Spider-Man: Homecoming

There comes a time when every spider-boy must become a Spider-Man.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jon Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers 
Soundtrack composer: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, etc.
Released: July 7
Rated PG-13

The movie starts immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter Parker is extremely excited about meeting the Avengers and fighting alongside some of them, and considering Tony Stark specifically sought him out for the job, he assumes this is going to become a regular thing. But after two months, nobody has called him back for another mission, or even an Avengers costume party. So he goes on with his life: going to school, hanging out with his best friend Ned Leeds, and swinging around New York City in his new high-tech suit, attempting to stop crime as the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” When he runs into a gang of thieves who have gotten their hands on alien tech, Stark tells him to let the experts handle it. But Peter has a little bit of teenage rebellion going on, and staying away from dangerous criminals isn’t really his style.

Like I said in my Civil War review, I thought Spider-Man was one of the most enjoyable things about that movie. But I was still a little wary about his solo outing, and not just because I spent a good nine months being bombarded with over-long trailers for it. (I don’t need to see half the movie beforehand in order to get excited for it, thank you very much!)

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I think I watched this scene a dozen times before the movie came out.

I’m a huge fan of the original Sam Raimi movies. Yes, all three of them. They were my first introduction, not just to Spider-Man as a character, but to superhero movies in general. So they have a huge nostalgia value to me, but they’re also just incredibly fun movies. To this day, I still haven’t seen many action scenes that can top the train fight in Spider-Man 2, and supervillains don’t get much better than Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin and Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Also, J.K. Simmons is the only person who should ever be allowed to play J. Jonah Jameson. Even though Andrew Garfield arguably gave a better performance as the title character than his predecessor, I couldn’t stand the Amazing Spider-Man movies because they felt like unnecessary and inferior re-tellings of a story I already liked. So as we approached yet another re-boot, I tried not to get my hopes up too much, despite my usual love for the MCU.

My fears were (mostly) unfounded. This movie brings as much fun, humour, and excitement to its storytelling as I’ve come to expect from Marvel. And at no point does it feel like yet another re-telling of the story Raimi told so well 15 years ago. This movie wisely continues to assume that audiences already know all about Spider-Man’s origin story, so apart from a brief reference to the spider bite and some subtle hints that Aunt May is still mourning Uncle Ben, it doesn’t come up. Instead, we get to know this version of Peter Parker after he’s already decided to be a hero, and the story focuses on his journey to becoming a good one.

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First lesson: Make sure you’re alone BEFORE you take your mask off.

Because at first, he is reeaaallly bad at being Spider-Man. Turns out it takes more than superpowers and a high-tech suit to effectively defend New York City. It also helps to be able to tell when someone is stealing a car (as opposed to just getting into their own) and to know how to avoid unnecessary property damage. Spider-Man sure causes a lot of destruction for someone whose hero and mentor signed the Sokovia Accords to prevent that sort of thing. In fact, most of the big problems that arise throughout the movie are, directly or indirectly, his fault. Then again, he is only 15, and despite his inexperience, his heart is definitely in the right place. Over the course of the movie, he learns how to be a better fighter, even without the Stark gadgets, and finds a purpose for his powers beyond trying to prove he’s a grown-up Avenger.

Basically, this is your typical high school coming-of-age story…except it’s about Spider-Man. While there are plenty of action scenes, a good chunk of the movie is about Peter dealing with normal high school problems, like trying to win a big trivia competition or asking his crush out to the homecoming dance. Although high school movies aren’t normally my cup of tea, that aspect of the movie was actually my favourite. It allows us to see more of what life is like for normal people in the insane Marvel universe, and provides some great laughs along the way. For example, Peter’s school shows educational videos narrated by Captain America (apparently Cap even filmed a PSA about puberty, which is AMAZING). Peter’s friend Ned is also an excellent source of comic relief.

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“Can you summon an army of spiders?…Do you lay eggs?”

Before I get into my problems with the movie, I have to talk about the villain, Adrian Toomes, or Vulture. He’s the best MCU movie villain yet. That’s partly thanks to Michael Keaton’s excellent performance, and partly thanks to a very effective surprise twist concerning his character late in the movie, but it’s mostly because, out of all the villains in the franchise so far, Vulture is the most…human. He’s just a regular blue-collar worker who turned to dealing in illegal high-tech weaponry to provide a better life for his family, and he only goes after Spidey when he gets in the way. It’s such a refreshing change of pace from the usual “Let’s destroy the world because muahaha!” motivation of Marvel villains. This is the second decent villain they’ve had in a row, though, so maybe it’s a sign of permanent change.

Looking at this movie strictly on its own merits and in terms of its place in the MCU, there’s not a lot wrong with it. I could complain about the blatant product placement, or about how weird it is to see Spidey using high-tech gadgets and an AI, but those were minor issues that didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film. It’s a fun, breezy adventure with good actors, decent action, and a clever, funny script.

But that’s all it is.

This movie is so much better than the Amazing Spider-Man movies that I’m hopeful it may cause them to fade out of public memory entirely. It has fewer problems than Spider-Man 3 had, by a long way. But in my opinion, it still falls short of the standards set by the Raimi trilogy as a whole. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 may have had flaws, but they also had high moral stakes and a compelling arc for the hero. That version of Peter Parker had a motto–“With great power comes great responsibility”–and the whole trilogy, even the much-maligned third movie, was about his struggle to live up to that motto, despite various temptations to abuse his power or ignore his responsibility. Like all post-Raimi Spider-Man movies, Homecoming studiously avoids the “great responsibility” line for reasons that are unclear to me. And I miss it. This version of Peter Parker never wavers from his heroic intentions, which is great, but it also means his internal conflict is limited to trying to prove he’s a “grown-up” hero to Tony Stark, which is a comparatively weaker arc. The movie also misses an opportunity to show real consequences resulting from his inexperience (conveniently, no one we care about is ever hurt because of his mistakes) and have him learn a lesson about, well, responsibility. I was left wishing for more.

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But hey, at least he managed to get his mask off in the final fight.

Not every Spider-Man movie has to be an iconic superhero classic, though, and this movie isn’t trying to be one. It’s simply a light-hearted high school story with superheroes, and if that’s all you’re expecting when you walk into the theatre, you’ll probably be satisfied. Despite my nit-picking, I laughed my head off at all the jokes (especially the Captain America PSAs), and I still think Tom Holland makes a fantastic Spider-Man.

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Best. Cameo. Ever.

Oh, and the final stinger is totally worth waiting through the end credits. Your patience will be rewarded.

Grade: A-

Movie Quote Monday!

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“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position above those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more important than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

-Anton Ego, Ratatouille

The Flash

It’s high time for me to talk about my other favourite DC superhero.

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The Flash
Creators: Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg
Starring: Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, etc.
Aired: 2014-Present
Rated TV-PG

The Flash is the second of (currently) four shows that make up the CW’s DC universe, usually dubbed the “Arrowverse.” And it is by far the best. The third season just hit Netflix, but things got started back in Season 1 with 11-year-old Barry Allen witnessing his mother’s death at the hands of a mysterious figure who appears in a bolt of lightning. No one believes his version of the story, so his father is blamed for the murder. Fast forward a decade or so, and Barry’s working as a (ridiculously young) CSI tech in his hometown of Central City. Ever since the incident with his mother, he’s been obsessed with finding proof of the “impossible,” and he gets his wish one night when a particle accelerator at nearby S.T.A.R. Labs explodes, causing him to get struck by SCIENCE!-infused lightning. When he finally wakes up after a nine-month coma, Barry discovers he has super speed. With the help of the team of scientists who were working on the particle accelerator (Harrison Wells, Cisco Ramon, and Caitlin Snow), he learns how to use his powers to become a superhero. Good thing, too, since he’s not the only person who got superpowers in the explosion, and most of the other new “metahumans” in Central City put them to less than altruistic purposes. When he’s not chasing them down, The Flash works to find out what happened to his mother, woo his longtime crush Iris West, and, of course, fight the Big Bad of the season, who usually has similar powers to his own.

So why is this the best of the Arrowverse–and, in my opinion, the best CW show ever? Well, for one thing, out of all the live-action superhero stories I’ve seen, this is the one that best captures the comic book spirit. It makes absolutely no attempt to make its stories more “grounded” or “mature” than their source material, but instead does its best to embrace the wackiness at every opportunity. It’s got colourful costumes, goofy dialogue, giant psychic gorillas, convoluted time travel, parallel universes, and enough technobabble to make Spock’s head spin. There are big crossover events with the other shows in the Arrowverse (which tend to be hit or miss, thanks to those shows’ inferior nature). Every season ends with an epic finale, but along the way there are plenty of light-hearted episodes dealing with the metahuman of the week. There’s even a freaking musical episode!

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And it’s amazing.

That’s the first reason I got hooked on this show: it’s just so darn fun. The action is cool, there’s a good amount of humour sprinkled throughout, and most of the stories are campy and cheesy in the best possible way. What has kept me watching, though, even through some of the show’s less fun episodes, are the characters. Every member of the main cast is extremely likable in their own way. Barry himself is the kind of hero who will stop a bank robbery, give the would-be robber a heartfelt talk about how to change his life, and then re-paint someone’s garage on the way home. All while making awful speed puns. He’s a caring, optimistic hero who tends to inspire people both in- and out-of-universe. Of course, he struggles with his own set of flaws, mainly not thinking things through before doing them (a logical flaw for a speedster), but he usually manages to work through those things and emerge as a better person.

Then there’s the supporting cast: Detective Joe West, Barry’s loving, supportive father figure/Commissioner Gordon figure; Caitlin, the frosty-tempered but warm-hearted S.T.A.R. Labs team medic; Iris, who starts out pretty one-dimensional but eventually grows into a strong woman worthy of the Flash’s affection; and Harrison Wells, who is technically a different character every season because he keeps getting replaced by alternate-universe versions of himself. But whether he’s a wise mentor, a grumpy anti-hero, or the designated comic relief, he’s always entertaining thanks to Tom Cavanagh’s flexible acting skills. My personal favourite character, though, is Cisco. Not just because he’s the biggest nerd in an already nerdy cast (always an endearing trait), but because he is, if possible, even more principled and pure-hearted than Barry. He’s always quick with the jokes and one-liners, but he’s also perfectly capable of saving the day when he needs to. All these characters share a very heartwarming bond of friendship, proving over and over again that they’d do anything to help each other.

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And no wonder. How could you look at Cisco’s adorable face and NOT love him?

With occasional exceptions, the show also tends to have excellent villains. The Big Bads have, so far, always been evil speedsters with personal grudges against Barry, which did feel a tad repetitive by the third season, but each one still manages to be menacing in his own unique way. My least favourite is Season 2’s Zoom, because he got the least amount of characterisation, but even he wasn’t bad. The other two evil speedsters, the Reverse-Flash and Savitar, are equally great in my book. But there are plenty of memorable meta-of-the-week villains, too. The Trickster is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a live-action Mark Hamill Joker, and he even manages to make an epic Star Wars reference. Grodd is the aforementioned psychic gorilla, and while his CGI appearance sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, he’s still plenty intimidating. Then there’s the cool, sarcastic, morally conflicted Captain Cold, whom I love with all my heart, whether he’s fighting for or against Team Flash.

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He’s just a really chill guy.

Of course, while it is a glorious DC comics show, The Flash is also a CW show, and it comes with many of the problems that that implies. There are far too many romantic subplots, and they take up far too much screen time. Lots of conflicts arise because the characters don’t communicate well enough, or make stupid decisions, or just happened to be written by someone who decided they should be arguing that day. The special effects are not exactly cinematic in quality, and neither are all of the supporting actors. But as someone who has watched more CW junk than she’d like to admit, I have to say that those flaws are much less noticeable in this show than in most of its fellows. The romance is annoying, but it never overtakes the main plot. The special effects aren’t perfect, but they’re far from terrible for TV. And some of the conflicts may be unnecessary, but at least they’re usually resolved within an episode or two rather than being dragged out through a whole season, as I’ve seen happen elsewhere.

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I guess you get over your problems quicker when you can run faster than the speed of light.

I’ve heard some people say The Flash has gone downhill with each season. While I can understand why some might think that way–the repetitive story arcs, the more serious tone of Season 2, etc.–I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the first season is probably still my favourite, but that’s mostly because it was my first introduction to The Flash and his universe. Later seasons may have had similar Big Bads, but they also brought in more great characters, more development for existing characters, and, of course, more comic book wackiness. Season 3 also brought a significant change to the show, one that seems like an exceptionally bold move for the CW (though it has plenty of precedent in the comics). Of course, it could all be undone within the first few episodes of Season 4. For now, though, I maintain that The Flash, with all its flaws, is a thoroughly enjoyable show that brings several wonderful superheroes (and supervillains) to life.

If it keeps up this way, I’ll be running back to this show for years to come.

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“Run, Barry, run!”

Grade: A-

P.S. In case anyone was wondering about my opinions on the other shows in the Arrowverse, the short version is: Arrow’s pretty good for the first two seasons, then gradually becomes unwatchable by Season 4; I couldn’t finish the first season of Supergirl because it was preachy, overly political trash; Legends of Tomorrow is good whenever it focuses on characters who were introduced on The Flash.  Also it has Rory Williams playing the Doctor, so there’s that.

A Monster Calls

“So you didn’t get your ‘happily ever after?'”
“No…but that’s life. Most people just get ‘messily ever after.'”

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A Monster Calls
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Based on the book by: Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Released: 2016
Rated PG-13

Conor, a little boy in England, is not having a happy childhood. His single mother is dying of a disease heavily implied to be cancer, and his grouchy grandmother is trying to get him to come live with her as a result. To make matters worse, he’s getting beaten up regularly at school, he has no friends, and he keeps having the same nightmare over and over. But one night, at precisely 12:07 a.m., he is visited by a monster made from an ancient yew tree. The Monster says he will tell Conor three stories, and after that, Conor must tell him a fourth: the story of his nightmare. Sure enough, as his mother’s illness gets worse, the Monster keeps visiting at 12:07 to tell Conor stories about the times he went walking before, and what he knows about life and the people who live it. Meanwhile, Conor just hopes the last story will end with his mother being cured.

Like all the Monster’s stories, this movie looks and acts a lot like a fairytale at first glance. The titular creature looks amazing, and his stories are animated with lovely watercolours that look like they came straight out of an illustrated fantasy book. The movie’s beginning, what with the sick mother and the Monster suddenly appearing in a surreal fashion, even reminded me of a Narnia story. (The fact that Liam Neeson voices the Monster helps.)

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“And when he shakes his mane…the ceiling caves in.”

But the Monster’s stories are not fairytales. Each one twists the usual character types and morals of a fairytale (such as evil queens and knights in shining armour) and subverts them in order to tell a harder truth: that real people don’t fit into those little boxes. Sometimes the evil queen has her good points, and sometimes the knight in shining armour is less noble than he seems. “There isn’t always a good guy, nor is there always a bad one,” the Monster says. Another story examines a man who was willing to give up everything he believed in order to gain a favour, thus proving he never had true faith in the first place. You know…basic picture book morals like that.

But that’s how this movie rolls. It’s a story about a boy coming to grips with the loss of a loved one, but more than that, it’s about the importance of facing the truth. The lesson Conor really needs to learn is that he must admit the truth about his feelings, especially towards those he loves, if he’s going to be able to survive tragedy. In keeping with that message, the movie itself is consistently honest. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat the awfulness of watching a loved one die, and it doesn’t take the easy approach to characterisation. There are no villains in this movie. Conor’s grandmother might be fussy, and she certainly doesn’t understand him, but she loves both him and his mother deeply. His dad (who lives in America with a new family after a divorce with his mother) might be a bit of a deadbeat, but it’s clear he’s trying to be a good father in his own way. Conor himself, despite being the protagonist, is very flawed and does some terrible things over the course of the movie…but given the kind of story we’ve got here, that often just makes it even easier to sympathise with him. Even the Monster, despite giving out lots of sage advice, is still, well, a monster. He delights in destruction and he can be rather menacing at times.

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“I….AM….GROOOOOT!!”

The movie has an all-star cast (one of several reasons it baffles me that it didn’t get more attention when it came out last year), and everybody is bringing their “A” game. Liam Neeson has one of those voices I could listen to forever, and he puts it to great use here. Felicity Jones, of Rogue One fame, gives a horribly tear-jerking performance as Conor’s mum. It’s a little weird to watch Sigourney Weaver  being a British grandmother, but then maybe I’ve just seen Aliens too many times. She does a good job, even getting the accent right for the most part. But Lewis MacDougall really carries the movie, showing a ton of emotional depth and nuance in his acting. Impressive, considering he was about 13 when it was filmed, and this is only his second movie.

I don’t cry easily during movies…or at all, for that matter. Sure, occasionally a real tear-jerker will make my eyes go a bit misty, but until this week, the only movie that had caused me to actually break down crying was Inside Out–and that was because it gave me flashbacks to a particularly difficult time in my life. I was crying like a baby by the end of A Monster Calls. It is, hands down, the most thorough exploration of grief and loss I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it got downright hard to watch at times. I think that’s why it got rated PG-13, despite not containing any harsh language, sexual content, or graphic violence. This is definitely not a movie you watch with your kids, unless you want to have some very serious discussions with them afterwards. But its sadness is cathartic. It made me, as a viewer, feel that I had been on a journey with Conor and understood a bit of what he was feeling. Sometimes it’s easier for me to empathise with unpleasant feelings when they’re presented in the form of fiction, and this movie did that for me.

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“Humans are complicated beasts.”

And I think that is the entire point. Early on in the movie, Conor watches the original King Kong with his mother, and he feels sorry for the titular monster. He asks why the soldiers are trying to shoot Kong down. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” his mother explains. Understanding is another major theme of this movie. People avoid or even bully Conor because they don’t understand what he’s going through, while he does the same to the relatives he doesn’t like. But by the end, he realises that everyone is fighting their own kind of battle, and he begins to understand why some of the people around him react the way they do. That’s the thing about grief: it can divide, but it can also unite people. Everyone dies, after all, and almost everyone has lost loved ones. It’s the one terrible thing we all have in common.

My only real problem with the movie is that I would have liked to see more of the Monster’s stories reflected in Conor’s life. I haven’t read the book this is based on (though now I want to), but I have a feeling a lot of things were left out in the adaptation. For example, the Monster’s third story is really just a few sentences that don’t get animated at all, and although subsequent events show what the intended lesson was, it’s not dwelt on as much as the others. I also would have liked to see the bullies in the movie humanised a bit more, like other characters are. It would seem to be in keeping with the story’s themes.

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After all, if even fairy tale villains have their good sides, you would think primary school bullies would, too.

But overall, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking movie with an unusual message: that life, love, and loss are all complicated things, and it’s okay to have complicated feelings about them sometimes. It advocates honesty and understanding between people who are suffering. It shows that everyone has both good and bad inside them, and shouldn’t necessarily be judged by just one or the other. They’re all things we need to know in order to live full adult lives, but are rarely expressed so clearly in movies.

I’d highly recommend seeing A Monster Calls if you get a chance. Just keep the tissues handy.

Grade: A

Wonder Woman

Today is a happy day, my friends. It is a day that shall live on in history.

We finally have a good female superhero movie.

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Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
Rated PG-13

Diana is a princess of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Greek gods to protect the world from evil. She’s grown up on the island of Themyscira, which is magically hidden from the rest of the world, and has trained since she was a little girl to be the greatest warrior her civilisation has ever known. She gets her first chance to really use those skills when a man comes to Themyscira: Steve Trevor, a World War I pilot who crash-lands near the island and accidentally brings a bunch of angry Germans after him. When Diana finds out that the entire “world of men” is at war, she believes only one person could be responsible: Ares, the god of war, sworn enemy of the Amazons. But the rest of her people refuse to help, leading our hero to steal some special weapons (including a sword aptly called the Godkiller) and run away with Steve to try and save the world. Tank-flipping and lasso-throwing ensue.

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I am Diana, princess of Themyscira, and I am here to save the DC universe!

Wonder Woman is not the best superhero movie ever made. In fact, this has been such a great year for movies that it’s not even the best superhero movie of 2017 (that would be Logan). But it’s special. I drove for an hour to get to the earliest possible showing, just because I wanted to be there when the most famous superheroine of all time finally got the movie she deserved. I’m a woman, and I love superheroes. I can relate to male heroes when they’re written and acted well, but when all the cool ones are male, it starts to feel like Hollywood writers think fans like me don’t exist. Either that or they think it would be totally implausible for a woman to be a cool hero capable of carrying her own story, and that’s even worse.

And even with all the good early reviews, I was still a little bit nervous about this movie. There are so many ways Wonder Woman could go wrong on the big screen, and with the DCEU’s track record so far, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith they could do her justice. But they did! This movie is everything I could possibly have hoped for, in a female superhero movie, in a Wonder Woman movie specifically, and in a DC movie. I loved it!

But before I gush any further, I will admit that Wonder Woman has some flaws. The biggest one, for me, was the overuse of slow motion. It’s not as bad as it was in the Snyder-directed movies, but it does get to be a bit much during most of the battle scenes. Slow motion is kind of a pet peeve of mine, because unless it’s done exceptionally well, it usually just makes a scene cheesier than it needs to be. Also, as is so often the case with superhero movies these days, the villain in this one is a bit weak. His motivations are vague, and he doesn’t really get much of a personality. He’s played by a good actor who does his best to sell the part, but it’s still pretty forgettable.

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This chick, on the other hand, was successfully creepy.

Also, the movie does take some liberties with Wonder Woman’s origin story, the biggest of which is that she enters “man’s world” during the first world war instead of the second. I kind of wish the writers had kept to the original time period, if only because punching Nazis is the greatest and most time-honoured of superhero traditions. But since the villain is the god of war, I guess it does make sense that he would be around for the War to End All Wars, which ended up sparking most of the major conflicts of the 20th century. And finally, I don’t think the “bookend” scenes at the beginning and end of the film, showing Diana in modern-day Paris, were strictly necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t appreciate being reminded that this movie takes place in the same universe as Broodingface vs. Sulkypants.

Now, on to the good stuff! Without a doubt, this movie’s greatest strength is Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot absolutely nails the role, bringing an infectious joy to the character alongside tons of physical confidence. There is no moral ambiguity about Diana. She’s a kind, compassionate, brave hero who wants to make the world a better place. Her weakness is that she’s a little too optimistic, wanting to believe that all people are good and would never harm each other unless they were under the influence of an evil god. Naturally, the horrors of World War I prove to be more than a little disillusioning for her, and she ultimately has to decide whether she still wants to fight for humanity, despite all our faults, or just give up on the species altogether. But along the way, we get a bunch of endearing scenes that just show her falling in love with the world: seeing a baby for the first time, or getting introduced to things like snow and ice cream. Her unfamiliarity with the social norms of the 1910s also lead to a lot of comical moments, and, shock of all shocks for a live-action DC character, she actually has a sense of humour herself! She’s a three-dimensional character with a compelling arc, and my word, is she incredible in a fight. I could spend hours just watching the scene where she walks across No Man’s Land in full Wonder Woman attire, deflecting machine gun fire off her bracelets. I think I actually let out an audible squee during that scene.

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“I am no man!”

But Diana isn’t the only great character on display. Steve Trevor is also a lot of fun to watch, as per usual for a Chris Pine character. He, of course, falls love with Wonder Woman over the course of the movie, and their relationship develops in a very natural, believable way, as each of them is shown learning from and inspiring the other. You know, like how a relationship should be. And Steve is every inch the hero his girlfriend is, just without the tank-flipping ability. It would have been easy to make Wonder Woman look good by making Steve weak or “un-masculine” in some way, as has been done so many times in movies about tough action girls. But this movie doesn’t go that route, instead portraying both of them as brave, capable heroes with different strengths and weaknesses. Which, again, is the way it should be! 

They’re joined by lots of colourful side characters, from Steve’s British secretary, Etta Candy, to the ragtag bunch of multicultural soldiers and ex-soldiers he’s friends with. They’re all mostly there for comic relief, but most of them get some good character moments as well. Also…a heroic soldier named Steve, played by a guy named Chris, who leads a band of misfit soldiers during a world war, dates a tough brunette, and crashes a plane into the ocean? This movie is like the alternate universe version of Captain America: First Avenger!

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Like that other Steve, he also looks good in a uniform.

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that it’s about a woman for once, this is simply a great superhero movie. It has awesome fight scenes (apart from the slo-mo), plenty of humour, a dash of ridiculousness, and, most importantly, a hero who is unafraid and unashamed to fight for truth, justice, and human decency. It respects the hero’s roots (even throwing in some nods to specific comic book storylines), but takes her in slightly different directions when it suits the story. It doesn’t try too hard to be “gritty” or “realistic,” but instead just gives us good characters so that we become emotionally invested in their journey. Oh, and Wonder Woman’s theme music remains among the coolest I’ve ever heard in a superhero movie.

Wonder Woman also leaves us with an important message: No one person can solve all the world’s problems, even if that person has superpowers. But everyone, superpowers or not, can choose to do good. And that choice is always worthwhile.

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“I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

All that to say, superhero movies are no longer a “man’s world,” and I could not be happier, either as a woman or a superhero fan. And as a DC fan, well…this movie actually gives me some hope for the rest of the Justice League movies. All may not be lost for my favourite super-team.

May Wonder Woman be a sign of things to come.

Grade: A for Amazon

My Faves: The Iron Giant

Long before Groot, Vin Diesel played another heroic giant of few words. One word, in particular, has melted thousands of hearts and caused the shedding of many tears.

“Superman!”

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The Iron Giant
Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies
Starring: Vin Diesel, Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick, Jr.
Based (veeerrrry loosely) on the book “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes
Released: 1999
Rated PG

This is a special movie. It didn’t do well in theatres when it first came out, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to say they dislike it. It’s my favourite 2-D cartoon and possibly my favourite animated movie, period. And like most animated movies I love, it’s all about superheroes.

But just in case you have not had the pleasure of seeing this movie, here’s the plot: Hogarth Hughes is a 9-year-old boy who lives with his single mother in the town of Rockwell, Maine, circa 1957. One night, he goes outside to investigate a malfunctioning TV antenna and discovers a 50-foot robot munching on a nearby power plant. The robot gets a nasty shock from the electricity, and even though Hogarth is scared out of his mind, he manages to shut off the power in time to save the Giant. Next thing you know, he has a new friend. The robot has crash-landed on Earth and doesn’t remember anything about himself, where he came from, or why he’s here. Hogarth starts teaching him things like how to talk, how to avoid squishing people, and most importantly, how to use his powers for good just like his favourite hero, Superman. He enlists the help of a junkyard owner named Dean to take care of the Giant, who only eats metal.  But it’s difficult to hide a gigantic robot with the mind of a toddler, especially in the panicky climate of the ’50s, and things only get worse when government agent Kent Mansley arrives to investigate some strange occurrences around Rockwell.

Man, where do I start with this movie? I guess the animation is a good place. It’s beautiful. I’ve only come to appreciate it more as I’ve watched more cartoons, even recent ones, which often don’t measure up despite all the technology available to animators now. The landscapes are so detailed, and the characters’ expressions and movements are so full of life–even when said characters are made of metal. Some scenes look like an animated Norman Rockwell painting, which was probably intentional, given the name of the town.

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But, like, seriously, look at it. Look how gorgeous those trees are.

The movie also does an excellent job of recreating the 1950s American setting. From the classic ’50s diner where Hogarth’s mom works to the hilariously awful instructional video his class watches on how to survive a nuclear attack, it’s obvious the filmmakers did their research on the time period. Most importantly, the movie perfectly evokes the atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia that existed during the Cold War. Characters talk about the recently-launched Sputnik with dread, worried that the Soviets might be watching them. Hogarth owns propaganda comics with villains like “The Red Menace” and “Atomo.” But it’s Kent who really embodies the Cold War attitude, being ready to assume the worst about the Giant even before he has proof  he exists. “All I know is, we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to blow it to kingdom come!” he yells at one point. And that paranoia makes him the perfect kind of villain for a story like this: a cowardly bully.

Of course, Hogarth and the audience don’t know where the Giant came from either, or why he was built, and the movie remains pretty vague on that point. But Hogarth doesn’t really care. This is a kid who thinks of wild animals as friends, much to his mom’s chagrin, and idolises Superman, one of the most idealistic superheroes around. The only reason he needs to help out the Giant is that, in his present state, the robot is kind, innocent, and in need of a friend.

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“He’s…like a little kid.”

The first half of The Iron Giant is pretty light-hearted and funny. After the Giant makes his slightly menacing entrance, and Hogarth finds out he’s really not so menacing, the story becomes about him having comical adventures with his new friend and trying to keep him hidden, while Kent bumbles around searching for a mysterious meteor and generally being ineffectual. There’s a hilarious scene, in which the Giant’s hand gets separated from the rest of him and starts wandering around Hogarth’s house during dinner, that still makes me laugh every time I see it. And of course we’re introduced to Dean McCoppin, who is just awesome.

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“What you currently have IN YOUR MOUTH is ART!!”

But when I first watched the movie, there was a distinct point at which I realised I was watching something a little deeper than your typical funny children’s cartoon. It’s a scene about halfway through, in which Hogarth finds himself having to teach the Giant about death. After that, the movie takes on a much darker tone, but it’s also the beginning of the Giant’s struggle to make sense of his own existence. After all, as that very scene foreshadows, somebody made the Giant for a reason, and it likely wasn’t a peaceful one. He has to figure out how to balance his questionable nature with his desire to do good and protect his friends.

And this is what I love most about The Iron Giant. Lots of kid’s movies have morals they want to teach their young audience, which is a good thing. But so many of those morals boil down to something trite and easy, like “follow your heart.” Not so with this movie (or any Brad Bird-directed flick, as Pixar fans can attest). Here, there are two primary messages, the most obvious being summed up in the quote, “You are who you choose to be.” The Giant’s character development is all about choosing to be a hero, even if that goes against his “programming.” And while the quote is an oversimplification, I think it’s great to show kids that people are defined by their actions rather than by their backgrounds, and that doing the right thing sometimes means going against one’s natural inclinations.

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“You’re made of metal. But you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul.”

By contrasting Hogarth and Kent’s reactions to the Giant, and showing the consequences of each, the movie also promotes another message: xenophobia is bad, and fear leads to destruction, while compassion and kindness can prevent it. While the Giant’s own choices determine his character in the end, it’s Hogarth’s friendship that sets him on the path to becoming a hero, and his love for Hogarth that helps him remain one. If Kent Mansley or a paranoid Rockwell resident had met the Giant first…let’s just say the movie would have had a grimmer ending. But because Hogarth reacts to a strange alien monster with compassion and curiosity rather than fear, said alien ends up following his example. Again, I think this is a fantastic lesson to teach kids…and these days, it seems a lot of adults need to learn it as well. With fear of the unknown and the foreigner seemingly on the rise in many places, we could use more stories about showing kindness to strangers.

But of course, neither of those messages would come across very well if this movie wasn’t expertly written, acted, and animated. Fortunately, it is. The script is funny when it tries to be, emotional when it needs to be, and profound without being preachy. All the voice actors do a fantastic job, especially Vin Diesel, who only says a few dozen words as the Giant, but makes every one of them count. The music is also gorgeous, even when it’s not incorporating catchy pop songs from the ’50s.

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Art.

I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could find things to complain about in this movie. There are probably some historical inaccuracies (though I think it would take a professional historian to discover them), and the plot does closely resemble E.T. (except that it’s based on a book that was written before E.T., and it’s also better than E.T.). Personally, though, I think The Iron Giant is about as close to perfect as any movie can get. Why? Well, in addition to all the reasons listed above, I’ve seen it at least a dozen times now, and I still find myself getting misty-eyed at the end. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better about life, and people, and the world in general after you’ve watched it. And not because it sugarcoats real-life problems or provides an escapist fantasy, but because it shows good triumphing over real evil in a spectacular way.

I also love it as a superhero fan, because it offers a perfect example of what I think the ideal superhero should be: unfailingly kind, hopeful, and brave. And honestly, has any actual Superman movie had a “saving-the-world” scene as awesome as the climax of this one?

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He’s the real Man of Steel.

If you haven’t seen The Iron Giant, do yourself a favour and go watch it. If you have kids, make them watch it. But if you’re a single adult, like me, there is no shame in watching this particular cartoon on your own.

Split

I am an M. Night Shyamalan fan. There, I said it.

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Split
Director and Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Released: January 2017
Rated PG-13

So this movie starts out with three teenage girls getting kidnapped by a man named Kevin who has severe dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 personalities living in his head, ranging from a hyperactive 9-year-old boy to an outgoing fashion designer to a motherly British woman. A few of his identities have taken over his mind and are trying to bring out a 24th, which they call “the Beast,” because they believe he’ll have superhuman powers and be able to protect all the people living inside Kevin’s head. The three girls have a part to play in this Beast’s emergence, and, although it’s only vaguely hinted at in the beginning, it doesn’t seem to involve them getting out alive. But one of the girls, named Casey, stays surprisingly level-headed and calm about the whole situation, plotting an escape and figuring out ways to stay one step ahead of her captor throughout the movie.

When I say I’m a Shyamalan fan, I should clarify that, until I watched this movie, I had only seen his first four films: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. And I loved all of them. (Yes, even The Village. Fight me.) I thought they all employed cool cinematography, good acting and a clever use of symbolism to tell powerful, original stories. They had flaws (especially The Village) but I’d still pay money to see any of them again. I have not seen any of Shyamalan’s more reviled films, such as The Happening, Lady in the Water, or The Last Airbender. Based on what I’ve heard, they deserve their reputation for awfulness. But since I haven’t seen them myself, they haven’t sullied my opinion of M. Night as much as they have for most people.

Still, I didn’t go into this movie thinking it would be the next Sixth Sense. I was curious about it because I was interested to see what a good actor like James McAvoy could do with a challenging character like Kevin/Hedwig/Dennis/Patricia/Barry etc., and because it was the first M. Night movie in over a decade to get more than 70% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But I wasn’t expecting to be blown away.

And in some ways, Split lived up to my expectations. As I expected, James McAvoy is incredible in his role. He shifts effortlessly between personalities, giving each of them its own unique mannerisms and body language, and making each one totally believable as a separate person, even though they all look the same. He is incredibly creepy at almost all times, yet it’s still possible to sympathise with him during a lot of scenes, and he’s always fun to watch. I seriously think McAvoy deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. He won’t get one, because it’s a Shyamalan film, but at least it shows he’s a good enough actor to hopefully get that kind of recognition in the future.

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Etcetera.

The non-Kevin characters are…a little iffy. Fortunately, there aren’t many of them. There’s Kevin’s psychiatrist, who specialises in DID. She has a nice relationship with one or two of his personalities, and gives a lot of helpful exposition about her theories on the disorder, but she’s not super memorable. The two kidnapped girls who aren’t Casey are basically non-entities. We barely learn anything about them by the end of the movie, their actresses give mediocre performances at best, and they consistently make bad decisions. They’re there to fulfill a plot function, and nothing more. And it’s a shame that I, as an audience member, think of them that way, because that’s clearly how most of Kevin’s personalities view them as well. I don’t like agreeing with villains, man!

Casey herself is better. She has a personality. She’s smart, resourceful to the point of being manipulative at times, and she has courage. Of course, that doesn’t always stop her from doing dumb horror-movie things like staring at the horrible thing for too long before running away, but give her props for at least trying to out-think the villain. She also has an interesting connection to said villain that is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, very effectively in my opinion. Anya Taylor-Joy does a decent job in the role, but it’s hard for her to look great next to McAvoy.

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“Professor X? How could you?!”

This movie definitely has its problems. There are some extremely clunky lines of dialogue that sound like nothing a human being would ever say (the psychiatrist being the most frequent offender). The story also drags just a bit in the beginning, with some scenes that seem a little repetitive. And although we hear over and over that Kevin has 24 personalities, we only ever get to see about nine of them. Granted, that’s still impressive for one actor, but it would have been kind of nice to see more.

Then there are the other questionable aspects. Like most Shyamalan movies, I think this one suffered from some bad marketing. The trailers make it look like a horror film. It’s not. (Although it does use some horror tropes.) The premise makes it sound like a psychological thriller. It’s not. (Although it does feel like one at times.) It actually belongs to a different genre altogether, which I’ll get to at the end of the review.

I think it’s important to go into this movie knowing that it’s not meant to be a realistic depiction of what it’s like to have DID. I don’t know much about the disorder myself, and from what I hear there are some varying opinions on it, but I’m fairly sure there’s not a single real psychiatrist who would say that people who have it can “change their body chemistry” to the extent that one personality has diabetes while the others don’t. And I don’t think Shyamalan thought that either, since he seems to have done at least a little bit of research on DID. I mean, at least he got the name right. Most of the times I’ve seen it pop up on TV or in movies, it’s called “multiple personality disorder” and played for laughs. But this movie takes some basic facts about a real, though rare, disorder, and exaggerates and twists them to fit a more fantastical narrative. Some people won’t much like that. Personally, I didn’t mind it, because I thought it worked with the kind of story Shyamalan was trying to tell.

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“I respect the mind’s power over the body. It’s why I do what I do.” Wait, wrong psychiatrist.

It’s also important to go into the movie knowing that it features heavily implied child abuse of various kinds. The gory details are never shown, but what is shown will probably be enough to upset many viewers, especially anyone who’s gone through something similar in real life. Then there are the creepy overtones of a strong but mentally unstable man keeping three teenage girls locked in a basement (and yes, one of his personalities is very much a pervert). So, fair warning: just because it’s PG-13, and not a horror movie, that doesn’t mean it can’t be disturbing.

Overall, though, I’d say the movie’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It does a great job of building up an atmosphere of suspense, up until the last half hour or so, when all that tension explodes into a white-knuckle climax. Iffy minor characters aside, the interactions between our heroine and villain are always fascinating, increasingly so as more about their pasts is revealed. There are lots of funny moments scattered about to relieve the tension, mostly courtesy of Kevin’s 9-year-old persona. Shyamalan may not be the greatest at writing dialogue, but his visual storytelling is still pretty sharp, in my opinion. A lot of this story is told through images, body language, and symbols, even though the psychiatrist does spout exposition on occasion. Again, McAvoy has to take some of the credit, since he manages to convey a lot more than the script requires, but I think we can blame the direction for some of it as well.

Okay, now it’s time to talk about why I think this really is quite a good movie. As you’d expect from a Shyamalan film, it has a twist at the end: a revelation that completely changes everything about the movie. And it works better than any Shyamalan twist since The Sixth Sense. To me, it was this twist that put the movie over the line between “okay” and “really good.” But there are two problems with it. One is that not everyone who sees the movie will understand it. I think it’s possible to enjoy Split if you don’t fully understand the ending, but it might be harder, since the twist actually goes a long way towards fixing some of those questionable elements I mentioned earlier. And you wouldn’t understand why it made me yell at the screen. The other problem is that I can’t say anything about the twist without spoiling it, and since it was my favourite thing about the movie, that makes this review kind of difficult for me.

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Here’s one case where the Clark Kent glasses actually DO make someone a completely different person.

What I will say about the ending is that I think it works. It’s foreshadowed throughout the movie in subtle ways, it makes sense, and yet I don’t think anyone could have predicted it if they didn’t know about it beforehand. And it opens up a huge number of great possibilities for the sequel it’s definitely getting. That’s all I can say without spoiling things. If you’ve seen the movie (or don’t plan to), and want to know exactly why I loved the ending, you can scroll to the bottom of the review and find out.

Split, despite its flaws, is a creative movie that takes a surprising number of risks. It doesn’t follow the conventions of its genre, and it demands some thought from its audience. Not everyone will enjoy it, but fans of Shyamalan’s earlier work should definitely consider checking it out.

Grade: B+

 

*SPOILERS FOLLOW*

YAY UNBREAKABLE SEQUEL!!!!!! That was my second favourite (or possibly favourite–I go back and forth between it and The Sixth Sense) Shyamalan movie ever, and I am so stoked to see more stories taking place in its universe. Also, with Marvel dominating the big screen these days, there’s never been a better time to introduce a totally unique, understated, philosophical style of superhero movie. Split focuses on the villain more than Unbreakable did (although Elijah Price was by far the most interesting character even in that movie), giving him an origin story rather than introducing a new hero. Although by the end, it looks like Casey could have some superheroic tendencies as well. I hope so, at least, because I felt her character arc was a bit unfinished, and I’d like to see more of it in the sequel.

Since I somehow managed to avoid Internet spoilers before watching it, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that this movie would be a sequel until the last few minutes, but it works perfectly. Like Unbreakable, it’s very preoccupied with the characters’ search for “purpose” in their lives, and reasons for why those lives are so epically screwed up. Kevin, or “the Horde,” as he’s called by the end, comes up with a rather…unique solution, believing that it’s the pain he’s endured that gives his life meaning, and that people who haven’t suffered like he has are less valuable. Like Elijah’s ideas of purpose, it’s an insane idea that still sounds almost plausible enough to be true…especially considering how the hero mirrors the villain in both cases. I look forward to the sequel, which will no doubt find new and fascinating territory to explore with these characters and this universe…if Shyamalan doesn’t screw it up, of course. Fingers crossed!