Archive for July, 2011


Yee-ha. You can find the list here.


Forget Captain America. I wanna see more movies about the adventures of that President.

Really Awful
Somewhat better

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Captain America (1990). Directed by Albert Pyun.  Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block (yes, the famous mystery writer, Lawrence Block). From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, and Ned Beatty. 97 minutes. 1/2 *.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. 124 minutes. ***

Other Notable Film Versions, Not Covered By Us:  Captain America (very racist 1944 serial, pitting a barely-recognizable version of Cap against Japanese saboteurs); 3 Dev Adam, copyright-flouting 1973 Turkish film teaming a version of Cap with a version of the Mexican masked wrestler Santo, against a strangely villainous version of Spider-Man (we are not making this up); two TV-movies starring Reb Brown, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979). The latter is the most notable directing credit of Ivan Nagy, who is really best known for his appearance in the documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, which paints him as the unheralded sinister force behind the scenes of that big tabloid story.

The greatest brainchild of the legendary pair of comic-book creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was a scrawny but stout-hearted 4-F named Steve Rogers who received a super-soldier formula that turned him into that star-spangled sentinel of freedom known as Captain America. He fought Nazis in World War Two, and according to later Marvel lore suffered a span of decades in suspended animation. Revived, he battled a new generation of foes as a man out of time and a key member of that super-group known as the Avengers. Along the way he picked up an arch-enemy, the Red Skull, who had been personally chosen by Adolf Hitler himself to embody the terror of the Third Reich…and who also survived the years unchanged, to become one of the most persistent super-villains in comic book history.

There have been a number of versions, from an 1940s serial that bore little but name in common with the Simon and Kirby creation, to a pair of bland TV movies that are largely remembered today because the second of the pair was directed by a guy who seemed to have had a Svengali relationship with the Hollywood Madam,  but we direct our attention to the two most recent: one of which was so bad in every respect that it qualifies as one of the worst superhero movies of all time, and the recent big-budget release, which is no total masterpiece but nevertheless does as well with the character as any film could reasonably have been expected to.

Both movies jigger the origins of Cap and his numero-uno bad guy, in a way the comics never did, by establishing that they were created by the same scientist, who in fact creates Cap in large part to atone for the primal sin of having previously created the Red Skull. (This is not the pravda of the comics. There, the Red Skull is a lowly bellboy singled out by Hitler as proof that the right training can turn even that nonentity into the most dangerous man in the Reich. And, ummm, a communist imposter pretending to be him killed Peter Parker’s parents, thus making him an important figure in Spider-Man’s life as well.)

Both movies feature an origin scene for Cap that plays the same notes to significantly different effect; and both duplicate a fiery crash into Arctic ice that preserves the Captain until he can revived in our time.

But the movies are otherwise quite different, in that one is a film of almost jaw-dropping ineptitude that wastes the skills of every actor involved in it, and the other does what it does well and is expected to achieve blockbuster status. It’s instructive, in light of the latter’s success, to see how outrageously one can fail.

Captain America (1990): Before The Ice

There’s no way to get around this. This is not just a dud. This is not just a disaster. This is a film made by people who a) didn’t care; b) didn’t understand; c) didn’t seem interested in whether we could see their entire lack of interest in the enterprise; and d) screwed up even on the minimal level of their ambitions. It is likely the worst-made film we have ever reviewed on this blog, and, remember, we reviewed the awful third versions of House Of Wax and Night Of The Living Dead. Both of those atrocities were masterpieces next to this thing. We are serious.

The relatively low budget ($10 million in 1990 dollars) is no excuse. The movie had some genuine assets to waste. Among them were some first-rate character actors, including Melinda Dillon, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, and Darren McGavin. It had foreign and domestic locations, a marvelous old castle to stage the climax, and a legendary character; it was never gonna be spectacular, but any halfway fun screenplay and talented director could have made it an effective b-movie. Instead, every shot is either pedestrian or ugly, every set piece is unimaginative or addlepated, every plot twist is either a lame take on the four-color originals or a stupid innovation. And while many of the supporting players stand out, doing their best to elevate what must have seemed a sinking ship from day one, the leads are colorless and charisma-deprived.

There is an early sign of trouble in the first scenes, depicting the origin of the Red Skull, who is in this version not a crazed Nazi working for Hitler, but a crazed Italian who begins his career working for Mussolini. Now, this may have been tone-deafness to the mythos on the part of the filmmakers, but could also have been a requirement of international distribution; this writer contributed four novels to a book packager producing works based on Marvel characters and must report that, even then, using the word “Nazi” or mentioning Hitler in any book of the line was considered a no-no. It doesn’t matter. Only fans of the character as he appeared in the comics could have blown a gasket over the mere concept of an Italian Red Skull, had the story worked otherwise. But still, it’s a warning sign.

In any event, the Italian Red Skull begins life as an innocent kid who is, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, judged by the powers behind the Axis secret-soldier project to be the only person brilliant enough to merit the injection that will turn him into the desired ubermensch. So fascist soldiers break into his home, slaughter everybody, and drag him back to the castle where the brilliant Dr. Vaselli objects mightily to the super-soldier experiment being performed on a kid. So the last thing we hear is the kid screaming in agony as the potion works through his veins. None of this at all necessary, really, since nothing that ever happens in the film requires the Red Skull to be a paragon of physical fitness. True, he’s gonna trade blows with Captain America in an early scene, and win, but for all we see that’s no proof that he ever did anything but spend a lot of time in the gym.

We segue to the Rogers family home in California, where Steve is an adult survivor of childhood polio whose main infirmity is a limp that comes and goes, depending on how distracted Matt Salinger, son of author J.D., is in any particular scene.

Salinger, who couldn’t have picked a better role if his goal was to avoid the spotlight as much as his famous but reclusive Dad, is here a thespian of the Lee Majors / Gil Gerard school, except without their levels of conviction and presence. (He still has a career, and has worked steadily, but this film was as close as he ever came to stardom.) We get a scene where he’s headed off to the experiment that will turn him into Captain America, where he says goodbye to a family that seems to know exactly where he’s going and why. Way to keep the secret, Sparky.

In the closest this film comes to direct congruence with the blockbuster 2011 remake, the secret lab of Dr. Vaselli is hidden beneath a diner. (In the 2011 film, it’s an antiques shoppe.) The lady behind the counter grips a hidden handgun while exchanging pass codes with Steve’s escort, then lets the pair through. A bunch of military and government observers, including a pointedly referenced Senator Kirby (ha, ha), watch as Steve gets his injection. Then one of them turns out to be a Nazi assassin, killing Vaselli and ensuring that there will be no platoons of Captains America.

Freed of his limp, but shot by the bad guy, Steve goes to the hospital, where he is still enjoying bed rest when his military handlers show up to tell his doctor that he is needed on a mission of vital importance to stop the Red Skull’s missile aimed at Washington D.C. They actually say this. This seems excessive information to tell a mere sawbones, who would have worked on Steve anyway, but they say it in the hallway well within Steve’s hearing, thus motivating him to hop out of bed and say, I’m ready. So that’s all it took. Patton should have used that strategy while visiting the wounded in Sicily. He wouldn’t have had to slap anybody.

We are only a few minutes into the movie at this point and the dumbnesses are multiplying. The secret mission that only Captain America can perform turns out to be a raid on a Red Skull facility. Our guys know exactly where that facility is. There’s no evident reason why they can’t just, you know, bomb the shit out of it, since he has to parachute in anyway. Or if they need ground-level saboteurs, why they can’t parachute in a platoon or two with him. No. It must be this guy who they parachute in after what is carefully specified to be only 48 hours of training, and it has to be him alone. The Pentagon is certainly putting all its eggs in one basket.

A word about his Captain America costume. It’s seems to be a wet suit that somebody altered with a pair of scissors. The hasty handiwork is easiest to spot in close-ups of the eye holes, which are ragged and uneven. The A on his chest appears to be a completely different material, sewn on. This is, we’re told, a flameproof suit that is another of Dr. Vaselli’s one of a kind inventions. The late doctor was a lousy seamstress. It doesn’t matter much, as Cap will not be wearing it for long.

In any event, Cap invades the Red Skull’s stronghold and, after defeating a few henchmen just to demonstrate that he’s not a total loser, is himself defeated by the Skull (Paulin). The Red Skull as we see him here looks like the comic-book Red Skull for the only time in the film; get used to it, that mug is going away.

A word about super-villainous ranting. Any super-villain is going to spend some of his time ranting maniacally about how the hero doesn’t have a chance, bwah-ha-ha. That is part of the super-villain’s job. But in this movie, when the Red Skull looks at the defeated Captain America and says, I paraphrase here, “gee, you’re really not very good at this, are you? Are you really the best America could come up with?” it is easy to sympathize with him. Seriously. This Captain America lasts less than two minutes against the Red Skull. He’s not very good. The Skull almost seems disappointed. To his point of view, it likely seems silly to have gone to all this trouble getting a super-villain base, an ultimate weapon, a legion of followers, and a skull face, if this putz was all he was ever going to have to deal with at the end of it. You almost feel empathy for the chagrin he feels after all that wasted effort.

Anyway, the Skull ties Cap  to the rocket about to be fired at DC. There are a couple of views of Cap bound to the rocket; in one view, his famous round shield appears to be strapped there with him, and in another it’s clearly absent. It is certainly not being worn on his arm. Remember that. In a touch that the engineers at NASA must surely appreciate, the Red Skull  stands right next to his transatlantic rocket aimed at the White House, during the final fifteen second countdown; he doesn’t seem to be at all worried about being burned, let alone vaporized. Cap grabs him by the wrist, declaring that if he’s gonna go for a ride, the Skull is, too; whereupon the Skull whips out a knife and cuts off his own hand so he can escape. Why he doesn’t just cut off Captain America’s hand, which would accomplish the same result at considerably less pain to himself, is never satisfactorily explained. But hey, he’s a super-villain. He doesn’t have to make sense.

The rocket takes off. We cut to DC, where it’s still night despite the time zone difference between the East Coast of America and the night scenes taking place in Italy.  A little boy named Thomas Kimball, visiting DC with his family, declares that he’s gonna be President someday. Shushed, he sneaks out in his Pajamas to take a night photo of the White House, just as the rocket bearing Captain America heads for the big impact. He snaps a photo just before Cap, somehow still alive after a transatlantic journey exposed to high altitude, belatedly deflects the rocket. The photo the little urchin snaps is a clear picture of Cap, mask and all.

It will later be established that despite the rocket’s great speed, Cap will be able to remember the little boy who took his picture. At night. While the rocket went past. While he was busy trying to save the White House. That Cap never misses a trick, unless it’s like, you know, defeating the Red Skull.

We cannot stress this enough. This is a superhero who screws up his first and only mission.

And we’re still only a few minutes into the movie. The dumbness is that dense with detail. We haven’t even mentioned the film’s happy habit of showing us establishing shots of the White House with the helpful subtitle, Washington D.C. Thanks a lot. The movie does this so often it could power a drinking game. Another time it shows us a shot of the Vatican and informs us, Rome. Thank you.

So. The rocket overshoots the White House and crashes in Alaska. Whew, that was close. It’s either all or nothing with that rocket. No Mama Grizzlies peer out their windows and exclaim, “I can see the Red Skull’s ultimate weapon from my house!” Either way, the rocket doesn’t explode but it does put Cap on ice for a few decades. And so we get that hack movie’s traditional method of depicting the passage of time, a series of decades flying past (literally, the numbers, 1960, 1970, and so on), interspersed with newspaper headlines establishing major world events and key passages in the life of that little boy, Thomas Kimball, as he rises toward his election as President in 1992. (Yes, he’s Bill Clinton.) The newspapers, a local rag from Tommy’s home town of Springfield, demonstrate the shockingly low standard of journalism in his community; not only does one headline misspell his town as “Sprinfield”, sans g, but a closer look at the stories about our hometown boy reveal that several of them, possibly all of them, have lead grafs that establish them as actually stories about a local woman in trouble over a matter of child custody. I mean, this movie actually contrives to suck in ways that few other movies have even imagined.

Finally, we arrive at 1993, and President Clinton – er, Kimball, now played by Ronny Cox and working on an environmental initiative that one of his Generals, Darren McGavin, doesn’t like.  And we’re in the hell where the rest of this interminable movie takes place.

Captain America (1990): After The Ice

We are not even half an hour into the film now, so unless we want to be here all day we must accelerate and just try to hit some of the low points.

The Red Skull is now the leader of an evil international consortium that was directly responsible for, among other things, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King. Having had some plastic surgery, he no longer looks like the Red Skull, though he needn’t have bothered, since everybody still calls him that, and he still has scars and whatnot all over his face. His current plan, prompted from complaints by by his ally General Kolchak, is to kidnap the President and implant a mind-control device that will keep him from proposing any more environmental initiatives. This plan, unlikely as it is, would go a long way toward explaining away our current President’s crappy record of capitulation to his opponents in the House and Senate.

Captain America is unearthed in Alaska. He pops up out of the ice with the shield already slung on one arm – a complete contradiction to where it was when he was frozen – and rushes out into the wilderness.

President Kimball remembers the man strapped to a rocket from his childhood – and a nigh-universal childhood experience it is – and decides to send somebody to investigate. Of course, in this world, the President of the United States has no resources useful for investigating strange events, no FBI, no Secret Service, no CIA, no NSA, so he calls a friend of his, Sam Kolawetz, a newspaper reporter played by Ned Beatty. The Red Skull, who also hears about it, scours his vast international conspiracy for useful assassins and sends his daughter. Everybody, it seems, operates on the same budget as the film itself.

Now, get this. Captain America, who was found in a frozen wasteland in Alaska, is next seen racing through more congenial climes in Northwest Canada, still wearing the same uniform. He’s jogged a few hundred miles.

Piloting attack helicopters and snowmobiles, the Red Skull’s assassins show up to kill him at what is conveniently the very same moment Ned Beatty comes tooling around the corner in his rent-a-car. These people have a wonderful knack of converging in an area the size of a Canadian province, within thirty seconds of one another. Cap is rescued by Kolawetz, who pulls up and shouts, “Get in!” – an act that itself establishes how lame this version of Cap is, since you’ve got to be  a lame superhero indeed to actually need to be rescued by Ned Beatty. In Superman’s case it required Valerie Perrine. But we’ll let that pass, and note an even greater manifestation of heroic inadequacy. To wit, Cap is rendered suspicious by Beatty’s Japanese tape recorder and German car, and thus to escape this guy who looks like Ned Beatty pretends that he’s car sick and asks his “captor” to pull over. Beatty obliges, at at which point Cap jumps behind the wheel and drives away.

Yes, this peak of human perfection requires subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. Batman wouldn’t have needed subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. Hell, Robin the Boy Wonder wouldn’t have needed subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. They would have just beaten up the guy. Hell, Stephen Hawking might not require subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. This film’s Captain America requires the lamest of all possible  subterfuges to escape from Ned Beatty. One can only imagine how he would have handled a fight with one of the comic book’s many martial-artist, let alone super-powered, sparring partners: pretend even harder?

It gets better. The action moves to California, where in the course of tracking down his old girlfriend Bernie – who’s now literally an old girlfriend, ha-ha – Cap discards his costume for what will be most of the remainder of the film. Until the climax, he will have most of his remaining dull adventures as Steve Rogers.

Assassins sent by the Red Skull kill Bernie, and Ned Beatty, who though left on foot in the Canadian Northwest has still managed to return to the US and track Steve down (thus proving, again, that this Cap is a superhero who can’t even stay ahead of Ned Beatty).

Steve sees a TV report that the President of the United States has been kidnapped from a European hotel after an attack by twenty heavily-armed men. Nobody comments on the unlikelihood of even twenty heavily-armed men being able to kidnap the President, or suggests that if a movie is going to require this scenario it should damn well show it to us. But Steve somehow knows, without any evidence whatsoever, that the gang that pulled off this miracle is the very same gang that has been sending assassins after him. He just knows. It’s like knowing one gang of swarthy guys was responsible for a major terrorist strike when in fact there are several gangs of swarthy guys who could have done it. This is how we got fooled into invading Iraq. But Cap, or rather Steve, knows the correct culprits for a certainty, just based on the news report.

There’s a major bit of stupidity involving the search for Dr. Vaselli’s diary, which is conveniently exactly where she left it when the top-secret government lab was shut down. One would have expected the Feds to clean up that kind of thing. But we move on.

Not really.

 Captain America (1990): The Big Action Climax

The action shifts to Europe. Steve and his old girlfriend’s daughter Sharon take a commercial flight, which is a truly impressive trick considering that Steve has been on ice for fifty years and has no passport or ID.

Sharon rents a car and they drive around for a bit. Steve needs to get away from Sharon to keep from dragging her into danger, so he pretends car sickness and asks her to pull over. It is exactly the same trick he pulled on Ned Beatty. This is in short a superhero who not once but twice escapes somebody by pretending that he has to vomit. It is, by the standards of this movie, his superpower: pretending that he has to vomit. (Only a churl would suggest that it is a trick many members of the audience are currently duplicating.) The gambit is even more ineffective this time than it was the first. Ned Beatty caught up with him a continent away. Sharon catches up with him after only a few blocks.

There is some more action, all of it embarrassing. There is a car chase that splatters the requisite fruit cart. Gene and Roger must be so proud.

But rather than elucidate everything awful that goes on, which includes among things the revelation that Steve Rogers is so ineffective an action hero that he cannot even ride a stolen bicycle without plunging it into the harbor, we’ll just skip to the climax. At this point there’s maybe fifteen minutes left in the film, and your titular superhero has not done anything effective since he became America’s first best hope against the Nazis. He has in fact been in civvies, blundering around Europe, for a third of the film.

Sharon has been captured by the Red Skull’s goons and locked in a cell directly below the President’s, though a convenient hole in the floor enables the two to see each other. (They still don’t have a chance for a substantive conversation, which is important.) With twenty minutes to go until the serum in his bloodstream enables the Red Skull’s minions to perform the further operation that can turn him into their mind-controlled puppet, the President of the United States makes his move. He has, you see, managed to snatch a vial of acid from a tabletop right under the Red Skull’s nose (which, being the Red Skull, is a nose he shouldn’t even have, but we move on).

Burning through the bars and breaking out, the Prez tells Sharon, who has just been locked in the cell directly underneath his, that he will bring back help, and splits. Cornered on a parapet, he leaps over the side rather than allow himself to be captured, and is improbably snatched to safety by Cap, who is climbing the outer wall. It is  a awfully convenient for Cap’s heroic reputation that the Prez picked that precise spot for his suicide attempt.

Now Cap and the Prez compare notes. Why, you’re that guy who was strapped to that rocket all those years ago! And that must mean you’re that little boy! Cap enthuses, “Gee whiz!” (He actually says Gee Whiz, which we cannot complain about, as it’s entirely in character for even the most soberly-written versions of Captain America.) The President further advises Cap that “They’ve got Sharon,” which is odd, since there doesn’t seem to be any way for him to know that Cap knows Sharon. But continuity is a bitch, right?

So it’s time for the big fight against the Red Skull and his minions, during which – this cannot be stressed enough – the President of the United States displays a lot more derring-do than the titular hero. The Prez runs around decking goons, among them that traitorous General Kolchak. He gets wounded by enemy fire and still rises to fight some more. He is one tough President of the United States, even by the standards of an era that would a few short years later give us Air Force One and Independence Day. It is indeed far more enjoyable to watch him than it is to watch Cap, as Ronny Cox gives the hopeless role his all and Matt Salinger just seems to wish he’d disappear into his mutilated wet suit.

The Skull repeats the point that he made forty some-odd years earlier: that this Captain America really isn’t all that much. And again, he absolutely has a point. Herr, excuse me, Signore Skull got himself all red-skulled and everything, and all he gets is a loser in a wetsuit.

Anyway, it finally comes down to Cap’s desperate last-minute attempt to prevent the Red Skull from setting off the nuclear bomb in the Grand Piano. Yes, the Red Skull has a nuclear bomb in his Grand Piano. This makes even less sense than the Grand Piano’s location, atop the castle’s wall. Yes, the Red Skull has a Grand Piano with a nuclear bomb in it, exposed to the elements, atop the Castle wall.  It’s a nicely maintained Grand Piano too, which looks like somebody’s been taking care of it, or more accurately that the prop people put it there sometime since the last storm. It may be the silliest place for a nuclear bomb in the history of film, if you don’t count the time one was inside Woody Allen. But fortunately, Cap is able to knock our lunatic Liberace over the edge to his death, an act that somehow also stops the bomb from ticking down to zero. There’s one colossal close-up of our hero’s face, which we’re evidently supposed to cheer, and the credits come up.

The makers of this Captain America were the then-prolific Golan-Globus company, who bragged about it beforehand but somehow recognized it as the turd it was, and put it on a shelf for two years, where it languished until a stealth release on home video. It is notorious among superhero fans, but remained virtually unknown to the general public, much like Matt Salinger. Cap fans who wanted a big cinematic experience for their hero would have to wait 21 years.

Now this is what it should look like.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Times have changed. Superheroes are no longer some niche genre, to be relegated to poverty-row budget films made by people so embarrassed by what they were doing that they worked up excuses to have their long-underwear characters perform most of the film’s action in civvies. They were indeed, to an unfortunate degree, the linchpin of the movie industry. Budgets are poured into them. The movies are frequently if anything too big, in that sometimes they don’t even slow down enough to provide the emotional moments.

In the context we’ve provided, there’s very little reason to go on an extreme length explaining just how much the current Captain America film gets right. We will note the closest thing it comes to being a straight remake, the scene involving a retail establishment that hides the entry to the secret lab. The scene still provides us with a sign, a countersign, and an agent behind the counter who keeps her hand on a weapon until she is sure that the visit is authorized.

We will also note that by setting almost all of the action in the 1940s and investing the proceedings with such an evocative sense of period, it accentuates just what makes this particular character unique in the first place. For instance, it gives us a Steve Rogers who clearly has a hero waiting inside him while he’s still a ninety-pound weakling. He is principled, courageous, and – as established with one hilarious scene involving a flagpole – a problem-solver. He is not just a charisma-deprived dufus, chosen at random. He is a remarkable person, interesting even before he is injected with the power juice.

