xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Objectively, this film had a lot going for it in its conception. It had global scale and an established global cast. Unfortunately it also had a pedestrian script and a weak director.

Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of the first xXx (and no one liked the second). This was definitely the best of the three, with a more complex plot, but sadly also with about as much depth. It is neither James Bond serious, Suicide Squad bizarre, nor Kingsman comic-bookish but has aspects of all those approaches. It can’t quite focus on whether its humor is ridiculously arch, as Toni Collette (Miss You Already) does it, or whether it is deadly serious. Director Caruso’s (I Am Number Four) pacing is all over the place keeping the various aspects from coming together seamlessly.

More frustratingly, while the action is wonderfully conceived, the filming, by design, never really caught a lot of the action (literally, they wanted it to feel like the camera just couldn’t keep up with it). And isn’t that the reason we go to films like these?

The cast is an extraordinary collection of talent. In fact, outside of the Expendables series, probably the densest collection of stars put together for an action film. Vin Diesel (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) of course heads the gang of adrenaline junkies, but he has added two of the top martial artists in the world, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (The Protector 2).

Into that mix he sprinkles in Ruby Rose (John Wick: Chapter 2), Deepika Padukone, Nina Dobrev (The Final Girls), Game of Thrones’ Hound, Rory McCann, and Chinese sensation Kris Wu, not to mention UFC’s Michael Bisping and real-life footballer Neymar. And (yes, more “and’s”) let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island). Seriously, there is someone for everyone in this punch, drive, shoot, explosion, free-fall fest.

In watching the extras, you get a real sense of what it was they thought and hoped they were creating. In many ways Vin was trying to evolve the xXx series as the Fast & Furious had, but with a bit more actual story. But it lost its way despite some excellent schematics to get it there. International audiences were kinder to the film (on the order of 7x the domestic box take), probably due to recognizable faces for them in the cast and a general emphasis on action over dialogue. Vin may be able to pull this out yet…he had the right idea, he just needs a better director and script.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Girlboss

Silly, crude, empowering, oddly romantic, and not a little embarrassing, this is a fun series. And, yes, here we go again with Brit Robertson (A Dog’s Purpose). Seriously unintentional… just a matter of timing.

With this series, Robertson hard turns from young, sure teen to the kind of trainwreck most suitors can’t resist and yet should probably run away from. She cuts loose as the driven, and not a little scary, Sophia, who is trying to figure out her life while simultaneously blowing it up (including dating a drummer).

Her anchors, Jonathan James Simmons (The To Do List) and relative new-comer Ellie Reed, provide both encouragement and guidance, though not always the right kind. But all work well together and balance nicely. And, as her father, Dean Norris (Men, Women, Children) adds a solid sense of familial love and strife.  To add to the fun, there area host of recurring guest appearances by folks such as Melanie Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Jim Rash, Louise Fletcher and the infamous and fabulous RuPaul.

The show is full of humor and reality… and quite a bit of reality stretching, but that is admitted to right up front. Created and written by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect 2), she brings the same kind of humor and heightened reality she loves playing in. The series is a fun distraction, with some reasonable life lessons, and a moment to mark for Robertson, as she has definitely left her child-actor years behind her.

Girlboss

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine (Bernie) dominates this film with a quiet surety and great craft. Much like Tomlin’s turn in Grandma, MacLaine slowly peels back layers of Harriet such that we eventually understand and embrace all of her. Amanda Seyfried (The Big Wedding) keeps up with MacLaine nicely, though it takes some time for her character to settle in on screen. It should also be noted that in her first film, AnnJewel Lee Dixon delivers a firecracker of a performance that bodes well for her career.

As a movie, Word is entertaining, if a bit manipulated. Given that this was also a first feature movie for both director Pellington and writer Fink, it is actually rather impressive. The weaknesses likely stem from Pellington’s TV background, where he stole overused tropes as shorthand to get to moments. But that is a small disparagement for the amusement and emotional tale that is Last Word.

This is a story of life lessons and mottoes with a bit of humor and and a few truly winning moments. It is also a great reminder of where women have come from in the last 70 years and what they had to do in order to pave the way; timely given current society and the recent release of Wonder Woman.

The Last Word

Road, Movie

The trailer for this film made it look like Cinema Paradiso on wheels… a rather irresistible idea. Instead, it is more like Field of Dreams made by Fellini in India. Not so irresistible (and I like Fellini).

In fact, this movie was ultimately rather unsatisfying, particularly since the main character is such a dick. He starts off a petulant boy in a man-suit and ends up, metaphorically at least, becoming a real, full man. But it wasn’t really sold well enough and we never care about the guy as he is, as I said, such a dick.

The supporting characters don’t add much either, though they aren’t unlikable or unentertaining. But they only exist as guides and bumpers for the main character whose motivations and goals are obtuse, at best, and non-existent at worse.

I will fully admit that perhaps I missed the point or was the wrong audience on this one, so I’m not saying run away unequivocally. There are aspects to this that show ability and intriguing possibility, but for me this never came together and I’d like my time back.

Road, Movie

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass)

You may recall that  I recently got to see another Iranian film, A Dragon Arrives!, and had mixed reactions. During the introduction to that film, this Palme d’Or co-winner was mentioned, so I decided to continue my understanding and education.

Up front, after watching it, I did look up the critical response to this movie. To say it was divisive is kind. Taste of Cherry is definitely a love it or hate it film. There is a particularly wonderful response by Roger Ebert. I also watched an interview with the director, Kiarostami, who is credited with altering the path and possibility of Iranian cinema with this offering (particularly its subject matter).

So, here’s the thing. Where this film falls apart for me is at the very end. Much like Dragon, it takes a wild left turn to either provide distance or make a point that was utterly lost on me. While I never expected an explicit ending, Kiarostami’s choice was frustrating at best. The lead up to the resolution is either a physical metaphor for the struggle of the main character or a long, drawn out and boring road trip movie on a circular track. Neither is a ringing endorsement, though the first option has a bit more resonance as a manifestation of the rumination involved in the man’s decision (which may be an unintended apologist’s remark).

After listening to the director and seeing the film, I can honestly say I don’t need to see another Kiarostami bit of cinema. From a purely cultural voyeuristic viewpoint, it certainly provides a window on a particular lawn to consider.

Taste of Cherry

Wonder Woman: Female empowerment or just a brass bikini?

***SPOILERS ABOUND***SPOILERS ABOUND***

When I discussed this movie yesterday, I alluded to some frustration and disagreement about whether and how this film succeeded on a purely female empowerment level. To really discuss that meant massive spoilers, so I avoided it. However, after many more conversations IRL, it seems like I should dive into it all, best I can, but with the proviso that you should see the film first in order to make up your own mind and to not have anything revealed.

I will try to avoid all discussions of acting ability and dialogue in this conversation and concentrate solely on the plot points of the script and the scenes that made the cut. Because, truth be told, I think the root of my issues lay there not just in the unbalanced acting ability onscreen.

Let’s acknowledge that, yes, there is a strong woman pounding the tar out of bad guys. Let’s also acknowledge that a very gifted female director is behind the scenes and that she has cemented her legacy with this film alone, even if she hadn’t already with her previous efforts.

That said, there are two main issues that I think throw this film out of pure female empowerment and both grow out of a single root cause. They also both occur in the final act of the movie and are interrelated, but separate issues.

The root cause is the well-indicated, without crossing the PG line, of Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman’s night together. We should all have known at the moment that if they had sex, he needed to die. Honestly, I didn’t put it together at that point, but I did wonder at why the heck they did. Not because I’m a prude. And we know Wonder Woman knows the pleasures of the flesh from their conversation in the boat, so it wasn’t out of the question. However, crossing that line between these characters fundamentally changes many things that have implications later that weaken Wonder Woman’s decisions to my mind.  At the very least, it muddies the waters. Also, the way it is filmed, it appears to be his decision, even if he seems to acknowledge some unspoken nod off camera. Had the shot been from her POV it may have mitigated the issue, but it didn’t appear to be a POV shot to me. And, beyond that, I still think the scene shouldn’t have happened. But, if it had to happen, it should have been 100% with her in control on screen, not even in the implied control of a man. This moment ultimately colors two other major decision points.

First, Trevor sacrifices himself. The question here is why? There is an argument I’ve been involved with that claims Trevor is only at the front because of Wonder Woman and, therefore, all of his actions are in support of her. I disagree. We know Trevor never just follows orders from Etta’s comments to are Ares-in-disguise. He would have gone anyway in order to hunt down Dr. Poison/Maru, even if he hadn’t ever considered gods in his midst. But he also chooses to sacrifice himself both as a humanitarian and because he thinks he’s saving the girl he’s fallen for, not really fully believing she was a goddess and invulnerable (despite the earlier moment at the village). More importantly, Trevor taking the initiative diminishes Diana’s ownership of the resolution of the fight. Sure, there is a bigger fight going on, but that still isn’t his focus or what he really quite believes at that moment, by my and other’s estimation and even by the flashback/fill-in (cheap, BTW) of their conversation. And keep in mind that Ares, a decidedly male entity, is arranging all of this through his nudges, so who is in control?

Second, the final motivation for Diana’s ability to beat Ares is driven by…. and here is where the Fifth Element comments from my earlier post come in… love. But is that universal love, the capability to love humankind and go beyond the Amazons-first mentality, or is is the love of Steve Trevor, specifically, that drives her? And this is where their night together matters. Had they not been together, the moment of epiphany for Diana would have been chaste and unencumbered by the personal and physical love of a man. It would have been a realization about herself and, more generally, about all those around her. Instead, it comes off as a grief-stricken response about a relationship because there was a relationship. Legit? Sure, but it diminishes her into emotional woman, not a super hero defending the human race. In fact, it makes her no better than the petty Olympians to whom she is related in this tale who kill each other for personal sleights, damage and death to Earth below be damned.

Still not with me on this. OK, consider the final scene before the brief coda. Diana thanks Bruce for “bringing him back to her.” She doesn’t say, “thanks for reminding me why I do this,” nor “I miss all of these great heroes.” Nope, this is all about Trevor in the script, no one else and nothing else mattered in this reverie.

I don’t want to overburden a popcorn film with too much analysis, but Wonder Woman has been long anticipated for so many reasons and the reaction has been so strong, that I wanted to at least put on some critical goggles and consider the implications before we christen it a guide for all girls. It has some great aspects as reference, but I think the end was weakened in ways that could have been easily avoided.

Wonder Woman

Ok, yes, this is the best DC has done since The Dark Knight. There a story with shape and a kick-ass XX chromosome in the lead and behind the camera. It definitely exceeded my expectations that were weighed down by years of DC misfires and almost-rights, like Suicide Squad.

That said, it ain’t perfect. The script is still a bit too dour and it treats the audience like idiots at times (seriously obvious stuff they pretend are big reveals). Given Hienberg’s previous credits, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised on that point. But the result is something that only passes the Bechdel test on a technicality, from my point of view (in the beginning there are no men on the island). I bring up the test because the film, frankly, wouldn’t work without Chris Pine (Hell or High Water); his character, sense of humor, and his charisma. Gal Gadot (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is pretty, but honestly she doesn’t have the same level of magnetism nor more than few inches of depth of emotion to share.

There are a host of supporting characters that have great fun: David Thewlis (Anomalisa), Danny Huston (Paranoid), Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In),  and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle) chief among the cast. There are also some smaller roles worth noting: Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead), Robin Wright (Everest), and Ewan Bremner (Poet in New York) who each have some nice moments.

An interesting insight came from my movie partner (a woman) who likened the whole thing to The Fifth Element in basic storyline. I like the idea of that and see what was likely intended, but here I diverge from her in agreement. I don’t think that is what I saw on screen because of the inclusion of a single scene that blurs the personal v. universal love drive. And I have to shut up at this point to avoid spoilers. But I discuss this and other points here.

Here was the most telling aspect for me. When I left Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie I really had little interest in, I was soaring and laughing and sad and ready for more. When I left Wonder Woman, I was entertained, but it wasn’t sticking with me on an artistic or pure popcorn level and honestly didn’t care if I saw another Wonder Woman storyline outside of the Justice League. I could be swayed, but I’m not chomping to see what comes next.

Interestingly, they’ve recast the Wonder Woman story by dropping it back to WWI from WWII, I suspect to give some distance from Captain America, whose echos are hard to shake given the war-time venue. It is a jarring change if you don’t immediately recognize the outfits, however.

I love strong female characters, but what I love more is great scripts and movies and this just wasn’t that. It was the best DC has had to offer in a long time though, and I am glad young girls have an icon to look up to, both in Wonder Woman and director Patty Jenkins (Monster), but as a movie it could have been crisper and so much more.

Wonder Woman

Miss Sloane

This is a story that you are hoping has been heightened for drama, but you secretly fear has been watered down to be credible. Basically, it is a behind-the-scenes fiction of the influence and methods of lobbyists on the laws of the land. As if you didn’t have enough to feel frustrated by and fear in DC, this will give you more of both.

Jessica Chastain (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) championed this film to release and you can see why she wanted the role. Her character is strong, driven, and massively flawed. Unfortunately, she isn’t very sympathetic, even though her cause is just and her lack of self-delusion is fairly small. Basically, you can respect and admire her efforts, but you can’t help but revile the person (or blame her) for her actions and self-same efforts despite any results she may attain.

The rest of the cast breaks down into three groups. Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending), in larger roles that work with Chastain’s character directly. Both deliver interesting performances. Mark Strong, in particular, shows a different side of himself from what we’ve seen in the past.

Opposing Chastain’s Sloane are a collection of solid actors, if not solid performances, who were probably picking splinters from their teeth at the end of the tale. Michael Stuhlbarg (Arrival), Sam Waterston (Grace and Frankie), and John Lithgow (The Accountant) were all just a little too arch and a little too angry. These are all men capable of subtlety, but only Lithgow even came close to trying for a lighter touch.

In the last group are some smaller, but noticeable roles played by Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!), Douglas Smith (Terminator: Genisys), and Jake Lacy (Obvious Child). Pill and Lacy each have a couple very nice moments story-wise, while Smith just has great presence on screen, despite having very little to do.

What this film really needed was Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Not that Perera’s script isn’t quite solid and fast and in the style of Sorkin, but Sorkin it ain’t. To be fair, however, as Perera’s first script, it is impressive. Director John Madden (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) kept up the pace and intensity nicely for the 2+ hours and stuck to the bare realities of the story, rarely going for manipulation. However, Madden takes some of the blame for any over-acting that existed as well. Keeping it all a bit more restrained would have heightened the disturbing nature of the movie. Instead, he hoped to provide a sense of relief and joy as Chastain battles the “monsters” even though she, herself, isn’t much better as an individual; she simply chose the more palatable cause.

If you are up for some political intrigue and the continued dashing of what hopes you may have that we live in a functional society, this is a good movie for you. It will also work if you like complex suspense films that are more cerebral than flashy, as the story and the machinations are wonderfully complex. However, if you’re looking for some escapism, you should run the other way. This isn’t going to get your mind off anything.

Miss Sloane

The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

Between making Mimic and Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) co-wrote and directed this creepy piece of horror in a 1930s Spanish orphanage. It is loaded with trademark elements of del Toro (underground venues, visually disturbing images, odd characters). Backbone sits somewhere between classic and modern horror films in its approach. It is much more loaded with suspense than gore, but it also tackles subjects that are disturbingly human. The visual metaphor of the unexploded bomb is also a fascinating bit of understated drama and comment.

The Criterion disc is filled with extras. Perhaps the most intriguing bit of information was the guidance from del Toro that Backbone was intended as a companion piece for Pan’s Labyrinth.  There is a certain visual synergy between the two, though the later film was so strongly influenced by his Hellboy efforts that it is leaps ahead in the production design. But the essentials of the effects of war on children remain a constant.

If you’re looking for a del Toro you’ve missed or are in need of a quieter form of horror in counterpoint to most of what’s out there now, this could fill the bill.  It isn’t his best, or even his most entertaining from that time period, but it is solid and, with Pan’s an interesting set of commentaries.

The Devil

The Swimsuit Issue (Allt flyter)

With the English title I was expecting something more along the lines of Calendar Girls or The Full Monty. The original title of this film is actually a bit more on target for the story. Loosely translated it means “everything is flowing well” or “going in the right direction.” That’s a very loose interpretation, but you get the idea.  Really, it is more a family drama with comedy than a comedy with family drama.

Of course, while this is a comedy, it is a Swedish comedy, so I didn’t expect a lot of belly laughs. It is more subtle than A Man Called Ove, and even a bit darker, in its way, about the characters. Though both are character driven, Swimsuit is more wry. The script is also more forced, but it still manages to entertain with some fun moments as well as an overall story.

The Swimsuit Issue

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…