Captain Marvel (12A) ***
Scotch: The Golden Dram (PG) ***
The Kindergarten Teacher (15) ***
Border (15) ****
Starring Brie Larson and co-written and directed by filmmaking couple Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), Captain Marvel marks a couple of big firsts for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the first solo Marvel movie for a female character and the first to have a female director. It is also the first movie in what’s set to be a new phase for the ever-expanding comic book movie franchise that’s dominated mainstream cinema since Iron Man broke through in 2008. That makes it a big deal and, depressingly, the misogynist fanboys who feel threatened by the company throwing its weight behind a female superhero have already launched pathetic online campaigns trying to sabotage the movie before it even opens.
As it happens, those kinds of retrograde attitudes are woven into the fabric of this origins story, which is set in the 1990s and revolves around a character frequently chastised by her mentor (played by Jude Law) for being “too emotional” to control her powers. When we’re first introduced to Larson’s character, known initially as Vers, she already has laser-powered fists of fury that she deploys in the service of an elite alien military unit dedicated to battling a race of shapeshifters known as Skrulls. But Vers is also suffering from Jason Bourne-style memory loss, haunted both by flashbacks to some kind of previous Earthbound life as a Top Gun-style fighter pilot and a sneaking suspicion that her powers are even greater than she’s been led to believe.
Although the sci-fi heavy opening salvo setting all this up is baffling, Boden and Fleck exploit the wigged-out possibilities of the genre in inventive ways to fill us in on more of the character’s convoluted backstory before crashing her back on Earth circa 1995 and letting the fun get properly underway. As you might expect from the studio that gave us the 1980s-riffing Guardians of the Galaxy, the period signifiers – video shops, CD-Roms, pagers, Nine Inch Nails T-shirts, ripped jeans – are pretty jokey and on the nose, but there’s also a nice ironic touch to a lot of the pop-culture reference points that subtly challenge the sexist attitudes of the era, whether it’s the destruction of a video shop promotional display for the movie True Lies that leaves Jamie Lee Curtis’s visage intact while eliminating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, or soundtracking all the big action sequences with female-dominated Britpop and grunge-era bands like Elastica and No Doubt (Courtney Love’s band Hole are saved for the end credits).
True, it’s a little frustrating that those action sequences can’t otherwise break free from the generic house style that ultimately makes all Marvel movies blend together, regardless of the maverick filmmakers putting their stamp on the characters. Then again, this doesn’t have the luxury of simply being an origins story for its eponymous heroine; it’s also a direct prequel to the whole MCU, with Larson’s character partnering up with a with a pre-eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, de-aged with CGI) as he investigates alien activity for a fledgeling government agency known as SHIELD. Jackson’s always good value in this role, so it’s fun to see Fury’s backstory expanded. As for Larson, the Room Oscar-winner quickly comes into her own in a role that, despite the limitations of the franchise, never quite conforms to superhero conventions.
Whisky documentary Scotch: The Golden Dram kicks off with a wealth of cringe-inducing tartan clichés that seem designed to make it easily marketable to international audiences. Mercifully, it soon settles down into a compelling exploration of the multimillion-pound industry. At its core is a profile of master distiller Jim McEwan, an Islay native who’s worked in the business since he was a boy and is perhaps best known for turning Bruichladdich into one of the most revered whisky manufacturers in the world. Through McEwan we get a sense of the importance of keeping alive both the skills and the stories that go hand-in-hand with making great whisky, but director Andrew Peat also expands the scope of the film to examine the role of women in the industry and question why whisky’s disproportionate economic value to Scotland means its often more expensive to buy here than abroad.
Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers an unnerving performance in The Kindergarten Teacher, a slow-burn moral thriller about an intellectually and artistically dissatisfied educator (Gyllenhaal) who becomes increasingly obsessed with one of her five-year-old students when he starts demonstrating a precocious flair for poetry. Adapting the Israeli film of the same name, writer/director Sara Colangelo raises all sorts of queasy questions about the duty of parents, care-givers and teachers to nurture talent in ones so young and Gyllenhaal captures perfectly not just her character’s passive-aggressive condescension, but the quiet tragedy of a cultured woman who is painfully aware of both her own artistic limitations and the casual way society devalues talent in others.
It’s best not to know too much going into Border, a strange Swedish drama about a seemingly disfigured customs officer (Eva Melander). Adapted from a novella by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, the film has some fairly outré twists up its sleeve, though writer/director Ali Abassi does such a fine job of rooting his protagonist’s otherness in a realistic setting that even when he starts incrementally weaving in more fantastical elements, the story always feels plausible. ■