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Captain Marvel (2019)

Wonder Woman may have beaten her to the punch but Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, deserves her own share of headlines as the first woman to have her own starring vehicle in the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Her presence was first teased in the post-credit scene of Infinity War. After twenty-one films, Captain Marvel gets squeezed into the penultimate chapter before closing the book on the MCU as we know it for a decade, and it feels like a throwback in both good and bad ways.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), or “Vers” as she’s known on the Kree home planet, is part of an elite alien squad of “noble warrior heroes” fighting in a long-running war against another alien race, the shape-shifting Skrulls. Carol Danvers goes back to her home planet of Earth (a.k.a. Planet C-53) in the 1990s to look for a hidden weapon linked to a mentor she can’t quite remember, a woman (Annette Bening) from her past life on Earth as an Air Force pilot. Carol Danvers must try and recall who she is with the help of Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and stay one step ahead from the invading Skrulls.

This definitely feels like a lower-to-mid tier Marvel entry, something more akin to the Phase One years (2008-2012) where the initial franchises were just starting to get a sense of direction and personality. They were also lacking the larger depth of character development, social and political messaging, as well as judicious independence from the overall studio formula that has come to define dozens of superhero blockbusters. It’s not a bad movie, and is fairly entertaining throughout its 124-minute run time, but it’s hard not to notice the shortcomings that, frankly, haven’t been this transparent in an MCU movie for some years now. I had to think back on a comparable MCU experience and I had to go back to 2015 with Avengers: Age of Ultron or maybe even 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. In short, Captain Marvel just feels a little less super in many important areas.

This is the first female-lead superhero film in the MCU (sorry Black Widow) and Carol Danvers has been a character in Marvel comics since 1968, and yet the film doesn’t put together a compelling case why she is the one getting her big screen moment. The character suffers that wonderfully tired movie trope of the foggy memory, so we have a protagonist trying to discover who she is alongside the audience. This would be a fine starting point for her to essentially reclaim her humanity and her agency as she travels back to good ole C-53 and learns more about her past. There’s a core of a beginning theme already present there, the nature of what it means to be human, and how it can be viewed as a weakness by n alien species and how it comes to be a strength for her. Maybe that’s too pat but it’s a start. The problem is that Carol Danvers isn’t seen to be that interesting. She’s somewhat boring and the presentation feels a tad inauthentic; when she’s quippy it feels forced, and when she’s badass it feels lethargic. There’s a personal journey that challenges her to assess her preconceived notions of good and evil in an ongoing intergalactic conflict, but it’s so impersonal. Even when she’s revisiting with friends and reminiscing (what she can) it doesn’t feel like we’re getting that much more insight than we had before. She’s a warrior. She’s upstanding. She definitely doesn’t like men telling her what she can and cannot do. But what else do we know besides her increasingly invincible super powers? What is most important to her that drives her? What are her flaws other than a faulty memory? When she goes full super saiyan it should be celebratory and joyous and instead it feels more weirdly perfunctory.

I love Larson as an actress and have been singing her praises for dramas (Room, Short Term 12) and comedies (21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim) for years, and I kept waiting and waiting to be wowed by her in this role. I was left unfulfilled. Larson is a terrific actress and can be so expressive, resolute, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and I grew frustrated as the movie kept her talents buttoned up for too long. She seems too removed from the action even as it’s happening in the moment. It’s not that she’s too serious (“smile more” chime the denizens of cretinous “men’s rights activists”) because her character should be serious. It’s that she hasn’t been given enough depth and interest a hero deserves.

Jackson (Glass) and Mendelsohn (Ready Player One) were my favorite parts of the movie. Watching a 40-something Jackson front and center looking like he was ripped out from 90s cinema is remarkable. The movie is at its best when Jackson and Larson are working their 90s buddy cop chemistry together. There’s a fun running joke about how Fury loses his eye with some near-misses played for comedy (reminiscent of Crispin Glover’s eventual armless bellhop in Hot Tub Time Machine) and while the film does a disservice to Carol Danvers’ character it opens up Fury even more as a person. Mendelsohn has become a go-to villain for Hollywood and the filmmakers use this to their advantage. He slinks around having a good time being bad, but there’s also a surprising turn that provides unexpected pathos and depth to what could have been a one-note scary-looking bad guy. In a movie that deserves headlines for being the first female-lead MCU entry, the supporting dudes end up having the most depth and success, which is rather odd.

Captain Marvel is missing a larger sense of vision and purpose, which is why it feels more like a throwback to those early days. Directing/co-witting husband-and-wife team Anna Bodin and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) don’t manage to have a feel for the material and for action as a whole. There are some pretty-looking sequences and some moments that strike their intended effect well, but the structure of their movie could use a bit of an overhaul. The first act, the pre-Earth return, is a bit convoluted and could be condensed. This even goes for the Kree Special Forces team (Kree Team Six?), which comprise many differentiated soldiers when really three non-Jude Law members would suffice. The Kree characters are stranded for the middle act and when they come back it’s hard not to feel disinterest. The concluding act brings the various plotlines together better with some good twists I did not see coming and appreciated. However, the climax is missing out on its triumphant jubilation because of the spotty characterization and the haphazard action direction. From the start, the action is unimpressive and poorly choreographed and edited. The chases are humdrum and the special effects are surprisingly substandard at too many turns. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in many fight scenes, and once Carol Danvers gets her full super laser-blasting powers, the screen becomes even more obstructed and even harder to decipher. Bodin and Fleck have showcased a natural feel for visual storytelling but action appears beyond their grasp for now.

Captain Marvel suffers from being asked to do too much, slap together an origin tale for the last essential character for the conclusion to a larger multi-movie storyline, also forging the beginning of the MCU timeline as a prequel for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as some connective back-story with the Guardians universe. It has to do a lot of heavy lifting in two hours that the screenplay and characterization do not seem best equipped to handle. The humor is a bit dull and unsure of itself, relying upon certain beats one too may times, notably a cute orange cat tagging along. Even the 90s setting feels like something tacked on for easy jokes about dial-up Internet and references to Radio Shack. It feels like simple nostalgia and that goes to the soundtrack selections as well. This must have been the easiest job the music supervisor ever had for a film, having to do a mere cursory scan of 90s alternative rock for the hits. An action sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” should have more attitude than it does. A dream/trance sequence set to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” should be creepier and more unsettling. By the end, as the credits flash onscreen set to the guitar chords of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” I felt certifiable 90s fatigue.

I feel like I’m piling on Captain Marvel with complaints and quibbles and presenting the impression that it’s a bad or dimly entertaining film. It’s not a bad experience but it definitely has its share of flaws that hinder the enjoyment factor. As a white guy in his thirties, Hollywood has been making movies tailor-made for me as their default setting. I cannot underestimate the cultural and personal impact this will have for millions of women and young girls who have been eagerly waiting for a big-budget movie with a strong female protagonist front and center. Wonder Woman was a cultural and commercial touchstone that might diminish the luster of Captain Marvel for some, but the MCU is its own unparalleled zeitgeist. Having a woman carry a movie in this special high-profile film universe will mean considerably much to many. I wish it was a better movie, but even lower-tier Marvel is still better than plenty, and that may be enough. I’ll look forward to see how other screenwriters and filmmakers make use of the character in the ensuing Avengers sequel coming out next month. I’ll reserve my final judgment on the character after I see how she fits into the larger picture and with storytelling talents that have shown more aptitude toward the super stuff.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Life Itself (2018)

Under the thumb of writer/director Dan Fogelman (TV’s This Is Us), the lives of several inter-connected characters in Life Itself are bonded by a seemingly endless assembly of human tragedy. That’s life, he seems to say, but there’s also a lot of death here. There’s death by accident, death by suicide, death by cancer, parental abandonment, addiction, mental illness, let alone fleeting mentions of sexual abuse and incest. Throughout it all, the characters of Fogelman press onward, making whimsical observations about human existence and perception, some of which I don’t think are quite as profound as he may think. What does “life is an unreliable narrator” exactly mean? I understand the implication of unexpected twists and turns, but life is objective, it’s more a medium for events that others will impart differing perceptions… it doesn’t matter. We jump around through multiple chapters across generations, though it all looks like it takes place in the same five or so years, waiting for the final revelations of what connect these different people and their stories of heartache. Much of the story hinges on these connective revelations because a far majority of the characters have little characterization other than broad strokes. they are pieces meant to form a puzzle. Because of its ensemble nature, some storylines are just more interesting than others, and some characters are given more meaningful things to do onscreen. The film gets significantly better once we transition away from Oscar Isaac as an over-caffeinated smarty-pants reflecting about his pregnant ex-wife (Olivia Wilde). From there we go overseas to an olive ranch in Italy and Antonio Banderas, who uncorks a swell Spanish monologue to a man he wants to ingratiate into his family. Fogelman alternates his hearty doses of old melodrama with meta asides, some of which work like a grandfather-granddaughter sit-down where they express the verbose subtext out loud, and some of them do not, like Samuel L. Jackson appearing as a literal flesh-and-blood narrator. An ongoing diatribe about a Bob Dylan song from his 1997 comeback album also seems a strange student film-level pretentious linchpin. I liked individual performances, individual moments, but Life Itself cannot escape the smothering effect that Fogelman employs as a dramatist, trying to turn every moment into a mosaic he feels will gain beauty and clarity if he just keeps pulling further and further back to reveal the grand design. It wants us to take comfort in the big picture but the details are misery.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Running with Scissors (2006)

Ever since author James Frey imploded into a million little pieces, the memoir has come under intense scrutiny. At issue is the validity of the written word, whether these people are being honest as they recount their tortured yet inevitably redemptive lives. What is the difference between nonfiction and memoir, and does it implicitly imply personal bias? Running with Scissors is the 2002 best-selling book detailing the bizarre childhood of Augusten Burroughs. It’s a book with lots of out-there claims but they’re all held in check by Burroughs’ tart observation and witty writing. When translated to the silver screen, Running with Scissors loses credibility without the author’s voice. I doubt many people going in cold will even believe what they’re seeing.

In the 1970s, Augusten (Joseph Cross) is a gay teen growing up in the care of his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and his deeply delusional, bipolar, wannabe poet mother (Annette Benning). When their marriage hits one of its many slags they seek out a therapist, Dr. Finch (Bryan Cox). He has a room he dubs his “masturbatorium,” a resemblance to Santa Claus, and a family just as whacked as he is. His oldest daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), helps him in his practice and thinks that pets talk to her, even from beyond the grave. Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is the rebellious daughter who likes to play doctor via electric shock therapy. Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh) is the matriarch of this cracked family that also enjoys eating some dog kibble here and there. When Augusten’s mother signs over adoption papers he becomes the reluctant newest member of this dysfunctional family.

The trouble with translating a book is that you lose the author’s voice and commentary. Running with Scissors maintains the horrifying living conditions for Augusten and the stable of oddballs, but lost is the author’s snappy humor that carried him through this tumultuous time. It’s definitely weird but it’s far from engaging. Without the wit and dark humor from Augusten’s voice we’re left with a series of loosely bandaged scenes about crazy characters and crazy anecdotes, little of which contains further importance. This is a fan of the book talking here, and I’m afraid that the film adaptation has heightened some of the weaknesses of the book, namely the loose storyline. When pieced together as a film, Running with Scissors can become slightly tiresome and overly reliant on background details. The film treats its wild, kitschy production design and 70s nostalgia as a character on par with anyone. It makes for great production design, true to the spirit of the book, but also serves as a narrative distraction. Too much attention seems to be put on getting things to look right than getting the screenplay to feel right.

Without the author’s voice the results lose credibility. It’s funny to see a Christmas tree up year round, and it’s funny when Dr. Finch is convinced God is communicating to him through his bowel movements, but it all just comes off as another joke like the art direction and nothing more. When fully added together without any sense of pathos, it all seems like a joke. The subplot involving Augusten’s sexual relationship with a much older schizophrenic patient (Joseph Fiennes) seems mishandled without much insight. Running with Scissors presents all examples of dangerous, sometimes illegal, behavior and doesn’t bat an eye, nor does it pass judgment. While this may irk some and seem irresponsible it’s just another case of little mattering. Running with Scissors, as an adaptation, presents little of consequence.

Director Ryan Murphy also adapted the screenplay and knows a thing or two about dysfunction and trashiness, having created the risky TV show Nip/Tuck. His adaptation has a blunted feel, but it also seems too broad. Then again, maybe only fans of the book would notice. He has a good feel for his actors and can stage some nice shot selections, but man, someone needs to slap his hand away from the AM radio. Running with Scissors is crammed with so many popular 70s tunes that it becomes a crutch, with Murphy hitting the soundtrack button whenever he needs some kind of character catharsis. It doesn’t work and comes across as indulgent and simplistic. There are so many zippy classic pop songs you may think Elton John is owed a writing credit.

The acting is one of the elements that help give life to this adaptation. Benning has been generating Oscar buzz for her deeply self-involved portrayal of a mom held hostage by her illness. Benning digs deep and displays a comic range of absurd behavior and wild paranoia. She’s all over the place and you can’t help but loathe her, that is, if you ever take her seriously. But then, once overly medicated, she gives an entirely secondary performance as an emotionless zombie, and we feel a sliver of sympathy, a true surprise. It’s a good, meaty role, however, I actually think Clayburgh gives the more Oscar-worthy performance. In a lot of ways she’s resigned to her fate and yet manages to be the gauzy heart of the picture. She tells me more with her wrinkles than Benning does in her gesticulating outbursts.

The rest of the cast work admirably. Cross is our focal point of the story and does a fine job of, essentially, gawking and looking perplexed. He’s like a blank, gangly canvas, and I wonder what else Cross is capable of than a performance built around indignant reactions. Wood is developing into a lovely adult actress and has some of the best foul-mouthed lines. It’s just nice to see Paltrow in a movie again. Baldwin has transformed from leading man into incredibly versatile supporting actor that excels as comedic lunkheads. Cox remains one of my favorite character actors of all time. There’s nothing this man cannot do. The actors all do a good job of filling out their zany characters while leaving their own imprint.

The issue with Running with Scissors is that when you strip away the author’s caustic voice, then the movie strains credibility, even with the knowledge that it?s based on a personal memoir. The movie gets all the wackiness but misses out on some of the finer points and humor that helped save Augusten from his unorthodox housing. The story feels dulled and stretched too broad, and yet it still manages to be intermittently entertaining despite these flaws. The actors range from good to great and the art direction is fantastic, even if Murphy expects it to do more work than his screenplay. Running with Scissors isn’t as nervy, engaging, or provocative as its source material. Then again little else is. Consider the film Running with Safety Scissors.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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