Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” doesn’t reinvent the superhero genre, but it demonstrates what a bit of diversity in front of the camera can do for it.

Wonder Woman PosterIt’s amazing the fun you can have with a superhero movie when the heroine isn’t grossly oversexualized, when the director isn’t obsessed with exposition and fan service, or when the humor isn’t all snarky, Joss Whedon-esque dialogue.

Such is the woman’s touch that Patty Jenkins brings to “Wonder Woman.” Just to be clear, there have been other superhero and action movies that have featured women and been directed by women. Not many, obviously. But “Wonder Woman” in particular has been saddled with the burden of saving the world from the patriarchy this week.

That’s asking a lot of this popcorn movie. Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it demonstrates what a bit of diversity in front of and behind the camera can do for it. Continue reading “Wonder Woman”

Hell or High Water

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterThe salt of the Earth genius of David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” is that it takes this Robin Hood story of justice for the working family over the bankers and the system and makes it purely Texas. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay (“Sicario”) sees debt billboards mocking our heroes from every highway and has political, financial commentary carefully weaved in among heist dialogue, brotherly joshing and casually offensive and racist quips. It’s so steeped in Southern values and is one of the most richly American movies of the year.

Toby and Tanner Howard are two brothers with a plan to rob small banks throughout Texas in order to pay off the mortgage on their deceased mother’s ranch. The land will overturn to the bank by the end of the week, but rather than sentimental value associated with the ranch, diggers found oil on their property, and they stand to clear more than the mortgage is worth within the first week of digging.

Toby (Chris Pine) wants to give the property to his ex-wife and sons as a nest egg to atone for his past transgressions. He may not be a great person, but he’s got a clean record, a young, ruggedly handsome face and brains. His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) has been in and out of prison and has volatile mood swings with often amusing results, like when he scares off a woman hitting on his brother and then proceeds to pick up their hotel desk clerk. He says he’s never known a single person get away with any crime, but his reason for helping sums up everything you need to know about their relationship: “Because you asked little brother.” Continue reading “Hell or High Water”

The Finest Hours

The_Finest_Hours_posterThe members of the Coast Guard don’t get the credit that cops, firefighters or soldiers do for saving lives. “The Finest Hours,” Disney’s telling of an historic rescue mission, is full of heroics but also people just doing their job. It’s a sentimental, old-fashioned thriller but is also endearingly modest.

Chris Pine is known for playing the hot-shot, loose cannon Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” movies, but here he’s Bernie Webber, stationed on the coast of Cape Cod in the winter of 1952. Webber is timid, sheepish, apologetic and looking to please. In front of his bride-to-be Miriam (Holliday Grainger) he practically melts. Miriam is everything he’s not: confident, forward and even willing to ask him to get married.

Webber isn’t the only timid one. A few miles out to sea Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is aboard a sinking tanker caught in a violent storm. In a remarkable shot, a seaman stops short on a broken bridge to discover that the entire ship has split apart with the front half suddenly barreling toward him before plunging into the ocean. Sybert knows the boat up and down, but no one quite likes his introverted demeanor or appreciates him tucked away in the engine room. When we see him nervously explaining their situation to a reluctant crew looking to abandon ship, Affleck plays Sybert hunched between bodies, quietly and calmly stating his plan as he peels open a hard boiled egg. Both Pine and Affleck are uncharacteristically understated and are the heart of the movie’s sentimental charms.

The twist involves a second tanker that has also split in two and has dividing the Cape Cod crew, leaving Webber, his inexperienced team and a tiny, 36-foot motorboat the only chance for Sybert and the remaining sailors biding their time.

Will the Coast Guard save the day? Take a wild guess. “The Finest Hours” remains bloodless and predictable, even contrived as Miriam forces her way into the office of Webber’s commanding officer (Eric Bana) or when one of the trapped sailors (John Magaro) pettily challenges Sybert’s manhood. But the film is not without danger or suspense. The waves keep getting bigger, the sea grows darker, and the stakes more impossible as time runs out.

Director Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm,” “Lars and the Real Girl”) has the finest special effects available to him, whether in its impressive set design, some stunts that take the Coast Guard’s small boat inside the curl of a wave, or in its flashy digital, 3D cinematography that swoops from the ship’s deck to its hull in a single unbroken take. And everything has a wintery color palette that makes the film look decidedly classical.

It’s no surprise Disney made a movie in which the heroes are transformed into underdogs who have to overcome their insecurities and fears. More surprisingly, “The Finest Hours” feels muted in its storytelling and its heroics. These characters are the humble second-string guys just doing their job rather than the first responders. And the film remains epic despite being a rescue mission for just 30 people instead of 30 million.

For telling a good story well, give the Coast Guard and “The Finest Hours” some much deserved and long overdue credit.

3 stars

Z for Zachariah

Craig Zobel’s follow-up to ‘Compliance’ is an intimate love story set at the end of the world.

Z_for_Zachariah_posterThe indie drama “Z for Zachariah” is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi in name only. Movies such as this year’s “Ex Machina” or the horror film “The Babadook” have played with genre as their setting to tell what is essentially a contemporary story. The scene and the plot are merely set dressing for a bigger parable.

Craig Zobel’s (Compliance) film however maintains such a tenuous relationship to its post-apocalyptic scenario that it’s a wonder he didn’t do away with it entirely. “Z for Zachariah” follows the survivor of a radiation outbreak living peacefully alone in her country farm and how she comes to care and love another survivor who stumbles across her home.

More so than a sci-fi, “Z for Zachariah” is a marital romance, and eventually a love triangle. It deals with questions of intimacy, faith, commitment, trust, personality and habit. None of the preceding has much to do with the act of surviving a nuclear outbreak, but these themes are contained in well-drawn and acted characters and a tender, theatrical scope.

Ann (Margot Robbie) is a country girl living in her secluded slice of the world, a valley that has remained untainted by radiation and the effects that seem to have wiped out humanity. John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is another resourceful survivor who has made his way to the valley, only to fall sick and in need of Ann’s help for survival.

In them we see how tragedy, need and circumstance has brought out their core beliefs. It’s a battle of faith versus science, as Ann falls back on her Christian upbringing to help her sustain, while John is analytical and logical. He devises a plan to bring electricity back to her farm, but only at the expense of tearing down Ann’s cherished chapel.

They grow close and nearly intimate but withhold their temptations. These things need time, and they’ve got nothing but time, John explains. That changes when the drifter-type Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives on their doorstep. He’s a slick country boy with an equal helping of faith that John lacks, and his mere presence consistently makes him an untrustworthy figure driving a stake between Ann and John.

Ejiofor quite often steals the show, paring dialogue down to its quietest and simplest. He just seems profound and shrouded in feeling no matter when he’s speaking, including a bombshell about his past before arriving on the farm. But he even gets the chance to stretch himself, playing broad when initially exposed to radiation and comic when he gets drunk and learns that Ann, “even at the end of the world, ain’t gonna drink no cherry soda.”

Pine too has proven with this film he can act, casting sly glares and piercing glances that keep his character’s intentions ambiguous. As for Robbie, she’s a budding star who earns her keep as a tough, capable farm owner despite how low-key and coy she remains. Ann unfortunately becomes “the woman” and has far less to do once Caleb arrives and turns the romance into a love triangle.

Together the three of them bring unexpected depth to a story that’s as worn and traveled as the man at the end of the world. And yet Zobel can do little more than make his film a travelogue. Shot in New Zealand but done up to look like the American South, “Z for Zachariah” is less an atmospheric story than its plot suggests. The film is intimate enough that it could sub on stage, but it loses some of its cinematic qualities. in the process

Near the film’s ambiguous ending, Caleb expresses a desire to travel further south in search of what word has is a community of survivors, despite the refuge he’s found. Take “Z for Zachariah” out of the apocalypse and you’d have the same movie. That core story is something quaint and special, but there must be something more out there.

3 stars

Into the Woods

Rob Marshall adapted Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical in this mash-up of classic fairy tales.

Into the Woods PosterDo we really need another movie or show that reimagines old fairy tales? How many different ways can we tell the story of Cinderella? Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods” first premiered in 1987, but since then the spirit of taking beloved childhood properties and twisting their meanings to play up the dark imagery and fables at their core has exploded into pop culture. It hardly seems new to suggest that the Little Red Riding Hood story has gross undertones of, perhaps, pedophilia or otherwise. Ooh, how sinister.

And yet here we have Rob Marshall’s live action film adaptation of “Into the Woods”, which reimagines the fairy tales yet again but has defanged them even further. Marshall’s film is hardly as subversive or as slyly perverse as its subject matter, either by Sondheim or Brother Grimm, suggests. And like all the worst film adaptations of Broadway stage musicals, it pays more lip service to the theater than it does to cinema. “Into the Woods” often looks cheap and visually uninteresting, stimulated only by some above average singing.

Sondheim’s story is a mash-up of several popular childhood fables, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, all brought together by a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who cannot conceive a child. They’ve been cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep) and can only break the spell by collecting four items, one belonging to each of the fairy tale characters. Their paths intersect in one of those frustrating cast numbers that look great when everyone is participating and moving on stage, but meander and jump around as a result of incessant film editing.

Streep is really the star of the show, going big and broad and bold in the way only she can and owning her songs. Constantly she’s stalking and hunching over with a grimace and dominating the screen. She’s only matched in hammy overacting by Chris Pine as Prince Charming, who may be both the best and worst part of the film. He has a so-dumb-it’s-amazing number called “Agony” in which Sondheim’s composition itself is dripping in self-aware swells, only enhanced by Pine nonchalantly brandishing his chest and tossing around his golden locks as though he were blissfully unaware of his masculinity.

Marshall however plays it mostly (ahem) close to the chest, allowing the actors to do all the heavy lifting. Say what you will about 2013’s ugly looking “Les Miserables,” but the film at the very least had a style. Some of the sets look flat out cheap, and by the film’s climax involving giants descending from the beanstalk, Marshall tries to pay homage to the original production by hiding them within the scenery, but it looks more like the budget simply ran short.

Only by “Into the Woods’s” end do the characters start to get a sense of depth as flawed figures. One song points the finger at every character and their intersecting mishaps, and it reveals themes of parenting, family, abandonment and more.

Surely Sondheim’s original production has its ardent supporters for this very reason, but Marshall just wants to put the musical on the big screen again. Hollywood has lamented the loss of popularity for the movie musical, but part of that decline might stem from only making films that can have a slavish devotion to a beloved source material. Put an original property in Marshall’s hands, and he’s talented enough to do more with what he’s done to Sondheim.

2 ½ stars

Star Trek Into Darkness

“Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t overstuffed, but isn’t exactly balanced, and it begs for more innovation.

J.J. Abrams’s innovation on the “Star Trek” reboot was that he managed to take a long-standing institution, play with a very sacred universe’s timeline and still manage to canonize it. If he didn’t manage to impress me, and I was one of very few, it’s that doing so was his only innovation.

Set pieces existed for their own sake, as did stylistic camera twirls and lens flares. Dialogue teetered on being self-serious and self-referential without pausing for breath, and the plot that grew out of it didn’t make as much sense as it appeared. Even Roger Ebert pointed out that in this futuristic sci-fi epic, space battles were reduced to cataclysmic mayhem and sparring with fists and swords.

And although “Star Trek Into Darkness” improves upon that last aspect to the point that I enjoyed everything I saw, part of me wishes the Abrams from “Super 8” showed up, to dust off a cliché, and boldly go where none have gone before. Point being, if you’re looking for innovation here, you won’t find it. Continue reading “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Star Trek (2009)

I don’t know much about “Star Trek,” the beloved TV series. But I think I know enough about J.J. Abrams’s new film to understand it, just not to enjoy it.

In making “Star Trek,” Abrams sought to make the classic sci-fi cool again, making the characters more youthful, improving the special effects, making sense of the plots, you know, just branch out to a whole new audience of ignorant fanboy yuppies without losing the old ones. Abrams retreads the original series by means of yet another origin, prequel story. As is necessary of any origin film, Abrams does some name-dropping (“What’s your name citizen? My name is James Tiberius Kirk!” says an over compensating 12-year old), parades out all the old catch phrases and stays true to the series’ vast realm of logic.

With that said, newcomers to the series not already familiar with the universe’s rules are not welcome to Abrams’s comeback celebration. They won’t grasp the breadth and meaning of Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) very verbose dialogue. They won’t know that Chekov (Anton Yelchin) is intended to be somewhat of a comic relief and not just the worst casting choice in history. Continue reading “Star Trek (2009)”