Saturday, August 27, 2011
Not crazy, just stupid
Is this the state of rom-com today? Talent and effort and mucho production budget, creating a huge, yawning 'meh' of a movie?
So we have Cal (Steve Carell) married to Emily (Julianne Moore)--and right there credibility just zoomed straight out a window. Try as I might, and I did try for about the length of the picture, I just could not picture Emily marrying Cal short of Emily suffering from, oh, severe mental retardation, or Cal possessing a stack of incriminating photos. She's just too much woman for that wimp.
But--okay, granted we swallow this premise, hook, line, sinker, whale--Emily straight away tells Cal she wants a divorce, because she had an affair; Cal promptly tosses himself out of the speeding car. Nice jolt of a moment, but the gesture sets you up for a movie full of Carell committing all kinds of wild and wacky gestures and, well, this turns out to be his entire quota; nothing quite as out-of-left-field will happen again, though there is an eight-way confrontation late in the story that is intricately amusing, if not as startling.
Carell repeats the schtick he's mastered since Forty Year Old Virgin some four years before--the awkwardly sensitive fortysomething around which the world revolves (hey, he's the producer after all). His is the most fully written and realized character, of course, with every change in feeling or sensibility, every conflict or humiliation or wound to his pride dutifully recorded and given proper recognition. Everyone else trails from far behind, and the women in particular suffer from a lack of character detail--Emma Stone's Hannah, an up-and-coming lawyer, only pops up once in a while until the big reveal (you keep thinking she belongs in another picture entirely--and that is a dead giveaway, plotstructurewise); Ryan Gosling's Jacob, who teaches Cal how to pick up women, is an unlikely confection (he spends so much waking hours chasing women you wonder how he amassed enough money for his awe-inspiring bachelor's pad--is he really a rich kid (where's his rich family, then?)? A drug dealer? Maybe Carell should be a little more careful about associating with him...). Granted Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), the family babysitter who Cal's son has the hots for and who in turn has the hots for Cal, is a reasonably rounded character--but, you keep suspecting, that's only because she's such an important plot function to the storyline of both males.
Most egregious example is Emily--who is she? I mean, really? Gorgeous wife, hot mother, great actress. we don't know what she's like with the kids (besides a four-minute wordless pantomime through glass windows), we don't know what the kids think of her new boyfriend, we don't know what she sees in Cal (hell, we don't know what she was smoking when she saw Cal--I'd at least want to know that much), and we don't know what made her precipitate her affair with the infamous David Linhagen (Kevin Bacon as--believe it or not--the most likeable male in the movie), or why she chokes it off when she does. There are hints of an unhappy, complicated person here--Moore is more than good enough an actress to suggest this--but she's working with thin material. You're constantly aware that all the focus is the prod--sorry, husband.
Of directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, former writing team (Bad Santa 2003) turned directors (I Love You Philip Morris 2009) one has expectations, but combined with Dan Fogelman, who wrote the script (not to mention Cars (2006), Fred Claus (2007) Bolt (2008), Tangled (2010), Cars 2 (2011)--guy apparently believes in quantity over quality), the fusion is more family friendly, decidedly toothless. As is true with practically every recent comedy the look is sitcom flat and undistinguished (what was the last good-looking comedy I'd seen? Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet? Maybe. Last good-looking rom-com I'd seen? Wow--Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation” (2003), perhaps?).
Rom-com as a genre is dead, or at least close to total creative exhaustion, and I doubt if this will change matters much. The picture doesn't have the go-for-broke spirit of, oh, the Farrelly Brothers' Hall Pass (which has a penis joke that leaves this movie's penis joke feeling flaccid in comparison). It certainly doesn't have the crisp, swift wit of Steven Moffat, whose TV series Coupling (2000-2004) has four times the laughs, and twice the insight into what makes relationships work (better yet, Moffat manages to write a series of brilliantly hilarious monologues--usually delivered by Jack Davenport--that define clearly and definitively how relationships work). It doesn't even have the piercing romantic spirit and imagination (much less humor) of Moffat's 2006 script for the TV series Dr. Who (The Girl in the Fireplace).
