Thor: Ragnarok(11/8/2017)

The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other.  Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.”  While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.”  But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now.  Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last.  Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them.  If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World.  That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours.  Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.

The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War.  It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron.  This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard.  For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected.  Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie.  Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life.  Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok.  Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard.  Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.

The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline.  Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to.  As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months.  This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk.  That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it.  Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.

Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard.  We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume.  Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here.  Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward.  As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT.  The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach.  The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.

Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief.  At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue.  For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance.  Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard.  This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating.  If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way.  It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does.  I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service.  It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.

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Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.

The Big Sick(7/16/2017)

If nothing else, 2017 has been a great year to learn about the lives of 30-something, male, 1st or 2nd generation American immigrants from the Indian subcontinent of Muslim origin who went on to become stand-up comedians. In May the second season of Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series “Master of None” came out, a show that’s most about the romantic and professional life of a thinly veiled Ansari analogue but which also had a memorable episode about his childhood and his hesitance to tell his old school parents that he eats pork and has more or less abandoned his Muslim roots. Less than two weeks later Netflix also released “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” a strong one-man show from the titular stand-up comedian and Daily Show correspondent which focused largely on what it was like to be the only Indian and Muslim in town when he was growing up in Davis, California and about how difficult it could be to deal with his traditional and rather image conscious parents. And now, we finally get the much buzzed about and arguably most high profile of these projects yet which from Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani is of course a little different from Minhaj and Ansari, firstly because he’s Pakistani rather than Indian and secondly because he was actually born abroad rather than in the United States and then emigrated in his teens, but based on the projects these various comedians have made I think there’s a good chance that all three would find some common ground in their experiences as his new film, the Sundance hit The Big Sick, looks at (among several other things) a by now somewhat familiar push and pull between American pursuits and traditional family norms.

The film is overtly biographical and follows Nanjiani (who literally plays himself, his character’s name has not been changed) during his pre-success years working in Chicago as an Uber driver while trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Early I the movie we see Nanjiani hook up with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), who he meets at one of his comedy shows, and though both are a little leery about getting into a “real” relationship they do find themselves growing close over the next couple of months. Nanjiani is not, however, willing to tell all of this to his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff), especially after his brother (Adeel Akhtar) warns him that they will never accept him again if he marries outside the faith. As such Nanjiani ends up sitting by as his parents present a series of Pakistani women of marrying age to him in hopes that he’ll go along to get along. Eventually Emily learns about this and storms out and strongly suggests that it’s over between them. The next time Nanjiani sees Emily she’s in the hospital with some unknown lung infection and as the first person on the scene he’s forced to give the doctors permission to put her in a medically induced coma. Soon Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, both of whom know about the messiness in Kumail and Emily’s relationship, and wonder why he’s sticking around as long as he is.

The Big Sick has been described as a romantic comedy, which is accurate insomuch as it’s a comedy and it’s about a romance of sorts but insomuch as “romantic comedy” has come to be shorthand for a very specific formula it might be a bit misleading.  In film the “romance” is usually suggests a plotline wherein the boy wants to get the girl (or vice versa), roadblocks are placed in the way of this, and by the end we know if he or she has achieved their goal and lived happily ever after.  In the broadest of strokes that’s true of this film as well, but with one of the participants spending the majority of the film in a coma things play out differently… and not in some kind of creepy Talk to Her kind of way.  In many ways the film is less about Nanjiani’s pursuit of Emily and more about his own reconsideration of what he wants in life and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.  Specifically he needs to decide whether he’s willing to alienate himself from his family in order to date outside of the traditions of the home country, where he sees his stand-up career going, and what he really thinks about Emily now that he’s in this strange situation related to her.

