Captain Marvel

As the superhero genre moves toward becoming more inclusive and diverse, many white male geeks—a group I belong to—are resisting, trying to preserve it as the boys’ club that it’s been for decades.  In the case of Captain Marvel, I gather they’ve gotten quite ugly about it, filling Rotten Tomatoes with negative reviews before anybody but critics have even had a chance to see the film.  I don’t even want to know how Brie Larson, the film’s star, is being treated in the comment sections of social media platforms.  I suppose it was there but I don’t recall this much venom being spewed at Wonder Woman or Black Panther.  Perhaps the popularity and cultural impact of those projects caught the trolls by surprise and now they’ve resolved that it’s never going to happen again.

I don’t understand it.  We have something cool here and other groups want in on it.  That’s actually a sign of success; that we’re doing something right.  Other groups want to appropriate our little sub-culture and I say let them.  Because the more money these things make the more of them we’ll get to see.

Coolness is coolness and it doesn’t matter if its face is male or female, white or non-white.

I’ll put away my soapbox now and get on with reviewing the film.  Captain Marvel is the introduction and origin of Carol Danvers, or Captain Marvel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Danvers, played by Brie Larson, is a test pilot, flying highly experimental aircraft, developed with alien technology.  Stationed with her is her best friend since childhood and fellow test pilot, Maria Rambeau, played by Lashana Lynch.  She goes on an unauthorized test flight with a woman Danvers knows as Dr. Wendy Lawson, played by Annette Bening, but who is actually Mar-Vell, an alien scientist of the Kree race, which is how she knows so much about the alien tech.  The prototype plane is shot down by alien space ships.  Mar-Vell dies in the crash.  Danvers survives but is injured, having been irradiated when she destroys the power source for the prototype.  A squad of elite Kree commandos, headed by Yon-Rogg, played by Jude Law, rescues her.  They nurse her back to health, with a transfusion of Kree blood.  Unfortunately, she’s lost her memories of her time on Earth.  Once healthy, she joins Yon-Rogg’s unit.

The plot of the movie swings back and forth between this origin story and a mission that Yon-Rogg’s unit goes on.  This mission leads Danvers to Earth, where she recovers her memories.  It is now 1995, six years after she disappeared and it is believed that the Skrulls, rivals and bitter enemies of the Kree are infiltrating the Earth.

Captain Marvel is an enjoyable film.  Larson does a great job, portraying a cocky smart-ass pilot, who bristles when anybody tells her that she’s not being serious.  Digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg return as Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, early in their careers as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and they do a terrific job of portraying younger, less cynical versions of themselves.  Jude Law stands out as a tough but nurturing mentor.  And Lashana Lynch’s Rambeau is a badass, herself.

Obviously, as an MCU film, it is technically flawless.  The effects, sets, costumes and everything else are perfect.  They recreated 1995 to the last detail.  There are a couple of great set pieces, too.

The script by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, as well as Geneva Robertson Dworet, however, has a pretty big flaw.  I can’t tell you what the flaw is without spoiling the movie, except to say that there is a twist there that is not properly foreshadowed.  You’ll know it when you see it.  It’s a big problem that threw me off, and it could have been fixed by changing a few minor details.

But as I always say, the MCU is one big cinematic work and the individual installments must be judged accordingly.  Even in this one there are lines and plot points that are meant to resonate only with the mega-continuity.

So, see it, and see it in a theater.  You’ll enjoy it.  Unless of course, you are a troll who is so unimaginative as to only be able to identify with a character who is your own race and gender.

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Oscar Picks 2018

Looking back over my past few Oscar pick columns, I have found a trend.  There hasn’t been a film made since, at least since 2009 that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with.  Many good films have been made in that time but none that have excited me enough to care if they win Best Picture or not.  Now, let’s define terms here.  I’m talking about Oscar bait.  That means art films, foreign films and sprawling, important sagas.  Marvel blockbusters get my juices flowing but they’re never going to be considered for anything other than the technical awards.

So, I have to ask, is it me?  Am I too jaded?  Or am I too old to really embrace something that doesn’t have the science fictional, fantastic, or action/adventure elements that lie at the heart of aesthetic preferences?

Looking back over my old reviews, I think I appreciate these more mundane films and I believe that I do a good job of critiquing them.  But there’s no love.  I don’t buy them on DVD, nor do I watch them on Netflix.  In general, I never think about them again.

I don’t think I’m alone either.  Does anyone ever talk about The Artist anymore, or even Moonlight?  In past years Oscar winners like Gone With the Wind or The Sound of Music dominated the culture.  Of course, there was less competition then.  Still, it doesn’t seem that today’s Oscar winners really have any kind of cultural impact at all anymore.  And I don’t know if that’s due to the quality of the films or the state of our culture.

