“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” (2016) Review

 

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” (2016) Review

One of the more popular story lines to emerge from Marvel Comics was the 2006 story called “Civil War” in which many comic book characters from the company’s franchise battled over a new law designed to have superpowered individuals act under Federal regulation. Kevin Fiege and Marvel Films decided to adapt this story line for the final film in their Captain America trilogy.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” features some differences from the Marvel Comics comic series. The latter featured the Superhuman Registration Act, which would force those with superhuman abilities to register with the U.S. government . . . even at the expense of their secret identies. All those with special abilities – via magic, science, extra-terrestrials and even gods – would be forced to register. The 2016 movie featured the Sokovia Accords, a set of internationally ratified legal documents that provide regulation and frame-working for the military/law enforcement deployment of enhanced individuals, particularly the Avengers. To be honest, the difference between the Superhuman Registration Act and the Sokovia Accords strikes me as rather minimal.

However, the plot for “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” began with a flashback to 1991 when a mysterious assassin intercepts an automobile on an isolated road, carrying a case of super-soldier serum. The plot jumped some twenty-five years later to Lagos, Nigeria; where a team of Avengers under the command of Steve Rogers aka Captain America stop a HYDRA team led by Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones from stealing a biological weapon from a lab in Lagos. When Rumlow blows himself up, hoping to kill Steve; Wanda Maximoff aka tries to displace the blast into the sky with telekinesis. Unfortunately, the blast destroys a nearby building, killing several Wakandan humanitarian workers. Because of the Lagos incident, U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross informs the Avengers that the United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, which will establish a U.N. panel to oversee and control the team.

Some members of the Avengers support the Accords and decide to follow Tony Stark aka Iron Man, who continues to feel guilt over his creation of the A.I. Ultron and the latter’s destruction of Sokovia. Others decide to follow Steve, who remains suspicious of the governments’ use of enhanced individuals. But when a bombing disrupts a conference in Vienna where the Accords were to be ratified and kills King T’Chaka of Wakanda, security footage indicates that the bomber is James “Bucky” Barnes aka the Winter Soldier, whom T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa aka Black Panther, vows to kill. Steve, who has been searching for Bucky since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., becomes determined to find Bucky first before anyone else can harm him and find out what really happened in Vienna. The search for Bucky manifests into another story line when the latter and Steve begin to suspect that someone from HYDRA might behind

I must admit that when I first learned that the third Captain America movie would be an adaptation of Marvel’s “Civil War”, I was not happy. I felt certain that the movie would be more of an Avengers tale than another Captain America movie that would round off the character’s trilogy. But I had decided to put aside such fears and see the movie. “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” had a great deal to offer. Exciting action sequences, plenty of travel, drama, thought provoking issues and especially some first-rate acting.

One aspect of “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” that really caught my attention were the issues presented in this story. And the issues in this story seemed to focus on guilt and responsibilities. This especially seemed to be the case for the Avengers in the wake of what happened in Sokovia and Lagos. Although Steve, Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, and especially Wanda feel guilty for what happened in Lagos; they would prefer to deal with the consequences on their own rather than allow the government to take control of their lives as Avengers. Tony, James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka War Machine, Vision and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow seemed to feel that the best course to deal with the consequences of the group’s actions is to allow the government to control their actions. What is interesting is that while various governments and especially Thaddeus Ross want the Avengers to pay a high price for what happened in Sokovia and Lagos, Ross refuses to acknowledge guilt or pay the consequences for the battle in Harlem between Bruce Banner aka the Hulk and Emil Blonsky aka Abomination in “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. Someone had pointed out how friends found themselves on opposite sides of this conflict. I saw this theme played out with Natasha, who found herself opposing Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, Sam and Steve – three men with whom she had formed close friendships. This theme also played out with Wanda’s growing friendship with Vision, when the pair of them took opposing sides on the Accords issue.

The past seemed to weigh heavily in this movie, as well. The ghost of Steve’s past – in the form of one “Bucky” Barnes manifests on the heels of the Vienna bombing. Another ghost from Steve’s past manifested in the form of Sharon Carter, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, whom he had first met in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. Both Steve and Sam were surprised to discover that Sharon was the great-niece of his former love, Peggy Carter. One could say the same for Bucky, whose past as the brainwashed Winter Soldier is not only used to frame him for the Vienna bombing, but also manifests in the discovery of Howard and Maria Stark’s fates. And while I found this revelation rather interesting, I did not find it particularly surprising, after the events of “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. In fact, many fans of the franchise did not seem surprised. Tony’s ghosts from the past also formed a cloud above this story. His and Bruce’s creation of Ultron not only led to Sokovia’s destruction, but also to his support of the Sokovia Accords. More importantly, Sokovia’s destruction led a colonel from an elite Sokovian commando unit named Helmut Zemo to seek revenge for the deaths of his family during the battle against Ultron. And the newly ascended King T’Challa struggled to deal with his father’s death, as he sought to kill Bucky for the death of his father King T’Chaka during the Vienna bombing.

But “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” is foremost an action film. And the movie featured some first-rate action sequences. Many film critics and moviegoers have been talking about the battle between the two Avengers factions at a Berlin airport. And yes, I found it impressive . . . somewhat. My favorite moment occurred when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man transformed himself into a giant, taking everyone by surprise. But if I must be honest, the airport sequence is not my favorite action scene in the movie. One of my favorites proved to be the chase sequence in Berlin in which the police, Steve, Sam and T’Challa pursued a fleeing Bucky. Another favorite turned out to be the movie’s first action sequence in which Steve’s Avenger team battled against Rumlow and his HYDRA team in Lagos.

The movie also featured some excellent acting. To be honest, I cannot think of a bad performance in this film. Once again, Chris Evans stepped up to the plate and provided another first-rate performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. For once, his Steve proved to be a more reflective man, who had learned to control his quick temper (until near the end of the film). I can also say the same for Robert Downey Jr., who gave another excellent performance as Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

Scarlett Johansson was excellent as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, who desperately tried to get Steve and Sam to cooperate with the government and sign the Accords. Anthony Mackie’s portrayal of Sam Wilson aka the Falcon proved to be a little more emotional and satisfying, as his character openly expressed contempt toward the Sokovia Accords and minor distrust toward Bucky Barnes’ re-appearance in Steve’s life. Sebastian Stan continued his excellent performance as Bucky Barnes, now a desperate man trying to keep both his memories and his life intact. Don Cheadle’s performance throughout most of the movie struck me as solid. But I must admit that he really stepped up his game and gave a very poignant performance in his last scene in which he and Tony discuss the near tragic circumstances of the Berlin airport fight. Both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany clicked on screen as Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch and Vision. This was especially apparent in one scene in which Wanda becomes aware that Vision has been trying to prevent her from leaving the Avengers’ headquarters.

Chadwick Boseman made a very impressive debut as T’Challa aka Black Panther. Boseman did an excellent job in portraying T’Challa’s barely controlled anger over his father’s death and his obsession in exacting revenge. Eight years after “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, William Hurt repeated his role as Bruce Banner’s main adversary, Thaddeus Ross, who has become the U.S. Secretary of Defense and main supporter of the Sokovia Accords. And he was a lot more subtle and scary in this film than he was in the 2008 movie. Daniel Brühl gave a very subtle, yet intense performance as Helmut Zemo, the former Sokovian commando who wanted revenge against the Avengers for the deaths of his family. Alfre Woodard gave a very sublte, yet emotional performance as a woman who had confronted Tony about the death of her son in Sokovia. The movie also featured some solid performances from Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, John Slattery, Hope Davis and Frank Grillo.

Despite my admiration for the movie’s cast, the action sequences and some of the issues raised in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”, I had a major problem with it. In fact, I had several problems with it. First of all, the whole idea behind the Sokovia Accords really made no sense to me. I could say that this whole matter began because several Wakandan civilians were killed, when Steve and Wanda were trying to stop Rumlow from harming others through self-detonation. But it really began with the Chitauri invasion of New York in “THE AVENGERS”. Then came the fallout from the destruction of the HYDRA sponsored helicarriers in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, along with Iron Man and the Hulk’s battle in South Africa and the destruction of Sokovia in “AGE OF ULTRON” and finally, the Lagos incident in this film. For some reason, people like Thaddeus Ross want to solely blame the Avengers for the civilian fallout and not the villains. In the case of the events of “AGE OF ULTRON”, Tony, Bruce and Wanda were to blame. And Wanda . . . was not an Avenger at the time. What I could not understand is that neither Steve, Sam or anyone else who supported them had bothered to point this out. In fact, no one had bothered to point out Ross’ own involvement in the Hulk v. Abomination battle that nearly destroyed Harlem in “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. You know . . . like Tony and Natasha?

