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.)

Thoughts on the Previews: April 18, 2014

Another new feature to try out: these are some random thoughts I had during the previews at the theater today. There will be a movie review probably later tonight (at worst early tomorrow), but I often have things to say about the previews, so I might as well say them here. Note that I’m not necessarily covering everything. I really have nothing to say about another Expendables movie–I just rolled my eyes at its existence and moved on.

Commercials: Orphan Black and M&Ms

  • I love M&M commercials. Like always. They do these stupid little fake movie trailers to tell people to silence their cell phones and yet they are just consistently awesome. They are such a perfect mimicry of typical movie trailers. They’re like the This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA 1984) of movie commercials.
  • It’s good to see that Orphan Black is getting pub. I’m going to do episode-by-episode reviews this season, since I got a season pass on Amazon. Note that, like Breaking Bad‘s final half-season, I will be a little behind because I have to wait for those to come up.

Trailer: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, USA 2014)

  • I remember when Marc Webb was an exciting young visionary. He made a brilliant film in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, USA 2009) that was simultaneously a great love story, a deconstruction of movie love stories, and a masterclass in how to cover up a poor lead actor in Zooey Deschanel (Sorry F!). Then, he caught the Bryan Singer-copyrighted Superhero Movie bug.
  • Spider-Man is a stupid superhero. He’s whiny and annoying.
  • “You know what I love about being Spider-Man?” Clearly, the tight suit and being able to be supposedly shy but have a new love interest every five issues but it’s obvious you’re going to say everything. “Everything.” Yeah, that was obvious.

Trailer: Lucy (Luc Besson, France 2014)

  • “It’s been estimated that the average human being only uses 10% of their cognitive ability” (note: this is from memory). Only by idiots! I was a psychology major. I took neurology classes. Guess what? That’s a myth. Here is Snopes.com debunking it. Here’s Scientific American doing the same thing. Even Wikipedia knows it! We need another movie perpetuating this nonsense and using it as its basis??!!! You know what would actually happen if someone could access 28% of her brain? She would be a drooling puddle of goo!!!
  • I remember when Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman were real actors. I miss them.
  • Luc Besson’s career is a mystery to me.

Trailer: X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, USA 2014)

  • I remember when Bryan Singer was a real director. Sigh.
  • To be fair, the X-Men movies do always look much more like real movies than most comic book fare. I’ve still never wanted to watch one, though.

Trailer: Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014)

  • I thought casting Chris Pratt, in spite of his bulk, as a superhero was a little weird, because he just oozes sweetness. However, I now see why they cast him, and I’m sort of interested in this.
  • Did they really just not even bother to show Karen Gillan in the trailer?
  • I will not speak of what Karen Gillan did to herself for this film. I may avoid it only because of that.
  • The Karen Gillan tag has way more entries than any logic would suggest that it should . . .
  • Doesn’t this sort of look like a movie version of Firefly?
  • My favorite part of the flipping off the camera joke was actually the computer saying, “Warning: Imminent Obscene Gesture Detected.” They have the technology to do something that impressive, and that’s what they use it for?! Yeah, that actually sounds like something a government would do. I’m sad now.

Trailer: Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, USA 2014)

  • “Oh what a night/Late December back in ’63/What a very special time for me/What a lady, what a night . . .” Oh, that’s not here. Boo.
  • Clint Eastwood . . . musical . . . not sure about that idea. Eastwood has some goodwill for me, but his last film was a total embarrassment, so he’d better get it together.