Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Seriously guys, why can’t we be friends? Why are you fighting? Stop it! STOP IT!!

Ok, sorry, I just get so emotional sometimes. Captain America: Civil War is upon us, and it is a rollercoaster in more ways than one.

Superheroes fighting each other is nothing new, just a few months ago Batman and Superman threw down, but instead of two heroes clashing, in this movie there are an even dozen duking it out.

On one side: Captain America, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch.

On the other: Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, Black Panther, and the Amazing Spider-Man himself.

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Wow, that’s quite the roster. Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in all but name. The only Avengers who do not appear are Hulk and Thor, and they are missed, but not too much, since the movie already has a plethora of costumed characters.

But what is the cause of these heroes’ disagreement? Basically, it has to do with accountability. The Avengers may be good at saving the world, but said world-saving is frequently accompanied by large amounts of collateral damage. The governments of the world have had enough, and seek to impose a new set of regulations to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark aka Iron Man is in favor of this, Steve Rogers aka Captain America is not, and the rest of the Avengers choose sides accordingly. There’s also a nefarious character with the catchy name of Zemo who is influencing events from behind the scenes, but to say too much about him would be to give the game away too soon.

I love this movie’s central conflict. It’s a fantastic setup because there are compelling arguments for both sides, which makes the character motivations clear for all involved. A movie with this many characters could easily become unbalanced. Batman V Superman for example was ungainly as hell with less than half as many superpowered individuals. But this movie has a clearer sense of purpose, and feels more coherent as a result.

Civil War throws a few new characters into the mix, with great success. Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is an excellent addition. Wearing a badass black costume made of vibranium, which is the same material Captain America’s shield is made of, and complete with Catwoman-esque retractable claws, the character makes a strong first impression and I am looking forward to his solo movie, which is due out in 2018.

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And let’s talk about Spider-Man. There’s a lot of cynicism relating to this character, due mostly to the fact that since 2002 there have already been five Spider-Man movies, presenting two different origin stories for the character who has been played by two different actors. The idea of yet another Spidey reboot was not something many people were overly excited about, but if next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming is half as charming as Spidey’s appearance in this film it could be something really special.

This latest version of the webslinger is played by a young actor named Tom Holland, with whom I was largely unfamiliar, but he really nailed it here. The movie presents Peter Parker as a penniless nerd who’s brilliant but so poor that he has to scavenge computer parts from the garbage. Tony Stark recruits him to join his cause and Holland has great chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. The scene where Tony first meets up with Peter is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It makes perfect sense that Tony and Peter would get along, since they’re both such huge science nerds. Peter Parker basically is a young Tony Stark, only dirt poor instead of filthy rich.

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And how can you not love this exchange:

Tony: You got a passport?

Peter: Um, no.

Tony: Ever been to Germany?

Peter: No.

Tony: Oh, you’re gonna love it there.

Peter: I…I can’t go to Germany.

Tony: Why not?

Peter: Because I…I have homework.

Tony: Okay, I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.

Isn’t that great? I love it. Of all the major superheroes, Spider-Man is the only one I can think of whose origin is firmly rooted in being a kid, and this movie manages to capture that with only a limited amount of screentime.

It also bears mentioning that Aunt May is now a hottie. She is played by Marisa Tomei, who even Tony Stark refers to as Aunt Hottie, which makes Peter hilariously uncomfortable. Tony Stark is something of an authority on the subject, since as we all know he once went 12-for-12 with Maxim cover models. I’m not sure how I feel about Aunt May being hot, but…okay, that’s a lie. I’m totally fine with it.

Moving on, what makes Tony and Peter’s interactions work so well is emblematic of what makes the rest of the movie’s characters work. The dialogue and characterization are sharp, and most of these actors have been playing their roles for years, so they understand their characters very well and have natural chemistry with one another. Every character has a good amount of screentime and gets to show off his or her abilities in fun and creative ways. Each superhero feels important to the story and none of them are extraneous.

And the action sequences are fan-freakin’-tastic. The fight coordinators, stunt crews, and special effects technicians did amazing work bringing the many action scenes to life. There are a lot of epic fights in this movie, but the highlight has to be the centerpiece airport battle between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. It’s one of the best smackdowns in superhero-movie history, and must be seen to be believed. Just wait till you see the trick Ant-Man has up his sleeve, it’s a showstopper.

Captain America: Civil War was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, and they prove themselves to be every bit as adept at balancing the character beats with the ass-kicking action as they demonstrated in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they also directed. The Russo brothers are also set to direct the next two Avengers movies, Infinity War Part One and Part Two, and we can rest assured that Earth’s mightiest heroes are in good hands.

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, but the Captain America movies in particular are noteworthy for how each film builds upon the previous ones. The Iron Man sequels were uneven and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while still fun, didn’t quite live up to the high standard set by its predecessor, but every Captain America movie has felt like an expansion of the themes and stories developed in the previous entries, and it’s been really great to see the series evolve.

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Captain America: Civil War is one of those rare blockbusters that works on just about every level. It’s smart, funny, action-packed and balances a large number of characters and stories with aplomb. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far, and sets a new standard for future superhero films.

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THE FUTURE

Sometimes, I feel like I’m living in the future.

It seems like only yesterday when Nick Fury dropped by Tony Stark’s house to have a chat about the Avenger Initiative.

If you had told me way back in 2008 when that first Iron Man movie came out that I would one day find myself sitting in a theater waiting for the Avengers sequel to start, I would have told you that you be crazy.

And yet, here we are. Avengers: Age of Ultron is upon us, and it’s every bit as gigantic as you might expect.

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The movie assumes a lot of familiarity with the previous movies, so if you haven’t seen those you might be a little lost. But I think it’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re interested in Avengers: Age of Ultron, then you probably had some interest in the previous movies, so I don’t think Age of Ultron’s lack of plot setup hurts the movie in the long run.

Age of Ultron starts off with a bang, joining the Avengers mid-battle, as they take down one of the last remaining Hydra fortresses. It’s a great way to start the movie, and it’s important because it shows our heroes working as a team. They know what they’re doing, and they know each other. They are a well-oiled machine.

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Those dudes on the right are so boned I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

Within the Hydra fortress, Tony Stark makes a discovery which allows him to re-activate a dormant peacekeeping project, called Ultron. Things promptly go awry, and Ultron decides that the only way for there to be peace on Earth is for there to be no humans on Earth, so he begins to set in motion events which will lead to the extinction of mankind.

Or…something. To be honest, the movie’s storytelling is a bit muddled. I understood the broad strokes of the plot, but there were a few aspects of the plot that were kind of puzzling to me. There was one subplot in particular involving Thor in which I had absolutely no idea what was going on, or what the point was. A week later, I still don’t.

As with many blockbuster sequels, Age of Ultron is more than a little overstuffed. It’s a lumbering behemoth of a movie, one that sometimes groans under the weight of its many parts. There’s a lot going on in the movie, and not all of it works. Some subplots seem shoehorned in, and some characters get short shrift. There’s also a romantic subplot between Bruce Banner and Black Widow that felt a bit out of place to me, although I did like that we get to see more of Hawkeye and Black Widow’s back stories.

But as clunky as it is, Age of Ultron is still quite a bit of fun. The special effects are fantastic (as they should be, considering the movie’s $250 million price tag), and the many action sequences are consistently thrilling to watch. My particular favorite was probably the skyscraper-leveling brawl between the Hulk and Iron Man, with Iron Man equipped with his meaty, badass Hulkbuster armor.

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The film also benefits from an excellent villain in the form of James Spader’s Ultron. His motivation isn’t all that original (humans are a disease and must be exterminated in order for the world to survive, blah blah blah, it’s pretty much the exact same reasoning as the villain Samuel L. Jackson played in Kingsman: The Secret Service a few months ago), but Spader’s vocal performance is fantastic, and Ultron looks great.

He has some humanlike characteristics, such as a wry, somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, that keep him from being just another boring deathbot. His facial expressions are also quite impressive, I mean, he’s a robot with facial expressions! Touches like this ensure that Ultron never becomes boring or clichéd, and he remains scary and formidable throughout the movie. When you have six famous superheroes as your main characters, you need a villain worthy of all of them, and Ultron more than fits that description.

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The movie’s greatest pleasures are its characters, all of whom are played by talented actors who have been playing these roles for quite a few years and quite a few movies, and all of them fit into their roles like a glove (like…gloves? I’m not entirely sure how that metaphor should go, but you get the idea). Robert Downey Jr. once again proves that he was born to play Tony Stark. He’s just awesome.

So yeah, the movie’s far from perfect. It didn’t captivate me quite as much as its 2012 predecessor did. Partly I think that some of the novelty may have worn off a bit, for me at least. Let’s face it, as much as I like these movies, there have been an awful lot of them over the last couple of years. Still, I’m looking forward to Captain America: Civil War (due out next year) and the next Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is Ant-Man, sooooo…still not sure what to think about that one. I’ll still see it, but more out of curiosity than anything else.

Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t quite as streamlined as its predecessor, but it’s still a well-made, well-acted piece of summer blockbuster entertainment that is sometimes confusing but always fun, even if it isn’t as fresh as it was the first time the Avengers assembled.

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And boy do I love these retro-looking posters.

The Misplaced Optimism of the Doomed

I’ve watched Snowpiercer twice now, and both times after it was over I was so in awe of it that I could barely get my thoughts together. It’s an awesome, awesome movie, one of my favorite films of the last few years. Any sci-fi fan would be insane not to check it out.

But, as I tend to do, I’m getting ahead of myself. Snowpiercer is a film by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, which was made in 2013 and released in 2014 (I think). It’s based on a French graphic novel wonderfully titled Le Transperceneige (I guess it’s true that everything really does sound better in French).

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It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but it is a post-apocalyptic story that is completely unlike any other post-apocalyptic story you have ever seen or heard of. In the future, an attempt to halt global warming goes catastrophically wrong and the entire planet becomes a frozen wasteland, killing nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors live on a massive train called the Snowpiercer, which travels the world on a track which spans the globe and is powered by a perpetual-motion engine. The inhabitants in the front of the train are the elites who live a life of luxury, while the inhabitants of the train’s tail section live in squalor.

In 2031, seventeen years after the world froze, the inhabitants of the tail section have had enough. They are sick of eating slimy, disgusting-looking protein blocks and of having some of their children taken away. They are sick of living in squalor and the strong-arm tactics of the guards. They are planning something. The breaking point comes when one man’s son is taken and he snaps and attacks the guards. As punishment, they stick his arm out of an opening in the train, and after a few minutes his arm is frozen solid, and is then struck with a hammer and shattered into pieces.

The leader of the tail section, Curtis Everett (played fantastically by Chris Evans) has theorized that the guards’ guns have no bullets, because they used them all in subduing a previous uprising by the tail sectioners some years ago. In the heat of the moment, he decides to test this theory: he strides forward, grabs the barrel of one guard’s rifle, puts it to his own temple, and squeezes the trigger: the gun clicks. It is empty. The revolution is on.

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From there, the film follows Curtis and his followers as they battle their way through the train. Their objective is to reach the front of the train and confront the mysterious Wilford, the man who built the train and is the caretaker of the Sacred Engine. I’m not going to give away too many more details about the plot, since this is a film that really needs to be experienced by everyone, and the experience is so much better if you don’t know what’s coming.

And chances are good that you will have no idea what is coming next. I certainly didn’t, the first time I experienced this film. And that aspect is one of the things that make it such a great movie: its unpredictability and its originality go hand-in-hand. Its setting is completely unlike any other movie I have ever seen, which lends itself to a brilliantly unpredictable story. This is a movie that is so different from any other movie out there. There is something new in every scene of this film, it is chock-full of surprises. Every time Curtis and his followers open a door into a new area of the train, the suspense is palpable as the viewer has no more idea what will be on the other side of the massive door than the characters do.

And how would you feel if the door opened, and these guys were on the other side?

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Yeah. Me too.

And that brings me to another point: the violence. Snowpiercer is a brutal movie, and will not be to every viewer’s taste. The fight between those guys and Curtis and his followers is incredibly brutal, but also beautiful in an odd way. The way it is filmed makes it easy to follow what is happening, and the vicious crunchy sound effects of the axes hitting flesh are cringe-inducing. But despite that, the most violent parts are largely unseen. Blood splatters against the windows, but there are no shots of axes graphically entering bodies or anything like that. What I’m trying to say is that it’s brutal but also restrained, which if anything enhances the brutality, since, as we all know, the images we conjure in our own minds are far worse than anything the film can actually show us.

I would hesitate to call Snowpiercer an action film. I think of the fight scenes as fight scenes and not action scenes, since to me action scenes are meant to be entertaining. The bloody battles in Snowpiercer are not exactly fun to watch, and they’re not meant to be. This is violence, not action violence. The combatants in Snowpiercer’s brawls aren’t trained fighters, they’re normal people fighting for their very survival, and nobody pulls any punches.

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And even though I wouldn’t call Snowpiercer an action movie, I would definitely call it a thriller, for one very simple reason: it is absolutely thrilling throughout. The movie is heart-pounding throughout. The train the film takes place on is always in motion, so too is the film’s momentum. It just never lets up. Even in its quieter moments, everything feels important and the film always feels like it’s building towards something. The pacing is flawless.

And despite the film’s bleak, brutal nature, it is also full of strikingly beautiful imagery: the glimpses the film gives of the frozen, ruined world beyond the train are haunting and evocative.

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This is a concept that easily could have been completely botched. In the wrong hands, this film could have been a melodramatic, far-fetched, cheesy disaster, but it isn’t. It’s none of those things. Director Bong Joon-Ho nails the film’s tone, he keeps it serious and never veers into camp. I never had the slightest problem suspending my disbelief at any point in this film, I was completely immersed the entire time. Watch this film and the outside world will disappear. You will live in the train with the characters, the train is their entire world and it will be yours as well the entire time you are watching it.

The performances are another huge part of what makes the film work so well. The cast includes well-known actors such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell, all of whom lose themselves completely in their roles and are 100% believable. Swinton in particular is just awesome (has she ever given a bad performance? I can’t think of one). “My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed,” she tells Curtis before the epic brawl with the masked, axe-wielding warriors pictured above, and if chills don’t run down your spine at that moment, then you’re probably a robot incapable of feeling emotion. Another memorable supporting turn comes from Korean actor Song Kang-Ho, who makes a big impression with his quiet, steely resolve and sarcastic sense of humor, despite all of his dialogue being in Korean.

And I saved the best performance for last: Chris Evans. Man oh man, Chris Evans. I think Snowpiercer will go down as his finest moment. He is just awesome. He is of course best known for playing Captain America (which he also does extremely well) but his character in Snowpiercer is a far cry from the All-American heroism of Steve Rogers. Curtis is a heroic but tortured soul, and you can feel his pain as he loses more and more friends along his journey.

And he gets one scene near the end of the film where we find out his backstory that is completely heartbreaking. Curtis tells his story and the camera stays on him the entire time, there are no flashbacks. It stays completely in the moment as Curtis spills his guts, and Evans’ performance in that moment is just phenomenal, some of the most intimate, soul-baring, just completely devastating acting I have ever seen. Evans may be best known as a superhero, but he has so much range. I really hope he gets a chance to flex his acting muscles again in the future, because he knocks this one right out of the park.

Alright, I’m done now. I hope it wasn’t too tiring to listen to me gush about a movie for 1,400 words, but it’s been a while since I responded to a film so strongly. I really can’t recommend Snowpiercer highly enough, every moment of it for me is unforgettable. It’s dark and violent and I’m sure you could poke holes in the story if you really wanted to, but it is completely unique, brilliantly acted, has some beautiful visuals, and is utterly thrilling throughout. There are many more things I could say about this film (I haven’t even mentioned the scene in the school car, which is jaw-dropping), but for now I’ve said enough.

Go watch Snowpiercer. You’ll never forget it.