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Film: Wonder Woman

June 19, 2017

Market saturation has its disadvantages. After a few years of always being excited to see the latest superhero blockbuster (thank you, The Avengers), I’ve finally started to weary of the genre. Going into Wonder Woman, I felt a modicum of enthusiasm that this time I might see something different, in that at least it was a female-led film, and heck, maybe a detour into the DC Universe might even be a nice change of pace from the formulaic monotony of the MCU lately. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman — while it certainly possesses admirable elements — fell short of my hopeful expectations.

Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on Paradise Island, a magical hideaway populated by an army of Amazon warrior women. Despite the wishes of her protective mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana wants to become a warrior herself, and begins training in secret with the legendary warrior Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana’s first challenge occurs when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane near Paradise Island. Diana rescues him, and together with the Amazons they fight off the unit of German soldiers who followed him there. They learn that beyond the placid utopia of the island, World War I is raging, and Steve is trying to convey priceless intelligence about a German chemical warfare program back to the Allies in London. Despite her mother’s protests, Diana agrees to help Steve back to his world, convinced that the Great War is the doing of Ares, the God of War. If she can find and kill Ares, she thinks, she can bring peace to the world.

Initially, it appeared as though Wonder Woman was going to deliver exactly what I was craving: something a little different. The Paradise Island sequences paint a distinctly different picture than we’re used to seeing in the genre, a picturesque, colorful society where women hold and maintain the positions of power. Gadot is solid casting as the iconic Wonder Woman, and the initial dynamics on the island are interesting, helped by solid acting from Nielsen and Wright. When Steve Trevor enters the picture, the film’s other fresh angle surfaces: that it takes place during an era heretofore unexplored in superhero cinema, World War I. The female-centric story and unique historical period seemed a promising mix.

But shortly after Diana and Steve leave the island, the wind goes out of the movie’s sails. For one thing, it felt derivative of two specific Marvel films: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Like Thor, Diana is a godly fish-out-of-water, and like Steve Rogers, Diana’s legend is forged in the fires of an epic global conflict. These influences might have provided a recipe for success, had Diana been given the same agency as her Marvel counterparts. But whereas Chris Hemsworth got laughs for his awkward interactions with humanity, and Chris Evans fought tooth and nail to decide his own fate and take on the Germans, Gal Gadot is not afforded the same treatment. Instead, yet another Chris — Pine — basically, and annoyingly, takes over the film. Pine is fine, and it’s not really his fault, but it’s stunning how diminished the stunning Amazon warrior Diana feels as soon as she is out of her element. The film morphs into a Dirty Dozen-like mission, with Steve Trevor roping in a rogue’s gallery of support to accompany them to the front. It’s a fun group, played by Eugene Brave Rock, Ewan Bremner, and Saïd Taghmaoui — in fact, I found them more memorable than the crew from The First Avenger that they so obviously resemble. But I’m not sure they serve much of a purpose, other than occasionally redirecting the spotlight away from the film’s actual protagonist. And that’s only when Chris Pine isn’t doing the same: hogging the best lines and making the story decisions. Its an epic failure of the script, I think, that Diana’s story is hijacked by the love interest, turning her into a powerful but nebulous passenger.

For all that, Gadot delivers an admirable performance. There are stirring battlefield sequences. Elena Anaya, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis supply the requisite villainy quite effectively, and Lucy Davis delivers some quirky comic relief. But this one certainly cure my superhero fatigue, nor did it do much to win me over to the DC Universe, ultimately doing a disservice to the character it should be celebrating.

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Film

Film: Don’t Think Twice

June 12, 2017

The more I think about Don’t Think Twice (2016), the more I love it. Written, directed, and starring Mike Birbiglia, it’s the story of a group of improv comics in New York City who perform intimate little shows in a low-rent theater. When the theater has to close down, it creates a crisis point for the tribe of irreverent, quickly aging dreamers. Their camaraderie turns to awkward, emotionally charged rivalry when a major network television producer attends one of their final shows, giving them all a shot to break out to next level of their careers. But the success of any one of them may tear the close-knit group apart.

I love improv comedy, and Don’t Think Twice is nothing if not a love song to this impressive style of spontaneous humor, which is convincingly brought to life by Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs (who’s never been better), Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher. Their passion for what they’re doing, even from the very bottom rung of the show-business ladder, is infectious, and their created-family dynamic is consistently funny and touching. Anyone who’s had longshot creative ambitions will relate to the struggles of the characters, who face the artistic life’s frequent disappointments and frustrations, the struggles of handling success, and the constant questioning of whether to keep chasing the dream. Don’t Think Twice explores all the variations with insight, humor, and heart. Writing about it makes me want to watch it again.

