Film Reviews: Divergent Soldier Stands Up To Dragon

August 23, 2015



Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo / PG13              7

Divergent / Directed by Neil Burger / PGV                                                                                 4.5

Dragon / Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan / 16V                                                                         7

Standing Up / Directed by DJ Caruso / PG                                                                                  7



It’s a pretty ambitious project, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the films Marvel builds around Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and the other Avengers characters are not much more than placeholders between the mega-grossing blockbusters in which all the heroes are collected together. There is yet to be a good Hulk film and the Thor projects are not fantastic either, but this instalment of the side project that is the Captain America franchise is one of the best in the whole series. Perhaps there was an awareness that more considered writing and more spectacular setpieces were necessary given that Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is, other than being fit and well-built – and being especially nifty with his ninja frisbee/shield – not much of a superhero. In truth, Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is not much of a villain either; corrupt businessmen are hardly as terrifying as half man-half monsters such as Spider-Man has to overcome. The fact that Rogers has to battle with a bad guy – the Winter Soldier of the title, who is a tall, dark, brooding sort – whose strength and speed exceeds the protagonist’s makes the story more of a feisty underdog tale, packed with aggression and action, than just another green-screen extravaganza in which computer effects overshadow both the acting and the writing. The latter elements are both stronger than is likely expected for a film of this type making the huge, CG-packed scenes – when they do come – reasonable fits for the rest of the plot. Good entertainment; a worthwhile couple of hours’ activity.


There’s a bit of a trend in popular literature at the moment that sees Stephen King adding shoutlines to a series of books by younger acolytes who echo the themes of King’s work in their own stories. In film, similarly familiar themes – including vampires and zombies, among much else – are rather more obviously shunted into just about any package that’ll sustain them and Divergent is essentially The Hunger Games (both based on young adult book series) with different game rules and no Jennifer Lawrence. It does feature the also highly rated Shailene Woodley (most famous for The Fault In Our Stars), but she doesn’t have much chance to exhibit her considerable flair for the dramatic and is less physically convincing in an action role than Lawrence. Strip away all the “dystopian future” marketing hoo-ha and the all-wetsuit dress code and this becomes a jocks versus geeks high school flick set in a computer game landscape. Kate Winslet – perhaps because she missed out on a serious-actor-in-a-popular-youth-franchise slot in The Hunger Games – appears as a strict leader with a chip on her shoulder; a marker of sorts for the more serious tone of this film (there’s no wacky Stanley Tucci caricature to lighten things up, for instance). Big-budget effects, pretty young things performing mildly exciting physical activities and Kate Winslet in a fight scene: there are worse things to watch, but there are much better options as well.


Superficially, Dragon appears to be little more than an above-average martial arts flick, beautifully shot and featuring impressive attention to detail on the part of its director Peter Ho-Sun Chan and production designer Yee Chung Man. But its story slowly draws viewers in as effectively as its visuals do, combining themes explored in other disparate projects include David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence and, in the way that its two protagonists interact, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It combines history (being set in early 20th century China) with superb, intense action sequences and the precisely choreographed movement – of both actors and cameras – that has given much of this type of Chinese cinema widespread popularity with less-than-subtly Western audiences. Donnie Yen plays a humble, soft-spoken farmer who, via an act of extraordinary bravery, suggests to a sharp-eyed investigator (Takeshi Kaneshiro) that all may not be as it seems. The resulting cat and mouse game is conducted with sophistication and restraint, though there is a considerable amount of graphic violence involved. The different perspectives on filmmaking set out here are enjoyably set apart from Hollywood stereotypes, making this effective crime thriller more than just that. Dragon is made – and can be watched – with fresh eyes.


Though hardly a unique story – the formula of pair of young kids escaping cultural conformity and its side effects (bullying, for instance) was even given a surreal rinse by Wes Anderson in Moonrise Kingdom – Standing Up is a strong piece of filmmaking, undiluted by an over-complicated premise. Howie (Chandler Canterbury) and Grace (Annelise Basso) are both socially awkward youngsters who would really rather not be sent on summer camp, but who are sent to fend for themselves during their school holidays because of some realistic – and therefore genuinely sad – circumstances in their lives. Both victims of a cruel prank, they decide to leave and take their chances on their own. Again, the nature of the mean-spirited actions of their peers and the humiliation it causes is convincing and well conveyed, making it easy as a viewer to root for their protagonists and to despair at the society that makes plotlines like this so easy to believe. Canterbury and Basso are both excellent young talents, and writer and director steers away from cloying sentimentality or stereotypes that would make the children and their behaviour be more annoying than persuasive. Their adventure is broken up into a number of pleasing episodes that maintain momentum in entertainment terms, though the piece is, in the end, more of an intimate study of self-discovery than it is a journey piece, moving from A to B in a predictable manner.