Captain America: Civil War


Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brűhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

In this post-911 world, we often have to consider the importance of security versus freedom. How much power do we allow our government to have? Is it worth giving up our freedom to be protected? And when does it stop being worth it?

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron the Avengers have continued to operate without the guidance of Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man but they still continue to clean out the remnants of Hydra and travel the globe to stop threats of terrorism and barbarity. They are on one such mission to stop Crossbones (Grillo) from obtaining a biological weapon. They do stop the former SHIELD agent turned supervillain but at a staggering cost.

The nations of the world can no longer stand idly by while their citizens are reduced to collateral damage. They sign a treaty known as the Sokovia Accords (named for the fictional country that was decimated by the Avengers battle with Ultron) to put the Avengers under United Nations control, only sent on missions approved by the Security Council.

Stark has put his pen to paper and signed already and expects his good friend Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America to do the same but to Stark’s shock, Rogers refuses. He feels that the Avengers will not only function less effectively as the tools of bureaucrats and politicians, but that without self-autonomy, more lives will be lost than saved.

It’s not an easy question and not everyone falls on the same side. The Avengers eventually become two different teams, at war with one another. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes (Stan) – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier and Cap’s friend from pre-World War II Brooklyn has had the mind control that was implanted into him by Hydra used to send him on a rampage that ends up with a high-profile murder. T’challa (Boseman) a.k.a. The Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, rich in minerals (including the rare vibranium that is what Cap’s shield is constructed out of) and technology, vows to take down Barnes and execute him. Cap can’t let that happen as it, strictly speaking, isn’t Bucky’s fault.

So it is friends against friends, the U.S. government against the Avengers, Iron Man against Captain America. No matter what, this won’t end well and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be changed permanently as a result.

This is in some ways the most complicated and thought-provoking film in Marvel’s history. It does tackle a subject that has real world ramifications and comes up with no easy answers – it also doesn’t cop out either, which is to the filmmaker’s credit. When those who ask why the Marvel films are so much more popular than the DC films (at least currently), the simple answer is that Marvel is making better movies. With the exception of some of the Batman films (by Messrs. Burton and Nolan) Marvel’s movies are more interesting, have more character development, and quite frankly are more fun to watch.

Civil War is a little bit darker in hue than the majority of Marvel’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in Gotham. There are no real villains in it for one thing – yes, there is a character named Zemo (Brűhl) who shares a last name with old Marvel villain Baron Zemo who was a Nazi mad scientist and a Hydra operative, but this Zemo is actually in a lot of ways a sympathetic character who has reasons for his madness. And the conflict between Cap and Shellhead are between two heroes doing what they believe is right.

Downey in fact steals the film from Captain America; he is tortured by the damage he has done as a superhero and as a man. His relationship is tanking and he believes that the world would be a better place if the Avengers accepted some oversight and accountability. His anguish not only at what he has caused to occur but in the conflict with his friend Cap is palpable. Downey is an Oscar-nominated actor and this is by far his best performance as Iron Man yet.

The action sequences have to be at the core of any superhero film and they are spectacular here. There’s a fight at a German airport that may go down as one of the best in Marvel history and it utilizes the talents of many of the supporting characters and a couple of new ones, including the previously mentioned Black Panther but also the brand new Spider-Man (Holland). Holland may be the best Spider-Man yet (sorry Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and acquits himself well both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. Based on the snippet of him and Aunt May (Tomei) in this film, I am much more interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming next year than I already was.

All of the characters here other than a few who have little more than cameos are shown to be quite human and as humans are, imperfect. This makes the superheroes more relatable to everyone. Who hasn’t had relationship troubles, or felt like they didn’t belong, or chafed at having their autonomy taken from them, or mistrusted authority, or agonized over inventing a self-aware robot that nearly wiped out the human race? Okay, maybe not the last one.

The plot here is dense and for those not really immersed in the Marvel Universe, it may all be too much. In many ways, this is the first Marvel film I felt that it would be actually advantageous to have seen all of the ones preceding it in order to understand it better. It can still stand on its own, but I have to admit that the more you know about the MCU, the easier this will go down. There are also a whole lot of characters here and their relationships and motivations may not be clear to everyone. I suppose that’s just a byproduct of having so many films in the MCU now.

