Eighties Lady

Wonder Woman 1984

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

During a moment in time when a TV personality megalomaniac attains unprecedented and appalling power and threatens global civilization, it’s good to find a little hope in humanity.

Or at least a diversion, so let’s watch Wonder Woman 1984, eh?

Gal Gadot returns, lasso in hand, to defend the world from Eighties-style greed and fashion in a film that homages Reeve-era Superman while it straps some social commentary in shoulder pads, and lets loose with some thrilling fun.

Unburdened by the origin story of her 2017 original, co-writer/director Patty Jenkins is free to expand the hero’s narrative. 1984 finds Diana Prince as a Smithsonian anthropologist working with the socially awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, a blast) when self-help ponzi scam artist Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, slimy perfection) brings Big Comic Book Villainy to the DC mall.

Lord is looking for a 4,000 year old artifact that grants wishes. But when the dream stone gives, it also takes, and Diana’s sleuthing finds that over the many centuries, entire civilizations have paid the cost.

While the last film weakened in the final third with an overly cumbersome finale, WW84 only gets better as it progresses, making that two and a half-hour running time seem much more palatable.

The story turns manage to find real hope in the face of overwhelming global selfishness and the destruction that comes with it. The Reagan-era spin is luminous—Whamtastic, even—and Jenkins displays a delightful knack for the Eighties-style action sequences.

Bigger! Bolder! With leg warmers attached to legs that ain’t afraid to kick a sexist pig where it counts.

Gadot’s easy grace creates a more wizened hero than the naieve goddess of the last go. Jenkins and her co-writers even find a perfectly reasonable and wildly welcome way to bring Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) back from the dead. The chemistry between the two actors again sparkles with endless charm while Pine’s “man out of time” deadpans fuel the funniest lines in the film.

And this film is funny, playful even. But more than anything, this episode is a bow to truth, and to the belief that the truth still means something. If it doesn’t, not even a superhero will be able to save us. And the truth is, WW84 finds a thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly touching way to point that out.

And stay during the credits for a welcome stinger.

Saturday Screamer: Carriers

Carriers (2009)

by Hope Madden

Chris Pine plays against type in this 2009 pandemic horror currently streaming on most platforms including Netflix.

Pine plays Brian, a hardened young man who believes he may be immune to the virus that has decimated the global population. But, just to be safe, he chalks his survival up to a handful of rules he keeps. He also enforces these rules with three fellow survivors: his girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo), his little brother Dany (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Danny’s friend Kate (Emily VanCamp).

Following Brian’s rules to the letter (or else), the four cross the country in search of the childhood vacation destination the boys feel sure is a safe, quiet place to ride out the apocalypse.

Writers/directors/brothers David and Alex Pastor tread some familiar territory here, but their even-handed approach and ear for authentic relationships make for an involving and ultimately moving horror. Character behaviors rarely challenge believability, and the performances suit characters who’ve been dealing with this problem and with each other longer than the audience is aware.

There’s a natural pull between Danny and Bobby: the desire to just survive and the dread of surviving alone, a reluctance to do the wrong thing and yet an even stronger reluctance to wind up the sole survivor.

Character relationships have a real lived-in quality, which gives the film an emotional heft you may not be ready for. Pine, in particular, excels in a role quite unlike those he’s more famous for.

The body horror is effective, but it’s not the real source of horror.

As in all outbreak/infestation/apocalyptic flicks from the earliest Romero to the upcoming Quiet Place 2, this film understands that desperate humans are at least as dangerous as the cause of the pandemic. Interestingly, run-ins with other survivors, both the good and the bad kind, are played in Carriers with a real mixture of terror and sympathy. It’s one of the many reasons that the film delivers a harder emotional punch than you might be expecting.

Across the Universe

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

by George Wolf

Should we really be surprised a spider-based franchise has so many legs?

It wasn’t that many years ago when Spider-Man 2 was the conventional wisdom pick for all time best superhero flick. Then last year, Homecoming erased the memories of some disappointing installments with a tonally perfect reboot.

And now, Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap.

Teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore from Dope and The Get Down) is juggling a lot of teen drama. He’s trying to make friends at a new school, make nice with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and practice graffiti art with his cool Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), so he really doesn’t need to be dragged into an alternate universe with Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) right now, okay?

But, thanks to an evil plan from Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn), that’s just what happens. And before you can say quantum theory, Miles is meeting kindred heroes from all over the Spider-Verse, including another Spider-Man (Chris Pine), Spider-Man Noir (classic Nicolas Cage), anime version Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham, a hilarious Looney Tunes-style crime fighting pig (John Mulaney).

Writer Phil Lord follows his winning scripts for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie with an even bigger bulls-eye, one that manages to honor franchise traditions as it’s letting in some fresh, hip, and often very funny air.

In the hands of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the story bursts to vibrant life. The dazzling animation gives a big soul kiss to comic books and pushes nearly every frame to its action-following limit.

This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to bring eye-rolls from a kid’s b.s.detector.

And man, is it fun. That still works, too.





Believing Takes Practice

A Wrinkle in Time

by Hope Madden

It was a dark and stormy night.

With this cheeky line, Madeleine L’Engle began an odyssey that entertained and emboldened, taught us to take responsibility for our own choices, highlighted the drawbacks of conformity and showed us how to be warriors for the light.

L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, though massively popular and never out of print since its 1970 publication, had its critics. Not Christian enough to be Christian, too Christian not to be, it was also among the first SciFi novels with a female point of view. This wasn’t taken super well by adults in 1970, but it was immediately and forever beloved by its intended audience.

A Wrinkle in Time was smart and groundbreaking, which, of course, makes it the ideal tale for Ava DuVernay.

Can the filmmaker who landed two near-perfect punches of social commentary in the last four years (Selma, 13th) bring this imaginative, vibrant, lovely classic of adolescent literature to life?

Yes and no.

With the help of scripters Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia), DuVernay remains faithful enough to L’Engle’s vision without being limited by it. But she stumbles to translate some of the more dated concepts in the book, creating a conclusion that feels a bit rushed and confused.

Her picture looks glorious, though, conjuring images and movements vibrant enough to stand up to our own imaginations.

Of course, the casting is where DuVernay, with little fanfare and no disruption in the story, breaks the most ground. Storm Reid (Sleight) turns out to be the best choice the director makes, offering the perfect mix of adolescent self-loathing and smarts as our reluctant hero, Meg.

On the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of her NASA scientist father, Meg is called on a mission across time and space to find him. She’s joined by her genius little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, perfectly precocious and/or creepy, depending on need), a cute (and, let’s be honest, needless) boy from school (Levi Miller) and three unusual women (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling).

Their adventure is colorful and beautiful. It’s also full of lessons that feel less like a sledgehammer than reasonable nudging. (“You can do this. You’re choosing not to.”)

The supporting cast—Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw—balance the fantastical with the heartfelt. Galifianakis is particularly impressive.

Yes, there are more than a few corny, too-precious moments, but it is a kids’ movie. DuVernay can be credited with keeping that audience in mind to create a lovely film unabashed enough to bear-hug L’Engle’s message of positivity.





Amazon Delivers

Wonder Woman

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

What with rumors of recuts, controversies over costuming and the recent hubbub caused by all-female screenings, Wonder Woman has caused quite a stir.

Of course, she’s been causing a stir since 1941.

In the hotly anticipated film directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), the Amazon princess is compelled to leave her peaceful paradise when WWI American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands. Learning for the first time about the global destruction, she sees it as her duty to try to end the war.

Gal Gadot returns, after a brief turn as the highlight in Batman V Superman, this time shouldering lead duties in the role she seemed destined for. Her action sequences are convincing – two years in the Israeli military will do that. Playing a newcomer to “civilized” society, Gadot finds an appropriate balance of naiveté and self-sufficiency.

Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg (in his film debut after an arc of WW comics and years in TV) also strike an effective balancing act with the multiple elements at work in their film: period war drama, sweeping romance, action film and superhero origin story.

That origin story, with an inherent freshness unburdened by multiple reboots, is part coming of age, part fish out of water. As it introduces a new hero and questions if the world deserves her, Wonder Woman benefits from a bit of easy charm and the deft handling of some touchy items.

Chris Pine is the charm. As the dashing Capt. Trevor, he carries self-aware good humor and comfortable chemistry with the lead, and he delivers a few of the film’s best lines.

As for Jenkins’s handling, there’s much to be said for the minefield she inherited with this project: the costume, the lasso – hell, the cartoon Wonder Woman has an invisible jet. There’s plenty to ridicule here, or, for a fanboy, to revere.

Jenkins, finding middle ground between Marvel’s wisecracking and DC’s weighty seriousness, inserts light humor, occasionally reverses traditional comic book gender roles with success, and still manages to simply craft a solid superhero movie.

She can’t escape the genre penchant for excess, and by the third act, Wonder Woman starts feeling every bit of its two-hour and twenty-minute running time. But there is definite hope here, not only for humanity, but the future of the DC film universe.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Texas Two Step

Hell or High Water

by Hope Madden

Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.

Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Though both pairs feel like opposites at first blush, their relationships are more complicated than you might imagine. Foster, a magnificent character actor regardless of the film, is a playful menace. Though Pine’s Toby spends the majority of the film quietly observing, his bursts of energy highlight the kinship. Their often strained banter furthers the story, but moments of humor – many landing thanks to Foster’s wicked comic sensibility – do more to authenticate the relationship.

Likewise, Bridges – wearing the familiar skin of a grizzled old cowboy – makes every line, every breath, ever racist barb feel comfortably his own. Birmingham impresses as well, quietly articulating a relationship far muddier than the dialog alone suggests.

These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.

Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.

The supporting actors populating a dusty, dying landscape make their presence felt, whether Dale Dickey’s wizened bank teller, Katy Mixon’s spunky diner waitress, or a hilarious Margaret Bowman as another waitress you do not want to cross.

Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.

A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.

Verdict-4-5-Stars





The Frontier Strikes Back

Star Trek Beyond

by George Wolf

Kirk. Spock. Bones. Wisecracks, a villain, and some heroic space swashbuckling. We’re pretty familiar with the Star Trek setup by now, and three flicks into the J.J. Abrams-fueled reboot, the latest seems the most comfortable in its journey. And though Star Trek Beyond doesn’t quite boldly go, it is a fun, satisfying ride.

Three years into a five-year mission, the crew of the Enterprise stops for some downtime at an immense new space station. Kirk (Chris Pine) in awaiting a promotion, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is mulling a return home to Vulcan, and Bones (Karl Urban), good God, man, he has some fun needling Spock about a botched romance with Uhura (Zoe Saldana).

The gang gets back in action to answer the distress call of a stranded crew, but falls into the trap of the Kahn-like Krall (Idris Elba), who’s after a very powerful artifact that Kirk just happens to be holding.

Fast and Furious vet Justin Lin takes over for Abrams in the director’s chair and, working with a snappy script co-written by Simon Pegg (“Scotty”), has the film feeling like a fun Trek TV episode beamed up to the multiplex.

Though the adventure is a little tardy getting its legs, things only get better as they go along. The banter is crisp, the derring-do daring, and the chemistry of the ensemble, so important in a franchise such as this, is undeniable.

Spectacular only in spots, what Beyond does best is honor its own heritage while planning for the future. The nods to its TV past run from cheesy to ingenious, even finding a clever way to acknowledge the effect the entire Star Trek phenomenon has had on popular culture.

After the trying-too-hard reach of Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond strikes just the right note. More of this? I’m on board.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 





Breaking the Waves

The Finest Hours

by George Wolf

Plenty of films have created genuine tension telling stories where the outcome is already known. The Finest Hours may not reach the lofty heights of say, Argo, but it crafts a true-life adventure tale with an earnest and sometimes thrilling respect for the bravery involved.

Most of that respect goes to Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), the young Coast Guardsman who directed the greatest small boat rescue in the group’s history. In 1952, Bernie and a small crew braved brutal elements off the coast of Cape Cod to search for a stranded oil tanker that had been broken in half by the storm.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) seems most engaged by the set pieces involving the floundering tanker. As a desperate crew relies on the crafty ideas of Mister Sybert (Casey Affleck) to stay afloat, Gillespie creates a nicely paced contrast between the shrinking confines of the ship and the vast timelessness of the rising waters.

Back on land, we see an idealized, one-dimensional version of the 1950s. Bernie’s courtship of his future wife Miriam (Holliday Grainger) is sweet but superficial, as is most of the setup at Coast Guard base. The screenwriting team of Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (The Fighter) draws parameters quickly, and for obvious purposes.

Bernie is a stickler for regulations, on a mission loaded with impossible obstacles. The more both points are labored, the less impactful it becomes when they fall away.

Pine has genuine movie star charisma, and he underplays Bernie nicely, but it is Gillespie who ultimately saves The Finest Hours. Not only does he make the sentimentality of the period details seem awkwardly appropriate, but lines such as “sometimes men die” and “not on my watch!” are more quickly forgiven amid spectacular storm sequences and the palpable tension of the actual rescue.

As effective as its finest moments may be, what The Finest Hours needs most is a deeper humanity to make it resonate after the credits. You end up saluting these heroes more than caring about them, keeping any lasting sea legs at bay.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Three’s a Crowd

Z for Zachariah

by Hope Madden

If you are unfamiliar with Craig Zobel, google him immediately. Hopefully you’ll discover Homestar Runner, which will clue you into Zobel’s particular mad genius. Go ahead and spend some time. Take in the glory that is Teen Girl Squad. Then prepare yourself for an amazingly different experience and watch the filmmaker’s third feature, Z for Zachariah.

Based loosely on Robert O’Brien’s award winning adolescent novel, the film is a meticulous examination of human behavior masquerading as a SciFi flick. Sometime after an undisclosed apocalypse (radioactivity suggests a nuclear war), Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) tends her farm alone, her valley somehow spared of the radiation. She believes she may be the last living soul until scientist John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears in the distance in his radiation suit.

What evolves is a fascinating character study blessed with two excellent performances.

Ejiofor is incapable of a weak turn, and as is always the case, he manages to wear the character’s entire backstory in his countenance, posture, wordless reactions, and eyes. He’s almost capable of presenting a fully realized character without a word of dialog, and his Loomis is a mysterious, weary guest whose undisclosed, recent experiences have made him a little distant, even as Ann has to contain her joy at finding a companion.

Robbie has never been better in a role that is sometimes almost aggravatingly naïve, and yet this is a character with the grit to survive on her own, to plow a field – to create the film’s Eden.

Nissar Modi’s screenplay sometimes treads too heavily with the biblical metaphors, but Zobel never does. While the film explores ideas of science versus religion, male versus female, intellect versus emotion, white versus black, Zobel’s real interest – as he showed with brilliantly frustrating results in his previous effort, Compliance – is to examine human foibles, resilience, and self-destructive tendencies.

Z examines the nervous but sweet blossoming of a relationship, then upends the comforting narrative with the arrival of a third survivor – handsome Caleb (Chris Pine).

Pine’s third wheel is a less developed character, but the actor manages to convey the right amount of manipulative aw-shucks and just the hint of menace the film needs to generate tension.

The film’s minimalism is both welcome and problematic, as it seems to work against much of the built-in tensions and drama that could enliven the running time.

Fans of the novel will be irritated by the many liberties taken, but Zobel’s film stands firmly on its own. Told with realism and simplicity, and boasting an intriguing amount of ambiguity – especially at the climax – Z abandons the traditions of the post-apocalyptic film in favor of something modest and moving.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





The Meryl Witch Project

Into the Woods

by George Wolf

 

Don’t let the name Disney at the top of the poster fool you, Into the Woods isn’t little kid stuff. But it is more evidence that Rob Marshall is the guy who should be directing your next musical.

After nearly thirty years, the Tony-award winner from Stephen Sondheim (music) and James Lapine (book/screenplay) makes it to the big screen. It’s more lean, less mean, and still pretty spectacular.

Having Meryl Streep at the top of your cast list is always a wise move, and she’s utterly commanding as a Witch who offers the village Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) a mysterious deal. In exchange for a few magical items (red cape, white cow, yellow hair and golden slipper), the Witch will reverse a curse that is keeping the couple childless.

As the Bakers head into the woods to begin their search, four classic fairy tales begin an enchanting intersection.

With the benefit of a live stage, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Jack and his beanstalk could take turns in the spotlight while still keeping a combined narrative intact. A screen version presents an inherent challenge to recreate that vision, but Marshall doesn’t shrink from it.

His camera is almost always moving, with wide aerial shots showcasing everyone’s place in the woods, and slow pans that glide easily from one fairy tale to the next. While Marshall’s Nine was more a series of dazzling parts, here he’s able to sustain the realization that each storyline in the woods is connected.

Marshall is also smart enough to know the material and adjust. The high-stepping pizazz he utilized so well in the Oscar-winning Chicago was a perfect fit for that show, but this is Sondheim. The songs are graceful, poetic, challenging, and Marshall, with a big assist from Dion Beebe’s pristine cinematography, frames them accordingly.

The fine ensemble cast follows suit with sharp characterizations. Blunt is excellent (when isn’t she?) as the desperate wife, Corden makes a fine unlikely hero and Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is..apologies in advance…pitch perfect. Chris Pine makes Prince Charming a delightfully amusing cad while Johnny Depp, as Johnny Depp does, leaves a memorable impression with limited screen time as the Big Bad Wolf.

Though several songs have been pruned from the stage musical, along with some of the darker edges, Marshall keeps the metaphor of “the Woods as real life” intact without overplaying the hand. Into the Woods explores what’s on the other side of fairy tales, where handsome Princes “will always love the maiden who ran away.”

The wee ones may not find any bland theme songs to call their own, but this is family entertainment on a grand, sometimes glorious scale.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars