Film of the Week: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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The Russo Brothers direct Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jnr and Sebastian Stan in this third Cap film that really is a third Avengers film in all but name.

If you take away the super fun but barely integrated Guardians of the Galaxy, then the Captain America flicks have been the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chris Evans’ old fashioned valued but quick to evolve action hero has proven the most emotionally complex and therefore the most involving superhuman in an ever increasing cast of enhanced and mutated freaks that currently rule the box office. But this third film often struggles to find room for Steve Rogers to do what we like most about him despite his name on the poster and top billing. A more box office friendly title  (and trading standards untroubling name) might be Iron Man: Civil War or The Avengers: Civil War but the most appropriate in terms of screentime and character arc would be The Winter Soldier: Civil War…try selling that. And while certain sequences had me bouncing in my seat like a child and grinning like a loon (it really is a must see for comic book fans) it’s hard not to focus on all that Whoever’s Civil War gets wrong. It is just as messy as Batman Vs Superman – try explaining the plot rather than the pitch in a few simple sentences to someone uninitiated, or even a fan for that matter. Impossible. Like Batman Vs Superman, too many characters are introduced to the film’s detriment – Black Panther in particular robs Cap of his trademark distinctiveness by being even more honourable, decent and patriotic than the title character who is built on these values, and not in way where you feel that was intended as part of the fun. Like Batman Vs Superman, the final grim fight over dead parents and a villian preternaturally pulling strings could be avoided if the characters just talked to each other – and considering these are characters who share a bunkhouse and talk all the time that is even more ridiculous a plot hole to leap over than the similar one in the more maligned film. Like Batman Vs Superman, after a thrilling sequence where people die in Africa most of the mega powered rough and tumble takes place in pointedly unpopulated areas – though to give Civil War some extra credit that opening Lagos set-piece tops anything you’ve seen at the cinema this year and makes rare, brilliant use of the 3D gimmick. Like Batman Vs Superman they take a bright and fun character and make him introspective and dull – once the life and soul of the blockbuster party, Robert Downey Jnr looks bored for most of this film, only his scene with Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May has any of the old angel dust energy. So if previously you cast any of the above stones at BvS, but can’t see the same deserving targets for criticism in Civil War, then your prejudices are pretty obvious. Luckily these are sins I can overlook in both films and enjoy them for the tonally very different rides they are. Civil War often is a sillier and lighter film. The big everyone-against-everyone-face-off is filled with quips about how everyone will still be friends after this tussle. This makes the kinetic brouhaha all feel a little inconsequential, rightly so the Russos are far better at gaggy sitcom energy than portentous consequence. The characters who shine are the more human and self aware ones – Hawkeye, Spidey and especially Ant Man prove the universe can exist without a now rusty Iron Man through charming daftness alone. In fact you might leave the cinema not caring if anyone returns apart from Paul Rudd. His size shifting thief pretty much steals the film in three great scenes. As a night out to the big screen, Marvel Numero 13 proves all over the shop but one hell of a trolley dash.

8

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Blood and Bone (2009)

imageBen Ramsey directs Michael Jai White, Eamonn Walker and Julian Sands in this tight and hard underground fighting thriller.

If you can find pleasures in the strange priorities of the world developed in the Fast and Furious series or the simple yet distinctive brutality of The Warriors then this might tickle your fancy too. Michael Jai White is a charismatic lead and a skilled martial artist who undeservedly never really broke into the mainstream. This DTV actioner with short bloody fights, and a real effort made to add style to the shoestring it was obviously made on, is the testament that we cinema audiences are the ones really missing out. By no means the second coming but every ambition is clear and present to make this just a little better, smarter, harder than your run of the mill kung fu flick. The result isn’t always gleaming and perfect but it surpasses bigger budgeted, starrier MMA movies like Fighting and Warrior in both moves and takedowns. In its own way Blood and Bone could and should have been a changing point for a maligned genre, the A Fistful of Dollars for a very different generation.

