“DEVIL AND THE DEEP” (1932) Review

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“DEVIL AND THE DEEP” (1932) Review

I am not one of those movie lovers who seemed to limit my selection of films to one particular genre or period in filmaking. Nor do I regard films from one particular era to be superior to another. I either enjoy an individual film or I do not. 

Recently, I watched the 1932 melodrama called “DEVIL AND THE DEEP”. The movie featured the screen debut of Charles Laughton as a submarine commander who expresses jealousy toward any man who pays attention to his long suffering wife. It also starred Tallulah Bankhead as the long suffering wife and the commander’s new executive officer, who harbors feelings for the wife.

The movie begins with Commander Charles Sturm harboring jealous suspicions of a romance between his wife Diana and Lieutenant Jaeckel, a young officer aboard his submarine. Sturm’s suspicions are baseless, since Jaeckel’s only interest in Diana is to offer her friendship. But Sturm has him transferred with a mark on his record. After Sturm indulges in a fit of jealous rage, Diana hits the streets of a North African port city during a festival and encounters another officer, who turns out to be Lieutenant Sempter, Jaeckel’s replacement. Without bothering to tell Sempter her true identity, Diana drifts into a one night stand with him. The following day, Sempter pays a call to his new commander and discovers that the latter’s wife is the same woman with whom he had a sexual tryst. Worse, Sturm immediately becomes aware that the pair knows each other . . . and plot revenge against them.

I have only been able to find a mere handful of reviews for the movie, including one written by The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall. I was surprised by the reviews I had written. Or perhaps I should have just tolerated it. After all, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion about any work of art. The thing is . . . I do not agree with those reviews I have read. Well . . . I did come across one review that came close to how I felt. In my opinion, “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” is a piece of shit. I believe it is truly awful and one of the worst movies I have seen from the Pre-Code era.

Before I dump any further negative adjectives in this review, I will reveal what I liked about “DEVIL AND THE DEEP”. I liked Charles Lang’s cinematography, which contributed a great deal to the movie’s slightly exotic atmosphere. This was especially apparent in the street scene in which Diana and Sempter first met. Bernard Herzbrun’s art direction also added to the film’s look. I also found Travis Benton’s costume designs for Tallulah Bankhead very attractive . . . especially her evening gowns. The movie benefited from one last virtue – namely Cary Grant’s performance. The Bristol-born actor first arrived in Hollywood in 1931. He made his first eight films in the year 1932. “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” proved to be his fifth film. Fortunately, he managed to give a natural, yet subtle performance as the young naval officer determined to befriend Diana Sturm, before his character is permanently shuffled off screen.

But Cary Grant, Travis Benton, Charles Land and Bernard Herzbrun were not able to save this film for me. “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” was based upon Maurice Larrouy’s novel, “Sirenes et Tritons”. In the hands of a first-rate screenwriter and director, it could have been an interesting character drama. Unfortunately, Paramount Studios put this film into the hands of screenwriter Benn Levy and director Marion Gering, the movie proved to be melodramatic drivel.

One of the problems with “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” was the writing. The movie never indicated for which country Commander Sturm and Lieutenants Sempter and Jaeckel served. One could assumed they all served the Royal Navy, but due to the mixture of accents – including a French one belonging to a crewman standing guard on the quay – I am at a loss. And is it really possible for the commanding officer’s wife to board his ship without his knowledge or permission? I find that hard to believe . . . even for 1932. And how on earth did Sturm find out about the Arab street vendor who sold a bottle of perfume to Diana, while she was with Sempter? I am also at a loss as to why Diana had failed to tell anyone – including her husband and the naval review court – that she had conducted her brief affair with Sempter without revealing her identity to him? The worst aspect of this story proved to be the final action sequence in which Commander Sturm finally seeks revenge against Diana and Sempter. It was bad enough that Diana managed to board her husband’s submarine without permission or an invitation. But Sturm’s revenge involved sabotaging the submarine in order to kill Diana, Sempter, the crew and himself. The whole sequence was one of the most idiotic action scenes I have viewed on a movie or television screen. If such a scene had ended in modern-day film, the director would have been laughed out of the movie industry. It was so incredibly stupid.

The other aspect of “DEVIL AND THE DEEP” that I found hard to swallow were the performances of the leading cast members. Cary Grant was lucky. He was able to escape in time to preserve his performance. On the other hand, Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton were not so lucky. Cooper’s portrayal of Lieutenant Sempter veered between natural and wooden acting. Bankhead’s performance veered between natural and hammy acting that included excessive mannerisms that would have made a young Bette Davis embarrassed. And Laughton was simply all over the map. I have never been subjected to such hammy acting in my life. There were moments it seemed as if he had forgotten that he was acting in front of a camera, instead of on the stage. Now, these are three actors who managed to give excellent performances over the years. What happened in this film? I blame director Marion Gering, who seemed incapable of handling his cast or bringing out the best in them. I suspect that Cary Grant was able to make his escape before Gering could ruin his performance.

What else can I say about “DEVIL AND THE DEEP”? Nothing . . . really. What else is there to say? I disliked it. Intensely. It proved to be one of the worst movies from the 1930s I have ever seen. Director Marion Gering and screenwriter Benn W. Levy took a first-rate cast and a potentially good story and generally made a mess from it. Pity.

“THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” (2017) Review

 

“THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” (2017) Review

When I first learned that Universal Pictures planned to release an eighth film for its FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, a collective groan swelled within me. I was not in the mood for this franchise to continue. Hell, I was not in the mood for a seventh film, two years ago. And to be perfectly frank, I was not that impressed by that seventh film, “FURIOUS 7”. In fact, I was willing to delay my viewing of this latest film, until it was released on DVD. However, a family member was determined to see “THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” in the theaters. And . . . you can assume the rest. 

Directed by F. Gary Gray (“STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON”), “THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” began with veteran street car racer Dominic (“Dom”) Torretto and his wife, Letty Ortiz, enjoying their long-delayed honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. After winning a local street race, Dom is approached by an American woman named Cypher. It turns out that she is a cyberterrorist who has mysteriously coerced Dom into working for her. When Dom, Letty and their friends are recruited by Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent Luke Hobbs to help him retrieve an EMP device from a military outpost in Berlin, Dom betrays the others by stealing the device for Cypher. Hobbs is arrested and locked up in the same high-security prison he had helped imprison Deckard Shaw in “FURIOUS 7”. Another character from the seventh film, After escaping, both are recruited by intelligence operative Frank Petty/Mr. Nobody and his protégé, Eric Reisner/Little Nobody, to help the team find Dom and capture Cipher.

“THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” was not perfect. Like many other films in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, it was filled with silly dialogue and over-the-top machismo, thanks to the characters portrayed by Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Stratham. Now, I realize that the franchise originated with the theme of street car racing. But what is really necessary to start the movie off with a street race in Havana, Cuba? Perhaps I am being a killjoy, but I cannot help but feel that Dom Toretto is getting a touched too old to be competing in street races. I am also curious about another matter. Is Dom of Italian descent, Spanish descent or both? Because I was surprised to learn that he and Letty were visiting his cousin in Cuba. Cuba?

There were other aspects of the film that I either did not like or rubbed me the wrong way. One, the Elena Neves character portrayed by Elsa Pataky proved to be the plot device used by Cipher to blackmail Dom into assisting her. As it turned out, she and Dom had conceived a son before the events of “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”. He never found out about the kid until this movie. Yet, the movie never revealed if Luke Hobbs had ever learned about the baby, considering he and Elena were partners at the DDS between the events of FAST AND FURIOUS 6″ and “FURIOUS 7”. Frankly, I am confused. Speaking of the DDS, have Dom, Letty and the others become private contractors for the DDS? I was surprised that Hobbs had automatically recruited the group to help him steal that EMP device in Berlin without offering them something in return.

Otherwise, “THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” turned out to be a pretty decent movie. I was more impressed by it than the previous film. Chris Morgan really stepped up his game by creating a surprisingly original tale in which Dom found himself opposing his friends . . . against his will. This twist in the narrative not only provided something new in the franchise, but also dialed down the machismo aspect of the Dom Toretto character and made him a more ambiguous character . . . well, at least until the film’s last act.

One cannot talk about a FAST AND FURIOUS movie without bringing up the topic of action sequences. And “THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” featured some pretty first-rate action sequences. Mind you, I was not that impressed with the Havana street race and the Berlin sequence. But I did enjoy the movie’s final action sequence in Russia in which Letty, Roman and the others attempt to stop Cipher and Dom from disabling and hijacking a nuclear submarine to trigger a nuclear war. I also enjoyed how Morgan interacted this sequence with Deckard and Owen Shaw’s attempt to save Dom’s son from Cipher. But for me, the best action sequence occurred in New York City where Letty, Roman and the others try to stop Dom and Cipher from stealing a Nuclear football from the visiting Russian Minister of Defence. If I must be honest, I found that particular sequence rather mind blowing and tense . . . especially since it was filmed on the streets of Manhattan and at the same time, Dom had to make an important contact with Magdalene Shaw behind Cipher’s back. Director F. Gary Gray really outdid himself in this particular sequence.

Earlier, I had expressed my contempt toward the air of machismo featured in “THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS”. That contempt still stands and it was really rampant in a few scenes featuring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Stratham. This was especially apparent in the Havana street car sequence and the scene that featured Shaw’s attempt to escape from prison and Hobbs’ attempt to stop him. Thankfully, the machismo level in “THE FATE AND THE FURIOUS” was few and far between. All three actors – especially Diesel – managed to prove that yes . . . they can be first-rate actors when given the chance. For Johnson, this was especially apparent in a scene in which Luke Hobbs was torn between being with his daughter during her soccer match and embarking upon a mission for the DDS. Stratham proved that his Deckard Shaw is more than just a macho man in his scenes with Luke Evans, as he played big brother to Evans’ younger brother. And in the same sequence, he proved to be both funny and tender as his character rescued Dom’s son from Cipher’s clutches. As for Diesel, his character’s situation – being blackmailed by the main villain – allowed the actor to prove that he can give a subtle and skillful performance. And aside from a few scenes, his Dom seemed like a . . . well, like a complex human being. I have to give kudos to Michelle Rodriguez for her emotional performance as Letty Ortiz-Toretto, who is torn between her confusion over her husband’s behavior and her determination to get him back.

There were other performances that impressed me. Charlize Theron really impressed me by her portrayal of the villainous Cipher. I thought she skillfully conveyed Cipher’s manipulative and cold-blooded personality with great ease. I regard Theron’s Cipher as among the best villains in a franchise filled with first-rate villains. I was upset to see that screenwriter Chris Morgan had continued his portrayal of the Roman Pearce character as the franchise’s clown. I just recently watched 2003’s “2 FAST AND 2 FURIOUS” and found myself longing for that younger Roman, who was verbose, impulsive and belligerent at times, but certainly not a clown. And yet, Tyrese Gibson went on to prove that despite Morgan’s depiction of his character, he was still the best actor among the franchise’s long-standing cast. Once again, Kurt Russell provided a much-needed sense of sharp wit and class when he reprised his role as government honcho Frank Petty aka Mr. Nobody.

Despite the fact that her character had been used as nothing more than a plot devise, I have to give kudos to Elsa Pataky for giving an emotionally satisfying performance as Dom’s former lover, Rio cop-turned-DDS agent, Elena Neves. Helen Mirren provided a good deal of sharp humor as the Shaw brothers’ domineering mother, Magdalene Shaw. The movie also featured satisfying performances from Chris Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel as Tej Parker and Ramsey (from “FURIOUS 7”), Luke Evans as Owen Shaw, and also Scott Eastwood, who portrayed Eric Reisner aka Little Nobody, Agent Petty’s assistant. Speaking of Mr. Eastwood, I was surprised that he and Gibson managed to create this . . . interesting and rather funny screen team during the film. I mean . . . it took me completely by surprise. And if you look real sharp, you just might spot both Tego Calderón and Don Omar as Tego Leo and Rico Santo, last seen in 2011’s “FAST FIVE”.

“THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS” is not perfect. There were scenes and some dialogue that I found somewhat off-putting. And if I must be honest, I found myself missing the late Paul Walker. I found it odd that the Luke Hobbs character was able to recruit Dom and his friends for a mission that really had nothing to do with them. But I must admit that I really enjoyed the story created by Chris Morgan. Like “FAST FIVE”, it went beyond the franchise’s usual shtick of the later films. And thanks to F. Gary Gray, it also featured at least two or three first-rate action sequences and surprisingly excellent performances from a cast led by Vin Diesel. Personally, I thought it was one of the franchise’s better films.

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” (2017) Review

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” (2017) Review

I have a confession to make. When the Disney Studios had released the fourth movie in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN”franchise, I wished they had never done it. I wished that a fourth film had never been made. I also believed that the franchise was fine after three movies. Then I learned that a fifth film was scheduled to be released this summer and . . . yeah, I was not pleased by the news. But considering that I can be such a whore for summer blockbusters, I knew that I would be watching it. 

Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” seemed to be a story about the search for the trident of the sea god Poseidon. Two years after the post-credit scene from 2007’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”, Henry Turner, the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann Turner boards the Flying Dutchman to inform his father of his discovery that the mythical Trident of Poseidon is able to break the Flying Dutchman’s curse and free him from his ship. Henry plans to seek Jack Sparrow’s help to find it. Will does not believe the Trident exists and orders Henry to leave his ship and stay away from Jack. Nine years later, Henry finds himself serving aboard a British Royal Navy warship as a seaman. He realizes the ship is sailing into the Devil’s Triangle. The captain dismisses his concerns and has Henry locked up for attempting a mutiny. Upon entering the Triangle, the ship’s crew discovers a shipwreck that belongs to a Spanish Navy officer named Captain Armando Salazar and his crew, who had become part of the undead after being lured into the Triangle. Salazar and his crew slaughter everyone on board the warship, except for Henry. Discovering that Henry is searching for Jack, Salazar instructs Henry to tell Jack that death is coming his way. Some twenty to thirty years earlier, Salazar was a notorious pirate hunter who had been lured into the Triangle and killed by Jack, who was the young captain of the Wicked Wench at the time. Due to the Triangle’s magic, Salazar and his crew became part of the undead.

Years later, a young woman named Carina Smyth is about to be executed for witchcraft on the British-held island of Saint Martin, due to her knowledge of astronomy and horology. She is also interested in finding the Trident, for she sees it as a clue to her parentage. During a prison break, she gets caught up in an attempt by Jack and his small crew, which includes Joshamee Gibbs and Scrum (from the fourth film), to steal a bank vault on the island of Saint Martin. Jack is abandoned by his crew when the vault turns up empty. Desolate, he gives up his magical compass for a drink at a tavern and unexpectedly frees Salazar and his crew from the Triangle. He is also captured by the British Army. Carina meets Henry, who is awaiting execution for what happened aboard his ship. Both realize that for different reasons, they are searching for Poseidon’s Trident. Henry escapes, but Carina finds herself a prisoner again. Henry arranges both hers and Jack’s escape from execution. Jack also becomes interested in finding the Trident, for he hopes to use it free himself from Salazar’s wrath.

I once came upon an article that complained about the lack of consistency in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise. When I first heard about this movie, I must admit that I was annoyed to learn that Will Turner would still be entrapped by the Flying Dutchman curse after the post-credit scene from “AT WORLD’S END”. I realize that the Disney suits had believed that Will was permanently trapped by the Flying Dutchman curse, but I thought that Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott’s claim – that Elizabeth’s ten year wait – had broken the curse. Apparently I was wrong . . . and annoyed at the same time. But Will’s situation was a mere annoyance for me. The situation regarding Jack’s compass – you know, the one that directs a person to one’s heart desire – really annoyed me. According to the 2006 movie, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST”, Jack had first acquired the compass from Vodou priestess Tia Dalma aka the goddess Calypso. Yet, according to a flashback in this movie, Jack was given the compass from his dying captain, during the Wicked Wench’s encounter with Captain Salazar. What else is there to say, but . . . blooper.