There’s a terrific character arc involving his relationship to Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), here as in the comics the guy responsible for the serum who turns him into Captain America; Tommy Lee Jones performing a role he could perform in his sleep, but performing it well; the Howling Commandos, another set of Marvel heroes who here go unnamed but are very important to the action; dialogue that at one point puckishly establishes the events of Raiders Of The Lost Ark as backstory; an appearance by the original Human Torch for people who look really fast; well-staged action scenes (if a few too many of them); and a nice sinister performance by Hugo Weaving, who was able to project a personality beyond a static mask in V For Vendetta  and therefore has little difficulty performing while Red-Skulled. Fans of the Marvel franchise films are provided geeky joy by the film’s connections to Thor, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk,and finally next summer’s The Avengers. There’s a better costume, a fine period song by Alan Menken, and some smart humor.

All of which is well and good, and certainly worth praise. We would spend more time on that praise, but somehow suspect that it doesn’t need to be sold any more by us than it’s being sold by word of mouth right now. We just need to point out its most important attribute.

Whatever else it is…it sure ain’t the 1990 version.

And now the wife leaps through mortar fire, seizes the American flag, and charges the Red Skull’s goons.

*

Second commentary by Judi B. Castro

Captain America (1990). Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block (yes, the famous mystery writer, Lawrence Block). From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, and Ned Beatty. 97 minutes. 1/2 *.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. 124 minutes. ***1/2

Other Notable Film Versions, Not Covered By Us: Captain America (very racist 1944 serial, pitting a barely-recognizable version of Cap against Japanese saboteurs); 3 Dev Adam, copyright-flouting 1973 Turkish film teaming a version of Cap with a version of the Mexican masked wrestler Santo, against a strangely villainous version of Spider-Man (we are not making this up); two TV-movies starring Reb Brown, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979). The latter is the most notable directing credit of Ivan Nagy, who is really best known for his appearance in the documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, which paints him as the unheralded sinister force behind the scenes of that big tabloid story.

What was I doing in 1990 that made me fondly remember this turkey of a movie?   Was I so starved for comic book action fare to believe I was seeing a good film?  I can’t blame my memories on either age or youth, so I must have been just plain stupid(or well into a weekend).

This Captain America is poorly written, poorly directed, poorly filmed and sin of all sins, barely reminiscent of Cap at all.

Now, admittedly, I never really put Cap into the superpowers category of heroes.  He was more of a steroidal footballer than a superman.  He never had amazing powers, but had kinda Buffy-like  amped up systems and healing.  And man, what a goody goody.  He and Supes could have an aww-shucks contest and call it a draw.  Is that a super soldier?  I do like the fish out of water Captain Steve Rogers much more than the packing firepower adapt to anything one that has been around lately.

Which brings me to the newest Captain America film.  (Note I say film here and not movie!)  This was a fun time.  Sure, a whole heap of time is spent introducing weak gawky Steve, but I felt it time well spent if a franchise is to be born out of these seeds.  And, the last third did feel a bit compacted, but not to the detriment of the story.

This new version utilizes technology without abusing it.  I didn’t see the 3-D version, but that didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the shots.  So, when Cap throws his shield, yes, evildoers must yield!  The storyline was coherent and the few flaws I found were just a comic geek nitpicking the inevitable changes for the series.

All in all Captain America (2011)  a major good time!

Captain America (1990) a good party game, but a lousy film.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Yesterday’s film: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, French saga of young woman who, though not Jewish, claims to have been target of an anti-semitic assault, complete with reverse swastikas drawn on her skin.

Almost half the film is over by the time she does this. It is the act of an empty idiot, and that half of the film is spent establishing that she is one.

She is about 20 years old, jobless, living with her mother, and though attractive, a completely empty slate. She has no skills, no friends, no plans, and no interests beyond long hours of rollerblading (with the music playing through headphones insulating her from any direct interaction with the world). A young wrestler who seduces her, and gets her to fall in love with him, describes her at the end of the movie as “the most submissive girl I’ve ever met,” and it’s an accurate description: she has never really bothered to build herself a personality. The one job interview she really goes on — which is arranged for her by her mother — is excruciating in that her resume says nothing and there is nothing at all in her demeanor or in her personality that would overcome it. The one job she gets, through that wrestler boyfriend, is so fishy and so clearly a cover for a criminal enterprise that anybody of intelligence would ask further questions, but that would require her to engage with life. Throughout, she lies compulsively, over small things, not out of self-aggrandizement, but because it is only by lying that she even has anything to say.

Under such a circumstance, reacting to heartbreak by giving herself shallow cuts with a knife, and scrawling reverse swastikas on her flesh, claiming that a bunch of neo-nazis did it and enjoying the sympathy and attention she gets, makes just about as much sense as anything else.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN cannot really be a great film, in part because the main character is such an empty shell, and is in no way changed by anything she experiences. It’s only a tragedy for people who know her, and for those whose genuine experiences are diminished by her lies.

Slightly recommended.


by Adam-Troy Castro

Here it is, over at Blastr.


Thu 13:00 – 14:00, Autographing: Thu 13:00 (Autographing), Hall 2 Autographs (RSCC)
M. J. Locke, Steven Gould, Mary Robinette Kowal, Mary A. Turzillo, Adam-Troy Castro, Walter Jon Williams, John Scalzi, Steve Jackson

Thu 15:00 – 16:00, What’s Up with Zombies? (Panel), A03 (RSCC)
Why are zombies so popular anyway and what is it about all these mash-ups? Is this the future of the field?
Stephen H. Segal (M),Adam-Troy Castro, Dani Kollin, Seanan McGuire, Eytan Kollin

Fri 15:30 – 16:00, Reading: Adam-Troy Castro (Reading), A15 (RSCC)
Adam-Troy Castro

Fri 17:00 – 18:00, KaffeeKlatsch: Fri 17:00 (KaffeeKlatsch), KK1
(RSCC)
Eileen Gunn, Adam-Troy Castro, Scott Edelman, Tim Pratt

Sat 12:00 – 13:00, The Craft of Writing Short Science Fiction and Fantasy

A SF or fantasy short story can be a sparkling jewel,making a long-lasting impact on the reader. The story may
be serious or comic, a pleasure to read or a tale that won’t let you stop reading until it is done with you. How
does the writer craft effective short fiction? What techniques help the writer achieve success? We go beyond
the “good idea” and discuss the craft of writing.
Adam-Troy Castro (M), Jay Lake , Connie Willis, Michael Swanwick, Robert Reed

I expect to sign up for a second autograph session at the SFWA table.