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Film

Film: The Infiltrator

June 11, 2017

Watching The Infiltrator (2016) gave me a case of false deja vu: I know I had never seen it, but I felt like I had. It’s thoroughly professional, even mildly interesting, but it didn’t really do anything new or surprising.

Based on actual events, The Infiltrator dramatizes a U.S. Customs operation to take on the drug cartel of Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Spearheading this operation is Bob Mazer (Bryan Cranston), along with his loose-cannon partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo). Their plan is to tap into the cartel’s money-laundering operation to track the players, round them up, and shut them down. To that end, Mazer goes undercover as “Robert Musella,” who at great risk to his life and his family infiltrates the criminal operation — and unexpectedly befriends the very criminals he’s planning to put away.

There’s nothing wrong with The Infiltrator, and there’s plenty to like about it. Cranston and Leguizamo are in fine form, and they’re surrounded by a great cast; Diane Kruger stands out as Mazer’s fictional undercover fiance, while Elena Anaya, Benjamin Bratt, Olympia Dukakis, Jason Isaacs, and Amy Ryan are all really solid. The plot is well clocked, the shots are well framed, the story is well told. Despite all this, there’s something expected about it all; it feels watered down, Martin Scorcese Lite. It nearly provides a little something extra near the end, when it’s neat climax provides an unexpected emotional punch. But overall I doubt this one will make a lasting impression.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: The Girl with All the Gifts

June 5, 2017

Even in my fairly lukewarm response to M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), I noted it would probably make a sensational horror film. Sure enough, it does; in fact, I think I preferred the film, as it feels more like the story’s natural medium.

The eponymous character is Melanie (the wonderful Sennia Nanua), a bright young girl who lives like a prisoner in an underground bunker, where she’s ordered about by officious, gun-wielding soldiers. But there’s a bright spot in her life: Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the teacher who spends each day instructing Melanie and the other children. Melanie seems like a perfectly normal girl, if not an exceptionally intelligent and pleasant one. But there’s a reason her militant jailers are scared to death of her: she’s infected with a fungus that turns most humans into flesh-eating zombies. Unlike most “hungries,” Melanie and the other children in the bunker present as normal, only showing their zombie-like behaviors when then need to eat. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) therefore sees them as key to developing a vaccine to the hungry virus. When the research facility’s security breaks down, Melanie, Helen, Caldwell, and others are forced to flee for their lives, and despite their fear, begin to see Melanie as the remarkable person she is.

The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t a particularly innovative story, slotting quite comfortably into the glut of zombie apocalypse tales of the past decade or so. Fans of The Last of Us video game or 28 Days Later will find the trappings quite familiar. But like the novel, the film is a triumph of execution: nicely developed characters, a chilling and thoroughly imagined scenario, terrifying suspense sequences, and a satisfying escalation from skiffy mystery into harrowing survival tale. Why the primary two characters, Melanie and Helen , were race-swapped is surely matter for debate; it’s nearly forgiveable as it gives us Sennia Nanua in the lead role, and she is terrific. Arterton and Paddy Considine are solid, while Glenn Close is especially convincing as the hard-nosed Dr. Caldwell. Fans of horror and zombie tales in particular will find plenty to love here.

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Comics, Film

Film: Doctor Strange

June 5, 2017

Doctor Strange (2016) looks like a big, beautiful, sumptuous feast, but ultimately tastes like a nothingburger. Arrogantly striding into the MCU is Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sharp-tongued, brilliant surgeon whose prestigious medical career is a prolonged exercise in self aggrandizement. But Strange’s ego is put to the test when a car crash shatters his hands, threatening to end everything he’s built his life around. When western medical science lets him down, he heads east, desperately chasing a spiritual cure for his condition. This leads him to Nepal and “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), who runs a compound called Kamar-Taj dedicated to training sorcerors in the art of reality-warping magic. Looking to harness these powers to restore his medical prowess, Strange begins the long, slow process of mastering them, only to find out along the way that he may have a higher calling.

Even by the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is visually striking. Indeed, its spellcasting and dimension-hopping effects reach Inception-like levels of eyeball-kickery. And Cumberbatch is great casting as Stephen Strange, especially physically, bringing this unique hero effectively to life — although I do wish he hadn’t been written like the second coming of Charles Emerson Winchester III. But good grief is Marvel ever in a structural rut. Strip away the dazzling visuals and Doctor Strange supplies very little substance: another origin story, another white savior complex, another world-threatening cataclysm. What substance there is, meanwhile, is morally questionable subtext justifying Strange’s assholery. They seem to be going for the Tony Stark effect: a jerky but funny and likeable rogue who ultimately redeems himself. But Strange’s arc in this film is a pale imitation, and the necessary likeability never quite manifests. An impressive supporting cast wastes the likes of Mads Mikkelsen (standard MCU villain), Rachel McAdams (absurdly standard MCU token female character), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (somewhat interesting, if questionably handled ally). And finally, yes, Swinton’s The Ancient One is yet another egregious case of Hollywood whitewash casting.

Will I enjoy seeing Doctor Strange incorporated into the greater MCU? Probably. I suspect he’s a character who will be more fun in an ensemble context. But his first solo outing is familiar MCU fare, engaging but disposable. It’s a shame Marvel won’t leverage its inexhaustible box-office clout toward diversifying its artistic vision, rather than remaining enslaved to an established blockbuster formula that becomes increasingly forgettable with each new character.

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Film, History, World War II

Film: Anthropoid

June 3, 2017

I’m the type of person whose interest is immediately piqued by a film entitled Anthropoid (2016). Surprisingly, despite the title, it’s not science fiction; it’s a dramatization of the operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich during World War II. (ANTHROPOID was the operation’s code name.) The film follows the exploits of agents Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) to parachute behind enemy lines into Czechoslovakia to assassinate the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” Heydrich has been crushing Czech resistance to Nazi occupation with ruthless efficiency, but Kubis and Gabcík are determined to put a stop to his evil reign. They meet surprising reluctance, however, from the remnants of the Czech network they’re counting on to assist them. These resistors have been living under the Nazis and fear the inevitable, murderous reprisals. Nonetheless, the two agents follow their orders, proceeding with their dangerous, high-stakes mission.

If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen Operation Daybreak, which coincidentally I saw ealier this year. Based on the same true story, and despite forty-one years separating them, Anthropoid and Operation Daybreak are essentially the same movie. Oh, there are altered details and subtle differences in emphasis, but the films share an almost identical tone of reverence and tragedy, and tell the story with similar effectiveness. Ultimately, I think Anthropoid is the more successful film overall, with slightly more focus, polish, and realism than Daybreak. Dornan and Murphy supply charismatic heroism, and the new film’s web of intrigue seems more nuanced and detailed. It also makes more room for women in the resistance, played well by Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerová. I’m not sure I learned anything new from the new version, but it was interesting to compare the two films, particularly during their climactic action setpieces, which are so strikingly similar they may have been filmed in the same place by the same director. In the end, viewers could easily watch one or the other without needing both. Forced to pick one, I suspect Anthropoid is the more accessible and convincing watch.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Journey

April 24, 2017

Twenty minutes into The Journey (1959), I found myself rather surprised I hadn’t heard of it. With its unique backdrop, excellent performances, and engrossing plot, it’s a stirring, overlooked gem full of intrigue and drama.

Set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the story involves a group of foreigners stranded in Budapest when violence erupts between the Russian military and the Hungarian resistance. Among these travelers is Diana Ashmore (Deborah Kerr), a British woman assisting an ill countryman, Henry Flemyng (Jason Robards), back to London. Or that’s how they’re presenting, anyway…in fact, Flemyng is a wounded Hungarian rebel whom Diana is attempting to rescue after his release from a long and brutal prison term. Unfortunately for Diana, she and Flemyng are put on a bus with an international group which happens to include an acquaintance, Hugh Deverill (Robert Morley). Deverill gradually deduces that Diana is dissembling, which complicates her cover when the party is waylaid by a suspicious Russian major named Surov (Yul Brynner). He sequesters the travelers in a hotel on a bureaucratic pretext, and slowly starts to put the pieces together. But Surov, who initially comes across like an officious, duty-bound servant of the Soviet state, turns out to have a more complex agenda, putting Diana’s play-acting skills to the test.

The Journey benefits from a striking technicolor look, convincing eastern European location work, and a subtle, intriguing plot involving amateur spies facing dire circumstances. But first and foremost it’s a powerful showcase for actors. Kerr is exquisite as the desperate Diana, and there’s quality support from Robards, Morley, E.G. Marshall, and Anne Jackson, among others. But best is Brynner, whose Surov is the focus of the film’s penetrating central character study. Surov’s outward bluster and confidence conceals an inner conflict and torment that Brynner, as the film progresses, performs expertly. While his hidden agenda leads to some squicky moments of gender dynamics between the leads, the relationship between them is ultimately quite poignant, bolstered by the performers’ clear chemistry.

I also appreciated the fraught backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution, an under-explored setting of oppression and resistance that resonates strongly against the world’s current political troubles. In particular, a fiercely delivered monologue from Robards late in the film really got under my skin.

The things you do to weaken us only give us strength to survive, and anger. Yes, anger. Deep, dark anger. Anger that used to be love, until you and your kind made it curdle and turned it into hate. That’s the one thing I’ll never forgive you for: making us hate!

These words, sadly, are as relevant now as when they were written, and their ultimate effect on the plot infuses a dark and tragic tale with an inspiring kernel of hope.

 

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Film

Film: The Fury

April 11, 2017

Brian De Palma is an enigma; I find his work derivative and clumsy, even as I devour it like popcorn. The Fury (1978) is a textbook example of my reaction to his films: compulsively watchable, campy, all over the map, pretentious, fun, and annoying. In the Middle East, retiring CIA spook Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) is targeted for murder so that his psychic son Robin (Andrew Stevens) can be abducted, exploited, and weaponized by the government. The assassination attempt fails, however, and Sandza goes rogue, trying to track down his son. His investigation leads him to Chicago and troubled teenager Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving), whose own potential for ESP is so off the charts she injures the people she touches whenever she gets upset. Together, Sandza and Gillian work to track down and save Robin from the clutches of Sandza’s devious colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes).

With a camera that pans, zooms, circles, and tracks with abandon, The Fury is a rattletrap contraption that feels stuck halfway been quirky art film and campy horror schlock. Ultimately it doesn’t fully satisfy either way, too ugly for the former and too interesting for the latter…or maybe that’s just 1970s filmmaking. This is De Palma’s follow-up to Carrie, and it seems anxious to capitalize on the Stephen King aspects of its plot. The performances are capably hammy, with some fun support from Charles Durning, Carrie Snodgress, and an obscure early role for Dennis Franz, among others. On the other hand, it’s a structural disaster rife of tonal clashes and an off-putting, macabre sense of humor. In the end, it’s exactly what I expected from early De Palma: an offbeat, mediocre diversion, although its ridiculous, ghastly final shot elevates its memorability considerably.

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Film

Film: Coma

April 11, 2017

I had pretty low expectations for Coma (1978), which is probably why it met them so comfortably. Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) is a resident at a prestigious Boston hospital whose chief problems in life are long hours, institutional sexism, and a contentious relationship with her boyfriend, fellow doctor Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). But her life takes a dark turn when a close friend, during a routine operation, falls inexplicably into a coma. To face up to the tragedy, Susan looks into her friend’s death, and uncovers a troubling pattern of mysterious coma cases at the hospital. As she gradually starts to unearth the connections and get closer to the truth, she lands in more and more jeopardy.

Written and directed by Michael Crichton, Coma is a film very much of its time — or perhaps, derivative of its time, with echoes of Hitchcockian suspense, prurient Brian De Palma camp, and the paranoid conspiracy thriller. If you like all those things, Coma is decent comfort food, dated but fun. Bujold is a capable central presence, and the supporting cast is solid, including a creepy Elizabeth Ashley and the predictably devious Rip Torn and Richard Widmark. Crichton’s direction is fine, although he has occasional Altmanesque pretensions, and he’s probably a little too fond of his own incidental dialogue. (This thing could have used a good edit.) But it’s got some memorable images and moments, and a nice retro thriller style to it. Fun stuff for the right viewer.

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Fantasy, Film, Science Fiction

Film: Spectral

April 2, 2017


Netflix original film Spectral (2016) possesses a veneer of respectability, but ultimately it’s disposable, the kind of movie you only half-watch. Blending science fantasy, horror, and military action, it’s reasonably well produced and professionally acted, but mostly a bland, familiar-feeling melange.

During a future conflict in Moldova, a brilliant DARPA engineer named Clyne (the underrated James Badge Dale) is sent into the warzone to help the military make sense of the strange apparitions being picked up on the vision-enhancing goggles he invented. The locals think it’s the spirits of the dead, haunting the war-torn landscape; CIA officer Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) thinks it’s a new enemy cloaking technology. Clyne refuses to pick a theory, determined instead to gather scientific evidence and reveal the truth. To that end, he and Madison embed with a military patrol to put themselves in the path of the spectral entitities and figure out what they are — if they can survive.

Spectral certainly looks okay, with reasonably good special effects, geographic verisimilitude, and convincing futuristic tech. Better is the acting, led by the capable Dale and Mortimer, and classed up even further by the likes of Clayne Crawford, Bruce Greenwood, and Stephen Root. But make no mistake, Spectral is a Sy-Fy movie on a Netflix budget. The mediocre action-adventure script is clearly elevated by the performers, especially Dale, who can play the smartest guy in the room with the best of them. Mortimer, meanwhile, possesses an assured presence, not to mention a spotless American accent. Alas, the story is simplistic A-to-B action, and the tone is super-serious, suggesting profundity unwarranted by the material. It’s distractingly unconvincing that Clyne, a civilian, should enter this high-stakes situation and immediately show himself to be more capable, resourceful, and cool under file than the experienced soldiers and intelligence agents in his midst. Not helping matters at all is the fact that for a film set in the future, Spectral is sociopolitically stuck in the past, with only one female character and a homogenously male military. An earnest effort, on some levels, but ultimately it works best as background noise for household chores.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Recruit

March 20, 2017

Flawed but polished, The Recruit (2003) is a confidently executed post-9/11 spy thriller. James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is the ne’er-do-well son of an oil man who died thirteen years earlier under mysterious circumstances. A technical genius without ambition, Clayton’s curiosity is awakened by Walter Burke (Al Pacino), a talent-spotter for the Central Intelligence Agency. Burke charms his way into Clayton’s life, enticing him to apply for the CIA with the unspoken promise of finally learning the truth about his father. But Clayton’s journey through “the Farm,” which involves a flirtatious rivalry with fellow recruit Layla Moore (Bridget Moynihan), winds up being more fraught and challenging than expected. The complex exercises of CIA training soon start to feel all too real, until Clayton can’t tell the difference between the tests and reality.

Thanks to Farrell’s energetic performance, brisk pacing, a meaty script full of thematically loaded dialogue, and an assured, striking tone, The Recruit makes for thoroughly entertaining, highly professional spy fare. While the plot escalates well, there is an inherent structural flaw: once the action starts rolling, it quickly becomes clear there’s only one logical way for the story to play out. Fortunately, some clever late reversals rescue the script’s more problematic early beats. As a past-it spook, Pacino is peculiar casting; his real-life persona looms over the role loudly, somewhat undercutting his persuasiveness as an invisible man behind the scenes. But he’s still great fun, leaning into the affair with his usual conviction, and the dramatic fireworks between him and Farrell help gloss over some of the sketchier technical issues and questionable spy-world details. Viewers less steeped in the genre might find this a decent gateway drug for classic spy tropes, but even an old hand like me found enough to make it worth the watch, despite its issues.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Holcroft Covenant

March 6, 2017

I spent most of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) thinking to myself: “Is this really the same John Frankenheimer who gave us The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds?” The answer is yes, but it’s rather odd to witness how its visual sensibility, which worked so well in the 1960s in black and white, can seem so utterly weird in a synthetic, color 1980s context.

In the dying days of World War II, a trio of repentant Nazis set up a Swiss bank account full of stolen funds from the German war machine. Forty years later, Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) — a British-born American citizen and a mild-mannered architect living in New York — is lured to Switzerland by a lawyer named Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale). Manfredi’s job is to contact the Nazis’ children, who are to establish and manage a foundation with the stolen money that will make up for their parents’ war crimes. Holcroft wants nothing to do with his father’s legacy, until he learns that the money now amounts to four and half billion dollars, and he imagines all the good he could do with it. But that’s an enormous gift horse to look in the mouth, and sure enough there are strings attached, as Holcroft is drawn into a tangle of intrigue surrounding the money — and his role in the affair turns out to be more precarious than anticipated.

There are certain types of films from around this time that seem stuck between eras, and The Holcroft Covenant is one of them. The film’s stagy, old-fashioned thriller trappings and Nazi fortune storyline seem better suited to the technicolor vibe of the sixties than the artificiality of mid-eighties cinema. Frankenheimer’s inventive, cockeyed camera angles occasionally offer glimpses of the old artistry, but the talky script and painfully synthetic soundtrack frequently step on any potential movie magic. Caine’s talent doesn’t disguise the fact that Noel Holcroft makes for a rather naive hero. The trap he waltzes into is fairly obvious, robbing the story of surprise, while the dramatic tension leans too heavily on an unconvincing, sparkless romance between Holcroft and one of the other Nazi descendants, Helden (Victoria Tennant). A glimmer of spy thriller fun is as far as its gets, alas; by and large, this one is a disappointment.

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