‘Interstellar’ is Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious fantastic voyage

On one hand Interstellar is a post-apocalyptic film, as the landscape of a near futuristic Earth is brushed out onto a dry, barren canvas. Science and the unappreciated efforts of NASA are seen as insignificant wastes of resources, newly marketed as a scam to the public. The state of the planet is at a critical level. Dust storms regularly fan across the globe, showering the land in dirt. Ecosystems have been ravaged and it appears as if humans are the only creatures left on Earth. Agriculture is the last asset and culture in the world, and one-by-one, crops are failing to grow due to blight. It is yet another bleak vision into the future if we stay the course. Interstellar is so much more though, because it is about space exploration, human nature, a healthy debate over proven science vs. other concepts like love, faith, and trust, as well as an encounter with the third kind.

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Some day our planet will crumble, or reach an irreversible point. What will give us our best chance at survival, science or one of the other less physical motivations? Is there room for both? Surely the reaction to it or any hard-driven science fiction film is expected to be divisive. Interstellar will spark its share of conversations.

Watching Interstellar is like sitting at a Brazilian restaurant with a parade of protein being served at your table. After you’ve had your fifth plate of food, there’s still so much more to consume. Be prepared; Insterstellar is a dense and long film that traverses along many paths. Who doesn’t want a little more for their money? No one questions the length of a novel. It takes as many pages that it needs to tell the story and at this point, a lengthy running time is one of Nolan’s signatures. It requires a full commitment by the viewer, to step onto his carnival, full of both despair and cosmic wonder.

Director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan (along with his brother, co-writer Jonathan) makes puzzles, and in this one, everything you need to solve it rests between the start of the film and the end. It’s true that Nolan’s body of work lack warmth, or the typical Hollywood sprinter’s pace for storytelling, but maybe that’s what makes him the perfect filmmaker of the next great space movie, because there is little out there in the vast universe to give any kind of warm reassurance that a nearby safe haven exists beyond the one beneath our feet. To feel like there is hope, we need one incredible voyage, and Nolan delivers that.

Theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne (who also worked on Contact) was the film’s scientific consultant and one of the executive producers. He made sure that wormholes and relativity were portrayed correctly. It gives the Interstellar the depth and grounding it needs to lift off and take us for a ride. It is an ambitious journey, echoing other influential classics like 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Blade Runner or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it’s presented in Nolan’s twisting maze-like presentation, done with justice in IMAX, accompanied with a bombastic pipe-organ-filled score composed by Hanz Zimmer.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and engineer who is forced to become a farmer and master his crops of corn with his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). A strange phenomena leads Cooper and Murph to an unknown division of NASA run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who Cooper remembers from his glory days.

Brand is convinced that they’ve made contact with other beings who have placed a wormhole on the edge of Saturn’s orbit that will get them to inhabitable worlds in new galaxies. Many underground missions have obtained years of research that a small handful of planets exist that can sustain human life. The latest ship, dubbed the Endurance, has a mission is to confirm which of the planets to inhabit, come back to Earth, while Brand finalizes the technology to take Earth’s remaining survivors to the new planet and colonize.

Cooper leaves his family behind, at the protest of Murph, and pilots the spacecraft to find purpose in his life and do his part to preserve the survival of his children. Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley) physicist Romilly (David Gyasi) and two robots TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) join him. But the real danger in this mission isn’t flying into the wormhole–though, to be honest, it is in its own right, a beautifully terrifying sequence. What’s really scary are the lands Endurance hopes to settle on the other side of the wormhole. Time moves slower due to the gravitational pull of a spiraling black hole nearby. One prolonged event in space could equal many Earth years marched closer towards oblivion. Once out there, the loneliness can be deafening and makes a character reconsider his or her motivations to exercise such bravery and risk. To re-coin one of Jesse Pinkman’s phrases, ‘Science, it’s a bitch!’

One could argue that there a few too many conveniences and a fourth act (yes, I said fourth) that’s too obtuse for mainstream audiences hoping to see a continuation of Gravity, but that kind of nitpicking is missing the beauty of the sum. This film has ambition, a singular vision, to cross-stitch Nolan’s dreams of exploration and survival with all of his cinematic influences, so vividly and powerful with the common thread of love.

With Inception, we watched a heist film in a shared dreaming experience. There, the manipulation of time in the dream world was important to understanding the events of the story. They were made more complex once the concept of dreams within a dream were conveyed, and it was seemingly infinite time that made the impossible possible. In Memento, a black and white story moves forward while we are given 10 minute segments of another story, in color, running in the reverse order of how they played out. Eventually the two stories converge and shows how fragile the truth is. Even in the Dark Knight trilogy, Batman was constantly racing against clock. Time is one of Nolan’s favorite villains and plot devices.

In Interstellar, we are asked to understand how time dilation and at least a surface level understanding of Einstein’s general theory of relativity works as the last bastion of the human race hurtles into one gorgeous-looking black hole. No matter who we are, what it is we can or can’t do, we are all prisoners of time and love, and are up against it. We are all subject to run away while it chases us, even if it’s across the universe.

‘Big Hero 6′ is a bright and bold collaboration between Disney and Marvel

Originality, inspiration, heart, life lessons, and exciting animation, Big Hero 6 has it all as the first big screen collaboration between Marvel Studios and Disney Animation.

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Welcome to San Fransokyo, where technology and robotics have become part of the nuts and bolts of our culture. Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney) is a student at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. He invented and developed Baymax, a personal healthcare robot who is amazing not only for his thorough service, but he is inflatable. But this story is less about them, and more about Hiro (Ryan Potter), Tadashi’s 14-year old brother, who likes to dwell in the underground, back-alley bot fights, hustling for money. He uses his big brains in ways that will get him by, but never ahead. Tadashi takes Hiro under his wing and takes him to his university, to meet his classmates, to introduce him to technology icons, to channel new ways to use his mind, and help facilitate new ways to approach life.

Taking the knowledge he used to create his fighting robot, Hiro develops an invention that could revolutionize the world and shows at the university’s symposium. If successful, Hiro could achieve admission to the university as a prodigy, but his work also draws the interest of Alistair Krei (Allan Tudyk) of Krei Tech who offers to buy the technology for millions. Instead, Hiro takes the advice of Professor Robert Callaghan (James Crowell) and declines Krei’s offer and accepts enrollment at the Institute. But after a fire breaks out at the event, a big explosion kills many, including Tadashi and Callaghan.

In the wake of the tragedy, Hiro shuts himself in, does not return phone calls from Tadashi’s classmates, until he unintentionally deploys Baymax who tries to step Hiro through his depression. By following his protocol, Baymax winds up getting Hiro out of the house to discover his new purpose. It’s like therapy 101 with a big talking balloon.

