Friday, 29 July 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

It’s the 1940s, America’s at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers is a puny, 90-pound weakling desperate to sign up for the Army. However, he meets constant rejection. After fortuitously meeting a scientist, he ends up in a secret program to create the first super soldier. His bravery and fortitude see him chosen for the experiment, and he is transformed into a tall, muscular super solider. Unfortunately, the program dies, and he’s left to go on tour dressed as Captain America, promoting war bonds. However, when he performs a show in Italy and hears his best friend has been captured, he defies orders and goes behind enemy lines to rescue him, where he runs into the sinister Red Skull...

Marvel have had a very good 2011 so far. Thor, which no-one expected to succeed, went down well with critics and fans and made huge bank at the box office. Then, no less than a month later, the newest X-Men film came out, and again, it went down well with everybody (though not with this critic) and did well at the box office, if not as well as Thor. Now, less than two months after that, here comes Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s third superhero release since Easter. Is it overkill? Perhaps. The only reason I’d complain about that is if they rushed these films out without considering the quality, if Captain America was a poor entry to the genre, made purely for the money. Luckily, it’s rather bloody good.

I like it because it’s different, it’s not set in the modern age, it’s a World War 2 story with plenty of evil Nazis (or rather rebel Nazi terrorists aka HYDRA) and, although the character was (and still is) basically one long propaganda exercise, the film has a rather lovely post-modern twist which plays up to the fact that Captain America is a propagandist comic book superhero, which will help this film translate into non-American cultures. Ultimately, we get more captain, less America. I also like it because it’s nice and silly! It’s proper, good old fashioned, family orientated, switch your head off and enjoy kind of entertainment, which is absolutely unsurprising given the director is Joe Johnston, director of The Rocketeer and Jumanji. The man knows not only how to make a film look good, but how to make it a good old fashioned romp for the whole family. I say well done to Marvel/Disney on yet another astute choice of director.

It’s helped along by Chris Evans, who plays Steve/Captain, and the fact that he is ripped. He looks like he could easily be a real-life Captain America, and even when Rogers is weedy (done with some weird CGI which puts Evans’ head on a smaller body, making his head look huge), Evans delivers a performance with heart. Then there’s Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull. It must be said, the Red Skull make-up looks impressive, and Weaving plays a frighteningly good Nazi, a really perfect superhero bad guy. Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t really do much in his role, he plays a bad-ass good guy well, and he does again here with a couple of funny lines thrown in for good measure. Hayley Atwell is Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter, and tries so desperately hard to pull off the sassy female who can hole her own, but it just comes across as wooden and emotionless and stands out against the rest of the cast who seem to have fallen into their roles a lot easier.

Since Iron Man 2, it’s been hard to judge whether or not the Marvel films have been done out of a genuine belief that the films would be a choice addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or whether they’ve been made purely to reach the endgame: The Avengers. With this, it’s half and half. It’s a good introduction to the character, the back story’s done well and the adventure/main plot is good, but it all gets rather silly near the end. WARNING! HERE BE PLOT SPOILERS! In order to get Captain America from 1940s America in which the film is set to 2010s America where The Avengers will be taking place, the film ends with Rogers crashing a plane into the Arctic, being found 70 years later and defrosted by Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s all very convoluted and a means to an end. Plus, it ruins a potential franchise, Captain America could have stayed in the 40s and fought a variety of different enemies, creating a really different stand-out franchise in the Marvel canon, but no. Now, any future Captain America films will be of the bog standard variety. Also, throughout this film, Captain America does an awful lot of jumping and leaping about. Now, he’s a super soldier yes, but he doesn’t actually have any super powers like Superman or Spider-Man. There’s no way in hell he’d be able to jump anywhere near that far, even with his super soldier super legs, it’s just poor scripting and decidedly dodgy wire/green screen work which brought my viewing pleasure back down to Earth with a bump.

Overall, it’s not at all bad as long as you’re willing to just switch off for a couple of hours and simply sit and enjoy it. There’s a love story tangent in there somewhere which is never really touched upon, purely because even though it’s a 2 hour film, they still barely fit in the origin story and Captain’s fight against HYDRA and the Red Skull. There’s a lot of silly comic book science used to explain everything which is forgiveable of a genre film like this, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the norm. Except at the end. Where it all goes tits up. I’d say this goes alongside Thor as the best superhero film of 2011 so far though, and I can’t see anything knocking either of them off their perch. Well done Marvel, you’re winning me over from the DC side.

Rating: ***1/2

Friday, 22 July 2011

Horrible Bosses

Nick, Dale and Kurt are all stuck in awful jobs under the cosh of their horrible bosses. Nick’s boss at his financial firm is a psycho. Dale’s boss at his dental practice is a nymphomaniac. Kurt’s boss at an industrial company is nice, but then he dies, leaving his son to take over, who happens to be a cocaine addicted tool. Together, they joke about killing their bosses and being free of them, but it’s not long before the jokes turn to serious discussion. Hiring convicted criminal Motherfucker Jones as their ‘murder consultant’, they stake out their bosses and try to find a way of killing them and getting away with it...

Not a month ago, Bridesmaids was released, and oh how the nation laughed. A group of ladies came along and surprised everyone by actually being funny, making for a rom com which was genderless, which in my eyes was a first. Now, we have Horrible Bosses, which I’d argue is the male equivalent to Bridesmaids. We have the vast ensemble cast, the recognisable faces, an SNL star in one of the lead roles, the buddy element and the premise which carries plenty of potential for comedy. So can it match up to the highest grossing female-led R-rated movie of all time? No. But it is still funny.

This is mainly down to its cast. We’ll start with the three would-be killers. Jason Bateman plays Nick, the downtrodden financial worker who willingly takes shit in the hopes of one day gaining a promotion. I think everybody loves Jason Bateman, even after the number of decidedly dodgy comedy films he’s been a part of in the last few years. His part in Arrested Development cleanses all sins and will do so forever. Here, though, he’s given a really solid role as the pseudo leader of the three whilst still getting the famous Bateman lines he’s always given which he can deliver with his signature sarcastic/unbelieving tone. Jason Sudekis, the SNL feature player, plays Kurt in his second comedic lead role of 2011, but we’ll forget about Hall Pass. Here, he plays a ladies man who actually likes his job but not his new boss. Put it this way, he’s a dick but a likeable dick, which shows how well written his part is. However, the breakout here will be Charlie Day, playing Dale, a naive young idiot who’s on the sex offenders register after an unfortunate accident (it’s funny, not dark, trust me) and can only find work with a nympho dentist. He’s been playing this role for years on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which if you haven’t seen, you should) and he carries it over and becomes the loveable loser of the piece and puts in yet another solid performance here. These three characters have been perfectly cast and really well written.

Now, the three bosses. Nick’s boss is Dave, played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey does brilliantly well in playing the rich, self-obsessed corporate psychopath and really compliments Bateman well. Kurt’s boss is Bobby, played by Colin Farrell. To me, this is probably the only underwritten character in the film and it’s disappointing. The joke is he’s a cocaine addict playboy, and that he’s bald with a comb over. The character doesn’t really progress further than that and ends up really 2-dimensional and flat. Then, there’s Dale’s boss, played by Jennifer Aniston. She is so unbelievably ‘un-Aniston’ in this film, if that makes any sense at all. She plays the highly sexual Dr Julia, who also happens to be quite psychotic herself. She has good chemistry with Charlie Day and it’s because she steps outside her comfort zone that she’s able to give one of her best performances in a long time. That whole story thread with Dale and Julia is probably the funniest of the three and that lies at the feet of Aniston and Day. Kudos, also, to Jamie Foxx as Motherfucker Jones (the story behind his name change is probably the cleverest, funniest joke in the film) for doing well enough with what he’s given.

Let’s be honest, this is a pretty dark premise for a film. Lots of murder involved, lots of plotting and y planning and scheming and misery. But, the ridiculousness of the premise, for a comedy film, sparks various situations in which there are some real laughs. Maybe not laugh out loud belly laughs, but still it’s humorous. It definitely surpasses the ‘Kermode Five Laugh Rule’ test with ease and just keeps going from there. Admittedly, quite a few of the jokes in the film which are misogynistic, but they fit within the ethos of the film. There are also some racist jokes in there, but again, they fit and they’re appropriate to the tone of the film. Another small gripe I have with the film is that the funniest story of the three, the Dale and Julia thread, isn’t given as much attention as the other two threads and doesn’t really play into the main dramatic story of the film. That seems like a silly statement, but you’ll understand once you see it yourself. I think they’ve missed a trick not placing that thread as the central one, but it’s understandable why they did it and everything works how they’ve done it so who am I to judge? And then there’s the ending. It just seems to happen, leading to somewhat of an anti-climax.

Overall, it’s a funny comedy with plenty of silliness in it, and I think it’s probably in the top 3 comedies of 2011 so far, behind Bridesmaids and jostling for second with Paul. Unfortunately, Bridesmaids casts a big shadow over this, and it falls short of meeting its high standard. This won’t appeal to everyone, I definitely see this as more of a guy’s comedy, girls will be far less likely to find this funny due to the content of the jokes and level of humour, but it’s worth giving it a go nonetheless. It never gets too dark, and the story never loses focus of what it has to achieve both joke wise and sense wise. This isn’t a classic, but it’s one of the funnier comedies of the year so far. Admittedly, that’s not saying much, it’s like saying having a cold is better than having a flesh-eating virus.

Rating: ***

Friday, 8 July 2011


Frank has only ever had two good moments in his life: His wedding day, and helping a cop chase down a criminal. When his wife, Libby, leaves him for a local drug dealer, he turns to God to help him get her back and decide what to do next. Whether it was through divine intervention or his own fantasy, he comes to the conclusion that he must become a real-life superhero to fight crime and ultimately save his wife, who he believes has been kidnapped by the drug dealer. Thus, the Crimson Bolt is born, and with his trusty sidekick Boltie, his crime-fighting wrench and his catchphrase “Shut up, crime”, he begins getting attention in the local neighbourhood... but for all the wrong reasons.

James Gunn is a clever son of a gun (pun intended). In 2006, he wrote and directed Slither, a sharp, well-observed, self-reflexive horror comedy about killer slug-creatures, inspired by various 1970’s B-movie horrors. It went down well with this critic and various others too, and now Gunn has returned with Super. It would be easy to say that this is just another superhero film in amongst many, MANY others, in particular Kick-Ass, to which this shares more than a certain kinship. It would be easy to say all of that, but upon watching it, you’ll find that it’s way more than that. Super’s a funny, bleak, dark, horrifying, self-reflexive take on the superhero genre that’s got ‘cult’ written all over it.

Super, on the surface, does admittedly seem like a rip-off of Kick-Ass: Normal man decides to make his own costume and become a superhero, fighting every day crime, gaining a fellow hero to fight alongside and eventually leading up to a battle with the local mob. Watch this though, and you’ll see within two minutes (I guarantee: Two minutes is all it’ll take) this is nothing like Kick-Ass. Super is dark. Pitch black, even. This goes way beyond dark humour, this is proper gallows humour. It’s bleak, and unrelentingly so. At times, the humour becomes ludicrous, when the Crimson Bolt goes on a justice spree with his weapon of choice, a wrench, but even then, it quickly becomes disturbing and somewhat shocking as you realise ‘Hey, this film is fucked up’. It’s not exactly a laugh fest, but then at times it is. You’ll understand when you see it, it’s hard to tell if you’re laughing at the jokes on offer, at how ludicrous the pretence is, at how messed up the depiction of violence in a film which truly springs it onto you, or if you’re just laughing out of major discomfort. Either way, it will make you laugh, but probably not for the right reasons.

Rainn Wilson plays the depressed/delusional/disturbed Frank/Crimson Bolt well enough, as the role requires him to be somewhat deranged and thoroughly downbeat. That was a lot of ‘D’ words. Ellen Page turns up to play Juno. Yeah, her character Libby/Boltie is an exact replica of Juno. On the plus side, Ellen Page knows how to play Juno and play her well, so it all works out. Liv Tyler turns up as Frank’s drug addicted wife, and doesn’t really do much as she spends most of the time high or getting high. Then there’s Kevin Bacon as drug dealer Jacques. What the hell?! What is with this renaissance of interest in Kevin Bacon? First X-Men, where frankly he was a bit rubbish, and now this, where he’s better and definitely a more convincing bad guy, but he’s still not the level of evil you need to pull it through, here he’s just an eccentric drug dealer when something else was needed from his performance.

Other than Bacon, the film’s pretty tight, there’s a couple of cool cameos (including Rob Zombie playing God, I mean come on!) and Super ends up looking and feeling like something in between a full blown Hollywood flick and a little independent film. It’s all shot in the shaky documentary camera style to suggest this is all real, which it really isn’t, and there are even some half decent effects and CGI being used here, in particular during the scene in which God appears before Frank in his vision. There’s also a surprisingly high amount of graphic violence; lots of blood, gunshots, corpses, bombs, vehicular violence, wrench shots and stabbings. Look out, as well, for some weirdly-placed Scott Pilgrim/Batman style animated words popping up in the same style as the fantastic opening credits.

Overall, this film is deceptively depressing. On the surface, it’s a nice, friendly, family friendly concept. Dig a little deeper, it’s a dark, bleak, bloody tale of revenge and despair that’s definitely for adults only. James Gunn is making a name for himself with these self-reflexive stories which aren’t afraid to poke a little fun at the genre the film falls under, but with Super, Gunn’s gone and made something which tears up the rule book and just goes all in, balls out and is unrelenting until the small glimmer of optimism right at the very, very end. The crying shame of Super is that people will go to see this, not get what they expected, and walk away hating it. Even worse, people probably won’t even see this at all. I urge you, if you see this at your cinema, and you’re thinking about watching something else, watch this instead. Go in with an open mind, and just set back and try to enjoy it, as uncomfortably dark as it gets. It's an 18 for a reason.

Rating: ****

Friday, 1 July 2011


Annie is a single woman in her mid 30's living in Milwaukee living with a weird Englishman and his weirder sister having failed with her bakery business and losing her boyfriend and all her savings. Life isn't going well. And now, her best friend Lillian is getting married and has asked Annie to be her maid of honour. Soon, Annie gets to meet Lillian's wedding party, which includes the ultra-competitive Helen. Can she balance her responsibilities to Lillian, her rivalry with Helen, her non-relationship with fuck buddy Ted and her blossoming relationship with policeman Nathan?

For years and years now, Kristen Wiig has been one of, if not THE, best things about Saturday Night Live. It's nowhere near its glory days, but Wiig's versatility, writing skills and numerous characters have kept the show fresh. Recently, she's begun to make the leap from small screen to big screen. After popping up in cameos in various Judd Apatow films and taking a few voice roles in a few animated films, her first starring role came in SNL film MacGruber last year, then she appeared again earlier this year in Paul. Now, she's back, having co-written and starred here in Bridesmaids. So can she carry a film? Do her talents translate to the big screen. You're damn right they do. They do in a big way.

This, for all intents and purposes, has 'chick flick' written all over it. Group of women preparing for a wedding. Laughs ensue. Well, frankly, this is a chick flick with balls. It crosses the gender divide without looking back, not because the humour is aimed specifically at one gender or the other, but because the humour in the film is actually funny. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, this is a damn funny film, and there's something for everyone. There's the Office-style cringe-worthy humour. There's the 30 Rock-style silly humour. There's the Arrested Development-style clever humour. There's even the South Park-style toilet humour. This film literally covers all bases in order to try and illicit as many laughs from the audience as possible at it works. There's a coherent, well thought out plot keeping everything together as well, and the various situations the wedding party find themselves stay true to life and never get truly ridiculous. It all just fits together and works.

Of course, this is all down to Wiig. With co-writer Annie Mumolo, she's written a film which could, and if there's any justice should, launch her into leading lady status. Her acting is bang on as well, as you'd expect from someone who does an hour and a half of live sketch television every Saturday night. Therefore, the same level of performance is given by Maya Rudolph, a fellow SNL alumnus, who plays Lilian. Rose Byrne's pulls off the upper class bitch Helen with joy, you can see how much she's enjoying her role as the scheming, conniving rival with every scene she's in. However, one of the understated things about this film is the performance of Melissa McCarthy. Her role as the toyboyish yet raunchy Megan is brilliant, was well written for McCarthy and she plays it through the film straight as an arrow and has what are probably the two best and funniest lines in the film. These four do, unfortunately, leave the other two members of the wedding party, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper, in the dark. Chris O'Dowd makes a good turn as the charming police officer trying to woo Annie, but he's outshone by an uncredited Jon Hamm as Annie's fuck buddy Ted. You know this film is well written when it manages to turn Jon Hamm into an absolute dick within the first minute. You can tell he enjoys being the chauvinistic bastard for a change as well.

I will say that there are a lot more laughs in the first hour and a half than there are in the last half an hour, I don't remember laughing that much during the third act as things turn rather serious and far less jovial, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I'd say that shows Judd Apatow's influence, as he was on board as a producer. He probably pushed for a more serious third act similar to those seen in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up and Funny People. Not to say there are no jokes, it just eases up on the gas pedal a little. Plus, there is the underlying story throughout of people growing up and moving on from past friendships. Her friendship with Annie is Lillian's last and only link to her old life, and it's sad to see how she's begun to move on whilst Annie either can't or won't. It's really sharply observed and well played out on screen.

Overall, this is a really funny, really heartfelt comedy that is anything but a chick flick, despite the decidedly oestrogen-filled premise and cast. Kristen Wiig has proven her comedy skills once and for all on a major stage, and the door is now open for her to move on to bigger things. Melissa McCarthy also has an opportunity after this to become a huge star, though her sitcom may put the kibosh on that. This goes from witty to silly to gross-out back to witty throughout, it really strives to make as many people laugh as often as possible, and for me at least, it more than achieved its aims. Definitely the best comedy of the year so far by a long, long way. Considering this is two hours as well, it packs the laughs in far more than, say, the two hour Dinner for Schmucks. Yes, I will keep coming back to it.

Rating: ****