Jumanji Welcome to the Jungle

I don’t know how much I have to say about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It was pretty fun, but it is exactly what purports to be; I didn’t see a lot to comment on. Maybe I could spend this review complaining about the first Jumanji, which is junk, but that feels like a waste of time. This movie takes a goofy body switching premise, but things in the hands of four fun performers and just sort of does its thing.

The plot of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is that a quartet of high school kids fitting rough stereotypes get sent to detention together. Forced to clean out an old storeroom, they find a mysterious old video game titled Jumanji and try to play it. It sucks them all into the game, where they become the character they selected. So the nerdy guy becomes the Rock,the jock turns into Kevin Hart, the shy girl becomes Karen Gillan and the popular social media obsessed girl becomes Jack Black. Working together, they must beat the game to go home.

It is just what it seems. They play through video game cliches and confidence lessons. There are tons of jokes about how the guy that was small is now big and the guy that was big is now small, as well as Black portraying a teen girl. It is nothing new, but it all works.

The biggest reason it works is because of its stars. Dwayne Johnson is endlessly charming and has a track record of working well with Kevin Hart. Hart, I’ve found, works best in small doses and this here is just the right amount. This is also a good showcase for Karen Gillan, who gets a chance to shine not covered in Nebula makeup. Then there is Black, who has to play a different gender and really has fun with it. How much you like the movie likely comes down to how much you like these four. I am a big fan of three of them, and neutral on the fourth, so it really worked for me.

I don’t really want to spoil any jokes, and the plot isn’t worth spoiling; there really isn’t much here other than some very good popcorn entertainment. It is action, adventure, and CGI animals, which fortunately look a lot better than the ones in the original looked. It isn’t genuinely good, but it also isn’t as dumb as a lot of other would be blockbusters. It is roughly as good as watching The Last Jedi for the third or fourth time.

***1/2

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri Review

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a hell of a movie. It isn’t perfect, but is a thoughtful and thought provoking film. It has several excellent performances and some really interesting things to say about how people deal with trauma. It is also really funny. It is simply one of the best movies released this year.

The movie opens with McDormand’s Mildred deciding to place three billboards on a largely abandoned stretch of road near the small town of Ebbing, Missouri that calls out the local police, and popular Chief Willoughby in particular, about why there has been no progress made in the investigation of her daughter’s murder. It provokes some responses; some support angry, many angry, and things soon spiral out of control.

It is certainly Frances McDormand’s movie and she is as good here as she has ever been. She imbues Mildred with palpable hurt and anger about the loss of her daughter. She isn’t always easy to like, and does several things that are simply wrong. Still, she is very relatable. Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby is also great; he is a mostly good man dealing with his own struggles. He certainly has blind spots, egregious blind spots, but he is at least trying to the right thing. The most outstanding performance is Sam Rockwell as Dixon, an incompetent, racist cop who appears much more interested in settling personal grievances than doing his job. The movie doesn’t do much to redeem those flaws about him, but it does eventually give you the rest of the picture, and he becomes a full figured character. Everybody else is good, but those three give the best performances.

While the film raises a lot of questions about difficult issues, it is really about anger and how people process it. It doesn’t suggest that anger is a bad or inappropriate response to terrible things, but it also shows how acting in anger isn’t always the best idea. Mildred is understandably and justifiably angry, though she might not have the right target for her rage. Likewise, Dixon is all rage at frequently innocent targets, but his is shown to be frustrated at his inabilities. He can’t solve Mildred’s case, he can’t help Chief Willoughby, but he acts in whatever way he can to do so. Willoughby is the most at peace with troubles. He could react with anger to what happens to him, but he accepts it with something resembling calm. The movie doesn’t suggest that Willoughby’s reaction is necessarily the right one; it instead shows how anger can help people process tragedy, but at some point you have to process or the anger becomes merely destructive. It is really great.

Those difficult issues it brings up, and doesn’t really deal with, are a problem. Mildred’s ex-husband is abusive, but it also has him dating a significantly younger girl and doesn’t even acknowledge that this might be a terrible thing for her once he reverts to form. It also level accusations of racism against the cops, and one in particular, but the movie never really does anything with that information. I like that it has the nuance to not make any of its characters out and out villains, but it also lets some of them off the hook too easily.

This is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. I haven’t seen any of McDonagh other movies, In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, but I intend to rectify that shortly. It is rare to get a movie that is this unpredictable and enjoyable.

*****

Top 10 Movies of 2017

Making a top 10 list this year has proved pretty difficult. There were a lot of movies I liked, but few movies that I really, absolutely loved. I don’t think anything I saw this year was as good as last year’s The Nice Guys or Love and Friendship, let alone Mad Mad: Fury Road from the year before. But there were a lot of movies that I liked enough to consider for the back half of the list. Also, this year I watched a lot more movies than I have in years past, so I had a lot more to choose from. There are also several that I think I would like that I haven’t had the chance to see, like I, Tonya, Coco, or The Darkest Hour. But I didn’t manage to see them before I made the list, so they aren’t on it. It also might be noted that my review scores don’t match up exactly with how I ranked the movies on the list; I don’t care this is how much I like the movies compared to each other right now.

Honorable Mentions: Okja and Murder on the Orient Express. Both a lot of fun, but neither quite as good as the rest of the list. Still, I liked them well enough that I had a hard time not putting them on the list at all. Also, Dunkirk, which got bumped off the list just the other day when I saw my #1.

10. Logan Lucky I went into this with little in the way of expectations and I liked it. The further I get away from it, the more and more I like it. It is just a thoroughly enjoyable film.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 It is like the first one, but more. Just more. It also held up better to a rewatch than I expected it to, though it does get pretty shaggy in the middle and I kind of hate the CGI-fest that is large parts of the finale.

8. Thor: Ragnarok A full on delight that I expect will play well on rewatches. I wish it would have pulled back on the humor just a bit so the more epic moments could hit a little harder, but I liked it anyway. It was frequently legitimately funny and had just enough the cosmic stuff to feel worth it.

7. John Wick 2 – The first John Wick movie was about a perfect distillation of everything great about action movies, the sequel is not quite as pure, but it is deeper and had just as great of action scenes. Keanu Reeves has more than cemented his place on the action movie Mt Rushmore, and this is just another feather in his cap.

6. Wonder Woman – This is one of the finest examples of just a straight up superhero movie to come out in long time. And the ending, which I had some problems with in the theater, played really good watching it over the holiday.

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – A fascinating, difficult look at not entirely good people in tough circumstances. It is funny and sad and full of great performances.

4. Star Wars The Last Jedi – It moved the new Star Wars movies from being just retreads of the original series and on to being their own thing. It did it while pushing a lot of the themes that the series has been known for.

3. Blade Runner 2049 I’ve honestly never been the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner; it is a mood piece that just never quite connected with me. This sequel, though, is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, gorgeous, sci-fi thriller.

2. Baby Driver The Kevin Spacey stuff hangs over this like a pall. I don’t know that I’ll be able to rewatch this anytime soon and not think about that stuff. That doesn’t change the fact that for most of the year this is the best movie I saw in 2017. It isn’t Edgar Wright’s best movie, but it is perfectly fun.

1. The Shape of Water – I caught this a few days after New Years and I immediately fell in love with it. Del Toro spins another phenomenal fairy tale that really gets across his love of the monster in the monster movie. Del Toro makes movies just for me and I am glad of it.

Star Wars The Last Jedi Review

Honestly, when I first walked out of the theater after seeing The Last Jedi I was disappointed. It wasn’t at all what I expected or what I thought I wanted. As I thought about it on the drive home and over the next day, my opinion really changed. I was shocked at first because the movie is so different from it predecessor. The Force Awakens was desperate to please and easy to like, with constant, reverent references to the original trilogy. While it’s plot wasn’t much more than a point for point remake of A New Hope, it also took the time to set up numerous mysteries. Instead of being focused on living up to expectations, The Last Jedi revels in subverting them. It can feel confounding at first, but once digested it makes for one of the most fulfilling Star Wars experiences I’ve had.

I don’t want to just spoil the movie in my review, though I assume nearly everyone who is going to see it has done so at this point, so I am not going to walk through each of Rey’s, Luke’s, Finn’s and Poe’s stories. They each share key thematic points, though the movie keeps most of the heroes apart. Details are shared across three stories pretty evenly, but I think the strongest example of what the movie is doing is Poe’s storyline. The hotshot pilot gets a moment to show off to start the film with a solo bit of heroics that morphs into a suicide run on the film’s bigger, more dangerous take on the Star Destroyer, the Dreadnought. In any other Star Wars movie, the assault on the Dreadnought would be a grand, heroic moment. That is the sort of moment the series is built on. Here it is a bit of folly that gets Poe demoted. Still, throughout the movie Poe tries to be the action hero like Luke and Han and even Obi-Wan were in previous movies. While I say that isn’t like other Star Wars movies, it isn’t really unlike Empire Strikes Back, which saw the rebellion only as they fought a delaying battle before running away from an Imperial Fleet. The Last Jedi spells it out as a battle to save what you love, not destroy what you hate, a message that fits in with other Star Wars movies even as this one makes distinctions.

It is also a movie about failure and how to deal with it. Each of our heroes must deal with failure in this movie, and how they learn from it is important. That is why people who dislike the Finn and Rose story are missing the point. That part is called a waste of time only because they eventually fail in their mission, but the whole point of the movie, the final lesson that Yoda has to teach Luke, is that failure is among the greatest of teachers.

The best part of the movie is how it backs away from the idea of the destined hero. That flaw is largely confined to the prequels, which started Anakin out as this mythological figure before we even got to know him. This pulls that back. The heroes of Star Wars maybe do heroic things, but they are just people in this world, like Luke and Han were. It is deliberately lessening the emphasis on legacy that The Force Awakens focused on. People spent a couple of years speculating about who Rey’s parents were because of who Luke’s dad turned out to be, but Rey’s story isn’t Luke’s story. The revelation that her parents aren’t anybody is the best possible way to solve that mystery.

At first, I didn’t like that The Last Jedi withheld the comforting conclusions that I was expecting. I wanted to see Luke in his full glory, I wanted to see Finn and Poe go on adventures. Watching the movie, I didn’t get anything that I wanted, other than the wholly excellent throne room scene. But judging the movie not based on my preconceived notions about what I thought it would be, but on what it is and what is accomplished convinced me that this is the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy ended.

As I said, I didn’t really like the movie when it first finished, but by the time I went for my second viewing a fews days later I was even more excited than I was before my first viewing. The Last Jedi is a thematically rich movie that upends a lot of what people expect Star Wars to be, while not really changing anything. It makes the galaxy far, far away feel larger than it has since it was revealed that Leia was Luke’s sister. It is a big galaxy, and anybody can be the hero. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I don’t know what is coming next with Star Wars and I couldn’t be more excited.

*****

What I Watched November 2017

Movies

Thor: Ragnarok- read review here. ****1/2

Murder on the Orient Express – read review here. ****

Icarus – This is an amazing watch. It starts as a man trying to recreate some cycling doping, to see how effective and difficult it is, but it morphs into something much more. It is wonderful. *****

Justice League – read review here. ***1/2

Message from the King – Chadwick Boseman is great, this movie is not. It is a lifeless thriller that struggles to elicit any interest. Other than the star, I found nothing to like or latch onto here. **

Wheelman – The gimmick of this movie just didn’t do it for me. It is a crime movie about a driver that never leaves the car. So nearly the whole movie happens with him behind the wheel. It isn’t terrible, but nothing it did was particularly interesting. **1/2

Goldeneye – This is still an excellent start to Brosnan’s run as Bond. It is one of the better movies in the series and that start of what is my favorite era of Bond. It all just kind of works. ****

A Christmas Prince – I was still trying to watch all of Netflix’s movies, so I watched this. It is exactly what it seems to be. It is not for me, it shouldn’t be. I guess it is perfectly fine for what it is. **1/2

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – I am not a big horror guy, so this movie has sat just off my radar forever. If I had only known what I was in store for. Keanu is miscast, but the rest of the cast is so great it more than makes up for his struggles. Anthony Hopkins is having a blast and so is Gary Oldman. It is insane and great and unexpected and not really a horror movie at all. I think I loved it. ****

Jackie Brown – Someone once told me that this was one of Tarantino’s weaker movies, but now that I’ve watched it I know that that is not true. This is at least on the level of Pulp Fiction, and I rate it higher. It is, I believe, Tarantino’s only adapted work, but it still feels like him. It luxuriates in character, letting everything build at the appropriate pace to always satisfying conclusions. *****

On the Waterfront – This is real good. Brando plays a former boxer whose brother works for a corrupt union boss. Brando witnessed some murders and is going to testify and the boss, who is willing to take drastic measures to stop him. It is impossible to look away from. *****

To The Bone – A drama about a girl with an eating disorder and her struggles dealing with it. It seemed perfectly well made, if not completely interesting to me. ***

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – I guess it is well made, but watching it made me like Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon and Andy Kaufman less. This is footage that didn’t need to be seen. **

Wonder Woman – My thoughts really haven’t changed from this summer; this movie is still great. ****1/2

