July 29, 2011

Guys Movie Night: Captain America: The First Avenger

A wholesome and workmanlike origin story for Captain America. Because I knew nothing about Captain America, I had pretty low expectations. Now I would call him "Wolverine, minus the claws, plus a lot of earnest patriotism." I joked beforehand that all I wanted to see was Captain America punching out Hitler. And I got that, but it turns out that Captain America doesn't fight any Nazis at all. In fact, no one fights any Nazis. From the very beginning, our villain, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) goes rogue and takes over Hiter's Crazy Science division for himself. Why is this movie set during World War II if there's no Nazis? Sure, the Red Skull wants to take over the world, but the only people we see him kill are other Nazis, and a couple of our faceless Army guys in a firefight.
It's hard to win my heart over when there's no faces to connect with. Red Skull has a red skull, and all of Red Skull's henchmen wear gimp masks, so the only face of the enemy is Toby Jones, the stubby scientist stuck between a madman and a laser gun, who we actually feel some sympathy for!

Chris Evans was just perfect as Steve Rogers. The shrimpy weakling Steve Rogers, before he gets his super-serum, was a seamless effect with Evans's head on a concave weakling (Not a body double. He was so small, maybe it should be body "three-quarters"?)
I really appreciated how Rogers' costume evolved. Getting superheroes into costumes is often the most clunky plot point in the movies. In this case, it's a nice organic evolution: he starts out onstage in a stage costume identical to the comic book look. When he slips away on his first mission behind enemy lines, he cobbles together some gear- an awesome combination of his stage costume and shield, plus a great leather jacket, and a blue army helmet stolen from one of the dancing girls. I wish he was dressed like this for the whole movie! Only later does he suit up with the leather helmet and round shield.

 A thousand thanks to two award-winning character actors who save this movie from blandness: Stanley Tucci is the avuncular German ex-pat scientist who befriends Steve. He got a chuckle from the crowd with every line. Equally indispensible was Tommy Lee Jones as the Colonel shepherding the super-soldier project. He's playing his bread-and-butter authority figure, and he charms the audience all the way. I also loved veteran corset-wearer Hayley Atwell as the British agent who goes all moony for Rogers. She actually gets to shoot bad guys and punch d-bags first, so she's not useless like Rose Byrne's agent in X-Men: First Class. She tends to stand uncomfortably close to Steve in their dialog scenes, and she barely cries at the end. She also looks perfect in the period hair and makeup.
That lipstick was a.maz.ing.
We had some technical quibbles with the movie: even if you grant that the super-serum is pure fantasy, I did not believe that they only had one dose on hand and had no notes or research written down to create more? What kind of defense contract is this? Adam noticed the motorcycle chase through the forest was a little too similar to the same scene in Return of the Jedi. Rogers even uses a tripwire to throw the bad guys off their bikes, Ewok style. Also, we found it odd that the Red Skull's underground base fortifications are angled the wrong way, like a ramp, so Captain America can jump over them like Evel Knievel. Everything else was completely plausible, or, at least, comic-book plausible.
I guess the reason I brand the movie "workmanlike" at the top of this review is my cynicism at work. This origin movie, which, like most origin movies, doesn't contain much action for the first 30-40 minutes, felt more like a necessary stepping stone for the Avengers mega-franchise than a story by itself.

I am also undrewhelmed by its director Joe Johnston. Johnston, a former George Lucas protege, was the art director for Star Wars Episodes 4-6, plus Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Battlestar Galactica TV pilot in 1978. Since Honey I Shrunk The Kids in 1989, he has directed eight more effects-heavy features, including Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and The Wolfman. He doesn't seem to direct with much character or personality. The most cynical part of me thinks he's the director you can count on to successfully accomplish your film's technical challenges. Kind of like Michael Bay with no personality and a smaller budget.

TRIVIA: Dorchester native Neal McDonough plays one of the Captain's team, with a bowler hat and muttonchops. I thought to myself "This getup is wayyy too specific. This must be a character from the comic books." Indeed, he's future Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. "Dum Dum" Dugan.

TRIVIA: Before he heads to the front, Rogers performs in US Savings Bond fundraising shows, where he gets to knock out "Hitler" for the crowd each day. The guy playing the actor playing Hitler, James Payton, has another famous part with no dialog: the father of Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix (we only see him in one of those magical moving photos.)

TRIVIA: Strangely, Joe Johnston has directed another comic book movie set during WWII where undercover Nazis are plotting to steal American technology in order to create super-soldiers: The Rocketeer. Compounding the strangeness, both movies feature wealthy industrial tycoons with awesome moustaches: Howard Hughes invented the rocket in The Rocketeer; The real-life Hughes is the inspiration for the Howard Stark character.

Dominic Cooper (L) and Terry O'Quinn (R)

My grade: how about a B?
Regal Fenway Stadium 13 (screen 12) with: Adam, Angus, Geoff, Ilan, Jack, Jeff, John, Marc, and Marc's other friend whose name I never got :-S

July 24, 2011

Horrible Bosses

A madcap, screwball comedy. Extremely rough around the edges, a messy third act, and some underbaked character development, but I was laughing out loud through the whole thing.

Charlie Day steals the movie from Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis. I've only seen a little of his TV show, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but I guess I should check it out?
Of the three horrible bosses, I wish there had been more of Colin Farrell. I found him hilarious in In Bruges, and he's great here. He didn't need the ridiculous bald-cap, comb-over appliance on his head- that was just distracting.
The couple next to me, were completely silent all the way through. I think it was a bit racier than they expected? There was no sign of Rachel from Friends in Aniston's performance.
My grade: B-plus. Wait to watch it on demand, you'll be glad you did.
TRAILER NOTES: The trailer for Final Destination 5 starts with a woman getting zapped in the face by a Lasik machine. That was too gross to watch (I hid behind my hat), but the rest of the trailer was hi-LAR-ious. During a catastrophic bridge collapse, David Koechner (Champ Kind from Anchorman) is hanging on for dear life. Why would you cast Todd Packer from The Office in a horror movie? Anyway, there he is, hanging onto the edge of certain death, when a tanker truck full of... wait for it... boiling hot tar overturns all over him. Didn't they do that to Homer on The Simpsons once? I had to laugh out loud. (I am certain the couple next to me thought I was a sociopath.)
(Showcase Cinema Du Lux, Dedham)

July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

The eight movie, ten year, billion-dollar saga stumbles across the finish line.
I didn't really appreciate how high my expectations were until I discovered how disappointed I was by the conclusion of our decade-long epic. The quality of Potter 3-6 had been so consistent that I didn't really consider the possibility of a misstep.

Perhaps those expectations weighed too heavily on the creators of this movie. Perhaps the temptations of 3-D can be faulted. Many times in the last decade, the Potter films have varied wildly from the source material, almost always for the better. For the first time, especially the second half of 7.2 (7.2.2?), the changes from page to screen seem arbitrary and lessen the impact of what should be the most powerful storytelling of the whole series.

July 11, 2011

Harry Potter Reviews 2001-2011

The wife and I just re-watched Deathly Hallows Part 1 (we just say Potter 7.1) on demand, to refresh our memories: Gran's babysitting the boy as we go on another movie date. Our third movie in two weeks! After 10 years, the eight-movie, billion dollar Potter series is about to wrap up. Here's a look back at my reviews.
  1. Sorcerer's Stone C.
  2. I did not see Chamber Of Secrets in the theater. I saw it most recently on ABC family in 2010: it's better than Sorcerer's Stone. C-plus.
  3. Prisoner of Azkaban A!
  4. Goblet of Fire B-plus
  5. Order of the Phoenix B-plus
  6. Half-Blood Prince A!
  7. Deathly Hallows Part 1 A!
  8. Deathly Hallows Part 2 B-minus.
(I predict they'll remake all the movies starting in 2025.)
L-R: Harry, The Weasley twins, Mundungus, Fleur, Ron, and Hermione.

July 6, 2011

Two Movies, One Weekend

The wife and I saw movies in two days this weekend! And joy of joys, I'm giving them both A grades. For all of you scoring at home, we haven't pulled off two flicks in two days since Juno and Michael Clayton in January 2008. I was surprised to learn while browsing this blog that we've seen at least two movies in two days (not counting double or triple features) on a dozen occasions over the last eight years.

July 3, 2011

Super 8

J.J. Abrams has crafted the ultimate summer movie: a pulse-pounding teenage adventure, a coming-of-age romance, and monster-in-the-bushes fright all at once. Super 8 is a clever blend of Close Encounters, Stand By Me, E.T., The X-Files, The Goonies, Jurassic Park, and The Sandlot. It may sound contradictory to thank Abrams for making a great summer movie with an original screenplay, and point out the seven movies I'm reminded of at the same time? In a year featuring FOUR superhero origin movies (Thor, X-Men Babies, Green Lantern, and Captain America), an homage is a breath of fresh air.

Five noisy teenage boys are filming their own homemade zombie movie, when a USAF train derails in their laps, unleashing an alien cargo into their cozy Ohio 1979 town. Soon some crazy shit starts happening all over town; our teenage protagonist Joe (Joel Courtney) starts poking around, while his dad, a sheriff's deputy (Kyle Chandler) starts asking questions too.

Joe is the heart and soul of the group. He digs into the mystery of the train crash while the Air Force sloppily covers it up. Meanwhile, he falls in love with his gang's newly-cast ingenue, Alice (Elle Fanning), while he is struggling to mourn the loss of his mom a few months earlier.

