WONDER WOMAN (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content)
Released:  June 2, 2017
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock,
Saïd Taghmaoui

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The isn’t just the best film from the DC Extended Universe. Wonder Woman is better than nearly every movie from the Marvel Extended Universe.

Living in Zack Snyder’s DC world but not of it, director Patty JenkinsWonder Woman is an assured standalone that’s driven by a specific vision rather than marketing metrics, test audience risk-aversion, or a checklist of franchise requirements. It adheres to a traditional template, yet it’s superior to the obnoxious, generic blockbuster-ing that often riddles the multiplexes. Wonder Woman does more than construct and calculate its mythology (as most tentpoles settle for); it does so in truly mythic fashion.

Diana Prince is going to inspire a lot of people. She’s not only a butt-kicker; she’s an aspirational figure.

This is a heroine that’s actually heroic, not angsty or conflicted. She acts with the moral clarity of Christopher Reeves’ Superman (a refreshing quality in today’s burdened superhero landscape), ditching the tortured psyche shtick for pure, principled conviction. Jenkins also mines that trait for humor, but instead of playing the fish-out-of-water Diana as culturally square, Gal Gadot imbues the Amazonian with a matter-of-fact no-nonsense swagger. She’s not the rube; we are, in our stultifying moral relativity.

And like its heroine, the movie thrives on its own identity and agency, not desperate to go “dark” or “edgy” with the kind of tonal baggage that has slogged the DCEU thus far, yet it always feels like a genuine effort rather than a corrective. It buoys seriousness with humor and knows how to weave the two. The comic touches are light and witty, even sophisticated at times, emerging as clever expressions made by well-drawn characters, not pulled from a stockpile of jokey one-liners.

Right from the start, its Act One origin is on par with what you might expect from the best Disney animated classics. It’s tightly, thoughtfully constructed beat-for-beat, not vomiting out dense exposition dumps. The script and ensemble then go beyond just unpacking the backstory. They establish characters, relationships, rules, and this world in a way that causes us to become invested, not merely informed.

You’re rooting for Diana’s fighting spirit right from her first moments as a little girl. Gadot fiercely owns that passion (and the screen) when she becomes a young woman. Then, about an hour in, Diana finally makes her debut as Wonder Woman. It’s a moment that’s epic, iconic, and completely badass.

From there, instead of stopping a maniacal baddie that’s hell bent on a contrived global annihilation, she faces a very real threat: the First World War. That context grounds this superhero movie in a way that most others lose sight of, and layers the stakes with political complexities.

In my review of Batman V Superman, I said, “the film’s best superhero isn’t even in the title.” Gadot confirms that impression here with a strong, charismatic turn. She grabs this whole thing by the lapels and then leads it to wherever it’s going (no doubt a reflection of director Jenkins, too). And as a bonus, Jenkins colors Wonder Woman’s costume with the traditional red, blue, and gold hues, dispensing of the ugly, grungy sepia shades seen in BvS.

And her co-star? Along with his suave magnetism, Chris Pine has instincts for nuance (comedic and dramatic) that most actors rarely display. Between this and Hell or High Water, Pine is emerging as a talent capable of nearly anything. Note to Hollywood: starting now, just give Chris Pine all the roles. Please and thank you.

Together, Gadot and Pine have the kind of chemistry that inevitably has you screaming in your head, “Just kiss already!” It’ll be hard to beat these two as the summer’s best on-screen couple, romantic or otherwise.

She embodies strength and femininity in equal measure, not to mention smarts and ideals, creating as well-rounded a role model for girls as any character in the movies today, and he admires her strength rather than being dismissive of or threatened by it (a good role model for boys). Even so, parents take caution: some of the action is intense, at times scary, plus some romantic banter is responsible for the 13 after the PG.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Wonder Woman proves to be thematically relevant in a way Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg likely never intended. Yes, by design, their story arc upends the simplistic comic book cliché that defeating The Bad Guy will, in the end, defeat evil, but this reversal of superhero convention then challenges us to confront a more nefarious reality: evil is insidiously, subtly pervasive (even in our heroes). That’s something our current toxic bifurcated political climate is loathe to admit.

Kneejerk social media posts and argumentative news channel punditry may like to posit that The Politician We Hate is the inspiration for the hate that exists around us, but Wonder Woman actually tears down that bitter partisan Straw Man and forces us to look at (and judge) ourselves instead.

In terms of craft this is superbly made, with inspired, ambitious flourishes. The digital effects still kick into full-tilt overkill, unfortunately (a pox upon our blockbusters), but Jenkins is a serious filmmaker, framing shots and staging set pieces with intention, not coverage. Her eye is cinematic, not frenetic, and her movie (with all that it has to wrangle) never feels unwieldly.

Most importantly, Jenkins isn’t trying to build a franchise. It’s a restraint emphasized by the absence of any end-credit scenes, not to mention the avoidance of shoehorning in a clunky reference to Diana as “Wonder Woman” (the moniker literally goes without saying). Jenkins wisely just aims to make a really good movie, confident that the brand will take care of itself.

But then, why shouldn’t she? She has Gal Gadot, and all the power that she possesses. To make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love, and make a liar tell the truth. The world is ready for her, and the wonders she can do.

(You can also read my analysis of Wonder Woman‘s blockbuster success with audiences, “Why WONDER WOMAN Broke Through”.)

The Cuddly Accident-Prone Bear Is Back In PADDINGTON 2 Trailer (VIDEO)

The original Paddington movie, based on the popular series of children’s books, may not have been a box office sensation, but it’s nice to see a family friendly charmer produced with such vibrant artful panache (like a Wes Anderson movie, for kids) do well enough to spawn a sequel.

This first teaser for Paddington 2 promises more of the same, and that could be a very good thing. Ben Whishaw returns as the voice of the titular cub, and the film co-stars British acting elites such as Hugh Bonneville, Sally HawkinsHugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Imelda Staunton.

Paddington 2 opens on January 12, 2018.


Judi Dench Is Queen Again In VICTORIA & ABDUL Trailer (VIDEO/IMAGES)

In 1997, Judi Dench went from obscure American notoriety as M to Pierce Brosnan‘s James Bond to her first Oscar nomination as Queen Victoria in the under-seen yet powerful Mrs. Brown. Now, 20 years later, she plays Queen Victoria again during her final years in the dramatic charmer Victoria & Abdul.

The similarities to Mrs. Brown are striking, namely that both films center around the Queen’s unlikely friendship with a servant. First, it was the Scotsman John Brown; now it’s an Indian clerk named Abdul. Man, Vicky got around.

The directors, however, are different. John Madden guided Dench in Mrs. Brown (before leading her to her Oscar win in Shakespeare in Love). Here it’s Stephen Frears. He’s familiar with both royal character studies (The Queen) and Judi Dench (Philomena).

Don’t be surprised if the Dame ends up with her 8th Academy Award nomination.

Written by Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall and co-starring Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Simon Callow, and Olivia Williams, Victoria & Abdul opens in select cities on September 22, 2017, and expands on September 29.

Click on any picture for larger image gallery

Soderbergh Is Back With LOGAN LUCKY Trailer (VIDEO)

Well that retirement didn’t last long.

Steven Soderbergh is officially back in the feature film game, following his dubious “retirement” in which he stayed rather busy with his Cinemax series The Knick. The Oscar-winning director’s return to the big screen is Logan Lucky, a new heist comedy that plays like a hick version of his Ocean’s Trilogy.

It looks to be a fun ride with a retro style and an eclectic all-star cast, capped with the “newcomer” credit “and introducing Daniel Craig as Joe Bang!!” That cheeky citation is a perfect example of what to expect from this quirky Coen-esque ride.

Starring Channing Tatum, Adam DriverRiley KeoghSeth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, and Hilary Swank, Logan Lucky opens on August 18, 2017.




Episode 8: Pirates, Guardians, and Aliens – oh my!

For this edition of The OFCC Podcast, available on iTunes, a roundtable of critics from the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle discuss the latest in movies for May 2017.

You can also stream Episode 8 by clicking here.

On this episode, the roundtable includes:

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (starting at 1:14)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (at 13:08)
Alien: Covenant (at 25:34)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (at 40:50)
Snatched (at 50:19)
– The Lovers (at 53:37).

Click here to subscribe through iTunes, and look for the May 25, 2017 episode.

FIVE CAME BACK (Mini-Series Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated TV-14
(for some language, adult themes, and real war violence)
Released:  Now streaming on Netflix
Runtime: 3 episodes, each @ 1 hour
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
Starring: On-camera interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. Narrated by Meryl Streep.

I don’t know if Five Came Back rises to the high bar of required viewing, but it sure comes close.

This certainly is a must for history nerds, World War II buffs, and fans of Old Hollywood. Based on the non-fiction book by Mark Harris, Five Came Back is a three-hour documentary told over three one-hour parts. It tells the story of five legendary film directors who, at the peak of their careers, left Hollywood to serve their country in the Allied war effort, each contributing their skills to tell the story of the conflict to a pre-TV nation.

Using Harris’s text as a guide, it weaves together the journeys of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. If you don’t recognize those names, a quick glimpse at their IMDb pages (linked on their names) instantly reveals their legacies.

Their stories are placed into specific contexts – both insightful and personal – by five contemporary filmmakers, who each speak at length in on-camera interviews: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. Meryl Streep serves as Narrator.

This is a fascinating deep dive, especially for those familiar with each director’s iconic imprint on the art of cinema. Particularly fascinating is how real events turn likely assumptions (well mine, anyway) on their heads. Expecting to hear tales of superior storytellers rising to the occasion when their country calls, in ways that only they can, we see instead how most of these gentlemen – great as they were – simply were not prepared, either as filmmakers or as men, to what the effort would require of them.

For four of the five, their experience revealed not strengths as directors but weaknesses as men. Their times served would be the formative challenge that each man lacked, and needed. The only exception was William Wyler, whose personal character and unshakeable integrity met the war fully formed. His war documentaries – and the public they served – were the better for it.

George Stevens has perhaps the most fascinating arc, entering the war as an auteur of light comedies and musicals, amusing if artful fluff, only for destiny to ultimately require him to record the war’s most heinous, gruesome realities.

As someone who knew plenty about the personal lives of Capra, Ford, and Huston, to learn about Stevens and Wyler were, for me, the greatest discoveries and rewards of Five Came Back. Suffice it to say, my perspective on Stevens’ career (which I already admired) has taken on a whole new meaning and depth, while William Wyler has become my new hero.

Whether binging straight through or, as I’d recommend, over a series of consecutive nights, the Netflix original documentary Five Came Back (streaming exclusively on that provider) is a special, affecting, profoundly involving historical document, best shared and discussed with family and friends, or as a fascinating augment to a high school history class. The true stories of Five Came Back inspire levels of patriotism and emotion that would make even the best purveyors of Hollywood magic salute with pride.

THE LOVERS (Movie Review)

** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language and sexuality)
Released:  May 5, 2017 limited; May 26 expands
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracey Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula

It’s a shame when a filmmaker gets a great idea for a movie involving things he apparently knows nothing about.

The Lovers is a story of a middle-aged husband and wife that, unbeknownst to each other, are both having extra-marital affairs. But just as they are about to drop the bomb on the other that they’re leaving and want a divorce…they start to fall in love again.

It’s the kind of premise you wish Woody Allen or Nora Ephron would’ve explored in their heydays, but instead we’re left with a take from Azazel Jacobs, a director with a few obscure indies and some TV episodes to his name.

His limited skill as a filmmaker is problematic enough; this is a blandly shot piece of dull-looking naturalism. But the bigger issue here is that Jacobs has neither the life experience to pull from nor an intuitive understanding of humanity (or marriage) to tell this story with any insight, real humor, or credibility.

The final result is rarely convincing, let alone perceptive or moving, thus wasting two perfectly cast leads (one of which is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright) who probably could’ve come up with something much more truthful and resonant if they’d been allowed to improvise the whole thing.

Thinly written in every regard, The Lovers is padded with busywork scenes that get the plot from A to Z but reveal nothing surprising, specific, or complex about its central characters, Michael and Mary, beyond their obvious surface anxieties.

Seen too rarely on the big screen, Debra Winger’s wry talents are horrendously underused, and Tracy Letts (the Tony-winning writer of August, Osage County, the darkly comic epic of family dysfunction) is given nothing to work with in a role he could knock out of the park.

Everything unfolds rather mechanically, going back and forth between Michael and Mary’s awkward life at home and their affairs outside of it. We never really see true connection, only engineered conflict, as both affairs speed toward a “now or never” decision.

There’s a good deal of pat arguing and angst, but none of it rises above anything distinguishable from quickly-rushed TV melodramas. It’s forced, never organic or specifically motivated, and the dialogue isn’t particularly clever either. Nothing rings true, only contrived, including the out-of-nowhere moment that Michael and Mary become passionate again.

Letts and Winger actually mask these inadequacies longer than should be possible. Perhaps as someone desperate for mature, grown-up fare I was slower to the bleak reality of this flat drama than I might otherwise have been, but I won’t steal any credit from Winger and Letts for working miracles either. Suffice it to say, these two make up for a lot, particularly Letts whose ability to be passionately present, with instinctive spontaneity, rivals that of Meryl Streep.

Jacobs’ other big assist comes from composer Mandy Hoffman. Her throwback score feels suited for New York set rom-coms, layered with even more melancholy. Hoffman’s work deserves better material to underscore. She, along with Winger and Letts, provides a sophistication that Jacobs’ efforts completely lack.

The third act really goes south with the entrance of the couple’s son, when he visits from college with his new girlfriend. An obnoxiously resentful stereotype, he exists simply to vent anger and bitterness at his parents, turning this labored exercise from frustrating to actively annoying. The entire script feels like a first draft that a better director would not have settled for, and likely overhauled.

The real kicker: as happy endings go, this one’s pretty messed up. Swap out the “v” in the title for an “s”, and that unfortunately describes every audience who ends up sitting through The Lovers.