“What makes you so special?” sneers the archvillain, a noseless Nazi. “Nothing,” replies Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. “I'm just a kid from Brooklyn.” It's classic Marvel, the “relatable” superhero: you too can whip the Axis, skinny kid; all you need is a German refugee doctor played by Stanley Tucci who asks, “So, you vant to go ovahseez, kill some Nazis?” When he zaps you with Stark Industries' Vita-Ray Hitler's not going to kick sand in your face anymore. And yet when the machine opens and Chris Evans, all 6-feet, 200-pounds of him steps out, there's a certain absence of golly-gee-willikers. The last origins movie before next summer's Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger is far more watchable than Thor but it also feels perfunctory, offering little more than ersatz '40s atmosphere, the usual slumming thespians, a rousing USO number written by Alan Menken and David Zippel and the eerie CG that has wasted Evans' face to that of a 98-pound weakling.
Captain America, who in 2012 will be defrosted to help Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Samuel L. Jackson fight crime, becomes a wartime celebrity before he's done much of anything, a satirical aspect of the story with which many filmmakers would have had a field day. But the movie has gone to Joe Johnston, who does little other than smuggle in retreads of his design work on the original Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are occasional glimmers of wit in the dialogue, most of it delivered by Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones as Captain America's commanding officer — can't they freeze him too?
Two little girls in 19th-century China, their feet bound on the same day, are brought together as laotong or “old sames” by a matchmaker in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and as the fortunes of Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing) fall and rise, they send messages written in nushu, a women's secret script, to each other on a fan. To this sumptuously costumed adaptation of Lisa See's novel has been added a present-day scaffolding from which the story flashes back, and it's here where Wayne Wang's movie goes very wrong. Lily is also Nina, a Shanghai banker bound for Manhattan with her co-worker boyfriend (Archie Kao) and Snow Flower Sophia, a free spirit in a coma after a bicycle accident. In her estranged friend's bag Nina finds a manuscript for a novel with the same title as our movie, and from there we flash back and forward so often you could get whiplash.
When Nina and Sophia were teenagers they also signed a laotong contract pledging eternal friendship. Lily and Nina, neither of whom have much interest in the men in their life, come off as jealous crypto-lesbians; Lily watches Snow Flower have sex with her brutish husband (Jiang Wu) while Nina breaks things off with Sophia after she runs off with her latest bad boy, a singing nightclub owner played by Hugh Jackman. And as for Wang, by the end he's laying on the sentimentality as thick as duck sauce.
It's no mystery why Sony Classics is releasing Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest — the rap group recorded for Sony and they still owe them a record on their 1989 contract — although how this supersized “Behind the Music” episode was an official selection of this year's Sundance and Tribeca film festivals remains a question. If the director, actor Michael Rapaport, is such a big fan of A Tribe Called Quest, why has he made such a shoddy film?
Beats, Rhymes and Life, which takes its title from the group's fourth album, focuses on the life, gives passing attention to the beats and little to the rhymes, and rap is nothing without words. The film begins with backstage squabbling at a 2008 Rock the Bells reunion and then flashes back to the group's origins in St. Albans, Queens, where, inspired by Run-DMC in neighboring Hollis, Jonathan Davis (Q-Tip), Malik Taylor (Phife Dawg) and Jarobi White, along with high-school classmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad, honed their laidback blend of record-geek samples and good-humored rhymes.
There's scant consideration of the diverse musical canvas the group brought to rap (including Martin Denny, the Average White Band and Lou Reed), what they rapped about (besides a woman with a big butt), and what they, along with the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul and others in the Native Tongues collective, were in opposition to (gangsta rap and Public Enemy's hard-left politics). Instead, Rapaport focuses on the feuding and Phife's health problems. It's the old story of one member taking over the group — or being perceived as such — and it's a very boring one.
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Film Reviews: 'Captain America,' 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,' 'Beats, Rhymes and Life.'
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