Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review of "Captain America: Civil War"

The Marvel train is showing no signs of stopping, with each film growing bigger and bigger as the years go by. Hence, I found it both odd and perfectly logical that the latest film in the series, "Captain America: Civil War" should invert things a little bit. No proper villain to speak of, a great deal of fuss made about the human costs of the building-smashing conflicts that have capped each previous film, and something entirely unexpected; moral relativism. The advertising for this film cannily engages the viewer in a "Team Cap" or "Team Iron Man" debate, but amusingly there is no real side to be picked, just varying shades of grey.

It has a plot that can be described in a few words, or a few paragraphs. It concerns itself with a bill being passed that attempts to regulate the activities of superheroes, in the face of the untold destruction they keep causing. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is opposed to it. "If I see a threat, I'll neutralise it", he says. On the other hand, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is for it. An early scene sees him accosted by a woman who presses a picture of her dead son into his chest; in saving the world, she says, he died. Ignoring the fact that the scene plays like some kind of Dickensian Christmas-Past thing, it gets the point across. As far as I can tell, Iron Man has always been the heart of the series, hiding his guilts and neuroses behind a mask of flippant cool, and it makes perfect sense that this kind of thing would haunt him (even if the film fudges it).

As the bill is drafted and put into motion, sides are picked, if a little arbitrarily, and the film lumbers towards the widely touted conflict between the group. A lot of screen-time is given to the relationship between Captain America and his friend Bucky/The Winter Soldier, (Sebastian Stan), who were close during the war, and separately frozen and later revived. Bucky was, unfortunately, brainwashed and so can't help killing things. But Captain sees something there, and takes Bucky's side throughout the film, insisting to everyone that he isn't bad.

If my descriptions of the relationships seem a little half-baked, it's because most people are on board by now, but also because my memories of the previous Marvel films are hazy, and this film relies on an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of all that has come before. This isn't to say that the film isn't accessible, or indeed fun, because it is both of those things, but it does seem that the more you know/remember, the more you will get out of it.

There are a lot of players involved. Some, like Don Cheadle's "War Machine", are unengaging; others, like newcomer Tom Holland's "Spiderman" (the best screen iteration of the character so far), are note perfect. In the end, though, individual comparisons don't really matter, since this film has the rare distinction of a fight where you're rooting for everyone at the same time. This seems counter-intuitive to the general ethos of the modern blockbuster, where things are painted in black and white, but I'm not complaining. The scrap itself is handled excellently, and passes Mark Kermode's six-laugh test in itself.

Various excellent actors pop up; Daniel Bruhl plays shady ne'er-do-well named Helmut Zemo (what a name!), Martin Freeman occasionally distracts as a slimy politician type called Everett Ross, and William Hurt gently nibbles at the scenery as the Secretary of State.

In the end, it all amounts to whatever you want it to amount to. As a relative outsider to this whole saga, I admired it from the outside without ever feeling immersed or overjoyed; others in the cinema seemed to be having the time of their lives. A serious review of this film is ultimately pointless, since it's got a guaranteed audience who know just what to expect. It's directed confidently, competently, and a little impersonally by the Russo Brothers. The actors involved know what to do by now, and they do it well. In places it is far funnier than I'd expected. As an example of its genre it's up at the higher end. It's fun, watchable, never exactly compelling, but certainly never off-putting.

If you've never seen a Marvel film before, pay a little bit more attention, fill in the gaps, and you'll probably have fun yourself.

Review of "Son of Saul"

If László Nemes' film "Son of Saul", set in Auschwitz in 1944, is ultimately a success, it is because before anything else it understands that a conflict spanning the entirety of the universe can be depicted on a canvas no bigger and no smaller than the human face; in fact, it understands that the human face is the perfect setting for such things. If it falls short of triumph, that's because it follows its own methodologies a little too closely to their ends, and seems slightly too preoccupied with itself as a film as opposed to what it seemed to me to be; a document, a hymn, a paean.

Opening text informs us of the "Sonderkommando", a group of Jews chosen in Auschwitz to work for a few months, before being killed. Saul (Géza Rohrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando; a startling and upsetting opening shot presents him front and centre, ushering in a new truck full of his kin, to be disposed of by the cruel guards. This opening take is remarkable for two reasons, firstly because it's an ambitious long-shot, and secondly because it establishes Saul's character in a way that fundamentally doesn't really change for the remaining 100 minutes. Red cross on his back, hollowed out sunken eyes, mouth slightly twisted, blank expression; he doesn't give anything away.

This creates a paradox which sustains the whole film; just how does Saul remain so emotionless in the face of such unspeakable horror? How can he, for example, not even give a sign of disgust as he drags corpses across a blood-streaked gas chamber floor, or as he is forced to dance for a room full of sneering Nazi guards?

In this sense we do not get to 'know' Saul in the sense that we would typically come to know a protagonist. But there are some clues thrown our way; a passing reference to a conversation from a less hellish time, a couple of moments where we sense his mind has gone blank, and the prevailing sense of his determination. And the driving mechanism for the film is a clue also; Saul becomes steadily more obsessed with a young boy who comes coughing out of the gas chamber and dies shortly after, seeking a proper burial for him. This is the plot in its entirety.

Stanley Kubrick once stated that the problem with "Schindler's List" was that it took a moment of despair in the human race, and turned into a story of hope. Kubrick no doubt would have strongly approved of this film, for it is hopeless (although not nihilistic, thankfully). It stares into the horror and does not ask us for an opinion, or a reaction; instead, to simply observe. It is a fearfully convincing recreation, and I had to look away in all the obvious places.

This is mainly due to the cinematography from Mátyás Erdély, which adopts Saul's perspective and immerses us in it, and the production design from Lászlá Rajk, which is sharp and brutalist, all dingy concrete underground rooms and long off-white corridors leading round into nameless horror (as it should be, as it was).

As the story goes on, we realise that the Saul's journey can be taken either as a Biblical attempt at redemption, or something more mundane, the last grasp of a man facing death attempting to salvage something, and going insane as he does so. In the end, ultimately, it does not matter; he is here, he is doing this, and this is what is. The chaos surrounding him is scary, but he is on a mission. The classical 1:33 aspect ratio is perfect for this, with its intimidating black bars at the side; it mirrors Saul's tunnel vision. The sound design is vast, overbearing, industrial, imposing. The final moments are staggering in both their power and their logic.

However, when I said that the film has a mechanism, I do not mean this in a positive way. For a film staged so excellently and so thematically powerful, being reminded that we are in fact watching a film is one of the last things you want; we should be immersed completely. But there are moments here and there; shots left too long out of focus, as if to say... Well, what? Technique is left to creep in where it shouldn't have done. And when the film breaks its predominant focus on Saul, as it does in a couple of scenes, I felt pulled out of it.

This is a dark and powerful piece, meticulously composed and unlike anything I've ever seen, especially on this topic. That it is so great makes its flaws that bit more jarring. Nevertheless, this is vital, devastating stuff, a film that feels like it needed to be made. And, well, good. Because it did. And, consequently, it needs to be seen too.