Tag Archives: Walt Disney Pictures

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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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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Moana (2016, Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker)

Moana takes a while to find its stride. Directors Clements and Musker and Hall and Williams aren’t at ease until the movie’s on the water. The film starts on a Polynesian island, with a young chief-in-training (Auli’i Cravalho) secretly longing not to be stuck on the island paradise, but out exploring the ocean. Grandmother Rachel House encourages her, dad Temuera Morrison does not, she’s got an adorable pet pig and dimwit chicken as sidekicks… it’s cute, but it’s pretty shallow.

Once the movie gets out to water, however, everything changes. Cravalho isn’t reacting to House or Morrison, the performance all of a sudden has energy and personality. Until that point, it’s been entirely unclear how the story is going to work. Every time it seems like it’s going to be a quest story, Morrison steps in and shuts it down for a few more minutes. The first act of Moana is overlong.

Back to the water. The computer generation animation in Moana has these distinct thick edges for the characters. Again, cute enough, brings in some extra personality, whatever. No, not whatever, because once the characters are on the water, it’s all about how the CG light hits their CG angles to make CG shadows. Moana is shockingly beautiful. And the directors know it. They compose for it. The film gets away with a lot because of that lightning and the composition.

But it’s strongest assets are leads Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Johnson’s really, really good, giving a personable, but measured performance. His character–a selfish, disgraced demigod who Cravalho offers a chance at redemption–has a fairly predictable arc so there shouldn’t surprises and there aren’t in the narrative sense, just in how Johnson and Cravalho interact. Johnson’s got an askew distance in his performance, fully supporting Cravalho while still doing rote predicable incorrigible sidekick. It’s a surprisingly good performance, especially since it starts before the directors have shown they can excel at anything. They haven’t proven themselves at sea yet.

Jared Bush’s script is mediocre but fine for the first act. Too long, like I said before… way too long. Then there’s action and conflict and character development and excitement. There’s action, conflict, and character development in the first act, there’s just no excitement.

Land has lectures, ground situation, ground situation songs, and sadness. Ocean has excitement and exciting action. No more lectures, just funny and sometimes touching arguments. Good slapstick. Giant crabs doing Bowie impressions (Jemaine Clement is awesome). Sentient–and evil–coconuts roaming the high seas under the pirate flag. A lava beast. Oh, and a ghost. That’s a particularly gorgeous night sequence, because the light from the ghost–it’s a good ghost–provides the lightning for the figures’ angles.

Moana’s a thoughtful, gorgeous, amiably complex picture. The directors do well, the script does well, the computer animation’s breathtaking. Cravalho, Johnson, and House are all wonderful. It’s a lovely film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker; screenplay by Jared Bush, based on a story by Clements, Musker, Williams, Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell; edited by Jeff Draheim; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Ian Gooding; produced by Osnat Shurer; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), and Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa).


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