REVIEW: “Captain Marvel”

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As tempting as it may be, I’m not wading into the controversies that have swarmed “Captain Marvel” since well before its release. The bulk of criticisms have been silly, pointless, and some of it downright bizarre. Yet through all of the fanboy backlash and insecure outrage Marvel Studios has another big screen cash cow on its hands. “Captain Marvel” is already pushing $1 billion. Not too shabby.

Let me start by laying out my credentials. I’m a comic book guy and I’ve followed the Carol Danvers character for a while. I became a genuine fan in 2006 when her second solo series launched. Much of its 50-issue run was fantastic and it did a good job opening up the character (not to mention giving us 19 stunning covers from artist Greg Horn).

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So I’m more than open to a Carol Danvers/ Ms. Marvel/ Binary/Captain Marvel entry into the MCU. In fact I love the idea of Carol being the first female to have her own movie. And it didn’t hurt when Marvel Studios announced she would be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, an actress I really enjoy.

Turns out the movie is a good one. It doesn’t necessarily break the MCU mold but it does an amazing job considering the massive challenges it faced. Think about it, “Captain Marvel” is asked to show that a female-led MCU picture can be a big money-maker. It has to tell a fresh origin story of a character not exactly among Marvel’s upper tier. It must connect itself to the already immense MCU timeline. And it has to put certain pieces in place that lead up to next month’s “Avengers: Endgame”. Talk about a full plate!

There are moments where you can sense the filmmakers working hard to meet the many demands. At the same time the writer-director duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deserve a ton of credit. They may be unlikely choices to make a blockbuster Marvel picture but they turn out to be solid fits who have a good sense of how the movie should land. Their balancing act is pretty amazing.

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At its core this is a story of a woman (Larson) in search of her true identity. Practically the entire film is a slow drip of information and revelation about who this clearly gifted person truly is. It’s a cool way of telling an origin story as the character is learning alongside of the audience (think along the lines of Jason Bourne). At the same time it doesn’t allow you the chance to get close enough to her past. Call it conventional but I felt her backstory could have used a tad more attention.

We first know her as Vers (pronounced “Veers”), a member of the alien Kree Empire’s elite Starforce. She clearly has untapped power but she’s taught to contain it by her mentor and Starforce commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). This is also where we get our first handful of memory flashes which she dismisses as nothing more than dreams. When a rescue operation goes bad, Vers is abducted by Skrulls, the Kree’s shapeshifting enemies. The Skrull Commander Talos (a really good Ben Mendelsohn) probes her mind giving us yet another batch of memories to parse.

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Vers escapes to nearby Earth where countless gags and a barrage of musical cues lets us know it’s 1995. She quickly draws the attention of the fledgling S.H.I.E.L.D. organization and agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) but his investigation is quickly sidetracked when the Skrulls attack. Vers and Fury set out on the most unusual of buddy-cop adventures to find out what the Skrulls are after. Along the way she learns more about her true self, namely that she was a former Air Force fight pilot named Carol Danvers.

The quest for identity hops from Los Angeles, to Louisiana, and even back to Earth’s orbit. Throughout we watch Vers/Carol wrestle with her otherworldly powers and her humanity. Larson is good, a bit dry but by design. Her character has been trained to suppress her emotions and she’s even told humor is a sign of weakness. As Carol slowly breaks lose from that mindset Larson is given more room to examine the pent-up emotions that not only come with the character but that ultimately unleashes her true power.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Out of the nine MCU films Jackson has appeared it, this may be his beefiest role yet. He and Larson have a good chemistry and he has no problem leading a scene or falling into the background whenever needed. Mendelsohn is excellent giving us as performance a shifty as the slippery Skrull he portrays and Lashana Lynch brings a timely warmth playing Carol’s old friend. Oh, and there is a cat named Goose who is an absolute scene-stealer. Can’t forget the cat.

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While I wouldn’t put “Captain Marvel” in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, it does really well at introducing its character and setting her up to be a major player in the MCU. It does some peculiar things with the Marvel lore and it ends in an interesting but weird place in terms of a sequel. But once again Kevin Feige and his Marvel masterminds have shown an incredible knack for expanding their already mammoth cinematic universe. “Captain Marvel” feels right at home and finally fills a sizable hole in MCU.

As for its relevance as the first female-led MCU movie, I’m not sure how much more audiences have to prove. I realize the cultural significance of “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel”. But audiences have already shown they will not only go see these films but fully embrace them as they do all MCU pictures. Sure, a smattering of internet infants will make an online scene, but clearly their impact has been non-existent. If the story is good, the characters compelling, and the respect for the source material reasonable, any potential “outrage” is all but meaningless. People will come to the theaters. So perhaps it’s time for the fingers to point solely at the studio and not the audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hateful Eight”

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Quentin Tarantino. A mere mention of that name sparks a fire in the hearts of his devoted and vocal fanbase. It immediately brings praises of excellence, grandeur, and eminence. It evokes a level of enthusiasm within fans that no level of criticism can quell. Quentin Tarantino is considered by many to be a cinematic master, the greatest working filmmaker, a peerless screenwriter, America’s premiere auteur. Considering all of that, why is it that I still haven’t bought into the Tarantino hype?

Make no mistake, Quentin Tarantino is an auteur. He has defined himself with such a heavy yet specific style of filmmaking that genuinely feels foreign to all other visions. He dabbles in all sorts of genres and his love for cinema, all kinds of cinema, finds its way into every one of his pictures. But he has such a strong allegiance to the aforementioned style and I often find his films rely too heavily on it. And the response to his style is overwhelmingly positive which leads to Tarantino often getting passes when it comes to his shortcomings particularly in his writing.

Still, no one can deny that a new Tarantino release is an event filled with pomp and pageantry and that brings me to “The Hateful Eight”. It’s Tarantino’s eighth or ninth feature film (depending on how you look at it) and his second western in a row. As with every one of his pictures “The Hateful Eight” draws inspiration from all directions. Where “Django Unchained” drew from the spaghetti western genre, Tarantino says this film takes more from the television westerns of the 1960s although I would say very lightly.

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The story is broken up into six  chapters although that is more of a stylistic choice. Individually each chapter is more or less the same. It opens shortly after the Civil War with a rough and surly bounty hunter named John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) on a stagecoach escorting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the Wyoming town of Red Rock to be hanged. Along the way he meets an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Once the two meet Tarantino wastes no time developing a racial tension that will permeate his entire film. It is only magnified when they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a Yankee-hating Confederate renegade claiming to be Red Rock’s soon to be new sheriff.

With a strong blizzard approaching, the three men, the prisoner, and the stagecoach driver (James Parks) take shelter in a remote lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside are four other characters seeking refuge from the storm. A Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) is watching over the place while Minnie is visiting her mother. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a chatty Englishman who also happens to be the territory’s hangman. General Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a cranky old Confederate officer. And then there is Joe Gage, a soft-spoken cowboy on his way to see his mother for Christmas.

The title is a reference to these eight men trapped in the lodge together until the storm blows over. It’s here the story becomes somewhat of a mystery after John Ruth randomly discerns that someone in their company is there to rescue Daisy. The film then begins its looooong trek to discover who isn’t the person they claim to be. And when I say long I do mean long. The majority of the film is confined to this big one-room lodge so Tarantino can’t fall back on his vivid visual style of storytelling. Therefore his script has to carry much of the load and, as with some of his other films, that is the movie’s greatest weakness.

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In a nutshell “The Hateful Eight” is insanely overwritten. Tarantino can undoubtedly write good dialogue and there are exchanges here that are fantastic. At the same time he bogs his movie down with pointless and sometimes repetitive back-and-forths that drag the movie to a halt. I didn’t see the full 187 minute roadshow version, but the 167 minutes I did sit through definitely had its lulls. Even more surprising were some fairly obvious plot holes particularly in a pretty important flashback segment.

