Captain America movie review

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers

On Sunday, 24 July 2011, Janice and I returned to the Showcase Cinemas at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for Captain America: the First Avenger. I’m pleased to report that the latest movie adaptation from Marvel Comics is one of the best genre movies so far this year and could be one of my favorite superhero flicks ever!

Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to World War II and action films, with experience in the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Rocketeer franchises. Despite some anachronistic costumes and dialogue (not counting the deliberately science fiction premise and villains), Johnston keeps a steady hand on the proceedings.

For those not familiar with one of the older and more popular comic book heroes, Steve Rogers is a runty kid from Brooklyn who seeks to serve his country and is given a chance to do so by scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine. Turned into the super soldier Captain America, Rogers fights Nazis before being trapped in ice and finding himself in our era, decades later, surrounded by modern superheroes.

The First Avenger is faithful to the comics of Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Ed Brubaker, and Steve Epting. In fact, the work of the latter two brought me back to reading some Marvel titles. Actor Chris Evans, who played the cocky Johnny Storm/Human Torch in the Fantastic Four flicks, is properly virtuous and a blank slate for his physical transformation from a skinny street kid into the buff war-bonds salesman and eventual combat leader. It wouldn’t be Cap if he didn’t get to sling his trademark shield.

Evans is initially overshadowed by the performances of veterans Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Col. Chester Phillips and Stanley Tucci as the humane Dr. Erskine. He later is supported by Sebastian Stan as sniper sidekick Bucky Barnes, Dominic Cooper as inventor Howard Stark (father of Iron Man‘s Tony Stark), and Star Trek: First Contact‘s Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan of the Howling Commandos. Hayley Atwell (from The Prisoner remake) as comely Peggy Carter and Natalie Dormer (from The Tudors) as minx Priv. Lorraine are among the few women who get to interact with Rogers.

The visual effects are good, especially in the beginning of the movie, where Evans’ face is transposed on a slight-framed body in Depression-era New York. I did notice some blue- or green-screen lighting in later scenes, but the requisite explosions, slow-motion combat, and airborne stunts were all decently rendered. A motorcycle chase scene, attempted train heist, and flying wing all pay homage to the other franchises that Johnston has worked on. The instrumental soundtrack evokes the jazz age but isn’t especially memorable.

Captain America‘s story moves easily from stateside to overseas. Richard Armitage (Guy of Guisborne in the BBC’s recent Robin Hood and Thorin Oakenshield in the upcoming Hobbit) is a Nazi assassin. He is soon surpassed in villainy by Toby Jones (from Doctor Who) as meek scientist Arnim Zola and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and V for Vendetta) as Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull and mad leader of Nazi splinter group Hydra. Their ambiguous fates, however, were refreshing for what could have been a uberpatriotic plot.

As with Thor and other recent Marvel origin stories, Captain America is somewhat predictable and obviously leads into next year’s Avengers (stay after the closing credits for a preview). The alternate-history war movie, which reminded me of Inglorious Basterds, leaves enough room for Capt. America to have flashbacks in future films.

Overall, Disney/Marvel has continued its winning streak, staying ahead of rival DC Comics in live-action adaptations. I’d give Captain America, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an “A-,” four out of five stars, or an 8.5 out of 10. I liked it a bit more than Green Lantern or Thor, if not as much as the 1978 and 1980 Superman films.

In other superhero news, I’ve watched the first few episodes of SyFy’s Alphas, which combines the ordinary people with powers from Heroes and No Ordinary Family with the covert teams from various espionage shows. It’s decent — I’d rate it a “B-” so far, but I doubt it’ll last.

Even as Marvel’s Super Hero Squad and DC’s Young Justice have yet to return, I’m looking forward to this week’s premieres of the anime-style Iron Man and Wolverine on G4, to eventually be joined by Blade and yet another incarnation of the X-Men. I expect Season 2 of The Avengers to be the strongest of these cartoons.

Also premiering this coming weekend is the Thundercats revival, whose previews gave me a good Avatar: the Last Airbender vibe. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be getting another computer-animated makeover, similar to Star Wars: Clone Wars and Bruce Timm‘s upcoming Green Lantern TV series.

DC is holding onto its lead in direct-to-video cartoons, however, with Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, among other projects announced at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. So many superheroes, so little time! And I haven’t even touched actual comic books or RPGs based on them yet!

Winnie the Pooh, a belated review

A scene from Disney's new movie
Winnie the Pooh 2011

I’m still catching up on work, contacting friends, and recorded genre television after last week’s business trip to Chicago. So without further ado, here’s my review for Disney’s latest Winnie the Pooh movie.

Fans of A.A. Milne’s stories or Disney’s 1960s and 1970s film adaptations will be charmed by Winnie the Pooh‘s traditional animation style, its gentle humor, and a cast that’s closer to the familiar voices than the hyperactive shorts or TV shows from the past two decades.

My sister in law Melinda and several young nieces will no doubt be pleased that once narrator John Cleese (of “Monty Python” fame) begins reading from the book of Pooh’s misadventures, viewers are drawn back to Christopher Robin’s playroom and the Hundred Acre Wood as if no time at all has passed since our collective childhoods. The device is similar to Pixar’s Toy Story.

The plot is fairly simple: Pooh Bear goes looking for honey, but his dour donkey friend Eeyore has lost his tail. Pompous Owl, timid Piglet, supportive Kanga and Roo, and nervous Rabbit end up misreading a note from Christopher Robin and look for a monster called “Backson” instead. Sight gags abound, and the script has clever allusions that would likely sail over the heads of younger audience members.

Winnie the Pooh lacks the cynicism, off-color humor, or flashiness of many popular movies, but it is better for omitting them. I’d happily recommend this movie, which was rated “G,” to any parent. Not to slight other works, but Winnie the Pooh is the first film in a long time that felt to me like the Disney classics I watched on Sunday nights.

I’d give Winnie the Pooh a “B+/A-,” three and a half out of five stars, or a solid 8 out of 10. Let’s hope that Disney can continue shepherding quality to the big screen with its upcoming The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever Made, which also looks to revive popular awareness of clever humor, simple joys, and humane (if not human) entertainment.

In related — if somewhat lower-brow — animation, Janice and I have been enjoying the Cartoon Network’s Looney Toons Show, which combines Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck with the absurd situations of Seinfeld.

I’m also catching up on multimedia announcements from San Diego Comic-Con 2011, but I look forward to the upcoming revival of Thundercats, as well as to the return of Young Justice. I’m also impatiently awaiting next year’s Avatar: the Legend of Korra, sequel to the underrated fantasy Avatar: the Last Airbender (not to be confused with James Cameron’s Avatar movie or The Last Airbender movie adaptation dud).

In the coming week or so, I’ve got more movies to review, including Harry Potter [8] and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Captain America: the First Avenger!

Animation nation, early summer edition

Animated-style Justice League
DC's Justice League

In the past few weeks, I’ve caught up on DC’s animated movies, including Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and Superman/Shazam: the Return of Black Adam (as well as Marvel’s Thor: Tales of Asgard).

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is part of an ongoing series of direct-to-video animated adaptations of DC Comics superheroes. Like Green Lantern: First Flight, it features Firefly/Serenity and Castle‘s Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan, the first human to join the interstellar Green Lantern Corps. Unlike First Flight or the recent live-action movie starring Ryan Reynolds, Emerald Knights isn’t an origin story and takes an anthology approach to tales of the corps.

The Korean animators behind DC’s recent cartoons do an excellent job of depicting Green Lantern‘s aliens, exotic worlds, ring constructs, and fight scenes. I was pleased to see stories taken from the print comics, and Andrea Romano has again assembled a strong voice cast, including Harry Potter’s Jason Isaacs as the aptly named Sinestro, Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as rookie Arisia, musician Henry Rollins as big “poozer” and drill sergeant Kilowog, and The Mummy‘s Arnold Vosloo as Jordan’s predecessor Abin Sur.

Other notable actors include Kelly Hu as martial artist Laira and wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as brawler Bolphunga. I’d compare Emerald Knights, which is rated PG for violence, favorably to Marvel’s recent Thor: Tales of Asgard and give it a B+/A-, 8.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. There’s also a short preview of Batman: Year One, the next in DC’s video adaptations.

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Green Lantern TV series, which looks like it takes Bruce Timm’s designs from the great Justice League and combines them with the blocky computer animation of Star Wars: Clone Wars. There’s also another Batman TV show in the works, but it’s too soon to say whether it will continue the character’s legacy. In the meantime, I’m waiting for Young Justice‘s return and the final episodes of Batman and the Brave and the Bold.

I also belatedly watched Superman/Shazam: the Return of Black Adam, which compiles the shorts attached to previous cartoons and adds a brawl among the title characters. If you already own the other videos, it’s not worth paying full price for a slightly longer short, but it was decent nonetheless. It’s too bad that The Return of Black Adam didn’t sell well, because I enjoyed these glimpses at other superheroes relatively free of continuity. (As a Green Arrow fan, I was hoping for more of the emerald archer.)

Kung-Fu Panda 2 review

Wallpaper for Dreamworks' latest animated movie
Kung-Fu Panda 2

On Friday, 3 June 2011, I met former co-worker and fellow blogger Ken G. to screen Kung-Fu Panda 2. While not as clever as its predecessor, the computer-animated martial arts comedy was still entertaining.

Kung-Fu Panda 2 has a similar plot to the first movie, in which a pudgy panda (played by Jack Black) must find hidden strength to fight a nasty villain. As before, Po has a strong supporting cast voiced by Dustin Hoffman as red panda Shifu, Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Jackie Chan as Monkey, James Hong as adoptive father Mr. Ping, Lucy Liu as Viper, and Seth Rogen as Mantis.

New characters include Michelle Yeoh as a goat soothsayer, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Master Croc, and chameleon Gary Oldman as peacock dictator Shen. While Black doesn’t get to improvise as much as he has in other flicks, the other actors are well-chosen and don’t distract from their roles.

The martial arts choreography was strong, with each animal demonstrating a different style, and for once, I thought the 3-D helped rather than hurt the viewing experience. The writers and animators also expand the story’s venue beyond the monastery and village to the wider countryside and a city in ancient China. Ken even noticed that in one scene, funky music underscores a scene similar to 1970s action movies.

The movie is framed by animation resembling paper cutouts, and it clearly leaves an opening for another sequel. Overall, I’d give Kung-Fu Panda 2 a B or B+, 8 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. It’s rate PG for violence. I haven’t yet seen Pirates of the Caribbean 2: On Stranger Tides (which has gotten mixed reviews) or X-Men: First Class (which has gotten surprisingly favorable reviews). Ken and I also had dinner at Fresh City, which was OK.

On Saturday, Janice and I attended the Needham Street Fair and the Cambridge River Festival. Both had interesting vendors and varied cuisine (Thai and Indian were popular), and the latter had performers and several tables for progressive political causes that I support, such as Amnesty International.

After browsing at some of our usual book shops in Harvard Square, Janice and I had dinner at the Border CafĂ©, which is one of our favorite Tex-Mex restaurants. On Sunday, between a car inspection and picking up my comic book subscription at New England Comics in Norwood, Massachusetts, we had lunch at Conrad’s, a good family/pub-style eatery.

I’ll be busy with work and travel in the next few months, so I may not be able to blog as regularly as I have been doing, but have no fear, gentle readers — I’ve got more ideas coming!

Animation endures on TV

Earth's Mightiest Heroes
Marvel's Avengers

Despite the decline in live-action TV superheroes, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is both faithful to the comic books and relatively popular. I’ve already mentioned the cancellation of the campy and fun Batman and the Brave and the Bold, but I hope that Young Justice (whose animation is smoother than most Marvel projects) and defiantly kid-friendly Super Hero Squad keep going.

I haven’t watched the latest iteration of Transformers, and it’s too bad that Genndy Tartakovsky’s SymBionic Titan didn’t get the support it deserved. The counterterrorist, anticorporate, and on-the-run take on G.I. Joe is interesting, but I’ve only seen a little of it. Many of the cartoons on the Cartoon Network, Fox, and Nickelodeon aren’t really my style, but I am looking forward to the anthropomorphic animals of the upcoming Thundercats and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles reboots.

The Looney Tunes Show is an interesting sitcom approach to the classic Warner Brothers characters, and I wonder whether Seth McFarlane’s revival of The Flintstones can succeed alongside the postmodern sarcasm of The Simpsons and its ilk.

In direct-to-video tie-ins, I just picked up Marvel’s Thor: Tales of Asgard, and I’m looking forward to DC’s animated Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, Batman: Year One, and Justice League: Doom. Between live-action movies, video and TV, and of course comic books, it’s no surprise that several role-players in my groups have asked about D20 Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Ed. or Icons! Fellow Game Master Jason E.R. may run a one-shot of Dark Pages this coming summer.

Coming soon: Horror and fantasy TV and games!