The nostalgia for the late 1970s is thick on the ground. Writer/director Abrams turned 13 in the summer of '79, and his love for his adolescent era shows. I'm only six years younger than Abrams, so I could appreciate the attention to detail. (My collection of vintage car and truck toys from that era is a testament to my appreciation.) Too many period movies can distract you by trying to set the scene with period-specific clothes, but the costumes in this movie were subtle and non-distracting. (The only detail that felt jarring is a brief Rubik's Cube reference- I think of the Cube as a 1980s item, and indeed, I looked it up, it was not sold in the US until a year after the movie is set.) The time period also frames the homage to the movies of that era, especially those of his producer, Steven Spielberg.

The Spielberg comparisons are unavoidable, but I am thrilled to report, that unlike every Spielberg movie I can think of, the father figure is not absent from the children's lives. It's the mother who dies the day before the movie begins, making for some tear-jerking, especially at the end of the movie. I really appreciated all the family relationships in the movie- Kyle Chandler's fumbling, non-parental relationship with his son; Joe's friend Charles (the zombie movie auteur and Spielberg/Abrams stand-in) and his sprawling family zoo, complete with parental power struggles and sibling diplomacy; and Alice's strained bond with her emotionally ravaged, alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard).

The teenage adventures are fun. The teens all talk at once, all the time (this reminded me of The Goonies and The Sandlot), they behave just like teenagers are supposed to react under stress- they scream, cry, vomit, and barely escape with their lives. There's a lot of children in peril, so I wouldn't recommend it for pre-teens. The monster scares are truly scary, even if the monster is a little too similar to the Cloverfield monster.

The photography is great, although Abrams is still over-using his "intentional lens flare" trademark. I loved the music, and wouldn't ya know it, it's my favorite Oscar-winning composer, Michael Giacchino! (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Star Trek) The rock and roll music is also great- music supervisor George Drakoulias must have hacked my iPod for ELO, The Knack, The Cars, and Blondie.

I have to give this an A grade. I would see it again for sure.

At the Somerville Theater with my wife.

July 2, 2011

Midnight In Paris

A whimsical history ride. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriting hack, restless over the cultural bankruptcy of the 21st century, longing for a golden era. On vacation in Paris with his superficial fiancee and her boring parents, he escapes into the 1920s one night as the clock strikes 12, and becomes immersed in the "Moveable Feast" of Paris between the wars. I'm giving this an A-minus grade. (It's not a straight "A" only due to the complete shamelessness that Allen writes the same old arguments between the protagonist and his fiancee. When Gil calls a rival a "pseudo-intellectual", I felt like I'd heard this argument 100 times before.)

You've entered the 1920s. It's just sinking in.
Owen Wilson is just right as the Woody stand-in. I didn't really believe the standard hypochondriac jokes coming from his mouth, but the rest of the Woody template felt genuine. His reactions as he discovers he's traveled in time are spot-on perfect. Poor Rachel McAdams, saddled with the thankless fiancee/shallow shrew role. You can't say no to a Woody Allen movie, but she doesn't have much to do here except wear amazing clothing, and get paid to sightsee in Paris for a month.

You have to know the basics of 1920s culture to have fun in this movie- I know just barely enough to get the jokes and laugh in the right places.

The casting of the real-life people was terrific, especially Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs The World) as Zelda Fitzgerald; Corey Stoll (and his impressive moustache) as Hemingway; and...well, there's two Oscar winners in cameo roles, but I don't want to spoil it for you!

I wasn't too impressed with Marion Cotillard as the artistic muse ingenue. We can all agree she's enchanting, but there wasn't much more there except gazing at her face.

Landmark Embassy Theater, Waltham, MA, with my wife on our fifth wedding anniversary.

Kurt Fuller is now in my personal "Hey It's That Guy" Hall of Fame- he plays McAdams's father, the "Alan Alda" role (only Fuller is 20 years younger). Fuller made his debut on Knight Rider in 1984, and has appeared on every TV show ever since. You can run into him on the big screen in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wayne's World...155 IMDb credits total. In 2016 I saw him in the News Radio pilot and Ghostbusters II on the same day! It's appropriate that he's in a time-travelling movie- he was in the Jean-Claude Van Damme TIMECOP movie, and the TV spinoff too.

July 1, 2011

Top Ten Tom Hanks Movies

With Tom Hanks's Larry Crowne in theaters now-- I'm guessing that'll be the best movie I watch on demand this fall-- Boston.com hosted a "rank your favorite Tom Hanks movies" page. My list is below. I guess my criteria is "movies I like to see more than once" which eliminates Philadelphia. At the last second I replaced Apollo 13 with The Da Vinci Code on this list. Both are great fun, both are Ron Howard movies, but Apollo 13 is serious and respectable, while Da Vinci Code is ridiculous fantasy. I literally did not understand the plot of "The Leonardo Code" (as it should be called), and, at the time, I was disappointed with the movie, but it's been growing on me when I catch it on cable tv.

In alphabetical order; click on the links to read my Stub Hubby reviews: