Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton)

Westworld is a regrettably bad film. It doesn’t start off with a lot of potential. Leads Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are wanting. But then writer-director Crichton starts doing these montages introducing the behind-the-scenes of the park.

Oh. Right. Westworld is about an amusement resort with humanoid robots. Benjamin and Brolin are guests. Benjamin’s not over his divorce, so he’s got to man up. Brolin’s a man of few words, less facial expression, and no mystery. Crichton’s direction of the actors in the first act should’ve been a clue for problems later on.

The behind-the-scenes procedural about the maintenance of the robots has a lot of potential. It eventually fails because the set is so poorly designed and Crichton and his cinematographer, Gene Polito, often shoot through walls. Everything looks like a set. Even when it shouldn’t, because Polito’s photography is so bad. And someone needed to explain head room to Crichton because he really doesn’t understand it.

Alan Oppenheimer plays the park supervisor. He’s okay. Okay is pretty good in Westworld. Benjamin is occasionally likable, but he’s never good. Crichton avoids him too much to ever give him the chance to be good or bad. When there’s the big chase scene–robot gunslinger Yul Brynner is out to kill Benjamin–Crichton sticks with Brynner for the first half. There’s a changeover to Benjamin after an atrociously executed ambush sequence where the footage between Benjamin and Brynner doesn’t match. It’s not just lighted differently, it’s obviously different locations because Polito and Crichton also don’t understand how depth works.

Westworld has a bunch of Western genre standards; Crichton executes them all poorly. And tediously. Every set piece in Westworld gets tedious. Crichton and editor David Bretherton can’t do the “action” sequences. They can almost do the mood sequences, when they’re showing the uncanny behind-the-scenes stuff. Then Fred Karlin’s music takes a turn for the worse and Crichton holds a shot too long and Polito’s lighting mistakes kill the verisimilitude. Westworld is a failing movie about something failing. Crichton has some great ideas. Not just for the story, but for set pieces. He just can’t execute them. He tries though. And it’s painful.

Karlin’s music is terrible. Set against Western tropes, it’s belligerently terrible. Crichton’s direction of the Western tropes is awful. It’s like he’s never seen a Western before. It’s singular, I suppose. It’s a singular way of directing action on an Old West set. It’s terrible too. Singular and terrible.

Around the halfway point, Crichton starts focusing more on Norman Bartold’s story. He doesn’t even get a name. But he’s guest in Medieval World, not Western World (Division Thirteen alert). It’s not like Bartold’s interesting–he’s trying to seduce multiple robot women without success–but Crichton still finds him more interesting than Brolin and Benjamin. And Crichton’s not wrong. They’re tiresome.

There’s a lot of future technology and Crichton does manage to showcase those effects well. He really does. It’s like forty-five good seconds of eighty-five minutes. But some of its dumb. Like when Brynner gets a visual upgrade and can see in super-pixelated vision. He can’t make out detail because the pixels are so big. Crichton does point of view with the computer visual stuff. It too kills the moment.

If there are any moments with Brynner. Crichton’s bad direction becomes clear when Brynner shows up. Along with Polito’s inability to match lighting between shots. But it’s kind of fun to pretend when Brynner’s smiling, it’s because his robot is evil. It doesn’t matter.

Because Westworld, even with killer robots and defenseless guests, has no stakes. Who cares if the guests are danger? Benjamin is divorced and no one cares. Brolin is so thin he doesn’t even have that story. Bartold maybe had an implied wife in the setup in the first act but not once Crichton decides he’s more amusing than Benjamin and Brolin. He doesn’t have a name. Oppenheimer doesn’t have a name. Dick Van Patten’s got a recurring cameo. But no name.

Westworld is like a disaster movie’s set pieces strung together. More should make it better but the film’s so terribly made, more would just be worse.

Worst of all, Westworld gets worse as it goes. It disappoints, continuously. And it’s not the story disappointing, it’s how badly Crichton directs the scenes.

Campy would help Westworld. Not much else would help, given Polito and Crichton’s risible composition choices, but camp might help.

Oh, and Majel Barrett’s good. She’s good. Ninety-nine percent of the rest isn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Gene Polito; edited by David Bretherton; music by Fred Karlin; produced by Paul N. Lazarus III; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Norman Bartold (Medieval Knight), Alan Oppenheimer (Chief Supervisor), Dick Van Patten (Banker), Linda Gaye Scott (Arlette), Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie), Anne Randall (Daphne), and Yul Brynner (Gunslinger).


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Stardust (2007, Matthew Vaughn)

Stardust has a problem with overconfidence. The overconfidence in the CG is one thing, but would be easily excusable if director Vaughn didn’t double down and go through tedious effects sequences. Ben Davis’s photography keeps Stardust lush, whether in the magic world or the real world–but that lushness doesn’t help with the CG. The CG is excessive and exuberent–it’s always supposed to be obvious–it’s just not good enough. The CG, technically, isn’t there.

The other overconfidence is the stunt casting.

The film starts in a prologue setting things up. England. Nineteenth century. There’s a small English town with a nearby wall. No one can cross the wall. There’s a nonagenarian (David Kelly) who wields a staff to keep people away. One day, intrepid young man Ben Barnes crosses the wall and gets seduced by a mystery woman.

Nine months later, he gets a baby. Eighteen years later, the baby has grown into “protagonist” Charlie Cox. Stardust, from its narration (by Ian McKellen, natch), is going to be about Cox embracing his destiny as a hero. Until then, he’s just going to make a fool of himself for town beauty Sienna Miller. Cox wants to marry Miller, Miller wants to marry Henry Cavill. But then they see a falling star and Cox gets Miller to promise to through Cavill over for him if he gets her the star.

Except it’s not just a falling star, it’s also the ruby necklace of the King of the magic world, called Stormhold. Stardust doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, like how can this magical world exist across a wall in England and what would’ve happened to it in the hundred years between the movie’s present action and its release date. Because it’s just fantasy. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman don’t have to take any responsility for character if they keep it just genre.

The scene setting up Stormhold is where the stunt casting starts. Peter O’Toole is the dying king, Rupert Everett is his presumed heir. Presumed because O’Toole’s sons have to kill one another for the throne. The ghosts of the defeated princes hang around and watch the film’s events, sometimes offering commentary. They’re fun ghosts, even if they were all trying to kill one another and the film’s heroes.

In the biggest of the prince roles is Mark Strong. He’s not stunt casting. He’s got Inigo Montoya’s hair and Count Rugen’s personality.

So the star falls. Except since it lands in magic land, it’s not a hunk of space metal, it’s Claire Danes. Stars are sentient and they watch the earth because human beings’ love is unique throughout the cosmos. Vaughn and Goldman’s dialogue, which is so entirely expository it’s an accomplishment, is about as obvious and artless as that sentence. Vaughn seems to think he can get away with it because of Davis’s photography, the CGI, and Ilan Eshkeri’s enthusiastic, original, and not great, not bad score. He’s wrong.

Anyway. Cox finds Danes and kidnaps her. He’s going to let her go after he brings her to Miller. Danes points out the questionable behavior of kidnapping someone for a gift, but Cox doesn’t care. His character to this point is: half-prince of magic land, personal failure (he wasn’t good in school at anything, including fencing), and just fired shop boy. Cox doesn’t even get to dwell on being half-magic. He’s too busy dragging Danes through the woods.

Oh, and Danes has the necklace.

So Strong and the other princes are looking for the necklace. Because O’Toole says they don’t just need to kill each other, they also have to get the necklace.

And then Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch looking for Danes to kill her and eat her heart to make herself young. Pfeiffer’s got two sisters, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander, who ought to be stunt casting and aren’t. The makeup on the witches is decrepit faces, but not overly so on the bodies. Like Vaughn didn’t want to be too gross. The witches get played for laughs occasionally, so they can’t be too visually unsettling.

Pfeiffer is terrible with Scanlan and Alexander. Maybe she can’t figure out how to act under the makeup. Once she gets out on her own (and out of the makeup), she slowly gets better. By the end of the movie, she’s almost good, even with some makeup back. She has zero chemistry with Scanlan and Alexander, which doesn’t help things.

Of course, Vaughn doesn’t direct for that sort of thing. Chemistry. Pah. Danes falls for Cox after he saves her from Pfeiffer’s inital trap and Danes decides to help him win Miller’s hand, delivering herself as a gift. Because she really, deep down, loves Cox. Danes, I mean. She’s sacrificing herself. It might make sense if Danes had her stars watch earth because of perfect human love monologue early on, but it’s end of the second act stuff. She’s just making poor choices as far as anyone knows until then.

She also has a unicorn for a while.

Eventually Danes and Cox end up on Robert De Niro’s sky pirate ship. De Niro should be Stardust’s stunt casting at its worst. He’s a closest, effeminate, aging, anglophile gay sky pirate. He has to hide everything from his crew of tough sky pirates. They mine lightning to sell to Ricky Gervais (who’s actually the worst stunting casting). They capture Danes and Cox and De Niro confides in the young couple.

He teaches them to dance, he teaches Cox how to sword fight, he does a makeover on Cox, giving him some romance novel cover hair. He also gives them new outfits.

So then they’re ready for the multiple showdowns–Strong and the princes, Pfeiffer and the witches, Melanie Hill’s traveling salesperson witch who has enslaved Cox’s mom (Kate Magowan). But Cox isn’t look for his mom, because he forgot about her once he kidnapped Danes and he never comes back to it.

Cox is a bad kid. No spoilers, but Nathaniel Parker (as the grown-up dad) gets a shockingly thankless part. You’d think being raised by a single dad in nineteenth century small village England would have an effect on Cox’s character, but since he doesn’t get a character until he gets the hair cut… you’d be wrong.

There’s also a thing where Vaughn’s “magical” direction of magic land is exactly the same as his idealized English village. Cox is just traveling through Disney movies, one without magic to one with magic.

Cox never gets to be the protagonist. Top-billed Danes doesn’t either. They both play second fiddle to the bigger name stars, Pfeiffer and De Niro. Where it’s unfair is how Strong gets to do his own thing without Pfeiffer or De Niro and isn’t even a serious antagonist.

Cox and Danes are fine. Their writing is often lousy. De Niro is not fine. It’s an insensitive, if enthusiastic, caricature. Vaughn’s poor direction of actors is most obvious with De Niro. De Niro’s vamping it up and Vaughn directs it all to beg for a laugh. Ha. Robert De Niro is a miserable, closest gay guy who’s worried his only friends will ostracize or kill him if they know he’s gay. But, hey, it’s De Niro in drag.

Then there’s how Danes is a simply damsel, even if she’s an anthropomorphized luminous spheroid of plasma. Cox is the hero prince, even if he’s been passive in every single one of his scenes. Vaughn needed some confidence in his leads.

Stardust is occasionally amusing, when the bad performances and bad writing aren’t too overwhelming. Danes and Cox are quite likable. The movie’s just got a weak script and lacking direction.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Gavin Bouquet; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Gaiman, and Vaughn; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlie Cox (Tristan Thorn), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare of the Caspartine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Mark Strong (Prince Septimus), Sienna Miller (Victoria Forester), Melanie Hill (Ditchwater Sal), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy), Kate Magowan (Princess Una), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Jason Flemyng (Prince Primus), Rupert Everett (Prince Secundus), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), David Kelly (the Wall Guard), and Peter O’Toole (the King); narrated by Ian McKellen.


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Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

Black Panther moves extraordinarily well. It’s got a number of constraints, which director Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole agilely and creatively surmount. It’s also got Coogler’s lingering eye. The film can never look away from its setting–the Kingdom of Wakanda–for too long. Rachel Morrison’s photography emphasizes it, the editing emphasizes it, Ludwig Göransson’s likably ostentatious score emphasizes it.

The film opens with a stylized flashback prologue, setting up Wakanda. It’s an isolated African nation. A meteor with a magic metal crashed into it before humans and made magic plants. When humans arrive, they eat magic plants, they use magic metal, they become technologically superior. And they isolate themselves.

Then the film introduces lead Chadwick Boseman. Not protagonist Chadwick Boseman, unfortunately, but lead. And immediately he gets overshadowed. First by Danai Gurira as a general. Then by Lupita Nyong’o as Boseman’s ex-girlfriend and a spy. Everyone in the movie–with the exceptions of Martin Freeman and Daniel Kaluuya–gets to overshadow Boseman at one point or another. Coogler and Cole don’t seem to have an angle on the character, who should be on a self-discovery arc but can’t be because it’s a Marvel movie and he’s a superhero.

There are a few other things Black Panther really wants to do and wants to be, but can’t because of that Marvel movie constraint. Coogler and Cole do some amazing things to counter–especially since the movie opens with Boseman just getting down with his adventure in the third Captain America movie. They immediately work to establish the film on its own ground. Gurira and, especially, Nyong’o make it happen.

Then it’s time for more supporting cast introductions. Letitia Wright as Boseman’s techno-genius little sister. Mom is Angela Bassett. Forest Whitaker has a big part. Winston Duke is one of the tribal leaders. And Kaluuya. Kaluuya is Boseman’s friend who never gets to one-up Boseman. Wright’s whole part is one-upping him. Same with Duke.

Martin Freeman doesn’t get to one-up Boseman either. He’s a returning character from the Captain America movie. He’s narratively pointless. But Coogler keeps him busy and has some fun with the character. Andy Serkis is the other connection to the existing Marvel narrative. But he’s great. Coogler and Cole write this obnoxious jackass of a super-powered arms dealer and Serkis makes it work. I don’t remember Serkis–playing the character for the third or fourth time–ever being anywhere near as impressive as here.

Because Coogler makes it happen. He’s able to balance all the things Black Panther needs to do, wants to do, and can’t do.

Villain Michael B. Jordan is separate from that balance. He’s the bad guy, but he’s got a more traditional protagonist arc. If he weren’t a bad guy. Even the heroic aspects of his arc, there’s something bad about. Jordan plays the hell out of the part. It’s a better performance than part. One of the things Black Panther runs out of time on is Jordan’s villain arc. Because the third act’s got to have the action.

Coogler directs the action well. He directs the high speed fight scenes–Boseman’s nanite-infused outfit does something like superspeed–and he keeps it all moving. The fight choreography is awesome, whether it’s Boseman and Jordan or Boseman and Jordan’s CGI doubles or an actual huge battle scene with Gurira commanding troops.

I mean, Freeman’s Star Wars spaceship fighter chase thing is narratively required but not good. Coogler doesn’t do the starfighter chase thing. It’s fine. It’s not just Freeman playing Last Starfighter, thank goodness; they wisely leverage Wright to pace it better.

The final showdown between Boseman and Jordan is pretty good. The movie runs out of time with it too though. The denouement is too short. The second act is too short. Black Panther could easily support another ten or fifteen minutes over its two and a quarter hour runtime.

Great photography from Morrison. Great editing from Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver. Likable but not great score from Göransson. Breathtaking production design by Hannah Beachler. It’s a beautiful film.

Nyong’o, Gurira, Wright, Duke, Sterling K. Brown; all great. Whitaker’s pretty good. The part turns out to be a little wonky. Bassett’s good. Kaluuya’s part is undercooked. And then the lunacy of Serkis.

Black Panther is a darn good superhero movie and a beautifully, lovingly, and expertly produced one.

It’d just have been nice if Coogler and Cole had as strong a handle on Boseman’s character as they do on Jordan’s. It’s a Marvel movie, after all. The bad guys never get to overshadow the heroes.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Coogler; screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Rachel Morrison; edited by Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Hannah Beachler; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Sterling K. Brown (N’Jobu), and Andy Serkis (Klaue).


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Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)

Why does Thor: Ragnarok open with Chris Hemsworth narrating only for him to stop once the title card sizzles? Literally, sizzles. Ragnarok is delightfully tongue-in-cheek and on-the-nose. Director Waititi refuses to take anything too seriously, which makes for an amusing two plus hours, but it doesn’t amount to much. If anything.

When Hemsworth stops narrating–after a big, well-executed action sequence–he heads back to mythic Asgard. There he pals around with a number of cameoing stars before heading down to Earth to pal around with cameoing Benedict Cumberbatch. Tom Hiddleston is around for much of these scenes, turning up as much charm as possible in a thin part. Sometimes if it weren’t for Hiddleston’s hair, he’d have no screen presence at all. Not because he’s bad–he’s fun–but because Ragnarok doesn’t really have anything for him to do.

The main plot–involving Hemsworth ending up on a far-off planet duking it out with CGI Hulk (Mark Ruffalo shows up eventually) to amuse Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum is playing an alien ruler, but really, he’s just playing mainstream blockbuster Jeff Goldblum. Though not mainstream blockbuster lead Jeff Goldblum; supporting mainstream blockbuster Jeff Goldblum. He’s got less responsibility but more enthusiasm.

One of Goldblum’s minions is Tessa Thompson. Turns out she’s also from Asgard. So Hemsworth tries to bond with her–oh, I forgot. In between the Cumberbatch cameo and Goldblum’s arrival–Hemsworth and Hiddleston meet up with dad Anthony Hopkins (in such a rousing performance you can hear the paycheck deposit) then discover previously unknown sister Cate Blanchett is laying waste to Asgard.

She’s god of death. Hemsworth is god of thunder. Hiddleston is god of mischief. The first two eventually become important. Like everything else involving Hiddleston in Ragnarok, turns out his god power isn’t important.

Karl Urban is Blanchett’s sidekick, though he gets astoundingly little to do. Much of the supporting cast gets bupkis–like Irdis Elba, who should have a big part since he’s leading a revolutionary force, but he doesn’t. Ragnorak churns. Neither its plot nor its characters develop. Thompson gets the closest thing to an arc and it’s super thin.

Instead, director Waititi relies on Hemsworth’s ability to be likable and mug his way through scenes. Hemsworth and Thompson flirt bickering, Hemsworth and Hiddleston brotherly bickering, Hemsworth and CGI Hulk monosyllabic bickering. The actors do end up creating distinct characters, the script just doesn’t need them to be distinct. So when the third act rolls around and it’s time for the showdown with Blanchett, all the personality gets dropped. There are like six people to follow through the battle sequence. There’s no time for personality.

Waititi’s direction is strong throughout. He’s better when setting things up and taking the time for the grandiose action. Once it gets to the alien planet, he’s lost interest in exploring how the viewer might best experience the scale. It’s fine without–the cast keeps it going–but when it comes time for Ragnorak to add everything up, it’s way too light. Especially since the whole finale hinges on something not really explored enough at the beginning.

Also. It’s unbelievable Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Thompson are so unfamiliar with the concept of Ragnarok. I feel like at least one of them would’ve had to have read Edith Hamilton.

But it doesn’t matter, because it’s all fun. There’s fun music from Mark Mothersbaugh, there’s a fun performance from Blanchett (who rather impressively tempers herself, resisting all temptation to chew the hell out of the CGI scenery), there’s a lot of funny lines. A lot of good sight gags. Waititi knows how to get a laugh.

If only Ragnarok didn’t have drama. The screenwriters don’t do well with the drama, Waititi wants to avoid it, the cast has no enthusiasm for it. It often involves CGI backdrops with poorly lighted composites too. The film can handle being a goofy good time. It can’t handle the rest. It can’t even handle giving Ruffalo actually gravitas. He just mugs his way through scenes, which is fine, he’s good at it. But it does mean you don’t have a single returning principal in the film with any character development. Not the Thor players, not Ruffalo in his spin-off from The Avengers 2.

Thompson and Urban both get one, but they’re playing caricatures. They’re playing them well, sure. But they’re caricatures, thin for even Ragnarok.

Good special effects. Some striking visuals. Waititi does better at the fight scenes than the sci-fi action scenes. Good photography from Javier Aguirresarobe. The Mothersbaugh score is decent.

The plot just turns out to be inferior one. While pretending to be an ostentatious no-frills plot. Without the characters making up for those deficiencies, Ragnarok just can’t bring it home.

Awesome Led Zeppelin sequences or not.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Taika Waititi; screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Zene Baker and Joel Negron; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Cate Blanchett (Hela), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Karl Urban (Skurge), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Jeff Goldblum (Grandmaster), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange).


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