Tuesday, August 22, 2017

[Movie Review] Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017)

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Daniel Huston, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Wonder Woman is a special film. It’s not the only superhero film being released this year. It’s not the only action film directed by a woman. But it is the only successful big-budget superhero action film based on a popular comic book that both stars and was directed by a woman. As a fan of comic book superheroes and a woman, that set the expectation bar pretty high for me. But Wonder Woman delivered.

There have been some complaints by reviewers that too many comic book films are origin stories, telling the audience how the character gained his powers and chose to become a superhero. Wonder Woman is an origin film, too, but in this case it was the right thing to do. The first portion of the film explains not how Wonder Woman gained her powers or what those powers are, but the culture and family that made her who she is. Princess Diana of Themyscira was raised to be a warrior, even though her mother Queen Hippolyta didn’t want her to be one. Her entire culture is one of warriors. Diana was also raised to have a fairly black-and-white view of right and wrong, and to believe that it is her duty to protect others. This all comes into play when she meets the first man she has ever seen in the flesh, American spy Steve Trevor, and decides that she must go to the world beyond Themyscira to stop the First World War.

I was really pleased that the filmmakers chose to set this in WWI. It was a turning point in warfare, the first time that airplanes, tanks, and long-range artillery were really used in an international war. War had become impersonal. Earlier wars had artillery, but soldiers often still fought hand-to-hand. WWI changed all that, in addition to adding chemical weapons to the horrors of warfare. Wonder Woman touches on that by making one of its villains ‘Doctor Poison’, a scientist engaged in creating gas weapons for Germany. 

Interestingly, this scientist is a woman, which wouldn’t actually have been that strange in the real world, although in real life her contributions would likely have been credited to her male partners. Despite the horrible things Doctor Poison does throughout the film, the story treats her with surprising compassion and empathy instead of making her a cardboard heartless villain. 

As Diana gets to Europe she deals with culture shock, especially rampant sexism, but the film doesn’t spend too much time focusing on that. The point of the film is for Diana to become Wonder Woman, protector of the Earth, and for her to recognize the full extent of her powers. It’s also important for her to recognize that even though people do bad things, that does not always make them bad people. She learns to broaden her world view and to maintain her great compassion and desire for justice in the face of overwhelming odds.

The choice of a relatively unknown actress in the role of Diana is a good one. It sets aside any viewer expectations of that actor, and allows the audience to get to know the character without being burdened by thinking of other parts the actor may have played. It’s also satisfying to me personally that they chose someone who isn’t American, who has a more ‘Mediterranean’ look. I’m sure there are some fans who are annoyed that she didn’t wear blue contact lenses to make her look more like the iconic comic book character, but I personally have always thought it odd that someone from a Mediterranean island would have blue eyes; I’m sure it’s not impossible for people of Mediterranean ancestry to be blue-eyed, but it’s probably uncommon. The production team also didn’t require the actor to become as muscular as a competitive bodybuilder, something that often happens in male-dominated action films and has become an irritating cliché in recent years. Wonder Woman has the power of the ancient Greek gods; she doesn’t need overdeveloped muscles to be powerful. It was also nice to hear a voice that didn’t speak in flat, generic American accent. Wonder Woman may have been created in American comics, but she’s a global hero.

The film also achieves what many reviewers have blamed its predecessors Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice for failing to do: bring humor to the DC Comics cinematic universe. I disagree with the oft-expressed opinion that the other two films are awful; I enjoyed them. But they do have a grimness that I would be glad to see less of in future DC films. Despite being set during a very grim period in world history, Wonder Woman isn’t dark. There are moments of laughter and tenderness, and during the introductory scenes set on Themyscira everything is very bright and sunny and optimistic. It’s important to the character of Wonder Woman that while she faces darkness, she doesn’t lose that optimism and compassion she learned in her homeland.

Wonder Woman includes some incredibly exciting and beautifully imagined action scenes. In fact, I’ll admit that some of them literally brought tears to my eyes with their beauty. A battle scene that takes place on Themyscira wonderfully demonstrates what incredible warriors the Amazons are. And probably the best action scene in the film comes when Wonder Woman decides to take the battle to the enemy after she travels to Europe. It’s a brief scene, but an overhead shot of her using her shield to deflect machine gun fire in No Man’s Land is just awe-inspiring to me.

If I have to find anything to complain about in this movie, it’s the implied budding romance between Diana and Steve Trevor. I don’t want romance in my action movies most of the time, unless it really propels the story, and I think that having them become friends could have been enough to do that. I’m glad that the romantic element didn’t go any further, and that Diana didn’t end up marrying Steve. But I wish that the filmmakers had looked at the fact the Amazons are all women and accepted that women in a situation like that would not be looking for male romantic companionship. I suppose I can accept that Diana might be curious about having a relationship with a man as a new experience. But that plot element points out that our filmmaking industry still has far to go in accepting other kinds of romantic and sexual relationships beyond heterosexual, and other kinds of male-female relationships beyond romance.

Despite that one minor quibble, I give Wonder Woman five stars out of five. I made an effort to go back to a theater to see it a second time, and I have no doubt that in future years it will fall into that category of movies that I will watch whenever they are on television, along with Captain America and Iron Man, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Fifth Element. In my book, residing in that company is high praise indeed.

[Movie Review] Warcraft

Warcraft (2016)

Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring: Travis Fimmel (Anduin Lothar), Dominic Cooper (King Llane Wrynn), Ruth Negga (Lady Taria Wrynn), Tobey Kebbell (Durotan), Ben Schnetzer (Khadgar), Robert Kazinsky (Orgrim Doomhammer), Clancy Brown (Blackhand), Daniel Wu (Gul’dan), Paula Patton (Garona), Ben Foster (Medivh)

Note: I wrote this review over a year ago after I saw the movie in a theater, but I somehow never got around to posting it. I've acquired a copy of the movie and have watched it several times since then.

For those who aren’t aware of this film’s origin, it is based on the hugely popular online multiplayer game World of Warcraft, which has ruled the fantasy MMO field for years. For many people, that’s an immediate negative. There has never been a truly successful and critically accepted adaptation of a video game property. But WoW has a huge world setting with numerous geographic locations, many races, and a lengthy fictional history, which offer more for a filmmaker to work with. In some ways it’s comparable to the Lord of the Rings in scope, though it lacks similar iconic characters. It also has perhaps too many important events to choose from as the main plot conflict – should it be set during this demonic invasion, or that major war with the orcs?

Setting aside whether the production team’s choice of conflict event was wise – I don’t know enough about what happens in the game to make a judgement – I am reviewing this as someone who knows very little about WoW but enjoys high fantasy and wants to see more of it portrayed on-screen. 

Director Duncan Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay, chose an early period in the history of the game world as the setting for his film. The film begins as the game’s long-term antagonists, the orcs, are arriving for the first time on the world of Azeroth. 

Interestingly, the screenwriters chose to make one of the film’s main protagonists one of the orc invaders. After having my primary exposure to cinematic orcs be the two-dimensional innately evil orcs of LOTR, it was refreshing to see an orc portrayed as a three-dimensional individual. The orcs were created by a mixture of motion-capture and CGI rather than prosthetics, because in WoW orcs are much bigger than humans and Jones couldn’t very well cast only 7-foot-tall bodybuilders as his orcs. But the CGI works extremely well. I very quickly forgot that the orcs were digital as the animation was so well done. The same goes for other CGI effects in the film, such as the gryphon mounts, massive cityscapes, and floating buildings. I know they’re not real but they didn’t appear obviously computer-generated. It’s all thanks to Industrial Light & Magic that everything looks so good.

The film presents four main POV characters: Durotan, chief of the Frostwolf Clan, an orc who doesn’t agree that they should be invading Azeroth; Anduin Lothar, human military commander of the Stormwind Kingdom on Azeroth; Khadgar, a young mage who discovers that there’s more to the invasion than just massive orcs appearing out of nowhere; and Garona, a half-orc slave torn between the world of her birth and the opportunities presented by this new world. As I mentioned above, the animation of the orcs was so convincingly done that Durotan is completely believable as a living character, and he’s presented well as a protagonist that the audience can empathize with. Khadgar is also an engaging character, though the script or the editing left some unanswered questions about him that I would really have liked to see answered onscreen. Garona, too, is interesting enough that I wanted to see more of her, and is given a decent development arc. But Anduin Lothar didn’t really appeal to me as a character and I wish that he had been handled differently. I have the feeling that much of his development arc, along with some of Khadgar’s backstory, ended up on the cutting room floor.

Now to the things that I really liked about this movie, in addition to the quality CGI: 
There’s magic. Lots of magic. I’m a great fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in both its cinematic and literary forms, but it just doesn’t have enough magic to satisfy me. Warcraft has my kind of magic. There are three magic-using characters who are integral to the story: Khadgar, Guardian Medivh, and the orc leader Gul’dan. The story does some very nice things with the magic that appeal to me as a long-time player of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games. Khadgar casts lots of spells. He has to speak some words and sometimes make arcane markings or gestures. The results are always accompanied by digital lighting effects that say ‘This is magic!’ to me, though I suppose to an extent I’m influenced by everything I’ve seen in video games, which are usually the places where the magic is most fun. In addition to big showy spells, and some smaller spells, Warcraft also features an enormous clay golem, which just warms my little D&D-player heart to no end. 

The setting also offers different types of magic – Khadgar and Medivh wield the same variety from the same source and training, while Gul’dan’s magic comes from a different source and doesn’t seem to require any verbal or somatic components. Gul’dan’s magic is evil, because it draws on the life force of other unwilling creatures to fuel it. This is amply demonstrated in one scene: while Gul’dan talks with another orc, an emaciated human prisoner sits beside the orc leader, and periodically Gul’dan draws life energy from his captive with a casual gesture, like a smoker taking a puff from a cigarette. I found that very effectively done, and it did a good job of emphasizing why his magic was evil and how scary he was. The way he keeps sucking out the man’s life, not because he needs the energy for anything but just because he can, makes him seem like an addict.

In addition to the magic, the Warcraft setting has numerous other races/species besides humans (though I'm glad they decided not to use the anthropomorphic pandas in this movie). Near the beginning of the film we see some of the Draenei, a species from the game world that resemble tall blue satyrs. They aren’t onscreen for long, but at least they are shown. There are also elves and dwarves, those staples of magical fantasy worlds. Like the Draenei, the elves and dwarves don’t get much screen time, but at least the audience is reminded that they exist and are important to the world in which the story is set. In addition, the filmmakers went to a great deal of effort to make them look like all of the abundantly available artwork showing how elves and dwarves look in WoW. If you’re going to make a movie set in a game world, the least you can do is keep the visuals consistent with the game world, and Warcraft does that quite successfully. 

Not only are the non-human characters made to look distinct from each other, as close to their game appearance as the filmmakers could make them, and not at all like people just wearing silly prosthetics – even the armor and weapons look those seen in the game. WoW, like many console and online fantasy games these days, hands out some pretty ridiculous armor and weapons to the characters: swords as tall as a man with foot-wide blades, plate armor covered in spikes and flanges and protruding shoulder guards, or armor that protects without actually covering any vital organs. Maybe the production crew should have gone for a more realistic look for the equipment, but if you’re going to make the movie look like the game come to life, why not go all the way? So what if King Llane rides into battle in shiny gold armor covered with embossing that would easily catch a sword, wearing a crown on his head and carrying a shield that would be too heavy to lift. He looks really cool doing it. And he rides into battle astride a gryphon that looks like you could actually go up to it and stroke its huge feathery wings. Perhaps the only place where the cool visuals factor weakened for me a bit is in one scene early in the film in which we see an orc throw a horse at some Stormwind soldiers, but a few minutes later an orc mounts a horse and rides away. Ridiculously impractical weapons I can handle, but non-magical, conditionally-variable physics annoys me.

I mentioned before that there are some things I was less than satisfied with in this movie. The character of Anduin Lothar is the main one. I just didn’t have any interest in his part of the story. He either needed more time spent on his character, or that character should have been made secondary so more time could be devoted to one of the others, like Khadgar or Garona. Clancy Brown didn’t get enough screen time, either, though I’ll admit that’s just a personal complaint because I’ve been a fan if his for decades. A fair amount of the interactions between Anduin, King Llane, and Guardian Medivh implied that they used to hang out together, perhaps as adventurers before they all acquired such important positions. I would have liked to see that story, one describing those characters before they all became so boring. Medivh does get a couple of good scenes that hint at something more to him, but Llane doesn't have much personality. And it may be that Anduin Lothar is so uninspiring to me because I just don't think Travis Fimmel is a very good actor. But everyone else was quite good, considering that half the cast weren't actually visible onscreen.

But probably the most disappointing thing about this movie for me is that other people didn’t go see it. Which means that Hollywood  - and audiences – will continue to think that movies based on video game properties are terrible, and the big studios may be unwilling to fund more Warcraft movies. I liked it enough that I’d go to see more. I don’t really care about seeing more of Anduin’s story, but I want to know what happens to Garona and Khadgar. The film ends with a teaser for a possible sequel, which would presumably focus on the fate of Durotan’s infant son. I’d probably watch that, too, if anyone ever gets to make it. Let’s hope that perhaps the high box office figures from China will encourage the studio to proceed. I want to see more of those elves. In the meantime I'll keep re-watching Warcraft and enjoying the parts of it that I really like.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Star Wars] Guardians of Peace, Episode 2: "From the Shadows"

Episode 2: From The Shadows

The galactic civil war is over. Despite continuing tensions, a tenuous peace exists between the EMPIRE and the NEW REPUBLIC.

The Jedi Knight Taanar Ryl and her team have gone to survey the lost planet of Ilum. Landing on its ravaged surface they discover that pirates had attacked a group of Imperial Knights. After finding a survivor, they infiltrated a derelict orbital station in hopes of rescuing more pirate captives…. 

Flashback: Taanar Ryl stood before Jedi Master Neranye Rep. Master Neri held something out to her, a small object that would fit in the palm of a hand. "Take this." 

Taanar reached for the object. As she did so she recognized that she had seen it before. It was a star-shaped pendant, which Neri had told her she had acquired at Point Nadir before the two of them met. It was a kind of Force talisman, but Neri had never discovered its true purpose. "I want you to have it. Perhaps you'll be able to discover what use it has," said Neri. Taanar folded her fingers around it. "I hope I'll be able to," she replied.

One month had passed since the Fortune of Greepo visited the former Jedi temple on Ilum. Their prisoner from the pirate group had been handed over to the New Republic authorities. He had claimed his name was Ferbarton Skywalker, though he denied any relationship to the Imperial family. He had been sentenced to hard labor in a Republic prison camp.

The Fortune of Greepo emerged from hyperspace at RESH-9376, otherwise known as Point Nadir. Initially the port authorities refused the ship permission to land, until her crew mentioned they had come to visit their friend Dexter Vex. 

After some initial friendly chat between Taanar and Dexter, she asked him about the Shadow Wing pirates. He couldn't offer much more information about the pirates than what they already knew: the Shadow Wing had been a relatively minor gang until recently, when they had suddenly acquired better ships and weapons. But Dexter's sources couldn't say who was supplying them. 

During their visit the Fortune's crew found that Slash Buzzburn was still drawing crowds to Point Nadir, which was a source of excitement for young Ren Secura. Taanar agreed to allow time for her young charges to enjoy a performance. While the quartet were on their way to the venue, they were accosted by two large blue aliens who threatened them on behalf of the Hutt crime syndicate. When the twins failed to be intimidated, one of the thugs shoved Den. Ren then slipped surreptitiously around behind the hired muscle. The brewing altercation was interrupted when their droid R2-FE contacted them to notify them they had received a transmission. Ren managed to trick the two thugs into thinking that one of them had provoked the other, and the Fortune team left them in the street shoving each other as they headed back to their ship.

The message proved to be from the New Republic Ministry of Justice, informing them of a pirate attack on the mining and agricultural world of Anobis. The attack had been so recent that the site was still in flames. The Fortune headed immediately for Anobis to investigate.

No sooner had the team begun to examine the remains of the attack than the twins spotted a human woman they had seen at the sites of two prior pirate raids. Ren stealthily followed her when she left, but lost the trail. Den then encountered the red-haired woman, who introduced herself as Magna Inscoe, an enforcement officer for the Imperial Ministry of Justice, a holdover from the earlier Republic that had maintained a good reputation despite the previous excesses of the Empire under Palpatine. 

Magna met with the rest of the Fortune team, and they discussed how the pirates never seemed to leave anyone behind in their attacks. They appeared to be adept at looking after the members of their gang, which led Magna to fear that they might try to break 'Ferb' out of prison. Taanar agreed to a cooperation and sharing of information with the Imperial officer and shared comms details with her so they could contact each other. She sensed that Magna was hiding something, but didn't press the officer about it.

After parting from Magna, the Fortune team sent a message to Ord Mantell to warn about the possibility of a prison break. Attempts to contact the prison received no response. The team members assumed the worst and headed for the Reclamation Center where Ferb was serving his sentence.

On their arrival, the prison commander was uncooperative and refused to allow them to see the prisoner. Ren tried to pressure him into relenting, but had no success. Taanar decided they should contact both the Republic Ministry of Justice and the Jedi Order to get official permission to see Ferb. While they awaited a reply, they kept an eye on the prison. 

Finally the necessary permission was granted, but when they asked to see Ferb they were told he had escaped on the same day they arrived. A prison transport had been attacked by two well-armed thugs, a Rodian and a Besalisk, whose identities were known. The Rodian was Sneef Grimm, and the Besalisk's name was Sazsno. After learning about these two the team spoke with local security representatives, who told them where to find people who might be able to help them locate Sneef and Sazsno.

At a location called Clem's they learned that the two often frequented a bar called Bucket of Blood. At Bucket of Blood they were met with lies, denying that the duo ever came there or had even been heard of by anyone present. But Nema spotted one of their targets ducking out - it was the Rodian, Sneef. On following him they found Sazsno there too, wielding four blasters in his four arms. He immediately fired on Ren. Taanar used the Force to deprive him of one blaster. He aimed a blaster bolt at her, which she was able to deflect but not back at him. Nema then disarmed another of his weapons. Sneef ran for a speeder parked at the other end of the street. To prevent him from escaping, Taanar lifted the speeder onto the roof of a nearby building and turned it upside-down. Ren charged the Besalisk, stabbing him with his vibroknife, while his brother fired his blaster at the four-armed creature. Sneef then bolted toward a bantha that was waiting not far from where the speeder had originally been parked. Taanar used her Force skill to stun him before he could commandeer the bantha as his escape method, and Nema secured him while Den and Ren finally took down Sazsno.