Captain America: Civil War – review

Let’s make something perfectly clear – or at least less muddy. This film is not an Avengers movie, it’s a Captain America one… inasmuch as he’s the focus and both antagonist and protagonist. But then, so is Tony Stark. So maybe it’s a Captain America versus Iron Man movie, with their respective teams in tow?

In any case, it’s all gotten a bit more serious…. more DC maybe, less Marvel. Perhaps this is right in this instance, for here the plot picks up strands from Steve Rodgers’ prior outings, as well as further mining the depths of Tony Stark’s inner torment, following everything he’s been through; including accidently creating Ultron as force for bad rather than good.

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And so we have a bit of playing against type – or role reversal – in that rebellious playboy Stark supports legislation to make our heroes accountable to the U. N., but Rodgers – a man who you’d safely bet would be on the side of the establishment – is firmly in the opposite camp. Mostly because he wants to protect his friend Bucky – the Winter Soldier who keeps getting into trouble – but also because he feels legislation clips the wings of the Avengers, stopping them from doing what they do best without the need for red tape.

So we have some nice, meaty motivation for our two main dudes, pitting them against each other. Each a titan with his own loyal followers, and so with Civil War we get some old names (Black Widow, Hawkeye), some newer but fairly established ones (War Machine, Falcon, Ant-Man, The Vision, Scarlett Witch) and some fresh blood (Spider-Man, Black Panther).

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They fly, they swoop, they shrink, they grow and they scrap their little heart’s out.

And it’s a blast.

Then, on the periphery of all the infighting we have an actual bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) who goes rather unnoticed for the most part. But he’s not the main focus, so it’s ok. He does the job he needs to do at the times upon which he’s called, but it’s Cap v Iron Man we’ve come to see really… that and the interplay between almost all of Marvel’s superheroes (except Thor and Hulk who’ve gone AWOL and the Guardians of the Galaxy lot) in one giant dust-up, plus a few other skirmishes along the way.

To do this and not give the audience a headache is really quite masterful on the part of the Russo brothers; who are really getting into their stride directing these days.

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That said, there’s a point where the movie is in danger of becoming too po-faced and serious for its own good. Thank God that, at that point, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man turn up to take the edge off most pleasingly.

Lest we forget that Marvel’s strength tends to be in light-hearted banter amid the mayhem, so it’s good that they didn’t go too far down the DC path, past the point of no return at least.

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At the end of the day we all know people in costumes are somewhat ridiculous, so it’s important to burst the bubble at regular intervals – and the final third of the movie moves into much more welcome territory. Overall, it may actually be the best Marvel film yet (I’ve yet to see Ant-Man, but from the scenes in this film it has to be on my ‘to watch’ list in the near future).

And as a final thought, props to the filmmakers for how they’ve portrayed Black Panther. With his cat-like reflexes, sharp claws and black suit he’s got to be up there as one of the coolest superheroes we’ve seen in a while. A solo film following this character would be a pretty savvy choice bet I’d say.

Roll on the next one…

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Top 10 superhero films of the last decade

We’re living in a time of caped crusaders, masked vigilantes, mutants with god complexes… anyway, you get the idea. Plucking a time period of the last ten years out the air to give this thing some parameters, here are my favourites, along with my reasons why.

10. Thor (2011)
Deciding that you’re going to stick a Norse God on screen and do it in a serious manner must have been a tough meeting. However, this is one that Marvel – and director Ken Branagh – pulled off with skill and dexterity, with Chris Hemsworth bringing the golden-haired chap to life with conviction. This film also introduced us to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – a character that stole every scene he was in and threatened to steal the entire movie.

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9. Chronicle (2012)
Newcomer director Josh Trank twisted everyone’s melon with this found footage take on the genre. After three lads explore a hole in the ground they end up with a number of special powers. However one of them (the excellent Dane DeHaan) goes a bit mad with inner torment that causes things to quickly go awry. This film is about as far removed from the rest on the list as you can get, which makes it a refreshing change and worth a watch.

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8. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And in the case of director Bryan Singer that was exactly the case, after he returned to the franchise he’d started all those years ago. To give himself a challenge he opted to go for the most mind bending plot yet, involving time travel and fighting in the past and the future. He also drew out some fine performances from Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

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7. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Guillermo del Toro really doesn’t get enough credit for the level of detail that went into some of the sets and scenes for this movie. The troll market, in particular, was astonishly detailed and quite masterful. Then there’s his characters, from Ron Perlman’s Hellboy to Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien, each were so well rounded, interesting and, despite their supernatural looks, human and fallible to the core.

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6. Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. aka an insurance nightmare, aka a massive punt by the studio, aka an actor at possibly the last chance saloon. Well, whadda ya know, he pulled it off, with a performance that wowed critics and audience and started a billion dollar franchise. And now, with his rapid fire delivery of lines and nonchalent attitude, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role.

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5. Watchmen (2009)
Another director that has his critics, yet Zack Snyder managed to bring what was widely considered an unfilmable graphic novel to the screen in a manner which emphatically delivered. Visually, it looked stunning, the story was well handled and the performances (particularly Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach) were outstanding.

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4. Kick Ass (2010)
With everyone’s attention firmly fixed on the big studios for the next superhero film, this one – independently financed – snuck its way onto our screens and made a massive impact. Director Matthew Vaughn managed to rouse Nic Cage from his slumber to deliver a barnstorming performance. He also introduced us to the acting talents of Chloe Grace Moretz.

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3. Batman Begins (2005)
It’s easy to forget that Christopher Nolan’s trilogy had to start somewhere for it to be as wildly successful as it was. And it began with Christian Bale and lots of character building. Indeed it was about 45 minutes of screen time before we actually saw Bale as the Bat. Yet it was worth the wait as Nolan had crafted a believable hero for the modern age and firmly shut the door on past versions of the character.

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2. The Avengers (2012)
Bringing together a bunch of superheroes in an ensemble piece is a big undertaking. If this hadn’t of worked, Marvel would have had to go back to the drawing board for a serious rethink. Luckily they weren’t to worry for they were in safe hands, those of director Joss Whedon. His sparky dialogue and style perfectly suited to a bunch of heroes that spend almost as much time fighting each other as they do their enemies.

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1. The Dark Knight (2008)
What can you say about Heath Ledger’s Joker that hasn’t already been said? Whilst his performance got him a posthumous Oscar, it was not just his film alone (although he stole every scene he was in). Bale – ever the trooper – had to face off against him, and also probably delivered his best performance of the trilogy in what was effectively a triple role as Bruce Wayne the man, the playboy and the vigilante.

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Jeff Bridges – old-timer hits rich vein of form

I’d like to chat, if I may, about Jeff Bridges. Now some might say he’s in the twilight of his career, but I think he’s just getting into his stride. Let me explain.

IMDb shows his first credited role took place on a TV show called Sea Hunt from 1958-60. From there, in 1972, he became one of the youngest ever actors to get nominated for an Oscar, aged 22 for The Last Picture Show. During the period between 1970 to the end of the 1990s, obadiah iron manhe received further nominations and critical acclaim for performances including: Starman, Against All Odds, and Fearless.

Then, at the end of the 90s, he gave us arguably his most iconic character, The Dude in The Big Lebowski. A character many consider to be a career high – or at least the most memorable.

In 2008 came Iron Man. A bit of an unexpected hit for the studio and the cast. Bridges, here, giving us the scheming Obadiah Stane, facing off against Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. A brilliantly realised character, Obadiah is the ultimate CEO-gone-bad and Bridges plays him perfectly. Never a moment when he overdoes it, letting Obadiah’s quiet menace come through, effectively hidden behind Bridges’ genial nature until the third act. The Dude has gone bad.

jeff-bridges-as-bad-blakeThe tipping point
For me, this film was where Bridges’ career moved up a level. With Iron Man he had reached a point where he could play wonderfully complex, yet thoroughly engaging characters. Some villians, some good guys, all of them flawed in some way. Some may say they’re all variations of The Dude, but that’s lazy and inaccurate.

At this point Bridges’ rich vein of form began to gather pace. Beginning with a brilliant and underrated turn as Bill Django in The Men Who Stare at Goats in 2009. He then gave us – the same year – a fantastic performance as washed up, boozy singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart.

His journey from bitterness and self-loathing through to redemption and inner peace is thoroughly believable and compelling. Indeed, the performance won him an Oscar, making him – quite fittingly – also one of the oldest actors to ever win the award, aged 60.

jeff-bridges-true-gritOld-timer delivers
In 2010 this followed with another critically-acclaimed performance as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Another award-laden film. Following John Wayne’s iconic footsteps was no easy thing, but Bridges gave a strong performance, thoroughly inhabiting Rooster’s gruff nature.

Beneath his hardened exterior, though, Rooster showed compassion and sense of responsibility towards Mattie Ross (played with plucky determination by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld). Many of the scenes in the final act where he comes through for Mattie time and again are incredibly moving.

So, to sum up, even though The Dude is now in his mid 60s, I think he’s doing some of the best and most consistent work of his career. Let’s hope the roles keep coming!

Can Disney save Star Wars?

Upon hearing the news that Disney have recently acquired Lucasfilm I asked myself this question. Good old George, the 68-year-old filmmaker sold Lucasfilm for $4.05bn (£2.5bn), my initial reaction was not exactly excitement, more tentative hope.

Lucas is more or less a pensioner and his heart went out of making these films a long time ago. In some ways I’m amazed he managed to get the latest trilogy off the ground at all. Selling to Disney at this point was perfect timing and great business sense. How many other pensioners do you know that increase their fortunes by $4bn a couple of years before they turn 70? No wonder he looks smug.

He has said he wants to pass the franchise on to a new generation of filmmakers, with episode 7 being set for release in 2015. Episodes 8 and 9 will naturally follow, completing a 9-film trilogy spanning decades. Quite a legacy.

The force is strong in this one
Some die-hard fans have been moaning that Disney without Lucas means the corporation will be butchering the beloved world Lucas has created. I think that’s unfair.

Disney has moved on in the last 10 years. It’s worth pointing out they have a savvy – albeit slightly bullish – track record of acquisitions, with Pixar in 2006 ($7.4bn), Marvel in 2009 ($4.2bn) and now Lucasfilm in 2012 ($4bn).

With Marvel and Pixar, Disney have – to their credit – allowed these studios to approach their films, characters and stories in a way that stays true to their philosophy.

For Marvel, they’ve also chosen wisely in terms of Directors: Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Joss Whedon (Avengers). When Disney and Pixar merged in 2006, it was explicitly laid out that Pixar would maintain its identity and creative control, allowing this has meant their philosophy of filmmaking has continued and given us films such as: Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Brave (2012).

I see no reason why Disney won’t continue in a similar fashion with new Star Wars films. This cinematic franchise has been around a hell of a lot longer than Marvel or Pixar films, with an incredibly devoted fan base to match.

I don’t believe it. That is why you fail
Make no mistake episode 7 is going to be a massive challenge for whichever Director Disney put in charge. It will be a continuation of Luke, Leia and Han’s story, so it’s completely new territory. There has been brief – probably comical – mention of the original actors returning, but they’re all pensioners now and it’s not worth entertaining the thought.

I’m not going to start dictating the best way Disney should approach these films, I genuinely have faith they’ll treat the brand with respect – and hopefully take it back towards the look and feel of the original films.  Either way, Lucas remains a ‘consultant’ for the next trilogy, so his reign of terror is largely over. Onwards and upwards!

Marvel – masters of the cinematic universe

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For this posting I’d like to discuss the evolution of the Marvel universe. I recently – finally – got around to seeing The Avengers. Or, as it’s known in the UK, Avengers Assemble (damn you, Steed).

I have to say, having unavoidably seen and heard many reviews, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it and be expecting too much. Would it live up to the hype? Would it feel rushed/crowded with so many larger-than-life characters jostling for screen time? Well, much like everybody else, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Great pacing, great action, great characters, great dialogue.

avengers natasha romanoffPlus all the Avengers were given – more or less – an equal amount to do, including the new characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The latter unsurprisingly well written, given writer/director Joss Whedon’s affinity for strong, female characters (Buffy et al).

So, before this becomes an Avengers review, back to the subject in question. I had a vague awareness of the fact there’s been quite a few films over recent years that have come out of the Marvel studio. However when you really look, it seems like an unstoppable wave. To name the live-action films we’ve had since 1998:

  • 5 X Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
  • 4 Spider Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012)
  • 3 Blade (1998, 2002, 2004)
  • 2 Iron Man (2008, 2010)
  • 2 Hulk (2003, 2008)
  • 2 Fantastic Four (2005, 2007)
  • 2 Ghost Rider (2007, 2012)
  • 1 Thor (2011)
  • 1 Captain America (2011)
  • 1 Avengers (2012)

I’ve left off the experiments that were Daredevil, Elektra and Man Thing, simply because they weren’t hugely successful and it’s unlikely there will be a follow up to any of these in the near future. Therefore I’m only including films where the characters have appeared more than once in the Marvel cinematic universe. So, from 1998 to 2012 (that’s 14 years, keep up), we’ve had 23 films. That’s 1.6 films a year! I’m not sure if what I’m expressing here is good shock or bad shock? Perhaps both.

snipes dorff bladeLooking ahead
I suppose, with this sort of prolific output, you’ll have successes and failures. In recent years, they’ve begun to have more of the former, both critically and commercially. For every mediocre Daredevil or Fantastic Four you’ll get a decent Spider Man or Blade.

Or, if you’re really lucky, strike complete gold and unearth Robert Downey Jr. A man born to play Tony Stark. Don’t believe me? Watch some of his early work, like Natural Born Killers. Check out this classic scene. For me, if you take his character there, throw in a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder, you’ll get Tony Stark. Perhaps a leap but it makes sense to me!

Don’t stop us now
With recent successes of the Avengers’ characters, both in their ensemble film and stand-alone outings, the plan for Marvel films over the next few years is looking quite exciting. Next year we’ll get a second from the blonde Asgardian, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3.  In 2014 we’ll have, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plus – most intriguingly – a massive departure from the norm with Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which has a sentient tree and a raccoon with a gun as main characters.

I can’t say I’m excited about this one…yet. Although I do approve of the concept art above. What I like is that you cannot accuse Marvel of resting on their laurels or playing it too safe. That, in itself, is reason to be quietly optimistic. But I guess we’ll see. Oh, and there’s also a second Avengers due out 2015, just in case Guardians doesn’t go as planned.

Defenders of the universe
So, on the whole, I think it’s great Marvel are mixing it up. Yes, they’re putting out films for a lot of their mainstream superheroes, but they’re safer bets. Keeps the money coming in. They could just sit on that but, like any industry, if you’re not moving forward you’re doing the opposite.

So introducing a new host of characters is brave, yet wholly necessary. Eventually we’ll get sick of superhero films and want westerns or zombie films for a few years or something. But, if Marvel keep freshening things up, maybe we’ll stay a while longer. Maybe a character called Rocket Raccoon is just what’s called for – long live diversity!