CAPTAIN AMERICA vs. HARRY POTTER. Whose Cuisine Will Reign Supreme?

26 07 2011

Though not without muscle, Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is mainly ligament. Along with other recent Marvel Studios film properties, THE FIRST AVENGER plays as an origin story that’s meant to tie itself into – you guessed it – 2012’s THE AVENGERS, in which a metric ton of superheroes assemble for… more… of the same… I assume… Like Kenneth Branagh’s THOR, which came to us in early summer 2011, (oh, how I miss you, this May,) CAP is a solid load-bearer, and more importantly, it’s a moneymaker. Under the direction of Johnston, who made the similar-but-better THE ROCKETEER, CAPTAIN AMERICA pulls out all the stops in the tale of puuuuuny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, through a special U.S. Army serum (Serum, y’all! Only in America!) becomes a Hitler-socking super-soldier in the Second World War. That, as we all know from history class, is the cheesiest of all the world wars – or at least that’s the tone of this film… Still, I’ll take cheese over whine in comic book movies any day. Thank god we didn’t get a brooding, super-serious super-soldier in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.

Hugo Weaving as 'Red Skull,' Nazi collector of knicknacks.

The strongest superhero tales are modern myth – but as myth, Captain America doesn’t have much going on. He was a piece of propaganda first and foremost. (This film’s best sequence cleverly tweaks this real origin, tying the false and the real, until we’re watching kids reading actual Marvel comics in a world in which they’re based on a real guy.) But agitprop and connective tissue value aside, the story of Captain America is made of weaker stuff than the real modern classics. It’s weaker than the Batman revenger myth, weaker than the Superman outsider myth, weaker than Marvel’s other weakling-to-strongman myth, Spiderman. Everyone understands the crux of those heroes, the inner conflict that defines them, and through which we identify with them; hell, they’re practically cave paintings, in the age of the soundbite. Not so much Captain America. His origin story doesn’t tap into any great truth, nor is any real attempt made. He’s a patriot, he wants to fight Nazis, so, he does. And though the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely hits its marks, its proportions are less than emotionally epic. It’s just fun. Good fun, even. But it ain’t worth painting on no cave wall.

If this were a Marvel Studios movie, Chris Evans would have to battle Chris Evans. Where is your god now?!

The Harry Potter franchise, on the other hand, has over the past decade-plus proven itself to be pretty clearly cave-worthy. You can’t qualify the triumph of this thing, if only because numbers don’t lie. Harry Potter is now officially the biggest fiction phenomenon of all time. But even as it’s devoured all in its path, the Potter film series has proven a mixed bag. Parts one and two, by Chris Columbus, were kids’ movies, straight up: hard to dislike, harder to re-watch (for anyone over eight.) Parts three and four, under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, promised richer installments to come – but then, the fifth and sixth films of the series were confusing disappointments that bounced over plot points as quickly as possible, barely lingering to examine their characters’ reactions.

The series capper, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, has been wisely broken in two. This allowed the first part, which we’ll call “HPDHP1,” to breathe – GASP –  finally. Its deliberate pace and bleak visuals made it a sort of gothic triptych that promised a finish to the series that was daring, and dark – a piece in which the maturity of its heroes was matched by the franchise’s own maturity. I enjoyed the first part of this final installment, (See? SEE?!) but to say that HPDHP1 is dwarfed by its follow-up, the final final chapter, is a huge understatement.

Seriously, look at this dragon. LOOK at it.

For starters, one could argue, HPDHP2 contains the best visual effects ever put on film. It’s state of the art, stress on the art, no expense spared, so there’s nothing here that looks anything less than actually magical. Take a sequence in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron catch a ride on an ancient, imprisoned dragon; the emaciated beast elicits sympathy even in its viciousness; such is the magnificent expressiveness of its reptilian chops. And as it lopes across rooftops, struggling in its jailbreak, the effect is truly exciting. The beast’s weight is as substantial as its agony. Thankfully, to match the performances of all the dragons and elves and shit, the humans have hit their high, too. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson display unforced charm and connection that can only mean, unfortunately, they don’t despise each other off-screen. (Because that would be hilarious.) And as Severus Snape, Alan Rickman finally gets his close-up after several films of being shuffled back in the rogue’s gallery. His first speech in the film is twice as long as it could be, each syllable drawn out to sinister perfection. Rickman savors it. So did I.

Oh, so THIS is where the cool kids come to smoke.

The best achievement of HPDHP2 is that it fully realizes the catharsis of a hero who, let’s face it, as of 2011 is bigger than Jesus. But even as director David Yates plays out a climax that will deliver millions of fans to something like nirvana, nothing about the film feels indulgent or needlessly sentimental. Yates doesn’t make a weepy out of what certainly could be one, nor does he draw things out in a RETURN OF THE KING-esque attempt to sustain the euphoria of the saga’s closing moments, with seventeen fake endings. Instead, HPDHP2 is the shortest film of the Potter series; it’s two hours of thundering action and suspense, payoff after payoff after payoff. Wow.

So, how did I spend my weekend? Watching kids movies, duh. The former, I think I would have enjoyed a lot more if I were nine… The latter, I can’t imagine enjoying any more than I did.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART TWO

Regal Cinemas Horton Plaza, San Diego, California

Saturday, July 23, 2:30pm showing

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Sunday, July 24, 3:50pm showing





TRANSFORMERS 3 Hates You Back.

4 07 2011

Michael Bay’s two-hour-and-forty-minute TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON has two good minutes. Let me describe them for you. Chicago is under siege by robuts, and an Army platoon whooshes down by ‘wingsuit’ into the windy city to do battle, like so many enlisted flying squirrels. It’s cool – and it stands out from the rest of the film for one reason: these are the only two minutes in which human beings actually do something interesting. Yes, we’ve got humans running and hiding behind things in the foreground as robuts duke it out, and we’ve got humans looking at video-screens and saying ‘those other humans don’t stand a chance against the robuts,’ (I’m paraphrasing,) but this wingsuit sequence is the one time in this action movie that humans are engaged in unique physical action.

At approximately the 2hr 15min mark, I began taking cellphone photos to amuse myself.

The miscalculation of many genre films in the last 20 years is based in the wasteful notion that computer-generated effects actually make entertainment more entertaining. But as long as people can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s impossible by sight, (as of 2011 we still can,) CG in ‘action movies’ will remain antithetical to the intended effect of the genre. We know when a punch is landing – and when a punch has been painstakingly digitally rendered to resemble landing… The TRANSFORMERS series, with barely a frame untouched by CG, is this folly taken to the extreme. At least I hope it’s the extreme.

Ahead of his newest, director Bay has been trumpeting 3D technology, claiming that he made this TRANSFORMER ‘specially – specially for you, America, ‘cause he loves you girl, with his warm non-demon heart… But the summer of 2011 finds us in a 3D backlash. (Why? Because my ticket was $20, that’s why.)  So, Bay’s hard selling, because he’s really made nothing new here but a movie that costs $5 more than his last one. Content-wise, trucks killing other trucks may have struck a chord in 2007, but since then, it’s just been more dead trucks: four years, three TRANSFORMERS, deal with it. OK Bay, as long as you’re this cravenly transparent in your greed, I salute you. Asshole.

There's so little actual transforming in this movie I don't even wanna talk about it.

Unfortunately, now Bay says his next film is going to be a “dark comedy.” My god. He actually thinks he’s funny, doesn’t he? The first hour of TRANSFORMERS 3 is filled with wild stabs at ugly humor; be it sexist, racist, or homophobic – yes, whichever of the three known types of humor you prefer, this movie’s got it! The jokes are so manic and mean-spirited it all makes you ask, did screenwriter Ehren Kruger actually sit down and type this darkness? Or was it Bay, shouting “gimme ‘broad and racist,’ and riff, Malkovich! Go!” Either way, Michael Bay does not know funny, and will never make a funny comedy. On that you have my word.

Reprising the role of Sam Witwicky in TRANSFORMERS 3 is a Shia LaBeoueuf, who looks easily 75 years old. His biggest trait this time around is a newfound sense of entitlement – which, though it’s not a good choice for a hero character, is probably the closest Bay’s ever come to autobiography. As Sam’s love interest Carly, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley resembles the most beautiful camel I’ve ever seen. But definitely a camel. The previous female lead, actress of our time Megan Fox, is absent, after speaking ill of her director. Bay fired her for her insolence, but is now claiming that it was executive producer-slash-cinematic-emperor-uncle-figure Steven Spielberg who demanded Fox be let go after she compared Bay to Adolf Hitler. See, these TRANSFORMERS films, they’re decent, moral films. But Megan Fox crossed a line… Regardless of the truth of this new talking point, Bay’s repulsive tactic is just the same as Sarah Palin and her ilk use, claiming victimization to mask their own hate-spew. Hey, speaking of hate-spew, did I mention Bill O’Reilly’s in TRANSFORMERS 3? It’s pleasant.

Run, Shia! Run from 'Even Stevens'!

Steven Spielberg has changed the summer season at least three times. He more or less created the ‘high concept tentpole,’ marrying impossible premises with technological advancements year after year – and taking everybody’s money. And though he himself has never made anything as bad as this, TRANSFORMERS is Spielberg product, a malignancy on his body commercial, but also a natural outgrowth of it. The guy who had E.T. snarfing down Reese’s pieces in ’82 continues to put his name on state-of-the-art movies about aliens, and product placement – but TRANSFORMERS is the Spielberg algorithm in the hands of the wrong people; it’s as if the Nazis got the Ark after all. (Oops, is that a Hitler comparison? Am I fired?) It’s all technology, and no point, except profit. Spielly, look upon what ye have wrought… And as for you, Michael Bay, at this point no one is asking greatness – only a little competency. Yet here we blockbuster hooligans are, wishing for the ball to be moved down the field, and instead watching something so generic that the action is literally interchangeable.

I’m tired of Bay’s defenders saying things like “he doesn’t care about emotion or characters or plot, but he’s just so great at blowing things up.” Because it’s not that Bay doesn’t care. It’s that he doesn’t get it. It’s not a choice, it’s a mistake. Bay mistakes excess for excitement. Big and loud and ready to be lanced, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON has no visceral effect whatsoever. Just – nothing. This movie is nothing.

TRANSFORMERS: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Friday, July 1, 7:30pm showing