Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tracks: You couldn't do this now

I don’t like to write about good movies. Mostly because this seems to have turned into a blog which snarks about things, and good movies don’t give me much purchase for that kind of thing. So, while I enjoyed Tracks, I couldn’t see any way to write anything about it. It seems that the movie industry has been trying to make a film out of it ever since Robyn Davidson wrote her memoir of walking across half Australia with four camels and a dog in 1977. While it would be briefly amusing to imagine Michael Bay’s version (Robyn walks across the desert. Which EXPLODES!!!!!!), the reality is that one person walking across an unchanging landscape with no-one to talk to is a pretty tough film-making challenge. Davidson could write a book about it, because she could explain what she was doing and what she was thinking as she did it, and National Geographic magazine could get a photo spread out of it because Robyn Davidson - like a lot of other women who’ve got their own way in the past - was a striking looking woman in a striking landscape. But talking pictures thrive on incident and dialogue. They need interaction, and Davidson was a woman trying to get away from people and all that pesky interaction stuff.

All in all, it’s not surprising that the movie took so long to get made. The good part is that by waiting this long, they got the chance to cast Mia Wasikowska, who gives a compelling impression of quiet awkwardness. I have no idea how true to the real Robyn Davidson the performance is, but it feels real; Wasikowska’s Davidson is convincing  as someone who needs more space than the everyday world can give her. I’ve seen Wasikowska three times now, in Alice, in The Double and in Tracks. When I watched her in Alice, I thought she was stiff, but it’s dawning on me that this is not a weakness in her acting, but simply the kind of person that she is bleeding through into everything she plays; just as Joseph Gordon-Levitt can’t help looking intelligent, Wasikowska can’t help looking like a woman who knows her own mind. In Tracks, it’s what makes the movie work at all; she’s on screen almost every minute of the movie, the focus of everything which is happening, and she’s got the presence to make that work.

But that on its own doesn’t give me anything useful to say about the movie; it was only when I was brooding on it later that I realised that whatever about how how long it took to make the movie, you couldn’t do today what Davidson did then. She wanted to take that long walk and needed a lot of help to do it without killing herself in the process (much of the movie focuses on how long it took to get the resources to do the walk and what it cost her in compromises). In the end, the only way to equip herself was to get sponsorship from National Geographic, who sent along a photographer to get pictures, a concession which Davidson hated and cooperated with grudgingly. Today, it would be a reality TV spectacle, with a full time crew dogging her steps all along the way - and keeping away any competition who might try to break the exclusive. And it’s impossible to imagine Davidson, or anyone like her, going along with such a circus. Again and again the movie shows her pushing people away, hating the occasional tourists who tried to take pictures of the Camel Lady walking across the outback. This wasn’t about other people; it was about her. Even when she spends time in other people’s company, she’s listening, not talking; quiet, watchful, joining in with dances but always holding back. Today’s world wouldn’t let her do that; today’s world expects a non-stop commentary, the reporter as the star. Wasikowska gives us a Davidson who would never fit in out modern world, and it’s a remarkable performance in hindsight because she’s holding our attention while holding almost everything back.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that we’re getting this movie only now, when we could badly do with a reminder that it’s the quiet ones who you really have to watch.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Den Patrick: The Boy with the Porcelain Blade

I have to admit, this had me with the title, which is so silly I nearly had to buy the book to find out if the writing could live up to it. I’m not sure, because I bought it as a Kindle e-book and it was the worst edited e-book I’ve read so far. Every few pages, an indeterminate amount of text went missing; not so much that I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be going on, but just enough to jolt me out of the narrative (something similar has been bugging me in Apple’s versions of Mick Herron, which have something wrong with the hyphenation of long words; a tiny thing, and yet jarring).

With a better book, I might have said to myself; sod this, I’ll buy a real copy, but The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is not so well written that I felt I needed to get every word just right. It’s solid, but not magical. It reminded me of a lot of other books, some better, some worse. It shares a lot of notions with Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s annoying Blade trilogy, which I will blog about if I ever get round to reading the third book; both have a teenage protagonist with a mysterious background taking on an entrenched power structure in an Italian renaissance milieu; Grimwood’s a slightly reimagined Venice with magic knocking our history out of its rut, and Patrick’s is an extra-terrestrial colony gone wrong, but the similarities were strong enough that I was relieved to see Patrick acknowledge them in his afterword.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think that Patrick was stealing ideas. I just liked it that he had the grace to acknowledge the similarities and the inspiration he got from Grimwood’s work. The world of Porcelain Blade is strong enough to stand or fall on its merits, and medieval fantasy is looking played out; we’re probably going to see a lot more work set in renaissance styled worlds as people try to find a new angle on what are, in the end, a small number of narrative models.

Bold choices; I liked it that by the time the book ended, pretty much every villain was definitively dead. I like a writer who’s confident that he’s got a second set of bad guys for the sequel. I didn’t like the structure, because Patrick not only couldn’t quite pull off the alternating chapters properly, but also hamstrung his own narrative quite badly. Chapters alternated between the here-and-now and Lucien’s childhood. What I think Patrick was aiming for was for each pair of chapters to illuminate each other, which is always hard to pull off, but even worse, as he got into the back third of the book and the flashbacks got closer to the here-and-now, things were happening in the flashbacks which made kind of a hash of Lucien’s logic in the early going. 

Stuff I always complain about; why is everything always stuck for generations at a time? The backstory here - and this is out in the open in early exposition, so no spoilers arise - is that some kind of generation ship did a face-plant on the surface of Landfall. The crew took their time thawing out the colonists and by the time they woke up, it was to an oligarchy where everyone had their place and the captain was their god-emperor. I think the first time I came across that idea was in Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth. Here, it’s not just a matter of political stasis and exploitation, but a retreat from any kind of modernity. It’s never clear why Landfall is stuck in the renaissance (though it’s weird that it’s stuck in a time we think of as an era of turbulence, change and challenge to authority).

It’s world where everyone is stuck in their place, except for a small clutter of mutants who enjoy unfettered social mobility at the price of being hated by everyone and living in a kind of slow motion Hunger Games where it’s expected that they’re going to slaughter each other before they’ve cleared puberty, with only the fittest surviving. What happens after that is apparently as much a mystery to them as it is to the reader, not least because no cadre of mutants seems to have survived long enough to find out. Lucien duly wrecks all of this, as heroes are wont to do in these books. His wreckage is one of the more credible things in the book, because Lucien is just not very good at it. Unlike most of these kids, Lucien’s not that smart and not that super. He’s just stubborn and lucky enough to make the most of the fact that his enemies are crazy as shit-house rats and slowed down by old age and decrepitude. It’s also fun that he kills them before they can monologue him to death with explanations of what the hell is going on, so we all get to the end of the book not much wiser than we began it, which is always a good idea at the end of a trilogy. There’s still a lot to figure out, though I have’t quite decided whether I’m going to follow it up.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Calvary; High Noon in the new west

Calvary is a good movie, anchored on yet another wonderful performance from Brendan Gleeson; it takes a while before you come back down from that and start saying “But hang on…."

After The Guard and with the horde of comedians in the cast, audiences are heading into a tonne of mood whiplash if they’re expecting another black comedy in the rural west. There’s any amount of sharp dialogue, but Calvary is less a black comedy than a tragedy with wisecracks. It opens with Brendan Gleeson’s priest taking confession; the voice from the other side of the screen tells him that he was abused by a priest and to balance the books, he’s going to murder Gleeson. No-one would blink at killing a bad priest; but to kill a good one like Gleeson; that will get people talking. He gives him a week, and the shape of the rest of the movie is what Gleeson does with that week.

It’s a wonderful performance; there hasn’t been such an uncomplicatedly human and admirable priest in a movie since the golden days of Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracey, the good old days when no-one even imagined that priests could be anything but the good guys. Much good it does Gleeson; half his parish hate the whole idea of the Catholic Church and the other half just can’t stand the way a decent man makes them feel about themselves. He spends the whole week trying to make things better for the people around him, while his world falls apart. 

But through it all, he keeps secret the identity of the man who wants to kill him, and tells no-one but his bishop that the threat has even been made. I don’t think we’re supposed to like the bishop, who’s subtle and weightless, but he seemed to me to be one of the most sensible people in the movie; he rips apart the very idea that the conversation is covered by the seal of the confessional, which is pretty much the only excuse Gleeson has for not running off to the cops on day one.

At the time I was watching the movie, I kept thinking, “Good God, this priest is the only decent person in the whole parish.” Everyone else is a complete degenerate; wifebeaters; dissipated millionaire financier scoundrels; shallow useless curates; vile atheistic doctors; creepy gay hustlers. And stuck in among them, one decent man with a late vocation, doing his best to minister to the faithless, waiting for the clock to run down on a death sentence. And like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he can’t rely on anyone else to help him, the difference being that he doesn’t even give them the chance to weigh it up; this sheriff’s parish doesn’t even know he’s got a problem.

It’s afterwards that the doubts crept in. Gleeson’s Fr James Lavelle is a wonderful priest; worldly, decent, sincere, and mature enough to know that he doesn’t have the answers. Too good for his parish, say all his parishioners, but even more so, too smart, too human to just stand still and martyr himself. His acquiescence in the lunacy makes no sense once you get out of the magic spell which Gleeson weaves. But after I’d processed that thought, I went a step further, and started to wonder how good a job he was even doing as a priest. His parish - nearly everyone he interacts with in the movie - is full of irredeemable arseholes. You’d have to wonder just how well he was ministering to them that they were still such utter dicks years after he set up shop among them.

These are the afterthoughts. While you’re watching it, it’s a great piece of work. Like everything from either of the McDonagh brothers, it’s ridiculously wordy; everyone has the perfect phrase for every moment (and this is where hiring comedians for nearly every male role pays off, because they know how to make a gag seem natural). And it’s a movie that takes a welcome new angle on the running sore of clerical abuse; the way in which the natural anger and revulsion cuts away at the decent churchmen who had nothing to do with it. It doesn’t make the Church look good - what it does is remind the audience that for all the harm that’s been done, a Church is made of people, good and bad, and that the good people haven’t gone away while everyone’s been looking at the harm. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Raid 2: The Beat Goes On

The Raid 2  is the exact opposite of a date movie, so it sounded weird when some of the nervous laughter echoing around the cinema in the final act had a decidedly girlish tinge to it. The film fails the Bechdel test so hard it almost goes into another dimension. Two female characters with names? No. Having a conversation with each other? No. About anything but a man? No. In fairness, conversation is pretty much a last resort for everyone in the world of The Raid, but it says a lot when the only female character with agency has no name and is a deaf mute. This is a man’s movie. I’m not sure I was manly enough to watch it. Well, I wasn’t. I kept closing my eyes at the gory bits.

Everyone will have their own lesson from the movie; mine was pretty much “Well, now I see why we invented guns.” Your mileage may vary. As always, I did a bit of poking around on the intarwebz after the fact to see if I could find any little nugget which might give me a new angle, and I discovered something which turned my preconceptions on their head.

I had figured, going in, that The Raid 2, what with the number in its name and everything, was the inevitable cash in on the unexpected success of The Raid. So I was expecting kind of a mess; more movie, more punch-ups, but less point to the whole thing as the writer and cast struggled to put together the difficult second movie. 

Not so much. Turns out that The Raid 2 was the movie which Gareth Evans had originally wanted to make, but couldn’t get the money for. So having worked out the script and the fight choreography for that, he put it in a drawer and hustled the much smaller money he needed for a shorter movie with one big endless fight in a slum tower block. The Raid was, if you like, a really long form trailer for The Raid 2. I still prefer the first movie, largely because the second one’s got more of the stuff which was hard going in the first movie and goes on with it for much longer. There’s something numbing about extended silat fights, no matter how well choreographed, and for me the three best sequences in the movie are a wonderful punch up cum car chase, and two short bits of horrible but imaginative violence involving a) the deaf mute girl - and two hammers - and b) her sidekick and a baseball bat.

The new story is; hero - and sole survivor - of the first movie is talked into going undercover among Jakarta’s gangs to expose police corruption. Two and a half hours later, almost everyone else in the movie is dead and I didn’t see a single crime being prevented. If there was anyone left to sit down and have an after action report with, topic one on any sensible agenda would be “On balance, did this operation have a positive effect on Jakarta’s crime figures?” Seriously, Iko Uwais is like Ebola in sneakers; everywhere he goes, everyone else falls down bleeding from every orifice. If you think about it as a crime reduction strategy based on reducing the number of criminals, I suppose it makes sense, but I hate to think what the unexplained deaths numbers looked like at the end of the quarter.

Other than the useful lesson that guns are just so much more relaxing than beating people to death (As far as I can tell this scene was deleted from every copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark ever shown in Indonesia), the other big takeaway in The Raid 2 is the importance of team work. Again and again the big ticket fighters get into rumbles with mobs of opponents, who come at them one at a time so that they can get taken out piecemeal. The Raid managed, with its tight budget and tight framing, to make this less noticeable, but The Raid 2 is playing out in much wider spaces, and the choreography gets too hard to ignore. The best fights in The Raid 2 all happen in tight places; Hammer-fight happens in a tube train; baseball-carnage is a rapid run through a scattered gang who’ve been taken unawares; and the car-fight happens INSIDE a car (I was watching it thinking of Alfonso Cuaron’s reaction when he gets round to seeing it).

Points to ponder; if you like beat-em-ups, watch The Raid; if you really liked that, you’ll love The Raid 2. If you found The Raid hard going, but you want to watch a movie about oriental cops infiltrating oriental criminal gangs, watch Infernal Affairs, passing in silence over the real cultural and physical distance between Hong Kong and Jakarta being rather greater than the distance between Ireland and Poland. But above all, remember the golden rules; bring a gun, and remember the importance of team work. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Robert Littell: A Nasty Piece of Work

If you’re just starting out on Robert Littell, don’t start here. The Company is a bit much to bite off in one go, so read 1997’s Walking Back the Cat, an almost perfect little spy yarn which manages to mix post-cold-war disaffection with cold-war hangover better than anything else I’ve ever read. The Company  is probably his best book, but Walking Back the Cat is the book which hooked me into reading more.

A Nasty Piece of Work is Littell trying to do Chandler, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours. In principle, it ought to have been a great notion; former CIA operator scraping a living as a private eye in New Mexico gets hired to find a bail jumper, and gets deeper and deeper in over his head as he follows the trail. In practice, it doesn’t quite work because it’s not enough of anything. Littell is a good writer, strong with character and dialogue, but he’s not Chandler; not even Chandler was Chandler every day of the week. No-one before or since has had that ability to toss out a far fetched figure of speech and make it sound just as grounded as Elmore Leonard. Smart writers don’t even try to echo that unique voice.

Chandler’s other great strength was his ability not to care about the ending; stuff happened, more stuff happened, then the back cover of the book slapped you in the face. You might get told whodunnit, but Chandler was never about closure or the neat wrapping up of all the loose ends. At a time when other detective stories were careful to lay out the clues and felt morally obliged to make use of each of them before the wrap-up, Chandler just left the clues alone. Chekhov’s gun would still be rusting out on the sidewalk months after the action, without so much as an aside to say “what? you thought that mattered?” What mattered to Chandler was personality - and slabs of over-ripe dialogue.

A Nasty Piece of Work is, in the end, driven by personality; the crime at the heart of the book is one of those things which makes perfect sense for the people involved, because people do stupid things. Yet it’s weirdly obsessed with using everything on the page; the narrator McGyvers his way out of the final fix using every single random element of scene-setting and character dressing we’ve seen up to that point. If Littell had been making a better job of the characters’ resourcefulness, it would have felt like a real person looking around at what was available and making the most of all of it; but instead it feels like Littell needed all these items for the climax, so he made sure that they’d crop up along the way.

Which is not to say it’s bad; it’s just not good Littell. Read all the other stuff first.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Double: What if Kafka had written Fight Club?

