Here’s a heroic hot take: It took 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe films for the creators to accomplish the hat trick of making it all not look so damn hard. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s easy, breezy entertainment Captain Marvel (B+) places its plum protagonist in a hybrid mystery/prequel set in the ‘90s, and it reveals its plot and characters with leisurely delight and a stunning lack of urgency. The easygoing ensemble includes Brie Larsen being cool and collected in the title role, a special effects de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-chill Young Nick Fury, Ben Mendelsohn as a funny and super casual alien menace and a fetching feline stowaway low-key stealing its sequences. Aerial dogfighting, mind bending, light speeding and urban outrunning its way into the beloved comic book franchise, the movie builds atmosphere and drama without Thor sledgehammering or strange doctoring into too much needless complexity. The unfussy story: find yourself, find a secret charged object and set the stage for saving the universe. Plus it’s fairly woke in the casting and character departments. Mawkish supporting performances by Jude Law and Annette Bening are thankfully eclipsed by the nifty grunge-era songbook, splendid visuals and generous helpings of heart (Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are wonderfully warm as the captain’s surrogate family). The cast and crew clearly worked hard on this one, and it’s nice they put on a show without being so showy.
Constructing a clever comedy requires a lot of bright component parts, and I suppose even Henrik Ibsen would marvel at the master builders behind this month’s blockbuster sequel! Veteran animator Mike Mitchell’s The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (B+), wisely written by the original film’s writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is a deft deconstruction of the walls governing plot and pacing. The result is a madcap bricks-and-mortar tour de force filled with hilarious highjinks, industry in-jokes and winning life lessons to be enjoyed by all ages. Chris Pratt (two roles), Elizabeth Banks (heroine) and especially Tiffany Haddish (shape-shifting emerging villain) shine in voice roles as the heroes face “Ar-mom-ageddon,” basically becoming toys thrown in the storage bin. The film blasts its ensemble of heroes and superheroes from a Mad Max style dystopia to an outer space world, with time travel and live action thrown in for good measure. It’s a pretty great musical too, following up “Everything is Awesome” with a variety of enjoyable new tunes including an earworm called “Catchy Song.” Just when you think you know where the plot is going, the creators have a few more bricks up there sleeve. There are so many great throwaway lines and creative gags that this second part may require a second viewing.
Review of the original film here
M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass (B) could also be called Superhero Erased as the always fascinating Sarah Paulson plays a conversion therapist to humans who believe they have superpowers. She turns her attention to a trio introduced in two films now considered the opening salvos of the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy”: Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and The Beast plus his 23-member Horde (James McAvoy). Spencer Treat Clark, who played Willis’s son and Charlayne Woodard who played Glass’s mom in 2000’s Unbreakable and Anya Taylor-Joy as the abducted teen with a touch of Stockholm Syndrome in 2016’s Split round out the primary players in this mystery/thriller oddly devoid of quite the twists and turns the director usually has up his sleeves. Shyamalan puts the puzzle pieces together with joy and precision 90 percent of the time and a bit of clumsiness in the margins (his cameos in his movies, for instance, are almost always stupefyingly bad). The central trio of oddities each gets to showcase a brilliant bag of tricks, with Willis embodying silent heroism, Jackson devilish masterminding and McAvoy a whirling dervish of over-the-top schizophrenic characters. The pacing loses momentum in the denouement, but even a prolonged sequence which begs “get to the point already” gets ultimately explained. There are knowing references for devotees of the first films and enough soap opera twists and turns to catch up newcomers to the series. For a film called Glass, it could use a bit more sharpness and clarity. Although far from perfect, it certainly falls into the recommended works by this director.
This is the third film in what is unofficially called the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. See also these reviews of the other films, which were a bit better but together make an interesting observation about heroes and humanity:
Adam McKay’s genre-hopping Vice (B) is a distant cousin to Oliver Stone’s similarly dark comedic Natural Born Killers, admirable for creative storytelling about issues ripped out of the headlines but a bit confounding in what it’s intending to explore about its caricatures. Christian Bale is as good as you’ve heard brilliantly inhabiting the enigmatic role of Dick Cheney at various points in his life; he’s best in his quietest moments utterly lacking in expected reactions (his multiple heart attacks are treated like an occasional case of the hiccups). Amy Adams is magnificent as his deeply humanizing wife Lynn; she’s in fact his beating heart and just as ruthless. Many others in the ensemble simply feel like stunt casting, although Sam Rockwell does indeed make a spiffy W. The plot largely explores the build-up of the case for unilateral presidential (and strong vice presidential) authority and for the Iraq War. McKay so blissfully plays with the conventions of cinema – never trust a closing credit scroll or that a sequence won’t show up in iambic pentameter – that he often loses track of his central themes. In the film’s straight down the barrel of a shotgun portrayal of Wyoming’s famous son who stays pretty resolute in his principles and doesn’t care if you like him or not for it, you can find traces of character to please both sides of the aisle. But largely it’s a blistering assessment of power and an indictment of what the Cheney/Bush (or was it the other way around?) administration did with said power when they had it. There wasn’t a big record to clear up here, and the film doesn’t attempt to rose color it.
Although there’s nary a line as memorable as Gran Torino’s “Get off my lawn!” this time around, Clint Eastwood’s The Mule (B+) continues the actor/auteur’s loving curmudgeonly entreaty to the next generation to be kind to people even when the words coming from your mouth fail to express it, to take time for those you love even if you weren’t always great at this gesture in the past, to seek inner peace inside your family over the clarion calls of the outside world and to quit living on your damn cellphone. Eastwood as both director and leading man imparts his brilliant life lessons through an unconventional, deliberately paced tale and brings out lived-in performances from cast mates ranging from Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña as federal agents, Andy Garcia and Ignacio Serricchio as drug-lords and Dianne Wiest as the protagonist’s estranged ex-wife. The plot answers the question about what second career an old-school gardener can take in the internet age, and it’s not greeter at the local discount superstore. Eastwood’s enlistment as an inauspicious 90-year-old drug courier for a ruthless Mexican cartel provides the spry senior with a new job involving seeing the countryside, singing along to favorite radio oldies and procuring ample envelopes of cash, before the runs get increasingly dangerous. Many of Eastwood’s late-career (or is this mid-career?) films contemplate Big Issues, and he and screenwriter Nick Shenk (the man behind the words of Torino as well) do a splendid job balancing tangible tension and action, a marvelously relatable flawed hero and a small dusting of issues related to crime, class and race to be sorted out at your own leisure. Some mild quibbles include the hero’s occasional muttering of self-conscious soliloquy under his breath, inconsistencies about his spectrum of naiveté, some tender moments that get a little too treacly and pacing that could be a good bit tighter. But overall Eastwood’s metaphors are in full bloom, and he’s no passive rider in chronicling the American story. He’s still a major voice making movies that matter.
All hail Saoirse Ronan! As the titular star of Josie Rourke’s absorbing mostly historical drama Mary Queen of Scots (B), the fierce young actress adds to her sterling repertoire of strong female roles and brings pulse pounding verve to what could have been a dull period piece. The actress is commanding and imaginative and summons viewers to follow her anywhere. Eschewing some of the wilder audacity of another costume drama on the market right now, Rourke’s entertaining film is straightforward in plot and purpose, but it’s a fitting and feminist take on what royal women have to do to maintain power even as sovereigns surrounded by manipulative men. Under pancaked prosthetics, Margot Robbie successfully disappears into the role of Elizabeth I of England, rival to the throne versus Ronan’s Mary Stuart of Scotland. The film gets high marks for inclusive casting and upping stakes often as the women contemplate various pathways to extend their respective royal bloodlines. In addition to the strong women, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester and Ismael Cruz Córdova shine in the ensemble. The film handles a few pivotal sequences a bit oddly, but overall it’s rousing.
Alfonso Cuarón’s family drama set in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood in the early 1970s, Roma (B), is an elegiac tribute to his family’s real housekeeper who was a steady presence as the family slowly splintered. Told with a sweeping tableaux of intimate and epic moments, photographed in black and white 65 millimeter glory and using rich natural sounds without an underscore to accompany several Spanish language dialects, the film is a roaring technical achievement. Tracking shots of bustling city life, a youth revolt and an ocean vista are among its most stunning. The burden of narrative is carried largely on the shoulders of first-time actress Yaritza Aparicio, and she is marvelously revelatory and relatable. A lot happens and also not very much. There’s a long stretch of cleaning house and talking to the dog. There are multiple sequences of the family children talking but not saying much. But then the protagonist is hoisted into a world of opulent cityscapes, profound joy and grief and even a moment or two of genuine action against the backdrop of rising political unrest and tension. Cuarón beautifully and fully recreates the squalor and splendor of his semi-autobiographical childhood memories with his camera floating through its settings and subjects as if caught up in a dream. The storytelling is spare and lacks dramatic characterizations and fully realized linkages to match the power of the visuals. See it in theatres if you can, but even on Netflix, prepare to behold the panoramas of gorgeous moviemaking.
There’s a whole new convention for comic book aficionados, and it arrives in the form of a brilliantly conceived and rendered animation style and congregation of fringe superheroes. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (B) is a triumph of visuals and tone, capturing comic book aesthetic and tongue in cheek escapism. The story sputters out a bit midway amidst the kaleidoscopic New York set pieces, layered characters with text bursts and eye-popping swirls and swatches of dimensional color. The inclusive film explores a multiverse of Spider-Man personas converging, which gives us a half African-American/half Puerto Rican protagonist, female fighter, film noir hero and anime Spidey in the mix for confrontation with audacious baddies. Shameik Moore, Jake Johnston, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Nicolas Cage are among the voice talents. It’s fun for both purists and first-timers to the arachni-phile adventurer pantheon with an awesome message true to the late Stan Lee’s vision that everyone can be a hero.
