Wonder Woman (2017) (PG-13)

This review contains SPOILERS!
I was a child of the 90s, was not raised on comic books, and have no extensive knowledge of the universes either Marvel or DC that are ever expanding into fully realized film franchises. I have no comparisons to earlier iterations of Wonder Woman as a character and cannot say whether the 2017 reboot of the hero does the character any justice whatsoever. This is perhaps regrettable considering all the potential for nuances and sly jokes to fans; but my view will be more of a casual viewer.

"Wonder Woman" had a lot riding on its shoulders even before its release. For such a large character in the DC universe, it seemed like a film everyone wasn't willing to make. But DC was behind. They are trying to catch up to Marvel's reign of summer flicks and super hero movies. But instead of "The Avengers" we got "Suicide Squad" and Netflix didn't back DC, so instead we have "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice". In short, DC was falling way behind. So, in order to get the Justice League in shape, we needed a movie about Wonder Woman.

This is one of very few movies with a lead female as the superhero. The last notable major motion picture endeavors were "Elektra" and "Cat Woman" and those were both well over a decade ago. So "Wonder Woman" was already under scrutiny for the survival of the female lead...and it does not disappoint.

Patty Jenkins hasn't done a lot in her career that has impressed me. I didn't care for "Monster", her only other major motion picture and then few episodes she has directed of TV shows didn't leave a large enough impression to remain memorable. Yet, with "Wonder Woman", it's clear that she isn't an immature director and that mass appeal movies aren't a boy's club only.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is one of the Amazons. They were created by Zeus and remain that last vestige of warriors that can defend the Earth and humanity should Aries, the god of war, reemerge and threaten the planet again. This much is told to Diana from a young age; and she spends most of her early days learning to fight with the rest of the Amazons, even against the will of her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), queen of the Amazons. Under the tutelage of Antiope (Robin Wright), she becomes a strong warrior.

But she cannot stay in her hidden kingdom forever.

World War I rages outside the Amazon's hidden island until one man accidentally flies right through the fog and crashes into the ocean. His name is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he explains the predicament of humanity to the Amazons: the world is being destroyed.

Diana is set apart from other super heroes because she doesn't seem to draw her motivation or inspiration from the death of a parent or the need to be masculine and full of angst. Instead, she is driven by empathy. Her goal appears to be to eliminate the suffering of innocent people and many think of her as naive to do so; yet the movie challenges the callousness of the viewer and asks the audience to maybe reconsider the idea of what honor, justice, and empathy should look like. Honor, is not fighting for a war, honor is stopping a war so that innocents can stop suffering. The distinction is small. She helps others because she wants to, not because she feels like it's her duty.

The Germans once again feature as the villains, which is unsurprising and also a reminder of the patriotic history of early comic books. They are cooking up gasses ans potions that will kill thousands. With this power they could level cities in seconds and it reminds us in the 21st century, that not much has changed. Diana and Steve set out to destroy this super weapon before it's too late (and also try to find Aries along the way). They are accompanied by a slew of minor characters who don't have enough screen time to feel genuine; but are nonetheless very enjoyable.

The action sequences of "Wonder Woman" are well executed and exciting. Sometimes, they rely too heavily on the Zack Snyder method (who happened to get writing credit for the story) but as a whole the movie keeps them far enough apart and just epic enough to satiate all the desires for action an audience could have.

For me, the beginning of the film is weak and unnecessarily long; but once the story moves along, the film picks up speed and charges to the final scene. Some of the script tries to be funny and doesn't always succeed; but the humanity it gives to Diana is empowering for all.

"Wonder Woman" is a celebration of the female lead, the female director, and the hero as a loveable altruist. And on all three counts, I think it succeeds.

Score: ★★★

Diner (1982) (R)

"Diner" attempts to provide of snapshot of the last moments of the 1950s within a certain circle of male friends. These guys were presumably close in highschool and now that they've move on to bigger things they find themselves unsure of the future, whether that's marriage, college, or traveling. Although not put together they always manage to have the resources to go to the local diner and have conversations about music, lovers, and sex.
Barry Levinson's directorial debut is the kind of movie that some might deem 'honest'. It presents several situations that many would find reflective of ordinary life. This is probably accurate, but the movie hasn't aged well and so as minor conversations and small wagers turn into larger narrative arcs, the "honesty" of the picture just consists of people being assholes and a timely soundtrack.
"Diner" owes a lot to Scorsese, particularly in how the movie sounds. The actors all speak in a very laid-back, important fashion about presumably nothing. And in "Seinfeld" fashion, this may be a movie about nothing...which is the point.
"Diner" thrives in the moments thought to be unworthy of film. This is a participation in what indie movies are doing. The more common narrative, by default, assumes that the movie will be exciting and noteworthy simply because of the nature of escapism. No one wants to watch a real time movie of a man filing taxes for three hours, drinking a cup of coffee, and taking a nap. In my mind, "Diner" tries for the moments that are between car chases and robberies, focusing on a group of pre-millennial millennials who are anxious about life, love, sex, women, and money...but most of all being men.
It's the holiday season in the twilight hours of the 1950s and five guy friends like to eat at a diner. If I was being cynical, that's the end of the movie. But we're supposed to push through and press on into the characters, finding them oddly charming and lovably ignorant. Which, for the first half of the movie, they are.
We see them roughhouse and argue about singers and drive around and eat and talk about girls and through their conversation the larger narrative arises: one of the guys is getting married soon and his betrothed has to answer a football quiz in order for them to get married.
Hilarious, right? Well, not exactly in a physical comedy sort of way and as the domestic abuse starts to emerge it becomes less pleasant and maybe more an attempt to mirror everyday life.
Money issues, the mob, women (who are so complicated, right?), music, etc—the movie juggles a lot of issues and a lot of minor arcs as friends come back into town, pregnancies happen, and the wedding gets even closer.
To me, "Diner" is a good movie and something I never want to touch again. Not because it's bad or harmful, I think it accurately represents an 80s mindset concerning the 60s. The reason I never want to see it again is twofold: 1.) it's really not that exciting and 2.) these characters aren't redeemable to me. Sure, it's the 80s so a little misogyny is expected; but "Diner's" treatment of female characters, particularly the Ellen Barkin figure, doesn't inspire warm fuzzy feelings inside me. The chivalry present is supposed to be when, upon manipulating a girl on the brink of a nervous breakdown, the truth emerges that this was all for a bet and everyone gets forgiven.
Maybe I'm too altruistic, or maybe I'm too critical—both are possible.
"Diner" is a good in the way "The Ice Storm" is a good movie. Both fantasize about the everyday life of suburbia, but "Diner" fails to make it compelling.

Score: ★★½

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

This review contains SPOILERS!
One of the monoliths of science fiction movies, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is keenly invested in the time period and nationalistic crises of a post-WWII America. In the opening credits, we see the western hemisphere as we travel with the protagonist "invaders" as the camera plummets towards Earth and immediately we see the nervous and perhaps violent way that Americans (or perhaps humanity at large) treats the unknown. We are hyper-aware of the time period, not only because the central drive of the movie is warning others that atomic energy is a power that could be too great to contain; but also because the radio dominates people's consumption of the news and the general bleakness of a post-war film.
Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is a humanoid alien whose physiology is no different than our own. He has landed with an eight-foot tall metal robot named Gort and he claims to have an urgent message for the people of the world. By sheer coincidence, or for the sake of ease of the story, his ship lands in the middle of the mall in Washington, D.C. You can see the fear of the people around him when he first emerges from the spaceship, offering up a gift which is misinterpreted as a weapon and he is shot through the shoulder and ends up in a hospital.
Escaping custody, he meanders around the streets trying to get a better sense of these earthlings and rents a room where he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). He introduces himself as Mr. Carpenter (a name he found on the inside of the jacket he was wearing) and lodges with the Bensons and a few other quirky characters who nicely sum up the political climate of the day.
But all this time, we are waiting to hear his message, which is teased and dangled in front of the viewer until the very last scene of the movie when Klaatu stands in front of the camera and speaks to the audience, warning against violence and most of all, against atomic warfare.
This warning does not necessarily mean that humanity will, of its own free nature, become more moral, because it's clear that Klaatu and his people do not care what humans do to other humans. The warning is mostly that, should their warfare stray to interstellar territories, there will be no hesitation to wipe Earth out.
For someone watching over half a century later, this sentiment loses some of its charm. "Be good to us or we'll kill you!" But still, it's nice to see a film aware of these issues even if it is under the umbrella of its own nationalistic identity. We can see this when Bobby takes Klaatu to the cemetery to look at the gravestone of Bobby's dad, who died in the war. Then they stop at the Lincoln Memorial where Klaatu panders to the target audience and comments on what a great individual this person was. While perhaps justified, looking upon the Gettysburg address, Klaatu and Bobby quickly go back to the less patriotic story-line which concerns only the alien and his doings.
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is maybe deceptively simple with a very clear message and a very easy narrative; but the words are the most important part. Another key factor to consider when watching the movie is that the only "major" award that it won was at the Golden Globes where it took home the prize for "Best Film Promoting International Understanding" a category that has been retired for over fifty years now. The international understanding of the film is less about the empathy of victims who had survived the atomic bomb and more about self-preservation when you view the film in a callous light.
A more optimistic approach would perhaps deify this "Carpenter" and his words of wisdom and teach the viewer that this is the only life we have to live, so why not minimize human suffering along the way? And for that, it's hard to critique the film.

Score: ★★★

Beauty and the Beast (2017) (PG)

There is an obvious reason for the remake of "Beauty and the Beast" which is far less idealistic than the sum of its parts: money. Of course, this is the most cynical way of approaching the movie, which is probably not the right mindset to frame the film by; but given its predecessors' place in cinematic history, Disney's newest remake feels a bit tired in comparison and almost devoid of magic.
Naturally, the newest iteration of "Beauty and the Beast" should probably be viewed in its own light; but I think it wasn't meant to be seen this way. Sometimes it's line-for-line with the original and sometimes slight changes make the viewer pause. Without these references, we wouldn't be seeing the small baby steps that make the film more current. You can see this when certain parts of the backstory fill in: the prince of the land is made to be a selfish man who taxes his kingdom cruelly so he can buy himself beautiful things. This material obsession which begins the narration as some of the first words spoken in the movie, is quickly forgotten for a broader selfishness and anger that the prince must overcome to break the curse placed upon him. But then the films fades back into the original Disney and these "complexities" get forgotten.
And so we open to Belle (Emma Watson), the daughter of an artist and herself an inventor of sorts. She lives in France with an English accent and doesn't care about what people think of her and she's certainly not going to marry Gaston (Luke Evans). He has just returned from war and has his sight set on Belle and plans on wedding Belle so that he can have the perfect life. A narcissist at best, Gaston is obviously the wrong person for Belle and so the story begins.
There's nothing in the new "Beauty and the Beast" that is remarkable in any fashion. Jean Cocteau's original film had to wait almost fifty years to be remade and in that remaking, it felt justified. The technology that Cocteau had in 1946 was not enough to capture the magic and wonder of the story which Disney managed to grab the first time around. Animation itself is the genre that lends itself to this story better. Because of simple narrative barriers, most of the characters in the film have to be animated in some fashion anyways and because of this, we are left with a lackluster "realistic" approach that somehow feels as some of the characters complain: rusty, overused, and slowly growing stiff.
But maybe asking "why" the remade was produced in the first place is an unfair question. When you look at the movie as a whole, it obviously draws mostly from Disney's 1991 with a few plot points borrowed from Cocteau's original film. And in this we see that the movie is less of a remake of more of a "threemake" if you will. Both of its ancestors are pioneer films in the canon of cinephiles. The Disney classic was the film animated movie to be nominated best picture and could be considered partly responsible for placing animation on the map as credible cinema.
In that light, "Beauty and the Beast" is just lackluster.
The film's lead, Emma Watson is charming but reminds us that not everyone can fills the shoes of Paige O'Hara's voice. In fact, this is true of the whole cast who have to physically and vocally challenge the icons that most of us grew up hearing. Watson is shaky, but cute. She doesn't really bring anything new to the role besides how the script deviates. Luke Evans is, likewise, very true to the 2D Gaston, except perhaps a little more overt with his inner flaws. Josh Gad plays Lefou which is perhaps the biggest contentious issue of the movie since he is gay and the marketing has exploded about this fact. While it doesn't bother me to include this, it doesn't really fit in the movie and seems kind of pandering...but that's a very personal opinion.
The real difference between the two films comes when Emma Thompson covers the title song and fails to hold a candle to Angela Lansbury; but besides that, the 2017 film feels like clunky recycled material. This is unlike "The Jungle Book" which told an entirely different story and reinvented the narrative itself. Clearly, Disney wanted to keep the magic alive for one of its most recognized films.
And sometimes, just sometimes, it's easy to get lost in the grandeur of the movie. When the music swells and the songs bring back waves of nostalgia, the spectacle is almost too much. But I was reminded that Ewan McGregor is no Jerry Orbach and soon I felt like all the characters and numbers I was watching were shadows of the originals.
Yet, all that is too critical perhaps, because the movie isn't that bad. It's a decent film, and it has decent acting. The biggest criticism of the film as a stand alone is that the set design looks oddly fake and constructed. Some of the animation is too quickly thrown together; but all-in-all, it's not a terrible film.
When placed back into conversation with its counterparts, I find it wholly inconsequential and almost uninspiring for the lack of effort they put into making something more potent out of a story that is at once troubling and romantic. The nuances are lost.

Score: ★★½

Black Narcissus (1947)

I don't think there's a universal and easy way to digest what happens in "Black Narcissus". It's not a film that lends itself easily to scrutiny or dissection; yet whose plot is so frustratingly simple it's almost like the film is teasing. My own personal like of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger keeps me from seeing the film as it probably is. Is is anti-Catholic? Is it misogynistic? Is it racist? Probably yes, to all three; and yet so aware of what women, religion, and race are accomplishing in the picture that I can't help but think that it's not the case at all.
"Black Narcissus" is about a nunnery in India. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) has just been made Sister Superior of the newly founded St. Faith convent. Having been serving in Calcutta, Sister Clodagh moves past Darjeeling to the new St. Faith which balances on the edge of a mountain. The villagers at the bottom are under the command of a general who also owns the bit of land the new convent will be on. There is not understating the clash of culture and religion that happens at this moment. The building that becomes St. Faith was previously a harem for the old general's women. There's one woman left over (to use a more objectifying phrase) from the old general's rule and she tells the nuns that the house used to be called the "house of women". Sister Clodagh rolls her eyes at the old woman but we get the understanding that it has become that again, just with a stricter set of rules.
The convent is chilly and barren. Winds constantly blows through and the atmosphere is clean and clear. No crops seem to grow and the resident sage-figure sits next to the convent only a few hundred yards away. This is the difference in religions and cultures. Some of the old statutes from the harem are simply covered up with silk clothes which then get pulled off as the movie unravels and we begin to understand that there's something else going on here.
Mr. Dean (David Farrar) warns Sister Clodagh that this might be more than she can handle. The Sister is eager to prove her worth and isn't scared of hard work so doesn't take much of his advice. Mr. Dean lives in the village and serves as a liaison between the general and English speaking people like the nuns.
St. Faith is immediately overrun with too many people and Sister Clodagh struggles to keep her head up, particularly when she's dealing with unruly cohorts, specifically Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who seems to be becoming enamored with Mr. Dean even though she never talks to him at great length.
The general's son (Sabu), joins the list of pupils. He wants to be a learned man, straying from the warrior path his ancestors have set down before him. It is this character, who is only present on-screen for fifteen minutes or less that gives the film its title. Black Narcissus is a perfume that he wear and he explains to one of the nuns that he should not be so common as to smell like himself.
And that's in a nutshell what makes the movie so infuriatingly complex. This small smell seems to set into motion the plot that will culminate in a frenzied experience that rivals any hysteria produced in modern films. But the audience is kept out of the loop. We cannot smell this, just as we cannot experience the winds blowing through St. Faith. This air, the sisters constantly comment, is eerie and reminds them of their previous lives. Flashbacks of life before the Catholic church start to roll in and it becomes a battle between will of faith and giving in to 'temptation'.
It is unclear at the movie's ending whether or not the changes in the characters is specifically motivated by the strains of native and imposed culture/religion or whether the group of females themselves are the reason because of their tendency to be hysterical.
Whatever the answer, it's no surprise that Jack Cardiff won the Academy Award for cinemtography for "Black Narcissus" because, like his other collaborations with Pressburger and Powell, the film looks frightfully good. It is also no surprise that "Black Narcissus" didn't receive more acclaim at the time. After all, this is a movie which seems to have no reverence for religion and thus, it must be shunned.
What I'm left with afterwards is the chilling wind of St. Faith, and all these striking images floating around in my head. I don't know what to make of "Black Narcissus" and I know I don't have any definitive idea of what exactly Pressburger and Powell were trying to accomplish but I do know they made a hell of a film.

Score: ★★★★

Get Out (2017) (R)

At the core of "Get Out" lies a two-sided film: the horror narrative itself and the political commentary that amplifies it. This should come as no surprise to the viewer. The trailers made it very, unapologetically clear, that this was a movie about race. But this is not a movie in the veins of "The Color Purple" or "Lee Daniels' The Butler"—biopics or period pieces or films that are easily moving and could callously be called "sentimental". "Get Out", rather, provides a frightening mirror to see the present day status quo not only surrounding the violence upon African Americans by systems of power, but also the underlying objectification of the conversation surrounding race altogether.
"Get Out" is really simple in plot. A young black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) take a trip over the weekend to visit her parents. Before they leave he asks her if she let them know that she's dating a black man and she laughs it off. She explains that her parents are very liberal so don't worry, "Dad would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have." And this sentence is supposed to set Chris' mind at ease as he climbs in the car and drives the few hours outside the city into the center of rich, white, socialite paradise.
Rose's mom and dad are smart people, a neuroscientist (Bradley Whitford) and a psychiatrist (Catherine Keener) who are very invested in their daughter's life but don't seem to bat an eye as the car pulls up and the interracial couple enter.
From here, the movie's climax can be seen obviously, as the conversations about race are both uncomfortable (particularly for myself, as a white man) and forewarning of the more surreal horrors to come later. 
Part of the movie's success thus far has to do with Jordan Peele's name only. This is a man who built the first half of his career as a comedian, and one of the more recognizable comedians because of his sketch show with his other half Keegan-Michael Key. There is always the expectation of something humorous right around the corner; but "Get Out" holds nothing back as it plunges down into the cerebral story of a man unable to communicate his experience to those around him. Here is the movie's biggest strength.
In a post-Obama America, "Get Out" seems like the perfect movie to critique the Right and the GOP. It's a movie about racial tensions and we're all familiar with the sitting president's lackluster approach towards addressing racism. Going in, I expected a butchery of conservative politics; but what was delivered was the opposite. Instead, "Get Out" very cleverly chastises the left's more objectifying and condescending ways of having the conversation about "the African American experience" without including the people they are talking about. Imagine a dinner party where rich white people talk about how badly poor black people have it off as they sip expensive wine and make toasts to prosperous years to come. This is the central drive of the movie and it is so cleverly integrated into the film, the sense of the duality (commentary and narrative) is lost in what I'll call the second act of the film.
But then we have to talk about the movie's problems and minor SPOILER alerts here. The biggest issue with the film is the narrative itself. As most horror movies do (and as I have complained many, many times), "Get Out" writes itself into a corner and the "reveal" of the movie is a conclusion almost too ridiculous to take seriously, which of course, makes me ask the question if we were supposed to take it seriously or not. I think "Get Out" is a horror movie first, a political commentary second, and possible a satire of the genre third and on its first front it doesn't function as well as it could. Peele obviously had an intention with the film and it sometimes feels like jamming a square peg into a circular hole.
The second issue is the narrative need for incredible violence as an emotional finale. I think the movie justifies its carnage; but it loses the political commentary as it does so.
The performances here are very good including a very convincing and evocative turn by Kaluuya and Betty Gabriel as Georgina the maid. The film manages to pull convincing reactions from its characters as Peele re-imagines the associations between slavery and the language used to shun it. The visuals are Kubrickian and Peele reminds us to never judge a movie based on the history of its director.
"Get Out" functions well as a horror movie but maybe it was all about the commentary and not enough about the substance of the plot. I'll be curious to see if Peele goes on to make other films and how he matures as a feature film director. I think after the critical success of this movie and how almost stunningly effortless a lot of its technical feats are, he will likely achieve quick status as a director to watch.

Score: ★★★