Synopsis: Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised. Stars: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Ahd, Corey Johnson, David Dawson, Orli Shuka, Jonjo O’Neill Director: Janus Metz Rated: R Running Length: 101 minutes TMMM Score: (5/10) Review: Right now, on Broadway, ex-James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga have just started previews for their new production of Macbeth. Down the street, married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick appear in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These are just two examples of famous names in the industry that find themselves on the Great White Way in a play that’s often based mainly on scenes featuring just two people onstage, talking. That’s how some films start too, live on stage and then adapted into films. Some can easily break the bonds of being stage-bound, and others are enterally trapped in that theatrical flourish that can’t so handily be swept to the side.
In hindsight, I wasn’t surprised to learn All the Old Knives had been originally announced as a project for Chris Pine back in 2017. I was astonished to discover that the film wasn’t the product of a stage-to-screen adaptation but was instead written by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel of the same name. So much of the movie involves characters (usually two) sitting across from one another talking that I could have imagined it being plucked from some short-lived Broadway run and expanded for the silver screen. Either way, All the Old Knives features several old tricks that will justifiably get the knives out for Steinhauer and a cast of likable, if bland, actors.
It’s been years since colleagues Harry Pelham (Pine, Wonder Woman 1984) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, Solo: A Star Wars Story) have seen one another, not since she left him the day after their CIA office was involved with a mission that led to the deaths of hundreds of people on a hijacked aircraft. Recent intel has indicated a leak within their agency tipped off the hijackers, and Harry has been tasked by his boss (Laurence Fishburne, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) to suss out the mole. A phone call traced to one of the offices narrows it down to two people, so Harry pays them a visit.
The nightmares of that day still plague Celia. Agreeing to meet Harry seems like a good way to close that chapter of her life. While their meeting at a coastal restaurant in wine country begins as benign reminiscing, it quickly evolves into a relitigating of the days leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath. As the evening stretches on and the bottles of wine keep coming, more truths are exposed between former flames who thought the other had been honest throughout their time together. By the end of the night, who is interrogating whom?
Steinhauer keeps our heads spinning by having multiple people tell their version of the story, each with slightly different perspectives. I don’t think Steinhauer deliberately tries to confuse the audience or pull a fast one. Still, the effect of the repetition without consistency winds up creating a mind jumble anyway. Danish director Janus Metz teams with cinematographer (and fellow Dane) Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) to give the past a steely blue hue and the present a shiny, almost waxy, glow. Also waxy, Pine in several bad wigs as we travel through distinct time periods. The worst is a longer one that gets more unruly as the film wears on, but Pine has competition from other cast members in the lousy wig department. Newton has several questionable fitted coifs as well.
There’s a problem with the film staring us straight in the face, and it’s a big one. The two stars have next to no chemistry. Now I know that Michelle Williams was initially set to star opposite Pine but dropped out when this was delayed, so maybe that combo would have worked better. Newton’s movie could have been better with a more exciting co-star, and Pine’s performance might have leveled off a bit sooner had he acted opposite someone who wasn’t so far ahead of him. Newtown is just too good of an actress to operate in the same hemisphere Pine (a pleasant actor that’s never going to win an Oscar) is living.
With a home stretch that drags out interminably long after providing a half-hearted attempt at a cop-out ending, any way you slice it, All the Old Knives is a bit of a lumbering mess. That being said, I would have paid a top price to see the same stars (yes, even Pine) on stage doing the same piece. I could readily see this operating as a slick piece of live theater that employs a small cast enjoying some juicy roles. It’s overstuffed as a film but sized right for the stage. Watch it (if you must) and see if you agree.
Synopsis: After being involuntarily discharged from the Army, James Harper joins a paramilitary organization to support his family in the only way he knows how. Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu, Kiefer Sutherland, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J. D. Pardo Director: Tarik Saleh Rated: R Running Length: 103 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: The Contractor. The Contractor? Really? Will they ever learn? Here we go again with a more than decent film saddled with the most cardboard brown-colored title you can imagine, though it was filmed under one that had a little more flair. When actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gillian Jacobs signed on to Tarik Saleh’s muscle-y military film, it was for a script named Violence of Action. Still, it was not entirely descriptive or exemplary enough to set it far apart from the direct to video junk starring a washed-up fourth-billed actor from a late ‘90s cop show, but…at least it had some movement to it. The Contractor could be any movie.
