Marvels a dull afterthought
While contempt has not yet set in, the familiarity of the Marvel Films is starting to wear on me. Much has been written about superhero fatigue, a feeling that's being borne out by the diminishing box office returns of the studio's latest efforts. Their latest, The Marvels, will not be seen as a step toward rectifying things, but rather, yet another cookie-cutter adventure, and a lackluster one at that. Despite the best efforts of its game trio of leads, the script by Megan McDonnell, Elissa Karasik and director Nia DaCosta adheres to the same lockstep narrative approach that, once upon a time, was exciting but has now become tedious.
One of the major problems facing the studio now is that of overreach, what with their constant flow of films and TV series that have become a chore to keep up on. This rears its ugly head early on in The Marvels as the backstories of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Kahn (Iman Vellani), whose origins were covered in the Disney Plus shows "WandaVision" and "Ms. Marvel," respectively, are recapped in a very quick, disjointed manner. This gets things off to an awkward start and the sense that if you aren't familiar with the later series, you are missing out on vital information hangs over the movie.
The long and short of the story is a Skrull rebel, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) is opening wormholes across the universe in order to siphon resources from other planets to save her depleted home world. Rambeau, Kahn and Carol Danvers (Brie Danvers), all variations of the hero Ms. Marvel - thus, the title – set out to put a stop to this. The one rather clever conceit is that, as the trio is connected through the same energy source, they can switch places when they use their powers. Unfortunately, this idea is beat into the ground, the various Marvels switching spots during multiple fights leading to a visual mishmash that's confusing and off-putting.
To its credit, the movie is the shortest of the Marvel films, so that's something. Still, it seems long because no new ground is being broken and none of the characters are distinctive enough to transcend this. There's no question this is a well-made film, such as it is, and the performers do what they can. The problem is that there's no longer anything special or unique about the Marvel fare. That being said, make sure to stay for The Marvels one mid-credits scene. A significant revelation occurs that could point the way toward the studio and their product's resurrection. Whether that's a good thing or not is a discussion for another day.
Bening and Foster Keep Nyad afloat
Though it is unavoidably hobbled by the conventions of the sports film genre, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Nyad proves inspirational all the same. Anchored by the one-two punch of Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, this true-to-life drama about swimmer Diana Nyad's efforts to swim from Cuba to Florida is as much a character study as a crowd-pleaser. It succeeds thanks to its strong cast, tight script, and attention to detail regarding the meticulous preparation that went into this astounding achievement.
The film begins with archival footage of Nyad accomplishing one magnificent feat of swimming after another. Whether it was shattering speed and endurance records or swimming around the island of Manhattan or from the Bahamas to Florida, Nyad was always looking for a new challenge. The trial that came to haunt her was swimming the 103 miles from Cuba to Florida. And while this had been accomplished before by two others, those competitors did so with the aid of a traveling shark cage. Nyad decided to cover this distance without such help. Oh, and she was 60 years old when she decided to take this on.
Nyad recounts this part of the athlete's life, documenting her extensive training, the many setbacks that needed to be overcome and the effect it had on her physical and mental state as well as those around her. Bening does a wonderful job bringing all these aspects to life. You can tell she's reveling in bringing this complex woman to life, warts, and all. That you don't wind up despising her and continue to root for her is a credit to the actor. The casting of Jodie Foster as Nyad's best friend, Bonnie Stall, is a masterstroke. Foster wisely underplays the role, providing an effective counterpoint to the overbearing titular character, grounding the film with a sense of logic and good humor in the face of the story's many difficulties.
Though the film covers the five different attempts Nyad made, the pace never lags and, if anything, the repeated nature of these acts increases the tension. As numerous difficulties arise – jellyfish, sudden storms, sharks, a lack of sponsors – the solutions to these problems are not readily apparent. The answers that are found prove inspired, rewarding our patience. There's no denying this is a compelling story, the final scene intercut with actual footage of Nyad's triumph, underscoring not simply her physical prowess but also the strength of her character. Nyad benefits greatly from the work of its two leads, but more so from the passion and tenacity of its subject, which is evident throughout. Streaming on Netflix.
Missed opportunities make for dull Lady
I wish I could report that Jessica Yu's The Quiz Lady was a rollicking good time, a laugh-a-minute comedy classic that not only tickles the funny bone but prompts discussion of current social issues. Alas, that is not the case, despite what is an intriguing premise and a solid cast. Wasted opportunities abound in Jen D'Angelo's script, as if they writer just had the courage to sneak up on good ideas only to back away timidly, unsure as to how to develop them.
Then again, maybe she just didn't have the confidence to do so, much like her main character, Anne Yum (Awkwafina), a sheltered 30-something who avoids social interaction like the plague. Working as a drone in an accounting firm, every night she looks forward to watching "The Quiz Show," a long-running game show hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Farrell). Growing up in a dysfunctional family, this program was her refuge, a place she could escape to for a half hour a day. Never having missed an episode, Anne now has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything. Her obnoxious sister, Jenny (Sandra Oh), thinks she'd be a perfect contestant on the show, but Anne's low sense of self-esteem prevents her from accepting the challenge. However, when the siblings find out their mother, a compulsive gambler, owes a local hood $80,000, she doesn't have much choice but to throw her hat in the ring.
D'Angelo's work is an example of narrative inertia. There are far too many scenes that simply don't move the story along. The sisters' arguments over whether Anne can succeed on the show are too numerous and tiresome, a sequence in which Anne is hallucinating is unnecessary, and a cross-country trip to Philadelphia is inexplicable. That neither of the sisters is likable doesn't help. That none of this is funny is the killing blow.
The game show setting is ripe with possibilities that aren't explored. Ferrell's naïve, inoffensive-to-the -extreme game show host doesn't have enough screentime, whereas an intriguing surrogate father-daughter relationship between he and Anne is wasted. Jason Schwartzman appears as the noxious champion of the game show and the interactions between he and Anne are minimal. A series of shows featuring them battling it out while getting to know each other off stage might have yielded comic gold. As it is, chances are meant to be taken with a film like The Quiz Lady. Yu and company are content to hit the most obvious notes, hoping that doing so loudly will create a sense of energy the story sorely lacks. What might have been a pleasant time-waster ends up being a total waste of time. Streaming on Hulu.