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Blu-Ray Review: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Synopsis: “Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) all must pick a side.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson cropped up in an eye patch in Iron Man’s post-credits, Marvel films have had their eye firmly planted on the future. Setting up incoming installments has been a precarious process, resulting in such face-palmingly clunky sequences as the infamous “Thor in a Bath Tub” scene and the entirety of Iron Man 2. When not preoccupied with teasing the oncoming comic strata or hogtying in easter eggs for uber-nerds to dissect and debate, Marvel has admittedly done fine work developing their roster of heroes, taking careful stock in ensuring that its non-comic reading audience has at the bare minimum a working sense of what drives these supers to strap into spandex and save the world. With Captain America: Civil War, a direct sequel to the events of Captain America: Winter Solider that employs nearly the entirety of The Avengers, those characters turn to the rear view to take stock of what has been lost along the way. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

What to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It’s certainly a Marvel movie; a spectacle-heavy rationing of motormouthed zingers, busy with whip-pan, slo-mo action montages and done up like a prom queen with CG glitz. It’s the insatiable younger brother to Joss Whedon’s initial compulsory corporate softball tournament; a large and in charge super-conglomeration that rarely stops to make time to make sense, and though darker (emotionally), bigger (logistically) and meaner (spiritually), it’s not nearly as much fun as when space worms were involved. The Marvel brand has been defined by its sense of “fun” and Age of Ultron certainly houses the brand of larger-than-life, escapist entertainment that Marvel fans have emptied out their pockets for in the past but it misses the shock-and-awe boat that installment numero uno rode in on, instead serving up a welting reminder of the inconsequential, aggressively episodic nature of this whole shared universe business. By the end of Ultron’s short-lived age, tables have been set but little has actually changed. This is Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Age of Redundancy. Read More

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Out in Theaters: SNOWPIERCER

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Global climate change threatens the way of life as we know it (just ask Bill Nye for proof of that.) But not every ailment has an ointment as not every disaster has a solution. Snowpiercer examines a world where a fix-all mechanism for global warming has gone horrible awry and left the world as we know it in frosty tatters, where the only few survivors occupy a train that hasn’t stopped circling the planet for 17 years. It’s a bleak glance into a natural disaster the scope of which we can forecast but not prevent but the true terror lies not in the world outside the train, but the social order which takes hold within it. It’s a distinctly international story (with a cast that’s one gay guy shy of a Benetton ad) about standing up for what’s right and blowing shit up when it refuses to nudge. Rife with sociopolitical commentary and brimming with one-of-a-kind world-building, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho looked like the perfect guy to take on a thinking man’s actioner of this breed. After all, who else would have dared to end this movie like he did?

When a Doc Brown of an experiment gone bonkers has blanketed the world in sub-zero temperatures and snowbanks the height of The Wall, the only survivors are forced to live out their existence on a deus-ex-machina of a bullet train called the Snowpiercer (from which the movie takes its namesake). The Earth we once inhabited is now one big snowy tundra, a white-washed arctic plains that you wouldn’t last a minute in without being transmogrified into a human popsicle as if from a spell cast in Frozen.  While all forms of life outside the confines of Snowpiercer’s steel belly have turned to ice sculptures, the engine – a figure of Godlike worship – keeps the remainder of humanity shielded from the chilly blast of frozen-over reality lurking just outside.

Inside the Snowpiercer though, a new social order has taken form, mimicking the unjust class ladder of society’s past. Not an improvement of civilization pre-Snowpiercer so much a magnified extension of it, the sociopolitical climate inside this Energizer bunny of a train is as icy as the winter chills outside it. In the front, passengers throb in beat-dropping clubs and eat their bi-annual plate of sushi while the tail section contains a gang of inexplicably reviled third-class citizens; they’ve no voice in their destiny, sparse food aside from black, gelatinous bars and often no extremities. This seems to be because whenever these tailies act out, a toothy bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton) plugs a metal band around their arm and pops it out of the train. Rather than turning dark with frost bite, their snow-blasted limbs take on a White Walker cool and are promptly ice-picked from their bodies. It’s no question that social justice has no chance to spark amongst the ranks of the have-nots.

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Their soot-faced languor and impossible quality of life catalyses an insurgency amongst the more able-bodied ranks, including Curtis (Chris Evans aka Captain America himself). Even in the face of C3PO-esque unlikely odds, this Winter Soldier has the brass to incite a doomed riot, leading a band of roguish anarchs that includes Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and quite limbless John Hurt towards the Snowpiercer’s engine and their ultimate redemption.

