Wonder Woman

It’s kind of expected, when reviewing a film that’s part of a cinematic universe, that you place it in that context, and review it as such. Fine. I’ll bow to convention.

Wonder Woman is the second best film in the DCEU. There. I said it. I like Man of Steel better. But only by a little. WW is excellent film-making. Way better than Batman vs Superman or Suicide Squad. The story of Diana of Themyscira, a princess who dreams of being a warrior, only to become, you know, a warrior, is lots of fun. The World War I setting is enjoyably different. (My experience with Wonder Woman pretty much began and ended with Lynda Carter’s portrayal, which put her in World War II.) I like Gal Gadot as the title character, and Chris Pine is perfect as Steve Trevor, her tour guide to the world outside her “paradise island”. My favorite aspect is how her quest to stop Ares (the god of war, natch) is treated as possibly a fantasy of her own making until the very end of the film.

But it’s not a perfect film. The ending was a little doofy. I don’t want to spoil it, but the way they handle the resolution of Diana and Steve’s romance didn’t feel earned.

However, my biggest problem with the film is that it was better when it was called Captain America: The First Avenger. Think I’m nuts? Let’s take a look… (Spoilers. You are warned.)

A young wannabe warrior is given a chance by a mentor figure (against the advice of their superior). The young warrior exceeds expectations, but still has to watch their mentor die. The warrior develops a flirtatious, but ultimately unrequited romance with another military figure who is much more experienced in war, and in the ways of love. (Our main character is probably a virgin, though the film is vague on that point.) The two central characters put together a ragtag group of mifits to go deep into enemy territory and stop a crazy German (who has been chemically enhanced to be super strong) and his scientist underling. These baddies have a plan that will turn the tide of the war. The only way to stop the madness is for the lead guy to sacrifice himself in a plane. Cut to present day, where the main character still pines for their lost love.

I’m convinced the only reason they set the film in the First World War was that the parallels would have been too obvious otherwise.

Anyway. all that said, I still think it’s a good movie.

Advertisements

Jason Bourne

I apologize for being so behind in the reviews. Perhaps no one will care about this one anymore, but I like to fill in the gaps in my reviews from time to time.

I am an unapologetic fan of the first three Bourne films. The Bourne Identity was a revelation. The hero of an action film didn’t have to look like the hero of an action film. And Matt Damon didn’t. But it worked, largely because he didn’t know who he was. He was as surprised as we were every time he did something cool. It took place entirely in Europe. It felt like cinema verite, with the hand held camera work, and the stoic, quiet lead. And that music. All things told, I feel like The Bourne Identity was the most influential film (at least in the buzzy, blockbuster parts of cinema) of that decade.

Then The Bourne Supremacy one-upped everything. The action was better, the story was better, the acting was better. Everything about that film is pretty much perfect. Is there a car chase in any movie better than that one in Moscow at the end of the movie? No. There is not.

I liked The Bourne Ultimatum too. It didn’t have the whiz-bang originality of the first (of course) or the seamlessness of the second, but it has its own charms, not least of which the delightfully clever way they interweave the story of this film with what was really just a throwaway scene at the end of the previous.

I heard Matt Damon, after the third film, asked if he saw there being a fourth movie. His response: “They’d have to call it The Bourne Redundancy.” Well, you shouldn’t have spoken so soon, buddy. Apparently there is enough money to get Paul Greengrass (the director of Supremacy and Ultimatum) and Damon back onto the set for the simply titled Jason Bourne.

Is this film a step down in quality. Yes. Just a bit. Just the tiniest bit. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The action is solid. The story is interesting. I liked Tommy Lee Jones taking the role of the government goon who’s just indiscriminately evil. (A position filled by David Strathairn, Brian Cox and Chris Cooper in previous installments.) I appreciated the return of Julia Stiles as Nicky, a constant presence in the films. But the MVP of this film (apart from the always engaging Damon) is Alicia Vikander. I watched the movie, and I still don’t know if she was evil, or if she was really on Bourne’s side. If someone tries to greenlight a fifth film, I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t figure prominently.

I guess this could be considered something like nostalgia porn, but I can’t say I wasn’t on board.

Baby Driver

From Edgar Wright (the guy who directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, At World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) comes a film that’s like the illegitimate child of Pulp Fiction and La La Land. Maybe. I haven’t seen La La Land, but I get impression that it has some of the same sensibilities.

The central character here is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a preternaturally gifted driver who’s in the employ of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind who delights in a good bank heist. There’s a rotating group of toughs that Doc uses for his jobs, but the ones that figure most prominently in the story are Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González) and Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Baby is clearly just working these jobs to clear a debt to Doc, but his desire to be clear of the crime scene is amped up by the appearance in his life of Debora (Lily James), a waitress who seems to get Baby when he doesn’t necessarily get himself. Nearly every feature of his character is designed to remind you that he’s been emotionally stunted by the death of his parents (particularly his mom).

The Pulp Fictionness of the film is the violence, the disregard for law and order, the constant tension between all of the criminal characters. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is between Bats and Buddy. They have a couple of great scenes. And, of course, everyone is also filtered through Baby. Sometimes these people feel like a kind of dysfunctional family. Sometimes they feel extremely dangerous. These relationships are thrown into relief by the adorable way Baby cares for his ailing foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).

The La La Landness of the film is how it’s driven, beginning to end, by the soundtrack. Borrowing a little from Guardians of the Galaxy, Baby uses a collection of iPods to continuously curate the soundtrack of his life. He uses music to score his walk to get coffee, to romance Debora at the laundromat, and, of course, to drive.

The film never lets us forget that Baby’s gifts are most effective behind the wheel of a car. I don’t know how many cars he drives in this film, but it’s a lot, and he’s adept at controlling every one of them, leading police and others on astonishing chases through the streets of Atlanta.

For the first half of the film, I was liking it. Then, in the second half, when the story started jerking and jiving in directions I didn’t expect, I started loving it. If you don’t mind your crime drama sprinkled with a little bit of “movie magic”, you’ll probably love it, too.

Transformers: The Last Knight

Last weekend I was in the mood to watch a poorly reviewed movie. The Mummy was playing too late, so, I saw Transformers: The Last Knight.

Before I saw the film, I perused some of the review online. It was truly astonishing how many claimed this was the worst film of the franchise. Maybe that lowered my expectations, but, come on, let’s be real. This is the fifth in a series of films about alien robots that can transform into cars and planes and (?) clocks, apparently. So expectations start low.

But, let’s break it down. In my review of Dark of the Moon, I analyzed which aspects of the films are best. Here, I’ll look at some different things, and analyze which are worst.

Most Embarrassing Appearance by a Respected Actor — The first film (and all the sequels) has John Turturro. He’s kind of fun, and at least gives it his all. Revenge of the Fallen has none! But in Dark of the Moon we get Patrick Dempsey (good), Frances McDormand (boring) and John Malkovich (fine, I guess). I’ve already explained how much I enjoyed Kelsey Grammer in Age of Extinction, and Stanley Tucci was at least funny. In this one, Anthony Hopkins brings the crazy. I enjoyed him thoroughly. Winner: Frances McDormand.

Most Useless Eye-Candy Performance by an Actress — When Megan Fox left the franchise I wasn’t saddened…until I saw her replacement (Rosie Huntington-Whitely). Yawn. And Nicola Peltz’s inclusion was kind of skeevy. Laura Haddock (playing a history professor in this one) is easily the best in this category, yielding what might be Michael Bay’s least sexist film! (It’s a low bar, people.) Winner – Tie: Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Nicola Peltz.