Another matter that annoyed me was the setting for the protagonists’ final battle against Captain Salazar and his crew. I wish I could explain it. I believe that the setting was located . . . underwater, thanks to the mysterious stone that Carina Smyth had inherited from her parents. I simply found it murky and unsatisfying. And I wish that final conflict had been set elsewhere. I have one last complaint. The movie’s post-credit scene featured a character’s dream of former antagonist Captain Davy Jones in shadow form. The character had awaken, but the scene’s last shot focused on puddles of water and a few bits of tentacles. Was this the franchise’s way of hinting the return of Davy Jones? I hope not. Captain Jones was a great villain, but two movies featuring his character were enough. The last thing I want to see in another film is the return of the Flying Dutchman curse or Jones.

Yes, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” has its flaws. But it also had plenty of virtues that made me enjoy the film. One of the aspects of the film that I enjoyed was the story written by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Old “ghosts” from the past have always played a role in the plots from the franchise’s past four films. But the past played a major, major role in this film for not only Jack Sparrow, but also four other characters – Henry Turner, Carina Smyth, Hector Barbossa and even Captain Armando Salazar. I found the story between Jack and Captain Salazar rather ironic, considering that the latter proved to be the franchise’s first villain to seek personal revenge against the former. For the other three, I found their stories rather poignant in the end. And because of this, I found “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” to be the most emotionally satisfying entry in the franchise. This proved to be the only PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film in which I broke into tears at least three times.

Poignant or not, the franchise’s trademark humor and action were on full display in this movie. In fact, I can think of at least three major scenes that I believe effectively displayed both traits. One of them involved Jack and the Dying Gull (appropriate name for Jack’s latest ship) crew’s attempt to rob the new bank on Saint Martin. Not only did it lead to Carina’s first escape from a hangman’s noose, but also a merry chase that involved the Dying Gull’s crew, the British Army, along with Jack and the banker’s wife inside of a stolen vault. The second scene that had me both laughing and on edge involved Henry and the Dying Gull’s successful rescue of Jack and Carina from being hanged. The third scene had me more on edge than laughing for it involved Jack, Henry and Carina’s attempt to survive Salazar’s attack upon their rowboat (ghost shark anyone?) as they headed for shore.

“DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” featured the fourth major location for the movie franchise – Australia. Although I found it a pity that the movie did not use any of the Caribbean islands for filming locations, I must admit that production designer Nigel Phelps made great use of the Australian locale, especially in his creation of the Saint Martin town and the Turners’ home. On the other hand, I found Paul Cameron’s photography rather beautiful, colorful and sharp. I thought Roger Barton and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s film editing was first-rate, especially in the action sequences that featured the bank vault chase, the rescue of Jack and Carina, and the shark attack. I wish I could say the same about the final action sequence, but I must admit that I was not that impressed.

I was impressed by the performances featured in “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”. The movie possessed a first-rate supporting cast that featured the return of Kevin R. McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, Stephen Graham as Scrum, Martin Klebba as Marty, Angus Barnett as Mullroy and Giles New as Murtogg. Scrum, who was last seen as part of Hector Barbossa’s Queen Anne’s Revenge crew, had decided to join Jack Sparrow’s crew aboard the Dying Gull. And the presence of Marty, Mullroy and Murtogg revealed that Barbossa was not the only who had escaped Blackbeard’s capture of the Black Pearl. The movie also revealed the return of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as Will Turner and Elizabeth. Their final reunion near the end of the film proved to be one of the most emotionally satisfying and poignant moments in the entire franchise.

There were other great supporting performances that caught my eye. One came from David Wenham, who was in fine, villainous form as Lieutenant John Scarfield, a very bigoted Royal Navy officer who was after Jack, Henry Turner and Carina Smyth. Golshifteh Farahani gave a rather interesting and strange performance as a witch named Shansa, whom many seafarers sought for advice. Adam Brown (from “THE HOBBIT” Trilogy) and Delroy Atkinson proved to be entertaining additions to Jack’s crew and the franchise. Juan Carlos Vellido gave a rather intense performance as Captain Salazar’s first officer, Lieutenant Lesaro. Since Keith Richards was unable to return as Jack’s father, Captain Edward Teague, producer Jerry Brockheimer managed to cast former Beatles Paul McCartney as the former’s brother and Jack’s uncle, Jack Teague. And I did not know that McCartney was not only a first-rate actor, but one with great comic timing.

I had been familiar with Brenton Thwaites’ previous work in movies like “MALEFICENT” and “GODS OF EGYPT”. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his portrayal of Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry Turner. Thwaites did an excellent job in combining the traits of Henry’s parents, while making the character a complete individual on his own. Kaya Scodelario was equally effective as science enthusiast, Carina Smyth. Thanks to Scodelario’s skillful performance, Carina was an intelligent and charismatic woman. The actress also had a strong screen chemistry with her co-star, Thwaites.

But the three performances that stood above the others came from Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem and of course, Johnny Depp. It is hard to believe that Rush first portrayed Hector Barbossa as a slightly crude, yet cunning, cold-blooded and ambitious pirate. Thanks to Rush’s superb portrayal, Barbossa still possessed those traits, but the latter had developed into a successful man, who also possessed a heartbreaking secret that he managed to keep close to his chest. I must admit that I did not particular care for Javier Bardem’s portrayal as a Bond villain in 2012’s “SKYFALL”. I found it too hammy. Thankfully, Bardem’s portrayal of the villainous Captain Armando Salazar seemed a great deal more skillful to me. Bardem’s Armando Salazar was no mere over-the-top villain, but a vengeful wraith willing to use any method and form of manipulation to capture his prey. Someone once complained that Depp’s Jack Sparrow seemed different or a ghost of his former self. I could not agree. Depp’s Sparrow was just as selfish, manipulative, horny and humorous as ever. Yet, this Jack Sparrow was at least nineteen years older than he was in “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”. Despite having a miniaturized Black Pearl in his possession for several years, Jack has been forced to settle for a creaking tub called the Dying Gull and a small crew. Worse, he and his men have experienced a series of failures in their attempt to make that great score. If Jack seemed a bit different in this film, it is because he is older and not as successful as he would like to be. And Depp, being the superb actor that he is, did an excellent job in conveying Jack’s current failures in his performance.

Would I regard “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” as my favorite film in the Disney franchise? Hmmm . . . no. The movie possessed one or two bloopers in regard to the franchise’s main narrative. I was not that impressed by the watery setting for Jack and Salazar’s final confrontation. And I did not care for the hint of a past villain’s return in the film’s post-credit scene. But I really enjoyed the excellent performances by a cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp and the first-rate direction of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. And I especially story created by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Not only did it feature the usual hallmarks of a first-rate PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, for me it made “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” the most poignant and emotionally satisfying movie in the entire franchise.

Critical Reaction to “WONDER WOMAN” and the DCEU

 

CRITICAL REACTION TO “WONDER WOMAN” AND THE DCEU

I might as well put all of my cards on the table. I am tired of people claiming that the D.C. Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) finally got its franchise right with the recent release of “WONDER WOMAN”. As far as I am concerned, the DCEU had been getting it right ever since the release of its 2013 film, “MAN OF STEEL”

I enjoyed “WONDER WOMAN” very much. In fact, it became one of my favorite movies of 2017.  But I do not consider it to be the best film within the DCEU franchise. But that is not my point. My point . . . has to do with the reasons behind this declaration regarding “WONDER WOMAN” and why I find it so troubling.

I cannot help but wonder if today’s critics and moviegoers have balls of rubber. When did it become so damn important to them that all comic book hero movies are “fun” or loaded with humor? There is NO LAW that all comic book movies have to be “fun”. The Captain America movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise were not all fun . . . especially 2014’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (which is why I am such a major fan of the movie). Neither were the Dark Knight Trilogy films directed by Christopher Nolan. And the DCEU film, “SUICIDE SQUAD” was practically loaded with humor. Yet, that film was trashed as well, and criticized for similar reasons as “MAN OF STEEL” and its follow-up, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (another major favorite of mine). So, why criticize the DCEU movies for lacking a sense of humor?

Another criticism that has been lobbied against the DCEU films was the franchise’s ambiguous portrayals of its main characters. Especially Clark Kent aka Superman. I am beginning to suspect that deep down, this negative reaction regarding the DCEU franchise solely began with the portrayal of Clark Kent aka Superman in “MAN OF STEEL”. Many people seem incapable of dealing with Superman being portrayed in some ambiguous manner. They could not deal with his insecurities regarding his place in the world – insecurities that originated with his status as an immigrant from another world . . . and his super powers. These traits – especially his powers – led Clark/Superman to be initially regarded as an outsider and with distrust. “MAN OF STEEL” was the first time any movie had explored this aspect of Superman’s existence. And to be honest, it did not reflect well upon most of the Humans featured in the movie. When it seemed that Superman had finally risen above his insecurities in the next movie, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, events in that film proved that he had not – not completely. And the reason he had not risen above his insecurities stemmed from the public’s fickle reaction to him. In the 2016 film, some people worshipped Superman as a god. And this made him feel very uncomfortable. Others regarded him as a convenient savior to be at humanity’s beck and call. Not only did many of the public felt this way, but so did the majority of political and military leaders. And others, like Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne aka Batman, regarded him as a current or future menace. Had this ambiguous portrayal of Humanity or its ambiguous reaction to Superman’s presence annoyed a lot of people?

I do know that many critics and moviegoers had protested his killing of the Kryptonian leader, General Zod, claiming that Superman does not kill. I found this declaration either ignorant or hypocritical. Why? Because Superman had killed Zod in a previous D.C. Comics film, 1981’s “SUPERMAN II”. No one had protested. And many comic book movie fans today insist that scene never happened. It seem many fans and critics will not allow Superman to be an individual with virtues and flaws. Instead, they always seem to demand that he be some damn, one-dimensional symbol used to wallow in their illusions and fantasies of a convenient savior in an unsafe world.

This attitude has been extended to both Bruce Wayne aka Batman and Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman . . . but in different ways. Many critics and moviegoers not only criticized Superman for killing Zod in “MAN OF STEEL”, they also criticized the Batman character for his killing of numerous thugs and his attempt to kill Superman in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. Considering that Batman has always been such a noir character among the comic book heroes, I found this criticism very hard to swallow. Have there been other occasions in which the Dark Knight had deliberately killed someone? Hmmm . . . he killed the Joker in 1989’s “BATMAN”. He arranged the Penguin’s death in 1992’s “BATMAN RETURNS”. Batman caused Harvey “Two Face” Dent to fall to his death in the 1995 movie, “BATMAN FOREVER”. And in 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”, Batman refused to save the life of his mentor-turned-nemesis, Herni Ducard aka Ra’s al Ghul from one of Gotham’s runaway monorail trains. Mind you, some countries do not consider deliberate killing by inaction a felony. Some countries do. And in my eyes, it is not only murder, but hypocrisy at its worst.

