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

WWmovie

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 *****)

Advertisements

Big Eyes (***) – It’s just a bunch of one big lie

big-eyes-poster-

Big Eyes – 2014

Director Tim Burton
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur
Screenplay Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

 The more you lie, the smaller you seem.

Slogging through Tim Burton films has felt like work ever since the first time I watched Edward Scissorhands. Riding the wave of the success of Batman without succumbing to the criticism of the movie’s weaknesses (which have only become more prevalent with time), Burton was given the gift of Johnny Depp’s overly expressive eyes near the beginning of his meteoric rise in fame. He didn’t waste it. The key for him then, as it had been for most of his career since has always been in casting the quirky, not quite accepted teen girl with whom every girl in the audience could identify. The swooning for the damaged heroes seemed much more natural in that time. The chore came in viewing the story as a quirky, not quite accepted young man. It all felt like so much manipulation of a slight talent into big sales.

This time around, the not quite accepted girl is a divorced woman, Margaret (Adams), who tries to get some recognition for her adorable talents as a painter of young children with big eyes. The journey to her self-discovery is delayed by her marriage to Walter Keane (Waltz). His success in selling her artwork as his own for increasingly larger amounts of money puts her in the position of supporting his lies through the labor of her art. The reason behind this subterfuge is her lack of belief in her ability to support herself and her daughter and his unwillingness to tell the truth. And lets not forget the large amounts of money that the cycle created for everyone in the process.

Adams plays her character straight enough. The problem is, she feels less like a character and more like a caricature. The typical Burton lens brings her eyes into focus with such an intensity, we are almost forced into feeling an intense sadness for her. This process is repeated often until she moves on from her second husband and falls under the sway of Jehovah’s Witnesses and her now teenaged daughter. Then we are given little moments of victory, almost as sweetly displayed as her paintings.

Waltz is firmly entrenched in his comfortable categorization of a nearly unhinged man with little morality beyond his own desires. Its a performance we are accustomed to from him at this point, even if it is still somewhat effective.

Burton is less Burtony in this film, in that there are less things crawling to and fro and pledging their undying support for a reluctant heroine in waiting. Still, it feels like his work all the way. This is not a blessing for this reviewer, but it really isn’t a detraction. For this viewer, the cuter the story got, the more the realization dawns that it was really a lie of convenience for everyone involved, no matter how big a burden it became. Burton wants to make us feel the anchor, but he also wants us to feel like Margaret did nothing wrong. It would have been stronger if they’d had the courage to make her own her faults as well as her gifts. That this never does push her to that realization makes Big Eyes a nice film that really doesn’t go as far as the material could have allowed. We will never see that story, so we can sleep warmly as this version disappears from our mind.

(*** out of *****)

Wrath of the Titans plays like Resurrecting the Greek Champ

Wrath of the Titans – 2012

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Houston, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Édgar Ramírez, Toby Kebbell
Screenplay Dan Mazeau, David Leslie Johnson

So, taking for granted that one is fully aware of what they are to expect while watching Wrath of the Titans, they definitely get that here.  Perseus (Worthington), who stepped out of the limelight at the end of the first film, the decent effects extravaganza, Clash of the Titans, is beckoned by his father, Zeus (Neeson) to come back into the arena, for, you know, weak gods, tremors in the force, etc.  Perseus balks at the notion in order to fill a few more minutes of screen time with an effects-laden dream.  Meanwhile, Zeus is, you guessed it, betrayed and captured, by a couple of bad guys, one old (Fiennes as Hades) and one new.  Brother Poseidon (Huston) survives long enough to pass on plot points to an increasingly curious Perseus.

Shortly afterwards, a cool two-headed beast attacks Percy’s town, and he gets his taste for the old life.  Worthington plays his “retirement” for what it’s worth.  He is creaky and filled with a sufficient amount of self-doubt  to get the ball rolling cautiously.  Worthington, who did a good job in the first film portraying a “hero by accident,” is right in his wheelhouse here.

In human time, it’s been around 10 years.  He married Io, who bore him a son and, conveniently died before the events of the movie. One knows this is mainly so he can have one more shot at love later in the film with another name actress.  That actress is Rosamund Pike, taking over for Alexa Davalos as Andromeda.

Just like the first film, the movie looks good.  The only disappointment being the confined, poorly edited fight with the Minotaur and the cyclops family.  There wasn’t much to see, and it definitely did not match the  cool monster to the left of the poster above.  It came across more like the kid from Mask with two broken corn cobs stuck in his head.  The 3 cyclops have a decent lead up, until you get too close and see how the animation is not…quite…there.  The other battles, especially the one against the Chimera, are decently story boarded and look good, too.

Wrath of the Titans was filmed in 2D, but it edited for 3D.  As a result, we see a ton of shots that look like stuff coming at you.  It’s annoying, no matter the dimension, but there are plenty of decent shots to balance it out.  The net result gives one the impression of the film equivalent of throwing a bunch of stuff up on the wall and seeing what sticks.

The plot is nonsense, and having actors the caliber of Huston, Fiennes, Neeson and Nighy fails to improve it much.  That Neeson spends most of the film in captivity with Fiennes standing guard feels a little like having Meryl Streep sit at your house to wait for the cable guy.  Lot of talent wasted.

What is not wasted is Worthington.  He was made for this crap.  He has billions of receipts to his credit, but he, like everyone watching the film knows it’s not him they are coming to see.  This results in an every man performance where he gets to spend much of the film in utter amazement to all the blue screen magic that is going on around him, only not while he is there.  It is a special charisma that may never net him an Oscar, but is way more appealing than that French guy in The Artist.

The rest of the acting, including Pike, is not anything that will get the actors work in other films, unless they make it to the sequel.

Overall, I enjoyed this film as much as I did the first one.  Not quite enough to buy, but I would not turn the channel if I saw it on TNT in 2 years.

(*** out of ******)

The Conspirator reveals a dangerous tipping point in our country’s history

The Conspirator – 2010

Directed by Robert Redford

Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Alexis Bledel

Written by James D. Solomon

“…I too, hold sacred our rights, counselor.  But they count, not at all, if our nation ceases to exist.”

These words from Secretary of War Stanton (Kline) to Lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) form the crux of the debate of The Conspirator.   In the wake of the Civil War, after President Lincoln is assassinated and an attempt is made on the VP and Secretary of State, a group of conspirators is rounded up and brought to trial via military tribunal.  One of them, Mary Suratt (Wright) is the mother of another missing suspect and owner of a boarding house where many of them met.  Many think that she is being held as bait to lure in her son, John, but as the hour draws near to the end of the trial, it becomes apparent that she will be sacrificed in the name of justice, or vengeance.  Or both.

Aiken is brought into the trial by family friend Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson).  In the interests of a fair trial, Aiken goes to great lengths.  As history points out, his efforts to give Suratt a fair trial are doomed to fail, apparently by a demand for swift and absolute punishment by the Department of War, lead by Stanton, and ultimately supported by newly anointed President Andrew Johnson.

The movie serves up a thinly veiled allegory for the military detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, held since the tragic events of 9/11.  On one side, we have those who feel that our rights are less important than the security of our country.  On the other, we have those who believe that without these rights, our country is already lost.  Most would agree with the latter, it seems.  The point of the film, it would seem, is to show that sacrificing one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for the specter of security is not a new thing.  It is Ben Franklin, after all, who said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

This is heady stuff for a major motion picture, famous director or not, and, not surprisingly, the movie tanked.  This does not mean it is not a good film.  It is well made; good acting, great set design, relevant writing.  As with many of Redford’s directorial efforts, this one takes forever to get where it is going, even if it looks good while going there.  His belief that most people would like to hear as much as they see in a movie has always been at odds with the common movie goer.  As a result, you usually see people who never go to movies attending his movie.  You know, the kind of folks who consider Never Cry Wolf a good night out…for the decade.

James McAvoy is reason enough to watch this movie.  His stare is like no other, and his ability to master accents is keen.  He makes the adjustment from brave war veteran to defeated idealist somewhat seamlessly.  The movie would have been unwatchable were it not for his charismatic performance.  Wilkinson is a go to guy for wizened idealist.  He mixes a realism into everything he does.  Justin Long is just about the same guy he always is: the college buddy who never matures.  Wright lends some dignity to the role of the doomed prisoner.  She doesn’t have much to do here but look austere.  Evan Rachel Wood is intriguing as Anna Suratt, who makes a difficult choice that most would find a no win.  And she suffers well for it.  Kline does one of those lefty playing a righty turns: remorseless and without nuance.

This movie is worth your time, primarily if you are interested in historical drama, or if you appreciate, like the reviewer does, the stare of James McAvoy.

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

Cool Papa E Reviews Marvel’s The X-Men / Wolverine Movies

Many are hailing this coming week’s X-Men: First Class as the best Marvel movie ever.  Everything I have seen so far looks fantastic.  Now is as good a time as any to check what we’ve seen so far from the X-Men Series of films.  This list will be comprehensive within the next couple of weeks, but for now, we will just cover the ones that have been released and are available on Blue Ray and DVD.

X-Men – 2000

Directed by Bryan Singer

Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Mardsen, Bruce Davidson, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Anna Paquin, Ray Park, Tyler Mane, Halle Berry

Screenplay by David Hayter based on a story by Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto and characters by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

Review Solid basis as the foundation for the series.  The strengths of this film lay in the casting of McKellen and Stewart as kings on the chessboard of a game of mutants.  They take their time introducing new characters, and they can afford to do this with the introduction of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.  His delivery is straight Clint Eastwood, but it is the best stroke of casting luck this film could’ve had.  After Dougray Scott, the original choice, chose to go be the bad guy in the unremarkable Mission: Impossible II, the director Bryan Singer settled on Jackman.  The rest is cinematic history.  Janssen is excellent as the tortured Jane Grey, even if James Mardsen seems a little too young to be her husband.  Or maybe just too short.  The brilliance of the movie, however, is that they are able to use McKellen and Stewart so effectively.  The only stretch in casting is Halle Berry as Storm.  The weak actress lacks any sort of presence at all as the supposedly powerful Storm.  It would have been nice to see a real actress, like, Angela Bassett, wreak havoc with the character.  Apparently she refused the role.

