Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.
Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.
Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.
As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.
The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.
With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.
by Steve Habrat
Ever since his surreal 2009 children’s fantasy Where the Wild Things Are, indie director Spike Jonze has remained relatively low-key. In the years following that wildly popular screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved tale, Jonze has filled his time with a few acting gigs, a skateboarding video or two, a handful of music videos, and some writing/producing duties. After four long years, Jonze finally returns as director for Her, the celebrated futuristic love story that has been gaining quite a bit of momentum this awards season. Also written by Jonze, Her is a film that is alive with vision and originality, a resonant love-story for a world that has developed an alarming addiction to the glow of their smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. While certainly a beautiful film with a truly fascinating premise, Her, like Jonze’s last feature film, begins to drone on the viewer. The initial “wow” factor only carries it so far before it begins to grow repetitious, never really knowing where it should cut itself off. Luckily, your growing loss of electronic enchantment will be rescued by star Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an outstanding performance as the heartbroken writer who falls head over heels for his brand new operating system.
Her picks up in futuristic Los Angeles and introduces us to Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man nursing a broken heart over the recent separation from his wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara). By day, Theodore works as a writer for a company that composes personal letters for those who don’t quite know what to say, and by night, he sulks home to play video games or fidget around restlessly in his bed. One day, Theodore decides to purchase a new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that is capable of interacting just like a regular human being. Impressed by the operating system’s abilities, Theodore strikes up a casual friendship with the new AI, sharing tidbits of information regarding his messy separation from Catherine. After a botched blind date with a beautiful woman (played by Olivia Wilde), Theodore finds himself romantically drawn to the operating system, which also appears to have developed romantic feelings for him. With his newfound love and the help of his close friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), Theodore begins pulling himself out of his slump, but the challenges of dating an operating system arise and put the relationship to the test.
If you’ve ever imagined what it might be like if Apple started making live action movies, Her gives you a pretty good indication of what the computer company’s type of movie might be like. Jonze fills the screen with soft pastel colors and sleek views of a futuristic Los Angeles—a squeaky clean metropolis where everyone shuffles about with tiny white earpieces stuffed in their ears and the glow of a smartphone screen reflecting off their down pointing faces. The overhead shots of the city are so crisp and clear that they would be perfect as the screensaver on your MacBook Pro with retina display. It’s all absolutely gorgeous to take in, even if it is glaringly obvious at times that this futuristic American city is actually just a shimmering Shanghai. On its own, the visual lyricism of Her consistently keeps your eyes wide—it’s a digital dream world that would have made Steve Jobs drool and storm off to his Apple boardroom to demand that his staff get to work on updating Siri. While Jonze keeps a firm grip here, his story, which I should reiterate is extremely original and inspired, is so thorough in the way it explores a relationship that it nearly ceases to fill us with wonder and instead begins to mildly drone on the viewer. It’s perfectly fine that he wanted to tell this digital romance in a convincing and personal manner, but the ups and downs of Theo and Samantha’s relationship begin to grow repetitive and exhausting, numbing us slightly to the couple’s conclusion.
Though you may drift out a bit, star Joaquin Phoenix gives Her a strong emotional pull that yanks you back into the picture. Phoenix is a raw nerve as Theo, our sensitive and aching hero who is adrift in this digital world. He sulks from the office with his frown hidden under a mustache, seeking escape from his pain in an encompassing video game he obsesses over. When Samantha asks if he wants a pair of emails regarding his divorce read to him, he gives a quivery objection and fights back tears. When Samantha begins to pull him out of his hole of sadness, you’ll smile over his newfound delight as he dances through a bustling fair. Phoenix gives Theo such tenderness and vulnerability that you can’t help but root for this unusual romance to really make it, even if there are points where it makes you squirm from its awkwardness. Guiding Theo out of this rut is Johansson’s husky voice, which she lends so wonderfully to Samantha, the operating system that has won Theo’s heart. While we never see her, Johansson is able to convey so much emotion that you’d swear she was ready to manifest right next to our hero. As far as the supporting cast goes, Amy Adams gives another spectacular performance as Amy, Theo’s understanding best friend who is also facing heartbreak. Rooney Mara is prickly as Catherine, Theo’s childhood sweetheart who has shattered his heart into a million little pieces. Olivia Wilde rounds out the cast in a brief role as a sexy blind date who quickly sours to the sadsack Theo.
While the stunning cinematography and the candid performances are truly special, the real beauty of Her lies within the plausibility of its script. With the way that technology has been rapidly advancing over the past several years, it isn’t that far-fetched to think that operating systems could be this advanced ten to twenty years down the line. The smartphones now come equipped with personal assistants that can look up internet trivia, tell jokes, send text messages, bring up emails, and make phone calls all at your request. This story also speaks to the creativity that lies within Jonze, who wrote the script and just nabbed a Golden Globe for his work. It truly is remarkable that Hollywood gave the script a chance considering that most romantic dramas have evolved only to the point of having unhappy endings where boy doesn’t necessarily end up with girl. Overall, while the imagination, vision, and performances are all magnificent, Her could have done with a software update to clear out a few bugs. I understand that Jonze wanted to really sink his teeth into this peculiar romance and envision it from every angle possible, but there are stretches of dead space that allow the magic to seep out.
The Avengers (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Since May of 2008, Marvel has begun to hype their heavily anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers with little Easter egg hints in the origin stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. It has been a torturous journey for Marvel fans but we finally have the crown jewel of Marvel superhero offerings and I’m just going to be frank when I say that it kicks a whole bunch of ass. Clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours, The Avengers is one gigantic nerd money shot, not bogged down by any longwinded origin tale or story set-up. With The Avengers, director Joss Whedon, allows his superhero titans to let loose and show off what they are capable of. There is a whole bunch of flying, jumping, punching, shooting, smashing, destroying, hammer throwing, shield throwing, missile launching fun that will keep a smile plastered across your face and drool splattering onto your Thor t-shirt. Yet The Avengers is even more of a triumph because it is actually a really good movie. This isn’t a big empty excuse that stretched things to get all these do-gooders into the same movie, which is what I feared when I first heard about The Avengers.
The Avengers begins in a remote research facility where a powerful energy source and portal known as the Tesseract is currently being held. The Tesseract suddenly activates, allowing the exiled Norse god Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) to step through the portal and attack the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that are guarding it. Loki finds himself confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who attempts to stop Loki from making off with the Tesseract. In the process, Loki declares war on planet earth and announces that he is in control of a powerful alien army that is capable of wiping earth out. Running out of options, Fury and Russian agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Played by Scarlett Johansson) begin rounding up the exiled Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Played by Mark Ruffalo), weapons defense expert Tony Stark/Iron Man (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Loki’s brother and fellow Norse god Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth), the recently rediscovered super-soldier Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Played by Chris Evans), and kidnapped assassin Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Played by Jeremy Renner). The group forms a rickety alliance and begins trying to find a way to stop Loki and convince him not to attack earth but it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hiding a few secrets about the Tesseract of their own.
Every hero that makes up The Avengers team gets a classic moment that sent the audience members of the midnight showing I attended into a frenzy of cheering, whistling, hooting, and hollering. It helped when the sequences that were filmed in Cleveland blasted their way onto the screen, which really drove my audience wild. Every hero gets the opportunity to fight the other or team up to take on Loki’s relentless army of hideous aliens. A sequence where Iron Man and Captain America gang up on Thor is an earthshaking encounter as well as an aerial battle between Black Widow, The Hulk, and Thor. The Thor/Hulk brawl exceeded awesome when Hulk tries to lob Thor’s hammer at him but is unable to lift it. It is just as glorious as you might expect. The final battle almost exceeds words, each character getting a “HOLY SHIT!” moment that you will have to see to believe. Much has been made over the 3D in The Avengers, which was added in post production, many saying that it leaves a lot to be desired but I was actually impressed with it. Arrows fly out of the screen along with ruble, sparks, and more. Next to Avatar and Hugo, this is one of the movies that if you can see it in IMAX 3D, you should.
