Archive for the ‘war’ category

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017

wonderwoman2Towards the middle of Wonder Woman, when the central heroine Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is running through the no-man’s-land (ha) of a battlefield and deflecting hundreds of German bullets, either you recognize the subtextual power of this image or you find it a typical bit of superhero-movie action. I’d submit the latter is not the most productive lens through which to view Wonder Woman, here as well as its earlier iterations. This ideal of strong femininity has always been greater than the sum of her parts. I could say that the movie has its flaws particular to its status as a superhero film inside a larger superhero narrative, but it doesn’t matter. Wonder Woman is an indelible symbol of sane female compassion against nihilistic male violence. She didn’t make the cover of the first Ms. magazine for nothin’, and this fourth movie of the DC Extended Universe (after Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad) stands well on its own and will gather deeper relevance than any other superhero flick.

Gal Gadot does what’s needed as Diana; the role is bigger than she is, but she gives Diana’s heroism a nice underlayer of sadness and regret. Diana has lived all her life with the Amazons on what we used to call Paradise Island, hearing about war (and its author, Ares) without knowing it. War soon invades the idyll of the island in the person of American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), with German soldiers in hot pursuit. It’s late in World War I, or, as Trevor calls it, “the War … the war to end all wars.” The retrospective irony of that phrase is bitter, as is Diana’s realization that there isn’t just one convenient supervillain to blame for war. Ares whispers in our ears; we take it from there.

Diana carves a swath through the German army, seeking only to defend or to deflect. She isn’t a stone killer, just as she wasn’t in the cheesy but beloved TV series with Lynda Carter, who could knock thugs or Nazis for a loop but preferred to be strong to be kind. Diana is, of course, a warrior, trained as such by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) against the wishes of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Wright and Nielsen, both 51 and seemingly still peaking physically, show us what power without masculinity looks like. Diana takes a bit from each woman. She will fight, but only when absolutely necessary. For the most part, her strength is hidden behind fake glasses and under a gray uniform, much like that of Superman.

Wonder Woman may be part of the doom-laden, ugly, “dark” and gritty DC film-verse, and by virtue of unfolding during one of the more costly and grotesque wars it certainly has its grim moments. But its director, Patty Jenkins — who helmed 2003’s excellent Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster and hadn’t directed another feature film until now — brings a refreshing clarity to it, a productive mix of gravitas and winking. At certain times, the movie seems very aware of being a cultural lightning rod with a lot of eyes on it. At other times it forges ahead swiftly (Wonder Woman runs two hours and twenty-one minutes but goes by fast), uninterested in anything outside itself and its musings about the nature of war and the nature of mankind.

As has become a tradition with superhero films, there are too many villains, though our time spent with them (including an uber-proto-Nazi played by Danny Huston and a mad mutilated genius named Dr. Poison played by Elena Anaya with a half-mask recalling Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire) is agreeably pulpy. Pulpiness is sort of baked into the concept; Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was working out ideas about femininity — seeing no reason why a strong woman couldn’t also be submissive, he contrived to put Diana in bondage in a bunch of the powerfully idiosyncratic feminist-cum-fetishist comic-book stories of the ‘40s. The movie’s Diana is briefly restrained, but not a lot of Marston’s thoughts inform the film, which is fine; Wonder Woman is bigger than he is, too. Lynda Carter can wear her, or Gal Gadot, but ultimately she belongs to all girls and women, a symbol of gentle power that can’t help but endure. Or persist.


December 21, 2014

“If you can take it, you can make it,” says the helpful brother of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) early in Unbroken, giving us, though not Louis, an idea of what we’re in for. What does it take — what fortitude, what inner reserves of strength or patience — to make it to the end of Unbroken? The first hour cuts back and forth between Louis’ pre-war life as just the fastest, bestest runner you ever saw, and Louis as a bombardier in World War II, before his plane goes down in the ocean and he and two fellow soldiers survive on a raft for forty-seven days. Then the raft bumps into a Japanese warship. From there, you will spend the next sixty-five minutes with Louis in a POW camp and then a colder POW camp.

These epics (usually singing the praises of the Greatest Generation) that make a virtue of endurance always make the mistake of demanding endurance of the audience as well. There’s an element of shaming in this: If Louis Zamperini could spend years of his life being tortured in a POW camp, you can spend two hours of yours watching him being tortured, you non-Greatest Generation sissies. Based on a bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken has attracted a lot of intelligent talent: a run of screenwriters (William Nicholson, then Richard LaGravenese, then Joel and Ethan Coen) and director Angelina Jolie, and it’s hard to say what enticed any of them. The movie is about a man who suffers and perseveres and survives, and it isn’t about anything other than that.

Well, maybe it is: it’s also about homoerotic sadism, a theme that most every prison yarn is good for, even after Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour made it explicit in 1950. Louis draws the eye of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), aka “the Bird,” a POW sergeant who takes out his career frustration on the allied prisoners and especially on tough, attractive Louis. This sadist looks and acts feminine and sometimes seems to be leching after Louis; after a while, nobody else in the camp interests Watanabe — he only has eyes for Louis. This all is drawn crudely, with none of the formal tension of something like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I haven’t read the book — did the born-again Louis make as much of Watanabe’s fixation on him as the film does? Jolie, good liberal that she is, presents the dynamic but mutes it. As it is, Watanabe represents nothing but grinning sadism, as Louis stands for nothing but stoic American Christian resilience.

After the CIA torture report has come to light, it’s amusing that an epic about the spiritual value of enduring torture should become the country’s big Christmas Day release. Is Louis meant to be our very own American Christ, suffering for humanity’s sins and then forgiving his tormentors (as we’re told at the end, in some onscreen text that might’ve made for a more interesting film than the one we’ve just sat through)? Jolie straight-up turns Louis into Jesus at one point, when Louis, carrying a heavy plank over his head, casts a cruciform shadow on the soil of the prison camp. Louis hefting the plank is also the central image of the marketing. What’s actually going on here? Those who made this long, grinding tribute to The Passion of the American may find the question hurtful, but I say if you make it, you can take it.

300: Rise of an Empire

March 9, 2014

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Spoilers-EndingIn 300: Rise of an Empire, this most testosteronal of movie franchises passes into the ungentle hands of women. On Greece’s side, there’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the Spartan widow of valiant Leonidas from the original 300. On Persia’s side, we have Artemisia (Eva Green), naval commander and all-around vicious warrior. It’s one of the movie’s many failings that Gorgo and Artemesia never have a scene together; they may never have met in actual history, but the film makes such blithe hash of history anyway that an exchange between Gorgo and Artemesia, their words so hostile that their speech balloons in a comic book would have icicles hanging off them, wouldn’t have made much difference other than to add some welcome female camp to a movie loaded with manly camp.

This 300 isn’t exactly a sequel to the first, since its story unfolds before, during, and after the legendary Spartan attempt to hold off the Persians. So it has an unavoidable whiff of “Here’s something else that was happening.” It’s essentially a sidebar to the main story. It’s based, we’re told, on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller, who also wrote/drew the original 300. Xerxes hasn’t actually come out yet, but, we’re also told, it should show up in comic-book stores sometime this year. I assume Miller made some sketches and preliminary pages available to the filmmakers, as well as the basic plot, but what’s missing here is the graphic charge that made Zack Snyder’s original movie good eye candy for a while. Under the direction of Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire tries hard to follow in Snyder’s footsteps — plenty of speed-ramping slow-mo action — but it just comes across as an imitator.

The heroes here are the Athenians, led by stoic beefcake Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) at sea. The Athenians aren’t as hardcore as the Spartans — remember the Spartans razzed them as “boy-lovers” in the first film — but they still love Greece and freedom, and that’s pretty much all there is to them. The Persians, ruled as before by hulking Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), want to crush Greece, and Artemisia, born Greek but traumatized as a child when Greek soldiers “raped and murdered her family,” wants to seduce Themistocles onto her team. Their resulting sex scene is probably the most ludicrous such thing I’ve seen in a film since Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan went at it in a pool in Showgirls. It doesn’t work on noble Themistocles, though. Afterward, Themistocles does the walk of shame back to his men, while Artemisia presumably does the ancient-world equivalent of eating cookie-dough ice cream and blasting Alanis Morissette.

Laughable as the sex scene is, it at least provides some comic relief, as opposed to the brutal ludicrousness of everything else in the movie. People (mostly Persians) get carved up practically nonstop, impaled, dismembered, stomped by horses. Their blood floats lazily in the air in lackadaisical digital blobs. Is it because the carnage is so stylized that 300: Rise of an Empire got through the ratings process with an R instead of a teen-prohibitive NC-17? If a mere slasher movie boasted this much splatter, it’d have to go back to the editing room many times before qualifying for an R. The problem is, this movie is a mere slasher movie. You go to slasher movies to see psychos slice up teenagers, and you go to the 300 movies to see Greeks slice up Persians.

Sketching in Artemisia’s backstory, the movie seems to want to zip past her motivating rage — uh, your heroes the Greeks raped her mom and killed her dad — as quickly as possible. Eva Green, who between this and Dark Shadows is developing into an actress with a definite taste for outré roles, keeps the rage front and center anyway, becoming by far the reason to sit through the film. Lena Headey, too, does her share of grief-stricken seething. That the movie thinks we’re more interested in faceless men shredding faceless men than in watching these two formidable women is proof that nobody on the creative team (including Zack Snyder, who gets a co-screenwriting credit) was really at the wheel. If some network were to make an entire series about Artemisia and Gorgo — maybe they team up to fight crime, I don’t even care — and the actresses returned to play them, I would sit for every episode five times each and join the show’s goddamn Facebook fan page.

I Declare War

September 15, 2013

I-DECLARE-WAR-Press-Image-1.-This-should-go-in-guide.-Property-of-IDW-Films-Inc.Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.

Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.

As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.

I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.

But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 24, 2011

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” says scrawny 4F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in answer to whether he wants to go kill Nazis. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” And there’s the way into Captain America: The First Avenger even for long-haired lefty peaceniks like me. The movie’s politics pretty much stay that simplistic, but then it harks back to a more simplistic time, when America’s enemies were big and bad and all you had to know was where they were so you could shoot ‘em. Despite being a sickly stick figure, Steve desperately wants to join the Army so he can go fight in World War II. He rejects the notion of finding some way to serve at home; other men, including his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), are charging into the lion’s mouth, and he doesn’t feel he has a right to do any less than what they’re prepared to do.

The CGI-depleted Chris Evans, by way of a “super soldier serum,” becomes normal, beefed-up Chris Evans, and he proves his mettle right away, chasing a spy through the alleys and crowded streets of 1942 Brooklyn. Here and elsewhere, the production design is impeccable, a dream of the wartime big city as seen on Life magazine covers (and probably only there), and director Joe Johnston proves his mettle, too. I can’t say he has a vision, but he has a solid sense of pace and composition that stands him in good stead when he’s got sturdy material to work with. (With Johnston’s last effort, The Wolfman, he wasn’t so lucky.) The elements, including Alan Silvestri’s bombastically retro score, come together to form a ripping good adventure yarn that succeeds where J.J. Abrams’ too-reverent Super 8 failed in paying homage to Steven Spielberg’s salad days.

Captain America is a productive mix of square fortitude and very mild tongue-in-cheek. Even the hero’s name begins as an emasculating joke: Steve, having gained some fame, is pressed into USO service wearing a laughable version of the uniform he eventually wears in combat; he stands in front of crooning showgirls, beseeching audiences to buy bonds, and the media dub him Captain America. Soon, in battle against the fearsome Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his army of soldiers, he will become a real captain and leader of men. The Red Skull is a Nazi so megalomaniacal he doesn’t think Hitler is evil enough; with the help of a “cosmic cube” (which ties this movie to Thor) he builds super-weapons and an army of interchangeable soldiers. I could be wrong, but I think the Red Skull is personally shown killing more Nazis (out of the usual mu-ha-ha, you-dare-to-doubt-me Evil Genius pique) than Captain America is.

Indeed, the real threat in the movie is the Hydra legions, not the Nazis, which helps Captain America neatly avoid any real-world issues. Not that I’m complaining. Nobody particularly wants to see Captain America witnessing flyblown children’s corpses in Auschwitz, or for that matter flinging his impenetrable shield at Iraqi insurgents. What saves the movie from dumb jingoism is Cap’s reliance on a group of good, ethnically-mixed men, even including a Japanese-American soldier. The Howling Commandos, they’re called in the comics, though not in the movie. The actors, particularly Evans, do what they can to invest the film with personality, but in the crunch the script sort of loses track of the people; one major character dies so abruptly, and with so little blowback aside from a brief obligatory mourning scene, that I half expected him to have survived, somehow.

Captain America sells a country’s long-dead dream of itself as an aw-shucks giant modest about its power and benevolent in exercising it. This was never true, really, even before Vietnam made it abundantly clear to anyone without blinders on; see George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 for the scoop on how we’ve treated the rest of the planet as our playpen and piggybank for centuries. But the movie, full of good humor and color and foursquare opposition to bullies, is a lacquered pop-culture valentine to the ideal of America as the good neighbor. That its symbolic hero looks more or less like an Aryan übermensch (and was created in 1940 by two Jewish comics legends, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is among the many pleasant ironies spinning around in this clean, unpretentious, brawnily entertaining fantasia.

Green Zone

March 14, 2010

One productive way to approach Green Zone might be as a dark comedy of frustration. Early on, warrant officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his team are in Baghdad after the 2003 shock-and-awe, in search of weapons of mass destruction. They speed out to a congested area full of looters. They navigate around the looters and discover that a confirmed WMD site is being defended by a sniper. They take out the sniper and move in, fumbling around in the dark building. Will they find what they’re looking for? We know they won’t, but they don’t know that. Miller has run two other missions with the same results. He’s beginning to get annoyed.

