Captain Marvel (2019)

When Captain Marvel catapulted into the Earth’s orbit last week, it was instantly compared to Wonder Woman, another glass-shattering film led by a female superhero, and also balanced out by its broader place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She hit at the perfect moment, as the cultural conversation and need for female filmmakers and female-driven stories continues to grow, and within the franchise she’s embedded in, things are pretty dire. Captain Marvel is here to save us, in more ways than one!

There’s a lot of fun to be had through this epic adventure, and one of the most striking ways is how it mimics and then subverts the tropes of superhero films. Early on, Kree Starforce member Vers (Brie Larson) trains in combat with her male mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), conditioning her to control her emotions and her abilities. In frustration, to wrap the fight up, Vers uses her powerful fists to throttle energy toward Yon-Rogg, winning the fight not through hand-to-hand combat but through the mysterious power she’s being told to conceal. The seeds of a “chosen one” narrative are being planted, through the archetypal mentor figure teaching to use one’s head over one’s heart.

Of course we come to learn Vers’s abilities weren’t birthright, or even meant to be hers. She was “chosen” back when she lived on Earth, as a United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers working with Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) to fly a ship fast enough to travel at the speed of light. Lawson selected her for her stellar piloting abilities, but tragedy does strike, the plane goes down, and Lawson’s dying request is for Danvers to destroy the power source before someone else gets to it. Danvers tries, but inadvertently sets off an explosion and absorbs the energy herself.

Lawson is the closest thing Danvers has to a mentor figure, though we learn of Lawson’s own complicated past as Mar-Vell, member of the Kree race with a mission to develop a weapon on Earth to wield across the galaxy. Mar-Vell / Lawson fortunately changed course, but we hardly get any screen time of this interesting figure acting out her true intentions.

In fact, the last scene featuring Mar-Vell at all is as the Supreme Intelligence, a Kree authority figure who takes the shape of someone different for every member of the Kree race. The Supreme Intelligence, appearing as Mar-Vell, taunts Danvers, mocking her as weak, fragile, and human. On the one hand, it would have been great to have more screen time of Mar-Vell as a positive mentor figure for Danvers, but I also find the choice to deliberately push her memory out as an interesting way to emphasize Danvers’s isolation and realization that she can only count on herself.

Ranking lists will be made, and everyone (myself included, admittedly) is speculating about how Captain Marvel fits into the Cinematic Universe. I can’t wait to find out what happens come the Endgame, but on its own merits (just like the cultural juggernaut Black Panther) Captain Marvel is a great film on its own, especially for how it’s so different from other Marvel films. The sense of friendship, loss, and reunion is maybe stronger here between Danvers and fellow USAF pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) than any duo in the MCU. The Kree race slander and demonize the Skrull people, who turn out to be only refugees looking for a home. The dehumanization of Vers herself as the oppressor, a military cog in the wheel, and the oppressed, are deeply felt and earned throughout the film.  The arcs of destruction, guilt, and responsibility that took Iron Man several features to get through are expertly crafted in this stand-alone entry.

Yes, I’m curious to see how Captain Marvel will save the day from Thanos (I don’t doubt that she can do it), and can’t wait to see what else lies ahead for the former Carol Danvers. She may not be a “chosen one,” but she made herself into a peerless superhero with boundless strength, intellect, and heart.

2018 Mid-Year Review

We’ve just reached the halfway mark of 2018, and already box office records have been broken, franchise fatigues shattered, and even gotten some extraordinary movies in the process. There’s no way to know how many of these will stick out as memorable features this time six months from now, but the front half of 2018 has certainly set a high bar for what’s to come later in the year.

So without further ado, let’s count down the best (and worst) of 2018 – so far…

The Worst

5. Insidious: The Last Key – This saga has trended in a logarithmic downward spiral and the latest entry is no real exception. Lynne Ramsey is strong (as always) as a medium battling inner and outer demons alike, but this uneven jump scare-fest abruptly wobbles between supernatural absurdity, real-world domestic abuse, and ambiguously creepy guys. It never makes up its mind around what tone it’s aiming for, so seems to strive for everything while achieving nothing.

4. Fifty Shades Freed – While not offensively bad, this *ahem* climax of another Universal property was a let down after the outrageously silly ride of the previous two Shades. The sex scenes weren’t as giggle-inducing, but the ending scene was surprisingly sweet and met expectations for how to tie this whole thing up.

