Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Reel Review: TRANSFORMERS - THE LAST KNGHT



One of the oldest axioms in storytelling and filmmaking is that the higher the concept, the simpler the story must be. This is done to keep the audience engaged, interested, and grounded when the elements are not of this earth. In the universe of the TRANSFORMERS, where giant alien robots who turn into vehicles are battling for supremacy or freedom of the human race, simplicity is key. But don’t tell that to director Michael Bay and his team of writers in the 5th entry in the adaptation of the Hasbro toy line, sub-titled THE LAST KNIGHT.

Humans are at war with the Transformers; both the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons. The Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), is in deep space searching for his maker, while the remaining robots on Earth remain in hiding. Helping the Autobots along is Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), who finds a talisman from the dark ages which can lead to Merlin’s Staff, which can unlock a terrible power underneath the Earth which can wipe out humanity. In a race to the Staff, Yeager is joined by an old professor (Anthony Hopkins), a young professor (Laura Haddock), an orphaned girl (Isabela Moner), and the military leader against the aliens (Josh Duhamel).

Find the staff, save the world. The story could not be simpler in this sci-fi fantasy flick where robots from space battle among us with historical ties to the Knights of the Round Table, World Wars, Stonehenge, and the Super Continent which eventually formed our planet. The concept is as far out there as another galaxy; Merlin (played by Stanley Tucci), was a real guy who received his staff (mistaken for magic back then), by ancient Decepticons, and the Transformers have been among us for decades assisting in WWII and other global conflicts. It borders on ridiculous at times, and steps are taken to make it believable, and THE LAST KNIGHT sets itself up as a grand, sci-fi and fantasy war tale.

There’s a lot going in the film, including Yeager and his new companions having ancient blood-line ties to everything (a bit contrived), and THE LAST KNIGHT gets bogged down in a hurry. There’s way too much plot, and the film has to get through it all with endless explanations after explanations when we’d rather see robots punching each other. The narrative eventually gets so confusing a road map is needed, and things get so plot-heavy that even characters are shoved aside; too many are introduced and forgotten about too quickly.

While Bay is dishing out a soup sandwich of a story, he’s filming one gorgeous looking movie. Every frame is filled and stunning, and the battles are a lot of fun, with the scenes in the dark ages a real highlight. But there are still a lot of head-scratching decisions happening. Hero-bot Optimus Prime vanishes from the story way too often, and even though he gets some huge moments worthy of applause, it doesn’t seem like he was well utilized and it’s easy to feel cheated. On the technical side, the film is an editing disaster. There are many odd cuts, breaks in continuity (Yeager acquires an ancient weapon which vanishes and never spoken of again), and sections of the film feel like they’re missing. But worse of all is the goddamn screen format. THE LAST KNIGHT was shot in two different screen formats; widescreen and IMAX. We’ve seen this before with many films going from one sequence to another, but Bay switches formats between cuts within a scene. It’s distracting and jarring and absolutely bizarre to witness, and very odd for a Bay film which at the very least is technically proficient.

With such a large cast, there are no real standouts. Mark Wahlberg is fine, as is the always-great Anthony Hopkins. Young Isabella Moner is a true find, and Josh Duhamel continues to play a great military man. John Turturro shows up in a pointless cameo. The voices of the many robots are provided by John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Gemma Chan, and Jean Dujardin, to name a few…and all are perfect.

Similar to its predecessors, the final battle is eye-popping and done on a grand, magnificent scale, and then halts abruptly and we’re in the closing credits before we can process what the hell just happened. There are so many issues to speak of it’s hard to blame any one thing; the overstuffed script points towards indecision (not to mention seven credited contributors to the script and story), and the editing issues makes one wonder what was going on during shooting and in the editing room. The ambition behind the history-altering story is admirable, but the presentation is messy and confusing, and brevity is sorely lacking. Save this one for the car-crusher.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it


Monday, June 19, 2017

John G. Avildsen 1935 - 2017



Oscar winning director John G. Avildsen, the man behind the camera for two of the most popular films in pop-culture, has passed away at 81.

John Guilbert Avildsen was born in Illinois and educated at New York State University. He began his film career as an assistant director on films by Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger. His first bit of success came in 1970 with his first low budget film, JOE; in which actor Peter Boyle received critical acclaim. His next successful film would be SAVE THE TIGER in 1973, which was nominated for three Oscars, and would win Best Actor for Jack Lemmon.

