Captain Marvel

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet


While the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a record feat of production is not to be doubted, the quality of the individual films have tended to vary between pretty great and barely passable. Lately, for give or take a couple of years now, they’ve been on quite a hot streak with the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the visual inventiveness of Thor: Ragnarok, the political boldness of Black Panther and the shattering scale of Avengers: Infinity War. Having maintained such a solid and consistent batting average as they have, something was bound to give sooner or later. Captain Marvel is by no means a terrible movie nor is it the worst in the MCU canon (hello The Incredible Hulk); it did however leave me feeling underwhelmed in a way that the MCU hasn’t really done in a while. More’s the pity since this is the first of their score of films to feature a female protagonist and to be (co)directed by a woman. Its creation is overdue and its ardent celebration of girl power is to be lauded; I just wish it had been in service of a more compelling story with a more well-defined protagonist and told in more engaging way.

To its credit, the film does try to shake things up on the outset by giving us a superhero origin story in reverse. Instead of showing us an ordinary person who later becomes somebody extraordinary, this is instead the story of one who is already extraordinary and later learns that she used to be ordinary. This is Vers (Brie Larson) who, when we first meet her, is completely unaware that she was once Carol Danvers, a hotshot pilot for the U.S. Air Force. By this point Vers is living on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree (whom MCU fans might remember as the baddies in Guardians of the Galaxy). She possesses ambiguous super powers over which she has little control but which nonetheless prove useful in her capacity as a member of an elite squadron called Starforce. They are led by Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law), a great warrior who has taken it upon himself to train Carol and presses on her at every opportunity that her emotions are her greatest weakness. She is haunted by nightmares depicting memories of a past she does not recognise and not even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), an artificial intelligence whose appearance varies depending on the viewer, is unable to provide the answers she seeks. Vers eventually winds up on Earth and there finds that the answers to her past might have something to do with the Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree.

Her arrival causes quite a stir in 1995 Los Angeles and is investigated by none other than a young SHIELD agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to his Die Hard with a Vengeance self). Marvel has used this technology before on the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell, but never has it been employed at such length and executed so seamlessly. So much so that when Clark Gregg shows up as an unconvincingly younger Agent Coulson, you’ll think that the film’s entire de-aging budget went to Jackson alone. His first meeting with Vers proves a riotous one as he winds up chasing her across the streets of L.A. while she pursues the Skrulls who followed her to this planet. Realising that their goals may be similar, Vers and Fury partner up and resolve to investigate the mystery of her forgotten past together, enjoying a playful and appealing rapport as Jackson delivers his most committed performance in the ten years he’s been playing this character. He is outmatched only by Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull named Talos who spends half of the film posing as Fury’s boss Keller and the other half in his natural, green form, and Goose, the feline who deserves his very own Marvel franchise.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is as strong as it is because they have to do a lot of heavy lifting for want of a more compelling main character. None of this is Larson’s fault as an actress though; in fact, when she’s able to get into the action and deliver a few quips, she ticks all the right boxes. She can shoot energy blasts from her hands, meaning that not every action scene amounts to a simple punch-em-up, she is rather reserved in a way that the more loudmouthed Marvel heroes tend not to be, and she has this enchantingly rebellious spark befitting a woman who has zero tolerance of mansplaining and cat-calling. The problem is more with the way the movie handles her story. Since Vers has no memory of who she was before she got her powers, the film gives her little to draw from in terms of personality and motivation. Even when she does finally remember her past, the film has given her so little of substance to attach herself to that it doesn’t feel like she has all that much at stake in this whole affair. She doesn’t have any kind of family or love interest, there isn’t any place that she calls home, and the only real connection she has to her life on Earth is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The film was so intent on maintaining the mystery for as long as it possibly could that it only occasionally made the time for Vers’ actual character.

The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are much more at home making character-driven indies, and, while it isn’t at all unusual for Marvel to hand some of their biggest titles over to formerly small-time directors such as the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi, It hasn’t really paid off this time around. While their talents for character interaction do shine in the more down-to-Earth scenes (I mean that in the most literal sense possible), the pair seem much more lost in the spectacle of their cosmic sci-fi adventure. The action scenes are so often shot in dark, murky settings and are strung together so choppily that it’s difficult to so much as keep track of what’s happening on screen. Marvel tends to have a rather bland and generic visual style they like to impose on their films when they’re not entrusted to one of their more visually distinct filmmakers like Gunn, Coogler or Waititi and Captain Marvel is one that suffers from a severe lack of some sort of stylistic personality. The shots are routinely composed, the colour and lighting is pretty much nondescript and the action scenes don’t have any kind of punch or flair to them beyond what an anonymous second-unit team compiling a studio-mandated fight scene for a mid-90s blockbuster could have done.

Still, that this film isn’t one of Marvel’s better offerings doesn’t mean that is has nothing of value to offer. As well as the enjoyable interplay between characters and some pretty good gags, the movie is also determined to make a statement about the world today, especially as it relates to women, and there is satisfaction to be gained if only from the knowledge that a small and loathsome sub-culture on the Internet is fuming because of it. It certainly adds some amount of depth to Vers’ journey for identity and independence as she grows more defiant in her unwillingness to follow the orders given to her by domineering male authority figures that she considers to be morally wrong. There’s also a gratifying moment near the end where Vers puts one of the more obnoxious male characters in his place by refusing to do battle with him on his terms or prove herself according to his regressive standards. The film isn’t as triumphantly defiant as it aspires to be, nor is it a particularly good film in general, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there some aspects I enjoyed a good deal. Ultimately, however, Captain Marvel is more table setting than it is a cinematic feast. Maybe further along down the road we’ll get a sequel that allows the character to come more into her own, but even that wouldn’t retroactively make her first outing any better.

★★★

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling


I don’t mind admitting that I was apprehensive about this film going in despite Harry Potter being such an integral part of my childhood and my having mostly enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts. While the previous film could be quite clumsy in terms of plotting and world building, I thought Newt Scamander made for an appealing protagonist, there were a couple of fun action scenes and some neat visuals, and the movie also had one or two interesting ideas that I thought could lead to some great pay-offs in the sequel. In the couple of years leading up to this new title however, there were a couple of red flags that gave me pause. One was the studio’s decision to keep Johnny Depp in the film following the allegations of domestic abuse made by ex-wife Amber Heard. Another was the announcement that this next film would not address Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s romantic relationship in any direct way despite it being directly relevant to the story. While one could probably argue that such objections are more moral than they are qualitative and shouldn’t have any bearing on my thoughts on the film itself, I still felt that these announcements betrayed a certain wrongheadedness behind the decision making and also a conservative (some might say medieval) mindset in their approach. I braced myself for disappointment but still hoped that I might be surprised.

I was surprised all right. Not by the movie’s regressive politics and pathological aversion to risk and chance, nor by J.K. Rowling’s lethal case of the George Lucas syndrome. No, what really surprised me about The Crimes of Grindelwald was its staggering incompetence on almost every level. Penned once again by Rowling herself, somebody whom I know knows how storytelling works at its most basic level, and directed by David Yates, his sixth film in this franchise (at least two of which are very good), it astounds me how demonstrably, exceedingly, bafflingly, amateurishly, embarrassingly bad this movie that they’ve made together is. The plot is grossly overstuffed and all but incomprehensible, the characterisation is profoundly nonsensical except when it’s utterly non-existent, and even the basic filming and editing style is so enormously inept it would make a first-year film student ashamed. The opening scene for instance, in which Grindelwald (Depp) escapes from his captivity, is a rainy scene shot in such drab darkness with such sporadic abandon it’s impossible to be sure what’s actually happening at any given second. Crucial cinematic storytelling principles such as set-up and payoff, clarity in spatial relationships and geography and an understanding of the stakes and dangers present; these are all key components in crafting an action scene and Grindelwald’s escape fails on all counts. The colours are all so dark and grey that it’s never clear what’s happening within the space of the shot and they’re all cut together so haphazardly that all the moment manages to generate for the viewer is confusion rather than suspense and excitement.

