Steve Rogers continues his journey as the super-powered American soldier who’s grasping to find his place in a modern world after being frozen in ice since WWII with this Marvel Studios sequel. Chris Evans returns to star, with Community director/producers Joe and Anthony Russo helming. (2014)

For movies involving superhero characters, I’m not sure what will top the joy of seeing the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes come together for the first time in The Avengers. All the meticulous planning that Marvel and Kevin Feige put in to making the seemingly impossible work ended up reaching a level of success they may not have even anticipated. The reason I didn’t use the term “superhero genre” up top was because these Marvel comic heroes and villains are just the jumping off point for working within various tropes and established genres (such as the magical world of Thor and the technology driven world of Iron Man). In the case of The Winter Soldier, it’s a spy/political thriller that just happens to featured costumed heroes. But in so many ways, it’s more than that: This entry of Captain America is a straight up damn good movie.

The Russo Brothers displayed a fine sense of filming action on the TV show Community, but I did not know they were capable of doing it on such a big canvas. For whatever reason (I can’t at least identify why from a storytelling perspective), Steve Rogers is a lot more lethal this time around in hand to hand combat. The big set pieces are pleasently original and for once it seems like Marvel hasn’t gone the cheap route. But the action alone wasn’t going to make this a great movie: in addition to fantastic performances across the board, The Winter Soldier has real stakes the audience can invest in.

The easy thing to do would be to just throw in a few curveballs and plot twists and call it a thriller out of the mold of the 70s Robert Redford classics. Though in the third act (Marvel so rarely- with the exception of The Avengers- gets these right) there are some twists that felt one step too many, the majority are earned and in turn cause the characters to reevaluate their motives, their actions, themselves, and each other. That’s plain old good storytelling! And I make that point of emphasis not to disparage the superhero films that came before, but to highlight that this can be the new standard.

The Winter Soldier does have the benefit of having a few previous films within the Marvel Universe help set up the aforementioned stakes, but it’s still a success in its own right. All Marvel movies feature some form of humor to acknowledge the inherent silliness, but the humor here is a lot sharper and smarter than any of their previous entries. In addition to action, the Russo brothers know how to pull off comedy very well.

In my mind there’s no two ways about it: Chris Evans is and will always be Captain America the way that Christopher Reeves will always be Superman. There are fine performances from Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson, but Evans is the anchor of the movie and puts in his best performance as Cap of his three appearances. The Winter Soldier may not have the cultural impact of The Dark Knight nor the unforgettable cinematic experience of The Avengers, but it is by leaps and miles the best film that just happens to feature superhero characters.

A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world. (2014)

The idiom “your mileage may vary” is incredibly applicable to a film such as Noah, so let me get a few things out of the way: I am not religious and I only had a cursory knowledge of the story of Noah’s Ark (I’ve forgotten whatever I learned years ago in Hebrew school). With that in mind, I found Noah to be a strangely rewarding cinematic experience. Darren Arnofsky’s gone big before, such as in The Fountain–which I strongly disliked but need to revisit– but due to the biblical nature of this story, he’s playing with his biggest canvas yet.

Noah doesn’t feel like your average historical blockbuster. There are touches of Arnofsky’s previous works present, such as the repetition of key shots, which give it a unique feel from the opening frame. It’s mostly The Watchers that struck me as something different. As the general audience has been inundated with CGI monster and creature after the next over the last fifteen plus years with similar designs, The Watchers visuals really stood out to me. They truly felt as if they came out of a Ray Harryhausen film, all stop-motion and unnaturally moving. Though not all of the CGI works, but I’m especially appreciative that Arnofsky opted to build a practical ark.

I’m not going to put a spoiler alert on a portion of The Bible, so I will say I was taken aback by Noah’s actions in the third act. From a screenwriting perspective, it’s almost the ultimate conflict to present, a sort of religious Sophie’s Choice. Russell Crowe, who early on the film takes a calm yet determined demeanor in playing Noah, doesn’t choose to play the latter part of the movie with batshit crazy eyes or screaming. Rather, he presents Noah as a man almost possessed by a duty that he must fulfill. Though no one gets the opportunity to shine here–the performances are largely wooden, as if the actors were afraid to inject these historical figures with any real personality–I really appreciated Crowe’s turn in Noah.

The score was so largely forgettable that I had to think back to remember if there were any pieces of music throughout. Perhaps that’s a good thing, in that Arnofsky didn’t go for something grandiose that would distract from the narrative. There are parts that were silly but nothing felt preachy, which I appreciated. Noah is far from perfect, but it’s a worthwhile viewing, regardless of your mileage.

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) has lost everything — his house, his job, and his wife. He now finds himself living back with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father (Robert DeNiro) after spending eight months is a state institution on a plea bargain. Pat is determined to rebuild his life, remain positive and reunite with his wife, despite the challenging circumstances of their separation. All Pat’s parents want is for him to get back on his feet-and to share their family’s obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles football team. When Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a mysterious girl with problems of her own, things get complicated. Tiffany offers to help Pat reconnect with his wife, but only if he’ll do something very important for her in return. As their deal plays out, an unexpected bond begins to form between them, and silver linings appear in both of their lives. (2012)

Color me surprised: Silver Linings Playbook exceeded my expectations, in spite of them being set very, very low. Especially in this phase of David O. Russell’s career (i.e. anything from The Fighter and forward), everything about the movie looked like Oscar bait. And yes, everyone gets their opportunity to cry and scream and rant for that perfect Oscar clip. That being said, Playbook was a lot more fun than I anticipated and wasn’t as schmaltzy as I thought it’d be (though the ending felt like a copout). I still hope David O. Russell will make another turn with his career and step away from films like this.

He thought it was over. After fighting his way out of a building filled with gangsters and madmen – a fight that left the bodies of police and gangsters alike piled in the halls – rookie Jakarta cop Rama thought it was done and he could resume a normal life. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Formidable though they may have been, Rama’s opponents in that fateful building were nothing more than small fish swimming in a pond much larger than he ever dreamed possible. And his triumph over the small fry has attracted the attention of the predators farther up the food chain. (2014)

I was fortunate enough to attend an advance screening for The Raid 2: Berandal, and also a Q&A with the director and stars afterwards. I have so much to say about the film, but I feel as if my friend Derek Jimenez did a fantastic job of summing things up:

Think about the best thing that’s ever happened to you.

Whatever it is, really focus on it.

Let the memory wash over you, take you back to that moment where that giddy tightness floating around in your belly rushed up to your heart & tripled it’s pace, rendering you speechless, senseless, & generally unable to function. The thing that finally connected the abstract concept of elation to the physical experience of it.

Do you remember? Has the feeling been reinvigorated? Is it coursing violently through your veins like wildfire? Are you living it again right this second, experiencing all of the things that simply can not be conveyed to another human being because the happiness is so all consuming and omnipotent that you couldn’t possibly do it justice by explaining it with words!?!?

Good.

Because The Raid 2 is the martial arts action film translation of that – bottled up & sprayed out in an extravagant balls to the wall frenetically bad ass brutal as fuck adrenaline fest that will make you remember what it’s like to be the happiest person on the face of this planet.

So Kung fu your ass down to the nearest cinema & prepare to have your face bashed in & your mind boggled by the sheer audacity of a film that grips the shit out of you and doesn’t let go for all 148 impossibly short minutes of run time, and seems far too good to be true.

Tells the dark, hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose lives have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. (2013)

Tracy Letts first came on my radar after I watched the brilliant Killer Joe. I had no idea it was an adaptation of a play, and I was thoroughly impressed with the writing that I had to look further into the playwright’s career. Though I didn’t know much about August: Osage County going into it, just seeing Letts’ name attached had me excited. I then came across the cast: Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch and a bunch of big actors. I became concerned that this movie was going to be Oscar bait and, oh boy, is it ever.

Let me start with the one part that worked for me: Letts’ writing. The screenplay is bleak, smart and never lets up. Unfortunately, there’s not all that much action, and so we the audience is bombarded by speech after speech and fight after fight. And my are there fights! Everyone gets their shot to scream at the top of their lungs and say something awful about another family member. Secrets are revealed, trusts are broken and no one comes out looking particularly good.

I would’ve preferred to see the same material with a different set of actors. I know these actors are some of the best (or more likely, well known) of their respective generations, but everyone just tears into each scene with a big Best Actor/Actress halo seemingly attached to their heads. The one standout is Benedict Cumberbatch as little Charles, an incredibly sweet if not particularly intelligent man. He adds subtlety to a movie where it’s not easy to find.

From John Landis, the director of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Burke & Hare is adark comedy/thriller staring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and Isla Fisher as the unfortunate denizens of 19th century Edinburgh, a setting rife with murder, theft, prostitution, corpse snatching, experimental medicine, and of course Shakespeare. (2011)

This is a true story.
Except for the parts that are not.

And with that we enter Burke and Hare, an entertaining mix of black humor and Monty Python-esque shenanigans that is based on events in history. I wouldn’t have expected this type of film from John Landis, but I’m certainly glad to have watched it. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis do terrific work together, and I hope to see them reunite in another film. Isla Fisher is simply adorable and pulls off a very convincing Scottish accent. I wish the whole film didn’t have that post-production blue hue filter that has popped up in so many recent movies, but it does at least help sell the gloominess of 1800s era Edinburgh. Though some of the laughs are easily telegraphed, Burke and Hare is an enjoyable comedy that features a number of talented character actors.

A sudden snowstorm in Chicago forces the plane to land in Wichita. Unable to find a room in any of the four-star hotels, Neal is compelled to accept Del’s invitation to share his accommodations in a cheapo-sleazo motel. Driven to distraction by Del’s annoying personal habits, the ungrateful Neal lets forth with a stream of verbal abuse. (1987)

It’s always a weird feeling to not love a classic as much as you think you would. Such is the case with me and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. That’s not to say there are parts that I didn’t like– John Candy is at his best in the dramatic, sadder scenes. Him and Steve Martin are both funny, but what makes the film work is that John Hughes touch of humanity. That being said, I didn’t care much for the first act and some of the more gross gags. As a side note, is Due Date a super duper rip off of this movie or what?

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