“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

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“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Aside from the Liam Neeson thriller, ”TAKEN”, I must admit that I had never regarded those movies released between January and April of 2009, all that impressive. Many of them were not terrible.  But for me, it seemed as if I had been wallowing in a sea of mediocrity during that period.  Thankfully, this cinematic slog ended when I saw Kevin Macdonald’s 2009 thriller called, ”STATE OF PLAY”.

Based upon the critically acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name, ”STATE OF PLAY” is about a Washington D.C. newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and centers around the relationship between leading journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his old friend Robert Collins (Ben Affleck), a U.S. congressman on the fast track and Baker’s employer. When Congressman Collins learns of his aide’s death, he asks his old friend, McAffrey to investigate her death when it is labeled as a suicide. McAffrey and a blogger with his newspaper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) not only learn that Baker was Congressman Collins’ mistress, but there might be a connection between her death and the private military company that the congressman was investigating.

I have heard a few proclaim that the original British miniseries is superior to this version. If so, then it must have been one hell of a production. I have never seen the miniseries, but I must admit that I found this version of ”STATE OF PLAY” to be very impressive. Kevin Macdonald’s solid direction, along with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray created a tight thriller filled with interesting glimpses into the press and Washington politics. I doubt that this film will ever be critically acclaimed like the British miniseries or earn any award nominations, but it was a solid, well-acted movie filled with first-rate performances. And its story – unlike previous movies I have recently watched – did not end on a disappointing note. The movie ended with an unexpected twist that surprised me.

Russell Crowe led the cast, portraying Washington Globe journalist, Cal McAffrey. I would not consider his role as interesting as the Ed Hoffman character from ”BODY OF LIES”, Bud White in ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, Jeffrey Wigand in ”THE INSIDER” or his Oscar winning role in ”GLADIATOR” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. His Cal McAffrey is on the surface, an affable, yet slightly jaded reporter who becomes a relentless truth-seeker when pursuing a special story. In the case of Sonia Baker, McAffrey’s relentless investigation seemed rooted in his desire to extract his friend Collins from the gossip slingers over the latter’s affair with the aide and focus upon bringing down the private military company being investigated by Collins. Crowe is at turns relaxed and at the same time, intense and single-minded in his pursuit of journalistic truth.

Years ago, I had found myself thinking that if there was ever a remake of the 1950 classic, ”SUNSET BOULEVARD”, who could portray the doomed Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis. The first person that immediately came to my mind was Ben Affleck. Actress Nancy Olson once described William Holden at the time that particular movie was filmed as the typical handsome Hollywood leading actor . . . but with a touch of corruption that made his Joe Gillis so memorable. Frankly, I could say the same about Affleck. I saw him display this same trait in movies like ”BOUNCE””HOLLYWOODLAND”, “GONE GIRL” and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”.  And I could see it in his performance as Congressman Robert Collins. Affleck managed to skillfully project Collins not only as a dedicated crusader who is determined to bring down the private military company with a congressional investigation, but also a flawed man who became sexually attracted to his beautiful aide, while struggling to control his anger at the knowledge of his wife Anne’s (Robin Wright Penn) past affair with McAffrey.

The rest of the cast included Rachel McAdams’ solid portrayal of a popular blogger turned junior political reporter named Della Frye, who finds herself in the midst of the career-making story and mentored by McAffrey. Helen Mirren’s Washington Globeeditor Cameron Lynne is wonderfully splashy and strong, without being over-the-top. I could say the same for Jason Bateman’s performance as a bisexual fetish club promoter named Dominic Foy, who has the information that McAffrey and Frye need. Michael Berresse portrayed a mysterious hitman named Robert Bingham and he does a pretty good job. However, I must admit that I found his performance as a sociopath a little over-the-top . . . especially in his last scene. Although not as memorable as some of the other supporting cast, both Harry Lennix as a Washington D.C. cop and Jeff Daniels as Affleck’s congressional mentor gave solid support to the movie. And there is Robin Wright Penn, who portrayed the congressman’s wife, Anne Collins. Penn gave a complex performance as the politician’s wife who is not only hurt and betrayed by her husband’s infidelity, but wracked with guilt over her own past indiscretion with McAffrey, along with desire for him.

If you are expecting ”STATE OF PLAY” to be the next ”ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” or ”SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”, you are going to be slightly disappointed.  I have seen better quality political films than this movie. But I can honestly say that I still found ”STATE OF PLAY” to be a solid and entertaining movie filled with intelligence, humor and a strong and steady cast.

 

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“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

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“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

Twenty-four years after the BBC aired its 1971 version of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel, ”Persuasion”; and twelve years before ITV aired its adaptation; Columbia Pictures released its own version on British television and in movie theaters across the U.S. The movie went on to become highly acclaimed, the winner of a BAFTA TV award for Best Single Drama, and regarded as the definitive version of Austen’s novel. 

Directed by Roger Michell, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of an impoverished baronet in Regency England. Seven or eight years before the story began, she had been persuaded to reject the marriage proposal of a young and ambitious Royal Navy officer named Frederick Wentworth by her godmother and late mother’s friend, Lady Russell. After spending so many years in deep regret over her action, Anne found herself facing Wentworth again during a visit to her younger sister’s home. Now a captain and wealthy from the spoils of the recent Napoleonic Wars, Wentworth continued to harbor a good deal of residual anger and resentment toward Anne. And the latter continued to harbor remorse over her actions and a passionate love for the naval officer.

After watching the 2007 version of ”PERSUASION”, I found myself wondering how I would regard this particular version. Needless to say, I found it very satisfying. Michell did an excellent job in capturing the ambivalence of Austen’s novel. The center of that ambivalence rested on the underlying passion of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth’s romantic history. And this passion beautifully permeated the movie; thanks to Michell, screenwriter Nick Dear and the two leads – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. The movie relived all of the passion and emotions of their relationship – both positive and negative. Michell and Dear also did a top-notch job in revealing the initial dangers that the British aristocracy and landed gentry faced from their complacency, arrogance and unwillingness to match the ambitious endeavors of the rising middle-class; especially through characters like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot.

As much as I had enjoyed ”PERSUASION”, I believe it had its flaws. One of those flaws turned out to be the scene featuring Anne and Wentworth’s final reconciliation on one of the streets of Bath. It could have been a wonderful and poignant moment . . . if it were not for the circus performers and pedestrians making a ruckus in the background. It nearly spoiled the romantic mood for me. And there were at least two performances that did not sit right with me. I will discuss them later. This version of ”PERSUASION” seemed to be the only adaptation that portrayed Mrs. Croft as the younger sister. Fiona Shaw, who is at least five years younger than Ciarán Hinds and looked it even with minimal makeup, portrayed his sister. Yet, both the 1971 and 2007 versions had cast an actress that was older than the actor portraying Wentworth. And I happened to know for a fact that at age 31, the Fredrick Wentworth character is at least seven (7) years younger than his sister. There is no way that the 42 year-old Hinds could have passed as a man eleven (11) younger, despite his handsome looks.

