Category: Box Office Democracy

Box Office Democracy: Atomic Blonde

It’s hard coming here to review Atomic Blonde after ripping in to Valerian last week.  I said Valerian was a gorgeous movie with well-executed action sequences that didn’t click for me because the script was a genuine chore to think about.  Atomic Blonde has a lot of the same problems, and at times looks like someone’s aesthetic Tumblr came to life on the condition that it had to recite a tired spy story to stay alive.  I’m not sure why, but it works for Atomic Blonde.  Maybe an overdone spy story is just more fun than an underdone science fiction story.  Maybe Charlize Theron and James McAvoy are just that much better than Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne.  It could be as simple as grey and neon and the fall of the Berlin Wall is a better mood than the promise of a fantastic science fiction world if you get beyond the bland corridors.

Atomic Blonde has the kind of story you swear you’ve seen a hundred times but can’t quite place any of them.  It’s kind of Skyfall meets The Usual Suspects if you only pulled the worst bits from the latter and the best bits from the former.  It’s set in 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a file containing the names of every agent from every country working in Berlin has fallen in to the wrong hands.  The list also contains the identity of a notorious double agent.  MI6 sends in Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to retrieve the list and rendezvous with David Percival (McAvoy) an agent who has been without supervision so long he has “gone native” which in this context seems to mean that he’s playing a Mad Max villain dialed down to 70%. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, but I never felt like anything made enough sense.  The combination of the unreliable narrator and the endless double crosses makes everything one or two degrees too muddled for me.  Not that this is a movie that wants to be remembered for its plot; it wants to be remembered for its action.

This is a movie directed by someone that started as a stunt coordinator who then hired a top notch crew of stunt and fight choreographers.  The action beats in this movie are completely nuts.  There’s a one-take continuous fight scene that travels through an entire building that is spellbinding.  Because movies have become so enamored with quick-cut action scenes this becomes instantly anti-cinematic and feels even more real.  A rejection of the Bourne model of fight scenes (ironically made by people who did work on fights in those movies) and a statement that this is a movie where fights are longer, more brutal, and have a more lasting effect. The other fights are also superb but they were also universally featured in the trailers, including the climactic fight scene, so it felt like I had seen everything else before I got there.  I know that the people who make the movie don’t cut the trailers but the marketing people did this movie a disservice by putting out so much of the good stuff for free.

I don’t tend to like movies that use grey as their primary color, and Atomic Blonde uses an awful lot of grey, but it works here because they use it exclusively to allow pops of other color.  Berlin is dreary and sedate in this film but none of the characters are.  Everyone has something about them that jumps off the screen be it hair, clothes, some kind of prop.  Lorraine gets all three.  The locations sometimes defy belief (there were neon pink lights in flop house hotels in 1989 Berlin?) but I like beyond belief if it lends itself to a better looking film.  Atomic Blonde is slick without being shiny and that’s worth a lot for a movie that’s supposed to be set in such a pivotal moment.  I would roll my eyes at any movie that wanted to end with the backdrop of fireworks, but if the Berlin Wall is falling and the fireworks look like the kind of thing you see from people in cities where fireworks are illegal it kind of makes it okay.

I would absolutely watch Atomic Blonde if I saw it on HBO, I might even buy the graphic novel to see if it makes the plot any easier to understand.  I appreciate that I seem like a hypocrite for praising this movie after slagging a movie with similar attributes a week ago, but I don’t care.  Cool counts.  Atomic Blonde is cool and catchy and sticks with you.  It pushes itself above mediocrity through grit, charisma, and gumption.

Box Office Democracy: Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stunning chasm between the quality of the visuals of a movie and the dreadful script tying it together.  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a gorgeous film with ambitious action sequences that can keep a frenetic pass without looking choppy or rushed.  It’s also got a plodding, boring script completely devoid of narrative or emotional nuance.  At its peak Valerian is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before— and in its valleys is like a Mad Libs version of Avatar and The Matrix.

The big action sequences in Valerian are stunning feats of direction.  There’s an action sequence where many of the characters involved are in multiple dimensions at once affecting what they can and can’t interact with.  There’s a suspense beat, a chase, and then several bits leading to another chase all in this multi-leveled reality bending circumstance.  Some characters integral to the operation don’t ever see or interact with the actual sequence.  It’s dizzying in all the best ways.  There’s also a chase scene that goes through all the different parts of this elaborate space station with dozens of alien races and their unique habitats that would have been the best sequence in every science fiction movie I loved as a child.  Luc Besson does an outstanding job framing these sequences and the effects team really outdoes themselves.  I don’t know how many of these alien races or habitats come from the source material, but it all looks tremendous.

It’s a struggle to praise the directing in Valerian when the acting is so terrible.  Dane DeHaan performs like he’s doing an impression of mid-90s Keanu Reeves and not a terribly flattering one.  He has the same flat delivery no matter what he’s trying to say.  He starts the movie with a declaration of love and it sounds like he’s barely awake trying to figure out what toppings he would like on a pizza.  I’ve never DeHaan impress me in a role and I’m starting to wonder what the casting directors of the world see in him that I don’t.  No one else in the cast is doing good work either.  Clive Owen is wooden, Rihanna was better in Home, and Cara Delevigne is acting like she can never remember the emotional tone of the last thing she said and has to guess for the next line at random.  It’s like everyone involved in the production was so invested in the effects they couldn’t be bothered to care about the people.

The script is also quite bad.  The story takes forever to get going and it always feels like key pieces of information are kept out of the characters hands not because it makes sense in the universe but because otherwise the whole thing would take 30 minutes to resolve.  The love story seems tacked on and only moves forward because they have Valerian and Laureline tell us it does and not because we see them do anything to move closer together.  I suppose I could accept that they’re going through a lot but this is their job, they must be in harrowing situations all the time.  There’s also a healthy dose of the kind of noble savage bullshit that I’m sure was all the rage in France in the 60s when this comic started publication but feels terribly tone deaf in 2017.  Even beside that the dialogue is 80% dry exposition delivered with the cadence of someone bored of being there.  Every time someone talks in Valerian the experience gets worse and worse.

It would be amazing to find out something like Valerian syncs up perfectly with a famous album or something because it would be nice to watch the movie again without having to listen to any of these characters talk.  I want people to see this film, it’s so fun to watch when it’s on top of its game.  Unfortunately it’s just as terrible when it isn’t.  Valerian is a film that should be watched in a theater, on a big screen, but only by people who paid to see another film and have sneaked in with good headphones and a podcast on or something.  This movie is a technical demo for what good effects people and cinematographers should do, and a cautionary tale for writers and actors.  Study hard, film students and drama majors— or else you could end up making a film like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and be trapped forever in pretty nonsense.

Box Office Democracy: Spider-Man: Homecoming

There needs to be a clear change in thesis statement when you reboot a film franchise.  Something like “We need Batman to be more serious and less goofy” being the reason to bring Christopher Nolan in to restart the Caped Crusader, or “Star Trek doesn’t feel relatable to young people because we’ve been serving TNG fans and older exclusively for 20 years” for the Abrams Trek reboot.  I think that’s why the Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man series never caught on because there wasn’t a change in thesis, it was the same attempt at superhero melodrama with big CGI villains.  The only thing that changed was people didn’t seem to like Tobey Maguire anymore and Sam Raimi wanted desperately to do anything else with his time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a clear change in tone.  Sony/Marvel (I don’t know who gets credit here) have decided that they want Spider-Man to be upbeat and not dragged down by being an overwrought angst-fest.  This is a movie about the wonder of being a superhero and the problems are kid problems.  The problems that don’t involve a man with giant wings at least.

It’s so refreshing to see a reboot without an origin story.  There’s a throwaway reference to being bitten by a spider and that’s it.  There’s no working as a wrestler, there’s no Uncle Ben, and the movie doesn’t suffer one iota for the absence.  We’ve been told this origin story so many times including twice in the last 15 years on the big screen.  It’s nice to be given credit for cultural literacy for once.  I do wish someone had said “With great power comes great responsibility” just one time because that’s an important thematic shorthand that just gets run over here, but if I have to trade that for 40 minutes of not killing Uncle Ben I’ll take it.  Hopefully whoever at Warner Brothers responsible for planning the next on-screen version of killing the Waynes saw Homecoming this weekend and is thinking twice.

There’s a prominent subplot about Peter’s suit.  It’s a suit Tony Stark gave him and it has a very Iron-Man-y HUD.  Midway through the film the “training wheels” get taken off and we get an awful lot of material on the crazy new features and Peter’s inability to manage them.  It’s funny enough but I profoundly do not care about watching Spider-Man fiddle with technology.  History probably proves I’m in the minority here, as both the Ben Reilly costume change and the Iron Spider era both saw bumps in sales, but it’s not the relatable content to me.  I think it’s fun when Peter engages in relatable drama; not does a scene out of Despicable Me with a plethora of gadgets.  This should be a small thing, but it’s so much of the second act it gets exhausting.

It feels like every few months we get another thing from Marvel that is supposed to finally show us the MCU from a human perspective and none of them ever succeed.  Daredevil was supposed to be this, as were Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and seemingly everything else.  None of those particularly worked for me on that level because while they would mention the bigger things happening in the movie they either felt too far removed (like they were only coincidentally in the same world) or too close (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is massive in scope).  Spider-Man: Homecoming is, finally, a success at feeling small.  The stakes feel important, but at no point is someone threatening me with the end of the world or the destruction of New York.  This is a movie about personal triumph and the effect, and lack of effect, that has on the later world.  Spider-Man fails if the Vulture succeeds, but the worst outcome of the events in this movie wouldn’t even be worth an aside in the next Avengers film.  There’s growth here and as the rest of the MCU spins in to grander, more cosmic, conflict it’s nice to have a little story that feels big instead of a giant story that rings hollow.

Box Office Democracy: Baby Driver

Go see Baby Driver.  If you saw the trailer and thought it looked cool, it is all that and more and you should go see it.  If you saw the trailer and thought it looked bad go see it, the trailer only scratches the surface of the depth the movie has.  If you love Edgar Wright, you should go see Baby Driver because it is an evolutionary step for him that will take what you’ve liked about him up until now and turn it all up.  If you don’t like Edgar Wright, you should see it because this is a complete departure from the jokey stuff he’s done up until now that I understand people found off-putting.  Baby Driver is the kind of movie I would recommend to anyone that appreciates cinema as a craft.  It’s a lovingly made homage to everything one director thinks is cool and it succeeds with gusto.

The plot doesn’t matter— you’ve seen more than a couple heist movies, you’ll know the first 90% of this movie backwards and forwards (they make an interesting choice at the end, I like it and it isn’t standard).  There are criminals with and without hearts of gold.  There are external pressures and things to be leveraged.  There’s one last score and the calamity that always befalls one last score.  They made a cool movie, though.  The opening car chase is completely mesmerizing, the second is white-knuckle nerve-wracking, the third act is constant forward pressure.  The gimmick of the movie, that Baby (Ansel Elgort) needs to listen to music at all times) means there’s a constant vibe coming off the cool music.  It also means that any scene without music is immediately underlined as important.  It’s a clever device and I don’t envy whoever had to pay for all these songs.

This is the best performance I’ve ever seen from Ansel Elgort, but that might not be saying much.  He has to this point mostly done movies that are very much not for me, and while I might think he’s been coasting on being pretty he has fans who are likely seeing something.  He doesn’t have to do a lot in Baby Driver, he plays a character who doesn’t speak a lot and who constantly wears sunglasses.  He makes it work.  He makes his lines work, he does his best with his reactions.  It helps that he is perpetually surrounded by talented actors.  He primarily works with Kevin Spacey and in his most difficult scenes has at least Jamie Foxx or Jon Hamm to push him through the tough parts.  The very best scene in the movie is Elgort and Lily James dancing around in a laundromat but that might be more choreography than pure acting skill.  It’s such a fun moment though.

Fun is what Baby Driver has more than anything else.  I’ve seen better car chases, I’ve seen more complex crime plots, I’ve seen sweeter love stories, but I haven’t seen so many things I like wrapped in quite such a charming package.  There’s an energy to the movie and it comes from the crisp direction and from the ever-present soundtrack.  This might be the highest density of needle drops I’ve ever seen.  It’s hard to quantify fun or why something is fun, but Baby Driver is fun.  It’s as movie that spreads an infectious smile to your face and refuses to let up.  It’s a movie that begs you to click on it on Netflix; a movie that you trip over yourself to recommend to friends.  It’s a movie you can watch over and over again, a movie to forever be happy whittling away an afternoon.

Box Office Democracy: Transformers: The Last Knight

It’s strange to describe a movie as Michael Bay’s id run amok.  Bay is already seemingly the living embodiment of the collective id of every even slightly repressed filmmaker to come before him.  Transformers: The Last Knight is dozens and dozens of bad ideas stuck together with slow motion CGI and glistening skin.  There’s a Transformer in this movie who has a gun that makes things move in slow motion.  That’s either proof that Bay has no idea that people use his cliches to ridicule him, or proof he doesn’t care because no one will ever stop giving him giant piles of money to figuratively light on fire every couple of years.  This is not the loving work of someone who grew up loving the toys or the cartoons or any of that; this is someone who smashed his toys together until they broke and then cried until they were replaced.

I’m honestly not sure there’s a synopsis of The Last Knight that would read as anything other than the ravings of a madman.  It turns out Transformers have been on earth since Arthurian times.  They’ve been involved with every major human event in history including World War II.  A secret cabal of historical figures have been involved in keeping them secret.  They also protect a magic artifact that can only be used by the descendant of Merlin.  Also, Optimus Prime is evil and wants to destroy earth— but honestly, that doesn’t have much effect on the events of the film.  The movie we get is two hours of running around trying to prevent something from happening, and then an underwhelming 20 minutes during which the bad thing happens anyway but is stopped like it’s no big deal.

It feels like there’s so much less spectacle in this movie which can’t be true because giant robots fight each other for no reason all the time.  Maybe it’s just that the fights have no discernible stakes and no one making any decisions about the plot is ever involved in the fighting.  The Transformer with the most lines is a C-3P0 ripoff (called out as similar in the movie itself) that doesn’t seem to transform in to anything.  Megatron and Optimus Prime stay on the sidelines while third string robots from the last movie that I can’t be bothered to remember fight over and over.  It must be hard to make giant robot fighting seem so inconsequential.

The Last Knight does an honestly amazing amount of metaphorical nerd punching.  Every character that has studied something is a naive idiot and real knowledge can only be attained from being near Transformers.  Oxford professors don’t know anything, NASA physicists are smug idiots with bad ideas, and the Prime Minister of the UK is a schmuck. If you’ve ever read a book on purpose, Michael Bay wants you to know he thinks you’re an asshole and have nothing of value to contribute to society.

I don’t know what the point is of telling you this.  If you’ve watched Michael Bay movies since Bad Boys II went to overthrow Castro for no reason after the story ended, you’ve probably known Bay doesn’t care anymore.  He’s chasing the rush of the big explosion and the nine figure gross.  People go and see his movies because they like his visual style, and while it’s absolutely not for me it’s definitely for someone.  When the lights came up on this two-and-a-half-hour unintelligible wreck of a movie, people in my theater applauded.  I love a dessert but I would prefer it be a part of a meal that includes a sensible entree; some people just want to eat Pixie Stix for dinner and wash it down with Red Bull.  The Last Knight is a movie for them. I hope they like it.

Box Office Democracy: The Mummy

You would think Universal would be happy with the money they’re making.

The last two Fast & Furious movies made over a billion dollars each.  They were the top grossing studio in 2015 and this year are on track for a second place finish.  No one is worried about the studio going broke or the lot being shut down or even serious cutbacks at their amusement parks.  Things are good.  I have no idea why they feel the need to invest so much in this Dark Universe nonsense that gave us this version of The Mummy.

They take what could be a perfectly good story about a scary, driven, magical lady mummy and fill it with exposition for movies that won’t be out for years and a “shared universe” with nothing anyone has any real attachment to.  There’s no one out there dying for a Creature From the Black Lagoon reboot, but here we are with pregnant pauses on a jar with a flipper in it in hopes it becomes the next Avengers or some such nonsense.  The Mummy is overloaded with ideas and starved for coherent storytelling, and it’s not a good combination.

