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No Spoiler Captain Marvel and More in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf No Spoiler Captain Marvel and More in TheatersPhoto still from "Captain Marvel," via IMDb.
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Blockbuster season kicks off early this year with a very solid new super friend. An absolutely brilliant peek into our past, creepy Irish horror (just in time for St. Paddy!), and an entirely forgettable story about trying not to remember stuff round out the options.

Captain Marvel

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

We had very high expectations for Captain Marvel.

Because showcasing this historic, female Marvel hero offers the chance to see everything from a new lens?

That’s awesome, but no.

Because Oscar-winner Brie Larson is always a kick and we could not wait to see what she could do with such a big movie?

True, but no.

We were pumped because writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are amazing filmmakers and we always, always have high expectations for their work. Who cares that it‘s a superhero movie? True, they’ve made their names with indie standouts (Half Nelson, Sugar), but we were betting they could move the setting to “blockbuster” and keep their character-based storytelling instincts.

After a wobbly start, that bet pays off.

So does Larson. She commands the screen — not to mention earthlings and aliens alike — and is a flat-out gas as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Even better is the way Boden and Fleck address sexism with a character who’s basically just always pissed off.

Agent Fury (Sam Jackson – hilarious) is right: the “grunge thing” suits her.

Grunge is a thing because Captain Marvel wallows gleefully in all things 90s, especially the tunes. A glorious action sequence set to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” is a high point, and could’ve rivaled Kingsman‘s “Free Bird” segment if given a Skynyrd-level running time (lighters down, please). A needle-on-turntable shot seems a bit out of place, but hey, that Nirvana tune that follows goes down just fine.

The throwback vibe entertains, and the clever soundtrack kicks all manner of ass — as does Marvel. The humor feels mostly right, the galactic tensions carry greater weight as the film progresses, and both the mid and end credits stingers are winners.

Boden and Fleck (with co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet) streamline Danvers’s comic book history effectively, but as is often the case with these origin stories, Act I still sputters, betraying a lack of intergalactic vision (or too much of a fondness for cheap-ass Star Trek movies). Once Vers (The Captain’s pre-metamorphosis name) hits earth and some deeper themes are woven into the fun, Captain Marvel finds its groove.

Much of that is thanks to Jackson, whose chemistry with everyone is his trademark in films, and his screen time with Larson is always a sparkling, witty treat. Because of its time stamp, the film can also craft an engaging origin story for Fury, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the entire Avengers project, aided by continually amazing advancements in digital fountains of youth.

Jude Law, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch sparkle in a supporting cast buoyed by Ben Mendelsohn’s welcome presence. Playing sometimes with, and sometimes against type, he reminds Big Box Office audiences that he’s so much more than his scenery-chewing villains of late. (Boden and Fleck, who cast him in their amazing poker flick Mississippi Grind, already knew this.)

So, over 20 films and DC’s Wonder Woman success later, the MCU offers its first female lead, a fact certainly not lost on Boden and Fleck. They pull no punches when it comes to the idea of heroism: question authority, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t accomplish, fuck mansplaining. Oh, and heroes rescue refugees, they don’t cause them more suffering.

And as much as Wonder Woman earned its acclaim, Marvel manages to one-up DC yet again. Captain Marvel is anchored by even more unabashed girl power, managing to stand strong alone while whetting your appetite for what comes next.

Grade: B+

Apollo 11

by George Wolf

A majestic and inspirational marriage of the historic and the cutting edge, Apollo 11 is a monumental achievement, one full of startling immediacy and stirring heroics.

Just weeks after the debut of Peter Jackson’s time-traveling masterwork They Shall Not Grow Old, director Todd Douglas Miller also makes history live again through similar reliance on restorative genius and respectful restraint.

There is no flowery writing or voiceover narration, just the words and pictures of July 1969, when Americans walked on the moon and returned home safely.

The restored footage is so crisp and detailed (even more so in the IMAX version) that shots of a young Johnny Carson among the launch spectators stand as a bracing reminder that this is not the latest big budget Hollywood production.

This is living, breathing history you’re soaking in. And damn is it thrilling.

From the capsule “home movies” of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to the mission control checklists and ticking event countdowns, Apollo 11 immerses you in moments that will elicit breathlessness for the drama, pride for the science, respect for the heroism and awe for the wonder.

And still, Apollo 11 stands even taller for its own humble nature. Even in this grand scale, the film never feels like it is trying to deliver a final word, in fact just the opposite.

It is a salute to the thirst for knowledge and discovery with an invitation, on the near 50th anniversary of the iconic voyage, to reconsider the achievement.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check if there’s any theaters still playing First Man….

Grade: A

The Hole in the Ground

by Hope Madden

About a month ago the film The Prodigy came out, and promptly disappeared. Lee Cronin’s Irish horror The Hole in the Ground treads similar territory: a mother looks at her young son and wonders with terror who it is she sees.

Where Prodigy took the path most ludicrous, Cronin mines a parent’s disappointment, grief, loneliness and alienation for more poignant results.

Sara (Seána Kerslake), along with her bib overalls and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey), are finding it a little tough to settle into their new home in a very rural town. Chris misses his dad. Sara is having some life-at-the-crossroads anxiety.

Then a creepy neighbor, a massive sink hole (looks a bit like the sarlacc pit) and Ireland’s incredibly creepy folk music get inside her head and things really fall apart.

I grew up listening to nothing but Irish music. If you don’t think it’s creepy, you aren’t listening properly.

In execution, The Hole in the Ground is less The Prodigy and more of a cross between the masterpiece of maternal grief, The Babadook, and another Irish horror of changelings and woodland spirits, The Hallow. (Plus a surprise third act inspiration I won’t mention for fear of spoilers.)

You look at your child one day and don’t recognize him or her. It’s a natural internal tension and a scab horror movies like to pick. Kids go through phases, your anxiety is reflected in their behavior, and suddenly you don’t really like what you see. You miss the cuter, littler version. Or in this case, you fear that inside your beautiful, sweet son lurks the same abusive monster as his father.

Cronin’s subtext never threatens his story, but instead informs the dread and guilt that pervade every scene. Performances are quite solid and the way folklore — in tale and in song — is woven through the story creates a hypnotic effect.

If you’re a horror fan looking to celebrate the season, here’s a more authentic way to do it than watching Leprechaun for the 15th time.

Grade: B+

I’m Not Here

by Brandon Thomas

Loss, regret and redemption permeate people’s lives. We all have those things we wish we could “do over” — a life mulligan, if you will. It’s a universal fantasy that binds us together as human beings. This idea of redemption, or at least the understanding of one’s mistakes, is right at the muddled heart of I’m Not Here.

Steven (J.K. Simmons) is a shell of a man. He drinks too much, lives in squalor and has distanced himself from his remaining family. Through a rotating series of flashbacks, we’re introduced to Steven as a boy dealing with the complexities of his parents’ divorce, and also as a young man (Sebastian Stan) who has just started to make his own life-altering missteps. For present-day Steven, a phone call delivering upsetting news brings all of his past trauma to the surface.

I’m Not Here is frustrating. Its cast is more than capable of knocking this kind of material out of the park, but they are hobbled by a poor script and weak direction. Simmons fares best as his segments are solo and allow him to channel the intensity that’s he’s so well known for. The rest of the cast, including Stan, Maika Monroe and Mandy Moore, get bogged down by the cliche-ridden script. The lack of subtlety, especially in the flashback segments, undermines the emotional wallop of grief and loss that director Michelle Schumacher is trying to convey.

Schumacher’s handling of the material is scattershot. The present day scenes involving Simmons show a confidence that isn’t replicated in the flashbacks. The present day material has a more natural flow that lets the audience settle into Steven’s world of loneliness and self-pity. The darkness of his home mirrors the darkness of his life. On the other hand, the flashbacks offer hazy, overlit scenes that wouldn’t be out of place on CBS’ prime time schedule.

Casting Steven as the ultimate Unreliable Narrator is perhaps I’m Not Here’s greatest strength. His unwillingness to come to terms with his choices have clouded his memories with excuses. Steven’s memories cast him as a victim with only slivers of truth peeking through.

I’m Not Here has the foundation for a complex look at how tragedy and grief shape us, but it doesn’t have the follow-through. This one is not worth remembering.

Grade: C-

Also screening in Columbus:

The Kid (R)
Tito and the Birds (NR)
A Tuba to Cuba (NR)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to his weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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