Friday, March 8, 2019

'Captain Marvel' Doesn't Have To Prove Anything To You

The dream of the 90's is alive in Carol Danvers

When Wonder Woman opened in 2017, there were numerous reports of women breaking down into tears during the scene where Diana takes to the World War I battlefield, dodging bullets and saving lives, because all the men around her had given up. I was one of those crying women. Finally, finally here was the DC hero I cherished the most growing up, saving the world in a mediocre DC movie, just like all those male superheros had been doing for decades before.

Captain Marvel is the first Marvel movie focused on a female superhero, and if you're thinking "It's about damn time," you're right. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe does have its share of heroines, none have been allowed to carry a whole film until now. And as, essentially, a prequel to Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel also seems poised to carry the entire franchise.

But she's kind of a weird character to set up for that, because while Wonder Woman is quite literally a goddess, Captain Marvel is, most of the time, very much down to Earth, and, as the people around her have made sure she understands through each step of her life, just a girl.

As the film opens, our Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is known as Vers, and she's a Kree, an alien warrior race at war with the Skrull, shape-shifters who are encroaching on Kree territory. Vers has a mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) with whom she spars both physically and verbally. He's always telling her she needs to control her emotions, while she sarcastically tells him he needs to stop worshiping her. After all, she's got photon blasters for fists, who wouldn't worship her?

After a capture by the Skrull and an escape that has her crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster in 1995 Los Angeles, on a planet she knows as C-53 (a real "shithole" according to her fellow Kree), Vers starts to realize the past she can never remember may have a beginning on this very planet.

This is a Captain Marvel origin story, but it's also a Nick Fury (Samuel. L. Jackson) origin story as well, because in 1995, he and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are two very smooth faced agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (CGI de-aging effects work better on Jackson than on Gregg, who I just assumed was some kind of android imposter for at least five minutes.)

Brie Larson brings an effortless breeziness to her character. Perhaps heeding the advice of her mentor, when Vers first lands on Earth C-53, she seems to be keeping her emotions in check, not letting much phase her, from the agents who want to question her, to the aliens who want to capture her, to the asshole on a motorcycle who tells her to smile (nice). This lightness also feeds into her scenes with Agent Fury, allowing Jackson to bring some comedy to his character. They have some great moments together. (Though none are as great as Jackson's moments with a cat named Goose, who basically steals the whole movie.)

The Marvel movies have been superior to DC movies in a number of ways, but the biggest reasons for me have always been their humor, perfect casting, and character authenticity. Captain Marvel has all three down, with much help from Annette Benning as a spooky AI god, Lashana Lynch as Carol Danver's best friend Maria, and Ben Mendelsohn as a very funny Skrull in a turtleneck. As tends to be the case with most of the Marvel movies, the big battles are never as entertaining as the quieter moments.

If you're a Gen X'er, the film's 90's setting is going to hit all your nostalgia buttons, from that Blockbuster, to the flannel shirts, to the music, which is heavy with girl bands like Garbage, Elastica, and No Doubt (though the use of "Just a Girl" is a little too on the nose). Misogynistic fan boys have had a field day hating on the movie, for a variety of "reasons," and that made me realize the 90's is the perfect era for Captain Marvel to land in. It was the last time women could make noise without having to immediately hear a response from a dozen men screaming about their own alleged suppression. (The Internet ruined everything.)

I'll be honest. Carol Danvers is an endearing and admirable character, but Captain Marvel is not the most exciting superhero. When she comes into her full powers (which happens too late in the film), she's basically unstoppable, and as a result, there's not a lot of tension in those later battle scenes.

And that in itself is fine. Just because Captain Marvel is the first female led Marvel movie doesn't mean it also has to be flawless. Both Thor and the Hulk were allowed to have their own meh movies, and go on to become beloved characters in the universe. The same should be allowed of Captain Marvel. She's here, and she doesn't have to prove anything to anyone.

Friday, March 1, 2019

'Greta' Isn't Great, But Isabelle Huppert Is

She still has CDs. Clearly she's nuts.

Greta is a pretty standard stalker-centered horror film that does nothing new, and yet, because of its pedigree, almost feels fresh. Isabelle Huppert, who has, apparently, never met a crazy lady character she didn't like, stars as the titular Greta. Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan films it like one of his dark fairy tales, setting it in a calm, dark, and quiet New York that's home to mysterious carriage houses with secret rooms, and young women who, when they come across a lost handbag on a subway, don't pocket the cash and toss it away, but instead track down its owner, all the way to picturesque Brooklyn.

Chloë Grace Moretz is the naive Frances, bag finder. Originally from Boston, she's living with her rich friend Erica (Maika Monroe) in Manhattan, working as a waitress, and trying to get over the recent death of her mother. When Frances returns the handbag to Greta in her Brooklyn carriage house, she finds a lonely French widow who misses her daughter, who is close to France's age, and away studying music in Paris. Both women have very obvious voids in their lives that they're aching to fill, and their meeting seems like a fortuitous accident.

Frances offers to help Greta get a dog, joins her on lunch dates, and takes joy in the friendship, all while her friend Erica tells her it seems a little...weird. Of course, Erica is right, and Frances soon learns her meeting Greta wasn't really an accident, and Greta is not the type of woman who takes France's attempts at ghosting lightly.

If you've ever seen a "Crazy Lady" movie, you can guess what follows. Crazy lady won't be ignored! Animals won't fare well. She'll have an uncanny ability to show up everywhere, silently. One sequence has Greta stalking Erica while texting photos of her to Frances, a thrilling bit of filmmaking that's both a modern take on Rear Window, and a sly nod to Maika Monroe's previous appearance in the horror movie It Follows.

Isabelle Huppert has excelled at playing unhinged women for decades, and compared to someone like Ericka in The Piano Teacher, or Hélène in Ma Mère, Greta may seem downright tame. In fact, it is when Greta is at her most calm that she is scariest. Watching her stand silent and still outside a restaurant window for hours is much more chilling than her screaming and flipping tables.

All the performances in Greta are better than the material deserves, including Moretz's kindly and then terrified Frances, and Stephen Rea (it's a Neil Jordan movie, after all) as a very tired detective for hire. (If they ever do a live action version of the Droopy Dog cartoons, he's your man.) As the story gets more and more ridiculous, enjoyment comes less from the surprises of the plot, and more from the continuing surprise that is seeing an actress like Isabelle Huppert in a slasher movie. It's almost like watching one of those commercials movie stars will film in Japan but never in the U.S. You wonder what the hell they're doing that for, and yet, you can't stop watching.