While the special effects will blow your mind, it’s Joss Whedon’s script that really sends The Avengers to the forefront of superhero movies. He catches us up on all four of the main heroes; so if you’re worrying about seeing the other films that have led up to this, don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to figure out what is going on with no problem at all. Whedon measures out every hero and gives him or her an equal amount of screen time so they can do their superhero thing. Mark Ruffalo is the newest member to this tights party and he smoothly settles in. He ends up being the best Bruce Banner/The Hulk of all the actors who have tried to tackle the role. Ruffalo is a poor soul who adds the grittiest emotion to the role (a scene where he discusses a suicide attempt will really stick with you), oozing with loneliness and longing for acceptance. Thor, Stark, and Rodgers are not far behind, as the three of them all have to come to terms with their outsider status. Rodgers tries to settle in at a time when the world may not even need him, Thor continues to act like a strutting brute, and Stark continues to act like a self-center brat. Hiddleston’s Loki proves to be a formidable foe for the dream team, a smirking baddie who can do quite a bit of damage on his own. I feared his character would be unable to carry the weight of the villain considering he wasn’t front and center in last summer’s Thor but he rises to the challenge and knocks it out of the park. The two characters that I would have liked to have seen more of and developed a bit further was Black Widow and Hawkeye, who only get fleeting hints at their past. You’ll forgive because Whedon is clearly trying to juggle a lot and pulling it off exceedingly well.
The Avengers does become its own worst enemy in a way. I found myself getting so caught up in the idea of the film (Four legendary superhero in ONE movie!) that some of the sci-fi chatter and story development ends up being overshadowed. When the heroes would sit down with Fury and discuss all the science behind the Tesseract, my mind would wander a bit from the story and I would become antsy for the next action sequence. It was clear that the entire theater was getting restless during these scenes and craving more explosions, rescues, brawls, and more. There is a flipside to this and it works in the film’s favor. Since I have seen the film, I have been itching to get back to the theater to see it again and invest myself more into the story. This isn’t to say that The Avengers is a difficult film to follow (it certainly isn’t) but the gimmick of spectacle outweighs the story every step of the way. But hey, what do you expect from a summer blockbuster?
Despite a few minor hiccups, The Avengers is still a must-see action extravaganza that will be one of the biggest films of the summer. It has everything you could want in a superhero movie and then even more that you didn’t even know that you wanted. The Avengers is Marvel’s best film to date and I fear almost every film they do in the wake of it will pale (unless of course it is another Avengers movie). The film has a strong script with applause worthy one-liners, pristine CGI (get a load of Hulk!!), devoted performances, and a strong patriotic spirit that leaves American soil and infects everyone around the world. Kicking the summer movie season off with a nuclear explosion, The Avengers will awaken the inner fanboy or girl in each and every one of us, even if you think there isn’t one to be found in you. A top-notch crowd pleaser of the highest order.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
by Steve Habrat
With 2008’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau set the bar extremely high for the Iron Man franchise. While it left us all starving for more of the cocky hero, there was the feeling that if there is a sequel, it will most likely be unable to live up to the stellar first installment in the series. My fears were slightly confirmed in summer 2010 when I rushed out on my birthday to see Iron Man 2, which ended up being one notch below the original Iron Man. Sadly, Iron Man 2 was an even more expensive trailer for the upcoming Avengers film and not even really bothering to act as it’s own film. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Iron Man 2. It was clear that Favreau and Marvel Studios rushed the sequel into production and they simply drew up a loose story just so audiences wouldn’t have to wait until 2012 to see Iron Man rocket across the screen again. It was also apparent that nobody wanted to tinker with a good thing. Iron Man 2 tries desperately to capture the same clinking and clanging action, the sweet romance, and the clever laughs that made the original such a must-see, but there is too much interference from Marvel which takes some of the flesh and blood out of all the studio steel.
Iron Man 2 picks up with the world at peace in the wake of the Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing the Iron Man armor to the world. The U.S. government is harassing Stark to hand over his Iron Man armor over to authorities but Stark maintains that it is his own property and all the other foreign competitors are miles away from emulating his powerful weapon. Stark is also finds himself harassed by rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Played by Sam Rockwell) who desperately wants to create his own line of armor of his own. While racing in the Circuit de Monaco, Stark is attacked by a mysterious man named Ivan Vanko (Played by Mickey Rourke), who has designed a powerful suit of armor of his own with lethal whip-like contraptions hanging from his arms. It turns out that Vanko’s father was an old partner of Stark’s father Howard, who was deported after he tried to profit from technology that he worked on with Howard Stark. Hammer takes notice of what Vanko has done and he recruits him to create a line of deadly drones that he can unleash on Stark. Stark, meanwhile, finds himself slowly being poisoned by the palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive.
Iron Man 2 introduces us to two new characters including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up in a brief cameo in Iron Man) and secret agent Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Played by Scarlett Johansson), who acts as Stark’s new personal assistant. Both Fury and Romanoff are present in Iron Man 2 to simply allow the film to set up Iron Man’s place in the Avengers film rather than actually enrich the whole experience. While it is a neat Easter egg for diehard Marvel Comics fans, at times Romanoff seems a bit irrelevant in all the action, as she posseses the bigger role in the film over Fury. This is the exact problem with Iron Man 2, it reeks of studio involvement and control. It is very clear that Marvel demanded Favreau work these characters in at any cost and it takes a minor amount of the enjoyment out of this film. I wish things had felt more natural, much like they did in the original Iron Man. The one character that is allowed to grow is Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played this time by Don Cheadle), who gets his wish to don the Mark II suit with some pretty hefty modifications and transforms into the scene stealing War Machine. Cheadle outshines all the forced characters that have been worked into Iron Man 2 and I loved it when Favreau would explore the destructive friendship between him and Stark.
Robert Downey, Jr. also gets the chance to build upon his raucous playboy Tony Stark, taking him down the darker routes that the first film slyly avoided. In Iron Man 2, Stark realizes that he is near death from the palladium core in his chest. He desperately searches for a new design but he also has accepted his death and he is determined to live out his last days in boozy style. In the comic books, Stark was a big drinker and it was nice to see Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux work that aspect into the film. I know many fans were upset that this aspect of Tony Stark was glossed over in the original film. At times, Stark’s one-liners seem a bit forced and frankly not as sharp as they were in the original film. Further troubling, Downey, Jr. seems like he is pushing the funnies out rather than allowing them to flow naturally. Nonetheless, he is still having a great time as Stark and his enjoyment is incredibly infectious.
Iron Man 2 ends up getting a handful of juiced up bad guys to terrorize Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke shines as the vengeful Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a frankly much neater villain than Iron Monger (I did enjoy Bridges!). The electrifying showdown between him and Stark at Circuit de Monaco steals the entire movie and had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it. Equally cool is the snide Justin Hammer, who desperately wants to upstage Stark and humiliate him. Rockwell is basically filling the businessman villain role that was left open from the first film and he does it with just as much enthusiasm as Bridges did. Paltrow also returns in a stronger role than she had in Iron Man, finding herself promoted to CEO as Stark Industries and courted by the stumbling Stark. Favreau and Theroux still can’t help themselves and once again find it necessary to toss her in harm’s way, making her character flirt with the typical superhero girlfriend in distress.
Iron Man 2 attempts to be bigger than the original film, with bigger showdowns, more armored brawlers, extended action, and spiced up special effects. I wish that Iron Man 2 would have taken on a personality of its own and Marvel would have backed off the project. I feel that if Favreau wouldn’t have had Marvel breathing down his back, there may have been a different outcome. Yet there is still fun to be found in Iron Man 2, especially the final battle with Iron Man and War Machine battling a group of deadly drones created Hammer and Whiplash. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 did not feel the need to convert itself into 3D, which I think was a wise decision since 3D was all the rage (and still is) at the time. Overall, there is a bit of magic missing in Iron Man 2 and that is mostly because the film goes through the same song and dance that the first film did, just building slightly on its character which I suppose is a positive. It’s no Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight but Iron Man 2 is still a spirited follow-up to its predecessor.
Iron Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.