Or it could be that I’m losing my enthusiasm for the artform.

In any case let’s plow ahead with the picks.  Like last year I will give you the favorite to win according to Goldderby.com and then my pick.  I’ve seen all the films in the categories that I pick so there are no recusals.

 

Supporting Actress

 

Favorite:  Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk

Pick:  Regina King

 

This is a weak category this year.  The other four nominees were in films that I really disliked, so that eliminates them.  I suppose that if I had to pick a different nominee, I’d go with Amy Adams for Vice, but she really wasn’t on the screen enough to make an impact.  And don’t get me started on The Favourite and Roma.

 

Supporting Actor

 

Favorite:  Mahershala Ali for Green Book

Pick:  Mahershala Ali

 

I could live with Richard E. Grant for Can You Ever Forgive Me or even Adam Driver for Blackkklansman, but I think Ali’s masterful performance puts him ahead of the field.

 

Actress

 

Favorite:  Glenn Close for The Wife

Pick: Melissa McCarthy for Can You Ever Forgive Me

 

Close is not a bad pick and I won’t be upset when she wins.  But I think McCarthy gave the most moving and insightful performance of the year.  Olivia Colman’s role in The Favourite is supporting.  I don’t know why she was nominated in this category.  But then again, I don’t understand why The Favourite was nominated in any category.

 

Actor

 

Favorite:  Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody

 

Pick:  Christian Bale for Vice

 

I disliked Vice more for political reasons then aesthetic ones, so it feels like picking Christian Bale is a betrayal of my principles but it really was an immersive and powerful performance.  I thought Rami Malek’s performance was cartoonish at points.

 

Director

 

Favorite:  Alfonso Cuaron for Roma

Pick:  Adam McKay for Vice

 

Mostly, I like Cuaron’s movies but Roma just didn’t soar for me.  He’s probably going to win this but I think it’s far from his best.  McKay took disparate elements from all kinds of filmmaking and seamlessly integrated them into the film.

 

Picture

 

Favorite:  Roma

Pick:  Black Panther

The Best Movie of 2018:  If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Yes, that’s right!  The best picture of 2018 was If Beale Street Could Talk and it was not nominated.  It’s the kind of mistake that the Academy makes every once it awhile that it will have to live with.  Of the nominated films, I enjoyed Black Panther the most.  Roma shouldn’t be on this list.

By the way, if you are betting in an office pool or something, Black Panther, at 9/1 odds is a decent longshot.  The thing is that it has momentum from it’s win at the SAG Awards and it is probably the most culturally significant film of the last year.  It might just pay off.

 

So that’s it for this year.  You know the drill:  popcorn, fun.  Until next time.

 

Cold War

Despite the title, Cold War is not the story of that momentous period in history.  Of course, the ideological struggle between Stalinism and western democracy that occurred from the late forties to the eighties serves as a backdrop, plot complication, and metaphor for this story of romance and music, but this tragedy begins after the imposition of a Stalinist regime in Poland and ends before the rise of Solidarity and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

In 1949 Wiktor, played by Tomasz Kot and two others found a music and dance school in rural Poland.  During the auditions for students he spots Zula, played by Joanna Kulig.  From the start she is luminous, standing out from her peers who have grown up in grinding poverty and despotism, first from the Nazis and then the communists.  Zula has, as well, of course, but it has not ground down her spirit.  She has the best voice in the school but is an indifferent dancer.  She’s always a half-step ahead or behind during the routines.  But this only serves to make her stand out.  Zula is, in short, a star.  Wiktor and she soon begin an affair.

The school is a success and morphs into a folk song and dance company.  With the blessing of the state, which comes with the demands of a few patriotic songs in the troupe’s repertoire, it grows into an international attraction, a cultural ambassador for Poland.

But Wiktor wants out.  He dreams of living in Paris.  Together, he and Zula make plans to defect when the troupe plays in Berlin.  But Zula never shows up at their rendezvous; deep down she doesn’t want to lose her privileged life behind the Iron Curtin, although she does sincerely love Wiktor.

The rest of the film chronicles their meetings over the years, as he struggles to make a living in the West and she struggles with the authoritarianism in the East.  Gradually, they are both ground down.

This is a beautiful film.  If they still gave out black and white cinematography Oscars, Lukasz Zal, the cinematographer, would win hands down.  It is lit starkly with high contrast images that are just beautiful.  Narrow winding European streets are dark and dotted with pools of streetlight.  The camera loves Kulig’s expressive face and Koz’s rough-hewn good looks.

