Category: movie reviews

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

I had heard great things about Wonder Woman. It was the one non-Batman movie in the DC canon that was actually decent. And having actually sat through the new Superman movies, Suicide Squad, and Batman v. Superman, I was reasonably skeptical. Still, I wanted to give the film a fair shot. I ordered the 3D version and watched it on my home theater.

It’s a decent movie. There were a few scenes in it that I really enjoyed. But in the end, it suffered the same flaw pretty much all the other DC movies have had: it’s so so dark. Gloomy. It’s like you’re stuck in the same room for two hours with Debbie Downer:

(Seriously. I think I enjoy that 5 minute SNL clip more than all of Man of Steel, and it’s not even close. Then again, that’s still one of my favorite SNL skits of all time.)

Don’t get me wrong. Wonder Woman actually had some funny moments and a few times when it lightened up a bit, and I enjoyed those parts. It was a good DC movie. But it wasn’t the savior of the DC franchise for me. For one thing, the action sequences needed some real work. It has one truly great sequence: when Wonder Woman is storming the trenches. (That was was pretty incredible, though it did strain belief.) The arrows vs. bullet scene early on was also impressive. But most of the action devolved into “What heavy thing can Wonder Woman pick up next?” If that were a drinking game, the entire audience would be sloshed well before the film was over. I started looking around the scenes to try and guess what she’d pick up. A tank? You betcha!

That’s a problem with a superhero movie. Once you go full super, it’s hard to try to keep raising the stakes. Marvel typically does it by making its heroes weaker. Taking Iron Man’s suit away. Having Ant Man learn how to use the thing in the first place. Blowing up Thor’s hammer. But DC doesn’t go in for that, a lot of the time. They just have their heroes punch harder. Harder! In the end, it’s hard to really care.

Some of this is likely due to superhero fatigue, as well. It’s getting more and more difficult to really be wowed by a superhero movie. We’ve seen so many. For them to be successful, I feel like they need to focus on the details. Plot. Characterization. Acting. Film essentials. Instead, a lot of them turn into special effects highlight reels.

Am I glad I watched the movie? Sure. It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours, and it did look great in 3D. Perhaps if I’d had lower expectations, I would have enjoyed it even more. But I went in hoping for a 9 or a 10, and I walked away with a 6 or a 7.

Maybe the sequel will be better, but I remain skeptical. Skeptical enough that I don’t think I’ll buy it in 3D. I’d rather just watch it when it comes to Netflix or HBO or wherever it ends up.


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The Last Jedi Review

I took Tomas and DC to see the premiere of The Last Jedi last night. We arrived a full hour and fifteen minutes before the movie started, getting the best seats in the house, because Star Wars. It turned out to be a bit overkill, as the theater was mostly empty when we arrived, but still. You don’t take risks when Star Wars is involved.

No spoilers in this review. And please don’t post spoilers in the comments. I want people to be able to come read this with no fear that anything will be ruined for them.

That out of the way, I’ll say right off: the movie was fantastic. I’m giving it the full 10/10.

Now, that said, I’m sure there are people out there who are going to pick the movie apart. They’re going to start thinking about it and pondering and debating, but I wrote about that yesterday in my renewed review of The Force Awakens. To me, so much of a Star Wars movie is about the experience. It’s why I show up opening night for my first experience of each movie. Because I want to see it with a bunch of other fans. I want to feel the movie. I know that might sound dorky, but so what?

I love that I’m able to bring my kids to new Star Wars movies, and that they can experience them with me at the same time.

Was the plot perfect? Were there holes? Sure. Though a fair bit of that will be people playing armchair quarterback. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. Sometimes people make mistakes in the middle of action, and those mistakes might not make the most sense after the fact.

The movie was just incredible, from an experience standpoint. Seeing the way it unfurled. Watching the characters interact. All of it was spot on. Yes, there were multiple times when I felt myself tearing up. The advantage of a series like Star Wars, that I’ve grown up with, is that when these characters do or say things, it can tap into things I’ve felt or thought about since I was a child. With some films (like Indiana Jones 4), that can be a liability. With The Last Jedi, it’s an asset of the best kind.

Honestly, I felt like this was the best Star Wars movie, period. Empire Strikes Back was important at the time because it turned what might have been a one hit wonder into something with real staying power. But when I watch it now, it definitely shows its age, though I know that might seem like sacrilege to some. The Last Jedi was an experience infused with Star Wars from start to finish. It’s funny, moving, surprising, sad. The complete package.

You definitely should go. Now, before you hear anything about it. And in the days and months ahead, feel free to pick it apart some. But never forget the experience of seeing it the first time. For me, that’s the biggest way I rate a Star Wars movie. Did it enthrall me? And this one did it in spades.

The Force Awakens: A Look Back

It’s interesting to me how a narrative can build around a movie. Enough people express an opinion online, and it can warp the way you remember a film or think about that film in general. Some of this explains the general antipathy I feel toward the Star Wars prequels. I haven’t rewatched the second or third, mainly because of the constant reminder from fans about how they’re not good. Prequels = Bad.

The same thing had happened to me, to a smaller extent, with The Force Awakens. I really enjoyed the movie in the theaters. Saw it twice, actually, which is super rare for me these days. And I watched it at home once after I bought it. But the longer I hung out in online geek circles, the more I read the critiques about how the movie’s just a retread of A New Hope. Until that’s what I thought it was myself. I still liked it, but I’d say I wished it had been a bit more original.

Seen from a broad viewpoint, the argument holds water. You’ve got a desert planet. You’ve got a big attack on a huge weapon at the end. The weapon (spoilers!) explodes. You’ve got a novice Jedi learning his/her powers. Fair enough. I didn’t go back to the movie to check and see just how similar it was. I accepted the general argument and moved on.

Until Sunday, when I rewatched the film in 3D on my sweet home theater system, in preparation for tonight’s(!!!) viewing of The Last Jedi.

First off, I can say the movie looked pretty amazing in 3D. There was one shot of a star destroyer that just looked like it was hovering in my living room. That’s always cool. Good stuff.

But beyond that, I have to say the movie is really good in and of itself. People always use Empire Strikes Back these days to gauge how good a Star Wars movie is, and I think that’s not entirely fair. They’re not comparing it to Empire today. They’re comparing it to the memory of Empire, and I’ve blogged before about how that’s a fight no movie can win.

Taken on its own, I loved The Force Awakens. I still found it thrilling, even knowing the direction it would go. The twists it would take. It’s great fun, and not just from a fan’s perspective.

And the accusations that it’s just a retreat of A New Hope? I think they’re bogus. Yes, there are some general similarities that are clearly intentional. But the movie is always putting a new spin on things. Finn’s narrative is totally new. Yes, there’s a “cantina” scene, but it does very different things than it does in A New Hope. Are we really going to get upset that there was a desert planet in the movie? Just how many ecosystems can a planet represent?

The biggest complaint I could see would be the finale, where there’s the huge attack on Starkiller Base. But even then, a lot of the dogfighting is just trim for the story that’s really happening on the base itself. For Finn and Rey and Solo and Ren. The pew pew pew moments help keep the action vibe going. The heart of the film is totally different.

In other words, I was wrong to listen to all that bellyaching about how the film was just a retread. It isn’t at all. Honestly, the experience made me start to question how fandom works in the age of digital. In the era of not just experiencing a movie, but then wanting to talk about it incessantly after you experience it. To pick it apart. To think about it. Debate about it. That’s all fine and good, but I don’t think we should let that process take away from the experience itself.

The Force Awakens is a blast, and I’ll happily defend that opinion to any and all complainants.

Movie Review: Thor Ragnarok

There comes a time with a series that you can begin to have too much success. Where people begin to take your skill and craftsmanship for granted. It’s the same thing that happened to Pixar. We all became so used to Pixar churning out great movies year after year, that those movies began to feel less great.

“Huh. Another fantastically animated, wonderfully scripted movie with superb character development. Par for the course, Pixar. Try to wow us next time.”

I believe Marvel is doing the same thing. They’ve got a recipe, and they’re sticking to that recipe fairly faithfully for the most part. So the question then becomes, where do you go from there?

Obviously one approach is to start making some bad movies. Pixar did that with The Good Dinosaur, though people watched it and ended up blaming Disney more for that movie than Pixar. “A *bad* Pixar movie? It must not have been Pixar, because those movies are always great by default.”

Marvel has come up with a new approach: stick the recipe for the most part, but inject different flavors. Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example of this. It took the superhero movie and inject craziness and a killer soundtrack. Antman turned into a heist movie. Spiderman: Homecoming is the high school flavor. Marvel is doing riffs on a theme at this point, and surprisingly, that’s working really well.

Enter Taika Waititi, a director known for quirky comedy. His What We Do in the Shadows is flat out awesome. The Office meets Dracula. And Marvel hired him to . . . direct the third Thor movie? You know they had to have done it on purpose. He’s got a style that’s unique, and they handed him the keys to Thor, a series that has been one of my least favorite Marvel films thus far. It’s taken itself too seriously, just like its titular character.

I took the kids to watch Thor: Ragnarok last week, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It’s quirky and funny, peppered with characters that are oddballs. It’s got a lot of humor, some great action pieces, and I really recommend it. That said, I walked away only giving it a 7/10. Why? Because the quirkiness wasn’t quite enough to really set it apart from the other Marvel movies. It was another well produced superhero film. The quirkiness kept it from feeling tired, but it didn’t raise it to a new level, if that makes sense.

(Also, as a side note, this was my first movie I went to in a theater since I got my projector at home. And in the middle of the movie, I found myself wishing the screen were bigger, like the one I have at home. It’s all about perspective and seating distance, folks.)

So good on Marvel for keeping up the quality. I’ll gladly continue to keep paying for it. But I am beginning to wonder how much more they have left in the tank. At some point, things turn from “another quality Marvel movie” into “just another quality Marvel movie,” and from there it’s not too far to “just another Marvel movie,” which is followed by people not showing up at all. Something to think about.

Some odds and ends:

  • I wish they hadn’t spoiled the appearance of one of the Avengers in the film. That reveal would have been epic if they’d been able to keep it under wraps better.
  • I really enjoyed the soundtrack. Enough that I had to look up the composer: Mark Mothersbaugh. The name didn’t mean anything to me, so I dug deeper. He was one of the founders of Devo, which vaulted the soundtrack even higher in my eyes. Great synth feel to it. Having more unique soundtracks would very much be a plus for Marvel.
  • Cate Blanchett’s character development leaves a whoooooole lot to be desired. At this point, I think my biggest beef with the Marvel movies is how generic a lot of their villains are beginning to feel. The superheroes get a lot of development and backstory, but the villains, not so much. You could swap villains between movies, and I don’t think it would make a difference in many cases. That’s a flaw.

Anyway–do check the movie out. Already seen it? Let me know what you thought!

Rewatching Gangs of New York after Trump

I was a fan of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York when I first watched it fifteen years ago. I thought the acting was fantastic, and it was great to see the way the historical details of New York City in the mid-1800s came to life. The place looked so foreign from the New York I knew in 2002, and it was crazy to think it had been like that less than 150 years before.

Over the weekend, I decided to give it another watch to see how it held up. The acting was still spot on, the historical details were still engrossing, but what surprised me most this time through was how . . . similar New York looked to me now. How we seemed to have come full circle in just 15 years.

I don’t mean that New York has devolved into a place where violence rules the streets and gangs and politicians work hand in hand to control the way the city is run. Certainly no one’s getting bludgeoned to death in full daylight, and I haven’t read of anyone dying from being stabbed with a meat cleaver recently. But the city in the film is, broadly seen, very similar to the situation we have today in America.

For example, one of the big conflicts of the movie is the Natives (led by Bill the Butcher) vs. the Irish (led by Amsterdam Vallon). Bill is upset that so many Irish are flooding the country, and he’s dead set on keeping America for Americans. People who had been born there. Essentially he wants to Make America Great Again, which shows how tenuous the argument is. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. I believe many people look back to “the way things were” as a return to simpler times. How things were in your childhood. But from my experience, the only reason things seemed simpler to me when I was a child is because I didn’t fully understand the forces at work in the world. So it’s easy to think back on the 80s and reminisce about how great they were for me, because I wasn’t up to date on the Cold War or the AIDS epidemic, for example. Yes, they were concepts in my head, but they weren’t nearly as important to me as Transformers or the latest Nintendo game to be released.

Bill the Butcher wants things the way they were. He blames his current problems on an exterior force: the Irish. Now that enough time has passed, we can look back at his views and see just how close-minded they are, and yet those same views still hold sway today in the rhetoric of Trump. All that’s changed is the minorities that are blamed for the country’s woes.

Another huge issue in the movie is the disparity between the haves and the have nots. At the time, the North instituted a draft as it continued the Civil War. The catch? If you were drafted, you could pay $300 to get out of your obligation. So it became a draft of the poor, who couldn’t dream of affording that payment.

The movie essentially shows how all of this turmoil and anger boiled up and changed the city in one fell swoop. For the first 4/5ths of the film, we see a depiction of how life in New York worked, and we have expectations for what will be the climax of the movie. But then the city is hit with massive riots, and suddenly everything changes. That rang true to me. We can easily think that “the way things are” will never change, but often it changes in the matter of a day or less. Think about Pearl Harbor, or 9/11. The stock market crash in the 20s. Everything gets turned on its ear, and a new normal is established.

I have no idea what the future holds for America. But I was reminded in my rewatch of the movie how much things can change in a day, or 15 years. And as we see this wave of Nationalism sweeping across much of Europe and the US, I just hope we can get through it without the same conflicts we’ve experienced in the past.

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