Sunday, December 27, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984

Spoiler-free!

This film is divisive, so I'll go ahead and open with my opinion that I don't think it's nearly as good as Wonder Woman, but I also didn't find it atrociously bad, either. I will try and translate my mild disappointment into some strong opinions for your entertainment. 

Diana (Gal Gadot) has spent the last 70-ish years alone and fighting crime. It's a walk in the park for her now. Or a spin around the mall. But then she unknowingly touches a magical wish-granting stone while wishing that her lost love Steve (Chris Pine) was back with her again, and—boom, he's back! But the stone is dangerous, especially in the wrong hands such as Max (Pedro Pascal), and maybe Diana's new work friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig). Things must be put right. So off we go!

Don't tell anyone, but I don't think my opinion is the only opinion people are allowed to have. 

Frankly, this movie had zero chance of being good in the same way the first one was. It's impossible to recreate that specific magic, because of the fundamental changes in Diana's character. She can't be naïve anymore, or out-of-touch with her comparative strength to humans and the ways she can help or influence them. She's now familiar with loss and loneliness, too. None of these things are bad or good in themselves; what matters is how the film treats them. And I think that's the fundamental problem with this movie. It understands that Diana has changed, but doesn't change to suit her. It tries to be more of the same, but instead everything feels out of joint and loose. Like ideas were being thrown at a wall to see what stuck, but nothing stuck—so they just filmed all the ideas laying on the floor.

There are still moments that have impact. Even though the message was spelled out, I was swept up by the opening sequence. And one thing that didn't and shouldn't change about Diana is the sense of wonder she conveys. (Obviously.) It didn't come across as strongly, but was still there, and I enjoyed the moments of wonder even if they were cheesy, like flying through fireworks in the invisible jet or smiling at the world just because it's beautiful. Plot-wise things had a solid foundation. I liked the concept and the bad guys, and I liked the idea of Steve being back. But it ultimately wasn't as satisfying as it should have been, and that's because of the movie's fundamental problem again.

It's not that the movie's actively bad... it just lacks anything to make it good.

This time, it's Steve who's the fish-out-of-water, having appeared in 1984 straight from WWI. So they try to reverse that "seeing the world for the first time" bit that was so cute about Wonder Woman—but it doesn't work the same. Steve is already too worldly and open to the future, while Diana is more jaded, but still aloof from the world herself, so she can't show it to him in a personal way. So why try to recreate what the last movie did? Skipping over that bit and getting to something new may have yielded better results, developing their characters further together, instead of retreading old ground in reversed positions. 

Retreading old ground is the most common misstep a sequel can take. The point of a sequel should be to further the story with more story, but filmmakers get distracted by the idea of doing more and forget that more of the same should be avoided wherever possible. Maybe Patty Jenkins had too much of a confidence boost from Wonder Woman's success. Maybe the studio encouraged this direction. Maybe all anyone could see were dollar signs. But the result is that the movie isn't refined, and that creates an avalanche of noticeable issues. Plot holes, pacing problems, underdeveloped characters, bland tone. The script isn't sharpened. There aren't any side characters. And no 80's era music. No surprises in the plot in the form of twists and turns. And it's long and indulgent—which would be fine if it weren't indulging in lazy simplicity. 

Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal feel like the best parts of the movie because at least they're new.

It's like Wonder Woman was a nice, yummy, chocolate cake, so Wonder Woman 1984 mistakenly thought that in order to be yummy, it needed to be a chocolate cake, too. But there was only enough chocolate for one cake, so it used carob instead. And now the cake tastes bad. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are still there, as are the positive themes of love, wonder, and heroism, so a flavor change surrounding those things isn't such a big deal. If Wonder Woman 1984 had been a vanilla cake, or a strawberry cake, it would still have been a cake, just with a unique flavor instead of a cheapened imitation of the last success.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Love and Monsters

Spoiler-free!

Seven years after the earth is accidentally turned into an apocalyptic wilderness inhabited by giant, mutated insects and reptiles, survivor Joel (Dylan O'Brien) finally reestablishes contact with his long-lost girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). He's useless as far as monster-killing goes, and her underground colony is 80 miles away from his, but he's determined to be with her again, and rekindle what they had. So off he goes, braving the monsters for love.

Don't settle for an unfulfilled life. Even if it's the apocalypse!

I'll put it simply: it's a refreshing adventure, and a blast of entertainment. Joel meets a friendly dog who joins him, then joins in with an old man (Michael Rooker) and his unofficially adopted daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). He meets and runs from many gleefully-rendered scifi monsters, eventually learning how to survive them. It has everything I could think to ask for in an action/adventure film. It's brightly colored. Fun to watch. With engaging action sequences that don't exist just to fill a quota. And moments of wonder, which every adventure film needs to be complete. It doesn't forget the heart, and has sweet genuineness to hold it all together. It's not breaking new ground on its genres; it's just filling the established mold with high quality material.

I don't even have a "but" to add to that. It's not gonna be my new favorite movie or anything, I just don't have any complaints. There was one thing I was expecting the film to do that it didn't and felt like a loose end, but I think it was mostly me projecting that made it a thread at all. The characters are archetypal, but that's not a problem when they're done with enough dedication. And by my calculations, dedication is Dylan O'Brien's greatest feature as an actor. If a script gives him something solid, he seems incapable of squandering it. He always plays a variation of himself, but who cares—he's clearly gunning to be the next Tom Cruise, and I think he's got the job in the bag.

Not everyone can channel entertainment so effectively.

Movies like this ride on charm and how high the entertainment quality can go. And O'Brien isn't lacking on leading man skills but to that end he still gets charm backup in the form of an unrelentingly adorable dog actor. They worked so well together that it makes me wonder why more movies don't include talented doggies. It's not like he was vital to the plot or anything. He simply made the movie better by making it more entertaining. The CGI wasn't anything to write to your long-distance girlfriend about, but it wasn't bad either and far from bland visually, which makes it actively good in my book; adding to the entertainment. As does the creature designs. And the good-natured comedy. And the way it steps into serious, dark drama, but doesn't wallow in it.

Ah, entertainment. Sometimes you need an escape, and this movie is eager to give it to you. Unexpectedly, it has more to give on top of that. Everyone knows you can't make a film these days without a nice, fluffy message to make it feel complete. Some universal truth to reiterate in a positive way, so we can walk away from our entertaining escape feeling reinvigorated toward real life. Accidentally, this little flick hits the nail on the head with a universal message that it couldn't have known, at the time of writing and filming, would be so relevant to the state of humanity circa 2020.

This movie knows what's up more than it realized it knew.

Love and Monsters doesn't shy away from the fact that there's danger in the world. It openly acknowledges it, and shows how painful it can be. Then, it wisely points out that being afraid of said danger is only a hinderance. It says there are things out there worth braving the danger for—personal, and communal. It shows us that the world isn't as bad as rumors and built-up fear sometimes makes it seem; and that hiding doesn't exclude you from danger. It values freedom over safety, and suggests that freedom leads to true safety, rather than a false illusion of it. Then it literally says, "There is a great big, beautiful, inspiring world out there. Go. Live your life. It won't be easy but it'll be worth it."

Leave it to some unassuming little adventure flick about giant bug monsters to remind us to have a little courage in this real world. No matter how scary or dangerous life gets to be, there's no excuse for not living it to its fullest—let alone not living it at all.

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is well-off, then bad-off, then well-off, then bad-off, and then well-off again in this brisk and charmingly color-blind adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel.

I wonder if they thought, "Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield" and then decided to ignore race in the casting, or if they decided to ignore race, and then realized Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield.

Two hours of screen time is not long enough for an 800-page novel. I've yet to read it, but I don't need to know what was shortened or cut out to know that it was done. Severely, I expect. And that's why I'm glad I saw this before reading it. Because I enjoyed it immensely, and though I know I'm missing something, I haven't a clue as to what. Well—I do in a general sense. But more on that later. At first brush, David's journey of growing up and becoming a writer, surrounded by a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and an even more wild ride in the forms of eternally kooky supporting characters, feels like Dickens 100%. If you get a Dickens itch, this will scratch it.

It speeds along through the plot at sometimes too great speeds, although it never gets exhausting and has good pacing. The only thing I waited for was for young David to grow into Dev Patel—and once he did the film came alive and found its lively and comfortable groove. I don't know what David's personality is supposed to be like, but Patel seems to me a Dickens hero through and through. Easy-going, energetic, funny and sincere with occasional outbursts of anger and naïve stupidity. Ideal. Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, and Ben Whishaw all added to it, but it was Patel who made the movie sing.

There are some first-rate scene transitions in this thing.

The problem comes in when the movie reaches the dramatic parts that are meant to have stakes, and you realize that they were skimmed over so quickly that it's tough to figure out what bad had happened, let alone care about it. This movie hits the colorful, charming, and fun notes remarkably well; but in order to be fully satisfying, a story needs the audience investment that serious drama brings. And while it's not lacking in it completely, it was frustrating when the movie ended, and I realized the film had only included us in half of David's experiences. We get a full sense of his happiness, but the trials are cut short and brushed aside. I grasped that Ben Whishaw was the movie's main villain in the same scene in which he's defeated. I had no time to care. Without the downs of a story, how can an audience fully appreciate the ups?

So it left me fully charmed, but only partially invested. And that's too bad, because while I like being charmed, it's getting into the nitty gritty of caring about the characters that ultimately most important to my falling in love with a story. Still, you can hardly blame The Personal History of David Copperfield for focusing in on what it did. It may have left me a little empty, but it clearly wanted to focus on the brighter side of everything and have fun, and that's what it did. All in all, its shortcomings left me wanting to read the book—and that's a compliment in itself.