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).

 

 

The Hateful Eight

There won’t be many comin’ home

hateful_eight-jennifer-jason-leighQuentin Tarantino and I are sort of like exes.  I remember our best times (True Romance, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Death Proof) as fondly as any memories I have; however, every few years, he attempts to reignite our relationship, and because he once charmed me so, I’m always seduced again.  “It’ll be like old times!” is what I hear.  My friends warn me against dating again, or they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll work out this time.”  And when it comes down to it, I’m never sorry that I gave it another try, but I can’t deny that things have changed, and I’m ultimately left feeling exhausted at how hard I’ve tried to convince myself that things could be the same as they were.

I introduce this piece this way because True Romance and some others meant so much to me on a cinematic level when I first saw them that I’ve since referred to Tarantino as “Quentin” in conversations with my friends about his films.  These conversations (in the past few years, at least) often involve whether Tarantino has “matured” as a filmmaker, which is to say, “Will he ever do a third act wherein everyone doesn’t get blown away?”  These days, it seems like he keeps doing that simply because everyone keeps criticizing it, but let’s explore a little.

The Hateful Eight, referred to in the opening titles as “The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino” (which gives him two more chances, if you’re keeping score) is a western not in the exact style of any other, but that borrows characters who might wander into a midseason episode of Bonanza and take Michael Landon hostage.  The story centers around Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter “open for business,” attempting to hitch a ride with a stagecoach occupied by another of his kind, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his current prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is wanted for murder but whose crimes are never explicitly revealed to us.  Through one thing and another, the trio, along with soon-to-be-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), end up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they plan on weathering a blizzard before they head into Red Rock.  However, when they reach their destination, they find that other folks – Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Confederate General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and black-hatter Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – are already making use of the premises, and caretaker Bob (Demián Bichir) wasn’t expecting another group.  Oddly enough, Warren, who has been to the haberdashery before, has never once seen Bob, and notices that owners Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are inexplicably missing.  None of this aids the paranoia of the already-paranoid Ruth, who makes a big show of warning the others to stay the hell away from his prisoner.

The film is essentially Reservoir Dogs if the latter took place in the mid-1800s.  It involves several hours of dialogue between very bad people on a single set, initially concerning everyone’s suspicions about one another, and later confirming them in Clue fashion.  It also features Tim Roth not only as a mole, but in a role where he spends a good portion of the film bleeding from the abdomen; and Michael Madsen as another violent maniac who receives the same tracking shot he got in Dogs: walking out of the main set to grab something from his “car” in order to commit another heinous act (and in the process, maybe embracing the fact that he still has not escaped the shadow of Mr. Blonde).

But there’s another layer to The Hateful Eight.  Warren is a black man in America following the Civil War, and is constantly threatened by men like Mannix and Smithers, who resent even sharing a room with him (Smithers, otherwise a kindly-seeming old man, is particularly despicable in that he won’t even speak directly to Warren, instead having Mannix relay the insults for him so that Warren hears them twice).  Not that there are many Tarantino films in which the N-word isn’t employed, but it seems heavily topical in this case, not only for the characters, but in general, when one considers the current social climate in America.

Warren, though, essentially the protagonist of the piece if we have to pick one (making Mannix the deuteragonist), is no Django.  He’s not a straight/narrow good guy simply because he once lived on a plantation.  His actual deeds (if he’s telling the truth about a certain encounter with Smithers’s son) are as bad as those of the other characters, and he’s not shy about relating his experiences in extreme detail while laughing, not to mention using them to goad a feeble old man into a deadly duel he can’t win (not that he doesn’t deserve it).  Samuel L. Jackson once again plays a layered and intense character, and although he has appeared in most of Tarantino’s work in some form, his characters never become repetitive or blend together (something that cannot, sadly, be said for frequent contributor Madsen at this point).

The other real wildcard is Daisy, who acts like she doesn’t much care about being taken to her death by Ruth (although she doesn’t appreciate it much when he blatantly elbows and punches her in the face for so much as talking or singing a song he doesn’t like).  She’s a hardened criminal, but we can’t quite see her as a villain when surrounded by so many other bastards.  Add to that the fact that she’s the only woman among these gruff brutes, and that she’s in chains throughout the entire movie, and she doesn’t seem so bad next to neurotic lunatic Ruth, racist war criminal Smithers, stoic-butcherer-of-innocents Bob, or, y’know, Mr. Blonde.  Regardless, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays what could have been a one-note psychopath as someone that we’re constantly keeping an eye on because she’s just so damn exciting to try to figure out.

Early on, Ruth suspects that someone in the haberdashery was planted there in order to spring Daisy loose, and Tarantino plays curiously close to formula by not only having Ruth be correct, but in some cases telling us what’s going to happen (literally: Tarantino himself voices the narrator who lets us know that “Somebody poisoned the coffee!” while we were watching something else).  Having nearly everyone who was waiting at the haberdashery be involved in the prison-break plot seems obvious and too easy, especially since both Warren and Ruth guess as much two hours before it’s revealed (whereas Mr. Orange being revealed as a cop was a genuine surprise that also made sense with context).  Alas, Gage/Mobray/Bob are all just bad guys who that very morning executed poor Zoë Bell and a cast of the most unsuspecting, likable ingénue-types you’ve ever seen, with the help of Daisy’s brother Jody (for some reason played by Channing Tatum, who seems out of place).  If the intention is to have the result be unexpected because it’s what the audience thought they were supposed to expect, it doesn’t quite work, simply because it’s too tamely handled (even with the vicious actions of the outlaws), and renders some very interesting details we thought we were supposed to be paying attention to (for example, wondering how a pink jellybean wedged between two floorboards ended up where it was) relatively futile.

I’ll give Tarantino this, though: he avoids the extended Django-esque shootout in favor of having each shot fired count for something.  Scenes in which characters are killed take not the form of action scenes, but of old-fashioned duels and straightforward executions.  Appropriate and realistic (aside from the buckets of blood), yes, but still fatiguing after we make it to the end, sitting with the last living characters (who are soon to be goners anyway) and thinking about what we’ve just been through and what it was all worth.  The union of Warren and Mannix is a nice illustration of how things may have been if the South simply looked at slaves as human beings, or perhaps how things could be now if everyone chilled the fuck out and loved one another, but it’s done in such Rocky IV fashion that you have to ask, “What else?” after the credits pop up, even after being in the theater for three hours.

As usual, Tarantino brings out career-highlight performances from the actors, especially Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins, keeps it all hilariously and satisfyingly in-universe (Red Apple Tobacco, anyone?), and leaves us feeling like we’ve witnessed something big happen.  Much like Basterds and Django, it’s not a film I’d probably watch again (something that hurts me to say about a Tarantino piece), but it’s enough to keep me, y’know, casually seeing him.

220px-the_hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight (2015); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Walton Goggins.

 

Django Unchained

The D is silent, hillbilly

Foxx and WaltzDjango Unchained is what I’d consider Quentin Tarantino’s 10th movie (do the math yourself).  This is the “southern” Quentin talked about in 2007, and it’s worlds better, in many ways, than 2009’s Inglourious Basterds – to date, the only Tarantino film I haven’t watched more than once.  My main issue, maybe, besides the “How many times can we kill Hitler on film?” conundrum, was the fact that Melanie Laurent’s and Diane Kruger’s characters were pointlessly killed off after providing a strong female presence, and their Surprise Demises left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of the film.  Quentin has a history of creating genuinely strong and sympathetic female characters – take Kill Bill’s Bride or Jackie Brown‘s Jackie Brown – Bridget and especially Shoshanna were no exception, but their treatment in their film’s third act turned me off.  Here, in Django Unchained, the women don’t do much of anything – Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only female member of the core cast, is basically a walking MacGuffin who waits around to be rescued.  At least she isn’t strangled by Christoph Waltz, though.

