Throwback actioner ‘Capt. America’ is more classic war film than sci-fi orgy
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
With three weeks of 100-degree days and counting, summer feels like it’s in full force, but for Hollywood, it’s nearly the end of its useful life. Only one more weekend in July, giving films a month to earn money before kids go back to school and their free time gets absorbed with homework. And that means the end of the Summer of the Superhero.
It has definitely been that. Starting with Thor on May 6, there has hardly been a weekend that didn’t see the debut some movie based on a comic book and/or featuring mutant, alien, magical or robotic heroes: Priest, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Transformers, Harry Potter; Cowboys and Aliens and Conan the Barbarian are on their heels.
That puts this weekend’s big release, Captain America: The First Avenger, in the middle of the pack, but really, it’s pretty well above it. Although part of the Marvel Comics heroes universe, Steve Rogers (aka the Cap’n) is ideally part of a different era: A World War II pin-up boy who fought the Germans with old fashioned American muscle, wielding a symbolic red, white & blue circular shield. He doesn’t shoot fire from his fingers, he shoots bullets from a pistol. His herodom is oversized, but still on a human scale, and still relateable.
In many ways, the films is freed up by its period roots and the fact the hero is one of the least well-known in the Marveldom (at least among those getting their own franchises). You go to Spider-Man, you expect to see Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson and Mary Jane. Capt. America has a nemesis — the evil Nazi Red Skull (brilliantly played with a Werner Herzog accent by Hugo Weaving) — and an iconic costume but is otherwise not tied to a strong supporting cast. You can fiddle with his origin story and not have the blogosphere inundated with sniping. You can, in short, make a superhero movie that looks more like a traditional war picture. And that taps an entirely different lobe on the male action-movie-loving brain.
Joe Johnston, the film’s director, is hardly an A-lister, having churned out lowbrow pabulum like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. But he’s also proved himself a stylish and occasionally sensitive director of period films, including The Rocketeer, October Sky and last year’s The Wolfman.
The former two — as well as the TV show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (he even won an Oscar for his special effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark) — served him well on Capt. America. In addition to being generally of the same era, they have an art deco look that sets them apart visually from the excessively CGI’d flash of something like Green Lantern.
Not that there isn’t a lot of CGI — most notably, keeping hunky star Chris Evans looking like a 90-lb. weakling during the 45-minute lead up to the creation of super-soldier Steve Rogers. I don’t pretend to know how they did it, only can report, admiringly, that the effect is flawless. (The downside is that it necessarily means you get less time to stare at the yoked slab of man-meat that is Evans.)
A weakness in the film is that it spends so much time setting up Steve to become Capt. America, it eventually rushes through his actual exploits fighting Red Skull and his evil corps Hydra. It’s under two hours but could afford another 15 of his heroics. The denouement feels rushed and not wholly satifsying.)
Still, in a post-bin Laden U.S., there’s something primal and patriotic watching a man in a flag-colored costume charge boldly into danger, facing off against a flat-out villain. Even when he was originally created, Capt. America was as much a war bonds salesman as a fantasy hero, a representative of the Greatest Generation. Surely, 70 years later, we’ve outgrown such two-dimensional rah-rah jingoism.
Like hell we have. Just ask Seal Team 6.
‘Tabloid:’ A pale London Confidential
When the scandal over Rupert Murdoch’s media empire broke last week, Errol Morris must have been licking his chops. In the mid of intense media coverage over tabloid journalism, the documentary filmmaker — who gave Dallas (deservedly) a bloody nose with the endlessly fascinating The Thin Blue Line and dove into the effects of unpopular wars with both The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure — has a new film coming out titled, serendipitously enough, Tabloid. Every Daily Show bit is as good as free advertising.
If only the film warranted more intense attention.
Tabloid isn’t anywhere near his best work, although when it comes to Errol Morris, even mediocre is event-like filmmaking. It’s stylish and stylized, from the titles (in fonts to make them look like National Enquirer headlines) to Morris’ signature interview style to the historic montages and moody, investigative score. But the focus isn’t there; it’s as if he had to make a mortgage payment and this is all he could come up with.
The subject is actually only tangentially related to journalism; it’s really about Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who in the 1970s became romantically involved with a Mormon, only to later be accused of kidnapping him (even though it was really the Mormons who abducted and brainwashed him). McKinney recounts how the British press turned her into a maniac — labeling the scandal “the Manacled Mormon,” publishing naked photos of her that were doctored (she says) — while simultaenously she was using the press for her own purposes.
There’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on here, especially barbs tossed from a gay ex-Mormon activist at the craziness of the LDS church (magic underwear? No shit!) and a post-script about how McKinney eventually made news again years later in a bizarre story involving immortal housepets, but ultimately, it’s all unfathomable. Not a lot of questions are answered — it’s all an elaborate he said/she said/they said —although there’s something undeniably interesting in seeing Morris work his way through it, like seeing a great actor appear in an ad for orange juice: You know he’s capable of so much better, but can’t help but admire the talent he brings to such a minor work.
Two and a half stars
Now playing at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2011.