REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2 05 2016

At its core, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is very much a political thriller. The film concluded production around the time of the Edward Snowden leaks, so any correlation between the two would have been primarily atmospheric in the editing bay. But the nods of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to the kind of political unrest and institutional mistrust of the 1970s feels totally applicable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s SHIELD and Hydra, themselves proxies for the present day surveillance state.

The good news for audiences is that this kind of smart throwback is attached to a Marvel movie. The bad news, though, is that the movie still has to be a “Marvel movie.”

Every time the film starts developing its ideas or delving into the ramifications, it has to start hitting the predictable comic book movie beats. The need to have a big action set piece every 25-30 minutes ultimately becomes oppressive and counterproductive to the film’s intelligent ambitions. Though the sequel bears the subtitle “Civil War,” the name seems as applicable to that film’s content as it does to the form of “The Winter Soldier.”

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struggle against the Marvel formula to interesting and more thoroughly entertaining effects. They fail to break the mold, however. The real auteur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Kevin Feige, the company’s president. What is commercial will likely continue to prevail over what is artistic or iconoclastic. Looking at the numbers, sadly, can anyone blame him? B-2stars

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REVIEW: Testament of Youth

27 11 2015

Testament of YouthThe allure of period pieces, especially romances, is typically lost on me. So it’s always nice when something like “Testament of Youth” comes along to prove an exception to the rule. Rather than belabor its love story, James Kent’s film focuses on the experience of one extraordinary British woman during The Great War, Alicia Vikander’s Vera Brittain.

This richer, fuller narrative allows “Testament of Youth” to resonate for present-day audiences, not merely feel like a century-old time capsule. Vera begins the film pursuing an Oxford education, even then a struggle for women to achieve, but gradually feels her heart drawn toward the battlefields of Europe. There, her lover (Kit Harrington’s Roland), brother (Taron Egerton’s Edward) and many friends go to war for the soul of Europe. She begins to think it selfish to mill about in classrooms, so she shows some agency and joins the effort.

As a nurse, she gains a front row seat to the horrors of war, only amplifying the authenticity of her grief and worry for the men she loves. This perspective ultimately drives her towards taking a bold stance, one that Kent or screenwriter Juliette Towhidi do not necessarily presage in the two hours prior. Nonetheless, its high valuation of Vera’s opinion more than compensates for any narrative hang-ups. Vikander’s performance, emotionally forceful without ever resorting to maudlin histrionics, also helps quite a bit. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger

21 07 2011

The bookend of a four comic book/superhero summer, “Captain America: The First Avenger” was given the onerous responsibility to keep audiences from succumbing to genre fatigue.  Luckily, it’s one of the better of these four – but that’s not saying much given this summer.  Joe Johnston’s take on the classic character actually gets some of the basics right, having the narrative storyline that “Thor” lacked and the decent visuals that “Green Lantern” didn’t bother to have.

But just because it’s an improvement doesn’t necessarily means it good, especially taking into account how poor the aforementioned movies were.  “Captain America” is barely bearable, so middling and nondescript that you can’t help but wonder how smashing “The Avengers” could possibly be with all these sub-par buildup movies.  If it’s lucky, it will be equal to the sum of its parts – and Chris Evans and company do about as little to fix the existing Marvel deficit as the President and Congress are doing to fix our national deficit.

Evans has remarkably little charisma despite being devilishly (albeit guiltily) entertaining in the “Fantastic Four” series, neither as a CGI-enhanced shrimp nor as a P90X-enhanced “Men’s Health” cover model prototype.  Playing Steve Rogers, selected to become the superhuman Captain America thanks to his tenacity in the face of bullying, he never really gives us a reason to get invested in the movie – something crucial for a lackluster summer blockbuster in need of some distinguishing feature.  He hits one note the whole movie: dull.  At least in most action movies, the main guy seems to be enjoying kicking butt … and Captain America gets to fight Nazis in World War II!  What more could an action hero ask for?!

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