Best known for one of the showiest portrayals of rage set to cinema (pet rabbits beware Alex’s Fatal Attraction!), Glenn Close gets to take a slow-burn turn as doting spouse with a secret in the sleeper character study film that may finally land her a deserved Academy Award. Björn Runge’s austere drama The Wife (B-), written by Jane Anderson based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, follows Close as the title character and her novelist husband (Jonathan Pryce) on a fateful trip to Stockholm where he receives a Nobel Prize for Literature and she experiences a wake-up call about why she has enabled an extremely flawed partner. Pryce is an effective blowhard, and Christian Slater is also quite watchable as a snooping biographer. But it is Close who commands every frame she is in and elevates an occasionally bourgeois bore into a banger. A veteran actress conveying deep and abiding emotions, Close may be the unexpected face of the #TimesUp movement in a year full of strong female performances. The film’s quietly observant style is strongest in the pivots – when argument turns to embrace, when adoration descend into disgust. Film buffs will appreciate that Max Irons plays her adult son (Close’s Reversal of Fortune co-star Jeremy Irons is the actor’s dad). Although they are fine actors, Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd as flashback versions of the central couple can’t quite compete with the master class shadows Close and Pryce cast. Not quite as revelatory or rousing as it often intends, the film is unquestionably lifted by Close’s every contribution and her strong choices about pacing and piercing to the heart of a given situation. In more ways than one, her time has come. It’s her world against his.
Steven Caple Jr.’s Creed II (B) – or “Rocky VIII” as some have termed it – has a serious case of history repeating with throwbacks to the notorious Drago-Creed and Balboa-Drago fights behind the Iron Curtain. Despite following the sports series’ rather prescriptive formula, though, this entry injects some pretty heavyweight domestic drama into the mix surrounding the big showdown. Michael B. Jordan takes a little while to get in the swing of things but regains gravitas in an impressive physical and emotional performance. Sylvester Stallone (also credited as a co-writer) is again a delight in his supporting perch. Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad are wonderful as the women who complement and challenge the powerhouse protagonist. While there are some significant lulls, the overall effect is swift and surefooted. In Caple’s capable hands and with some fun cameos to reward longtime fans of the series, this fight film certainly takes flight.
In a year of breakthrough films by African-American directors, of black excellence, panthers and klansmen, of Beale Street scuttlebutt and warrior widows, an unlikely white director has also hopped on the race relations bandwagon, helming a durable and crowd pleasing vehicle that’s worthy of more than a footnote. In fact, there’s something about director Peter Farrelly, best known for gross-out comedies, that yields a consistently bright and triumphant tone for Green Book (A-), elevating a true story to modern classic status. This 60s-set dramedy features Viggo Mortensen as a white nightclub bouncer who takes a job as driver and security for a black piano prodigy played by Mahershala Ali on a multi-state concert tour, guided by the titular journal about how to stay on a straight and narrow path through the segregated Deep South. The central performances are authentic and lived in, with Mortensen chewing the scenery and any food in sight as a portly pugilist with buckets to learn and Ali lending delicate dignity swirled with a worldly virtuoso to a lonely character who finds himself a multiple outcast in his own skin. The buddy comedy elements of the film are fittingly amusing and often revelatory, so it’s heartening when Farrelly resists most hamfisted impulses even when the narrative takes dramatic detours. Combined with lovely music, impeccable art direction and two of the most iconic performances of the year, it’s old-fashioned Hollywood manipulation that’s hard to resist. While film historians may claim one must choose between the likes of a more traditional tale such as Driving Miss Daisy or a gut-punch of modern cinema such as Do the Right Thing to chronicle the racial reconciliation agenda, there’s spotlight aplenty for multiple lenses addressing America’s most complex questions when it bubbles up from the right spirit. Farrelly’s film is more Miss Daisy/Hoke Colburn or Andy Dufresne/Red territory on the moviemaking map, but even a familiar road to redemption filled with such grace notes so gorgeously played is well worth treading.
Transplanting a British miniseries to modern day Chicago centering on a quarter of women completing a heist started by their late husbands, Steve McQueen’s mystery/drama Widows (A) is juicy, layered, intense and phenomenal. Buoyed by an excellent Viola Davis as the central protagonist (her late husband is inspired casting: Liam Neeson) and boasting an across the board fabulous ensemble, the film roars with thrilling intensity while always keeping the characters grounded in reality. McQueen organically laces into his vigilante milieu themes of racial and gender inequality and empowerment, cycles of crime and violence and the tenuous ecosystem of gangland and political turf. The film is ultimately a fugue on who’s playing one another in an elaborate urban powder-keg, with subtle shifts and surprises keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Despite topicality, it’s extremely entertaining. Kudos to Elizabeth Debicki, who shape shifts in a complex emotional role as an abused woman discovering her power, and Daniel Kaluuya who plays against type as a cold-blooded criminal. Robert Duvall and Colin Ferrell are also superb as a father-son political dynasty brokering alliances in a corrupt neighborhood. The film is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t pull back from showing the evil that men do. Expect to see Viola Davis honored for characteristically superb work – she’s daring, direct and dramatically controlled – and it would be wonderful if McQueen’s thoughtful female-led thriller catches fire at the box office and awards season.
Note: This film will be available in wide release theatrically November 16, 2018.