Blog Archive

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wonder Woman (1975) – Pilot Review

A year after ABC and Warner Bros failed attempt at a strangely powerless and updated Wonder Woman the studio decided to go back to the source material and give the world the hero everyone had been waiting for, and finally Wonder Woman is allowed to wear the costume from the comic book.  The story takes place during World War II, the time period where Wonder Woman first appeared, and all her Amazonian powers are there and in full force, but of course the key ingredient to the success of this incarnation was in the casting, and the choice of novice actress Lynda Carter for the title role goes done as one of the best decisions as studio has ever made. I can’t think of another actress who has ushered more boys through puberty than Lynda Carter, but it wasn’t just how good she looked in that costume it was how effortless charming and sweet she was. She may have had the power to pick the back end of a car up, or toss Nazis around like tinker toys, but she never took herself too seriously, and certainly never lorded her strength and ability over anyone else. She truly was the first comic depiction that looked like she stepped right out of the comic book and as the opening narration by President Roosevelt states, “The only hope for freedom and democracy is…


As mentioned the pilot, and ABC’s first season, takes place during World War II and so the show’s villains would of course be the Nazis. Right out of the gate we are introduced to Colonel Von Blasko (Kenneth Mars) a top Nazi officer who is orchestrating a plan to destroy a top secret American installation that is manufacturing a superior bomb targeting device. To carry out this dastardly mission is Captain Drangel (Eric Braeden), who sneers more than Snidely Whiplash, but lucky for America Von Blasko’s aide decamp Nikolas (Henry Gibson) is a spy working for Washington and he is able to send out information via messenger pigeon to warn of the upcoming attack. When authorities in Washington DC learn of this Major Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) is quickly dispatched by General Blankenship (John Randolph) to intercept Drangel, and after a brutal dogfight which results in both planes being destroyed, our hero is shot and wounded by Dragel as they both float down into the Bermuda Triangle.


ABC’s special effects budget clearly went into Lynda Carter’s costume and not here.

Steve Trevor is shot, in what looks like the heart, but before Drangel can gloat too long his parachute drops him in the middle of a pool of hungry sharks. Miraculously Trevor is washed ashore without being eaten, you’d think a bleeding man would have attracted at least of few of those sharks eating Drangel, but as in most cases he is able to pull the “Hero Death Exemption Card” and he safely arrives on the beach of Paradise Island. How do we know this is a paradise?


Because the occupants look like this and run around in Baby Doll nighties.

It’s here we meet Princess Diana (Lynda Carter), who immediately becomes fascinated with this hunk of a man, and despite her mother Queen Hippolyta’s (Cloris Leachman) objections she does her best to spend time with the wounded airman. The Queen, afraid of this man’s corrupting influence on their idyllic paradise, orders the man be returned back to his own world, and because a chance to see the outside world is something most of the Amazons would desire they hold a contest to decide who gets the honor. The Queen refuses to let her daughter enter so Diana is forced to enter the contest in disguise, and the fact that this plan works is a bit of a stretch as I doubt a blonde wig and a domino mask would fool anyone as there appears to be only a couple dozen Amazons on this entire island, and being the residents of the island are immortal and thousands of years old you’d think the Princess’s face would be as recognizable as your own by this point. Regardless the contest ends in a tie and as ancient Amazonian tradition dictates the only way the deadlock can be broken is with “Bullets and Bracelets.” Wait…what the hell is that? All of the events of this contest had been mostly traditional Olympic events; javelin, discus throwing, hurdles, and archery but all of a sudden we learn a tie can only be broken by contestants shooting at each other with guns. According to the Queen, “Only women have the necessary speed and coordination to attempt Bullets and Bracelets without the loss of life.” So that's all women and not just Amazons? If that’s truly the case how come this has event never appeared in any Miss America or Miss Universe Contest?


And where exactly did these Amazons get a set of revolvers?

Even if they acquired these weapons from one of the countless ships or planes that have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle (I’m going to assume the Amazons didn’t just happen to event identical modern weapons), why would they use something of man’s world which the Queen finds so distasteful? Sure this is all to set up Wonder Woman’s ability to deflect bullets but here it seems so anachronistic, regardless of the weirdness of the contest Diana of course wins and she is given the job to return Steve Trevor to America.


Via her invisible plane with the not so invisible seat and occupants.

Before she leaves she is outfitted with a golden belt which we are told is, “A symbol of Amazon supremacy and so long as you wear it you will retain your cunning and strength away from Paradise Island.” It’s here that the show alludes to an Amazon possibly losing her powers and becoming human when away from Paradise Island, and later in the series she does seem quite mortal when not in costume. She is also giving the Lasso of Truth and a kick ass costume that the Queen explains the reason behind her design choices being, “The Colors were chosen to show your allegiance to freedom and democracy. The skirt can be discarded if it becomes too cumbersome.


 Note: The skirt is a nod to her original costume in the comics but once it came off the Networks never wanted to see her back in it.

