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It looks like somebody forgot to tell Brie Larson to have fun and let loose in Captain Marvel. Her turn as the title character, aka Carol Danvers, is laced with lethargy and bizarre line deliveries.

Samuel L. Jackson and an orange tabby fortunately seem to be enjoying themselves, but Larson is stiffer than Church the cat on the Creed’s front lawn after his unfortunate encounter with a speeding truck. (Say, is my excitement for the upcoming Pet Sematary reboot evident?)

A similar problem plagued Larson in Kong: Skull Island. The Academy Award-winning actress seems to be in her wheelhouse when the budget is low, but seems miscast when she shows up in a blockbuster. She gives off a detached vibe; it’s odd. The movie should be called Captain Meh: I Dunno … I Got Better Things to Do.

If the movie around her were really good, her seemingly bored disposition might’ve been forgiven—but Captain Marvel is also riddled with awful special effects and haphazard storytelling.

I went in hoping for a badass movie about Captain Marvel, but found myself more intrigued by the subplot involving an up-and-coming, low ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Nick Fury, played by Jackson. The de-aged Jackson, along with a returning Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in the first Avengers movie, are so good that you’ll wish they got their own film.

I’m not putting the blame solely on Larson; the character itself is a bust when it comes to superheroes. All she does is fly around and send out energy bursts from her hands. She has moments when she goes into full Marvel mode, bringing on some sort of light show where she glows and gets white eyes, as well as a goofy-looking mohawk. As for superpowers … they just don’t register as anything that exciting. The Marvel light show isn’t aided by the special effects, which look rushed and cartoonish. Captain Marvel in her full glory doesn’t integrate with the worlds around her; she looks animated and out of place.

As for the orange tabby named Goose, he’s your basic super-cute cat—with a few surprises under his fur. Again, the special effects are a letdown when Goose goes full Goose, another example of the visual team coming up short.

Part of the film is set on Earth in the 1990s, and Jackson’s Fury has a full head of hair and both eyes. It also lends to music by Nirvana and No Doubt, both of which are used in situations that feel awkward and forced. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck got a little carried away in their efforts to be cute with the tunes.

There’s a big supporting cast, including a strong Annette Bening as a scientist and murky memory in Carol’s dreams. Lashana Lynch does good work as Maria Rambeau (pronounced “Rambo!”), an earthly friend of Carol’s. Jude Law gets a change of pace with an action role as an alien named Yon-Rogg, while Ben Mendelsohn plays Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss, another character with a few surprises to offer.

The film isn’t completely devoid of fun; it’s just not on par with other Marvel offerings, although I concede that’s a high bar to hit. As for Captain Marvel, the end of Avengers: Infinity War hinted at some major participation for her, so this is just the start for the character. Let’s hope things get better.

As always, stay all the way through the credits. There are plenty of things happening that you won’t want to miss, even if you’ve had your fill with the events that happened before all those words splashed across the screen.

Captain Marvel is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Bullets whiz, whistle and rip with a darkly comic ferocity in Free Fire, the latest from super-talented English director Ben Wheatley.

Wheatley has quietly been establishing himself as a solid indie director of action and horror, with obscure gems like Sightseers, High-Rise and A Field in England, along with one of the better installments in the horror anthology The ABCs of Death. With Free Fire, Wheatley gets to employ his action-directing prowess—while showing he can handle sharp dialogue and great acting.

He’s working with his biggest cast yet, which includes an Oscar winner in Brie Larson, as well as Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley. The film is co-produced by Martin Scorsese; the setup sounds like the sort of movie he should be making.

That setup: Two groups come together in a deserted Boston warehouse sometime in 1978. Things go awry, and the whole movie becomes one elongated shootout in which everybody is taking bullets; the losers will easily outnumber the winners.

The movie is a blast, thanks in large part to Wheatley’s staging of the event, and the actors (especially Hammer) taking it to great heights. There’s some mystery involved in the payoff, but it’s secondary to the action, which is appropriately disorienting at times. I couldn’t always tell who was shooting whom, but this works for the movie.

Throw in an extremely well-placed John Denver song, and you have what amounts to a solid, eccentric step in the evolution of Wheatley—a white-hot director who is just getting started.

Free Fire is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 and (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

The King Kong cinematic machine is cranking again with Kong: Skull Island, an entertaining-enough new take on the big ape that delivers action, but lags a bit when the titular gorilla isn’t onscreen smashing things up.

Of the Kong incarnations, this one has the most in common with the 1976 take on the classic story, basically because it’s set just a few years before, in ’73. While there is a beautiful girl on whom the big guy gets a small crush (Brie Larson as a photographer), the story eschews the usual “beauty and the beast” Kong angle for more straight-up monster vs. monster action. Unlike the past American Kong films, this one never makes it to Manhattan, and instead stays on Kong’s island—thus the title of the film.

Kong himself is portrayed by motion-capture CGI, and he’s a badass. He’s also tall enough to be a formidable foe for Godzilla, a mash-up already announced for 2020. In the few scenes in which he interacts with humans, Kong seems like an organic creature rather than a bunch of gigabytes. He blends well with his human counterparts.

There hasn’t been much mention of those human counterparts yet, because, with the exception of John C. Reilly as a fighter pilot stranded on the island during World War II, most of the humans are bland. Tom Hiddleston might make a decent James Bond someday, and he’s a lot of fun as Loki, but he just doesn’t work here as a rugged tracker/action hero. His presence constantly suggests that his character might turn bad mid-mission and feed his friends to the monsters—or, alternatively, that he might stop for tea and biscuits every 5 minutes. He’s too much of a pretty boy for the role.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film the bursts of humor it needs. His castaway is a wild card, like Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. Actually, the whole movie, with its post-Vietnam setup and Nixon-era themes, plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong. When Reilly is onscreen, it plays like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong meets Talladega Nights.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the psycho military commander who still holds a beef about the war, while John Goodman is on hand as the explorer who thinks “something” is on this strange, uncharted island. He’s essentially this film’s Carl Denham (one of the main characters from the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake) without being named Carl Denham. The likes of Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and Richard Jenkins round out the cast.

As for Hiddleston and Larson, one gets the sense their parts were supposed to be bigger, but then director Jordan Vogt-Roberts looked at a first cut and realized they sucked, so he replaced a lot of their screen time with Kong action. Indeed, Kong gets plenty of time to destroy things. He battles helicopters, strange dino creatures and, in one of the film’s greater moments, a giant octopus that results in an eating scene that’s a direct homage to Oldboy.

How does this stack up against past Kongs? I’d say it’s the weakest of the American Kongs. (I am a sucker for the ’76 Twin Towers/Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange one.) Oh, wait, it’s better than King Kong Lives, the ’86 sequel to the ’76 Kong, during which he got the heart transplant. That’s actually one of the worst movies ever made. It’s so bad that I’d mercifully forgot it existed until this paragraph of this very review. Kong: Skull Island is also better than the loopy, strangely enjoyable Japanese Kongs, although it owes much to those films in spirit.

As you must do with Marvel films now (with the exception of Logan), stay through Kong: Skull Island credits. There’s an initial sequence during the credits that I won’t give away, and a scene after the credits that I also won’t give away.

Kong: Skull Island is a shallow enterprise, but a fun one. It’ll be interesting to see how they bridge the time gap between this excursion and the present-day Godzilla. Kong ages well, so they’ll probably just leap over a few decades and get to the good stuff.

Kong: Skull Island is now playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

A young woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), are held prisoner in a backyard shed. When Jack manages to escape, resulting in both of them being freed, mother and son must learn to cope with life outside of their prison walls, and reacquaint themselves with their immediate family.

While Larson is excellent in Room, Tremblay is the biggest reason to see this movie. His portrayal of a small boy who has only known one room in his entire life is revelatory; it’s a performance like none other. While Larson has picked up a Golden Globe and a much-deserved Oscar nomination, Tremblay was robbed.

Joan Allen delivers strong work as Jack’s grandma, a woman who is both dealing with the horror that brought him into the world, and loving him from the instant they meet. William H. Macy has a small but memorable part as Jack’s grandpa, a person who can’t get over what happened to his daughter.

Lenny Abrahamson, who made last year’s excellent yet relatively unknown Michael Fassbender comedy Frank, directs. Based on his work with these two films, he’s one of the industry’s most interesting directors.

The movie basically plays out in two parts: the imprisonment, and the aftermath. Larson delivers a performance deserving of the accolades, but it’s Tremblay who makes the biggest mark.

Room is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

I missed the latest Mark Wahlberg extravaganza—a remake of the 1970s James Caan movie The Gambler (NOT the Kenny Rogers TV movie)—when it ran in theaters early this year.

Wahlberg lost a lot of weight to play Jim Bennett, an author-turned-college professor who hates life, for some reason. The film never really delves into why Jim is so miserable, and why he has developed such a nasty gambling problem.

His problem is so bad that he can’t resist gambling even when his rich mom (a strong Jessica Lange) takes out a large loan to bail him out with criminal types. He just takes the loan and gambles some more, spiraling further downward.

John Goodman has a couple of good scenes as a loan shark who has no tolerance for weakness. Brie Larson gives a strong performance as the student who inevitably pulls Jim into a relationship, and George Kennedy makes a brief appearance as Jim’s dying grandfather.

This is a good showcase for Wahlberg, who takes his character into quite a dark place. Bitterness oozes from Jim’s pores—and I like how the roots of that bitterness remain a mystery until the end of the film. The ending is a bit predictable, but it doesn’t take away from the work of Wahlberg and Lange—two pros who make The Gambler worth your while.

Special Features: There are a bunch of behind-the-scenes featurettes and some deleted and extended scenes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Brie Larson and Short Term 12 got some Oscar buzz (but were ultimately denied a nomination) for her role as Grace, a supervisor at a foster-care building full of angry and depressed teens. Larson is quite good, as is co-star John Gallagher Jr. as Mason, her boyfriend and fellow supervisor.

The film plays like a sort of juvenile One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, except that Grace is a helluva lot nicer than Nurse Ratched, and none of the teens really have the exuberance of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy. In fact, Grace is compassionate to an extreme, which leads to some conflicts of interest when dealing with one particular girl (Kaitlyn Dever). The girl has similar problems to those suffered by Grace during her youth, so Grace gets a little too proactive—and jeopardizes her standing at the foster home.

Some of the kids are interesting, especially Keith Stanfield as Marcus, a suicidal teen slated to be released to his lousy mom. Overall, the cast is impressive, and the movie works on most levels. It’s certainly worth seeing for Larson and Gallagher, who are a mighty convincing couple.

Special Features: The film is based on a short film, which is included on the disc. You also get deleted scenes, a documentary on the film’s music, and some behind-the-scenes material. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing