Friday, June 16, 2017

Wondrous Woman

Movie Reviewed: Wonder Woman

Director: Patty Jenkins

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, "Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you." We are in a better world in many ways than the one that I grew up in, and I welcome Patty Jenkins' new film Wonder Woman which delivers as both an origin story of the Amazon warrior and a very fun adventure film. Gal Gadot's performance as the eponymous warrior is so winning, so full of charisma and strength, that this film is impossible not to like. For whatever its flaws are, Wonder Woman offers a contrast to the conventional tropes of these films. Strong women are welcome as are more movies that pass the Bechdel Test.

The most powerful scenes in the film are in its roughly thirty minute opening scene in Themyscera, where the Greek mythology is outlined and where we meet a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and various mentors including Antiope (Robin Wright) doing all kinds of intense combat-training. There's swordplay and bows and arrows and daring stunts completed while riding horses. It is akin to Rosa Klebb walking through the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. training area in James Bond's second film From Russia With Love: each physical task is more intense and amazing than the previous.  Diana yearns to be trained by Antiope despite her mother's warnings. When World War 1 fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on their beach, being chased by Germans who want to recapture plans that he has stolen, a brutal battle ensues that changes the insular world of Diana and her previously hidden life. Now, she must decide to engage with the world or to continue to hide behind a protective shield.

The scene shifts to war-era London after a wonderful conversation on a boat between Diana and Steve which is about as intense about gender and sexual politics as one would ever believe possible in a comic book film. We begin the conventional march towards completing a mission, with several memorable supporting players joining the cast: secretary, as Diana calls it, "a form of slavery" (Lucy Davis); sniper (Ewen Bremner); actor (Said Taghmaoui); guide (Eugene Brave Rock). Jenkins balances the film's intense themes and action with humor and various fish-out-of-water scenarios as Diana encounters the modern world. However, the central conflict is a powerful one: in a scene located in the trenches surrounding a No Man's Land, Diana encounters a woman cast out of her village by occupying forces, listens to her story, and is so moved by it that she is called to action. A ferocious battle ensues, heavy on the CGI and the Zack Snyder slow-motion fighting, but the impetus is a conversation and an emotion felt by the character. It is a human decision, an impulse based on grief, pain, revenge that leads to a decision which shapes the rest of the story. I cannot express enough that the strength of this movie lies in its quieter scenes and its construction, not necessarily in its big action scenes.

A word about those action scenes.  I loved the opening hand-to-hand combat training sequences and even the Germans on the beach, with the camerawork always being clean enough to follow the story and the action. It was riveting, reminding me of the opening of Gladiator. Then, the film descends into murky CGI and over-the-top jumps and flips, and I find myself a bit taken out by it. When Diana has super-powers and fights another similarly strong foe, I do not really understand the stakes and the rules. What does it take one person to defeat or kill another? I had the same problem in Superman when I just couldn't wrap my ahead around all of this throwing of people into buildings. How does Zod defeat Superman? How do we know when someone is winning a fight like this? Those concerns are no different here than in previous films of this type. I worry that these films have a director and then another director for the CGI fighting, and how do you mesh the two?

The film has a strong conclusion with a wonderful sequence that we get to experience twice due to the concussive ringing in the ears which Jenkins replicates for the audience. I forgive the film's telegraphing of its villain from a mile away and its sometimes clumsy handling of scenes. (The morning following an important shift in the characters is treated inconsequentially, as if the film is too shy to think about the implications of what it has done.) The examination of photographs on a bulletin board at the film's end has a quiet, powerful resonance, and it adds a haunted, elegiac quality to its frame. It is a very good movie which offers me hope for the future. I am excited to watch this film with my son and daughter someday.

Wonder Woman soars over the Bechdel Test. It has two or more women in it, all with names, who talk to each other about something besides a man. It has many strong, intelligent, compassionate, and wise women in it, all with names and importance (Antiope's legacy casts a shadow over Diana), who talk about their world, their lives, their feelings, their losses, and their legacy. So much more than what women characters have been regulated to in traditional superhero films.

Leia Organa, Clarice Starling, Leeloo, Trinity, Lola, Yu Shu Lien, and Beatrix Kiddo welcome you to the club, Diana. It needs to be larger.

Smash the door open for as many others as you can.

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