But my main problem with this adaptation turned out to be the same problem I had with the 2007 version – namely the character of William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir presumptive. Because the baronet had no male issue, his baronetcy and the Kellynch estate will pass to William, his cousin. But William, fearing that Sir Walter might marry Mrs. Clay, the companion of the oldest Elliot daughter; schemed to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Mrs. Clay from becoming Sir Walter’s second wife and protect his inheritance. As I had explained in my review of the 2007 version, this scenario failed to make any sense to me. Even if William had succeeded in preventing any marriage between Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay, there was no way he could constantly prevent the Elliot patriarch from considering another bride for matrimony. Even if he had married Anne. Quite frankly, it was a situation that was beyond his control. Dear tried to give urgency to William’s situation by portraying him as financially broke after spending all of his late wife’s money. As far as I am concerned, Dear’s efforts failed. Sir Walter’s lawyer had made it clear around the beginning of the story that it would take years for Kellynch to recover from the Elliots’ debts. Nor did following Austen’s story by making William and Wentworth romantic rivals for Anne’s affections really help. Anne did not seem that impressed by William’s character, despite his charm and wit. And if Dear had simply avoided Austen’s characterization of William Elliot and allowed him to retain his fortune; he could have been a formidable rival for Wentworth, just as Louisa Musgrove proved to be a strong rival for Anne in the story’s first half.

I cannot deny that ”PERSUASION” strongly benefited from the excellent performances of the two leads, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Root was superb as a sad and remorseful woman who began to bloom again over the possibility of a renewed love. With very little dialogue, she was excellent in a montage that featured her character’s reaction to the Musgroves’ carping over Anne’s younger sister, Mary Musgrove. But my favorite scene happened to featured Anne and Wentworth’s first meeting after eight years at Charles and Mary Musgrove’s cottage. With her eyes and body language, Root conveyed Anne’s series of emotions from seeing the naval officer again after so many years with great skill. Despite being a decade older than his character, Ciarán Hinds was equally impressive as Captain Frederick Wentworth, the successful Royal Navy officer who tried to hide his continuing resentment toward Anne’s rejection of him with a hearty manner and friendly overtures toward the Musgrove sisters – Louisa and Henrietta. One particular scene that impressed me featured Wentworth’s recollection of the year 1806 (the year Anne had rejected his marriage proposal). Hinds skillfully conveyed the character’s lingering resentment . . . and love for Anne in what struck me as a subtle moment.

Other excellent performances came from Sophie Thompson, who did a top-notch job as Anne’s younger sister, the emotionally clinging Mary Elliot Musgrove; Simon Russell Beale as Charles Musgrove, Mary’s consistently exasperated husband; Fiona Shaw, who wonderfully conveyed Sophia Wentworth Croft’s strong mind, along with her love for her husband and her role as a naval officer’s wife in a charming scene; and Susan Fleetwood, who have a complex performance in her last role as Anne’s well-meaning, yet prejudiced godmother, Lady Russell. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Samuel West’s portrayal of the conniving William Elliot. He gave a deliciously smooth performance that radiated wit and charm. I found him so likeable that I almost felt sorry for him when Anne finally announced her engagement to Wentworth.

Unfortunately, not all of the performances impressed me. Despite my admiration for the late Corin Redgrave’s skills as an actor, I must admit that I found his portrayal of Anne’s narcissist and arrogant father, Sir Walter Elliot, a little off-putting. I realize that the character happened to be one of the outrageous characters in the novel. Unfortunately, Redgrave’s portrayal of Sir Walter’s narcissism seemed a little too mannered and broad. But Redgrave’s Sir Walter seemed like a mild annoyance in compare to Phoebe Nicholls’ portrayal of the eldest Elliot sibling, Elizabeth. Nicholls portrayed the character as an over-the-top diva suffering from a damaged nervous system. I could not help but wonder if she had been on crack during the production. Or perhaps Michell was on crack for allowing such a performance to remain in the film. And why did Dear’s script include a complaint from Nicholls’ Elizabeth about Anne usurping Wentworth’s attention? Why was she even upset over the news regarding Anne’s engagement? I do not recall her ever being interested in Wentworth.

Overall, ”PERSUASION” was an excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds’ performances, Nick Dear’s screenplay and Roger Michell’s direction infused the movie with a mature passion rarely touched upon in the adaptation of Austen’s other novels. Does this mean that I regard this movie as the best adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel? No. Like the 2007 version, it had a number of flaws that prevented it from becoming “the” best. But I must admit that it is pretty damn good.

 

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Notes and Observations on “STAR WARS – EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH” (2003)

 

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NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS ON “STAR WARS – EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH” (2003)

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”. I hope that you enjoy them:

*How ironic that this story begins with the “rescue” of Chancellor Palpatine – the very person who has exploited the Jedi’s weaknesses to bring about their downfall. I wonder if both Anakin and Obi-Wan ever came to regret the success of their mission.

*I noticed how both Anakin and Obi-Wan seemed to be flying in perfect sync with each other in the opening sequences. And yet, as they get closer to Palpatine (who is “being held prisoner” aboard Grievous’ ship), things begin to go wrong. Perhaps this situation is an allegory of their relationship at this stage of the story.

*”Flying is for droids.” – Odd comment for Obi-Wan to make, considering that his former padawan is such an excellent pilot. Does this mean that Anakin can be viewed as a future droid?

*Poor R4-D17. At least he had three good years with Obi-Wan

*The usually cautious Obi-Wan zips out of his starfighter cockpit in a flash and starts striking down droids. Meanwhile, Anakin takes his time to unfasten his safety restraint and climb out of his cockpit. This might possibly be a sign of how the two men have adopted each other’s way of handling matters. This also reminds me of how both men had dealt with their “animus” nature inside the Geonosis arena in AOTC.

*Notice how both Count Dooku and General Grievous seem to foreshadow Anakin’s future as Darth Vader. Count Dooku represented the Jedi Knight/Master who became Palpatine’s Sith apprentice. Grievous represented the cyborg that Anakin will become.

*R2-D2’s efforts to hide from the Separatist droids must be one of the funniest sequences I have ever seen in a STAR WARS movie.

*”Uh, no loose wire jokes.” – Dear Anakin. It’s nice to see there is one advocate for the droids.

*The Chancellor’s seat on Grievous’ ship strongly reminds me of his throne in ROTJ.

*”Chancellor Palpatine, Sith Lords are our specialty.” – Oh dear. Obi-Wan seemed to be in danger of becoming too self-assured. The last time he had believed that he and Anakin could take out Dooku, Yoda ended up saving them.

*”Good! Twice the pride. Double the fall.” – It seems that Count Dooku is also suffering from the same kind of arrogance.

*Anakin tells Dooku that he has become twice as powerful, since their last encounter on Geonosis. How is it that despite the loss of an arm, his connection to the Force has strengthened? Makes me wonder if Lucas’ comment that Anakin’s loss of limbs on Mustafar had weakened his connection to the Force is a lot of bull.

