November 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger • TabloidAttack the BlockFiddler on the Roof

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


Captain America: The First Avenger

Of all the Marvel superheroes, Captain America is probably the most proudly straight-laced. Born of World War II patriotism, he lacks the darker edge of some of his contemporaries. That can be a problem for filmmakers, as purely upstanding heroes are a little dull. Even Iron Man has issues.

It’s a pleasure, then, to report that Captain America: The First Avenger is highly entertaining. Chris Evans plays the title character that is turned from skinny kid Steve Rogers into a super-soldier, thanks to the work of a scientist (Stanly Tucci), who sees Rogers’ previous weakness as a benefit (He’ll value his power more, and be less likely to abuse it). At first, Rogers is used purely as a propaganda tool, but he eventually gets fed up and puts himself into the action in Europe. That’s where he encounters Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi who thinks Hitler is too much of a wimp, and has the intelligence and (almost) the technology to instigate his own worldwide genocide.

Director Joe Johnston also made the very retro The Rocketeer several years back. He has an impressive ability to recreate old-fashioned movie tropes without making them seem dated. Not only is Captain America set during WWII, it has the no-nonsense, everyman charm found in that era’s best popular culture. Evans gives his character shades of self-doubt, but he never strays from his heroic persona, and he’s surrounded by the wonderful character actors Tucci, Weaving, Toby Jones (as Red Skull’s sidekick) and Tommy Lee Jones (as a grumpy colonel). Even the obligatory love interest (Hayley Atwell) has a personality.

At the end, the story jumps into the present day, the better to set up next year’s Avengers movie. But for most of its running time Captain America is outdated in the best possible way.

Extras: Nearly an hour of making-of material, on everything from comic book origins to casting to special effects; commentary by Johnston, director of photography Shelly Johnson and editor Jeffrey Ford; a short film starring Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson; deleted and extended scenes; set footage from The Avengers. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 —LL

Tabloid

Errol Morris’ documentaries have either solved mysteries (his The Thin Blue Line discovered the real murderer of a Texas cop) or examined some of the weightiest issues of our time (The Oscar-winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara). His latest, Tabloid, does neither of those things, but it’s still one of Morris’s best movies.

It’s less a documentary and more of a puzzle, with some key pieces missing. Curiously, these gaps actually make for a more engrossing movie. Like a drug, Tabloid gets more addictive with each viewing.

The film’s star is Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who fell madly in love with a young Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. When he abruptly left Utah to do his missionary work in England, McKinney and a crew of hired hands kidnapped Anderson and took him to a rural cottage where she had him bound in the hope of “liberating” him from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

McKinney says that what happened next was a love story (there’s archival footage of McKinney reciting her odyssey like it was a fairy tale), but Morris has crafted it into an expertly constructed black comedy. Anderson won’t talk, her chief accomplice is dead, and a participant who betrayed her simply can’t be found.

McKinney presents an idealized, seemingly unreliable account of what happened, but she’s fascinating to listen to. We also get to hear from two of the British reporters who covered her story for rival papers. These fellows gleefully describe digging up the sordid details, and it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if they had applied their skills to something more substantial. In addition, one of the accomplices and former Mormon missionary Troy Williams add some intriguing wrinkles that McKinney would rather not include.

Morris shoots his interviews using a converted teleprompter he and his wife have dubbed the “Interrotron,” which enables his subjects to look directly into the camera as if they were talking to a person (in this case Morris and the audience) instead of a machine. As a result, there’s an informality to the conversations that’s just right for a film about tawdry delights.

Extras: None, which is a shame for such a mind-bending film. (R) Rating: 4.5 —DL

Attack the Block

Keep an eye on writer-director Joe Cornish. The British newcomer has somehow made an alien-invasion movie that isn’t a rip-off of the dozen other alien-invasion movies we’ve seen recently. Set in a London housing project, and starring mostly young, novice actors, Attack the Block may lack an original premise, but it has plenty to recommend it.

A group of street thugs, led by Moses (John Boyega), are committing felonies one night when they’re interrupted by an object crashing down from the sky. When the mysterious creature inside it attacks, the kids kill it, then stash it with their pot-dealing friend (Nick Frost). Naturally, the adventure doesn’t end there, as more (and even nastier) things begin invading the complex, and the criminals have to team up with one of their robbery victims (Jodie Whittaker) to survive.

Cornish uses the high-rise setting to great effect, as every dark hallway and creaky elevator becomes a perfect place for an ambush. The violence is brutal, and the characters react as sensibly as a bunch of scared teenagers can. The tension is alleviated with plenty of humor, most of it attached to dense slang that’s almost incomprehensible to American audiences.

You don’t have to understand every word to get a kick out of Attack the Block.  It falls short of being a true classic, but it’s funny, scary and never slows down. That’s quite an accomplishment for a bunch of rookies.

Extras: Three(!) commentary tracks, featuring Cornish as well as several actors and crew members; an hour-long making-of doc; features on the special effects, casting and storyboards; a short gag reel. (R). Rating: 3.5. —LL

Fiddler on the Roof

Forty years ago yesterday, Fiddler on the Roof hit theater screens for the first time and managed to be more than simply a collection of catchy tunes accompanied by gorgeous images (courtesy of cinematographer Oswald Morris).

Reworked from the stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, the film follows a struggling Jewish milkman named Tevye (Oscar-nominee Topol) trying to eke out a living in a rural Russia in the early 1900s. Tevye wants to marry off his five daughters but doesn’t have much to give for a dowry, and each of the lasses has her own idea of what makes a suitable husband. Because of the tenuous relationship the Jews in the area have with their Russian neighbors (who think nothing of storming the Jews’ property or violently taking their land), Tevye is understandably wary of doing anything that could endanger the delicate balance that he believes has kept his family from pogroms.

While the film is loaded with period, regional and ethnic detail, Fiddler on the Roof is an oddly universal because parents prepare their children for the world they themselves faced as youngsters, not the one their offspring will actually inhabit. Much of what makes both Sholem Aleichem’s stories and the film fascinating is that they were set in a time when the old social order was collapsing for better and for worse.

While the movie and the play it’s based on take liberties with the Tevye stories, Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics retain an astonishing about of Sholem Aleichem’s wit and insight. While it’s a little jarring to watch Tevye talking directly to the camera (he really is talking to God), it captures the witty, conversational tone of the original tales, and Topol gives such a delightfully nuanced performance that it’s easy to love Tevye even as he makes boneheaded decisions.

The new Blu-Ray edition (which also includes a spare DVD) presents the music beautifully, giving listeners a chance to hear Jerry Bock’s eclectic score at its best. John Williams (yes, the guy who gave us the unforgettable scores for Jaws and Star Wars) has arranged the music skillfully and features Isaac Stern on violin solos.

Surprisingly, Canadian producer-director Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, In the Heat of the Night) worried he might not get the assignment for the film because he was a gentile (a Methodist to be exact). His suggestive British last name has confused many people throughout his life.

Extras: It’ll take you longer to get through them than Tevye takes to get through his milk run. A commentary track by Jewison and Topol, who jokes that Jewison should be renamed “Christianson” and convert to Judaism, a first rate Canadian documentary on Jewison, Jewison’s recollections, as well as those of the performers, Williams and the authors of the stage play, a deleted song and storyboard to film comparisons. (G) Rating: 4.5 —DL

 

 


Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.