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Review: Captain America: Civil War

The fun of the action scenes exacerbates the failure of the narrative to adequately contend with its own themes.

2.5

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Captain America: Civil War
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The last Captain America film, Winter Soldier, was simultaneously the most promising and frustrating entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It opened up rarely explored avenues of self-examination in superhero movies by calling into question the value of S.H.I.E.L.D. operating under a vague notion of “the greater good,” only to throw out any actual criticism by revealing the agency’s increasingly fascistic operations to be the result of Marvel’s approximation of Nazis. Captain America: Civil War operates similarly, confronting the immense collateral damage left by the Avengers across various missions, only to find ways to duck answering its own ethical questions.

Civil War actually has a scene in which the Avengers are made to watch footage taken by normal, everyday civilians of their homes being turned into ash and rubble as a result of the Avengers’ battles in various cities. One of these skirmishes, from earlier in the film, takes place in Lagos, with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) stopping a suicide bomber from killing Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), by containing the blast, only to lose control and release the explosion among civilians. The sequence is, in the moment, exciting and filled with intricate choreography, but news reports of the event are sobering in their clear documentation of the damage caused.

Marvel movies stress the efforts that heroes make to minimize casualties, but for once the characters must face the possibility that they do as much harm as good. The film doesn’t even trot out the usual strawman of an impotently jealous liberal politician to voice these concerns, instead placing them in the reasonable words of United Nations delegates and international leaders who understand that the Avengers wish to help, but simply require more oversight.

This solid foundation gives way, however, when Civil War introduces, then immediately discredits, the possibility that Steve’s best friend, the brainwashed Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is responsible for an attack and assassination. As in Winter Soldier, the film quickly nullifies its conceit, pinning blame on the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). In the process, this revelation dismisses the darker implications of the Captain’s obdurate refusal to answer to others by justifying his destructive efforts to keep his friend from being captured. This quickly turns the narrative into a straightforward fight of positions between proud Captain America and his allies on one side and a guilt-ridden Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) on the other. The question of who’s right falls to the wayside in favor of a reductive selection of sides based solely on hero preference.

But if the fight becomes the centerpiece instead of the philosophies that prompt it, Anthony and Joe Russo at least pack the film with a great many set pieces. The filmmakers aren’t particularly adept at shooting action in a classical, cogent manner, but they make a sincere effort to visually represent how each character’s conditioning and powers factor into combat. Brawlers like Captain America and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) are filmed with frantic close-ups that approximate the intensity of their brute strength and reflexes, with the occasional boomeranging shot that follows Captain’s shield when it’s thrown at foes. Meanwhile, Iron Man gets slightly longer shot lengths and camera distance to account for his long-range weapons and strategic fighting. But perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the Russos’ method is the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whose inexperience and youthful enthusiasm for his powers is well suited to the directors’ antic but capable style.

Nonetheless, the undeniable fun of the action scenes only exacerbates the failure of the narrative to adequately contend with its own themes. Though it lacks the stultifying somberness that weighs down Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Civil War in way ways shares ties with Zach Snyder’s film a willingness to decry collateral damage while causing even more; it also uses personal loss to motivate characters who apparently cannot care about destruction unless it happens to someone they know. Whether it’s Steve’s overriding loyalty to Bucky or the seen and unseen deaths that spur Black Panther and Spider-Man to don their masks, intimate tragedies compel the heroes in ways that the broader issues of their global impact never do.

What starts as a provocative debate with major consequences rapidly devolves into an airing of grievances, yet this doesn’t personalize the film so much as negate its intended scale. That the third Captain America movie remains so generally entertaining is a testament to the idiot-proofing of the Marvel Studios formula, in which everything is rendered just well enough to tick every box in an audience member’s idea of a blockbuster worth their money. But it’s also the latest in a growing body of evidence that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s need to evolve and deepen is held back by that same formula, and that if this universe is expanding, it’s nonetheless finite.

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Daniel Brühl, Paul Rudd, William Hurt Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 147 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.

3

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The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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