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Behind the girl power, ‘Wonder Woman’ ends up being just one of the guys

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Strangers in a strange land never have it easy; on one hand, their differences are what make them special, a breath of curious fresh air in a community plagued by the humdrum usual, but on the other, they’re also expected to know the rules and never stray too far from them. After 75 years, Wonder Woman has finally entered the male-dominated realm of the superhero film genre, carrying the weighty expectations of passionate fans and studio executives on her capable shoulders, her head held high in empowerment, yet also bowed to the authority of big-budget entertainment. The burden is unenviable, but Wonder Woman still has the opportunity to distinguish itself in this cinematic universe, to live on a remote paradise apart from the all the DC gloom, lending a helping hand only when others are in need. Unfortunately, the film decides to play it pleasantly safe by blending in with the boys, ultimately falling back on formula while failing in its feminism with a disappointing tendency not to trust in the strength of its titular character.

An earnest and old-fashioned intro does offer a hopeful start, as a young Diana (a charming Emily Carey) and the Amazon society to which she belongs is introduced with a playfulness that borders on the good kind of camp. Despite inhabiting a peaceful tropical island, the entire population seems to be in perpetual military training, practicing absurd leaping and spinning maneuvers while firing their bows with perfect precision. It’s ridiculous, fun stuff, and the impish delight with which the young one watches the choreographed display is contagious, a good indication of the force she will one day become. Some extended moments of intricate mythology exposition bog things down a bit, but by the time adult Diana (Gal Gadot) makes her appearance, the colorful, fantastical setting has Wonder Woman primed for silly adventure. That call comes in the form of WWI spy Steve Trevor (played with just the right amount of gravity and levity by Chris Pine), who crashes his plane into the sea just as the restless princess is looking out to the horizon, unsure of her place in the world. The incident initiates a plot that sees the pair set out for civilization, in search of light during one of humankind’s darkest chapters.

With its period wartime setting and the blatant idealism of the main character, comparisons to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger are inevitable, but though Wonder Woman isn’t put together quite as neatly as that film, it does share a certain likability in its eternal optimism. Both are about people who see very clearly what is right and what is wrong, despite the oppressive grays of the cloudy cities and muddy battlefield trenches they inhabit, and this sort of positivity is always refreshing when set against the backdrop of the many “grittier” superhero films that litter the genre. That feeling carries Wonder Woman quite a ways through some clumsy dialogue and numbing CGI action, but instead of finding ways to explore this sort of romantic heroism through the main character, Wonder Woman reaches outside the hero for something much bigger and more vague, leaving her as more of a reactive participant than a driving force.

While certainly not the first time a referendum on the nature of humans in general – and whether they are worth fighting for – has been addressed in a superhero film, the choice here essentially denies the fundamentally compassionate Diana of any sort of internal conflict, negating her ability to grow as a character through the various trials she faces over the course of the 141 minute movie. Gadot is certainly adept at conveying the endearing innocence of one who has never experienced – nor has any use for – the political aspects of society, but without her stout principles seriously challenged, there is little else for audiences to latch onto. As a result, Steve is weirdly elevated in status, nearly stealing the story in the same way that Furiosa loomed over Max in Fury Road. With actual complexity and a fairly satisfying arc to play with, Pine seem to get more screen time than a sidekick in a superhero film should, his facial reactions often the center around which conversations revolve. The whole thing feels odd, as if the filmmakers weren’t sure how to make Diana into a real person, so instead she comes off more as a benevolent Starman-type alien crossed with a Terminator who must learn about humanity from someone actually life-like.

That’s not to say life is overly important, however. This is a typical modern-day superhero movie after all, so there’s not much regret from all the killing, but that’s fine as long as those dying are the “bad guys,” right? For someone seemingly so sad about death, Diana sure doesn’t have a problem causing it, preferably while striking a painfully mannered pose. Gadot has a physical presence, but her movement lacks the fluidity of someone for whom the motions are instinct, not a few weeks’ worth of training. Stunt doubles and cartoon versions do most of the heavy lifting, with the actress swooping in for the heroic close-ups as she glares judgmentally at her enemies. The story never dives into the complicated aspects of WWI, so the Germans here might as well be Nazis, faceless evil forces to be mowed down in droves with cool action moves. To be fair, a few of these fights are thrillingly done, especially a sequence on the Amazon island, where the combination of goofy acrobatics and cheesy effects (whether intentional or not) had me thinking that Wonder Woman would be fighting a Ray Harryhausen skeleton at some point (how awesome would that have been?). Alas, that was not meant to be, and the more typical CGI fest of the third act predictably deadens any weight or smirking enjoyment the struggle may have had. Much will surely please genre fans, but it’s all familiar territory, more wasted opportunity to do something different.

In the end, Wonder Woman does manage to avoid being relegated to near-secondary status in her own movie, but there’s also no feeling that a girl power has arrived. Diana is surrounded by a typical group of male allies, fighting typical hordes of male soldiers (a female baddie is vastly underused), and ultimately discovering herself through interactions with a man. None of this really matters when it comes to whether or not Wonder Woman actually entertains, but what could have been a chance to inject the story of an Amazon princess discovering the world with facets that would bring out the unique potential in the character, merely serves as another cog in the Justice League machine, even if a relatively pleasant one. Bringing such an icon to the screen for the first time offers an opportunity for rebellion in the genre, but ultimately Wonder Woman plays it too safe to be interesting, just like one of the guys.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie

The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.

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The Gentlemen

Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.

Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.

The Gentlemen

Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.

There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.

The Gentlemen

Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.

Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces

Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.

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Vitalina Varela

I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.

The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.

Vitalina Varela

Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.

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Shirley

Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.

Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

Shirley

Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.

Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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