Friday, June 2, 2017

NOW THE WORLD IS READY FOR YOU: "Wonder Woman" Is, In A Word, Wonderful



It’s rare when a film merits effusive praise. It’s even rarer when the film is part of a studio franchise wherein the reception of the previous entries was decidedly mixed. However, Wonder Woman, the latest in Warner Bros.' line of live-action DC Entertainment films, deserves the accolades it earns. It breaks the mold by being (relatively) faithful to the character and her world, delivering a cohesive, entertaining tale featuring a charismatic lead.

What sets this film apart from its predecessors, beginning with 2013’s Man of Steel? Coherency of plot and motivation, for one. The plot is straightforward: On the island of Themyscira lives an Amazonian race, led by the regal Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), whose purpose is to safeguard the world from the machinations of the war god Ares. After a millennium, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of Hippolyta, witnesses and rescues Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a WWI fighter plane crash. Coming to realize that Ares has taken a foothold in “the world of men”, she leaves the island to fulfill the Amazons’ purpose, unaware the trials, truths, and crisis of faith that await her. Working from a screenplay by Allen Heinberg (with story assist by Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, based on characters created by William Moulton Marston), Director Patty Jenkins does not obfuscate the narrative with unnecessary parallels or tacked-on “C” plots. Any developments flow organically without distracting tangents. She gets both the character and her world, and subtly adds continuity to Diana's "future" appearance in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), highlighting her attention to detail.

Oh, the film does bear Snyder’s signature visual hallmarks…the Raphaelesque paintings come to life, the slow motion action sequences…but, in comparison with the previous Snyder-directed DC films, here they are used judiciously; just enough to enhance the story without existing for its own sake. Jenkins understands that visuals and action set pieces are all well and good, but they’re rendered meaningless without grounding humanity, and that’s what both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine provide in spades.

Here, Gadot conveys the nascent-Wonder Woman’s naivete beguilingly without compromising her conviction, evincing vulnerability within her (relative) invulnerability; a contradiction perhaps, but even this shows that Jenkins directs with a complete grasp of the character, as Wonder Woman as always been a conundrum: Warrior as emissary of peace. Godot’s charisma carries the film, and her having served in the Israeli army adds credibility to her action sequences. Her Diana is poised, measured, and assured. While she could arguably carry this film on her own, her impact is heightened immensely by Chris Pine, who gives Trevor a three-dimensionality his comic counterpart arguably lacked (and managing to be subtle enough to separate his Trevor from another captain Pine is famous for playing). He’s a competent soldier with a vulnerability that does not undermine his masculinity. Given the nature of his role, it’s expected that he would provide comic relief. However, those comedic bits evolve naturally from the story without compromising the character’s integrity.  To say more about his character’s impact would give away much of the plot. Needless to say, the chemistry between he and Godot feels more honest and real than in most films of this sort. Like the best of relationships, they balance each other out, and the story allows them to explore the polar aspects of femininity and masculinity without sacrificing either aspect in each other. Simply put, the two of them, and their shared hero's journey, form the heart of the entire enterprise. Their emotional beats and climaxes resonate and ground the film.

The supporting players are top notch, clearly having fun with the material even as they imbue it with a gravitas that grounds the more fantastical elements. Said Taghmaoui (“Sameer”), Ewen Bremner (“Charlie”), and Eugene Brave Rock (“The Chief”) as Diana’s commando team all provide back up in performance as well as character, with Said being the standout of the three. Connie Nielsen’s regal Hippolyta is by turns imperious and vulnerable, concerned over her daughter’s fate. David Thewlis is one of those reliable actors who never gives a bad performance, and his turn as Sir Patrick is no exception. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Danny Huston as Commander Ludendorff. Huston is a more nuanced actor than the material provides. It can be argued that in his case nuance must be sacrificed to the plot. Nevertheless, his performance comes off as clunky and uneven.

The special effects are top notch, save for a few hiccups (especially in relation to Diana’s Lasso of Truth), and there are some minor plot inconsistencies, but nothing so outstanding that would lessen any enjoyment derived from the film. Jenkins’ direction is deftly assured, with a brisk pacing that engages and makes its two hour, twenty minute run time seem less than. Other nice touches are the subtle callbacks to not only Wonder Woman’s television history (evident in the very first shot of Diana), but also of a seminal superhero film which came out around the same time (of which one scene in this film blatantly, lovingly homages). In other words, the film’s heart extends beyond that of the leads’ performances. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ channels his inner David Arkenstone for a score that is lush and energetic while managing to elevate Hans Zimmer/Tom Holkenberg’s "Wonder Woman" theme, its acoustics more lyrical and balletic than the cacophony of sound the other DC Extended Universe scores are known for.

Wonder Woman is not just a triumph as a superhero film, but as a film, period. It is by turns fun and dramatic, full of pathos and hope. Gal Gadot fulfills the promise only hinted at by her woefully short stint in BvS, and the film thoroughly entertains from beginning to end. It’s a film that belies the anti-female heroic lead rhetoric even as it transcends the argument. Hopefully, this heralds a newfound appreciation for quality in Warner Bros. superhero films going forward. A film version of this character has been long overdue, but the final product shows that it was well worth the wait. To crib from the earlier live-action incarnation…you’re a wonder, Wonder Woman.


Monday, May 29, 2017

TALL TALE TOLD: "Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" Is A Tale Enjoyable Retold



After fourteen years, viewing Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films is kind of like experiencing the ride they're based on, akin to a warm, comfortable blanket. You wait in line, knowing nothing has really changed, but still willing to open yourself to the magic recapturing the feeling and nostalgia of the very first experience. On the flip side, you risk irksome disappointment when a glitch or two ruins the ride. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) felt like the latter condition. Despite being a box office hit (minor in comparison to the previous films' individual box office booty), it's reception was both critically and commercially mixed to the extent that the franchise's future was in question. Further exacerbating the uncertainty was Depp's floundering standing as a box office draw (The Lone Ranger, Mordechai, and Black Mass all flopping resoundingly, though ironically in the latter's case it was one of the best performances of his career), With all these issues factoring in, what's a production to do in order to mitigate the possible damages?

The answer seems to be go back to the beginning. 

Almost a decade in story after the events of POTC: At World's End (2007), young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of the cursed captain of the Flying Dutchman, William Turner (Orlando Bloom), enlists the aid of the recently captured and (further) disgraced Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), who is still without his beloved Black Pearl (after a fashion) and crew, to recover Poseidon's Trident, an artifact with the capability of destroying all sea curses. Also on the hunt for this artifact is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a horologist accused of witchcraft who also seeks the Trident for her own purpose. As the threesome embark on this mission, they are pursued not only by British naval commander Scarfield (David Wenham, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy) and frienemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, looking even more resplendent this time out) but also by the spectral Capitan Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men; Skyfall) who seeks vengeance upon Jack for his ghostly condition.

Some moisturizer should clear that right up.

If some of this sounds vaguely familiar (at least, more familiar than usual when dealing with sequels), that'd because it seems screenwriters Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rosario dusted off the script for POTC: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003) (which Rosario co-wrote) and tweaked the details. Normally, such an instance would seem egregious, but it works because its used as a template for bringing the series full circle, and actually manages to seem fresh in its execution. 

One of the most obvious lessons learned between the last film and this was to minimize the focus on Captain Jack (which may have been predicated by necessity of the Depp's purported behind-the-scenes shenanigans and personal upheaval. Google it if you're interested). 

I'll never tell.

As in the first film, before he became the face of the franchise, Jack Sparrow is better realized as part of an ensemble. Which leads to another mistake rectified from the last film, a stronger ensemble cast.  As the Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann analogues, both Scodelario and Thwaites are not only engagingly charismatic on their own, but have a wholly palpable chemistry together. Regarding Barbossa, what can be said about Geoffrey Rush that hasn't been said before, other than this is perhaps the most poignant he has ever played the character. One of the biggest complaints from the last film was the underutilization of an actor of Ian McShane's caliber as "Blackbeard". Disney was certainly paying attention as the same cannot be said of Bardem as Salazar. His characterization is varied in scope, playing sympathies and menace deftly, making for one of the better realized of the series' villains. Returning Pirates alumni Kevin McNally ("Biggs"), Martin Klebba ("Marty"), Stephen Graham ("Scrum") and Angus Barnett ("Mullroy") are given more to do and add to the feeling of welcome nostalgia. Unfortunately, its not without its casting missteps, though not of the fault of the actors in any way (Wenham's Scarfield and Golshifteh Farahani as actual witch "Shansa"), but through the simple fact that the script doesn't know what to do with them. As far as Depp, his performance is somewhat uneven, varying in degrees from lazy (I suspect the major inebriation scenes did not involve acting whatsoever) to almost inspired. Luckily, its slightly more the latter than the former. 

The visuals and special effects are perhaps the best in this series, adding reality to the surreal. Geoff Zanelli elevates Klaus Badelt/Hans Zimmer's familiar themes, breathing new life in them even as he provides a fresh lighter acoustical touch that separates this score from the rehashed lazy strum und drang that plagued On Stranger Tides. Its a more intimate score that enhances the more emotional bent of this outing and adds to the circular heft of this tale, wherein the end meets the beginning. This film uses the past without becoming mired in it, while bringing events and story lines full circle.

Complete with retro fashion.

Despite the odds against it, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a tale worth being experienced. Like the ride that spawned it, you'll leave the film satisfied with a smile on your face. And if this the sunset by which the franchise sails away (as the story strongly hints), it is a fine tale for it to end on. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

REMIXED: "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2" Succeeds Despite A Looming Shadow.



Sometimes, the best expectation is no expectation.

Remember when Marvel Studios first announced their intention to produce a film based on an obscure Marvel comic called "Guardians of the Galaxy"? A collective head scratch ensued. To the uninitiated, the question was "who are the Guardians of the Galaxy". To those familiar with comics, the question was "why the Guardians of the Galaxy".  There were concerns that Marvel was about to make its first tactical error in the planning of what had become a box-office juggernaut of successful films. Expectations ranged from low to 'nil...until the film was finally released.  No one expected how much fun, and ultimately how successful, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ultimately became (including this reviewer). It was so crowd-pleasingly good, that it set the bar high for its inevitable sequel. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2., as good as it is, falls short of it.

(At this point, I should caveat in interests of fairness that this author went into this film with those same aforementioned expectations, so some of these points may not be as salient as they would be in a completely unbiased review. Regardless, they are as they are).

Some time after the events of the first film, the Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired by an alien race to protect a powerful set of intergalactic batteries. When Rocket ironically steals the the batteries, it sets off a chain of events that attracts the attention of the celestial being known as "Ego" (Kurt Russell) which leads young Quill not only to discover the secrets of his heritage but his possible destiny as well.

"Of course I'm celestial.  I was the last person Walt Disney thought of."

That's not to say that the movie isn't entertaining; it’s extremely so. However, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, by comparison, is a victim of its progenitor’s success.  Divested of the surprise factor, James Gunn, acting as both director and screenwriter, has to rely on characterization and plot to carry the film. While Vol 2 excels in the former, it’s stilted in the latter.

The majority of the plotting issues stem from the fact that the Guardians films are ensemble pieces, with "Big Names" attached to each character. As such, each character is given a spotlight, which means more scenes and extra run time. There’s definitely a sense that Marvel was paying attention concerning what worked in the previous film because the principal of remixed "escalation" is all over Vol. 2. In some cases, they work. In others, they lead to situations that go on longer than they should; which makes for a film, who’s run time is two-and-a-quarter hours, seem longer than it is (mostly in scenes involving Baby Groot, who is surprisingly NOT the breakout character in this film. More below). For instance, Drax should change his sobriquet from “the Destroyer” to “the Comedian”. Whereas his humor previously evolved naturally from a character trait, here it comes across as forced, with mixed results. Some of these issues could be resolved with tighter editing, but it leaves one to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor, given that what remained is still creative.

Another issue is that, in trying to balance the showcasing of characters as fairly as possible, the “B” plots are far more interesting than the “A”. That’s not to say that the main plot isn’t interesting; it’s to say that the peripheral story lines are more so. This development has more to do with the engaging performances by Michael Rooker as “Yondu” and Karen Gillan as “Nebula”, whose personal journeys are the most compellingly developed. While Pratt, Saldana, Batista, Cooper, and Diesel are all top notch in their own efforts, it’s Rooker’s that’s the breakout performance here, and the film is all the better for it. Returning to the Disney fold as the planetary Celestial “Ego”, Kurt Russell is an energetically engaging enigma. Pom Kelmentieff’s “Mantis” serves as a good foil Drax, in some ways reflective of the character as we first encountered him. Elizabeth Debicki’s courting typecasting with yet another cold-as-ice character, but her “Ayesha” is an arresting sight; an Oscar statuette come to fetching, angular life.

However, the faults are relatively minor considering the whole package. The film is an enjoyable romp with thematic heft. All of the actors, from the principals to the cameos (and there are a bunch of them, with many nods to Marvel Comics lore for the initiated), are clearly enjoying themselves to such a point that it's difficult not to be infected by their enthusiasm. Detractors might dismiss this film as another live action cartoon film, but it's one with resonance, earning its emotional beats in a way that one would have to have a heart of an (infinity) stone not to feel...feelings that are enhanced by the musical choices which, as with the first film, are as much a character in the film as the players. This time, however, each pop/rock entry is more thematically connected to the scenes they play in than before to great, and in one case hilarious, effect. Tyler Bates continues to convince Marvel Studios that he's their go-to scoring pro, delivering a score that is in turns rousing, comedic, and poignant. This film should definitely be viewed in IMAX and 3D, but one risks visual overload in doing so as it takes its 70's rock fantasy album cover aesthetic to an almost distracting extreme (a conceit that, going by the preview, the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok will likely heavily borrow),

In essence, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, may fall somewhat short of its predecessor, but it's still a high mark for the Marvel Studios film library. It's thrilling, engaging, and surprisingly heartfelt. Take a magic carpet ride to another galaxy far, far away.  You'll be glad you did. 


Monday, January 23, 2017

LOVE IT OR HATE IT: "Split" is M. Night Shyamalan's Best Film In Years.


