Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Movie Review

captain america civil war

Combining political intrigue with superhero action is a daring, risky move…but “Captain America: Civil War” couldn’t be in better hands. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo prove once again to be the best directors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, turning Stephen McFeely and Christopher Marcus’s brilliant screenplay into a work of art. No other Marvel movie has yet delivered such a fluid combination of intelligence, symbolism, and heartbreaking opposition as the Russo brothers’ latest entry into the already amazing Captain America series.

Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) reminds audiences why his hero has always been the most likable as he embodies the valiantly flawless titular hero in a way only he can. Robert Downey Jr. introduces a new side of his egocentric Tony Stark/Iron Man, which will either make you love him all the more or repel you, depending on who’s side you take. And that’s one of the many beauties of “Civil War”: the viewer has to determine which hero’s side he’s on, as both have their own opinion of the “Sokovia Accords”, a document that will put the United Nations in charge of all super-powered individuals.

As both heroes recruit others of their kind to fight for (or against) the “Sokovia Accords”, a scheming puppeteer manipulates them, practically unseen, both Captain America and Iron Man mistakenly believing the other to be the true enemy. And Daniel Bruhl as Helmut Zemo, the man most determined to accomplish his agenda, delivers the most moving, emotional performance in the whole movie. Helmut Zemo is at once terrifying and enigmatic, in a way no other Marvel villain has been before, and he accomplishes this without any superpowers, bringing to mind Heath Ledger’s Joker. As he stares blankly into space listening to a voice recording on his phone, his motionless face says more than any other actor in the whole film. And that’s saying a lot, because most of what fuels “Civil War” is dynamic, passionate acting from almost all of the actors.

During its worst moments, the film is thought-provoking, conflicting, and emotionally immersive, and when an action scene obligatorily comes along, it doesn’t forget the inherent tragedy of the circumstances. The many lighthearted, chuckle-inducing moments (many courtesy of Ant-Man) don’t distract from the plot, but remind us that the dueling heroes are still friends, despite their differences. The third installment of the Captain America series–and hopefully not the last–is sure to excite superhero fans, and also entice those harder to please.

Synopsis: “Civil War” is an instant classic that transcends typical superhero movie expectations with powerful acting, an artistic vision, and a story that will spark discussions and arguments many years from now.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Movie Review

captain america winter soldier

Directed by the sure hands of Anthony and Joe Russo (TV’s Community) from an excellent screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best of the stand alone Marvel films and a thrilling action film full of big surprises and twists with far reaching consequences. A superior sequel like X Men 2 and The Dark Knight, it raises the stakes of good story telling and intricate adaptations of its comic book origins in the guise of a political thriller.

Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his adjustment to 21st century life after his thaw from the deep freeze (in Captain America: The First Avenger) and befriends a fellow veteran, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). On a typical mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a team of agents to rescue a pirated ship which turns up an interesting bit of information. Meanwhile, as S.H.I.E.L.D. readies the major launch of a defense system in Washington, D.C., there are growing concerns expressed by boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). As suspicions multiply, all hell breaks loose when there is an assassination attempt on one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own. The conspiracy leads Captain America to a confrontation with a mysterious, formidable figure, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose strength and skills are extraordinary. With only a small circle of comrades, everything Cap has come to value comes crashing down. Loyalties are tested and just who will survive a major shift in the world order is just the beginning of an insidious plot.

For fans of Cap, these are grand times as the filmmakers have chosen a major story arc (The Winter Soldier) from his comic books and incorporated Silver Age characters like The Falcon (Mackie) and Batroc (GSP). Recently, super hero films have chosen to bend the rules and take chances with tradition. This film goes much further than any previous Marvel adaptation. It features a good mystery, topical subject matter on individual privacy, and significant plot twists so much so that it is essential for the viewer to watch them unfold without any spoilers. The smart script contains witty lines amid a pervasive feeling of mistrust and paranoia. When Cap responds to Fury’s state of the art weaponry to combat threats and says, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear,” it sums up the theme of the story. Think of this as homage to 1970s conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Marathon Man. The film also employs moments that references Mission Impossible, The X Files, RoboCop, and 24.

Acting is uniformly strong as some old, familiar faces return, and a few new ones get introduced. By now Evans has become the embodiment of the iconic hero, retaining his sense of justice, duty, and morals, virtues which are downright refreshing in a post 9/11 world. Rogers is a Rip Van Winkle out of his time and still learning to assimilate to changes in the world, and cultural references, with amusing results. Evans’ chemistry with Johansson is believable yet ironic since their two characters have vastly different backgrounds. In a co-starring role, Johansson’s Black Widow is resourceful, smart, and deadly as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative whose history is only beginning to be explored. Jackson’s Fury has an expanded role and reveals more facets of his mysterious background. Robert Redford (All the President’s Men) has a significant, atypical role as a high level government official, and he is outstanding. His presence alone adds legitimacy and authority to the film. Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is an ideal buddy in arms to Evans. Emily VanCamp makes a good first impression as a young agent, and Cobie Smulders (returning as Agent Maria Hill) provides solid backup.

The many impressive action sequences are noteworthy for their ferocity and meticulous detail, but the standouts are a mad, opening car chase through the streets of D.C., and a remarkable fight in a glass elevator that surpasses the gem in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. There are moments of intense hand to hand combat that recall the best moments of the Bourne films on steroids. You’ve also got to love that shield; the film wisely displays all the creative ways Cap’s shield is employed in combat. The violence here is realistically depicted and not cartoonish which pushes its PG-13 rating. Extensive use of hand-held cameras and more live action special effects than CGI lend a stronger sense of realism. D.C. locations make a splendid backdrop for much of the film.

Taking super hero filmmaking to new heights, Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully interconnects what we know from previous films and effectively challenges you to re-evaluate everything in the Marvel Universe. It certainly helps to have seen the previous films, but there is sufficient background and context that a casual viewer would still enjoy it. (Fans of TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have a field day as the events tie in directly with the show.) Though the film ends with open ended story threads that beg for another installment, consider this as The Empire Strikes Back of Captain America. That’s not such a bad place to be.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Movie Review

captain america first avenger

Perhaps no member of The Avengers would seem more difficult to introduce to a modern audience than Steve Rogers aka Captain America. Seen as perhaps something of an artifact from a time gone by, here was a character whose jump to the big screen had long been stuck in development hell. Despite a somewhat ironic title (the irony being that this would be the last of the origin films released before The Avengers), 2011 saw Cap make the leap successfully to the big screen, bringing with him an interesting new angle in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A large part of the success was due to the choice of leading man. Chris Evans was an initially controversial choice to play the role, due in large part to his already having played another notable Marvel hero in the two Fantastic Four films some years previously. Yet like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, once given the chance to see him in action the criticisms were largely silenced. Evans managed to successfully play not just the almost superhuman commando we’ve come to know and love, but also the man Steve Rogers was before that: a puny, young guy from Brooklyn who seemed to embody the old saying about nice guys finishing last. Evans keeps that good guy aspect of the character throughout the film, which is present in his interactions with fellow characters and his reactions to events. Evans managed to take a potentially clichéd superhero from another time and make him into a genuinely likable character.

For that matter, the film all around has a strong cast. Hugo Weaving makes a fine nemesis in the form of Hydra leader Johann Schmidt, bringing a suitably sinister air to the character right from his very first scene in the film to the dramatic moment about midway through when he reveals the Red Skull persona (itself a triumph of prosthetic makeup). Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is notable as well both for his chemistry with Evans’ Rogers which makes their friendship believable even when their roles are reversed but for also firmly establishing an idea of the character in the mind of the audience (something even more important in light of where the character would eventually be developed in the future). Filling in more traditional roles with memorable performances are Toby Jones as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, Tommy Lee Jones as the initially skeptical commander of the Strategic Scientific Reserve and Stanley Tucci as ex-pat German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine who recruits Rogers.

Though the film’s setting during the Second World War means that female characters are fairly few, the character from the film besides Rogers that stands out the most is Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter. While she does, as she did in the comics, become something of a love interest for Rogers, thankfully there’s far more to the character than that. Atwell in interviews described the character as “She can do everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels,” and the action sequences in which Carter appears certainly prove that point.

The film’s production values are strong, especially given its Second World War setting. Through its combination of script, production design and costuming, the film successfully blends the technology and weapons of that conflict with aspects of the previously established Marvel universe (both comic and cinematic, the latter perhaps being more as a result of Joss Whedon’s uncredited work on the script). In fact some of the seemingly more outlandish designs form the film such as the rocket like craft Schmidt uses at one point or the large flying wing plane where the film’s climactic confrontation takes place are in fact based on real life plans drawn up by the Germans during the war (the Triebflügeljäger fighter plane and the Horten H.XVIII respectively). Director Joe Johnston, whose previous films include period set works such as the cult film The Rocketeer and October Sky, was a perfect choice to direct the film which combines period setting and characters with action sequences (indeed The Rocketeer arguably bares some similarities to the film itself). The icing on the cake might well be the score from Alan Silvestri which manages to be exciting and yet timeless at the same time. The results make the film as strong as it is.

Despite the film really being done to establish the Captain’s origin story, The First Avenger is book-ended by two very important scenes in the present day. The first of which reveal the discovery of a mysterious object between Arctic ice (revealed late in the film to the Hydra flying wing) that sets up the journey the viewer is about to go on while the latter presents us with a sequence where Rogers finds himself in the present day which, as well as giving us the seemingly pre-requisite appearance by Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, also firmly establishes that other iconic aspect of the character: that he is a man out of time. With that complete, the stage was set for The Avengers and the rest, as they say, is history.

First Avenger on its own though holds up quite well. Of the phase one Marvel films it’s one of the most successful in bringing its characters story to life while also presenting a genuinely enjoyable film in the process. The result is a strong, period based action film and one of the best Marvel films to date.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Big Hero 6 (2014) – Movie Review

big hero six

Walt Disney Pictures’ latest animated feature Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comic – a first for the company. The titular team was created in 1998 and has only appeared in what amounts to a handful of comic book issues. This obscurity ends up working in Disney’s favor as they were given the freedom to tweak and mold Big Hero 6 into something that is much more family friendly than your typical Marvel fare without being beholden to some nonsensical reverence to the comic’s roots. Yes, there are lessons to be doled out here and positive messages abound, but Big Hero 6 is so much fun and its “big message” so earnest and culturally relevant that these life lessons actually strengthen the film rather than provoke unintentional eye rolls. Big Hero 6 stars Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) as a child science prodigy who, in the film’s early scenes, is content using his abilities to hustle in the underground world of “bot fighting,” which is exactly what you imagine. Hiro’s older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) pushes him to be more than just a back-alley robotics hustler and brings him to his school to hopefully persuade him into enrolling. It is there that we are introduced to Tadashi’s classmates, all of which possess a very specific science-based skill: The cartoonishly meticulous laser expert Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), adrenaline junkie and daredevil Go Go (Jamie Chung), bubbly chemistry expert Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and the lovable slacker known as Fred (T.J. Miller). We also get to meet Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) and his ethically unsound adversary, Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk). It’s worth noting that all of this tablesetting and introduction of heroes and villains occurs in the university’s aptly named Exposition Hall – one of many clever sight gags in a film loaded with them. It is also here that we’re introduced to the real star of Big Hero 6, Baymax – an inflatable robot whose sole purpose is to provide medical care to people.

Baymax (voiced by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit) provides the film with a majority of its comic relief. The puffy balloon design of the character is played for laughs often and the animators really let their imaginations run wild here. The film has a great understanding of physics and, as you might imagine, there are plenty of physically amusing things you can do with a balloon. Now picture that balloon having the ability to speak with the voice of a trained comedic actor because as great as those bits of physical humor are, the real charm of Baymax lies in Scott Adsit’s vocal performance. He delivers his lines in a deadpan, matter-of-fact cadence that is both childlike and maternal in nature. It’s an odd pairing of traits but it really works for such a unique character whose only desire is to heal, at all costs. With Baymax, we have the ultimate comedy presence on screen; he is both the foil and the straight man and that makes for a comedy act that never grows tiresome.

Anyone looking for the depth of The Incredibles should keep searching because you won’t find it here. The rest of the Big Hero 6 team can’t really compete with Baymax’s wit or charm but they really don’t have to. This is an animated team that functions much better as a team (Baymax included) than as individuals. Not that they’re boring, per se, but these characters are more or less types rather than fully fleshed out heroes like Pixar’s aforementioned team. Fortunately, teamwork is one of Big Hero 6’s messages and so it’s likely that these specific, one dimensional supporting characters are meant to shine a light on the greater good of teamwork rather than that of the individual. Still, it’s frustrating when you’ve seen other films champion the idea of teamwork while handling the supporting cast much better.

The main message of Big Hero 6 is this: don’t take the easy way just because you can. It urges its characters (and hopefully the audience) to solve problems by looking at them at another angle, to use your imagination and think creatively. This point is made no fewer than a half dozen times in the film and I couldn’t stop myself from smiling at every occurrence. Maybe it’s just my personal bias or maybe it’s because I’ve never seen a film so eagerly invested in inspiring its kid- centric audience to actually think but I loved Big Hero 6 for this reason above all. The excitement of having a logical breakthrough is treated as being one of the greatest feelings one can have and I’d be lying if I said I disagree. This is a movie you can actually feel great about letting your kids watch approximately two million times before they become treacherous adolescents.

Despite some glaring black holes in the plot Big Hero 6 is a whole lot of fun. It’s got heart, humor, and action and looks absolutely beautiful. This is a stellar animated film that will not only keep your kids entertained, but possibly inspire them to do much more than sing “Let It Go” in a cacophonous shriek for the rest of their childhood.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Focus (2015) – Movie Review

focus

“Focus” blends two different movies in roughly equal measure. One is a movie about con men, scam artists and hustlers, in the tradition of “The Sting,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “House of Games” and “Shade.” The second movie is a romantic comedy between two people who are strongly attracted to one another, but who cannot and do not trust each other.

The movie about con men is brilliant. The hustles and scams are clever and cleverly executed with excellent skill and tradecraft. Dramatically, the double-blinds and double- crosses are well executed. The players con their marks, one another and the audience with finesse and aplomb. The cinematography, choreography and editing are crisp. The reveals are plausible within the film’s cosmos of reality.

The romantic comedy is not bad. One can understand and believe the attraction between the two characters. Will Smith’s character is hunky, clever, confident, successful and wealthy. Margot Robbie’s character is gorgeous, sexy, vulnerable, clever and charming. But the major plot points in this boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back subplot seem contrived, while the intriguing aspect of their relationship (How can two con artists with a history of deceiving one another learn to trust one another?) isn’t explored in a satisfactory manner. Instead we get a breakup for reasons that are never explained, a repeated gag involving a wallet, and a massive coincidence that leads the audience to believe one of them has a hidden agenda involving the other. The relationship between them works best when they are conning one another, but it needs resolution.

Technically, the film is beautifully done. Cinematography, locations, wardrobe, make-up, editing, audio — everything is polished. It’s a movie that merits a second or third viewing, not only to see the cons played out, but also to appreciate some of the subtle foreshadowing.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Minions (2015) – Movie Review

minions

2013’s Despicable Me 2 has proved that people came back to this franchise for the striking popularity of the film’s comic relief characters, the Minions. So the studio basically made a spin-off mainly for them, which makes more sense than having these characters stealing the predecessor’s spotlight, thus leads to a result that can be good and mostly bad. It seems that the filmmakers don’t have much of a decent idea for the original character for a while, so it’s quite appropriate for them to stumble into these Minions while it lasts. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t find a compelling storyline for these antics to fit right through. While the gags are funny enough, it suddenly gets exhausting after a while. In the end, there is just nothing remarkable about it.

The Minions happen to be long-living prehistoric creatures that exist to serve any formidable master, in spite of their often incompetence. It’s a decent little origin story, even though we would rather assume them as an accidental science experiment. But this makes for a setup of putting them in desperation for having a boss after a number of failures of keeping them alive. Now that the actual plot enters the picture, the movie now takes place where supervillains are the ones who deserve them, with three of the Minions stumbling from one misadventure to another. The laughs are solid, though some can feel a little forced while some can be unexpectedly tasteless, but a joke works if the film actually finds an inspired humor within itself. But the main story itself doesn’t find any remarkable substance or any cleverness, at all. It’s just randomness after randomness, and it’s sometimes losing its steam until the film finally finds another occasional great joke again after ten minutes or so.

