Tuesday, 15 April 2014

I'm With You Till The End of The Line: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

I think 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (henceforth known as TFA) is one of the most underrated recent superhero films- and one of Marvel Studios’ unsung gems. It’s an earnest throwback to the hero’s time during WWII. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny kid who wants to join the army but can’t. However, due to his pure heart, Rogers is selected to receive a super soldier serum that turns him in to Captain America. And after a noble sacrifice Rogers is frozen for nearly 70 years. The film is lighthearted and good natured, featuring a protagonist who’s not snarky, arrogant or angst-ridden. Rogers is just a good guy from beginning to end. And while that may sound boring to some the film makes this lack of a traditional character arc work.

It was a wise choice for Marvel to set TFA almost entirely in the 1940s. It would’ve been easy to have Rogers frozen in the opening minutes of the film and then wake up in modern times. Either that or not even do the “man out of time” angle and just have Rogers be a modern soldier. The 40s settings is what gives that film its charm and unique tone. It also allows the next chapter in this franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (henceforth known as TWS), to be in stark contrast to its predecessor.   

TFA was a throwback to the classic Captain America stories from the 40s and TWS is akin to the more modern and spy thriller style of Ed Brubaker. And if TFA is Star Wars then TWS is The Empire Strikes Back. Like that film, TWS is a much darker, grittier and morally ambiguous film than its predecessor. Moreover, like ESB TWS changes the landscape of its universe. Nothing is going to be the same after the events in this film. This makes TWS an exciting and satisfying chapter in the Marvel Universe. This is a rock solid and thrilling adventure that arguably eclipses the original.

After the events of The Avengers Rogers is still adapting to life in the modern world and working for the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.  While he has allies in the Avengers, nearly all the people he knew are dead. There’s a touching scene between Steve and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British officer who Rogers worked alongside and fell in love with during the war. Seeing the two together, Rogers still a young man and Peggy an elderly woman, reminds us of what they could’ve had and highlights the tragedy of Rogers as a character.

Rogers becomes suspicious of S.H.I.E.L.D and its director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) when he learns of something called Project Insight, a plan by S.H.I.E.L.D. to pre-emptively neutralize threats. This plan is largely in response to the events of The Avengers and the Battle of New York.  Rogers tells Fury “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” This moment between the two men shows us Rogers’ philosophy and how his views don’t match up to this modern world’s morally ambiguous politics. Evans and Jackson are convincing as two men that have known each other for quite some time now. Rogers calling Fury “Nick” is a nice character beat.

The film quickly becomes a conspiracy thriller as Fury is targeted by a group led by the mythic Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an assassin for Russians. This attack is in regards to Fury attempting to discover more information about Project Insight and it soon becomes clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised. But just how compromised and by whom is one of the film’s most interesting examples of storytelling and world-expanding.  Rogers can only trust a select few, including Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and a new ally- Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) - a war veteran who comic fans will recognize as Falcon.

What TWS tells us about S.H.I.E.L.D. makes Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World feel like casual strolls through the park. What we learn both deepens TFA and the whole Marvel Universe. In fact, this film is often more about the Marvel Universe than it is Captain America. But they couldn’t have done this film without Captain America. He represents optimism and old fashioned heroism in its purest form. He comes from a time when one could distinguish between good and evil. To put him in the middle of a dark spy thriller where the line between good and evil becomes blurry is thematically interesting. The situation become even more personal for Rogers as the Winter Soldier has ties to Rogers’ past. The Winter Soldier is a strong presence and is a formidable foe for Rogers. I also like that the film’s true villain isn’t a super villain at all, which keeps things relatively grounded.

I think what’s most impressive about this film is how it’s able to go down a darker route than the other Marvel movies while not becoming excessively serious like The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel and I say that as an admirer of both films). Despite its dark overtones TWS still embraces its comic book origins and keeps its sense of humour intact. I also admire that this film’s action sequences are dirtier and more brutal than in the other Marvel films. Instead of magic hammers we have bullets, knives and hand to hand combat. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a fine job of crafting kinetic and mostly comprehensible action.

