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I just heard that Fox has picked up The Punisher as a television program. I think that this could work, actually, because of his villains. Does anyone remember how much the TV series The Flash blew? How the only two episodes worth watching were Mark Hamill’s “Trickster” episodes, because he finally had a supervillain to face? Well, the Punisher has no such problems, as all his villains are mobsters or mildly superpowered mobsters. Few of them need special makeup or costuming outside of suits. I’d still rather see this on Showtime, though, being as gory and ridiculous as Punisher: War Zone. I’ll take Irish Rastafarian tumblers being exploded out of the sky over simple gunshots any day.

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Marvel Films is accomplishing something that I doubted would work: they are transferring the wonder of a shared universe from comic books to film. Captain America: the First Avenger marks what I feel is the first film in the Avengers line to fully develop this. Yes, Nick Fury appears in every film and, yes, many Easter eggs have been dropped into the films, but this one really feels connected to the rest.

The lynchpin to this is Howard Stark, Tony’s father, introduced in Iron Man 2. His role ties much of the universe together and leaves a longer legacy than simply putting Fury in a cameo. You see that he started the Avengers’ work earlier than anyone knew, going back to World War II. Dominic Cooper’s energetic performance makes Stark seem like he could have fathered Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony.

Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull makes an excellent villain, actually ramping up all of the horrific things about Nazi’s into the movie’s new nemesis, Hydra. Think of Hydra as cultist Nazis, even more devoted to a power-hungry madman. Everything about Hydra looks amazing, from their goggled and armored thugs to their tanks to the tentacle-skull logo. They’re deadly and sleek and you want to see them go down.

Also looking the part is Chris Evans as Captain America. Once the movie gets past the odd head-to-big-for-his-body stages, which aren’t as distracting as I had feared, Evans is free to let loose. He takes full advantage of his range of motion, too, running leaping and kicking everything in sight. He carries Steve Rogers with just enough shyness, and no over the top “golly gee” kind of manner, to make the character work as an everyman hero. He seems so solid a person, and conveys much of the goodness that Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine talks of, that he makes the character real and not corny.

If it suffers from moments of convenience, Captain America’s story arc builds up quite well. Steve Rogers does not become Captain America through a series of injections; he becomes Captain America through a series of choices. It makes him a far more compelling hero than, say, Thor of his own movie, who was born to fight. Cap had to earn his opportunity just to do that.

The movie maintains the kind of hopefulness that its era seemed to convey in film. Its lead character should not become Batman, and I praise the filmmakers for knowing this. It’s all too easy to add “edge” to a character for the sake of seeming cool. Captain America is a leader, though, not someone who stalks in shadow. He inspires, not frightens, and Joe Johnston’s film shows this off in a fine way. 4 stars

I doubt any actor today can present a portrait of himself quite as tragic as that of Steve Coogan. Picking up where 2007’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story left off, The Trip finds Coogan and collaborator Rob Brydon on a tasting tour of northern England. Meant to be a romantic trip for Coogan and an estranged girlfriend, Coogan immediately lets Brydon know his third wheel status on their two-man expedition.

Their banter throughout the journey brilliantly extracts a host of insecurities and defense mechanisms in both men. Brydon rarely speaks in his own voice, letting his impressive impression work do his voicing. He is not unlike a ventriloquist in how much he relies on the outside voice to project his thoughts and feelings. Coogan bluffs being too cool for Brydon’s act while simultaneously trying to one up him with fairly accurate impressions of Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Lee.

Concurrent themes of camaraderie and loneliness permeate The Trip. Once each man reaches the end of his competitive streak, Coogan and Brydon seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company. They become two old friends sharing long held private jokes, albeit private jokes that an audience can enjoy, as well. Coogan spends almost as much time, though, trying to distance himself from Brydon, largely in terms of ambition. Coogan scours for new women to bed, while Brydon enjoys intimate phone conversations with his wife; Coogan dreams of winning Oscars and scorns British television, while Brydon is content with his fame on BBC. The movie makes it clear that Coogan does these things to fill an emptiness that Brydon has already filled. The film’s best scene illustrates this as Brydon talks easily with his wife, while Coogan imitates Brydon’s only original character (presented in this film) before the bathroom mirror.

Michael Winterbottom presents the English countryside beautifully. The scenes of simply driving along meadows are gorgeous, along with some breathtaking cliffs. He also presents the food handsomely, both cooking and serving, from a ridiculously posh eatery to a simple English breakfast. One standout shot features an old man trying to impart information on limestone to an aloof Coogan. As Coogan walks away you can feel the human connection leaving the old man, standing alone atop a cliff.

Hilarious from the first shot to the end of the eponymous voyage, Coogan and Brydon rarely slow in their attacks on one another, the people they encounter or the accommodations provided them. Not that all of it is mean-spirited, just playful. I began to tire of Brydon’s act, funny though he may be, after roughly an hour. Once he dips into the Hugh Grant impression a fourth time it grows old. In those moments, Coogan alleviates the tedium by pointing out what Brydon is doing. The Trip is a great road movie, with two friends entertaining one another for a few days. Getting to ride along with them is the next best thing to being there. 4 stars

Marvel Comics’ Thor suffers lately from rushed and uninteresting stories with no real degree of importance. I watched Thor in a theater and Thor: Tales of Asgard on DVD and neither seemed like more than a set up for another story. I got the feeling that both movies were made just to get Thor’s backstory out of the way.

 

In the case of Thor it’s simply to explain who the big blond guy with the hammer is in the soon-to-be Avengers. His story of a god fallen to hubris works well enough and his supporting cast carries their end of the deal, but star Chris Hemsworth contributes just enough to get by. His slipping Australian accent distracts from his lines frequently, though I know of no other actor better suited for the role physically. Huge, blond and gruff, he looks the perfect Norse Thunder God. He’s best when hurling Mjölnir into Frost Giants and screaming battle cries. Not coincidentally, so is the movie best when Thor is limited to doing so. The comedic elements on Earth, though, work well due to Kat Dennings contribution as an intern studying under astrophysicist Natalie Portman. Portman’s good enough in the role, far better than a Star Wars performance but the role hardly demands another Black Swan turn from her.

 

Again, my main beef with the movie is that from crater where the hammer was buried (Iron Man 2) in the beginning right through the stinger at the end, this felt a building block for Thor’s eventual membership in the Avengers. The origin story in the film’s center felt too bookended by the outside influence of other films both past and future. Thor’s movie never belonged solely to Thor in the way that Iron Man belonged to Tony Stark or The Hulk belonged to Bruce Banner. Maybe that’s just the nature of the character but he felt far too blank outside of his readily remedied rageaholic tendencies. Unlike Stark’s alcoholism or the Hulk’s ever present rampages, Thor has no personality issues he can’t resolve by stopping to think briefly or any external problems from that he can’t solve by hitting them with his hammer. With Thor almost every problem really is a nail. 3 ½ of 5 stars

 

Thor: Tales of Asgard suffers even worse as it functions only as a prequel to Thor. Everything presented in the latter is shown in the former but with the always annoying transformation of the lead character into a teenager. The preening young Thor learns humility and heroism through his folly, much like the older Thor of the theatrically released feature film. So, apparently Thor goes through this same transformation every few years, retaining nothing of the original lesson. I found the voice acting and animation dull and the story rehash since I had seen the other already. I’m starting to question whether or not the character even deserves better than this. A little frailty would go a long way with Thor, especially some moral questions about the use of his power that aren’t wrapped up inside one battle gone wrong or thrust upon him by his father’s judgment. 2 of 5 stars

The first mistake I noticed watching Crazy Heart was an early familiar shot of Jeff Bridges at a bowling alley bar. It invites too many comparisons right out of the gate and I found it entirely too cute for the story they were setting up. I soon wondered how the film found itself up for so many Academy Awards in 2009. Not to say that the film is poor but I found it in no way remarkable. It was an above average presentation of a very tired story carried almost entirely by the charisma of its cast.

Jeff Bridges’ performance, which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor, never struck me as entirely true. Nothing is overtly wrong with it, just slightly off and a little too foreign to a hard living country star in my mind. I’m talking minor things like his stance, hand bent on hip, when browbeating a tech during sound check. It’s very Jeff Bridges; not so much Kris Kristofferson. Far too much of his performance as a drunk went over the top, too, with him openly vomiting frequently and seemingly played for comic effect. This felt entirely contrived for a character supposedly as hardened as “Bad” Blake. The name, too, sounded cheesy to me. I had no clue for most of the movie that “Bad” served as his first name. It sounded like the name of a masked wrestler to me. It is to Bridges’ credit that he makes material like this work as well as he does. It’s B-grade material in A-list hands.

Maggie Gyllenhaal had less to live up to but she made her similarly thin material work. All she had to do was be nice to Blake and talk a lot about her son. Bridges’ moments as a family man in the making are the best through the first two thirds of the film, especially his time with Gyllenhaal’s son. Blake’s behind the scenes stuff rarely interested me, especially when he met up with Collin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet. The movie picks up again at the introduction of Robert Duvall’s character, who adds much needed grounding to Blake’s world. Before him it’s all flights of fancy.

Duvall, though good, ultimately served to gloss over the most important part of the film, Blake’s inevitable journey into sobriety. If the movie is to be believed, though, getting sober is as easy as making a decision to do so. It’s as empty as the movie’s portrayal of Blake’s alcoholism. His problems never have any ultimate consequences. He loses a kid, who is easily found. He wrecks his truck and breaks an ankle. He’s lost his drive as a performer and an artist. So do a great number of sober people. The movie never ties back to his addiction except when it tells us it does. His hospital conversation spells it out directly, with the doctor telling him to quit drinking, smoking and to lose 25 pounds. That’s all it takes to turn his life around.

The great shame is that the opening does set up Blake as a tragic character. His nosing around for booze at bars and liquor stores is never followed up on, and his onstage fumbles are played for laughs. Gyllenhall has savior written all over her from her very introduction, even though it never makes much sense that Blake is drawn to her. It just sort of happens and he keeps coming back to her in spite of his distance and lifestyle. Outside of his fame not much is made of her attraction to him. She plays it appropriately hesitant, though, and never seems quite as committed as Blake to the idea of a relationship.

The movie spends far too long on the musical performances given by Bridges, particularly as the songs change very seldom. That time could have been better spent on Blake’s descent. I suppose it served to show some of the spark he once had but after the first one I found them tedious. I had no interest in Farrell’s Sweet character or his performance whatsoever. I would much rather have spent that time with Blake and his bitterness. Their reunion went far too smoothly considering how much build up came before it to establish its difficulty for Blake.

That difficulty was what this movie lacked, from Blake’s substance abuse to his emotional problems to his rocky relationships and his recoveries from these, he never seemed to struggle with these issues. He coasts along effortlessly through his existence and when Blake needs something life hands it to him. In the end “Bad” abides. 2 ½ stars

Terriers is gone. That much we know. I’ve read a lot of online statements, ponderings and criticisms about just why the show failed to find its audience, particularly from the AVClub.com branch of the Onion. They’ve done some fine reporting of facts and offered many speculations but the chief one I don’t really get is the deriding of the name of the show.

 

I think that the name of the program, Terriers, may represent why the show didn’t catch on but it is not the problem in itself. One of the earliest things that drew me into the show was its title. What does it mean? Who are the eponymous Terriers? I wanted to know. I thought of the title as a challenge and a mark of confidence on the creators’ part. They didn’t need to tell me what it was so much as dare me to figure that out. I also missed out on the truly terrible advertising campaign, though. I just saw the thing on Hulu.com one day and checked into it. Once I saw Donal Logue I had a good feeling about it. Once I actually finished the pilot I was hooked.

 

But, as I said, it is gone. The network has caught flack, and its president, though I thought it was pretty brave of him to step out in front and say that they tried and it just didn’t catch on. You can blame the title, you can blame the lousy advertising, you can blame the network, but none of that is the real truth. This is another case of the viewing public getting the television it deserves. Farewell, Terriers, and thanks for the brief moment. I’m sure we’ll see you again on whatever the next version of Brilliant but Cancelled turns out to be.

I’m constantly astounded that Ricky Gervais can be so brilliant at creating television but brings so much banality to feature filmmaking. He seems to be incapable of catching that same originality that drew viewers to The Office for more than 30 minutes at a time, save The Invention of Lying, which held out for 60 before limping to its end. Much of his latest feature project, Cemetery Junction, too, is a fairly pointless exercise in predictability.

 

It starts and remains every working class coming of age story of the past few decades. A young man in blue collar England wants to escape the drudgery of his life and the toil of his future. This one even comes with the prerequisite childhood friends who embarrass him and hold him back at the right moments. He turns to life insurance sales and is, of course, smitten with the boss’s daughter. She, of course, is betrothed to the company overachiever, who also happens to be its resident dickhead. Of course. Cemetery Junction hits all the right beats in order. I’ll give it that.

 

It fails to provide much of a reason to care about any of these characters for the first 75 minutes, though. The two friends eventually find their parts fleshed out enough at that point and have a few minutes, the best of the film, to shine. The young man figures out that money isn’t everything, of course, and gets the girl in the end. Don’t even try to call that a spoiler. His shining moment, though, is genuine and unique. He argues that if the girl marries what is essentially her father, she will turn into essentially her mother. I found that refreshingly honest and grounded as movie arguments to break an engagement go. And the mother’s own reaction gave her character a point to exist. The finale of the movie, though, goes right back into the rut it started in, dragging the film full circle.

 

While this may sound very negative, there’s actually nothing wrong with this film. It does everything reasonably well if not excellently. The acting is good, the setting is perfectly dreary and the writing is acceptable if lacking ambition. The movie in general lacks a voice. Even the music, while great songs individually, feels like a Best Of culled from other coming of age films. This film treads some very well worn ground but seems perfectly content to follow the grooves without branching off on its own path at all. 2 stars

Director Daniel Barber opens Harry Brown with a killing that defines the violent world of its housing project setting immediately. The can be no doubt afterward that no one living in this place is ever safe from the threat of death, not even the killers themselves.

 

Eponymous retiree Michael Caine laments the state of the houses with his only friend, Len, as he visits his ailing wife and awaits the inevitable. He frequently avoids an underpass that represents the worst of the situation, an overly symbolic tunnel, lighted in the dark. In quick succession, however, Harry loses everything, following a visit from the staid plain clothes office Emily Mortimer. With nothing left in his life, Harry fights back against the terror inflicted by the kids that affect the violence in his home with his tactical knowledge that comes with his years of Marine service.

 

The movie clings to its Death Wish trappings heavily from this point out, becoming at times infectiously joyous in its returned violence. After all, these scum started it, right? One can only sympathize with Caine’s eye-for-an-eye mission to remove the worst of the local element, as he is never shown as remotely morally ambiguous. Harry is a force of righteous retribution, flawed only by his physical ailments. I found his playing savior to a heroin addict a little trite as it happened after his killing of her dealers, and a little forced to prove that he was a good man. We already know that, and why he acts against those who took from him. Similarly, one of the kids is introduced as having been molested, implying that this might be his reason for falling in with the killers, but no more is ever made of this, save one jarring kill that Caine makes (not against the kid). The fact is brought up and just sort of left open as a casual consideration. It’s an overly simplified, cliché reasoning.

 

Caine delivers another gripping performance as Harry, turning his grief on and off with the presence and absence of company. He carries Harry’s secrets, his unspoken confessions and witnessed war horrors, just below his surface, boiling over when he decides that enough is enough. A moment shared with a dying gunshot victim plays nicely when spoken by Caine, a sort of unburdening that Harry takes the man through with him. Mortimer plays her role as an exceptionally dour half investigator, half social worker. She comes off a bit martyred with a clumsy line about how she transferred from a cushy job somewhere else to work this area, and she sometimes carries herself with an air of pitying the people of the projects. Most of the cast gets little to show for their efforts, being often broadly sketched as either opportunistic, jaded or both.

 

The final act of the film falls slightly apart, as Harry grows soft when it would seem most unlikely, and a poorly planned police raid sparks a full on riot in the name of a lip service “zero tolerance” policy. It would be more effective, and more in line with the movie’s themes, for the police to simply leave the projects alone to eat their own alive. The violence in this part is particularly affecting and casual, which works to the movie’s favor. Murder becomes disturbingly simple for the villains, and in turn for the heroes.

 

I liked Harry Brown, mostly because I liked Harry. I wanted to see him win. His antagonists had no redeeming qualities, his situation was utterly hopeless and he only wanted to make his world safe. You can’t help but appreciate that. It’s an easy situation to set up and an easy one to lose yourself in; it’s the nature of the revenge fantasy. In the end it really says very little about the environment that spawned Harry’s necessity, but manages to immerse the viewer in that world enough to want to see it cleaned. 3 ½ stars

I had my doubts that The Social Network could live up to its own press when I decided to give it a chance. And, having seen it, I still don’t see the reason for the level of hype behind it. It is a very good film; I have no intention of degrading it in any way. I just don’t see the importance prematurely bestowed upon it. Even as a Facebook user I fail to see the importance in its foundation to the viewer.

 

Aaron Sorkin’s script is terrific. The dialogue is both believable and snappy, not forced except in the case of lead Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerman, where the effect is intended. Eisenberg portrays essentially the same character he and Michael Cera have had a stranglehold on for a few years, though devoid of all charm and innocence, these replaced by anger and social ineptitude. He portrays these excellently, making a good villain in a straw man kind of way. His every action is tied to its core psychological flaw by the attorneys on the other side of his case with relative ease. He counters a few of their attempts, proving himself capable enough in the courtroom setting, but still comes across as petulant and immature. The character’s flaws and insistence on grating behavior eventually reduce all attempts at redemption to coming too little too late. Even the closing moment rang false to me, as if a friend request should atone for any of his conduct.

 

Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker takes the notion of this irredeemably flawed character even further, providing nothing but Luciferesque temptation to Eisenberg’s vulnerable Zuckerman. His blatant attempts to worm his way in and push out the only really relatable character in the film, Zuckerman’s only friend, work in the film, though. He might as well be offering the world to Christ on the mountain when they sit around some L.A. nightclub contemplating the future worth of Facebook. Unfortunately Zuckerman is to Jesus as a worm is to a lion. It removes the drama of that particular story.

 

Zuckerman’s only friend, a point driven home too blatantly and too many times, is well done by Andrew Garfield. The pain of betrayal comes through brilliantly when the hammer finally drops on him, but the story is not his. The addition of his unstable girlfriend adds little to the story and takes up some valuable screen time. For better or worse the film belongs to Eisenberg and should have focused slightly less on Garfield.

 

David Fincher’s direction, especially during the rowing contest and its narrow loss for the Harvard team, makes much of the drama, adding layers to the image of the story. There was little chance for him to show this flair, though, in the numerous scenes of programming and mediation that make up the bulk of the film.

 

At heart the movie is an espionage picture, but sappy with betrayal between college friends. I enjoyed the film but had difficulty truly investing myself in it, the characters or the outcome of their struggle. The backstabbing may have cost a lot of money to a few people but without a little blood I fail to see the great drama in this. 3 ½ stars

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