Wonder Woman review

It’s hard to imagine why it took more than 70 years to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Certainly one of our most iconic superheroes, the Amazonian warrior known as Diana is essentially DC Comics’ female counterpart to Marvels’ Captain America. She’s patriotic, savagely intelligent and fiercely committed to the values of justice, dignity and peace. She’s also no slouch when it comes to kicking bad guy booty.

After the utter failure of female-centric superhero adaptations like Electra and Catwoman, comic fans would be forgiven for thinking that all hope of seeing Diana on the big screen was lost. But then, Marvel came with its rich female ensemble heroes like Black Widow and Gamora, and Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame ruled the box office for years.

But DC Entertainment’s road to Wonder Woman was not a smooth one. Fans began to lose hope after a series of disappointing films that betrayed basic tenets of beloved characters. Superman kills now. Batman is a gun-toting vigilante. I, along with many fans, feared that Diana would be betrayed in a similar way. No brooding, tortured Wonder Woman for me, thanks.

I’m so glad my fears were unfounded. Wonder Woman is, simply, a wonder, filled with breathtaking visuals, thought-provoking themes and a sense of fun and gravitas missing entirely from recent DC fare. Any way you slice it, this summer blockbuster is a home run.

The film takes place against the backdrop of Greek mythology, where Ares, the god of war, slaughtered the other gods in an attempt to take the throne. But Zeus defeated Ares, leaving his ultimate fate unknown. As the story goes, Zeus made man in his perfect image, but Ares corrupted the creation, turning men against each other and fostering hatred and fear. A tribe of Amazon women, living on a secluded island, was tasked by Zeus with standing at the ready in case of Ares’ return.

Into this story comes Diana (Gal Gadot), carved from clay by her mother and breathed to life by Zeus himself, or so the story goes. From a young age, Diana longs to wield the god-killer sword and hunt down Ares, or at least obtain proof of his extermination. While her mother, Hippolyta, does not want her to become a warrior, her aunt, the fierce fighter Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains her in the art of combat. These skills soon come in handy when a British spy fleeing the Germans during World War I crash lands his plane in the ocean just off the island. Soon, pursuing Germans attack the beach, and the Amazons are forced to defend it with their lives.

The man whom Diana saves from a watery grave is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an idealistic young soldier. Diana has never seen a man before, but after the German onslaught, she is convinced that Ares is behind this “Great War” of men, and sets out (much to her mother’s protestations) with Steve to return to the front and take down Ares. Steve, for his part, is happy enough to have an unstoppable badass warrior fighting on his side to hopefully eliminate the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the brilliant German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who has been testing a villainous new mustard gas that, if perfected, could turn the entire tide of the war.

There are certain tropes that almost have to be included in a superhero origin story. Thankfully, the film flies through the typical fish-out-of-water clichés (Diana trying on evening gowns, for example) to spend most of its time on the meat of the story. The film is dramatic but light on its feet and, dare I say, fun. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, DC seemed to start thinking that “gritty” and “dreary” were necessary attributes for all their films. But Nolan’s films set up an astonishing and consistent moral universe, something sorely missing from the dull Man of Steel or the tonally schizophrenic Suicide Squad. Thanks to assured direction from Patty Jenkins and veteran TV writer Allan Heinberg’s dense screenplay, Wonder Woman is the first DC film since to present the kind of stark, good-versus-evil weight that put DC on the map.

Wonder Woman nails the balance between gravitas and fun missing from so much modern comic book fare.

Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ often excellent output, but DC has always had the potential to present a weightier, more compelling universe. Marvel is brilliantly done popcorn fare, but popcorn fare nonetheless. DC, at its best, presents something more, and this is what Wonder Woman gets right where so many others got it wrong.

Diana’s central moral quandary is, what if humanity is not, on the whole, as flawless as she was raised to believe? What if it is not Ares that drives men to be wicked, but rather something deep inside humans themselves? Something that causes them to kill one another, to be dishonest or cheat and steal? Would such an inherently flawed creature still be worth protecting? This is so much more gripping than the humorous fish-out-of-water shenanigans of say, Thor, and it’s this major conflict that propels the film to a higher level than many that have come before it. Everything is given a spiritual, existential weight, but none of it feels forced. If Diana is meant to embody a messianic motif, this is apparent only in the choices she makes; the heavy-handed Jesus imagery of Batman vs. Superman is blessedly absent here.

But the film’s philosophical heft is only one of its strengths. There’s also the performances, filled with marvelous character actors (hello, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) and some of the best work Chris Pine has ever done. There’s a mix of good-humored charm and seriousness Pine possesses that few actors can rival. Then, there’s Gadot. Anyone who made it all the way through Batman vs. Superman know how good she already is in this role. She feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. This comes through in her physicality, her mischievous smile and her expressive face. She is unbelievably marvelous.

Speaking of marvelous, seeing Diana kick German ass is pretty satisfying. Armed with her glowing lasso of truth, her bullet-deflecting bracelets and her legendary shield (no invisible plane here, sadly), Diana is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. The moment where she emerges from the grimy trenches, where the soldiers have barely made any headway in a year, and busts out her shield as bullets bounce harmlessly off of it, is a moment of pure awe. A later scene where Diana leads the soldiers in a takedown of an entire village of German troops is simply astonishing, and should go down as one of the finest action scenes in superhero movie history. The action and visuals are stunning throughout, though I suppose folks who are not fans of slow-mo may tire of the effect. I think it’s used effectively throughout, and, unlike, say, 300, it’s not overdone, but it does occasionally come off as a tad cheesy.

I’m grasping to try to find things to criticize here. There are a few origin story clichés, but they’re easily overwhelmed by all of the good stuff. Wonder Woman does far more than right DC’s rickety cinematic ship. It stands tall as one of the finest superhero films to come along in some time, maybe ever. It’s also proof that the world is ready for female superheroes (and female directors!) as long as they’re attached to a quality product. I say, bring it on ladies, and long live the Queen!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 review

Given the earth-shattering success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, it can be easy to forget that the film was quite the gamble. Based upon a relatively obscure property, many wondered whether Marvel’s galactic stories about a bizarre ragtag group of selfish bounty hunters and wannabe heroes would transfer well to screen. Maybe a gun-toting squirrel and an anthropomorphic tree were just a little too strange for audiences to fully embrace.

Aren’t we all so glad we were wrong? Not only did the original film crush it at the box office, it also earned some of the strongest reviews in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was mostly thanks to the film’s colorful visuals, its likable case of characters and its hilariously irreverent and whip-smart dialogue. But lightning rarely strikes twice, and though anticipation for the inevitable sequel was high, you would be excused for being wary. I’m happy to say that, with a stellar returning cast, writer-director James Gunn’s sure guiding hand and a heartfelt story, Volume 2 is an all-around home run, one that is sure to thrill fans while living up to the pedigree established by its predecessor.

We find our original heroes a few years after the events of the original. They’ve taken their moniker to heart, guarding the galaxy from all sorts of nefarious threats and learning to work as a team after reluctantly banding together. The de-facto team leader is Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), whose happy-go lucky, retro music loving ways fail to hide his unease over never knowing who his father was. There’s also the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), with whom Quill has an “unspoken thing,” according to him, at least. They’re joined by the socially awkward warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), the foul-mouthed raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who has become relatively helpless after being reborn from the ashes of the original intimidating Groot, who sacrificed himself to save his team.

In one of the most creative openings credit sequences I’ve seen, the team is fighting off a large tentacled beast while Baby Groot dances in the foreground. This beast is there to destroy a valuable power supply created by the golden-skinned race known as the Sovereign.

The mission is an initial success, but after Rocket takes offense to the race’s haughty tone, he decides to pocket the golden batteries, which should fetch a fortune. This sets in motion a massive manhunt, with the Sovereign fleet overwhelming our heroes until a mysterious and powerful stranger saves the day. This stranger, known as Ego (Kurt Russell), claims to be Quill’s father. But, if that’s true, why did he abandon Quill to be raised by the uncouth bounty hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker)? And where has he been all these years? As Quill attempts to untangle his complex past, Gamora is dealing with family issues of her own. Her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), still smarting from her defeat in the first film, is single-mindedly obsessed with destroying her sister and everyone she loves. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to the smash-hit original.

If the plot sounds a little overstuffed, that’s because it is. The story is never confusing, but there are a lot of moving parts, and separating the team for a good chunk of the running time doesn’t help matters. The film lacks the laser-sharp focus of the original, and removing a few side characters (Sylvester Stallone’s appearance as a legendary outlaw seems almost entirely unnecessary) would have helped improve the pacing.

With many films, these inconsistencies would be a major issue. But, with a film as off-the-wall as Guardians, it really is a minor complaint. Everything else about the film is absolutely wonderful.

James Gunn proves once again why he’s one of the best writers in film. His dialogue is brilliant and beyond hilarious. I found myself laughing more than I did in the original, thanks to Rocket’s and Quill’s playfully antagonistic banter and a bevy of brilliantly conceived running gags (Taser Face stands as my personal favorite). The jokes are rapid-fire, and I couldn’t recall a one that felt flat. This is the kind of movie you’ll want to see again to catch all of the little lovingly crafted details and blink-or-you’ll-miss-it gags.

In addition to being the funniest Marvel film, Volume 2 stands with Doctor Strange as the most visually engaging. In an era where summer blockbusters feel the need to make everything drab, gray and “gritty,” there’s something so refreshing about a movie with color. From the shimmering skin of the Sovereign to Ego’s Edenic home planet, everything here feels lovingly crafted in a way that effects-heavy films rarely are. One action scene in particular, featuring Yondu’s legendary whistling red arrow, becomes a brutal light show that feels like a true work of art.

Volume 2’s humor makes it good, but what makes it great is the heart at the center of it. Like the original, the film contains characters you will care deeply about, from Star Lord to seemingly minor characters like Ego’s antennaed assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And, as Quill’s relationship to his birth father begins to reveal its layers as he ponders his relationship with his adopted father, the movie imparts a valuable lesson about the importance of family, whatever that word means. Family is blood, certainly, but it’s also whoever has your back no matter what. It’s anyone who would lay down their life for you, who would stick by you until the bitter end.

I’m grateful for this unlikely family of lovable misfits, and I imagine many moviegoers are too.  As long as the Guardians films remain this thrilling, funny, heartfelt and lovingly crafted, I’m on board to witness their exploits for years to come.

The Circle review

“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” So goes the mantra of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one of the men in charge of technology giant The Circle. James Ponsoldt’s film, names after the company, imagines an organization not too far from reality, a powerful but potentially unholy blend of Google and Facebook, with maybe a bit of Disney thrown in.

Based upon Dave Egger’s prescient novel, the film, which Eggers helped adapt to screen, is a sometimes insightful but ultimately fairly mundane examination of the question, what would the world look like if we valued knowledge and access to information as a right above privacy?

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a talented young woman wasting her youth (and her art history degree) working for the local utility company and living with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles). But Mae’s life changes when her long-term friend Annie (Karen Gillan) snags her an interview with the most powerful and trendy tech company on the planet. It’s the kind of place that features weekly Ted-esque innovation talks, Friday night concerts from Beck and more clubs and activities than one could possibly do in a lifetime.

Mae succeeds in getting a job in Customer Experience, where many budding circlers start their meteoric careers. She is, at first, predictably overwhelmed. There’s her customer satisfaction score (1-100), as well as her social circle account (like Facebook, but with a specific popularity rank number tied to it). Then, there’s her weekend trips to her parent’s to help take care of her ailing MS-diagnosed father. Between all this, the poor girl barely has time to indulge in her favorite activity: kayaking.

