Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Wonder Woman

Alternate Title:  About Goddamn Time
One sentence synopsis:  The daughter of the Queen of the Amazons enters the world of Men to stop a madman from using a horrific weapon to stop the end of World War One.

Things Havoc liked:   ... hi, everybody.

[chorus responds]: "Hi, General Havoc."

So er... before we get started today, I'd... like to take a little trip back through memory lane.

Below, we have an excerpt from my review of last year's 2nd worst movie, Batman v. Superman, Dawn of Justice:

"... in keeping with my stated policy of only going to see movies that I suspect have a chance to prove worthwhile, consider this my preemptive rejection of the entire DC cinematic universe. I do this project for many reasons, but one of the main ones is to let my readers know what films are worth seeing and what ones are not, but there is a limit to even my cinematic fortitude, and in consequence, I am afraid that if you wish to know how the future movies in this series will turn out, you shall all have to find out for yourselves."

Next, an excerpt from my review of last year's 1st worst movie, Suicide Squad:

"It should be no surprise that after watching Batman v Superman, swearing off DC forever, relenting, and being presented with this movie, that I intend to see the error of my ways and return to my policy of bothering only with superhero films attached to the MCU."

And now, a transcript from my end-of-the-year podcast, in which I discussed both of these films.

"... fuck the entire DC Universe that they're building. Fuck Wonder Woman. Fuck Justice League. Fuck the Flash. Fuck Aquaman. Fuck all of it. [....] I'm through with that whole series. I said I was done after Batman v Superman, and I relented, because Suicide Squad looked different."

Yeah... um... so... here we are.

Wonder Woman, needless to say, is a movie I did not intend to go see. It's a movie I did not want to go see, not because I hate women (sorry to disappoint you all, you valiant keyboard warriors), nor because of that stupid promotion Alamo theaters ran down in Austin, but because... well because look at the fucking track record for this series. LOOK AT IT! See the decrepitudes, the depths, the vile nilotic rites that this series of films has fallen to. Batman v. Superman was a fucking atrocity cast forth onto screen, so bad that when Suicide Squad came out and somehow contrived to be even worse, I had entirely run out of superlatives and hyperboles to throw at it. I don't know how many times I've had to repeat this old saw, but I do not go and see movies for the express purpose of entertaining you all with my pain. I go see them because I want to. And when a series has disappointed me, hell has pissed in my face as much as this one has, I stop fucking going!!! What other rational course of action is there to take, I ask you? I said those things above because I meant them, every word, with every fiber of my being. And yet...

I don't read reviews before going to see a movie. To do so would be to prejudice my opinion after all. But for some movies, the hype is unavoidable, as reviews bury the internet at large, and so it was for Wonder Woman. Even then, I would not have relented on this one, save that several friends of mine, foremost among them Captain Corvidae (yarrrrr) insisted that this one was worth going to. Corvidae has previously been subjected, on my account, to films such as High-Rise, Under the Skin, Leviathan, and Suicide Squad (please bear this in mind if I should ever turn up the victim of a gruesome wheat thresher accident), and so I felt that it was not a suggestion that I could refuse.

And so, having now wasted enough of everyone's time with preamble and explanations, I shall get to the question at hand. Having violated all semblance of consistency, to say nothing of common sense, and having gone to see the latest DC movie in direct defiance of all of the horrific acts of cinematic blight that preceded it, was it any good?



... yeah. Yeah it was.

Wonder Woman is, against all odds, a good movie. Indeed, in some ways it is a very good one, but the mere fact that the word 'good' can be applied to it in any form is something of a miracle in and of itself. To say I expected little from this film is... well I mean scroll back up and read those quotes, for I meant every word at the time that I wrote or said them, but despite the cynicism that DC and Warner Brothers has spent the last year or so inspiring within me, this film actually managed to produce something, dare I say... fun. Something creative and enjoyable and interesting. Of course the mere fact that the movie posits a setting in which fun and adventure and interest is possible makes it a tremendous step up from its predecessors, but rather than recap how terrible those movies were, let us discuss what Wonder Woman, miraculously, does right. And for that, let us begin with a woman named Patty Jenkins.

Who is Patty Jenkins? Well I assume the majority of you know this already, but she is a film director, or at least was a film director way back in 2003, when she wrote and directed a Charlize Theron film called Monster, which Roger Ebert called the best film of that year, and which won Theron her only Oscar (to date). Monster was a legitimately great film, and so I can't quite figure out why, in its aftermath, Patty Jenkins vanished without a trace, save for a handful of television episodes of shows I didn't watch, and a 2011 Lifetime Original Movie about breast cancer (be still, my beating heart). Whatever the reason, she has returned from the negative zone (or wherever) to helm Wonder Woman, and thank God she did because without a strong director at the helm, this film risked becoming yet another stamp on DC's frequent shopper's card at the House of Shitty Fucking Movies (franchising opportunities coming soon). Though I promised myself that this review would not simply turn into another list of all the ways that Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman sucked, this biggest differentiator between this film and those is simply the fundamental mechanics of how it is shot, with Wonder Woman taking place in a world with a vibrant color palate and artful, carefully-selected shots, designed to frame characters in the act of doing awesome things. The design, the cinematography, the sound design and score and all the other mechanistic elements of the film are all top notch, from the sun-dappled cliffs and beaches of the Amazonian island of Themiskyra, to the mud and trenches of the Western Front. There's no muddied darkness, no oversaturated color-leach, no desperate attempt to make the art design beat the audience over the head with how grim and gritty everything is. Instead, we get a movie that is actually... god forbid, fun and interesting to look at, a development so revolutionary, that I assume that the flywheels over at Warner Brothers will spend the next fifteen years trying to figure out how to prevent it from ever happening again. And yet this shying away from over-grim, over-gritty bro-douchery comes despite the fact that the movie is set in the middle of World War 1, a setting movies have traditionally avoided because of how unrelievedly grim everything is. As a result, Wonder Woman is one of the very small number of WWI films in existence that actually have something interesting to look at.

But what are we getting to look at, overall? Well among other things, action. Badass action, by any conceivable standard. One of the reasons I originally looked so favorably on Man of Steel was the tremendous scale of the thing, the Olympian action that covered for all of the misfiring story-beats and busted characters. While Wonder Woman (wisely) doesn't try to match the scale of that film, it does, within the bounds of its universe, manage to elicit the same feelings of awe and... well... wonder, that the aforementioned movie did. Unlike the choppy, badly-paced action of Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman uses a much more traditional format, including two absolutely standout action sequences, one a pitched battle between Amazons and German soldiers on a sun-draped beach, the other a set-piece, operatic assault across the tangled ruin of No-Man's Land and the lethal maze of the trench lines, a sequence that includes Wonder Woman caving an armored car in with her fists and taking out a sniper by decapitating a belfry. The direction for these sequences is a little heavy on the slow-mo, but as with Snyder's own 300, all that is forgiven if the scenes being focused upon are sufficiently awesome. And they are.

And then there's the cast, and for once Warner Brothers and the rest have outdone themselves in getting the right people for the job. Casting has always been Marvel's strength and DC's bane, but this time we have Chris Pine, Captain Kirk himself, as Captain Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman's partner in war, her introduction to the wider world, and her... love interest? Maybe? Whatever definition we use, Pine is absolutely spot-perfect in this role, as he has the Robert Downey Jr. skill of being able to disarm a scene or line that might sound insufferably cheesy through a combination of roguish charm and utter sincerity. The dynamic between his character and Wonder Woman is deft and nuanced, with just enough tension, romantic and otherwise, to keep everything interesting, while imparting his character with motives, skills, and interest of his own enough to stand alongside the main event (something, I need not remind you all, which is fantastically rare for the usually-female characters that typically populate this archetype in these sorts of films).

The rest of the cast does not let the side down either, including as it does the incomparable David Thewlis as a member of Parliament who seeks to bypass the red tape of the war office by means of Wonder Woman, and a host of excellent character actors as Wonder Woman's squad, including French actor Saïd Taghmaoui (whom I first met in the staggeringly-good 1995 Mathieu Kassovitz film La Haine), playing a Moroccan con-artist and womanizer straight out of the Casablanca playbook (upon watching Wonder Woman throw a man through a wall, he comments that he is simultaneously terrified and aroused). Veteran Spanish actress Elena Anaya (you might remember her from Justin Timberlake's 'Sexyback' video) gets to ham things up as the frazzled, obsessive "Doctor Poison" (there's a Golden Age of comics name for you). The biggest surprise, though, is the Amazons themselves. Jenkins apparently lobbied to have their ranks filled, not by supermodels (as many films would have), but by towering Olympic athletes, all rippling muscle and... forgive me... Amazonian statures. These woman may or may not be great actors (my guess is not, given the limited lines they get), but they have the physicality of warrior-women down cold, and their stage presence and bearing is such that I was actually disappointed when the film left Themiscyra for a trip into the relatively sedate world of The Great War. Studded among the Amazons are real actors, including Gladiator's Connie Nielson as Queen Hippolyta, and none other than Robin Freaking Wright, Princess Buttercup herself (whom I hadn't seen in so long that I mistook her for Patricia Arquette), playing General Antiope, commander of the Amazon army. Robin Wright is a goddamn national treasure, and this, this role right here is why, as she takes her limited time on screen and turns it into rapturous badassery, culminating in the sorts of slow-mo action money shots usually reserved for scantily-dressed characters (male or female) in Zach Snyder films.

Things Havoc disliked: In case my above ravings was not clear enough, Wonder Woman is a good movie, and that alone is a hell of an achievement, given the pedigree from whence it was born. But is it a great movie, as some reviewers have been quick to pronounce? In a word... no. No, I'm afraid it's not.

Why not? Well, there's a couple of reasons, really, but the biggest one is front and center, and it's Wonder Woman herself, played in this case by Israeli actress Gal Gadot. I admit, I didn't expect much out of Gadot here, not after the dismal work she did in Batman v. Superman, and I admit as well that she easily outdoes that performance here, with one that has a number of things going for it. She has the look down pat, the presence, the physicality, everything but the acting itself which is... just not very good. It's not awful, mind you, but Gadot is just unrelievedly wooden throughout much of the film, only occasionally rising to the level of her co-stars. I appreciate that it's not easy acting in a language which isn't your native tongue (trust me, I know), but the end result is what it is, and it gives the movie's quieter scenes, the ones where the direction and action can't wallpaper over the movie's flaws, a decidedly B-grade feel to them.

There's also, of all things, the CGI, which, for some reason, is markedly sub-par, enough that it gets distracting more than once. How in the world this could happen on a $150,000,000 epic superhero film backed by several of the largest companies in Hollywood, I have no idea, but the CG work (as distinct from the practical effects) looks downright embarrassingly bad at points, with the digital stand-ins for Wonder Woman and her troops moving like marionettes from a mid-2000s throwaway film. Amber Hirsch, the film's VFX director, has a decent enough pedigree behind her (albeit mostly on shit movies), so I have no idea what the problem here was. But while Marvel's films have had their occasional slip-ups (one particular sequence involving Captain America in the climactic sequence of the Avengers comes to mind), this one looks so consistently awful that you can actually see the seam between the crappy CG effects and the decent practical ones. That's not something you ever want the audience to be able to pay attention to.

But overall, the problems with Wonder Woman aren't so much giant glaring things, it's small things, minor things, things that would normally, in the course of affairs not come up in a review like this, but which I must bring up here because there are so damn many of them. I'm talking about continuity mistakes, editing gaffes, minor (and less minor) errors in scripting, dialogue, and general research that point to a significant lack of attention to detail somewhere along the line during the production of this film. One of the aforementioned battle sequences, the brilliant one between the German soldiers and the Amazon warriors, involves a German warship joining the battle only to be mysteriously sunk, offscreen, by means we never get to see. The various trips that our heroes make to German bases and aerodromes involve innumerable errors of basic continuity and logic, with anachronistic weapons and equipment scattered about, or background material written in the wrong languages (duty rosters for German pilots written in French, for instance). And speaking of languages, one scene midway through the film has Wonder Woman identifying a captured German document as having been cyphered in a combination of "Sumerian and Ottoman", the writers being apparently completely unaware that Sumerian is a nigh-untranslatable language which has been dead for 5,000 years, one which the author of the document has no way of knowing, and 'Ottoman' doesn't exist, the language of the Ottoman Empire having been called 'Turkish' since its inception through to today. This isn't a pulp movie like Captain America or the Rocketeer, where such things could be hand-waved away as unimportant, the tone of Wonder Woman is reverent and earnest to a fault, attempting to use its WWI setting to tell a serious, mythic tale about the nature of war and the human urge to violence, and this many basic mistakes, ones that could have been corrected by a single line of dialogue or a simple editing alteration speaks to a general research failure on the part of the studio, the crew, or both. It's not that any one of these issues are major problems. It's that the sum total of them makes the film look sloppy, and when you consider the staggering lengths that epic film series like the MCU or the Lord of the Rings have gone to to produce a holistic, internally consistent universe, all this serves to show me is how far DC still has to go, even with a good movie under their belts at last.

Final thoughts:   And lest I render things murky with my criticism, that is exactly what Wonder Woman is, a Good film, a Very Good film at parts, one that clearly aspires to be a Great film but does not get there, held back by a limited leading actress, and generally sub-par crew and production work across the board. It is, at long last, a worthy inclusion in the ranks of Superhero staples from DC, a film on-par, qualitatively, with the second-tier offerings from Marvel such as Ant-Man or Thor 2. Like those movies before it, Wonder Woman, almost miraculously, has earned my seal of approval, and though it was not good enough to get me to re-think my policy on the DC-cinematic universe overall (the Justice League movie can go fuck itself, as far as I'm concerned), it has forced me to relent somewhat, in that I will see the inevitable Wonder Woman sequel, and will... consider the other standalone films that they have for me, though I still feel that the series has a long way to go before they can be spoken of alongside their august competition.

But... of course... there's another factor at work here, one that should in all fairness be addressed as well, which is that even with all of the positives and negatives I have summed up , the fact is that this is not just another Superhero movie, of the sort we have seen before, not simply another Ant-Man or Thor 2, but Wonder Woman, a movie that comic fans, particularly female ones, have been waiting to see realized for generations. It is a mainstream, A-list, multi-hundred-million-dollar superhero epic about a world-famous female superhero made by a female director for an audience that is expected to be in no small part female. And as such, while I stand by every line of my review above, and while I reject, in totality, all suggestions that I or other male critics have either no right or no capacity to review such a work, it is true that this is a movie made, in no small part, for another group of people entirely. It is a movie made for my sister, no stranger to movies like these, who saw the film and spent an hour on the phone with me describing nuances of shot selection and editorial decisions that stood out as obvious to her, but were entirely transparent to me. It is a movie made for Corvidae, whom all of you already know, who praised this movie in rapturous terms while I was out of the country, who loved it start to finish to the point where she volunteered to see it again alongside me, despite a schedule full of nightmares, and all of the awful, awful movies she has seen at my instigation.

It is a movie made for my mother. The original Wonder Woman. Who has no use for superhero movies in general, but who once spent every Halloween as Wonder Woman, and who went to see this movie for her own reasons, and loved it. When I asked her why, the main reason she gave me was not the action nor the fight sequences nor even the characters and story, but the fact that, for the first time in all her years of seeing movies like this, she could tell instantly that this one was directed by a woman, that it had a "woman's perspective", one I didn't even notice, but that she identified instantly. She loved this movie, because for the first time it was about a character she actually cared about, made by someone who wanted her, her specifically, to enjoy it.

I stand by everything that I have said about Wonder Woman, and about the wider DC universe. And I would be lying if I said I thought the fact that this movie is about a female superhero, about the female superhero, made these other opinions better than mine. But they are not worse than mine either, and the fact that this movie managed to cause people who hated the entire genre sing its praises, or become excited about future possibilities of future films from this source, all while still producing a film that I thought legitimately good, is something that deserves recognition. I did not regard Wonder Woman as a great film, but there are many, many others who did. And insofar as it's ever possible to be objective about film quality, maybe it is.

All I know, ultimately, is that Wonder Woman is a movie that has justified its existence. That is no small feat, when one regards all of its predecessors, both in and out of the official DC cinematic universe (consider Catwoman or Elektra), that did not. It is a film that I enjoyed watching, and that some people loved. Does this mean that the DC universe has finally found its footing and been placed on the right trajectory?  Maybe. But if it does not, then at least those who loved it will have one film they can treasure forever.

And if it does, then it would not be the first time in history that, when all hope was lost, Wonder Woman saved the world.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Three films you should see before Blockbuster season REALLY begins...

No comments:

Post a Comment

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...