It seems like only a couple of weeks since I was saying that The Zero Theorem was the answer to the question “What would have happened if Kafka had taken ALL the drugs?” and now here I am reflecting on The Double, which - with all due respect to both Dostoevsky and Palahniuk - felt like a breakneck effort to show us what would have happened if Franz Kafka had written Fight Club.

The Double is billed as comedy, but don’t go expecting to be laughing. It’s a fascinating and uncomfortable movie, and while there are occasional funny moments, the comedy is mostly of the if-I-don’t laugh-at-this-all-I-can-do-is-cry variety. Up to now Jesse Eisenberg has always been the kind of guy I thought I’d like to see suffer in a movie - or even real life; I’m shallow that way - but The Double had me rethinking that policy slightly. 

It’s one of those movies which leaves you wondering afterwards; “Would that have worked if it had been set in the real world as opposed to the weird-ass steam-punk life-under-communism dystopia?” I’ve a horrible feeling that it would just have been even more depressing. The off-kilter world gave a bit of distance to Jesse Eisenberg’s horrible life and even more horrible job; I was sitting there asking myself if this was all propaganda by The Man; sure, you think your job sucks, but look how much worse it could be if computers were still running on valves and they expected you to do data entry anyhow. The worrying thing, probably, is how little work they had to do to get modern England to look like 1940’s Czechoslovakia’s idea of the future; someone should show the movie to Dave Cameron and just let that hang there, see if he says anything.

The engine of the movie is that Jesse’s dead end world of miserable job, everyone taking advantage of him and doomed infatuation with his cute co-worker gets torn to pieces when his doppelgänger shows up and steals everything while being cooler and more fun than he could ever be. The doppelgänger is everything which he can never be, including a massive entitled douchebag. But is he even real? Do not expect to get to the end of the movie with an answer to that question. The ending of Inception is more clear cut.

Is it worth seeing? Yes, because you’re not going to see anything else like it any time soon. Make a heck of a double bill with Zero Theorem, come to think of it. The clunky world is almost worth the price of admission on its own, and the movie’s stuffed with ringers to steal scenes out from under Jesse Eisenberg. Having said that, my favourite bit is Mia Wasikowska going off the chain as she reenacts her confronting a stalker the day before he threw himself off a building; the kicker being when she runs out of steam and asks “Do you think that might have had anything to do with him killing himself?”. It’s simultaneously hilarious - the whole audience burst out laughing - and a wonderful character moment. She’s come a long way since she played Alice for Tim Burton.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Noah; 2014's second worst treatise on naval architecture

Noah is likely to meet all your flood related angst needs for the immediate future, if only because no-one in the whole world has any flood related angst needs in the first place. I like to ponder how the movie came about at all; “Lets make a movie about Noah and the Ark” is the kind of elevator pitch which gets you thrown out of the elevator, but in a moment of transcendent brilliance, the producers distracted everyone from the rampant insanity of their very idea by choosing Darren Aronofsky to direct it. I imagine throughout Hollywood, the question “And you got Darren Aronofsky because ….?” draws the mind away from just about any movie pitch. “Osama bin Laden, eating an orphanage, on ice, with Congolese rap music!” “Yeah, yeah, put a pin in that just now. Darren Aronofsky. Walk me through that bit."

Because it’s Darren, it looks great. Well, not always, but even the bits which look terrible look like they looked terrible on purpose, which is high art for Hollywood adapting the bible.

The biggest challenge in adapting Noah is not the flood, but the fact that the moment you try to populate the Ark, the sheer idiocy of the concept is going to bring the house down. As a story, to be told around flickering camp fires, about just why we’ve got the animals we’ve got and not a whole bunch of other ones, the story of Noah and the Ark is serviceable. It’s nothing like as much fun as the Just So stories, though the authors of the Pentateuch weren’t living in anything like the comfort Rudyard Kipling afforded himself, but it gets the job done. I’ve always found it odd that in all the unpicking that the Bible’s had since, no-one’s wondered out loud how God could wipe the plate clean, get Noah to handpick pairs of the right animals and still turn around later on to Moses and give him a long list of animals that were unclean and shouldn’t be eaten. You’d have thought a Flood would have been a perfect opportunity to deal with that problem. Still, it’s a rousing story, as long as it doesn’t worry you that God gave everyone free will and then kicked over the table when he didn’t like what everyone was doing with it.

But it’s not the flood which gives the problem, it’s the Ark. Two of everything. And food. And the less said about the mucking out arrangements, the happier we’ll all be. Just how big would a boat need to be for two of everything ever? Pretty big. Then add 40 days and 40 nights worth of food. Considering that food for lots of animals is other animals, quite a lot more than two of certain things. The minute you start to do the maths, you start to think the Ark has to be some kind of metaphor.

Or, you’re Darren, and you get yourself a swing shift of fallen angels and a buttload of timber and you just build a three storey floatable shed in the middle of the wilderness over the course of ten years, and then you pack it full of everything that walks and crawls and slithers. And you skate the food and mucking out arrangements by cooking up a herbal potion which makes the livestock fall asleep and not wake up hungry (We’re in the domain of miracles just making the shed, so we won’t sweat the fact that the potion’s a smoke which Noah and family walk around wafting through the shed without just falling over asleep themselves).

The construction of the shed gets skipped over; one minute Noah’s got all the hair in the world and a young family, and the next thing he’s shaved his head, the shed’s all built, and his family are an assortment of awkward ages, all the better to pick fights with him. And since Noah’s family rows and the end of the world aren’t enough drama, Ray Winstone’s thoughtfully brought all the potential flood victims to pick a fight with Noah and see if they can get a seat in the shed. 

Sorry, I keep saying shed. I should say Ark. But Ray and the lads should have taken one good look at the thing, and then just headed back into the remaining forest and started running up some real boats. Noah’s Ark has the clean, wave-cutting, nautical lines of the packing case that Indy put the Ark of the Covenant into, except three stories high and with a distinct log cabin sensibility to it. It’s like a five year old’s idea of a boat, if your five year old has never seen water. No, I’m being too kind. It’s like Jeremy Clarkson’s idea of a boat.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. First half of the movie; rough in the challenge, build the boat. Second half, watch Ray and the lads think about storming the boat, then storm the boat and get royally schwacked by the aforementioned falling angels. Cue rain, waters coming out of the earth, shed miraculously floats. [1] Then watch Noah brood like a son of a bitch for the rest of the movie, convinced that his job is to make sure that no human is left alive, which I suppose is one way to give some context to building a boat big enough for every animal in the world and keeping everyone but your family off it no matter how much they screamed for mercy. 

Apparently Noah’s annoyed the hell out of Christians everywhere, or at least out of the kind of Christians who specialise in getting upset by things (there was one on my kitchen radio on Saturday morning, whamming on about how sinister it was that UK lawyers were reading up on how Sharia law was supposed to work, as though that were somehow an affront to the Christian character of - what, modern England?). For once I kind of see their point. Noah does nothing to make wiping out the whole population of the planet look in any way like the kind of carry-on which would make you gaze up at God, stroke your beard reflectively and say “You know what, that’s MY kind of guy.” I can see how that might provoke some anxiety in the kind of people who think not only that the Bible is literally true, but that everything in the Old Testament is a manifestation of the will of a kindly loving God. I think I’d just as soon get irritated at thinking what you could have done instead with 125 million dollars to make the world actually a better place. Or you could get ticked off that it’s thinly veiled propaganda about pollution, eco-awareness and climate change, where all the “good guys” seemed to be vegans. Though they couldn’t really have been vegans. They didn’t TELL anyone they were.


[1] Making it the second daftest floating thing this year after this.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The buzz about The Winter Soldier was that it was unusually political for a Marvel Superhero movie, which is true, but no more useful than a buzz that a breeze block is unusually buoyant for a building material. Sure, there’s a message that we should be frightened of pervasive surveillance and the uses to which it could be put, but it’s lost in the bigger messages that we should all relax and veg out because it’s just a few rotten apples and we can safely leave all these things to rogue elites who don’t play by the rules, dammit. Also, explosions.

Marvel could have made quite a few decent movies out of the notions being eclipsed by explodium. There’s a good movie to be made about the whole idea of Captain America in a modern world, if you can hold back the natural laughter that comes to anyone outside the USA at the very idea of Captain America [Terms and Conditions apply. Service not available outside the Continental United States of America.] Fighting the Nazis was wonderfully clearcut; everyone hated the Nazis (just as we’ve always hated Eastasia, comrade). Modern fights don’t have the easy simple lines of yore, and here and there Winter Soldier flirts with the notion of Captain America as a man out of time. Then something explodes and we don’t have to worry about it any more.

Equally, there’s a movie to be made about the notion of sacrificing freedom for security, and the kinds of people who make those offers in the first place, but again, things explode, and anyway Marvel isn’t really bucking the uber-truth of Hollywood action movies, which boils down to trusting unreliable mavericks and keeping government in its place. Hollywood walks a fine line on government; they want people to distrust it, but not so much that they might hold a revolution to get rid of it. Just enough government to keep the people in line, but not so much that the right people are inconvenienced, that’s the message. So there’s always a shadowy conspiracy, and it always gets rooted out as though it was an isolated aberration that the decent people didn’t know about until it was too late. 

So, since it’s not a useful character drama and its politics are reactionary, what DOES Winter Soldier do? Same old, same old, really. Stuff gets blowed up real good, there are occasional wisecracks, and Scarlett Johanssen kicks seven bells out of all kinds of people. The Marvel universe is very strong on beating people up, probably because explosions and bullets seem to just make the heroes ticklish. It’s hard to imagine a Marvel movie in which Indie just shoots the swordsman in the marketplace. 

The plot, such as it is, is based on the notion that Cap’s old enemy, Hydra, never really went away, and has been systematically subverting everything since the end of World War II to create a world so messed up and chaotic that the people will cry out for strong leadership, as we’re fond of calling dictatorship. Nick Fury’s method of dealing with this is enough to make you wonder why Hydra felt they even needed to bother making an effort to mess things up, since he hires a bunch of mercenaries to hijack his own ship so that Black Widow can be sent in to “rescue” the ship and steal intelligence off it to prove there’s a conspiracy. Quite why Black Widow, mistress of stealth, couldn’t have just broken into the ship without all the other fassereia? Good question. And why did Fury send a whole unit of untrustworthy commandos as part of the plan? And then fake his own death? Seriously, was there no better plan for figuring out what was happening in his own organisation? 

Cap is winnowed away to a few staunch allies, who at the last minute have to break into SHIELD HQ, nobble Robert Redford and hijack the computer systems on three heli-carrier flying death stars so that they can be stopped from exterminating millions of targets designated by the sinister surveillance tech which is the supposed political commentary in the movie. Hmmm, yeah. As soon as I saw the heli-carriers I started an internal countdown until they were completely exploded. Marvel movies always involve insane amounts of property damage.

So, good stuff. There’s a brain transplant doohickey, which is nicked from Dollhouse. There’s a gotta get to the computer and reprogram it McGuffin which is nicked from just everything really, but let’s say it’s nicked from Independence Day. There’s an under-this-mask-I’m someone-completely-different reveal which is shamelessly nicked from Mission Impossible. Or Total Recall, I couldn’t decide. Guy jumping out of a building and into a helicopter; nicked from the Matrix. (though it got the funniest line in the movie “I said the 41st floor !” “You think they have those numbers on the OUTSIDE of the building?”)

Yeah, most of the good stuff is nicked. And what’s good and new is mostly the small stuff, the actual acting. There are little moments between the characters which land well, because nothing’s exploding in the background. Still, the real weakness of blowing things up real good instead of telling a story comes in the mid credits stinger, where we’re shown Hydra’s real nerve centre and the weird things they’re prepping for the next movie; it’s all close quarters and small effects, and Thomas Kreschmann being tectonically evil, and I’d much rather have watched a whole movie like that instead of the effects extravaganza I got.