Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.

The television connection I allude to is certainly not by chance. Many of the franchise’s more memorable character actors found initial fame on the small screen (with, in many cases, these shows’ iconic characters referenced in the Marvel characters they play), while the directors of this outing are familiar to me from their work on the early, foundational, seasons of the cult television show Community, itself wrapped up in meta-commentary and fandom. I’m not saying Captain America is not at some level a straightforward superhero action film, but there are few films I’ve seen that work harder at making connections across multiple levels of meaning, gradually but insistently building up a web of dense allusive textures. By the end the film, it is weighed down with so much referentiality that the physical fact of enormous flying battleships crushing swathes of a city are almost inconsequentially forgettable.

Partly, of course, that’s because it’s not really a film about these battleships, which function more as the classic ‘MacGuffin’ device of being the thing that the characters care about within the plot. The now familiar trope of crushing metropolitan destruction (Washington DC where formerly it was New York) becomes less of a focus in this film’s denouement, because the untouchable superheroic inevitability has been displaced by some fallible, emotionally-compromised men locked in combat. For the audience, as for the filmmakers, the title is probably the key to the film, and it’s done rather slyly. This is because Captain America is not The Winter Soldier as the colon implies. Or rather, these may be two separate characters, but that colon links them together — perhaps as two sides of the same person, at the very least in a relationship, a combative one, but tender at some level too.

To get to that point, though, involves a lot of plot, and a lot of dashing hither and yon. The very Winter Soldier character, for all his importance in the end, gets barely any on-screen time — though largely one suspects that’s because the filmmakers are trying to hide the big ‘reveal’ of his identity (which isn’t much of a surprise once it comes, really). Instead, then, we get more of Samuel L. Jackson’s militaristically-inclined Nick Fury character, apparently neutralised by Robert Redford’s conniving demagogue Alexander Pierce, while Chris Evans’ clean-cut American hero pulls together his crack team of Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam (Anthony Mackie), a fellow military running buddy he meets cute at the start. Via the Fury and Pierce characters, we end up getting quite a bit of detail about the politics of this world and about the unstable hierarchy of the SHIELD organisation (with its own Nazi-throwback black ops unit tying in the World War II-era setting of much of the first Captain America film).

Yet for all the feeling that the filmmakers have for the characters — with cute gags like Steve/Captain America keeping a notebook of the cultural touchstones he needs to catch up with while he’s been out of circulation (it’s apparently a slightly different list in each country the film’s been released), or the fond exchanges between Natasha and Steve as she tries to set him up on a date — there’s still the nagging sense that some of their ideas are based too much on generic clichés. For example, there’s the one where Steve is staking his life on unlocking brainwashed memories within the Winter Soldier, and launches himself into this task not so much with a strategy as with a blind faith in the effectiveness of the familiar generic trope to succeed (a variation on ‘search your feelings, you know them to be true’). The filmmakers also seem to lack a sure touch in choreographing the action sequences, most of which pass by in a frenzied incoherent blur. It’s times like these when you wish they’d had as much faith in the power of the camera (with images a bit calmer and more steadied) as they do in one or two sequences where the soundtrack takes on the work, cutting out in moments of emotional crisis, or taking over as when Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” leads a montage sequence.

I suppose my point may ultimately be that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not really made for me, but that’s no failing of the film’s by any means. It follows through on the superheroic derring-do sufficiently well that one’s desires on this front are sated, and puts enough characters into play that those who follow the minutiae of the Marvel universe will find plenty to enjoy. But while there are hints towards these characters’ shadowy back stories, by the end of the film, there’s really very little extra that we know about Natasha or Nick or most of the others. As befits its title, it’s Captain America and the Winter Soldier whose stories matter the most here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier film posterCREDITS
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby); Cinematographer Trent Opaloch; Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 2 April 2014.

All Is Lost (2013)

The end of the year, when people traditionally have more holiday time, always brings lots of interesting films to cinemas, which makes it difficult to compile a ‘best of’ before one has seen the whole year out. Here in the UK we have not yet had American Hustle (except in one West End London cinema) or The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave has only been at the London Film Festival, but Boxing Day sees the release of this one-man acting effort from Robert Redford, albeit a few months after it was released Stateside. And it’s fair to say that it makes a strong contender for a year-end best list, despite its very stripped-down plot. It’s going after similar survival-against-the-odds territory that Gravity was aiming for, but at its best All Is Lost more successfully earns its obvious spiritual dimension. After all, it deals with the grandest of themes — the ones usually focused on in the liturgies of organised religions — which is to say, redemption through suffering, grace and salvation.

There’s no doubt it’s a film which has been purposely shorn of anything extraneous, though, and it doesn’t surprise me to read perplexed accounts of it from people who did not perhaps connect with its narrative minimalism. After all, there’s barely any speech in it, aside from one loudly muttered imprecation, an attempt to radio for help, and a spoken introduction. It’s that introduction which sets the film’s stall: we open at a point where the unnamed protagonist, played by the ageing Robert Redford, clearly believes himself to be beyond rescue. He is writing to an unidentified person, and his words form the film’s credo, after a fashion. He apologises, he states he was trying but has failed, and then utters the film’s title. Any further backstory is mere speculation, and one spends a lot of the film trying to glean hints of what his situation might be — he is out on the ocean all alone, but he’s wearing a wedding ring, so one could suppose that he is writing to his (estranged?) wife, maybe children. Perhaps he’s on a voyage of self-discovery, perhaps his character has made mistakes in his life that he’s trying to rectify, or maybe he’s out there because he wants to die. All is speculation.

What’s certainly clear, though, is that whatever Redford’s reasons for being out alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, once tragedy strikes, he works tirelessly to keep going. The tragic event opens the film after the spoken intro (between the two is an intertitle taking us back eight days), when his boat hits a stray shipping container and starts taking on water. From there, the film unfolds as a tense account of survivalism at sea, as the elderly but still rather spry Redford first tries to fix his boat, and then finds himself taking to a life raft to continue his journey. The setbacks he continues to face — primarily from the weather (at once stormy, then burningly hot) — make up the bulk of the film’s plot, and it all keeps things ticking along with some of the same anguished desperation that Gravity had, but in the maritime setting of Captain Phillips (another survival story, but against humans rather than nature).

Obviously, though, the religious themes are unavoidable here, most clearly in that introduction and then in a denouement (spoilers: I shall try to be oblique but you may wish to look away for this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) which can certainly be read ambiguously, with a shining light that suggests transcendence. Whatever the physical outcome for the character, the ending at the very least offers salvation, and that final image implies that this is what the protagonist has been looking for. It’s a curiously uplifting final scene. In retrospect, it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter what the specifics are of the protagonist’s failings: his journey is one of repentance matched by a final act of grace. His journey then becomes a form of ascetic denial, perhaps, taking him finally away from all comforts and connections until he is utterly cut off.

In this regard, it’s all a very Christian film about redemption, but in its broad strokes rather than putting across any specific ideology. What can certainly be said is that Robert Redford, being the only actor in the film and on screen for its entire running time, does a fantastic job in what must have been very difficult filming conditions. The lack of dialogue (meaning the lack of verbal explanations for his actions) only sharpens the subtlety of Redford’s acting, as he attends to dealing with his predicament. Of course, part of his success can be attributed to his iconic status within the firmament of motion picture stars, as we can see this character as a sort of version of those golden-haired golden boy characters he once played, but extended into extremis, and his now craggy and lined face conveys its own resonance. With its grand allegorical sweep, All Is Lost is as fine a way as any to see out a year of films.

All Is Lost film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco; Starring Robert Redford; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 26 December 2013.