The climax of this film, while being predictably large scale, works spectacularly due to the stakes feeling huge. This is nowhere near the final film in the Marvel Universe but the climax brings with it a weight that tells us this is a major turning point.  The climax juggles several characters at once and while it can get a little messy it clicks together well and provides a high amount of tension.

Captain America is hard part for an actor to pull off.  Like Superman, I feel many people view Captain America as “boring” or out of date. But Evans makes Rogers a likable and believable hero for the modern age while still representing a man from a different era.  He’s so good in the role that he’s arguably to Captain America what Christopher Reeve was to Superman.  

Johansson has the most fun in the role of Romanoff yet and I like she’s gotten more personality over the course of the three films in which she’s appeared. Romanoff was largely a cipher in Iron Man 2 but in The Avengers and now this film she’s become one of the more complex and interesting characters in this universe. Mackie is charismatic as hell as deserves to be a bigger star. Fury has his most significant role to date and Jackson nails the dramatic beats of Fury’s story.  Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top brass. You would think Redford’s role would just be a glorified cameo but Pierce plays a crucial part in this film’s story and Redford balances the different side of this character. What I love about Redford being in this film is that he’s always been the all-American male movie star and could’ve played Captain America in the 70s.

I do have some minor issues with the film.  One is that I wish Emily VanCamp had a larger role as Agent 13, who comic readers will know to be Sharon Carter, niece of Peggy. Though to be fair, she’s mostly here to set up the character for a third film. I also would’ve liked a little more of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). She’s an important part of Rogers’ team in the climax but I don’t feel I know the character well enough.  The film also takes too long to make clear what its plot and themes exactly are.     

I’ve become skeptical and cynical towards the superhero genre but TWS is a superior entry in both the Marvel Universe, maybe even their best film to date. It’s ambitious in attempting to make a political statement and how it reshapes the universe. TWS is one piece of a larger canvass but its robust, smart and thrilling blockbuster entertainment.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

This Barbaric Slaughterhouse That Was Once Known as Humanity: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

I’ve only seen Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel once at the time of writing this piece but I feel the film may be Anderson’s greatest accomplishment yet as a filmmaker. To be fair, I haven’t seen The Darjeeling Limited (2007) yet and I do need to revisit The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which I saw at an age when I was too young to completely appreciate the style of Anderson’s filmmaking. Nevertheless The Grand Budapest Hotel is a triumph- a film that-like all of Anderson’s work- crafts a fully realized world of artificiality while still creating a sense of poignancy that deepens the whole experience  

The film is told through layers of narrative- Inception done Anderson style. A female student in the present comes to a cemetery to see a monument dedicated to a writer. She begins reading the authors’ memoir and we’re sent back to 1985 where the author (Tom Wilkinson) begins talking about the story he’s about to tell. Then we’re in 1968 where we meet the younger version of the author (Jude Law), who talks about his trip to the Grand Budapest Hotel.  The hotel is no longer the glamorous and luxurious place it used to be and the author meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel. During dinner the Moustafa tells the author about his early years as the lobby boy to the Hotel’s concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). We’re whisked back to 1932 where Zero (Tony Revolori) and Gustave become embroiled in a complex plot involving a dead widow/one of Gustave’s lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), her prized portrait that Gustave steals, Gustave being framed for murder, a prison break, and Madame D.’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) who also wants the painting. Willem Dafoe also shows up as an assassin.  

For me personally I became a little lost in regards to the plot. Maybe I’m just too dense or maybe the Anderson’s goal is to create a somewhat vague plot. There is one hilarious moment when Gustave, after breaking out of prison violently asks Serge X (Mathieu Amaliric) - the D. Family butler- “What the f—k is going on.” It’s a somewhat meta-moment that highlights the ridiculousness of the plot and how the characters we’re dealing with aren’t exactly any clearer on the proceedings than the audience.  

Ultimately I don’t think the plot really matters. What does matter is the escalation of absurdity and violence, constantly keeping the audience on its toe to what surprise or shock is right around the corner. The film is essentially a farce but Anderson’s craftsmanship makes it so the film transcending merely being a farce. The pure joy of the film is so seductive and infectious that I could have watched the film for another hour.  Anderson is one of the select filmmakers that have truly created their own cinematic world- Anderson’s filmography is essentially a sandbox in which he can play in. I know many don’t like and resist Anderson’s style- and also don’t like him using similar aesthetics in each film. But while all of Anderson’s films-with the exception of his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996) – have a recognizable visual style and tone, Anderson- to me at least- never seems to tell the same story twice. As I said Anderson’s world is a sandbox and while his films have familiar surroundings he always tells a unique and charming story each time out.

Anderson is one of the most meticulous filmmakers working right now. His shot compositions often are perfectly symmetrical- Anderson often seems like a warmer Stanley Kubrick.  Almost every shot in this film is one you want to live in. Anderson’s films are perfect for the DVD generation- there’s so much detail that you can’t catch everything on first viewing. And many shots you want to- and pardon the cliché- hang up as painting. A fascinating visual element of this film is how it shifts between different aspect ratios- 1:37:1 for the 30s scenes, 2:35:1 for the 60s scenes and 1:85:1 for the present day scenes. The aspect ratio for the 30s works very well with Anderson’s compositions which already have a boxed in quality. The change in aspect ratio reflects how films were framed throughout history. They also reflect the story’s different layers and make the time frames feel like individual worlds.    

The film’s multiple layers present us with Anderson’s commentary on how story telling is all about layers or to put it this way- storytelling is about passing down stories over time. The young student- for all we know- has never met the author or the elderly Zero- and definitely not Gustave-but through the authors’ work she gets a glimpse in to the past- or at least a version of the past. Maybe that’s the whole point. We only see the past through Zero’s memories, which may be why these events seem to exist in such a heightened reality.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, for me, is a very nostalgic film- told through the eyes of a man (Zero) who was there when a hotel was majestic and another man (the author) when it was past its glory days but still held on to by Zero. But it’s also one that acknowledges how- in respect to Gustave- the old world in which some feel they have lived may have already been long gone before they even entered the world.  Like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), The Grand Budapest Hotel suggests that the idea of a “golden age” is just that- an idea rather than something that actually exists or existed. Gustave may have been the last representation of something glorious and is now gone forever.

Zero’s nostalgic connection to the hotel has less to do with its ties to a long lost world than with its association with Agatha (Saorise Ronan), the girl who works at Mendl’s, a pastry shop beloved by Gustave. Agatha became the love of Zero’s life and while I won’t reveal what exactly happened to Agatha, Zero’s explanation of why he’s kept the hotel all this time is incredibly poignant and sweet in its simplicity- and brings to mind the happiness that we all wish to share with someone in our lives, in only for a short time. Ronan’s lovely and beautiful presence makes us believe in Zero’s love for Agatha, and we can see ourselves falling in love with her too.

Ronan is one part of a large ensemble cast that fills out this universe and gives it texture.Many of these actors are Anderon regulars- along with many several new faces, like Fiennes. Fiennes is the standout here, giving a dryly funny performance, presenting us with a man both debonair and somewhat clueless.

My only complaint about the film is- similar to Anderson’s previous film Moonrise Kingdom, my favourite film of 2012- there’s a bit of animal cruelty that felt a little too dark. That and some of the violence felt a little too jarring in this universe.

On a closing note, I can see The Grand Budapest Hotel becoming a beloved classic as the years go by. Like Anderson’s other films there’s timeless quality to the film. It’s bittersweet and ultimately tragic but still manages to be one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had at the movies in quite some time.