Am I such an unsentimental old curmudgeon, demanding so much of my romantic comedies? I don't think so; I just like to think I have standards, is all.
First published in Businessworld, 8.18.11
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
The man called 'Uncle'
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, 2010), is ostensibly about an old man undergoing renal failure, and his final days--but don't let that synopsis fool you. It's steeped deep in the beauty of Northern Thailand's countryside and jungle--but no, this is not your usual 'beauty-of-nature' flick. It's filled with spirits and strange creatures and even stranger occurrences--but don't let those elements waylay you either. The film is not quite as fabulist as it sounds, and not easy to engage with (for one, it moves at a pace a snail would find leisurely) but it can be ultimately fulfilling, if you manage to cotton on to what the director is trying to do.
As mentioned, we have this dying uncle (Thanapat Saisaymar); he's visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, who's often in Weerasethakul's films). While at the dinner table they're visited by Boonmee's dead wife Huay (Nattakarn Aphaiwonk) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who isn't dead but transformed into a 'monkey ghost' when he chased and mated with a similar creature. Huay's entrance is simple enough--she solidifies out of the thin air--while Boonsong's isn't: a pair of glowing red eyes (an allusion to the ape-men in Kubrick's 2001?) rises from the staircase, cloaked in deep shadow. Weerasethakul had a practical reason for keeping the creature half-lit (it helped hide the fake costume), but the quiescent ambient sound, the total lack of background music, the sheer profundity of the surrounding dark gives Boonsong's entrance an impressive if sombre power.
But that's not what the film's all about, it's not what gives Weerasethakul's work its unique flavor. Once Boonsong steps away from the shadows and Huay greets her husband and his relatives, talk devolves to gossip and health news. All sorts of spirits and fantastic creatures (as Boonsong notes) may be drawn to Boonmee's approaching death, but the living and human welcome them as they might any dinner guest, and insist on bringing them up to date with affairs as they would a long-absent friend or relative. Later, there's this interlude involving a princess and a catfish in a pond admiring her, and what captures your attention isn't the catfish (a lump in the water at first) but the princess' ease in adjusting to the the idea of a talking fish and eventual, sensual response. The fantastic and the familiar encountering each other, accepting each other, achieving intercourse with each other in every sense of the word.
At the same time Weerasethakul presents the quotidian as something extraordinary. Boonmee, a landowner, goes out to his tamarind plantation. In one of the finest sequences in the film he has Jen taste the honey from his apiary, straight from the comb; he notes that the syrup has the flavor of tamarind and maize--a sort of sweet-and-sour combo. Jen, delighted, exclaims that it's like chewing gum. Boonmee rests at a small hut he's built for the purpose, drains the tubing of his errant liver, takes a nap, and there's this lovely moment where Jen gazes at his sleeping back while he lies on the hut floor, surrounded by the orchard's bright green beauty.
Critics note how nonjudgmental Weerasethakul is; that said, I doubt if everything and everyone in the film is as benign as they appear, or that the film is as light-hearted as it makes itself out to be. Boonsong turned his back on his father and fellow humans to become a monkey ghost (did he think of what his disappearance might do to his parents?); Jen's nephew Tong serves as a Buddhist monk, and on his last day sneaks out to Jen's and his sister's hotel room where he insists on taking a warm shower (“What if someone sees you?” he's asked; “Then let me in,” he replies--the scene has this faint air of incestuous hanky-panky about it).
Most ambiguous of all is Boonmee. When he visits his plantation he jokes with his workers--illegal immigrants from Laos--in awkward French, the language of their former colonizers; the workers laugh appreciatively, as they would with any boss who has the power to have them deported. “I've killed too many communists,” Boonmee later frets, thinking the karmic burden this represents won't allow him to reincarnate as a higher being. “You killed communists for the nation, right?” Jen asks, presumably in an attempt to ease guilty feelings; no reply. Possibly Boonmee was a member of the local counter-insurgency forces, which were known to have inflicted violence, even killings, against communist sympathizers in regions like the Isan countryside--but Weerasethakul doesn't over-elaborate; he suggests that Boonmee has a troubled conscience, and moves on.
Perhaps the film's most extraordinary passage is a dream Boonmee describes, depicted by Weerasethakul as a series of stills a la Chris Marker's La Jetee (1962). He talks of going into the future in a time machine (yep--Marker); of an unnamed ruling authority that can make people disappear; of a light shining on him that can make him disappear; of having to run. It's an unsettling moment, and I can't say I have absolutely deciphered it, but the dream suggests a vision of retribution--perhaps revenge. The scenes that follow in the cave suggest, for all their melancholy sparkle and beauty, that Boonmee accepts this judgment as his fate (he sits, his head bent down, with all the wordless pathos of a wounded-down toy, seepage trailing from his side). A beautiful film, one of the finest of last year--of the last several years--and a fitting winner of the Cannes' Golden Palm.
First published in Businessworld, 8.18.11
Thursday, August 25, 2011
A still from L'Inferno
The horror, the horror
Thanks to the generosity of the Goethe Institut, the Japan Foundation, The Instituto Cervantes, the Embassies of Italy and Greece, The 5th International Silent Film Festival will unfold from August 26 to 28 at the Shang Cineplex 2, in Shangri-La Plaza Mandaluyong, and oh, wonders of wonders--at least two of them are horror films (well, one indisputably is; so is the other if you stretch definitions a little).
The rarer creature (and borderline horror) is Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro's L'Inferno (1911). This largely forgotten silent was a huge hit at the time of its release, with plenty of applause during and after its premiere screening in Naples (the film went on to gross over two million dollars in the United States). Today it stands as a curiosity, at sixty-eight minutes the first Italian feature ever made.
Mind you, we're not talking D.W. Griffith here; the intertitles do most of the narrative heavy-lifting, giving us a clunky ten minutes of exposition explaining what's going on in Dante's life, who Beatrice is, why he's wandering a desolate wood, threatened by various largely symbolic predators. When Virgil finally takes him under wing (at the behest of his beloved Beatrice, who descends upon the great classical poet like the Good Witch of the North) he is informed that the path to salvation leads first through the depths of hell--you have to know the worst in human nature, Virgil seems to say, before you start trying for the best. It's not going to be an easy path; “abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Dante is warned before entering. The line still retains a chill, even in this film, even now.
The film is basically a series of tableaus of increasing levels of complexity, and horror, though some victims are given background stories, to flesh out our sympathy for them (possibly the most poignant involves the Count Ugolino and his family, who are tormented by the Archbishop Ruggieri). Some of the effects are still striking; the forced perspective shots of Minos, of Pluto, and especially Antaeus--lowering Virgil and Dante on the palm of his hand--is well done. Effects shots of flying sinners stutter and shake as if pushed by palsied fingers, but nevertheless retain some kind of power--they are unmistakably human bodies, they are indisputably naked and vulnerable, and they tumble helplessly across the damned skies.
Some of the simpler images still have the power to shock, or impress--I'm thinking of Dante ripping a tuft of hair off one trapped sinner, of another gnawing on a fellow sufferer's skull, of Dante and Virgil walking out of the darkness (the mouth of a cave) and into the light. Satan's ultimate appearance is the most elaborate of effects shots, and while not exactly horrific, he does have some of the scale and grandeur of Dante's original.
Of the print I have this to say: the black-and-white graininess and visual crudity only serve to increase the film's power. Not only does black-and-white improve the ancient special effects, but you sometimes get the impression you're watching video footage from a camera smuggled into Hell--there's an eerie sense of stolen imagery, of footage shot without permission (which helps explain the obscurity and difficult lighting, one imagines).
