Posts Tagged ‘film’

My pathetic addiction to “mockumentary” horror recently steered me toward writer/director Stephen Cognetti’s 2015 low-budgeter Hell House LLC, now available under the auspices of Amazon Prime’s streaming service (and apparently coming on DVD at some unspecified future date), a surprisingly beyond-competent number that should go some way toward convincing even the most hardened cynic that this genre may not be completely spent yet. It treads some very similar ground to another flick we reviewed around these parts some time back, The Houses October Built, but adds more than a few new wrinkles into the mix, as well as broadening and deepening the core tropes involved, with the end result being perhaps the most successful exploitation of the “found footage” premise that I’ve seen in — shit, far too long.

Cognetti does an admirable job of not only giving his characters a little more genuine individuality than we’ve depressingly become accustomed to from this sort of thing, but of varying up filming styles to keep the look of his flick fresh and interesting at all times. Cinematographer Brian C. Harnick certainly earns his keep here bobbing and weaving between hand-held camcorders, surveillance cams, in-film cameras, even a head-mounted “Go Pro” and a cell phone, but the transitions from one to the other (to the other, to the other) and back again, while in no way seamless, make sense within the context of the story and, for lack of a more sophisticated way of putting things, “feel right” at pretty much all times. That’s no mean feat right there, but who are we kidding? Mere technical prowess is usually not enough in and of itself to make or break a film, so what else does this have going for it?

I’m glad you asked —

Here’s the deal : “way” back in 2009, 15 customers and staff met their tragic and untimely ends at our titular Hell House, a yearly mobile attraction in upstate New York (by way of Pennsylvania, where most of this was filmed) that has nevertheless continued on thanks to the dogged determination of owner/operator Alex (played by Danny Bellini), who hasn’t lost his passion for scaring the shit out of rural yokels despite his company’s tragic history. This year, he’s found the most potentially-really-haunted spot yet to set up shop, a notorious abandoned hotel in the fictitious (and Lovecraftian-sounding) town of Abaddon, and he’s hired out a film crew to record the days leading up to his big opening in order to upload the footage to his website for the edification of his fans around the world. Principal cameramen Paul (Gore Abrams) and Tony (Jared Hacker) pull double-duty as set-up men at the attraction itself, with Alex’s girlfriend, Sara (Ryan Jennifer) providing the bulk of the raw footage that makes up their de facto “documentary” segments. They’ve got six weeks to whip the hotel into shape for the “punters,” which is a tight schedule, but things start out easy-peasy enough — until they shift their attention and labor to the basement, where they find Bibles haphazardly strewn about the floor and numerous pentagrams scrawled into the walls. Soon, as you’ve no doubt guessed,  the employees of Hell House find themselves haunted — by their own haunted house.

Getting ready for the big pre-opening “walk-though” is the goal everyone is working towards, but it seems that the paranormal forces at work in the hotel aren’t interested in seeing that happen, and while wildly uneven sound quality (including curious and ill-timed volume fluctuations and numerous drop-outs) hamper the proceedings here somewhat, the plot skillfully offers any number of logically-consistent reasons to bathe the visuals in strobe lighting and garish neon tones, keeping viewers off-balance and even downright scared at just the right points. Throw in some very good acting from the principals already mentioned (with special mention going to Jennifer, whose quiet and reserved performance suggests she may know more about both what happened five years previously and what the strange things happening today may portend) as well as Andrew Schenider as tech-hand Andrew, Lauren A. Kennedy (last seen around these parts in our recent review of micro-budget indie horror Summit), and Theodore Bouloukos and Jeb Kreager as interview subjects in “film-within-a-film” faux-documentary portions of the story, and what you have here is a case study in how well-realized execution can make all the difference between a film playing out as a dull retread or a refreshingly cold and creepy breath of fresh air.

For his part, Cognetti not only strings fine acting, expertly-chosen lighting, and creative cinematography together, he also slowly and stylishly builds up the tension inherent in his script, creates a rich, dark, and foreboding atmosphere, and even throws in a generous sampling of “jump” scares for all of us to enjoy. He and his cohorts should all be very proud of their efforts here — Hell House LLC is “Exhibit A” for why many of us aren’t ready to throw in the towel on “found footage” horror anytime soon.

 

 

Question for fellow Amazon Prime members : is it just me, or have they been adding fewer no-budget “found footage” horror flicks in recent months? I mean, new ones used to show up at a pretty steady clip on there — we’re talking two or three a week — but lately, not so much. I’m not sure why that would be given that at least as many of these things are being made as ever have been, but if anyone has any theories as to the slowdown, I’d be curious to hear them. Maybe they just figure having several hundred of them already is enough?

In any case, one that was added to the streaming queue recently (and is also apparently available on DVD if you’re so inclined) is writer/director Kathleen Behun’s 2014 effort 21 Days, and since I was literally “Jonesing” to check a new one out after a weeks-long dry spell, I gave it a whirl despite it having a premise that sounded, frankly, redundant as hell.

Shot in a fairly nondescript suburban home in Fillmore, California for what I’m guessing was no more than a few thousand bucks, the plot revolves around a trio of amateur filmmakers/ investigators who get wind of the fact that no person or family has been able to make a go of it for more than 20 days in this spread due to excessive paranormal harassment. Their goal? To make it to 21, of course.

In the “plus” column, the acting in this one isn’t too bad. Max Hambleton, Whitney Rose Pynn, and Mickey River all do a fairly nice job in their roles as Jacob, Shauna, and Kurt, respectively, and while none are given a tremendous amount of depth, the amateur thespians uniformly breathe a bit more life into their characters than is probably there on paper, particularly River, who very nearly becomes the “third wheel” who steals the show. Mind you, none of these performances are what one would consider to be Hollywood-caliber, but veteran “homemade horror” viewers will probably be more than pleasantly surprised by both the effort and the ability of the principal players involved with this one.

Unfortunately, in the “minus” column we’ve got — well, everything else. Things going bump (and thump, and boom, and crash) in the night really doesn’t do it anymore, and while it’s fair to point out that this flick is now about three years old, the simple truth is that it was all pretty old hat by then, as well. There’s a very dark and sinister power at work here (you knew that), and Behun’s direction is competent enough that a reasonable amount of ramping tension will probably keep you at least half-engrossed in the goings-on, but the directly-borrowed tropes from both the Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch franchises (see photo below for evidence) are just a little too numerous and a little too obvious to get you fully invested, and even if you’re leaning in that direction, the final 15 minutes or so are such a mess that you’ll find yourself shaking your head (as well as wondering what the fuck is even going on thanks to Eduardo Servello’s ridiculously dark and incomprehensible cinematography) and feeling frustrated by the time the end credits mercifully make their appearance.

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Certainly there’s no question that 21 Days is far from the worst thing that the micro-budget “mockumentary” sub-genre has to offer. Lord knows I’ve endured, and subsequently reviewed, incompetent garbage that makes this film look like Oscar-caliber stuff. But it’s so derivative and unoriginal that the only real “fun” you’ll have is in seeing how Behun and company string together various and sundry cliches that you’ve grown not just accustomed to, but tired of. I give everybody here credit for trying, I suppose, but next time, please, try something new. Surely that’s not asking for too much, is it?

Between 2003 and 2008, Rick Popko and Dan West of Bay Area “comedy-horror” production house 4321 films got busy : not only did they make sure that they’d have a lot more money to work with (a cool $500,000 if IMDB is to be believed) when they got behind (and in front of) the cameras for Retardead, the sequel/follow-up to their earlier Monsturd,  but they also honed their craft and conspicuously updated their equipment. The end result? Something that looks a whole hell of a lot more professional than their debut effort, yet somehow manages to hang onto all the low-grade “charm” of its predecessor despite the obvious quantum(-ish) leap in production values. In my book, that’s a fairly impressive achievement in and of itself right there even if this film were to somehow manage not to get anything else right.

I’m happy to report that such is not the case, however, and to be honest I have no idea how and/or why Troma never secured the distribution rights for this one (like Monsturd, it’s available on DVD from Brain Damage Films, and with a significantly larger quantity of extras), because it’s actually several orders of magnitude better than most of what Lloyd Kaufman’s outfit has been dumping out onto the public for the last several years. Oh well, guess they missed the boat — again.

The premise for this one is as follows : quintessential mad scientist Dr. Stern (Dan Burr reprising his role) is back at it, this time “armed” with an intelligence-enhancing serum that he’s using on the residents/students of the Butte County Institute For Special Education, a haphazardly-administered center for the intellectually challenged (barely) overseen by a nameless director played by Michael Allen. The side effects of this miracle juice are pretty severe, though, it must be said, given that it first kills its less-than-lucky recipients and then causes them to rise from the dead as flesh-and-brains-craving zombies. So, hey, there’s some work to be done before it can be mass-marketed, obviously.

So, anyway, zombies everywhere is what this one’s all about, and most of ’em are roughly akin, appearance-wise, to those of Romero’s original Dawn Of The Dead, while the spilling innards and gut-munching are pure Day Of — all the way. A handful (or, perhaps more appropriately, a stomach-full) of Tom Savini’s more memorable effects sequences are re-packaged/re-purposed to great effect here, albeit with a fraction of the cash, but what of it? If sheer originality is your bag it’s doubtful you’d ever find yourself watching a flick like this in the first place — you’re on this ride to see how well they do what they can with what they’ve got, and by that standard, Popko and West acquit themselves very skillfully, indeed.

Meanwhile back in what passes for the plot, the local cops (Paul Weiner’s Sheriff Duncan, Popko’s Deputy Rick and West’s Deputy Dan) are busy trying to track down a public masturbator who’s flaunting them at every turn, but when their new and bigger problem hits, FBI agent Hannigan (Beth West) is called back in, along with some extra backup, most notably a broadly-caricatured “G-Man” named Russo (Tony Adams), and in fairly short order juvenile, dare I say retarded, semi-hilarity with blood and guts to spare unfolds non-stop on your TV screen/computer/whatever, all of it as hopelessly lame as it is hopelessly addicting.

Do you wish you weren’t the sort of person who finds laughing at the unfortunate to be humorous? I know I sure do. But there’s plenty of other absurd shit on hand here that you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about chuckling at, including an attack by a half-dozen gyrating zombie-babes, a random-ass LSD trip, a visit to an old-school porn shop, and some super-cheesy trailers for non-existent horror films featuring staple characters like Jack The Ripper and Frankenstein, most played by Popko and West themselves. Throw in a bit of voice-over narration at the beginning from none other than “Godfather Of Gore” Hersechell Gordon Lewis himself (the spiritual forefather of all the deliciously grisly practical FX this film is drenched in) and a cameo from the still-awesome-after-all-these-years Jello Biafra as the local mayor (a job he actually ran for in San Francisco himself once) , and this is a film that’s pretty much pre-programmed to hit all the right notes for trash cinema lovers like me and, presumably, you. Of course Retardead isn’t a good movie — it’s a horrible, lousy, tasteless, stupid, irredeemably bad movie. But it’s a great one, at that.

When you’re a low- (or no-) budget film production outfit, you’ve gotta live by three simple words : never say die.

Seriously, even if you mange to hustle up enough funding to get your flick “in the can” (not the greatest choice of words given the movie we’re about to discuss, but —), often times the real work is only just beginning — you’ve gotta promote your work both relentlessly and endlessly. Case in point : 4321 films, the brainchild of northern California-based writers/director/producers/actors Rick Popko and Dan West, is still hard at work getting the word out about their two feature-length films, Monsturd and Retarded, even though the former came out way back in 2003 and the latter in 2008. I know this because, in modern parlance, they “reached out” to me via twitter only a couple of weeks ago offering a couple of “screeners” of their flicks for review. I sad “sure,” and just a few scant days later “legit” copies of their DVDs, released under the auspices of Brain Damage Films and complete with cover art, extras (what few there are) etc., showed up in my mailbox. No email link to a Vimeo account. No plain-wrapper “sleeve.” These guys do it old-school, like everyone who wanted their movies reviewed way back when I started this blog used to do it, and I appreciate that. But would I appreciate their efforts both in front of and behind the camera as much?

I watched ’em in chronological order, and aesthetically speaking, it’s gotta be said that Monsturd looks every bit like the $3,000 production it is. Essentially a series of one-take scenes strung together with “wipe” transitions of the sort you (or anyone) can master in a matter of moments with the old Windows Movie Maker program, it nonetheless has quite a bit going in its favor for fans of Troma-esque “insta-cult” trash : psychotic serial killer Jack Schmitt (played by Brad Dosland) is on the run from the law after having made a daring jailbreak, and finds himself chased into the sewers of Butte County (yes, all the jokes really are this lame and obvious — would you expect anything less? Or more?) where, unbeknownst to him, evil scientist Dr. Stern (Dan Burr) has been pumping the contaminated waste (including the corpse of a recently-deceased colleague) left over from his dastardly experiments for the Dutech chemical corporation. Jack gets covered in all this sludge, as you’ve no doubt already surmised, and ends up a grotesque half-human/half-shit monstrosity who still can’t let go of his burning need to kill. In fact, it seems to have grown even more pronounced. So, ya know, let the  antics begin.

One unwritten rule of so-called “B”- movies is that law enforcement always has to be totally incompetent — even more than they are in real life — but it’s a sort of “fun and harmless” incompetence, free of the kind of devastating consequences that the families of Philando Catsille, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, etc. are all too painfully and tragically familiar with.  Sheriff Duncan (Paul Weiner) is the head “Keystone Kop” trying to bring shit-man to justice in this one, with his faithful deputies, Dan and Rick, being played by — well, there’s no way you don’t have that one sussed out, is there? FBI agent Susan Hannigan (Beth West) is the closest thing to somebody who actually has a handle on how to do her job, and she knows Schmitt best because she spent years on his tail, so the situation isn’t totally hopeless — just hopelessly stupid. Hijinks ensue, run-arounds become the order of the day,  at some point you may just want to flip on the commentary track on the DVD because it’s actually reasonably informative and engaging and you can pretty much predict all the dialogue you’d be missing out on, anyway.

Which is really sort of the point here, isn’t it? Purposefully ridiculous horror-comedy hybrids like Monsturd are in the business of offering the familiar : don’t tax my brain, don’t surprise me, just give me a healthy dose of exactly what the fuck it is I knew I was letting myself in for — and in that regard, Popko and West perform their task admirably. Both direction and acting are as deliberately over-the-top as one can imagine, the plot is rote and unimaginative stuff, and the turd-monster him/itself — the real reason you’re even watching this thing in the first place — is a very cool and suitably repulsive piece of dime-store practical FX wizardy that would make the late, great Don Dohler proud. They obviously blew their entire budget on this creature, and that’s exactly as it should be. Top it all off with some fun fairy tale-style narration from Hannah Stangel and a groaningly absurd ballad that plays out over the end credits, and you’d have to be a really hardened piece of shit to walk away from this flick with anything less than a smile on your face. There ain’t much blood, and there are no boobs, but everything else you’re looking for (presuming this even is the kind of thing you’re looking for) is present and accounted for.

Lastly, if you’re as tired of misleading and duplicitous cinematic marketing as I am, rest easy — Monsturd doesn’t pretend for a moment to be anything other than what it is : an absolute pile of crap. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

Dinosaurs! You love ’em, I love ’em, everybody loves ’em — and we love ’em even more when they look cheap.

The good news is that if you’ve got a low-rent dinosaur itch, there’s  a brand-new (2017 release date and all) number available for streaming on Amazon Prime called Revenge Of The Lost that’s sure to scratch it for you. The bad news is that aside from the admirably cheesy practical-effects dinos, it’s not a flick that really has much else going for it.

The brainchild of director/co-writer/producer/star Erik Franklin and co-writer/producer Daniel Husser’s less-than-imaginatively named Franklin-Husser Entertainment, a Seattle-based production outfit that apparently has some ambitious plans for the future, this is a film that fell far short of its fundraising goal on Indiegogo, but what the hell — our intrepid Pacific Northwest auteurs didn’t let that stop ’em from unleashing their debut opus on the world, and for that “never say die” attitude alone they get some solid “props” in my book. Labors of love such as this are definitely the kind of thing I have a vested rooting interest in, but much as I’d love to, I can’t completely shut off all of my (limited, according to some) critical faculties and just heap praise on all aspects of a production that has some serious — and frankly glaring — flaws. So keep in mind, as you read on, that any and all criticism I level at this film comes from a place of — well, maybe not love, but at least like.

Here are the basics : right out of nowhere, the dinosaur apocalypse lands on the hipster capital of America, but fear not — there’s a military base nearby that you can hole up in to ride out the mess, provided you can make it there in one piece. So guess where our trio of largely personality-free protagonists — Michelle (played by Ivey Bronwen), Jeremy (Jerry Nash), and Ray (Franklin) — are headed? Oh, sure, they’ll briefly make the acquaintance of  some mostly- reluctant temporary allies, as well as some folks who fall well short of that description, along the way, but mostly you know that what you’re going to end up with here is a closed-set, small-cast movie that sees our “heroes” struggling to survive against insurmountable odds in a warehouse made up to look like a high-security armed forces installation.

And so you do. Franklin and Nusser clearly can’t afford to surprise you on their micro-budget, pretty much all of which was of necessity blown on their numerous model dinosaurs, but without actors that can at least get you to care about whether or not they make it out alive — well, you won’t care whether or not they make it out alive. I got a good, old-fashioned “B”-movie charge every time a big, green, hungry reptile showed up on screen, but when there weren’t any around, my interest waned pretty damn fast. The film tries its best to maintain your interest with a lame “who’s really behind all this and why?” sub-plot, but it’s amazingly predictable stuff that doesn’t — maybe even can’t — do what it needs to in terms of holding on to your attention by its finger-tips. Bless ’em for giving it the old college (or at least film school) try, but actually succeeding would be even better.

Still, I can’t say Revenge Of The Lost isn’t worth at least one watch (though probably no more) for fans of ultra-low-budget creature features. I admire the fact that Franklin and Nusser only rely on crap CGI when they absolutely have no other alternatives, and keep things old-school as much as humanly (or reptilian-ly) possible. If a little bit more time, attention, and thought had been put into what the hell they were going to do to to keep things chugging along when there were no monsters on-screen that would have been welcome, sure, but when they do put in their various and sundry appearances, this is fun enough stuff — even if purely by default — to make you think that somewhere Sid and Marty Krofft are probably smiling at the efforts of their spiritual successors.

 

Sometimes you just know what a movie’s about before you’ve even seen it.

Take, for instance, the low-budget 2015 Canadian production Man Vs that I checked out on Netflix the other night (I gather that it’s also available on DVD). With a title like that, is there any doubt in your mind that we’re going to have some kind of “reality” TV theme going on here? And that it’s most likely a “found footage” film?

You already know the answers to both those questions, so perhaps the first (and, as it turns out, only) surprise on offer from director Adam Massey and his screenwriter, Thomas Michael (working from a story by Massey himself) is that the “reality” host that their protagonist, Doug (played by Chris Diamantopoulos), is based on has a lot more in common with Bear Grylls than he does with Adam Richman. Nobody’s eating a 20-pound burrito or a six-foot-long hoagie sandwich in this flick; instead we’re witnessing one man’s desperate struggle for survival in the Rockwood Conservation Area, a rugged and unforgiving (and, it must be said, quite scenic) expanse of northern Ontario wilderness that most of us would probably be able to make a go of it in for maybe one day, tops. For the sake of his popular TV show, though, Doug’s gonna try to get through five.

Almost immediately, there are problems — not just for Doug, but for the film itself. Diamantopoulos isn’t one of them, fortunately — he’s reasonably charismatic, comes off as being generally likable, and commits himself to his role in the way that one must for these, essentially, one-man productions (don’t get me wrong, he ain’t Redford in All Is Lost, but he more than gets the job done) — but there’s a lot of suspect editing that mars what would otherwise be a nicely-paced first two acts and reduces the believability factor that Massey and his star work so hard on selling, there are several “how is he getting this shot done?” logical gaps that are difficult to overlook, and a handful of the “life-threatening” moments are staged in such a manner that calling them “highly suspect” is probably being kind. Ya know what, though? I can overlook all that given the modest (speaking of being kind) budget Massey and Co. had to work with.

Here’s what I can’t overlook : this friggin’ movie telegraphs its big “shocker” moment so early on that it absolutely ruins the third act — and said act is so lousy in and of itself that really doesn’t need any extra help when it comes to sucking.

In case you haven’t figured it out,  the whole shtick here is that Doug’s not out in the woods by himself. He’s being stalked, Predator-style, by —- something. Now, the minute you glom onto this fact, you already know there’s only a few ways things can go — and Massey opts for the easiest, lamest possibility you can imagine, spells it out for you clear as day, then seems to forget he did so and tries to surprise you with a “revelation” that’s already, in modern parlance, been thoroughly “spoiled” in his own goddamn script. There’s no way that’s gonna work, because it just plain can’t. An Alzheimer’s patient would still see the ending to this thing coming a mile off. Throw in a whole lot of dodgy CGI, and what you’ve got is a film that would be a case study in self-sabotage even if the first 2/3 of its runtime was absolutely flawless — which it isn’t by any stretch, but damn, compared to the final 20 minutes or so, it’s Oscar-caliber stuff.

I hate to be too hard on Man Vs. I really do. You can tell that a lot of work went into getting this thing in the can and that it was probably an exhausting shoot. There’s a really solid performance anchoring the whole thing. Stitching together the “found footage” and “survival horror” genres is a natural. And there’s a lot of breathtaking scenery in front of the lens for nature-lovers to enjoy. But you can’t show your hand at the poker table, pull your cards back close to your chest, and then expect to collect the pot.

I’m not one to stretch a metaphor, but seriously — Massey’s either going to have to raise the stakes considerably for his next feature, or else just fold.

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.