Wonder Woman (****1/2): It’s about what you believe

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Wonder Woman – 2017

Director Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allen Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis

It’s a miracle that it took 4 movies for the DC Extended Universe to finally find a gem upon which to place its foundation.  This is the film that should shape the rest of the series if they want to find their way out of the muck and mire of the previous entries. There has been much film making talent exhibited, but no one has told a half-way decent story until Patty Jenkins and Allen Heinberg shepherded the story of one of the archetypal heroes of the last 100 years into an approachably human tale of horror, frailty, heroism and the power that compels the best in all of us: love.

The story in brief is a flashback to the events in and around WWI, where a spy (Pine) is shot down over a mystical island sanctuary of Amazon warriors, lead by a Queen (Nielsen) and her supreme General sister (Wright). The Queen’s daughter, Diana, formed out of clay and given life by the dying light of Zeus, has been groomed as a defender of the planet by her aunt, and somewhat hidden by her mother. The presence of the spy changes everything, and sets Diana off on a mission to end the war to end all wars by taking on Aries, the God of War.

The strengths in this film are many. The casting of Gadot by team Snyder might be the best thing they’ve brought to the DCEU. She is one of the brightest lights of BvS, and this story allows us to find the motivation behind her mysterious debut in that film. We see every side of her here and Gadot hits every destination in the path on the super hero journey. She shows more range than most are allowed when they wear ridiculous outfits. Hers is a fully fleshed and feeling character that uses the emotions on her sleeve as a strength of her character. She acts as a passenger of the story when necessary, but when action is required, she literally steps onto the field and changes fate, rather than surrender to it.

This is a film I am glad I saw with my girls, because while I wanted to show them women could be heroes too. When I left, I realized that I had been duped. Instead of seeing a film in which a girl acted more powerful than men, we all saw a hero that did the things in ways and for reasons that only women would do. In the end, Gadot allows herself to learn lessons without condemning herself for what might be conceived as mistakes. Everything she does is with a soft nature that is simultaneously lethal. She is here to punish the punishers, but she’s also here to gaze with wonder at the beauty of living. This is such an intricate balance to achieve, I am astounded at the performance. It’s truly a star making role that in my estimation is worthy of a nomination for an Oscar as any comic based film ever has seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

This says nothing about the exceptional physicality that Gadot expresses as the Wonder Woman of the title. It is obvious that her training as a member of the Israeli military. She is a physical specimen and is enjoyable to watch as a believable warrior. There are only a few times where they make her look goofy (long jumps especially). Her actions in going house to house saving the small town are delightful and epic as any super deserves.

Having the right kind of character to counter a super is essential. As Steve Trevor, Pine has found his second great role. He is a dedicated warrior and he plays as good a mentor for the human race as Diana of Themyscira could ever want. When he breaks through the mystical barrier (somewhat weakened by Diana’s discovery of her powers, presumably) he sets off a series of events that forever changes the future of the Amazon princess, and humanity. His dedication to mission parallel’s Diana’s own, even if they are not going after the same target. It’s the difference in target that allows his character to be more than Wonder Woman’s rib, to cross reference with the Bible. Along the way, they are somewhat equal but with different roles to play.

Pine has the right kind of assured persona to play a unique second fiddle. He is not a super power, but he’s got pluck and genuine feelings for Diana, that she learns to appreciate and reciprocate. Jenkins is a pro when it comes to the development of their relationship. We see it for a romance, not for a function of plot. It’s hard to disguise something you’ve seen 1000 times and make it feel fresh. And it takes a supreme confidence to make a passionate climax to said relationship and have it shown as a light in the window on a cold night.

Jenkins’ touch is exquisitely ornate. We get a real sense of the human tragedy in such a gruesome war with a minimal amount of blood and carnage. She shows herself  and cinematographer Matthew Jensen as masters of camera placement. There is no better example of this than when Diana rushes headlong into a town that has been bombed with poison gas. We get only the barest hint of the wasted lives but the full effect of horror just by watching the consuming grief on Gadot’s face. It’s a misery worthy of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

Just as effective is the sequence towards the end when we see what it means to sacrifice with no chance at escape. The effect of the decision of both leads could not have been more effectively exhibited or embraced by the camera.

