REVIEW: Wonder Woman

31 05 2017

“You expect the battle to be fair. It will never be fair!” exhorts Robin Wright’s Amazonian mentor to her trainee, Gal Gadot’s warrior princess in “Wonder Woman.” It’s tempting from an early point to view the film through a purely ideological standpoint, and cues like this almost seem to encourage it.

While writing this review, butt-hurt “men’s rights activists” (yes, those concerns are so imaginary they deserve to be put in quotations) are still complaining on Twitter about woman-only screenings of this film. The urge to lacerate prejudice through cultural consumption as if we were casting a ballot to vote is an alluring, but ultimately empty, one. Praising the disjointed “Ghostbusters” like a dutiful gesture of feminist solidarity really solved all our issues in 2016, right?!

The underlying hope of these actions is to foster a world where “Wonder Woman” will no longer be the most expensive film ever directed by a woman or the only major superhero film with a female protagonist; instead, it will be just one of many. So let’s start acting like it today by treating the film as what it can become, not merely what it means in the deeply politicized 2017 environment into which it is released. As the great critic Pauline Kael remarked, critics too often praise “movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ —’serious’ messagy movies. This often involves […] the praise in good movies of what was worst in them.”

So if you’ll pardon my existential opening, I’ll spare you another analysis about how progressive (or not) the gender dynamics are, whether or not director Patty Jenkins’ gender might “influence” the way certain scenes play out and if certain on-screen moments carry feminist undertones from off-screen drama. It was hard to squint past these things and just see the movie because, as a film writer, firebrands like this can so often be reduced to multiple start-points to an ideological thinkpiece. But there is some there there, so to speak, in “Wonder Woman.”

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REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

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REVIEW: Triple 9

7 03 2016

John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” makes for quintessential tough cinema – and in more ways than one. It’s hard-edged in content as a brutal crime plot breaks out in the Atlanta underworld but also somewhat tough in form; Matt Cook’s screenplay proves challenging to follow as more than broad strokes on many occasions. The sprawling tale of interwoven cops, criminals and robbers weaves a complicated web of characters.

Yet while the lack of numerous balls juggled during “Triple 9” are somewhat of a liability, they also become a strength when events take a brutally ironic turn in the second half. The film becomes almost like a classic piece of Russian literature with its cruel reversals of fate, though Cook somewhat overloads the dramatic irony by having characters mull over the impossible “coincidence” time and again. With lightly sketched characters, they become less like people and more akin to pieces to form an allegory about humanity as a whole.

Even without much in the way of characterization, the actors still shine through, namely Casey Affleck as the film’s de facto moral center, officer Chris Allen. (Others, like Aaron Paul and Kate Winslet, play up glorified caricatures.) Meanwhile, editor Dylan Tichenor, the man who cut masterpieces as varied as “Boogie Nights” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” provides excellent tension as Allen falls into the crosshairs of cops who serve the local Russian mafia bosses. The two of them almost manage to turn the film into a Coen-esque spin on a tale like “The Departed.” But even a watered-down version of that idyllic fantasy film would be worth watching – as “Triple 9” is, too. B2halfstars