Tag: brie larson

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A third of the way through the picture, I couldn’t help but feel like an important ingredient is sorely lacking. The war between Kree and Skrulls is propelled with a high enough level of excitement, the special and visual effects are strong, and there is intrigue in how the events unfolding in 1995 may tie into Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) eventually putting together Earth’s mightiest superheroes. The problem becomes tantalizingly clear when the picture hits its first important dramatic note. Given Brie Larson’s track record of independent dramas, she is most powerful as a performer when the scene is quiet and the camera is still—almost the polar opposite of an action film.

This does not mean Larson does not belong in the picture. In fact, I enjoyed her interpretation of Captain Marvel, who comes to know herself as Vers, a soldier of the Kree Empire, but has fragmented human memories as Carol Danvers. Despite a potentially confusing exposition, Larson has a way of making us care for our heroine not just as a superhero but also as a woman who feels incomplete due to being in the dark when it comes to her very own identity. Notice that for the first forty minutes or so, it is a challenge to invest emotionally into the material because there are far too many attempts at making jokes but not enough convincing dramatic gravity. It would have been such a breath of fresh air if “Captain Marvel,” written for the screen by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, had been a character drama first and an action picture second. Of course, this more inspired avenue would not rake in the big bucks.

Still, this Marvel outing is entertaining enough. I liked how chase scenes on Earth during the mid-90s are photographed and directed almost exactly as similar movies within the genre at the time—clichés included. There is a wonderful chemistry between Larson and Jackson which is necessary because their characters must forge a convincing friendship from the moment they meet at a payphone next to a Blockbuster video store until one of them must leave and travel to another galaxy. (The story’s timeline is about twenty to thirty five hours.) Danvers and Fury share a handful of amusing moments but not once do these come across as forced as bad buddy comedies.

Like many superhero films, this one, too, suffers from a lack of a strong villain with complex motivations. Observe that once Captain Marvel is able to reach her full potential, her enemies, including the main antagonist, are simply thrown about like rag dolls. Because they are no longer a threat, the bright colors, the bubbly soundtrack, and the acrobatics are reduced to an exercise of futility. I was bored by them and I was reminded of what I disliked immensely from “Wonder Woman”—we are handed action with not much context or purpose. It can feel like a waste of time.

Perhaps the most curious relationship is between Danvers and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Both were Air Force pilots and their few but valuable interactions suggest a deep history. The two sitting down and having a conversation can be more entertaining than the big, loud, and ostentatious action pieces. The reason is because, with the former, we know precisely what is at stake. There are times when it is easy to forget that we love or admire our superheroes not because of what they can do but rather who they are despite their powers or abilities, when they are unmasked, vulnerable, one of us.

Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

It probably would have been more appropriate for “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, to have been released in the middle of summer because, for better or worse, it embodies all elements of a blockbuster special and visual effects extravaganza including the sub-genre’s shortcoming: nice to look at but look closer and realize nothing much goes on inside. What results is a watchable action-fantasy, certain to entertain on late-night cable viewings, but it is not for viewers who demand creativity and intelligence alongside suspense and thrills.

Big names are cast in this monster film but the characters might as well have been played by unknowns because not one of the actors manages to inject something extra special to his or her performance. If less familiar performers had been cast instead, at least they would have benefited from the exposure. Instead, otherwise compelling actors familiar with the art of subtlety are reduced to playing extremes: Samuel L. Jackson as the villainous military man, Tom Hiddleston as the quiet hero hired for a job, Brie Larson as a photojournalist who finds humanity in a gargantuan gorilla, and John C. Reilly conveniently provides comic lines.

Just about everything is so expected, so familiar, that I found minimal excitement in a film that is supposed to balance wonder, horror, action, suspense, and eventual catharsis. I wished to know who the characters are outside of their occupations and what pushed them to partake in the mission. What makes he or she interesting other than being on survival mode? What makes he or she worth rooting for (or against) just because he or she means well (or the quite the opposite)? Clearly, these characters are one-dimensional. There is no excuse for a movie with a sizable budget to have a minuscule imagination. Look at how it portrays scientists. They are silent, cowering, often in the background.

For an island that is supposed to be undiscovered—being surrounded by perpetual storms helps—there is a lack of a sense of discovery outside encounters with massive creatures. At one point, the outsiders come across quiet indigenous people covered by paint and jewelry from head to toe. The picture dedicates not one scene in showing a new outsider attempting to make a connection with the curious human inhabitants. The story might have been set in the ‘70s but such is a mere ploy since it fails to capture the essence of that era. Notice that in movies released in the same time period, even in blockbuster films that happen to be set in a strange or new land, there is always an attempt to communicate, to connect, to find a commonality. Not here.

It excels in a few individual scenes, which usually last about five minutes, before forcing us to wait for the next action sequence. Perhaps most impressive is the graveyard scene. Notice how it builds atmosphere and mood. We are awestruck by the mighty skeletons; as the camera lingers on them, we try to imagine corpses that were once there. The yellow-orange dirt highlights the white bones’ surfaces—their cracks, crevices, and holes. All the while we know that something is going to happen soon. It becomes a matter of perfect timing. I felt elated when the execution got it exactly right. At that moment, I caught myself wishing that the entire material functioned on such a high level and on a consistent basis. There are stretches where neither the senses nor the mind is engaged.

“Kong: Skull Island” is not for audiences who demand more than two CGI characters duking it out during the final ten minutes. Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” got it right where this movie got it wrong. In the 1993 classic, there is dimension to the central characters, we get to know some of the creatures up close (sometimes a little too up close), it pushes us to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. It engages us intellectually. We grow to care deeply for our protagonists. Here, I did not care whether they would make it out of the island alive.


Trainwreck (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Trainwreck,” written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, is a comedy that could have benefited from discipline. There are laughs to be had here, especially during the first thirty to forty-five minutes, but there are also a lot of downtime where characters bemoan problems that are neither profound nor very amusing. It feels forced, tired, desperate for would-be character development. Thus, what results is a two-hour film that feels much longer. This is an example of a comedy that should have had a running time of only eighty to ninety minutes.

“Monogamy isn’t realistic,” is a mantra that stuck with nine-year-old Amy after her father (Colin Quinn) and mother separate. Years later, adult Amy (Amy Schumer), who works for a magazine in New York City, finds it difficult to maintain a relationship although she is quite capable of no strings attached hookups—so capable that she has developed quite a reputation. But when Amy is assigned to write a scathing piece about a sports physician on the rise (Bill Hader), something in her feels the need to reevaluate her current lifestyle.

The first third is strong, a joy to sit through, because there is an aggressiveness to the humor. It is—at least initially—a sex comedy that prides itself as one. Profanity is abound and there are guest cameos that surprise but do not distract. We learn about Amy as a woman with a healthy sexual appetite, as a co-worker in a cutthroat industry, as a sister to a more traditional Kim (Brie Larson), and as a person who might just have a problem with alcohol. It is daring and refreshing until the expected machinery of the romantic comedy genre begins to take over a very promising piece of work.

Schemer and Hader share some physical chemistry, but their characters are a bore together most of the time. Perhaps this is due to the weakness in the script. It does not seem to understand the labor that goes into real relationships. However, it is well-versed in the sort of exchanges that only happen in the movies. Just about every time Amy and the doctor disagree or get into an argument, the material shirks from showing the real truths, pains, and hardships of trying to make a relationship work. Notice the sheer inanity and lightness of the final scene. Is that how real couples mend their wounds?

Thus, what results is picture that lacks dramatic gravity. Notice that when Amy and Dr. Conner break up, it is difficult to care. Of course we know they must end up together in the end—this is not the point. The fact that we root for them all the way and the couple tries to sustain what they have together is what matters.

Someone needs to tell Apatow that films are rarely able to sustain a two-hour running time. “Trainwreck,” like its heroine, is at its best when it gets right to the point of what it wishes to communicate. And just when we are convinced it is defiant in following an established formula, the refreshing elements begin to wither away as Amy finds her man.


Room (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The power of “Room,” based on the novel and screenplay by Emma Donoghue, lies in its many specific moments where we recognize an exact thought, feeling, or motivation within a material that is supported by many rich layers of complexity. For example, we are able to recognize the precise moment when a mother (Brie Larson) has decided that it is time to concoct a plan for her and her son (Jacob Tremblay) to escape from their several years of captivity, locked in a shed with no view of the outside world except for a skylight.

Larson and Tremblay are very convincing in playing mother and son forced into an impossible situation. There is a sweet tenderness to Ma but at the same time there is a constant fierceness and fearlessness that ignite when elements change just a bit. At the same time, Jack’s innocence is balanced with a sense of wonderment, especially his heartbreaking narration during their continuous struggle, inside and outside of the room.

Like many great dramatic pictures, the filmmakers understand how to employ silence as a tool to highlight a spectrum of emotions. We are able to relate easily because sometimes we get so angry or so frustrated toward a situation or circumstance that there is nothing left to say. There are instances when we choose to let the emotion build—which can either force us later on to take action toward a positive direction or destroy us slowly but surely. The material is interested in exploring these two extremes.

Under the guidance of director Lenny Abrahamson, the picture commands an assured pacing, a distinct look, and a tone that demands attention. His work is exciting because he knows exactly when to focus on a face and for how long, when to pan the camera around a room to highlight its contents or lack thereof, and when to get us to pay attention on the characters’ body language when a face appears blank. There is always something going on and the audience is compelled to want to understand or dig deeper.

There are plenty of opportunities when the material could have turned into a cheap suspense-thriller. It could have been all about two characters trying to escape from an enclosed space. Instead, it is more than that. We get a chance to see the two protagonists in vastly different worlds. We watch them struggle and root for them to make it through for one another.

“Room” makes the case that experiences do not necessarily leave a person and some of them end up carving psychic scars so deeply that there are constant reminders of what one has gone through. And yet the film is life affirming, too. Ma made a choice so that her son could have a chance to live a better and more fulfilling life. The story, in its purest form, is about making a choice—to choose the uncertainty of life over the certainty of four walls and chains.

Short Term 12

Short Term 12 (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When you’ve worked with kids and teenagers, encountering movies like “Short Term 12,” often choosing honesty over sentimentality, rawness over Hollywood-ization, is a breath of fresh air. So few movies about troubled teenagers get it exactly right. It might be a good idea to keep writer-director Destin Cretton on our radar.

The film tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), one of the staff members of a foster care facility, and her relationship with her co-worker/lover, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and the young people they supervise. Their job, along with Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek), is to provide a safe environment for the minors until the county decides what to do or where to send them next.

Right away, the picture does the unexpected. Many of us will assume that since it is Nate’s first day on the job, we will see the story through his eyes. Though we recognize and learn the inevitable mistakes he makes along the way, these are never handled with a mallet: it shows his course of action—sometimes inaction—and the camera simply moves on. It is never a lecture on what one should or should not do as a staff.

Grace lies in the heart of the film. She seems to be very good at her job. The screenplay shows us why. Though she has her share of problems, we are right there with her as she consoles another, as she puts her foot down, and as she expresses the love that she has for Mason. The romantic relationship is fresh, too. Despite not having a shadow of doubt in our minds that Mason and Grace are a great fit, there are some questions that linger in their minds. When their respective backgrounds are revealed, it all makes sense. We are what we are partly because of our pasts—whether we like it or not.

Most intense are the scenes where the kids get into a manic fit—some fueled by psychological scars constantly being split open and others by imbalance of brain chemistry at times exacerbated by drugs that are supposed to help. I had my share of working with a few troubled young people and it is not for everyone. It can be scary. It can be frustrating. But it can also be rewarding. Underneath the outer toughness and inner turmoil is someone who wants to make a meaningful connection—it is likely that they just don’t know how or they have somehow convinced themselves that they are incapable of it.