His biggest film would come in 1976, when he took a script written by then-unknown Sylvester Stallone about a down-and-out boxer with a never-say-die attitude and turn it into the definitive sports film of all time; ROCKY. With an earnest and on-the-street approach, ROCKY endeared itself to everyone and not just sports and boxing fans. ROCKY would be the highest grossing film of 1976 and earn ten Oscar nominations; including Best Picture and Best Director for Avildsen.

In 1984 he would take a few pages out of Stallone’s spirited script and make THE KARATE KID; starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. Another underdog film which audiences instantly related to, THE KARATE KID would be a quick entry into pop culture, and that year would earn Morita a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Avildsen’s later films would include NEIGHBORS (1981), THE KARATE KID PART II (1986), LEAN ON ME (1989), THE KARATE KID PART III (1989), ROCKY V (1990), 8 SECONDS (1994), and INFERNO (1999).

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As a wee-lad, there were a handful of films that this Blogger and his brother would latch onto; often quoting and re-enacting fight scenes (often with bad results), and those two of those films were ROCKY and THE KARATE KID. The spirit behind both of those films, which had more to do with character than the actual fighting, was something that we as kids, and now as adults can truly appreciate. Avildsen took two simple concepts and made them speak to us all, to keep on fighting when the odds were not in our favor, and to get back up no matter how many times knocked down; two qualities that could take adults and kids a very long way.



Friday, June 16, 2017

A Reel Review: CARS 3



Since day one, the films of Pixar Animation Studios have had that hard-to-sustain balance of adult-themes wrapped up in kid-friendly storytelling. With CARS 3, the second sequel to their 2006 world of talking vehicles, the adult themes have never been meatier, or more relevant. This is a film about growing old, about leaving something behind for the next generation, and remembering our roots. It’s heavy stuff, but how would that travel with those who travel with pedals?

Famous race-car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is nearing the end of his prime. In an attempt to compete with high-tech rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), McQueen wrecks and is facing an unwelcome retirement. Determined to give it one last shot, McQueen picks up a new sponsor, led by Sterling (Nathon Fillion) who assigns him a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). When the new, high-tech training methods don’t work for McQueen, he sets out to find Smokey (Chris Cooper); the old crew chief of his first mentor.

Films set in a sports or competition world often have that rise, fall, rise again method of storytelling, but so few want to deal with a competitor who is aging out of their profession. It’s understandable why no one wants to often tell that story, because it is, and should be hard to watch. In CARS 3, director Brian Fee and the Pixar team bravely drive down that road, as this is one brutally honest animated film. It’s never easy watching our heroes grow old, fall, and struggle to adapt to a new changing world, and that’s exactly the story Lighting McQueen is going through here. His old friends and sponsors are retiring and leaving him, and the sport that he had excelled at seems to be passing him by.

The bulk of CARS 3 is spent with McQueen trying to stay in the fast lane, mostly with his new trainer, Cruz. Cruz has her own story to tell; a female car with racing dreams who was once told that girls can’t race…and through each other McQueen and Cruz find a way. The film really takes off when it shifts into a road-trip (of course) to find the mentor of McQueen’s teacher Doc Hudson (magically reprised by the late great Paul Newman), and CARS 3 finds a brilliant story to tell by embracing past, present, and future.

This is still a G-rated animated film, and for kids the issues may be too weighty to lift. But the story is done in enough broad-strokes for them to latch onto. They would certainly be able to tell that their hero McQueen is struggling (his big wreck is horrific to see), and most of the humor is done via physical comedy. However, for adults the lack of witty one-liners in the script is noticeable, although there are some very good knee-slappers here and there. The action scenes, especially the racing and a second-act trip to a backwoods demolition derby are spectacular and will keep the attention of the old and the new easily. The Pixar animation is at its best, and certain scenes, such as a beach training scene, the demo-derby, and old film reels have a photo-realism that is breathtaking; it nearly looks like Pixar filmed Hot Wheels toys on a playground. The pop-music cues are perfect and add to the fun, and Randy Newman’s score is quite wonderful.

Owen Wilson is still perfect as McQueen, and his chemistry with Cristela Alonzo really helps drive the film. McQueen’s old friends from Radiator Springs are back (wonderfully reprised by Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, and yes…Larry the Cable Guy), but are reduced to extended cameos, although the little screentime they have is put to very good use. The late great Paul Newman returns through some clever, and tasteful use of unused audio from the first film. Chris Cooper and Kerry Washington make welcome additions. The only real gripe with the cast is that Michael Keaton isn’t back to reprise his character, and the recast new guy (Bob Peterson) sounds nothing like Keaton.

By the time the checkered flag drops on this lap, a few tears are sure to be rolled as CARS 3 wraps with a satisfying punch; reminding us the importance of accepting age, passing on what we’ve learned, and the true meaning of the word “legacy”. And despite the talking cars and trucks with cartoon eyes, this is a very human story. But the true brilliance of CARS 3 is that it feels like Pixar is reminding us of the state of things; after all, the famed animation house is now well over 20 years old, with its original founders and filmmakers reaching their own twilights, and fans from day-one reaching the point of passing down their own torches. Pixar understands us, just as they always have, and films like CARS 3 will make them the best driver to take us down the road.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Reel 30: June of 1987



In today’s Hollywood, major studios tend to put a lot of thought into the release dates for their films; dates and weekends are analyzed, over-analyzed, scrutinized and stressed over, with each studio watching the other closely in a virtual arms-race to see who blinks first. What this means for us is only a few worthwhile films per month, but in the glorious month of June in 1987, we were treated to an avalanche of movies which today, 30 years later, are looked back upon very fondly. Here is a look back at those movies which came to us in June of ’87.

The month started off with a bang, with Brain DePalma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES. Based on the true story of top-cop Eliot Ness’ efforts to bring down top-gangster Al Capone in 1930’s prohibition-era Chicago. With some brilliant editing and shooting to amp-up the tension, and an ensemble cast of Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Patricia Clarkson, and Charles Martin Smith, THE UNTOUCHABLES was another feather in the cap of DePalma’s storied directing career, and it renewed America’s interest and fascination with gangster stories and movies. The film was nominated for six Oscars, with Connery winning for Best Supporting Actor.

Audiences were still abuzz with DePalma’s shoot-em-up drama when their attentions were shifted from cops and robbers to soldiers and aliens, when John McTiernan grabbed us by the spine with PREDATOR. Mega-star Arnold Schwarzenegger led the cast of rescue-team soldiers being hunted in the jungle by an alien with camoflauge abilities which rendered it invisible, and McTiernan had an instant entry to pop-culture. Arnold was joined by an ensemble cast of Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and future IRON MAN 3 director Shane Black, and the chemistry between them all gave it an identity beyond a sci-fi/horror shoot-em-up bloodbath. PREDATOR would be the third-highest box office draw of 1987, and the visual effects work would pave the way for future films.

PREDATOR gave fans of science fiction something to hang their helmets on, but the month wasn’t done with outer-space folk just yet, as comedy legend Mel Brooks would release his parody film SPACEBALLS just two weeks later. Taking inspiration from STAR WARS, ALIEN, STAR TREK, and PLANET OF THE APES, Brooks’ film was loaded with his zippy one-liners which are still quoted today. With another great cast which included Brooks, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, John Candy, Joan Rivers, Dick Van Patten, Dom DeLuise, and a cameo by John Hurt, SPACEBALLS became an instant comedy classic.

After three weeks of aliens, robots, cops and gangsters, about the only thing June had yet to deliver was a strong war movie, and no one was better suited to deliver such a film than master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who arrived with FULL METAL JACKET in the last weekend of the month. Based on a novel which followed U.S. Marines through their training and experiences during the Vietnam War, FULL METAL JACKET boasted a solid cast which included Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Emery, Arliss Howard, and Adam Baldwin…and featured some of Kubrick’s most tempered, disciplined, and exquisite directing. Set during the Tet Offensive, Kubrick’s film stepped away from the typical jungles of Vietnam that Hollywood had been focusing on for decades, and the character-work gave it a strong identity which still leaves impressions today.

Ensemble casting was the one thing that the films of June 1987 seemed to have in common, and other notable heavy-hitters included the mighty cast of Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Veronica Cartwright, and Cher in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, and the adaptation/continuation of the TV series DRAGNET which starred Tom Hanks, Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Plummer, and Harry Morgan. And not to be lost at all in the shuffle were two family favorite films; the Bigfoot-family comedy HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS, and the animated THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER. And just to top things off, Steve Martin directed and starred in his adaptation of ROXANNE; a film which he would win a Golden Globe for Best Actor.


By the time July rolled into the timeline, audiences had been thrilled with the offerings of June. It was a month with something for everyone; cops and robbers, aliens and soldiers, families and monsters, comedies and drama, spectacular shoot-em-ups and Oscar contenders. It was a month where no analyzing was needed, and the only goal was to entertain.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Reel Facts & Opinions: WONDER WOMAN Wins Again



One of the most satisfying elements to the success of Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN film isn’t just that we finally have a very good adaptation of a DC Comics hero, or that the film may have single-handedly rescued the sputtering Warner Bros. franchise, but that its impressive box office haul thus far ($205 million domestically over two weeks) has earned a bragging right that no other superhero film since 2000 can lay claim to; WONDER WOMAN has the lowest 1st to 2nd week domestic drop (only 45%) of any superhero film in the modern era.



Typically, a blockbuster-designed film will open big and then see a significant drop in its numbers, either because of stiff competition or bad word-of-mouth; but with very good reviews and good word-on-the-street, WONDER WOMAN looks like it’ll continue to be a strong performer. What is very interesting about WONDER WOMAN’s consistent performance from week 1 to week 2 is that the highest drop belongs to its predecessor, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), which dropped almost 70% (!) in its second week. This can be mind-boggling as DAWN OF JUSTICE not only featured two of the most iconic characters of all time (Batman and Superman), but it also had this very version of Wonder Woman in a supporting role.



How is it that DAWN OF JUSTICE and WONDER WOMAN can be on total opposite sides of the grid? The answer is simple; WONDER WOMAN is a good movie, and DAWN OF JUSTICE was not. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 93% of WONDER WOMAN’s reviews are marked positive, while DAWN OF JUSTICE sits at a lowly 27% approval rating. Even outside of professional critic circles, fans were unhappy with DAWN OF JUSTICE in the way it treated its characters and the muddled storytelling. It’s fair to say that fans, and critics have spoken and had a huge part to play in the massive drop for DAWN OF JUSTICE.

Meanwhile, WONDER WOMAN soars thanks to a faithful adaptation of the character which fans have embraced, and a commitment to simple, yet tried-and-true classic storytelling. Yes, WONDER WOMAN is the first female-fronted superhero film in 12 years which has brought in plenty of moms and daughters to the theatre who may not have shown up to see Batman and Superman play punch-out, and that does play a factor into the numbers, but is hard to believe that if WONDER WOMAN wasn’t any good, that it would perform this consistently. This Blogger has always said that if you want good reviews (and consequently, good box office), then make a good movie. Good, and great filmmaking can and will be rewarded, and just like a true hero should, WONDER WOMAN should inspire others to do better.

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Read Reel Speak’s review on WONDER WOMAN (HERE), and the impact the film has had outside of the theatre (HERE).




Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Reel 35 - STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN


“It is very cold in space, Kirk”

This month marks the 35th anniversary of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
After the lukewarm success of the first STAR TREK film, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), the filmmakers had a clear idea of what the sequel needed to do. Although first film had dazzling visuals and Kubrick-like themes and pacing, it lacked an adversary with a face; a villain to muck things up for the crew of heroes. With that in mind, the filmmakers dove into the original TV series with the intention of finding a Big Bad worthy of the big screen, and find a Big Bad they did.
Focusing on the open-ended episode SPACE SEED (1967), Director Nicholas Meyer and Producer Harve Bennet chose the iconic Khan Noonien Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban. Having been marooned by Capt. Kirk at the end of the original episode, it was clear that a simple motivating factor of vengeance was enough to sell the character, with some obsessive Capt. Ahab sprinkled on for good measure. Montalban’s performance was, and is still considered to this day to be the best TREK villain ever on the big screen.

With every sci-fi film in need of human elements to keep the audience engaged, WRATH OF KHAN capitalized on strong themes of friendship, sacrifice, mortality, and old age; all themes which laid the groundwork for nearly every future TREK movie right up to this day. These were the issues that the three main characters, Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) grappled with throughout the film. Through them, the audience experienced the meatiest of all TREK, and the characters had never been portrayed better on the big screen. WRATH OF KHAN, despite being set in a far future in outers space populated by fascinating aliens and dazzling technology, was very much a human story, possibly the most human sci-fi film ever put together.


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WRATH OF KHAN was a household favorite growing up; the first home-release we owned was on the glorious Betamax format, and that tape was likely watched about a billion times between this Blogger and this Blogger’s Dad. It was a space adventure and great TREK which literally took the characters  to places they had never been. Today, KHAN still remains very high up on anyone’s Best Sci-fi Films list, and its influences can be seen in countless films. THE MOTION PICTURE may have taken the franchise out of dry-dock, but it was KHAN who brought it home.


“I have been, and always shall be your friend”

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Read Reel Speak's ranking of the Top 5 STAR TREK films HERE







Monday, June 5, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Triumph of WONDER WOMAN



In today’s ultra-sensitive, super-critical world, it’s hard to find a true triumph in the movies, and even harder to find one that transcends the silver screen. But this past weekend’s long-awaited arrival of Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN can, and should be one of those rare victories. The 4th entry in the series of films based on DC Comics characters soared to a domestic opening of $100 million, with an additional $122 million overseas. It is the highest opening in history for a female director, and it beat the openings of rival Marvel Studios solo-hero films, including the now past record holder, IRON MAN ($98.6 million in 2008). And with excellent reviews all around (read Reel Speak’s review HERE), it seems poised to make a long run in theatres.

How does this qualify as a triumph? Right away, the success of WONDER WOMAN could not have come at a better time for the DC Comics films and their parent company Warner Bros. On the screen, the previous three entries in the series, which adapted classic characters such as Superman, Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn, were not met with a lot of joy from critics and fans. Odd decisions with characters, convoluted storytelling, joyless atmospheres, bland cinematography and weird casting decisions were just the tip of the iceberg. Off the screen, WB seemed to struggle even more, with directors bailing off high-profile projects such as THE BATMAN and THE FLASH, and long-time DC Comics director Zack Snyder having to leave the upcoming high-stakes JUSTICE LEAGUE due to a family tragedy. Warners and DC were plagued by bad decisions and bad luck, and frustrated fans got to the point where they didn’t care and were planning on showing up at the theatre just to witness a good train wreck.

But then along came director Patty Jenkins and WONDER WOMAN, which arrives as the first female-led superhero film in 12 years. Gone were the messy and convoluted narratives and joyless slogs, and in their place was an embracing of classic storytelling and an infusion of energy and optimism. Where the past three DC movies were packed full of miserable superheroes, WONDER WOMAN was a sincere hero who believed in love and hope; finally offering goodness for fans to latch onto. With one cinematic punch, DC fans have a glimmer of hope for the first time in a long time.

On the screen, Jenkins turned leading-lady Gal Gadot into a star and role model nearly overnight, and outside the theatre, the character of Wonder Woman became relevant for the first time since she was on the TV screen in the 1970’s. And Relevance is where WONDER WOMAN finds its biggest victory; young girls have a new role model to look up to, and Jenkins’ success at the box office should open doors for more female directors, and hopefully make huge strides in gender-equality in Hollywood (a huge issue, especially with pay).

WONDER WOMAN is a good, perhaps even great movie which has earned its stellar reviews, and perhaps its most important victory is that it removes itself far from the leftover stink from last year’s ill-thought-out crappy GHOSTBUSTERS remake; another female-led film which was crude and vulgar and had uneasy critics afraid to pull the trigger and the braver ones being accused of misogyny. WONDER WOMAN proves that a good movie can overcome any hyper-sensitive political-correctness, and that solid filmmaking solves a lot of problems and puts the hush on the brainless loudmouths. Patty Jenkins and aspiring women filmmakers and writers can now bravely step forward with confidence that their work and efforts will be treated fairly, and that is a triumph for us all.


Friday, June 2, 2017

A Reel Review: WONDER WOMAN



WONDER WOMAN, the official 4th entry in the series of connected films based on DC Comics characters, is a movie that has many firsts; it is the first film in its home-series to be set in a different time period (WWI), the first to feature a female superhero as its lead (a first for its overall genre), and perhaps most importantly, the first of the DC Comics films in over a decade to fully embrace the journey of a hero.

Raised on a hidden island by Amazon warriors, Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves her home when she encounters Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American soldier fighting in WWI. Convinced that the war is being caused by Ares, the God of War, Diana sets out into the world to end the conflict, going up against General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and his deadly gas-maker Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya).

Showing no shame, director Patty Jenkins’ version of WONDER WOMAN proudly wears its classic influences on its armor. WONDER WOMAN is a true origin story, beginning with her early years and her upbringing by her mother and aunt (brilliantly played by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright), and taking us through her call-to-destiny and purpose. All the familiar steps are there, and it’s effective for many reasons; the excellent blending of the real world and Diana’s fantastical home, the often-ignored setting of the First World War, and the period setting of the early 1920’s, where women have a place (they can’t even vote yet), and they are told about it constantly. Diana finds herself not only up against war, but by the men who make it happen…and through a subtle and steady hand, Jenkins guides through it without ever becoming preachy.

What really makes WONDER WOMAN work is Diana’s full commitment to being a hero, and the eventual consequences she faces for pursuing Ares. True to the nature of a hero, and a far cry from the miserable super-beings in the genre, Diana embraces her strengths with a wonderful spirit of optimism and good-natured motivation. She is a treat to watch on and off the battle field, and her somewhat na├»ve nature (she truly believes that finding and killing Ares will automatically end the war) helps us root for her.

On the battlefield, WONDER WOMAN is an absolute blast. Gal Gadot’s athleticism is put to good use, and the buildup to her big reveal to the world is a crowd-pleasing moment worthy of a standing ovation. There are moments where a little too much CGI fireworks is used to drive the battles and fights, but for the most part don’t derail the film. Aside from a few early moments of grinding exposition while Jenkins is getting characters where they need to go, pacing is brisk, the moments of humor are perfect and laugh-out-loud worthy, and the somewhat large cast (Diana and Steve recruit a team of commandos) is balanced nicely; every character gets something to do and serves a purpose. The film is shot beautifully, and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is outstanding.

Acting is very good. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman; showing great range from a sweet smile that will melt hearts and a piercing gaze that will crush bladders. She is just as amazing to watch in quiet moments just as she is in the big bombastic ones. She has great chemistry with Chris Pine, who gets some real moments to shine. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright are excellent and look awesome in their Amazonian battle-gear, and they smartly match Gadot’s accent for consistency. The team of commandos (Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock) are a hoot, and the lovely Elena Anaya vanishes into her role. Danny Huston is a little hammy and has a weird sub-plot involving steroid-gas which goes nowhere. The rest of the cast, including David Thewlis and Lucy Davis, are excellent.

The finale relies too much on wild CGI in its final fight, and Ares as a villain winds up being a little thin (although he is helped along by a surprising and clever twist), but before the credits roll WONDER WOMAN wraps up with a very satisfying and rousing punch. And as a bonus, the film doesn’t lean on its predecessors and easily stands on its own with only one slight nod to another character. Patty Jenkins has crafted one fine film of firsts here; it is wildly entertaining, stunning to look at, refreshingly sincere, and despite being set in a long-dead time period, feels very relevant. The character of Diana was first written over 70 years ago, and thanks to this film, she has never been better for us all to be inspired by. That’s what heroes do.

BOTTOM LINE: See it





Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2017 - Episode VI



The calendar in the real world may still have us in the wretched season of Spring, but in the film world the passing of Memorial Day puts us into the Summer Movie Season. Here is a preview for the notable releases for the first full month of the season.

It all gets wonderful with…

WONDER WOMAN – One of the most iconic heroes in comic history finally gets her own movie. Gal Gadot, who debuted this new version of the character in a supporting role in last year’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, returns as the Amazon warrior who finds herself mixed up in the First World War. Co-stars Chris Pine (STAR TREK), Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, and Elena Anaya. It is directed by Patty Jenkins, who last brought us the Oscar-nominated MONSTER in 2004.

CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE – Dreamworks Animation presents the first adaptation of the popular children’s books of the same name in which two students hypnotize their teacher into thinking he’s a superhero. Features the voices of Kevin Hart and Ed Helms.

CHURCHILL – Brian Cox transforms into Winston Churchill in this historical war drama. Co-stars Miranda Richardson and John Slattery.

THE MUMMY – Tom Cruise headlines this new version of a vengeful mummy back from the grave, which is also serving as the first film in Universal’s new series of connected monster movies. Co-stars Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, and Russell Crowe. Directed by Alex Kurtzman.

IT COMES AT NIGHT – This closed-quarters paranoia horror flick has a family isolated from an unnatural threat. Stars Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR).

CARS 3 – The latest offering from Pixar is also the third film in the CARS franchise, in which Lightning McQueen may be facing the end of his racing career. Stars the voice talents of Owen Wilson, Armie Hammer, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Kerry Washington, Chris Cooper, and Nathan Fillion.

