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Knight at the Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-07-27

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Is it me or has this been the summer of Imitation of Blockbusters rather than the cinematic thrill rides I'd been hoping for? The spectacular box office for this year's crop of summer tentpole movies couldn't disagree with me more but, to my mind, none of them has offered anything remotely fresh or particularly invigorating to merit the large numbers. (Even Harry Potter 8, which I enjoyed, is really only for those familiar or in love with the series.) They haven't been bad pictures—just not particularly thrilling or inventive ones. (I am not including the X Men prequel here as I haven't seen it.)

I'd hoped that Super 8, the summer's one original entry, would break the mold and, as intended, it emulated the Spielberg look and feel to an almost embarrassing degree but it scrimped on heart, leaving one entertained but not particularly invested in its characters or its action set pieces. The same can be said for Captain America: The First Avenger, the summer's most promising big-budget action fest, which looks great and hits all the right notes but ,again, never truly puts the pedal to the medal.

The movie is yet another adaptation from a Marvel comic-book series, the genre that has all but overtaken the high-end movie business. However, unlike many of these movies—which have begun to blur in my mind—the action is set in the WWII time period in which the comic first appeared. This logical idea proves to be inspired for multiple reasons. One, it immediately gives the picture a fantastic retro look and a sense of real adventure and fun and, two, it frees the writers from having to update the character and situations into a modern setting—avoiding the problems inherent in many of these other clunky editions. The vintage time period also gives our hero—Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans)—his compatriots and the audience easily discerned enemies (Nazis and their rogue offspring).

Rogers is a tough guy from Brooklyn whose innate courage keeps getting stymied by his 90-pound weakling frame. (The special effects department does an amazing job dialing down the hunky Evans' size.) It's 1943 and he can't get into the Army. By chance, a mysterious Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) happens upon Rogers as he is making yet another attempt to sign up and he becomes the first and, it turns out, only candidate for Erskine's experimental "super soldier" program. (Not surprisingly, the sequence in which Erskine the mad scientist turns Rogers from the skinny Minnie into the spectacularly muscular Frankenstein-type creation will have gay men salivating.)

Rogers, now redubbed Captain America (complete with patriotic outfit and tights) wants to get into the action but is instead assigned a war-bond tour to boost morale. When he finally gets overseas the troops diss him with taunts of "Hey Tinkerbell" and other homophobic cracks. (The grizzled Tommy Lee Jones, as the commanding officer, dismisses him as a "chorus girl.") However, Rogers soon proves himself and catches the eye of the tart-talking British lady officer (Hayley Atwell, a variation on a role often played by Kate Beckinsale) and Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, the father of Tony Stark, the eccentric inventor played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man film series; Cooper does an apt but not particularly memorable job.

Everyone lines up to help Rogers take on Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the resident baddie (who gets a nifty underground lair) and his evil minions, and the movie ends with an abrupt set-up for a sequel. Evans, who has successfully spread his wings in a variety of movie genres before stepping into one of these gigantic franchise wannabes (though he has yet to play a gay character), is a great, solid choice for the earnest Rogers but the script doesn't give his character much shading.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a typical addition to director Joe Johnston's resume (Congo, Jurassic Park III, The Werewolf, etc.). He's a serviceable director whose movies are put together by the numbers—they are likeable but forgettable. Even with the incredibly hot beefcake Evans in the title role the movie doesn't sizzle nearly as much as its promising set-up suggests.

Film notes:

—Two queer-themed documentaries infused with fashion and art are back for encore screenings in Chicago. Both 2010's Bill Cunningham New York and L'Amour Fou are on the schedule at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, beginning Friday, July 29. The former, from director Richard Press, is a lively, entertaining portrait of the ubiquitous New York Times fashion photographer and society columnist of the title. The latter is Pierre Thoretton's fascinating but dour look at the late fashion icon Yves St. Laurent as his lover and business partner of 50 years, Pierre Berge, prepares to dispose of the couple's breathtaking art collection. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

—Audience-participation screenings are one of my favorite cinema experiences. I'm talking about the type that encourage interaction for everyone in the audience—not regular screenings with the annoying schlub texting, talking or fidgeting, ruining the film for everyone in the jerk's vicinity. The historic Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, is hosting two such events in the next couple of weeks. Grease Sing-A-Long, back by popular demand, is the first. It screens this weekend (July 29-31) with a pre-show costume contest followed by the 1978 John Travolta-Olivia Newton John musical from gay director Randal Kleiser and flamboyant gay producer Allan Carr. The movie, a gigantic financial hit, is thin but lively, with its cast and some songs giving it a lift.

Then on Sunday, Aug. 7, at 2 p.m., Camp Midnight returns with a brand new edition of the film series that celebrates "the best of the worst"—this time featuring 1962's horror camp fest What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? My alter ego, Dick O'Day, will host along with Hell in a Handbag's David Cerda. The screening, which is in honor of National Sisters Day—yes, it's really a holiday—will feature a pre-show including a matching sisters outfit contest, a sing-a-long at the organ and more. There will then be an interactive screening with commentary by myself and Cerda (trying to outwit our audience). The event will partially benefit both the Queer Film Society and the HIV/AIDS agency Vital Bridges. Advance tickets for both special events are now on sale; see www.musicboxtheatre.com .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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