Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the most satisfying entries in the Marvel superhero series, mainly because it’s an exciting, intelligent, entertaining blend of political thriller and superhero adventure. It would be hard to convey my enthusiasm without spilling key plot elements, but imagine a superhero adventure blended with elements of Three Days of the Condor and The Manchurian Candidate, and you’ll get the idea.
Chris Evans makes a suitably virtuous Captain America, still conflicted about using his powers for the present-day S.H.I.E.L.D, especially when it becomes clear that someone is trying to eliminate director Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson, with a little more to chew on this time around) , as well as anyone loyal to Fury. Everything seems to revolve around a dubious pre-emptive enterprise called Project Insight, and as it turns out, no one can be trusted, and nothing is what it seems. For instance, why does the returning Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) have a different agenda from Captain America? Who is that attractive next-door neighbor (Emily Van Camp) with all that laundry? Why is the legendary assassin, the so-called Winter Soldier, so intent on destroying Captain America? And where does Robert Redford’s S.H.I.E.L.D. senior official fit in? The really big question is how this will affect Captain America, whose idealistic notions about patriotism and heroism are put to the ultimate test, as he questions whether his life’s work has been all in vain.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier has plenty going for it: the action sequences are top-notch, the pacing is good (so much so that you don’t notice the two hours-plus running time), there are some in-joke references to Ironman and the Hulk (enough to wonder where they might be to head off this possible world threat), and the movie contains perhaps Stan Lee’s most amusing appearance yet. In addition, all the actors are on their game: Chris Evans adds some layers to his always noble Captain America persona; the always-fine Anthony Mackie makes a welcome appearance as the captain’s new confidante; Scarlet Johansson makes Natasha a little more human this time around, while Robert Redford trades on his cinematic legacy to become a formidable force in superhero-land, as it becomes a darker world where friendship and loyalty may become things of the past.
Draft Day – Kevin Costner; Jennifer Garner
You don’t have to be a fan of football to enjoy Draft Day. Anchored by a star turn from Kevin Costner, Draft Day, directed by Ivan Reitman, with a script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, succeeds in being a feel-good movie about the NFL draft. Up-against-it Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) is told in no uncertain terms that the team needs to make a splash at the draft, notably by signing a star college quarterback (who comes burdened with some possible off-field issues). Meanwhile Weaver’s girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant (a needless distraction in terms of the movie, but there it is), the fans, the athletes, and the voluble and volatile coach (the very funny Dennis Leary) are breathing down his neck, and rival teams are sensing weakness—not to mention Sonny is still trying to get out from the shadow of his late father, a revered coach who Sonny had unceremoniously fired. Draft Day works as well as it does because Costner makes you feel for Sonny, Leary makes a good antagonist (as does Frank Langella as the team’s owner), and the fact that the movie is not just about sports, but about ambition, loyalty, honor, and family. It’s a good return to form for Mr. Reitman too.
Fading Gigolo – Woody Allen; John Turturro
Woody Allen as a pimp? John Turturro as a lothario? Is it possible that any good can come from this? The answer to all of the above is a resounding “yes” with John Turturro’s tasteful, romantic Fading Gigolo. Allen plays Murray, a New York City bookstore owner closing up shop after many years, with Turturro his loyal friend (and part-time employee) Fioravante. When Murray hears that a wealthy, married female acquaintance (Sharon Stone) would love to experience a ménage-a trois (with the third being Sofia Vergara), he suggests a somewhat hesitant Fioravante. Surprisingly, Fioravante proves to be an adept, sensitive gigolo, having been tried out by the lovely Ms. Stone, and Murray proceeds to recommend him to Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) a grieving widow in Williamsburg. Complicating matters is Dovi (Live Schreiber), Avigal’s hesitant admirer (and member of the neighborhood watch) and his jealousy of Avigal and Fioravante’s growing feelings for each other. Allen is funny as Turturro’s pragmatic mentor, and he and Turturro have a wonderful rapport, but the pleasures go even further: Turturro’s bittersweet, surpisingly romantic film captures the yearning and loneliness of characters who have been forced to assume certain roles, either by society’s standards, or by the rigidity of faith and/or tradition. In addition, the actors are uniformly excellent: Sofia Vergara brings restraint and warmth to her role as Stone’s friend (and a willing Fioravante conquest); Vanssa Paradis brings gentle humor and poignancy to her role as the lonely widow who blossoms in the loving hands of Fioravante, while Liev Schreiber is convincing as the lovesruck neighbor who sees himself as Avigal’s protector—and who is not ready to assume the mantle of “the other man.” And if your memories of Turturro are based on Miller’s Crossing and Do the Right Thing, his delicate performance as the reluctant gigolo will make you think of him anew. It’s a lovely performance in a beautiful film.