Category Archives: Films

Captain Marvel‘s fast pace stumbles on storytelling

Captain Marvel has emerged as the first true blockbuster of 2019, bursting out of the gate by earning $153 million during its first weekend. Audiences love the movie even though my own review was a bit more tepid.

While Captain Marvel is a very good action film, like several other critics, I thought the story didn’t hold together very well. Some reviewers believed a large part of the blame (from a film quality perspective) was in miscasting Brie Larson in the title role. I actually have a different take. I think the problem with the movie was in the story structure, which complicated the role of the actor and movie editing.

What I mean by story “structure” is the way the story unfolds, both in terms of plot and character development. While I won’t go into this in a lot of detail, movies have very rigid “rules” for developing screenplays and telling stories. Unlike novels, which can take their own course, screenplays have to fit into a highly structure two hour visual storytelling frame. The classic screenplay outline encompasses three acts. The first act gives us background of the character and the “normal” world where they are not faced with conflicts. This includes the inciting incident, that point that propels the character on their journey. The second act has the lead character(s) fumbling about until they realize they need to do something different (or die, often times literally). They will experiment with different strategies and tactics, but they are grounded in their “normal world” even though they are no longer living and acting the normal world. All this builds to a clamactic scene where the lead character overcomes their primary obstacle (or villain). The third act wraps everything up. The actual markers delineating the first, second, and third acts are not formulaic; They change with the character, plot, environment, and action.

Over the first and second acts, we (readers/audience) get to know the characters. We understand their world, their basic coping strategies, and the kinds of challenges that face on regular basis. We usually bond with the protagonist and identify the villain (or who we think is or will be the villain), so we have some sense of how the story will play out. This grounds us (the reader or viewer) in the personality and challenges we expect the character to face. (For more on this, see the classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field and Robert McKee, as well as Michael Tabb’s useful recent addition.)

Most stories are also paths on the so-called “hero’s journey.” They are on a quest for some higher purpose, and to achieve that objective they will face an almost insurmountable obstacle. The obstacle is “almost” insurmountable because if our protagonist doesn’t overcome it the ending is a downer. Most people like to see the protagonist win, even if they have deep flaws.

Which brings me to Captain Marvel….

We (the audience) are introduced to her through dreams, where we think she is human, but later realize she a member of the Kree civilization name Vers (pronounced Veers). Outside the dream, she is spunky, hot headed, and strong willed. In the dream, she has experienced a trauma and is confused and dazed. Which is the real Veers? Is it a dream? Or a memory? I don’t know, and without really understanding her starting point, I was confused. Moreover, we find out that the dreams themselves are connected to some vague Supreme Intelligence. So, they might be memories. Eventually, these two conflicting views of Vers are brought together, and its logical and makes sense. In the beginning, however, I (and surely other viewers) had to dismiss “one” of the Veers because her approach to situations was so diametrically opposed to each other. In the process, I was taken out of the story, and ended up focusing on the action, not the character. As a novelist who writes character driven action adventures, I was disappointed and unsatisfied.

From a artistic point of view, I think these dueling perceptions of the motivations and behavior of Vers unmoored her character in the story, making it difficult for readers and viewers to connect to her. Brie Larson clearly had a vision for her character, and how she would play it. The vision makes sense given the arc of the overall story. But as a viewer (reader if it’s a book), I couldn’t relate to her. I didn’t understand Vers’ motivations. Without understanding her motivations, I was unable to determine what her true challenge was, let alone evaluate the gravity of the obstacles she would face.

These confusions may have been the intent of the screenwriters and directors–there were multiple in both roles–a storytelling trick to keep us hooked. If this is the case, based on the criticisms of the film and Brie Larson’s performance coming from many different quarters of the critic community, I think they were too clever by half.

Personally, I saw a lot to like in Larson’s performance. If I had been more invested in her character and understand better how to interpret her behavior as she embarks, as most superheros do, on their journey toward self-discovery, I would have been all in from the beginning.

For the record, I really like the Captain Marvel character and think it’s long overdue for a female lead character to headline a Marvel movie. I am looking forward to seeing Brie Larson reprise her role in future films.

For those interested in movies with strong female characters, here are links to my reviews of Wonder Woman, a movie that I think gets everything just about right,

More of my writing on storytelling from this blog can be found here.


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And the Oscar goes to….

I’ve provided links to my reviews of the 2018 movies nominated for the 91st Academy Awards in the most widely recognized major awards categories. Winners are in bold italics.

I’ve focused on the categories where I was able to review most of the nominated movies. I will also update this blog post with the winners after the show.

Best Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Best Director
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma
Adam McKay, “Vice

Lead Actor
Christian Bale, “Vice
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book

Lead Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma
Glenn Close, “The Wife
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite
Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Sam Rockwell, “Vice

Support Actress
Amy Adams, “Vice
Marina de Tavira, “Roma
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, “The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman,” Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born,” Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite,” Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader
Green Book,” Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
Vice,” Adam McKay

Cinematography
“Cold War,” Lukasz Zal
The Favourite,” Robbie Ryan
“Never Look Away,” Caleb Deschanel
Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born,” Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman,” Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman
Green Book,” Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite,” Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice,” Hank Corwin

Sound Editing
Black Panther,” Benjamin A. Burtt, Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Warhurst
“First Man,” Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou Morgan
“A Quiet Place,” Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl
Roma,” Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
“Christopher Robin”
“First Man”
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Roma shines with a little help from Mexican history

At first blush, Roma is the kind of movie critics and industry types love. Most American filmmakers can probably tick off with ease the reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s film is destined to become an industry classic. The cinematography is fantastic, the frame-by-frame attention to detail is stunning, the director’s decision to film in black and white was bold, the existential approach to telling the story (using the point of view of a young domestic servant’s life — Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparacio — as a live-in maid and nanny to a upper middle class family in Mexico City) evokes empathy and reflection. The fact that Cleo is also of indigenous ethnic origin, and apparently Aparicio is the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, is icing on the cake.

For (American) audiences, however, here’s the rub: The movie is slow moving, appears to meander, and borders on boring. The film has very little action, and even less plot. Roma appears to be about the characters and their arc over the course of the film.

Not surprisingly, critics are heaping praise while audiences are less enthusiastic. At Rotten Tomatoes, 96% of critics rate Roma fresh while audiences are less enamored, with just 73% giving it similar ratings. If audiences had more backstory, their appreciation for the movie might improve. A little Mexican political and economic history, almost all of it ignored by most American reviews (which describes it as a semi-autobiographical film) helps us understand why Roma is, in fact, much more.

Roma is more than an art movie.

Set in 1970 and 1971, the movie takes place ten years after the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) started Mexico’s “Dirty War”. The government repressed leftist organizations, students, and anti-PRI political opponents as it used increasingly authoritarian tactics to maintain control. The tactics were violent, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries as the PRI become more authoritarian. Most notable for Roma’s story may the Corpus Christ massacre in June 1971, which becomes a critical plot point.

This background is actually fundamental to understanding the movie. I could see more clearly the human drama unfolding in the scenes. Cleo’s passive role (and understated acting) in the family, despite her central role as its anchor, is more fully understood. The relationship between Cleo, her host family, and her co-workers reflect the socioeconomic (and political) tensions of the time. Cleo is from a poor, indigenous village, but she works in Mexico City for a well-educated professional family. The father is a medical researcher and doctor, and the mother is a biochemist. Cleo’s role at the center of the family dynamics is put in stark contrast to her impoverished, less sophisticated and uneducated background. At the same time, we see the importance of Cleo supporting her own family through her work in the city.

Meanwhile, wealthy land owners (and relatives to Cleo’s host family) are working with, or at least complicit in, the government’s land expropriation policies directed at poor indigenous villagers and small farmers. The conflicts and tensions between rural and urban ways of life play out in important ways as the middle-class family dynamics deteriorate and Cleo is faced with a traumatic choice that will alter the future of her life and relationship to her host family. Several scenes specifically draw on the repression and chaos surrounding the events of the Dirty War, and how government policy played out in class tensions, inequities in political power, and the fragile nature of property rights in Mexico. Understanding this, Cuaron’s imagery is even more salient and crucial to the film.

I will not be surprised if Roma takes several major awards during Oscar night, including Best Picture and Best Director, most of them well-earned. While the inspiration for Cleo is in fact drawn on Cuaron’s family and his life growing up in the Colonial Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, and he no doubt drew extensively on his personal experiences growing up in the neighborhood, the film is a very subtle and sophisticated use of visual storytelling to engage in social commentary. I just needed to know more about Mexico’s political history to really appreciate full breadth of what Cuaron accomplished on the screen.

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Set It Up‘s light touch is a worthy diversion into romantic comedy

Set It Up‘s (2018) light touch uses a surprisingly snappy comic script and on-screen chemistry among the movie’s leads to offer up an entertaining diversion when viewers need a break from the rat race. The movie never takes itself too seriously, and dabbles just long enough in its characters for viewers to buy into their stories and care about what happens to them as they romp through New York City and discover what really matters.

The movie’s plot is about as transparent as it gets in romantic comedies: Two executive assistants—Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell)—are run into the ground by their narcissistic bosses. Charlie’s boss is Rick (Taye Diggs), a venture capitalist while Harper is forced to content with marquee sports reporter Kirsten (Lucy Liu). Harper is an aspiring sports writer who hopes Kirsten will recognize her talent and give her a shot at an article. Charlie is a buttoned up aspiring investment analyst who Charlie hopes will promote him to a better paying job in his VC firm.

When Harper and Charlie happen to run into each other while trying to fulfill their boss’s mercurial and piqayune tastes for last-minute, take out dinner, they hatch a desperate gambit to create some personal space.
Harper and Charlie figure if they can connect their bosses romantically, they will spend more time with each other than harassing and assistants. Harper convinces Charlie to concoct and implement a plot to hook the power brokers up.

Set It Up‘s plot is incredibly transparent, but Deutch gives the character of Harper just enough quirkiness to keep the banter moving. Charlies is largely along for the ride, but he grows with Harper even as he is challenged to his ethical core as their plans begin to unravel. The two never quite become full partners, but Charlie does serve as just a convenient foil and plot device. He comes into his own, restoring some important balance to Harper’s cleverness, energy, and eagerness to drive a solution home.

Of course, Harper and Charlie’s issue are not just their repressive work environments. Their own insecurities are holding them back as well, and the evolution of these assistants into more mature workers with a purpose allows Set It Up to rise a tier or two above less memorable movies. For writers, Harper’s realization that she needs to simply write, even if her writing is bad, will resonate as an all too true epiphany that that separates the wannabes from the actual writers. (Yes, most writers have their first manuscript burrowed away in a desk drawer, never to see the light of day for good reason.)

While not the best movie of 2018, Set It Up is an entertaining diversion worth streaming when you a comfort movie with a few laughs is just what you need to get through a tough day or period at work.

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Hotel Artemis Struggles at Check In

Hotel Artemis seems to have everything it needs to be a successful film but manages to fall flat anyway. Why is a bit of a mystery. The movie has a strong cast, and the characters should have enough back story to create compelling arcs that drive the movie’s momentum.

The slapdash backstory doesn’t help. The movie is set in riot-torn Los Angeles in 2018. Water has been shut off by the private contractor in charge of the water supply, although the reason is never explained. Gangs seem to run unchecked. Riot police patrol the streets keeping the mobs at bay. The city has imposed a curfew to quell the violence.  The city utility cuts off electricity at seeming random points. This dystopian activity is supposed to provide a setting that creates tension and conflict. It doesn’t in part because the story’s internal logic is never quite explained. Continue reading

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Movie Review: Fine acting can’t lift Ocean’s Eight above a predictable plot

Source: IMPawards.com

Ocean’s Eight is the newest addition to the Ocean’s “heist film” series rebooted by Ocean’s Eleven in 2001. Ocean’s Eight focuses on an all-female heist crew, so it represents a somewhat revisioning of the franchise. The film also includes a bevvy of good actors. Unfortunately fine acting can’t lift Ocean’s Eight over what is a very predictable plot.

This is unfortunate. The movie as a whole is tightly written, the dialogue well written, and the characters well drawn. Few holes are left unfilled, so the story ties together well. The cinematography is visually excellent, and the setting–The Met museum in New York City–is elegant and appropriate for a big heist. The problem with the movie is its lack of suspense. Audiences will enjoy the ride, but they won’t be on the edge of their seat.

In Ocean’s EightDebbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side, Gravity, Speed), the sister of series protagonist Danny Ocean, takes the lead and assembles an all female team with the help of biker girlfriend Lou (Cate Blanchett, Blue JasmineCarolLord of the Rings trilogy).  Their relationship hints at being romantic, but unfolds more as deep intimacy. The romance never quite makes it onto the screen. Debbie, for example, is directed to her own room by Lou’s in her sprawling renovated warehouse apartment. Continue reading

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Review: Solo entertains but doesn’t break ground in Star Wars Universe

Solo: A Star Wars Story opened to less than enthusiastic audiences, but the numbers are likely to improve the longer the movie spends in commercial theaters. Director Ron Howard really shows his craftsmanship in putting the film together, making Solo a fun ride as a sci-fi action adventure. My full review with complete links can be found over at the Independent Institute’s blog here.

The movie was billed as an “origin” story for the iconic space pirate Han Solo from the original trilogy. Solo, however, is best viewed in a more conventional light rather than an integrated part of the Star Wars canon. Viewers don’t really get a lot of new information about the real origins of the character, and Solo is just not bitter enough at the end of this one to believe he is the cold-stoned smuggler he plays in A New Hope (Episode IV). Moreover, Harrison Ford owns the character.

Nevertheless, Alden Ehrenreich settles into the role well. The plot, which is grounded in his star-crossed love for Qi’ra is believable thanks to great acting by Emilia Clark of Game of Thrones fame. Audiences will empathize with most of the characters because the story gives each a soul. They just can’t be true to themselves because of the dark world in which they are forced survive. Continue reading

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Review: Avengers: Infinity War‘s dull plot doesn’t stop Marvel’s romp across the universe

The biggest issue with Avengers: Infinity War is its failure to resolve plot conflict. And the plot is pretty thin: The evil Thanos is on a quest to obtain six “infinity stones” that will allow him to rule the universe. It’s up to the Avengers–dozens of the them–to stop him. And they don’t, as one would expect in the first installment of a two movie series (and hopefully story arc). My full-length review is live over at the Independent Institute’s blog where I go into the nature of the conflict in much more depth. Essentially, Infinity War several hours of showing Avengers of various abilities can’t overcome Thanos and his super human and technology-advantaged thugs. (This also creates some pretty significant plot holes.)

Despite this flat story line, Infinity War is both surprisingly entertaining and fast paced. The action starts early and builds throughout the film. The special effects are stunning. And audiences can keep most of the superheroes straight even if they don’t self-identify as Marvel fans. As I write in my longer review, the screenwriters and directors have done a surprisingly good job of weaving together personalities, travel between galaxies, and story arcs from previous movies to create a very strong film.  Continue reading

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Review: Tomb Raider fails to live up to Vikendar’s strong performance

The 2018 reboot of the Tomb Raider film franchise is a serviceable action film with an occasional flash of Indiana Jones inspired adventure, but falls short of the tight, well paced sequencing that made the Spielberg predecessors classics. This is unfortunate because Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, Jason Bourne) turns in a worthy performance as a rising action hero in the role of Lara Croft. The movie is a reboot of the 2001 and 2003 films that launched Angelina Jolie into the A-list of bankable movie stars.

In this version, the twenty something Croft is making her way in the rough edges of central London as a bicycle courier and training, unsuccessfully, in a kickboxing gym. Several years earlier, her archaeologist and businessman father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic WestJohn Carter, Money Monster, The Square) disappeared on a quest to find the tomb of Himiko, the mythical Japanese Queen of Yamatai, who possessed dark powers to kill. When Lara is coaxed back to executive suite of Croft Holdings to sign legal papers declaring him dead, she discovers a message in a hidden research room of their family mansion instructing her to destroy his work in order to keep it out of the hands of the shadowy organization Trinity. Instead, Lara uses her father’s research to launch her search for him. Continue reading

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Review: Del Toro delivers a tour de force with The Shape of Water

Source: International Movie Poster Awards, www.impawards.com

Guillermo del Toro delivers a tour de force with The Shape of Water, a film that is part fairy tale, part romance, and part social commentary. If the trailers hint at inspiration from the 1950s cult classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, that’s because there was. But the movie is modern in virtually every aspect of del Toro’s storytelling, direction, visualization, screenplay, and setting.

Set in the midst of the Cold War in 1962, an amphibious gilled-humanoid (Doug Jones, Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labrynth) is discovered, trapped, and brought back to a secret scientific facility in Baltimore, Maryland. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, 99 Homes, Nocturnal Animals, 8 Mile) is the lead on a military team studying the creature and part of the so-called Space Race. (The U.S. effort to catch up to the Soviet Union in orbital and space technology.) Strickland’s methods are harsh and brutal, usually administered using an electrified nightstick (although the purposes of the experiments and role of the electronic prod are not clear). Strickland’s tactics disturb Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, The Post, Call Me By My Name, Dr. Strange), a scientist on the team who believes the creature is intelligent and capable of communication. Continue reading

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