Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

I haven’t been keeping up to date with the Zack Snyder-led DC universe films, but the criticism around their grim edginess and excessive cynicism is quite well known. Wonder Woman is in many ways a movie about evil, but using that evil to examine the limits and importance of optimism rather than stage a frown-off. Sure, stories about heroes being forced to contemplate the worthiness of humanity for their heroism have been done before. But in allowing that hero to be someone who has never encountered humanity before, Wonder Woman explores a sense of naivete about human nature but stops well short of condemning hope.

But that’s perhaps burying the lede. Wonder Woman had greater expectations and (unfairly) a greater duty to succeed than most of its ilk, which is maybe why it feels less formally risky than the best of its brethren. Wonder Woman has clearly benefited from the MCU films that came before it. It’s fish-out-of-water conceit, golden homeworld, and willingness to just go with the ancient gods angle feel very reminiscent of Thor, and its mixture of superhero conventions and a wartime setting are familiar from Captain America: The First Avenger. But Wonder Woman is a stronger film than either of those entries, particularly in how it uses the wartime setting to exaggerate both the silliness and the impact of superheroic feats. Seeing Diana walk around the streets of London in period garb carrying a sword and shield is maybe the funniest sight gag of the year, but when the bright blue, red, and gold outfit shows up on a battlefield, it’s a beacon of hope to lead the way. Also, its use of World War I rather than WWII is sly. Sure, there’s an evil German general (played by an American, naturally) to contend with, but the central thesis of there being hope for the global community is certainly an easier sell without the Nazi party in the picture.

The action scenes in Wonder Woman aren’t terribly visceral or exciting, filled with excessive slo-mo and playing a little loose with the exact level of power Diana has. At one moment, she can collapse a building with a tackle, and at another, she’s evenly matched with what’s effectively a man on PCP. But the framing of the scenes is worth highlighting. The female characters in other recent superhero movies, such as Catwoman and Black Widow, tend to be filmed as very technical fighters, relying on quick moves to gain the upper hand. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, on the other hand, is certainly choreographed as well trained, but what’s really stark is how director Patty Jenkins frames her as an object of power. As she fights a squadron of soldiers, she isn’t frightened for herself or relying on stealth. She takes charge and simply kicks ass. While the action isn’t tense, it’s the perfect way to handle an action scene with a nigh-invincible superhero. Diana is a figure of awe, and Jenkins makes us believe that.

By the end, Wonder Woman is far from immune to some plagues of most superhero movies. The movie may neglect the invisible jet, but the Golden Lasso of Truth is still plenty silly (played alternatively for effective laughs and ineffective drama). The finale is a mess of mostly impotent explosions with a color palette that consists of grey and rainy grey. Diana’s weaknesses are never clearly outlined, making it difficult to judge when we should worry for her. In place of that worry, we get American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his cadre of military outcasts, whose human vulnerability is emphasized instead. Pine essentially takes the role of competent superhero love interest, occupying more-or-less the same space as Haley Atwell’s Agent Carter in Captain America, but anchors the film as a link to reality and as one hell of a charismatic foil for Diana. Make no mistake though: this is Gal Gadot’s movie, and through Jenkin’s lens, she’s commands the screen. They have the difficult task of believably creating a figure of simultaneous power, wisdom, and naivete, and they make it look effortless. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold the same way is breaks (or at least cracks) the ceiling, but in a vacuum it’s still a solid entry into the upper-middle tier of superhero flicks.

B

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Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, and Robin Wright
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s chronicle of the attempted career revival of Chet Baker after imprisonment for heroin abuse, avoids many of the musical biopic pitfalls. It revels in the character flaws of its subject rather than sweeping them under the rug. It ignores the facts when they interfere with a good story. Most importantly, its a damn film. Its opening shot of a tarantula crawling out of a trumpet is the most abstract it gets, but it plays with time in interesting ways and captures more than its share of fantastic frames. It falters strongly, though, in making its central relationship believable. Ethan Hawke’s Baker is an intriguingly infuriating figure, but he never exudes charm, and because of this his romancing of Carmen Ejogo’s Jane never quite gels, especially given her devotion to him. Both Hawke and Ejogo give individually great performances, and by the end their relationship is established enough to sell the hell out of a powerhouse climax, but it takes a long time to reach that point.

B-

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Born to Be Blue (2016)
Directed by Robert Budreau
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen McHattie, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory

The first horror setpiece of Alien: Covenant is a masterpiece of panic, a frantic and terrifying piece of body horror that builds a lack of communication, a lack of understanding, and a lack of precaution into a slowly unrolling disaster. It’s monster doesn’t look horribly convincing, but it doesn’t matter; the actors sell the hell out of the moment, and the camera movements put us right in the thick of it with them. It sets the film off to a fantastic start that it never comes close to reaching again. Afterwards, Alien: Covenant switches between a cheaper version of the extraterrestrial slasher (complete with a crew too dumb to live), a high-flying space trapeze act, and a half-baked pontification on birth and creation. It’s supremely unsatisfying on all counts. While Prometheus was flawed but promising, Alien: Covenant is proof positive that it’s time to put this franchise back on ice.

Notably, the aforementioned early setpiece does not involve the Alien series’ titular killing machine. The most surprising thing about Alien: Covenant might be that, after years of waiting and the tease of Prometheus, seeing the xenomorph again isn’t thrilling, scary, or even enjoyable. At least the Alien v Predator movies were moderately self-aware in their shallowness; Covenant aims to the standard of Alien and Aliens (particularly the first), but the central beast feels much lesser. Perhaps it’s because it spends most of its time in the open air rather than as a home invader; perhaps it’s because Covenant mimics iconic bits of its predecessors (rendering the intruder as a blinking dot on a map, multiple uses of construction equipment). Maybe it’s because the crew is particularly dumb this time, ignoring basic common sense by constantly splitting up in a crisis and investigating a mysterious planet during a high-force hurricane. Maybe it’s because the xenomorph is viewed in full light more often, making it look faker despite forty years of technological development.

Most likely, though, it’s because director Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to care about the xenomorph anymore, and every time it appear it feels like a distraction from is true intentions. Alien has always acted as a powerful rape metaphor, which in turn set up its hero well to become a feminist icon, and Covenant merges this not-entirely-unsuccessfully with Prometheus‘ undercooked exploration of creation. Covenant acts as a tale of impotence, as a dark-mirrored tale of man’s anger at their inability to create life, as told through Michael Fassbender’s dual performance. This provides Scott with fodder for plenty of eccentric scenes, which he made the most of in his heyday with Alien and Blade Runner but feel forced and awkward here. Alien took sexual anxieties and fears of personal invasion and spun horror out of it. Covenant tries to extend it a bit too far and in doing so exposes the limits of its structure.

D+

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Alien: Covenant (2017)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Is there anyone out there who was clamouring for a new King Arthur movie? With certain standards, like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, there’s a real sense that there is a fanbase out there, and that those characters have stories in them to tell. King Arthur though? Sure, his story is the backbone to plenty of other stories, but the Knights of the Round Table themselves have never really popped onscreen (give or take a Holy Grail). Since no one is interested in seeing a King Arthur movie (a truth I will assume correct until proven wrong), it’s no surprise that Guy Ritchie had no interest in making one either. His King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is really a sneaky way for him to make a familiarly Guy Ritchie Cockney crime lark, with some Arthurian legend in the margins to convince the studios to give him a budget. At least, that’s what it seems like, but far too often those margins grow and swallow the energy of the rest of the film.

After a ten-or-so minute intro on the backstory of kings and mages, King Arthur reaches its absolute peak: a wordless quick-cut montage that zooms through 20-odd years of history, showing us the maturing of Arthur on the streets and in the brothels of London (then Londinium) and the rise of the evil King Vortigern. It then catches us up with Arthur as he recounts an encounter with a Viking who assaulted a prostitute to the local leader of the guards, with a four-way narration between Arthur, his two mates, and the guard leader. Colorful names abound, from Goosefat Bill to the three Mikes (Flatnose Mike is the main topic of discussion), and energy pops off the screen, reminiscent of the best moments in Ritchie’s crime trifecta of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla. It’s all very much like the second coming of A Knights Tale, just a bit less anachronistic and a bit less noble.

For these moments, King Arthur looks like a winner, but it loses steam when it tries to say something about the “King” part. There are moments here and there after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone that hint at some originality and some joy, but with the exception of a montage of Arthur dealing with rodents of unusual size, they all relate to the city and its crooked side. An assassination attempt midway through the movie is a blast for the most part (best one-line character in the movie: “I’m a target, aren’t I?”), but falls flat when it moves from talk to action. Mostly, this has to do with the use of Excalibur, which puts Arthur in some kind of fighting super-mode. It’s about as much fun to watch as someone play a videogame on the easiest setting. Jude Law doesn’t get much to chew on as Vortigern, although thankfully the magical elements of his character have been played up in the trailer; he’s at his best growling from the throne, collar open like some kind of medieval Elvis impersonator. It’s obvious from this movie that Guy Ritchie could make a really fun period piece if he focused on his strengths. Epic storytelling just isn’t one of them.

C+

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes (26%)

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Before I Fall is a melodramatic mess that I paid money to see for some reason

In the Paderborn cineplex, they often show movies as “Sneak Previews,” where the movie itself is a surprise. They start off with a variably animated emcee giving away popcorn to patrons willing to be a little silly; this led to a group of people enacting Dragonball Z poses while shouting in German serving as the opening act for Moonlight a while back. The key advantage, to myself, of these Sneak Previews is that, while the movie is unknown, there’s a big “OV” next to the listing if it’s going to be in English, and those two magical letters are attached more often to the mystery movies than the future showings. It’s a neat thought, but in reality, the choice of movie is dictated more by whatever non-blockbuster is coming out soon in Germany rather than the carefully considered selection of a cinephile. Sometimes, this leads to seeing Moonlight for a second time as a complete surprise; sometimes, this leads to seeing Before I Fall. I am assuredly not the audience for Before I Fall, as was clear pretty early on. But having that knowledge didn’t make sitting through Before I Fall any easier.

Before I Fall is essentially Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day, but played completely straight. Sam is part of a quartet of popular girls, while dating a hunky bro to whom she plans to lose her virginity on Valentine’s Day. She’s kinda mean to her mom, she doesn’t pay attention to her sister, she scoffs at the pining of Nice Guy Kent, and makes fun of loner Juliet. After a party night gets a bit too intense, Sam finds herself waking up to Valentine’s Day over and over again. Admittedly, not knowing what I was getting myself into, the time-loop came out of absolutely nowhere to me, since the previous thirty-odd minutes just seemed like an uninteresting slice in the life of a bunch of pretty insufferable high-school students. Getting to relive that over and over again doesn’t really add any depth to the situation; everything about everyone is pretty clear from the get-go to everyone except Sam. Instead, the audience gets to travel with Sam and share her deepest wish: that this will all just be done with already.

Nice things first: Sam herself is not an awful character, and Zoey Deutch gives an emotive performance, suggesting layers that the script doesn’t really earn. And there’s one scene in the second act where Sam has a laidback heart-to-heart with a gay classmate she made fun of that works weirdly well thanks to its chill, matter-of-fact honesty and willingness to laugh for once in the whole damn movie. The rest of this is mostly a melodramatic mess. While a high-school twist of the time-loop plot isn’t a horrendous idea, this whole thing only works when the people involved are having a little bit of fun with the silliness. Instead, the movie revels in melodrama and sentimentality, with some grade-school philosophy to complete the dish (Sisyphus and the Butterfly Effect both get name dropped, because of course they do). It also throws on a suicide plotline that is key to the final act, but is never less than extremely tacky and leads to a bafflingly shallow conclusion. Before I Fall may not be for me, but it’s target audience should be asking for a lot more than this.

D-

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Before I Fall (2017)
Directed by Ry Russo-Young
Starring Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, and Jennifer Beals
Rotten Tomatoes (66%)

Before I Fall is a melodramatic mess that I paid money to see for some reason

The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in 2014. It was something that introduced the more sci-fi elements, yes, but also something that broke the superhero fatigue, at least temporarily. Sure, there have been Marvel moments that feel unique: Thor 2‘s climactic subway chase taking on a Bug Bunny-esque madcap style, The Winter Soldier‘s surveillance paranoia. But Guardians of the Galaxy felt more like Star Wars than Iron Man 4, taking a ragtag crew and letting them hop around a universe that had no restraint in reality, or even preconceived mythology given their relative obscurity to figures like Thor. And everything clicked for it, from its well-tuned cast that benefited from just-pre-superstardom surprise turns from Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, its colorfully constructed universe, its memorable quasi-irreverent soundtrack, and the instantly iconic Groot.

When the marketing cycle for Vol. 2 started, there was immediately reason for concern. Not because these elements were missing, but because the trailers seemed to lean into these elements incredibly hard. Liked Drax being obtuse? We’ll focus the first clip released of precisely that. That Baby Groot dance everyone loved at the end of the first? You bet he’s going to be everywhere in trailers being all adorable and stuff. Looking for ’80s hits? We’ll release the soundtrack in a bag of Dorito’s to make sure you hear them. Looking for references to Night Rider? Fuck it, we’ll have David Hasselhoff on the soundtrack. For something that was a breath of fresh air three years ago, everything looked pretty stale.

It’s no surprise that Vol. 2 delivers on these items, for good and for bad. What does come as a surprise is that, rather than build on the previous film to make a tighter experience, Vol. 2 is a much looser film, both stylistically and plot-wise, than maybe any other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It very much feels like the Marvel execs put their complete faith in director James Gunn, as the DNA of his previous films Super and especially Slither is all over Vol. 2Vol. 2 is nearly a best-case scenario in giving a genre auteur a whole bunch of money and telling him to have fun, and as a result Vol. 2 wears influences from Star Wars (obviously) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hilariously inventing and immediately exploiting the rules of its universe) to The Thing (magnificently nearing body horror more than once). Taika Watiti’s Thor Ragnarok has a chance of pulling a similar trick soon, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers clearly had his fingerprints all over it, but Vol. 2 is the rare MCU film that feels more like a creator’s vision than a brand obligation, even more so than its predecessor. In a way, it feels more like Darkman than Iron Man, which at this point is a very good thing.

As for the old characters, there it is a bit more mixed. Drax is probably the biggest victim of sequel fatigue, as the surprise of discovering that character’s quirks was a big part of the pleasure in the first. There are no new dimensions to Drax here, so the gags involving him simply aren’t as surprising. Baby Groot, on the other hand, is an absolute treasure. Sure, he’s adorable, and the kids in the audience loved him, but he’s often used as a vehicle for considerably darker humour than expected. As for the others, Gamora is generally a bit wasted, and Quill is a bit less of a wise-ass thanks to his position in the plot, but Michael Rooker’s Yondu is brought back to great effect, and Rocket Raccoon is still a lot of fun. On the new front, Kurt Russell’s Ego is a slithery presence, oozing that old-school cool in fitting with the 80s stylings. Considering the general failure of MCU villains to make any impression, Russell is top-tier. Even the secondary villains, a race of genetically engineered bourgeoisie, are a ton of fun and would have been interesting enough to carry their own movie if called upon to.

