Wonder Woman Leads the Way as Superheroes Save JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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As a kid, I slightly preferred the Marvel superhero comics to DC, but I pretty much enjoyed them both.

But in the past decade, in the movie world, Marvel’s movies have been far superior to what DC has churned out.  The DC films have been largely problematic. That changed a bit earlier this year with the release of WONDER WOMAN (2017),  the best DC film to hit the big screen since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

The upward trend continues with the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), the tale of a group of DC superheroes working together for the first time.  While not as good as Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, JUSTICE LEAGUE is another step forward, helped immensely by the presence of Wonder Woman, played once again by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

When a JUSTICE LEAGUE opens, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but as every superhero fan knows, the Man of Steel is never gone forever.  Movie fans will know as well, as soon as they see Henry Cavill’s name listed prominently in the opening credits.

With Superman gone, the door is open for the powers of darkness to make Earth their own, because frankly, while other superheroes may be tough, it seems only Superman can keep the truly heinous baddies from strutting their stuff.  In this case, it’s Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who centuries ago was banished by an alliance between the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.  With Superman dead, Steppenwolf returns to finish the job he set out to do eons before, namely, to destroy the world.

Realizing that Steppenwolf is a superior foe, Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  But even their combined strength isn’t enough to take Steppenwolf down, leading Batman to suggest the outlandish plan of resurrecting Superman from the dead, even if his newfound superfriends warn him against doing so. The young Flash nervously worries that such a plan could lead to Pet Sematary-like results.

I really enjoyed JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon works mostly because it keeps things simple.  The story is not overly ambitious and therefore avoids being overdone and complicated, as was the case with the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) which try as it might failed to establish a convincing relationship between Batman and Superman.  You could actually argue that the story here is rather stupid, but in this case, that doesn’t really matter because the strength of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its superhero characters, and the actors playings these roles all acquit themselves rather nicely.

Joss Whedon of course both wrote and directed THE AVENGERS movies, and his influence is apparent in this movie when the superfriends bicker and take jabs at each other.  And while Christ Terrio wrote BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a movie I didn’t like, he also wrote ARGO (2012), a film I definitely did like.  There is a lot of smart dialogue in this film, which helps lift it above its very standard plot, like when Batman criticizes Wonder Woman for not having ever taking a leadership role.  He correctly points out that Superman has been a beacon for the world, but he had never even heard of Wonder Woman until recently, and he accuses of her hiding in the shadows during the past century.

It’s safe to say that after the success of WONDER WOMAN, one of the biggest draws of JUSTICE LEAGUE is not Batman or Superman, but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Gadot does not disappoint.  She was clearly my favorite part of this movie, and when she is on-screen, the film is at its best.  She possesses such a strong screen presence, she’s astonishingly beautiful, and is completely believable as an unstoppable warrior princess.

But Wonder Woman alone wouldn’t be enough to save a movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE, and thankfully, her superhero counterparts are also quite good.

While I didn’t really like the look of Batman’s cowl and costume, Ben Affleck is quite effective as the caped crusader.  It’s a convincing performance, and I liked Affleck even better here as Batman than in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.  There are also plenty of potshots made by his friends at his lack of super powers.  At one point, he’s asked just what his superpowers are, and he answers, “I’m rich.”

Strangely, when Affleck appears as Bruce Wayne, he seemed a bit fleshy in the face which works against the idea that Batman is a fit fighting machine.  There’s also a neat nod to the Michael Keaton BATMAN movies here, as composer Danny Elfman incorporates his original BATMAN theme from that 1989 flick into some of the Batman scenes.

Likewise, Henry Cavill scores high as Superman.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite Cavill performance as the Man of Steel.  He comes off as sincere and is far less troubled than in previous films with concerns over how the world views him.  It seems death has been a good thing for Superman, as while he was gone, the world seemed to have missed him.

Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, although at times the humor seemed a bit forced.  I also enjoyed Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and really enjoyed Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who gets some of the better lines in the movie.

The film is also helped by a strong supporting cast, led by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Adams isn’t in the movie much, but to have Adams in a cast as a supporting player can only add to a movie, and her few scenes are all nicely done.  Jeremy Irons gets a decent amount of screen time as Alfred, and he makes the most of his scenes.

Diane Lane is effective as Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent, and Connie Nielson reprises her role from WONDER WOMAN as Queen Hippolyta. J.K. Simmons appears briefly as Commissioner Gordon, and Amber Heard is seen all too fleetingly as one of Aquaman’s associates, Mera.

Director Zack Snyder achieved better results here than he did with both BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and MAN OF STEEL (2013). One of the ways that JUSTICE LEAGUE is superior is Snyder controlled himself here and didn’t film action scenes that went on for too long.  They are generally quick, efficient, and well done.

I thought the pacing was especially good.  The film runs for just about two hours, but it flew by for me and felt more like 90 minutes.

Like its Marvel counterparts, there are a couple of after credit scenes.  The first one is well worth the wait, but the second at the very end involves a certain villain played by a certain actor who I really don’t want to see again.  Oh well.

The film also opens with a curious bit featuring Superman, which was enjoyable enough, but I thought at some point in the movie the story would return to this moment, but it never does.

JUSTICE LEAGUE features a straightforward and rather simple if not predictable story, but in this case it seems to be just what these DC films have needed.  The DC films that haven’t worked have been bogged down with plot points that didn’t work and action scenes that went on for far too long.  It truly seemed as if they were struggling to find their identity.

WONDER WOMAN established its identity right away, and while JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t quite as successful as WONDER WOMAN, it too establishes itself right away.  It sacrifices plot for characterization, using most of the screen time to establish its Justice League personalities, and the film is better for it.

The superheroes here not only save the world, but the movie.

As such, JUSTICE LEAGUE is highly recommended.

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WONDER WOMAN (2017) – Superior Superhero Film Puts DC Back on the Map

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It’s been a while, but at long last, we have a DC superhero movie worthy of our attention, and that movie is WONDER WOMAN (2017).

DC has long been operating in the shadow of their competitor, Marvel Comics, who have been churning out one quality superhero movie after another, often several a year, while DC has struggled to make even one hit, often trying to imitate Marvel’s lighter style with disastrous results.  Perhaps the best part of WONDER WOMAN is that it succeeds without being like a Marvel movie at all.  It stands on its own, and it stands tall.

WONDER WOMAN tells the origin story of Diana (Gal Gadot), a princess of the Amazons, living on a secret island, hidden from the rest of humanity by a protective shield of camouflage. She is a little girl on the island populated by female warriors, the strongest being her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).  As Diana grows to womanhood, she is trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and soon becomes the fiercest warrior on the island.

When a British World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) flies through the barrier and crashes into the ocean near the island’s shore, Diana swims to his rescue.  Moments later, German soldiers break through the barrier as well and attack the island.  There is a fierce fight and many are killed.

After questioning Steve and learning about the war, Diana decides to go back with him to stop it.  She believes it’s being waged by the god of war, Ares.  Find and kill Ares, and the war will end.

And thus Wonder Woman is born.

The rest of the movie follows Diana’s and Steve’s efforts to thwart the Germans who are planning to unleash a new deadly gas, and to do this, they have to rely on a small team of Steve’s rogue buddies, since officially, the British want to de-escalate the fighting since they are close to signing an armistice.

By far, the best part of WONDER WOMAN is the performance by Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  She is phenomenal here, just as she was in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016),  a deeply flawed film that was better whenever Gadot was on-screen.  She pretty much stole that movie.  Here, she has a movie of her own, and she’s terrific.

Gadot does for Wonder Woman what Robert Downey Jr. has done for Iron Man, and Chris Evans for Captain America.  She has put her stamp on the role and made it her own.

Chris Pine is also very good in the supporting role of Steve Trevor.  Pine makes Trevor a genuine war hero, and better yet, helps Diana see the good in humankind.

While Pine has been enjoying success as Captain Kirk in the new STAR TREK movies, he’s also been churning out some truly fine performances of late, in films like HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and THE FINEST HOURS (2016).

Trevor’s sidekicks also stand out.  Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief are all memorable.  They’re a lot of fun and are developed rather well as supporting characters, more so than Captain America’s war buddies in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011).  Taghmaoui in particular has some of the better lines in the movie, like when he’s recounting Diana’s story of her island, saying, “You mean it’s an entire island full of women like her?  Let’s go there!

Likewise, Lucy Davis is enjoyable as Steve Trevor’s secretary, Etta.  She has some fine moments in some comical scenes, like when Steve introduces her to Diana as his secretary, and Diana asks what a secretary does.  Etta tells her, and Diana says, “Where I come from that’s called slavery.”  To which Etta smiles and responds, “I like this girl.”

Connie Nielsen adds class as Diana’s warrior mother Hippolyta, and Robin Wright from TV’s HOUSE OF CARDS is up to the task of training Wonder Woman as Antiope.

One way that WONDER WOMAN is similar to the Marvel superhero films is that it stumbles with its villains, and like the Marvel movies, the fact that the villains are weak doesn’t seem to matter.

Danny Huston plays the main baddie, General Ludendorff, a rather cliché military villain, made even less impressive because Huston he played a similar role in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009).  His performance here offers nothing new.

The far more interesting villain is Dr. Maru, played by Elena Anay.  Dr. Maru wears a mask that covers part of her face, and she’s the main force behind creating the deadly gas.  Anay is very good in the role, but sadly, the character isn’t really developed all that well.

David Thewlis plays another character of note, Sir Patrick, who officially opposes Steve’s mission, but behind the scenes helps him to achieve it.

Patty Jenkins directed WONDER WOMAN and does a nice job.  The film looks awesome, and the action scenes are all done very well.  At times, the pacing is slow, but the story remains interesting throughout.

And that’s because the screenplay by Allan Heinberg is a good one. It does a nice job telling Diana’s origin story, showing how she grew up on the island. The World War I sequences are also well done, but most of all, the strength of this story is its theme of empowering women.  The story presents an all-powerful superhero, who also  happens to be a woman.  And you might be tempted to say, this isn’t news.  Wonder Woman has been around for a long time, but not in the movies she hasn’t.

If you’re not a comic book reader, and you’re basing your superhero experiences on television and the movies, you really don’t know a whole lot about the Wonder Woman character.  As such, it’s a case where audiences don’t really know what they’ve been missing.  They’ll know now.

WONDER WOMAN has a lot to say about women.  Having this latest badass superhero to hit the big screen be a woman is a breath of fresh air, and showing the way women were treated during the World War I years is relevant because similar struggles continue today. Likewise, the way Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor treats Diana and looks out for her, and she for him, sets up a love story that really works.

All in all, WONDER WOMAN is a superior superhero movie, one of the best of its type.

The DC superhero movies are back on the map.  Wonder Woman has saved the day.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Costner Is Criminally Entertaining in CRIMINAL (2016)

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When I think of Kevin Costner,  the word “bad-ass” isn’t what comes to mind.

That might change after watching CRIMINAL (2016), the new thriller starring  Costner as a death row inmate who through untested experimental surgery is given the memories of a dead CIA agent.

Why?  Because the agent died before completing his mission, and in order for his superiors to learn the vital information he took with him to his grave, they need to ressurect his memory.  Enter Kevin Costner.

When the movie opens, CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is being chased by the bad guys, and he doesn’t make it, which is very bad for the good guys, because Pope was bringing in a computer hacker who had gained control of the U.S. military’s missile launch system.  Pope’s boss, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) recruits Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to perform experimental surgery on Pope to transfer Pope’s memories into the brain of another man.

Franks chooses Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a death row inmate and career criminal, because Jericho has a rare brain condition as a result of a childhood brain injury which makes him a perfect candidate for the surgery.  Trouble is, the same injury has also made Jericho an unstoppable unfeeling brutal criminal who doesn’t know right form wrong, doesn’t feel emotion or pain, and basically is Michael Myers without the mask.  Well, almost.

Franks performs the surgery, but Jericho escapes, and now armed with Pope’s CIA agent knowledge and skills, sets out to steal the money that Pope was going to use to bring in the computer hacker.  But when Jericho visits Pope’s wife Jill (Gal Gadot) and his young daughter, he begins to relive happy memories from Pope’s past and suddenly he’s experiencing emotions, something he had never been able to do before, which changes his outlook on life.

Meanwhile, the hacker is still out there, CIA boss Quaker Wells is going nuts because every move he makes seems to be the wrong one, and the main baddie in the movie, terrorist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla) is intent on using Jericho to lead him to the hacker so he can gain control of the U.S. military’s missile launch codes and blow up the world.

And he’ll succeed, unless Jericho, the relentlessly brutal career criminal who’s now armed with CIA agent skills, making him more dangerous than ever, can stop him.  And he wants to stop him for the simple reason that Xavier has irked him.  As Jericho says early in the movie, “You hurt me.  I’ll hurt you worse.”  Well, Xavier put the hurt on him, and for Jericho, that’s enough.

I went into CRIMINAL not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a very entertaining movie, and the biggest reason for this is Kevin Costner.

For me, it’s usually hit or miss with Costner.  Sometimes I enjoy him, and other times not so much.  For example, his recent action thriller 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) I thought was meh, and he didn’t really do all that much for me in that movie.  Yet, he was terrific in last year’s MCFARLAND, USA. (2015), and I also enjoyed him in the two thrillers THE NEW DAUGHTER (2009) and MR. BROOKS (2007).  Of course, Costner’s career goes way back to THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) and was followed by a career of hits [DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)] and misses [WATERWORLD (1995)].

Costner knocks it out of the park here in CRIMINAL.  I haven’t seen Coster this good in years.  Part of the fun is it’s a role Costner doesn’t usually play.  As Jericho Stewart, he’s in-your-face abrasive, rough, crude, and incredibly entertaining.  His gritty yet realistic performance is reminsicent of the work of Tom Hardy, who also could have easily played this guy.

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Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) takes aim at an enemy in CRIMINAL (2016).

Costner is also supported by a fine cast.  While neither Gary Oldman nor Tommy Lee Jones really stand out or do anything we haven’t seen them do before, they are both very good and their presence certainly helps the movie.  As does Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman herself!) as Pope’s beautiful wife Jill.  Gadot is not in the movie a whole lot, but when she is, it gets that much better.

Jordi Molla is meh as main baddie Xavier Heimdahl.  I’ve seen better villains, and I’ve seen worse.  Likewise, Michael Pitt as hacker Jan Stroop aka “The Dutchman” is also simply okay.

Better than these two are the other women in the cast.  Alice Eve makes her mark in a brief bit as CIA Agent Marta Lynch who for a time is Quaker Wells’ go-to person before she meets an untimely demise.  Even better than Eve is Antje Traue as Elsa Mueller, Xavier’s top assassin.  Traue gives the second best performance in the movie, behind Costner’s, and I really enjoyed her work as Elsa, who was one of the better characters in the movie.  Then again, maybe I just have a thing for sexy assassins.

And while it was nice to see Ryan Reynolds as Bill Pope, his performance was more of an afterthought, since he’s only in the movie for a few minutes.

CRIMINAL also has a really good script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg.  It’s chock full of good lines, mostly spoken by Kevin Costner, and the idea behind the story, transferring one man’s memories into another, was pretty interesting.

I couldn’t help but think of FRANKENSTEIN while watching this movie.  The memory transplant, the brain surgery, the fact that Costner’s Jericho behaves like the Frankenstein Monster, especially how he doesn’t feel emotion and goes about scaring people and beating them senseless every chance he gets.  Plus Tommy Lee Jones’ character is named Dr. Franks, which immediately made my Hammer Films brain think of Peter Cushing’s Dr. Franck at the end of THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).

That whole part of the story is really interesting and compeletely worked for me, mostly because Costner’s performance brings Jericho to life.

The other part of the story, the stealing of military secrets and wanting to blow things up, didn’t work as well.  That was all standard action movie fare and offered nothing new.

Director Ariel Vromen does a nice job, especially with the pacing.  This one flew by.   The action scenes were all decent, although none of them were all that spectacular.

By far, the best part of CRIMINAL and the main reason to see this one is Kevin Costner’s completely satisfying performance against type as rough, tough, unstoppable and often insane Jericho Stewart.

It’s Costner’s most entertaining role in years.

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