F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu suffers from the terrifying burden of its reputation as “the most frightening film ever made.” Perhaps not at first glance, but today's definition of frightening is in my book far too limiting and literal, if not downright dull. What would it take to make one jump out of one's seat? A serial killer leaping out of a dark corner p'raps, complete with screechy music and a family-size pizza's worth of tomato sauce and toppings...but then a dog jumping at the big screen might suffice, and so (in one of its earliest incarnation) might a bus screeching to a halt (see Cat People (1942), Jacques Tourneur's most famous if not necessarily finest film). Nosferatu is horror of a different kind; it drips its venom quietly, without untoward fuss, until one is overwhelmed--as designed by Murnau, it's a silent, remorseless killer of a film.
Take the Carpathian mountains, where Count Orlock (Max Schreck) lives--a tortured landscape, forever straining upwards or dropping precipitously from a great height. The castle is a massive, mute fortification, all thick, brooding walls and gigantic doors that dwarf their human inhabitants.
Orlock himself is a fantastic creation, a creature Murnau must have imagined clinging to the vertical rock faces of this castle among these mountains--something reptilian and pale, with huge eyes (the better to see with, in the dark) and clawed hands for a tight grip. The two gigantic fangs sticking out at front instead of at each side seem laughably grotesque at first, but it's Murnau giving the creature rodent features, not just reptilian--as Schreck plays him, the laughter tends to die gurgling its way out one's throat.
Midway through the film, separating Orlock's world from our own is a sea voyage, possibly Murnau's most lyrical horror sequence. Orlock has front-loaded the ship with box upon box of rat-infested earth (at one point we see text explaining that the “nosferatu's” strength comes from the earth he carries with him). The rats take over, the crew disappears one by one; the ship takes on the aspect of a haunted vessel (think the Mary Celeste, or the Flying Dutchman). When the ship glides into view in Wisborg ('Bremen' in some translations), it's a ghastly thing, a black presence that slips uninvited into the town's rational sensibility like spilled ink into a sheet of white paper.
It's worth noting that the scenes of Ellen (Greta Schroder) pining for Count Orlock so many leagues away feel like a parody of love--of two people yearning for each other's embrace, albeit for more bizarre reasons (the one-way transmission not of semen, but of blood; not for procreation, but for a perversion of immortality). Again, here the power isn't so much in the ability to startle or shock, but to subvert ordinary conventions, upend notions of human relationship. Ellen desires not Orlock's love but his voracious hunger; Orlock desires not Ellen's admiration but her long, beautiful neck, with all the veins pulsing within.
The rats and the plague they carry with them are the invention of screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and Murnau runs with the idea as far as he can. The images of rats, and of corpses--of vertical beings rendered horizontal by invisible presences--subvert stable, sober Wisborg; Murnau has a line of coffins making their way up the town's geometrically precise, neatly laid-out street, a burlesque of the town's evacuation procedures. The rats--and more, the plague--take Bram Stoker's syphilis metaphor (with its anxieties involving human sexuality) a step further, and evoke older, more powerful fears: of bubonic plague, of death on a massive scale. The world with its level ground and vertical buildings is being upended, brought closer in line with Orlock's world of high mountains and deep ravines; the balance of nature and of the world in general is slowly being destroyed.
I actually like Murnau's resolution better than Stoker's--in the novel Dracula (of which Murnau's film is a blatant rip-off) we have an extended chase that ends in a pitched battle, very physical, not very evocative; in Murnau's film the balance is corrected by a sacrifice of the highest kind, by one whose purity is in stark contrast with the corruption at the heart of the story. A great horror film? I think so; and I'm willing to fight fang and claw with anyone to prove my case.
First published in Businessworld 8.25.11
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Boom boom bang bang
What to say about Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens? Like Samuel Jackson's Snakes on a Plane (2006), what you read in title pretty much what you get: hard-riding Western folks battling fanged-and-clawed extraterrestrials. Like the movie or not, you can't accuse 'em of false advertising. Unfortunately.
Story begins with Jake (Daniel Craig) waking up in desert with big metal bracelet in one wrist and no memory. Arrives in small town, is accused of being an outlaw by townfolk, including rich cattleman named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who accuses Jake of robbing his gold. Matters reach state of tumultuous furor (well--bubbly fizz) when aliens arrive in what look like giant metal dragonflies, use hi-tech lassos to snatch people off the ground and carry them away. Plenty folk taken, including Dolarhyde's son Percy (Paul Dano); Jake and Dolarhyde ride out together to try bring 'em back.
Forgot to mention: Jake meets Mysterious Woman (but aren't they all?) named Ella (Olivia Wilde). Doesn't add much to party 'cept when she dies body is thrown into bonfire, resurrected, walks out of flames in her altogether. Wilde perfectly suited for last part, but that's about it far as entertainment value concerned--she can't even strike sparks off of flinty Craig, who has apparently decided to glower for rest of the picture (why, I don't know--artist's expression of aesthetic disapproval over putrid production, perhaps?).
Favreau's career a puzzler; after directing generic comedy fare (Elf (2003)) and special effects-heavy children's book adaptations (Zathura 2005), suddenly ups ante by coaxing Robert Downey Jr. into giving only recent Marvel movie performance with any sense of emotional texture (Iron Man (2008); Iron Man 2 (2010)); now Favreau seems to have dumbed self back down with blow-em-away, blow-em-up summer flick complete with Indiana Jones as grizzly curmudgeon and James Bond as cool-as-cucumber (if somewhat robotic) protagonist.
Granted both played by Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who are capable of good work, and Paul Dano who, in films like There Will Be Blood (2007), shown to be capable of more than good work--but what they doing in this piece of cow flop? Favreau set up expectations; proved that with good actor could come up with something watchable, if not enjoyable. Craig under Favreau seems to be phoning--no, telegraphing in (phones not invented yet). Plays cool cowboy same way he plays cool secret agent: stoic, not a little stolid. Ford warmer, perhaps livelier than in last few pictures: here plays what is ostensibly called 'bad' guy, or nasty customer not adverse to tying man between two horses. Meanness mainly show, of course (Dolarhyde cuts man loose from one horse); when this becomes clear movie collapses to ground with soft whispered 'pffft!'
Dano--as said terrific in There Will Be Blood--mostly wasted here. After playing dissipated youth in movie's first twenty minutes, is captured by aliens and kept in storage for most of picture.
Isn't as if Favreau were hotshot action filmmaker. Fight sequences in Iron Man movies never high points; high point was always Downey fooling around, trying to bring comic-book character to life (with Gwyneth Paltrow lending touch of rom-com frisson to proceedings). Given title like Cowboys and Aliens expect decent action sequences, but these look secondhand, as if borrowed from sources of not much higher quality (this year's incomprehensibly shot and edited Battle: Los Angeles; Neill Blomkamp's 2009 District 9; and--thank you much for reminding--Roland Emmerich's ridiculously overblown, just-as-if-not-more-so derivative Independence Day (1996)).
Keep thinking: Howard Hawks could've done this in his sleep. He master of western genre, knows how to shoot horses riding across Arizona landscape, knows how to stage gunfights, how to get maximum dramatic and comic mileage out of even halfway talented actors (and actresses). Hawks knows when odds are too one-sided how to even 'em up, in inventive and entertaining ways (thinking of literally explosive finale to Rio Bravo (1959)); even has experience in directing alien invasion pictures, albeit on small scale (The Thing From Another World (1951)). Hawks know how to apply special effects (as little as possible), how to stage, shoot and cut action sequences (cleanly and coherently), how to have woman address man (saucily as possible, to provoke not just man but all males in audience). High art or low entertainment, Hawks would produce something that grab attention, or at least be watchable. He at least make girl saucier, instead of hot human body hiding wet noodle alien brain with nada personality.
Not stupidity of basic concept I object to--as suggested, Hawks could have done this in deep sleep, wearing pajamas--but laziness of execution of final product. Back to home planet from whence originate!
First published in Businessworld, 8.11.11
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Mideo Cruz's Poon
I'd been following the recent controversy over the 'Kulo' (Boil) exhibit over at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), from the initial news splash about Mideo Cruz's exhibit to the shitstorm that followed to the closing of the exhibit and resignation of CCP visual arts department head Karen Flores and the artists' response that followed, and I have this much to say:
Art should be free to shock. Art should antagonize. Art should shake up established norms and thinking and provoke discussion. Otherwise, what is it good for?
Mind you, I'm not saying that artists and the art they create should enjoy zero responsibility, or that they should be totally immune from all consequences; if they offend, why, the offended have every right to protest right back, to agitate, demonstrate, declare in print or audiovisual media their indignation. Viewers and readers have every right to stake out a position and loudly agree or disagree, to boycott or even picket the exhibit's entrance. That's a right too, every bit as important as the artist's to freely create.
You can even attack the work from an aesthetic point of view, criticize not the artist's morals or intentions (which are irrelevant anyway) but his skill, as Lito Zulueta does in an Inquirer column. Of all the protests against Mr. Cruz, I find Mr. Zulueta's piece the most persuasive.
Artist act; viewers react. That's what is known as dialogue, the discourse between two opposing views (for an equally if not better reasoned and well-written opposing view, check out Luis Teodoro's thoughts on the matter). Dialogue is a good and healthy thing; what isn't healthy is when the dialogue is silenced, the discourse interrupted, the exhibit closed down, and an atmosphere of threats and fear pervades. When you can't see what the fuss is all about, you can't talk about it; when you can't talk about it, you forget, and perhaps stop talking (or you stop talking because you're afraid to continue).
Mr. Zulueta's article condemning Mr. Cruz's artwork is a good thing; it's two opposing parties responding to each other (or at least one responding to the other--far as I know Mr. Cruz has yet to reply to Mr. Zulueta). Congressional leaders demanding that the CCP budget be cut and worse, cyber terrorists threatening violence and death are not a good thing; they encourage silence and fear, and silence is a friend of censorship, and censorship as an active and consistent policy is in turn an essential condition to foster and maintain dictatorships throughout the world.
Not saying the Philippines is presently a dictatorship--far from it. But from here to September 21, 1972 isn't so much a distance of some thirty-three years as it is a distance of some three to four inches--roughly the distance a pen has to travel to write someone's signature onto a document declaring martial law. And all that was needed to send that pen scribbling over those three inches was a decision on the part of one man, and enough people behind the man to enforce his signature, the document, everything that followed. If it takes a handful of men deciding to act to send the country spiraling down a toilet bowl for fourteen years, how many will it take to repeat what happened today? Starting with the right of free expression? Not much, I'll wager. Not if we keep silent, do nothing, let them have their way with us.
Am I making sense? Is this too much of a leap I'm taking, are the dots I'm connecting too far apart and crazy? That's for you to decide. Discourse and dialogue, not silence and forgetting. If you disagree with me, let's talk--but for god's sake, please don't stay silent.
Friday, August 05, 2011
We don't need another hero
Joe Johnston's Captain America (there's more to the title, only I'm not that motivated) is fairly decent entertainment--moves at a lively pace, has a nice retro look, (circa late '30s to early '40s, complete with Unisphere and the 1939 World's Fair somehow teleported from Queens into Brooklyn), even surrounds itself with a royal flush of vivid supporting performances. Like its newly minted star Chris Evans (who plays the eponymous officer), the picture is a well-made example of standard-issue factory product, and just about as exciting.
You can tell Johnston has watched a few movies: the opening of the movie is a direct steal from the opening of Howard Hawks' 1951 horror thriller The Thing from Another World (well, Christian Nyby--but who's tracking?), where a giant craft has been discovered buried in the Arctic ice; the movie goes back some seventy years, borrowing the plotline of Buster Keaton's 1926 The General with scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, digitally reduced to chicken wishbone status) attempting again and again without much success to enlist in the army.
