Posts Tagged ‘Connie Nielsen’

You’ve heard the scuttlebutt by now, of course — Justice League is a mess; Henry Cavill’s face looks ridiculous thanks to the shooting-schedule-necessitated decision to “erase” his mustache by means of CGI; the 9th-inning additional re-shoots are easy to spot; the so-called “DCEU” is doomed thanks to this film’s poor box office performance.

Some of these points are legit (the flick is certainly uneven, tonally and structurally, Cavill’s MIA ‘stache is conspicuous in its absence, the re-shoots (and brighter, “happier” color grading) undertaken by “relief” director Joss Whedon don’t fit in with Zack Snyder’s material), while others are clearly over-stated (the sub-$100 million opening weekend has been largely off-set by a stronger than expected “hold” over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday period), but at the end of the day, even after filtering out the noise (much of it generated by a certain competing comic-book-publisher-turned-movie-studio), the simple fact remains — this is obviously an up-and-down affair.

Which, believe it or not, is actually something of an achievement in and of itself — the forced departure of original director Snyder due to family tragedy definitely meant this production had to pull some kind of a rabbit out of its hat, and while Whedon (who in the end only gets a co-writer credit that he shares with Chris Terrio) clearly steered the ship into more “light-hearted” territory a la his fan-favorite Marvel Avengers flicks, it’s hard to tell how much of what he came up with originated in his own mind, and how much was dictated by WB execs who, let’s face it, were almost certain to part ways with Snyder anyway and were reportedly displeased with the “dark” tone of what he’d come up with prior to his exit.  Indeed, everything about the finished product that is Justice League feels focus-group-tested, specifically designed to appeal to as broad (and, some would argue, dumb) an audience as possible. Snyder’s visual ambition is on full display in the early going, but is completely absent by the time the credits roll; Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, rhythmic soundtrack work is gone in favor of  Danny Elfman’s nostalgia-heavy score; jokes (not all entirely successful) fly left and right; the body count is pretty damn low for a movie about an apocalyptic alien invasion. In short, this is a movie clearly trying to be as different from its predecessors, specifically Batman V. Superman : Dawn Of Justice, as possible. But that was never going to be an easy task with the same guy in the director’s chair.

Taking all that into account, then, the simple fact that Justice League succeeds in much of what it’s trying to do (like it or not) is pretty remarkable, and the DCEU definitely feels like it’s heading in a new, sunnier direction after this. The resurrection of Cavill’s Superman (achieved by means that can be described as “morally questionable” at best, seeing as how Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg actually dig his dead body out of the grave) seems as though it was designed to be the narrative catalyst for the change, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it sells Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman short (as does much much of the movie in general) given that the newly-formed team decides that she just can’t lead lead ’em even though she’s essentially carrying this fictitious “universe” on her back these days. That’s a pretty significant slap in the face right there.

Gadot’s not alone in getting the short shrift, though, by any means — supporting players J.K. Simmons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, and Joe Morton all get stuck with roles that punch far beneath their respective weight classes — but by and large the main starts come out of this whole thing pretty well : Jason Momoa offers a decidedly revisionist, but altogether successful, take on Aquaman; Ben Affleck again gets the Bruce Wayne/Batman balance more or less exactly right (not so easy to do in this case since he’s saddled with a lot of decidedly-out-of-character “comic relief” material); Fisher proves to be an inspired choice to play Cyborg; Ezra Miller’s Flash starts out annoying but finishes up endearing; Gadot makes more than the most of a criminally-underwritten part. Hell, Cavill even finally appears to be enjoying this whole Superman gig. The principal cast, then, proves to be more than enough to carry this film through its not-inconsiderable story bumps, logical holes, shifting styles, and dodgy effects.

Not to mention its less-than-compelling villain. Like a lot of people, I thought we were going to get a full-on clash with the villains of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World here, but in the end all we get is Ciaran Hinds as a lackluster Steppenwolf accompanied by a horde of dully-realized Parademons. Honestly, if I want a bad guy this generic and uninspiring, I’ll see a Marvel movie.

And yet, this still ends up being a somewhat pleasing — uhmmmm — crowd-pleaser. The character designs are cool, the pacing is brisk enough that you don’t need to think about the film’s flaws until it’s over, the action sequences (particularly those obviously overseen by Snyder) are stirring and dynamic, the “fist-pump” quotient is reasonably high. Yes, it’s clear that DC is trying to “Marvel-ize” their movies from here on out, but given the absurd amount of critical and financial pressure on them (Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad both being successfully tarred with the “disappointment” label despite taking in about $900 million each at the worldwide box office, roughly triple their budgets) maybe “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” was the only option they were left with.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I realize I’m in the distinct minority in finding Snyder’s vision for these flicks to be inherently more compelling than your typical brain-dead blockbuster fare, but the people have apparently spoken, and while Justice League doesn’t quite hit all its marks — there’s no way it could —  for folks who felt the DCEU had gotten off on the wrong foot, it shows that WB is more than willing to adjust course “on the fly” in order to, as the Brits say, keep the punters happy. I’m a bit pessimistic going forward, to say the least, but there was enough of the DCEU that almost was on display here to have me leaving the theater reasonably happy. For now, at any rate.

There’s probably a way to talk about — hell, there’s probably even a way to make — a movie like this one without resorting to grandiose hyperbole, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s begin, then, with a bit of theorizing —

Conventional “wisdom” has it that Marvel’s super-heroes are human, fallible, down-to-Earth, while DC’s tend to be more mythical, aspirational, larger-than-life. There are a million and one exceptions to this unwritten “rule,” of course — probably enough to negate it entirely — but as films have replaced comics as the public’s preferred “delivery mechanism” for capes n’ tights adventures, that line of thinking has carried over : Marvel’s doing better than DC at the box office, folks say, because audiences want heroes they can relate to.

Allow me to call bullshit on that right now and offer up an alternate take : I think the public subconsciously clamors for heroes that offer something that’s by and large missing in the real world. Stop right now if you don’t want to read a review that veers into the socio-political arena, otherwise proceed —

Consider : for all of Marvel’s unquestionable success at the box office in the aughts and into the teens, with their venerable Iron Man franchise leading the charge, the most bankable hero over that same period has still been Batman — and what do Iron Man and Batman have in common? Well, they’re both rich, that’s for sure, but they’re also both, basically, assholes. Iron Man is a self-obsessed asshole and Batman’s a self-pitying asshole, but they’re assholes nonetheless — and they rose to the top of the Hollywood heap at a time when rich, self-obsessed and/or self-pitying assholes were in rather short supply on the world stage. The national and international political situation was (relatively) stable and the leader of the free world was a calm, cool, collected, articulate guy who had a larger-than-life, for some even a heroic, aura himself.

Needless to say, that’s all out the window now, and the dominant figure on the worldwide geo-political stage is, go figure, a rich asshole who’s both self-obsessed and self-pitying. We don’t need fictional characters like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark anymore, we’re stuck with a dude who embodies the very worst elements of both in the real world. Now, I humbly suggest, is the time for heroes who embody not what we are but what we hope to be.

Enter Patty Jenkins. Enter Gal Gadot. Enter Wonder Woman.

It makes perfect sense, in a way, that it would be a female hero who’s first out of the gate to capture the public’s imagination in the so-called “Age Of Trump” — after all, women were the first wave of what’s quickly come to be known as “The Resistance,” marching by the millions in cities and towns across the world just a few days after Old, Orange, Fat, and Stupid was sworn into office. They’d had enough of this guy even before the Russia scandal hit, his travel bans blew up in his face, his corrput-to-the-core cabinet took up their posts, and his tax cut for the rich cynically sold as “health care reform” stalled out. They knew in advance — and subsequent events have proven them correct — that their reproductive rights were about to be under assault, that their health care choices were going to be taken out of their hands, that they’d be shunted aside in the new government, and that their voices were doomed to go unheard. But rather than let that get ’em down, they took it upon themsleves to show everybody the way forward. They were ready to lead the charge — if not in Washington, then out on the streets.

Popular culture being a reflection of the overall zeitgeist, then, it’s plain as day why Wonder Woman has exceeded all expectations at movie theater ticket windows. But why has it conquered critics’ hearts just as surely?

Easy answer : like a lot of women that I (and, I’m sure, you) know, it’s a film that’s unafraid to roll up its sleeves and get to work. Oh, sure, the slow-mo-heavy, music-video-influenced visual template established by Zack Snyder for the so-called “DCEU” is still present and accounted for here, but director Jenkins establishes her own tone from the outset, with precocious young Diana (played by the heart-stealing Lilly Aspell) running carefree through the island of Themyscira and unafraid to dream of bigger and better things even though she lives in paradise. That sense of striving to be all you can be and then some is at the heart of this flick and never wanes, and that’s what makes Wonder Woman the most truly mythic super-hero movie since Richard Donner’s Superman. I think even Marvel knew they were beat this time out as they conspicuously took a pass on engineering the kind of “whisper campaigns” that they’ve utilized so effectively against DC productions (“hey, you — influential internet critic — here’s a free ‘Captain America’ t-shirt and baseball cap, say nice things about our movies and bad things about theirs and if you’re ever in LA we might even hook you up with a one-day studio floor pass”) in the past.

 

Pitch-perfect casting across the board certainly doesn’t hurt matters any, either : Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright are straight-up magnificent as Amazon Queen Hippolyta and head warrior Antiope, respectively; Chris Pine is suitably charming and charismatic as Steve Trevor, the guy who ushers Princess Diana into the world of men and their stupid-ass wars (specifically World War I — and those who doubted the wisdom of this film’s period setting certainly seem to have gone silent); Trevor’s sidekick trio portrayed by Said Taghamaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Spud himself, Ewen Bremner, are the best one-note ciphers Hollywood has cooked up in ages; Lucy Davis shines in what probably read as little more than a dead-end comic-relief role in Allan Heinberg’s screenplay; Danny Huston is fantastically menacing as German General Ludendorff; Elena Anaya injects a welcome dose of pathos and quiet pain into her turn as his evil chief chemist, Dr. Maru; David Thewlis tackles what ends up being a dual role with skillful aplomb that sees him turn on a dime in convincing and utterly naturalistic fashion —and you, dear reader, probably care about none of them.

And why the hell should you? This is Gal Gadot’s show all the way. Stunningly beautiful, impossibly athletic, undeniably classy, as gracefully elegant in battle as she is at a formal ball, this is star-making stuff all the way. At once accessible yet “other,” she understands us mere mortals — if not our ways — instantly, and hopes for so much more from us. I hesitate to drop wretched, pretentious terminology like “it’s amazing to see someone so fully committed to a role,” but, well — it’s amazing to see someone so fully committed to a role. It can’t be easy to play an honest-to-goodness freaking goddess, but Gadot steps into the part as if she were born for it. Prepare to be blown away.

Needless to say, if you’re getting performances this good out of this many actors, you’re doing something right as a director, but Jenkins — who, if you’ll remember, walked away from Marvel mid-way through helming Thor : The Dark World — showcases much more than a deft handling of her cast : her pacing, her action-scene staging, her expert use of light and shadow, and her command of the visual language audiences have come to expect from blockbuster productions are all executed with supreme, yet hardly flashy or ostentatious, confidence. Simply put, she knows what she’s doing so thoroughly that she doesn’t feel any particular need to tell you how good she is at this — she just shows you instead.

Okay, yeah, the flick’s third act has come in for a certain amount of criticism, not all of it undeserved, but most of that boils down to amplified dissatisfaction with the cut-rate CGI that literally screams “we’ve already blown our production budget!” and really does let the side down a bit. The film’s tone doesn’t nosedive, the performances don’t waver, the story doesn’t let up — it’s just that the FX suck. In my own view, dwelling on this to the extent that so many folks have just shows the paucity of today’s watered-down critical “environment,” but what they hell — they do have a point, just nowhere near as large a one as they think.

In the final analysis, then, maybe Wonder Woman comes up just a hair short of being the long-sought-after perfect super-hero film — but that doesn’t mean she’s not the perfect heroine for our times.