Thursday, June 1, 2017

Wonder Woman

Hello, my name’s Marissa and I’m 34 years old and I’ve never seen an episode of Wonder Woman (not even that TV Pilot-turned TV movie from 2011). I’ve never read an entire Wonder Woman comic issue. I HAVE been aware of the pop-culture influence of the lasso of truth and the invisible jet. In short, I’m the audience that this film is made for and that fans of Wonder Woman have an aversion to. I am both not worthy of enjoying this film (because how can I, a know-nothing, respect the long and storied history of this character?) and simultaneously, the gen-pop audience that any superhero film must reach. 

If navigating those waters and making a cohesive film with those requirements in mind are the criteria for a successful superhero film these days, then Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a triumph. Because by the end, I did want to be Wonder Woman. I did want to pass this incarnation of the character on to younger generations so that even more children might someday add Wonder Woman to their list of personal heroes and inspirations. And yes, the film is that good at making you believe in Diana Prince(ss of Themyscira) demigoddess and warrior princess.

In a way, it’s kind of astonishing that this ISN’T a Disney property. To a woman who was raised on Disney’s animated films, it’s difficult for me to look at Wonder Woman and not think of her as a Disney Princess. She’s a mythical woman, an Amazonian warrior who takes it upon herself to save humanity.But maybe she was a little too progressive for Disney back in 1941. Just 4 years after Snow White whistled her way to a happily ever after, Wonder Woman was brought to life by William Moulton Martston, an American psychologist. An amalgamation of the world’s strongest women and their defining personality traits, Wonder Woman is literally a Greek Goddess. 

I mean, her mom’s a queen and, for all intents and purposes, her dad’s Zeus. Speaking as a woman who has warred with her confidence on more than one occasion, I rarely considered her as a role model because, how could I EVER look that good in a body suit? What I’m saying is, in her long and storied history, mostly penned by men, she sets the bar pretty high. What I should have been paying attention to is the fact that then she takes the bar and at least attempts, to smash the patriarchy with it.

Just taking all of that into consideration, Wonder Woman is a complex character to bring to the big screen. Director Patty Jenkins, star Gal Gadot and screenwriter Allan Heinberg do an admirable job of trying to distill Wonder Woman’s essence but steer clear of navigating the really tricky emotional balance that this character could explore, and instead utilize her for what she is, the ultimate strong female lead. Their Wonder Woman is all goodness, all strength, all of the time. A mischievous child who grows into a courageous warrior, Diana is not only the best of her Amazonian tribe, but the best of all of us. And for those reasons, Gadot seems born to play this role. Former beauty queen, model, law student and soldier, Gadot’s real life is nearly as mythical as Diana. She really is the perfect fit for the character. And while the specific type of Wonder Woman’s brand of feminism might be up for debate, Gadot takes this moment to become every little girl’s favorite superhero and runs, kicks and jumps with it.

Diana’s prince (yup, I did it), as it turns out, is Steve Trevor, played by all-around good-lookin’ dude and member of the Hollywood Chris Club, Chris Pine. Probably at one point in the running for Captain America, Chris Pine is no stranger to the hero world, with his turns in Star Trek and any franchise Ben Affleck has left. The same qualities that imbue Steve Rogers, define Steve Trevor. In a world at its brink, Steve is just a man who wants to end a war single-handedly while always doing the right thing. You know, a regular guy. In all seriousness though, Pine and Gadot have fantastic chemistry and it’s nice to see a couple that can work well together on equal footing (especially in a DC film, she whispers).

For me, the highlights of the film are the first and middle acts. The training grounds of Themyscira offer what amounts to warrior woman boot camp. Scene after scene of believably strong women displaying power, intelligence, and quite literally, juggling the world on their shoulders. And yet, it is precisely their insulation that is problematic. Without competition from the outside world, their island is an idyllic home of fairness, justice, seemingly no crime, but also no children. Diana alone offers the real hope of continuing the race. She is told she came about because her mother wished to raise a child so much that she sculpted her from clay and was given life by Zeus. Diana or the Themyscirian Prometheus. There’s probably a much longer discussion to be had here about the maternal desires of women. Why only Hippolyta is granted a child, does that cause jealousy among the other Amazonians as it, on the surface seems incongruous with the Amazons mission. But hey y’all, this is a just a comic book movie, I won’t go there.

What I will say is that the casting of Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright is perfect. Wright, particularly in Diana’s training sequences, stands as the voice of modern feminism as she, over and over again, forces Diana to truly believe she is stronger than she thinks and that it is her thoughts alone holding her back from her full potential. It’s fascinating to think that this is the same woman who came to fame as Princess Buttercup. See everyone, middle-aged women DO get an evolution in Hollywood. Or at least Robin Wright does, and for that I’m thankful. Nielsen, while also great, is burdened with the role of being the bearer of mom-guilt. I mean, the last thing you need to hear before leaving the only place you’ve ever known and knowing you can’t return is your mom telling you “You were my greatest love…today you’re my greatest sorrow.” Oh thanks mom, you’re not mad just disappointed? But apparently that’s the motivation we women need to kick ass in the world. For Diana it works.

Upon entering the outside world, the world of men and war, Diana’s powers grant her a status no other woman has. It’s walking a fine line between saying “see women are equal” but knowing that really means “oh, only THIS woman”. It’s fine in this case, since she is Wonder Woman, but just know, I would not have been averse to seeing Etta (Lucy Davis), Trevor’s secretary actually get in some fisticuffs and show off some punches of her own.

The only inherent problem with the film is that it comes 6 years after Captain America and the comparisons are both warranted and prescient. It’s a difficult trap to escape, the Marvel/DC timeline that has been laid down. Reversed, I wonder how Captain America would have fared. The circumstances for both are the same. Films with distinct vision, well-directed, led by actors that are an absolute perfect fit for the role, and both movies end with a wistful, romantic glance at an old photograph. (Interesting to note that Peggy is brought to tears by tiny, mousy Steve, not buffed and puffed Captain America, but I digress). In this game of superhero chickens and eggs, it’s a tough thing to be the follower. But at least with this entry in the DCEU, the actual film holds together. At least with Wonder Woman, the story is coherent, the cast and writing work and the motivations by and large make sense. I mean it’s not like Wonder Woman gets pissed just because Ares, her nemesis and Greek god of War happens to kidnap a regular woman ALSO named Hippolyta.

So, in the end, Wonder Woman is a mixed bag, but like a really well mixed bag. Like buying the multi-pack of Starburst and getting mostly pink and red and only like three yellow. I will watch it again, I will be moved by it again, I will wonder about it again and any movie that encourages that is a movie worth seeing.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien: Covenant ...welp, it's another Alien movie

By now, if you care about movies, or care about just the Alien franchise, or care about Ridley Scott movies, or are just looking for a place to escape the new late spring onslaught of heat (THANKS GLOBAL WARMING!) you’ve probably seen Alien: Covenant. So if you’re down for a spoiler-filled examination of what may very well be the most polarizing film of the year (at least for a week until Wonder Woman comes out and people start hating a film called Wonder Woman for having a female lead), let’s get down to it.

It’s nearly impossible to ask the question “how did we end up here?” without first understanding the history of the Alien Franchise. (P.S. I’m no historian, but I have SEEN all the Alien boyfriend said I should if I was going to write about it) It is, hands down, one of the most unique and baffling franchises to exist in modern film times. Each film has a completely different feel, a completely different look, a completely different philosophical take, probably due to the fact that it’s been in so many (mostly capable, but very different) hands. I won’t go on too long about this, but suffice it to say, if any other franchise in the history of film had diverted this much from the original feel, people would have left years ago. (Side note *many people who claim to hate Alien: Resurrection and swore off the franchise all together will go see Alien: Covenant this weekend). The long and short of it is, now that we’ve already seen everything, Ridley Scott and Co. seems to think “oh they’ll put up with anything”, and that thought process is on full display here.

Since films are generally structured with a beginning, middle and end, I always find it helpful to start at the beginning. Don’t worry guys, we’ll get to DaWalter regurgitating some face hugger embryos, I promise.

Let’s begin with introducing the cast that we’ll be sticking with for the next 120 minutes. The first to appear is Walter (Michael Fassbender). He’s an Android, but he’s not a regular Android, he’s a cool Android. Garbed in a hoodie and sweats he’s easily distinguished from Prometheus’ David. Except for the fact that they look exactly alike. As Walter is busy trying to keep the Covenant afloat for its extended journey to Origae 6, a neutrino burst rumbles over the ship causing some pretty serious electrical problems. Among these problems is the fact that it causes the ship’s captain, James Franco Branson (pretty sure that was his actual name. it was tough to know, he was onscreen for 4 seconds), to go up in flames faster than Nero’s Rome. With everyone else in the crew now awake and out of their pods, some serious decisions have to be made.

Here, I’ll digress. I don’t think there’s a cast I trust LESS to make serious decisions than this group of characters assembled on The Covenant. This is not because I don’t trust the actors playing these characters, they’re all wonderful. Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Catherine Waterston, Amy Siemetz, among the cast, are all fantastic in a variety of other films. Damien Bichir was nominated for an OSCAR! Then again, Charlize Theron HAS an Oscar and look at how her character was treated in Prometheus. To me, this is one of the biggest tragedies of this new Alien wave. Assembling an impressive cast list, only have to have them, unnecessarily blow themselves up, unable to run in a straight line, or reach their hands into an alien egg. I mean, it’s difficult to know that the ACTORS are smarter than that so why are their characters so insufferably stupid? This is the FUTURE, IN SPACE, have we learned nothing as a species? I mean, if I was David and the only contact I’d had was with these Weyland-Yutani dingbats, maybe I’d hate the whole of humanity too!

Among the decisions to be made is whether or not to land on a closer planet that may be perfect for their terraforming mission. Yes, this is a terraforming mission to make a planet habitable for the 2,000 grown colonists in cryosleep and the 1,000 embryos in the cryocooler. Potentially, 3,000 human lives depend on people who, apparently, aren’t great at their jobs. Because this is Alien: Covenant and in space, no one can hear you reason, they decide to land on said closer planet. You see, a transmission was discovered coming from there. Turns out, Elizabeth Shaw, the lone human survivor of the Prometheus (the prequel which dare not be named) was a huge John Denver fan and they’ve recovered a transmission of her singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. This love of John Denver is something I wish would have been established in Prometheus. As far as I knew, Shaw was a scientist with a crisis of faith who spent childhood time in Africa with a British Missionary father. Maybe her mom was a huge John Denver fan? Also how does John Denver survive into the future, but not, like, The Beatles? I’ve never heard about the notion of music before in the Alien franchise, is what I’m saying. It’s a little too on-the-nose.

Now that we’ve gotten through the introduction, it’s time to get rolling with the middle of the movie, the real meat and potatoes of it all. The landing party boards a vessel, is forced to touchdown during some rough weather (does this sound familiar yet?) and in pretty quick succession is taken over by various incarnations of the Xenomorph. You can’t call them Xenomorphs yet, but…..they’re Xenomorphs. In no order in particular, one guy inhales some bad pollen and a creature cracks through his back, another guy gets an earworm and vomits up a bloody blob that turns out to be a pretty cheeky creature that just wants to play hide and seek in the grass and the pilot ends up blowing up the entire landing vessel because, well, maybe we shouldn’t keep flamethrowers on small vessels.

Thankfully, they’re rescued by Monk David. Cloaked and armed with a flare, David takes the team back to his lair offering safety and shelter. Lesson to other humans thinking of going to space in the future: Don’t trust an Android. Just don’t do it. I mean, this might be the statement on Ridley Scott’s tombstone, “Don’t Trust the Androids”. But they do and, again, in fairly short order without any real care or attention to detail or logic, all but two of the crew are murdered as if this were some slasher hijinks. It’s alright though, because, in the great tradition of slasher movies the characters are so one-dimensional that trying to pull any empathy out of the audience is impossible.

It’s around this point of the movie (roughly 60-70 minutes in) where the ending is given away entirely. After David cuts his hair in an overtly maniacal manner to resemble Walter, you probably thought yourself, “Oh…that Android that looks exactly like the OTHER Android is going to swap places? Why wasn’t this one called The Alien Trap?” It’s foreshadowing at its most blatant and the entire rest of the movie I just spent thinking “is this where David does it? Oh here? Oh no, here, at the end…like a twist that’s not a twist”. 

I just kept getting angrier. There’s a point when David is speaking to one of his creations, like it’s a tamable beast if you just blow on its nostrils, and when it’s killed he screams in the same way that John Hammond screams in Jurassic Park. There’s a part where a chrome-looking chestburster-resembling creature mimics David in a very Baby Groot manner. There’s some SUPER questionable CGI, and a lot of action sequences that feel very familiar. I’m assuming the feedback has been “fans just like Alien and Aliens…stick with that”.

Once aboard the Covenant again, the final chase sequence begins, killing off two more of the peripheral characters in short order. Another lesson to humans in space: if you think a sexy space shower is the appropriate response to the rest of your crew being gutted, transformed, turned into alien meat, maybe it’s best to rethink your priorities. Maybe just get in your pods and go to sleep with a peck on the cheek, while you’re still intact. But I mean, I’m just backseat theorizing here. The good news is, if you were hoping to see an alien blown out of the airlock again, YOU’RE IN LUCK! I know it’s difficult, I’m at least willing to acknowledge that there probably aren’t a LOT of other ways to get rid of them, when onboard a vessel, but it’s just another rehashing that felt very much like rehashed moment.

For those finding pleasure in Alien:Covenant I can only assume it’s because their investment up until this point in the franchise has been with the Xenomorph. Maybe they desperately wanted to see the evolution of the creature and this is finally what they wanted. It’s graphic and revels in its R-rating, but it’s hard to appreciate any of the environment as real or truly scary when it’s all so obviously CGI and David basically insinuates that since he’s created them, he could put them on leashes and take them on walks. At least that’s what I ended up picturing after I left the theater. Just David, in his flip flops, with some adolescent Xenomorphs on a leash, one named Shaw, the other named Weyland. Just out for a game of fetch with some Engineer’s heads. 

For me, this whole fascination with the creator and the created has created quite a rift in the coherence of the franchise. I thought Prometheus laid great groundwork. But it seems that the feedback was to stay as far away from thoughtful discussion as possible. Make this one, faster and more intense. That seems to just mean lots of blood, indecipherable images that won’t be explained because who has the time, and characters with very little backstory resulting in very little of my attention being paid to them. There’s a one-off sequence with the Engineers that has potential but Scott has either edited it out or thought that we didn’t care about it.

It’s also created a franchise which now just uses Strong Female Character as an archetype to be filled, not as a character to attach to. Where the focus used to be Ripley, mostly character-driven (admittedly, Resurrection IS pretty funky), we’ve now switched to David, a mandroid who has successfully created the perfect human-destroying organism. Gone is the sexual aspect that used to so subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) permeate the Alien atmosphere. The Xenomorph was grotesque and beautiful, unknowable and seductive in Alien (like what DID it do to Lambert) sleek, and terrifying. Now it feels like it’s been downgraded. It’s gross, not terrifying. It’s engineered, not mythological. It’s not sexualized or imbued with feminine aspects (egg laying Queen anyone?) it’s now maybe born of a female womb (question to be answered in Part 5) but exhibits no aspects of the reproductive synergy that was on display in previous entries. However, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that it’s still not great with escaping equipment with metal teeth. Those things get ‘em every time.

I don’t mean to be glib. I wanted to like it, I truly did. But by the time David regurgitates those two perfectly formed tiny facehugger embryos I laughed, because I knew Ridley had pulled one over on me. It’s ludicrous and, if you care at all about logic you might be tempted to ask “where…how…why…Shaw?” in short order, but then you’ll remember this is a franchise without logic now. This is a franchise that now belongs to a man who wants to reclaim it as his own, his precious. If there was a time to save it, it was with 3, but killing Newt and Hicks offscreen set a path in motion that was irreversible. Now we’re stuck in a loop of “what HAVEN’T we seen?” I’m guessing by Ridley’s fourth, we’ll get to another alien planet only to find they’ve successfully opened a fast food joint selling human burgers. You can order the Derelict meal. Michael Fassbender will be their manager, an Android named Brian.

I’ve rambled, I’m sorry, but when there’s so little joy to be found, you must find the humor. Because otherwise, you might as well give up. And though they should give up, the Xenomorph is a brand now. People will line up for the brand name. There will be ten more and they will all be less coherent than the previous and they will all make millions and millions for Fox. And I’ll probably watch them…but on Netflix. I think seeing it in the theater just adds another layer of disappointment. But I’ll say this, the one thing you can never accuse Ridley Scott of being is boring.