Film reviews: Captain America | The Past

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans in Captain America. Picture: Contributed

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans in Captain America. Picture: Contributed

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Captain America may be able to save the world, but here he fails to carry his own movie

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (12A)

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson, Anthony Mackie

***

The phenomenal success of Avengers Assemble may have demonstrated Marvel’s remarkable ability to create a blockbuster saga in which the headlining characters of its various franchises could come together in one coherent movie, but the studio hasn’t yet worked out how to make a great sequel. They’re very good at world-building beginnings (Iron Man, Thor), brilliant – so far – at concluding chapters (Iron Man 3 is the best Marvel superhero movie to date). But those pesky second instalments still seem to trip the studio up. Iron Man 2 was a bloated gateway movie, more intent on setting up the concept of the Avengers than telling a decent story in its own right. Last year’s Thor: The Dark World, meanwhile, was just inane – a flabby franchise-filler, designed to keep the Marvel juggernaut moving.

Which brings us to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that bucks the trend somewhat by being better than 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, but only because its 1940s-set predecessor wasn’t particularly great in the first place. Like the aforementioned Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, the new film takes place in the aftermath of Avengers Assemble and finds Cap’s non-secret alter ego, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), still trying to adjust to life in the 21st century. Having been frozen in a sub-aquatic block of ice towards the end of The First Avenger, he’s missed out on a lot, including pop culture, something that directors Anthony and Joe Russo use to set up the film’s first and only really successful joke – a cultural bucket list gag in which Star Wars is subtly celebrated over Star Trek (the next Star Wars film being produced by Marvel’s parent studio, Disney).

Cap, of course, doesn’t have much free time for undergoing cultural re-assimilation. His chemically enhanced body may allow him to run circles around others, but as any superhero knows, saving the world requires a certain amount of sacrifice in one’s personal life. The problem for Cap is that he’s too much of a straight-shooter for the kind of clandestine work S.H.I.E.L.D. is involved in; he wants to be a hero, not a superpowered janitor for the likes of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) – forever being sent in to clean up their mess.

That’s a decent starting point for a Captain America movie given that the character himself isn’t all that interesting. Earnest to a fault, he’s always been a boy scout, a good egg, Marvel’s version of Superman – only without the goofily relatable Clark Kent alter ego or the Lois Lane love triangle. In Avengers Assemble, this made him the dull but necessary moral centre of a fairly crackpot, egotistical team of gods and monsters (and billionaire playboy arms dealers).

In this film, his incorruptible refusal to get his hands dirty in a surveillance culture age of shady morality and duplicitous double dealing creates conflict with Fury, reinforces his “otherness” and, in theory, gives him a purpose as the larger plot – involving a wide-reaching attempt to facilitate and exploit chaos in order to install a more fascistic order on the world – starts to reveal itself. And yet, despite the best efforts of returning star Chris Evans, there’s still something a little dreary about the character. He can take out a lift full of rogue government agents and bounce across rooftops like a less-destructive Incredible Hulk, but he can’t carry his own movie – something reflected in the prominence of this film’s villain in the title.

Unfortunately the intriguing sounding Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) proves a similarly damp squib. A mysterious assassin with the same kind of enhanced powers as Rogers, his own connection to Captain America’s past should make for a forceful showdown. Yet by the time this rolls around both characters have been sidelined in the interest stakes – first by Scarlett Johansson, whose ex-KGB assassin Black Widow has more of a starring role than she had in Avengers Assemble, and then by a far more interesting storyline involving Fury and his high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. comrade Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford). Once again, Marvel have made a film about a hero who is a pawn in a much larger story, instead of its driving force.

Maybe it’s just a question of semantics, though. Despite bearing the name of its protagonist, this feels more like an episode in an ongoing Avengers saga and that might be the best way to look at it. It homes in on one of the less interesting characters, but for those committed to the long haul, it surrounds him with enough intrigue to ensure next year’s Avengers sequel, The Age of Ultron, remains a tantalising prospect.

THE PAST (12A)

Directed by: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet

****

As a dramatist, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi adheres to the old Shakespearean notion of what’s past is prologue: both 2009’s About Elly and his 2012 Oscar-winner A Separation examined how contemporary relationships can be shaped and in some cases imprisoned by the complexities and inequities of historical traditions, particularly those already enshrined in Iranian law.

With his latest, The Past, he’s relocated to Paris for a film built around another disintegrating relationship – something that ensures it remains of a piece with his previous work, yet simultaneously allows him to deepen his thematic concerns and expand his scope as a filmmaker. The Past, in other words, is not constrained by Farhadi’s own past, something reflected in the subject matter of the film itself, which revolves around a Frenchwoman called Maria (Bérénice Bejo) attempting to settle her affairs with her estranged Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) in order to start afresh with her new partner, Samir (Tahar Rahim).

The film begins with the arrival in Paris of Ahmad, who has flown in to sign the divorce papers, as well as to see Maria and her two daughters, whom he helped raise, but are from a previous relationship. As he walks through the airport, Maria greets him on the other side of a soundproof glass wall, their silent conversation at once a playful nod to Bejo’s breakthrough film, The Artist, but also a nifty way for Farhadi to convey the mutual warmth and understanding that still, on occasion, exists between the couple.

The film quickly counters this as they dive into Maria’s car, however. As she attempts to reverse out of her parking space – Ahmed giving her directions, torrential rain obscuring her view – she has to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting something. Ominous symbolism established – there are a lot of rear-window shots in the film – it soon transpires that Marie’s new relationship is already under strain from the emotional repercussions of a tragic incident that has befallen Samir’s own wife eight months earlier.

That incident is having an adverse affect on Marie’s kids, particularly eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) – and on Samir’s confused little boy, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). This in turn is causing tempers to fray between Marie and Samir, something Ahmed’s presence – he’s staying at their house at Marie’s insistence – can’t help but intensify.

In other hands, the convoluted, incident-heavy nature of the plot that unfolds might seem contrived, melodramatic even, but Farhadi and his cast eschew histrionics. As the film progresses, it deftly peels away layer upon layer of secrets and lies to explore in forensic detail how romantic and familial relationships are frequently haunted by past mistakes for which it’s not always easy to atone. Remarkable stuff.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (U)

Directed by: James Bobin

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Steve Whitmore

**

The delirious highs of 2012’s reboot of The Muppets are in short supply in this follow-up, which relentlessly acknowledges every sequels-are-never-as-good criticism likely to be flung its way without bothering to subvert expectations by trying to be better. One brilliant joke involving Danny Trejo notwithstanding, the film mistakes glib, self-referential gags for playful irreverence, mocking its predecessor and using the Muppets’ endearing ineptitude as an excuse for its own ineptitude as a film. Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, even Ricky Gervais – on duty here as the film’s chief bad guy Dominic ‘ahem’ Badguy – are decent foils for Kermit and Co, but returning director James Bobin seems intent on making Waldorfs and Statlers of us all with a film that forgets to include what has, historically, made The Muppets funny: real heart.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM (12A)

Directed by: Morgan Neville

****

Putting a fascinating slant on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary shines a light on the many hard-working, talented, mostly black backing singers who’ve been helping transform good songs into rock and pop classics since the early 1960s.

Featuring in-depth interviews with the likes of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, the film unpicks layers of irony as Neville broadens proceedings out to place what these performers did in the context of the civil rights movement. He deepens the story too to explore the spiritual side of music and why so few successful backing singers become stars in their own right. Moments of genuine heartbreak duly follow, but in the end there’s an acknowledgement that for some, singing is a higher calling than success, a point this never-before-told history makes with intelligence, grace and killer music.

THE ROBBER (15)

Directed by: Benjamin Heisenberg

Starring: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba

***

This based-on-true-events heist movie puts a unique spin on the genre by following the exploits of a marathon running bank robber who uses his athleticism and endurance to aid his getaways. That makes for a couple of high-octane chase sequences, but Benjamin Heisenberg’s film – adapted by screenwriter Martin Prinz from his own novel, which was in turn inspired by the exploits of Austrian bank robber Johann Kastenberger – is less interested in exploiting thrills than it is in exploring the existential loneliness of the long distance runner. As the similarly named Johann Rettenberger, Andreas Lust is appropriately inscrutable, leaving it to us to infer from his character’s obsessive training and unwillingness to adhere to societal norms just what it is that’s driving him.

THE UNKNOWN KNOWN (12A)

Directed by Errol Morris

***

Having already interrogated the lies and false memories used to justify both Vietnam (The Fog of War) and the torture techniques used at Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), Errol Morris sits former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld down in front of his “interrotron” for his latest film and takes him to task for, well, not all that much as it happens.

Instead he uses Rumsfeld’s professional propensity for documenting the minutiae of his daily life in memo form as a jumping-off point for an interesting but never particularly revelatory overview of a career that took Rumsfeld from the fringes of the Nixon administration to the inner circle of America’s other most despised leader, George W Bush.

Morris gives Rumsfeld plenty of rope to hang himself, but Rumsfeld is too canny to respond accordingly – although watching him espouse the brazen doublespeak that gives the film its title proves oddly fascinating.

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