But none of this is enough to stop Mae’s determination. Her work ethic soon gets the attention of Bailey and fellow company leader Tom (Patton Oswalt), along with the mysterious Ty (John Boyega), who warns her that abandoning privacy completely and “completing the circle” will have an irreversible cost.

Mae is skeptical. Look at what good The Circle is doing for humanity. We’re on our way to complete transparency, where tiny marble-sized cameras can be placed anywhere and camouflaged, unseen to the naked eye. With everyone afraid of getting caught, crime could be almost eliminated overnight. No more theft, no more shootings, no more dictators committing massive human rights violations. The Circle envisions a perfect utopia of accountability, where people behave within the confines of law and decency, because the only other choice is to be seen and known. There will be no shadows to hide in, and that is something Mae wants desperately to be a part of, no matter the cost. As Mae rises through the ranks of The Circle, she is forced to consider the moral imperative of the company’s efforts, along with its potential pitfalls.

Eggers’ and Ponsoldt’s script follows all of the main beats from the novel, and in a few cases adds some interesting twists to the equation. But the story still feels rushed; even with the elimination of some extraneous plot threads, there are so many interesting characters that don’t feel like full flesh-and-blood people. This somewhat deadens the emotional impact of some of the film’s more dramatic scenes.

The Circle raises some provocative questions in the information age, but doesn’t have enough gripping character moments to sustain interest.

This missed opportunity extends to the acting (and I’m not just talking about Watson’s dubious American accent). There is a very talented cast here, but many of the major players feel underutilized. Oswalt, Boyega and Hanks don’t get as much screen time as they deserve, and, when the film’s revelations are brought to light, we still don’t know much about their backgrounds or how they play into the proceedings.

The visuals are the film’s most interesting bullet point. The screen is often filled with pop up messages commenting on events in a variety of languages. This commentary is sometimes relevant but often delightfully random, and it contributes to the film’s growing sense of unease and dread over just how invasive technology can be. Without giving much away, this visual element is directly tied to a major story point, so it feels natural but never excessive or distracting.

One of the film’s major faults may lie with its marketing. The previews sold The Circle as a techno-thriller, with Mae discovering shady dealings inside the company and speaking out about them. That’s not what happens in the book, and I’m thankful that the film sticks closer to Mae’s inner moral conundrum regarding the necessary limitations of technology. But, this type of story is decidedly smaller and less high-stakes, and those looking for a grand conspiracy at the center of the story should check their expectations.

Egger’s script is also a bit softer and less acerbic than his novel, and that is most prevalent in the character of Mae. In the book, she turns from an idealistic young go-getter into a complete monster, alienating her family and friends for the “greater good” of the company, but the film makes her decidedly more sympathetic. I recall a great sense of tragedy reading about this slow moral degradation, but the film misses out on that character arc. Making Mae into a slightly more heroic figure probably makes the film more commercially palatable, but it also makes it less interesting. Her mixed motivations muddy the message a bit, particularly in the ending, which is still kind of cool but takes her ultimate decision in a different direction.

The Circle asks some extremely important questions, ones well worth mulling on. Are there some things we are not meant to know? What are the limits of science and technology in a connected world, if there are any? Is knowledge more important than privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? The film does an admirable job tackling these big questions, but it does so at the expense of truly interesting and memorable characters. It’s a fine film, but the center of this circle feels a bit hollow.

Logan review

Without a doubt, Logan aka The Wolverine is one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in all of comic book history. And, since the original X-Men film released in 2000, he has also been an iconic screen presence. This is thanks mostly to Hugh Jackman, who has played the adamantium-clawed mutant in one form or another across nine films. Now, the actor is hanging up the muttonchops, closing the book on a character he has embodied for 17 years.

With Jackman’s final outing, Logan, he returns with The Wolverine director James Mangold for a much darker, more brutal take on Wolverine’s legacy, one that is filled with complex emotions, shocking violence, and more than its fair share of homages to classic cinema (particularly the western). Does the film live up to the character’s storied cinematic legacy? Absolutely. A few quibbles keep me from declaring Logan the best comic-based film since The Dark Knight. But, it’s pretty damn close.

The film jumps forward in time, bringing us to the year 2029, where Logan is working as a limousine driver near the Texas border. From the start, this is a different Logan that what we’re used to seeing; greying and weary, he would rather mind his own business than pick a fight. But, the film spares no time showing us what happens when the claws are forced to come out; within the first few minutes we see the bloody results when Wolverine’s famous rage is forced to come out and play.

At this point in the story, Logan has been alive for hundreds of years; thanks to his miraculous healing abilities, he ages much more slowly than the average human (or mutant). This is a future where mutant kind has been all but wiped out, and the X-Men we know and love are long gone. The man who once fought in the Civil War is tired, and beyond ready to die. In fact, he keeps an adamantium-laced bullet on hand to force his passing, if necessary. But Logan still has a mission—taking care of the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is being kept in a silo across the Mexican border. The most powerful mind in the world has been prone to seizures, of the earth-shattering, potential to destroy the world type. The silo keeps Xavier’s mind trapped, as does a series of medications administered by his caretaker, the mysterious albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant).

But, Logan and Xavier are soon forced to go on the run after a mysterious man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) comes asking about a little girl with strange powers. It’s obvious this man means the girl harm. As it turns out, a woman has been following Logan, asking if he can escort said girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to a mutant safe-haven known as Eden, which may or may not actually exist. Logan is understandably reluctant—why chase after a fairy tale? And how can this girl be a mutant, when one hasn’t been born in decades?