The Russos have shown themselves very capable directors. While I don’t think this film quite measures up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, it’s damn close. The brothers have been handed the reins to the next to Avengers films and this one shows that the franchise is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: Great battle sequences. Excellent debate starter (security vs. freedom). Portrays the heroes as fallible and human.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much plot and character. Occasionally confusing, particularly to casual viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of superhero violence, action and mayhem, more than you can shake a stick at.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 27 minutes long, this is the longest Marvel movie to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

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The Two Faces of January


The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

(2014) Thriller (Magnolia) Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Yigit Ozsener, Karayianni Margaux, Prometheus Aleifer, Socrates Alafouzos, Ozcan Ozdemir, Nikos Mavrakis, Ozan Tas, Omiros Poulakis, Evgenia Dimitropolou, Peter Mair, Pablo Verdejo, Brian Niblett, Mehmet Esen, Kosta Kortidis, Okan Avci, James Sobol Kelly. Directed by Hossein Amini

In Tom Ripley, novelist Patricia Highsmith created a character whose moral compass pointed straight at himself; Ripley remains fascinating in the imagination not just because of his ability to become a chameleon but because he takes acting in his own self-interest to the ultimate.

While Ripley doesn’t appear in the latest film adaptation of a Highsmith novel, his ghost is hanging around the fringes of the themes here. Things start out pleasantly enough; Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his stunning wife Colette (Dunst) are vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962. They wander around the Acropolis relying on Greek guidebooks that may or may not be terribly useful when they come upon an American named Rydal (Isaac) who is a tour guide who speaks fluent Greek. He’s also a bit of a hustler, although Colette doesn’t realize it. Chester however, wouldn’t trust the guy to mow his lawn although he does humor his wife and allows her to hire him to guide them the next day.

They spend a pleasant day together and if his eyes linger on the beautiful young Colette a little bit too much and if she is a bit too taken by him, it seems to be harmless. However, Chester is far from the innocent that his summer white suit would indicate. He left behind a mess back in the States of fraud and larceny which catches up with him in his five star hotel room that night. When that ends badly, it is inadvertently witnessed by Rydal who helps Chester clean up a literal mess. It becomes necessary for Chester and Colette to make a hasty getaway but they are unable to pick up their passports from the hotel, without which they can’t leave the country.

Rydal takes the couple to Crete where they can hide out. The ex-pat knows a guy who can forge some documents and while they wait for the passports to arrive, they try as best they can to lay low but once again things don’t go according to plan. Now paranoia and suspicion rule the day and getting out of Crete won’t necessarily be the end to their problems.

Amini, who earned his Hollywood stripes as a writer, chooses a writer’s writer to adapt for his first feature as a director and does a credible job for a debut. He sticks to a basic visual style, relying on his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind to bring the Greek and Cretan landscapes to life. The charming villages, the urban ruins of Athens, the desolate landscape of Crete all play a role in the action.

It doesn’t hurt that each of these lead characters are essentially flawed and make morally-challenged decisions, and yet we still root for them and identify with them. In a sense, there are no villains here; each character is his or her own villain. If there is a villain, it’s Lady Luck; if it wasn’t for bad luck, poor Chester wouldn’t have any luck at all.

Mortensen has ended to choose obscure roles after his breakout performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I had predicted big stardom for him at the time but Mortensen hasn’t really taken roles that would further his profile, preferring to stick to small budget indies and lower profile films with roles that interested him. More power to him. Dunst has taken a similar career path, with only the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy having that kind of major star profile. She has since taken meatier roles like this one. Isaac, on the other hand, is an emerging star who is about to embark on a major franchise of his own, the new Star Wars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised though if he stayed the same course that Mortensen and Dunst have taken on.

Highsmith doesn’t exactly write empty-headed upbeat novels so don’t go into this looking to escape. It requires a certain amount of brain power and a willingness to accept behaviors you might not ordinarily approve of; these are after all desperate people far from home and if you understand that, you’ll understand why they act the way they do.

There are some twists and turns, not all predictable. However I must admit that the movie seems to slowly lose steam during the last third and maybe it’s the somnolent atmosphere of a sleepy small town in Crete or the hard-baked prairies of the center of that island. It just doesn’t bustle with energy is what I’m saying.

This is a much better than average thriller, although maybe not as gritty as noir lovers might like, nor as fast-paced as the average thriller junkie might be comfortable with and yet this is one worth seeing if you get the chance, which Central Florida filmgoers can if they hurry.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific triumvirate, every one likable. Gorgeous Greek scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum over the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (none of it bloody), some sexuality, a bit of foul language and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the directorial debut of Amini who is best known as a writer for such diverse films as Killshot, Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Third Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Big Eyes

Warm Bodies


Love is not only blind, it doesn't have much of a sense of smell either.

Love is not only blind, it doesn’t have much of a sense of smell either.

(2013) Zombie Romance (Summit) Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, Daniel Kindress-Kay, Vincent Leclerc, Clifford LeDuc-Vallancourt, Billie Calmeau, Adam Driscoll, Robert Reynolds, Christine Rodriguez, Debbie Wong. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Zombies are in these days with the success of The Walking Dead television show (one of the best things on television right now) and movies like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. For the most part we see those imperiled by the zombie apocalypse. But what are the zombies thinking?

A young man wanders around the airport, listlessly. He doesn’t work there; he’s been dead for some time but has been reanimated by forces unknown. He has some memory but can’t remember his name, other than that it starts with R. So R (Hoult) it is. His best friend (if you can call it that) is another shuffling undead flesh-eater whose name might have begun with M (Corddry).

R’s life kind of sucks but then it kind of doesn’t. He collects things and puts them in the jumbo jet he’s converted into his home, a kind of zombie man-cave. He listens to old LPs on a turntable (where’s the power coming from for it?) and stares at little knick-knacks he picks up around the airport. Occasionally, he goes hunting for food with M.

There are zombies and then there are Bonies who are kind of like hardcore zombies who have given up. One day they just start tearing their own flesh off. They’re superstrong, super-aggressive and super-grouchy. There are a few humans left who live in a walled-off section of town. They are led by the military-stiff Grigio (Malkovich) whose daughter Julia (Palmer) and her boyfriend Perry (Franco) are leading a party of scavengers to get medical supplies for the survivors.

That’s where R’s hunting party finds them. The attack is brutal and the outcome inevitable. Perry is a big talker but not a great shot – and as you know from your zombie 101 that zombies can’t be killed with anything other than a head shot. Perry’s shot hits R in the chest which just pisses R off and he chooses Perry to be his brain snack.

When a zombie eats the brains of a victim, they are able to access the memories of that victim. R sees Perry’s memories of Julia and decides to save her, managing to smuggle her out and to the relative safety of his airplane. After an aborted escape attempt convinces her that it is terribly unsafe to go out of the plane, she agrees to stay with this most unusual zombie.

The presence of Julia is changing R rapidly. His vocabulary improves. He begins to have tender feelings towards Julia (although are they his own or a product of Perry’s memory? an intriguing question the movie doesn’t bother to pose) and there are physiological changes as well. What’s more, M and the other zombies are beginning to change as well.

The Bonies don’t like that one little bit and want to find R and stop this “cure” before it gets too far. Julia needs to get back home but her father and his fanatical soldiers would shoot R on sight (and it’s for damn sure that they’re better shots than Perry). What’s more Julia has developed some powerful feelings for R as well. Is this love as doomed as that of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s no secret that the story here is loosely based on the Shakespeare play with several characters referencing characters from the play (R=Romeo, Julia=Juliet, M=Mercutio, Perry=Paris etc.). That no doubt suits the audience that this is intended for just fine – the preteen/teen girls who adore Twilight and their moms. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of the target audience is only aware somewhat of the R&J connection and have had little contact with the original play itself if any.

One of the things that works really well here is the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer. Hoult, who as a young man has become a seasoned veteran of the movies (some of you might remember him as young Marcus in About a Boy), is rapidly turning into a star. This might be the film that propels him to the next level. Palmer, whose done several genre films targeted towards young adults (I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice among them), plays a plucky independent sort that the young teen girls seem to flock to these days. She and Hoult make an attractive couple (even if one of the is rotting away).

There are some pretty funny moments, particularly with R’s inner monologue. There is also a nice sweetness here that while not going to get you running out to the nearest zombie apocalypse to find yourself a boyfriend, it will at least touch the teddy bear softness of your heart. The only real complaints I have about the movie are the CGI Bonies which are unconvincing (which is a rather charitable assessment) and several plot points that kind of get little play, like Julia’s reaction to the news that R ate her ex. Not something most girls are going to get past very quickly I would think.

Still, this isn’t a bad movie at all. In fact, it’s a pretty good one – much better than I thought it would be, wondering if the filmmakers would be pandering to that target audience (they do but they don’t – Levine and cohorts seem to be of the opinion that teen and preteen girls appreciate a good movie more than a mediocre one). It’s actually a movie that I wish more Twihards had gone to see – I think those pining away over the absence of Bella, Edward and Jacob might find this right up their alley.

REASONS TO GO: Endearing and funny when it needs to be. Nice chemistry with Hoult and Palmer.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI Bonies are weak. Glossed over some important plot points.

FAMILY VALUES:  As there are zombies, there are extensive scenes of zombies eating people as well as getting shot in the head, although the gore is relatively mild (think The Walking Dead). There’s a lot more bad language though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Nora character was part-Ethiopian with brown skin in the book but was changed to a Caucasian for the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100; I’d say the reviews are slightly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Amour

Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It