Hey--what worked for Keaton works just fine for Johnston, only with half the wit; Keaton for all his talent, however, did not have the assistance of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, grabbing this chance to sport a Teutonic accent) and his miraculous super-secret serum, designed to create an army of super-soldiers for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR). The formula transforms Rogers into real-life Evans: blonde, blue-eyed, be-muscled, basically bland save for a hint of naïve idealism that Rogers once suggested, pre-transformation. A Nazi assassin kills Erskine and prevents further production of said super-soldiers; this disappoints SSR officer Col. Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones turning Philips' weary “why me?” attitude into consistent comic gold), who was promised the aforementioned army. Poor frustrated Philips refuses to recruit Rogers, and the hapless fellow ends up on a war bonds fundraising tour with a collection of leggy chorus girls, where he chafes at his mainly figurehead role (uh--the 2006 Flag of Our Fathers?); Rogers finally decides to take matters into his own hands by taking on a secret mission to penetrate and destroy a Nazi group turned renegade named Hydra, led by the nefarious Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, in default Agent Smith mode, albeit more large-scale). The finale is a combination of, oh I don't know, everything from Inglourious Basterds (2009) and The Dirty Dozen (1967)--where crack teams of heros penetrate Nazi strongholds--to even Dr. Strangelove (1964), complete with nuclear devices decorated with names across their blunt noses, and the promise of some kind of German apocalypse. A coda set in present day momentarily evokes, of all things, the elaborate hoax in Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint, before turning into an extended trailer for Joss Whedon's upcoming The Avengers, due out next year.
Evans as Rogers, the sweetly heroic square-jawed Captain, embodies the movie's sweetly heroic, square-jawed appeal; if you like the type, you're going to fall for this movie. Frankly I'm marginally more interested in bad boys like Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark (in the Iron Man movies), though what really rocks my world are the nuttier visions of distinct filmmakers--or even just filmmakers who have gone above and beyond their usually bland selves to deliver something genuinely nutty (Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), which for my money is the best or at least the most interesting of Marvel's line of superhero pictures--though Sam Raimi's soap-opera Spiderman movies are an entertaining alternative).
It's all so terribly complicated, and not a little familiar--nostalgia for an innocent America (with the innocent notion that America's enemies only have to be punished with a pummeling) combined with a smart-aleck attitude (the war-bond tour has Rogers wearing the cheesiest red-white-and-blue wool costume I've ever seen, complete with little white turkey wings drooping from each side of the hood). Evans manages to subtly skewer his heroism while still playing it straight (a feat Christopher Reeve once managed to do in the Superman movies, in the '70s and '80s).
The battles are meat-and-potatoes action filmmaking--Johnston obviously took his best ideas from the master himself, Jack Kirby--the canted angles, the fluid fight choreography, the endlessly varied uses to which a disclike shield can be put. Only thing missing is Kirby's exuberance, the sense of forces straining dramatically against each other with the fate of the universe at stake--all for our immediate viewing pleasure.
I don't know, I don't know--if you ask me, I much prefer Joss Whedon's 2008 online mini-musical: Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. In the show's slim forty-minute running time I found more super-powered wit, heart, drama, tragedy and, yes, singable music than in all of Cap'n Crunch's two-hour-plus running time (or, for that matter, either of the Iron Man movies, the three Spider Man movies, the various X-Men movies, the Thor picture and the second Hulk flick--more than in all of Marvel's big-screen output, almost (I still kind of like the Ang Lee film)). I'd include Erik Matti's gloriously silly Gagamboy (Spiderboy, 2004) as being superior to all this Hollywood heroics and for good measure throw in Artemio Marquez's James Batman (1966)--and I haven't even begun to talk about superhero movies that I really like. In other words: why settle for blandly flavored if competently made factory product, when there's crazier stuff out there? Start looking folks. Elsewhere.
First published in Businessworld, 7.28.11