The Shape of Water (Del Toro; 2017)

Guillermo Del Toro’s style is easily and immediately recognizable but is also uniquely his and hard to definitively describe.  His stories are urban period faerie tales, but the period is never too far in the past.  His visuals are somehow disturbing and whimsical at the same time, which makes sense since his favorite subject matter is to follow an innocent character undergoing terrifying situations.  How great of a filmmaker he is is still very much up to debate, but even his harshest critics will admit that what he does behind a camera is impossible to imitate.  Del Toro’s imagination is distinctly and uniquely his.

In his latest film The Shape of Water, we are given the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to clean at a secret United States government facility.  It takes place during the height of the Cold War, so security at the facility is tight and paranoia is rampant.  The story begins when Elisa and her closest work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) witness a large container being brought into the facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Inside the container is a dangerous aquatic creature the likes of which no one outside the South American tribe which worshipped it as a god has ever seen before.  Elisa and Zelda are charged with cleaning the room the creature is housed in, and over time Elisa finds herself drawn to it and feels the need to spend as much time in the creature’s company as she can.

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In interviews, Del Toro has said that one of the major themes in The Shape of Water is that the only characters in the film who have no trouble communicating with each other are the two who are incapable of speech.  If I hadn’t heard him say it I’m not sure I would have gotten that exact interpretation of the film, but I did see something very similar and that is that the two who are looked down on by others as lesser find in each other the drive and strength to overcome those very people who think so little of them.  It’s a common theme in a romantic faerie tale but in Del Toro’s hands it ascends beyond its common roots, really allowing us to experience the unusual nature of the central relationship while still being able to truly empathize with their plight unlike the majority of films which give us a very standard situation and merely use a character quirk here and there or an exaggerated adventure in order to make people and events seem unusual.

None of this could have worked at all if not for Del Toro’s talent with visual arts and the incredible performances of The Shape of Water‘s cast.  Art director Nigel Churcher and his crew give us a world at once familiar and fantastic.  It uses sewers, industry, and urban sprawl in a way a typical faerie tale would use dungeons, castles, and forests.  They are places of both beauty and danger but here the dragon is a sociopathic boss, the princess an isolated mute, the prince a South American fishman, and the father a homosexual artist who needs to hide his nature from the world.  The special effects in The Shape of Water are used to fantastic effect.   The fishman really comes to life through the incredible motion capture of Doug Jones and the aquatic scenes are things of tranquil, slightly surreal beauty.  Finally, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is among the best we’ve seen this year and Sidney Wolinski’s film editing literally had me dropping my jaw in amazement on quite a few occasions.  Most impressive of all is that never once does Del Toro use his visuals to impress or to brag, but only to tell the story in the best way possible.  He doesn’t seek to wow us with his technical skill.  He seeks to let his story wow us with its depth of emotion and realizes that the visuals are one of the best ways of conveying that, but it is the story not the special effects and camera work that should be the focus.

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You can’t have depth of emotion without people, and the actors’ performances in the film rival the visuals in quality meaning they are also some of the very best of the year.   Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon are the veterans of the award circuits here, and they give as excellent a performance as we have come to expect from them which still means that they give the weakest performances in the ensemble.  Yes, everyone else is that amazing.  Richard Jenkins is absolutely phenomenal as the gay artist who lives down the hall from Elisa and acts as a sort of combination best friend and father figure.  The way is homosexual is only an element of his personality, but the element that makes him a pariah, and not the focal point of his character is written and performed with exactly the nuance more roles like this should be.  Not once does the film call attention to his sexuality, if it weren’t for one scene it would be more wondered at than confirmed, but while the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that his sexuality is anywhere near the entirety of his character it does recognize that if it weren’t for his sexuality his life would be very different.

Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler.  To say too much about his character and what makes his performance so spectacular would be to delve too deeply into spoiler territory.  He is one of the few characters who shows an honest affection for the creature and adds a fascinating dimension to the Cold War element of the story.  He’s one of those actors who has been around a while, and you will recognize his face, but never remains memorable.  I don’t know if The Shape of Water will change that for most audiences as his role is a non-flashy supporting one, but he certainly made me sit up and take notice.

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Then there are Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the cross-species lovers.  Both are entirely mute and able to communicate only with action and some sign language and both give a performance that despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap show just how fake and manufactured most Hollywood romances are.  Without speech, we have to understand what draws these two together, what makes them perfect for each other, and what it is that makes them love each other so much they would sacrifice their lives for and entrust their lives to each other.  They not only pull it off, they make it so seamless and look so effortless that by the film’s end it doesn’t even seem unusual.

Final verdict:  The Shape of Water does for “Beauty and the Beast” what many were hoping the live-action Disney version would do earlier this year, though this version of the story is far too adult and candid for most children.  The Shape of Water may not be quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was, but it is definitely one of the best films in Guillermo Del Toro’s repertoire.  From script to visuals to acting there is not a single element in the film which isn’t masterfully done and the performances, in particular, are some for the ages.  The Shape of Water isn’t one for those who don’t like Del Toro’s style as this movie is his through and through, but for everyone else this is a brilliant, moving, and unique love story which will be remembered as a great film for a very long time.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan; 2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sort of sequel, but really more of a follow-up story, to the original Jumanji released in 1995.  We start this film one year after the original story of a board game which brought chaos to the town of Brantford, New Hampshire.  The mystical board game adapts to its time and transforms itself into a cartridge for a video game.  Four high school students who are given a chore to clean out some school storage areas as a punishment find this video game in 2017, and decide to give it a play as a distraction from their detention.  Each of the four students suddenly finds themself inside the video game as the character they chose to play, and they also find that they must complete the game in order to escape.

The story of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is its weakest element as it is really nothing more than an excuse for jokes and action scenes.   The villain of the film is so weak and so personality-free that he may as well not exist.  I am not exaggerating when I say that if the villain were edited completely out of the film but nothing else was changed you wouldn’t notice a difference to the story other than it would be tighter and shorter.  As to the actual goal of taking a jewel to a gigantic statue and replacing it, it’s just a reason for the characters to not remain in one place and we never get any real sense of travel in the film, we just get to see that one scene takes place in a village, another in a chasm, and so on.

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As for the movie’s greatest strength, that would be its performances and particularly the one given by Jack Black.  The main conceit of the film allows for each of the four main actors to play characters who are against type, and while all have some fun with the idea, it’s Black that really throws himself into his character of the beautiful but insecure Instagram girl and ends up giving us a performance that is hilarious but also touching, relatable, and believable.  He impresses so much that when I was describing the film to friends afterward I kept using “she” as the pronoun I’d refer to Jack Black with.  The other actors were all funny and obviously had a good time, but none manage to give the honest performance Black did.  The Rock occasionally remembers he’s supposed to be a teenage nerd who is afraid of everything, but most of the time he’s just having a grand time mugging for the camera, which since he’s so good at it is not at all a bad thing.  Karen Gillan also largely just plays herself, but does have one fantastic scene with Jack Black in which she gets to be the shy wallflower.  Finally, Kevin Hart just acts like himself the entire time forgetting he’s actually supposed to be a high school football player.  Skill of performance aside, though, all four are very funny, charming, and have incredible chemistry which do make the movie worth watching.

The video game element of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also allows for some clever humor and situations.  The fact that the movie is meant to actually be a video game actually makes this a better video game film than any film actually based on an existing video game franchise as it never pretends to be anything else and can, therefore, have fun with video game tropes and cliches.  The downside to this is that once you learn what these tropes are or if you are an avid gamer it makes the film predictable as the rules of the world tend to telegraph how any given situation will be overcome.

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Final Verdict:  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fantastic film for kids, and still a relatively good one for the adults who take them.  The story is as predictable as they come, but the charming cast and the comedy at the expense of video games make up for that and make for an entertaining ride.  If the kids want to see this one, take them, but if it’s your adult friends who want to take you to see Jumanji you can wait until the movie comes out for streaming services and rentals.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.

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Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.

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We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.

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Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.

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However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.

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The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.

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After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.

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The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.

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Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice League (Snyder; 2017)

Warner Bros. more than just stumbled out of the gate when they started producing their line of films based on DC Comics which they are now claiming was never meant to be a cinematic universe.  They gave us a story in mid-telling with only the most minor of clues what had gone on before, they made this story overly dark both literally and figuratively, and worst of all it seemed they didn’t understand their own characters by giving us a Superman who doesn’t care about collateral damage and the lives of civilians, a Batman who mowed people down with guns, and a Joker and Lex Luthor who seemed to have switched bodies.  Then they gave us Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman showed us they could make a character who could inspire, that they were capable of starting a story at the beginning without cloning every other origin story out there, that they could give us visuals that were both gorgeous and vibrant, and that they did understand at least one of their characters.

Justice League comes to us from Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and since those are the two films which started the DC movies down the path of “what the hell are they doing?” I admit to a lot of skepticism over whether he could pull off a Justice League film.  When Snyder left the project after primary shooting was done, but before post-production was very far underway, and gave the reins of the project over to second unit director Joss Whedon my concerns became even stronger as even though I love most of Whedon’s work, the possible clashing of styles did not seem like a good omen.  I can say having now seen the film that while Whedon’s influence in the film’s script is definitely noticeable, the directorial styles did not overly clash.  Yes, you can notice Snyder’s heavier, darker style not blending that well with the more light-hearted, self-aware, bantery style of Whedon’s during Justice League‘s introductory scenes, but the film quickly hits its groove making you forget about its imperfect start rather quickly.

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Justice League also manages to get its focal characters which were so wrong in earlier DC movies right.  Ben Affleck as Batman, who I felt was the best part of Batman v. Superman, brings more of the same except without the inclination for murder and just a tad more humility and humor.  Not enough to break the character, but enough to make him more relatable.  Gal Gadot, on the other hand, does not quite give us the tour de force performance she gave as Wonder Woman in her solo movie, but she is still very much the same character inspiring those around her while also kicking ass and looking great doing it.  The only reason she doesn’t stand out as much is that she has to do so much spotlight sharing this time around.  Ezra Miller gives us a very fun, awkward Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg while perhaps the least dynamic member of the team in terms of personality is still well acted as he portrays a young man trying to come to terms with the fact that he has become something of a monster.  In the least surprising spoiler ever to be termed a spoiler, Henry Cavill returns as Superman and his performance may be most surprising of all finally showing us the Superman we all know and love who views himself as a humble, “aw shucks” protector of the weak and not as a powerhouse who happens to hate bad guys.  The chemistry among this crew is also excellent making the cast a true ensemble rather than a bunch of solo actors who happened to be thrown together.

You’ll notice I did not mention either Jason Momoa as Aquaman nor the villain (who I will not name so as to not spoil it, it’s not who you think it is) voiced by Claran Hinds, because they were the two disappointing characters in the bunch.  Aquaman may not be a character most understand past a joke character, but the one thing he has in common among all his various incarnations is a regal quality.  Sometimes he seems haughty, other times noble, but always regal.  Jason Momoa’s Aquaman struck me as a guy you’d see hanging out at a biker bar picking fights.  Sure, he’d be the wittiest guy at the biker bar, but he’s less a ruler and more an alpha dog, and there’s a big difference between the two.  Our villain is also disappointing because he is just so generic.  I don’t remember him ever rearing his head back and letting out an evil laugh but nearly every other bad stereotype a villain can encompass is there.  He even wears a helmet with devil’s horns.

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The story is a lot more coherent than the first three DC films.  Sure there are a few references here and there to past events, but never in such a way that it seemed like we missed some major plot point, so major it could be an entire film unto its own, like in Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  The story does have one rather large weakness in that it relies on the audience remembering Superman as the character he is in the comics rather than as the character he was in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, and a lot of the character motivation loses most of its oomph due to that.  The story also is awfully generic in its villainous plot which we’ve seen many times before in comic book movies, but I can, for the most part, forgive this as what we needed in a Justice League movie was a solid establishment of the universe we’re in and the characters inhabiting it, so in a way a time-worn familiar plot is what we needed so as not to overly complicate the real focus of the story which is the formation of the world’s most famous team of superheroes.

It’s that story that really shines.  Seeing the group get together is very satisfying and entertaining.  Once we get past the missteps of the past and the film’s opening, we have a team which really is a team.  In The Avengers we saw a group who was a team because everyone knew their roles and performed them well, but in Justice League, we have a group who work well together, seem to really enjoy each others’ company, and who have each others’ backs while also having their roles, as well.

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Final verdict:  Justice League is far from perfect, but most of its imperfections are due to what came before.  If you look at the plot as the villain’s attempted takeover of Earth, then what you have is a very generic film, but the true story here is not that,  that’s just an excuse.  The true story is about the formation of a group of larger than life, powerful individuals finding each other, getting to know each other, and becoming a team who really like each other.  On that level, Justice League works wonderfully.  2017 has had a great many superhero films, and while I feel both Logan and Wonder Woman stand head and shoulders above the rest, Justice League acquits itself admirably putting it in the same category I’d put Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok – movies with no real depth, but are so much fun to experience you don’t really miss it while in the moment.

P.S.  Stay all the way through the credits.  Unsurprisingly there is a teaser for a future Justice League movie.  The surprising part is what they imply the plot will be, and if it’s true it could be a lot more fun than anything I was expecting.

The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie; 2017)

Once upon a time, ancient Londinium was ruled by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana).  Uther ruled with his wife, Igraine (Poppy Delevigne), by his side, his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) giving him much good advice, and all in preparation for the day his son Arthur (Zac Barker) would eventually take the throne.  It came to pass that the evil sorcerer Modred (Rob Knighton) would attack Uther’s kingdom with 100 foot tall elephants, because that is how sorcerers operate, apparently, and would force Uther to flee with his family, and Vortigern to take his beautiful wife whom we shall just call Mrs. Vortigern downstairs where he would stab her most mercilessly.  Shortly after the stabbing, Uther’s family would run into a boss monster from a video game which would slaughter Igraine and have an epic fight with Uther that ends with Uther throwing his sword into the air, turning into stone, and the sword falling and burying itself in what was moments before Uther’s back.  During the battle Arthur climbed into a boat, which as we know, makes you completely and totally safe from boss monsters.

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Arthur’s boat apparently made its way to Rome eventually, as, even though everyone there speaks with an Irish accent, we see a shot of the Colosseum.  Arthur is taken into a brothel where he is raised by the women there into a very strong and pretty bro douchebag.  One day, when the bro douchebag Arthur (now Charlie Hunnam) is telling, via quick editing and snazzy sound effects, of his exploits in which he stole the money from and cut the beard off a viking he met at the docks – but the viking did something wrong so it was all justified – the brothel is raided and the captain of the guard who raids the brothel tells Arthur he can’t protect him this time, even though we have no idea why Arthur would have been protected before, because the viking Arthur attacked knows the king.  Well damn.

Arthur is therefore put on a ship to Camelot where he is to meet his punishment, which is apparently that he has to try to pull a sword from a stone, get branded on his wrist if he fails, then be sent on his way.  Arthur marches up to the sword in the stone, and the second he touches it he has intense pain and harrowing visions, which you think would be enough for him to walk away, get his brand, and call it a day.  But, no, the douchebag who would be king pulls and pulls on the sword and finally extracts it from the rocky sheath which once was his father just as he falls unconscious from the intense pain and visions.

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When he wakes, Arthur is in a prison cell and is soon visited by King Vortigern, plot twist!, and told through quick editing and snazzy sound effects that Vortigern was working with Modred to take the kingdom, but he needed to get the sword out of the stone and kill Arthur to make it official. Oops!  Looks like our douchebag is in a whole heap of trouble!  But, just as his execution is to take place, people we’ve never seen before including a girl mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals rescue our future monarch.  Once the excitement dies down, we learn that this band are Percival (Craig McGinlay), the girl mage who was sent by Merlin, Bill (Aldan Gillen), and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), who, while I have no problem with diversity in casting, is a black man in England with no real explanation much like why everyone in Rome speaks in baroque.  Why did they rescue him?  Because the plot calls for it, silly!  Otherwise Arthur would die and the movie would be nowhere near two hours long!

This kind of crap continues, I won’t spoil anything more, and believe it or not this is barely more than the set up, but this level of intelligence and understanding of the original Arthurian myths continues throughout the entire film’s length bring up such questions as:

Why is Sir George in a movie about King Arthur’s origins and why is he Chinese?

If the lady mage is Morgana why isn’t she Arthur’s sister and if she’s Guinevere why is she a mage, and why don’t we know who the hell she is in the first place?

Why does the king feel the need to stand so near his body double as well as taking along his advisors if he is just setting a trap for the good guys?

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If you could summon a giant rattlesnake to kill everyone in seconds, why the hell didn’t you do it earlier and save everyone a lot of trouble and effort, not to mention lives?

If the sword, which is obviously Excalibur but never called such, gives you superpowers like the Flash, why the heck was the video game boss able to defeat Uther?  And, how the heck did Uther turn into stone, anyway?

Why the hell is Vortigern building the tower to make his powers unbeatable when he doesn’t seem to have any powers which aren’t given to him by outside sources in the first place?

Final verdict:  If Joby Harold (writer) and Guy Ritchie (director/writer) know anything about the legends surrounding King Arthur aside from a handful of characters’ names, they certainly don’t show it in this abomination of a movie.  While I have no problem with taking liberties with source material, and in the case of Arthurian myths actually believe it to be necessary, this handling of it is so poorly done in every conceivable way from the plot, to the dialogue, to the acting, to the special effects, and the camerawork, that it accomplishes nothing but offend those who care at all for the original stories.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a senseless, ugly, unthinking, scattershot attempt at storytelling which will hopefully be seen by no one so that the sequel they seem to want so badly given the number of loose plot strings in the film never gets made.