Finally, ‘Wonder Woman’ is here

Gal Gadot in Wonder WomanInfamously, since Warner Bros. decided to create a crossover-heavy “universe” with its superheroes, the studio’s comic book films have been at best wrong-headed and underwhelming (Man of Steel) and at worst incompetently made and pointless (Suicide Squad). The fear that they’d screw up a Wonder Woman film after waiting decades to greenlight it was justified. Thankfully, they didn’t screw it up at all. Instead, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is the studio’s best superhero film since 2005’s The Dark Knight, perfectly cast, funny, exciting and surprisingly moving.

The character is 75 years old and one of the most iconic superheroes ever created. But until last year’s last year’s inexorable Batman v Superman, which teased this new film, Wonder Woman hasn’t ever made an appearance on film. She hasn’t been seen in a non-animated form since the end of the campy, if delightful, series starring Linda Carter in 1979. Wonder Woman’s absence as the hero of a major TV show or film has been the subject of much consternation among fans, with most assuming film execs’ sexist views about what audiences want to see were to blame. When the Wonder Woman film was announced, fans rejoiced and got nervous: What if it sucked? Would it kill any female-focused future superhero films? It doesn’t suck, and we’ve already been promised a sequel.

Wonder Woman is the nom de guerre of Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) of the Amazons, the only daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). The Amazons are an all-female race of stellar warriors created by the Greek Gods (in this version) to fight the war god Ares. Ever since the defeat of Ares, the women have lived on a magically hidden island and trained for his inevitable return. Hippolyta fashioned Diana out of clay, and Diana grew into a willful but powerful young woman. One day, a plane crashes off the island and Diana rescues the pilot, an American spy fleeing the German military. Steve Trevor (a charming Chris Pine) is handsome and dashing, and his stories of the mass death and destruction of the Great War inspires Diana and others to think Ares has returned. Against her mother’s wishes, she leaves with Steve and, amongst a series of feminist fish-out-of-water jokes, they plan to stop evil Germans (Danny Huston and Elena Anaya) from deploying a hideous chemical weapon. Diana is convinced she’s going to find Ares and be able to kill him and thus end all war, while Steve – and their Scooby gang of sidekicks – are unsure Diana is divine or just damn good with a sword and lasso.

There are three reasons Wonder Woman works. Gal Gadot is chief among them, doing the seeming impossible by seamlessly transitioning from tough to sweet, empathic to avenging, naïve to wise, irascible to magnetic, ethereal to funny. Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar for Monster in 2004, beautifully manages Gadot’s star-making performance alongside those of a tremendous supporting cast that includes Robin Wright, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner. Her skill at the quiet moments would never have been in doubt, but the effects-laden action set-pieces were as thrilling and occasionally awe-inspiring. And finally, Allan Heinberg’s screenplay does the requisite origin story work while also addressing the meanings of and reasons for good, evil, war and love without the cheese that usually accompanies action film philosophizing.

When I left the movie, I was happy for Wonder Woman, finally done justice in the theater after decades of delays. I was also uplifted by Heinberg’s script, Gadot’s charisma, and, most importantly, by the exhilarated and beaming teenage girls, young women, their mothers, aunts, and sisters who were sitting around me. I wish they hadn’t waited so long for this kind hero, but I’m glad that when it arrived, it was this Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Allan Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and David Thewlis
Rated PG-13
Originally published in LGBT Weekly

The family that fights mercenaries and fascists together stays together

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Part of why people loved Guardians of the Galaxy so much when it came out in 2014 was how surprised they were: The Guardians are not well-known characters outside of diehard Marvel Comics fans; no (at-the-time) major starred in the movie and few knew of writer-director James Gunn beyond his screenplay for Scooby Doo.

There was not much to expect. But Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive hit because it was thrilling, funny, nerdy and it featured Chris Pratt’s arrival as a major star. It’s considered by many to be the best or at least one of the best Marvel movies. So, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 had a lot to live up to. And while I couldn’t be pleasantly amazed again, I was still impressed by how much fun I had. The movie does all the things tent-poll comic book movies are supposed to do while doing something very few of them manage: be completely character driven.

The Guardians are comprised of their wise-cracking, Earth-born captain Peter Quill, or Star-Lord (Pratt), green-skinned and humorless warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), rascally racoon-looking Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), oafish strongman Drax (Dave Bautista) and the tiny, talking tree toddler known as Groot, whose only words are “I am Groot.” (The phrase can mean anything and only Rocket knows how to interpret it.) The film begins with the Guardians killing a space monster for a gold-skinned race of fascist humanoids called the Sovereign in return for a prisoner of theirs: Nebula (Karen Gillan), the angry, blue-skinned sister of Gamora .

But as the Guardians leave the planet, the Sovereign attack; they are enraged when they discover Rocket has stolen a few of the Sovereign’s super-powered batteries. The Guardians escape but only because a mysterious, absurdly powerful man named Ego (Kurt Russell) incinerates the Sovereign ships. It turns out Ego is Peter’s long-lost father – who is also a millions-of-years-old god-like being called a Celestial. As Peter bonds with his dad, Gamora and Nebula fight, Drax has hilariously deep conversations with Ego’s empath companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff), while Rocket and Groot deal with the bounty-hunters and pirates called the Ravagers and their erstwhile leader and Peter’s former guardian Yondu (Michael Rooker).

There are a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads, and Gunn handles them expertly. He develops each character, giving them motivation, conflicts and almost complex emotions. The plots are created by the characters working to resolve these emotionally oriented problems, almost all of which revolve around how they create and sustain their families. In each case, these tough and rough heroes are resisting the connections right in front of them and seeking out the wrong goal, and they confront this error when they must fight a bunch of bad guys all at once. It’s a surprising moving and surprisingly sweet plot for a movie full of space explosions and weird-looking aliens.

The soundtrack is full of hits of the 1970s (ostensibly all found on Peter’s cassette tape Awesome Mix Vol. 2), and they are not used as ironic background noise but as commentary on the action: from “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass to “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, from “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison to “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. “Brandy” is used particularly powerfully, with Ego explaining that he is like the sailor in the song: “But he made it clear he couldn’t stay / No harbor was his home.” It’s a romantic notion, but it’s also a sad one.

By the end, Peter realizes that nothing can replace the loss of his father, not even a God. But a family of space swashbucklers might come close.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Written and Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Kurt Russell
Rated PG-13

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

A superhero story like no other

Originally published inLGBT Weekly

Ryan Reynolds and Brianna Hildebrand in Deadpool

One of the problems with the takeover of popular culture by Marvel and DC superheroes is how seriously the stories take themselves, how easy the morality is and how family-friendly everything is. Monster-budget films like The Avengers and the upcoming Batman vs Superman, or network dramas like The Flash and Agents of SHIELD, aim to reach the broadest audience possible, which means no swearing, little irony and barely a hint of sex. (The Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones are the exception, as they are niche shows.) Then there’s Deadpool, the raunchy, hyper and hilariously violent, anti-hero’s tale that exploded a dozen box office records last week. Based on one of the edgiest characters in the Marvel X-Men universe, the film both panders to the basest sensibilities of the young men who make up the lion’s share of comic book fans and mercilessly mocks superhero story conventions.

The film begins with the wise-cracking, red-hooded super soldier laying waste to heavily armed bad guys on a highway overpass. The first two acts use this sequence to set up flashbacks explaining how Deadpool got to this moment. A few years before, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a very handsome and freakishly competent mercenary, goes around shooting and socking random jerks, for or not for payment. He has a truer moral compass than he claims, repeatedly saying he’s not a hero. One day, he meets a similarly witty and confident regular at his local bar for ne’er-do-wells, a prostitute named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). A few minutes after they get engaged, he discovers he has advanced cancer (a weird tone shift for the film that until then is pretty light, even in its violence).

Shortly thereafter, a mysterious man in a suit (Hugh Scott) tells Wade his organization can cure and make him superhuman. At first Wade refuses, but then, out of guilt for possibly leaving Vanessa alone, he agrees and sneaks off in the middle of night. It turns out that this organization actually creates mutant slaves for especially evil criminals, and its chief scientist Ajax (Ed Skrein), a sociopath without the ability to feel pain, delights in torturing his patients. Ajax says it’s the only way to activate their latent powers. Eventually, Wade’s powers are activated, and he escapes. But while these powers give him the ability to heal from anything – he can even grow back an amputated hand – they rather horribly disfigure his skin and face: “Whatever they did to me made me totally indestructible… and completely unf@#*able.” Thinking that Vanessa will never want to see him again, Wade dons the moniker Deadpool and lays waste to the underworld looking for Ajax in order to force him to fix what he’s done.

Throughout the film, Wade makes filthy, twisted and obscure jokes; they happen so quickly and so often, I’m looking forward to the DVD so I can catch them all. Very few of them are printable, and I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun of you hearing them fresh. Wade also repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, commenting on the film’s plot directly to the audience, who no one else in the film understands is watching. This works better in the comics, where no characters in the Marvel Universe do this, but it still sets up good jokes and brings the audience into the action. Reynolds, who is an exceptionally winning and charismatic comedian, is as perfectly cast as Deadpool as anyone has been cast as a superhero (more so than Patrick Stewart as Professor X). After being at the center of one of the worst superhero bombs (Green Lantern), Deadpool redeems Reynolds as major star who can carry a franchise.

The other, less visible, winner is Tim Miller, the first-time director who presided over Reynold’s epic performance and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s witty, giddy script.


Directed by Tim Miller

Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein

Rated R

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Some kids shouldn’t have powers

I totes loved Chronicle. Here’s my review, which can also be found here.

A few weeks ago, I watched Dane DeHaan, one of the stars of the new teens-with-superpowers movie Chronicle, answering questions at a press conference about what made Chronicle different from other “found footage” movies. He claimed that the difference was that every shot of film – every spliced together piece of camcorder shots, close circuit clips and news coverage – propelled the story. I’m not sure how this is different from Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity, since all of those films, the greats of the genre, have pretty clear and propulsive stories. Isn’t it all in the editing? And isn’t it just carefully crafted and constructed footage made to look “found?” Chronicle doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But it does make the wheel shiny and new. Unlike the three movies mentioned above, Chronicle is not just good sci-fi action with smart special effects; it’s a character-driven drama. At times, it’s even moving.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is an awkward, easily bullied senior in high school. His drunken father beats him, and his mother is dying of what seems to be emphysema. Andrew’s cool, philosophically minded cousin Matt (Alex Russell) drives him to school every morning and is his only friend. Matt advises Andrew to stop bringing his camera everywhere he goes, because it’s “weird.” And as one cheerleader says, asking him to stop filming the cheerleading practice, “It’s creepy.”

But Andrew doesn’t relent, even bringing his camera to a rave. This is convenient when the big man on campus, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), comes looking for Andrew to film a strange discovery he and Matt had made in the woods. It’s a big hole, and it looks to have been created by an asteroid of some sort. The three boys descend down into hole and find a giant glowing crystal-like thing. The next thing we know, they all have telekinetic abilities.

As they learn to control and hone their powers, Matt and Steve focus on having fun, but Andrew’s home life and his history of being bullied, of being a social outcast, make his goals and his interpretation of what these powers mean more layered, problematic and ultimately sinister.

While much of the film’s edge can be attributed to the scrappy, hand-held and sometimes telekinetically-held found footage, and to Dane DeHaan’s fiercely angry and emotional Andrew, director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis have constructed a thrilling exploration of adolescent angst through fantastical situations. The dialogue rings true; these teenagers sound like teenagers, even when Matt is quoting Jung and Schopenhauer. And when the action starts, it is quick and exciting and terrifying.

Directed by Josh Trank
Written by Max Landis
Starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan
At your local multiplex
Rated PG-13