A decent All-American guy chances upon the means to become a superhero.
  • A decent All-American guy chances upon the means to become a superhero.
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Captain America: The First Avenger **

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In 1991, director Joe Johnston brought us The Rocketeer, in which a decent All-American guy chances upon the means to become a superhero. This enables him to take on the Nazi menace and its plan for an aerial attack on the United States.

In 2011, director Joe Johnston brings you Captain America: The First Avenger, in which...well, this time it’s Hydra, a rogue Nazi subdivision. There are other differences, too, but what’s most important are the similarities — of charm, of square-jawed unironic goodness, and of sweetly awkward romantic stirrings. Captain America — or, rather, his alter ego Steve Rogers — is a throwback superhero. He’s not working out his damage (à la Batman), and there are no lessons he must learn about power and responsibility (à la Spider Man). He’s just a good guy who needs the tools to get the job done. And thanks to refugee German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and his muscle-building super serum, he’s got those tools. Buff actor Chris Evans gives a real sense of fun to Rogers’s first excursion in his serum-boosted body, a feeling of Holy cow, look what I can do!

That sense of fun is becoming something of a Marvel hallmark, in this run-up to next summer’s Avengers. While DC has gone ponderous and portentous with The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and even, weirdly, Green Lantern, Marvel has managed to keep a light touch amid the drama with Iron Man, Thor, and now Captain America. Tommy Lee Jones nails this tone as the colonel in charge of the Captain, easing from genial to grave without any sign of effort crossing his creasy, craggy face.

The feeling is right; other aspects, less so. Hugo Weaving, usually so reliable as a creepy villain, is oddly muted as the Red Skull. He lays out his mad plan for world domination without relish — and without much menace, either. And the story squanders its own fine setup: the Skull was the super-serum’s first recipient, but as Erskine explains, it only heightened his self-serving ambition. Cap, on the other hand, understands compassion, having once been weak himself. One would hope that their final confrontation would hinge on this difference. One would be disappointed. And while the 3-D did manage to produce one genuine flinch, at other times, it lent events an embarrassing unreality.


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Like the recent Jim Carrey vehicle Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the driving force in Crazy, Stupid, Love is a kid who wants mom and dad to get back together. Unlike Popper, Love injects some pathos into the proceedings. Also, fallout from sexual adventuring, varying levels of human folly, and some quiet consideration of manhood and husbandry. (Steve Carell’s late-night yard work at the home he’s left behind presents a fine image: the care of a house standing in for the care of a household.) All in all, a much less fantastical and much more moving affair. And except for a bit of (literally) masturbatory indulgence, it’s even artful enough to let the grown-ups hog the spotlight, since they’re the ones who ultimately have to decide what to do.

If that doesn’t sound much like the man-makeover comedy laid out in the film’s trailer, blame the trailer. The silly stuff is in there, but most of the laughs come in moments of painful recognition or uncomfortable absurdity. Just because the film champions the notion of being a middle-aged married dude doesn’t mean it lionizes it. Apologies fail, grand moments go awry, and humiliation becomes a regular guest in the soul. The only recourse is perseverance — which, on a good day, can look a lot like love.

Carell, of course, is the star of the ensemble cast, but the rest of the heavens shine almost as bright: Julianne Moore is emotive and reliable as his confused wife, Ryan Gosling is pretty and vulnerable as his silver-tongued advisor, and Emma Stone...well, Emma Stone is full-stop adorable.

★★


Sarah’s Key

“Sometimes our own stories are the ones we can never tell,” intones Kristen Scott Thomas at the opening of Sarah’s Key. “But if our own stories are never told, they become something else: forgotten.” This is solemn piffle, straining to make something terribly significant out of the mundane. We hear it again much later, when a successful, middle-aged man declares, “My whole life has been a lie” after learning that his mother — who died when he was nine — was not totally honest about her heritage. Yes, we want our stories to be remembered. Yes, our parents’ heritage is part of who we are. But, come now — it’s all a bit much, the sort of stuff we’d expect in a story that features a mother lovingly watching her toddler wander up against the windows of a Manhattan restaurant. Oh, right: that’s here, too.

I almost wonder if director Gilles Paquet-Brenner knows all this. The film tells two stories: the first about a Jewish girl in World War II France who hides her younger brother from the authorities and then sets out to rescue him from that hiding place, the second about an American woman in modern-day France who is about to move into the Jewish girl’s old apartment. (She stumbles upon the girl’s story while researching a magazine article about the French government’s gross mistreatment of its own Jewish citizens.)

While the first story is fraught with danger — and in some cases, rife with horror — it is also thrilling and full of high adventure. Separated from her brother, torn from her parents, and seemingly doomed, little Sarah presses on with the passionate certainty of childhood faith: she must succeed, and so she will. Paquet-Brenner paints Sarah’s world with bright colors; everything feels warm and vital, and the humanity that blooms despite the suffering is all the more precious because of it.

The comfortable present, meanwhile, feels cold and wan and not a little dim. In 1942, we are given a girl risking everything to save her brother’s life. In the present day, we get a guy asking his wife to have an abortion because he doesn’t want “to be an old dad” and a woman willing to sacrifice the happiness of innocents in her quest to dig up a past that is not her own.

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