Wonder Woman (2017)

wwDirector: Patty Jenkins

Screenwriter: Allen Heinberg

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis

It was inevitable that some movie in the Detective Comics Extended Universe would eventually get it right. It wasn’t Man of Steel, it wasn’t Batman v. Superman, and it definitely wasn’t Suicide Squad. Did I think it would be Wonder Woman? No, but it was. Regardless, whatever it was, that particular film would be laden with praise far better than it deserves simply because it’s the film that stopped the DC bleeding. That’s the case with Wonder Woman. A fine film, but not to the degree that its being touted.

We open in modern day with an established Diana (Gal Gadot), working in her office at the Louvre, when she receives a curious brief case courtesy of Wayne Enterprises. Within is the original photo of the image Wayne (Ben Affleck) uncovered of Diana and a group of soldiers posing for a picture in war-torn Belgium mid World War II. With the photo, Wayne enclosed a note hoping to be able to sit down and hear the story that lead to this photo someday. Fortunately for us, that day is today, as the film flashes back to the War-era 1940s on a mysterious Mediterranean island populated with god-like Amazon women training as warriors.

The isolated island is hidden from all other people of Earth and is so protected that all inhabitants are unaware of the World War going on around them. Diana, now a child runs through the training areas, locking eyes with Antiope (Robin Wright), General to the warriors who seems to see some potential in young Diana that her sister, Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) seems to be ignoring. While Hippolyta’s goal is to protect her daughter, the fact has not escaped Diana that she is the only child on the island and it is clear Hippolyta and Antiope know why, and it has something to do with the why their mysterious island remains hidden from the world of man. Diana, however sides with Hippolyta on the matter and eventually Antiope agrees to allow her sister to train Diana on the condition that she train her harder than any warier she’d ever trained previously.

The world of man does not stay hidden for long, however. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) American CIA agent working for British intelligence posing as a Nazi crashes his plane and Diana, now grown, witnesses it and rushes to his rescue. What she doesn’t know is that Trevor is being pursued by the Germans and by rescuing Trevor, she leads the Germans right to her home. The ensuing battle between her Amazon warrior race and the pursuing Nazis introduces her to the conflict in the outside world, and with Trevor, she decides to leave home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

There’s actually quite a bit to this movie, not in terms of complication, but in terms of its reach; think Captain America meets Thor meets Elf. In the end, Wonder Woman is more successful at what it represents than of what it actually is. As I mentioned in my opening, the first DC movie to strike a chord with audiences and critics will receive enhanced accolades. Wonder Woman represents a change in course. It is funny, heartfelt, romantic, and exciting. None of these adjectives can be used to describe the previous DCEU films. Furthermore, this disconnectedness in tone is further illustrated  by the film’s execution. This is a stand-alone film in every way. There are no pandering cameos or obvious Easter egg plot points to lessen the film’s impact. Wonder Woman strikes out to sink or swim on its own, and for the most part it swims just fine.

That’s not to say the film is not without its faults. There is a fairly forced thread involving the origin of Wonder Woman and her immortal Olympian ancestry, which paves the way for at least one too many villains for me. Villainy should have started and stopped with Elena Anaya’s haunting performance as Dr. “Poison” Maru. Furthermore, I have a little qualm with the film’s supposed message in combination with the history it presents, or shall I say decides not to present. I won’t say more, but it’s hard to ignore a certain historic event that does not play out in this film, which would certainly complicate its overall theme.

And then there’s the costume reveal, which came off kind of hokey, in my opinion. I costumeknow it’s a big deal, and I know it needs to happen in a big way, but as Diana trekked across “no man’s land” in her Stars and Stripes Amazon armor in slow motion, I was lost in in an female objectified patriotic feminist paradox! Later I would read that director Patty Jenkins did not change or reshoot a single scene for this film…except for this one. Which makes me wonder, what was it like before reshooting?

Still, this is an almost entirely satisfying, fresh, and enjoyable summer blockbuster.  The two main stars, Pine and Gadot, are terrific together, and finding Gadot for this role is an absolute miracle. She embodies the nearly 80 year history of the character brilliantly and will serve the character greatly in her various appearances in other DC films. Wonder Woman, while flawed, is a good time at the movies, which is all anyone is really hoping for in her next film as the Amazing Amazon, this fall’s Justice League, slated for November 17th. B+

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

 

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BvSDirector: Zack Snyder

Screenwriters:  Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Gal Gadot, and a couple hometown heroes (Debbie Stabenow and Jay Towers)

There is a lot of bad press out there on this film, and while some of it is valid, there is a real piling on happening that surprises me having now seen the film.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally unites the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in visually spectacular fashion that while still on training wheels is in no way the disaster it’s being made out to be.

Picking up right on the heels of 2013’s Man of Steel, Batman v Superman opens with the greatest scene of either film!  The perspective of the destructive trail left by the battle of Superman (Henry Cavil) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel is now shifted to the pedestrian view of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) from the streets of Metropolis.  The carnage left behind is on full display as two aliens duke it out, and humans pay the price; thus setting the table for a fundamental conflict between the two heroes.  While this scene may be a reaction to some of the complaints on Man of Steel’s relentless final battle scene, it was a good choice.  Affleck literally hits the ground running in his first appearance as Batman, and he along with director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer successfully qualm any residual worries of miscasting that circulated upon the revelation that Affleck would be next to don the cowl.  His dedication to the Dark Knight as well as his alter ego, Bruce Wayne puts him potentially as one of the best cinematic Batmen yet!

Unfortunately for Batman v Superman, the film does not build from here but rather desperately tries to keep its head above water.  As good as Affleck is in his role, Cavill is still pretty morose.  In fact, the entire film is.  Where Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were dark but edgy, Batman v Superman is mostly just dark.  The good news is we’re going someplace new this time.  Where Man of Steel basically retold the origin story that we’ve all known for 75 years, Batman v Superman does tread new territory for our heroes.  Snyder rightly glosses over Bruce Wayne’s dark past in the opening credits and gives us a distinguished, older, (wiser?) Batman who is trying to decide how he still fits into the world he’s now spent so many years trying to protect.  Not only do we not dwell on his past, we jump years into his future with just small glimpses at some of the events that have gotten him to where he is now, but not without his loyal butler, Alfred (played nicely by Jeremy Irons). Glimpses of things I can only imagine will play a role in future films.

The conflict over the destruction to Metropolis in the opening scene is not the only dividing line between Superman and Batman.  Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of industrialist Lex Luthor has discovered the largest payload of the Kryptonian element ever found and has been given license to test it (on the remains of Zod) and perhaps weaponize it to protect against future alien invasions.  The problem is, Luthor is inexplicably off his rocker.  Unlike Gene Hackman’s portrayal of this character (or even Kevin Spacey’s from Superman Returns), Eisenberg has no business being powerful, no ingenuity, and no purpose other than to be evil.  This is fine, but then why not just make him the joker?  I heard that James Woods voices Lex Luthor in an animated series about Superman.  I kind of wish they tapped him for this version as well!

Eisenberg aside, this film clips along at a decent pace and offers plenty of excitement and showcases the title characters nicely.  The title “battle” may seem a bit overhyped, but at least it doesn’t last for the final third of the film! Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman is also mostly successful.  Some confusion does set in regarding an influx of “dream sequences” that still has me scratching my head, but fanboys who are “in the know” claim there is some solid development in these scenes.  Unfortunately the casual viewer will be wondering what the hell just happened.

While an improvement on its predecessor, I can only marginally recommend this film higher than the last.  Perhaps Warner Brothers should take some very copious notes as Marvel’s version of this storyline, Captain America: Civil War, is released in May.  Details on this film are very hush, hush, but Marvel’s track record speaks for itself.  It may be unfair to compare the Marvel films to the DC ones in terms of tone or mood, but it is fair to compare them in agenda.  These are all “comic book” based films, and the best comic books do not set off to only entertain; they attempt to hold up a mirror to reality and use the extraordinary to make observations on the ordinary.  Marvel Studios has been very good at this, and DC has not managed to pull it off since The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.  In my 2013 Man of Steel review I said, “Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel.”  When Man of Steel was released, Warner Brothers immediately green lit a sequel that was supposed to be released in 2015 to usher in the Justice League film for 2016.  Those plans were dashed, and that sequel became this film – yet another bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel (and one that is developing far too similarly to The Avengers).  While the money is pouring in (which I expect is their reason for stretching this franchise out), Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Still there is enough to whet our appetite one more time to see if these characters can get the treatment they ultimately deserve. B

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes. Kudos to director Zack Snyder’s shout-outs to principle filming location, Detroit Michigan!  Keep an eye out for many recognizable shots of the city (especially in that opening scene) as well as some familiar faces like Senator Debbie Stabenow and radio/TV personality Jay Towers.

Spectre

Spectre Movie PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw

The end may be near for James Bond…at least the one that looks like Daniel Craig.  In a recent interview, Craig made it wildly clear that he is not into doing another Bond movie.  While that may change, it means that Spectre, the 24th official Bond film, may be one that passes the torch to a new Bond, a distinction that only five of the films really have (although it gets kind of messy with Lazenby and Connery).  Craig’s four Bond films have been received rather tremendously.  His unconventional approach and downplaying of Bond’s silly side has seemingly revitalized the franchise and brought an air of respect back to the character.  Still, Spectre makes nearly all of the same mistakes that caused me to knock Skyfall last time and Quantum of Solace before that.   Fool me once shame on you, fool me 24 times, shame on me.

****Warning, minor spoilers regarding Christoph Waltz follow.  Do not read any further if you do not want to know about his character.****

Like Skyfall, Spectre starts in classic Bond style with a strong, action-packed opening as 007 sleeks through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival to track down and kill a man who plans to blow up a packed stadium on behalf of a mysterious organization.  These opening scenes are certainly the crown jewel in the Bond film formula and have been elevated to a new level in the Mendes/Craig era.  The rest of the film revolves around this mysterious organization, later revealed to be SPECTRE, and the hunting down of its leader, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  Unlike many previous Bond installments, the Craig films capping with Spectre are actually a much more woven series of sequels than their predecessors.  Director Sam Mendes, who made the two most recent Bond films, used Skyfall to introduce a thematic thread about chastising the egoism of youth and praising the wisdom of age. The film delved deeper into the inner workings of James Bond and by the end, casual throwbacks to earlier “older” Bond trappings were scattered throughout including vintage Aston Martins and the introduction of a Miss Eve Moneypenny.  Now with Spectre, even casual Bond fans are aware of what director Mendes and his screenwriters are doing here.  Fifty years of films are coming full circle as the supervillain that sought to destroy Sean Connery in From Russia with Love is rebooted and reloaded to strike again!

Rebooting and remaking is definitely the name of the game in entertainment lately and while some are hits, I am not excited about seeing James Bond go back to square one.  This is especially a grim turn for female characters.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) does her best to keep this film from being too shallow, but it still may be the most sexist film since San Andreas. Still, the thing that makes Bond tick is the brazen confidence in the face of unspeakable danger, and Spectre has a good dose of that.  The action scenes in this film deliver.  Does it have as much as Skyfall?  No.  Is it miles above other recent tent pole action films in its genre like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation?  No.  To me Spectre feels like a set-up film much like 2013’s Man of Steel felt like a set-up film.  Yes it’s another installment of something that’s been around a while.  Yes, all of the familiar things you expect to see are there, but at the end it feels stretched out, belabored, and even a little monotonous until the end where the hints at what’s to come make you wish you could skip this movie and go right to the next one.

Aside from its pacing, the other unfortunate letdown is Waltz as Blofeld.  What seemed like brilliantly ideal casting at first kind of fizzles out when implemented.  First of all, Waltz does not appear in the film for nearly an hour into the already overlong film.  Perhaps the original intent was to have Waltz’s casting and/or character be a surprise, but the marketing would have you believe otherwise.  Secondly, his introduction after the build-up is absurdly underwhelming, which is a shame when you ponder the potential of having Christoph Waltz play your hero/anti-hero supporting role…it’s kind of his thing!  Javier Bardem’s turn as Silva in Skyfall, while not perfect was far more satisfying than the missed opportunity that is Waltz in Spectre.

Spectre is in full nostalgia mode and not looking forward.  If this is a good thing, remains to be seen, but apparently everything old is new again in the world of Bond. C+

Spectre is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

Man of Steel

Image“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…” But what lead to all of this? That’s the question director, Zack Snyder attempts to answer in the latest treatment of “the last son of Krypton,” Man of Steel.

It has been 75 years since Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics’ premier issue. Since then, the character has starred in countless comics, TV shows, and movies. Yet, with Man of Steel, Superman’s sixth cinematic appearance, most of the buzz revolved around Christopher Nolan’s involvement with the project. Nolan, most known as the director of the remarkable Dark Knight trilogy, teamed up with his Dark Knight series co-writer, David S. Goyer to write the screenplay for Man of Steel. Nolan and Goyer successfully revitalized the Batman franchise by making it edgy, making it smart, and taking a fresh take on a familiar story. Thus, the hopes are that they were able to do the same to DC Comic’s most popular hero, Superman. Man of Steel, unfortunately, does not quite deliver the goods.

The film opens on Krypton as the doomed planet is self-destructing after its inhabitants have mined the nutrients of its core, causing a full on apocalypse. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Laura decide to place their newborn son, Kal-El in a capsule headed for Earth in the hopes that he will know a better life and continue a form of the Kryptonian line of people. Kal-El is, of course discovered and raised by Kansas farmers, The Kents where he is famously renamed “Clark.” Conflict arrives when Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth searching for Kal-El as part of his mission to obliterate man-kind in a genocidal plot to repopulate Earth with pure Kryptonians.

Man of Steel sets out to offer a different tone than is usually found in a Superman film. Henry Cavill’s performance as the title character is far more serious, insightful, and raw than any previous Superman. Additionally, this is the most violent Superman film to date, proliferated with tragedy and destruction. Director, Snyder does offer a fresh take on the well-known origin story with a non-linear timeline that bounces back and forth through Superman’s first 33 years on Earth. He also, gives audiences a lengthier glimpse at Krypton than found in previous films. The non-traditional timeline works very well, preventing the film from hitting snags as the character grows. Instead, audiences are able to see Superman earlier with a peppering of flashbacks to add context to his story. With all of this being said, the film lacks the edge and intelligence necessary to allow it to, well, soar. The opening sequence on Krypton is a welcomed change, but the planet is already experiencing so much unrest that it is hard to believe these alien people are anything but flawed and miserable. In fact, this scene introduces a sort of Brave New World motif where choice has been bred out of Krypton, and society chooses the fate of all inhabitants. The screenplay opts for simplicity over complexity, which forces the film into a brainless extended action scene for the final hour; a scene that puts the “never-ending” in the “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Coupled with these extended action scenes is Snyder’s shooting technique. He uses a lot of shaky, hand-held camera shots, which do become strenuous at times.

Perhaps the most major missed opportunity is the weak exploration of young Kal-El’s/Clark Kent’s struggles as an alien in a strange world. While Snyder does explore this, he does so in a fashion that merely glosses over the surface. Scene’s involving Superman’s youth are far too underdeveloped and border on stereotypical. Furthermore, the fun and the romance that are expected from a Superman story are in short supply in Man of Steel. Instead, this reboot attempts to ground a movie about alien superpeople living and battling on Earth in some sort of reality, which is a bit preposterous.

The casting is certainly the film’s major strength. Cavill is, of course, an excellent choice for Superman. He looks the part and has great presence on the screen. Amy Adams gives a performance as Lois Lane that veers far from her just being a silly girl getting into trouble all of the time, and Michael Shannon gives another full-tilt-crazy performance as Zod. Other familiar minor characters are also well cast including Laurance Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent.

All together, Man of Steel shows promise, but mostly for what is yet to come. Warner Brothers has already green-lit a sequel that will be fast-tracked to release before 2015’s Justice League. Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel. B-

Man of Steel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes. The film was post-converted to 3-D, however there are some exciting sequences that are enhanced by the conversion. Nonetheless, 2-D is recommended and there is no stinger after the credits, so feel free to go home if you’re not interested in who the 2nd assistant sound editor was.