ROUGH NIGHT – The laziest title in film history fronts this black comedy where a group of women get into trouble at a bachelorette party in Miami. Stars Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, and Zoe Kravitz.

47 METERS DOWN – Matthew Modine and Mandy Moore star in this horror thriller in which a cage-diving trip goes wrong…surrounded by sharks.

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT – Michael Bay is back for this fifth outing in the billion-dollar fighting robots from space franchise, in which the war with humans and the Transformers has escalated. Stars Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, and Anthony Hopkins.

THE BEGUILED – Sofia Coppola writes and directs this adaptation of the novel of the same where a girls’ boarding school during the Civil War takes in an injured soldier. Stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Kristen Dunst.

BABY DRIVER – Edgar Wright (SHUAN OF THE DEAD) directs this action comedy where a young getaway driver is hired by a veteran thief for one last job. Stars Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, and Kevin Spacey.

DESPICABLE ME 3 – Those adorable goddamn minions are back for their third (or is it the fourth?) film, this time supporting Gru (once again voiced by Steve Carrell) who is challenged by a former child star.

AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING – The second reboot of the horror franchise.

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Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of July.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Reel Review - PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES



Franchise filmmaking always has dangerous waters to tread. Every movie in a series needs to serve as a chapter in moving the overall story forward, but at the same time, stand on its own as its own story and worthwhile film experience. The fifth entry in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series, sub-titled DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, is a film that grasps tightly to one approach while throwing the other over the side.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) enlists the help of the famed pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), and astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario), to search for the mythical Trident of Poseidon, in an attempt to free his father Will (Orlando Bloom) from his curse. Meanwhile, Sparrow is hunted across the seas by the spectral Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), who aligns himself with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

True to the series that it belongs to, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES runs off like a checklist of things that are expected; a supernatural enemy, an object to destroy said supernatural enemy, bombastic chase and action scenes, cannon battles at sea, betraying pirates, and a saturation of old sea lore. There’s a feeling of been-there, done-that going on, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have enough new material to work with to keep fans of these PIRATES films satisfied for a time. At the center of all the swordfighting and ghost-shipping are newcomers Henry and Carina, with Captain Jack literally tagging along. The film sets itself up as a parental-absolution story, with both characters seeking to resolve one family issue or another.

The plot unfolds through an unnecessarily complex maze involving stars, maps, diaries, crystals, and convoluted riddles…all of which confuses more than engages, and things feel like they could have been a lot simpler. But where TALES really hits the reef is just how much it relies on the films that have come before it. The film’s stepping-off point has to do with nearly every major plot point from the previous movies, and it makes it nearly impossible to watch without revisiting every entry prior. But what’s baffling is that despite how much TALES asks us to remember the previous films, the directors seem to have forgotten to do that themselves. There are two massive breaks in continuity that were established in previous PIRATES films, starting with the origins of Jack’s compass and the curse that Will Turner is under. The latter is the most troubling, as the need to get Will out of his current situation makes zero sense when considering what the third film in the franchise has told us.

The co-directors don’t bring anything special or unique to the film, and they just seem to trying to keep the ship and its many moving parts on course. There’s a fair amount of energy and forward momentum going on, and two set-pieces involving a bank heist and an execution-rescue are a blast to behold. However the later scenes which take place at night have an intolerable murkiness to them which makes it impossible to see what the blazes is going on. Unforgivable. Visual effects look cartoony, especially with Salazar’s crew of ghost sailors; the effects looked better in the first PIRATES movie 14 years ago.

Acting is all over the place as no one really is given the chance to shine. Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario have zero chemistry together and are as bland as carp, and Johnny Depp’s famed Captain Jack Sparrow is buried underneath all the plot, has nothing of his own to do or offer to the story, and has officially become boring. Javier Bardem’s big-bad is a thin, one-note dull revenge-seeking villain, and he is buried underneath way too much CGI. Geoffery Rush is fine, and his character is given an unexpected arc which feels tacked-on and isn’t nearly as powerful as it thinks it is. David Wenham shows up as a British officer in chase of the Trident and is disposed of just as quickly as he shows up.

After all the noise, TALES goes for an emotional finale that nearly makes the entire film worthwhile by closing some loops from the first three movies, and it’s clear that this fifth entry only existed for that end scene. But again, the film leans so heavily on its predecessors that it’s easy to wonder if the “loose ends” were really loose at all. It doesn’t work on its own, and as another chapter it’s needless. This is a tale better left dead.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it