Captain America: The First Avenger

Joe Johnston is a director that has made some fantastic movies and my guess is that most people would not know his name. He tried and largely failed to make “The Wolfman” a marketable film  after the original director and the star Benicio Del Toro fell out on the vision of the movie. My favorite of Johnston’s films is “The Rocketeer” with maybe “October Sky in second  place. Both of those movies have something that “Captain America” needs in spades, and that is a heart that is set in traditional values. Those movies were set in the past and Johnston knows how to evoke that past really well. The first thirty or forty minutes of Captain America consists of images from America, in the process of fighting World War Two. These are not combat images, but looks at the homefront.  New York City is shown to be a tough place to live but also the sparkling jewel that nostalgia wants us to remember. There was not any 1943 World’s Exhibition that I know of but New York did have the World’s Fair in 1939 and the invented World Exhibition clearly took it’s inspiration from the futurist visions of the 39 Fair. The sleek looks of the future were started there and in the movie we are talking about now, they come to life in the laboratory of the American Project, the munitions plants of the Nazi spawned Hydra organization and the cars and planes that are featured throughout the story. The style of Johnston in those places is reminiscent of the Hugh’s factory featured in “The Rocketeer”, the lighting and angles are evocative of an earlier time when the world was more direct in the way we saw ourselves.

The sense of accuracy starts with all of the usual things that make a movie work. Let me start with something that I can’t remember writing about extensively in any of my blog posts before, costumes. The look of America in WWII is found in a thousand photographs of the times. Check a high school yearbook, or view the family album of your parents, or more likely now, your grandparents, and you will find the distinctive clothing. Steve Rogers, our hero appears in simple street clothes that were visible in those photos. If you have a picture of your dad or grandad in uniform during the war, he probably looks like Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s best friend. The tweed of Dr. Erskine fits an academic of the day and the military uniform of Peggy Carter is as sharp as the ones worn by Dinah Shore in “Up in Arms” from 1944. Schmidt’s car is not real as far as I know, but it looks like a nightmare of power and Teutonic arrogance that could easily have been made in those times. The Bowler hat with the Sgt’ stripes worn by one of Roger’s team is of course silly, but it looks like it could be real. This is a fantasy that is being run through a prism of reality and our memory of what the reality was. The costume that Captain America conducts his War Bond sales shows in, is the way a hero would be imagined in a 1940’s comic book. When the suit gets changed, the alterations are not dramatic but they are practical and they keep the patriotic spirit that the comic character and the movie need to have to work.

The tone of the movie is set early on by the undefeatable spirit of a young man, desperate to contribute to his country. He is not trying to prove himself to anyone, he wants to be like everyone else, a contributor to the defeat of the enemy. There is a key point in the film when Steve Rogers is questioned and asked if he wants to go kill Nazis like all the other men, his answer is what makes him a real hero. The earnest motives and morals of the American spirit are contained in a young man that is not physically able to match those feelings. This is the sign that he is the right man to give this power to.  Everything that precedes the transformation of Steve Rogers into Captain America, is needed to make this story soar as a real character we can root for and not just another super hero to turn loose on the movie screens of the world this summer. There were some hints months ago that the movie would downplay the American exceptionalism that makes Captain America what he is. There was even talk that the movie would simply be titled “The First Avenger”, to broaden the international audience. I don’t know how the marketing of this movie is going in the rest of the world, but this movie sells American ideals and spirit. Yes, many of those are ideals shared with other nations, as is indicated by the Captain’s team, but it matters that he is American and you cannot disguise that in this story or movie. Just as he did in “October Sky”, Johnston manages to get real American ideals on the screen, without having to wave a flag. Unless you take a close look at that big ass shield that Cap is throwing around.

My knowledge of Captain America prior to this film is limited to the few comic books I can recall from when I was nine, ten or eleven. There was a limited movement cartoon version of Captain America that I watched along with all the other Marvel characters in the 1960s. I have been singing the theme song for forty plus years, but I am not an expert on the character.

This is the memory I have and if this is not accurate don’t tell me. I want the current film to be my standard for what Captain America is.

There is plenty of action in the movie, but the action all seems to serve the story and reflect the world that these characters are supposed to exist in. The pacing of the film is steady, it is an origins story so it has all the classical elements of the super hero early narrative. They are not in a rush to get to the slam bang action, instead the story builds and leads us into action that we will appreciate all the more when it finally does show up. The two super hero films this most feels like are “Ironman” and “Superman”. We get a clear logical development of the powers that we are going to see like we did in Ironman, and it is backed by the down to earth goodness of our hero and the world he comes from like “Superman”. Next year Marvel Studios has a Hero all star film coming out called “The Avengers”. We have been getting hints of it in the Ironman, Hulk and Thor films of the last few years. The addition of Captain America makes me want to see this movie more than I ever had before. They have great potential with this character and I hope they don’t muck it up and let him get lost among all the other heroes.

The actors do a good job in their parts. Chris Evans is cast perfectly in his role as Steve Rogers/Captain America. The effects work used in the first part of the film is a couple of steps beyond what we saw in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. It is much more convincing and less obviously computer generated. Tommy Lee Jones just has to show up and be himself to make his part work, but he does get all the best one liners in the movie so pay close attention when he speaks, all of the verbal humor is in his dialogue. There are some visual jokes but nothing that will take you out of the movie. Everything fits together really well and makes this so far the highlight of the summer (along with Harry Potter).  Watch the credits all the way through for the Avengers teaser but also watch them for the spectacular WWII era art work that is meshed into the film so well. The show tune that is featured in the movie is a perfect fit for the kind of entertainment people would have sought out before Television and the internet. This film recreates a time and place that only the oldest of our parents and grandparents will recall, but it will make it an era that you wish you could have lived in an fought for. It is a comic book tribute to the greatest generation. We can never do them any justice for the burden and sacrifice they bore, but we can cheer on their spirit and the values they tried to save for all of us. This movie absolutely rocks and I can’t imagine anyone would not enjoy it.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

A few years ago we stayed up till all hours of the night to go to a Mid-night screening of the first Transformers movie.  The toys were well after my childhood and came mostly before my kids time. Also, they were girls and we had a lot of pound puppies and unicorns around the house. We did not know what to expect except space robots that turned into vehicles. That movie turned out to be loud and stupid and much more fun than it had any right to be.  Shia LeBeuof was starring and we barely knew who he was much less how to say his name. Megan Fox was just a picture on a poster, who knew she was about to become an “It” girl. Here we are six years later and I’m sorry to say, Shia is a household name, but not yet a great actor, Megan Fox has dropped off the radar, and the Transformer movies are as stupid as they ever were but they have lost the charm they once contained.

Many on line sites have been very supportive of this film, especially in comparison to the second movie. As far as I was concerned they both had the same weaknesses that made them inferior to the first film. The stories are overly complicated, the action is bigger, louder and less clear. The humor in the movies has gotten overdone and does not seem genetic to the films or the characters. “Dark Side of the Moon” starts well, goes off the tracks and then recovers a little with some spectacular scenes of Chicago being destroyed. Other than that it has little going for it.

I always knew the formula for Michael Bay photography and storytelling. I’ve seen almost all of his movies and those that he has produced but not directed himself. After watching “Team America”, it is hard to get out of the formula and just concentrate on the story. Since the Transformer Movies largely consist of the same story repeated over and over, there is not enough to distract from the overdone slow motion, sun drenched heroics with matching score. It has become a exercise in watching the cliches and wondering if they will stick out too much. They stuck out plenty in this movie, but fortunately we waited until enough other films were in 3D that we could see this in a standard screening. Otherwise the visual hokum would be intolerable. This movie has been out for three weeks and I was surprised at the number of people there for a weekday afternoon screening. It was not packed but the audience was enthusiastic. The kids behind us were not taking any of it seriously, but they did suck in their breath at some robot punches and they cheered the destruction of the appropriate Decepticons.

John Malkovich is in this movie for no reason whatsoever. Francis McDormand is also in the film and while she is a little more relevant as character, I am not sure why they needed her as an actress. She brings little of the steely resolve she is known for, she is slumming in an underwritten comedy part. However compared to Malkovich, her part is complex. He has no relevance to the story, adds nothing interesting to the film, and his mugging which can be hysterical in the right movie (Burn After Reading) was just annoying here. John Turturro was on the radio the other day promoting another project and he sounded so bright and engaging. It is sad that he has to pay the bills doing nothing work like this. There was a humorous story line with his character in the first movie, but here it is stretched to buffoonery.  The one great appearance in the movie is by Buzz Aldrin, a real American Hero. The Apollo program is integrated into the story in a clever way, and then all the inventiveness goes out of the movie.

There is nothing wrong with a dumb summer movie, but this one just feels redundant and convoluted. I like watching stuff blow up as much as the next guy, but there ought to be a reason for it. Here the only reason is to get your money. We get a sucker punch joke about Obama being the one to award Sam his medal, and there is a quick Star Trek joke based on Leonard Nimoy’s voice work in the movie and a line from some of the Star Trek films. Except for the set up and Buzz Aldrin, this movie makes only a token effort to be better that the widely flogged Revenge of the Fallen, and is not close to the first movie in gee whiz charm. Enjoy it for what it is but don’t expect to remember anything about it afterwards, it is quickly digested. I hope for better with a couple of upcoming big summer flicks.