Movie Review – “Wonder Woman” (2017)

 

 

At long last, a DC movie that doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out. It has been a long time coming, especially since the company has been trying to years to make audiences take them seriously, and failing for the most part – While movies like “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs. Superman” have their share fans and defenders, the general consensus is that those are the bottom of the superhero barrel, at a time when this genre is at its peak.

 

Part of the reason DC has been like this is due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, which were moody, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. Clearly, with how movies like “Suicide Squad” turned out, they wanted to build off what Nolan’s movies started. Another factor, whether DC wants to admit it or not, is Marvel studios and DC attempting to not make their movies in the same vein. But the results up to this point have been dull grey movies where you can hardly tell what’s going on, about a bunch of whiny power-hungry man-children who act more like villains than the actual antagonists, and then spend the rest of their time brooding or sulking, making for an unenjoyable or unpleasant experience.

 

 

 

But thank the gods, DC seems to have finally gotten over that dark phase with their newest entry in their cinematic universe, “Wonder Woman.” What a complete change of pace from their previous movies – filled with a diverse range of colorful characters, led by a strong yet flawed woman, while at the same time being a period piece that can easily switch between war scenes, comedy, and some slice-of-life quieter moments. I got everything I wanted out of “Wonder Woman” and it was a joy to sit through.

 

The film begins on the island of Themyscira, a magical island hidden away from the rest of the world, inhabited by the Amazons, an all female-race created by Zeus to protect humans from the god of war, Ares. Since Ares hasn’t risen in centuries, the Amazons have lived peacefully on Themyscira without aging, but still train and are prepared for when the time comes that they are needed. Their queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), decides she wants to raise a daughter, thus scuplts one from clay and is brought to life by a lightning bolt from Zeus, giving birth to Diana.

 

As Diana (Gal Gadot) grows older, she learns about Themyscira and how Ares corrupted the otherwise good hearts of men, as well as the one weapon that can stop Ares – the Godkiller. But when a airplane crashes through the magical barrier protecting Themyscira, Diana goes out to rescue the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he tells the island about the terrible war going on throughout the world. Diana is convinced that Ares is to blame for this world war, and sets out to bring him down, believing that the war will end the moment Ares is killed.

 

 

 

Gal Gadot and her performance as Diana is the charm of “Wonder Woman.” Her wide-eyed innocence is cheerful and infectious, but never to the point where it was annoying. One of the better small moments is when she has her first taste of ice cream and is blown away by the taste, saying to the chef that he should be proud of the work he does. There is love and affection in every thing she says, and you really get the impression that she cares about every person out there. On her way to the battlefield, she nearly stops to help any person who is suffering, which is pretty much everyone, even if she cannot help all of them.

 

This is a woman who would selflessly put the needs of anyone and everyone ahead of her own, and always believes in the goodness and kindness in every living being, even if that gets her into a lot of trouble.

 

Gadot also has wonderful chemistry with Chris Pine, who acts as the straight man to her antics in London. One of the best scenes in the movie is the two of them sharing a boat ride to London, and they share more of their backstories – Diana explaining she was created by a lightning bolt from Zeus leads to some great reactions from Steve – as well as the difference between their worlds, and a discussion on “the pleasures of the flesh,” which given that Diana grew up on an island of only women leaves Steve in an awkward position.

 

 

 

The war sequences are beautifully shot, especially the trench warfare scene that showcases Diana’s full potential and her ‘never-give-up’ attitude – only armed with a shield, sword, and lasso, taking on a battalion of well-armed Germans on a desolate and barren landscape. The music amplifies the intensity of these scenes and makes every punch and bullet feel far more powerful.

 

There is not a single scene that feels wasted in “Wonder Woman,” with something of value coming at nearly every moment. Whether that is Gadot’s acting, the charming yet hard-hitting screenplay, the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, the quieter moments of reflection and fondness, the fascinating Greek mythology on display, or the well-executed action sequences, “Wonder Woman” has plenty to offer audiences of all types.

 

Even if you are not a fan of super hero movies, this one is a departure from the Marvel and DC movies in the past, and is more of an uplifting war movie that personifies innocence, mythology, change, and love, without ever feeling ham-fisted or forced. This one is a blast from start to finish and might even be worth checking out multiple times. You will not be disappointed by “Wonder Woman.”

 

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “The Omen” (1976)

 

 

Imagine a sequel to “Rosemary’s Baby” if they decided to ramp up the violence and the idea of demons and satanic cults, and you would probably get something like “The Omen.”

While “Rosemary’s Baby” was more-so about the mystery of what was happening around Rosemary and the fate of her baby, “The Omen” is all-in on the fear and making you genuinely afraid that the Antichrist is coming and that the end of the world is upon us.

On the night that the son of American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is born, Thorn is told the baby died moments after the birth. With his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) unaware that their child was stillborn, Robert is convinced by a priest to adopt another new born child whose mother died during birth. The two raise their adopted son, Damien, in the United Kingdom, though Robert never tells Katherine that Damien is adopted.

But on Damien’s fifth birthday, things take a turn for the hellish when his babysitter throws herself off their mansion’s balcony. After this, Robert is visited by an Italian priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who warns Robert that Damien must die in order to save him, his wife and the world from the Antichrist.

 

 

What sold me on the terror of this situation was the prophecy of the Antichrist, in particular how he would take over the world, and how it matched up with the life Damien was leading. It was a simple yet effective technique, since a five-year old couldn’t show demonic powers and the apocalypse by himself.

There was also this constant ominous atmosphere to Robert’s search for the truth, like he was always being watched by this entity that could strike him down at any moment. By that entity holds back, letting Robert uncover so much before doing anything about it. Is it because of the importance Robert must play in Damien’s growth? Or maybe because this force just loves toying with people and showing their lack of control in the world? Either way, this force looms over the entire film like a stalker, waiting for just the right moment to sink his claws into his prey and getting the most enjoyment out of it.

Overall, “The Omen” feels like a middle ground between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” filled with mystery and intrigue, but also with the fear of a parent helpless to stop unspeakable horrors and monstrosities. With the satanic chorus, gothic architecture and ever-present demonic atmosphere, this does feel like one of the most evil movies I have ever watched.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” (1974)

 

 

If you didn’t get enough blood, gore, and samurai dismemberment in the first “Lady Snowblood,” get ready for even more in the sequel, plus nudity, long take fight sequences and very 1970s style filmmaking with “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance.”

Set after the events of the first film, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) has been sentenced to life in prison for the crimes she committed. But when the secret police learn of her talents, they reach out to and give her an ultimatum – Spend the rest of her life in prison, or work for them and have her sentenced reduced.

 

 

What stood out to me in this film, outside of the up’ed level of violence from the first film, was the cinematography and the style in which of the flashbacks are shown. There are lots of great uses of color here, including some beautiful shots of the bright red sun setting on the ocean, or the dark blue colors of night. The flashbacks reminded me of “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” in how stylized and unique they got, with strange camera angles, even weirder editing styles and lack of color.

“Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” offers exactly what we got in the first film, with plenty of rage and violence to go around, but presents it in a far more captivating style. Now there’s far more that catches the eye outside of the bright red blood splatter.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “El Dorado” (1966)

 

 

John Wayne plays an aging gunman in the lawless west, who must aid a drunkard in the capture of an outlaw, as they capture their criminal in a jail cell and must protect him from his posse so that he can face justice, all while Wayne fights off a previous lover.

 

Oh wait, my bad. That’s the plot synopsis for Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo.” Here’s the details on Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado.”

 

John Wayne plays an aging gunman in the lawless west, who must aid a drunkard in the capture of an outlaw, as they capture their criminal in a jail cell and must protect him from his posse so that he can face justice, all while Wayne fights off a previous lover.

 

…Wait.

 

 

 

Yeah, right away I began to notice a lot of similarities between “El Dorado” and “Rio Bravo,” especially in terms of plot and story. Although “El Dorado” adds in new characters, including a family that is caught in the middle of this feud, and the outlaw being a business man planning to buy out all the water in the area, instead of a loose-cannon gunman.

 

But where the two differ is in their tone and atmosphere, as well as the acting. Outside of the comedic scenes between John Wayne and his ex-lover, “Rio Bravo” took itself very seriously, like the whole state of Texas was on the line if they failed their mission to bring this criminal in to face justice. The film reminded me a lot of another Howard Hawks western, “Red River,” with its somber yet meticulous pacing where dread and terror could be around any corner.

 

“El Dorado” on the other hand never takes itself too seriously, with Wayne having a lot more time for banter among his buddies, including the druken sherriff (Robert Mitchum) and a skilled knife marksman (James Caan). The pace is far more leisurely, taking its time to build things up and often going off to do things that don’t have an immediate payoff, like an injury that Wayne sustains early on, or the way that Wayne and Caan’s characters meet out of the blue. This makes “El Dorado” far more pleasant to sit through than “Rio Bravo” and offers a lot more that made me smile, especially through humor and simple conversations.

 

 

 

“El Dorado” also gets bonus points for having some better performances than “Rio Bravo,” namely from Robert Mitchum. His character goes through many different shades, from patient sherriff with wit, to a drunk man who has nothing to lose, to a old man looking to redeem himself, and Mitchum makes each of these sides feel like one whole man, filled to the brim with successes and failures. While “Rio Bravo” had Dean Martin as its drunk gunman, who nailed the humor and banter with Wayne, Mitchum nailed the tragedy of this character and poured on the sympathy.

 

But the biggest reason I take “El Dorado” is because there was no petty scuabbling between Wayne and his ex-lover like in “Rio Bravo,” which was so irritating and insufferable that it almost made me want to turn off the movie. Instead, “El Dorado” was a supportive, almost motherly figure with Maudie (Charlene Holt), who isn’t afraid to snap back at Wayne but knows that she cannot change his mind.

 

Overall, while “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado” have their share of similarites, the two certainly set about it in different ways. One is a darker, tense tale of redemption and justice, while the other is a more pleasant, humorous romp about making things right. They’re both great movies in their own right, certainly worth checking out if you’re in the mood for a classic western. It is hard to go wrong with Howard Hawks directing John Wayne.

 

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017)

I’ll be the first to admit that I was unnecessarily hard on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” painting the movie in broad strokes and calling it a good “popcorn flick.” And while the film does mostly aim for that demographic, after taking some to time to realize just how outstanding the good parts are, I realize now just how effective that film was. The characters are all given plenty of time to shine, the plot is refreshing filled with far more humanity than I gave it credit for, the comedy is surprisingly timeless, and the soundtrack is now classic.

While “Guardians of the Galaxy” is still certainly a popcorn flick, it is arguably the best one in the last several decades and right up there as one of the best Marvel movies to date.

 

This brings us to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” which I feel is best described as more of the same. More one-liners and quotable scenes, more comedy, more of our “heroes” simply sitting down and trying to have a normal conversation, and more great uses of music. And while this does make for a great experience, it does leave me feeling like we’ve been down this road before, which somewhat taints the movie.

 

Now that our group of ragtag and misfit Guardians have made a name for themselves across the galaxy, Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and baby Groot (Vin Disel) have been taking on stranger and more dangerous missions, which eventually leads them to encounter a powerful being known as Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Starlord’s father. Ego takes Peter, Gamora, and Drax to his planet, where he intends to prove he is ready to be a dad, while Rocket and Groot repair their damaged ship and are hunted by the Ravagers, led by Yondu (Michael Rooker).

 

 

 

Like with the first movie, what I found to be memorable was the comedy and the character interactions. How these vastly different personalities and quirks bounce off one another while Starlord tries to make everyone try to act like humans. Peter has clearly been teaching Rocket to understand sarcasm better through winking (though he always ends up winking with the wrong eye), as well as getting Drax to lay off his barbarian nature and learn when others are joking.

 

Some of the better lines come from Drax, who takes great joy in watching others suffer, whether through physical beatings or emotional assaults, while things like dancing or physical beauty repulse him. Yondu also gets some great moments, especially when we finally get to see him get to put his arrow abilities to full use. They make Yondu a much more sympathetic character in this movie instead of the vulture-ous character we got in the first film, to show that he’s always had good intentions but has been normally given by greed or power, showing him for the misfit he truly is.

 

But my problem with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is similar to my feeling on “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and how that film up’ed the ante of “The Avengers” by taking everything that movie did but making it feel bigger.

 

 

 

In nearly every regard, “Age of Ultron” did everything “The Avengers” did, but better; yet we look back on the first film with awe and admiration, while the second one is just fine. The reason for this is because “The Avengers” was an experience, watching all these characters from five different movies come together in such a spectacular fashion for something unique and exciting. “Age of Ultron” was a sequel to an experience, and it does everything a good sequel should do – bigger stakes, bigger fights, more of what made the first one so good.

 

But everything it offers is something we’ve already seen, so that same magic that the first film had isn’t there. We’re not watching this one with fresh eyes. For all of its good points, “Age of Ultron” was just trying to be “The Avengers” again. Did it work? At times, yes, but the filmmakers we trying to recapture lightning after it had left its jar.

 

 

 

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” falls into the same category as “Age of Ultron” – trying to be far too much like its predecessor that it hardly creates its own identity. The first film was magical in its character interactions and writing, so I cannot blame James Gunn and crew for wanting to recapture that whimsy. But the tone, style, and sense of humor were so identical the previous movie that it feels like a watered-down version of the first movie.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I still had a blast watching this movie. There are lots of memorable moments, some of them quieter heart-to-heart scenes between Gamora and her sister Nebula. I never once thought I was wasting my time or that this was a bad movie. I’m just a bit disappointed this one wasn’t as much of an experience as “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

 

Final Grade: B