Monday, July 25, 2011


Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

“What happened to you?” an injured soldier asks his long lost friend, a sickly-beanpole-turned-musclebound-superman now rescuing his buddy from behind enemy lines. “I joined the Army!” the friend replies, shuffling for an exit while triumphant music blares right along with the requisite explosions. The fearless friend is, of course, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and, true to its hero's roots as the Uncle Sam of comic book headliners, “Captain America: The First Avenger” oozes can-do patriotism – a pulpy, endearingly ironic, and nevertheless sincere love of country, the sort that unapologetically idealizes the military as a wellspring of pure chivalry. It's a nice contrast to modern patriotism, which often seems to have been reduced to a mere tentacle of redneck ignorance; a weapon in the warped holster of an Alaskan politician; or an ugly impulse that causes millions of Facebook users to glorify the death of Osama bin Laden, their sick reverie counteracting cultural progress.

The star-spangled pride on display here is that of a very cinematic 1940s, a Nazi-fearing, near-sepia haven where women rock Veronica Lake hairdos and even the memories among Brooklyn pals are plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting: “Remember when I made you ride the Cyclone at Coney Island?” It's not particularly conservative, nor is it particularly liberal (unless you want to apply party-clash metaphors to the film's battle between the blue-wearing do-gooder and the villainous Red Skull, which you certainly could). Let's say it's feel-good flag-waving, without a whole lot of burdensome implications.

Which, naturally, makes it perfect fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster, whose other swallowable traits include factory-direct punchlines, boilerplate relationships, and a beauty (Hayley Atwell) so generic it's no wonder you feel like you've seen her in 100 places. Patriotism leads to some clever meta moves by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the “Narnia” series), who squeeze in sequences where Steve, a post-op, experimental super-soldier still yearning for the honor he craved as a tortured pipsqueak, helps sell war bonds by donning vintage Cappy gear and appearing on the covers of, well, comic books (“I finally got everything I wanted and I'm wearing tights,” he laments with a wink). But we also have The American Way to thank for what amounts to a largely indistinguishable film, for if there's anything we learned at the movies this summer in the good old US of A, it's that superhero films can be shuffled along the assembly line like nobody's business.

They can also, apparently, borrow from each other with the greatest of ease, and even make like their predecessors don't exist, all while inhabiting a “cinematic universe” that packs them with Easter eggs from similar specimens. What am I blabbing about? To begin with, “Captain America” may only surprise you in how very much it doesn't, treading upon heavily-treaded ground at every turn. Forget Steve's familiarity as a maverick willing to do what others won't – the common threads are much finer than that. Given the same cosmic protein shake as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, doing his best Werner Herzog), Steve is told by his gingery nemesis that both men have “left humanity behind [and] need to embrace that,” making them knockoffs of Professor X and Magneto. And speaking of X-Men, isn't Wolverine's adamantium the world's most powerful metal, and not vibranium, the stuff of Cappy's shield? And what are the Fantastic Four – err, Three – going to do now that Chris Evans has ditched his Human Torch gig to join The Avengers? Sit on their butts, I guess.

Which, if you'll forgive the pun, is precisely where Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige wants everyone on the planet to be come May 2012, when he releases the “Avengers” movie, a four-hero collabo that's now been teased-at through five lead-up films. Pay attention in “Captain America,” and you'll note that the cube that gives power to hero and villain comes from Odin, father of Thor; that budding inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is in fact Iron Man's dad; and that the eye-patched black man in the final scene is, yet again, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who's become the Clint Howard of superhero cinema. To this mix of overlapping mythology, which already stars two cocksure jerks (Thor, Iron Man) and a rage case (The Incredible Hulk), Captain America brings an unassuming boyishness, and that's just what square-jawed, puppy-eyed Evans brings to the role. His performance is about as unremarkable as Joe Johnston's direction, but it's exactly what the movie asks for.

“I don't like bullies, no matter where they come from,” says a still-scrawny Steve, a seamless blend of body-double photography and “digital plastic surgery.” The ability of a weak man to appreciate the value of strength is the movie's driving moral, and it yields some definite charm. As a character, Steve is irrepressible, and his saintly, borderline-inept response to gaining power is all sorts of aw-shucks. Add to that the stylish, retro surroundings, and the first 40-odd minutes might remind you of “The Rocketeer” – Disney live-action in top form. By the time Steve returns from his first big moxie-proving mission (at which point the movie blows its wad way too early), you might even want to cheer “Captain America!” along with the crowd of soldiers he saves. But with so much recycled material on the screen, and so much inane fodder for mass consumption, resist the urge. Don't call him Captain America; call him Captain Obvious.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Review: Project Nim
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It takes a village to raise a primate in “Project Nim,” a documentary about the manipulated, and often sad, life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who made headlines in the 1970s for being the focus of a headline-grabbing animal language study at Columbia University. Directed by James Marsh, the British talent who brought you the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire,” “Project Nim” takes an assured stance in establishing the consequences of man's insistence on nosing into nature; however, it only dances around the thin line between man and ape it wants so desperately to blur. Through his pitiable existence, Nim is passed from one surrogate parent to another, and each parent, for better or worse, presumably establishes a bond with him akin to that with a human child. But even with some parents, like the first, casually admitting to things like breast-feeding (“It felt perfectly natural!”), “Project Nim” never startles you with any evolutionary revelations. And while its “Apes – they're just like us!” angle might have turned heads 35 years ago, it feels especially fluffy in the age of cloned sheep.

Nim – whose name, of course, is a riff on that of linguist Noam Chomsky – is seen being plucked from his mother's care by the grubby hands of science, turned over to one Herbert Terrace, behavioral psychologist and head of the Columbia project. Convinced that he and his team can teach Nim to communicate via sign language, Terrace is the Dr. Frankenstein of the story – the man behind the curtain who seems to stay at arm's length from his experiment of a son. The ones doing the majority of the hands-on work roll through the film like a suspects gallery, their faces fading out just as quickly as they're introduced. When the breast-feeder leaves the picture, matters grow more eerily organized, with Terrace turning a university-owned mansion into a live-in lab for Nim researchers. When one die-hard veterinarian leaves because of a devastating bite, another, leaping at the chance to “talk to another species,” steps in as if waiting on an assembly line. What Marsh certainly does capture is a cultural microcosm of pseudo-hippie scientists, their collective devotion to animal connection as integral to their demographic profiles as nonchalant trysts with colleagues and tendencies to spend long hours lying in the grass.

What Marsh fails to do is marry his inventive style to his topic, a topic that feels less like territory worth exploring than material for a filmmaker in need of a new project. A fine candidate for best documentary of the 2000s, “Man on Wire” had it all: a largely unknown story that champions heroism and defies expectations; an effervescent dream of a key subject; the brilliant structure of a nail-bating caper film; and seamless artistic tricks that augmented a treasure trove of priceless archival footage. You can sense in “Project Nim” that Marsh had this checklist handy, attempting to recapture the magic of his beloved balancing act. But from head to opposable thumb, his latest is a downgrade, a serviceable effort cowering in the shadow of former glory. There's a good bit of heart in “Project Nim” (the cuddly kind that can reach beyond the arthouse), and like any decent doc about old news, it ably informs viewers of a story that, for them, might have slipped through history's cracks. Mostly, though, it negates that gift of discovery, feeling like filler from a director lazily aping his own work.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Review: Page One: Inside The New York Times
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Thank god for “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” a documentary that's far from flawless but pretty close to vital. It's our most comprehensive movie yet about the mercilessly volatile state of modern media – a metamorphic conundrum of communication for which there are no real answers, just varying plans of attack. That voracious appetite to fight in a forward motion, ever-mindful of the rationale-crippling spectre of a weak economy, is what “Page One” responds to. Its thesis is simple: In a climate where every media maker worth his salt is clamoring, often blindly, to stay ahead of the outlandishly accelerated digital boom, there needs to exist a journalistic institution that makes merit of content its top priority, not clicks, advertisers or 140-character witticisms. Such a conceptual entity is much bigger than The New York Times but, in America, there's no better prism through which to view the battlefield. The best scene in “Page One” is during one of many professional forums, wherein Times media reporter David Carr, the film's gravelly-voiced sage of a hero, silences founder Michael Wolff by holding up a hole-filled printout of the site's catalog of articles – an arresting illustration of what Newser would look like had it not gleaned any content from bona fide producers like the Times. It's a warning for a world where the business of journalism is dashing out its principles.

The stubborn soul of the movie, Carr does often sound like someone's crotchety grandfather (all the more reason to juxtapose him with blogging-prodigy-turned-Times- employee Brian Stelter, who Carr wryly insists is “a robot” made by the company to “destroy” him). But in his adamant old-schoolness lies the lucid reasoning of which the stereotypical, print-denouncing webhead seems detrimentally ignorant. A strikingly capable journalist who can apparently beat the curve even when he avoids it (he steered clear of Twitter for as long as he could, only to later master its philosophies), Carr, who wrote about the Oscars before manning the media desk, comes off as a prophet, his unwavering bias toward the Times eclipsed by the implied ability to calmly see past the industry's flurry of what's-next paranoia (“I know what it's like to come out the other side when the odds are stacked against you,” he says, referencing the crack addiction that left him leaner in frame but broader in perspective).

This is not to suggest that paranoia isn't justifiable, and “Page One” does surely suffer by ill-advisedly arcing to a last-act optimism that doesn't necessarily exist. But what Carr brings is what this whole big conversation tends to lack: balance. It would certainly appear that there aren't nearly enough people like him in the fray. People who can actually yank the reins and look around. People who can handily utilize new tools but recognize the necessity of editorial organization. People who can listen, but also scoff, when Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch hastily hail the iPad as the undeniable future of the biz. “Now there's a great reading experience,” Carr says, thumbing at his iVersion of the Times through an 8-by-10-inch viewfinder. “You know what it reminds me of? A newspaper.”

Perhaps unintentionally, “Page One” itself is reminiscent of a newspaper, its focus darting to and from the biggest media stories of late: Twitter. WikiLeaks. The iPad. The recession. And, indeed, the very guts of the industry. Critics – including one from the Times – have given director Andrew Rossi a lashing for a supposed lack of clear direction; however, his entire structure proves reflective of the freeing, yet contained, experience that endless clicks can't seem to replicate, and that people like Carr cherish about publications like the Times. The turnoff of the film is that it's often sharply slanted to exalt The Gray Lady, with Rossi exhibiting more courtesy than curiosity. With its string of highlighted accomplishments and good judgment calls (partnering with Julian Assange, winning a Pulitzer, running a damning story on the Tribune Company and calling out a major network for a bogus Iraq-exit broadcast), the movie aims for a show-and-tell of the triumphs of on-the-front-lines journalism, but it simultaneously delivers jolts of arrogance (even amidst the acknowledgments of scandal-makers like Judy Miller and Jayson Blair).

Its most revealing and poignant drawing-back of the curtain pertains to layoffs, and how the suddenly par-for-the-course vulnerabilities of the business have infiltrated this hallowed workplace just like any other. “I feel like we should be symbolically wearing butcher smocks around the newsroom,” then-executive editor Bill Keller says in regard to the 100 Times employees who'd lost their jobs by the end of 2009 (Keller himself has since stepped down from his position to be a writer only). “Page One” doesn't exactly demystify a corporation, but it does an exceedingly fine job of encapsulating a moment in time, sensibly surveying where we stand and what the ground looks like. Surely a movie after Carr's own heart, it yanks the reins and looks around. And if it doesn't come up with answers, it honors the spirit of its subject by laying out the facts.