This chaotic mismatch of indistinct moments is demonstrative of the larger story that the film is trying to tell. Things only go downhill as it soon becomes clear that the blurry opening scene was the first of many steps in the movie’s effort to completely undo the ending of its previous instalment. Thus Grindelwald is free once again after spending an unseen year in between the two titles incarcerated. Next, The Crimes of Grindelwald negates one of the more poignant scenes in the first film by revealing that Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) did not die but that he instead vanished and has now resurfaced in Paris. No explanation is given as far as I can remember, all we’re told is that his power as an Obscurus has grown and he’s gone searching for his true parentage. The Ministry of Magic wants to bring him in and so they turn to the grounded magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for his help. Newt refuses because he has no interest in taking sides in a wizarding war, especially if it involves working with his Auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner). Afterwards he is approached by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who persuades Newt that he needs to find Credence and keep him safe before either the Ministry or Grindelwald can get to him. Dumbledore can’t move against Grindelwald himself for vague, heteronormative reasons.

Things get complicated fast as we learn that Newt, the Ministry and Grindelwald are not the only ones searching for Credence. American Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is pissed of with Newt because of a romantic misunderstanding, is also hot on his trail as is a French-Senegalese wizard called Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is on a quest to right a past wrong. Along for the ride is Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who has pursued an illegal relationship with Muggle (or No-Maj if you prefer) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and wants to move someplace where they’ll be free to marry and live together. Jacob, incidentally, remembers all the events of the previous film, thereby undoing another affective moment. There’s also Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s old flame and his brother’s fiancé, who is in search for some answers about her own past, and Nagini (Claudia Kim), Credence’s girlfriend cursed with an affliction through which she can transform into a snake. These characters all convolutedly end up in Paris where they spend about two-thirds of the movie trying to find each other and having rushed meetings before hurriedly departing in order to find someone somewhere else. All this is in anticipation of a meeting held by Grindelwald where they all come together to watch him deliver a fiery speech. This is one of those movies where too much is happening all at once, yet in the end little has actually happened.

Like with George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, Rowling has fallen into the trap of creating a series of movies that exist not to tell a specific story, but to answer questions that in the grand scale of things don’t really matter. Even if you’re a Potterhead who loves the Wizarding World and wants nothing more than to keep on living in it, knowing that person X is related to person Y or that Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so is going to reappear in Harry Potter and the Something of the Something doesn’t mean anything if it adds nothing to the story. If you have a series of movies that are more interested in drawing connections with a story that we already know and love than it is in telling one of its own, you get a series where the stakes are completely absent since we know that Grindelwald will be defeated round about Movie 4 or 5 and that his legacy will not have had any lasting effect by the time we reach Harry, Ron and Hermione. It also means that we don’t get any meaningful character development since the priority is simply to introduce them as these moving pieces in a world and story we’re already supposed to care about. What makes The Crimes of Grindelwald so dull to watch is that you have about a dozen or so characters scrambling around like headless chickens without the one thing that they all desperately need: motivation.

If we look at Grindelwald himself, the character whose actions are the entire driving force of the film, what makes him such a weak villain isn’t just Depp’s sleepwalking performance; it’s that the movie never makes it clear to us who he is or what he want (even in the climatic speech in which he states who he is and what he wants). We know that he wants to create a world free of the stain of humanity (i.e. Muggles), yet offers no specific grievances, he merely alludes to the Second Great War that is to come with its concentration camps and atomic bombs. If Grindelwald has a specific goal or a plan through which to achieve it, it remains a mystery by the end of the film. Contrast that with Voldemort who had a clear goal: kill Harry Potter. We learn the reason much later in the story and by then it barely even matters anymore because the conflict has become so complex and personal. All that matters is that Harry is a character we like and know well; therefore we root for Voldemort to fail. Grindelwald’s ambitions pose no threat that matters to us on an emotional level because there is nothing personal about his conflict with any of the main characters save Dumbledore (which the movie is only willing to explore on the most insubstantially Platonic level). Even as a character in his own right, Grindelwald fails to impress as this magical dictatorial predecessor to the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and… another political figure with bleach white hair and fascist tendencies largely because of Depp, a formerly daring and charismatic actor who just can’t be bothered anymore.

Newt Scamander is still likeable enough as the Hufflepuff hero whose greatest power is not strength, intelligence or charisma but rather empathy and fulfils not the role of a warrior, officer or leader but that of a healer. He is however trapped in a series in which he is progressively losing reason and direction. His goal is to try and find Credence and keep him safe, yet there is nothing personal between himself and Credence or Grindelwald compelling him on this endeavour. Even if we were to say that Newt’s motivation is simply ‘he is a good person who wants to do the right thing’, there has to be something at stake for him personally in order for us to become invested in his success. If the case is that Newt feels for Credence, empathises with him, and wants to help him for his own sake, then that’s something the film has to show us and not take for granted. Again, if we were to compare him to Rowling’s previous hero, it’s made perfectly clear to us what Harry Potter’s goal is: to defeat the man who killed his parents. It’s simple, it’s understandable, and it’s personal. The only personal conflict Newt faces in this film is his romantic misadventure with Tina, who thinks he’s engaged to Leta because a gossip magazine printed the name of the wrong Scamander brother. While the first film did hint at some kind of spark between the couple, the idea that they were ever close enough to become an item comes out of nowhere and this silly, easily resolved misunderstanding lifted straight out of an 80s sitcom feels tiringly trite and distracting.

That’s not the worst of the movie’s many subplots though; that honour belongs to the red herring goose chase that takes up so much focus throughout the film, only to then amount to nothing. A tale of dark deeds, tragic regrets and mistaken identities, a large portion of the movie is dedicated towards solving a mystery at the heart of all this and it turns out two-thirds of the characters involved needn’t have bothered because not only did they get it wrong, the answers that they do learn don’t even matter to the film’s ending. Yet that doesn’t stop it from taking up several scenes complete with flashbacks and a final confrontation in which two or three characters stand up in succession to say “No, here’s what really happened”. The resolution is not only laughably stupid, it doesn’t even resolve anything in and of itself because it concerns characters we either don’t know or have never met whose fates we don’t care about because it ends up not having anything to do with what’s actually happening. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is and I cannot imagine why Rowling felt that this whole diversion was necessary to her story except as a means to get a certain number of characters into a room together near the end.

I suppose there were a couple of things I liked. Jude Law turned out to be a pretty good Dumbledore with his ability to add nuance and depth to even the thinnest of material (just look at The Young Pope if you need further proof) and he played that role with the dignity, wit and dash of mischief befitting a younger version of this familiar character (although a part of me is always going to wonder what Jared Harris might have done with the role). I don’t like the way the film handled Dumbledore, especially in light of the revelation made near the end about his inaction, but I can’t fault Law’s performance. There were also a couple of magical creatures that I liked such as the Kelpie, which is like a sea horse in a very literal sense, and the Zouwu, which looks like a cross between Falcor from Neverending Story and a Chinese dragon puppet. There’s also the Niffler for those who enjoy its treasure-stealing shenanigans. But weighing these pros against the many, many cons feels like praising The Revenge of the Sith for the visuals and Ewan McGregor’s performance; they don’t even begin to make up for the film’s flaws. I haven’t even touched on the deeply disturbing romance of Queenie and Jacob, the shameful character arcs inflicted on Leta and Nagini and other details that spoiler etiquette prevents me from discussing. Suffice it to say that The Crimes of Grindelwald is a shambolic mess of a film that exists only to capitalise on the Potter brand and has none of the magic that made it special in the first place.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisby, Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillan, Jude Law, Eric Bana

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram


There have been many unlikely combinations in art between subject and style that have worked splendidly despite expectations and preconceptions. A Second World War Western by the director of Pulp Fiction? Excellent! A hip-hop/rap musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury? A masterpiece! An absurd yet melancholic TV show about a horse who used to be a sitcom star? Incredible! So when I saw that Guy Ritchie of all people was going to take on the King Arthur mythos, I was ready to give it a chance. His style is one that I’ve enjoyed in other movies before and he already made it work with another unlikely subject in Sherlock Holmes, so maybe there was something to this idea. In this case though, it doesn’t work. This version of the British legend is so stupid, so silly, and so dull that I’m inclined to take the version with the coconuts, the Trojan Rabbit and the Knights Who Say Ni more seriously.

Many years ago in a great battle where Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defended the kingdom of Camelot against the warlock Mordred, his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrated a coup and used dark magic to slay the king and seize the throne for himself. Uther’s son survives the usurpation and drifts away on a boat that ends up in Londinium. The boy is found and raised by prostitutes and grows to become Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a strong fighter and streetwise scoundrel. When a confrontation between Arthur and some Vikings goes badly, Arthur is taken by the king’s men and put on a ship to Camelot. There the Blacklegs have been forcing young men to try and pull out a sword stuck in a stone nearby. Arthur successfully removes the sword and is overwhelmed by its power. After he is subsequently taken prisoner and learns the truth of his heritage from Vortigern, a mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisby), an acolyte of Merlin (Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film), rescues him from his planned execution with the aid of the Uther’s former knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). The mage and her team then enlists Arthur to embrace his legacy and help them overthrow Vortigern.

This movie takes pretty much the opposite approach to the Clive Owen film, which sought to depict a demystified, historically authentic King Arthur. Ritichie is instead more interested in modernising the myth and having some fun with it. This Arthur is less of a medieval nobleman and more of a 21st century lad, roughing it up and talking in slang. His crew is made up of other rough, tough misfits such as Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and they are a multicultural bunch, complete with their own martial arts master in Kung Fu George (Tom Wu). They crack wise, get into fights, and plan their ruses the way the characters in Snatch would plan their heists. This is all fine in theory and Guy Ritchie is the kind of stylistically over-the-top director mad enough to pull it off. In theory, a contemporary King Arthur film with cockney banter, acrobatic, slow-motion sword fights and an array of enormous CGI creatures should’ve at least been good fun. The film however is anything but, and that is because it Ritchie exhibits absolutely zero restraint and moderation on his style.

It is one thing for a director to have a distinctive storytelling style that adds a fun, interesting twist to the narrative, it is another thing entirely when that style usurps the narrative. The movie is so overloaded with rapid edits, haphazard shifts in time and space, hectic ­mise-en-scène and blaring sounds that all the important things like story, dialogue and character get lost in the chaos. There are so many things happening all at once that nothing at all is happening. Nothing means anything in this film because nothing is allowed to sink in and be processed. Whether the film is being serious and trying to have an emotional impact, such as the moment when Arthur learns who he is and what happened to his father, or when the movie is being silly and cheeky and trying to have a laugh, such as when Arthur delivers one of those stories within a story that Ritchie likes so much recounting his encounter with the Vikings, it all rushes past like a blur. The film just doesn’t know when to stop and let a moment play out or when to let a crucial piece of information or plot development linger just long enough for the viewer to absorb it. It’s like Guy Ritchie made a 10-hour movie and then screened the whole thing in fast-forward.

It is entirely possible that the reason Ritchie went so overboard with his style is because the movie itself offered little else of substance or worth. The story is so determined to keep moving forward that it never actually gets anywhere. When Arthur lifts Excalibur from the stone and discovers that he is the heir to the throne, the objective from that point on is making Arthur the king. That’s fine except it feels more like an obligation for the plot than a progression, considering that we never really see Arthur displaying qualities of heroism or leadership. It doesn’t help that Hunnam plays him as a smirking rogue; I had a harder time rooting for him than I did for Jamie Campbell Bower’s rather bland take on the character in the otherwise solid Starz series from a few years back. Jude Law can be quite entertaining in his  scenery-chewing role as the villainous, slightly camp Vortigern but that’s about it. When a movie understands its story so little that it ends up detracting from one of its pivotal moments with an embarrassingly distracting celebrity cameo for the ages, you know you’re in trouble.