[MINOR SPOILERS]


"'Trauma' is 'Drama'" It's a statement I just made up (as far as I know, and apologies in advance to anyone who may have coined it first), but it also seems to be an edict that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan relies upon, as his filmography attests. But never has this mantra been more evident than in his latest thriller Split, written and directed by Shyamalan, and starring James McAvoy (The X-Men reboot films, The Conspirator (2010)), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch (2015)) and stage-and-screen veteran Betty Buckley (Carrie (1976)), The Happening (2008)). In this film, Taylor-Joy plays “Casey”, a teen aged loner who, through an unfortunate twist of fate, is kidnapped alongside intended victims Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)) and her BFF Marcia (Jessica Sula, Honeytrap (2014)) by Kevin (McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (“DID”) and possessed of (or is that “by”?) twenty-three different and distinct personalities. It’s a race against time for Casey to outwit her captor(s) and free herself and her friends before Kevin’s nascent twenty-fourth personality is unleashed. 

Shyamalan has been a controversial and divisive cinematic auteur. Reception to his films has run the gamut from acclaim (The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000)) to ridicule (The Last Airbender (2010), After Earth (2013)). The low budget Split is perhaps his most challenging work. Trauma propels this film and examines its existence or lack can affect not only a person but the world around them, with one of its main considerations being the polarity of deep feeling versus disaffected superficiality; a theme that speaks to the polarizing nature to the film as a whole. It’s layered both thematically and in execution, demanding total immersive attention from the viewer. For anyone looking to be entertained and suspend thinking for almost two hours, this is not the film for you. Even scenes that seem innocuous and throwaway either add insight to the proceedings or ratchets up the tension. However, unlike most of his films post-Unbreakable, none of this layering feels gratuitous or self-indulgent. Everything is measured (at least until the climax) and effectively makes its point without belaboring it.

Unfortunately, one of the film’s other difficulties stems from its very nature as a character-driven thriller; one wherein one of the actors is playing 24 different personalities. This leads to a lack of character focus in the beginning which is incongruously both asset and detriment to the film. No stranger to playing a character with a multiple personality disorder (see Filth (2013)), McAvoy ups the proverbial ante by playing a multitude of characters and doing so convincingly. His performance is subversively arresting, exhibiting fully realized personalities while at the same time exhibiting a sense of not quite being all there. Betty Buckley’s plays Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, whose almost-maternal patient relationship is at odds with her need to validate her unconventional treatment regarding his psychosis. As the primary damsel-in-distress, young Taylor-Joy is as mesmerizing as McAvoy, but for different reasons. She evinces a strength, maturity, and vulnerability that belies her age, yet still appropriate for her character. It’s layered performance both aesthetically and viscerally. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula’s supporting yet strong performances also bolster the proceedings. Personally speaking, there is not one performance that rings false, nor is there a moment that feels extraneous.

Oddly enough, the film is disturbing in a clinical fashion while it also cleverly subverts the conventions of the horror/thriller genre. Given the nature of the story and the main players, one would naturally expect the occurrence of creepy and repulsive themes of regarding older men and scantily-clad teens. Credit Shyamalan's direction wherein the creepy “ick” factor comes without titillation factor whatsoever. On the contrary, the first two-thirds of the film are positively antiseptic, where whatever horror is gleaned there comes from implication…provided the viewer is paying attention. Arguably, the only true moment of intimacy occurs in what is perhaps the movie’s most tragic and horrific scene; a scene made more effective because of that aforementioned layering, and perhaps one of the best scenes this director has ever executed. Yet still, the film, as a whole, is uncomfortable, eliciting conflicting yet wholly appropriate emotions, with moments of comedy and horror taking place simultaneously.

The (almost) totally original score by newcomer West Dylan Thordson is minimalist yet effective, blending into the proceedings and intensifying each scene without distractingly calling attention to itself. The cinematography by Michael Gioulakis is full of mood and imagery that draws one in and heightens the film's enveloping, oppressive, and terrifying atmosphere.

Of course, there’s that narrative hallmark that’s served to be both Shyalaman’s trademark and bane: the twist ending. All that will be said about it here as that it will either hit or miss…depending upon your familiarity with Shyamalan and his work. Needless to say, it will make you see the film in a completely different light.

What few flaws the film has does not negate the fact that this is the best film that Shyalaman has made in years. It’s a film that merits repeated watching as it is so densely, meticulously rich and sublime in its presentation and dialogue. In fact, it is arguably too dense, for it requires that the viewer's attention from the first second to the last. It also requires a major suspension of disbelief, but the story carries it to acceptability and the payoff is worth it.  It’s a thinking person’s thriller, one that will leave the viewer both repulsed and excited. Love it or hate it, Split will stay with you.