Posts Tagged ‘Gal Gadot’

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.

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One thing about being paranoid — sometimes it can actually give you a little bit of, believe it or not, clarity.

Take, for instance, the advance reviews for Zack Snyder’s heavily-anticipated Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice that have been appearing online over the last few days. After literally years of hype, the movie itself is finally here and so, it would seem, is the moment of truth — not only for it, but for the entire nascent DC cinematic universe. Only truth seems to be pretty hard to come by, at least as far as this flick is concerned, among the self-appointed arbiters of public opinion working the digital plantation.

To be sure, the vast majority of critics out there seem to either mildly dislike or actively loathe it (for proof of this look no further than its current 32% score on Rotten Tomatoes), and most for the same nebulous-at-best reasons : it’s “too dark,” they say, or “not much fun” (complaints which seem to have resonated with the “suits” at Warner Brothers, who are already busily assuring the masses that the forthcoming Justice League film will have a “lighter tone” to it — despite the fact that it will be overseen by the same director). But a little bit of legwork shows that many — shit, maybe even most — of these same self-appointed judges of artistic merit (hey! Kinda like me!) were only last week lauding to high heaven the sadistically grim, pessimistic, joyless, 13-hour bloodbath that was season two of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix, and a few months back were equally effusive in their praise of the just-as-dour (and frankly sexually, racially, and politically repugnant) Jessica Jones, another product of the so-called “House Of Ideas.” Dis/Mar have been called out on their “whisper campaigns” against competing “product” (and let’s face it, that’s what super-hero movies are) before — most notably those directed against studios that held the cinematic rights to their own characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men — and it doesn’t take any great genius to see that the same thing could easily be going on here. Film critics, by and large, are an even cheaper investment than politicians, and for the price of a free pass to your next blockbuster or, better yet, the promise of a set tour should they ever happen to be in Hollywood, most of ’em will say just about anything.

On the other side of the coin, though, a scant few minutes of “assignment prep” reveals that some of the (admittedly few) voices of support for Batman V Superman, particularly in the comics press, are coming from people who give positive write-ups to even the most blatantly and obviously lousy DC comics (in other words, most of them). I won’t name any names, but when I found that one of the most glowing reviews of BvS I came across online was written by someone who also had nothing but terrific things to say about the painfully creatively bankrupt Dark Knight III : The Master Race, I was hardly surprised.

And so that aforementioned paranoia of mine has, I think, paid off, since it allowed (or forced, take your pick) me to actually go into this movie today trusting no one’s opinion,  and with absolutely nothing in terms of expectations one way or another. I have to say — it felt kinda good. The “good vibes” didn’t last, though — but maybe that’s not necessarily such a bad thing?  Bear with me as I attempt to explain —

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Plenty of movies can leave you feeling emotionally drained, psychologically confused, or even a scarred, blubbering wreck, but with Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice, Zack Snyder has crafted something that may very well be the first of its kind — a film that leaves you feeling physically exhausted. You have no real reason to be, of course, since all you’ve been doing for the previous two and a half hours is sitting on your ass, but seriously — this isn’t so much a movie as it is a full-scale sensory assault that just so happens to use celluloid as its weapon of choice. Snyder knocks you flat on the mat within the first few minutes and never lets you catch your breath, much less get up. There are points where one is tempted to do their best Roberto Duran impersonation and simply say “no mas,” but truth be told there isn’t even time for that. Between DP Larry Fong’s almost-overly-arresting visuals, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s insistent, percussive musical score, David Brenner’s breakneck-paced editing, and a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer that clearly suffers from an acute case of ADD, the word we’re looking for here is relentless.

And yet, believe it or not, I say that with a certain degree of admiration. Snyder has always been about spectacle over substance, and in many ways is the perfect blockbuster director for the overly-media-saturated “information” (insert loud snorting sound here) age we live in. His film adaptations of 300 and Watchmen were essentially straight-up visual Cliff’s Notes translations of their comic book antecedents and the sophisticated sleight-of-hand he developed working on those projects to conceal the fact that he literally had nothing (or at least nothing new) up his sleeve actually serves him quite well here. That’s because the story for BvS is a paper-thin affair — although even at that there are still plot holes large and obvious enough to plow the new, muscled-up Batmobile through — that is, at its core, a confused mash-up of the classic Batman story The Dark Knight Returns and the 1990s-speculator-market-driven Superman storyline Doomsday (or The Death And Return Of Superman, if you prefer) that sees an older, more world-weary, decidedly more brutal Batman/Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck) conclude that Superman (Henry Cavill) is an existential threat to the human race that he’s going to end, until the two of them realize that they’re both, to one degree or another, being played for suckers by ruthless billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who resorts to “Plan B” — a standard-issue CGI monster, wouldn’t ya know — when his “Plan A” of getting ’em to kill each other off doesn’t work out. Fortunately, at the hour of our heroes’ greatest need, a new and unexpected ally turns up in the form of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the day is saved — but at a decidedly heavy cost. There are a handful of nods thrown in the direction of purported “real-world issues” like, I dunno, what we’d do if there actually were a super-being, but they’re not examined with anything like genuine depth since Snyder and his screenwriters clearly have a firm opinion on the matter, anyway. And why not?  Said super-being is one of the stars of their movie, after all.

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That’s probably about as deep into “spoiler” territory as I care to get, but I will say this much: Snyder-bashers can take heart — the same shortcomings he’s exhibited in previous efforts are on full display here, as well. His actors are left largely to “do their own thing” while he concentrates on assembling his frenetic, hyper-stylized symphony for the eyes. With a veteran cast such as the one assembled for this production that’s really not much of a problem — Affleck doesn’t deliver a performance anywhere near as good as Michael Keaton’s definitive turns under the cowl from nearly 30 years ago (goddamn but I suddenly feel really old) but is probably the best Batman and Bruce Wayne we’ve seen since, Eisenberg is a frenzied whirlwind of tech-billionaire menace as Luthor (think of an even more ruthless, amoral, and mentally unbalanced version of his take on Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network),  Amy Adams radiates quiet confidence and capability as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons uses Michael Caine’s portrayal of Alfred as a jumping-off point for his “Q from James Bond” interpretation of the character, and solid pros like Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane turn in, well — sold pro work as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Martha Kent, respectively.  Both Scoot McNairy and, especially, Holly Hunter knock it out of the park in supporting roles clearly beneath their talents, though, and while that, sure, is a good thing on paper (and on screen), when each of them is so obviously better than the material they’re given, it shines a bit of a light on how lackluster that material actually is.

The two names missing from that laundry list of actors, though, offer stark evidence of both the pluses and minuses of Snyder’s “spectacle above all” approach : Henry Cavill just doesn’t seem to be asked to do much as Superman other than show up and look perfect and he responds accordingly, while Gal Gadot, whose directives were probably more or less the same, doesn’t just steal, but robs, beats, and runs away with her scant few minutes’ of screen time. It’s the most stark difference between “just doing your job” and “doing your job to the very best of your ability” that I’ve seen in recent memory. Bring on 2017’s Wonder Woman already! No rush on that Man Of Steel sequel, though — and funny enough, there’s not one currently planned, either.

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As I’m sure the previous paragraphs have no doubt ably demonstrated (and if not, my bad) Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice is a mixed bag. But at least it’s an exhilarating, breathtaking one. Nowhere near the trainwreck its probably-purchased detractors would have you believe and nowhere near the triumph its probably-purchased cheerleaders are fighting against the tide to convince you it is, at the end of the day it’s a brutally operatic demonstration of the best and worst of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (particularly Zack Snyder’s version of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking) duking it out right in front of your pinned-open eyes : as cinema it leaves a lot to be desired, but as pure spectacle it’s hard to imagine how it can be topped.