August 03, 2011

Lensman's review of "Cowboys & Aliens" and "Captain America"

A Guest Review! Communication Director's note: please share your reviews with us! The KaCSFFS Blog is your blog, and our organization is devoted to learning about and discussing artistic works in the sf/f/horror genres. We would love to publish more reviews from members! Please email them to Jan S. Gephardt

Fresh, enjoyable, great FX; some
difficulty with suspension of disbelief.
Cowboys & Aliens

A science fiction adventure film in an Old West setting.

Interesting to see Harrison Ford play a villain.  And I always find it fun to see familiar actors dressed up in Spaghetti Western style dusters, grungy, pseudo-Western frontier clothes, and period facial hair.

Daniel Craig continues to show his acting chops.  Here he plays a bad-guy-turned-good-guy, and I think he did a fine job. He does a lot to help the audience suspend its disbelief, to "sell" the rather far-fetched story.

Of course, the most important part of a movie is the story and the script.  Here, we get some entertainingly fresh ideas, and not just from the Old West setting. Kudos to the writers.  Like the movie overall, it doesn't reach the level of a Great Story, but it's a pretty good one.

I do give it one down-check for never explaining why the aliens wanted to abduct humans, but other than that I didn't notice any sizable plot holes. Also, it did somewhat strain my willing suspension of disbelief that a bunch of people from the Old West would take bombardment and strafing by aircraft, and being subjected to intense bombardment, so much in stride . . . no panicking by the gunslingers or the Amerind warriors. But given the nature of a fast-moving action film, I guess you either have to accept that as part of the story, or get up and walk out of the movie.
FX by ILM, so no surprise they are fine and appear about as convincing as they can be when they obviously are not real. (And it's amazing how much better these FX fit seamlessly into real-life backgrounds, when the Star Wars prequel trilogy had such fake-looking FX. Did Lucas *want* them to look fake? Did he have the idea that making it look unreal fit the genre of a "space fantasy" better?)

"Marvel-ous" time, great FX, okay story.
Captain America--The First Avenger

A comic book/retro-SF adventure film giving the origin of a Marvel superhero.

I can't help but compare this to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I just *love* retro-SF, filled with super-science vehicles and weapons! This one even has a huge flying wing.
Chris Evans does a credible job as Steve Rogers/Captain America, although it's bizarre to see the same actor playing this character who previously played Johnny Storm in the two recent Fantastic Four movies, considering they are both Marvel characters, and should be in the same universe!

They had me wondering all through the film about just how they managed to get the same actor (or at least his head) to portray both the 4F (military reject) 90-lb. weakling Steve Rogers, AND the ripped, hunky Super Soldier. Did they get a small guy to play a body double, with his head digitally replaced by Chris Evans? Or did they shoot Evans in the scene, then digitally alter his appearance to make him small and slight? And what about sight lines--how did actors in the same scene with him appear to be looking into the eyes of the wimpy Rogers, if he was being played by the tall Evans?

Well, as it often is, the answer is: All of the above. Quoting from Wikipedia:

"Most of the shots were done by an L.A. company called LOLA that specializes in digital 'plastic surgery'. The technique involved shrinking Chris in all dimensions. We shot each skinny Steve scene at least four times; once like a normal scene with Chris and his fellow actors in the scene, once with Chris alone in front of a green screen so his element could be reduced digitally, again with everyone in the scene but with chris absent so that the shrunken Steve could be re-inserted into the scene, and finally with a body double mimicking Chris's actions, in case the second technique were required. When Chris had to interact with other characters in the scene, we had to either lower Chris or raise the other actors on apple boxes or elevated walkways to make skinny Steve shorter in comparison. For close-ups, Chris' fellow actors had to look at marks on his chin that represented where his eyes would be after the shrinking process, and Chris had to look at marks on the tops of the actor's head to represent their eyes. . . . The second technique involved grafting Chris's head onto the body double. This technique was used mostly when Chris was sitting or lying down, or when a minimum of physical acting was required."

Hollywood magic!

I am very, VERY pleased with the look of the FX. The screen was filled with control panels which had dials, knobs, and levers everywhere. This is 40s retro-SF as it *should* be! And unlike Sky Captain there was none of that soft-focus effect . . . which is fine if you want to give it a romantic, other-worldly appearance, but has the disadvantage of constantly reminding you that you're not looking at anything real. Here, the metal machinery appeared to be real, solid steel, with real, no-nonsense, industrial-grade paint on it.

The appearance of the characters was reasonably well-done . . . and the Red Skull was a stand-out! A story like this needs a menacing super-villain. The Red Skull is so comic-book, even cartoonish, that I was afraid they wouldn't pull it off. Kudos to the prosthetics team, costumers, and the actor--this Red Skull is menacing indeed!

Also, it was interesting the way they first parodied the superhero costume, showing "Captain America" debuting in a singing-and-dancing chorus stage show to sell war bonds. Later, of course, they switched him into a costume with colors slightly muted, and looking more like something a mortal action hero would wear--not Spandex. I have no objection to that; it's what they did for Daredevil, and unlike the heresy of the X-Men movies, the filmmakers didn't abandon the costume's colors.

I wish I could say the story was up to the fine quality of the other elements of this film. But it was merely good, not great. Nonetheless, comparing it to Sky Captain, the film "works" a lot better *as* a movie. It "felt" more real, the direction was better (not surprisingly; Sky Captain was made by a first-time director), and the various elements were assembled more seamlessly. But the basic story lacked the truly earth-shaking menace that an epic retro-SF tale about superheroes vs. super-villains needs. Oh, sure, they threw in a last-minute plot element about a bomber that would destroy America, but they didn't really *sell* that to me. It seemed more of an excuse to get Captain America and his team to do some fighting and stunts, rather than the existential menace to humanity that we see at the end of Sky Captain. And although the 40s retro-SF elements gave this story a fresh setting, the story itself seemed all too familiar. So that's why I give this film only three stars (***) out of four, even though I had a marvelous time! (Or is that a "Marvel-ous time"?)
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Aside to Ty Gephardt: Please feel free to post this to any KaCSFFS Internet site or blog, and/or pass it along to Jan for that purpose.
Keep Watching the Skies!
David Sooby aka "Lensman"

Movie posters were taken from Wikipedia.
Cowboys and Aliens
Captain America - The First Avenger


  1. My friend Paul Burns passed this along, as a different "take" on the movie "Cowboys & Aliens":

    WARNING: contains spoilers!

  2. Thanks for reviews ! The movie is looking INCREDIBLE!! I am going to watch this film on coming Friday night and wish that will enjoy it very much..Love watching any movie of Daniel Craig :))
    Cowboys & Aliens 2011