The two leads deliver powerhouse performances.  Their chemistry is undeniable even as they are directed to act in a very European and detached manner.  And this is very much a European film.  It lingers over images, faces and landscapes.  In some shots they could have put in a still photo and nobody would have known.  There are very few closeups, which I usually find to be alienating but Kulig and Koz draw you into the story, despite the film’s low-key aesthetic.  Pawel Pawlikowski directed.

I found the film slowly paced, even though it is only an hour and a half long.  The episodic nature of the script disrupted the flow of the story.  The only reason I was drawn into it was because of the performances and the pretty pictures.

I suppose I’d recommend it but I’d wait for the DVD.

If Beale Street Could Talk

If I am ever asked what my criteria are for a good movie, I’m not sure I could provide a list.  There are things I prefer, like a plot that takes place over a constricted time period, or stories about smart people figuring stuff out, but there are so many exceptions to those that I hesitate to enshrine them as hard and fast laws.  Likewise, there are things I don’t like generally: dream sequences, excessive montages that don’t advance the plot, or a glacially slow pace.  But once again there are exceptions.

If Beale Street Could Talk goes against almost all my preferences.  It is slow; it has baffling montages that bring the plot to a screeching halt; it even has dream sequences, which are mercifully short.  Most of all, it has an unrelentingly bleak outlook.

And yet it may be my pick for the best movie of the year.

Why?  The answer to that is probably irreducibly complex.  A large part is the humanity of the characters, especially the leads.  These are people who see a baby on the way as a cause for celebration.  Even if the child was conceived out of wedlock and the father’s in jail, awaiting trial.  That’s so human to me.  When they talk amongst themselves in quiet moments over a drink, they reveal their hopelessness; how they do not stand a chance in the white man’s world, especially in the early sixties setting of the film.  And yet they welcome a new arrival into their vale of tears.

Stephan James plays Fonny the accused rapist.  He’s friendly if you don’t cross him, and he is kind and considerate to his family and friends.  But he’s not perfect.  He has a temper.

Kiki Layne plays Tish, Fonny’s girlfriend.  She is the centerpiece of the movie, being the narrator and main focus of the story.  Tish is smart and not naïve, although she has a lot to learn about life as a black woman in America.  And that is the story of the film and presumably the book by James Baldwin that the movie was based on:  Tish’s long slow march from absolute confidence that Fonny will be found innocent to the realization that he never really had a chance.

There hasn’t been much talk about Kiki Layne being nominated for an Oscar, but there should be.  Regina King’s performance as Tish’s mother Sharon is getting all the buzz and she deserves it.  Who knew that tying on a wig could be so heartbreaking.  But Kiki Layne owns this movie.

The rest of the cast is terrific.  They aren’t depicted as saints, which makes them more human.  There are several points in the movie where a cooler head would have avoided all this trouble.  But if people were perfect there would be no fiction.

Barry Jenkins directed and adapted the screenplay from the book by James Baldwin.  As mentioned before the film is slow.  It hops between time periods but you’re never lost.  There are documentary elements, title cards that step out of the narrative to comment on the issues affecting the story.

Those are all elements that I have seen destroy other projects.  But Jenkins makes them work.  And in the end, that’s the only criterion there is for a good film.  It works.

Vice

Vice is probably the most politically divisive biopic since Oliver Stone’s W.  In fact, Dick Cheney’s movie is even more over-the-top than Stone’s biography of George W. Bush.  There are all kinds of odd presentational elements in the screenplay by Adam McKay who also directed, such as a mystery narrator, played by Jesse Plemons, who is sometimes on screen and sometimes off.  There’s a false ending in the middle of the film.  Informational title cards appear throughout.  Most of these elements are for humorous purposes as well as to get through a long and complicated story in two hours and twelve minutes.

It would be impossible to review this film and hide the fact that I’m a liberal.  That’s the type of movie this is.  So, I’m not going to give a plot summary.  Chances are you’re old enough to have lived through these events, and I am still surprisingly angry about what went on during those years.  And to me that’s the main reason I didn’t enjoy this film.  It was obviously made by liberals, so you would think I’d be into it.  But I spent the whole of the film’s running time fuming about those events and also about current events since the filmmakers make it clear that the George W. Bush presidency set up the country for Trump.

I will say that Christian Bale as Cheney is fantastic in the role.  He captures all the mannerisms and tics perfectly.  He even finds traces of humanity in this most inhuman of creatures.  The hair, make-up, and costume people deserve mention because Bale looks exactly like Cheney.  Likewise, Amy Adams as a Lady Macbeth-like Lynne Cheney does a great job as well.  And Sam Rockwell captures George W. Bush.

I’m going to wrap this up here because I’m still angry and I want to get this done.  Vice is a well-made film, obviously it got a strong emotional reaction out of me.  It is probably the only feature film that has a Michael Moore influence for whatever that’s worth.

You might enjoy it, but I don’t think enjoyment is the point.

Aquaman

I would really like to say that the post Christopher Nolan DC superhero movies have been a mixed bag but frankly that would be overestimating them.  Since DC decided to follow Marvel down the golden road to mega-continuity, the high point has been Wonder Woman and that’s it.  Every other film has been a struggle to find the correct tone.  At first, they went dark and gritty, taking a cue from the Nolan films, and frankly much of Batman’s history.  But they had to make Superman films and Superman as Batman just doesn’t work.  They tried to lighten it up a little with the Justice League movie but for some reason that didn’t work either.

One of the best parts of Justice League, was Jason Momoa as Aquaman.  He stole every scene he was in and he positively drips with charisma, as those of us who watched Stargate Atlantis knew a decade ago.  DC would have been stupid not to make an Aquaman movie.

Momoa’s performance is the only thing that makes this movie worth seeing.  He certainly hauls this thing single-handedly above Batman vs. Superman, but can’t quite get it into Wonder Woman territory.  He is a gifted comic actor, excelling at playing off his imposing physical presence.  You wouldn’t expect a guy who looks like that to be such a smart ass.

As is usually the case the problem is the script.  David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beale’s screenplay is stunning in its unoriginality.  Now, I know these things are, almost by definition, derivative but at every turn in this thing, the filmmakers have made the easy and obvious choice.  When Momoa is off the screen, the film is almost lifeless.  Good performances from Nicole Kidman as Altanna, Aquaman’s Atlantean mother, Temuera Morrison as his human father, Tom Curry, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as villain Black Manta, are wasted.  Willem Dafoe, as Vulko, who usually inhabits his roles even in action and superhero projects, looks embarrassed to be in this thing.

So, come for Jason Momoa and well…stay for Jason Momoa.

Mary Queen of Scots

I did a little digging into past films about the conflict between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I.  In 1895 there was an eighteen second short film depicting the execution.  It was produced by Thomas Edison.  John Ford directed Katherine Hepburn in the role in the 1936 film, Mary of Scotland.  That was based on a Maxwell Anderson play.  Vanessa Redgrave played the role in a 1971 British production.  Glenda Jackson played Elizabeth.  There was also a 2013 Swiss production with French actress Camille Rutherford in the title role.

That’s a surprisingly small list for such a dramatic moment in history.  I really can’t come up with any reasons why.  It is a story that takes place in a compact space of time with twists and turns and two strong personalities at the center of it.  You would think there would be dozens of films.

The latest version is directed by Josie Rourke.  It is her directorial debut.  The screenplay is by Beau Willimon.  I don’t know what angles to the story were taken by the other productions but Rourke has made a feminist take on it.  Here are two female monarchs, Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, and Elizabeth I, played by Margot Robbie, trying to navigate a male-dominated world.  Both are capable, but only Elizabeth was successful.  Not because she was more able but she had more power over her surroundings.  She was also more ruthless, which she saw as becoming more male.  By the end, with all the white face make-up (Which she used to hide small pox scars) and elaborate wigs, Elizabeth barely looks human.  You can see the men on her council are clearly intimidated.

Alas, Mary isn’t as lucky.  Having been raised in France, where she was wed to the heir to the throne there until her husband died, Mary is viewed as an interloper and never really gains the trust of her people.  She’s alone, except for her ladies in waiting.  She is also something of a soft touch.  After the first rebellion against her, she pardons all the principles and keeps them on her council, with predictable results.

When she’s forced to abdicate, she escapes to England, to beg Elizabeth, the only other female monarch she knows to provide her with an army.  But politics and religion make it impossible, even though Elizabeth seems sympathetic.  Mary is Catholic and Elizabeth is Protestant.  That cannot be overcome by sisterhood, especially back them.

I will warn you that this film is dark and slow.  The script has almost nothing in the way of exposition, so unless you are intimately familiar with the story, you won’t be able to tell who is who.  It also doesn’t help that everybody is speaking in Scottish brogues and English accents.  It’s almost easier when Mary slips into French, because there are subtitles at least.  The soundtrack is muddy as well.  But you can follow the bare bones of the plot, even if you don’t know the names of the supporting characters.

The performances are good, especially the two leads.  You can see Mary’s frustration and Elizabeth’s isolation.  The supporting roles are fine as well.

If you are a stickler for history, you will be very disappointed.  Mary Queen of Scots isn’t quite as bad as The Favourite, but accuracy was not the watch word during this production.  Mary and Elizabeth almost certainly never met, even secretly as in this film.  That’s the most obvious example and the one mentioned most frequently.  I’m sure anyone else who is familiar with the history can see others.  This is an impressionist take on the story, meant more to reflect our times than Mary and Elizabeth’s.

It’s worth seeing but you can wait for the DVD.

 


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