10/25/11 EditionTwitter @THEAISLESEATCOM

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Andy Reviews Marvel's Latest Adventure
Plus: MGM's Latest MOD Discs
Colorful, nostalgic and splendidly executed on many fronts, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (***, 124 mins., PG-13) ranks with the most satisfying comic-book movies to date.

Joe Johnston, who did such a fine job helming Disney’s underrated WWII-period genre film “The Rocketeer” some 20 years ago, was the right choice to bring Marvel’s patriotic hero to the screen in a confident, satisfying film that hits every note from its first frame to nearly its last.

Chris Evans makes for a perfect Steve Rogers, the tough kid from Brooklyn whose motivation and courage are unfortunately not matched by his scrawny, weak body – one that prevents him from serving Uncle Sam in WWII. Rogers is continually rejected for service until his determination is noted by scientist Stanley Tucci, working for the U.S. military and who sees in Rogers the perfect candidate for their new Super Soldier program, spearheaded in part by brilliant Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, playing none other than Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s father).

Rogers’ transformation, though, at first applies mostly off the field of battle, with Captain America serving as a USO salesman for war bonds (there’s a wonderful musical montage set to an original Alan Menken-David Zippel song). Much to the consternation of gruff colonel Tommy Lee Jones, Rogers eventually presses his way into service, saving an Allied troop from certain death at the hands of HYDRA, a Nazi off-shoot presided over by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Schmidt has not only been previously transformed by Tucci’s doctor into the vile Red Skull, but has also corralled one of Odin’s energy cubes and created a new destructive weapon that threatens the future of the entire world.

“Captain America” does dial down the particulars of its war-time setting so as to not feel like too much of an “all-American” story, replacing any overt feelings of rah-rah patriotism with an overriding message that Rogers is a hero not because of his nationality so much as his courage and heart instead (as he tells Tucci’s scientist at the beginning, Cap “doesn’t want to kill anyone” but can’t stand “bullies”). It’s a decision that ultimately works, managing to make the picture more appealing to foreign markets while not turning the material into a completely toothless, “Politically Corrected” portrayal of the character either (a gambit that paid off with the movie having grossed $365 million worldwide, slightly more than half overseas).

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script confidently profiles Cap’s dogged pursuit of the Skull with just a hint of romance (British newcomer Hayley Atwell is fetching as Peggy Carter), though supporting roles for the likes of Sebastian Stan (as Cap’s sidekick Bucky) and Neal McDonough (one of the “Howling Commandos”) come off as if they’ve been reduced in the editing room. Johnston’s fondness for the material, though, is always evident, marked by crisply-edited action scenes that bring the vintage Marvel comics to life. Technically the movie is graced by an occasionally rousing Alan Silvestri score (his end credits “March” is just great) and cinematography by Shelly Johnson that was done no favors by the movie’s 3-D exhibitions, which darkened an already limited visual pallet that overly accentuated green-screen.

If there’s one disappointment with “Captain America,” it’s that the film works so well, it’s a letdown when the material moves into the present day for its inevitable “Avengers” set-up in its concluding moments – making one surmise that if there is a sequel, it’s not going to involve the period setting and supporting characters from this exciting “Cap” to the year’s super-hero efforts. (Perhaps some kind of time-travel device can send Steve back to the ‘40s?)

Paramount brings “Captain America” to Blu-Ray and 3-D Blu-Ray this week in a number of different variants, including a limited-edition three-disc bundle. The 3-D for the movie is well-handled for the most part with depth-of-field effects, yet as I mentioned before, the cinematography is dulled even further from its standard appearance so I would recommend the 2-D version instead. The DTS MA soundtrack is dynamic throughout.

Extras include five minutes of deleted scenes in HD with incomplete special effects that fans will find of interest, including a different introduction to the Howling Commandos and a longer ending. Seven Making Of featurettes give a slick, mostly promotional-type look behind the scenes while there’s another brief, amusing “Marvel One Shot” with Special Agent Caulson (Clark Gregg) set in between this picture and “Thor.” Rounding out the disc are trailers and a commentary track with Johnston, Shelly Johnson and editor Jeffrey Ford.