Title qualms aside, and I had to put them aside, this is a surprisingly brisk and engaging action thriller that deservedly was bumped from a wide theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut. It doesn’t have the full-bodiness to warrant that trip to the cinema but fits nicely with the new niche carved out for starry vehicles that need a home. Orphaned by its original studio, Paramount snapped this one up, and they’ve made a wise purchase. While it won’t ever be high on the resume for anyone involved, it acquits itself nicely as an otherwise engaging action thriller that keeps moving and doesn’t sag under easy-to-spot oncoming twists.
Sidelined from service due to a bum knee, Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) struggles to provide for his family and is watching the bills pile up. When he meets up with old army bud Mike (Foster, The Finest Hours), who appears to be living beyond his means, he finds out about Mike’s side work running covert jobs for Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners). Bringing his friend into the fold, Mike leaves out a few key details. James figures these out quickly as he’s thrown into a dangerous mission exposing shady alliances that put his life and the well-being of his wife (Jacobs, Life of the Party) and child in jeopardy.
Six years after their runaway hit Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster have skilled onscreen chemistry, making them an ideal pair. Director Saleh doesn’t have to spend much time establishing their history because both actors play their roles so convincingly that we don’t need a lot of backstories to understand their relationship. That takes The Contractor only so far, though, and eventually, audiences will have only the standard plot mechanics of J.P. Davis’ script to carry them forward. It’s not that Davis hasn’t crafted a strong three-act action-thriller; it’s just that nothing you can’t see coming a mile down the road happens.
Compelling enough to not feel like a waste of time but routine in overall execution, The Contractor is best when it’s letting Pine and Foster continue to develop their non-action dramatics. Once the mission takes over, interest starts to wane, and you’re in overly familiar territory. The upside? You’re likely watching it for free (or far less than usual prices) at home, so you haven’t sunk movie theater prices on the watch.
Synopsis: Set in 1984 during the twilight years of the Cold War, the film follows Diana and her past love Steve Trevor as they face off against television huckster Maxwell Lord and archaeologist turned half-wildcat Barbara Minerva aka Cheetah.
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Gabriella Wilde, Kristoffer Polaha, Amr Waked
Review: Earlier in 2020 when theaters started to close and movie release dates began to be bumped, the first films discussed were the most immediately affected: the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Tenet. Each film has followed their own path to getting in front of audiences, from sticking to a theatrical release at all costs to its own detriment or embracing the streaming/on demand option that is available to millions in more immediate platform providers. Arguably, out of all the movies in 2020 that audiences, studio heads, and investors in the future have been looking to for a sign of what’s next is Wonder Woman 1984 and like its bold titular superheroine, it wound up being a leader for its peers.
Rather than just debut the movie in theaters and have a streaming date follow weeks later, or have the film premiere for a fee on demand first, Warner Brothers stopped giving the film a seemingly endless set of new release dates and decided to gift everyone the movie on Christmas Day via HBOMax as well as select theaters in areas where it was safe to open. The new streaming service has launched this year to a good buzz with nice content and an even better supply of films so far that have bypassed a theatrical run due to the pandemic like the remake of The Witches, Let Them All Talk, and Superintelligence. To further entice those wanting a more cinematic experience, Wonder Woman 1984 would be the first film on HBOMax to be released in 4K, and would also support Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10. So if your home theater is tricked out, you were going to get a great show.
Still…there was the question of the quality of the film, a much (and I do mean much) anticipated follow-up to 2017’s origin story of how the Amazonian princess (Gal Gadot, Furious 7) made her way from her home island of Themyscira to the battlefields of the first World War, fighting alongside Col. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, People Like Us). Eventually joining the Justice League for more modern adventures (and being featured in two other DC films, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League) she stands as a symbol of truth and is always “fighting for our rights…and the old red, white, and blue.” Original director Patty Jenkins was wisely brought back, this time co-writing the script with Aquaman screenwriter Geoff Johns. The result is a solid sequel that builds on the excellent groundwork set in the first film but struggles with focus and juggling two villains with only one proving to be effective.
I’m going to assume from this point on you’ve all seen the first film so we’ll discuss some key events that happened in that movie. You’ve been warned on spoilers from that movie!
Jenkins begins her film with a true thrill, an extended pre-title sequence set on Themyscira showing the young Diana (Lilly Aspell, Holmes & Watson) going up against older Amazons on a grueling obstacle course race that takes them in, up, over, and under the beautiful isle. Under the watchful eye of her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright, Blade Runner 2049) and mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever), Diana learners an early lesson about truth above all else. Jumping time periods from 1918 to 1984, Diana is now operating out of Washington D.C. working at the Smithsonian as an anthropologist when she isn’t taking long lunch breaks to solve crime and save lives as Wonder Woman. The apprehension of a set of mall thieves (one of several well-orchestrated action set-pieces) winds up overlapping with her day job as items from the heist are actually antiques, one of which holds a special power that changes all who come in contact with it.
One of those people is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), a co-worker of Diana’s that largely goes unnoticed day in and day out. Mousey and easy to push around, she begins to change once she makes a casual wish to be more like Diana and that’s when her world, appeal, and physicality start to change overnight…and soon not for the better. Another individual that seeks the artifact is smarmy Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk), a pyramid scheme sham-artist about to go down in flames whose fortunes change after making a deadly pact with a force of unknown power. Still mourning the loss of Steve, who sacrificed himself at the end of the first movie, Diana, too, becomes part of this when her innocent wish for him to return brings him back…kinda. Everyone has been wondering how Jenkins was going to bring back Pine for this film after his character, well, died all those decades earlier but she and Johns have worked out a clever way for this to happen within the context of the story being told.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about Wonder Woman 1984 because it’s the gist of the set-up introduced in the first quarter of the movie, the rest is all how these characters react to the new powers they’re given or, in Diana’s case, the person she’s given back. For Barbara and Max, the power becomes an intoxicating drug they need more of. Max begins to be unable to hold back and it starts to manifest itself outwardly but for Barbara while the change is somewhat external, the majority of the alteration is to her internal confidence and prowess. Unwilling to be manhandled, exploited, intimidated, or second-guessed, an animal emerges…and this is long before her eventual transformation into Wonder Woman’s famous rival, Cheetah.
For Diana and Steve, it’s a far more emotional journey and Jenkins allows Gadot and Pine to have these moments, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the many fanboys and fangirls that just want to see wall-to-wall action. Yes, I would have loved to see Gadot show up one or two more times in the Wonder Woman get-up in that first hour (there’s a frighteningly long passage in the first 75 minutes where she’s tiara-less) but would I have sacrificed the nice moments generated by the two actors? Not at all. If Gadot and Pine weren’t so engaging, I might have said yes but both elevate their characters to something bigger than big-screen versions of comic book creations. It also paves the way for one of the film’s most stunning moments for Gadot, a “never look back” sort of scene that demonstrates not only why she’s underestimated as an actress but why she’s made a fantastic Wonder Woman so far. Still…a nice mixing of the two is a 4th of July ride for the two on an invisible jet plane through a mass of fireworks. It’s a romantic interlude in an otherwise more action-oriented scene.
Wiig is another huge revelation, I’m glad to say. Everyone is a fan of the actress for her comedic turns but I’ve struggled with her in more dramatic roles, finding them a bit on the sly and overly produced side. Not so here. I loved watching how her Barbara turns from being a wallflower (that maybe only thinks she’s a wallflower) to a full-fledged creature out for dominance. She begins by wanting to be like Diana in terms of being noticed, but when she realizes that her wish came true and then some…she becomes addicted to the “then some” more than anything. Emma Stone was rumored to be the first choice for the role but Wiig is such a better selection, it’s hard to consider anyone else playing it so well.
Then we come to the biggest problem with the film, Pascal as Max Lord. In a role that should have been played by (and I would wager a guess was written for) Matthew McConaughey, Pascal is by far the weakest element of the movie and that becomes a huge detriment the more Lord shifts into a leading villain role throughout the overlong 151-minute run time. Popular right now more than ever due to his role as The Mandalorian on Disney+, Pascal may have his fans from that series but he’s almost unwatchable here as he overacts and oversells Lord while others around him are operating at a different level. Someone should have taken him aside and helped him make an adjustment because it just looks like he’s in a completely different kind of movie. In the hands of a McConaughey or even a Jeremy Renner (if he wasn’t already tied to Marvel), Lord could have been a true foe for Diana but under Pascal’s watch he’s a complete annoyance more than anything.
True, some of the CGI near the end gets a little iffy, especially when Wonder Woman and Cheetah finally meet face to face but as is typical of a DC film, it’s a strikingly rendered bit of entertainment for the most part. Plenty can be said about the plot holes around the logic surrounding the central artifact, not to mention inconsistences in its usage but isn’t that true of all superhero movies at some point? I mean, let’s not even go there with Marvel and it’s various magic objects that do the impossible. Yes, it may not hold up to a careful inspection and isn’t as unique as its predecessor but its still eons better than most of the other films released so far in the DC Extended Universe. It has a distinct moral compass that it’s not afraid to be open about; messages about telling the truth to yourself and, if you are in a position of power, telling the truth to those you have the ability to communicate with seems pretty pointed and timely for today’s audiences. I like that it has a point to it and also how it keeps its emotions close to the surface, allowing them to rise up when necessary. Gadot gets several key moments to emote and they don’t feel forced, her sincerity is what continues to make her engaging.
You can bet that all eyes will be on HBOMax this Christmas to see Wonder Woman 1984 make its premiere on the service (and I’ll be watching it again sometime soon, I’m sure) and I’m not worried about the future opportunities to see the Amazonian princess on the screen. Make sure to stick around for the first few minutes of the credits and clear out any annoying windows that pop up so you can see the full screen – there’s a brief mid-credit sequence that is not to be missed for anything. As a long-time fan of Wonder Woman dating all the way back to that original Cathy Lee Crosby movie (yes, even that one!) I kind of lost my mind for a moment. It’s just the capper on Jenkins understanding what makes the character so appealing and proving that she knows how to give fans what they want. Another absolute winner.
Synopsis: Fast forward to the 1980s as Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her facing an all-new foe: The Cheetah.
Release Date: June 5, 2020
Thoughts: THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE A TRAILER AND GET PEOPLE EXCITED!
Let’s face it, when Wonder Woman rolled into theaters in 2017 the odds weren’t exactly stacked in her favor thanks to the recent efforts from DC Studios. Yet the film was an unimpeachable knockout, with smart direction from Patty Jenkins and led by Gal Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) to critical, audience, and box office success. True, subsequent DC films failed to build upon the good example Wonder Woman set so in summer of 2020 expectations are even higher for Wonder Woman 1984 to get things back on track.
From the looks of this trailer, we’re in for a rad delight with Jenkins and Gadot leaping ahead several decades to a story set in 1984 that finds Wonder Woman reunited with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) and dealing with super villains Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) (Kristin Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) and Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk). The full plot is unknown but is it too much to hope they’ll take a page from Cheetah on the Prowl, the read-along book I had as a kid (see below)? 🙂 Everything about this preview is on point and gave me the kind of goosebump chills of excitement I used to feel when I was a teen waiting for the next ‘90s summer blockbuster. Love the editing, love the music choice, already looking forward to Wonder Woman’s visit to an ’80s mall. This just jumped to the top of my most anticipated list of 2020.
Synopsis: A portrait of the extraordinary life and career of actor Anton Yelchin.
Stars: Irina Yelchin, Viktor Yelchin, Anton Yelchin, Drake Doremus, J.J. Abrams, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Willem Dafoe, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Chris Pine
Director: Garrett Price
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Love, Antosha starts out like many documentaries about a life cut short often do. A young child is being filmed by his dad showing off his imagination in creating a world of his own. Even in this brief moment, we see the light of interest in the boy, a spark of undeniable joy of life and you can just imagine what the parent on the other end of the camera was feeling in watching their son. The boy would grow up to be a loving son, a trusted friend, a gifted artist, a curious man, a photographer, a movie star, and the victim of tragic accident that took his life at 27.
Born in Leningrad to parents famous in their own right as figure skaters in the Ice Ballet and qualifiers in the 1972 Olympics, Anton Yelchin and his family came to America in 1989 with the hopes of starting a new life away from the oppression of the Soviet regime. Barely six months old when he arrived in the United States, Anton grew up in California and, nurtured by parents that supported their only child, found his way into acting, first in commercials and eventually in small movies that lead to bigger roles. Early co-stars included Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Diane Lane, and Robin Williams. An engaging lead or a scene-stealing supporting player, Yelchin was equally at home in bold indies or big blockbusters.
