Monday, August 1, 2011

He Sings, He Dances, He Punches Out Hitler!

Captain America: The First Avenger.” The very title implies this is the precursor for next summer’s Marvel film, “The Avengers,” but “Captain America” is a terrific ride all by itself, with laughs, friendship, thrills and chills. And look at that cool poster!
(c) 2011 Paramount Pictures

The opening and closing scenes are in the present, with most of the story taking place during an artfully depicted World War II, starting in Norway: night, a church. Outside: Snow, Nazi storm troopers, tanks and the head of Hitler’s weapons division (HYDRA), Johann Schmidt, malevolently and joyfully played by Hugo Weaving. Inside the church is David Bradley (Filch from Harry Potter films) as the towerkeeper trying to protect a magical glowing thing of legend. Is it a spoiler to say the bad guys win this battle?

In New York City, the runt of the litter, Steve Rogers, is trying to enlist in the US Army — again. He’s like that guy in the old Charles Atlas ads — the skinny youth getting sand kicked in his face by the thick-necked pea-brained strongman. Young Steve is not merely scrawny, he’s got all sorts of ailments that make him 4F. His buddy Buck drags him to a double date at the World’s Fair, at which Howard Stark is demonstrating some magical machine of the future that doesn’t quite work yet. Dominic Cooper as Stark is suave yet courageous, a bit sleazier than slick, a genius nonetheless.
Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine

Stanley Tucci is wonderful, warm, and wounded as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the immigrant scientist who lives in Queens and commutes to his Brooklyn lab. It is he who perceives the inner hero in Steve Rogers. Erskine’s serum may give Steve the physique to enable him to fight the good fight and beat down the Nazi bullies. That Steve is the opposite of the megalomaniacal man on whom an earlier version of the serum has worked but failed — that would be Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull  — might even the odds between Allied and Axis powers.

Chris Evans does a sterling job in this film, ranging from computer enhanced (diminished?) “before” pictures pre-injections and “vita-rays” to a helluva specimen, retaining his sweetness, his simplicity, his straightforwardness. Steve Rogers is the boy next door, and his alter ego Captain America the least vainglorious of the comic book superheroes. It will be fun to see him counter the behavior of the other Avengers next summer.

As Colonel Chester Phillips, Tommy Lee Jones is at the top of his form with a script that gives him full rein. Every team of scientists needs a growling military type, and Jones’ Colonel Phillips is bullheaded but resigned to being proven wrong on occasion. Jones is wry, sarcastic, sincere, aw he’s just swell.
Colonel Phillips and Private Lorraine

As that most unusual heroine, Agent Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell plays it totally straight and it works. Carter’s strong, skilled, susceptible to a true hero, not just the he-men flexing muscles (like the hilarious Gilmore Hodge played by an actor with a 1940s Hollywood-style name, Lex Shrapnel). Atwell looks like a British soldier/scientist from the 1940s (kudos to the designers for everyone’s clothing and hair). No damsel in distress, this is one superhero’s almost-girlfriend you want fighting at your side.

Hugo Weaving is a swell villain as both the mad Nazi Johann Schmidt and the failed experiment and supervillain Red Skull. He is menacing, he’s witty, he is scarily logical, and he’s pure evil. Fabulous work with or without the mask.
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt
The deft Toby Jones plays creepy Nazi doctor Arnim Zola, who probably thought he was pretty nasty stuff until he started working with Johann Schmidt and his “tesseract.” Jones oozes contempt, fear, avarice, and ambition as Zola, and I anticipate more fun stuff in future outings.

German and Brooklyn laboratories make for fun with knobs and meters and needles and cranks and levers and all sorts of things more visually entertaining than modern computers. But what really makes “Captain America” magical is the actors. The entire production is taken seriously, from director to make-up, and every actor plays it straight. In one scene, a portrait painter cringes between Dr. Zola and Red Skull as they argue. His subject’s a mad monster, the scientist not much better, and the portrait painter knows it — his fear is silently and perfectly played by David McKail.

The terrific cast includes Sebastian Stan as Steve’s best buddy Bucky Barnes, Michael Brandon as Senator Brandt, Neal McDonough as ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, JJ Field as James Montgomery Falsworth, Natalie Dormer as Private Lorraine, and (spoiler!) Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Director Joe Johnston has done an outstanding job bringing to vibrant life the script by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).

This let’s-get-together-and-beat-the-Nazi-bullies film is polished to a high gloss with a vibrant and uplifting score by Alan Silvestri. There are also some hilarious USO numbers with Captain America and the “Star-Spangled Singers” doing a pitch perfect patriotic song written by Alan Menken with terrific lyrics by David Zippel.

Captain America” is fun from first to last, and that includes the Easter egg with trailer scenes for next summer’s “The Avengers.” The film’s final sequence (pre Easter egg) might leave you with the feeling that this movie is just one huge teaser for the next Marvel studio blockbuster, but that would mean you were thinking way too much. Not to mention, would that all teasers were half as good as this movie.

~ Molly Matera, urging you to do yourself and the movie houses a favor by using their air conditioning -- they’re running on high with or without you!

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