Walt Disney Pictures

Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

The Straight Story wants to present its characters as real, but it then exaggerates their reality. They’re better than real. Superior imitations. And it’s the film’s undoing.

Well, and the music. The eschewing of cartoon for caricature and the Angelo Badalamenti score. It is not the music to tell the story of a man born in 1920s Minnesota, who later moves to Iowa at some point and now at seventy-three is driving a riding mower to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. Badalamenti’s main theme is ostentatious; even if you like it, it’s ostentatious. The movie’s all about how this guy, played by Richard Farnsworth, isn’t ostentatious. How could he be? He gives folksy, somewhat progressive wisdom and always pays his way. He never takes handouts, but he’ll compromise as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break his code. He’s a cowboy, on the steel green horse—well, steel green mule of a John Deere riding mower—he rides.

Straight Story isn’t a character study; its protagonist is never subject, never driving force (no pun intended). Director Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney shrug off the idea of Farnsworth’s motivations until the third act when he dumps them in some heartfelt, folksy exposition. Straight Story is based on a true story, yet the film does whatever it can to make its characters seem utterly contained to their scenes. They stop existing when the film, sometimes jarringly, cuts away from them. It’s somewhat appropriate, however, as Sweeney also edited the film. The film has a handful of really rough cuts, not to mention when all of a sudden in the second half it employs frequent fades to black to end scenes. Occasionally the cuts are rough because clearly the actor onscreen didn’t think their scene was over. The movie’s just done showing this good, simple folk being kindly to one another. Point made, time to move on. Though, more often than not—especially in the second half—it’s just cutting to some other good, simple folk being kindly to one another scene.

It’s too bad. There are some occasional really strong moments. There’s a scene where Farnsworth witnesses a car accident and its frantic aftermath. Or when he’s hanging out with fellow old guy Wiley Harker at a bar and they’re having a profound emotional moment talking about World War II. Harker’s monologue is way better than Farnsworth’s and clearly so, which is concerning since Harker’s only in two scenes and Farnsworth is, you know, the movie. But even so, when Lynch and Sweeney bring in a non-diegetic war sounds track, it ruins the actors’ scene. Why would you give the actors this great opportunity then junk it for pedestrian memory sounds. It’s so strange. The Straight Story puts sugar in its own gas tank, time and again.

And then there’s Farnsworth’s daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. She gets a character revelation after her character is basically gone from the movie and it’s just to hammer in how progressive Farnsworth can be compared to, well, the younger generation. Straight Story positions Farnsworth as the world’s greatest grandad, only it’s a secret power and he can only use it on strangers, who hear more about his motivations for the trip than daughter Spacek. Of course, Spacek is—according to Farnsworth—a little slow. Spacek plays the character maybe autistic? Or with a speech impediment. But not slow. Not given the ideas she’s got to talk about in the dialogue she’s got. It’s kind of the most egregious of the film’s problems, just because the movie later uses Spacek just to develop Farnsworth and even then, only in a trite, contrived way. The film never feels less “real” than when Farnsworth is explaining how he’s so real. And manly.

Because he’s a cowboy. He’s a real American hero, which might explain why the movie treats him like an action figure. He moves where the film needs him; never once seems to have agency his own.

Even more distressing is when, in the final scene, a very special guest star outacts the 110 minute sum of Farnsworth’s performance without even speaking.

The film isn’t exactly condescending or patronizing, but it’s got a very definite narrative distance; it displays the events, doesn’t create them; it displays the people, doesn’t give them agency. They don’t develop. At all. And the exposition dumps are always manipulative.

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

Farnsworth is okay. It should be the kind of part you can go on and on about, analyzing the performance and whatnot, but you can’t. Because he’s just okay. Partly because Lynch doesn’t have any idea what kind of performance he’s directing. Spacek’s okay too, even if she’s the film’s narrative device doormat. James Cada’s good in one of the supporting roles, which are usually cast based on the actor’s appearance rather than their… acting ability. Or even casting appropriateness.

Good photography from Freddie Francis. Okay direction from Lynch. There are issues. There are peculiar choices when it comes to the ostensible character study stuff. There are weird, frankly silly zoom-ins.

It’s long, its plotting structure stalls, the music is annoying (even after the repeated use of the theme disappears—possibly when those fades to black come in, I wasn’t paying attention)… Straight Story has its sincerities, but never where it needs them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Neal Edelstein and Sweeney; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny), Wiley Harker (Verlyn), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), and Everett McGill (Tom).


Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Endgame had the ending I was hoping for, but maybe not necessarily the right ending for the movie. And it’s only got one. If Endgame has any singular successes, it might be in its lack of false endings. It does a lot of establishing work, sometimes new to the film, sometimes refreshing it from previous Marvel movies. Endgame is the twenty-second “Marvel Cinematic Universe” movie; you probably can get away with watching thirteen of them and getting the story. And maybe not all the ones you’d expect. And not always for the best narrative reasons, not given where it takes some of its characters.

The film opens catching up with Jeremy Renner. Even before the company logo. He missed the last outing because of something in another one of the movies. Not one of the Avengers movies either. Anyway. Renner, despite being really effective in the first scene, is a red herring. He’s there immediately for texture and structurally for when he comes back later on. Because first things first, after all. Given the way the previous movie (Infinity War) ends, there’s some anticipation. There’s some big action in the prologue too, some big team-ups, some nice moments. But it’s really an epilogue to the previous film. In fact, there’s even a cliffhanger moment they could’ve used to split them. Only no, because then the movie jumps ahead an arbitrary amount of time. Arbitrary in how it effects the narrative, but so specific you’ve got to think there’s some reason. Maybe for the twenty-third Marvel movie. Or the thirty-third.

The movie uses the jump ahead to allow for a new ground situation. Sometimes it’s drastic, sometimes it’s not. Even when it’s a theoretically big change, it doesn’t necessarily do much to change how the character functions in the film. Maybe it gives them some angst or whatever, but everyone’s got angst after the last movie. It only affects behaviors in a few. The rest… well, they’re a little thin. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an amazing job writing good scenes for the actors, but not good subplots for most of them. There are some disconnects between script and direction here, particularly with Chris Hemsworth. Markus and McFeely’s script gives him a lot of possibility and directors Russo have zero interest in pursuing it. Shame thing goes for Mark Ruffalo. He gets more to do than ever before, but never any good scenes to himself. Renner and Scarlett Johansson end up somewhere in between. They’ve got material, they get time for it… it still comes off a little too perfunctory.

In theory, Endgame’s two leads are Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Downey gets the most to do in the film and it’s a fantastic performance. It’s his movie, as much as it can be any actor’s movie. Meanwhile, the script doesn’t give Evans quite enough to do, even though it frequently has him around things to do. Markus and McFeely actually don’t give Evans an arc for the film. Him, first tier guest stars Brie Larson and Don Cheadle, Ruffalo, no actual character arcs. It’d be disappointing if it weren’t a movie about a bunch of superheroes time traveling to save the world.

The time travel goes back into the other movies, but doesn’t get too nostalgic about them. It’s nice Endgame can get traction out of the three locations, as they’re locations because of narrative detail not dramatic potential. There are a couple good action sequences in one of them, some wasted material for Hemsworth, some wasteful material Downey makes into gold, some old footage reused then CGI’ed to get another “name” guest star in the end credits, a major plot development for third act repercussion, and a too flat melodramatic moment. And a bunch of good acting, good directing, excellent CGI, and whatever else.

Endgame couldn’t get better, technically speaking. Everything directors Russo need to do, every shot, it all works. There’s a lot to keep moving. It gets kind of monotonous after a while, as the film’s ambitions are all about getting its story told, getting all its connections made, all its references echoed, all its characters in the right place for when the actors’ contracts run out. There’s no time to make wide filmmaking swings, but directors Russo don’t even seem interested in trying. They’re more than happy to leverage an old movie beat to get the job done.

Especially if it’s at Hemsworth’s expense. Especially Hemsworth’s.

There aren’t any bad performances. Downey’s the ace. Then Evans or Paul Rudd. Rudd’s better than anyone but Downey when he’s getting introduced; he’s momentarily the lead then he’s background. He ends up with even less to do than Renner. But Evans is in the whole movie. Ruffalo’s fine. There’s nothing for him to do. Hemsworth seems more than capable so it’s weird how little he gets to do. He’s fine. Johansson’d be better if she didn’t end up losing her arc once Renner’s back. There’s a moment where it seems like she’s going to give a really good performance. Instead, she’s fine. Good in comparison to others, when adjusting for all the film’s factors. Cheadle’s good with his stuff, which is mostly background noise. Karen Gillan gets a big arc, at least in terms of narrative importance, but loses it. She’s okay.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back for a bit. She’s good. It’s not a lot. But she and Downey get their magic going as needed.

Bradley Cooper’s great as the CGI raccoon’s voice.

As for Josh Brolin, whose villain was the whole show in the previous Infinity War? The CGI, motion-captured mean blue giant thing still works and Brolin’s fine, but… he’s got a thin part this time out. Technically lots to do, all of it really thin.

Endgame succeeds in being a well-acted, well-made, and well-written (enough) conclusion to the “world-building” done by the previous twenty-one movies. It just might have been nice if it tried to do anything else. Anything at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), and Josh Brolin (Thanos).


Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

Captain Marvel is difficult to encapsulate. Its successes are many, some of its achievements truly singular (the CG-de-aging of Sam Jackson, combined with Jackson’s “youthful” performance, is spectacular), and there’s always something else. Even when you get past all the major things—first female Marvel superhero movie, franchise prequel, “period piece,” inverted character arcs, big plot twists—there’s something else you can find in the plotting or how directors Boden and Fleck stick with a joke. If they make a joke work, they don’t let up on it. Ever. They turn it into character development. Even when it ought to be absurd, they make it work.

But most of all there’s lead Brie Larson, who gets some big moments in the film—sometimes through the grandiose handling, direction-wise, but also sometimes in her performance. Marvel is a fast movie—once Larson crash-lands on Earth, the present action is around a day. And Larson’s got a lot to do in those twenty-four hours. The film doesn’t start on Earth, it starts off on a highly advanced alien planet, where Larson is living and working for Jude Law in a kind of space special forces unit. Larson’s from somewhere else (Earth) but doesn’t remember it (Earth). Larson’s aliens are warring with a different species of alien; this other alien species can shape-shift, which is a problem because they invade planets and take them over and they’ve just followed Larson to Earth.

Where she fairly quickly realizes she’s from Earth, sending on her a quest to find herself, with sidekick Jackson in tow. Jackson’s simultaneously the comic relief and the audience’s view into the action, but only for tying in the latter (sorry, earlier) Marvel movies. Who knows what he actually looked like when acting the scenes, but Jackson’s performance is awesome. He does great with the “aliens are real” thing, he does great as the sidekick. He and Larson are wonderful together, even though it’s mostly just for the smiles and laughs. Boden and Fleck take all the smiles they can get. Not every laugh, but definitely all the smiles. Captain Marvel, even with its harshness, is fun.

Often that fun comes from Larson’s wiseass lead, who might not remember anything about her life on Earth but still remembers how to be a good Earth movie wiseass. The wiseass stuff is never to deflect from the emotion either. It informs the character and performance; there’s no avoidance, not even when the film could get away with it thanks to the amnesia angle. Marvel takes the right parts of itself seriously.

Like the friendship between Larson and Lashana Lynch. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, which is fine as it’s an action-packed superhero movie with warring aliens and not a character drama, but Larson and Lynch quickly work up a great onscreen rapport. It’s not as fun as Larson’s interactions with Jackson, but it’s part of where the film finds its emotional sincerity. Captain Marvel never leverages the emotional sincerity; for example, when there’s danger, Boden and Fleck will defuse it (quickly) with a laugh instead. The defusing doesn’t get rid of the emotional sincerity either, though some of that emotional sincerity is the only way the filmmakers can get away with the plot twists. It helps Larson is, you know, a seemingly indestructible superhero.

Lynch has a daughter, Akira Akbar, who used to know Larson too. Lynch and Akbar come into the film in the middle, so it’s a surprise how much influence Akbar’s going to have on Larson’s character arc (and performance). Because until the big interstellar finale, there’s a lot of focus on Larson’s reaction to recent events. Often for laughs, sometimes for narrative, but her character is fairly static. Sure, she’s on a quest for information but she’s got no idea the relevance of that information. Just it has something to do with Annette Bening.

Bening is—for the most part—just the personification of this alien A.I. god when it communicates with Larson. Everyone sees something different when synced with the A.I. god. Larson sees a Bening avatar and eventually tracks down the real Bening. Bening is both clue and solution to Larson’s puzzle. Larson doesn’t have all the pieces or the box to guide her putting them together—and the puzzle’s fairly simple (again, it’s an action-packed superhero movie with space aliens) but Larson brings more than enough in the performance department. Pretty much everyone brings the necessary gravitas then takes it up a notch.

Marvel is always an effective film, in no small part thanks to its cast and the direction of that cast. Bening and Law are quite good (though Bening’s far better with even less “character” than Law), Lynch and Akbar are good, Ben Mendelsohn is awesome as the leader of the bad aliens (the shape-shifters). His performance—despite constant special effects and makeup—is understated, reserved. Even with the constant element of surprise—he’s a shape-shifter, after all—Mendelsohn’s performance is tight. Plus he gets some laughs, usually at Jackson’s expense.

Larson’s really good. Plot-wise, nothing Marvel throws at her slows her down. Larson’s able to find the sincerity in the broad dramatic strokes. Like the books, sincere performances… they do a lot. Larson’s particularly great with both Lynch and Akbar, implying a forgotten familiarity counter to her overt behaviors in a moment.

And the supporting cast of ragtag aliens and Men in Black (including a de-aged Clark Gregg in a fine shoe-in) is all effective. They don’t need to do much. Larson, Jackson, Mendelsohn, Lynch… they’ve got it covered.

Technically, the film’s just as strong. The CG is all excellent, the photography (from Ben Davis) is good, ditto Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham’s editing. Andy Nicholson’s production design—of nineties Earth in particular—is good. Basically everything except Pinar Toprak’s score, which often feels too small for such a big film. It’s not bad music, sometimes it’s really effective, but it’s also yet another indistinct Marvel superhero movie score. It’s all about accompanying the action, not guiding it, which is a whole other discussion. Occasionally it’s really spot on, but mostly it’s just there.

Kind of like the nineties pop music. It sort of works—having grunge-y songs for the 1994-set act—but it seems like a big miss Boden and Fleck never explore, you know, what kind of music Larson would’ve liked when she was on Earth and not just whatever is time-period appropriate.

Doesn’t Marvel czar and Marvel producer Kevin Feige like music?

Anyway.

Captain Marvel. It sets out to do a lot of things and succeeds in all of them. The film puts the galaxy on Larson’s shoulders; she deadlifts with it. Boden and Fleck have a wonderful way of making it fun for the audience when they take a moment to check a requisite plot point box. They—Larson, Boden, and Fleck–and the hundred animators who made Samuel L. Jackson, well, Sam Jackson again—do something special with Captain Marvel.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, based on a story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet, and the Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham; music by Pinar Toprak; production designer, Andy Nicholson; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Brie Larson (Vers), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Akira Akbar (Monica Rambeau), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Gemma Chan (Minn-Erva), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan), and Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence).


Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Infinity War has quite a few significant achievements. Special effects, for example. But the two most salient ones are Josh Brolin’s performance (of a CG character, no less) and the pacing. Directors Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an extraordinary job juggling the large cast and various storylines, which start splintered, then come together. But it’s the tension is the thing. The film opens with the introduction of a countdown clock, with the literal fate of the universe in the balance–the introduction’s both to the audience and the majority of the characters–and with that threat, the countdown is always present. There’s always more tension they can ratchet as things get more and more dire. It culminates in big finale, of course, with lots of moving pieces needing to sync up for that finale to work. But the most impressive thing is when, at around an hour and fifty minutes into the film (which runs two and a half hours, albeit with a questionable ten minute end credit sequence before the Marvel movie post-credits teaser), it becomes obvious they aren’t going to have time to wrap it up. The film’s so good at maintaining intensity, so good at latching on to the characters’ determined hopefulness, when defeat becomes visible and probable… it’s a shock. Even though there can’t be much other outcome, given the movie can’t really go on forever, can it?

Even if one of the big finale twists is a bit of a cheat since it relies entirely on something the audience (not to mention the characters) have any idea is possible.

Of course, what’s possible is what’s in question in Infinity War. Giant blue space alien (Brolin) is searching for six “infinity” stones, which–explained in a first act lecture to the audience (and Robert Downey Jr.)–will allow him to remake reality. Brolin starts the movie fighting with Chris Hemsworth out in space, but then goes off on his own storyline–arguably the film’s most successful, though it’s got limited competition and is the only consistent arc (thanks to Brolin’s shockingly good performance). How Brolin’s not just able to bring depth to the CG giant–which has far better CG than when Mark Ruffalo hulks out–also in terms of how he never gets caught up in the gooniness of the whole thing. Directors Russo play the whole thing straight–one of their greatest touches is treating Infinity War like an impromptu trip through the galaxy–but it wouldn’t work without Brolin. Everyone else who has to deal with the gooniness? Well, either it gets worked through like with Downey, Tom Holland, and Benedict Cumberbatch or utterly avoided like with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Hemsworth is somewhere in the middle. He spends most of the movie with Bradley Cooper’s CG wiseass mercenary raccoon and straightfaces it through the gooniness. Everyone else in his scenes is CG (they also bring along the talking tree “voiced”–or audio filtered–by Vin Diesel).

Anyway. With Brolin, there’s gravitas in the fantastical alien stuff. With Downey’s plot line or Evans’s, there’s not. Even with Downey on a space ship hurtling through hyperspace (presumably, otherwise the Marvel universe is real small), no one wants to get too bogged down with the logic. Hemsworth, hanging out with Cooper and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, acknowledges the existence of the fantastical without wanting to deal with it. It’s a wise move from the filmmakers. The Russo Brothers get better performances out of Galaxy regulars Chris Pratt and (especially) Zoe Saldana than their feature movies ever suggested possible. Though Pratt’s still way out of his depth opposite Downey, which is made even more clear when Holland and Cumberbatch are able to keep pass. With Holland even surpassing Downey, in no small part thanks to Downey’s acquiescence. They have a wonderful rapport.

The storylines follow the ostensible Avengers “big four”–Downey, Hemsworth, Evans, and Ruffalo. Though Ruffalo is just moving through where he’s playing second fiddle. First it’s to Hemsworth, then to Downey, then to Evans. Ruffalo’s fine and likable as ever, but… Infinity War goes far in showing, while Ed Norton might be regretting the profit sharing, he didn’t miss out on any great acting opportunities with the franchise.

Evans also ends up supporting other storylines, like Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the movie. Bettany is an android superhero (though he’s a distressingly weak android superhero in Infinity War) who has one of the rocks Brolin wants in his head. Olsen’s the woman who loves him; she’s also a superhero and the only one who can destroy said stone to save the universe, if need be. Evans protects them? He brings along sidekicks–Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, and eventually Sebastian Stan–to help, but even they get a little more to do. Johansson bonds with Danai Gurira (after Evans and company become second–or third–fiddle to the Black Panther cast), Mackie and Cheadle have some rapport. I guess Stan doesn’t really get anything. But then neither does Chadwick Boseman, who’s the actual Black Panther. He’s scenery.

And then they get Ruffalo lumped in too because… the movie doesn’t actually need him. It’s kind of shocking how good the CG works with Brolin’s character versus Ruffalo’s Hulk. I know I mentioned it already, but it’s really striking.

Anyway. Hemsworth teams up with Pratt, Saldana, and the other Guardians team members who get almost nothing to do in the film–especially not after their first scene confronting Brolin; an Infinity War needs cannon fodder, after all. He’s got his quest with the CG Guardians and some fun moments with Cooper; Peter Dinklage shows up at some point in there too.

Then there’s Downey, who’s got Holland and Cumberbatch with him as they hurtle through the galaxy for a showdown with Brolin. They think. They eventually team up with the Guardians cast, leading to those scenes where we have to pretend Pratt can hold his own opposite Downey. Oh, right. It’s after Pratt can’t hold his own opposite Hemsworth and every single character in the movie makes fun of him for it. Good scene, but whatever.

So a lot going on. Because then there’s also Brolin’s whole arc, which involves adoptive daughter Saldana (he took her in after killing her mother and half the population of her planet). Lots going on, all at once. When the movie gets to the third act and all the storylines are going fullsteam–Brolin can instantly teleport between them, which helps to streamline–it’s truly astounding what editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt manage with their cutting. The film has a rhythm to it already, but they’re able to rev it something spectacular for the finish. Infinity War is a technical marvel. No pun.

Alan Silvestri’s score even recovers from the first act, when it’s focusing on repeating franchise themes.

Performance wise… Brolin’s best. Then Downey. They get the most to do. Their showdown, for instance, hints at some great nemesis possibility. The movie’s just too big (and already too long when they get together) for it. Then Holland? Holland doesn’t get a lot to do after the first act, especially not once Pratt and company join his storyline, but he’s always great support for Downey and he’s got the film’s best single scene (for a non-CG actor, anyway). Then Hemsworth. Because after Hemsworth everyone is fine, but not particularly standout. Though Saldana, Bettany, and Olsen all have some rather good moments; Saldana because it’s opposite Brolin’s CG giant alien, Bettany and Olsen because they’re able to ooze chemistry even though Bettany’s caked in red body paint.

Evans, Boseman, Cumberbatch, whoever. They get their jobs done. The movie doesn’t task them with a lot and always implies if they got another scene or two, they’d be quite good. The rapport between Johansson and Gurira, Cheadle and Mackie, whoever. The film implies potential, but keeps it in check because the trains have to run on time.

Even Pratt’s fine. Karen Gillan’s still not good. And the movie doesn’t do poor Pom Klementieff any favors.

Just getting to the finish line with Infinity War is a win for directors Russo and the screenwriters. Getting it to the finish line with so much good stuff along the way… the film’s a lot more successful than should even be possible, given it’s so seeped in franchise continuity and bloated with characters. The filmmakers nimbly hop through it all. Because, frankly, they get to leverage it all with Brolin’s singular, phenomenal performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Dave Bautista (Drax), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa / Black Panther), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes / War Machine), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector), and William Hurt (Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross).


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

I’m going to start by saying some positive things about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It has fantastic CG. Wow is cinematographer Henry Braham truly inept at compositing it with live footage, but the CG is fantastic. Whether it’s the exploding spaceships or exploding planets or the genetically engineered, bipedal racoon, the CG is fantastic. It’s not exceptional with the other CG characters, the micro-sized plant toddler or de-aging Kurt Russell, but, dang, is there some good CG. And James Gunn is usually good with the shot composition for it. So long as he’s in medium long shot or long shot and they shots don’t involve Chris Pratt. Especially not when they involve Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But otherwise, pretty good with the composition.

Other good things? Bradley Cooper’s great voicing the racoon. Yes, it’s a Gilbert Gottfried impression, but… given the amount of dialogue Cooper gets, he’s so much better at delivering than anyone else in the movie, he deserves a lot of credit. He’s got more vocal inflection in four words than Pratt manages in his entire performance. Saldana, well, like Dave Bautista, their lack of affect is part of their characters. There’s an excuse. Maybe not a good one, but there’s an excuse. And Bautista’s fine. He gives one of the film’s better performances. Though, technically, Saldana doesn’t even give one of it’s bad ones. Because she’s always opposite Pratt–who’s downright laughable when he’s got to pretend to emote–or Karen Gillan. Technically, Gillan has one of the film’s more thoughtful character arcs… unfortunately, she’s terrible.

And it’s not like Gunn (who also scripts) can make the family relationship between Saldana and Gillan work. The daughters of an intergalactic would-be despot who spent childhood trying to murder one another in combat for his amusement then reconciling as adults? Given Gunn rejects the idea of taking the setting seriously–you know, the Galaxy–and is downright hostile the idea of doing so (apparently no civilization in the known universe except Earth has come up with iPhones or similar personal technologies), he’s probably the right one to crack it. But he sure does better at it than Pratt finding out his deadbeat dad is Kurt Russell, who’s an interstellar being with the power to create life. Their relationship is a series of terrible scenes punctuated by Pratt’s terrible deliveries and emoting.

How Russell was able to keep a straight face through the film… well, professionalism. Pass it on.

I did not dedicate all the bad and stupid things in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to memory. I gave up somewhere before the first act finished, but a lot of the problem is Pratt. And Gunn. Both as a writer and director. As a director, Gunn could give a crap about performances. Everyone mugs through bad jokes. Or pop culture references. The pop culture references are concerning, not just because Gunn uses them instead of giving Pratt’s character any interiority, but also because they imply some really dumb things about the character. Pratt’s got an arc in Vol. 2. It’s one of the many concerning things about the film, if you give the film any thought, which Gunn doesn’t want you to do and you don’t want to do because it just reminds you of the very, very long two hours plus you’ve already put in.

Needless to say, Pratt’s “finding his father” arc–involving Russell and intergalactic mercenary Michael Rooker (who speaks entirely in B-movie colloquialisms even though he’s an alien)–is pretty weak. Rooker does better than the other two, but… only because he’s not godawful. Pratt’s bad, Russell’s not good, but the writing for both of them is lousy. Rooker’s got dumb dialogue, but Gunn definitely gives him the best male arc. Again, Rooker’s professional. It helps. A lot.

The chaste romance between Pratt and Saldana is terrible. It only gets one real big scene and it’s one of Pratt’s worst, which is something because it comes after his previous low of the “Dad? You wanna have a catch?” scene. There’s no floor to Pratt’s inability to essay, you know, sincerity in this film. He’s not good mugging through the jokes but at least then it’s only not funny, not a crime against filmed dramatics.

Other macro terrible things… oh. Yeah. Pom Klementieff as Russell’s empathic pet. She’s around to give Bautista someone to talk with for much of the second act and to engender suspicion regarding Russell’s true intentions. Gunn’s writing for her character is frankly hostile. He uses her as the butt of jokes, he emotionally manipulates her (usually only to objectify her–or not objectify her), and to act as… well, he needs someone to mock and particularly redeem. He makes fun of his brother (Sean Gunn plays Rooker’s sidekick) but eventually redeems the character. Klementieff’s treatment just gets worse as her character “development” progresses.

It’s truly astounding Bautista is able to rise above the material in his scenes with her, since he’s usually the one crapping all over her. The joke is, she doesn’t know better because Russell’s keeping as a combination of pet and slave. It’s fine. He’s got cool hair. Though, maybe in one of the most telling plot holes, Russell has absolutely no interaction with Klementieff after their introduction. Her name might as well be Malcolm Crowe as far as Russell’s concerned… though, wait, Russell doesn’t really interact with anyone except Pratt–maybe he wasn’t available for filming. On one hand, it’s narratively nonsensical, on the other, it saves from (different) bad scenes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is ostentatious, self-congratulatory dreck. It’s impressively executed on its scale in terms of set pieces. The editing of them is bad. Gunn and editors Fred Raskin and Craig Wood choke through every single action sequence in the film, whether it’s a space battle or fist fight. There’s a lot of emphasis on the soundtrack, which has some great songs, terribly set to scene. Of course, Tyler Bates’s score–with a couple actual good tracks–is lousy too. It’s a lose-lose. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lose-lose.

Even when the third act is so impressively executed (though not in terms of dramatic tension); there’s a lot going on, some of it dumb, sure, but still a lot and Gunn is able to play it through. Shame none of the acting is good, outside maybe Rooker. Cooper’s “arc” doesn’t amount to much in the end, other than him still giving a better performance with his voice than anyone else in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is hostile to even momentary thoughtfulness, critical thinking, or–god forbid–actually being able to contextualize what the pop culture references would actually mean… It’s not even tripe. Regardless of the technical competence of the third act (I mean, where was it in the first). It’s not fluff. It’s not popcorn. It’s a $200 million rubber dog poop gag.

With bad cinematography and terrible acting. Like. The most interesting question the film raises is how did they get the tears in Pratt’s emotion-free eyes? Visine or CG?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Gunn; screenplay by Gunn, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; director of photography, Henry Braham; edited by Fred Raskin and Craig Wood; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Chris Sullivan (Taserface), and Kurt Russell (Ego).


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).


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

The Last Jedi is a long two and a half hours. It’s an uneven split between Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega. Ridley’s off with Mark Hamill–but really having a FaceTime via the Force arc with Adam River–while Isaac is doing his damndest to get everyone killed because he doesn’t want to listen to women. Boyega starts with Isaac, then has a quest with Kelly Marie Tran. Boyega and Tran have the closest thing to character arcs. Isaac learns his lesson way too late and only because Carrie Fisher is so patient with him.

At the center of the film is not Ridley learning the ways of the Force from Hamill. Director Johnson avoids tackling that relationship, giving Hamill all his character development away from Ridley. It’s a waste of Hamill. There’s some effective homage with him, but nothing particularly sincere. Johnson–who wrote the script–seems to want nothing to do with the character.

As a result, most of Ridley’s time in the film is utterly wasted. Most meaning more than ninety-five percent. Her subplot with Driver doesn’t add up to anything. Especially since it gets resolved somewhere in the first of the film’s third acts. It basically has three of them.

Unlike the previous entry in Disney Star Wars, which repurposed the original Star Wars’s story beats, Last Jedi is a mix of Empire and Return of the Jedi, just reorganized. There’s enough content they could’ve split the movie in two and gotten more dramatic oompf out of it.

The stuff with Boyega and Tran completely lacks any subtlety and still ends up being the most effective of the film’s plot lines. Even though Johnson has a really hard time establishing Boyega at the start of the film, eventually the chemistry between the actors overcomes the rocky opening. Benicio Del Toro is the name cameo in that plot line and he’s fun. He’s painfully obvious, but he’s fun.

Meanwhile Isaac goes from ignoring Fisher’s orders to ignoring Laura Dern’s. The movie shafts Dern, redeeming her in a reveal and then it’s pretty much time for her to go. Fisher’s back. Johnson sidelines Fisher after giving her the film’s best “Force” sequence. There’s some visually interesting Dark Side stuff with Ridley–a throwback to Empire–but it ends up narratively inert like everything else Johnson does with Ridley. For all the film’s talk of heroes and legends, Johnson’s incredibly uncomfortable spending any time with them. You can only deconstruct Star Wars so much. In Last Jedi, Johnson wastes a bunch of time trying to do so.

Besides just being long and meandering because Johnson’s verbose, the film also severely lacks danger. Most of the film has the Rebel fleet running from the Empire–sorry, First Order, but damn do the interiors of the Star Destroyers look amazing just like in the seventies. The Rebels are almost out of fuel and can’t warp so the Empire is just shooting at them. The good guys’ shields can take it but not forever and they can’t actually escape.

If Johnson were able to direct for tension, it could be great. Instead, it’s just a way to winnow down the cast. Pointlessly so. Johnson does all right making the frequent death scenes momentarily tragic, but they don’t have any resonance. Last Jedi doesn’t want to have anything to do with resonating.

None of the acting is bad except Domhnall Gleeson. He and Driver bicker as they try to out-suck-up to their boss, the CGI “big bad” (voiced by Andy Serkis). Gleeson’s wholly incompetent at his job and whiny. Driver’s at least got the Dark Side and broody beats whiny. And Driver acts like Johnson’s giving him an actual character arc. Besides Ridley and Hamill, Johnson fails Driver most.

Great music from John Williams this outing. Excellent, entirely unexciting special effects. The battle scenes are similarly competent but uninspired; despite all his dawdling and dwelling, Johnson’s hasty with his action direction. Steve Yedlin’s photography is crisp but somehow bland. Editor Bob Ducsay and Johnson try to maintain the original trilogy’s wipes but without looking as dated. It’s not successful. The scenes are all a little too long, even if it’s by a few frames. Johnson is anti-brevity.

Making it’s even worse he shafts the entire cast on character arcs. The movie’s two and a half hours long. There ought to be more than enough time for the seven principal characters….

At least The Last Jedi isn’t a vanity project, though maybe it’d be better if it were. It’d mean Johnson had some personality. And he doesn’t.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rian Johnson; screenplay by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Steve Yedlin; edited by Bob Ducsay; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Mark Hamill (Luke), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Laura Dern (Holdo), Andy Serkis (Snoke), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), and Benicio Del Toro (DJ).


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).


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).


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