And some of his dialogue is certainly suspect. Again, I’ll grant that Tarantino wants to make some kind of statement on racism, but frankly his constant flippant use of the N-word didn’t offer me any meaningful commentary and what may be there is thinly represented. I give filmmakers a ton of room for expression, but I can easily see where his use of such incendiary language could be offensive. Same with the brutality towards the main female character some of which is played for laughs.

Also QT’s obsession with jarring, over-the-top content is here as well which in this case isn’t a positive. We get it through sudden bursts of gratuitous violence some of which was just too silly to appreciate. And the worst comes in one absurd flashback sequence narrated by Major Warren. It’s a bizarre and over-the-top scene that felt much more at home in “Pulp Fiction” than “The Hateful Eight”. It took me out of the moment and felt terribly out of place.

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But so as not to completely slam the movie it’s worth noting the positives. The film looks really good. Again, I didn’t get to see the 70mm roadshow but this version had plenty of nice visual flare even though the majority takes place in a one big room. I also loved what we got of Ennio Morricone’s original score. Unfortunately he isn’t allowed to score the entire film, but what he does is superb. And despite my misgivings with much of the script, Tarantino gives us some wonderfully unsavory characters that each have their moments.

I also think all of the performances hit the right notes. Jennifer Jason Leigh is getting a lot of awards buzz and she’s really good despite mainly serving as Tarantino’s physical and verbal punching bag. Kurt Russell is a surly hoot sporting the burliest of handlebar mustaches and Walter Goggins is surprisingly great in what is one of the film’s meatier roles.

It may not sound like it, but I do appreciate many of the ideas Quentin Tarantino plays with in “The Hateful Eight”. Unfortunately those ideas are weighted down by an indulgent and overblown script that wastes too much time trying to be clever and edgy. Even Tarantino’s signature humor misses more than hits its mark. I’m sure Tarantino die-hards will love it, but for me “The Hateful Eight” comes across as an hour’s worth of good material stretched well beyond its limits.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS 

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REVIEW: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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It could be said that the first Avengers movie was in a ‘can’t miss’ position. Sure, with that much ambition comes a degree of risk. But fans had already shown their devotion to the Marvel movies at that point. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor each had their own films which had earned a ton of box office cash. Bringing them altogether was sure to bring in truckloads of more money. That proved to be true to the tune of over $1.5 billion worldwide. And of course that doesn’t include home-video, merchandising, etc. More importantly, as a movie fan, the first film was fun and very satisfying.

So as is customary in modern Hollywood, a sequel was on the way and we get it in the form of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Writer and director Joss Whedon is back this time with a new and unique set of obstacles in front of him. First, it’s always a challenge for a sequel to recapture the magic of a successful first movie while also being distinctly its own film. Also, if Whedon thought expectations were high for the first movie, they are nothing compared to what people will expect from the sequel. And then there is the question of superhero fatigue. Can Whedon and company continue to energize a genre that has a small but growing list of detractors?

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I always give Marvel Studios credit. Their movies aren’t the assembly line sequels that we see each and every year. Certainly some films work better than others, but Marvel is always building upon their bigger cinematic universe and continuity which I enjoy. But for those not thoroughly invested it could be a legitimate stumbling block. “Age of Ultron” is unquestionably an installment – a transition chapter in this enormous franchise. Loose ends are tied up and potential plot holes related to other Marvel films are addressed throughout. Again, these are things that will satisfy fans but probably fuel the indifference of those not on board.

The film starts with our heroes attacking the snowy mountain compound of Baron von Strucker. He was the guy last seen in the mid-credits scene of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Strucker has obtained Loki’s scepter and is using its powers for human experiments and other nefarious practices. The results of the conflict leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to fulfill an ultimate peace keeping goal of his – the creation of an ultimate A.I. named Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Ultron becomes self-sustained and self-aware and immediately begins his own plan of global peace which happens to include the distruction of the world. Tony’s mishaps with Ultron and his failure to inform his fellow Avengers of his project creates a festering tension between the team. But they must work together if they have any hope of beating this new threat and once again saving the world.

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That is just a brief set up to what is a movie jam-packed with moving parts. There are so many characters and subplots that are being serviced and it is a testament to Whedon’s writing skills that the film is coherent at all. Wrapped around the central story are countless tie-ins from previous movies and setups for future films. It truly is a miraculous feat, but it’s not a flawless one. There were a handful of things that felt terribly shortchanged occasionally to the point of making no sense at all. During these moments it was as if Whedon was saying “Look, I have so much to cover. I just need you to go with this.” Sometimes I found that a little difficult to do.

But considering the insane amount of moving parts and the hefty ground the film is asked to cover, “Age of Ultron” is an impressive accomplishment. All of the core characters are back and get their moments to shine. In fact the amount of screen time between each hero felt much more balanced than in the previous movie. It also helps to have actors who have become more and more comfortable with their characters. In addition to Downey, Jr., Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) each are a load of fun. We also get a good assortment of past side characters and some very intriguing new characters. The super powers endowed Maximoff Twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are an interesting addition and there is the appearance of another new character who really got my geek juices flowing.

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“Age of Ultron” is clearly a movie aimed at serving a passionate fan base  which is really good for devotees like me, but maybe not so good for those unfamiliar with or lukewarm to its many intricacies. I ate up the funny banter between each unique superhero personality. I loved the large-scaled action which seemed ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. I was interested in the future movie tablesetting even when the scenes didn’t always play out smoothly. In a nutshell, “Age of Ultron” was a fun and entertaining ride that succeeded as the central cog in Marvel’s constantly moving cinematic universe.

“Age of Ultron” is not a movie devoid of problems and your experience will probably be influenced by the degree of affection you have for these characters and this universe. As a fanboy I loved being back in this world, I laughed at a lot of the humor, and I was thrilled by the big effects and larger than life action sequences. Yet while it scratched nearly all of my itches, it’s hard not to point out the messy patches. Still considering the film’s enormous importance to the Marvel movie universe and the even higher expectations, “Age of Ultron” succeeds where so many movies would have failed. Now I’m ready to start building towards the next installment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

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My initial reaction after first viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was incredibly mixed. So many critics and movie viewers loved the film while I struggled to get a true sense of my feelings towards it. In fact, my confliction was such that I never wrote a review for it. Now I have wrestled with this critical darling and I ask myself if my reservations still feel justified and is the film worthy of the massive amounts of accolades and praise heaped upon it?

One thing you have to give Tarantino is that he is a filmmaker with a definite style. But personally speaking it’s often his style that is both a strength and weakness of his films. I think that’s the case here as well. “Django Unchained” has a smart and instantly engaging blueprint. But there are stylistic choices, all signatures of Tarantino’s filmmaking, that are distracting and do more to promote his brand than actually strengthen the narrative. Many people love that about his pictures. I think it sometimes works against him and takes away his focus.

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The story begins two years prior to the Civil War. A man named Django (Jamie Foxx) along with four male slaves is being driven like cattle by two slave handlers. They run into a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who ‘acquires’ Django and hires him to help find a group of outlaws known as the Brittle brothers. Django reveals to Schultz that he was married but was separated from his wife by a wicked slave owner. Schultz offers to help him find his wife in exchange for Django working for him through the winter. While together they run into a wild assortment of people, none more heterogeneous that a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“Django Unchained” has been called Tarantino’s spaghetti western but we only occasionally see the similarities between his film and those Italian westerns that became popular in the late 1960s. This is really just a revenge tale with plenty of fancy dressing. The story starts up nicely and the opening 30 minutes or so sets a very interesting table. But then the film slows down a bit which begins drawing attention to its 165 minute running time. It picks back up once Candie appears and then falls into a stew of truly great scenes, uncomfortable but hilarious humor, goofy and outlandish graphic violence, and jarring injections of that Tarantino “style”. It makes the last third of the film range from fascinating and intense to messy and indulgent.

