Movie Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, USA 2014)

Sometimes, it’s good to watch films like this one so that you remember to appreciate those that try, even if they fail. The Monuments Men (George Clooney, USA/Germany 2014) was awful, but at least it was actually trying to be a real movie. As lame as it may have been and as low as its sights may have been, Oculus (Mike Flanagan, USA 2014) at least had sights on being a good genre film. Divergent (Neil Burger, USA 2014) may have been mostly an homage to hot teenagers, but . . . okay so that one wasn’t really trying either.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a film. It doesn’t have a point or really even a plot. It has a character (though only one) that it’s using to sell the future films Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America 3 (title apparently not yet revealed), and Iron Man 73 (title estimated by me). It’s just using the star appeal of its title character to draw people in to tell them, “Hey, we’re going to do some cool stuff in those other movies!” (And I’m betting they don’t deliver on that promise.)

First, just to get it out of the way, I will note the one really good thing about this film: It’s not a cartoon. Big budget action movies like this are usually so overloaded with CGI that they are indistinguishable from Pixar’s work, but this one keeps the CGI under control much more than most. It’s certainly not CGI-less and frankly there is still more of it than there should be, but the Russos deserve some credit for trying to keep things practical. As a result, the actual picture quality of the film is exquisite–they have the money to make everything look good and don’t waste it on CGI, so it actually looks amazing (and yes it looks much better than any similar films that are coming out). Otherwise, the Russos and cinematographer Trent Opaloch don’t do much to make the film stand out visually, showing no command of color, lighting, or other elements or any ability to think outside the conventional box, but I would forgive that for the increased practicality, really.

The plot is a convoluted mess that makes it nearly impossible for the film to make a point. It falls into a typical trap for longer, bigger-budget films–it tries to make half a dozen points at once and so doesn’t make any of them. It tries to make the point that you have to trust some people in order to have their strength behind you when you need it (which is already a rather convoluted and specific point), the point that your past is never gone, the point that selflessness is always preferable to selfishness, and of course the point that freedom and security are often diametrically opposed forces. The S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra storyline is about freedom and security. The interaction between Fury and Captain America is about trust. The Winter Soldier subplot is about the ability to escape the past. And so, the film ends up not making a single one of these points but rather using them as themes. Themes like that are fine for longer works, but not for films–films don’t have the time to use themes–they have to make points.

The political overtones of the film are probably what the filmmakers would say that want us to pay attention to, and casting Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1975) star Robert Redford is a signal that they were considering the types of political thrillers that have often been his stock and trade, perhaps even specifically paranoid thrillers. However, they dilute it so much with the other plot elements that it’s impossible to give them any credit for that oversimplified political point. And along the way, they keep mentioning other Marvel superheroes who are in currently-active film series like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, shoehorning them into the dialogue for no reason other than to make some people in the audience think, “Man, I can’t wait for the next Iron Man movie.” How can you really be trying to make a point when you’re doing that once every three scenes? That’s what makes this film a commercial rather than a real film.

Acting-wise, this film generally gets by though it requires little of its actors. Chris Evans deserves special credit, because he really gives a depth of feeling to his character that the script frankly never gives him. There is a sense of weight and loss to his face in a number of scenes that we would not get were it not for his performance, and he deserves credit for not just doing that but doing it with real depth and subtlety. Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson (Whose name in real life should probably be Nick Fury, right?), the film’s official Overqualified Real Actors, are an oddly mixed bag. Jackson is surprisingly restrained in a role that could have easily been campy to the extreme in his hands. Johansson, for someone as smart and confident as she professes to be, spends an awful lot of the film cocking her head like a confused dog and looking around in wonder, though the oddness of her physicality actually makes her character seem more interesting than she otherwise is. Redford, meanwhile, is an absolute mess–he’s wooden and emotionless, like a man going through the motions repeating lines he does not want. Nobody else really stands out, though I did enjoy briefly seeing/hearing the Dream Lord. (And yes, that’s who he is to me. He may have been Dobby first, but that’s one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.)

A word should go to Henry Jackman’s score. It may have been a little overly conventional at points, but overall it heightened the dramatics exactly as it should have throughout. It deserved a better film. And if Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first film that appears in the credits is any indication, it is a vast improvement over that earlier film.

Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not just a commercial for other films, but a pretty poor one. It’s too busy selling things to make its point, and so it completely falls apart in spite of an excellent score and lead performance.

