THIS YEAR’S FIRST blockbuster sets a high standard for the rest of the annual deluge of monsters and mayhem. “Captain America, The Winter’s Soldier” is surprisingly, you could even say, shockingly and adventurously thoughtful.
The story mainly centers around Steve Rogers (beefy, bland Chris Evans, who in a previous life was The Human Torch in “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”. Captain America is a definite career upgrade). Steve is still trying to adjust to life – and values – in 2014. For those who don’t know or forgot, Steve was a sickly, skinny lad back in 1942 when he felt compelled to join the war effort. It was his strength of character that helped persuade the powers that be to experiment on him, which resulted in his radical transformation from skinny nerd to buff super-hero: the uber super soldier. And super heroic he was until a plane crash plunged him into a handy, icy glacier. Now, seventy years later, Steve, having been in a state of suspended animation since then, must face the cynical realities of the new world with the moral conscience of his -“the greatest” –generation.
Steve is now part of SHIELD – an organization charged with protecting the world. And this is where the film gets interesting.
It slowly begins to dawn on Steve (he’s not too bright) that SHIELD’s modus of protection involves spying on everyone and keeping tabs on the associations and activities of millions of average citizens – in order to be able to diagnose potential anti-government threat. To Steve’s old- fashioned way of looking at things, this isn’t freedom, this is ‘protection’ via threat; this is freedom withheld, not freedom experienced. And in his old-fashioned way, this is something he has to do something about. Hmm. Go Steve!
SHIELD’s head honcho is Alexander Pierce, a charming, persuasive, calm, trustworthy executive. Hell, he’s Robert Redford. Who wouldn’t trust Robert?
But as Steve is warned by his superior officer Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson in his usual badass mode), “trust no-one” (not that those words are clichéd or anything). In this moral story about trust, it becomes more and more apparent that SHIELD and Pierce are thin disguises for NSA, Prism, GCHQ and CIA surveillance and abuse of power. Steve realizes, as SHIELD turns on itself, eliminating all potential threats and hunting down both him and his band of trustworthy allies, that the military industrial complex has become not the protector of the people, but its nemesis.
It’s up to Steve and the gang – ex-KGB spy, Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), honest Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Sam Wilson, the Falcon (the under-rated Anthony Mackie) and of course, the almost eliminated Nick Fury – to pick apart what is essentially the State turned rogue villain.
And they do this by revealing all its secrets on-line, a la Edward Snowden. For all its muscle-bound heroics, the grand finale of this surprisingly political blockbuster, lies in the dual destructions of three super drones, their guns aimed at the elimination of twenty million innocent civilians and in the release of so called state secrets, which really is exposure of the mass surveillance and snooping of the institutions developed to protect citizens.
Of course, it is a summer blockbuster, so there’s a – somewhat gratuitous – super strong villain, Steve’s old 1942 friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, who you may remember from “Black Swan”), returned also from that icy glacier as Pierce’s killing machine. And there’s lots of explosive action, including a beautifully choreographed center-piece chase scene when Nick Fury’s truck is chased through the streets of Manhattan by the (corrupt) NYPD
Directing credits go to brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, a sort of cut-rate Coen brothers. They don’t manage to get much out of Chris Evans, whose acting style is as muscle bound and stiff as his body. He’s clearly from that school of acting that includes Brandon Routh (the characterless new Superman) and almost all of the cast of “300: Rise of an Empire” where speaking lines of dialogue in a credible way approaches some sort of ethical breach.
Robert Redford doesn’t fare much better. I’m not sure he read the script before he did his first take, and you do get the impression that he’s as surprised as us to find himself in a summer blockbuster. At least there’s the ever-delightful Scarlett Johansson revelling in her role as a sort of sexy female Bruce Lee.
Also sharing directing credits is Joss Whedon, who is credited with “post-credits scene”. Let me explain. I left the cinema, as I usually do, as soon as the credits began rolling. Fortunately I thought I’d dropped my keys and swiftly returned to my seat…only to find that the credits had stopped and an entire 5-10 minute coda had been attached to the movie. In it we see what’s become of the evil Bucky Barnes (don’t these guys ever die) and we’re introduced to his new X-men type companions. Captain America part three is probably even now being shot somewhere in deepest Pinewood studios.