The rest of the cast is as well-chosen as played. Robin Wright is never onscreen enough. I found myself as fascinated by her scar ridden beauty as I was Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wournos in Jenkins’ other masterpiece, Monster. Jenkins and Wright know as much about telling us the story that took place off-screen as the one that took place in front of us.

Where the heck has Neilsen been?  I am happy for her inclusion, as I thought we’d never stop seeing her after her breakthrough performance in Gladiator. Then we stopped seeing her. She did very little between 2006 through 2014, but she’s getting a lot of work lately. She will be in the upcoming Justice League film and hopefully subsequent Wonder Woman sequels.

Pine’s rag-tag United Nations team is interesting if for no other reason they provide things besides muscle and firepower. Giving one of them PTSD and how Diana helps the character find a use beyond it is a refreshing departure from the stereotype.

Danny Huston hits the right note as General Erich Ludendorff, a vile and despicable real life predecessor of the Nazi movement. His work with the fictional Isabel Maru (Anaya) succinctly represents the horror that emanates from that part of the world for the first half of the 20th Century. Huston is often the best thing in bad films. This time he is a good thing in a great film.

One of the big strengths of the film is the writing of Heinberg. He really understands the journey a hero has to take to be developed into an interesting character involves more than figuring out how the weapons and the outfit works. In blending the bad characters within the framework of actual events, he is able to give strength without having to go too far to find examples of how evil works its mechanations on us mere mortals. Giving us a devil hiding in plain sight as a whisperer is a stroke of genius. Too bad they didn’t let that impulse ride to a better showdown.

The film is nearly a masterpiece, were it not for some unfortunate computer animation choices towards the end. Making the final combat a collection of big, bigger and biggest strikes is a little too close to BvS territory, when a battle of wits would have more effectively matched the tone of seduction that was being applied. It’s almost someone in the producer’s office said “Yeah, that’s nice. But more explosions would be better.”

It’s not always better. In fact, it never is anymore. If we follow the feeling that Jenkins took time to formulate and sculpt in the future, this could show the redemptive force of a woman that comic book movies could really use.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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Suicide Squad (***1/2) shall remain standing

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Suicide Squad – 2016

Writer and Director David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnamen, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Alain Chanoine, Jared Leto

This movie barely got out of the gates before being slaughtered by reviews. Normally I don’t make a practice of mentioning other gasbags, because Lord knows I value my own gasbagging so much more. In the end, it all doesn’t matter too much. This time, I have to say, something dumb is afoot, and the stupidity is not on the screen.

Suicide Squad, for better or worse, is a latter day DC comic book film. The outlook is dark and more than a little hopeless. The characters are disposable, except for a few. The bad guys are an afterthought and a little too CGI heavy. The things that make one uncomfortable about portrayals in the largely sexist and violent, especially regarding The Joker (Leto) will find those same things here.

If you rule this film out because the word is that it is somehow equally miserable as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you aren’t trying hard enough to enjoy life. In all fairness, those who did not take to that math problem of a film or it’s measurably better Director’s cut, there is a reason to approach cautiously any film in this Universe that they’ve put in Zack Snyder’s hands, as producer or otherwise.

That alone is not reason enough to avoid giving David Ayers a chance. The artist responsible for Training Day, End of Watch and Fury deserves your time. Suicide Squad would have been a worthless pile in many other hands.

The story starts in the wake of events that culminate with Superman’s death. We get a series of introductions as we get to see Federal Intelligence Operative Amanda Waller (Davis) reveal her plans. Some characters get two intross, one’s first meeting is strangely absent until they are on the tarmac. When we see what happens to this sinister agent, it becomes apparent why they did not invest too much time.

Waller’s plan is the formation of a team of “metahumans” who are the baddest of bad criminals that shall be used to accomplish missions for the government. In essence, her rationale is that they need people of extraordinary ability who can take out “the next Superman,” if that one turns out to be bad. If it seems a little thin, well, so did the comic book’s premise. Who’s counting though?

These agents of misfortune are given an offer they cannot refuse in any way, then they are pushed out into their first mission. Will things work out for this crew? When it does, will they get what they are promised? Well, yes to the first question. Of course. It’s the first of a kind of film franchise that they would love to continue. As for the second question, the amount everyone gets is directly proportional to how well this film does and whether refrained from signing a multi-picture deal.

The characters are numerous and differently talented. Some of these talents are useful, some are not as much. Most importantly, are they entertaining? In large part, they are. Robbie absolutely steals the film from her catbird seat. It’s a glorious thing that we get to see Harley Quinn in all of her glory, before she’s is relegated to second banana in a later film tied to The Joker’s insane and often wearying shenanigans. There are zero moments that her mad doctor graces the screen where she is not the character most worthy of our attention.

The only one close to Robbie’s magnetism is Will Smith, who gives his career a necessary jolt with his truly identifiable Deadshot. That he’s given multiple dimensions is not a surprise. He has the chops to pull off the anti-hero that we all can rally behind. He even overcomes a tired subplot of faux-tension with an overly antagonistic Flag (Kinnamen) with charisma beyond the contrivance.

Viola Davis is convincingly charmless and ruthless as Waller. Her acting ability is better than her type of character normally gets or deserves. There is a gravity prevalent that gives the viewer confidence that Waller has the intelligence to survive, so it makes up for the film’s lack of a compelling main villain.

There are drawbacks, to be sure, that keep this film closer to average than classic. First and foremost, Leto’s Joker barely registers. It’s not that this is a bad thing for this reviewer, as the more one heard about the Dallas’ Buyers Club Oscar Winner “method acting” for this role, the more troubled the production appeared. He has a handful of scenes that are pushed to the forefront. The biggest bouts of sexism occur when we look back on his history with Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Even if you know that’s their particular kink, it is not easy to process. There is even a scene with Common that makes absolutely no sense, which – one could suppose – is the point.

This seems to be the summer of villains who don’t do shit. We’ve had some horrible antagonists with Apocalypse,  Krall and now Enchantress (Delevigne). Their job, essentially is to make big plans with the thinnest of motivations. If that seems too much, they also need to wait long enough to for the plot to bring the good guys in the vicinity where, you know, the magic happens. The effects, and especially the dialogue for Delevigne’s Enchantress approaches comically bad. This is deadening to the momentum of each film. It makes one wonder if this is what is what is forcing Marvel’s hand in their re-evaluation of the Avengers Infinity Wars. Two movies of a charmless nemesis Thanos waiting for the inevitable just seems agonizing.

Fortunately this is countered by some excellent work by the less developed characters like El Diablo, Killer Croc and Boomerang (Hernandez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje). All three provide the film with some real entertainment during points in which the story battles inertia. Courtney is a big surprise. It’s rare that he finds a role that allows him to show any amount of charm. Hernandez’ work is especially fulfilling. The marriage of character and story for El Diablo is resonant enough that it gives yet another example of Ayer’s instinct for portraying Hispanic characters with a remarkable depth and clarity. He’s caucasian, just like this reviewer. With only my experiences to draw upon, his Hispanic male characters always resonate for me.

Other things to enjoy are the cameos. I will not go into detail, other than to let you know there are more than one and they do add dimension to the film. Hang on after the credits too past the incredibly apt Twenty-One Pilots song Heathens  and a wonderful collage.

Add up the positives, subtract the negatives and it’s an easy win for Suicide Squad. This movie, especially for Robbie and Smith’s performances, will be watchable for years. If you want to find stuff to hate about the story and film, you will have no problem doing so. If one is honest, the film is definitely likable, even if it does not approach classic overall.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (**) – Why build a miracle at all?

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – 2016

Director Zack Snyder
Screenplay Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

“What goes up must come down.
What must rise must fall…
And what goes on in your life
Is writing on the wall!
If all things must fall,
Why build a miracle at all?…”

Alan Parsons Project, 1978

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not the colossal failure everyone wants to proclaim. It’s about as cumbersome as Batman’s suit during their second meeting with the weight of its self-importance. It forgets that there are two characters in the title. In terms of story, it unwinds like more a math problem. It feels like they tried to set up D.C.’s version of The Avengers in one big bloated carcass of a movie. Still, with all of that going against it, I believe it squeaks by as a film that is a passable, if not all that likable building block to a franchise. If this is The Phantom Menace, let’s hope The Justice League is not Attack of the Clones.

The thing about Zack Snyder is that I generally enjoy his view on the cinematic world. His movies are usually visual masterpieces that, while not perfect, are at least memorable. The Watchmen, still his best work, actually improved upon the comic for me by making the ending an existential question. His version of Dawn of the Dead is still the best zombie movie I have ever seen. Man of Steel is, until the last act, perhaps the best Superman film. Somehow he forgot that Kal El is supposed to lead the carnage away from civilization…and that smile on Clark Kent’s face just doesn’t jibe with so many people dead.

They barely let the credits roll when the decision was made to contort the sequel into this grab bag of scenes and pulpy carnage in Snyder’s estimation of the modern version of a D.C. story line. They conscientiously moved away from the reliable but admittedly routine chuckle a minute Marvel formula. They also moved away from moments of wonder that are best fed in moderation.

After yet another young Bruce Wayne tragic awakening scene, we get a segue into the climax of Man of Steel, with the big ship falling into the sky and Superman (Cavill) working over Zod’s soon to be corpse in the background. Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has decided to fly into Metropolis as…Bruce Wayne. In a helicopter. Even with those means, he lands the copter several blocks away and drives in, until the roads are, soon enough, impassible. Then he runs. Again, as Bruce Wayne. Why does he do this?  Because Batman might have gotten there and actually helped more people maybe?  Well probably not. The Earth itself is knocked all to hell. How is Batman going to do anything about that?  Don’t think too hard about it. They didn’t.

So Bruce Wayne lost some employees and one friend we never really get to know. That’s alright for this story, though. We lose Jimmy Olsen a few minutes later when he’s going undercover during a Lois Lane interview with a bad guy.  Superman kills the bad guy after he holds Lane hostage, but back in Gotham/Metropolis, Bruce/Batman is stewing. The world has mixed feelings about Batman, who has been operating for years. He’s taken to branding his victims lately. They also don’t know what to make of Superman. This means the two heroes find one another on the opposite side of the justice spectrum.

The writers go to some lengths to establish these feelings, but the inclusion of Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor makes a jumble of it. Luthor likely knows the identity of both when he brings them together at a party. Also at this party is Diana Prince (Gadot). We know who she is, but Bruce and Clark will not until they need her, later in the film.

Anyone who has seen even the second commercial knows what happens from this point, which made seeing it somewhat redundant. There are angles that work (Batman), some that are forced (Luthor) and some that rely too much on Lois being an investigator and not enough on her boyfriend.

For what is supposed to be a sequel, it feels more like Batman with a bunch of Superman’s supporting cast. The reason for them to battle (even in the comic) has always been a little too counter-intuitive to their supposed intelligence. Still, the fact that we do not spend more than a few frames contemplating alternate identities is a plus.

As before, Snyder puts way too much into the last act. They make some overt attempts to intimate that the battles are taking place away from populated areas, but…come on. These folks do more damage than Godzilla meeting King Kong. In the midst of this, we do get a nice, somewhat nuanced subplot with Wonder Woman that makes her upcoming movie feel more interesting than Captain America’s.

We get to see a a video collection of other “Meta humans” who have been tracked down in a method convenient to the Justice League plot, but nowhere near any sort of canon. Even more, the titular battle is halted for a reason that makes no sense. Perhaps though it is commonplace in the dark D.C. Universe for people to refer to a parent by their first name.

The film is dark. Oh Lord is it dark. It feels like we have a giant boot to the neck for most of the 2.5 hour running time. If they were going for serious, the settled for constant heart attack inducing stress. Why do we have to make this world so dark?  It’s okay to see amazing things without seeing several caskets roll by throughout the film.

Who do we blame?  Most of it belongs to Charles Roven and Team Snyder. This whole format is in their guiding hands for now. The story provided by Goyer and altered by Terrio feels piecemeal. Goyer is on the hook for the two Justice League films. The franchise feels like a deeper hole than even they were anticipating. Word has it that there are a series of re-shoots even this late in the game to Suicide Squad in order to brighten the tone, even just a little.

It’s not that I hate this film. It’s got some good, albeit disconnected moments. The task of entering the DC Universe mid-step means it will necessarily be different than the origin story heavy Marvel Universe. A used universe is fine with this reviewer. It just shouldn’t have to require one to watch Blade Runner to lighten the mood afterword.

(** out of *****)

Cool Papa E Reviews Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight / Batman Series

One of the best examples of a reboot in cinematic history, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy comes to an end July 20, 2012.  As sad as it will be that it has ended, it has been a historic masterpiece and one wonderful ride.  The best thing it did was to cleanse the visionary palate of a public that had to put up with a quartet prior movies that seemed like a good idea at the time, but have not aged well at all.  That was another time and another place.  There is no point in rehashing the sins of the 90’s version of Batman, other than to say that this series cemented Bale, Oldman, Ledger and quite likely Hardy as legends and established Christopher Nolan as a director with a one of a kind vision, style and technique that is at once classic and unprecedented.

Batman Begins – 2005

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkenson
Screenplay by David S. Goyer

Review: A movie that gets better with repeated viewings.  Nolan takes an unorthodox approach in the first half of the film, going back and forth in the life of the young Bruce Wayne, thereby avoiding the typical feeling of an origin story.  Bale is more than up for the task of playing both an overzealous young man and an older, more cautious Wayne. All the while, he is able to toss off the irresponsible persona with the irreverence it deserves.
The rest of the cast is top notch, starting with Michael Caine as a caring yet lethal Alfred.  Katie Holmes gives a straightforward portrayal as Rachel, with the requisite arm’s length chemistry in her relationship with Bruce.  Freeman as Lucius Fox and Oldman as Gordon are performances that push this saga from comic book movie to dramatic adventure.  Neeson and Murphy give an excellent combination of brute force, guile and intelligence.  While Ra’s al Ghul (Neeson) has his reasons for megalomania, that he is the head of an order dedicated to chaos prevents it from becoming silly in the slightest. The drugs that the Scarecrow pushes have a type of brilliance, allowing for monstrosity, while keeping it in the realm of the possible.

The plot is well conceived and thought through.  The direction is pristine, evenly-paced, and actors, even those against type, allowed to shine without becoming grotesque embellishments.  Nolan took this task as seriously as anyone could, and we all benefit from it.

What we’ll miss most:  Freeman’s role goes from jailed genius to co-conspirator, to friend then head of the enterprise.  His smile in the conclusion is enjoyable in the way it shows his entire journey and has not one hint of malice.

Rating: (***** out of *****)

The Dark Knight – 2008

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhardt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Eric Roberts
Screenplay by Johnathan and Christopher Nolan

Review: There is an intense, propulsive beat through the opening cords of the film that never really let the viewer go.  Grabbing the imagination of the viewer through sound and an amazing optical feast that served as an excellent lead-up to his best movie, Inception. Everything about this film ups the ante from the original, from the acting, the direction, the score to the story that just keeps pushing the characters to the brink and beyond.
Eckhardt attacks the role of Harvey Dent with an earnest ferocity that belies the story’s comic book roots.  His dedication is real…but then, so is the dedication of The Joker, in a career making (and pretty much career ending) portrayal by Ledger.  What seemed like ridiculous casting when announced turned out out to be the move that made the series the finest superhero set of all time, provided the last one doesn’t blow it completely (not likely).  Ledger posthumously nabbed an Oscar, with his winsome, warped and completely different examination of the other side of the “freak” that is Batman.
“I’m not a monster,” he states with aplomb, ” I’m just ahead of the curve.”
Cue music, a siren score of increasing ferocity.  The end is near, but not near enough.  What follows is intense, but not nearly as intense as everything that follows the explosion.
So powerful is the story, it overcomes the few weaknesses of the film.  Gone is the effective Katie Holmes as Rachel.  In her place, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who just doesn’t cut it. Smug and smarmy where Holmes was dedicated and forward, Gyllenhaal is almost entirely comprised of nuance.  What is needed is something substantial as the rest of the film.
How in the hell did Eric Roberts get a role in this film?  His Sal Maroni is about as close as the series get to having a character of the caliber of the Burton / Schumacher films.  Even worse, now he gets to go around the talk show circuit, acting as if he has even a small part in the success of this enterprise.
Nolan and his brother carry out so much more than the sum of its parts, though.  It’s power and grace are majestic in scope and execution.  The IMAX scenes are seamless and beautiful, and the story is beautiful too.  Sadly so.

What we’ll miss most: I think it is obvious that Ledger left an indelible mark that can never be touched again.  I hope for the best for Hardy, and I think he will deliver.  It’s impossible to see him topping this.

Rating: (***** out of *****)

The Dark Knight Rises – 2012

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan

Review: Here

What we’ll miss most: The whole series will never be topped.  Too many things to choose.

Rating: ****1/2