The story begins in the 1850s during the height of the American Old West.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and German bounty hunter, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slavers on the road.  Schultz, a non-racist non-bigot in a world where the “N word” is essentially used as the technical term for African-American people, hopes that Django will help him identify a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, as Django once worked on a plantation overseen by them.  In return, Schultz will give Django his freedom and 225 dollars.  Django turns out to be a natural shot with all types of guns, and after slaughtering the Brittles on a plantation owned by the foppish Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, being a good sport as usual), Django enters into an arrangement with Schultz: the two will become bounty hunting partners through the winter, and once the snow melts, they will team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), an unfeeling Francophile who forces slaves into death matches and prostitution on his plantation (hilariously known as Candieland).

The film’s first act follows Schultz and Django as they travel from plantation to plantation, gathering bounties and battling many of the film’s amazing cast of characters, most of whom carry names only Quentin Tarantino could/would come up with (there are so many good ones in Django, in fact, that a character named Crazy Craig Koonz isn’t even shown).  In this first act, Waltz is the dominant actor, and it’s hard not to see Schultz as the main protagonist.  His charisma and eloquence are a force all their own.  Django essentially plays Schultz’s sidekick until the second act, when finally, it is he who must come up with the plans, who must allow horrible things to happen in order to reach his goal, who must stomach the unstomachable.  Up until this point, the film doesn’t feature most of what aficionados might consider “vintage Tarantino”: the long shots, infinite conversations, and invented language give way to more traditional cinematics, but consider the fact that Quentin is working in an established genre this time: the Western.  Once Candie appears, however, the film’s central scene is constructed: a dinner in Candie’s manor, during which Schultz and Django will attempt to trick Candie into selling Broomhilda to them after pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo fighting” enterprise.  Also at dinner are Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie’s sycophantic lawyer, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Candie’s widowed sister, Butch Pooch (James Remar), Candie’s head enforcer, and most importantly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house slave, a race-traitor who immediately suspects Django and Schultz of foul play and eventually reveals their deception to Candie.  The scene harbors as much suspense and potential combustion as anything Quentin has filmed.  Jamie Foxx’s performance resembles the glass lid on a pot of water about to boil.  We know that if he ever goes through with lifting his gun out of its holster, this whole thing is over.

The third act is not what most will expect, mostly because a third act isn’t totally necessary.  It does not contain Dicaprio or Waltz, and introduces new characters in the form of Australian slave drivers played by Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino (yep).  Additionally, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), Candie’s right-hand man, arrives front and center after being a background character for most of the story, which seems a bit “off” only because the role was originally meant for Kevin Costner, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (i.e. the absence of Dicaprio wouldn’t have formed quite so large an empty hole if someone equally/more famous took the lead villain role, though Goggins is great).  This brings us, eventually, to a second “final shootout” at Candieland, which leaves only two characters standing and ends the film with the flair we expect from something so charmingly self-conscious.

As usual, Quentin uses his characters well, and knows the genres in which he works better than anyone.  The film isn’t as indulgent as it could be, though the uber-violence (exaggerated blood and extended gunfights) will turn some away.  The pairing of Waltz and Foxx is inspired, fun, and tense, and the against-type casting of Dicaprio and Jackson as villainous characters brings forth performances so strong that you’ll never once consciously think you’re watching Leo and Sam.  Don Johnson’s character gets an extended scene in which he forms a posse (which includes Jonah Hill) to hunt down Django and Schultz, and he never quite gets his plan out because everyone complains about the makeshift masks they must wear (“I can’t see fuckin’ shit in this,” says Johnson in a gut-busting southern accent).  The scene humorously foresees the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, and Zoë Bell pop up here and there, and there’s even an appearance by Franco Nero, who played the title character of 1966’s Django, a violent and ill-tempered western with over 100 unofficial sequels.

Finally, there is the topic of slavery.  Quentin claimed awhile back that he wanted to do “big issue” films in the form of spaghetti westerns and other genre films, and he wanted to do them because everyone else was afraid to.  As much as this may seem like he’s “spoofing” slavery or other serious tragedies from our country’s history, this isn’t the comical revisionist Hitler-death we saw in 2009.  Ethically, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and the scenes of slave abuse are never exploitative nor meant for ironic humor.  Quentin handles the material responsibly, and certainly does not glorify or rewrite the struggles of laborers any more than last year’s The Help did.  It’s gutsy, transgressive, and not only about slavery, but about the way slavery is portrayed in the movies.

Django Unchained (2012); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo Dicaprio.

The Other Guys

A ballet of emotions

The Other Guys is a buddy cop/double act comedy featuring an unlikely cast of household names.  If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime masterpiece, The Departed, the obvious written-for-certain-actors roles of The Other Guys may be all too apparent (in a good way, however).  Mark Wahlberg plays Terry Hoitz, an obvious reference to his Departed character Sean Dignam.  Wahlberg spends the majority of the film yelling, while Will Ferrell gets top billing as Allen Gamble, a nondescript police desk-jockey who idolizes the department’s supercops, Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson).  Rounding out the main cast is Michael Keaton, Jackson’s co-star from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, this time playing Hoitz/Gamble’s police captain who moonlights as a manager at Bed, Bath and Beyond and inadvertently quotes TLC songs at least four times.

The story follows Hoitz and Gamble, “the other guys” (as labeled by narrator Ice-T) attempting to become the department’s star detectives after Danson and Highsmith inexplicably leap to their deaths.  The man they’re after, David Ershon (Steve Coogan) is a multi-billionaire attempting to cover his company’s losses.  A very interesting end-credits sequence features statistics about AIG, Enron and other companies, as well as depressing numbers about CEO money and average employee treatment.

The film generates some good laughs, and the now-famous improvisation of Will Ferrell takes center stage in a few good scenes, particularly when Hoitz attempts to intimidate Gamble.  The film’s biggest gut-buster occurs when Hoitz decides to play “good cop , bad cop” with Ershon, but Gamble mishears it as “bad cop, bad cop” and throws a screaming fit.  Wahlberg’s character is a great satire of violent police heroes, in one scene shouting “Colombian drug lords!” before single-handedly defeating a group of masked bikers.  Ferrell asks, “How did you know that?”

There are a few good cameos, the best of which is Derek Jeter (who plays himself).  I won’t spoil his reason for being in the film.

But now for my Statler and Waldorf section.  This film centers around pairs of characters.  Hoitz/Gamble, Gamble/his wife (Eva Mendes), Danson/Highsmith, as well as a pair of rival cops (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.), Gamble’s ex-wife and new husband, the bad guy (Ray Stevenson) and his shockingly attractive femme fatale sidekick, and so on.  There are a few too many.  My biggest issue with this: why get The Rock and Sam Jackson to play the supercops only to have them die and be replaced by two characters who are trying to do the exact same thing?  The situation is presented as humorous, but it’s actually a bit of a downer and the film takes awhile to recover.  It’s also a shame because Jackson and Johnson are given very little time to act together, and they’re an inspired duo.  Additionally, there are occasional awkward scenes in which director/writer Adam Mckay, who is accustomed to Ferrell’s improv gems, clearly wrote no dialogue, relying on Ferrell’s humor to save the film.  It doesn’t always strike gold, particularly in his scenes with Eva Mendes.  There are also a few too many jokes at the expense of women, which is par for the course in a movie about cops, but three of them within a minute or two is overkill.

Much like the year’s earlier buddy cop film, Cop-Out, Tracy Morgan appears.  This time, refreshingly, he doesn’t say anything.  Funnily enough, the film is narrated by an uncredited Ice-T who wrote the controversial song “Cop Killer,” and now plays a cop on Law & Order: SVU.  Sorry, no punchline for this one.

The Other Guys (2010); written by Chris Henchy and Adam Mckay; directed by Adam Mckay; starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Steve Coogan and Michael Keaton.