7

Bastille Day (2016)

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James Watkins directs Idris Elba, Richard Madden and Charlotte Le Bon in this watered down, Paris set retread of Die Hard With a Vengeance.

A film that opens with an attractive and bare Billy bollocked naked young lady walking brazenly down the Sacre Couer and ends with our Idris singing a theme song a la Dennis Waterman. If both those things pique your interest then the unambitious action and script will passably kill 90 minutes for you. You can’t help but feel the likeable cast, Idris in particular, are a bit better than this undemanding standard Euro co-production rumble. A great presence coasting about in Jason Statham’s hand me down. Actually that doesn’t really sound as middling as it all truly is.

5

 

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

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Mel Gibson directs Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci and Hristo Shopov in this violently realistic retelling of Jesus’s final 12 hours.

Whatever your beliefs and tastes you cannot deny the cinematic craftsmanship on display in this vicious endurance test that Mel produced as a Sunday School lesson. The gory make up effects alone are world class.  It is a punishing two hours on the viewer as Jesus is realistically and brutally lashed, beaten, mocked, driven forward and eventually (in a canny moment of directorial mercy) briefly crucified. Mel makes the wise decision to tell this tale with focus away from Jesus in the first three sections; the first half hour follows Judas’s guilt, the second Pilate’s futile attempts to stop the innocent man from being killed by the mob, the third follows Simon being forced to help carry the cross with Jesus to Calvary and continue to witness the injustice and relentless torture. Only the last 15 minutes on the cross leave us up there to deal directly with Jesus, now near incoherent with pain and blood loss. No more hand holding relatable characters left to be our avatar, this is what Mel wants you to feel the Son of God went through. And as brilliantly made and powerful as it all is, why you’d want to put yourself through these horrors more than once is a question I don’t know the answer to. The campy Omen and Exorcist inspired horror moments near the start are the only respite in terms of entertainment. Hard to fault, difficult to love.

6

Godzilla (2014)

imageGareth Edwards directs Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elisabeth Olsen and Bryan Cranston in this prestige attempt to reboot the big nuclear lizard franchise.

Godzilla is not a perfect film, in fact it often is a frustrating one, but then there is no such thing as a perfect Godzilla film and I have an affection for all of them… This one especially. Not only was it a film I excitedly went to see in Paris on my honeymoon, but it is a huge summer blockbuster that attempts the more sophisticated and rare adult risks of say the excellent Planet of the Apes prequels or The Bourne franchise. To its credit, I might add. The issue is never the scale or scope of the action, when it comes that is all 5 star perfect. It is just for a movie that promises two brilliant things (Godzilla and Bryan Cranston) it gives such small portions of each over its two hours. When either are on screen the film really flies but the middle hour where both are absent we are left with Taylor-Johnson and Olsen’s wet and insipid middle aged, teenagers. So blank are their performances you feel like you are requeuing for a ride that has already started, enduring their bridging plotline as it spools out between the chaos. Cranston shines in the screentime he has, turning in the kind of grumpy, overly excited magic that makes him always watchable. And I understand why Godzilla is teased and held back and obscured so often in her own film. If we “Let them fight” any earlier than that glorious last half hour, then the moneyshot would be spent and going cold and crusty too soon. The global disaster movie that spins out while we stand about for Godzilla to get her moment in the beautiful Hieronymus Bosch-esque ruins of San Fransico (fire, smoke, rubble, dust blend into a marvellous backdrop that seduces the retinas) is fine fun in long shot. But it’s not until we can revel in the lighting breath, jaw snapping, building pummelling and especially that shot of a victorious but exhausted Godzilla wading her loveable fat ass back into the ocean that you feel like you got the movie you paid to see. For a blockbuster that knowingly avoids giving you too much of what you want, I still find it an obtusely satisfying and rewatchable endeavour.

7

The Skull (1965)

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Freddie Francis directs Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark and Christopher Lee in this thin tale of antique dealers haunted by the Marquis de Sade’s skull.

Any film that has British Horror royalty (Cushing and in a smaller but outstandingly played part Lee) outbidding each other at auction and playing billiards has to be worth a watch. Yet this is a very short story that feels unpleasurably stretched over its run time, sometimes well (the flashbacks to the skull’s first victims in Napoleonic France are saucy fun) but often drearily (a final near wordless 20 minutes where Cushing struggles against possession drags on and then drags some more.) Of its time and with that colourful Amicus handsomeness.

5

The Rover (2014)

imageDavid Michôd directs Guy Pearce, Robert Pattison and Susan Prior in this violent, post society road movie.

Starting elusive and palpably intense but ending on a grim, nihilistic punchline, this Mad Max inspired drama winds down a little too early. Once we have gotten used to its expert world building it seems to grind to a halt. Set “10 years after the collapse”, seemingly in that same dusty, fly ridden outback (scarred with roads and pockmarked with unfortunates ekeing out sad existences) as the 1979 classic, helps. Guy Pearce brings his usual captivating, emotionally bottled up manliness to his central turn, while Robert Pattison doesn’t shit the bed in a role you still feel a better actor could bring a lot more to. Ho-hum, his name and looks probably got this funded so it is hard to resent his presence. And even if plot and character wise it doesn’t really amount to much at all there are sequences, moments and smaller performances so expertly delivered that the film has a lasting haunting power.

7

Film of the Week: The French Connection (1971)

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William Friedkin directs Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey in this fictionalised retelling of NY cops taking down a massive narcotics ring.

Taut, documentary style grit gives way to white knuckle action movie manna as determined but unsupported cops grind down an efficient and intelligent gang of drug runners. This is sterling, superlative work all round; whether in the staggeringly unvarnished attention to detail of the police procedural, the evocative capturing of a time and a place, the persuasive and appropriately economic score, or the daring assembling and editing of the big, relentless chases. Hackman’s toweringly impressive alternative and engrossing take on a rule bending but dedicated cop is the granite rock on which this evergreen classic is built around and held up. Hard boiled cinema heaven.

10

 

Bridge of Spies (2015)

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Steven Spielberg directs Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Amy Ryan in this Cold War negotiation drama.

Given the talent involved and the moment in history recreated, this often feels like a smaller, slighter film than the one trailered. And this proves a strength as the nimbleness and light touch leaves rooms for some fine mid level action set pieces and beautiful performances from the leads. At times Rylance and Hanks’ excellent turns feel like a visual essay comparing the subtle stage actor and beloved movie star’s long developed crafts. Instead of uncomfortable contrast though it is the perfect compliment of styles. In fact, when Rylance is later left behind in the States and Hank’s intelligent lawyer is left adrift in beyond “The Wall” bureaucracy the movie loses a little wind from it sails that the pairs’ chemistry unfussily generated. The opening courtroom grand standing and growing mutual respect of the leads in the first half makes for a better movie. Spielberg directs more ambitiously in this opening hour with some excitingly disconcerting scene shifts, a lovely of-its-time moment involving photographers’ flashbulbs on the floor and all interiors filmed with a blinding outward light bursting through the windows (like the threatened nuclear exchange has happened and these conversations are the final moments of humanity being captured). That relaxed but masterly direction is muted in the more Diet Le Carre second section but all in all this is probably Spielberg’s most satisfying and pleasurable work since War of the Worlds, over a decade before.

7

John Wick (2014)

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Chad Stahelski and David Leitch direct Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist and Adrianne Palicki in this retired hitman seeks bloody revenge for his murdered puppy actioner. 

A deceptively simple, outlandishly fun slice of cartoon action flick that gets better with every watch. A knowingly blank Reeves takes down scores of henchmen in bloody, bone crunchingly kinetic marathons of violence linked by a fantastically classy supporting cast of old favourites. Relative newcomer Palicki outshines the old hands as Miss Perkins; an even more amoral, female mirror of our anti hero. Wearing all the best influences (Woo, Leone, Melville) proudly on it impeccably tailored sleeves and told in bold, comic book frame inspired strokes, this could be the start of our new favourite franchise.

8