Movie Reviews - 2019 postsMonday March 18, 2019
Movie Review: Captain Marvel (2019)
I hope this gets more people to watch “The Right Stuff.” Then they’ll get the Pancho’s reference. Real heroes, kids, not the super kind. But still the super kind.
I have to admit, when I collected (1973-79), I was never a fan of Captain Marvel—either version. The character started out male, wearing a green suit and fighting in outer space, or the astral plane or some shit, and none of it resonated with me. Give me New York. Give me terra firma. Then he went red and blue and shared the Negative Zone with Rick Jones or something. Clang! Oh, and about the time the Equal Rights Amendment seemed on the verge of becoming a constitutional amendment (in a better America), we got a female version, Ms. Marvel, sporting a blonde bob and not much else: bare legs, bare midriff. Created by dudes, of course—Gerry Conway (my Spidey buddy) and Sal Buscema (my Captain America buddy)—but as part of that legit effort to diversify the ’70s Marvel lineup. I remember little about her origin, so I don’t have much skin in this game. That probably helps.
It also helps that I went in with low expectations. The buzz was OK but only that. It felt like a shrug of a movie. I thought Brie Larson all wrong for the role, too. A puny human. Hardly Gal Gadot, who, besides being an actual Israeli soldier, seems like a foot taller. (IMDb lists a mere three-inch difference: 5’7” vs. 5’10”.) Or maybe Jennifer Lawrence? She seems solid. Brie is a wisp. She’s your babysitter not an intergalactic superhero. But I was wrong; she’s good.
And the movie? I liked it. Enough. Again, I went in with low expectations so I don’t want to raise yours.
It starts slowly, disjointedly, and ends by hooking up with the most recent MCU developments. It takes us full circle: from the intro of the Avengers Initiative (working title: Protectors Imitative) to its most recent incarnation, with half the universe gone. Question: Why did Carol Danvers need a Nick Fury SOS to warn her of that? Surely wherever she was it was the same. Poof. Bye bye. Whatever else he is, Thanos is EOE.
Our hero, called Vers, I guess, is a Starforce member living on the planet Hala in the middle of the Kree Empire (yawn), and she begins the movie with bad dreams: a plane crash, Annette Bening nearby, a Skrull approaching with weapon drawn. Fun fact: I still own the issue—one of the few comics I still own—where the Skrulls (“from Outer Space!”) were introduced: Fantastic Four #2. I bought it for $10 at a Minneapolis comic convention circa 1974. I bargained down from $15. And no, it’s not worth much today. It was dog-eared then and it’s so dog-eared now dogs look at it and go “That’s some dog-eared shit.” But it’s fun to own.
Vers’ commander, Yan-Rogg (Jude Law, with arms like oaks), just wants her to train. We see them going at it, martial arts style, exchanging banter (and sexual chemistry?). She’s insouciant, a taunter, while he’s superserious, which makes her taunt him all the more. He has to admonish her over and over not to use her powers. Which is so like the patriarchy.
Initially, Vers doesn’t impress. There’s a Starforce mission—I didn’t get the gist of it—but it turns out to be a Skrull ambush, which everyone figures out except her. She’s captured, hung upside down, her memories, such as they are, sifted through. Then she breaks free, kicks ass, and winds up on Planet C-54 or something. It’s Earth, circa 1994, and this is when the fun begins. She lands in a Blockbuster Video, where she obliterates the Arnold Schwarzenegger half of a “True Lies” display, then picks up a copy of “The Right Stuff.” Which, seriously, everyone should see. Real heroes, kids.
You know what bugged me? The laughs at the expense of the age that brought us to this one. Our hero asks after tech equipment and is pointed toward a Radio Shack. Laughter. The characters are waiting on a download in 1994 time. Laughter. It wasn’t knowing or sympathetic laughter, either, but superior, as if our age were better. Reveled over by people who moved the needle not a whit.
Anyway that’s the set-up: a few shapeshifting Skrulls are on Earth, and Vers chases them as the cops, or S.H.I.E.L.D.—a CGI-youthenized Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)—chase her. Eventually Fury teams up with her and we get our two big reveals.
She’s not Kree; she’s Carol Danvers, Air Force pilot, who disappeared six years earlier. Seems there was a top secret project led by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Bening) to break the light barrier—just as, in the 1940s, over the Mojave Desert, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, then celebrated at Pancho’s—run by Pancho Barnes, a pioneering female aviator. Oh, and Lawson isn’t human; she’s Kree. BTW: Why bring this technology to us? Because of our long history of peace and good will toward everyone?
