0276 | A Matter Of Life And Death

a-matter-of-life-and-deathThe British producer and director Sir Alexander Korda introduced Michael Powell to Emeric Pressburger in the late 1930s, and in doing so helped to create one of cinema’s great pairings: P&P enjoyed a successful career as joint writers, directors and producers of a number of films in the years that followed, forming the formidable production team The Archers with Alfred Junge (design), Hein Heckroth (costumes) and Reginald Mills (editing). A Matter Of Life And Death was, however, the first time that cinematographer Jack Cardiff worked with Powell and Pressburger, and his inclusion brought about a shift from black and white to Technicolor; this romantic fantasy, set against the backdrop of World War II and released as Stairway To Heaven in the US, makes use of both.

In this film the scenes set in southern England are in colour, while those that take place in the otherworldly afterlife – great effort was made to avoid the word ‘Heaven’ in the script – are monochrome; Powell insisted on this as it would confound audience expectations, while he also wanted the central love story to take place in an England that actually looked ‘heavenly’. By contrast the afterlife, sitting at the top of a giant escalator that cost a small fortune to construct, is described by the critic and writer David Thomson as resembling a Moscow underground train station, and the series of modernist rooms we see in black and white all house tedious bureaucratic processes: one is like an airport check in (you’ll spot a young Richard Attenborough in a small part as a recently-deceased pilot) where newly-assigned angels are given their plastic-wrapped wings, another is a chamber for political debate, and a huge auditorium is used for the afterlife’s court.

Negotiating the path between life and death, and subject of intense debate from up on high, is pilot Peter Carter (David Niven). In the gripping first scene his plane, on the way back from a bombing raid over Germany, is on fire and a crash into the English Channel is inevitable. His crew have bailed out except for a dead co-pilot and the last remaining parachute is wrecked. He shares his final moments with a stranger: an American radio operator based on the south coast of England named June (Kim Hunter), and they have an intimate chat as death approaches. Carter promises to visit June to see what she looks like, even if he is a ghost; however, after the plane plummets into thick fog, we see Carter’s body wash up on the shore, miraculously still alive and even more miraculously in close proximity to June’s living quarters.

Niven and Hunter are enjoyable as the young couple entering into a sweet romance, helped along the way by Roger Livesey’s neurologist Dr. Reeves, his presence in the story raising questions about Carter’s sanity (while the earlier mention of ghosts means speculation that the character is hovering between life and the afterlife never dissipates). The pilot has visions, during which time apparently stands still and he is visited by Marius Goring’s camp French aristocrat Conductor 71, who had originally been sent to escort Carter to the afterlife but lost the airman in thick fog. The question as to whether Carter’s subsequent love for June should give him another chance on Earth is hotly contested by those above, and gradually the film shifts from romantic love story to bizarre courtroom fantasy-drama, in which characters from history in the afterlife debate whether the outcome of a medical operation on Carter back on Earth should be successful or not. The case is a thinly-veiled discussion of Anglo-American relations, extremely pertinent at the time, and A Matter Of Life And Death makes a number of observations about the American revolutionary era and English meddling before an uneasy truce is agreed.

There’s a winning playfulness to the special effects, a clear extravagance with the sets (29 were used in total, and the production cost an estimated £320,000), and a certain charm in seeing characters twitching, breathing or moving slightly when time has supposedly stopped. It’s also funny: recently deceased American GIs are greeted in the afterlife by a Coke machine, while Conductor 71 breaks the fourth wall by declaring ‘One is starved for Technicolor up there’ during a sojourn to the third rock from the sun. What is most impressive is that the film starts by playing an ace, that magnificent scene where love blossoms over the airwaves, and then manages to keep playing more at regular intervals thereafter; a vibrant, inventive and witty film, it’s little wonder that it regularly appears in the upper echelons of critics’ polls.

