie reviews. I decided that yes, I’ll continue emailing them — and then watched barely any movies for a week while I caught up on Doctor Who in time for the current season.
Anyway, almost three weeks later, I’m back! Here’s what I’ve seen since my last email.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) is my absolute favorite Marvel movie. And I’d go one step further and argue that the first 50 minutes, culminating in the elevator fight scene and escape, are among the most consistently entertaining 50 minutes in any superhero movie. Plotted like a government conspiracy thriller, Winter Soldier just works in almost every dimension. Thematically, it builds on the first Captain America by layering in modern questions about the cyber-military complex and the surveillance state; on a character level, Cap’s chemistry with both Black Widow and Falcon feels authentically comfortable; and while most MCU flicks struggle to offer a compelling villain, Winter Soldier offers up at least two, depending on how you count. The denouement of “what’s on the flash drive?” and “who is the Winter Soldier?” is my only real critique, as those revelations felt more unnaturally comic book-y than the rest of the story. But the movie recovers with a superb climactic showdown both inside the Triskelion and above it, a long sequence that I’d put up there with the Avengers’ battle of New York. It’s really that good.
I wanted to love BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) but it didn’t quite stick the landing for me. If you enjoy twisty neo-noir stories, it’s worth seeing while knowing as little as possible (that includes reading the rest of this review, even though I’ve tried to keep it spoiler-free). The film grabs your attention early with colorful characters, a memorable setting, great music and a palpable feeling that secrets and death are hiding in every corner. But as the story wears on, the wheels come off the car in a way that doesn’t seem totally intentional, in contrast to the gleefully anarchic third act of Drew Goddard’s last film Cabin in the Woods. Unlike that movie, this one is missing a clear raison d’etre: Why are we spending nearly two and a half hours with this motley ensemble? Are we supposed to care which ones survive? And why do even more characters get injected into the story late in the film when some of the initial arcs never get satisfyingly resolved? Everyone who makes it past the 30-minute mark seems to be having a good time, and I had fun untying the knotty plot in my head as the story progressed, but the real winner of the movie is Cynthia Erivo; she gets some of the best dialogue AND the ability to wield her powerful singing voice multiple times. Other than her, I’m not sure how much I’ll retain of this movie in the long run.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) is a substantially different sort of movie from First Avenger or Winter Soldier, and that’s not a bad thing… mostly. Even in a story that’s (over)crowded with characters, it does something I admire and love: It gives those characters space to have an earnest, interesting, scene-spanning debate about superhero politics. The airport fight scene has been rightfully lauded for its outstanding choreography, but it’s also a perfect case study in how story can inform action. Before anyone throws a punch, you know why both sides are there and can (probably) see both of their points of view. Where Civil War falters for me is when I think a cynical question to myself: “Other than merchandising opportunities and ‘because we can,’ why does this movie have SO many damn characters?” Like most of the post-Ultron MCU movies, it’s fun but a little tiring! On this rewatch, I re-appreciated the introduction of Black Panther, but found myself disappointed by the main villain, who is more of a walking plot device than a real threat. And holy jeez, I’ve made it to the end of this review without acknowledging the introduction of Spider-Man to the MCU… um, it’s very good.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016) is a confident and engaging story that pulls off the much-harder-than-it-looks trick of perfect pacing. It also subverts the fish out of water trope, taking its stars out of their extraordinary living situation and making them confront our “real” world. Viggo Mortensen is soulful and sympathetic as Ben, the patriarch of the Cash family who had raised all his children in the woods with his wife, Leslie. His worldview is at once liberal and dogmatic and we learn the most about the Cash family from the casual, borderline monotone way he talks to his kids about topics like sex and death. Not all of the child actors are equally convincing but writer/director Matt Ross smartly focuses on the oldest child — Bodevan, played by George MacKay — whose coming of age has been carefully directed by the only other man in his life. I was especially moved by the nuanced way Ross writes Ben’s interactions with his in-laws as they wrestle with grief and their shared responsibilities to the next generation. This movie didn’t get enough attention when it came out, and I’m very glad I own it.
Email exclusive! Mini-reviews
I don’t review everything that I see in theaters because sometimes I don’t have enough to say about a movie to put in the time. But here are some fun-sized reviews of other stuff I saw recently…
The Sisters Brothers: A fine western story that never really justifies its existence. Even though it’s billed as a comedy and co-stars John C. Reilly, this is not a funny movie — well, maybe it’s funny if you like spider-related body horror. I do not. 6/10
First Man: A really different movie than what I was expecting, in a good way. Swinging between deafening silence and deafening noise, it finds a heartfelt personal story buried underneath the normal ra-ra patriotism of the Moon landing. 8/10
The Old Man and the Gun: A charming but forgettable farewell to acting from Robert Redford, with a few too many moments that remind you of his better films. Worth seeing for one scene between Redford and Casey Affleck, who plays the cop hunting down the “Over-the-Hill Gang.” 7/10

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Eric Johnson

I'm reviewing every movie I watch, and watching every movie I own. Settle in, this is going to take a while.

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