As events draw them together, what follows is essentially a chase film mixed with a classic road trip, as Logan, Laura and Xavier make their way to North Dakota, all the way pursued by Pierce and his men, backed by the genetic research organization Transigen. What could they possibly want with this girl? And how powerful is she, exactly?

From the get go, the film exudes a quiet, soulful mood, so far removed from the flashiness of X-Men films past. The script heavily references the classic western Shane, and, in many ways, the film feels like a Western. The lonely wanderer, forced to defend someone from violent attackers who slowly comes to learn more about himself through the process is an ancient tale. But nothing like this has ever been attempted in a Marvel film before, and that helps to freshen the approach.

The tone and pacing of Logan are absolute home runs. Like Marvel’s recent Netflix shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the film feels as though it takes place in the real world, where people die and forgiveness is not easily earned. Take, for example, the moment where Logan spies one of Laura’s X-Men comics and proclaims that the vast majority of those stories are made up. Such a technique can easily come off as cheekily self-referential, but here it manages to ground the story in real space and time.

Logan is an emotional and grueling journey, but one well worth taking for fans of thought-provoking comic book fare.

The effect can be jarring, especially when the characters reference the events of previous films, so wildly different in tone and setting. But there’s still plenty of splashy action amidst the more contemplative mood. A sequence that takes place at a casino is one of the best in the X-Men franchise, and we get plenty of chances to see Wolverine go full-beast mode, particularly in a jaw-dropping battle set in a forest.

But, the emotional core of the story is the character relationships, and it is here that Logan transforms into something special. These are characters fans care deeply about, and seeing them fully wrestle with their lives and legacies is deeply moving. The emotion is driven in by the soulful performances. Take a look at Jackman and Stewart and tell me if they’ve ever been better. Keen is also a revelation. As Laura, she is asked to carry the weight of the film, acting as the catalyst for Logan’s journey. She is incredible both in her ferocity and her subtlety, and her relationship with Logan is beautifully rendered and achingly poignant.

Perhaps one of the film’s great strengths, and also its greatest weakness, is its air of mystery. We’re asked to piece together what exactly happened to the rest of the mutants in the missing years, as well as how Logan and Xavier ended up where they did. Sometimes, a clue can be a single line of dialogue. This works well for some revelations, but others fall flat. Caliban, for example, is an intriguing character that we don’t really get to know. Most of his purpose was served in the past, but, since he was first introduced in this film, we’re not able to form the same kind of connection with him as we can with the other characters. I suppose you could say that the villains are fairly weak, but, since this the film is much more about Logan’s inner journey, this is much less of a complaint as it can be in other Marvel fare. There are also a few plot points that could have been fleshed out more—explanations and motivations are sometimes interrupted by shocking violence, never to be picked up again.

Speaking of violence, Logan is a ridiculously bloody movie. Those who have read the Old Man Logan source material should not be shocked by this. While people have been clamoring for an R-rated Wolverine flick for some time, there is something to say about a tad bit of restraint, and, when it comes to violence, the film has none. The deft, subtle hand shown in so much of the rest of the film is absent from the action and violence, which is relentless and graphic. Expect tons of sliced torsos, decapitated heads and gushing limb removal.

Whether you like Logan or not may ultimately depend on what you think the comic-based superhero film is supposed to be. Logan is thought-provoking, emotional and painfully intimate. It is not, however, a very “enjoyable” flick, and not one I recommend munching popcorn while watching. I see room for this kind of film alongside stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy. They may not have the same audience, and that’s okay. For those looking to be “entertained” by a Wolverine movie rather than challenged, I recommend one of the character’s previous outings.

When thinking of Logan, I pause less on the brutal violence than the brutal emotions, the painful intimacy and raw emotion of the whole affair. This is a gorgeous, moody, wonderful film for those ready to submit themselves to the experience. It asks us to ponder what it means to have a legacy, what it means to have a family and how one can wrestle successfully with the sins of the past. Best of all, it takes risks. They may not all completely pay off, but when was the last time you associated “risk” with a Marvel movie?

La La Land review

“People in L.A. worship everything but value nothing.” So says Sebastian in Damien Chazelle’s miraculous musical romance La La Land. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz musician with dreams of opening his own club, but he’s stuck playing bland Christmas tunes in dingy restaurants. He’s frustrated by the lack of passion people around him bring to their lives, along with the fact that he himself can’t hold a steady job as he pursues his own dreams.

Mia (Emma Stone) faces a similar predicament. She gave up college and moved from her Nevada home to pursue acting, but, despite numerous auditions, she can’t seem to get a call back. When she meets Sebastian, she’s initially repulsed, but quickly she begins to warm to his charms and his zest for life. A romance blossoms, but it isn’t long before reality comes knocking for these starry-eyed dreamers. Can these two build a life together, sharing in each other’s’ burdens and ambitions? Or will the cold hand of failure and the everyday struggles of life tear them (and their careers) apart?

The central question of the film is, how does one continue to hold onto hope in the midst of resistance? How can you reach for the stars when life only seems to give you gravel? It’s a profound question, particularly in a year like 2016, when so many have felt beaten into submission by the woes of human experience.

For anyone feeling downtrodden, La La Land is the greatest Christmas present you could ask for. This is a film that will keep a smile on your face during most of its run time, a joyous celebration of the desires of the heart, and the perseverance of hope through all possible obstacles.

The film is love letter to two of my favorite things: movies and jazz. Chazelle already examined the passion of jazz music in the stellar Whiplash, but that film was dark and emotionally brutal. In contrast, La La Land is an infectious, upbeat and ear-catching marvel. This is the kind of film where you can feel the love of movie-making stitched into every frame, a film where the depth of passion and vision behind its creation is palpable and, frankly, astonishing.

La La Land is an infectious ode to Hollywood, jazz and impossible dreamers.

La La Land is billed as a musical, and a musical is really only as good as its songs. Thankfully, Justin Hurwitz’s tunes are mostly great. I’ve been obsessed with this soundtrack ever since I walked out of the theater (and am a particular fan of “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream”). The dance sequences are also phenomenal, from the Fame style jaunt in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam that opens the film to a gorgeous tap-dancing sequence that hearkens to Gene Kelley and a dreamy flight through the Griffith observatory that is its own wondrous creation.

Thankfully, Chazelle’s dialogue is every bit as masterful as the songs. The writing throughout is funny, relatable and emotionally resonant. But what really takes the film to another level is the performances. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are no Astaire and Rodgers, and that’s what makes them so good. Their dancing is charming, their singing voices more than adequate. But, two struggling artists shouldn’t be masterful performers; it makes more sense that the characters would be rougher around the edges. To keep them from perfection is to keep them relatable (though still impossibly gorgeous).

That’s not to discount the marvelous work by the two leads. This is Stone’s best-ever role, proving once again her talent for giving nakedly emotional and absorbing performances. I’m a big Gosling fan, and this role shows off both his comedic and dramatic talents expertly. Despite the film’s flashy style, I never felt like I was watching “movie stars” on screen.  I felt like I was watching Mia and Sebastian. These roles feel lived-in, and that extends to the supporting cast (including a surprisingly excellent John Legend).

La La Land’s ending is not exactly a happy one, but it feels authentic, just like the rest of the film. There’s not a false note in sight. It is in many ways a simple film, but it’s not simplistic. It has a lot to say about the importance of holding onto dreams, and even conveys the welcome message that being traditional and old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. Some may call La La Land itself old-fashioned. If that’s the case, then I say it’s hip to be square.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

From its opening moments, it’s clear that Rogue One is going to be a different kind of Star Wars movie than what we’ve seen before. It’s a risky move from Lucasfilm: create a non-numbered film in the beloved sci-fi universe (sans opening story scroll), a prequel of sorts that attempts to answer one of the biggest questions from the 1977 original. How did the Rebel Alliance obtain the plans to the Imperial Death Star, the ones that Princess Leia hands off to R2-D2 and which eventually prompt Luke Skywalker to initiate the most famous explosion in movie history?

It’s a question worth asking, and a story worth exploring. However, it’s still easy to believe that Rogue One may be more of a cynical cash grab from Disney, who now owns Lucasfilm— a desperate attempt to wring more money out of a famous franchise. I am very happy to report that such concerns can be safely put to bed, because Rogue One is a lovingly crafted and thrilling tale, and one that fans of the franchise will almost certainly dig.

The film opens with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as a young girl, watching her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) get carted off by the Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to assist in building a super-weapon that will turn the tide in the war between the Imperial Army and the Rebel Alliance. Jyn, however, successfully hides, and is rescued and trained by resistance leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

When we next see Jyn, it is 15 years later, and she is “rescued” from an Imperial prison transport by resistance fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by a quip-filled Alan Tudyk. Why does the resistance want Jyn? Because her father has been the principal mastermind behind the construction of the Death Star, and she may be the only one who can convince Gererra to help track him down and extract the location of the Death Star plans. To complicate matters, Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has shown up, claiming to have a message straight from Galen regarding the Death Star plans.

Soon, Jyn is whisked away on a planet-spanning adventure to snatch the Death Star plans and save her father, if indeed he can be saved. Along the way, the resistance picks up some additional ragtag fighters, including the mysterious blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heat-packing protector, Baze (Wen Jiang). But time is running short: the Death Star has already tested its formidable destructive capabilities, and the shadowy presence of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) looms. Can they successfully storm the Imperial stronghold, steal the plans and turn the tide of battle once again?

We already know the answer to that question, and therein lies the tricky balance of a tale like this one. Can a story whose conclusion is forgone still manage to surprise us? Perhaps the biggest success of the film is that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy so successfully make this story feel essential. This isn’t just a paint-by-numbers, fill-in-the-gaps mid-quel. It deepened my appreciation of the original, and even fills in a major plot hole and long-time complaint that could be leveled at it. Why the heck would the Imperial Army build the Death Star with such a small but fatal flaw? By films end, that head-scratcher is given a very satisfying answer.

Rogue One is a thrilling adventure, and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.

Story-wise, Rogue One is a success, but what about all these new characters? For the most part, they’re welcome additions. I felt more emotionally connected to the characters here than I did watching The Force Awakens. Jyn’s love for her father is a particularly strong motivator, and the camaraderie the resistance fighters share is palpable. The heart of Star Wars has always been its characters, and this one is beating and alive. I particularly liked K-2SO, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings, and Chirrut, who is just a straight-up bad-ass, and has a connection with the force unlike any we’ve seen in this universe so far.

But, when I start to dwell on particular characters, I begin to recognize my biggest complaint with the film. There are lots of new characters introduced here, and it’s understandable that not all of them would get fully satisfying arcs. But why did the best characters have to get the short end of the stick? I was glad to see the amazing Yen get such a major role, and his character’s relationship with Baze is affecting. But his motivations are vague and, although he’s meant to be mysterious, I felt like I didn’t get to know him well enough to have a major connection with him. He’s mostly there to look cool, and come along on the adventure because…he has nothing better to do? Or look at Saw Gerrera; a major role played by an A-list actor, and yet he’s sadly under-utilized. I wish some of these other characters had been given the same care and attention as the Ersos or Cassian.

The film also suffers from poor pacing in its first third. Characters are introduced haphazardly, and scenes cut back and forth chaotically. It’s a bit hard to follow at first. But man, does Rogue One ever get going once it hits its stride. Krennic is a great addition to Star Wars villainy, a sniveling ass-kisser with a lust for power and a persecution complex. He’s just unhinged enough to be menacing, but even he cowers in front of Darth Vader, which fans we be thrilled to see return to the screen. The legendary Sith Lord’s screen time is brief, but you feel every moment. His character is brilliantly utilized, with just enough fan service to satisfy without overdoing it.

Rogue One is often filmed closer to a gritty war film that a traditional Star Wars movie; the bright colors of The Force Awakens are almost nowhere to be found. We instead get lots of handheld footage, some shaky cam and lots of muted colors. This is the right design for the divergent tone of the film, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography, along with the stellar production design, go a long way towards selling the film. The action scenes are sensational, sure, but I’m more impressed with how much it looks like A New Hope. From the costumes, to the way the X-Wings and Star Destroyers fly to the design of the Death Star, every frame is crafted like a work of art. This is a gorgeous film, and one I highly recommend seeing in Imax 3-D.

There’s just something about the joy of being in the Star Wars universe that Rogue One gets, and that is perhaps its greatest triumph. We get to see tons of new planets during the film’s run time, and several interesting and original creatures. I’ve always loved the backgrounds of Star Wars films, filled with characters and stories we will probably never know. There’s so much mystery and creativity to it, the kind that spans hundreds of novels, video games and TV shows to attempt to fill in some of the gaps. It’s the most lived-in universe in all of cinema, and Rouge One invites us into that space and doesn’t let go.

Rogue One is not the most polished of Star Wars films. In fact, elements of it can be downright frustrating. But man, is this one cool movie, and during the sensational climax and pitch-perfect ending, I felt my complaints melting away. This is a must-see for franchise fans, and one I’ll be happy to include in my Star Wars marathon rotation for years to come.

Arrival review

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The best science fiction films are about so much more than their subject matter. They probe deeper, asking complex questions about what it means to be human, about what unites us and divides us, about the role (and limitations) of science in advancing humankind. Aliens, like zombies, are not really that interesting apart from their metaphorical trappings.

Smart sci-fi understands this. And Arrival is certainly that. In fact, it’s brilliant; a haunting and somber meditation on grief, love and the primal bonds that unite us. It’s also one of the most original sci-fi films in years.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by Col. Webber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. The mysterious visitors have just arrived in a large, black oblong pod over a field in Montana, and 11 others have interspersed across the globe in places like Russia, Australia and China. This arrival predictably causes a global panic; mass looting and plummeting stocks soon follow. Could this be the end of the world?

Dr. Banks is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner) to enter the local pod, which opens every 18 hours, and attempt to communicate with the tentacled creatures inside. What follows are weeks of visits with the creatures, as the team attempts to decipher a visual language that can best be described as a series of inky circles. The hope is to eventually understand the answer to the question, “why are they here?”

But language is a subtle thing, and fear does not invite subtlety or compromise. It’s not long before the various nations collaborating on communicating with their pods begin to get anxious. Why take chances with these guys? Are we simply standing by for our own destruction? What are these visitors waiting for, and why won’t they leave?

In the vein of The Martian and other recent films in the genre, Arrival stands out by making the science more important than the fiction. Dr. Banks’ linguistic process is intensely systematic and exhaustive. Much of the film consists of characters poring over notes, drawing and having complex conversations about the nature of communication. It’s all a bit heavy, and in less deft hands could come off as a bit dull. But writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) turn the film into a complex jigsaw puzzle, with individual scenes that slowly piece together into a larger whole. It’s a slow but intoxicating burn.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

The film might also fall apart if it didn’t give us cool creatures or environments. But the alien pod is a visual marvel, as are the creatures themselves (referred to as septapods). Separated from the humans by a barrier, they’re often cloaked in a mysterious mist, and the fact that we can’t quite make out their full forms leads to a constant sense of unease and suspense. They eventually become their own characters, with nicknames and highly intelligent ways of processing information. These are not just your average vague CGI space creatures. I also want to praise the sparse but effective sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score; they give the film a great deal of punch it may have otherwise lacked.

Descriptions of Arrival may come off as cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is incredibly emotional and achingly human, and that’s mostly thanks to Adams’ performance, the best of her career. She portrays Dr. Banks as both highly intelligent and a bit of an emotional wild card, someone who has an intimate connection with the septapods to the point where she can almost think like them. She feels deeply, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. As with Emily Blunt in Sicario, Villeneuve has a knack for drawing sensational performances from strong leading ladies, and that strength is used to grand effect here.

It’s tough to write about the film without giving away what makes it special. There is a twist, one that I was surprised I didn’t guess. Perhaps wiser film-goers will find in highly telegraphed, but I’m still thinking about the ramifications of it and what I would do if I was in a similar situation. It’s devastating and, at the same time, quite powerful.  It’s up to individuals to decide if the film does enough to solve its grand mystery in a satisfying fashion. There’s a fine line between leaving us guessing in a good way and simply not giving us enough information to be emotionally satisfied, but I think it strikes the perfect balance.

The ultimate question of all great art is, “what makes us human?” Sci-fi is uniquely positioned to meditate on that, because it often includes a non-human entity to contrast. Arrival is no different, but it goes about the question through a lens I haven’t quite seen before.

Arrival’s subtleties and minimalist design may not satisfy everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately goes down as a genre classic. In the realm of alien invasion flicks, it should certainly be mentioned alongside the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It’s a film that will inspire conversation, and it’s one I will be thinking about for some time.

Doctor Strange review

Is this really happening? Am I really reviewing a Doctor Strange movie right now? Ten years ago, the idea of such a thing would have seemed a distant dream to comic book fans. But therein lies the insane genius of Marvel Studios. Everyone could have probably predicted an Avengers film at some point. But Guardians of the Galaxy? Ant Man? Doctor Strange? Fans of geek comic lore might bite, but your average filmgoer would raise an eyebrow and move on. Except that’s not what happened. Time and again, the comic giant has spun gold out of increasingly outlandish and obscure franchises. And Doctor Strange might be its wildest yet. Whatever the conditions that birthed the film, fans should be grateful: this is one of the trippiest and coolest Marvel films to date.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a wildly successful (and wildly narcissistic) neurosurgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. After burning through his money seeking increasingly exotic treatments and alienating his it’s-complicated lover Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange hears whispers of a mystical society called Kamar-Taj in Nepal. With nothing left to lose, he ventures afar in search of healing.

