Captain America: Civil War

We have come to rely on Marvel to kick off the summer movie going season with a big splashy comic book adventure. Ever since “IronMan” eight years ago, there has been a steady stream of comic book product from this creative team. Fortunately we have been provided compelling stories and great characters for the most part. From my point of view, the weak link has been the standalone “Iron Man” sequels. Tony Snark, oops, Stark, is a great film personality who has often had to flounder in average material. Traveling in the opposite direction for the most part has been Steve Rogers. Cap has gotten more effective plot lines and more interesting dilemmas to deal with. The Avengers movies have been a good way to bring these characters together, but this is the best mash up of these two characters so far. Lots of other Avengers appear, but this is an “Iron Man” “Captain America” film.

As usual, I will dispense with a recap of the plot, you’ll go see the movie and why would you want someone else to tell you the story you are about to pay $15 bucks to see? I will mention as few plot points as necessary to convey the idea of the film, so that yo have a bit of context for the commentary. The world gets a little paranoid about the collateral damage that occurs when the Avengers are called on to act. The idea that someone in charge should be calling the shots, rather than the extraordinary people who make up the team, has surfaced, and it seems like a necessary compromise to some of the Avengers, but others disagree. This is not a political blog and I don’t want folks to be too irritated by what I’m about to say, but it seems very obvious to me. Tony Stark and Secretary Ross are stand ins for an ascendant view of foreign policy and military intervention. Extreme caution and world wide consensus before acting.   Steve Rogers and his allies are the old school version of cowboy diplomacy, act when yo see a threat and live with the consequences of your actions. “Civil War” is not just a clash between the superheroes, it is a clash over ideologies. The film is also not subtle about which side it favors, probably because we want super heroes to act rather than debate in our entertainment.

Neither side is blameless in the confrontation that ensues and neither is malicious in their position. One of the things that makes this movie so much more fun than the recent “Batman V. Superman” is that the characters recognize the righteousness that their opposition feels and the awkwardness of the confrontation. Only The Winter Soldier seems undisturbed by having to face down and fight friends. Of course he has not got the same investment in relationships that the other characters have. In one fight sequence, a character accuses another of pulling their punches, and in essence that is what all of them are doing.  No one is trying to destroy their former partners, it is just Bucky Barnes that has the full force of one side directed at him. Everyone else is trying to walk on egg shells (OK, maybe not Black Panther either). As an illustration of the conflicting tones that the film manages to walk a tightrope on, two new characters are brought into the Avengers Universe and end up on opposite sides. Both provide comic relief and still fight with all of their skills and both also know that they don’t want to do permanent damage to the opposition. Paul Rudd is charming and a bit star struck as he backs up the Captain. Somehow, Disney has managed to wrestle Spiderman away from Sony’s complete control, and the new guy, Tom Holland, has the potential to get that franchise back on track as long as the creatives in this universe can keep control. [There is great hope that they will do so given the final credits crawl.]


With every welcome appearance of another loved character, the audience was responsive but the movie really does come down to the Tony/Steve relationship and confrontation. I know that Robert Downey Jr. was born to play this part because even in the weak sequels he is the compelling feature. He does a nice job selling the idea that there is some vulnerability behind that cynical facade he projects. The absence of Pepper Potts actually makes him a warmer character because he notices how much her absence effects him. He even recognizes that it is his faults that make their relationship a rocky one at times. Chris Evans continues to impress at bringing dimension to what might have been the flattest character in the original source material but one that has become the moral center of this Universe. The fight that is the climax of the film involves a confrontation that we saw early in the first Avengers movie. Captain America and Iron Man are two strong willed individuals who are willing to throw down for their beliefs. The resolution of this fight is tempered by the motivation that one character has for pressing it. No one wants these two to be defeated, but a conflict like this needs an outcome to keep credibility. I found the solution to be very satisfying.

This film is clearly a success. No one will have to offer half-hearted justifications for it like I heard so often for “The Age of Ultron”. It is not perfect; I found the underlying plot that motivates the mysterious figure behind some of the events to be murky and sometimes implausible. There are characters that would have been fun to have in the film a bit more organically. I thought the willingness to concede to a group of authorities outside of the team, despite whatever guilt he felt about Ultron, to be out of character for Tony Stark. Once again, I am a little dismayed at the amount of mayhem in large cities is required to keep audiences coming to the cinemaplex.  To counter those minor misgiving, we do get a discussion of the morality of that mayhem, and we have an intriguing new character in Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. As long as the “team up” movies live up to this standard, and as long as we get some breathing room with well placed and reasonably plotted stand alone films, I will be able to stay with the “Mighty Marvel Marching Society.”

Traditional Top 10 for 2014

[A New Years Resolution is to move material to this site as it becomes available. I’ve been negligent about doing so but here is a start.]

There is something satisfying about closing out the past year and starting the new year with an inventory of favorites. Almost everyone enjoys making and reading lists, and I think it’s because it reminds us of what is out there and it allows a quick form of social comparison to everyone else inventory. I don’t know how other bloggers feel about their work, but all of us are narcissistic enough to hope that others will enjoy reading what we have to say. Frankly, when I look back I appreciate the tone of what I have written and my own enthusiasm or disdain.

My list is not an attempt to thoroughly evaluate the films of the last year, there are too many quality pictures that I have yet to see. “Birdman”, “The Theory of Everything”, “Boyhood”, “The Imitation Game” are all films that are mentioned during awards season here that I have yet to experience. I know that I will be seeing some of these at the upcoming “Best Picture Showcase” put on by AMC Theaters, so I am not in a panic, but I am limited to ranking those films that I did see.

I have varied tastes and limited resources. I pay for everything I see in a theater, and on a weekly basis I have to decide based on mood and release patterns what it is I will see. Of the 54 new films released in 2014 that I paid to see in a theater, these are my favorites, click on the poster image for the original review.

10. Jodorowsky’s Dunejodorowskys_dune

Film makers are craftsmen, artists, businessmen and sometimes they are visionaries. Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of those directors with a vision. It was grandiose, wondrous, and completely over the top. The ideas for his version of “Dune”, the Frank Herbert novel that he had never even read were impractical but also spectacular for the time period he was working in. When you hear him tell the story, you will know why the film did not come together, and you will mourn this lost opportunity.

9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Marvel Film Studios have been providing solid comic book action for more than a decade now. They don’t control all of the crown jewels in their own stable of heroes but they have made many of the less well known figures into icons. Of the Avenger’s, Captain America has been my favorite. His traditional sense of right and wrong often conflicts with the murky world of the spies he ends up working with. This film is a terrific concoction of political intrigue and super hero conflict. A thinking man’s comic story in a great piece of pop entertainment.

8. Gone Girl


Gillian Flynn adapted her own book to screenplay form and the great David Fincher put it together to give us a pretty nasty piece of crime drama. The marriage of two well to do, gorgeous and promising people starts to come apart when the promise does not pay off. Each character has their own failings that make the story compelling but it is the monster Amazing Amy, that will always be the person you will remember the most. Rosamund Pike delivered the best female performance I saw this year in this worthy thriller.

7. A Walk Among the Tombstones


I have not seen much love for this film at the end of the year. When it was released, a number of other bloggers found it to be average and classified it with the other Liam Neeson action pictures of the last few years. I beg to differ. This somber and depressing story about an alcoholic ex-cop seeking redemption through work as an unlicensed private investigator gives Neeson a chance to stretch those acting chops and the story frankly gives me nightmares. When a shot of someone eating a bowl of cereal is a frightening prospect, you know someone created a real story of horror.

6. Guardians of the Galaxy


I did not enjoy any other movie this year more than this second Marvel entry of the list. Not being a comic book aficionado, I had never heard of this storyline or these characters. After two hours in their company, I loved them in the same way I love Luke, Leia and Han. I think that the film makers in this project have created a set of characters and a world of imagination, that has the potential to last decades, the way the original Star Wars story did. It remains to be seen if they can sustain it in a superior sequel, but if they manage it, the next generation has a new touchstone childhood legacy to sustain them.

5. The Lego Movie


I usually end up with an animated film on my list because I love that medium and there is usually a Pixar, Disney, or Dreamworks product to fit the slot. Not this year, the animated movie of the year and one of the best movies of any type is this Warner Brothers release of a movie based on a toyline. Chris Pratt and Liam Neeson make back to back appearances on my list. The voice talent is this movie is amazingly diverse and at times hysterical. Will Arnett’s Batman will entertain you for hours. The look of this movie is like something you have never seen before. The pinnacle of boisterous fun in the film is the theme song that says it all, “Everything is Awesome.”

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel


Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. I can’t say I have seen everything he has made, but I can say that I am always impressed when I have seen his films. This movie could almost qualify as a live action version of the “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. The diversity of characters, the caper elements to the plot and the quirkiness in the action are all repeated in a slightly different story. Ralph Fiennes gives a performance of comic genius proportions and the movie is marvelous to look at. This is a rich meal to be savored rather than junk food to be consumed. I look forward to stumbling upon this film over the years and becoming caught up in it’s elegant weirdness.

3. Nightcrawler


The central performance that drives this movie is one of the main reasons to see it. Jake Gyllenhall is creepy magnetic and scary, in the most passive ways you can imagine. The movie also has something to say about our culture and the news media, and it does so in a stunningly honest way. It is amazing that the local media here in L.A. allowed themselves to be examined in this way while participating so much in the films production. The nightmare of uncontrolled ambition and manipulation that fills all of the characters but especially Lou Bloom, an entrepreneur in the worst case imaginable example, will haunt you well past the film’s conclusion.

2. Interstellar


The last film I saw in the year, despite being one of my most anticipated. I found much to admire in “Inception” from a few years ago, but I did not drink the Kool Aid at the time. I still thought Christopher Nolan was one of the best film makers of our current crop but that film felt constantly like it was trying to dazzle us rather than say something. I feel the exact opposite about “Interstellar”. It has something to say while dazzling us with the visual story telling. This is an intelligent and thoughtful script with much to say about humanity and love. If “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the new generation “Star Wars” than “Interstellar” is the new generation “2001”. It may not be a film for everyone, but it is a film everyone should see.

1. Whiplash


As “Nightcrawler” was a film about unbridled ambition, “Whiplash” treads the same territory from the point of view of two characters rather than just the one. Andrew Neiman, the student drummer with ambition as big as the sky, is as self centered as they come. He manages his relationships but is most satisfied only when he achieves greatness at his vocation. Terrance Fletcher is the teacher that will never tell him he is great. In Fletcher’s mind, that would ruin the clay he is trying to mold. This story could have been another in a long line of inspirational teacher films, instead it plays like a thriller with a high amount of tension and a monster lurking in every scene. J.K. Simmons may be evil incarnate or he may be the greatest mentor in music history. Whichever it turns out to be, you will not forget this performance. This is a movie so completely realized that I can’t think of anything about it that I would want to change. Beware of what you wish for has never been more true a warning.

A few movies just missing my top ten list include: Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men Days of Future Past and Muppets Most Wanted.