Tag Archives: Fantasy

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

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

A Dog’s Purpose

Sometimes you just hate a movie for making you like it. This film is in that category. It is a near bullet-proof collection of puppies, romance, comedy, and life lessons. It isn’t a great movie, but it knows how to pull heart-strings. I have a love/hate relationship with being emotionally manipulated by a flick in that way. Sometimes it is just what I’m looking for, but I always feel dirty afterwards.

The primary success of this tale is down to a very few actors. K.J. Apa (Riverdale) and Britt Robertson (Space Between Us) in the primary section make a great couple. [For the record, this confluence of Robertson movies was  unintended and unexpected and there is still one more to come.] Robertson makes her moments seem almost improvised. Her naturalness and charisma are necessary to make the whole movie make sense. She has to become a true “love of his life” so that Dennis Quaid’s (The Words) resolution of the tale makes sense. And I also give props to Quaid for capturing some of Apa’s mannerisms to let us feel he is the older version.

And, of course, the voice of the various dogs by Josh Gad (Angry Birds Movie) creates the entire emotional level-set of the piece. Gad is kept at a very even energy, allowing the situations to speak mostly for themselves. He never goes to his extremes, which keeps it all at just the right sensibility with a loving and slightly baffled dog viewing the world through a very narrow lens and a pretty small brain.

Director Lasse Hallström (Hundred Foot Journey) is very comfortable in this arena and he keeps the script moving along. He lingers on the darker moments just long enough to allow another dive into the comforting light of reincarnation, which keeps him from having to keep raising those stakes past credibility.  I will admit that the handling of the transitions between segments was handled pretty well on those lines. The cadre of 5 writers on the script managed to merge their voices to something cohesive, but not something overly memorable. There were also some definite gaps in research on their part around K-9 dogs and police procedure.

See this with someone you care about or when you just need a sugary drink to raise your spirits. Or see it for Robertson, if you’re following her career. Or see it if you’re a dog freak and love pretending you know what’s going on in their furry brains. There is entertainment to be had here… not a lot to return to, but enough to snack on once.

A Dog

The Space Between Us

What could have been a really solid science fiction romance in the vein of The Martian meets (pick any teen romance), ends up as a sweet film with no teeth that leaves adults in the dust. I so wanted this to be more than it was.

Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland) and Asa Butterfield (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) play your typical young couple separated by circumstances and, literally, the world who find each other. Both are strong actors. Both do what they can with the script they are provided, but neither is overly deep or realistic because the story just isn’t. Despite that, they both make their characters feel real, within that limitation.

The two primary adults in the film have their own journeys to navigate, but the movie doesn’t really give them the space they need either. Carla Gugino (San Andreas) delivers what she has to, though she ends up sort of hollow due to a lack of script and screen time. And Gary Oldman (Léon: The Professional) was just off in this role. His reactions were far too broad and obvious for me. He is usually an actor of such great power, and in this he is a fragile and uncontrolled mess as an actor. His performance is within the bounds of the sense of the story, but that is another problem.

Director, Peter Chelsom (Hector and the Search for Happiness) shook what he could from the movie. I think he could have exerted a stronger hand over several moments to keep them from going as large as they did, but he generally kept the main relationship at an even and digestible tenor. The real problem was the script… which you may have picked up on by now.

I wish Space had included some of the craft and complexity that Loeb’s other recent screenplay, Collateral Beauty, had contained.  I could even give Loeb and his co-writers a break on the utterly absurd faster-than-light communication if he hadn’t also blown other major science issues. You’re only allowed one big lie per story. More than that and your audience notices and starts to get annoyed, even if they don’t know why. The story was also massively inconsistent in what Butterfield’s character knows or has been exposed to. This tale had a lot of potential, but little of it was realized because the script writers thought that their audience wouldn’t notice the difference, which was a mistake. Just as I would get engaged with the characters, another silly assertion would arise and I’d have to take a breath and consciously ignore the stupidity. Sort of breaks your rhythm as a viewer.

Ultimately, this is a film that will appeal to a younger audience and, in fact, they may enjoy it a great deal as they tend to be more forgiving as long as the main characters are engaging. But even as a metaphor or allegory, adults will be challenged by some of the logic and lack of depth. At least watching Robertson and Butterfield work is always rewarding. The two are growing up to be very capable actors and will be around a long time if they can negotiate their transitions to fully adult roles. They are certainly on the right track… they just have to get their managers to pick better scripts for them.

The Space Between Us

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

Matinee

When director Joe Dante (The Hole) got together with, among others, the writer of the original TRON, the result is this perfect recreation\satire of a 50s B-movie with a 1990s perspective and a heavy flavoring of The Brady Bunch thrown in (well, a Halloween episode anyway). The film subtly skewers the era as well as brings out the magic of the movies, particularly the monster movies upon whose shoulders it is standing.

Matinee is a quiet film of growing up during a political crisis, making it rather applicable today. Unfortunately, its pacing and sensibility remain in the late 50s, so it likely will not resonate with most current audiences. It didn’t when was released over 20 years ago for similar reasons. Just because art is done well, doesn’t mean it will find an audience.

Everyone in the cast embraced the approach, from the young actors portraying a real sense of naivete and guileless charm to John Goodman (Kong: Skull Island) and Cathy Moriarty (The Double) as jaded Hollywood purveyors of schlock. Moriarty, in particular, gets to do this on multiple levels. There are a slew of recognizable faces from horror films of the era as well, which was a nice nod.

There are some surprising moments in the movie, and it avoids a slew of traps that you think are laid out for it as well. Check it out for a look back at what movie going was sort of like (and where it almost went). If you think this is hyperbole, check out The Tingler as a reference.  It certainly isn’t a great movie, but you have to respect the result given the intent.

Matinee

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Oh yeah, summer is here! James Gunn (Super) gave it a heck of a kick-off with GOTG Vol 2. If it isn’t quite as surprising as his first, it is still one crazy roller-coaster of a tale, retaining its unabashed and unapologetic sense of fun. The original movie was the origin of the team. This second go round is about fixing all the relationships and tying up the loose ends as we head into the Infinity War. In many ways it is what Fast & Furious wants to be, but has never had the writing and acting to match.

From the moment the movie starts you are set up to understand that the action will always be secondary to the characters and the fun this round. While not nearly as perfect as the opening to Deadpool, it comes close in its intention for setting the first frame. Admittedly, the rest of the movie tries just a bit too hard on all counts, but I suspect it will even out with rewatching. And, yes, I will be back watching this again.

In an effort to keep my promise and avoid spoilers, I can’t really go into much. I will say there are a couple fun cameos, such as Ben Browder (Farscape) who pop up. And Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) did  a very credible Tilda Swinton/Cate Blanchette as one of the many challenges the Guardians face this round.

However, I will say, nay beg, Gunn to get rid of the Howard the Duck references. They are really jarring at this point and, frankly, pull me out of the movie every time. I get it is an 80s nod, but who really cares anymore?

Start your summer off right. I have no idea how the rest will go, but I’m glad it began with the crazy, psychedelic joy that is the Guardians. Sure it is sugar for the brain, but sometimes, that’s just fine!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Red Turtle is beautifully animated and sweetly written. Told almost entirely without dialogue, there is never a question about the interactions of the characters. That result is even more impressive when you realize how simply and minimally drawn everything is.

The core of the story, however, is a rather odd bit of fantasy/myth that wraps it all up. How you parse the meaning, well, that will be up to you. There are sweet ways to interpret the overall tale and more cynical versions as well. I tend to be a romantic, but honestly leaned toward the cynical at the end of this one. Perhaps it was simply a matter of timing for me.

Regardless of how you parse it, the story is an effective tale of frustration and love. As his first full-length feature, Michael Dudok de Wit’s results are pretty amazing. The lack of a clear choice probably hurt it the most during the Oscars, though it certainly did well enough everywhere else. Much like Takahata’s (Only Yesterday) work, who served as artistic producer, the tale is allowed to speak for itself and is approached with the lightest of hands artistically. It is a beautiful screen meditation, and worth seeing, but not one that I will be coming back to again and again. At least, I don’t think I will.

The Red Turtle

Thale

Aleksander Nordaas’ award winning bit of cinema is one of those rare films that lives in the horror genre but manages to transcend it as a story. This tale lives somewhere between suspense, horror, and fantasy by focusing on the characters, mystery, myth, and story. Most horror forgets that good story is based on characters, not just about setting up mildly interesting characters so they can be killed off in spectacular ways.

This is a very short film (81 minutes). While there is certainly some carnage (and perhaps a bit too much vomiting at the top) most of the film is dialogue and relationship work. You get to know the four main characters and, to some degree, understand and sympathize with all of them. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of Spring in its feel and approach. It is, at time, beautifully filmed, but also quite good at stretching the tension to provide a good ride.

Thale

Marvel’s Iron Fist

This is by far the most disappointing of the Marvel Universe series that Netflix has produced, which is why it has taken me so long to complete the run. It is the weakest writing and the least stylistic. It is, however, steeped in the mythos of the other tales: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These aspects make it more interesting than it has earned, frankly.

Iron Fist, as a character, has somewhat nebulous powers and rules, and his backstory is only marginally interesting for most of the series. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) manages a sweet demeanor, and the somewhat lost vibe of a young child in the world, but he is also just plain dumb as a character, making foolish choices. If this is the absolute best that Kunlun has to offer, they need a bigger population. And how did this simpering, whiny, tantrum throwing kid make it to Iron Fist anyway?

More generally, motivations for all the characters are hard to believe and understand. Tom Pelphrey (Banshee) and David Wenham (Lion) are all over the map on their choices and drives. Sure all of the men, including Jones, have some intense backstories, but I’d expect a clarity of purpose to be driving them so I can understand when things change.

The women fair a bit better for most of the series. Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Force Awakens) has nice levels and some obvious secrets. Jessica Stroup (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is a tough character but hard to pin down because she is unevenly written and used. By the end of the sequence, they have squandered her completely and weakened her unforgivably.

It is really the two returning characters are best served because they have actual history to draw on: Wai Ching Ho (Daredevil) and Rosario Dawson (Gimme Shelter). Both are easy to understand and, in the case of Ho, we finally get to learn a lot more about this enigmatic kingpin.

There really is only one reason to watch Iron Fist, but you’ll need to see the whole series to understand why and, even then, you’ll have to make a logical leap beyond their unearned finale. Marvel was due a weak delivery after all its high powered hits. And, to be clear, this isn’t awful, it just isn’t in the same class as its colleagues. Better writers and directors would definitely help. Some more time in the writers’ room to break out the episodes and season more interestingly wouldn’t be amiss either; creator/producer/writer Buck (Dexter) just didn’t hit his mark. I am hoping that as the story carries forward, the Iron Fist will find more solid story-telling.

Image result for iron fist