As I see it

Movie reviews: Captain America Winter Soldier and Grand Budapest Hotel

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 12:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 12:29pm

Captain America Winter Soldier

Before they were brought together in the 2012 ensemble film, the Avengers had been busy with their solo acts. Though not all superheroes are created equal, and some characters have proven to be more bankable than others. Iron Man has set a high bar in both box office sales and critical reviews, which means the rest of the pack must raise their game or risk falling by the wayside (no offense, Hawkeye). For the rather humourless Captain America, it means pairing up with Black Widow to sell more seats.

Director Joe Johnston, who did a fine job with the first Cap Am movie in 2011, has been replaced by the Russo Brothers best known for their Emmy-winning sitcom Arrested Development. During test screenings of Winter Soldier, Marvel executives were so impressed with the US$170 million sequel that the studio immediately signed the brothers up for a third film.

And it’s not hard to understand why. The Russos have given Marvel – and diehard fanboys – exactly what they wanted. Winter Soldier is an action-packed rollercoaster ride with back-to-back car chases and gunfights, complete with a super villain sporting a ski mask that recalls Bane’s tarantula mouthpiece in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. What’s more, the story line capitalises on the post-9/11 tension between national security and civil rights, a theme that is certain to resonate with the American public.

To less devoted viewers, the sequel is mediocre at best. The storyline is predictable and straight off the template. Senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford) hatches an evil plan to kill millions of potential terrorists with world-ending weaponry, based on a dubious computer program that predicts criminal behaviour. To make that happen, Pierce takes out his deputy Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and goes after every superhero agent who stands in his way. We don’t know what happens to Ironman and the rest of the Avengers – they are nowhere in sight even in a time of great crisis. What we do know is that Captain America and Black Widow have gone rogue to foil Pierce’s mass murdering scheme. Epic battles ensue, and the captain saves the day. It’s all pretty standard action hero stuff. There isn’t a single surprise during two hours of formulaic schlock.

Chris Evans delivers what is expected of him, playing a patriotic soldier with a vibranium shield and an even stronger moral compass. Constrained by the straight-laced character he plays, Evans is easily upstaged by girl-next-door Scarlett Johansen, who has a knack for lighting up the screen whenever she appears on it. Nevertheless, the Black Widow we see in Winter Soldier is not nearly as cunning and manipulative as the one in The Avengers. It is a let-down for Black Widow fans, as the character’s biggest asset has always been her brains and not her brawn. Robert Redford is an unlikely yet welcome casting choice for the villainous mastermind. He lends an air of credibility to the otherwise uninteresting role and, for a few fleeting moments, turns the film into a 3D remake of All the President’s Men.

It is worth noting that Winter Soldier features some of the genre’s best fight scenes in recent memory. The opening sequence that puts Captain America in hand-to-hand combat with pirates aboard a hijacked vessel marks the high point of the entire film. The thrilling set piece has Yuen Wo Ping’s fingerprints all over it. It goes to show that martial arts choreography is, and will continue to be, Hong Kong’s greatest contribution to Hollywood and one of the city's proudest cultural exports.

Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is the boy genius who directed the quirky comedy Rushmore at the tender age of 29 and did it again three years later with The Royal Tenenbaums. Since then, Anderson has had a run of box office duds like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. His 2012 pubescent romance Moonrise Kingdom received critical acclaim but wasn’t widely screened. In the eyes of Hollywood executives, the boy genius is also a hit-or-miss gamble.

Grand Budapest Hotel is the big comeback for which the writer-director has been hoping. The film is quintessentially Wes Anderson, from the colour-saturated set design to the deadpan humour and the signature cocktail of melancholy, wistfulness and nostalgia. It also boasts an ensemble cast that would make any filmmaker jealous. The list includes, but not limited to, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. The willingness of so many Hollywood heavyweights to make a cameo appearance is as much a testament to the director’s standing as it is a vote of confidence on his talent.

Like other Anderson movies, Grand Budapest Hotel is a story within a story within a story. An unnamed writer recounts his chance encounter with Zero Moustafa, lonesome owner of the legendary but dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictitious European state of Zubrowka. Zero started out as a lobby boy at the hotel under the tutelage of celebrated concierge Gustave H. The latter is a devoted servant with a keen eye for detail. He is also an unabashed ladies’ man. The untimely death of a wealthy suitor put Gustave and Zero on a series of improbable adventures. Together, they steal a priceless painting, pull off a prison break, dodge bullets from an assassin and ultimately crack a murder mystery, all against the ominous backdrop of a Nazi German invasion.

Ralph Fiennes is pitch perfect tackling the demanding lead role with energy and style. He is macho when confronting enemy soldiers, and sensitive when reciting love poems. One can almost picture Wes Anderson just turning on the camera and letting Fiennes do his thing, the same way various directors did with Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Speaking of Depp, he reportedly turned down the role of Gustave and is probably regretting it now. F. Murray Abraham, who was Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, combines poise and deep sentimentality as old Zero. Young Zero is played by Tony Revolori, an American actor of Guatemalan descent who comes out of nowhere but manages to carry the movie with Fiennes in an aloof, oddball way.

Grand Budapest Hotel is nostalgic, whimsical, at times random but always good-natured. There is a pop-up book quality to the film that makes it difficult to dislike. Non-fans of Wes Anderson’s work, however, will find his View-Master account of World War II – an unfunny page in history – frivolous and even irresponsible. But perhaps that’s precisely the point the director wants to make: the war not only took its human toll, but it also robbed Old Europe of its opulence, innocence and endless romance that the once magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel so sumptuously symbolises.