Posts Tagged ‘Joe Johnston’

History is like spicy food: you always notice when it starts repeating on you. One of the very last films I saw in the summer of 2001 before starting to write regularly on the topic was Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston. Now I went to see that with rock-bottom expectations – it was a one-trick series, and the first sequel had seemed extremely tired and mechanical. To be perfectly honest, I only went to watch the tyrannosaurus fight the spinosaurus (yes, that’s how nerdy I can be).

And yet, I really enjoyed it, and it even made it into the Lassie Awards for 2001 as Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Johnstone’s focus on characters, atmosphere, and humour really made the film work much better than it had any right to on paper. As I mentioned, history appears to be repeating itself as I could say practically the same thing about his new movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (possibly trading only as The First Avenger, depending on which country you live in and their geopolitical affiliations).

You might well consider this movie a candidate for our Oh God, Not Another One department as it is the third Marvel super hero movie of the year (to say nothing of those derived from the comics of other companies). I have to confess I had grave reservations about the project, simply because Captain America is a fiercely dull character. It seems to me that his having to serve as the patriotic embodiment of their nation means that writers simply can’t give Cap any kind of personality worth mentioning. That’s not to say that interesting stories haven’t occasionally been told using the character, but they haven’t really been about him.

Captain America is, as you’d expect, a tremendously polished and technically sophisticated movie, but its greatest achievement is in making the title character someone you can actually believe in and even care about (a bit, at least). Chris Evans (note to British readers: no, not him – the other one) plays Steve Rogers, a young man desperate to do his bit for the USA at the height of the Second World War. Alas, he is a scrawny little shorthouse with a long list of medical problems and the army will not take him.

Luckily he is offered the chance to serve by a passing boffin (Stanley Tucci), who shoots him full of – er – blue stuff and then attaches him to the local power grid. As luck, and the magic of dubious 1940s superhero origins, would have it, this transforms Steve into a physically perfect adonis! The army brass breathe a sigh of relief (as do the special effects department, as they no longer have to keep digitally transforming Evans into a wimp). But tragedy strikes as a passing Nazi agent guns down Tucci’s character, who rather thoughtlessly has neglected to write down the recipe for the blue stuff anywhere. It seems that Steve will be unique as far as American super-soldiers go…

…but not quite unique worldwide. It turns out that a previous test subject of Tucci’s is still on the scene. He is the Red Skull (played, as only he can, by Hugo Weaving) and he appears to be in a permanent strop (possibly having no nose or hair and serious complexion issues will do this to a fellow). The Skull has parted company with the Nazis as they are just too moderate and embarked upon his own plan for global conquest. To this end he has got his hands on an ancient occult relic (to be fair, the movie acknowledges what a cliche this has become) and is all set to unleash his nefarious schemes…

Whatever success Captain America achieves – and to my mind it is a considerable amount – all derives from the opening section of the film, which takes its time to establish the characters, the plot, and the tone with great care. This makes for a slightly slow start, but still an involving and enjoyable one. The cast is unusually strong throughout – apart from the people I’ve mentioned, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper and Neal McDonough all make an impression – and the script neatly plays with various concepts of Captain America as a character. Originally created as a morale-boosting wartime icon, he literally becomes that here for a while, before transforming into a much grittier figure clearly based on the Ultimates version created by Mark Millar (Millar is thanked in the credits). For its first half, the movie is always just a little bit wittier, smarter, darker, more knowing, and more affecting than you really expect it to be, and constantly rewarding as a result. (I was a little baffled by Stan Lee’s cameo, obligatory though it is: this isn’t a character he originated!)

That said, the rest of the film does see it settle down to become not much more than an effects-intensive action picture: a fairly successful one, but not much more than that. And the conclusion is… well, odd. You can almost sense the writers scratching their heads about which point they should end the story at, and I’m not sure they made the right decision, to be perfectly honest. I’m not saying it’s a total failure, but the very last beat of the movie before the closing credits fell rather flat for me.

All of this is, of course, down to Captain America‘s status as the latest Marvel Studios picture and the last one before the release of The Avengers next summer. Despite its period setting, this film has quite a few little nods to others in the series – Dominic Cooper is playing Tony Stark’s dad, which may explain why Robert Downey Jr had a version of Cap’s shield in his lab in the last Iron Man, while anyone who saw Thor will have a good idea of where the central plot Maguffin originated from – and elsewhere. (I particularly enjoyed the fleeting appearance of the original Human Torch, which may well be a reference to Chris Evans’ own history playing a different version of that character.) That said, only at the very end did I get a sense of pieces being carefully shuffled around, and this film is quite capable of standing on its own merits.

For me, the Marvel Studios films, while uniformly slick and entertaining, haven’t quite hit the same heights as some of the Marvel movies made by different companies (and here I’m thinking mainly of the X-Men and Spider-Man films). I’d hesitate to say Captain America was the best one yet, but for me it was certainly more satisfying than Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk, and quite possibly edged it past Thor as well. It’s also one of the most satisfying popcorn movies I’ve seen this year: full of good-natured fun and interesting characters, and with a near-total absence of weary jingoism and moralising, this may not be the greatest superhero movie ever, but it’s possibly one of the best interpretations of Captain America in any medium. Highly enjoyable.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 26th 2004:

Les: ‘Other than the Cresta Run, name a dangerous race.’
Contestant: ‘Arabs!’
– Famous but quite probably apocryphal exchange on Family Fortunes

Hi-diddle-di-range, an actor’s life is strange. One minute there you are, plugging profitably along minding your own business as solid character support and the occasional love-interest in chick flicks, and then suddenly Stuart Townsend drops out, your agent phones, and you find yourself on a plane to New Zealand to play one of the lead roles in the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. You are suddenly a star – an icon, even. Where do you go from here?

Well, the answer appears to be: Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo, a Middle-East-meets-Wild-West romp which marks Viggo Mortensen’s first attempt at a post-Lord of the Rings career. I have to say that judged solely on the basis of this movie, the omens for Mortenson’s future career shade slightly more towards the likes of Mark Hamill than Harrison Ford.

Supposedly based on a true story (a claim which has already provoked much controversy, and to which I will only respond with: Sh’yeah, course it is!), this is the tale of half-Native American cavalry courier Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) and his horse Hidalgo. Guilt over his role in late-19th century atrocities against the native tribes leads Hopkins to end up a drunken corporate shill and entertainer (he is presumably in the next booth to Tom Cruise’s character from The Last Samurai, who – horse excepted – has a virtually identical back-story).

However, a chance for redemption appears when some Arabs turn up and get snotty: Hopkins’ boss, Buffalo Bill, has billed his horse as the world’s greatest endurance racer, which they take some exception to. He is invited to participate in the Ocean of Fire, a big-money high-stakes race across Arabia. Not entirely surprisingly he says yes, setting the stage for all sorts of rootin’-tootin’, dodgy racial stereotyping, and long shots of sand-dunes.

Nearly all of Hidalgo is quite daft and some bits of it are exceedingly silly indeed, but for all that he makes the least convincing part-Native American in the history of the universe, Mortensen’s legions of fans will probably not find much to complain about. Perhaps intentionally, in this film he inhabits terrain not entirely different to that he covered as Aragorn – hanging around in tents trying to sweet-talk the disapproving father of his latest conquest, looking intense on horseback, giving it a bit in the fight scenes, and so on. He does mumble rather a lot though.

Those less partial to the Scandinavian heart-throb may find Hidalgo slightly harder going. This is rather a long film, mainly because it takes its time getting anywhere. The first pre-race forty-five minutes sets the scene rather agreeably and atmospherically, setting up the characters and story and such like. But rather than exploding into life at this point the race itself turns out to be really rather dull, consisting of endless shots of our man riding rather slowly over sand-dunes in silhouette. The only part of the film with any oomph to it is a spot of bandit-fighting and princess-rescuing that Viggo goes in for during half-time in the race – which it must be said is blatantly only there to perk things up a bit, and has the regrettable consequence of bloating the running-time up even more. Things never quite grind completely to a halt, but this is still the kind of film where you could pop out to the concessions stand at any number of points and come back without having lost the plot in any way.

But it’s colourful and has an odd sort of novelty, and the cast is fairly good: Hollywood Rent-a-Sheikh Omar Sharif pops up as, guess what, a crusty old Bedou with a heart of gold, and Louise Lombard is rather swish as a bloodstock-crazy British aristo. Malcolm McDowell pops up very briefly near the start, but regrettably doesn’t hand around long – clearly double-booked to eat some other scenery in a different film. The cinematography looks nice even if some of the CGI effects are a bit jarring.

Of course, any film about a cowboy heading off to the Middle East and sorting out all the Arabs does not have go out of its way these days to acquire a (probably unlooked-for) topical subtext. To be fair to Hidalgo it doesn’t look to make any sort of serious point at all, but it is interesting that the film’s total reverence for Native Americans is in no way replicated in its attitude towards Arabs, many of whom get a pretty raw deal from the script. I’m not entirely sure as to whether or not the film’s references to the race passing through Iraq are anachronistic or not, but either way they are wont to make even the most casual viewer draw comparisons.

Hidalgo is a rather old-fashioned film struggling to assimilate a very modern sort of message, about how who you are is more important than where you’ve come from. It’s a bit of a mixed bag all told, and outstays its welcome quite considerably. But it’s jolly, unobjectionable fare, even if it could really do with a bit less Viggo and a bit more vigour.

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