Tag Archives: Chris Evans

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out

The coolest thing about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, besides the lavish production design and the fact that the lovely M. Emmett Walsh is *still working* at his age, is it’s epic takedown of wealth, status and the deep seated delusion that goes hand in hand with being born into a rich family. That is, of course, not readily apparent until the stinging but satisfying final shot of the film and I can’t say much because this is the last thing you’d want spoiled going in, but the message is there, delicately wrapped up in a package of intricate plotting, beautiful set artistry and a whole ton of deadpan humour from a dense, scene stealing cast.

Celebrated mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has been found dead, apparently by suicide. His raucous, dysfunctional family gathers to pay respects but it’s clear after a scene or two that this is a shady pack of wolves all out for the fortune he left behind. Southern gentleman investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) “suspects foul play “ and so begins a whirligig of a search for truth, secrets and an elusive alleged killer who is naturally closer to home than anyone might suspect, except those who already know a thing or two. Thrombey’s family is played by a well rounded, eclectic bunch including Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Chris Evans and a flat out hilarious Don Johnson. Rising star Ana De Armas is terrific as Harlan’s maid and confidante, a hard worker from some South American country that none of the family seem to be able to recall properly, highlighting their bemused selfishness and aloof nature further.

This is for sure a murder mystery and there is a serpentine narrative that does eventually arrive at a satisfactory conclusion but the whodunit aspect wasn’t as elaborate or lengthy as I was expecting. For me the enjoyment here came from these movie stars mugging for genuine laughs in a spoof of bickering families that is so dead on I felt like I was at Christmas dinner with my clan. These folks just can’t get it together or coexist and it provides come priceless exchanges of dialogue. There’s also a compassionate undercurrent between Armas and Plummer too, who between them give the two finest performances of the film, full of adorable camaraderie and flippant gallows humour. I can’t say much but the film serves to iterate and literally illustrate through circumstances that it doesn’t matter how many silver spoons you’re born with shoved up your ass or what kind of background you come from, you really only have claim to what you earn through hard work, be it laborious, interpersonal or other. I like that compassion and understanding woven into a film like this, it gives the Clue board a soul. Oh and I’ll also add that Daniel Craig has an absolute fucking one man party as Blanc who is an endlessly watchable, quaintly verbose delight and I love seeing him in eccentric roles that breach the surface of his cold, detached 007 persona. Good times.

-Nate Hill

David R. Ellis’ Cellular

Remember when cell phones were just that, phones and not the pocket computers of today? Cellular remembers, and did a bang up job of crafting a thriller around the concept back in 2004 when the age of the smartphone had yet to enter and we still had those glorious Nokia flippers. Based on a story by B-Movie guru Larry Cohen, it’s a breakneck paced, Bourne-lite action flick that works surprisingly well and offers engaging work from a young Chris Evans, a frantic Kim Basinger, a lovably intrepid William H. Macy and an especially nasty Jason Statham. Basinger is a Santa Monica housewife kidnapped by Statham and his band of thugs for reasons slowly revealed. Keeping her in a locked attic, he makes a violent ceremony of busting up the landline phone with a baseball bat, so naturally when she tries to dial what’s left of it in a panic, there a ghost of a signal and she’s able to make one random call. Evans’ beach bum college kid picks up the other line and is caught up in the intrigue, staging an impromptu search and rescue for her with the help of Macy’s dogged detective. It works well thanks to taut pacing, convincing performances (especially Statham) and editing that jars yet keeps it fluid. The main quartet are supported by the likes of Eric Christian Olsen, Noah Emmerich, Richard Burgi, Al Sapienza, Lin Shaye and Jessica Biel, but I gotta give a shoutout to Suits’ Rick Hoffman in a precious cameo as the world’s most obnoxious lawyer, who finds himself at the wrong end of a carjacking on Evans’ part, fuck can that guy ever mug the camera and effortlessly play for laughs. Cohen also wrote the story that ended up being Joel Schumacher’s Phonebooth, intending it to be the antithesis of that single location premise, the two films work nicely as a double feature tied together by similar concepts. It’s nice to see Statham in a straight up, no nonsense villain role, his stoic glowering and brutal physicality goes a long way in drumming up palpable menace. Further personality is given by a slick remix of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man worked in over the credits, too. Fun stuff.

