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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.

“Doctor Strange” other-worldly enjoyable

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“Doctor Strange” is a movie that truly lives up to its title. This is a strange entry in the Marvel Universe, but a unique one. Of all the superheroes, he is the only one who can walk through different dimensions and bend reality. With a movie adaptation out, the possibilities seem endless for a character like this. Of course, the usual origins route has to be done in order to understand who this person is. Chances are if you can get through that, you will have a good time.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon with a high ego yet maintains a lot of ambition. This is proven after a car accident renders his hands useless as he tries to find a way to restore them. An incident like this proves just how far his character will go to save his reputation along with his usefulness. His knowledge of medical procedures show his understanding for the human mind physically but doesn’t have a mental grasp.

His journey leads him to a place in Napal where he learns a group of people might know how to cure his injured hands. As it turns out, this is really a coven of sorcerers who protect the world from evil. Sounds basic on paper, but when you get into the belief system and different spells, “Doctor Strange” starts to become more theoretical. Strange, himself, is more equip with knowing the world as he sees it; through scientific measures and practices. The journey into the place of sorcerers give off a belief vs. fact argument as Strange questions if his traditional methods are more powerful than magic.

However, a character named the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) proves the importance of mystical belief over science. Or at least the two can be one in some way. She proves useful in showing her new accomplice how vast the universe is within secret and odd ways. I liked how the calmness of this character really defined her. True, this is the usual master with knowledgeable ways, but an interesting one. The moments that made her stood out was when she argues with Strange’s faith. My only nitpick is they try to put in this twist about how she might be deceiving her followers which felt a tad unnecessary.

I say that because the main conflict of the plot doesn’t seem to have much room for it. A group of rebels, led by Dannish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who plan to unleash a monster from a darker dimension in hopes to take over the world in some way. But even the good vs. evil aspect feels a tad underplayed when we are exploring this new realm and the possibilities of traveling between space and time. Once we get to the zealots and their grand plan, it almost feels like a footnote after scenes of Strange training and learning about the new world along with its powers.

These effect-heavy scenes were more interesting than the villains as it proves the biggest eye-candy of the movie. We get treated to Strange traveling briefly through different dimensions (almost an homage to the vortex of light in Kubrick’s 2001), jumping through self-made portals and exploring more the sorcerer culture. When it was exploring this bizarre world of magic and mind over matter, it got interesting. But when it picked up and got back to the villains, the plot turns into your basic “whose the real bad guy” scenario.

On the bright side, it makes for a good excuse for intense action scenes that even push the limits of “Inception” and “The Matrix.” “Doctor Strange” goes further by having the sets actually move like the twisted gears of a clock or a puzzling Rubix cube. Between the fist fights, whole buildings and roads twist and roll around and it only gets bigger once we draw down to the climax. Unfortunately, if you took away the amazing effects, all that would exist is clunky fight scenes. The added sets that constantly move at least add tension and a dream-like feeling.

“Doctor Strange” is once again another step in the right direction for Marvel. They already proven before that they can do more than just superhero movies. “Strange” shows Marvel can channel any genre into their heroes and fly with it. The only flaws I do have to nitpick, which keep me from saying this is their best, include some odd pacing  and the handle of the material. In the first 20 minutes or so, the tragic backstory goes immediately into the training and the final third immediately launches itself into the typical good vs. evil battle. And I understand newcomers need to understand key terms in this odd world, but even they break the aspect of telling as opposed to showing. Characters keep mentioning about this massive creature which might destroy the world, but makes the mistake of talking instead of giving us an idea of this being’s power. When we do see this god-like creature, there’s not a sense of menace because we didn’t see this thing or action or understand its motive.

I must also tag on that despite the PG-13 rating, this is not a movie I would recommend for younger viewers. I would dare say this is one of Marvel’s darkest movies in violence and tone. From surgical procedures to a beheading seen in shadow, I’m honestly miffed at how this got away without getting an R rating. On the other hand, what we see is not too graphic to upset, but when you have talks of surgery on the spinal cord and scenes with out of body experiences, this might be something not for kids under 9 or 12. Parental guidance is strongly suggested for this entry.

Although, I can look past the flaws and say “Doctor Strange” was a fun ride. Full of imagination and creative fantasy, I once again find myself wondering what else Marvel has up its sleeve. After traveling through space in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the world of the small in “Ant Man,” “Strange” goes beyond the realm and even delivers, what I hope, a possible new franchise. One I even predict will be bigger since “Iron Man” made its debut. If not, at least it was a good start to the holiday season.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: The Crow

Horror-wood

 

Not your average Spider-Man and certainly far more darker than Batman

Not your average Spider-Man and certainly far more darker than Batman

The Crow is another film that I feel gets overlooked for the Halloween season. Its set around the spooky season and its themes of revenge along with the concept of a walking spirit feel very fitting. It started as a comic book by James O’Barr who crafted it after the loss of his wife and sure enough was brought to the attention of Paramount who gave a green light. I guess I can’t continue without saying that thanks to a mishap on the set, it cost the life of Brandon Lee. Instead, Paramount opted not to finish the film but Miramax picked it up while adding some extra funding to the budget.

No one can’t refer to this movie without talking about the unfortunate death of its star which brought more controversy than Twilight Zone: The Movie. And its a shame because without Brandon Lee, The Crow wouldn’t have been thrilling, edging and emotional than what it became. He is what really sells this movie. Brandon plays a guitarist named Eric Draven whose life goes from heaven to hell when local thugs kill him and his fiance. One year later, he rises from the grave and seeks revenge against those who took his happiness and life away.

The final film of Bradon Lee would truly be a triumpht

The final film of Bradon Lee would truly be a triumpht

On the surface, the story is a basic revenge tale as the resurrected Eric seeks to kill those who did him wrong. But what is different here is how he treats each act of revenge more psychologically but yet on a supernatural level. It makes us wonder if this is for the good or is Eric really destroying himself. There’s a scene where he goes after a pawn broker played by Jon Polito because his engagement ring to his girlfriend is located there. In a mental taunt, he takes out the assortment of rings the guy got and says how they are a life that was taken. Its a chilling moment when you considering just how many fell victim to what Eric went through and just how the pawn broker was just doing his job.

I also like how Eric’s presence as “The Crow” when he gets resurrected resembles something of a porcelain doll. The fact that a toy is hollow as he is but yet is emotionally scare plays a lot of symbolism. There’s a lot of moments like that throughout like when he looks at his old apartment for the first time and gets flashbacks of the past. Some are good and some are painful. A hardship of letting go that he can’t do without.

Ernie Hudson as Sargent Albrecht as he tries to make sense of the Crow's ploy in one of the more "lighter" scenes

Ernie Hudson as Sargent Albrecht as he tries to make sense of the Crow’s ploy in one of the more “lighter” scenes

Though he’s not alone as at his aid is a kid that was friends with Eric when he was alive and Ernie Hudson as a police Sargent Albrecht that is trying to piece together what is going on. Rochelle Davis plays her character as the usual child that aids the hero but you grow to sympathize with her seeing her mom is not up to being a supportive parent. The only problem with her character is how she is treated like a plot element later on but other than that I think she’s ok. Ernie Hudson is always going to be good no matter what movie he’s in. At times, he can be serious and other times comedic. A good example is when The Crow introduces himself in the Sargent’s home but Albrecht is caught literally with his pants off. The conversation they have is solid with a few comedic beats that gives us a break from the heavier moments.

Michael Wincott at his finest as the power hungry Top Dollar

Michael Wincott at his finest as the power hungry Top Dollar

Michael Wincott is the head gang leader named Top Dollar and lives up to the name of a true villain. He is power hungry yet will seek to be assured that evil can run amok like kids in a candy store. I like Wincott’s performance is laid back but later becomes more devious when he realizes what kind of vigilante he is fighting against. Its neither too over the top or soft. There’s a perfect balance that gives a memorable and sinister character.

To describe The Crow in a nutshell, picture Tim Burton’s Batman if it was darker and more music video influenced. With strengths of the question of morality in the story, the visuals and look of the movie is sure to please. A feast for the eyes as it goes right down from the dark lit alleyways and right use of color pallets. The flashbacks being bright and vibrant which contrast the grim view of Detroit but in a more comic book fashion. While The Crow was a box-office hit with viewers and critics, it strangely never got that huge recognition like Superman: The Movie or Tim Burton’s Batman. In fact, this movie was riding on the heels of many films trying to cash in on Warner Bros’ bat success. What separates it from the others is how it goes for a more artistic approach. It knows when to be subtle quiet and when to question just how good revenge is. Overall, The Crow is certainly a must watch for anyone.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: House of Wax (1953)

Horror-wood

 

Not the first but THE movie to but 3D on the map

Not the first but THE movie to but 3D on the map

Vincent Price is a not just a big name but an iconic staple of horror movies. There’s something about him that is interesting yet memorable. The sly and ghoulish yet humorous tone in his voice and the way he acts sinister while a noble gentleman at the same time. There’s just no justice I can do to explain how great he is. But would you believe that he was nearly blacklisted at one point. Truth be told, the McCarthy era was not a good time as many writers, directors and even actors were questioned to see if they were communists. Thankfully, Vincent was safe but he had two options. Either take part in a play or go back into some film work but nothing too major. Well, the play in question got great reviews but if it wasn’t for him, House of Wax wouldn’t be what it is today.

Now in order to understand the plot, I might have to go into some deeper details and it might result in some major spoilers. So I’ll try to maintain the bigger ones but just saying, read with caution. Set in 1890s New York, Vincent Price plays a wax sculptor named Henry Jarrod who is very talented and deeply invested in bring historical figures to live with his own two hands. And you can’t blame him seeing how much detail and spectacle is placed into each one. Unfortunately, his business partner played by Roy Roberts is not pleased with the mere measly earnings from Jarrod’s wax museum and sets it on fire to get the insurance money.

Jarrod (Vincent Price) watches in horror as his work goes up in smoke. One of the best scenes in House of Wax

Jarrod (Vincent Price) watches in horror as his work goes up in smoke. One of the best scenes in House of Wax

Jarrod somehow survives with his hands burned and attempts to recreate his lost work with a new wax museum. However, unlike focusing on the craft and beauty, this particular museum is more shock and less awe with crimes and murder of the past and present. From the guillotine to the first man to sit in the electric chair, he pertains to public taste and less art. I guess I should also mention Charles Bronson plays his mute assistant named Igor that does the sculpting. Its interesting to see a gunslinger be a lackey to a prince of horror films. Meanwhile, a disfigured man goes around and starts killing people one by one. His first victim is Jarrod’s business partner who gets strangled and then hanged from an elevator shaft. The first kill along is very eerie and well shot. There’s question to who this mysterious killer truly is but nothing is explained until the very end.

I probably should address that House of Wax has one major flaw. The opening scene is so well done that it really feels like the climax. As Jarrod’s wax museum goes up in flames, we see one figure burn after another and it becomes exciting, intense and unnerving at the same time. And to top it off, a fight between Jarrod and his business partner that really raises the stakes. It so tight and well shot that everything else after that feels laid back. The climax is nail-biting as well but the middle portion feels very laid back and quiet. But personally, that is a good thing. You start with a bang and then end it with something on the edge of your seat. Its a nice idea but I wish there something big in the middle to bring up the pace a bit. Also with the death of his business partner, it feels the film should already be satisfied seeing it was the only kill that served justice. But unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

The Wax Museum from the 1933 movie which is available on the same DVD as House of Wax

The Wax Museum from the 1933 movie which is available on the same DVD as House of Wax

I should probably bring up that this film is actually a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum which was more noir and comical while less horror based. I took the opportunity to view both versions and while Wax Museum was good too, I felt House of Wax had more improvements. Wax Museum does explain a few plot holes like how the new wax museum was able to be re-built but it also feels lacking in spots. Its set in 1933 (with the exception of a prologue set in 1921 London) and has a very metropolis feel to it in the shape of the buildings and how twisted and bent the wax figure workshop looks. But the biggest thing that keeps more coming back to House of Wax and not Wax Museum is the wax sculptor himself. Lionel Atwill plays the sculptor Ivan Igor with a more tense and angry feel. You really don’t have much sympathy with him and easily you have a certain dislike toward his attitude.

Vincent Price’s take is given more time to build sympathy even though we know he is that crazy. That was the magic of his acting. He knew how to make villainous characters but the kind you want to love. You really do feel sorry for him but at the same time, a bit disturbed about his intentions. But still, Vincent always knew when to put in his effort and loved every minute of it. While Wax Museum relied on certain characters for comic relief, Vincent provides the laughs dropping a comment line that is darkly funny and subtle at the same time.

The famous paddleball scene. This looked more better in 3D

The famous paddleball scene. This looked more better in 3D

I also have to give props to director André de Toth for making this movie. House of Wax has a grand yet simple comic-book tone to it that feels like a living EC comic right down to the cinematography and great use of sets. The foggy New York streets are eerie while the wax museum in the second half of the movie looks fascinating as it does when it needs to look menacing. I should also address this film is best remembered for being filmed and screened in polarized 3-D and at times, you can tell when its doing its tricks like a paddle ball to the viewer or close-ups of the killer. But even without the 3-D, it still looks like a well-shot movie. Director André de Toth was unfortunately blind in one eye and couldn’t see the 3-D. So when everyone was seeing the dailies and marveling at how great the 3-D effect looked, André was left feeling puzzled over why it would get THAT great of a reception.

While I can’t say House of Wax is a dead on masterpiece, I do stress that this is a really good movie. 3-D or 2-D, the eye-popping effect is in the production, Vincent Price and the overall film in general. It has a tongue-in-cheek approach that is neither too self aware of itself or even too cheesy. Its a perfect blend that balances out the comic-book horror tone that would later be used for other films like Army of Darkness or Creepshow. To best describe the effect this movie had on viewers back then and today, let me refer to a humorous story. Vincent Price was seeing a screening of the movie when he just happened to be behind two teenagers who were jumping and dodging from the horrors that were popping out of the screen. When the movie was over and the lights went up, Vincent leaned in-between their faces and asked ghoulishly, “Did you two enjoy my movie?” Their response was something he would never forget. The two teens could do nothing but scream of fright.