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Hayley Atwell

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Rogers for Roosevelt | Cap v. NSA.

“Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City. We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.”

At Lawyers, Guns, & Money, Steven Attewell reminds us that Captain America has always been an FDR progressive. “[U]nlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal.”

Which reminds me, I was glad to see Cap so obviously take arms against the post-9/11 GWOT surveillance/preemption apparatus in Captain America: The Winter Soldier a few weeks ago. CA:TWS is top-tier Marvel, right next to The Avengers and Iron Man, and an even better film than the quality first installment. I particularly enjoyed the second-act twists involving Operation Paperclip and a UNIVAC, and if nothing else, the movie has furnished us with another very funny meme in “Hail Hydra.”

That being said, the third act slips off the rails some — state-of-the-art aircraft carriers with easily penetrable overrides, ho-hum — and the death count here, while not as egregious as in Man of Steel, still veers well into the absurd. When it comes time to face Ultron, how ’bout going easy with those grenades, Cap.

We Need a Hero.


When Hal Jordan took a bullet for Steve Rogers by being the inevitable middling comic book movie of the season, the path was open for Marvel to go three-for-three this year. And, hey, they pulled it off! Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is still the most fun and self-assured of this year’s comic book crop, but Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is another solidly entertaining summer outing, and as good a Cap movie as Thor was a Thor movie. In the end, I probably preferred this film of the latter two, both for its four-color propaganda poster flavor and because I just prefer Cap to the Asgardian — but it’s really a toss-up.

If anything, The First Avenger is more faithful to its titular character, since Johnston, unlike Branagh in Thor, plays this period piece straight, without the likes of Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg providing a security blanket of 21st century irony. Speaking of which, Chris Evans has already shown he exudes star presence in movies like Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim, and he was easily the best thing about otherwise bland comic-book flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers. But, in the past, he’s always skated by on his snark, and I was worried Steve Rogers might be turned into a self-aware, wisecracking Spiderman sort to accommodate that. But, no, Captain America here is noble, earnest, and maybe a tiny bit dull — exactly as he should be.

In this incarnation as in the original comic, Steve Rogers is a puny kid from Brooklyn whose spirit is willing and flesh is weak: Even as his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stans), and seemingly every other able-bodied American male in the borough, head off to fight Hitler and Japan in the Big W-W-I-I, Rogers is rejected from one recruiting office after another for being a tiny, wimpy asthmatic. That is, until a German emigre named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers again trying to serve his country for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, Erskine decides, this brave little man might be the perfect candidate for America’s top-secret Super Soldier program, conveniently headquartered in New York City. (Not to be confused with the Manhattan Project.)

It had better work, since Nazi Germany already has a Super Soldier of its own. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull, head of Hitler’s deep-science division HYDRA. And, while Hitler wastes time “digging around in the desert” (heh), Schmidt has located the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in Eastern Europe, where it had been under guard by Mr Filch/Walder Frey. Now, with his right-hand man Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt threatens to use this powerful device to (wait for it, wait for it) take over the entire world. Can anyone stop his dastardly plan? Anyone, anyone? Rogers?

So, ya, pretty standard set-up, of course. Along the hero’s journey, Captain America suffers through boot camp (led by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s phoning it in but who at least isn’t doing his Two-Face schtick.) He gains a costume, a shield, a squad (the Howling Commandoes), and the attentions of a plucky and beautiful British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra’s Dream.) And he learns, more than once, that war isn’t a USO show, and that with great power comes great sacrifice…but let’s save those spoilers for The Avengers.

Speaking of that forthcoming super-team, there’s plenty of chum in the water in The First Avenger for Marvel fans, from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper here, not Roger Sterling) to the aforementioned Cosmic Cube to a great first shot of Jones’ Zola, which pays homage to his four-color incarnation. When it comes to real, not comic-book, history, however, The First Avenger is obviously a bit fast and loose with the era. Several years before Truman desegregates, the Howling Commandoes are a multiracial brigade, and in fact the entire US Army seems integrated. And while Peggy has to put up with some macho bravado, she still seems unencumbered by the sexism of the period.

Still, given that this is a movie about a guy wrapped in Old Glory who continually punches Hitler in the face, the rose-tinted ahistoricism didn’t bother me all that much. Captain America is a propaganda vehicle by design — arguably the best section in the movie has him being taken on a Flags of our Fathers-style USO tour. And like Superman’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way, Cappy has always been more about who we as a nation should be than who we actually are, so I found myself more willing than usual to forgive the film some well-intentioned anachronisms. If anything, I’m glad The First Avenger didn’t choose to make Cap an overly militaristic hero. Instead, he’s a unassuming kid from Brooklyn, given great power, whose patriotism mainly consists of just trying to do the right thing.

Agent With Shield.


Among the trailers I’ve missed in recent weeks is this — arguably the most promising-looking comic book film in the summer of Thor, Green Lantern, and X-Men: First Class — the teaser trailer for Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, with Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stans, Toby Jones, and, above, Hugo Weaving looking pitch-perfect as the Red Skull. Granted, Johnston’s The Wolfman was terribad, but I’m holding out hope for this one (and to be fair, Johnston was basically a hired gun on Wolfman, coming in four weeks before shooting to replace Mark Romanek.)

Hugo Gets a Crimson Cranium.


