REVIEW: Wonder Woman

31 05 2017

“You expect the battle to be fair. It will never be fair!” exhorts Robin Wright’s Amazonian mentor to her trainee, Gal Gadot’s warrior princess in “Wonder Woman.” It’s tempting from an early point to view the film through a purely ideological standpoint, and cues like this almost seem to encourage it.

While writing this review, butt-hurt “men’s rights activists” (yes, those concerns are so imaginary they deserve to be put in quotations) are still complaining on Twitter about woman-only screenings of this film. The urge to lacerate prejudice through cultural consumption as if we were casting a ballot to vote is an alluring, but ultimately empty, one. Praising the disjointed “Ghostbusters” like a dutiful gesture of feminist solidarity really solved all our issues in 2016, right?!

The underlying hope of these actions is to foster a world where “Wonder Woman” will no longer be the most expensive film ever directed by a woman or the only major superhero film with a female protagonist; instead, it will be just one of many. So let’s start acting like it today by treating the film as what it can become, not merely what it means in the deeply politicized 2017 environment into which it is released. As the great critic Pauline Kael remarked, critics too often praise “movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ —’serious’ messagy movies. This often involves […] the praise in good movies of what was worst in them.”

So if you’ll pardon my existential opening, I’ll spare you another analysis about how progressive (or not) the gender dynamics are, whether or not director Patty Jenkins’ gender might “influence” the way certain scenes play out and if certain on-screen moments carry feminist undertones from off-screen drama. It was hard to squint past these things and just see the movie because, as a film writer, firebrands like this can so often be reduced to multiple start-points to an ideological thinkpiece. But there is some there there, so to speak, in “Wonder Woman.”

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REVIEW: Star Trek

1 11 2016

Is there a 101 class in film schools yet on franchise filmmaking or reboots? Because if so, I sincerely hope that J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” is assigned viewing. With the exception of perhaps Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, there is no movie that has better relaunched a dormant (or, at the very least, stagnant) series. In one fail swoop, Abrams as well as writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman find ample reason to excite long-time fans and create new acolytes, all while providing motivation for revival beyond just profit margins.

In the seven years since this new “Star Trek” hit theaters, there have been no shortage of brand extensions and series relaunches – most of which struggle to take off due to paying excessive fan service with nostalgic callbacks. Sure, Abrams gives plenty here. The trademark pings of the intergalactic communication, the strategic peripheral views of the starship and the reappearance of a favorite character played by the same beloved actor are all enough to sate the casual fans of the classic television or film series.

“Star Trek” takes flight, however, because Abrams uses the show’s legacy as a kickstart into a bold new future, not an albatross to keep trotting in previously grazed circles. Utilizing an ingenious narrative gambit that sidesteps the original show’s chronology without erasing or ignoring it, the series gained the ability to boldly go wherever themes could lead it. The standard passion-reason dialectic between Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock is introduced from the get-go, and they don’t waste a second exploring its consequences.

But it doesn’t take a mechanical analysis of how Abrams guides decades of mythology to work in his favor to show “Star Trek” works. The proof is in the pudding; the film succeeds because it is just plain well-made. The characters are fun and fully developed. The action is coherent and engaging. The story flows effortlessly while also requiring some of our brainpower. The stakes are high, giving appropriate weight to a topic like genocide. (That may seem like a no-brainer, but plenty of movies have made light of it.) And, perhaps most importantly, this “Star Trek” recreates that first introduction to this universe of diplomacy and conflict.  A4stars





REVIEW: Hell or High Water

15 08 2016

Hell or High Water“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.

Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.

And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?

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REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

31 07 2016

I took a bit of an unconventional route to “Star Trek” fandom: academia. Ok, fine, a high school mini-course. A history professor’s class, called “Making The World Safe for Democracy,” used the original Gene Roddenberry television series to illustrate the kinds of political tensions being played out in America during the ’60s … only on the small screen.

Perhaps more than any series, I have always approached “Star Trek” with tinted glasses. J.J. Abrams’ first two trips down an alternate timeline contained some faint elements of this social consciousness. But as both fans and malcontents of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” know, the director often spends more time paying fan service than charting bold new territory.

Abrams left the “Star Trek” series in entirely different hands when he departed for that galaxy far, far away. (Fear not, he retains a producer credit.) Director Justin Lin, along with writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, make a compelling case for the more frequent shuffling voices in franchise with their take expressed in “Star Trek Beyond.” While the film may lack the polish of the Abrams entries, it excitingly pushes the universe into both classic and unfamiliar territory.

Pegg’s influence most clearly rears its head in the startling humor of “Star Trek Beyond,” far more self-effacing and tongue-in-cheek than any portion of the canon I have experienced. Perhaps now that a new generation is more familiarized with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew, more opportunities present themselves for character-driven humor. The gags are more developed than the plot, which often plays like a good outline still in need some additional finer details. The story often proves difficult to follow beyond generalities, a direct reversal of what made the last two scripts from Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman glisten.

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REVIEW: The Finest Hours

18 07 2016

There’s something odd about Disney’s “The Finest Hours.”

This ’50s-set high-seas rescue does everything it can to recreate that era in the filmmaking. Director Craig Gillespie operates at a more methodical, easygoing pace in land-bound scenes. Period detail is all there, even down to the sound of the time as composer Carter Burwell provides a similarly moody post-war ambiance that he endowed to last year’s “Carol.” Heck, they even filled the role of Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber with Chris Pine, the rare working actor today who can comfortably assume the style and mannerisms of a golden age Hollywood studio star.

And yet, “The Finest Hours” is the kind of disaster caper only possible to achieve at this level in the 21st century with computer graphics. The films of the 1950s – even the epics – were limited by the technology available at the time and bolstered by a grounded grandiosity. Seeing is believing here when technicians can show, in great detail, the destructive storm and waves that strand a vessel off the coast of Massachusetts. When the filmmakers try some of the more magical elements of a bygone period, such as suggesting a quasi-spiritual connection of Bernie’s sea navigation to his romantic interest’s journey on the open road, it falls completely flat.

“The Finest Hours” is a film caught between two styles of moviemaking and two schools of thinking. Gillespie and company can never quite figure out how to resolve this tension from the beginning, and as a result, the film sinks before it even has the chance to doggy-paddle.  C2stars





REVIEW: Z for Zachariah

30 08 2015

Z for ZachariahIn Craig Zobel’s last film, 2012’s “Compliance,” the director showed the collapse of civilization and social order in a situation where tremendous external stress agents forced people into making unthinkable choices.  He returns to ponder similar questions of the base impulses guiding our actions in “Z for Zachariah,” albeit in an entirely different setting: a post-apocalyptic world.

Margot Robbie’s country girl Ann Burden thinks she may the last survivor of an unspecified nuclear disaster, somewhat because of her farm’s odd location in a valley but also due to an act of providence from God.  The serene, bucolic landscape soon welcomes a visitor in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Loomis, a civil engineer who stumbles upon Ann’s place.  The two work together, albeit uneasily, to restore the harvest and even potentially regain electricity.

These scenes play out at a patient pace, at once stage-like in their delicacy but cinematic in their intimacy.  Zobel and editor Jane Rizzo find a way to stretch Nissar Modi’s script, which probably runs a roughly normal length (if not a little bit shorter), into something that feels practically like a miniseries.  The adult cousin of “The Last Man on Earth,” if you will.  At times, “Z for Zachariah” droops under the weight of its measured tone, but Zobel does impressively calibrate the picture to enervate without aggravating.

The film does get a shot of energy when Chris Pine’s Caleb emerges.  With his messy hair and scruffy beard, this marks the most unkempt character the normally Prince Charming-esque actor has played in a straight drama.  A bit of a love triangle emerges, sure, but not in a stereotypical kind of way.  (Since Caleb is a fellow believer, he has the clear upper hand.)  The desolately populated space around them reverts the dynamic between Caleb and Loomis to resemble that between Cain and Abel sparring for dominance.  These biblical undertones, as well as one of the most mature and nuanced portrayals of faith in recent memory, lend “Z for Zachariah” a thematic heft that helps it earn much of its restrained pacing.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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