The other reveal—shocking to me as a former collector—is that the Skrulls aren’t really the bad guys. They’re refugees searching for a homeland. They’re basically Palestinians. The Kree are the bad guys, led by oak-armed Yan-Rogg, who, in a black-box flashback, is the one who shot down Lawson’s/Danver’s plane and killed Lawson. He also wanted the speed-of-light engine; but Danvers, foiling him, blows it up, and whoops, absorbs its powers.
How powerful is she? More powerful than she knows. It’s similar to the new X-Men trailer we saw before the film, where Prof. X tries to hide Jean Grey’s powers from her, because she’s more powerful than any of them. It’s a theme. It’s Marvel’s #MeToo.
Here, all of it comes to a head at Lawson’s old cloaked space station, where Skrull families, including Talos’ (Ben Mendelsohn, getting to play good), are hiding with the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube. After Yan-Rogg and his team board and capture everyone, Danvers confronts the Kree AI or something (also Bening), then finally realizes her power, or wills herself to that power. She crushes the Kree implant that kept her in check and goes, girl.
Trust me, true believer
A few added thoughts.
Did we need the Kree overlord, or something, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), shooting ballistic missiles at Earth? One, why is he doing it? And two, isn’t it a little 11th-hour? Jude Law should’ve stayed the main villain. Yeah, we get to see Captain Marvel repelling them, which gives us an idea of her true power. Even so.
I also didn’t get much out of her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). She actually had more chemistry with Yan-Rogg.
Speaking of: Yan-Rogg’s team seems way too much like the Asgardian warriors in the Thor movies:
- Black leader (Djimon Hounsou/Idris Elba)
- Power chick (Gemma Chan/Jaimie Alexander)
- Red beard (Rune Temte/Ray Stevenson)
These characters add a dash of something but just a dash, and sometimes it’s unwelcome. Chan’s character, for example, reveals herself as the mean office rival to Larson’s temp. Cf., “Isn’t It Romantic.”
Could they have done more with 1994? “Pulp Fiction” with Samuel L. Jackson on a movie marquee somewhere? How about this: The great gap between then and now may not be in download speed—most of the world wasn’t even online then—but in superhero movies. You get a sense of this when, in the well-done train sequence, we get one of Stan “The Man” Lee’s last cameos. He’s playing himself, running lines for his upcoming appearance as himself in Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats.” That’s the type of movie he was in back then. Because you know what superhero movies were out in ’94? “The Shadow” starring Alec Baldwin, and Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four”—so infamously awful it was never “out”; it was never released. That’s where the Marvel Comics world was in ’94: So peripheral it barely existed.
Now look. Look on its works, ye mighty, and despair.
Movie Review: What Men Want (2019)
I was wrong about this movie. On the way to the theater, I was telling my wife how, in magic-realism comedies starring men, the point is for the man to become a better person (“Liar, Liar,” “What Women Want”), while for female leads it’s mostly about furthering the career (“Isn’t It Romantic”); and based on the trailer, this one looked to continue that trend.
Nope. Ali (Taraji P. Henson) uses her mind-reading power to both further her career and become a better person.
I was wrong about this movie in another way. Based on the trailer, I thought it would be somewhat funny.
Ali begins the movie a gung-ho, up-at-3-am, where’s-my-damn-coffee sports agent for megafirm Summit Worldwide Management, whose acronym, SWM, or Straight White Male, is one of the better, subtler jokes here.
She has a gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener of “Silicon Valley”), whom she bosses mercilessly, and a dad who runs a boxing gym (Richard Roundtree) and who basically raised her like a boy. She fights to win, has selfish sex, and doesn’t have time for BS—other than hanging with her lady friends on Monday margarita nights.
It’s the day SWM’s president, Nick (Brian Bosworth, surprisingly good), is going to announce a new partner and Ali assumes it’s all hers. It isn’t. It goes to a lesser-talented SWM. She’s furious, but Nick says she’s not signing the big talent, just numerous lesser female athletes, and she needs to land someone like, oh, like future No. 1 NBA draft pick Jamal Berry (Shane Paul McGhie), a nice local kid. The problem is his dad, Joe “Dolla” Berry (Tracy Morgan), who basically acts like Tracy Morgan. So she proclaims to the world, or at least to SWM, that she will sign Jamal Berry.
In “What Women Want,” the 2000 original with Mel Gibson, Mel develops the power to hear women’s thoughts when he gets electrocuted with a hairdryer in the bathtub. Here, the magic realism happens when Ali drinks spiked tea from a voodooish fortune teller, Sister (Erykah Badu, good), then conks her head during a bachelorette party. Voila!
What are men’s thoughts? I mean, aren’t we obvious? Sex and money. Right?
Right. Here, we get the usual “tap that ass” stuff. One of the lines that actually made me laugh out loud was the nice elderly man who looks at Ali and thinks how he should’ve slept with a black girl before he got married. But there’s other stuff, too. Farts. I like that the new SWM partner is full of self-doubt.
What most of the thoughts are not, sadly, is funny.
Ali is initially freaked by her new power—as who wouldn’t be?—but it takes Sister to point out the obvious: Maybe this will help her with the job. It does. She joins the SWM poker game with Joe “Dolla,” keeps winning, then, by reading Nick’s mind, realizes she should let Joe “Dolla” win the last hand. Then to please Joe’s family-friendly declarations, she pretends her latest one-night stand, the impossibly good-looking and extremely dull Will (Aldis Hodge), and his young son, Ben (Auston Jon Moore), are her family.
With Jamal, the firm keeps mucking it up (with an idiotic bling video) and she keeps saving the day; but when the father has the son sign with a league in China, for some reason she’s to blame.
Some of the sexist shit the movie doesn’t untangle and may exacerbate:
- Initially, she doesn’t get ahead because she fights like a man, and men don’t like that from a woman
- Her power allows her to appeal to men rather than compete with them
The movie sees this as a positive, but ... really? Then it introduces the whole “She can read men’s minds but it’s better to know what’s in their hearts” thing. Jamal wants to play in Atlanta; that’s what’s in his heart. Right. It was also in his head at the Atlanta Hawks game. Why make the head/heart distinction on something that was in both?
Bless their hearts
So much else. The little kid, bless his heart, is the worst child actor I’ve seen in years. The gay relationship is treated with a head-patting, “I guess this is OK, too” vibe that feels 15 years behind the times. The actor who plays Jamal is OK but doesn’t seem like a No. 1 draft pick, while Will, as mentioned, is so impossibly perfect as to be a non-entity. At a billiards bar, Ali hears the randy thoughts of her friend’s fiancé but Will won’t give a cute, flirty waitress a second glance. He doesn’t even think, “Don’t look at her. Don’t look at that ass.” It’s like wind through a canyon up there. Shouldn’t this be a turn off? It was to me anyway.
Plus the nicer Ali becomes, the less funny she becomes, and the less funny the movie becomes.
You or I could write the rest of it. In the end, she loses her power but wins it all. She signs Jamal, wins back Will, and announces she’s starting her own firm with the nice white agent at SWM (Max Greenfield), as well as Brandon, who’s long pestered her to become an agent. Earlier she claimed he’d make a lousy one, and she was right, but now we’re in Niceland, where nothing is true and nothing is funny.
Someday, in one of these mind-reading things, I’d like to actually learn something about men or women.
Movie Review: Isn't It Romantic (2019)
The problem with most movie parodies is that they wind up buying into the tropes of the genre they’re satirizing. The person who is incompetent and/or cowardly at the beginning (who is us, basically), becomes, by the end, a hero in the Hollywood mold (them):
“Isn’t It Romantic” is a little better than most of these because it actually takes issue with its genre, romantic comedies, and in particular the notion that validation comes from another person. It picks this bone. At one point, we get a rousing version of the rom-com perennial, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” but the movie’s message is closer to Whitney’s “The Greatest Love of All”: Love yourself before you inflict you on other people.
Like that, but nicer. Too nice, really. That's the problem.
Her three issues
Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a smart, pudgy, Aussie girl living in a small apartment in New York City with her dog. She’s an architect, and manages several people at her firm, including Whitney (Betty Gilpin), a dowdy girl who watches rom-coms on her computer. Natalie lets her even though she doesn’t like rom-coms. Early in the movie, she tears into all the stupid tropes: the gay sidekick who has no life of his own; the bitchy coworker intent on ruining our hero; the false love, the true love; the run in slow-mo at the end to let the true love know they’re the true love. Etc.
