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

Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game

Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."

(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman

 

When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.

Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.

He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.

His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.

Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.

Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).

From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).

Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.

Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.

Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.

Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.

The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.

The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.

Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.

WHY RENT THIS:  A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news.  Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

In ancient Persia, tandem wet t-shirt contests were done with slightly different rules.

(Disney)  Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Toby Kebbell, Steve Toussaint, Richard Coyle, Ronald Pickup, Reece Ritchie, Gisli Orn Garvarsson, Claudio Pacifico, Thomas DuPont, Dave Pope, Domokos Pardanyi. Directed by Mike Newell

One thing you can say about summer movies, they don’t require a great deal of brain power to enjoy. The more action and fantasy you can cram into 90 minutes, the better and if it takes you away from your cares and troubles, even more so.

Of course, the characters onscreen have plenty of cares and troubles. Take Dastan (Gyllenhaal), for example. He’s a Prince of the mighty Persian Empire, but not by birth. Wise King Sharaman (Pickup) adopted young Dastan from the streets of Baghdad after observing the boy’s bravery in standing up for another boy. Dastan has grown into a headstrong young man, a gifted fighter and a bit of a wiseass. More than a bit, perhaps.

He and his brothers Garsiv (Kebbell) and Tus (Coyle) – the latter of which is heir to the throne – are on some kind of military exercise with their Uncle Nizam (Kingsley). The plan is to attack the holy city of Alumet – which King Sharaman has expressly forbidden them to do, mind you – but whom their intelligence has led them to believe is supplying their enemies with weapons. The leader of Alumet, Princess Tamina (Arterton) is understandably peeved, considering her people have done no wrong.

Still, the city seems impregnable enough until Prince Dastan discovers a weakness in the defenses and leads the troops into the city, even though he’s been expressly forbidden to….hmmm, seems there was a lot of that going around in the Persian royal court. In order to mitigate the issue, the decent Tus offers to marry Tamina in order to…well, politics was never my strong suit.

King Sharaman, upon hearing that his sons have disobeyed direct orders, comes to Alumet to celebrate. He is promptly poisoned and Dastan blamed. He escapes with the aid of Tamina. It turns out that an elaborate dagger, which appears to be purely ceremonial in nature, is the weapon of mass destruction that Dick Chaney was looking for after all.

This dagger can cause time to rewind a few minutes, with only the wielder of the dagger aware of the change. It can only go back a few minutes because that’s all the sands of time that the dagger can hold. There is an unlimited supply of the stuff underneath the city of Alumet, but in order to obtain enough to send the dagger-wielder back in time for any length of time, Armageddon would have to be unleashed but that little drawback doesn’t stop the villain of the piece from wanting to do just that.

The villain – oh, you know who it is, don’t you? – has also hired a secret society of assassins (try saying that five times fast) – to retrieve the dagger and eliminate the pesky prince and princess. They escape into the desert, on their way to the funeral of King Sharaman to warn…well, the bad guy because….oh my head hurts.

In any case, on the way they run into a wacky sheikh (Molina) who makes his fortune on rigged ostrich races and bad mouths any sort or form of taxation (he’s the original Tea Bagger) while keeping a taciturn knife-throwing expert (Toussaint) from Namibia (or some such place). This makes complete sense. The sheikh means to collect the hefty reward that is out on Dastan’s head but they escape by…ummm…causing a riot at an ostrich race by opening a crate of scimitars and…ummm…okay I’m done with the plot.

Okay, you’re not going to go to see a movie based on a videogame because of its intricate plot. You’re probably not going to go to see it because of its acting performances either. No, you’re going to go see it because of the eye candy and the action. On both scores, Prince of Persia gets high marks, particularly the former. The cities of ancient Persia, rendered digitally, look marvelous with the practical sets resembling the hinterlands depicted in Gladiator and Hidalgo pretty much.

Gyllenhaal probably wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Dastan, but he acquits himself nicely. Dastan is an athletic sort who combines parkour-like moves with some nifty sword work. It all works out to a pretty good approximation of The Thief of Baghdad, the granddaddy of this kind of film. Gyllenhaal is no Errol Flynn, but he carries enough offbeat charm to make the character memorable. Arterton delivers a performance from the feisty princess school of acting. It’s not groundbreaking, nor is her chemistry with Gyllenhaal particularly sizzling; she’s insanely easy to look at however and at least comes by her British accent honestly. Gyllenhaal effects one and it isn’t too bad, but it gets distracting now and again when it comes out strained.

Molina is one of the most reliable actors in the business and brings a light touch to the picture. Whenever he’s onscreen, he makes a mark and improves the movie. Kingsley lends gravitas – it’s not often you get an actor of his calibre in a videogame adaptation – and adds subtleties to his performance that you wouldn’t expect to find at a movie like this. That may go completely ignored by the average moviegoer, but I found it refreshing and surprising.

Given the political situation there now, it’s hard sometimes to remember that the Middle East was considered a romantic place, full of adventure going back to the days of Rudolph Valentino. Prince of Persia resurrects that romance, adding some surprising political jabs on both sides of the aisle (finally, a movie that both Bill Maher and Glenn Beck can both love). It’s mindless, its fun and everything you could want from a summer movie.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent production design, from the ancient cities to the intricate weapons. Action sequences are exciting and frenetic.

REASONS TO STAY: Gyllenhaal’s faux English accent is distracting at times.  

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a videogame adaptation, there is a great deal of action and violence, but nothing the average teen hasn’t seen in videogames and television. If you’re okay with them playing the videogame, there should be no problem with them seeing the movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Other than the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, this is the only PG-13 rated movie Disney has ever released under its Disney banner.

HOME OR THEATER: Big screen, without a doubt. The fantastic vistas have to be seen on as big a medium as possible.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Winter’s Bone