As rumored for awhile now, Hugo Weaving — a.k.a. Agent Smith, Elrond, and V — will add even further to his fanboy cachet by suiting up as the Red Skull for Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger. (Not altogether surprising: Weaving just showed up in Johnston’s botched Wolfman.) He joins Chris Evans as the Cap’n, Sebastian Stans as Bucky, and Hayley Atwell (late of Cassandra’s Dream) as Steve Rogers’ love interest, Peggy Carter.

Update: It looks like the character of Howard Stark — Tony’s dad — is also involved, although he probably won’t be as Roger Sterling-ish.

Update 2: The Cap’n’s rogues gallery expands as Toby Jones signs to play Arnim Zola, “a Nazi scientist who used his horrific experiments to allow himself to unnaturally extend his life, ultimately leading to his consciousness being permanently stuck in a robotic body. Type-casting!

The Brothers Grim.


So, since the statute of limitations is running out on this one, and since I now have a backlog of films to write about (including two involving Colin Farrell wracked by conscience): Woody Allen’s surprisingly pedestrian Cassandra’s Dream, which I caught two weekends ago, is definitely a swing and a miss. It’s true that I’ve been Netflixing Allen’s better films – Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan — of late, so I might be holding Allen to a higher standard than Scoop, say, should deem appropriate. But even Allen’s most recent drama, Match Point, far outshines the tale of familial woe on display here. Ewan MacGregor is always an appealing actor, and Colin Farrell and Tom Wilkinson are no slouches either, but they can’t spin gold from the overheated, overwritten script Allen has dealt them this time. If you see one recent movie about desperate brothers getting in over their heads on the wrong side of the law, see Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. If that movie was a return to form for Sidney Lumet, Cassandra, unfortunately, goes down on the debit side of the ledger for the Woodster.

As Dream begins, two working-class English brothers, ambitious restauranteur Ian (MacGregor) and amiable mechanic Terry (Farrell), contemplate pooling their very limited resources to buy a small sailboat. The vessel, unfortunately for them, is named Cassandra’s Dream (I guess Polyanna’s Reverie had already sailed), and its dour apellation is the first of many harbingers of doom for these two Cockney lads. But buy the boat they do, thanks to an infusion of gambling winnings for Terry, who’s enjoying a sterling lucky streak at the races of late. But, the problem with gambling, as everyone knows, is eventually you lose. And, after a particularly bad night of cards, Terry finds himself down 90,000 quid and in a good spot of trouble. (Perhaps he should’ve listened to the veritable Greek chorus of supporting cast, who continually remind us that Things Go Wrong.) Ian, meanwhile, is sick of the family business, and also needs money in the worst way, both to get in on a potentially lucrative investment deal involving California hotels and to woo a beautiful, wanton, and clearly high-maintenance actress (newcomer Hayley Atwell) he met-cute one day in the countryside. And so, since family is family and blood is blood and all that, the two brothers go hat-in-hand to their supremely wealthy uncle (Wilkinson), a world-traveling plastic surgeon/industrialist of some sort. Uncle Howard is happy to help, but he wants a pound of flesh for his contribution, namely the head of a business associate who threatens to rat out his financial indiscretions to the powers-that-be. Will Ian and Terry put their very souls at risk for the lure of some quick, blood-tainted cash? Wouldn’t be much of a movie if they didn’t, now, would it?

Given the title and the constant, over-the-top foreshadowing of grim events to come, it seems clear Allen was trying to tell a modern-day version of the ancient Greek family tragedy (a la Mystic River, which gave the sense its main characters’ fates along the wine-dark Charles were decided for them decades before, as children.) But, while Fate in Cassandra may be inexorable, it’s sadly not all that interesting. The brothers spend the middle third of the film agonizing over a choice we already know they’re going to make, and the final third repeats this process all over again. (The ending, which I will not give away, is a particularly goofy contrivance.) Plus, the many wheezy monologues about doom foretold and family bonds seem even more stilted by the fact that Allen is clearly out of his element. These sorts of meditations seemed more natural when delivered by the anxious and overanalytic New York intellectuals of Crimes and Misdemeanors. After all, that’s Woody’s wheelhouse. But, simply put, working-class London is not Allen’s forte. Perhaps the only actor who comes off convincingly here is Sally Hawkins, as Terry’s kind, long-suffering girlfriend. While MacGregor and Farrell seem a mite confused by Cassandra‘s stiff formalism, she’s the only actor here who manages to seem an honest-to-goodness human being, and thus the one character who manages to put the sting of tragedy in Allen’s otherwise forgettable tale.

Bob, Woody, Dewey.

Speaking of I’m Not There, the Todd Hayne’s new Dylan biopic has a teaser out, where you can catch brief glimpses of all the varied permutations of Bob. (Blanchett, Bale, Ledger, Gere, Whishaw, et al.) And, also in the trailer bin, Woody Allen ventures back into Match Point territory with Ewan MacGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson, and newcomer Hayley Atwell in the new (French-subtitled) preview for Cassandra’s Dream. And John C. Reilly brings to life one of Dylan’s formative influences in the parody-heavy trailer for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, brought to you by the Freaks & Geeks team of Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow and also starring Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, and Tim Meadows (as well as Jack White as Elvis and Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Mac Guy, and Jason Schwartzman as John, Paul, George, and Ringo.)

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