REVIEW: “Captain Marvel”

MARVELposterBIG

As tempting as it may be, I’m not wading into the controversies that have swarmed “Captain Marvel” since well before its release. The bulk of criticisms have been silly, pointless, and some of it downright bizarre. Yet through all of the fanboy backlash and insecure outrage Marvel Studios has another big screen cash cow on its hands. “Captain Marvel” is already pushing $1 billion. Not too shabby.

Let me start by laying out my credentials. I’m a comic book guy and I’ve followed the Carol Danvers character for a while. I became a genuine fan in 2006 when her second solo series launched. Much of its 50-issue run was fantastic and it did a good job opening up the character (not to mention giving us 19 stunning covers from artist Greg Horn).

MARVEL1

So I’m more than open to a Carol Danvers/ Ms. Marvel/ Binary/Captain Marvel entry into the MCU. In fact I love the idea of Carol being the first female to have her own movie. And it didn’t hurt when Marvel Studios announced she would be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, an actress I really enjoy.

Turns out the movie is a good one. It doesn’t necessarily break the MCU mold but it does an amazing job considering the massive challenges it faced. Think about it, “Captain Marvel” is asked to show that a female-led MCU picture can be a big money-maker. It has to tell a fresh origin story of a character not exactly among Marvel’s upper tier. It must connect itself to the already immense MCU timeline. And it has to put certain pieces in place that lead up to next month’s “Avengers: Endgame”. Talk about a full plate!

There are moments where you can sense the filmmakers working hard to meet the many demands. At the same time the writer-director duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deserve a ton of credit. They may be unlikely choices to make a blockbuster Marvel picture but they turn out to be solid fits who have a good sense of how the movie should land. Their balancing act is pretty amazing.

Marvel2

At its core this is a story of a woman (Larson) in search of her true identity. Practically the entire film is a slow drip of information and revelation about who this clearly gifted person truly is. It’s a cool way of telling an origin story as the character is learning alongside of the audience (think along the lines of Jason Bourne). At the same time it doesn’t allow you the chance to get close enough to her past. Call it conventional but I felt her backstory could have used a tad more attention.

We first know her as Vers (pronounced “Veers”), a member of the alien Kree Empire’s elite Starforce. She clearly has untapped power but she’s taught to contain it by her mentor and Starforce commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). This is also where we get our first handful of memory flashes which she dismisses as nothing more than dreams. When a rescue operation goes bad, Vers is abducted by Skrulls, the Kree’s shapeshifting enemies. The Skrull Commander Talos (a really good Ben Mendelsohn) probes her mind giving us yet another batch of memories to parse.

MARVEL3

Vers escapes to nearby Earth where countless gags and a barrage of musical cues lets us know it’s 1995. She quickly draws the attention of the fledgling S.H.I.E.L.D. organization and agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) but his investigation is quickly sidetracked when the Skrulls attack. Vers and Fury set out on the most unusual of buddy-cop adventures to find out what the Skrulls are after. Along the way she learns more about her true self, namely that she was a former Air Force fight pilot named Carol Danvers.

The quest for identity hops from Los Angeles, to Louisiana, and even back to Earth’s orbit. Throughout we watch Vers/Carol wrestle with her otherworldly powers and her humanity. Larson is good, a bit dry but by design. Her character has been trained to suppress her emotions and she’s even told humor is a sign of weakness. As Carol slowly breaks lose from that mindset Larson is given more room to examine the pent-up emotions that not only come with the character but that ultimately unleashes her true power.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Out of the nine MCU films Jackson has appeared it, this may be his beefiest role yet. He and Larson have a good chemistry and he has no problem leading a scene or falling into the background whenever needed. Mendelsohn is excellent giving us as performance a shifty as the slippery Skrull he portrays and Lashana Lynch brings a timely warmth playing Carol’s old friend. Oh, and there is a cat named Goose who is an absolute scene-stealer. Can’t forget the cat.

MARVEL4

While I wouldn’t put “Captain Marvel” in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, it does really well at introducing its character and setting her up to be a major player in the MCU. It does some peculiar things with the Marvel lore and it ends in an interesting but weird place in terms of a sequel. But once again Kevin Feige and his Marvel masterminds have shown an incredible knack for expanding their already mammoth cinematic universe. “Captain Marvel” feels right at home and finally fills a sizable hole in MCU.

