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Wonder Woman (2017)

I owe Gal Gadot an overdue apology. When the news first broke that the Israeli model-turned-actor had won the role of Wonder Woman, I was quite dismissive. My heart had been set on Gadot’s Fast and Furious 6 costar, Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter who displayed a natural screen presence. I apologize for not thinking the relatively slim Gadot had what it takes to fill out Diana Prince’s wonder boots. I just couldn’t see it, and that’s an error of imagination on my part. When Gadot made her debut in 2016’s otherwise abominable Batman vs. Superman, she was one of the few high points, granted she was only there for like fifteen minutes. My concerns were abated but could she hold her own film? After 140 minutes of consideration, I can declare that Gadot is a star and a terrific Wonder Woman. The rest of the film is pretty good though not up to her wonder level.

Diana (Gadot) is an Amazonian princess living on a mysterious hidden island ruled by ageless female warriors like Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright). One fateful day a downed airplane crashes close to their shore. Diana rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and is fascinated to learn he is a man. The Amazonians are distrustful of a man in their land. He warns them about the “war to end all wars” going on that threatens the greater world. The Germans are developing a powerful chemical weapon thanks to the treacherous Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and Luddendorff (Danny Huston). Diana decides she cannot stay idle. She leaves her home and travels with Steve to London and eventually the the European Front. Diana is certain the one responsible for the global conflict is none other than the god of war Ares, who will stop at nothing to annihilate mankind.

Wonder Woman is an entertaining, empowering, and engaging Golden Age superhero throwback that manages to be the best the DCU has had to offer. This is the movie many fans have been waiting for. Wonder Woman’s structure and tone feels like what would happen if you crammed together Marvel’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s got the ancient mythological society that is separate from mankind. It’s got the fish-out-of-water comedy of a god traveling to the world of man and trying to make sense of our clothing, customs, and backwards gender norms. It’s also set during a world war far in the past and resonates with handsome period-appropriate production values. The comedy aspects are surprisingly restrained; the fish-out-of-water jokes are mostly deployed during Diana’s first encounter with Steve’s secretary, Etta (Lucy Davis). The humor goes a long way to help coalesce the varied tones, tying the campier elements with the more serious war backdrop. It’s a movie that recognizes, at long last, that the DCU can actually be fun. The lighter tone works as well to establish the charming dynamic between Diana and Steve. There’s a screwball comedy feel that gracefully comes in and out, allowing Pine (Star Trek Beyond) to be simultaneously amazed and flat-footed at his ever-increasing crush’s agency. They make a winning pair and there are several moments that are funny, touching, and lovely between them that made me smile.

Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) is a wonderful lead and delivers a star-making turn. She draws you in immediately. Gadot succeeds as a cultural icon come to colorful life. She succeeds as a comic actress bemused and wary at the era’s gender politics. She succeeds as a dramatic actress able to convey the emotions of doubt and torment. But most significantly she succeeds as a person overcome with the sheer thrill of self-discovery. There’s a moment where Diana takes a flying leap to grab a stone tower’s ledge. She grabs it but the ledge breaks and she starts sliding down the face of the tower. She stops her downward plummet by punching her own handhold. She then punches another. Gadot’s face lights up, taking in the sheer scope of her personal possibility. She launches herself up the face of the tower, more determined and blissful than before. Gadot’s greatest strength is her capacity of expressing Diana’s growing sense of self. Her ongoing declaration of agency is given a welcomed and fitting action-movie cool treatment.

Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) acquits herself impressively in the world of big-budget action. The first action sequence involves ancient Greek femme warriors against German soldiers, and it’s awesome. Watching the galloping horses and gilded warriors confidently mow down the enemy soldiers is a primal joy. Jenkins pleasingly frames her action sequences and uses judicial cuts, keeping an audience oriented through the duration. It’s action you can comprehend and relish. Jenkins has a great command of her visual space and how to sell the bigger moments. We don’t see Diana in her full Wonder Woman regalia until an hour in but when it comes it feels like a big screen moment decades in the making. Diana gets her deserved heroic entrance. Jenkins color palate follows the gun mettle grays of Zach Snyder’s pre-established diluted color scheme, but the less oppressive tone makes it feel less dreary. Something of interest is also how little her camera sexualizes Gadot, who is by all accounts a stunning human being. Given Wonder Woman’s costume, her creator’s kinky origins, and the generally prevalent practice of the male gaze, I would have assumed there would be certain moments to highlight Gadot’s physical assets. The movie does so but it highlights her strength and fortitude rather than her curves. Her femininity isn’t tied into how her body looks to appeal to men. It’s about what her body can do and often to the immediate threat of men. She does get a couple killer evening gowns to wear but her sword is tucked away behind her shoulder blades, a powerful reminder that she’s no man’s sexual object.

With all that said, the praise is a bit over pronounced for Wonder Woman, because while it is clearly head and shoulders above the other DCU films, it’s still only an overall good film and not a great one. I understand that many will celebrate a big-budget action showcase for an idol of female empowerment, but I don’t want to ignore problems either. The biggest issue for Wonder Woman is just how simplistic its characters and themes are. Diana is an interesting character but she’s not that deep. She’s following a common hero’s journey and learning about the possibilities of man, good and bad. She’s trying to understand the inherent contradictions of life, civilization, and war. There isn’t any major test she has to overcome besides a broad accepting of one’s destiny. Steve falls into the love interest/damsel role primarily reserved for women in these sorts of things. His scenes with Diana are some of the best in the movie but he’s still underwritten too. The themes of responsibility and inaction are fairly broad and kept that way. There isn’t much room for nuance. Example: Steve brings Diana into the trenches on the Front and says their destination is on the other side of No Man’s Land, the stalemate between enemy trenches. He then says “no man” two more times, as if the audience doesn’t quite get it and needs it underlined (get it: Diana is “no man”). There’s also the idea that Ares is responsible for men warring with one another to make a point about man’s nature. Minor spoilers here but, shocker, Aries is eventually vanquished and the German soldiers all act like a magic spell has been broken. They’re much more chummy and not as interested in fighting. Doesn’t this then assume that the next war, the one with the Holocaust, was all mankind’s responsibility? Aren’t we proving Ares’ point about our very volatile nature?

