Hail, Caesar! (2016)

2017 #23
Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

4 out of 5

Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

2017 #48
Rupert Sanders | 107 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell

A few decades in the future technology has continued to proliferate to the point where the majority of humans are cybernetically augmented in some way, whether it be eyes that have additional functionality, like zooming or x-ray, or fingers that split into dozens of segments to type faster, or a stomach that can process alcohol quicker… However, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human mind in a fully cybernetic body. Along with her team at anti-terror unit Section 9, they find themselves on the trail of a cyberterrorist who is murdering high-ranking employees of Hanka Robotics — the company that built the Major. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a startling conspiracy. Well, of course they do.

Although officially (as per the credits) adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original manga, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell creates a new narrative, but builds it out of liberally repurposed imagery, sequences, character traits, and more from the popular 1995 anime adaptation and its sequel, and apparently from the Stand Alone Complex TV series too (I’ve never got round to watching that so can’t vouch for its use here). Though to say “new narrative” is something of a kindness because, intricacies aside, the story isn’t new at all. A familiar narrative is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment — to invoke it for the second time in as many GitS reviews, Doctor Strange had a rote “Marvel superhero begins” storyline but made up for it with flashy visuals and a good amount of wit, resulting in a movie that I enjoyed very much. Ghost in the Shell also has flashy visuals, as you’ll have no doubt noticed from the trailers, but instead of wit it has all sorts of existential philosophy to ponder upon.

Shoot first, ask questions never

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother to. It certainly raises some of those issues, but I think it may do so by accident: director Rupert Sanders and co have clearly decided to focus on the action-thriller aspects of previous Ghost in the Shell material in their reworking, but have unavoidably swept up some of the philosophising in the process; but because they have little to no interest in actually exploring those questions (Sanders has literally said as much in interviews), they all lead to nowt. Some of the quandaries Ghost in the Shell’s world poses have been well-considered elsewhere — Blade Runner is probably the most obvious example — but, I think, not all of them. For instance, there’s rich potential in the stuff about having your brain put in a brand-new body, especially given some of the twists and revelations about that which come later on, but it doesn’t feel like the film has much to say about it. It’s a thriller movie that uses those elements to generate plot twists, rather than a film that’s interested in examining what they might mean to a human being who experiences them.

This tin-eared understanding of the source material stretches in every direction. Take the role of the bin man, for instance, and how it’s been repurposed here. How that character’s been tricked, and Section 9’s uncovering of it, is quite an affecting sequence in the original film, as well as contributing a lot to the film’s cogitation on how much our memories make us who we are. In this remake, the fundamental facts of the man’s case are still the same, but there’s very little feeling or emotion there. It’s just a plot point; a stepping stone on the way to the next bit of the narrative. I guess to most people watching Hollywood blockbusters plot is paramount, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have both driven the story onwards and contributed something meaningful.

Geisha gone gaga

Despite the focus on plot, and the relatively brisk running time of an hour and 45 minutes, Ghost in the Shell manages to drag on occasion. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had licence to do so thanks to some of the slower sequences in the original film, but at least those were busy with philosophising, while here they’re just… I’m not sure, really. It was probably a form of exposition — slow, unfocused exposition — but dressed up to look like it might be something more. Conversely, at other times the relatively brief running time is to the film’s detriment, with characters and plot elements going underdeveloped. For example, we never really feel the brewing conflict between Hanka Robotics, the government-funded tech company that built the Major, and Section 9, a government anti-terror task force. We see some of the arguments between the heads of each organisation, but the fact they both answer to the government is only alluded to rather than enacted — the Prime Minister and what s/he might do is invoked on more than one occasion, but no one governmental personage ever appears to actually weigh in on matters. Considering the importance of all that to events in the third act, I thought it could’ve done with a few more building blocks.

