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.

 

The Lost City of Z (Gray; 2017)

Charlie Hunnam plays Major Percival Fawcett, a member of the British military whose father tarnished the Fawcett family name through his various addictions.  “Percy” is also an experienced surveyor, so when war is near breaking out between Brazil and Bolivia due to a burgeoning rubber industry combined with a lack of a distinct border between the two countries, Fawcett is called upon to head to the jungles between the two countries and determine where the border definitively lies.  When he discovers the remnants of what can only be an ancient civilization during his mission, he develops a life long obsession with finding the lost city which only the “savages” in the area seem to know even ever existed and prove that the native people of the area aren’t really savages, after all.

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The marketing campaign for The Lost City of Z made the film look as if it’s a pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) style adventure complete with hostile natives, death defying escapes, and lost treasure hidden around every corner.  What the movie really is, is a biography which covers the span of decades, following Percy from a time shortly after the birth of his first son, through World War I, and finishing with his final trip to the South American jungles.  While archaeology and the Lost City do cast a shadow across the entire film, and Percy Fawcett’s story revolves around them, this is the story of a man, not a mission nor a place.

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin, Percy’s right hand man), and Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett, Percy’s wife) headline the cast and all give performances that can best be described as proficient, but never exciting.  All the actors give us a fully developed, realistic character whom we can fully believe, but for some reason they never allow us to become fully invested in them, the simulation of a life is there, but the spark is missing.  The one exception to this is Angus Macfayden as James Murray, a man who insists on accompanying Fawcett on one of his trips which Murray funds.  Murray ends up being a truly pathetic sham of a human being who jeopardizes the entire mission with his arrogance and incompetence, but he is also the one character that truly seems human, like a life we can be honestly witnessing.

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Competent, but with no spark, is a good way to describe the entire film, actually.  The camerawork gives us some beautiful shots, but what it gives us is more like looking at a landscape which you’d buy at an art fair rather than a Van Gogh or a Renoir.  Sure, the cinematographer (Darius Khondji) knew what they were doing well beyond just where to point the camera, but there was no personal touch to it.  Everything was pretty and easy to follow, but again – no spark.

The story itself is well written, the screenplay is probably the best part of the film, but could have been edited better.  The Lost City of Z is a long movie, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while I wouldn’t call that overly long if the time is well used, there are large chunks of the movie which could have been trimmed.  The pacing of the entire film is a slow, even one, which doesn’t have to be an issue, but it seems that director James Gray was overly enamored with too much of his material, choosing to linger on conversations which served a very minor purpose or leaving in scenes which added little to nothing to the story.

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Final verdict:  As a history lesson, The Lost City of Z is actually pretty great, but know going into it that that is what you are getting, a biographical history lesson.   Any adventure and excitement to found in the film is spaced very far apart and doesn’t last very long.  What we have is a very clinical look at an interesting life.  If you take a lot of interest in biographies and history then there is a lot to catch your interest in The Lost City of Z, for anyone else, though, I’m afraid this film may be too slow paced and aloof. There is a lot to learn here, but not a lot to enjoy.