The supporting characters are pretty stock even by stock standards. There’s the charming Arabic soldier (Said Taghnaoui) who dreamed of being an actor, the Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner) who is unable to shoot any more, and the expat Native American (Eugene Brave Rock) looking to make a profit from war. None of these characters are given a moment to shine nor do they impact the plot in any way. Each one is given a minor characterization note but they don’t come back to them. They are robbed of payoffs. Why give the sharpshooter a PTSD-like trauma if he doesn’t rise to the occasion or explore that trauma? You literally don’t see him shoot anyone from a distance, meaning that his specialty he brings to the group is null and void. The Arab wannabe actor doesn’t get a chance to use his skill set either. Why introduce these characters and provide an angle for them if they’re ultimately just going to be an interchangeable support squad? I know they’re meant to be supporting characters but it goes to the lack of development, and less developed characters that are kept more as background figures offer a less realized world with less payoffs and a somewhat lowered ceiling of potential entertainment.

The third act is also where Wonder Woman becomes another in the tiresome line of CGI overkill. Beforehand Jenkins had done well enough to play into the already established visual stylings of the Snyderverse but the movie is eventually swallowed whole, becoming indistinguishable from the noisy, calamitous, and altogether boring climax of Batman vs. Superman. It’s another CGI monster fight with lots of explosions, flying debris, and the Snyder staple of slow-motion-to-fast speed ramps. The final battle between Diana and Ares doesn’t really alter its dynamics. They take turns punching, throwing things, and taunting one another. There’s no real variation to the fighting. This is supposed to be the ultimate showdown, a battle of the gods, and it feels so detached. Part of this is also because the film keeps the identity of Ares cloaked, which keeps the ultimate bad guy as more a philosophical presence for too long. I think the film also errs by having the actual actor onscreen for the fighting. It would have been best for Ares to have just been a CGI monster rather than what we ultimately get. I’m also unclear exactly what Wonder Woman’s powers are because all of a sudden she just seems to do stuff. This all leads to a final standoff that goes on far too long and feels anticlimactic.

There is also a moment with a mustache that needs highlighting for its sheer hilarity (oblique spoilers). There is a flashback to a thousands-year-old story, and a certain character retains a large, bushy mustache, and it took all my power not to bust out laughing at the absurdity of the image. This could have been preventable. They could have hired any younger actor. The audience would still have known who the onscreen figure was since they were narrating their own tale. They could have also just shaved the stach. Is it possible that the villain’s powers are completely linked to this item of facial hair? Is this a modern-day Samson, a cruel joke practiced by Zeus, who never could have foreseen an age where anachronistic facial hair would be celebrated with undue irony (hipsters will be the death of us all)?

Wonder Woman is going to make a lot of people happy, especially those who have been yearning for a worthy showcase not just for the character but for a strong heroine who doesn’t need romantic entanglements or a man’s approval. Celebrate the big screen outing befitting the biggest female superhero in comics’ canon. Gadot is a genuine star and has a charming and capable sidekick with Pine. The action is enjoyable, the humor keeps things light enough to blend the different tones, and the stylistic choices from Jenkins keep the movie fun for all ages and genders. It’s a celebration of a woman’s might and not necessarily how she looks in her star-spangled mini-skirt. It’s a relative bright spot for the otherwise dreadful, dark, and dreadfully serious DCU, though I still cannot muster any hope for Wonder Woman’s next appearance, Snyder’s Justice League. With all of its virtues and entertainment, Wonder Woman still suffers from some poor development decisions and a lousy final act that hold it back from true greatness. It’s a good movie, but walking away, I couldn’t help feeling that even the best DCU movie (thus far) was about lower middle-of-the-pack compared to the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wonder Woman is a considerable step forward in the right direction but there’s still many more left to go.

Nate’s Grade: B

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Sometimes a movie just gives the wrong impression from its conception, pre-production, and initial advertisement, and that’s exactly King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Optimistically planned as a six-part franchise, this new big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend looked like a total disaster. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) seemed like the wrong fit for the material, the tone seemed messy and unclear, and it screamed a transparent attempt by Hollywood execs to sex up something old. I was holding out a sliver of hope that it might be stylish, mindless fun, and this was coming off of Ritchie’s unexpectedly enjoyable Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake. If I do not see a more headache-inducing, self-indulgent, cumbersome, illogical, and generally exasperating movie this summer, I will consider myself most fortunate.

Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the dirty streets of Londinium. He’s a low-level criminal with his own loyal crew and his own moral code. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, loyalty in the making. Arthur is the son of the former King Uther (Eric Bana) who was murdered by his brother and mage, Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur runs afoul of the law and is captured, and his identity is revealed when he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone. Vortigern must kill the young upstart but a group of dissidents kidnaps Arthur and pleads with him to join their cause. Together they can topple Vortigern and free England of his tyranny.

If you can keep up with Ritchie’s willfully shifty film narrative then you’re of sounder mind than me because it felt like King Arthur was just being made up on the spot. Whenever one tells a story in a fantasy realm with fantasy figures, the rules are important to establish, otherwise everything can just feel airless and arbitrary and anticlimactic. If a movie can’t establish its own internal logic and system of rules it feels obtuse. There aren’t setups, and without setups there can’t be well-orchestrated payoffs. This is basic structure, plain and simple. This does not happen in King Arthur at all. Beyond the most flimsy good-guys-triumph-over-evil underpinning, there is nothing that makes sense. Characters will all of a sudden achieve some advanced knowledge without the audience seeing how this was gained. Characters will make use of powers that would have been very useful if they had been used earlier but we have no explanation why. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) all of a sudden summons a giant snake, or turns into a giant snake, and I’m thinking, if you have giant snake-making powers, why did you wait so long on this? Conversely, Vortigern offers blood sacrifices to an evil squid-siren-sister-threesome, but what he gains in exchange is vague, their demands are vague, as is their overall fit into a larger scheme. I thought Arthur was trying to stage an insurgency and court a political revolution, but that fizzles out after a few scenes of rare coherency. I gave up trying to understand the movie within the first twenty minutes. It feels like Ritchie and company are just hurtling through expected fantasy elements as if they were merely expanded features from a trailer and a chore to overcome. Arthur has an incredibly expedited adventure on an island with oversized animals (literal R.O.U.S.!), and it feels like Ritchie is just laughing at the expense of the audience and whatever genre demands they might have had.

The characters are also extremely uninteresting and kept me at a distance for the entire film. Ritchie is trying to incorporate his cheeky gangster movies into the fantasy mythology of the King Arthur legend, and the two don’t exactly fit. An early sequence involves Arthur explaining his routine that day through repetitious, annoying narration and a non-linear time-skipping timeline. It’s the kind of narrative trick we’ve become accustomed to in Ritchie’s movie. This time it was shallow because it wasn’t funny, interesting, and its only justifiable purpose seemed to be beating an audience into submission to remember the names of Arthur’s pals through rote repetition. The characters have stupid, Dick Tracy-in-Midlevel times names like Goose Fat Bill, Wet Stick, Back Lack, Chinese George, Jack’s Eye, Blue and Mischief John. Silly names by themselves are not an issue, as Snatch had characters with monikers like Franky Four-Fingers and Bullet-Tooth Tony, but by God those characters were memorable. These characters lack striking personalities and general purpose other than filling the frame. If you challenged me to put names to faces I would probably fail (the main female character doesn’t even get a name; she’s simply The Mage). These boring people just drifted from scene to scene, bumping into an increasingly arbitrary, ungainly, and meaningless plot.

The subtitle is also an indication of the deeper problems inherent with the plot. It’s “Legend of the Sword” and not “Arthur,” and it doesn’t even name the sword. We’re told that the sword wields immense power, though like much it’s never explained in any sort of manner that would provide context or general understanding. The sword is powerful but it’s also more active than our hero, because Arthur is told that the sword controls him and not the other way around. His mission then is learning to simply allow the sword to do its thing. His mission is to become more passive when fighting? Does that strike anybody as a character arc that makes sense or would be satisfying to watch?

With so many missteps at so many levels, the only way this movie could have been salvaged is from some sensational action sequences to quicken one’s pulse. Ritchie is a stylish director but I don’t think he’s ever been a great stager of action. His documentary-style zooms, speed ramps, and quick cuts are more about engendering an impression. An excellent example, and probably the high-point of the movie, is a montage establishing Arthur’s childhood growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Londinium. It’s wordless, set to a gasping, percussion-heavy score, and quickly establishes through concise visuals how Arthur came of age and gained his street smarts. The legitimate action sequences are underwhelming and poorly orchestrated. The setups are rushed, confusing, and the edits are a scrambled mixture of slow motion, fast motion, and extreme close-ups, a combination that doesn’t aid in coherency. The advanced fighting feels like the movie just accelerated into a video game cut scene. It’s generally as incomprehensible as the plot and as ultimately tiresome as the various characters.

Allow me to indulge an exemplary example as to why King Arthur is as stupid, irritating, and headache-inducing just from a plot standpoint, never mind Ritchie’s filmmaking tics. The villain has three chances to kill Arthur and he inexplicably whiffs every freaking time. The first is when Arthur is a young boy and his father manages to place him on a small dingy and pushes him out to sea like he’s Moses in a basket. Vortigern is his super video game bad guy ultra self, who we later see has the power to launch fiery projectiles, and he just watches as the slowest boat in the world slowly drifts away, forgetting he has projectile powers. Either that or the movie inserts an arbitrary limitation for no reason. Now established as king, Vortigern lives by the prophecy that Arthur will return and pull Excalibur from the stone and one day vanquish him; however, Arthur can still be killed because he is mortal. Arthur pulls the sword from its stony sheath and passes out. Does Vortigern kill his long-prophesied enemy while he’s unconscious? No. Does he kill him while he’s locked in a jail cell? No. Does he kill him before a big public ceremony where, surprise, a group of outlaws rescue Arthur? No. Even if you were being generous and account these foolish actions as the result of unchecked hubris, consider the very climactic battle between the adult Arthur and Vortigern. Once again, Vortigern has adopted his fiery, giant video game boss battle visage, the same that killed Arthur’s father that fateful night. It’s clearly a life and death showdown, and at one point Arthur gets thrown, hits his head on rock, and is knocked unconscious. He eventually wakes up and looks over to find… Vortigern just standing on the other side of the rock and admiring like a stone altar. It’s the battle between good and evil and evil decides to take a walk. Three obvious instances where the villain could have won, easily, and three illogical excuses that showcase the absence of even acceptable storytelling.

So what if the story of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is dumb and feels like it’s being randomly made up on the spot? So what if the characters are underwritten, lacking in distinguished personalities, and are rather pointless? So what if the main character has to learn to better give up his agency to a stupid magic sword? So what if the only significant female character doesn’t even merit a name? So what if the action often resorts to a slow-motion frenzy of a CGI dust cloud? So what if there are 300-foot sized elephants in this movie and then never appear again? So what if I don’t understand anybody’s personal relationships besides good and evil designations? So what if I was so bored and disengaged from the movie that I started contemplating strange subjects to pass the protracted time, like why does Hunnam’s natural British accent sound so fake, and why does Jude Law’s hair remind me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters? The ultimate question is whether or not something as ostensibly irreverent as a cockney crime King Arthur is fun, and the answer is unequivocally no. If you’re still wondering how poorly conceived and executed this movie is, I’ve saved the best doozy for last, which coincidentally is also one of the final moments in the two-hour film. I kid you not, the movie ends with the eventual Knights of the Round Table actively befuddled by the existence of a round table. They cannot apply their knowledge of tables to this new, rounder model. They gawk, shake their heads, and wonder what it is exactly. There you have it, a group of heroes mentally defeated due to the absence of corners.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Moana (2016)

moana_ver4The Polynesian-based animated musical Moana is a throwback to the Disney formula of the 1990s that became so familiar and entrenched. The time away has made it a welcomed return, especially when executed to this magnificent magnitude. A formula by itself is not a problem, in theory. Many of our favorite movies follow storytelling paths that others have trod well before, but it’s all about the level of execution, building characters that an audience cares about, a conflict that feels involving and escalating, and payoffs that are naturally setup throughout the plotting. With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with.

In ancient times among the Polynesian islands, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the literal heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a shining green emerald responsible for creating life. Many years later, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenage girl next n line to be the chief of her people. Much is expected of her for the betterment of the island but Moana would rather be out there on the water, a passion that her father forbids. Her island is in dire trouble when the food supplies are rotting or disappearing. Moana’s eccentric grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) tells her what must happen: she must venture out to sea, find Maui, retrieve his magic fishhook, and force Maui to return Te Fiti’s heart to the source. Moana sneaks away and embarks on a great adventure that will test her skills and her sense of who she is and what her calling should be.

MOANAWith a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. The Disney formula of the hero or heroine yearning for something grander from their supposedly drab existence became a crutch after the apex of the Disney Renaissance in the mid 90s. The overprotective father who doesn’t want their daughter or son to break far from tradition will also be plenty familiar. With Moana, the masters who kickstarted that Renaissance, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, return to the formula but also know what to subvert, what to tweak, and what to dive right into. While it’s not as subversive as mildly revolutionary for a Disney movie as Frozen, this is still a movie that anticipates the connections an audience will make and knowingly tweaks them. On her island, Moana has a cute little pig sidekick who you expect to make the journey with her… except it doesn’t. Instead the brain-dead chicken, a reliable source of comic relief, is her traveling animal companion. Moana prickles at being called a princess; she’s the daughter of the chief and actually already functions in a ruling capacity. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he nonchalantly retorts. There’s also a lesson in what constitutes good and evil as all the villains and reprobates of legend are far more ambiguous. There’s also a refreshing lack of a central romance. We have a strong heroine whose goal is completely unrelated to romantic love. This girl has bigger things on her mind than boys.

This movie is primarily a two-hander as we witness Moana and Maui interact, grow, and change, much to our amusement. I can’t recall another Disney film that had such a small focus on a limited number of characters and this decision pays dividends. While only 103 minutes, we really get to understand these two people and what drives them and what fears keep them from accomplishing their goals. Moana is a terrific character. She’s pulled in different directions from her sense of duty and her own ambition to explore the world outside. She’s feisty but still clumsy, empowered but still filled with doubts, independent but considerate of others. After all, her plight is to save her people. Pairing this character with Maui provides plenty of narrative sparks, especially as Maui is forced against his will by the power of the ocean to assist in doing right with Moana. Newcomer Cravhalo makes quite a debut. Her singing voice is flawless but I was highly impressed with the emotion she was able to convey through her vocal performance. She makes you care deeply for her character because she brings such life to the lively Moana. Johnson’s boundless charisma is amazingly channeled into the character thanks to the animators. Johnson isn’t lazily sleepwalking in his performance like so many celebrity vocal actors. Moana and Maui both intrinsically have their identities tied up in their sense of obligation to others, and this provides a common area for them to bond and also to stretch as characters. Theirs is a dual journey of self-discovery and defining themselves on their own terms. The actions of others and their demands do not have to define you. The charged interplay between Moana and Maui, two characters at cross-purpose in their goals, is a scenario that places them in our focus and endears them to us as they deepen.

tamatoa-in-moanaThe fantasy setting also allows for plenty of fun and imaginative diversions and turns. The mingling of man and god with the whimsical and weird magical creatures made me think of the great Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) as a direct creative influence. There is a delightfully wonky sequence with a wild band of pirates that are best described as living coconuts from a Mad Max film. Their floating ships are patched together with ramshackle planks and pieces and a thunderous drumbeat for pacing. All that’s missing is a coconut with a flaming guitar. It’s such a visually delightful and daffy segment and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maui’s living tattoos (traditional hand-drawn animation) provide further personality and serve as his conscience. The underwater land of monsters is also begging for further exploration. Maui’s shape-shifting powers are brought to the forefront during key battles with the giant lava monster Te Ka. Even when the movie isn’t dazzling you with a song or its character development it can pull off inventive and visually gorgeous world building that sucks you in.

While not hitting the earworm heights of Frozen’s best, the songs in Moana are uniformly good and, even better, advance the story and give additional light to characters. Lin Manuel-Miranda is still a musical genius and imbues the sounds of Moana with Polynesian culture and history, lots of powerful percussion and harmonies. Moana’s personal theme of “How Far I’ll Go” has some wonderful melodic turns especially as it builds, and it’s a fine musical throughline for her journey with each repetition building in emotion. I enjoyed the Hamilton-style rhyming flourishes as well as the extended rap interlude on The Rock’s jaunty signature song, “You’re Welcome.” That tune is quite playful with a strong hook and it boasts all Maui’s accomplishments and his hefty ego, but it also has a narrative purpose. Maui uses the song to distract Moana and steal her boat. My current favorite might actually be the outlier on the soundtrack; “Shiny” is an absurdly enjoyable Bowie-esque glam rock number from a giant crustacean admiring his fascination for all things shiny. Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) superbly sinks his teeth into such a theatrical and comical villain. It’s a short scene but Clemente’s impression is irresistible. His song is also a strategy, allowing Maui to steal back his fishhook while the opportunity for gloating distracts the giant crab. The songs are a reflection of the characters singing them and serve narrative purpose, which is a rarity in big-screen musicals. The musical score by Mark Mancini beautifully matches Manuel-Miranda’s songwriting themes and provides a lush sonic backdrop.

the-ocean-is-calling-7-things-you-might-not-know-about-disney-s-moana-moana-disney-1017363This has been an absolute dream of a year for animated movies. From Zootopia to Kubo and the Two Strings to the heartwarming indie Life Animated, the movies have enchanted and entertained and also dared to challenge, uplift, and engage an audience. These are more than mere babysitting tools for exhausted parents to put on; these movies are some of the best of the year, animated or live-action. For my tastes, Moana is just a touch below Zootopia due to the latter’s complexly inventive world and articulate social commentary. However, Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Legend of Hercules (2014)

MV5BMTQwMjEyODQxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDQxMjE3MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_It’s as if director Renny Harlin watched Gladiator and said, “Yeah, I can do that, but much worse.” The plot is almost exactly a ripoff of the 2000-Best Picture winner, having the godly Hercules besmirched and thrown into the arena, where he must build a name for himself in gladiatorial combat and work the support of the crowd in order to gain his vengeance against a jealous tyrant with daddy issues. If that wasn’t enough, the visual aesthetic is very much a CGI-heavy melange of 300, with the super stylized slow-mo action standing in the way for plot. A sword-and-sandals epic should not be on the verge of putting you to sleep, but Hercules goes there. Kellan Lutz (Twilight) might have the right build to fill out the character but he’s too limited as an actor to do much beyond the fight choreography. The only reason to see this movie is if you’re trapped on an airplane and it happens to be on. Who would have thought that the flawed Brett Ratner-directed Hercules movie would look even better?

Nate’s Grade: D

Hercules (2014)

MV5BMTQ4ODA5MTA4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjMyODM5MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_What happens if you make a Hercules movie but take out all the unique things that make the classic hero who he is? Would he still be Hercules? This question is at the heart of director Brett Ratner’s newest film, and it’s better than expected, which is a nicer way of also saying it’s not as bad as it looked like in its terrible cheesy advertising. It might be the most entertaining Brett Ratner film yet for what that statement is worth.

So, who is this Hercules? Besides looking like The Rock, he’s a mercenary who leads a band of warriors that are carefully left out of those widespread tales of his heroics and derring-do. Hercules’ nephew (Reece Ritchie) is the mouthpiece for the group, spinning the tales into epic poetry. There’s also a female archer, a sarcastic second-in-command good with throwing knives, an animalistic swordsman, and an older spearman (Ian McShane) who is given fleeting prophetic images, mostly about his own death. There’s a reason these people aren’t described much beyond their character-defining weaponry. This gang is hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to protect his people from a Thracian warlord who rumor has it is a centaur. Could he be? Have you been paying attention?

317348_064Depending upon your tastes, you may either find this new approach refreshing or feel completely ripped off. It does seem that all of those cool glimpses of Hercules going through his grueling trials, fighting giant beasts, doing generally Herculean acts, well it was all comprised to the opening two minutes, which is why I feel no spoiler guilt over revealing the true nature of the movie. It’s not really a Hercules film. Yeah, The Rock is just about the closest living example of a modern Hercules (he shouldn’t have the hobo beard, though), but it’s in name only. Whether this is a stopping point is up to the viewer. It does seem like a disappointing bait-and-switch to tease out what promises to be an epic with giant mythological beasts, and I feel like the audience has every right to be irritable they have been denied this. But if you move beyond this legitimate gripe, the resulting movie is actually serviceably entertaining, which again sounds like a backhanded compliment unless you remember how truly lousy it looked from its initial goofy trailer.

The plot is predictable at every step of the way, except one character I swore was going to be a backstabber due to pigeonhole casting surprised me when they turned out to just be another underdeveloped yet loyal sidekick. Other than that, and I apologize for the vagueness of that sentence, this is a movie you can accurately predict without having to even watch it. The mercenaries are hired for a cause, perhaps they’ll start feeling differently about what they’ve been called in to do, get more involved, and then oh no, perhaps the heroes and villains were all mixed up after all. The plot structure is at its most simplistic (mild spoilers, but really, come on): Act 1 break – they take the mission. Act 2 break – oh no, the guy was bad all along and they’ve been working for the wrong side. Act 3 is then essentially battle and vengeance against the true villains. There’s almost an admirable efficiency to its formula plot mechanics, including the tortured hero back-story over his slain family and the forced reveal of who was behind said slain family being slain. If you don’t want to overwhelm your brain, then Hercules will do.

