Step Into the Spotlight

Blasted internet hype machine.

 

Ok, so the world has been building up the buzz for Black Panther ever since Chadwick Boseman stepped onto the screen in Captain America: Civil War two years ago (admittedly, I was one of them). I’d go so far as to say Black Panther was the best part of Civil War: great actor owning the role, exciting superhero debut and strong story arc. With the announcement of his own movie, the wheels started turning in the internet buzz contraption. And it’s amazing to see everyone get so excited for this, especially since people are slowly starting to not care about Marvel movies anymore (don’t deny it, it’s happening). So yes, writer/director Ryan Coogler getting his first real shot at breaking into big-budget Hollywood movie-making, Boseman assuredly getting the role that will make him as a bonafide star, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett in the same movie (and a MARVEL movie no less!) and a superhero protagonist that isn’t a cocky milquetoast smiling guy are all the reasons to get excited for this event. But notice how I said the “event” of the movie and not the actual movie itself.

 

Speaking of the movie: is this the best Marvel production to date? Nope. Is it the best superhero movie made so far? Not really. Is it a good movie? Oh yeah, most definitely.

 

Boseman returns as T’Challa, prince of the isolated but technologically-advanced civilization of Wakanda. After his father was killed in Civil War, T’Challa inherits the throne and the responsibilities of protecting his people from the corrupted evils of the outside world. He also occasionally dons a black bulletproof suit and hops around the world to stop evil and protect the secret of his home as the Black Panther. His mother (Bassett), sister (Letitia Wright) and military commander (Gurira) all support his belief in the traditions of Wakanda, but his ex girlfriend (Nyong’o) and fellow tribe leader (Kaluuya) want the world to know the truth about Wakanda and how it can help others in need. Conflicted over how to represent his people and still grieving over the loss of his father, T’Challa then faces Erik Killmonger (Jordan), an ex-military stud turned gun-for-hire who has a dark secret that could undo T’Challa’s legacy.

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I’m surely not the one to discuss the accuracy of the movie’s representation of culture, though judging from the glowing response by critics and audiences it’s safe to say there aren’t too many complaints. So let’s stick with the movie: it’s good. Damn good, in fact. Despite the stocked cast, the star of this movie is undoubtedly Ryan Coogler and his journey from indie darling (Fruitvale Station) to box-office upstart (Creed) to bonafide Hollywood director coming full circle. Coogler knows exactly what he’s doing both as a director and a writer. He and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) clearly understood they had to make another origins/introductory superhero movie and, stripped to its core, Black Panther follows that formula. What Coogler and Cole focus on and excel at in the final product are the details: the conflict inside of T’Challa, the debate over if Wakanda can save the world or be tainted by it, the questioning of loyalty and tradition and how to synchronize all that into another Marvel property. All of that works and is present throughout the movie, only taking a backseat into occasional misfires of comedic one-liners thrown in to keep the movie from being entirely serious.

 

That leaves Coogler’s directing talent, which is also solid if not leaving a lot to be desired. Maybe the size and scale of Black Panther, certainly the biggest movie Coogler has ever done, was a bit too much for Coogler to completely handle. Some of the early fight scenes in the movie are shot with too much shaky-cam, poor lighting and close-up shots, further leading to some choppy editing. There’s the sense that Coogler is as hyped about making the movie as he knows the audience will be, so he kept wanting to shoot the movie at the same brisk but fair pace the 134-minute final product is. But again, Coogler knows what he’s doing for most of the movie. He holds on his actors to let their chemistry with each other shine through or their presence alone hold scenes. And his action direction gets better as the movie goes on, especially in the grand climactic battle between the tribes of Wakanda. He also knows how to lead a movie team and create an awe-inspiring setting. Wakanda is one of the if not THE most striking and engrossing settings not just in a Marvel movie but in any kind of fantasy/action/adventure movie in a long time. The set designs, both practical and computer-generated, feel like they were made from the ground up and boom with color. Same goes for the costumes, hair and makeup that look as fantastical and unique as anything out of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And Coogler pulls everything together and lays it out just enough to make the audience want more but not distract from the main story.

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Especially not his fantastic cast. Boseman is OFFICIALLY a made man in Hollywood as he proves he can command a movie in the lead role. Stern but not stiff, focused but not overdoing it and compelling even when he’s victim to a “WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE” joke, Boseman is actually invested in the story and characters while also having the time of his life playing with swords and shields and wearing the Black Panther suit. He’s not distracted by the comic-book origins of the movie and seems legitimately passionate about this story of family and tradition. He’s not alone there as everyone from Kaluuya to Gurira to Andy Serkis to Wright to Winston Duke as a fellow tribe leader are all great in their own ways. Gurira, continuing her streak of ass-kicking lioness following The Walking Dead, is having an absolute blast with this big budget production swinging around a spear while Wright is arguably the most energetic and bubbly member of the cast. Jordan is a legitimately interesting character that just so happens to be a villain. If you thought Vulture was sympathetic in Spider-Man: Homecoming, you will be very conflicted over who to root for between his Killmonger and Boseman’s T’Challa. For all the challenges and questions that the audience could lob at Wakanda’s logic, Killmonger has them motivating his actions. Jordan is shakey with the character at first, but the more he builds his malice the more compelling he becomes.
So as an event, Black Panther is a monumental moment in culture that deserves every positive hashtag and packed screening it’s getting. Like Get Out and Coco did last year, hopefully Black Panther tells Hollywood that people are desperately wanting the next age of blockbusters to come forward and it doesn’t involve your average white male with little stubble and a crooked smile. With all of that said, all Black Panther had to be was a good movie and it is. It doesn’t match the incredible hype that’s been building, but how could it? No matter the context, this is still most definitely a Marvel product. It tries its hardest to make you forget that (sans the annoying end credits scene), but it is still a licensed item in the Disney/Marvel buffet and it follows that formula. But like I said, it’s about the detail that a strong creative mind like Coogler but into it. And for that, he and his team have earned their cultural zeitgeist.

3.5/4

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The Truth About News

The newspaper business. People know about the first word but often forget about the difficulty of the second word. The newspaper does its damndest to deliver the important news of the world to the general public, but it still needs business to pay its hard-working reporters and circulate to newsstands. News needs to sell papers just as much as it needs to be informative, not as a means of capitalism but sustainability. Of course there’s the concern of certain news stories being too shocking or revealing that it might scare people away, especially people with money. Imagine having a story so shocking that it could literally unravel over 30 years of trust and prestige built by the American government, and said government is practically holding a newspaper hostage until every other newspapers promises to betray their duty and not report news. Which word does one protect: the newspaper or the business?

 

This is the debacle of The Post, a poignant and powerful look at the tug of war between a newsman and a businesswoman. The former is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of The Washington Post who is tired of the Post playing second fiddle to everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Daily News with better stories than his reporters offer. The latter is Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Post who jumped into job after the paper’s previous publisher, Katharine’s husband Phil, committed suicide in 1963. It’s now 1971 and Kay is about the take the company public on Wall Street to ease financial worries when longtime friend and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells her one night that the Times is going to run an “unflattering” story about him the following morning. The story is the infamous leaking of the Pentagon Papers: 7,000 pages of classified government secrets detailing how the Vietnam War was a lost cause but America would rather send men to their deaths in Army helmets than admit defeat. Bradlee is pissed that the Times got the scoop and wants his reporters to find the pages for follow-up coverage, while Graham is struggling to make her voice heard in boardrooms full of stuffy businessmen determining what’s best for business. Bradlee’s reporters (Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross) are getting closer to finding the papers and pulling back the curtain of the White House even more, but Graham and Bradlee butt heads over if the Post can handle being on President Nixon’s hit list if they publish more stories.

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There are two obvious comparisons to be made with The Post: 1976’s All the President’s Men detailing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, and 2015’s Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigators revealing years of sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church. Those two movies focused more on the reporting side of journalism, the muckrakers who spent months on end chasing dead-end leads and chipping away at the facts to find what the world needed to know. While The Post does highlight the tireless effort of reporters Ben Bagdikian, Meg Greenfield and Howard Simons, it’s more about the chains that profitability holds on newspapers. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s tight script expertly balances the obvious need to report the truth and the equally-obvious fear of the government effectively shutting-down the Post after ordering the Times to stop publishing stories about the papers. Also unlike Spotlight and President’s Men, The Post is a much flashier version of the story courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. While The Post is no blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg’s love of background spotlights and the faded color palette typical of serious Spielberg movies from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) are ever present. Whereas the filmmaking of President’s Men and Spotlight were more grounded, The Post is a glossy Hollywood production. Fortunately, Spielberg is well-aware of the material he’s working with and leaves most of his eccentricities at the door. The filmmaking doesn’t distract the audience from the story being told and the drama isn’t blown out of proportion, it’s presented for the audience to feel the weight of the story.

 

Further making The Post an event is the presence of Meryl Streep. Ever since her speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump and announcing her support of protecting journalist, practically all eyes have been on the acting legend and her performance in the movie. Now we can breathe sighs of relief because Streep is in top form here, fully embodying the dual-persona Kay Graham had to take on at the time. In front of the Post’s board members, Graham was patient and unphased by the subtle sexism of her male colleagues. Even if she’s talked over in conversation or talked down to, she keeps a brave face and is able to establish her own presence in every room she walks into. Privately, she’s still a touch unsure of herself as a publisher in the middle of the Pentagon Papers controversy with friends in the Nixon camp (especially McNamara in a heated confrontation). She knows publishing stories about the papers is the right thing to do, but she’s pressured into fearing for how Washington elites might feel about the Post adding to the damage of the Nixon administration, lessening the worth of the paper and her family legacy (her father bought the Post in 1933). Graham is the underdog of the story and Streep plays her without a hint of asking for sympathy.

THE POST

The rest of the cast basically revolves around Streep, but that doesn’t mean they slack off. Tom Hanks, America’s dad in Hollywood, is a fine choice for the Bostonian grump of Ben Bradlee. It’s actually fitting for smiling everyman Hanks to spend his golden years playing hardened bossmen cracking wise while national history is going on in the background. Even more impressive is the supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, an expert supporting actor who’s played everyone from John F. Kennedy to a captain of the Starship Enterprise, is incredibly compelling as a man simply stuck in the middle of the worst possible situation a high-ranking government official could be. Despite him actively trying to close the leaking of his own handiwork (McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers), he’s not a villain but more of a victim of the incompetence of past presidencies fully-experiencing an unprecedented situation. For the rest of the cast, it seems as if Spielberg has spent the last decade watching every great TV show and picking out who made the best impressions in the smallest amount of screentime, hence solid performances from Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods.

 
If it weren’t for the political and cultural context, The Post would probably not be as big of an event as it currently stands. It would be a simple reminder that Steven Spielberg remains untouchable as one of the greatest film directors in film history, he knows how to pick his actors and said actors bring their A-game on screen. But now, it is a much-needed reminder of the delicacy newspapers take in informing the American public. There is a crushing pressure to find the sources needed for a story and frivolous work that goes into researching and crafting a story. But even after a story is done and a newspaper is ready to go out, there is still that final moral dilemma of “is this story right,” meaning right in terms of accuracy and right for the readers. In the era of #fakenews, The Post is a reminder how no matter what (or who) the circumstance is, journalists know when to cut the crap and make the country eat its vegetables. It’s meant to show how the effort of listening and taking a stand against lying can be the start of something more, something greater. The best example of this is The Post’s ending scenes: The first being a recorded phone call with President Nixon sounding stressed from the Post’s further investigation of the papers, and the second being a security guard investigating a break-in at the Watergate Complex, the kickstart of the Watergate scandal.

3.5/4

Tommy Betrays Tommy

Before going to see The Disaster Artist or before diving into the crazy journey of The Room and its creator Tommy Wiseau, you need to know one thing right off the bat: Tommy Wiseau is a failure. The writer/director/producer/star of one of the worst movies ever made should only be praised out of sheer irony, because he is bad at all possible elements that would make him successful in Hollywood. The Room is incredibly entertaining because of how perplexingly awful it is, it’s like a Lifetime Original Movie with the entire cast on valium. So matter how much other people talk about Wiseau with appreciation and sympathy in their voices, or how Wiseau’s weird aura is somehow charming to see, just remember that everything Wiseau does is a failure and the fact that he is worthy of a sympathetic award season biopic is unfathomable. And the fact that The Disaster Artist doesn’t want to truly put Wiseau’s feet to the fire keeps it from being a truly great movie.

 

The Disaster Artist is based on the book of the same name co-written by The Room’s co-star Greg Sestero. The movie chronicles young Greg (Dave Franco) in his journey to become an actor with high hopes but weak inspiration (he says the movie that changed everything for him was Home Alone). He’s nervous in front of crowds and has trouble remembering lines, dimming his chances of truly making it. Then he meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) wearing a pirate’s jacket and three different belts at the same time, grinding his groin on a community theater stage reciting A Streetcar Named Desire. To others it’s ludicrous, but to Greg it’s fearless, and Tommy finally befriends someone who believes in his madcap ambition. They move to Hollywood together but struggle to get their big break. Then, in an act of defiance, Tommy decides he’s going to make his own movie. So what if he’s never written a screenplay before? Or directed a film before? Or acted professionally? It’s all about the human spirit, along with the seemingly endless well of money Tommy has to finance the project he calls The Room. But the more the movie is made, the more everyone involved (including Greg) sees Tommy’s incompetence and truly odd behavior.

 

Despite its biographical base, The Disaster Artist is a comedy through and through. The structure of the film is a rags to riches story, a classic underdog tale that shows the success of a guy everyone counted out. But because said guy is such a fascinatingly strange personality is what makes The Disaster Artist such a farce. Without any prior knowledge of him, Tommy Wiseau looks and acts like a character Mike Myers made up when he was on Saturday Night Live and every possible reason why this movie works relies on James Franco’s dead-on performance as Wiseau. Everything from his voice, his accent, his body language and his mere presence is miraculous and hilarious, much like Wiseau himself. Even when the movie becomes a bit predictable, it’s Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau that’s carries the movie and is flatout one of the best acting performances of the year. On the polar opposite spectrum is brother Dave, who looks and acts nothing like Greg Sestero. Not only does Dave not have Greg’s height or facial structure, but he doesn’t even seem like he’s trying to mimic his character. It’s merely Dave Franco with a wavy blonde wig and occasionally a beard, no effort or difference from any other movie he’s in. It’s one of the most blatant examples of Hollywood nepotism ever and the Franco brothers being the stars of this movie leaves no room for any of the supporting cast (Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Paul Scheer) to make an impact.

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Directed by James Franco as well, The Disaster Artist shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary with mostly handheld camera work and very little artistic flourish. The purpose being that Franco wants you to be on the journey with Tommy and Greg since you and your friends probably have so many questions about it. Sadly, the making of The Room and the motivation behind it remain a mystery created by Wiseau’s incompetence. Aside from the comedic timing of Franco’s performance as Wiseau, the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars) seems very pedestrian and doesn’t go any deeper than the basic mystique of Wiseau. It might be forgivable considering the movie is based on Sestero’s account, but that should’ve been a springboard to something deeper or at the very least more outlandish. Because of the lack of visual ingenuity or deeper dive into the source material, The Disaster Artist only feels as interesting or memorable as something like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

 

But the real thing that cuts the movie out from its legs is the ending (SPOILER ALERT). The movie’s climax is the premiere of The Room, where dozens of cast, crew, and pedestrians fill a local theater to see this interesting new movie. Right from the start, everyone in the audience can see it’s bad. Actors sink in their chairs, the crew is baffled, and the rest of the audience is damn-near repulsed. Then everyone starts laughing at the absurdity they’re watching onscreen while Wiseau sheds a single tear realizing everyone is mocking his vision. He leaves the theater is shame until Greg convinces him that the laughter is sincere, meaning The Room has successfully done what it was meant to do: to entertain. Tommy then comes back into the theater running down the aisles to cheers and high-fives, thanking everyone for liking his “comedy film.”

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*ahem* NO.

 

First off, it’s different from what happened at the actual premiere. Secondly, it actually betrays everything that made The Room popular and iconic. The Room did earn cheers and applause at screenings, but not right away. It played late at night on little-seen TV channels and small-town indie theaters, film festivals and got around by word of mouth. The Room is one of the most fitting descriptions of a “cult classic” in movie history, and for some reason The Disaster Artist either doesn’t understand that or chooses to ignore it. Instead, it gives Wiseau the corny Hollywood ending Wiseau has always wanted for his career. Hurray for him, but it makes this weird and unpredictable story end on a safe and boring note. It would’ve been much more interesting to see how Sestero and Wiseau went on with their lives after The Room failed and how they came to grips with not only accepting being attached to one of the worst movies ever made but embracing it wholeheartedly. That’s what people like about Wiseau and Sestero: they get the joke and are just appreciative that people get some sort of joy of it. If anything, the cult success of The Room and its stars’ acceptance is a true form of humility. The ending of The Disaster Artist is practically rewarding someone for their unhinged abuse of power to please a madman.

 
To be clear, The Disaster Artist is not a bad movie. Far from it, as it’s chock full of legitimate laughs and behind-the-scene details on one of the greatest cinematic question marks. But even the career highlight performance of James Franco as Tommy Wiseau can’t block out how The Disaster Artist ends like a propaganda piece for Wiseau. It could’ve told the full-on truth about The Room’s success and that would be a more fitting tribute for him, but instead pacifies the near 15-year campaign for Wiseau and his creation to be taken seriously and given its true victory. So much like Wiseau himself, The Disaster Artist is a failure.

2.5/4

Injustice For All

Ever since Man of Steel came out four years ago to mixed reviews, fans of the DC Extended Universe have been steadfast in defending the films of the Superfriends. A common defense used by these devotees, especially when comparing them to the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been that the big-screen adaptations of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and co. are “dark,” “gritty,” “mature” and the most commonly used of all, “real.” They see the MCU movies made for little kids to sell toys at the Disney Store (which they’re not wrong on that part) while the DCEU is for grown-ups with smart, deep and complex storylines about what would happen if superheroes lived in the real world.

 

Now with Justice League, the grand superhero team-up of DC Comics that finally hits theaters this weekend, I hope to see those same DCEU fans out in droves to see it. And I hope to see them on social media defying the “biased” critics who’ve called their movies “poorly-made” or “convoluted” or “depressing” or just plain “awful.” Those fans who’ve insulted or talked-down to those who even have a moderate distaste for the DCEU, protested negative reviews or who’ve straight-up bullied those that have seemingly missed the point of these complex masterpieces of filmmaking. I can’t wait to see how do a complete 180-turn and vehemently defend one of the most saccharine, safe, glossy and goofy pieces of schlock trash I’ve ever seen. Sorry boys and girls, holding your capes close and your comic books closer, but Justice League sucks……hard.

 

After the traumatic events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, specifically the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world hangs it head in gloom. But Batman (Ben Affleck) still fears a greater danger on the horizon, so he and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) trek the world looking for more superheroes to recruit. They find the skittish introvert Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the cocky dude-bro Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the sullen Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). This team’s assemblance is perfect timing, as the ancient intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) arrives on Earth to collect three Mother Boxes that, if combined, could destroy the Earth.

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It really is stunning how terrified Warner Bros. and DC are of Disney and Marvel Studios. They set such high expectations for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice and when those became two of the most divisive blockbusters of the new millennium and not meeting the financial hopes the studios had in mind, they had no problem showing how desperate they were to be liked. The studio was deeply committed to the grim visual aesthetic of director Zack Snyder but after his takes on Superman and Batman didn’t rake in a billion dollars each, it had no problem putting Snyder on a leash. Justice League shows that WB and DC are so terrified of losing money and merchandise to the Marvel mega conglomerate that they gave up on the “dark gritty realism” of Snyder’s vision and told him to shut up and make a movie with the intelligence and imagination of a G.I. Joe cartoon.

 

Like Dawn of Justice, Justice League doesn’t look or feel like a Zack Snyder movie at all. Say what you will about his style, but it’s significant and unique: he builds dramatic heft through his eye for visuals, loves him some slow-motion effects, and shoots his leads with the bravado of the Greek Gods. Here, he doesn’t give his movie any room to breathe between scenes or build any sense of dramatic weight. Characters just show up in scenes without any grand form of reveal or presentation, no thanks to the choppy and disorienting editing. It’s as if the movie thinks that The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman already had their own solo movies before Justice League so there’s no need to give them any kind of heroic debut despite it being the ACTUAL CINEMATIC DEBUT of all three characters. It’s quite clear this movie was edited down from a longer runtime, seemingly out of fear of losing the audience’s attention or the fact that the movie wants to get itself over with as soon as possible. The visual style transition, compared to the previous DCEU films, is also jarring. Whereas the previous films had the characters blend in with the muted colors and grey backdrop, here the color tones on the characters are amplified to a bright glow, making them stick out from the mostly green-screened backgrounds all the more.

 

It’s a sudden and forced whiplash in both filmmaking and story structure. Oscar-winner Chris Terrio (Argo) is once again stuck with trying to juggle the introductions of multiple new characters, their interactions with each other, establishing them as individuals, creating a cohesive plot and making our lead superheros likable. While in Dawn of Justice he was stuck with David S. Goyer’s grim and convoluted structure, the studio mandate for a lighter tone and brisker pace needed for Justice League scored rewrites by none other than Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Firefly). While Whedon subbed in behind the director’s chair for reshoots after Snyder stepped down for a family emergency, the former Marvel man’s fingerprints are all over the script. There are more quips and jokes this time around and spread to all characters, making this feel much more like an action comedy than a hefty action epic. Though much like recent Marvel films Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, the movie’s desperate need to get belly laughs from the audience undercut many dramatic moments. And fun is in higher demand this time around, as the movie’s story is horribly paced without any smooth flow or transition. While I understand most of today’s iPhone generation have the attention span of gnats and can rarely stand a movie longer than two hours, Justice League needs two-and-a-half hours to set all of its dominoes up properly. Instead, the movie’s plot twists, character development, action and emotion whiz by without any time to hit home.

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If it feels like there’s more to talk about on the technical side of things than on the performance side, that’s the right feeling to have when it comes to the cast. Ben Affleck, arguably the leader of the pack, is moseying along to pick up the rest of the cast and give little speeches here and there about the importance of hope and impending doom and such. He was the lone bright spot in Dawn of Justice as the older, war-torn Batman, but there’s just not enough here for him to sink his teeth into. Gal Gadot, who fully blossomed into her shield and sword earlier this year, is a much stronger presence as Wonder Woman and the only one who has a complete and important character. Ezra Miller is borderline annoying as The Flash, a petulant wimp who gets the occasional funny line and a rather-rushed “zero to hero” character arc. While spazzy comedy is something entwined with The Flash’s character, Miller has less charisma and more childish energy that doesn’t build a strong screen presence. Newcomer Ray Fisher is still very green as he doesn’t bring much charisma or screen presence either, despite being a partially-crucial part of the plot. Steppenwolf is by far one of the weakest villains in superhero movie history with bored motivation, unspecified abilities and bland fight scenes with the heroes. Surprisingly, the ace of the bunch is the once-Dothraki lord Jason Momoa as the macho King of Atlantis. While it’s questionable as to how faithful his portrayal of Aquaman is to the comics, he oozes the charisma of a classic adventure hero in his ambivalence to the doom around him. While the other heroes are trying to be loose and funny, his quips and coolness is the most believable.

 
But through all the quips, the impressive hero costumes and the chaos of the climactic final battle, Justice League is desperate to be liked with nothing tangible to grab onto. It’s boring, bland, rushed, stupid and devoid of any sense of great cinematic skill or fun. While it doesn’t induce as much anger as Dawn of Justice or annoyance as Suicide Squad, Justice League is one of the most disposable action blockbusters ever made. And that might be its biggest sin: this is the first-ever live-action movie team-up of the DC Comics superheroes. This should be a sweeping epic with dramatic weight and inspiring moments instead of a cold and calculated exercise in Marvel-envy. It feels like WB and DC see movie fans as whiny children they need to pacify instead of sticking with their own formula. They’d rather try to make a Marvel movie than follow through with what makes their movies unique and just make efforts to improve. So after four years of championing some of the most divisive and hated comic book movies in some of the worst ways, I have to ask: don’t you want more?

0/4

The Dumb Avenger

 

And now, a dramatic reenactment of a meeting at Marvel Studios discussing what to do with the next Thor movie:

“Ok so people kinda haven’t liked any of the movies we’ve done with Thor but we gotta make a third one because everyone gets a third one.”

“Well, we haven’t given Black Widow a mo..”

“So how can we make people like a Thor movie?”

“What if we made him like Deadpool?”

“Or Star Lord?”

“Or Tony Stark?”

“So………make him sound like a tool?

“YES!”

“BRILLIANT!

“….we could still do a Black Wido..”

“THOR!”

 

Thor: Ragnarok opens with the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) wrapped in chains cracking wise with a giant flaming demon monster, who warns him of the impending doom of his homeworld of Asgard known as “Ragnarok.” After swiftly defeating said monster (while still cracking wise), Thor returns to Asgard to see his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) running rampant in the absence of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But right as Thor seems to be reeling things in, he and Loki learn they have a long-lost older sister: the Goddess of Death known as Hela (Cate Blanchett), who looks to enslave Asgard and reclaim the kingdom’s throne. She starts by exiling Thor and Loki to an offbeat planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who uses a liquored-up ex-warrior (Tessa Thompson) to capture Thor and force him to compete a gladiator fight. Fortunately, Thor’s opponent is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who Thor needs to help him escape and save Asgard from certain death.

 

The first and most glaring thing to know about Thor: Ragnarok is that it is, without question, a comedy. Yes, it has action scenes that incorporate fist-fights, swords and spaceships on top of the typical mythic lore tied to Thor’s lineage. But make no mistake, director Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is entirely going for laughs. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn if they three screenwriters on Ragnarok just wrote the movie based on his offbeat style and sarcastic direction of actors. Ragnarok is also very much style over substance, not that it’s entirely a detriment to the movie. Waititi and his team of set and costume designers crafted a visual treat in the worlds and people of both Asgard and the junk planet bursting with color and personality. Waititi’s direction isn’t stifled either, as those familiar with his work will recognize his choice for the movie’s breakneck pacing and punchline-driven editing. Even the music, done by Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh, is brighter and more fitting to an 80s sci-fi film than the typical bombastic Marvel music (the use of “Immigrant Song” doesn’t hurt either).

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Ragnarok gives Thor a much-needed touch of levity, but that doesn’t mean the movie is all the way in the clear. There a plenty of laughs in Ragnarok, but the movie’s total attention to comedy ends up undercutting any kind of stakes or drama the movie might had. For a plot that revolves around the Goddess of Death and the destruction of an entire civilization, there seems to be no sense of urgency or threat coming from the characters. The movie’s addiction to belly laughs also undercut any moment of drama or heft, which are seen and even needed in superhero movies. Even something as disposable and pointless as Spider-Man: Homecoming had proper dramatic moments that made me invested in what was happening outside of an episode of Degrassi guest starring Spider-Man. It also makes Ragnarok feel like it’s running in circles during its 130-minute runtime where most comedies, especially action-comedies, are pretty brisk and run under two hours. Perhaps because this is a Marvel movie featuring one its premiere characters that it passes the two-hour mark, but there are scenes that feel stretched out.

 

There are plenty of characters meant to fill those spaces with varying degrees of success. Like most comedies, a lot of the highlights come from the supporting players. Mark Ruffalo may never get the chance to have his own solo Hulk movie, so he makes the most of his human appearance in Ragnarok as Thor’s stingy neurotic sidekick. Even his CGI alter ego gets big laughs as the dopey lughead sidekick. Despite his role being a glorified cameo, Jeff Goldblum is a delight as he eloquently waves his arms around in his half-invested but charming Goldblum-ness. The real star is far and away Tessa Thompson, a proven ace in drama (Creed) and comedy (Dear White People) that finally gets her blockbuster breakout. Not only is her character given the strongest arc of the movie, but Thompson’s snarky delivery and brazen presence onscreen holds any and all attention.

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On the flipside of that is a handful of big names wasted, chief among them being Cate Blanchett who tragically suffers from Marvel villain syndrome. Hela merely shows up with little fanfare and gets very little screentime to establish her presence, which is a shame because Blanchett seems to be having the time of her life as the gothic death goddess. Even when she throws every sword she can conjure at the final fight, it’s only a reminder of how weak of a presence she was in the movie. Same goes for Karl Urban, who plays Hela’s right hand man that I don’t feel like naming since it would take longer than the time he was onscreen for. The great Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role as arguably Marvel’s greatest villain, is merely another comedic sidekick that yucks around with Thor and given nothing else to do. And then there’s Chris Hemsworth as our titular character. While admittedly more relaxed and totally willing to roll with the looney nature of the movie, Hemsworth’s presence feels lessened by the fact that he’s saying one liners. It worked better when he was the fish out of water still speaking the exaggerated Asgardian English in the Avengers movies. Here, his lines are so generically comic that it might as well be coming from Chris Pratt or Robert Downey Jr.

 
Bottom line, Thor: Ragnarok is a fun, funny action comedy that I most certainly will forget about by next week. It’s certainly the best of the Thor movies and it’s nice to see Marvel let a director have his full vision with a movie (poor Edgar Wright). It just seems like another pitstop in Marvel’s crafted business plan. Compare this to something like Marvel’s own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or even Logan, two of the flat out best movies of the year. Those movies thrived on having legitimate emotion and heart tied to them, giving gravity to important scenes even in scenes that would be considered over-the-top or comical (especially in the case of Guardians). Ragnarok is certainly funny, over-the-top and successful at being a comic book movie. But no matter how shiny and funny it is, it’s about as meaningful and legitimate as a funny-looking hand puppet.

3/4

A Good Man Makes A War

If you listen closely throughout all the gunshots, torpedoes, bombings, and ocean waves crashing on the shores of the beach in Dunkirk, there’s one sound that’s a constant throughout the movie: a ticking clock. Whether there’s a moment where young British soldiers are staring out into the ocean wondering if they’ll ever make it home or when those same soldiers are desperately trying to escape a sinking ship, the seconds are ticking away in the background. What’s it counting down to? A victory? A loss? An attack? A death? It’s rare that something as simple as a tiny ticking sound is basically the centerpiece to a $150 million dollar war movie, then again it’s made by the same guy who used a spinning top as the “gotcha” moment of a summer blockbuster that made over $800 million.

 

That man is producer/writer/director/movie theater enthusiast Christopher Nolan, now on his 10th feature film after covering every possible major-movie genre from crime thriller to superhero action to intergalactic sci-fi philosophy. Since he’s not likely to ever try a screwball comedy or whimsical animation, the only thing left for him to do was a war movie. Thus we have Dunkirk, the story of how over 300,000 English soldiers made a desperate escape from the titular beaches in the north of France after being surrounded by German troops in 1940. Instead of rallying together for a last stand against the enemy, a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) do everything from using an injured soldier to weasel their way onto a medical ship to stealing an abandoned fishing boat just to find a way home. It’s not like their higher-ranking officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) have any better plans, almost certain the enemy will break through the remaining blockade and any moment. All the soldiers have left to rely on are a handful of Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and civilian boats piloted by loyal citizens of England (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) to protect and save the soldiers.

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Christopher Nolan is, above all else, a technician. He prefers practical effects over CGI, he uses IMAX cameras to shoot on 70 millimeter film, he researches the physics of space and wants his sets to actually spin for scenes. He doesn’t want audiences to watch movies, he wants audience to be IN his movies while sitting in their seats and he’ll do as much as he can to make that happen. Dunkirk is no exception, it might actually be the most immersive movie Nolan has ever made. Right from the opening frame, Nolan puts the audience right behind the soldiers walking aimlessly through an abandoned small town seeing the enemy propaganda showering over them. Then guns go off, and Nolan makes you run with soldiers with proper use of handheld camerawork. But Nolan knows when to hold his camera for the audience to take in the same vision as the soldiers are: lines of soldiers standing in the sand waiting for a ride home or a bomb to be dropped from the sky. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) juggle handheld and standard camerawork effortlessly, using the handheld sparingly to let the audience inhabit the fear and anxiousness of the soldiers. But even with his stoic shots, Nolan doesn’t stick with the standard. The audience gets to hang off the side of a British Spitfire plane in the middle of a dogfight and the inside of a sinking rescue ship as the water is filling the lower deck with soldiers clammering over each other. He even puts the audience underwater, asking them whether or not a soldier should drown in the ocean or reemerge into an oil fire to be burned. No matter the scenario, Nolan wants the audience right in the line of fire, not to nauseate people but put them in the mindset of the characters.

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One of the key elements of Dunkirk is its atmosphere. No, Dunkirk is not a typical World War II rally cry movie. From the get-go, there’s the feeling of dread and hopelessness in the movie. It’s as if every character involved knows he’s going to die. It’s never actually said, though, as Nolan’s screenplay is very sparse with dialogue but the action does all the talking. It’s easy to call Dunkirk a bleak movie, but it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with muted colors or overtly dour music. Even with the imagery of men swimming aimlessly in the ocean or one soldier simply walking into the ocean in defeat, it simply adds to the tension of the movie. Not only is there that constant ticking in the background, but Hanz Zimmer’s score that builds a creeping sense of danger to each scene. Zimmer mostly goes for a slow burn, almost recreating the sounds of the metals in the bombed ships breaking with loud but low-pitched horns and haunting choir vocals in the background. And even though the colors of grey and dark blue are prominent throughout the movie, the colors don’t dilute the movie. On top of that is a strong use of natural sunlight and practical explosions to make the movie more realistic. Dunkirk prides itself on being as realistic as possible, not overly dark or reaching for heroic patriotism.

 

With a sparse script like this, one would think that acting and character are not essential qualities. While the movie is less about the acting and more about the action involved. The actors are more so vehicles for the audience to see the plot move forward. Granted, no one here is phoning it in. Whitehead, Barnard, and Styles are merely pawns, but the stress and fear on their faces is legitimate. What they deal is moral complications, abandoning their comrades or forcing their fellow soldiers to be the one to stick their head out into the line of fire. The rest of actors fill their roles in fine, no one’s looking for an Oscar but are merely bit players. The human element of the movie comes from Rylance and his two young passengers as three English citizens simply doing the right thing for their country. Even after they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a u-boat attack whose visible shock is reason enough to turn back, they go forward accepting the terrible circumstances. Rylance, always a man of softer emotions, brings the most humanity to the movie when it’s needed.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk flies by like a bullet in a battle. Like the wounds of war, Dunkirk stays with you. It feels like an old school war movie made with the ambition of a true craftsman. People will debate where Christopher Nolan stands in the pantheon of modern filmmakers with his ties to blockbusters. Is he a true filmmaking auteur or just knows how to pick crowd-pleasing blockbusters? Is he the next Kubrick or the new Spielberg? He’s Nolan, a technician who sees the potential in applying artistic craftsmanship to the size and scope of blockbuster movies. The only franchise that Dunkirk is promoting is human history, and for someone to make that as exciting as Spider-Man and Wonder Woman is a true feat. Dunkirk and its different screening formats are examples of the power of film. Does that sound corny? Sure, but it’s nice to see and talk about a summer blockbuster made with the same hope for the medium of film that the Allies had that helped them win the war.

4/4

Symphony of Action

It should be said that 2017 has done very well with its franchise blockbusters. This year has given us, among other things, a fierce but fond farewell to an angry mutant with claws, a giant monkey in the backdrop of Apocalypse Now, and resolved daddy issues set to Fleetwood Mac in space. Even when it gave moderately-impressive efforts to the world’s most famous female superhero and everyone’s favorite nerdy superhero (for the SIXTH TIME), it was still nice to see Hollywood dropping the ball less than last year. Amongst the cavalcade of characters that have thrived this year, who would’ve guessed one of them would be those damn dirty apes?

 

War for the Planet of the Apes is the third installment in the rebooted Apes franchise, seeing the world ravaged from a virus that has killed off most of the human population and made the primate species hyper-intelligent. With the human race beginning to reemerge, the ape population (or at least the one in the woods of Vancouver) is constantly fighting with a rogue military outfit looking to make the gun-toting tribe of primates extinct. Led by the stern but compassionate Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes plan to leave the woods and find a new home for themselves away from the war with the humans. Unfortunately the military outfit and its conniving leader, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is planning a final assault on the apes. With the help of his ape comrade, a straggling ape (Steven Zahn), and a mute abandoned girl (Amiah Miller), Caesar races to The Colonel’s outpost to make a last stand for his kind.

 

While the rebooted trilogy started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes under director Rupert Wyatt, the new Apes franchise thrived with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes under director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In). Reeves expanded the bleak universe of the Apes movies to be able to build the characters of the apes while also using exceptional motion-capture technology to showcase immersive action. On top of building a narrative comparing the behaviors of apes and humans (SPOILERS: we’re not that much better), he also managed to make a thrilling action movie. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves doubles down on the dour atmosphere and environment by setting most of the movie in the frozen, desolate Canadian border. He and co-writer Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, The Wolverine) make the focus entirely on the journey of Caesar from reluctant leader to vengeful father to true savior. The screenplay seems to put Caesar as a vessel for the audience more than a character, coldly judging the faults of the war while trying hard not to devolve into the primitive species the humans think of him and his kind. He sees his ape brethren mounted as war trophies, imprisoned and turned to slave labor, but Caesar tries desperately to hold onto his soul.  It truly feels like a fitting completion to his story arc (as no plans for future Apes movies are in the cards at the moment) as he battles the darkest of days. The detail in the building of this movie’s universe is first-rate with imagery that’s reminiscent of Westerns, war dramas, dystopian sci-fi, and hardened action.

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That doesn’t mean Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) turn the color down or sour the imagery, as there are some truly gorgeous shots of the first ape vs. human battle in the forests and the apes trekking through the snow that recalls the gorgeous aerial shots of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. War for the Planet feels very much like a sweeping war epic, a cross between Spartacus and The Thin Red Line with action scenes that let the audience see every possible element clearly. Whether it’s the apes riding horses in the snow, throwing spears, or simply lunging for attack, the audience see it set up with tension and executed with grace, plus Michael Giacchino’s grand score doesn’t hurt. It’s all the more surprising that the action is actually minimal for a nearly two-and-a-half hour summer action movie. Aside from the breathless opening assault in the forest and the explosive climax, most of the movie is moved along by the journey of Caesar’s redemption.

 

It’s all motivated by character, which is all the more impressive considering those characters are made partly from computers. To the credit of the special effects team, the apes have never looked more real. Perhaps Reeves planned out so many close up shots of the apes for audience to applaud the team that detailed every inch of the digital apes down to their fur, highlighting legitimate emotions coming from the actors. The slightest shift of skin on the face of the apes looks all to real. Whether human or ape, the acting has a strong supporting cast. The motion-capture actors, including Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite have great chemistry with each other and bring out genuine emotion with mere sign language. Even longtime clown Steve Zahn, playing a new monkey called Bad Ape, manages to bring the slightest touch of levity to the film (even if he overstays his welcome in the final act). Woody Harrelson brings the intensity as the villain with a chip on his shoulder. His dynamic with Caesar is less hero vs. villain and more cat-and-mouse, a hunter and his prey. Harrelson keeps his menace understated with a hint of passion, a man who truly believes he’s the second coming of the human race. But the heart and soul of this movie and the two proceeding it is Andy Serkis, fully-formed and more human than ever in his third turn as Caesar. This is not simply a role that Serkis is sliding into, but a life that he inhabits by picking up the weight of the previous two films and wearing it on his slouched sleeves. Caesar spends most of the movie looking haggard, beat-down, and on the brink of completely falling apart. But Caesar still lunges to the front lines and Serkis throws himself into every scene. It feels moot at this point to say that Serkis deserves a certain golden statue for his performance, but he should receive as many commendations as possible.

War for the Planet of the Apes is blockbuster movie-making done with a passion, more about character development than car crashes. Even with the extremely dour atmosphere, the movie has an incredibly powerful feeling with it. Matt Reeves has not made a summer blockbuster but more composed a symphony of action and emotion that syncs up when other movies have those elements clash. The entire Apes franchise has been so fascinating to watch evolve and mature into something with such prestige that if this is Caesar’s final curtain call, it’s hard not to applaud it.

3.5/4

Wright’s Killer Track

In the mind of Edgar Wright, music and movies go hand in hand. The British writer/director has become one of film’s culture most adored auteurs not only for his clever writing, creative comedic directing, and unabashed love for pop culture, but his incredible detail combining the action of scenes with the pumping energy of music. Everything from police paperwork to beating up an elderly zombie can be made special with the right music in Wright’s mind. So of course, an action movie about a getaway driver who only functions by listening to music constantly would be Wright’s passion project for the last 20 years. Most of the high points of his movies have been the musical montages that act as lively interludes to keep scenes going, like mini-music videos that cap off plot points. So why not make a nearly-two hour music video?

 

Baby Driver, Wright’s first feature in four years, takes place on the streets of Atlanta and opens with an excitable young man jamming out to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a suped-up Subaru. Don’t be fooled by the fresh-faced exuberance of Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he’s merely waiting for his crew to run out of the local bank with the loot and drive them through the streets at breakneck speed. His secret weapon: the tinnitus in his ears forces him to listen to music constantly to drown out any high-pitched ringing, but also makes him incredibly proficient at drifting between cop cars and maneuvering through traffic. This makes him the lucky charm of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a local crime boss Baby owes a major debt to. While he’s worked many jobs with Doc’s crew, ranging from the eternally romantic Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) to the hair-triggered nutjob Bats (Jamie Foxx), Baby finds something more when he falls in love with the angel-voiced waitress, Debora (Lily James). But just because Baby wants out of the game doesn’t mean Baby gets to walk away from the game.

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On a surface level, Baby Driver is a very simple story. It’s the classic crime story of the lone rogue who’s never been cool with a life of crime and just wants out. But just when he thinks he’s out, cue Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. Usually Wright’s stories aren’t as straight-forward as they seem, there’s always something else going on in the background. Baby Driver is probably one of the more traditional stories of his career, no great plot twist or background commentary throwing the audience for a loop or defying expectations. But like other Wright movies, it’s more about the presentation than the product itself, and Baby Driver is certainly his most ambitious show to date. Somewhere between an inverted jukebox musical and a long-form music video, Baby Driver has nearly every scene perfectly synced-up with the eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from Beck to The Damned to Young MC. When the film rolls out its opening credits to Baby strutting down the street like Gene Kelly dancing to the title of Singin’ in the Rain, the street comes alive accentuating each little pip in Baby’s step. Wright’s editing duo of Jonathan Amos (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Paul Machliss (The World’s End) cut gunshots, car drifts, and even the mildest head tick to the beat of the drum. It’s a cute gimmick and impressive to see done at near-feature length, though it loses its luster near the end of the movie and it can become disorienting after a while.

 

But even without the gimmick, Baby Driver is still a damn good time. The action set pieces are fantastic thanks to their stripped-down nature. Mixing the cracking soundtrack with driving sequences not overly-cut while remaining fast-paced allows for continuous propulsion throughout the movie. At just under two hours, the movie flies by with almost zero filter distracting from the main story. That’s mostly in part to the great cast fully invested in the need for hammy action-talk and Wright’s typically funny dialogue. For this being Wright’s big American debut (Scott Pilgrim being technically Canadian), some of Hollywood’s best wanted in on the party and don’t disappoint. Jamie Foxx has never been such an impressive combination of menacing and funny before, leagues more impressive than his turn as Electro in the embarrassing Amazing Spider-Man 2. Kevin Spacey is a fine crime boss despite not leaving that much of an impression. The MVPs are the one-two punch of Jon Hamm and Lily James: the former as the smoldering henchman that brings the most charisma to the movie, and the latter being the sultry, 50s-era damsel that woos Baby. In fact, Hamm himself plays somewhat of a grizzly older James Dean wannabe. Oddly enough, the weakest member of the cast is the lead. Elgort certain has the energy and the young baby face (no pun intended), but his own moments of smoldering intensity seem like a joke that the movie isn’t in on. He’s also not bringing enough charisma to be fun to watch and looks like a pouting elementary school kid when he’s trying to be serious. Elgort is in an awkward position where’s he too old to be a cutesy teen heartthrob and yet still has the face of a Degrassi cast member. In his defense, he has some strong chemistry with James that culminates in a rather romantic scene where the two chat in a laundromat connected by Baby’s earbuds.

It’s tempting to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst film, and yet it’s all the more shocking that it’s still a great movie. While it may be missing Wright’s quick-witted British humor and wackier plot elements, it’s still another showcase for one of Hollywood’s best directors alive. The technical prowess and attention to detail that Wright exudes is on display now more than ever, it’s almost the central focus of the movie. It’s certainly a film that requires repeated viewings to repeat every detail for film fans, along with being a breath of fresh air for summer action audiences. Wright has officially arrived in America, and his future is as open as the road Baby and Debora dream for themselves.

3.5/4 

Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars

Stuck In Neutral

Let’s be honest: we’ve all been very generous to the Fast & Furious franchise. Six years ago with the release of Fast Five, the world saw that Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the gang decided to shoot the moon and turn their dated racing movie franchise into Ocean’s Eleven for dude-bros. Inexplicably, the world decided to fall in love with Fast & Furious more than they ever had before, and Fast & Furious returned the favor by throwing caution (and logic) to the wind for the sake of action set pieces that would make physics professors pull their hair out. With that said, these movies are actually a lot of fun! It’s taking all of the seriousness forced into modern action movies and chucking it aside for more macho posturing and car chases. Audiences know it’s all stupid and pointless and as humane as a Lil Wayne music video, and yet the franchise has made over $3 billion and counting worldwide. Even with the tragic death of one of its main stars, Fast & Furious is practically bulletproof. So even if we’re on movie no. 8, The Fate of the Furious, can it even be fairly judged anymore?

 
Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to try! Episode eight of the Fast & Furious saga has a new hook: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the chrome dome charisma vacuum with more emphasis on family than Stitch goes ROGUE! He screws over military badass Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to work with Cipher (Charlize Theron), a mysterious cyber terrorist who can hack into anything anywhere forever and ever. Cipher seems to be holding something over Dom’s head, causing him to reluctantly steal military tech. It’s up to Hobbs, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and former enemy Deckard (Jason Statham) to save Dom and stop Cipher from doing some form of taking over the world.

 
It’s important to note that Cipher’s plan is “some form” of taking over the world, since writer Chris Morgan (Furious 7, Wanted) didn’t bother to nail down what exactly Cipher’s point in the movie is. She gives vague exposition on wanting to hold world leaders accountable or something, but it’s entirely irrelevant to The Fate of the Furious. The movie, like all Fast & Furious movies before it, is all about action set pieces, exotic cars, glory shots of scantily-clad women, and close ups of the actors clenching their faces to look serious. The Fate of the Furious certainly hits all of those familiar beats, for better and for worse. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) proves his competence with handling the vehicular madness that’s expected of this franchise, but the excitement seems to have worn off. It truly says something about these movies when dozens of “zombie cars” zooming through New York City and a submarine blasting through a sheet of ice isn’t as ridiculously fun as it sounds. It’s nothing bad, but it feels routine at this point. The only option they seems to have left is strapping a rocket to their Dodge Chargers and racing in space (and you know they’d do it). In all honesty, the best action scenes involve Johnson and Statham, with neither of them involving cars or any interaction with the rest of the main cast.


That’s a telling detail and a bit of strange irony to this production, since Johnson and Statham are the two best parts of the movie. Their charisma together and experience in physical action scenes make for great banter between the two and some impressive action scenes. Statham rarely gets to be this loose, so it’s nice to see his comic timing mixed with the infinite charisma of the actor formerly known as The Rock. It’s a big help that they’re in the movie, along with a returning Kurt Russell charming his way through his little screentime. The acting chops of the main Fate of the Furious cast are well-documented as limited, and that’s no different this time around. It seems like a mistake to make Dom the emotional focus of the movie, as Diesel has not made his career off of his dramatic chops. As demonstrated in his other franchise entry this year (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Diesel thrives when he absorbs the charisma of other actors around him and works off of it. The problem here is that Diesel is riding solo for most of the movie’s 136 minute runtime, having to carry dramatic scenes practically on his own and mostly falling flat on his face. You’d think he’d have a little help from Oscar-winner Theron as the villain, but she must’ve gotten the memo of the limited acting requirement from this franchise and thought it’d be fine to phone in her performance. She speaks mostly in a whisper-tone and locks into staring contests with Diesel, clearly only cast in this movie so Vin could make out with the heroine of the other car-based action movie that beat his car-based action movie in the same year. Rodriguez handles the emotional moments a little bit better, but it requires minimum effort to pull off so it’s graded on a curve. The rest of the cast fill in their roles with little to no effort, and Gibson’s comedy relief getting more and more tiresome. Also, Hollywood needs to stop trying to make Scott Eastwood happen.

 
The Fate of the Furious has its moments and it remains fascinating to see how much money goes into the cinematic equivalent of shoving Hot Wheels into each other. But even on the grading curve of Fast & Furious movies, The Fate of the Furious feels very routine and somewhat uninspired. At least with Furious 7, there was the emotional weight of Paul Walker’s death and the inclusion of Statham to motivate the excitement of the movie. Here, attendance of this movie feels obligatory out of curiosity to see how this franchise is going to keep going. I honestly don’t know what else could be done at this point, but as long as Vin Diesel needs to be relevant, life will keep finding a way one quarter-mile at a time.

2.5/4 Stars