Wonder Woman (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, is yet another superhero picture that is over-reliant on CGI and does not offer enough imagination to impress or move the viewer beyond images presented on screen. This is especially inexcusable since the film is over two hours long. What results is a barely passable popcorn entertainment—clearly not a project that will be remembered decades from now and be utilized as a bar to be met for the sub-genre. I find that it possesses a skeletal idea of what it wishes to be, but the execution lacks the necessary inspiration to create first-rate entertainment.
The casting of Gal Gadot is spot-on not only because of her physical beauty. While capable enough of carrying both dramatic and comedic moments, I enjoyed it most when the performer simply stands among a crowd and yet our eyes gravitate toward her. Magnetism is something that a person naturally possesses and Gadot has plenty to spare. She manages to stand out even when computerized special and visual effects invade the screen to the point of overload.
Notice that the best scenes in the picture are moments of levity, whether it be Diana, having been raised on a hidden island, discussing the pleasures of the flesh (and how she read twelve volumes of a book detailing such information) with an American pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who is obviously attracted to her or Diana being forced to try on different articles of clothing so she can fit in with the crowd in London. When the material does not take itself too seriously, and willing to slow down the plot so we can get to know the characters a little more, it is refreshing in ways that other superhero movies are not. This is because the jokes are specific to Diana’s story, where she comes from, and what she hopes to achieve.
Conversely, when the material takes itself too seriously, the tone is dour, uninviting, and at times soporific. All of us have seen war films before and great ones shake us to the bone. The events that transpire here is a bizarre combination of real-life drama and comic book. Clearly, these extremes do not mesh well. A diluted version of reality is thrusted upon our laps and somehow we are supposed to find entertainment value out of it. Since the screenplay by Allan Heinberg lacks depth, it simply does not ring true on any level.
In addition, broad topics such as corruption, horrors of war, sacrifice, and heroism are touched upon, even mentioned outright, but these ideas are never explored in such a way that we are given insight as to what these words or ideas mean to the characters we are supposed to be rooting for. Instead, a pattern emerges: an idea is brought up and it is immediately followed by a relatively uninspired action scene. This is especially pervasive during the final hour of this drawn out film.
Those looking for dimension, depth, and insight from superhero pictures are bound to be severely disappointed by “Wonder Woman.” Here is a picture with outposts—important events that must be introduced into the plot in order to create a semblance of story—but the journeys between these outposts are rushed and lacking in flavor. I take comfort in the fact that the romance between Diana and Steve offers enough surprises.
★ / ★★★★
“Regression,” written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, suffers from a lack of genuine intrigue considering that it is inspired by real-life events in the early 1990s when reports of Satanic rituals have spiked. Just about anyone who has taken an undergraduate psychology course should be able to see through the bewilderingly predictable facade. And by doing so, the so-called twist in the film is not only expected but it takes unbelievably long to get there.
The story revolves around a detective named Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) who leads an investigation in a religious small town. Angela (Emma Watson) claims to have been sexually molested by her father (David Dencik) for about a year and has been since living in a church after telling the police what had happened. The suspect is apprehended, questioned, and eventually confesses to the crime, but there is a catch: An alcoholic, John has no memory of what he he had done, allegedly, to his daughter. A professor, Dr. Raines (David Thewlis), an expert in regression therapy, is brought on board to excavate the man’s hidden memories.
A highly simplistic script is one of the film’s main problems. As a result, when characters show up on screen, the viewers are not pushed into a convincing reality—whether it be in terms of the look and atmosphere of the small town or how the players engage with one another. Just about everyone talks the same way and so it fails to give an impression that the story being told is happening in a specific town with specific ways of life.
The level of believability is tantamount to the success or failure of the picture exactly because the material is inspired by actual phenomena. It does not help that some of the casting is completely wrong. For instance, Watson, while trying a lot, sometimes too much, to emote, is not a believable small town girl. Notice that even when they put her in very drab, plain-looking clothing, there remains something regal and polished about her. This is not the performer’s fault—even though there are times when Watson fails to match Hawke’s effortless intensity—but the casting directors’, Jina Jay and Jason Knight.
It would have been far more effective if an unknown or a relatively unknown actor had been cast, preferably one who is a chameleon. Angela should have had an air of mystery and unpredictability to the point where we cannot predict what she is really thinking or feeling at a given time. Here, acting-wise, Watson does not exhibit enough range to communicate the little complexities of what Angela undergoes. Watson seems distracted—perhaps because she is attempting to modulate a convincing American accent while trying to evince the exact emotions the script requires.
There is not enough discussions, contexts, and subtexts about psychology, science, police work, and religion—how they meld into one another to make this specific story worth telling. The picture suffers greatly from a plethora of generalities that at times the viewers cannot be blamed for feeling like the writer-director has not put in enough effort to make his vision into a memorable, curious, horrifying experience.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although the medium is animation, “Anomalisa,” directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is not for children but for adults who’ve lived. There is a consistent tinge of sadness to the picture as it briefly but specifically tackles a variety of thoughts and emotions, from one feeling trapped and helpless in a cycle of gloom to a rhapsodic encounter with a potential new partner. Its most adult trait, however, is it avoids pandering to the audience. It is up to us to interpret images like a character’s face coming off and why all of the characters, despite gender, have the same voice.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a published author who carries the weight of his mundane life on his shoulders. His unhappiness is apparent, he is short-tempered, tired, and he finds it difficult to make a meaningful connection. However, when he meets a fan named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a business trip, he feels there is something about her that is extraordinary. Perhaps being with her will eliminate the rut that has stuck to him like gum. He is even willing to give up his wife and child waiting for him at home in order to achieve that elusive happiness.
Even though the picture revolves around a character undergoing a crisis, it is often very funny in a dry way. Such a feat is already difficult to accomplish in live-action movies, so to pull it off—and to do it well—in the medium of stop-motion animation makes it all the more impressive. Essentially, these puppets must capture the most human qualities a person can have. Otherwise, everything just looks and feels forced or fake. The script, the voice actors, and the animators are able to form a successful synergy to create convincing situations and relatable, flawed, accessible characters.
Notice the sparing use of close-ups. When utilized, it is often effective because there is always life from behind the eyes. Thus, when a character talks about her insecurities, like being ugly, not feeling smart enough, being too meek or shy, we feel as though these are confessions of a person rather than of a stop-motion puppet or character.
Further, because we relate to her as a person, we cannot help but think about her positive qualities: she is warm, she is approachable, and she seems incapable of becoming someone else even if she tries. We understand exactly why the protagonist is drawn to her warmth, her light. We consider that perhaps they really are a great fit.
Kaufman’s screenplay also touches upon isolation and, perhaps most importantly, personal responsibility. The material is daring because there are suggestions found throughout that we, as individuals, are responsible for our own happiness, that achieving contentment requires hard work at times, not forgetting to check in with oneself every day, and learning to come to terms with the past and realizing that the past does not dictate the present or the future. “Anomalisa” is a film that inspires us to look at the art on screen and reflect the images from within. One way or another, it strikes a chord.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first scene showed Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the covers. I loved the double entendre and from that moment on, I knew that director Alfonso Cuarón would inject something special in an already magical and beloved series. There must have been an added pressure for Cuarón and the crew because J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is arguably most fans’ favorite book out of the seven published. On the way to Hogwarts, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) encountered a dementor, prison guards from Azakaban that were on the hunt for a criminal who had a reputation for being one of Voldemort’s most loyal followers. Rumors went around that the criminal in question was responsible for the deaths of Harry’s parents and that he wanted to kill Harry next. Although the third novel was not my favorite due to Voldemort’s absence, I was surprised by the film because it introduced three new characters in fun and memorable ways: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the dangerous criminal who escaped Azkaban, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense of the Dark Arts professor (which, we all know up to this point, there is something quite off about them), and Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson), the neurotic but amusing Divination professor. The movie also had another challenge by having Michael Gambon fill in the shoes for Albus Dumbledore because Richard Harris passed away. Despite that hurdle, it was ultimately a good change because Gambon’s interpretation of the character involved Dumbledore being a bit tougher and more prone to sarcastic remarks. Gambon should be given credit because he could have as easily played a nice, old wizard without any sort of edge. This film was a vast improvement from the second installment. While its predecessor tried too hard to be darker and only came to focus toward the middle portion, the storytelling here felt more natural and the direction felt more confident. It was actually a turning point for the series because it was when the actors finally felt comfortable in their roles and it sets up the tone for the upcoming movies. Furthermore, there was not a scene that I thought was wasted. I was not left confused because it included enough (admittedly, not all) key details from J.K. Rowling’s book. Since the material tackled some time travel, a less capable director could have delivered a less than satisfactory result. There were some changes from the novel but I welcomed such changes because I accepted that the film was Cuarón’s vision. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” did not have the magical golden glow that the previous two movies possessed but it was the most accomplished.
Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was told in the eyes of an eight-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) who likes to explore his surroundings and play with other children. One day, his family decides to move from Berlin to a remote place in Poland because his father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi soldier and he is promoted there by the higher ranks. Bruno, being unaware of the horrors that the Jews are going through, assumes that the concentration camp that he can see from his bedroom is a farm. He also takes notice of the people there and tells his mother (Vera Farmiga) that he thinks they are quite strange because they wear pajamas all day. As a young explorer, he eventually visits the concentration camp and meets another eight-year-old boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) and the two become friends. I liked that this picture was told from the eyes of young person who didn’t know anything about what was going on around him. While his mistaken assumptions were amusing at times, it was very sad in its core because little by little his innocence got stripped away. I liked the scenes when the private tutor would teach Bruno and his sister (Amber Beattie) how to think like Nazi and labeled Jewish people as “evil” (among other things). Such scenes showed two crucial reactions from the children: the sister’s total acceptance of the Nazi ways to the point where she started putting up clippings and posters on her wall; and Bruno’s as he tried to resist what he was being told by asking questions such as if there were nice Jewish people. Since this was aimed as a children’s story, it was important for me to see how Bruno processed the varying information that was being presented to him by his strict Nazi father, his mother who was having a breakdown after finding out a secret that her husband kept from her, his patriotic but ultimately deluded sister, and his Jewish friend who was clearly miserable. And I did see and feel his confusion and frustration about what people have told him and his own experiences. As for the ending, it completely took me by surprise. But I suppose the director (Mark Herman) did a good job building up the tension that led to the conclusion. This film provided a nice change from other Holocaust pictures. If the fact that all of the characters spoke in English instead of German does not bother you, this is a pretty good find.