Free of the rigors of being original or complex, the movie is open to accomplish its minimal goals of entertainment, and to this end I would call the movie a mild success. The action is involved just enough to keep things interesting, especially when Hercules and his battalion are beset on all sides by green-skinned guys who, for whatever reason, hid in holes in the ground. There’s a primal joy watching The Rock carry around a giant Captain Caveman-style club and gleefully beat people with it, especially when the recipients fly like 30 feet in the air. There’s a pleasure to be had with a stripped down and somewhat dumb action flick where everyone is running around in leather or loincloths. The action is more Hercules by way of Conan the Barbarian but without the monsters and sorcery. There’s a fun running gag where McShane’s character keeps thinking he’s come to his final moment, the death that has been prophesied, only to be denied it time and again, causing some slight frustration on his part. The pacing is also swift enough that you won’t be bored for long periods of time.

hercules-dwayne-johnsonBut at its heart, this is still a rather block-headed action film with questionable choices. While scrubbing the supernatural elements from the story, this still exists in the unbelievable world of Movie Land where the good guys can do anything. The archer never runs out of arrows. The good guys never miss. At one point, Hercules topples a 100-foot tall marble statue like he’s Samson. So even though it wants to be a more grounded take on the legend, it’s still filled with all that silly impossible action movie stuff we see all the time. Then there are just small impractical things that exist only for the fact that someone thought it looked cool. There’s a secondary villain (Peter Mullan!) who prefers to use a whip made of a spinal cord. This can work in one-on-one confrontations but in the open field of battle, with men churning all around, it seems like a rather poorly ineffective weapon. Lastly, there’s a trite message about the power of believing yourself. See, Hercules needs to believe he’s a worthy hero and he’ll rise to the occasion. All you have to do is believe in yourself and anything can happen… if you happen to be The Rock or look approximately like him.

This new spin on one of the oldest heroes is generally entertaining, that is, if you can accept the bait and switch of its premise, robbing Hercules of his godlike abilities. It’s like doing an action movie about Greek mythology but taking out all the mythology and just having a bunch of dudes poking each other with spears and swords. Actually, it’s exactly like that. With Ratner at the helm, you know there’s going to be a ceiling, but the film is so unabashedly clear with its simple intentions that I found it hard to grumble, and so just soaked up an average action adventure with one of the genre’s best leading men. As far as summer action vehicles go, it’s got just enough going for it, but see all the other good films first. Make a list. Check it twice.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

1891Dreamworks animation has long existed in the mighty shadow of Pixar, but as of late the studios might be at a creative crossroads. After the excellent Kung Fu Panda films and How to Train Your Dragon, suddenly Dreamworks animated movies matured beyond feverish, pop-culture explosions and into character-driven, colorful, and genuinely heartfelt family films. I don’t think we’ll be getting something as dismal as Shark Tale again with the current path the studio is blazing. Rise of the Guardians looks like the pilot for a new lucrative Dreamworks family franchise. It’s easy to see the appeal for a superhero assembly of fantasy figures, though is every region going to have working knowledge of the Tooth Fairy? The movie just looked too silly to function for me, but I was optimistic after raves from a few trusted friends. Perhaps my own childlike sense of wonder is permanently replaced with a heart of stone, but I found Rise of the Guardians to be a somewhat entertaining but mostly stilted, intellectually and emotionally, journey.

The guardians are an ancient group of holiday-themed characters entrusted with keeping the sense of wonder alive in children. There’s Santa Claus, a.k.a. North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), and his army of yetti workers, the tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and her own collection agency of tooth-gathering fairies, the Sandman, in charge of the sweet dreams of children, and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), an Australian jack rabbit with a bit of a chip on his bunny shoulder. The world is threatened by Pitch (Jude Law), a bogeyman who desperately desires children to fear him again, because belief is what powers the Guardians. To stop Pitch and his array of nightmare creatures, the Guardians must add another member to their outlet, Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Except Jack has no interest in joining this fuddy-duddy group and would rather do his own thing, which usually involves wrecking havoc. Jack’s desperate to find out his past and figure out why he was chosen for his immortal role and what it will take to make kids believe in him.

APphoto_Film Review Rise of the GuardiansUltimately, I just couldn’t really get into this movie. It’s set up like an Avengers team of children’s fantasy figures, but I felt like the movie failed to make me emotionally connect with their plights. The Jack Frost protagonist was another tired variation on the selfish, plays-by-his-own-rules cowboy character that needs to learn a dash of personal responsibility and putting others first. But his goal is essentially to be… seen. He’s worried kids will never see him because they won’t ever believe in him. That’s a fairly abstract existential crisis for your main character to have, and one that I found too odd to care about. The entire core of the movie revolves around children’s sense of belief, and unless you’re twisting this into some general statement about the purpose of faith (the Man in the Moon = God?), then I find it all to be silly considering we’re talking about the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. I mean, the main kid (Dakota Goyo) has to be eight or nine years old and still fervently believes in these mythical creatures, to the point that he is literally the only person on the planet who believes at one dour point (sheesh, talk about how easily disillusioned kids can get these days). We’re celebrating a kid going into adolescence believing in these things. That just smacks me as a little weird if you stop and think about the film’s implications. This kid is going to grow up socially warped. Then again his beliefs are proven right, so maybe it’s just the rest of us cynical bastards out there who need to adapt. I guess I’m going to go accept my fate and be a crotchety old man now.

The plot feels too airy for my liking, too frenetic to get to the next set piece or chase sequence. It doesn’t feel like it ever takes the time to settle down and develop its characters or story. As a result, we’re left with a fairly middling backstory for Jack Frost that should be easy to figure out, but we’re also stuck in a world that doesn’t feel like the rules have been sufficiently explained. Case in point: the Tooth Fairy keeps all those baby teeth in one huge archive because, you see, the teeth hold memories. I guess. But then Jack’s after his own teeth to retrieve his forgotten past (yes folks, we have an amnesiac protagonist). I’m okay with this so far though it’s a tad forced, but when Jack does get those teeth, he’s presented with memories at the age of 18. I know people suffered through poor dental hygiene hundreds of years ago, but you cannot expect me to believe that Jack is still losing baby teeth. This is just one example where the movie didn’t come across as fully formed. The Guardians all seem to possess different super powers involving space-time travel, but then they don’t seem to do anything with these abilities that matters by the final battle. Pitch has the ability to craft nightmare creatures and all he does is end up making wispy evil-looking horses. That seems like a waste. There are not enough payoffs here with all the imaginative possibilities.