Plotwise, Vol. 2 is focused on family, especially the bond between fathers/father-figures and sons, but extending to sibling relationships and, of course, teams. While there’s plenty of boilerplate talk about the Guardians being one big family, the film overall nicely focuses on relationships between two people, putting together as many combos as possible and examining their familial stance. Sure, Quill/Gamora comes back up, and Quill/Ego is all over the trailers, but the film finds some depth in the bipartite relationships between Quill, Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon, even giving Yondu a father figure of his own, and further explores the Gamora/Nebula sisterhood to surprising effect. Yes, it does boil down to a dastardly plot eventually, but it avoids magicla MacGuffins like infinity stones or whatever and ties its developments into actual, believable character interactions.

But more than anything else, Vol. 2 is stock full of a few deliriously fun setpieces. The final battle goes on for about ten minutes longer than it should have, but the opening scene beautifully sets up a major battle only to have it occur out of focus in the background, while a fight involving Yondu, Rocket, and a horde of space pirates can only be described as a beautiful composed spree of violence. Throughout these sequences, Vol. 2 is willing to be completely cartoony, which weirdly makes it a standout among superhero movies. It takes risks, and is sure to dismissed as dumb by some, but it entertains in ways that are novel for a film of this budget and scale. It successfully transplants low-budget cult-horror visuals and ideas to the biggest budget scale there is, and is by a huge margin the best future midnight-movie in the MCU. Bring on Volume 3.

A-

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Michael Rooker
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

  • Line of the film that literally no one else laughed at: “We got a whole box of hands back there.”
The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Let’s look at the poster for Free Fire, shall we?

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First off, the tagline “All Guns, No Control” feels like it was tossed off in the first marketing meeting for Bowling for Columbine, only to dusted off in a moment of ah-fuck-it by whoever picked up the rights to this one. Secondly, the poster looks like something released direct-to-VHS two years after Reservoir Dogs, getting a quickie re-release after Brie Larson’s (well-deserved) Oscar win. After Tarantino made it looks easy to make an engrossing crime flick in almost a single location, a flood of imitators came out, and Free Fire is a twenty-year late entry into the genre of lazy Tarantino ripoffs. Unlike more forgivable entries in this storied genre, Free Fire has a well-known team behind the camera (Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley) and a reasonably well-reputed cast. But instead of being the fun lark its Rotten Tomatoes rating would suggest, Free Fire is an example of why great writing exercises don’t always make for great movies. Or even good ones.

Aside from twenty-odd minutes of table setting, Free Fire takes place entirely within a single location, within a single firefight. A deal goes bad between a American/South African arms dealers and IRA rebels, all decked out with the appropriate ’70s attire, leading to both sides hiding behind warehouse crates and scrambling to get their hands on the briefcase of money in between them. The setup is simple, and could have been a lot of fun if the characters were fun to watch. Unfortunately, they’re shit. The characters that don’t go full ham are essentially non-entities, and the often great lead actors (the aforementioned Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer) and usually memorable character actors (Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor) never get enough individual focus to make them pop in any way nor provide even a baseline of character motivation. As for the characters who get some personality, they’re uniformly irritating, especially Sam Riley’s Irish junkie Stevo, but more especially Jack Reynor’s hotheaded asshole Harry, but MOST especially Sharlto Copley’s idiotic arms dealer Vern. The movie could devolve into a bit of slasher-esque scorekeeping, where you could keep a bit of a fun betting pool going as for who’ll make it alive, but none of the characters make enough of an impression to be worth rooting for, and Wheatley and Jump seem interested in giving the absolute worst of the lot the most screentime.

What may catch many off guard is how quickly things turn to shit once they turn to shit in Free Fire. Pretty quickly, every character has at least one wound on them, resulting in a whole lot of immobility and people crawling at each other. Free Fire could have said something about the futility of violence here, or at least injected some colorful dialogue to make it a bit of fun to watch, but instead it tells the same joke over and over: ohh Stevo/Harry/who cares got shot again, looks like it hurt eh? Even at only 85 minutes long, that joke gets old.

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D

Free Fire (2017)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley
Rotten Tomatoes (79%)

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests