Steve Rogers is the heart of the Marvel Universe, so Chris Evans didn’t just have to look the part (he does), he had to portray Rogers’ effortless morality, steadfastness, determination, compassion and natural leadership (in the books he even ran for president once). The good news is he pulls it off.
And it’s a good thing too, because as the final film leading into next summer’s Avengers blockbuster, it needed to be the best Marvel film of them all. If Cap is to have any resonance for cinema-goers when he leads the Avengers, they need to be thoroughly convinced right here, right now. I certainly was, both as the ‘kid from Brooklyn’ (the CGI is unreal) and as the hyper-buff superhero he becomes. Every necessary ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ crossed, from the friendship with Bucky (Sebastian Stan) to the relationship with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), but there’s additional fun thrown in too. Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips has perhaps his best turn since ‘The Fugitive’, chewing every scene he’s in right up, whilst Hugo Weaving somehow figures out how to play a Red Skull who’s both dastardly and entirely believable on film. And Stanley Tucci’s role as Dr Erskine helps ingeniously to rework the origin and to hammer the importance of Rogers’ moral centre home; Simon and Kirby would have been proud.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely even offer cheeky nods to the comic book character, putting Steve through his paces in his four-colour counterpart’s costume, giving great story justification why it would be so ridiculous to wear in the ‘real’ world. Of course this world doesn’t even try to be ‘real’ – we have cosmic cubes, hints of the Norse mythology which eventually crosses paths with the Marvel Universe in ‘Thor’, not to mention men with perfect skull-like faces, having been changed by a super soldier serum and ‘vita rays’, and it’s to director Joe Johnston’s credit that he takes it all in his stride. Like Spielberg and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he plays Cap’s origin as a largely pulpy affair, but never neglects to add the espionage flavour which has made Ed Brubaker’s current run on the book so enormously popular. It’s a fully realised Second World War Marvel Universe, and with vibranium and Dr Phineas Horton directly referenced, can the Black Panther or a rebooted Fantastic Four be very far behind?
The ending is never in doubt – Cap had to be encased in ice for generations, but the modern twist is neatly executed and his first meeting with Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury provides the neat, formal lead-in to the Avengers. It’s not a perfect film by any means – some of the CGI is ropey and loses perspective sometimes, but the tone is so perfect, the humour so dark, and is overall so true to the best the character has been in his own book, that it really doesn’t matter. Delight in Hugo Weaving almost outdoing his own Agent Smith turn from the Matrix as the Red Skull (with a nifty German accent to boot), laugh as Hayley Atwell steals almost every scene she’s in as Peggy Carter (more than can be said for the other cinematic Marvel leading ladies), and relish the fact that, unlike DC/Warner, Marvel has yet again put a truly heroic and likeable character on screen, and given us reasons to like him. Unlike ‘Thor’ before it, The First Avenger never tries to rush Rogers’ backstory, and for this reason I’m highly tempted to say this is the best Marvel Studios film yet released.
Run, don’t walk, even if you don’t like comics.
Oh this utterly and totally rules:
This is totally what Cap is supposed to be about, and should make Thor and Iron Man look like bore fests, acting as an amazing lead-in to the Avengers film next summer!
It’s not hard to see why Emma Stone has already become the next big thing. Easily stepping into La Lohan’s shoes for feelgood teen comedy with bite, she commands the screen with just as much charisma as she showed in ‘Zombieland’, and with intelligence to spare. Granted, ‘Easy A’ doesn’t require much intelligence to watch, but it does ask some awkward questions about modern teenagers and of teen life in general, and doesn’t always offer easy answers. Stone plays Olive Penderghast, a high school loner who one day inadvertently makes her best friend think she’d slept with a college student. Enter her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), a bullied loner too, who asks her to pretend to have sex with him in order to relieve his daily torment. She agrees, but it opens the floodgates for all bullied loners – Olive relieves the suffering of the lives of the high school oppressed, but at the cost of her own reputation. She meanwhile doesn’t have sex with anyone, and doesn’t even notice the advances of ‘Woodchuck’ Todd (Penn Badgley).
Bert V Royal’s script is peppered with hilariously funny lines, largely given to Stone’s ultra-liberal parents Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, but Will Gluck’s movie isn’t afraid of going very dark places too. Stone is even thrown under the bus by school counsellor Lisa Kudrow (typically witty yet acerbic), who sleeps with a ‘Christian’ student behind her husband Thomas Haden Church’s back. Royal and Gluck never give her a break – her reputation gets shot to hell whilst trying to do the right thing, yet the people she helps don’t help her back. It may not be as black as ‘Heathers’, but it has a similar point to make about contemporary teen culture.
It likens itself to the teen movies of the 1980′s (‘Say Anything’ in particular), but whilst it occasionally has similar sensibilities, it does tread ground they covered more sincerely two and a half decades ago. There’s nothing original here, and whilst Stone fills the role effortlessly, she does quite often give off the air that she’s beneath it. I couldn’t agree more – ‘Zombieland’ most recently made that clear, and it’ll be interesting to see her in the Spider-Man reboot, but this is still a lot of well-meaning fun. Comparisons have been made between this and ‘Clueless’ – both have strong, career-making female leads, both pay homage to notable pieces of literature (Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ there, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ here), and it’s a significant point; both may be fluffy but they’re intelligent too. You won’t see a teen movie ultimately this good again for a long time.
I know that Alice Sebold’s book is revered for some reason or another, but the film sure didn’t give any of the reasons away as to why. That’s not to say that director and co-screenwriter Peter Jackson has made a bad adaptation, far from it, but it’s not remotely clear what the film is supposed to be about. Is it a ‘Ghost’-style, beyond-the-grave murder mystery? Is it a teen romance? A story of a serial killer? It never settles on anything particularly, and Jackson’s focus never stays still long enough to get an emotional grip on proceedings. Teenager Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered by serial killer neighbour Stanley Tucci in the early 70s, and narrates the film from the afterlife. We see her family life, we see her first love, ambitions and insecurities, just as she’s about to start really growing up. After her death we see her stuck in the ‘In-Between’, a half-way house between life and the afterlife, seemingly trapped by her parents’ (Mark Wahlberg & Rachel Weisz) inability to let her go. Will Tucci get away with it?
Well yes, and it’s a highly unsatisfying end to a film which claims to aspire to much more. There are other unsatisfying aspects to the film however, from Wahlberg’s whiny, insubstantial performance, to his and Rachel Weisz’s frustratingly unmoving grief, through to the non-story about the police (were they really that incompetent in the seventies?); it all may be entertainingly knitted together, but it’s emotionally unengaging. It leaves Ronan standing almost alone, excelling as Susie Salmon, as does Tucci as her killer, and the absence of a clearer focus on their relationship before and after her murder, and the lack of emotional resonance of her life being cut short are genuinely missed opportunities. But Jackson doesn’t spend long enough on any character’s plight for us to engage with it in any depth. And what was Susan Sarandon doing as the comedically drunk grandmother?
Susie doesn’t end up leading her parents to Tucci – Wahlberg figures it out on his own, and even the moment where her disembodied spirit could intervene to stop Tucci from getting away with his crime is spoiled by a ridiculously contrived (and inappropriate) sequence with Ronan and her still-living true love. What was the point of it all? What was the point of framing the real world stories with Susie’s adventures in the afterlife? It may have looked impressive, but was overlong and overindulgent, and I never figured it out.
How does the first film to be adapted from a blog stand up? The answer is: pretty well. It’s a sweet little affair, although it suffers slightly from being very much two films running in parallel – one failing to stack up anywhere near as well as the other. Amy Adams plays real world blogger Julie Powell, who famously blogged about cooking all of celebrity chef Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) recipes from her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year. So far so boring right? Well Adams’ half, as she pursues a project which would make most cooks reach for the red wine in more ways than one, is the weaker of the two. She plays Powell very much in the mould of a Meg Ryan, and it’s hardly surprising, considering it’s written and directed by “When Harry Met Sally”‘s writer Norah Ephron. The humour is warm and well-meaning, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen many times before, and Powell’s cooking challenge, whilst interesting, doesn’t make an interesting story for a film. Where the film comes into its own however is in La Streep’s half – she injects Powell’s inspiration Child with a warm, understandable humanity beneath the over-the-top manner which was her real world trademark. It’s no mean feat, but the impersonation isn’t just remarkable on a physical level, it’s also well thought-out. Streep clearly doesn’t try to play the real Child, she plays the Child as we imagined her – it’s ultimately the central theme of the film, and she’s more than up to the task.
Ephron runs gentle parallels between the two women’s lives at two key point in each – Powell/Adams’ blog challenge (and the impact it has on her personal life) and Child/Streep’s accidental and then single-minded pursuit of French cookery whilst living in Paris with her diplomat husband (the sublime Stanley Tucci) half a century ago. Fortunately though she pays disproportionate attention to Child’s story – and it’s fascinating to follow her ego-free rise to superstardom, as Powell gets caught up in the internet age by her own increasing celebrity. The film’s interesting perspective on celebrity in two very differing ages never quite takes off though, and it’s one of the two points Ephron comes slightly unstuck on. Child was rumoured not to support Powell’s project, and the notion of the imagined Child being sufficient inspiration for Powell is also regrettably only lightly touched upon, although Streep sticks tightly to it in her delivery. For us it’s certainly true.
‘Julie & Julia’ may not be a ‘great’ work, but it’s delightfully positive fare, with a towering performance by one of the greatest screen actresses of all time, still at the peak of her powers.