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Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson and new recruit Falcon (Anthony Mackie) face a new foe in the form of the Winter Soldier as terrorist organisation Hydra rears its ugly head in the most unlikely of places.

Another week, another Marvel superhero flick. The genre is walking a very well worn path by this point and many are starting to feel a little bit numb to its formula. Captain America: The Winter Soldier could well have been the straw that broke this series’ back, but fortunately there’s enough new and interesting in there to ensure Marvel’s stock remains as high as ever.

Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s origin story, took place in World War II, but naturally (considering what happened at the end of that film and in Avengers Assemble) we’re now in a modern day setting. And we have modern day themes as well. The Winter Soldier examines themes of privacy, intrusion, drones, and other similar ideas that feel incredibly relevant when you take a glance at the news of today.

The problem with having a modern day setting is that it removes one of the key elements that made the first film work: the period World War II setting. That’s not to say this film doesn’t work, but it feels a little less unique.

However, despite its current themes and setting, the film actually feels more akin to a 1970s spy or espionage thriller, or even a Connery/Moore era James Bond film at times. Stick the Cap in a tuxedo and you’ve got yourself a Bond film. Apart from the guy who has massive metal wings and can fly everywhere, obviously.

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That would be Sam Wilson, or Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie), who’s one of the new characters introduced in The Winter Soldier. Falcon is a decent addition and along with the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as a main character completes an interesting and dynamic central trio.

Then there’s the Winter Soldier himself as the film’s central villain (or is he?). One aspect of the past few Marvel films where they’ve dropped the ball is with their villains, in that they just aren’t that villainous. Both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World featured very weak villains, but they’ve upped the game somewhat here. The Winter Soldier is both menacing and also has an air of mystery surrounding him which adds up to a much more threatening villain than we’ve seen previously.

Much of The Winter Soldier is actually much slower paced and plot heavy than you’d expect from a Marvel film and this plays very much in its favour, although younger viewers may not appreciate this as much. However, true to form everything goes ballistic in the final third and we get the obligatory 20 minute action scene with everything being blown to smithereens. Obviously, with superhero films, this formula is the natural one to follow, but it would have been nice to stray from this for a change.

Whilst The Winter Soldier could, and perhaps should, have been the point where we tire of Marvel superhero films, it’s actually one of the stronger entries in the whole franchise that should see him have more equal footing alongside his super-peers when it comes to next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Pros

  • The Winter Soldier is an excellent villain
  • Interesting and more involved plot
  • Dynamic central trio of heroes

Cons

  • Final third a little too formulaic
  • Loses some of its identity with shift in time period from the first film

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Her

Letter writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) hasn’t been particularly lucky in love since his wife left him. However, after meeting and hitting it off with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), it seems things are looking up. The only thing is Samantha is a computer operating system.

The genius of Spike Jonze’s Her is that it takes a concept that should feel completely alien and beyond any realm of possibility and makes it feel totally normal. We don’t know when it’s set or even where it’s set, and yet we buy into it immediately as if their world is our own.

Jonze has superbly melded a science fiction future with the ubiquitous social and political trappings of the present, which succeeds in giving us a doorway into Theodore’s world, his hopes & dreams and, significantly, his failings.

As Theodore gets the train to work, he and his fellow commuters are absorbed in their technology, be it a mobile phone or their very own OS. This might be a vision of the future, but is that really any different from where we’re at today? There’s little to no communication between human beings; Theodore’s job involves writing letters on behalf of people who can’t express themselves and there are very few genuine and happy human relationships in the film.

This laces the film with a sense of melancholia and loneliness, mirroring Theodore’s own feelings. That is until Samantha turns up. Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied Samantha may not be a real person, but to Theodore she’s perfect. The two share intimate conversations and you get a genuine sense of their relationship growing, regardless of Samantha not having a physical presence. Even when the two are ‘intimate’ with each other, it feels more like a triumph than anything seedy or sordid.

Some are accepting of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, whilst some are less so. This immediately brings to mind the idea of forbidden love, mixed-race relationships and other similar themes. Is their relationship wrong or weird? Does it really matter?

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What’s clear is that they seemingly make each other happy, and that comes across wonderfully in the performances of the two leads. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perfectly awkward and understated, and he manages to encapsulate the excitement and nervousness of a new relationship, the insecurities that come with it and the feelings when it’s perhaps not going so well. His performance is further enhanced by Jonze’s direction. The abundance of long takes and close-ups allow the minutiae of his personality to seep out and build a more believable character.

Scarlett Johansson has the peculiar task of playing a disembodied voice, yet brings so much life to the character that you never doubt she’s any less real than the other characters in the film. Johansson and Phoenix are totally believable as a couple, and considering only one of them has physical form, that’s quite an achievement.

The only real misstep the film takes, for me, is in its ending. It feels slightly curtailed and abrupt, which one could argue is a metaphor in itself, but it also stretches the realms of possibility and believability that little too far. It did little to hamper enjoyment of the film, but it did feel like the filmmakers were unsure of how to bring it to an end.

Her is the kind of film that doesn’t come around all that often. It’s genuinely heartfelt, looks stunning, and is an intriguing examination into human interaction and our evolving relationship with technology. Above all, it feels fresh and original, and that’s always something that should be celebrated.

Pros

  • Genuinely heartfelt and believable
  • Great performance from Joaquin Phoenix
  • Amazing voice work from Scarlett Johansson
  • Stunning cinematography

Cons

  • Ending stretches the realms of possibility slightly too far

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film review: The Prestige

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”

The Prestige

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two aspiring illusionists working together in Victorian London, but when Angier’s wife is killed during an act, the two are torn apart. Hell-bent on outdoing each other, the pair, both aided and hampered by the beautiful Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), go to extraordinary lengths to prove they are the greater magician.

The Prestige formed part of a magical double bill in 2006 alongside The Illusionist, but largely thanks to its trio of Jackman, Bale and Johansson it pretty much eclipsed its illusionary brethren. It also had the advantage of having Christopher Nolan at the helm fresh from Batman Begins to lend a bit of narrative nouse that the director has become renowned for. Adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name, The Prestige is an atmospheric period piece that effectively combines magic’s inherent mystery and intrigue with a plot that constantly keeps you second guessing right to the very end.

Christian BaleThe narrative jumps around between different time periods of the magicians’ rivalry, although Nolan does well to ensure it never becomes too confusing. The carefully crafted mise-en-scene not only creates an intriguing world for the characters, but also elicits a certain dreamlike quality that is equal parts beautiful and sinister. Neither Algiers nor Borden are particularly likeable characters; both have somewhat dishonourable intentions and it’s hard to know who to naturally side with. This, combined with the cinematography and flitting narrative all adds to the feeling that nothing is quite as it seems and that you shouldn’t be so quick to take everything at face value.

The Prestige is a film that definitely warrants a second viewing, presuming you enjoyed it first time round of course. There are some superb instances of foreshadowing, with some being much more subtle than others. Again, this just adds to the film’s mystery and intrigue. And as with ‘real’ magic, these are the things the film does best. The plot itself has a few holes in it here and there, although nothing that will break the film, and the characters can be a little one-dimensional at times. Bale’s Borden is by far the pick of the bunch, whilst Jackman and Johansson don’t exactly give memorable performances. In fact, Jackman’s best moments are when he actually plays Gerald Root, an out of work actor used as Algier’s double in his act.

Although magic is undoubtedly the basis for the film, it also becomes somewhat of a MacGuffin. The real theme of the story is two men with an all-consuming obsession and a friendship not just turned sour, but deadly. The Prestige is an interesting example of art imitating art and one that challenges the audience to question everything they are seeing. With magic it’s the reveal that gets the big reactions, and The Prestige just about delivers on this front. It’s not going to have you open-mouthed in amazement but it will likely leave you with a sense of satisfaction, if indeed you had at all been fooled. But then again, as the quote at the top of this review states, you don’t really want to work it out anyway.

Words: Chris Thomson

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