I'm Thinking' I'm Back: John Wick and The Return of Action Cinema

I’m a sucker for a lot of things in film. I’m a sucker for sequences that are beautiful or moving like when Joey runs through no man’s land in War Horse or when Martin Scorsese unleashes his own love affair with filmmaking in the guise of two children discovering the identity of George Méliès in Hugo. I’m a sucker for a great song on a soundtrack or a well-used long take, both of which can be handpicked from just about any of P.T. Anderson’s films. Above any specific example though I’m a sucker for filmmakers doing things well. It doesn’t seem like much but most productions these days aren’t populated by anyone being more than adequate at their jobs. So then it falls to a select few to actually prove that when movies are good there’s absolutely nothing better. Now that’s maybe too much praise to start a review of John Wick but I have to make it clear that despite any silliness or absurdity that occurs within its runtime, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski know exactly what their jobs are: to choreograph and direct some incredible action sequences. And they’re damn good at their jobs.

Action films are a dime a dozen. I shouldn’t say that. Action sequences are a dime a dozen. And they're too often the most boring parts of the films they break up. The water has been so muddied by blasé action films to think anything else. Action in American cinema has boiled down to a set of steps to follow. If one were to cut together action set pieces from the last decade of big budget American films it’d be difficult to tell one from the other. And that’s the problem. Movies that are marketed as action films seem misunderstand the very reason the genre exists. These moments of “action” are supposed to stop the film. Not because they’re bad but because they’re so engrossing by the intensity of what’s happening onscreen that the viewer forgets the rest of the film momentarily. The Expendables trilogy springs immediately to mind. I actually can’t think of a movie that fits the bill more perfectly. Every second of the trailers for these movies are filled with shooting, explosions, and whatever else the editor can grab to make the film look exciting. The problem is it's not exciting. It’s anything but. The action becomes so average that instead of thrilling the audience, they irritate the senses and make viewers wish for them to get back to the quieter parts of the film because at least the dialogue-driven sequences may still afford a surprise or two.

Fans of action films all have their favorites. The ones they stand by. I don’t think I would be alone in saying that the best shootouts on film belong almost exclusively to Michael Mann. Films like Heat, Collateral, Public Enemies, and Miami Vice all managed to lock themselves in my mind as the best of what realistic gunplay on film is supposed to look and feel like. But there’s another side of what guns are capable of onscreen. The more fantastic side. The side reserved for filmmakers like John Woo, Kurt Wimmer, The Wachowskis, and Robert Rodriguez. Movies like Hardboiled, Equilibrium, The Matrix Trilogy, and Desperado make it difficult to not suspend one’s disbelief for the sake of truly enjoying what these filmmaker’s have created: loud, bloody ballets of bullets.

And on that note, enter John Wick. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad create a world of gentleman criminals and killers that operate in their own personal version of New York City. They have their own clubs, bars, hotels and even currency, realized in the form of gold bullion coins. The world of John Wick is not unlike the worlds that Rian Johnson has created in any of his three features, especially Looper, his latest. Characters interact with codes and lingo that border on ridiculous but because the film manages to realize every other aspect of their fantasy lives, their dialogue never feels out of place. The balance of realistic dialogue versus fantastical world building is one of the easiest ways a film like this can fail. Luckily for John Wick, just the right amount of time is spent realizing what needed to be realized to sell the world that these characters inhabit. I’m not saying that we’re looking at lived-in history and production design to rival Lord of the Rings or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (yes, they’re that good). I’m trying to say that the success of John Wick is that we don’t have to rely on the world these characters live in to sell the film. Why? Because this film was directed by two former stuntmen. They wanted to make an action film that harked back to the generic ideal. Films with action setpiecess that take you out of the film entire and have their way with you.

The major action sequences in John Wick are half Michael Mann-realism and half John Woo-surrealism. Keanu Reeves moves with precision and skill and it’s almost impossible to not think of Tom Cruise’s vicious hit man character, Vincent, in Collateral.  But as much as Reeves portrays Wick as a cold, calculated killing machine who is an absolute pleasure to watch deal out death, there is another side of him. A side reminiscent of El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez’s pistol wielding legend played by Antonio Banderas in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Wick makes quick work of wave after wave of gun-toting henchmen in this film and at no point did I ever question any of what I saw in front of me. I was too busy trying to keep myself from standing on my seat and shouting with excitement at the screen.

Action done right is the best. It’s one of the only things in cinema that you can’t react to while it’s happening. At least I can’t. If I’m watching a perfectly done piece of action I have to reserve all physical reactions until the sequence is over. Then I let loose. I laugh. I exhale. I say “…shit.” as quietly as I can but always a little too loud. The only times I’ve had that feeling in recent memory is while watching Gareth Evans The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berendal, films I consider to be the finest showcases of both martial arts choreography and cinematography of all time. John Wick wisely borrows from these films where it can. Whenever Reeves' character finds himself in combat without a firearm, he’s savagely beating his opponents with the same intensity, though maybe not the same mastery, as Iko Uwais’s Rama in the Raid films.

I won’t say John Wick is a film that’s going to change things. It won’t. But it did give me something I rarely get to see at the movies anymore. Truly thrilling action. Action that made me grip my armrest and move without my knowing it to the very edge of my seat. If every film were able to produce this effect through its action mechanics, going to the movies would undoubtedly get boring, but...having just seen the heights that truly good action choreography can bring me to, I can only hope that were I to have a conversation with quality genre filmmaking, it would mirror the one that John Wick has with his former employer near the end of the film’s second act. “People keep asking if I’m back. Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.”

Gone, Baby...

Just who is David Fincher? At a press conference for his latest film Gone Girl, his star Ben Affleck said that the directors he works with are typically either great technical minds or they're great writers who can work with actors well. Fincher is both the foremost expert on the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking and he can make actors feel at ease doing the most challenging work of their career. Or to put it simply: for what other director would Ben Affleck get fully naked on camera? Only a man who'd proven his bonafides directing modern cult classics like Zodiac, Seven and Fight Club could possibly make an event out of a book as inauspicious and ordinary as Gone Girl. Only a man who knows cinema like the rest of us know our own bad habits could work miracles like this. And make no mistake, Gone Girl is a miracle. A roaring, rollercoaster of a film with a terrible screenplay and a lot of ugly things to say about people, Gone Girl just might extend cinema's lifespan.

Back in the 1950s, the invention of TV threatened the livelihood of filmmakers everywhere. If viewers could be entertained at home, why would they breach the white picket fence? Movie directors decided to go big, producing one rollicking epic after another to get viewers out of their home for thrills the small screen wouldn't provide. David Fincher has been hitting the small screen hard and low these last few years. He created a TV series strictly for people who don't have cable and he's now adapted two runaway best sellers. The first, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was a head-spinning exercise in forward momentum that bordered on futurism; airport fiction rebuilt as a Rube Goldberg machine. If you see network TV walking down the street putting pressure on a headwound, muttering "You should see the other guy," that's because David Fincher administered a beatdown that it won't soon forget. Gone Girl is a whole season of TV, complete with guest stars, in two and a half hours.  

At that same press conference, Affleck described Fincher's breakthrough, Seven, as a film that was built like a swiss watch. If that's true, then here he's twisted every gear tighter, perfecting a brusque narrative flow that seems to obfuscate curiousity. He moves faster than the human mind, exploring every possibility while opening the door for six or seven variations you hadn't even considered. Gone Girl is his most precise film, if not his best, and proves that he can best any source through sheer force of will and pure cinematics. A beautifully plastic sheen falls over the memories Nick and Amy share of their courtship, which can only be perverted by the cold, unromantic light of day during the investigation scenes. Meanwhile the music by frequent collaborators and Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross betrays everyone, creating an inch thick layer of uncertainty that grows on every move our hero makes in his own defense. Affleck's Dunne tries to get ahead of his own story, only to realize that his public persona in the wake of Amy's disappearance has a life of its own. Everyone has more than one life in Gone Girl. Fincher delights in watching characters watch themselves on the news, their identity sculpted by pundits and headlines, sewing seeds of doubt. The way we interact with our own image is a new phenomenon for the common man, but the characters in Gone Girl must master it like old pros because everyone's already watching them. The only hope lies in choosing what they see. Paranoia is the dark heart of the film, and the tabloid television cycle keeps its blood flowing.  

Gone Girl may be the most ugly indictment of TV's power to do evil since Spike Lee's Bamboozled, and both are heavily indebted to the ultimate statement on the politics of the small screen Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's Network. But there are older ghosts hanging from its family tree as well. In the mid-50s movies like It Should Happen To You and All That Heaven Allows cast a scathing light on what TV offers the American people. Fame and a false sense of comfort, both of which alienate you from the people you love. Other films went big, hoping to draw Americans out of their homes with thrills the glass teat couldn't offer them. Fincher wants this to be his North By Northwest, a country spanning twist-athon with images indelible and confident enough to make us believe in them. It puts the viewer in the role of judge and jury, playing with our sympathies and watching us squirm; parsing out red herrings through the jaundiced lens of broadcast news. Fincher makes Affleck throw himself on the mercy of the court of public appeal and banks on your liking or disliking him enough to stay rooted to the spot as the narrative turns darker and darker. Fincher has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Scandal, The Good Wife, New Girl, The Leftovers, How I Met Your Mother, True Detective and Mad Men and thrown one of his own. It's a blockbuster whodunnit with more twists than your DNA and flashy, stylized support from icons like Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris. The odds are great that when it's over you'll yell at the screen, begging to know what happens next week. That sound you hear is David Fincher having the last laugh. He always does.

Perfectly tuned as it is Gone Girl has a big problem. The more we learn about the girl of the title, the less we know her, the less certain we are that any outcome could be satisfying. Naturally the one we get leaves a bitter aftertaste. Which is itself a cruel inevitability. If the girl of the title could be anyone, doesn't it make sense that our hero'd get saddled with the worst possible iteration? I don't know if Fincher believes in that depressing outcome but Flynn definitely does. She pits her too-smart hero against one regressive cartoon after another and Fincher's only too happy to play her game, because it lets him change the game at regular intervals. The problem? If the film never has to make up its mind about who the girl is, then it never has to decide what it thinks about her. So ultimately what is Gone Girl? A thriller? A procedural? A horror film? A courtroom drama? It never decides. It's a film without a center. Without a soul. Good as it is, slick and entertaining and provocative, it can never transcend that absence. It will never be better than entertaining. Is that the future we're heading for? If movies don't aspire to much more than beating TV and paperback fiction at its own game, then the battle's already over. Without a beating heart, like the one in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Zodiac, entertainment is hardly compensation. Not when you can be so much more. 

The Future of Film - movies since 2010

The following is a survey of the films we find most representative of the greatness of the cinematic medium since 2010. The decade is just about half over and this is our attempt to figure out what the landscape looks like right now. So everyone has picked a film they loved and talked about its important. What these movies say about the world we live, what we see in them that we want other movies to aspire to. 

Scout Tafoya

For the last few years Robert Greene has written a column on the continuing progress of cinematic non-fiction over at Hammer-to-Nail. Greene's been on the front lines, trying to talk people down from their anti-documentary bias and America's tendency to laud movies content to give you information with all the tact and grace of an infomercial. Meanwhile he's championed groundbreaking oddities like Leviathan, The Act of Killing and even line-riders like Computer Chess. More than any kind of film, what Greene pursues over everything is the truth, and that is bigger than just facts told you to be a guy in a room. The truth sometimes bypasses your brain and heads right to your guts and it's impossible to ignore. Greene's own films are an extension of his search for a better, more enlightened conversation about nonfiction, and they're like nothing you've ever seen. For the last decade-and-a-half American indie fiction has been searching for the language that Greene finally found in his second film Kati with an I, about his cousin's heartbreaking final days as a high school student. He returned a year later with Fake It So Real about the characters in a non-professional wrestling circuit. And now he's a month away from seeing his latest film, Actress, play theatres across the country. Which is good news for everyone who wants to know how close to perfect the modern non-fiction film has yet come. 

I toyed with writing this about any number of mind-blowing 'documentaries' including Manakamana, Miners' Hymns, Patience (After Sebald), Leviathan, Perhaps Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Two Years At Sea or Whores Glory or even Computer Chess and Under The Skin, but ten minutes into Actress I knew ita was special even in that rarified company. Actress follows Brandy Burre, who took a few years off from her career to have children, getting back into the world of auditions and performing. Burre is a sparky, vivacious person and a loving mother. Like any of us she has flaws that hurt her relationships, and every one of them complicates what we thought we knew about her. Filmmakers try and fail to write characters like her every day. Greene's there at every crucial juncture in Burre's life over many months including her efforts to deal with several changes to her life and daily routine, most of which she's placed there herself. She talks to Greene and the audience as if we were all sitting in her kitchen, sharing a drink with her after her kids have settled down for the night. There's immediacy and honesty, and then there's a woman pouring herself a glass of wine and telling us when she fell out of love with the father of her children. Greene's always found humanity where others would have found mere objects or figureheads, and Actress hums and shakes with it. Burre's the first of his characters who's middle aged and has a sense of her legacy and her place in the world and watching her contemplate them is impossibly compelling. Greene provides a slow-motion playback of the moments just before everything came off the rails, using little else but what Burre surrounds herself with day after day. It's gripping, but more importantly, it's fucking cinematic. 

Greene places himself where few others would dare to venture, her private rehearsals, curlers still in her hair, in the shower after one of the most taxing days of her life. He's not recording because it has anything to do with her life as a series of facts, but because he's telling her story the only way he knows how, with the language of dramatic filmmaking. A standard doc about the life of a struggling actress would be answering questions left and right, squeezing every inch of drama from her nerves, getting between the audience and the subject. Greene hangs back, no agenda, no judgment, letting Burre tell her own story through gestures on her own time. One of the film's best moments has her driving to meet someone listening to Colin Blunstone's "Let Me Come Closer To You," which has more thematic resonance than she or Greene could ever have known when the moment occurred, as Burre just drives to a train station. She's deep in thought and we only later know what's going on in her troubled mind. Then the song continues as the film jumps through her evening, but it remains the recording from the car stereo. Greene always keeps rough edges and in so doing the making of a modern documentary becomes the subtext, the third party to everyone of his character studies. You would never mistake Actress for conventional (and what greater tragedy is there then a film this heartbreaking looking like a mutation next to most distributed docs?), least of all because in spending time with a woman reliving and restarting the part of her life where she pretends to be someone else, we find the perfect encapsulation of Greene's pursuit. A headlong dive into the space between cinematic reality, life and fiction. Who is Brandy Burre? Is she her job, her family, her flaws, her characters, her hopes or fears? Greene never makes us choose because Burre herself doesn't have to. She's not a character in a movie, she's a person fighting to make sure tomorrow's better. Actress is the non-fiction film of the decade, a gauntlet thrown at anyone looking to tell the truth with a camera. Cinema, like Burre, is staring into its future. "This is what I wanted...but now I have to do it." 

Noah Aust 

Because I’m jaded and desensitized to movies. I can’t suspend my disbelief—and do I even want to? I’ve read Laura Mulvey and Brecht and is mimesis even good? Or is it just escapism/bread and circuses? Is catharsis good, or does it just satiate us so we don’t challenge the status quo? Freshman year I was fascinated by mumblecore. Joe Swanberg stripped away all the excesses of filmmaking—plot, camerawork, production values, acting, dialogue—but his movies were still powerful. By getting rid of everything that I thought made a movie, Swanberg got to the heart of what a movie really was. Or could be, anyway.

Holy Motors does the same thing from the opposite direction. There’s no suspension of disbelief. There’s no character development—no characters, really. There’s no narrative continuity. And it still works. The musical sequence is totally self-aware but it’s still tragic and moving, somehow. But tragic and moving in a way I can connect to. Tonight I saw The Immigrant and I loved it, it was beautiful and heartbreaking and melodramatic and tragic, but how am I supposed to connect to that? There’s nothing ugly or ironic or cynical in the world of that movie. How am I supposed to reconcile that with my life? I’m so cynical and jaded and I think that was keeping me from totally entering the world of the film. Whereas with Holy Motors, it’s understood that you’re jaded. It’s understood that you can’t fully commit to the reality of the story, and no one’s asking you to.

I read something a while back about how Georges Méliès never really went for suspension of disbelief in his movies. People draw a binary between him and the Lumière brothers, with them advocating realism and him advocating escapism, but it’s not that cut and dry. This writer called Méliès’ films “montages of attractions,” and to me Holy Motors went back to that. Holy Motors is so cinematic. It’s Cinema with a capital C. It’s like Léos Carax asked himself what Cinema is, what it feels like, and then compiled scenes that illustrate that. If an alien asked what movies were about, I’d show them Holy Motors. When the beggar is running through the cemetery and the Godzilla theme song comes on, there’s no reason why that should have conjured such a profound feeling in me, but it did.  The movie is beautiful. That scene at the very beginning with the forest wallpaper? Oh my god, that’s beautiful. It’s like they took out everything I don’t care about in a movie and just left the music and the images and the moods. 

There’s also something that I can’t quite put my finger on... something about the end of film and digital cinema. I get so depressed about that stuff. Holy Motors felt like a requiem, a summing up of everything that film meant. Film is more than just a medium, it’s Cinema, it’s Melodrama, it’s Ingrid Bergman, it’s La Strada, it’s something tangible and mechanical that you watch in a theater. It’s bourgeoisie and decadent and so it’s doomed to die, but it’s beautiful. But maybe Holy Motors is also a map for how to go forward. Because it’s self-aware and digital and it still packs a punch. Léos Carax finds poetry in digital tracking markers. Just like Joe Swanberg found power in cold, sterile video,  Carax finds beauty in deconstruction and self-awareness. 

Once at Boston Underground I saw a video mixtape from the Whore Church: an overwhelming ADD onslaught of trash videos and pornos cut together at subliminal speeds. Really terrible stuff. But I was watching it and I was really struck by the vocabulary and style of it. I remember thinking, “This is new. If artists want to keep moving forward, they’re going to have to find the power in this stuff.” Then I saw M Dot Strange’s film We Are The Strange. He draws from trashy digital vocabularies: anime, 8-bit video games, 4chan stuff, but he uses that iconography to tell a really haunting story about trying to live in a world gone mad. It’s legitimate melodrama told in a contemporary style. A movie like that can reach people on a level that traditional melodrama can’t. A movie like The Immigrant can synch up perfectly with a certain kind of person, but for film students that are jaded and desensitized and filled with this buzzing anxiety, they need a movie that recognizes that and takes that into the equation. It’s like a different level of semiotics. I want movies that say "even with real life in its awkwardness and ugliness, it’s still possible for life to be beautiful and important like in the movies." I feel like melodrama is a really important aspect of human nature, and maybe it’s the most important part of cinema. I want movies like Holy Motors that say “Even when you’ve lost all suspension of disbelief, movies can still be beautiful.”

Tucker Johnson

I’m actually fairly surprised I landed on this film as the best but then I realized that out of all my possible choices I come back to this one the most. I own a fair few of my choices and I’ve definitely carved the deepest path in my copy of The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay took a revolutionary true story and turned it into an arguably even more interesting piece of fiction that paints the facts of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to being the youngest billionaire of all time with broad strokes and spends far more of its time in the trenches of exactly what people will do to each other when unbridled success is waiting in the wings. He even manages to squeeze sympathy out of audiences for Jesse Eisenberg’s character by showing that despite the juggernaut that Facebook became, it was still driven by the very human needs to succeed, to impress, and to inspire forgiveness in those we care about most. But even with Sorkin churning out arguably the best screenplay of his career, the material needed a director who could handle the dialogue and work the actors hard enough to deliver it with the verve and emotion it deserved. Enter: David Fincher. 

I’m definitely biased towards David Fincher. I consider the man a master of filmmaking at this point in his career but even I remember being very wary of him taking on “the Facebook movie” early in the film’s production. I saw the film in a theater packed with an audience that was more likely expecting the kind of film that the Ashton Kutcher movie Jobs ended up being. I spent the film’s two-hour runtime in awe of Fincher’s crisp, dark visual style (aided by Jeff Cronenweth’s realistic yet beautiful cinematography) and his total control over some of the best young actors working today. He had a firm handle on Sorkin’s dialogue but still managed to direct performances that sounded like intelligent people talking rather than actors simply reading movie dialogue. All this combined with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ eerie ambient score propels the film into a place that I think films rarely get to go. 

Michelle Siracusa 

From the start, something is not quite right. You are thrown all the makings of a horror story, down to ink drops that spatter like blood behind a title that's haphazardly scrawled across the screen. Stoker sputters like a volcano and stops just in time for the birds to resume their chirping. But every now and then the earth beneath us shudders again. The pressure builds: a hint of violence, of the macabre here and there. And all we have to do is sit back and wait: wait for something to surface, wait for the monster to be revealed.

It's the suspense of not knowing what route a story might take that keeps us excited and engaged, but lately, I find this can be a movie's downfall. There are too many clues, sometimes characters even stating the circumstances outright. Why tell me what you're doing when you can show me? The point of film is to be able to see a story unfold, right? Unfortunately, most movies these days can be deciphered long before the story comes to fruition. And that's the "good movies". The bad ones don't even have plots to hint at. Oftentimes, I end up paying New York City's $14 ticket price to ogle Hollywood's sexiest men and women for two hours. They hop around a green screen saying words to each other that don't mean anything in tight outfits. Don't get me wrong, this is a spectacle all it's own, but I don't consider it art. How can it be when I'm not changed by it? My eyes are just darting back and forth, convincing my mind it's being entertained. For people like me, who are hungry for a good story, who crave something that will shake their souls and rattle their brains, I suggest you watch Stoker.

From the start, something is not quite right. A father has just died. And we are introduced to a mourning family that seems a little too put together for the circumstances.  We never see them cry, but that's not what makes them stand out from the rest of the humdrum denizens that populate their town. The mother (Nicole Kidman) always appears freshly hair-sprayed and doll-like, overdressed and made-up. She makes cheery and careful small talk with fellow family and guests at the funeral reception. Here, we meet an estranged uncle (Matthew Goode). Too charming and too cool, he tells stories of having traveled the world, which is his apology for not being a present member of the family until the death of his brother. He wants to turn that all around, and everyone smiles and accepts him without question. After that all talk of the beloved late father is hushed. The mother invites the uncle to stay with her and her daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). And the family is once again a man, a woman, and a child. From the outside, they would appear perfect, if no one knew the circumstances. This is a lovely theme that Stoker puts in place early on exploring appearances versus reality and the external versus the internal. The house is pristine, but the basement is shadowed, cob-webbed, and damp. Some people are beautiful to look at, but it doesn't mean they're beautiful to be around.

India is ivory skinned and forever curious, as young people are. She's an oddball at school, perhaps because of her sullen and quiet nature or her prim and studious demeanor. But that isn't the only reason why she's "different". She is also the only one who refuses to smile for the sake of appearances, the only one who has never gotten alone with her mother, and the only one questioning her Uncle's presence. She stands out from her family just as much as her family stands out from the rest of the town. Stoker is a coming of age tale, told through India's perspective. At moments, poetic voiceover and brilliantly composed shots show what her eyes would see or what her ears would hear. We are with her, in her head, catching glimpses of private conversations and tense moments between the other characters through cracked doors and open windows. They are all pieces of a puzzle, lava beginning to boil. And the more India learns about who to trust and who to not, the more we do as well.

There's not evidence of foul play. There's no crime. In fact, everything's peachy, but we still don't know why the father died. No one's asking. Everyone's eating ice cream or being picked on by the school bully like normal, until suddenly we catch a glimpse of a body stored in the freezer. The pressure is building. Sometimes characters stare a bit too long, unblinking, and we're reminded, something is not quite right. An explosion is imminent. The film begins with India as a young as can be, climbing trees and running through leagues of grass without a care in the world, other than finding that year's hidden birthday present. But suddenly , everything changes for her. Her father's death and her uncle's appearance become a catalyst for her growing up. We watch her trying to discover who she is and trying to find independence while dealing with her new family and their new rules. We learn that she was only ever close to her father, and, now, without her instructor and protector, she must learn to fend for herself. 

We are all that child, or we have been. We've been derailed and insecure, needing something more to feel whole. We know the wide-eyed discovery of a first sip of wine. And we know what it feels like to find something that makes us feel free. Stoker is about India's discovery of what makes her feel free, what makes her adult. The movie's grandest achievement lies in that it's both artfully constructed and relatable. The characters never state a thing outright about their family's history, but the film's intricate subtleties manage to fill us in on the mysterious Uncle's past and, eventually, expose the family's many skeletons.  Scenes are interwoven to reveal similarities between the 3 surviving family members, showing just how far from the tree the apple falls. India learns that there are some things you can't help but inherit from your genepool. I think my favorite part was never once knowing what exactly was going to happen. The script never reflected upon itself, and instead, I had the pleasure of seeing actors react to events and each other without words. Park Chan-Wook's direction was guttural and captivating, and I applaud it.

Although the volcano takes its time seething, frothing and finally exploding, Stoker had me from the start. I was so wrapped up in all that was not quite right that I forgot I was waiting for a monster to appear. I'm glad I forgot because the ending would eclipse all my expectations. Stoker isn't a typical horror film.  But, I hardly expected the monsters I was looking for to be in plain view. I had been living with them. I watched them grow and change. After 99 minutes, I knew them and sympathized with them; so that, by the time they were fully grown and evil, I was there too. Secretly having turned savage, anxious to spill blood alongside characters I'd grown to love. Stoker is a primal and dark film. It explores evolution and survival of the fittest in a modern world, where lying and confidence are your best friends. It challenges the definition of a villain. It's complex, yet simple; inspiring, yet terrifying, in suggesting that we are not responsible for who we become. We are all born with both light and darkness. It's only until we stop resisting our true wants and needs that we are finally free, finally adult, and finally content. With this realization, India becomes both our hero and our villain. She's unapologetic. I think we all want to be that girl, at least a little.

Lucas Mangum 

I'm going with The Dark Knight Rises. I'm a sucker for a good hero story, especially when the hero has to really descend before he triumphs. I also like how the ending seems upbeat (I, for one, have always wanted a Bat/Cat romance), but also carries some ambiguity. Is he really alive, or is Alfred dreaming? It came out in the same summer as The Avengers, which I loved. They had similar plots, but the Batman film felt like The Avengers' evil twin. So much bleaker.

Tim Earle

Films face a crisis these days. Home entertainment systems are high enough quality, and downloading films is easier and easier. Meanwhile, television has quietly become the preferred medium of talented, forward thinking storytellers. The Avengers is, for better or worse, the solution to this crisis. I like the film - it’s surprisingly well written for a big budget slug fest - but more than anything, I admire what it represents, in terms of historical precedent. The film is a demonstration of film learning from TV. It’s a deeply serialized story that requires an understanding of what’s happening in a previously established world. Like the Lord of the Rings series, it is a film for fans. A film for people who have maps of places that don’t exist. A film for people who like watching impossible universes built and populated with impossible people. Unlike Lord of the Rings though, its storytelling possibilities are limitless. It is the first step in a long, potentially endless story. Of course, there are dangers in making a movie franchise like this. The biggest one is that I worry studios have gotten the impression that to make real money you need bloated franchises with lots of people punching each other. What The Avengers should be teaching us is that the talking is far more important than the punching. And it is a deeply corporate entity; it’s inseparability from other films and TV is just as much a boon to its storytelling as its inseparability from toys and lunchboxes is a hindrance. But what really knocks this film out of the park for me is that the great technicians of film, George Lucas and James Cameron, have finally been dethroned by the writers. Also, “Mewling quim.”

Noah Adrien Lyons

Polydoxical Cinema Poetics for Under the Skin

Under the Skin is the best film of this decade so far, and this is why: We now live – in our birth bodies and our avatars – in a post-secular world that has seen tidal waves of progressive and liberatory movements. Civil rights, waves of feminism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, nihilism, cold and hot wars, multiculturalism, liberational theory, queer theory….Science fiction has shifted from the hard-science and optimistic teleology of the Golden Age, through the New Wave counter-cultural ‘highbrow’ of Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Zelazny, Disch….then a return to optimism in the guise of cyberpunk, which glamourizes and aestheticizes the neon city, drugs, Donna Harraway’s feminist-cyborgism and modification of the self. But Rodney King, to name just one instance, demythologized the cyberpunk allure, exposing the grim reality of urban poverty and gentrification; HIV/AIDS and the War on Drugs demonized – and gave subjectivity/agency – to the marginalized and the underground. Suddenly, “The Truth is Out There”, and the government conspiracy is fantasized about to resurrect the Mythical Being (alien, god), and to place blame not on ourselves but the Government for the slow decline of community, trust, and holistic art. Y2K – HAL is back, and it’s our fault. Apocalypse is not heaven-sent or cosmic, but technological avarice and enslavement. Remember Alan Watts and the French profs, they were right. This is illusion. There must be a real body, a real affair of the heart, a real Earth. But proliferation of 2000s cynicism and media saturation obliterates this gnostic hope, and leaves tepid cynicism and submission to the internet’s “virtual” alternative to an already virtual world. This ‘time’ line I choose to end arbitrarily with the “hipster ironic” zeitgeist. A Lacanian mirror phase so perverse that to be ironic, one must not be ironic, which is in fact ironic; any actual claim like “I believe in…” or “I love…” or “This is the best fuckin  film ever” are NEVER said, because we feel we cannot believe in any truth or believe in our own opinions – for shame.

Why Under the Skin? Because it caused me to write this aporia-laden time-line of science fiction and modern solipsisms. Because it invokes past occasions, actualizes itself in the present, and ruptures open exciting and novel potentialities for the future. Because the world we live in is a soft, autumn sadness; CGI and avatars and ironic art are not explosions but dreadful, fading echoes of eschatological joy. Look and listen. See how what we were formed what we are, and what we are is more than skin or name; we are not Cartesian schizo-monads. We are others. Shed skin, ashes in snow, geometric deities yawning wide in space. Re-enchantment. Look it up if you have to. Post-secular, and polydoxy – ditto. When was the last time you touched someone? Stare hegemony straight in its slithering maw, fear it, fear irony, and scream. But do not rape the rapist. Gently hold your tattered body like the holy relics they are, and really look at your own face, tears of mourning and praise. The fire consumes, but ashes drift UNDER THE SKIN OF DAWN and perish, everlasting, atoms for those born tomorrow. 

Dan Khan

These days, I am a sucker for movies that take their time. What people generally call  boring, I call contemplative. That may sound pretentious I am aware, but I think it’s valid. There were a number of films I could’ve picked, so why did I choose Sofia’s Coppola’s Somewhere?  I still don’t quite know, but I know that I love every minute of it. After the experimental period piece misfire, Marie Antoinette, Coppola returns with something far more refined and personal. You can certainly tell there’s something close to her heart here and there’s no doubt that it’s also something quite special.

Stephen Dorff is one those actors that never really quite had the career that most actors dream about and too few people care about him. You probably remember him as the villain from Blade, but thankfully (though I admit I enjoyed that performance) he is nothing like that here. Dorff has never really been given this kind of role before and he nails every nuance, every line, every movement, every expression so naturally.  Here he plays Johnny Marco, an actor experiencing an existential crisis who has to deal with his 11-year old daughter (Elle Fanning) when his ex-wife suffers a breakdown and vanishes, leaving the girl in his care. This is a premise rife for a Lifetime movie, but luckily it’s not and it’s in the hands of someone who rises well above that sort of trite material. Coppola used her childhood experiences, recalling her father, Francis Ford Coppola making movies. The way in which the film unravels reminds one of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  In that film, we see the daily routine of a a Belgian housewife. In Somewhere, we see the daily routine of an actor and how in many ways just how simple, uninspiring and repetitious that can be. 

When I saw this film the first time, way back when, I was immediately very dismissive.  I used that much reviled word “boring” to describe it.  No doubt, it’s a film that requires patience and it’s certainly not paced in a way to elicit excitement. It’s a film that demanded I give it another chance and I am glad I did, because it’s more far rewarding that I initially realized. It’s a character study in a way that unfolds unlike most others, it doesn't have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s just life.  Coppola understands this. Dorff has never better and Fanning is as wonderful as you would hope she’d be, in fact if I have a complaint it's that I wish she was in it more. I realize, this is not a film most would choose, and while I had other classics like The Tree of Life, The Master and Holy Motors (and, I might add, Coppola's followup, The Bling Ring, is also a treasure) to choose from, I think Somewhere is as great as those or any film released in the past four years.

The Innocents

I've been the author of a series over at RogerEbert.com called The Unloved for the last ten months. It's been a great opportunity to kind of figure out what cinematic tendencies most effect me. I've been building a home out of the grammar of some of cinema's most notorious failures. This month's installment, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, is a film I have over a decade's worth of history with. So I released a version that's all analysis of the elegiac moral tale over at the sight. Below is a version that touches on my time as an extra in the movie and how being close to a film can cloud your judgment of it. It took me a long time before I could really see what a beautiful film this was. It's the one film of his that I still return to, even though I have unending respect for The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. It's in many ways a prelude to another American masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. 

The Unloved - The Village - Director's Cut from Scout Tafoya on Vimeo.

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent…

A Para-analytic, Para-critical Film Review of 
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
by Noah Adrien Lyons

I.  Of films not being islands
The second wave of comic book and super-hero movies began a little over fifteen years, around the time of Blade (1998) and The Matrix (1999). An untapped well of dark frenzy, postmodern ambiguity, and (ironic?) nostalgia burst out from the wings – a twenty-first century zeitgeist for Generation Y and the millennials. The Nerd was now cool, again; geekdom came out of the closet and had its perennial revenge. Perhaps this was/is due to the proliferation of the internet, to Silicon Valley and the tech industry boom absorbing white collars. It is no coincidence that academia has coevally opened its doors to the graphic novel, and begrudgingly promoted low-brow para-literature to canonized status. Hollywood is no stranger to the action flick or superhero; but the summer blockbuster, the special-effects laden pyro-fest, rarely succeeded in adapting comic book heroes to the screen. The turn of this century proved to be a rebirth of the Marvel and D.C. franchises; producers, armed with new technological claws and viral vision, pounced for the kill. And today, fifteen years later – after origins, sequels, crossovers, and extensions, the wave continues. Captain America: Winter Soldier should scream out the final death throes of this phenomenon, pointing towards the preeminent crash-and-burn. I’d direct attention not just to the cracks in the keystone, but to historical precedents of other over-stretched empires, such as, say, Rome. But this is a different kind of beast, and it’s not ending its run anytime soon. 

Before anyone relegates me to the status of a bothersome Killjoy or Scrooge, a caveat – apart from an adolescent stint on mostly Slave Labor Graphics’ publications and Neil Gaiman’s work, I am an outsider to the esoteric inner circle of today’s comic book world. I do dig Batman, mostly because he’s a mysterious, morally ambiguous, and brooding goth; unfortunately, Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, is not the norm but the exception in the franchise. I dislike Captain America for being…well, let’s say that in principle, any variation on the Campbellian or Doc Smith-type hero is anathema to all I hold dear in the science-fiction world. (Probably irrational, and definitely unnegotiable; rest assured, echoes of Doc Smith played no role in my review.) But I entered the movie theater determined not to project my dire apprehensions, whispering an improvised mantra about how even the greatest geniuses were once inchoate. To judge the film on its own merits; armed with very little sense of the Marvel universe, of Captain America’s past; yet very aware of genre parameters, of the inevitable good vs. evil paradigms, the shady organizations, and the leitmotif of alter-egos and unstable identities… 

Hence! – Amphetamine-paced exposition and character establishment for the unenlightened. The opening scene is strong despite this onslaught – clear foregrounding of a slick D.C.-set location, the prominent Washington Monument flushed softly by a pink sun rise (rare to see the country’s capital shot with a rose-colored lens; equally rare, a foregrounded Reflecting Pool and Potomac River). Captain America (played by the vanilla, un-carbonated Chris Evans) shows off his speed needlessly (even we uninitiated are well aware he is fast and strong) in an unapologetic homage to Rocky. The invocation of the famous Rocky running scene tempers any uber-patriotism, viz. Rocky as underdog and average-Joe. So, more running laps around the pool, and several around regular human Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon (the talented Anthony Mackie, over-due for a starring role of his own). Pass after pass, Rogers good-heartedly teases, “On your left!", a neatly wrapped narrative gift of instantaneous fraternity; the gift box’s ribbon (to continue an awful but appropriate metaphor) unequivocally delineates white Rogers as Leader and black Falcon as subaltern. 

Enter: Black Widow (reprised by Scarlett Johansson, always the formidable presence but here visibly frustrated by the confines of the script). Neophyte question: widow to whom? I note the black car, black bodysuit, and that she is the driver behind the wheel. (A few more steps have been taken by the female, but I will hold off from unpacking these gender roles for now.) The Russo Brothers ([un]known for the 2006 rom-com You, Me, and Dupree) deliver a one-two-three punch, with little posturing beyond the genre’s base-lines.  Some good ol’ P.C. patriotism, cute cultural references; the relationship of the three central superheroes triangulated with the precision of a draughtsman and just as uninspired. Thinking back, I shudder how easily goaded I was by these smooth introductory images and dialogue, only to watch helplessly as the actors’ naturalism and the city’s viable (and novel) cinematic presence collapse from fatigue! I think of Rogers’ laps round and round and round the lake – a retrospective portent for the film’s circular endless loop with no goal, obstacle, or perapety standing in the way. 

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head official of S.H.I.E.L.D., the aggregate of our world’s Homeland Security and C.I.A., is brass boss to Rogers and Widow. He suspects the threat of internal corruption – not foreign terrorists – within the organization. Forsooth, the antithesis to S.H.I.E.L.D. dating back to Nazi Germany is HYDRA, the clandestine, powerful, and occult (?) operation composed of politicians, world leaders, et al. This pseudo-White Brotherhood/Illuminati wants to use the Pentagon’s new technological marvels – surveillance-capable drones and a sophisticated algorithm that predicts who would/will commit crimes. Why? To execute millions of global citizens, of course, in the name of peace and security. If we fear for our safety enough– it is implied that most of history’s atrocities are inside-jobs – then we will more readily compromise our freedom. Thus: HYDRA and its brainwashed Boba Fett-esque assassin – the eponymous Winter Soldier (why winter?) – attempt this ‘pre-emptive’ genocide. Our heroes prevent it by the means of some USB drive, and the world carries on. End. 

On a purely semantic level, this narrative hints at great revelations to come, but any momentum and social commentary built up by the first half hour quickly vanishes underneath repetitive banality and the flashing neon-lit NOs! from freshman year Intro-to-Narrative. The motif of extensive surveillance by the government is barely utilized beyond one scene involving security cameras, and a passing allusion to Edward Snowden and/or Chelsea Manning in a press conference denouement. But the question of surveillance, compounded with the production of government drones, is contingent to the very premise of how HYDRA plans its genocide. With the exception of the stock-set control room, there is no visual exploration of the 21st century global network. Our heroes are unquestioningly against HYDRA, but their motivation is a quaint pacifism; why is no one questioning the very presence of this technology in the first place? Why shrink away from engaging the issue? Well, Black Widow would be without a job, I suppose, and Captain America is from the 1940s. With such cognitive estrangement, how would he feel about this technology’s ethics? His thoughts on the internet, social networking, new definitions of privacy, the fuzzy rhetorics of protection and infiltration? No comment; maybe he doesn’t know; the filmmakers do not seem to know either, or just do not care. The most glaring omission, however, is any link to an external referent – an anchor – to situate this alternate universe in some proximity to ours. Consider that nearly every mise-en-scene is the interior to a government building or vehicle. I cannot recall any character that is not a high-level government employee. Even the romantically-promising “neighbor” winds up as a red herring. Finally, the innate referentiality of Media is an often-used sophomoric device to cheaply and uncreatively thread scenes together, to fill in narrative holes and context; its added benefit is explication on wider social effects through disembodied quips. For our present story, media is part-and-parcel to these motifs of surveillance, privacy, etc. But is this really all that important? Yes: with the radical absence of locality (beyond inanimate landmarks) and the puzzling absence of civilians, the danger of HYDRA is sanitized and harmless, the story is incidental to life, and so any correlation to real-life dilemmas is dismissed. The film winds up being a solipsistic Ouroboros! 

Another correlative parallel to this aesthetic, consequence-free Arcadia is expressed in the cinematography. As noted, nearly every scene is inside a building, car, or plane. Several of the prominent action scenes are the obligatory car-chase, a well-executed claustrophobic elevator melee, and an extended tracking shot following Rogers through the bowels of a ship. While it is somewhat taboo (i.e., too depressing) to linger on bystanders and the post-battle carnage, I am puzzled by the overall absence of screaming/running/standing bystanders. I’d conclude the Capital was a ghost town, if not for a scattering of SHIELD agents.  

II. Of Marvin Gaye, bait-and-switches, surrogates, and other troublesome things
Captain America –  in the comic book narratives  – was developed and exploited by the American government for his strength and for propaganda. Post-mortem, this prototype was recycled through other surrogates to perpetuate the icon of patriotism and American values. Outside of the comic book itself, the character Captain America as a produced and received fiction also functioned in this way. He is the pure, well-groomed, and principled individualist of the American myth. He fights Nazis; decades later, he takes on their cold-war equivalents. He questions authority only so far as it impedes upon “true” American values. But beneath this film’s pastiches lurks an even more paradigmatic tension: what is America, and how to negotiate Old Americana with New Americana? As I will repeatedly iterate, there is quite the aesthetic difference between the subtlety of intentional absence and the lacunae of censorship or avoidance. The old values Captain America represents are threatened by the new world order of HYDRA; but, (and perhaps to widen the potential demographic) they are ill-defined. 

Paradox: dependence upon network-based technology to destroy HYDRA. Rogers is undoubtedly a stranger in a strange land. His cultural, if not cognitive, estrangement is evinced by the amusing notebook he keeps of cultural phenomenon recommended to him (Star Trek, Nirvana, Marvin Gaye). But this inchoate dialectic is not built upon, puzzlingly, but abandoned in its skeletal form; not even ten seconds pass before Rogers pockets the notebook and whips out his IPhone. I’ll forgive flat characterization, and I’ll accept the trite but cohesive Stranger-in-Strange-Land pattern; but I cannot get around blatant omissions of how Rogers must feel living in 2014. Who would not wonder what kind of stupid mistakes he makes operating consoles, or what kind of corny yet poignant observations he might express, like “gee whiz, things have sure changed huh? Maybe the battle isn’t so black-and-white anymore; maybe countries are not stable entities over time?” (Sing: “What did the Foucault say?”) With so much estrangement, though, maybe the comedic gold would outweigh the dramatic metal. Maybe there is no way for the faded stars and stripes to lose the stench of mothballs, to re/adapt Captain America to the 21st century, meshing him with gothic Nolan-esque Batmans and post-cyberpunk millenialist Spidermans. On the one hand, too much of the patriotic would isolate demographic vectors; on the other hand, too much of the transgressive would be inconsistent with past incarnations, and contradict the very essence of the character that’s been handed down to us. Worse, his vanilla persona doesn’t lend itself to PlanB: hollowness covered up with surface silicone, the recursive feigns of off-color humor, quirkiness, or sexuality. (Actor Chris Evans may partially contribute to this awkward aura: to what extent I cannot say, deo ducente). 

The filmmakers may have realized this deficiency. Secondary and tertiary characters supply everything Rogers lacks, and more. I earlier mentioned Anthony Mackie’s potential star power. Early, we see Falcon facilitating a V.A. group therapy session. This brings emotional concreteness to the abstracted horror of war we only intellectually comprehend. (Or deny: the tame PG-13 violence – bloodless, cartoonish – just reaffirms how specious critical acclaim of the film’s “realism” is.) These veterans are men and women irreversibly damaged by war-games and machinations of the state. But then Falcon, offered a role (job?) by Captain America, abruptly leaves behind such admirable pursuits, and runs after lofty dreams of mythic heroism… so much for the grounded heroics of charity and aid! (I wonder if Sam realizes the irony in replacing PTSD therapy with the very arena of violence that causes PTSD.) At any rate, he is quite adequate and satisfying as the ‘side-kick.’ Our loss, in that the friendship-dynamic established early on between Sam and Rogers is reduced to the “on your left!” gag, and to the obligatory man-to-man bonding on the eve of battle. They stand on the top of a dam – a rather dammed-up metaphor - advice is exchanged, their universal duty is reaffirmed beneath wrinkled brow. The choice of Marvin Gaye’s music as a diegetic motif feels more arbitrary than anachronistically clever. It also leaves a slightly racist after-taste.  Of all the music that Falcon, a veteran in his 30s, could recommend to the tabula rasa that is Captain America’s aesthetics, the scriptwriters settled on an iconic African-American soul artist; moreover, he just happens to be an African-American singer who is well known and loved by whites. This is quite a serious issue, all joking aside. Racist discourse is stabilized through innocuous cultural assimilation; there is always the political and social danger to a racial marker, however “accepted” or trans-cultural it may appear to be.  
Samuel Jackson plays the eye-patched Nick Fury. I suspect that in the source material Fury is more nuanced than this caricature: the “old school cop” model who is led to question his own presumptions and integrity by the “newbie”, traditional but always “bad-ass”. (One is reminded of The X-Files’ Mr. Skinner, the F.B.I. boss of Agents Mulder and Scully.) By way of Nick Fury, the film smoothly transitions from the superheroes’ limited perspective to behind the enemy line. Fury-as-bridge allows for a contiguity that flows from action (he physically moves from one sphere to the other) rather than omnipresent cross-cutting. In this sense, mobility and permeability of social-political spheres are traceable motifs. 

A case in point is the elevator for the central SHIELD skyscraper. Elevator as signifier is indexical – it transports characters vertically (upwards to highest authority; downwards to the basement of helicarriers,) and requires digital clearance-codes for access. The elevator is not opaque – instead glass walls open up to a vista of the Capital, a simplistic but effective metaphor. One of the first reveals happens inside the elevator. A hitherto trusted partner of Captain America’s, plus some twenty-odd henchmen, pulls an ambush as the elevator descends. The ensuing melee is outstandingly choreographed, particularly given the elevator’s spatial constraints. Despite a tornado of swinging limbs, the fight is discernible and realized in its totality. (Kudos to the DP Trent Opaloch, responsible for the gritty trans-realism of District 9 [2009]). 

The elevator is otherwise very readable as a symbol, a substitute for any transitive vessel or passage; Nick Fury may as well be Hermes. A last comment on Nick Fury: his faked death is 2014’s forerunner in the race for Most Atrocious Reveal. It merits an equally intolerable allegorical reading from my end: elevator goes down, grave; elevator go up, resurrection! Message: one eye open to life and one eye closed to death, we don’t see that death isn’t the end!) Even a fourth-wall breakage, a sardonic aside, a satiric hipster self-deprecation, anything else would be more welcome than this innocuous, almost glib, re/turn from the grave. You do not do this.  If you must, and it’s not a parody or ingenious meta-prank, then there better be some particular thematic importance that demands it. 

The dark-clad, tech-savvy Black Widow is played by Scarlett Johansson with aplomb. The performance underscores less Johansson’s A-caliber abilities (possibly destined as one of her generation’s finest actresses), as it draws more attention to her overqualified presence amid vacuity. In other circumstances, I’d applaud an action movie for not exploiting conventional gender roles, viz. woman as sex object and romantic interest, as helpless princess or foreign dark-haired temptress, or straight androgynous tomboy. Black Widow’s costume is surprisingly not designed around cleavage and exposes very little skin. She is intelligent, independent, witty, and never proves to be weaker, in esse, alongside Falcon and Rogers. There are no sex scenes or the mildest PG innuendo for any of the principals. 

Rogers is the eponymous lead, so there needs to be some crucial relational dynamics at play. Black Widow, cyber-chic navigator and innovator, is the driver to the narrative as she is the romantic surrogate to Captain America’s theoretical love-affair. As a surrogate, she merely interacts with Rogers at the same structural and temporal nodes that a love-interest might in a traditional binary circuit. These vertexes would throw off sparks, but Widow provides innocuous banter, uninspired comic relief, and gives Rogers several ‘pushes’ and words of encouragement. But the provocations carry no flirtatiousness or real import to Rogers’ virility (I use the term ironically.) If their relationship had naturally formed like this, then maybe a feminist approach could have something to work with. But it is structurally contrived as a substitution, not a genuine alternative. Their most memorable exchanges amount to Black Widow giving Rogers a few dating tips. Intended as comic relief, this man-to-man banality is just depressing, like a zero-gravity bro-mance, severed and floating in space. (Doesn’t sound too bad, actually.) 

Within a male White discourse, the position of women to a story’s center is nearly always peripheral. And when a woman fails to seduce (i.e. is rejected by) the male, or any occasion where she cannot be the love interest of some male character, by default she transforms into the “best buddy,” or worse, the incidental tertiary floater that hovers in the corners of the screen .. It’s as though the producers, trying to juggle an asexual protagonist and an actress with high sex appeal, demanded the directors to shoot visual approximations of innuendo. Et voila: think about the angry ‘fight’ over their mutual trust in the hospital hallway and the bizarre duplicitous encounter in some shadowy nook, “fighting” over some plot token (a USB drive, I think, with security-breached data.) The “nook fight” is a rare moment when we have the camera pull in for a tight two-shot of Widow’s and Rogers’ half-lit faces, inches apart. She has her back to the wall – classic female position; he looms in from the right side of the frame – classic male space. We have to ask, does the intense intimacy build up to the climactic kiss? Of course not. Sitting there in the theater, with a now-empty soda bottle, I thought about water and broken dams, and then found myself hoping for a meaningless sex scene, any spark of life, so I could forget about Godot and call it a day.

III. What do you [see] my lord?  - Boxes, boxes, boxes
Critical consensus for Winter Soldier has been positive overall, and several personal acquaintances stressed to me how, unlike some other Marvel films, it is “grounded” and more CGI-restrained. I see no grounds for such grounding. I have expressed what I perceive as sophomoric characterization, and began moving towards the narrative’s problematics. The presence of culturally relevant topics does not guarantee interest. Rogers is not a caricature of masculinized aggressive patriotism – he is a tabula rasa, a palimpsest with no poet. As an etic spectator, I cannot comment meaningfully on intertextualities. One could question if this etic positioning is to blame for my negativity and formal structuralist approach. If I was more familiar with the contemporary intricacies of the Captain America saga, would I more easily forgive structural flaws? I have made no attempt to hide my personal aesthetic tastes behind cold objectivity; wanting to be as transparent and fair as possible, I do give kudos, when deserved, to cinematic excellence –measured against both the par of genre and of film as a whole. In conclusion of this asinine apologetic either I am blindsided by my own preconceived judgments, or the expectations of my detractors for a well-told story have dropped to an all-time low. 

“Hey, what’s in the box?” 

Someone, (I do not remember who,) posited a neat and useful visualization for how the majority of narrative propels itself forward. Okay: picture a box. There is something important in the box. Someone protects the box. Someone else is trying to get the box. The box is compromised; the box explodes; the box is safe on the mantle. But now there is another box – and so on. Winter Soldier doesn’t just have a box; it is loops and loops of chains of boxes. I do not mean the complex circuitry of a Russian doll, or an infinite regress (e.g. Synecdoche, New York.) Every scene seems to begin or end with somebody turning out to be a traitor, then a friend, then a traitor again; or an unexpected revelation that someone is somebody else; the mission objective shifts from getting to this room, now that room, now there. (I do not mind this in principle, but I need to sense that the film was made out of love and concern, not sloppiness or triviality).  Rather than intriguing character decisions or ambiguity of motive, we are given far too many Deus ex machinas. (Having subjugated myself to repeated face-palms of incredulity, I nearly reached the limit of pain when one the Interpol ambassador holograms turned out to be… Black Widow! And at the most opportune time conceivable!) 

My frustration over Rogers’ characterization is not because of my unfamiliarity with the history. Rather, there is not enough present to warrant a future.  A tad more explanation would be welcome, however, for “newbies” as to why and how he arrived from the 1940s, via Antarctic ice, without aging. I observed the conspicuous absence of citizenry and media; a second question asks how does the public, and social discourse, see him? Does America even know Captain America is running around for S.H.I.E.L.D., or is he a dead legend? Is he still frozen in the iconography of state-funded museums? Why is there no public vs. government info-war following his rather public fight with the Winter Soldier on the city streets? Is media discourse and public performativity so marginally relevant, that someone thought it sufficient to cram a quick media press conference with Widow into one minute at the movie’s end? 

The Winter Soldier – the mysterious eponymous foe who lurks in subspaces and subtitles. The actor’s identity, and so the character’s, was kept under wraps by the Marvel Studios marketing campaign. At my screening, the moment when the Winter Soldier exposes his face elicited audible gasps from perhaps 70% of the audience. I cocked my head and plumbed my memory of earlier scenes; was I supposed to know who this was? Oh, it is Rogers’ old chum Bucky, who we have gotten to know so intimately through ten-second flashbacks, filtered through some garish, green sepia. (The otherwise consistent quality of the cinematography leads me to suspect that these poor choices of color and tone may have been outside of the DP’s control.) 

I always love an honestly depicted villain and the resulting ambiguity of moral binaries. But the story provides no impetus to care about Rogers, to care about Rogers’ friendship with Bucky, to care about how Bucky is brainwashed and electrocuted. (Not to say I am insensitive to torture, but that only ethics in the abstract are evoked.) If there is no investment, then there are no emotions or spiritual feelings at stake. If we put aside the Bucky context, what does this leave us? An automated assassin running around the city is not apprehensive enough to garner a film subtitle. I’m not demanding the representation of pure evil, but there is no novelty or suspense in a black-clad assassin with super-strength However, composer Henry Jackman’s monotonous orchestral score, culled from the Dream Factory’s basement stocks, became above-average only as accompaniment to the Winter Soldier. These welcome deviations were ominous and bass-heavy, a digital glitch-out of feedback, droning, and kick drums.  

The real enemy is not the Winter Solider, of course, but HYDRA member and SHIELD executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford.) The casting of Redford is an ironic twist to the plethora of Redford conspiracy political thrillers from decades past, a genre that Winter Soldier tries to evoke. But the chains of boxes and peripatetic recourses discredits Redford’s acting chops; he does what he can, given that the character is constrained to pacing within the confines of a top-floor office. Wise may it be to avoid decisive politicization, the displacement of anti-government icons (e.g. drone technology, privacy) to the esoteric HYDRA adulterates our potential outrage. The whispered code-word “Hail HYDRA” between two politicians should be the germination of paranoia and government intrigue, but it reads more like a G.W. Bush-era parody than accrual satire.  

In regards to theme, structure, and form: the thematic invocation of McCarthy-era red-listing (the genocidal Project Insight), the structural dependency on Cold War rhetoric and spy vs. spy dynamism, and the visual demonization of Nazi-era Germany – all three layers of cinematic code are weak, or, as Black Widow confesses, (“I don’t know; I just seem like I know everything,”) lost at sea. If the dialectic between Old America and New America had been more foregrounded, then ambiguity and uncertainty would to nature’s course. Although history repeats itself, and analogues are made through cinematic intertextuality, Winter Soldier is not a re-working but a replication of its predecessors. This sort of aesthetic or narrative use of Nazis or Cold War Russia just seems hackneyed and, frankly, old-fashioned. (I would love to know what factors, other than loyalty to the original text, led the filmmakers to avoid all references to 21st century Middle East politics). A better metaphor can be found no further than the movie itself – about an hour in, Rogers and Black Widow return to the site of Rogers’ ‘transformation’ into Captain America; when - - - - - CUT! HOLD... now QUE the expository flashback! More baffling than the color palates is the very decision to use flashbacks for exposition.  Such pandering extrapolation is intolerable and offensive enough as present recit, but compounded with a flashback, which expects me to comprehend new information from a few seconds of hurried recaps, is sophomoric. It is unjustified (a character may justifiably learn something through a forgotten memory), and ultimately a perfect emblem for serial movies’ conundrum of catering to both fans and new viewers. Maybe one can’t. Maybe the producers of serial movies should decide on an audience, and respect that audience. Waffling between the esoteric secret handshake of the emic (revelation of Bucky) and condescending exposition to the etic (re-telling of who Bucky is) results in aesthetical annoyance for both fans and the new viewers. The audience should be respected. If a film is confident that its audience can cross the street without holding hands, and respectful of those who decide not to cross at all, then the film will undoubtedly be stronger, clearer, and more enjoyable even for the clueless. END FLASHBACK. CUT – ACTION – back to Widow and Rogers playing Hardy Boys. What better image than a basement of cobwebbed dust-sheathed computers dated no later than 1980? Antiquated, useless; irrelevant; ghost specters of the once Other – the xenophobic, dualistic moral absolutism of the discourse…Americana’s us vs. them rhetoric haunts this computer system. 

An unpleasant person(ality) has been uploaded into the computer (a past (?) enemy of Captain America, the ghost-in-the-machine-Nazi devised the algorithm HYDRA will use in justifying its “final solution.”) It makes me wonder what effects this era of technology has on us today, the discourses at play behind 8-bit holography inside a digital film? Historically accurate, but aesthetically anachronistic, I think there may have been better ways to link the historical past to the speculative present. Did the scriptwriters intend for ironic humor? Quaint nostalgia? Or a retro-hip seriousness? There is a very quick allusion made by Black Widow to 1983’s Wargames. The reference will probably go over the heads of the under-20s crowd (maybe even the under-3os); Wargames does not have the same sort of cult status for post-Gen X as, say, Strange Days or Hackers might. For those whom it does resonate, be warned that it may trigger a fatal closed circuit loop of: Memory of referent: self-congratulation over catching the reference: nostalgia: comparisons between then and now: sadness and despair: realization that the Wargames reference was meant to be funny: wonderment over why Captain America has seen Wargames when he hasn’t seen Star Trek (remember that notebook?): sadness: happiness, from comparing the clunky on-screen behemoths with the slick IPhones in every audience member’s pocket: sadness for the same reason: memory: And so on. 

Every single aspect of this sequence seems out-of-date for no reason, and with no benefit of being retro-cool. The Nazi-ghost doctor is not menacing, any irony or parodic intent is lost, and the dependence on classic science-fiction is too top-heavy to stand on its own. All in all, the evil Nazi-ghost doctor and the image of the sprawling operating-system encapsulate all that I personally find wrong with the filmIf anything, Winter Soldier is ripe with holographic metaphors. Case in point: the genocidal helicarriers rising into the sky at a glacial pace; final face-off amidst random pyrotechnics, inexplicably modeled on an enigmatic moment in Star Wars (Luke and Darth Vader on the sky-walk); deus ex machina by way of Black Widow’s remote device; and in the most ironically apt climax, the spectacle of the helicarriers shooting themselves to pieces and slowly falling in pieces from the sky, as glacially as they had risen.  In some respects, there is a beauty to how wonderfully analogous those ships are; that the parts indeed contain all the data of the whole.

IV. All’s well that ends well
Credit should be given as due, in addition to several acknowledgements made prior. Filmmakers and producers might take notes from how the Russo Brothers and DP Opaloch approached the obligatory fight scenes. Action films are plagued right now by an infectious and debilitating disease, informally christened as the ‘Shaky Cam.’ The general consensus of medical specialists in the field share a general consensus; they have located Patient Zero – the origin of the epidemic – in 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Excellent film as it is, its distinctive choice of using a handheld camera has been appropriated now as the only method for shooting action and conveying danger. The handheld and/or toggled camera is shaken, decentered, abruptly zoomed in and out, etc. (sadly, the physicality may just be simulated in post-production) The aesthetic reasoning for the shaky cam rightly cites how it may:  increase a scene’s intensity; bring the viewer to a disorienting proximity to the players; reinforce subjectivity or point of view, and compromise the reliability we have on the image to provide us data for comprehension and/or verisimilitude. No longer novel or interesting in its own right, the shaky cam is assumed to be the way to shoot action. It is exploited: by producers because it can mask cheap production values and obviate expensive hiring or CGI equipment; by directors because it can hide their incompetence in dramatic composition. When overused, one cannot discern limb from limb, blow from blow. Professional stunt actors are not needed when long-shots and pans are replaced by rapid-fire crosscutting and extreme close-up shots set at pointless Dutch angles. Finally, this aesthetic disease lowers our expectations for well-executed action. Medium shots at slow, continuous takes allow us to absorb and appreciate the breath-taking physical realism and death-defying spectacles. I am of strong opinion that a long-shot which slowly pans across or in circles will almost always be engrossing and effective. 

With that said, presently there is hardly any shaky cam. Action scenes are paced steadily, they move through a variety of long, medium, and close-up shots, and quick cuts are used when it makes most sense, not as recourse for lack of footage or substance. The long sequence on the pirate-boarded ship makes a great case-study for how to compose and shoot, especially when the action requires over two actors and moves beyond one room/arena. The shaky cam is a device, not a default. So kudos to Winter Soldier for resisting the disease. While not awful - and at times very, very good – there is (as in this sentence) not much compositional beauty to marvel over. Opaloch, as I’ve mentioned, is extremely capable as a cinematographer, and perhaps he is the reason for the movie staying afloat despite so many persistent flaws and aporias. Take for instance his consistent quality in light and texture (e.g. Pierce’s office and the elevator, the cascade of white light through glass is carefully balanced with the steely interior by minimal splashes of shadow); or the regular employment of long and medium shots, along with selective use of helicopter shots.

But the image that stayed with me past the credits was when after Rogers has fallen into the Potomac and he is pulled to shore by his old friend Bucky/Winter Soldier. Thematically meshing and deepening the motifs of fraternity, loyalty, and the inchoate savior, the score fades away to silence. The Winter Soldier, also soundless, leaves Rogers on the bank and walks away from the past and into his present – the movie western’s horizon, Western discourse’s frontier. In the present background, the Washington Monument stands as sole reminder of locality, the marker of city and country. Yet it seems diminished, pushed to the back right behind a wall of trees. The sun sets in warm hues to the left, casting its light on the water which composes the right side of the frame. The water extends into the foreground. Also foregrounded is Rogers’ limp body on the bank, face-up and, for the first time, action-less. He’s frozen once again in re/pose, as the sun sets, the water flows, and the Winter Soldier walks away from Sodom. The foregrounded body takes up the lower left quadrant and re/opens the frame back out to the silent movements of Soldier, sun, and water. The erect Soldier recedes directly overhead Rogers’ supine horizontality, a geometry to reflect the Monument and offset nature’s curves. 

Here, finally, is the grounding we’ve been looking for: Captain America, grounded, in the mud. And the movie allows us this one moment of contemplation; the shot lingers for perhaps ten-to-fifteen seconds. With class, it terminates by slow blackout. Right out of a comic book frame – a troublesome beauty, the more of which is direly needed. 

V. Of eschatologies and gadflies 
The threat of a secret, transnational, intra-governmental bloc may still proliferate the target audience’s Weltanschauung (even some current hip-hop has whisperings of the Illuminati.) But the film’s microcosmic mise-en-scenes fail to give the topic any freshness. Epics on a global level always threaten to burst open the singular story.  Conversely, locality should pop and crackle (the focus on particularities as icons of universalities; opting for narrowness and depth, not width and vagueness.) But Winter Soldier occludes all leakage from the outside world, like the dam, blocking the airways of exchange: the national and global politics, media representations, the effects and implications for citizens. No one irreplaceably exists in this movie apart from the principals and anonymous S.H.I.E.L.D. employees; the spy vs. spy scuffling is all internal. It’s hard to invest one’s emotions in solipsistic rhetoric – the interior digestive systems – of a body that won’t speak to you. Rogers, in a rare moment of eloquence, speaks up in defense of what “America stands for”; but it remains too abstracted. His America is as far-removed from the present reality as the vista is from Pierce’s office window. Like the WWII-era Captain America museum exhibit, this America no longer exists (if it ever did.) Our cultural memory has carefully preserved the parts we like, ignored or demonized the parts we don’t, and framed them with a self-fashioned historical narrative of mythic heroism and patriotism. Witness the children walking by these fragments of memory; witness the curated rhetoric of morals (Captain America) and virtues (fraternity, loyalty, capitalism)  as it is passed down to them.  Rogers gazes upon the life-size photo of his former self, emitting that fuzzy glow only old photographs seem able to do. Is he aware of the vast distance between that Captain and himself, time’s paragon, the wounded image? Witness the young boy who recognizes his hero, the wounded image given life, “Word made flesh”, to wound.  Incarnated for this brief moment, Rogers winks at the boy, finger to lips. “Word made flesh.” To wound the body, the rending of the veil at the moment of rupture. Using no words, Rogers says, “All of this history is a discourse. Both the images and the words; to wound others is to wound yourself. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Like a zombie, or a perpetually forestalled end…like an eschatology glimpsed but not grasped, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the museum. The curator determines the discourse, and we are told not to touch.  We see the postmodern dilemma here, we get it, but we also sense vitality of the true behind the real, know the wo/man behind the hero (and the hero behind the wo/man.) The boy must remain silent before the true (God), for to speak words of the prophet he will be called fool, and will shatter the real into shards. Has he courage enough to shatter these glass cases, to destroy this temple, and speak? 

In like spirit, this is why I write down these words.
 This is not a negative review. To re/view, to critique, is to unground discourse. 
To wound.  
Comics and the other paraliteratures witness and do this – always daring, always inquisitive of public and canonical standards. 
The gadfly.  
Like the shot of Rogers lying on the bank of the Potomac, mud in the stars and stripes.