Saturday, July 23, 2011


"Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011)

Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger" is the last of the Marvel superhero movies before the big collaboration of next summer's "The Avengers," and it couldn't be any more obvious. What follows in the next paragraph is my major gripe with this movie and I guess what you could call spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

I actually quite enjoyed "Captain America" until the end credits came along. Samuel L. Jackson made his obligatory appearance as Nick Fury to let us know yet again that an Avengers movie is on the horizon. Not like we haven't been beaten over the head with it already in "Iron Man," "Iron Man 2" and "Thor." Not only does he show up, but at the end of the credits we're given a full-blown teaser trailer for "The Avengers." It just makes me sick of Marvel's agenda as a whole. Here we're given this rather well thought out superhero flick, and then the whole experience is cheapened because we're forced to see that, oh wait, there's more on the way! So, there's "The Avengers," and then each of these superheroes are going to, of course, have their own sequels, too. I just can't help but wonder when the fad is going to end.

Anyway, back to the movie at hand which I'm still struggling to view as standalone entertainment. The point -- and the problem -- is that I don't think we're supposed to be viewing it as standalone entertainment. Nonetheless, the entertainment it does provide is a pleasantly stupid, hokey and wholesome throwback. It's complete with a courageous but conspicuously square hero at its center, a lovely dame, a seasoned veteran military officer, a genius scientist and an evil super villain.

Chris Evans has fine screen presence, but as Captain America he's perfectly vanilla. With blond hair, blue eyes, big muscles and a bit of a dopey yet courageous demeanor, Evans does what he can to bring the character to life. What he becomes, however, is just OK and can't make it his own as Robert Downey, Jr. or even Chris Hemsworth did. He gets the all American spirit down pat with an old-fashioned patriotism that actually feels just right. And he sure wears his uniform well swinging around his powerful stars-and-stripes shield like it's a deadly Frisbee.

Before Captain America becomes the iconic hero of WWII, though, he used to just be skinny Steve Rogers who wasn't able to enlist in the army. After being chosen as a part of a super soldier project by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), he's instantaneously transformed and ready for action. Seeing Chris Evans before his bulked-up self as a 90-pound little guy was a bit startling, but the CGI was convincing. Destined for great things, Rogers instead gets thrown into performing acts to get people to buy bonds for the war. He dons an early version of his Captain America suit strutting around with red, white and blue ladies singing "Star Spangled Man." It's a fun moment encapsulating the film's retro feel while giving Rogers his superhero name and an incentive to drop the act and go fight the war on his own terms.

Captain America earns the respect and help from Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) who is a love interest but feels like a more imperative love interest than most. She has the brunette bob, bright red lips and sharp uniform to make her the ideal pin-up military woman. There's also the hardheaded Col. Phillips played by Tommy Lee Jones who seems angry and bitter the whole time, and I couldn't tell you if that was him in character or just him showing up to pay for the bills. Our villain is a vile Nazi commander named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who creates his own regime surpassing even that of Hitler. Hugo Weaving does Nazism well, especially when he rips off his skin and presents his true form of a hideous red skull giving him the obvious nickname of Red Skull.

The action is swift, the effects are nice, the story is solid -- and through it all we meet the engineer named Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). He assists with Dr. Erskine's research, but more importantly we're aware that he will be the father of Tony Stark, or Iron Man. This brings us back to that Marvel collaboration--the blatant reason Joe Johnston's pretty good superhero flick exists. Maybe it's clever, maybe it's cool, but me? I found it pushy. But hey, at least Captain America has a neat origin story taking place in the 1940s. It was a smart decision to keep in that spirit, but I can't help but wonder how he's going to adapt to the 21st century.

Friday, July 22, 2011


"Friends With Benefits" (2011)

This year has brought us two romantic comedies with exactly the same premise. First there was "No Strings Attached" about two friends agreeing to have sex without a relationship. Now we have "Friends With Benefits" about two friends agreeing to have sex without a relationship. So, who wins? From director Will Gluck (who directed last year's breakout comedy hit "Easy A"), the latter is the clear victor thanks to good casting, good writing, good direction and great sex.