That is, if the NSA don’t find and embargo the script first
“UNDER THE SKIN”, the new movie from Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) won’t be to everyone’s taste. Put it another way – it won’t be to most people’s tastes. It’s decidedly weird (which is probably why it’s been wrongly classified as a horror. It isn’t. So if you’re looking for horror, look elsewhere. And if you’re reluctant to go because it’s a horror, don’t be). To make any sense of it, you have to work at it… you have to go beneath its skin.
But it all works, somehow. It’s one of those movies that lingers on after the viewing.
Scarlett Johansson is Laura, and extra-terrestrial who we first meet as a single microscopic dot of light, like an optician’s probe, which slowly fills the screen to become an iris – so often our only means of seeing and judging people without looking beneath… you get it.
The scene cuts to a pitch-black road, out of which comes a thundering motorcycle, its lights slicing through the dark night. The leather clad, helmeted rider stops somewhere and wades into a roiling sea, from which he brings the dead body of a woman. It is this body, this skin, that our sexy alien slips into. And it is in this skin that she prowls the neon-lit, “Taxi-Driver-esque” night, in a nondescript van seeking out lonely single men. They are as lonely, perhaps as she is.
It is these men that she invites back into her dark lair (I’m prepared to follow Scarlett most places, but frankly, I wouldn’t go into that dark lair if it killed me). These easily, willingly seduced lost souls, attracted (duh) by Laura/Scarlett’s sexiness, slowly sink into a kind of black, amniotic fluid from which there can be no escape and in which their beings are destroyed, leaving, like a shedding snake, only the skin.
Their superficial ‘skin-deep’ attraction to Laura…the attraction to the flesh… is contrasted with a scene on a lonely, cold, pebbled beach where there’s a young family frolicking. There’s a father, mother, eighteen year-old baby and a dog. The dog swims out into the cascading waves, followed foolishly by the mother seeking to rescue it; and then followed by the husband, fully clad in his clothes, desperately trying to rescue and then find his wife who has disappeared into the darkness. Laura – ever emotionless – witnesses this family tragedy: their deaths caused by a reckless abundance of love, of the need to rescue the loved one or die attempting.
Perhaps this resonates within Laura’s alien heart (or hearts, who knows with these ET’s) as one night, the mark she zeroes in on is a man who has clearly been rejected by society. He is a grotesque, elephant-man type individual – one rejected and scorned by society, who have only ever seen his ugliness.
Unlike everyone else, she is not repulsed; and that in itself, for this man, is an act of kindness he’s never had. It is an act of kindness that is mirrored later on when what seems to be another moment of superficial male lust turns out to be male protectiveness. This simple need to offer her protection leaves her non-plussed. It forces her to look at herself, to actually examine the skin she’s in; and in this introspection, she shed her emotionless mien and grows scared and vulnerable. For it is easier to be bold by being superficial. It is easier to be attracted and repulsed by what people look like than to work harder to look within. The outside skin is a kind of armour that we wear for the occasion.
But, as the movie suggests, be prepared to cope with what lies within.
One Mica Levi is credited as being to composer to the movie’s score. Its often dissonant, otherworldly, nervous sounds invest a mood of menace and dread to commonplace scenes of socialization and shopping centers, and images of a tempestuous nature. The movie – all shot at night where the shadows linger in the corner of the frames – keeps us always on edge as it builds to its flaming denoument.
Apparently many of the scenes – of Laura/Scarlett (in a black wig) walking through shopping centers, stopping to chat up men on the roadside etc. were shot in situ. Real Scottish guys stunned to be ‘picked up’ by this stunner. Who remained incognito. This great icon of beauty seemingly wasn’t recognized by the Scottish shoppers she strolled amongst.
She was just, you could say, a well disguised alien in their midst.
AS WITH SO many of Wes Anderson’s movies (“Moonrise Kingdom”, “Fantastic Mr.Fox”, The Darjeeling Limited”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” etc), there’s no easy niche in which to place “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.
This funny, entertaining concoction is a fantastical story within a story centering around one M. Gustave (an inspired piece of lunacy from Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is the hotel concierge whose suave, charming, bon vivant, lothario life-style is as much an attraction to the hotel’s guests as the place itself (or so we are told). Set in an invented country, located somewhere in Middle Europe in 1932, we follow the course of events that transpires when one of Gustave’s long-time guests/lovers, Madame D (a well disguised Tilda Swinton) is murdered. Much to the chagrin of her son, Dmitri (a menacing Adrian Brody), Gustave is left a priceless painting, which, in order to ensure that he really does get it, he steals (as one would). And as the geo-political convulsions of a war begins to take place, Gustave and his faithful lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) must evade Brody’s evil henchman (an even more menacing Willem Dafoe with Jaws-like teeth and knuckle-buster rings on every finger), zealous policemen, led by a 19th century looking Henckles (Edward Norton), thick walled prisons and Nazi-esque army soldiers in a series of bizarre, madcap, cartoonish chases, shoot-outs, prison-escapes, stolen kisses, hidden lovers and secret codicils.
It’s a delight.
And all of which of course make for great story telling… “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing”
An old Zero (F.Murray Abraham), now owner of the Budapest Hotel, no longer so Grand, and in the grand tradition of Scherezade or the Ancient Mariner, narrates the story… to a young writer (Jude Law; outclassed in this cast of over-the-top thespians), who publishes it as a book, which is retold by him as an older man (Tom Wilkinson) – with little of the storyteller’s magnetic allure – to a hidden camera.
I am not a big Wes Anderson fan; I find that the deliberate theatricality and artifice of much of his work builds a kind of ontological barrier against the viewer. But with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” his mannered stylized story-telling works brilliantly. The exaggerated absurdity of the people and the place, art decorated with great care and craft to resemble the perfected fussiness of an elaborate wedding cake, with self-consciously sparkling repartee, is a wonderful and fully imagined creation. It creates its own quite distinctive, invitingly charming, slightly off-kilter world.
Quite frankly any artist who can create as distinct a story-teller’s vocabulary as Anderson does is worthy of high praise.
The director manages to have his elaborately iced cake and eat it too: the story both evokes a nostalgia for a lost time, for a kind of loss of grandeur and high style, while at the same time suggesting that such a time never really existed. This story of a story – an author’s elaboration of a story narrated to him – offers the viewer both a hint of the substance (the sadness, the greed and murder at the heart of the tale, the decay of what once was grand) and a focus on the style (urbane, patrician, theatrical) that suggests the decorum and good manners of the period…mere masks.
There’s probably also a bigger moral tale (from a distinctly American perspective) lurking around somewhere here: of Europe as the Grand Hotel – a place of has-been glories with its castles and schlosses and culture worth a visit but well past their sell-by dates.
Fiennes makes the movie. He invests the nouveau-riche dignity of his concierge with impeccable comic timing (who knew!) and allows us to see Gustave’s pathos and desperation shining through the cartoonish caricature of his clipped speech and antic gestures.
But it’s also one of those old-fashioned ensemble movies (not unlike “The List of Adrian Messenger”…how many of you remember that?) where we can delight in spotting the – heavily disguised – stars, all of whom were clearly having a ball.
It’s a list that’s long: Mathieu Amalric (he was the bad guy in “Quantum of Solace”), a bald shirtless (natch) Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray (who happened to be filming “The Monuments Men” in the same studio and so had his part written in for him), Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson.
Of them all, Jeff Goldblum, as Deputy Kovacs, an honest lawyer, shocked by the duplicity of his conniving client (Brody) shines through as a towering presence. He needs to stop doing so much TV and come back to the big screen. Maybe we’ll see him again in Jurassic Park IV.
Anderson who wrote the word-perfect script credits one Stefan Zweig, an Austro-Hungarian writer from Vienna, who became a British citizen and killed himself in Rio in 1942.
Hmm, I’m sure there’s a story there.
IN THIS PRE-Oscar dead-zone, here’s a trio of movies that you needn’t make too much of an effort to view.
I’ll start with the one that’s had the highest, nay, glowing-iest reviews – “The Lego Movie”. Inspired by these reviews and fed up with the gloom within and without the cinemas, it seemed like a little humour could go a long way, so along I went with my bagful of laughs waiting for them to bubble out into multiple ha’s. They’re still waiting. Now humour has its own rules. Either you get it and it makes you laugh (which I guess for some people, accounts for Ben Stiller, Seth Rogan and most of Jenifer Aniston’s directors). Or, in this case, you don’t; and after an excruciating hour, you do as I do – and leave the cinema. Back to the damn incessant, rainy, cold, glum gloom without.