The Mummy opens, like all good movies about an ancient Egyptian monster, in 12th century England.  I’m not entirely sure why we need the movie to start with a bit about crusaders except to start laying pipe for the insane shared universe they start building to later, but whatever.  We quickly move to ancient Egypt and the story of Prnicess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the titular Mummy, and her thwarted inheritance and the horrible revenge she took that led to her being turned in to the kind of being that lives more than 3000 years and throws curses every which way.  It’s an interesting story and her character is more immediately gripping than any of the other characters.  You have Tom Cruise in this movie playing an army officer who loots antiquities and the movie spends the whole time falling over itself to praise him for the smallest bit of human decency.  Then you have Annabelle Wallis as an archaeologist who spends so much time keeping and revealing secrets that we never get to an actual character.  We spend 70% of the movies with those boring nothings of characters, while a much more electric villain languishes on the sidelines causing wordless havoc.

I get that this is trying to build to some bigger set of movies and that you would much rather have Tom Cruise as your linchpin than Sofia Boutella, but it isn’t just star power that makes Robert Downey Jr. the best part of The Avengers, it’s that they give him things to say or do that feel like they matter.  As someone who sees a lot of movies and plans to continue to do so I’m interested in the story hooks they leave at the end of The Mummy, but I’m not excited to spend any more time in this world or with this thieving soldier turned supernatural figure if his defining character trait is going to be “mostly a prick but not to this one woman he slept with” for an indefinite number of films.  That said, he’s got some A+ costuming in the last scene and Cruise is the biggest movie star of a generation, so there’s reason to hope there.

Otherwise you’ve got a horror action movie that isn’t particularly scary and has few memorable action beats.  The sequence with the crashing airplane is wonderful and something I haven’t seen before.  Or, rather, it would be something I haven’t seen before if it hadn’t been in all the trailers.  Other than that, it has a bunch of zombie-esque chase beats, and a fight scene that was a redux version of Black Widow and the Hulk.  There were better action beats in the 1999 Brendan Fraser version and that movie wasn’t very good either.  We don’t even get a good Tom Cruise running sequence and why even hire the guy at that point.

The Mummy is a frustrating movie not because it’s objectively bad or anything but because it’s so very boring.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so boring if they hadn’t been compelled to cram so much material in to build to more Dark Universe films.  If the story they’re actually telling in this film had gotten more room, instead of being dedicated to stuff that might be in movies we never see after the poor box office reception this weekend, it could have been saved.  We could have gotten more time with the supporting characters that were more interesting than the mains.  We could have focused on the mythology we were interacting with here, instead of needing to tie all evil in to one amorphous blob we could draw on later or being force-fed quite so much Dr. Jekyll.  Rather than get a nearly two-hour commercial for a product I’m not sure I want, The Mummy should have tried harder to be something worthwhile in its own right.

Box Office Democracy: Baywatch

The best part of Baywatch was that everyone on screen seemed completely invested in making it a good movie.  It isn’t a good movie— it isn’t even particularly close to being a good movie— but the cast is willing to push as hard as they can to make it better.  Baywatch is elevated from the train wreck I’m sure it is on the page in to a simply bland, kind of mediocre, film.  Baywatch is a reasonably charming medley of punchless comedy, unintelligible story, and a generous amount of scantily clad pretty people.  It’s the kind of movie to see on an exceptionally hot day, or if your first choice movie is sold out and you’ve already put in so much effort to park at the mall.

I paid careful attention to the story in Baywatch and I’m still not entirely sure what was going on.  There’s Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a new-in-town rich person who has some kind of scheme to buy up a bunch of property and create some sort of massive private beach club.  She’s also a drug kingpin, but no one for the entire movie seems to care about the drugs at all so they end up being white crystalline breadcrumbs that just serve to tie things together.  Because of civic corruption/incompetence, the only people who can stop this nefarious scheme are the local lifeguards led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and joined by pretty boy newcomer Matt Brody (Zac Efron), attractive newbie Summer Quinn (Alexandra D’addario), attractive veteran CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), attractive veteran with fewer lines Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), and not-so-attractive local wannabe Ronnie (Jon Bass).  They are an elite cadre of small town lifeguards who also excel in detective work and infiltration techniques.  They do an awful lot of meta-commentary on how insane it is that they all wear so many hats but it is never quite a substitute for having actual narrative justification.

I could forgive the flimsy plot if Baywatch was outrageously funny, but it just isn’t.  Most of the humor is Johnson dunking on Efron in some capacity or another and you’ve seen that relationship a million times, probably half a dozen times where the dunker was The Rock, and most of those times it was being done better.  There’s a fantastic sequence about someone getting their penis stuck in a wooden chair but you can probably get to most of that joke just from reading this sentence.  It’s not that I never laughed or that the charm of the cast was never strong enough to deliver some average material— but the stakes are higher now.  21 Jump Street was a legitimately hilarious movie adapted from a reasonably irrelevant old TV show and it came out five years ago.  You can’t do this much worse this much later and expect to get a pass.

One of the more fun moments in the 21 Jump Street movie is when Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise make cameos as their characters from the original series.  It’s a cute nod and a bit surprising, especially considering Depp’s latter-day star power, and then they move on to finishing up their movie.  They try to recreate this in Baywatch with David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson and fail on just about every level.  To start with, both characters have identically named analogues in the movie and they bring this up so the Mitch Buchannon has a mentor who is also named Mitch Buchannon, and our Mitch works with a CJ Parker and then at the end we’re introduced to former employee Casey Jean Parker.  I know we’re not supposed to be thinking too much about this movie but that’s bizarre enough to leap off the screen and smack you in the face.  They also take all of the surprise out of the cameos (including one that’s the closing joke of the movie) by giving both Hasselhoff and Anderson prominent billing in the opening credits.  Instead of being a cute surprise, it’s something you’re waiting for and trying to figure out during the slower moments.  If Johnny Depp can set aside his ego to do something cute, you would think Hasselhoff and Anderson could too.

Baywatch the movie ends up feeling an awful lot like Baywatch the TV show.  It’s a movie that doesn’t feel the need to hold itself to the same standard of production and narrative nuance because they have a bit of tawdry sex appeal and the charisma of The Rock.  There’s enough charm here to pull through the stuff that doesn’t work, but not quite enough to feel like a movie worth the price of a ticket.  Much like the original show, Baywatch is the perfect movie for a gap in a TV schedule or to randomly catch on a plane… but it isn’t quite ready for prime time.

Box Office Democracy: Wonder Woman

It seems like incredibly faint praise but I should get it out at the beginning: Wonder Woman is the best film of the DC Extended Universe era.  That only means that it’s a coherent film with proper pacing and character work that doesn’t feel completely at odds with 80 years of published material.  It’s honestly hard to believe that the same studio was working on this gem at the same time they were shoveling Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman out the door. Wonder Woman is a triumph for DC and the kind of shining beacon for the future that I’m sure they will ignore for a grey and smokey Justice League later in the year.

The action beats in Wonder Woman are stellar. The sequence where she ditches her outerwear and uses her sword and shield to come over the top of a bunker and traverse the no man’s land is maybe the best action beat I’ve seen all year.  I’ll even give them bonus points for not underlining the potential word play.  The training montages on Themyscira are crowded without being cluttered.  They gesture to a frenetic martial lifestyle that I would love to see more of in a sequel. The mass action sequences are done so well that it’s a little disappointing to have the final battle be a kind of inscrutable one-on-one fight but that’s how these movies end. I would be in to the superhero movie where things are solved in an institutional manner or with one hero fighting an entire army, but it’s seemingly never been done and this was probably not the time to start.

Gal Gadot is perfect in the role of Diana Prince. She’s so good that it’s easy to forget all the times another actress seemed perfect for the part and DC squandered the opportunity by not making a movie out of this property in the last 25 years.  Her facial expressions are on point and she deftly handles the switch from a steely warriors gaze to befuddlement at the world outside her island.  I think “oh, I don’t understand this modern thing” might be a little overused here but it’s one of their only avenues for comedy and you wouldn’t want it to be just a movie about how terrible World War One is, we’ve had those movies and I personally don’t find them very interesting.  The rest of the cast is fine, I suppose. Chris Pine is punching a little above his weight here, or he’s criminally underused in the Star Trek movies.  Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen are great as Antiope and Hippolyta respectively, but with such vanishingly small amounts of screen time.

I struggled a bit with World War I as a setting.  In the comics Wonder Woman has all the Hitler-punching bonafides as Captain America does, and moving to a war with a less certain, less reviled, adversary takes some of that oomph out of things.  It’s easy for Diana to hate Nazis and slightly harder for her to hate too many convoluted political alliances.  It serves the story (the suspicion of Ares’ involvement might seem too overt in WWII) but I spent a lot of time wondering when things might get turned up a little.  I’m here to see Diana smash tanks and fight against unstoppable odds (present in this film for sure) and less here for her infiltrating a ball or shopping in a very standard version of London (also unfortunately present).

I enjoyed Wonder Woman a great deal, but that’s not really what’s most important here.  I have watched my Facebook feed fill up all weekend with raves from women I know thrilled to see a superhero movie that speaks to them.  I have to believe them that this movie is something special above and beyond my appreciation of it on a surface level.  That people feel heard and represented by a movie is more important than any quibbles I might have over the depth of the supporting cast or how uninteresting I find World War I as a setting.  I thought Wonder Woman was good, all these people thought it was real, and given the circumstances I’m going to go with them on this one.

Box Office Democracy: Alien: Covenant

I’m not entirely sure what I can ask of Ridley Scott at this point.  He’s made four or five honest-to-goodness classics and inspired an entire generation of science-fiction films.  He doesn’t owe me anything and I’ll watch just about anything he puts out because I have that kind of faith in him as a filmmaker.  He’s made a scary film with Alien: Covenant, but not one that I find particularly interesting.  Scott seems obsessed with giving me lore I don’t want instead of a higher concentration of scenes with scary aliens.

It’s impressive that they made the grossest Alien movie yet.  The one with the most visceral body horror.  They topped the terribleness of the chestburster in this one by making the alien birth process less discrete and more, for lack of a better word, fluid-y.  I don’t think it’s particularly worthwhile to discuss the particulars of the plot further.  There are scary aliens, some you’ll recognize and some you won’t, that chase a bunch of humans you never quite care about around a distant planet that is suspiciously earth-like.  This suspicion is both in the film and in the audience because it sure is cheaper to film in a planet that happens to be covered with plants from earth.  There are other things to be scared of, it isn’t important really as long as you find something in each scene potentially terrifying.  It definitely works as a horror movie; it will never be mistaken for a better Ridley Scott film.

Alien: Covenant is a movie carried by Michael Fassbender.  Playing a robot that struggles with showing emotion seems like a big challenge as an actor, and playing two that each have different motivations and different ways of hinting at their true intentions is just an incredible performance.  This prequel franchise is going to succeed or fail based on the audience willing to come and see more Alien-based horror, but artistically they’re inescapably linked to Fassbender at this point.  I wouldn’t go see the next one (and there shouldn’t be a next one but we’ll get there) without him.  He’s almost bigger than the Aliens at this point, even if I would kick him to the curb in a heartbeat for more Ripley.

The flaw in this movie is that I could not possibly care less about the origins of the Xenomoprhs.  I didn’t watch any other Alien movie thinking “if only we knew where these things came from” or anything like that.  Any explanation is going to make them less scary.  A bump in the dark is more scary than anything you could show on camera.  I won’t tell you the origins of the Xenomorphs, that would be cruel, but it’s not as good as whatever you had in your head, or even the non-explanation of “they’re just some terrifying aliens, those exist” that I had always assumed was the truth.  This is a movie answering a question I never asked and don’t care about what they have to tell me.

I wish I knew why they thought Alien prequels were more interesting than Alien sequels.  That what we want from a science-fiction horror franchise is less fantastical technology and more exposition.  I wonder if the whole Alien braintrust learned the wrong lesson from Resurrection and have decided they can’t move further in to the future.  I would rather watch an Alien without Weyland or synthetics or any of that rather than have more needless exposition shoveled on me.  That’s not what they’re making though so I have to make do with what we have— a legitimately scary movie with one tour de force performance and a fair amount of useless prattle.  Better than all the bad movies we’ll see this year full of useless prattle, I suppose.

Box Office Democracy: The Wall

I’m not sure what it would take for me to get solidly behind a war movie these days.  There’s certainly a fatigue component from the unending wars we seem to be fighting in real life, full of drama and heartbreak in their own kind.  It’s also very hard to get anything new out of the genre right now.  Perhaps because so many fantastic directors have made big important war movies, or maybe just because we seem to get three to five every year.  I would need either a fantastic take on the themes I’ve seen a thousand times (and I think you’re about to fall well short of that with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan) or some fantastic new way of telling a story in the backdrop.  The Wall is an attempt at doing the latter; this is a horror/thriller movie set in the Iraqi desert, but it isn’t a good enough movie to get over my general distaste for the genre.

The Wall is not a complicated movie.  Two soldiers are in the Iraqi desert to investigate an attack and are ambushed by a sniper.  Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) is hit first and is incapacitated, and Sergeant Allen Isaac is shot in the leg and is trapped behind the eponymous wall.  The rest of the movie is mostly Sergeant Isaac talking to his assailant (Laith Nakli) over short-range radio while he devises numerous plans to stay alive, identify and locate his attacker, and try to escape.  It’s not the strongest plot in the world, but it’s only an 81 minute movie and it’s more than enough to make that time feel full.  It hits the necessary action beats, it has some unsatisfying twists which I’ll come back to, and it does what it can to find catharsis.

What the movie is missing is a coherent thesis statement.  For a short film it does an awful lot of bouncing around.  There’s a fair amount of assuring the audience that war is hell, but there’s not a person alive that hasn’t heard that a thousand times by now.  There’s a lot of dialogue about who is really the terrorist, the insurgent fighter or the invading army, but they undercut it pretty dramatically with the way in which the Iraqi sniper threatens to gouge out Isaac’s eyes or staple his tongue to his chest.  Ideology aside, I’m not looking to even entertain the idea of rooting for someone that wants to do that so there’s no incentive to look at both sides.  There’s a desperate last minute attempt on the part of the movie to perhaps assert that this was a movie about the way people deal with guilt and grief.  I could entertain that idea if it weren’t introduced in the last ten minutes of the film, that’s a little late to be telling me what the movie is actually about and seems more like a last ditch effort to seem important.

This isn’t a story that needed to be set in the Iraq War.  You could have set this in a city with only a couple changes.  It could be in the distant future or an awful lot of the earth’s past.  I kind of want to know why they decided to make it a movie about a modern war.  One of the twists late in the movie (and this is a spoiler and this is your spoiler warning and I hope you’ve stopped reading by now if this bothers you) is that the Iraqi sniper is using the information he gets from talking to Isaac to fake a distress call to command and he plans to ambush the rescue team, and he probably did the same to get Isaac and Matthews out here to begin with.  It turns the sniper from a troubled person who claims to feel forced by the circumstance of the war into a cold blooded serial killer in a snap.  It bucks the trend of the last 40 or so years of war movies, and instead of showing the adversaries as people fighting for country this man is undeniably evil and is killing for sport or pleasure.  If the whole movie were set up like this it would be one thing, but as a last minute reveal it works to dehumanize the enemy in a war we aren’t even fighting anymore.  It left me cold, I didn’t like it.

That said, I don’t think I was supposed to like it.  I’m not entirely confident who The Wall is made for but it isn’t me.  It’s violent and graphic in ways I’m not interested in seeing.  It’s a gritty war movie and I don’t need any more gritty war movies;  it’s not interested in deep or meaningful characters as it is in manipulative drama and shock moments.  It isn’t a movie for me, but it’s probably a movie for some.  There were two teenagers sitting behind me who seemed really into it.  They’ve probably seen a lot fewer war movies than I have.  Ironically, this movie about people who use fantastically precise weapons is a dull, blunt, instrument.