As for its relevance as the first female-led MCU movie, I’m not sure how much more audiences have to prove. I realize the cultural significance of “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel”. But audiences have already shown they will not only go see these films but fully embrace them as they do all MCU pictures. Sure, a smattering of internet infants will make an online scene, but clearly their impact has been non-existent. If the story is good, the characters compelling, and the respect for the source material reasonable, any potential “outrage” is all but meaningless. People will come to the theaters. So perhaps it’s time for the fingers to point solely at the studio and not the audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Glass Castle”

GLASSposter

While walking out of my screening of “The Glass Castle” I immediately pulled out my phone and began perusing opinions on a certain red vegetable movie review aggregate (or fruit depending on your culinary or botanical lean). I had avoided reading reviews but knew reactions were all over the spectrum. Sure enough some have heralded it as “one of the best films of the year” while others have called it “unpleasant”, “lumbering”, “tiresome”, and so on.

So where do I land on “The Glass Castle”, a film based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her nomadic childhood and the family dysfunction she endured. I never found it lumbering, tiresome, or even unpleasant outside of when it was meant to be. At the same time its inconsistencies and messiness keeps me from embracing it as one of the year’s best.

glass1

The movie is co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton whose previous film was the intimate and tightly-made “Short Term 12”. “The Glass Castle” is much more wide-open in its attempt at covering a lot of ground. It hops back-and-forth in time stopping at significant points in Walls’ childhood and mixing them in with her  story as a young adult out on her own.

Brie Larson plays the twenty-something Jeannette living in 1989 New York City. Her determined quest for independence took her away from her harsh family situation and she now writes for a newspaper and has a fiancĂ© (Max Greenfield). But despite her new life, she can’t completely escape the scars from her past and the internal connection to her family inspires a longing for the idyllic life she dreamed of as a child.

Woody Harrelson plays her father Rex and through every time hop we see the same complex and deeply flawed man. Harrelson is given the bigger, louder role and his performance is spot-on. But it’s the movie’s depiction of Rex that’s problematic. There’s an effort to sell him as both a charming free spirit and a despicable father. The problem is most attempts at a positive reflection simply don’t work. In fact many of the tender moments are found in scenes where Rex is feeding his children’s imagination in order to hide their poverty and/or lawbreaking – situations he is responsible for.

GLASS2

To go further, the negative reflections of Rex are profoundly more prevalent and overpowering. I found it difficult to see him as anything other than a violent, abusive alcoholic and a generally repugnant human being. Naomi Watts plays the Jeanette’s mother Rose Mary and she just seems along for the ride. She does nothing to curb Rex’s behavior and at times is just as abusive and negligent as her husband. There are moments where Cretton creates some genuine sympathy for these two characters, but I found myself too repulsed by their actions to be sympathetic. They are appalling individuals.

Here’s the thing, I’m fine with the movie presenting them this way especially if it’s key to the story being told. But the ending undercuts the rest of the film and it asks too much of the audience. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s here that the film’s earlier attempts at creating a compassionate side of Rex simply don’t hold weight. If more time had been given to his complexity over his repugnance it could have worked. Instead we have an element of the story that feels short changed and a final act that needed much more attention to be effective.

GLASS3

There is also a general problem with tone. At times it’s wildly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there are some very disturbing and effective scenes that deal with abuse. But there are also these jolts of humor, mostly involving the Rex character, that are hard to figure out. It works when portraying him as an eccentric, but not so much when the humor crosses over into the abusive scenes. At my screening I’m not sure the audience knew when to laugh. There were several instances where some people were laughing and others groaning in disgust all during the same scene.

“The Glass Castle” is a tough experience to define. It’s depiction of the dark side of Janet Walls’ painful childhood is clear-eyed, visceral and hard to watch. But it badly undersells a significant part of this profoundly penetrating true story. Larson and Harrelson are excellent and the movie’s boldness in tackling the subject matter is commendable. Despite the tonal shifts I was onboard for most of the way. But reconciling the bulk of the film with the tidy ending is something I still haven’t been able to do. I can’t help but believe the book offers up a better, more emotionally satisfying balance.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Room”

room poster

Each year a handful of movies come along, movies I was completely unaware of, and they absolutely blow me away. It’s one of the real treats of the movie year – being blindsided by a high quality film. More often than not these are smaller independent pictures that unfortunately don’t get the same press or push offered to many lesser big budget films. The succinctly titled “Room” leads this year’s small but admired group of fantastic cinematic surprises.

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” is based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 award-winning novel of the same name. Donoghue was hired to handle the screenplay of what is essentially two stories. The first half is an entrancing mystery thriller while the second half deals directly with the emotional aftermath. But the core thread that runs from start to finish and the true centerpiece of the picture is the relationship between a mother and her son.

Room1

Brie Larson plays a young woman named Joy. At age 17 she was kidnapped by a man we only know as “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). Repeatedly raped over a seven year period, she is kept locked up in a semi-furnished garden shed. During that time she became pregnant and gave birth to Jack (played with startling authenticity by Jacob Tremblay). The two call their 10 x 10 home ‘Room’. Everything in it has meaning to young Jack (he often starts the day saying good morning to their few possessions). They have a bed, sink, toilet, bathtub, TV, a makeshift kitchen, and a skylight. They are never allowed outside. This is literally 5 year-old Jack’s interpretation of the world.

The first half of the film shows us life inside Room. Over the years Joy has created a fabricated sense of normalcy for her son. Room is the world and TV represents make-believe. Joy does everything she can to protect Jack from the reality of their situation. But sensing she can’t take anymore, Joy begins breaking down the pretend walls she created to protect her son and puts together a risky plan of escape.

Room3

The second half of the picture deals with a young boy’s discovery of the real world and a mother coming to terms with a truly horrible ordeal. We are introduced to Joy’s parents who have split up in the seven years their daughter has been missing. William H. Macy plays Joy’s father who still can’t cope with his guilt and grief. Joan Allen is fabulous as Joy’s mom, a much more stabilizing and supportive force.

Much of the film is seen from Jack’s perspective. Abrahamson does a strong job capturing the amazement of hearing a telephone or seeing a skyline for the first time. We also witness the anxiety and fears of talking to other people or even walking down a set of stairs. Everything is new to Jack (when hearing a knock on the door for the first time he warns “The door is ticking.” Even the camera works to relay these feelings, often subtly dropping to Jack’s height to observe a conversation or move from one place to another.

Room2

Young Tremblay’s performance is astonishingly genuine and the amount of emotional detail he gives is beyond his young age. And his chemistry with Larson is warm, truthful, and without a hint of artifice. Larson proved herself to be a strong dramatic actress in 2013’s “Short Term 12”. Here we see her taking on a much more complicated and demanding role. Here she does work so rich with feeling and nuance. It’s a career defining performance.

“Room” plays with so many compelling ideas – child rearing, media manipulation, maternal bonding, post-traumatic stress, and isolation just to name a few. It pulls you through a range of emotions, breaking your heart multiple times along the way. But there is an underlying hope to “Room” that is even present during the most grim moments. And ultimately this is a story of the power and saving quality of love. It’s not always easy to watch, but that beautiful theme shines brightly through the film’s uncomfortable and harrowing exterior.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Spectacular Now”

Spectacular poster

It’s rare to find a teen movie that actually treats teens like real people with real problems and real emotions. So often these films peddle juvenile humor and exaggerated stereotypes in place of stronger and meatier stories. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a movie like “The Spectacular Now”. This intelligent and nuanced coming-of-age story steers clear of cliches and gimmickry by respecting its characters and portraying their circumstances in a thoughtful and naturalistic way.

Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a popular and hard-partying high school senior. He has a hot girlfriend, a great personality, and no real ambition for the future. Sutter tells several people he lives in the now, not worrying about anything other than the moment. But that attitude proves to be destructive – something he can’t see through his fog of hedonism. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally has enough and breaks up with him. He is warned by a concerned teacher that he may not have the grades to graduate. And his constant drinking becomes a growing concern. Sutter’s life “in the now” isn’t the happy, sunshiny place he projects. It’s just a facade to hide the truth of a troubled and conflicted life.

SPECTACULAR1

Sutter’s life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a shy and studious ‘good girl’ whose reserved lifestyle is in stark contrast to Sutter’s. The two opposites hit it off but it takes some time for their relationship to blossom. But several of Sutter’s issues get in the way – his ego, his ‘cool guy’ reputation, his fixation on old flame Cassidy, and his self-destructive behavior. We never really know how Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will turn out. The film doesn’t lay out a standard formulaic plot line and a big part of its success is the experience we have watching this authentic relationship play out.

The story is also helped by some nice performances by the two leads. Teller and Woodley have noticeably different acting styles yet they seem to gel nicely with these two characters. For Teller this film is wedged in between two run-of-the-mill raunchy comedies so I was pleasantly surprised at his work here. Woodley’s nice performance is no surprise. Her film debut in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” received rave reviews and here she delivers another eye-catching performance. The supporting work is also uniformly good. Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and especially Kyle Chandler each have some strong screen time.

One of the interesting things about “The Spectacular Now” is how it employs several familiar plot points, but it treats each of them with a fresh and prudent sincerity. There are moments where you can guess how certain things will play out, but the film also steadily surprised me by not going the conventional route. More importantly it is all grounded in a realistic portrayal of these two teenaged characters which separates this film from the bulk of teen pictures we get. That alone is something I welcomed with opened arms.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Short Term 12”

SHORT TERM POSTER

“Short Term 12” opens up with a great scene featuring a supervisor from a group home for troubled teens telling a story involving a past patient to a new employee. We are dropped into this conversation as an observer and we get a brief introduction to the main characters. But without a moment’s notice the scene changes dramatically. A young boy bursts through the door and takes off towards the front gate. He’s screaming, waving his hands, and clearing he is deeply upset. The workers subdue him and the emotionally complex setting of “Short Term 12” is realized.

The movie is written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton who was inspired by his real-life experiences of working in a group home for teens. He first made this into a 2009 short film, but later developed it into a feature length picture. This was only Cretton’s second feature length movie which makes his accomplishment all the more impressive. You see, “Short Term 12” is a really good movie and much of its strength and potency can by traced back to Cretton’s pen and his raw use of the camera which perfectly captures the tone and intensity of his setting.

Short Term 12Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

Brie Larson is unquestionably superb as the lead character Grace. She is a supervisor at the teen group home (called Short Term 12). She works alongside her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) to both mentor and council a group of teens with an assortment of problems. Along the way we are introduced to them and watch as Grace interacts with them on both procedural and personal levels. Larson’s performance blew me away and there is such a natural quality to what she’s doing as an actress and within the character she is portraying. We also get some interesting scenes between Grace and Mason away from the home. At first these moments seem flimsy but they really payoff later on as the story develops.

Grace never lacks control and she is a compassionate professional when it comes to taking care of these kids. But she is especially invested in a new resident, a troubled young girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). This is where we see a different side and an interesting turn in Grace. There is a stunning and vivid dichotomy within her. She is a strong and determined woman, but she is also scarred and emotionally fragile. This adds an entirely new layer to the character and the film that I really responded to.

SHORT2

At no point does “Short Term 12” feel fabricated or overly melodramatic. There is a stinging realism that permeates the entire picture. It constantly draws out raw emotion from its characters and the situations and circumstances are believable and often times troubling. There are a couple of characters than dance dangerously close to stereotypes and their stories take some fairly predictable turns. But overall the film sucks you in and exposes you to truths about these teens and the people gifted with the patience and will to help them.

I tip my hat to Destin Daniel Cretton for crafting a movie that doesn’t lose itself in the typical Hollywood contrivances and forced melodrama that we get these days. I also applaud Brie Larson who not only showed she can act, but she gives an incredible performance that is grounded and always feels true. There are waves of emotions that flow throughout the movie and the story keeps you thoroughly invested. “Short Term 12” is another great example of the strength of independent cinema and the impact these films can have on the movie-making landscape.

VERDICT – 4 STARS