Friday, June 02, 2017

Wonder Woman Review: A Heartfelt Adventure That Stands Out This Summer Blockbuster Season


Four Star Rating: ***½
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenplay: Allan Heinberg
Story by: Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs
Based On: Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Cinematographer: Matthew Jenson
Editor: Martin Walsh
Distributed by: Warner Brothers Pictures
Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy
Rated: PG (Canada)/PG-13 (US) - Violence, Frightening Scenes, Mild Suggestive Content, Not Recommended for Young Children
Release Date: June 2, 2017
Run Time: 141 minutes

It would be easy to assume that what makes Wonder Woman different than all other superhero movies dominating the multiplexes over the last decade is that both its director and star are female. While that is a huge deal and if this movie becomes a massive box office success may change some major studios' perceptions of what draws, it is unfair to say that is what makes it stand out from so many other movies. This is a big budget, special-effects laden spectacle that is also thoughtful, philosophical and kind-hearted much like its protagonist.

Director Patty Jenkins, best known for the terrific female serial killer biopic Monster, deftly manages to create a fanciful and myth-heavy world with all the comic book action fixings that then explores questions about what drives global conflict and seeing if humans are intrinsically good. Jenkins doesn't shy away from the campier elements of the character's origin story but grounds it by creating relatable characters that lead us into a more realistic world. It is the optimism and compassion of Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) that keeps the movie hopeful despite some darker subject matter. Jenkins transports a brightly colored superhero into an old school war picture.

The movie briefly starts out in present time where there is a forced scene of Diana staring at a photo of her old World War I buddies, which then segues to her childhood on the island of Themyscira. The contrived opening is less a reflection on the movie and more on DC's awkward shoehorning of the character into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that forced Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg to connect the character we know to her origin story.

We get backstory exposition with creative scenes that are like moving paintings, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) tells her daughter, Diana, how Zeus created the Amazonians as protectors of mankind, but then the god of war, Ares, corrupted mankind by causing them to war and kill each other. Ares then went on a rampage killing all the other gods except Zeus who was able to defeat him. Zeus took a nasty beating and with his last ounce of strength created a "Godkiller" weapon that the Amazonians could use to defeat Ares if he ever returned. This explains why warrior women spend all their time training in preparation for a possible Ares return. The story also is the motivation for Diana wanting to become a warrior. Unfortunately, her mother forbids her to be trained and also in something that feels more designed to provide a late movie twist rather than a solid parental decision, refuses Diana from discovering her true origins and purpose. You tell your kid they can't be an Amazonian warrior, it just makes them desire it more, so Diana is secretly trained by her aunt Antiope (in a brief but fun performance by the great Robin Wright).

The idyllic life on the island changes when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane nearby and Diana rescues him from drowning. It also happens that he has a book with the recipe to create a toxic gas that kills all in its path that he stole from the Germans. The Germans are keen to get it back and so they arrive on the island too, which leads to the first big action sequence. Jenkins proves she knows how to unleash special effect spectacle and cool action sequences, but she frames it in a way that keeps a personality and tells key stories rather than just being dazzle. The moment has real consequences and is effective in further developing the characters.

Shortly after, Diana learns from Steve there is a Great War going on and thousands of lives are being lost. This is the moment Diana learns how sheltered she has become and is frustrated that the Amazonians are no longer trying to protect mankind. She believes the war is being manipulated by Ares and that if she can defeat him, the conflict will end. She takes the "Godkiller" sword and her iconic uniform, with the intention to go back to the "Man's World" with Steve. This is against the wishes of her mother, and leads to one of the first big dramatic moments as she wrestles over if she follows her heart of protecting people she doesn't even know but abandoning the only life and family she has ever had. It demonstrates a big part of the character who is compassionate and more focused on caring for others than herself.

The island of Themyscira is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Matthew Jensen, and it is full of rich, bright, eye-catching colours. It is paradise that is brimming with magic and one that I wanted to explore for much longer. It works well as a great contrast when they arrive to a war beaten London that is grimy, grey and bleak, and shows a world that would be so unfamiliar to Diana. It sets the tone for a populace that is being beaten down by World War I, but also alerts use that things will be very different here. Diana left a place of feminine power and now is surrounded by men who look down upon women and don't respect what she has to offer.  At times Diana being in this world is played for laughs as she has to adjust to a different lifestyle but it also serves well as commentary of daily misogyny that gets uncovered when a women refuses to be subservient.

At its core, Wonder Woman is a love story. Diana's love for mankind and her commitment to "saving" them. Also about the slow building romance between Diana and Steve that starts out playful, grows through respect and admiration, and then becomes intimate. Pine and Gadot have an authentic chemistry as you feel their attraction but also is helped by a movie that lets it build naturally. Pine also brings a lot of wit and charm to his character, and has a bouncy energy as he plays off Diana as she tries to navigate through this weird male dominated world.

Steve wants to travel to the front lines to stop the mad German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his scientist Doctor Isabel Maru or also known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) from unleashing their deadly mustard gas concoction. Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) publicly denies the request due to the belief they are about to reach an armistice with Germany, but then off the record encourages Steve and Diana to do an undercover mission. Steve puts together a crew and the strength of the screenplay and Jenkins's direction is shown as in only a few short scenes we instantly feel the personality and motivations of each member. Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) is a fast-talking, suave spy with skills to quickly disguise himself. Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is a sharpshooter who has now turned to heavy drinking due to his post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from a previous tour of duty. The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is a man who claims no loyalty in the war but just to the highest bidder, but it becomes clear he really is one of the good guys. The movie does enough to make us care about each one, but still keeps the main focus on Diana and Steve.

This also seems to be the right time to mention the comic relief and also the character designed to show where women really stood at the time, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) who is Steve's personal secretary. Davis would be best known for her role in original British The Office, but she is almost unrecognizable here as she transforms herself for this role. Her comic timing is fantastic, but she also provides some decent heart with the growing friendship with Diana. It is a hard balance playing a role that is largely for laughs but then is expected to add some depth, Davis deserves great credit for pulling it off.

The villains, unfortunately, suffer the usual comic book movie crime of being broad and having no clear motivation. They want everyone to die and they are nasty, but there is never that moment where they really have much personality. As we hit the climax, the strong performance by Gadot makes the final confrontation matter and the conflict creates some intriguing internal drama.

The action finale is the typical bloated superhero movie fireworks show that jars the senses. But for much of the movie, Jenkins does an expert job of providing personality to the action. Most of the battles are done in slo-mo style, but rather than it feeling like a copy of The Matrix, it is shown to exemplify the skills of Wonder Woman and show how much more powerful and quicker she is than everyone else.

The big moments are elevated by a catchy and almost classic blended with modern score by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Each action sequences is meticulously constructed and adds to the story rather than just looking cool. While it does go overboard in the finale, there are some real stakes and powerful dramatic moments that are unveiled amidst the explosions. Wonder Women's belief humans are truly good and all the bad is on Ares gets challenged, which provides some deeper philosophical questions. It also reveals the true nature of Wonder Woman, a figure with so much powers that is committed to help and love mankind. Clearly, there are some Christ-like allegories at work here, and the handling of an almost immortal being trying to find her place among humans is handled better than 2013's Man of Steel.

The real gem and revelation is Gal Gadot who embodies Wonder Woman. It is her incredible performance that brings the heart, sincerity and emotion to the picture. She radiates a sincere, compassionate and warm hero. Jenkins smartly makes several tight shot on a face that is almost always beaming with a smile. It is invigorating and inspiring to see a performer making kindness and warmth a central characteristic when most super hero comic movies want toughness and snark.

This does not mean that Wonder Women lacks the ass-kicking. There was a scene early on when they finally reveal her in full garb and she is strutting on the battle scene that sent a chill down my spine and I knew immediately she was the embodiment of bad-ass.  Gadot creates a complicated and balanced character that works as an action hero but also strives for so much more. In this case, the movie reflects its hero perfectly.

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