Captain Marvel

I’m not what you think I am

Captain-MarvelIt’s hard to believe there’s anything new in the world when you sit through the trailers before a Marvel movie (“Hi kids! Do you like the thing you’re about to see that you’ve basically already seen? Then you’re bound to love these other not-yet-released things that you will have basically already seen once you see the thing you’re seeing!”). But absent of kicking all the formula brain-junk to the curb, Captain Marvel is something to check out for the inclusion, the not-taking-itself-too-seriously aspect that its contemporaries are missing, and the moment you realize that you’re seeing Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, and Jude Law in the same movie (and all sharing in the struggle to make really bad dialogue sound passable).

Aside from a nonchronological backstory about Vers’s (Larson) past as an Air Force pilot on Earth (after which she lost her memory and was absorbed into the Kree special ops following an encounter with the sneering Yon-Rogg, played by Law), the plot is essentially that of She-Ra: the heroine mindlessly fights for an organization that is all but named “The Bad Guys,” and after a meaningful encounter with the enemy (natives just trying to live their lives), realizes she’s on the wrong side, and gets her act together. This is what Star Trek Beyond should have been, but there, Starfleet were the colonizers pushing the frontier races to the edge of the map, and we were still supposed to see them as the heroes. Vers, real name Carol Danvers (which she learns after reuniting with the Earthlings once closest to her), gets with it fairly quickly in the scheme of things, and realizes that Yon-Rogg stole her entire past and essentially turned her into a brainwashed minion just so he wouldn’t have to admit to the Kree’s leader, the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) that he fucked up a mission.

Captain Marvel has to rank up there will the better movies of its genre. Brie Larson is so seasoned and versatile at this point (see Short Term 12, Rampart, and yeah, Room) that she can play Carol as an otherworldly being with incredible powers while also making her relatable. Even when she’s raging through an alien aircraft and fighting for her life (barefoot, I might add) or being interrogated by cops on a foreign world, you still feel like you’re just kind of hanging out with her. The entire time Carol puts on the “Vers” persona, you see her emotions beneath it, looking for the cracks.

The supporting cast, including ace pilot Maria Rambeau (fully committed Lashana Lynch), Talos (appropriately hammy Ben Mendelsohn), and Nick Fury (a Benjamin-Buttoned Samuel L. Jackson in Fury’s most relevant appearance) complete the lineup of characters who all seem to have their own actual lives outside the plot, rather than just being a bunch of box-ticking dweebs waiting around to be encountered by the hero (can’t say the same for any of the other outer-space characters, though).

Law plays a different kind of Marvel villain: Yon-Rogg is a skilled fighter and a ruthless bastard, but doesn’t have any superpowers. His defining villainous characteristic is simply that he’s a douche with bad ideas, and decides in a vital moment that he would rather save face (no matter the cost) than admit to a mistake – or worse, that his way of doing things could use some work. The revelation of Yon-Rogg (and not Talos) as Carol’s real enemy shines a new light on the opening scene, in which a restless Carol wanders to his room in the middle of the night to spar (and which is shot in a way that indicates trust and intimacy more than “let’s fight because we’re warriors and I’m bored”). Yon-Rogg feels entitled to Carol’s respect even though she outsmarted him in a moment she doesn’t remember, and has convinced himself that she – the one who can shoot superpowered plasma from her fists – needs to prove her worth to him. It’s really gross, fetishy stuff that doesn’t receive full context until the end, and Law, even when playing a one-dimensional character without that much screen time, makes it feel like so much more is going on beneath the surface. Carol’s real triumph, alongside saving the world and at least two races from genocide, is the realization that she doesn’t have to prove anything to this goon.

It’s also (albeit implicitly) one of the more queer-friendly Marvel movies. (Seriously: I will believe that Carol and Maria were “best friends” the day I believe Sailors Uranus and Neptune were “cousins”).

Despite feeling leaner than some of its predecessors, Captain Marvel has a few shortcomings that stand out. Bening’s performance is phoned-in to the point of being hard to watch at times. The filmmakers are too confident about the CG, pulling ill-advised closeups of Carol’s face when she’s entirely made of hastily-rendered computer blob. It’s hard to buy into the universe as a whole, because context is kind of thrown out the window (for instance, why are the Kree, an “alien race,” basically just humans? Why are they led by an artificial intelligence? What exactly is a Flerken, and why does it look like a cat? I’m sure this stuff is covered in the comics, but if the films are their own thing, you have to actually finish them). The final act gets a little too Guardians of the Galaxy-like with humor that doesn’t land and swerves that take some of the air out of the story. The ’90s music is overtly placed and distracting.

Overall, the film adds stakes to Avengers: Endgame (probably not appropriately named, given how long this franchise is destined to last) and gives the series a lead worth investing in. Try getting a better deal from those other comic book movies.

captain_marvel_posterCaptain Marvel (2019); written and directed by Anna Boden; starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, and Lashana Lynch).

 

 

Ruby Sparks

It’s love!  It’s magic!

As a writer, I hate movies about writing.  The writing process is always watered down and simplified to remind the viewer of creative processes with which they might be more familiar, such as visual art, acting, or music – this is not to say that these other art forms don’t have their own special challenges, methods, and struggles, but writing is endlessly interior, fiercely personal, and heavily misunderstood by those who don’t write, which makes it impossible to depict onscreen.  Additionally, writers are often portrayed as grubby, anti-social Arthur Miller lookalikes who live alone, have bizarre, often estranged parents, and who pass out over their typewriters when they have writer’s block.  Hell, even Miller was portrayed as somewhat of a parody of himself in last year’s My Week With Marilyn.  Why does this keep happening?  Because the people creating these stories about writers are partaking in an entirely different creative venue – film-making – a collaborative effort with a process infinitely disparate from that of writing prose or poetry.

On top of the technical inaccuracies, a filmmaker’s portrayal of the writing life is often laughable to writers, even successful ones; the ingenuity of it all is that the layman (i.e. 95% of moviegoers) doesn’t know the difference.  That said, take Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), the protagonist of Ruby Sparks, a fantasy/romance/dramedy, the brainchild of Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay and also co-stars as Ruby.  Calvin is in his mid-twenties, has one novel published, and is already a successful, famous, moneymaking author with his own house and swimming pool, and whose book is apparently taught in most high schools.  He is frequently referred to as a “genius” by his peers, and his favored book houses stand by to excitedly publish whatever he may come out with next.  Lavish parties are held in his honor.

Preposterous?  Yes.  But it’s not all sunshine and unicorns for Calvin.  Still bothered by the death of his father and the subsequent exeunt of his girlfriend of five years, Calvin sees a therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould!), who attempts to help by giving Calvin “writing assignments” to both alleviate his writer’s block and to help with deal with his issues.  “Can it be bad?” Calvin asks.  Rosenthal answers, “I would love it to be bad.”  This gave me the sense that Kazan was channeling one of her workshop leaders and not a therapist, but it’s an effective trigger for what happens next in the story.

Feeling a new freedom by being allowed to write “bad” prose (really?  He’s a published author and has never heard that good writing doesn’t come out right the first time?), Calvin begins writing a character study about a fictional girl named Ruby Sparks.  She is his fantasy woman, troubled but down-to-earth, who looks perfect in any style of clothing and who loves all the crap that male nerds are supposed to like (most notably zombie movies).  One morning, Calvin awakens to find Ruby herself in his kitchen eating Crispix and fixing him breakfast.  Thinking he must be hallucinating, Calvin phones Dr. Rosenthal, who doesn’t answer, and then Harry (Chris Messina), his caring older brother who shows genuine concern for Calvin but who is also stern and honest – “Women whose problems make them endearing aren’t real,” he says after reading a first draft of the Ruby story.  Harry comes over to investigate, at first accusing Calvin of hiring an actress to play one of his characters, but finally accepting the truth when Calvin types something about Ruby that instantly comes true.  Ruby, however, not only doesn’t seem to notice that she’s a fictional character under a writer’s control, but thinks she’s been in a relationship with Calvin for six months.  Calvin rolls with it.

The potential here is astronomical.  A fictional character that represents the writer’s ideals comes to life: a perfect metaphor for the writing process and what writing fiction does to a writer, how real characters become, how their lives become part of yours.  Soon, though, the relationship (as it must) begins to resemble a real relationship, which irks Calvin a bit.  Ruby doesn’t always agree with him.  Sometimes she’s too tired to have sex.  She wants to spend time with his family whereas he would rather pretend they don’t exist.  When Calvin finally breaks out the typewriter to tweak Ruby’s behavior (which yields catastrophic results), the film becomes less a metaphor and more a commentary on idealism and a cautionary tale about being controlling in a relationship.  At this point, the film’s structure becomes disappointingly formulaic: we know he will eventually tell her she’s fictional.  We know she’ll react badly.  We know he’ll write a book about it, which will be an incredible success.  We know he’ll run into Ruby again at the end and try to reignite the relationship in the wake of multiple epiphanies.  In this way, the story becomes predictable, all but abandons its metaphor and what appear to be its original intentions, and the final scene, while sweet, is actually a carbon copy of the final scene of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The performances keep things together.  Paul Dano doesn’t get enough work in lead roles, and this one, if inserted into a more intellectually-sound movie, would be Oscar worthy.  Kazan is lustrous as Ruby, though I get the feeling she wrote a few scenes (namely one in which Calvin speed-writes to make her do a dozen different wacky things) to show off her own acting chops – not that I blame her for taking the opportunity.  Steve Coogan appears as yet another evil sleazeball, and a scene in which he attempts to seduce Ruby in a swimming pool is more mustache-twirly than anything Bane does in The Dark Knight Rises.  Antonio Banderas makes an appearance as Mort, Calvin’s stepdad, who carves furniture with a chainsaw and tries very hard to bond with the aloof Calvin (one of the film’s more inspired character relationships, despite the little time it’s given).  I was most excited to see Elliott Gould (my favorite private-eye actor) in another good role at a healthy 73 years old.

The writing life isn’t like this.  Even successful writers (that is to say, writers who have a consistent output and who are respected in the literary community; not hacks, sell-outs, and flashes-in-the-pan making a killing off of stale, derivative Y.A.) aren’t giving readings at packed theatres, likely not even writers like Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer last year for A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Additionally (and this is a problem every movie about writing has), the small bits of Calvin’s writing we actually get to hear aren’t good.  Again, the layman doesn’t know the difference and probably isn’t even giving thought to the quality of the writing (hell, the average reader doesn’t even do that), but Kazan could have set aside the self-indulgence for a moment and hired a prose writer to pen the passage of Calvin’s writing we hear at the end.  Might I also add that I could not get past Calvin’s (Kazan’s) decision to name the dog after F. Scott Fizgerald, “one of the greatest novel writers ever.”  A writer of Calvin’s apparent depth would be more likely to name a pet after a character, not an author, though Ruby’s assessment of Calvin’s naming choice adds a certain charm to the whole thing.  If you want to see what weird, reclusive writers actually name their pets, look up the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s cat.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I really enjoyed this movie.  I loved the initial concept, most of the characters, and their inspired attempts to live with each other.  Its potential and risk-taking are miles above something like The Bourne Legacy, but I tend to be harsher when something with so much pretense of intellect and promise of big payoff falls slightly short of the goal (or, in any case, what I believe its goal should be), especially when it’s so close to home.

Ruby Sparks (2012); written by Zoe Kazan; directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.