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Schultz reviews: “Captain Marvel" and "Polar"

Schultz reviews: “Captain Marvel" and "Polar"

By Carl Schultz


“Captain Marvel” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 124 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released March 8:


“Every man,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a divinity in disguise.”


Set in 1995, “Captain Marvel” depicts the origin of the comic book character created in 1967 by Stan Lee and Gene Colan: Vers, a Kree warrior from the planet Halas, is stranded on Earth after an intergalactic dogfight with the enemy Skrull. Self-described as having been descended from “a race of warrior-heroes,” Vers finds Earth strangely familiar, with hazy memories swimming just out of reach, as if she’s been on the planet before.


Eventually Vers learns she’s actually the former crackerjack USAF pilot Carol Danvers, whose DNA was fused with that of a Kree soldier during the explosion of a prototype warp engine of alien manufacture. Danvers was at the time destroying the engine to prevent its falling into the wrong hands, and the cosmic energy which saturated her DNA also gave her abilities of flight, energy projection and superhuman strength.


As the intergalactic war continues between the alien Kree and Skrull warriors above and threatens to envelop the Earth below, Vers/Danvers collaborates with Agent Nick Fury, an entry-level bureaucrat toiling as a “Men in Black”-type investigator for the government intelligence agency SHIELD, to learn the real truth behind the conflict and possibly restore peace to the galaxy.


Scholars have composed dissertations over the years on the relevance of modern comic book-based entertainment as a contemporary form of Greek Mythology, with the Marvel cast of characters such as Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and the gang as the equivalent of Achilles, Prometheus, Hercules and others.


But in more recent Marvel-based outings such as last year’s “Black Panther,” the mythology grows more pronounced, and even profound. In Marvel’s own convoluted way, the character inhabited in a terrific performance by Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson in “Captain Marvel” transcends ancient folklore and becomes something else: More than mythology, “Captain Marvel” seemingly aspires to be ... well, almost a Biblical parable. 


Viewers will note that while Carol Danvers gains her superhuman abilities through a cosmic explosion, she actually becomes a superhero much earlier in the tale: When she learns as a child to overcome failure, to pick herself up off the playground after being knocked down, to try again after being bested in a sport, to persevere through failure in a flat refusal to accept defeat. As her childhood friend notes to Danvers late in the picture, “You were the most powerful person I even knew, even before you could shoot fire from your fists.” In other words, the ability is in all of us.


Descending to Earth to resume a human form, Carol Danvers lives by the Golden Rule, repaying friendship with friendship, kindness with kindness ... and wrath with wrath. She’s the unquestioning ally of the oppressed and the enemy of evil. And in case you miss the metaphor, before she ascends into the skies at the end of the picture, Danvers allows her earthly friend Fury the ability to contact her in the future, but cautions him, “Let’s keep it to emergencies, okay?” The unspoken subtext: “You can sweat the small stuff on your own.”


Beyond the customary industrial light and magic of explosions, zooming spacecraft, otherworldly aliens, laser rays and energy bolts, “Captain Marvel” tries hard to be as important a picture as last year’s Marvel-based blockbuster “Black Panther.” With their shared humanity and elemental social consciences, Black Panther and now Captain Marvel are plainly crafted by Marvel Entertainment become the next new generation of mythological heroes, viable templates for future generations as Iron Man and Captain America depart the stage. 


To praise the title performance but ignore the rest of the picture would be unfair--actress Larson needed a character to work with and lines of scripted dialogue to speak. But as has become customary for a Marvel picture, the plot of “Captain Marvel” is convoluted and clunky and difficult to understand, and the narrative is overflowing with unnecessary characters. Written (with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) and directed by the filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, any single plot element could likely have been jettisoned from the picture without anyone noticing.


Jude Law appears as a former mentor for Vers/Danvers who reveals his true colors by the halftime whistle. Annette Bening mostly camps it up as an alien scientist disguised as a human scientist — her character’s name, Mar-Vell (pronounced Marvelle) presumably will be revealed in future chapters to have enormous additional significance. And Samuel L. Jackson is a delight as always in his eighth motion picture appearance as Nick Fury, here portrayed as the future director of SHIELD and boss of The Avengers superstar team of superheroes.  


In fact, Jackson’s so good that he can almost camouflage the fact that the filmmakers gave him almost nothing to work with. In another actor’s hands, you might not be able to remember Fury being in the movie at all — the part seems almost to be improvised, 10 percent Fury and 90 percent Jackson. Even the origin of Fury’s signature eye-patch turns out to be a colossal disappointment, little more than an excuse for a banal sight gag — no pun intended.


Playing in 4,310 theaters across North America, the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the 51st motion picture overall to be based on a title from the Marvel line of comic books, “Captain Marvel” began breaking box office records almost the moment it was released.


Named by the Internet Movie Database as the most anticipated picture of 2019 and pointedly released on International Women’s Day, “Captain Marvel” earned $153 million at the North America box office and $302 million overseas in its first two days in release, enough to cover the picture’s reported $152 million production budget and place the film squarely in the profit column, even after advertising expenses. The picture has also surpassed Marvel’s rival DC Comics-based megahits “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” in advance ticket sales.


Critically, the picture is faring almost as well, with an approval rating of 80 percent from the Rotten Tomatoes website and 64 percent from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award “Captain Marvel” a grade of A, while 73 percent of PostTrak audiences place the picture in the “definite recommend” category.


“Captain Marvel” includes a customary cameo appearance filmed by legendary Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee prior to his November death, as well as a nifty little tribute to Lee at the very beginning of the picture. And a mid-credit scene reportedly taken from next month’s “Avengers: Endgame” ties “Captain Marvel” to the cliffhanger ending of Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” from last April, confirming theories about whom Nick Fury was texting at the end of that picture.


“Captain Marvel” is rated PG-13 for sequences of science fiction violence and action, and brief suggestive language. 


“Polar” Distributed by Netflix Motion Pictures, 119 Minutes, Rated NC-17, Released Jan. 25:


The Danish character actor Mads Mikkelsen has a physical appearance which seems to associate him with villainous roles. 


It’s not that Mikkelsen is a bad-looking guy — he’s not. From certain angles he actually resembles quintessential clean-cut contemporary American good guy Dwayne “The Rock Johnson, with something of that wrestler-turned-movie star’s chiseled features.


But Mikkelsen’s cold, impassive, analytical facial expression and signature unblinking and disquieting stare seem to link the actor with infernal intentions and nefarious goals — an eternal doppelganger, The Rock’s evil twin. It’s a distinction that seems exclusive to American pictures, by the way — in Mikkelsen’s native Scandinavia, the actor is a movie star, period, with a career not unlike that of, say, a Nordic Matt Damon.


The American association of Mads Mikkelsen with cold-hearted bad guys might have something to do with our collective lack of inability to forget the actor’s breakthrough characterizations: Le Chiffre, one of James Bond’s more formidable enemies, in the global 2006 megahit “Casino Royale,” or Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in television’s “Hannibal” from 2013 to 2015.


Mikkelsen’s American typecasting as Hollywood’s go-to sociopathic outcast is unlikely to change with his appearance in the new Netflix picture “Polar.” To be sure, the actor does invest his characterization with flashes of humanity and even occasional humor, if never an inviting smile or ingratiating manner. But for once, the despicable intentions do not belong exclusively to Mikkelsen’s character. Rather, in “Polar,” it’s the picture itself which is the villain.


Based on a Dark Horse Comics graphic novel and certainly not to be confused with Mikkelsen’s other recent film “Arctic,” in “Polar” the actor stars as Duncan Vizla, a highly-paid, globe-trotting professional assassin employed by the clandestine Damocles Corporation. Damocles is a sort of underworld-based, mercenary version of the CIA, not unlike SPECTRE in the James Bond pictures. 


One the eve of his 50th birthday, Vizla is facing mandatory retirement — and anticipating a $8 million corporate pension. Instead, he’s compelled by his supervisor to accept one final mission: The revenge assassination of a Belarus-based hitman responsible for the recent death of a Damocles colleague. But the mission turns out to be a setup by the corporation, a means of eliminating the assassin himself. Vizla escapes Damocles’ clutches and disappears, determined to learn the reason for the betrayal.


Eventually the aging assassin discovers Damocles’ real objective: Financially overextended to the tune of some $29 million in lost revenue and unrecoverable assets, the company believes it can balance its books by murdering nine of its senior staff of contract assassins. The corporate mentality is to activate a small-print clause in the assassins’ contracts that reroutes their pensions back to the company, should the employees die in the field without designating a legal next-of-kin.


As a result of the revelation and double-cross, Vizla’s last mission becomes one of self-preservation: To neutralize the Damocles leadership, and preserve his life ... and his pension.


The main problems with “Polar” are in the clumsy script by Jayson Rothwell and the ham-handed filmmaking of former music video director Jonas Akerlund. While early scenes promise a Quentin Tarantino-flavored satire on corporate greed, “Polar” quickly takes an unwelcome turn toward broad comedy and oversized camp humor. During the picture’s first hour, it’s almost as if Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry somehow parachuted into an episode of television’s hoary old “Batman” series from the 1960s.


But at about the halfway point of the 119-minute picture, “Polar” takes a turn toward ultra-violence and over-the-top carnage — a veritable tsunami of nauseating makeup effects, cinematic carnage and gallons of karo syrup-based blood. When Vizla is captured by his former friends at Damocles, the event cues an extended torture sequence in which director Akerlund’s camera savors in loving detail the flaying and dismemberment of the hapless former employee.


Mads Mikkelsen is a fine actor, given the right kind of roles, and at first he attempts to lift “Polar” above its lurid roots and sophomoric staging. But by the picture’s final quarter, even Mikkelsen seems overwhelmed by the savagery and lack of coherent direction. The actor begins to grunt out his monosyllabic dialogue in an indifferent style reminiscent of fellow Scandinavian Tor Johnson in Ed Wood’s notorious “Plan 9 from Outer Space” from 1959. During the final hour, “Polar” actually becomes painful to watch, both literally and metaphorically.


Accordingly, Netflix has given “Polar” a designation of TV-MA, “for mature audiences.” The Internet Movie Database has alternatively assigned “Polar” a more-realistic rating of NC-17, the seldom-used successor to the MPAA’s old X rating. The NC-17, like the defunct X, has become in modern times more closely associated with hardcore pornography.


That’s what “Polar” really turns out to be — violence porn reminiscent of a snuff picture, a revenge flick writ large and taken to the nth degree. In assigning an approval rating of just 24 percent, Rotten Tomatoes reports that the picture “should be terrifically entertaining, but … (instead) proves it’s possible to ruin anything if you try.” Metacritic concurs, reporting an average score of 19 percent, indicating “overwhelming dislike.”


That’s Johnny Knoxville appearing as Damocles assassin Michael Green during the picture’s Chile-based opening sequence. And Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, of all people, shows up for one gratuitous scene as a retired Damocles assassin, now a broken-down drunkard groaning out Karaoke songs in a seedy gin joint. Dreyfuss reportedly also had something to do with the staging and direction of the picture’s more gamy sequences.


Skipping this one isn’t enough. If you see “Polar” coming on, unplug your computer and banish it outside to the porch until it all blows over. Duncan Vizla is one spy you won’t want to come in from the cold. 

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