Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

•July 24, 2011 • Leave a Comment

If adults (like me) who love comic book movies are just kids in big bodies, so are the characters we’re watching.  Tony Stark/Iron Man is a lascivious boy who loves show and tell, Thor* a spoiled brat whose charm is matched only by his hubris, Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk the bullied brainiac filled with rage.  Directed by Joe Johnston, Captain America: The First Avenger provides another archetypal child: the title character as overachieving boy scout.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), an indefatigable runt in 1942 America, would do anything to serve his country’s World War II effort.  Turned down time and again by the Military, Rogers finally gets an opportunity from expat German doctor Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the inventor of a serum to create a super soldier.  Transformed into Captain America, Rogers gets paraded around as a goofy mascot before proving his super solider bona fides in a daring assault on a Nazi stronghold.  During that mission, Rogers meets his one equal: Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the sole German to use Erskine’s serum and a man as monstrous as Cap is heroic.

Captain America: The First Avenger continues Marvel Studios recent streak of enjoyable big budget flicks.  Johnston channels old-timey action films in a way that feels invigorating and fun without becoming a saccharine pose, while his cast performs with great relish (along with Tucci and Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell are a joy to watch).  The key to it all is Evans, well cast in a role written for likability and big pecs but little depth.  As both a digitally altered pipsqueak and alpha male stud, Evans’ Cap is possessed of a singular drive to serve (and maybe get some Atwell action too) that propels the film with aplomb but also weakens the ending, as what could be a genuinely tragic final moment gets short shrift.  The little kid in me found a great deal to like in this film; the 39 year old walked out just a little bit wanting.

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*Oh yeah, I forgot to blog about seeing Thor.  Here’s my six word review: big dumb fun, really enjoyed it.

Super (2010)

•April 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Superhero stories, pretty much by definition, fixate on wish fulfillment.  To be physically gifted, to vanquish enemies, to be truly important- these are the ideas behind every tale with a costumed crusader, and comic books and movies spit them out at a frantic pace.   Most of these don’t take on the dark side of such fantasies, and the few that do (Watchmen, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Returns) typically pull their punches.  Super, written and directed by evil genie James Gunn, provides a dark and brilliant play on the idea of being careful what you wish for.

Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is a doughy wad of insecurity married to a recovering drug addict (Liv Tyler.)  When scummy strip club proprietor Jacques (Kevin Bacon) steals her away, Frank takes desperate inspiration from a Christian television superhero and resolves to fight crime as the Crimson Bolt.  Wielding a huge wrench, he brains criminals all around town and arouses a comic book fan named Libby (Ellen Page) to become his equally violent sidekick, Boltie.  After issuing some morally dubious beatdowns, the pair resolve to take on Jacques’ army in a deadly showdown and rescue Frank’s wife.

If Super were simply a garden variety comic book film, it could certainly be called a success; it hits the right beats and provides ample action and laughter.  What makes Super truly great is the willingness of Gunn and the cast to take on tropes and play them out to the most terrible extremes.  The violence perpetrated by the Crimson Bolt and Boltie takes a toll on the audience- it’s viscerally repellent by design.  Page’s Libby is an intriguing take on the role of women in stories like these, as she willingly subsumes herself as both a sex object and a sidekick.  Wilson is truly brilliant and courageous as the put-upon Frank, playing him as pathetic, psychotic, and ultimately humane.  Gunn and company let these characters indulge their every fantasy, and in doing so create a story that is compelling, elegiac, and a potent commentary on its genre.

Hanna (2011)

•April 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Adolescence is a difficult time in anyone’s life, regardless of circumstance (you’re welcome, I’m just a font of arcane knowledge.)  How much more confusing it must be when forced to bowhunt for basic provisions, be subject to constant attacks by a parent, and take no leave from a rustic home.  In director Joe Wright’s Hanna, such training makes the titular young woman well-equipped for dealing with a sinister government agent but truly naïve when it comes to interacting with the outside world.

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has lived a life of seclusion, trained by her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) for the inevitable reckoning with her mother’s murderer (Cate Blanchett.)  After escaping her American captors, Hanna begins a long trip to Berlin with the aid of a British family.  While dispatching armed guards is little challenge for the combat prodigy, dealing with her new friends is far more complicated: her sheltered worldview and dearth of socialization make every conversation a new and often awkward experience.  By the time she reaches Berlin, Hanna finds that both her pursuer and father have actions to answer for.

Hanna tries to balance multiple sensibilities- action thriller, coming of age story- and does so with varying degrees of success.  The numerous fighting sequences are deftly handled and propulsively scored by The Chemical Brothers, yet can’t help but feel rote and derivative.  The bits of spy intrigue are hardly better.  Far more effective are the moments of revelation, of discovery, for the heroine.  A late night encounter between Hanna and a far more worldly girlfriend (Jessica Barden) is both tender and electric, while her strange visit to a fairy tale house is gorgeously expressionistic in execution.  Ronan’s magnetic performance is ferocious, wide-eyed, and ultimately what makes this patchwork tale of young adulthood a worthy experience.

I Saw The Devil (2010)

•March 31, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The notion of vengeance as an all-consuming fire is anything but new, especially in the realm of South Korean cinema (see also: The Vengeance Trilogy by Park Chan-wook, and yes you already knew that.)  American films often play with the idea that an avenger can perpetrate bloody retribution and either keep their soul intact (i.e. Taken) or be redeemed by noble sacrifice (think Man On Fire.)  I Saw The Devil, directed by genre-mashup maven Kim Ji-woon, presents a character who thinks he’s a Korean Creasy but turns out to be another Oh Dae-su.

Kim Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-Hun, The Good, The Bad, And The Weird and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) is a bad-ass government agent whose pregnant fiancee dies cruelly at the hands of serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, Oldboy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.)  Thirsty for blood, Soo-hyun seeks the murderer out and, after brutalizing a few innocent suspects, finds the target for his sadistic plan of revenge.  Kyung-chul, however, proves to be a formidable opponent for South Korean James Bond, and thus a simple plan of vengeance becomes the bloodiest downward spiral imaginable.

It’s a credit to Ji-woon and screenwriter Park Hoon-jung that I Saw The Devil has laughs, action, and pathos to go along with much bloodletting.*  Soo-hyun is both reprehensible and sympathetic; Kyung-chul is truly monstrous, but his non-the-wiser family still figures in the proceedings. And while the Grand Guignol style of I Saw The Devil nods heavily to both Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, it ends by suggesting an unsettling question that would fit in the more subtle Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance: in the messy business of vendetta, who is the titular Devil?

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*It’s also informational- apparently, South Korea is like Miami when it comes to serial killers.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

•March 21, 2011 • 2 Comments

Picture this set-up: a handsome, oily attorney named Mick Haller slips around town defending low-level criminals and addicts while barely holding on to some vestige of an ethical code.  Throw in an estranged wife and child, Haller’s street smart driver, and a surfer dude investigator and you’ve got the makings a halfway decent pilot for a TV show, right?  Depending on the era, you put George Peppard, Lee Horsley or Jeffrey Donovan in the title role and you’re good to go.

Or, you cast Matthew McConaughey, pump up the villain of the week, and push a mediocre film into theaters.

Directed by Brad Furman, The Lincoln Lawyer feels like it could’ve made a fine Friday night series circa 1985 (or three times a week on TNT circa right now) but as a feature length film, it’s a little shallow.  When the hustling Haller gets tipped about poor little rich boy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) in the pokey, it looks like an easy payday.  Unfortunately, as Roulet’s true colors come out, Haller must balance skillful lawyerin’ with a renewed sense of justice if he wants to protect his family, help an old client, and keep his license to practice law.

As the sly but uncomplicated Haller, McConaughey gives a winning performance; he’s clearly having fun and carries the movie, aided by game supporting turns from Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy.  Unfortunately, John Romano’s screenplay is populated with stock characters and too much telling-rather-than-showing, which amplifies that feeling of a low-budget TV show on the big screen.  The Lincoln Lawyer is Friday night popcorn fare, but only if that popcorn comes from your microwave and you’re eating it on your couch.

Sunda- Er, Valentine’s Day List: You Can Probably Guess The Topic

•February 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Bloody hell, how long has it been since I posted?  It’s not as if I ventured to another dimension or stopped watching flicks.  Let’s just blame the finale of Lost (I’m planning to get a lot of mileage out of that) and get on with it, yes?

Continue reading ‘Sunda- Er, Valentine’s Day List: You Can Probably Guess The Topic’

Winter’s Bone (2010)

•December 20, 2010 • 1 Comment

In Winter’s Bone, the champion of Sundance 2010 and nigh-certain to soon be a Best Picture nominee, an awful lot of time is spent walking.  Much of it is done by  17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she navigates the craggy hills, desiccated forests, and patchwork shacks of the Ozarks in search of her father.  Ree Dolly stays mostly clear of paved roads, but never precisely follows a trail, either; experience has taught her how to make her way.  She knows the tree lines to follow, the fences to walk, and the livestock to feed if she needs access to someone’s door.  There’s a code, and Ree Dolly has both the ingrained knowledge to adhere to it and the sheer guts to break it when necessary.

Directed by Debra Granik (with a strong screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini), Winter’s Bone is equal parts desperate pursuit and portrait of an insular community.  Ree Dolly is the presumptive head of her family, taking care of her mother and raising her siblings with material support from neighbors and intimidating uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes.)  When drug-cooking father Jessup misses a court date, it’s up to Ree Dolly to find him before the law can lay claim to the family home and property.  Dad’s disappearance is something of a mystery, however, and the same people who provide venison or cash become downright menacing when Ree Dolly defiantly knocks at forbidden doors for information.

If Winter’s Bone were just a rural thriller, it would be worth watching simply for the brilliant performances of Lawrence and Hawkes, not to mention Granik’s assured direction (watch for those names plus Rosellini’s at Oscar time.)  What makes the film truly great are deft observations on provincial decorum: waiting for a man’s permission to enter a home, offering a warm drink to an unwelcome guest, shutting up to the police, avenging if your family’s been wronged.  It’s in Teardrop’s unspoken but resigned acknowledgement of his duty, and in Ree Dolly’s weary yet bright-eyed embrace of her siblings: cultural codes unite, suppress, protect, and destroy their adherents.

 
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