Monthly Archives: March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Film Review

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Following on from the success of Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and The Avengers in 2012, Chris Evans picks up the shield and a welcome change of pace in the much grittier Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Since his inception in the early 1940s, Captain America has been an intriguing, albeit straightforward kind of hero. The story of the scrawny guy transformed into a muscle-bound Nazi-basher functioned as part male-fantasy-fulfilment and part patriotic propaganda. The lack of any interplanetary lineage or a billionaire’s budget meant Captain America stood apart from his comic book peers, with a dearth of the usual flamboyance resulting in an unrivalled level of everyman relatability, a kind of Springsteen of the Superhero world.

This latest instalment, set two years on from The Avengers film, builds on that level of realism. As the man behind the mask, Steve Rogers continues to struggle to adapt to modern life; and as Captain America he grapples for a sense of identity. Long gone are the star-spangled halcyon days of delineated good and evil, this is 21st century America: a corporate, homogenous world in which the moral compass Captain America traditionally relied upon gives little bearing. After a routine spot of pirate clobbering gets spiced up by a mysterious assassin, Captain America finds all his attempts to identify the man cut short by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Working alongside Captain America by order of Fury, Scarlett Johansson’s returning Black Widow acts as a brilliant counterpoint to the Captain. As a cunning mercenary who gets things done by hook or crook, she stands in contrast to Captain America’s stalwart sensibilities. The paired-opposites relationship between Captain America and Black Widow serves to introduce some of the underlying existential questions you might expect a 95 superhero to have, and also provides comic relief. The constant closed doors that Rogers encounters lead to thoughts of a conspiracy, and rapidly losing faith in Nick Fury and unsure of who to trust, we see the evolution of a leaner, meaner Captain America.

To divulge more of the plot would spoil the fun, but fans of the more cut and dry style of the first film need not dismay, though it is wrapped in a more cerebral package The Winter Soldier is still an action film at heart. The set-pieces that tie the film together are solid and effective – a welcome surprise given that directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s background is in mild-mannered comedy. The inclusion of MMA star George St. Pierre as an entry-level bad guy is an early signal as to the direction the Russo’s are steering this new rendition of the Captain. The action is rapid and aggressive, with bone-crunching thumps from well-aimed flying shields replacing much of the explosions and ricocheting bullets of the earlier instalments.

While the writing is never as entertaining as Whedon’s The Avengers, the combination of visceral action and ongoing mystery, with a timid toe-dipping into deeper themes carries the film a long way. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a refreshing take on the superhero scene, and a valuable addition to a Marvel universe that was teetering on the verge of vapidity. As per usual Marvel rules, sit through the end credits for a teaser of the next chapter.

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Muppets Most Wanted Film Review

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The latest offering in Disney’s lucratively rebooted musical franchise; Muppets Most Wanted literally builds on the success of its predecessor, with an opening shot featuring the Muppets in Hollywood on the set of 2011’s film wondering what to do next. The answer lies in their catchy first number, ‘We’re doing a sequel’ written by Flight of the Concord’s Bret McKenzie, but the self-referential lyrics “We’re doing a sequel / that’s what we do in Hollywood / but everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good” may contain a little too much truth.

With the Muppet Theatre happily secure, the gang are persuaded to take their show on road by hotshot PR guru Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Kermit’s (voiced by Steve Whitmire) initial protestations and sneaking suspicions of the tour are drowned out by the rest of the Muppets’ celebrations. Badguy (“it’s French, pronounced Bad-JEE” he explains) knows how to manipulate the group and swiftly nudges the mild-mannered Kermit out leadership. A more nefarious purpose to the world tour emerges when Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel) “the world’s most dangerous frog” – who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Kermit – escapes from a soviet Gulag. Aquick identity swap later and Constantine is happily ensconced within the Muppets while Kermit islanguishing in the Gulag under the obsessive watch of Nadya (Tina Fey) with no way to let the rest of the Muppets know the danger they are in. Throw in Lady Gaga, some art gallery heists, and a marriage to Ms. Piggy and it looks to be the guts of an entertaining trip.

But while the film is heavy with star cameo performances – too many to name here, and some are so fleeting that you’ll probably miss them – it is noticeably light in human leads. Constantine’s ropy Slavic impersonation of Kermit is over-relied upon as a means to carry much of the story and humour. While falling back on classic body-swap scenarios remains funny for the most part, these scenes lack the human-Muppet chemistry found in the earlier film. Ricky Gervais’ interactions with the Muppets feel more like Comic Relief sketches, and Tina Fey’s one-dimensional character leads to her scenes with Kermit in the Gulag feeling somewhat repetitive and flat. The closest the film comes to filling the Jason Segel shaped hole is in the scenes with Jean Pierre Napolean (Ty Burrell) and Sam the Eagle (voiced by Eric Jacobson) as French and American detectives forced to work together on the case of Constantine.

The human connection is missing in more than one sense. Muppets Most Wanted seems lacking not only in comparison to its predecessor, but in comparison to most other recent films aimed at children due to its noticeably muted emotional undertones. The Muppets may gain a new appreciation of Kermit, but there’s no grander message on display. Muppets Most Wanted is a straightforward romp, a colourful comedy that is content to pluck on the musical strings but not tug on the heart strings. The result is enough to keep you just about entertained, but never really inspired.

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The Zero Theorem Film Review

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The future was so much better in the past. Back before the alluring voice-operated computer systems, azure blue swipe displays, and reams of green and black code there existed an alternate version of the future. A future that showed a world very much like our own but featuring glittering costumes and translucent, rainbow-coloured pieces of plastic that intermittently and nonsensically bibbled and bobbled. The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam’s latest experiment, is a film set squarely in that future.

Bereft of hair and riddled with existential angst, Christoph Waltz dominates the screen as Qohen, a reclusive, painfully awkward, computer genius. When not fidgeting manically with joysticks and coloured cubes at the Orwellian mega-corporation Mancom, Qohen spends his time at home in a dilapidated church where he anxiously and obsessively awaits a phone call that he thinks will tell him the meaning of life. The world outside is alien to him, but a real treat for the viewer.

Gilliam’s city of the future is a gorgeously constructed mash-up of the sacred and profane – where stained glass sits alongside the ever-present fluorescent advertising, and mossy gargoyles watch over all the neon absurdity of the city. When Management (a fleeting Matt Damon) invites Qohen to work from home on the Zero Theorem project, a seemingly uncrackable conundrum, he jumps at the opportunity to be closer to the phone, despite the fact that Zero Theorem has driven everyone who has worked on it over the edge of sanity.

It is a feeling that viewers may be forced to become familiar with as the film stutters along. Like in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam has a gift for creating these unique, captivating worlds with sets that you can lose yourself in. The interior of Qohen’s home is like a psychedelic charity shop display, populated by a wonderful mish-mash of antique religious paraphernalia and colourful technology. In one shot you’ll find attention split between the gibberish that Qohen is prone to spouting, the abstracted code he is working on, and the flashing red light on the security camera mounted in place of Jesus’ head watching over him. It quickly becomes apparent that The Zero Theorem is a film with a strong visual identity but a much weaker ideological one, so much is added to the cauldron – a femme fatale, a hacker kid, an annoying boss, dwarves, hitmen, the meaning of life, and cybersex dream sequences– that the story becomes more cluttered than the sets and at points almost grinds to a halt.

Things are not helped along by Waltz’s Qohen, a protagonist who is as clunky and awkward to watch as he is difficult to warm to. Mélanie Thierry and Lucas Hedges provide some welcome relief but they make clear that Qohen’s stiffness isn’t unique. All characters suffer through the dialogue, which is overhanded and often milks the life from jokes that were mediocre to begin with. We are so familiar with the satirical, irreverent humour that the script hopes for, that there’s a sense of frustration as it misses the mark time after time. Part theological commentary, part technological prophesy, part failed comedy, The Zero Theorem is a confusing film that feels perpetually poised to take off, but never does – for all its colour and pizzazz, its future seems dark, and destined only for fans of Gilliam.

300: Rise of an Empire Film Review

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When Zack Snyder’s 300 stormed our screens in 2007, it was a uniquely stylised action film, impressively bringing the pages of Frank Miller’s dark comic book series to life by telling the story of the Spartan King Leonidas’ fatalistic stand against the Persian King Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. Seven years later, and we are finally being treated to a sequel in the form of 300: Rise of an Empire, this time with Snyder leaving the director’s chair to be filled by the relatively unknown Noam Murro. With the potent blend of visual styling, mythology, and machismo that drove the first300 already well-established, the time seems ripe for 300: Rise of an Empire to offer us something new.

Focused on the story of Athenian commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), 300: Rise of an Empire forms a parallel narrative that overlaps the events covered in the first film. As Leonidas andthe Spartans are busy facing insurmountable odds, Themistokles is faced with the equally dauntingtask of defending Athens against the naval wing of Xerxes’s invasion, led by Artemisia (Eva Green).

Green excels in her role as the literally blood-hungry general, who is the real power behind Xerxes’ throne. But while Stapleton tries, Themistokles is never convincing or compelling, though much of that failure seems to rest on the fact that Themistokles is written as a particularly vanilla character –especially in comparison to Gerard Butler’s off-screen but very much in-memory Leonidas.

While the original 300 featured regular violence, the sequel takes things to a completely different level. In the seven years between the films we have seen releases that push the boundaries of howviolent action is used in film. 2011’s The Raid showed how choreographed martial arts could be reinvigorated and used in mind-blowing ways, and 2012’s Dredd utilised technological advances to impressive affect (while also making much better use of Lena Heady).

Unflinchingly visceral from the outset, 300: Rise of an Empire makes clear that it is a film that will be focused on violent action and for a short while, the action is impressive. But the incessant exposure to slow-motion blood-drenched deaths very quickly leads to tedium. There may be rivers of blood but there’s very little depth, and no novelty. It quickly becomes apparent that there is just not enough going on in terms of plot to maintain interest, and excessive violence and nudity are relied on in an attempt to carry the film. While that’s a recipe that means the film is bound to find success with a certain demographic, it is disappointing when you consider how things might have played out with a stronger story, considering how the original 300 managed to be innovative, impressive, and above all else, interesting.

300: Rise of an Empire is one to watch at your own peril. At its highest points it manages to be a mediocre action film, but its more frequent lower points may lead you to feel as if your intellectual capacity is being actively diminished.

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Published in Gazette Group titles (Dublin City Gazette, Swords Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 6th March 2014.

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