Rise of the Guardians has some enjoyable moments but it practically relies upon you to supply all the work as far as character empathy. We’re familiar with these magical figures, and so the movie gets by because we put in the emotional connection to Santa and the Easter Bunny, but the characters just don’t register on the page, at least with this story. I don’t know if David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbithole, Inkheart) was the best candidate for the job, but he doesn’t give me enough reasons to engage with the movie. The characters are lackluster, their conflicts feel too abstract, the conclusion feels superfluous, and the world feels poorly defined, developed, and unsatisfying.

Rise of the Guardians 1I like Chris Pine (Unstoppable) as an actor, but the man brings absolutely nothing to the table when it comes to voice acting. Baldwin (Rock of Ages) and Jackman’s (Real Steel) performances are defined by their respective accents. I feel like Hollywood needs some sort of seminal moment to go back to genuine voice artists rather than hiring whatever celebrity. Yes we all enjoyed Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, but are you going to tell me that Pine’s vocal work was so exceptional he had to be cast? It’s like having celebrities provide the voices for the helium-sounding Chipmunks. The best voice actor in the film is clearly Law (Sherlock Holmes) who does such a good job I felt more sympathy for him than I did Jack Frost. I know it’s commonplace in movies for the hero and the villain to have some duality, but I wasn’t probably supposed to jump ship as far as loyalty. Maybe I just found the actual kids in the movie to be annoying so I didn’t mind a magical creature preying upon their collective childhood fear. It reminded me of the space cloud villain from 2011’s Green Lantern flop, where I wondered if this fear-sucking cloud sought out the delicacy of children’s fears first.

To top it all off, I found myself left rather cold by the visual aesthetics of the movie. It has this overly androgynous, big-eyed anime feel, and I kept getting the sense that the whole movie looked like an extended video game cut scene. This movie even had Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) and the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall) as producers or visual consultants, so I’m even more baffled at how visually poor I found the movie. The colors are so muddy and the visuals felt so limited for me, especially considering the imaginative parameters of the characters and their respective worlds. I thought Pitch seemed oddly similar in visual approach to Hades in Disney’s underrated Hercules. The action sequences had some nice visual panache to them as far as choreography, but I couldn’t stop thinking how cruddy and dreary everything looked.

Rise of the Guardians is based upon a series of yet-to-be published books by famed author William Joyce, who won an Oscar himself the previous year for the animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I feel like that short was a better representation of magic and imagination than this film. The humor, the life lessons, the character development, it all felt so stilted to me. I thought the conflicts were too abstract and hard to care about (oh no, people have stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy!) and the world and rules felt too amorphous, poorly explained and creatively handicapped. If you’re going for a fantasy setting with larger-than-life figures, each with certain gifts and powers, hen I want the promise of that setup to be fulfilled. Rise of the Guardians isn’t a bad movie by any means but it left me cold and indifferent. It’s meant to strike at my childish sense of wonder, but I felt too often like a cynical adult, picking apart the frailties of its storytelling and muddy visual designs. It felt like it was missing the best magic of all: gifted storytelling. You’ll probably have more fun than I did, but that’s just because I probably have no soul.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Immortals (2011)

Director Tarsem Singh has only made two movies but is widely regarded as one of the finest visual artists working in the film medium. He’s made tons of commercials, which is apt because his first feature, 2000’s The Cell, felt like the world’s longest perfume ad. While amazing in its design, the movie was incredibly stupid. I haven’t seen his other feature, the more personal work The Fall, a movie that nobody wanted to make. It’s probably because they regrettably saw The Cell. Now the guy seems downright prolific, with a Greek mythology action movie in release and next year an update on the Snow White fairytale, the first shot in the Great Snow White Duel of 2012 (Kristen Stewart stars in the other, next summer’s Snow White and the Huntsman).

In 1200 B.C., King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is marching an army across Greece, laying waste to city after city. He’s looking for the mythical Epirus Bow, believed to be the only weapon capable of unleashing the titans, who were imprisoned after a war with the Olympian gods. Mankind’s only hope is Theseus (Henry Cavil), a strapping young lad born into low class. His real father is Zeus (Luke Evans) who keeps tabs on his spry son by posing as a wise old man (John Hurt). Phaedra (Freida Pinto) is a virgin oracle, a priestess who has been granted prophetic visions. Theseus rescues her and other prisoners of Hyperion. Together, they must find the bow and convince their countrymen to fight against the overwhelming forces of Hyperion. In the meantime, Zeus has sworn death to any god who interferes in the affairs of man and helps Theseus on his important quest.

One word I feel accurately that sums up the experience of watching Immortals is… “viscera.” This movie is obsessed with filming the destruction of human bodies in the most gloriously beautiful ways possible. The violence and gore are given an intensely operatic boost. One moment involves a god zips around the slow-moving mortals, smashing one head after another with his humongous war hammer. The scene plays out at a slower speed, allowing the explosions of glistening blood and skull to fill the screen, each a mesmerizing fireworks display of human goo. The visuals are often a balletic, phantasmagorical, Grand Guignol display of human carnage. When you watch this at home, you may need a squeegee to clean your TV. It’s mesmerizing to watch, getting lost in the painstaking yet sumptuous visuals, even when it’s buckets of spaltterific gore. There’s one scene involving a sledgehammer that’s guaranteed to make every male in the theater uncomfortably cross his legs. The final image is also memorably striking – the sky filled with thousands of battling titans and Olympians, suspended high in the air and hacking and slashing away (Grecian weather report: 50 percent chance of blood showers. Bring an umbrella).

