Movie review: “Wonder Woman”

 

DC has arrived. Kicking and screaming, getting in its own way at every opportunity, the Little Movie Studio That Couldn’t has finally put an unqualified win on the board with “Wonder Woman”. Gal Gadot is note-perfect in Patty Jenkins’s cohesive vision, creating a Wonder Woman / Diana Price who’s worth waiting for. Like all the best superheroes, she is at once complex and predictable, because even though Gadot’s Diana is multi-dimensional, sometimes conflicted and occasionally outright wrong, the character’s inner moral compass needle continues to point due danger. Raised on an island of literal Amazons and trained from an early age to defend the earth from the return of Aries, the god of war, Diana is quick to identify Aries’s fingerprints on a minor scuffle outside her island’s borders: World War One. She strikes a deal with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), shipwrecked pilot and spy—get her to the center of the action, and she will defeat Aries and end the conflict. Easy peasy, right? Diana’s naïveté would overwhelm a less capable actress, but Gadot’s charm easily carries the audience past exasperation—in her hands, Diana is a glutton for all kinds of carnal pleasures, from ice cream (“It’s delicious! You should be very proud!” she tells the stand-owner upon first taste) to sex, which she’s game for, but Steve the spy pilot is disappointingly uptight about. Diana’s first reaction to wartime London (“It’s hideous!”) is jarring and funny, but as the camera pulls back to reveal a smoke-choked hellscape, registers as accurate: Jenkins keeps finding new ways to show the world afresh through Diana’s eyes, while Gadot alchemizes innocence into idealism, giving us a Diana who reacts with total incredulity to trench warfare, because trench warfare surpasseth all understanding. By the time she goes over the top into no-man’s land, in a sequence that immediately joins the all-time great superhero moments in movie history, we’re ready to scale the backs of the movie seats to join her.

The movie isn’t perfect: fragments of modern dialogue are jarring in context (did anyone really say “you guys” or “cool” in 1918?), and MCU fans could be forgiven for noting the cinematic similarities between Steve Trevor (who rides a motorcycle through a forest and crashes his plane an awful lot) and his merry band of wartime accomplices, and Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. (Note: I do not give one spiraling crap which character—Steve Trevor or Steve Rogers—appeared first in print eighty-seven years ago. The point is that MCU showed us this on the big screen really recently, guys.) There is exactly one baddie too many, and the most interesting one (Elena Anaya, playing a dark mirror of Diana) goes underexplored. But a compelling backstory for a villain is a fair trade for enchanting battle sequences that seem both burnished and dynamic, like Caravaggio paintings brought to life. Smoke and fog are used to gorgeous aesthetic effect against skeletal, war-blasted pines; a sunrise mingles eerily with orange poison gas. The violence, too, is starkly beautiful. Jenkins uses stop motion to great effect, slowing Gadot’s fight choreography to a pace that can be admired but not quite parsed—the camera stays just ahead of your ability to register each block, kick, and turn, and the sum effect is like watching a talented magician do a trick very slowly. You’re dazzled, but none the wiser.
Which leads us to the movie’s conclusion, in which mankind’s salvageability is called rather severely into question. DC has not performed an about-face with “Wonder Woman”—this movie still has a darker, more somber tone than Marvel’s product. For the first time, though, that’s a good thing.

 

 

Movie review: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” starts with a considerable handicap: the audience already knows what they’re in for. The first movie surprised because it wasn’t supposed to be good, and was; now, GOTG2 is supposed to be excellent, and mostly, is. The team is back, with the addition of a charmingly naïve empath named Mantis (Pom Klemantieff), who is stuck on a planet with only one inhabitant. That the inhabitant is named Ego should give you pause; that he is played by Kurt Russell, and appears not a jot over 50, should give you night terrors. I’ve seen bricks age worse. But Russell’s eerie youth is being leveraged for a purpose; he is immortal, and has the notches in his bedpost to prove it. One of them is Peter Quill’s mom. Chris Pratt once again brings an appealing, early-Ford-like insouciance to Peter—unfortunately, the movie gives him a fraction of the screen time he got in the first installment, and squanders half of that fraction on a forced romance with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that seems to exist to service a “Cheers” reference. Thankfully, other relationships are sketched with a lighter hand: Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) develop a horrifying version of friendship based on their mutual lack of guile (and filters); Nebula (Karen Gillan, much improved from the first installment) gives her side of the troubled sibling relationship with Gamora, and develops a bit of sympathy along the way; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes away the love of his found family in a way that feels 100% human, 0% CGI raccoon. But all these lively and delicate stories pale by comparison to the main event, which is a war of the father figures—in the left corner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, clearly aware that he is playing the game of a lifetime). In the right, Ego. Peter must choose between the father who kidnapped, bullied, threatened and manipulated him, and the father who wasn’t around to do any of that. The choice appears easy, until it’s not; Platt carefully treads the line between hope and wariness, and Saldana shows a careful tenderness that could easily have melted into romance in the third movie, if the filmmakers had been willing to wait that long. (Alas, it’s easier to talk about a slow burn than to take the time to actually build one. Maybe they should have gone back and watched “Cheers” again.) But who can begrudge anyone a hurried romance when the galaxy is, once again, at risk? It seems churlish to criticize the movie for not being note-perfect when so many of the notes are delightful: Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), tap-dancing his way through an epic space battle. A planet of self-regarding aliens who all resemble Paris Hilton, if she were spraypainted gold. An extended argument about Scotch tape, mid-climax. Exquisitely timed joke payoffs, coming to fruition a full two acts after their setup. A credit roll that will mercilessly test the limits of your bladder with multiple post-credit sequences, all worth waiting for. You will leave the theater bubbling over with glee and catchy pop songs and also pee; but as this movie so aptly demonstrates, two out of three ain’t bad.

Movie review: “Logan”

When I was about nineteen, I saw X2 at midnight with a crowd of rapturous fans in varying degrees of costume, from “Marvel t-shirt” to “blue body paint”. The better costumes got nods and chuckles as we shuffled into the theater, but the only attendee to get a real rouse was the guy, otherwise unremarkably dressed, who’d styled his hair like Wolverine. He got a full round of applause.

That’s Hugh Jackman’s doing. No other actor in the “X-Man” franchise is so identified with their character—Patrick Stewart, while he makes a tremendous Xavier, will always be Jean-Luc Picard to the majority of the planet, and Ian McKellen, Gandalf. But Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. He’s been doing it longer than about 25% of the world’s population has been alive[1], and he looks it—now sinewy and greying at the temples, he’s more weathered limestone than carved marble. Which makes playing an immortal character difficult; hence, “Logan”. In Jackman’s final curtain call as the character, we meet a Wolverine whom time has finally chased down. Weathered and exhausted, he’s driving an El Paso limousine and commuting nightly across the border to an unspeakably depressing hideout, population four: himself, the dying professor Charles Xavier, the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and their shared misery. Caliban tends to Xavier and doles out a grating ration of criticism; Xavier has nightmarish seizures that send his psychic power washing through others like radiation; Logan is stuck between a Prof and a nursemaid. No help is coming over the horizon, either. As the mutants slowly die off, private companies hunt the last stragglers for biological experimentation. And one of those stragglers needs help—a young girl, mute and furious, is rescued from a lab and thrown into Logan’s care like a stray kitten. His resistance to her need is the hard emotional kernel around which the plot is wound. If you’re picking up whiffs of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, that’s not coincidental. “Logan” is a Western, from the unforgiving light to the barren landscape to the increasingly Eastwoodian set of Hugh Jackman’s squint, but most especially in its harrowing formula: put a group of characters in a vise and squeeze. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal who survives the squashing, but I will say that fewer will escape than you’d like—the movie’s pitch-perfect dialogue pulls you in like real family squabbling, with all the attendant intimacy and frustration. Dafne Keen (as the young Laura) especially holds up her corner of the tent, which, given that she is twelve and playing against 166 combined years in Stewart, Jackman, and Merchant, goes well beyond impressive and into the realm of suspiciously supernatural. Someone should get that kid tested for the mutant gene.

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS

Movie review: “The LEGO Batman Movie”

Three years ago, “The LEGO Movie” surprised everyone by being genuinely funny and heartfelt, with a tear-jerking final twist balanced like a lemon peel on the edge of the movie’s sugared rim. For many, the best part of the movie was a cameo appearance by Batman as a sullen, brooding tool who “only works in black—and very, very dark shades of grey”. Now, he’s been given his own movie in which to work out his issues, beatbox, and punch criminals, sometimes at the same time. This Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is as spoiled and puddle-shallow as any trust-fund baby, but his life is echoingly empty, a condition beautifully illustrated by the sequence in which he comes home, heats up a Lobster Thermidor in the microwave, and eats it while floating on an inflatable donut in the center of an enormous, empty swimming pool. Being rich has never looked like so little fun. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tries to push Batman towards human contact, but the vigilante doesn’t work or play well with others: he regards civilians only as audiences, and the rest of the Justice League are avoiding him. Even his old nemesis, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), wants more from the relationship—try as he might, Batman can’t quite choke out the three little words every archenemy wants to hear (“I hate you.”)

