Who’s on First?

Moneyball (September 23, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Bennett Miller (Columbia Pictures)

If “it’s just a game,” then why does life, something we value far more than anything else, so strongly resemble one?  It has rules (the laws of physics, plus a few social norms), players (us, obviously), and of course, winning and losing.  Moneyball, based on the book by Michael Lewis, is a film about baseball, a game that obeys its own rules by using high payroll to secure the best players, and therefore, get wins.  But it is also a film about the act of living; portrayed through a man who breaks the rules to win on the field, and soon realizes that if he hopes to be happy on the outside, he must do something similar.  It is certainly an intriguing premise, one that clinches Moneyball a spot among the greatest modern “sports” films.  Yes, quotation marks are necessary, considering we are all fully aware that it’s never just about playing ball.  All the more reason to praise how Moneyball, while treading familiar territory, still flies by the cliches like a warm, summer breeze.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics who in the 2002 season (following the team’s World Series loss against the Yankees), desperately needs to fill the void of free agents Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen.  He soon meets a young Yale graduate with an economics degree, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has an interesting perspective on the game.  According to Pete, Billy should be trying to fill the gap by matching the missing stars’ on-base percentage, meaning he should be trying to buy runs instead of players who seem intuitively right for the team, a technique that will utilize the limited budget of the A’s, while forming a team of misfits that is statistically “winning.”  Billy soon makes Brand the assistant GM, and for better or worse, the two begin to change the game; or rather, the business.  Billy and Pete soon receive resentment from the baseball community, fans, and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as they attempt to do what no team has ever done.  Win the World Series on a shoestring budget.

The screenplay, written by David Fincher collaborators (and Oscar-winners) Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zailian (the upcoming Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) is loaded to the brim with clever, humorous, and insightful dialogue, executed superbly by director Bennett Miller (who directed Hoffman in Capote) into a strong story, that through its visceral, dramatically-humane action, is primarily a character study.  Brad Pitt is a true film star for a changing medium, giving two of the year’s best performances (the other being in The Tree of Life).  Billy Bean is a regretful man with hope for redemption, having been recruited by the major leagues at a young age (primarily for the substantial check), missing his college opportunity and ultimately becoming a bust at the plate.  He hopes that his new method and embrace of “moneyball” will help him open new paths in the lives of those who “play” for a living, as well as his own.  So as Billy suffers statistical loss, he fails to realize how he has revolutionized the game, and thus, obscures the beauty of what he has in the real world.  It is not until the aspects of baseball and the game of life collide that Billy ultimately discovers the man he truly wants to be.

The film has a bounty of these wonderful ideas, primarily executed with a subconscious undercurrent throughout scenes that is not common among most modern films.  Billy, fearing those ever-common baseball jynxes, does not attend his games, and tries his best (sometimes with little success) not to follow them as they occur.  During each game, we see Billy either relieving tension in the gym or driving around in his car, each scene cohesively blending to provide an alternate, characteristic storyline within the film.  Moneyball also uses traditional cinematic techniques (by longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister) to technically personify Billy’s thoughts and feelings, including rack focusing and symbolic use of lighting, which become apparent as we see close-ups of Billy alone, contemplating the games he is involved in, and ultimately, how these contribute to his loneliness.  Luckily, Pete is there for him in the office, spreadsheets and equation-baring whiteboards intact.  Jonah Hill easily gives his best performance here, as an eager, smart young man who has cleaner humor than his Superbad counterpart, but is still able to use his wit and intelligence to start a revolution.  Hoffman is also terrific as the abrasive, contract-angry Art Howe, who was obviously not happy with his portrayal in the film.

In fact, like The Social Network, which Columbia also distributed, a lot in Moneyball isn’t true at all.  Hill’s character actually came onto the scene several years earlier, and is not accurately based on Billy’s real assistant.  Billy’s relationship with his daughter is also quite dramatized.  But in a film like Moneyball, true-life realism couldn’t be less important.  A film with such strong story elements and characterizations displays much more about life than a story true to the “real thing” ever could.  If you want picture-perfect, see a documentary.  But nowadays, even the non-fiction genre uses fictitious and biased information to prove its point.  Luckily, that “point” is so strong in Moneyball, as well as the innovative, technical methods it uses to prove it (check out Christopher Tellefsen’s brilliant editing during those “computer stats” sequences).

So who cares if you’re a baseball fan?  This is not only a film about the power of belief, but also the games we play, how they affect us, and who we are because of them.  Even cinema is a game; and as exemplified through films like Moneyball, faith in your actions will result in enjoyment, love of that same game, and ultimately, the knowledge that winning ideas will somehow pay off.  It did for both Billy and the filmmakers, a seemingly dual effort between baseball and cinema. In both cases, the audience is lucky. Even luckier are the men and women who can now sit back and enjoy what they have created, until passion once again compels them to inject inspiration into our world. No wonder sports found the movies.

The Soul as a Backpack

The Way (September 28, 2011*)     3.5/5

Written & Directed by Emilio Estevez (Producers Distribution Agency, Arc Entertainment)

* I was incredibly fortunate to view an advance screening of The Way on September 28, as Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez made a surprise visit to Virginia Tech. The film was quite a moving event for many students, and was followed by a lengthy Q&A featuring both Sheen and Estevez. I look forward to seeing how many viewers trek out to see the film in the near feature. I promise you won’t be disappointed. The Way comes into limited release on October 7.

What better way to spend father-son bonding time than through a cross-country bus tour promoting your latest movie?  Although it seems like an odd way to market a film, that is exactly what Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez are doing with The Way, a picture not only about the strength of family bonds, but the necessity of actively living one’s life.  Estevez wrote and directed the film, inspired by his son and grandfather’s pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  This was where 19-year-old Taylor Estevez met his future wife – the act that encouraged Emilio to write a film about “the way” for his own father, who surely inspired him in the process.  Luckily, the risk paid off.  Sheen gives one of his greatest performances in The Way, a film distributed with virtually no cinematic advertising, yet containing moments of power and beauty common among even the glossiest Hollywood dramas.  Luckily, The Way conveys its message with humor and respect, rather than simply dumping a torrent of unearned emotion on its audience.

Sheen plays Tom, an American eye doctor who soon learns his son, Daniel (Estevez), was killed in a storm while trekking the Camino.  Tom, not yet knowing what he hopes to find, then decides to travel to France and walk the walk himself, scattering his son’s ashes along the path to the Way of St. James cathedral in Galicia.  Along the lengthy journey, Tom meets several Wizard of Oz-inspired characters who will soon become his companions – Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a hefty, joyful Dutch guy looking to lose some weight, Sarah, a chain-smoking Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer who soon finds Tom’s story is worth writing down.  And it certainly is.  As Tom walks the Camino, he begins to realize who is son really was, and why he did the things he did.  Sometimes it’s easy to go with the flow of life, soon realizing that it has passed you by.  Daniel wanted to recapture the very essence of life itself, and Tom, by walking the Camino for his son, has begun to take back his own.

Although Sheen and Estevez have been open about their Christianity, this spiritual film is not only for the religious, as established by the method in which the film portrays the walk, itself.  Like the journey to Oz, each pilgrim seeks to reach the Way to St. James for a particular reason, not just to reclaim lost life.  But it is certainly to fill some sort of personal hole, and when the final destination is reached, the result is a scene of surprising beauty.  These uplifting moments are what make The Way so powerful and moving, despite a script that is anything but consistent.  Estevez, being a writer and director of relatively little experience (or critical acclaim), stages some scenes that are not wholly necessary, adding to the film’s running time and providing for a slightly sluggish mid-section.  Needless to say, the film also provides few surprises.

Yet the team of Estevez and Sheen has still crafted The Way into a genuinely touching, heartfelt experience, fulfilling its intent of affecting different people in different ways.  Sheen’s performance – sad, bitter, lost, restrained, and finally, reborn, is only one of the key aspects of the film that make it so fun to watch.  If Estevez had casted another actor in the lead role instead of his father, there is little doubt that the film would be far more impersonal and uninvolving than it truly is.  Because of this decision, it has hard to deem anything but good thoughts on The Way.  Hollywood expects this father-son team to fail, who are relying on the internet and word-of-mouth to carry their film across the country.  It is a new, budgetary alternative to display artistic thought for the masses, just as the film presents an alternate way to live.  The Way indeed.  Sheen and Estevez are doing something special here.  Get onboard.

The 21st Century Epidemic … Uncertainty

Contagion (September 9, 2011)     4/5

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s latest ensemble film, is basically an unexpected triumph.  Despite a cliché-ridden topic (the global spread of an infectious virus) and the formulaic, interlocking storytelling style (complete with class-act performers in odd-job roles), this modernized, digital thriller still remains one of the most entertaining films of the year, as indicated by the praise it received at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.  It features one hell of an opening sequence, sandwiched by a shocker of an ending.  Luckily, that is supplemented by the equally unpredictable stuff in the middle.

We open with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a businesswoman who has just returned from Hong Kong.  Although she feels slightly under the weather, little does she know that she is carrying a fomite transmission virus, one that she will not only bring home to the household of her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), but also transmit into a global epidemic in the era of 9/11, Katrina, and of course, swine flu.  The opening sequence is like nothing that comes to recent memory: a fast-paced, thrilling chain of events where we literally see the virus spread.  Soderbergh’s camera captures everything Beth touches, and soon, it becomes obvious we’re all screwed.  A colorful cast of characters then becomes involved, including a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard), a CDC honcho (Laurence Fishburne), an online blogger (Jude Law), and an Epidemic Intelligence Service doctor, played by Kate Winslet.

Some performances are weaker than others, namely Jennifer Ehle as a CDC scientist and Elliott Gould as a professor who makes a key discovery.  Ehle simply seems bored stating her techno-jargon, while Gould, a Soderbergh favorite (think Reuben from the Ocean’s series), seems like a last-minute addition just for a quick laugh.  Jude Law, meanwhile, as freelance reporter Alan Krumwiede, provides the film’s most intriguing performance, as well its most compelling subplot.  Krumwiede holds the common conspiracy that pharmaceutical companies are withholding a cure in order to obtain more funds from non-effective drugs, a factor that he may even lie to promote online … or just become a household name.  This is an underplayed aspect of the film, but effectively done.  Meanwhile, the ladies also give credible performances.  Cotillard is convincing as a woman whose moral values are soon put into global perspective, while Winslet is as good as ever, playing a doctor who soon must confront a fate she never thought would be placed in front of her.  Fishburne and Damon also give decent performances, however uninteresting they may seem when compared with the rest of the cast.

Maybe if the film had relied more on character study than consistent, scientifically-accurate dialogue, there may have been more room for onscreen ingenuity.  However, as the final script now reads (written by The Informant!’s Scott Z. Burns), there is a relative lack of the melodrama typical of a movie with a “multiple character story” premise.  In fact, Contagion contorts that formula quite well, replacing action sequences and artificial horror clichés with scenes of taut dialogue and intense, brooding tension.  For the most part, this is a drama.  Of course, the film must also find an emotional center, which Matt Damon’s character, a humble man who has just lost his possibly adulterous wife, certainly provides.  Damon is a great actor, whose subpar performances in bad movies (such as Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter) are still entertaining to watch.  Although he provides nothing fabulous here, the sense of humanity obtained through his persona provides audience satisfaction, which is turned completely upside-down by a terrifically executed final scene.  So is the case with Contagion overall.  Just when you think you have determined the formula, it kicks you in the ass.

Steven Soderbergh is quite a creative force in Hollywood, ranging from independent film (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Schizopolis, The Girlfriend Experience), to artsy genre epics (Solaris, Che), to ensemble, star-driven films (Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic).  Yet I still believe he has not been given his due by the industry.  Like he did in Traffic, the Michael Douglass-starring crime-drama that earned the director his first and only Oscar, Soderbergh has the intelligence to use digital cinematography in films that aren’t special-effects driven, therefore allowing him to play with color, lighting, and tone (the same was accomplished large-scale in his two-part Che).  Here it is used to almost convince us we are watching a student-film, a document of a day-by-day outbreak that never falls into a frenzy of self-parodying mockumentary.  Instead, it takes us places we believe we have never gone before.

According to Contagion, this is a world in which we are never sure of anything … and the results can be deadly.  Just as we are never certain of Krumwiede’s conspiracy, we also never know of Mitch’s questionable relationship with his wife.  Just like the characters, we are left to judge this life for ourselves.  Although the film may be close to scientific perfection, as well as a proper tale of how such a virus would spread in our modern world, this is not the film’s most interesting aspect.  Contagion is a film about the people living in our world, and how they react to the knowledge that may or may not be there.  We all have fears, regrets, and desire for redemption.  Soderbergh presents this as simply as possible.  Because of this factor, the film basically ends the way it begins.  Panic and social anarchy may one day drag us down, but maybe we will be saved.  Maybe we will find emotional peace before we die.  Either way, we’re still screwed.

A Question of Damned Dirty Audience

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 5, 2011)     3/5

Directed by Rupert Wyatt (20th Century Fox)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite being a sci-fi adventure tale of mere surface, actually has a significant amount to say about modern society.  First off, it warns us not to allow our scientific advances to get out of hand (a.k.a. that ambivalent theme of humans playing God).  Secondly, it tells us that a franchise built upon talking men in ape suits, spraying a hose at Charlton Heston, would never be as successful in 2011 as a CGI chimp being sprayed viciously by Draco Malfoy.  Despite not having an ounce of the original series’ kinkiness, which consisted of five films running from 1968 to 1973, Rise is a fitting reboot to the franchise, slightly surpassing Tim’s Burton’s mediocre, albeit underrated, remake from a decade ago.

Story wise, second-time director Rupert Wyatt stages this “prequel” in a completely different world than its predecessors, centering on Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who believes he has found a cure for Alzheimer’s.  Will hopes to cure his terminally ill father (John Lithgow), but soon finds that his retrovirus may actually increase intelligence.  Taking home a baby chimpanzee after a failed experiment, Will soon learns that the sample virus he gave to the chimp’s mother has actually been transferred genetically.  Will names the chimp Ceasar (an homage to Roddy McDowall’s character in the last three Ape movies), and begins to monitor his development over several years.  Will basically becomes a loving father figure, but that relationship is severed after an incident with the neighbors, thereby forcing Ceasar to be placed in a nightmarish monkey prison.  And the rest is … in the trailer.

No, the main fault of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not its grammatically poor title, but the lack of any spark to surprise us as the now-smart primates stomp their way through San Francisco.  Those scenes, despite being spectacularly staged, are nothing compared to the cheesiness of apes in prison suits attacking their foes with flamethrowers.  When I was about 10, I saw all of the Planet of the Apes films, and the surreal nature of those movies couldn’t be more absent in Rise.  There are a few cool homages to the 1968 original (and a few horrible ones) that could possible be revisited in new sequels.  But besides that, Rise provides nothing much in story or tone that is either unique or nostalgic.  However, it does have Andy Serkis.  Serkis, who created a pop culture sensation with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, captures the movements of computerized-Cesar with “how did they do that?” astonishment.  The apes are extremely lifelike, and with the help of Avatar special effects club members, have created quite a spectacle here.  The film’s climax is thrilling, despite the fact that afterword, it doesn’t seem to capitalize on the particulars of this story, only the visual feats that have been brought to the table.

So much attention is brought to the apes, in fact, that the human characters bare hardly any standing, so much so that we can’t wait for them to get bashed with big, hairy fists (many scenes of dialogue were reportedly trimmed).  James Franco, as great of an actor as he is, simply looks bored most of the time.  I would say he was miscast, but with such a one-dimensional role, it is hard to think of anyone who could replace him.  He does his best with the simplistic script, as does the rest of the cast.  Meanwhile, the father-son relationship with John Lithgow could’ve been deepened, as could Will’s courtship of a veterinarian played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto, which is so weak it seems nearly laughable.  What takes center-stage is Will’s love for his non-pet Caesar, which for a relationship between a young man and his animated chimp, is actually quite moving.  This non-artificiality is enhanced by the mechanics of the story, which are surprisingly convincing.  The chimp revolt is executed with a high level of credibility, taking itself completely seriously, as opposed to the corny originals.  Although that deprives us of what made the movies of Heston’s day so great, it also makes Rise a fitting entry for the realm of 21st-Century science-fiction.  A Frankenstein tale for the age of modern medicine.

The film provides the idea (one that was explored in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. with the concept of androids) that humans will eventually create something beyond their control, something that does not fit within the society we have created for ourselves.  And once we fully comprehend the atrocity, turning against our own creations, it will already be too late.  Eventually, the human race will become extinct, and these “things” will rule when we are gone.  To some extent, the original presented this theme with the implication of nuclear warfare.  Regardless of origin, it is quite an intriguing premise, and should have provided as much to the plot as the apes themselves.  Instead, the film favors predictability for the showcase of its primal creations, rather than giving us a divinely human story.  When I saw Rise at a Regal matinee (midafternoon on a weekday), I couldn’t help but be distracted by the screaming toddler in my row, accompanied by the young woman behind me, who couldn’t help but proclaim “oh shit!” when a chimp did something not ordinarily seen at your local zoo.  It was as if she was astonished that a movie could show actions that don’t normally occur in everyday life. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite having some clear issues, is a film of relative intelligence, and for that, deserves to be played in front of relatively intelligent people.  For most of the film, I felt as though I was an ape, a product of a consumer-based society so bent on marketing trash action-pictures that I can barely stand to watch such a movie at a mainstream theater anymore.  Therefore, it saddened me to think that’s what Rise was playing down to – an audience that brings infants to a PG-13 movie and gapes as a chimp smashes through a car windshield.  I know I requested hokiness, but is it too much to ask for a movie built around its own ideas, rather than the monkeys that execute them?  After all, they did it in 1968.  If only this Planet of the Apes tried harder to enlighten humans, as well.  Only then, in the best sense of the word, would it be a madhouse.

 

Fairly Funny, Slightly Sad, Immensely Likeable.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (July 29, 2011)     3.5/5

Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Formula is a dangerous thing.  In the midst of contrivances, it is very hard for a film to convey any sort of message that has not already been dissuaded by its artificiality.  Considering this piece of information, Crazy, Stupid, Love. seems to be a sort of small miracle.  It photoshops from romantic-dramadies such as The Kids Are Alright and Love Actually, yet it is undeniably real.  A seen-it-before film at its most genuine.  It is both romantic and comedic, as well as expertly layered with melodrama.  The characterizations are sincere and honest, despite sometimes being far-fetched.  And most of all, it remains a film that stands out amongst most romantic-comedies in a given year, mainly because love is portrayed within the realm of pain, rather than joy, and inhibits the happiness it is so often shown to create.  But in pursuit of that happiness, people will do crazy, stupid things.

Carl Weaver (Steve Carell) soon finds this out firsthand.  Emily (Julianne Moore), his wife of nearly 25 years, suddenly wants a divorce, admitting that she had sex with coworker David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon).  Depressed, confused, and stuck in a rut of un-hippness, Carl turns to drinking at a local bar.  Soon enough, after listening to Carl’s hopeless, drunken rants, ladies man Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) decides to take Carl under his wing, making him a desirable bachelor once again.  That is, until Jacob falls for Hannah (Emma Stone), a young woman who initially resists his advances.  He then needs advice from the “old” Carl, hoping that knowledge of serious relationships hasn’t already slipped away.  Meanwhile, Carl’s 13-year-old-son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), has a mad crush on his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who actually has a crush on Carl, himself.

The ensemble storytelling is quite effective, as are the players.  Carell plays that Office-style deadpan just as hilariously as he moves us with his dramatic portrayal of a lost man, one who may be the nicest guy in the world, but still must confront misfortune.  Moore, meanwhile, gives the most honest performance in the film.  While Carell’s character knows what he wants – the wife he fell in love with as a teenager (one-night stands are just a mask for his pain), Emily has divorced him because she is no longer sure anymore.  As an audience, we know she loves him, but she has become so bored with her relationship that she is willing to sacrifice that love for new experiences.  Gosling also establishes himself as a superb, likeable comedian, who we can’t help but care about, even if his character may not be the most morally sound.  Emma Stone has also developed into a fine, young actress, and their relationship is one of the film’s most intriguing subplots.

When Stone walks out on her unexciting boyfriend (played by perfectly cast Josh Groban), she comes to Gosling as a last resort, in much the same way as Emily went to Kevin Bacon’s character as a way to relieve her own pain and boredom.  The night that Hannah and Jacob spend together not only represents Jacob’s transformation, but is also one of the most convincing sequences I’ve ever seen about a magical, romantic night.  The two simply fall in love before our eyes.  That is the film’s greatest triumph.  Its weaker segment revolves around Carl’s son and his lust for the 17-year-old babysitter.  Not only does Robbie’s pursuit seem unrealistic (which also puts it mildly for Jessica’s desire for Carl), but the ways he acts upon it spawn scenes that are not only formulaic, but pretty ridiculous.  There is a similar feeling when Carl has a one-night stand with a teacher named Kate, played by Marissa Tomei.  These scenes, when compared with the rest of the movie, simply aren’t original.  But they are still effective in conveying the film’s message, which as previously mentioned, is not disrupted by its weaker aspects.

When people get bored with what they first knew as love, they try to recreate that initial happiness by doing ridiculous things.  It is not until later that they regret not putting such energy into the correct source, the one that enabled them to love in the first place.  It is quite an interesting way to give up.  And that is the one source of truth in Crazy, Stupid, Love.  Despite the dumb things that these people do, they are all good people, and all they want is to be happy.  But because they made such decisions, we’re never sure that they will be.  But the movie gives us hope, and that is very important.  Although the events of Crazy, Stupid, Love. may never happen to you, we all experience these feelings, and therefore, we believe in the characters as if they are friends in need.  We might as well, because despite not having the comic timing of any of these cast members, we are much like them.  And we need their humor to relieve our own pain.

Friendship, Sex, Love … Obviously In That Order

Friends with Benefits (July 22, 2011)     2.5/5

Directed by Will Gluck (Screen Gems)

Considering the exact same concept was used in last year’s No Strings Attached, starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, it should come as no surprise that the latest rom-com from director Will Gluck (Easy A) has relatively nothing new to offer.  But with the phenomenal chemistry of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, it should also be unsurprising that it’s really not that bad, either.  Or rather, with actors of lesser capability, it could’ve been far worse.

Dylan (Timberlake) has just come to Manhattan to be interviewed for a big-time job at GQ magazine, and Jamie (Kunis) is the headhunter who has brought him in.  After immediately getting the job, Jamie takes him on a tour of the city at night, and the two become very good friends.  Not long after, and still embarrassed from relationships recently gone awry (Dylan has been labeled “emotionally unavailable” and Jamie “emotionally damaged”), the two decide to have a friendship simply sprinkled with intense sex, no emotion involved.  And as bound by the rules of Hollywood cliché, they begin to fall in love.  But it sure takes awhile for them to admit it.  In fact, it takes an hour and 40 minutes!

Although it has its moments, the script is fairly dry in providing points of excitement, attempting to make up for its predictable storyline through the comic energy of its two leads.  Timberlake has tremendous star power, and it is incredibly enticing to see him put to use in the film industry, from comedies like this to Oscar-bait such as The Social Network.  Meanwhile, Kunis offers the very same spectrum of talent, ranging from funny girl to Black Swan.  But interlaced with the characterizations we care about is occasional, bizarre humor – such as Woody Harrelson who plays a VERY gay employee for GQ.  But like many of the film’s gleeful bedroom laughs, and occasional one-liners, it’s still pretty funny.  And to compliment this foolishness is the most intriguing aspect of the film, as well as its glimpse of depth – subplots involving Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s wasted mother, and Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s sick father.  Both have lost their battles with love; Clarkson giving it the finger, and Jenkins holding onto it with regret.  Like their children, they are good people.  But through the power of parenthood, they still have the opportunity to teach their full-grown children a lesson.  All the performers, considering the material, are quite good, and lend humor and grace to a film where the dialogue and action-lines alone would not have been enough.

The script does attempt to offer some sort of new message – that friendship is just as important to love as love is to having sex.  Needless to say, these ambitions are all fairly weak.  In addition, the film’s attempt to make fun of romantic comedies is never strong enough to make us forget it was manufactured in a studio.  This sorry fact becomes even clearer when Friends with Benefits tries to reach its audience on an emotional level, despite the fact that we cared about these characters most when all they cared about was sex.  But in the tradition of the same romantic comedies it parodies, that physicality was only a mask for internal heartbreak.  Thankfully, if there’s one thing that this formula has stayed true to all these years, it’s that you can’t go entirely wrong with two genuinely talented movie stars.  Next time, just give them funnier things to say … and maybe a story that wasn’t told last year.  Given these facets, a cute, relatively boring film like Friends with Benefits could become quite magical. Maybe like New York City.

How Else Did You Think We Won?

Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22, 2011)     3.5/5

Directed by Joe Johnston (Paramount Pictures)

Breaking away from the “why so serious?” tone of certain superhero films (cough, cough, The Dark Knight), Captain America: The First Avenger is actually one of the brightest, most comic-bookish “men-in-tights” movies of the new decade.  It is the second of the summer that teases into the Marvel superhero mash-up of 2012, The Avengers (the other being Thor), as well as the second to place its masked characters within a historical setting.  No, Captain America doesn’t have the equal character or story depth of X-Men: First Class, but it does offer that same spirit of nostalgic adventure.

In Brooklyn, circa World War II, shrimpy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has his enlistment rejected on the basis of numerous health problems, despite his courageous will to participate.  He gets his chance when a German scientist, played with zany transformation by Stanley Tucci, offers Steve the chance to participate in a “super soldier” project for the United States army.  When Steve accepts, he is transformed into a buff, all-American hero, and has soon become the mascot for the country’s military effort.  However, he must soon prove his bravery where he initially thought his noble efforts would be placed – on the battlefield.  Harnessing some supernatural gizmo, Nazi scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and his terrorist organization, HYDRA, plans to soon overthrow Hitler and then conquer the world on his own terms.  Captain America, along with his allies, including a best friend (Sebastian Stan), a cute SSR officer (Hayley Atwell), a hard-assed colonel (Tommy Lee Jones, of course), and Iron Man’s father himself, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), know what to do from there.

Although the acting is nowhere near the pristine level of First Class, it is still solid enough to carry Captain America through its predictable storyline.  That said, the film seems to be geared slightly more toward younger audiences than recent superhero flicks.  After all, the movie is directed by Joe Johnston, who was behind the lens on such family fare as Jumanji, The Rocketeer, and October Sky (for the purposes of this review, let’s just forget about The Wolfman).  Yet Captain America is anything from lazy, its exuberant energy separating the film from simple kid stuff.  Considering how well Indiana Jones did the pseudo-serial, Nazi premise without cartoonish CGI, you’d think that it would be entirely unnecessary in Captain America.  Although that nonuse would have made the film at least ten times more interesting, the CGI is used to surprisingly great effect, creating explosive action scenes that bring back the retro vibe just as well.  However, the sole mistake the movie stumbles upon is not going beyond that fun, child-like spirit it creates.

The film is expertly cast, especially Hugo Weaving as the dastardly, supernatural, beyond-Nazi villain.  And Chris Evans sure makes for a likeable little guy who suddenly gets big.  In fact, he could handle a lot more.  There is a plot twist in which we learn how it is possible for Captain America to exist in the present for the forthcoming Avengers, while still being able to help win World World II in the 1940s.  That subplot is adequately executed, but lacks what could have made Captain America a fabulous, stand-alone feature, rather than … well, The First Avenger.

The basic message here is that heart and courage are better than brawn, and a good man is better than a good soldier any day.  Swell.  If only the film could have emphasized that premise a little more throughout the finale, when time-lapse issues could possibly lead to doomed romance with love interest Hayley Atwell.  In fact, that entire romance is slightly understated, considering a stronger tug at the heartstrings could have actually molded a much more compelling film.  It also would have provided a deeper, more thoughtful conclusion, rather than the existing resolution, which is not only blunt, but kinda silly.  But don’t mind all this.  These changes would make Captain America less of a hokey joy, and maybe even give it mildly tragic undertones.  Simply put, that’s not what it’s going for.  The latest issue in the Marvel cannon isn’t looking for moral questions or emotional intensity.  It’s trying to recreate a time when they didn’t matter.