Natalie has her own true love—or at least someone who wants a date—Josh (Adam Devine), but she thinks so little of herself she can’t pick up the vibes everyone is feeling for blocks around. She also lets others at the firm run roughshod over her. It’s not just Whitney and her movie-watching on company time. The office manager asks her to fix what is the office manager’s job; a hunky billionaire client, Blake (Liam Hemsworth), sends her for coffee; and she literally takes the trash from some chairbound goober too lazy to throw it out on his own.
Got that? These are her issues:
- She lets others boss her around (because she has low self-esteem)
- She doesn’t realize Josh likes her (because she has low self-esteem)
- She hates rom-coms (because she’s smart)
Since we know the premise of the movie, we already know what’s going to happen: Being trapped in the third thing will help her overcome the first two.
During a subway mugging, she conks her head. When she comes to, everything is perfect: the emergency room is like “a Williams Sonoma,” her apartment is huge and stocked with every shoe imaginable, her standoffish neighbor, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), is suddenly her gay best friend, Whitney is now her ultra-bitchy coworker, and Blake, who sent her for coffee, is suddenly dazzled by her sight. My favorite bit is when she realizes what’s happened, and every swear word is blotted out by a truck backing up. “My life’s become a [beep beep] romantic comedy!” she cries helplessly. “And it’s PG-13!”
Given that reality, or fantasy, some might have just enjoyed the ride but not her. She fights it all the way. At the same time, she’s not particularly smart about it. For someone who knows the tropes, she doesn’t exactly call them to her aid. And as funny as Wilson is, she’s not quite actor enough to pull all this off. Many times I was confused about how Natalie was actually feeling.
At the same time, to break the spell, she knows what to do: fall in love. With Blake, she assumes. But even in the rom-com world he’s an asshole, so she finally realizes, “Oh, I’m supposed to be with Josh.” Except he’s already involved in his own impossible rom-com relationship with “Yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra)—the supermodel whose billboard the real Josh stares at all day. All of which leads to her breathless run to the chapel to stop his wedding; instead, that's where she gets her Whitney Houston epiphany: “Learning to love yourself....” Then a car accident, bump on the head, and back to reality.
Like Dorothy and Ebenezer
I like how they do this. So many magic-realism/personal betterment movies, from “Liar Liar” to “What Women Want” and on down the line, never explain how the magic happens. It just does. Here? She was in an induced coma for 18 hours after the subway mugging. It was all a dream. Like with Dorothy and Ebenezer.
The dream still changes her—like with Dorothy and Ebenezer. At work, she becomes assertive, makes her presentation (which is a metaphor for her), and confronts Josh. Another nice bit, actually. She tells him to stop staring at the billboard supermodel outside her window. Josh smiles, gets her to sit in his seat, then he sits in hers and asks, “What do you see?” She realizes, from his angle, he can’t see the billboard out the window; he can only see her. Tears well up. Not just in her eyes, I imagine.
Sadly, the movie ends on a high note, a singalong to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” in celebration of love and “yourself.” Shame they didn’t go back to Natalie’s earlier criticism of rom-coms ending on a high note—the lovers getting together—since, after that moment, the rest is just life. Why not give us a glimpse of Josh and Natalie in two years or 10? Kids or not? Just the everyday of it. Homer eating pork rinds and watching bowling on TV.
The screenplay was written by three women (Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, Katie Silberman) and directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, whose previous film, “The Final Girls,” was similar: teenagers trapped in an ’80s slasher film. Is this his thing now? If so, what genre would you like to see him lampoon next? Hopefully with more teeth?
Movie Review: The Wandering Earth (2019)
“Now it’s China’s turn.”
That’s the general gist in western articles about “The Wandering Earth” (流浪地球), China’s first big-budget sci-fi film, which is currently the most lucrative movie at the worldwide box office. It grossed $350 million in its first week; it may overtake “Wolf Warrior II” to become the No. 1 box-office hit in Chinese history. Hell, it may become the first movie in history to gross $1 billion in a single market. So watch out Hollywood. That’s the general gist.
Here’s some perspective on that.
“Wandering” is the biggest movie at the worldwide box office because: 1) China is the second-biggest (soon to be the biggest) movie market in the world, and 2) it’s Chinese New Year—新年快乐 and all that—which, for the Chinese movie industry, is like Christmas break and the first week of summer all rolled into one. Going forward, unless China allows foreign films, like Hollywood’s, to open during Chinese New Year, I assume a Chinese movie will always be No. 1 at the worldwide box office during this period.
More important: Despite that “worldwide” mantle, it’s really just China. When a Hollywood movie is No. 1 at the worldwide box office, it’s generally because the world tunes in. With Chinese movies, it’s because China tunes in. They haven’t figured out how to appeal to other countries yet.
One suggestion? Stop insulting them.
In “Wolf Warrior II,” China’s biggest box office hit, an African country suffers both civil war and an outbreak of a deadly disease, and every other country, particularly the U.S., flees. We cut and run. Only China remains. It’s a true friend. It runs toward trouble while the rest of the cowardly world runs away.
We get something similar here—albeit in outer space. There’s a million-to-one shot to save the Earth and everything human beings have ever known, and our Chinese heroes are all in favor of rolling those dice. Every other country? They just want to return to their underground homes to spend their last precious hours wallowing in grief in the arms of their loved ones. They all cut and run. Some Europeans—I believe British—also wallow in drink, while the Japanese contemplate hara-kiri; but the Chinese stand firm. It’s only when a bubblegum-blowing junior high student, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), gives a speech about hope that the rest of the world wakes up and joins China in this million-to-one shot. Which works, of course.
As for the U.S.? We don’t seem to exist. The leader of the United Earth Government is French, one of the astronauts is a vodka-loving, patriotic Russian, and there’s a goofy, blonde-haired, wannabe Chinese Aussie named Tim (Mike Sui) along for most of the ride. But the U.S. has either dissolved into the U.E.G. or we’ve ceased to exist. Or we’re just irrelevant.
Frant Gwo’s movie is based upon a novel by Liu Cixin, a respected “hard sci-fi” writer who has won the Hugo Award (2015), the Locus (2017), and the Arthur C. Clark Award for Imagination in Service to Society (2018). “The Wandering Earth” was published in 2000; can’t speak for its hard science.
Problem? The earth is warming up. Reason? No, not that. The sun is just getting bigger and will envelope us. Solution? Turn the Earth into a giant spaceship, of course, which will propel us out of orbit and into a centuries-long journey to find another solar system. In the meantime, everyone lives underground. Some people, mostly the military, work on the surface in spacesuits.
Cut to: 17 years later. Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), the small child of astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing of “Wolf Warrior II”), has now grown up to be a cocky teenager. He also thinks he’s a genius at driving or something; so he gets a fake security pass for him and his younger adopted sister, Duoduo, whom we first see bored and blowing bubbles in class, and they go to the surface, steal a truck, and ride off to ... what’s their plan again? Just to see the surface? Visit dad on his revolving spaceship? (Incidental thought: this Earth future has pretty lame security measures. Is it everywhere or just in China?)
Anyway, they’re arrested, tossed in jail with Tim, and are getting chastised by Grandpa, Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat), when their plot, whatever it was, is interrupted by the movie’s plot: Earth passes too close to Jupiter, causing earthquakes that damage Earth’s rocket boosters, and we get pulled into Jupiter’s orbit. We’re all gonna die. Our team escapes in the same stolen truck but then it’s requisitioned by the military to take some maguffin to another part of China to help with the rocket boosters.
The rest of the movie is about 1) solving the gravitational pull problem, and 2) resolving personal matters. Often at the same time.
As they travel across China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Nanjing, I was surprised that everyone is surprised by the gray frozen wasteland each city has become. It’s like they didn’t listen to the prologue. Half the movie, meanwhile, is Liu Qi’s histrionics. He blames his dad for leaving them and the military for requisitioning the truck that leads to the death of Grandpa. He wants the world to know his pain as the world is ending. He’s like an early Tom Cruise character without the gravitas.
What a brat. I never cared for him. Or his sister. What another brat. Whatever happened to well-behaved Chinese kids? 他们不是乖孩子. They’re as bratty as Americans now. Seriously, chewing gum and blowing bubbles? What’s more American than that? Maybe that’s where America went. We got subsumed by China. First they stole our IP and then they stole our ID. They’re certainly trying to steal Hollywood’s ID. As Xi Jinping has wanted to for a while.
In a way they’ve succeeded. “Wandering Earth” is as stupid as most Hollywood blockbusters. Also more jingoistic.
Me, I couldn’t get past the stupidity. It’s more than the kids. I’m like: “Wait, we’re smart enough to turn Earth into a spaceship but dumb enough to miscalculate on Jupiter’s gravitational pull?” Doesn’t exactly buoy hopes for the rest of the journey.
And there will be more of the journey. This thing is already nearing $500 million in China. They’ll keep going. They’ll push the Earth further and further into outer space. They’ll boldly go where no one but Hollywood has gone before.