Wonder Woman

Exactly what it says on the tin

wonderwomanPatty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman joins the very short list of superhero movies whose existence is justified.  It’s a landmark for the genre, but also a refresher course on how to make a decent blockbuster: characters are well-defined despite the focus on plot and action, everyone’s motivations make sense (to a reasonable degree, anyway), the supporting cast is likeable (even lovable), the villains are worthy opponents, and despite the its length, the film is never bloated with unnecessary side material. Best of all, the protagonist is a layered, thinking person who despite her superhuman abilities and “chosen one” status must adapt, learn, doubt, fear, and overcome. Not that the audience ever doubts that she’ll kick the enemies’ asses in the end, but it’s how she gets there that makes the CG-slathered action watchable.

The film centers around Diana (Gal Gadot), child of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who has been raised on a strangely Christian-ified version of Greek Mythology in which God of War Ares takes on a Lucifer role and seeks to eradicate his father’s creations (humans) by manipulating them into killing one another.  In the world outside Themyscira, World War I is raging, so when Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and learns about the years-long conflict with countless millions of casualties, the story seems to check out.  Although she can never return if she leaves, Diana sets out to kill Ares (whom she assumes is the cause of the war, and whose death will instantly end it).  Along the way, she learns to integrate herself into human society (to varying degrees of success) and becomes sharply aware of something she was never taught by the Amazons: nuance.

The film is part action epic, part formula comic-book fare, part period romance, and part fish-out-of-water comedy.  Unlike Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, whose tone doesn’t work because 1) the humor isn’t funny and 2) only some of the characters take the story seriously, Wonder Woman balances its parts rather masterfully, and it’s clear that a lot of care went into its pacing and characterization.  We go from ancient immortal god-women on horses (including Robin Wright as Antiope, the greatest warrior in history) to the gritty, crapsack WWI era, where women are secretaries (or “slaves,” as Diana would argue), and the transition is seamless.  Pine’s character is likeable, and although he seems to consider himself special, he’s not arrogant enough to think he, rather than Diana, should be the hero simply based on gender. On top of that, even though the romantic connection between the duo is an inevitable part of the formula, it’s not all that bad because Pine plays Trevor as a nuanced person (not just a super-spy) who actually respects Diana in addition to being physically attracted to her, and is more than willing to follow her into battle when she takes the lead.

The supporting cast is well-utilized and genuinely worth spending time with. The classic ragtag band of good-hearted scoundrels includes Saïd Taghmaoui as secret agent Sameer, Ewan Bremner as Charlie, a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as “Chief,” a Native trader who is none too shy about giving Diana an education about what hostile takeovers by one people over another actually look like.  On the enemy side, Danny Huston takes mostly-center-stage as a fictionalized version of real-life German general Erich Ludendorff, a sort of wannabe supervillain who obviously isn’t Ares. He and Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aka “Doctor Poison” (now there’s a supervillain name) form the Big Bad Duumvirate that the good guys must content with until the true nature of Ares is revealed, and despite its predictability, it pays off well. Admirably, none of the characters, hero or villain, are wasted or dismissively killed off for a laugh.  In fact, Diana’s decision to spare a certain character shows a real maturity on the part of the filmmakers (and by extent, the character).

Spoilers in this part. Gal Gadot’s performance is really something, because she’s not relying on audience expectation in order to sell herself as a hero. Here’s an actress who understands Diana in and out, put real effort (read: nearly twenty pounds of muscle) into transforming into the character, and whose real-life combat expertise (Israeli military) lends the fight scenes a realism and urgency that most other superhero movies cannot boast (although we do get some of the DBZ-style “characters shooting colored beams at each other from a distance” stuff when Diana’s badass final adversary is revealed).  Diana, in sum, is a rare and incredible find in a genre that throws the word “hero” around way too loosely, and while I wasn’t paying attention to Gadot’s work before this, I now can’t think of anyone else more worthy of the role.

Among the film’s pitfalls are the erasing of Diana’s bisexuality (though her intimate scene with Trevor more than implies that this isn’t her “first” anything), and the film as a whole could certainly be more intersectional (where are all of the Black soldiers and American/European citizens?), but it’s a decent rough draft of what is (hopefully) to come.

wonder_woman_282017_film29Wonder Woman (2017); written by Allan Heinberg; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, and Robin Wright.

 

 

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A Most Wanted Man

Lawyer, Banker, Drifter, Spy

wantedAnton Corbijn has taken on the task of adapting another John le Carré spy novel, the most recent being Tomas Alfredson’s admirable go at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As with that film (not to mention most of le Carré’s work), A Most Wanted Man feels like a fragment.  Spy narrative, complete with slow burn, introspective protagonists, and sometimes impenetrable politics, constitutes such a deep and complex culture and experience that AMWM (even at its two-hour runtime) still feels like the middle of a story once it ends.  That’s in part a compliment to the filmmaker and actors, who never allow us to disengage from the tension, but also a comment on the painful realism of these stories: Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does not want the story to end yet, but as we realize after our post-ending tantrum, the ending this film gets is the only ending possible.

Bachmann, a German espionage agent, runs an intelligence outfit in Hamburg.  When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, illegally enters the country and is confirmed by Russian intelligence to be a terrorist threat, Bachmann puts out feelers, as Karpov’s intention to collect an inheritance from his dishonorable father’s account may have some connection to something Bachmann’s team (which includes Nina Hoss, Vicky Krieps, and Mehdi Dehbi) have been interested in for some time: Doctor Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist, is believed to be funding terrorist activities.  Bachmann needs proof.  Unfortunately, two other parties are interested in these issues: Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American diplomat, and German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who works with the Americans.  To put it lightly, gentle Bachmann and the gung-ho others differ on how to handle the Karpov situation, and are left to pursue things in their own way after Bachmann refers to Mohr as a “clown.”  They basically let Bachmann go about his business, but we get the sense that the Americans are almost too invisible as operations go forward.

The film’s deuteragonist is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer who wants to give Karpov a chance.  She puts him in touch with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had shady relations (money laundering) with Karpov’s father.  Karpov wants to give the money away, but is ultimately a young man trying to find himself, and has no real plan – a fact that may prove as frustrating to some viewers as it does to the film’s various spies and agents.  But it makes complete sense; in fact, if a homeless torture victim turned out to have a meticulously thought-out strategy for dealing with millions of euros, there wouldn’t be much of a case for the film’s realism.  Annabel truly feels for the young refugee, and goes as far as hiding him in a relative’s soon-to-be-renovated apartment when she thinks Bachmann’s group might have dastardly intentions for him.  What Bachmann really wants to do is convince Karpov to donate the money to Abdullah’s organization in order to prove that the latter is funneling money to Seven Friends, a shipping company that is actually a front for Al Qaeda.  The obvious choice is to simultaneously turn Annabel and Tommy, one by kidnapping and one by highbrow, gentlemanly schmoozing.  Guess which.

The other story thread involves several sparsely placed meetings between Bachmann and Sullivan, who try to work out a mutually beneficial method for dealing with Karpov.  Nothing works, yet the film refrains from outwardly vilifying Sullivan, whose genuine charm (that of the Princess Bride herself) actually convinces us that she’s being kind, and not jerky, by giving Bachmann various ultimatums, all of which seem fair if he can actually do his job.  She even gets him a meeting with the interior minister, who gives him the green light.

A Most Wanted Man is more genuinely characterized than Tinker, Tailor, which more or less amounts to a whodunnit wherein lots of middle-aged white men tirelessly dogmatize about what it all means.  The identity of the mole is everything.  Here, there are more pieces, and the pieces are people who are actually worth caring about, not to mention that every character’s motivation and reasons for acting the way they do are very well laid out (except for Karpov, who doesn’t know himself, which makes him even more of a wildcard).  The film opens with a nice, long shot of Bachmann’s entire team, giving an audience time to take in what each of them looks like, so that we recognize them as they stalk Richter and Karpov on the subway or pretend to be a target’s old acquaintance.  A long, father-son-style scene between Bachmann and his spy underling Jamal seems out of place, but provides a vital payoff later.  Best of all, Bachmann’s team includes almost as many women as it does men, with Vicky Krieps and Nina Hoss (as Niki and Erna respectively) convincingly portraying characters who have been doing this work with Bachmann for a long time.  Never do we get the sense that this is a group of cool, quirky movie spies with flashy skills.  Everything about them seems real, especially the fatigue.

Annabel, though, represents the heart of the film.  She cares about what she does.  She’s confident and brave, unafraid of Tommy, Bachmann, or the government, but able to be convinced when a good point is made.  Notably, she’s the only one who acts out of sympathy, whereas Bachmann and Sullivan facetiously refer to their motivations with the quip, “To make the world a safer place.  Isn’t that enough?”

Karpov, of course, is the film’s titular wanted man, but sadly, another man is “wanted” after the film ends.  This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, and even though I’ll be able to gush about him twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels, the final shot of this film – an extended, single-shot car ride through Hamburg with Hoffman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, as though he’s chauffeuring us to a staged performance of the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes,” before he gets out and walks away with the audience still in the car – is truly hollowing.

A Most Wanted Man (2014); based upon the novel by John le Carré; screenplay by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. 

 

Rampart

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The above statement proves all too true when Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) tries to talk with his daughters near the ending of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.  Everyone in this film seems to have a plan, the fundamental fibers of which have begun deteriorating long before the beginning of the story.

Dave Brown is a bad guy.  He’s a Los Angeles police officer in the wake of the Rampart scandal, determined to retain his job despite the laundry list of allegations against him for everything you can think of, including unnecessary brutality, to which we bear firsthand witness.  He lives next door to his two ex-wives, sisters who each have a daughter by Brown.  This makes his daughters both sisters and first cousins; when the younger daughter asks if she is “inbred,” Brown responds, “I married your moms consecutively, not concurrently.  It’s all perfectly legal and up to insurance industry standards.”  I can’t help but wonder how the sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both married to Brown within such a short time frame, get along so famously and nearly always stick together when it comes to issues involving him.  Perhaps their lives have reached such a low point – not to mention a point at which nothing can surprise them – that acceptance is the only fallible response.

Rampart is not presented as a film with a plot as much as a mulligan of vignettes and sideplots meticulously woven together to await their respective inevitable results.  What we might consider the major meat of the story involves Brown facing sanctions and possible forced retirement for a suspicious shooting set up by a former gangster simply named Hartshorn, played by convincing old-timer Ned Beatty.  As all of the Hartshorns in America are related, I naturally wanted to root for him, but the film makes that a bit difficult.  In the face of the allegations, Brown repeatedly tries to talk his way out of trouble using the wit, crude humor, and pretense of intelligence that got him so far on the force (for example, we learn early in the film that he often makes up quotes from nonexistent court cases in order to illustrate points to police rookies).  However, it is clear from the get-go that he has no chance of charming assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), agent Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), and politician Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi).  When the womanizing Brown meets a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright, the Princess Bride herself), a conflict blooms in that it would be much more beneficial for her to work against him.  When she attempts to discuss feelings vs. professionalism and the reality of the situation with him, he cannot get past the fact that she will not simply do as he says.

The movie would be over in a hurry (or quickly shift focus to the domestic conflicts only) if Brown wasn’t so desperate to keep his job as a police officer, despite everyone knowing he’s a loose cannon.  Why is staying a cop the most important thing?  “Because I am a hard-charging, dutiful motherfucker and I want to explicate the LAPD’s somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache regardless of my alleged transgressions,” he says with pretentious, self-conscious eloquence in front of a group of big-shots who know he has no respect for them.  The story, then, represents a series of struggles, perhaps a two-way struggle against a river that runs both ways: Brown is not going to convince his superiors, who are more concerned with the public embarrassment the force has become because of him than with the fact that he’s beaten and killed countless unarmed people for the hell of it, and he’s not going to make any headway with his daughters, who are young, but old enough to know he’s an all-around ne’er-do-well.

The scenes showcasing Brown’s shady dealings with Hartshorn include some great tough-guy dialogue, most often seen in movies we might now think of as fossilized (Bogart, Mitchum, John Wayne) and more recent movies that seem to know they’re gangster movies (Reservoir Dogs, for instance), but it seems to work organically here:

Brown: “Look, if this was the gang fucks, I don’t mind.  Generic criminal scum, bogus lawsuit settlement scum, press scum – I can deal with scum.  But if this is Rampart, LAPD, some fucking girly politician setting me up as a shit-magnet to take the heat off the fucking scandal, I gotta go deep into this.”

Hartshorn: “Lookit, what can I do?  I am just a law-abiding retiree enjoying his golden years.”

Brown: “Fuck you with the Mickey Cohen routine, old man.  You’ve got your fingers in more department pie than any active cop I know.  Now, milk your contacts.  I’ve got cash left from the Harris job – thanks for that, by the way.”

Hartshorn: “You could just stop, um, beating people up.”

The more touching parts of the film involve Brown’s attempts to reconcile (or, as far as we’re concerned, to develop an anything-but-antagonistic relationship) with his older daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), who smokes, dyes her hair, and is dating another girl.  She also has a deep knowledge of her father’s treatment of his family, and needs only a television to see what he’s been doing elsewhere.  When she treks far from home to see what he’s up to at work, he asks, “How’s school?”  She answers, “It sucks.  It’s full of candyass future fags and dykes like me,” adding that these are Brown’s own words.  “You’re a dinosaur,” she says.  “You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer,  a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic, clearly, or maybe you just don’t like yourself.”  As an audience, we cannot help but admit that this is what we’ve been thinking since square one, and root for our protagonist as we might, we know that if he were a real person, we would ostracize him the same as everyone else.  This argument takes place beautifully and ingeniously framed between two very different trees growing from the same soil, one bare and ragged (the one closest Dave) and the other, closest Helen, covered with sturdy bark, leaves and ivy.

But there is one bond that these two share: they’re outcasts.  Even after Brown has alienated every possible character in the story, that fact cannot change.  We don’t get the sense that Helen’s mother and aunt are any more gay-friendly than Brown, but only because they don’t seem to care about much of anything too deeply (how else can their casual living situation be explained?).  When his exes decide it’s time to sell the house and move, Brown desperately tries to stop this.  Why?  Is this just further proof of his unwillingness to accept change, or does he really see potential for reconciliation?  For love, even?  The final scene of the film seems to speak to this: after all of his schemes have failed, he trespasses on what was once his own property and spies on Helen, who sits on the porch with a cigarette, experiencing what looks like a peaceful moment.  Brown does this earlier in the film, watching Helen with her girlfriend and perhaps noticing how happy she looks; after the way she acts around him, it may come as a shock to him that she even has the ability to smile.  As she sits on the porch smoking, she seems to notice him in the bushes, and he makes no attempt to hide.  After a few seconds of wordless and expressionless eye contact, the two part ways, with Brown leaving and making his way back to his squad car, which will probably not be his for much longer (along with everything else), the camera lens seeming to crack apart with reds, blues, and combination shots of Brown’s face.  Was Helen happy to see him?  Do either of them recognize their potential as father and daughter?  Is there any hope of getting that back once the family disappears from Brown’s life?  The film leaves it up to our scrutiny of Helen’s facial expressions and body language, and it’s a very rewarding scene (albeit not absolute by any means) to watch over and over again.

Rampart is a difficult film.  I’m writing about it nearly two months after seeing it.  It’s a film you must see for Woody Harrelson’s performance and its expert treatment of an ensemble cast, and it deserves an Oscar for the former, but in my experience, it’s also a film you must see, think about in great detail, rewatch parts of, try not to think about for awhile, then come back and face, just like Brown must do with Helen in the end.

Rampart (2012); written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman; directed by Oren Moverman; starring Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Robin Wright, and Ned Beatty.

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