After dropping Steve Trevor at a Washington DC hospital, much to the consternation of the duty nurse, Wonder Woman proceeds to wander around town where her skimpy attire attracts much attention, and we get a nice “fish out of water” moment when she learns that something called “money” is required to get things. This problem is kind of fixed when she is spotted beating up a bunch of bank robbers, deflecting their bullets with her bracelets, tossing a couple of them around with ease, and lifting the back of a car up to keep them from escaping, by Ashley Norman (Red Buttons) a crooked theatrical agent who will also turn out to be a Nazi spy.


Not Superman level of strength, but still pretty impressive.

We do get a bit of forced conflict when Steve Trevor’s secretary Marcia (Stella Stevens) is revealed to be a Nazi spy as well and when she learns that Steve Trevor didn’t die in the aerial battle with Captain Drangel she phones one of her Nazi operatives to tell him, “Steve Trevor is alive, apparently some woman is responsible, and she must be found and stopped.” So some random woman drops off a wounded American officer at a nearby hospital and suddenly that makes her a top enemy of the Third Reich? That's got to be one of the reason they lost the war, lack of priorities. This does lead to one of my favorite moments in the entire run of the series; while performing for Ashley Norman at a local theatre she is to show off her amazing deflecting bullet trick, with audience members being allowed to come up and take shots at her, and an old lady approaches carrying an old carpet bag and asks if it’s okay if she uses her own gun, she then pulls out a Thompson machine gun.


Beware old ladies with carpet bags.

Of course the little old lady had arrived with Marcia so we know her to be a Nazi agent as well, and it’s at this point you start to wonder if most of the population of Washington DC was going to turn out to be members of the Third Reich. Lucky for the Allied war effort Steve Trevor finally awakens from his Paradise Island induced coma, square jawed and ready to fight, and when he learns that Colonel Von Blasko himself has taken over the job to bomb the Brooklyn Naval Yard he leaps into action.  Unfortunately he informs Marcia of his route and soon he finds himself captured by her Nazi confederates. They drug Trevor with truth serum to get the combination of the safe that contains the plans for the newfangled bomb sight, but when Marcia goes to retrieve it she runs into Wonder Woman. This results in a rather long and brutal fight that goes through office doors, down hallways and through more glass doors, and it really last much longer than one would assume a fight consisting of one Amazon and one average woman. And I don’t care if Marcia claims to know judo.


Didn’t we just see Wonder Woman pick up the back of a car and toss dudes around like toys?

Are hero is able to thwart the Nazi plans by intercepting and capturing Colonel Von Blasko with her invisible plane, while sending his bomber crashing into the German U-Boat that had been sent to pick up the fifth columnists, and then she races back to the city to punch some more Nazi spies and rescue Steve. I key element in the first season is Steve Trevor becoming the defacto “Damsel in Distress” and my hat goes off to Lyle Wagner for taking the job where many a fragile male ego would have balked.


For a 70s action show this was a little daring.

The pilot movie ends with Steve Trevor declaring to General Blankenship, after learning his secretary was the ringleader of the Nazi spies, that “At least I’ve learned one good thing; from now on I’m going to have an ordinary secretary.” Blankenship had anticipated this and he hired a woman who, “Scored well in all the office aptitude tests but she’s duller than a fat lap dog after dinner.” They have a good chuckle over that and Trevor states, “Good. I’ve had it up to here with pretty girls.” In the office we meet Wonder Woman in her new guise as Diana Prince, with glasses we assume she powered from Clark Kent.


So this is 70s television's version of not pretty?

Much of this show’s success is due to producer Douglas S. Cramer going out on a limb in casting the relative unknown Lynda Carter in the title role of a fairly expensive series (looking the part was obvious but could she carry a show?) and though the pilot did dance very close to camp at times it never crossed the line into self-parody as was the case in the 60s Batman show. Of course the reason the show worked as well as it did was because of how earnest and honest Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman was.  No matter what insane thing was asked of her she pulled it all off with aplomb. In this pilot she played the “straight man” to some of the top comics ever assembled; her leading man had just come off the Carol Burnett Show, Red Buttons was a comic legend, Henry Gibson an ever popular Laugh-In regular, and Kenneth Mars who played the Hitler loving playwright in the Mel Brooks comedy The Producers.


A case of nice comic stunt casting.

The 70s television Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter is to me still a benchmark in translating comic books from page to screen, and even when it moved CBS and they shifted the series to the present day it never lost the core of what Wonder Woman stood for. Not to mention it had one kick ass theme song.


"All the world is waiting for you,
And the powers you possess,
In your satin tights,
Fighting for your rights,
And the old red, white and blue!"

Monday, December 26, 2016

Wonder Woman (1974) – Pilot Review

The second attempt at a live action Wonder Woman television show, that is if you can count the terrible 1967 Wonder Woman screen test as an attempt, was a combined effort by ABC and Warner Brothers to bring Wonder Woman to life, but if possible it had even less to do with the Wonder Woman of the comics than that idiotic screen test did. Now to be fair during this time period Wonder Woman was going through her “I Ching” phase in the comics where she was de-powered in favour of learning martial arts, but why the producers thought a non-powered version was the way to go is beyond me. Just a year previous Universal Television got huge ratings with their first Six Million Dollar Man pilot movie, and as this version of Wonder Woman was going to be a “secret agent” I can’t see the reasoning for ditching her superpowers. Instead we are left with what is basically a female James Bond, but one who dresses up in a goofy costume for no particular reason.


The pilot opens with several sets of code books containing classified information about U.S. government field agents being stolen from various secured locations around the world. We know the contents of the books contain valuable information because on the spine of each book the words “Most Secret” is emblazoned in bold text.  So the basic plot here is that a mysterious and nefarious villain is blackmailing the United States government for a $15 million dollar ransom in return for the books, and if the money is not paid the information will be released which would result in the exposure and presumed deaths of thirty-nine undercover agents. How does Wonder Woman fit into all this you ask? Well after this thrilling opening we cut to what one assumes to be Paradise Island where we are told via narration that, “It was perhaps inevitable that the manmade world would one day require a unique woman, a wonder woman…that day has come.”


You can tell it’s a magical island because of the Vaseline soaked lens.

Diana (Cathy Lee Crosby) says goodbye to her “sisters” and mother as she is sent off to her new life where she will bring the justice and light of the Amazons to the horrible world of man. Her mother tells her that there is sadness in her leaving, “But there is also joy that the hope that your presence in the world of man will open closed eyes to the genuine value of women.” I’m sure Gloria Steinem was relieved to hear this. We then abruptly cut to Washington DC where Diana Prince is found working as a secretary for Steve Trevor (Kaz Garas), and how she got this job is left to our imaginations. I do like to think the interview process went something like this…

Trevor: “How many words a minute can you type?”
Diana: “I bring justice and right to the world of men.”
Trevor: “Uh, that’s great. Can you handle our phone system?”
Diana: “I bring joy and hope to a weary world.”
Trevor: “Whatever, you’re attractive, consider the job yours.”


Diana Prince, Super Secretary.

The show sets Diana Prince up as some kind of secret agent, but then fails to have anything really secret about her. When Steve Trevor calls a meeting with all the heads of various intelligence agencies Diana uses the intercom to listen in, and then after the meeting she tells Steve that she has a “dentist appointment” that could take a few days. It’s clear in this scene that Steve Trevor is completely aware of her role as Wonder Woman, he wishes her good luck when she heads off to track down a key suspect, but when she arrives in France she is spotted in the lobby of the hotel by one of the villain’s henchmen who quickly warns his boss, “Wonder Woman, she’s here.”


She is recognized as Wonder Woman dressed like this.

So apparently Steve Trevor knows Diana Prince is Wonder Woman, yet he keeps this secret from the United States Government, but a random henchmen spotting Diana Prince in civilian garb recognizes her instantly as Wonder Woman. What the hell is going on here, is Wonder Woman a secret identity or not? This almost makes me forgive agent 007 wandering around announcing he is “Bond, James Bond” everywhere he goes. But just who is the mastermind behind this blackmail scheme? Diana has come to France to track down a Frenchman by the name of Abner Smith (Ricardo Montalban)…wait, what? The villain is a French dude named “Abner Smith” and he’s being played by the silky smooth Latin matinee idol Ricardo Montalban?  That is some bizarre shit right there. Abner Smith does kind of fit the James Bond villain role rather well; he’s elegant, charming, has a hidden underground lair, and keeps in the shadows for the majority of the movie.


All he’s missing is the white cat.

What’s interesting about Abner Smith is that though he’s a villainous mastermind he’s not a ruthless one as he intends to carry out this plan with the least amount of bloodshed possible, preferably none. Unfortunately his number one assistant George Calvin (Andrew Pine) doesn’t seem to be on the same page as he has his pair of leashed killers murder the hired thieves who stole the code books in the first place (less people to split the blackmail money with don't you see), and when he is told by Abner to detain not kill Wonder Woman he proceeds to try and kill her at every turn. Throughout the first thirty minutes or so of the movie Diana Prince must survive an assault in an elevator, a hit and run while making a call from phone booth, abduction in her hotel room, an electrified gate, and a poisonous snake hidden in her room. To make his boss happy George does try bribery and seduction but those attempts fail even faster.


I don’t know how she managed to resist him.

Eventually Steve Trevor is forced to go through with the delivery of the $15 million dollars, and Abner Smith has a rather unique deliver method, the money is to be put into the saddle bags of a burro which would then be let loose in an old deserted Ghost Town. Of course Steve Trevor is taking no chances and the burro is coated in an ultraviolet fluid so that it can be tracked by air, and each of its hooves has a hidden transmitter. The money itself isn’t marked but in the saddlebags are pressure sensitive tear gas dispensers (Note: The tear gas was placed there because Abner Smith would expect no less, if that makes any sense.) Also backing his play is Wonder Woman whose plan seems to be to just show up at the Ghost Town and blatantly follow the burro to the blackmailers, and for this she must have the proper attire.


Finally, Wonder Woman in all her glory.

Why they decided her costume should look more like an American Olympic athlete’s warmup outfit and not her more recognizable comic book costume is another one of those Hollywood secrets that may never be known, but that she only dons the costume for the last act clearly shows the producers had no real interest in making a Wonder Woman show. Even stranger is that they gave her the Amazonian bracelets that are part of Wonder Woman’s trademark attire but instead of using them to deflect bullets they are used as either a tracking device or an explosive. This all goes towards making her more a James Bond type and not a superhero, and as this version of Wonder Woman has no superpowers we don’t get a lot of action out of her; swinging up onto a store awning to avoid the hit and run or a judo fighting a couple of thugs is about it, and her only real “deathtrap” she must escape from is a sealed room that fills with gas, as well as multi-coloured mud that pours in for some reason, and the standard closing walls.


As deathtraps go it is unique.

As unique as this trap looks it’s not all that effective as Wonder Woman is simply able to kick out the glass wall that barred her way. Super strength not required.  The real threat to Wonder Woman is the appearance of fellow Amazonian, and recent escapee from Paradise Island, Angela (Anitra Ford), who is now working for Abner Smith. Back in opening Angela was the one Amazonian who seemed jealous of Diana’s job to enter the modern world but we get no explanation as to why she so readily tries to kill Diana at George’s bidding.


Dig Angela’s super-awesome pantsuit.

That the javelin/staff fight between Diana and Angela is about as well staged kindergarten fight is only half the problem; the dialog between the two hints at some kind of animosity filled backstory, when Angela is beaten she tells her sister to, “Hold no hope that I should ever return to the Island, I’ve made my choice, I want the things this world has to offer.” I guess an eternity of girl on girl action on Paradise Island isn’t for everyone. Buts because Diana didn’t kill Angela in this fight the ex-amazon just gives up the location of Abner’s secret lair to pay her life debt, and this is why outsourcing is bad. This allows Wonder Woman to arrive at the lair before Abner and George can escape with the money, but doesn’t stop her from being immediately captured by George. Bloodthirsty George wants to kill her but Abner will here none of it, “Killing people makes people much more angry than they ever get over money, it makes them dogged, we don’t need that, and we may want to do business with again.” This entire pilot has only one saving grace, and that would be Ricardo Montalban. His screen charisma makes him a perfectly wonderful villain, and his smooth voice and charm kind of had me rooting for him to win. Maybe he could have escaped and used the money to create an island resort where he could let people live out their dreams.


“Welcome to Fantasy Island.”

Wonder Woman was able to plant one of her exploding bracelets on Abner’s escape helicopter so he is forced to exit via river exit, but not before George tries to double cross him, but then poor George ends up sprayed by the teargas booby-trap in the saddlebags, and he is then dumped in the river and drowned. Abner’s response to George screaming “Help, I can’t swim!” is a brilliantly delivered line by Montalban, “Really George? I am so sorry” as he paddles his dingy down the river. Unfortunately he left behind in his lair a motorcycle for Wonder Woman to borrow and she races ahead to intercept him.


This is not one of the more dignified escape attempts by a villain.

So the day is saved. The code books and money are recovered and the blackmailer is sent off to jail, with the Abner's bittersweet parting words, “Wonder Woman, I love you" bringing the pilot to conclusion, proving to all that Montalban is a class act right to the end. In fact without Ricardo Montalban this pilot would be one lame and dreary affair; Cathy Lee Crosby is not that gifted of an actor, there is almost nothing of the comic book hero we love brought to the screen, and the plot is your standard Mission Impossible fare but with less convincing action. Despite decent if unremarkable ratings ABC decided not to move forward with a series, but this disappointing update of the character would lead to ABC and Warner Bros thinking their strategy, which in turn would eventually lead to the Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wonder Woman: Who's Afraid of Diana Prince? (1967) Pilot Test

With Marvel and DC filling movie houses with a seemingly endless array of superhero movies, not to mention the countless superhero television shows and Netflix series, it’s almost hard to believe that at one time live action movies or shows about spandex clad heroes wasn’t a safe bet. For decades comic book based properties rarely strayed from the four colour pages into the world of live action and when they did the results were mixed at best; the Batman serials from Columbia is now known mostly for their racism and goofy costumes, the Captain America in the Republic serial bore no resemblance to his comic book counterpart, while their Adventures of Captain Marvel had amazing flying effects but it also had our hero killing a lot of people.  The one stand out was The Adventures Superman of the 50s with George Reeves as the Man of Steel for even with a low television budget they still managed to capture the spirit of the character. It wouldn’t be until the late 60s that we’d get a decent if rather campy version of a superhero, Batman with Adam West. It was while producer William Dozier was reveling in the pop culture phenomena his Batman show had exploded into, with numerous celebrities clamoring for guest villain spots, that he came up with the idea of bringing Wonder Woman to the small screen.

So William Dozer commissioned a pilot script from Stan Hart and Larry Siegel, who were both writers for The Carol Burnett Show, and to say it was terrible would be an insult to terrible things.  Though to be fair only a five minute portion of the pilot was filmed so maybe the rest of it was utter brilliance, but having watched the agonizingly unfunny five minutes available I’m going to go out on a limb and say it probably stunk all the way through. As it is such a small screen test we can only get the barest idea of what the intended premise for show was all, but from what we see it’s very much in the style of 60s sketch comedy.  Diana Prince (Ellie Wood Walker) lives with her mother (Maudie Prickett) who seems overly concerned that her daughter is married yet, and Diana worrying about her potential love interest Steve Trevor. I’m more concerned with the fact that while trying to read a newspaper she falls off the couch.


This isn’t Clark Kent clumsiness as a disguise, she’s just a klutz.

When Diana realizes that with the storm outside Steve Trevor’s plane will be grounded, and for some reason this means she must rush off to rescue him, from what I have no idea. Maybe Steve just really hates waiting at airport terminals. Her mother is against Diana rushing off as the bad weather is nothing to fly through in her skimpy costume and she should stay home read, watch TV and eat her roughage. Diana responds, “But the fate of the Free World depends on me.” I’m not sure how Steve being stranded at an airport puts the Free World in peril but sure I’ll go along with that. Her mom implores her to, “Eat first save the Free World later.”


“You can’t be a decent martyr on an empty stomach.”

Diana claims that, “The nation needs me.” Her mother on the other hand thinks the world doesn’t seem to care what Wonder Woman needs, such as a man, “How do you expect to get a husband flying around all the time?” is her mother’s weary response, followed by, “You don’t know how it feels to be the mother of an unmarried daughter your age? Why the whole neighbourhood is talking.” So this show was certainly not breaking any new ground with progressive humor, but what’s even more bizarre is that it’s revealed that Diana/Wonder Woman is not only "shocklingly" single but she’s also 28 million years old. I’m not sure what kind of mythology this show was basing their version of Wonder Woman on but it clearly wasn’t based on Ancient Greece and their pantheon of gods as the comic book was. It would have been pretty boring to be a god back then when mankind was still millions of years away from existing.


“There’s a job to be done, by Wonder Woman.”

After brushing off her mother’s concerns for her social life Diana opens the secret panel where she keeps her Wonder Woman costume, no spinning starburst that we’d get in the later Linda Carter series, and then William Dozier provides us with some very bizarre voice over narration (Note: He also provided the narration for the Adam West Batman series) that fills the audience in on just who this Wonder Woman is.

“Wonder Woman, who knows she has the strength of Hercules.”
“Who knows she has the wisdom of Athena.”
“Who knows she has the speed of Mercury.”
“And who thinks she has the beauty of Aphrodite.”

This is the quintessential difference between Dozier’s Batman and Dozier’s Wonder Woman; Adam West played his version of Batman straight, the world around him was the thing that was off kilter, but this Wonder Woman is clearly the butt of the joke. She is henpecked by her mother for being single and even the narrator is taking shots at how she looks. Even stranger is that when she poses in front of the mirror her reflection is a totally different Wonder Woman, being played by Linda Harrison, whose figure is better and is wearing a costume that fits snugger. I’m not sure what kind of agenda Dozier was trying to pull her but I think it starts with Sex and ends with ist.


Next thing you know her reflection will be fat shaming her.

We get about a full minute of Wonder Woman flirting with her reflection, preening and posing to the song “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” plays on the soundtrack, the whole thing is just cringe inducing. Wonder Woman is not supposed to be a vain ditz who somehow hasn’t managed to land a “man” in twenty-eight million years. The test pilot then ends with her stepping out of the window and stating, “Away, away you vision of enchantment. You’ve got a job to do.” So not only is this Wonder Woman vain she’s also refers to herself in the third person. I hope the Justice League has good medical benefits cause she’s going to need some therapy.


The show is not helped by her Mary Martin like Peter Pan lift off.

This was the late 60s, Free Love and Women’s Lib were both exploding so there was no way audiences of the time were going to embrace an idiot heroine with a 50s sitcom mentality. The test pilot episode was never broadcast and the project was abandoned, for very obvious reasons, and now it remains but a strange and frightening footnote in Wonder Woman’s history.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) – Review

When George Lucas penned the first script for Star Wars: A New Hope he liberally borrowed from Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Flash Gordon serials, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, now decades later we have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which though dealing with the same galaxy “A long time ago and far far away” this prequel is more in keeping with such films as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen than it is the rousing adventure stories that inspired the original. The numbered entries in the series are certainly more lighthearted adventures stories while this movie gives us a look at the darker side of the galaxy, and I don’t mean just the Empire as we find that members of the Rebel Alliance aren’t all that squeaky clean and noble as one might think.

Before I go any further I’d like to state that director Gareth Edwards has proven you can actually make a good Star Wars prequel, and though this story is decidedly grimmer than most of the entries in the series it does have some amazingly fun action and a wry sense of humor at times. That said this is still far from a perfect movie but where J.J. Abrams played it safe with Star Wars: A Force Awakens, mirroring major elements from A New Hope, Edwards really goes out on a limb with his film. Tonally and structurally it is unlike any of the previous Star Wars movies.

This movie even has a unique start as the story begins with a prologue, introducing Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who was a top weapons developer for the Empire before fleeing to a distant planet with his family to hide from his former employers, and then after we get the title card Rogue One (no standard Star Wars story crawl here) we jump ahead fifteen years. It’s here that we are introduced to Galen Erso’s now all grown up daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), and find out that her life hasn't exactly been a bowl of cherries since the Empire came and snatched her dad away. The story of Rogue One is basically about the Rebellion needing Jyn’s help because she can get them a meeting with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) who was once a friend of father and also the man who raised Jyn after his abduction. The tricky thing is that Saw Gerrera is an extremist who broke from the Rebellion years ago (maybe they were a little too soft on evil) and so they need Jyn as a go-between.


"I'm mysterious, dangerous and rather underdeveloped."

Jyn is teamed up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a top agent for the Rebels, and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) who is a reprogrammed Imperial droid and is the one to bring the most laughs to what is overall a pretty grim mission.  Later they encounter a blind but awesome Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) ex members of some kind of order that protected a Jedi temple, they then hook up with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial cargo shuttle pilot who has defected from the Empire with a message from Jyn’s father about the construction of something called a Death Star. The first half of this movie could have been called Rogue One: A Star Wars Exposition Story as we meet a lot of people and are constantly jumping from one location to another (Note: This is the first Star Wars movie that places title cards to inform the audience which planet we are currently visiting as if it matters), and sadly with all this information and people that the film keeps throwing at us we really don’t get to know any of the characters all that well. The filmmakers are reduced to having one character introduce another with a brief explanation as to who they are, breaking the cardinal rule of “Show don’t tell” when it comes to creating a character.


Your Standard Band of Misfits.

Now I will say I did enjoy most of the performances in this film but due to the time constraints of the film we kind of lose character motivation.  Jyn at first has no use for the Rebellion but then on a dime she changes to being all about taking down the Empire, Cassian Andor is a ruthless agent, and cold heated assassin for the Rebellion, who has a change of heart because…sorry we never find out why his heart grows three sizes that day. The reason the badass Force loving blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe and his mercenary pal Baze join up with our leads basically comes down to, “You hate the Empire? So do we, lets team-up!” And we never really learn why the Imperial shuttle pilot defected, we kind of get the idea that he at some point he befriended Jyn’s dad but the film doesn’t have time to get into that, not when we have some cool action set pieces to get to.


Note: Donnie Yen is great as blind man in tune with The Force.

As chopping and inorganic as the first half of the movie is when the shit finally hits the fan, as in when Jyn leads a group of gung-ho rebels from amongst the hesitant Rebellion leaders (is there a term for a rebel from a rebellion?) that the movie becomes all kinds of awesome. The space battle in this movie blows all previous contenders away, and this film has the added bonus of cutting back and forth between this great space battle and equally great ground battle involving Imperial Walkers as well the infiltration mission conducted by Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO. Compare this to Phantom Menace where we had the cool Duel of the Fates lightsabre battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn being interrupted by the annoying as hell kid-Anakin whoo-hooing it up in space or Jar-Jar Binks and his “comedic” antics in battle with the droid army. If Garth Edwards had been able to stream line the movie just a tad he could have put this film in contention with The Empire Strikes Back.

Another element to this film that must be discussed is the appearances of characters from the original Star Wars;often through the aid of state of the art CGI.  Chief example of this is Grand Moff Tarkin who was originally played by Peter Cushing back in 1977 but since the actor died in 1994 he has now been created with a fairly convincing CGI double. By “fairly convincing” I mean it wasn’t all that distracting and for the most part worked really well, yet this was not a cameo character but a major player in the movie so there was a lot of screen time for it to occasionally slip into the uncanny valley. Darth Vader also makes an appearance and though his screen is limited fans will delight to see the Sith Lord really kicking some ass, but why he was hanging out in Barad-dûr deep inside Mordor is something I’d like to know.  Yet Darth Vader is not this film's primary villain, no matter how much we wish it to do be, instead we get this guy.


"Do I look villainous enough for you?"

Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military and Galen Erso’s old boss, is the man in charge of the construction of the Death Star and as villain’s go he’s fine, but he’s more bureaucratic evil than Dark Side evil. Krennic seems more concerned about job promotions than the anything else, if building a weapon that could subjugate a galaxy under the fist of tyranny could land him a better job title, and maybe the key to the executive washroom, he is totally down with that.  This actually makes him a rather interesting antagonist in the long run.

Note: This movie brilliantly addresses one of the key story flaws in Star Wars: A New Hope as to why the Empire would create a super weapon with such a glaring Achilles heel. It’s rare that a sequel or prequel can actually improve or aid the original film but here Gareth Edwards succeeds.

Making a prequel to Star Wars: A New Hope is no easy task, right out of the gate you are saddled with the fact that most of the audience is going in knowing that the Rebels will succeed in stealing the plans to the Death Star, that throws a lot of the suspense right out the window, so what a filmmaker in this position has to do is give us characters we can root for as they strive to achieve that goal, sadly Edwards doesn’t quite succeed here. The chemistry between Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens was key to that film’s success, no matter how much shit you can give J.J. Abrams for basically ripping off the plot of A New Hope he did manage to create two new characters for the audience to fall in love with.  Sadly this is not the case with Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. Now I still really enjoyed this film, I particularly liked the decision to show the moral grey areas when fighting a war, and of course the sacrifices one will have to make to win in the end, but if they'd restructured that first act a little we could have had a really great movie.  Overall this is a fun if flawed addition to the Star Wars Saga.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Shin Godzilla (2016) – Review

Godzilla is no stranger to reboots, there have been several of them since the original film hit theaters back in 1954, and the nature of Godzilla himself has gone through many incarnations over the years.  The interesting thing here is those past reboots just wiped the slate clean of sequels while still considering the 1954 Gojira as canon, but now with 2016’s Shin Godzilla we have the first true fresh start from Toho Studios where Godzilla's origin, and first arrival in Japan, is taken back to square. In this Kaijū outing Co-directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi unleashes the biggest and most dangerous version of Godzilla yet, and it will knock your socks off.


In the current American version of Godzilla, as well as dozens of Godzilla movies in the Toho series, we’ve seen everyone’s favorite atomic lizard battling with countless other giant beasties, but in Shin Godzilla he is the only Kaijū (from the Japanese “strange beast”) terrorizing the populace of Japan. This harkens back to the original Gojira where that monster was reflection of the horror and destruction surrounding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while in this version the filmmakers are taking inspiration from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, but in both cases the monster is not here to help mankind, not even accidentally as was often the case.


No kid in short pants will be screaming for this guy’s help.

Any viewer unfamiliar with Godzilla films should be forewarned that the Big Guy is not going to have a whole lot of screen time, that's never been the case in all thirty of Toho’s productions, but when he does make in appearance it’s usually well worth the wait. The bulk of the movie’s running time will be spent with a cast of various characters and how they deal with the current crisis. In the case of Shin Godzilla we deal almost exclusively with Government officials and the experts they’ve called in to help defeat the menace, and when watching this film I couldn’t help but admire the writers in putting together a script where you can completely believe this is how a major Government would handle the situation.

The movie opens with a massive eruption in Tokyo Bay and the subsequent flooding and collapsing of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line. The Prime Minister (Ren Oshugi) and his Cabinet scramble to figure out what exactly caused the disaster, but when Deputy Chief Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) suggests the cause could be from a living creature he is quickly shot down. The first act of the film is basically people stating what they believe to be the case and then to be proven wrong almost immediately. Here is my paraphrasing of this section of the movie:

Yaguchi: “It’s a living creature, there's even footage of it online.”
Prime Minister: “Preposterous!”
*Massive tail rises out of Tokyo Bay*
Prime Minister: “Dammit!”
Scientist: “Nothing that big good walk on land.”
*The creature proceeds to stomp across Japan*
Scientist: “Crap on a cracker!”


He's threatening, but also a little goofy looking.

When I first saw that monster waddle down the streets of Tokyo, tossing cars and buildings out of its way, I assumed this was some beastie that Godzilla would eventually show up and fight, but I was then quite shocked to discover that this thing was in fact Godzilla. This version of the monster rapidly grows and mutates through multiple stages; from sea creature to four legged monster until finally becoming the gigantic bipedal beast we all know and love. This all leads to delightful scenes of scientists scrambling to figure out just what in the hell they are dealing with, and not all that eager to postulate a theory in case they’re wrong and thus harm their standing in the scientific community. Rando Yaguchi assembles a crack team of somewhat eclectic members to figure out a way to bring down Godzilla, “Lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic-heretics, and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy.” The film cuts between this group frantically trying to come up with a suitable weapon, while also trying to figure out just what kind of creature Godzilla is, with scenes of Government officials trying to deal with such things as evacuations, worrying about civilian casualties, and whether they can declare a State of Emergency.


The amount of Red Tape this would generate would be staggering.

Things get even more complicated when The United States step in to help, sending special envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), who may have her own political agenda, to asses the situation. When everything the Japanese military throws at Godzilla proves to be next to useless; machine gun fire from attack helicopters and tank shells bouncing of Godzilla’s skin equally, while missiles from fighter jets do nothing more than slightly annoy the monster. When America B2 Stealth Bombers are deployed it at first looks as if they’ve finally got a chance at defeating Godzilla, blood flies from him in such amounts it looks like the Red Sea exploded, but unfortunately this just makes him really, really mad.


Don’t make Godzilla angry, you won’t like him when he’s angry.

Not only does this Godzilla have breath that engulfs the city in a firestorm but he can also fire highly destructive atomic rays from its mouth and dorsal fins. Beams slice through skyscrapers like a hot knife through butter, and the rays from his dorsal fins take out the bombers and any further ordinance they try and deploy. One American scientist concludes that Godzilla has some kind of “built in phased-array-radar” which allows him to shoot out any target in the sky. Shin Godzilla doesn’t just give us the largest Godzilla to date…


10.5 metres taller than the 2014 Legendary Godzilla.