“The Lego Movie” is a marketing department’s wet dream. No doubt inspired by the success of the Transformers’ franchise that helped to revive Hasbro’s flagging fortunes of its dying and passé toy, Lego has followed suit and has turned its own flagging fortune into a hit movie. The Lego Movie has earned $200M in its first few weeks, and has attracted more viewers that all nine of the Oscar contenders. Combined. What with new design templates and under new management, Lego has turned itself around recently, saw its sales zoom skyward, and aided and abetted by the movie has suckered in about 30 million viewers, won raves, made people laugh and left one disgruntled viewer wondering whether he could get his money back. I guess I’ll now have to wait for the no doubt soon to be released Barbie and Ken rom com for a few laffs.
And then there was that other non rom com, “The Invisible Woman” about Charles Dickens and his affair with a woman half his age. I had great expectations that this movie about Nelly (Felicity Jones), the daughter of one of his friends and admirers (Kristin Scott Thomas, down-graded from a lover – “The English Patient” – now to mother of lover. Such is the cruelty of age in Hollywood), would turn into something. But it simply turned into another beak, not particularly well furnished, house. Felicity is quite a stunner. And from the first moment, the imagination jumped to the unfortunate conclusion that here was yet another tale of an older man infatuated with the charms of a hot young thing.
But such crass thinking was not to be. Director Ralph Fiennes’ camera lingers lovingly on the elegant curves of Felicity’s neck, the gossamer hairs that glow like an aura along the slender gold of her arms and the inviting appeal of her ever so slightly parted lips. But this is no tale of two titties. Sadly, the director’s character – Dickens – shares nothing of the directors’ passion and, thanks to a meaninglessly choppy edit and directionless writing (by Abi Morgan and Claire Tomlin), we’re left wondering just what this affair was all about. The story suggests that Dickens and his portly wife (Joanna Scaanlan) no longer shared a marriage bed, but, despite Fiennes’ usual, nuanced acting, there’s no suggestion that the passions driving England’s finest writer reached all the way to women. Fiennes the director may have had the hots for Felicity, but, based on this wandering story, Dickens sure didn’t for Nell. Instead, what we have is a bloodless, high-minded affair that offers neither literary interest nor emotional engagement.
Thank God for the pure, absurd, mindless entertainment of “Non Stop” with the ever put-upon Liam Neeson, here as US Air marshal, Bill Marks. He’s a MAN WITH A PAST: his daughter has died young, his wife has probably died as well, he smokes and – clear signifier of a dead-beat, good for nothing loser – he drinks. But this only serves to make him endearing, engaging and (along with the unfortunate fact that despite being an air marshal, he doesn’t like flying) a quasi-tragic hero. Who therefore better to blame for a potential in-air act of terrorism?
Bill is sitting next to Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), a woman who is dying of some sort of mysterious disease and who therefore must sit next to a window – to ensure that her last sights be of the open endless skies. Don’t ask. Their meaningless chatter is interrupted by two barriers: she just wants to sleep (it’s such a drag sitting next to a chatty, scared US Air Marshal), and he gets a message, on his access-restricted beeper, that a different passenger will die every twenty minutes unless $150M is transferred to a numbered account.
The numbered account happens to be his! Exclamation mark indeed!! Something’s fishy. WE know he’s a good guy, even if he was a bad cop in “The Lego Movie” (see above…these guys sure get around) and was Ra’s Al Ghul who nearly killed Batman. After all, we saw him rescue, first his daughter and then his wife from unimaginative Albanian human traffickers. He battled all sorts of odds in “the Grey” and in “The Next Three Days” he was finally able to prove his imprisoned wife innocent, or something.
But will he prove his own innocence? Will he stop more innocent passengers from being killed on this wonderful Aqua Atlantic flight – on an airplane full of empty toilets (where he can handily stack dead bodies and brief cases filled with cocaine and bombs)? Will he get the girl (Julianne)? Will flight attendant Gwen (Lupita Nyong’o) win an Oscar? Or will her fellow flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) return to “Downtown Abbey”? And what about that devious looking passenger Austin (Corey Stoll) who looks suspiciously like Peter Russo, the drunk congressman from “House of Cards”.
It’s just all too exciting for words.