Legends of Tomorrow “Aruba-Con” Review

Change is usually essential to keeping things fresh in superhero television.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D greatly benefits from its creators’ absolute refusal to stick to any status quo for more than a few episodes at a time.  Daredevil’s two, almost equally great, seasons are about as different structurally as possible.  But there was one show that, come the end of the last season of televised super-heroics, I was crossing my fingers would just keep chugging along the same way it had been.  That show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and its third season premiere has answered my prayers.  “Aruba-Con” establishes just enough new details to keep things fresh before sending its titular time-traveling heroes on what looks to be another season of the insane shenanigans that made the last season so much fun.  

If there’s one major complaint I have about “Aruba-Con”, it’s how quickly it sweeps away the Season 2 finale’s cliffhanger.  To defeat the Legion of Doom, Sara Lance/White Canary (Caity Lotz) and the rest of our beloved knuckle-head time-cops had to break the one rule of time travel they usually follow; don’t return to an exact time period you’ve already visited.  While the surprisingly menacing Legion was, of course, disposed of, the Legends were shocked upon arriving in Los Angeles, 2017, which now counted a handful of tyrannosaurus-rexes, Big Ben, and other oddities among its inhabitants.  Repairing the broken timeline is now going to be the narrative backbone of Season 3 but Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) and his new-fangled Time Bureau (a hopefully less-corrupt version of the Time Masters, who the Legends destroyed in the first season) send all the “anachronisms” that don’t belong in modern-day L.A. back where they belong with no effort at all.  This show wasted an opportunity to have Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell) fight dinosaurs and I feel cheated.  

Rip, whose character has regressed somewhat to seeing the Legends (mostly) as screw-ups, announces that the Time Bureau’s more professional methods of protecting the timeline mean our heroes can take early retirements.  The Legends briefly return to their own versions of normal lives but all except Professor Stein (Victor Garber) are aching to get back to repairing, screwing up, and occasionally improving history.  This brief downtime period allows for some amusing vignettes of each Legend’s daily grind, the funniest of which are Sara fantasizing about slitting the throat of the manager of the Bed Bath and Beyond stand-in she finds herself working in, and Nate Heywood/Citizen Steel (Nick Zano) bemoaning the way Wally West/Kid Flash (The Flash‘s underused Keiynan Lonsdale, in a fun cameo) never leaves enough bad guys for him to beat up.  Once a new anachronism (namely a time-displaced Julius Caesar) interrupts Mick’s long-awaited Aruba holiday, the rest of the team jumps at the opportunity to steal their beloved Waverider back from the Time Bureau in hopes of showing Rip that they deserve to be included in the time protecting fun.  In typical Legends fashion they make things much, much worse before eventually solving the problem and it’s in this nearly counter-intuitive process that the show reminds us why it’s so endearing.  Its understandably not for everyone (one episode in and this season has already shown one of the particularly dumb plot elements that you can only ignore if you’re already invested) but if you’re the kind of viewer that likes what Legends is going for there’s nothing better than seeing Caity Lotz easily defeat one of the greatest military leaders in history with a few well-placed roundhouse kicks in the middle of an extremely convenient toga-party.  

As an individual episode, “Aruba-Con” is far from a Legends great (which really is more a compliment to the show than a criticism).  Introducing the Time Bureau takes too long and even with the excuse that this is actually the Rip from five years after the end of Season 2 having him lecture Sara on what a mess she’s made when he himself was involved in the fight against the Legion erodes some of the limited viewer affection the show worked hard to get him in the last run, and is especially hypocritical given his last words before departing the Waverider were of newfound approval for Sara’s unconventional leadership style.  The show also hasn’t firmly established what Sara’s key emotional struggle of the year will be.  Even with the intrigue of Mick Rory and Martin Stein and the characteristically brilliant performances of Purcell and Garber, Lotz is Legends‘ real star and the show is at its best when Sara has something more moving to deal with than simply sticking it to Rip.  But this is all more a matter of narrative real estate than anything else.  “Aruba-Con” is a set-up episode and what it sets up looks promising.  So long as the character work picks up in the coming weeks, as I imagine it will, and the mysterious threat Rip hints at late in the episode works close to as well as the Legion did, we’re in for another great year of time-jumping craziness.  It’s business as usual for Legends.  But business is booming.

 

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The Defenders Season 1 Review

Spoilers for The Defenders and all proceeding Marvel Netflix series:

What the minds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe accomplished with The Avengers was a minor miracle.  Bringing together the stars and storylines of four major blockbuster film franchises for one huge team-up film with only a few supporting characters and plot points existing as connective tissue was an idea that could’ve gone horribly wrong.  As pretty much anyone who sees movies knows, that wasn’t the case and the massive critical and financial success of The Avengers meant that an attempt at a similar phenomenon was inevitable.  While the Avengers saga has continued in many big screen efforts, the first Marvel project to actually replicate the build-up and hype towards that first magical meeting of heroic minds comes on TV.  Or streaming, to be more precise.  Four years ago, it was announced that Marvel and Netflix would partner up to bring viewers individual series focused on edgier heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist before teaming them up in The Defenders.  That fifth series is finally here and while not without its flaws, it’s well worth the wait, a television event that can’t be missed.

Despite kicking off to immense critical acclaim for Daredevil‘s brutally honest take on vigilante justice and Jessica Jones‘ dark depiction of the horrors of PTSD and sexual violence, Netflix’s Marvel slate has been stumbling as of late.  Strong senses of racial politics and musicality and a charming performance by Mike Colter as the titular character weren’t enough to save Luke Cage from problems in the story department, with character development and plot that were both too thin to fill thirteen episodes of television.  Iron Fist was a mess all around and completely tone deaf towards the problematic cultural, economic, and racial aspects of its lead character, as well as the fact that he was simply not likeable.  While it’s not the groundbreaking genius of the first two solo series, The Defenders tops its latter predecessors simply by virtue of the fact that it knows what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is an immensely fun, but still emotionally complex, tale of four damaged people coming together to fight a nearly unstoppable evil.

In terms of plot and mythology The Defenders is much more closely tied to Daredevil and Iron Fist than it is Jessica Jones or Luke Cage.  The Hand, that pesky dark magic ninja death cult that’s been bothering both Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) throughout their respective series is back with a vengeance.  The shadow war Stick (the wonderful hardass Scott Glenn), Matt’s mentor and leader of more well-intentioned (though no less murderous) ninja outfit the Chaste, has been fighting his whole life is finally hitting a fever pitch and it doesn’t take long for it to attract the attention of our heroes.  Luke (Mike Colter) and Jessica (Krysten Ritter) are brought in fairly easily through their own vigilante activities.  Jessica finally takes a case at her private investigating job when curiosity about a missing husband who doesn’t seem to simply be cheating breaks through her careful act of apathy and Luke looks into the mysterious activities of the brother of an old (dead) ally.  It’s actually Matt who takes the longest to get sucked in.  The most experienced crime fighter of the bunch went through a meat grinder in the second season of his solo series as his personal and vigilante lives collided and it cost him loved ones and relationships on both sides.  We find him in the most interesting place, trying to put his civilian life back together by hanging up the horned helmet.  It’s a great way to continue the themes of Daredevil, which has as its thesis the idea that Matt’s super heroic night job is a compulsion that he just can’t shake, no matter how dangerous it is to his physical and mental health (and occasionally to the society he’s protecting).  Matt Murdock is a fighter who can’t really fit in normal society and Cox’s soulful performance makes these struggles and realizations fascinating to watch.

