Tag Archives: B+

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

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B+

Toying with the old adage “if you’re going to do a sequel, just make the same movie over again,” the makers of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” have brought something distinctively new to the series while continuing—and in some sense repeating—the narrative from the excellent first installment. Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” was an old-fashioned forties period piece that captured the naïve, colorful look and feel of the original comics. This follow-up from Anthony and Joe Russo brings the icebound hero into the post-Cold War world of terrorism and the paranoia it engenders, pitting Steve Rogers’ World War II-era sincerity and integrity against the sort of governmental machinations that spring from the modern tension between personal freedom and high-tech security concerns. This might be a comic book movie, but it confronts matters that in today’s geopolitical context are quite serious as well as adopting a more down-and-dirty tone; even visually it has a far darker, grittier appearance than its predecessor.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it abandons its roots in the Captain American comic mythology. The script, credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is basically a continuation of the good Captain’s struggle against Hydra, the malevolent organization bent on taking over the world that was the centerpiece of the previous film, and although its leader, the Red, Skull is no long with us, his toadyish underling, Dr. Zola (Toby Jones), makes a reappearance of sorts. The primary nemesis for Rogers this time around, however, is the Winter Soldier of the title—a fearsome foe with a metal arm, glaring eyes above his partial face mask, and physical prowess that rivals, if not exceeds, that of the hero. His actual identity will be well-known to comic readers (and to anyone who bothers to read the cast list and compares it to that of the first movie), but it will serve as a satisfying surprise to uninitiated viewers, and provides the obligatory link to the third part of the trilogy.

Another link to the mythology of the printed page is the addition of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, a special ops veteran who takes on the mantel of the high-flying Falcon, a long-time associate of Captain America. He joins Rogers and the returning Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to make up the trio that takes on the still-pervasive Hydra, which plans to profit from the worldwide fear and chaos it’s promoted to establish itself as the ruling power on the planet. At its core “The Winter Soldier” is essentially a big-budget, super-hero variant on a seventies paranoid thriller, in which no one can be certain about who’s trustworthy and who’s a villain.

That’s because Hydra’s plan involves the takeover of the World Security Council presided over by Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), which is poised to launch the ultimate planetary defense system—three huge helicarriers that can orbit earth continuously to respond to any threat. It also involves the compromise of SHIELD, the actions-ops agency for which the Captain and Natasha work, but whose head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is attacked, and apparently killed, after he suggests postponing the launch of those huge aircraft. That sends Captain America on the lam, targeted by Hydra and by forces that might be being manipulated by them.

The plot of “The Winter Soldier” is fairly complex—with double- and triple-crosses aplenty and numerous other twists—but the script keeps the convolutions relatively clear, and the Russos are particularly adept at dealing with its more intimate elements, which they and their cast handle unusually well for this genre. The banter between Rogers and Romanoff comes off nicely as they rush about to elude the army of nefarious types out to prevent them from saving humanity, and Evans does well in capturing the air of a man out of his time as he struggles to master some seven decades of pop culture he’s missed out on. Jackson does his familiar bad-ass routine to a turn, and Mackie is appropriately stalwart as Wilson, even when he dons the Falcon’s somewhat ridiculous-looking wings. But the greatest catch of all is Redford, who seems to be enjoying playing coolly against type and whose very presence automatically calls to mind the pictures like “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Man” that this one offers a nod to.

Where the Russos prove more problematic is in the big action set-pieces—and there are lots of them, from a beginning commando raid on a ship taken over by terrorists and the explosive car chase in which Fury is injured, through the final confrontation, in which new computer chips have to be loaded into each of the three great helicarriers in order to divert disaster. The penchant for fidgety handheld camerawork by cinematographer Trent Opaloch in these sequences, along with the hyper editing by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt, leave many of the images looking rather muddy and indistinct, so that it’s difficult to appreciate the choreography of the movements. In the more limited action moments—one in which Rogers confronts a bevy of menacing individuals in a crowded elevator, another in which Jenny Agutter, as a World Security Council member, takes out a bunch of bad-guys (before morphing into someone else entirely)—are more smoothly handled and so more satisfying.

Overall, though, the picture is technically top-drawer, with CGI effects that are genuinely impressive without dwarfing the human side of things. Henry Jackman contributes a brassy score that’s properly mixed so as not to be overpowering, though sometimes the other sound effects can be.

In sum “The Winter Soldier” manages, as the second installments of a few other big-budget trilogies (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “Superman II,” “Spider-Man 2”) did, to improve on the first chapter. It’s a rousing adventure that will make devoted fans of Captain America swoon, while also pleasing those who met him only in the first film, but also touches on some hot-button contemporary issues. As usual with these Marvel superhero flicks, there are a couple of teaser trailers in the edit credits, so you might want to stay around until the screen goes black to catch them.

LE WEEK-END

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B+

There’s a larky, loopy vibe reminiscent of the early French New Wave in much of Roger Michell’s “Le Week-End,” an effect accentuated by the simple fact that the film is set in Paris and boasts a jaunty Gallic score by Jeremy Sams. But it isn’t a carefree romp about reckless young lovers, but rather an often intense and poignant comedy-drama about a pair of sixty-year old Brits, a married couple who’ve come to the City of Lights, where they’d honeymooned, for their thirtieth anniversary, carrying more emotional baggage than luggage.

The tension between Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) and her husband Nick (Jim Broadbent) is evident in the first scene, as they travel by train to France, with him slightly befuddled and her more matter-of-fact. And it explodes for the first time when they reach their hotel, a decidedly cramped establishment frugal Nick has selected but Meg refuses to stay in. After insisting on a long taxicab ride to see the sights, she decamps at a far more elegant alternative, where they take the only accommodation available—a large suite that’s obviously beyond their means.

From here they film follows them as they go about the city, revealing along the way their past grievances and present secrets. Meg, unhappy in her teaching job, is standoffish toward Nick’s romantic advances and sometimes treats him with positive disdain, nursing old wounds that will be explained in due course. Meanwhile Nick keeps taking calls from their slacker son, who recently moved out of their house with his wife and child, but now is looking to return, much to Meg’s distress. He’s also concealing the fact that he’s being forced to resign his position at a red-brick university because of a complaint by a female student about an off-the-cuff remark he made to her.

And yet the relationship has a strong element of affection as well as estrangement, as well as comic moments to balance the more serious ones. The strapped couple enjoy fine dining, but have to skip out on the bill. (They’ll eventually try to run out on their hotel bill, too.) In fact, it’s while they’re kissing on the street that they encounter Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), a gregarious old classmate of Nick’s who’s enjoyed the sort of success that’s eluded Burrows and invites them over to a soiree that he and his pretty young trophy wife Eve (Judith Davis) are throwing that evening.

That gathering serves as a critical moment for both Meg and Nick. They both have encounters that confront them with hard choices. She considers going off with a guest, a man who invites her out for a drink. And he bares his soul not only in a conversation with Michael (Olly Alexander), Morgan’s neglected son by his first marriage who’s visiting from America, but in a response to a laudatory dinner toast that Morgan offers to him. His confession of his weakness, professional failure and self-loathing shocks the other guests but ironically rekindles Meg’s feelings for him.

In less capable hands Hanif Kureishi’s subtle, sophisticated script, with its carefully-wrought balance between comedy, farce, restrained drama and powerful moments, could have been badly bungled. But here it’s played out to remarkable effect. Michell’s direction is both poised and limber, made all the more impressive by Nathalie Durand’s supple camerawork and Kristina Hetherington’s crisp editing, which gives the montages zest.

And the performances are superb. Duncan brings sternness to Meg without losing the affection that remains under the crusty exterior, but it’s Broadbent who really excels here. He’s an actor who’s never disappointed, even in inferior material, but in this case he has superior writing to work with, and he seizes upon it with obvious relish; it’s a great performance. But one shouldn’t overlook the genial pizzazz that Goldblum brings to the role of the loquacious Morgan, who evinces a honestly self-deprecatory good nature even as he rhapsodizes about the lovely young wife he knows will eventually tire of him and remains obstinately oblivious to the obvious strains in the Burrows family—nor the quietly moving turn by Anderson as his troubled son.

It’s appropriate that “Le Week-End” ends with an impromptu dance, for the entire film has been like a remarkable bit of cinematic terpsichore, covering the whole range of human emotion just as life—or marriage—does. And at the close it actually leaves you wanting more, because it’s created characters so rich and interesting—and so well played—that you want to enjoy their company even longer. That’s something you can’t say about most movies.