STAR BORN SAVIOR

I’ve got to be honest: I watched Captain Marvel (2019) after I went to see Avengers: Endgame. As it turns out, it was fine to see this slightly smaller scale film after that mammoth Marvel epic since it adds little to the story of that bigger movie. It’s surprising that it took Marvel this long to finally do a female-fronted superhero movie—DC beat them to the punch with Wonder Woman two years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this movie is geared towards tween and teen girls more than the wider age range of Marvel movies. Set in the nineties, this film follows the titular hero, portrayed by Brie Larson, who is a warrior for the Kree civilization with special powers which she is learning to harness in order to help fight the threat of the shapeshifting Skrull race. But after being captured near Earth and brain-scanned by the Skrulls, she begins to experience memories of a life on Earth that she never knew she had. Is she actually Kree or human? Are these memories real, implanted, or imagined? Have her Kree brethren been keeping secrets from her?

Captain Marvel is old-school superhero fun that is not overly deep, has a wild sense of humor, and focuses on a staple of nineties pop culture: Girl Power. Co-directors/co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck choose a more kid-friendly tone here, and they pull it off even if the story and character development do not go as far as I would like. I’m okay with the fact that this action-packed film is important for young girls who really need a superhero movie of their own. Longtime Marvel devotees may quibble over the fact that Nick Fury is a much nicer and less gruff rendition of the man that we’ve seen in other films, but this is an origin story for him and Captain Marvel. The blu-ray is loaded up with extras: behind the scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, the obligatory gag reel, and a personable commentary from Boden and Fleck.

COME OUT AND PREY

Writer-director Jordan Peele certainly made a splash last year with the topical and creepy Get Out, and his latest fear flick Us (2019) further mines the issues of identity and conformity explored in that Oscar-nominated film last year. The setup for this mid-eighties tale is simple: A woman (Lupita Nyong’o) who briefly met and fled from her twin in a mirror fun house when she was a young kid returns to her childhood home with her husband and two children for a summer family retreat. The Wilson family are soon invaded by a creepy doppelgänger family that is a feral version of themselves. As they fend off their violent attackers and sort out where they come from, the family is posed with existential questions and tested as to how far they will go to survive. While Get Out was a more focused effort, Us operates on different levels of subtext and symbolism that can be interpreted in many ways. Peele invokes the eighties charity event Hands Across America in an eerie fashion, and the creepy clones represent more than just our dark sides. There is the concept of the dark, nasty side lurking underneath us on social media; the suppression of the culturally invisible immigrant families that many condescend to and ignore in this country; and the ever-present battle between the 1 percent and everyone else. These are current issues filtered through a retro framework without being openly referenced, but they are simmering below the surface. At times the narrative feels disjointed, but it still stimulates your synapses. The Blu-ray includes a lot of bonus features to further inspire conversation, including an exploration of the film’s themes and a commentary track from Peele, who did little press on the film and chooses to let audiences interpret things as they will rather than spoon feeding them answers. I respect that. Another thought occurred to me days after watching Us: What if the protagonists we are rooting for are the privileged people, knowingly or not, that many are railing against today? And if we are among them, can we recognize that in ourselves?

FACE OFF

While he was most famous for portraying James Bond in seven movies, the late Sir Roger Moore had a far more wide-ranging resume that many people don’t know about. Reportedly his favorite movie that he acted in, The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)is a strange if slightly dated thriller about an aristocratic businessman named Harold Pelham who, following an automobile accident seemingly caused by a takeover of his dark side, learns that he has a twin who has been seen partying, gambling, womanizing, and doing anything that his normal married self would not do. But they are never in the same place at once. As he tries to track down his sinister double, Pelham concedes that he may be going mad and that he may be doing these things without conscious knowledge. While not as multi-layered as a film like Us, The Man Who Haunted Himself is still intriguing because of the yin and yang it represents, and Moore delivers a fine performance that veers away from the tongue-in-cheek vibe of his 007 work. Funnily enough, though, Moore made this two years prior to landing his elite secret agent gig, making the following line unintentionally funny: “Espionage isn’t all James Bond on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Industry goes in for it too, you know.” This was the final film directed by Basil Dearden, who made the superb 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night. Kino Lorber gives us good extras too: A featurette with directors Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) talking about the film, and a 2005 commentary track featuring Moore, uncredited producer/writer Bryan Forbes, and moderator/journalist Jonathan Sothcott.

CONSTANT CRAVINGS

In her writer-director debut Fatso (1980), the late Anne Bancroft, Oscar-winning star of movies like The Miracle Worker and The Graduate, tackled the topic of obesity. Her inspiration was comedian Dom DeLuise, best known for appearing in various Mel Brooks and Burt Reynolds movies. Here, he plays a single Italian-American man named Dom who, despite seeing his cousin die of a heart attack due to his obesity, continues to struggle with overeating. When an attractive woman named Lydia (Candice Azzara) enters his life, he begins to reconsider the way he is living and treating himself. In one particularly memorable sequence, his binge eating support buddies from “Chubby Checkers” come over to offer support against his nocturnal cravings, then they collectively break their vows and devour a huge quantity of food. Bancroft balances comedic breakdowns like that with somber moments that underscore the fact that Dom is pursuing a very unhealthy road. She lovingly critiques and satirizes the food-centric culture of Italian-Americans which enables men like him to keep ballooning in weight, and there is a message of self-love and acceptance here that transcends any didactic preaching or ultimate message about his poor eating habits. You may find yourself wavering in your view of the issue at hand. Interestingly enough, Dom does not look particularly obese compared with many extremely obese Americans today, and it makes one wonder how some people now would actually react to this film. Bonus features include interviews with producers Stuart Cornfeld and Mel Brooks about how the film came to be made, and then a longer, enlightening piece about the history of female directors with film historian Maya Montañez Smukler that is very relevant today.

MIDWESTERN MANIACS

While David Lynch is a master of the weird and macabre, the premise of Blue Velvet (1986) is actually rooted in a familiar movie trope. The film works the familiar concept that it is not necessarily just the story you tell that is important but how you tell it. A young man who has returned home to visit his ailing father finds a severed ear in a field and delivers it to the police. Informed that he cannot discuss the case with people, nor be given further details, he embarks on his own investigation with a detective’s daughter. It begins by infiltrating the apartment of a nightclub singer who seems to be connected to the incident, and it takes him down a terrifying rabbit hole of twisted characters, sexual perversion, corruption, and violence in a Midwestern town of the nineteen-eighties that seems to be firmly rooted in the nineteen-fifties. The cast is strong: Kyle McLachlan as the curious but slightly disaffected hero, Laura Dern as his secret cohort, Isabella Rossellini as the tortured singer, Dennis Hopper as the psycho kidnapper, and Dean Stockwell as a suave but weird mobster. Composer Angelo Badalamenti utilizes both jazz and ambient music to create a sense of mystery and dread. Blue Velvet remains one of Lynch’s strongest films and takes a deep dive into the menacing undercurrents of small town life. On top of a fresh 4K restoration and 5.1 surround sound mix, the Criterion special edition Blu-ray features a plethora of stellar extras to sink your teeth into. There are 2002 and 2019 documentaries on the making of the film, a 2017 interview with Badalamenti, 53 minutes of deleted scenes and alternate takes, the original 2.0 surround mix, Lynch reading from the 2018 book Room to Dream, and “’Blue Velvet’ Revisited,” described as a “feature-length meditation on the making of the movie by Peter Braatz, filmed on-set during the production.” That intriguing latter piece, which runs feature length, takes us behind the scenes but into a different head space. It’s highly unusual but very apropos for this release.

NETFLIX FIX: BLACK MIRROR Season 5 (2019)

There have been many people who have expressed disappointment with this latest season of Black Mirror. Truth be told: It’s the “happy” season. These three episodes certainly tackle a variety of topics—gender fluidity, virtual sex, social media addiction, virtual omnipotence, and the creation of AI-induced music—and balance darker, more tense scenes with humorous, upbeat moments; even seemingly happy endings. It definitely feels like creator/writer Charlie Brooker is pulling back on the overall intensity level. Whether he is running out of steam or purposely choosing to explore the lighter side of dark is uncertain, but each of these 60-70 minute episodes will still make you think about their premises even if they feel more conventional.

Let’s break them down fast: “Striking Vipers” focuses on two old friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who find themselves attracted to one another inside of a Street Fighter-like VR game where one of them is a woman. They become addicted to the VR sex which arouses and confuses them. “Smithereens” chronicles the abduction of a corporate employee by an emotionally distraught man (Andrew Scott) desperate to speak to the creator of a Facebook-like social media company. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” stars Miley Cyrus as pop singer Ashley O. Her scheming aunt/manager seeks to control her completely, while a 15-year-old fan becomes obsessed with a miniature, sentient robot version of her called Ashley Too that is being marketed to young fans. The two Ashleys intersect in an unexpected way.

It is hard to go too in-depth into each episode without spoiling any surprises, but these three episodes certainly fit within the Black Mirror universe. They just do not seem to pack the heavy emotional wallop of previous seasons. The Miley Cyrus episode has got a Hollywood ending with a giant chase scene and even breaks the fourth wall. It explores territory mined in the 1997 film Simone with Al Pacino, although takes it another step in Brooker’s inimitable way. Perhaps the problem now is that Brooker has created so many radical episodes that it is hard to come up with new topics. But even though Black Mirror season five is flawed, it is still worth watching. The show hasn’t jumped the shark yet, but it will certainly need a recharge for season six. I won’t yet seek a postmortem for a series that, even at its weakest, is still better than most of what is on television at the moment.

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