Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)

What's it about? On the planet of Hala, the amnesiac Vers (Brie Larson) is learning to control her mysterious powers as she fights for the Kree in the war against the Skrulls. But a series of events means she ends up on Earth in the mid-1990s where she encounters a SHIELD agent by the name of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and starts to uncovers her past.

Is it any good? A perfectly serviceable superhero origin story which is entertaining enough without ever being exceptional. It works best when it's playing out like a 90s buddy action movie, similar to those films Jackson himself starred in back in the day; Brie Hard with a Vengeance anyone? No? How about The Long Krees Goodnight? Fine, let's move on. In support of this, Larson and Jackson (the latter impressively de-aged by CG) strike up an agreeable chemistry, with a few good gags and a bit of retro 90s stuff to enjoy along the way. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn (as alien Talos) and a cat called Goose compete to steal the film, which is fun. Where it is less successful is in making Captain Marvel that interesting a character. Sure, she seems nice, and brave, and funny, but her backstory is superficially sketched out and the journey to find out Who She Is? is rather formulaic. Neither is there a sense of any real jeopardy or high stakes here as we move to the climactic smackdown, which is CGI-heavy but emotion-lite. In the end it conforms too closely to the standard hero-origin plot, without exhibiting enough individuality to stand out. A pity, since Larson does eventually get to stand up and deliver a rousing feminist put-down towards the end, which would have been much more empowering if the film had ever threatened to challenge the big boys in the MCU league. As it is, it settles in around the middle of the table standings.

Anything else I should know? Remember when Wonder Woman came out, we had an army of keyboard warriors rear their oh-so-masculine heads in indignation that a woman should take centre-stage in a comic-book film? With tedious inevitably, the same angry mob have taken to their parent's basements, wielding pitchforks and flaming acne, to again complain and mansplain about how Captain Marvel sucks and why Brie Larson is not fit to be in their MCU. Luckily the same meme from my Wonder Woman review can be re-utilised now, which saves me some time.

Anyone rankled by that is referred to this blogs byline above. Don't @ me. Elsewhere there's a couple of contrasting takes on whether it is successfully feminist or not here and here.

What does the Fonz think? My lawyers are checking my image rights....

Documentary Triple Bill

Truth can not only be stranger, but also more exciting, disturbing and affecting than fiction. As these three recent documentaries demonstrate....

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Oscars, Free Solo (Vasarhelyi & Chin, 2018) is about professional rock climber Alex Honnold and his attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000ft high El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park, WITHOUT ROPES!! As you can imagine, those with a fear of heights might do well to avoid this as the documentary team, themselves hanging precariously on the rock face, capture some stunning, vertigo-inducing footage of Honnold clinging on with his fingertips to the mountainside. There is no doubting the extraordinary nature of his achievement(s), but beyond the actual athletic feat the examination of Honnold's motivations is rather superficial, while the effect on his girlfriend, friends and family is also explored in conventional, but rather unsatisfying fashion. Compared to something like Man on Wire, a much superior account of a similarly amazing feat, this felt like a film that was content to stay safely tethered to an easy narrative, rather than reach for something more challenging. Personally, I was initially scared he might fall and die, but one look at his black, soulless eyes and I knew he was dead already.

Less easy to dismiss flippantly is Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed, 2019), an account of Michael Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of two boys, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, at the height of his fame in the 80s and 90s. I say 'alleged', but this is pretty damning stuff, as over the course of 4 hours, both men give profoundly disturbing testimony about how Jackson groomed and abused them as kids, leaving them deeply affected and emotionally scarred as adults. There's also an exploration of how their parents, in particular their mothers, who also feature here, could let their sons go off to sleep in this man's bedroom and not suspect anything sinister was going on. It isn't a balanced documentary in that Jackson's side of things is not really presented, but then again we've heard his 'defence' many times and it is something people believe or not. What we haven't heard until recently is the version put forward by these two men and it would be a cynical or deeply deluded soul indeed who claims they are lying just for the money. It's not easy to watch or hear the graphic details, but it is important that this gets seen to ensure Jackson is not just remembered for being an eccentric musical genius. Instead, this is more proof, if anyone really needed it, that the king of pop was in all probability a very calculating smooth criminal and an utterly despicable human being. Let's hope someone buys Neverland and razes it to the ground.