*Anakin and Obi-Wan’s pride and aggression nearly cost them in their second duel against Dooku. Only Dooku’s own pride and arrogance saved them in the long run.

*Dooku had been right to criticize Anakin for not using his anger in their lightsaber duel. When Anakin finally did, he pretty much had it in control . . . until Palpatine convinced him to lose that control and kill Dooku.

*I also noticed that unlike Obi-Wan and Dooku, Anakin’s lightsaber skills do not seem as flashy as theirs. His style seemed to be similar to Qui-Gon and Mace – very direct and with very little complicated moves.

*I could not help but wonder what was going through Palpatine’s mind, when his life – along with Anakin and Obi-Wan’s – were in danger, while trying to escape from Grievous’ ship.

*”General Grievous . . . you’re shorter than I had expected.” – Hmm, now I see from whom Leia had inherited her sardonic manner.

*Has Obi-Wan become a little too cocky about his skills? He had chopped off the head of a Magna guard and walked away . . . only to be surprised to learn that it could still fight.

*Meanwhile, Anakin managed to show a predilection for patience – only in the wrong situation. It almost seemed as if an alien spirit had taken control of his body. Obi-Wan noticed and quite wisely disapproved. He knew that Anakin was not being true to himself.

*General Grievous’s escape from his ship struck me as being quite daring and masterful. I could also say the same about how Anakin had landed Grievous’ ship on Coruscant. As Obi-Wan said, “Another happy landing.”

*For the first time, I had noticed that the skies of Coruscant were cloudy . . . overcast. They seemed to hint the rising storm that will eventually erupt throughout the Republic.

*Was that Lucas’ daughter – a blue-skinned alien – among the welcoming committee for Palpatine?

*This is rare – Leia’s future father and stepfather actually have a scene together.

*Although Padme seemed to be wearing Leia’s infamous bun hairdo, I noticed that her hairstyle is slightly different.

*The moment that Anakin expressed his desire to end the deception over his marriage to Padme, she quickly opposed the idea. She must have been afraid of facing the consequences of their deception.

*John Williams’ score for this movie seemed darker and more martial than anything else heard in a STAR WARS movie. Has anyone else noticed this?

*I simply love the shot of Padme brushing her hair on the balcony, while Anakin watches her. Very romantic.

*”So, love has blinded you?” –Padme may have been speaking of Anakin. Then again, she may have been speaking of herself. Or both.

*It is interesting that Anakin has been reluctant to express his troubles to Padme. This must have been the case ever since his murder of the Tusken Raiders on Tatooine. One would say that all is not paradise with their marriage. But I must say . . . if their marriage had seemed like paradise, I would have been suspicious.

*The scene between Anakin and Yoda struck me as being rather cold. I wonder if this had been the first time Anakin had sought the counsel of the Jedi Master.

*I am curious as to why Obi-Wan had never exerted more effort to discourage Anakin’s friendship with Palpatine.

*I find it interesting that Anakin seemed more disturbed by the Jedi Council’s suggestion that he spy upon Palpatine than he was by the latter’s suggestion that he does the same with the Jedi Council. Especially after he had insisted that Anakin join the Council.

*After Mace reveals the Jedi Council’s decision not to make Anakin a Master, I noticed that both he and Obi-Wan seemed to express momentary flashes of guilt. And Yoda seemed to be making an attempt to distance himself from Anakin’s reaction by closing his eyes for a brief moment.

*Of course, Anakin’s reaction to the decision did seem very immature, as indicated by Mace’s order that he take a seat. But after Anakin had apologized for his outburst, Obi-Wan shook his head in silent disapproval of his former padawan.

*”It’s what you wanted. Your friendship with Chancellor Palpatine seemed to have paid off.” – For those who claimed that Obi-Wan understood Anakin very well, really need to read the above statement or watch that scene again. Why would Obi-Wan assume that Anakin had used his friendship with Palpatine to become a member of the Jedi Council? Why would he accuse Anakin of harboring ambitions to become a Council member, when he had admonished Qui-Gon, years earlier, for failing to reach such an achievement? What a curious man.

*If Obi-Wan was against Anakin spying on Palpatine, why did he insist that the young Knight accept the assignment in the first place? And why didn’t Anakin act on his feelings and refuse the assignment? I believe this scene is a clear case of Obi-Wan failing Anakin . . . and Anakin failing himself.

*Someone once stated that Padme had maintained her idealism of the Republic to the bitter end. And yet, in one scene, she tries to convince Anakin that the Republic was in danger of becoming the very evil she had opposed for so long.

*Why did Padme ask Anakin to discuss ending the war with Palpatine? I can see why he was upset. Like the Jedi, Padme seemed willing to use Anakin to further her own agenda regarding Palpatine.

*I noticed that Padme managed to change the subject from politics to personal matters in the same way Anakin had done during the Naboo picnic scene in AOTC.

*”All who gain power are afraid to lose it.” – Who would have thought that Palpatine would utter the very words that seemed to be the theme of the Prequel Trilogy. His words – more or less – seemed to describe all of the major characters. Including himself.

*Anakin must have been very desperate to believe Palpatine’s claim that he had knowledge of a way to save Padme through the use of the Force.

*Why was the Jedi Council so determined to refrain Anakin from going to Utaapau? Was their decision a reaction to the revelation that Palpatine had suggested that Anakin take part in that military operation?

*I wonder what was going through Anakin’s mind when he and Obi-Wan spoke for the last time as friends.

*So, not only does Anakin believe that the Jedi Council mistrust him, but also Obi-Wan. And I don’t know if he was right or wrong.

*”You expect too much of yourself.” – Padme was right. No wonder Anakin was determined to save her from death. A way to make up for Shmi’s death, perhaps?

*I like the look and style of the official that greeted Obi-Wan on Utaapau.

*Once again, Obi-Wan manages to remind me that he can be a little too arrogant in dealing with opponents. Facing Grievous turned out to be more difficult than had possibly imagined. Even if the Separatist general could barely use a lightsaber with barely any skill.

*I find it fascinating that the Jedi Council would even consider getting rid of Palpatine without the Senate’s authority. Even if it meant accepting Ki-Adi Mundi’s suggestion that the Council take control of the Senate.

*Palpatine was right that one must accept all aspects of nature – both the light and the dark. What he had failed to add was that the Sith were just as narrow and dogmatic in their view of the Force, as the Jedi.

*”So uncivilized.” – There’s nothing like a good blaster at your side, eh Obi-Wan?

*”For your own good, stay out of this affair. I sense a great deal of confusion in you, young Skywalker. There is much fear that clouds your judgment.” – Many people believe that Mace was wrong not to include Anakin in Palpatine’s arrest. I feel differently. Just listening to his words, made me realize that he had accurately sensed Anakin’s emotional state. If only he had heeded Mace’s words, Anakin would not have ended up with more blood on his hands. For those who say that Anakin would have destroyed Palpatine if Mace had allowed him to participate in the arrest. In truth, no one really knows what would have happened. Unfortunately, no one wants to admit this.

*Mace and the other three Jedi Knights did activate their lightsabers first. If they were there to arrest Palpatine, surely they should have received permission from the Senate. However, I noticed that Palpatine was the first to attack. And he nearly paid the price for his act of aggression.

*Aside from Mace, Palpatine failed to immediately kill Kit Fisto. And all because Mace had briefly intervened.

*Anakin arrived when Mace declared Palpatine under arrest. Then the latter attacked the Jedi Master with Force electrokinesis. Because he had disobeyed Mace, Anakin took his final steps into becoming a Sith Lord.

*”To cheat death is a power that only one has achieved.” Who was Palpatine talking about? Surely not Plageuis, who had failed to cheat death, thanks to his apprentice. And Palpatine knew nothing of Qui-Gon’s spiritual achievement.

*Although Anakin seemed willing to assist and agree with Palpatine, his face seemed to express great reluctance.

*Magnificent shot of Anakin leading the clone troopers to the Jedi Temple.

*Probably one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the entire STAR WARS saga is the execution of Order 66.

*What sort of vehicles were the clone troopers riding during their search for Yoda on Kashyyyk?

*I wonder what would have happened if Anakin had not told Padme of his intent to travel to Mustafar?

*Yoda had expressed belief that it would be easy for him and Obi-Wan to infiltrate the Jedi Temple. Yet, the two Jedi Masters found themselves forced to battle clone troopers guarding the Temple.

*It is interesting that Anakin’s murder of the Separatists leaders occurred around the same time as Palpatine’s declaration as the galaxy’s first emperor.

*Once more, a Jedi Master decides to move against Palpatine without the Senate’s consent. This time, it is Yoda, who decides to kill the Sith Lord. No wonder it was easy for Anakin to view the Jedi as a threat to the galaxy.

*Padme looked particularly heartbroken when Obi-Wan informed her that Anakin had become a Sith Lord.

*Why couldn’t Obi-Wan simply planted a tracker on Padme’s ship, instead of stowing away?

*You can hear signs of the Anakin/Padme love theme from AOTC, when Padme arrived on Mustafar.

*Anakin had an odd, calm expression on his face, while Padme was talking to him. And when he began talking about ruling the galaxy, his expression became even odder.

*Boy, Obi-Wan’s appearance on Mustafar was badly time. Which makes me question his decision to stowaway aboard Padme’s skiff even more.

*I forgot that Padme had been unconscious during Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel.

*It is interesting that Obi-Wan was the first to light up his lightsaber.

*I now realize that Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel was not about good versus evil. I believe that it was about years of resentment and anger finally exploding between two men who once loved each other as brothers, despite their disagreements. Hence, the use of blue lightsabers by both and the exploding fire and lava that surrounded them.

*Anakin and Obi-Wan’s out-of-control emotions during the duel seemed like a clear indication of why both had failed to achieve their goals. Anakin’s rash move near the lava bank had resulted in the loss of his legs and his other arm – and spending the rest of his life in the suit. Obi-Wan’s failure to immediately kill Anakin on that lava bank resulted in Vader’s impact upon the galaxy for over the next twenty years . . . and Obi-Wan’s eventual death.

*Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor’s moved very fast in their duel scenes. And I’m not simply referring to what was shown on the movie screen. I’m also referring to their practice sessions shown in the DVD’s Special Features disk.

*”Your arrogance blinds you, Master Yoda.” – I hate to say this, but Palpatine was right. But he could have also been referring to himself. As for Yoda, he made the worse mistake of attacking Palpatine’s guards upon entering the Emperor’s office. He had attacked the guards in the presence of Mas Amedda, the Senate’s leader. An accusation of an assassination attempt by the Jedi would not be far from the truth.

*”My little green friend.” – I would not be surprised if those words had pissed off Yoda.

*Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel lasted longer than Yoda and Palpatine’s.

*”You were the Chosen One!” – Obi-Wan went into full rant after chopping off Anakin’s limbs. This is an example that he was just as emotional as Anakin during the duel. Of course, I cannot help but wonder why he did not kill Anakin, and allowed the latter to suffer a possible prolonged death on the lava bank.

*Palpatine’s return to Coruscant with a wounded Anakin happened in the midst of fierce rain storm. This scene reminded of that old lady’s words to the nine year-old Anakin in TPM – “Storm’s comin, Ani!” This had occurred before Maul’s arrival on Tatooine. Palpatine and Anakin’s return in the first mentioned scene truly indicated that the storm has finally struck the Republic.

*The expression on Anakin’s face as his Vader mask was being lowered upon him was truly heartbreaking.

*”There’s still good in him.” – If only Obi-Wan had heeded Padme’s words. But . . . he thought that Anakin was dead. On the other hand, the infant Luke did listen. This was perhaps, Padme’s greatest contribution.

*Palpatine seemed pleased by Anakin’s show of power inside the infirmary, when the latter learned of Padme’s death.

*The movie’s last shot of Padme is her body in a  casket, with the japoor snippet that Anakin had given her in her hands.

*I think I must have cried during the movie’s last ten to fifteen minutes. For me, it is a beautifully depressing film.  Oh well. On to A NEW HOPE.

 

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

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“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

Seven years after it began, Christopher Nolan’s three-movie saga about the D.C. Comics character, Batman, finally came to an end. The saga that began with 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”, ended with 2012’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”.

This third film, set seven years after 2008’s “THE DARK KNIGHT”, began with the aerial kidnapping of a nuclear scientist by an escaped terrorist named Bane. The scene shifted to Gotham City, where a fund-raiser was being held at Wayne Manor. The only person missing was millionaire Bruce Wayne, who had given up his vigilante activities as Batman after claiming he had murdered former District Attorney Harvey Dent. During the fundraiser, Bruce caught a maid breaking into his private safe. She turned out to be a resourceful cat burglar named Selina Kyle. Aside from a necklace that once belonged to Bruce’s late mother, Selina did not steal any other object from the safe.

Curious over Selina’s actions, Bruce resumed his Batman alter ego and tracked down Selina. He discovered that she had been hired by a rival corporate CEO named John Daggett to lift and steal his fingerprints. Bruce also learned that Daggett had hired the terrorist Bane to attack Gotham’s stock exchange and bankrupt Wayne Enterprises. And along with Police Commissioner James Gordon and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox, Bruce also discovered that Bane was a former member of the League of Shadows and planned to continue Henri Ducard’s (aka Ra’s al Ghul) goal of Gotham City’s destruction. Bruce asked fellow millionaire Miranda Tate to take control of Wayne Enterprises to ensure that Daggett and Bane will not gain control of their clean energy project, a device designed to harness fusion power.

Re-reading the above made me realize that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan had created a very complicated plot. For me, the plot became even more complicated two-thirds into the movie. “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” obviously exists under the shadow of its two predecessors – “BATMAN BEGINS” and “THE DARK KNIGHT”. I would say that this especially seemed to be the case for the 2005 movie. Batman and James Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Harvey Dent’s death in the second movie had a minor impact upon this third movie. But Bruce’s relationship and later conflict with Ra’s al Ghul seemed to be the driving force behind his conflict with Bane in this third film.

I had heard rumors that Christopher Nolan was initially reluctant to make a third BATMAN movie. Personally, I found that rumor a bit hard to believe, considering how “THE DARK KNIGHT” ended with Batman accepting the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes and death. But there were certain aspects of the script he wrote with his brother Jonathan that made me wonder if he had truly been reluctant. There were certain aspects of “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” that I found troubling.

It seemed a pity that the second movie ended with Batman and Jim Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Dent’s death. I found their decision unnecessary back in 2008 and I still do. The impact behind their lie proved to be hollow. It merely kept Batman off Gotham City’s streets and led Mayor Anthony Garcia and the city to pass a strong anti-criminal law that proved to be hollow following Bane’s arrival in Gotham City. I also found Bane’s mid-air kidnapping of a nuclear scientist and escape from a U.S. marshal (portrayed by Aidan Gillen) rather somewhat idiotic. I understood that Bane needed that scientist to weaponize the Wayne Enterprise device.  But I never understood why that U.S. marshal failed to take the trouble to identify the hooded prisoner (Bane) before boarding the plane.  In the end, the movie’s opening sequence struck struck me as unnecessarily showy. Was this the Nolan brothers’ way of conveying Bane’s role as a badass to the audience? If so, I was too busy trying to comprehend the villain’s dialogue to care. I understood why Batman had not been seen in Gotham for so long. But what was the reason behind Bruce Wayne’s disappearance from the public eye?  His physical state was not really that severe.  Rachel Dawes’ death? Rachel’s death did not stop him from going after the Joker and Harvey Dent in the last movie’s half hour. Was it an injured leg? How did he injured it? And why did Gotham’s citizens failed to put two-and-two together, when both Bruce and Batman finally appeared in the public eye a day or two apart after many years? The only person who managed to discover Bruce’s alter ego – namely Officer John Blake – did so through a contrived reason.

For me, the movie’s real misstep proved to be Bane’s three-month control over Gotham City. As a former member of Henri Ducard’s League of Shadows, he planned to achieve his former leader’s goal of destroying Gotham City. And he planned to use Wayne Enterprise’s energy device to achieve this. One – why not simply build or snatch his own nuclear device? Why go through so much trouble to get his hands on the energy device? Why did Wayne Enterprises create a device that not only saved energy, but could be used as a bomb, as well? And why did it take three months before the device could become an effective bomb? The Nolans’ script could have frustrated Bane’s attempts to acquire the bomb during that three-month period . . . or anything to spare the audiences of that second-rate version of the French Resistance. The latter scenario seemed so riddled with bad writing that it would take another article to discuss it. And what was the point of the presence of Juno Temple’s character Jen? What was she there for, other than being Selina’s useless and cloying girlfriend? And Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox was last seen declaring his intentions to leave the corporation for good, following Batman’s misuse of cell phones in “THE DARK KNIGHT”. In this movie, he is back, working for Wayne Enterprises. What made him change his mind?

But not all was lost. I found Bruce’s introduction to Selina Kyle very entertaining and sexy. Even better, the incident served as Batman’s re-introduction to Gotham City and allowed him to discover Bane’s plans regarding Wayne Enterprises and the energy device. One of the more interesting consequences of “THE DARK KNIGHT” proved to be Rachel Dawes’ last letter to Bruce. Its revelation by Alfred Pennyworth after seven years led to an emotional quarrel between the millionaire and the manservant and their estrangement. At first, I had balked at the idea of Bane carrying out Ra’s al Ghul’s original goal to destroy Gotham. After all, why would he continue the plans of the very person who had him kicked out of the League of Shadows? But a surprising plot twist made Bane’s plan plausible . . . even when I continue to have problems with his three-month occupation of Gotham.

Many critics had lamented the lack of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the movie. As much as I had appreciated and enjoyed Ledger’s performance in the 2008 movie, I did not need or wanted him in “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. Tom Hardy’s performance as the terrorist Bane was good enough for me. Mind you, I found it difficult to understand some of his dialogue. And when I did, he sounded like the now aging Sean Connery. But I cannot deny that Bane made one scary villain, thanks to Hardy’s performance and intimidating presence. Before I saw the movie, I never understood the need for Marion Cotillard’s presence in the film. I thought her character, Miranda Tate, would merely be a bland love interest for Bruce. Not only did Cotillard ended up providing a subtle and intelligent performance, her Miranda Tate proved to be important to the story as the co-investor in the energy device and for the plot twist in the end.

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” provided some solid performances from other members of the cast. Matthew Modine shined as the ambitious and arrogant Assistant Police Commissioner Peter Foley, who proved to be capable of character development. Another solid performance came from Brett Cullen, who portrayed a lustful congressman that had the bad luck to cross paths with Selina Kyle. Both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman continued their excellent performances as Bruce Wayne’s “heart” and “mind”, manservant Alfred Pennyworth and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox.

In the end, the movie was fortunate to benefit from four outstanding performances. One came from Gary Oldman’s excellent portrayal of the now weary, yet determined police commissioner, James Gordon. His guilt over the Harvey Dent lie and discovery of Batman’s true identity provided Oldman with some of his best moments in the trilogy. Another came from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was superb as Gotham City beat cop John Blake. The actor did a wonderful job of balancing Officer Blake’s intelligence, passion for justice and disgust toward the bureaucracy.

When I learned that Anne Hathaway would end up being the fifth actress to portray Selina Kyle aka Catwoman, I must admit that I had my doubts. Then I remembered that Hathaway was an Oscar nominee (less than a year before she finally won her Oscar), who had also done action before. Watching her sexy, yet complicated performance as the complex cat burglar removed all of my doubts. She was superb and her sizzling screen chemistry with star Christian Bale made me wish Selina had been Bruce’s love interest throughout the movie. Speaking of Bruce Wayne, Bale returned to portray the Caped Crusader for the third and final time. I must admit that I found his performance more subtle and complex than his performances in the previous two movies. Bale did an excellent job in re-creating a slightly aging Bruce Wayne/Batman, who found himself faced with a more formidable opponent.

I was a little disappointed to see that “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” lacked the Chicago exteriors of the 2008 movie. In the end, Gotham City resembled a collection of East Coast and British cities. But I cannot deny that I found Wally Pfister’s photography very eye catching. And Hans Zimmer’s entertaining score brought back memories of his earlier work in both the 2005 and 2008 movies.

I have a good deal of complaints about “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. It is probably my least favorite entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. For me, the movie’s main problem centered around the script written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. But despite its flaws, the movie still managed to be both entertaining and intriguing. It also has an excellent cast led by the always superb Christian Bale. It was not perfect, but “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” did entertain me.