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Marius Goring.
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff.
Editing: Reginald Mills.
Music: Allan Gray.
Certificate: U.
Running Time: 104 minutes.
Year: 1946.
Rating: 8.3

Classic Scene: A Matter Of Life And Death

At the beginning of this World War II-era film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Niven’s pilot Carter is plummeting to impending death, his plane having sustained damage during a bombing mission over Germany. Carter has allowed all of his crew to bail out in the knowledge that the last remaining parachute is unusable, and as he starts to descend over the English Channel his last conversation is with American June (Kim Hunter), a radio operator based on the south coast of England. This is the opening sequence of the film, after its otherworldly links are established, and it’s a fine beginning, even if Niven’s clipped accent and Hunter’s delivery sounds old-fashioned today. The rest of the film is a mix between romance and fantasy, and I’ll have a review up tomorrow, but I liked this scene so much I thought I’d post it first. (Incidentally, A Matter Of Life And Death was released as Stairway To Heaven in the US, but has since become better known under its original name.)

0275 | Computer Chess

DSC0736-M2Computer Chess is a strange piece: it’s a weird, warped, monochromatic feature from Andrew Bujalski that features a plethora of geeky characters who have gathered in a large hotel for a computer chess program fight to the death. Part comedy, part improv drama and part I-really-don’t-know-what, the film begins with an odd, deliberately drawn-out introduction to the annual tournament by a chess grandmaster (Gerald Peary) and surprisingly ends as a paranoid mumblecore sci-fi thriller, the director riffing on the idea of technology besting the human mind and bringing to mind Darren Aronofsky’s lo-fi debut PiMuch of it is doom-laden and suggests the kind of sinister, sentient CPU behaviour beloved of serious sci-fi filmmakers, yet this is also a film that regularly amuses with its lo-fi, Linklater-esque, dialogue-heavy vignettes (I’m thinking Slacker in particular). It’s a bit of a curate’s egg, if truth be told, but certainly unusual.

It’s 1980. Collars are wide. Trousers are flared. Haircuts are bad. Shirts are worse. A few panelists address a room full of fairly-bored looking contestants, many of whom we will later see dragging their giant, unwieldy computers around the hotel. Their interactions in the hotel bar and in various rooms are stiff, awkward, and there’s just one woman present, an MIT student who is repeatedly singled out by the MC for comment as if she were an objet d’art. To highlight the strangeness of these computer nerds Bujalski has another unusual group of people occupying the hotel’s conference rooms at the same time: fittingly, in a story about computers gaining power and gearing up to leave their human masters trailing behind, they are members of the Human Potential Movement.

Straight away it’s apparent that one of Bujalski’s intentions here is to reclaim the word ‘nerd’, or at least remind people that nerds used to look a certain way; in the director’s own words ‘ … in the 21st century, plenty of computer programmers have nice haircuts and go to the gym and drive cool cars. But the “nerds” of yesteryear, certainly those at the vanguard of AI were, I believe, a different breed. I think of these early programmers almost as a sect of monks, absorbed and dedicated utterly to their mission, to a degree that the rest of the world must have seemed like so much noise and distraction to them.’

The attendees at this computer chess tournament are outcasts who are suddenly, implausibly, thrown together. (The actors playing them are mainly unknown, but I recognised Wiley Wiggins, excellent as Mitch Kramer in Linklater’s Dazed And Confused twenty years ago.) They are obsessed by this relatively-new technology and only truly appear to be relaxed when discussing the advanced technical points of their work as programmers with one another. Think Steve Wozniak rather than Steve Jobs and you’re almost there. A programmer named Peter begins to suspect his computer has a mind of its own, and is deliberately ‘upping’ its chess game when it is pitted against a human, but there’s not much else in the way of plot.

Old school geekery it may be, but Bujalski manages to capture a sense of the thrill of computing, as well as the feeling of limitless possibility being tentatively explored; presumably the real life versions of these characters will have experienced the same back in the early days of home computing. There is excellent attention to detail, and the costume designer Colin Wilkes must get a mention for his thorough work; DP Matthias Grunsky filmed everything using a Sony AVC-3260, originally made in the early 1970s and likely used at events just like the fictional one depicted here, which also helps to create the movie’s confident sense of time and place (though I did find myself yearning for a bit of contrast; the picture at the top of this post has been enhanced as the film itself is deliberately flat and grey). A quiet, strange, low budget oddity with a baffling final few minutes; I liked it.

Directed by: Andrew Bujalski.
Written by: Andrew Bujalski.
Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary.
Cinematography: Matthias Grunsky.
Editing: Andrew Bujalski.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Year: 2013.
Rating: 6.7

0274 | Persona

persona-443Persona is bound to trouble, perplex and frustrate most filmgoers. Or so one would suppose.’
– Susan Sontag

In 1963 Ingmar Bergman was appointed head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. The subsequent workload – he did not scale back his film output in any discernible way – led to poor physical and psychological health, and subsequently he was struck down with double pneumonia and acute penicillin poisoning. In spring 1965 he was admitted to the royal hospital, Sophiahemmet, where he began writing a new screenplay, in his words ‘mainly to keep my hand in the creative process’. He was starting to question the role of art, and his own work in particular, and the resulting work was Persona.

Deceptively simple-looking on paper (or, as is the case these days, on computer monitor), Persona is anything but: it’s a troubling, complex and striking study of identity that has been interpreted in a number of different ways by critics in the years since its mid-1960s release. Convincing cases have been put forward that suggest the film’s primary concerns lie with acting, the artistic process, violence, motherhood or even insanity, but despite all that has been written about it Persona retains its mystery: Bergman’s films regularly deal with sexual desire, religion and mortality and this is no different, the director creating a surreal patchwork of images related to such themes that simultaneously intrigues and confuses. It is filled with split-second freeze frames that are both memorable and initially shocking – an erect penis was cut out by concerned censors – and the disconcerting nature of these, allied to Bergman’s trademark minimalism, ensures that a tale ostensibly about warmth (at its base level the story details the relationship between a nurse and her patient) is in fact as cold and hard to decipher as they come.

The nurse in question is Alma (Bibi Andersson), the convalescing patient is successful stage actress Elisabet (Norwegian Liv Ullmann, who was already establishing a good reputation, though Bergman cast her without seeing her act). Elisabet is seen abruptly becoming mute on stage; in hospital there is no diagnosis. On the suggestion of a doctor the pair stay at a remote coastal cottage, where the existing, simple nurse/patient relationship changes: Alma’s long confessional about an earlier foursome and an abortion are met with no verbal response, and she discovers that her patient is actually surreptitiously making her own notes, seemingly using the nurse as a case study; initially Elisabet is the subject but their roles appear to be reversing. Gradually Alma’s earlier fear, confessed to a superior, that ‘I might not be able to handle her…mentally…I might not be able to cope’ begins to come true, and she becomes angry with Elisabet. Meanwhile Elisabet’s husband pays an odd, ghostly visit, but mistakes Alma for his wife.

While the story itself is relatively straightforward, a synopsis ought to mention everything else that Bergman includes, which certainly isn’t. The film begins, for example, with projectors and camera equipment starting up, before a series of images are flashed up on screen: a crucifixion, a tarantula, clips from a silent-reel comedy that were first seen in Bergman’s Prison, the slaughter of a lamb. Finally the camera rests on a boy waking up in a stark, minimal hospital room (next to, it would seem, a number of corpses). When the boy is foregrounded we can see a screen in the background, onto which blurry, transient images of Alma and Elisabet’s faces are projected, shifting from one character to the other.

There are other experimental touches throughout. At a critical point the screen flashes white, scratch marks appear and the sound level rises to a wince-inducing screech. The film appears to be winding back on itself and images from that strange opening montage reappear. When the action resumes the screen is blurred, only snapping back into focus when Elisabet looks through a window. Elsewhere the narrative includes war-related images (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk’s self-immolation, a young Jewish child during arrests in the Warsaw Ghetto). Later, near the end of the film, the camera abruptly turns away from the women and focuses instead, briefly, on the director himself. What does this all mean?

