“Wonder Woman”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s nearly impossible to watch “Wonder Woman” and not have your mind wander to our country’s current political climate where female rights are being trampled upon, leaving many women feeling as if they are being treated as second class citizens by the powerful white men in charge. That’s a big reason why the latest D.C. Comics superhero film resonated with me in a way few have before. No matter if you love it or hate it, this movie is a spirited rallying cry for feminism and is sure to empower girls of all ages.

The most any Wonder Woman fan could hope for is that the new movie doesn’t stink (it doesn’t). In fact, the middle third is pretty damn good cinema, with a creative (if implausible) real-world story line and scattered truly touching moments. What a pity that the film has bookends that can’t stand up to the rest of the project.

Director Patty Jenkins is efficient in delivering a good looking, enjoyable film, and it’s put together far better than any other big screen D.C. Comics project (which I realize isn’t much of a compliment, but it’s still an achievement nonetheless). I just wish she didn’t rely so heavily on slow motion twists and turns. It sure does look cool and fierce at first but after sitting through shot after shot of the same old thing, those visuals become tired parodies of themselves far too early. The movie also tries too hard with its story and ends up throwing every genre under the sun into the screenplay, hoping something will stick. There’s the usual ‘superhero saves the day’ story, but it’s also a war movie, a tender romance, an origin story, a buddy sidekick adventure, and a poignant feminist drama. Simply put, this movie is all over the place.

Besides the odd WWI set story, the elephant in the room is the acting. Let’s not sugar coat anything here: the performances are bad, especially for a big-budget franchise. Chris Pine just sort of sits there, a mostly insignificant character with the charisma of an old boot. Gal Gadot certainly looks the part but her performance is at times spectacularly awful, even causing me to giggle inappropriately through a couple of scenes. Thank goodness for the fantastic Robin Wright, who has an all too brief supporting role as the intense warrior Antiope. I’d love to see her have her own movie!

What works about “Wonder Woman” is when the story concentrates on the humanity of these characters. Thanks to the incredibly terrific “Logan,” it’s going to be nearly impossible to review a superhero movie without mentioning the incredibly high bar that it has now set. I realize not all films can operate with such an introspective, small scale focus, but when “Wonder Woman” isn’t afraid to go there, it really soars. Too bad the filmmakers (and studio) chose to chicken out and devolve into another computer generated crapfest which totally brings dishonor to the 120 minutes that preceded it.

The action is what you’d expect from a summer blockbuster: lots of CGI explosions and a ho-hum evil villain with a finale that resembles a bloated, tiresome cartoon. After another fifteen minutes of duplicate shots and an overlong ending where our heroine fights the Greek god of war Ares, I found myself longing for the earlier, better, more focused, and personal parts of the film, like the horror Diana experiences when she encounters guns for the first time or the sly and suggestive humor of her natural curiousness when she sees a naked man.

“Wonder Woman” is still a better-than-average superhero movie: but doesn’t she deserve far better than that?

“Hell or High Water”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS MATT: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Hell or High Water” is one of those little movies that comes strolling along out of nowhere and proceeds to knock your socks off. If you are looking for an extraordinarily well crafted film, this is it. It’s not flashy nor splashy (this isn’t an action packed shoot ’em up cops and robbers action flick), it’s a complex, perceptive character study with a slow burning tension. Everything about this movie, from the accomplished lead performances to the insightful script to the phenomenal original score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) to David Mackenzie‘s bold direction, exudes a confident cowboy swagger. I didn’t want this movie to end.

The film is set in modern day West Texas and has a remarkable sense of place (reminding me much of 2010’s beautifully haunting “Winter’s Bone“). Giles Nuttgens‘ dusty, gritty cinematography feels like a broken-in pair of old leather boots, the perfect compliment to the desolate landscape shots of foreclosed farms, lonely roads and abandoned towns. You can practically reach out and touch the desperation.

Here’s a rare movie where worldly, perceptive dialogue and sophisticated character development thrives; the character study is just subtle enough and the writing (from super talented screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who wrote “Sicario,” one of my Top 10 Best Films of 2015) is whip smart. The story focuses on brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), the brains and the brawns behind a scheme to rob banks in a last ditch attempt to save their family farm. The criminal duo soon find themselves being chased by Texas Ranger officers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham). We all know the inevitable showdown is coming, and the tension leading up to the final confrontation left my heart racing.

The performances feel so authentic and are inspired all around. Pine is stunningly effective and makes huge strides in his acting cred with this role. Foster gives another exceptional interpretation of a detestable yet sympathetic character (he’s born to play roles such as this), and Birmingham is marvelously understated as a loyal friend and partner. There’s no denying that Bridges is a national treasure but I really wish he wouldn’t have made the choice to do that ridiculous accent he’s so fond of lately; at some point he starts to come across as a Sam Elliott rip-off. It doesn’t hurt the film and in fact it actually fits with the subject matter — once you get over the initial shock of it all.

“Hell or High Water” presents a story that’s cynical yet hopeful, a universal story that grabs on early and never lets go. This movie is never condescending, doesn’t pander to the audience, and gives me hope for the future of indie cinema’s struggle to get a seat at the Hollywood blockbuster table.

MATT SAYS:

Beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens and based on a screenplay by “Sicario” scribe Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water” is a western fable of and for our times.

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are brothers who are committing a series of robberies of small-town Texas banks. Toby is the sympathetic mastermind behind the crimes while Tanner is the muscle, and each heist is pulled off with precision. The Texas Rangers, led by Marcus Hamilton ((Jeff Bridges) are hot on the trail of the Howard brothers, but they are seemingly always one step behind.

Directed by David Mackenzie, “Hell or High Water” perfectly captures the desperation of broken families, broken homes, and broken people living underneath the shadow of ruthless profiteers that seek to exploit the ninety-nine percent. Pine and Foster play off one another well, with Foster playing the unhinged sociopath while Pine is the understated father trying to do right by his family. In this world, the lines of criminal versus law-abiding citizen are blurred and morality is a relative concept. It’s hard not to sympathize with the brothers, at least to a point. Their struggles are authentic and of our times, and the conflict between them and the lawmen that pursue them equally so. It is no surprise that the movie is connecting with audiences nationwide.

Just as “Unforgiven” was a singularly new take on the classic western, “Hell or High Water” stands as a potent reminder of the times we live in and the realignment of the classic struggle of good versus evil in an age of “me first” greed and selfishness.

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“Star Trek Beyond”

LOUISA:  2 STARS  MATT:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

One of the best elements of the new “Star Trek” reboot films is that you always feel the characters are in real danger. This sense of peril keeps the engine humming for a while in “Star Trek Beyond” but before long, the film runs out of gas. Early in the movie there’s a spectacular attack on the USS Enterprise which sets up expectations that this was going to deliver a kick-ass ride. Too bad it’s all downhill from there.

With an ancient artifact on board the Enterprise, a surprise attack from lizard skinned Krall (Idris Elba) forces the crew to crash on a mysterious planet. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (the scene stealing Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest have to battle their way through the aliens to escape the hostile planet. Herein lies the real problem with the movie: the storyline is mediocre and there are far too many fistfights.

Most disappointing is the lack of character development and interactions that made the 2009’s “Star Trek” and 2013’s “Into Darkness” rise above this film. Instead of snappy dialogue and meaningful scenes between the characters, we get frantically paced, jumpy, pitiful excuses for action scenes and miscellaneous dizzying 360 aerial shots. The editing is so frenzied that I couldn’t tell what was going on half the time so I quickly lost interest. Fast cuts do not make up for a lacking script (written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung).

Director Justin Lin (who has helmed several films in the mega successful “Fast and Furious” series) has a knack for similar material, but it’s obvious that J.J. Abrams is much better at handling such big films. I’m on board with a new director for the franchise, but the film feels different in a bad way and suffers.

The special effects are respectable but a little too cartoonish at times, with a heavy reliance on CGI. Everything feels loud and expensive, but unfortunately other elements suffer. There’s far too much emphasis on explosions and hand-to-hand combat and not enough of the magic that lies in the character development (as seen in the previous reboot films). The actors don’t have much interaction unless it’s punching or shooting or grooving along to a classic Beastie Boys track that blasts through the theater at full volume (this extended music video scene felt out of place). The costumes and makeup in particular seem slapped together too; Spock’s wig is actually crooked in the final shots of the movie!

Summer movies are supposed to be fun, and I didn’t have fun watching this movie. It simply didn’t feel cinematic enough for me (and I saw it in IMAX)! That’s a red flag when a big budget film feels more like a television episode than a grandiose blockbuster. I do think that part of the problem is that the first two films in the reboot series were just so good that this third installment pales in comparison. The writing and direction is not as polished as the first two, and there’s just nothing that special nor memorable in this disappointing film.

MATT SAYS:

Jim, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov are back for a welcome visit in “Star Trek Beyond.”

The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense. Some bad guys with really advanced technology lure the Enterprise to their really remote planet in order to enslave the crew and destroy a Federation Star Base. How did the alien technology get so far ahead of the Federation’s, such that the invading ships are able to easily cut through the Enterprise’s force field? With such technological advances, why did the bad guys need the Enterprise to attack the Federation? Why have they been waiting on a remote planet for all of these years, just biding their time until they have a chance to attack? Why is the artifact at the center of the plot so essential to the alien weapon, and why is it even necessary, given the obvious starship-defeating technology they already have?

These are questions that apparently will remain unanswered. But that’s okay. The movie isn’t really about the plot; it’s about the crew of the Enterprise and their chemistry. Happily, that chemistry remains firmly intact.

I love seeing this crew working together. All of them — Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Karl Urban (McCoy), John Cho (Sulu), and Simon Pegg (Scotty) — do a great job working together. Seeing them play off of one another in the very well-established “Star Trek” way is welcome enough, regardless of the silly excuse for a plot. And seeing Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles brings a bittersweet note to the film; he’s so damned likeable as Chekov and it’s hard not to be frustrated and sad at the talent we all lost in a stupid accident.

Plot-wise, “Star Trek Beyond” is only marginally better than the disappointing “Star Trek Into Darkness.” But seeing these characters (and actors) back together again in another iteration is such a pleasure that I can overlook the film’s flaws.

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