Captain America: The First Avenger


Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans isn’t sure the new uniform for FTD delivery guys is appropriate for a soldier’s uniform.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Richard Armitage, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild,  Michael Brandon, Amanda Righetti, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joe Johnston

Part of the American character is to root for the underdog. There is something about someone beating the odds that capture the imagination of American audiences, particularly when it is someone less physically gifted that surpasses those with more natural talent.

It is World War II and Steve Rogers (Evans) wants nothing more than to enlist but his scrawny asthmatic physique gets rejected every time. His best buddy, James “Bucky” Barnes (Stan) is about to be shipped over and as he and Steve and a couple of dames visit the New York Fair of Tomorrow (think of the Stark fair from Iron Man 2) to celebrate Bucky’s last night before shipping out, Steve spies a recruiting station. He and Bucky have an impassioned discussion which catches the ear of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci). Finally Steve leaves his friend to make one more fruitless attempt to enlist.

At least, Bucky thinks it’s going to be fruitless – heck, even Rogers thinks it’s going to be fruitless – but Erskine walks in and makes Steve an offer. At last, Steve Rogers is going to do his part. He is sent to boot camp, run by the crusty Colonel Phillips (T.L. Jones) and overseen by the lovely British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). While there are better physical specimens there (which the Colonel appreciates), Erskine and Carter are drawn to less obvious characteristics that Steve possesses, much to Phillips’ chagrin.

Steve is eventually chosen to be the guinea pig in a “super soldier” program to be injected with a serum that will make him stronger, faster and a better fighter. Erskine will be assisted by Howard Stark (Cooper), a wealthy aviator who is one of America’s most brilliant weapon designers. The operation is a success but agents of the Nazi science group Hydra wreck any further thought of creating an army of super soldiers.

Hydra is led by Johann Schmidt (Weaving), better known to comic book fans as the Red Skull who was injected with a earlier version of the formula causing the visage that gave him his nickname, although it is never uttered at any time during the movie. He has stolen a power source once protected by Odin of the Norse Gods (see Thor) and is using it to power weapons designed by the brilliant Dr. Armin Zola (T. Jones) that will turn the tide of the war.

Of course, nobody on the Allied side knows that yet. Steve, whose exploits in corralling the Nazi agent that threw the monkey wrench into the super soldier works were done very publically, has become a war bonds spokesman as Captain America, a persona the shy and unassuming Steve is uncomfortable with but like a good soldier, he does what he’s told, even if the orders are odious to him. When he learns that his pal Bucky has been captured by Hydra (along with most of his battalion), Steve does something most un-Steve Rogers like – he defies orders and goes in to rescue his friend.

Captain America is in many ways the Superman of the Marvel Universe – the iconic hero tied to the American way. He is almost too good to be true, but in this movie he is good enough to be true. Evans plays him in the digitally enhanced 98-pound-weakling the same way he plays him cut and muscular – with a hint of humility and plenty of fight in the dog, although there are touches of doubt and disappointment.

Johnston, who has previously directed The Rocketeer, another period comic book-based movie (which gave us Jennifer Connolly, among other things) does a wonderful job of recreating the World War II era, from the art deco lines to the make-up of Peggy Carter. The war bonds shows that Cap undertakes complete with singers, dancers and a sneaky little Hitler are spot-on.

This is a superhero movie with character, literally. Johnston takes the time to bring Steve Rogers to life just as equally as Captain America. Like Sam Raimi before him, Johnston clearly understands that the alter ego is equally as important as the superhero. Humanizing the paragon of virtue makes him more accessible; giving him challenges that we can relate to brings us closer to him.

Still, he also gives several nods to the fanboy base, throwing in enough references to the comics and the Marvel universe circa WWII in particular to keep that segment of the audience picking through the DVD/Blu-Ray long into the night. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Of the main superhero movies that have been released this summer (and this was supposed to be the big triumphant superhero movie summer), this is the best and unexpectedly so. I wouldn’t have called that back in April when writing the Summer Preview. At that point, I would have given the nod to Green Lantern and Thor first but nonetheless I liked Captain America: The First Avenger more.

As for criticism that this is essentially a two hour trailer for the forthcoming Avengers movie, well I for one like that Marvel Studios is taking the model that works for their comic book universe and applying it to their motion picture division. I like the idea of event movies that will bring together the heroes from other franchises into a single film. To that end, certainly this movie is pointing to the next one but it stands on its own as well. That kind of criticism is, to my mind, ignorant of the medium and of the audience that follows it.

Be that as it may, this ranks right up there with the summer’s best films. It’s got great action sequences, terrific characters, wonderful special effects and a great heart at its center. This reminds me not only of the way movies used to be, but of the best movies being made now. There is certainly a place for that in summer blockbuster films.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly, giving it a bit of a revisionist spin to fit the Marvel comics universe. Evans carries the movie nicely and gets support in every quarter.

REASONS TO STAY: Cap might be too goodie two-shoes for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of wartime violence and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film based on a comic book that Evans has done.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the action sequences deserve a big canvas and huge sound system.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Dark Knight

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Thor


Thor

Thor is a bit perplexed as Odin extolls the joys of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Part of the maturing process is realizing that, in fact, you don’t know everything. Most parents will tell you that this is a condition that afflicts most teenagers, some worse than others. Of course, if your teenager happens to be a God, that can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.

Thor (Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder and son of Odin (Hopkins), the Highfather of the Norse Gods. Thor isn’t exactly a teenager but he acts like one – reckless, arrogant and foolish. The mortal enemies of the Gods are the Frost Giants, whom Odin defeated a thousand years before and took their most fearsome weapon from them. Now, a trio of them has attempted to steal it back, unsuccessfully which cheeses off Thor big time. Not just because they dared to cross the borders of Asgard itself, which Thor sees as an act of war – but because they did it on the day that Odin named him his heir over his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston).

So Thor decides to pay the Frost Giants a little visit, taking along his good friends the Warriors Three – handsome Fandral (Dallas), taciturn Hogun (Asano) and voluminous Volstagg (Stevenson), as well as Loki  and Sif (Alexander), an intense but loyal female warrior. To get there they must cross Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge which is guarded by the grim Heimdal (Elba), who normally wouldn’t allow Thor to cross on such a fool’s errand – but he is curious as to how the Frost Giants got into Asgard without him knowing, so he allows them to pass.

Of course this turns out to be a very bad idea. The confrontation quickly turns ugly and the Asgardians must fight their way past a kind of gigantic dog-like creature as well as a horde of Frost Giants, necessitating their rescue by Odin himself. He asks Laufey (Feore), the King of the Frost Giants if the incident could be forgotten but Laufey says a brusque no. War, it seems, is coming to Asgard.

Thor continues to be petulant about the whole thing and he and his dad get into a shouting match. Odin, pissed off beyond all measure, exiles Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers and sending his enchanted hammer Mjolnir after him. When Thor learns some patience and gains the wisdom that is worthy of the hammer, he’ll be allowed to use it once again.

Meanwhile, on earth, a trio of scientists is studying some mysterious radiation surges in the New Mexico desert. Jane Foster (Portman) is extremely dedicated and passionate to her scientific muse. She is mentored by pragmatic Scandinavian Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) and aided by flighty intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings), who is a bit science challenged (she’s majoring in Political Science but this was the only internship she could get). They are out in the desert when a giant funnel cloud opens up. Of course Jane drives right into it – and smack into a Norse God which she strikes with her car.

As she begins to analyze her scientific data she theorizes that what she encountered was one end of a wormhole, through which the “really cut for a homeless guy,” as Darcy describes him, travelled. At first, he seems a bit demented. He is courtly to near ridiculous levels, freakishly strong, socially awkward by our standards and continually spouts out insane statements about Norse mythology, asserting that he is the God of Thunder and carries an enchanted hammer. Yeah, right.

In the meantime, the government agency SHIELD, led by the somewhat brusque agent Coulson (Gregg) has taken over, throwing a cordon around the hammerfall site and taking all of Jane’s research, including her journal. Thor, finding out where his hammer is, determines to go get it and prove himself worthy to Odin.

Up in Asgard, things have gone from bad to worse. Odin has fallen into a coma, Loki has proven to be treacherous and has taken the throne, threatening to annihilate the Frost Giants once and for all. Thor’s friends Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif come to Earth in a desperate attempt to retrieve Thor and set things to rights. Loki, discovering their treachery, sends down a Destroyer robot to end the lot of them and give him the throne of Asgard free and clear.

At first glance, Branagh is an unusual choice for directing a superhero comic adaptation. After all, he is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations and somewhat classical approach to film. However, he turns out to be the perfect choice; he immediately saw the epic quality in the story that even the Bard would have appreciated and Branagh wisely approaches the story in a matter befitting Shakespeare.

The result is a visually stunning, well-acted superhero movie painted on a cosmic canvas. Hemsworth, memorable as George Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, proves to be a solid and charismatic lead. He has all the makings of a big star, which bodes well for the Marvel Universe. His Thor, although petulant and impulsive is also easy-going and good-hearted. It’s nice to see a superhero mature onscreen in front of you as opposed to the darker superhero tales which seem to be more in vogue these days.

He gets some pretty good support, particularly from Hopkins who lends every inch of gravitas possible to Odin. Portman makes for a sweet romantic interest, in a PG kind of way. Skarsgard, one of the more reliable character actors around, is flinty and stolid as Dr. Selvig; skeptical and practical but also loyal to Jane, the daughter of an old friend. Dennings provides ample comic relief, which is surprising since in previous roles she didn’t strike me as the sort. I’m pleased to see Dennings show that kind of range – I’ve always liked her as an actress, so having that sort of versatility does make career longevity more of a possibility. Rene Russo also makes a rare and welcome appearance as Thor’s mother (and Odin’s wife) Frigga.

Hiddleston makes a fine Loki – tormented, mischievous and hateful. He is not the pure evil that sometimes he is portrayed in the comics; his origin also diverges from Marvel canon somewhat but in a good way I think. He proves to be a formidable opponent for Thor.

I also liked Elba as Heimdal, lending the kind of gravitas usually associated with James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart. While we’re on the subject of the guardian of the rainbow bridge, the bridge makes one of the more arresting visuals of the movie. It is a combination of magic and science that is colorful (as you’d expect) and in an odd way, sensible. The city of Asgard itself is also gorgeous; certainly a CGI creation but looking almost like a miniature in many ways. It looks very much like a city of Gods.

As you can tell from the plot description, the story is a bit ponderous in places, with lots of characters showing up from the pages of Thor and Norse mythology in general. Fleeting glimpses are made of the Infinity Gauntlet, Hawkeye (of the Avengers) and Stan Lee. Keeping track of everything and everyone can be taxing at times, particularly for those who aren’t as well-versed in the comics.

Still, this is a very good start to the franchise; not quite to the level of Iron Man but surprisingly close. Now that the Marvel moviemaking machine is in full gear, it’s good to see that the quality standards are still high. Hopefully that’s something that will turn out to be as eternal as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: Asgard is beautifully realized. There’s an epic and Shakespearean quality to the story. Hemsworth acquits himself well as a leading man, with fine supporting performances by Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, Skarsgard, Elba and Dennings.

REASONS TO STAY: The story can be a bit confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction/fantasy/comic book violence and a couple of scary monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marks the first appearance of Rene Russo in a feature film in six years.

HOME OR THEATER: Most definitely the big screen to maintain the epic quality of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tropic Thunder

Max Payne


Max Payne

Mark Wahlberg finds out that this movie is for the birds.

(20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris, Olga Kurylenko, Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue, Kate Burton, Amaury Nolasco, Marianthi Evans. Directed by John Moore

When tragedy strikes, we have a need to know who was responsible, the better to make sure they are accountable for what they did. Sometimes, however, the more important question is not who but why.

Max Payne (Wahlberg) is an NYPD detective who has the kind of life nightmares are made of. His wife Michelle (Evans) and baby were murdered by apparently drug-addled thieves who have not been caught three years later. Max works in the cold case division, where his own wife’s case rests. He is not a very companionable guy to say the least.

He is also an obsessed guy, still looking for the person responsible for the death of his family. A tip leads him to a party where he meets Natasha Sax (Kurylenko) and her sister Mona (Kunis). When Max sees Natasha’s wing-like tattoo on her wrist, he invites her back to his place for a chat. The tattoo has some significance to his wife’s murder and he intends to question her about it.

Instead she attempts to seduce him but breaks the mood with an insensitive remark about his wife. He throws her out of the apartment, leading her to walk away down a snow-covered alley to an encounter with a misshapen winged creature. The next morning, her body is discovered and Max’s wallet (which she had lifted in a snit at being tossed out on her derriere) is found at the scene. Max becomes suspect number one. His ex-partner Alex Balder (Logue) who was the lead investigator on his wife’s murder is investigating this one. The tattoo on her wrist intrigues him as well, and as he digs further he finds out a further connection to his wife’s murder. Unable to contact Max, Alex goes to his apartment to wait for him.

When Max finally does return home, it is to an apartment in shambles and the body of his friend Alex lying on the floor. Before Max can react, he is knocked out from behind. He awakens in a hospital with his dad’s ex-partner on the force (and current head of security for the pharmaceutical company Aesir which Michelle was working for when she died) BB Hensley at his side. BB assures him he will take care of him as best he can with what connections he has left on the force but that he is the prime suspect in both murders now.

As Max delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, the body count piles up and the suspects begin to die off in droves. Who are those mysterious winged creatures, and what role does Aesir play in all of this?

This is based on the 2001 videogame of the same name and while some of the plot points are similar, the movie diverges from the videogame in a lot of significant ways. Director John Moore has said repeatedly that he was trying to keep the fans of the game happy, but in the end I honestly don’t think they were.

The tone here is dark, dark, dark, black as pitch and twice as gloomy. This is cinematic depression at its finest folks, and if you’re in the mood for a good brood, this is your express train. Moore tries to capture the noir-ish look of the game and to a degree succeeds. One of the best things about the movie is the way it captures and maintains its mood. Wahlberg does a credible job in a role that doesn’t call for much more than scowling and shooting.

What eventually sinks the movie in my opinion is that the script takes too many liberties with logic and advances the plot with too many cliches. I don’t mind a cliché or two when necessary but it shouldn’t be so easy to predict what’s going to happen next. Also, the movie was sold as a supernatural thriller but quite frankly, it ain’t. Fans of the videogame will know that to be true but those of us who are less familiar with the game are going to be a trifle pissed off when the big reveal comes.

I think the videogame had enough elements in it that were worthwhile that a good movie could have been made out of it with very little tinkering. Unfortunately the tinkering that was done here was not for the better and in fact made the storyline even worse. Videogame adaptations have been, for the most part, simply awful (the Resident Evil series is a notable exception) and this one doesn’t improve the batting average. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames very much and quite frankly, videogame producers have tended to sell their rights to producers and writers who might not meet the standards they’re looking for. Hopefully, before such big ticket properties as Halo and World of Warcraft hit the big screen, some of that paradigm will change. Until then we’re going to see an awful lot of movies just like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Those who like dark-tone action movies like The Crow will probably find something in this worth liking. Wahlberg is a fine brooder.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates from the videogame enough to alienate those who loved the game. The script takes far too many leaps of logic to be taken seriously.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some sexuality and plenty of foul language. Definitely a movie for mature teens or older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McCaffrey, who voiced Max in the videogame, makes a cameo appearance as an FBI agent.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an animated graphic novel on the Blu-Ray edition called Michelle Payne that supposedly fleshes out the backstory of Max’s doomed wife but in all honesty an awful lot of this is covered in the movie as well.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Powder Blue