Tarsem never skimps out when it comes to the look of his movies. Immortals looks like a living Renaissance painting; the director of photography should be credited to Caravaggio. Unlike Tarsem’s earlier films, this movie does not take place within the realm of imagination, but that doesn’t hamper the movie’s aesthetics. Taking a cue from the golden-hued Greek/Roman epics of recent year, notably Zack Snyder’s 300, the film exists in a heightened reality. We’re dealing with mythology after all (more on the specifics of that later). The iconic imagery of Greek mythology is all there, stunningly realized in lavish CGI and a production design that is frequently jaw dropping. The action sequences are resolutely exciting, with special mention for the climactic gods vs. titans battle. The gods, decked out in spiffy gold armor and capes, bounce off the walls aided by Matrix-style moves and slice and dice their wicked immortal brethren in creatively gruesome ways. It’s a thrilling sequence that almost makes you forget the movie’s catalogue of sins.

The movie plays fairly fast and loose with the Greek lore. The Theseus of legend was mainly known for slaying the ferocious Minotaur, the guardian of a great labyrinth. His father was Poseidon, not Zeus. Some versions even have Phaedra falling in love with Theseus’ son from his first wife (Theseus was a busy boy, taking after his father). These details, and more, may seem inconsequential but if they’re going to be so loose in the adaptation, why even bother keeping the name Theseus? Immortals does have an interesting albeit brief bit where the Minotaur is seen as a human warrior wearing a bull mask made of barbed wire. Short of the gods and titans, there isn’t any depiction of the supernatural occurring on Earth. The monsters and mythic creatures are absent, leaving some Greeks to question the validity of the gods. The movie takes an unexpected twist early by declaring, in a self-serious tone, that immortals can… die. It seems that the gods just discovered one day that they could kill each other. I would have liked to be there for that discovery (“Yeah, go ahead and lick that electrical socket.”). The film lays out that the titans and the gods were one in the same, it’s just that the winners of the battle of the heaven called the losers “titans.” If they’re the same then why do the titans act like feral monkey creatures and look like ashen, Hindi gods (no disrespect, one billion Hindus)? Have they simply gone wild after being locked away in such a unique prison? When they fight, the titans move at the speed of mortals, not gods. I also believe the titans were supposed to be considerably larger.

But as enchanting as the visuals are, there are still the other senses that are criminally malnourished. The screenplay by brothers Charlie and Vlas Parlapanides is about as bare-bones as you can get. It’s your basic hero’s quest, trusting young stud Theseus with finding a magic item and stopping a bad man. If that sounds plainly generic then congratulations, you’ve seen more than one movie with men in togas (Animal House does not count). Mysterious parentage? Check. Close relative that dies early to spur vengeance motivation? Check. Noble sacrifices by members of his team? Check. Eventual intervention of the gods? Check. What I just described could also have been the plot for 2010’s joyless Clash of the Titans remake. What’s up with Zeus and these noncommittal gods? He refuses to get directly involved in the affairs of man, but if King Hyperion releases the titans (should have gone the long route and unleashed the Kraken) then the Olympians are jeopardized. It seems like they have an interest in giving Theseus a mighty assist. The magic item, a bow that creates unlimited arrows when plucked back, is pretty much a forgotten relic. It gets used, I kid you not, exactly three times in the entire movie. All of this fuss over a super weapon that the characters can’t be bothered to utilize. They’d rather fight it out with a traditional bronze sword. What exactly does it mean to be immortal when even the gods can die? King Hyperion says he’ll be immortal by essentially raping a nation of women, keeping his bloodline alive for centuries (the Genghis Kahn defense, your honor). But if having kids is being immortal, I think we’re setting the bar pretty low.

The Phaedra character is so underwritten that she almost comes across as a parody of the role of women in these guy-heavy action spectacles. As portrayed, Phaedra is the definition of convenience. She doles out a prophetic vision to save the day, provides some grade-A eye candy thanks to the splendor of Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), and even casually slips into Theseus’ bed for a deflowering (sorry guys, it’s clearly a body double). She will be haunted by visions of the future until the moment she loses her virginity. Let’s stop and think about this. Having one member of your team be able to SEE INTO THE FUTURE seems like a decisive tactical advantage. I understand the lure of a naked and willing Pinto, but Theseus needed to think beyond the needs of his little Greek. In an abrupt and off-putting turn, Phaedra is never really dealt with in any capacity after this seismic bout of lovemaking, nor do she or Theseus talk about what has transpired. She just provided some casual sex while the hero was recuperating and then checked out. Her major prophetic vision of Theseus and Hyperion joining sides is also just forgotten, turning out to be a letdown.

The actors were basically hired for their visual appeal, and to that end they succeed. Cavill (TV’s The Tudors), tapped to wear Superman’s cape in 2013 by Zack Snyder, is suitably buff and hunky. His performance is rather flat, no matter how many times he makes his eyes go big with anger. In contrast, Rourke (Iron Man 2) will chew whatever scenery he can find. His flamboyantly costumed villain at one point seems to wear a lobster claw on his head. He wants to punish the gods because they refused to intervene when Hyperion’s wife and child were slaughtered. When the gods do intervene to save Theseus, that’s when the character should go off the rails. Rourke just plays it in the same sleepy menace. Pinto gets to stare off into the distance regularly and pray. It’d be a stretch to say that the material challenges any of these actors.

Immortals is a testosterone-soaked action movie that feels like it minored in Art History. The production design, CGI, and practical special effects, all attuned to the extraordinary vision of Tarsem, makes for a brilliant looking movie with several sequences of memorable carnage. But we entered the age of “talkies” since 1927, and Immortals suffers when it concerns dialogue, story, characterization, and acting. The movie is a pretty loose adaptation of Greek mythology, falling back on a rote hero’s quest and leaving plenty of narrative dead spaces for the visuals to fill in the interest. Even a movie as visually resplendent as Immortals can only go as far as its story will allow. In this case, Immortals might just be the best-looking piece of borderline mediocrity you’ll ever see in your life.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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