Most Egregious Flouting of the Laws of Physics — Okay, this is going to be a tough one. Every film has humans flying around in robotic carnage and not dying. Revenge of the Fallen had three “dead” characters (two robots, one human) get resurrected, not to mention that stupid Matrix subplot. Dark of the Moon had that “building falling down but everyone is okay” sequence. But both of the last two films had Cybertron (the home planet of the Transformers) appear right next to the Earth without anything realistic happening. (Enormous ocean tides, planet pulled out of orbit, moon crashing into it, etc.) Winner – Tie: Cybertron Proximity

Stupidest Historical Reimagining — I continued to believe that the alternate explanation for the building of Hoover Dam is awesome. The star killing machine inside the pyramid is weak. The secret mission of the Apollo astronauts was probably the least crazy of them all. Reimagining the death of the dinosaurs as caused by Cybertronian technology was not very interesting. Putting Transformers into the Arthurian legend was a middle of the road inclusion from this latest film. On the other hand, I would pay folding money to see an entire film about Bumblebee fighting Nazis! That flashback was excellent. (The actual Bumblebee spinoff is said to take place in the 1980s. Oh, well.) Winner — Star Killing Pyramid Machine

Bottom line, The Last Knight is a middle of the pack film. Better than Revenge of the Fallen, but not as good as the original.

Ghost in the Shell

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new film on the Thursday before release date, but I did here, so let’s see if I can unpack this complex film experience, topic by topic:

It’s a Remake

I did see the original Ghost in the Shell anime a couple of decades ago. I remember not liking it, and that’s all I remember. I couldn’t tell you if anything in the 2017 version is like or not like the original. So keep that in mind.

If you care about the premise, here you go. A woman’s brain is placed into a robot that looks eerily like Scarlett Johansson, and she kicks a lot of ass.

Personally, for the record, I don’t care if films get remade. Bad, good, indifferent. I don’t care. You want to remake Die Hard, more power to you. You want to remake it for a different culture or audience? Go for it. Personally, I’d love to see the film reimagined with the lead as a woman. An Indian woman if you want. Have fun.

Actually, the way they address the fact that Johansson is playing a character known as “Motoko” is pretty deftly done.

Okay, back to the review.

It’s Gorgeous

I knew from the previews this would be the illegitimate love child of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element in look. And it works. The futuristic-retro cars, the multi-layered roadways, the endless high-rises decorated with mammoth holographic ads, the robots, the computer interfaces. Everything worked for me. It was without a doubt the best thing about the film.

The Acting is Spotty

Johansson as Major, the central figure of the story, does good work, though there’s nothing in the performance that anyone familiar with her work in the Marvel films will find surprising. Major and Natasha Romanov have similar character arcs, actually.

Pilou Asbæk turns in the best performance in the film, as Batou, Major’s sidekick. He’s funny and heartfelt and effective in a fight. He has a great presence. I expect to see more of him in the future.

Takeshi Kitano is also pretty good as Aramaki, Major’s boss at this police organization. Though, I suspect there’s some fan service for this well known Japanese actor that kind of goes over my head. There were one or two scenes where I could tell I was supposed to be in awe of this guy, and the film hadn’t really earned my awe. Still, though, nice performance.

Michael Pitt is entirely forgettable (and leaning into annoying) with his performance of Kuze, a mysterious terrorist figure that Major is chasing. Bleh.

Juliette Binoche is poorly used as Dr. Outlet, the scientist responsible for Major’s resurrection. Binoche has such a presence, casting her as this weak of a character seems dissonant.

Peter Ferdinando is pointless as Cutter, a honcho (the honcho?) of Hanka Robotics, the firm that seems to run the world with their robots. As a villain, he’s neither empathetic nor easy to root against.

The Story is Spotty

I loved the first, say, thirty minutes of the film. Then the middle third was okay. The finale was just boring. It’s rare for me to start checking my watch on a film that clocks in at less than two hours.

I didn’t analyze the story enough to really find plot holes, except for one. There is a point in the film when the robotics company guy has lost track of Major. She’s basically a robot he built, right? How can she not be lo-jacked? Dumb.

Anyway.

The Race Thing

I do have some thoughts on this. There’s been plenty of sturm and drang over the fact that they’ve whitewashed this property. As I said before, if you want to remake for a different audience and alter the race/gender/whatever of the characters, I don’t care. But the end result should be logically consistent. And this one wasn’t.

They never specify what city this film takes place, but there are plenty of hints that we’re in Asia somewhere. There’s Japanese script everywhere, the head of the police group speaks only in Japanese, most of the advertisements have Asian themes to them. There’s even a bit about Major being a refugee who came to this country, which I liked. The very Anglo-looking Johansson being a refugee puts this definitely into a different kind of world than we’re used to. All of that indicates we’re in an Asian (perhaps Japanese) place which is dominated by that culture.

