Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Marvel Studios has been an interesting experiment in franchise building since its first foray in 2008 with Iron Man. From the meager beginnings, the company has become a full fledge juggernaut with no signs of slowing down. Now into its second phase of movies, Marvel Studios is working to up the ante on all their known properties. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the third sequel of Phase 2, and it very well might be the best of the lot. Starring Chris Evans as Captain America, the movie takes on the ideas of corruption, raised stakes, and loyalty.

Directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, deliver an interwoven story that keeps the audience guessing while simultaneously not making things too confusing. Captain America: The Winter Soldier resembles 1970s spy action flicks in the best of ways. Slick technology, good looking and charming heroes, and villains who matches our heroes in equal measure. Winter Soldier is the pitch perfect example of how to keep these superhero genre films from going stale.

Our story begins with the first meeting of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). A great start to the movie with a light hearted connection between two characters who will become lifelong friends. Immediately following we are off to the races when Cap gets picked up by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson) after being called in for a covert mission. Since the events of The Avengers, Cap has been working non-stop on covert missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. and he begins to question motivations of its leadership. When Cap is ordered to retrieve hostages from a hijacked ship our adventures truly begin and really never slow down for 2+ hours. With an appearance from George St. Pierre, famed MMA fighter, as Batroc the Leaper in the first 15 minutes the movie feels to have already surpassed its predecessor in style already; we haven’t even started yet! After the mission is complete, Cap’s suspicions are further validated and his trust in some characters begin to falter. Cap is then introduced to Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a S.H.I.E.L.D. director, who asks Cap to go further then he has previously. Pierce is a very gray character and his motivations are simply too muddy to glean a clear picture. In an incredibly compartmentalized spy agency things begin to appear less than transparent. For a character like Captain America, these are the best stories. Muddled between what is right and what is his duty help with this type of character's exploration and makes him more interesting. However, even more than that is Cap’s past that just won’t stay dead.

When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is attacked by a shrouded figure named The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the spy world is thrown upside down. Cap works to find this elusive character and has some direct run-ins with him, which make for excellent action sequences. The level of action in this movie is sheer spectacle. Showing off more hand to hand combat was a major jump in the right direction. Lacking from Cap in his first outing and in The Avengers was his fighting ability. The Russo brothers fixed this and then some. Showing off Cap’s extensive physical ability as well as The Winter Soldier’s was fantastic. The pacing of the action was fast and intense. We didn’t get much shield throwing in the previous iterations of Cap, but here we get to see Steve Rogers really show off. You can now see why he is the leader of The Avengers, and not just a member.

At this point in time, Chris Evans is Captain America for me and many fans around the world. He will become synonymous with the role after people see this film. Evans is able to embody the pragmatic, no nonsense, and boy scout nature of Captain Steve Rogers. Anthony Mackie as the wise cracking partner of Cap was really great. The Marvel universe, and frankly comic book movies as a whole have lacked minority characters, but Mackie’s addition was greatly appreciated and I look forward to seeing more of him in the near future. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was better here and more explored than we’ve seen previously. Her character is getting more play in the gray area -- where she belongs. Last but certainly not least, Samuel L. Jackson has played it cool in all these movies with slick one liners, but The Russo brothers show you just why Nick Fury should be considered a badass. Its nice to see the top spy get some serious action moments.

In conclusion, Marvel Studios didn’t meet my expectations...they far exceeded them. Some argued that Captain America: The First Avenger was the weakest of the Phase 1 films. I wouldn’t agree, but what cannot be debated is whether Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best of Phase 2...it is. While a bold statement, I feel comfortable in saying that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel film to date, including The Avengers. Go see this movie immediately, it's your civic duty (even if you aren’t America).

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Review: Pain & Gain

Pain And Gain

The true story of criminal bodybuilders in mid 90s Miami is a match made in heaven for a director like Michael Bay. He couldn’t have come up with a better piece of fiction himself. Based on the crimes of the so called “Sun Gym Gang” the movies follows Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), and Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as they decide to kidnap, murder, and steal to live the lives they have always wanted for themselves.

The story begins with Daniel Lugo not being happy with his current situation, financially speaking. As a personal trainer he isn’t pulling that much money to live comfortably. Tired of the day to day struggle he talks his fellow gym rat, Adrian, into working on a scheme to make a lot of money fast. Adrian who isn’t particularly much of a leader or thinker goes along without very much coercing. The two then recruit resident hulk Paul Doyle. Doyle is fresh out of jail, loves Jesus, and yet is a violent loveable fool.

The three embark on a plan to kidnap one of Daniel Lugo’s rich gym clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Kershaw is a first rate jerk so you aren’t suppose to feel too much sympathy for the guy. All the interactions that Kershaw and Lugo have are just an exercise in Lugo silently hating Kershaw and wishing he had his wealth. While watching the movie I could sympathize with Lugo here. Once the kidnapping begins we start to see just how utterly useless this so called gang is in pressure situations. Hilarious in parts and downright horrible in others the gang’s behavior pulls you in to their world. I found myself just wondering what they could possibly do next, and being equally as shocked as the time before. When the story is all said and done you are happy with what happens to these would be criminals. While I thought the movie was laugh out loud funny, I didn’t want them to win in the end. They were horrible human beings and they deserved everything they got. However, following them on this ride was incredibly satisfying. The movie was a 2 hour fun run of criminal stupidity. The performances in this movie were basically just a bunch of guys having a blast. Mark Wahlberg is clearly loving the idea of beefing up and playing a know-it-all. Tony Shalhoub plays maybe the least sympathetic victim in movie history. His over the top dickish rich guy portrayal made you root for the bad guys for a time, and not feel forced. Anthony Mackie was just ok, but I thought he could have been more on. He seemed to just show up in scenes and deliver mediocre one liners and walk off; I expected more from him. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson by far stole the show. Every line delivered was with such earnest idiocy that you might have worried that he was hit in the head early in the filming process. Deadpan delivery of his ridiculous lines made the crowd laugh every time. This is one of 4 movies Johnson is doing this year, and for this one he nails it.

The Michael Bay we all know is officially back. While critically panned for his work on those abysmal Transformers movies, Pain & Gain is right in Bay’s wheelhouse. Never straying away from what made the Bad Boys movies so popular and pushing the comedic elements even further. Pain & Gain if nothing else was absolutely beautiful to watch. Set in 1994-95 Miami, the bright colors were there and the feel of the times stood out. The costuming in this movie was dead on, and you laughed and cringed at the thought of being seen in those clothes just a few years ago. All and all, Bay does well here, but drags us along for too long of a ride. At 2:10 Pain & Gain could cut about 25 minutes and still be a tight yet entertaining script. A very enjoyable movie that sets the summer season off in the right direction.

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