Thursday, August 16, 2018

Movie Reviews: Black Panther, The Shape of Water, The Greatest Showman, Darkest Hour, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, McEnroe vs Borg, Fifty Shades Freed

Black Panther: So far, the only Marvel movies that I think are actually really good movies are X-Men 1, Iron Man 1, and the first two Tobey MacGuire Spider-Mans. I also enjoy the first The Avengers and was at least passably entertained by a few others, in that empty candy calorie sort of way.

That said, Black Panther is one of the better ones, possibly about as good as The Avengers. The most important thing that it does right (and please, please, movie producers, learn from this) is that it doesn't simply present us with a Big Evil bad guy and a two-hour slug-fest until one of the heroes finally hits him hard enough. Instead, the bad guy has a compelling point of view; in fact, he is actually kind of right ... except that he takes it way too far. To mildly spoil things ...

Wakanda is an African nation with advanced technology that it hides from the rest of the world for ... reasons? Black Panther's father, the king, was killed in one of the other Marvel movies, and now BP is king, but a long-lost cousin battles him for the throne, because said cousin has been living with the black people of the world and thinks that Wakanda's technology should be used to help them out of their oppression.

Ummmmmm .... yes, it should. Not to mention, Wakanda's advanced medical technology could be saving millions of lives around the world, instead of being kept hidden for no apparent reason.

Fortunately for the plot, cousin usurper doesn't simply want to help the world's black people out of their oppression, he also wants to help them kill and/or oppress everyone else because it's "their turn". So, evil. If they had actually made his goal a little less obviously evil, the movie would have really risen to great. But then how would we be able to end the movie without a clear good guy and bad guy beating each other up in a slugfest until the hero finally hits the bad guy hard enough?

The movie gets extra kudos for the same reason that Wonder Woman got extra kudos: it proves that a black cast, black writers, black director, etc can write a perfectly good and relatable superhero movie (why this should have had to be proven is still beyond me), which will hopefully lead to many more black characters as hero/protagonist in the future. It also has powerful black women fighters, which is still pretty rare.

The movie revels in a particular version of African culture - drums, clothes, hairstyles, language and tribes, etc. That doesn't speak to me as a white American/Israeli; it didn't bother me, either. I can't speak for its authenticity, as others do, but I guess it's a pretty idealized version of a monolithic idea of what African culture is supposed to be; I'm sure it is as representative of African culture as A Stranger Among Us was representative of Jewish culture.

The Shape of Water: It took me four tries to finish this movie. It is freakin' boring, predictable, and unoriginal. Well shot and acted is about all I can say for it. It is, nearly exactly, one part facile imitation of the movie Amelie - crossed with three parts non-amusing version of Splash. With a dash of gore, nudity, and cursing threw in. The music is indie French accordion (something like what you heard in Hugo), but if it had any melody I forgot it.

In the 1960s, an American research institute has some kind of weird aquatic humanoid life-form in a top-secret lab - with what must be the worst security ever seen in a motion picture: the cleaning staff and Russian spies waltz in an out of the the creature's room and spend hours alone with it, all with nobody noticing or challenging them until the break-out scene. A mute cleaning woman falls in love with the creature who is scheduled to be dissected, so she breaks it out of the lab. The scientists/military are caricature villains, the next door neighbor is a friend/artist who is used as an interpreter and assistant to the plot. Another cleaner, played by Octavia Spencer, shows up in half of the movie's scenes but really serves no useful purpose to the plot, at all.

I was so uninterested with what was going on that I kept turning it off. And this was nominated for best film? Good grief.

The Greatest Showman: This was a fairly enjoyable musical, probably only green-lit for production after the success of La La Land. Its music was somewhat more forgettable than La La Land's was, but it was not too bad. Dancing and choreography were nice.

This is the sanitized story of how P.T. Barnum began his circus of human oddities and animal acts, with Hugh Jackman starring as Barnum. Barnum starts in poverty and marries a lovely woman Charity before starting his circus. After a slow start, he is successful, but he is mocked by the arts establishment as a low-brow panderer, and constantly facing protest from moral groups and "concerned citizens" (i.e. mobs) as a purveyor of filth (people with deformities and odd talents). He takes on a playwright as a partner and also flies in a European opera performer to try to raise his stature in the arts community with some success, but also some additional trouble. Meanwhile, the circus's "exhibits" are happy to be out of the shadows and be part of a family, while simultaneously upset at not being treated as humans. This last subject is, unfortunately, only given cursory treatment in the movie; also fairly neglected by the movie is anything having to do with US current events of the 1850s, such as slavery and so forth (despite there being at least one black person in the circus troupe).

It was quite fun, if a little overly showy at the expense of deeper characterization. I would see it again.

Hard to understand why the circus didn't get Wolverine as an exhibit, however; wasn't he around in the 1850's?

Darkest Hour: 2017 has several movies that covered the same ground or connected with other movies. This movie is the second of two about Winston Churchill, and it also managed to fit neatly in with Dunkirk; in fact, this movie and Dunkirk could be merged to form one movie. They cover just about the same amount of time and end at the exact same moment.

It is well acted, scripted, and shot, with great visuals and sound. There were a few scenes that crept into the same territory that ruined The Iron Lady - too much acting and not enough plot. Thankfully, most of the movie avoids that, and instead concerns itself with Churchill's coming into power and the enormous pressure he faced to sue for peace with Hitler's far larger and aggressive Germany, particularly since Great Britain was facing the imminent loss of their entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk.

It's a slice of history movie, not as thrilling as Dunkirk, and perhaps a little limited in scope, but still a success. But not one that I would see again (unless someone makes the merged movie that I suggested, above).

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: The second movie about Wonder Woman from 2017, this one is not starring Wonder Woman, but instead the somewhat true story about the comic author and his weird life, perversions, and scientific theories and achievements. William Marston developed a minor psychological theory called DISC theory, which describes personalities based on dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. He also, apparently together with his wife Elizabeth and their lover Olive, created the lie detector.

Not surprisingly regarding someone who could come up with DISC theory, he and his wife were into kinky games, and so, eventually, was Olive. All three loved each other, and this was not exactly a relationship that could be made public at that time (or even today, really). After suffering fallout due to the relationship being made public, he created a superhero comic book about domination and submission - based on his theories and his sex life and one of the fetish outfits that Olive had worn. Since it was also the first superhero comic with a strong woman (albeit one who was subject to domination by men, on occasion), it filled a niche in the comic world.

Kind of a far cry from the other Wonder Woman movie that we saw last year.

It's a well-told, well-made movie, a little kinky but not really (less than Fifty Shades of Gray, and it didn't have any nudity). It was well acted and shot, and the script moved well enough. The movie touched on a number of different subjects - morality, kink, DISC theory, lie detection, relationships, societal disapproval. All of these are touched upon, but the only one that really comes into focus is the last one: at least according to the movie, they really did all love each other in a way that was not acceptable by society, and that can be a hard thing to get around.

McEnroe vs Borg: The second 2017 move about a famous tennis match: Battle of the Sexes was the other one and was far better. This one is simply a depiction of the lead-up to McEnroe trying to prevent Borg from winning his fifth Wimbledon. McEnroe, as you know, was young, ill-tempered, and rude in a way that no tennis player had ever been (it was always considered an English gentleman's sport), and Borg was rumored to be an emotionless machine. Screentime is devoted in flashbacks to both of them as up and comers, and to the few days before the match, as well as the match itself.

I found the movie to be a big bore. Just watching the actual tennis match would be far more entertaining. You see scenes of them having difficulties and facing them, as well as people booing McIntosh and his young obnoxious ways. But the movie never makes us feel why we are watching them or gives us a reason to care one way or the other about the outcome of the match.

Fifty Shades Freed: Sure, why not? I saw the first one and actually thought it wasn't too bad. The second one was dismally bad. This one was somewhere in the middle. The first hour or so is shots of Anastasia and Christian on vacation with some furrowed brows over how Jack from the previous movie is still angry with them for ruining his life. The last 25 minutes or so is a kidnapping scene and a rescue that was shot and scripted well enough if not exactly surprising. This last part might have worked well as a mid-season episode of a drama show.

Everything about the movie, aside from the last 20 minutes, is dull. The dull scenery, dull characters, dull "tension" scenes, dull sex scenes. In some ways, the subplot with Jack is a bit of a shout-out to the #MeToo movement, since he acts like the perfect example of a sexual harasser, but, honestly, he is almost nothing compared to Christian. Christian continues his stalker ways even worse than he did in previous movies. At least in those movies, he made some moves in the direction of growing out of his obsessive, harassing, and terrifying behavior. In this movie, he continues to do things that would make any sane person run screaming in terror from him, but Anastasia simply chastises him and then forgets about what happened moments later. And he hasn't changed at all by the end of the movie. Anastasia is somewhat more into submission by the end, but that doesn't even make sense since Christian's dominance is shown to be the result of a severe pathology rather than a harmless kink. So are we supposed to be happy now that they found each other? Ugh.

Don't bother. Go watch Secretary, instead.
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