Also New This Week

CRAZY STUPID LOVE Blu-Ray/DVD.Digital Copy (**½, 118 mins., 2011, PG-13; Warner): “Bad Santa” writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa directed this highly uneven domestic comedy/drama centering on an estranged married couple (Steve Carell, Julianne Moore) who have recently separated; a young gigolo-type (Ryan Gosling) who helps Carell get back in the dating game; a cute young graduate (Emma Stone) who catches Gosling’s heart; and the efforts by Carell and Moore’s teenage son to woo an older babysitter he’s got a crush on.

“Crazy Stupid Love” offers some good performances and several funny sequences, yet the script is something of a mess. The movie shifts from Carell and Moore’s storyline to Carell and Gosling (as if it’s going to become some kind of buddy comedy), to Stone and Gosling (younger rom-com), and then to Carell’s son and the family babysitter – a would-be farcical subplot which goes on forever, isn’t funny or even remotely interesting – without maintaining a consistent focal point. Carell does some fine work here, and Marisa Tomei livens up her relatively thankless supporting turn as an oversexed “cougar,” which makes it unfortunate that the screenplay hadn’t been tightened up. Even a late plot twist fails to put “Crazy Stupid Love” over the top (though I admit it came as something of a surprise) with its scatterbrained story.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Crazy Stupid Love” looks excellent with its 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Extra features include a DVD, digital copy, deleted scenes, and a pair of Making Of featurettes with the stars that are more engaging than most of the movie itself.

THE CONVERSATION (***½, 113 mins., 1974, PG; Lionsgate): Considered by many critics to be one of the finest films of the 1970s, “The Conversation” shows a director (in this case, Francis Ford Coppola) and a star working at their peak.

Coppola's study of a surveillance expert who gets involved in what may be a murder was both a commentary on Watergate and a chronicle of man's struggle with technology and privacy. The result is a thriller that's technically adept and always disturbing, well-directed by Coppola (inbetween filming of his two "Godfather" classics) and with a great performance by Gene Hackman as the protagonist. The movie may be slightly overrated, but even if you're not so high on the story, early performances by the likes of Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, and Frederic Forrest make it essential viewing.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Conversation” carries over numerous extras from the prior DVD release of a decade ago and easily surpasses it technically. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is superb and David Shire’s score never sounded so good in the disc’s excellent DTS MA soundtrack (the original mono track is also included).

It's good to see Coppola continuing his involvement in the Blu-Ray medium, following the fine work Zoetrope did on "Apocalypse Now” last year. Here, Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes the older, separate commentary tracks from Coppola and editor Walter Murch, both of which will give film students hours of information to chew on, along with the 2000 retrospective featurette, an archival interview with Hackman, and never-before-seen extras including archival screen tests, audio of Coppola dictating the screenplay, a location featurette and conversation between Coppola and Shire. Highly recommended!

WINNIE THE POOH Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 63 mins., 2011, G; Disney): Sweet children’s film starring Wooh and the Hundred Acre Wood gang ought to enchant younger viewers. In this nicely-drawn, old-fashioned feature, Eeyore loses his tale and Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, Kanga and Roo set out to both retrieve it and help Christopher Robin from the mysterious “Backson.” Leisurely paced yet clocking in at an economical hour length (less minus credits), this new “Pooh” theatrical release is as charming as you’d expect it to be, punctuated by several Zooey Deschanel songs that add a poignant charm to the material. Disney’s combo pack in DVD-sized packaging offers a BD platter with a colorful AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, deleted scenes, “Ballad of Nessie” theatrical short, and a standard DVD edition with fewer supplements.

MONTE CARLO Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (**, 109 mins., 2011, PG; Fox): Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester and Katie Cassidy star in this forgettable outing aimed at the young female demographic. Gomez plays a typical high school grad who gets mistaken for a socialite while on vacation in Paris and brings along pal Cassidy and stepsister Meester for a roaring good time in Monte Carlo. This good-looking film from producer Denise DiNovi (scored by Michael Giacchino, no less) is sort of a cross between “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “The Princess Diaries,” and if you’re a fan of either you might enjoy “Monte Carlo” accordingly. Fox’s Blu-Ray boasts an AVC encoded 1080p transfer, deleted scenes and numerous featurettes along with a DTS MA soundtrack and a digital copy for portable media players.

13 Blu-Ray (90 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay): Argentinian filmmaker Gela Babluani remade his acclaimed thriller “13 Tzameti” in the form of “13,” a chronicle of Russian roulette players. A major cast including Ray Winstone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke and Alexander Skarsgard co-star with lead Sam Reilly in Babluani’s film, which was reportedly changed by the director from its original version. Having never seen the original I can only say that this re-do is a passable yet mediocre thriller that plays like a typical direct-to-video affair in spite of its pedigree. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.

New From MGM

Three new interesting cult items are part of MGM’s latest limited-edition, manufactured-on-demand titles this month.

THE PASSAGE (*½, 101 mins., 1979, R) is a very odd, obscure WWII adventure that reunited Anthony Quinn with “Guns of Navarone” director J. Lee Thompson.

Quinn plays a Basque peasant who tries to smuggle a French scientist (James Mason) and his family (including wife Patricia Neal and daughter Kay Lenz) out of Germany – and away from a sadistic Nazi (Malcolm McDowell) – in this adaptation of the book “Perilous Passage” scripted by its author, Bruce Nicolaysen.

Co-produced by Maurice Binder (of James Bond credit-montage fame), “The Passage” is a very uneasy mix of an old-fashioned WWII picture – evidenced by the presence of old pros Quinn and Mason – with an R-rated “‘70s film” marked by gratuitous sex and violence. The latter occur when McDowell’s sadomasochistic SS officer takes center stage in a number of sequences that go on forever – whether it’s torturing co-star Michael Lonsdale or raping Lenz – that add almost nothing to the story. Suffice to say these scenes completely ruin the rest of what’s an otherwise fairly well-made picture with an interesting cast (Christopher Lee makes an appearance as “The Gypsy”), solid climax and a fine score by Michael J. Lewis.

MGM’s 2.35, 16:9 enhanced transfer of “The Passage” is in good shape overall.

Charles B. Peirce’s GRAYEAGLE (**, 104 mins., 1977, PG) stars Alex Cord as the legendary Cheyenne warrior who gets involved with the daughter (Lana Wood) of a frontier trapper (Ben Johnson) in a well-meaning but uneven western that American-International distributed back in the day.

Restored to its full 2.35 trappings here, “Grayeagle” looks good but feels like a TV-movie rendition of “The Searchers,” and Wood doesn’t have nearly the acting ability of sister Natalie either. Still, Johnson, Iron Eyes Cody, and Jack Elam are always fun to watch and western fans might enjoy “Grayeagle”’s romanticism despite its abundant, awkward passages.

MGM’s 16:9 transfer is good even when the elements don’t appear to be in the healthiest condition. The score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava varies from being surprisingly effective to cringe-inducing without a moment’s notice.

Finally there’s BEER (**, 83 mins., 1985, R), a barely-released Orion comedy from producer Robert Chartoff that includes a score by his “Rocky”/”Right Stuff” composer Bill Conti and a few sporadic laughs in its chronicle of an advertising company (run by Loretta Swit, in a role apparently intended for Sandra Bernhard who was fired from the film!) who try and market a new brew by using three men who accidentally prevented a robbery as the focal point for their campaign.

A couple of laughs aren’t enough to make “Beer” a worthwhile view for anyone except “Hot Lips” fans who might enjoy MGM’s acceptable 16:9 transfer.

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