Even if the Avengers had found themselves under government control, the possibility that innocent civilians might get hurt would always be possible. Not even the Avengers or any other costumed hero/heroine can save everyone. Yet, no bothered to point this out. I also noticed that Thaddeus Ross failed to mention the Hulk v. Abomination battle in Harlem. This is understandable, considering he was partially to blame for what happened. But why did no one pointed this out? And could someone please explain why the Accords were named after the Sokovia incident, instead of the incident in Lagos, which had kick-started the international community’s decision to create them in the first place? Martin Freeman portrayed a character from the Joint Counter Terrorist Centre, who helped Ross regulate the Avengers. The problem is that . . . he really did nothing in this movie, except show up and then sneer, first at Bucky and later, at the movie’s villain. Frankly, I found his appearance in this movie a complete waste of time. Speaking of waste . . . Frank Grillo, who had skillfully portrayed Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, reprised his character for this movie. And guess what happened to him? The poor schmuck was bumped off via a suicide bombing some twenty to thirty minutes into the film. Am I to believe that Rumlow, a major character in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, had been reduced to a cameo, a plot device for the Lagos sequence . . . and nothing else? I guess so. In the end, Marvel ended up wasted Grillo’s time, just as they had wasted Thomas Kretschmann’s time in “AGE OF ULTRON”. And what were the German special forces, the GSG 9 doing in Bucharest, Romania? Bucharest was Bucky Barnes’ home at the time. And it was at his apartment where the GSG 9 tried to arrest him. What were they doing in a foreign country, trying to arrest an American citizen for a terrorist attack (the Accords conference) that happened in another foreign country – namely Austria. What on earth was the GSG 9 doing there?

I also had a problem with Tony Stark’s discovery that Bucky Barnes was the HYDRA assassin who had killed his parents. This discovery led Tony to try to kill Bucky, and Steve to come to his best friend’s defense. Two years earlier, Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury had released top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files on the Internet, during the battle at the Triskelion in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. Through these files, Helmut Zemo discovered that Bucky was a brainwashed assassin used by HYDRA to kill Howard and Maria Stark back in 1991. If Zemo had been able to gain access to those files, why did Tony or any Stark Enterprises employee failed to do so? Why did he not make any attempt to access the files? A man, whose own father had been one of the co-founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a former enemy of HYDRA’s? Considering Tony’s nature, I find it difficult to believe that he never bothered to make the attempt. I have a deep suspicion that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely may have deliberately ignored this issue so they would have an excuse for Tony to suddenly react to Zemo’s revelation. How sloppy . . . and manipulative.

And then there is the problem of Robert Downey Jr. The actor was first cast in “CIVIL WAR” in a supporting role. However, the actor refused to do the movie, unless he was made a co-star. And Marvel gave in to his demands, because they so desperately wanted him in another Marvel film. Why did they allow Downey Jr., who portrayed Iron Man, to become a co-star in a Captain America movie? The name in the movie’s title is Captain America. I do not recall the name of Iron Man being in the title. So, why did Kevin Fiege and Marvel allow Downey Jr. to hijack half of Chris Evans’ third solo film? Especially since Evans was the lead in one of Marvel’s biggest hits – both financially and critically. Why did a Captain America movie end up giving as much attention to Tony’s character arc as it did to Steve’s? Tony’s character arc had more screen time than Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson, who had stronger emotional connections to Steve than Tony. Why did the movie’s screenplay featured a five-to-ten minute scene in which Tony Stark recruited Peter Parker aka Spider-Man for his team and did not bother to show how Steve recruited Clint Barton and Scott Lang? In a Captain America movie?

You know, Marvel could have saved the Civil War story line for an Avengers film and wrapped up Steve’s connection to HYDRA in this film. This movie could have focused upon Steve’s efforts to help Bucky and put HYDRA behind him for good. The movie “ANT-MAN” featured former S.H.I.E.L.D. official/HYDRA mole Mitchell Carson alive and well at the end, with a sample of Darren Cross’ Yellow Jacket serum in his possession. They could have tied this up with the Winter Soldier program . . . or create another plot featuring HYDRA. The narrative for “CIVIL WAR” could have focused on the Winter Soldier program, allowed Helmut Zemo to remain a HYDRA agent, allowed Steve’s friendships with both Sam and Bucky to become more complex and allowed his relationship with Sharon Carter to develop at a decent pace. Instead, Fiege and Marvel decided to (temporarily?) end the HYDRA story arc with former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Phil Coulson and ATCU director Glenn Talbot blowing up HYDRA bases . . . off screen in an “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode called (3.18) “Singularity”. I found this so unsatisfying. And since Marvel and Fiege decided that this third Captain America movie should be more about the Sokovia Accords, this left Sam and Bucky engaged in a long and rather stupid running joke regarding their mutual competition for Steve’s friendship. The latter’s romance with Sharon proved to be very rushed. And instead of admitting this, some fans are blaming actress Emily VanCamp and the Sharon Carter character, instead of the movie’s screenwriters and producers. They have also began promoting the idea of Steve becoming bisexual and beginning a romance with Bucky (and not Sam, whom I suspect was not white enough for them). And I am not the only one who has noticed that Zemo’s motivation for revenge against the Avengers bore a strong resemblance to the Maximoff twins’ hostility toward Tony Stark in “AGE OF ULTRON”?

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” featured some excellent acting by a cast led by Chris Evans, some interesting issues on whether government intervention is a good thing or not, and some great action sequences, thanks to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. But for me, “CIVIL WAR” turned out to be nothing more than an Avengers movie shoved into a Captain America flick. And in the end, I found this rather unsatisfying and schizophrenic.

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“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. And there have been ten television adaptations of the novel. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 movie adaptation. 

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie’s plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie’s production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall’s production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin’s photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë’s tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester’s death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane’s departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane’s inheritance of her uncle’s fortune and St. John’s loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie’s weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that “JANE EYRE” received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli’s casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt’s English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester’s meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg’s portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie’s weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg’s performance to be completelyBORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane’s deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995’s“PERSUASION” – Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane’s cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane’s favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane’s religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie’s script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane’s religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson’s effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester’s emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester’s friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin’s portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë’s tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg’s flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, “JANE EYRE” did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

 

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

”ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.

 

“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” (2008) Review

“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” (2008) Review

When I had first heard that another movie based upon the Marvel Comics character – Bruce Banner/the Hulk – would hit the theaters over two years ago, the word in both Hollywood and on the Internet was that it would be better than the 2003 film directed by Ang Lee, namely ”THE HULK”. Well, I have finally seen ”THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. Below is what I think of the film and whether or not I believe if it has surpassed the 2003 movie. 

The first film that had starred Eric Bana as Bruce Banner ended with the main character in South America, providing medical services to impoverished local citizens. This movie, in which Edward Norton takes up the role, picks up with Bruce in South America – namely Brazil. Only he is working as a day laborer at a soft drink factory in Rio de Janeiro, while at the same time seeking a cure to get rid of the Hulk within him with the help of an internet friend. At the same time, he is being pursued by General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and a Russian-born, British Royal Marine on loan to the U.S. Army named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).

There are some changes in which director Louis Leterrier, screenwriters Zak Penn and an uncredited Edward Norton made changes. One, aside from Brazil and Mexico, the movie is mainly set on the East Coast – suburban Virginia and New York City; whereas the 2003 version is set in San Francisco, Berkeley and Nevada. The movie’s opening credits showed the origins of the Hulk, which has nothing to do with the 2003 story. In the 2008 version, Bruce and Betty were assisting General Ross in an experiment to create the Perfect Soldier”. Only Bruce became exposed to Gamma radiation during a lab experiment and injured and/or killed a number of people, including Betty. In the 2003 movie, Bruce unwittingly became the subject of his father’s DNA research not long after his birth. His altered DNA is exposed to Gamma radiation during a lab experiment as an adult, and the Hulk is born. And of course, there are different actors in the major roles.

Naturally, Edward Norton did a great job portraying Bruce Banner. He managed to capture all the pathos, desperation and anger of the fugitive scientist/comic book hero. He managed to put his personal stamp on the role just as Bana had done, five years ago. At first I had a hard time accepting Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, Bruce’s love and former colleague. She did not seem as effective as Jennifer Connelly in projecting Betty’s emotional personality. And I found it slightly hard to believe that she was a scientist. But she eventually grew into the role. I must admit that I have to say the same about William Hurt as General Thaddeus Ross. There were times when it seemed that Hurt was trying too hard to portray Ross’ obsessive and hostile personality. To be perfectly frank, he lacked Sam Elliott’s natural intensity. But he eventually did a good job. Tim Roth had no such problems. I thought he was perfect as Emil Blonsky, the Royal Marine determined to take down Bruce/the Hulk in any way. It really came as no surprise when he was willing to become a subject of another one of Ross’ Perfect Soldier. And finally there is Tim Blake Nelson, who portrayed Dr. Samuel Stern, an eccentric scientist and Internet ally of Bruce, who becomes infatuated with the potential power of Gamma radiation, after he witnesses Bruce’s transformation. Although a little over-the-top at times, Nelson does a good job in portraying Sterns’ eccentric nature.

Do I believe that this new version of the Hulk is better than the 2003 version? Honestly? NO. And my family feels the same. I had expected this version to be better and was slightly disappointed that it failed to live up to the hype. At least for me. I wish that Marvel Films and Universal Pictures had allowed this film to simply be a sequel to the 2003 film. Instead, they tried to reboot the saga by changing the story of the Hulk’s origins from what was joined in the previous film. I feel that the story involving Bruce’s father gave the Hulk a special angst factor that the 2008 film lacked. Now, some people have claimed that the 2003 film had too much angst. We are talking about the Incredible Hulk, which is a major character from Marvel Comics. Angst is Marvel’s middle name. And most of its movies – especially those focusing upon Spider-Man, the X-Men and Daredevil – have angst up the yahoo. This movie is a little more action oriented than the 2003 movie. Actually, I feel that it is more action oriented than ”IRON MAN”. But I do not believe that the presence of more action made this movie better than the 2003 movie or ”IRON MAN”.

I really had a problem with the story’s finale. Granted, I was not fond of Bruce’s showdown with his father in the 2003 film. It came off as too vague for me. Although the Hulk/Abomination showdown was less vague in this film, I was not that impressed by it. The fight came off as too crude for my tastes. But the really problem is that the movie ended on a vague note. Perhaps this was Leterrier, Penn and Norton’s way of saying that the saga will continue. I think it could have been written better. The movie made it clear that it only defeated and not killed Abomination, but what later happened to Blonsky? Did he end up as Ross’ prisoner? Does the Army general really believe he can control Abomination? And those familiar with the Hulk comic saga knows that Sterns, who was exposed to Bruce’s blood in a confrontation with Blonsky, will become another one of the Hulk’s nemesis, the Leader. Unfortunately, not everyone would know this and the movie’s script makes this hint rather vague. It is almost as if the writers and the directors were afraid to give the story a more solid ending – like ”IRON MAN” or even ”THE HULK”. Not even the last shot of Bruce with a Norman Bates-style grin on his face or Robert Downey Jr’s cameo appearance as Tony Stark could really stave off my disappointment over the ending.

Despite the ending, ”THE INCREDIBLE HULK” is a damn good movie . . . one that Marvel Films to be proud of. But the vague ending and my initial problems with Tyler and Hurt make it impossible to accept the prevailing view that it is better than 2003’s ”THE HULK”.

“VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

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”VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

”VANTAGE POINT” is a tightly woven thriller about eight strangers with eight different points of view of an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, during an anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. Directed by Pete Travis and written by Barry Levy, the movie starred Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt.

When I had first saw the trailer for ”VANTAGE POINT”, I had assumed it would be one of those remakes of the Japanese film, “RASHOMON” (1950). I figured there would be an assassination attempt on the President and the film would follow with various points of view on the incident. This is what happened in ”VANTAGE POINT” . . . but not quite. ”VINTAGE POINT” did reveal the assassination attempt from various points of view. In ”RASHOMON” and other versions of the film, those views are shown as flashbacks. But in ”VANTAGE POINT” each point of view is not a flashback. Instead each POV merely gives a certain view of the story, while the story moves forward. For example, the movie started out with the point of view of a news producer (Sigourney Weaver) and the newscaster (Zoë Saldaña) that worked under her, before ending at a particular point in the story. The next point of view belongs to Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), which ends a little further in the story than the news producer’s POV. And so on. The movie ends with an exciting action sequence told from the various viewpoints of the major characters – heroes and villains.

The more I think about ”VANTAGE POINT”, the more I realize how much I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the tight setting of Salamanca, Spain (actually the film was shot in Mexico). I must add that one of the things I enjoyed about this movie was that Levy’s script had a way of putting a twist on any assumptions anyone might form about the plot. I loved how Travis handled the film’s action, making it well-paced. I enjoyed the performances of the major cast members. I was especially impressed by the performances of Dennis Quaid as the emotionally uncertain Barnes, who eventually pieced together the real plot. I also enjoyed the performances of Matthew Fox as his fellow Secret Service agent, Forest Whitaker as an American tourist and Edgar Ramirez (”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”) as a Spanish Special Forces soldier blackmailed into participating in the plot against the President. But more importantly, I loved Barry Levy’s script, which put a twist on any assumptions the moviegoer may have formed about the story’s plotlines and characters. My only quibble with ”VANTAGE POINT” was the interaction between Whitaker’s character and a Spanish girl, which I found slightly contrived near the end of the movie.

I suspect that ”VANTAGE POINT” will never be highly regarded by critics and moviegoers.  It is the type of movie that forces the audience to think. And I suspect that most moviegoers would prefer a film that lays everything out in the open. And I especially doubt that many moviegoers will have the patience to deal with the constant rewinds in order to show the viewpoints of various characters. Since I have a history of liking movies that are not popular with the public or film critics, all I can do is hope that I will have the chance to see the movie again, before it leaves the theater for good. Personally, I would recommend ”VANTAGE POINT”.