Captain America: The First Avenger (PG-13)
Even as a more or less lifelong Marvel Comics reader, the character of Captain America never really did it for me, largely because, admittedly very cool shield aside, Steve Rogers was just such a square do-gooder, made all the more blandly so by his jingoistic name and concept. Ironically enough, Joe Johnston's The First Avenger is probably as good a film version as can be made in this day and age, and the key reason for that is unapologetically embracing the square do-gooder nature of the character and concept. That's a bold decision, but one buffered by one especially canny move: going way back in time to the character's pre-Marvel, Timely Comics roots in the 1940s, setting this first film in the WWII era, thus making that squareness and flag-waving all the more easy to accept and swallow. Johnston proves to be the ideal choice for the helm given both his experience and success with action, effects, making period-set comic book adaptations (The Rocketeer), and being one of the rare filmmakers who can really pull off earnest Americana without setting off the cynical recoil reflex (October Sky). These elements in place, the film builds more than an adequate buffer against certain built-in limitations. As Steve/Cap, Chris Evans adequately fills the suit and throws the shield, but this film being a prelude to his eventual (not a spoiler) time displacement, he doesn't have many beats to play other than being a well-meaning, stand-up guy, whether in his scrawny pre-Super Soldier Serum form (a real--pun halfway intended--marvel of FX work) or post-enhancement superhero mode. As such, there isn't much emotional attachment to either his journey or relationships with British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, equal parts spunky and glam, and wholly appealing) or best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan). But whatever it may lack in dramatic heft or complexity it luckily compensates in general entertainment terms, whether with Hugo Weaving and Tommy Lee Jones inhabiting now-familiar character type(cast)s as, respectively, big bad Red Skull and Steve's hardass army colonel; the cheeky fun had with pitch-perfect simulations of war-era patriotic propaganda; or the well-staged and -edited action sequences. Of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, this one is definitely the least stand-alone as it is so clearly a ramp-up for something bigger--next summer's Avengers film--but then it does its job in making one that much more interested in seeing just how Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk assemble under Joss Whedon's watch.
Cowboys & Aliens (PG-13)
In a movie world where there is rarely truth in advertising, much less titling, Cowboys & Aliens is rather refreshingly what-you-see-is-exactly-what-you-get: the film is exactly that, a western with aliens grafted on, or a sci-fi invasion film with cowboys grafted on--nothing more, nothing less. While definitely an entertaining couple of hours, there's a certain sense that maybe this could have been a lot more, especially considering the ridiculous talent pedigree: stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford; Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard among the executive producers; and, most of all, in the director's chair Jon Favreau, a proven hand at injecting some lively, unexpected touches of eccentric personality in all of his studio efforts, from a holiday comedy like Elf, to a family film like Zathura, to the blockbuster that was Iron Man. But pretty much the genre-cross of the concept is about as off-kilter as it gets, for the standard lines are walked as a stoic outlaw (Craig, taking on a role Ford probably would've filled 20 years ago) wakes up without his memory in a dusty old down with all the recognizable western types... and then UFO's show up and start blowing up things and abducting the locals. If the balance is tilted toward one direction, it's western, for not only are the heroes the cowboys (and eventually Indians), the overall story takes on the simple, recognizable quest structure, with the ragtag group hitting horseback on a mission to find the missing loved ones. The sci-fi does take over a bit more in the latter half, with one set of conventional tropes traded for others (rampaging hordes of creatures; break-ins into spaceships), and like the oater motions, Favreau executes the creature feature qualities with proficient skill, aided by impressive practical and digital effects. But one keeps waiting for the film to take that one extra step beyond that it seems about to take yet ultimately settles for being contented with hitting the required marks. That's not a bad thing, of course: all of the action, whether barroom brawls or dusty gunplay or alien chases and battles, is crisply handled; Craig here is as badass as his Bond; Ford's gravelly growl is put to good use as a grizzled old colonel; and Olivia Wilde fits the bill of a local damsel who certainly isn't in distress; and there's a refreshing lack of self-conscious, self-referential winking about the genre mix-up. But for all the enjoyment to be had here, something with that curious hybrid of a title and concept shouldn't ultimately feel somewhat disposable.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (PG-13)
Despite the vibe of title, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a more serious romantic film, but the deft balance between humor and more earnest matters of the heart makes for the best of both worlds: genuinely sweet and touching while also smartly funny. This best shines through in the work of the actors playing the two central buddies, who use what on paper looks to be a bit of a routine exercise to reveal different shades to their long proven talent. The role of a hopelessly square sad sack whose wife just left him sounds old hat for Steve Carell, and he indeed wrings every last, often uncomfortable, laugh from the character and scenario, but what takes one aback is just how, for all the jokily bad styling and moments of comic discomfort, how piercingly real he makes the emotional situation. Conversely, Ryan Gosling, typically associated with more intense parts, is a comic revelation as the slick young ladies' man who offers to turn him into a smooth chick magnet. Together, though, Carell and Gosling are all infectious fun, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa expertly juggle them and the various other characters in their assortment of interlocking stories about the foibles of love not only to great comic effect but in ways that make organic dramatic sense; various twists and connections don't feel contrived but instead believably add up. But making even that form into a greater whole is the fantastic cast aside from the top two: as one of Gosling's targets, Emma Stone largely lurks in secondary status, but when her character gets her moment to shine, Stone handily takes over; Julianne Moore has the thankless straight-arrow part as Carell's ex, but she far from disappears against the more dynamic and showy roles; young Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton are sweet and very real as, respectively, Carell and Moore's 13-year-old son and his "older woman" crush, his 17-year old babysitter; and Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon milk the most out of their limited screen time. In the end, crazy and stupid are rather apt words for the film, for they convey the alternately humorous and painful irrationality that can only come with love.
Friends with Benefits (R)
In the grand Hollywood tradition of the years of dueling volcano movies, dueling falling asteroid/comet movies, and (my personal fave) dueling lambada movies, 2011 is the year of dueling fuckbuddy rom-coms--both of which, oddly enough, feature former teenybopper idols, That '70s Show alumni, and Black Swan co-stars, making comparisons between this and January's No Strings Attached that much more inevitable. So it is a bit surprising that with all of these shared elements beyond the basic idea, each feels rather distinct and effective in its own right, but I would give the slight edge to this film, which unlike the more subplot- and supporting character-heavy No Strings, is almost completely focused on the central (non-)couple--and Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are as incredibly charming and funny together as they are [begin Zoolander voice] really, really good looking [end Zoolander voice], and not simply in a standard screen coupledom sense. Perhaps more crucially, they have such extremely believable, easy-going chemistry as buddies that it's almost disappointing that the inevitable turn to traditional romantic interests rears its head. Key word there is "almost," for whether the two are being hilariously, bluntly frank as pleasure-indulging friends or pining for something more, director Will Gluck never loses his playful, raunchy, edgy sense of humor, even poking fun at the very formula the film is ultimately obligated to follow. Through it all, Timberlake and Kunis are fearless, funny, and just incredibly likable, nicely supported by the game likes of Patricia Clarkson (as Kunis's freespirited mom) and Woody Harrelson (as, in a bit of a twist from the norm, Timberlake's Best Gay Friend). A concern about Timberlake's family troubles is the film's one unwelcome point of mawkishness, but Richard Jenkins (as his dad) and Jenna Elfman (as his sister) sell it well enough, and it ultimately does not detract from the overall entertainment of the piece.
Life in a Day (PG-13)
Even with no less than Sir Ridley Scott serving as producer and Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald serving as (primary) director, this much-hyped documentary portrait of one day, Saturday, July 24, 2010, culled from YouTube video submissions from around the towrld remains a far more intriguing project on paper than in actual practice. Once the initial novelty of seeing how people from various corners of the globe go about their daily routine wears off (which, for me, was about 15 minutes in), one then waits for a larger, more profound message to emerge--which never really happens, not helped by the repetitive, episodic routine Macdonald quickly settles into: montage of quick snippets centering around a theme or idea (for instance, what's in one's pocket) followed by an extended stay with one of the subjects. While there are the expected differences between the different cultures and societies, Macdonald's overall and rather predictable point is ultimately how similar everyone is, driven home by his rather frustrating choice to not label from which nation each bit of video footage originates. While not delineating any borders does reinforce the whole concept of global community, it also dilutes the impact of such a revelation--that is, if such a banal observation can even be called such. A late glimpse of the day as experienced by those in Afghanistan, both native citizens and U.S. troops, as well as military families back home, does hold some undeniable weight, but ultimately the film as a whole is all too well summed up by its closing bit, where a young woman bemoans how she hoped for an eventful day but ended up with another rather mundane one.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You Won't Get a Second Life)
The premise of Zoya Akhtar's sophomore effort behind the camera more than slightly resembles that of her brother Farhan's 2001 filmmaking debut, Dil Chahta Hai: it traces three buddies and their journeys in love and life over a fairly brief time period. But this film is a spiritual sibling to that seminal film far beyond surface story basics: it is also a smart, relaxed, and understated character-driven seriocomic entertainment whose poignance sneaks up on you. Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol, and (once again working in front of the camera for his sister after her 2009 debut, Luck by Chance) Farhan Akhtar play the trio here; on the eve of the wedding of Kabir (Deol, a grounding presence), he, workaholic Arjun (Roshan, ably cast against type) and jokester Imraan (Akhtar, giving his most natural and appealing on-screen performance to date) go on a three-week bachelors' road trip through Spain, along the way indulging in a surprise adventure/stunt secretly chosen by each. Much like Dil Chahta Hai, plot is secondary to the characters and their relationships, and if the actors are assigned to play types (also extending to the female cast; Kalki Koechlin plays Kabir's uptight fiancée Natasha, and Katrina Kaif plays free-spirited diving instructor Laila), they inhabit them with genuine personality and humanity and exhibit affable, appealing chemistry with each other. Accordingly, Zoya Akhtar and co-writer Reema Kagti achieve a deft balance between each character and their respective arcs. While there is a major superstar in the cast in Roshan, he is (not unlike Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai) very much one of the ensemble, for Arjun's life-changing possible romance with Laila doesn't overwhelm the other two main concerns, Kabir's doubts about his impending nuptials and Imraan's search for his long-lost biological father. Similarly, and more importantly, balanced is the tone; the dramatic beats are given their proper weight while lighter moments and laughs emerge organically--as do the songs, for Akhtar only gives the full-on lipsynch treatment to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's memorable tunes only when the moment naturally calls for it, otherwise using them as effective, theme-enhancing underscore. But as breezily charming the film is as it plays, just how lovingly and carefully Akhtar has assembled it doesn't come clear until the final moments, when one realizes just how genuinely involved one is in these characters and invested in the bonds between them. (Special thanks to Naz 8 Cinemas)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (PG-13)
Despite all the fantasy trappings and good-versus-evil epic mythology of the Harry Potter series, what truly unifies this ten-year, eight-film saga and gives the archetypal conventions such lasting resonance for so many people is the sense of kinship with its lead trio of young wizards, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson), and their family-like bonds of friendship. The connection fostered by witnessing them grow from children to young adults before our very eyes--not just individually, but more importantly together as family unit--is what really drives the emotional stakes in The Deathly Hallows Part 2, which chronicles the final showdown with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his army of Death Eaters. This being not only the eighth film in a serialized series but really the second half of an epic-sized final film (and, indeed, only a pre-Warner Bros. logo replay of the previous film's closing scene is the only thing coming close to catch-up exposition), needless to say this is a most non-ideal place for Potter newcomers to start watching. But director David Yates handles all of the major action and effects sequences (which are even grander and more elaborate for this big finish) with such skill that their solid craft and visceral excitement would not be lost on anyone, and if the exact narrative circumstances may not be clear, the ever-capable cast of veteran faces (Alan Rickman delivers his crowning performance of the series as Snape) and most especially that talented trio more than convincingly sell the driving emotional beats. As someone who's largely enjoyed though is hardly die-hard fanatical about the series, that latter quality even took me aback, for by the end credit roll I found myself cinematically satisfied yet ubdeniably feeling that bittersweetness of an anticipated but no less poignant goodbye.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (PG-13)
This adaptation of Lisa See's novel finds director Wayne Wang clearly attempting to conjure up the magic he created with The Joy Luck Club nearly 20 years ago, telling interlocking stories of women that cross time, language, and cultures in a screen version of a bestseller. Instead of telling the stories of four mother-daughter pairs, his focus is a bit more concentrated here, telling two parallel stories: that of two estranged best friends in modern day Shanghai who are reunited by a tragedy, and the story within the story of the novel one of the women has written, a tale about two sworn sisters by oath in 19th Century China whose lives and luck pull them in different directions. Wang may be working with a less complex structure and canvas than that 1993 success, but there's a lot more awkwardness here, especially in the English-language modern day half, which doesn't have nearly the convincing dramatic gravitas that the period story does. Despite the unevenness, the sincerity of the work of stars Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun (who play both pairs of friends) shines through, and the power of its message of stubborn but invaluable friendship.
Winnie the Pooh (G)
So haphazardly slapped together assembled and rotely cranked out were the last three Winnie the Pooh films that Disney threw into cinemas the previous decade (The Tigger Movie, Piglet's Big Movie, and Pooh's Heffalump Movie) that the only feeling they all could muster, if it could even be called that, was a harmless indifference--a far cry from the deceptively modest and haunting charms of both A.A. Milne's source books (could there ever be a statement that speaks so profoundly in its simplicity than "Promise me you won't forget me because if I thought you would, I'd never leave"?) or the gentle elegance of Disney's timeless 1977 classic The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Disney Animation Studios head John Lasseter's affection for both and most especially the latter comes through in this classy revival, which gets things right from frame one just by adopting a no-brainer of a strategy: keep Pooh, Pooh. That doesn't just mean sticking to the time-tested characterizations for the barely literate, hunny-loving bear and all of his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood, but also avoiding any misbegotten urge to even try to make him somehow "hip" or "relevant" to today's youth in terms of storyline (after all, not for nothing has Pooh has stayed in the cultural consciousness for as long as he has)--like the '77 film, the '11 has its roots in three stories from Milne. That said, there is some contemporary innovation on display, from blending the three stories into a cohesive thread (unlike the anthology format of Pooh '77), to the occasional digital enhancements to the lovingly hand-drawn animation; to some sharp, smart, rat-tat-tat repartée; to a smidge--just a smidge, mind you--of postmodern literary awareness in John Cleese's narration. As dangerous as that last prospect may be, the writing team and directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall make it work by never losing sight of the spirit of the characters, world, and Milne: imagination, innocence, and heaps of heart--best encapsulated by the bear's simple, moving gesture of friendship that so eloquently ties up the story, characters, themes and the enduring legacy that is Pooh.