If it sounds like a comic book, that’s because it is. Big Hero 6 is a dusted-off Marvel comic book that director Don Hall stumbled upon shortly after the Disney acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. Big Hero 6 was created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, two members of the creative studio Man of Action who have gone on to help create several successful creator-owned comics and TV series including Ben 10, Generator Rex, Bakugan, and Ultimate Spider-Man. Some of the characters have been taken out since they’re part of the X-Men universe and would therefore infringe on Fox Studios’ right to use anything from that specific vault of characters. Baymax got a complete and huggable makeover and some new characters were created to complete the 6. The spirit and concept is still there, but there’s no denying it’s been made over into a much more cuddly package. The compromise also made it a more obscure entity and allows fresh eyes to be brought to the theater before the flood of the all-ages sensibilities come rushing towards you in 3D.

Another big plus was seeing a majority of the cast be diverse both on screen and in voice, especially in the main characters. It’s not stately obvious, but in looking back, what a breath of fresh air it was to see Hiro of mixed Asian and Caucasian descent, (Potter is also of mixed descent) and his inspiration be his brother (Henney was born to a Korean adoptee mother and American-Irish father) raised by their caring though sometimes spacey guardian, Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). It’s an unconventional family but is such a great representation of the modern American face. Hiro and Tadashi are two of the best Asian-American inspired characters on screen since we were introduced to Russell in Up. Hopefully this approach becomes more and more commonplace in live-action film too.

The rest of the Big Hero 6 roster doesn’t fall through the familiar pitfalls of minority characters that we’ve seen so many times. For one, they all have great scientific minds, so that already bucks the stereotypes of their compartmentalized cultures that typically define them, whether it be their native food, slang, or fashion–that alone is worth commending. GoGo (Jamie Chung), another Asian-American, has a tough exterior and is athletic. Wasabi (Damon Wayans), the team’s African-American, is an overly cautious neat-freak with an equally precise weapon, but he serves as the moral compass. Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) plays to the girls who like to accessorize but is also a lovable and undeniable chemistry nerd. And then there’s Fred (T.J. Miller) who just unfolds his multiple layers through to the very last second of the film (yes, that’s a clue that you have to stay after the credits, because this is after all, a Marvel film, and a fine scene it is). You never feel like the team is a formula, but rather a cross-cut of personalities to help Hiro and Baymax shine.

One never goes hunting for life lessons in children’s movies, but as a parent, I can tell you that it never hurts to see them done so well like they have recently in movies. Kids are invariably going to watch these films on multiple occasions whether it’s in the theaters or once they are home releases. So it does make you feel better when you see ways to spark the interest in the science fields, trusting others for help and teamwork, pushing through life’s failures, or how to channel and cope with the anger and emotions of experiencing personal loss–it’s quite a change from waiting for Prince Charming to come along. How to Train Your Dragon 2 dealt with some similar themes, very powerfully I might add. It’s a sign that we’re in a great period of all-ages films.

Now, I’m not quite as sold on how great Frozen is being perceived to be, but I do understand why it’s popular. Wreck-It Ralph was another modern-day Disney classic that blended all of the things you want to see in an all-ages movie, while pulling in adults with nostalgia. Even though Disney’s Planes was a mess, Planes Fire and Rescue was a pleasant surprise and recovery. We’ve never been shy to show our love for Tron: Uprising at Buzzfocus, even though it never found its audience. Still, it was a risk taken, and Star Wars: Rebels looks like another winner. Now with Big Hero 6, we can see Disney slowly evolving from what they used to be, while still finding their place in the present landscape and still understanding how best to utilize all of the assets acquired throughout the years in fun and imaginative ways. These are exciting times at Disney Animation.

The result of the Marvel-Disney collaboration on Big Hero 6 translates into magic, with plenty of big super hero moments that older audiences have always been drawn to recently, and enough Disney elements to capture the minds of a five or six-year-old without the need to bring in the scarier elements that they’ll surely graduate to in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s no rush though, that world will be around for decades.

San Fransokyo is an awesome and opulent visual delight. It might be hard to pull yourself out of the story and appreciate the level of detail and complexity of this animated world but this is a big and beautiful world the animators have created. There are a few moments that make you stop and gape, like you’re watching a new Hayao Miyazaki world unfold before you, but it’s still very much a Disney film. It certainly strengthens the faith in the Marvel-Disney collaboration and reinforces the team concept of the film, that they can be stronger in this instance, working as a team.

BH6 has the beats of an all-ages superhero film & wonder of a world’s fair wrapped into a fat burrito ready for consumption by today’s hero-hungry world. Baymax is a character who will be–and should be–plastered all over the world. It is funny, inspiring and full of grin-inducing moments that places it immediately amongst Disney’s modern-day successes. Big Hero 6 is a franchise with some seriously long legs.

Perceiving the truth and reality in ‘Gone Girl’

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What do you think of those couples who celebrate the anniversary years by giving traditional gifts to each other. You know what I’m talking about. Paper for year one, cotton for year two, china for 20, silver for 25 and so forth? It’s kind of annoying, right? Gone Girl looks at one of those couples, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) who are about to celebrate their 5th Anniversary (wood) with scavenger hunts involved no less.

He is a former journalist in New York City who lost his job and relocated them to North Carthage, Missouri when his mother went ill. She comes from a well-to-do family, made wealthy by a trust fund set up by parents who mined her childhood for a series of children’s books. Nick visits his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) at the bar they both run, discussing some lost enthusiasm for what should be a joyous occasion until Nick is summoned home to find Amy missing. It’s a sudden and morbid bump in the road in what seems like an ordinary marriage, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s an awkward and bumbling beginning, but then again, we’re experiencing this personal nightmare through Nick, who is as equally charming as he is aloof. At first suspicion, he calls the authorities and cooperates with them, but something is off; he doesn’t react as one normally would or at least as others expect he should. For example, he forgets to call Amy’s parents about her disappearance and mishandles the protocol of the distressed husband soon after, which makes others suspicious of him.

Because she is missing, we gain Amy’s perspective of the occasion and their marriage through passages in her diary, spliced in with flashbacks to happier memories, then unhappier times. Her view of their marriage is much different than Nick’s. Since Nick isn’t exactly forthcoming with personal information that the investigating detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) asks for, Amy’s side of the story starts to become a more trusted source. Meanwhile, Nick’s repeated missteps mark him in the public as the prime suspect, despite pleading his innocence to Margo, his lone supporter. When Nick seeks the legal help of Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), a celebrity lawyer of high profile sleaze, the story begins to heat up.

Gone Girl is written by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the best-selling novel of the same name and if you’ve flown anywhere in the continental United States over the past two years, I assure you that you’ve seen someone reading that book. One doesn’t need to read the novel to enjoy the film, in fact, it might be a better experience because you’re not constantly nitpicking and comparing the two. I found it significant that David Fincher was directing the film.