-Nate Hill

Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer: A Review by Nate Hill 

Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer is a cold affair in more ways than one. It treats it’s characters with the same icy indifference as the storm which batters the few remaining people on the planet, confined to a locomotive that speeds around the globe in perpetual motion, humanity’s last ditch effort against a cataclysmic ice age of their own making. The train is designed to house the poor and disenfranchised folks in filthy barracks at the back end of the train, while the rich and privileged elite live in glamerous excess at the front. What better metaphor for brutal classism? A confined vehicle from which their is no escape, dwindling resources and rising tensions eerily serve to remind us of our own situation on this rock. Chris Evans grimes up his Captain America image as the ruthless leader of the poor, rebelling traincar by traincar and waging an ongoing war against the upper class and their minions, his sights set on reaching the engine. Unfortunately they’re up against some nasty security forces dispatched to end their rebellion at any cost, including axe wielding henchman, a J.T. Walsh lookalike who is tougher to kill than a terminator and an absolutely nutballs Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable under a dairy queen cake of makeup and a muddled northern England accent, dryly  playing the tyrannical head of propaganda. Aside from the obvious social satire that hits home, the film is also a rollicking action slam dunk with some jaw dropping, delightfully implausible set pieces and truly inspired visual design. Each train car has a different theme and purpouse, from a self sufficient aquarium (anybody want some sushi?) to a terrifyingly cheerful classroom where kiddies are brainwashed by a crackhead of a school teacher (Alison Pill in overdrive), and eventually the engine itself, a technological marvel presided over by a lonely, twisted and miscast Ed Harris as the architect of the whole deal, a role better suited for a Patrick Stewart or a Malcolm McDowell type. John Hurt plays the other half of the brains, stuck in squalor at the caboose, and there’s work from Ewan Bremmer, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Ah Sung Ko and Kang Ho Song as a resourceful explosives expert with his own agenda. The themes of this film will be difficult for some to swallow, which is what I imagine led to it’s piss poor marketing, at least in North America. The topical, callous and icy blunt truths about society, sacrifice and oppression won’t be willingly received  by many, least of all the powers that be, who don’t want such notions floating around freely. That’s what makes it important though, and sets it a step above most. It reaches near taboo levels of thought, displaying ugliness and outrage that seems scarily logical the more you think about it. Plus it’s a humdinger of an action adventure flick. Strong stuff, both in visual and narrative departments. 

SUNSHINE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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In some respects, Danny Boyle is Britain’s answer to Steven Soderbergh – a filmmaker who moves effortlessly from independent to studio films and works in a variety of genres: gritty drug drama (Trainspotting), kids film (Millions) and edgy horror (28 Days Later). Like Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Boyle has tried his hand at science fiction with Sunshine (2007). It was critically lauded in England as a thinking person’s genre film but was met with mixed critical reaction in North America and lackluster box office.

Sometime in the far future, our Sun is dying. The Earth is in the grips of a solar winter and the only chance we have for survival is to reignite the star. A spacecraft called the Icarus II, with a crew of eight and carrying a nuclear bomb roughly the size of Manhattan, will hopefully kick-start the Sun and save humanity. On the way there, they pick up a distress beacon from Icarus I, an earlier expedition with the same mission but that had mysteriously disappeared en route. Do they alter their course and check out the ship in the hopes that they can use its bomb and thereby doubling their chances? The decision lies with the ship’s physicist, Dr. Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) and it is one that will affect the entire crew in ways they can’t yet imagine. Through a series of intense situations brought on by unforeseen complications, there’s a real possibility that the Icarus II may not make it back alive and the characters have to realistically deal with this chilling realization.

Sunshine starts of as an intellectual science fiction film a la 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and then shifts focus to an engrossing mystery involving the Icarus I and shifts again to a slasher film reminiscent of Event Horizon (1997) for the last third. This last shift has drawn the most criticism from reviewers and does test the film’s credibility. Do the filmmakers really need to add even more danger for the protagonists to face? Isn’t the fact that they are heading straight towards the Sun with limited resources and crew challenging enough?

