Cate Blanchett

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 actual 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).


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Peter Jackson), the extended edition

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is really long. Director Jackson’s greatest achievement with the film has to be making that length work. He runs out of ideas for action sequences (worst is when he repeats one just a couple set pieces later), he doesn’t give his actors anything to do (he’s more concerned with showcasing the makeup jobs on most of them); in fact, he barely has any enthusiasm for anything in journey.

He starts to wake up when Hugo Weaving arrives, but Weaving isn’t particularly good. Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee show up just after Weaving, which is good, as they’re both great (and they lessen the load on Ian McKellen, who’s otherwise got to maintain the film himself). Not enough can be said for McKellen, who isn’t just excellent in an underwritten role (they’re all underwritten), but he’s also the only regular cast member who Jackson trusts. While Martin Freeman’s supposed to be the protagonist, Jackson doesn’t trust him. He gets around to it by the end of the film (after a number of aimless, if decently paced, adventures for Freeman) for Freeman’s scene with Andy Serkis. Or Serkis’s CG stand-in, which isn’t just the best performance of a digital character (by far), it’s the best rendering of a digital character. The film cuts between Serkis’s painstakingly rendered character and the rest of the party’s adventures in a video game. The CG isn’t ever so much cheap as boring.

Okay, the monster cats look cheap.

The party refers to thirteen dwarves. None of them make much impression, except the leader, played by Richard Armitage. His part’s poorly written and the script gives him a lot of bad dialogue and strange behavior–the best being in the film’s inert climax, accompanied by some real bad music by Howard Shore–but Armitage makes it work. He at least brings consequence to his performance. None of the other twelve dwarves bring anything–like I said, Jackson and photographer Andrew Lesnie are far more concerned with showcasing their makeup.

When he does get something to do, Freeman is likable, never exactly good. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters skip over character development, fully utilizing Hobbit’s position as an afterthought prequel to Lord of the Rings to get them out of first act responsibilities. Sadly, the exposition–and Journey has nothing but expository dialogue (except maybe between Blanchett and McKellen)–litters the rest of the film.

It could be a lot worse, though it should be a lot better (Jackson could’ve just done all CG for the amount of use he has for his human stars). And it is impressive how he manages to be boring overall but not from scene to scene.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Dan Hennah; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Walsh and Jackson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Andy Serkis (Gollum).


Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

There are a lot of interesting things Woody Allen does with Blue Jasmine–genre shifts, a somewhat fractured narrative style where he reveals lead Cate Blanchett’s past in glimpses–but the most surprising one has to be when she ceases to be the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject.

Blanchett sort of shares the picture with Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister. Blanchett was a rich New York wife, now she’s down and out and having to stay with working class Hawkins in San Francisco. For the first half hour or so, Allen plays it like he’s working on the relationship between the two women. Or maybe something to do with Bobby Cannavale as Hawkins’s current boyfriend or Andrew Dice Clay as her ex.

Allen gets some exceptional performances in the film. Blanchett’s peerless in the lead. She’s a target for derision, for pity, for anger, often with Allen having her change gears immediately during a scene. Hawkins is good as the sister; she doesn’t have much to do except react to Cannavale or Clay. Both of them are fantastic, with Clay being something of a revelation.

In other supporting roles, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard are both good. Baldwin’s fine in his part too. There’s just nothing to compare with the intensity of Blanchett, Cannavale or Clay.

Allen’s use of San Francisco is muted. Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography is excellent, but it’s just a setting for the story. Most of the shots are close-ups.

Jasmine’s quiet, loud and excellent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cate Blanchett (Jasmine), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Louis C.K. (Al), Tammy Blanchard (Jane), Max Casella (Eddie), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Flicker), Alden Ehrenreich (Danny) and Alec Baldwin (Hal).


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Wes Anderson)

The problem with The Life Aquatic reveals itself quite clearly in the final act, as the cast all gives Bill Murray shoulder squeezes of support. The scene is supposed to mean something profound. It’s Murray confronting not just his Moby Dick (a quest for vengeance lost in the film, maybe because they knew it was a silly idea as a major plot point), but also himself. His mortality, his place in the world, you know, the yada yada. And it is the yada yada, because the viewer isn’t watching Murray’s character confront himself, he or she is watching Murray play a character confronting himself. The Life Aquatic manages to create a particular suspension of disbelief–the little stop motion undersea creatures are exquisite and fully part of the film’s reality–but it never manages to convince (or even try to convince) the viewer he or she isn’t watching a construct. A hipster event picture. It’s a great hipster event picture, maybe the best (since who makes decent hipster pictures except Anderson), but there’s no depth to it. It’s a fake.

The Life Aquatic wasn’t expensive by Hollywood standards–it was pretty cheap actually, considering the cast, effects and water shooting–but it’s a huge Wes Anderson picture. There are action scenes–Anderson’s pretty good at them too, incorporating both his self-aware style as well as the action scene necessities. There are huge sets–Mark Friedberg’s production design–is wonderful. There’s always something to look at in The Life Aquatic, which is good, because the film frequently gets boring.

Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach think swearing is funny. Swearing can be funny and some of the swear-based jokes in Life Aquatic are okay (they don’t get belly-laughs, but they’re okay), but they rely on them all the time. Or uncomfortable situations. It’s like Anderson sat down and watched the trailers to Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and thought he should make a feature-length trailer. There’s not an honest human moment in the entire film, as the actors deliver their lines to the camera, not to each other. Owen Wilson–who really should have co-wrote the picture instead of acted in it–is the worst. His Kentucky fish out of water is an affected performance, with the whole hook being him being Owen Wilson acting in another Wes Anderson movie. None of his scenes are bad, but seeing him opposite Willem Dafoe, who hurls himself head first into his role as an insecure German crew member, is painful. Dafoe pushes through to the other side with his performance, while Wilson’s happy with staying celluloid.

After Dafoe, Cate Blanchett gives the film’s second-best performance, even though she has little to do… watching Blanchett act–even in a shallow character–is great. Murray’s fine, so is Anjelica Huston. Jeff Goldblum’s okay, playing the standard post-Jurassic Park Goldblum standard. Bud Cort’s got a great small part.

The Life Aquatic is a frustrating film. As filmmaking, it’s masterful and exciting. As a fiction, it’s a complete waste of time. There’s more insight into the human condition in mediocre fortune cookies.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bill Murray (Steve Zissou), Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton), Cate Blanchett (Jane Winslett-Richardson), Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou), Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler), Jeff Goldblum (Hennessey), Michael Gambon (Drakoulious), Bud Cort (Bill Ubell) and Seymour Cassel (Esteban de Plantier).


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Steven Spielberg)

The biggest development, in terms of script, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might actually be George Lucas’s fingerprints. Between Last Crusade and this sequel, Lucas created the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” television series and introduced the idea of canon to the series. As an example, in Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford tells Shia LeBeouf about an adventure from the television show. There’s also the character being part of every historical event (he was in the O.S.S. during World War II–that one isn’t so far-fetched–but he was also at Roswell in 1947–that one is sort of ludicrous, but maybe not). It adds a different tone to the film; all of a sudden, everything needs to be explained. For the first time in an Indiana Jones movie, there’s significant exposition to the character’s off-screen life.

Another development (talking about Crystal Skull traditionally seems impossible, so I’m not even going to try) has to do with how the film handles age. Even with cheesy (but unfortunately necessary) techniques to reference absent friends, the film’s approach is somewhat startling. With an action-packed opening, even with a couple asides to aging, it’s hard to remember Harrison Ford is older (especially with a long break between this film and the last). Then, gradually, it becomes clear how aging has affected the character. LeBeouf’s presence allows for these moments, especially in the scenes with he, Ford and Karen Allen. Even as LeBeouf takes a more central role in the last act, it’s still Ford’s show and Crystal Skull becomes the first franchise film I can remember where age is really a factor and not just lip service (with the obvious exception of Rocky Balboa). Clint Eastwood, for instance, never actually let his action heroes be old. In Crystal Skull, for the most part, the film doesn’t discuss aging.

The next two differences are about production, less abstract.

First is the film’s frequent references to other films. The series started reinventing old serials, then maintained that air without being as directly referential. In Crystal Skull, the references are a lot more neon. It opens with an American Graffiti homage. It’s discreet, only noticeable when thinking about Lucas’s involvement. There’s a major Naked Jungle reference. But what Spielberg does in Crystal Skull, what makes it noteworthy, is apply modern filmmaking mores to a historical era. He even gets away with positioning LeBeouf in a Marlon Brando reference–he makes it work. The most successful example of this application is the motorcycle chase. It’s a fantastic, Indiana Jones motorcycle chase set in a late 1950s college town. It’s fantastic. But the film’s also, tonally, supposed to fit in the 1950s, not just terms of setting, but also genre. Crystal Skull owes more, plot-wise, not so much in execution, to the science fiction films of the era than anything else. Spielberg doesn’t work particularly well with that aspect and does a lot better with the Red Scare elements.

Spielberg’s also working very different technically. With CG (I’ll get to it in a minute) mattes instead of painted ones, Janusz Kaminski shoots a Technicolor adventure. Crystal Skull‘s cinematography, from the usually pedestrian Kaminski, looks wonderful. It might even be the best photographed in the series. The CG is almost exclusively excellent. The much-publicized jungle fight looks great, for instance. Only one strangely matted, too cartoony jungle swinging scene looks bad (for whatever reason, CG has never achieved the acknowledgment of artifice, like rear projection and mattes have). What Spielberg does with the CG, creating fantastic visuals–in addition to the 1950s story trappings–furthers that Technicolor label. Spielberg’s acting sequences are still top-form.

The story does suffer from those elements though. Just from the title–Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–it’s clear this one isn’t as salient as the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail. The title itself is absent any mystery or excitement (…and the Lost City or …and the Golden City would have worked better). It’s a hard story to title, just because the film’s more about what the character learns about himself–never a series emphasis. Koepp’s script has some really good moments, but there are lots of missed opportunities. In the end, it’s not his fault. Koepp can’t fix Lucas’s broken story (just because one can make an Indiana Jones sci-fi movie doesn’t mean he or she should).

Ford’s good in the film, playing the aging well. But because of that cold, action opening, it takes a while to see how Ford is handling the character’s aging. Once it’s clear, it’s fine. Ray Winstone is wasted in his supporting role. The character’s a script necessity, nothing else, and Winstone can’t do anything with it. Similarly, John Hurt’s fine doing a simple role–the casting is another difference with this one, it’s interested in casting recognizable actors. Karen Allen’s good, has some great moments with Ford and LeBeouf. She and Ford’s chemistry from twenty-seven years ago picks up without a hitch (too bad Lucas didn’t let Spielberg put her in every movie, she and Ford would have done a great Nick and Nora). Jim Broadbent’s goofy little role is fine enough too, but the approach (he’s a stand-in for Denholm Elliott) is unimaginative.

I’m not surprised Cate Blanchett is excellent. I assumed she would be good, but I never had any idea how great she’d be. Her character’s got the worst character arc, but Blanchett handles it with aplomb. She relishes in the character’s scripting problems, turning them into advantages.

Here’s the surprise–Shia LeBeouf. Under Spielberg’s direction, LeBeouf turns in a good, solid performance in an impossible role. He handles the period acting well, he handles the action well. Only when Spielberg puts him in a scene out of an unproduced Jurassic Park cartoon does he stumble. It’s a movie star turn and something I never would have thought LeBeouf could achieve.

Another unfortunate difference, the last, is John Williams’s score. He uses themes from the first and third films (there’s not a single acknowledgement of Temple of Doom in the entire film) and uses the main theme as much as he can. He never gives Crystal Skull its own theme. It’s a lazy score, exactly the kind of bored score Williams has been turning in since… well, as Last Crusade is his last enthusiastic one, for eighteen years (with a couple exceptions, I’m sure).

The big problem with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, besides that title, is the ending. There’s a big-time rip-off of The X-Files and, even though it’s competently produced and so on, it’s just wrong. Lucas’s silly story catches up with the film. Then, all of sudden, Spielberg and company turn it around for the last scene and the close. They don’t just, belatedly (which is even referenced in dialogue) correct history, they also end it on a great cinematic smile.

Just like Temple of Doom, Lucas hurts the film. But this time, it’s not too much Lucas.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Cate Blanchett (Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Shia LaBeouf (Mutt Williams), Ray Winstone (Mac), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Igor Jijikine (Dovchenko) and Jim Broadbent (Charles Stanforth).


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