It amazes me that there are people out there who work with at-risk teens every day. They should be celebrated more. The level of responsibility and commitment is enormous and “Short Term 12” captures the essence of that. At the same time, the picture also establishes the limitations of the job. Just because you are the one on the floor with these kids day in and day out does not necessarily give you an authority to sign off on what is right for them in the long run. You feel like they are your kids especially when you get close to them but at the same time they are not nor they will ever be.

Don Jon

Don Jon (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims to value only few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Though Jon is able to bed just about any woman he sets his eyes on, he remains convinced that porn is better than real sex. When he begins to date Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he is challenged to keep a distance between himself and pornography since she thinks the whole thing is sick and disgusting. This proves difficult not only because getting off at pornhub.com has become a part of his daily routine but it is also likely that he might have an addiction.

Comedic on the surface with a few layers of questions worth asking that envelop its dramatic core, “Don Jon,” written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a joy to watch even if the subject it tackles—addiction to pornography—is not always pretty. This is partly due to the charming performances by the leads, Levitt and Johansson, and how the screenplay allows the characters to become more than stereotypes. Don could have easily been some sort of meathead and Barbara being some blonde curvy bimbo.

The three relationships unfold: between Jon and Barbara, between Jon and an older woman (Julianne Moore) who catches our protagonist watching porn on his phone, and between Jon and his precious videos. Each his handled with intelligence and no one (or thing) is treated like a joke. Instead, the characters are allowed to be imperfect and messy. We even watch them being hypocrites once in a while. We judge them through what we value in terms of what we believe a healthy relationship should be like.

The weakest part of the picture involves Jon’s family mainly because they are one-dimensional, not at all matching the more subtle aspects of Jon’s life. The father (Tony Danza) is a typical tough guy who cannot seem to pry his eyes off the television, the mother (Glenne Headly) keeps asking when her son is finally going to get a girlfriend so she can have grandchildren, and the sister (Brie Larson) is always on her phone and does not say anything until the movie is almost over.

The whole sham of somebody not speaking until she has “words of wisdom” to impart annoyed me immensely. And when she does speak, she does not say anything profound. This surprised me because many reviews claim that it is one of the best scenes in the picture. I was far from impressed. I thought her “words of wisdom” is glaringly obvious within the first forty minutes. There is no punchline or real insight.

“Don Jon” is most entertaining when it shows believable characters, having us like them, and then discovering something about them that feels a little off. That is why the Swiffer pad scene, hair gel appraisal, and others like it—a normal activity followed by an unveiling of an ugly (or beautiful) trait—make an impact and create rippling effects that challenge (or strengthen) the foundation of a relationship.


Rampart (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has been a cop for twenty-four years. The Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department is currently under investigation due to people’s complaints of police brutality, planting evidence, and other unethical behaviors when Dave is caught on film severely beating a Mexican after the two had been in a car accident. Suddenly, the cop finds that all eyes are on him and the dirty laundry of his past, including a possible murder of an alleged serial rapist, is under a magnifying glass.

“Rampart,” written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman, is not complete character study but it benefits greatly from Harrelson’s performance. As a corrupt cop set on going down a self-destructive path, it is a challenge to identify with Dave but the contradictions that Harrelson brings to light made me wonder if there is some kind of hope for the man. Even though I suspected that he probably will not change over the course of the picture, I wished that he would for the sake of those he cares about and those who cares for him.

As Dave meets with various figures in the police department (Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Robert Wisdom), we learn a little bit more about him—that beneath the sarcasm and seeming lack of remorse, he is a stubborn but very eloquent man. When he is offered to issue a public apology about the recorded incident and retire early, he refuses because it is important for him to remain a cop or, more importantly, to be in a position of power.