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When Tarantino’s focus is on the right thing he can create some of the most mesmerizing scenes ever put to film. The opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds” is a prime example. We get several instances of that in “Django Unchained”. There are moments when the dialogue is sharp and flowing which in turn creates scenes that turn out amazing. A long dinner table sequence at Candie’s plantation is one of my favorites. It’s crisp and fluid while also soaked in perfectly developed tension. There are a few other scenes where the humor hits with perfect timing and I found myself laughing out loud. QT is also always impressive with his camera. He can get a tad carried away at times but this film, like many of his others, looks great and there are several unforgettable shots.

But there are flipsides to almost all of these positives. While some scenes are brilliant and the dialogue strong, others drag out too long and some of the dialogue is annoying. For example, Tarantino has a fascination with certain language and we see it here. There are times where certain characters sound like they belong in “Reservoir Dogs” instead of a spaghetti western. Then there are the aforementioned style choices. Take the music. QT has always liked to incorporate unique music into his films which I appreciate. But here he goes from a musical homage to the theme from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to bass-pounding rap music. For me it did more to take me out of the setting than enhance the film. And then there is the much talked about graphic violence. Tarantino definitely soaks the audience in copious amounts of blood, but it’s hard to take it serious. I was neither turned off by it or impressed with it. It was so ridiculously over the top that it was neither humorous nor did it add any intensity to the action. Any impact it had quickly wore off.

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I do have to give props to the cast. I’ve never been a big fan of Jaime Foxx but he does a nice job here. He does stumble over the occasional bits of poorly written dialogue but as a whole this was an impressive performance. Christoph Waltz is just a tremendous actor and he always seems to fit nicely into Tarantino’s weird worlds. Leo DiCaprio has an absolute blast playing this twisted francophile wannabe slaver with bad teeth and a deceptive charm. He steals several scenes by going all in and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot playing possibly the most despicable character in the movie. He’s also undeniable funny at times and more than once I caught myself in uncomfortable laughter. And Kerry Washington is very convincing in one of the film’s few emotionally steady roles.

So what to make of “Django Unchained”? I understand that many absolutely adore the movie. For me it is another Tarantino project that shows bits of greatness that it never can sustain. The good moments are really good but each of them are bookended by one questionable narrative choice or a blast of QT style that doesn’t always help the film as a whole. To call “Django Unchained” uneven would be an understatement. It has its share of problems. But it also features fabulous performances, a wonderful visual flare, and a handful of purely brilliant sequences. Those things save it from completely drowning in Tarantino’s indulgence.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

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It’s easy to get lost among the huge and larger than life Marvel movie properties such as Thor, Iron Man, and The Avengers. Such was the case with Captain America and his 2011 film “The First Avenger”. Now don’t misunderstand me, Cap’s first solo movie project was still a hit and it raked in just over $370 million at the box office. But it is rarely mentioned in the conversations about Marvel’s growing cinematic landscape. Personally I loved “The First Avenger” and its distinct and unique flavor. Well obviously its success means a second film will follow, but unlike many sequels Cap’s new chapter legitimately excited me.

“The Winter Soldier” was an amazing storyline that ran through the Captain America comics starting in 2005. It was written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by the amazing Steve Epting. The two developed an engrossing story that has become one of my favorite comic book storylines ever put to print. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely desperately wanted to adapt Brubaker’s story. They ended up taking key elements of it, added a few slick and interesting twists, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was born.

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The first Cap film carved out its own little spot among the Marvel movies. It took place predominantly in the past, namely during World War II. While those connections are still present, this film is a modern day story. Chris Evans reprises his straight-laced Steve Rogers persona. He is still very much a man from the past struggling to find his place in the modern world. Whether it’s technology and pop culture or the complex attitudes towards global crisis and geopolitics, Rogers often finds himself at odds with the situations around him. The film does take some time with that but ultimately this is an old-school action flick that hearkens back to the old espionage pictures of old.

Cap is still working for S.H.E.I.L.D. under director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha (a.k.a. Black Widow) played by Scarlett Johansson. The relationships between these three characters remain compelling. The contrasts between Steve and Natasha are sharp and always evident. Natasha and Fury have a relationship shrouded in secrecy. Steve and Fury are on the same side but are often at odds over what is the right approach. All of these things are stressed more when S.H.E.I.L.D. is compromised by a rogue force led by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Several twists and turns follow, threats come around every corner, and the stakes shoot through the roof.

Director Joe Johnston did a fine job with the first film but I was blown away by what directors Anthony and Joe Russo give us in the sequel. The brothers, mostly know for their work in television, rarely take their feet off the accelerator yet they never let their film become a deluge of pointless, mind-numbing action. The battles always feel important and the consequences are dire. But they also look amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I shuffled in my seat with excitement over what I was seeing on the screen. The camera constantly grabs one beautiful angle or presents one breathtaking sweeping shot. It’s some of the best filmed action I have seen in years. And it’s also a case where the 3-D works pretty well. I wouldn’t go as far as to say you must see it in 3-D, but I certainly didn’t mind that I did.

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The action also goes back to days when we weren’t beholden to CGI. Now obviously there is plenty of CGI in this picture, but where it separates itself from most other Marvel movies is in its lack of dependence on the technology. Much of the action focuses on great hand-to-hand combat, some amazing high-speed chases, and a lot of classic-styled stunt work. The entire visual presentation is stunning and it matches or exceeds anything Marvel has done to this point.

But the looks of the film would amount to little if not for Markus and McFeely’s addictive story. They frame all of their action around cool spy movie and conspiracy thriller angles instead of the basic superhero formulas we are used to seeing. Equally surprising is the richness of character development which provides more depth to everyone on screen. Even more, the Winter Soldier is a fantastic villain. Not only is he incredibly cool and a perfect visual representation of his comic book counterpart, he also isn’t a faceless enemy. He may steal scenes with his physical presence, but he also brings a gravity to the situation that amps things up. The pacing is crisp, fluid, and never lulls. The tone is more serious, yet the sprinkles of humor are funny and well timed. It’s simply a well-oiled and well-conceived script that dramatically changes the landscape for upcoming Marvel films.

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Then there is the acting. Over time Evans has clearly gotten better as an actor and he completely embodies the role of Steve Rogers. Jackson and Johansson have also fallen right into their characters and their comfort level is obvious. It was great to see them both in bigger and more expanded roles. As I mentioned, Sebastian Stan is a scene stealer and my excitement level rose whenever he would appear. Also new to the franchise is Robert Redford who plays a S.H.E.I.L.D. senior head. Redford starred in a number of conspiracy films back in the 1970s so this is familiar territory for him. Anthony Mackie is also a lot of fun playing Sam Wilson who Cap fans know as Falcon. There were several other small supporting characters that caused my inner comic book fanboy to smile.

It may be easy for some people to dismiss this film but to do so would be criminal. Sure it’s a big, loud popcorn picture but I don’t mind that at all especially when the film is this exciting and entertaining. I was expecting big things from this movie, but I didn’t expect to be blown away by its craftsmanship and its storytelling. It takes what we love about superhero films, tosses in loads of bods to comic fans, and mixes it all with good old-fashioned filmmaking and the results are impeccable. I love this movie and it very well may be Marvel’s best film to date. More than that, It’s one of the most exhilarating action pictures I’ve seen in a long time.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Robocop” (2014)

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I can’t tell you how many times I watched the original “RoboCop” during my teen years. The 1987 sci-fi action flick was such a wild ride. It had a really cool mixture of wacky humor, slick satire, a great villain, and some insane (and frequently graphic) action sequences. Then I heard that MGM was bringing RoboCop back. Yes, yet another remake of a popular 1980’s movie. Then I see where this new RoboCop film was getting the dreaded February release date. All things pointed to this being a crappy movie.

But what a surprise it was to find this to be a cool and competent action movie. Let me say it again,”RoboCop” is surprisingly good and I am as shocked as anyone. This is essentially a reboot that takes many of the elements from the original film and adds a modern touch. It shuffles up the narrative a bit and it gets a fresh coat of CGI paint. But the core of the film is the same. It falls short of the first film in several areas, but it makes its own satisfying statement in others. Again, I was really surprised.

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This “RoboCop” quickly lays out its politically charged landscape. The United States government has handed over its military reins to a multinational corporation known as OmniCorp. These guys have mastered advanced robot technology which allows for mechanical soldiers to replace humans. Their sales pitch points to how many lives have been saved in American military interests around the world. OmniCorp’s next big moneymaking venture is selling their products to local law enforcement. But a group of strong-willed senators and a very concerned public opinion stands in the way. This hodgepodge of political wrangling and big corporate greed is clearly intended as some sort of social satire. Well the message didn’t resonate with me, but it did set up an interesting landscape for the main story.

Speaking of the main story, this time around Swedish born actor Joel Kinnaman plays Detroit police detective Alex Murphy. He and his partner have been working undercover to bring down a local crime boss. But as he gets closer to blowing the top off the case, the bad guys get nervous and try to take Murphy out. A car bomb goes off leaving Murphy with severe burns, amputations, and no hope for survival. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) approaches Murphy’s wife Clara (played by the lovely Abbie Cornish) and offers to save her husband’s life by placing him in a permanent robotic suit. Of course Sellars real intent is to put a face on his robot program in hopes of swaying public opinion.

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One thing I was looking forward to was the return of Michael Keaton to a larger big screen role. I’ve always loved him dating back to his early madcap comedy style. While he is written to be your standard corporate baddie, Keaton brings a certain slimy panache to the role. It was great to see him back. There was also the casting of Gary Oldman as a scientist who struggles with the moral complexity of the RoboCop project. It’s a great role for Oldman and as you would expect he is fabulous. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson who plays a loud and opinionated cable news talk show host. We only see him via his broadcast and he is funny in spurts. But by his fourth appearance I was tired of him.

The funny thing about this film is that it flirts with a number of satirical themes and the story teases going in several different directions. But it pulls back on a number of occasions choosing to play it safe. There are several interesting turns that really hooked me and I wanted them to go further than they actually do. Still, there was enough in and around the central story to keep me involved. Some of the plot directions are really effective and very well conceived.

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But many people will go to “RoboCop” looking for some good, old-fashioned action. They will definitely get it here. Director José Padilha definitely knows how to shoot action. There are some butt-kicking standout sequences, none better than a wicked shootout in a pitch black gang hideout. It’s stylish, kinetic, and a ton of fun. The technology is cool, the RoboCop suit looks great, and there are several other visual flares that I loved. For example one scene shows what is left of Murphy once he is stripped of his armor. It’s a wild and disturbing special effect that also fuels one of the movie’s bigger emotional moments.

So many of these modern remakes have turned out terrible (I’m looking at you “Red Dawn” and “Total Recall”). The good news is “RoboCop” certainly isn’t terrible. It isn’t as provocative is it wants to be. It isn’t as clever as it tries to be. It isn’t as witty as it needs to be. But it is more fun than I ever expected it to be. There is some great action, some really good performances, and enough depth to the story to make it a worthwhile science fiction romp. Don’t expect a deep cerebral experience. After all this is RoboCop. But I can honestly say, that it had a lot more to offer than I was ever expecting.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS