Captain America: Winter Soldier – A Review

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It is fitting that the new Captain America movie has the word winter in its subtitle, since its arrival marks the end of the terrible movie season that has been foisted upon us since Christmas. The period from the January to April is always a rough one since this is when studios burn off movies that they aren’t all that confident in, but this winter Hollywood and Mother Nature got together to force us to endure a particularly crappy season. There were some notable exceptions – The LEGO Movie was a definite bright spot – but when I don’t go to the cinema for over a month, you know it’s bad. I’ll normally sit through some questionable stuff during this time, but this year it was so unappealing that I basically took a prolonged hiatus from going to the movies until the arrival of warmer weather and better cinematic options.

Thankfully, Captain America: Winter Soldier is a step in the right direction; this may be the best of the Marvel series since The Avengers. While the other individual Avengers films are fun, they are beginning to show some signs of franchise fatigue. That isn’t the case with this film, which is actually an improvement over its origin story. Captain America: Winter Soldier is faster, sharper and has a plot that will reverberate throughout the Marvel universe. I did not expect that going in.

While Thor and Iron Man were off dealing with their own problems in their own movies, Captain America was apparently learning how to be a bad ass. His first solo film was something of a throwback because it took place mostly in the 1940s; the action was somewhat limited by the times. Freed from the shackles of the period, Cap has certainly learned a thing or two since he woke up in modern times. His fighting style has progressed mightily and it’s exhilarating to watch. He is far more acrobatic and aggressive in this outing and it makes a big difference. The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and you could be forgiven for forgetting that Captain America is in his 90s. The guy can through a punch with the best of them. Thankfully they mostly forgo any focus on the anachronisms of him living in the modern world – I feared that they might rely on the “unfrozen caveman lawyer aspect” of his story – and instead focus their attention on the story.

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I won’t say too much about the story so as not to ruin all the surprises, but in a lot of ways if you strip away the superhero veneer from this film, it is really an old fashioned conspiracy thriller. This film focuses more on the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the possible dark forces that have infiltrated. I had assumed that much of the events from the first Captain America film would be forgotten in this film, given the jump forward in time, but that was not the case. You can certainly enjoy this film if you haven’t seen the first Captain America film, though if you have seen it some of the plot points in the new film will be more familiar to you. While most of the other Avengers have gone it alone in their individual movies, Captain America knows that there is strength in numbers and is joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) on this adventure. Newcomers Anthony Mackie and the great Robert Redford help round out the talented cast and fit right in the Marvel Universe. The themes of the film – security vs. privacy and freedom – are particularly timely given that we live in an age of NSA wiretaps and monitoring. There are a lot of unexpected moments in Captain America: Winter Soldier and I’m not embarrassed to say that I was legitimately surprised numerous times during the film. That doesn’t happen often, but the web in Captain America is so carefully spun that I fully enjoyed every revelation and discovery. The less that you know going in to Winter Soldier, the better off that you will be.

While Captain America: Winter Soldier is not as funny as some of the other Avenger movies, there are still plenty of laughs within. Captain America has loosened up a bit in the latest installment and is not quite the uptight guy that he had appeared to be in previous incarnations. Captain America will never be as sarcastic and witty as Iron Man, but he’s definitely discovered a better sense of humor along the way. The idea to pair him with Black Widow is a smart one as the duo have great chemistry that was not necessarily apparent from The Avengers. Still, there is not as much wordplay and banter as there are in some of the other Marvel franchises. It’s still fun, but the humor is a bit more sporadic.
Some other thoughts:

  • Lots of familiar faces from the small screen turn up in this film – Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) reprises her role as Maria Hill and Danny Pudi (Abed, Community) and Garry Shandling both have small parts (the later once again playing Senator Stern). Emily VanCamp (Revenge) also turns up, which briefly made me wonder if this was all part of her elaborate scheme against the Graysons.
  • The events that transpire in Winter Soldier will have a huge rippling effect not only on the future Avenger related movies, but also on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There are some pretty seismic changes that occur that will have to impact the TV show, given that they have established that the movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. occur in the same universe. I quit watching the show because it was tremendously boring, but I may have to check back in just to see how they handle these new developments.
  • There are TWO post credit sequences in Captain America: Winter Soldier – one occurs early in the credits and another is at the very end. Both seem relatively important, though I needed to do some research to understand what exactly was happening in the first one. Some new characters are introduced and they look pretty awesome.
  • Am I the only person who is ridiculously excited for Guardians of the Galaxy? Every time I see the trailer I get excited, though that movie is either going to be awesome or a train wreck. I see no middle ground. Maybe it’s because they play “Hooked on a Feeling” in the trailer – that song reminds me of college.
  • Per usual, I cheaped out and didn’t see the film in IMAX or 3-D.
  • Full disclosure – while I love all the Marvel and other comic book inspired movies, I have not actually read any of the comic books. So I can’t really speak to how well they represent the original stories and what has been altered or changed. You hardcore comic book nerds (said with affection) will have a different insight into these characters and plots than I would.
  • Captain America: Winter Soldier did very well opening weekend; it set a new record for the biggest opening in April of all time.

It’s rare when the second installment of a franchise surpasses the first film, but that is exactly what happened with Captain America: Winter Soldier. I liked Captain America: The First Avenger just fine, yet Winter Soldier is a marked improvement over its predecessor. An interesting story and the gradual evolution of Captain America made this one of my favorite films from the entire Avengers franchise. Captain America has never been the character that I was most excited with, but as I walked out of Winter Soldier I was ready to watch the film all over again. Hopefully this is an indication that some new life is being breathed into the Marvel films; Captain America: Winter Soldier is definitely a step in the right direction. The bar has now been raised for all future installments.

 

Her – A Review

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I have an unhealthy attachment to my cell phone.

I feel like I’ve been writing this blog long enough and that you people “know” me so I am comfortable making this kind of confession. I have a wholly unhealthy relationship with my phone; if I leave it at home, the level of anxiety that I have rivals that of a mother that doesn’t know where her child is. The whole day I am off kilter, obsessing about its whereabouts. I know because this happened last week, when I innocently forgot to grab my phone when I left for work. It was a stressful day, which is ridiculous since I not only had a desktop computer at my disposal, but also my tablet and a desk phone. But, of course, none of those devices can send or receive a text message and the thought that I was missing something important was almost too much for me to handle. Now, keep in mind that I can count the number of really important texts that I’ve received in my life on one hand. But the idea that I was missing out on something drove me to distraction.

Yes – I have issues.

However, as much as I love my phone and the technology that it puts at my fingertips, I am not in love with my phone. That concept was initially something of a hard sell for me, despite my proclivity to have my cell by my side at all times. When I first saw the previews for the film Her, where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system, I was a little skeptical. It all seemed kind of ridiculous and I remember people laughing after the trailer had ended at the sheer lunacy of the premise. I remember one person turning to their companion as asking if that was a fake trailer.

Nevertheless, I have complete faith in director Spike Jonze so while I had my doubts about the concept, I had confidence in his execution. The fact that he also wrote the film was a mark in the film’s favor as well; Jonze is a pretty creative guy and if anyone was going to stick the landing in this film, it would be him. An impressive cast was the final component that won me over. By the fourth time that I saw the trailer, I was legitimately excited for the film and saw the potential for a compelling story in what I had first dismissed as nonsense.

My change of heart was absolutely warranted as I truly enjoyed Her; though the love affair is between a human and an inanimate object, it is still one of the more poignant and touching stories about love and romance that I’ve seen. Jonze and his actors completely sell the story and within moments of the story unfolding you forget that this is a tale that on paper sounds outlandish at best.

A lot of the credit for the beauty of Her belongs to Phoenix, who gives a wonderful and heartbreaking performance. This is one of my favorite roles of his in a while; he is so vulnerable and multifaceted that you just want to give him a hug. His loneliness and inability to connect with the real world in the wake of the dissolution of his marriage are relatable and believable to anyone who has been through a rough breakup. In his hands Theodore Twombly is a sweet guy who has regressed into himself and transforms once he connects with his operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore slowly blossoms and Phoenix masterfully handles this subtle transformation; you not only completely believe that Theodore is in love with Samantha, but he manages to make it not seem weird or too abstract. You believe that this is a real relationship and you find yourself happy that Theodore is happy, despite the unconventional nature of his romance. Since Samantha is only a voice, a lot of the heavy lifting in the movie falls to Phoenix, who more than rises to the challenge. It has been an especially stellar year for lead actor performances in films, but Joaquin Phoenix absolutely deserved to be recognized by the Academy for the work he does in Her. His full commitment to the role and his artful depiction of Theodore falling in love with Samantha was like nothing else that I saw this year. In a lot of ways, he had a higher level of difficulty because the role was so unique and creative; while Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all stellar, most of them are portraying real people and all are portraying very real situations. The role of Theodore could have easily become one note or a joke, but Phoenix finds the true humanity in this story and it’s a shame that he couldn’t find his way into the crowded field for some recognition.

Scarlett Johansson also has an interesting handicap in her portrayal of Samantha as she has to convince the audience that an operating system could develop feelings for a person. She mostly nails this, though I did eventually grow a little weary of her voice by the end of the film. You do believe, however, that Samantha is an equal partner in this relationship; this is not simply the story of a lonely guy who channels his despair into a delusional obsession with his phone. Samantha evolves as well, and in many ways this is the even harder part of the film to make believable. Johansson is ultimately able to pull this off, without the benefit of any emotion other than what she can convey in her voice. The lead roles in Her are unique, but when done as well as Phoenix and Johansson they create an interesting and surprisingly relatable look at relationships and the inherent joy and struggles associated with them.

Of course, without a well written script or helpful direction, Phoenix and Johansson would be limited in what they could accomplish. Jonze provides them with a solid foundation in his script and his direction is 100% on point in the film. Jonze is a true visionary and can somehow take some of the more off the wall ideas – like someone having a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head in the film Being John Malkovich – and make them seem completely logical yet still maintain their whimsy. He just has a knack for this kind of filmmaking so his association with Her really is a perfect marriage. There aren’t a lot of directors that could pull off this film with the depth of emotion and humor that Jonze is able to coax out of his stars.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • Amy Adams, Chris Platt and Rooney Mara all have small roles in the film as well and do nice work in their supporting parts. Adams is completely dressed down and mousy as Theodore’s best friend, a complete departure for the glamour of her other big role this year in American Hustle.
  • While none of the actors were recognized for their fin work, I’m glad that film at least squeezed in as a best picture contender. Jonze also has a real shot in the Best Original Screenplay category.
  • It is kind of amazing to think about how much your phone or computer really “knows” about you; it might be a good thing for a lot of people that our electronic devices keep our secrets.
  • Just in case you were wondering – the day I left my phone home, I had zero text messages waiting for me. All that agitation for no good reason; I am clearly not as popular as I like to believe.
  • I also really dug the music in Her; Karen O from Yeah, Yeah Yeahs received a Best Original Song nomination for “Moon Song”

 

I really enjoyed Her and its interesting and unique premise; though I first dismissed it as a trifle, it easily would make my list of best films of 2014 thanks to an incredibly strong performance from Joaquin Phoenix. If you have previously enjoyed Spike Jonze’s directorial work, you will be impressed with what Her has to offer. I encourage those that are dismissive of the plot to take a chance on this film – I think it will win you over. This is a sweet and touching film about alienation, love and connecting with others. It is a love story for our times – the emotions are real, but the conditions are very modern. Joaquin Phoenix is not everyone’s cup of tea and seems to go out of his way to be unpleasant, but this just may be the film that reminds people that underneath it all he is one hell of an actor. Spike Jonze and his actors bring an unlikely love story to life.

Don Jon – A Review

Let me be up front about this – I may very well be the outlier when it comes to Don Jon. The film, which marks the directorial review of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, received a lot of positive buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. It currently has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 81% fresh, with lots of critics I like and admire giving the films high marks. People seem legitimately excited about this film and I was looking forward to seeing what all the hullabaloo was about. Unfortunately, Don Jon just didn’t speak to me. As much as I wanted to like the film, given my general affinity for Gordon-Levitt, I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I rarely read other reviews before I write my own, but last night I poured over what other critics had to say to try and figure out what exactly it was that I was missing. I’m still at a loss; I am clearly seeing a very different movie than others.

This is not to say that I thought Don Jon was terrible or a bad movie; I think it was generally very well acted and had a very interesting premise. For a first time director and writer, who also stars in the film, it was an above average first effort. But I still think that Don Jon was rough around the edges and doesn’t fully work. There is a lot of promise in this film that makes me think that Gordon-Levitt may turn into a successful writer and/or director if he chooses, but the individual moments that I liked do not add up to a great movie. In this case, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.

My problems with the film do not derive from the subject matter, though it may make some people uncomfortable. Don Jon is the story of New Jersey bartender (emphasis on the Jersey) Jon (Gordon-Levitt) who is a charming guy who scores effortlessly with the ladies. Regardless of all the sex he has – and he has a lot – none of it can match his one true love: pornography. Jon prefers the images on his computer to the company of actual women. This is true even when he meets the most beautiful woman he’s ever met, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, who somehow manages to class up Jersey Shore chic). A lifetime of watching pornography has left Jon ill equipped for real intimacy and connection with a woman and has created an unrealistic expectation of sex that leaves him constantly unfulfilled. Barbara brings her own baggage to the relationship, with her perception of love and romance heavily influenced from her diet of romantic comedies. Can Jon and Barbara make this work or will their preconceived notions of what love and sex should be too much to overcome? The film features a lot of images of adult movies; while I can’t say they aren’t gratuitous – it is, after all, porn – they are used sparingly and to illustrate a point. That being said, it’s probably not the best movie to go see with your grandmother or on a first date (depending on your expectations for the date).

Gordon-Levitt and Johansson were very good in their roles and created realistic characters. Johansson in particular seems to be having a lot of fun in this role and really immerses herself in this character. She almost becomes Barbara Sugarman, which is no easy task for an actress that is so well known and recognizable. She and Gordon-Levitt have excellent chemistry together and their scenes are among the best in the movie. The character of Jon is a pretty douche-y character on the surface, but Gordon-Levitt is so likable that even when he is being his most boorish enough of his charm comes through for you to root for him. It would be easy for both of these characters to become cardboard stereotypes, but Gordon-Levitt and Johansson bring some depth and nuance to the roles that make them generally interesting to watch.

That can’t really be said for much of the supporting cast; Tony Danza plays against character as Jon’s dad and steals a lot of the scenes that he is in, but Jon’s mother and friends are very broad. Even Danza’s role isn’t that well defined or developed, but it is so unusual to see him not playing a generally nice guy that it isn’t as noticeable. Julianne Moore plays another student in Jon’s night school class and while she does her usual nice work, the story and pacing of the movie minimize what she is able to do.

While I think that this story idea is novel and raises some interesting issues, the execution didn’t 100% work for me. In particular, I thought the story-line involving Julianne Moore was too rushed and felt shoehorned into a very different movie. There are some very important character developments that come from her scenes, but because the time wasn’t taken to fully integrate her into the story they didn’t feel 100% earned. There was a lot of repetition in the early parts of the film, which help illustrate Jon and his mindset and routine, but I think some of that could have been cut to allow some of the other stories time to breathe. I don’t know that we needed to see all his trip to the gym or every time he looked at porn – though, to his credit, Gordon-Levitt is in amazing shape for this movie and if I were him I would want to show that off a bit as well. It isn’t vanity – these scenes do some character work – but a few less of them would have been beneficially to the story.

The story would have benefitted from a little more nuance and subtly; it’s a comedy, so it is going to be a little broad, but something about this movie just didn’t feel completely finished or developed. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that most bothered me about this film – there were many things that I did like – but it never completely won me over. That may just be my personal preferences and his vision for this movie weren’t in complete alignment – that sometimes happens. But as much as I wanted to like Don Jon, I left the theater disappointed and a little bored by it. It was a noble first effort by Gordon-Levitt, but he isn’t quite there yet. Don Jon and Gordon-Levitt have potential, but I thought that the film was a work in progress.

Some other thoughts:

  • There are some fun cameos in the fake rom-coms that Barbara likes to watch.
  • The idea that Barbara’s romantic expectations are shaped by her love of chick flicks is an idea that is certainly raised, but not fully explored. Don Jon is far more focused on Jon’s porn addiction, which I was a little disappointed in. I think this is an interesting phenomenon; one of my favorite parts of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was the chapter that looked at these issues.
  • Of course, my interest in the above could be influenced by my hope that it would validate my belief that chick flicks are generally horrible drivel.
  • There is an amusing running gag in Don Jon involving Jon’s sister (played by Brie Larson) that I won’t ruin.
  • Any film that incorporates Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” into it has promise.
  • If you drink every time that Jon and Barbara call each other “baby,” you will be drunk in no time.
  • I am not joking about the porn clips – there are a lot of them.

I may simply be missing the boat on Don Jon; perhaps this really is a fantastic film that simply isn’t my cup of tea. I’m usually not so out of sync with popular and critical opinions.  I didn’t dislike Don Jon enough to discourage people from seeing it. The leads are fun to watch and it has an interesting premise, but it just doesn’t stick the landing. A respectable effort that makes me interested in whatever Gordon-Levitt does next, but a film that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.