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018) is an astonishing, couldn't-make-it-up tale about identical triplets separated at birth who are reunited as 19-year-olds following a quirk of fate. However, the real trick here is that after sucking you in with its incredible feel-good story, the film smartly moves into more tragic and disturbing territory, as we gradually discover why they were separated the way they were.  It makes for gripping viewing, mixing archived footage with engaging talking head interviews as the story twists and turns are revealed. The only pity is that some parts of the story remain tantalisingly out of reach, through no real fault of the film-makers, which leads to a slightly anti-climactic resolution. Of course, this is real-life, not a three-act script, so perhaps expecting a neat conclusion is unfair, but it is still a great watch, especially for anyone interested in the nature-versus-nurture debate about what makes us the people we are.

80s Sci-Fi Horror Double Bill

A retro throwback to a couple of sci-fi / horror films that are over 30 years old now. But perhaps the scariest thing of all is that they are perhaps more relevant to our modern society than ever before....

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988) is a fun sci-fi flick about a construction worker (former wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) who, courtesy of some special sunglasses, stumbles upon the fact that aliens have infiltrated the higher echelons of human society and are controlling SUBMIT ordinary citizens through subliminal advertising. It is remembered fondly (and rightly so) for an epic street brawl between Piper and Keith David, as well as Piper's immortal 'all outta bubble-gum' line, which remains iconic despite (or maybe because of) Piper's ham-fisted delivery. OBEY But the action-adventure element of the film is a lot less interesting than the satirical set-up which increasingly serves as a sharp social commentary on greed, propaganda and government. CONSUME Carpenter may have set out to make an entertaining action flick, but he also wanted it to serve as an anti-Reagan, anti-capitalist statement. “All of the aliens are members of the upper class, the rich, and they’re slowly exploiting the middle class, and everybody’s becoming poorer,” he explained in a making-of documentary. Thirty years on, does any of that sound familiar? CONFORM Indeed, if we put on our own special sunglasses and take a look at the world around us today, they'll reveal that They Live has a lot of smart stuff going on underneath a seemingly dumb surface. BUY ME BEER 

In Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), sleazy TV producer Max (James Woods), on the lookout for cheap, sensationalist content for his channel, discovers a violent, masochistic programme called 'Videodrome', which he predicts will be the next big thing. Unfortunately, he gets a little too obsessed, leading him down a nightmarish path towards sex, insanity  and murder. Jeremy Kyle would be proud. At first glance, this may all appear a bit dated, being set in the VHS-era, but there is something remarkably prescient about its commentary on the lure and effect that exploitative programming has on the viewer. In our digital, connected age, access to reality TV, graphic porn and shocking video content is but a flick of a finger away, all provided by faceless, corporate behemoths. Who really knows what it is doing to us and who's to say what sinister motives those corporations have? Admittedly, Videodrome may itself veer into the shlocky, body-horror territory which epitomised Cronenberg's early work, but just because it features a man fisting a vaginal opening in his own belly, it doesn't mean it has a lot of relevant, uncomfortable things to say about both our entertainment choices and our appetites for it. It just has a strange way of saying it. Or, actually, maybe not so strange, as a cursory glance at the content available on our digital devices would confirm. Looks like the new flesh has indeed lived long....

Okay, enough writing. Something is compelling me to go off and watch gratuitous, exploitative crap on TV. I think the Jeremy Kyle show starts soon on channel 666.....

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Ramsey, Persichetti, Rothman, 2018)

What's it about? You know the way Peter Parker is Spider-Man? Well, forget that, because here it's actually teenager Miles Morales who becomes Spider-Man. Although Peter Parker is also Spider-Man too. As is a slightly pudgy Peter B. Parker. And don't forget Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham and Peni Parker, who also turn up for a spin. Confused? It's all about parallel dimensions, innit?

Is it any good? Don't be put off by the convoluted summary above. All the inter-connected intricacies of the 'Spider-verse' characters are mapped out with remarkable economy and clarity, as they band together to foil the evil plans of The Kingpin, Olivia Octavius and others. Naturally, this will all be old hat to comic-book fans, but even for a old duffer like me, all these characters were combined to exhilarating effect. Not least because the animation is eye-poppingly brilliant, especially in its efforts to recreate the framing, colouring and action of comic strip panels. It's just fabulous to look at throughout, even if you lose track of the story. There's a brief 'making of' featurette video below, which explains the innovative visualizations better than I can - it really does look different from anything we've seen recently in animated features. However, the brilliant animation is all in the service of a pretty solid story, which successfully re-vamps the Spider-Man franchise, but never loses sight of Miles as the (new) central character or the key message about Spider-Man which separates him from most other characters in the Marvel canon. But it's also not above poking fun at itself, with several funny jokes, as you might expect from the involvement of The Lego Movie's Phil Lord and Chris Miller on writing/producing duties. Okay, so it climaxes with a standard Marvel Crash!-Bang!-Thwip! smackdown and doesn't really have a strong emotional core, but it's just great, inventive fun and never less than absolutely gorgeous to behold.

I don't trust you. What do others think? A deserved winner of Best Animated Film at the 2019 Oscars, with many claiming it should have had a shot at Best Picture as well. It was certainly better than several of that shortlist; I didn't see Roma or Bohemian Rhapsody successfully integrate a spider-who-has-been-bitten-by-a-radioactive-pig into their storylines. Naturally, the film is crammed full of Easter Eggs and in-jokes for Spidey fans and comic-book guys (and gals). I'm too old and out-of-touch to spot these, but here's an exhaustive run-down if you're interested. All I know is that somewhere, in a parallel dimension, a younger version of me who is more into comic-books has probably died of excitement watching this.

What does the Fonz think? Look out! Here Comes the Spider-verse!

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

What's it about? Set in Mexcio City at the start of the 70s, it focuses on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the housekeeper for a busy middle-class family, as various events impact on her and the household.

Is it any good? At the time of writing, it is the hot favourite to win the Best Picture Oscar at tonight's ceremony and it is easy to see why. This is clear Oscar-bait; heartfelt film-making, elegant direction, gorgeously photographed, great sound design and.......*lowers voice to whisper and looks around furtively*....a little bit dull. That's not to say it is not worth watching. Inspired by Cuarón's own upbringing, it depicts time and place to marvelous effect, not least in the recreation of the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971, which is a masterpiece of choreography. Throughout, Cuarón's camera glides gently past characters and events, capturing the family hubbub and moments of tenderness, pain and love as it goes. The sound design perfectly complements the imagery and the cast feel perfectly natural in their roles. It's a personal labour of love for Cuarón and I don;t doubt it means a lot to him. But for all that, it never really moved me and felt an awful lot like being invited to watch someone else's home movie. I'm happy for them, but not sure why I should care? It will probably win the Best Picture Oscar tonight, but it'll not go down as an all-time classic Oscar-winner.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Well, clearly it has been a hit across the festival circuit, garnering award after award. It'll be the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture Oscar, which I suppose counts for something. But it could be derailed by a backlash from the industry about its financiers Netflix, who smartly negotiated a limited theatrical release for the film in order to qualify for awards, even though the majority of people are likely to see it at home through the streaming service. Naturally, this has rankled with the traditional powers-that-be in Hollywood, who are worried about the economic impact of letting Netflix muscle in on their patch. With more and more film-makers happy to work with Netflix's flexible funding model, this is further evidence of a power-shift within Hollywood. The hope for us humble film-lovers is that Hollywood will react by also funding more diverse, interesting and under-represented stories, stories which there is clearly an appetite for, as the Netflix success has demonstrated. Read about it here.

What does the Fonz think? A tidy piece of housekeeping.