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Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

Captain Marvel is difficult to incapsulate. Its successes are many, some of its achievements truly singular (the CG-de-aging of Sam Jackson, combined with Jackson’s “youthful” performance, is spectacular), and there’s always something else. Even when you get past all the major things—first female Marvel superhero movie, franchise prequel, “period piece,” inverted character arcs, big plot twists—there’s something else you can find in the plotting or how directors Boden and Fleck stick with a joke. If they make a joke work, they don’t let up on it. Ever. They turn it into character development. Even when it ought to be absurd, they make it work.

But most of all there’s lead Brie Larson, who gets some big moments in the film—sometimes through the grandiose handling, direction-wise, but also sometimes in her performance. Marvel is a fast movie—once Larson crash-lands on Earth, the present action is around a day. And Larson’s got a lot to do in those twenty-four hours. The film doesn’t start on Earth, it starts off on a highly advanced alien planet, where Larson is living and working for Jude Law in a kind of space special forces unit. Larson’s from somewhere else (Earth) but doesn’t remember it (Earth). Larson’s aliens are warring with a different species of alien; this other alien species can shape-shift, which is a problem because they invade planets and take them over and they’ve just followed Larson to Earth.

Where she fairly quickly realizes she’s from Earth, sending on her a quest to find herself, with sidekick Jackson in tow. Jackson’s simultaneously the comic relief and the audience’s view into the action, but only for tying in the latter (sorry, earlier) Marvel movies. Who knows what he actually looked like when acting the scenes, but Jackson’s performance is awesome. He does great with the “aliens are real” thing, he does great as the sidekick. He and Larson are wonderful together, even though it’s mostly just for the smiles and laughs. Boden and Fleck take all the smiles they can get. Not every laugh, but definitely all the smiles. Captain Marvel, even with its harshness, is fun.

Often that fun comes from Larson’s wiseass lead, who might not remember anything about her life on Earth but still remembers how to be a good Earth movie wiseass. The wiseass stuff is never to deflect from the emotion either. It informs the character and performance; there’s no avoidance, not even when the film could get away with it thanks to the amnesia angle. Marvel takes the right parts of itself seriously.

Like the friendship between Larson and Lashana Lynch. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, which is fine as it’s an action-packed superhero movie with warring aliens and not a character drama, but Larson and Lynch quickly work up a great onscreen rapport. It’s not as fun as Larson’s interactions with Jackson, but it’s part of where the film finds its emotional sincerity. Captain Marvel never leverages the emotional sincerity; for example, when there’s danger, Boden and Fleck will defuse it (quickly) with a laugh instead. The defusing doesn’t get rid of the emotional sincerity either, though some of that emotional sincerity is the only way the filmmakers can get away with the plot twists. It helps Larson is, you know, a seemingly indestructible superhero.

Lynch has a daughter, Akira Akbar, who used to know Larson too. Lynch and Akbar come into the film in the middle, so it’s a surprise how much influence Akbar’s going to have on Larson’s character arc (and performance). Because until the big interstellar finale, there’s a lot of focus on Larson’s reaction to recent events. Often for laughs, sometimes for narrative, but her character is fairly static. Sure, she’s on a quest for information but she’s got no idea the relevance of that information. Just it has something to do with Annette Bening.

Bening is—for the most part—just the personification of this alien A.I. god when it communicates with Larson. Everyone sees something different when synced with the A.I. god. Larson sees a Bening avatar and eventually tracks down the real Bening. Bening is both clue and solution to Larson’s puzzle. Larson doesn’t have all the pieces or the box to guide her putting them together—and the puzzle’s fairly simple (again, it’s an action-packed superhero movie with space aliens) but Larson brings more than enough in the performance department. Pretty much everyone brings the necessary gravitas then takes it up a notch.

Marvel is always an effective film, in no small part thanks to its cast and the direction of that cast. Bening and Law are quite good (though Bening’s far better with even less “character” than Law), Lynch and Akbar are good, Ben Mendelsohn is awesome as the leader of the bad aliens (the shape-shifters). His performance—despite constant special effects and makeup—is understated, reserved. Even with the constant element of surprise—he’s a shape-shifter, after all—Mendelsohn’s performance is tight. Plus he gets some laughs, usually at Jackson’s expense.

Larson’s really good. Plot-wise, nothing Marvel throws at her slows her down. Larson’s able to find the sincerity in the broad dramatic strokes. Like the books, sincere performances… they do a lot. Larson’s particularly great with both Lynch and Akbar, implying a forgotten familiarity counter to her overt behaviors in a moment.

And the supporting cast of ragtag aliens and Men in Black (including a de-aged Clark Gregg in a fine shoe-in) is all effective. They don’t need to do much. Larson, Jackson, Mendelsohn, Lynch… they’ve got it covered.

Technically, the film’s just as strong. The CG is all excellent, the photography (from Ben Davis) is good, ditto Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham’s editing. Andy Nicholson’s production design—of nineties Earth in particular—is good. Basically everything except Pinar Toprak’s score, which often feels too small for such a big film. It’s not bad music, sometimes it’s really effective, but it’s also yet another indistinct Marvel superhero movie score. It’s all about accompanying the action, not guiding it, which is a whole other discussion. Occasionally it’s really spot on, but mostly it’s just there.

Kind of like the nineties pop music. It sort of works—having grunge-y songs for the 1994-set act—but it seems like a big miss Boden and Fleck never explore, you know, what kind of music Larson would’ve liked when she was on Earth and not just whatever is time-period appropriate.

Doesn’t Marvel czar and Marvel producer Kevin Feige like music?

Anyway.

Captain Marvel. It sets out to do a lot of things and succeeds in all of them. The film puts the galaxy on Larson’s shoulders; she deadlifts with it. Boden and Fleck have a wonderful way of making it fun for the audience when they take a moment to check a requisite plot point box. They—Larson, Boden, and Fleck–and the hundred animators who made Samuel L. Jackson, well, Sam Jackson again—do something special with Captain Marvel.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, based on a story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet, and the Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham; music by Pinar Toprak; production designer, Andy Nicholson; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Brie Larson (Vers), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Akira Akbar (Monica Rambeau), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Gemma Chan (Minn-Erva), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan), and Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence).


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The Program (2015, Stephen Frears)

The Program does not tell a particularly filmic story. It doesn’t have a rewarding dramatic arc. Telling the story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, with Ben Foster in the role–and as the film’s main character–does not offer many moments of joy. Foster’s spellbinding. He humanizes the sociopath enough to make him understandable in his cruelty. The Program is not a mystery, it starts with Foster figuring out how to cheat. At no moment is he playing the hero, not even when he does something heroic. It’s nearly a biopic, albeit an inspiring one, but it’s also a condemnation of character.

Rightly so too. But it does mean having an “anti-hero” in the lead position of the film and that situation holds The Program back. There’s a lot of historical footage used for the bike racing. While director Frears and cinematographer Danny Cohen do shoot some excellent cycling sequences, this film isn’t about the sport. It’s not about the thrill of it. It’s not even about the cost of fraud, if only because the subject isn’t capable of feeling guilt. Foster’s performance is phenomenal in the third act, when things come crashing down, because he’s got to collapse silently. It’s a tour de force performance (no pun) without a great defining scene. He never faces off with the people he’s tried to ruin. He’s a snake. He has a lawyer do it. And Foster’s perfect at it.

In the antagonist positions are Chris O’Dowd as the reporter who tries to figure out why Armstrong has to brake while going uphill. For a while, O’Dowd has a lot to do. Then he disappears. He’s excellent, but the film just doesn’t have enough for him to do. The same goes for Jesse Plemons as one of Foster’s teammates. He’s great, he has a complex arc (sort of), but he doesn’t have a lot to do. Again, history fails to provide the necessary melodrama.

Once things get legal, Cohen and Frears employ some odd spherical lenses to create claustrophobia in the Panavision frame. It’s not successful, but Frears is more about his actors, more about the way the film conveys its narrative than its visual sense. In many ways, The Program is just watching to see what Foster is going to do next, just like the viewer.

Good support from Guillaume Canet and Denis Ménochet. Cohen’s photography, spherical choices aside, is strong. The same goes for Valerio Bonelli’s editing. Except the historical footage. It might have made sense if it were a metaphor for O’Dowd waxing poetic about cycling turned into a fraud, but it isn’t. It’s mostly an expository shortcut, a budget requirement.

The film starts strong, but it’s obviously relying on its actors and on John Hodge’s sturdy, methodical, somewhat thankless script. Frears takes the time to set up expectations, then lets Foster surpass them all. The Program doesn’t want to answer all the questions its raises, it’s happy to just come up with some good questions. It might limit the film’s overall potential, but Foster, O’Dowd, Plemons, Cohen and Frears all do excellent work here.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; screenplay by John Hodge, based on a book by David Walsh; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Valerio Bonelli; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Alan MacDonald; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seward and Kate Solomon; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Medecin Michele Ferrari), Denis Ménochet (Johan Bruyneel), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu) and Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman).


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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)

Guardians of the Galaxy does something splendid and director Gunn never really acknowledges it, which just makes it more splendid. The Rocket Raccoon character–beautifully voice acted by Bradley Cooper–is easily the most successful CG film creation to date. And Cooper gives the film’s best performance; whoever directed Cooper in the sound booth, be it Gunn, Cooper himself, someone else, does a great job.

Gunn directing the actual actors? Not a great job. Not great enough to notice Chris Pratt’s vanishing accent, Pratt and Zoe Saldana’s shocking lack of chemistry, Saldana’s more shocking lack of presence or the not even soap opera nefarious villainy of Lee Pace. So not a good job.

The less said about Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro the better.

Tyler Bates’s musical score combines plagiarism and ineptness (like much of the film’s visual design, actually).

Guardians is mean-spirited “fun,” with the audience always asked to laugh at someone or other’s suffering. The scenes where Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman try to confront it–usually between Pratt and Saldana–stop the film cold. Then the raccoon or his walking tree (who gets all the wonderment, which is silly) come along and save things.

Or even Dave Bautista, who’s not exactly good, but he’s sincere. And sincerity goes a long way in Guardians because there’s so little of it.

Gunn exhibits apathy, cruelty and an utter lack of imagination. Guardians is far better than it should be.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Gunn; screenplay by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on a comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne and Craig Wood; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Lee Pace (Ronan), Michael Rooker (Yondu Udonta), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), John C. Reilly (Corpsman Dey), Glenn Close (Nova Prime), Laura Haddock (Meredith Quill), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Peter Serafinowicz (Denarian Saal), Christopher Fairbank (The Broker) and Benicio Del Toro (The Collector).


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