Another interview for V IS FOR VAMPIRE!


Bridezillas on the Rampage

Sheer Epic Hilarity

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ****

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. * 1/2

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era,  Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

*

This is it, folks: the single greatest span between original film and its first major remake that this blog has ever featured, or will likely ever feature. A child conceived on a date night that began with a night out at the movie theatre watching Seven Chances would have been about 74 years old as a grumpy old person catching a twilight matinee of The Bachelor.

Both films are about respectable young men with commitment issues, who have been been stringing along the same young woman without ever quite bringing themselves to declare their love or pop the question.

Both protagonists find themselves faced with professional ruination if they don’t collect the fortune promised by a grandfather’s will, provided the young man is wed by a certain birthday (27 in Seven Chances, 30 in The Bachelor).

Both leave that young man with little more than a day to arrange matrimony.

In both, turned down by the girl he really loves because he blows the proposal miserably, he must propose to a succession of others; in Seven Chances to a succession of vague acquaintances and distant strangers, in The Bachelor to the ladies he used to date, with whom things never quite worked out.

Both films turn toward disaster with a front-page newspaper story, that explains the fortune at stake, attracting hundreds of predatory women in bridal gowns to the church where this marriage of convenience must take place.

And both climax with our hero running for his life as a vast mob of scorned harpies pursue him with murder on their minds.

And yet Seven Chances is still remembered, closing in on ninety years after its initial release, as one of the greatest comedies of all time…while The Bachelor was forgotten even before it left the multiplex.

Maybe we’ll figure out a reason after we first cover the movie it’s trying to emulate.

Seven Chances (1925)

Of the three great silent-film comedians (the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Buster Keaton had the shortest golden age and the most difficult life. Chaplin continued to make great films well into the age of sound. Lloyd made a number of sound features that may have been inferior to his silent work and were certainly underappreciated, but are nevertheless amusing; and when it became clear to him that his time had passed, he stopped with plenty of money in the bank. Keaton, on the other hand, was plagued by alcoholism, a couple of spectacularly bad relationships with women, studios that refused him control of his own work and forced him into deals like acting as straight man to Jimmy Durante, financial woes, and decades of believing that he had been forgotten. (Fortunately, he lived just long enough to see his work re-discovered by a new generation.) Though he continued working until the 1960s and was permitted during those decades a few moments to show his genius, he was by any real standard pretty much over as a comic titan by the end of the 1920s.


 

Seven Chances is not his best film (that would probably be The General), but it’s a remarkably fun hour at the movies, and early on shows one of the elements that distinguished him from Chaplin and Lloyd:  his genius for concocting gags that could only be possible on film. Early in his career, he took apart a motion picture camera to determine exactly how it worked, and he was known for experimenting with special effects techniques that neither of his two great contemporaries would have tried. With one early film, The Playhouse (1921), he managed to appear on-screen as nine separate characters, in the same shot, using matte techniques that were unheard-of at the time and that he did not reveal for years. In another, the dazzling Sherlock Jr. (1924), he leaped from a movie theatre audience and onto a screen showing a feature, where he suffered a succession of indignities caused by scenery that insisted on quick-cutting from one environment to another. Moviemakers and film buffs still  examine these sequences frame per frame, to determine how he pulled off these sophisticated and hilarious effects with no tools but a technology still in what we could consider its infancy.

Though largely a straightforward narrative, Seven Chances still shows some of this kind of technical wizardry, with a scene where Buster’s character gets behind the wheel of his roadster, puts his hands on the wheel, and then, without moving a muscle or turning over the engine, arrives at his destination anyway, because the setting changes around him. The movie does this twice, and it remains a dazzling bit of stagecraft even in the age of CGI. (These days, the effect could be achieved digitally; then, it required meticulous planning, with the position of the camera in relation to the car, and Buster’s position inside the car, controlled to the millimeter.)

There’s a similar bit of virtuoso storytelling at the very beginning, where we’re treated to a succession of shots detailing the more than a year Buster has been spending time with his lady fair without quite getting around to telling her how he feels. We see the pair, and her dog, framed by her front gate, in a gloriously full technicolor summer scene. Then we get fall, and winter, and spring. The seasonal weather around them dictates the passage of time…but so, more hilariously, does the growth of her dog, which at first barely comes up to Buster’s ankles and then, over the course of a year, becomes a behemoth. It’s not just a great gag; it’s a vivid metaphor for the elephant in the room, the extent of this young man’s inability to open his mouth and say what he clearly wants to say.

The other marvel is, of course, Keaton himself. He was called the great stone face, because once he developed his persona he rarely reacted to anything except with his eyes;  and I have heard a number of people who don’t appreciate him opining that this meant he couldn’t act. Nonsense. He focused his attention through his eyes, which were as expressive as any pair of orbs every seen on film. He could express sadness, interest, happiness, embarrassment, terror, confusion, discomfort, and horror just by altering that focus. And there is never any doubt, at any point in any of his films, just what his characters are thinking and feeling. There is thus no doubt that his character in Seven Chances is gloriously in love, gloriously bereft when his love has said no, and then gloriously imperiled when the army of belligerent scorned brides chases him through the city streets. Even allowing for movie magic, he is also an astounding comedic athlete, one reason why the more contemporary folks who consider him a role model include one Jackie Chan.

