Superhero origin stories have been all the rage at the multiplex this summer with Marvel Comics alone accounting for two such films Thor and X-Men: First Class both of which happily surpassed critics’ expectations. Its latest Captain America: The First Avenger – so named as to provide us a helpful link to the Avengers movie coming next year – arguably faces the trickiest task of all three seeing as how Americans have not been in the most patriotic of moods in recent years. Could a flag-waving superhero really find purchase with a moviegoing audience that increasingly looks askance at such notions?
Surprisingly yes. That Captain America succeeds – and resoundingly so – is partly due to the producers’ decision to set the film during World War II a time where patriotism is a much easier sell. (And no viewer is too jaded to not enjoy seeing Nazis eviscerated en masse.) But proper credit must be given to director Joe Johnston who has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities and invites us to embrace them as well.
Chris Evans (The Losers Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers an earnest oft-bullied ectomorph whose lone wish is to ship off to Europe and fight on the front lines. But a plethora of physical ailments have combined to render him hopelessly unfit to serve however stiff his resolve. (To pull off the withered look of “Skinny Steve ” the filmmakers pulled off a nifty trick grafting Evans’ head onto the body of another actor Leander Neely.)
Rogers’ chance arrives in the guise of a government scientist the German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci as avuncular as a German-accented man can hope to be) who witnesses the young man’s idealistic ardor and recruits him to take part in secret military experiment. After proving his mettle in training Rogers is delivered a dose of Super Serum a PED that instantly makes him bigger stronger and faster than just about any other human alive.
Which is a good thing because on the other side of the Atlantic a renegade Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving doing a tremendous Christoph Waltz impression) has happened upon his own supernatural power source and he’s used it to quietly amass a private army dubbed HYDRA that is bent on supplanting Hitler’s world-domination scheme with its own. Soon all that stands between defeat at the hands HYDRA and its arsenal of advanced weaponry is the juiced-up visage of the newly-christened Captain America.
Portraying a stalwart straight-arrow bereft of angst or ambiguity isn’t the easiest of tasks for any actor but Evans does a commendable job of bringing depth and humanity to a character that all too easily could have come across as bland and one-dimensional. Johnston seems to recognize this potentiality as he looks primarily to his supporting cast to supply the personality: Tucci and Weaving stand out as do Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones playing an irascible army commander and a timid HYDRA toady respectively. The film’s romantic spark comes courtesy of the principal cast’s lone female representative the excellent Haley Atwell playing Rogers’ military liaison Agent Peggy Carter.
More than anything Captain America is a triumph of tone. A former ILM technician Johnston did visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster was a conscious touchstone for his film’s throwback feel and aesthetic. (Another less deliberate influence would be a previous Johnston film The Rocketeer.) Captain America embodies the spirit of the old serials melded with a tongue-in-cheek comic sense and punctuated by action sequences that deploy the requisite CGI fireworks with a welcome measure of restraint. The film is decidedly of its era but never feels gratuitously nostalgic. And its production design is gorgeous: Red Skull’s lair in particular is a treasure trove of retro-futurist designs all of which seem directly lifted from 1940s World’s Fair exhibits.
After being cursed by delays The Wolfman Hollywood’s latest spin on the popular werewolf myth finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director Mark Romanek abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman’s problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic evoking a palpable exquisite sense of dread is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star Benicio Del Toro.
The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget “monster movies” from the ‘30s and ‘40s that he loved dearly as a child. It’s fashioned as a loose remake of 1941’s The Wolf Man a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver for example owes its origin to The Wolf Man.
But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key understated performances marked by a muttering often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead.
Playing an American-bred (but English-born we’re told) character in an 1890 setting looking uncomfortable in period attire surrounded by such “proper” British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman.
Things only get worse unfortunately when Del Toro’s character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full the film transitions with increasing ridiculousness from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick replete with grisly shots of torn flesh exposed spines and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused uneasy chuckle which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical.
Of all the Wolfman players only Hopkins seems to get the joke reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman adapts Brown’s bestselling page-turner to the best of his ability adding a few variations of his own but following the general plot of the novel. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) a professor of iconography and religious art becomes embroiled in a mystery when the highly respected Louvre curator in Paris is found murdered. Before he died he was able to leave Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) the curator’s granddaughter clues through Da Vinci’s works which eventually lead them on a quest for the Holy Grail itself. Along for the ride is historian Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) a Paris detective (Jean Reno) and an albino monk (Paul Bettany) intent on stopping them. But here’s the kicker: one of Da Vinci’s theories is that Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ were married and had a child thus creating a “sang real” or “royal bloodline” that must be protected destroyed or exposed--depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Ah the stuff great stories are made of. Upon hearing the casting of Da Vinci many of the book’s avid fans rejoiced--it is indeed a stellar line up. But it is probably one of the least compelling performances star Hanks has ever turned in. It’s not his fault really; Langdon is equally as stiff in the book. Same sort of goes for the Sophie character which is a shame for the lovely Tautou (Amelie) who isn’t able to fully utilize her incredibly expressive face here. Both actors could have been more animated but they are really the conduits for the more colorful supporting characters surrounding them. Bettany (Wimbledon) does an admirable job as the baddie a self-flagellating zealot intent on following orders even if the amiable actor is a bit ill-suited as a villain. But it’s McKellen who steals the show as the acerbic but jovial Teabing full of conspiracy theories and revelations about the true meaning of the Grail. The veteran thesp has a lot of information to pass on in the film but does so in a very engaging way. When he finally exits so does the film’s energy. Therein lies the main problem with The Da Vinci Code: Keeping up the momentum. The novel is chockfull of exposition--pages and pages of historical information along with passages about the characters’ pasts. It’s great to read but to watch it unfold on screen could have been an excruciatingly boring experience. Goldsman and Howard have both admitted having trouble adapting the material trying to find ways to make the story more cinematic. But the Oscar-winning Howard has proven himself to be a highly capable director and gives Da Vinci Code the necessary touches interweaving visual re-creations within the narration. Salvatore Totino's glistening cinematography also accentuates the lush sets while Hans Zimmer's score pumps it up. Still at two and a half hours Da Vinci Code drags. It has to--you’ve got all the book’s theories to get out. It's true Brown’s imaginative opus for obvious reasons rocked a few boats when it was first published but it sold millions. It stands to reason the movie will do the same at the box office.