This story seemed tailor-made for Fincher, who’s long list of mystery-murder thrillers like Zodiac, Se7en, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are sandwiched between character studies like The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Gone Girl looks at a more intimate subject, while a missing woman lies at the crux of the story. Fincher brought along with him his all-star crew including Kirk Baxter whose editing shines through as the story bounces between the two points of view and through flashbacks. Also the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross compose another appropriate and ambient score that hits the right notes.

Fincher and Flynn gift us personalities that viewers need to dig beneath the surface to get at the meat. At first meeting, Nick and Amy are two people that are such clichés, yet the marital challenges they encounter grounds them and how they deal with them gives the viewer hope. All of us know people like Nick and Amy, and parts their lives might even be relatable to some, and that makes their dark tale all the scarier. When the story shifts from manhunt to witch hunt – that’s when everyone shows their cards, or do they?

There’s a wonderful commentary on how society handles these issues publicly along with themes of perception vs. reality that hums underneath the fragility of trust we have as consumers of these events. This film succeeds by allowing us to bring our own perceptions of who these people are based on what and when the details that are revealed. Once the modern day media circus bites down with its fangs, all control is lost and the next question comes to mind, why do we trust one source over the other? The theme of trust is explored throughout the film with all of the characters interactions, even to Nick’s last bastion of hope, rests is the confidence of a smart and savvy lawyer. It makes for a wonderful discussion afterwards, especially with your spouse or significant other.

That exploration of trust comes in the form of convincing performances by Affleck who channels bits and pieces of his Holden McNeil performance in Chasing Amy. But the star of the film is Pike, who turned in the performance of her career. She is riveting, playing the most complex of these layered characters in a way that will make some recoil at the sight of the next smiling face they see. So often Pike plays the throwaway supporting actress, the helpless damsel in distress, but here she wipes the slate clean and makes us re-evaluate her potential as a leading lady. Supporting performances by Perry, Dickens, and Coon round off the corners to help make the acute thriller, one worth seeing.

Fincher’s version of the story remains faithful to the written word although the ending is altered slightly, which may or may not be a good thing as it was a controversial down point for many readers. Flynn’s retooling of the ending is sure to get newbies talking too but perhaps not as angrily. The long running time of 149 might be too taxing for some but the first 135 minutes are remarkable storytelling. After that, the bolts holding the wheels start to loosen and everything starts to unhinge. Some moments take the story to exciting places, while others will leave some scratching their head. However, whether or not Gone Girl stuck the landing shouldn’t be the thing you walk away from the film. It should be how Fincher and Flynn’s adaptation sprinkles in the right amount of details at the right times, to toy with our trust in the two protagonists. Nick’s ride through the ordeal is compelling, and Amy’s is too, but where the two converge is equally a point of fascination.

Gone Girl is a true thriller that will cause viewers who buy in to sweat from the billowing cloud of tension, and even though it is teeming with Hollywood staples like scavenger hunts, characters speaking through their diary, and making celebrities of suspected criminals, it never becomes about any of those dressings. It’s more about being confronted with what we bring to the experience, how we respond to what and why, and that is more frightening than any bad marriage.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ braves new worlds for Marvel fans to devour

If you’ve been waiting for just one shoe to drop for Marvel Studios and their streak of entertaining superhero films to end with Guardians of the Galaxy, you had better hold your breath… at least until the Ant-Man movie. When first announced, Guardians of the Galaxy was met with skepticism and trepidation (myself included) given that there was no link to the Avengers in any sort, the story took place in deep outer space, and it featured a gun-toting smack-talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a living tree (Vin Diesel). But anyone who has read or is reading the comics, both the current run, and the essential Volume 2 (2008-2010) by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, knew its potential for taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to places where there are no limits–if they could pull it off. Boy, did they ever.

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Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is abducted by aliens shortly after experiencing personal tragedy and 26 years later finds himself in a intergalactic heist story, too far away from Earth to tell if he’ll ever see home again. The only thing he has to remember where he’s from are his memories, an old cassette walkman (that’s before compact discs for all you young-ins) with an eclectic mix tape and an unwrapped present from his mother. His life is like that of a scavenger from the wild west, retrieving artifacts or people and selling them to the highest bidder. He learned much from his abductor, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) but his latest score draws the attention of the ruthless Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a servant of Thanos (Josh Brollin) who last made a brief appearance in the credits of the Avengers. Bounty hunters, galactic police, and planet destroyers all come after him and amongst those hunting him down is Thanos’ adopted daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the orb.

This cast is extremely charismatic and jells together before too long, which contrasts the Avengers, who by design, bicker and clash constantly. Pratt is going to win over anyone who wasn’t already a fan of his work in Parks and Rec. As the lone link to Earth–actually, there’s a big soundtrack of recognizable rock and soul hits from the 1970s–the audience doesn’t need to work hard to like Quill. He’s a renegade jokester, is brash and arrogant but never tries to skate away from danger. He takes it head on. Though she’s been in other team genre films like The Losers and Star Trek, Saldana gets the right amount of screen time is noticeably at ease as Gamora. As for the rest of the Guardians, Bautista’s Drax is hard to embrace at first, but quickly grows on you by the end of the film and Rocket and Groot as anticipated, steal the entire freaking show.

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On the other side, Karen Gillan’s Nebula is a lovely femme fatale in blue, and also sporting that hue is Rooker’s Yondu, who is anything but good, but is not necessarily evil either. It’s clear that there are bigger and badder things in store for Thanos down the road, but Ronan is plenty wicked enough. The subversive relationship he has with Thanos makes for a tumultuous relationship that’s ready to boil over. Unfortunately, with so many moving pieces and characters, Ronan gets a similar treatment to the Red Skull in Captain America, where one can run wild at the thought of his brutality, but we simply  don’t see enough of it. Much of his dirty work is feared through conversations, so there are some missed opportunities there. Don’t worry Marvel-ites, my greed only comes from good results.

For comic book and science-fiction nuts, there’s plenty to gush over, including imaginative spaceship designs, gadgets, quick cameos and eye-gaping worlds realized like the inter-dimensional outpost/observatory, Knowhere. I wished Marvel was a little more creative in the design of its alien races since most are a humanoid form with some differences in radiant body paint and wardrobe and curiously, they all spoke English. Still, these are minor quibbles rather than overall deficiencies, of which there are none that truly weigh the story or pace down.

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Fun is an overused adjective to describe Guardians, but it is exactly that in both tone and spirit. Why complicate an uncomplicated film? Humor is infused at all the right spots and calling any specific moment out would just ruin the experience. Viewers will be flooded with that feeling of unbridled joy, more consistently than Avengers, and be rewarded for taking the chance with a ticket in hand. Outside of a few relationships being under developed (Quill and Yondu for example) and some more desired screen time for a few other cosmic beings, Guardians is as tight of a space romp since The Fifth Element. From Rocket and Groot, the dozens of characters introduced, to exploding the MCU far beyond the Nine Realms seen in the Thor films, success was achieved. There was little that misfired. It was ambitious to build several worlds from scratch and hope the audience wants to take a ride with unproven drivers behind the wheel, but they did it and  this is a film that is sure to grow on viewers with each repeated viewing. If you weren’t inundated with fans yelling “Hail Hydra” after The Winter Soldier, just wait for the choruses of “I am Groot!” to ring out.

