REVIEW: “Captain Marvel”

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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REVIEW: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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When Wes Anderson releases a movie it’s almost like an event for me. I’m such a fan of his work and I enjoy each visit I make to his unique and eccentric world. Finally his latest film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” made its way to my area. After a grueling wait the film finally cured my impatience but did it meet my ridiculously high expectations? I’ve come to expect so much from Anderson’s movies and my lofty expectations seem almost unfair. And perhaps those same expectations contributed to my somewhat cold and indifferent reaction to this film.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” features so many signature trademarks of other Wes Anderson films. We get the quirky period design, an assortment of offbeat characters, a host of stylistic visual flourishes, and a level of expected absurdity. All of those things are present here and they all work to the film’s advantage. These are some of the fingerprints I want to see all over a Wes Anderson movie. But there were other signatures that injects his movies with their own personality and vibrancy that I found missing in this film.

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The story is told in a fractured style but the vast majority of it takes place within a fictitious Eastern European country during 1932. We are introduced to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel during its glory days of luxury and prominence. Gustave is meticulous in his running of the hotel and his love for extravagance is only outdone by his adoration for strong cologne and for his elderly clientele. The story becomes a murder mystery after one of his close acquaintances Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is found dead and Gustave becomes the key suspect. It also becomes a heist film and of course a comedy.

The film is also loaded with a massive number of side characters. Some are like Fiennes and new to Wes Anderson’s world while others are old faithful stalwarts who find their way into nearly every one of his movies. Toni Revolori plays a young lobby boy named Zero who becomes Gustave’s protĂ©gĂ© and faithful sidekick. Adrien Brody plays Dmitri, the son of the murdered Madame D. Willem Dafoe plays a grunting snaggletoothed hitman. I could go on and on listing small characters who service the story (some better than others). They are all sprinkled onto stylistic canvases that include an alpine village, a prison, and of course The Grand Budapest itself. There is truly an artistry to the entire visual presentation and all of that worked for me.

But what was it about the film that at first held me at arm’s length? Why didn’t I have the same wonderful experience as I usually have with Wes Anderson pictures during a first viewing? First off I just didn’t find it as funny as I had hoped. Certainly there were moments where I laughed but as a whole the dry humor wasn’t that effective. Even the crowd I watched with had their giggles held to a minimum. This film was also coarse and crasser than most of Anderson’s other pictures. Much of it is played for laughs but I found it to be distracting and it felt as though Anderson, normally known for his creative freedom, was really stretching.

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Another missing component for me was the deeper emotional thread that every Anderson film has had. For example in “The Royal Tenenbaums” you have the destructive results that a father’s behavior has had on his family. In “The Darjeeling Limited” you have three separated brothers each carrying the baggage of their father’s death. “Moonrise Kingdom” features two kids with no stable adult presence in their lives. They find their refuge by running away together. The same thing applies to “Rushmore” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Anderson has always had a knack for presenting a deeper and more piercing subject and effectively surrounding it with humor. Every sense of that is vague and almost absent from this entire film. He does tinker with a few themes via the impending war that lingers in the background, the desires for the nostalgic “better days”, etc. But none of these stood out to me at all.

This is the first screenplay that Anderson has written by himself. Does that play into the things I found lacking? I don’t know, perhaps. Anderson is also often accused of going overboard with his eccentric style. I’ve never found any merit to that accusation but this is the first film where there just might be. Could that be linked to Anderson’s solo screenplay? Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that there were parts of this film that really worked and after a second viewing I definitely began to appreciate the film more. At first “The Grand Budapest Hotel” didn’t fully work for me. It definitely comes more into focus the more times you see it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

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This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost

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All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska

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What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis

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I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

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Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt

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Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

“Side Effects” – 3 STARS

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Steven Soderbergh has always been a hit or miss filmmaker in my book. He has an impressive resume but the two movies of his that I truly love are more recent efforts, “The Informant” from 2009 and “Contagion” from 2011. His new film “Side Effects” looked like the new “Contagion”, that is if you went by the trailers and TV spots. But other than the small medical connection, these two films couldn’t be more different. At its core “Side Effects” is a straight up modern day thriller. It’s the first of two Soderbergh movies in 2013 which will lead into what the director is calling his filmmaking “sabbatical”.

“Side Effects” is really broken into two halves. The first half of the movie focuses on a young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara). Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving a 4-year sentence for insider trading. It seems like it would be a good time for the couple but Emily begins showing signs of depression. Martin tries to help her but things only seem to get worse leading to her attempting suicide by driving her speeding car into a wall. At the hospital she is examined by a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). She convinces him to let her go home as long as she agrees to regular counseling sessions with him.

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The movie moves along like a clinical procedural throughout the first half. We watch Emily’s struggles with depression and we sit in on her meetings with Jonathan. We watch as he prescribes numerous medications, none of which work for her. We find out she has a history with depression and once saw another doctor named Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Jonathan meets with Victoria who recommends a drug called Ablixa. Jonathan finally agrees to give it a try and prescribes it for Emily. Things seem to get better for her except for the one side effect – sleepwalking. It’s during one of her sleepwalking episodes that she takes a knife and commits a shocking murder.

The second half of the film focuses more on Jonathan and the fallout from the murder and the court case that followed. It takes a heavy toll on Jonathan’s career and home life so he sets out to clear his name. It’s here where the movie finally starts to feel like a thriller. Soderbergh starts leading us in several different directions and causes us to question and reflect back on things we’ve already seen. At some point you’ll have suspicions of every character and their motivations. These are all things that you want and expect from a good thriller.

So considering all of these things, why didn’t I have a stronger response to “Side Effects”? It’s certainly not the acting. Everyone gives strong performances even the usually stone-faced Channing Tatum. Rooney Mara certainly answered my question of whether she could handle the lead role. But I thought it was Jude Law who was the real standout. He’s really, really good here. It’s also not the visual presentation that’s the problem. Soderbergh knows how to shoot a picture and his particular visual style of camera cuts and closeups works nicely here.

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I think my problems lie in the way the story itself is structured. As I hinted at, this never feels like a thriller until well over halfway through the film. It’s only then that different threads of plot begin to branch out. But by that time the movie has but a little time to put all the pieces together. Soderbergh certainly manages to do this competently. I don’t remember there being any gaping plot holes or oversights. But I also don’t feel his ending is all that satisfying and the catalyst behind the big twist feels a little out-of-the-blue. For me the best thrillers are able to put the truth out there while causing the audience to look at it in a different and wrong way. At the end of “Side Effects” I didn’t feel it accomplished that at all.

I don’t want to be too hard on the movie because it’s a good watchable film that’s easy to digest. The performances are strong and Soderbergh has a visual style that perfectly fits this type of film. But underneath the veneer of clinical depression, pharmaceutical lingo, and legal proceedings lies a movie that never reaches its full potential. Its buildup is slow, its surprises feel arbitrary, and overall it’s underwhelming. It’s unfortunate and I still feel that somewhere offscreen lies an ending with more power and punch than the one we’re given – an ending that would give me the satisfaction I hoped for from “Side Effects”.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE HERO DEATHS

SPOILER: THESE ARE 5 FILMS WHERE THE MAIN HERO DIES. BE FOREWARNED!

Everyone loves a great hero. In fact, entire movies can stand or fall on how good the main hero of the story is. We’ve all seen the “ride off into the sunset” endings where everything is happy and uplifting. The boy gets the girl (or vice versa) and all is right with the world. But then there are the movies where the good guy may win, but dies in the process. If you think about it, there are several films that feature their hero dying. I’ve chosen five fantastic deaths that are worth some praise. Now there are many I had to leave off so this certainly isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie hero deaths are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “ROAD TO PERDITION”

Sam Mendes’ “Road to Perdition” may have one of the saddest hero deaths in cinema. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a mob hitman who gets revenge on his bosses who turn on him and kill his wife and younger son. The mob higher-ups seek to silence him and he escapes to a small town on Lake Michigan called Perdition. Sullivan stands by a window of a beach house looking out over the lake waters when two bullets hit him from behind. Jude Law walks out of the shadows as Sullivan falls to the ground. Sullivan kills his killer then dies in the arm of his crying son. It’s a devastating scene involving a young boy losing his father and even though Sullivan isn’t the most upright hero, we still root for him.

#4 – “THE PROFESSIONAL”

Jean Reno stars as Leon, the most loveable movie hitman who befriends and shelters a troubled young girl named Matilda (Natalie Portman) who has witnessed the murder of her family at the hands of Standfield, a corrupt DEA agent played by Gary Oldman. Stansfield brings his forces for a big final showdown in Leon’s apartment building. He gets Matilda to safety before sneaking out after a massive gun battle. He makes it out of the building and while hobbling down an alley Stansfield shows up and shoots him. Leon hands him a grenade pin that he says is “from Matilda”. Standfield rips open Leon’s jacket to expose a number of live grenades. BOOM! Leon take Stansfield with him. A hero going out with a bang.

#3 – “PAN’S LABYRINTH”

While young Ofelia isn’t your typical hero especially for this type of list, I had to put her on here. Fleeing from her brutal stepfather, Ofelia carries her infant brother into a garden labyrinth. She puts her life on the line to save her brother but her stepfather soon catches up with her and shoots her dead. He gets his when he reaches the exit of the labyrinth and plenty of people are waiting. But one of the most devastating scenes is when they discover Ofelia. What makes her death so powerful is the sad life she was confined to throughout the movie. In her fantasy world she went on to rule. But in our world she died a true hero’s death.

#2 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD”

After all Ben had been through the night before, to be killed the way he was just stinks. Zombies corner up seven people in a Pennsylvania farm house and only Ben (Duane Jones) survives the night. After barricading himself in the cellar, he comes up after all seems quiet upstairs. It’s daylight outside and Ben hears dogs barking. He sneaks up to a window and peaks out. At that second he gets shot in the head by a group of men who mistake him for a zombie. Just like that. Ben was cool and calm and managed to survive the zombies. It’s too bad he was later mistaken for one.

#1 – “GLADIATOR”

Russell Crowe’s performance as Maximus in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” was exceptional and his death was certainly that of a hero. After being stabbed while chained up by the sniveling Emperor Joaquin Phoenix, the wounded Maximus is then brought out to fight the Emperor and die in front of the huge crowd in the Coliseum. But just like a true hero, Maximus prevails and kills the Emperor just before passing out. He dies there in the Coliseum and we see him being reunited with his wife and son through a dying vision. Maximus is carried off while the Emperor is left laying in the dirt. It’s a poignant and moving ending and it still gets to me no matter how often I see it.

There ya go – 5 Phenomenal Movie Hero Deaths. Now I could easily have done a top 20 so I know I’ve left some good ones out. What’s your favorite movie hero death?

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” – 2 STARS

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is the sequel to the hugely popular 2009 action adventure mystery film. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson as does director Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately the uniqueness, humor, and charm of the first film are all but missing in the sequel. “A Game of Shadows” feels like it hits the same notes over and over and it certainly lacks the freshness of the first picture. It feels bland and generic and even the loud injections of explosions, gunfire, and fist fights can’t break the monotony.

That’s a pretty harsh way to open a review and in all honesty the movie is not all bad. The story pits Holmes and Watson against Professor Moriarty played wonderfully by Jared Harris. Moriarty is a man of great power and is involved in all sorts of criminal activity including terrorist bombings, assassinations, and corrupt business dealings. As with most villains of this type, Moriarty has a much bigger plan at work and the story takes Holmes and Watson through numerous twists and turns, some of which make almost no sense, in their efforts to stop their arch-enemy. The best scenes in the film are the one-on-one conversations between Holmes and Moriarty but sadly we don’t get many of them.

The movie has a few genuinely funny moments. When not bogged down with the sometimes bloated screenplay, Downey, Jr.’s kookiness certainly pulls in a few laughs. There are also a couple of more sequences that are quite funny. But there are several attempts at humor that just fall flat and at times feel out-of-place. Some of these attempts feel cheap and I especially grew tired of certain undertones than seem to run throughout the film. It definitely doesn’t maintain the humor of the first picture.

“A Game of Shadows” won’t do anything to endear itself to fans of the classic characters. But it not only takes the characters further and further away from the source material. I thought this version of Holmes and Watson were quite different from what we saw in the first movie. We get glimpses of the wacky relationship from the previous picture but not enough to drive the film. It overextends itself in so many directions that it seems to have forgotten what made the first film so enjoyable.

I liked the first Sherlock Holmes movie. It was fresh, funny, and quite entertaining. This second installment falls well short of the mark and even with it’s occasional laugh and pulse-pounding action sequences, I couldn’t get past the convoluted plot, cheap gags, and off-balanced direction. If they do decide to try for a third film in the franchise, I for one think they should look to another director. For me, Ritchie’s vision has run it’s course and I can’t see myself sitting through another film that offers as little as “A Game of Shadows”.