If we set aside the wasted potential to engage with the thought-provoking topics its world raises, and the few storytelling fumbles like the one just discussed, Ghost in the Shell is a solid straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, with a decent if familiar revenge-ish story eventually emerging and some competently realised action scenes — though the very best of the latter are all homages to the original movie, which probably did them better. The design work is often exemplary, with some striking cityscapes and technology (the robotic geishas that have been quite prominent in the marketing, for instance), and Sanders and DP Jess Hall usually lens it all to good effect. That said, this is a future world that doesn’t really feel lived in — it looks like it’s just sprung out of the mind of a designer, or a comic book artist. Some might think that’s the fault of the source material being a comic book, but I don’t think it’s true of the earlier film, at least. The rubbish collectors are again a good example: in the original movie you really feel like they’re on their usual rounds, until Section 9 track them down and it explodes into an action sequence. In this version, they merely exist because a bin lorry is the kind of thing that would make a handy battering ram (and also as another nod to the anime, of course).

Unspecified future cityscape

Funnily, for all the film’s faults in not talking about anything, there’s a lot to talk about with the film itself. I haven’t even touched on the whole whitewashing controversy, though to be honest it never bothered me that much anyway — I mean, it’s a US-led English-language remake, of course they’re more interested in a big-name American star than racial fidelity. Not that it’s cut and dried anyway: you might assume she’s Japanese, but the ’95 movie was supposed to be set in a future Hong Kong (for its part, the live-action movie never names the city or country it’s set in). Also, without meaning to spoil anything, the film itself touches on the issue. I thought how it did that was solid, though (as with everything else) under-explored, but others consider it an empty gesture to try to excuse the whitewashing.

I find it a little tricky to sum up my reactions to this new Ghost in the Shell, because they were kind of… nothing. I walked out of it feeling reasonably entertained by the action scenes and thriller storyline, though I would argue both could’ve been even stronger; and while I may lament its lack of engagement with the issues its world inherently raises, it does so little to tackle them that I almost just shrug it off — yeah, it probably should do that, but it doesn’t do it badly, or half-heartedly, it just doesn’t. Exactly what you want or expect from Ghost in the Shell may well dictate one’s reaction to it as much as the content of the film in and of itself, which I think is perfectly adequate for what it is. It could have been so much more, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

Lucy (2014)

2016 #44
Luc Besson | 86 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & USA / English, French & Korean* | 15 / R

LucyAfter years producing movies in the Taken stable, Besson directs one himself. Unfortunately it’s a poor effort — not a bad movie, exactly, but a deeply silly one.

Forced to be a drugs mule, Scarlett Johansson accidentally ingests the product and unlocks her brain’s unused potential — yes, that long-debunked chestnut. Such daftness passes muster in, say, superhero origins, where no one’s expecting plausiblility, but Lucy seems to want to genuinely consider scientific ideas… between mediocre action sequences, anyway, which feel like they’re pulling punches to hit 12A/PG-13, even though it’s 15/R.

Less than an hour-and-a-half long, it still feels a slog.

2 out of 5

* IMDb also lists Spanish and Chinese, but I swear they’re only spoken very briefly. If we’re being that picky, Italian’s in there too, I think. ^

Lost in Translation (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #56

Everyone wants to be found.

Country: USA & Japan
Language: English, Japanese, German & French
Runtime: 102 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 3rd October 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 9th January 2004
First Seen: DVD, c.2004

Stars
Bill Murray (Ed Wood, Broken Flowers)
Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World, Under the Skin)
Giovanni Ribisi (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Avatar)
Anna Faris (Scary Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)

Director
Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring)

Screenwriter
Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette, Somewhere)

The Story
In Tokyo to shoot a lucrative whiskey commercial, one-time movie star Bob Harris battles with middle-aged ennui. In his hotel he encounters Charlotte, a recent Yale graduate who’s tagged along with her entertainment photographer husband, and feels similarly untethered by life. Perhaps these two lost souls will find something in each other…

Our Heroes
“I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people,” says Charlotte, succinctly assessing the life situation of not only herself, but also her new friend, Bob. He’s dryly amused by the world (who better than Bill Murray for that role?), struggling to connect with his wife back home who pesters him with questions about carpet colours. Charlotte, unsure what to do with her life after graduating from university, and finding her husband and his acquaintances to not be on her level, is a kindred spirit, despite the age gap.

Our Villain
Not strictly a villain, but Charlotte’s husband is hardly the most inspiring figure in her life. Not a strong basis for a marriage, really.

Best Supporting Character
A lady known only as Premium Fantasy Woman. “My stockings. Lip them. Lip my stockings. Yes, please, lip them… Lip them. Hey! Lip my stocking!”

Memorable Quote
“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.” — Charlotte

Memorable Scene
After an exuberant night out, Bob and Charlotte sit quietly side by side in a karaoke joint’s hallway. She slowly lowers her head on to his shoulder, smiling to herself, while he stares into the distancing, participating in the moment but also not. To quote further from my ‘What the Public Say’ selection, “it expresses the connection, and simultaneously, the quiet distance that still exists between them (mostly in their minds). It’s romantic without really consuming the romance.”

Making of
Bill Murray no longer has an agent, instead maintaining a voicemail number that he rarely gives out. Sofia Coppola reportedly left hundreds of messages on it, having written the part of Bob especially for him. Eventually he called her back, but still only gave a verbal commitment to appear — she wasn’t sure he was actually going to show until the first day of filming, when he did.

Awards
1 Oscar (Original Screenplay)
3 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Bill Murray), Director)
3 BAFTAs (Actor (Bill Murray), Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Editing)
5 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Music)
FIPRESCI Prize (to Sofia Coppola for “the cool detachment and freshness with which she observes the antics of various American and Japanese television and communication industry people in the anonymous surroundings of a large Japanese city, and for the sensitivity with which she modulates the atmosphere of the film from comedy to melancholy.”)
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Funniest American in Japan — it lost to Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai)

What the Critics Said
Lost in Translation revels in contradictions. It’s a comedy about melancholy, a romance without consummation, a travelogue that rarely hits the road. Sofia Coppola has a witty touch with dialogue that sounds improvised yet reveals, glancingly, her characters’ dislocation. She’s a real mood weaver, with a gift for […] mining a comic’s deadpan depths. Watch Murray’s eyes in the climactic scene in the hotel lobby: while hardly moving, they express the collapsing of all hopes, the return to a sleepwalking status quo. You won’t find a subtler, funnier or more poignant performance this year than this quietly astonishing turn.” — Richard Corliss, TIME

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“It’s an incredibly quiet film, with little narrative or story-related dialogue. We follow Bob and Charlotte as they gently explore their environment and grow towards each other, and it feels like we’re watching seaturtles swim together. It’s all very graceful and beautiful, and quiet, and meandering, and slow. And I mean that in a good way […] For a film that explores disconnection and loneliness, to me there is no better way to frame that story.” — Reinout van Schie, One Shot

Verdict

There seems to have been a glut of “men coming to terms with their place in the world”-type movies in the early ’00s, for whatever reason. (I’m not sure there was before that? There have been plenty since, though they can feel like hangers-on.) Some once-popular ones have turned into objects of derision (Garden State), but I think others hold up. No doubt the quality of the BAFTA-winning performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have a lot to do with that, creating a cross-generational pairing of two lost souls that feels real and touching, rather than tipping into some creepy love affair thing. Nonetheless, through to its ending the film plays with variations on melancholy — a difficult feeling to evoke in movies, in my opinion, but a level writer-director Sofia Coppola here hits with impressive consistency.

#57 will be… Denzel Washington in flames.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

2014 #109
Anthony & Joe Russo | 136 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Captain America: The Winter SoldierAfter the dullest, messiest movie of their first phase, and his goody-two-shoes depiction in The Avengers, Marvel finally nailed Captain America earlier this year with his second solo outing. Sadly, it’s still undermined by its share of niggles.

The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the Avengers assembled, with man-out-of-time Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), a fully-fledged member of Team America: World Police S.H.I.E.L.D., working alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to run all kinds of black ops missions. But when the life of director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is threatened by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap begins to uncover a massive conspiracy of nefarious nastiness…

To say much more would be spoilerific, though chances are you’ve heard what happens even if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s had major implications for much of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, I’ll assume you don’t know, just in case.

