Category Archives: Action/Adventure

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).


RELATED

Advertisements

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).


RELATED

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

If Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t the best film with six credited screenwriters, it’s got to be near the top. Additionally, the film’s got director (and one the Sinister Six–wokka wokka–screenwriters) Watts, who kind of manually binds the film together scene by scene. There’s so much different stuff going on–darker than expected villain Michael Keaton’s subplot, which is a “what happens when a psychopath loses his day job” origin, Spider-Man Begins, and a high school movie. The first two interconnect, the second two interconnect, but it’s a lot going on at once. Not to mention Robert Downey Jr. being shoehorned in for franchise purposes.

Watts, through his direction of the actors and the pacing of the scenes, keeps it enthusiastic but never too enthusiastic. The studio credits having the old “Spider-Man” cartoon theme is actually as far as it gets towards too self-aware. Keeping it grounded makes the “Spider-Man excitedly climbing buildings” sequences entertaining. It’s Spider-Man’s enthusiasm, not the film’s. It’s Tom Holland’s enthusiasm.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is all about Tom Holland. Keaton gets to do his villain arc on his own for most of the movie and it’s flashy, but it’s a small part. Holland’s in every other scene (except when he’s Spider-Manning to save people or to stop criminals). He’s got Avengers training with Downey and Jon Favreau (who looks miserable), he’s got high school with Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, and Zendaya, he’s got friendly neighborhood crimefighting, he’s got home with Marisa Tomei. The script balances all of it pragmatically and impersonally.

Homecoming always errs on the side of narrative payoff. Even though everyone implies the potential of letting loose, only Batalon gets anything near the chance and it’s incredibly muted. The film’s focused on Holland’s story and goals, so much the things going on alongside him–Tomei, Harrier–are left out. Except when the script picks back up with them, there’s no gap. Quick, effective expositions, good acting, and Watts’s meticulous narrative distance to Tom Holland, it all comes together. And Homecoming, which has Chris Evans cameos, laser guns, suburban superhero action, Downey, stunt cameo casting, a terribly bland but competent Michael Giacchino score, and everything else–oh, the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off homage–it has so much.

Yet Watts keeps it together. Because he keeps it on Holland and it never seems like a pressure. Holland’s character development arc is a subtle one too. He usually just has to bake it into other scenes, with the script never getting too far into it. Homecoming doesn’t imply things often and it’s very careful when it does; it knows it’s a franchise picture with a familiar IP and it only wants to do what it wants to do.

But since it is a franchise picture, there’s also a lack of urgency. Everything feels very safe. Keaton feels restrained. Not sure letting him loose on a villain kick would result in a better performance, but he’s still holding back. The bad guys in Homecoming are never bad enough to hurt regular people, which sometimes too contributes to the “safe” feeling.

Though it allows a pointless but amusing Donald Glover cameo.

Excellent special effects. Salvatore Totino’s photography is simultaneously warm and crisp, letting the film toggle between thrills and light superhero angst, but it also provides a great backdrop for the CGI. You have to stop and reminds yourself the leaping figure isn’t Holland.

Homecoming finally figures out how to let the actor “playing” Spider-Man give a full performance as Spider-Man. Because Watts and Holland.

All the acting is good. Downey’s doing a schtick at this point, but likably. It’s a PG Downey in a PG–13 movie. Batalon and Harrier are great. Bookem Woodbine’s good as one of Keaton’s goons. Tomei’s good. Zendaya is likable. She’s got nothing to do but she’s likable. Besides appearing miserable to have agreed to appear, Favreau’s fine. Enough. He underplays an underwritten part.

Keaton’s fine. Kind of good. Never bad, but never anything too special. The script gives him a “little guy trying to survive” thing to do and Keaton can do it. It’s just not a great part. It’s effective and it’s only supposed to be effective.

And Holland’s amazing.

Given its production history (involving Marvel, i.e. Disney, producing a film at Columbia, i.e. Sony, to work it into the Marvel movie continuity), not to mention six credited screenwriters, and being such a familiar film property at this point, Spider-Man: Homecoming starts out with a lot it seems to need to do and a lot it shouldn’t do.

The film does everything it should and nothing it shouldn’t and never in a rush. Nothing’s perfunctory. Homecoming sets up Keaton, then it moves on to Holland, and it just does the movie.

Excellent result from Watts, Holland, and everyone else’s efforts. Except Giacchino. One of Homecoming’s early hurdles is succeeding in spite of Giacchino’s boring score.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers, based on a story by Goldstein and Daley and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Debbie Berman and Dan Lebental; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes), Marisa Tomei (Aunt May), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Laura Harrier (Liz), Zendaya (Michelle), Tony Revolori (Flash), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), Bokeem Woodbine (Herman Schultz), Logan Marshall-Green (Jackson Brice), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark).


RELATED

Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

Justice League exists, whether intentionally or not, outside a certain kind of critical examination. Director Snyder didn’t finish post-production. Or, at least, when the studio demanded lots of reshoots, Snyder wasn’t involved in a creative capacity. The job went to Joss Whedon, who gets a co-writer credit. Are the terrible scenes Whedon’s fault or Snyder’s fault? The generic, impersonal Danny Elfman score? Seems like Whedon’s fault. The terrible part for top-billed Ben Affleck? Probably Snyder’s fault. The crappy CGI?

Well, crappy CGI in DC Comics adaptations is definitely Warner Bros.’s fault. And it gets bad in Justice League. The lack of detail on the giant, personality-free adversary (boringly voiced by Ciarán Hinds) is stunning. Again, it’s not clear if Snyder supervising post would’ve led to better action scenes. The ones in Justice League are all pretty awful. Fabian Wagner’s photography is bland, David Brenner, Richard Pearson, and Martin Walsh’s editing is at best bland. It’s much often much worse. The action sequences lack imagination on every level, whether scale or just the idea of the superheroes working together.

Justice League has no scale. Someone–Snyder, Whedon, the producers, the studio, the twenty-third test audience–decided there shouldn’t be any establishing shots if they don’t have exposition. Justice League cuts from expository scene to expository scene, except Whedon and Chris Terrio’s Frankenstein script doesn’t have any texture to it. Not when it’s the main cast, not when it’s the supporting cast. Especially not when it’s poor Diane Lane and Amy Adams. Jeremy Irons gets terribly mistreated, but it’s nothing compared to Lane and Adams.

Adams is literally reduced to broken woman. While the whole world is ceasing to function because of what happened with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, instead of being a strong character who perceivers in the aftermath, she just breaks down. Not on screen, she just tells everyone about it. Well, she tells Lane and Henry Cavill about it because she has nothing else going on.

But Lane. Poor Lane. It appears Lane’s scenes are entirely, with one exception, Whedon’s. Cavill had a mustache while doing reshoots and there’s some bad (though apparently exceptionally expensive–read rushed) CG to mask out the mustache. The result is his mouth not moving right and his teeth being scrunched. So you can kind of tell. You can kind of tell who to blame.

And it’s Whedon who reduces Lane and Adams to broken women. At least Terrio and Snyder–apparently–made Affleck a broken man. He just can’t get on after what he’s done. Except he’s not haunted about it. He’s just bad, actually. He’s really, really bad. He’s supposed to be the straight man to a team of misfit superheroes, only they’re not misfit superheroes.

Misfits need personality and the Justice League has none. Ezra Miller’s got the most as the Flash and all he does is tell wisecracks. Then there’s Ray Fisher; he gives the film’s best performance in a thankless part. Even though he’s got a lot to do in the script, Fisher gets the least story of anyone. More offensively, it wastes Joe Morton as his dad.

Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. He’s got no personality, doesn’t really do anything in the action sequences except save people occasionally–by people, I mean the other superheroes. Like all DC Comics movies, no regular people are in danger in Justice League. Well, except one family; but they’re actually trapped in a Russian version of Tremors. Otherwise, no one’s in danger. Ever.

Anyway. Momoa. It’s not his fault. More than anyone else, it’s not his fault. His part’s terribly written and the editing on his introduction scenes is atrocious.

Gal Gadot’s supposedly the real straight person on the team, because she can see through Affleck’s guff. Only Affleck wants Gadot to lead the team. Or something. They get some painful scenes together. Again, it’s unclear if it’s Whedon or Snyder, but their scenes are awful. There’s negative chemistry coming from Affleck, even when the script has him mooning over Gadot. Though he does attack her personally when he needs to make a point. Affleck’s writing is so bad. Just. Beyond bad.

Gadot’s fine. She gets the most to do in action scenes, which is either because she’s had the most successful solo movie or just because no one else’s superpowers are good for the fight scenes. Snyder’s direction of the Flash action is terrible, for example.

Amber Heard’s got one scene and makes more impression than practically anyone else.

Cavill’s performance is hard to gauge. Whedon doesn’t write him good scenes. And he’s got a giant unmoving mouth. He and Adams exhibit their usual wondrous chemistry when it’s not a Whedon shot or line. Even still, Elfman’s music ruins even the non-Whedon material. Elfman’s score doesn’t fit. It’s frantic and rushed and usually clashes with the editing.

The only thing saving Justice League from being a disaster is the film disqualifying itself from being serious enough proposition to be a disaster. You open a movie, any movie, with the single worst cover of Everybody Knows–and there have been some terrible Everybody Knows covers–but an offensively bad Everybody Knows cover… well, it’s just too stupid to take seriously enough for it to be a disaster.

Instead, Justice League is intriguingly terrible. Was Snyder’s intention worse? Maybe. I doubt it, because even with all that material’s problems, it doesn’t have Cavill with the silly CG face. But the things Whedon clearly contributed are godawful.

What a mess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Zack Snyder; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, based on a story by Terrio and Zack Snyder and the comic book by Gardner Fox; director of photography, Fabian Wagner; edited by David Brenner, Richard Pearson, and Martin Walsh; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Patrick Taopoulos; produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, and Geoff Johns; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ben Affleck (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Henry Cavill (Superman / Clark Kent), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman / Diana Prince), Ezra Miller (The Flash / Barry Allen), Jason Momoa (Aquaman / Arthur Curry), Ray Fisher (Cyborg / Victor Stone), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Joe Morton (Silas Stone), J.K. Simmons (Commissioner Gordon), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Amber Heard (Mera), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta), and Ciarán Hinds (Steppenwolf).


RELATED