Dunkirk (2017)

Review Date: 1/117/2018

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

A terse, tightly woven narrative of one of the most astounding military operations in recent history, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk focuses on the human side of war in a pleasing, if anticlimactic, narrative.

Full Review:

Let's just say it right off the bat - Dunkirk is not your typical war movie. Set during the harrowing retreat of British and French forces in their desperate bid to escape the Nazi war machine, Dunkirk focuses on three distinct yet interwoven stories of the survivors of the miracle that was the Dunkirk operation. Christopher Nolan, perhaps at the height of his powers as a filmmaker, manages to ably juggle between these narratives to keep the action coming and the tension turned up to 11. 

For those of you not in the know, a brief history lesson. In the early days of World War Two the Nazis are masters of Europe. After a stunning series of defeats the British Expeditionary Force and what remains of the French army have been chased to the sea and the noose is tightening. Approximately 400,000 British and French forces have literally been forced into the sea, almost within sight of the refuge of the island of Britain, and are left to be fish in a barrel to be systematically picked off by the Stukka dive bombers. Then, in one of those twists of fate that are so unrealistic that they must be true, the Germans halt their advance. In an act of pure desperation the British scramble their civilian fleet of yachts, fishing craft and other unarmed, non-military boats and head for France. Over the course of a few days more than 300,000 British and French forces are ferried to the relative safety of England. Battered and beaten, they remain alive to fight another day. 

And this is the tale that Nolan has set out to tell, in three parts - one week on the beaches, one day at sea, and one hour in the air. For those familiar with Nolan's prior films such as Memento, Interstellar and Inception, his fascination with time emerges here too. Indeed seeing where and when these story lines intersect is mesmerizing and in the hands of another director it would be nowhere near as effective - if they even attempted it at all which is doubtful. Nolan's other directorial decisions are likewise unique and yet textbook Nolan. The film is quiet and bleak, rationing out the action sparingly yet to great effect. Nolan also appears fascinated with the concept of violence, showing the impact it has on those suffering it rather than reveling in the glory of combat. Apart from the German aircraft the enemy is entirely unseen, apart from the staccato violence they inflict upon the harried British and French forces. 

Unfortunately what keeps this film from being truly great is that which is truly missing here - character. For all his focus on the human toll of war Nolan spends effectively no time developing his characters. The time on the beach is spent with a pair of soldiers desperately trying to escape the carnage of the beach. For all they go through the two of them barely speak. While this allows for a surprising revelation when aboard a stranded fishing boat it does not allow the audience to fully embody their experience, rendering them empty vessels for us to insert ourselves. However, while this technique works to great effect in video game story telling such as Halo, we find ourselves lacking someone to root for. And the stoic determination of the officers trying to organize the loading of their troops onto the beach presents us only with the classic stiff upper lip stereotype Americans have for the Brits. Zooming in to the day at sea, we find ourselves with a man and two boys piloting a pleasure yacht. While there is more character development here it too is lacking. Lastly, Tom Hardy's hour in the air provides the majority of combat you can expect to find in the film. While it represents what is undoubtedly the most exciting parts of the film the realism of airborne radio communication renders it difficult to follow. Sadly, here Nolan has once again relegated an actor of Hardy's quality to hiding behind a mask. 

So what are we left with at the end of the day? I found myself wondering that as well. The musical score evokes constant tension akin to a knife slowly descending upon its intended victim, much like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. I felt myself emotionally drained from the constant tension evoked here which I suppose was the intended effect. However, despite the miraculous rescue that eventually unfolds Nolan does not repay the audience with any kind of catharsis. While I applaud the choice to have a common soldier read a newspaper printing of Churchill's famous speech the next day the result was that we no longer felt inspired the way that England truly was upon hearing it. 

In conclusion, Dunkirk delivers drama and tension in spades, but lacks the emotional charge a story of this nature deserves. As the film's own marketing can attest, sometimes survival is its own kind of victory. The battle is lost (or won), but the war is far from over. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Review Date: 7/17/2017

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

Marvel's prodigal son has come home (hehe) and though it failed to live up to my hopes, Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers the best version of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to-date, if not the best movie staring the lovable wall crawler. 

Full Review:

This movie had a lot to live up to, which is always a dangerous prospect in film-making. Spider-Man is such a bankable franchise, and Peter Parker is such a beloved character, that walking the fine line between satisfying fans and satisfying studio execs can take its tole on the final product. The results are almost never as pretty as the projects that were given the creative freedom to make the movie they wanted to make. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming (more on the name in a minute) had an added layer of complexity given the legal acrobatics required to birth this particular movie. And given all that, I have to say the end result is pretty impressive. 

See, after Sam Raimi absolutely stuck the landing on the first two incarnations of the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man installments, his bloated, confusing and tonally incoherent Spider-Man 3 was so disastrous that they cut short the franchise. Not to miss out on the upswing of the super-hero blockbuster genre which they helped create, Sony quickly rebooted the franchise, taking a new direction with Andrew Garfield's decidedly mediocre two turns in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 and 2014. Nothing against Garfield, but his movies were unnecessarily burdened with trying to force a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe to compete with Marvel's MCU and DC's DCU, not to mention Fox's X-Men franchise, the Star Wars Cinematic Universe... the list goes on but you get my point - interconnected cinematic universes are the new it thing in Hollywood and everyone wants to suckle at the teet.

Unfortunately for Garfield, but fortunately for the fans, Sony read the writing on the wall and canceled further installments in its short-lived Spider-verse. After years of back-room dealings which are themselves worthy of a movie adaptation, Sony and Marvel (Disney) finally came to an accord the likes of which I wish I had been able to study while in Business School. So far as I understand it, Spider-Man has officially joined the MCU, and his adventures are officially canon. Marvel will retain full creative control of "MCU-Spidey", but the profits from all standalone MCU Spider-Man movies (such as 2017's Homecoming - now do you see where they got the name?) will belong to Sony, who has retained the actual movie rights to Spider-Man. Marvel still benefits because they: 1) retain all merchandising rights to Spider-Man, which always pays off when there are good, successful films out in circulation; and 2) they regain creative use of their most popular character to help energize the tiring MCU and (probably) carry the torch forward in a post-Iron Man, post-Captain America Phase 4.

The implications make my head spin just thinking about it, but that's not what this blog is supposed to be about, so suffice it to say this movie had a lot riding on it. And the result of this previously inconceivable marriage of multi-billion dollar rival power houses? Actually they managed to turn out a pretty decent movie. What a brave new world we live in!

Homecoming is a decidedly solid super hero movie. Though not as good as 2004's Spider-Man 2Homecoming manages to deliver a solid standalone film that is undeniably tied into both a larger Spider-Man narrative arc as well as a tangible part of the greater MCU. Having established the prior existence of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil WarHomecoming was blissfully unburdened by re-telling Spider-Man's origin story. Unlike DC, who seemingly cannot help but show us the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne in every single one of Batman's cinematic appearances, Homecoming assumes you know the story beats. Spider bite, dead uncle Ben, great power, we get it. And fortunately for us, they acknowledged that we do get it. 

So despite it not being an origin story, we are also painfully aware of Spider-Man still being a mostly unestablished character as far as the greater MCU is concerned. It appears that there is a degree of notoriety that the wall-crawler is getting, but he still a street-level hero (sometimes literally) and I would go so far as to say he's really only a half-step up from the entirely unacknowledged Daredevil (and company) stranded in Netflix purgatory. The Peter Parker / Spider-Man we are presented with is insanely young (15-16) and firmly in high school. It is my great hope that we will eventually get a Spider-Man who is actually, you know, a man, but that remains years away. For now, Peter is shown to be a literal Avengers fan boy, who so earnestly wants to join the ranks of his school's PSA heroes that he spends most of the movie whining about it. 

This is where I'll bring up discussion of actor Tom Holland. So far as I'm concerned, the young actor manages to provide us with our best-ever iteration of Peter Parker. While Maguire was applauded for his portrayal of Peter he always struck me as too quiet and too low energy. By contrast, Holland's Parker is a high-energy, earnest, likable kid. He's insanely smart, but not implausibly so - the kind of smart where you believe he can develop his own web shooters and web fluid but not so smart where he's building Iron Man armor on his own. True to form, he's also a "high school loser", but again it is grounded more in reality than comic-book camp. Parker isn't being stuffed into lockers but rather he's simply ignored. He's the kind of kid who fades into the background as so many kids do in high school.

And this is a great contribution to his character. Holland's Peter Parker desperately wants to matter, and he recognizes that leading his academic decathlon team to greatness isn't going to get him there, but being an Avenger, standing shoulder to shoulder with Earth's Mightiest Heroes (of which he undeniably is one based on his power set alone) seems like a great way to get there - and hence his inner struggle. And remember, what separates great characters from merely good ones is that great characters have (believable) internal struggles and do not merely react to external ones in interesting ways.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Spider-Man knows that he's defined by his struggle with being both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. He's the hero that saves the world at the expense of getting the girl, and most of his greatest stories deal with his struggle to balance the competing responsibilities of his dual identities. Its clear that Homecoming's writers understood this, and delivered it in an organic-enough way that we instantly recognized an authentically Spider-Man struggle without it feeling forced.

What helps too is that most of the characters in this movie are also believable. Aunt May is played by Marissa Tomei, someone of an appropriate age to be the aunt of a 15 year old, and a terrific actress who I hope gets more screen time in the next installment. Parker's classmates are believable kids who feel like real, authentic high schoolers. It helps that they're played by actors in their late teens to early 20s and not 30 year olds, but that's a digression.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Michael Keaton plays a believable bad guy. He's no evil mastermind bent on world domination, but a down on his luck working class man who turned to a life science-fiction crime in order to make ends meat. It's this relate-able bad guy that adds so much to the movie, and casting Keaton was an added bonus. Like his equipment, Keaton's turn as The Vulture is larger than life, but only slightly, ("I thought this was the anti-gravity gun") and he truly seems like a dark mirror to Holland's working class super hero. 

Given the length of this review, I'll cut it short here. Afterall, the action is what you would expect from an MCU entry, the music is fine though un-remarkable, and the direction is effectively invisible. Marvel's getting really good at its assembly-line production of MCU movies these days, and in the end, Homecoming is no exception. The end result was a fresh look at the eventual future of the MCU. I look forward to what new heights Spider-Man may eventually reach. 

Wonder Woman (2017)

Review Date: 7/9/2017

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

With fine directing, good acting and decent action set pieces, Wonder Woman is undeniably a solid (though far from perfect) superhero movie. Oddly enough, perhaps the most interesting, and entertaining, aspects of this movie took place behind the scenes. 

Full Review:

I'm of two minds when it comes to the much talked about 2017 iteration of Wonder Woman. When viewed in isolation, simply as the 141-minute summer blockbuster that is the latest installment in the DC Cinematic Universe, I liked it. I didn't love it, and I'll get to why in a minute, but I thought it was a well executed, if somewhat by-the-numbers, tight story about the origins of Princess Diana of  Themyscira, the Amazonian warrior who is the most over-looked third leg of DC's Big Three superheroes.

Where I get bogged down with this movie is the hype machine surrounding it. In today's media-saturated world, it is oftentimes difficult to separate the movie from the marketing, and the marketing from the social reaction to it. And my big problem with Wonder Woman is that I don't buy into the marketing. 

See, Wonder Woman is supposed to be the first blockbuster starring a female super hero as the lead role and central protagonist. Furthermore, it was supposed to be a big deal that the much younger DC Cinematic Universe beat Marvel's MCU to the punch despite them having Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow character appear in like 5 or 6 movies at this point. And when viewed solely in isolation to the DC/Marvel movies that narrative holds, but even then only if you caveat the crap out of making that claim. 

See, by my casual perusal of recent action movies I've seen I count two Johansson movies (Lucy and the extremely controversial Ghost in the Shell ), the absolutely terrible Electra (a Marvel superhero movie, albeit released before the modern MCU was born), and the even worse Catwoman movie from 2004 staring Halle Berry (a DC super villain that predates the modern DCU). That's 4 movies in the last ~15 years that star female leads/protagonists with super powers of some form.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that this means there isn't still a gender gap in Hollywood. Indeed, I think we need more movies featuring strong female protagonists and I cannot believe that Marvel hasn't given us a standalone Black Widow or Captain Marvel movie yet. Its just that the argument for Wonder Woman's significance as per the marketing machine is already predicated on a falsehood. And it doesn't need to be! While not spectacular, it's still a good movie and one that is capable of standing on its own without attaching a false sense of significance to it which is only a distraction from the end product. And lest I get too far over my skis, let's shift gears to talk about that end product. 

Wonder Woman's narrative arc was generally well done. As an origin story it understandably takes a while to really get going, but the writing is executed well enough that the movie never really drags. The third act is a bit of a mess, but I'll get to that in a moment. Suffice it to say, this movie doesn't make you feel like its as long as it is, which is a victory in my book.

Having been introduced in a prior movie, I was a bit nervous about what Gal Gadot would bring to the table, with her portrayal of Diana Prince being so cold. I needn't have worried however, as Gadot convincingly sells both the strong warrior and imposing physicality required of the super heroine she is embodying, as well as the comedic fish out of water, stranger in a strange land alter ego of Diana Prince in 1918. Without getting too sidetracked, the wardrobe scene was particularly funny and well done by all those involved, and Gadot's chemistry with supporting player Chris Pine on the boat ride to Man's World was also pretty damn great. 

Though she mostly played it safe, director Patty Jenkins does an excellent job in two particular aspects of crafting this movie. First, her use of color was an artistic master stroke. The DCU, with Zack Snyder at the helm, has an unbearably bleak look to it. Every movie is desaturated, and marked by blacks, grays and blues. When Wonder Woman appeared in the bloated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice you couldn't even tell that her costume was red and blue, and it appeared to be a muddy brown mess. In Wonder Woman Diana absolutely shines. Her idyllic home of Themyscira is portrayed as vibrant and green, and it is only when we transition to World War One era London and France that the DCU color pallet comes into play. And even still, when Diana steps over the top into no-man's-land (side-note: I think they chose WWI just for that symbolism), fully assuming her mantle as a hero and leading the charge, she is literally a shining beacon of hope to the troops, with the vibrant colors on her costume standing out against her surroundings. 

Jenkins' other excellent directorial decision was in the fight choreography. Ever since Jason Bourne introduced us to the shaky cam, movie fight scenes have become a mess. Don't believe me? Go back and watch Christian Bale's fight scenes and tell me you have any idea what's going on. Seriously, apart from getting his ass handed to him by Bane I'm not sure if Batman was even in those scenes. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, gives us much more fluid camera work, which is held far enough away from the action for us to tell just how much ass she's kicking. And it's a lot. And the song, oh man the song! While we were first introduced to the electric cello wailing theme in BvS:DoJ, it is used to great effect in this movie as well. Seriously, that's one badass musical accompaniment and Jenkins holds it back until the absolute perfect moment before letting loose with an elemental fury. I need this song on an endless repeat for the next time I hit the gym. 

Dramatically, however, the film starts to break down when it heads into its final stretch. See, a super hero movie is only as good as its villain, and Wonder Woman's villain Ares, the god of war, is seriously lacking. Usually in writing these reviews I try to avoid outright spoilers, but in this case its unavoidable so if you haven't seen the movie, skip the rest of this paragraph. I'm flabbergasted that they chose to make Ares the villain, and the one behind World War One. I seriously thought that they were going to have the big twist be that Ares had no part in the war, but his ultimate reveal was seriously dissatisfying for two reasons. First, it makes no logical sense for Ares to be behind WWI and his death to be the reason the war ends given the historical context of the far deadlier and more destructive WWII taking place a few decades later. I mean are we saying Ares actually survived and started an even bigger war? If not then man really is a violent beast that may be beyond saving. And if that's the case then don't punt that discussion to a probably never going to happen Wonder Woman in WWII movie. Let Diana deal with that in the movie you've made. Second by downplaying Diana's struggle with whether or not Man's World is worth saving, we sacrifice character arc and self-determination for a very by the numbers big badguy brawl. And don't even get me started on the bombshell of a revelation that only a god can kill another god. Does that mean that, since Diana is herself a god, she can't be killed by anyone like Superman or any of the threats looming in the larger DCU? See, movies have a terrible time with power scaling and the repercussions of the building blocks of the world they create, and this is a ticking time bomb that will either be explained away via some hand-wavy bullshit, or else never discussed again, leaving me to yell at the screen for years to come. Either way its lazy writing.

So to conclude this review, while Wonder Woman is neither the magic first of its kind harbinger of a newly enlightened and pro-feminist era in cinema, nor is it the best movie you will see this summer, it remains a solid standalone movie well worth your time. At the end of the day it's all about entertainment and this movie thoroughly accomplished that. 

Baywatch (2017)

Review Date: 6/1/2017

Rating: 2/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

While poor acting, pacing and plot render it deserving of its mostly negative reaction from other critics, ultimately Baywatch is most disappointing because it very clearly dropped the ball on the kernel of a great idea.

Full Review:

I'm going to level with you right off the bat - this was a bad movie. It wasn't Hindenburg bad, but it certainly, unequivocally, was a bad movie. And unfortunately it wasn't so-bad-its-good either. I'm all in favor of the occasional shitty movie that you can hate watch or even the rare, as my father would say, something stupid you can "turn your brain off to". Unfortunately, Baywatch was neither of those things. Instead, Baywatch was a movie that begged you not to take it seriously the same way that your kid sibling sticks their hand an inch away from your face and says "I'm not touching you"! It may be factually accurate, but it's also absolutely insincere. No, Baywatch seriously tried seriously hard not to be taken seriously.

And it's a shame too, because the greatest failing of Baywatch isn't that it's a silly, goofy, gratuitously raunchy movie. In fact, when well executed, those movies are a breath of fresh air for audiences. Think about how well received The Hangover was - before they ruined it with the sequels - or what kind of a sleeper hit Deadpool turned out to be. Gratuitously raunchy film-making is not in itself a crime, though that is what all too often consumes column inches (am I dating myself with that idiom?). The problem with Baywatch is that it used raunchiness as a crutch. In other words, it was done lazily.

When watching the movie I was struck by how there seemed to be the core of a great idea, as if somewhere in someone's brain a much better version of the movie existed, but was never birthed. How great would it be to watch a film about clueless idiot lifeguards trying to be cops and simply not understanding that they're just lifeguards (not to denigrate the profession, but at the same time come on, you're clearly not cops) and have neither the authority, nor the training to take on the duties of law enforcement? I'm thinking a sort of Rudy meets Serpico with a dash of Cop Land thrown in for spice. That would be a great movie. And indeed that is a movie that I think someone in the writers room wanted to make.

Unfortunately, what we got instead was the increasingly common lazy writing that is infesting Hollywood today. You created a great premise and wrote an interesting first act? Awesome, let's put that in the trailer to get audiences in through the door. But what's that? You need a plot to make it longer than a 30 minute romp? Let's throw in some hand-wavy bullshit, throw in a bunch of pointless raunchy gags, put Zac Efron in a dress and call it a day. Way easier than actually committing the time up front to properly stick the landing right? 

And don't get me wrong, I actually enjoyed the cast. Dwayne Johnson, forever The Rock to me, turns in a decent performance, though he is by no means stretching himself as an actor on this one, and Zac Efron continues to surprise me with his acting chops. True, he won't be winning any non-razzie awards on this one, but I think it's safe to say he's managed to transition from preteen heartthrob to legitimate actor, even if the niche he's carving out for himself is also occupied by Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis. Modest praise aside though, the film is not well acted. Some of that is doubtlessly the fault of bad writing and one dimensional characters, but most everyone on the cast seems to be more interested in waiting for the check to cash than putting any real effort into their craft. 

At the end of the day this movie was phoned in and as a lovingly loyal patron of the film industry that is unacceptable. I had high hopes that I was going to see another 21 Jump Street and instead I got Neighbors 2. I walked out of the theater so disappointed that even I myself couldn't be bothered to come up with lifeguard / drowning / ocean / beach puns to pepper in to this review. No, on this one I'm throwing in the towel, just like the filmmakers did. 

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 (2017)

Review Date: 5/10/2017

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

Though still thoroughly enjoyable, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 falls short of capturing the magic of the surprise hit that preceded it. 

Full Review:

Though you may not be able to tell based on what reviews I have actually posted here so far, I'm a huge fan of the super hero genre. I've avoided writing reviews of the many, many super hero films I've seen for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that there's a lot of them and it would be exhausting to cover them all. Today I'm breaking my one rule even though I'm terrified that in doing so the next thing I'll feel obligated to do is come up with a definitive ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I must stay strong!

First let's address the big question people ask of any sequel: was it better than the original? This is actually the hardest question to address because the honest answer is that it depends. Visually, Guardians 2 is absolutely beautiful. As Iron Man 2 & 3Captain America 2 & 3Thor 2 (& probably 3 based on the trailer), and Avengers 2 have already proven, Disney is more than willing to throw a lot more production dollars at your movie if you're coming off a proven original concept. The special effects are bigger, better and more prevalent, the action sequences are spectacular, and there are way more of them that last a whole heck of a lot longer, and the shear volume of celebrity cameos boggles the mind. So visually Guardians 2 surpasses the original. 

Though (as my girlfriend will tell you) I am no authority on music, Awesome Mix Vol. 2 is also better than the original in my humble opinion - though part of that may stem purely from the better attention to thematic tie-ins to the action on screen than that of Vol. 1. 

As for plot, pacing and themes, this is really where Guardians 2 falls flat. The movie is long, and it certainly feels like it drags along throughout the ponderous 2nd act. Much attention is paid to the concept of family, be it fathers & sons, sisters, or surrogates, and unfortunately it feels like director James Gunn has broken the show-don't-tell rule, spending considerable screen time hitting viewers over the head with the gravitas of a given relationship. I think a streamlined version of the film is undoubtedly out there somewhere, with precious minutes shaved off - albeit at the expense of Ego, Yondu, Rocket and Nebula screen time. 

The action and comedic elements are also a mixed bag. Guardians 2 offers plenty of both, but it certainly feels like a shooting version of the script had multiple instances of [insert joke here] or [insert $10M action sequence here] until late into production. What I'm really saying is that, very much unlike the original, the action and comedy didn't feel earned in this second outing. This is a minor point that will not be reflected in Marvel's box-office gross, but will undoubtedly lower the number of times fans re-watch this movie 3-10 years from now. 

As far as acting is concerned, this is definitely the film's strong point. All the original Guardians are back, and I'll watch anything with Bradley Cooper, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and/or Kurt Russell. Karen Gillan also returns as Nebula, a sort of tragic anti-hero eye-rolling her way throughout the narrative. Were it not for the buffoonery of Bautista's Drax and the motley crew of Ravagers (looking at you Taser Face), I'd have called it too much, but in-scene I was right there with her. And let's not forget about the amazing cast of cameos, from Sly Stallone to Michelle Yeoh to a blink and you'll miss it David Hasselhoff appearance. And yes, Stan Lee makes his presence known in what may be the closest we'll ever get to an Uatu fan theory confirmation. What a time to be alive!

Finally, I'll speak to the characters. As I've said many times before, a movie is only as good as its villain, and while I loved watching Kurt Russell ham it up on screen, I found his character uncompelling and the betrayal so obviously telegraphed that I don't feel I even need to warn you about spoilers. The subplot involving the Ravagers was fun and interesting, but again pacing here made what could have been a fun aside involving Rocket and Baby Groot ended up eating valuable run time.

So, in conclusion, is Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 worth seeing? Absolutely! It's an enjoyable popcorn crunching flick adding to the ever expanding MCU cannon. The deeper question of if it will stand the test of time remains to be answered, but my money's on you forgetting they made 2 of these after Marvel's Phase 3 wraps.