Captain America: Civil War

CWDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely  

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olson, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, and Daniel Brühl

What’s left to say about a movie that within 2 weeks has amassed a $940 million global box office and taken the Marvel Cinematic Universe above the $10 billion mark?  Generally, my goal in writing these reviews is to recommend worthy films for my audience in the hopes of aiding the decision on what to see.  Whenever one of these massively popular films is released, it seems silly to review it.  I mean people that want to see Captain America: Civil War will see it regardless of what any number of critics say.  So then, why write about it?  What’s my motivation? In this case, I think the story is less the film and more to discuss its place in the company of the 12 other films that have been released in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Of course, I still find it useful to identify the good and the bad about the film and offer a summative recommendation, but given that most of my readers have probably already seen this film if they are going to, I want to offer something a little extra as well.

So, what are the “12 other films” that accompany Captain America: Civil War? It’s important to make that distinction.  For the purposes of this article, The X-Men films, Spider-Man films, Fantastic Four Films, and Deadpool will not be considered.  The 13 films pertinent to this discussion are those planned out by Marvel studios starting with 2008’s Iron Man and include the following: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Civil War.

So now that we’ve identified the players, I will take a moment to review the latest film in the franchise and discuss its place in the field.

Captain America: Civil War is less a Captain America film and more a third Avengers film.  All of the key players are present in this film except Thor and the Hulk, and the events of the film are an immediate continuation from the action of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The principle conflict revolves around a global agenda to put the Avengers under United Nations supervision. Tolerance for the devastation and civilian casualties that have resulted from Avenger-related battles has been exhausted, and at least one Avenger, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) agrees with the idea of putting the Avengers in check.  Stark’s persuasive and personal reasons cause a stir in the once unified Avenger team, but his words fall on deaf ears when it comes to Captain “America” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).  Rogers believes that any supervision of the Avengers will only result in corruption and ineffectiveness.  Suddenly an ideological divide is struck that threatens to tear the Avengers apart from within.

The film does a pretty good job of introducing the conflict and representing both sides, although the reasoning for why one Avenger takes this side versus that side is ultimately rather arbitrary.  What is certain is that a line has been drawn (actually quite literally in one scene) and our heroes must navigate some rocky moral terrain.  While the main “villain” of this film is philosophical in nature, there is a human antagonist  named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) an ex Sakovian Colonel with some dark secrets and control of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

This film is less distinctive from the rest of the pack than its predecessor, Captain America: Winter Soldier.  The thrilling political conspiracy that threaded through the Winter Soldier is replaced by a more standard “Comic Booky” genre story.  Subsequently, the action is a bit shakier this time around, regardless of the fact that Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed this film as well.  Nevertheless, the Russo brothers do direct the hell out of this film showing their range with expertly crafted chase sequences as well as some heavy emotional material.

Another plus is that like Winter Soldier, the story remains mostly rooted in reality, and Captain America’s motives continue to be protecting his homeland at all costs.  Additionally, Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far.  First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache!  I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.  Captain America: Civil War advances Marvel’s epic storyline yet another step forward and the Russo Brothers prove to be worthy of inheriting the Avengers mantle from Joss Whedon for the upcoming Infinity War films. A-

Captain America: Civil War is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes.  As usual, stick around through the credits for two additional scenes….

…and now in keeping with the Marvel cinematic tradition, I have a “post-credits” stinger for you!

The Top 13 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films According to The People’s Critic:

  1. Captain America: The Winter SoldierA
  2. Iron Man 3A
  3. Marvel’s The Avengers – A-
  4. Captain America: Civil WarA-
  5. Iron ManA-
  6. Avengers: Age of UltronA-
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger – B+
  8. Thor – B+
  9. Ant-ManB+
  10. Iron Man 2B
  11. The Incredible Hulk – B
  12. Thor: The Dark WorldB
  13. Guardians of the Galaxy – B-

Average score for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2016) – B+

Feel free to sound off in the comments section about my rankings.  Did I get it right?  Are you a Guardians of the Galaxy fan who wants to give me a piece of your mind?

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation PosterDirector: Christopher McQuarrie

Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Ving Rhames

A scene early in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (a title so dramatic, it requires both a colon AND a dash!), finds our heroes in Casablanca, Morocco – a city fairly iconic in American cinema lore.  In one shot Tom Cruise, reprising his role as Ethan Hunt for the fifth time, seemingly looks at the camera and gives one of those Tom Cruise smirky smiles that he has perfected over the past 34 years.  A smile that at least in this case seems to say to director Christopher McQuarrie, “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And it just might be!  McQuarrie, most famous for his Oscar winning screenplay for 1996’s The Usual Suspects, has written three of Cruise’s most recent projects[*] and served as director for two of them, including this film.  This time McQuarrie “rounds up the usual suspects,” and puts together this year’s best action film that does not involve super powers or dinosaurs.

Kremlin Explosion Scene from Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Oops!

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation begins right where Ghost Protocol left off.  The nefariously named Syndicate (gasp!), has managed to force the American government to basically dissolve the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) over that nasty Kremlin incident from Ghost Protocol.  Now the Syndicate has its eyes on…world domination, Mwa, ha, ha, ha, ha!  Yes, the Syndicate’s goal is to set off a series of global terrorist attacks, creating a need for an entirely new world order.   Now Ethan Hunt is a rogue agent who will stop at nothing to bring down the Syndicate and clear the name of the IMF.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
“Of all the torture chambers in all the towns in all                   the world, she walks into mine.”

But he can’t do it alone…although he tries.  Eventually, Hunt has to recruit his old team including William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames).  Hunt’s only lead is a blonde man with glasses named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whom Hunt believes is the director of the Syndicate.  When Hunt is surprisingly rescued from a torture chamber by a mysterious double agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt’s mission is further complicated regarding her motives.  Is she MI6 or is she working for the Syndicate?  Questions abound as Hunt trots the globe searching for Lane, while also trying to prevent more catastrophes.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is as fascinating as they come.  Each entry is a fresh take starting with director Brian De Palma in 1996 and inviting a new director for every subsequent film: John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and now Christopher McQuarrie.  The result is a series of films that while connected through narrative have a truly unique look and tone that makes for a really interesting set of films.  Of course, the critical unifying element is Cruise.  Cruise is a juggernaut, and he does not take it easy the fifth time around.  Rogue Nation opens with the much talked about scene featured on the poster above where Cruise hangs on to the exterior of an aircraft as it takes off.  The reason that this scene can be talked about and be used to open the film is that there are at least four more tremendously entertaining action stunts left to come that rival this opening scene’s intensity.  Too often films are ruined in the trailer; this is not one of them.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is an action film that harkens back to the golden age of adventure, invoking films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard or as I mentioned earlier, even Casablanca.  However, the film it will be most compared to is the fantastic fourth Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol.  As great as Rogue Nation is, it does fall slightly short of the magnificence of its predecessor and here’s why.  Ghost Protocol was a real ensemble film.  The stunts were incredible, but more importantly, every character was deeply involved.  Cruise, Pegg, and Ferguson are on full display in Rogue Nation, no doubt about it, but Renner and Rhames are given very little to do in this film.  And did I mention Alec Baldwin is in this film?  He is, but he’s there to wear a suit and say stuff like, “Where’s the proof of this so-called Syndicate?” or “I need Hunt captured by whatever means necessary.”  Someone does need to say lines like these, but they feel wasted on Baldwin, who is slowly devolving into a caricature of his Saturday Night Live appearances.  Let’s hope Mission: Impossible 6 or M:I 6, as it’s bound to be called, has more in store for these second tier characters because, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”  Nonetheless, this film represents the best time at the theater so far this year.  A-

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

[*] McQuarrie wrote and directed 2012’s Jack Reacher, wrote 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, and served as writer/director on 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers2Director: Joss Whedon

Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and James Spader

When all was said and done, 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, became the third most lucrative film in box office history. Now with James Wan’s Furious 7 poised to unseat the superhero spectacular, Iron Man and friends return to make sure the Avengers stay on top!

Still, how do you follow up the third biggest movie of all time? Well Joss Whedon, a guy who never met a cliché he couldn’t skewer, handles things very nicely with Avengers: Age of Ultron. When we last left our Avengers, they had just vanquished Loki and his alien army, saving New York and metaphorically the world. Four Marvel films have been released since 2012’s The Avengers, which have advanced the universal plot somewhat, but basically the team has had no need to reunite…until now!

Reviewing a film of this nature and anticipation is a bit of a challenge. Expectations are high, spoilers are forbidden, and a very thin line separates formulaic from entertaining. Nonetheless, Avengers: Age of Ultron ultimately lands on the entertaining side, mostly thanks to the “vision” (pun intended, see the movie) of writer/director Joss Whedon.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) seemingly refocused by his battle with The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, has decided that the world is still too vulnerable to outside threats. The answer? Implement a peacekeeping program called Ultron in the hopes of harnessing the power of Stark’s supercomputer JARVIS to shield the planet from future alien attacks. The problem is that Stark’s own program is conceived of an artificial intelligence so advanced that it develops a plan of its own, manifesting itself in a robotic personage and plotting to eliminate humanity in favor of an evolved robotic intelligence.  Of course, this is simply the conflict devised to reunite Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for another adventure, but fortunately, the film does not rest on its laurels too long.

Here’s where Whedon shows his expertise and distinctiveness. The three clichés common with sequels are mixing things up, adding something new, and darkening the mood. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon does not avoid these potential pitfalls, but rather embraces them with vigor. So much so, that he shatters them with new energy. Whedon, a true comic fan, takes advantage of the development built through Marvel’s ten previous films and “mixes things up” by sprinkling in a series of events that fractures the team’s cohesiveness organically. He does this by mining some previously established developments rather than adding something in that would doubtlessly feel abrasive.

Ultron, eventually voiced by James Spader, is a very appropriate villain for the direction this franchise is heading. Aliens have been The Avengers’ most common foe, but Ultron takes a tip from arguably the best Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and becomes a metaphor for paranoia and fear. Ultron uses information as a weapon and in essence is also the impetus for introducing the film’s two newest characters The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Russian twins with an axe to grind against Stark’s weapons background and some pretty impressive powers. Of course, Whedon is not satisfied in adding something new simply for the sake of a sequel; instead, he uses the twins to give the film an opportunity to reveal more depth to the individual Avengers, something the first film was unable to do as an “origin story” and something usually reserved for the individual entries in the franchises.  Black Widow and Hawkeye, the two Avengers without an individual film about them, benefit most from this element of the film.

At the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron does not have the feel of high, global stakes like the previous film, but that is exactly why these films have not grown stale. We are constantly introduced to a new angle, and in this case, one that may leave some feeling a little confused on what the future holds for these beloved heroes. The one fault I find with the film is, while it has moments of thoughtfulness, I think given the amount of depth developed over ten films, this film could have been more ambitious. The scenes that work, work very well and while there is probably at least one too many fight scenes, there are still plenty of extremely enjoyable “quieter” scenes where these actors get to have fun with the characters and continue the tongue-in-cheek humor that fans have come to expect and appreciate. This is yet another infinity stone in the crown of the Marvel cinematic universe leaving this summer’s Ant Man as the sole film entry left that can smudge phase two of Marvel’s unstoppable success. A-

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. As promised by Whedon, there is one short scene mid-way through the credits, but no other extra scenes after that.

American Hustle

ImageLast year, a film about a top-secret 1979 CIA mission to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis took home the best picture Oscar.  This year, David O. Russell looks to keep this trend alive with American Hustle, a stylish story about the top-secret 1978 FBI sting operation, ABSCAM.     

David O. Russell has been an exciting filmmaker for several years now.  His previous three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, have thrust Russell’s notoriety into a new echelon, however, by examining his previous quirky, clever, and unique films, Russell’s evolution can be clearly perceived.  1996’s Flirting With Disaster showed Russell’s quirky comedic tone.  In what some consider his best film, 1999’s Three Kings showcased Russell’s clever style.  Additionally, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees solidifies Russell’s unique writing.  Now it seems he’s hit his stride as his previous three films represent all three of these talents repurposed and mixed with tremendous results.

Russell’s renaissance involves making films about memorable characters with his emerging cast of regular actors.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams have all been in at least two of his last three films, and all of them have received at least one Oscar nomination as a result – including two winners.  While rumors swirl around Russell’s ease to work with, he is able to coax performances from his actors like none other, and American Hustle is no exception.

American Hustle opens against the gritty backdrop of 1978 New Jersey with a tone-setting title card that reads “Some of this actually happened.”  We are immediately introduced to con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who runs a fledgling at best money lending scheme.  That all changes when he meets the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party.  As a team, they bring Rosenfeld’s scheme to the next level attracting the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses his leverage on the two con-artists to coerce them to cooperate with him in a series of operations designed to entrap high ranking politicians and power brokers including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). 

Now the story might seem complex enough as it is, but under the guise that “some of this actually happened,” Russell does this story one better with the introduction of Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could be the one who sends this whole operation crashing down.

Bale gives another transformative performance, this time with an added 60 pounds, a comb-over, and a Bronx accent.  Adams continues her quest to become this generation’s Kevin Bacon by being in a movie with every relevant actor in existence.  She also gives a very strong performance as the mysterious Sydney who is “hell-on-wheels” wrapping every man around her finger and perpetually driving Irving crazy in the process.  Lawrence steals every scene she is in as Irving’s wildly capricious wife who won’t grant him a divorce and doesn’t know how to use a “science oven” either.  Renner and Cooper are very effective at representing both sides of the law in this wildly outrageous story where the line between hero and villain is very, very thin.

Mayor Polito wants nothing more than to re-invent Atlantic City and make New Jersey a better place, but with his hands tied politically, he seeks the necessary capital from a seemingly interested Arab investor who is actually part of agent DiMaso’s operation.  Thus, what makes American Hustle most intriguing is Russell’s conscientious effort to construct an irony where con-men and FBI agents are working together to ostensibly take down a criminal who may be the most honorable character in the film.  American Hustle does have one element working against it, running time.  At around 130 minutes, most of which is rapid dialogue, the film feels a bit bloated.  There are many characters and they all have a lot to say.   From an acting standpoint, it is quite impressive, but from an audience standpoint the film slags a bit through its second half. 

There is plenty to like about American Hustle, far more than what’s not to like.  For those looking for an amazingly well made and well acted film that does not include the brutality of slavery or the primal fear of being lost in space, this is your movie.  B+

American Hustle is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.  Keep any eye out for some great and surprising faces in some of the supporting roles. 

The Bourne Legacy

BourneDirector: Tony Gilroy

Screenwriter: Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, and Corey Stoll

The key question for this film is “Can Jeremy Renner cut it?” The answer is a sensational “Yes!” Tony Gilroy takes the reins from Paul Greengrass who directed the previous two films. Ironically, Gilroy’s film seems to be inspired more by Doug Liman’s film, The Bourne Identity than either of the two recent entries in the series. Unlike Greengrass’s kinetically charged pair of films, Gilroy slows things down a little bit and gets back basics with an in depth expose on all of these CIA programs that have been plaguing Jason Bourne since he was dragged out of the water in 2002. That is not to say this movie lacks action. The chase scene through the streets of Manila is nothing short of breathtaking. In addition to a change in director is a change in protagonist. Aaron Cross (Renner) is being victimized this time as we are given a little more transparency on how these genetically altered agents are trained, conditioned, and dropped in various places throughout the world. For example, we see that these agents are tethered to the CIA through rationed medical provisions where green pills are dispatched to agents to supplement their increased strength and blue pills are given to enhance cognitive ability. Consequently, Legacy does not make it its intention to try and match the expert stunts of Greengrass’s Bourne movies. Instead, Gilroy puts down the green pill and gives us a dose of the blue one, which may disappoint some fans.

The plot is complicated, as expected, and it is not really to any benefit for me to lay it all out here lest I give something away. Simply understand that the CIA is still on damage control from the events surrounding Jason Bourne. Many of the events, operations, and characters from previous films are shown and referenced often, at times at a lightening quick rate. I stumbled upon this Bourne Legacy Primer, which I fully recommend if you are interested in seeing Legacy without refreshing yourself on the previous films. Renner does display the chops for this role. Moreover, there’s room here for depth and a furthering of this story. This film does tread dangerously in Bond territory by having Cross swoop in multiple times at the right moment to save the damsel in distress as well as introduce a rare human villain to the story, an expertly trained assassin named LARX. These elements can seem out of place or desperate, but I feel they worked. The Bourne Legacy succeeds at providing some truly terrifying moments in a story about a guy who should have all of the advantages. This along with some interesting locations and a great cast make me feel confident that we’re not done with Bourne yet. B

The Bourne Legacy is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.