Sunshine does an excellent job showing the dynamic between the crew members and how it gradually breaks down when things go horribly wrong. Crew member turns on crew member and an oversight or miscalculation has catastrophic effects. The cast is uniformly excellent and refreshingly absent of big name movie stars. Instead, we get solid character actors like Cillian Murphy (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Cliff Curtis (Bringing out the Dead). Some of them are cast wonderfully against type and others, like Chris Evans, show previously unseen depth.

It is also nice to see the characters solving problems with reason and intellect that actually makes sense. That’s not to say that Sunshine is all brainy posturing. There is plenty of intense, visceral action that is emotionally draining much like Boyle did with 28 Days Later (2002). As he showed with that film and his debut, Shallow Grave (1994), he certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension.

This is also a visually impressive film as Boyle not only shows off the usual iconography of the genre – spacecraft, spacesuits, etc. – but doesn’t fall into some of the more tired clichés, like aerodynamically-designed spacecraft and evil computers. He also doesn’t telegraph who lives and who dies which gives the film an edgy unpredictability. At times, it feels like Sunshine wants to be the 2001 for the new Millennium but then the slasher film elements creep in and it resembles a more traditional thriller. It’s too bad because up to that point, Boyle’s film is a very smart, thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction.

MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The Avengers (2012) was the culmination of an ambitious project that was carefully planned by Marvel Studios over several years and spans several films utilizing characters, both major and minor, from each. While the notion of a shared universe with characters from one franchise appearing in another is a relatively novel idea in film, it is nothing new in comic books where costumed superheroes cross-pollinate all the time and even contribute to a larger story (see Secret Wars II). With Iron Man (2008), Marvel decided to do in film what they’ve been doing in comic books for decades. Its commercial success paved the way for subsequent adaptations of The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), each one featuring a scene that hinted at something bigger and it has finally arrived with The Avengers, which features heroes from all of these films banding together to form a super team of sorts.

The challenge that Marvel faced was to find a director that could successfully bring all of these wildly different heroes together and also handle the movie stars playing them. Up to that point, Marvel had employed journeymen studio directors like Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 & 2), Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger). But with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor, it was the first time the company had hired someone with auteurist sensibilities since Ang Lee and his fascinatingly flawed yet ultimately ill-fated take on the Hulk in 2003. And so, the hiring of Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers surprised some. With only one feature film on his resume – the cult film darling Serenity (2005), and known mostly for his television work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and sci-fi western Firefly, there was some question if he could handle a $200+ million blockbluster populated with movie stars.

Whedon got his start as a screenwriter and honed his chops over the years on T.V. sitcoms and as a prolific and often uncredited script doctor (Speed, Twister, etc.), but more importantly were his hardcore comic book fan credentials, having actually written a brief run for The X-Men, so he knew how they worked in terms of dialogue, plotting and depicting visual action – perhaps the most important criteria for The Avengers gig. It was a calculated risk that paid off as the film amassed an impressive box office result and received strong critical response.

The Tesseract, a powerful energy source that was featured prominently in both Thor and Captain America, has activated itself and appears to be trying to open a portal to outer space. Sure enough, exiled Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives with the intention of using it to take control of Earth and enslave its inhabitants. To this end, he brainwashes brilliant physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and S.H.I.E.L.D. (a top secret government organization) operative Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to help him do his bidding. This doesn’t sit too well with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and he decides to enlist Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop Loki.

This includes Russian super spy Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) who quickly finishes her “interrogation” of Russian gangsters to approach Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a philanthropic scientist now staying “off the grid” by working in the slums of India and trying hard not to unleash his Hulk persona, a being with superhuman strength that is off the charts. Captain America (Chris Evans) has been thawed out since being trapped in ice at the end of World War II and is still trying to sort things out with Fury’s help. S.H.I.E.L.D. also approaches Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), interrupting his work on a clean energy source. Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Loki’s adoptive brother, is the wild card, arriving out of nowhere to intervene when Iron Man and Captain America attempt to capture him, resulting in an impressive skirmish. This all builds up to a spectacular climactic battle between Loki and an alien army that comes swarming out of the portal created by the Tesseract and the Avengers.

With the unfortunate exception of Jeremy Renner, the entire cast gets a chance to flex their acting chops the best they can between massive action set pieces. Mark Ruffalo, the third person to play Banner after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, really nails the human side of his character, playing him as slightly twitchy and paranoid drifter. He appears confident (because, hey, he can turn into the Hulk) yet distracted – a jumble of emotions. This is easily the best representation of the Hulk on film, both visually in terms of CGI and also how he’s portrayed – as a rampaging monster – the Mr. Hyde to Banner’s Dr. Jekyll.

Not surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. gets the lion’s share of the funny quips – he was born to spout Whedon’s witty dialogue. It is a nice return to form after the cluttered rush job that was Iron Man 2 (2010). Based on Whedon’s perchance for having prominent strong-willed female characters in his projects, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow gets a beefed up role and proves to be an integral part of the team. Not only does she show off a considerable physical prowess but she also holds her own against the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth carry on with their characters from their respective films without missing a beat, each adding their own unique flavor to the team. In particular, Evans does a good job when Captain America steps up and takes tactical control during the war in New York while Hemsworth has some nice moments with Tom Hiddleston as warring brothers who just happen to be gods.

The Avengers is chock full of eye candy for comic book fans, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to actually seeing superheroes fight each other – something, oddly enough, you don’t see in most films but that happens all the time in the comics. It is pretty cool to see the likes of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America duke it out while engaging in playful superhero banter. Unlike the other Marvel films starting with and including Iron Man, Whedon creates a real sense of danger for our heroes. There’s a feeling that they might fail and this tension is thrilling because it is so rare in these kinds of films, except maybe The Dark Knight (2008). It also raises the stakes when Whedon’s film needs it because there is a real sense that the Avengers are fighting for something tangible. He gives them something personal to fight for than just the usual let’s save the world goal. This culminates in the climactic battle in New York City between Loki and his alien army and the Avengers in one thrilling sequence after another, each filled with large-scale slugfests. The choreography during this massive battle is top notch. There is never any confusion as to what is happening and where, which is quite refreshing. The end result is pure, unfiltered comic book geek nirvana.

avengers2The Avengers falls rather nicely within Whedon’s wheelhouse as it is all about a group of misfits that band together to save the world from a great evil, just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and so on. It doesn’t get any more disparate than a Norse god, a billionaire playboy, a World War II super soldier, a brilliant scientist, and two spies. Like much of the aforementioned work, the heroes in The Avengers bicker and fight amongst themselves but when the need to step up for the greater good arises, they put their differences aside and make a stand together. Loki continues in the tradition of eloquent Whedon villains who are incredibly confident because, well, in his case he wields great power and knows it. However, Loki isn’t just out to rule the world. For him, there is a personal component – he seeks vengeance for the slights he feels were incurred in Thor. This film was a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season in 2012 and is a potent reminder of what a filmmaker who knows how comic book works can do if given the chance. The result is a smart, witty film that is a throwback to entertaining, crowd-pleasing comic book adaptations like Superman: The Movie (1978) and Batman (1989).

