Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Director: Joe Johnston

***

Marvel Comics have produced some pretty silly superheroes over the years. Thor was probably the silliest, yet he managed to be portrayed adequately onscreen earlier in the summer. Captain America may not be quite so daft a hero to portray, but he has other problematic barriers to cross on the road from page to screen. Would his jingoistic upholder of the American way not seem anachronistic in our post-9/11 age? This screen adaptation presents Captain America not as a champion of US of A, but a symbol to rally behind in the face of pure evil. Hugo Weaving-shaped pure evil.

Similarly to how X-Men: First Class mangled the origins of the Cold War, Captain America: The First Avenger toys with the history of the Second World War. As the Nazi research unit Hydra (led by Weaving’s Johann Schmidt) attempts to formulate an almighty superweapon with which to defeat the Allies, so the American Army is planning to develop a troop of enhanced soldiers. The first recruit/guinea-pig for this troop is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who goes from twiggy-limbed weakling to buffed-up beefcake in a flash. Evans is excellent casting; Fantastic Four proved he could play a superhero with charisma to spare. Here, he tones down the smarminess of the Human Torch to be a dignified soldier. However, he’s not just some flag-waving boy scout, he wants to prove himself. With the help of sassy agent/love interest Miss Carter (Hayley Atwell) and grouchy Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, a repeat scene-stealer), it’s not long before the newly-christened Captain America is off to Europe to fight some Hydra scum, and the red-headed loon leading them.

The title Captain America: The First Avenger makes it clear that, like Thor, this is just a lead-in to next year’s The Avengers. However, it’s also clear that this material is being taken seriously. This is evident in the hiring of Joe Johnston as director. He brings the same eye for 1930s and ‘40s style to Captain America as he did to the underrated The Rocketeer, with sepia-tinged camerawork and beautiful replica sets and vehicles. The script makes a few decent attempts at emotion and character development, but it’s tricky to pull off when there’s so many characters involved and so many great actors at work. Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci and Dominic Cooper (amongst others) may not get much screentime, but at least they bring their best to the table. Of more concern are the requisite second-act action scenes, that feel forced compared to the great-looking build-up of the first half. All this, and a surprisingly downbeat ending make for an engaging, but ultimately functional two hours. Marvel Studios have allowed us to have some light fun this summer, but the pressure is on them now. Like its hero, Captain America is charming, but it ultimately represents something greater than itself. After all this build-up, The Avengers had better deliver.

Review: True Grit (2010)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

*****

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The Duke or the Dude? Not as tough a choice as you might think.

Rooster Cogburn, one of John Wayne’s most iconic roles, is reinterpreted by Jeff Bridges (a.k.a. the coolest man in Hollywood) in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. It should be stressed that True Grit is not a remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, but a re-adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel. However, the plot is inevitably the same. The drunken marshall Cogburn is recruited by headstrong teen Mattie Ross (Hailie Steinfeld) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer. Also on Chaney’s trail is Matt Damon’s Texas ranger LaBoeuf. This trepidatious triumvirate head off in pursuit of their quarry, unsure of their route and unsure of each other.

This material seems tailor-made for the Coens. Whilst the original True Grit made the original trio (Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell) likeable and somehow workable, the Coens focus on the awkward and silly nature of this ramshackle group. John Wayne’s bedtime stories for Kim Darby are now the drunken ramblings of a properly pickled Cogburn; meanwhile, the once dashing LaBoeuf is now egotistical and caddish. Not only does this approach allow the Coens to maintain their absurdist sense of humour, but it also stays true to the tone of Portis’ novel. The 1969 film lacked edge; in this version, True Grit actually has grit! The threat of violence is palpable throughout, whilst Coen regulars DP Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell create a wild West thick with atmosphere. You can practically smell the sweat and gunpowder. It’s also a more accessible film than usual Coens fare, as they eschew both the intellectual melancholy of A Serious Man and the potentially anti-climactic ambiguity of No Country For Old Men. The Western as a genre is defined by its broad appeal, and the Coens know better than to tamper with such an established maxim.

Despite verging on the incomprehensible, Jeff Bridges makes the role of Rooster Cogburn his own. Investing more in the character than John Wayne, Cogburn 2.0 is a borderline tramp, looking and sounding less clean-cut than the Duke ever managed. Damon brings a goofy charm to the role of LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin does a lot with little screentime as Chaney, and Barry Pepper is deliciously mean as the bandit ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper. Yet, even better than all of these is Steinfeld. Her ballsy, determined performance belies her youth, more than holding her own against even the Dude. A long career beckons.

In every aspect of its craft, True Grit is flawless. The writing is lyrical, the sights and sounds are beautiful and the acting is sublime. From gritty beginning to poignant conclusion, True Grit is a masterpiece.

Review: Rabbit Hole (2010)

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

****

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The opening scene of Rabbit Hole sees Becca (Nicole Kidman) hauling a bag of compost across her lawn. If only that sack of dirt were the only thing weighing her down. The ghosts of the past haunt Rabbit Hole, a heartfelt adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (which was adapted for the screen by the playwright himself). Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are trying (and failing) to move on from the death of their young son some eight months previously. After dragging her compost, Becca’s next-door neighbour pops by with an invite to dinner, which she declines. Reticence towards interaction is often a part of grief, which would explain Becca’s ability to inject awkwardness into any situation; her relationships with family and friends range from barely amicable to frosty. She and Howie attend group bereavement couselling, which Howie feels might help but Becca thinks is full of “God freaks”. Her feelings are not helped by her younger, newly-pregnant sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) or her sweet-but-morbid mother Nat (Dianne Wiest).

This material is a sobering choice for director John Cameron Mitchell. His last film, the energetically explicit Shortbus, dealt with characters whose problems with their sex lives were indicative of their deeper troubles. In Rabbit Hole, Becca and Howie’s problems are defined by their (decidedly less explicit) connections. Howie socializes with work colleagues and befriends a similarly bereaved mother (Sandra Oh) in the counselling group. However, his relationship with his wife is clearly under strain. Eckhart shows many sides of this character, but always keeps him grounded and understandable in his frustrations. Becca’s necessity to interact with someone who understands her pain leads her to meet with Jason (Miles Teller), the driver of the car that killed Becca and Howie’s son. Their scenes together are some of the most memorable in the film, with Mitchell showing beautiful restraint throughout. There’s no need for flash; the inherent truth of the scenes speaks for itself. Becca’s apparent frostiness intuitively makes Kidman ideal casting for the role. It also allows her to display a greater variety of emotion than her ‘ice maiden’ image would have us believe.

Rabbit Hole does not wallow in its characters’ misery; it seems to brighten up when the leads do so. It is an honest and tender depiction of lingering grief, powered by grounded performances and an unfussy directorial commitment to the story. Sentimentality clouds our better judgement; thankfully, Rabbit Hole is sobering viewing, but never sentimental.

Review: The Tempest (2010)

Director: Julie Taymor

**

The Tempest opens with an image of a tidy little sandcastle crumbling underneath a rainstorm. It’s an apt image, as The Tempest frequently threatens to crumble underneath director Julie Taymor’s overambition. Not even William Shakespeare’s beautiful prose can save it.

The castle is actually being held by Miranda (Felicity Jones), and the rain comes from the tempest being conjured by the mischevous spirit Ariel (an eerie Ben Whishaw), as ordered by Miranda’s sorceress mother Prospera (Helen Mirren). In the play (Shakespeare’s last, before his death in 1516), Prospera was Prospero, a man, but the gender change is justified by a fiery performance from Mirren. Prospera conjures the storm to sink a ship carrying some of the Milanese royalty that banished Prospera and Miranda to the island they call home. The Milanese, royalty and servants alike, are washed ashore separately. Miranda finds Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) on one shore, and falls for him immediately. Jones is forgettable, but Carney is deathly dull, thus rendering their romance feeling more like Twilight than Romeo and Juliet. On another part of the island are found King Alonso (David Strathairn), Gonzalo (Tom Conti), Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and Antonio (Chris Cooper). All are great actors, so to see them forced to act off against each other with too little screentime is a great waste of their talent.

On another part of the island, servants Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina) are washed up and encounter Prospera’s slave, the scarred and warped Calaban (Djimon Hounsou). Brand and Molina’s giddiness provide a much needed boot up the backside to the pace, which threatens to grind to a halt at times. Meanwhile, Hounsou gives the best performance of all the cast, a wonderful mix of spleen, naivete and outstanding make-up. The Tempest’s production design is immaculate to a fault. Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costumes and Mark Friedburg’s sets are a little too polished, lending The Tempest a stagey, artificial look. Despite Stuart Dryburgh’s beautiful lensing and Elliot Goldenthal’s punk-like score, there’s little to dispel the idea that these are sets on a studio backlot.

Taymor’s script barely deviates from Shakespeare’s text, which makes the film feel all the more staged. Flashbacks and exposition are all well on stage, but film thrives on kinetic fizz. Whilst Taymor clearly relishes the freedom of the screen, her visual flourishes are so over the top that you find yourself wishing for something more tangible. Taymor’s adaptation of Titus was allowed to be OTT by virtue of being an OTT stageplay, but The Tempest demands a slightly more subtle touch. It’s both visceral and vacuous, neither straying from the text nor adding anything to it. The Tempest has too many well-placed elements to be an out-and-out bad film, but it’s definitely an underwhelming one.

Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Director: George Nolfi

**

Fate’s a funny thing; one mintue, you’re a respected science fiction writer, the next Hollywood is butchering your work into digestible nuggets of mass entertainment. To date, adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work have been many in number and mixed in quality. They have run the gamut from sublime (Blade Runner) to ridiculous (Paycheck). The Adjustment Bureau (adapted from the short story ‘The Adjustment Team’) falls somewhere between the two, unsure of what end it wants to be closer to.

Fate’s a funny thing; one minute you’re losing an election for the US Senate, the next you run into the love of your life who’s gatecrashing a wedding. Between this and Hereafter, Matt Damon seems to have cornered the market on guys who have been put upon by supernatural entities beyond their control. When David Norris (Damon) encounters the beautiful Elise (Emily Blunt) by apparent chance, neither he nor Elise suspect that this meeting has been pre-arranged. Behind these events lie the Adjusters, trilby-sporting suits who ensure that things go according to plan. The adjusters include Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp and ‘Mad Men’s John Slattery. Respectively, they add plenty of gravitas/presence/humour to proceedings, whilst Damon and Blunt are absolutely electric together. Their chemistry is wonderful, especially early on as we watch them sassily flirt with one another.

Bourne Ultimatum co-writer George Nolfi makes a confident directorial debut, with enough visual panache to suggest a steady directing career ahead. However, his adaptation of Dick’s short story is another matter. No amount of disbelief can be suspended to compensate for the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau, and large jumps ahead in chronology are the least of its problems. An all-powerful agency with apparent teleportation and telekinetic abilities can’t seem to stop one man running around a city. And who exactly are the ‘Bureau’? Is it God? A private corporation? The ending tries to both resolve everything and reveal nothing, and is understandably underwhelming. The Adjustment Bureau has moments of inspiration, and may surprise one or two romantic die-hards, but is too confused and aloof to truly impress. A movie about defying destiny for true love, and yet lacks passion? Fate sure is a funny thing.

Review: This Is England (2006)

Director: Shane Meadows

****

This Is England: as a title, it’s declarative and in-your-face, two very apt phrases to describe the film itself. Shane Meadows’ homage to the 1980s of his youth is a necessarily brash and confident piece of work.

As a contrast to its depiction in the 1960s (think of the image of ‘cool Britannia’ in Quadrophenia or A Hard Day’s Night), Britain in the 1980s (and in This Is England) is a haunted place, spooked by the spectre of the Falklands War and the tough austerity measures of the Thatcher government. It is in this setting we meet Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old boy who’s bullied at school and misses his father, who was killed in the Falklands. Lacking both father and friends, Shaun is in need of guidance. When he encounters a group of Burberry-sporting layabouts (led by Joe Gilgun’s Woody) who take a shine to him, Shaun can’t resist their charms. It’s only when former group member Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison that things start to go awry, as he espouses racism and violence towards minorities.

In no unambiguous way, Shaun is Britain incarnate; He is England, disenchanted, bereaved and lacking influence. His mother (Jo Hartley) is no disciplinarian, and Shaun is vulnerable. Turgoose’s performance is all anger and adolescent frustration; the fact that this was his first ever acting job makes his performance even more impressive. Whether verbally assaulting a local shopkeeper or getting to know the pleasures of an (older) girl, Shaun is sympathetic as he is under the influence of very dangerous people. As the main source of influence, Graham morphs from charming to terrifying at the drop of a hat. He’s hateful, but never less than compelling. A barrage of colourful supporting characters, plus the definitive style and sound of the era, give a definite tone and feel to proceedings.

In writing the screenplay, Meadows drew upon his own experiences growing up as a disillusioned youth in 80s England. This Is England is a personal reaction to the changes befalling a nation, a terrifying trend told from one point of view. It shows how easily led the masses can be when they are so inclined, but also serves as a paean to corrupted childhood. This Is England boasts potentially tricky material, but handles it in a mature and confidently cinematic way. The final shot of the film is a clear reference to the ultimate film about lost childhood, Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups. If not quite matching Truffaut’s opus, This Is England is still a powerful and relevant warning against the corruption of the childhood (childish?) mind.

Review: Howl (2010)

Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

***

Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.
– Allen Ginsberg

The Beat Generation defined itself by free expression emotionally, sexually and in a literary sense. Encapsulating the freedoms and liberated ideals that the Beatniks stood for, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ became a defining piece of work for this generation from the moment it was first published in 1956. Other defining works of the period have either already made it to the screen (Naked Lunch) or are on the way (On The Road), but how to adapt a poem like ‘Howl’ for celluloid?

Writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s approach is to examine how ‘Howl’ came to be. Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met in a mental institution, the three-part epic poem is a treatise on the devaluation of the post-war generation. Its stark sexual references (particularly the overtly homosexual references) led to the publishers of ‘Howl’ being tried for obscenity in 1957. Howl divides its time between the obscenity trial, interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and Franco reading the poem aloud. Following on from 127 Hours, Franco delivers another engaging performance, investing all his natural charisma in Ginsberg and effectively capturing his laid-back charm.

The three-pronged narrative approach taken by Epstein and Friedman is both a blessing and a curse. On the downside, it could be argued that Howl lacks a clear focus. The focus on the obscenity trial could be scene as an excuse for injecting a little salaciousness to proceedings, as state prosecutor McIntosh (David Strathairn) is reduced to uttering ‘obscenities’ to illustrate his argument whilst smooth defence lawyer Ehrlich (Jon Hamm, in full Don Draper mode) looks on. Howl may be a treatise on the poem, but the courtroom scenes feel dropped in to serve as a reminder that it’s full of naughty words!! Still, it does give Strathairn and Hamm a chance to flex their muscle, as well as drop in some neat cameos (from the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels). The sections featuring the reading of the poem are accompanied by vivid animations, but they serve equally to illustrate and distract from the poem. Surely the words are enough to make a point. Still, there’s no shortage of visual beauty here, and the whole film, whether in bright Technicolor or black-and-white is beautifully shot by Edward Lachman.

Like Ginsberg himself, Howl boasts a distinct sense of mischief. However, despite Franco’s best efforts, the film periodically forgets that there’s meaning beneath the profanity. Howl brings the style of Ginsberg’s work to the screen, if not quite all the substance.