Director Garrett Price has amassed a healthy collection of archival footage of Yelchin (Green Room, Only Lovers Left Alive, Star Trek) from personal videos to press interviews and he intersperses those with memories from his family, friends and co-workers that clearly held him in high regard. Not surprisingly, there isn’t anyone that has a bad thing to say about the young man and with good reason. From the hand-written letters to his parents to videos with friends, he seems like the thoughtful and considerate life-of-the-party. If he couldn’t speak it, he would put it to music and sing it. And any note to his mother always ended with the two words in the movie title.
What gives Love, Antosha an extra boost is that while Yelchin was a familiar face from his numerous film and television credits, he wasn’t much in the public eye during his time in Hollywood. Most of his closest friends weren’t in the business and if they were, they too kept a low profile. That allows Price an opportunity to spend more time showcasing the Yelchin we didn’t get to see, and it gives the interview subjects a moment to shine a light on their fallen friend and collaborator. We also learn some surprising facts about Yelchin related to his health only released after his death that show how much the actor overcame to get where he was, which weirdly winds up giving greater irony to his fatal accident. Yelchin may already have been playing on borrowed time, so his zest for life wasn’t entirely without preparation.
Considering how many productions Yelchin was involved with, it’s amazing Price was able to get small slices of time with a host of A-List talent and ask them to reflect on their time with the actor. Directors like Jodie Foster and J.J. Abrams speak of an intellectual actor able to make even the smallest moment matter in unexpected ways, co-stars Chris Pine and Willem Dafoe remark on Yelchin’s extra-curricular activities as a photographer interested in the seedier side of things, and friends Jennifer Lawrence and John Cho offer additional insights into what made Yelchin such a dynamic presence to be around. Special mention for Kristen Stewart who speaks with a mixture of youthful embarrassment but adult graciousness on how Yelchin was her first heartbreak. Most poignant are the moments spent with his parents who came to this country searching for a better life and now spend each day visiting their son’s grave.
The bits and pieces of a life could never be summed up in 90 minutes but Price has done wonderful work sketching out the trajectory of how Yelchin came to make his way up through Hollywood. At the same time, it miraculously doesn’t dwell in the melancholy of his tragic death, either. Though obviously still grieving the loss of their only child, his parents have a matter-of-factness to the way they speak of their son. They clearly still have that image of the boy working through new make believe in front of the camera in their heads…and now they have Love, Antosha to remind them how much he meant to others as well.
Review: It was always going to be possible for any adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time to get bungled on its way to the big screen. The deep ideas, meditational themes, and introspective characters didn’t exactly lend themselves to a sure-fire project that could easily be translated from page to film. I grew up with this book and it’s one of the few I’ve gone back to several times over the years. I’ve seen the previous television movie adaptation, performed in it onstage, and seen other theatrical productions over the years. So, full disclosure, this one was close to my heart.
When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to the novel and brought on red-hot director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to guide its development, my interest was piqued and my hopes raised. When DuVernay went on to assemble a cast of A-List stars there was another jolt of confidence brought on by the names and faces of actors that had previously chosen their projects wisely. Then a much-hyped debut of the first trailer got me thinking that the magic of A Wrinkle in Time would indeed survive and thrive.
So imagine how deflating it was to sit in an IMAX theater and watch what should have been a slam-dunk miss the mark entirely. Like, completely. Now I know that I may hold the source material as perhaps a tad more precious than I should, which would make any attempt to bring it to life an impossible bar to overcome. No, I actually went in with eyes wide open and arms outstretched ready to be transported off the ground only to be depressingly earthbound throughout.
Several years after her scientist father mysteriously disappears, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is still struggling to adjust to his absence. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beauty and the Beast) and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) offer support but Meg has descended into a funk that’s robbed her of self-confidence and her spark. That all changes with the late-night appearance of flighty and flame-haired Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, Home Again) who is the first arrival in the trio of ladies that will bring Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) on an adventure across time and space.
Joined by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, Inside Out) who only speaks in quotes and the grand Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) the children explore Uriel, a world far distant from their own. There the Mrs’ reveal to the children that the universe as they know it is coming under siege from a being they call The IT which is an embodiment of evil. After a visit to The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, Muppets Most Wanted) the kids must travel alone to the peculiar realm of Camazotz where they will come face to face with their fears, relying on their inner strength to battle the forces of darkness.
While the script from Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell remains fairly faithful to L’Engle’s novel, it fails to bring forth any wonderment or magic in the proceedings. A novel with themes of rebellion against societal norms and overcoming struggle with finding one’s own originality winds up being an overly talky self-help seminar that’s dreadfully dull. As a strong advocate for social change and equality, you can see why the tenets of the book had long held an appeal for DuVernay but she surprisingly struggles mightily with keeping her film afloat.
While she’s found a nice discovery in the bold Reid who turns in a confident performance, the rest of DuVernay’s troupe is largely made up of miscasting. Winfrey feels like she’s playing a version of herself, a wise, level-headed sage that speaks in new age-y proverbs and spends the first half of the movie 50 times the size of any other character. Witherspoon is badly out of place in the space-y role that Kaling would have been an infinitely better fit for. Kaling instead is relegated to reciting eye-rolling quotes including a downright groan-worthy one from Lin-Manuel Miranda near the film’s conclusion. Galifianakis is a woeful low-point and poor Michael Pena (End of Watch) is stuck playing a red-eyed denizen of Camazotz. As written, Calvin has even less to do with the action than in the book but Miller has a sweetly platonic chemistry with Reid that works nicely. As Meg’s missing dad Chris Pine (The Finest Hours) may wear the cardigan of a scientist studying time travel but he won’t convince you otherwise he’s cracked a science book in the last decade.
For a movie from this family-friendly studio and adorned with a hefty-budget, the filmmakers seem to not understand who exactly the movie is for. It could have been pitched to mid-teens just fine but there’s so many silly elements and goofy developments that it feels like a wide net was cast. When Witherspoon turns into what looks to be a fantastic piece of flying lettuce and takes the kids for a ride through a field of humming flowers, you may wonder if any focus groups were even brought in to steer this one back on course.
A Wrinkle in Time spawned several sequels involving Meg and her friends but if this labored effort is any indication of the thematic future of the series, I hope significant time is spent smoothing out the wrinkles of the lessons learned here. Every person involved with this picture is capable of so much more than what was delivered – the first real disappointment of 2018.
Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.
Release Date: March 9, 2018
Thoughts: Madeleine L’Engle’s celebrated 1963 novel has been on my bookshelf for years and holds a special place in my heart. I’ve seen high school productions of it (and been in one myself) and made it through most of a 2003 made for television film that couldn’t capture the energy of its source material. Now comes a new adaptation from one of the writers of Frozen directed by one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Ava DuVernay (Selma) has assembled a dynamite A-List cast and, from the look of things in this first teaser, a damn fine film. Starring Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Reese Witherspoon (This Means War), Mindy Kaling (This is the End), Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty & the Beast), newcomer Storm Reid, and Zach Galifianakis (Keeping Up with the Joneses) as The Happy Medium, this is one page to screen adaptation I’m welcoming with open arms.
Synopsis: Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
Review: As a child, every few weeks my parents and I would travel 115 miles south to visit my mom’s family. Getting up early and missing Saturday morning cartoons wasn’t that big of a deal to me…it was the Sunday return trip that caused great anxiety in our car. You see, Sunday afternoon at 4pm is when reruns of Wonder Woman were on. Capping off a block of programming that included The Six Million Dollar Man followed by The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman was Must See TV for this fella and my parents came to the understanding that come hell or high water, we had to be home by four. Now, several times this didn’t happen and let’s say…things got messy.
That context is helpful to you, dear reader, in understanding why this long planned big screen adaptation of Wonder Woman was more than just another anticipated summer blockbuster for me. This was the arrival of a character I truly grew up with, maybe more so than Batman or my ultimate favorite, Superman. I came to Wonder Woman via the Lynda Carter television show and not like many did by way of DC Comics. Created by William Moulton Marston, the Amazonian Princess first appeared in 1941 and quickly became a popular symbol not only of strength but of a woman with the ideals to be a natural leader of all.
A reboot of the TV show was attempted but failed at the pilot stage several years back and while Wonder Woman was hinted at being a part of the planned Warner Brothers DC Universe at some point, it wasn’t until the character was a surprise addition to 2016’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice that fans finally saw the light at the end of a long dark tunnel. While many (including me) had their own issues with BvS, most agreed that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was a memorable highlight of that film and looked forward to the stand-alone movie that would be released before Justice League later in 2017. Then the deplorable Suicide Squad was released late summer 2016 and people began to worry that Wonder Woman’s bright beacon of hope would be unfashionably oppressed by DC Universe’s strangely dark style.
Fear not, though, because not only does Wonder Woman make a most excellent showing in her first solo big-screen adventure, but it’s by far the best comic book adaptation in almost a decade. Besting the best of the boys club that came before her, this heroine has brains and brawn in addition to her beauty. It’s more entertaining than you can possibly imagine and would make even the hardest non-fan of comic book movies buckle in their resolve.
While longtime fans may be bug-eyed that the screenplay by Allen Heinberg from a story by Zac Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs moves the action from WWII to WWI, it plays into the overall success of the picture by showing Wonder Woman’s superhero emerge at the same moment that war-time weapons took a strikingly modern leap forward. Why wouldn’t a solider be just as amazed at a woman deflecting bullets as they would be by the automatic machine gun that’s firing them at her?
Wonder Woman is a classic origin story that manages to breeze quickly through the lore while satisfyingly hitting all the right notes at the same time. Living among the Amazon women on Themyscira (Paradise Island), young Princess Diana is a force of nature ready to learn to fight but kept at bay by her overprotective mother (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator). Secretly trained by her aunt (Robin Wright, Everest, buff as hell) over the ensuing years, her skills are put to good use when a plane carrying U.S. spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) crash lands in the sky blue waters off the coast. Soon, Diana is accompanying Steve back to jolly old England (“This place is hideous”, exclaims Diana upon seeing the gloomy London harbor) and embarking on a quest to stop a crazed General (Danny Huston, Big Eyes) and his evil scientist comrade (Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In, frightening in a Phantom of the Opera-esque ceramic mask) from releasing a chemical weapon onto their enemies.
Proving that maybe more females should be in charge of high caliber action films, director Patty Jenkins should be lauded for crafting one of the best entries in recent memory. Not only does she stage her battle scenes with grand flare but she manages to never over sexualize her star as I fear her male colleagues would have. There’s no gratuitous shots looking up at Wonder Woman (and up her skirt in the process), no scenes framed with her cleavage taking center stage, no temptation to give fanboys an opportunity to linger too long on the exposed skin. Instead, she presents Wonder Woman and all of the characters (male and female) as equals in the eyes of the camera. In fact, the most skin on display here is from Pine as he emerges from a healing spring on Themyscira, providing for some fun dialogue between Diana and Steve.
Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) was a star on the rise going into this film but she firmly cements her justified ascent with a fully layered flesh and blood performance. Her delightful naiveté when entering the modern world reminded me of Daryl Hannah’s fish out of water exuberance as a mermaid on dry land in 1984’s Splash. We’ve seen this stranger in a strange land done before but never with such charm. As she grows to see that humans are deeply flawed, Gadot admirably portrays the disappointment of someone learning the truth after realizing they had believed too long in fiction.
Though he already has a strong foothold in the Star Trek franchise, Pine turns in one of his best performances as the American solider striving to do what’s best for his country. Pine and Gadot have excellent chemistry and when the inevitable sparks begin to fly, it turns into a courtship during combat that feels well earned. As for the bad guys and gals, Huston is his typical smarmy villain while Anaya memorably makes for a more interesting foe to our heroes.
The film has a lot packed into its 141 minute run-time but never feels long or taxing. Yes, the last half hour delves into the kind of special effects heavy finale that tends to assist my eyes in glazing over at double speed but so much was excellent up until then that Wonder Woman’s battle royale (with an enemy revealed in a nice twist) managed to hold me at the edge of my seat. While there’s no post-credit scene, the film doesn’t need one because the correct edges have been rounded off and just the right amount of loose ends remain for future installments to easily pick up and run with.
Some say that summer blockbusters begin in May but for me the summer has truly begun in June with Wonder Woman’s much appreciated arrival. There’s no regret to be had for seeing this one in the biggest theater possible with a packed audience. Enjoy!
Synopsis: An Amazonian princess leaves her island home to explore the world and, in doing so, becomes one of the world’s greatest heroes.
Release Date: June 2, 2017
Thoughts: Wonder Woman’s journey to the big screen has taken a looooooooooooong time. The popular female superhero has had life on the small screen but hasn’t used her lasso of truth to snag a major motion picture until now. While many audiences and critics reviled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (not me, I thought it was great), the one consensus was that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the highlight of that film. Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) made good use of her brief screen time and boy does this new trailer for her origin pic look like a winner. Directed by Patty Jenkins and co-starring Chris Pine (People Like Us), June 2017 seems so far away…but it seems like the wait will be worth it. Fingers crossed.
Review: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Walt Disney Studios used to crank out their live-action pictures with regularity, keeping the home fires burning while readying their latest animated release. From shaggy dogs to absent-minded professors to a king of the wild frontier, from identical twins pulling a fast one on their divorced parents to a monkey’s uncle to babes in toyland, the studio cast a wide net of fantasy and more often than not put forth winning family entertainment that weren’t Oscar caliber but have managed to stand the test of time all the same.
In recent years, there’s been a revitalization of Disney focusing on live-action features. Favoring true stories of uphill battles instead of the more fantastical escapism that maybe was more necessary half a century ago, there’s a definite formula at work here and no one seems particularly interested in changing it up. A few of these films have won me over like McFarland U.S.A. and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day but on the other side of the coin you have disappointments like The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Million Dollar Arm.
The director of the overstuffed Million Dollar Arm, Craig Gillespie, returns to cinemas with The Finest Hours, a drama in real life adventure documenting the brave rescue of a crew on a sinking oil liner by a small Coast Guard boat. The early trailers may have given most of the movie away, but to their credit they are far more exciting than the finished product.
Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) barely has time to ask his commanding officer (Eric Bana, Closed Circuit) permission to marry his girlfriend (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella, Disney’s excellent 2015 offering) before he’s sent out to rescue the crew of SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker headed for Boston ripped in half during a large weather system felt up and down the New England coast. Aboard the failing ship, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, Interstellar) overcomes crew resistance to lead the men on a risky maneuver in hopes of buying more time as their rescue vessel draws near.
All the makings of an exciting movie…if only we could see what was actually going on. Gillespie and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Goosebumps, Blue Jasmine, the remake of Poltergeist) set so much of the film in the whiteout conditions on land or the rain heavy visages on the open sea that audiences will wind up relying on voice recognition to figure out who’s talking and what’s happening. It doesn’t help that in dark lighting and soaking wet almost every male in the film starts to look alike, further complicating attempts to follow the action. And did I mention it’s in 3D? And it’s the 3D that doesn’t improve the feature in the slightest, with the only noticeable dimensional change coming during the credits.
Pine makes another bid for dramatic leading man but it’s clear he’s better suited to being the captain of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darknessand the upcoming Star Trek Beyond. With so many close-ups of his mournful (and, it must be said, slightly crossed) eyes, Pine emotes enough for the entire cast which is directly countered by Affleck’s barely awake effort. Reacting to his sinking vessel or a fallen shipmate with the gusto of Rip Van Winkle, Affleck may have been going for laid-back but winds up flat-backed, sleepwalking through most of the film.
If there’s a reason to see the movie, it’s for Grainger as Bernie’s spitfire fiancée. Determined not to lose the man she loves so soon after they get engaged, she’s got spirit to spare whether she’s standing up to Bernie’s boss or learning the hard realities of signing up to being the wife of a Coast Guard captain. Alas, Grainger can’t be in two places at once so every time the film shifts back to the sea we feel her absence. Poor Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks absolutely miserable as Bernie’s second in command…and not just because he spends the majority of the film sopping wet. Foster is known to go all-in with his characters but feels restrained here and it clearly makes him uncomfortable.
Based on the novel The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, the script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson dallies around in the first half before rushing through the climactic rescue attempt that should be the dramatic peak of the film. In all fairness, little weight is given to anything in the film but it’s strange the scene highlighted in all of the marketing materials comes up and is over so quickly.
Those feeling nostalgic for the films made by Walt Disney back in the studio’s live-action golden days were likely looking forward to The Finest Hours. I know because I was one of them. So it’s a bummer to report there’s a curious lack of the adventure and magic I had hoped to find in this true life tale of a rescue against all odds on the high seas. While there were a few beacons of light to be found, should you choose to head out to sea with Pine and the gang the hours you’ll spend in the theater won’t be the finest…they’ll be merely fine.