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

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Now More Than Ever: GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH

17 03 2010

At a time when our nation is so polarized, and its future so uncertain, I’d like to devote this blog post to something all Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation, should be able to agree upon: GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH is an even better Gremlins film than the original GREMLINS.

Come come, you say, we have more important issues to address, more important debates to resolve than just those revolving around 1980’s & 90’s kids film rankings. But, reader, there are myriad other websites on which to engage in those crucial policy debates. Here on the Spielblog, we have our priorities completely fucking backwards – and that’s the way we like it.

So!

Joe Dante (left) (I mean right)

GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH has been a favorite of mine since I was in its target audience, so certainly some of my feelings toward it are tinged by nostalgia – but after a deeply mature and analytical re-visitation last night, I’m confident that this is a lasting gem of the horror-comedy genre, one full of treats not just for the casual viewer, but specifically for the cinephile. Here’s a movie packed front-to-back with movie references, from everything to RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II to MARATHON MAN – and the great majority of the in-jokes land with quick-fire consistency.

Director Joe Dante, an unsung hero of eighties pop filmmaking, came up alongside the very-sung hero of eighties pop filmmaking, Mr. Steven Spielblog- uh, berg. And though Dante became a lieutenant of Spielberg’s, so to speak (along with Chris Columbus and Joe Johnston,) helming the Spielbergian films that Spielly himself either didn’t have the time or inclination to shoot himself, Dante’s roots were always more deeply in the B-movie world than Spielberg’s. Dante’s first job out of college was cutting trailers for Roger Corman, and his first successes as director were the tongue-in-cheek creature features PIRANHA, and THE HOWLING. His love for B- or even Z-cinema, I think, is as undeniably infectious as it is undeniably prevalent in his body of work, which, it’s worth noting, is quite solid: following the original Spielberg-produced GREMLINS in 1984, Dante made EXPLORERS, INNERSPACE, and THE ‘BURBS, none of which are capital ‘G’ great films, but all of which are, yes, Great B-movies.  (He also directed a sizable chunk of the excellent and unseen 90’s TWILIGHT ZONE-esque young adult TV series EERIE, INDIANA…)

MANT!

Dante’s masterpiece, and his most heartfelt paean to the B-movie industry, however, is 1993’s MATINEE, a film made with love, and a film to love. Here, John Goodman stars as larger than life schlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey, who arrives in small town America like a snake-oil Hitchcock, peddling his newest feature MANT! (half man, half ant, obviously) and in the process, manages to turn the town upside-down amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. Seek out MATINEE. It’s as fun as they come.

“Fun” really is the key descriptive in Joe Dante’s filmography. Though Spielberg and Dante’s most personal films were both released in the same year, they’re about as different as two personal statements can be. And while Spielly’s cut a somewhat darker path since ’93 in the second act of his American auteur-ship, Dante, the journeyman, has managed to make hay from a number of hokey premises. Though the 2000’s wasn’t nearly as strong a decade for him as the 80’s or 90’s, Dante’s name on the credits is always a guarantee of a very good time.

I refuse to believe I'm the only one aroused by this.

Nowhere is this truer than in GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH, which I find myself gushing over this morning in the midst of several fever-pitch national crises. Sometimes, friends, it gets so bad all over, there’s nothing else to do but talk GREMLINS 2, if only to keep one’s self from reading Drudge and giving one’s self an ulcer… So! Before I go back to reading Drudge, I’ll just say this: apart from its rare Phoebe Cates sighting, and the hilarious John Glover as loopy Trump figure “Daniel Clamp,” what I love, really love about GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH, is the fact that as a sequel, it fundamentally changes the format of its franchise – something even Spielberg’s own sequels haven’t ventured to do. (TEMPLE OF DOOM being the exception.) GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH is a film not made to the specifications of its original. Sure, the same rules apply to the little buggers (say it with me now: no bright light, don’t get ‘em wet, and no food after midnight,) but this is a film that amps up the comedy of its premise to an almost Mel Brooksian level, while cutting back on the horror element of its significantly scarier predecessor. A wise decision; once you’ve seen the Gremlins metamorphose once, it’s diminishing returns from there on out. Dante and writer Charlie Haas clearly understand this – so rather than duplicate beat-for-beat that thing that made them rich the first time, they take a different tack, essentially switching genre, and garnering superior, though less financially lucrative results. That, Spielbloggees, is called risk-taking. And it’s something you don’t frequently see in studio filmmaking.

So, Joe Dante, god bless you. And god bless America.

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