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Wonder Woman Excels Despite the Hype

Many critics were anticipating a poor showing of the film Wonder Woman because it is helmed by a woman: Patty Jenkins. The thinking apparently that a woman cannot drive a major Hollywood Blockbuster. Many people are heralding the film much the same way Hillary was heralded as the first female presidential nominee. Some people complained when a movie theater held a woman-only screening of the film, which drew more criticism from the other side of the issue. Other hype surrounding the film was that this is the first superhero film starring a female superhero as its main protagonist. The simple fact is that there isn’t a better female superhero to launch the effort. It pays off as well because Wonder Woman is the best DC Superhero film to date. This, despite the fact that Zack Snyder had his fingerprints all over it.

Gal Gadot exudes both a strength and a softness at the same time which is perfect for the role of Diana, Princess of the Amazons. Despite having a female superhero and taking the few side shots at feminism during an historical depiction, the film does not follow in the footsteps of the CW’s Supergirl in trying to become an Anthem of the new feminism, which might upset the more militant feminists out there. Rather, the plot focuses on telling the story of Wonder Woman’s development and entry into the modern, human world. This serves to actually tell a compelling story without delving into social mores and issues that would otherwise be divisive and distract from the enjoyment of the film.

The story departs slightly from the comic book depiction of Diana on Paradise Island, as well as its introduction of Steve Trevor, the American fighter Ace who is rescued by Diana and ushers her into the real world. There is no invisible jet, no spinning into her costume, and—for the most part—no alter ego. She is introduced to the war brass as Diana Prince, her secret identity from the comic book and TV show, but for the bulk of the film, she is Wonder Woman, even though no one actually addresses her by that title. She is simply Diana.

The bulk of the movie’s humor comes from Diana’s innocent reactions to what passes for modern society during the Great War. Chris Pratt, no I mean Chris Evans, no, sorry, Chris Hemsworth…nope, that’s not it. Oh, right, Chris Pine, of Star Trek, plays Steve Trevor, the American spy working for British intelligence to stop a Nazi chemical doomsday weapon that threatens to derail an armistice to end the war. There is an instant spark with Diana when she pulls him from the ocean after his plane crashes. The chemistry is tangible and plays well on screen, making their dynamic all the more real in the film’s climax. Pine’s portrayal is fine, if a little anachronistic. He tends to exude a 21st century swagger that would not have been tolerated by the British hierarchy in 1918.

The only detractor for the film is in its producer’s vision. Warner Brothers chose Zach Snyder to helm the DC cinematic universe and Snyder’s vision of the heroes in that universe is a dark one. Many fanboys have filled blogs and discussion boards with posts suggesting that Snyder is trying to adapt the DC graphic novels Injustice: Gods Among Us into the movies. That idea gets a serious booster shot with the antagonist in Wonder Woman. Snyder has an artistic eye for cinematic visuals. There is no denying that. But with the muted color pallet he chose for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, it makes the viewing experience depressing. Snyder has a penchant for near monochromatic color filters as he displayed with his highly successful adaptation of the graphic novel 300. That pallet fits certain scenes, such as when Diana is first introduced to London (she says “it’s hideous”), but to make three films that way detracts from the viewing experience.

Despite Snyder’s limited vision, and the feminist hype, Wonder Woman is a great film and definitely worth the price of admission. Heck, skip the matinee and pay full price. It’s still worth it.

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Nothing to Fear with Alien: Covenant

The summer movie rush is upon us leading with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and promising a plethora of blockbusters to come. Last weekend’s big entry into the fray is Ridley Scott’s latest foray into one of the first movie franchises he started back in 1977. Alien: Covenant is Scott’s second film after James Cameron’s highly successful action adaptation of the title. Scott’s original Alien was a true horror film set in space, while Cameron’s sequels were a collection of action-packed battle royals. Scott wanted to put the horror back in the story when he released Prometheus in 2012 and its sequel Alien: Covenant
this summer. Unfortunately, neither Prometheus nor Covenant is particularly scary.

Prometheus was received with mix reviews in 2012, but is generally considered a pale reflection of the alien story. It attempts to fill in the back story of how the Xenomorph we’ve come to know and love got its start. It tells a bleak story about the dawn of humanity and the progenitor of both Humanity and the Xenomorph. Covenant continues that story while trying to get closer in tone and theme to the original 1977 Alien.

If nothing else, it succeeds in copying the feel and tone of the original. The ship design and visuals harken back to the first film and even the sound effects on the Covenant are eerily similar to those on the Nostromo.

The Covenant is a colony ship ferrying more than 2000 people and 1500 embryos to a new world more than 7 years away when the ship encounters a severe ion storm and is damaged. While repairing the ship, the crew detects a signal that shouldn’t be there and goes to investigate. Of course, they find trouble that puts the lives of the crew and colonists in jeopardy.

The plot is so familiar that it is easy to figure out who will die and who will live and the only surprise comes at who will go first. The hero of the film is unsurprisingly a woman named Daniels, played by current “it-girl” Katherine Waterston, who must overcome all odds to save as many as she can and defeat the xenomorphs.

While the film was entertaining and possessing a certain nostalgia for recalling the feel of the first film, it misses in originality and sadly lacks character development. Daniels doesn’t show any growth through the film. We don’t see the “Ripley” moment where she is forced to discover her unknown, never-before-seen inner warrior. The film’s antagonist, David, introduced in Prometheus and played again by Michael Fassbender, is similarly lacking development, though it is not Fassbender’s fault. His alter ego, Walter, shows great development. None of the other characters are there for any reason other than to be Xenomorph chow, which was disappointing because the story hinted at some much needed tension in those characters’ stories that was never realized.

There were one or two scenes where the suspense did build, but sadly, they resolved before hitting the crescendo of panic that a good horror film provides, and real suspense comes from not being able to see the ending; not knowing how the hero will resolve the conflict. This film telegraphed every turn by following the formula set forth by its predecessor. That, coupled with a disappointing ending and a predictable cliff-hanger leaves one bored and definitely not afraid. While it is better than Prometheus, it’s nowhere nearly as scary, suspenseful, or satisfying a film as the original. At best, it’s a “Meh.”

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Ghost Busted in the Shell

Science fiction is a large genre, so large, in fact, that there are sub genres within it. One such niche enjoys a nearly rabid fan base and those devotees refuse to brook any content not in keeping with a narrowly defined parameter for the niche, and that is cyberpunk. In the late 80’s and 90’s, cyberpunk was a growing segment of the Sci Fi phenomenon with its dystopian view of a future where people are fully integrated with technology so that entertainment is had by plugging one’s brain directly into the network. Many cyberpunk movies have enjoyed widespread appeal, such as the Matrix series, while others have fallen flat. One of the more eagerly awaited cinema treatments of a cyberpunk classic is The Ghost in the Shell, and the cyberpunk faithful have resoundingly decried the movie as a failure. Their beef with the film centers more around the casting of Scarlet Johansen as the protagonist, because Johansen is white and the story features an Asian in the role, rather than discussing the real problems with the film, and there are many.

The story centers around a cyborg referred to as “Major” who works for the ministry of security, section 9 in an unnamed future metropolis that looks like a concatenation of Hong Kong, San Francisco,Beijing, New York and any number of other large cities. Major is hot on the trail of a cyber terrorist whom she believes is responsible for the death of her parents and her current condition as a cyborg. During the course of the story, she uncovers a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of her understanding of her identity.

The contrived plot is not a new one and it has been depicted in TV shows and other films several times. The characters are flat and unworthy of empathy and the cinematography is a cacophony of color and light that hurts the eyes and disorients the viewer. The action seems disconnected from the plot and is used just to distract from the otherwise boring and uninspired story.

The one redeeming aspect of this film is Scarlett Johansson, but not for her performance. Johansson’s characterization of Major doesn’t let the viewer into her personal struggle, despite scenes written just for that purpose. She coasts through those scenes, looking confused and detached where one would expect a sharp focus. Her performance was less “Natalia Romanov” and more “Lucy,” with a lot of jumping, running and shooting. The only thing about her performance, and the film in general, that could be construed as positive is the skin tight body suit she wear during combat scenes. The effects of peeling her artificial skin, or detaching her face are interesting, but they’ve been done before. Her nearly perfect physical form, however, is unique and is the only reason to sit through this dismal failure of story telling.

Major’s partner in the film, Batou played by Pilou Asbæk, is the only character that creates a connection with the viewer, but the writers don’t give him enough story. For those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he could be excellent casting for Cable in any upcoming X-Men film.

If you are a fan of Scarlett, see it at the matinee, otherwise, wait for cable. It is not worth full admission price at a mainstream theater.

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Going Rogue One

One of the most heated debates raging in Science Fiction fandom is the Star Wars canon, and what is actually included in it. When George Lucas first released Star Wars in 1977, not he, nor the studios anticipated the popularity of the film and no one could have anticipated its longevity and wide ranging appeal. It has spawned three sequels, numerous books, a couple of cartoon series, several video games and three prequels. Each of these additions tells a different story based in the same universe, sometimes using the same characters. The debate rages over which of these additional stories is “real,” and which is entirely outside the main story. Some say that only the movies are canon, while others say everything is. This weekend sees the first cinematic “additional story” to add to the Star Wars Universe and it is going to add fuel to the fire of this debate.

Rogue One tells a story set between the end of Star Wars episode three, “Revenge of the Sith” and before the events of episode four, “A New Hope,” wherein a young girl, the daughter of the man who designed the dreaded Death Star, joins the rebellion to help the alliance get the plans that are the crux of episode four. I need not worry about spoilers inasmuch as everyone who has seen the original Star Wars knows that the rebels do indeed get the plans and destroy the Death Star. Having said that, one might ask why bother to see this movie. Two reasons: Felicity Jones and Darth Vader.

Jones plays Jyn Erso, a loner who saw her mother killed and father enslaved by the empire and grew up under the care of one of the more radical elements of the rebellion, Saw Gerrera played by Forest Whitaker. A reluctant rebel at first, she manages to motivate the rebels into attacking the empire to try to get the plans for the death star to exploit the weakness her father built into it. This is where the debate is going to rage. According to episode four, the alliance didn’t know if there was such a weakness. Leia even mentioned it to Han Solo by saying “I only hope a weakness can be found.” According to the events in Rogue One, they knew there was a weakness.

Jones does a great job of playing the reluctant hero, and she brings the viewer into Jyn’s tortured world and allows us to understand her motivations. We cheer at her victories and weep for her sorrows and we can’t help but think of her as the little sister who we know is in over her head. This is facilitated by the fact that she looks just like a younger Sara Michelle Gellar.

Vader is a bit of a surprise here, because he actually fights better here than he did in Empire Strikes Back. James Earl Jones reprises the role of Vader’s voice while three actors have credit for his actions. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but enough especially at the end when he is pursuing the stolen plans that will eventually lead him to Tatooine.

Several familiar characters enjoy appearances in this film. Of course, Darth Vader has a role, but so does Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing’s face digitally stitched onto another actor. Also, princess Leia has a cameo with Carrie Fisher’s younger face digitally stitched onto another actress. The ruffian who roughed up Luke Skywalker in A New Hope makes an appearance as does C3P0 and Artoo.

There is another droid in this film, a reprogrammed imperial service droid is the partner of Jyn’s pilot Cassian Andor. The droid, K-2S0 is voice by Alan Tudyk who gives the droid a quick wit and a bit more humanity than even C3P0, if that is at all possible. As I watched the character’s interaction, I kept saying to myself, ‘that violates the laws of robotics.” But maybe that’s the point.

The film’s weakness is its beginning. Too many scene changes and too many plot threads make it difficult to follow along at first and it threatens to throw the viewer out of the story out of frustration. This is necessary to familiarize the viewer with all the moving parts of this story, since, unlike every other Star Wars movie, there is no text crawl at the beginning to set the stage. Fortunately it does pick up when the main story arc becomes clear.

While this is by far not the best Star Wars film, It isn’t the worst one either. There’s no Jar Jar Binks in this one. While it definitely won’t win an academy award (though it may get a technical nod), Rogue One is an entertaining escapist film. It will defiantly be water cooler discussion fodder for weeks as fan boys debate whether or not or even how it fits in the established Star Wars lore.

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In The Nick of Time

It is not often that modern Hollywood makes a movie that forces one to think about the message and engages the audience on a deeper level than thrillers, action fare, or kids’ movies usually achieve. This weekend, Hollywood gave movie goers Arrival starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and this movie is a fantastic respite from the mindless violence of Jack Reacher, the non-stop action of Doctor Strange, or the brainless giggles of Trolls. Arrival engages the viewer on several levels, each one dependant on the next. The characters are deep, complex beings and how they interact drives a lot of the plot of this mind-bending story. It was a relief to see something on the big screen that forced me to engage more neurons than a film has required since I saw Tree Of Life. This movie is a must see if for no other reason than that.

Twelve alien space ships, shaped like kidney beans, appear suddenly around the world. When there is no communication either from the ship or from the government, people begin to riot. There are no laser battles, no fighter chases and no last minute escapes in this story. The ships just sit there. The world governments try in vain to figure out how to talk to the visitors. Finally, when all else fails, they bring in Louis Banks, a well-respected academic specializing in linguistics. But America is not the only government trying to communicate and Louise and her team must crack the code before other governments decide on a less diplomatic solution.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Banks, the linguist recruited by the government to try to communicate with aliens whose ships mysteriously appeared over twelve locations around the globe. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who runs the lab in which Louise works and Whitaker is Colonel Weber, the officer heading the Montana alien site. Adams is a gem in almost every role she plays. She can seamlessly go from a live action Disney Princess in Enchanted to a whistle-blowing nun in Doubt to Lois Lane in Man of Steel to an emotionally vulnerable linguist and take the viewer along with no questions. Jeremy Renner is a likeable rouge in almost every role he plays. He has a quiet, understated command to his presence that makes one feel comfortable around him and he plays that effectively in his role here. Forest Whitaker is both the benevolent leader and the bureaucratic nemesis for the two doctors who try to figure out the alien language before fear leads to violence.

The only part of the film that might bring viewers some consternation is the very hook of the film: Temporal Mechanics. This story weaves its narrative in a deceptively linear story telling fashion, while back-handedly telling the other story of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations of the film and was not too stunned to appreciate the creative way the writers and directors tried to slip one by on me. It is not often that I am surprised by a plot twist, so I really appreciate when I encounter one I didn’t see coming. Be advised, though, that the auditorium was so stunned by this one that when the credits started rolling, no one moved for several moments.

Technically speaking, Arrival is not the state of the art. In fact, photorealistic CGI has gotten so commonplace that it is expected to be good. The aliens, one of the more interesting non-humanoid designs I have seen, look as real as made-up aliens can be expected to look. Where the film excels, at least to me, is the language they developed for the aliens. Perhaps it is the literary nerd in me, but I was totally in with Louise as she tried to figure out how the aliens used a three-dimensional form of writing to communicate. Whoever came up with that, should win a technical Oscar.

Arrival is not the typical fast-paced, action-laden Hollywood blockbuster. Nor is it the emotionally draining, pull-at-your-heartstrings drama. This film is an intellectual journey into the human condition. It informs the viewer while revealing a piece of humanity and entertains all at the same time. I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this film, simply because it made me think. If you’re looking for mindless escapist fare, this film will give you a headache. If you want to think about what you’re seeing, run, don’t walk to the theater today and see Arrival.

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Return of the Dragon

In another of Hollywood’s drive to avoid producing anything amounting to an original idea, Disney has rebooted yet another children’s classic into a CGI spectacle. This time, they went for one of the more heartwarming combinations of cell animation and live action in their vault by updating Pete’s Dragon. The original 1977 film starred Helen Reddy (then a noteworthy songstress trying to break into film) along with Mickey Rooney and introducing Sean Marshal as Pete, the young orphan who is befriended by a loveable dragon he calls Elliot. The film was a kid’s movie, to be sure. Flat performances of two-dimensional characters and hokey scripting of an all-too-predictable plot assured this film wouldn’t appeal to a sophisticated audience, but then, the target audience was 10 years old, so it was good enough and had enough humor for mom and dad to watch along. Its humor and sunny disposition along with its soundtrack made the original Pete’s Dragon a heartwarming movie. It is one of my favorite films in the Disney Vault.

The remake is more sophisticated. It is also less heartwarming.

Bryce Dallas Howard (one of my favorite actresses) plays the female lead named Grace. I cannot say that she plays Helen Reddy’s character, because all of the characters are different except for Pete and Elliot. Grace is engaged to a logging foreman who’s brother, Gavin, is hell bent on chopping down as much forest as he can. In these woods lives young orphan Pete who is being taken care of by his friend Elliot, the dragon. The film goes down a dark path in telling poor Pete’s back story while communicating a message of the errors of deforestation and the loss of the magic of nature. While dark, it is not bleak, however, so don’t think it is a tear jerker, although my granddaughter did cry at one point. The actors’ performances were a highlight. Karl Urban gave a depth to Gavin’s antagonist character that made you feel sorry for him and Howard’s Grace was the performance that drove the story. Robert Redford plays her father, the only other person to have encountered a dragon before the events in the movie.

The story is more sophisticated, to be sure. Hollywood moved away from pure flights of fancy long ago in favor of gritty realism. Grace, a forest ranger, discovers Pete living on his own in the woods and brings him back to town. She is engaged to a single father with a daughter not too much older than Pete. Pete, initially distrustful of people and city life, yearns to return to Elliot and the forest. The dynamics of that family relationship are complex and compelling.

In keeping with the attempt at more realism, Elliot was updated too. The 1977 Elliot was hand drawn and goofy looking. Large, fat green body with impossibly small wings and purple hair made Elliot that much more appealing to kids. This computer generated Elliot is large, but more dog-like in shape and appearance with larger wings. Imagine Clifford the Big Red Dog turn green and sprouted wings. He is quite well rendered, each hair moves with realistic physics, but because of the realism, his dog-like face cannot express emotion as well and as such is not as loveable as was the hand-drawn dragon.

Over all, I enjoyed Pete’s Dragon. It tells a compelling tale and has a positive message for the audience. It is not as heartwarming as the original, but the performances are better and the characters have more depth. I would have preferred it if the story more mirrored the original, rather than delve into some of the plot points it took, but it is still worth watching.

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Suicide Squad is Killing It

I found myself doubting the appeal of the latest DC super hero movie to hit the theaters when it was first announced for several reasons. First, a story of a collection of B-rated super villains that team up to save the world when there are already so many super heroes available to do that seemed problematic. Second, the announced roster of villains wasn’t all that impressive and the casting seemed designed to pull seats rather than to do the story justice. When the first previews were leaked at comic con last year, I was increasingly dubious. The film just didn’t hold any appeal to me, so I doubted very much that I would go. Now, I had the same reservations when Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, and it was the best Marvel film until this year’s Captain America: Civil War, so in keeping a similar open mind, I went to see the film, despite the poor reviews it received. I am glad I did. Despite its depressing and ominous title, Suicide Squad is the most fun DC movie to date.

With Man of Steel and Batman Vs. Superman, DC brought in director Zack Snyder, who has really gone dark, trying to add more gravitas to the stories, apparently thinking that movie goers won’t take a superhero film seriously unless it delves deep into the darkness that inhabits the human soul, and reveals the conflict therein. Both of those films do that in spades, to the point of being rather depressing and making it difficult to appreciate the heroics. Suicide Squad was directed by David Ayer, who also has a bent for making dark films such as Training Day, SWAT, and Fury, but also knows how to inject levity into the film to counterbalance the darkness (although I never did find anything funny in Fury). Zack Snyder does have a directing credit on Suicide Squad, probably for the scenes that set up next year’s Justice League.

The plot is rather simple: in an effort to head off the next Doomsday scenario in a world where Superman died fighting the threat, the government decides to create a task force of meta humans that they can control if they ever need to use them. The Suicide Squad is supposed to be made up of the worst of the worst super villains in captivity. Each is implanted with an explosive capsule that will detonate and kill them if they try to escape and the only chance for a reprieve is to accomplish the task given to them. The plot is bleak and a little thin, though I love the irony that the threat the squad is tasked with eliminating is a threat that the government created in building the team.

The real salvation for Suicide Squad, however, is the cast, which is ironic considering I was doubtful about them to begin with. Will Smith is a fine actor, but I always raise an eyebrow when producers change the ethnicity of an established character because mostly it is done out of some misguided sense of political correctness, or in the case of Wild Wild West—to sell more tickets. But Smith does work as the hit man for hire, Deadshot, in this film. The breakout star, without any question, however, is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. I cannot imagine any other actress assuming that role as accurately, as beautifully and as true to the story as Robbie. She made the film for me. Viola Davis takes a menacing turn as Amanda Waller, the head of a covert government agency tasked with doing things the government can disavow when needed. I’m not used to seeing her as “the bad guy” but she pulls it off easily in this film. Jai Courtney and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, also star as Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc, respectively.

One of the more public discussions is Jared Leto as the Joker. He doesn’t have as significant role in this film as some fans would like, and those fans are being quite vocal about their displeasure. One person is even going as far as to file a lawsuit against Warner Brothers (DC’s parent company) for false advertising. Unfortunately, any real fanboy knows that Joker was never a part of the Suicide Squad. His role in this film serves only two purposes: One, to provide a motivation and back story for Harley Quinn and two, to foreshadow the next Batman movie. He also does interact with the plot in a major way during one of the film’s key sequences, but it is not his movie.

While there are some problems with the script and the dialog, it is good to see a DC movie with plot and character development that consists of more than wrestling with inner darkness. It is also good to see a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, like Batman Vs. Superman did. If the next plate of DC films can continue in this vein, they might just close the gap on Marvel’s cinematic universe and give movie goers a whole different set of films to spend months and years anticipating. Let’s hope that Zack Snyder learns something from this movie in time to make Justice League better than Dawn of Justice, because I would have to say that Suicide Squad is arguably the best DC film yet.

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