Wonder Woman 1984

Following this month’s bombshell news that Warner Bros will be simultaneously releasing their 2021 slate of films in theaters and on their affiliated streaming service HBO Max, film journalists repeated the ominous query that’s been on their lips all year: are movie theaters doomed? The question coincides with the studio’s decision to test the waters on Christmas Day with Wonder Woman 1984, a follow-up to their 2017 mega-hit which would have netted them hundreds of millions in worldwide box office revenue had 2020 gone differently. Watching the would-be blockbuster on the same screen that I’ve been binging awards contenders for the past few weeks was a strange one, one that had me pining for the theatrical experience more than any film I’ve seen this year, if more for the context rather than the actual content.

Taking place decades after our initial adventure with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (a still-excellent Gal Gadot), we follow her as she mixes among the shoulder-padded masses of mid-1980s Washington DC while posing as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute. After befriending the bookish Barbara (Kristen Wiig, working from a familiar schtick) at work, the two come across an antique whose Latin inscription leads them to refer to it as a Dreamstone. Its presence draws the intense interest of fledgling businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, beautifully contrasting his composed work in The Mandalorian) as he pursues the era’s consumerist American Dream and wreaks havoc in the process.

After opening with a continuity-breaking flashback that exists solely to remind us we’re watching an expensive action movie, Wonder Woman 1984 continues with a Sam Raimi-aping montage in which our Friendly Neighborhood superheroine secretly saves beleaguered bystanders. It’s a sequence that sets a starkly different tone from its predecessor, a World War I-set origin story whose defining and still goosebump-inducing setpiece showcases the titular hero ascending out of the trenches and striding confidently through No Man’s Land. That its follow-up invokes The Greatest American Hero more than the Great War is a deliberate choice from returning director Patty Jenkins but not one that feels thematically consistent with the character set up by her previous film.

2017’s Wonder Woman hinges on a good-vs.-evil narrative that’s trite but palatable, whereas it doesn’t take much time for WW84‘s plotline to get more convoluted and knotty than a tangled-up Lasso of Truth. Without getting into too many plot details that may constitute spoilers, it’s enough to say that “wish fulfillment” is a story element that gets increasingly difficult to parse through when applied on a grander scale. Put frankly, the script, co-written by Jenkins along with Geoff Johns and David Callaham, is a mess of contradictory character motivations and muddled mythology peppered with lip-service 1980s references that don’t add up to much. I admittedly fell for a couple scenes that highlight developments of Wonder Woman’s powers, which recall the joy of discovery harkening back to Donner’s Superman films but feel lost among the crowded narrative.

This movie is yet another perfect example of DC’s Extended Universe being at odds against itself. The first five installments, which Zach Synder had a hand in one way or another, were often self-serious affairs that largely failed in their attempt to contrast the effortless effervescence of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Since 2018’s Aquaman, Warner Bros has tried to turn the tide and course-correct with more comedy-centric efforts like Shazam! and Birds of Prey but even those two films differ greatly when it comes to demographic and thematic goals. Now we have a Wonder Woman movie that bears little resemblance to its predecessor, which could work within a standalone franchise but does little in service of the larger superhero Universe. Wonder Woman 1984 is another mixed bag from a cinematic comic book collection that’s still in the midst of an identity crisis seven years in.

Score – 2.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #51 – Manksgiving Feast

I’m joined yet again by my hunker-down honey Aubree as we give Manks to a cornucopia of new streaming content. Seated at our table this year is Mank, (the new Netflix biopic from David Fincher), The Queen’s Gambit (the hit limited series streaming now on Netflix), Run (the thriller now available on Hulu), How To With John Wilson (the comedy docuseries whose full season is now on HBO Max) and Happiest Season (a romantic holiday movie streaming on Hulu). Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Deck the Gyllenhaals: Enemy

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

One of the most heartening transitions in Hollywood over the past ten years has been French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s ascension from indie darling to big-budget auteur. What’s even more promising is that the progression has led to very few, if any, compromises to his artistic integrity along the way. After breaking out with the Oscar-nominated Incendies in 2010, it didn’t take long for him to graduate to thoughtful mid-budget films like Sicario and Arrival and to eventually command Christopher Nolan-scale projects like Blade Runner 2049 and the forthcoming (sigh) Dune.

2013 was an important year for Villeneuve, as it saw the release of two films that would exponentially speed his career along. The better remembered of the pair is Prisoners, a morality-based thriller with a star-studded cast which included Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal that captured the attention of audiences worldwide to the tune of $120+ million. The lesser known of the couple, Enemy, is a decidedly smaller profile picture with a fraction of Prisoners‘ budget, even though it also stars Gyllenhaal in the lead role. Villeneuve has done plenty of great work the past decade and while Blade Runner 2049 is arguably his most accomplished movie, Enemy remains my personal favorite in his oeuvre.

The film is a loose adaptation of José Saramago’s novel O Homem Duplicado, Portuguese for “The Duplicated Man”, although it was retitled The Double when translated into English in 2004. Fittingly, Enemy had a doppelgänger of its own in 2013 by way of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, based on the unrelated Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. Since that title was already in use and presumably because the title The Two Jakes was already taken by some other movie, Villeneuve went with the title Enemy instead. It turns out to be the most apt title of all, as this is a movie chiefly concerned with a man at odds with himself, which is to say in conflict with his own desires and vices.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a reclusive history professor who rents a movie on the advice of a fellow teacher and spots an extra in a bellhop outfit who looks identical to him. Curious, Bell discovers the actor is Anthony Claire and after confirming his likeness based on two other film appearances, Adam becomes obsessed with his apparent twin and eventually makes contact with him. After the men come together and remark on the impossible similarities, they diverge and search for answers on their own. Adam reaches out to his girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, for advice, and to his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, to see if it’s possible that he could have an identical twin that he doesn’t know about. Meanwhile Anthony’s wife, played by Sarah Gadon, becomes aware of Adam’s existence and is bewildered when she meets him face-to-face.

As one may expect, the central mystery of Enemy does not lead to a straight-forward conclusion and reveals more layers of psychological complexity as the story moves along. Without giving too much away about the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the film’s primary theme is infidelity and what it takes to finally and fully commit to someone. Much like David Lynch’s erotic thriller Mulholland Drive, this is ultimately a puzzlebox movie where characters from both films literally stand with a key in their hands during pivotal moments in their respective storylines. Similarly, it’s difficult to watch Villeneuve’s film just once and grasp the entirety of its symbolism.

The reactions of those who have seen Enemy tend to fixate on one aspect, which is the film’s deliberately challenging concluding scene. Each person I’ve seen the film with for the first time tends to cycle through the same feelings of shock then amusement then befuddlement, though the implications of its meaning have made it more terrifying for me than anything else. When discussing authoritarian rule in a lecture hall during the opening scene, Bell says of systemic suppression that “this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” I won’t share my interpretation of the ending here but I would urge first-time viewers to consider this early line in the film when sussing out the ending.

Regardless of how one reacts to the last scene, there’s no denying the benefit of getting two Jake Gyllenhaals for the price of one. Like all of the best dual roles, Gyllenhaal establishes credibility early on by crafting two distinct personalities that allow us to tell the difference between what is essentially the same person. He also does plenty with body language to establish distinguishing features of the two men, plaguing the meek Adam with a perpetual slouch while dignifying the coolheaded Anthony with the posture of confidence. One of my favorite shots in the films crawls in on a helmeted Gyllenhaal as Anthony as he sits on his motorcycle with his legs perched out like a spider waiting for prey while the web-like streetcar wires of urban Toronto lie overhead.

As Dune is presumably finished at this point and just waiting to be released at a time when a pandemic isn’t mercilessly ravaging the populace, Villeneuve’s next project has already been announced. Collaborating with Gyllenhaal once again, both as actor-director and co-executive producers, Villeneuve will head up The Son as a limited series for HBO. Based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo, the show would seem to focus on an escaped convict who can’t remember his past and finds himself on the run while dealing with opioid addiction. It would seem that Jake and Denis teaming up is a pattern that repeats itself and I personally hope for a fruitful continuation of their reign.

Soul

For Pixar, past success has frequently stemmed from asking simple questions and providing answers in the most creative and entertaining ways imaginable. What if toys moved and talked when you weren’t in the room? What if the monsters in your closet were not only real but scaring you was their day job? What if a rat was the head chef of a five-star restaurant? Almost immediately, their abundantly ambitious and utterly absorbing new film Soul eschews these modest jumping-off points and tackles biggies like “why are we the way that we are?” and “what is the meaning of life?” Though the scope of this story and the avenues that it explores are deeper than some of the more elementary entries in the Pixar canon, it’s ultimately as fun and life-affirming as any entertainment you’re likely to find this year.

We meet beleaguered jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he toils at his day gig, struggling to imprint his passion for music to a hapless bunch of middle school band students. A beacon of light shines as he gets a call from a former student (Questlove) to come sit in on a gig with sax diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). While excitedly running home through bustling streets of New York City, he falls down a manhole and we follow the blue-blobbed personification of his soul as it makes its way to The Great Beyond. Unwilling to accept his untimely fate, Joe breaks through to The Great Before, a world of pre-existence where those not-yet born develop their personalities before dropping down to Earth. It’s here that Joe gets paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a stubborn soul who refuses to acquire the necessary traits to move onto the next state of being.

Director Pete Docter, the mind behind other Pixar classics like Up and Inside Out, navigates the messy entanglements of the spiritual world and the existential quandaries that it presents with deftness of a master storyteller. He’s aided greatly by a top-tier screenplay — a joint work between Docter and screenwriters Mike Jones and Kemp Powers– which skillfully sets up the terms of The Great Before and conditions by which souls are to attain their idiosyncrasies. This sets up a running joke that is my favorite of any movie I’ve seen this year, in which the ornery 22 exasperates all manner of historical figures from Muhammad Ali to Carl Jung during their efforts to pass along worthwhile attributes.

Soul finds Pixar expanding their artistic palette even further than before, incorporating Picasso-like abstractionism and a storybook aesthetic seemingly inspired by the short films of Don Hertzfeldt. Docter and company retain Pixar’s trademark photorealistic qualities during the Earthbound parts of the story, specifically impressive when it captures the characters playing their instruments with musical precision. Like the piano-playing protagonist Sebastian in La La Land, Joe sees playing jazz as his life force and is bullheaded in his persistence to pursue it. But ultimately, Soul ends on a much different note than Damien Chazelle’s almost-Best Picture winner, presenting a moral as powerful and vital as anything that Pixar has offered up to this point.

The film’s vibrant and technically proficient jazz compositions come courtesy of Louisiana-based pianist Jon Batiste, who has also served as musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for the past five years. Collaborating on their second music score of 2020 after the Netflix dud Mank, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute an electronic-based arrangement that serves as the intellectual counterpart to Batiste’s more heartfelt pieces. Pixar’s most accomplished and satisfying work in over a decade, Soul beautifully marries the head and heart in a way that’s genuinely therapeutic in a year as challenging as this one.

Score – 5/5

Also coming to streaming over the next two weeks:
Debuting on Netflix December 18th is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of the August Wilson play starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman about the titular blues singer and one of her explosive recording sessions in 1920s Chicago.
Available to stream in its entirety on Amazon Prime starting December 18th is Small Axe, a five film anthology series from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen which covers the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s.
Coming to HBO Max on Christmas Day is Wonder Woman 1984, the blockbuster superhero sequel starring Gal Gadot and Kristen Wiig that pits the titular heroine against a media businessman and a friend-turned-nemesis.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Wolfwalkers

Much like the Portland-based stop-motion outfit Laika, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been building a strong resume over the past decade, even if their work has underwhelmed when it comes to box office numbers. Though all three of their films to this point have been nominated for Oscars in the Best Animated Feature category, they have yet to take home the trophy but this year may present them with their best opportunity yet. Their latest feature, the stunningly gorgeous and altogether magical Wolfwalkers, follows a similar narrative path to hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Pixar’s Brave but distinguishes itself with dazzling 2D animation. It has the kind of crossover appeal that could finally put Cartoon Saloon on the map for American audiences.

Set in 17th century Ireland, the story concerns the tenacious hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his teenage daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) as they seek to disband wolf packs that threaten their walled-in village. While venturing outside the city’s fortress one day, Robyn and her pet hawk Merlyn meet Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who belongs to a clan of “wolfwalkers”: magical half-humans who have the ability to take the form of wolves as they sleep overnight. We learn that Mebh is searching for her mother, who transformed into her animal form but hasn’t been able to reunite with her human body. As the barbarous “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) seems to be Mebh’s mothers’s most likely captor, Robyn and Bill seek to set her free while changing the town’s attitude towards the forbearing creatures that lie outside their borders.

Incorporating aspects of both Celtic folklore and modern Japanese animation, Wolfwalkers celebrates the talented hands that crafted it within every beautifully-composed and detail-laden frame. While more recent animated films have tended to strive for precision and photorealism, Cartoon Saloon’s output recalls watercolor paintings that are intended to evoke emotion over exactness. Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart set most of their story in an autumnal forest landscape where no two leaves seem to have the same exact color. The film’s jaw-dropping art design is a perfect fit for the magical and mystical qualities of the alluring tale at its center but also leaves room for some witty visual humor, as when a group of sheep plop out of an enclosure in one predefined cube.

Another manner in which Wolfwalkers separates itself from the pack of family-oriented animated films is in its breathtaking use and balance of light and shadow in each exquisite shot. As characters are exposed to more sunlight when it pokes through the tree cover of the woods, their translucent colors begin to softly fade and subtly remind one that this otherworldly landscape has long existed in darkness. The light scatters differently in this mystical forest, casting contours that don’t behave in the way that we expect and give us a new lens with which to gaze upon this captivating and surprising world. The technological improvements in computer-generated animation over the past 25 years have allowed the artform to improve by leaps and bounds but the goal of the artistry behind this film isn’t merely to impress but to inspire.

As in Laika’s most recent films Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link, Wolfwalkers is beyond impressive when it comes to its artistic prowess but comes up a bit short when it comes to narrative invention. Kids likely won’t mind and may even feel more at home with a more conventional story but it will be impossible for parents not to be able to recognize tropes from other family-friendly adventures. While Pixar has all the money in the world to throw at top-tier animation and some have accused them of thematic repetition, their ability to craft story beats of unparalleled poignancy is something that independent animation studios still have yet to emulate. Nevertheless, Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s strongest effort yet and will hopefully enrapture enough audiences at home with its enchanting and vibrant palette.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is The Prom, a Broadway-adapted musical comedy starring Meryl Streep and James Corden about a troupe of theater stars who converge onto a small Indiana town in support of a high school girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.
Available on HBO Max is Let Them All Talk, a Steven Soderbergh-directed dramedy starring Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges about an author who goes on a trip with her friends and nephew to find fun and come to terms with her past.
Debuting on Disney+ is Safety, a sports biopic starring Jay Reeves and Corinne Foxx about a Clemson University freshman football player who secretly raised his younger brother on campus.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup