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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Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain American Express Shield: Don't leave home without it!

Captain American Express Shield: Don’t leave home without it!

(2014) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Gregory St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp, Maximilliano Hernandez, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling, Bernard White, Callan Mulvey, Branka Katic. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

The buzz on the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been intense with fanboys eating their own livers in anticipation of its release. Well, now that it’s finally out, does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America a.k.a. Cap is still trying to adjust to life in the 21st century after having been frozen solid since the Second World War. He keeps a to-do list (which varies depending on which country you’re seeing the film in) that includes cultural touchstones, historic events that took place during his hibernation and things to try that just weren’t available back in 1944. He checks stuff off the list – in between missions for SHIELD to save the world or at least keep it safer.

While rescuing a ship hijacked by pirates Steve and his partner Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) a.k.a. The Black Widow discover some data being uploaded to a satellite array that is heavily encrypted. When he delivers it to Nick Fury (Jackson), the head of SHIELD, all Hades breaks loose. It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been infiltrated and Steve isn’t sure who to trust – Fury, who has lied to him constantly? The Black Widow whose past is shrouded in mystery? Alexander Pearce (Redford), the security council member whom Fury reports to? And what of the Winter Soldier, an equally mysterious assassin who seems to have all of Cap’s strength and agility?

I’m being deliberately vague on the plot simply because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns that decorate this film, although to be honest if you really want to know more detail you can find it elsewhere on the Net. The movie has been described as a superhero movie with a secret identity as a ’70s Cold War espionage thriller. What that doesn’t tell you is that it takes the best elements from both genres and does them up perfectly.

The Russo brothers ratchet up the paranoia and suspense and keep it in the red zone throughout.  Astonishing action sequences are interspersed with expository sequences that will keep you guessing as to who can be trusted – and who can’t. Some of the turncoats in the film will shock longtime followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe although some will make sense upon reflection.

There are still plenty of fans who are uneasy with Evans as the iconic Captain, but he does his best work here, capturing Cap’s uneasiness with the grey areas that SHIELD is dwelling in and having a hard time reconciling his 1944 morality with the moral morass that is 2014. He’s got the build and the athleticism to pull off the fight sequences but he doesn’t pull off the charisma and leadership that I always imagined someone like Steve Rogers would possess. Then again, it’s doubtful that any actor could.

We get to see even more of Jackson as Fury and he shines as you would expect. Johansson also has an expanded role but we really don’t find out a ton about her character which is as you might expect; I get the sense that they are planning a Black Widow feature down the line and will probably explore the character in greater depth then.

Redford is magnificent as Pearce. We don’t get to see a lot of villain roles for Redford but he inhabits this one. Wisely, as most great movie villains do, he doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a hero, saving the world from itself. If you remember his movie Sneakers think of the role as a cross between his role and the villain role played by Ben Kingsley.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Anthony Mackie. He plays Sam Wilson, a decorated paratrooper who is befriended by Rogers and becomes his ally known as the Falcon using a flying suit. His camaraderie with Evans is genuine and the two make a formidable onscreen team. Who knows, maybe a feature starring the Falcon is in the cards down the line.

The Russos chose to use practical effects whenever possible, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of CGI but when they do use it, it’s magnificent. The massive helicarriers look absolutely real as does the Triskelion building that serves as SHIELD’s Washington DC headquarters.

The question is usually with films like this do you need to be fans of the comic books in order to make sense of the goings on? The answer is no, although it would be extremely helpful if you’d seen the preceding Marvel movies, particularly Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Those who are completely unfamiliar with the comics and the previous movies and wish to view this as a stand alone movie, you should be good following most of the action although there will be references whizzing overhead that you just won’t get. Don’t fret; they aren’t there for you. Still, even if you aren’t a comic book geek or a superhero junkie, you’ll find plenty to like here. Definitely one of the best superhero movies ever – and likely to be one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action and suspense – the perfect blending of both. Keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entire movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during some of the expository sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action which means plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice narrating the Smithsonian exhibit for Captain America is Gary Sinese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Impossible

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Front Man

X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

The Amazing Spider-Man


 

The Amazing Spider-Man

There’s just no way to look dignified in this costume and in this pose.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Rhys Ifans, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka, C. Thomas Howell, Jake  Ryan Keiffer, Kari Coleman, Stan Lee, Tom Waite. Directed by Marc Webb

 

Most of us have something missing in our lives. Whether it be something emotional – a feeling of being loved or needed – or something physical, like one’s parents or a new Ferrari, we all have something we lack and would do quite literally anything to get back.

Peter Parker (Garfield) is by all accounts a fairly normal kid, but a little on the dark side; his parents left him with his Uncle Ben (Sheen) and Aunt May (Fields) one rainy night after their house was broken into. They were later killed in a plane crash according to newspaper accounts. He misses them and yearns to know why they left but they are shadows and smoke to him. Peter is a science nerd with a good deal of brilliance inherited from his geneticist father (Scott). He has goo-goo eyes for Gwen Stacy (Stone), the beautiful blonde daughter of Capt. George Stacy (Leary) of the NYPD. However, she seems to have the attention of Flash Thompson (Zylka), a jock who loves to pick on Peter.

When Peter finds an old briefcase that belonged to his father, he discovers some papers in a hidden compartment containing something called a decay rate algorithm. He also discovers that his father worked at Oscorp, a large biogen firm in Midtown Manhattan, along with Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), a one-armed scientist who is trying research combining animal DNA with human to transfer the traits of that animal (in Connors’ case, the regenerative power of reptiles) to the human. While nosing about the lab on his own, Peter finds a room where mutant spiders spin a biocable of incredible tensile strength and adhesive qualities. While in there, he picks up a hitchhiker who bites him and burrows into his skin. He also discovers that Gwen is Dr. Connors’ intern.

Within hours Peter develops these odd powers – the ability to stick to smooth surfaces, extreme strength and the ability to sense danger moments before it occurs. He finally meets Dr. Connors, introducing himself as the son of his former colleague. He also draws up the algorithm, having committed it to memory. The two begin working together to figure out the right formula to create a regenerative solution.

In the meantime Peter uses his new powers to humiliate Flash, who had beaten the snot out of him earlier. Ben is forced to switch shifts in order to deal with his nephew, admonishing him to pick up his aunt at work since he now had to work a later shift. Unfortunately, Peter is late coming home, having forgotten his responsibilities while working with Dr. Connors. He and Ben get into an argument with Peter storming out into the night. Ben goes out after him but this ends up in tragedy.

Peter decides to go looking for the author of his pain and winds up donning a luchador-like mask and spandex suit to conceal his identity, leaving those criminals tied up in a web of the biocable which he has developed a shooter for. He also begins to develop a romantic relationship with Gwen.

Unfortunately, under pressure from the powers that be at Oscorp to begin human testing on the formula, Dr. Connors injects himself with the formula. It works all too well, not only regenerating his arm but turning him into a 9-foot tall lizard, with tail and scales and murderous rage, yet combined with the good Doctor’s intelligence and cunning. Peter finds himself needing to stop the Lizard, whom he partially created but the cops are after him, the Lizard has a sinister agenda and is out to keep Peter Parker from stopping him and trying to hide his identity from his girlfriend’s dad who wants to put him in jail. And I thought chem finals were bad.

Webb, who previously directed the incredible (500) Days of Summer, is saddled with a kind of a double whammy. Not only does he have to measure up against Sam Raimi’s filmed trilogy whose numbers helped usher in the Marvel film renaissance but also against the comic books that Raimi did so well in translating to the screen.

For some odd reason the studio decided to reboot the series with another origin tale – because it’s been ten years since the first one so I’m sure nobody remembers it by now. *snerkle* That’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering.

Garfield is a find. Most will remember him from The Social Network but he has established himself here as a leading man for the next 20 years. He is charismatic, brooding, likable and able to do serious and funny, a rare trait. It is not often when opportunities to take the next step in your career evolution come along and Garfield makes the most of his. This is in every sense a star-making performance.

Stone has been on a winning streak of late but she is curiously flat here. Her Gwen Stacy lacks the spunk and fire of her previous performances and while far from a typical damsel in distress role, she doesn’t show much of the personality I know she has. I think a little less courtesy and a lot more personality would have only benefitted the film.

Sheen is so reliable; every role he takes is full of compassion and gravitas. He resonates with both as Uncle Ben, although Ben has a bit of a temper on him that was absent from Cliff Robertson’s version from the Raimi films. Fields plays May a little younger than previous editions, but with all of the maternal love and wisdom that she is known for – well, both Fields and Aunt May in this case.

Ifans is a fine actor in his own right but as the villain here he has a tough time. Part of the problem is that he isn’t strictly speaking a villain; he is overzealous, yes, and has a mistake born of hubris that nearly proves fatal, but for the meddling of Spider-Man! That doesn’t really make him a bad bad guy, just a vulnerable one. In fact there really isn’t anything evil here and that might be what stops me from really getting into this version; none of even the most villainous characters is without redeeming qualities. That may work for Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists and writers, but it simply doesn’t work here. Basically Spider-Man is fighting a less powerful Hulk (i.e. Mr. Hyde) whom he doesn’t have the heart to take out.

Still, this is entertaining enough although I still wonder why another origin was necessary. If you want to reboot with a young high school-age Peter Parker, that’s fine (although why cast a 28-year-old man to play a 16-year-old boy?) but why not simply assume we all know that the guy was bitten by a radioactive (or in this case genetically enhanced) spider and move on from there? I understand that Columbia is planning at least three Amazing Spider-Man movies, all of which deal with the missing parents in some fashion as Parker tries to unravel the tangled threads of his past. That’s all good. Rehashing a story unnecessarily costs the movie points and that blame goes directly to the studio heads who thought it was necessary. Otherwise, Webb shows that he can direct a blockbuster as well as a small-budget indie romance and do both with charm, inventiveness and deftness.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield is a terrific Peter Parker. Follows comic book mythology a little more closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences were moving too fast to follow easily at times. Not quite up to the best moments of the first trilogy.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anne Hathaway was originally cast as Felicia Hardy – a.k.a. the Black Cat –  but her character was eventually written out and she went on to do the similarly natured Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are definitely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man

STAN LEE LOVERS: Plays an oblivious librarian listening to classical music on the headphones while the Lizard and Spider-Man engage in a raging battle behind him

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The High Cost of Living

Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Hulk


Hulk

./ I left...my Hulllllllllllk....in San Franciscooooooooo...! ./

(2003) Superhero (Universal) Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Celia Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Kevin Rankin, Todd Tesen, Mike Erwin, Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee, Regi Davis. Directed by Ang Lee

 

As the great existentialist philosopher Kermit the Frog (think about it) once said, “It’s not easy being green” and Hulk is a movie which brings that concept to life.

Based on the Marvel comic book much more than the television series that it spawned (more on that in a minute), Eric Bana. in his first international role outside his native Australia, is Bruce Banner, a geneticist working with gamma radiation in order to improve the human condition. His girlfriend, Betty Ross (Connelly) works alongside him in a Bay Area-based lab.

Things go awry when in a lab accident, Bruce is exposed to a lethal dose of gamma radiation. To everyone’s surprise, he doesn’t die. In fact, he seems to be healthier than ever. This, of course, catches the notice of the U.S. Military, in the form of General Thunderbolt Ross (Elliott), who is, in fact, Betty’s estranged father.

Bruce has an estranged father, too…emphasis on the “strange.” Nick Nolte, who apparently thinks the hairstyle in his notorious mugshot photo is the height of modern follicle fancy, plays David Banner (in a nod to the TV show, which changed the name of the Hulk’s alter ego to David) whom Bruce had thought dead. David was not dead, but just a little — How do we say it? — whacko.

Turns out David was a scientist in his own right, and in the tradition of over-the-top scientists, performed an experiment on himself, which was genetically passed on to his son. Later, as David gets more and more eccentric, the military (which employs him) becomes more and more concerned and eventually shuts down his microbiological research.

David loses it, and this leads to a traumatic incident which causes David to leave, and for Bruce to be scarred for life, although the exact nature of what happens isn’t revealed until late in the movie.

Bruce returns home, thinking everything is fine, but after being put under emotional stress, changes into a green-skinned behemoth, fiendishly strong and nearly invulnerable, able to leap enormous distances in single bounds. This, of course, really catches the military’s interest, and soon Bruce is under wraps in a secret desert facility. Ironically the same one at which his father worked, 20 years earlier.

The old man surfaces as well, with an agenda of his own. To further complicate things, an old flame of Betty’s, Talbot (Lucas) steps back into the picture to not only try to win Betty back, but as the head of a biotech research company, to exploit Banner and his alter ego. Of course, this leads to a great deal of “Hulk smash.”

Many theatergoers who wanted to love this movie found that they couldn’t, partly because director Ang Lee has made what is in effect two movies. The first, a psychological drama that mainly takes up the first half of the movie, one true to Lee’s art-house roots. The second is an over-the-top, computer-generated-effects-laden action thriller.

The two, for much of the movie-going public, were irreconcilable. I, on the other hand, found the two movies working well together, bringing not only a sense of angst, but an emotional level that makes the Hulk and Bruce Banner figures of tragedy, rather than powerful demigods, as many superheroes become.

Part of the movie’s theatrical problems lay in its marketing; the computer-generated Hulk scenes that made the trailer look cheesier on the small screen than on the big one. As the opening of the movie approached back in the day I remember remarking to Da Queen how a movie which I had anticipated would be one of that summer’s biggest was becoming less and less of a must-see for me, although I wound up seeing it anyway — and I’m glad I did.

The reason is two-fold, which fits in with the movie’s themes nicely. First, the human side – the acting. Bana, who has to play a cold, emotionally distant man early in the movie, is forced to deal with his feelings as the movie progresses. It’s a powerful performance in more ways than one, and set up Bana to pursue the path to stardom taken by countrymen Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and  the late Heath Ledger. What is it with Australia producing such great leading men lately, anyway? There must be something in the water.)

Jennifer Connelly, who debuted as a lustrous ingénue in another comic book adaptation The Rocketeer showed that her Academy Award-winning turn with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind was no fluke. She played Ross not as a simpering victim as she eventually became in the comic book, but as a capable, independent-minded woman with a great deal of depth and a lot of emotional baggage, which is how the character began in the comic book. Connelly nails that side of her here.

The other reason Hulk is a winner is the title character himself – the technical side. Bana morphs into a fully CG creature, but like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hulk is a tragic sorrowful creature, one who displays a wide emotional range of expressions. You see pathos and fury at various times on the face of the creature which makes him more than a monster. Like the best movie monsters, you feel sympathy for his plight.

And that brings me to what I really loved about this movie; the fact that it is a tragedy, and the characters in it inspire sympathy. Even the nutty David Banner, whom Nolte plays with a certain scene-chewing zest – is not really fully a monster, although by the time the movie ends he has become one. When the Hulk causes Betty fear, he displays a brooding sorrow that really sent chills up my spine. Even today when I watch the movie again, it still does.

Unfortunately, Hulk received a chilly critical reception, as well as less-than-scintillating word-of-mouth on the Internet. I can understand some finding the dual-movies approach a bit off-putting. Quite frankly, people with a limited range of cinematic appreciation are going to have problems with Hulk.

However, I think that a much larger percentage of the movie-going population will find this a worthwhile investment of time. If you skipped this movie during its theatrical release because of the unfavorable notices, do yourself a favor and give it a chance on home video; see it on as big a TV screen as you can find. Make up your own mind on this one; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a movie that didn’t deserve the critical and fanboy whipping it took.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bana and Connelly. Hulk creature sympathetic and well-articulated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some over-the-top scene chewing. Dichotomy between superhero action and psychological drama too much for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence in a superhero/science fiction vein, a little bit of bad language, a few disturbing images and some partial nudity, albeit a brief view of nothing offensive.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The motion capture for the Hulk creature was performed by Ang Lee himself.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the evolution of the character from the comic books to the TV series to the first film (of course, the more recent Edward Norton version isn’t mentioned in the feature, having been made five years after this version. There is also a series of Sunny Delight ads (!) that tied in to the film on the Special Edition DVD (although thankfully missing from the Blu-Ray). There is also a close-up look at the dog fight scene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.4M on a $137M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Hunger Games

Bigger Stronger Faster*


Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

To get these kind of muscles, you really gotta hustle.

(2008) Documentary (Magnolia) Christopher Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Sheldon Bell, Rosemary Bell, Stan Lee, Lyle Alzado, Hulk Hogan, Joe Biden, Will Harris, Greg Valentino. Directed by Christopher Bell

America loves a winner, General George Patton tells us, and can’t abide a loser. This is a truth that is central in understanding the American character. We all know what the American dream is; but what is the American ideal?

Filmmaker Christopher Bell knows. As a boy growing up in Poughkeepsie, he and his brothers worshipped the same things that other boys growing up in the 1980s worshipped; Rambo, Hulk Hogan, the Terminator. He wanted to be just like them, as his brothers Mike and Mark also did. When it came out that their bodies weren’t developed naturally but had a little help from steroids, at first he was devastated. However, that understanding brought all three of the boys to the same conclusion; if that’s what it takes to get those kinds of bodies, then that’s what they had to do.

In fact it wasn’t the muscular bodies themselves that the Bell boys craved but what came with it; success and victory, victory in weightlifting competitions and professional wrestling matches. They wanted to be famous and admired. What they got instead was a lifetime of frustration. Professional wrestling is a tough business to achieve glory in and the Bell brothers made little headway. Brief careers in World Wrestling Entertainment did not yield the expected results.

The movie addresses calmly and rationally the entire steroid and performance enhancement issue. Steroids are illegal in this country without a prescription and the purpose of building muscle is not considered a valid reason for prescribing them medically. However, unlike other drugs with similar prohibitions, there are no narcotic elements to steroids. There’s no evidence that steroids are especially harmful (Lyle Alzado’s assertions that steroids caused his brain tumor to the contrary) and quite frankly, the whole concept of “Roid Rage” which allegedly fueled pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s homicidal rampage has no medical basis.

The real issue with steroids, Bell alleges, is far more insidious. It is the buying into the culture of competitive edge, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It drives athletes – where, the movie alleges, steroid us is commonplace from the professional level on down – to use whatever edge they can find to be successful.

Then-Senator Joe Biden called steroids “Un-American,” but as Greg Valentino, a steroid user asserts, “Steroids are as American as apple pie.” Self-proclaimed with the largest biceps in the world, Valentino is something of a freak. Although muscular, his biceps are so large that it is unattractive which Valentino cheerfully admits. For him, it’s not about attracting the ladies for Valentino; it’s about being the biggest. He certainly attracts male admirers who think the man is a legend. His interviews in the movie are some of the most entertaining; Valentino is a naturally charismatic guy.

The movie’s at its best when it concentrates on the effects of steroids on the families of the brothers. Their parents were unaware of the boys’ steroid use and the news of it was devastating to them. Mike’s wife is concerned with the use of the steroids; she wants another baby and steroids decrease fertility. Mike promises to stop using them when he lifts 700 pounds, an achievement he does eventually attain. However, whether or not he keeps that promise is very much up in the air.

Like documentarian Michael Moore, Bell tells his story very specifically, using a lot of facts – and a fair amount of humor – to illustrate his points. However, Moore’s pieces haven’t been personal since Roger and Me; this is Bell’s family story and it obviously is very important to him. That investment is what makes this documentary special. Whether or not the subject interests you, the glimpse into an American family – and seeing what the American ideal has done to it – is more than worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-made, rational and sober examination on the use of steroids and its impact on a single American family. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Near the end the filmmakers try to tackle a little too much of a range; the movie is better when it focuses on the Bell family.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie is about the consumption of what are now illegal drugs in the United States, so you do the math. There is also some sexual content and a bit of everyday foul language as well as some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was compiled from over 400 hours of filmed interviews and 600 hours of archival footage.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Shoot ’em Up