Wonder Woman

June 5, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

The superhero movieverse continues to expand, and DC is desperately trying to keep up with Marvel. In the comic book world, they’re fairly even. Superman and Batman pretty much rule the empire, but the feminist icon Wonder Woman isn’t that far behind. They’re all a part of the Justice League, that also includes Green Lantern (…) and Aquaman. In the movie world, DC has had lackluster results for the most part compared to Marvel. But they want to change that, and “Wonder Woman” is their first effort as a step in the right direction.

Quite. Gal Gadot plays the titular character; and, at first I had reservations about her as a leading actress. In the beginning moments of the film, she looks more like a Kardashian model than a would-be superhero. But once we are taken back to her origins, watching her grow as a warrior goddess, it starts to feel more credible.

First, she really can kick ass. Diana, the character’s actual name, comes from a paradise island called Themyscira, and is raised by the Queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She is not her mother, but acts as one. Her sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright), believes that Diana has a gift of physical prowess and can be a great asset. She wants to train her, and make her a warrior. But Hippolyta has reservations, and wants to protect her. We learn that the backstory of their people has to do with the god Zeus, whose son Ares poisons Zeus’s creation of mankind with the need for war. Diana’s people, the Amazons, believe that if Ares is destroyed, mankind will be just and good because Ares’ influence of warmongering will be gone. It’s revealed that Zeus left behind a weapon after fighting his son, a “godkiller”, in case Ares returns to destroy the Amazons.

Worlds collide as WWI rages in the late teens of the 20th century, and Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) finds himself crash landing in the ocean surrounding the island. He’s chased by the Germans, and a war spills out into the island’s shore. Diana makes a choice to follow Trevor back to the west, to help stop the war, believing that Ares is behind it all. Trevor doesn’t really follow her logic, but believes in her as an ally, and sees what kind of power she has.

It turns out that Trevor is quite handy as well, being a spy for the British, and capturing a book of chemical gas formulas composed by “Doctor Poison” (Elena Anaya), who works for the Germans in chemical warfare, developing mustard gas among other things. By giving the book to the British, Trevor believes it can help stop the war. Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), believes in bringing an end to the war with an armistice summit. Diana thinks that General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is the one who must be stopped, as she believes he is Ares.

Trevor enlists a ragtag group of men including Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and Cheif (Eugene Brave Rock), none who are that special in their own right, but are willing to join Trevor in an almost suicide mission to stop the spread of the poison gas by infiltrating a German gala. Diana goes on her own, to the chagrin of Trevor, who still thinks she’s delusional about Ares. Well, it turns out…she might be right after all.

The film is not entirely wall to wall action; but its balance of humor and character development is nicely strung together by direction Patty Jenkins. There is even some touching romance in the film to make it even more fulfilling. It’s summer action block buster entertainment at its finest; and it’s nice to see a woman at the helm, a strong woman at that, who more than proves her worth as a superhero. Wonder Woman will join the Justice League later this year. Before this film, I was weary–but now, I’m actually a lot more intrigued. Maybe this film is the changing tide for DC’s cinematic fortunes. It certainly is a worthy pivot.

My rating: :-)

Man of Steel

July 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“The world’s too big, Mom.”

“Make it small.”

Superman has been probably the most recognizable super hero ever created. Back in the 50’s, he made his way from comic book form into a TV legend. In the late 70’s, we finally saw Superman on the silver screen (I’m not counting “Mole Men”). Richard Donner did a spectacular job transcending the super hero into a gorgeous blue and red symbol of justice. He was kind, sensitive, and well…super. He was indestructable. Maybe we needed a hero like that during the waning days of the Cold War, I don’t know. But we embraced Superman.

Then, things got a little…weird. While “Superman II” was a fantastic sequel (either version you see), “Superman III” saw the decline in the franchise. And do we need to go into “Superman IV: Quest For Peace”? This marked the end of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman. We were given another taste in 2006 with the elephantine “Superman Returns”, a complete waste of time and money. And what we unfortunately didn’t realize was that between the mess of IV and “Returns”, we had 2 very good TV shows still making Superman a great story (“The Adventures of Lois & Clark” and “Smallville”).

I had always wanted to see “Smallville” be made into a feature film rather than see the franchise rebooted from the start again. But then Christopher Nolan stepped in, and things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

I wish, though, that it had headed to the right director. Zack Snyder, a notoriously whimsical visual director who seems to constantly be bereft of any thematical or narrative arc, takes the helm here and like he did with “Watchmen”, he makes an ambitious but completely lost movie. At least he didn’t permeate the film with stop-and-slow motion camerawork, though. And, he was given half a good script to work with.

Things get started a bit slowly, however. Not only is this an origin story for Superman, it’s also loaded with backstory for Krypton itself. The first fifteen minutes feel like it belongs more in a sci-fi action yarn than a superhero film. But we are given a handful of characters, Jor-El (well played by Russell Crowe), his wife Laura (Ayelet Zurer), and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Jor-El and Zod saw eye to eye on only one thing: that Krypton was dying. How they want to go about preserving the race beyond the planet’s demise is another matter. Zod is militaristic, so he stages a coup against the Council. Jor-El thinks this is not the way to go about things, and tries to send the first biological born child on Krypton to another planet to start a new race there. This infuriates Zod because he wants something called a ‘codex’ that is sent along with Kal-El, Jor-El’s son. Jor-El is murdered, and Zod and his gang are imprisoned. Krypton eventually falls apart.

But before that happens, Kal-El lands on earth, and we are immediately thrown into the future about 30 years to see an already grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who seems to already be intent on saving people with super powers. He saves people on a rig that’s on fire, and also saves the life of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while searching on a ship that came from Krypton that could tell him about his past. Lane was part of a research team that was excavating things in ice, and found the ship as well.

Clark has had a troubled past, we learn through flashbacks. As a kid, his father (extremely well played by Kevin Costner) believes these powers he has will be seen as a threat to human kind and tells him not to use them. Clark saves a bunch of kids on a bus and this disappoints his father. “What was I supposed to do, just let them die?” he asks. “Maybe,” his father trails off in response.

This father/son angle is the strongest part of the film. I wish it would have stayed on this path. There is a lot of guilt that Clark takes with him into adulthood, which also explains why he’s so intent on helping people. But this isn’t explored all that much because…

…Krypton is destroyed and the jailed rogues led by Zod are freed, and go searching for Kal-El. They find him, send a message to the world that “You Are Not Alone”, and then send a message to America that they need to give up the alien or be destroyed. Clark, who by now has been identified in print because of a leak by Lois Lane to a blogger, turns himself in.

After that, the film just becomes a joyless exercise in action and extremely noisy explosions. Now, in the middle of all this is a very quiet, patient story of a man who is told he has this great gift and can save mankind. Superman has always been a very Christlike story. He is both god and man. He has the power to save, heal, and he can make the world a better place. His struggle with his identity, and his struggle with his father’s acceptance and self-acceptance is a very good story. But it doesn’t pay off because Superman has to stop Zod.

And the biggest problem I have with this is that there is no dramatic tension between Zod and Superman. Zod is Jor-El’s nemesis, not Superman’s. Sure, Zod killed Superman’s father; but Superman never knew his father. He never even knew where he came from until he was an adult. Zod is simply a cosmic villain, and Shannon plays him at such a heightened, cartoonishly overzealous level that he’s never really anything more than a raving madman. His henchmen do a lot of dirty work, causing another “miniboss sndrome” (the film takes a detour to show us 10-15 minute long sequences of the hero vanquishing lesser villains just to fill space); and, to my surprise, Superman does some dirty work himself. He nearly demolishes half the city of New York while taking Zod with him.

This isn’t the Superman we love! Superman would never destroy anything; and if he did, he would do that thing where he spins around the world a bunch of times to fix what he had broken.

While Henry Cavill turns in a very good performance as Superman, Amy Adams seems very miscast and out of place as Lois; and the two share no chemistry. The only chemistry that really blossoms is between the young Clark and his father. There the movie is very good. It just doesn’t last long enough or follow through for me to completely buy the whole package. The special effects and fights are grandiose, but they grow very tired very quickly because we know how it’s going to end and I’m kind of tired of seeing New York City get demolished in the movies.

This movie was too big. When they made it smaller, it was effective and sound. Instead of going so big, they should’ve kept it smaller. Then it would have been, like young Clark, focused.

My rating: :?

The Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan rescued one of the most self-destructive franchises in movie history when he resurrected Batman in “Batman Begins”. What began as a promising run with Tim Burton in 1989 devolved quickly once it was taken over by Joel Schumacher in the mid-90’s; and the culminating film, “Batman & Robin”, promised that the franchise had completely fallen apart. After that film, I think we were all sick of Batman. At least, we were sick of *that* Batman. But, Batman as a symbol of justice, as a comic book hero, is still intriguing. The costume, the super rich alter ego, and the inner struggle of the character, are still something we yearn to see.

And so, Christopher Nolan, who at the time was still making his way into the Hollywood mainstream, rebooted the whole thing and started from scratch. At the time, we didn’t have an onslaught of comic book movies every year, so it didn’t feel as much as a saturated genre (as, say, watching “The Amazing Spider-Man” did). And Nolan took a serious approach to Batman, someone who wanted to do a character study as well as an action film. The result, “Batman Begins”, was a smashing success. Finally we saw Batman as a real character. The film was dark and brooding much like Burton’s 1989 version; but we learned so much more about Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. With champion efforts by good actors like Michael Caine and Chrisitan Bale, this Batman movie was thorough, thought-provoking, and sensational.

His follow up was one of the biggest and best comic book epics brought on screen with “The Dark Knight” in 2008. Though that movie was surrounded by the hype of the passing of Heath Ledger, the film stood as a fantastic, big scale action thriller with one of the best “villain” performances in film history. It would be hard to top an achievement such as “The Dark Knight.”

This time, Nolan tries his best with “The Dark Knight Rises”, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us with big explosions and massively complex action sequences. The result? Well, I said it’d be hard to top “The Dark Knight”. And, it certainly doesn’t come close. In fact, this to me was the weakest of the 3 films. It spends so much time on the action and too much time on corporate politics, and so little on character, that this was an imbalance.

“Rises” begins big with an escape by the villain Bane (played by Tom Hardy), a hulking cross between a roided up bomber pilot and Darth Vader who has a curious wit that could be appreciated if we could understand what he was saying half the time. While the voice is a bit bass amplified and broadcast through surround sound, sometimes it’s so muddled that you just have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Other times, his voice goes so over the top it’s hard to tell if he’s aware of how silly he sounds. But when Bane throws his hands, it’s no laughing matter. There’s no question that he is the most physically imposing villain that Batman has faced in the entire movie series, dating back to the 60’s.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is bankrupt after a venture with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who seemingly comes out of nowhere to help Wayne Enterprises, and has invested in a fusion power project that has ultimately cost him his fortune, and his board removes him from the company. She and Wayne share a brief romance; but there isn’t a lot of time spent on their relationship, and perhaps it’s for the best in the end.

As for Batman, he’s retired. Wayne suffered an injury that has left him a bit crippled. This is taken advantage of by another adversary, who is Selina Kyle, or, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). She’s a burglar who only steals from rich people…like Robin Hood. Only with much more sex appeal. There are two sides to this character, though, and she is actually one of the stronger ones in the film thanks to a brilliant performance by Hathaway. There is a vulnerability inside her; but she “masks” it (ahem) with a hard edge that says she can’t be manipulated. Wayne somewhat sympathizes with her; she feels something for him as well, but she just can’t show it.

Batman does make a comeback, however, as expected. Otherwise I guess the movie would’ve only been 45 minutes long and called “The Dark Knight Says I’d Rather Not”. He’s not as strong as Bane, however, and routinely gets dominated by Bane’s strength and agility. The reason Bane is so similar to Batman physically is because he was trained by the same man, Ra’s al Ghul (reprised by Liam Neeson) in the League of Shadows. Bane was excommunicated, and is seen as Batman as a “rogue”. But Bane wins out, and Batman is cast into the same prison that Bane grew up in, with his only hope of escaping is by climbing out of a hole and leaping to freedom. Allegedly, Bane is the only one who could ever do this, and it was when he was a child.

The city of Gotham is at Bane’s mercy, and he destroys a part of it with explosives in the ground that erupt and blow up a football stadium (one of the more breathtaking sequences in the film), and some of the bridges. It also encases the entire police force underground, leaving the city to a Lord of the Flies-like Martial Law. However, this won’t last very long as he has coveted a nuclear bomb after releasing the core from its fusion power chamber, that will detonate in 5 months. Whomever programmed a time bomb for that long either forgot to carry the one, or is a very patient madman.

The only cops that are above ground are the disgraced former Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a bright young cop named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Blake still believes in the Batman even though he’s part of a police force that was after him when Batman was still capering in Gotham City.

All of these stories meshing together do make for an ok 165 minute lark. There’s never a moment of boredom in the film because it’s packed with so many intense sequences and climactic action scenes. It does not wear you out. However, because of the scale of the epic, and a drop off in character development, there are some lulls in the storylines that leave some very wide open plot holes. I’m all for suspending disbelief, but this really tries your patience on more than a few occasions, especially at the end. Then it goes beyond suspending disbelief to the point where you have to damn near expel it. Also, Bane is not nearly as interesting or consistent as the Joker was. Granted, it would be hard to top Heath Ledger’s performance. But Bane really doesn’t have much of a personality; and, as I mentioned before, it’s hard to understand a word he’s saying sometimes. Hardy does as much with his eyes and body language to convey his meaning; but the overpowering inability to hear his words really hurts the performance. I blame this on post production and Nolan’s stubbornness more than Hardy’s acting chops, however.

The film’s pace is fine, and it does have some superior effects; on balance, I would have still recommended it…had it not been for the ending, as I mentioned above. Nolan has always seemed to rise above standard movie cliches and even with the somewhat bloated “The Dark Knight”, he still told a compelling story rich in story and character, and here I just felt left out. But beyond that, which I could still forgive, the ending is not only cliched, but ultimately impossible. And in its final shot, more groan inducing than moving. Nolan is an intelligent writer and filmmaker; but here, he seems to take the easy way out to appease the audience. I would’ve expected a more complicated or compromising climax out of such a grandiose trilogy. Instead, it’s very predictable and relies so heavily on your belief in comic book hero magic that it just felt out of place in a film series full of so much…reality. And that’s what had separated Nolan’s Batman series from the others.

This is still a strong trilogy; in time, I may forgive the film for its flaws. For now, I can only give a mixed review and say I would’ve liked to see more out of a filmmaker I respect as much as Christopher Nolan.

My rating: :?