Director and co-writer James Gunn came up with a terrific tale with Nicole Perlman; they extracted the most translatable elements of Abnett and Lanning’s comic run and executed a polished space adventure with legs. Seeds are planted for the scheduled sequel and future threads into the upcoming Avengers films. Now new franchises can be explored without little effort, like Nova or Adam Warlock. Warner Bros. and DC Comics would never admit to it, but Guardians of the Galaxy achieved everything they wanted to do with Green Lantern and more, with what looked like less effort. That gives hope to the future of Marvel Studios, in being able to sustain itself after Robert Downey Jr. eventually walks away. Eventually, whatever momentum it builds for itself will merge with the Avengers films. Think about that for a second.

Eat like Galactus, Marvel fans, there’s still much more to consume.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ displays precise and patient storytelling

Planet of the Apes is not an easy franchise to embrace. There’s the classic original Planet of the Apes and its sequels of varying quality, then there’s the terrible Tim Burton remake and finally Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which breathed new life. Would the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes take off from that launching point, or would it become another forgettable sequel?

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Much like the end credits of Rise suggested, the opening credits of Dawn show the spread and lasting effect of the Simian flu/ALZ-113 virus on the world, wiping out a large portion of the human population, creating pockets of survival, leaving many without the false comforts of technology and electricity. Supplies are becoming scarce and many of the post-apocalyptic staples are present, but conceptually, most fit very well into this specific instance. To many survivors, apes are wrongly viewed as the source of the virus, when in fact it was the work of scientists who were looking to cure diseases we struggle with today like Alzheimers. Ah, you have to love threats that evolve out of a good place.

Dawn opens in Muir Woods National Monument, completely overgrown and overrun by apes– with ten years elapsed from the previous film. The pivotal ape in Rise, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is now grown into a true alpha male, and fostered a new civilization for the apes to thrive in their natural habitat, and look out for one another. Without the influence of humans for a decade, and contact with a human in two years, the apes have thrived off the land. Humans though do exist. The apes’ sanctuary is infiltrated by a small party of human survivors, searching for access into dam nearby that could generate hydroelectric energy to restore power to the ruins of San Francisco. A loose cannon (Kirk Acevedo) in the group shoots an ape in fear, and forces Caesar to take action, sending his right hand ape Kobo (Tony Kebbell) to spy and discover where the humans are hiding.

Like Caesar, Kobo is a former lab ape, but experienced much less compassion and care than his fearless leader. Kobo resents humans and wishes to extinguish any threat of them swiftly. Caesar holds him back and reminds him that they are different because humans are willing to kill each other. Apes would and should never do that. They treat each other like family, not a species. Throughout the film, Kobo parallels the qualities of a good soldier but also a radical, twisting Caesar’s teachings for his own agenda. He is a leader in his own rights, and is a heavy influence on Caesar’s older son. The rest of Caesar’s pack start to wonder if Caesar is going soft on them or if he’s just that much more intelligent than them.

As the politics within the apes play out, a small group of humans tries to broker peace with Caesar long enough to gain access to the dam and get it up and running again so that they may reconnect with other survivors who are capable of mobilization and relief. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) believes he saw reason in Caesar and takes with him his second wife Ellie (Keri Russell), a former CDC nurse, and his teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who brings with him a well-read copy of Charles Burns’ Black Hole. The rest of the human cast are collection of one-note buffoons who will stop at nothing to repeat the stupidity of man, all in the name of preservation. Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, the leader of the survivors and is great for one-liners but carries the shield of survivor a bit too heavy. The most frustrating antagonist is Acevedo’s Carver who not only initiates all of the conflict at the beginning of the film, but continues to needle the situation until he breaks the skin and strikes blood before hitting bone.

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But the one thing that is especially enjoyable about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is that it takes its time. I’ve lost count with the (summer blockbuster) films that have ambitiously tried to cram too much in too little time, or are just a string of action sequences without taking a few moments to allow audiences to catch their breath long enough to connect with these characters. Dawn does that extremely well, taking time to show the culture of the apes, their hierarchy, and their plight. This is a very small story in the grand scheme of this damaged world, but it didn’t feel the need to explain what was going on with the rest of the planet just to satisfy those audience members with attention deficit disorder.

Still there’s plenty to gloss about the memorable images that have been created in this film like apes riding horses wielding machine guns, a dystopian San Fran, and countless scenes of apes running amok through the forests and ruins of the city. It’s a wonderful achievement in set design and visuals by Weta Digital, plus there’s a powerful and thrilling score composed by Michael Giacchino.

There’s no doubting who the stars of the film are though–it’s the apes. From the visual artists, to the performances of Andy Serkis, Tony Kebbell and Karin Konoval, this world is believable, despite the rather absurd cut of the trailer. Over half of the dialogue and most of the film’s most intense moments are between apes. It’s a lot of heavy lifting by anthropomorphic beasts, but it never gets silly, nor are you ever taken out of the moment– and 3D is absolutely unnecessary.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sequel that surpasses its predecessor. It is well-balanced, even paced and is strong in the story and character development departments–all of which have become an endangered species in this world of Hollywood blockbuster. Jason Clarke continues to surprise as a leading man and hopefully the acting of Serkis and Kebbell don’t go unnoticed. Most of all, this installment builds real momentum for what is sure to be another installment of the franchise while finding a good place to conclude. There’s lots to like about Dawn, so go bananas!

‘How to Train Your Dragon 2′ is Bigger and Better in Every Way

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The mere mention of dragons has moviegoers foaming at the mouth like Pavlov’s dog. That’s part of the reason why How to Train Your Dragon was such a hit in 2010. Sure, Vikings are a large draw too, but nothing compared to dragons. Want proof? Look at how Game of Thrones milks them every season. Often times, sequels or spinoffs fail to capture the magic of the first film, especially for animated films. Since there’s already a built-in audience with the kids (and in this case dragon-lovers too), there’s not always that effort to impress in subsequent films. They usually recycle a lot of what worked – including the structure of the story – beat a recurring joke to death (*cough* Ice Age *cough) and fail to deliver something fresh to the equation. Thankfully, none of that can be said about the next installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy.

In Hollywood’s crowded stock of unlikely leading men, Jay Baruchel is one of the more endearing of the bunch. He returns to voice Hiccup, son of village leader Stoick (Gerard Butler) and champion dragon wrangler of the Night Fury dragon, Toothless. It is five years since the island village of Berk saw the good in dragons. They not only made peace with them, but they’ve learned to care for them, love them and earned their loyalty. Instead of slaying for sport, they play a sheep version of Quidditch where the dragons are clearly the stars from the get-go.

Hiccup is still as disconnected from the Berk culture as ever though, this time trying to map out the unknown frontier  with Toothless sporting new threads and new tricks. He’s also wrestling with a life-changing proposition from Stoick. But before he can reply to his father Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera) encounter a dragon smuggler named Eret (Kit Harington) who is hunting for Drago (Djimon Hounsou), an ominous figure from Stoick’s past.

Rather than conquering Drago, Hiccup defies his father again and attempts to broker peace between the village of Berk and this feared individual but gets captured by another mysterious figure who is wrangling dragons for a different purpose. Bless his naive heart, Hiccup’s confidence in wanting to change the culture is admirable. Can anyone blame him? He did change his father’s mind.

But a lot of How to Train Your Dragon 2 is about growing up, and learning that some dark souls are irreversible. The lessons that Hiccup learns take the story to a dark place–one that was refreshing to see in a kid’s film–despite the awkward explanations that are sure to arise after the film. Life isn’t always a fairy tale and as Hiccup develops into a man, that maturation process always has its thorns along the way. Director/Writer Dean Deblois was brave to have explored these themes, and to show some of the real emotions and reactions that come out of life-changing events. In many ways it may look like a Dreamworks film, but it feels like it’s been heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki who has never strayed away from the darkness of man. Hiccup is confronted with plenty of these events and is forced to look within and his influences to light a new path.

Don’t worry though, there are plenty of uplifting moments and cathartic healing assisted by John Powell’s majestic score and yes, lots of lovable Toothless scenes and fire (and ice) breathing dragons to turn it all around. There’s also characters like Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (TJ Miller) and Gobber (Craig Ferguson) that come in to save many scenes that fly dangerously close to the melodramatic sun.

The main theme of nature vs. nurture still drives the franchise, but everything else feels fresh for an animated film. The motivations of Drago are not quite so clear at first, outside of wanting to control all the dragons. I wished he could have had a more sculpted treatment but there’s no question he embodies evil. Drago isn’t a bad villain, but he’s just a poorly developed one. Hopefully Deblois fixes that for the third installment.

Even though dragons are the draw, the human interactions rise above it in How to Train a Dragon 2. Rather than taking on the requests and expectations of his father, Hiccup remains true to his individual spirit and we discover why exactly he and Stoick are so different, and also why that’s not so bad for everyone. Stoick shines though surprisingly and takes viewers on an impressive arc, going back to his introduction as the archetypical misunderstanding and doubting father. The dragon quotient is multiplied and the newly rendered worlds beyond Berk introduce beautiful utopias populated by the winged beasts with some heart-stopping visuals. It all makes for some magnificent flight sequences that are well-worth the extra admission for 3D. The sum of it all will astound eager fantasy fans looking to soar again.

The X-Men finally feel familiar on big screen with ‘Days of Future Past’

Sentinels

The X-Men films, always felt like a compromise in one way or another. In the first film, budget was such a problem that a proper Danger Room (amongst other) scene couldn’t be included. Director Bryan Singer got more support the second time around with X2, which at the time felt like a step towards the right direction, but it had its own defensible flaws. X-Men Last Stand though, was a major detour, helmed by a director (Brett Ratner) who couldn’t come close to Singer’s understanding of the source material, no matter how many characters and subplots were thrown in there.

It wasn’t until X-Men: First Class (where Singer was brought back to produce and write the script with director Matthew Vaughn) that the core elements of a classic X-Men story were honored on the screen – a group of minorities absorbing the fear and hatred directed at them, while trying to prevent their own genocide. By doing a period piece, it reset the franchise (with the loose knowledge of what comes after) but First Class also hit a few snags that come with the familiar beats of origin stories. The heavy themes though, along with several other key touchstones (like the Sentinels) are the currents that flow through X-Men comics. Missing from the earlier films was the relentless hunting down of the mutant race and overcoming exceptionally great odds. That tough balancing act can be managed over 30 years worth of comic books, however, the big screen treatments always managed to force some of the best elements out. Somehow, Singer, along with a terrific script by Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Simon Kinberg, made no compromises with X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Following the rules, relationships and world that was set up in largely the first two X-Men films and First Class, Days of Future Past was created by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin. It was adapted, quite miraculously, assembling an enormous ensemble (with countless cameos) from two timelines: the “younger” surviving cast of First Class, and the not-so-distant future from the first three films, made possible with the help of time travel. Keep that in mind if you want to enjoy the film instead of reminding yourself how it’s so different from the comics.

City-by-city, the mutants are being wiped out by the latest and terrifying version of the Sentinels, mutant-hunting robots that can learn and adapt, but also mimic mutant powers. They are the creation of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) back in the 1970s, whose death triggers the need for his Sentinel program to advance in his absence and evolve with each version. In a last attempt at survival, Charles/Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Erik/Magneto (Ian McKellan), now working together, send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time with the help of Kitty Pride AKA Shadowcat (Ellen Page). Skeptical at the plan, Wolverine must try to get the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) to settle their differences to stop Trask from being murdered and ultimately stop the Sentinel program from moving forward. It won’t be easy because Erik is imprisoned and Charles traded in his psychic powers for the ability to walk in a way that does the decade proud.

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All of it builds to a captivating story that not only falls under the superhero greats category but the time travel sub-genre too. It pulls much of what was adored in X-Men comics throughout many generations, but it’s not thrown altogether haphazardly. Every character has something to contribute, has stakes on the table and while genocide by non-mutants is the cost for failure, the main struggle remains the forces within the mutants themselves – just like it is in the comics. That’s where Fassbender and McAvoy come in and illuminate the main conflict, and given that desperate measures eventually brings these two characters together, one can imagine how the decades of fighting created an incredible barrier to surmount.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) remains the most valuable soldier and her enlistment swings the tide for either Charles or Erik, but it’s clear she has her own motives that have morphed since First Class. It’s not easy to see Lawrence’s performance through all of the makeup and disguises, but she has helped make Mystique a far more interesting and pivotal character in two films than the stoic Rebecca Romijn did in three. Staying on the other side, Bill Stryker (Josh Helman) shows up in the early timeline and ties several threads to X2.

But it is fear at work again as the overarching villain that remains the most relatable threat; remote control weapons sold to the fearful as a bastion of relief can easily be corrupted or advanced to inhumane degrees. Many minority groups still struggle today for equality and corruptible power thrives around the world; this helps DOFP hit close to home, some might say closer than they’d like–that’s the power of these kind of stories–they can connect to audiences with their own struggles no matter how fantastical they may be. Whatever small victories achieved should be appreciated, celebrated briefly, but the efforts and campaign cannot let up since ideas tend to be shared by many around the world. DOFP thankfully paints that picture well, and gives the X-Men franchise what it needs to confidently move towards the next film, as the post-credits scene teases.

