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“Wonder Woman” is blockbuster fun

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Ever since “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” I wondered when DC Comics would finally get their act together and make a fun comic book movie. The only two I recall that worked so well was a bulk of “Superman II” and Burton’s “Batman.” Finally, with a breath of air, I can claim “Wonder Woman” as my favorite DC Comics movie to date. It’s fun, action-packed and does what has been missing the whole time. A bright colorful superhero flick that isn’t afraid to try things.

Gal Gadot plays the Amazonian warrior Diana who is tough but has a human soul. The movie starts off introducing her character in probably the smartest way. We learn who she is and what she wants to gain over the course of the plot. Diana maybe trying to understand the nature of her people, but she wants to know what lies beyond her island home to see if humanity is more forgiving then what her people think. There is no big quest to save her world or big urge for a love interest like Disney’s “Little Mermaid.” The aspect of World War I plays a big factor into her character as she questions if human beings should be saved or left to their own devices.

Helping her out is US spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who helps Diana understand the world outside her own is not all pleasant. His character works well as the straight man as Steve keeps her curiosity at balance while letting her understand the human element is more complex. There is a love interest hint but thankfully downplayed to let the two work off each other. Pine and Gadot have a fun chemistry that really works in scenes when Steve is trying to have the Amazonian learn about the treatment of women and government law.

On the opposite side, a German general (Danny Huston) plays a red herring in all this as he works with the diabolical Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) to create a deadly gas bomb. Most of the movie focuses these two are trying to craft the ultimate killing device with much menace. Unfortunately, I found myself more interested in the Poison character. She has a disfigured face which feels like a tribute to William Castle’s “Mr Sardonicus” and seeks to ensure they have the upper hand. While they don’t build her up to the “big evil one,” I felt there was something memorable about her performance and look. In contrast to the iron-fisted general who is just there to win the war.

There is much action to behold as “Wonder Woman” leaps from one colorful action scene to another. Something missing in recent DC adaptions was the value of fun and there is much to enjoy. One of my favorite moments was seeing Diana dash into No Man’s Land and go up against an air full of bullets. There is something awe-inspiring yet enjoyable with the usage of music and energetic visuals.

Even the side characters are a lot of fun too. At Steve’s side is a ragtag of secret agents and sharpshooters who provide plenty of comic relief. But when they are not cracking jokes, there is a sense of vulnerability to these characters that help Diana’s understanding of the human race. One such example is a Scotsman who post-traumatic stress disorder who can be a good shot but also has a heart. While they are aware of how hard the war is, they try to keep optimistic in the best way possible.

And for a movie like this to take on a heavy subject as war, it knows how much to focus on the darker details. Images of injured soldiers, families without homes and dead bodies after a launched gas bomb could have weighed in on the fun factor, but it works. Diana understands the human race is a complex bunch that fight each other, but never feel spite against one another. In a lesson never learned from Superman, you can win on some days but lose sometimes as well. This is an element I see Fieg’s “Ghostbusters” tried but I feel it works better because the main character is trying to know how the world works.

I am close to say “Wonder Woman” is a perfect movie, but there is one tiny flaw that can either make or break the movie. Throughout the story, Diana believes this was is the doing of a god and seeks to end it by killing him. It leads to an interesting concept about belief. Diana is stuck to her mythological history while Steve believes things are a cause of human nature. There comes a moment when it starts to pay off, but unfortunately a twist villain confirms the true nature.

For a moment, I thought it was going in a very smart and very clever direction, but then it felt like we were not ready for something unique and different. The final 20 minutes resort to a final showdown between Wonder Woman and the true antagonist behind the whole thing. Why couldn’t they just do something more brilliant like have Diana’s mother appear in her mind and try to remind her of her warnings or something less cliche. Instead, they play it safe and even if the climatic fight scene is explosive, I just wish it a much stronger element than a twist villain.

But, I can’t rampage on this latest entry. DC Comics and Warner Bros are trying to make a good adaption here and I can see it. They were so close and yet so far from perfection. However, I think I can let them off the hook this time. Even if the ending was slightly lame, “Wonder Woman” still turns out to be fun and engaging from beginning to end. Its finally refreshing to see a good movie from the other comic book brand and can safely say this one is certainly worth your time.

New “Star Wars” good entry but lacks something

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterIt has been a decade since “Revenge of the Sith” and my thoughts were simple. Six films were all that was needed in the Star Wars canon. There was no way they could make a new set of films or even a new one period. The cast was too old and I didn’t feel there was anything else to explore in the franchise. Sure there were tons of worlds but considering the fan fiction and “Expanded Universe,” I didn’t think there was a possible way to make a new movie at the time. And when Disney bought the rights from creator George Lucas, I still didn’t think it was possible. Well one way or another, they did it. They were able to make a seventh entry in hopes of making a new trilogy from what I hear.

I went in, had my “Dark Crystal” t-shirt on (lost my Star Wars shirt. still fitting seeing 33 years ago that movie came out on the 17th of December), treated some friends of mine and watched the movie. My reaction will be quite different from what many will expect. But let me say off the cuff that this is a Star Wars movie. There are elements and things that I can look at and say this is something I can picture in the Star Wars universe. The planets, alien beings and spaceships are Star Wars elements. But as far as the rest of the movie goes, it makes for a good entry. Not a great entry along the lines of “Empire Strikes Back,” but at least respectfully better than the prequel trilogy.

Star-Wars-7-Character-Guide-Finn-ReyWithout ruining too much, “The Force Awakens” has plenty of interesting elements and story ideas. I dig the idea of a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) questioning his place in the universe. Along the ranks of the Iron Giant and Peace from “Wizards,” his position as a weapon is seen as an afterthought as he seeks for redemption. I felt the character and the actor were one seeing how much subtly they show in his wish to change. This is not a basic cliche but a full developed character. Not once in the saga have we questioned the aspect of a mindless solider’s ability to have a personality and questioning morality. Here, we do and it does feel philosophical in a sense. Not in a “beating over the head message” but more of a character motive which is very fitting here. To me, this was “THX-1138” but performed better.

Of course, things get into a tangle with a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley) who is also searching for purpose as well. Again, hard to talk about the character without giving too much but here are the basics. This is a cool heron. When she is captured, she doesn’t sit and wait for someone to rescue her. This is the kind of character that will seek a way to escape no matter what it takes. Of course, this does contradict it a bit seeing she thinks certain parents who abandoned her as a kid will return. On the plus, its nice to see a female hero that can fight, use logic and know how to run a “bucket of bolts.”

star-wars-force-awakens-han-solo-chewbacca“Force Awakens” I’m sure will be the talk of the town with old fans seeing some familiar faces appear. Confirming just by the trailer, yes we get Han Solo and his sidekick Chewbacca. I admit, seeing Harrison Ford still doing stunts at the age of 73 was incredible. It shows he still knows hows to be an action man even long after the originals. Some get cameos, some get a small importance to the story while others appear just to please the fans. Its nice to see familiar faces and the original actors but part of me wishes they did a lot more. Or didn’t use some for a sequel bait. Oh, well get to that later….in non-spoiler fashion.

However, not all of the new adventures works. At least for me. The story-line I felt took one too many familiar beats from the original trilogy. And I understand what its trying to do. Certain elements are trying to please the mass of die hard nostalgia fans. Again, I can’t talk about them without spoiling it. But let’s say unlike Terminator Genysis, they at least take old stuff and try to do new things instead of tossing them at the screen and seeing if it sticks. A good example is the aspect of the villain. Yeah, they try to do this thing with Vader by giving him a mask and family issues. Its no Vader but there is this nice menace that reminds us of the power that was once there.

force-socialAnd speaking of which, the new baddies were get are not that interesting. Instead of the Empire, we get the First Order. Yeah, an obvious take and attack on Nazism even right down to the flags and its general making dictations of conquest as an army of stormtroopers observe. Yeah, you can argue that was something with the original trilogy but here, it feels a tad more obvious even right down to the banner design. Even the new set of villains are sort of forgettable. With more focus on our heroes, the basic gist we get from these new evildoers is they are evil and want to take over the galaxy.

Even Kylo Ren is pitted as the next Vader and to be honest, he does has some intimidation. You can feel this fear and anger flow from him but only when he had the mask on. Though, there are times when he did act like he was having a childish fit when he thrashed his light-saber at computer screens after hearing bad news. And without giving too much away, when his true face is revealed, most of that menace dimmed. It appeared more like a brooding version of the secret love child between Benedict Cumberbatch and Josh Groban. And the ever so hyped Captain Phasma felt very useless to me. Aside from one moment near the end, this metallic baddie never did anything that stood out to me. The only one who stood out was Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, a tough as nails general whose so determined to conquer even to the point you see his eyes bug out of his head when he’s screaming speeches.

Now, I understand this is a new entry in a trilogy Disney is crafting but when making a new film, it would be nice to at least tie up some loose ends. Again, without spoiling too much, there are open questions left here and there which I feel give too much sequel bait. Call it a nitpick, but seeing we are being introduced to these characters for the first time, I feel it would have been nice to at least give a sense of closure without being too broad. I understand there are character arcs that need to be explored but even in the first Star Wars (“A New Hope”), it ended on a note that felt satisfying as opposed to saying “there will be another” in a blunt manner. A better example are the new Planet of the Apes movies which do open the door for a sequel but not in a demanding way. It tells us the story is concluded and there is room for another as opposed to making obvious set ups. When something like that happens when it leaves too many questions floating around, it obviously says “there will be a sequel to answer those” and it really annoys me. Again, these are new characters and at least we should feel a sense of closure as opposed to a “To Be Continued” feeling by the end. Its a double edge sword but that’s how I felt.

Aside from the flaws, I can safely say this is a Star Wars movie. I can look at a certain scene from the movie and say on the fly, this is what a Star Wars movie looks like and acts like. The action scenes are enjoyable, the new monsters and aliens are unique to look at, the weapons are certainly Star Wars and the new worlds we see are a nice change of pace. I feel like its something “Star Trek: Generations” tried to do by merging the universe of the old with the new, but I feel its done a tad better here. Maybe if the villains where more threatening and the story took some new risks, it could have been this great sequel along the lines of “Empire Strikes Back.” But I feel its enjoyment is on the level of the first movie and “Return of the Jedi.” And thankfully its nowhere near the area of the prequels, but part of me feels there could have been more improvement in spots. On the upside, it was nice to see a new Star Wars movie on the big screen and makes it an easy recommendation. Just don’t go in with too much hype is what I say.

“MI: Rogue Nation” is the best one yet

The stakes are raised and its for the better!

The stakes are raised and its for the better!

The “Mission Impossible” franchise is far different from the ordinary spy thrillers or even the Bond films for that matter. For the past entries, there is a certain formula it has been following even right from the first film. Have one intense set piece after another and care little of the plot. This is very clear in the first film as most of the story is hard to follow but it depends on how well you pay attention in order to connect the dots. “Rogue Nation” is a step up as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where it improves.

Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt and honestly, the series is nothing without him. Tom’s commitment to the stunt work really shows that no matter what hurdle his character comes across, there’s a way to achieve it. This is clear in the opening heist when Ethan finds himself hanging on for dear life to a cargo plane taking off into the air. There is something very refreshing to see a practical stunt at play and shows how brave some actors can be to ditch the blue screen. Dare I say Ethan’s character feels more like a daredevil than a spy at times but how many moments he puts this life on the life. Truly a vast improvement of the character.

Another big highlight that is worth the admission price is Simon Pegg as Benji. The tech wiz is back and more prominent than ever. What works well is Simon’s chemistry between Tom as comedy clashes with action in a beautiful yet very entertaining way. When these two banter on screen, it never drags and establishes where they stand. Benji is almost like Ethan’s conscious trying to veer him from this dangerous stuff even when he knows the only way to perform the dangerous task is to do it. There is never a moment that went by when I wished the comedy between them would end. It perfectly blends solid character depth and comedy that is better than any buddy cop movie to date.

The plot is a near improvement but I still feel less is more. A mysterious man known as the Syndicate (Sean Harris) plans to cause an uproar around the world even when he’s already doing it. Despite the amount of build up to this antagonist and a near chilling performance, I felt there should have been more scenes with him to establish the menace more. I also say near chilling because at times Sean’s voice feels like a whispery Marlon Brando that is trying to be eerie and sinister. It just came off a touch bothersome but then again, the focus is on our leads more than the problem.

Rebecca Freguson also joins the ride as Ilsa Faust, a spy that is attempting to gain back her place in the world while serving as help to Ethan. The chemistry between these two is sleek and sexier than Mr. and Mrs. Smith by how much they play off each other. One or the other knows they are in for a double cross as they try to remain one step ahead while showing how much they care for each other. As Ilsa fights for an identity, you keep asking just who side she is one while admiring the romance and how clever she can be in a tight situation.

The biggest highlight of these movies are the stunts and boy, they outdo every single one from the past films. To mark down each one would be ruining a child’s Christmas gifts the day before so I will only use one as an example. There’s an scene when Ethan and Benji have to stop an assassination at a opera house in Vienna, Austria. In a sense, the way its filmed rivals the finale to The Godfather Part III (which I feel is criminally underrated thank you very much) as the fist fights and operatic score match the action on screen. A perfect blend of art and blockbuster fun that rivals Mad Max: Fury Road.

From each action set piece that comes by and for every gadget that is seen, I never wanted “Rogue Nation” to end. In fact, the climax is far different from the usual “blow up” as we get a much quiet alternative. Some might want something to top the helicopter subway tunnel chase from the first film, but this ending works too. I won’t spoil too much but it leaves the door open for another entry than rather end with a bang and wonder how they will think of a way to top the last entry.

Let me tell you, this summer has been an explosive one and if I had to pick three movies that were the “cream of the crop,” they would be Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World and this one. In terms of which one delivered more, surprisingly this one. While I was highly satisfied with an amusement park of dinosaurs and an artistic apocalypse, I felt there was more to “Rogue Nation” that had me sold. You have great performances, a perfect balance between humor and drama along with the right amount of explosions and intense stunt work to give you the perfect summer movie. Should you choose to accept that ticket to this must see flick is on your part but I couldn’t be more happy to see a nearly flawless action film.

Rental Corner: “Herclues” is action routine but still fun

He's got the bulk and the act. But can Dwayne Johnson be Hercules? You would be surprised...

He’s got the bulk and the act. But can Dwayne Johnson be Hercules? You would be surprised…

Why is it that a move on the demi-god Hercules is hard to make these days? Is the idea of a stronger than average man taking up twelve tasks not interesting enough for a movie? Do we remember the good old days of sword and sandal films that were cheesy and fun? Well, that is where “Hercules” comes in. The only problem is that is an adaption of Steve Moore’s comic and I’m unfortunately not familiar with it.  Which makes me wonder how close to the source it was or just how diverse it gets? Neither one would surprise as being a film on its own terms, its enjoyable but for the wrong reasons.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays out title character who’s stories have been known far and wide as he has a band of mercenaries by his side in a major crusade. There’s an archer, his story-telling nephew, a prophet that can look into the future, one that throws knives and one that chucks spears. So yeah its The Expendables meets the TV show Hercules with Xena’s production. And that’s basically what it is. The whole movie has this weightless action/adventure tone that is nice but feels uneven seeing how expansive and grand it looks and feels at times. This is basically modernized telling of the Hercules mythos complete with modern terminology add to its action scenes and dialogue. Now its not bothersome to the point it pulls you out, but it does get wear thin seeing how massive yet Shakespearean it feels. Think Dragonheart but more lighter and action-oriented. But while Dragonheart didn’t feel too dated seeing the mannerisms and characters could fit a medieval setting, Hercules suffers because it doesn’t feel like this could all be set in its own time. Everything just screams modernization. Even right down to how the action is on par with today’s action movies.

But there are some upsides to it. Dwayne is surprisingly good as Hercules that it makes you wonder how he would be if this movie was taken seriously. Dwayne is able to carry out the fun of the film as he takes his roles with charm and entertainment. He doesn’t feel dull or act too serious but enough to at least show a variation of the Greek myth. This is where the mercenaries suffer because they all feel like cliches from action movies like The Expendables. These are characters I can sort see in modern day just by how they act upon one another. Its like a Diet Coke version of The Avengers but less personality. Once in a while they can be fun but mostly feel like basic characters.

Aside from standard action, the only real reason to see this movie is for John Hurt. Not that I’m a big fan but for the fact that he saves the movie from feeling mundane. He plays a tyrannical ruler that uses Hercules and his band for invasion with a simple motive to be in power to the end. On paper, its routine but John’s performance makes it unique starting off noble and Shakespearean and only going over the top for the end when needed. Had the movie gone this route of being serious, maybe it wouldn’t feel a tad forgettable.

As “Hercules” stands, the production value looks nice and the actors do their job well keeping the viewer entertained. But if your expecting a grand telling of the myth, you will be disappointed. I have no problems with a modernized take just as long as its evened out and enjoyable. Its risky to balance between making a story of the past and give it a modern take and while it doesn’t feel too dated, it makes you wish this was taken more seriously considering the scope and scale of the visual elements. But I can’t deny entertainment value when I see it. Only worth it for those elements listed above and if you really need some mindless fun.

Rental Corner: “Machete” sequel is all bang and no effort

Machete returns but his presence feels lackluster

Machete returns but his presence feels lackluster

The first minute and a half of “Machete Kills” begins with a fake trailer for a Machete  movie set in space. The entire trailer promises a lightsaber wielding Danny Trejo, an assortment of celebrities including a Justin Bieber robot and plenty of heavy CGI effects. I didn’t feel pumped but kept asking myself through the rest of “Machete Kills” why we didn’t get that sequel when we got this one. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the first film and its commentary on immigration while stuffed in great fight scenes. But this follow-up does have the ideas and makings for an explosive feature but it feels sadly hollow.

Danny Trejo returns as the ex-Federal agent Machete Cortez, as the President of the United States (performed by a strange Charlie Sheen cameo) wants him to stop a nuclear missile being aimed at the White House by a supposed psychopath with intentions of blowing up the world as well. My thoughts were OK with the story at first  but then things got really out of hand about midway. Upon meeting Marcoz Mendez, he learns the trigger to the bomb is in a pacemaker he has that will go off if he dies. As a result, Machete kidnaps him in hopes to drag him over the border to the technological facility that made the device and defuse it. If that wasn’t enough the stakes get raised when Marcoz reveals that he has a split personality but this doesn’t work when most of Demian Bichir feels villainous and less sympathetic. With the crazy side of him appearing more, it gets really confusing to know when he switches between his Jekyll and Hyde persona even after his first Jekyll moment.

Again, I was fine with this story change but then it start to really get out of control when we are given an assassin that can change any form of his body called the Chameleon (played by a variety of pointless cameos ranging from Cuba Gooding Jr. to Lady Gaga). Another good idea for a Machete sequel but it feels out of place here. And of course, not to mention another story line involving a group of brothel women lead by Sofia Vergara  who try to kill Machete after taking her daughter in the first act and even that subplot goes nowhere after the leader’s daughter gets killed off without any motivation or acknowledgement.

The entire first half of the movie does have promise but I feel like there is too much going on and each subplot doesn’t have enough shared focus to feel fully developed. Again, there are great ideas for a sequel here like a Terminator-style parody with the Chameleon character and a Mad Max-style parody with the vengeful brothel women but they are tragically laid to waste. Even more confusing is how the Chameleon keeps changing face by removing one layer of masks after another which only makes me wonder how many disguises does he or she have under that stuff. Even Sofia Vergara refers to herself as a “Man-eater” because of a bit of exposition where she gnawed off a man’s family jewels but nothing about it  pays off in the end.

And you know your sequel is desperate when it attempts a bait and switch for the last 40 minutes that makes “Machete Kills” feel more uneven. After Machete gets over the border, the movie goes into a bizarre science fiction parody as he meets up with a corporate business man named Luthor Voz, whose only notable element is that its the first villain Mel Gibson played. Luthor is a big Star Wars fan as his huge line of weaponry shows even down to crafting laser blasters, a mock version of Luke Skywalker’s land speeder (on wheels) and cloning his henchmen a lot. And its here that I completely give up with this movie. Much like the other subplots, it has promise but feels greatly lacking as they cram in Luthor being a super villain to the point he can predict the next event but again, this too has no pay off when we never get an explanation of how he got this element or even see it come full circle.

“Machete Kills” has a lot of promise but really crams so much in that it loses focus on what is the true story. And when we do find out what its been building to all this time, its obvious to us that this sequel is nothing more but a waste of space leading to a better movie that will never happen. Plot lines come and go without well-developed set up or flare and the climax rushes so much to the point we feel like we don’t care as one Star Wars reference gets tossed after another. It feels like director Robert Rodriguez really wants that Machete In Space sequel but please save that for the next movie instead of ruining it here.

Even the whole sequel feels effortless with action scenes clumsily shot with unneeded wide shots and scenes that feel the need to require establishing shots to show the direction of the action feel missing. A good example is a scene where Machete is about to fight off some baddies at a drive-in theater and yet we don’t have any long or wide shots to show the entire map out of the place or even get the feeling of being there. There’s a  scene where a henchmen getting his entrails being latched onto a helicopter’s blade and being tugged in that is filmed in so far away that we feel no impact of the action or even get a feel it really happening. The effects and blood are obviously CGI and cheapen the ordeal and stunts. Worse of all is the endless film grain and specks that made Machete feel like a throwback to the 1970’s exploitation films is gone. We get a clear nice looking movie that doesn’t feel nitty and gritty like its predecessor. An even bigger crime is in the opening scene between Machete and the President when he promises to clear his record and make him a US Citizen.  This deal wouldn’t make sense seeing at the end of the last movie, he got his green card thus defeating the purpose to all this. You know your sequel is not going to do well when it throws continuity out the window.

I admired “Grindhouse” and still do as well as enjoying what they did with the spin-off film, but what makes it different from those movies and this lame sequel is how “Machete Kills” is missing that timeless charm the other movies had. Sure the tone was 1970’s exploitation but it had this luster and charm tossing in veteran actors without it. “Machete Kills” tosses in big names but ones that sort of date the movie while others like Mel Gibson and William Sadler feel side-lined.

Even with a budget that is literally twice the amount “Machete” was made for, it feels like “Machete Kills” was made for less with the movie being executed and feeling like a direct-to-DVD feature and less of a big screen venue. Robert Rodriguez can make really good movies and this one shows a lot of promise. But unfortunately nothing comes together and it all feels like stuff tossed in to keep viewer’s interest and it doesn’t stick. “Back to the Future Part II” at least had a better way of handling its ideas and story with visiting the future and past all in one stroke with the focus being on Biff and the Sports Almanac from 2015 making it easy to follow. “Machete Kills” tosses stuff in but there is no driving force to keep it together.