W.B. at the movies: Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

A giant sea creature is burrowing up a crowded urban river, tossing boats aside like confetti and generally killing and maiming everyone in its path.

The government calls a meeting. And there, everyone considers forming a committee, which will build a coalition, which will discuss creating a task force that will develop a report. All along, interchangeable faces earnestly debate the options regarding what should be done. And when the time comes to act or die, no one can make a decision.

Meanwhile, the big monster just keeps on a-coming. Continue reading

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W.B. at the movies, at random

Random thoughts while watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, for the first time in a theater audience of 5 including the two of us, nearly two months after its debut:

+ The trailers for upcoming films Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi are much more impressive on the big screen with massive sound than on the standard YouTube screen. (Yeah, I know: Duh.) Also, the trailer for Dunkirk did not make me want to see the film; rather, the opposite. It seems to me the audience for Guardians of the Galaxy may not be the audience for a film heavy on hopelessness, despair, and real-life pain and suffering. Or maybe it’s just me.

+ The new Marvel Studios production logo at the beginning of the film uses movie clips instead of a flutter of pages from old comic books – perhaps an appropriate acknowledgment that superheroes are creatures of cinema more than paper anymore, but it made me sad; perhaps nostalgic is a better word.

+ The original Marvel universe was built around Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and everybody else. Later it was the reimagined X-Men and everybody else. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (it’s capitalized now) have made it Iron Man and Captain America and everybody else. To me the real home runs are being hit in the films about lower-profile characters – the Guardians, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man.

+ By the way, I loved the film.

+ The jaw-dropping geek moment in the closing credits for me – “I think I’ll name him Adam” – rivaled Samuel Jackson’s immortal appearance after Iron Man: “I’d like to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

+ It has been a true trip these last 18 years or so, starting with X-Men, to see the four-color heroes of my childhood transformed with such care to the silver screen. It’s like a validation – See? I told you these stories were cool.

W.B. at the movies: The all-time Top 10

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Well, this is the week when everyone’s talking about what movie is better than another, so why not revisit my list of all-time favorite films?

Notice I say “favorite,” not “best,” because the only real way to measure something like a movie is by the effect it has on you personally.

My favorite four movies have been locked in place for 30-odd years now. Every so often I might watch E.T. again and think, “Wow, have I grown to love Elliott’s story more than Rick and Ilsa or even Dorothy?” but the emotional resonance the older films have with me is hard to shake.

As I noted Monday, this weekend’s exposure to Arrival was a delight on a level I haven’t experienced in many years, probably going back to 2005, when I discovered the great television series Firefly just weeks before its film sequel, Serenity, came to theaters. I haven’t seen any of the other nine films that were nominated for Best Picture this year, and if any of them tickle me more than Arrival did, I guess I’m in for a treat or two.

This tells you more about me than about the films, but for what it’s worth here’s where my all-time favorite list stands after the weekend shakeup … And yes, Arrival is that good. You gotta see it!

1. It’s a Wonderful Life – which I watched at exactly the right time in my life to etch George Bailey’s story into my heart for eternity.

2. The Wizard of Oz – simply the great fantasy movie ever made; oh wait, I guess It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantasy, isn’t it? You know what I mean …

3. Casablanca – great love story, great dialogue, great characters, a simply perfect film.

4. E.T. The Extraterrestrial – a tremendous story of love and transition, backed by the greatest movie score ever composed.

5. Arrival – solving an interstellar puzzle solves so much more in a beautifully written, beautifully acted, beautifully produced film.

6. Serenity – the best TV show ever gets a proper denouement.

7. To Kill a Mockingbird – Until The Martian, the only book that ever made a transition to the big screen that absolutely captures the core material.

8. Raiders of the Lost Ark – the action adventure that showed once and for all how it’s done.

9. Gojira – the original Japanese version of Godzilla is a haunting triumph that more than transcends the guy in the rubber suit destroying a miniature city.

10. A Christmas Story – Jean Shepherd, a genius storyteller, collects his best stories in a family comedy for the ages.

Other films that have moved in and out of #5-10 (or tied for #11) at various times over the years, all of which blew me away on first and subsequent viewings: Glory, Contact, Singing in the Rain, The Best Years of Our Lives, Joyeaux Noel, John Carter, The Empire Strikes Back, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Shenandoah, Ikiru, The Martian, Doctor Strange, Field of Dreams, Meet John Doe, Dances With Wolves, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, Marvel’s The Avengers.

What do you make of this top 10? What am I forgetting? Why would anyone try to rank his favorite movies in order?

W.B. at the movies: Arrival

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Posted late Saturday night on Facebook:

Just watched Arrival.

O.M.G.

Wowzer to the 10th power. “Loved it” and 5 stars doesn’t say what I want to say. What a story! What a film!

All for now.

And now, the more coherent review …

A linguist is tasked with solving an interstellar puzzle. We are drawn to care for her immediately, because we see scenes of her daughter being born, living, and dying too soon as the mom (Amy Adams) narrates the introduction to the film – and then we see her alone, with no sign even of the child’s father – and then the aliens arrive, 12 huge ships scattered around the world, hovering just off the ground.

The story unfolds gently but relentlessly, with this viewer fully engaged. The linguist is recruited to try to communicate with the aliens, figure out what they’re saying and why they’re here – before people’s overwhelming anxiety and fear of the unknown bubbles over into violence.

This story of trying to unravel a puzzle and understand the alien has rarely been told so compellingly, with such a grand payoff. I think of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, of Contact, and, well, that’s the entire list that Arrival joins. Other films have gone this way, but almost none so well.

Arrival is based on a novella called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Obviously if you read that first you’ll lose some of the wonder when – well, you’ll lose some of the wonder. I just bought the collection on Kindle, and the first review loves the book but adds, “This is one of those rare occasions when I’m glad I saw the movie first.”

I’m curious what someone who has read the story would think of the movie, but I also don’t want to rob you of that very cool and very rare moment when you figure out what’s been going on, and the movie makers have surprised and delighted you in a way that you could have seen coming.

At least three or four times during the film I looked over at Red and said, “Oh, this is just great,” and I repeated myself as the end credits rolled. Based on the reviews I was pretty sure I’d love this film, and it more than lived up to my high expectations.

So my advice is to watch the movie first, but I thought I’d dangle that other option out there for you.

Bottom line: I’m going to have to shuffle my list of all-time favorite movies.

How Gareth Edwards became a Jedi Master

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It’s that Star Wars time of year. The first movie not directly part of the Skywalker Saga came out last week, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Red and I haven’t seen it yet – maybe tonight for $5 Tuesdays – but I was intrigued by something director Gareth Edwards was quoted as saying during the publicity run-up:

“I grew up believing in The Force as a kid, and I’m still wondering if it might be true. You shouldn’t get to watch ‘A New Hope’ every day and then grow up to make a Star Wars movie. I’m starting to think it might actually be real.”

Well, of course it’s real.

Obi-Wan Kenobi defined what we’re talking about in the aforementioned A New Hope, which is the “new” name of the 1977 movie called Star Wars for those of us who were old enough to remember when it came out:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Of course it does.

Of course all living things create an energy field that binds the galaxy together, and those who can tap this energy are the greatest of creators. Edwards is right: Not every kid who watched the original movie every day grows up to make a Star Wars movie. But he did.

He devoted his life to gaining the skills necessary to direct a Star Wars movie, and that focused hard work and study led him to a place where he was chosen to do so. He set the course of his life in a way certain to make that not just possible, not just probable, but actually so.

Edwards set out to make a Star Wars movie, and he used The Force to make it happen. He became a Jedi Master.

The greatest scene yet recorded in a Star Wars movie is the one where Luke Skywalker’s ship is buried in a swamp, and Yoda the great teacher instructs Luke to use The Force to lift the vessel out of the muck. (Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before; It always bears repeating.)

“All right, I’ll give it a try,” Luke says.

“No!!” Yoda barks. “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Sure enough, Luke tries as hard as he can but can only move the buried ship a little bit. Yoda steps forward, holds out his hands, concentrates and pulls the ship up and onto solid ground.

“I don’t believe it,” Luke mutters.

“That is why you fail,” Yoda says.

Yep.

A lot of kids grew up loving Star Wars and wanted to try making one of those films. They didn’t. Or maybe they did try, but they didn’t believe in their heart of hearts that it could be done.

Gareth Edwards decided to do it. And he believed that he could.

That’s why when the credits roll, they say “Directed by Gareth Edwards.”

W.B. at the Movies: Doctor Strange

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I was introduced to the Marvel Comics universe with Amazing Spider-Man #4, back in the day, and so my introduction was via the unique visual stylings of the incredible Steve Ditko. Accustomed to the he-man physiques of Superman and Batman, I was drawn to Ditko’s wiry Spider-Man, who really looked like a skinny teenager who had been imbued with the abilities of a radioactive spider. Jack Kirby gets the lion’s share of the credit for creating the “look” of Marvel Comics, but I always loved Steve Ditko more.

And so it should be no surprise that I was also a huge fan of Doctor Strange, Ditko’s other major contribution to the Marvel mythos. A brilliant surgeon whose hands are ruined in a car accident, Stephen Strange learns the mystic arts hoping to regain his delicate touch and is pulled into a magical battle between good and evil.

As uniquely iconic as Ditko’s Spider-Man was, so was Ditko’s mystic universe. It was a psychedelic ’60s collage of worlds turned upside down, planets and stars aligned in ways that were at once familiar and, well, strange. The stories were short but packed with weird adventure, with Strange’s nemesis Baron Mordo, the wisdom of the Ancient One, and reality turned inside out on a regular basis.

I was surprised and thrilled when they announced that Doctor Strange was to get his own major motion picture in the emerging Marvel Cinematic Universe and elated with the casting of the matchless Benedict Cumberbatch, who was born to play Doctor Strange as surely as he was born to play Sherlock Holmes. With the additions of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo and the surprising Tilda Swinton  as the Ancient One, Benedict Wong as Wong, and actors like Rachel MacAdams and Benjamin Bratt in supporting roles, everything seemed aligned for a great motion picture experience.

Even so, I did not expect to be as spectacularly entertained as I was when Red and I watched the film on Tuesday evening. About 20 minutes in, I leaned over and said to her, “This. Is. Tremendous!!!”

OK, I’ve stared at the blinking cursor for about 10 minutes now, trying to put my enthusiasm for this film into words that do not sound over-the-top effusive, so let me just go into full fanboy mode: Doctor Strange is, in my humble opinion, the best comic book movie to date. It’s loyal to the source material to the point that many scenes and special effects clearly used Ditko’s original work as story boards; the cast of brilliant actors forms a brilliant ensemble; the hero’s journey of Stephen Strange is well crafted, thrilling and as downright believable as can be given it’s a journey through alternate dimensions via astral form.

As the closing credits rolled, I was excited as I’ve been, probably, since the first or second Spider-Man movie, and the “bonus” scenes took me to a higher level of excitement. Marvel Studios has done it again. Wowzer. I can’t recommend this movie with more enthusiasm. ’Nuff said.

Stop crashing the Enterprise

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Why do they keep destroying the Enterprise in the Star Trek movies?

The latest entry in the saga, Star Trek Beyond (out on BlueRay and DVD today), is the third film to send the venerable starship to its crashing doom. A guy gets tired of it after a while.

The Enterprise was introduced as humanity’s greatest technological achievement, the flagship of the noble quest to go where no one has gone before. It was an enormous vessel that comfortably transported a small city through the harsh environment of outer space. It’s a treacherous journey, but they made it.

Destroy the Enterprise and you take home away. Destroy the Enterprise and destroy hope. The Enterprise is a character in itself – food, shelter and family are all contained within its sturdy walls.

It’s a disconnect with the essential premise of the series: Let’s take hundreds of souls out to explore the great unknown in an ambitious enterprise – and then crash-land the very symbol of that enterprise? Over and over again?

Joss Whedon wrecked the Serenity, the ship that powered another great science fiction franchise, Firefly. But after the wreck they repaired the ship and flew again. Captain Mal Reynolds’ enterprise was shaken, bruised and battered, but you can’t stop the signal. You can’t destroy the enterprise.

Yes, I know that’s the point – our heroic starship crews escape the crash to live and triumph another day. Home is where the crew is, and all that. But seeing the NCC-1701 burn across the sky in Star Trek III shook me to the bone. When they did it to the 1701-D in Star Trek: Generations, I just got angry. This time, in the third installment of the reboot, I accepted it as mirroring the original third installment – but my shock and disappointment was also mirrored.

Don’t get me wrong, Star Trek Beyond is my favorite voyage with the new crew to date. It’s a terrific two hours of entertainment. I’m just getting tired of mourning the Enterprise.