Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Endgame had the ending I was hoping for, but maybe not necessarily the right ending for the movie. And it’s only got one. If Endgame has any singular successes, it might be in its lack of false endings. It does a lot of establishing work, sometimes new to the film, sometimes refreshing it from previous Marvel movies. Endgame is the twenty-second “Marvel Cinematic Universe” movie; you probably can get away with watching thirteen of them and getting the story. And maybe not all the ones you’d expect. And not always for the best narrative reasons, not given where it takes some of its characters.

The film opens catching up with Jeremy Renner. Even before the company logo. He missed the last outing because of something in another one of the movies. Not one of the Avengers movies either. Anyway. Renner, despite being really effective in the first scene, is a red herring. He’s there immediately for texture and structurally for when he comes back later on. Because first things first, after all. Given the way the previous movie (Infinity War) ends, there’s some anticipation. There’s some big action in the prologue too, some big team-ups, some nice moments. But it’s really an epilogue to the previous film. In fact, there’s even a cliffhanger moment they could’ve used to split them. Only no, because then the movie jumps ahead an arbitrary amount of time. Arbitrary in how it effects the narrative, but so specific you’ve got to think there’s some reason. Maybe for the twenty-third Marvel movie. Or the thirty-third.

The movie uses the jump ahead to allow for a new ground situation. Sometimes it’s drastic, sometimes it’s not. Even when it’s a theoretically big change, it doesn’t necessarily do much to change how the character functions in the film. Maybe it gives them some angst or whatever, but everyone’s got angst after the last movie. It only affects behaviors in a few. The rest… well, they’re a little thin. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an amazing job writing good scenes for the actors, but not good subplots for most of them. There are some disconnects between script and direction here, particularly with Chris Hemsworth. Markus and McFeely’s script gives him a lot of possibility and directors Russo have zero interest in pursuing it. Shame thing goes for Mark Ruffalo. He gets more to do than ever before, but never any good scenes to himself. Renner and Scarlett Johansson end up somewhere in between. They’ve got material, they get time for it… it still comes off a little too perfunctory.

In theory, Endgame’s two leads are Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Downey gets the most to do in the film and it’s a fantastic performance. It’s his movie, as much as it can be any actor’s movie. Meanwhile, the script doesn’t give Evans quite enough to do, even though it frequently has him around things to do. Markus and McFeely actually don’t give Evans an arc for the film. Him, first tier guest stars Brie Larson and Don Cheadle, Ruffalo, no actual character arcs. It’d be disappointing if it weren’t a movie about a bunch of superheroes time traveling to save the world.

The time travel goes back into the other movies, but doesn’t get too nostalgic about them. It’s nice Endgame can get traction out of the three locations, as they’re locations because of narrative detail not dramatic potential. There are a couple good action sequences in one of them, some wasted material for Hemsworth, some wasteful material Downey makes into gold, some old footage reused then CGI’ed to get another “name” guest star in the end credits, a major plot development for third act repercussion, and a too flat melodramatic moment. And a bunch of good acting, good directing, excellent CGI, and whatever else.

Endgame couldn’t get better, technically speaking. Everything directors Russo need to do, every shot, it all works. There’s a lot to keep moving. It gets kind of monotonous after a while, as the film’s ambitions are all about getting its story told, getting all its connections made, all its references echoed, all its characters in the right place for when the actors’ contracts run out. There’s no time to make wide filmmaking swings, but directors Russo don’t even seem interested in trying. They’re more than happy to leverage an old movie beat to get the job done.

Especially if it’s at Hemsworth’s expense. Especially Hemsworth’s.

There aren’t any bad performances. Downey’s the ace. Then Evans or Paul Rudd. Rudd’s better than anyone but Downey when he’s getting introduced; he’s momentarily the lead then he’s background. He ends up with even less to do than Renner. But Evans is in the whole movie. Ruffalo’s fine. There’s nothing for him to do. Hemsworth seems more than capable so it’s weird how little he gets to do. He’s fine. Johansson’d be better if she didn’t end up losing her arc once Renner’s back. There’s a moment where it seems like she’s going to give a really good performance. Instead, she’s fine. Good in comparison to others, when adjusting for all the film’s factors. Cheadle’s good with his stuff, which is mostly background noise. Karen Gillan gets a big arc, at least in terms of narrative importance, but loses it. She’s okay.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back for a bit. She’s good. It’s not a lot. But she and Downey get their magic going as needed.

Bradley Cooper’s great as the CGI raccoon’s voice.

As for Josh Brolin, whose villain was the whole show in the previous Infinity War? The CGI, motion-captured mean blue giant thing still works and Brolin’s fine, but… he’s got a thin part this time out. Technically lots to do, all of it really thin.

Endgame succeeds in being a well-acted, well-made, and well-written (enough) conclusion to the “world-building” done by the previous twenty-one movies. It just might have been nice if it tried to do anything else. Anything at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), and Josh Brolin (Thanos).


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The Predator (2018, Shane Black)

The Predator has a really short present action, which is both good and bad. Good because one wouldn’t want to see screenwriters Fred Dekker and director Black try for longer, bad because… well, it gets pretty dumb how fast things move along. Dekker and Black don’t do a good job with the expository speech (for a while, Olivia Munn gets all of it and deserves a prize of some kind for managing it, given how dumb the content gets) and they do a worse job with character development. They’re constantly forgetting details about their large ensemble cast, if they’re not forgetting about where their ensemble cast is in regards to the onscreen action. Black does a perfectly adequate—if utterly impersonal job—with a lot of the directing on a technical level, but he really has got zero feel for his large ensemble. Even though the story’s ostensibly about lead Boyd Holbrook (in a mostly likable performance) becoming a better dad to son Jacob Tremblay. Dekker and Black really want to pretend it matters; see, Tremblay is a kid with Asperger syndrome, which turns out to be real important since he’s the only person on the planet who can decode the Predator language and figure out what’s going on.

Though—again, Dekker and Black just make up whatever they need in a scene to keep it moving, logic be damned and double-damned—though at one point evil scientist Sterling K. Brown (who is distressingly bad) somehow knows about the internal politics of the Predator planet. Because it moves a scene along and pretends to have some kind of forward plot momentum. It turns out it’s all a bunch of hooey and the ending is a painful sequel setup, but it’s not as though the screenwriters have been successfully fooling the audience. There’s no good ending to The Predator because it’s a really stupid movie, full of mediocre action (Black’s got no ideas when it comes to his big surprise villain in the second half either and he really needs some ideas for it), and a bunch of occasionally good, usually tedious performances from actors who probably ought to have some serious conversations about why their agents made them do this movie.

Holbrook’s the lead. He’s this bad dad, bad husband (but not too bad) Army sniper who happens across a Predator attack and ships the helmet and a laser armband home to son Tremblay. Only not. He ships them to his P.O. Box and they get delivered after Holbrook defaults on the rental. So it’s seems like he’s gone for a while—however long it takes to send alien technology through customs from rural Mexico and then the post office to give up on him paying for his box—but he’s really only gone a few days because the evil government scientists have tracked him down, brought him back to the States, and are setting him up to be lobotomized or something to keep him quiet.

But then there’s Munn, who gets drafted to work for Brown and the evil government scientists because, in addition to being a world famous biologist, she once wrote the President she’d like to help with alien animals or some nonsense. Again, the character “detail” is just nonsense but nonsense Munn can bring some charm to in her delivery so it’s in. It’s usually fine with Munn; it’s bad when it’s from a charmless performance, which—to be fair—The Predator only has a few. Like Brown.

Remember before when I said the story outside the alien monster hunting people in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest because the movie’s just a rip-off of that godawful second Alien vs. Predator movie is about Holbrook getting to be a better dad. Not really. The closest Black comes to finding a story arc is Munn. She loses it after a while, but when she’s got the spotlight, even when the film’s wanting, it’s got its most potential. Holbrook’s a fine supporting guy, but he’s not a lead.

The rest of the cast… Trevante Rhodes give the film’s best performance. Keegan-Michael Key’s stunt-ish casting is fine. Thomas Jane’s is less so, mostly because Jane never gets the time to establish his character. The film forgets about Alfie Allen so much he could just as well be uncredited. Augusto Aguilera is fun; not good, not funny, but fun. Jake Busey’s kind of great in a small role, just because he brings so much professionalism to a project completely undeserving of it.

Tremblay’s kind of annoying as the kid, but only because the script also wants to pretend it’s about the little boy learning there are space aliens thing too.

There’s just not enough time for all the movies Black and Dekker try to pretend The Predator can be so instead they give up and do something entirely derivative, something often dumb, something to waste any of the good performances, something lazy.

The Predator is an exceptionally lazy, pointless motion picture.

And the music, by Henry Jackman, is bad.

Good CGI ultra-violence I guess? Though Black doesn’t know how to use it. Because apparently Predator movies are really hard to figure out how to make.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Shane Black; screenplay by Fred Dekker and Black, based on characters created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Harry B. Miller III; music by Henry Jackman; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by John Davis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Boyd Holbrook (McKenna), Trevante Rhodes (Williams), Jacob Tremblay (Rory), Keegan-Michael Key (Coyle), Olivia Munn (Brackett), Sterling K. Brown (Traeger), Thomas Jane (Baxley), Alfie Allen (Lynch), Augusto Aguilera (Nettles), and Jake Busey (Keyes).


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Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

Captain Marvel is difficult to encapsulate. Its successes are many, some of its achievements truly singular (the CG-de-aging of Sam Jackson, combined with Jackson’s “youthful” performance, is spectacular), and there’s always something else. Even when you get past all the major things—first female Marvel superhero movie, franchise prequel, “period piece,” inverted character arcs, big plot twists—there’s something else you can find in the plotting or how directors Boden and Fleck stick with a joke. If they make a joke work, they don’t let up on it. Ever. They turn it into character development. Even when it ought to be absurd, they make it work.

But most of all there’s lead Brie Larson, who gets some big moments in the film—sometimes through the grandiose handling, direction-wise, but also sometimes in her performance. Marvel is a fast movie—once Larson crash-lands on Earth, the present action is around a day. And Larson’s got a lot to do in those twenty-four hours. The film doesn’t start on Earth, it starts off on a highly advanced alien planet, where Larson is living and working for Jude Law in a kind of space special forces unit. Larson’s from somewhere else (Earth) but doesn’t remember it (Earth). Larson’s aliens are warring with a different species of alien; this other alien species can shape-shift, which is a problem because they invade planets and take them over and they’ve just followed Larson to Earth.

Where she fairly quickly realizes she’s from Earth, sending on her a quest to find herself, with sidekick Jackson in tow. Jackson’s simultaneously the comic relief and the audience’s view into the action, but only for tying in the latter (sorry, earlier) Marvel movies. Who knows what he actually looked like when acting the scenes, but Jackson’s performance is awesome. He does great with the “aliens are real” thing, he does great as the sidekick. He and Larson are wonderful together, even though it’s mostly just for the smiles and laughs. Boden and Fleck take all the smiles they can get. Not every laugh, but definitely all the smiles. Captain Marvel, even with its harshness, is fun.

Often that fun comes from Larson’s wiseass lead, who might not remember anything about her life on Earth but still remembers how to be a good Earth movie wiseass. The wiseass stuff is never to deflect from the emotion either. It informs the character and performance; there’s no avoidance, not even when the film could get away with it thanks to the amnesia angle. Marvel takes the right parts of itself seriously.

Like the friendship between Larson and Lashana Lynch. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, which is fine as it’s an action-packed superhero movie with warring aliens and not a character drama, but Larson and Lynch quickly work up a great onscreen rapport. It’s not as fun as Larson’s interactions with Jackson, but it’s part of where the film finds its emotional sincerity. Captain Marvel never leverages the emotional sincerity; for example, when there’s danger, Boden and Fleck will defuse it (quickly) with a laugh instead. The defusing doesn’t get rid of the emotional sincerity either, though some of that emotional sincerity is the only way the filmmakers can get away with the plot twists. It helps Larson is, you know, a seemingly indestructible superhero.

Lynch has a daughter, Akira Akbar, who used to know Larson too. Lynch and Akbar come into the film in the middle, so it’s a surprise how much influence Akbar’s going to have on Larson’s character arc (and performance). Because until the big interstellar finale, there’s a lot of focus on Larson’s reaction to recent events. Often for laughs, sometimes for narrative, but her character is fairly static. Sure, she’s on a quest for information but she’s got no idea the relevance of that information. Just it has something to do with Annette Bening.

Bening is—for the most part—just the personification of this alien A.I. god when it communicates with Larson. Everyone sees something different when synced with the A.I. god. Larson sees a Bening avatar and eventually tracks down the real Bening. Bening is both clue and solution to Larson’s puzzle. Larson doesn’t have all the pieces or the box to guide her putting them together—and the puzzle’s fairly simple (again, it’s an action-packed superhero movie with space aliens) but Larson brings more than enough in the performance department. Pretty much everyone brings the necessary gravitas then takes it up a notch.

Marvel is always an effective film, in no small part thanks to its cast and the direction of that cast. Bening and Law are quite good (though Bening’s far better with even less “character” than Law), Lynch and Akbar are good, Ben Mendelsohn is awesome as the leader of the bad aliens (the shape-shifters). His performance—despite constant special effects and makeup—is understated, reserved. Even with the constant element of surprise—he’s a shape-shifter, after all—Mendelsohn’s performance is tight. Plus he gets some laughs, usually at Jackson’s expense.

Larson’s really good. Plot-wise, nothing Marvel throws at her slows her down. Larson’s able to find the sincerity in the broad dramatic strokes. Like the books, sincere performances… they do a lot. Larson’s particularly great with both Lynch and Akbar, implying a forgotten familiarity counter to her overt behaviors in a moment.

And the supporting cast of ragtag aliens and Men in Black (including a de-aged Clark Gregg in a fine shoe-in) is all effective. They don’t need to do much. Larson, Jackson, Mendelsohn, Lynch… they’ve got it covered.

Technically, the film’s just as strong. The CG is all excellent, the photography (from Ben Davis) is good, ditto Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham’s editing. Andy Nicholson’s production design—of nineties Earth in particular—is good. Basically everything except Pinar Toprak’s score, which often feels too small for such a big film. It’s not bad music, sometimes it’s really effective, but it’s also yet another indistinct Marvel superhero movie score. It’s all about accompanying the action, not guiding it, which is a whole other discussion. Occasionally it’s really spot on, but mostly it’s just there.

Kind of like the nineties pop music. It sort of works—having grunge-y songs for the 1994-set act—but it seems like a big miss Boden and Fleck never explore, you know, what kind of music Larson would’ve liked when she was on Earth and not just whatever is time-period appropriate.

Doesn’t Marvel czar and Marvel producer Kevin Feige like music?

Anyway.

Captain Marvel. It sets out to do a lot of things and succeeds in all of them. The film puts the galaxy on Larson’s shoulders; she deadlifts with it. Boden and Fleck have a wonderful way of making it fun for the audience when they take a moment to check a requisite plot point box. They—Larson, Boden, and Fleck–and the hundred animators who made Samuel L. Jackson, well, Sam Jackson again—do something special with Captain Marvel.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, based on a story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet, and the Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham; music by Pinar Toprak; production designer, Andy Nicholson; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Brie Larson (Vers), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Akira Akbar (Monica Rambeau), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Gemma Chan (Minn-Erva), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan), and Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence).


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Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Just because you can get Patrick Wilson to say “Call me, Oceanmaster!” over and over again with a straight face doesn’t necessarily mean you should have Patrick Wilson say “Call me, Oceanmaster!” over and over again.

Unless director James Wan was just trying to get my wife to laugh uproariously. Every time. Because every time it’s so absurdly dumb the only reasonable response is to laugh. Uproariously.

Kind of like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s B-villain. Not only is Abdul-Mateen terrible, not only is the writing of the character risible, his arc is one of a buffoon. He’s Elmer Fudd. Not even with a pseudo-tragic storyline does he get any depth. He’s just Elmer Fudd with some pseudo-tragedy.

Abdul-Mateen probably gives the worst performance. His only serious competition is Nicole Kidman, who plays Aqua-mom. She’s supposed to be the next queen of Atlantis but runs away to Maine and shacks up with Temeura Morrison, as Aqua-dad. Their abbreviated love affair–which tries to make up for the actors abject lack of chemistry with hilarious CGI de-aging on Morrison–results in Momoa. Well, not Momoa yet, but a series of bad kid actors playing Aqua-boy. Eventually it’s Momoa.

He narrates the opening. Poorly, but it’s poorly written. Wilson’s exposition about why he wants to be called “Oceanmaster” is actually better written than a lot of the film’s exposition. The only person who manages to get Aquaman’s expository dialogue out with any success is Amber Heard. She’s Momoa’s love interest and a princess of Atlantis who wants to stop Wilson from waging war on the surface world. Even though he’s probably right? Though Atlantis seems like a barbaric place. Ancient Rome with technology. Kind of. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time there. Just enough for a CGI chase sequence involving undersea vehicles.

The CGI is impressive though. A lot of Aquaman‘s CGI is impressive. Not the de-aging stuff. Or when it’s for the action scenes involving the actors; Wan directs fight scenes like it’s a video game on fast forward. At once point he does first person shooter, at another he toggles between two characters’ simultaneous action scenes. The latter is very nearly effective, if it weren’t so poorly photographed. At some point–very early on–in Aquaman, it becomes clear cinematographer Don Burgess and Wan don’t care at all about the lighting matching when they’re shooting the actors on green screen. The composites are universally terrible. It usually doesn’t affect the action too much, except when Aquaman is in its Indiana Jones phase with Momoa and Heard globe-trotting to find an ancient super-powered trident.

Wait, I was actually complimenting the CGI, wasn’t I? Yeah, the extreme long shots with the undersea action–all CGI, obviously–looks great. Wan does those shots well. He doesn’t so establishing shots well and he doesn’t acknowledge any physicality–like, really, what does cinematographer Burgess do on this movie, he doesn’t even stop Wan from shooting through where a wall ought to be–but the undersea CGI stuff can be cool. And competent, which is a nice change from when there are the lousy composites or the crappy action scenes or the writing.

Momoa can’t really lead a movie, but it doesn’t matter because David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script is so bad no one could lead Aquaman. Momoa’s fine. What are you going to do with this script. The romantic stuff between him and Heard is absurd, but who cares. It’s nowhere near as bad as, I don’t know, Abdul-Mateen or Kidman and Morrison and, well, you’re rooting for Amber Heard. She works hard in this movie, trying to carry Momoa both in character and as an actor in scenes. Heard pretends her character in Aquaman is serious, which no one else in the movie does… except maybe Willem Dafoe (only because you can never tell if he’s being tongue-in-cheek) and Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren’s Heard’s father and Wilson’s war ally. He’s not good–it’s a crap role–but he takes it seriously.

Momoa doesn’t take his part seriously, which is a good move since his whole character arc relies on something the movie doesn’t clearly inform the audience about even though they should’ve known about it from the beginning. Wilson either. They’re half-brothers fighting for the throne. They ought to have some chemistry.

They have zilch. Partially because Wan doesn’t direct them for it, partially because the script really wants to subject the audience to Abdul-Mateen.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s music occasionally gets really loud and cartoonishly action-y. It’s at those moments Aquaman ostensibly has its most potential for outlandish action. Wan never delivers. Not even during his CGI chase scenes, which are abbreviated, or his “elaborate” fight scenes. Aquaman runs almost two and a half hours, has a present action of a few days, yet is almost entirely in summary. Sure, Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall write godawful scenes, but Wan doesn’t do anything to slow that pace.

When Gregson-Williams’s score isn’t writing checks the movie can’t cash, it’s pretty tepid and generic. Still has more personality than Burgess’s photography. Aquaman does better underwater; Bill Brzeski’s production design goes to pot whenever the action surfaces. Though, again, it’s where Burgess’s photography is worst. So it’s a lose-lose.

Could Aquaman be worse? Undoubtedly. Should Aquaman be better? Sure? There’s no reason it ought to be so bad. Or so dumb. Or predictable. Or so obvious.

Though, again, if it weren’t so obvious, could Momoa lead the picture….

But it definitely shouldn’t be so bad. It shouldn’t be so technically inept. Its actors–save Kidman–deserve a script better than what Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall contribute; you wouldn’t play with your action figures with their dialogue. It’s too plastic.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, based on a story by Geoff Johns, Wan, and Beall and the DC Comics character created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Kirk M. Morri; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Peter Safran and Rob Cowan; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jason Momoa (Arthur), Amber Heard (Mera), Patrick Wilson (King Orm), Willem Dafoe (Vulko), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Manta), Temuera Morrison (Tom Curry), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), and Nicole Kidman (Atlanna).


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