To believably sell the idea that all our heroes are really needed the threat they were facing had to have a real weight, much more so than the rather generically evil Hand members we’ve seen so far.  Thankfully, the main villain of the series comes in the form of Sigourney Weaver, who’s Alexandra is a much more complex and intriguing figure than most of her colleagues.  She’s understandable and at times sympathetic while remaining utterly devious throughout and is one of the most entertaining elements of the show, especially in the first two episodes as the pieces are moved into place for the titular team to finally come together at the end of the third hour.  Other reviewers have complained about this pacing decision, and while going almost halfway through the series before getting to its actual purpose, that being Matt, Luke, Danny, and Jessica both getting to know each other and taking down bad guys as a unit, is a bit odd, this slow build is (mostly) necessary to both establish where the characters’ heads (and hearts) are at.  Matt’s arc in particular needed a gradual start to show how different his life is without Daredevil.  Jessica and Luke also have intriguing struggles, her with her newfound local fame after killing vile super-powered rapist Kilgrave and the heroic calling she’s starting to realize she might not be able to ignore forever, and him with how to effectively help Harlem while still having a life of his own.  Its, predictably, only Danny who’s really boring to watch during this buildup period.  Finn Jones simply doesn’t handle heavy emotional material well, and the character’s trajectory isn’t established on as strong a basis as his team members’ are.

The slow burn of the series’ first half, as well as its other, smaller faults (most of which are hard to describe without veering into in-depth spoilers) are more than made up for when our four heroes finally do get together.  First uniting in a ginormous fight scene at the end of the third episode, the quartet of New York saviors is simply electric to watch and once that fight starts the series shifts into another gear and doesn’t ever let up, making it relatively unique among these Netflix and Marvel collaborations in how well it maintains momentum (with the exception of Daredevil‘s first season all the other shows have meandered a bit around their tenth episodes or so).  Giving the show with four main characters five less episodes than those with one sounds strange on paper but it works wonders.  Once one sees the whole picture they’ll see the need for those earlier small moments and it becomes clear how well constructed the whole eight-hour run is.  Pretty much every scene in the second half of the show provides either long awaited answers about the Hand (some more satisfying than others), delightful character interactions, or dynamic team-up fight scenes.

The cast and characters are by far the biggest selling points of The Defenders.  The dysfunctional group dynamic makes this by far the funniest of the Netflix Marvel series and the snarky quips are sure to delight both the general audience and fans of the comics of Brian Michael Bendis (who pretty much single handedly originated the idea of these four particular characters as a loosely organized but emotionally close crime fighting unit).  However, the real beauty comes when the show goes deeper than the typical team up shenanigans.  As fun as it is to see Jessica make fun of Matt’s superhero costume (“Nice ears”, “They’re horns…”) it’s even more satisfying to see them bond.  As curt as their first meeting is, it quickly becomes clear that the two really are the perfect friends for each other, both understanding one another and each challenging the other to be better people when all their other loved ones have only been able to do one or another so far.  Ritter and Cox are beyond even their talented co-stars throughout but when they’re together there’s genuine magic on screen.  The show’s other go to duo is no slouch either though.  The iconic Luke Cage/Iron Fist bromance is represented well here, in fact much better than many who watched Iron Fist the series probably believed possible.  Nearly all the complaints viewers had with the Danny Rand character are brought up in Luke’s tough love advice and Colter’s perfect blend of pathos and cheese brings out much stronger work from Jones, who is at his best playing up Danny’s youthful goofiness, leaving the angst to the more rightfully damaged characters and more reliable actors.  There’s still a significant amount of work to be done to really salvage this interpretation of the character (if we’re supposed to like Danny, watching Luke rip into him for his white privilege probably shouldn’t be quite so satisfying) but the potential is there.  While these are the most frequently used pairings of characters, the show knows to give viewers plenty of time with the Defenders as a foursome both for action and dialogue (the series absolute highlights along with the Jessica/Matt duo) and to make sure the other relationships among the team get enough time, with Jessica and Luke subtly realizing they still have feelings for each other after their screwed up romance in Jessica Jones and Danny idolizing Matt being other gems worth mentioning.  The group dynamic really is a marvel (no pun intended) of subtle and emotionally logical writing.  The show’s creators are smart enough to know that their new superhero buddies shouldn’t supplant say Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) in Jessica’s heart or Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) or Karen Page (Deborah Ann Wool) in Matt’s and they make this clear through the short but sweet use of such characters.  That being said, it is also clear that the four Defenders have a strong familial bond by the series’ end, with the actors nailing the kind of nearly tangible love that only comes from outsiders finding people who truly understand them.

As well as the show does spreading its focus to everyone, Matt is pretty much definitively the main character.  This is fairly logical as he was the first character most viewers were introduced to and the comic version has the most diverse and consistently impressive catalogue of stories (The Defenders being a very loose adaptation of the second half of Frank Miller’s famed first run on the Daredevil comic) but it’s worth noting for those audience members who are here primarily for Jessica, Luke, or Danny (that last breed of fan being particularly rare, I know).  However, the story the creators have crafted around Matt as he tries to salvage the soul of resurrected love Elektra (Elodie Yung) from the Hand while dealing with his three new compatriots is so engrossing I can’t imagine many people complaining of Daredevil fatigue.

The more specific details of the series are a bit of a mixed bag.  Yung and Glenn are joined in the main non-villain supporting cast (or not purely villainous in Yung’s case) by Jessica Henwick as Danny’s lover and partner Colleen Wing, Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, and Rosario Dawson as the nurse with a million super friends, Claire Temple (characters like Taylor’s and Henson’s put in more brief appearances).  Of these five the characters originating from Daredevil fare a lot better than the two who don’t.  Henwick gets to play out some decent sword fights but Colleen is a victim of inconsistent and repetitive writing that makes her emotional moments more of a chore than they should be.  The Defenders as a show, much like Luke Cage before it, seems to think Misty is some awesome butt-kicker when she remains an annoying bureaucrat.  Missick’s arrogant performance simply adds to the idea that the character thinks she’s a lot more clever and useful than she really is.  Thankfully, Glenn and Dawson are their reliable selves and prove the best sounding boards for the four main heroes.  Yung relishes playing an almost entirely new character most of the time before giving an affecting flash of the crazy warrior woman we know and love from Daredevil Season 2.  Other than some of the fights, the most obvious technical strength of the series is its lighting.  Throughout the series’ beginning the sections devoted to each individual hero can be identified by a distinct color palette (blues and the occasional menacing flash of purple for Jessica, green for Danny, a golden yellow for Luke, and a deep, haunting red for Matt).  As the four worlds slowly begin to fuse the colors begin to blend in a wonderful piece of visual storytelling.  The fourth episode, which spends almost its entire run time in a neon bathed Chinese restaurant as the Defenders have their first impromptu meeting, is the most visually spectacular hour of television the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever produced. 

Ultimately The Defenders is far from perfect but gets by on how entertaining it is and its ability to deliver on the things that count.  The absence of the social commentary that made the best of Marvel and Netflix’s best collaborations is almost made up for by the fun of seeing the characters we’ve grown to know over sixty-five previous hours of television finally getting to know each other.  Especially dynamic performances from Cox, Ritter, and Yung tie things together into a dark and riveting superhero spectacle.

Wind River Review

Despite the significant impact of films like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and James Mangold’s Logan, if the minor resurgence the Western is enjoying can be attributed to any one filmmaker it’s Taylor Sheridan.  The former Sons of Anarchy actor has been flexing his screenwriting muscles for a while now, scripting one absolutely brilliant film in each of the last three years.  2015 and 2016 saw the releases of Sicario and Hell or High Water respectively.  This year Sheridan took on the additional responsibility of sitting in the director’s chair, helming his first major picture.  Anyone who assumes such an inexperienced director may not be able to handle material as delicate as that which Sheridan himself writes will be proven wrong by the fruit of his latest labor.  Wind River is a pristine movie, one that both exposes societal problems and entertains by modernizing that aforementioned quintessential American genre.

The key to Sheridan’s success in revitalizing a genre many believed to be dead and dated is his awareness of the fact that at it’s core, a Western (particularly a modern one) is really just a crime story with a remote setting.  His films make this abundantly clear by leaning into other crime subgenres in order to be more palatable to modern audiences.  Sicario was a morality play about the drug war, Hell or High Water was a heist movie, and Wind River is a murder mystery.  We start with a barefoot, barely dressed girl running through the thick Wyoming snow, accompanied by a vague, darkly poetic voiceover (which will be explained later).  The girl’s body is found at the Wind River Indian Reservation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who was there to deal with some mountain lions.  Since the body was found on federal land the FBI is called in to assist the severely understaffed local authorities.  The Bureau’s response would be comical if it wasn’t such a scathing indictment of the lack of respect or priority given to the lives and affairs of Native Americans.  A single agent is sent, the inexeperienced but passionate Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen), who was chosen simply because her Vegas station made her the only Bureau employee even remotely close to Wind River.  The film is full of small but effective moments of social commentary like this, powerfully criticizing how little the people who rule this country care about those who should rightfully own it.

Jane herself is far from useless, becoming especially invested when she sees the victim was raped, and proves her capabilities when the stakes start rising later into the film, but she simply isn’t enough.  No, the key to this manhunt is Cory.  Drawn into the action by personal connections to the victim as well as the similarity of her death to his own late daughter’s, the animal hunter proves himself an invaluable asset in the search for this particularly depraved murderer.  While the film occasionally stretches believability in terms of how little evidentiary options other than the tracks Cory can follow Jane and the tribal police have access to, any plot conveniences are more than made up for by just  how captivating a character Cory is.  Sheridan’s crafted a new kind of cowboy here, groundbreaking in terms of both his sociopolitical significance and his emotional makeup.  Unlike his cinematic ancestors, Cory respects and cares for his Native American neighbors and family, protecting and avenging them as best he can without swerving into white savior territory.  Furthermore, Cory deals with his pain in rather unique ways for this kind of movie.  He aches in quiet moments but he isn’t a burnt out shell of a man like many other big screen vigilantes, who only seem to come alive when the fighting starts.  This is partly due to Sheridan’s quietly revolutionary move to actually give him another, living kid to be responsible to.  Renner is absolutely fantastic in the role, expertly conveying both the broken warrior and the quiet but still functional man just trying to make his way in the world following his own, uniquely honorable code.  It’s his best performance since The Town and he’s easily worthy of a third Academy Award nomination.

While utterly devoted to its star and main character above anything else, Wind River is still a very well balanced film, with all the other pieces fitting into place fairly well.  Olsen, Graham Greene, and Gil Birmingham have arguably the most important supporting parts and they each play their piece strongly.  Olsen has by far the most screen time after Renner and while a decent amount of it features her only really as a sounding board for her Avengers co-star to bounce off of, she gives off a quiet strength well and shines particularly brightly in the film’s sparse moments of dry humor, playing off Greene.  Birmingham imbues the film with extra pathos as the victim’s father, a friend of Cory’s.  Sheridan’s direction isn’t quite as bold as say, Denis Villeneuve’s was for Sicario, but it suits the material well and is ultimately a strong debut, with his best moments coming in the film’s brutally violent, yet electric action scenes, few as they may be.  The only real flaw comes with the score.  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ work is appropriately eerie and atmospheric throughout most of the film but becomes oddly distracting in a few choice moments where whispered, supposedly frightening lyrics can be heard.  It’s an odd, unnecessary choice that makes the film feel like its trying too hard to be edgy when that effect has already been achieved long ago.

Wind River is ultimately pretty much what one expects from a Taylor Sheridan movie, but given that one expects greatness from him after his last two efforts, that’s no bad thing.  It’s a gripping movie that continues its director’s quest to rescue the Western from an early grave all while still dabbling in other genres (simple as it may be, the explanation of what caused that poor girl to run six miles in the snow barefoot before her death is more realistically terrifying than anything you’ll see in a half dozen horror movies these days) and is further bolstered by an awesome lead performance from Jeremy Renner.

Detroit Review

There are not many filmmakers today who understand the provocative potential of their medium to the same extent that Kathryn Bigelow does.  After directing The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, modern masterpieces which depict the moral confusion of 21st century warfare in harrowing ways, one could understand if Bigelow maybe spent some time working on a lighter project or two or if there was a drop in quality if her next film was indeed another politically charged work.  Detroit, Bigelow’s latest directorial effort, proves all these predictions and assumptions wrong, standing as both a testament to the technical skill of its director and her collaborators and, more importantly, a statement on perhaps the greatest evil to ever infect America, an evil which is tragically still alive and well.

As most who are attending the film will likely know, Detroit is set during the infamous 12th Street Riot the titular city underwent in the summer of 1967.  While the police raid of an unlicensed club that nominally started the riot is depicted in the opening the majority of the film zeroes in on a specific instance of police brutality at a motel called the Algiers (indeed the film’s title does feel a bit off since the rioting throughout the rest of the city doesn’t receive too much focus, but this is relatively inconsequential).  The viewer is led to the tragic night at the motel by the individual stories of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer for struggling R&B group The Dramatics, racist Detroit police officer Phillip Kraus (Will Poulter), and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who is hired to protect a grocery store near the Algiers from the city-wide looting.  After a black Algiers guest fires a starter pistol in order to frighten police in a bout of righteous anger the motel is besieged by police and national guardsmen (accompanied by Dismukes) who supposedly mistook the sounds of the starter pistol for those of a sniper attack.  After killing one motel resident in the initial breach of the building, Krauss, who is already facing murder charges for an earlier instance of brutality, takes command of the situation.  The remaining guests, including Reed, his friend, two flirtatious white girls, and a Vietnam veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie), among others, are rounded up and subjected to a night of horrendous violence and violation that Krauss orders in search of the gun he supposedly believes is hidden somewhere in the building.  Bigelow stages this “interrogation” in a brutally effective manner, crafting the most terrifying spectacle I have seen on screen in a long time that is made all the more horrifying when one realizes that these could very easily be events of today not fifty years ago.

For Detroit Bigelow (and screenwriter and frequent collaborator Mark Boal) employ a journalistic style of filmmaking, even more so than they did with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.  Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk the idea is to completely immerse the viewer so they feel as if they are genuinely experiencing the horrific events on screen and I would argue that Bigelow succeeds at this even more so than Nolan does.  There’s no embellishment to make the story more cinematic here.  Characters simply move from disturbing Point A to even more disturbing Point B and it’s only Smith who is  given a narrative arc in the traditional sense of the word with the depiction of the shattering effect that horrible night in the motel has on Reed’s musical passion.  While this strictly factual approach doesn’t create a perfect movie (the first act often feels sort of jumbled in its efforts to set everything up for the horrific second and third acts) it’s the most powerful way to make the intended statement.  No thematic additions by Bigelow could make this story any more disturbing than the events themselves do and she should be commended for realizing this.

While Detroit might not be the best movie of the year (though if it isn’t it’s pretty close) it’s certainly the most important that I’ve seen so far.  Bigelow is a crusading filmmaker and is perhaps more equipped than any of her peers to address the darkest corners of American history.  Especially those that are still relevant, as the 12th Street Riot, Algiers Motel incident, and all other stories of racism sadly still are, today.

Atomic Blonde Review

A lot of movies can be criticized for having style over substance, particularly members of the action genre, many of which favor fight or chase scenes and plot twists over exploration of character or themes.  It is the truly great action movies that have all of those attributes and more.  Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s new spy film starring Charlize Theron, is an oddity in that it certainly tries to be more than just two hours of mayhem but is in many ways better off when it doesn’t.  Blonde‘s stylish elements (most of all its fight scenes and cinematography) are extremely well executed but its attempts at introspection and sophistication are a mixed bag.  While it’s not the kind of blockbuster where you can really turn your brain off there’s a decent chance you might be confused by the film’s plot and/or messages even if you do pay close attention.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, Blonde follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron).  After a colleague is murdered Lorraine is sent to Berlin (days before the Wall comes down) in order to retrieve that pesky list of undercover agents that’s been showing up in every other spy movie screenplay since Mission Impossible.  There she meets unorthodox Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) and French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), occasionally teaming with the former and falling for the latter.  Theron and McAvoy have quite an enjoyable chemistry as damaged people who clearly understand eachother well but don’t particularly like one another.  Indeed its one of the screenplay’s bigger missed opportunities that Lorraine and David run their investigations separately with only occasional intersections.  The film actually explores David more effectively than it does Lorraine and while this allows McAvoy to turn in a great performance it makes for a bit of a disjointed experience.  The David scenes often feel like pieces of a screenplay that approached the same situation from a different perspective, at least throughout the first and second acts.  Theron and Boutella are also enjoyable together and sell a connection that could easily have come off as rushed.  Its something of a sexually charged mentor student relationship and the closest thing the movie has to a strongly beating heart.  And if nothing else Blonde deserves some points for nonchalantly using a romance between two women as the emotional backbone for a summer blockbuster.

While the movie handles Lorraine’s interactions with other characters fairly well it fails to really make her stand out on her own.  This is no fault of Theron’s who does the best she can throughout, giving a charming and believable performance.  She is let down by the writing which doesn’t have a singular approach to the character.  In some scenes Lorraine is a likeable yet cold enigma, pretty much a female Bond but in others she is a truly messed up individual who the film clearly wants the viewer to be deeply invested in and this leads to a somewhat confused experience.  The movie would probably have been better off with a more genuinely ensemble approach, contrasting each character’s reactions to the uniquely dangerous world of covert operations in Cold War Berlin.  Indeed this unique setting is already a more intriguing presence than Lorraine herself is and more focus on it would not have hurt.

As important as these other factors are to the impression Blonde will leave they are all secondary to its one truly memorable aspect: the staircase fight.  Arriving towards the end of the second act this instant classic action sequence finds Lorraine protecting an asset from a small army of enemy thugs in what is designed to look like one very long shot, fighting her way down multiple floors of an abandoned building.  In all likelihood its probably four or five still quite lengthy  shots with transitions thinly disguised by a body or two slamming into walls right next to the camera but that’s beside the point.  It’s a cinematic battle for the ages with Theron, the other actors, and the stunt team doing exquisite work.  While anyone who has seen John Wick, which Leitch co-directed would expect high class battles from the filmmaker there is nothing at all expected about this fight.  Its the perfect blend of stylish choreography and realistic brutality and technical masterful filmmaking of this level should never be taken for granted even if it only lasts a single scene (the other action scenes are all serviceable or more but the movie makers were definitely biding their time until this wonderful main event).

While the main reason its worth a big screen watch is the staircase fight there’s more to Atomic Blonde than just well-shot fisticuffs.  Strong performances, lush cinematography, and a unique setting make for an extremely watchable film that also has some interesting ideas, even if they aren’t always expressed very clearly.

Dunkirk Review

Christopher Nolan is a master filmmaker.  That much can’t really be disputed any more.  Since coming into the public eye with the groundbreaking Memento in 2000 the British writer, director, and producer has proven himself a creator of innovative films that are consistently both highly entertaining and intellectually stimulating.  But it is with Dunkirk that Nolan has unveiled his most unconventional, if not necessarily his best, film.

Depicting the evacuation of British forces from the titular French location as the latter country fell to Nazi control, Dunkirk differentiates itself from other war movies, particularly its many siblings in the World War II subgenre, by focusing solely on survival, relatively uninterested in the moral difficulties of war time.  To Nolan anyone around Dunkirk those fateful few days, both the soldiers and the civilian sailors who aided in the evacuation, were heroes, despite any faults they may have, which to be fair, Nolan doesn’t entirely ignore (English bias against the French is acknowledged a decent amount).  Therefore, Nolan sets out to depict just how extreme the conditions these men and boys endured were, calling on all his considerable filmmaking skill to do so.  Dunkirk is a rollercoaster of a film, with constantly climactic tension that does not let up for the entirety of its (admittedly short) runtime.  Nolan abandons traditional ideas of narrative to build a film that is completely experiential.  The characters’ personalities and backstories play second fiddle to the depiction of the physical challenges and fear they experience.  Nolan’s biggest concern, many might say his only concern, here is to immerse the viewer in the combative chaos he depicts.  Nolan has acquired a reputation for being a bit of a cold filmmaker and while the extent to which this is true is often exaggerated emotional impact certainly isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of his filmography.  With the exception of his Batman trilogy the main draw to a Nolan movie is usually something other than memorable character work, examples being enthralling mysteries (such as in The Prestige) or technical filmmaking innovation (found in Inception and Memento).  It would be understandable to expect Nolan to focus more on character in a film about the tragedy of war but as he often does Nolan subverts expectations, playing fast and loose with emotional arcs in order to devote himself to making the viewer feel as if they really are on that beach, on those boats, or in those planes.  Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance are the only actors given really emotionally challenging material though all do their jobs at the least adequately, with Tom Hardy bringing a welcome dose of action movie cool to his role as a fighter pilot.

In addition to the focus on intensity over traditional narrative arcs, the other factor making Dunkirk feel fresh among its many war movie peers is its unique narrative structure.  Often known to employ multiple intersecting time frames, Nolan divides Dunkirk into three distinct, though still related, chapters.  One, referred to as “The Mole” depicts the week long struggle of the soldiers slowly being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.  Another, “The Sea”, focuses on Rylance’s character and two others, the owner and two hands of one of the civilian boats called in to aid in the evacuation, on their day long journey to those same beaches.  Finally “The Air” follows Hardy’s character and his partners as they provide air support for the final hour of the sea mission.  Thanks to masterful editing and some carefully constructed surprises the intersections between the three timelines provide a genuine cinematic thrill.

While it certainly has its flaws (chief among them an occasional lack of clarity about where different groups are in relation to each other), Dunkirk is still something of a marvel.  An artistic, experimental film with blockbuster aesthetics that deserves more than a few Academy Award nominations, especially for cinematography and editing, it is more than anything a tribute to the real heroes of the battle it depicts that proves both the skill and integrity of its director.  Nolan’s efforts are selfless here both in terms of how he takes risks and knows when not to, in order to make the most effective, respectful film possible.  A Best Director nomination is more than deserved.

War for the Planet of the Apes Review

My first thought coming out of Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes was “Thank goodness the next Batman movie is in good hands” and while this may seem like a distracted thought it’s actually one of the highest compliments I can pay Mister Reeves.  I confess that the cinematic exploits of the Caped Crusader are far more important to me personally than those of the sometimes friendly, sometimes not-so-friendly simians that populate the Apes films and this isn’t likely to change.  But it is the confidence Reeves inspires that is relevant here, born out of his creating a film in War that is hugely satisfying both emotionally and intellectually.

Commencing two years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also done by Reeves), War finds the current protagonist of the franchise, Andy Serkis’ Caesar, and the rest of the intelligent, genetically modified apes whom viewers have come to know over the course of the rebooted trilogy which started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes engaged in increasingly brutal conflict with a militant regiment of humans who survived the apocalyptic virus that killed off most of the planet’s population.  After the regiment’s leader, the extremist Colonel (Woody Harrelson), inflicts unspeakable horror upon Caesar, the once noble chimp sets out for revenge accompanied by three close companions with the journey testing his morality and psyche in highly intriguing ways and Serkis turns in another mesmerizing performance (while I understand some Academy members’ reluctance to nominate a performance at least partially constructed by visual effects artists for a standard leading actor award, Serkis definitely at least deserves some kind of special recognition for his pioneering work in this still-new style of acting).

Like Dawn and, to a lesser extent, Rise, War is more than anything a cautionary tale.  In addition to the social commentary against xenophobia and intolerance carried over from its predecessors War is also a powerful examination of violence and well, war.  Caesar’s always been a unique blockbuster antagonist (he is after all a chimpanzee and one that’s made enemies of humankind more than once) but War is a moral quagmire that one really doesn’t expect from a movie featuring talking animals.  While the film starts out focused on typical issues of ends justifying means the second and third acts are what push the film into the territory of great war or anti-war film, depending on how one sees it.  Reeves’ direction truly shines in the moments when he lingers intimately on the effects that Caesar’s morally questionable acts have on his soul.  This is a highly intelligent, educated simian who sees no other way to protect his family and friends than to resort to methods he knows are reprehensible.  This is Apocalypse Now, just with fur and some religious imagery.

While Caesar and the thematic ideas are the main attractions, War has plenty other things to offer.  The motion capture effects continue to stun, with a close-up, emotional dialogue between Caesar and Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape being a particular showcase for the artists’ spectacular skill at maintaining the complexities of the actors’ expressions despite heavy CGI alteration to their appearances.  While all the actors playing apes do fine work (if not as brilliant as Serkis) the real scene stealer amongst the supporting cast is Harrelson.  The Colonel is one of the best screen villains in recent years and this is thanks in no small part to Harrelson’s rage-filled, intimidating performance.  It does help that the writing for the character is very timely, with xenophobia and disregard for the rules of combat and leadership feeling like a particularly relevant blend of evil with said relevance being made abundantly clear when it is revealed the Colonel is using slave labor from prisoners to build a wall.  The film’s action is probably its biggest weakness.  First of all it bares mentioning that this isn’t at all a traditional summer blockbuster and there really isn’t that much action to discuss.  That being said, what few skirmishes there are really aren’t that impressive.  In yet another unconventional move for a sci-fi epic combat isn’t at all glorified, which fits well with the serious examination of violence Reeves is conducting.  However, not all of the violence put on screen is shocking or inventive enough to effectively display the brutality and devastation Reeves wants to convey (the score also occasionally feels a bit out of place tonally).  Scenes of torture serve their thematic purpose much better than the gun fights or human hand to ape hand combat do.  While the fight scenes in War are rightfully about as far as you can get from something like The Avengers they also not close enough to say Looper or Saving Private Ryan.

In summary, Reeves and company have created a unique and highly impressive piece of work.  War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful examination of the self-inflicted dangers facing humanity, disguised as a sci-fi action thriller and its strengths far outweigh its few minor weaknesses.

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

The Spider-Man franchise is perhaps the perfect example of the lack of originality that many believe is plaguing the film industry.  The first appearance of Tom Holland’s take on Peter Parker in last year’s Captain America: Civil War marked the second cinematic reboot of the wall-crawler in less than five years and many moviegoers were rightfully skeptical of another solo series for a character who it seemed may have ran his course on the big screen.  While Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first of said solo series, isn’t original enough to completely alleviate those concerns, it’s at least a solid film when taken on its own merits.  Strong humor, a lively performance from Holland, and connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe denied to previous versions of the character make Homecoming a highly enjoyable, if hardly moving, experience.