But with the exception of Kitano, the Chinese guy from The Dark Knight, and one small role for a Japanese woman (which I won’t spoil here), everyone else is either European or African. (Mostly European.) So, does that mean we are in Tokyo, and Japanese culture and language continues to persist, but Europeans have taken control of the place? Or are we just lucky enough to be seeing a story that just happens to be about European characters.

I get that they were going for “colorblind” casting. But when the themes of race are baked into every aspect of the production design, you can’t simply wish away contradictions in your casting.

The Upshot

This film was diverting and enjoyable, but uneven enough that it’s hard to recommend unless you simply enjoy looking at amazing visuals.

Moana

I have a five-year-old daughter. Recently, my wife and I took her to her first in-theater movie experience. (Except for one of those thirty-minute-long IMAX documentary films.)

My daughter is a bit on the sensitive side. She finds the giant squid in Finding Dory too much. But it’s hard for me to argue with her on that one. Watching Moana she had to contend with a lava monster, an oversized crab, and a pirate navy of freaky coconut creatures. She spent a lot of the film in the hallway with her mother. But man, did she have a lot to say about it afterward. Her deconstruction of the character of Maui kind of took my breath away. It was insightful and likely accurate; and I never even thought about it.

Okay, enough about the target demo. How did Moana affect me?

Dang, this is a good film. One opening scene, with the title character Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as a toddler, was astonishing. Not just gorgeous animation (which it is) but brilliant animation storytelling. You learn what you need to know without a single word of dialogue.

Soon enough Moana grows up to be a girl of indeterminate age, but likely a teenager. She’s being groomed to take over as chief of the island on which her people have lived for many years. (1000, if Maui is to be believed.) Her father (Temura Morrison) is adamant that what has worked this long–staying safe behind the reef–will continue to work. But an impending ecological disaster pushes Moana to take a risk and go out to sea in search of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson).

The balance of the film is a buddy action comedy with these two (and a couple of enjoyable side characters who don’t actually speak) as they try to accomplish the quest steps needed to get everything back in order on Moana’s island.

Pretty much everything about this film works. The settings are lush and amazing. The performances are spot on. The story is straightforward enough for kids, but not simple and not dumbed down. The music is heartfelt and touching when its supposed to be, and hilarious at other times. (Kudos to Jemaine Clement for his portrayal of the most impressive crab in cinema history.)

This could be my favorite animated film.

2016 Movie Wrap Up

I didn’t see as many films as I would have liked, and I’ve reviewed even less. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what came out this year that I did see:

The Great

Captain America: Civil War

Zootopia — I like the direction Disney is taking their CG animated films. Frozen was okay, Tangled was great. This is a hoot, too.

Moana — Loved this movie. Full review to come…

Deadpool — What is there to say about this film that hasn’t been said? From the opening titles to the after-credits scene, it’s just so much fourth-wall-breaking goodness. Loved it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arrival

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Good

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Doctor Strange

Jason Bourne — There’s no loss in quality of action, but the story this time seemed spare even for a Bourne film. Points to Alicia Vikander for her delightfully amoral character.

Star Trek Beyond

Ghostbusters

The Magnificent Seven — A fun ride that I’ll probably never revisit.

The Shallows — I considered bumping this to the “Great” section. It’s consistently nerve-wracking and almost makes sense. This is the highest possible praise for a creature feature.

Deepwater Horizon

10 Cloverfield Lane — I suspect I would have liked this more if not for the Cloverfield connection. The finale felt out of the place with the first four-fifths of the film.

Hail, Caesar!

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

The Okay

Finding Dory

Suicide Squad

X-Men: Apocalypse — There’s stuff to love and stuff to hate in this film. A full review will be along at some point…

London Has Fallen — I’ll give it this: it’s dramatically better than the original.

The Bad

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — This was right on the edge between “Okay” and “Bad” for me. Some of it was kind of interesting. A few moments were brilliant. But, man, way too many dream sequences, Snyder!

Independence Day: Resurgence — Blurgh.