Though the film has spots where the tone and pacing are off, it remains interesting on some level because even though Dave is a bigot, a racist, and a sexist, he is not without humanity. His relationship with his daughters (Brie Larson, Sammy Boyarsky) are nicely executed. The pain in the disconnection of the kinship is always at the forefront. Although Dave is always on the attack whenever he interacts with fellow adults, it is refreshing to see him on the defense when his children are watching. He is convinced that if he is caught doing the wrong thing, he will lose them forever. But they already know that he is not a perfect man. He is not even a good father to them; the girls are always in fear whenever he is near.

As the picture goes on, however, it does two things: it begins to recycle its basic ideas and it is unable to find alternative routes when it encounters dead ends. Since we eventually have a complete impression of Dave’s personality and what great lengths he will go to endure the controversy and be a cop on the prowl again, it is only natural that we come to expect what is next. Unfortunately, the screenplay offers nothing. A third act is not there.

Despite its initial promise, “Rampart,” directed by Oren Moverman, ends up being a big disappointment. Although an interesting character study, the important dramatic arc—the answer to “So what?”—is absent. As the screen fades to black, I was left with furrowed brows.

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Sutter (Miles Teller) has problem only he is not aware of it. The whirlwind that is senior year has arrived and his peers are eager to move on to the next chapter. Meanwhile, Sutter insists on living in the now and does so by holding onto his hip flask. Taking it out, turning the cap, and pouring the contents onto a plastic cup is almost automatic. It helps to keep things that bother him at bay. Before her newspaper run, Aimee (Shailene Woodley) finds Sutter passed out on her yard. Even though they have been classmates for years, it is the first time they get a chance to really see one another. Aimee is far from the kind of girl Sutter falls for, but there is something about her that he finds alluring.

“The Spectacular Now,” based on the novel by Tim Tharp and adapted to the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, pierces through the fog of fake, shallow, commercialized teen comedy-dramas and delivers something that, in my opinion, will stand the test of time. On the surface, it might appear to just be another story about a teenager who is afraid of the future so he uses alcohol as a tool to not have to deal with the inevitable. While that is a good starting point, it strives to become so much more.

We get a chance to appreciate why Sutter and Aimee might be a great fit. Right away, we come to understand that Aimee is a person of substance. She is written and played smart but it is the type of intelligence that does not fit the stereotype—so-called nerdy glasses, appearance needing a makeover, awkwardness in the body language. Aimee being smart is communicated through the feeling we get while watching her interact with others.

Meanwhile, Sutter knows exactly what to say and when. We see why guys and girls in his class are drawn to his enthusiasm and ability to entertain. I liked that he is one of the popular guys but he is not a jerk. He can be thoughtful. He can be that guy you can ask to be alone with you and share what’s on your mind—and he will take what you have to say seriously. In other words, there is a reason why just about everyone loves him.

We also get a chance to consider why they might not be a good fit. Sutter claims he is content with where he is in life, but Aimee yearns to do more. I admired that the material juggles tenderness, sweetness, and realism with ease. As a dime a dozen bland, boring, worthless teen pictures have shown, it is far from the easiest task to accomplish. Here, there is not one montage designed to show that the pair is “destined” for each other. Due to the significant differences in their personalities, perspectives, and ambitions, the possibility that what we are seeing is only a temporary experience lingers.

I also enjoyed how Sutter’s ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), is treated by the film. She could have been a one-dimensional mean girl, raging with jealousy every time she sees Sutter and Aimee having fun or just being content to sit next to each other in silence. Instead, Cassidy is treated like a person with real thoughts and concerns. In some ways, she has outgrown Sutter. She knows it—and he knows it, too. As a result, real pain is communicated in their break-up. Looking into what they had becomes worthy our time.

Directed by James Ponsoldt, “The Spectacular Now” underlines humanity above all else. Some scenes are so authentic, I could not help but notice the actors not wearing any makeup at all. Somehow, that made me feel closer to the picture and I suspect others are likely to feel the same. It has been only a year since Stephen Chbosky’s wonderful “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” so I did not expect to encounter such a fresh voice about young adults so soon. It is a most wonderful surprise.