The setup is solid, but the movie falters in the second act; newly minted city commissioner Barbara Jordan (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and beguiling orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) stumble into Batman’s life, but they don’t strike up much chemistry or fun with him, and the movie’s “found family” dynamic feels stilted. The Batman/Barbara Jordan relationship in particular never gels; we’re supposed to see growing mutual respect, but Batman alternates between treating Jordan as an inconvenient meddler and a sex object, while Jordan is stuck endlessly intoning concern. When, at the end of the movie, Batman refers to Jordan as his “totally platonic” coworker and friend, then tries to steal a kiss (only to be dropped on his ass), the awkward muddle feels emblematic of the entire relationship. As is so often the case, it falls to the villain to redeem things—parachuting back into the scene with an entire raft of Warner Brothers baddies (including Voldemort, King Kong, and Sauron), the Joker brings all the oxygen back into the movie in time for the climax, which registers as a burst of explosive, Simpsons-colored yellow whirling with pink and black bricks. As in the first movie, the actual building and disintegrating happens at a pace too fast to examine, which left me feeling a bit cheated; anyone with a LEGO piece or two buried in their couch cushion would want to see how such dazzlement fits together. But it’s hard to be peeved during a perfectly deployed Michael Jackson song, just as it’s hard not to walk out of the movie with a bounce in your step and a growl in your voice. “Always be yourself,” the meme goes, “Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”

There are worse things to be.

Movie review: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

 

In case you’ve just joined the most straightforward franchise currently running, a brief recap: in the first movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a recently bereaved widower and master assassin, is flushed out of retirement when some young miscreants steal his car and kill his dog. He spends the next two hours implacably hunting his revenge, like a Komodo dragon patiently shadowing its bitten prey over the course of many days, waiting for the prey’s inevitable death from infection. (Any comparisons between the emotive powers of a Komodo dragon and those of Mr. Reeves are purely coincidental.) Along the way, we learn that criminals occupy a mannerly realm of social niceties that would confound Jane Austen—they all stay in the same chain of white-glove hotels, where violent confrontation is strictly forbidden, so they must settle for eyeballing each other in the bar. Off hotel property, garrotings and guttings and headshots abound. No middle ground exists.

 

The second movie presents a neat inversion of the first movie’s stakes: Wick fetches up against a hipsterish scion of an ancient crime family, who promptly demolishes Wick’s house, leaving him with his (retrieved) car, (new) dog, and a fresh gang of thugs to destroy. And he destroys with assembly-line efficiency—when confronted with three attackers at once, he grabs the first by the arm and flips him, dislocating the arm, then takes aim at the other two onrushers while pinning the disabled attacker to the floor beneath him. Once the other two have been dispatched, he shoots the first attacker in the skull at his leisure. The first few times we saw this trick in “John Wick”, it thrilled. Seeing a protagonist expend as little energy as possible to kill made the needlessly protracted fights of other franchises look shabby—compared to John Wick, every other hero looked like they’d forgotten how to use their gun. But the novelty of the maneuver wears off between the 14th and 30th time Wick uses it, which I’d place sometime in the first act of “Chapter 2”. Without new choreography, the film tries to eke novelty out of locations and side characters, but wastes both—a fight in a subway car stays off the seats and walls, and both Common and Ruby Rose are squandered as killers pitted against Wick. In the demilitarized hotel bar, Wick drinks with Common’s Cassian; their conversation teeters on the edge of partnership, then inexplicably backs away, and the two go on to fight as if no such detente had ever occurred. Even more unforgivably, Wick turns down a drink offered by Rose’s Ares—besides being a bafflingly pointless character interaction, it threatens our belief in Wick’s intelligence. When Ruby Rose offers to buy your drink, you say yes.

 

Still, a few elements sparkle: Ian McShane, as the imposing hotel manager Winston, who rules with a jaded eye and an iron fist; a light-hearted, jokey shootout (who knew that was possible?) in a train station. The movie sets up its sequel expertly, leaving us on a clever cliffhanger; we can only hope that by Chapter 3, that drink offer still stands.

Movie review: “La La Land”

“La La Land” is like a young Labrador retriever: gorgeous to look at, eager to please, and exhausting. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has set himself a daunting task: create a movie that will rekindle Americans’ affection for both A) big, showy Busby Berkley musicals and B) live improvisational jazz. Reviving one of these flatlining patients would be a miracle; in trying for both, Chazelle stretches his movie’s energy too thin.

However, just as a flawed wedding cake is still cake, there are delights aplenty to be had, chief among them Emma Stone: any movie featuring her questioning eyebrows and lippy attitude has already made several correct decisions. Lots of attention will be justly paid to the costuming in this movie, specifically the use of a yellow dress (and Emma Stone can wear yellow) against a periwinkle sky. But even wearing a coffee-soaked uniform shirt and polyester anorak, Stone’s riveting, capable of communicating snark and humor and despair almost telepathically. Which is helpful, because her character, Mia, is an aspiring actress, and must summon up tempests from thin air in audition after audition, usually in front of bored, texting producers. (The ludicrous lines Mia must recite for these failures are a gem-like recurring bit.) Stuck in a similar position of despair, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, an achingly earnest young man who storms off his job when asked to play audience-friendly holiday medleys: his heart belongs to old-school, live jazz. Just as Mia is convinced that if she but writes, directs, performs and controls every aspect of her own one-woman play, audiences will respond in droves, Sebastian is convinced that if he could only own, renovate, design, name, and book his own jazz club, people will suddenly rediscover their long-dormant love of extended drum solos and piano improvisation. Both actors are charming and youthful enough to make this kind of winsome naiveté charming (as opposed to, say, incredibly grating), but you still want to see them grow up a bit—even, potentially, encounter a rogue spore or two of reality. John Legend, in an understated and excellent cameo as successful musician Keith, gently tries to talk some sense into Sebastian: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” His point struck me as tremendous good sense, but the movie’s hell-bent on painting him as a compromising panderer, and Mia and Sebastian as True Artists—Mia produces her play, which takes place entirely in a bedroom and centers on girlhood dreams of Paris, in front of a tiny, disengaged audience, but later discovers that it touched one very important person in a very special way. If your eyes are beginning to roll, welcome to the cynic’s bench in hell, where I have saved you space. By the time Mia launches into her breathy final number, which includes the phrase “Here’s to the dreamers”, the movie has left all earthly cares, and most of its earthly audience, behind. We know that we’re supposed to be uplifted, even enchanted, but the characters’ struggles feel trite and their triumphs unlikely, and that’s the real sticking point—we can accept a world where someone might spontaneously burst into song, but running a successful bar themed on improvisational jazz?

Give us a break.

Carrie Fisher

It’s a cliché to say of any actress that “you feel like you could be friends with her”. Usually, that feeling of accessibility is formulated as carefully as Coke: add two parts recipe- and lifestyle-focused magazine articles to one part romantic comedy lead role, season with one public heartbreak or klutzy episode on a red carpet, and boom. Instant celebrity friend. Jennifer Aniston is the ultimate celebrity friend; more recently, Jennifer Lawrence has taken her crown. Others have tried and failed: Anne Hathaway by being annoyingly perfect, and Reese Witherspoon by revealing herself to be a drunk-driving, tantrum-throwing terror. There are a lot of ways to fail at being America’s celebrity friend.

But Carrie Fisher succeeded where others failed, precisely because she went about it completely wrong: by going publicly crazy. By talking about her crazy, by owning it, by picking an unpopular and misunderstood therapy and then talking about that. By owning her family drama and talking about that. By owning her drug addiction, and then talking about that, too. In general, America does not like women who talk too much about themselves (other topics, such as holiday recipe traditions, are fine). But Carrie Fisher never stopped talking about herself—she wrote several books on the topic, and a one-woman play, and as she got older she talked about that, too. She was un-shut-uppable on the topic of her personal truth: what it was like to get electroshock therapy, what it was like to get collagen, what it was like to be manic depressive, what it was like to fall in love with Harrison Ford when she was nineteen and he was married. (When she told him she was planning to talk about that, he said, “Lawyer.” She talked about it anyway.)

Carrie Fisher owned her entire life, and thus got out ahead of everyone else who could have wished to own her. Which (given that she was the privately cherished first love of an entire generation of straight men and quite a few women) was a lot of people. Even Jabba the Hutt wanted to own her, and he was a gigantic slug. But Carrie Fisher was her own person, a real human being, flawed and aging and fragile in all the ways celebrity best friends aren’t supposed to be. Which made her more than our cocktail buddy, more than our shopping pal, more than our confidante. It made her royalty.

Long live the Princess.