Along the way, Joon-Ho’s customary political undercurrents rage strongly but his critique is more wide ranging – and potentially even more damning – this time round. Snowpiercer is not a condemnation of government misconduct and fallibility (see: The Host) but of humanity itself. His latest film seems to say that humanity and inequality exist in symbiotic harmony and that one simply cannot exist without the other. Darwin’s survival of the fittest has never felt so punitive.

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The horrors of a socially enforced caste system are all the more distressing when magnified to this degree and Snowpiercer‘s cross section of inequality reveals spurring commentary on global disproportion that exists today. Sometimes you have to strip back the world to see the festering rot scurrying beneath and sometimes you have to cover it in ice to cull the warmth hidden inside. This way, it’s all the easier to pluck out the icy hearts that steer our world – or is it train? – towards a skewed and skewered social order from the fiery passion of human’s softer, more admirable side. It cuts in two ways: there’s always someone at the front of the train whose convictions have to be as chilly as their resolve in order to keep this train running. Is it then a coincide that injustice is spelled in just ice? (Sorry for the bad pun.)

And nothing speaks to this tattered circumstance more than the adroit set design from Ondrej Nekvasil who carves the train into reality without much use of CGI while amplifying the underlying themes of class oppression. If not entirely realistic (where do they all sleep?!?!), it’s still mighty impressive to behold and a lot of fun to journey through.

Using this mesmerizing set to the advantage of his storytelling is Joon-Ho’s strong suit just as his lack of knack for action is his Achilles’ heel. In the big spectacle scenes, his frantic camerawork proves that his ability to direct action leaves much to be desired. Though it may seem amiss to be complaining about these blockbusting portions of a movie clearly operating on more political tracks, the fact of the matter is that when Joon-Ho does take to showman scene work, he slips as if on black ice. And that’s not his only misstep.

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The language barrier between him and his cast seem to have gotten the better of some scenes, with hammy dialogue that just doesn’t roll off the tongue throwing a palpable stick in the spokes. While some of the performers are better able to gnaw into the campy dialogue (see: Swinton and her scene-chewing chompers), others, such as Evans, look caught off guard and quite frankly look silly when spewing a mouthful of affected jargon. It’s a relatively minor complaint in a movie that sees a frickin’ never-ending train as the means for surviving the next Ice Age but it was a hang up I wasn’t able to fully ignore.

This all comes to a head when you really stop to dissect the many parts and pieces of Snowpiercer but – much like the train itself – I can’t help but admire what an unconventional product it really is. Joon-Ho is as eccentric a filmmaker as you can get – after all he did make a monster movie that shifted towards the South Korean government being the ultimate baddie. This being his first go in English with a cast of this caliber, it’s no wonder that he’s got a little slop-rock in his ballad. But even the finest of tunes have a wrong note here and there. As such, Snowpiercer‘s messy but beautifully imperfect. After all, you can’t have your ice-cream cake and eat it too.

B

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Out in Theaters: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones
Adventure, Action, Sci-Fi
136 Mins
PG-13

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Growing up in the 1940s gives Steve Rogers an excuse to not understand the mechanics of speed dial. But when neo-Nazi’s threaten the freedom of the entire world, you have to wonder why he’s not more focused on contacting his nuclear suit-wearing chum, Tony Stark, or the bad Shakespeare in the park actor/Norse God, Thor. Unless he’s gone on some spirit journey to be explained away in extra Blu-Ray bonus material, Tony’s probably just shambling around Stark Towers in his drawers. His billionaire skyline must be literally cast in shadow by the helicarriers of doom that Captain America’s trying to take down with the only weapons at his disposal: record-breaking sprinting skills and a shield.  The fate of the entire world is at stake and here’s good hearted Steve clearly taking a hell of an ass-whopping and he still doesn’t see fit to call up his Avengers pals? Or at least try? I’m sorry but you lost me there.

The one thing that Kevin Fiege and his Marvel Movie Universe croonies tend to get right is they suit the adventure to the adventurer. The threats Iron Man faced in his third outing were largely personal. A wronged colleague becomes a viable villain, he’s forced to deal with PDST from a near death experience and his personal arsenal of humanoid WMDs transforms him from a private citizen into national defense mascot numero uno. There were larger implications at play had he not gotten his guy but Stark at least felt well equipped to handle the charge. Thor’s arc in The Dark World involves intergalactic worm holes, gigantic frost monsters and 8-foot tall Dark Elves. But Thor wields a hammer forged in a dying star that gives him the ability to fly around like a blonde, bearded Superman. Being, you know, a god, Thor was the Avenger best equipped to handle such a mark. Sure, having other Supers alongside wouldn’t have hurt but this was a mission that suited Thor’s pedigree. Equipped only with a hunky body, a pure heart and strips of pure sinew for legs (made for putting fellow long distance runners to shame), Captain America (Chris Evans) just seems out of his depths.

Look at him in The Winter Soldier. His big mission involves a retread task (one we already saw a version of in The Avengers) that he’s simply unfit to handle because, well, his superpowers aren’t really that super. His third act heroics necessitate a flying wingman because he’s simply not equipped to handle the mission solo. Joining him is snarky sidekick Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-Marine with a winged exoskeleton, because calling up Tony Stark or Thor was just… out of the question?

Part and parcel of enjoying these Marvel movies is digesting them with a spoonful of salt, especially when we’re looking at them from a logical standpoint and not a logistical one. Omissions are necessary from a budgetary standpoint and we have to be willing to overlook that… to some degree. But rather than make these shortcomings apparent, smart screenwriting would try to mask the need for the whole gang. This is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier fails hardest; an especially sad reality when contrasted to the contained spy thriller that it’s established as.

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Since the events of The Avengers, Cap and his shield shield S.H.I.E.L.D. Before this, Iron Man 2 was the first MMU film to tackle the build towards The Avengers head on and got far too bogged down in the goings on at that shadowy organization to stand as a film itself. The Winter Soldier has becomes it’s Phase 2 predecessor. Like Iron Man 2, it suffers from a fatal diagnosis of teaser syndrome. It’s all about what’s to come, not what’s happening in the now. By the end of the film, the chapter isn’t closed, it’s just beginning. Even it’s titular character, that mysterious Winter Soldier (played by a hollowed out Sebastian Stan), is relegated to a minor role with only an inkling of character.

If only Marvel would realize that not ever venture needed a third-act calamity, that millions must not be dumped on visual effects and that telling a self-contained story is a virtue in itself, then this could have been a rousing triumph. As it is, Cap 2 works so much better when its sights are centered on the smaller scale, when Steve and Scar Jo‘s Black Widow are traipsing around hunting for clues, trying to put a name to faceless villainy.

Give me more super-noir, less hapless explosions. Give me the humor and tragedy of Cap being a man lost in time. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show savvy sneaking in some current political hot buttons as subtext but fail to tell the more personal story of a lost man adapting to a whole damn new century. But this is bane of the Russo Bros’ film; it takes one step forward, two steps back. Every cheer is followed up with a few jeers. With character resolution left dealt with in post-credit stingers and a third act that may as well have been helidropped in from some other movie, the modest enjoyment one gets from Captain America: The Winter Soldier just doesn’t justify the $170 million dollars spent. It’s too busy shoulder tapping you to go see The Avengers 2.

C

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First Trailer for CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER

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The first trailer for Captain America: The Winter Solider has arrived and, unsurprisingly, it’s looking pretty solid. Following Chris Evan‘s Steve Rogers as he acclimates to living in the 21st century and adjusts to his new position working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the real question is whether this can stand out among the pack if it will just be another solid effort from Marvel. At this point, the studio has a formula for success that’s been working wonders for them. However successful that initial campaign is though, they’ll have to switch gears sooner rather than later if they want to keep proceedings interesting. 

The official synopsis reads:

After the cataclysmic events in New York with The Avengers, Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, living quietly in Washington, D.C. and trying to adjust to the modern world. But when a S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague comes under attack, Steve becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue that threatens to put the world at risk. Joining forces with the Black Widow, Captain America struggles to expose the ever-widening conspiracy while fighting off professional assassins sent to silence him at every turn. When the full scope of the villainous plot is revealed, Captain America and the Black Widow enlist the help of a new ally, the Falcon. However, they soon find themselves up against an unexpected and formidable enemy—the Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The Winter Solider is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and stars Chris Evans, Frank Grillo, Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Cobie Smoulders, Emily VanCamp, Dominic Cooper, and Toby Jones. It hits theaters on April 4, 2014.

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