The comedic action on screen is undeniably enjoyable. The bright, playful visuals have always been helpful in these Despicable Me movies. The movie centrally takes place in a new environment and time, while adequately captures the era and location, though also making unimaginative stereotyping to the British culture, but anyway. Some dark humor sneaks in, as well, it gets a little too outrageous, but I believe it’s for the sake of establishing its world of villainy. The story eventually not gaining much of a center at all. These series of silly situations lead to the fate that we would all expect. Nothing more and nothing less. The voice acting is only impressive when it comes to the Minions, we all knew that already from the past installments. The rest of the cast are committed to go over-the-top as their characters are actually written.

In spite of extending the focus of these characters who are more popular than Gru, it’s still not quite a satisfying experience. Maybe the Minions aren’t meant to have a movie at all. It would have been a kid’s TV show being played in the morning or something. Or the story would have given itself more effort in sticking these comedic moments with coherency. It’s possible. Earlier this year, Aardman proved that physical comedy still works in this era of more verbal animated films and can be consistent in narrative. But the film seems too aimless to realize that. It’s only pandering the audience until they are interested with Gru again for the third Despicable Me, only if that sequel could offer more than this.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Movie Review

transformers age of extinction

Michael Bay’s fourth installment of the “Transformers” franchise is certainly going to split critics, fans, and casual movie goers alike. This mostly comes from the fact that “Age of Extinction” is VERY similar to other films by Michael Bay. And by this I mean extremely loud and extremely abundant explosions, at every possible moment. The funniest part of this is that Bay feels no shame in starting this at about the fifteen minute mark, and it does not stop until the films conclusion.

For all its faults, and this film has a fair number of them, it is the first Transformers film where I actually do not want the humans to get stepped on (purposely or “accidentally”). In truth, I actually liked the humans in this film, and cared about what happened to them. Mark Wahlberg’s role is a generic father type character that has been seen dozens of times throughout the history of cinema. However, it is two large steps forward from Shia LaBeouf and his screaming throughout the entire film; “BEE! BUMBLEBEE! OPTIMUS! AHH!” Alongside Walhberg are Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor. I felt Reynor’s character was sort of bland, and although Peltz is obviously in this film to provide the “hot” female role, she gives a more believable performance than either Megan Fox or the blonde chick from “Dark of the Moon.” The rest of the human characters try do the best they can with the script they are given, and sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. But for the most part, the humans were actually not the weak link in this film.

Sadly, the weak link was actually the special effects. There were times where I was rolling my eyes at the CGI, or cringing at the “Shaky-Cam” that was added to a number of action shots. The robots in this movie sometimes appear far less real than they did in previous films, and this really needs to be touched up in later films.

Of course, as I’m sure most of you can tell, this movie still focuses a bit too much on the humans. That being said, this film finally has every Autobot speaking and doing something on screen. This is very important, as the film series is called TRANSFORMERS. The characters I care about the most in this series are the Autobots, and one in particular; Optimus Prime. “Age of Extinciton” gives a new way of looking at the iconic leader, as his position is not 100% the same that we have seen in other films. Believe me when I say that there are some moments that you, as a movie goer, will be surprised by how characters, both human and Transformer, react to circumstances that surround them.

All in all, “Age of Extinction” is by no means movie of the year, but it is a fun film. The story is muddled, like in previous films, but it is still a bit more cohesive and believable than, say, “Dark of the Moon.” I personally felt that this was the best Transformer’s film to date, but I know some people will disagree. It is a film that has some moments that truly deserve applause, and others that will anger the audience greatly. Nevertheless, this is a fun summer film. I would recommend seeing this film, but do not expect to it to be a picture perfect movie. If you are willing to let certain things go, I believe that most people will be able to find something fun in “Age of Extinction.”

 

7 out of 10 stars

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