Joining the movie in its second half are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, and the movie does a pretty good job of making these two rather average people seem both interesting and likable.   Their presence serves as something of a “what if” scenario for Nanjiani and to make him consider the implications of monogamy and what he wants for his future.  Those two kind of steal the show when they show up but Nanjiani himself is no slouch either and Kazan is believably desirable as well. All told the romantic elements of this are pretty well thought out and interesting, it’s actually the comedy elements that disappointed me a little.  The film is intermittedly funny but for something with Judd Apatow’s name on it I maybe expected something that would be a bit more consistently hilarious than what I got.  Ironically given that complaint, I could have done with less stand-up comedy as well.  I know this is depicting a reality of Nanjiani’s life when this happened to him, but I’m sick to death of these insidery indie movies about struggling stand-up comedians and I just kind of wish they had turned that into some other career ambition.  Really there’s a lot of “autobiographical indie comedy” syndrome going on here and that’s not really a genre I tend to get too excited about unless it just so happens to hit me in just the right way.  It’s certainly an enjoyable little movie but is it one for the ages?  Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth a rental.

*** out of Five

Wonder Woman(6/3/2017)

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For someone who doesn’t read a whole lot of comic books I know a whole lot about Batman.  I know the origin stories of just about everyone in his rogues gallery, I can name a lot of the most famous storylines from his comic book run, and I know more about his adopted family than anyone should.  I also know a decent number of things about Superman, but after that my knowledge of DC’s roster of superheroes becomes pretty thin.  I can’t tell you much about The Flash other than that he’s fast, or about Aquaman other than that everyone thinks he’s a joke, and I couldn’t tell you much of anything about The Green Lantern aside from what was in that crappy Ryan Reynolds movie.  The character that I feel particularly ill-informed about is Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman is certainly a very famous creation, but in many ways she seems to be more famous as an iconic symbol than as an actual character.  Most people could identify her on sight but how many of them would know that she’s an Amazon who’s directly related to Zeus and that she’s spent much of her life in an unending fight with Ares?  Probably a lot fewer than the number of people who know that Superman came from Krypton or that Batman’s parents were shot.  Of course part of that information gap is caused by the fact that the character had not been brought to the big screen before now, fortunately that’s being corrected by the new big screen adaptation of the character’s adventures in this year’s Wonder Woman.

The film begins by establishing Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince’s origin story, in which she was raised on Themyscira, an island in the Aegean that’s been hidden from the outside world and seemingly displaced in time through magic.  It’s explained that this island is the domain of the Amazons, a group of female warriors that were created by Zeus to temper the humans or something.  Anyway, Diana (Gal Gadot) is seemingly the only one of these warriors who began as a child and was raised on the island by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and  her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright).  There are some argument over whether Diane will be trained as a warrior but for the most part it’s an idyllic life, until suddenly bi-plane comes flying past the invisibility barrier of the island revealing that these events are actually occurring circa 1918 and crashes into the water.  This plane is piloted by an American spy working with the SAS named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who is being chased by a fleet of German boats.  After a brief skirmish Trevor tells the island ladies that World War I has been going on around them.  Diana determines that this is the doing of the Amazons’ nemesis Ares and resolves to venture out with Trevor to find and kill Ares, believing that this will end the war and bring peace to Earth.

It’s no secret that Wonder Woman is coming hot off the heels of a number of DC movies that made a lot of money but which were reviled by fans and critics.  Personally I liked some of them better than most.  I liked and continue to like Man of Steel a lot more than most people and I thought Suicide Squad had its moments (Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, is every bit as terrible as everyone says), but either way it’s clear that there is a lot of pressure for DC to change direction in a number of ways and to do that they seem to have taken some cues from Marvel in certain places.  The film’s “superhero in World War I” set up is certainly reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger and while in human society Diana has some fish-out-of-water misunderstandings that reminded me a bit of the first Thor movie.  However it would be a mistake to say that the film is completely biting the Marvel style, in fact a lot of the film’s comedy is confined to the second act and much of the rest of the film actually has a lot more in common with the other DC films than critics have suggested.  In fact I think the film has quite a bit in common with Man of Steel in that both movies are about these incredibly strong and in certain ways alien beings trying to come to terms with what their potential place in human society is.  Additionally a lot of the film’s action scenes are definitely pulling from the Zack Snyder playbook with 300 style speed ramping and a grittier aesthetic over all.  In many ways Suicide Squad was probably the bigger departure from the other DC films.