After a prologue introducing the film’s villain (Michael Keaton’s take on Adrian Toomes a.k.a. the Vulture) Homecoming picks up in the midst of Captain America: Civil War with a very funny look into Peter’s perspective on the events of that film, courtesy of a video diary he keeps throughout a mission.  Upon his return from helping Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) combat former friends, Peter is gifted by the older hero with an A.I. powered super suit as part of a trial period, which he is told, could result in his full induction into the Avengers someday.  Tony tells him to lay low while he learns the finer points of super-heroics, suggesting that he focus more on neighborhood crime-fighting rather than the international incidents the Avengers routinely involve themselves in, and while Peter claims to take this advice to heart, within two months he is bored of patrolling Queens and constantly pesters his handler, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, reprising his delightful role from the Iron Man trilogy), for another “real” mission.  Holland does a good job portraying Peter’s frustration and desire to prove himself and the film moves along at such a quick and easy pace that it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun, but I occasionally found myself less than satisfied with the issues Peter is facing given that they are essentially all first-world, fairly unsympathetic, problems.  While past takes on Peter had him struggling financially and socially, as he always does in the comic-book source material, this version is essentially waiting with baited breath for the next alien invasion or super-villain attack and this occasionally creates a bit of a disconnect with the character.  Fortunately this downtime only really lasts throughout some of the first act and once Peter’s wish for a legitimate threat is granted by Toomes’ schemes, in which he sells alien and hi-tech weaponry recovered from the wrecks of Avengers battles, the film really finds its groove as a funny superhero caper that is also interested (though not heavily invested) in the high school escapades of its adolescent hero.

Homecoming‘s desire to be both a high school comedy and an introduction to a new version of a beloved comic-book and cinematic hero is both a blessing and a curse.  Holland’s Peter is by far the youngest and most believably naïve big screen Spider-Man (he’s leagues ahead of Tobey McGuire but still behind Andrew Garfield) and Watts is able to craft a very charming character but the balance and grace with which Peter is (for the most part) approached isn’t always reflected in the rest of the cast.  Out of the various classmates depicted in the film the only one with consistently strong material is Peter’s best friend, Jacob Batalon’s Ned, even if his characterization, along with that of Donald Glover’s character, could be upsetting to fans of the second Spider-Man from the comics.  Laura Harrier is perfectly fine as love interest Liz Allan but is let down by the writing which never provides a good reason for Liz to reciprocate Peter’s romantic feelings making their connection far from tangible.  The script also fails to really sell the tug of war between Peter’s personal and heroic lives that is so vital to the character, possibly due to its infuriating tendency to ignore the tragedies that define him as a person.  While the decision to refrain from showing a third version of Uncle Ben Parker getting shot to death because of Peter’s mistakes is a necessary move to avoid being labeled repetitive, the lack of emotional weight given to Peter’s background costs the film in terms of impact.

While Homecoming certainly has a fair amount of weak spots they are evened out by the general sense of fun and the non-student supporting characters.  Homecoming is genuinely, effortlessly funny in a way most movies simply aren’t any more and the constant stream of laughs contributes to the film’s brisk and easy pace.  The more experienced actors in the cast are also on top of their game.  Robert Downey Jr. is as great as ever, but the restraint both he and the writers show in regards to the use of Tony Stark in the film is the most admirable thing about his inclusion.  Tony is very much a supporting character here, as he should be, but every scene he’s in is better for it.  Although under-used, Marisa Tomei makes for a highly entertaining Aunt May and she shares possibly the film’s best scene with Holland.  That all being said it is Keaton who really steals the show.  The former Batman makes the most out of a simple yet effective villainous part that is simultaneously clever and thuggish turning in an endlessly entertaining performance.  The subtle portrayals of similarities between Peter and Toomes are also some of the script’s highlights.

Future installments will need to improve action sequences and emotional complexity in order to ensure the rebooted series’ longevity but Spider-Man: Homecoming is good enough for now.  The film does a fine job of reintroducing moviegoers to Peter Parker, who is now firmly entrenched in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s nice to have you back Webs.  Don’t screw it up this time.

Arrow Season 5 Review

Spoilers for the entire series follow:

From 2012 to 2014 The CW’s Arrow was on top of the world.   The first live-action superhero series since the end of Smallville, Arrow (based on DC Comics character Green Arrow) scratched an itch for weekly tales of comic book crime fighting that viewers didn’t seem to know they had.  The show was rightly praised in its first two seasons for its quick pace, genuinely surprising twists, high-quality action sequences, and complex, engaging characters, none more so than lead Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell).  This success kick-started a new wave of small screen superhero series, many of which (such as The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) are parts of the endlessly entertaining interconnected universe Arrow started and anyone who enjoys any of these series, as well as those series own creators, owe some gratitude to early Arrow.  That being said, after its awesome second season Arrow‘s own magic seemed to have run out, and its quality quickly declined. The third year did some good work with a few of the more interesting supporting characters but was rather directionless about what it was trying to say about Oliver and was further damned by a truly unsatisfying conclusion.  The fourth season was an absolute disaster.  The villainous plot was absolutely absurd and far too fantastical for a series that had always kept one foot planted in reality, almost all action sequences lacked impact, and the creators’ obsession with soap opera-like relationship drama and the series’ weakest characters prevented any interesting narratives from taking off.  Sadly, it seemed as if the time had come to abandon the first of the many superhero series that now fill our TV screens.  However the diminished population that, out of either loyalty or habit, continued watching Arrow as its fifth season began discovered a gem.  The fifth season brings back much of what people loved about those wonderful first two years, from the strength of the action to the emotional complexity.

One of the best things about Season 5 of Arrow is that it remembers that as strong as some of the shows supporting players are, its most interesting character will always be Mister Queen himself.  The renewed focus on Oliver’s psyche and morality as well as Amell’s revitalized performance give a weight and energy to each episode that the series had been missing for some time.  The use of the serialized flashbacks that chronicle Oliver’s five years surviving various hellholes throughout the world before returning home always meant that the fifth season was going to be the end of a chapter for the show.  This lends a sense of immediacy and importance to this season’s flashbacks that makes them the strongest since the second season and this gravity leaks over into the present day storyline.  But as helpful as their place in the chronology is, the fact is that this year’s main storylines both in the past and the present are just plain good regardless of their slightly increased importance to the show’s history.  Oliver’s conflict with serial killer Prometheus in the present day and his time serving as a member of the Russian mob, the Bratva, before returning to the island on which he was originally marooned five years before tie together wonderfully due to the core thematic ideas of exploring Oliver’s relationship with violence and the legitimacy and impact of his vigilante mission to make Star City a better, safer place.