Given his legal troubles, it would be a shame if Singer is guilty of those heinous accusations, because it pulls the rug out a bit. He should be punished if he’s guilty but if he is innocent, then it makes one wonder if he’d be brought back for the next installment. At least for the sake of X-Men fans, DOFP belongs in the conversation with the very good to best superhero-related films, but if Singer is not around, hopefully Vaughn, Kinberg, and Goldman can come back and guide X-Men: Apocalypse in the same direction since the franchise has plenty of latitude.

game of chess

I felt no character (or actor) was wasted or misused in DOFP. Albeit, much of the future scenes were primarily action sequences holding off the supreme Sentinels, but fans are going to get a big kick out of how Shadowcat, Blink (Bingbing Fan), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Bishop (Omar Sy) were used. So good that people will want more? Sure. And yes, people are going to complain about the lack of spotlight for Storm (Halle Berry) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) again, but those are small consolations at the sum of the parts. I was extremely entertained at the treatment of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who was feared as point of shame building up to the film based on his gaudy look, but it makes sense, again in the context of these films. Peters provides the film’s best moments of levity and dose of early fun in the story. After his big scene, I edged towards in my seat and said to myself, let’s bring it on. As for those still worried about the “hair-dryer” Sentinels can stop because they are indeed early prototypes. The opening action sequences will show just how frightening Sentinels can be. Post-production effects and the final scene within the context of the script does change how a handful of still images appear, meaning what? Calm down, internet, your premature ulcers are not needed.

Will Days of Future Past stop the comic book geeks from lamenting over Fox owning the film rights to X-Men? Extremely unlikely because fans have a hard-on for a crossover with the MCU. Will it turn Singer’s critics into fans? That’s up for a heated debate since I’ve seen some strong reactions for a variety of reasons I care not to acknowledge, but it’s certainly good enough to win some of them back. Look, if you’ve bought into the X-Men films thus far (while discrediting Last Stand and both Wolverine solo films), this is as close as we’ll come to feeling that magic one gets out of the greatest X-Men stories from the 1980s and 1990s. The main bloodline–the struggle between Professor X and Magneto and their separate approaches at survival–is so well illustrated in the earlier period settings, advancing what is so beautifully set up in First Class, but it’s the future glimpses at genocide and the execution of various sci-fi tropes that elevate Days of Future Past as a memorable superhero film, and certainly the most thrilling X-Men film to date.

FX’s ‘Fargo’ is as good as the Coens’ masterpiece

Before I sat down with the first four episodes of FX’s limited series, Fargo, premiering April 15 at 10PM, I reacquainted myself with the 1996 Coen Brothers’ crime classic. It’s been over a decade since I last saw the film and like a winter squall blustering through, my memories of it had become buried deep in snow. However, after this viewing, I had this insatiable desire to soak in this world for a longer duration.

billy bob thornton fargo

It wasn’t just any small town that had been rocked by bloody murders and criminal activity, it was this specific ivory landscape that stretched as far as the eyes could see. Its citizens were as foreign and distant as Hawaii or Alaska as were their special brand of talk and affection. Fargo felt like the Coens picked up a snow globe unlike any other and then gifted it to everyone who had seen the film. One might be asking, how could they touch perfection? TV is looking hard at how it can make movies better or believe that more is better. Who knows how many seasons they are going to fit in before A&E’s Bates Motel brings us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Doesn’t all of that water down the original piece of art? Those are valid concerns but Fargo isn’t your average movie tie-in TV show.

FX’s Fargo is a 10-episode, one-season run with a different set of characters in the same setting. It steps back in time but only to 2006 and once again, big city murder and crime are making life difficult for the small town folk. One in particular is insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) whose only crime when we meet him is being a downtrodden victim of life for too long. He works in a hamster wheel, selling insurance; he continues to be bullied by his high school nemesis, and it’s only worse at home. His wife Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar) emasculates him at every opportunity. This is as good as life would get for Nygaard; then all of that changes when he is confronted with his antithesis.

Bill Bob Thornton describes his character, Lorne Malvo as not having a conscious, who is animalistic in nature, and never for once looking back in life. Malvo is a confident man, intimidating, and completely aware of his surroundings–qualities that make him a good hitman, a smart drifter, and the most charming of antagonists. But he doesn’t just take orders, he has his own rules that only he plays by, not necessarily having a goal in mind, just doing the necessary things he needs to or wants to do. There is however one thing he is fascinated with: finding the weaknesses in everyone, exploit them and have some devilish fun until the novelty wears out.

martin freeman fargo

Rather than find out what happened to Marge Gunderson a decade later, bits and pieces of her spirit make it into young police deputies from different cities, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). Solverson is not pregnant or even married but she does have a sounding board in her father, Lou (Keith Carradine). Grimly is a good deputy, but on one night fails to do his job when he  gets scared. He’s not allowed to do that, but confronting a man of Malvo’s demeanor is rare for these parts of town. It’s a natural reaction to being threatened and resisting that is a decision that often goes unheralded in those who serve and protect. Grimly is the one of the few sweet faces of innocence, swimming in shark-infested waters and you hope he doesn’t get gobbled up. Again, Marge is not mentioned, but she is reworked in these two heroes and that familiarity is comforting.

That’s the craft of executive producer, showrunner and writer Noah Hawley (Bones, The Unusuals) who threw Jerry Lundegaard, Carl Showalter, and Gaear Grimsrud amongst others in a wood chipper and spread some of their qualities into Nygaard, Malvo and other supporting characters. You’ll hear the echoes every once in a while but these characters are much more complete, fully flawed, but equally irresistible. It’s a world populated with eccentrics, brought to life by a star-studded cast. Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) is a negligent and opportunistic buffoon of a deputy chief Bill Olson; Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is a self-bronze tanning bottom feeder; Oliver Platt plays a local celebrity who’s life is flipped over by Malvo, and Kate Walsh is a seductive former stripper who suddenly finds herself a widow and lone mother of terrible children. Julie Ann Emery, Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, and Joey King round out the first-rate ensemble.

Hawley is so good at understanding what the Coens did so well with dialogue and set direction, that if you didn’t know he was the writer, you’d swear that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote this too. They did approve of this story, serving as executive producers with Warren Littlefield and that alone should convince you to tune in, but trust me when I say that it is Hawley’s work that will keep you cemented to your monitor of choice for 10 weeks.

allison tolman fargo

Like the film, this is not a whodunit or a mystery but there is a lot of dog, cat and mouse. We are merely observers of Nygaard and Solverson potentially rise up to the challenge of their catalysts, Malvo and Olson respectively. With the help of Grimly, can Solverson overcome the barricades that Olsen puts in her way and figure out who is terrorizing the townsfolk of Bemidji, Minnesota? Once Nygaard crosses a line, what will stop him from doing something else with his dark side?