Battle For Terra: A Review by Nate Hill

  
Battle For Terra is right up there with Titan AE as one of the most underrated animated films out there. It was shunted to the area off the beaten path of the genre, released quietly and inconspicuously back in 2009, sneaking just past people’s radar. Not mine. I waited eagerly for a theatrical release, which never came, and grabbed the dvd as soon as it hit shelves. It’s a dazzling science fiction parable not unlike Avatar, but a little softer, reverent and easy on the pyrotechnics. The story takes place some years after the remainder of the human race has been left to wander the stars in a giant spaceship called The Ark, left homeless after devastating the resources of earth, and three subsequent planets after. Soon they set their sights on a newfound world they dub Terra. Terra is populated by a peaceful alien race who spend most of their time in harmony, studying their heritage and bettering their existence. They now face annihilation, however, as the humans wish to settle, mine resources and deeply unbalance their way of life. One young Terran girl named Nala (Evan Rachel Wood) is a plucky young inventress and wonderer who finds one of the human astronauts (Luke Wilson) crash landed and stranded in her neck of the woods. They form a bond which may turn out to be the only way to find peace between humanity and the population of Terra. The story is wonderful, universal and carried out in a childlike manner full of earnestness that anyone can relate too. The Terrans resemble something like upright tadpoles crossed with sock puppets, and are fascinating to look upon. More interesting still is the natural world they inhabit; they sort of swim/glide through their thick atmosphere, and coexist with the many strange creatures and bioluminescence around them, including gigantic blue whale type things that fly around with them. I’m describing this to try and impart to you the level of thought and detail which went into creating this world, so you can see how high the filmmakers have jacked up the stakes in attempt to let you see the length humans will blindly go to further their survival, without voluntary compromise. The world the Terrans live on is a lush paradise in perfect balance, and the humans aboard The Ark, no matter how desperate, threaten it. They are led by stern General Hammer (Brian Cox), who is an antagonist, but not a villain in the least, a determind leader who will go to extremes to protect his people if his lack of empathy is allowed to go unchecked. The supporting cast is stacked high with incredible talent, and one can practice ones skill for identifying voices by listening for Danny Glover, Ron Perlman, Danny Trejo, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette, David Cross, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Evans, James Garner, Mark Hamill, Amanda Peet and Dennis Quaid. What a lineup. Imagination, storytelling ambition and visual genius govern this overlooked piece, and anyone who is a fan of animation (which is brilliant here, I might add) or science fiction needs to take a look.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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It has been said that 2016 marks the deconstruction phase of the comic book superhero genre what with Deadpool turning it on its ear with a healthy dose of postmodern irreverence. It also saw two movies that addressed the very heroic nature of these larger than life characters, first with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and then Captain America: Civil War. Both movies featured iconic superheroes in conflict with each other while also addressing the effect they have on the world. How does the general populace react to them and, more importantly, how do those in positions of authority react to them? The latter in both movies – not so well. Should superheroes be governed and if so by whom? Should they be held accountable for the massive destruction incurred from their world-saving battles? These two movies address these questions in very different yet intriguing ways.

Civil War
takes the basic story from the 2006-2007 Marvel Comics limited series of the same name, written by Mark Millar and penciled by Steve McNiven, and uses it as a springboard to address narrative threads introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Civil War intertwines two primary storylines: Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) track down elusive assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and the continuing animosity between Cap and Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), which finally reaches a critical mass when they disagree over the creation of an international governing body to watch over and control the Avengers, splintering the team into two camps – those on Cap’s side and those on Iron Man’s. This culminates in an epic battle between both sides.

Civil War
starts off with a bang as Cap and his new Avengers team comprised of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as they track down and stop Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the Hydra agent who has now become supervillain Crossbones, from stealing a biological weapon in Lagos. For Rumlow, it’s a personal vendetta as he blames Cap for almost dying in the collapse of the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in The Winter Soldier. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie: deeply personal motivations for why characters do what they do.

Meanwhile, the individual human cost of battles like the one in Sokovia at that climax of Age of Ultron weighs heavily on Tony as do the people that died during the Crossbones mission on Cap. To make matters worse, United States Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) meets with the Avengers to inform them that the United Nations is preparing legislation that will sanction their future actions. He considers them all dangerous and is concerned that they continue to operate unchecked, showing them a greatest hits montage of carnage that ensued during their battles. He gives them a choice: come on board with this legislation or retire.

Tony feels guilt over the ramifications of his actions – what with helping to create Ultron and all – and that of the Avengers and backs the sanctions along with Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Black Widow. Cap argues that signing this legislation will take away their right to choose. What if the U.N. sends them somewhere they don’t want to go or shouldn’t go? Where does it all end? Things for Cap only get more complicated when the Winter Soldier, who is actually Cap’s childhood friend Bucky now a brainwashed killer, is responsible for the death of T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) father. Meanwhile, the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is quietly plotting something big and it involves the Winter Soldier.

While this movie seems plot-heavy, it moves along briskly, punctuated with kinetic action sequences, like an exciting chase through the streets of Bucharest as Cap tries to capture Bucky alive while preventing Black Panther from killing him. It starts off as a dynamic foot race and then ramps up to vehicles that rivals the chase early on in The Winter Soldier. Much like with that movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have a real knack for orchestrating kinetic action sequences that create an almost palpable sense of danger for our heroes because so much is at stake. It doesn’t hurt that they wisely enlisted the help of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, directors of the dynamic action revenge thriller John Wick (2014), to choreograph some of this mayhem.

This culminates in the epic airport battle teased in all the movie’s trailers and ads. It is everything they promised and more. This is easily the best action sequence in any of the Marvel movies since The Avengers (2012). It’s epic, visceral and loaded with several mini-battles as hero fights hero. We also get to see the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and he’s everything you’d want him to be – full of funny quips, nerdy and more than capable of holding his own with the likes of Cap and co. only he lacks the battle-hardened experience. This is easily the best cinematic incarnation of the webslinger since Spider-Man 2 (2004). On Cap’s side, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) pops up to lending a helping hand and offer a slew of his own funny one-liners and a cool surprise in the heat of the battle.

There are deeply personal stakes for several of the characters in Civil War, from Black Panther’s desire to get revenge for the death of his father, to Tony’s guilt over the death of a young man in Sokovia, to Cap and his friendship with Bucky. All of these things are powerful motivators for what they do in the movie and supersede accords and sanctions. Initially, there was some concern that the inclusion of all these characters would create an overly stuffed movie but on the contrary the Russo brothers found a way organically integrate newcomers like Black Panther and Spider-Man and use their appearances as a springboard for their upcoming standalone movies.

In a nice contrast to past Marvel villains, Zemo is a more cunning, understated menace whose endgame isn’t readily apparent and only reveals itself towards the end at a crucial moment just before the exciting climax where Cap and Tony have it out one last time. The filmmakers mess around with the formula on this one. Whereas Age of Ultron featured yet another super baddie bent on world domination, Civil War features a villain that wants something that isn’t on an epic scale. He wants revenge and has a very definite agenda that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the movie in a wonderfully understated way that makes quite a gut-punching impact when it is finally unveiled to our heroes.

DC – this is how you do a battle with superheroes. Once again, Civil War demonstrates how far behind DC is from Marvel in terms of superhero movies on every level. Unlike Batman v Superman and even their own Age of Ultron, the filmmakers of Civil War do a great job of juggling this large cast of characters, giving everyone their moment to say something cool/funny and do something cool or significant without forgetting that the movie is ultimately about Cap and the arc of his character so that he goes from being a patriot in The First Avenger (2011) to an insurgent in Civil War. It’s his story and it’s a personal one. It is really a marvel of narrative juggling that succeeds where even the overstuffed Age of Ultron came precariously close to collapsing under its own ambitions. It is quite an accomplishment and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely should be commended on a good job.

So many movie trilogies tend to end a weak third installment that tries to tie up all the loose narrative threads created in the previous incarnations while going bigger in scale while losing sight of what made them so good in the first place (i.e. Return of the Jedi, Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises). At the heart of Civil War is Cap’s friendship with Bucky. It’s a thread that has run through all of the Captain America movies, culminating with this one where it is put to the ultimate test. This relationship is also the most satisfying aspect of this excellent movie because it is also the most compelling thing about it. Civil War manages to be simultaneously epic in scale in terms of how what happens affects so many characters and intimate in the sense of Cap’s journey over these movies. The filmmakers never let us forget that at its heart, the movie is about Cap and Bucky’s lifelong friendship. That gives us something to care about amidst all the carnage.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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When we last saw Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), he had just helped save New York City from an alien invasion and was still acclimatizing himself to modern life having been frozen in ice since World War II as chronicled in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The sequel, The Winter Soldier (2014), takes place two years after the events depicted in The Avengers (2012) and sees Cap working as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a top-secret spy organization that, among other things, deals with the fallout from the adventures of superheroes like Iron Man and Thor. However, as hinted at in The Avengers and the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there is something rotten at the core of the spy organization and Cap soon finds himself not only embroiled in a vast conspiracy, but also confronting someone from his past he thought had died in the war. The result is a fantastic fusion of the super hero movie with the conspiracy thriller.

Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are now a team and as the film begins they intercept a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. ship in the Indian Ocean that has been hijacked by Algerian terrorists led by French mercenary Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre). In a nice touch, the filmmakers manage to transform Batroc, who was a pretty ridiculous villain in the comic books, into a bit of a badass. Afterwards, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lets Cap in behind the scenes, showing him three Helicarriers armed with state-of-the-art jet fighters that are linked to spy satellites created to anticipate global threats in a program known as Project Insight.

