Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
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But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Hey buddy, how's it going? I'm thinking of seeing Iron Man 3 this weekend. What do you think?
Well, have you seen Iron Man and Iron Man 2: Let Us Never Speak of It Again?
Actually, no I haven't.
Did you see The Avengers?
So, why exactly do you want to see this?
Let me guess, "My boyfriend/girlfriend/non-genered significant other really wants me to go, so I'm going to check it out." Cool. OK, I get it. I guess I can fill you in.
So, what do I need to know?
Well, you should know that you should probably see those three movies first or else you are going to be a little bit lost. But Iron Man is a dude named Tony Stark who is a billionaire playboy.
Is that a real job?
It is in the comics. So, Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy and a genius.
Yes, not only does everyone in the comics have tons of money and super powers, but there are an inordinate number them that are geniuses. So, in the movie, Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy genius who gets kidnapped by a bunch of terrorists and has to make a suit out of iron to bust himself free. The problem is he was injured and has shrapnel in his chest so he has this electromagnet in there to keep it from reaching his heart and killing him. When he gets back to the real world he's so emotionally wrecked that he builds himself a suit of armor to fight bad guys and stuff.
So he doesn't have any super powers?
What do you think being a billionaire playboy genius is? But no, he has no super powers. But his suit has lots of powers. It has "repulsor rays" in the hands and feet that allow Iron Man not only to fly to also to blast people to kingdom come. And the suit is made of metal so he's pretty invulnerable, and it makes him stronger and whatnot. There's also an in-flight robot computer thingy named Jarvis (the name of The Avengers' butler in the comics) who helps him out and tells him things.
How does he pee in it?
That is a good question that I don't know the answer to. But I assume he does not? Maybe there's an elaborate tubing system? I don't know.
Is his origin story very different in the comics?
No, not really, but it happened back in the '60s and he was known as "invincible" and his suit was all ugly and grey and sort of looked like a Campbell's soup can with a head on it.
But is the yellow and red color scheme any better?
God no, but it looks pretty cool in the comics.
So, the first two movies aren't on Netflix streaming so...what happens?
Well, in the first one Stark invents the armor, defeats his father's friend who was trying to steal his company, gets it on with his personal assistant, and then tells the world that he's a super hero. The second one, well, it's best we don't talk about it.
It was bad?
I think bad is an understatement. But Iron Man faced off against Mickey Rourke with bad makeup and a whip. Or was there makeup? I don't know. It's so hard to tell with Mickey. Anyway Nick Fury and the Black Widow were also in the movie a lot, because it was ramping the whole thing up for The Avengers.
So Iron Man is one of The Avengers?
Yes, in both the movies and the comic books, Iron Man is a founding member of The Avengers.
What happened to him in the Avengers movie? Do I really need to know? This already seems like so much.
You don't need to know, but to see IM3 you're going to want to know. When the movie starts he has a bit of PTSD from fighting against space aliens that fell from a warmhole in the sky in the movie.
So, it was a documentary?
Ha, very funny. They reference this incident in New York like a half dozen times in the movie, so it's best to know what's going on.
Isn't Gwyneth Paltrow in this?
Yeah, she plays Pepper Potts, who is Tony Stark's personal assistant. They fall in love in the first movie and in the sequel he makes her the CEO of the company. Now she's moved in. Man, she has a crazy set of abs.
It's all the Pilates. God, I hate her.
Yeah, I do too, but she's not awful in this.
Why is there an Iron Man suit painted like an American flag in the trailer?
That's War Machine who has been dubbed the Iron Patriot in this movie. War Machine is basically just a version of Iron Man with more guns on it that the government uses as a super soldier. It is piloted by Col. James "Rhodey Rhodes, who is a friend of Tony Stark's. He was played by Terrence Howard in the first movie but was replaced by Don Cheadle for the next two.
Basically he was a jerk.
Is there anyone else I need to know about?
Jon Favreau, who is money and totally knows it, plays Happy Hogan, Tony Stark's best friend and security guard. In the comics Happy was also a villain named The Freak. Even though Favreau is a freak, that doesn't happen in the movie. He also directed the first two movies, but this one was made by Shane Black, who wrote the Lethal Weapon movies, among other things.
Speaking of villains, who are the bad guys in this?
Iron Man has always had really crappy villains. His big nemsis was The Mandarin, who was this Chinese guy with a long beard and 10 different magic rings that had 10 different magic powers. Ben Kingsley plays The Mandarin in the movie, but without the rings or the magic. There's also AIM, which stands for Advanced Idea Mechanics. They're like a group of scientific terrorists.
Oh yeah, that sounds real terrifying!
You should see their ridiculous costumes. Even comic book nerds think they're funny looking.
Thanks, man. I'm glad you filled me in. Now I don't need to watch all those other movies and totally know what's going on.
You're welcome. But you really should watch the first one. It's quite good. And I promise, there's not too much Gwynnie. Oh, and you should stay to the very end of the credits and there's a little surprise scene, like there is at the end of every Marvel movie. But if you haven't seen The Avengers, you're not going to get it anyway.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
More: A Non-Geek's Guide to The AvengersA Non-Geek's Guide to Spider-ManA Non-Geek's Guide to Batman
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Iron Man 3 has an uphill battle when it hits theaters on May 3, 2013. Can the movie really live up to the mind-blowing action of The Avengers?
Robert Downey Jr., director Shane Black, and Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige were on hand at San Diego Comic-Con to make the case, debuting the first footage of their "Phase 2" films to the anxious and enthusiastic Hall H crowd. The extended trailer was uniquely Tony Stark — a tone that could only come out sporadically in the team-up film. Here's what we saw:
The opening scene features Stark (Downey Jr.) preparing for a new experiment. It's Christmastime and he sets the mood with a little hip-hop holiday music riff. Standing around his many armors, Stark commands his JARVIS computer to begin the test. Stark strikes a kung fu pose — nothing. He taps his forearm, trying to get something inside to work, before striking the pose again. Suddenly, from across the room, the Iron Man glove comes flying on to his arm. This is the Extremis in its beginnings, a type of armor ripped straight from the comics that allows Stark to control his Iron Man suit...with his mind. After the glove flies on to his arm, he tells Jarvis to let it rip. Pieces of armor start flying on to his body, but it's all starts happening too quickly. Now the metal braces are zipping every which way, breaking Stark's lab and forcing him to dodge like he's got Spidey sense. Eventually, all the pieces assemble on his body, save for the face mask. Turned upside and soaring straight at him, Tony does a flip in the air, rips his glove jets and clips the final piece of armor on upside in the air. Tony Stark: always a showboat.
The rest of the footage was a trailer, opening with a comedic scene between Stark and former security guard, Happy (Jon Favreau). The two banter before Stark is startled by a boom. That's when a chilling voice-over by Ben Kingsley kicks in, set to images of mass destruction. "Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. Lesson number one: heroes there is no such thing." Scattered between shots of a city under attack are glimpses of newcomers Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce, who looks especially slimy as he gives Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) a kiss on the cheek. The grand finale is a helicopter attack on Stark's Malibu pad. Launching missles into the glass facade, Stark and Potts are blown backwards as the building begins to crumble into the ocean below. At some point, Stark gets the Iron Man armor on and attempts to survive the attack by going underwater. Whoever is behind this attack wants Stark dead (but that can't happen...right?!).
In true Marvel fashion, the trailer had an end teaser of its own. Who is Ben Kingsley? He's none other than notorious Marvel villain The Mandarin. The leader of the Ten Rings terrorist group (hinted at in the first Iron Man). He's got a crazy hairdo — shaved in the back with a single ponytail. He's decked out in flowing robes and a ton of bling. Ten rings is right! Kingsley looks evil as hell, and he sits awaiting Stark's next move in a throne fit for Iron Man's ultimate villain.
Can Iron Man 3 still thrill in the wake of The Avengers? Based on the trailer, it's pulling out all the stops to give it a good ol' college try.
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[Photo Credit: Marvel Studios]