It’s difficult to interpret and tie everything together, particularly when images come and go at such speed, but clearly Persona is about identity and the fragmentation of personalities, as well as being a thinly-veiled metaphor for the process of acting. The name Alma traditionally means ‘child who lifts the soul’ or ‘feeds the spirit’ – and that obviously applies to the character’s role as a nurse and as a ‘muse’ of sorts for Elisabet. She is referred to as ‘Sister’ Alma, a title that can be interpreted in different ways; though it is the job that confers this upon her, the word indicates a stronger, more personal link to Elisabet. It seems that Elisabet is the strong, dominant personality and Alma is a reflection of something else: a manifestation of some inner conflict, or fear about motherhood, perhaps? Bergman and regular DP Sven Nykvist regularly use the trick of overlapping the two actresses while the characters share a conversation (well, I say ‘share’, but naturally it’s always Alma speaking), at first having one in profile while the other faces forward, before later framing their heads as if trying to create a Venn diagram. Finally we see half of the front of each face stitched together, a shot that is extremely creepy. Bergman suggested: ‘In most people one side of the face is more attractive than the other, their so-called good side.’ Here Nykvist splices together ‘their respective bad sides.’  Are they becoming one person, or is Alma being subsumed into Elisabet’s personality, or are they one-and-the-same all along? Everything leans towards the latter, but Bergman enigmatically ends his film by separating the pair once again.

Woody Allen is famously a big fan, but I’ve seen a number of films that borrow a little (or a lot, in some cases) of Persona‘s identity. Robert Altman’s 3 Women owes a debt, while David Lynch cast Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Drive as a result of their similarity to the two leads here (and there are of course many thematic similarities with Lynch’s film, as well as a number of shared images). The point in which the structure of Bergman’s film ‘fractures’ was approximated, relevantly, by Peter Strickland for Berberian Sound Studio, which contains its own version of the young boy and the blurry screen, while Paweł Pawlikowski and his Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal also owe a debt to the Swedish director and his DP. It’s unsurprising that this film is still resonating with a new generation of arthouse directors today; it’s as inspiring as it is haunting, the kind of film that stays in the mind of the viewer, and the willfully-difficult work of a master. Hard to interpret and hard to forget.

Directed by: Ingmar Bergman.
Written by: Ingmar Bergman.
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann.
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist.
Editing: Ulla Ryghe.
Music: Lars Johan Werle.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 82 minutes.
Year: 1966.
Rating: 9.0

0273 | Avengers: Age Of Ultron

DknsbHC[Note: I’m aware that Avengers: Age Of Ultron isn’t out in the US for a few more days, and has only just been released in other territories, so I’ll try as hard as possible to avoid spoilers here; however I will mention one or two things that have already appeared in the trailers, or that have been discussed extensively elsewhere during the past six months or so, as I think that’s fair game.]

When all is said and done, and whether you actually like it or not, one must at the very least admire Kevin Feige’s vision in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which I will grudgingly admit has just about delivered on its original premise of being this decade’s Police Academy; it’s interesting because of its (increasing) popularity with cinemagoers and cultural relevance, its financial returns, its mega-casts and the way it has made all other franchises seem insular and unambitious by way of comparison. If capital ‘b’ Big is your thing then Marvel is presumably an incredibly impressive force to study.

I said this yesterday in a belated review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I’ll repeat it here: while the creation of the MCU has resulted in a wearying conformity from one movie to the next, that is at least intentional and it’s something that has been executed in a clinically impressive fashion. Within producer Feige’s profitable, multi-phase series the two Avengers movies to date have served as crescendos of sorts, bringing together a gang of superheroes – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America / Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man / Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr), Hawkeye / Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), lest we forget – who are arguably more interesting and enjoyable to watch when calmly chatting as a group than when they are fighting loud, long battles with their nefarious opponents. And I guess for all the rigid conformity that we have seen to date Joss Whedon, the director working for Marvel Studios with both the toughest and the easiest job, has been the most successful in establishing a voice.

But let me cut to the chase: if you’re a fan you’ll be happy to know that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron; similarly if you’re not a fan you will be unsurprised to hear that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. I’ll try and concentrate on the positives, as there are quite a few, but there will be a few gripes along the way. Please: no death threats.

Given how familiar these characters are by now (or the latest incarnations of one or two of these characters), Whedon is able to begin proceedings with the first of a series of action-packed sequences, which also introduces two new characters: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s lightning-fast Quicksilver (different to the Quicksilver seen in last year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past) and his telekinetic twin sister, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch; both were seen briefly at the end of The Winter Soldier, but they are given prominent roles here. The film’s MacGuffin is quickly established as the Avengers secure old enemy Loki’s sceptre, which contains an ‘infinity stone’ (the multi-film plot device becoming increasingly familiar within the MCU); this magical object contains an alien form of artificial intelligence, eventually taking the shape of Ultron (James Spader), a sentient being occupying one of Tony Stark’s robotic exoskeletons. And thus with the enemy established the Avengers repeatedly do battle with Ultron and his army of robotic henchmen across a number of locations: the fictional Eastern European capital of Sokovia, New York, Seoul and South Africa (lazily referred to as ‘The African Coast’, which effectively translates as ‘I dunno…Africa somewhere…it’s all the same thing, right?’).

The film is indeed action-packed, though I’m aware that hardly needs saying; I went in with a slight headache and came out feeling like I’d been in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. However, as mentioned earlier, Whedon wrote some very good scenes for The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble in the UK) that focused on the somewhat spiky relationships formed by the characters during downtime – the clash of egos was always a big part of the comics – and again here the writer capitalises on the work already done in other MCU films when the heroes go tête-à-tête in various locales (an early party scene being a highlight). Downey, Jr is at his snarky, cocky best and Stark’s gentle ribbing of the prissy Rogers turns into an amusing running joke. Thor’s fish-out-of-water grumblings are toned down this time, but still evident, and largely enjoyable.

More effort has gone into developing the relationships and backstories of the three main characters who do not currently have their ‘own’ films – Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye – with a sweetly-observed romance and the appearance of Freaks N’ Geeks’ Linda Cardellini (last seen repeatedly getting into lifts with Don Draper) as an Avenger housewife. It’s a welcome response to earlier criticisms, even though the injury-prone Hawkeye still seems like the first one that you’d put forward for redundancy if budget cuts had to be made. Age Of Ultron benefits from the increased confidence of the three actors playing these roles: the charismatic Downey, Jr remains the presence it’s impossible to ignore but Ruffalo, Johansson and Renner all make the most of their bigger parts, and the balance between the six main heroes is much better this time round.

The battles? Well, as I’ve said, they are loud, long and noisy. Motorbikes fall from the sky. Vibranium shields and uru hammers fly across the screen with their owners close by. Things that can explode do explode. Walls are smashed, cars are tossed, buildings collapse and the rubble stacks up (purely in terms of wanton destruction the battle between ‘Hulkbuster’ Iron Man and Hulk – it’s in the trailer – is the standout, while also containing the movie’s funniest moment). Once again you’re presumably expected to care about collateral damage as this version of our world gets smashed to smithereens, and once again the strict adherence to certain formulaic ticks and tropes makes it nigh-on impossible for you to do so. At least in wrecking districts of cities across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa the Avengers show that discrimination is not an issue; South Americans and Australasians can presumably expect to have a couple of their metropolises duffed up in the future.

In terms of the new additions, Spader’s voicing of the sarcastic and duplicitous Ultron is a decent variation on the Tony Stark template, but I’m ambivalent about the character overall. One or two bad guys have stood out in Marvel’s recent films – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, most notably – but more have disappointed, and I’m torn with this one; Ultron initially appears to be more than a match for the six Avengers (and those who join in later) but the threat gradually peters out. Paul Bettany – usually the voice of Stark’s computer J.A.R.V.I.S. – fares well as The Vision, and the appearance of this character will most likely excite Marvel fans and intrigue casual viewers the most. Olsen is OK as the Scarlet Witch, her toned-down costume far different from the ones I remember in the comics, and her presence at least helps to redress the male-female imbalance in the MCU. Some actresses – Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, neither of whom feature here – have to make do with weak love interest roles in related films, so it’s good to see a woman other than Johansson who can actually do something and affect the plot significantly (yes lots of the supporting scientist and agent characters are female, but are they actually important?).

As with the X-Men franchise, if a new character is lucky enough to make it to a second film then that’s where you begin to see improvements; Johansson’s Black Widow is a perfect example: less of an immediate hit initially than others, she has gradually grown in importance thanks to enhanced roles in The Winter Soldier and this film, and the final scene here, effectively setting up the next wave of Marvel Studios films, is telling. Perhaps the biggest problem for both Olsen and Taylor-Johnson is that they’re having to compete with a number of actors who are now well-established in their roles, and naturally they are both forgettable when compared with the likes of Downey Jr or the torso that functions as a base for Chris Hemsworth’s head. The new pair grasp their respective opportunities as well as you can expect, but their movie this ain’t.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the unnecessary reappearance of numerous minor characters that have featured in the other films. I’m sure there are fans out there who will be delighted by the brief glimpses of characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle (please, Don, make it stop), Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell and Stellan Skarsgård, but by the end it just seems to tip a movie that is satisfyingly over-the-top and packed with characters into a movie that is irritatingly over-the-top and over-stuffed with characters. The appearances of several for a mere scene or two are largely pointless – most of them just get in the way and I’d rather watch more Tony Stark than a spot of old ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes doing the same thing – but then this is a film that actually casts Julie Delpy for a flashback sequence that lasts all of 15 seconds, so there you go.

Ultimately, despite the negatives, it’s clear that Whedon has fulfilled his brief. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is exactly the film you expect it to be, for better or for worse, and there’s more than enough to delight fans here; obviously it will be a record-breaking success in financial terms, too. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad that the studio has improved its output during the past year or so, even if the films still steer clear of alarms and surprises (you really have to question any action thriller when you’re sitting through the end credits waiting for something unanticipated to finally happen). Is it better or worse than The Avengers? Hmm: same same – a nice mix of humour and grandstanding CGI-filled set pieces, but if you don’t have that gnawing sense of ‘there must be something more’ 11 films into the MCU then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey, Jr, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson.
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek.
Music: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 141 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 6.8

0272 | Captain America: The Winter Soldier

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-behind-the-scenes-videoLooking back, 2014 was a good year for films set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The two releases slotting into Phase 2 of Kevin Feige’s enormous project, Guardians Of The Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, made around $1.5 billion between them, and perhaps helped to increase anticipation – if it were even needed – for this month’s soon-to-be-all-conquering The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Leaving the obscene amounts of money aside, perhaps just as importantly the critical consensus held that those two films were high points with regard to Marvel’s recent output, and represented a turning point of sorts after the underwhelming Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark WorldHaving finally caved in and watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier in preparation for Age Of Ultron, I feel inclined to generally agree with that consensus.

The Winter Soldier is the ninth film taking place in the MCU, and the second standalone Captain America title, after 2011’s The First Avenger. As such there are no concessions made for casual viewers or latecomers, and director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (previously best known for Community) waste no time when re-introducing already-familiar characters: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is Captain America, the enhanced Second World War ‘super-soldier’ who has woken up in the modern era after a 70-year slumber, Samuel L. Jackson is the oh-so-serious Nick Fury, Director of espionage/counter-terrorism agency S.H.I.E.L.D, and Scarlett Johansson is spy Natasha Romanoff, also known as The Black Widow. Some minor cast members return – Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell – while Sebastian Stan is given a slightly bigger part to play and Anthony Mackie joins as Sam Wilson / Falcon.

Given Marvel’s usual reliance on CGI, The Winter Soldier feels refreshingly old school, in the sense that it largely avoids the fancy stuff until its long, frenetic finale, during which a trio of giant, flying, death-dealing ships are launched by Hydra, Marvel’s fictional terrorist organisation. As many others have suggested before me, the film occasionally feels like a 1970s political thriller, and its early acts specifically bring to mind two films from Alan Pakula’s famous ‘paranoia trilogy’: The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. Indeed the link is further cemented by the presence here of Robert Redford, star of that latter film, as S.H.I.E.L.D bigwig Alexander Pierce, while the Washington, DC setting allows for numerous Pakula-esque establishing shots that focus on the familiar environs of the Potomac, the National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building.

Amidst all the ‘trust-no-one’ double crossing within government agencies and the laboured references to earlier MCU films, Captain America and co must do battle both with Hydra moles operating within S.H.I.E.L.D and the fearsome ‘Winter Soldier’ of the title, with whom our hero has a bit of history. The action set pieces here are fun, the fist fights bone-crunchingly entertaining, and I have to admit I enjoyed every single one: an early assault on a cargo ship by Cap and The Black Widow is a highlight, a claustrophobic scrap in a glass lift is simple but effective, and a sustained terrorist attack on Fury’s armoured car is equally gripping. It’s no surprise the film proved so popular with fans last year, or that the Russo brothers have since been confirmed as the directors for three more forthcoming Marvel movies.

Much of the appeal lies with Evans’ po-faced and noble patriot: some regard him as Marvel’s dullest superhero, but he stands out here by being the only main character who acts with honesty and decency while those around him on both sides make a number of duplicitous moves (the smirking and lethal Black Widow among them). I must admit I was sceptical about the character’s longevity after The First Avenger, which disappointed me, but I’m firmly on side now, and will be looking forward to further Captain America films more than any of the other Avengers solo efforts. Here screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely play on the fish-out-of-water side of Steve Rodgers’ character a little more, and entertainingly spoof Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery by giving Cap a list of 20th Century cultural touchstones to catch up on, such as Star Wars and Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man (although the opportunity to see Rogers exclaiming ‘…and I can’t believe Liberace was gay’ has sadly been missed). There’s also a nice moment where Rogers is shown the three state-of-the-art flying battleships that he will eventually have to take down at the end of the film, and subsequently takes himself off to the National Air and Space Museum to wallow in the company of more familiar, older aeroplanes. Times have indeed changed.

A minor problem with the film is that the Russos and their screenwriters seem over-eager to include a number of minor characters that have appeared in other MCU films, particularly near the end, as if to remind you events are happening elsewhere; it’s hard to imagine any die-hard fans celebrating the brief appearances by Jenny Agutter’s Councilwoman Hawley or Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern, last seen in The Avengers and Iron Man 2 respectively, but here they are anyway, making you scratch your head and wonder where you’ve seen them before. The end of the film is slightly clunky as a result, and a number of short scenes designed to set up future movies simply get in the way. Wasn’t that what the now-traditional end credits sequence, this time introducing Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, was designed for in the first place?

For all its inventive, well-choreographed action and 70s-influenced thrills, Captain America: The Winter Soldier does eventually revert to the tried-and-tested Marvel template by the end battle, but the writers and directors certainly manage to re-create the fantastical fights and derring-do that made the comics so popular in the first place, and despite the sense of déjà vu caused by the finale it doesn’t preclude this from being an enjoyable entry into the series. Captain America is given a decent adversary and it’s nice to see a hero tackling a credible, modern day threat rather than the otherworldly Asgardian business that made Thor: The Dark World so dreary. Overall a success, then, and it speaks volumes that Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, the figurative and literal golden boy of the earlier MCU phase, will be playing second fiddle to Evans’ soldier in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely. Based on Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo.
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch.
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt.
Music: Henry Jackman.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 136 minutes.
Year: 2014.
Rating: 7.0

0271 | Chef

CHEFHaving made a few blockbusters, writer, director and actor Jon Favreau scales things back a little with Chef, a feelgood tale about a man who reconnects with his young son and ex-wife through his passion for cooking. It has some nice moments, usually during the good-natured verbal jousts favoured by the main male characters, though distracting cameos and big-name supporting turns seem superfluous, and create a slightly smug, self-satisfied air. It also plays out like a long advert for Twitter at times, though social media is certainly relevant to the story.

Chef may appear to be about the restaurant trade, but presumably it is intended to be read as a parable about the movie business, perhaps revealing the state of mind of its writer and director following the helming of the disappointing Cowboys & Aliens. It’s probably safe to assume that the parallels between Favreau’s career and that of his character Carl Casper, a successful professional head chef working in Brentwood, California, are not coincidental, but Chef also briefly examines the motivation of critics, suggesting via its fairly transparent set-up that it’s almost impossible for a film critic and a director to have a meaningful discussion in this day and age without it turning into an unseemly public spat.

Carl’s boss is restaurateur Riva (Dustin Hoffman), and he’s on good terms with sous-chef Tony (Bobby Canavale), maître d’ Molly (Scarlett Johansson) and line cook Martin (John Leguizamo). Unfortunately, although the restaurant is busy, Carl is creatively stifled and years of long hours are apparently to blame for the breakdown of his marriage to Inez (Sofía Vergara), as well as his stuttering, slightly-awkward relationship with young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). When Carl is stung by the harshness of a bad review by a previously-supportive and influential food blogger named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), the chef sets up a Twitter account and attacks back; a war of words ensues before Carl publicly berates Ramsey for his review, launching into a tirade about how serious he is about his work and how much people in his kitchen care about the food they cook, footage of which subsequently goes viral. After quitting his job, Carl takes the opportunity to follow a dream and jumps on the food truck bandwagon, primarily selling cubanos and medianoches in Miami before making his way back to California across the south. This back-to-basics foodie road trip takes in some of the comfort food highlights of Louisiana, Texas and Florida and allows Carl to bond with his son over a hot skillet.

Presumably Favreau, like his main protagonist, felt like he was stuck in a rut after a few years of big budget nonsense. (Hey, there have been successes like Elf and Iron Man, but I don’t think many people would honestly stick up for Iron Man 2 or the aforementioned Cowboys & Aliens.) It certainly appears as though the director is trying to return to his ‘indie roots’, at first, but he can now call on a host of big names to help him out, and while I’m sure everyone had fun on set I found the appearances of Hoffman and Johansson to be distracting in a fairly low-key comedy-drama like this; if Favreau really wanted to capture the spirit of those earlier days surely he could have given a break to a couple of up-and-coming actors who need the work instead. I guess he has cast people who are friends, and that’s his prerogative, but it feels like a step too far when Robert Downey, Jr, briefly playing another one of Inez’s ex-husbands, appears for a brief cameo. He may as well have been introduced with a title card saying “Hey everybody, it’s Robert Downey, Jr!”. (If anyone reading ever actually meets the actor, please can you do me a favour? Tell him you think his best work is in Chef, and record his reaction.)

Leguizamo is fine, though we’re not really talking about demanding material here; he’s an actor that I always enjoy watching and I wish he’d get more lead roles. Bobby Cannavale’s also OK during his brief scenes, but his character disappears soon after taking Carl’s old job. Favreau completes the film’s ‘likeable everyman’ trio, and as per Swingers he draws out your sympathy despite playing a mopey, slightly-flawed character. It’s a warm performance, albeit occasionally mawkish, and I can even just about overlook the fact that he has had the nerve to cast Scarlett Johansson and Sofía Vergara as his partners in the film.

Part road trip, part father-son bonding drama, it’s all rather neatly and unrealistically rounded off near the end, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a feelgood ending. As stated above, the constant shoe-horning of Twitter as a plot device becomes annoying, but it is at least partly relevant to the story; my understanding of pop-up restaurants and trucks and the like is that social media – free to use, of course – is pretty much essential in getting off the ground and becoming popular. That said, we all know that some people in America use Twitter; there’s really no need to show Tweet bubbles popping up above random heads as they wait in line for a sandwich, is there? It’s a device that instantly took me out of the story, as did the sudden and unnecessary use of a split-screen, which perplexingly only occurs once.

I’m probably giving a false impression here by pointing out the film’s various faults; I actually quite enjoyed Chef. It’s an easy, inoffensive watch, with a few amusing moments, and although it’s formulaic I found it quite restful having watched this, this and this earlier in the same day. If you’re in the mood for a warm, simple story you could do worse.

Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Jon Favreau.
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey, Jr.
Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau.
Editing: Robert Leighton.
Music: Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 114 minutes.
Year: 2014.
Rating: 6.1