Cap is not at all comfortable with Fury’s secret project and the notion of creating a climate of fear that potentially robs people of their basic freedoms. However, when Fury suspects something is wrong with Project Insight he voices concern to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Immediately afterwards, Fury is attacked on the streets of Washington, D.C. by S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and an enigmatic figure known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Fury barely escapes and finds Cap before being gravely injured. It’s up to Cap and Black Widow, along with the help of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a war veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder counselor that Cap befriends early on, to uncover the corruption rampant in S.H.I.E.L.D. and stop it.

Chris Evans does an excellent job of reprising his role of Captain America and providing layers to a character that is essentially a super strong boy scout who comes from a simpler time. He is now immersed in a convoluted conspiracy where he doesn’t know who to trust. As a result, he has to do a bit of soul-searching, which Evans handles well. He also has nice chemistry with Scarlett Johansson, especially when Cap and Black Widow go off the grid together and try to find the Winter Soldier. There’s a hint of sexual tension going on as two people with wildly different backgrounds and approaches to life are forced to look out for each other. Johansson finally gets some seriously significant screen-time than she did in Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Avengers and it’s nice to see her character fleshed out a bit more as well as giving her plenty of action sequences to kick ass in.

A film like this, which intentionally raises the stakes in comparison to the first one needs a credible threat that makes us feel like Cap and his allies are in real danger and the Winter Soldier does that. He rarely speaks, but looks cool and is extremely dangerous so that we anticipate the inevitable showdown between him and Cap. He isn’t some anonymous bad guy, but something of a tortured soul and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first film) offers some tantalizing details of his backstory and how it ties in with Cap’s past.

Markus and McFeely have crafted a solid script that is well-executed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They establish just the right rhythm and tone with well-timed lulls between action sequences that are used wisely to move the plot along and offer little moments of character development that keep us invested in the characters and their story. For example, there is a nice scene where Cap goes to an exhibit dedicated to his World War II exploits at the Smithsonian, which succinctly recaps his origin story in a rather poignant way that reminds us of his internal conflict of being stuck in the past while living in the present. One way he deals with this is befriending Sam and they both bond over being war veterans – albeit from very different eras. In addition, the script features several well-timed one-liners and recurring jokes that add moment of much-welcomed levity to an otherwise serious film.

The action sequences are exciting and expertly choreographed with the exception of the opening boat siege, which takes place at night and involves way too much Paul Greengrass/Jason Bourne shaky, hand-held camerawork. Once the filmmakers get that out of their system and Cap takes on Batroc, the camera settles down and is a decent distance from the combatants so that we can see what’s going on. There is also an intense car chase involving an injured Fury in an increasingly bullet-ridden SUV that has the feel of the exciting car chase in William Friedkin’s To Love and Die in L.A. (1985) and a little later Cap takes out an elevator full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents intent on neutralizing him that evokes an elevator scene in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). The fights between Cap and the Winter Soldier are fast and frenetic, but never confusing as they convey the frighteningly deadly speed of the latter’s moves, so much so that I really felt like Cap was in some serious danger.

Drawing elements from writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Steven Epting’s 2005 “Winter Soldier” storyline in the comic book, this film has a decidedly darker tone than The First Avenger as our hero is nearly killed on several occasions and his world is shaken to the very core as he uncovers all sorts of ugly secrets. In this respect, The Winter Soldier is reminiscent of paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s and this is acknowledged with the casting of Robert Redford who starred in two of the best films from that era – Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).

It is refreshing to see a sequel that isn’t merely content to rehash the first film. Where The First Avenger was essentially a mash-up of a super hero movie and war movie, The Winter Soldier is super hero movie and a political thriller with events that are a major game changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the past, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the connective tissue that linked several of the films together that led up to The Avengers. It should be interesting to see how the events depicted in this film set the stage for Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015). That being said, The Winter Soldier has its own self-contained story that is engrossing with a lot at stake for our hero and this in turn gets you invested in what is happening to produce a rare super hero movie with heart.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The popular comic book superhero Captain America had his debut in March 1941 courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby who created him as a patriotic symbol in response to the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II. Like any enduring comic book icon, Cap has undergone all kinds of changes over the years but as had few cinematic incarnations. He first appeared on film in a 1944 serial and then in a 1990 film that was so ill-conceived that it was released direct to home video in North America. One problem with the character is that his costume does not translate well to a live-action film. It didn’t help that at the time of the 1990 version, Marvel Comics, which owned the character, had little interest in cinematic adaptations of its titles until X-Men (2000) proved to be a surprise hit.

Since then, they’ve had a spotty track record with their properties. The Blade and Iron Man series were very successful but both Daredevil (2003) and Ghost Rider (2007) were box office and critical failures respectively. Part of the problem is the talent attached to these films. Getting the right director and cast that understand the characters and the worlds they inhabit is crucial and explains why the first two X-Men films were so good. For Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the powers that be wisely hired Joe Johnston to direct. Since it was decided that the film be set during World War II who better to recapture that old school action/adventure vibe then the man who helmed The Rocketeer (1991) and Hidalgo (2004)? For the pivotal role of Captain America, Chris Evans was cast. He already had experience with superhero films playing the Human Torch in the awful Fantastic Four films and, as a result, was understandably reluctant to take on another comic book adaptation. The question remained, how would such an earnest, idealistic character translate in our cynical times and would movie-going audiences be able to relate to him? Judging by its opening weekend box office haul, quite well indeed.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a skinny weakling who just wants to do his part for his country during wartime but he’s wracked with too many health problems to join the army. So, he volunteers for a risky top-secret experimental program known as Project Rebirth run by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones at his crusty, ornery best) and Peggy Carter (charmingly played by Hayley Atwell). Rogers may not be physically strong but he’s brave, determined and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and playboy inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) conduct the actual procedure that transforms Rogers into the perfect physical specimen, a Super Soldier complete with superior strength and agility.

Instead of putting him on the front lines where he wants to be, Rogers dons a corny costume (that pokes fun at previous cinematic incarnations), dubbed Captain America, and ordered to sell war bonds to the American public in a lame dog and pony show. While entertaining American troops in Italy, he hears that his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured by Hydra, a research wing of the Nazis who are so ambitious that they split from the Germans for playing it too safe. With Peggy and Stark’s help, Rogers disobeys orders to rescue his friend and 400 prisoners of war. Meanwhile, Hydra leaders Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) have discovered the Tesseract, a cosmic cube endowed with powerful magical energy that they harness so that it can be used to not only win the war but also take over the world. Schmidt was the first recipient of the Super Soldier formula and it transformed him into the Red Skull, a hideous-looking evil genius.

Hugo Weaving brings a suitably creepy menace to the role of the power hungry Red Skull aided in large part by the impressive and appropriately garish makeup job. Hayley Atwell is downright delightful as the brassy dame Peggy Carter who is more than capable of taking care of herself. The chemistry between her character and Rogers is nicely realized with snappy, slyly flirty dialogue reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. The screenplay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, does a nice job of developing their relationship over time, keeping their romance simmering just under the surface for most of the film until its tragic conclusion that carries a surprising emotional resonance because we’ve become invested in them. After all kinds of supporting roles over the years, Chris Evans finally gets to prove that he has the chops to carry a big budget blockbuster. He brings a no-nonsense charisma to the role and conveys Cap’s idealism without coming across as forced or phony.

Joe Johnston brings the same old school Classic Hollywood vibe he brought to The Rocketeer complete with a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony as he delivers a straightforward action/adventure tale. And like with that previous film, he includes all sorts of nice comic book touches, like the introduction of the Howling Commandos, a ragtag group of soldiers that fought alongside Nick Fury in the comics and fight with Cap in the film. In particular, the actors who play Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) bear an uncanny resemblance to their comic book counterparts right down to how they look and act. Unlike Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch), who imposes too much of his personal style, Johnston understands that the film’s style should service the story – anything else is a distraction. He even employs Snyder’s trademark “speed-ramping” technique but in a way that fits seamlessly with the action sequences, which are exciting and expertly choreographed, devoid of schizophrenic editing. You always know who is fighting whom and where. Captain America may not reinvent wheel in terms of the comic book superhero genre but it doesn’t have to. It is a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie with nothing else on its mind but to tell an entertaining story.