Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017 at 10:28 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I don’t think I need much from a movie in this genre. Mostly, it just needs to be fun. Some great visual effects, frequent and creative action sequences, and humor are really probably all I need. It’s an added bonus if there is a great story arc and compelling, multilayered characters. In DC’s newest superhero movie, and the first ever with a female lead, we get a lot of the first three things on my list but not much of the second two. Humor has mostly eluded DC until now. Their cadre of films (The “Dark Knight” series, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Watchmen”) have all been pretty grim affairs. Fortunately, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, they seem to have finally found their sense of humor. Jenkins, who has only directed one other feature film (2003’s brilliant “Monster”), knows how to develop strong female leads, as she did in that film and on the tv series “The Killing.” Here, she uses Gal Gadot to great effect, giving us strong doses of her emotional strength, physical strength and compassion. This film works largely because she works so well in the role. There is nothing campy or silly about this Wonder Woman, which then gives space for humor that feels more like laughing with, rather than laughing at, the characters. Jenkins’s visuals were also dazzling. I loved the choreography of her fight scenes and the way she continually slowed down the camera so that we could watch what was happening. Some might find that technique affected, especially with how frequently she used it, but I loved it. Far too often in CGI films, action happens too quickly for the audience to track it. Here, we were able to see all of the great dexterity and grace that Gadot and Jenkins instilled into this character’s fighting abilities. I found myself smiling over and over again at the creativity and fun of those scenes. More and more often, comic book films are able to look like the actual comic book panels that inspired them. The 12-year-old boy in me loves that. What I did not love quite as much was the silly gods-heavy plot line, which effectively minimized the travesty of war by laying the blame conveniently not at our feet. It also set up the very corny, saccharine ending that made me groan out loud at one point (actually, I think I said, “Oh, come on! Really?”). Fortunately, the worst of it comes in the last five or so minutes of an otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly fun adventure. I hope this film brings us a great deal more of all three of these women: Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins and, of course, Wonder Woman.

 

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Hell or High Water

August 21, 2016 at 5:26 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Let me start with a scene. Let me start with the very first scene, in fact. I want to describe the first 30 seconds of this movie as an indication of what’s in store. We see a car pull into an empty lot. A woman gets out (she has a hand brace, which is irrelevant to the film but is one of the nice small touches we find throughout). She starts walking and the camera pans away from her in a slow arc, past graffiti about being an Iraq war vet who can’t get any support. It pans through a dusty driveway as a beat up Trans Am drives past. It rests on the woman again, on the other side of the parking lot, under a Texas bank sign. She then walks toward the front entrance. There is a church in the background whose crosses are framed by the bank drive-through. It’s a simple few seconds that pass in silence but set the stage for everything that is about to unfold. Without any exposition, the audience knows we are in a rural, poor white Texas community and that this is a film about those folks. In fact, this film tells its story masterfully with almost no exposition at all (with the exception of a brief conversation between two sheriffs sitting on a porch waiting for a robbery. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves). We are lead through images and bits of dialogue to understand who these people are. And what we get is a taut and desperate thrill ride through dangerous country. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers up to no good and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are the men trying to stop them. In some ways, this is a paint-by-numbers cops and robbers movie but there is always more under the surface. Each of these four characters (and many of the background ones) are fully realized and utterly believable. They are all angry, in fact everyone in this film is angry, but they just find themselves on different sides of the problem. The script by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote “Sicario”) has no wasted space; everything moves quickly and for a reason. And director David Mackenzie, who I did not know at all, constructs scenes beautifully, knowing just how to tell a story with images. He also builds tension beautifully (as in a great scene, where a slow to turn-over ignition had my entire audience gasp). But it is the four fantastic leads that give this film its weight. This is a story about America’s rotting underbelly. We are a nation of glass castles built on a collapsing working class. Over 40 years, working class and poor Whites have been ignored politically, culturally and economically. This film gives small voice to some of that desperation. And, frankly, we need more like it.

Star Trek Beyond

July 23, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

For those of you familiar with the Star Trek canon, this film will be exactly what you expect it to be, for better and for worse. Though widely more popular than the last one (“Into Darkness”), I liked it less. Perhaps, I am experiencing sequel fatigue, but I recall having the same reaction to the latest James Bond film after really loving the previous one. I think I am just craving something new and I didn’t really find it here. Much has been said about director Justin Lin (the ” The Fast & The Furious” series) and his style and it was noticeable here in the pacing, which was faster and more unrelenting than previous Trek films. For me, that fast pace is entertaining but led to little plot development; the film was a series of rapidly presented problems that were almost as rapidly resolved. However, what I was most aware of was how this story line seemed like best-of clips from so many Star Trek films before it. We have the one maniacal leader who has an irrational/poorly justified hatred of The Federation (or Jim Kirk, in particular) and who is somehow capable of getting others to mindlessly die for his cause. Inevitably, after the rest of his group is defeated, he ends up mano-y-mano against Kirk (or, as in the last movie, against Spock). Throw in a good henchman, wisecracking banter and maybe crash the Enterprise into a planet while you are at it, and you pretty much have the components of most of the films (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “The Voyage Home” being the two notable exceptions). If they want to stick to the formula, fair enough. But, if you are not going to engage me with a plot that surprises me, give me more depth. Slow the film down. Have less unrelenting action and more opportunity to get to know the characters (and introducing Sulu’s husband doesn’t really count as getting to know the characters) and to create tension. I can’t help but think of the great “Wrath of Khan” and the final battle scene in the nebula. The film had invested in all of those characters enough that there was real tension in that scene and, because it unfolded so slowly, that tension really built.  It’s true that they had an advantage because Khan was an established character but Trek has the Klingons or the Borg or many others they can draw on. “Wrath” was a very slow paced film by this today’s standards but the pacing allowed me to invest in the action in a way this film never did. This one was like a roller coaster. I just hung on and then it was done. I mean, I enjoyed the ride but it’ll never stay with me. That nebula scene still does, even 35 years later.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

March 27, 2016 at 10:21 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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As far as I can recall, never has a genre dominated the box office nearly so much as superheroes have over the past decade. Not even Sci-Fi or vampires have been asked to do so much of the heavy lifting of annual revenues. One cannot help but wonder when the fever will break. Well, it seems unlikely to any time soon, given that this film is, once again, breaking records; it has the highest earnings of all time for an Easter weekend, with a haul of over $170M. Not bad. Particularly for a movie that is, well, not good. Critics have bashed the self-serious tone but I think it’s disingenuous to be critical of that here, while loving Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series. In fact, dark and serious is what DC does. Look at their last “Superman” film, or the TV series “Gotham” and “Arrow.” Unlike Marvel, who has tended to embrace cartoonishness and humor, DC has chosen “gritty” and “real” as their interpretation of classic characters. So, the somber pensive mood of this film did not bother me. In fact, I find the idea of idol worship and it’s backlash to be a fascinating one to explore within the context of superheroes. I think the real shame of this film is how shallowly it was explored. The plot was a jumbled mess made up of two classic DC stories (“Batman vs Superman” and the “Doomsday” storyline, which I will leave cryptic, so as not to ruin it.) and set-ups for upcoming films; we are treated to micro-cameos of the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, Darkseid’s minions, and Wonder Woman’s Steve Trevor. Blockbuster films have been particularly guilty recently of being less a stand-alone film then a set up for the franchise (e.g. “The Force Awakens”) but I can forgive that, if it doesn’t befuddle the plot. Here, they all felt like pointless add-ons in an already overstuffed film. In particular, a long Bruce Wayne dream sequence was nonsensical within the context of this plot. In fact, both he and Clark Kent had far too many dreams/visions/whatever the hell they were. They added nothing to an already overly long story. If director Sack Snyder (“300,” “Man of Steel,” “Watchmen”), or whoever else made the decisions, had just focused on one thing, we might have had a good film. A complex exploration of the central themes and the underlying motives of the characters would have been compelling and given much more weight to the two heroes’ battle. As it was, the title battle was so rushed that it was anti-climactic; I never quite believed what got them fighting to begin with and I laughed at what finally made them stop (you’re ready to kill this guy until you find out his mother shares the same name as yours? Really?). So much could have been done to pare this 2½ hour behemoth down to a reasonable size. They didn’t need to tease those other films; people are going to see them anyway. And they could have saved the “Doomsday” plot line for another movie, rather than for the last 30 minutes of this one. Snyder has an eye for mood and the visuals in this film were often stunning. His Batman moves more fluidly in action scenes than any previous incarnation. It was actually fun watching this Batman fight, as he looked more like the comic version than I have seen before. Also, with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Snyder may have found the first really arresting female superhero. DC certainly has faith in him; he’s involved in virtually everything coming up for them: Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Justice League and Suicide Squad. His tendency seems to be form over substance (think “300”) but, when given provocative material (“Watchman”) and a tight reign, he’s at the top of the game. Here, clearly, nobody was reigning anyone in. I’ll be curious to compare this to “Captain America: Civil War,” which is due out in a few weeks. The premise is very similar: classic heroes turn against each other after a concerned government wants to regulate them. Some feel they can self-police and others feel they should force compliance. It’s an evocative idea. I wonder if Marvel can do a better job of it.

Star Trek Into Darkness

May 20, 2013 at 11:46 am | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Within the pantheon of Trek movies (there have been an even dozen now), this definitely ranks up there with the best.  It is not as good as “The Wrath of Khan” or “First Contact” but is solidly third on the list.  This one involves the newly minted Captain Kirk, still cocky having never lost a single crew member, learning a thing or two about humility when facing off against the mysterious John Harrison.  Along the way there will be plenty of explosions (and dead crew members) and a healthy dose of the banter and quips that audiences love. The film’s action moves at a blinding pace.  In fact, I confess that I often prefer the slower, more tense and more psychological pace of a film like “Wrath.”  However, the film did not suffer from that awful CGI overload that some films have (eg Transformers)  that make it impossible to follow the action.  There is little I can say about the plot without giving away key plot points and surprises.  What I will say is that it was action-packed, visually interesting and funny.  The acting was par for a film like this, though (as everyone is saying) the breakout star here is Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s “Sherlock,” “Tinker Taylor Solider Spy”) as Harrison.  He brings a cool, intellectual creepiness to the role that is just right. This film is darker (both in theme and in production) than the last one and, while it was appropriate, I missed some of the bright colors and lighting of  “Star Trek,” which helped differentiate it from all the other films in the franchise.  This movie also felt a bit like a set up for every other film going forward.  The first one (of JJ Abrams’ series) changed the timeline and announced a new Trek universe to explore.  This one appeared to try and check off all the highlights from the original universe in rather rapid order (here’s a Klingon, there’s a tribble, that was a reference to the classic Trek episode, “Mudd’s Women,” was that shuttle craft named “Takei?”, oh, THAT Carol Marcus, I think they just mentioned Nurse Chapel, and on).  It felt like Abrams felt the need to wrap up the old universe to move on with the new.  The movie ends with the crew starting it’s fabled 5 year mission.  Much has been made of Abrams jumping ship to the Star Wars franchise.  I say, “good” (god knows, they need him) and he has left this one on pretty firm ground.

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