Friday, August 18, 2017

Summer Movie Round Up, Part 2: Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Dark Tower

I need a little break from thinking about all the terrorism, natural disasters, and general upheaval in the world in the last week, so I figured it was finally time to write my follow up to my Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1.  I think I saw most of the big budget Hollywood science fiction and fantasy movies that came out since May (I deliberately skipped the new Transformers, but I'll bet my review would be, "Lots of explosions.  Kinda dumb.")

So does the 2017 movie season redeem Hollywood from the mostly terrible 2016 summer movie season?  Let's find out!

Wonder Woman

I'm not the biggest fan of the super hero genre or its domination of the SF/F movie domain in recent years.  But even a super hero curmudgeon like me could see that Wonder Woman was going to be special, seeing as Hollywood has managed to reboot Spider-Man three times in the last 15 years but had yet to make a big budget movie about the most iconic woman super hero.  And they even had a woman at the helm with director Patty Jenkins.  The best part for me: seeing this will annoy MRAs and other loathsome types.

So, how was the movie?  It was a decent super hero movie.  I liked it.  It was entertaining.  I would've liked to see more of Diana's homeland and the plot is only about as coherent as super hero movies tend to be, but Gal Godot makes for a great Wonder Woman.  I especially loved her fish-out-of-water scenes in London.  It's admittedly hard for me to see Chris Pine as anything but non-Shatner Kirk, but he was fine and didn't steal the scenes from the women.  All in all, Wonder Woman was a fun movie that I hope portends more women-centered super hero movies.  If we're going to have these movies, they might as well be for everyone.

On a deeper level, Wonder Woman made me think about my previous criticism of super heroes as unduly focused on individual power.  I think this is a problem insofar as the world doesn't need more fantasies of domination over others.  But maybe for people who internalize the poisonous idea that they are inherently less powerful than others, super hero stories are an ennobling antidote.  If girls and women (and boys and men) can learn from Wonder Woman that they're as good as anyone else, maybe the super hero genre isn't so bad, after all.

War for the Planet of the Apes

I'm a huge fan of all the Planet of the Apes movies starting with the 1968 original (okay, maybe not Tim Burton's 2001 remake).  So how does this one, the third film in the new Apes series that began in 2011, stack up?

See my full review to find out!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

A non-super hero space opera movie based on a beloved French comic book directed by Luc Besson sounds like an awesome idea on paper.  I really, really wanted to like Valerian.  I managed to talk myself into liking Jupiter Ascending in 2015 (say what you want, Jupiter Ascending has got Wachowskian panache for all its silliness).  I thought maybe I could do that with Valerian.

So, did I talk myself into liking it?  Sadly, no.  This isn't to say I hated it.  There's a lot to like.  The opening scene, where the International Space Station slowly becomes a gigantic space colony over hundreds of years, is super cool.  The visuals are amazing throughout.  There are some cool science fictional ideas, like a market that takes place in another dimension.  This would be a cool movie to have playing in the background at your next sci-fi themed costume party.

What didn't work for me was mainly the two leads.  They were just ... bad.  Or at least not nearly good enough to carry a movie with a budget of 197 million Euros.  Dane DeHann, who plays the title character, comes across like an awkward teenager trying to do a young Harrison Ford or James Dean impression and everyone tells him he's awesome because they're afraid of pissing off his rich parents so he never realizes how bad he is.  Cara Delevingne, who plays his partner and (ugh) love interest, is a model whose previous acting credits include Enchantress from Suicide Squad.  I initially assumed the two characters were siblings because they look so much alike.  I could never shake that impression, which made their "love story" a little creepy in addition to just plain lame.  But at least Rhianna showed up to play a shape-shifting alien.  That was cool.

In response to my negative comments, a few friends pointed out that at a deeper level the whole movie is a critique of militarism.  Without veering too much into spoiler territory, it's true that the movie ends without the kind of mega-destruction that seems required of all big budget SF/F movies these days.  I just wish the bad things about the movie didn't distract me from these deeper points.  Maybe if I watch it again at a sci-fi costume party, I'll be able to look past the negatives.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Do we really need another super hero movie much less a third Spider-Man reboot since 2002?  I'm still not sure.  I wasn't planning to see this one, but I kept hearing great things about it.  I wanted to like Valerian and didn't.  Conversely, I didn't want to like Spider-Man: Homecoming and did.  It was a lot of fun, an enjoyable summer movie even for a super hero hater like me.

Tom Holland makes for a goofy, kind hearted Spider-Man.  There's something a bit light hearted about the whole thing, from connections to the larger Marvel-verse (that are cool or lame depending on your opinion) to his goofy, kind hearted best friend (Jacob Batalon) who just wants to be "the guy in the chair" that uses computers to guide the hero.  Even Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, who seems like a weird choice for that role) seems a lot more laid back in this one.

Spider-Man: Homecoming's light heartedness is all the more surprising considering that the main bad guy is seriously messed up.  Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton, playing a role that weirdly echoes his past roles in Birdman and Batman) is mad that his work is taken over by the Department of Damage Control, a big government agency tasked with cleaning up the mess from the Avengers' previous efforts.  I thought this was an amusing way for the Marvel people to make fun of themselves for the mega-destruction I mentioned earlier.  Anyway, as legitimate as Toomes's grievances may be (he's not a totally evil dude at first), he ends up stealing alien technology and threatening a lot of innocent people that Spidey has to save, of course.

There's a somewhat ham-handed nod to struggles of working class America, which I find slightly awkward in a $175 million movie starring several A-list Hollywood actors.  Still, it's interesting to see issues of class and economics discussed in a Hollywood movie, especially given that such movies tend to unthinkingly reflect the biases and experiences of the rich white Californians who make them.  (If you've ever noticed that in a lot of Hollywood movies and TV shows every character lives in what normal Americans would think of as a mansion and never worries about money, then you know what I'm talking about.)

Will Spider-Man join up with the Avengers, the elitist 1% of the super hero world?  Or will he stick closer to his roots as a working class friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?  How do our backgrounds shape us?  Can you be true to yourself in new circumstances, or does your self change over time?  Do we owe it to our neighbors to be friendly?  Spider-Man: Homecoming does raise these issues if you want to think about them.  But whether you want to think or just chill out for two hours, it's a fun summer popcorn flick.

The Dark Tower

I really liked The Dark Tower, and I don't feel like I talked myself into it.  I even saw it again and liked it more the second time.  I'm also really digging the score by Tom Holkenborg (whose first career was as the electronica DJ Junkie XL).  The Dark Tower is not a perfect movie, or even a great one, but I'm totally baffled by the overwhelmingly negative critical response.  I guess those critics didn't see Valerian.  Or maybe they don't understand fantasy.  Or the occasional bits of 80's-style-Stephen-King camp.  Who knows?

I re-read the first two Dark Tower books this summer and appreciated them way more the second time.  I love the world building of this universe, which is picked up in an interesting way in the film.  There's something really cool about the basic idea.  There are some interesting philosophical issues about metaphysics and meaning.

A summary from my full review (which you can see here):

All this world building and philosophizing is a bit haphazard and rushed at times.  But like the first two books, the movie leaves me excited to learn more about this strange set of worlds and their inhabitants.  I don't care what the critics say, I'm hoping for a sequel or three.

Does 2017 Redeem 2016?

So, does the 2017 summer movie season redeem Hollywood for the mostly joyless blunder that was summer 2016?

Considering that the only movie on my lists in Part One or Part Two I didn't really like (Valerian) is technically European, maybe Hollywood's name has been cleared.  The big budget super hero movies this year were at least a lot of fun (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming), not to mention whatever the hell that King Arthur movie was (or whether that's technically Hollywood...).  War for the Planet of the Apes is probably my favorite of the summer, with a few caveats mentioned in my review.  And critics be damned, I liked Alien: Covenant alright and I liked The Dark Tower a lot.

So, good work, Hollywood.  You sucked a lot less this summer!

Does this bode well for the fall and winter season?  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't super excited for Blade Runner 2049 and, of course, Star Wars: Episode VIII -- The Last Jedi.  Let's hope Hollywood can keep up the good work for at least a few more months!

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