That said, the problem with Marvel’s massive shared universe (where the events of one film impact not only on future films but tie-in TV series, etc) is that, watching Cap 2 just seven months after its release, the film already feels like very old news. It was dissected into the ground by bloggers and commentators while it was still in cinemas; it had a huge effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which by now has rolled past it into new territory; and it feels like Friendly argumenteverybody moved on to being more excited about Marvel’s end-of-summer new-franchise-launcher, Guardians of the Galaxy. Cap 2 still has things to offer as a standalone film, but watching it now feels like watching a press conference after you’ve read a summary of the key points: there’s probably something to be gained from experiencing the whole thing, but it’s also like a slow-paced unveiling of surprises you already know.

It’s probably best to put aside the parts of Winter Soldier that have an impact beyond the film itself and just focus on it being a story in its own right, then. They promised us a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller, and there’s some of that DNA in there, although it’s been cleverly reworked to fit the slick CGI-filled world of the modern epic action blockbuster. So the conspiracy plot is actually not too complex, but there’s enough of it to give the film a different flavour. Many bonus points are earnt for trying to do more things with superhero narratives. It’s been widely noted that there are only about three or four superhero plotlines (and that’s if we’re being generous), so it’s good for Marvel — who are currently churning out two superheroic movies a year, and before long will be upping that to three — to be bringing something new to the table.

The style of story also becomes the springboard for a different tone to the action sequences: grounded, almost gritty, with practical effects and stuntwork — it could almost be a Bourne movie rather than a superhero one. They even manage to take a minor and silly Marvel villain, Batroc the Leaper, and turn him into a cool and worthwhile adversary. Until the climax, anyway, which is your usual CGI blow-out — an increasingly familiar pattern for Marvel films (and one we’ll come to again soon in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Fully-formed FalconAlso introduced is sidekick hero the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who I have little to say about directly. He’s a sidekick who’s introduced fully-formed — he’s been using his ‘superpower’ for years as just part of the military; it’s not new or exciting to him, which lessens some of its power for the viewer too. “Origin story” may be the most over-used of all the superhero stock stories, but there’s a reason for that. If you skip it then you cut to the chase, that’s true, but does it also lessen the impact of characters to not see how they started? Maybe storytellers just need to come up with fresh ways of giving origins, rather than skipping them altogether.

Despite his presence in the title, the Winter Soldier also has a fairly small part to play in the final mix. He’s a henchman, not the main villain — but he’s an important character in the comics, so naming the film after him is really a signal to fans. Unfortunately, the Big Reveal of who he is has been a little bungled: comic book fans already know, so it doesn’t matter to them; and the element it ties back to in The First Avenger was so throwaway that casual viewers aren’t going to remember it. The Winter Soldier does its best to retrospectively big up the necessary elements, with callbacks to the first film and new flashbacks to bolster relationships. Whether it’s too little too late is perhaps a matter of personal preference.

Talking of that shared universe again — well, it’s hard to avoid, because Winter Soldier is every inch grounded in what has come before and what will come after. Mackie described the film as “Avengers 1.5”, and that’s pretty true. It picks up on events and characters from both The First Avenger and The Avengers, some of which have very significant roles to play in the film’s own storyline; Who is the Winter Soldier?and then it refuses to wrap everything up, putting certain things in place ready for Age of Ultron and leaving still other doors open for Cap 3 — including the bloody Winter Soldier, despite his name being in the title! Goodness knows when or how they’re going to deal with that, considering the next Cap film is based on another highly significant comic book story arc, Civil War.

For me, however, the way it ties in to and impacts on the wider Marvel universe is when the film is at its weakest. There’s a benefit in utilising our relationships to these characters for emotional or dramatic effect, and at times it does that well, but when it’s raising more questions than answers, and when it can’t even complete the storyline that’s in its own title, is that a good thing? This isn’t part of a TV series, it’s a movie — is it so much to ask for a complete experience, one that builds on previous movies and has teases for the future (if it must), rather than just the latest segment of an apparently-never-ending story? Marvel’s shared universe is turning out to not be a group of films which happen to feature the same characters crossing over, but ones where the status quo between a film and its own sequel can be completely changed by events in a ‘separate’ series. Is that OK? It seems to work for them, and many people are getting a great amount of enjoyment from spotting the links and piecing together the arcing stories, so I guess it is.

