Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

Hell or High Water (Mackenzie; 2016)

One of the most criminally overlooked films at awards ceremonies in 2015 was Sicario.  While Sicario did not win a single award and was never even nominated for Best Picture, though it was certainly deserving, it was nominated on 10 separate occasions at 10 separate awards programs for Best Original Screenplay.  The writer of that screenplay was one Taylor Sheridan, and one year later he’s showing us that his first screenplay was not a fluke and loudly announcing with Hell or High Water that we had best get used to hearing his name at those ceremonies year after year for the forseeable future.

Hell or High Water features Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers on a bank robbing spree across rural West Texas and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, the Texas Rangers partners out to find and put a stop to them.  All four of these men are at the top of their game giving us four characters who are likable, sympathetic, flawed, surprising, and most of all, real.  For Jeff Bridges, this is a performance we’ve come to expect, though he outdoes even himself here, and for the other three we get to see some truly break out performances from three men who have until now been known more for being pretty than for being talented.

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Are you trying to say I’m not pretty, asshole?

The West Texas scenery is filmed gorgeously, and makes what could have  been a well done, but more or less typical crime thriller into a modern day Western in which you can believe that in the 21st Century there are still swathes of the American West still waiting for someone to come settle them (steal them) and that there can still be cowboys riding around in an untamed frontier.  It’s great to see a modern film that looks gorgeous and doesn’t have to rely at all on special effects to get the job done, but just excellent camera work and old fashioned art direction.

David Mackenzie gives us nearly perfect direction in Hell or High Water.  Not only does he manage to get the best performances of their lives out of his main cast of actors, but he also gets us a film that relies a great deal on dialogue and quiet visuals to still have the pacing and tension of an action movie.  It seems like not a second is wasted, but the movie still has time to spend on small details which add so much to the overall experience.  Mackenzie knew exactly what to cut and keep, how long to hold a shot, and when it was more important to focus on story and when on character.

The greatest star of Hell or Highwater, though, is the absolutely brilliant screenplay by the aforementioned Taylor Sheridan.  It gives us a script with a perfect pairing of antagonists and protagonists, not just in ability, but in theme as well.  We have characters who are mirror images of each other, we have strong themes about what makes family and what strong family ties make us willing to do for one another, and some of the crispest and wittiest dialogue you will hear this year.  It does all this without ever calling attention to itself.  You never once hear a line and think the writer is attempting to be clever or have it called to your attention that he’s attempting to make a point.  The screenplay for Hell or High Water is always subtly brilliant, but it absolutely is brilliant through and through.

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You come for the fantastic script, but you stay for the horsies.

There never has been, nor do I think there ever can be, a perfect movie.  But, I’ll be damned if I can think of any real flaws in Hell or High Water beyond what they possibly could have done, which is never a way to judge a movie.  This is  a film I recommend everyone sees, and in the theaters so you don’t miss out on the gorgeous cinematography on display.  I will double down on this statement for those who have any interest in the Oscars or Golden Globes, because if you don’t see Hell or High Water garnering multiple nominations come that season, I’ll eat a ten gallon hat.

Rating:  9.4 out of 10