3. Tomb Raider – More bland than anything else, this wannabe-blockbuster is a waste of gift from God Alicia Vikander, who we see race boxers on a motorcycle (!), solve cryptic puzzles without a sweat (her dad taught her, we’re told), and come face to face with an ancient witch’s curse. Action set pieces transpire before us, but the stakes never quite hammer home and nothing seems to matter. If any good comes of this, Ms. Vikander will be available to stick to the art house fare that made her a star!

2. Truth or Dare – On principle I see every horror movie, especially if it’s set in college, and Truth or Dare is both of those things. It’s a big mess though, filled with questionable decision making by its young heroes and a convoluted plot (and another age-old curse!) that’s both frustrating and 100% what you expect. A good takeaway though is a character referred to as “Day-Drinking Penelope” and a preposterous scene where she’s Dared to do shots and walk on the roof…or she dies!

1. A Quiet Place – I’m more alone than the lead isolated family on this one, but I found this movie endlessly silly and giggle-inducing. I appreciate the inclusive nature of A Quiet Place being told through ASL, but couldn’t keep it together through goofy set pieces like a camera panning over mega-pregnant Emily Blunt scared in a bathtub as tense music plays, or a revelatory moment highlighting John Krasinski’s exposition whiteboard: “What is the weakness?” when it all comes together. Bonus points for every moment a character turns around and “Shh”s another, just in case you forgot you have to be quiet or else an alien brutally kills you. This is a good one to watch in a high chair, while it’s all spoon-fed to you.

The Best

5. Black Panther – Not unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the newest superhero entry in the Marvel-verse fires on all cylinders with its tremendous world-building and wide spectrum of instantly memorable and iconic characters. The fierce lineup of female leads and the terrifically unsettling villain are all so strong, you almost forget about His Panthersty (who’s also great in his own right).

4. Incredibles 2 – The story continues for everyone’s favorite animated super-family, as Elastigirl picks up superhero duties and Mr. Incredible stays home to watch the kids. It’s hard to compare it to the original (one of the great movies of the 21st century), but this one is loaded with more action, feels more timely, and is even more non-stop.

3. Avengers: Infinity War – Even months later, this one still looks like a Thanos-sized behemoth in the distance. This movie arrived with the highest of expectations and shattered even those, delivering a kaleidoscopic joyride across planets and franchises before delivering one final, devastating blow. More Rogue One than Guardians of the Galaxy, this challenging film proves that there’s no such thing as the Marvel formula and (hopefully) cracks open the creative possibilities for Phase Four.

2. Love, Simon – This is certainly the “smallest” movie in my top 5, which in some ways makes it the biggest of all. This is a story that has probably happen, and continue to happen, until we reach a post-orientation society where nervous young adults coming out is a thing of the past. Until then, we have a wonderfully sweet and reassuring story (from a major studio, no less) of one teen doing just that, and how he finds support (or otherwise) from those around him.

1. Annihilation – Alex Garland’s utterly terrifying follow-up to Ex Machina is an unforgivably intense journey to hell and back. A mysterious presence is spreading through the coast of Florida, and a team of scientists venture into this “Shimmer” to collect DNA samples and get out. This classic “adventure gone wrong” tale is inverted like a Möbius strip, as the women face monsters unknown and forces beyond their understanding at play. At the surface it’s a monster movie, but at its twisted core it’s a tale of identity and exchange, and what happens when that transformation unfolds unwillingly.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the savviest Marvel fan.

I’ve seen all the movies, and studied each Wikipedia entry numerous times, but I still have trouble keeping track of it all. Who’s romantically linked to who, what sinister backstory the characters emerge from, and last but not least, what exactly the Infinity Stones are.

Even though my passion outweighs my general understanding of what’s going on, I had one hell of a time at Avengers: Infinity War. Experiencing the latest, and undoubtedly most ambitious, Marvel entry in a packed opening-night crowd was the most fun and energetic time I’ve had at the movies in years. I don’t like the idea of “fan service” (which, to me, means a reference for its own sake) but the Russo brothers deliver spectacular moment after spectacular moment, featuring our favorite characters doing what they do best, but all in service of the plot – Thor brandishing his new-and-improved weapon, Black Panther leading the Wakandan army, Doctor Strange melting our minds, to name a few – constantly infusing the audience with high-voltage doses of adrenaline.

The first 80% or so of the film is an absolute blast. The events of the most recent Marvel films (Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 specifically) seamlessly brought worlds together for this epic collaboration. From where the stories have been heading, it does make sense that the spacey world-building existing in parallel with what’s happening on earth, all merge to defeat the Biggest interdimensional Bad in the MCU: Thanos.

And how Bad he is. Thanos is on a quest to collect the Infinity Stones (tied to unique elements of the universe), load them into his handy glove, and wipe out half of existence. The world’s been in trouble plenty before (at least 18 times prior to this, if I’m counting the movies right!) but Thanos’s end goal, and means to do it, is nothing short of horrifying. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the sequence at the end is as unsettling and dark as anything Marvel, or even Lucasfilm, has ever done.

The film’s climax is as bleak as the beginning of the film is delightful, but the story certainly feels far from over. It’s too soon for one to have inspired the other, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Luke Skywalker’s words in Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “This is not going to go the way you think.” An endless string of critics and pundits have labeled the “Marvel formula,” and Avengers: Infinity War is a giant, Thanos-sized middle finger to any presupposed template these movies are meant to follow.

I’m used to walking away from Marvel movies fully energized and pumped up for more, while this left me dejected and almost mournful; though that’s not a bad thing. The exit corridors echoed with quiet murmurs of what comes next, what can be done, and what the future may hold. Love it or hate it, this is an ending that has audiences talking, thinking, theorizing, about what this all means for characters and worlds we’ve known for 10+ years. Nothing is sacred, everything is up for grabs, and the possibilities are infinite.

Weekly Round-Up: May 08-14, 2016

Two weeks ago, I saw:

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Ambitious mega-sequel tying together plot elements from the far reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plus introducing charismatic new characters in Scarlet Witch and The Vision. I had some trouble following what was going on but I overall enjoyed it (though I don’t understand how Iron Man can let his tech run wild so many times!). RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – I enjoyed this film slightly more this second round, though it could certainly use an editing job. At its best, it’s terrifically emotional even though at times it seems to not know where it’s going. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ant-Man (2015) – If this film had come earlier in the MCU I might have liked it more, but I couldn’t take the “buggy” qualities very seriously. Michael Pena is great as Ant-Man’s friend though, who tells outrageous long-winded stories (which surprisingly drive the plot forward). NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Sorry Winter Soldier, but Civil War is the new greatest superhero movie. A key element to this star-studded affair is the showdown between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, but its core theme that actions have consequences is a mature and complex one, heightening the superhero film to new heights. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Palm Springs Weekend (1963) – Silly teeny bopper flick about college kids who go on vacation to Palm Springs, where they drink booze, gamble, get arrested, and even fall in love. I adore these kinds of movies but acknowledge that they’re not for everybody. RECOMMENDED if you like baby boomer kids getting into trouble.
  • Friday the 13th (1980) – One of the dumbest horror movies to generate its own franchise, I admit I had a terrific time seeing this on a big screen, for the very first time, this past Friday the 13th. It was an outdoor screening at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where the audience whistled with each love scene and cheered every time a camp counselor was slashed. NOT RECOMMENDED, but this movie is probably REQUIRED if you’re a horror buff.

What did you see two weeks ago? Did you fall victim to Friday the 13th?

Weekly Round-Up: May 01-07, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Possibly the greatest superhero film ever made, this episode features the First Avenger under pressure from a staggering bureaucracy, as the threat of a mysterious figure looms closer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Carnival of Souls (1962) – Occasionally spooky mystery/horror about a young woman who apparently survives a car accident, then moves to Utah where she is pursued by, and drawn to, the undead. There were some interesting shots, but this mostly felt like typical “B” movie material to me. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – I love the most recent Pixar film, and got a ton out of the audio commentary by director Peter Sohn and other members of the creative team. Their discussion of how this film, with less dialogue, presented a greater “acting” challenge for the animators was particularly insightful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – This film clicked with me much better this time around, through its likable characters and now-iconic soundtrack. While this is certainly part of the MCU, it feels so accessible since it starts (mostly) from scratch with (mostly) new characters to the saga. RECOMMENDED.
  • Selena (1997) – Well-rounded, terrifically cinematic biopic of the late Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla. Jennifer Lopez shines in the title role in a deservedly star-making performance. RECOMMENDED.
  • Joy (2015) – This played even worse on home video than it did in the movie theaters. The sum of Joy‘s parts is significantly greater than the whole, which is a soppy convoluted mess. The scenes of Joy Magnano at QVC are still cinema magic, however. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Jungle Book (2016) – The latest Disney live-action film also improved for me upon a second viewing, with a greater appreciation for the adaptation of narrative elements from the animated classic into live-action. I’m still knocked out by the outstanding visual effects. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Revenant (2015) – The worthier winner among the Best Picture nominees, I was reminded how this film is true, challenging, innovative art. Tom Hardy almost steals the show as the monster Fitzgerald, but Leo’s performance acting mostly solo, and pretending to be brutally mauled by a bear, is nothing short of astonishing. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: April 24-30, 2016

This felt like one of my bigger movie weeks in some time – last week, I saw:

  • That Thing You Do! (1996) – Entertaining kaleidoscope of the 1960s music scene, about the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder band. RECOMMENDED.
  • Carol (2015) – This is a tough one; I loved the production of Todd Haynes’s latest melodrama, from the exquisite costumes and perfect period sets to the passionate musical score and sensual camera work, but the story and script had me rolling my eyes. I have a very hard time believing anybody would want to have an affair with the lifeless character portrayed by Rooney Mara. Mostly well made, but ultimately this flick is NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013) – I love the characters and world of Thor, but this sequel didn’t hold up as well as the original. There was plenty going on, it just wasn’t as engaging or interesting as I’d come to expect from the gang. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) – I can’t get enough of these movies, but I can see why an outsider would think that they’re all the same. (They pretty much are, to be fair.) Still, there’s plenty of creepy moments and enrichment of the mythology that I’d nonetheless rate this one RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: April 16-22, 2016

  • Boyz n the Hood (1991) – Very impressive story about good kids growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Authentic performances and dialogue elevate this film into true art. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Iron Man 3 (2013) – My favorite so far in the Iron Man saga, with our hero facing genuine PTSD after the nutso events of The Avengers. There was so much going on I had trouble following the story, but with so much happening I was still entertained. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is The Big Sleep of superhero movies. Its main character takes on a seemingly straightforward assignment, and is plunged headfirst into a confusing, arguably convoluted, mystery. No one can be trusted as the lead navigates through a dark, unsettling landscape of mystery, intrigue, and danger. They are also among the strongest in their respective genres: The Big Sleep as one of the great film noirs, and The Winter Soldier as possibly the best superhero film.

Like the first chapter of Cap’s story, The First Avenger, the strongest asset is its lead character. Steve Rogers / Captain America found himself surviving long past World War II era into the present-day, but fortunately the “fish out of water” jokes were mostly contained within the previous film The Avengers, allowing a more serious assessment of Cap’s situation. He is no longer the war hero on the front lines, but a piece of a broader bureaucratic puzzle struggling with differing agendas with partners, reporting to a cryptic Director, and the growing dread that his way of life is no longer relevant 70 years after his own time.

Tragedy strikes early on, and Cap finds himself on the run as a perceived threat, and partners up with Agent Romanoff (Black Widow) to unscramble the threat. Their detective work draws them deeper and deeper into a dark conspiracy, and find supposed allies are not what they seem. The narrative gets even more clouded as a figure from Rogers’s past resurfaces as a nightmarish killing machine.

This is one of the more compelling elements of The Winter Soldier: the harsh imprints left by a traumatic wartime experience. It creates emotionless, heartless monsters of some, while others (like Steve’s friend Sam Wilson, later Falcon) turn this experience into support, by leading counseling groups for soldiers facing PTSD. Excellent foils are created between war veterans, ranging from light to the very dark.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel storytelling at the top of its game, with stunningly shot action sequences and a mind-boggling yet exhilarating tale of bureaucracy, conspiracy, and heroism in the modern age.

Weekly Round-Up: April 10-16, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • The Avengers (2012) – Epic superhero tale bringing together Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America (each of whom had their own films) with Black Widow and Hawk-Eye to save the world from invaders. It got kind of spacey for me, but I liked how much time we got with Black Widow over the other characters, who we presumably know (if we’ve kept up with the MCU). RECOMMENDED.
  • Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) – Slow-cooking erotic tale about a young woman who falls in love with a middle-aged man, and they spend a lot of the movie in their apartments. Wikipedia says this movie was controversial for its time (which I can understand), but the narrative wasn’t exactly groundbreaking even if its explicit content was. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Jungle Book (2016) – Gorgeous visuals bring the classic story to life in a whole new dimension as the jungles of India are animated to spectacular detail. My favorite parts of this film were how it differed from the Disney classic, particularly in the savagery of villain Shere Khan and the sweeping narrative (making it feel more flowing and less episodic). RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?