Will Gluck might just be on to something. First with the glowing Emma Stone in "Easy A" and now this, he really has a way with getting actors to perform at their comedic best. Romantic comedies are all about the chemistry, and Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis sure have it. They fit together and spar perfectly with each other in quick bursts of playful, sexy energy. Both of these talented actors have showed us their funny and serious sides--Timberlake stealing the show when he hosted "SNL" and his effective performance in "The Social Network" while Kunis made a splash in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and stood her ground against Portman in "Black Swan." Here they take what they've got and bring it together on screen in a sizzling display of wit, charm and sex appeal.

Timberlake plays Dylan, the dapper head of a small blog site in Los Angeles who gets whisked off to New York City for a job interview with GQ magazine. He's brought there by an executive headhunter named Jamie played by Kunis. With two attractive, well-dressed leads it only makes sense to make their romantic playground two big glamorous cities. Jamie spends the evening after Dylan's interview showing him around the city to convince him to take the art director position. Of course he accepts, and through time in the office and a few lunches and dinners out as well as getting drunk in Jamie's apartment on a few know where this is all headed.

Dylan figures he's too emotionally unavailable while Jamie figures she's too emotionally damaged. They're not looking for a relationship and require only the physical act of sex, so they agree to give it a try. What follows is a romp under the sheets where we don't see what's going on but we can certainly infer. They rattle off a running list of the things they like and don't like in bed while doing the deed. Their casual sex is humorously awkward while sufficiently steamy -- with the sheets conveniently placed but also still showing enough skin -- and provides some of the movie's best moments of rapid-fire banter.

It's no spoiler saying that we know who ends up together in the end. No romantic comedy would give us these two individuals connecting on such a level and then tear them apart at the end. Doing that would just be criminal. The movie doesn't stray far from the conventions of the genre, but they're put to use in the best manner I can recall from recent memory. The added fun is that Dylan and Jamie believe they're too hip to fall for love movie clichés in their own life. While consciously avoiding them, the movie steers them directly toward each other and, as a result, those very clichés. But I didn't mind because the romantic comedy formula will never change. The breath of fresh air here is that Dylan and Jamie aren't treated with condescension toward their situation but instead realism and cynicism as presented in their characters--with a dash of updated and timely humor about iPad apps and Youtube.

All of that is fine and well, but things really get kicked up to a new emotional level when the parents are introduced. The always excellent Richard Jenkins as Dylan's father suffering from Alzheimer's and Patricia Clarkson as Jamie's free spirit mother show up as the loving but imperfect parents who give us clues as to why both of our leads are so afraid to commit. And you can't forget the brief but hysterical cameo from Emma Stone as Dylan's crazy ex-girlfriend at the movie's opening who's a huge fan of John "Fucking" Mayer.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Final Harry Potter Oscar Chances

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"

With the release of the final "Harry Potter" this weekend, it's time to talk about this one's potential for Oscar gold. Previous installments have garnered a total of 11 nominations -- all in technical categories -- and no wins.

It really would be nice for this series to get more recognition for its cinematic achievement, and while the series won a British acknowledgement last year at the BAFTAs it hasn't had much in terms of awards over here. Now is a better time than ever for Oscar potential with the grand finale which has been widely hailed as the best in the franchise.

A big thing going for "Part 2" is that it is shattering box office records and is currently the most critically acclaimed wide release movie so far this year.

So, where could the nominations land?

It definitely has technical categories in the bag. Best Visual Effects is a given along with possibly both Sound Mixing and Editing. I don't think Cinematography and Art Direction are out of the question, either. Alexandre Desplat could also get some love for Best Score because it's been a while since a "Harry Potter" score was nominated. Best Makeup and Costume are a possibility, as well.

But beyond that, is there any pull for the actors? Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are guaranteed to be left in the dark. Instead, all eyes are on Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort who really gets material to sink his teeth into this time. Then there's the even bigger possibility of Alan Rickman as Severus Snape whose story came to an emotional revelation. These two supporting actors have the best shot at nominations.

