Review: Life

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DIR: Daniel Espinosa • WRI: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick • PRO: Bonnie Curtis, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Julie Lynn• DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Mary Jo Markey, Frances Parker • DES: Nigel Phelps • DES: Jurgen Doering • MUS: Jon Ekstrand • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal; Ryan Reynolds; Rebecca Ferguson

After extra-terrestrial cells discovered in Martian soil rapidly evolve into a violent and intelligent creature, astronauts on board the ISS struggle to contain it.

The fact that Life will inevitably be compared to Alien is only exacerbated by the fact that not once is the creature described as such – instead dubbed with the crowd-sourced moniker Calvin in a grade-school competition that tragically missed the boat on Alien McAlienface.

This aim to reflect “real-life” might have been an effort to go high where Ridley Scott’s classic horror goes low, grounding high concept science fiction in the modern day rather than the grimy pulp future of interstellar travel. The comparisons are nonetheless inescapable, though not necessarily unfavourable. Life also takes its time, ratcheting up the tension for slowburn release as the crew’s initially benign forays into study of the life-form turn disastrous.

It’s a tension the film manages to maintain throughout, aided by fantastic creature design that manages to attach untold dread to the appearance of what is essentially a malevolent banana peel. Body horror abounds as one-by-one the crew succumbs in ever more grisly ways, their fumbling course corrections in the effort to contain the creature nudging them further into calamity.

Cast-wise, like most horror films what we’re presented with are less fully-rounded characters than cannon-fodder with just enough baggage attached for it to register when each meets their inevitable end. The more recognisable cast play to their strengths here, Gyllenhaal quiet and vaguely neurotic and Ryan Reynolds playing Ryan-Reynolds-in-space.

Ultimately the film’s main strength is in successfully straddling the line between fantasy and reality without tipping too far in either direction. The station feels lived-in, fragile – the inherent vulnerability of life on-board as much a feature of the horror as the monster. Where Alien very quickly establishes itself as a classic monster movie, Life instead strives to keep the narrative grounded – or as grounded as any film featuring a sentient tea-towel as an antagonist can feel.

Though borrowing heavily from better films that went before, Life is nonetheless an entertaining entry to a tired genre that manages to stand alone by the simple refusal of the cast and crew involved to phone it in.

Ruairí Moore

103 minutes

15A See IFCO for details

Life is released 23rd March 2017

Life – Official Website

 

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The Canal – Review of Irish Film at Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015

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Ruairí Moore stretches his legs along The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh’s latest nightmare, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

So much of what constitutes classic horror is bound up in style and aesthetic – with each successive slasher flick where the order and extent of grotesquery is generally ranked by ethnicity or attractiveness, the gateway to the true shock and awe that horror is capable of providing creaks a little further shut. With The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh plants a foot in the jamb and barrels the door wide open.

A loving father and husband, David (Rupert Evans) is surprised to learn that his new family home was once the scene of a series of horrific murders. Initially dismissive, the mild-mannered film archivist soon begins to question his sanity when the brutal images begin to insinuate themselves among the various aspects of his personal life.

Nothing ground-breaking, but then it is not the plot that will see audiences stuck to their seats. Kavanagh’s love of cinema is immediately evident; the hum of film-reel and the snap-hiss of the projection light are the first images to startle, and it’s a device the director returns to time and time again.

Where much modern horror subsists on jump-scares, The Canal opts for a much more humdrum brand of dread, where the everyday is an invasive force. Sound design is key here, the growl of coat-zippers and the sudden slamming of doors adding a more ominous dimension the haunted-house scenario.

Neither is Kavanagh afraid to let silence and space stretch, favouring largely static cinematography but for the odd tight zoom – the end result is a gathering sense of genuine dread that is a welcome tonic to the flimsy and fleeting hysteria that is the foundation of so much of the genre.

There is much and more that could be said of the cast, but suffice to say that newcomers Kelly Byrne and Calum Heath can’t help but steal the show, particularly in the funny and all-too-brief respites from the unrelenting force that is the rest of the film.

Raw, visceral and atmospheric, The Canal is one of the best horror films to grace Irish screens in far too long a time, and possibly the best these shores have ever produced. For those unmoved by patriotic sycophancies, a decent core workout is promised at the very least.

 

The Canal screened on Saturday, 28th March 2015 at The Light House Cinema as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Check out our reviews of the Irish films that screened at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

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Seventh Son

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DIR: Sergey Bodrov • WRI: Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight •  PRO: Basil Iwanyk, Thomas Tull, Lionel Wigram • DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel • ED: Jim Page, Paul Rubell • MUS: Marco Beltrami • DES: Dante Ferretti • CAST: Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges

“What goes around, comes around” is one of those vague truisms that only truly applies in two contexts: pass-the-parcel and pop culture. The past decade alone has proven true for the latter, with the superhero genre having completed a full cycle from matinee fluff to box-office heavyweight – a certain be-cowled billionaire proving particularly symbolic of a shift from camp four-colour fun towards the grounded and gritty.

Even now, however, there is evidence of a return to nostalgia – just as Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe begins to court the more colourful aspects of its comic-book ancestry, Matthew Vaughn was all-too-happy to provide a similar tonic to a spy genre replete with Bournes and Bonds in the form of last month’s Kingsmen: The Secret Service.

So with Game of Thrones as the undisputed and unrelenting lord of television and most big-screen releases little more than copycats coasting in the wake of LOTR’s box-office success (its own sequel trilogy the greatest offender among them), the fantasy genre is set for a director to come along and breathe new life with a (semi-) original property that drags traditional fantasy kicking and screaming into the internet age.

And traditional Seventh Son certainly is.

John Ward (Ben Barnes) is the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus born to fight the forces of darkness besieging a medieval world where dragons, witches and shapeshifters are very much more than stories. With an old evil newly-awakened, he is sought out by Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), last of the Seventh Sons and in the market for a new apprentice after his last protégé fell to head witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore).

The fun brand of fantasy here owes less to Tolkien than it does to Dungeons & Dragons, where monsters are ranked by classes and the apple-pie American accent is standard, the British lilt reserved only for those of sinister intent. The other trappings, however, are pure fantasy – McGuffins masquerading as jewellery abound, and the quest aspect is but another iteration of the original conservative allegory of eliminating any outside forces which might attempt to change the world we live in – there would genuinely be more pathos in watching an order of Seventh Sons passively resist their doom in the form of increasing urbanization and smaller family sizes it fosters.

An engaging story can win out above all, but when the imagination is so starved in that regard the mind turns itself towards picking flaws that might have otherwise gone happily unnoticed. It’s hard to escape the idea that Seventh Sons would have been better off evoking the trappings of traditional fantasy without chaining itself to the most restrictive of them; each enemy is just another jingoistic stand-in for a sinister ethnic other, so that the plot essentially boils to white men whacking minorities with sticks. Watching the news is free, thanks.

As for the cast, no amount of gravitas can override this much unintentional ham. Julianne Moore channels a brand of camp better suited to a Hocus Pocus sequel and though Jeff Bridges fares better by going with the flow and opting for an accent somewhere between Bane and bronchitis, I’d have much preferred to see the film he thought he was making.

Ruairí Moore

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
102 minutes

Seventh Son is released 27th March 2015

Seventh Son – Official Website

 

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Insurgent

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DIR: Robert Schwentke • WRI: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback •  PRO: Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian • DOP: Florian Ballhaus • ED: Stuart Levy, Nancy Richardson • MUS: Joseph Trapanese • DES: Alec Hammond • CAST: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Theo James, Naomi Watts

 

In an industry where practiced weariness at pop culture clichés has become a cliché in its own right, it can be hard to know how to approach franchise fodder. Hollywood chews up a thousand interesting ideas for every one it spits out, but occasionally something self-aware speckles our chin and we can wipe our collective faces and be glad. So it was armed with awkward metaphors and an open mind that I sat down to review Insurgent, the second entry in a series that was rapidly dubbed an Aldi-brand Hunger Games the moment it slipped off the YA assembly line.

Certainly, it shares many of the hallmarks; we follow Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), a tween saddled with survivor’s guilt after her daring escape from a future dystopian Chicago costs the lives of her mother, father, and many of her friends. Tris is Divergent, genetically predisposed not to easily fit into any one of the five factions on which the security of this future society rests, and thus a threat to the entire system. So far, so bleh.

Where the film gets truly interesting, however, is in its own reflection of an admittedly simplistic core concept. As the heroes fend off an attack on board a moving train early on, Tris is left dangling inches above the rails as her brother Caleb watches on. An erstwhile member of the most cerebral and ruthless of the factions, Caleb has already expressed misgivings about their rebellion, reasoning that while the faction system is certainly oppressive, it also provides stability in a post-war society – which the very existence of his sister threatens. For the brief moment in which his face becomes cold and impassive as his sister fights to survive, I thought I might be watching a very different kind of film indeed.

But alas, Insurgent is not 30 minutes long but 119, and the hour and half to follow only compounds the overriding flaw that prevents it from being anything other than a reasonably-priced anaesthetic for the arse – namely the inability to allow well-acted, interesting archetypes to aspire to any more shading than your average stick figure.

Strung together by SFX-ridden set pieces, the rest of the plot sees Tris and co. flee Kate Winslet’s Aryan librarian (libr-Aryan?) antagonist to meet up with the obligatory black-clad insurgents, led by a severely-underutilised Naomi Watts. The cast manage to wrangle as much as possible from the material, Woodley in particular bringing some raw nerves to an otherwise blank slate, but it is ultimately not enough to rise above the film’s many flaws – weird science and henchman myopia but minor among them.

The very cause that our heroes fight for – the idea that we are all born equal, despite how society might try to divide us – is regularly undermined by conflicts resolved only because Tris is superior – genetically so- and it’s a core contradiction that ultimately defines the entire film. With a plot so deeply focused on the idea of breaking free from constraints placed upon us by time-honoured tradition, Insurgent’s overriding inclination is to play it safe.

 

Ruairí Moore

12A (See IFCO for details)
118 minutes

Insurgent is released 20th March 2015

Insurgent – Official Website

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Ex Machina

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DIR/WRI: Alex Garland • PRO: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich • DOP: Rob Hardy • ED: Mark Day • MUS: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury • DES: Mark Digby • CAST: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

With consistent critical acclaim under his belt, it has almost become incumbent upon sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland to take authorship of a production of his own in order to truly earn the all-hallowed hyphen in “writer-director”.

Anyone who feared that the writer’s directorial debut would abandon the cerebral, doughty fare of his previously-penned Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and roughly 15 minutes of 2011’s Dredd need not have worried – more than any of Garland’s previous efforts, Ex Machina weighs the heavier side of science fiction and what it means to be human. A question as old as the genre itself and exhausted to boot, most would say; however, it is not in the concept itself but the quiet confidence of its delivery that Garland establishes himself as much more than a pen on paper.

Eternal everyman Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer invited to spend a week at the mountaintop retreat of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive tech magnate on the cusp of creating true artificial intelligence. His brilliant but overbearing host has chosen Caleb to be the human component in the Turing test, designed to determine whether the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is truly sentient – but as the test progresses, Caleb begins to wonder if he himself isn’t part of a larger game between creator and creation.

It is in the quiet, understated interactions between the characters that Garland truly delivers a worthy examination of our notion of identity. Much like most of Garland’s previous work, Ex Machina sees a small core of characters thrown together under extreme confines and examines the shifting power-dynamics that follow.

Caleb’s sessions with Ava unfurl with deliberate care and increasing warmth, punctuated by exchanges with the acerbic Nathan; by turns swaggeringly drunk and startlingly – almost savagely – lucid, Ava’s creator seems simultaneously eager to see Caleb fail even as he seeks validation of his own genius, so that their every conversation becomes as much of a power-play as that between man and machine.

Spare cinematography and low, throbbing synths manage to make a prison of Nathan’s airy mountain home, the latter landing somewhere squarely between Blade Runner and Mass Effect without being overly indebted to either.

However, it is unquestionably Vikander’s turn as Ava that pulls the film head-and-shoulders above most other efforts on the same theme. Beguiling and beseeching by turns, Ava is as empathetic as she is utterly alien, and Vikander underplays these contradictions with all the insidiousness they require to avoid lapsing into yet another iteration of woman-as-object on screen.

Restrained, understated and above all atmospheric, Ex Machina may not break new ground on a much-overplayed theme but provides a breath of fresh air nonetheless, delivering a sci-fi thriller with easy sex and violence that are an afterthought to something more cerebral.

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
108 minutes
Ex Machina
is released 16th January 2015

Ex Machina – Official Website

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American Sniper

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DIR: Clint Eastwood • WRI: Jason Hall • PRO: Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar, Robert Lorenz, Peter Morgan • DOP: Tom Stern • ED: Joel Cox, Gary Roach • DES: Charisse Cardenas, James J. Murakami • CAST: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Brian Hallisay, Luke Grimes

In reviewing Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – the latest in an almost obnoxiously prolific directorial career – much has been made of the film’s position on the war in Iraq, whether as a chest-beating tribute to the troops or a morally-distilled and utterly misleading account of a man whose trade could be called murder but for the stars-and-stripes pinned to his chest.

True enough, Sniper has plenty of time to deliver on both fronts; over a run-time in excess of two hours, there is sufficient flag-waving and male bonding to satisfy even the deepest of patriotic fervours. Likely more palatable to those dismissing the story as reductive are the slight dips into fancy in an otherwise taut and grounded tale; comrades confide in one another moments before becoming so much cannon fodder, and an obscure enemy sniper (barely mentioned in the source material) turns up as a bandanna-wearing, rooftop-leaping nemesis against whom our hero must test himself – though not before the audience is treated to the obligatory revelation of the “We are not so different, you and I” variety.

Both views, however, overlook the true strength of the piece, clearly outlined in the film’s opening moments. Propped on a rooftop with a young Iraqi boy caught in his sights and a commanding officer bleating in his ear, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) flashes back to the Texas of his youth, his father outlining the moral foundation that will bring him to this point – that the world consists only of wolves, sheep, and those willing to stand between.

It is in the soldier’s struggle to reconcile his clean and unquestioning view of what is right with what he sees through his rifle-scope that American Sniper truly shines. Full credit is due to Cooper here, who sheds the easy charm of earlier roles to deliver perhaps the most understated performance of his career. As four tours of war slowly transform the easy-going and unassuming cowboy into a relentless and near-fanatic killer, it is actually the moments at home that deliver the most, as Kyle goes about the day-to-day tasks of modern suburbia with a barely-restrained violence that’s difficult to watch.

Does American Sniper paint a more sympathetic picture of its hero than even a quick Google search might suggest of its inspiration? Perhaps. Equally the film fails to provide a broader contextual view of the conflict itself, but by the latter stages this very much feels like the point – as the initial battle cries fade and the post-911 fury lapses instead into a grudging war of attrition in which Kyle and his comrades are but further flesh on the scales, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion of fighting for a cause he can believe in.

Far from Eastwood’s best but certainly a return to form, this is a film on a subject so contentious it seems destined to provide ammunition enough for near any perspective – those hoping for a nuanced look at the problematic notion of patriotism might perhaps find a little more.

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
132 minutes.
American Sniper
is released 16th January 2015.

American Sniper – Official Website

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The Skeleton Twins

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DIR: Craig Johnson   WRI: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson   PRO: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik  • DOP: Reed Morano ED: Jennifer Lee  DES: Ola Maslik MUS: Nathan Larson  CAST: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson

It has become an unspoken trope of the comic actor’s career that they must, at some point, try to “break out” – to land a role with enough dramatic weight that they might slip free of whatever one-liner or  bit role previously defined them in the eyes of the audience. Some succeed, many don’t, but even the most successful of these ventures can often feel like a career move posited in a publicist’s office rather than a genuine desire to break form.

 

Not so with The Skeleton Twins; director Craig Johnson’s second effort sees estranged twins Maggie and Milo reunited after a shared trauma in their lives – namely their separate attempts at suicide on the same day, hundreds of miles apart. With SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig taking a turn as the titular twins, this could have easily been a cynical vehicle for actors aiming to establish dramatic chops. Instead what unfolds is a nuanced, understated drama with a biting comic edge that can’t help but be sincere.

 

Fresh from a spell in hospital, a reluctant Milo moves in with his sister, oblivious to the fact that his emergency phone-call only just interrupted her own attempt at an overdose. Appalled at her seemingly picket-fence marriage to the uncomplicated Lance (Luke Wilson), Milo is determined to reconnect with the sister he remembers, only to discover the more that he picks at the threads of her life, the more it unravels.

 

Anchored by excellent performances from all involved (Luke Wilson in particular does surprising things with the dull, puppy-like Lance), it is this quietly desperate edge that sets The Skeleton Twins apart from other mumblecore fare. Where the indie sub-genre is largely typified by protagonists suffering early onset mid life crises or a long awaited coming-of-age, The Skeleton Twins instead revolves around stasis, the quiet traumas that creep up on you.

 

Much will be made of the chemistry between Wiig and Hader, and for good reason – their easy banter is put to great use here, encompassing the improvised skits we’re used to seeing as well as achingly awkward moments where forced punchlines fail to fill the silence. Mishandled, the subject matter could have very easily tipped over into something trite, but instead plays out as something a little more nuanced that resists the urge to tidy up after itself.

Ruairí Moore

12A (See IFCO for details)

169 minutes

The Skeleton Twins is released 7th November 2014
The Skeleton Twins – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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The Guarantee

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DIR: Ian Power   WRI: Colin Murphy   PRO: John Kelleher  DOP: Cian de Buitléar   ED: Vinny Beirne  DES: Ray Ball   MUS: Stefan French CAST: Peter Coonan, David Murray, Orla Fitzgerald, Gary Lydon, Morgan C. Jones, Jesse Morris

Rarely enough do we see Irish cinema aim for any type of self-reflection lacking the padding of time and thematic distance; accounts of Bloody Sunday and the Guildford Four crept onto our screens twenty years after the fact, and more recent exercises in navel-gazing have thrust more towards some sense of the Irish spirit or character without any contextual foundation in current events.

Not at all to our discredit, mind – it is simply that Ian Power’s The Guarantee is a beast of a different kind. Based on Colin Murphy’s stage play Guaranteed!, the film takes us through 2008’s banking collapse, a defining event still very much an open wound in the national psyche.

Spanning the lead-up to and events of the critical night on which the government agreed to prop up the ailing financial system, it is bold and relevant subject matter for which any Irish artist should be applauded for tackling. Even if, as in this case, it veers slightly wide of the mark.

From the outset, The Guarantee strives manfully to prop itself between the two stools of documentary and drama, but ends up heaped between the two. Talking heads and TV3 newsreel punctuate sterile, studio-shot tracking sequences and eerily back-lit press conferences. Headlines and frantic email exchanges flutter across the screen, as fleeting as any effort to ground the audience in human moments amidst a flurry of economic jargon and bankers so sinister they lack only cloven hooves and moustaches for the twirling.

The characterization is one of the more disappointing aspects – The Guarantee posits itself as a drama first, but for the notable exception of David Murray’s underplayed Finance Minister Brian Lenihan (and perhaps Gary Lydon’s underserved Taoiseach Brian Cowan), the cast largely melds into a parade of frowning suits blaring but one note.

An effort to render a political thriller in the tradition of All The President’s Men with the high-value gloss of The Social Network,  The Guarantee ultimately fails to capture the style or substance of either. It is, however, a worthy effort to open dialogue on an issue that is as incomprehensible to the general Irish public (this reviewer included) as it is all-pervading in their day-to-day lives.

 

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)

76 minutes

The Guarantee is released 31st October 2014

 

 

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’71

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DIR: Yann Demange   WRI: Gregory Burke   PRO: Robin Gutch, Angus Lamont   DOP: Tat Radcliffe   ED: Chris Wyatt   DES: Chris Oddy   MUS: Joseph Bishara  CAST: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard

Brit-grit: where the pints are cloudy, ceramic stained and even the most bare bones of human moments are wrung dry for the greatest amount of drama. It’s an aesthetic perhaps more evident in British television than cinema this past decade, having crept in so subliminally alongside miniseries such as Red Riding, Five Daughters and Southcliffe that to even term it a “movement” would belie the subtlety of it.

In Yann Demange’s debut feature ’71, this brand of social realism is served in the style of a tense war-time thriller. Gary Hook, a fresh-faced private in the British Army, is dropped into the middle of a divided Belfast city at the height of the generational conflict that would become rather euphemistically known as “the Troubles”.

When a heavy-handed search for IRA weapons along the Falls Road spills over into full-blown riot, Hook is accidentally stranded “behind enemy lines”; from here we kick into a gear that scarcely lets up, a city of red-brick tenements not a million miles from Hook’s own suddenly hostile territory harbouring enemy dissidents only too happy to gun down the British uniform without seeing the shit-scared youth wearing it.

In hands less deft, it’s a premise that could have easily come across as jingoistic. However, with an excellent script from Gregory Burke, ’71 is instead both a sensory survival story and a surprisingly subtle look at the clashing ideals that fuelled the conflict, from the unthinking religious hatred underpinning it all to the vying factions within the IRA itself, spurred on by an undercover British unit intent on de-stabilising the city even further.

Even amongst a cast consisting of some of the best Irish and English talent assembled in a long while, Jack O’ Connell is a standout. Graduating from his usual stint as the troubled teen with a smart mouth and thuggish tendencies, he brings compelling delicacy to an unquestioning soldier buffeted about by events beyond his control.

Though viewers unfamiliar with the context of the subject matter are unlikely to come out any more informed than they went in, they’ll be left breathless either way. If the subject matter is perhaps a little bleak, the fact that it is a silver screen debut for both writer and directly should certainly inspire optimism.

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)

99 minutes

’71 is released 10th October 2014

’71 – Official Website

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Interview: Alice Butler, Beyond the Bechdel Test Season Programmer

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The IFI recently hosted a Beyond the Bechdel Test season, which presented a selection of films from a range of directors who have explored complex, nuanced ties between women that are not merely a feature of one scene, but an integral aspect of the films’ narratives. Ruairí Moore sat down with  programmer Alice Butler to discover more about The Bechdel Test, the process of selecting films of a high quality that pass the test and gender equality in film.

 

First off, would you like to briefly explain the Bechdel Test, and perhaps why it was chosen as a theme for the season?

 

The Bechdel Test is named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel who had a successful comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For which ran from the early ’80s right up until 2008.  It was in a 1985 issue of this comic strip that Bechdel featured a segment called ‘The Rule’ in which two female characters mull over the idea of going to the cinema together. During this conversation – which takes place as the pair stroll by a series of cinemas, signalled by sensationalist posters for films each one more pointedly male oriented than the next – the first character explains to the other that she has devised a rule whereby she only goes to see a film if it has at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man.  Seeing as none of the films available look as though they have a chance of meeting these requirements, the women decide to skip the cinema and go home instead.  The Bechdel Test was originally presented then as a kind of gag but it struck a chord with film theorists, critics and researchers who saw in it a practical device for assessing films in terms of gender bias.

 

Using the Bechdel Test as a central reference point for the season was a means of provoking thought and discussion about gender disparity in cinema in an approachable and not entirely humourless way.  The Bechdel Test has its flaws but it provides audiences with a simple set of questions to apply to films in order to start thinking about the often over-simplified representation of women on screen.  Ultimately the test encourages viewers to consider the significance of how both women and men are being drawn in cinema.  The test is also an interesting phenomenon in and of itself – the fact that it first arose in a conversation between two comic strip characters gives it a grass-roots like quality.  The concept wasn’t generated by a team of film experts, it has an unofficial, vox-pop like character and its acclaim indicates a widespread dissatisfaction with the kinds of stories and characters that cinema can too often prioritise.

 

It’s probably fair to say that, though useful, applying the Bechdel Test alone can be a rather simplistic model for viewing the representation of women in film – for example, a film with an absolutely heinous representation of women might still pass it in a single exchange. What other criteria did you apply in selecting films to screen?

 

I agree that the Bechdel test is not foolproof and certainly has its drawbacks. As you say, a film might pass the test and still fail to offer anything of value in terms of its representation of women. On a basic level though, it prompts audiences to think, and what is more, to question what they are watching.

 

In terms of other criteria, I wanted the selection to reflect as wide a range of filmmaking cultures and styles as possible. The diversity in the season was an attempt to reflect the diversity that was integral to Alison Bechdel’s comic strip. It was also important that the season was made up of examples of great cinema in which female experience played a crucial role. A significant priority was that the films would be of interest to both men and women. This was to suggest that cinema is a domain where the perspectives of women and men should be explored equally – it was a statement in its own way. We are taught to expect universal stories to be told or carried by men. I wanted this season to be made up of what I felt were universal stories that were driven by female characters. A lot of these terms and ideas became familiar to me through reading Laura Mulvey’s work, in particular Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, her seminal essay from 1975.

 

It was an interesting exercise to look for films of a high quality that also managed to pass the test. A pattern that emerged pretty naturally was that very often the films that passed and that felt as though they would be of interest to a wide range of audiences were concerned with issues relating to representation. This is an important aspect of Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing, where Emily Mortimer’s character plays an actress unsure of how she is being presented as a star, it’s also key to Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 where Corinne Marchand’s pop singer feels she’s being sold as something she’s not, it’s certainly a major part of Irish artist Sarah Browne’s excellent film Something from Nothing and in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, the media is seen to misrepresent the plight of women as well as other marginalised groups in order to suppress their demands. In all these films there is an interest in the struggle to reconcile the real experiences of women with how these are represented or distorted by others.

 

The programme sees Irish female filmmakers take a prominent role, but it is not limited to indigenous filmmakers, or even women for that matter. With many claiming that there are “men’s films” and “women’s films”, what kind of themes unified those included in the season of films that ultimately transcended the gender or nationality of the filmmakers behind it?

 

It’s damaging to think of particular films as being exclusively for men or women.  Cinema shouldn’t be reductive or prescriptive in that way. As I mentioned earlier, it was important that the films in this season would be appealing to both men and women and the only way to achieve this was to include films which say something as much about what it is to be human as what it is to be a man or a woman. All About Eve is about ageing and betrayal, Obvious Child is about friendship and identity, something similar could be said of Girlfriends. Wives is about responsibility and abandon, Yield to the Night about crime and endurance – these are films that can speak to anyone, regardless of gender.

 

The Swedish Film Institute recently introduced measures requiring all funding to be allocated equally among the genders, which has seen the amount of projects with women writers/producers attached match and even exceed that of men. Do you think something like this could and should be implemented for Irish film?

 

I have limited knowledge or experience of funding and film production. However, a concerted effort does need to be made in order to even out the balance in terms of gender focus in Irish film. The efforts made in Sweden have been successful so it makes a lot of sense to try and establish something here along the same lines.

 

Between the Beyond the Bechdel Test season, a panel centred on the issue at the Galway Film Fleadh and the upcoming Feminist Film Festival in Dublin, the issue of gender equality in Irish film seems to be one very much at the forefront today – what would you hope to see happen, going forward?

 

I would hope to see a greater number of mainstream Irish films with female protagonists. I think this is more likely to happen if there are more women supported in their work in key positions behind the camera, writing scripts, producing and directing films. In order for this to happen, procedures need to be put in place in order to facilitate this and it would be great to see these established in as short a time frame as possible.

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Mood Indigo

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DIR: Michel Gondry  WRI: Michel Gondry, Luc Bossi   PRO: Luc Bossi • DOP: Christophe Beaucarne  ED: Marie-Charlotte Moreau  DES: Stéphane Rosenbaum MUS: Étienne Charry  CAST: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy

Perhaps as a natural defence against the lukewarm reception of 2011’s so-so Seth Rogen vehicle Green Hornet, Michel Gondry’s latest offering sees the director pitch himself head-first back down the rabbit hole from whence he came, bringing the surrealism in such spades as to make even such a tenuous Alice-In-Wonderland reference as this seem perfectly structured by comparison.

 

Mood Indigo (originally L’Écume des jours) follows a young and wealthy Frenchman named Colin (Romain Duris) who, envious of his friends’ successes with the fairer sex, stands up from his breakfast one day and decides that he too would quite like to fall in love. Enter Chloe (Audrey Tautou), a sweet and witty socialite who views Romain’s bumbling gestures at social grace as endearing. The two are scarcely married before Chloe is struck ill with a case of water-lily-in-the-lung, and Colin kicks in a life of idle pastimes in order to foot their growing hospital bills.

 

If the premise sounds a bit strange, rest assured that the story of love and loss is a solitary anchor in the fever dream to follow. Where Gondry’s perhaps best-loved work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, takes increasingly unhinged forays into the surreal while winding up to a climax, Mood Indigo lives there from the get-go.

 

Set in modern-day Paris as filtered through a funhouse mirror, Gondry’s world is one of philosophy fiends, thrift-shop technology and frantic pathetic fallacy, where walls literally close in on the characters, sunlight is threaded along musical strings and conveyor belts of typists mash out the minutia of modern life on an unceasing literary production line. It’s an evocative and often overwhelming mix, and the same surreal images that enfuse the love story are equally powerful when swung the other way in the film’s latter stages.

 

However, to repeat the inevitable comparison to Eternal Sunshine, Mood Indigo never quites matches style with substance in the same way that its predecessor does. Though movingly delivered by all actors involved, the main love story is simply not as involving as it could be, the characters inspiring abstract amusement more than genuine empathy.

 

Powerful as the imagery is, it too often judders between whimsy and woe to truly achieve either, and while certainly affecting while on the screen, the film leaves little after a viewing beyond fleeting enjoyment and a notion that something entirely larger has been missed.

 

Ruairí Moore

12A (See IFCO for details)
94 mins

Mood Indigo is released on 1st August 2014

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Film Ireland Podcast: Episode 04

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Ruairí & Donnchadh ride the dragon into the basement to do battle with Decepticons, bringing you some film news along the way and compare and contrast homeworks (The Madness of King George & La Vie en Rose) and, of course, check out what’s out now in a cinema near you, including How to Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Cold in July, The Golden Dream, and Tammy.

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Oculus

Oculus-Katee-Sackoff

DIR: Mike Flanagan • WRI: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard • PRO: Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy • ED: Mike Flanagan • DOP: Michael Fimognari • DES: Russell Barnes • MUS: The Newton Brothers • CAST: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane

If the superstition surrounding the day itself doesn’t inspire sufficient dread, then rest assured that Friday the 13th’s cinema-going experience still aims to infuse the most mundane of household objects with horror. Rather than a spider-walking clothes-horse or a kettle suddenly spouting ancient Aramaic, however, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus instead returns to the most tried and true of mystically malevolent McGuffins – the haunted mirror.

After years in a mental institution, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is discharged from psychiatric care, his doctor confident that a murderous passage from his youth will not recur once he protects his recovery. Cue elder sister Kailee (Karen Gillan), who wastes no time reconnecting with her brother and attempting to puncture years of psychiatric reasoning to convince him that the long-ago slaughter of their parents was not his fault.

Instead, she has tracked down the item she believes to be responsible – the Lasser Glass, an antique mirror to which she attributes the supernatural possession and murder of its previous 45 owners, including that of the siblings’ parents ten years ago. Over years she has tracked and reclaimed the item and, with a reluctant and disbelieving Tim in tow, she lays the groundwork for a final confrontation with the malevolent force, hoping to exercise the siblings’ own demons in the process.

It’s a basic enough premise on paper, but the true ambition of Oculus comes into play in how it handles the inciting murders ten years previously. Rather than an obligatory voiceover or a throwaway dream sequence, their horrific past is instead drip-fed throughout the narrative, with all of the action taking place in one house, past and present.

Arguably delivering as much screen time as the leading duo in the present day are Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as the initially-loving but increasingly-dysfunctional parents. Sackhoff in particular impresses, playing a loving mother who increasingly shows the strain as the mirror begins to insinuate itself among her deepest insecurities and turns her against her children, rendered believably wide-eyed and shit-scared by young actors Garret Ryan and Annalise Basso.

The ambition evident in the script, however, often gets in the way of the story. Flanagan’s eschewing of cheap scares in favour of more insidious, cerebral fare works well to begin with, the occasionally hammy exposition of the first hour balanced by grisly tricks of perception and visually powerful moments where the darkness of the siblings’ past encroaches on the harsh, rational daylight of the modern day.

Though more than capably portrayed, one-dimensional characters make it difficult for Oculus to truly get under the skin, and overused audio cues and increasingly incomprehensible cuts between past and present ultimately cause the bubble of dread that Flanagan so desperately tries to preserve to burst far too quickly.

Often feeling better suited to the short it was originally adapted from, the premise of the film is ultimately stretched and folded under its own weight and it becomes easier to respect the effort and ambition than it does to enjoy the outcome. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus desperately wants to lead us down the rabbit hole but, laden down with an overwrought plot that’s not quite as clever as it wants to be, ends up lodged in the entrance instead.

Ruairí Moore

16 (See IFCO for details)
103 mins

Oculus is released on 13th June 2014

Oculus – Official Website

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22 Jump Street

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DIR: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller • WRI: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman • PRO: Jonah Hill, Neal H. Moritz, Channing Tatum  • ED: Keith Brachmann, David Rennie  • DOP: Barry Peterson • DES: Steve Saklad • MUS: Mark Mothersbaugh • CAST: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

Just how self-aware is too self-aware?

Take any old film review as an example – perhaps that of 22 Jump Street, the sequel to 2012’s surprise critical success 21 Jump Street, which saw inept police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) go undercover as teenagers in order to infiltrate a high-school drug ring with genuinely hilarious results.

In writing such a review, anyone might throw their hands up in despair, reasoning that each and every serious journalistic word-play concerning the film’s premise (see: Jonah “Over-The” Hill and Channing “Age-um” Tatum) has surely already been played out to their natural conclusion the first time around, and as such cannot be recycled into a new review. Unless, of course, said reviewer was enterprising enough to package those same old jokes as a form of meta-humour, and slip them past audiences with a wink, a nudge and an overwrought introductory paragraph such as, why, this one. The same reviewer might indeed ask you to bear with him, as this awkward metaphor pays off later.

In a continuation of the same self-satire championed by the likes of Arrested Development and Community but rather fumbled by this reviewer above, 22 Jump Street isn’t long in establishing that it is well aware of its status as a sequel. “Just do the same thing,” the duo’s police commissioner reasons. “Do the same thing, and everybody’s happy.”

Indeed, Jump Street’s latest case sees the two faced with a carbon copy task of last time, simply bigger – to infiltrate a group of college drug dealers and identify their supplier, with much of the same shenanigans ensuing along the way. With an inflated budget, their resources are greater, the guns bigger, the cars faster, Ice Cube’s angry police captain even angrier.

Hill and Tatum are on form again with a screen chemistry that is one part brotherly machismo to nine parts desperate co-dependence; Tatum, in particular, stretching comic muscles that leave those of his petty mortal flesh in the dust. The script, by turns, thumbs its nose and rolls its eyes at all the typical conventions expected of blockbuster sequels and, while it often works, therein also lies the rub. To hark back to our reviewer’s awkward opening paragraphs, while fun, Jump Street’s pointed awareness of the failure to deliver anything fresh does little to enliven reheated gags and plot points, and the constant navel-gazing ultimately speaks of a desire to play it safe as much as poke fun.

As a sequel, 22 Jump Street has developed along much the same lines as its aging undercover protagonists – though once lean the writing inclines to flab and quick wits begin to wander, a dose of boyish charm and bountiful goodwill is still enough to save it – if not quite enough to recapture the good old days.

Fans of the first will love it, and sticking it through to the end is recommended for all.

Ruairí Moore

 

16 (See IFCO for details)
111 mins

22 Jump Street is released on 6th June 2014

22 Jump Street – Official Website

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Film Ireland Podcast: Episode 01

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In this Film Ireland podcast, Ruairí Moore and Donnchadh Tiernan get together in a sulpher-ridden basement to chat about all things film. Pending their survival, we hope to bring you their regular thinkings and talkings in true film-loving fashion.

In this episode, Ruairí and Donnchadh give us their latest film news, salute H.R. Giger, who died last week, catch up on films they should’ve seen but haven’t, but have now (Punch-Drunk Love & Once Upon a Time in the West) and check out some current films playing in a cinema near you –  Frank, Blue Ruin and Transcendence.

 

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Cinema Review: Frank

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DIR: Lenny Abrahamson • WRIPeter Straughan PRO: Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe • DOP: James Mather • MUS: Stephen Rennicks • DES: Richard Bullock • CAST: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Many films aiming to make a statement about art in conflict with commerciality must often contend with a similar push/pull arrangement in the execution of that statement itself. After all, original or groundbreaking as it might be, if an indie flick lands at Sundance with no-one there to live-tweet it, does it make a sound? Aiming to prop itself between these two stools of art and commerce by no more than one over-large paper mache head and a bucketful of ambition is director Lenny Abrahamson’s latest outing, Frank.

 

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a serial-tweeting office drone plagued by dreams of international stardom but rather lacking in the creative drive to see them realized. Enter the Soronprfbs, an eclectic musical outfit whose disdain for vowels is matched only by the eccentricity of frontman Frank (Fassbender), who lives his life enclosed in a huge, cartoonish prop head. Brought into the fold when the band find suddenly find themselves short a keyboardist, Jon sees his chance for stardom and resolves to take it – along the way contending with the bile of acerbic bandmate Clara  (Gyllenhal), his own tragic lack of inspiration and fundamental doubts as to whether he’s crossed paths with a musical messiah or a plain old madman.

 

Frank quickly found an eager audience during its debut at Sundance, and it’s no real surprise why. Charming, funny and bright – starkly so in contrast to Abrahamson’s earlier work – the film delivers consistent belly-laughs while still managing to hit quieter, sombre notes about a genuinely troubled masked man to whom the microphone may as well be an umbilical cord. By turns hilarious and tragic are Jon’s fumbling attempts at inspiration relayed through banal sing-along internal monologues and a Twitter feed constantly appearing on screen but increasingly at odds with the reality of his situation.

 

Unsurprisingly, Fassbender exhibits impressive range beneath the mask, and the near-violent chemistry between Gylenhaal and Gleeson is crackling. It is likely the latter who delivers the anchoring performance of the film, slipping from wide-eyed to cut-throat as Jon slowly begins to realize that while the sparsely-populated pub gigs and mish-mash of recording techniques are a means to and end for him, for the rest of the band they act as a strange sort of therapy.

 

However, while certainly interesting as an examination of the notion of celebrity, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Frank is, strangely, Abrahamson’s most conventional effort to date. While ostensibly hiding the film’s most marketable feature behind a paper mache mask, it is likely that this very choice to take one of the world’s most sought-after faces and hide it in plain sight has drawn quite so much of the buzz that would class Frank as unique.

 

“You’re just going to have to go with this,” Jon is told by the band’s manager rather early on, but in truth there is little enough to go with that truly strays from the beaten path. A typical three act structure put together with bright, agreeable colour tones and a titular character who can’t help but be endearing, the overriding sense is of an unconventional idea packaged in its most marketable form, where “quirky” is a buzzword thrown out for poster by-lines as opposed to any real indication of divergence.

 

With subject matter wrestling with the idea of art vs commerciality, it ultimately leans towards the latter – but this is nothing to mourn. Frank is sharply-scripted, beautifully-shot and suitably suspicious of the entire vague notion of celebrity. However, while likely bound for success and justifiably so, one is simply left with the entirely unreasonable but nonetheless niggling feeling that this very message might be lost in the scramble to fit statues with tiny paper mache heads come awards season.

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
94 mins

Frank is released on 9th May 2014

Frank – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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DIR: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo • WRI: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Jeffrey Ford • MUS: Henry Jackman • DES: Peter Wenham • CAST: Robert Redford, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson

Steve Rogers – super soldier, war hero and man-out-of-time – is back in the world after a stint as a patriotic popsicle beneath Arctic ice. Captain America’s second solo outing since the so-so WWII epic that was 2011’s The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier sees Cap trading in his wartime crusade against Nazi pseudo-science outfit HYDRA for more cloak-and-dagger espionage under SHIELD. When the intelligence agency closes ranks after a masked super-soldier threatens even their highest levels, Rogers is forced into the fray against an unknown enemy who will ultimately lead him to question everything – particularly his place in a world that has more use for him as a weapon than a symbol.

It’s not exactly a new premise, seeing the quintessential poster boy for the Good Ol’ Days thrown into the morally ambiguous snarl of sleeper agents and sexy sexy spy tactics, but why should it be? The Avengers proved that our summer superhero flicks, smartly-scripted with a dash of character, can follow the commercial course without devolving into a by-the-numbers blockbuster, and The Winter Soldier certainly aims to carry that particular torch.

On the whole, what follows the much-lauded ten minute-preview released online proves stronger than even the ethereal and undefined “buzz” might suggest, the first hour or so delivering a story that is by turns entertaining and, dare I say, engrossing.

Dipping a booted toe into some genres and gleefully cannonballing into others, Cap 2 is a surprisingly subtle blend of nostalgic espionage and pulse-pounding action, all wrapped up under the stars and stripes of a superhero film. The fight sequences oscillate between balletic and genuinely bone-shuddering, rarely feeling overwrought thanks in no small part to a script that is well-paced and self-aware without bordering on trite.

Characterization is key to taking us through the hammier blockbuster aspects – every instance of Cap’s shield caroming off of another henchman’s head without somehow reducing it to patriotically-branded pulp is balanced by a quieter moment, such as Rogers sitting by the bedside of his now-aged love interest from the first film, or lingering in the doorway of a veteran rehabilitation meeting.

Johannson is again on form as the mercurial Black Widow, a glib foil to Evan’s po-faced Captain. Indeed, the leading man himself gets a chance to stretch actorly muscles typically left uncurled in films such as this, and it’s a genuine treat to watch him bring a quiet charisma to the ultimate blank slate that is Steve Rogers, a man with no life outside of his uniform.

However, just as those tracking shots ease their way down Black Widow’s catsuit as she strikes a pose after some particularly intense leg-grappling, I’m sure you sense a “but” on the way.

Thematically, the film follows the heightened stakes of Whedon’s alien attack on New York by attempting to ground Cap in some approximation of the real, the plot making vague gestures towards institutional paranoia and our hero’s waning faith in the powers-that-be. The hot-button topic of a secure state and the taxes it levies on personal freedom certainly forms the crux of the latter half of the film, but by this point a moment late in the second act has cast a new light upon events that ultimately dilutes all that went before and everything to follow.

In the interest of remaining as brief and spoiler-free as possible, suffice it to say that the core conflict of this film is the tension between a straight-laced soldier without a cause and the shady masters only to happy to provide him with one, so long as no questions are asked. In the grand tradition of the espionage thrillers it tips its hat to, The Winter Soldier is strongest as a tale about not knowing who the enemy is, of fighting in a brave new world of moral ambiguity where the word “evil” doesn’t hold the same currency it used to. The very last thing we needed was a flickering black-and-white montage narrated with a smug German (sorry, Swiss) accent whose sole purpose was to solidify this murky morality into solid black and white in time for our final battle, and yet that’s exactly what we got.

This descent at the end of the second act ultimately hamstrings the third, plonking us firmly back into a narrative of hero vs. villain and rendering all of the tropes that earlier seemed playful into reductive parodies of themselves. From here the plot aims for home along the path of least resistance – which, conveniently, intersects with that of most exploding aircraft, least concern for collateral human fatality and spends a great deal of time detouring around Scarlett Johansson’s hips.

Ultimately, the chink in The Winter Soldier’s armour is the same that plagued Snyder’s Man of Steel. Heart, humour, fantastic visual action and a solid villain – the bones of an excellent film were there and could likely still be excavated from an overwrought third act. Unlike MoS, Captain America: The Winter Soldier still makes it out near-intact as two-thirds of an excellent film, and certainly sets up some daring knock-on effects for the rest of Marvel’s ominously-titled “Phase 2”. However, while certainly the beefed-up super-soldier to its weak-chinned predecessor, The Winter Soldier ultimately pulls its punches and I can’t help but wonder at the Cap that could have been.

 

Ruairí Moore

12A (See IFCO for details)
135 mins

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is released on 26th March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier– Official Website

 

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