Thoughts on: Captain Marvel, Triple Frontier, Documentary Now!, and more.
After the bolt of lightning that was Black Panther and the operatic tonnage of Infinity War, the first female-led MCU film was inevitably going to be a victim of expectations. And make no mistake, Captain Marvel is fine — it entertains, it excites, and Brie Larson proves herself more than worthy of the mantle — but despite the film’s significance and effort of everyone involved, it’s also kinda just another Marvel film. Granted, that’s still a higher floor than most; five years ago, it might have been more rapturously received. But we’ve since seen what these films are capable of, and co-directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (the former also Marvel’s first female director) seem content to settle for a mid-range jumper when it could have been a thunderous slam dunk.
It doesn’t help that the film’s weakest stretch is its bewildering opening act, which goes to painful lengths to explain the ongoing war between the Kree (the “noble warriors”) and Skrulls (“evil shape-shifters”) as well as the some of the broader strokes of Kree culture (including their supreme A.I. leader in the form of Annette Bening). It’s also something of an origin story for pre-eye-patch Nick Fury (a computer de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), plus some stuff with the Tesseract Cube, and Ronan the Accuser standing around, and a bounty of “The 90s!” gags and needle drops (some less cliched than others). That doesn’t leave a ton for Larson as Captain Marvel herself, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, a.k.a. “Veers,” but she does as well as anyone could ask with a role that is largely spent working through amnesia, and portrays the most powerful future Avenger with spirit and brio.
A bigger surprise is how much fun Ben Mendelsohn is having as Talos, the Skrull leader and ostensible villain. His bone-dry sarcasm (in his natural Australian accent, finally) pays dividends the more screen time he’s given, making for a rewarding final act as Carol’s story also reaches its affecting emotional climax. In some corners, there’s an attitude that Marvel is just cynically mining the trappings of Girl Power to create another cultural moment, like Carol grabbing a Nine Inch Nails shirt off a mannequin. I disagree, and you only had to watch my daughter’s face when our heroine’s powers are finally unfurled in all their celestial glory. Even as a stepping stone to something better, that’s hopefully not weighed down by origin story baggage and can seize the momentum of Captain Marvel saving the day in Avengers: Endgame, the 21st film in the MCU tapestry is rewarding enough for the viewers who have the most to gain from it. Oh, and the cat. The cat is great.
TRIPLE FRONTIER (Netflix)
The convoluted way Triple Frontier came to the screen is more interesting than the film itself. A revolving door of actors and distribution companies took turns being attached to the latest script by Zero Dark Thirty’s Mark Boal, with Kathryn Bigelow originally set to direct Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks(!!) in 2011. That didn’t happen; eventually, up-and-comer J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year) took over with Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy, and Mahershala Ali finally set to go in 2017, only for Paramount to drop the film a month before shooting started. Then Netflix stepped in, and Chandor stayed on with a reshuffled cast — Ben Affleck was in, then out (for “personal reasons”), then back in when his replacement Mark Wahlberg dropped out too.
Now that we can finally see the film for ourselves in its sickly-green hues, it’s clear to me at least why it was so hard to get made. Triple Frontier is a quintessential tweener; it’s just kinda there, and dumb to boot, gesturing towards statements about masculinity, greed, and military culture without ever really saying anything at all; it clumsily morphs from a “one last job” heist film to survival thriller, Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the Call of Duty set. If you’re into bonds-of-brotherhood tales, fetishize military weaponry, and think modern action movies need more Metallica, this is for you. But for the rest of us, it’s not serious enough to be challenging, and not fun enough to be anything else. Considering the film’s cast, pedigree, and splashy Netflix ad campaign, that’s a real shame.
At least Affleck’s performance here, as a man whose life has fully collapsed when he can no longer do the only thing he’s good at, gives it a real-life poignancy it otherwise doesn’t deserve. The others — Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal, and Charlett Hudland — glower and shout and drag bags of money over the Andes in the belabored second half, seemingly frustrated that they’re not in a better film. I was too, because I’ve enjoyed every one of Chandor’s films up to now (especially his first, Margin Call), and for the life of me can’t figure why he devoted so much time to something so mediocre even Mark Wahlberg couldn’t stay attached to it.
DOCUMENTARY NOW! (IFC)
My first exposure to this critically beloved series (“Now in its 52nd season,” according to deadpan host Helen Mirren) was a direct result of the steady, joyous drumbeat hyping the episode “Original Cast Album: Co-op.” I was persuaded, I dove in, and I was not disappointed. You don’t have to have seen its inspiration, D.A. Pennebaker’s account of the 1970 recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, to appreciate it — though it helps, as Documentary Now! consistently nails the little touches no matter its subject or the obscurity of the film it’s quoting.
But “Co-op” is one of the most deliriously entertaining half-hours of 2019, whether via John Mulaney’s passive-aggressive Sondheim avatar, the sequence of battleaxe Paula Pell going full Elaine Stritch during an all-night session, or the music of Co-op itself, which captures just enough of Sondheim’s verbose wit and twisting melodies to be both loving homage and side-splitting parody. (Just bask in the glory of Renee Elise Goldsberry belting “The Brown and the Beige and the Brown,” or literally anything Richard Kind does here.) Bathed in a haze of cigarette smoke, the intrepid cast struggles through the week knowing their show has already closed and they have nothing left to lose but their pride, slowly merging with their down-on-their-luck characters with every critique they’re given from the other side of the glass.
And that’s just one brilliant episode — so far this season, Documentary Now! has done a two-part riff on Wild Wild Country starring Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton (“Batsh*t Valley”), featured a bonkers turn from Cate Blanchett as a Marina Abramovic-like performance artist, and bitingly deconstructed the “entitled male superfan” subgenre with this week’s “Searching for Mr. Larson,” where Fred Armisen’s The Far Side obsessive sacrifices his marriage and dignity for a road film no one actually wants him to make. I can’t speak with any authority on the full series yet — there are still two episodes to go this season, and two previous seasons on Netflix that I’ll be catching up on in short order, but suffice to say I’m pretty mad at myself for waiting this long to check it out.
- I finally got to see this year’s Best Documentary winner, Free Solo, and while I was pretty openly rooting for Minding the Gap that night, I don’t begrudge Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi the win. It’s a pretty staggering achievement — granted, they weren’t risking their life quite like their protagonist, climber (and sociopath?) Alex Honnold, but I still can’t figure out how they got some of those vertigo-inducing angles as he scaled El Capitan. My only serious criticism is that the filmmakers pull back from acknowledging their own responsibility while making it — we know Honnold is going to keep doing this, but what of the viewers who are inspired to take up this consistently deadly sport themselves?
- Hey, I…kinda liked the True Detective finale? I was harsh on it in last month’s entry, and I stand by what I wrote then, but I was relieved to discover that Nic Pizzolatto’s vision for this season was ultimately less sinister than sad. No pagan rituals, no state-wide conspiracies, no overt connection to Season 1 — just an unhappy woman, a terrible accident, and a conclusion that actually left me wondering in a good way. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff rocked the finale, as they had every episode. It’s still not a top-shelf show, but mayyyyybe I’m not automatically out on it if there’s a fourth season?
- On my radar for next month: Jordan Peele’s Us (3/22); the very funny-looking What We Do in the Shadows adaptation (3/27) and Fosse/Verdon (4/9) on FX; the BBC/Masterpiece Les Miserables (4/14 — not the musical), and, of course, Avengers: Endgame (4/26).