Two noticeable improvements Season 5 makes over the last two years are the action sequences and Oliver’s recently bequeathed position as mayor of Star City.  The fight sequences this year are leaps and bounds above those of Seasons 3 and 4 if not quite as mind blowing as those from Seasons 1 or 2.  The directors and choreographers of season 5 seem more interested in having Oliver face off with singular opponents who can keep up with him a bit more as opposed to having him take on small armies of goons singlehandedly as he often used to.  Holding the camera back allows for some nice long, uninterrupted shots of combat but this costs some of the in-your-face intensity the old closer angles gave.  That being said, even if it can’t quite top itself, Arrow is back to offering some of TV’s best action, with Oliver’s one-on-one bouts against Prometheus and the first escalator-set martial arts fight I’ve ever seen being standouts.  That mayoral position is a wonderful addition to the show.  After taking his family company away from him late in the second season, Arrow has struggled to maintain a balance between Oliver’s vigilante activities and his outside life.  Season 4 had a potential dramatic goldmine in Oliver’s mayoral campaign but really only used it as background noise and it’s a mystery to this day what his employment and living statuses were throughout Season 3.  Putting Ollie in the mayor’s office gives him, his sister Thea (Willa Holland), and quasi-father figure Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) things to do other than hunting down criminals and the three actors have a delightful chemistry (Oliver and Thea have always had one of the show’s strongest on-screen relationships but adding Quentin into the family circle is a masterstroke).  While the political escapades of the show don’t seem particularly realistic (this is a show which once had Thea running a nightclub/bar despite not being old enough to legally drink, after all) they don’t really have to be: they give Amell, Holland, and Blackthorne opportunities to be authoritative and talk down to slimy city politicians and that’s just fun to watch.  Giving Oliver a day job which also focuses on helping the good  people of his city gives him a unity of purpose that past jobs haven’t and Amell’s performance clearly indicates to the viewer that in spite of himself Oliver enjoys the job, which gives added tension when his administration is threatened in the middle of the season.

Aside from Thea and Quentin, and two others who I’ll get to later, the supporting characters are average at best this year and missteps in their use are evidence that Arrow still has more than a few problems.  Oliver takes on a crop of trainee vigilantes early on to fill out the ranks of his dwindling crime-fighting team but the only one given significant development over the year is Rick Gonzalez’s Rene Ramirez/Wild Dog.  Joe Dinicol’s Rory Regan/Ragman is entertaining but isn’t given enough focus and leaves unceremoniously in the middle of the season, making his appearances feel somewhat pointless.  David Ramsey is still strong as Oliver’s right-hand man, John Diggle, but the downward spiral of writing for the character that started last season continues.  The writers need to realize that Diggle’s character works best when acting as Team Arrow’s voice of reason or in romantic scenes with Audrey Marie Anderson’s Lyla and bromantic scenes with Oliver.  Instead they continue to have the character, who was introduced as the most righteous and understanding on the show, continue to act immorally or hypocritically object to questionable decisions made by others, when he’s not acting as a cheerleader for the narratively toxic romance that nearly destroyed the show.  Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity is no stronger a character than she was the last two years (in which she received an overabundance of screen time) and shows the same hypocrisy as Diggle.  Now, Oliver is often a hypocrite as well, but the important distinction between his characterization and that of his two confidants is that for Oliver, hypocrisy is an established character flaw, one that was consciously included and is openly recognized as a problem he works on.  John and Felicity’s hypocrisies, on the other hand, are simply exemplary of inconsistent writing and the fact that the rest of the characters continue deferring to them as if they’re always right despite their spotty track records is infuriating.  Finally, comic-relief tech expert Curtis (Echo Kellum) has lost all his appeal and is simply unfunny this year.

That last paragraph may seem contradictory to my praise for this season but that’s because the weakness of those supporting characters is more than made up for by the core narrative of the season, which is an intimate, powerful, character study of Oliver.  There are only three pairs of characters and actors that really needed to work for this season to succeed: Oliver and Amell, Josh Segarra as Oliver’s tormentor, Adrian Chase, and David Nykl as Oliver’s friend and Bratva ally, Anatoli Kynazev.  Thankfully, these pairs do work, with the actors giving spectacular interpretations of strong material.  Nykl was a consistent and entertaining presence in the second season’s flashbacks but played second fiddle to the tragic downfall of Manu Bennet’s terrific Slade Wilson.  With Slade’s part in Oliver’s “five years in hell” long since finished and Past Oliver and Anatoly reunited due to the former’s dealings with the Bratva, the flashback sequences put the spotlight firmly on Anatoly, and Nykl really shines.  Oliver and Anatoly had already developed a strong bond but their time together in Russia really solidifies how important they are to each other as well as how suprisingly similar they are.  Anatoly isn’t an average gangster.  Like Oliver he seeks to protect those who can’t protect themselves.   Oliver puts on a hood and puts arrows into the criminals and corrupt who exploit the weaknesses in the Star City and larger American systems.  In Anatoly’s homeland the system itself is what’s exploitative so he puts his faith in the Bratva, because of its (perceived) loyalty and dedication to helping the little guy.  In the flashbacks Anatoly is witness to Oliver at his worst and is horrified by his dear friend’s increasingly violent, often murderous tendenices, while present day scenes have Oliver, picking himself up from possibly his darkest hour yet realizing that five years as a Bratva leader have caused Anatoly to lose most of the idealism that separated him from the rest of their criminal fraternity as Arrow finally deals with the intriguing contradiction of depicting a super hero with ties to organized crime.  The shifting nature of Oliver and Anatoly’s relationship is enthralling to watch and Nykl shifts between past and present sequences exceptionally, offering humor and warmth in the former, and a quiet, tired hurt in the latter.  But if there is one element of Season 5 that will cause it to stand out most among the rest of Arrow it is Josh Segarra’s performance.  Introduced as Star City’s new district attorney, whose brutal tactics mesh well with Oliver’s, Adrian is revealed to be the masked serial killer Prometheus.  After losing a loved one to Oliver’s lethal vigilante crusade in Season 1 Adrian has become obsessed with revenge, and has created a meticulously plotted plan to tear the other man’s life apart.  Segarra is electrifying in the role, bringing a wonderfully psychotic energy to every scene he’s in. Adrian’s plan may be similar in general concept to Slade Wilson’s in season 2 but the execution is different enough to feel fresh.  Slade moved with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, destroying every aspect of Oliver’s life that he possibly could, while Adrian is much more specific.  As Adrian once says he’s always “ten steps ahead” of Oliver and this allows Segarra to go for a unique portrayal of villainy.  Adrian doesn’t show his anger openly that often and Segarra is more often than not wonderfully smug, rubbing Oliver’s face in the fact that he can’t keep up, all while making it clear there is a truly terrifying monster hiding under Adrian’s cocky grin.  Both Nykl and Segarra bring out the absolute best of Amell, whose passion for Oliver’s character seems reinvigorated by the much stronger material he receives this year.  As flawed as he is, Oliver is someone the viewer cares about deeply and Amell makes it absolutely heart wrenching to see him fight for his very soul, displaying both rare vulnerability and the constant will to survive that makes the character one to root for in the first place.