 

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“SHANE” (1953) Review

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“SHANE” (1953) Review

The history behind the production for the 1953 classic Western, “SHANE” is a curious one. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Westerns ever made in Hollywood. And director George Stevens’ first choices for the film’s two male leads never panned out. Yet, despite the expenses and Stevens’ initial bad luck with his casting choices, “SHANE” became one of the most famous Westerns ever made in Hollywood. 

“SHANE” was based upon Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title. Many film historians and critics believe the narrative’s basic elements were based upon a historical event, the 1892 Johnson County War. Although this was never acknowledged by Stevens, Schaefer or the film’s screenwriter, A.B. Guthrie Jr. And yet . . . the film’s setting turned out to be the same one for the famous cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, Wyoming. The plot for “SHANE” proved to be simple. An experienced gunfighter named Shane, weary of his violent past, arrives at a county in Wyoming Territory and befriends a homesteader/rancher named Joe Starrett and the latter’s family. Despite Starrett’s revelation of a conflict between homesteaders like himself and a ruthless and powerful rancher named Rufus Ryker, Shane accepts a job as Starrett’s ranch hand. Before long, Shane not only finds himself emotionally drawn to the Starretts, but also pulled into the range war that is raging.

Anyone with any knowledge about old Hollywood or American Western films will automatically tell you that “SHANE” is highly regarded and much-beloved movie. The American Film Institute (AFI) has list it as one of the top three (3) Hollywood Westerns ever made and it is ranked 45 on the list of top 100 films. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations and won an award for Best Cinematography (in color). Many people believe Alan Ladd should have received an Academy Award for his performance as the mysterious “former” gunslinger Shane and consider the role as his best performance. How do I feel?

I cannot deny that “SHANE” is a first-rate movie. Who am I kidding? It is an excellent look at violence on the American frontier. And thanks to George Stevens’ direction, it is also brutal. Unlike many previous movie directors, Stevens did not stylized the violent deaths depicted in the film. A major example of this peek into life on the frontier is a scene that featured the brutal death of Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a small rancher portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., who was killed by Jack Wilson, a villainous gunslinger portrayed by Jack Palance:

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Contrary to what one might originally believe, I do not believe “SHANE” preached against violence. Yes, the screenplay written by Guthrie questioned the constant use of violence to solve problems. But the movie made it clear that sometimes, one has no choice but to fight. Does this rule apply to the situation in “SHANE”? Hmmmm . . . good question.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that I found fascinating was Shane’s attempts to put his violent past behind him in his interactions with the Starrett family. Whether Shane was working or riding beside Joe, befriending Joey and struggling to suppress his obvious sexual desire for Marian; it seemed pretty obvious that he had developed close feelings for the entire family. And it would also explained why he would hang around, despite the danger of being dragged into a range war.

I cannot deny that “SHANE” featured some first-rate performances. I also cannot deny that Alan Ladd was in top form as the soft-spoken gunslinger who tried to hang up his gun belt, while staying with Starretts. I have always believed that Ladd was an underrated actor. Many critics have regarded his role as Shane as a singular example of how excellent he was as an actor. Do not get me wrong. I also admire his performance as Shane. It was a prime example of his skills as a movie actor. But I have seen other Ladd performances that I found equally impressive. Van Heflin’s portrayal of the determined small rancher, Joe Starrett, struck me as equally impressive. I could never really regard his character as complex, but Heflin made it easy for me to see why Shane had no problems befriending Joe . . . or why other ranchers regarded him as their unofficial leader. Jean Arthur had been lured out of an early retirement by Stevens for the role of Marian Starrett. I thought she did a superb job of conveying her character’s complicated feelings for Shane. Thanks to Arthur’s performance, Marian seemed to be torn between her love for Joe, her attraction to Shane and her revulsion toward his violent past.

Brandon deWilde had received an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Starretts’ young son, Joe Jr. (Joey). Do not get me wrong. I thought deWilde gave a very good performance as the impressionable, yet energetic young Joey. But an Oscar nod? Honestly, I have seen better performances from a good number of child actors – then and now. Another Best Supporting Actor nomination was given to Jack Palance for his role as the villainous gunslinger, Jack Wilson. When I re-watched this movie for the last time, there seemed to be two faces to Palance’s performance. Most of his appearances featured the actor projecting the stone-faced villainy of his character. But there were moments when Palance managed to convey the more human side of Wilson – whether it was his boredom toward his employer’s other minions or weariness at the idea of facing another person to kill. It is strange that I had never noticed this before.

I also have to give kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. as the doomed Frank Toomey, who spent most of the movie aggressively expressing his anger at Ryker’s attempts to drive him and other small ranchers out of the valley. And yet . . . Cook’s best scene featured Toomey’s last moments, when he began to silently express regret at his quick temper and his realization that he was about to meet his death.“SHANE” also featured some first-rate performances from Emilie Meyer as the ruthless and greedy Rufus Ryker; Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s ranch hands, whose early encounter with Shane made him see the light; and the likes of Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer and Edith Evanson.

Despite my admiration for “SHANE”, George Stevens’ direction and A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay . . . the movie is not a particularly favorite of mine. I like the film, but I do not love it. There are certain aspects of “SHANE” that prevents me from fully embracing it. One is Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. I realize that he had won an Academy Award for his work. And I must say that he did an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the movie’s Wyoming and California locations. But I found his use of natural lighting for the interior shots very frustrating, especially since I could barely see a damn thing in some shots. Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was its message regarding violence. I have no problem with any story declaring the use of violence in certain situations. My problem is that I did not find the local ranchers’ situation with Ryker dire enough that they had to insist upon fighting it out. Granted, if they had agreed to sell their land to Ryker and leave, it would have meant his victory. I do not know. Perhaps I did not care. Or perhaps this feeling came from my contempt toward the Frank Toomey character, who had stupidly decided to give in to his anger and aggression by facing Ryker and Wilson.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was the Joey Starrett character. I have seen my share of on-screen precocious children in movies and television. But there was something about Joey Starrett that truly got under my skin. I do not blame Brandon deWilde. He was only following Stevens’ direction. But before the movie’s last reel, I found myself wishing that someone would push dear Joey into the mud . . . face first. If there was one aspect of “SHANE” that truly annoyed me, it was bringing the U.S. Civil War into the narrative. I can only recall three characters who were established as Civil War veterans – Shane, Frank Toomey and Jack Wilson. Of the three, guess which one fought with the Union? That is correct. The evil and slimy Wilson. And to make matters worse, Guthrie’s screenplay had Shane utter these words to Wilson before shooting him – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.” In other words, “SHANE” became another example of Hollywood’s subtle, yet never-ending reverence for the Confederate cause. And considering that only three characters in this film were established as war veterans, why on earth did Schaefer, Guthrie or Stevens had to drag the damn war into this story in the first place? It was so unnecessary.

Regardless of my frustrations, I must admit that “SHANE” is a first-rate Western. Director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and the excellent cast led by Alan Ladd did an exceptional job in creating a Western that many would remember for decades. If only I had enjoyed it more than I actually did.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

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Below is Part One to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

I. Introduction

The sprawling 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” focused upon the fifty (50) years history of the Prescott-Rawlins family between 1839 and 1889. The movie was divided into five sections – “The Rivers”“The Plains”“The Civil War”“The Railroad” and “The Outlaws”. Westbound migration was featured in the movie’s first two segments – “The River” and “The Plains”.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” opens in 1839 (I think) with the Prescotts, a family from upstate New York, westbound to settle on new land in Illinois. After a trip along the Erie Canal, the Prescotts and their traveling companions, the Harveys from Scotland, build flatboats for the westbound journey on the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins (James Stewart), who is eastbound to sell his furs in Pittsburgh. The Prescotts’ oldest daughter, Eve (Carroll Baker), and Linus fall in love. After a disastrous encounter with river rapids that led to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Prescott; Eve decides to settle at the very location of their deaths in Southern Ohio and accept Linus’ marriage proposal. Younger sister Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) decides to move on.

“The Plains” picks up over a decade later, with Lilith as a dance hall performer in St. Louis. She learns from an attorney that she has inherited a California gold claim from a now deceased customer. Lilith travels to Independence, where she joins a California-bound wagon train by becoming the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), willing to use Lilith’s looks to attract eligible men for marriage. Lilith also attracts the attention of two men, wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) and a roguish gambler named Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck).

II. History vs. Hollywood

To this day, I never understood why screenwriter James R. Webb allowed the Prescotts and the Harveys to travel across the Erie Canal. It is obvious that he had every intention of having them settle in Southern Ohio, along the River. So why use that route? According to the 1840 map below, the Erie Canal was a waterway that stretched from Albany to Buffalo in upstate New York.

Erie-canal_1840_map

This meant that the Prescotts and Harveys’s first leg of their journey ended at Buffalo, along the shores of Lake Erie. Are we really supposed to believe that the two families then journeyed from Buffalo to the banks of the Ohio River, in order to reach Illinois, when they could have easily traveled near the U.S.-Canada border to reach their destination? And Webb failed to reveal how they reached the Ohio River without a wagon. He could have allowed Eve Prescott and the other surviving members of the family to settle in Illinois or Ohio near one of the Great Lakes . . . or avoid the Erie Canal altogether and end up in Southern Ohio. Unfortunately, the screenwriter settled for a convoluted route. Even worse, he had mountain man Linus Rawlins traveling toward Pittsburgh to sell furs. Really? In 1839? Linus could have easily sold his furs further west in St. Louis or more importantly, Independence in western Missouri, without having to cross the Mississippi River.

When Lilith Prescott traveled to California after inheriting her California gold claim over a decade later, she chose the correct route – the Oregon/California Trails. However, Webb, director Henry Hathaway, and the producers decide to include nearly every cliché regarding western migration.

One, gambler Cleve Van Valen tried to join Roger Morgan’s wagon train in Independence, in order to make acquaintance with Lilith. He was told to get lost. Cleve managed to catch up with the wagon train some 100 miles west of Independence. Yet, the terrain looked suspiciously arid for eastern Kansas. The wagon trains used in this production were very large. In fact, they struck me as looking larger than a typical Conestoga wagon. One scene in the movie featured Cleve and a group of male emigrants playing poker inside one wagon . . . while it was traveling. This was Hollywood history at its worse. And guess what? Those wagons were pulled by horses, not oxen or mules.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” never featured any well known landmarks along the Oregon/California Trails. I suspect this was due to the movie’s constraining time for each segment. However, there was time to feature a large scale attack on the wagon train by a horde of Cheyenne warriors. And this attack was made against a large and well-armed wagon train. In reality, there would have never been such an attack in the first place. And if such a thing had happened, the Cheyenne would have been seriously wiped out.

I cannot deny that “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was an entertaining film. But in the end, it turned out to be too much “Hollywood” and not enough “History”.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

If I have to be perfectly honest, I do not recall the initial reaction to many Marvel fans, when Disney/Marvel Films first released the news of the upcoming release of the second Captain America film. I do recall various comments regarding the first one – 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. The comments for that film ranged from mediocre to box office disappointment.  I found the former opinion odd, considering that movie managed to generate favorable reviews.  And besides . . . “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” proved to be a favorite of mine from 2011.

It was not until the release of this second Captain America film was less than a month away in June 2014, when I finally heard some excellent word-of-mouth about it. Some were even claiming that it was better than the 2012 blockbuster hit, “THE AVENGERS”. Personally, I could not see how any comic book movie could top that. But I did look forward to seeing “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially after I learned that Robert Redford, of all people, had been cast in the film. I mean . . . honestly, can you imagine an actor like Redford appearing in a Marvel Comics movie? And yet . . . he appeared in this one. Either he was desperate for work, or he really liked Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” begins two years after the events of “THE AVENGERS”. Steve Rogers aka Captain America now works as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Washington D.C. During an early morning jog, he meets and befriends an Army veteran named Sam Wilson, before he is summoned by Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow for a new mission. Steve, Natasha and a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents led by Agent Brock Rumlow are ordered to free hostages aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from a group of mercenaries. During the mission, Steve discovers that Romanoff has another agenda – to extract data from the ship’s computers for Director Nick Fury. When Rogers returns to the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, to confront Fury, the latter briefs him on Project Insight, which consists of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats. After failing to decrypt Romanoff’s recovered data, Fury becomes suspicious about Insight and asks World Security Council member Alexander Pierce to delay the project.

Fury is later ambushed by assailants and a mysterious assassin named the Winter Soldier. After reaching Steve’s apartment and giving the latter a flash drive of the information acquired by Natasha, Fury is gunned down by the Winter Soldier. Steve is summoned by Pierce to explain what happened between him and Fury. But Steve refuses to cooperate and is later declared a fugitive by Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D. When Natasha helps him evade S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, she also becomes a fugitive. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents discover that Steve’s old World War II nemesis, HYDRA, had been infiltrating the agency for years. They seek sanctuary with Sam Wilson, who turns out to be a former U.S. Air Force pararescueman, trained for combat and the use of an EXO-7 “Falcon” wingpack. The trio sets out to learn more details about HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their agenda, before they can do something about it.

If I must be brutally honest, I feel that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”is not only one of the best Marvel Comics movies I have ever seen, but also one of my top favorite comic book movies. It is superb. Some have claimed that it is better than “THE AVENGERS”. I do not share that belief. I have yet to see a comic book movie that is better than the 2012 film. But this movie was fantastic. I could see why Robert Redford was willing to be cast in this film. I agree with many that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was reminiscent of the political thrillers released during the 1970s. But this particular film did more . . . it shook up the Marvel Movieverse in ways that no one saw coming. The revelation of HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly had a major impact on the ABC television series, “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”, which is a spin-off of the Marvel films. I also have to say a word about the fight sequences. There have been fight scenes from other Marvel movies and the TV series “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” that I found admirable. But the fight scenes featured in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially those between Steve and the brainwashed Bucky – were probably the best I have ever seen in a Marvel movie, let alone in recent years.

Many film critics and some moviegoers have commented on the movie’s action sequences. To them, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” seemed to be a movie with a great deal of action sequences and very little dramatic moments. That was not the movie I saw. Mind you, Anthony and Joe Russo handled the movie’s action sequences very well. Their work was aptly supported by Trent Opaloch’s gorgeous cinematography, Jeffrey Ford’s excellent editing and the exciting work from the visual effects team. I was especially impressed by the following sequences: the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s rescue of the hostages; HYDRA’s attack upon Nick Fury on the streets of Washington D.C.; Steve, Natasha and Sam deal with a team of HYDRA agents led by the Winter Soldier; and especially the big finale in which the trio and Maria Hill attempted to stop HYDRA’s plans to use the three newly constructed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

But as I had earlier stated, I do not believe that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was all action and very little drama. The film featured some dramatic moments that not only brought out the best in the cast, but also struck me as very well written. There were a good deal of verbal confrontations in this film. And most of them seemed to feature the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. I was especially impressed by the drama and the acting in scenes that featured Fury’s two conversations with Steve – one regarding the helicarriers and the other about the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. I also enjoyed Fury’s final confrontation with Alexander Pierce inside the Triskelion. I was also impressed by how the screenwriters and the Russo brothers managed to inject some very good drama in the middle of Steve’s final fight against Bucky, while he tried to convince the latter to remember the past. Speaking of the past, this movie also featured a poignant moment that displayed the strength of Steve and Bucky’s friendship in a late 1930s flashback regarding the death of Steve’s mother. The movie also featured another friendship – the budding one between Steve and Sam. This was especially apparent in one poignant scene in which Steve and Sam discussed the latter’s experiences in Afghanistan.But the best scene, as far as I am concerned, featured Steve’s last conversation with a very elderly and dying Peggy Carter. That moment between the two former lovers seemed so sad that I found myself crying a little. How this particular scene managed to evade the memories of those who claimed that the movie was basically an action fest baffles me.

Was there anything about “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” that baffled me or turned me off? I found it hard to believe that Fury actually accepted Steve’s rather ludicrous suggestion regarding the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. Why he did not laugh in the super soldier’s face or told the latter that suggestion was dangerously naive is beyond me. Why did the movie make such a big deal about HYDRA infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D., when certain characters made it pretty obvious that it had infiltrated other government agencies . . . all over the world? And considering that Steve’s personality was not suited for espionage, I am still wondering why Marvel – both in the comics and in the movies – would have him join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. And what happened to World Council Member Hawley in the movie’s climax? The movie never explained.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Once again, Chris Evans proved that he could be a first-rate dramatic actor in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. Although he injected a little more humor into his character – especially in the movie’s first half hour – he did an excellent job of expressing Steve’s continuing discomfort of being a man in the wrong time period, his penchant for making friends with people who are not Tony Stark, and his priggish nature. I should have known that since Evans, who can be a first-rate comedic actor, should also prove to be excellent in drama. He certainly proved it in his scene with Hayley Atwell, who reprise her role as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Peggy Carter. And she was marvelous as the aging Peggy, who wavered between joy at being with Steve again, sadness that they are now far apart age wise, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But Evans’ leading lady in this film proved to be Scarlett Johansson, who reprised her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. And as usual, she was fantastic. I do not know whether she did all of her stunts, but she certain looked good. And . . . as usual, Johansson did a great job in conveying the agent’s ambiguous nature – especially in the film’s first half hour. I was especially impressed by her chemistry with Evans in this film. Mind you, they did a good job of projecting a newly developed friendship in“THE AVENGERS”. But in this film, there seemed to be an extra sexual charge between the two characters.

By 2014, Samuel L. Jackson had appeared in at least six Marvel films. Of the six, he had a somewhat sizeable role in“IRON MAN 2”, and major roles in both “THE AVENGERS”and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.  He did such a marvelous job as the manipulative Fury in “THE AVENGERS” that I did not think he could repeat himself in portraying that aspect of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director’s character. I was wrong. He not only did a great job in portraying Fury as being manipulative as ever, but at the same time, conveyed Fury’s own anger at being a victim of his mentor’s betrayal. Speaking of which, a part of me still cannot imagine Robert Redford in a comic book movie. And I cannot help but wonder if he felt the same. I wonder who approached him – the people at Marvel or his agent? Nevertheless, I am glad he accepted the role of World Security Council Alexander Pierce. This is the first time I have seen Redford portray a genuine villain and he was great. His Pierce was intelligent, soft-spoken, friendly, manipulative as Fury, and cold-blooded. It is a pity that he did not portray similar roles in the past.

Anthony Mackie joined the cast as Steve’s new friend, Army veteran Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. And like the rest of the cast, he gave a great performance. Mackie injected a good of down-to-earth sensibility to the story, along with some much-needed humor – especially in scenes in which Sam expressed annoyance at the machismo of both Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow. I was especially impressed in one scene in which Mackie poignantly conveyed Sam’s memories of his time in Afghanistan and the death of a fellow Army comrade. Sebastian Stan reprised his role as James “Buchanan” Barnes, Steve’s old childhood friend. Only his Bucky Barnes in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is, like Steve, a man out of time. More importantly, he is a brainwashed amnesiac and super assassin known as the Winter Soldier. I have to give kudos to Stan for skillful portrayal this seemingly cold-blooded assassin, who seemed torn between his role as a HYDRA killer and a confused man haunted by memories of his friendship with Steve.

The movie also featured some solid supporting performances from Cobie Smulders, who portrayed Fury’s no-nonsense second-in-command Maria Hill; Emily Van Kamp, who portrayed the warm and uber-competent S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13; Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell; Frank Grillo, who portrayed the down-to-earth, but cocky Brock Rumlow; Gary Shandling as Senator Stern, and the members of the World Security Council – Alan Dale, Chin Han, Bernard White and Jenny Agutter. By the way, many fans will be amazed to see Jenny Agutter kick butt in one particular scene. And for fans of “LOST”, you might be able to spot Adetokumboh M’Cormack, who portrayed Mr. Eko’s brother in the series, as one of the mercenaries who took control of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship early in the movie.

There may have been a few things that left me feeling a bit uneasy in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. But if I must be brutally honest, I think it is the best Marvel film and one of the best comic book films I have ever seen . . . period. And one has to thank Kevin Fiege’s excellent control of the Marvel films that centered on the Avengers Initiative, the marvelous screenplay scripted by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, Anthony and Joseph Russo’s superb direction and an excellent cast led by Chris Evans. Not only is this a superb film, but it managed to shake up the Marvel Movie Universe considerably.

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