Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America . . . Fuck Yeah!

So the biggest question mark of this year's onslaught of superhero flicks actually turned out to be really good. I still prefer X-Men: First Class, but The First Avenger (as it's known in US hating countries) is probably the most fun movie of the summer, even if it is basically a two hour preview for The Avengers.
After a present day prologue the film flashes back to the 1940's for Steve Rogers' origins and the first big surprise is that Chris Evans nails the character. I thought Johnny Storm would be totally wrong for the role, but he perfectly captures Cap's earnestness, heroics and basic decency without ever winking at the audience. It's almost an hour into the movie before he gets his powers, but like Superman and Spider-Man before it the origin story is so well done I was never bored. And the digital trickery that shrinks Evans' body to a tiny, puny frame is seamless.
Aside from the sheer sense of fun throughout (the film often recalls the best of the Indiana Jones series, including a nasty propeller death for one of the baddies) what really lifts the film up are the performances. Stanely Tucci is delightful as the scientist who creates the super soldier serum, Hayley Atwell is charming and pretty as the love interest, Tommy Lee Jones is amusing as the gruff Colonel and Hugo Weaving is menacing as always playing the sinister if underdeveloped Red Skull.
Joe Johnston's no nonsense directing style works well for what could have been an over the top and cheesy propaganda piece (one shudders to think how Michael Bay would have directed this - the film would probably have had an extra hour of flag waving). The special effects are good and the attention to period detail, as in Johnston's The Rocketeer, is perfect without drawing attention to itself. There are some fun montage sequences that leave the door open for further WWII adventures.
The bittersweet ending is surprisingly faithful to the comic (I liked that they never bothered to explain how Cap survived getting frozen in ice without aging for 70 years). And the Avengers trailer after the end credits perfectly wetted my appetite for what should, hopefully, be the best of all the Marvel Studios movies.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The end of Harry Potter

So I got up at 6 a.m. this morning (after about four hours sleep) just to watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. I wasn't disappointed. I've been very critical of David Yates' Potter films in the past (especially how he did a terrible adaptation of books 5 and 6) but here it all comes together to make the most satisfying film since Goblet of Fire, an emotional and exciting conclusion to a ten year movie saga.
The film's main strength is how quickly it moves. With all the setup and sitting around in a tent taken care of by Part I, this one is pretty much all action and plot twists (including some revelations that are sure to surprise those that haven't read the books). The highlight of the first act is a thrilling and visually stunning break-in of the Gringotts vault by our three heroes. It's hillarious to see Helena Bonham Carter playing Hermione playing Bellatrix and the dragon is awesome.
The search for Horcruxes is intercut with glimpses of the new regime at Hogwarts (Alan Rickman takes pregnant pauses to new heights as Snape relishes his role as headmaster) and we meet all our old friends, some of whom haven't appeared for several movies. While it's frustrating to see great actors such as David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane and Jim Broadbent relegated to virtual background extras, that's the nature of this franchise since their characters have already had their movies to shine. As in the book, many of the deaths happen off screen, which unfortunately mutes their impact. While it's hard to argue with the decision to keep the focus on Harry, some more snippets of the Battle of Hogwarts would have been welcome (where the bloody hell is Kreacher and the House Elves?). Molly Weasly fans will be happy that her Ellen Ripley moment is kept intact.
The search for the final horcruxes reiterates that Chamber of Secrets (the most underrated of the books and movies, IMO) is actually the most important story in the series, introducing as it does the first horcrux and the means to destroy them. The part of the book I was most nervous about them doing right was Snape's big reveal and, thankfully, screenwriter Steve Kloves does justice to both the character and the wonderful Rickman. It'll be a hard heart which doesn't break a little at the depth of his love for Harry's mother and the sacrifices he has made to honor her memory.
The final showdown is suitably epic, with Neville's dispatching of Nagini a real crowdpleaser. The actual defeat of Voldemort is a little too quick, but it is a definitive end for the character, once again superbly played by Ralph Fiennes. The epilogue is a little cheesy (as it was in the book) but is a fitting send off for these characters. I wish there had been a more cohesive vision across the series (as there was with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings) but it's been fun.