Sunday 24 March 2019

Captain Marvel review: 'We wanted less faux mythology, more hand-to-hand fighting and coy pop cultural references'

Also reviewed: Everybody Knows, The Kindergarten Teacher, Border

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel
Brie Larson in Captain Marvel
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Gender wars have inflamed the internet in advance of Captain Marvel’s release, for reasons spectacularly tiresome.

The original Marvel Comics character, who first appeared in the 1960s, was male, and though a female version subsequently occluded him, not everyone is happy that Brie Larson is this film’s star. Superhero nerds, an excitable, defensive, oddly conservative bunch, have in significant numbers turned against this production, trolling Rotten Tomatoes and muttering darkly about insidious feminism.

They’ll be even more unhappy when they actually get to see it, because in a way this sometimes formulaic but intermittently very amusing movie is all about female self-determination. It is also, confusingly, a kind of prequel to the entire Marvel/Avengers franchise, set in the mid-1990s and starring Ms. Larson as an alien who fell to Earth.

In a noisy prologue we are introduced to the extraterrestrial Kree Empire, a noble warrior caste locked in combat with their fearsome, shapeshifting foe, the Skrull. Vers (Ms. Larson) is an enthusiastic novice warrior, gifted like her compatriots with remarkable powers, but not yet in full command of them. She’s not finished training with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) when their unit is ordered to engage the Skrull on a nearby planet.

When the mission goes wrong, Vers is captured by the Skrull, who interrogate her about the whereabouts of a mysterious energy source. But Vers escapes, crashes out of the spaceship and falls to ground on an obscure planet that seems familiar. It’s Earth, circa  1995, and amusingly Vers tumbles through the roof of a Blockbuster video store, mistakes a cardboard cutout of Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies for an enemy, and blasts the crap out of it.

True Lies was one of the most obnoxiously sexist mainstream movies of the 1990s: the subtext is clear - misognyists, beware.

Vers begins searching for the missing power source, but must move fast because the Skrull are on her tail, adopting the forms of passing humans to make themselves harder to spot. With her rubber combat suit and ability to shoot proton blasts from her bare hands, Vers isn’t hard to spot at all, and soon attracts the attention of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent with the covert security organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fury is fascinated by Vers, and though he initially assumes she’s delusional, the sight of a dead Skrull persuades him she’s telling the truth. Vers, meanwhile, has been having disturbing flashbacks about a wise female mentor (Annette Bening), an unhappy childhood and a previous life as an air force pilot. Could she possibly have visited this obscure planet before?

Much has been made of the casting of a serious, Oscar-winning actress at the heart of a superhero action film, but overall the gamble works. Brie Larson convinces as the impetuous Kree student who, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, loves to take risks. Though there isn’t nearly enough fighting for my liking, she’s plausible too as a high-kicking warrior, and in a brilliant action scene knocks seven bells out of a Skrull soldier who’s taken the form of a sweet old lady.

Ms. Larson is at her best when she first arrives on Earth and engages with 1990s culture, which now seems depressingly arcane. We smirk condescendingly as Vers looks for information on the antediluvian search engine, Alta Vista, and there’s an embarrassing pause as she and Fury wait for a CD rom drive to load.

Vers’ struggles to assert herself are equated with gender inequality: she will eventually get to grips with Jude Law’s condescending, mansplaining mentor, and on Earth she contemptuously dismisses demeaning men. “Got a smile for me babe?” a swaggering biker asks: he loses his hot rod, and is lucky to escape with his life. Her hair, though, pops back into place like Farrah Fawcett after every skirmish, which is not very Germaine Greer and may or may not be a joke.

Brie Larson has an easy way with humour, and forms a winning double act with Samuel L. Jackson, made magically younger by CGI. These effects are brilliant, and Mr. Jackson is great fun as the bemused Nick Fury, whose sidekick is a ginger cat with hidden depths.

There, then, are Captain Marvel’s strengths. Its weaknesses lie in the stodgy exposition of the Kree nation and their extraterrestrial war: the air goes out of the film whenever the narrative gets lost in this space opera, which it does a little too often. We wanted less of all that faux mythology, more of the hand-to-hand fighting and coy pop cultural references, and more opportunities for Brie Larson to show off her comic timing.

Captain Marvel is good, but could easily have been better.

3 stars

(12A, 124mins)

Also releasing this week:

Everybody Knows

4 stars

In his great films About Elly, The Salesman and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi has exploded the constricted lives of middle class Iranians, but in his latest work the focus shifts to central Spain.

Tongues wag in a dusty village when Laura (Penelope Cruz) returns home from Argentina for her sister’s wedding.

Her life in distant Buenos Aires seems a glittering success but may not bear close inspection, and meanwhile there’s emotional tension between Laura and her former lover Paco (Javier Bardem), a charismatic winemaker.

These and other secrets are cruelly exposed when her teenage daughter is abducted during the wedding. Farhadi handles this emotionally charged tale extremely well, and it’s a treat to watch Cruz and Bardem play off each other.

(15A, 133mins)

 

The Kindergarten Teacher

5 stars

A remake of a 2015 Israeli drama, Sara Colangelo’s Kindergarten Teacher is a strange, eccentric little film, but a brilliant one.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lisa Spinelli, a dedicated but slightly overbearing Staten Island junior infants’ teacher. She is married, not unhappily, and attends an evening poetry-writing class more in hope than expectation.

But when one of her students, a five-year-old boy called Jimmy, begins spouting mini-poems that sound like a non-drippy version of EE Cummings, Lisa is entranced.

She scribbles down the lines as though they are the word of god, decides he’s “the next Mozart” and resolves to nurture his precocious talent.

What happens next is unexpected, troubling, and Gyllenhaal is as good as I’ve ever seen her.

(15A, 97mins)

 

Border

4 stars

When it comes to apprehending dodgy punters, Swedish customs guard Tina (Eva Melander) seems to have a sixth sense.

Small and squat and hairy-handed, she tilts her head back, sniffs like a hound and bares her teeth when she senses a smuggler, and is unerringly right.

This talent, and her strange appearance, make her something of an outcast, and her live-in boyfriend is a sneaky waster who keeps vicious dogs and takes her for granted.

But when a man who looks and acts just like her wanders through customs and into her life, Tina is forced to question her whole existence.

Border is a wonderfully original film, which blends horror tropes and Scandinavian folklore to mesmerising effect. 

(16, 110mins)

Irish Independent

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