Green Zone tracks Miller as he ricochets around Baghdad like a righteous bullet, looking for The Truth. Are there actually WMDs here, and if not, why does government intel keep sending men like Miller and his team into harm’s way to chase shadows? Director Paul Greengrass, who worked with Damon on the last two Bourne films, employs his usual shaky-cam to sometimes vertiginous effect — it’s a rugged, you-are-there style, pumping up excitement. It’s a thriller in which we’re forever ahead of the hero; we know The Truth he seeks, and it’s not a very happy one, so the action is in service of an almost nihilistic mood. Miller pokes his nose into every seething corner of Baghdad to uncover the pointlessness of his very career.

Greg Kinnear turns up as the Pentagon slickster who wants to keep the WMD ruse going for the suckers back home. Whoever cast him deserves a cold beer, since he and Damon previously shared the screen — and a body — as Siamese twins in Stuck on You. The actors have a couple of clenched, hostile exchanges here, and I was left imagining how many takes they must have ruined because they couldn’t keep straight faces. Damon also has strong rapport with Brendan Gleeson as a CIA man who bluntly tells Miller he’s wasting his time; movies could do worse than to pull in seasoned, hard-bitten Brit actors to set the hero straight (Ray Winstone also performed this function in Edge of Darkness).

As Miller gets closer to the identity of “Magellan,” the mysterious source of info about WMDs, Green Zone never stops for a breath, and neither does Miller. The last third is fairly exhausting. Miller bounces around the city, browbeating gullible reporter Amy Ryan or conscripting Iraqi civilian Khalid Abdalla (in perhaps the film’s best performance) for near-constant service as his “translator.” There’s torture, there’s a lengthy chase — a real action-thriller climax, except the thrills turn to ashes in our mouths. Green Zone says that not even Matt Damon in full fury can change much of anything. By the end, the Iraqi people are already rejecting the U.S.-approved “democracy” Kinnear’s character wants to put into place, and Miller emails his findings off to every major media outlet in the Western world, for all the good it’ll ultimately do. Mission unaccomplished.


December 27, 2009

James Cameron’s Avatar is very old wine in a dazzling new bottle. It’s almost completely hokey, but it’s also a major work, a first-class piece of big mainstream filmmaking. Cameron’s ideas may be dusty, and his dialogue may be functional at best and embarrassing at worst, but almost no other contemporary directors have his intuitive understanding of structure and fable. Yes, Avatar is made up of stories that have been told again and again, but there are stories and then there are Stories — tales that survive over the centuries, charged by Joseph Campbell’s power of myth.

Here we have Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine chosen to walk among the alien natives of the moon Pandora. Jake’s consciousness is inserted into an “avatar” combining the DNA of a native — a Na’vi — and his dead twin brother, who’d been studying the Na’vi for years. Jake has two agendas, science and profit: the former, personified by Sigourney Weaver as a hard-bitten scientist, wants Jake to negotiate peacefully with the Na’vi; the latter, led by hissable corporate drone Giovanni Ribisi and nail-tough colonel Stephen Lang, wants a high-energy mineral and doesn’t mind killing the Na’vi to get it. Jake, of course, goes native and falls in love with the Na’vi life, not to mention with warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Cameron uses this pulpy old stuff as a launching pad for peerless world-building; coming out of the hibernation of occasional deep-sea documentaries, Cameron beats George Lucas and Peter Jackson at their own game. This director has been away from feature films for twelve years, so I’d forgotten how effortlessly taut his filmmaking is (Avatar runs north of two and a half hours but flies by), how he approaches big, operatic emotions with a refreshing lack of irony, how he stages action scenes with a mixture of tension and exhilaration. (Everyone else who’s attempted large-scale megabudget spectacles in 2009 should take a look at Avatar and be shamed out of public appearances for a year.) For all his technological breakthroughs, Cameron’s great talent is for opening the storybook and inviting us in.

I’ll go ahead and say it: Late in the film, there is an extended battle scene between the Na’vi and the American military with all their concussive firepower, and it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve seen in a movie since I first started reviewing them in 1986. Cameron captures war in all its exultation and horror. Sam Worthington is an amiable blank as the hero — he’s pretty much the audience’s avatar — but Zoe Saldana, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination, puts across a galaxy of moods: joy, agony, rage, passion. If Cameron had done nothing else in Avatar, he put one more great heroine on the screen.

Avatar is being shown in a variety of formats: 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D. I saw it in RealD 3D. I’m told the best way to experience it is in IMAX 3D. I’m also told it looks just as gorgeous, and is just as enveloping, in 2D. (Cameron knows what he’s doing: there are many shots and even sequences that don’t seem to use 3D much at all. He knows when to give your eyes a rest and when to punch up the 3D for maximum impact.) I’ve said before that the true test of a movie is whether it would draw you in even if it were playing on a 15-inch black-and-white TV screen. I know that I’ve happened across Cameron’s Titanic a few times on television and have been kidnapped into it for longer than I should have been. Avatar will probably work the same way.