Friday 29 July 2011

Not much to Marvel about: "Captain America", "The Lavender Hill Mob", "Whisky Galore" and "Horrid Henry" (ST 31/07/11)

Captain America (12A) 125 mins *
The Lavender Hill Mob (U) 81 mins ****
Whisky Galore! (U) 82 mins ***
Horrid Henry: The Movie (PG) 90 mins *

Regular cinemagoers will emerge from 2011 with tinnitus (from the Transformers sequel), a squint (from slipshod 3D) and, more likely than not, a bad case of superhero fatigue. It was possible to enjoy X-Men: First Class’s stylish counter-history; Thor, too, had flickers of interest; January’s joshing The Green Hornet, pointing up how absurd these myths-for-nerds are, looks better all the time. Collectively, however, they blur into one, and Captain America, the least distinctive of the lot, is just a chore. Next summer, we should insist on movies about risk-averse middle-managers who keep well clear of laboratories.

The new film is another origin story, that narrative form that exists solely to inform a select group of odd-smelling men-children where their favourite action figure got his helmet from. It also means we have to go back – to WW2 – before the film can get anywhere. It’s here we find Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a ten-stone weakling, being recruited as part of a U.S. plot to parachute genetically engineered supersoldiers behind enemy lines. With the push of a single button, Rogers emerges with newly rippling anatomy, the sight of which cues the loudest movie fanfare since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea.

For where Marvel’s savvy Iron Man movies dealt in bet-hedging ambivalence, Captain America – like G.I. Joe before it – hesitates not to endorse muscle, might, the military machine. Yet it evokes a lazy nostalgia for a time when the bad guys were easily identified, and dramatic inertia sets in quickly. There is a reason none of the events in Captain America matter, and it’s secreted in the end credits: a teaser for a future crossover movie uniting the Captain with other Marvel heroes. This time, a film really is its own trailer, intended to generate awareness for another product entirely. Permission to feel ripped off granted.

The actors, at least, have mouthwatering cheques to show for it; such a percentage of the cast are observed phoning it in the production must have had a switchboard the size of Wyoming. Toby Jones is a glorified lab-tech; Hayley Atwell’s love interest registers as a smudge of period lipstick; Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t have appeared to care any less if he’d loped into shot parsing the Men in Black 3 script. Hugo Weaving gets to have a modicum of fun (and to tear off his own face) as arch-villain Schmidt, but Nazi occultism was explored with greater imagination in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films.

Effects specialist Joe Johnston gives this non-event movie a browning, over-processed look, and the dimming properties of 3D specs don’t help: much of the film is experienced as though through a paper bag. The fanboy’s usual cry will doubtless go up – these things aren’t meant for your kind – yet surely our teenagers aren’t as dull-minded and conformist as Captain America assumes; it closes on the image of Uncle Sam, recruiting us for the next battle in the Marvel movie universe, and frankly, I’ve never felt more like becoming a conscientious objector.

Resistance arrives with the reissue of two Ealing favourites, wryly charting the reactions of austerity-age Britons to sudden riches: bullion in the case of 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob, 50,000 washed-up crates of grog in 1949’s Whisky Galore! The latter, one of the gentler entries in the filmography of the great Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success), champions the unquenchable thirst of a Scottish community over the Home Guard’s prohibitive urges; in its most explicitly satirical touch, the sinking ship that deposits the whisky on the community’s beaches is the SS Cabinet Minister.

Timelier still is The Lavender Hill Mob, Ealing’s retort to the brashness of American heist movies. Like many of the studio’s best, it thinks small, treating crime as a cottage industry: bank clerk Alec Guinness and fence Stanley Holloway spin stolen gold into novelty giftshop tat, employing not armoured cars, but Sid James on a bike. It’s a fine antidote to summer-season superheroics, marrying modest form to slyly subversive content: as Guinness’s minion demonstrates, giving police the slip by merging with a crowd of commuters, sometimes ordinariness allows one to get away with more than anybody expects.

The schools have broken up, which gives parents six weeks of fidgeting or dozing through cheap and charmless fiascos like Horrid Henry, a frenetic, synthetic spot of audience-chasing derived from Francesca Simon’s books. Grim notions of celebrity lurk at its centre: Henry’s progress through a Cowell-like talent competition is charted in brash, insincere, Dick-and-Dom-endorsed fashion, requiring numerous C-listers to take buckets of goo to the face. The calculation involved precludes any sense of harmless fun: kids, this is what marketing men want you to like.
Captain America and Horrid Henry are on nationwide release; The Lavender Hill Mob and Whisky Galore! are in selected cinemas before their DVD reissue on August 1st (Lavender) and August 8th (Whisky).

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