The Big Sick – I bought into the hype a little too much with this one. I heard from a lot of people how great it was and when I watched it I only found it to be very good. I don’t really have anything to criticize, it is very good and deserves all of its success, but it was low-key enough with the humor and the drama that it didn’t have the impact I would have liked. Still, I say again it was very good. ****1/2

TV

The Orville – The reaction to this has been mixed to say the least. It is an odd mash up, with straight up Next Generation Trek mixed with Seth MacFarlane’s often dubious humor. The humor often doesn’t work, but through its twelve episodes it finds its footing and ends up providing some classic sci fi entertainment. It feels like classic Star Trek, albeit Star Trek with a misplaced irreverent streak. When it keeps that stuff to the margins or confined to the cold open, it is very entertaining. I’ll watch more of it when it comes back.

Inhumans – How bad this show was is astounding. It wasn’t just ill-conceived from a plotting perspective, like Iron Fist, a show that shares a showrunner with Inhumans, but it is also cheap and just badly made. In nearly every choice this show made, it chose poorly. It almost defies description. I feel bad for the actors, because it isn’t really their fault. But this is a superhero show that belongs in the conversation with movies like Catwoman or Fantastic 4 as the worst superhero production of the 21st century.

Alias Grace – This show was interesting; it is an adaptation of the based on a true story book. It is a perfectly fine adaptation that never really rises above being perfectly fine. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really stick with me.

The Confession Tapes – This might be the most infuriating thing I’ve ever seen. Not for any failure of the show, but because how awful the events it depicts are. It shows in stark detail how police elicit false confessions and then convict people with confession that they must know are not true. It is gross and upsetting and important to know. It doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Brooklyn 99 – I liked this show when it first started, but I kinda lost track of it after that. Catching up with it on hulu, I’ve really been missing out. It is another great show from MIchael Schur, who had a hand in The Office, Park & Rec, and The Good Place. This show stands with those as another modern classic. The first season is a little rough at times, but it finds its footing remarkably quickly and maintains a steady excellence for most of its run, up to now.

Lady Dynamite Season 2 – This was a surreal masterpiece. It manages to both real and completely nonsensical. The future segments grow increasingly unhinged as the show goes on, while the present day stuff is largely goofy sitcom fun. It is just a great show.

Runaways – I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but the show is good so far, despite being incredibly slow. I hope it picks up, because three hours into a show called Runaways no one has run away yet.

DC Superhero Shows – This year’s crossover was just about perfect. Legends has made another leap this season and is now clearly the best of the DC’s CW shows. Supergirl is kind of stuck in neutral, but it still mostly enjoyable. The Flash has made something of a course correction from last year’s too dour season and is so far a lot of fun. As for Arrow, I’ll catch up when it hits Netflix.

Justice League

I guess it is possible to watch Justice League and be entirely unaware of it tumultuous production, but the tales of the production have appeared regularly on the internet over the last few years. This movie started as Justice League Part 1, but then the Part 2 got removed from the schedule. Before starting scheduled reshoots, director Zack Snyder stepped down due to a family tragedy, so Warner Bros brought on Joss Whedon to finish the movie. There were numerous other reported smaller issues. I can’t say that the movie completely overcame those troubles, but Justice League ended up being a lot more fun and entertaining that it had any right to be.

In the end, the production matters less than the product and Justice League must be judged on what it is; which is adequate in a fun but empty sort of way. JL is not helped by the fact that this has been a phenomenal year for superhero movies. The five others released this year, from Logan to Thor Ragnarok, are all widely regarded as excellent. Justice League is a middling piece of fun, which is a tough sell this year, when Fox actually got things right and Sony took a back-seat with Spider-Man. But Justice League is not a disaster and it is not a work with an off-putting, peculiar vision like Batman v Superman; it is the product of several cooks working their hardest to turn in something blandly enjoyable, an effort which is largely successful. Blandly enjoyable is exactly the route taken by Marvel’s Avengers, which is the most successful superhero movie to date. That movie is pure pop entertainment, but it isn’t really about anything other than getting to see your favorite heroes team up. Justice League has the tiniest bit more heft, but it tries for the same pleasures and largely delivers them.

It is definitely a sequel to Batman v Superman, starting in a world without hope after the death of Superman. Batman is tracking the first scouts of what appears to be an alien invasion. After confirming this, he sets out to gather the powerful individuals Luthor had been monitoring. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman is taking the first steps of truly returning to the world after 100 years. Together they gather Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg to stop the invaders from gathering the Mother Boxes, vastly powerful artifacts that will terraform the Earth to be more like the alien’s home. The invaders had been fought off once, thousands of years ago, by the combined forces of the Amazons, Atlanteans and humans, with the help of some others; this time it all falls on the Justice League.

