Film Review: Wonder Woman (dir by Patty Jenkins)

Wonder Woman is awesome!

I spent a while trying to think of the best way to begin this review.  There’s a lot to be said about Wonder Woman, as both a film and as a character.  Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be flooded with think pieces.  Is Wonder Woman too feminist or not feminist enough?  Does Wonder Woman herald a new direction for the DC Expanded Universe or is it destined to just be an anomaly among the ruins of crap like Man of Steel and Suicide Squad?  Does it announce the arrival of new star?  Is Wonder Woman pro-war or a plea for peace?  Does Wonder Woman live up to the rapturous early reviews or is it destined to suffer the same fate as the initially acclaimed, later-reviled Ghostbusters reboot?

Those are all legitimate questions.  They’re all worthy of debate and discussion.  And I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts on blah blah blah blah….

Yes, Wonder Woman is empowering, both as a film and as a character.  It’s amazing to think that, with all the super hero adaptations that have come out over the past ten years, Wonder Woman is the first one to center around a female super hero.

Yes, Wonder Woman does finally prove that DC Expanded Universe can produce a good film, though I do have to say that two of the best things about Wonder Woman is that it had very little to do with any of the other DCEU films and it felt more like an MCU film.  With the period setting (the film takes place during World War I) and it’s weary view of the wars that men fight, Wonder Woman has far more in common with the first Captain America film than it does with Man of Steel.

Yes, Gal Gadot is going to be a huge star and her performance here suggests that she has range beyond action films and comic book melodramas.

Yes, Wonder Woman is a plea for peace but it’s a sincere and honest plea and one that does not ignore the realities of human nature.

And, finally, yes, Wonder Woman deserves those good reviews and I believe it will stand the test of time.

When all is said and done, what really matters is that Wonder Woman is freaking awesome!  The teaming of director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot has resulted in one of the most entertaining and exciting comic book movies of recent times.  Usually, I resent it when an audience breaks into applause at the end of a movie, largely because it makes me feel as if I’m being pressured to make a snap judgment about a movie’s worth before I’ve had time to give it proper thought.  However, this time, when the applause broke out at the Alamo Drafthouse, I happily joined in.

I could be wrong about this but I don’t think Wonder Woman is ever actually called “Wonder Woman” at any point during the film.  If she was, I missed it and I’m sure someone will correct me in the comments.  Instead, she is referred to by her proper name, Diana.  When the film opens (after the obligatory modern-day prologue), Diana is a child living on the island of Themyscira, the home of the legendary Amazons.  Diana is the only child among the Amazons.  The daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana dreams of becoming a warrior but her mother refuses to allow it.  When Diana is trained, it’s in secret by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright).  At one point, Antiope tells Diana that if she’s going to be warrior, she’s going to have to be prepared to fight for everything.  No victory, Antiope tells her, will ever come easily.  I nodded at that line and I’m sure every other woman in the audience did so as well.  We understood what Antiope was saying.

In 1918, for the first time in centuries, a man reaches the island.  His name is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he’s an American spy.  No sooner does Steve’s plane crash on the beach then a boat full of Germans arrive.  After a genuinely exciting battle (perhaps the first exciting action scene to appear in any of the DCEU films), Steve reveals that the world is at war.  Suspecting that it is the influence of Ares, the god of war, that is causing people to kill one another, Diana defies her mother’s orders and leaves the island with Steve.  Steve’s goal is to keep the Germans from developing and deploying a lethal gas.  Diana, meanwhile, plans to track down and kill Ares.

While Steve is convinced that, as a result of human nature, wars are inevitable, Diana is resolute in her belief that all the evil in the world can be linked to Ares.  Their conflicting world views give Wonder Woman far more emotional depth and intellectual resonance than any of the other films that have, so far, been a part of the DC Expanded Universe.  By refusing to indulge in portentous hypermasculinity, it avoids becoming a pretentious slog like Man of Steel or Batman v Superman.  By refusing to treat war, death, and violence as a joke, it avoids falling into the soulless trap that imprisoned Suicide Squad.  When Diana runs and leaps into battle, she’s not just fighting for good against evil.  She’s fighting for the soul of humanity.

Some of the action scenes in Wonder Woman are nothing less than amazing.  The scene where Diana crosses the aptly named “No-Man’s Land” is destined to be remembered as a classic moment in comic book cinema.  I don’t want to spoil too much of the film but I will say that you’ll also never forget the way that Diana takes out a German sniper.  It’s an amazing moment, one that is matched by the film’s final battle.  Again, I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll just say that the film’s finale brought tears to my eyes.

After providing Batman v Superman with its only good moments, Gal Gadot finally gets the film that she deserves and she gives an amazing performance.  As played by Gadot, Diana is confident but never arrogant, occasionally naive but never foolish.  She’s a fighter, one who refuses to surrender even when the rest of the world tells her to go home.  (There’s a rather interesting throw-away line, in which Steven’s secretary says that she’s looking forward to getting to vote in her first election.  Wonder Woman is saving a world that wouldn’t even allow her a voice in selecting the man who are constantly putting it in danger.)  Gal Gadot gives a charismatic and star-making performance.

Also giving a good performance — perhaps a career best if you take Hell or High Water out of the equation — is Chris Pine.  When Pine first appears, he seems to be doing a riff on his too-perfect Prince Charming performance in Into the Woods.  But, as the film progresses, Pine brings unexpected depth to this role.  Special mention should also be made of David Thewlis, who may not have a huge role but who makes the most of his limited screen time.

But, with all that in mind, the most important thing that I can tell you about Wonder Woman is that the film is an absolute blast, a fast-paced and exciting action film that is complimented by strong performances and an unexpectedly poignant subtext.

It’s empowering.

It’s entertaining.

It’s worthy of the applause that filled the Alamo Drafthouse.

In short, it’s absolutely awesome.

See it this weekend.

(Now, Marvel, where’s that Black Widow movie that y’all better be developing?)

Wonder Woman Trailer Emerges At Comic-Con To Thunderous Applause

Wonder Woman

“What I do is not up to you.” — Wonder Woman

With that single line in the newly released San Diego Comic-Con trailer for next summer’s Wonder Woman a gauntlet has been dropped on manbros everywhere.

With Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice having been received with underwhelmingly at best to outright vehemence with some, DC was now setting it’s sights on the third of the DC Triumvirate to help right the DC Extended Universe film franchise. With Patty Jenkins doing directing duties and Gal Gadot in the title role, Wonder Woman will actually beat Marvel Studios in having the first female-led superhero film by at least a year.

From the reaction written about at SDCC’s Hall H where Warner Bros. had it’s presentation the trailer was received with thunderous applause and hope that DC has learned from their past mistakes and now ready to truly show the world it’s own diverse and wondrous universe of Gods, monsters, heroes and men.

Wonder Woman is set for a June 2, 2017 release date.

Film Reviews: The Skin I Live In (dir. by Pedro Almodovar) and Take Shelter (dir. by Jeff Nichols)

In terms of film, the horror genre has never gotten the respect that it undeniably deserves.  Afterall, some of the most effective trends in cinema (German expressionism, for instance) first had their start in the horror genre.  However, most critics seem to be more comfortable just dismissing most horror films as being a bunch of predictable tropes and easy shocks as opposes to admitting that the horror genre is one that is rich with history, subtext, and importance.  Right now, there are two horror films playing the art houses of America and they are both more than worth your time.  Those films: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter.

In The Skin I Live In, a weary-looking Antonio Banderas plays a world-renowned plastic surgeon who, unknown to all of his colleagues, has trapped a young woman in his sprawling estate.  With the help of his devoted servant Marilla (Marisa Paredes), he keeps the woman (played by Elena Anaya) a total prisoner while continually experimenting on her in his efforts to create a new type of skin that is immune to bug bites and being burned.  However, Anaya — who has been held prisoner for six years — is desperate to escape and is even willing to engage in self-mutilation in her effort to make things difficult for Banderas.  Finally, while Banderas is out, Marilla’s psychotic son (a terrifying Robert Alamo) shows up at the estate and, convinced that he knows the young woman, tries to kidnap her for his own.

In between the scenes involving the strange experiments going on at the estate, another story plays out as Antonio Banderas exacts a disturbing revenge on the young man (Jan Cornet) that Banderas holds responsible for the death of his daughter.  The film’s two stories eventually intersect in a surprising yet disturbingly logical way.

As a director, Almodovar often pays homage to other, similarly iconic filmmakers and The Skin I Live In feels like a combination of the over-the-top melodrama of Douglas Sirk (right down to the film’s “hero” being a doctor) and the unapologetic sordidness of Jesus Franco.  This is especially evident in the film’s big, surprise twist; a twist that manages to be both ludicrous and compelling at the same time.  (I should also note that, at the showing I went to, the twist inspired about a fourth of the people in the theater to leave.)  The end result is a creepily effective, thought-provoking horror film that is both deliberately absurd and touched with a strain of undeniable melancholy.

As opposed to the baroque The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter takes place in the deceptively mundane American midwest.  Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a soft-spoken construction worker who suddenly finds himself haunted with terrifying nightmares of an incoming apocalypse.  The nightmares always start with rain and, as the film unfolds, they grew progressively more and more disturbing.  Soon, he’s seeing shadowy figures wearing hospital gowns standing out in the rain, waiting to attack him and even worse, he starts to see visions of his friends and family waiting to attack him.  Is Curtis seeing the future or has he simply inherited his mother’s schizophrenia?

The genius of the film is that, up until the final scene, you’re not quite sure.  I’ve seen a lot of nightmares in a lot of horror films and I can usually spot them long before the inevitable scene of the film’s hero waking up in bed with a shout.  Take Shelter is full of nightmares and they all follow the same basic theme but they are so effortlessly woven into the film that they still take you by surprise long after they shouldn’t.  As a viewer, you find yourself relating to Curtis because, like him, you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s just in his mind.  The film forces us to try to figure out whether Curtis is scared because he’s crazy or is he going crazy because he’s scared. 

The film’s apocalyptic visions reminded me a lot of Peter Weir’s somewhat similar film, The Last Wave.  However, both director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon manage to make this story their own.  Shannon is in nearly every scene of the film and he gives a performance that’s both dramatic and subtle.  In the past, whenever Shannon’s played a mentally ill character (Revolutionary Road, The Runaways), I’ve always felt he’s come really close to caricature.  However, in this case, he gets it right and brings a real sense of reality and urgency to the film.  Also giving good performances: Kathy Baker (as Curtis’s mother) and Jessica Chastain (who plays Shannon’s wife).

The horror genre may never get the respect it deserves.  However, films like The Skin I Live In and Take Shelter are here to let us know that horror remains a vibrant genre that will not be ignored.