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Film's first celebration of foodie culture, 'Chef' is in tune with the times
After a foray into the blockbuster world, filmmaker Jon Favreau has settled back into his bread and butter (a bit literally), independent comedy. "Chef" is a feel-good movie that goes down easy, especially for any self-described "foodies" in the audience.
Call it "food porn" if you will, but Favreau taps into contemporary society's obsession with food as an experience in this film, which also relies heavily on social media, particularly Twitter, as a means to propel the story forward. In fact, it might be the first film with a main plot conceit that hinges on social media (aside from "The Social Network," obviously).
Carl Casper (Favreau) is a renowned chef working in a popular restaurant. When big-time food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to review the restaurant, Carl puts aside his plans for an ambitious menu and sticks to his classics at the urging of his owner (Dustin Hoffman), only to get reamed by Michel. Newly introduced to Twitter by his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), Carl engages in a war of words with Michel and ultimately quits his job. At the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Carl returns to Miami, where he made his career, with his son in tow and starts a food truck serving Cuban sandwiches.
"Chef" serves up more fun and little conflict, but it has a certain road trip and nostalgia quality that Favreau can get away with it. Sequences of mouthwatering food prep shots also infuse that same entertainment value one gets from watching Food Network or a Bravo food show. Supporting roles from Favreau's "Iron Man 2" stars Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. don't hurt either, especially because the latter hasn't done anything small in the last six years.
Although he's become more known for his directing in the last five years, Favreau gives his best performance in recent memory, perhaps ever. Carl is a snippy chef with an ego and an attitude problem who can work his sensitive side when he needs. Favreau really owns all his screen time despite a career of supporting performances.
What really stands out about "Chef," however, is its modernity, or how in tune Favreau is our world in 2014 in terms of how we behave, what we like and how we communicate with each other. "Chef" is highly representative of the times, the kind of movie you might show to children in future generations to explain American culture in the 2010s. The way eating and food have evolved into something that connects people in a digital space is not lost on Favreau, and how prolific social media is in the film proves that it fascinates him too. What happens to Carl plays out the full spectrum of how social media can tear people's lives apart, yet also build them back up. That's a lot of power.
"Chef" has the exact kind of joie de vivre that you want in a summer indie, and is somewhat of an antidote for those who want feel-good independent films that don't completely focus on a young boy's coming of age. Carl's relationship with his son is important to the story, but it's mostly there to add heart.
But no matter how you take to the story, don't sit down to watch "Chef" on an empty stomach or at least be sure to have a delicious place in mind to go afterward.
~Steven C Thanks for reading! See more at moviemusereviews.com
Reinventing the giant monster movie
Before now, Godzilla was a giant dino-lizard, a punchline, a D-list movie monster. Now, in Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla," he is a god, the alpha predator, a force of nature. Warner Bros.' has not only crafted an exhilarating "Godzilla" movie here, it has pulled an incredible P.R. move, transforming a brand last known for having Matthew Broderick as its spokesperson.
David Callaham, writer of "The Expendables," and Max Borenstein have grounded this version of "Godzilla" in historical fiction. Nuclear tests in the '50s were not tests but an attempt to destroy Godzilla, a last remaining vestige of prehistoric times. They also ground the film in characters, taking a lengthy amount of time to tell the story of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). These characters both humanize the story and get us in close to the main plot.
First we are taken back to 1999. Joe and his wife (Juliette Binoche) work for a nuclear power plant in Japan. Increases in seismic activity worry Joe, yet his superiors refuse to shut the plant down. When a spike in these electromagnetic pulses causes a nuclear breach that eventually destroys the city, Joe loses his wife. In the present, Joe has become crazed attempting to find answers. Ford, his son, an explosives expert in the Navy, reconnects with him when he must leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son to go bail his father out of jail. Joe eventually convinces his son to go back with him to their old Japanese town and discover what the governments of the world are hiding there. Turns out the pulses are happening again.
What results this time is the release of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) that begins to wreak havoc as it moves across the Pacific. As the military creates an action plan, a Japanese researcher (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) draw upon what they've learned from Joe and Ford and theorize that Godzilla could be their only hope, the alpha predator looking to restore order to the food chain.
Painting Godzilla as an ambiguous "good guy" we know little about works to the film's advantage and suits Edwards' style quite well. Edwards' indie monster flick (titled "Monsters") expertly created mystery, fear and awe around its monsters and Edwards does the same for Godzilla and the MUTOs (that's right, there are two). He captures the same sense of scale that Guillermo del Toro did in last summer's "Pacific Rim" and there's little doubt the master monster-making filmmaker would praise this effort.
Edwards works a nice balance of teasing us with the presence of these creatures and giving us solid glimpses, walking the line of monster blockbuster and monster art film. He prefers shots that keep the human characters involved or come from their perspective so we not only get a sense for just how big and terrifying the creatures are, but we also feed off the raw energy of the actors' performances. Taylor-Johnson has been a leading man before, but he gets a lot thrown at him in this movie and makes it all work. Somehow (conveniently) he constantly finds himself in the monsters' warpath and it keeps things interesting.
Multiple monsters also proves essential to the entertainment factor of "Godzilla." Yes, monsters fighting is enormously more delightful than a single monster leveling buildings, but it also gives us something to watch for as an audience to keep the wheels turning. Ultimately, this drives our interest in the film; not what happens to the human characters, who serve as a moderately compelling excuse for us to "get in" on the action.
The resulting effect is that we get a Godzilla who is not just the big scary monster terrorizing the city, but an elusive creature driven by biological impulse, an "X" factor and one that we can root for. That's how it should be. "Godzilla" doesn't have to belong in the horror-action genre; he can be part of a supernatural action thriller. Godzilla also doesn't have to be the entire focus of the movie. Joe and Ford's story centers around what's going on with the MUTO, and Godzilla just sort of jumps in.
Urban carnage is the theme du jour for blockbusters, so what Warner Bros. and Edwards have done with this new "Godzilla" isn't trend-shattering, but they've taken great care to their approach with reinventing a giant monster movie for a modern audience. They also don't assume that the people most interested in seeing a giant monster movie lack the sophistication to appreciate a little artistic nuance and thoughtful storytelling.
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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
A great "X-Men" entry, but more so an entire "X-Men" series game-changer
In a post-"Avengers" comic book movie universe, bigger is not only better, but also necessary. Leave it to original "X-Men" and "X2" director Bryan Singer to get the whole gang together (old and new) in order to bring one of the biggest "X-Men" story lines to the big screen in attention-grabbing fashion. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" finally establishes an "X- Men" universe for 20th Century Fox in the same way "The Avengers" galvanized Marvel Studios' cinematic universe.
Uniting the cast of "X-Men: First Class" with those of the original trilogy, "Days of Future Past" takes us into the not-too-distant future with mutant-kind on the brink of extinction at the hands of Sentinels, mutant-hunting machines that adapt to the mutants they are fighting. A band of mutants including Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) and others has harnessed the ability to travel through time by sending someone's consciousness to a younger version of themselves. When they meet up with Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and others, they determine that using this ability to prevent the events that led to the creation of the Sentinels is their only hope, and only Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) could withstand traveling that far back in time.
In the '70s at the close of the Vietnam War, Wolverine seeks out a troubled Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) living with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Together they must find Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who has plans to kill the creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which is the very act that catalyzes the Sentinels' creation. To do so, they must team up with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and stop her.
Lots of characters to keep track of, but anyone who has kept up with the franchise will have little trouble making sense of it all, plus it is very cool to see all these mutants in the same film. Whereas "X-Men: The Last Stand" overdosed on all these mutants, "Days of Future Past" handles it much better. Writer Simon Kinberg (who learned from the flaws of that film, which he co-wrote) divides the action into two categories: the desolate future when mutants fight for their lives, and the past, with that entire plot line focused on finding Mystique and rewriting history.
The characters involved in the past are far less numerous than the characters in the future scenes, which is the secret to success for "Days of Future Past." Rather than let numbers of mutants muddle the quality of the ones that matter most, they are used in small bursts to add to the magnitude and excitement of the film. The core of the story involves young Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Beast and Mystique. That's it.
As such, the themes that made "First Class" such a success are here again. Xavier and Magneto's ideologies collide in the face of this greater enemy, with Mystique caught in the middle. Xavier must wrestle with his demons and Wolverine must take on the role of team leader rather than marching to the beat of his own drum like usual.
Singer's return to the director's chair proves essential in so far as getting dozens of actors to play along and gluing what were many disparate "X-Men" movie components into one entry that really sets the course for the franchise going forward. The action is great, including both the gritty Sentinel fights and the more creative set pieces including a sequence in which a young Quicksilver (Evan Peters) speedily saves his fellow mutants from certain death while listening to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," but this is a movie that dazzles more in scope than in spectacle.
Given the sheer scale of this effort, "Days of Future Past" doesn't look as good on a microscopic level. Unifying the entire "X-Men" franchise necessitates leaving behind plenty of inconsistencies with the other films, not to mention the time travel plot has its own holes (a fault of time travel films in general, to be fair). So the movie relies a lot on the mutant dazzle effect in addition to a plot that creates dire and immediate consequences for the "X-Men" universe we've come to know in the last 15 years.
Fox course-corrected the "X-Men" brand with "First Class," but now they've bridged the gap between this new direction and the old movies (not to mention the Wolverine spin-offs). In 2011, we thought the franchise had essentially undergone a reboot; now, we see it all as one in the same, and the "X-Men" universe can expand even more with the right guidance (preferably Singer's).
The fact that "Days of Future Past" works well as its own film while also serving a far greater role for the entire franchise is a feat that can't be understated, especially from Fox, which has struggled with its consistency in comic book films. It won't unanimously be labeled the best of the five "X-Men" movies, but it will unquestionably be brought up in that conversation for fans of the genre.
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Don Jon (2013)
A carefully planned tale of expectations vs reality in terms of sex and relationships
"Don Jon" has something to say. Joseph Gordon-Levitt very clearly saw something troubling in the way that pornography and sex in the media has impacted how people think about sex and relationships, and so he decided to write and direct a movie about it.
Gordon-Levitt also stars as Jon, the epitome of a New Jersey stereotype, who cares about little else except family, friends, working out, his car and women women both real and on his computer screen. Jon can land just about any girl he wants, but in his mind, nothing can take the place of Internet pornography. He finally comes face to face with the notion that he has an addiction when he can't shake his need to watch porn despite it being his new girlfriend Barbra's (Scarlett Johansson) number one request.
For those curious how what kind of approach the charming leading actor takes behind the camera, Gordon-Levitt loves playing with sequencing in this movie. Jon is a routine guy: go to the club with his guys, make eye contact with a girl, dance with her, take her home, go to church, confess, get road rage, eat with his family, go to the gym, etc. (with porn of course interspersed). Gordon-Levitt ropes us into that routine to best understand Jon and how his lifestyle feeds his addiction subconsciously.
The curveball of the film is Julianne Moore's character, Esther. After Barbra coerces Jon into taking night classes, he meets Esther, who catches him watching porn on his phone and proceeds to engage him about it. Her role is meant to break Jon's routine, to challenge his thinking about love and sex. She's not merely a tool to these means she has her own complexities but she has a distinct purpose, as with all the characters.
Take Brie Larson as Jon's sister, Monica. Every time we see Monica she's staring at her phone and completely unengaged. But an actress like Larson doesn't get cast a screen filler simply meant to show another form of addiction (phone attachment) that's a bit more rampant in society. She's a sleeper character, ready to make a meaningful contribution to the film when you least expect it.
Everything is very planned in this movie. You can see the characters and scenes as pieces working together to teach us about the danger of having certain expectations about love and sex based on how it's portrayed in pornography, in romantic movies, the media, etc. You can clearly tell Gordon-Levitt's an intelligent guy and there's something satisfying in the way he so transparently makes a statement with his film.
In doing this, however, the film loses its organic energy. The characters feel just a bit less real, the situations a bit contrived and the drama doesn't elicit a lot of emotion. The performances are excellent good actors are needed to breathe life into characters who were created around ideas but "Don Jon" doesn't hit you anywhere. It's the kind of film that will provoke discussion and appeal to those who enjoy analyzing film, but not necessarily win over folks looking for emotional escapism in their movies.
Gordon-Levitt definitely has more directing in his future. He's learned a thing or two from folks like Rian Johnson ("Brick," "Looper") and Marc Webb ("500 Days of Summer") about edgy, contemporary filmmaking. He might be better off working from someone else's script, but there's nothing seriously wrong with this debut effort.
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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
TASM2 still engages and dazzles despite narrative overcrowding
As the world's most popular superhero, Spider-Man is the poster hero for the resurgence of the superhero genre at the movies, but these days he's hanging there by a strand of webbing. When Sony gave Peter Parker a reboot in 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man," they became the first studio to recast and reimagine an entire (and lucrative) franchise, and therefore ran the first experiment to test audiences' reactions to a reboot with the original so fresh in their memory.
Results have been all over the board, and they will likely continue that way for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." With the Spider-Man origin story out of the way, director Marc Webb and a large team of story architects including James Vanderbilt (lone remaining writer from "The Amazing Spider-Man"), Jeff Pinkner (TV's "Fringe") and the infamous blockbuster duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci ("Transformers," "Star Trek") had the freedom to explore new ideas and grow the scale of the Spider-Man universe.
As advertised, Spider-Man battles three baddies in this film: Electro/Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) and Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino (Paul Giamatti). Although the film narratively manages to avoid the villain overcrowding of the late-'90s "Batman" films and "Spider-Man 3," it's far from ideal.
As with the Lizard in the first film, these villains stem from Oscorp, which truly emerges as evil's central address in this rebooted Spider-Man universe. The opening sequence further establishes Richard Parker's connection to Oscorp, which is completely revealed in this film after being heavily teased in the first.
Along with the villains and their plots and the mystery of Peter's parents, there's Peter himself and his journey as Spider-Man, his journey of discovering the truth about his parents and his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). It's probably enough material for two 90-minute films, but it's presented instead in one 142-minute film. Something does give, but surprisingly, it's not the Peter Parker stuff, or the emotion.
Webb makes the cut as an action director to be sure, but his real strength is in creating character chemistry and realistic romance. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are special together on screen, which might have something to do with their off-screen chemistry, but regardless, their performances particularly together are the movie's greatest asset. What could have been a melodramatic roller-coaster subplot really works because Garfield shows us how torn Peter is between his instinct to love Gwen and her father's stern warning in the first film to leave her alone. Stone's Gwen is a strong young woman who acts for herself first, and so her conflicts with Peter aren't petty, but realistic.
But the real testament to both Webb, the casting folks and the writers is the relationship between Peter and old friend Harry, which has just minutes to materialize in a believable manner. DeHaan and Garfield create this honest portrayal of forgotten friendship in only a few key scenes that lead to the crucial turning points of the film. Those turning points are just okay as is, so the work in these low-key scenes proves critical.
Essentially, for all the good work done in character development on Peter's end, the dreadful development of the villains acts as a counter force that fortunately only weighs the final product down so much thanks to the good elements.
Let's start with Electro. Foxx is cast as a one-dimensional version of his mentally ill character from "The Soloist." An Oscorp electrician and huge fan of Spider-Man, Max Dillon lives in his own world and suffers from an inability to separate logic from his emotions. Although the character does victims of mental illness no favors, it's plausible that Dillon could become villainous under the right circumstances. That said, the film's circumstances aren't great, particularly in the realm of why the self-proclaimed Electro would want to kill Spider-Man. Electro is a cool villain aesthetically and the special effects are terrific, but he's comparable with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze.
Although Harry Osborn's motivations make a bit more sense, the film rushes through his character arc. The story asks us to pity him and then despise him with little time to make the transition. DeHaan makes the most of it, however, and shows he has quite the chops for playing a villain.
Plopped in all of this is Peter discovering just what his father was up to for Oscorp and why he left him as a child. What we learn makes total sense and satisfies our curiosity to know, but the information doesn't impact the film's climax in any way. Peter does nothing differently he still must stop Electro and Green Goblin from destroying New York and killing him.
It is easy to get lost in story details and plot points and character motivation, but "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is also as entertaining as it should be, and more so than its predecessor. The camera-work and special effects are the stuff Sam Raimi probably only dreamed of and take the character (literally) to new heights. The use of slow-motion proves to not be cliché, but to actually let the audience see the quality of the effects, the attention to detail. The action also hits harder PG-13 seems to be getting more and more graphic, which as a 20-something non-parent, doesn't bother me one iota.
With the "Sinister Six" a team of Spider-Man's enemies coming down the pipeline soon, Sony needs to be a little more thoughtful about how it handles its villains, and they also should consider condensing the many themes and story lines of this new series. With just a bit more focused storytelling, their engaging, thoughtful and entertaining new "Spider-Man" could go from good to great, and meet fans' growing expectations of Spider-Man on the big screen.
~Steve C Thanks for reading! Visit moviemusereviews.com for more
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
"Amazing Spider-Man" weaves a strong though familiar web
Back in 2002, Sony Pictures and filmmaker Sam Raimi brought one of Marvel Comics' most popular superheroes, Spider-Man, to big screen for the first time. Peter Parker's story captivated audiences and set the record for the most money made on an opening weekend.
Now, let's imagine none of that ever happened. Let's pretend director Marc Webb and Sony brought movie-goers "The Amazing Spider-Man" for the first time ever in 2012. What's the result? A box-office record would be doubtful given the era we live in, but a powerful story that captivates audiences absolutely. It would've been hailed as just as if not more of an incredible film in 2002.
Well, it's not 2002, and we can't pretend forever. As such, the one major thing that will draw ire toward "The Amazing Spider-Man" is that it tells a story that came to the big screen 10 short years ago. It's not a conversation that would even happen if this were 2032, but this context is a reality.
For a child who is now a teenager, this could turn out to be a defining film with two stars of a younger generation in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, but a good chunk of audience members will wait and wait for the film to deliver some revelatory change to the story they already know that never comes.
It's always important to be aware of your own expectations, but if you want to be able to appreciate the multiple strengths of "The Amazing Spider-Man," it's a recommendation that can't be taken lightly. So here it goes: this is Spider-Man's origin story. There are new actors, and some new characters that make it look different, but it's Spider-Man's origin story.
To come clean on biases, I love Spider-Man's origin story. There's nothing more powerful in the comic universe than the way Peter Parker comes of age and into his role as a hero in a traumatic flash, losing someone he loves when he chooses to act thoughtlessly and selfishly. So on one hand, you could say I have a predilection toward this movie because it tells that story; on the other hand, I'm very particular about it. I need to feel it or I'll be disappointed. In this "Spider-Man," you definitely still feel it.
The presentation of the movie is different than the 2002 film, but its core and messages are the same. Uncle Ben doesn't say "with great power comes great responsibility," but he basically paraphrases it. Call that repetitive if you will, but it's absolutely crucial to Spider-Man. It would be dishonorable toward the comics to handle it any other way, not to mention give little reason for you to care about Garfield's version of Peter Parker.
Different from the original film, Peter is severely affected by a complete lack of resolution regarding his parents. He loves his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, who is superb) and Aunt May (Sally Field), but his parents' disappearance haunts him, so the discovery of an Oscorp file belonging to his father and a lead in the form of man who was his father's old research partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), sends Peter's curiosity into overdrive. Doing so lands him on the path to getting bit by the radioactive spider and becoming Spider-Man.
Peter goes from extraordinary teen to masked crime-fighter for selfish reasons after the death of Uncle Ben. Whereas Peter believes he gets his revenge in the 2002 film (we learn he didn't in "Spider-Man 3″), failing to find his uncle's killer adds more painful irresolution to his life. It's a void he eventually realizes he can fill with heroism, and considering he gives Dr. Connors the formula that will later turn him into the The Lizard, stopping him is a chance to finally correct one of his mistakes.
Peter also finds a confidant in Gwen Stacy (Stone), daughter of the police chief (Denis Leary) and the man who wants Spider-Man to answer to the law. Gwen actually learns of his identity, and the two even work together to stop Connors, another refreshing change from the damsel in distress motif that permeated all of Raimi's films. Yet Peter and Gwen's relationship still has that tragic quality true to the comics.
From the romance to the science to the action, "The Amazing Spider-Man" has a decidedly more realistic feel than the Raimi films (and little of their campy humor), a fact likely to go under-appreciated given that we live in a post-The Dark Knight world. To be fair to that first trilogy, however, it did ground itself in real themes and emotions, but so does this movie. The second and third Spider-Man movies share a screenwriter with this reboot in Alvin Sargent, and the way the story is constructed feels extremely similar to those previous adventures.
Even with all the quality writing full of strong themes and proper character motivation, "The Amazing Spider-Man" gets long in the tooth, especially as you wait for the origins to be fully rehashed with Peter getting his powers, playing around with his powers, etc. The third act, however, turns out to be an exhilarating finish and then some. The action (both in choreography and CGI in all acts of the movie) knocks the original trilogy off a skyscraper. And when it seems like the emotional flourish won't come, the script finds some fitting and effective moments of catharsis for all the characters.
Yes, it's frustrating seeing something similar unfold that's fresh in our minds, but for a new Spider-Man franchise to emerge in the dust of the old one, these origin essentials needed to be covered, and they're covered exceptionally well. We have a whole new cast of lovable characters now, and Sony and Webb have earned their license (and our trust) to take the trilogy where they want it to go, which looks to be deeper into the mystery of the Richard and Mary Parker.
RED 2 (2013)
True to the original -- a perfectly watchable action comedy
Turns out they're not too old for this ****.
"RED," the 2010 action comedy based on the DC comic, earned a deserved dash of praise for delivering on the fun of its concept of aging stars toting deadly weapons. "RED 2" does a job of equal measure, though it doesn't compensate for the loss of its novelty. Essentially, the sequel ought to please fans of the original, and everyone else will be no worse for the wear when all is said and done.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are loving retirement, but their peace is quickly interrupted when they run into their old friend Marvin (John Malkovich), who tells them a document has been leaked connecting him and Frank to a powerful weapon from the Cold War era called Nightshade. Marvin and Frank become everyone's most wanted: American agent Jack Horton (Neil McDonough), Korean assassin Han (Byung-hun Lee) and even Victoria (Helen Mirren) are after them. So they take to Europe and team up with Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), one of Frank's old flames, to track down information about Nightshade.
Original "RED" writers Jon and Erich Hoeber are definitely responsible for the continuity in tone from the first film to this one. The sequel retains the dry wit of the first and the occasional tongue-in-cheek. "RED 2" also doesn't take itself too seriously, though it manages a few eye rolls compared to the first. And the plot actually keeps things interesting with twists, betrayals and the like, which is a huge asset when the story otherwise plays with overdone foreign espionage tropes. Director Dean Parisot doesn't add much to the film, though it doesn't exactly miss "RED" director Robert Schwentke either.
The cast once again looks like it's having a total blast. Willis hasn't looked this relaxed in any of his recent action films; Malkovich is less crazy than in the first film and more lovable and Mirren is never more charming than when she's playing with guns. Newcomer to the cast Anthony Hopkins also gets more of a playful character role. Also, Parker gets to build on the "in-over- her-head leading lady" stereotype of Sarah more so than she did in the first film. In some ways she turns out to be the comic relief.
"RED 2" doesn't offer a whole lot of innovation or excitement as an action film. There is some clever and humorous fight choreography throughout, but it still leans on typical action sequences expected to be funnier given the age of the actors involved. Lee, who is meant to keep the action fresh, is one of the best in the martial arts business, but his skills go a little under-utilized.
There are so many more ways to go wrong than "RED 2," which if for no other reason, works by not overreaching, trying to be something it simply can't and being true to its concept. It's hard to see a whole franchise being built from something "decently entertaining," but movie franchises have been built on much worse.
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In "Winter Soldier," Marvel plays with the goodwill it's built up to do something extraordinary
If you've ever wondered how cool it would be if a superhero movie was combined with an espionage thriller, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a dream come true. It's as much "The Rogers Ultimatum" as it is an irresistibly cool blockbuster, and though a totally different film than the quality origin story of "Captain America: The First Avenger," it's an even better one.
If you didn't think Marvel Studios' cinematic universe (now loving referred to by most as "the MCU") could get any more complicated, guess again. "Winter Soldier" turns the entire thing on its head, with major implications for future Marvel films as well as the Marvel TV show "Agents of SHIELD." Without spoiling anything, the premise is that there's some deception going on within the ranks of the Marvel world's most powerful organization.
In response to the Chitauri invasion in "The Avengers," SHIELD has moved full speed ahead with Project Insight, a plan to launch of series of satellite-controlled helicarriers capable of instantly eliminating major threats anywhere in the world. This much power, however, doesn't gel with Captain America's beliefs, and he and SHIELD are a little at odds with each other.
Keeping Captain America's second solo adventure conjoined with SHIELD's narrative and characters such as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives this film more weight, as though it's a sequel to "The Avengers" as much as it's a sequel to "First Avenger." It makes sense too, as the context of Captain America (Chris Evans) finding his place and his role in a modern world necessitates SHIELD's involvement, as Cap is a "man out of time" with no public persona in the modern day. As much as the script dives head first into a thriller, it never loses sight of Rogers' personal journey, which is an impressive feat.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who crafted "First Avenger," were handed this totally different concept and yet make it work so well on so many fronts. It's the best screenplay in terms of plot that Marvel Studios has put together in its brief but impressive six-year history.
Behind the camera, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo prove Marvel Studios knows exactly how to scout directing talent, putting its faith in the directors of TV comedies "Community" and "Happy Endings" to make an action-packed, violent, high-stakes superhero film without a shred of doubt. The Russos' eye for stylish, wow-moment action shots exceeds their sense of humor to the point you'd hardly believe their own credentials. The film surprises constantly with how many ways an indestructible shield can be used as a weapon, and Anthony Mackie's Falcon puts other Marvel sidekicks to shame (looking at you, War Machine).
Mackie makes an instantly likable addition to the cast, so much so it's almost a shame he didn't get his own headlining hero, such as Marvel's Black Panther. Something similar could be said for Frank Grillo as Rumlow. Robert Redford's added gravitas as SHIELD bigwig Alexander Pierce will still be a pleasant surprise even after the movie is over.
The complexity of "Winter Soldier" is pretty astounding, especially because it works. Part of it is a sequel to "First Avenger," part of it is a SHIELD move, part of it is an "Avengers" follow-up, etc. "Winter Soldier" succeeds in all of those roles and in incorporating so many elements, from character development to big-time action to big twists and turns. That level of ambition generally results in generic praises of "highly entertaining" mixed with "messy" or "convoluted." This film blends them together with few visible seams.
"Winter Soldier" is probably a better film than "The Avengers," but the giddy factor of having all those main characters in one movie is hard to make up for under even the best of circumstances. A more worthy discussion for this movie is just how well the previous Marvel films set the tone for this one to do something bigger and bolder.
We're familiar with the characters, with SHIELD, with the Marvel universe, so much so that Marvel Studios recognizes we already are bringing a lot to the viewing experience before the film ever begins, so it can bend the rules a bit. Courteously, it does not do so in an exclusive way. Even if you haven't seen "First Avenger," this film catches you up to speed; it's the additional layers of enjoyment for fans of different engagement levels that makes the franchise work so well. "Winter Soldier" would still be wildly entertaining without it, but it wouldn't fire so impressively on all its cylinders.
If the film itself weren't enough, it leaves a distinct imprint on the rest of the MCU and makes the possibility of "Captain America 3" all the more exciting.
~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit moviemusereviews.com for more
Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013)
Entertaining, but reveals intriguing truths about fame and talent
What is the distance between fame and obscurity? "20 Feet from Stardom" filmmaker Morgan Neville not only shines a spotlight on the world of backup singers, but in doing so, also uncovers the mysterious set of laws that seem to dictate fame in our world.
Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and countless others whose famous voices have received little to no recognition until now, share their stories of working in the music industry and the hard work and talent that it takes to harmonize and blend one's voice beautifully and seamlessly in the background to complement a soloist. Although the backup singer has become a rarity in today's digital music world, backup vocals were a staple in countless songs that changed music and rock 'n roll forever.
First of all, "20 Feet" gives you an incredible appreciation for this work, and the talent of these (mostly black, female) voices. Their body of work is astounding, and the appreciation of the big-name performing artists who provide testimonials in the film is clear. They understand how backup vocals fill out a track and take it to the next level.
In fact, the more you see and the more enamored you become with the film's subjects, the more you begin to wonder why they never became stars themselves? We they too complacent? Were they too willing to check their egos? Do they even have egos? Does the music industry completely control who becomes a star, regardless of talent? The film peels back the curtain a bit on fame and allows you to examine it through a different lens.
As you'd hope in a film about music, "20 Feet" uses editing to its advantage, creating a lot of moods and emotional moments. The storytelling structure also sets up these big questions, exposing us to the history of backup singers and these women's talent and then slipping in kernels of new and in some cases revelatory information or moments with the subjects that further complicate the ideas of fame, etc.
"20 Feet" has an easy, entertaining subject matter, but it does more than bring you inside the world of backup singers and impress you with the "untold" side of rock 'n roll music. There's something intellectual underlying this film, something that reveals some fundamental truths about our world and our society that elevates from the pack of soft-hitting entertainment industry documentaries.
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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
More adventure and hilarity than usual for Anderson
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is Wes Anderson's most imaginative effort yet. The perpetually quirky master of symmetry expands his scope in a way not seen since "The Life Aquatic," but this story is infinitely more accessible and entertaining.
The film, set in a fictionalized version of Europe, takes an unusual storytelling approach. A now- deceased author (Tom Wilkinson) relays the story behind his most famous novel. When he was younger (played by Jude Law), he visited the once-infamous and decrepit Grand Budapest Hotel, where he comes upon the its owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells the story of how he came to own it. He's the film's primary narrator, telling the story of how as a young immigrant boy (Tony Revolori) he came under the tutelage of the hotel's flamboyant and unapologetic concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Fiennes gives a much-welcome change of pace performance as Gustave that is both hilarious and delightful. The tone of "Grand Budapest" leans this way as well. Whereas most of Anderson's films move from that quirky, dry humor into stark depictions of relationships, "Budapest" almost never loses its comic edge. Far and away, the film earns its label as Anderson's funniest movie.
From the outside, the plot looks like a murder mystery farce. Gustave wins the affections of rich old women who stay at the hotel through flattery and sexual services. When one of his most devoted customers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) turns up murdered, she wills Gustave the priceless painting "Boy with Apple," provoking the ire of Madame's scornful son, Dmitri, (Adrien Brody). To ensure he gets what's rightfully his, Gustave and Zero steal the painting and Gustave makes a deal to make Zero his heir in exchange for his help. The next day, Gustave is arrested for the murder and Zero tries to help him escape and prove his innocence.
Gustave and Zero form a hysterical but meaningful relationship. For all of Gustave's risky, eccentric shenanigans, he grows fond and protective of the boy. This kind of friendship has never been the center of an Anderson film; usually, its sibling or family dysfunction. Consequently, "Budapest" is a bit shallower in character depth, opting for moments of pure entertainment than inward exploration. On the plus side, it does make "Budapest" more accessible than earlier Anderson films, which could now be considered a trend given that "Moonrise Kingdom" was even more so that way.
The case of "Grand Budapest" extends well beyond Anderson's circle of actors, relegated most of the usual suspects to cameos and small supporting roles. In doing so, Anderson proves he can direct any actor of reasonable talent into fitting with his style. This ensemble is especially vast, though the one real standout is Willem Dafoe as Jopling, Dmitri's brass-knuckled henchman.
Anderson really ups the adventure and fun of "Grand Budapest" and celebrates his filmmaking style. He adds even more brightness, color, symmetry and hijinks, something he can get away with at this point in his career due to greater audience familiarity. He hasn't gone his deepest, or really pushed himself as an intellectual, but "Grand Budapest" proves to be immensely satisfying.
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