Best Sequence – Magneto (McKellen) exhibits how far he is willing to go beyond Professor X (Stewart) to get what he wants at the train station.  All of those humans with their guns.  Nice to see Wolverine so helpless.

Worst Sequence – Pretty much all of Halle Berry’s scenes with that wig make one feel like they are watching a B-Grade film.

Rating – ****

X2: X-Men United – 2003

Director Bryan Singer

Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Mardsen, Bruce Davidson, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Aaron Stanford, Shawn Ashmore, Kelly Hu, Michael Reid-McKay

Screenplay by David Hayter, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris based on a story by Bryan Singer, David Hayter, Zak Penn and characters by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

Review – A more comprehensive film that takes advantage of the strengths of the first picture and adds glimpses of other characters, while expounding on the others enough to make them well-rounded.  Jackman grows exponentially in a role that, while not as entirely a leader, a damn good captain.  McKellen and Stewart again are solid, if less of a focus as before.  Cox provides the perfect bad guy, using hypocritical methods to get what he wants, all while providing enough of a sly grin to let you know he really enjoys it.  Speaking of enjoying it, Romijn expands her performance to match Mystique’s cult figure status.  Alan Cumming, as Nightcrawler, plays the most normal creature of his career.  Seeing him as religious is ironic.  Halle’s wig is better…slightly.  The acting isn’t any better.  Good script, tight direction, well-paced.  This is the jewel in the crown of the X-Men universe thus far.

Best Sequence – Wolverine absolutely kicking ass unrepentantly as the men of Stryker (Cox) attack Xavier’s School.  This is Wolverine as all X-Men fans dreamed of seeing him.

Worst Sequence – Adamantium boiling for 15 years is kind of a stretch, but the fire guy is mostly annoying…mostly.

Rating – (****1/2)

X-Men: The Last Stand – 2006

Directed by Brett Ratner

Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Mardsen, Bruce Davidson, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry. Kelsey Grammer, Michael Murphy, Vinnie Jones, Bill Duke,  Ben Foster, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Ken Leung, Aaron Stanford, Eric Dane

Written by Simon Kinberg, Zak Penn based on characters by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

Review – After an organic pairing of the first and second films, this one feels overwhelmed by new characters and too many factions.  The disappearance of Cyclops feels like someone who was called off set to another movie.  From there, the handling of Phoenix / Jane Grey is a mess.  It was powerful enough to have been a multi-movie arc, but instead just jumps around here and there, dotting the storyline like a ghost.  The “death” of several of the characters feel like cheats, especially when you see mutants (like Toad) who died in the first film appear in the third.  That said, Berry is better than she was in either of the first two films, but that does not say much.  Storm and Wolverine are showcased probably too much, due mainly to the economy of characters.  I am not sure how the brotherhood ended up in a tent city out in the woods.  The end is a hodgepodge of one note power shows.  It’s hard to fault Director Ratner too much for any of the issues, as he was thrown into the mix late in the game.  It’s really not a bad movie, but it certainly is not a very good one.

Best Sequence – Hard to say.  So much seemed over the top, nothing was really that entertaining.  It would be a tie, I guess, with Wolverine versus the man with regenerating arms (“Grow a new pair of those.”) and Kitty Pryde versus the Juggernaut.

Worst Sequence – The Golden Gate Bridge?  Really?  Really dumb.  To top it off, they give McKellen’s Magneto the dumbest line of all time:  “Charles always wanted to build bridges.”  He must have absolutely cringed.

Rating – (***)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine – 2009

Directed by Gavin Hood

Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Dominic Monaghan, Ryan Reynolds, Will.i.am, Kevin Durand, Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch

Written by David Benioff, Skip Woods

Review – The fact that this is just another ensemble of mutants teaming together and falling apart does not detract from the good performances.   I thought it was nuts to have Sabretooth back, but hiring Schreiber in any capacity was a masterstroke.  Overall, the story is passable, but having Huston, Schreiber and especially Reynolds along helps to push the material up a notch.  Jackman shows a great early version of the role that made him a star.  His multi-layered performance shows how lucky they were that he landed on the producer’s doorsteps for the first movie.

Best Sequence – Seeing the early version of Deadpool (Reynolds) in top form, massacring a room full of gun-firing Nigerians with only two swords.  It beats anything else by a long shot.

Worst Sequence – Not sure which is worse, killing Grandma with a shot to the head, or the ensuing motorcycle chase which leads to the incredibly ridiculous stunt with the helicopter.

Rating – (***1/2)

X-Men: First Class – 2011

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon

Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stenz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn

Review – here

Best Sequence – Magneto finally moves the coin…much to Sebastian Shaw’s dismay.

Worst Sequence – The Beast outfit almost outdoes Hoult’s performance, and who can forgive the fact that they did not kill off Michael Ironside.

Rating – (****1/2)