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 *****)

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Everest (***) : In the battle of you against the world…

Everest-Movie

Everest – 2015

Director Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelley
Screenplay William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy

Noted realist Franz Kafka once said: “In man’s struggle against the world, bet on the world.” Everest is the big screen chronicle of the story of a bunch of adventurers who refuse the logic of this statement. Their motivation, because it is there, defies any real logic. Instead it is tantamount to man believing that somehow their will, along with some careful planning, is enough to get them up to the peak of the tallest mountain in the world. Being the first to admit this kind of challenge means nothing for me, I am more the proponent of “slow and easy wins the race.” And it really doesn’t matter if I win the race. It only matters that I am there to help my children grow up.

When covering the real events of the 1996 Mt. Everest climbing disaster in which 8 people lost their lives, it is tough to view the film or the depiction as anything other than as a serial killer film, where the mountain is the cold, faceless killer. Everyone has a chance to survive if they make the right decisions, including not going back for stragglers. The accounts of what happened are numerous, and no one is going to accuse the studio of making the comprehensive version of the film here. In fact, one of the earliest chroniclers Jon Krakauer objected to parts of the story as being fabricated, director Kormákur stated that the reasons they chose to not use the author’s first-person account in the film because it conflicted with the plot that they created. In other words Hollywood has only one path up Mt. Everest. It is well-worn and has many points that everyone has seen before. The real reason they are making the film is for shots like this one:

everest-movie

There is no deep thinking here. No one explains anything more than armchair philosophy as to why someone would leave their family behind (often more than once) to face impossible odds and go shirtless at base camp. Even more distracting for me is the sheer number of stars in the film. I should be contemplating the second attempt of Hawkes’ Doug to get to the top of the mountain, or why Hall (Clarke) could leave his pregnant wife to work as a mountain guide. I am instead wondering why the erstwhile Sol Star has not gotten more significant roles since Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene and is Knightley ever going to be believable as Emily Watson in any film? Don’t even get me started on the Robin Wright / Michael Kelley / House of Cards connection. If one of the characters begins to sing There’s Got to be A Morning After, the disaster would be complete.

The scenery is breathtaking, and looks fantastic on widescreen. Do I believe these actors are on Everest in any capacity other than base camp? No. There are lots of places with snow in the world. Even James Bond sets. When one discovers that 16 Sherpas were killed bringing up equipment for climbers in the 2014 summer season, but that everyone in the Everest film crew survived, the absurdity of it all takes root. There will never be a movie made about those Sherpas shown on big screens of Western Civilization. The deaths of the locals don’t count.

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

CPE, Em and El: The Princess Bride – As You Wish

Princess Bride

The Princess Bride – 1987

Director Rob Reiner
Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, André the Giant, Christopher Guest, Fred Savage, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Mel Smith, Peter Cook, Peter Falk
Screenplay William Goldman

There may be no more perfect story told for the benefit of an entire family than The Princess Bride. Cleverly, it disguises itself as something we would likely not care for by its narrator. Giving one the chance to jump early, and then giving us only “the good parts” to watch throughout, we are given a precious jewel of a story which boils the romantic story down to its wonderful essence: love. If there is a more honest story meant for all ages, Lord knows we haven’t seen it by now.

Starting out with a little boy (Savage) alone, sick in bed, playing video games.  What he is employing unsuccessfully to fight his boredom will change throughout time.  What works as a cure to his boredom should work for all time. His grandfather (Falk) arrives, gift in hand, and the boy rolls his eyes. A book. It might just as well be clothing, for as boring as it seems. The old man reels him in and we’re all the better for it.

The book Grandpa reads is the story of Wesley (Elwes) and Buttercup (Wright), two beautiful people who don’t have enough to get money. The rub is that they really do have what it takes, in the uttering of a simple phrase: “As you wish.” Life tells us that marriage requires security as well as love, so off Wesley goes to get married. Something happens on the way to paradise, and the next thing we know, Buttercup is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Sarandon). If that is not enough of a challenge, the now Princess Buttercup is kidnapped by a criminal genius (Vizzini) and two remarkable henchmen. Inigo (Patinkin) is a remarkable sword fighter.  Fezzig is played by a literal giant.

On their way across the border in pursuit of a foolproof plan to do away with the princess and start a convenient war, the kidnappers find that they are not alone. Indeed, they are being followed…inconceivable!

Part of the genius of The Princess Bride is that the style of the film matches the tone set forth by the narration. It skips the sap, pushes the action forward like a male would estimate things happened and the love is the kind that stares right into your soul, bravely and passionately. If you need proof, just look at how intensely Buttercup stares into Wesley’s eyes. It’s more serious than any of the action scenes, by design.

Every character is memorable and has at least one signature moment.

  • Everyone know’s Inigo’s moment.
  • Wesley has his “As you wish.”
  • Buttercup falls ungracefully down the hill after her love.
  • Vizzini: ‘Inconceivable!”
  • Miracle Max’s speech upon opening the door.
  • Valerie (his wife): “Liar!  Liarrrrr!!!!”
  • Max: “Have fun storming the castle!”
  • Fezzig: “I’m on the Brute Squad.” and “Anybody want a peanut?”
  • Count Rugen (Guest) running away when obviously outmatched.
  • Humperdink: “I’m swamped.”

The special effects look like they are thought up by genius underfunded college students and likely fake, but still achievable by human beings. The movie dialogue is spoken with distinguished accents that are ludicrous, absurd and hard to make out.  Even so, you hang on every word. These people are odd and ridiculous, but they are perfect in for this world as it is presented.

Robin Wright is an incredible actress. She gives more with fewer words than most actors could with a soliloquy written by Shakespeare. That her career is not littered with Oscar nominations or blockbusters does not diminish from what she has accomplished. In fact, if she had made no more films than just this one, she would still be on the short list of best actresses. She provides the serious ballast to counter the goofiness that surrounds her.  She is the epitome of an idealized view of a heroine, presented by the grandfather to his grandson. This is the kind of woman adventure seekers picture in their stories.  Wright knows this and she nails the character.

Wesley, as presented, is the perfect counter to our heroine.  He bends where she stays focused. His goal is all he lives for, but unlike his pessimistic love, his goal is never out of reach, even when he is MOSTLY dead. That he has reached such proficient levels in every aspect of swashbuckling reflects once more how optimistic the narrator is about life. He knows the power of love and it gives him everything else he would need. Elwes is that once in a lifetime actor whose style could fit in any era, and this gives the film as much a sense of timelessness as any other cause. His sense of comic timing exceeds his charm and physical prowess.  This is something that would be more formally employed Mel Brooks half-baked Robin Hood farce years later.

Patinkin is a multi-talented jewel of a performer. His work here is understated and would have been the best thing about any other film. Upon hearding Vizzini’s constant exclamation of the word “Inconceivable!” he states, honestly and humbly:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The passion that Patinkin feels for his cause is played brilliantly, and without irony. He has stated several times since that he was channeling the pain he felt over losing his own father. His story alone provides enough grist for a good movie. That it is somehow relegated to a subplot shows the depth of the story. Even better, his work with André The Giant shows a longstanding relationship that seemingly exists off-screen. Their rapport is easy and filled with loving kindness and the type of brutality that can only be achieved with complete comfort. The way Fezzig pulls Montoya out of his stupor is inelegant and delightfully lacking in heroism.

What does The Princess Bride mean to people? It became a family tradition in our family.  My wife and I were teenagers when it came out. Only I saw it in the theater. First viewing told us it was special, but with each successive viewing something else would stand out. Many lines have been quoted, trying to emulate the characters out of pure adulation. Every viewing sets the tone for the day. And it’s a wonderful tone. Reiner is one of the best directors of the last 50 years. Even now, he puts out quality material in the most economical way. Most importantly, he tells a wonderful story each time out while rarely treading over the same territory.

Having never seen this as a child, it’s tough to evaluate this story from their perspective.  To get this, Em and El were brought in as ringers.

What is your favorite part of the film?

Em: I am going to have to say when he tied Prince Humperdinck in his bedroom and he (Wesley) got up and almost fell.

El: My favorite part is when Inigo beat the guy who killed his father.

What is the scariest part of the story?

Em: The part where Wesley almost chops off Inigo Montoya’s head off.

That was scary to you? I did not think it was scary at all.

Em: The first time I watched it I thought the guy was going to die.

El: When the small guy with the bald head was threatening to kill Buttercup.  He put the knife up to her neck?

But you know she wasn’t going to die, right?

El: Yeah, but it was intense, because she could have died.

You think that they would have killed her at the beginning of the movie?

El: Well, I thought…but now I don’t.

Who is your favorite character?

Em: Either Wesley, the King or Inigo.

El: The Giant, Fezzig.

What is your favorite line?

Em: When she (Buttercup) says “I will be killing myself…” and then the King says “Won’t that be nice…she kissed me!”

El: “I only doggy paddle.”doggypaddle

What does “As you wish” mean to you?

Em: I will do as you said?

Why?

Em: Because I never heard it used in the way of “I love you.”

Doesn’t it make sense that it means I love you?

Em: Kind of because he kept saying it over and over and never said anything else to her.

El: That means, okay, I’ll do that right away! (She laughs)

You don’t think that it means something else? (She laughs louder)

El: Well he said it in the movie.  But then they said that he actually meant, “I love you.”

 

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 *****)