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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.

“Star Trek Beyond”fueled with action despite some technical flaws

startrekbeyondposterThis crop of summer blockbusters has been played out almost like a baseball game. One movie after another has stood up to the plate and rarely make a home run. The only exceptions have been Disney and “The Secret Life of Pets.” Others have been either less successful or barley made a big splash. Let me tell you, this has been a very dull summer with the choices we have been given. But with “Star Trek Beyond” up at bat, is it good enough to get itself a home run? No, but I’d say good enough to third base.

Justin Lin takes the director’s chair while Simon Pegg and Doug Jung helm the script. The tones tend to clash from time to time as one can tell when one style is being injected. Pegg places the usual Trek banter of different worlds and character development when needed. Lin, on the other hand, fuzzes his style more prominently during the action scenes. While these two are obvious to point out, it doesn’t deviate from each other delivering a good entry.

The only downfall is that you got to sit through a lot of mediocre stuff in order to see the best parts. Highlights include an opening meant to be humorous where Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) offers peace to a race of tiny creatures to an explanation over old Spock’s departure from the franchise. The opening scene alone is a good example of how hit and miss the comedy is. Sometimes, it can be good when characters like Spock and McCoy banter while certain corny lines border on eye roll-worthy.

Once you get through the slush, “Beyond” kicks into gear when the Enterprise crew is sent out to save a crew wrecked on a desolate planet. However, the affair turns out to be an ambush as the ship gets attacked by an alien race that acts like a hive of bees. The scene where the Enterprise ship itself getting bombarded is surprisingly well-done. While its not effective like the crash scene in “Star Trek: Generations,” it still packs plenty of punch and intensity as the ships latch on and swarm around the doomed vessel.

Idris Elba plays the new alien villain named Krall who plans to fire back at the Federation with a device that eats away living matter. I admit, I felt practically bored at times seeing how good of an actor Elba is. I was fooled at first thinking this baddie had a one track motivation. But the third act gives us an interesting reveal that immediately has us realize why Krall would want to go after the Federation. It becomes something much deeper matching the villainous Khan, but I do wonder what it would have been like if this reveal came earlier in the film. On the plus side, it’s a great twist that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

However, midway the story sort of meanders. The crew is split up a bit as Spock and McCoy try to survive, Kirk and Chekov wander around for answers and Scotty is teamed with a cool alien inhabitant. While these plot threads don’t stray too much and serve purpose, it makes me wonder if these were developed better to hold more interest. I felt like it was used at times to show off how unique the planet looks and it does look good. But then, we have to cut from “Group Kirk” to “Group McCoy” and remember which party is doing what.

On the bright side, Scotty makes a new friend in the form of Jaylah, a bright white alien played by Sofia Boutella. I loved the personality of this character as she adds on something new to the franchise. The make-up alone is a step above those seen at Comic Con conventions and I like the idea that she has been stuck on this planet long enough to know its dangers very well. Somehow, I’m a sucker for characters like that who are stranded on a desolate place but know how to make it their home. Sort of like Swiss Family Robinson but with lasers. There’s just a cool sense to this character that never outstays her welcome.

While “Star Trek Beyond” seeks to be respectful to the original source, there are a couple of things that sort of bugged me. Like I said, the whole movie builds to a grand finale, but in order to get there, you have to sit through some weak comedy and sluggish pacing in spots. The action scenes, for the most part, do get better as we go along. And yet, I wish the whole “handycam” feel was ditched. This is a cliche that has been kept on for too long as during a big fist fight, we get tons of close-ups and shaky frame movements. Its distracting and takes away from the tension. And as stated earlier, the departure of Leonard Nemoy’s Spock could have been handled better. To the movie’s credit, we do get a nice tribute near the end, but I feel it would have been stronger if the explanation for his absence was either cut out or just handled better.

Never the less, I dug the creature designs, the sets and a spaceship base that has cities on the rims to make it look like a unique utopia. I felt it was nice to see the new Star Trek crew back together and create a fun experience. The first third can be easily forgiven by how better the last two thirds get. As the action scenes keep coming, they get better and better trumping one after another. While “Star Trek Beyond” is not the strongest entry of the batch, its a welcome one that is worth recommending to see in theaters.

“Into The Woods” sublime and cartoony yet magical

James Corden and Emily Blunt are set out to reverse a curse as they run into many Grimm Fairy Tale characters as they go "Into The Woods"

James Corden and Emily Blunt are set out to reverse a curse as they run into many Grimm Fairy Tale characters as they go “Into The Woods”

I have theorized why “Into the Woods” was something hard to transition to the big screen a lot in my head. A stage musical about fairy tale characters learning there is more to being “happily ever after” and there are some things beyond their reach to which can be controlled. The tongue-in-cheek tone along with certain plot elements made me feel like it would be a challenge to adapt. But I got a nice surprise this Christmas as Rob Marshall directed a version of the stage favorite that is faithful to the source while being light on the alterations. The changes that are made exist to broaden the scope of the story while maintaining its message of “be careful what you wish for.” But it does it all hold together?

James Corden plays a Baker who has a curse of infertility from his wife (Emily Blunt) thanks to his dad who messed with a witch’s garden. The Witch (Meryl Streep) made a trade with the father to spare his life on the terms of getting his next child and setting a curse on his son that being the Baker that he will never have another kid. But as it turns out, the Witch is also under a spell and makes a bargain to remove it on the terms of getting a certain potion. And as it turns out, the elements needed come from fairy tale characters like “Little Red Riding Hood,” Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and even “Cinderella.” This must all be done in three nights or else the curse will remain.

As you might guess, the whole premise is unique seeing our favorite fairy tale characters we heard about as kids working off each other and even interacting. This was part of what made the musical work and I’m surprised to see how well it transitions here. The key element here is the woods. In each story, something happens in the deep forest and they have to solve a problem or discover more about their environment than they already knew before. And once they are out, its either back to a normal life or the journey still continues. This works especially for the movie as everything happens in the woods. The first 15 minutes setting up the story is outside to get an idea of what to expect. All the magic in stories come from outside the realm of their homes and this is well balanced here.

The performances are pretty good too adding a comedic layer that doesn’t hammer in the self-aware, tongue in cheek tone but enough to let the viewers be aware this is a fairy tale with a deep message. The only time it gets serious is when a character has an epiphany or when a problem that is too big to handle gets in the way during the final act. The chemistry of James Corden and Emily Blunt is good as they act like a normal couple than something phoned in. Sort of a Medieval Homer and Marge Simpson relationship that are aware of the problem at hand and will do what it takes to lift the curse. Even the kids that play Jack and Little Red are convincing as innocent kids that don’t know better of how big the world is.

Meryl Streep as the Witch in one of the most over the top performances I've ever seen that is surprisingly enjoyable

Meryl Streep as the Witch in one of the most over the top performances I’ve ever seen that is surprisingly enjoyable

But I’m sure one that will be the talk of the town is Meryl Streep as the Witch. While I did admire Bernadette Peter’s portrayal, I enjoyed every minute Streep was on screen. Her take was menacing but not to the point its scary. Its over the top to the point its funny but in a good way. And at times, she can be sentimental seeing she has Rapunzel to look after from the deal she made. But the crowning moment for me that sold her performance was during the “Last Midnight” number. It starts off quiet like a lullaby, but once the accusations get bigger and bigger, so does her anger as it grown while the scene itself gets more manic to the point she goes mad. Its a great moment that I feel rivals Peter’s softer approach.

But I can’t say “Into the Woods” is a timeless masterpiece. There are strange choices and nitpicks I do have that keep me from saying its a flawless spectacle. There are moments when the costume design and certain elements feel like they are taking from modern times. A painful example is The Wolf who is modeled after a “Zuit Suit” variation taken from the Tex Avery cartoon, “Red Hot Riding Hood.” Oddly enough, I recall an interview with the production designers saying this was the intended route. With all that build up to a tale set in a timeless setting, (and I do admit as great as it looks) it feels weird coming across something like that which can take you out of the picture. And while Johnny Depp is entertaining in this cameo, I do wish this hungry predator wasn’t so cartoony.

In fact, there are moments that push for comedic value in a way that is exaggerated but not to the point where its too much. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are prime examples as two princes that year for more in a song (“Agony”) where they wish for the women they want while running on waterfalls and ripping their shirts up exposing their abs like expected fan service. Again, its funny but there’s a balance seeing how we know the Prince can be a cardboard cutout character for a fairy tale. However, it pays off when we see they is exactly what they are and nothing more. A hallow characterization that claims to be daring and adventurous when they are really cowards.

The only other problem viewers might have is the final act when all is thought to be said and done, a happily ever after does not come. This is an element taken from the actual play that I feel works seeing once our characters get our wishes, they see the consequences of getting them. Even if you know the world a little bit more, your still lost. The ideal family is not what is to be expected as idols can be misleading. The consequence of discovering a new world and so forth. This is the only thing I feel that might turn viewers off seeing how darker and depressing it can grow to be. Without giving too much away, our leads take on a problem so massive that it becomes beyond their control to know how to stop it. Viewers might think it drags things out too much but for the reasons listed above, I think it works in that context.

“Into the Woods” may get complex but at the center is a story about being careful of inner desires. Its a throwback to the Grimm tales we heard as a kid and how they hold up today. While I’m bugged to see some songs nixed, I am glad to see some key ones like “Any Moment” or “Stay With Me” are used to full potential. There are parts of this movie I do wish where punched up a bit and again had less light-hearted moments, but as it stands its a respectable adaption. I love the sets, the special effects, the performances and the singing is just pitch perfect. I don’t even remember a moment when I was turned off by a sour note. Its all around a good movie. To best describe, think a better version of this year’s Malifecent but more Les Miserables. There’s so much effort in creating a fairy tale unlike anything we’ve seen that we can’t up but enjoy these “moments in the woods.”