Captain Marvel

brie-larson-captain-marvel

Can Marvel make a successful comic book fantasy movie with a female lead? The answer is yes. Captain Marvel is a solid effort by all concerned. (Including the dozen or so digital effects companies I counted in the closing credits.)

Captain Marvel may not be the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie ever. And Captain Marvel may not be the greatest MCU superhero ever. But the new film starring Brie Larson accomplishes much in just over two hours.

It introduces and establishes a new movie franchise player and sets up future Captain Marvel stories. It delivers a cool backstory for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The movie is set in the 1990s and dishes a bunch of fun nostalgia for that decade. And it features a cool cat (an actual feline) named Goose.

Action/fantasy films sometimes have pacing issues and often have effects overkills but co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck keep things moving ahead at a consistent clip, with occasional respites. And the many confrontations among characters tend to resolve within reasonable periods.

The story? Well, there’s a lot going on here. Of course, it’s always about good versus evil. But it is not always clear who is a good guy (or woman) and who is a bad egg. Captain Marvel works to solve a mystery about her own background (including her life as Air Force pilot Carol Danvers) and about a scientific discovery that Wendy Larson (Annette Bening) is developing. Carol/Captain Marvel’s time among the Kree aliens on the planet Hala is a key plot point.

Brie Larson handles all the physical tasks of playing a superhero well. She has a good head of hair, which is only reined in near the end of the movie. (Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman at least had a band across the front of her hairline when she was in action.)

The cast also includes Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn and (as Carol’s Air Force friend Maria) Lashana Lynch.

Captain Marvel should garner strong ticket sales and whet appetites for Avengers: Endgame whose release is just seven weeks away. As Black Panther showed last year, a superhero movie can be released in late winter and still attract a huge audience.

Of course, you should stay until the very end of the credits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight is not among his best. It has QT trademarks including over-the-top violence, a quirky mix of characters and the great Samuel L. Jackson. The Hateful Eight has an excellent original soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. The film even has an overture and an intermission! But the pacing is off.

Have you ever had someone tell you a joke that has a long set up before you finally get to the punchline? And then the joketeller repeats the punchline for emphasis? That’s what The Hateful Eight reminds me of.

Let’s meet the eight who end up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a roadhouse in a desolate area of Wyoming, during a blizzard. The time is a few years after the Civil War. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is bringing in murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for a reward. (Ruth, with his overgrown moustache and boisterous manner reminds one of a taller Yosemite Sam.)

The stagecoach he’s chartered picks up bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran (Union side) who hears the N-word many times during TH8. Another passenger who begs a ride is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims he’s to be the new sheriff of nearby Red Rock.

Already at the roadhouse are four more individuals: British dandy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsden), “The Mexican” Bob (Demian Bichir) and former Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight meanders a full hour and 45-minutes before intermission. The long-awaited plot resolution after the break is violent but often funny in that QT way.

Tarantino has said that TH8’s story was modeled after certain plots on old TV westerns with episodes that took their time in revealing whether a stranger was a good or bad guy. Maybe QT just wanted his audience to become more familiar with the eight, but the first chapters of TH8 slog along at turtle speed. Don’t nod off.

The Hateful Eight is being shown screened in selects theaters (including Ronnie’s in St. Louis) in a 70mm wide-screen format using film instead of a digital system. (The digital version I saw showcased the film in a wider-than-usual aspect ratio.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have a Tarantino film back on movie house screens. But after his successes with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, TH8 falls short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a ton of fun! It’s action-packed and full of surprises. It moves at a frantic pace and never slows down until its final postscript. Like last year’s Lego Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a better movie than we usually get in February.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) aka Galahad is the dapper, well-dressed ops director of the secret spy organization that works out of a men’s clothing store in London. The versatile Firth is, as the British say, “spot on” in this role.

Following the death of a colleague in a 1997 mission, he gives a medallion and contact information to the man’s young son Eggy. Years later, now in his early 20s, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) needs help getting out of a jam and calls Galahad who takes care of the situation. When Kingsman agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is killed in action, Galahad recruits Eggsy to try out for a position. The competition is tough and Eggsy works hard to succeed.

When the film’s villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced, he is apparently a good guy, an environmental warrior. But his method for saving the planet involves eliminating much of the world’s human population. He scores good will by giving the entire world free wi-fi and internet—but there’s an evil motive to his generosity.

Galahad consults with Kingsman chief Arthur (Michael Caine) who suggests Galahad learn more about Valentine. At their first meeting, the dinner scene is a classic. (I’m tempted to share more, but… alas, no spoiler from me.)

K:TSS recalls early James Bond films, but in a more appreciative fashion than the Austin Powers movies did. As Q does in the Bond films, Galahad introduces Eggsy to amazing spy devices. Villain Valentine has an impressive mountaintop lair, complete with an airplane landing strip in a cave. And there’s the promise of a sexual payoff for the story’s hero, a la 007.

Kingsman: The Secret Service contains numerous memorable and bloody fight scenes. They are cartoonish and, in many case, quite funny. Director Matthew Vaughn (who also directed X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and Stardust) has created a film that looks good and has plenty of clever bits. Like the woman with the lethal Oscar Pistorius prosthetic feet, the exploding opening credits and the high-speed chase scene where the car being chased travels in reverse.

Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers the goods. I like it a lot.

 

 

Robocop

The 1987 Robocop is not quite a classic, but it’s a movie I love for many reasons: its story, its gritty violence, its depiction of corporate greed and, especially, its sense of humor. The new Robocop (set in 2028) provides appropriate updates to certain elements of the original but doesn’t have the same impact as the 27-years-ago version.

Despite Robocop 2014’s high level of violence, it gets a PG-13. The ’87 Robocop was an R, thanks to language and a bit of skin (along with the violence).

Three things I really liked about the new Robocop: (1) Gary Oldman’s performance as Norton, a robotics engineer who wavers between his commitment to making a marketable product and his commitment to doing what’s right. (2) Samuel L. Jackson’s right wing TV show, which provides bookends for the movie. (3) The challenge Robocop faces versus a variety of robots, a glorious sequence resembling a rapid-fire first-person-shooter video game.

Samuel L. Jackson as a Fox News Channel personality? Pat Novak (Jackson) is a conservative TV host who is an advocate for security robots made by Omnicorp. He accuses Americans of having “robophobia.” In the movie’s opening, we see a live TV shot from Teheran where these machines protect US forces and a lady TV reporter. (Interesting prediction: that we’ll have ground forces in Iran in 14 years.)

As in the original, Robocop is Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), an injured Detroit cop who is made into a robotic, computer-aided crime fighter. Kinnaman lacks the gravitas that Peter Weller brought to the first Robocop. He’s 34 years old, but has a baby face.

The bad guy in this film (other than the dirty cops who are abetting a weapons dealer) is Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), head of Omnicorp. He’s in a political battle, opposing a federal law against robotic crime-fighters. Robocop is seen as the compromise because he is a human (with feelings), who also has the skills of a robot. Keaton brings an evil sneer to this character, a darker role for him. Other notable cast members include Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Abie Cornish and Jay Baruchel.

The 2014 Robocop is not groundbreaking. But if you’re looking for a decent action film that predicts a high tech future, showcases plenty of violent gunplay and has a sense of humor, Robocop satisfies.

 

 

Django Unchained

Everything you’ve heard about Django Unchained is true. Quentin Tarentino is a fearless filmmaker. And one of the things he does not fear is excess. Django Unchained is a big movie (2:45 or so) with lots going on.

Set in the antebellum South when slavery was legal, DU will touch some nerves. Is this film racially charged? Yes. Will this film generate controversy? Yes. Does this film entertain? Yes. Is it violent? Oh, yes. Is it funny? You betcha! Django Unchained is the must-see film of the Christmas season.

Christoph Waltz as King Schultz, a German dentist turned US bounty hunter, gives one of the year’s best acting performances. His character is smart, funny and, at times, sensitive. He can also ruthlessly violent. He tries to purchase Django, played by Jamie Foxx, from among a group of slaves after Django tells him he can identify the wanted killers that Schultz is seeking.

Django ends up riding alongside Schultz, who promises to help Django find his wife from whom he was separated. The two enter a small village where townsfolk are stunned to see a black man riding a horse next to a white man. They visit a plantation owned by “Big Daddy,” played by Don Johnson, where Django discovers the wanted men.

The journey to find Django’s wife takes them to Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie is a fan of “mandingo fighting,” which pits two slaves in a bloody, bare knuckles hand-to-hand battle. At the plantation, Django and Schultz scheme to secure Djanglo’s wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, from Candie. It’s not an easy mission to accomplish, thanks to interference from Candie’s loyal house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Foxx handles the title role with effective, appropriate restraint. DiCaprio, who’ll have that baby face throughout his life, is hard to buy as a nasty bad guy. Jackson gives a killer performance as the 70-ish senior slave.

Tarantino’s over-the-top script is filled with humor and surprises but also reveals a horrifying look at American slavery. One particularly memorable shot, lasting only a second or two, shows blood splattering on cotton bolls in a field. Other depictions of brutality are more direct.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, the soundtrack is a knockout, with tunes ranging from recycled Italian Spaghetti Western songs to Jim Croce’s 70’s hit “I Got a Name.”

Django Unchained will likely generate polarizing media commentary and new devotees of Quentin Tarantino and his distinctive, highly entertaining film making. Not to mention a few awards nominations, as well.

 

“The Avengers”

Marvel’s “The Avengers” is too much and too many.

Not that you shouldn’t see it. You should. Just prepare yourself to be stuffed. Like a huge holiday meal, “The Avengers” will leave you totally sated.

It’s also analogous to a sports All-Star game. Sure, it’s great to see all the Marvel heroes together. But as an All-Star game is not always an entertaining game, so does “The Avengers” fail to deliver a truly great movie.

The interaction—including verbal and physical battles—among the characters is fun and often funny to watch. It’s amusing as Captain America (Chris Evans) tries to assimilate into the 21st century world, after awakening from a 70-year nap.

Thankfully, the film’s writers and director give the biggest chunk of screen time to Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark. This is good because Downey is a much better actor than the rest of the cast. Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk/Bruce Banner is also excellent in his Marvel debut.

The other main players: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Tom Hiddleston as the villain Loki.

The movie’s pacing brings to mind the latter Star Wars movies with long periods of exposition between the action scenes. The film’s final battle is spectacularly good, but overlong—not unlike having three pieces of pumpkin pie at the end of a holiday feast.

Clocking in at 2:20 or so, it’s a long movie. But with so many characters to feature and so much action to fit in, it has to be.

“The Avengers,” like a Transformers film, is critic-proof. Even if every reviewer in America from Ebert on down said the film sucked, it would still gross $100 million plus this weekend.

It doesn’t suck. But it’s not as good a movie as one might have hoped for.