However . . . hardly anyone seemed to remember these previous incidents of Batman causing the death of another. Instead, they focused their ire upon Batman’s actions in the 2016 movie. Was it because Batman was not portrayed as a clear-cut hero throughout most of the film? Or that he seemed to be portrayed as a homicidal xenophobe, bent upon Superman’s destruction? Did this negative portrayal put these fans and critics off? Were they unwilling to peek into the uglier aspects of Batman’s persona . . . something that the comic books have never been afraid to explore? But the portrayal did not stick and eventually, Batman saw the light . . . again – something that a lot of moviegoers and critics had failed to notice Or perhaps they were too busy taking umbrage at how director-writer Zack Snyder was willing to take Batman so close to the abyss. In many ways, these same moviegoers and critics remind me of the general public featured in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why so many were negative toward the film. Zack Synder had portrayed them in a way they probably found unflattering.

As for “WONDER WOMAN”, I get the feeling that many critics and film goers are complimenting the movie for THE WRONG REASONS. Unless I am mistaken, I understand that the movie is the first truly successful comic book heroine movie and I am not only glad, but relieved. However, the movie seemed to possess a more ambiguous and complex tale than many are willing to admit. And these same fans and critics seemed to think that it is the only DCEU movie that is truly a “fun” movie. Strange . . . I never came to that conclusion. Looking back on the film, I noticed that the movie possessed pockets of innocence and humor – especially in the first half. But once the movie shifted to the war zone in Belgium, it gradually became more grim and angst-filled. Diana’s innocence and naivety, which seemed humorous in the film’s first half, proved to be an impediment to her character growth in the second half. Yet, I have only come across a few articles willing to admit this.

In fact, many were so busy emphasizing Diana’s compassion, warmth, frankness, strength and warrior skills so much that they seemed to turn a blind eye to her personality flaws. Many had ignored that Diana’s bubble-like upbringing had made her too naive for her own good. Although one might be inclined to compliment her frankness, many had failed to notice that this trait proved to be an impediment to Steve Trevor’s attempts to report his actions in Eastern Europe to his superiors. Or that there is a time to be frank and a time to keep one’s mouth shut. Many critics and filmgoers have been so busy focusing on Diana’s virtues or trying to paint her as a more superior costumed hero/heroine than Superman and Batman that it seems as if they have deliberately turned a blind eye to her flaws. Or pretend that she had overcome her flaws by the end of World War I. Many have also complimented Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince for coming to the conclusion that humanity is not all good or all bad. The ironic thing is that Wonder Woman came to her balanced opinion of humanity after her experiences in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”, not in this movie. She came to this conclusion after a conversation with Batman aka Bruce Wayne in the 2016 movie. After her World War I experiences, Diana had spent nearly a century maintaining an emotional distance from humanity and maintaining a cynical view (which I share, by the way). And many filmgoers and critics have either failed to notice this . . . or refuse to acknowledge this aspect of her character.

Now, I am a big fan of “WONDER WOMAN”. So far, it is my favorite movie of the Summer 2017 season. But the movie does have its flaws. I have a deep suspicion that a great deal of the movie’s acclaim originated from gender politics. “WONDER WOMAN” is the first truly successful costumed hero/heroine movie in which the protagonist is a woman. As a woman, I am pleased by this turn of events. But I am also disturbed that so many are using this aspect of the film to judge it superior to the other films within the DCEU franchise. Nor do I regard “WONDER WOMAN” to be morally straightforward as many critics and moviegoers insist that it is. In this movie, the character of Princess Diana aka Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman is forced to shed her naivety and truly grow up. And in a rather painful manner. If the movie truly was that morally absolute to me, I would not have found it that interesting in the first place. Nor do I regard the public’s misconception of the movie as morally absolute as a sign of its superiority over the previous three DCEU films. I have reached a point in my life in which fictional works with a black-and-white morality are not as interesting as it used to be when I was a lot younger.

Due to certain arguments, I do not regard “WONDER WOMAN” as the “savior” of the DCEU franchise. Unlike many moviegoers and critics, I did not find the character of Wonder Woman to be ideally moral. In fact, there were times when I found her idealism and moral absolutism rather annoying. And I did not find the movie as morally absolute as many claim it was. Despite being thrilled that the film is the first comic book hero movie with a woman protagonist to be very successful, I do not regard that as an argument to view it superior to the other DCEU films.

For me, the idea that “WONDER WOMAN” is the D.C. Extended Universe franchise’s “savior” is a load of horseshit to me. As far as I am concerned, the DCEU never required any “saving”. At least not yet.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

 

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

Before I started on this review, I found myself wondering which “phase” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” found itself. Phase Two? Phase Three? In fact, I continued to ponder more about the franchise’s current phase than about the plot for this movie. Until I finally shook myself out of this stupor. 

Back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” during the month of August, more or less a graveyard for summer films. I suspect that Kevin Fiege had low expectations of the film’s performance at the box office, due to its unfamiliarity with the general public. The movie proved them wrong and went on to become a major box office hit for that year. Due to its success back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released a sequel, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” in the more exulted release date in early May, three years later. James Gunn, who had directed the 2014 film, returned to direct this film. And although he had also served as co-writer of the first film with Nicole Perlman, he served as this film’s sole screenwriter.

Following the events of the 2014 film, Peter Quill aka Starlord and his friends have become renowned throughout the galaxy as the “Guardians of the Galaxy”. The movie begins with the Guardians delivering stolen and valuable batteries to a race called the Sovereign, after they had protected the items from an inter-dimensional monster. In exchange, the Sovereign deliver Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, who had been caught earlier trying to steal the batteries. However, this peaceful transaction is disrupted when one of the Guardians, Rocket the Raccoon, steal some of the batteries for himself. The Guardians find themselves hunted by a fleet of ships controlled by the Sovereign and their leader, Ayesha. They eventually crash land on a planet inhabited by a mysterious figure, who destroys the Sovereign fleet for them. That figure turns out to be Ego, Peter Quill’s powerful father first mentioned in the 2014 film. Ego turns out to be a god-like Celestial that manipulated the matter around its consciousness to form his “home” planet. He explains to Peter that he had projected a humanoid guise to travel the universe and discover a purpose. He eventually fell in love with Peter’s mother Meredith Quill. Following her death, Ego hired Yondu to collect the young Quill, but the boy was never delivered and Ego has been searching for his son ever since. The latter invites Quill, Gamora, and Drax to his home planet. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot remain behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula. Unbeknownst to all, Ayesha has hired Peter’s former mentor, Ravagers leader Yondu Udonta to hunt them down. But the Guardians eventually discover that Ego might prove to be a bigger problem than either Ayesha or Yondu’s crew.

I was surprised by the characterization featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It had been one of the strong points of the 2014 movie. But director-writer James Gunn took it to another level in this film, as Gunn’s screenplay further explored the main characters’ backgrounds and emotional concerns. More important, the characterizations featured in this film led to better performances by the cast.

One good example was the exploration of Peter Quill’s relationships with the two father figures in his life – his biological father Ego and his mentor, Yondu Udonta. Peter’s search for a permanent father figure proved to have an ironic twist, considering his longing to meet his real father, Ego’s charismatic personality and his occasionally hostile relationship with Yondu. Chris Pratt had to step up his game to develop Peter’s character even further. He did . . . and proved that he could be a excellent dramatic actor . . . for the second (or third) time in his career. Kurt Russell gave a first-rate and charismatic performance in his portrayal of Ego. And thanks to Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan’s excellent performances, the movie also explored Gamora’s relationships with her adoptive sister, Nebula and their adoptive father, the villainous Thanos. Although the latter did not appear in the movie, his presence was strongly felt – especially in the confrontation between the two women as they confronted the circumstances that led to their estrangement.“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also featured the further development of Peter and Gamora’s relationship. The potential romance in this relationship not only manifested in a charming dance between the pair on Ego’s planet, but also a heated quarrel in which Peter expressed his frustration at being kept at a distance by Gamora. This scene featured great acting from both Pratt and Saldana.

Bradley Cooper had been highly praised for his voice performance as Rocket the Racoon in the 2014 film. The character’s past was not really explored in this film. Considering his origin as a lab experiment, I found this a pity. But Rocket’s problems with being part of a group and his emotional issues were touched upon – especially in a strong and emotional scene that featured a conversation between him and Yondu, while they were being held prisoner. Both Cooper and actor Michael Rooker nearly stole the movie with this scene between Rocket and Yondu. Also, Rocket found himself serving as the toddler Groot’s protector – a strange twist, considering that the latter had been his protector in the previous film. I understand that actor Vin Diesel continued to provide the voice for Groot – and yes, I do mean Baby Groot. I thought Marvel would hire someone other than the deep-voiced Diesel for the role. But they brought him back. And I am amazed that he was able to forgo his usual deep voice to portray the toddler Groot. And speaking of the Yondu, his past reared its ugly head following the revelation that the other Ravager leaders had exiled his group due to child trafficking on Ego’s behalf – including the kidnapping the young Peter Grill from Earth. This revelation also led to another in which audiences learn the true strength of Peter and Yondu’s relationship.

The very literal Drax the Destroyer forms a strange friendship with a young empath named Mantis, who has been forced to serve as Ego’s “pet” for a number of years. Although Drax’s needling personality and strange sense of humor made his regard for the naive and sheltered seem abusive, I was surprised at how the pair managed to grow close – to the point that Drax nearly sacrificed himself for her safety. In these scenes involving Drax, Dave Bautista proved once again that he was a better actor than many had assumed, due to his past as a professional wrestler. And he had a first-rate co-star in Pom Klementieff’s subtle and charming portrayal of the empathic Manits.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also saw the return of Yondu’s right-hand man, Kraglin, who was forced to overcome his sense of self-preservation in order to come to his captain’s aid when the crew turned on Yondu. Ayesha, the Golden High Priestess and leader of the Sovereign, proved to be another interesting role for actress Elizabeth Debicki’s filmography. Ayesha proved to be not only interesting, but also one of the most arrogant characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) . . . the type of character that eventually rubbed Rocket the wrong way. Audiences also got an expanded look into the world of the Ravagers. Thanks to Gunn’s script, I realized that most of them – including Yondu – was not as despicable as I had originally assumed. And I was shocked and pleasantly to see the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames and Michael Rosenbaum as among the older leaders of the Ravangers.

But despite the movie’s strong characterizations, I was not as impressed by “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” as I thought I would be. It lacked something that the 2014 movie possessed – a strong narrative. At first, I thought Ayesha would prove to be the heroes’ main antagonist, considering that she had hired the Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians in the first place. However, about midway into the movie, I realized that she was nothing more than a plot device (and a tiresome one at that) used by Gunn to drive the Guardians into the path of Ego, Peter’s father. And in the end, it was really about him . . . and his plan to remake the universe into his image, using the seedlings he had implanted on different planets, impregnating various females like Meredith Quill and using his offsprings like Peter.

I know . . . this sounds confusing. Let me put it this way. For years, Ego traveled to different parts of the universe, planting seedlings on different planets. Then he seduced and impregnated women like Meredith so that he can utilize the powers of his offsprings to activate the seedlings . . . and he can terraform those planets into his image. As it turned out, Peter was the only offspring who had the power to help him activate the seedlings. Personally, I found this story rather lame. It was more or less just another “meglomaniac” trying to conquer the universe. In a way, it reminded me of Thanos’ narrative within the MCU involving the Infinity Stones . . . only it involved “seedlings” and Ego’s offsprings. I found this narrative less original and with more shortcuts. The film’s minor plot lines involving the characters’ emotional arcs struck me as more interesting.

The movie also featured the usual first-rate visual effects. I was surprised that so many visual effects companies were involved in the film’s production. I think I managed to count at least nine of them. Wow. Nine companies involved in the visual effects? Hmmm . . . perhaps I should not have been surprised. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” seemed to lack a cohesive visual style, despite having a single production designer, Scott Chambliss. Some people were not impressed by the visuals for Ego’s planet, as shown below:

Personally, I was. Mind you, there was nothing mind-blowing about the visual effects for Ego’s planet. But I had enjoyed them, nonetheless. However, I was impressed by the special effects used to visually convey Rocket, Groot, Kraglin and Yondu’s journey across the galaxy – involving several jumps. I found it very effective and rather funny.

Peter Quill’s audio cassette tape played a major role in the score for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Near the end of that particular movie, he came across the package that his mother Meredith had given him just before her death. The package contained another cassette with more of her favorite songs of her youth. I hate to say this, but I was not that impressed by the collection of songs used for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”, aside from one or two. Even more surprising is that I found the songs featured in the movie’s end credits to be a lot more entertaining . . . and right for the movie. Pity.

Overall, I enjoyed “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It was not exactly a disappointment thanks to the strong characterizations featured in the film and the first-rate performances by a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But I must be honest, it was almost a ghost of the 2014 film. And this is due to what I believe was a weak narrative that included a villain with goals that struck me as unoriginal. It is a pity that Nicole Perlman did return to serve as director James Gunn’s co-writer in this second film. I had the odd feeling that needed a collaborator for a stronger narrative.

 

“THE HOLLOW” (2004) Review

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“THE HOLLOW” (2004) Review

I have never been a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1946 novel, “The Hollow”. Many would find my opinion surprising, considering its reputation as one of the author’s best works and a fine example of the “country house murder” story. But I cannot help how I feel. I simply never warmed up to it. 

The 1946 novel eventually became a successful London play in 1951. And in 2004, producers of the “Agatha Christie’s POIROT”series adapted the novel into a ninety-minute television movie in 2004, with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. I have seen “THE HOLLOW” at least twice. Yet, my opinion of the story has not improved one whit for me.

I cannot say that the movie had a terrible story. The latter revolved around the murder of a successful and Harley Street doctor (in other words, expensive) named John Cristow, who specialized in disease research. The murder occurred at a weekend house party held by Sir Henry and Lady Angkatell at their estate called the Hollow. Dr. Christow was a brilliant and charismatic man who was having a passionate affair with his wife’s cousin, a sculptor named Henrietta Savernake. His plain and not so-intelligent wife, Gerda, was unaware of his affair with Henrietta. But she did become aware of his past with an actress named Veronica Cray, who found fame as a Hollywood star and was staying at a cottage on the Angkatell estate. And there were other members of the Angkatell family that became caught up in several affairs of the heart – like Edward Angkatell, a distant cousin of Henry and entailee of the family’s beloved house, Ainswick, who was in love with Henrietta. Also staying at another cottage on the Angkatell estate was Hercule Poirot, who was on hand to solve Dr. Cristow’s murder.

As I had stated earlier, my opinion of Christie’s story had not improved after watching ”THE HOLLOW”. What can I say? I found it difficult to care about most of the characters. Despite his intelligence and dedication to his profession, I never liked the John Cristow character. In fact, I rather despised him, which made it difficult for me to care whether his murderer would be caught. Only one of the main suspects was portrayed in an unsympathetic light. Yet, the character failed to distract me from my dislike of the other characters – save one. And even though the murderer’s revelation came via a double-bluff, I found the plot’s details difficult to remember to endure, let alone remember. Yeah, I disliked the story that much.

Despite my dislike of ”THE HOLLOW”, I must admit that it could boast some pretty good performances. I was especially impressed by Megan Dodds as Henrietta Savernake, Jonathan Cake as John Cristow, Claire Price as Gerda Cristow, and Sarah Miles as Lucy, Lady Angkatell. The one bad apple in the bunch turned out to be Lysette Anthony, who gave an over-the-top performance as Veronica Cray, Dr.Cristow’s former lover turned Hollywood starlet. David Suchet did an admirable job as Poirot, but for once, his performance did not strike me as memorable.

I have mixed feelings about the movie’s production values. Michael Pickwoad did a solid job with his production designs, even if James Aspinall’s photography did not do much justice to it. But Sheena Napier’s costume designs and the hairstyles left me feelings confused. Although Christie’s novel was published in the mid-1940s, this movie seemed to be set in the 1930s. Yet, there were times I could not tell via the costumes and hairstyles whether the movie was set in the 30s or 40s. Very confusing.

When I saw ”THE HOLLOW”, I had hoped my negative feelings toward Christie’s 1946 novel would change for the better. Unfortunately, it failed. Perhaps I might watch ”THE HOLLOW” once a year in the hopes that I will learn to appreciate the story. Then again . . . perhaps not.