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Captain America more than your typical superhero film

Date: 11/7/2011

Nov. 7, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

In this week’s DVD review column, a big budget superhero movie and an experimental film from Uruguay.

Captain America: The First Avenger

My friend Richard Gordon, a long-time movie producer, died last week and as I think about him, I remember many of our conversations. He once told me that today’s mainstream films use subject matter that was once reserved for independent producers such as himself.

The successes of “Star Wars” in 1977 and then “Superman” in 1978 was a course change for Hollywood. In the past, horror, science fiction and fantasy had been largely the domain of the low-budget producers. Studios that produced serials for kids had largely handled comic book adaptations.

In 2011, though, movie audiences are used to seeing a parade of films that have either used well-known comic book properties, such as Captain America, or have mined subjects from lesser-known works, such as “Men in Black.” There is now a huge potential market for these films and it’s not just fan boys.

Of the recent lot, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” stands out above many of them. Director Joe Johnston made one of my favorite comic book adaptations, “The Rocketeer,” more than a decade ago, and he shows he has the touch for creating a world from the 1940s that never really existed, but certainly looks and feels right.

Undoubtedly, that is because Johnston is also a visual effects guy as well as being a production designer and art director. His other films, including “Hidalgo,” “The Wolfman” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” all have that attention to detail that really helps sells the story.

The screenplay follows the origins of the hero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby — a little recognition for them was seen on the screen, but no money went to their families. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to get into the Army to fight in World War II, but he is too small and sickly. He is chosen as the test subject in an experiment to create a super soldier. While the experiment is a success, a Nazi spy kills the scientist who developed it and the secrets are lost.

In the comic, Captain America developed his own costume, fought bad guys, spies and Nazis, and had a teen sidekick. Johnston and his collaborators wisely changed that part of the story into one that actually would make sense to audiences today, but more importantly fit within the context of the world they created.

The result is a fast-moving action film with real characterization and solid performances. Evans is no stranger to superhero roles as he played The Human Torch in the two “Fantastic Four” movies, which, by the way, were far inferior to this adaptation. His performance is matched by Hugo Weaving, who plays the Red Skull. Besides a juicy role, the make-up for the villain was perfect.

This is the kind of superhero movie for people who want something more from the genre than just improbable heroics and computer generated effects. It was certainly one of my favorite films of the year so far.

The Silent House

I was eager to watch this new horror film for Uruguay — partly because I had never seen a movie from that country and partly because the director was presenting the story in real time.

This is not an easy thing to do as few directors have attempted such an exercise. Perhaps the most famous is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” The challenge for filmmakers is a reel of 35mm film has a running time of about 10 minutes requiring them to focus on something black every 10 minutes so the reels could be changed.

“The Silent House” was filmed with a digital still camera, though, and apparently on one take — quite an achievement, especially for its star Florencia Coluccii. Director Gustavo Hernández said the film had a cost of only $6,000 and has already been remade as an American film.

The plot is pretty simple and is based on an unsolved multiple murder from the late 1940s in Uruguay and what Hernandez and his screenwriter have done is to imagine what the last 78 minutes in that story could have been like.

Laura (Colucci) and her father are supposed to clean up a house for the landlord. They stay in the place overnight — there is no electricity and they rely on flashlights and candles – and Laura hears odd noises coming from the second floor. Her father goes to investigate and staggers back down downstairs bleeding. He has been attacked and he dies.

Laura goes upstairs and that’s when strange things begin to happen. To tell you more would be a disservice, but I can say the film starts out every slowly and reaches a true claustrophobic horror.

My problem is with the ending, which asks the audience to put the events they have seen in a completely different narrative context. I’m afraid it really doesn’t work well. I’m glad, though, to have watched the film. It is, at least, an attempt to do something different and that’s honorable.

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