Friday, March 8, 2019

'Captain Marvel' Doesn't Have To Prove Anything To You

The dream of the 90's is alive in Carol Danvers

When Wonder Woman opened in 2017, there were numerous reports of women breaking down into tears during the scene where Diana takes to the World War I battlefield, dodging bullets and saving lives, because all the men around her had given up. I was one of those crying women. Finally, finally here was the DC hero I cherished the most growing up, saving the world in a mediocre DC movie, just like all those male superheros had been doing for decades before.

Captain Marvel is the first Marvel movie focused on a female superhero, and if you're thinking "It's about damn time," you're right. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe does have its share of heroines, none have been allowed to carry a whole film until now. And as, essentially, a prequel to Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel also seems poised to carry the entire franchise.

But she's kind of a weird character to set up for that, because while Wonder Woman is quite literally a goddess, Captain Marvel is, most of the time, very much down to Earth, and, as the people around her have made sure she understands through each step of her life, just a girl.

As the film opens, our Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is known as Vers, and she's a Kree, an alien warrior race at war with the Skrull, shape-shifters who are encroaching on Kree territory. Vers has a mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) with whom she spars both physically and verbally. He's always telling her she needs to control her emotions, while she sarcastically tells him he needs to stop worshiping her. After all, she's got photon blasters for fists, who wouldn't worship her?

After a capture by the Skrull and an escape that has her crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster in 1995 Los Angeles, on a planet she knows as C-53 (a real "shithole" according to her fellow Kree), Vers starts to realize the past she can never remember may have a beginning on this very planet.

This is a Captain Marvel origin story, but it's also a Nick Fury (Samuel. L. Jackson) origin story as well, because in 1995, he and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are two very smooth faced agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (CGI de-aging effects work better on Jackson than on Gregg, who I just assumed was some kind of android imposter for at least five minutes.)

Brie Larson brings an effortless breeziness to her character. Perhaps heeding the advice of her mentor, when Vers first lands on Earth C-53, she seems to be keeping her emotions in check, not letting much phase her, from the agents who want to question her, to the aliens who want to capture her, to the asshole on a motorcycle who tells her to smile (nice). This lightness also feeds into her scenes with Agent Fury, allowing Jackson to bring some comedy to his character. They have some great moments together. (Though none are as great as Jackson's moments with a cat named Goose, who basically steals the whole movie.)

The Marvel movies have been superior to DC movies in a number of ways, but the biggest reasons for me have always been their humor, perfect casting, and character authenticity. Captain Marvel has all three down, with much help from Annette Benning as a spooky AI god, Lashana Lynch as Carol Danver's best friend Maria, and Ben Mendelsohn as a very funny Skrull in a turtleneck. As tends to be the case with most of the Marvel movies, the big battles are never as entertaining as the quieter moments.

If you're a Gen X'er, the film's 90's setting is going to hit all your nostalgia buttons, from that Blockbuster, to the flannel shirts, to the music, which is heavy with girl bands like Garbage, Elastica, and No Doubt (though the use of "Just a Girl" is a little too on the nose). Misogynistic fan boys have had a field day hating on the movie, for a variety of "reasons," and that made me realize the 90's is the perfect era for Captain Marvel to land in. It was the last time women could make noise without having to immediately hear a response from a dozen men screaming about their own alleged suppression. (The Internet ruined everything.)

I'll be honest. Carol Danvers is an endearing and admirable character, but Captain Marvel is not the most exciting superhero. When she comes into her full powers (which happens too late in the film), she's basically unstoppable, and as a result, there's not a lot of tension in those later battle scenes.

And that in itself is fine. Just because Captain Marvel is the first female led Marvel movie doesn't mean it also has to be flawless. Both Thor and the Hulk were allowed to have their own meh movies, and go on to become beloved characters in the universe. The same should be allowed of Captain Marvel. She's here, and she doesn't have to prove anything to anyone.

Friday, March 1, 2019

'Greta' Isn't Great, But Isabelle Huppert Is

She still has CDs. Clearly she's nuts.

Greta is a pretty standard stalker-centered horror film that does nothing new, and yet, because of its pedigree, almost feels fresh. Isabelle Huppert, who has, apparently, never met a crazy lady character she didn't like, stars as the titular Greta. Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan films it like one of his dark fairy tales, setting it in a calm, dark, and quiet New York that's home to mysterious carriage houses with secret rooms, and young women who, when they come across a lost handbag on a subway, don't pocket the cash and toss it away, but instead track down its owner, all the way to picturesque Brooklyn.

Chloë Grace Moretz is the naive Frances, bag finder. Originally from Boston, she's living with her rich friend Erica (Maika Monroe) in Manhattan, working as a waitress, and trying to get over the recent death of her mother. When Frances returns the handbag to Greta in her Brooklyn carriage house, she finds a lonely French widow who misses her daughter, who is close to France's age, and away studying music in Paris. Both women have very obvious voids in their lives that they're aching to fill, and their meeting seems like a fortuitous accident.

Frances offers to help Greta get a dog, joins her on lunch dates, and takes joy in the friendship, all while her friend Erica tells her it seems a little...weird. Of course, Erica is right, and Frances soon learns her meeting Greta wasn't really an accident, and Greta is not the type of woman who takes France's attempts at ghosting lightly.

If you've ever seen a "Crazy Lady" movie, you can guess what follows. Crazy lady won't be ignored! Animals won't fare well. She'll have an uncanny ability to show up everywhere, silently. One sequence has Greta stalking Erica while texting photos of her to Frances, a thrilling bit of filmmaking that's both a modern take on Rear Window, and a sly nod to Maika Monroe's previous appearance in the horror movie It Follows.

Isabelle Huppert has excelled at playing unhinged women for decades, and compared to someone like Ericka in The Piano Teacher, or Hélène in Ma Mère, Greta may seem downright tame. In fact, it is when Greta is at her most calm that she is scariest. Watching her stand silent and still outside a restaurant window for hours is much more chilling than her screaming and flipping tables.

All the performances in Greta are better than the material deserves, including Moretz's kindly and then terrified Frances, and Stephen Rea (it's a Neil Jordan movie, after all) as a very tired detective for hire. (If they ever do a live action version of the Droopy Dog cartoons, he's your man.) As the story gets more and more ridiculous, enjoyment comes less from the surprises of the plot, and more from the continuing surprise that is seeing an actress like Isabelle Huppert in a slasher movie. It's almost like watching one of those commercials movie stars will film in Japan but never in the U.S. You wonder what the hell they're doing that for, and yet, you can't stop watching.

Friday, February 15, 2019

'Happy Death Day 2U' Makes A Birthday Wish Come True

In an alternate universe, that shirt says "FML"

Last year's Happy Death Day was a charming surprise, a horror comedy that ultimately turned into a romantic comedy, cleverly using horror movie tropes in a Groundhog Day-inspired loop of murder, survival, and blossoming love. So how could a film that centers on repetition not spawn a sequel, that genre of film that almost always relies on repeating those things that made the first film a hit?

And indeed, Happy Death Day 2U, does just that, much to the absolute exasperation of heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe) who, at the end of the first film, thought she had finally survived her never-ending birthday/death day. 2U begins where that film ended, with Tree and her new boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard) celebrating a day that is finally not the 18th only to find Carter's roommate Ryan (Phi Vu), seems to be experiencing the same time-looping Tree just survived.

Turns out Ryan has been working on a science thesis that centers on a quantum reactor nicknamed Sissy. It was this reactor that set off Tree's original time loop, and when Ryan and his fellow science nerds attempt to correct his own looping by firing up the reactor again, it sends Tree back into her loop, but this time, in an alternative universe. So now while Tree is still fated to be killed at the end of each of her never ending days, the killer appears to be someone different. Also different? Her relationship with Carter, and the fate of another very important person in her life.

Just as characters in the first film openly compared what they were going through to the film Groundhog Day, this time they see their dilemma as more akin to Back to the Future II. Happy Death Day 2U also pays as much tribute to John Hughes as the original did, but this time it's Weird Science, not Sixteen Candles that you'll be nostalgic for.

And just like Weird Science, it's best not to overthink the science behind that reactor, and its multiple "algorithms", which require multiple tries, and thus require Tree to die multiple times so she can reset the day and they can try over. (These multiple deaths result in a peppy suicide montage that features Tree gleefully jumping out of a plane without a parachute, drinking poison, and leaping into a wood chipper, all painful forms of death I'm not sure I'd opt for, even if I knew I was going to wake up alive.) And as nonsensical as the scientific explanation for the time loops and multiverses may be, interjecting science fiction into the plot is a great way to keep the sequel feeling fresh.

Also, of all the movies 2U brings to mind, I think the closest match this time may be 2015's The Final Girls, another slasher comedy that was able to use the tropes of the genre to generate both thrills and genuine, tear-inducing drama. (Go stream it now!)

I was worried at the beginning of Happy Death Day 2U that Jessica Rothe was going to take a backseat to a new character and his time-loop story, because it was Rothe's comedic timing, rage, and her relationship with Broussard's Carter that were probably the best things about the first film. Thankfully, the beginning is a bit of a MacGuffin, and 2U is very much Rothe's movie. As long as she returns, I'll gladly repeat the experience for the Happy Death Day 3(D?) that is promised by film's end.

Friday, February 8, 2019

'What Men Want' Is The Usual

"I predict...I'm going to steal every scene of this movie I'm in."

Of all the supernatural powers a bonk on the head might give you (and apparently, that's a very common side effect for women with head trauma), hearing people's thoughts is both the one I'd least like to have, and least like to be in the presence of. Both scenarios seem like a living nightmare, so it always perturbs me a bit when the set-up is used as the basis for a comedy.

What Men Want is a remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, about a Chicago advertising executive who uses his newfound power to try and take down his female boss. The updated scenario moves the story to Atlanta, and a sports agency where Ali (Taraji P. Henson) is the firm's only female agent.

Working twice as hard as all the men in her office doesn't land her the promotion to partner she'd been hoping for, and when her boss (Brian Bosworth) tells her it's because she hasn't landed a client from the big three (NBA; NFL; MLB), and also because she doesn't "connect with men," she vows to land the next big basketball star by winning him and his eccentric entrepreneur father (Tracy Morgan) over.

If all that sounds a little conventional, it is. What Men Want follows every comedic beat and plot resolution you'd expect it to; nothing about it is very surprising, including the private inner lives of men.

When a combination of a psychic's drug-laced tea and a bonk on the head (partially caused by a collision with a giant inflatable penis), lands Ali in the hospital, she awakens hearing her doctor's thoughts, which are centered on his drinking and drugging problems. Once she leaves the hospital she realizes she can hear all men's thoughts, and, no comedic surprise here, those thoughts are usually centered on things like sex, food, or self doubt.

Henson has some deft moments of physical comedy, and is suitably sympathetic when she needs to be, but the cliched plot forces her character to learn some kind of lesson (which ultimately seems to center on her being less selfish, especially in bed), and that just gives credence to the idea that it wasn't sexism (and racism) that had been holding her back at work. It's a muddled message.

Ultimately, there are really only two reasons to see What Men Want. One is Tracy Morgan, whose inner thoughts are actually less weird than the things that come out of his mouth, and the other, much bigger reason, is Erykah Badu.

Her performance as the psychic/pot seller named Sister is a comedic tour de force, and a revelation. I had no idea the woman was funny! (Turns out, she studied theater in college and one of her first jobs was working for Steve Harvey.) Every moment she's on screen is a gem, and director Adam Shankman knows it, devoting half of the ending credits to her outtakes and improvisations. Turns out, I don't care what men want. I just want more of her.

Friday, February 1, 2019

'They Shall Not Grow Old' Brightens A Dark Past

Pictured left: Not Walt Disney

When I was in college, I saw the short film A Trip Down Market Street for the first time. The mini documentary is a real time, unedited look at pre-quake 1906 San Francisco. The camera is mounted to the front of the cable car as it captures people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages weaving and bobbing out of the frame before it reaches the end of its journey, when the cable car, and camera, does a 180. Newsboys then gather in front of the cable car, mug for the camera, and the film ends.

Watching it was a revelation; it felt like the closest thing to time travel we'd ever be able to experience. Because there's nothing staged about the footage, it captures the feeling of life at the time better than most photographs and film reels from the era can. I had a similar feeling watching Peter Jackson's World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, as if I were seeing a part of history with clear eyes for the first time.

Jackson is able to capture this time travel feeling in ways that are quite different from A Trip Down Market Street. This is not a real time, cinema vérité, glimpse into the past; it's very carefully constructed. Jackson and his crew took over 100 hours of archival footage from the British Imperial War Museum, edited it into a rough narrative, cleaned it up, colorized it, and time corrected it, getting rid of the jerky motion inherent in early 20th century film. Sound effects were also added (the din of artillery fire and bombings is a constant), as well as some dialogue (lip readers were utilized to figure out what was being said in the silent footage). Add 3D to the mix, and you've got perhaps the most immersive look into the Great War that's ever been produced. (Archival black and white footage filmed off the battlefield, in England and the French coast, bookends the film.)

The process is not, however, flawless. CG techniques are sometimes used to define soldiers' faces that have likely blurred and softened in the original old film stock, and the effect is often uncomfortably cartoonish. And it has to be said, there's something slightly ghoulish about meticulously colorizing the wounds on a dead soldier so that the blood is just the right color of darkening red.

What helps the film rise above mere visual effects spectacle are the voices of over 100 WWI veterans that narrate it. The humanity of those voices paired with the reality of the soldiers, marching, fighting, and goofing around like any modern solider might is a powerful reminder that they were indeed real men and boys, and not just silent faces lost to history.