Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: Winter Soldier - Double Shot Movie Review with Ben Alpi and Rick Arthur

Winter Soldier. Sounds like a Cold War hero if ever there was one.

Ben and I will continue the tradition of independent reviews. This should be pretty easy because I will be viewing/writing from the great state of New Mexico and he will share his thoughts from Los Angeles, California. Neither one of us has discussed the film before viewing or after so this will ensure that our opinions remain our own. As is the intent of the blog, follow us through the "Cap as 70 years of source material - so how do you make that movie?"

SPOILER ALERT - Please be advised that these reviews may contain detailed descriptions of plot, character and dramatic conclusion. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you do not want SPOILERS!


review by Ben Alpi

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent Cap film. After I successfully avoided all reviews and trailers, my wife and I headed to the theater. We saw it in 'boring old 2D' in a theater equipped with the latest Dolby Atmos surround sound system. Overall, I really enjoyed the film, the music, the dialog, the overarching story, and the general plot. A fine effort by the Russo brothers, the writers, and the cast and crew. There was a lot of sophistication here; the film was more like a 70's spy film which is a very positive thing. There were some slight drawbacks, which I'll get into, but is overall a solid, fun film. Let's get started!

In the opening scene Cap, Black Widow, and a SHIELD team make a drop onto a SHIELD ocean-going vessel with some very cool action. This sets up Cap's current gig and the players that surround him. The only problem I have with this sequence is it ends with a video game-like boss fight, the French kick boxer Batroc. Although I know the character from the comics, his outfit is unforgettable, I didn't recall him by name. Even though I figured he was from the comics, he seemed just like some terrorist dude giving the orders. Batroc goes toe-to-toe with Cap after crashing through a few walls/windows and have a really cool fight where we get to see Cap's shield-based fighting form in full swing. On one hand I was wondering how this guy was able to keep up with Cap, but on the other I have always wondered if a martial artist like Bruce Lee could stand up, at least for a time, against a super hero like Cap so it seemed plausible. Then Cap tosses away his shield and helmet to prove he can go toe-to-toe. That didn’t really make sense, except for the fact that Batroc wouldn’t stand any chance otherwise so, all right. The fight is really well done but it does go on for a bit too long-- although I may not have felt that way if it wasn't so plainly a boss fight. Still, there's nothing bad in any of this and a lot of good. Start the film with a bang and some friction with Widow, cool. One last thing, Cap's dark uniform and dulled shield are great and create an excellent contrast. (Which is something Rick and I emailed about years ago.)

Chris Evans appears much more mature and assured in his role as Captain America. Really locked into the role. He also somehow looks more like Cap, perhaps he's actually leaner and he may have been shot better-- Cap should tower over normal folks and he mostly does in this film. Chris is six-foot tall so he's not small, but I feel that the last film, and perhaps even Avengers, didn't make him look big enough. I originally had reservations about him taking on the role of Steve Rogers, as you may recall, but this film proves he can do it.

We find out eventually that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hired the terrorists as a cover for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to uncover the real mission of the vessel. Okay, but that's pretty darn elaborate considering the number of dudes killed. Yes, they're likely bad men, but still... in the end this seemed a bit easy for this kind of team which should have made Cap wonder but, it's all in the SHIELD family so, I'll buy it.

Cap's conflicted relationship with Black Widow is really well done although, I feel the texture of Widow's character is missing. She's ex-KGB but you wouldn't know it. I don't see her past play on her face when she talks about it, for instance. Even though there are a lot of nice moments with her, I don't really feel her emotions. She seems like a normal person put in extraordinary circumstances and keeps fighting through thick and thin. That's not bad at all but should she herself seem more extraordinary? I think she was a more tactile character in Avengers even though she had less screen time.

Moving through the film, we find out that Cap is still kind of drifting and hasn't found a real purpose in his new life. So, when he finds Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) working with vets, that is just top notch. His reveal as Falcon was also bang on good writing. Also great fun in the film was the reveal of Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) who has been transferred into an ancient, but powerful super computer-- just fantastic! The scene with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was heart breaking but was a great scene.

Jackson as Nick Fury was probably the best he's been in the role yet. He has the dynamism of his role in Avengers with added depth of being in peril himself. Really solid acting and excellent writing. Okay, I knew he wasn't dead, but that's just because I know way too much about this stuff!

Hydra, like many of the elements of this film, have been brought up-to-date. They're more like a loosely connected terrorist network which is cool. There really isn't a big mastermind pulling the strings, as of yet, just cells with their own leaders. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford!) sets up a great dynamic with a powerful character who is not super and who isn't defeated in a fistfight. He's much more like Lex Luthor if he was a politician. The only thing is I didn't really feel anything special from him, similar to Black Widow. When you have an actor with the gravitas of Redford, you expect something special. I didn't get that.

The Winter Soldier. It wasn't tough to figure out what was to become of Bucky. In the first film he "dies" pretty easily, a give-away that he'll be back. (This is Marvel so, he'll be back.) Overall, I really liked him. He's a bit of a Terminator relentless killing machine but the film needed someone super for Cap to fight somewhere. As such however, it seems his role was smaller than it should have been to be listed alongside Cap in the title of the film. The film was far more about Hydra and Pierce than The Winter Soldier. The fights and gun battles were very good, though. I really liked how Bucky always managed to defend with his robo arm and how Cap chopped his shield into it at one point. All really well done. The funny thing is they kept his costume pretty close to the comic complete with red star. Red star. Er, uhh, red star as in Russia. I'm sure that no one was thinking that kids today would be confused by this but it is odd that Hydra would take the time to keep painting on a red star when there doesn't seem to be any relation to Russia-- unless I missed it. I suppose Hydra could have been involved with Russia too so, a small point.

Working up to the big reveal of Pierce, I didn't really feel the danger much of the time. Redford's performance doesn't change at all after his reveal as a villain and that contributes a lot to my feeling it was flat. It would have been terrible if he has suddenly started twirling his mustache and cackling, but I would have liked some kind of change. I didn't really feel why he was compelled to submit to the retinal scan and why he didn't 'zap' the Directors (and Widow) sooner except to serve the plot. It's possible that I missed something though, like his phone may have been on his desk and he couldn't get to it. I don't recall that fact being communicated to the audience though. Still, Wikileak'ing the SHIELD and Hydra files was pretty cool and very up-to-date story-wise. That's one of the great things with this film-- it has current ideas in it that fit the spy genre but haven't been seen in many films. To have a cutting-edge film with a 70+ year old character is superlative.

Finally, Cap gets a great speech to rally the troops. Well done. Although, I must also point out that I don't know if the film really built up to it. All the performances in Winter Soldier are decent although, as I’ve mentioned, they’re a bit bland. Cap never really gets choked up about anything. Black Widow is the girl next door. Cap's speech was awesome, but it feels sudden because folks are inspired by Cap more by default than being inspired through his word and deed. There was no Hydra agent who was like "You're right Cap, F Hydra!" Cap is from another generation, he should still be a fish out of water simply because his very code of conduct is different from today. Cap is not a regular Joe as this film portrays him. He's way more than that. Although, the setup from the first Cap film does not make him an idealist. That is perhaps a key to why I don't feel for these characters as much as I might, they just don't seem to be very passionate about what they're doing. Falcon is. Fury is. They have motivation. Everyone else is kind of going with the flow. They're very... normal. Would a real life politician risk death to complete his traitorous mission? Nope. He'd do whatever it takes to escape because ultimately he's just a guy taking advantage of his position. He's not an idealist, he's an opportunist. For a film though, that's kinda boring.

Overall though, I really like the concept of balancing the fisticuffs (Falcon/Cap/Bucky) against the battle of wits (Pierce/Widow/Fury) for the climax of this film. This is a capital plot. A-1. These days there are so many action movies with giant, drawn out action sequences-- so much so they simply devolve into tedious visual effects spectaculars with no human element (the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels are great examples). The only problem is Pierce is beaten as soon as Fury enters the room so, the rest of that side of the sequence drags because of it.

On the fisticuffs side, Falcon and Cap were a great team and I didn't mind that their objective was on the easy side-- all they need to do is swap two "blades" in the computer cores of the gun ships and poof, they’re under good guy control. It turned out to be a good balance though, it was really hard to get to the server, but then they could just plug them in and keep the scene moving. This felt a lot less Death Star than it could have, which is great. What happened to Falcon was well done-- he really kicked butt but was ultimately taken out by Bucky. But, he continues to help inside SHIELD HQ all in believable ways (since he has no super powers). Of course, the fact that no one except for Cap and Bucky has super powers, the amount of punishment everyone takes is a bit excessive but I guess no more than other action films. If I remember correctly, Widow comes back from her gunshot wound (nicely seen as a through-and-through) to help but doesn't do a huge fight. That worked well-- unlike some films... (Dr Shaw in Prometheus, anyone?) The visual effects were really great throughout the film with excellent digital doubles and the final cacophony of gun ships is epic goodness. Yay the heroes win! I have to say that Cap saying he won't fight Bucky any longer was a bit lame for an instant but his mission was complete so it makes sense he'd switch to his mission to save Bucky. He gives his all which is very Cap. So a pretty satisfying end to that battle.

Not quite so satisfying was the scene with Black Widow at the hearing. This is complete conjecture, but I wonder if there was a different ending but then test audiences showed a need for some closure from leaking the files. So, they did this as a pickup shoot. If this scene was shot with different people behind the camera and a limited budget, that could be an explanation for the lower quality. Widow's dialog is not great and it looks like they filmed on a small stage, possible against a green screen. The focus is shallow and the reporters are REALLY close to Widow taking notes (which is actually pretty distracting). Wait, why are they standing? Why aren't there chairs like any normal chamber? Do quick Google Image search for "congressional hearing" and you'll see there is always seating. Given the great lengths the filmmakers went to make everything authentic, this scene got no love and it leaves things a bit sour. So, when we get to the Joss Whedon-directed mid-credits scene, it stands in stark contrast and seems kind of campy. We got no super villainous monologues in Winter Soldier (except maybe Dr. Zola's?) so this scene really sticks out. I love Joss' stuff so I'm sorry to say it hit me like a commercial. The final post-credits scene is also kind of lackluster. It's cool that Bucky is learning about his past but, like Widow's hearing scene, it doesn't really add anything.

**WARNING** Now entering the director nit picky zone **WARNING**
If you'd like to skip to the conclusion of my review and to Rick's review, please look for the end-of-warning below. If you want to get down to some nitty gritty points, read on!

I've talked a little about the human aspect of this film. Fantastic human moments ground this film and ultimately help it succeed. The only thing is it's very human. It seems the prevailing notion is that audiences don't want to watch super human feats done by people with super human ideals and passions. They think that audiences will only be able to identify with characters who are normal, they just happen to have amazing powers. Spider-man is likely the mold that other heroes have been forced into-- he's just a normal kid who gains super powers. Is that true though? Sure, Peter Parker was a nerd and was picked on at school so when he got his powers, he used them for revenge. Then, through tragedy, he learned what the gift he was given truly meant. Peter was not a normal teen, he was extremely intelligent and cared deeply for his aging Aunt and Uncle. And, through the death of his uncle, he becomes very abnormal indeed. The reality is that although Peter sometimes wishes he was just a normal guy, he's dedicated himself to defending the powerless because he feels a personal responsibility to do so. He still tries to live a normal life on the side, but it's really tough going. In many films however, it feels more like the heroes have normal lives, or they're actually evil, and are trying to be heroes on the side. So, we're teaching kids to just to be average and maintain the status quo? Maybe someday something extraordinary will happen to you? NO! We have to show them that it's okay to be extraordinary! When I was a kid, we were taught in school that "I am special." We even had pins that said it. This is certainly true, we're all special but it's very easy to act like you're not. We all can be extraordinary but we have to take responsibility for it and make it happen through our word and deed. That's exactly what Cap signifies. He wasn't just a skinny kid who tripped over a super soldier serum; he was a skinny kid with such tightly held ideals that despite being under weight, he tried to enlist repeatedly. He went through boot camp and almost died-- because he was normal? No! Because he wasn't normal. He wanted to fight for his ideals and against tyranny and he was willing to die trying. This is who Steve Rogers is. Extraordinary. And you can be, too.

The human aspect is also reflected in the production design. Falcon's wings and jet pack are grey metal. Batroc is dulled. I know this is intended to make the film seem more realistic but to me, it simply makes it more humdrum. This isn't just a problem with this film, but pretty much all super hero films from Batman Begins to [insert many other super hero film here], the comic book design elements have almost been totally removed. I'm not saying they should have used Batroc's terrible costume, but everything is just so bland. Fury's in all black, Black Widow hardly uses her sting, Falcon has gray goggles. The sets overall for this film were very nice, though.

"PDA"? It’s so odd that they listed PDA's in what they can track people with being PDAs have been widely obsolete for years now-- replaced by smart phones.

Many scenes in the film become static. It's expected that there will be scenes where the actors enter, plant themselves in a spot and simply have a conversation. Often times we'll give the actor something to do while they talk, called 'business,' or move them around the set motivated by their mood or a need to do something. This film seems to have a lot of just talking-- Cap and Fury in the office, Cap and Fury in the elevator, Cap and Fury in the hangar bay, Cap and Widow in the kitchen, Cap and Widow in the truck... these are not bad scenes but there is a sense that the directors wanted to get the actors to their marks and get into the closeups as fast as possible. In television, this is the norm so, perhaps since the directors came from TV their staging is like that? It just felt a bit stilted and made the dialog a bit dry in spots. It's a bit more like running through the lines to get to the next scene rather than those lines really meaning something to the characters (and thusly to us).

I'm pretty sure digital filmmaking did not help this movie. I haven't been able to confirm it yet, but this film looks like it was shot digitally and likely projected digitally. I say that because I noticed what boils down to a lack of resolution-- the image degrades when projected onto the big screen. Many shots seemed out-of-focus and artificially smoothed. That blended with the over-saturation and brightness of the overall film (for 3D?) it just did not look good at points. Some shots, especially the ones of the uniforms in Cap's museum, looked like cheap video-- overly sharp with no motion blur. Also, any slight misstep with makeup was magnified. In several scenes Widow's makeup was apparent and looked muddy. Many folks looked like they had blush on and the whites of their eyes were pink. Some closeups of Cap where we should be swooning, feel very brightly and flatly lit making the shot and him look normal instead of fantastic and inspiring. Film emulsion and film grain work in such a way that when a 35mm frame is projected much larger on the screen, it still looks fantastic-- even magical. It’s high latitude and excellent falloff mean the contrast between colors and between light and shadow look quite pleasant. The grain breaks the image up in an organic way which actually fools the eye into thinking images and motion look nicer than they would without it-- like digital. Also, the softness of film and the way it handles color give some degree of leeway with makeup and makeup effects. It can even help ‘sell’ some visual effects (help em look real.) I’m surprised that actors who see their makeup look so poor don’t demand they be shot on film. I wish they, along with cinematographers and directors, would do so and also demand a standard frame rate of 24 frames (with some caveats). Otherwise, there is a very good chance we’ll be stuck trying to not notice bad looking makeup and movies that look like a poor approximation of film. I love Peter Jackson's work and am thoroughly enjoying the Hobbit series, but even with the amazing amount of talent and craft brought to bear on those films, shooting on digital pokes holes in the fantasy and delivers a substandard image. Just like my point of making the heroes more 'normal' takes something special away, having an image so sharp and unforgiving takes away from the concept of suspending disbelief instead of bolstering it.
**END** Now exiting director nit picky zone **END**

To sum up, I recommend Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its sophistication, action, and humor. There were some things I didn't like, but they're relatively small and shouldn't hold anyone back from seeing this film. Thanks for reading! I'm really glad Cap got a solid film and an excellent characterization by Chris Evans, the Russo's, and writers.

Let freedom ring! (The real kind, not the under threat of death kind, k?)
Los Angeles - 04/06/14


review by Rick Arthur

I enjoyed the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier. From the beginning it flexes it's action hero muscles with dazzling choreography and breakneck pacing. The fight scenes are interesting, exciting and contain plenty of twists as well as quiet moments to intensify the impact. I would recommend it for adrenaline junkie film goers as solid entertainment.

The film as a whole carries some heavy weight as it tries to lay another building block in the foundation of The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, the preoccupation is with badass Nick Fury played by Sam Jackson as he uses Captain America, Black Widow and others to do his dirty work for him. The "secret" agency of SHIELD, a run amok version of Homeland Security on steroids, has been infiltrated by members of HYDRA. This would make for an interesting mix except in order to tie HYDRA into the story as previously set up in Captain America: The First Avenger, gigantic leaps of faith have to be made. There is a thin explanation of how this supreme subterfuge can have existed for 70+ years and gone undetected. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) still alive even in computer form and undetected? Really? The entire ends justify the means "practicality" as presented by Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce, Robert Redford's character is borderline ridiculous and paints the whole reason for the characters and subsequently the story with a super wide brush.

The first Cap film is very deliberate in creating depth of character and motivation. Here in the second Cap go round - a spies, heroes, technology, ideology smash 'em up, strong characters and motivations are replaced by a plot composed of putting everything in a mix master. The fact that such strong character actors can be piled together to say their lines, hit their marks and scowl on cue is a testament to the casting department. Having Robert Redford even loosely associated with the film is a huge feather in the cap for Marvel. Yet, the demographic of those under thirty consuming the film probably don't understand who he is and why they should care. Check out Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Brubaker, The Natural, Sneakers, Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, Three Days of the Condor, The Sting, The Candidate, The Way We Were, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. His body of directing and producing work is also vast. In his role in Cap, Redford gets to mug with holographs for most of the time and strike Winter Soldier across the face. I am not sure why he ever consented to work on a serial action film as a paper thin villain. Perhaps he always wanted to be a Bond villain.

For that matter, Toby Jones is a fantastically gifted character actor with a longer history than playing Zola or appearing in The Hunger Games. Does the target group know Sam Jackson from his credit card commercials, Snakes on a Plane or Pulp Fiction? How did these actors and more get roped into the production of Marvel movies which are essentially high quality, never ending Saturday morning action serials? It wasn't the script. These are not intelligent, tightly scripted masterpieces that will enhance an actor's career. In Captain America's case, it is the presence of these higher calibre players, ably assisted by strong turns from Chris Evans as Cap, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon that elevate otherwise flat material. I wonder what this same script would look like as brought to life by lesser known or unknown players and it is not so hard to imagine something slightly better than than direct to video. Much of the success or failure to these films is owed to the casting department. They should get a round of applause.

Again, as entertainment, Captain America: Winter Soldier is fast, hard hitting fun. While the first Cap is a character piece, this second film is totally different in concept, execution and style. It does not build on the strengths of the first film or even the strengths of Chris Evans as the lead. Instead, it happily wallows in a large, confusing cast involved in self referencing pseudo spy intrigue played out in massive scale in broad daylight. With so many explosions, gunfights, missile launches, fires, car crashes and gigantic air craft carriers falling from the sky (actually all the fun parts...) it would be impossible to be involved in anything stealthy or spy-like. SHIELD supposedly lasted 70 years to this point? Doing what? AND they were infiltrated by HYDRA for the whole time?

Yet, this isn't going to be a pile on for how many things don't make any sense in what is basically a thrilling escapist exercise. How does this stack up against the comics? I will leave that debate for others. What I am mostly concerned about is Cap himself. How did he fare in his own movie? To answer that question, I will simply add that Sam Jackson and SHIELD hijacked Cap's movie in which he becomes an important bit player. Larger story arcs like fast moving glaciers, have overtaken Captain America. I always thought it would be great for Cap to have his own movie with stories that showcased him and maybe a few extra characters folded in. Why shouldn't Cap take center stage in his own film? Instead, we are treated to MARVEL: THE MOVIE also featuring Nick Fury, Black Widow, and dozens more - with some patriotic guy toting a shield. It is a little disappointing from that regard.

Back to some more positive sounding examples from the film!

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon is a standout. A natural. He carries in his few brief scenes a charm and innocence that echoes yet is not the same as Steve Rogers. I think that is why the bond is so great between the two men. Both have gone through different yet equally hard circumstances and have come out the other side respectful and thankful. Mackie grounds Evans and reminds him of how the idealism he once held can be healed. It is a strong message which is unfortunately buried underneath all the action. This is the center of Sam Wilson's character, and Cap's and should be the undercurrent at the heroic center of the film.

I was cheered by the inclusion of a scene in which Cap finds a single microphone (This zone is for loading and unloading only, people) and gives the "traitors among us" speech. After which, Sam Wilson is unabashedly inspired, asking Cap if he wrote that down first or just came up with it off the top of his head. It is a great heroic moment and reveals more about what is in Cap's and Sam's heart than all the gunfire ever could. Unfortunately these moments are too far in between. This film needed more human moments, more inspiring moments. Cap, unlike many of his other superhero counterparts has a unique role as a symbol to inspire.

Bucky Barnes is experimented on during WWII and ends up becoming a character called the Winter Soldier. He is totally badass with a mechanical arm buts spends nearly the whole movie being speechless and wearing a mask and goggles which cover his face. This is too bad for Sebastian Stan, the actor playing him. He gets to do nothing but scowl and use a variety of weapons against Cap and other opponents. Still there is something plucky about the character which Stan has been able to add. This is a solid action movie performance. From the film, not the comics, does anyone know why Barnes is called Winter Soldier or why he is part of the title? If I only look at the title for the film, it may be confusing that Winter Soldier actually refers to someone other than Cap. I am sure this is explained in the comics but in the film, I feel it is a mystery.


Captain America flings his shield around as he never did before. These scenes are well choreographed as well as exciting. I was very impressed with this aspect of the film. First, it captures the feeling of the comics very well and second, the shield is handled in a way that it only could be done on film. I would state that this really brought the character to life and created a signature defensive/offensive weapon that made him unique. Sure, Captain America has thrown his shield before but this movie really integrated it into his fighting style in a way that captures the excitement of the comics. Well done! All the choreography in this film is very skillfully done and seamless as far as supporting the needs of the story. The fights are sharp, thrilling and have a natural feel to them which can be hard to obtain.

The closing credit sequence is unique and worth commenting on. The silhouette images bleeding into one another create a strong visual which really captured my attention. During the first movie, the motif was WWII era propaganda posters during the credits which I greatly enjoyed. Here, the images tell the highlights of the Winter Soldier story in graphic, comic style silhouettes. Very nicely designed and executed.

Does Marvel/Disney have any plans to donate Cap money toward the physical and mental rehabilitation of U.S. soldiers returning from combat? They don't need the cash. The veterans do. Services are so poor for those heroes and it would be a tremendous gesture that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby would have endorsed.

You won't see me carrying a protest sign in front of theaters saying "Hail Hydra!" Yet, maybe a strongly worded email to Marvel/Disney might be in order. More Captain America in his own movie!

I will leave that as my parting thought. Check out the rest of the blog if you haven't already.

Liberty and Justice For All!

New Mexico - 4/6/2014

There you have it. We hope you have enjoyed the movie review double shot for Captain America: Winter Soldier. We encourage you to browse through our almost 90 posts delving deep into the background of one of America's most exciting, mythic heroes.