Its impossible to talk about this season of Arrow without giving special praise to its finest episode, “Kapiushon”.  The seventeenth episode of the season finds present-day Oliver a prisoner of Adrian, who is torturing him both mentally and physically, while in the past Oliver and Anatoly finally engage corrupt Russian government official Konstantin Kovar (Dolph Lundgren) in a catastrophic confrontation.  The direct thematic parallels between Oliver’s weekly adventures in present day Star City and those during his aforementioned “five years in hell” have often been criticized but that’s due to problems with execution, not with the idea of these connections in general.  “Kapiushon” proves that when the formula works, it works well.  Arrow‘s darkest ever episode by far, “Kapiushon” is all about a terrible secret about Oliver, one Anatoly discovered five years ago which present-day Adrian is determined to force Oliver to confess.  One of the great strengths of Season 5 is that it is more than anything a psychological thriller and that is never more on display than in “Kapiushon”.  While the flashback story is propelled by a standard espionage plot and has some exciting fight scenes the main focus of both sets of scenes is probing the mind and heart of a character viewers have known for five years and forcing us to wonder whether he is truly the conflicted hero we thought we knew or a dangerous stranger with monstrous desires.  The greatest thing a series as far along as Arrow can do is cause viewers to reconsider all they have seen before, and that is exactly what Season 5 in general, and “Kapiushon” in particular, does.  I imagine re-watching older episodes, especially from season 1, will be a chillingly different experience after seeing this one.

As I hope I’ve made clear, Arrow is still far, far from perfect and not all problems are being addressed.  The return of the romance that ruined the show in the first place is troubling to say the least and the day to day lives of characters other than Oliver still aren’t given enough focus, which leads to a lack of variety in location (this year if a scene isn’t a fight scene or a flashback, chances are it takes place either in the Arrow Cave or at City Hall).  Despite all this, Anatoly, the action sequences, the depth given to Oliver, and a cunning villain make this a worthwhile season.  Hopefully the finale’s explosive cliffhanger is a sign that some of the core ideas that made this season so fun will carry over into next year.  If so, it will be safe to say Arrow‘s back.

 

 

Wonder Woman Review

Few movies have as much pressure on them to be successful as Wonder Woman did.  In addition to being the first standalone cinematic adaptation of the world’s most famous female comic book superhero, it is also the latest film in the struggling DC Extended Universe, the previous films of which have been at best, divisive (Man of Steel) and at worst, critically ostracized (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Fortunately, Patty Jenkins’ film answers the prayers of both feminists and DC Comics fans, telling a story that is inspiring, fun, and charmingly heart-felt.

Although bookended with scenes set somewhere around the present day and after the events of Batman v Superman, the actual story of Wonder Woman takes place a hundred years previous, towards the end of World War I.  Wonder Woman herself, or just Diana (Gal Gadot) as she is refered to throughout the film, is the princess of the Amazons, a race of mystical warrior women created by Greek god Zeus to aid mankind, particularly against other-worldly threats.  After discovering that she is more powerful even than the average Amazon, Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the first man she has ever seen, from drowning in the waters off the island on which she lives.  Following a spectacularly staged bows and swords vs guns battle between the Amazons and the Germans hunting Steve, the latter describes to his isolated saviors the horrors of the “War to End All Wars”.  Against the wishes of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana frees Steve and the two set out on a thoroughly entertaining cinematic journey.

There are two factors that, above all others really make Wonder Woman the spectacular film that it is.  One is the depiction of its lead character, which really is simply, well, wonderful.  Gadot is perfect for the role, moving back and forth between Diana’s fierce, independent warrior moments and scenes of infectious compassion seamlessly.  Alan Heinberg’s screenplay is equally strong, showing a thoroughly complete understanding of who Diana is and why she is such a compelling hero.  Unlike past DC Extended Universe films, which have wasted strong leading performances from actors like Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill because of their cynical, depressing scripts, Gadot’s version of Wonder Woman shines because she is shown as being genuinely heroic.  A scene in which Diana breaks a No Man’s Land stalemate before freeing a Belgian town from German occupation is instantly iconic.  Doing so doesn’t really benefit Diana in any practical way (there’s no real advantage gained for her specific mission), she simply does so because she can and because it’s the right thing to do.  Aside from being visually stunning with some awesome, kinetic displays of Diana’s combat prowess and super strength, its a great sequence because of the way it encapsulates what a hero is and how they act in a short, simple package.

All this talk of the No Man’s Land scene brings me to the other great strength of Wonder Woman, that being its World War I setting.  Period settings have a history of helping tell great cinematic superhero stories.  Captain America: The First Avenger benefitted from introducing Steve Rogers to movie-going audiences in a World War II adventure that echoed the adventures of Indiana Jones.  X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past were able to revitalize their franchise by  inserting the titular mutant heroes into significant 20th Century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Vietnam War.  And Zach Snyder’s vision of the altered version of 1985 in which Watchmen takes place is still one of the most intriguing and disturbing dystopias in recent cinematic history.  Wonder Woman is no exception to this rule, enjoying benefits to its storytelling similar to those the aforementioned Captain America film received.  While the wartime setting allows for a narrative mobility city-based heroes such as Batman and Spider-Man don’t get to enjoy, the most important contributions World War I adds to Diana’s story are thematic.  In the uncertain, frightening times we live in, Diana’s mission to bring peace and love feels especially poignant.  Wonder Woman‘s devotion to being an anti-war film is one of the best things about it and these themes are only further strengthened when the film’s true villain (who I won’t reveal here) proves themself to be little more than a super-powered nihilist, who doesn’t share Diana’s compassion and hope for mankind.

While Gadot is rightfully the main attraction, Wonder Woman‘s cast is strong throughout.  Pine’s role is by far the largest and most important and he brings high amounts of both charm and heart while also ably handling comedic material as Steve must adjust to Diana’s fish-out-of-water idiosyncrasies.  Furthermore, the relationship between the two is a master class in how to bring a complex, touching romance to a massive blockbuster story and is brought to life perfectly by both the impressive chemistry between Gadot and Pine as well as the complex writing.  Steve and Diana are equals and they can disagree, both welcome changes to the shallow depictions of romantic relationships that sometimes plague similar movies, but it is the strong basis for their mutual admiration that makes the relationship work so well.  Their personalities mesh well but, perhaps more importantly, they inspire each other.  Steve gives Diana faith that there is good in mankind and her strength and desire to do good make him want to be an even better man.  Other roles are all considerably smaller, but pretty strong.  Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are the most entertaining supporting players as a band of Steve’s war buddies who help him and Diana, showing an emotional depth not usually given to sidekick-type characters.  Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright make the most out of too-brief roles as Hippolyta and her militant sister Antiope respectively.  Lucy Davis, playing Steve’s secretary, gets a few good laughs out of the audience.  Elena Anaya’s Dr. Poison is the only one of the villains I can discuss without  giving anything away, and while she plays the part in an appropriately demented way, the character is little more than a smart henchwoman and doesn’t make much of an impression outside of her important thematic beat in the finale.

All in all Wonder Woman is a delight.  The important themes and spectacular depiction of the titular character prove that the most important things in a good superhero film are optimism and character.  If this is the kind of movie we can expect from DC going forward their cinematic future might finally be looking bright.