Category Archives: ★

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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Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018, Sam Liu)

The first act of Gotham by Gaslight is rough. It establishes Batman (Bruce Greenwood) in the Victorian era. He’s fighting with Fagin-types while “Jack the Ripper” is attacking prostitutes. Jim Krieg’s script, which will go on to impress at times, is rather problematic with the first Ripper victim. Director Liu’s already opened the film with male gaze (on a cartoon) and the whole thing just seems skivvy.

Then Jennifer Carpenter gets introduced (as a costume-less Catwoman) and Greenwood gets more to do as Bruce Wayne and Gaslight starts getting… okay. The animation is cheap and terrible, but a lot of the establishing shots are good. The smaller the scale, the better the visual. And the animation isn’t like an attempt at detail and then a fail, the animation is very, very simple. When the third act does a bunch of action, it’s a shock how well Gaslight executes it; there hasn’t been any good action until then.

The setting helps. And Krieg’s script. It gets smarter once it’s no longer about the real Jack the Ripper but about some Batman animated movie stand-in. It’s a narrative cheat, but it turns out to be fine because then the whole movie becomes a serial killer thriller. Both Greenwood and Carpenter are investigating on their own, their paths crossing, with Greenwood in and out of tights. And if Greenwood and Carpenter didn’t record their banter together, their performances are even more impressive.

Also good is Anthony Head as butler Alfred. Performances get a little less sturdy after him. Scott Patterson, for example, is fine, but Yuri Lowenthal is tiring. Grey DeLisle is annoying in both her roles. Gaslight lets the supporting cast go way too broad.

But the mystery is good. And the characters are good–at least Greenwood and Carpenter’s. There’s character development, there’s light steampunk (very light), there are even occasional neat shots from Liu.

Frederik Wiedmann’s music is another of Gotham by Gaslight’s essentials. Wiedmann gets the right mood every time (though his score does just sound like a riff on Elfman). There’s real suspense in Gaslight, real surprise. And the mystery is barely manipulative in moving the viewer through. It’s cool.

And Krieg’s pacing, in general, is good. There’s quite a bit of setup, then some longer action sequences. Those sequences involve the setting. Because Gaslight is well-conceived. It’s just not well-executed, its production values are too low. Carpenter, Greenwood, and Wiedmann’s contributions are strong enough, however, to win the day.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Sam Liu; screenplay by James Krieg, based on the comic book by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola and the character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; edited by Christopher D. Lozinski; music by Frederik Wiedmann; released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Starring Bruce Greenwood (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Jennifer Carpenter (Selina Kyle), Scott Patterson (James Gordon), Anthony Head (Alfred Pennyworth), Grey DeLisle (Sister Leslie), Yuri Lowenthal (Harvey Dent), John DiMaggio (Chief Bullock), Bob Joles (Mayor Tolliver), William Salyers (Dr. Strange), Tara Strong (Marlene Mahone), and Kari Wuhrer (Barbara Gordon).


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Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)

The only particularly bad thing in Doctor Strange is the music. Michael Giacchino strikes again with a bland “action fantasy” score. The score feels omnipresent; I’m not sure if it really is booming all throughout the film or if I was just constantly dreading its return.

Dread is something in short supply in Doctor Strange. The film opens with Mads Mikkelsen’s ponytailed bad guy doing some visually dynamic magic. The world becomes a moving M.C. Escher piece, with lots of tessellation. While visually dynamic, these magical reconfigurations of the world don’t affect regular people and don’t really change the fight scenes much. The reconfigurations happen aside from the principals’ actions. Most of that action is white people doing questionable kung fu fighting with magic assists.

Director Derrickson embraces the long shot and the extreme long shot to do his action. The camera’s never close enough to reveal whether Tilda Swinton really did all her kung fu fighting. She definitely did her melodrama scene though. It’s a special thing, a melodramatic scene in Strange, the film utterly avoids using them. Lead Benedict Cumberbatch’s character development is done without them. Sure, when he’s despondent over his injured hands after a car crash, there’s a little melodrama. But not once he starts his journey.

Cumberbatch gives up on conventional medicine–he was the only surgeon good enough to fix his hands–and heads to the Far East. He’s looking for a magical fix. He finds it with Swinton and company. Swinton’s the leader, a near immortal sorcerer with a shaved head. Chiwetel Ejiofor is her main lackey. He gets the job of training Cumberbatch when the movie takes time for a training scene. Until Cumberbatch gets the magic; after he gets the magic, he’s got all the magic. No one seems to notice he goes from novice to sorcerer supreme in three minutes.

They’re too busy trying to save the world. Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill’s script is long on exposition, short on thoughtful plotting, even shorter on character development. Ejiofor gets it the worst. He’s in the movie more than anyone else in the supporting cast, but he never gets a character. Not until the third act and then it’s just a contrivance.

Rachel McAdams is in the movie less than Ejiofor, with a lousy part. The screenwriters seem to think Cumberbatch needs a romantic interest of some sort. She doesn’t have anything going on besides doting on Cumberbatch, whether she likes it or not.

Many of the performances improve over time. Swinton’s far better later on than at the beginning. Mikkelsen is bland at the open only to end up saving the middle portion of the film. He and Cumberbatch have some banter. The banter keeps things going given the CG spectacular isn’t ever spectacular when it needs to be. Cumberbatch, for instance, is only ever a passive party when not doing CG spectacular by himself.

Eventually Cumberbatch starts getting into ghost fights. Fighting when a ghost on the spirit plane. The ghost fights are simultaneously well-executed–something of a surprise as Derrickson and photographer Ben Davis don’t seem to care at all about the CG compositing being weak–and boring. The visual concept for the astral plane kung fu fights is good. The special effects realize it perfectly well. Derrickson just can’t direct fight scenes. So the scenes get old fast. Especially when they’re distracting from Mikkelsen.

Mikkselen’s essential for keeping it going in the second act. He and Cumberbatch’s banter has more character development for Cumberbatch than his entire mystical training.

Cumberbatch is entirely bland in the lead. He’s more believable opening portals to mystical dimensions and having showdowns with ancient intergalactic evil beings (who look a like the MCP from Tron, only without any enthusiasm in CG) than he is being the world’s best surgeon, who also knows more seventies music trivia than anyone else. His voice is flat and without affect; he’s trying not to lose his American accent. Unfortunately, it affects his performance.

It’s unlikely McAdams and Cumberbatch are going to have any emotionally effective scenes, but at least if Cumberbatch were concentrating on responding to her lines and not making sure he never sounds British… well, it might have helped. Both actors are completely professional opposite one another, but there’s zero chemistry. Wouldn’t really matter if there were any chemistry, as McAdams is only around for medical emergencies.

The film moves well once it gets to the second act. Cumberbatch moping is a little much; his performance doesn’t have any nuance. Maybe it did on set, but if so, Derrickson goes out of his way not to shoot it. Long shots, extreme long shots, bad expository summary sequences. Derrickson plays it completely safe. Even when Doctor Strange gets visually fantastic, Derrickson rushes it along so there’s not time to regard that fantastic.

Anyway, once Cumberbatch starts doing magic, it picks up. Then he runs into Mikkelsen and the film improves big time. Of course, then the third act is a mess and Mikkelsen’s villain level gets downgraded. The action finish is also contrived in just a way to keep Derrickson from having to direct anything too complicated. His action is like watching a video game cut scene. One where you aren’t worried about any of the characters being in danger.

And the cape stuff is good (Cumberbatch gets a magic cape once he’s a wizard). And Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong are almost good together.

Doctor Strange’s lack of ambitions, narrative or visual, hurt it. But the script and Derrickson’s disinterest in his actors hurt it more. Still, it’s usually entertaining. It could definitely have been worse. Cumberbatch’s lack of personality probably helps Doctor Strange. The film wouldn’t know what to do with any.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Scott Derrickson; screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer), and Benedict Wong (Wong).


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The Explosive Generation (1961, Buzz Kulik)

The Explosive Generation has expert plotting. Joseph Landon’s script; it’s expertly plotted. Even when it high tails it away from the “hook,” it’s still expertly plotted. The film goes from being about teenagers trying to frankly and openly discuss sex in teacher William Shatner’s classroom to being about student protest. The protagonist goes from being good girl Patty McCormack to her initially a jerk boyfriend, Lee Kinsolving.

McCormack is all right.

Kinsolving is horrific. He tries really, really hard too. The movie’s eighty-nine minutes and at least three of the runtime just has to be Kinsolving’s dynamic thinking expressions. He’s always so perplexed.

Maybe if director Kulik helped with the performances, but he doesn’t have time for the actors. He’s too busy butchering everything else.

Explosive Generation is an ugly, cheap picture. Floyd Crosby’s photography is bad. Hal Borne’s music is bad. Kulik’s composition and sense of timing are a nightmare. When the film does have its moments, it’s a shock; those moments succeed just because Landon’s plotting is so strong and his flat expository dialogue just happens to sync with the actor performing it.

Those actors are usually Shatner (though his performance falls apart as he becomes an unwilling martyr), McCormack, maybe Suzi Carnell–more on her in a bit–and sometimes Edward Platt. Oh, and sometimes single dad Stephen Dunne, who just wants to look cool to son Billy Gray. Gray’s never good but he’s a lot better than Kinsolving.

Again, who knows how it would’ve gone if the direction were a micron better. The film’s got some bad sets for home interiors, but the location exteriors are fine and it does shoot in a high school. Or some kind of school. Composition and lighting can do wonders. Kulik and photographer Crosby exhibit a striking inability to do wonders.

When the movie starts, it’s about teens McCormack, Kinsolving, Carnell, and Gray having a sleepover at Gray’s dad’s beach house. After some terribly cut together and scored opening titles–everyone involved in Explosive’s post-production seems to think having bland boppy “jazz” is going to make the film seem edgy. It leads to opening titles setting a bad tone. But then it’s Carnell talking McCormack into spending the night. Gray bullies and teases McCormack to get her to stay (for Kinsolving’s sake).

Well, then the movie cuts to the next morning and McCormack seems upset but Carnell’s having a full breakdown. Explosive drops Carnell as a character about ten minutes later, though it later blames her for snitching. It’s weird and about the only weak plotting decision Landon makes.

At some point, the movie becomes about Kinsolving trying to save Shatner’s job for him and discovering even though the school’s full of bland, upper middle class Southern California white kids, they have the right to intellectual curiosity.

The film entirely cops out on resolving the issues with the controlling parents. McCormack’s dad, Arch Johnson, gets to do a big meltdown and then disappears. Virginia Field, as mom, does something similar but then returns as a deus ex machina, because it turns out she’s just a person too.

Landon plots well. He doesn’t write well. Explosive Generation shows just how big wide the gap is between the two. The film has a great set piece at the end, which Kulik couldn’t direct even if he had the budget to stage it, but it’s a fantastic idea. The film’s got a few of them. Ideas but no potential because it’s so poorly made.

Crosby’s cinematography is so bad, so flat, one wishes for a computer colorized version just to break up the same shade of school hallway gray. It infests the pallette.

Despite being an audiovisual blight on the medium of film, The Explosive Generation is a heavily qualified “success.” So qualified it needs quotation marks, in fact. But thanks to Landon’s plotting, Shatner and McCormack’s likability, and its earnestess, the film compells.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Buzz Kulik; written by Joseph Landon; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Hal Borne; produced by Stanley Colbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Patty McCormack (Janet Sommers), Lee Kinsolving (Dan Carlyle), Billy Gray (Bobby Herman Jr.), William Shatner (Peter Gifford), Suzi Carnell (Marge Ryker), Edward Platt (Mr. Morton), Stephen Dunne (Bobby Herman Sr.), Phillip Terry (Mr. Carlyle), Arch Johnson (Mr. George Sommers), Jan Norris (Terry), Beau Bridges (Mark), and Virginia Field (Mrs. Katie Sommers).


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