I'm really pulling for Alan Rickman. He's a great actor who really hasn't gotten his due. A nomination for his decade-long portrayal of Snape would be most warranted, especially considering the weight of the twist experienced in this final film which serves as its very best moment. Without Rickman there, it would've made much less of an impact.

And finally, what about the top nomination? With the Academy's strange new rules with Best Picture, I could honestly see "Part 2" making the ballot in voters' 9th or 10th slots if it gets that far. With this I could make a far stretch and say Best Editing is possible along with even Best Adapted Screenplay.

That being said, it's only July. There is a lot of competition headed this fall, but one can only hope that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" doesn't go completely unnoticed.

Friday, July 15, 2011


"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" (2011)

Harry, Ron and Hermoine (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) return home to Hogwarts in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the phenomenal conclusion to the longest running and most profitable movie franchise of all time. It's storytelling that has defined a generation and spanned an entire decade, and this is a more than fitting and immensely satisfying ending for The End -- an enormously important moment in pop culture.

The decision to split the final installment of J.K. Rowling's literary epic is announced even clearer here than in "Part 1" as the right choice. This is the shortest "Harry Potter" installment but packs in the most action perhaps of all other seven films combined creating for a grand finale. It works as a great contrast to the slower more atmospheric tone of "Part 1." Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have been in perfect harmony ever since the sixth installment, and since then they have made "Harry Potter" films that just keep getting better. The remarkable thing is that "Part 2" far surpasses the rest as the best yet; it's emotionally wrenching, visually thrilling and offers up payoffs that cannot be matched working as a graceful homecoming for the series.

The continued hunt for the seven Horcruxes -- which each contain pieces of Lord Voldemort's soul that must be destroyed -- lead our three heroes back to the place where it all began. This gives us a chance to think back to 2001's "The Sorcerer's Stone" where all the plucky, bright and anxious energy has now turned to a darker, richer palette of dread and gloom as the siege on Hogwarts begins. Yates and Kloves reprise themes and characters we haven't seen for some time but certainly have not forgotten. Even the brilliant score from Alexandre Desplat rings with reminiscence of "Harry Potter" movies past.

When the familiar faces of Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) appear to us, it elicits an adrenaline rush of joy in signaling that everyone has come together again reunited as one against a formidable force of evil. The battle at Hogwarts is expertly staged and choreographed with some of the best visual effects placed within real world, human situations you'll ever experience on screen. Before we even arrive there, Harry, Ron and Hermoine have to break into Gringotts Banks guarded by stoic goblins and a fire-breathing dragon. It's a most ingenious and harrowing scene where the feeling of time running out and Death Eaters close on the heels of our beloved trio is ever so palpable.

The acting is, as we've come to know, solid across the board. How could it not be? These actors have been with their characters for so long. Extra room for bravado is given to Daniel Radcliffe as the Boy Who Lived, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape and -- for the first time -- Ralph Fiennes as the seething, slit-nosed Lord Voldemort. Fiennes is more expressive about his fury and agony toward Harry Potter encapsulating what we well know is at stake. Rickman's mysterious Snape is fully established, and the realization of his connection to Harry -- as seen in memories through peering into the Pensieve -- is beautiful and tragic.

It's the finish this saga deserves going out with a blast of authentic movie magic full of tension, awe and mortality. After the claps of thunderous destruction, howls of terror and triumph and swirls of smoke and debris, the dust settles and there stand Harry, Ron and Hermoine after all this time. My, how they've grown. It's a perfectly executed moment of absolute silence that occurs just before the interpretation of Rowling's famed epilogue. They exchange glances but no words simply because none are needed.

Beyond all the exhilaration of how good "Part 2" turned out to be, there's always the other side. That is, the deep underlying bittersweet sorrow of knowing that the end of this tale about witchcraft and wizardry -- teaching us so much about courage, friendship, getting older and taking responsibility -- represents, too, the end of a childhood that has shaped us as readers and moviegoers and one that will leave a lasting impression on us for years to come.

My review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1