As origin stories go Wonder Woman works out pretty well.  The comic book origin story for Wonder Woman is kind of “out there” and lacks the cleanness of something like “was bitten by a radioactive spider” and the movie does a pretty good job of conveying the whole “Amazons on an island” story without making it seem unnecessarily complicated.  There are of course certain plotholes that this opens up.  I do not for the life of me understand how time works on this island or how they managed to learn all sorts of modern foreign languages while still being so oblivious of modern world that they don’t know the First World War is going on around them.  The cloak of invisibility around the island also doesn’t exactly make sense as the reason they’ve been isolated for so long.  These are of course pretty minor quibbles in the long run.  The movie also does a pretty good job of indulging some of its more comedic elements without feeling like a cavalcade of one-liners and pop culture references or feeling too much like a departure from the feel of the other movies of the “Justice League” continuity and while the actions scenes certainly aren’t “top of the line” they are mostly pretty entertaining.

All told Wonder Woman is a movie that does a pretty good job of living up to the basic expectations of a modern superhero movie and here or there it adds some nice flairs of its own on top of that but it’s hardly a major genre re-invention.  For the most part this is a movie that follows the usual rules of superhero filmmaking pretty closely, and there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, I generally like superhero movies after all.  However, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the movie plays things as safe as it does.  I generally go to DC’s movies expecting a little more experimentation than this.  We certainly got that with Suicide Squad even if the results were kind of a mess and Man of Steel also sought to show us a different kind of superhero movie from what we usually get.  This movie on the other hand just kind of feels like a safer and more diluted version of what DC has done before and I suspect that a lot of the people who were less open-minded about what they were doing before will find that to be a good thing but I personally found that a little disappointing.

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Kong: Skull Island(3/9/2017)

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The 1933 film King Kong is pretty much an undisputed classic, but it’s also one that can be easy to take for granted.  That might be because it doesn’t really fit too cleanly into any of the other trends of 1930s cinema.  It has little to do with the horror films being made by Universal at the time, its stop-motion effects were largely relegated to B-movies after it came out, and its director Merian C. Cooper never directed another movie and relegated himself to roles further behind the scenes after he made Kong.  It wasn’t really until a new generation of filmmakers who grew up on Kong came to prominence that its influence really became known, and this has led to a number of highly reverent remakes which have tried to recapture what they see as the importance of the original film.  There was of course the 1976 version, which seems kind of corny in retrospect but it is clear that Dino De Laurentiis was trying to make it an event blockbuster in the mold of Jaws and he really wanted to make audiences cry when the gorilla kicked the bucket.  But the movie that really showed the reverence that a new generation of filmmakers had for that first movie was Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, which worked really hard to remake the first movie into a prestige epic that audiences would take as seriously as he took the original.  I was on board for that, but I think Jackson’s zeal turned out to be rather off-putting to general audiences that didn’t share his reverence for the material just wanted to see a giant monkey smash things and move on with their lives.  That movie was also probably not what the studio was looking for as it, like every other version of the story, ended with Kong dying which doesn’t leave room for much of a franchise.  With the new film Kong: Skull Island filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts has taken a different approach and decided to make a King Kong movie that fits more into the mold of a modern summer blockbuster that takes the series in a more populist B-movie direction.

For this iteration of the Kong story the setting has been moved to 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  With Nixon negotiating and end to the war a scientist named William Randa (John Goodman) and his colleague Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) believe they may be seeing their last opportunity to explore an uncharted island that has been the cause of many missing ships and airplanes.  After convincing a senator (Richard Jenkins) that they need to explore this mysterious island before the Soviets do he’s allowed to mount an expedition.  Because he knows this could be trouble he brings along a military escort led by a colonel named Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s bitter about the end of the war and eager to do one last mission.  They also bring along an experienced Jungle tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a war photographer named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as well as a whole bunch of other scientists and soldiers.  Once they get there however, they quickly find that the weather is hardly and most frightening thing about Skull Island and that they are once again in for the fight of their lives.

Previous films in the Kong franchise and movies of the Kaiju genre in general really tend to play the Jaws approach of delaying the appearance of their titular monster as much as possible so as to make its really satisfying when said creature finally makes its entrance.  Kong: Skull Island doesn’t really play that game.  Instead the military and the expedition members encounter Kong almost immediately after they get to the island and before they’ve even seen the rest of the monsters on Skull Island.  People who were disappointed by the relative lack of Godzilla from Gareth Edwards’ recent Godzilla will probably not feel the same way about this film.  This Kong walks fairly upright and as such more closely resembles the original Kong than the one in Peter Jackson’s movie, which more closely resembled the look of a real Gorilla.  Vogt-Roberts is very willing to give Kong close-ups and seems particularly fascinated by his teeth.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about the effects work here and it won’t amaze people the way that the effects in the 1933 film and even the 1976 and 2005 versions did to some extent but the CGI here is strong and confident just the same and watching Kong and the various monsters do what they do is definitely fun to watch with the emphasis being on action rather than raw spectacle.

One of the first thing you notice about the film is that it has a surprisingly large cast of characters played by a variety of fairly recognizable characters and it quickly becomes clear that this is because the movie is absolutely ruthless about killing people off and is kind of shockingly violent for the sort of lighthearted blockbuster that this is.  This was perhaps also true of the 1933 film, in which dozens upon dozens of nameless sailors are killed by various monsters and the Peter Jackson movie also killed off a whole lot of people but there was usually a certain gravity given to the scenes where the characters you’ve come to recognize were dispatched.  This movie on the other hand kind of revels in building up characters just enough so that you make some connection to them before it proceeds to kill them in fairly flippant ways.  I wasn’t exactly disturbed or offended by this but it did seem rather tonally odd, and this movie generally is not very precious about tone.  The movie invokes the novel “Heart of Darkness” by naming characters Conrad and Marlow (yet somehow has the restraint not to name Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz), which was reference that didn’t make a lot of thematic sense when Peter Jackson made it before but at least the jungle adventure in that movie was appropriately dark, here it makes even less sense as the tone doesn’t resemble that book in the slightest and it has none of its themes about colonialism or psychology.

I suppose those references were included because of its association with Apocalypse Now which is definitely a movie this movie wants to be, except without all the darkness and politics.  There is pretty clearly some Vietnam allegory with the Samuel L. Jackson character once again stubbornly trying to win an unwinnable war, but it doesn’t have anything to profound to say about that conflict in general.  It also has an incredibly lazy soundtrack that hits seemingly every cliché of the “Vietnam movie.”  I mean, if you’re making a movie with Vietnam in the background and you think “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a creative choice you should go back to the drawing board.  You also shouldn’t invoke “We’ll Meet Again” unless you want your audience thinking about nuclear war, and it’s probably just generally a mistake for any movie to use “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies for any reason, as that is seemingly in every movie set in the early 70s. In general, the film’s period setting does not add a lot to the movie at all and mostly just seems to be flavoring, but not necessarily bad flavoring and probably does give it a certain something a film set in 2017 wouldn’t have had.

This thing is coming out in early March but at the end of the day its best described as a movie that follows the template of what audiences expect out of an early 21st Century blockbuster for better or worse.  Its characters are fairly stock action movie types, it has a lot of CGI driven action scenes, it has the balance of drama and comedy that people have come to expect from these movies.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t a completely bland director and he does bring some interesting visual ideas to the film (looking at you Richard Nixon bobble-head) but he also doesn’t have a wildly bold vision either.  This is a very lightweight monster movie action movie and it will probably please most audiences and will subvert very few expectations.  People looking for a silly little monster movie to watch will probably not be disappointed: the monster fights are cool, the human parts are amusing, and the scenery is nice… it does pretty much everything it advertises.  People looking for more than that or for something that’s more of the lineage of the classic film that this takes its name from might be a little disappointed.  It’s an inelegant and kind of messy movie but it gets the job done and it has some very cool moments at times.

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