But Strange gets much more than he bargained for, and is quickly introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being trained in the magic arts. He is taken under the tutelage of sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who helps him discover realities far beyond any his highly scientific and rational mind has previously thought possible. The Astral Plane, multiple dimensions and the ability to travel through space and control time. Together, this secret society of mystics helps protect Earth from an ancient and all-consuming evil. Of course, a former disciple (who else?) of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), thinks that this being is actually benevolent, and so he sets out to destroy the magic shield protecting the world and bring it into harmony with other already devoured universes.

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Doctor Strange is a visual stunner, and takes the Marvel universe to some trippy new places.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and it would be very easy for a film like this to get bogged down in exposition or extraneous details. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill do a great job of keeping things moving smoothly. They also run with this material, really milking the creative potential of this downright, well…strange material. This comes across in the film’s humor (which, like other Marvel films, is gentle but still elicits belly laughs) and in its characters, which are memorable and creative. There wasn’t a major character I didn’t enjoy, or one who felt extraneous to the story or shoehorned in. Even the villain, who isn’t written particularly interesting, gets a pass thanks to the amazing Mikkelsen, who can do no wrong in my book. The film also seems to take lessons from past Marvel films in avoiding overt connections to the extended universe that often take us out of the story being told.

Of course, the main draw of the film is its visuals, and they are beyond spectacular. This is honestly one of the coolest looking films I’ve seen, and certainly the most visually engaging in the Marvel canon. The special effects work is simply second-to-none, and it gets my vote as the most creative since, probably, Inception. That is remarkably high praise, but when you see entire buildings torn apart and put back together, trippy 2001-esque voyages through space and action sequences that play with fast-forwarded, reversed and paused time, it may be hard to argue otherwise. Everyone who worked on the visual effects here deserve the highest praise (and an Oscar), and the film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

In other ways, Doctor Strange is less creative. This is, in the end, another superhero origin story, and it doesn’t do anything particularly new with that arc. It very much feels like Iron Man, but with magic and sorcery instead of technology. Like Tony Stark, Strange goes through a redemptive character transformation, but it’s not on the same level emotionally as Stark’s was. Maybe we’ve seen this kind of story too much, or maybe Robert Downy Jr. is simply that good of an actor; he’s set the bar impossibly high even for a performer as all-around excellent as Cumberbatch. The film also fizzles a bit at the end, perhaps feeling a bit winded after throwing so much incredible stuff at us.

I’m certainly grateful that we’ve come to a place where a movie like Doctor Strange can not only actually get made, but earn a boatload of money and critical praise (yes, there was a Strange film in 1978; let us not speak of it again). The film takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to some psychedelic and exciting new places. Now that we have heroes in heaven, outer space, the quantum realm and the astral plane, where do we have left to go? I don’t know, but if we keep getting films this creative and fun, I’m along for the very strange ride.

Hacksaw Ridge review

Hacksaw Ridge opens with a striking sequence. We hear the end of Isaiah chapter 40 recited over brutal images of war. We hear about God giving strength to the weary and allowing those who call on him to soar on wings like eagles. At the same time, we see charred and battered bodies flying through the air as they’re torn apart by the ruthlessly efficient weapons of war.

It’s a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure, but one director Mel Gibson knows well. The Passion of the Christ director has always been fascinated by religion and violence, and these motifs pushed to their limits in a film that bleeds passion from every pore. It has been 10 years since Gibson last directed a film, and by all accounts, Hacksaw Ridge was worth the wait.

The voice over we hear in the beginning belongs to that of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, giving the best performance of his career), a true-life WWII soldier who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for courage on the battlefield (he saved more than 75 men as a combat medic). Those don’t seem like terms that naturally go together, but Doss’ life was a true example of living what you believe and sticking to your principles, no matter the cost.

We first see Doss’ aversion to violence as a child after he settles a scruff with his brother by whacking him in the head with a brick. Realizing his brother was nearly killed, Doss vows right then to honor God’s sixth commandment never to murder.

The film is essentially split into two halves, and the first deals with Doss’ relationship with his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of WWI, and mother (Rachel Griffiths), as well as his courting of nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and after learning his brother has signed up), Desmond decided he must enlist for his country. But there are two inviolable conditions: he will never touch a gun, and he will not serve on a Saturday (as a Seventh Day Adventist, Saturday is his Sabbath). He will instead save lives as a combat medic.

Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.

Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.

Doss’ unwavering commitment to his pacifist principles obviously don’t sit well with his fellow soldiers. He draws the particular ire of Smitty (Luke Bracey), who sees him as a coward. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) attempt to get Doss to leave voluntarily and, when that fails, Court Martial him (“You are aware quite a bit of killing goes on in war?” Glover asks Doss). But Doss does not back down from either his principles or commitment to serve honorably.

The film’s second half chronicles the battle of Okinawa and the U.S. military’s attempt to take it by securing Hacksaw Ridge. Here, we’re rather jarringly re-introduced to Gibson’s penchant for incredibly gory violence. Okinawa was true hell, one of the most violent conflicts of the war, and the depiction here pulls no punches. It is here we see the manifestation of a question Capt. Glover asks Doss earlier in the film: how can you stick to your principles when the only way to ensure your continued freedom to practice them is to kill those who are putting them under siege?

The battle sequences are truly horrifying, but they’re also some of the best ever put to screen. Gibson knows a thing or two about large-scale epic conflicts, and the chaos of battle is almost beautiful in its brutality. These sequences are bolstered by Simon Duggan’s crisp cinematography and Barry Robinson’s gritty production design. But make no mistake: the imagery here is particularly graphic; those with weak stomachs may want to sit it out.

Amid the insanity of war, it’s downright refreshing to see a man who “wants to put a little piece of [the world] back together again,” in Doss’s own words. His heroics are truly inspiring, but what raises the film to a higher level is the way it treats Doss’ commitment to his faith. Screenwriter Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkann do a bang up job of balancing the need to tell the full story of Doss’ devotion to God without getting preachy. But Gibson’s direction sometimes tips the film’s hand; he’s never been much for subtlety, and there are a few scenes that feel a bit overbearing in their religious imagery.

But, even in its most bombastic moments, Hacksaw Ridge is never anything less than riveting cinema. It’s a war film with a true conscience, made by a true craftsman. It’s inspirational without trying too hard. And, most importantly, it’s a passionate Christian work of art, the kind that we’ve been praying for. People don’t need a theatrical Sunday sermon; they need examples of men and women who served their God and their fellow man with unwavering devotion, humility and courage. This is about the finest example of that rare kind of life I can imagine.

The Birth of a Nation review

The Birth of a Nation is not a subtle film. That should be obvious from its title, which is cribbed directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic (and incredibly racist) epic, which helped revitalize the Klu Klux Klan by painting them as the heroes, saving vulnerable women from the nefarious and lecherous blacks. More than 100 years later, and a decade in the making, Nate Parker’s breakout hit is about as much a rebuke of that narrative as a film can be.

Parker himself plays Nat Turner, the real-life slave and preacher in Southampton County Virginia who, fed up with white cruelty and oppression, led a small but violent rebellion against white slaveholders in 1831. His posse killed more than 60 people, and in retaliation slaveholders killed hundreds of slaves and hanged Turner in a very public execution in the hopes of preventing further insurrection.

Nation will probably draw lots of comparisons to the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, but the films are actually quite different. Steve McQueen told his slave story through a detached, historical, almost cold lens, but Parker’s vision is filled with barely suppressed seething rage, rage which boils over by film’s end. It’s a slow, vicious, unnerving burn, closer at times in tone to Tarantino’s Django Unchained than McQueen’s somber, stoic masterwork.

The other major distinction here is that Parker is not the polished storyteller that McQueen or John Ridley (screenwriter on 12 Years) are. This is Parker’s directorial and writing debut, and in many ways it shows. The first half or so of the film contains awkward pacing and distracting visual flourishes. This segment features flashbacks to Parker’s childhood before running ahead to his adult life. He lives at a plantation under the gentle ownership of Samuel Turner (an almost unrecognizable Armie Hammer, who does great work here). Turner lives with his mother and grandmother, and seems to be eking out a respectable existence as a slave (as much as can be expected, anyways). But he soon sees that not all slave owners are as magnanimous when he sees the damaged Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being put up for auction to a crowd of lecherous whites. He convinces Samuel to buy her as a present to his newly married sister, and soon a romance blossoms and Cherry and Nat are married.

The Birth of a Nation is an important film that asks its audience to stare blankly at the horrors of slavery while wrestling with some uncomfortable questions.

The Birth of a Nation is an important film that asks its audience to stare blankly at the horrors of slavery while wrestling with some uncomfortable questions.

But it’s not long before Turner, a man of deep abiding Christian faith, begins to make waves as a biblically literate and passionate preacher. He is soon asked to travel with Samuel to preach at plantations across the county. He soon realizes, however, that it’s not God’s love the slave owners want preached, but obedience to their masters. Their slaves are lazy and weak, they say, and they need some “divine encouragement” to keep them in line. Turner dutifully follows the rules, but, as he begins to witness the horrors at these neighboring plantations, his preaching begins to change. He reads his Bible and sees that, for every verse used to condone slavery, there’s at least another crying for freedom for all men. So he begins to preach grace and freedom in Christ, and this is something many folks, least of all Samuel, don’t like one bit.

The film is an undeniably Christian work, the most explicit mainstream film about faith since, probably, The Passion of the Christ. The script is absolutely saturated in scripture as Turner preaches and explores the line between God’s mercy and his judgment. This lends the film a great deal of emotional sincerity, and reveals a hard and fast condemnation of any man who would use God’s word to oppress and demean. Parker’s passion shines through here, and there is a ton of great conversation material here for both believer and non-believer alike.

Of course, all this material is building to something, and the set piece moment is the revolt itself. This is a tough film to chew on, filled with brutality and murky moral messages, and that uncomfortable conflict is driven home in the bloody finale. By most standards, it’s hard to say that Turner did the right thing. He killed people. Did God really condone his violence, as he was so convinced? I don’t have an answer to that question, and admitting that is somewhat terrifying. I’d like to retort that the Lord says vengeance is his and his alone. But, then again, I’ve never been a slave. How long can one hold onto that promise, knowing that he’ll likely never be free and never see the men who treated him so cruelly punished? Never has a film confronted me with such uncomfortable, but essential, questions.

That, I believe, is the theme of the film as a whole. Uncomfortable, but essential. Despite its pacing problems and occasional bombast, this is a ferocious, overwhelming and unsettling experience. Its dizzying cinematography creates an unpredictable rhythm, and Henry Jackman’s extraordinary score wisely contrasts somber spirituals with relentless African drumbeats. Turner’s intent is to take the horrid violence of slavery and shove our faces in it, forcing us to look upon it in all its horror.

Is The Birth of a Nation ultimately a stirring work of art or an awful, insensitive racial tirade? Is its ultimate message inspirational or intensely problematic? Can a film perhaps occupy so many polarities at once and still come out as a successful product? I can’t answer these questions, but I strongly encourage you to check out this remarkable film and decide for yourself.