Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)

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As the prospect of using the free-ticket perks of my cinema job to take friends to Avengers: Infinity War this Saturday, despite my more-or-less total absence of interest in the subject matter, looms ever closer, I figured it was time to try and catch myself somewhat up-to-speed, having only seen a couple of Iron Mans, Ant-Man (which I admit I adored) and Black Panther. In the grand scheme of the Marvel franchise, perhaps the character I’ve forever had least interest in finding out anythingabout is Captain America. I mean for God’s sake. Nevertheless, it doesn’t really seem to be about him at all, thankfully. Indeed, it’s rather just an Avengers-lite. So, frankly, why it was marketed as being his film, I don’t really get. Maybe because Thor and Hulk aren’t in it? Also, the truth is: this is not what a civil war looks like. Although it may have a vast abundance of superheroes (and Hawkeye/Black Widow, whose raisons d’être still wholly elude me), it really doesn’t have anywhere near enough, nor does it run over a long-enough period of diegetic time to warrant its subtitle, either. Accordingly, Avengers-Lite: Punch-Up in an Airport strikes me as a considerably more reasonable title.

Don’t get me wrong, from a Comolli-Narboni or, dare I invoke the name in 2018, Žižekian perspective, Avengers-Lite: Punch-Up in an Airport is worthy of consideration in order to critique Hollywood ideology with regard ethics of interventionism on the part of the US Government. Iron Man believes the Avengers, following the uncountable civilian casualties sustained in their stand-offs with various foes over the years, ought to sign themselves up to become a UN-controlled task force, tragedies surrounding their exploits signifying that their great power not only comes with great responsibility, but a desperate need for as-yet unestablished accountability. Captain America believes superheroes ought to operate with a greater degree of impunity, or at least assumed good faith without restrictions or borders, given that agendas of governing bodies change, and they may be ordered to “intervene” where no intervention is required (say, to depose a democratically elected leader in the global south) or to ignore an atrocity taking place (like the genocide or displacement of indigenous peoples). Both have compelling arguments, although both miss the unarguable fact that they remain violent and authoritarian figures of almost-universally ethnocentric ideological concerns, whose personal motivations always have and always will outweigh anything they consider greater than themselves, no matter which pieces of paper they decline or agree to sign.

Because that’s the thing: the villain of this film is someone who lost his family to the actions of the Avengers in their prior film, seeking revenge, which is largely frowned upon, despite the seeming majority of the heroes doing likewise. The team is literally called The Avengers; one would think they could appreciate the irony, even if they couldn’t extend some pathos his way. Put in the context of how many heroes weapons include blades, arrows, explosives and also it seems guns, it’s very difficult to decipher if they operate similarly to Batman, who insists on his code of “not killing,” but constantly causing / failing to prevent death, or if they actually do just aim to kill.

The screen lights up whenever Ant-Man or Spider-Man turn up, on account of being genuinely fun, although neither of them really seem to know why they’re there, and when Black Panther shows up, on account of being awesome, though I must admit I believe that is largely a retroactive thing on my part, having seen BP before AL:PUA, because I don’t think he’s afforded any personality at all, here. Indeed, it’s incredibly difficult to feel emotionally altered by anything happening. Considering how much I did enjoy the smallness of Ant-Man(no pun intended), I’m amazed and disappointed how the MCU took a series as intense as the Civil War comics were, and reduced it to something that feels just so utterly marginal.

⭐⭐1/2

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The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018)

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(Hey, Liam Neeson: if you want to have a career based around films in which you rescue women, maybe don’t go around calling #MeToo a “witch hunt,” you asshole.)

A veritable symphony of failures, The Commuter is so bad, even the end credits are a mess, unable to tell whether “stand-by” should be one word or two hyphenated, or to have any consistency at all between whether direction should be spelled with letters (“Second Assistant Director”) or numbers (“3rd Assistant Director”). Sure, I’m being pedantic, but I think it’s important to acknowledge just how widespread the problems are.

Though the problems are widespread, the film is too shallow for them to demand any in-depth analysis; it simply fails at anything and everything it tries to do. The thrills aren’t thrilling, the jokes aren’t funny, the mystery has no suspense, the special effects aren’t remotely believable, the acting is wooden, the secret baddie is glaringly obvious. The overabundance of CGI in the fight scenes make the whole thing look like a bad video game, whose disorienting speed is made all the more jarring by its contrast with the otherwise exceptionally slow pace.

Certainly the saddest element of The Commuter has to be the pitiful way in which it believes itself to be the action counterpart to I, Daniel Blake. Or at the very least, Money Monster. But how anyone expected the audience to maintain a straight face or feel in any way uplifted by watching Liam Neeson give the finger to an investment banker and deliver the immortal line, “Hey, Goldman Sachs, on behalf of the American middle class: fuck you!” I shall honestly never know.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it attempted an element of nuance by providing Liam Neeson (I’ve already forgotten everyone’s name but, honestly, who cares? It’s Liam Neeson playing Liam Neeson) with an opportunity to do what he does out of a sense of financial desperation – that maybe he’s willing to be a less-than-good-guy, because he was just fired, five years before retirement, with no safety net. However, the film can’t stand the thought of “The American Middle Class” being anything other than spotlessly clean so, within no time at all, the story reverts to the classic “they’ve (probably?) kidnapped Liam Neeson’s wife and child” and then proceeds to have his $25k incentive literally blow away, so he needn’t be saddled with anything other than his classic, unquestionable, Husband-and-Father motivation.

As the film progresses, it becomes ever more clear how little anyone knows what they’re doing, as we are provided with even more long and boring expositions we didn’t need, thickly laid reveals we already knew, and an ending that demeans us all.

Hopefully Neeson’s stupid and ugly comments will have him blacklisted from making films in Hollywood again, but I wouldn’t count on it.

 

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

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One of the few films for which you can employ the term “epic” with absolute confidence, Abel Gance’s 1927 magnum opus Napoléon is a triumphant crescendo of the late silent era which cannot help but fill me with a certain resentment at the introduction of sound to cinema at all (or, at the very least, to the blockbuster). Over-optimistically intended as merely the first part of a six-film-series, documenting the whole of the French Emperor’s life, Napoléon covers his school days to the invasion of Italy, over a five-and-a-half-hour that flies by, balanced well enough as to leave the spectator wanting more, purely on the basis of not wanting to leeave that world just yet.

However, to maintain circus analogies, one might describe Gance’s directorial method not merely as a balancing act, or even juggling but perhaps a veritable flying trapeze act between historical documentation, speculative dramatisation, superimposition, multiple exposure, unchained camera techniques and multi-screened “polyvision.” Thus, Napoléon achieves a breathtaking simultaneous marriage of celebrating France’s greatest moments of yesteryear with a vibrantly modernist format that proffers a knowing and participatory form of phenomenological reception over any standard suspension of disbelief. This is not the “transparent cinema” that so draws Godard’s ire; rather, by taking the impressionist mode of representation and signification, and expanding to it beyond-Griffith grandeur, this is truly the climax of the blockbuster’s existence as a form of genuine experimentation.

Perhaps the one and only pitfall lies in Napoleon himself – by no means at all in Albert Dieudonné’s performance, which is second only to the incredible child actor Vladimir Roudenko’s portrayal of the child Bonaparte – but in one aspect of his portrayal. Namely, Gance’s choice to use, wherever possible, genuine quotation, combined with the protagonist’s typical laconism results in a character who is enigmatically, stoically silent, who then occasionally blurts out such prideful remarks as “I am the revolution!” This establishes a certain point of confusion between the historical and the symbolist Bonaparte which inevitably results in him remaining perhaps a too-unknowable character for someone I just spent 5 and a half hours with.

However, the knowledge that this was intended as the first in a much longer series of films investigating his life leads me to the satisfied conclusion that we would have gained more insight, had Gance been able to finance such a titanic feat. Even so, my sadness at the absence of its sequels is not for lack of a sense of completion, but merely the eager desire for more. At least we have this!

****1/2

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

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Retrospectively, it’s pretty much impossible not to look at The Ides of March and not see it as existing almost purely as the personification of the gestative period between two crucial political thrillers: Michael Clayton and House of Cards. However, whilst both Clayton and Cards stand as testament to the fact that thrillers made of 90% conversation and a maximum of 10% murder can, through artful use of cynicism, irony, misdirection and deception, still turn the dial up to 11, Ides of March never really goes far above a middling 5 or 6.

Clooney’s direction is competent if uncharismatic, and the editing’s looseness does little to dissuade the typical parodic critiques of Gosling’s dispassionate performance. However, the capital-A Acting is without a doubt as consistently impressive as you would expect from a line-up of Clooney, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, Tomei and Giamatti, with Rachel Wood very much holding her own. Still, the characters all feel too archetypal for the cast to find anything particularly new or interesting to, other than be good on the back of their talent alone. Combine this with a story that never really has anyone acting comparatively that badly, nor the repercussions (save for one character, whose fate is written on their forehead from the get-go) that punishing, and you soon see that the stakes just plain aren’t high enough to demand any serious attention be paid to it. No matter how well acted it may be, a House of Cards with its teeth removed is, at the end of the day, just a lot of grey.

 

**