Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier', 'Under the Skin', 'The Past', and 'Starred Up': review round-up

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' - Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo (12A)

A sequel to both Joe Johnston's charmingly Spielbergian WWII-set origin story 'Captain America: the First Avenger' and Joss Whedon's superhero team-up crowd-pleaser 'The Avengers', 'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' is tonally very different to those films and indeed to the rest of the Marvel Studios oeuvre to-date. Directed by the Russo brothers, this one is more of a conspiracy thriller and - without going all Nolan Batman and jettisoning fun and colour - it's a comparatively gritty and grounded affair. Much like the Ed Brubaker run in the comics, which introduced this film's antagonist the Winter Soldier (alluded to by the writer's cameo as one of the scientists behind his creation), the film does a neat job of including lots of outlandish and far-fetched comic book elements - from the winged exploits of Anthony Mackie's Falcon to the newly computer-bound consciousness of Toby Jones' Arnim Zola - with something altogether more grounded and grave.

The casting of Robert Redford as the political face of world peacekeeping force SHIELD, Alexander Pierce, is one of many nods to the classic thrillers of the 70s, as this film delves into more morally grey territory than its predecessor. Where once there was a struggle between the 'greatest generation' and the Nazis, Cap (Chris Evans) now finds himself in a world he doesn't recognise and which has seemingly abandoned the principles of freedom he fought so hard for in the 40s. Now SHIELD is starting to look like something more tyrannical and oppressive than it seemed when Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) first burst onto the scene at the end of the first 'Iron Man' film - creating huge, automated airborne battleships capable of detecting and erasing threats before they happen: in an obvious nod to both modern drone warfare and the NSA surveillance scandals of the last few years.

Against this background is a well-crafted superhero romp, which is also something of a mini-Avengers team-up as Cap unites with the aforementioned Falcon and Scarlett Johansson's espionage specialist Black Widow to stay one step ahead of SHIELD and discover the truth behind the agency's corruption - thwarted at every turn my a mysterious new enemy with a link to Cap's own past: the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The action is hard-hitting, well choreographed and visceral, whilst the main players exhibit the sort of good chemistry needed to make all the bits in between fun. Especially Chris Evans in the starring role - an actor who imbues the title character with as much subtle depth as he does obvious decency.

'Under the Skin' - Dir. Jonathan Glazer (15)

A masterclass in editing and sound design, Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes on the form of a human female and uses this guise to seduce lonely, socially isolated men, who she then traps and harvests for... some reason probably much clearer to those who've read the Michel Faber novel. Though I'd argue the question of why she captures these men and what exactly becomes of them is a secondary concern in a film that works primarily on the level of visceral, sensory experience. In lieu of much specificity or explanation, this is simply the story of an outsider assimilating and attempting to fit in (albeit with nefarious intent), learning a certain degree of compassion for humanity and gradually becoming more unsettled by and attached to her newly acquired body.

Johansson is perfectly cast in the role, especially as the film is set in Scotland and she adopts a clean, regionally non-specific English accent when talking to her co-stars - mostly comprised of non-actors, supposedly oblivious (at least at first) to the fact they were part of a film. The audience is aware that she's a Hollywood movie star pretending to be English and, even if they don't consciously realise it, those she approaches must also have sensed this unease with and disconnect from the star in their midst: familiar yet just different enough to sow seeds of doubt. She's an impostor playing an impostor and it works brilliantly, especially as she glides around British high streets and shopping centres in her black wig and incongruous fur coat.

Moments of intense body horror and a heart-pounding finale combine with this playful casting and Glazer's technical mastery to create something truly memorable - potentially even destined for cult status.

'The Past' - Dir. Asghar Farhadi (12A)

In a style familiar to fans of his earlier films, such as 'A Separation' and 'About Elly', director Asghar Farhadi's maiden effort outside of Iranian cinema is still a tightly wound and faultlessly humane drama, peppered with extraordinary revelations and populated by nuanced and fully-formed characters who are lead by circumstance to ponder profound ethical questions. Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who travels to France to finalise a divorce from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, star of 'The Artist') from whom he has been separated for four years. Whilst there he is immediately thrown, quite against his will, into an unfolding family drama that he otherwise has nothing to do with, as Marie begs him to have a heart-to-heart with her eldest daughter from a previous marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), in order to find out why she's taken against her mother's new partner Samir, played by 'A Prophet' star Tahar Rahim.

After a half-dozen twists and turns we come to understand the various conflicting points of view all involved in the unfolding crisis, which this time revolves around the theme of forgiveness and moving on from what has happened before - of leaving an old life behind as you head into another. Something which none of the characters can quite face doing, at least without difficulty and heartache. Nobody in contemporary cinema (at least that I know of) is quite as brilliant as Farhadi when it comes to creating ensemble casts in which every character is so complex and well drawn. As with his other films, the four central characters here - along with another three or four supporting cast members - are each worthy of audience investment and sympathy, portrayed and written with great compassion.

'Starred Up' - Dir. David Mackenzie (18)

Muggin' everybody off, and generally causing no small amount of bovva on his cell block, in this gritty British prison movie is rising star Jack O'Connell as damaged, young offender Eric Love - a teenager prematurely moved up to big boy jail because of how violently he behaves. In service of drama, Eric is improbably moved to the same prison, and indeed the same wing, as his equally unhinged father Neville (the always intense and brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn) where he comes face-to-face with his past and some the issues which have played a part in his becoming a violent offender in the first place. Without explicitly stating it, there's undoubtedly a history of physical and mental abuse between them that's telegraphed mainly in how O'Connell's body language and demeanor change when confronted by his old man. Apparently known to audiences for his role in teen drama Skins, O'Connell makes an impressive transition to the big screen here: as charismatic as he is frightening and unpredictable.

The central drama concerns how Eric becomes a pawn in a broader game played between a powerful fellow inmate (Peter Ferdinando, who was excellent in the low budget crime film 'Tony'), a crooked and cruel prison warden (Sam Spruell), and a well-meaning volunteer psychologist (Rupert Friend). Friend's psychologist lobbies the skeptical prison establishment to get Eric placed in his self-help group (which they want to see fail for reasons of pantomime vindictiveness), where he can talk through his problems and learn to deal with his emotions without resorting to violence, whilst the prison authorities mostly just want to smash his face in - to the extent where all the police seem like irrational villains. It's the interactions between the various prison staff that ultimately bring the film down, though scenes between inmates (and especially those in Friend's group) are often gripping and compelling.

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