And finally, there’s the avalanche sequence, excerpted above: product of a test-screening where the chase seemed to lie flat, until the audience laughed uproariously at a divine accident: three tiny rocks pursuing Buster down the side of a mountain.

Keaton listened to that test audience, re-thought the climax, and filmed one of the great wowsers of silent film: his characterpursued down the mountain by boulders of steadily increasing size, bouncing around him and dislodging still more as he gallops like mad to stay ahead of them. It doesn’t hurt the effectiveness of the sequence one whit to note that one “boulder” his own size actually strikes him and bounces off, revealing itself as a lightweight prop; you’re not supposed to notice that, and your enjoyment  and admiration for the sheer bravura of the action will not diminish one millimeter. The timing is perfect, and he’s still one of the great runners in movie history.

Not everything he does requires thrills to be effective. There’s a great sequence on a curving staircase where Keaton follows one strange young woman up to the second floor and, without a pause, follows another coming down, getting a no each time. There’s a bit involving a hat-check girl who has been observing the madness and doesn’t even allow him to blurt the big question out.

But it’s that whole last twenty minutes that amount to one of the great races to the altar in movie history, the chief reason why this movie is now considered a classic.

(One caveat: there are also a few uncomfortable gags involving black people, who are in a few cases presented as incredibly funny just because they’re black – but this was almost a century ago, and it takes up very little of the film. We note this with a level of forgiveness born of posterity, though your mileage may vary; in the meantime, we note it for the record, note also that some filmmakers of the time did far worse, and move on.)

 

Not nearly as good.

The Bachelor (1999) 

The Bachelor raises the stakes in a number of ways. The length of the movie balloons from almost one hour to almost two. The fortune at stake, adjusted for inflation, balloons from the original’s seven million to a hundred million. The lives at risk of ruination if our hero cannot get married by the deadline are not just the two owners of a small investment firm but the hundreds of workers who will lose their jobs if its protagonist cannot hold on to his pool-table factory. The action is moved from the still very rural Los Angeles of 1925 to the hills of San Francisco in 1999, which is not in and of itself a bad idea, as the hundreds of brides chasing Chris O’Donnell up and down those steep slopes should provide opportunities as fascinating as a mob the same size going after Buster Keaton on flat streets.

In addition, the terms of the will are far more stringent. The bequest that bedevils Buster Keaton in Seven Chances requires only that he get married by his 27th birthday. Nothing is said about him remaining married. He is shown, at one point, with two sets of train tickets, one to Niagara Falls and the other to Reno. His intentions couldn’t possibly get any clearer than that. In The Bachelor, the will specifies that any woman he marries must live with him in the same house for ten years, never spending more than one day a month apart from him…and establishing that she must, must, produce an heir. The ball-and-chain becomes weightier. Except for one key scene involving Brooke Shields, the comedy somehow diminishes.

The bride-search follows a different tack. In Seven Chances Keaton’s romantically clueless character popped the big question to a succession of women he barely knew, or didn’t know at all. It was a series of confrontations that began with, “Hello, will you marry me?” and always ended with disaster. The comedy comes in large part from the humiliation attendant on being forced into this impossible situation and doing it all wrong.

In The Bachelor, Chris O’Donnell’s Jimmy Shannon is a lifelong lady killer who has had a series of shallow relationships with women who he was never serious about. He is such a commitment-phobe that when he finally does meet one capable of capturing his heart (Renee Zellwegger’s Anne Arden), he blows his big proposal by summing up with a defeated, “You win.”

He’s thus less likeable right from the start…and when Anne says no and he finds out he must be married by Six O’clock the next day,  our empathy for him is diminished still further by this film’s admittedly more sensible but considerably less funny strategy of having him approach, not strangers, but women he’s actually dated.

The focus then becomes less the urgency of getting a woman, any woman, to say yes…but just why none of these previous relationships worked out. We learn that one of the women was too clingy, another downright boring, one too strident, and so on…and all of this requires a series of consecutive scenes that flirt with being amusing but fail to build tension. The problem is not just any resentment we might feel for being asked to feel pity for the plight of a good-looking, and soon to be rich, guy who has bedded and ultimately rejected all of these beautiful women – itself a far cry from the plight of the Keaton character who can’t even get to first base with the woman who he loves and who reciprocates his feelings; it’s that there’s no gathering momentum. The need for a separate scene with each woman reduces the rhythm of the film to stop-and-start, stop-and-start.

The Brooke Shields sequence deserves some props, mostly because the ex-girlfriend she plays, Buckley Hale-Windsor, is clearly the bitchiest and most unpleasant of the lot; of all of them, she clearly hates Jimmy the most, will be most intolerable living under the same roof with him, and is the one most equipped to feel the enormity of what she’s being asked to do. Agreeing to the marriage for reasons as mercenary as his, she nevertheless interrupts their wedding ceremony three times, to storm away and contemplate the awful price through furious clouds of tobacco smoke. This is as far as it goes a highlight of the film, and shows comic chops that, in 1999, few people knew Brooke Shields had. But it’s rueful-grin funny, not clutch-your-sides funny…and when that’s as funny as the film gets, you have a major problem.

The thing is, there are an awful lot of talented people in front of the camera, doing whatever they can to enliven a story that never sparks. This is a movie with a dream cast. Peter Ustinov, Ed Asner, Hal Holbrook, Sarah Silverman, Renee Zellwegger, Brooke Shields, and James Cromwell are all given funny stuff to do and say. Even O’Donnell, the weakest link, is not actively bad. The problem is that none of it sticks. It’s all stuff that you can look at and appreciate for being theoretically funny, without ever once feeling the need to laugh out loud. There’s a nice bit about the rapid notoriety of Jimmy’s horrifically failed proposal to Anne, and how it becomes famous city-wide…and yes, this is amusing enough, in a theoretical sense, but not funny. There’s another nice bit where Anne storms home afterward and starts preparing comfort food without quite looking at the ingredients, and yes, what she makes is so disgusting that it, too, should be funny…but again, what we get is the sense that it should be amusing, and not the actuality.  And there’s the visit to Anne’s parents, who are still so much in the throes of passionate love after a lifetime of marriage that their daughters can barely stand them…which again, is recognizably humor without quite achieving that lofty state.

And all of this is before Jimmy’s trapped in a church with hundreds of increasingly hostile brides, forced in an interminable scene to defend his taste in women to them. That is as leaden as it gets. It is the only identifiably awful scene in the movie.

And even that  is before Jimmy being chased through the city streets by an army of those brides. The sequence duplicates a little of what Keaton did, by having Jimmy approach an intersection with hundreds of pursuers behind him, only to find his situation worsened as more brides pour in from the cross-streets. But it doesn’t approach one-tenth of a ghost of a scintilla of a shadow of the epic nightmare of the same shots from the earlier film. Nor does it even attempt to match the earlier film’s cliffhangers and hair’s-breadth escapes. There’s of course no avalanche.

The closest thing the film comes to actually adding to Keaton’s vision is the moment where Anne joins Jimmy on a fire-escape, over a vast field of brides in white who have just been calmed by the realization that they have not been scammed and that an actual wedding is in fact taking place; she looks down on all those ladies dressed in bridal gowns, as far as the eye can see, and murmurs, “It’s so beautiful.” A nice moment. Which she then has to ruin by making a speech to underline it. Feh.

All in all, there’s activity, but no energy.

You could, of course, note in fairness that the films occupy different comic universes. Seven Chances intends to be over the top slapstick. The Bachelor aspires to be a romantic comedy and date film. The two subgenres have completely different priorities. But two of those priorities are making us care and making us laugh. Buster Keaton’s film has been doing both jobs for what is fast approaching a century. It transcends its time.  The Chris O’Donnell version? For whatever mysterious reason, it’s inert. And it had us checking our watches before the end of the first hour.

The Vows

There’s a difference between being engaged and wanting an annulment.

*

And now, the furious wife races down the center of the street, waving the brick she took from the construction site…

Second Commentary by Judi Castro

Seven Chances (1925). Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A Mitchell, from a story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Buster Keaton. 56 minutes. ***

The Bachelor (1999). Directed by Gary Sinyor. Screenplay by Steve Cohen, from the 1925 screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, from the story by David Belasco and Roi Cooper Megrue. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Renee Zellwegger, Edward Asner, Peter Ustinov, Hal Holbrook, Brooke Shields, Sarah Silverman. 101 minutes. **

Other Notable Versions: Unseen by us, two short subjects by The Three Stooges both made during the Shemp era, Brideless Groom and Husbands Beware. The latter, made at a time when the Stooges were forced by budgetary considerations to cut costs in humiliating ways, recycled much of its action footage from the earlier film.

Never watch a film you really need to see with a fanatic who has already seen it a bazillion times!

My viewing of Seven Chances came with a home-made commentary track supplied by my husband.  Not as much of a problem here as it could be with a sound film, but still VERY distracting. Now you may ask why is this my opening salvo for my half of this piece?  Simply put, the one thing that stands out in my mind about the 1925 version, was a chance viewing of two license plates on the cars in one of the proposal scenes and noting that they were sequential.  Call me a heretic or a non-believer, but this was not a great film!  It was very good.  Entertaining for its time.  Incredibly naïve by todays jaded standards, but not great.  The story line once again left me feeling (as many Keaton stories did) what an easily manipulated fool this man let himself be portrayed on screen.  I tend  not to enjoy the bumbling do-gooders who win in the end since usually some jackass relative or friend is made better too!And these are the typical Keaton film characters.  So this film’s unspoken, long-term love match and dire economic (criminal) plots just remind us of the used and abused fool the man always played.  If I need a bumbler to win I prefer Chaplin any day.

Now, the 1999 rom-com had nothing intrinsically wrong.  The casting of this film was great (with one HUGE exception), but did they bother to check for on-screen chemistry? I felt more of an emotional tug during the scene in the boat between O’Donnell and Cromwell, than any of the scenes with O’Donnell and Zellwegger.  I’m sorry if this film is any reader’s idea of great, but it really never elevated above sweet.  And why (here’s the aforementioned exception) did they cast Artie Lange?  His comedy act is playing obnoxious, and he carries that forward into this film.  Chris O’Donnell’s best friend and wingman would never be this shlub.  The sidekick should have been more snake oil salesman able to drag his buddy through this long night’s charade, while still keeping his spirits up.

Oh, and one quick mention how everycharacter is once again in it for themselves.  They need the poor groom to get hitched to save the business and their jobs and their lives.  What about his life?  His happiness?  What the hell’s wrong with wanting to stay single until you know you’re ready?  What’s so romantic about rushing to the altar?  Divorce lawyers love it, that’s all.  There should have been some out that any good lawyer could have found, especially since they never completed viewing the taped will. Didn’t anyone consider the timing factor?  When was the will taped?  How many years were then available to Jimmy?  None of this is considered just the rush to what is supposed to be hilarity and instead invokes sighs of indifference.

Since neither film ranked high on my rush back for another viewing meter and I need a palate cleanser, I’ll go back and watch Notting Hill for the umpteenth time and try to remember what rom coms are like.  As to Mr. Keaton, I feel the need to rewatch One Week and remind myself of the wonder of his physical comedic timing.