Wonder Woman

Directed by the first female director of a superhero film with a female protagonist, Wonder Woman is one of the better comic book superhero movies that I have seen because it effectively blends action, humor, and drama, all underscored by a unique feminist approach. We first meet Diana, later known as Wonder Woman and played by the beautiful and strong Israeli actress Gal Gadot, as she grows up on the mystical island of Themyscira, which is home to the female warriors the Amazons, and begs her mother Queen Hippolyta to train as an Amazonian warrior. Her aunt General Antiope considered the greatest fighter, played by Robin Wright, secretly trains Diana to become one of the best warriors on the island. Throughout the first part of the film, we learn the back story based on ancient Greek mythology of the Amazons: they are a group of strong females created by Zeus to protect humanity against Ares, the god of war who murdered all of the gods except Zeus, and his corrupting influence on mankind to engage in war. Suddenly Diana’s idyllic life changes after she rescues Steve Trevor, played by the charismatic Chris Pine, who is an American pilot spying for the British whose airplane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. Eventually, Diana travels with Steve to help bring World War I to a peaceful end and prevent the use of a new deadly chemical weapon developed by the evil female scientist Doctor Maru, also known as Doctor Poison, under the guidance of the equally villainous German General Erich Ludendorff, played by Danny Huston. When Diana first arrives in London, the movie becomes more of a funny fish out of water story as she tries to understand feminine fashion and that she cannot carry a sword and shield out in public. Eventually, Diana and Steve along with Steve’s hodgepodge team, including Sameer the North African spy, Charlie the drunk Scottish marksman, and Chief the Native American smuggler, make their way to the Western front in Belgium in hopes of discovering Ludendorff’s weapons factory. In an unusual twist for the superhero genre, Diana is the one with super-strength and superhero powers who helps the male protagonists complete their mission and kill most of the bad guys. At times, Steve and other men are shocked and somewhat embarrassed when they see Diana outmaneuver and outfight them. The film ends with Diana facing an unlikely enemy and losing a newly loved one, but, otherwise, she successfully completes her mission to save human lives. Overall, I found the movie to lend a greatly refreshing take on the wildly successful yet male-dominated superhero genre by creating a strong-willed feminist superhero who can take down the bad guys herself without male intervention. The filmmaker is able to avoid the pitfalls of many recent DC Comics movies and craft a greatly entertaining action hero film, complete with realistic World War I settings and explosive CGI effects while subtly relaying a message of female empowerment and equality for Hollywood and beyond.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The fifth film in the Hollywood Blockbuster movie series beginning with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl released in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining swashbuckling fantasy that ultimately suffers from being basically a retread of the previous films and not as fun and innovative as the original. The highlight of every Pirates of the Caribbean is Johnny Depp’s character Captain Jack Sparrow who is both charismatic and a buffoon that keeps audiences entertained. This film follows Henry who is the son of Will Turner, previously played by Orlando Bloom, and the beautiful Elizabeth Swann, previously played by Keira Knightley, as he embarks on an adventure to release his father from a curse by finding the mythical Trident of Poseidon. He is faced with daunting obstacles, especially after encountering the villainous undead Spanish Captain Salazar and his equally cursed crew. Salazar, played by Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, is also trying to find the Trident to break his spell and leaves a path of shipwrecks to enact revenge. At the same time, a young woman named Carina is imprisoned for witchcraft and eventually meets up with Henry and Jack, and they all escape after Carina tells them of a way to find the Trident of Poseidon. Also, Captain Barbossa, played by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, is searching for Jack while Salazar pursues him and destroys much of Barbossa’s fleet. After eventually making a deal with Salazar, Barbossa switches allegiance to Jack, Henry, and Carina in hopes of finding the Trident. All of the film’s constant, almost excessive compared to the other movies, swashbuckling and high-speed and often explosive maritime chases across the Caribbean finally lead all of the characters to an island and an epic fantastical CGI-enhanced sea battle. Overall, I found it to be your typical summer blockbuster sequel that was an unnecessary addition to the already bloated Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; the originality is lost at sea, and it feels like the same movie as the others, even with the new young characters Henry and Carina appearing as look-alikes of Will and Elizabeth. 

Chuck

Based on the true story that inspired the Rocky films, Chuck is a boxing biopic about Chuck Wepner, the sports folk hero from the working-class town Bayonne, New Jersey and known as The Bayonne Bleeder, and his struggles in life following his fifteen minutes of fame, boxing Muhammad Ali. A small-time professional boxer who lives paycheck-to-paycheck as an alcohol salesman, Chuck, terrifically played by Liev Schreiber, gets a once-in-a-lifetime offer from the famous boxing promoter Don King to fight the reigning heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali in 1975. In typical fashion for a boxing movie, the scenes preceding the much-hyped match follow his strict training regimen with encouragement from his manager and trainer played by Ron Perlman. Although he ultimately loses the fight, he is praised as a underdog hero after valiantly holding off Ali for fifteen rounds, which everyone thought impossible. Already a drunk and overall mess, he gets into further marital problems with his wife Phyllis, played by Elisabeth Moss, after his sudden rise to fame. His wife and kids eventually leave him, and he begins a relationship with the local bartender Linda, played by Naomi Watts. With the release of the hugely successful film Rocky in 1976, Chuck constantly brags about being the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone and even attempts to contact Stallone despite not receiving a penny from the movie. He finally gets to meet Sylvester Stallone, and he is offered a small role in Rocky II set to be released in 1979. His increasing minor celebrity status leads to more alcohol and a severe cocaine addiction, which further wreaks havoc in his already chaotic life as he is having trouble finding work. Overall, I thought it was a good, albeit a rather cookie-cutter boxing film whose redeeming qualities include the strong acting performance of Liev Schreiber and the fascinating and largely unheard of story about the man who inspired the great Rocky character. 

The Wall

Directed by Doug Liman who directed 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, The Wall is a gritty psychological war thriller about two American soldiers ambushed and trapped by a mysterious sniper while on a mission by themselves in the Iraqi desert shortly after the Iraq War. Sniper and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews, played by professional wrestler John Cena, and his spotter Sergeant Allen Isaac, played by Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are on a relatively simple scouting operation but are unexpectedly shot at by an unseen sniper while waiting for extraction. Matthews is critically wounded out in the open and Isaac tries to rescue him but is forced to hide behind a crumbling wall after another barrage of sniper fire. Himself slightly injured, Isaac is unable to radio headquarters because their long-distance radio is damaged, but all of a sudden a mysterious voice appears on the two-way radio. Isaac soon learns that the man is an infamous Iraqi civilian sniper nicknamed Juba and is the one who has been shooting at them. With the wall as his only protection, Isaac desperately tries to find Juba’s location while dealing with dehydration and his bleeding leg wound. He becomes increasingly frustrated because Juba continues to try to engage in strangely friendly conversation about Isaac’s life and how the American military is destroying his country. At the end of the movie, it appears Isaac and the now slightly conscious Matthews have a chance to survive, but Juba may still have the upper hand. For a war movie, there are surprisingly few action sequences, and it resembles more of a intimate psychological thriller between two adversaries, Isaac and Juba, in a life-or-death situation. The film reminds me of another movie that I saw recently, 2016’s Mine in which the protagonist is by himself but is trapped by stepping on a landmine and also must deal with the psychological issues of dying in combat alone. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did a good job of presenting a psychological thriller, but the film never fully rises to its potential and is primarily remarkable only for its unique context and wartime setting. 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Directed by Guy Ritchie who is known for stylish thrillers like 2000’s Snatch, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a unique and visually over-the-top take on the classic legendary story of King Arthur and Camelot. The star-studded cast and director gives a certain gravitas but, unfortunately, the film is nothing more than an average attempt at a Hollywood blockbuster Medieval action/adventure with the hopes of booting a highly profitable series of sequels. The movie begins with a fast-moving epic battle sequence at Camelot between malevolent fantastical forces known as mage and Uther the king of Britons, played briefly by Eric Bana. Ultimately, the king is killed and his scheming brother Vortigern, played by a cunning Jude Law, ascends to the throne but Uther’s young son escapes. The new brutal king spends years searching for his nephew who threatens his rule, and the appearance of the sword Excalibur, which can only be removed by the rightful heir to the throne, gives him a test to find his nephew. It turns out that his nephew is Arthur who lived for most of his life in a London brothel unaware of his heritage and portrayed by new action star Charlie Hunnam. After he is able to extract Excalibur, he must live a life on the run from his uncle’s vicious soldiers known as Blacklegs. Eventually, he teams up with his father’s former general Sir Bedivere, played by Djimon Hounsou, and his loyalists, a character played by the terrific Aidan Gillen of Game of Thrones fame, a mage who worked with Merlin, and some of his friends from the brothel. He must first go on an adventure and learn how to harness the sheer power of Excalibur, which he could not handle at first. With his renewed strength, Arthur leads several ambushes on the Blacklegs, and he eventually successfully confronts his evil uncle who has sacrificed many of their relatives to gain mystical power. At the end of the movie, Arthur becomes who he was predestined to become and hints of the creation of the Knights of the Round Table. In typical Guy Ritchie fashion, many of the scenes include narration on top of frenetic and bloody stylish fight sequences and often includes flashbacks and flash-forwards. However, the quickfire editing sometimes creates a convoluted narrative that looks pretty but may be hard to follow. Also, the over-the-top fantastical elements and the extremely dark and mysterious atmosphere and mood of the film undercuts the classic Arthurian stories the audience may remember. Overall, I found that Guy Ritchie brought a certain amount of energy to the age-old King Arthur tales, but the movie ultimately failed with its over-reliance on style rather than substance.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Written and directed by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is a terrifically well-crafted film about a scheming small-time fixer in New York City; Richard Gere’s devastating performance is what makes the film truly great. When we first meet Norman Oppenheimer, played by Richard Gere in one of his greatest roles, he is down on his luck and is desperate for any business connection and willing to do almost anything to be a well-respected fixer. Like we do not know much about his personal history, what he actually does as a fixer and how he makes money is never very clear in the movie. Many people he encounters who recognize him actively avoid him, including Dan Stevens’ character who is given a business deal while jogging in Central Park and must literally run away from Norman. Eventually, he befriends the minor Israeli politician Eshel, played by Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, and buys him a very expensive pair of shoes. The movie fast-forwards three years when Eshel rises to power in Israeli politics and becomes the prime minister of Israel. Norman, who still has not been very successful as a fixer, tries to cultivate this relationship with such a powerful man as Eshel but to no avail because he is never allowed to communicate with him. At the same time, Norman plays up his relationship and finds himself entangled in a whole set of deals with those who previously ignored him, including his quasi-friend played by Michael Sheen and his rabbi desperate for funds to keep the synagogue and played by Steve Buscemi. Acting out like a Shakespearean tragedy or a Woody Allen film, Norman’s life begins to rapidly unravel and is scapegoated by a hesitant Eshel who is being investigated for corruption. The best part of the film is Richard Gere’s nuanced performance as a desperate man who comes off as a scheming and not skillful fixer. Overall, I enjoyed the well-timed pacing and elaborate writing that made the movie feel more like a dramatic play, complete with a star-studded cast and the superb Richard Gere.

Finding Oscar

Produced by Steven Spielberg, Finding Oscar is a riveting and shocking documentary about one of the largest massacres during the 36 year-long Guatemalan Civil War. Under the de facto military president, an elite group of soldiers tasked with eliminating guerrilla fighters entered the small rural village Dos Erres in December 1982 allegedly to flush out the anti-government fighters supposedly hiding in the village. What unfolded was the killing of over two hundred innocent men, women, and children who were beaten to death and thrown into a local well. Only two young boys survived, and they were taken by two soldiers to become members of their family. The film follows the contemporary forensic anthropologists who went through the victim’s skeletal remains to uncover the truth that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the massacre. In hopes of gathering more details and an eyewitness account of that day, a group of activists search the world for the two surviving boys, especially a boy named Oscar who was particularly hard to find. Through the accounts of the forensic anthropologists, activists, lawyers, some of the soldiers that committed the atrocities, and surviving family members, we learn about a war that many in the United States are unaware of and the unheard of war crimes, including the estimated 200,000 dead civilians and this particularly horrific massacre. More disturbing is the fact that the United States government and President Ronald Reagan supported the Guatemalan regime and had friendly meetings with the very president who ordered the massacre around the same time. Overall, I found it to be a terrific documentary that highlights a atrociously bloody war that took place in our hemisphere yet most Americans know nothing about; this powerful film provides a much-needed history lesson about Guatemala and the questionable dealings of the United States had with the regimes during the Civil War.