Fargo has all the makings of the next hot thing in water cooler talk. Be prepared for audiences torn between the breakout performance of Tolman’s Deputy Solverson, and those rooting for Malvo to get away with all of his violence and tricks. It is sure to be one of Thornton’s most unforgettable roles. The same could be said for Freeman, who will play his first character of such compromising makeup that it will be challenge to find sympathy for him. Yet somehow, he manages to do so with expertise. Nygaard is a more pathetic version of Walter White at the start of Breaking Bad, but there are no false crutches of family  for Nygaard to depend on. He’ll work hard to toe the line of reprehensible and endearing schlub. Where he ends up though, is anyone’s guess.

Given the harsh winter that most of the country has suffered, I take no pleasure in urging anyone to endure the sight of so much snow, but after seeing the first four episodes of Fargo, I can assure those with a taste for high-level drama that it will be worth it.  The premiere is astounding, with the stakes and risks escalating with each chapter. Every scene feels like it’s a movie, full of depth and detail cinephiles will pour over and every episode opens magnificently with the disclaimer that “This is a true story…” with a sweeping score by Jeff Russo and closes with cliffhangers that linger for days. There are plenty of awkward moments to hush the audience one moment and a semi-regular dose of black humor to bring out the joy in the darkest individual.

FX has become the factory of fan-favorite television and after reinventing comedy and anthology television, they look to master the limited series. With no worries about ratings equating into renewal or cancellation, there is no reason to guard material for later seasons. Everything is on the table to tell the best story immediately. By the fourth episode, audiences will understand the minor relationship between the movie and film, and it is indeed a very cool one, but the FX’s Fargo is its own creature with many more points of interest that it will stand on their own. I can only hope that after 10 episodes, I’ll be equally satisfied as I was with the film but again wanting to live in the world of Fargo – just a bit longer.

‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Is Strongest Marvel Film Yet

SHIELD

I secretly desired the Marvel films to continue the tone that was set in the initial Iron Man film. Tony Stark’s war mongering and checkered past lent for a harsh reality of what he was up against. Captain America was created to establish the history of the universe. Marvel Studios went further away from that in the Thor movies to expand the universe’s geography and The Avengers was a thrill ride to see it all come together. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier goes back to the spirit of Iron Man, rooting the story to a world we can envision and feel its textures. Yet given all of the cumulative experience of the previous films, the facts, characters, and events, this film will surpass Iron Man for some, especially how the last 15 minutes changes the course and direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

There are so many things about Captain America: The Winter Soldier that was done right. For those unfamiliar with the comics, it’s hard to imagine what his world would be without the Avengers walking around. Most of his story and development in the MCU was done prior to and during World War II. Iron Man dominated The Avengers, Hulk was done right for the first time, and we all stop to gaze at Tom Hiddleston’s devious and charismatic Loki. At best Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) took fourth billing on the billboard. Here, his network of support, the display of his heightened abilities from the Super Soldier serum and his rogues were all constructed–convincingly, I might add.

After a clever opening scene where Steve Rogers meets Sam Wilson, AKA The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) we are transported to hostage situation that S.H.I.E.L.D. must diffuse with Cap running lead. In classic form, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen) offers sarcasm along with her flirtatious glances and poses but it’s a front to complete her own agenda, separate from the operation without Cap’s knowledge. This re-ignites the friction between Cap and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who tries to calm the super soldier by sharing a black operation in progress called Project Insight, a reactionary foolproof plan involving the construction of three Helicarriers, loaded with weapons of mass destruction, re-imagined. The gesture was meant to calm Rogers, but instead amplifies the mistrust.

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But The Winter Soldier is equal parts a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie as much as it is Captain America. The ultimate boy scout who awoke to a new world at the end of his first solo film is now acclimated to his environment, working as a chiseled, heavyweight counter to the clouded histories and morally ambiguous Black Widow and Nick Fury. Other important agents are introduced, and yes, there is some fodder for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans. For the first time, Widow and Fury feel like they’re an integral part to the story, not just some add-on or cameo that take us away from the main story (i.e. Iron Man 2). They feed off of what Steve Rogers can and can’t bring himself to do, they put him into corners and force his hand, in and out of his costume. Fury’s actions especially unravel the smooth operation at S.H.I.E.L.D. after his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) thinks he’s flown to close to the sun. It threatens everyone involved, including the eye-patched puppet master himself.

Like all Marvel films, the commitment to develop all these characters is spread out. This is as important to Nick Fury, Black Widow, Falcon, Agent 13 (Emily Van Camp), and even Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to a lesser degree, as it is to Steve Rogers. Some of these characters go on to survive to fight another day, but that’s no surprise. These are American superheroes after all and this is the leading mega-franchise of our day. But Marvel films have the luxury to prune their bushes in future films, and their eventual sprouting in other franchises only strengthens the need to pay attention to how these films connect. So while Fury, Widow, and Cap were all underdeveloped in their previous appearances, they received much-needed advancement here.

The Winter Soldier himself is a menacing villain, a combative yin to Rogers’ yang. He is physically gifted like Cap, but is more lethal, and is easily the most resilient adversary in the MCU. His own origin is a splendid unfolding, and since he was frozen in ice for the entire Cold War, Captain America needed to have his brush with a Russian, but there’s much more to his story and threads left open in the first film bleed into this sequel beautifully. However, the biggest threat to Captain America in this film is not the Winter Soldier or his shrouded identity. It’s that the powers-that-be that he fights for, America itself. That pushes Cap in an exciting place, one where he doesn’t just lose trust with his employer, it puts his purpose and motives to an uncomfortable fork in the road.

Shield Battered

Suspicion, espionage, and adrenaline-filled action, these are the qualities we expect the average Jason Bourne story to hold, and given all of the heavy artillery and weaponized threats, The Winter Soldier feels like it’s dipping into that pool, but combined with an idealized version of G.I. Joe–you know, one that doesn’t suck. At no point does this cease being a Marvel film, The Winter Soldier plays on a modern-day battlefield where the Captain America comics live in, and especially the mid-2000s, when the S.H.I.E.L.D. element was expertly well-woven into the fibers of the comic. That’s what helped make those stories sing and resonate with fans.

The comparisons to G.I. Joe and Bourne Identity are not meant to diminish, but rather help explain the evolution of Captain America from the first film where he was a propaganda-tool-turned-war-hero, to a field leader gone rogue. The tone especially is different than all of the other Marvel films, with less winking to the camera, a darker psychology and more honest treatments to the imagined threats. The training wheels have been shot off and even though all of the light and airy frosting has been swiped off, it is indeed a Marvel film and the formula to bring this particular mission to a close, while keeping fans drooling for the next adventure is well-maintained.

It does fall into the trap of super hero films, with the big finish with little consequence, but the directing duo of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo with a star-spangled screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely created a unique experience if you’ve invested to the rest of the MCU canon. My only gripe is the tendency in Hollywood films to shoot fight sequences too close. Let me remind  you Hollywood, please observe how Hong Kong shoots action scenes.

Comic book readers and wise viewers should be hip to the tradition of staying through the credits. There are two bonus scenes to wait for, one linked to the next Avengers film Age of Ultron, and the other to what will likely be the next Captain America sequel. Also there is a gorgeous end credits sequence designed by comic book illustrator David Mack and designer Erin Sarofsky that cannot be missed. They evoke that 1970’s political spy feel, and are influenced by the works of Jim Steranko, Saul Bass, and Maurice Binder. It’s a powerful exclamation point to 136 minutes of superhero splendor.

Now, even though Captain America: The Winter Soldier may go down as one of the best, if not THE best superhero film thus far, the 25-30 comics it is based on are even better. The cumulative work done by writer Ed Brubaker and artists Steve Epting, Michael Lark, Marcos Martin, and Lee Weeks is quintessential reading for any self-proclaimed, modern-day Captain America fan worth a damn. That’s not hyperbole, it’s legitimately that good of a superhero comic book and should be tracked down if you haven’t already.

There were far too many moving parts and players to do a literal translation to film, but what the Marvel Studios films have done especially well throughout their hot streak is cherry pick and then make the experience fresh for movie audiences and longtime readers of the source material. The Winter Soldier is the new shining example of that.

No Heartbreak at ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

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Dressed in baggy, striped prison attire, Ralph Fiennes wheels his book cart and delivers a pink box of Mendl’s sweets to one cell block. Three inmates climb down from bunk beds to join him at the table. His character, Gustave asks, “Who’s got the throat slitter?” after untying the blue ribbon to reveal a towering, exquisite pastry he divides it. Hairy knuckles descend on the dessert like vultures on a carcass, and in a blink, it’s devoured. “Out of this world!” exhales prisoner #399. And then out of nowhere, Harvey Keitel, who is completely devoid of body hair, sits barely in frame before he is revealed to be covered in poorly-drawn tattoos. Keitel details what they’re up against to pull off one incredible escape and they have just found their fifth man in the operation. The scene goes from pride, to secret bliss, to acceptance and gratitude, to a tone of despair and danger in under 90 seconds. That’s just one brief scene of The Grand Budapest Hotel and like the delicate pastry, its a layered sample of the decadence that is Wes Anderson’s eighth film.

Opening to wider audience this weekend, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not an easy one to sum up or encapsulate in a few thoughts. That’s probably a good thing since many of his recent films have felt like all too familiar. Don’t fret, there’s still the feeling you’ve entered into a life-sized diorama with ornate and pastel decor. Each crawlspace is populated with trinkets, weird pictures, and quirky characters bearing notable idiosyncrasies that help paint a familiar but uniquely divine picture.

An unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 tells the the tale of an unforgettable dinner date he had one day while staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which sits atop the complex network of the Alpine Mountains in the fictitious Republic of Zubrowka. The story flashes back to that day in 1968 when the author was young (Jude Law) and at that point, the great hotel already lost the luster and brilliance of its heyday, back when being a concierge was an honor, and that kind of service was a distinctive perk to traveling to Europe in the 1920s and 30s.

Despite the difficulty in reaching the hotel, it was once-filled heavily with the foot traffic of headline makers. Now its cavernous foyers and atriums are filled with the buzzing lights and lonely scraping of silverware on plates as the only people who stay there are single businessman on their way to a more important town in the morning. Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) approaches the author in the most unlikely places to start a conversation, and treats the author to a dinner that night. Once their beverage is uncorked and poured, so begins Moustafa’s telling of how he came to own the hotel.

This yarn begins in 1932 on Zero’s first day as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and his first encounter with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a master concierge who in addition to supplying the hotel’s clientele with the utmost finest service, courts and beds elderly blonde women who stay at the full service hotel. Zero swears loyalty and allegiance to Gustave, and whether he wanted it or not, in return would be mentored and unofficially adopted by Gustave. Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is one of Gustave’s favorite dames and warns Gustave their affair might reach an end and that her current stay will be her last. Soon after, Zero hand-delivers a note to Gustave that Madame D died under a shroud of mystery. The two of them drop everything to attend the wake, where they learn that she has passed onto Gustave a priceless painting “Boy With Apple” from her will. This sparks an uproar amongst her remaining family and rather than spend a night there, Zero and Gustave steal the painting before Madame’s son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) and his henchman (played frighteningly by Willem Dafoe) get a chance to kill him.

ralph fiennes GBH

The remaining three quarters of the film is a symphony of capers, whodunits, and derring-do to keep the knowledge and location of the painting a secret including the aforementioned escape from prison, a ski-and-toboggan chase scene through the alps, and a machine gun shootout. Even Zero’s innocent girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), gets roped into the hijinks. Anderson’s latest bag of tricks is full of old and new and yet takes his filmmaking to a different level. To find the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson looked to Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl, novels written by the late Stefan Zweig, a prolific Austrian playwright and journalist who lived a great deal of his life in the early 20th Century. His work inspired the era, the rhythm and Zweig himself inspired the life force behind Gustave.

Our fearless main character is something new for Anderson. Gustave has a nobility about him, an appreciation of the finer things in life, a taste of aristocracy and class but unlike Anderson’s past protagonists, he lacks a glaring flaw that hangs above him. Although he is quite critical of people and service that’s not up to his standards, unless his bluntness bothers you, there is no ugly quality in him. He even apologizes when he’s proven to be wrong. One classic Anderson element is the father-son relationship that is carried out in many of his films.

The Gustave-Zero bond is one of the stronger ones, is rarely tested, but because they’re not blood relatives allows them to be absurd, loving, and rock stars all at the same time. Gustave’s expectations of his young lobby boy may seem unreasonable, but they indoctrinate Zero–a political refugee–and that has earned Gustave’s undying loyalty and gratitude. Finnes performs this challenging, dense script with ease; he is as magnificent as he is funny. He not only carries the film on his back, but he holds the audience’s hands as they embark on a carnival of lunacy, one ridiculous ride after another and for the duration of the film, you believe it. Unfortunately, women are scarce, and not having that prominent voice at the latest Anderson party is a noticeable absence. Ronan’s smallish part and lack of independent voice is one of the few missteps I found in the film.

There are two instances in the film where audiences will be displaced from the Anderson fantasy into the real world setting where World War II was in full bloom. Gustave and Zero’s train crosses the borders between countries but also veers out of frame to one of humanity’s darkest times. After the characters collect their breaths, the bizarre slapstick resumes. It’s the frailty and unexpectedness that is to be admired in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The efforts Gustave puts forth to keep the illusion alive, that everything is okay in the face of darkness is the mark of a good concierge. You just can’t find this kind of service anymore.