With "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," Marvel has won a rebirth trifecta. Originally a product of Project Rebirth, a World War II experiment that turned frail Steve Rogers into a supersoldier, Captain America was reborn—though I thought stillborn—in 2011 as a stand-alone screen hero in the would-be epic "Captain America: The First Avenger." Just about every shortcoming of that film—the ponderous pace, the uncertain tone, the variable acting—has been fixed, and then some, by "The Winter Soldier," in which Steve, played by Chris Evans, is re-reborn as a charmingly retro fighter for freedom in the face of a vast conspiracy that manages to feel fresh and modern, despite some familiar machinations.
The modern world remains mysterious to Steve, who, in Marvel mythology, spent a good part of his 95 years frozen in a block of Arctic ice. (His to-do list of things to catch up on includes Thai food, Steve Jobs and "Star Wars"/"Star Trek," with the former crossed out as a sign of his progress.) Mystery turns to menace when he discovers that the espionage and law-enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is pushing the country he loves closer to being a surveillance state. "This isn’t freedom, this is fear," Steve says when he’s shown an astonishing array of weaponry, including satellites that can, he is told, "read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps out of his spider hole." The rationale for all that comes later. "Society’s at a tipping point between order and chaos," says Alexander Pierce, a suave senior member of the agency’s leadership, and you know from his tightly wound demeanor that he’s not going to come down on chaos’s side.
In a piece of casting that’s sly as well as smart, Pierce is played by Robert Redford. The directors, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, have said they wanted to make a 1970s-style political-conspiracy thriller along the lines of "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President’s Men," both starring Mr. Redford. That’s essentially what they’ve done, with Captain America at the center of the often awesome action.
Awesome doesn’t overstate the case for some of the action sequences, especially a climactic battle in the skies over Washington: It’s as if the immense warplanes in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic "Castle in the Sky" had come to life, or the kind of heightened life that’s conferred by digital effects at their most inspired. The line between live and animated is usually blurred by productions like this, but the car chases are clearly live, and the movie’s most conventional element.
Conventional understates the case; they look like a compendium of every hurtling, thundering, spark-showering crashathon from the 1970s through "The Matrix" and beyond. Similarly, the plot turns on a traditional trackdown—the formidable forces of a S.H.I.E.L.D. gone bad in superheated pursuit of Captain America and his cohorts: Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson (who, as you’ll see, has another strong movie opening this week), and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, who sprouts a pair of wings that Icarus would have envied. Indeed, the whole movie, with its looming techno-apocalypse, was constructed as if all those James Bond films with similar threats had never existed.
What makes "The Winter Soldier" so enjoyable, though, and what will make it so profitable, is its emotional bandwidth—all the vivid, nuanced life lived by its characters in between their frenzied escapades. Black Widow is winning in more ways than one. "Was that your first kiss since 1945?" she asks the hero after a teasingly brief smooch. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the beleaguered—to say the least—director of S.H.I.E.L.D., finds time to tell an affecting story about his working-class grandfather. And Mr. Evans makes Captain America such a likable guy, as well as an old-school patriot that he put me in mind of a very old-fashioned word to describe him. He’s doughty. In a movie that deserves him.
Jonathan Glazer’s "Under the Skin" holds you in a state of suspense tinged with dread from the very first image on the screen. The image could not be more basic to the medium, a spot of light that grows as it approaches, while accompanied by inscrutable but urgent sounds. All of this, and the eerily odd graphics that follow, serve as shorthand signals of what’s to come: alien arrival, danger or menace, probably something bad, surely nothing good. Strictly speaking, the first image is preceded by a single name on the screen, Scarlett Johansson—that must be a first for opening credits. She’s a woman who calls herself Laura, but Laura can’t be her real name because, as the movie has already signaled, she isn’t really a woman.
