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DAVE DAVIES, host:
Two months after "The Mighty Thor" made his big screen debut, another Marvel comics superhero, Captain America, hits the screen. The comic about a chemically altered soldier, ready to fight the Nazis with a shield fashioned from a new alloy, first hit newsstands in the early 1940s. The film stars Chris Evans as the captain and Hugo Weaving as his German super-nemesis.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Unlike many other middle-aged moviegoers, I don't groan at the prospect of every new comic-book-based movie. I grew up adoring stuff a lot tackier. The problem is that modern superhero movies cost $100-plus million and use up studio resources that could be better used for almost anything. And they seem bogged down instead of liberated by their expensive computer-generated effects.
But I like the new "Captain America," or, as it's officially titled, "Captain America: The First Avenger," which is meant to remind us the captain will be an ally of Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor in the upcoming Marvel Comics epic "The Avengers." No, it's not destined to be a classic. Material so pulpy just isn't worth doing at these prices. But the movie has an easy, classical pace and a lot of good, old-fashioned craftsmanship.
The musclebound jock Captain America with his mighty shield, born Steve Rogers, actually was the first Marvel Avenger, conceived in 1940 to do battle with Hitler. Rogers began his life not as a jock but a 98-pound weakling who couldn't get into the Army. Rogers is classified 4F until he is overheard vowing to keep applying by Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, a German scientist who defected to the Allies.
Erskine thinks Steve, despite his asthma and poor muscle tone, has the strength of heart to become the first biochemically enhanced U.S. soldier, which puts Erskine at odds with Tommy Lee Jones as a brusque colonel, whose choice is a more obvious candidate, a soldier named Hodge.
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Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (Actor): (as Colonel Chester Phillips) When you brought a 90-pound asthmatic onto my Army base, I let it slide. I thought, what the hell. Maybe he'd be useful to you like a gerbil. Look at that. He's making me cry. Hodge passed every test we gave him. He's big. He's fast. He obeys orders. He's a soldier.
Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Actor): (as Dr. Abraham Erskine) He's a bully.
Mr. JONES: (as Colonel Chester Phillips) You dont win wars with niceness, doctor. You win wars with guts.
EDELSTEIN: This early section is the best part of "Captain America." You watch Jones with his acid deadpan bicker with a shining-eyed, lovable Tucci, while anticipating little Steve Rogers' transformation into a superhero. I caught a faint whiff of one of my favorite films, Preston Sturges's "Hail the Conquering Hero," also about a weakling who dreams of fighting in the war - but who doesn't have a German scientist to pump him full of super-sizing chemicals.
The super-villain in this case isn't Hitler but a breakaway Nazi named Schmidt who was the first recipient of an early version of Dr. Erskine's serum, which has, with the help of a supernatural glowy thing, transformed his head into a red skull. He's played to icy perfection by Hugo Weaving, but the dialogue is generic megalomaniac stuff.
Even more disappointing is Chris Evans' Captain A when he gets put into his own muscular body. Evans isn't physically inventive enough to suggest a nerd's surprise and then elation with his new abilities. This would have been a good role for a wittier hunk like Ryan Reynolds - who got cast, alas, as the Green Lantern.
But "Captain America" is good fun anyway. It's deftly directed by Joe Johnston, who did special effects for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" before making such graphically strong fantasies as "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "The Rocketeer." Johnston learned his sense of economy from Spielberg: He doesn't waste a shot.
The production design by Rick Heinrichs is bold and unfussy, the palette, monochromatic with splashes of comic-book greens and reds, the compositions evocative of World War II newsreels. And there are hints of futurist designs in Schmidt's souped-up stormtroopers with their disintegrating ray guns. Every frame reads.
The score by Alan Silvestri is a marvelous pastiche with a life of its own, and there's a wonderful song-and-dance montage in which the captain is trotted out along with leggy chorus girls to raise patriotic spirits. It's both satirical and exhilarating.
So is the film, in its retro nostalgic way. Early scenes at a World's Fair remind you of how this whole superhero mythos was born, out of patriotism, utopianism and hucksterism; out of the belief that science, the military and nerdy messianic dreamers could free the world from evil. Okay, that didn't work out so well, but "Captain America" proves how grand it once was to have faith.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "Captain America."
As you know Terry isn't normally here on Fridays, but she joins us now because she has something she wants to say.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Thanks, Dave. You know, as you know Dave, today is the last day that producer Joan Toohey-Wesman is going to be working with FRESH AIR. Now I've said a lot of FRESH AIR goodbyes over the years. But I got to tell you, this one really hurts. Even though it's not the first time I've had to say goodbye to Joan.
Joan started working here in 1989 and a few years later she left to work in South Africa, and then took another job. Okay, that was a blow. But then she came back to be the first producer of our weekend program. But then she left to have her first child - another difficult goodbye. But later she returned part time and we got to know her daughter, Julia.
And then there was another goodbye when she had her second child Isabelle. But a couple of years ago, she returned. Now she's moving far away to St. Louis to teach college, so the odds of yet another return are seeming kind of slim.
I am really going to miss her. When youre facing the craziness of a daily program with its constant deadlines, there's nothing like having someone like Joan, who was always grounded and sane, incredibly smart, reliable, fair, open-minded, warm, honest. That's why this is so darn hard.
We wish Joan and her family good luck in their new home. At the very least Joan, you'd better come back and visit.
Thanks, Dave. I know youre going to miss Joan too. And while I reflect on how sad I am, why dont you do the closing credits.
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DAVIES: Okay. We'll all miss Joan.
For Terry, I'm Dave Davies.
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