Notes

  • In the first fight, TWS seems to be at least equal in strength to CA. In the second, CA is suddenly much stronger (though also ridiculously stupid, since he leaves the gun sitting right next to TWS). At least have some consistency in your stupid rules, guys.
  • “The first rule of being on the run: walk, don’t run.” No, the first rule is don’t spend the whole time with really sexy girls with bright hair–they draw attention. Raise your hand if you think you would be in a mall anywhere and not notice Scarlett Johansson. I bet we’ve got a crowd of full pockets.
  • Yeah, Macs, bitches!
  • If you’re being inconspicuous, shouldn’t you ditch the shield? But he has it when they get to the New Jersey base.
  • “Air conditioning is fully operational.” Nick Fury’s car has a sense of humor, right? It’s not really answering him, right? It’s much funnier if the car has a sense of humor.
  • I’m sorry but a shield is a stupid weapon. It was in 1941. It hasn’t gotten better.
  • It seems pretty obvious that Bucky basically got an evil version of the treatment that made Steve into Captain America. Steve really got screwed on coolness, though–Bucky gets a cool robotic arm; he gets a stupid shield.
  • I didn’t watch the first film. Is there a 10% of the brain myth mention in it? I have a bad feeling that there is. (As I recall, Captain America is supposed to be supremely intelligent as well, not just an essentially perfect physical specimen. Wikipedia seems to agree with my memory.)

Movie Review: “All Is Lost” (J.C. Chandor, USA 2013)

A lone sailor, wandering the ocean seemingly aimlessly, is startled by a thud and the sudden and unwelcome presence of water in his yacht. He heads to the deck to discover that his yacht has run into a shipping container full of shoes. He fixes the hole in the hull, only to realize that a major storming is rolling in. That’s essentially the entire plot of All Is Lost, a film that relies on the movie star charisma of 77-year-old Robert Redford and the very simplicity that deprives it of other attractions to carry it.

Following the damage to his yacht, what ensues is a fairly simple battle of man against nature, with the unnamed lead character battling vicious storms, the loss of more and more of his equipment, a not-entirely-friendly current, and even a shiver of sharks. It’s a naked, obvious allegory for the dangers of commercialism, suggesting that nature always lurks beneath and that only by giving up on commercialism and accepting being a part of nature can man be saved.

The film shows an admirable dedication to making its point, but is ultimately undone by its simplicity and the facileness of its point. The first 20 minutes or so tell us everything the film has to say, and then it just keeps on telling us the same thing until the end. I always say that a film can only make one point, but the idea of only making one point is definitely taken too far by this film’s repetitiveness. Every note of the film is clearly coming from then on, and it does not surprise in the slightest. We see the storm coming and we know it’s going to take out his yacht and leave him somehow adrift on the ocean, probably seeking a shipping lane since he ran into a shipping container, and that’s what happens. While it’s not necessary for a film to surprise, the obviousness of this film really is a weakness.

One interesting aspect of this film is contrasting it with a very similar film that recently received much praise: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA 2013). They are both simple, existential horror films filled with physical action sequences. However, where Gravity gives us a sympathetic lead by giving us a naïve, inexperienced female scientist and reduces the older, more experienced, calmer male figure to a sort of low-level mentor role, All Is Lost gives us a lead character who really should not engender sympathy and is older though equally in over his head and uses Redford’s sheer star power and charisma to force sympathy. It’s an interesting contrast in strategies, and even though Gravity is a better film, I think it is at least arguable that All Is Lost’s strategy proves more successful. A feminist critic could also probably find much to say about what the difference between the female lead of Gravity and the male lead of All Is Lost says about the position of women in current society.

Visually, J.C. Chandor and Masanobu Takayanagi don’t do much with the film. Much of the film is, for obvious reasons, left very naturalistic and simple, which works well enough even if does not really enhance the point. However, they also fall into the CGI trap far, far too often, especially later in the film, and that is much to the detriment of a film that otherwise, for all its faults, holds together pretty well.

Robert Redford, meanwhile, is excellent in his performance. He hardly has anything to say, mostly making his points just with his eyes and movements, and he does that well. He does not have as much to do as one might expect for an actor with that much screen time, but he does what Chandor gives him perfectly. More importantly for the film, he remains one of the absolute most charismatic actors in history. He was always a capable actor who stood out largely because of his looks and his undeniable charisma, and that’s what he remains even at this age and not having acted in a noteworthy role for nearly three decades. It’s easy to feel like we can go along with him for the ride and even feel sympathy for him, even though the setting makes it quite obvious that he’s actually a wealthy man who appears to be rather stupidly in over his head. It’s that charisma that makes Redford such a perfect fit for this role, and it makes the film come far closer to working than it seems like it should.

All told, All Is Lost is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a film that works on a minor level but just doesn’t quite hold together well enough to be as good of a film as the premise and Redford’s performance would suggest. It isn’t the simple, quiet masterpiece it sets out to be, but it’s a decent enough film to be worth a viewing.