Last week I started to play catch up with a bunch of reviews I missed (no new reviews as I was sick and it was cold as hell outside) and though I promised to keep them short, I still found the thread running too long. As a result, I saved the thrilling conclusion until this week.
The DCEU has long been hampered by how it came into being. The decision to build it’s mega-skyscraper on a foundation meant to support a much smaller building has left the franchise flailing and constantly trying to add in new supports. The further decision to keep using the same material that the initial builder used, which could hardly support the initial building and belonged in another project he seemed to be much rather working on (and had just been working on), has meant that no matter how well they’ve done in designing the sections of the project since (Wonder Woman) even those parts haven’t been all that impressive.
With that tortured metaphor in mind, I went into Aquaman skeptical even after hype built up before it (and then died down). I was excited about James Wan who had carved a nice career in horror before going on to deliver the very entertaining Furious 7 being at the helm and the promise of the goofy tone, but after Wonder Woman had been held back by its standard DCEU visuals and third act that left me feeling pretty mediocre about the whole thing, it was going to have to really impress me.
And sure enough, I was pleasantly surprised to find that was what happened. Aquaman has long been the stuff of jokes largely due to his portrayal on the Super Friends and reduction of his powers to “dude who talks to fish”. Unsurprisingly, the decision to make him over into a shirtless, buff, ladies draw has done wonders to reverse that, but as someone not in the demographic that is trying to appeal to, I still found Jason Momoa’s portrayal appealing. There’s a lot of Thor to be found in it, especially the joking version of the latest appearances and like Thor (though in this case from the first two installment), they give him a bland love interest in Amber Heard’s Mera. To be fair, that’s probably more the fault of Heard than the writing.
The CGI is still unsurprisingly terrible in parts and there are parts of the visual design that still seem to be held back visually by that initial Zack Snyder Man of Steel design that has permeated its way through the universe. Doesn’t keep the film from being overall fun though as I eat up all the bizarre Atlantean cultures or appreciate the film having an entertaining villain for once in supporting villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Plus it has Dolph Lundgren and I am all aboard this Dolph Lundgren revival. The film may only just be reaching up to “solid Marvel title”, but I had a good time out and that was all I wanted out of it (and Momoa riding on some sea creature’s back with a trident but I got that too).
Speaking of writing a series off for dead, at least Wonder Woman showed signs of life even if proving that getting two talented leads, a great director, and some sense of humor wasn’t going to be enough to completely shrug off the anchor around its neck. Transformers on the other hand came out of the gate, tripped on the first hurdle, and fell face first into the mud. The first film in the series managed to get positive reviews, but I’d like to question the people who did because it is absolutely atrocious. It’s incoherent, unfunny, and a mess of ugly, over-designed CGI creations we are instructed to care about and think are inherently cool. By most accounts, the series only went down from there dabbling in racist, sexist, and even more incoherent elements, but I wouldn’t know since I didn’t bother. I never watched Transformers growing up so I have no attachment to the series. I had a few small toys that transformed, but I’m not actually sure if they were Transformers or just one of the countless knock offs.
It took that truly impressive RT score to get me to go see Bumblebee, about a character I didn’t even remember was in the first film let alone the main Transformer. Setting it in the ’80s didn’t help. I’m so sick of ’80s nostalgia in all its forms and it looked like a move from a series ready to curl back up with the animated movie/series. Thankfully, it seems to be more out of a desire to give those Michael Bay films a wide berth. For a start, the massive cast of transformers characters has been cut down drastically. Aside from a brief, not especially interesting intro on the Transformer home world of Cybertron, there’s only a handful of them in the movie. It allows for some actual characterization and personality for the giant metal machines (including two with voices by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux).
The action is also coherent this time around. Part of that is the more limited cast which allows for smaller battles, but a large part just comes from how it is shot. Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight has taken over for Bay and there are no more constant quick cuts or over-designed machines smashing against buildings. Everything is framed properly and as an action movie should be.
Another of the major complaints last time around was the focusing on fleshy humans instead of the Transformers and if you were hoping the focus on humans would go away, you are going to be disappointed. The difference here is that Bumblebee populates its cast with actual human beings who are interesting. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a far more engaging lead than Shia LaBeouf did with the film giving her a proper coming of age story. She’s well rounded with an actual arc that manages to tie into the story without having to give her a contrived connection in the backstory. The other Transformer films may have filled out its cast with talented actors slumming it, but John Cena, John Ortiz, and Pamela Adlon are allowed the freedom to actually give fun performances.
Who would have thought that the key to making an entertaining Transformer film would be to achieve a basic sort of competence in the action, have an actual sense of humor, and even a surprising amount of heart. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start heaping too much praise on it, it’s not going to Fast Five the series and make it into one of the best action series out there, but it’s a fun, sweet family film with some good action.
In honor of these two films, the theme for this week is which mediocre to poor quality film series would you try to save and how would you save it?
I would have said Resident Evil (either by refocusing the series on horror or by scaling it back enough to cut out all the horrific CGI and hiring someone competent to shoot all the goofy action), but that series is pretty definitively over and about to be started anew anyway.
Doc Pick of the Week
Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (2018) dir. Jonathan Alter, John Block, and Steve McCarthy (HBO): Once again there were numerous contenders this week (mostly 30 for 30 titles even if the most recent entry “Deion’s Double Play” was a bit lackluster and in general I’m going through a string of lesser ones), but I thought I’d stick with a recent title, one that actually made it’s television premiere the day before last week’s column went up.
Today’s subject are Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, two New York City based columnists who got their start in the 1960s and went on to have lengthy, influential careers. It’s exactly the kind of standard, solid HBO fare that you’d expect, but the formula works for reason and they are interesting subjects. Breslin gets the lions share of the focus, probably because he’s the more compelling subject, but it also leaves the film struggling later on as it becomes clear he has become a self important asshole, trying to walk the line between condemning his actions (including one racial and sexist verbal attack on a Korean-American co-worker who questioned his writing which he followed up with a non-apology and doubling down on the racism) and trying to talk him up especially with (white) friends and family who are brought out to do the standard “he’s not really racist”, “he was never raised to be that”, and “look at all the good work he did earlier in his career speaking out against racism”. It also gets a bit too into reminiscing about how good things used to be in the industry, but honestly, that’s pretty standard for this subject and hardly surprising as paper after paper closes.
All Times EST
Week 3 of this section as we head fully into the 31 Days of Oscar on TCM. I’m had to prune this section back a bit as it was too long last week and only threatened to get longer this week so I’ll give honorable mentions to Viva Zapata!, Blithe Spirit, The Criminal Code, The Stratton Story, My Favorite Year, and The Bad and The Beautiful which all got the ax. This section will highlight my favorite titles, the interesting showings, and maybe a title or two I don’t like but are notable anyway.
The Battle of Algiers – 2/5 2:00 PM – The fantastic and deeply relevant Italian-Algerian film about the Algerian War and the atrocities both sides commit.
Through a Glass Darkly – 2/5 4:15 PM – The first film in Ingmar Berman’s Silence Trilogy (including the superlative Winter Light and Silence) is a great, quiet film in its own right.
Mildred Pierce – 2/6 2:30 AM – One of the definitive melodramas with Joan Crawford’s outsized acting perhaps never better served than it is here.
The Longest Day – 2/6 8:00 PM – More like The Longest Movie am I right? *Sighs* An epic, star filled take on D-Day is one of the better traditional war movies and a compelling work despite its length.
Tora! Tora! Tora! – 2/6 11:15 PM – A surprisingly balanced (with a look at it take from both sides by American and Japanese directors) and a well executed account of the attack on Pearl Harbor
Gigi – 2/7 4:15 AM – Here’s your chance to see one of the worst Best Picture winners ever. In fact, TCM is practically marathoning them this week with Tom Jones, The Great Ziegfeld, and Around the World in 80 Days. So step on up and watch the bloated runts of the litter if you must complete that list.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang – 2/2 2:00 AM – A catchy title and an important film in its day, it’s also a compelling look a prison abuses of the age.
Caged – 2/7 1:30 PM – The original Women in Prison film and the one that’s truly worth seeing.
King Rat – 2/7 5:30 PM – Perhaps not the best known POW film, but a very good one.
All About Eve – 2/7 8:00 PM – Stellar drama starring Bette Davis dealing with sadly still relevant issue of aging as an actress.
A Letter to Three Wives – 2/7 – 10:30 PM – A combination of mystery, romance, and drama from All About Eve director Joseph Mankiewicz that balances its various tones during its three stories presided over by an unseen letter writer.
The Mark of Zorro – 2/8 12:30 AM – Swashbucklers are hardly the deepest genre or one of my favorites but if you are going to watch two, here they are with Tyrone Power playing the titular hero.
The Adventures of Robin Hood – 2/8 2:15 AM – Just such a sense of harmless fun in Errol Flynn’s version of the character.
Adam’s Rib – 2/8 6:00 AM – Can’t go wrong with Tracy and Hepburn and this is a fun one.
The Great Dictator – 2/8 12:15 PM – I’ll admit that this is more my notability inclusion than anything else. I do like it and recognize it as a classic and important title, but it’s not a film I feel strongly about.
Bonnie and Clyde – 2/9 12:45 AM – The start of New Hollywood would be worth seeing even if it weren’t an excellent film, which it is, for its historical importance.
Dog Day Afternoon – 2/9 2:45 AM – The based on a true story bank robbery gone wrong is an entertaining one with one of Pacino’s best roles.
In the Heat of the Night – 2/9 8:00 PM – I didn’t do anything for Black History Month yet as it got delayed for this week’s topic, but you can start yourself off with this pair of Sidney Poitier titles including his most famous role.
The Defiant Ones – 2/9 10:00 PM – In a year where we are still getting white racist must learn to cooperate with a Black man films, it’s important to go back and view the better, less ham-handed versions of it done 60 years previous.
The Thin Man – 2/10 9:45 PM – The original and best film in the series is just wonderful featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy quipping and solving a murder (one far more reluctantly than the other).
The Best Years of Our Lives – 2/11 2:00 AM – A second movie featuring Myrna Loy, this time in support of a story about three men returning home from World War II, the less than stellar treatment they receive, and their struggles at reintegration. Thankfully those are no longer major issues and veterans no longer disproportionately suffer from mental illness, money problems, or the effects of lengthy, prolonged separations from their loved ones.
Singin’ in the Rain – 2/12 2:15 AM – Already featured this
The Stranger – 2/12 10:00 AM – It’s actually in the public domain so you could watch it whenever, but this Orson Welles starring and directed noir (and the first major film to depict documentary footage of the Holocaust) is worth checking out in any form.
ALL TCM FEATURES ON HIATUS DURING THE MONTH
Sights and Sounds from the Critics Top 250
By the Bluest of Seas (1936) dir. Boris Barnet and Samad Mardanov – (Critics Poll – T-235, 274, Directors Poll – N/A): After a pair of films that were more experimental in nature, I really just wanted something for this section much more straightforward. With a description including such phrases as “invented a new film grammar” and “challenging 1960’s cinema”, it was clear L’avventura was going to have to wait until another week (The Conformist continues to wait as I avoid wanting to talk about Bernardo Bertolucci). Technically today’s title didn’t make the Top 250, at least by the magazine’s designation, but it received enough votes (along 32 other films) to tie for 235th place. They have formed a kind of supplemental list for me that have been of less priority, but still must see movies when I get the opportunity.
Even on a faded, less than ideal print, the cinematography, especially of nature, looks amazing. It’s the draw of the film and the one thing that sets it apart. It certainly isn’t the romantic comedy plot which is about as bog standard a love triangle as you can get, but I’ll take that decent core to string the nice visuals and the quick pace on. It’s just a really well-executed example of the genre and a nice pleasant film to watch.
The Week in Movie Reviews
– Katt Shea Triple Feature: Poison Ivy (1992), Streets (1990) and Stripped to Kill (1987)
– WTF ASIA 41: The Story of Nampu (1984)
– Millennial Malaise 04: The Lawnmower Man
– LGBT Movies: Romcoms
– Hallmark Bonus: Valentine in the Vineyard Recap/Review
– Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Victory Through Air Power
What have you been watching and what did you think of it?