Despite a growing sense of superhero burnout, the trailers for Captain America: The First Avenger had me on the hook from the git go. A '40s-set, period-to-fine detail, action/adventure flick that dripped of the era when Spielberg and George Lucas were at their creative Tibet? That looked adeptly captured in ways J.J. Abrams only pantomimed with Super 8? Sign me up.
Captain America is yet another origin story begetting yet another franchise, closing the last link in the cinematic chain before next years The Avengers, which ties together three years' worth of Marvel films and the patience of every fan who waited till the end of the credits of every flick to get a glimpse of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembling the Avenger Initiative.
But Captain America is also an origin story rooted in an older, grander style of filmmaking, steeped in a classical Hollywood tradition that no Marvel film so far has captured this well. Yes, director Joe Johnston (rebounding from the troubled production of the not-bad The Wolfman) out Berg's his longtime friend and colleague...The Berg.
It's 1942 and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a patriotic but puny guy, isn't having much luck in his attempts to give Hitler a pain in his ass. Having been dealt another 4F deferment, while his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has already made Sergeant, Steve indefatigably sneaks into yet another recruiting office, serendipitously meeting Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who immediately considers Steve for a top-secret experiment to create super-soldiers. Though the weakling Rodgers seems an unlikely candidate Erskine sees something special in his valorous resolve.
Meanwhile, the evil Nazi--is there another kind?--Johann Schmidt (a perfect Hugo Weaving, affecting an accent somewhere between Werner Herzog and Jurgen Prochnow) has discovered a powerful, supernatural tesseract "from Odin's treasure room", a source of unspeakable power. The head of his mystical research group HYDRA, Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) harnesses the relic's energy to create astounding weapons that Schmidt plans on using, with his own private storm-trooper army, to conquer the entire world--including Germany.
But once Steve Rogers is transformed (with the help of Stark Enterprises!) from weakling into the muscle-bound Captain America, Schmidt--who is himself a product of the growth process Erskine used on Rodgers, but with some...side effects--finds he has an irksomely tenacious nemesis on his hands who will stop at nothing to thwart his diabolical scheme.
Old school thrills, magic, intrigue and derring-do are the order of the day with Captain America and director Joe Johnston nails it. Working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen (I wish my last name were) McFeely, Johnston employs a wonderfully economic, immediate style to the pacing of the story while tonally painting on a liberal dose of the Spielberg and Lucas as scenes recall the set pieces of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the feel of The Empire Strikes Back. There's even a subtle line from Weaving about Hitler wasting time in the desert (presumably while Indy is trying to get the Ark back). Marvel films have thrown in quite a few hat tips to each other's place in the overall timeline but never to an outside property. It's a little thing but it also lets you know that the filmmakers know exactly what they are doing and have their hearts in the right, geeky, place.
Captain America looks great. Be it the stylized cinematography or the wonderful period '40s art and costume design, rife with The World of Tomorrow classicism and peppered with Verheoven-esque war propaganda that isn't even being played for satire. For those that have seen Johnston's The Rocketeer his knack for sci-fi, World War II era design will come as no surprise. The FX work is also top-notch (again no surprise, neither in the quality or that many visuals recall Star Wars, from the dog fights to the Hoth-like terrain shots since Johnston was an FX technician on...Star Wars) making immersion into the action set-pieces--which are all well-choreographed and edited--that much more seamless. Even the rollicking score by composing vet Alan Silvestri dabbles in the leitmotifs of John Williams.
Chris Evans turns in a somewhat subdued performance as Steve Rogers. The character has a great arc and Evans carries it well, eventually building up some sparks. He's convincing in the fight scenes, though the matter-of-factness he (and the film) has concerning his new powers was almost perfunctory.
Speaking of sparks, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter is a scene stealer but fails to generate much chemistry with Evans, mostly because (as is often the case in the Marvelverse) the romance feels tacked on.
Hugo Weaving is typically great as Schmidt. Love the accent. Love the evil. He owns every second, though he doesn't have any truly iconic lines. They saved those for Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips who growls all of his dialogue with supreme Jones-ness. He was born to play guys like this. His face looks like it was chiseled out of granite and ass kicking.
Stanley Tucci turns in a warmly bemused, utterly loveable performance as Erskine, while Toby Jones stands out as Zola, due to his deliciously creepy, Peter Lorre-reminiscent portrayal.
For those of you not yet born in 1982 this is what a great action/adventure flick felt like. Now it's a bit more polished, but still imbued of another time. Captain America: The First Avenger is a nostalgic, yet comfortingly new adventure that would work beautifully no matter what year it was.
Friends with Benefits
Hello, Rom-Com. It's me again.
With a title like Friends with Benefits--one so generic that most people thought that No Strings Attached got a re-release--you could be forgiven for thinking you are in for some sort of formulaic romantic comedy where the central characters are reliably pushed together and pulled apart by sexual chemistry and conflict until the predetermined happy ending.
Justin Timberlake is Dylan, a web magazine editor who gets a call from a corporate head-hunter, Jamie (Mila Kunis) to come to New York so she can pitch him on taking a job with GQ. Once in the Big Apple, Jamie takes him to see the "real" (hint: it involves a perfectly timed flash mob) New York, convinced Dylan will fall in love with the city and take the job--and for which she will receive a handsome commission.
Her plan works. Ensconced at his new position, Dylan finds himself without a real friend in New York so he takes the obvious route with Jamie. Of course Jamie and Dylan, two people fresh off break ups, eventually have a Seinfeldian discussion while hanging out one night about how to separate emotional entanglements from guilt-free sex which thus rationalizes some joyous, guiltless sex. But soon the rules get a little blurry.
That I didn't wind up hating Friends with Benefits has little to do with the story's conventionality. It's utterly conventional and fairly formulaic. Director Will Gluck (of the fun and enjoyable Easy A), works from a script and story by a slew of writers (including himself) to craft a character heavy, post-Woody Allen romantic/comedy. It almost works in that regard, buoyed some truly charming performances, but the narrative spins its wheels just a little too much and the writing doesn't have that kind of sharpness and character depth which subverts the films tone when it's trying to be funny, dramatic or whimsical. Worse, it's commentary on the conventions of rom-coms amounts to winking self-referential satisfaction with no satiric payoff.
It is sexy, but even that is subverted by the standard issue need for mass market films to avoid some realistic satisfaction (Love and Other Drugs being a notable exception). The sex always has to be a little bit funny and conventionally shot to keep the audience from getting uncomfortable. Michael Grady's cinematography looks sumptuous, either capturing New York or Jamie and Dylan's many trysts.
It's the performances that make the overfamiliarity of Friends with Benefits worth its totally predictable ride. Timberlake is the kind of actor whose inherent charm bolsters his dramatic chops, ones more on display in Craig Brewer's under seen Black Snake Moan. I'm not sure his role here is a stretch by comparison, any more than his role as the coked out Napster-founder Sean Parker in The Social Network, but he's on his game here. With Mila Kunis, whose mega-wattage sexiness distracts from just how good an actress she is (her performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall rendered her years as Jackie on That '70s Show forgotten) the chemistry is enough to keep the mostly by-the-numbers story afloat.
Supporting roles from Patricia Clarkson, having fun as Jamie's boozed-out, hippie mom; the great Richard Jenkins as Dylan's Alzheimer's-afflicted father (who owns every pants-less second of screen time) and Woody Harrelson making the most of it as a gay sports writer are highly enjoyable decoys in a middling romantic comedy--a little too bloated for its own good, but ultimately made worthy by its performances, overconfident charms and not sucking as much as 99% of its brethren.
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