..but also easily the most powerful. The remainder of the film mostly deals with Rando Yaguchi and his team scrambling to put together a plan that could shut down Godzilla’s system, but they are under a time crunch as America and the United Nations Security Council of convinced the Japanese Prime Minister to allow them to deploy nukes, and a second Hiroshima is the last thing anybody wants. The concern is that Godzilla can reproduce asexually and once he finishes with Japan many more countries, and possible the world, could fall.


The Age of Godzilla.

This movie is as serious as a heart attack, there are no nods or winks at the camera implying “This is only a silly monster movie” but instead we get believable characters acting in very realistic fashions. When you see the Prime Minister waffling over the decision to use force, when it could result in civilian casualties, you completely sympathize with the guy. There are no villainous asshats giving the hero a hard time. No one declares “We can’t close the beaches, it’s the Fourth of July.” Even the Americans aren’t demonized for wanting to deploy nukes as the threat of Godzilla wiping mankind of the globe is very real.


Hoping he’ll just get bored and go away is not an option.

Shin Godzilla is a fantastic entry in Toho’s long running series, and though it may be missing the joyous smack downs we get when Godzilla is up against other Kaijū it will still get your blood pumping, and I can pretty much guarantee any fan of Godzilla will enjoy this film for not only do we get epic scenes of massive monster mayhem but we also get the classic Godzilla roar as well as the return of Akira Ifukube's wonderful Godzilla March. What more could one want?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Lights Out (2016) – Review

Are you afraid of the dark? It’s plying on this age old fear that has kept the horror industry in business, whether it be malevolent spirits or machete wielding serial killers it’s the fear of what is hidden in the shadows that both terrifies us but also intrigues us. First time director David F. Sandberg made an internet splash with the short film of the same name, which he created along with his wife Lotta Losten, and drew the eye of producers Lawrence Grey who thought the idea would make for an great horror movie.  Producer James Wan knew that turning a three minute short into a feature length film wouldn’t be easy, and as is the plot is fairly thin, but mostly they pull it off.


The short film dealt with a woman who noticed a dark silhouette in the shadows whenever she turned off the light, but when the light is turned back on the figure vanishes. The movie opens with the same basic concept as we see a woman (Lotta Losten who played the part in the original short) working in the gloomy hallways of a textile warehouse, when the motion activated lights turn off she spots the silhouette of a woman with monstrously long fingers, but upon waving her arms and the lights coming back on the strange woman is gone. This goes on for a bit as this mysterious being hounds the poor woman, who vainly tries warning her boss Paul (Billy Burke), but he’s to wrapped up in his own problems to take her seriously.


Needless to say it doesn’t end well for him.

We are then introduced to Paul's stepdaughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who has commitment issues, refusing to acknowledge that her lover Bret (Alexander DiPersia), who she has been exclusively seeing and sleeping with for eight months, is her boyfriend and just someone she has sex with on a regular basis. She is alerted by her half-brother Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman) school that the kid has been falling asleep in class, and that her mother has not been answering the phone. Turns out Rebecca's mother Sophie (Maria Bello) suffers from depression, she even spent time in a mental institution as a child, and the recent death of her husband Paul has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole again. Rebecca takes Bret to her place, an apartment above a tattoo parlor, and that night she to encounters a strange figure that only becomes visible in the dark.


The nice thing about Lights Out is that it doesn’t waste time with our lead characters trying to convince other people that there is a ghost haunting them, having been attacked in her room Rebecca immediately believes Martin that this ghost, who he calls Diana, has been living with him and his mom for some time now. That the mysterious Diana is the reason for Rebecca’s father disappearing, and her running off to live on her own, just adds credence to what the kid tells her. The ghost also having carved her name into Rebecca’s wooden floor, causing a flash back where she remember the nasty entity ruining a picture she drew as a child, kind of seals the deal.


Ghosts can be such dicks.

On the negative side Lights Out is insanely predictable, I was spouting out exact lines of dialogue just before the characters in the movie uttered them.  Almost every horror movie cliché in the book is ticked off one by one during the films running time, and of course the idiots in this movie will wander around the dark house alone for no bloody reason. When all the lights in the house go out she even leaves her little brother asleep in bed, while she goes off to investigate, with only a little candle as protection. We then have to endure Rebecca stalking down dark hallways, with a hand crank powered flashlight, as she looks for the cause of the power outage.  Then there is Bret who we see wandering around outside for some unearthly reason, and of course poor Martin has to face off against Diana with his stupid little candle because he woke up to find his sister missing.


Care for a light?

David F. Sandberg’s talent as director is key in overcoming the scripts shortcomings, the last act is basically our heroes trying to use various method of illumination to keep the creature at bay, and the mystery as to who or what Diana is falls into the category of generic and unimportant, but what really sells the movie is the cast who all do fantastic jobs. You feel their helplessness, you pity Sophie and the mental issues she so desperately wants to overcome, if only the malevolent Diana would let her, and you sit at the edge of your seat as good finally confronts evil. At eighty minutes in length the movie does not wear out its welcome, Sandberg clearly knows how far he can push a rather thin premise, and the result is a taught little ghost story that has enough originality to offset the numerous clichés and cheap jump scares.