The audacity of certain twists, plus the unusualness (for a superhero movie) and quality of the action sequences, is likely responsible for the massively positive reception that greeted The Winter Soldier on its cinematic release. With the surprise value of the former removed, and arguably exposed as just another round of questions to be answered in future instalments, Captain America re-Bournewhat’s left? There is strong action, albeit undermined by muddled character investment; and there is an interesting thriller/conspiracy story, albeit undermined by a feeling of “once you know it, you know it” — it’s not all that complicated or all that surprising, including the revelation that the one character significant enough to be behind it all is behind it all (gasp!)

Believe it or not, I did quite like The Winter Soldier while I was watching it; but the more I write, the more it frustrates me. There’s undoubtedly some quality filmmaking here (as far as superhero blockbusters go — it’s never going to please a sniffy cineaste), so perhaps I need to stop getting so hung up on its connections to other films. Or perhaps Marvel need to stop tying all their movies so tightly together. There’s surely a reason this doesn’t have a number in the title — it’s meant to be Captain America vs. the Winter Soldier, not Marvel’s Avengers Universe: Episode 9. But, however many borderline-unique elements it’s at pains to include, the latter is what it is.

4 out of 5

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on Sky Movies from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Spirit (2008)

2014 #89
Frank Miller | 98 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG-13

The SpiritComic book creator Frank Miller brings what he learnt co-directing Sin City to this adaptation of Will Eisner’s classic newspaper strip. Turns out, that’s not much.

Miller aims for a pulpy but satirical tone, a stylistic choice many misunderstood. Sadly, even when spotted, the execution doesn’t coalesce. Gabriel Macht is a limp lead; famous co-stars overact; visually it’s a Sin City rip-off… Castle’s Stana Katic as an eager rookie is the best thing in it (that might just be me…)

There’s the seed of a fantastic idea in Miller’s vision of The Spirit, but it germinates as an amateurish wannabe.

2 out of 5

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is released on DVD and Blu-ray today.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.


* The Spirit was trimmed by 25 seconds to get a 12A for UK cinemas. The Blu-ray release is branded as an “Extended Cut” but is merely the uncut original, and is rated 15. This was the version shown on TV. ^

A Good Woman (2004)

2010 #121
Mike Barker | 89 mins | TV | PG / PG

A Good Woman adapts Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan, switching the setting to the Amalfi Coast in 1930. If one didn’t know better, one would believe that’s when and where it was always set.

And if one does know better, apparently one should hate it. Most reviews, which are largely negative, focus on it being a poor conversion of the play. I’ve never seen nor read the original and thought it slotted seamlessly into its new ’30s setting (even though I am of course aware that Wilde was not writing (or doing much else) by the 1930s).

It remains a very funny piece — well, I presume “remains” rather than “becomes”, because it seems this is purely thanks to Wilde’s outstanding wit rather than any particular skill in adaptation or acting. While I have nothing against either, it’s the witticisms — or one-liners, if you prefer — that give the film most of its quality.

Another point reviewers like to pounce on is the US cast members. Scarlett Johansson is neither here nor there, as per usual, but I thought Helen Hunt was quite good. It’s undoubtable that they’re overshadowed by British thesps like Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Campbell Moore however, but that’s just par for the course.

Lady Windermere's FanSo it seems one’s perception of the film lies in what it is compared to. Compared to Wilde’s original, it may indeed be a pale imitation, relocated to an inappropriate country and period, with lacklustre performances and incongruous Wilde-penned lines crowbarred in. Taken without the context of the work it’s adapted from, however, I thought it was a flawed but, more importantly, highly amusing film.

4 out of 5

The Prestige (2006)

2007 #14
Christopher Nolan | 130 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

The PrestigeThe latest effort from the director of Memento and Batman Begins is an intriguing one.

A well-handled complex narrative (it again jumps about in time, but never to the audience’s confusion), even if the twists are relatively easy to guess. A credit, then, that the film doesn’t totally rely on them.

I’m a big fan of Nolan’s work and definitely continue to be; this may gain that missing point on re-viewing. See it.

4 out of 5

The Prestige placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2007, which can be read in full here.