It mostly works as a somewhat awkward combination of the Avengers and Lord of the Rings. This movie is a sea of contrasts, and one needs to look no further than the special effects, which run from being truly excellent to shockingly amateurish. For the second category, many people will point to [slight spoilers] Superman’s digitally erased moustache; I would point to the very awkward horses ridden by the Amazonians. In other places you can see Snyder’s ponderous, weighty take on superhero clashing with Whedon’s flighty entertainment.

There has certainly been a course correction in terms of how the heroes are portrayed. Not in Wonder Woman’s case, Gal Gadot is still as perfect for the role as any actor has been to play a superhero since Christopher Reeve was Superman. But Batman, mostly I think due to the different tone of this movie, is a much lighter character than he was before. The new heroes a solid mix, with Cyborg being kind of dry and mopey, Flash being wide-eyed and scattered, and Aquaman being brash and macho. It is a nice, more emotive group that the previously stone-faced Superman and Batman. The new characters mostly work. The Flash steals a lot of the slower moments One can almost see the seems where chunks of the movie have been removed. Other than the central story, there is almost no throughlines for the characters. It gives the viewer a start point a small amount of development, but only one character feels like he has an end to his arc, that being Superman.

The villain, a C-list jobber named Steppenwolf, is the weakest part of the movie. There is nothing to him. He shows a little personality in the moments he gets to do so, but the movie tells you little of his story or his motivations, other than to conquer. He is powerful and dangerous, but he is a black hole. He feels more like a lieutenant than the big boss, which is what he is, though the movie only once mentions Darkseid. Darkseid, who will be seen next year in his Marvel knock-off form as Thanos in Infinity War, should be the villain of this movie. He is the big gun, and WB/DC held him back for a potential sequel. Personally, I wish they had went full Kirby with this, bringing in all the cosmic weirdness they can muster (much like Thor Ragnarok) but I never really expected that. Still, the villain needed to be something more than an ill-defined simplistic conqueror.

To its credit, Justice League delivers a lot of great moments, like Aquaman holding back the tide. It translates the wonder of the comic books to the big screen in moments that don’t quite add up to a whole.

Justice League is middling. It is not a complete mess like X-Men Apocalypse or Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man 2, but it also not the home run that just about every other superhero movie this year has been. There are a lot of warts, but also a lot of stuff that is a lot of fun.

***1/2

Murder on the Orient Express

I am pretty sure I am responding more to the form of Murder on the Orient Express than the content. Regardless of any quality of the movie itself, I think I might have liked any locked room or classical styled mystery. Those don’t actually pop up as movies that often and it is a format that I greatly enjoy. Unfortunately, even TV, once my prime provider of mysteries, doesn’t really engage in this sort of thing anymore. TV mysteries have gone the way of the procedural; they are rarely really about the mystery. Getting a mystery, one of the classics, done with such lush and beautiful production, was in itself a joy to me. Luckily, I thought the movie was pretty well done, too.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most well-known mysteries, but even so it has come to my attention that some people are not familiar with how it plays out, so I will endeavor not to spoil anything. This version stars actor/director Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the famous detective. He boards the famous train along with a dozen other passengers. One night, the train gets derailed and one of the passengers is discovered murdered in his bed, with the window opened. Certain that the killer must be one of the other passengers, Poirot sets out to figure out who is responsible.

The format of movie allows for movie to get relatively big names for relatively small roles. They get to come in for a few scenes, do their thing and go on their way. So you get stuff like Judi Dench as an aging Russian noble, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Daisy Ridley as a young governess, and Johnny Depp as an American businessman/gangster. They are all mostly small roles, but each with their own eccentricities to make them interesting. Each member of the cast is delightful, most notably Depp for not being too over the top.

There are two principal joys in this film. The first and most obvious is the look. Poirot starts the movie in Jerusalem and travels across the near east, through marvelous vistas of snow covered mountains and golden sunsets. The train is amazingly designed and the costumes are top notch. It is simply a gorgeous movie. The other is just watching the detective put the pieces together. That means getting to see each of the small performances and also Branagh’s centerpiece as Poirot. Despite the big change of his mustache, going from a small, neat mustache to an ostentatious handlebar, he mostly sticks with the book character; fastidious, egocentric and a little silly. We see him find all the clues and hear all the testimony. Theoretically, a viewer could grasp what has happened before Poirot breaks it down. I don’t know how effective the movie is at this, I already knew how this story ended, but I loved watching the movie go through the motions.

I could see people really not liking this movie. It is not a grand adventure, it is a small, locked room mystery. It isn’t a thriller and certainly not an action movie, so I could see it being found dull. But there are so few movies that delivery the specific joys that this one does that I am very glad to have it.

****

Thor Ragnarok

If I am being honest, I am probably on the high side when it comes to Marvel’s first two Thor movies. On my pointless big list I’ve got the first one ranked as the fourth best Marvel movie and I’ve got the second one above Age of Ultron in the middle of the list. Still, Ragnarok is easily the best of the three. It is overtly a comedy and despite its constant undercutting any sense of gravity in the situations, it still gets the characters right. I’ve complained before, repeatedly, about Marvel movies feeling empty, and Thor Ragnarok might be the most purely cotton candy sweet and empty of any of them, but since it is in a much more comedy centric context, the jokes themselves become the substance of the movie. And this movie is really funny.

There are things that I don’t like about the movie, and I’ll get them out of the way first. [spoilers for the first 20 or so minutes] The movie kills off the Warriors Three with little fanfare or pretense. It does very little to show what is going on in Asgard, even when it is important to the plot. The last scene on the Bifrost is poorly laid out. These are all problems, but they pale in the neon drenched wonder that is the rest of the movie.

I’ve waited a few days to write my review to see if my initially very positive feelings held. The further we get away from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the less I seem to like it. And Ragnarok is in many ways the kind of movie I just don’t like. It takes characters and settings I like and treats them as a complete joke. That sort of thing usually annoys me, but in this case I thought it worked. Maybe it is because this movie is expressly a comedy; maybe it is because the movie still got the heart of the central characters (Thor, Loki, Odin & Hulk) right. Either way, the complete irreverence of this movie didn’t raise my hackles the way things like this sometimes can. Some have compared this movie to Flash Gordon, which is the trouble I am describing here; because while the colors of this movie are much like Flash Gordon, the tone is complete opposite. That movie was knowingly campy but not overtly a comedy. It was silly because the setting is silly, the movie was not making jokes about the setting. Thor Ragnarok can’t stop making jokes at its own expense. But still, it works, I think because it also delivers the thrills that made these comics (Specifically Walt Simonson’s Thor) so enjoyable.

This movie makes Thor the goofball that was hiding at the edges of the last two Thor movies and prominent in extra material. He is serious about the bigger problems, but he is also having a blast going on adventures. He is joined by a talking Hulk, which is fun, and a lost Asgardian Valkyrie. Loki, still the best Marvel villain, goes through some changes himself while not abandoning his central nature. The characters are making jokes, but they mostly stay true to themselves. The movie also delivers the action, starting with a solo Thor fantasy-ish fight and moving to battles with spaceships in the trash planet Sakaar before ending with the Hulk fighting a giant wolf in Asgard. It delivers the action.

Something needs to be said about Cate Blanchett as the villain; Blanchett is great, but she doesn’t really get enough time to be more than a force of nature. I don’t know that she needed to be more.

The movie mostly delivers in the promise of the trailers. It is big and fun and grand and colorful. Digging too deep into it risks spoiling the plot (who cares) and the jokes (much worse). I don’t know how I’ll feel about this movie in a year or so, but right now I want to put it near the top of the Marvel pile.

****1/2

What I Watched October 2017

Movies

Blade Runner 2049 – read review here. *****

An American Werewolf in London – I feel like I should like this more than I did. It feels like some great monster make up with a bit of a movie put in around it. It builds just fine, but then it just sort of ends without really resolving anything. ***1/2

Batman & Bill – An excellent documentary about how Bill Finger, the creator of the greater part of Batman and related characters, finally got credit for his creation. It is kind of heartbreaking how badly Bill Finger got screwed over by DC Comics and to a greater degree Bob Kane, the man usually named the creator of Batman, but whose actual contribution past an initial sketch is somewhat minimal. It is a great story and well worth watching. ****

The Addams Family – Still thoroughly excellent. Raul Julia and Christopher Lloyd are both great. ****1/2

Addams Family Values – Even better than the first one. It does away with the whole plot about the fake Fester and just lets the family go wild. It is so much fun. *****

Colossal – This is a pretty clever take on the monster movie. When Anne Hathaway’s character walks through a certain park, she materializes across the globe as a giant monster. It is some kind of metaphor for the destructiveness of her drinking problem. Then a “nice guy” played by Jason Sudeikis uses and exploits this power. It is pretty great. ****1/2

Godzilla 2000 – This is the Godzilla movie Japan made in response, more or less, to the dismal American version. It is a lot of fun, though I don’t know if it’s goofy translation helps or hurts. It makes the whole thing very silly on its face, but Godzilla is pretty silly in general. Still, there is a lot to love about this movie. ****

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – A dramedy starring Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and a dysfunctional family and how each of a man’s three children relate to him. It is mostly touching and well made. It is kind of upsetting to see what Sandler is capable of when he is trying and how little he must be trying in most of his own movies. Still, this movie is excellent. ****1/2

The Saint – This is actually a pilot for a potential tv show, and it watches like it. In that context, it isn’t really that bad. It spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations and leaves things rather open ended, which is desirable when goal it to set things up for six to twenty more episodes, but as a movie it is fairly unsatisfying. It feels like one episode of a mediocre tv show. **

The Babysitter – A horror comedy that hid Netflix just in time for Halloween. It is fine. It is kind of a reverse of how slashers normally work, since all the teenagers are the villains and they slowly get weeded out. It doesn’t quite land as well as it could though. Maybe that is just because I have no real interest in the underlying genre. ***

The Princess Bride – I got to see this in a theater for the 30th anniversary. It is still one of my absolutely favorite movies and it looks great on the big screen. *****

Battle of the Sexes – read review here. ***1/2

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women – read review here. ****1/2

Byzantium – I had this as a movie to watch in a preview I wrote years ago, but I never got around to until this year. I loved it. It is kind of an unconventional Vampire movie, more about the personal lives of its vampires than horror. I think it really works. Gemma Arterton is woman from Victorian times that has become a vampire. She was, and still is, a prostitute. With her is her daughter, also a vampire, who is still going to school. It deals a lot with the history of how the characters got where they are, though there are gaps, and with how they are dealing with life now. Half supernatural thriller, half period piece. I thought it all just worked. *****

Hugo – This feels like an experiment with 3D filmmaking that only mostly worked. It is still mostly enjoyable, but it might also be my least favorite Scorsese movie. There is a lot of wonder and magic, but it kind of stuck between being a pure kids movie and a more mature movie. It’s well made, but it didn’t really do anything for me. ****

The Departed – This, on the other hand, might be my favorite Scorsese. It is incredibly tense and just keeps moving. I assume everyone’s seen it and knows how great it is. *****

Lay the Favorite – I loved the work of Rebecca Hall in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, so I went ahead and watched this movie she starred in a few years ago with Bruce Willis. It’s fine, I guess. There really isn’t a lot to it. Willis is a professional gambler, she works as an aid for him, then with a much shadier bookie. It’s mildly amusing, but mostly pointless. **1/2

The World’s End – As usual, immediately after watching this it is my favorite of Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. I think in the long run, it is Hot Fuzz, but it is hard to say no to this movie after watching it. It is nearly perfect. *****

The Love Guru – I have long been morbidly curious about this movie. I am generally a fan of Mike Myers, but this thing is as ill-conceived as it appears. There isn’t a single part of it that works and it is confounding that at no point did anyone takes a step back and consider how misbegotten the whole thing is. 0 stars

Godzilla v Destroyah – I wanted to watch more Godzilla movies, and hulu has most of them up. This one starts with Godzilla already in meltdown and then a monster created by the bomb that killed the original Godzilla showing up. It is a solid ending to the 80’s and 90’s series of Godzilla movies. ****

TV

Mindhunter – Maybe the next Netflix hit, I don’t know. It is a very interesting take on a mix of true-ish crime and a police procedural. It has its characters delving into the minds of serial killers to learn how they tick. It is mostly very interesting, but something is keeping me from moving this show out of like and into love territory.

Outlander S3 – Season 3 of Outlander has made good progress on a difficult road. It started with its two protagonists divided by time, and now even now that they are back together it has to work to get them actually together after a 20 year separation. I really like the book this season is based on, but the book has a lot more room to deal with issues than the show does. It is also introducing an almost entirely new supporting cast after the purge at the end of last season, where just about everybody but the two protagonists died, and even those who didn’t aged from children to adults. I am still finding it highly enjoyable and I eagerly await seeing how the back half of this season turns out.

Good News – In many ways, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the continuation of 30 Rock, the best sitcom ever made. After watching the first season and a half of Great News, I think it has a near equal claim to that legacy. It starts out kind of rough, but by the back end of the first season’s 10 episodes it has found its footing and its voice. Then season 2 kept up the momentum, and has been largely excellent so far. I don’t know the odds of it getting past the 13 episodes ordered this season, but I am glad to watch whatever we get.

Bob’s Burgers S7 – I got hulu, and this was one of the first thing I got on watching. This show has slowly but surely worked its way up my list of all-time favorites. Season 7 continues the show’s strong run. There is something essentially charming about this collection of weirdos and the show keeps finding new ways to play them off of each other.

Stranger Things – I have a lot to say about this season, enough that I want to write a full blog post about the show, even though I know I won’t have time to do that. I’ll say that this season perfectly builds on what came before it while adding just enough new stuff. There are some missteps, but overall it is simply excellent. I don’t know that I’ve ever identified more with a character than Bob Newby. And Steve continued his evolution from 80’s movie jock douche to legitimate cool guy. The fact that he does it without ever really succeeding at what he is doing make it all the more remarkable.

CW Superhero Shows – The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl are back (so is Arrow, but until I get my CW app issues settled I’m not watching it) and all of them have returned in good form. Supergirl is probably the weakest so far this season, but that is mostly because Legends and Flash have come out swinging, while Supergirl expects us to care that Mon-El is gone. I liked the chemistry between Chris Wood and Benoist, I was indifferent to the actual romance between the two characters. Making Supergirl mopey because he’s gone does nothing for me. Meanwhile, the Flash has regained its full season 1 form so far, with fun character dynamics and super-powered baddies of the week. And Legends continues to fully embrace the silliness. These shows are doing it for me this season.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

With fortuitous timing, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women arrives perfectly timed to cash in on the current popularity of Wonder Woman. Not that the movie could accurately be described as a cash in, it is a delightful film. In some ways very traditional and in others very unconventional.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of psychology professor William Moulton Marston, who created the superhero Wonder Woman, with some help from his wife and girlfriend. That wife and girlfriend thing is what the movie is really about. It is based on the real life of this triad, Marston, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. Holloway and Marston are already married at the start, when Marston becomes infatuated with their new student assistant Byrne. A romance develops between the three of them that leads to a sort of triad.

One of the best things this movie does is to stage the movie as a traditional romance. Formally this is very much a classic romance, with the same sort of obstacles and journey, only that structure is applied to a love story that is anything but traditional. It works, not toning down the content of the story but also not presenting it as lurid or obscene, just a normally somewhat melodramatic romance. At the time, and really would be even now, their story was a sensational one. Their triad relationship is pretty outre, with or without the bondage. From the account in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Professor Marston actually plays up the luridness of the relationship in content, but because the movie doesn’t present it as such, it plays very differently. Ignoring any sort of moralistic concerns, the relationship at the heart of this movie was apparently a happy and long lasting one. It is presented as a true love story and the facts back that up. By not staging it as something extreme, it downplays the differentness of the relationship, including the absolute ickiness of the fact that it began while Olive was Marston’s student, allowing the other parts to shine through.

It is also just well constructed. Luke Evans is fun as William Marston, being almost childlike in his enthusiasm but also clearly educated. He is an idealist and a fantastic weirdo and Evans brings that across. Bella Heathcote brings vulnerability but not truly naivety to Olive Byrne. She knows what she is getting into and goes into it hopefully but not blindly. Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth gives the best performance as the voice of reason in this triad, the one who recognizes how this will be viewed by others and how hard it will hurt their reputation and their children. She isn’t cold, but she is pragmatic. Hall makes her conflicts clear, she is clearly not unfeeling; she wants this relationship too. But she has the hardest journey to get to the point of believing in it. Mostly because she is more experienced than Olive and more rational than her husband. Again, the movie is kind of old fashioned in its presentation, which works well as a contrast with the content.

The one part of the movie that gets kind of sidelined is the creation of Wonder Woman. As a comic fan, I immediately recognized that it was somewhat fictionalized. But little about the character or the content really come through. That is not what this movie is really about, it is a small part of a larger story, but it supposedly builds up to his hearing with the decency board and that thread is ultimately unfulfilling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is one of the more entertaining biopics I’ve seen in recent years. It tells a story that legitimately hasn’t been seen before, or at least tells this story in a new way. It is highly worth seeing, though fans of this summer’s Wonder Woman might not get the story of that character’s creation that they might expect.

****1/2