Category Archives: 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

Despite being in the first scene in the movie and sharing most of Paul Rudd’s scenes with him, Evangeline Lilly is definitely second in Ant-Man and the Wasp. The film gives her her own action scenes–some truly phenomenal ones–but very little agency. She’s entirely in support of dad Michael Douglas; even after it’s clear Douglas–in the past–was an egomaniac who hurt lots of people, it’s not like Lilly has any reaction to it. Or the film for that matter. During the scene maybe, with Rudd laughing about what a dick Douglas has always been, someone getting very upset remembering how Douglas treated them, Douglas looking bemused, and Lilly looking vacant. There are a few of those scenes and they really define the film’s dramatic qualities.

It doesn’t have many.

It’s got a lot of humorous qualities and a lot of charming ones, but not dramatic. Nothing ever gets as emotionally intense as the first act, in flashback (either straight flashback or dream sequence). Even when there’s all the danger in the world, as Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas race against time to save Lilly’s mother (and Douglas’s wife), Michelle Pfeiffer, from being trapped in the Quantum Zone. Realm. Sorry, Quantum Realm. There’s a lot of quantum things in Ant-Man and the Wasp, it’s hard to keep track.

But the film isn’t about dramatic possibilities so much as good-natured, comedic special effects action ones. There’s this omnipresent theme about parents disappointing children–Douglas and Lilly, Rudd and his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), not to mention the villain (Hannah John-Kamen), who’s got her own father issues. But if the film never acknowledges it’s a theme, is it really a theme? The screenplay (by five screenwriters) never worries about it and director Reed really doesn’t narrative echoes. It’s not his thing. His thing is humor and pacing and the film excels at both of them.

Because, even with those five writers–including Rudd–it’s not like there’s much depth to characterizations. Walton Goggins is one of the villains and he’s basically doing a really broad caricature of Walton Goggins being in a Marvel movie as a Southern tech-gangster. Randall Park plays a goofy FBI agent who Rudd keeps on one-upping and it’s even broader. Michael Peña excels with similiar treatment; he’s always played for obvious laughs and Peña plays through, fully, successfully embracing it. Goggins and Park act obviously to the joke. Not Peña.

None of the leads have much heavy lifting either. Rudd and Lilly are so adorable–and find each other so utterly adorable–it’s hard not to enjoy every minute they spend together. Douglas is one note, but the script doesn’t really ask for much more. Pfeiffer does more in her two scenes than Douglas does in the entire film. And she doesn’t even do a lot.

Meanwhile, Larry Fishburne–as one of the many people Douglas screwed over in the past–is able to bring some gravitas to his part. He takes it seriously, even when no one asks him to do so.

But none of it really matters because everyone’s really likable, including villain John-Kamen (far less Goggins, who’s nowhere near as funny as he needs to be to warrant so much plot import), and Ant-Man and the Wasp is full of delightful special effects action sequences. Whether it’s when Lilly is shrinking down and growing big to kick ass in fight scenes, flying all over the place, throwing people all over, or when it’s Rudd growing big instead of shrinking down and using a flatbed truck as a scooter. Reed and the screenwriters know where to find every laugh, every smile–it doesn’t hurt Rudd and daughter Fortson have such cute scenes. Opening on Lilly, making the movie about her missing mother, her lost childhood, it almost seems like it’s a movie about daughters. Oh, right, John-Kamen too. But it’s not. It’s about being cute and funny. It’s never even heartwarming when it’s not cute. There’s not much depth to it.

And, for a movie without much depth, it’s an awesome time. The special effects sequences alone–it isn’t just the fight scenes with awesome shrinking and growing effects, it’s sight gags and car chases and everything else (not to mention adorable giant ants). The film’s inventive as all hell. Except with John-Kamen’s villain, who’s not just occasionally invisible, but also immaterial. Her powers make narrative sense, Reed doesn’t visualize them as well as the rest.

By the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp, you want another one. It’s a delightful, thoroughly competent amusement. Even if Christophe Beck’s score is never as good as it seems to be.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peyton Reed; screenplay by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dan Lebental and Craig Wood; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, Shepherd Frankel; produced by Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard; released by Walt Disney Pictures

Starring Paul Rudd (Scott), Evangeline Lilly (Hope), Michael Douglas (Hank), Hannah John-Kamen (Ghost), Laurence Fishburne (Bill), Michael Peña (Luis), Abby Ryder Fortson (Cassie), Walton Goggins (Sonny Burch), Randall Park (Jimmy Woo), T.I. (Dave), David Dastmalchian (Kurt), Judy Greer (Maggie), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Janet).


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Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018, David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski)

The opening of Jesus Christ Superstar is the only place the three leads really interact. Jesus, Mary, and Judas all interact. Through and behind the songs, this quick narrative plays out. In addition to showcasing the performers–John Legend is Jesus, Sara Bareilles is Mary, Brandon Victor Dixon is Judas–and giving them brief solos, the sequence also establishes certain aspects (and limits) of the adaptation. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is both stage production and filmed performance of stage production. Sometimes the direction syncs, sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, director Rudzinski (who directed the filming) is far more interested in the physicality–and implied physicality–of Bareilles and Legends’s relationship. How they move and touch. Whereas Leveaux, who directed the stage production, isn’t really interested. Leveaux isn’t interested in how the cast emotes. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the guy at the end blinking rapidly to show interest in levitating messiahs.

Rudzinski, on the other hand, is very interested in the emoting. Sometimes way too interested in it. Well, only when the stage production is in a lull. Rudzinski can direct movement, he can’t direct lull. The opening is good, the finale is great (because it fully showcases Dixon), and the “Arrest” direction is truly awesome. Leveaux and Rudzinski do it as reporters sticking microphones and cameras in Legend’s face. But Leveaux has a lot of lulls. And Rudzinksi can’t really direct them.

Partially because Legend’s not great at the close-up acting. Dixon’s great at it. It’s hard to believe Dixon is going through all that work when no one’s even going to see him from the audience (but the camera sees this performance). Bareilles is somewhere in between. Her numbers usually stay in long shot, the close-ups saved for the more personal moments with Legend. Singing-wise, Dixon and Bareilles are good. Bareilles has one great number, but not the previous one, which is way too restrained.

Legend’s fine. It’s not a particularly great part. And he does look like he wandered off a Star Wars set. His followers look like an eighties multi-racial (but mostly white) movie gang. The priests look like something out of a Matrix sequel. The sets are scaffolding but generically urban. It looks very eighties. Down to the multi-racial gang.

But Legend’s fine. He just doesn’t impress like Bareilles or, particularly, Dixon. Though “The Temple” is pretty awesome in Live. It works out.

Jin Ha is great. Norm Lewis is almost as great. Jason Tam’s way too much just there. Erik Grönwall isn’t good. Ben Daniels is good but not great. He’s ostentatious in the wrong way. Similar to Alice Cooper, who’s cameoing. Thanks to the filmed live nature of Live in Concert, you even get to see him going around the front of the stage for the audience. He takes a victory lap for what amounts to stunt miscasting. He’s okay, but it’s a lousy “King Herod’s Song” number.

They should’ve gotten David Lee Roth.

The end is really impressive, starting with “Superstar.” Leveaux saved all the flash for the finale; the flash is big enough scale, Rudzinski can get a lot of coverage. It works out. Because so long as Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t mess up a few things, it’s always going to work out.

Dixon should’ve gotten to dance through the whole thing. And Legend needed an acting coach. Or Leveaux needed a better take on the character.

And David Lee Roth. He would’ve been so good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski; written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice; produced by Neil Meron, Marc Platt, and Craig Zadan; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas), John Legend (Jesus Christ), Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalane), Ben Daniels (Pontius Pilate), Norm Lewis (Caiaphas), Jin Ha (Annas), Jason Tam (Peter), Erik Grönwall (Simon), and Alice Cooper (King Herod).


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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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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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