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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.

What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?

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By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.

As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.

Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.

Grade: A-

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Less than two years ago, Sony and Columbia Pictures rushed director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the big screen, just five short years after Sam Raimi’s overstuffed Spider-Man 3. With a brand new cast led by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man was a rush job of a summer blockbuster—a desperate attempt on Sony’s part to hold on to the rights of the Spider-Man character. It’s easy to see why Sony wanted to keep Spidey trapped in their web, as the beloved superhero is an audience favorite that guarantees the studio a big pay day. Yet for all the insistence that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be a fresh start for the character, the film’s plot seemed awfully familiar and, frankly, a bit underwhelming when pitted against Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises, the two summer kingpins of 2012. Now here we are at the commencement of the 2014 summer movie season and leading the blockbuster procession is The Amazing Spider-Man 2—a cramped comic book epic that fails to live up to its colossal hype. Sure it’s made with all the splashy action, on-again-off-again romance, wisecracks, and confliction that we have come to expect from a Spider-Man movie, but returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alec Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner appear to have been bitten by the same excess bug that nipped Raimi when he delivered his Spider-Man 3 dud.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds brainy teenager Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) continuing to battle crime on the New York City streets as Spider-Man. On the day of his high school graduation, Peter’s spider senses lead him to a high-speed chase through the city streets involving a highjacked truck that is carrying a massive load of plutonium. The man behind the highjacking is Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamatti), a ruthless Russian mobster who will stop at nothing to outrun the authorities. With the help of Spider-Man, the authorities are able to corral Sytsevich, but during the chase, the webslinger saves Max Dillion (played by Jamie Foxx), an OsCorp employee who is largely ignored by his coworkers. In the wake of the rescue, Dillion develops an unnatural obsession with Spider-Man, believing that he is the superhero’s partner. Meanwhile, Peter suffers from visions of fallen police captain George Stacy, the father of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone), who made Peter promise to distance himself from Gwen after his battle with the Lizard. Haunted by the promise he made, Peter grapples with his romance with Gwen, which leads to a nasty break-up between the two. Shortly after the break-up, Peter reunites with his long lost friend Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan), the son of OsCorp’s late president, Norman Osborn (played by Chris Cooper). Before his father’s death, Harry learns that he has inherited his father’s illness, and that he has to rush to find a cure before it’s too late. At the same time, a freak workplace accidently transforms Max Dillion into an electrified monster called Electro. After a botched attempt to calm the terrified Max in Times Square, Dillion develops a grudge against Spider-Man and vows to destroy him.

At two hours and twenty minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 attempts to juggle a staggering number of subplots, all of which seem to demand more time than they are allotted. Webb and his screenwriters continue to reveal tidbits of information about Peter’s late parents, and Harry’s quest to cure himself leads to the creation of a familiar Spidey super villain. And then there are the romantic quarrels between the impossibly cute Gwen Stacy and the stammering Peter, a couple that have to hold the record for the most make-ups and break-ups in a single motion picture. Honestly, trying to keep up with all of it is exhausting, and in the process, Webb practically forgets about one character that we’re left wanting quite a bit more from. After a while, this overcrowded tale begins to feel a bit like Spider-Man 3, the film that single-handedly killed off Raimi’s series. It appears that neither the filmmakers nor the studio learned from this mistake, although Webb avoids the cartoonish brooding and cringe inducing camp that made Raimi’s such a painful embarrassment. What’s clear is that Sony is putting pressure on the filmmakers to set up spin-off movies and lay the foundation for the next two installments in this Spidey saga. Sony has already made it clear that they intend to craft a cinematic universe much like Disney’s Avengers line, although, this world is threatening to be too villain heavy.

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While the jam-packed narrative causes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to feel sluggish, the lighter moments between Peter and Gwen put a little pep in the film’s step. The relationship drama does get a bit tiresome, but the two stars have a chemistry that soothes some of the grumbles that are bound to slip out from many audience members who have grown weary of Spidey’s chaotic love life. It also helps that Garfield and Stone share an off-screen romance, which makes their on-screen relationship even cuter. On his own, Garfield continues to settle into the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, wisecracking his way through gunfights, car chases, aerial battles with Electro, and a final showdown with the charging Rhino. There is no denying that Garfield nails the cocky comedic side of the character, but he also proves that he can handle Peter’s darker demons that creep in when he’s not swinging through the concrete jungle. His inner angst is measured with a desire for answers about his parent’s mysterious death—a mystery that he grapples with in the privacy of his bedroom. Stone remains an actress you just can’t resist as her Gwen Stacy looks to a future without Peter by her side. In the final stretch of the film, she proves to be more than just a damsel in distress, daring to jump into the action and assist a desperate Peter as he fends off attacks from Dillion’s Electro and Harry’s cackling Green Goblin.

On the villain end of things, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds one half of the Sinister Six uniting to squash the Spider. If you thought that Lizard was a far-fetched villain, wait until you lay eyes on Electro, a glittery swirl of electricity given a tragic human rage by Jamie Foxx. Early on, Foxx really makes you feel for Max Dillion, a geeky engineer who talks to himself and frowns as his coworkers look right through him. As Electro, Foxx plays the character as a terrified monster that doesn’t wish to harm anyone, but this misunderstood monster performance is rapidly brought down through a sudden script shift that demands Electro get mean fast. DeHaan was born to play Harry Osborn, the chilly son of OsCorp’s late president who is doomed to become the leering Green Goblin. The scenes shared between Peter and Harry are pleasant enough, but there are far too little of them for us to really be shaken when Harry’s Green Goblin comes calling for Peter’s Spider-Man. Giamatti’s Aleksei is appropriately over the top, as he grunts and growls in a hammy Russian accent. Sadly, he’s reduced to an extended cameo, but when he jumps into that menacing Rhino suit and starts wrecking havoc in the streets of New York City, I promise your adrenaline will start surging, especially when he stares down quivering cops and proclaims, “I am zee Rhino!”

As expected, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features numerous action set pieces that will thrill viewers of all ages. The scenes of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers are some of the most convincing we’ve seen so far, and Spidey’s first encounter with the skittish Electro shows off some impressive urban destruction. My personal favorite action moment is the confined fistfight between Spidey and the Green Goblin, a battle that ends with a shock guaranteed to blindside the packed theater. Another personal favorite is the Wall-Crawler’s showdown with Rhino, who charges into the battle guns and rockets blazing. As far as other complaints go, I found the score, which is composed by Hans Zimmer and the “Magnificent Six,” a super group led by Pharrell Williams, to be an absolute catastrophe. The chugging and whispering theme for Electro is just distracting as it attempts to get inside his glowing head, and the sudden lapses into shrill dubstep leaves your ears ringing. Overall, while there are things to like about The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the action, the CGI, the performances—the film doesn’t find Webb sending the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to soaring new heights. What we’re left with is a cluttered and disjointed superhero outing preoccupied with enticing the audience rather than satisfying them until Spidey inevitably swings back onto the big screen.

Grade: C

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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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.

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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.

Grade: A

Anti-Film School’s 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014

With the boring movie months of January, February, and March slowly inching by, it’s time that we start getting excited about the big movies that have been receiving the hype treatment over the past year. In 2014, audiences will be getting talking raccoons, a brand new Christopher Nolan epic, a Captain America follow-up, and a remake of arguably the greatest monster movie ever made. So, without further ado, here are the ten movies I just can’t wait to see in 2014.

10.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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It’s been nearly ten years since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller ushered us into the noir world of Sin City, and we’ve been salivating for more ever since. With an A-list cast that includes veterans Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Alba, and newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, and Stacy Keach, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’s trailer indicates that we are in for another heaping, black and white dose of steamy lap dances, sexy femme fatales, and back-alley tough guys who walk on the wild side. Bring on the gruesome mayhem!

 

9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, director Rupert Wyatt surprised both mainstream audiences and critics with his white-knuckle prequel about the ape uprising. Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which promises to up the apocalyptic scope and chaotic action to chilling highs. This time around, James Franco is out, but the always-reliable Gary Oldman is in, as well as newcomers Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Keri Russell. And we can’t forget the excellent Andy Serkis, who returns to raise hell as the ape kingpin, Caesar. Under the direction of Matt Reeves and taking place several years after the events of Rise, Dawn appears to be a worthy follow-up to the superb original.

8.) The Sacrament

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Ti West has twice proved he is a filmmaker to watch within the horror genre. His 2009 breakout The House of the Devil was a retro nightmare, and his 2011 follow-up, The Innkeepers, was one of the spookiest horror films of recent memory. For his third act, The Sacrament, he uses the devastating actions of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple as the framework for this “found footage” freak-out. While the “found footage” subgenre has certainly worn out its welcome (*ahem* Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you!), if there is anyone out there who could really give it its bite back, it would be West, who hinted that he had a handle on it with his unforgettable segment in 2012’s V/H/S.

7.) Neighbors

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If you haven’t seen the raucous trailer for Seth Rogen’s new suburban comedy about a bunch of frat bros who move in next door to a mild-mannered couple with a newborn baby, you need to fix that right this instant. Though it wasn’t written or directed by Rogen, I’m crossing my fingers that the scruffy funnyman is still riding the highs of last year’s comedic gem, This Is the End, which had critics and audiences everywhere doubled over in laughter. Based on the footage that has been revealed, it could prove to be a raunchy follow-up to that fireball of a comedy, even if it doesn’t quite pack the star power or the gimmick of actors playing “themselves.” If nothing good comes from Neighbors, it sparked the brilliant and hilarious idea to throw a Robert DeNiro party.

6.) X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The X-Men series has been severely hit or miss. Director Bryan Singer’s first two installments in the franchise were solidly made superhero films. The third film, which was taken over by Brett Ratner, left a lot to be desired. In 2011, director Matthew Vaughn got the franchise back on track with X-Men: First Class, effectively meshing Cold War history with a whip-smart origin story. With Singer back in the director’s chair, and a time-jumping plot line that promises to mix the old cast with the new, X-Men: Days of Future Past is poised to be a comic book movie to keep your eye on this summer.

5.) Guardians of the Galaxy

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With their cinematic universe fully formed and humming along nicely, Marvel dares to expand with this August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the most bonkers release yet. While director James Gunn’s space adventure is certainly a gamble, the trailer—which gives very nice introductions to the five main characters—suggests that this sci-fi adventure will have a stronger comedic tone to it. With plenty of rollicking space action on display, Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have plenty of potential, even with a talking raccoon that wields a machine gun and hocks loogies. Hopefully, it will be a welcome departure from the Iron Man and Thor movies.

4.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The last time Spidey swung across movie screens, his reboot was somewhat of a bore, mostly because new director Marc Webb rehashed a bunch of stuff we already knew about Peter Parker. With all the origin mumbo jumbo out of the way, it seems like Webb and his cast are really letting loose for an epic showdown between good and evil. Boasting not one, not two, but THREE superbaddies to face off against Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could very well be this summer’s The Avengers. It looks to have the pulpy action to rival it, and like all good comic book sequels, it doesn’t seem to be shying away from a darker tone and heavier dramatics. Is it May yet?!

3.) Interstellar

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Not much is known about Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic Interstellar, but does that even matter? Christopher freakin’ Nolan is directing it and that is literally all we need to know! Shrouded in Nolan’s expected secrecy, Interstellar is said to be about a group of explorers who discover a wormhole and use it to push the limits of human space travel. The IMDB cast list is bursting with A-listers (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and more), and the stock-footage heavy trailer hints at larger-than-life filmmaking. What is even more exciting about Interstellar is the fact that Warner Bros. has chosen to release it in the thick of awards season.

2.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Of all the solo Avengers films that Marvel has produced since 2008’s Iron Man, my favorite has been the WWII period piece Captain America: The First Avenger. With it’s pulpy aesthetic and rollicking action, Captain America seemed alive with the spirit of classic blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved it. With Captain America: The Winter Solider, the stakes are higher and the destruction is nastier than ever. Did I mention that it looks to be much more interesting than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World combined? While Marvel’s reluctance to release it this summer has slightly concerned me, Captain America: The Winter Solider seems like it will be a fierce comic book movie, and the gloomiest chapter in Marvel’s Avengers series yet. Bring it on.

 

1.)  Godzilla

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There has been talk for years of another Godzilla reboot—one to scrub away all the horrid memories of that 1998 remake that should have been called Jurassic Park: New York City. With Puff Daddy and Matthew Broderick out and Bryan Cranston and director Gareth Edwards in, Godzilla 2014 is shaping up to be the mack daddy of summer movies. Seriously, have your seen the damn trailer?! It looks incredible, with some of the most savage city-smashing ever put on celluloid. What’s even better is that the filmmakers are re-establishing the idea that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb—a radioactive creation of the Atomic Age that continues to stomp on through the cinema history books. And here is the best yet: the movie actually looks pretty freaky! Oh, and did I mention that it appears that Rodan and Gigan will be joining in on the worldwide destruction? Yeah, let’s just get in line now.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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by Steve Habrat

Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?

Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.

Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.

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As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!

Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!

One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.

Grade: B

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

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by Steve Habrat

Anytime someone asks me to list off a few of my favorite superhero movies, I always make sure to include director Matthew Vaughn’s full-throttle 2010 offering Kick-Ass among my top picks. I am a huge fan of the controversial original, loving it so much that I even included it in my top ten films of 2010 list. I found the film to be a hugely entertaining sugarcoated parody of the superhero genre and a work that had its fingers firmly on the pulse of the new teen generation. Plus, it features two must-see performances from Nicholas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz. It should come as no surprise that news of a Kick-Ass sequel grabbed my attention and had me very excited. After a little over three years, Kick Ass and his merry band of misfit teen superheroes and super villains return in Kick-Ass 2, a surprisingly rushed and flawed follow-up to the anarchic original. There’s no denying that Kick-Ass 2 is plagued by flat filmmaking, sloppy scenes, one very shaky performance, and way too many characters to flesh out, but the film still manages to be a madcap rush, all while smartly lampooning a generation brought up on the glow of an iPhone screen, social media, One Direction, and bath salts.

Picking up a few years after the events of the first film, comic book fanatic Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) has decided to retire his Kick Ass persona. He shuffles through school in a daze thinking back on his run as a high-profile superhero and considers hopping back in the saddle. After some contemplation, he decides to reconnect with former ally Mindy Macready AKA Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), who is now in the care of her deceased father’s closest friend, Sergeant Marcus Williams (played by Morris Chestnut). Mindy agrees to help get Dave back on his feet but she is quickly forced to hang up her cape after Marcus discovers that she is still taking to the streets as the ferocious Hit-Girl. It doesn’t take Dave long to discover that his Kick-Ass persona has inspired a slew of costumed vigilantes that are eager to pick up where he left off. Fellow masked vigilante Dr. Gravity (played by Donald Faison) soon recruits Dave to join the vigilante group “Justice Forever,” an organization run by the mysterious Colonel Stars and Stripes (played by Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, Dave’s former superhero partner Chris D’Amico AKA Red Mist (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is busy plotting his revenge against Kick-Ass. Redubbing himself The Motherfucker, Chris begins recruiting a gang of psychopaths that will aid him on his quest of tracking down Kick-Ass and destroying New York City.

With Vaughn out of the director’s chair and serving only as producer, the Kick-Ass franchise has been handed over to Jeff Wadlow, the man responsible for such films as Cry Wolf and Never Back Down. Wadlow quickly proves that he has a handle on action-oriented sequences of Kick-Ass 2, as the same blood-drenched carnage that cut through the original film quickly comes roaring back with a vengeance. There are a number of stand out scenes including a back alley brawl that manages to capture some of the giddy shock that pulsed through our first encounter with Hit-Girl, back when she hacked through a living room of thugs as the inexperienced Kick-Ass looked on in absolute disbelief and horror. There is also a claustrophobic fistfight between “Justice Forever” and a room of seedy gangsters (capped off with a dog chewing off a gangsters unmentionables), a fiery suburban battle between the hulking Mother Russia (played with gusto by Olga Kurkulina) and a slew of cops (wait for a visual gag including a lawn mower), and a massive final showdown that looks like Wadlow took a bunch of neighborhood kids to see the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, told them to go home and make their own superhero or supervillian costumes, and then take to the streets to duke it out. It’s all very entertaining and guaranteed to put a smile on your face, that is, if you can stomach blood, spit, and chunks of flesh flying across the screen.

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While the action is good and gory, Kick-Ass 2 really begins to clutter itself with numerous characters that all seem undercooked. The first time around, Aaron Taylor Johnson was the star of the show and everyone else was just a colorful supporting player, but with this film, he has to share the limelight with Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl. Johnson is still bursting with lovable geeky charm and its fun to see him with sharper fighting skills when he throws the green wet suit on, but when Chris D’Amico begins targeting his personal life, his character’s inner struggle with throwing on the mask seems snubbed. Meanwhile, the heavy focus on the fan favorite Mindy/Hit-Girl is certainly welcome, but it seems like it is treading on the toes of Dave’s story. Mind you, Mindy’s plotline is still clever, one that reflects upon her pursuit of a normal life and trying to fit in with the popular girls at school. Moretz is such a talented young actress and she brings real bite when she is forced to turn the tables on the cheerleading clique that dares wrong her. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Jim Carrey as the scene-stealer Colonel Stars and Stripes, a born again ex-mob enforcer with some foul chompers and a habit of taking a baseball bat to the REALLY bad guys. Carrey is really only in the film for about twenty minutes, which is a shame because you want to know more about him. Instead, his backstory is relegated to a handful of exchanges between other “Justice Forever” members that he has taken the time to mentor.

Perhaps the weakest player in the cast is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris/The Motherfucker. There is no doubt in my mind that Plasse absolutely loves this role, but his over-the-top approach to the character begins to feel cheap after a while. His character is built simply to shock at every turn, making you long for something to really drive his evil scheme. It doesn’t help that his comedic timing seems to be on the fritz. As far as the supporting players go, Faison is on point but underused as the smiley Dr. Gravity, returning cast member Clark Duke has softened as Dave’s best buddy Marty/Battle Guy, Robert Emms is fidgety as the homosexual do-gooder Insect Man, and Lindy Booth is bubbly and sexy as the femme fatale Night-Bitch. Booth’s Night Bitch is established as a love interest for Kick-Ass, but by the end, its gone without a trace. As far as the bad guys go, Kurkulina is pure roid rage as the one-woman-army Mother Russia, Andy Nyman is pure sleaze as The Tumor, Daniel Kaluuya is wasted menace as Black Death, and Tom Wu is filler as Genghis Carnage. Basically, all most of them are asked to do is march behind Plasse and scowl into the camera, although there is a bad ass battle between pint sized Hit Girl and stone cold Mother Russia. The most cringe-worthy character of all is probably Augustus Prew’s Todd, Dave’s dim former buddy who joins sides with The Motherfucker and then acts surprised that he did. It’s about as underwritten as characters get, especially ones that double-cross their buddies.

While some botched supporting characters and graphic violence play tug of war, the intimate moments are the ones that really could have used more attention from the filmmakers. There are times when heartfelt exchanges feel like they were written with graphic novel dialogue and it doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like Wadlow simply aimed his camera at one of the Kick-Ass graphic novels and hit record. The best of the serious-minded moments comes when the “Justice Forever” team takes turns explaining why they decided to put on masks and fight crime. It may be a slightly lazy double for brief character development, but a few of the stories do strike a chord and have an eerie sense of realism about them. The saving grace to the bland presentation and stiff dialogue is the fact that, once again, the project dares to prod teen culture of today. Overall, amidst the numerous problems that plague Kick-Ass 2, there is still some enjoyment to be found. Carrey hits the crazy button with an oversized Acme hammer and then whispers warm advice that cuts right to the heart of our young heroes, the action is just as crazy/disturbing/cool as it was the first time around, and you just gotta love that Hit-Girl. If you’re in the target audience or willing to keep an open mind, Kick-Ass 2 will make for a passable night at the movies.

Grade: B-

Favorite X-Men Film… GO!

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Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

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by Steve Habrat

Richard Lester’s 1983 debacle Superman III had shifted the Superman franchise from serious to shaky ground. It was a bloated and unfunny two-hour sight gag that failed to make you laugh and relentlessly mocked its own hero. Plus, it had Richard Pryor in a major role, which basically says it all. Things went from sort of bad to unfathomably awful in 1987 when Sidney J. Furie released Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, an awkward plea for world peace that was co-written by series star Christopher Reeve. About the only positive thing that can be said for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is that it does away with most of the comedy that plagued the third installment of this rapidly dying franchise. Lacking producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and in the hands of a new production company, Golan & Globus, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a cheap and poorly thought out franchise killer that simply borrowed from the previous three Superman movies all while trying to make a straight-faced statement about the nuclear arms race. It is a 90-minute mess that couldn’t even be saved by strong performances from Reeve and returning cast members Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. They certainly try but their lack of interest bleeds through on nearly every single frame.

After news breaks that the United States and the Soviet Union may engage in nuclear war, Superman (played by Christopher Reeve) contemplates how he should handle the situation. Desperate for advice, he travels to the Fortress of Solitude to confide in the spirits of Krypton, who advise him to find a new planet to call home. Superman soon receives a letter from a young schoolboy about the threat of nuclear war, which leads him to attend a United Nations convention and vow that he will rid the world of nuclear weapons. Just as the world is breathing a sigh of relief, Lex Luthor (played by Gene Hackman) escapes from prison with the help of his spaced-out nephew, Lenny Luthor (played by John Cryer), and the two begin cooking up a plot to send the world back into chaos. Luthor decides to steal a strand of Superman’s hair that is on display at a museum in Metropolis, attach it to a nuclear missile, and launch it into the sun in an attempt to create a superhuman that can match Superman’s strength. The result of this experiment is Nuclear Man (played by Mark Pillow), who travels to Earth and begins taking orders from Luthor. Meanwhile, the employees of the Daily Planet are stunned to learn that they have been taken over by tabloid tycoon David Warfield (played by Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter, Lacy (played by Mariel Hemingway), who has been brought in to replace Perry White (played by Jackie Cooper) as editor. To make thing worse for Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder), Lacy begins trying to seduce Clark Kent.

Under a very limited budget, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is like something that would have sent straight to the VHS bargain bin at a hole-in-the-wall video store. Even for 1987, this is a seriously chintzy production that is weighed down by poor special effects, lame prop work, and some of the laziest sets ever put on celluloid. The sets in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space were more convincing than the moon set at the end of Superman IV. The opening credits will certainly have you chuckling as they look like they were ripped from a Super Nintendo video game, but wait until you see some of the flying effects. When the strings aren’t clearly visible, you’ll be shocked by all the shaky superimposed images of Superman as he hurtles himself towards the viewer. The superimposed image that is used of Superman never changes, making you wonder if the filmmakers even considered doing another take of Reeve in his flight pose. Things don’t get much better when Reeve and Pillow are asked to play around with massive styrofoam props that look like they were spray painted in the director’s basement. When it comes time for the big brawls, Reeve and Pillow look like they are just trying to hug each other to death rather than seriously hurt each other. There is barely a punch thrown and the two just roll around in the dirt like they are participating in a high school wrestling match. It is beyond painful to have to endure.

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If there is any saving grace to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it is the performances from Reeve and returning cast members Margot Kidder, who was reduced to a brief cameo in Superman III, and Gene Hackman, who wasn’t present at all for the third film. Reeve somehow remains strong as Superman/Clark Kent despite seeming well aware that the movie around him is just a disaster. Reeve also helped develop the story but it seems like it got away from him in the filmmaking process. He still manages to excel as Kent and emit warmth as Superman, even when the script starts piling on made-up superpowers. Kidder is still her feisty self as Lois Lane, but she never reaches the level of her first two performances. Hackman is clearly having fun as the scheming Lex Luthor. By this point, he was clearly phoning it in but he’s immensely enjoying himself. Hackman is nearly brought down by an awful performance from Cryer, who is supposed to serve as the comic relief, something that we could have done without. Pillow is downright hilarious (and not in a good way) as the stomping and scowling menace Nuclear Man. You’d think it would be neat to have Superman facing off against a villain who can match him but Pillow is the furthest thing from menacing. As far as the Daily Planet players go, Cooper is on autopilot, Wanamaker is reduced to a snapping businessman with no bite, and Hemingway is here to add a bit of sex appeal to the project.

When you’re not covering your eyes due to the horrendous special effects and embarrassing action sequences, you’ll be in openmouthed disbelief over the countless other flubs in the script. I’m still trying to figure out how Luthor was able to snip that strand of Superman’s hair even though it is able to hold 1000 pounds, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around how Lacy was able to breathe in space without some sort of helmet. Then there is Nuclear Man’s lame weakness, which seems like it would make him very easy to defeat. And don’t even get me started on the made-up powers that Superman has here. Oh, and then there is the relentless preaching about world peace and nuclear weapons that practically makes you want to tear your hair out. Overall, you could fill a book with everything that is wrong with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The actors all seem thrilled to be reunited but every other aspect of the film is just downright awful. The film runs skimpy, filling out its runtime with slow-motion fights that are unintentionally hilarious and side plots that we could honestly care less about. It is no wonder that this film killed the Superman franchise and left it shelved for almost twenty years. Not even Reeve, who made the third film tolerable, was able to make this flaming turd work. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is one of the worst superhero movies out there and one of the worst movies you may ever see.

Grade: F

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You’ve been warned.

Superman III (1983)

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by Steve Habrat

Way before Tim Burton’s Batman franchise fell into the hands of hack director Joel Schumacher and was turned into a giant neon toy commercial with nipples; a similar fate struck another DC Comics superhero hero. In 1983, comedic director Richard Lester shifted Richard Donner’s Superman franchise from serious-minded optimism into full-on sight gag camp. The result was Superman III, a comic book movie that isn’t nearly as horrible as some may have you believe but is by no means a cinematic masterpiece. On its own, Superman III is a fun action comedy that will keep your ten-year-old son preoccupied while you take a nap, but when compared to the stellar Superman and its awesome follow-up, Superman II, the film is a humongous disappointment that only intermittently entertains. While every single one of the players tries their darndest, the one who is solely responsible for running the franchise into the ground is Lester, who flat-out refuses to take the Man of Steel seriously. To make things even worse on Superman III, Lester casts funnyman Richard Pryor as the thorn in old Superman’s side. As if he sensed this was a giant turd, returning star Christopher Reeve steps in front of the camera with fire in his eyes and he single handedly makes the entire thing, well, sort of watchable.

Superman III introduces us to Gus Gorman (played by Richard Pryor), an unemployed goofball who lands a job as a computer programmer at Webster Industries. Unhappy with his pay, Gus begins embezzling money from Webster Industries, but it doesn’t take long for him to grab the attention of the power hungry CEO, Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn). It turns out that Webster, his sister, Vera (played by Annie Ross), and his mistress, Lorelei Ambrosia (played by Pamela Stephenson) are out to take over the world financially and they plan on blackmailing Gus into helping them out. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (played by Christopher Reeve) and Jimmy Olson (played by Marc McClure) travel back to Smallville for Clark’s high school reunion where he reunites with his old childhood friend and recent divorcée Lana Lang (played by Annette O’Toole) and her young son, Ricky (played by Paul Kaethler). After being led to believe that Clark knows Superman, Lana pleads with him to convince Superman to attend Ricky’s birthday. Smallville turns the appearance into a celebration but Gus and Vera crash the party and present Superman with a chunk of synthetic kryptonite in an attempt to weaken him and prevent him from stopping their evil scheme. At first, it appears that the synthetic kryptonite has had no effect on Superman, but soon he becomes depressed, angry, and selfish, just when the world needs him.

Superman III begins with a chain reaction of slapstick disasters and sight gags that are all painfully unfunny and just way too drawn out. As if this isn’t bad enough, the sequence almost feels like it is poking fun at the hero we are supposed to be rooting for. The mocking tone never fully disappears, but every so often, Lester cuts through the carefree camp with a perky rescue sequence, but for the most part, the film is a far throw from the thrilling Superman II, which he worked on when Donner was fired. When we are introduced to the villains, things don’t get much better for Superman III. There is no Gene Hackman as the barking Lex Luthor and there is no Terence Stamp as the authoritative General Zod, but rather three screwballs who cower behind a giant super computer as Superman stomps their way. You could almost mistake them for Bond villains. Together, they wouldn’t make an infant tremble and they sure as hell don’t seem like they could do much damage to old Supes but somehow, to the horror of this viewer, they actually manage. While their plan is beyond stupid, it actually opens a door for Reeve to save the entire picture from crashing and burning.

Superman III #2

It is undeniable that Reeve is the heart and soul of this entire Superman franchise and it makes me shiver to think what it would have been like without him. Even in Superman III’s worst moments, Reeve is almost too good. When the script asks him to be bad and play a bunch of juvenile pranks around the world (he straightens the leaning tower of Pisa and he blows out the Olympic flame), Reeve manages to keep his composure, which is really something special because anyone else would have been on the ground laughing at how idiotic these moments are. As Clark Kent, he is still the sweet and bumbling fool we all know and love, but this time around, he actually gets to throw a few punches. In the film’s highlight scene, the corrupted Superman projects the good Clark Kent and then gets into a fistfight with him in the middle of a rusting junkyard. Naturally, the scene is loaded with unnecessary laughs, it goes on for about five minutes too long, and it is wildly unclear as to how exactly Superman exactly split into two people, but it is really fascinating to see Superman, a force of complete good, at odds with himself. I didn’t think I’d write this, but well done, Lester!

Then we have Pryor as the film’s reluctant baddie, Gus Gorman, and really, he isn’t that bad, he is just grossly miscast. Pryor does drop a few laugh bombs along the way, but he seems like he is on a short leash by the director and the producers. He also really has no business being anywhere near a superhero movie, especially a Superman movie. Still, you can’t really fault him for trying. As far as the other villains go, Vaughn’s Webster practically blends into the woodwork, a cardboard stand-in for Hackman’s diabolical Lex Luthor. Annie Ross brings a bit more mean to her small role as Vera, Webster’s sister who in the final moments of the film becomes an android-like monster that does absolutely nothing (yeah, don’t think too much about it). Stephenson is irritating as Webster’s seemingly ditzy but surprisingly smart mistress, Lorelei, who doesn’t miss a chance to seduce the corrupt Superman. Margot Kidder, who was not pleased when Donner got the axe on Superman II, is reduced to basically a cameo, a shame considering how entertaining and frankly spot on she was in the role. The new love interest here is O’Toole as Lana Lang, a sweet old pal of Clark’s that slowly develops feelings for the bespectacled nerd. O’Toole is good, don’t get me wrong, but is it too much to ask for Kidder’s Lois Lane back?

I wish I could tell you that Superman III has some spectacular confrontation at the end, but instead it is approached like some forgotten Atari video game that was left on a dusty shelf. It takes forever to get to a real showdown between the two parties, with the plot practically stopping to take a nap at certain points. At least twenty minutes could have been cut from the finished product, including the fist-fighting traffic light stick figures bit that will actually tempt you to get up and turn the whole thing off. I wish there was something at stake here or some sort of actual threat looming over Superman’s head as he battled with his demons, but instead the bad guys would rather hang out on top of their skyscraper that has been fashioned into a ski resort and chat about defeating Superman. Through all the bad, Reeve is still the glue that keeps the entire thing from falling to pieces. Overall, it is big, dumb, bloated, and flat lining in the creativity department, but a handful of soaring rescues and Reeve’s irresistible warmth manage to triumph over the long line of groan-inducing jokes that Lester insisted upon. Maybe that Reeve was some kind of Superman.

Grade: C-

Superman III is available on Blu-ray and DVD.