Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Reel Review: BABY DRIVER



In his five feature films, writer and director Edgar Wright has played in the sandbox of many genres; horror, cops and robbers, love stories, and sci-fi…all while finding time to pay homage to the films which inspired him and rooting for the little guy. His latest, BABY DRIVER, is an old fashioned heist film packed with the familiar tropes that saw a lot of action in 1970’s cinema, but injected with Wright’s unique style.

Baby (Ansel Elgort), is a young and talented getaway driver who is reluctantly working for a kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his rotating crew of bank-robbing criminals (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, and Flea). Baby meets and falls in love with Debora (Lily James), and as the two plan on starting a future together, Doc pulls Baby back in for one last job…

BABY DRIVER is a heist film which has all the familiar pieces and parts; a good guy who is stuck playing bad who wants to get out, a big bad guy who won’t let him, scummy criminals who are mean to the good guy, thrilling car chases, wild gun battles, all topped off with a boy-meets-girl element. It’s basic stuff, but Edgar Wright has no interest in retreading old ground and puts in enough new to make BABY DRIVER a unique ride. For starters, Baby (that’s his nickname), constantly listens to music via iPods to drown out a buzzing sensation in his ears, and he uses music to his advantage; literally timing his getaway driving to every beat. It’s a new and refreshing element in an old background, and truly gives the film its own identity.

The film is always seen through Baby’s perspective; even going as far as sticking with him in the waiting getaway car while the robberies are going on, unseen by the audience. When the car-chasing begins Baby’s iPod gets turned way up, and we are treated to a blast of wonderfully chosen tunes ranging from artists such as Queen, Blur, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Beach Boys, T. Rex, Barry White, and The Commodores…to name a few. The action beats are timed amazingly well with the songs, giving BABY DRIVER an incredible sense of energy. The music is nearly constant, and the film feels like an old-fashioned musical only the actors don’t break out into song. The last 45 minutes are absolutely relentless with the music, gunfights, and car wrecks…almost to the point of being obnoxious, and it’s easy to feel exhausted by the time the credits roll. The practical stunts and setpieces with the many car chases and crashes are a thrill, and use no CGI which is a rare treat.

If Wright told his cast to have fun with the material, then it really shows. Ansel Elgort dominates the film, and goes from brooding to charming in a blink. His chemistry with Lily James is quite wonderful, and we can’t help but to wish the on-screen couple success. Kevin Spacey is his normal excellent self, and his rotating crew of baddies; Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, and Flea…come off as despicable bullies and it’s easy to hate them.

The finale goes for an emotional gut-punch, and it lands pretty well, and it’s a quieter ending which eases us into the credits after the visual and sonic assault of the third act. Wright has crafted something new here while keeping faithful to classic cinema, and that is the best kind of filmmaking that we could hope for today.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Monday, June 26, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Han Solo Saga



Ever since his spectacular debut in 1977, one of the most popular and controversial characters in all of cinema has been Han Solo of STAR WARS fame. Originally portrayed by Harrison Ford for four films, the dashing young space pirate who was challenged to think about more than himself and money captured the hearts of women and gave the guys an idol to mimic. Han was a rebel within the famed Rebel Alliance; the type that would shoot first and take a payday, but also the type you would want fighting by your side.

Controversy seemed to match the character’s popularity. Twenty years after his debut, a galactic-sized shitstorm erupted around the character when a minor edit to a shootout appeared in the 20th anniversary edition of STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE; an edit which has angry fans fuming to this day. Harrison Ford would reprise the role for the final time in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), and would bring Solo to an end which was embraced by many, but hated by others. And just to fan the flames a bit more, in 2015 Disney and Lucasfilm announced an upcoming STAR WARS spinoff film which would center around a young version of Han Solo, this time played by Alden Ehrenreich.


Not all fans were quick to embrace the idea of the role of Han Solo being played by a new actor (maybe they need to watch a few James Bond films), but such a beloved character does need to be treated with tender loving care. The fear that fans have had grew exponentially just last week, when the directors of the yet-untitled film, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were dismissed from the ongoing production. And within days, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy announced that Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (APOLLO 13, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, WILLOW) would be taking over.

The reasons for Lord and Miller’s sudden exit have been trickling out over the past week, with “creative differences” between the directing duo, Kennedy, and long-time STAR WARS screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan being the most quoted. Recent stories have emerged pointing towards Ehrenreich approaching Kennedy concerning Lord and Miller shooting Han Solo as a screwball comedy which was along the lines of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura character, along with reports of the duo not being able to keep up with the shooting schedule. It seems that Lord and Miller, who wowed audiences in 2014 with their animated THE LEGO MOVIE, were not prepared for the size and scope of a STAR WARS movie, and another report of crewmembers breaking out into applause when Howard was hired seems to point towards just that.

The concerns over the current state over the Solo solo film are many, and justified. Sources say that Lord and Miller had shot nearly 90 percent of the film, and that Howard would be re-filming scenes deemed unusable. The pressure is certainly on, but Howard is no rookie, and Disney has shown great care and affection for STAR WARS since taking over the franchise. If the reports of Lord and Miller filming a STAR WARS movie like a goofy comedy are accurate, then this Blogger says good goddamn riddance, and perhaps in the future more care will be taken towards hiring directors for more STAR WARS; not to mention a cautionary tale for rebellious young directors.

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The untitled HAN SOLO film will be released on May 25th, 2018. Along with Alden Ehrenreich, it also stars Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, and Thandie Newton.



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