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Escape Room (2019)

If you’ve ever been looking for a PG-13 Saw movie, then Escape Room might just be the film for you. It follows a group of strangers who have been invited to a next-level escape room, one of those group challenges where people work as a team to solve a series of puzzles to “escape” from a locked room with a variety of dangers. The movie version kicks things up by making the Escape Room essentially Cube, filled with a series of elaborate death traps that pick off our characters outlandish room by outlandish room. The enjoyment of the movie is the curiosity of the rooms and the various challenges. The production design is inventive and impressive for its minor budget. The puzzles aren’t exactly things that an audience can solve in the moment. They mostly involve clues that won’t make sense because we can’t explore the room, so it’s just waiting for characters to solve things and make connections. The fun doesn’t come from the puzzles but more what the rooms will do next. The assorted characters have a personal connection that is flimsy and leads to a late reveal of who is responsible for this wicked game. The movie is fun as you’re watching it as long as you accept that little will make sense. Once it extends beyond the rooms and tries building a mythology and a conspiracy behind the rooms, that’s where Escape Room starts to fall apart. It’s a relatively minor but enjoyable thriller that lives in the moment and, in the future, should find more time to spend in the rooms and the crazy challenges. Much like The Maze Runner, once the characters are outside the maze, I just don’t care. It works enough that I wouldn’t mind more, if the filmmakers get their priorities right.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Late Night (2019)

Late Night follows the fictional long-running TV talk show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) who has been informed by her network exec that his current season will be her last season. She will be replaced and the show will be retooled. Along comes Molly (Mindy Kaling), an aspiring comedy writer who works in a chemical plant. She’s hired on the spot to serve as a token and offer more diversity in Newberry’s all white, all-male writers room. She has to find herself, find her voice, stand up for herself, and try to get the show to change with the times if it’s going to potentially survive the eager network axe.

For fans of the inner workings of show business, and the ups and downs and push and pull of creatives, Late Night was made for you. I’ve always been fascinated by the nuts-and-bolts of creative ventures in the entertainment industry and especially a writer’s room where people hash out ideas, build out a storyline, and generally bring our TV to life. I enjoyed the short-lived show where Jim Rash would interview different TV showrunners about their writer’s room processes and how they would resolve creative decisions. It’s one reason I loved HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, a deeply satirical and self-deprecating look at the bowels of Hollywood. So if you’re like me and enjoy the inner workings of creative people working in tandem, then Late Night is already starting on fertile ground for you. Kaling’s world is informed by her years of television writers room experience, as well as running her own show, and that experience better informs the reality of Late Night, from the joke-writing process, to the wariness of content that may push away sponsors, to the means of staying relevant in a vastly changing landscape of how people get their media and entertainment. You feel Molly’s sense of triumph, and disappointment, when her first joke is placed into the monologue and then removed. The movie feels informed and real to its tiniest detail, which makes it all the more interesting.

The film is consistently funny because Kaling is writing with such a sharp grasp of her characters. Right away the dynamic between Katherine, a cynic with an acid tongue, and Molly, an idealist but a novice who is pushing for reforms, establishes so much wonderful conflict and eventual resolution. It’s universally enjoyable watching a character come into her own, transform the lives of others for the better, and to have characters who butted heads form a mutual friendship and understanding. That’s all present, but with Kaling’s command of writing the characters come first. They drive the story, and while the destination is rather predictable with this sort of thing, that doesn’t make the journey any less satisfying. The character of Katherine Newberry is interesting because she’s a woman who has established her own perch in late night, but she’s still older, white, and from an elitist, privileged bubble. She’s stuck in the middle, which makes her such an interesting character to explore and push into new territory. Kaling has mined some talk show headlines for her story’s drama and it doesn’t feel cheap. Past mistakes are given weight and force characters to reckon with them in a way that acknowledges the extent of the ramifications and the people that have been hurt. Kaling also has a generous sense of writing for her supporting players, giving many a small moment to make an impression and enough for serviceable secondary character arcs.

There’s a definite message afoot with Late Night and it goes about it in a way that makes it far more accessible — as entertainment. Rather than dragging out a soapbox, the movie does the smarter ploy by demonstrating why a homogeneous writers room of the same kind of voice/perspective can be limiting and potentially regressive. Molly is the long-overdue change agent to the show, to the characters, and to the old ways of thinking of what television, and by extension the entertainment industry, had to be simply because it had always been that way. The film’s sense of advocacy for representation is strong and a central tenet, but this doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story with enjoyable characters. By demonstrating through its tale, Kaling has smartly packaged her movie as an empathy test designed to expand the perspectives of its audience, to get them to think how difficult it may be for a woman, let alone a woman of color, to find work in her chosen field. It’s the kind of movie you could take your grandparents to and have them nod along in approval.

Allow me to get a little personal here as I reflect on the topic of representation. I think recognizing one’s self and one’s stories is a huge deal. The power of empathy is potentially endless but that doesn’t mean that all stories need to be told from the familiar template of a straight white dude encountering conflict and change. With good storytelling, anybody can feel for anybody’s plight, but that doesn’t mean that those in the industry should stop trying to give voice to others who have historically been marginalized. TV, and particularly late night TV, is something of a boy’s club and needing more women. A recent analysis on late night TV concluded, with the exception of TBS’ Samantha Bee, that the typical late night talk show writing staff is only one quarter female. More people deserve more opportunities to shine because we, as a society, benefit when we have a plurality of stories from a plurality of voices and perspectives. It makes us all better.

During the summer of 2018, I wrote a rom-com Web series (The Spirit Inside Me) that was told from the perspective of a bisexual woman and dealt with an eventual romance with another woman. You better believe I consulted with my queer friends to make sure every script didn’t feel like it had been written by a straight dude. Then we started to make it a real thing throughout the fall and winter of 2018/early 2019, and the mission statement of the series, and for me, was to try and get as many women involved in the production as we could. There were nine total episodes and I wanted to try and line up as many female directors as possible (if able all of them would be directed by women). Our show was from a feminine perspective, concerning an unorthodox LGBTQ relationship, and I wanted a feminine perspective to imbue as many facets of the production as possible. We put out notices for crew and emphasized that we were looking for women first. You would have thought I had just insulted people’s mothers the way some men responded back. They told me this was “reverse discrimination” and insulting and that the best talent should win out. I dismissed these whiny grievances and continued to seek and hire women. I know many women, even in our small community of filmmaking, don’t get as many opportunities as men. I wanted to give them those experiences. I felt it would make our series better and, personally, it just felt like the right thing to do because I could. With the show currently in editing (stay tuned!), it’s actually one of my happiest decisions as I really enjoyed seeing several women rise to their opportunity and shine. I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back or seek woke plaudits. This is such a slight example of mine over the overwhelming obstacles women face breaking through in a male-dominated industry that doesn’t want to share, but I felt it was worth sharing, dear reader.

Late Night was a movie that kept me smiling and feeling good all over. It warmed my heart, it made me laugh, and it gave me a group of characters to latch onto that earned my affections. Thompson is tart and witty and wonderful. Kaling is lovable and charming and hopeful. They make for a dynamic, combustible combination. Late Night is a fine example about the benefits of diversity, representation, and empathy, and it’s also a cute and funny movie that will make you happy by the time the credits roll. Tune in.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Men in Black International (2019)

Men in Black International is a perfectly fine movie but it’s hard not to feel the franchise going through the motions in an attempt to recapture the elusive magic that made the original 1997 movie the standout it was. This time we’re introduced to new agents and new agencies, with Thor Ragnarok stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth decked out in black and on the hunt for rogue alien life forms in Europe and the Middle East. The two actors are charming and Thompson’s character is a great re-introduction to this hidden world, a woman who has devoted her life to finding and becoming a Man in Black. As we went from scene to scene, it felt like an MIB spy thriller evoking the undercover missions, arms dealers, shady informants, potential agency mole to expose, exotic locales, and crackling banter of that genre, and that’s something none of the sequels have done before. However, I also noted just how forced everything felt. What should be jaunty and droll came across as flat or overly exaggerated, trying to recreate the energy and style of the original but falling short. It feels like when someone is trying to retell a joke but has lost the rhythms that made it so amusing in the first place. The pieces are there but they don’t feel right. I also kept noting how it should be funnier. Many of the jokes are barely touched upon or developed for more potential. The set pieces are pretty humdrum and even the integration of the strange, otherworldly elements and aliens feels lacking. With that said, Hemsworth and Thompson remind you how winning an onscreen pair they are, and even with their charm kept at a lower, simmering level they are still enjoyable to watch. There’s a predictable storyline about an alien invasion and a predictable turncoat reveal, but it’s all played rather innocuously that it’s hard to get upset. Men in Black International is an intermittently amusing movie that’s hard to hate and hard to love. If you’re a fan of the series, or got a couple hours to obliterate, it should provide enough entertainment, but much like one of those handy-dandy nueralizers, you won’t remember much after.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Booksmart (2019)

Booksmart is the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde and it’s a hilarious, heartfelt, and often delightful teen sex comedy that has more on its mind than studying. The focus is on two overachieving best friends (Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever) who realize, on the last day at school, that they haven’t cut loose for their entire high school careers. They pledge to find a big party, make a move on their crushes, and show all the popular kids just how much fun they can be too. The concept might resemble Superbad (including starring Jonah Hill’s sister, Feldtsein) but this is much more than simply a “female Superbad.” The movie doesn’t do anything revolutionary in the teen movie mold, but it adapts to its new settings. There’s a prominent gay first love storyline that leads to elation and heartache. There’s a strong feminist undercurrent about what expectations are placed on women, fairly and unfairly. There’s also a wider sense of empathy and complexity to the whole movie; the large ensemble of supporting players get considerate shading, which makes them more than how they’re casually perceived. It all relates to a larger theme that people are more than their appearances and reputations. It’s also wonderfully funny and had me laughing routinely from beginning to end including some big moments and set pieces that were smartly developed. There are fantastic running jokes and great surprises, while not losing the grounded sense of what makes the film special. The humor is also character-based and there’s a genuine honesty to its depiction of the reality of being young in modern America. Dever and Feldstein are a terrific pair and feel like legitimate best friends. The whole movie floats along with such effortless charm, tying up our wide ensemble of characters in a concluding graduation ceremony that feels downright joyous. I really cared about these women by the end. Booksmart is the kind of movie more teen comedies should aspire to be, and it’s worth definitely worth checking out.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Long Shot (2019)

Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is preparing for the moment she feels her whole life has been leading up to: a presidential run. the current president (Bob Odenkirk) has decided not to run for a second term and wants to endorse her. Charlotte and her team of dogged, loyal assistants (June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel) are sifting through ways to improve her negatives as a candidate, and that’s where Frank Flarsky (Seth Rogen) comes in. He’s an activist journalist that has just been fired and he also happens to personally know Charlotte; she was his babysitter. He comes aboard her campaign with the condition that she really fights for what’s important and not cave to the powerful lobbies and interest groups. He rewrites her speeches and the two of them grow closer together, bonding over their past and a possible future, not just as president but as boyfriend-girlfriend. They must keep their feelings a secret for the time being. If the press found out it might kill her candidacy before it ever really began.

The film’s biggest strength is the emphasis with the leading characters and the crackling chemistry between Rogen and Theron. It’s a fairly familiar dynamic between the more buttoned-up personality learning to cut loose and the more wild and impulsive personality learning a degree of self-restraint and responsibility. And to be fair Long Shot does pull from this familiar foundation for a starting point with its odd couple dynamic. However, it goes further by making their differences more attuned to politics and compromise. Fred is unwilling to back down for the things he knows are right and would rather have nothing than a watered-down version of the important issue he had been fighting for. Charlotte is more the political animal and used to working with others, including scoundrels and morons, in order to affect change. She’s about incremental, pragmatic change for the greater good and he’s about ideological purity as a moral imperative. This isn’t just a small character quick either; it’s a defining conflict between both characters and a subject that gets further examination as Charlotte confronts the realities of running for president and the many compromises of self and vision may or may not be needed.

Being a woman running for president is an obstacle course of having to deal with latent sexism and other people’s expectations of what is socially appropriate. Charlotte is going to be judged harsher for the same behaviors men will be excused for; this isn’t a new observation by any means (apply your favorite double standard here) but the film makes you understand the pressure and scrutiny that befalls her at every turn. It defines her character, which is why finding someone she can unwind with and be her true self away from the cameras is such an understandable and desirable escape valve. She’s running to inspire little girls that they too can be president but at she also has to assess the cost of how much she’s willing to hide or lose from herself in order to get across that finish line, and if she does, what will be left? That’s the role for Alexander Skarsgard, the Justin Trudeau-like Canadian prime minister, who represents what is left of a person after bowing to opinion polls. Again, this isn’t new material, especially as anyone who can recall the 2016 presidential election will recall the questions of physical and mental fortitude that only seemed attached to one candidate and not as much the other. What this political reality does is provide a relevant substance for the romance and comedy portions of the film, making the characters feel more human. When Fred is articulating just what he must do to serve as a secret boyfriend for Charlotte, and a potential future they would have, you can hear his heartbreak with each new syllable. You also realize that he shouldn’t have to endure that and maybe these two are destined not to be together because of how unfortunate our politics and media environment have become.

Rogen and Theron are a blast together and have a fun rhythm they play off each other for unexpected comedy beats. His mellow vibes and good-natured joviality, as well as general awkwardness around people in power, are a nice fit with her sterner self. The best parts of the movie are just watching both of these actors enjoy their company. I won’t say that the romantic spark became overly apparent but what was undeniable was how well they paired as an onscreen buddy duo. With each new movie and every different role, Theron proves she’s one of the best actors of her generation. She can kick your ass, she can make you cry, she can win your heart, she can make you bust a gut. In short, Charlize Theron can do anything. She has several disarmingly funny moments, like when she’s high on ecstasy and pulled into an international crisis and has to maintain her cool. Rogen could easily fall back on his ease playing the oafish, insecure, crass characters of his past, but he does a fine job imbuing his charm, energy, and authenticity with Frank. Rogen is an anxious and generous scene partner who typically elevates his costars, and he and Theron as so good together that it sells their romance even better than the writing.

Thankfully, Long Shot is consistently funny and bases much of its humor on the characters and their needs and developments. The movie isn’t just a retread of the incredulous fantasy of some ugly dude successfully romancing a beautiful woman. We’ve already had this dynamic explored in another Rogen comedy, 2007’s Knocked Up (in another universe where Katherine Heigl’s career didn’t stall, I could have seen Long Shot serving as an unofficial reunion for her and Rogen). There are jokes to be had about the unbelievable nature of this central romance and Rogen’s overall appearance, and that’s expected. What made me happier was that these wisecracks served a purpose to highlight how professionally damaging this potential relationship could be for Charlotte’s chance of winning office. They didn’t just feel like gratuitous put-downs. The joke emphasis is heavily tilted in favor of our two leads but there are nice moments with the supporting cast, like Raphael’s constant passive-aggressive comments, Bob Odenkirk’s buffoonish sense of betrayal with TV being turned against him, Randall Park’s frankness, and Skarsgard’s awkward and obsequious flirting. I don’t think the filmmakers fully knew what to do with O’Shea Jackson Jr. and provide some last-minute character shading that felt clumsy.

Long Shot follows the Judd Apatow rom-com formula closely and demonstrates that if you get funny, talented people together, provide them solid characterization and realistic conflicts, you can produce a winning romantic comedy that matters. Rogen and theron make an excellent team, the political content is savvy without getting too far into the weeds, and the romance is sweet and agreeable, with two genuinely enjoyable people coming to realize what they would be willing to risk for the other person. Long Shot is a reliably funny, bawdy, and heartwarming little movie with a little more on its mind than gross-out comedy set pieces. It’s worth seeking out this summer. I’d happily vote Theron for anything, especially if she was running for elected office as Furiosa. That’s a candidate that get results.

Nate’s Grade: B

Us (2019)

I think it’s important to state that Us is not Get Out and that’s perfectly okay. Not every movie can be a Get Out, an experience that was so refreshing, socially relevant, wickedly fun and dynamic that I immediately wanted to see it again and tell everyone I know to join in. Writer/director Jordan Peele shed his funnyman past and flexed his impressive genre know-how to make a knockout of a movie with an amazingly structured story, allowing all of the pieces to snap together with clever precision. It was my own second favorite film of 2017 and I was highly looking forward to Peele’s follow-up in the realm of what goes bump in the night. Don’t go into Us expecting Get Out. It’s not quite the sum of its parts and has some storytelling shortcomings that limit the impact of its visceral thrills. It’s an engaging horror movie, but it’s far more allegorical and far less tidy and satisfying.

The Wilson family is spending their summer vacation at a rental home in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are trying to enjoy a getaway with their children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), when strange coincidences keep occurring. This is the same beach town where many years ago Adelaide had a traumatic childhood experience getting lost from her bickering parents. Then one night Jason informs his family that there’s another family standing in their driveway. The Wilson family is hounded by mysterious doppelgangers, each a cracked mirror version of themselves. This new family wants what the Wilsons have and will use any bloody means to see that they get it.

Us is more a straight horror film and has plenty of excellent, terrifying, and smartly directed scenes to make an audience squirm in their seat. Peele has established in two movies a strong instinct for horror and how to expertly stage a scene. His camera is judicious in what it does and does not show the audience, holding onto moments to escalate tension and providing no escape for an eager audience. The majority of the second act is a home invasion thriller and these scenes and subsequent chases and escapes can be nerve-wracking. Each character has their own opponent and each has their own method of trying to outsmart or out maneuver their downtrodden doppelganger. I was getting plenty of Funny Games vibes, a movie I downright despise, but what it could have been if the creator actually cared about the inhabitants. The family and their bonding is a strong empathetic anchor for the audience, so we watch each member of the family battle a literal incarnation of their inner demons. Peele also assembles an effective collection of spooky imagery, from caged rabbits, to the slice of golden scissors, to a carnival funhouse, to even the nature of that 80s social event, Hands Across America. You can sense Peele’s love of horror and the entertainment value horror movies afford. There’s a strong central mystery to guide the narrative and the sense of discovery from Act Two onward keeps things fresh as we learn more and more about these doubles.

From a technical craft standpoint, Us has the upper hand over Get Out. This is a movie that wants to scare you and Peele has devoted great consideration into his artistic elements to achieve that key principle. Peele knows exactly how to craft a particular mood and what genre elements to pepper in and to what amount for the right response. The photography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is evocative and makes great use of limited light to capture an eerie and unsettling feeling. The musical score by Michael Abels is also exceptional, making the most of each heightened scene and doing wonders with a dark, operatic version of the chill 90s song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. It makes for a fun, frightening, and favorable film experience in the moment-to-moment sequences of build and release.

The performances are another strength, with each member of the family getting extra range thanks to their dual roles. Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) is the standout and emotional center of the movie. Her double is the leader of her clan and the only one that has the ability to speak, except speaking isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like the words escape her throat, raspy and without intonation. It’s a remarkable commitment on her part and she tries a lot of weird character tics, most of them work, from her herky-jerky to robotically possessed physical movements, unblinking eyes, and then there’s that startling voice. Duke (Black Panther) finds his footing as a comedic foil, starting as a corny but loving dad and thrust into a family defender that gets more and more tired of the horror movie nonsense he endures. The kids all do solid, effective work with what they’re given, seizing their moments. Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays a bourgeoisie friend and has a fantastic moment with lip gloss that made me horrified and entranced all at once.

This is where the merits of the film start running into conflict with Peele’s muddled intentions and messy execution toward the finish. As I said, it’s far more allegorical in approach; meaning for the longest time it seems to be a film outside the bounds of literal interpretation. That’s fine since many horror films rely upon a heaping helping of metaphor for larger implications. I was prepared for Us to stay in this creative territory. Except Peele makes a late decision to squeeze his movie into a bizarre and distracting middle ground, where it feels like the metaphor is the real message, if you can decode it. Once you stand back and assess the full Us, it doesn’t hold together in allegory or explanation.

Even hours after seeing the movie, I cannot say whatsoever what the intended theme is for Us, and this really befuddles me since Get Out was laser-focused in this regard. Peele isn’t just cranking out fun, throwaway genre movies, he’s trying to make statements through horror and elevating the genre in artistic ways. Get Out postulated how being a black man in America was like living in a horror movie and a Stepford Wives-meets-Being John Malkovich commentary on the usurpation of minority agency and the commodification of black bodies. It’s not every day that a horror movie wins an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, let alone deserves it, and Peele’s treatise on race relations was perfectly structured, each piece snapping together and better informing the whole, with setups and payoffs galore, and at its heart was its relevant message. With Us, I don’t really know what Peele is trying to say here. There’s a simple duality theme but that seems pretty weak and underdeveloped. There may be a have/have not inequality discussion but this gets into trouble in the final act (more on that below). I don’t think race even factors into the overall message, as a late turn reveals that the doppelgangers extend beyond our central African-American family. What is Peele trying to say with Us? I’m at a real loss and I’m trying to process that confusion and my own expectations.

This might have worked better had Peele not elected to supply a hasty sci-fi explanation for why things are the way they are, and in the process he strands his film in a contentious middle zone that tries to find a logical context to plant his allegory. I won’t get into what exactly the details of this explanation are but suffice to say it doesn’t really hold together and invites far more questions, each one picking apart the reality of the film, which disintegrates at an ever-increasing speed. How far-reaching is this conspiracy? What is the ultimate goal? How do these people think they will win? Why now? There’s also a big twist ending that should be obvious for anyone paying attention, but what makes this decision worse is not that it’s predictable but that it hardly sheds any new dimension to what came before. It doesn’t really change our reading of certain people because of the time it happened and so the big meaning is its existence as a twist. It doesn’t redefine the narrative in the way that great twists should. It might play into a larger thematic point except, as described above, that area is hard to ascertain. The last third of Us gives a sense of scope and rationale but the movie also loses its form, trading in dream logic and then trying to provide a new real world context that cannot hold.

Friends have already asked me whether Us is a good movie, and I’ve found myself saying, “Yes, but…” Peele’s follow-up left me with more questions than answers and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that began to eat away at my otherwise good time in the theater. Us has some fantastic moments and tense scares but I cannot say what its muddled theme is, the hazy explanation doesn’t really work, and the overall intent left me perplexed. It’s an evocative horror movie with solid to great performances from a very game cast of characters. Given its more free-floating plot, it feels like the kind of movie that would hold together by a strong thematic core. I think most people will leave Us somewhat scratching their heads and wondering what it was all about, but not as an accessible puzzle to decode. It’s more a puzzle that doesn’t resemble the picture on the box and is frustratingly missing a few too many pieces to come together.

Nate’s Grade: B

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-

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

James Cameron has been dreaming about making Alita: Battle Angel for decades. He bought the rights to the 90s manga and has been sitting on the property, having to continuously push it back because of technological demands and the demands of, at last count, a thousand Avatar sequels. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and handed the directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), a talented visual stylist who has been struggling of late. The marriage looks good and the final 122-minute feature is the closest a live-action film has ever gotten into replicating the look and feel of an anime, for better and worse.

Hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, a lonely scrapper and doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg with a still beating heart. He puts her back together with a new body and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She’s special and learning about the big new world, trying to unlock her memories of the past, and we’re talking way way back into the past. She’s old technology, something that’s quite valuable for the street gangs that strip amputees for parts and for the global corporation whose emissary (Mahershala Ali) needs to reclaim the powerful tech. Alita falls in love, learns about her sense of humanity, and fights lots and lots of robotic villains.

This visual decadence of Battle Angel is the greatest reason to see it, especially on the big screen if able. The future setting is immediately visually engaging, with people walking around with mechanical limbs that look like they were literally cobbled together with whatever junk was lying around. There is a have/have not dichotomy between the huddled masses trying to eek out a living in a garbage city and the floating metropolis above that regularly dumps its trash onto the people below. It’s easy to see the influences of Battle Angel in other media, like Elysium, as well as its own cyberpunk influences, from the likes of Blade Runner to recycling the chief sport of Rollerball. The character design is to die for in this movie, with exceptionally assembled figures that stand out in memorable, dangerous, sometimes junky ways. There are a number of different robotic killers with colorful and unique weapons and personalities, and the larger world invites further scrutiny. There is a bustling post-apocalyptic life here and it’s plastered on a splashy, broad visual canvas with some spectacular special effects. Not all of the effects are at the highest level, from some compositing issues with faces to the big anime eyes (more on that later), but Battle Angel is an expensive movie that puts it all onscreen. The world is fun to watch and the action sequences feel ripped directly from the manga, with larger-than-life creatures fighting in vicious and frenetic ways. Even when the movie feels like it’s losing its momentum there’s always the visuals to enjoy.

The central idea of this post-apocalyptic junk town being populated with deadly bounty hunters who work for a mysterious conspiracy is a great starting point. There is a bevy of killers with different allegiances and different codes, and then you throw in a powerful new addition who doesn’t remember her hidden past and you’ve got a recipe for drama and conflict with some crazy characters. There are even little dark touches that I would have thought would have been clipped in the adaptation process. Battle Angel has so much going for it that it can get a little frustrating when it feels like it’s spending so long to stay in the same place. The plot revelations are fairly predictable but still effective, but the long delays between them are filled with numerous action set pieces that diminish a sense of progression. I liked the Alita character and her relationship with her surrogate human father, but I didn’t think enough of any other relationship she had in the film. I wasn’t that invested in uncovering her past, which was still a bit too vague for me as a non-reader of the source material. At the end of the story, Rodriguez has set up his audience for a continuing saga of strife that feels too incomplete. Alita has learned more about herself (though I’m still confused) and has a goal of vengeance (against a force that is left too vague) and a renewed sense of purpose (built upon a relationship that doesn’t feel that affecting). It’s a curious end point and a questionable decision for a movie this expensive to assume it would secure demand for a presumptive sequel.

Where Battle Angel began losing me was because its title character, Alita, became too overpowered for her own good, eliminating a sense of stakes early on. The battle calculus skewed far too quickly. After the first act, actually from her first fight onward, there is never any doubt whether Alita will triumph. She doesn’t undergo any training or any real learning curve when it comes to her superhuman defense. Right from the get-go she’s doing amazing acts of fight choreography and making it all look easy. She even defeats an enemy when she’s only a one-armed torso. That’s admittedly impressive but another indicator that there is no real threat that can be posed against her. No matter how huge the cyborg, or how many pointy appendages at their disposal, it’s only a matter of time before our little pint-sized warrior is eventually triumphant. There is really only one fight where she’s presented with any slight disadvantage, the aforementioned one-armed torso sequence, but this too is shortly rectified. She goes from having a nigh-invincible body to an even more nigh-invincible body, making her, you guessed it, even more powerful. This reality takes something away from the numerous cyborg-on-cyborg battles, and without greater variance on the scene-to-scene needs, the fights become somewhat stale. Visually they are still impressive with a sense of fun watching the manga pages come to startling life, but without stakes and variance, it’s all the same punches with less power.

Now Battle Angel isn’t the only story to deal with an overwhelmingly powerful protagonist (see: Neo, Superman, just about every character on Dragonball). The solution is usually a specifically applied weakness or, most often, the vulnerability of those closest to the hero. It’s the regular people that can be gotten to, that can be endangered, that approximate the “weakness” for the overpowered protagonist. However, for this to work, you need an emotional connection to the characters in order to feel their potential loss. This cannot work if the characters are stuck in archetypal mode and add little help. That’s the problem with Battle Angel; I didn’t really care about any of the other characters. They had points of interest, a tragic shared back-story, a dream to escape their earthbound poverty, some secrets they don’t want getting out, but it’s never enough to make them feel that much more refined than the secondary background players. The film doesn’t even go the route of really threatening the more vulnerable people in Alita’s life, which is a strange miscalculation. What we’re left with is a very kickass robot woman doing her thing and taking down the big bad cyborgs. It’s entertaining and there’s enough of an interest in bullies being beaten by the underdog, but Alita isn’t really the underdog and so the many action sequences become a tad tedious.

Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gives an expressive performance and enables her superhuman cyborg to find a semblance of her humanity. Because of the character design the degree of performance capture relies much on the micro expressions of Salazar, so if she overdoes it then Alita can lose that tenuous sense of reality. She finds a balance that makes her feel real, at least real enough to exist in this world. Waltz (Downsizing) is enjoyably paternal with a few dark secrets of his own. His rocket-powered pickax thingy falls under my category of something that’s futuristic but not exactly practical. This wouldn’t present much of a problem except his character is an expert at using the parts he can scrounge up to get the job done. Skrein (Deadpool) has found a real career for being sneering villains with oh-so punchable faces, and he succeeds yet again. Ali (Green Book) and Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) deliver enough with so little that you wish the screenplay asked more of them than the occasional in-shadows skulking. It’s interesting to look at this cast, which has four Oscars to their names (possibly another one for Ali), and an additional nominee with Jackie Earl Haley.

Let’s talk about those eyes. The film is based upon a popular manga and anime and James Cameron was determined, from the earliest point, to recreate that stylized big-eyed look famous to Japanese art. It’s one thing on the page and another brought into real life, and the response has been all over the place. Some cite the uncanny valley and cringe while others argue it makes Alita more vulnerable, the eyes being the window to the soul and all. It does set her apart from the crowd, which is supposed to befit her character and where she came from, so to that end it works. It’s not as distracting as I feared and you do grow accustomed to them. However, was any of it necessary? Would we feel any different for Alita if she had more human-sized eyes? I doubt it. The costly effect of a very costly movie ($200 million reported) made me think of a similar quirk with the 2011 Green Lantern film where Ryan Reynolds’ suit was a CGI effect. Rather than simply wearing a costume the filmmakers spent millions applying one in post-production, and in the end what of value did it offer to the experience?

It’s hard for me to watch Alita: Battle Angel and understand why this was a property that James Cameron set aside for almost two decades. What about this makes it special or at least separates it from the pack of imitators? It’s a world with points of interest and characters that could be interesting, though many stop short at the design phase. The live-action version is entertaining and visually sumptuous, but I was finding myself grow tired of the film’s loose stakes, predictable plotting, simplistic themes, and archetypal characterization. The action can be pretty fun but even as Alita lines up more obstacles and more enemies we never feel threatened or concerned. Without a larger sense of danger and plot development the many fights start to grow monotonous. The special effects are wild but they service a story that seems ordinary genre. Alita: Battle Angel ought to please fans of the source material but it short-circuited for my attention.

Nate’s Grade: C+

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Given the high-profile treatment of a popular documentary and an awards-bait caliber feature, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people either thought justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was due for recognition or was about to die. On the Basis of Sex takes more than a few nods from 2012’s Lincoln, showcasing its subject trying to pass key reforms/legislation as a means of better insight into his or her lasting legacy. To that end the film is a success. It’s an intelligent legal procedural taking time to find judicial footholds, craft compelling arguments, and the back-and-forth challenges of overturning hundreds of years of precedent that viewed women as essentially lesser. If you enjoy rhetorical debates on legal minutia, this might be the movie for you. However, if you wanted to get a better understanding of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) the person, then you’re out of luck. She’s more or less the vessel for social justice and the film keeps her more as a lionized symbol for change than as a person. Her frustrations, such as being denied the same opportunities as men, are meant to serve as a reminder of the frustrations of the many. There are a handful of scenes with dismissive, doddering middle-aged men that feel too stagy, and yet I’m sure that these same curt comments and patronizing behaviors were a daily affair (and still are). Jones doesn’t feel like she has a full grasp on the character beyond as symbol (her Brooklyn accent is a bit slippery as well). You also get to process the reality of Ginsburg as a sexual being as she initiates PG-13 sex with her supportive husband (Armie Hammer). It’s kind of like thinking about your parents having sex. On the Basis of Sex feels a bit, ironically enough, too old-fashioned. It’s got dramatic courtroom showdowns, including an eleventh hour speech, and all the old Oscar bait tropes we’d expect from this sort of movie. It plays to every expectation of its audience. Beyond learning about the legal arguments, there’s nothing new or insightful here. Stick with the RBG documentary and hear the same stories from the real deal herself.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bird Box (2018)

As a film critic, I feel compelled to write about Bird Box because, apparently, one third of the entire Internet is currently talking about this Netflix sci-fi horror movie. It’s about killer monsters that cause people to violently kill themselves upon sight. Netflix has reported that over 40 million customers have watched Bird Box in its first week of its streaming release, which basically means 35 million people likely fell asleep to Netflix and it started playing the new high-profile movie on auto play. I know people that love this movie. I know people that hate this movie. I know people who hate this movie with a passion and go into apoplexy trying to describe their disgust. Bird Box isn’t a movie worth strong feelings, both good and bad. It’s a fittingly entertaining movie with too many structural flaws, underdeveloped ideas, and diminished tension and stakes.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is trying to navigate the post-apocalyptic world of monsters. She’s traveling down river with her two children, all blindfolded. Meanwhile, she flashes back to the first few days of the monster outbreak when she found security in a stranger’s home until things went from bad to worse to murderous.

Part of the problem with Bird Box is that the monsters never feel that threatening because the hazy rules manage to defang them. Given the unknowable nature of monsters, I’m not expecting a textbook but some level of consistency that won’t rip me out of the film. The monsters are only a threat when you look at them, which is fine, except they cannot or choose to refrain from physically interacting with their human targets. I don’t know if this is a natural limitation, a choice, or simply anecdotal evidence that will be disproved. Just because the monsters haven’t done something yet doesn’t mean they might not be able to. Just because the monsters don’t attack anyone wearing a blue sweatshirt with a googly-eyed reindeer doesn’t mean this is standard. We see at one point the collateral movement of a monster chasing after Sandy and the kids, shoving trees and other forest vegetation aside. They do physically interact with the world; they just do not interact with our characters. This takes away much of the danger of these creatures. There’s one scene where a character is struggling to get indoors and, oh no, the garage door is opening. Look out; all he has to do is… continue not looking at the monsters as he was doing without effort. It makes me think of The Simpsons Halloween episode where the key to defeating killer mutant advertisements was not to look (it had Paul Anka’s guarantee).

The monsters also adopt the voices of loved ones, so survivors would start to learn from these experiences and begin to carry a deep skepticism about suddenly prevalent loved ones begging for blindfolds to be removed. Does this mean the monsters can psychically read the thoughts of human beings to know what voices to tap into? It made me think of The Bye Bye Man and its Bye Bye Man-induced hallucinations (“Is this cop’s face really oozing black blood through empty eye sockets, or is that you Bye Bye Man, you scamp?”). This is an interesting aspect that never feels fully developed, the mistrusting nature of the calls for help. Instead of adopting the voice of dead loved ones, I wish the monsters had chosen more judiciously. You could feature a sequence with someone genuinely calling for help and being left behind by Sandy because, in their blindfolded state, they cannot tell the difference in the authenticity of the speaker’s claims.

But what I kept coming back to is why can’t the monsters go indoors? This was a hurdle I could never fully get over because it cheapened the threat for me. As with any apocalyptic or viral outbreak, there is danger in having to leave the sanctuary, and there will be a need to gather supplies, but once you have a home base the monsters can’t enter, it loses a level of stakes. It makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where space aliens can travel the stars but cannot open a pantry door. Having limitations on your monsters is essential or else the threat will feel too overwhelming, but these limitations need to make consistent sense. The monsters in A Quiet Place had superior hearing but were essentially blind. The monsters in Bird Box are deadly to look at, will tempt you with auditory siren songs, but as long as one remains indoors and stays away from windows, you can live a happy and healthy albeit sheltered life of repose.

This is one reason why the story has to find a new threat that is allowed to venture into the safe spaces. There are certain people who seem immune to the suicidal impulses of the monsters. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) implies people who were crazy beforehand are unaffected, though what degree of crazy or mental instability is up to interpretation. These people worship the monsters and actively try to force others to look at them, to also be enlightened. This could have been an interesting addition to the world of Bird Box but it plays it too straight. These cultist people are just another obstacle, a group of standard movie crazy killers. I was hoping that the screenplay was playing coy with this subject and biding its time only to introduce this group in a more meaningful and manipulative fashion later. It never happens. They’re just crazy killers meant to enter buildings and pose a new indoors threat. Now you can’t trust anyone!

The structure of Bird Box constrains the overall impact of its story. The movie is divided almost equally between two different timelines, one shortly after the start of the monster attacks and one five years later. I was waiting for these two different storylines to inform one another, and they do in essentially superficial ways. We know in the future story that it’s only Sandy and the kids, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone in this house will end up dead. It also hurts that this segment is best described as “dime store Stephen King.” We’re stuck with a group of strangers who have all been given one note to play, therefore the extra time feels tedious because we don’t care about them or what happens to them next (sorry John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, and others). Winnowing these extended flashbacks and sticking with the current day storyline would have improved the movie. There’s a more immediate threat and it presents a more intriguing scenario of being on the run and learning as we go about the monsters and the accrued survival tactics. I think learning on the run would be more exciting rather than conveniently finding refuge with a guy who explains everything because he was doing a book report on the supernatural and somehow knows the rules. This would also better hone the theme because the “before” of our before-and-after dynamic doesn’t establish Sandy enough as a disinterested mother.

Much of this could be forgiven or mitigated if the suspense sequences were engaging and smartly developed. I can forgive any nagging plot quibble with A Quiet Place (Why don’t they live closer to the waterfall? Why don’t they have a sound system to draw away monsters?) because the suspense sequences were brilliantly executed and highly unnerving. This just isn’t the case with Bird Box. There is one clever sequence that seems to capitalize on the possibilities of its sight-challenged premise. During the house half, the gang climbs into a car and uses its motion sensors and GPS to navigate a trip to the local grocery store for a supply run. It’s fun and decently staged. The inclusion of caged birds being a monster alarm is interesting until it starts to become more ridiculous. People never seem to listen to these birds and pay the price. The initial outbreak in the opening, with cars flipping and people flipping out, has a nice escalation into madness and chaos. The movie never quite recovers that same tense feeling. Watching people wander with blindfolds doesn’t make for great visual tension unless we see what they do not and dread what’s to come. Bird Box settles into a generic paranoia thriller about who can be trusted, and that’s even before the crazy cultists come knocking. Outside in the woods, the final act involves running to sanctuary, but without the killer cultists, it’s only running away from a thing that can’t touch them. It makes for a curiously inept climax and a sentimental resolution that feels unearned.

The arc of the movie is about Sandra Bullock’s character accepting motherhood and attachment to others but this theme is murky. She named her children “Girl” and “Boy” because she didn’t want to think of them as her own. This is the kind of thing that seems more symbolic and meaningful in theory than practice. She tells the children that in order to survive in this brave new world that they must be ready to cut another person loose at any moment. Attachments to others will get you killed, or so Sandy argues but not in deed. Because this storyline covers half of the film, the relationship she has with the kids feels underdeveloped but not by Sandy’s choice, by the filmmakers. If Sandy’s character arc was going to end at the destination of her realizing love is not a detriment even in a horrible, terrifying world, then we needed more time spent on this emotional journey, which is another reason why we could have used more time in the present-day storyline. A degree of self-sacrifice feels missing to better signify the theme of attachment and the emotional stakes.

I reiterate that Bird Box is not worth the strong feelings of love or hate. It’s got a wobbly structure where either half fails to better inform the other, the limitations of the monsters guts too much of the tension and stakes, and the actors deserve better. Bullock delivers a strong central performance and serves as our entertainment anchor. She makes the movie more watchable and does her best with some less-than-stellar expository dialogue. It’s enough to make you wish this movie was better and better realized with its spooky premise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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