Movie review: “Wonder Woman”

 

DC has arrived. Kicking and screaming, getting in its own way at every opportunity, the Little Movie Studio That Couldn’t has finally put an unqualified win on the board with “Wonder Woman”. Gal Gadot is note-perfect in Patty Jenkins’s cohesive vision, creating a Wonder Woman / Diana Price who’s worth waiting for. Like all the best superheroes, she is at once complex and predictable, because even though Gadot’s Diana is multi-dimensional, sometimes conflicted and occasionally outright wrong, the character’s inner moral compass needle continues to point due danger. Raised on an island of literal Amazons and trained from an early age to defend the earth from the return of Aries, the god of war, Diana is quick to identify Aries’s fingerprints on a minor scuffle outside her island’s borders: World War One. She strikes a deal with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), shipwrecked pilot and spy—get her to the center of the action, and she will defeat Aries and end the conflict. Easy peasy, right? Diana’s naïveté would overwhelm a less capable actress, but Gadot’s charm easily carries the audience past exasperation—in her hands, Diana is a glutton for all kinds of carnal pleasures, from ice cream (“It’s delicious! You should be very proud!” she tells the stand-owner upon first taste) to sex, which she’s game for, but Steve the spy pilot is disappointingly uptight about. Diana’s first reaction to wartime London (“It’s hideous!”) is jarring and funny, but as the camera pulls back to reveal a smoke-choked hellscape, registers as accurate: Jenkins keeps finding new ways to show the world afresh through Diana’s eyes, while Gadot alchemizes innocence into idealism, giving us a Diana who reacts with total incredulity to trench warfare, because trench warfare surpasseth all understanding. By the time she goes over the top into no-man’s land, in a sequence that immediately joins the all-time great superhero moments in movie history, we’re ready to scale the backs of the movie seats to join her.

The movie isn’t perfect: fragments of modern dialogue are jarring in context (did anyone really say “you guys” or “cool” in 1918?), and MCU fans could be forgiven for noting the cinematic similarities between Steve Trevor (who rides a motorcycle through a forest and crashes his plane an awful lot) and his merry band of wartime accomplices, and Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. (Note: I do not give one spiraling crap which character—Steve Trevor or Steve Rogers—appeared first in print eighty-seven years ago. The point is that MCU showed us this on the big screen really recently, guys.) There is exactly one baddie too many, and the most interesting one (Elena Anaya, playing a dark mirror of Diana) goes underexplored. But a compelling backstory for a villain is a fair trade for enchanting battle sequences that seem both burnished and dynamic, like Caravaggio paintings brought to life. Smoke and fog are used to gorgeous aesthetic effect against skeletal, war-blasted pines; a sunrise mingles eerily with orange poison gas. The violence, too, is starkly beautiful. Jenkins uses stop motion to great effect, slowing Gadot’s fight choreography to a pace that can be admired but not quite parsed—the camera stays just ahead of your ability to register each block, kick, and turn, and the sum effect is like watching a talented magician do a trick very slowly. You’re dazzled, but none the wiser.
Which leads us to the movie’s conclusion, in which mankind’s salvageability is called rather severely into question. DC has not performed an about-face with “Wonder Woman”—this movie still has a darker, more somber tone than Marvel’s product. For the first time, though, that’s a good thing.

 

 

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Movie review: “Suicide Squad”

Someone at Warner Brothers—not everyone; not even everyone involved in the making of this movie—is listening. “Suicide Squad” is a wobbly, uneven, half-baked step in the right direction. It features a howlingly awful “Method” performance by Jared Leto; a script that exhaustingly, pedantically informs us what we’re seeing; characters that pop in and out of the script with as little reason as quarks.  It gives inexplicable acres of screen time to Scott Eastwood, the blandly handsome and be-cheekbone’d son of Clint, yet gives him nothing to say. It fails, again and again, to convincingly establish stakes, build tension, make us care. The ending is an anticlimax; deaths don’t mean anything; did I mention how much the Joker sucked ass?

Still better than Batman v Superman.

I take that back; that’s unfair. Many things are better than “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, including basement flooding, doing your own taxes, and the semi-pleasant lightheadedness you get after three days of stomach flu. Which is a feeling you might recognize after long enough in David Ayer’s world—a colorful and not unpleasant collision of Tim Burton’s Wonderland and Zac Snyder’s Gotham. In tone and feel, “Suicide Squad” comes closest to “The Watchmen”, another messy movie half-redeemed by a bright soundtrack and committed performances from actors whose best efforts were buried under an avalanche of incoherent story fragments. There are glimmers of hope in “Suicide Squad”, just as there were in “The Watchmen”. Let’s enumerate a few:

First: Will Smith as Deadshot. One of the movie’s most glaring flaws is the feeling that it was stitched together, Frankenstein-style, out of multiple scripts—each character authored by a different writer. The upshot (heh) is that Smith drew one of the good scripts, and delivers an even-better, deeper, more multi-dimensional version of the wiseass character that he’d already honed to perfection twenty years ago.

Second: Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Every moment Ms. Davis is on screen is like a moment spent in a refrigerator box with a cobra; while Leto swans and spits and swoons like a seventh-grade summerstock Iago, attempting to summon scariness and eliciting only snickers, Ms. Davis just exists, and rivets your attention with a life-or-death force. She approaches her character at a weary, workmanlike angle; but just when we are set to see Waller as a pragmatic functionary, she turns the corner and becomes something much more frightening. When another character admits that they didn’t see Waller coming, she responds, “No one else does, either.” The line lands, resonates, and chills. The idea that this woman, this genius, was stuck working on a movie set with the infantile and repugnant Leto (who mailed some of his costars dead animals and used condoms, using Method acting as an excuse for criminal harassment and sexual assault), is well beyond infuriating—it should be punishable by public stoning of every casting director, producer, lawyer, and handler involved. It is impossible to imagine a movie production treating Meryl Streep (the only living actress whose talent compares with Davis’s) with such cavalier disregard for her dignity or safety, and I invite you all to consider the reasons why that’s so.

Finally, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. I’m working hard to articulate precisely why I liked her so goddamn much, because I want to get this right; because it’s important; because this character, for me, redeemed the whole unholy mess of this movie. Here goes: Harley is the heroine I think a lot of us have been waiting for, a female character whose heroism is rooted, 100%, in the experience of having a bad boyfriend. Think hard before you push back. How many women do you know whose experience with a boyfriend has drastically derailed their lives? How many do you know who have had to flee—move—seek therapy—talk to their friends for hours—regain their career confidence and self-esteem for years—because of their boyfriends? How many do you know who are in that relationship right now?  I can think of a lot. I have friends who barely survived. I have friends whose entire personalities changed. I have friends I don’t speak to anymore, because they disappeared with those bad boyfriends and no one knows where they are. And Harley isn’t free or clear of her bad boyfriend yet, or even at all—she’s embroiled in him, entangled, still drowning, but miraculously, stubbornly, fiercely fucking alive. That’s the most real-world, relatable heroism I’ve seen all year. The fact that it’s delivered in candy-colored short shorts is for your benefit.

Let me be clear: this Harley is not a badass because she beats people up with a baseball bat. She is not a badass because she kills people. She is not a badass because she’s hot, or fuckable, or flexible, or a “crazy bitch”. Harley is all of those things, but those factors are camouflage. Put another way: a woman “kicking ass” is only considered kickass, in 2016 America, when she’s doing so violently—if she’s kicking ass in the boardroom, she’s a cold, robotic bitch who needs to be brought down a notch and “taught how to love”. If she’s kicking ass in space or the military, ditto. If she’s kicking ass in high school or a rock band, she’s cripplingly shy or awkward in her dating life and needs to loosen up and again, be “taught how to love”. And if she’s kicking ass at mothering a child, she’ll be regarded as a model not of feminism, but its opposite. Violence—done sexily—is still the only surefire avenue, for female characters in 2016, to the unqualified respect of male characters and a male audience. So violence, along with a fetchingly displayed ass, is Harley’s ticket onto the squad. But that’s not what makes her so cool. Surviving the emotional violence of a terrible, toxic love affair is Harley’s superpower, and if that’s a superpower you just don’t see the point of, look again. You may realize that you’ve been surrounded by heroines all along, and just didn’t realize it.

That’s alright. No one else does, either.