Tag Archives: movie reviews

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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Molly’s Game and the subjective interpretation of movies

Everyone once in a while, I am reminded of how subjective our interpretations of movies can be. I recently reviewed Molly’s Game, a biopic of “Hollywood Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (see also here). I really enjoyed the movie. I thought Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay was snappy and engaging, Jessica Chastain well cast in the title  role, and the directing was inspired.

My interpretation, however, is not universal. A friend saw the movie separately, but on the same weekend, and said:

“The movie was superficial for a mob movie with an angle from the parental psychologist character [Kevin Costner playing Larry Bloom, Molly’s father]. Molly’s Game lacked the cerebral subduction and emotional entrapment of mob interfacing movies like the Godfather, Sopranos, or Casino. Especially disappointing when so much of the subject matter revolved around world-class poker. The Molly’s Game script and movie’s execution went for low-hanging emotional fruit found in label dropping visuals, IQ scores, and quick successional facts and statistics about the institution of poker. The high point for me was when the author plugged poker as skill-based as opposed to roulette. I felt the author was disingenuous as well as the “moral” of the story… good guys finish 1st… or slick stories sell movie tickets. “

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Movie Review: A United Kingdom

I take an in-depth look at the very well acted British film A United Kingdom in my most recent movie review at the Independent Institute.  The story highlights the romance and marriage between Sir Seretse Kama III, the heir to the throne of what would become Botswana, to Ruth Williams, an English white, working class woman in 1948.

The marriage touched off an international firestorm in colonial Bechuanaland (now Botswana) as well as in the United Kingdom, and ultimately resulted in their exile. The movie features fine performances by David Oyelowo (SelmaThe Butler) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another DayGone GirlPride & Prejudice).

The story is a powerful tale of love and international intrigue firmly based in real-world events. Director Amma Asanta does a fine turn for the story by depicting a layered understanding of how race and racism played into the politics of post-War colonialism as well as African desires for independence.

Critics have given a thumbs up to the movie although I think it falters a bit. It simply tries to do too much. Ruth Williams Kama was a force in her own right, and she doesn’t get her full due in A United Kingdom. She deserves her own cinematic treatment as a European facing the struggles of living in a hostile culture and climate while trying to gain acceptance within the traditions of her husband’s tribe.

The Kama’s story would also be worthy of a sequel to A United Kingdom. Plenty of drama can be found in Seretse Kama’s fight for an independent Bechuanaland, which became a reality in 1966 with the founding of Botswana.

My complete review can be found here.

A commentary linking the economic success of Botswana to Seretse (and Ruth) Kama’s political and economic liberalism can be found in the Tallahassee Democrat or here.

 

 

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Review: Logan shows superhero action movies can also have soul

My movie review of Logan is up at the Independent Institute! This is a film that shows superhero action movies can have soul, with complex characters and a meaningful plot.

I really enjoyed this film, although it earns its R rating. Logan follows the final days of Wolverine as he rediscover’s his humanity while trying to save a new crop of young mutants. I write, in part,

The violence may seem gratuitous to some viewers, but mostly it serves the purpose of the story. James “Logan” Howlett is the mutant Wolverine of Marvel Comics fame, and his personality is volatile and emotional. He also has a conscience. These dimensions—including the guilt that comes with the curse of having steel claws that decapitate, impale, and slash his attackers—are portrayed well by Hugh Jackman (his ninth movie performance as Wolverine). Logan’s mutant powers are used defensively, not offensively. The violence is not portrayed as honorable or noble, and this becomes an integral part of a very thoughtful film.

I don’t mention in the Independent Institute review the strong pro-family theme. This is a bit of an oversight although I was trying to keep the review focused. Logan is caring for the dying Charles Xavier, a.k.a., Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and the relationship is very much father-son. Charles pushes Logan to connect with Laura, although Logan resists the responsibility that comes with the paternal relationship it implies.

Dafne Keen, who plays the eleven year old mutant Laura Kinney, cloned from Logan’s DNA, is impressive, and one of the primary reasons I enjoyed the film. Her character is brooding and intense, but her transformation into a more human and complete person is astounding for such a young actress in her first major role in a high-profile film.

Check out the full review here.

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What “The Equalizer” film told me about character development

I often gauge a movie’s value by whether it stimulates my thinking as a writer and storyteller.  The Equalizer, the action film starring Denzel Washington, provided a welcome and unexpected opportunity to explore this. I’m a fan of the action/adventure genre anyway–all four of my novels fall into this genre, most recently St. Nic, Inc.–but I’ve become somewhat jaded by recent superhero (e.g., Superman, Wolverine, Lucy), super monster (e.g., Godzilla), and martial-arts action films (e.g., Ninja Assassin, 47 Ronin), that showcase special effects and gore over storytelling and character development. This is not the case with “The Equalizer.” Indeed, I saw just the opposite on the silver screen.

This movie, unlike other blockbusters, folds character development into the plot and at least tries to strike a balance between the two. (This is good because the plot–hero avenges injustice–is a bit tired.) But, for me, this film stood out for three reasons:

  1. The production values were very high. Sweeping vistas of Boston (one of my favorite cities), artistic camera work focused on characters and action, and the attention to the human aesthetic of the plot were top notch. This wasn’t all computer animated action. Time was spent to frame shots creatively and in ways that help tell the story. In fact, the opening sequence of shots itself does a fine job of providing important initial backstory to the lead character as an unassuming loner.
  2. Denzel Washington. Need I say more? Well, yes. A lesser actor would have made the lead character–Robert McCall–two dimensional and predictable. Even though we know how the movie will end, the character evolves at key points, and empathy is established early. Given the graphic gore level in the film, this is critical for keeping a good story flowing; we (as viewers) cannot be overwhelmed with the blood and mayhem or we lose site of the story.
  3. The producers and director. They didn’t let the genre or familiar cinematic tropes swamp character development and story structure to create suspense. They also made sure they didn’t waste the talents of Mr. Washington. While I still believe the gore was a bit too much, the bloody mayhem is important to understand McCall’s evolution as a character and how, in the end, he retains his humanity. The deaths of the bad guys have meaning, even if the gore seems gratuitous as times. We see how McCall’s own past changes the way he relates to the people he must eventually dispatch in pursuit of a higher good. This isn’t just a revenge flick, a familiar trope for these types of movies.

At the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to go back to Boston, one of my favorite cities, despite the blood and mayhem.

In the end, the producers and director recognized how the visually oriented medium of film could be used to convey character development. Audiences are brought into the story through character and then the plot is paced well enough to keep us involved.

Thus, “The Equalizer” is a rare example of a film that allowed me to think about my own approach to interweaving character development with plot can enrich the story and keep the pace moving quickly.

I think I see a new, distinctly American franchise in the future. We need a working class hero, with working class methods, a haunting and exotic past, and the maturity of someone who has seen and reflected on the world. Now, if Denzel just used more Akido, Judo and ninjutsu (or To-Shin Do), we’d also see why age isn’t as important in neutralizing threats as many people may think.

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