Exactly what she—or it—is, and the purpose of her journey, is never made clear, and the solemn tone sometimes flirts with silliness. But the filmmaker, an Englishman who also shoots commercials and videos, decided wisely to clarify from the outset what she’s not, since watching a beautiful woman take form is only one of the movie’s attractions. "Under the Skin" is about seduction, and predation: Laura’s victims meet surreal fates that should be seen, not described. Yet it’s also about seeing and hearing this world of ours through an alien sensibility—the film, set in Scotland, becomes an adventure in perception—and watching this ambiguous heroine learn what it is, for better and much worse, to be human. (One joke, perhaps intentional for the U.S. market, is that Laura is much better than we are at understanding Scottish accents.)
In his previous features, "Sexy Beast" (a fine noirish thriller about love and violence) and "Birth" (a boy tries to convince a woman he’s the reincarnation of her late husband), Mr. Glazer showed himself to be an accomplished stylist; many critics of "Birth" would say a stylist if nothing else. "Under the Skin" may sound like another version of such sci-fi dramas as "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Starman," but it’s distinguished—and I do mean distinguished—by its stripped-back style. There’s no plot, as such, only Laura’s dreamlike progression through dark landscapes seen in extreme long shots, and her presence in interiors that are often depicted, with Japanese spareness, in static wide shots.
Much of this is fascinating, as far as it goes, but it wouldn’t go as far as it does into drama were it not for Ms. Johansson’s haunting performance. It’s not a movie-star turn; she’s there to serve the filmmaker’s purposes by being self-effacing. Yet she is mesmerizing at the same time. Her marvelous voice lends a light musicality to her spare lines. Trusting her material, she doesn’t try to be seductive; the affable questions Laura asks of men she meets—what’s your name, where are you going—are more than enough to draw them into her orbit.
Laura’s eyes are on the life forms around her—pedestrians on the streets of Edinburgh, young males in states of arousal, an ant twitching its antennae, a modern-day Sir Walter Raleigh, keeping her dry by carrying her across a puddle. And our eyes are on her, on the prowl, her expression imperturbable and her feelings unreadable as she drives a van, stops to ask questions, gets out to size up her victims, and stands in front of a mirror to study her body, or whosever body it once was.
More than a decade ago, the filmmaker Errol Morris made a haunting and important documentary called "The Fog of War." His subject was Robert S. McNamara, who had been secretary of defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. At the age of 85, Mr. McNamara admitted, even insisted, that the U.S. had misconstrued the nature of that war, and he spoke eloquently of human fallibility. The subject of Mr. Morris’s new documentary is , who served as secretary of defense under President during the Iraq War and its turbulent aftermath. This film, which might have been called "The Fog of Words," isn’t haunting, but dismaying. Mr. Rumsfeld is, as always, articulate, energetic and self-confident. Yet his words suggest a paradox—a restless mind with no discernible gift for self-reflection.
The film’s title derives from Mr. Rumsfeld’s fondness for arranging words in provocative formulations. In a 2004 memo, one of the thousands that came to be called "snowflakes," he wrote: "There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not."
Confusing? Yes, but eventually revealing. The last part of the memo seems to have been meant as a warning about jumping to conclusions—that is to say, the Bush administration’s convincing itself that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Toward the end of the film, though, Mr. Rumsfeld offers a different definition of "unknown knowns." This time he talks about "things that you possibly may know that you don’t know you know." Mr. Morris, a liberal who keeps his skepticism in the open, challenges the logic of this more hopeful definition. "But the memo doesn’t say that," the filmmaker contends. "It says we know less, not more, than we think we do." Mr. Rumsfeld takes a moment to reconsider his wording, then says, cryptically: "Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it’s closer to what I said here than that."
The point is not that he has been sandbagged, or embarrassed, because he doesn’t seem to feel that he has; the exchange takes the tone of a lively discussion of semantics. What’s so striking is the abstract nature of his discourse; what’s so chilling is his dispassion. At one point Mr. Morris asks if there are lessons to be learned from Vietnam. "That some things don’t work out," Mr. Rumsfeld replies. "If that’s a lesson." That’s unknowing made known.
Music can make for great moments in movies, and one of them graces this new feature by Drake Doremus. The scene is a high-school music class in upstate New York. Sophie, a bright and beautiful English exchange student played by Felicity Jones, has been asked to play a piano piece of her choosing by the teacher, Keith; he’s played by Guy Pearce. Sophie does so reluctantly; an accomplished pianist—think Lolita at a keyboard—she’s conflicted about the prospect of a concert career. Beginning softly, she works her way into a Chopin ballade. Within a few measures, though, she is hurling fortissimo arpeggios with wild passion. What’s that about? I’ll say only that she’s living with Keith and his family, and that Keith, a concert musician when he isn’t teaching, reciprocates Sophie’s passion, at first only on his cello.
Back in 2011 Mr. Doremus, and his writing partner Ben York Jones, released "Like Crazy," a lovely little movie that also co-starred Ms. Jones. In that one she was a vivacious young Englishwoman in her last year at a California college. She’s a luminous presence on screen, and, at the age of 30, has more than gotten away with this odd progression from college senior to high-school senior; I’d be happy to see her playing a middle-school student next time. And Mr. Doremus is an exceptional director of actors; almost every scene in "Breathe In" comes alive, with or without the help of music. But the film needs more help than it gets from the script, which turns on facile coincidence and dwindles in originality as it moves toward its climax. Next time around, let’s hope this gifted filmmaker hangs his characters’ lives on stronger dramatic bones.
This 3-D IMAX documentary puts its best paw forward with a funny and exuberant title sequence, followed by 40 minutes of phenomenal footage of lemurs in their native habitat of Madagascar. It’s the sole, and shrinking, habitat for these primates, who are the soul of zestfulness and great fun to watch until you realize their dire plight. Lemurs came to Madagascar from Africa 60 million years ago. Human beings got there 2,000 years ago. And which of the two arrivals has proved to be smarter? Well, 90% of the island’s forests have been destroyed, and the lemurs didn’t do it.
I’ve said it before, but, once again, the huge-screen IMAX format can also be the most intimate of movie media. The close-ups in this film, produced by Drew Fellman and directed and photographed by David Douglas, put their subjects virtually in your lap. The lemurs look startled because of their wide eyes, adapted for night vision. I must have looked startled too, polarized glasses perched on my nose and barely resisting the temptation to reach out a few inches to try to touch the furry creatures.
For now, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar" will play only in such specialized venues as science museums, though wider distribution may follow. The film is organized around the work of Patricia C. Wright, an American primatologist who was a prime mover for the establishment of Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, now a refuge for at least 15 species of lemurs. The music is shamelessly entertaining, and the warmth of Morgan Freeman’s narration conveys the possibility that, for all the imminent peril, the lemurs of this enchanted forest still have a fighting chance.
Lorenzo Semple Jr., who died late last week at the age of 91, reinvented himself in his 80s as a delightfully eccentric, sporadically irascible and formidably knowledgeable online movie critic. If you want to see him in that mode, praising or trashing with his cherished friend and co-critic, the producer Marcia Nasatir, check out "Reel Geezers" on YouTube. If you want to see, or re-see, what he did before his self-declared geezerdom—as one of the most original writers in network television and feature films—you can start with his creation of the original "Batman" on TV; he wrote the first four episodes and remained a story consultant for the run of the show. Then you can move on to distinctive features he wrote or co-wrote, including "Three Days of the Condor," "The Parallax View," "Papillon," the Dino De Laurentiis version of "King Kong" and "Pretty Poison."
My introduction to his big-screen work came on a rainy October afternoon in 1968 with a call from Pauline Kael, who lived up the block from me on Central Park West. She wanted to know if I’d heard of a movie called "Pretty Poison." I had not, and she hadn’t either. But it was playing, Pauline had discovered, at a theater on Broadway and 96th Street; did I want to split a cab and take a look? We were the only two people in the theater, and we were startled by what we saw—a superb little black comedy, sharply written by Lorenzo and starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, that 20th Century-Fox had dropped into a few neighborhood theaters without advance screenings. Pauline went immediately to her office at The New Yorker, I went to mine at Newsweek, and we both rushed rave reviews into print.
I got to know Lorenzo later, in California, and though we were never close friends, I always enjoyed his trenchant takes on the business he sometimes deplored and steadfastly loved. As much as I’ll miss him, I’ll savor his work all the more whenever I go back, for pure pleasure, to movies that carry his indelible stamp.