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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain_America_The_Winter_SoldierI don’t consider myself a die-hard Marvel fan. I enjoyed The Avengers, and I like Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man trilogy, but I haven’t followed any Marvel lore or read any comics. That said, I loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Rather than requiring the viewer to have extensive knowledge about Steve Rodgers and the eclectic band of S.H.I.E.L.D. workers, the Russo brothers have made an enjoyable, first-rate action thriller that anyone can enjoy. The Winter Soldier is on par with great espionage movies like James Bond and the Bourne trilogy. The plot is easy enough to understand and still fun to enjoy, the action sequences are top-notch, and there is a coat of polish glimmering the film that wasn’t present in films like Thor or The Incredible Hulk.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up where the first film left off. Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is now in the present day, and faces the challenge of adapting to the 21st century lifestyle. His culture-shock experience is fun to watch, and makes for interesting dialogue. When an internal threat in S.H.I.E.L.D. is exposed, Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) find themselves on the outside. The new face of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) takes over. All while this is happening, the Captain traces the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the Soviet’s answer to Captain America, leading into a corporate conspiracy on governmental internal ops in Washington D.C.

All of this is very fun to watch. Everything unfolds at a pace that is appropriate for all viewers, Marvel fans or not. That’s their biggest victory with the film. Unlike Thor 2, The Winter Soldier is immediately accessible. I could see my parents enjoying this film. The tone of the film is also great; part Cold War espionage thriller, part Superhero flick, The Winter Soldier blends these elements into something greater, and it’s a thrill to watch it all unfold on screen. Twists and turns, conspiracies everywhere, The Winter Soldier has you on the edge of your seat. It’s never predictable, and always surprising.

I will say that I’m still not convinced that Chris Evans has 100% settled into the role of Captain America, but he definitely feels more comfortable this time around. Some cheesy dialogue calls to mind the patriotism of the first film, and even though you might cringe, it’s all in good fun. Scarlett Johansson has a considerable amount of screen time as Black Widow. Rather than use her as a sex object like typical Johansson fare, the relationship between Cap’n and Black Widow is strictly professional. They don’t feel the need to display their affection constantly, and Black Widow herself is quite a formidable force. Anthony Mackie also appears as the Falcon, someone I am not familiar with, but he performs well enough as the typical sidekick role. We aren’t given much backstory into his character, but I hope he makes appearances in the future. The Winter Soldier himself is a great villain. Unlike the Mandarin or Malekith, The Winter Soldier’s secret identity isn’t revealed until halfway through, and it never feels like a cop out. Like any good villain, he feels like a considerable foe for Captain America, one that matches him or even surpasses him in physical force.

Supporting roles from Cobie Smulders, Toby Jones, and Frank Grillo round out the rest of the cast. They play minor characters that die-hard Marvel fans will recall, and for the most part they get the job done. Robert Redford, in his limited screen time, performs well enough as the new S.H.I.E.L.D. leader, but I’m not sure if he’ll be remembered in years to come.

The Winter Soldier has an array of satisfying and visually stunning action sequences. The great pace settles itself with slow, information-gathering scenes, and intense action set pieces. The choreography is stunning; fist fights have genuine weight to them, and the fights feel real, despite it being a superhero film. Sparks fly over the screen, the sound editing is first-rate, and it all has the coat of polish that only Marvel can deliver.

The Winter Soldier might be Marvel’s best film to date. It successfully blends multiple genres and transcends the superhero stereotype into creating something enjoyable for any audience. The cast of characters is interesting, the plot is full of twists and turns, and you’ll leave the theater satisfied. It made me excited for what Marvel has up their sleeve for the rest of Act II.

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Divergent

It’s no ‘Hunger Games,’ but Neil Burger’s ‘Divergent’ is still miles ahead of traditional YA fare

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Careful of over saturating the YA film market, film studios have to be careful of making their movies too similar. You know the image: the dystopian sci-fi world in ruins, headed by a strong female protagonist who overthrows the government. What worked for The Hunger Games feels stale in Divergent. As a fan of the books, I enjoyed the attention to detail and the plot changes they made, yet Divergent simply isn’t different enough, with pacing problems and character underdevelopment everywhere.

Divergent is an adaptation of the popular YA book series written by Veronica Roth. The book features a dystopian Chicago, where citizens are separated into five factions based on their values and test results. You don’t get much detail into the ‘why’ of this world, but that will be saved for later movies. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend Divergent unless you’re a fan of the books or you enjoy dystopian fiction. It isn’t for the casual viewer. The film does a poor job of making things clear, and this plays directly into the character development, or lack thereof.

Tris Prior is an interesting and strong candidate for the female heroine, but actress Shailene Woodley simply isn’t given enough to work with here. She’s great in the pathos-heavy emotional scenes, and while both she and love interest Four actor Theo James are good actors, the paltry script doesn’t showcase their acting capabilities. James is left to cliche love story lines akin to a Nicholas Sparks novel, and at other times he plays the quiet, too cool for school guy. The great lines are reserved for Kate Winslet, who plays autocratic leader Jeanine. She’s a chilling and formidable villain, one who will help define the future adaptations. It’s almost worth seeing just for Winslet alone: she’s that good. Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, and Zoe Kravitz round out the rest of the kids, and they perform well enough. Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn star as Tris’s parents, who also aren’t given enough good lines to work with, despite their acting muscles.

Characters aside, Divergent is good at world-building. You’ll keep asking questions that you don’t get answers to. This is a testament to the film’s gorgeous visuals. As a resident of Chicago, I loved seeing landmarks such as Navy Pier and the Marina Towers on Lake Street. A zipline scene down the Hancock Tower is one of the best scenes in the film, capturing the essence of the movie and the thrills that come with being Dauntless.

Another problem with Divergent is its pacing. The first 2/3 of the film is a snooze, proving to be too introductory. The Choosing Ceremony is no Hunger Games Reaping, and the Dauntless training scenes drag on too long. The final 1/3 of the film, however, is brilliant. The plot comes together for a great finale, all choreographed by great fight scenes, thanks to some gorgeous cinematography and stunts. Director Neil Burger seems to understand what he’s getting into, and he sets the tone well for Insurgent and Allegiant.

Divergent is no Hunger Games, but it’s also no Beautiful Creatures or Mortal Instruments. With a plot that will keep you asking questions, and a great and intense finale, Divergent is quite a thrill ride. But with weak characters and an over-introductory tone, don’t expect greatness from the start.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Anderson’s wackiest film to date, The Grand Budapest Hotel is brimming with colorful characters and a witty plot that will keep you engaged from start to finish.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t just for Wes Anderson fans. As a big fan, I feel that sometimes it can be difficult to jump into Anderson’s films without premeditation. Yet Anderson’s eighth film could very well be his most accessible to date. He has once again created a whimsical world in his latest, and the film is loaded with visual gags and employs Anderson’s signature flair to great effect. With his latest, Anderson doesn’t enhance his style, he simply masters it, creating another charming film to add to his wall, one that both fans and non-fans can eat up.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, we are introduced to the legendary Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a hotel concierge at the famous Grand Budapest Hotel. The film tells the story of his adventures with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). After the death of one of his guests and lovers, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), Gustave is suspected of murder after he is left a mysterious painting in her will.

From this point, the film springs into action, giving us the crazy set pieces and wild scenarios that only Anderson can create. This wouldn’t be possible without Fiennes, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the suave yet crass Gustave H. He is one of Anderson’s most memorable characters to date, and along with Zero, the two make quite a pair. Saoirse Ronan also shines as Agatha, a bakery girl who also serves as Zero’s love interest.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells a dark story, and Anderson isn’t afraid to give some shocking moments, hence the film’s R rating. Coming off of Moonrise Kingdom, this is surprising, but it’s also a refreshing change of pace from Anderson’s latest outings, including Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Supporting roles from Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, and Edward Norton help round out the delightful cast of characters, yet sometimes the hotel feels a bit too crowded. This may not matter much given that Fiennes and Revolori are the stars of the show, but it can be a bit jarring considering their limited screen time. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from the likes of Owen Wilson can break up the film’s quick and zippy pace, and one wonders if his character is entirely necessary or if Wilson appeared for simply fan service given Anderson’s legendary cast.

Anderson has constructed brilliant set pieces, once again employing his signature cinematography. The film is beautiful, using its visuals to its advantage to create some laugh-out-loud moments amidst the beautiful hotel. But you won’t spend the entire time at the Grand Budapest. Excellent scenes within a prison are instantly memorable, as is the wonderful and exciting ski chase that will leave you in pieces.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a mastering of Anderson’s craft. Some parts hilarious, other parts thrilling, you won’t want to check out of the Hotel Grand Budapest. With a cast of unforgettable characters, including the legendary Gustave H, this is one of Anderson’s best films to date, and it’s definitely a must-see.

Buy The Grand Budapest Hotel (Original Soundtrack) on Amazon today.

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Posted by on March 14, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Ridiculously Early Oscars 2015 Predictions

It’s never too early to be thinking about next year’s awards season. Well, actually it might be, but that isn’t stopping me from compiling what I think could be potential front runners come December this year. They range from Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi drama to an adaptation of one of today’s hottest books from David Fincher, and everything in between. Let’s take a look:

Gone Girl

David Fincher achieved similar success with his adaptation of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011, so expect him to get some praise for his latest. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl stars Ben Affleck as a husband whose wife disappears on their fifth anniversary. Called “impossible to film,” Gone Girl should combine the star power of recent winner Ben Affleck with Fincher’s similar style, and we could be looking at something great.

Buy Gone Girl on Amazon today

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Unbroken

Angelina Jolie takes a seat behind the camera with her new film, Unbroken. The film depicts the life of Louis Zamperini, former Olympic athlete, who became a Japanese prisoner-of-war and endured hard times. With a script written by the Coen Brothers, and a timely release date given the recent Olympics, expect Unbroken to make some noise when it releases this December.

Into the Woods

From Chicago director Rob Marshall comes the film adaptation of the popular musical starring Meryl Streep. Need I say more? But with an all-star cast featuring Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, and Emily Blunt, expect to hear a lot from Into the Woods.

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Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have received mixed praise from the Academy, but his latest, Inherent Vice, seems poised to make a splash this December. Based on the detective novel by Thomas Pynchon, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Larry Sportello, as he investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend in 1970s Los Angeles. The film combines crime with comedy, and could net itself a few Oscar nominations.

The Imitation Game

Harvey Weinstein has been hard-gunning for awards with his latest, The Imitation Game. The film is inspired by the life of Alan Turing, a cryptographer during World War II who was later prosecuted for being homosexual. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the film could score him his first Oscar nomination, if Weinstein has anything to say about it next year.

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Interstellar

Hell will freeze over before the Academy recognizes the work that goes into crafting a beautiful sci-fi film. While Gravity swept up the awards this year, it ultimately failed to win Best Picture, leaving the slot open for Christopher Nolan’s latest. Interstellar features a team of scientists who explore wormholes, and stars recent winner Matthew McConaughey and Academy-favorite Jessica Chastain. Nolan’s films are loved by the Academy, and this could be the year when a science fiction film wins top prize.

Get on Up

Directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor, Get on Up stars Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in the late-summer biopic. With an cast featuring both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, Get on Up looks to be this year’s The Butler, except it might have a chance at scoring a nomination.

Foxcatcher

While the Bennett Miller film suffered a release date change last year, it may have been for the best, as Foxcatcher could score big in the acting categories next year. Based on the life of Olympic medalist Mark Schultz, the film stars Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum, and the film could even be next year’s Dallas Buyers Club.

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Other possible contenders: Kill the Messenger, A Most Violent Year, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Turner, Exodus

 

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2014 in Other

 

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My Favorite Movie Composers

Composing a score for a film is no easy task. After all, this is the music that everyone will remember or have stuck in their heads long after the credits roll. It must fit the tone of the movie, and complement it well. As a huge fan of movie scores and music in general, I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favorite movie composers, and some of my favorite works of theirs.

Thomas Newman

Of the Newman dynasty, Thomas Newman has no shortage of impressive films on his track record. Being the favorite of director Sam Mendes as well as the folks at Pixar, Thomas Newman has composed some great scores, ranging from Wall-E to American Beauty to the recently amazing Saving Mr. Banks.

Elmer Bernstein

One of the great classic movie composers, Elmer Bernstein wrote the score for one of my favorite movies of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. The main theme from that film is one of my favorite tracks ever composed. It’s gentle, soothing, and perfect for the Robert Mulligan film. But besides that, Bernstein also worked on other classics like Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ghostbusters, and Cape Fear.

Alexandre Desplat

French composer Desplat didn’t appear on my radar until he scored the soundtracks for the final two films in the Harry Potter saga. His anthem Lily’s Theme is harrowing yet gorgeous, and the score is one of the best parts of the epic finale. Desplat also scored films in Wes Anderson’s filmography, as well as Argo and more recently, Philomena, to great critical acclaim.

James Newton Howard

Composer of a lot of modern films such as The Hunger Games, The Bourne Legacy, and King Kong, Howard is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Hans Zimmer on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise. His score for those films is still played at my house today, and is one of the best scores that perfectly fits the Caped Crusader and his antics.

Michael Giacchino

Best known for his work on the TV show, Lost, Giacchino is one of the latest modern greats. He helped score multiple Pixar films including The Incredibles, Up, and his fantastic arrangements for Ratatouille. But Giacchino is most known for his works with J.J. Abrams, including scoring the wonderful 2009 Star Trek reboot. It isn’t easy to compose music for a franchise like that, yet Giacchino nailed it with his epic score, keeping the original theme yet also making it his own.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s 2009 drama asks you to rethink your philosophy as you examine the life of Ryan Bingham. It’s never condescending, but rather enlightening through its interesting characters and wonderful reflection of life.

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Up in the Air is one of the movies I can watch anytime. Reitman’s adaptation of the 2001 novel of the same name strikes a chord with me. It has a level of maturity and timeliness that makes it always feel fresh and new.

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham presents one of the most interesting character studies. He works for a firm that sends its workers to corporations to fire their employees because their bosses don’t have the balls to do it themselves (his words, not mine). This career of his sparks some unique plot points, as a fresh new face Natalie (Anna Kendrick) comes in and tries to modernize things. His company effectively grounds him right before Ryan reaches 10 million frequent flyer miles.

If this premise sounds weird, just go with it. It’s less about the plot, and more about the characters and the journeys they take. Along his travels, Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow business traveller, and they revel in the joys and not-so-joys of life itself. The relationship between the two is a very intriguing one to watch unfold onscreen. The two actors have a chemistry that is rarely seen in movies. They’re not exactly similar, but they relate to each other and learn from each other. Ryan also learns a thing or two from his sister and her husband. When he returns home for their wedding, he recalls childhood memories and also touches those he meets along the way.

Up in the Air is an forthright, poignant movie; one for the ages. A slickly-crafted film, Up in the Air asks questions about life, while sprinkling in hints of romance and honest comedy. It successfully blends so many insightful elements yet make it feel comforting and mainstream. Director Jason Reitman’s best film by far, Up in the Air is a masterpiece, and I don’t use that term lightly.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Non-Stop

Non-Stop is about as generic as they come, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this well-crafted and thrilling action movie.

MV5BOTI3NzcxMjkzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDY0NTQ0MDE@._V1_SX214_Non-Stop brings nothing new to the action-thriller genre. It is about as standard as they come, but Liam Neeson commands the film with intensity and urgency that keeps it from ever getting boring.

Non-Stop has a simple premise, yet it keeps the audience guessing throughout. One look at the poster and you’ll know what to expect. From the beginning, you’re wondering who is sending air marshall Bill (Liam Neeson) these text messages threatening to kill someone every 20 minutes. This interesting premise gives the film the liberty to do what it wants with the plot. You won’t guess what happens, because there are so many twists and turns. While at times very unbelievable, Non-Stop is still really enjoyable.

This is due in part to Liam Neeson, the recent king of action movies. Dubbed “Taken on a Plane,” Non-Stop is better than his recent films, and he takes command of the role and keeps audiences invested. Supporting roles from Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, Argo’s Scoot McNairy, House of Cards’s Corey Stoll, and 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o only makes you miss them in their most well-known roles. None of them are really standouts, not even Lupita. But since Neeson is the star of the show, you won’t mind.

Like I said, Non-Stop is nothing new. A decent thriller with some twists and turns that keeps it from getting boring. Some laughable emotional background gives at least some dimension to Neeson’s character, but by the end it just feels like a cop-out, typical of recent thrillers. But the action and suspense is first-rate. The final act in particular is especially thrilling, with plane parts flying everywhere and suspense building until the end. A smart thriller that keeps you guessing, Non-Stop shouldn’t be passed over, but just don’t expect anything special.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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