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Oh thank Hera: Wonder Woman is a resounding, unabashed, and joyous success

It is perhaps fully impossible to ever truly overstate the feeling of relief that washed over me when the credits of Wonder Woman rolled. My animus towards and deep disappointment in the DCEU thus far is thoroughly well documented. I mean, I’ve detailed the fuck out of it.

But I speak so frequently and so passionately because I really do truly care for these characters. My attachment to this franchise has been something like a parent whose child makes a wrong step at every conceivable measure, hoping that they will eventually correct the path and get things right.

This time, they got it right.

Wonder Woman, the fourth entry in the nascent DCEU, is the first truly unabashed success. There is no rationalization required, no dense sorting through half-formed ideas given fullness. This is a great movie about a true hero, the first of these movies truly cast in the DC Comics mold. It’s funny, romantic, exciting, and a clarion call not only for what this franchise could be, but for another way forward for superhero cinema.

Wonder Woman is framed in the modern day, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receiving the original plate of the photo from Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a photo in her full regalia from a long-ago war.

This flashes us back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the only child on the island and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She’s an Amazon, a group of warrior women created by the Greek Gods. She’s trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and becomes the fiercest among them, wielding a power no one fully understands.

Their idyllic world shatters when Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island with a battalion of German soldiers following behind. Man’s World has erupted in the War to End All Wars, which Diana believes can only be at the hands of Ares, the God of War. So she leaves the island with Captain Trevor to kill Ares and save the world.

It feels only appropriate to begin assessing this movie at the top, looking at Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot has been a low-grade charmer for years, her role as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise being a particular scene stealer, and Wonder Woman proves how ready she is to launch to the top of Hollywood.

Gadot turns out an incredible lead performance here. There’s a grace and a kindness underlying an undoubtedly powerful warrior, an emblem of peace through strength. Gadot is particularly adept in this movie at pulling you into her perspective, at filtering the film through her eyes. It’s the off-kilter way she engages, the enthusiasm in just the wrong places and the confusion in just the right ways. She stands tall as a hero, poised to move to the top of the Hollywood Ass-Kicker list.

But it isn’t just Gadot’s performance. Affleck does a bang-up job playing Batman after all. It’s the character they’ve crafted. For the first time, Wonder Woman gives us a hero in the truest DC mold, an emblem of something greater, an ideal that pushes against a darker world.

all-star

Diana here stands for something greater, for a love that can conquer the darkest impulses of humanity, for a hope that one day war can end. Diana uses her strength, but it’s as a peacemaker, as a hero that truly believes that humanity is good and can be made better. It’s not the flawed heroes of the Marvel Universe, but a representative of more, a God that stands above and charts a way forward.

Wonder Woman and the eponymous character both revel in striving towards something better. That’s what has set DC apart and can continue to set it apart, if it continues to use it right. It isn’t as though this film doesn’t engage in the philosophizing that has marked films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Rather, it understands that there can be fun while you prod those questions, a movie that thrills you and uses those thrills to dig in deep. We understand Diana’s belief in doing good because we see the people she saves, but also because we feel the joy and adrenaline along with her.

That is, I believe, thanks to director Patty Jenkins. Consider this quote from a New York Times interview:

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Perhaps no mission statement better embodies the successes of what we see on screen.

Consider (keeping in mind the work screenwriter Allan Heinberg did) the film’s central romance, between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. Romance in superhero films is often, to put it mildly, begrudgingly trotted out to please some executive trying to meet 4 quadrants.

Wonder Woman has perhaps one of the most successful on-screen romances in any superhero film. Much of that is helped by Pine, who does an absolutely phenomenal job as the noble but compromised Trevor, and his chemistry with Gadot. The two have a crackling banter that feels like a great screwball comedy and it’s easy to see what they might see in each other.

But it works because of that mission of sincerity and that thematic motivating belief that love can and will do good in the world. It informs the romance and gives it the space it needs to breathe in the movie. I can think of few movies that would indulge so many quiet and melancholy moments in this romance, or that would allow moments so unabashedly silly in the same space. But Jenkins’ sincere belief gives their love room to breathe and it makes it work.

That belief extends throughout the film. It’s that sincerity that makes everything work emotionally. Everything resonates, everything feels real, Wonder Woman goes for broke and it hits so often that it can wallpaper over any flaws.

I could of course pick at a few scabs. The third act indulges in plenty of weightless CGI battling, I wish it had been allowed to really make its own visual palette, the slo-mo can be a little much, and it takes a little too long to really get cooking at the beginning.

I say all that knowing there are small things littering the film to praise as well. The supporting cast, from Lucy Davis’ delightful Etta Candy to Ewen Bremner’s charming and sad Charlie to Saïd Taghmaoui’s roguish Sameer to Elena Anaya’s cackling Dr. Poison, fills out the margins of the film in a way few superhero films indulge. The action is phenomenal, a sequence set in the No Man’s Land of a Belgian battlefield is a total all-timer.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score must also be singled out. An old-school, sweeping score of a kind you hear less and less since the Zimmer style became popular, it really helps drive these moments home.

But I can’t throw too much shade, because Zimmer did help write the Wonder Woman theme, a recurring guitar riff that showed up in Batman v. Superman to announce Wonder Woman’s arrival, and here shows simply how great it is to have a theme for a character. When that guitar riff enters during that No Man’s Land sequence, you’re damn near ready to jump out of your chair cheering. That’s a theme song.

In my eyes, Wonder Woman is simply the best traditional superhero movie in some time. Its belief in do-gooding, its thoughts on what that can mean, its great performance, its unabashed joy in superheroics are such a breath of fresh air. This is a victory, a story that finally lets a DC Comics character come to life, and be who they are and what they stand for.

Grade: A

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Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 19: Chris Pine Sings!

How’s the Cold Open?

It’s actually pretty standard for the Cold Open to feel a little out of step with the rest of the episode. It’s attacking different subjects, usually political ones, at a totally different clip.

Still, in such an episode that was so bizarre and exuberant and off-kilter as this one, this one still felt a little off comparatively. Now, fortunately, it wasn’t just wheeling out Baldwin in the Trump makeup and calling it done. He was here, but the focus was on Moffat and McKinnon as the recently announced-to-be-engaged hosts of the MSNBC show Morning Joe. Their lovey-dovey physical comedy here is plenty amusing, and at least a welcome change from talking into the camera during the Cold Open.

And when Baldwin’s Trump returns, it’s got more energy than it’s had in multiple sketches, perhaps because all Baldwin has to do is the voice. While Anthony Atamanuik is currently spanking Baldwin’s impression weekly over on The President Show, this one is at least better than normal, giving Baldwin a chance to indulge in the weirder parts of the persona by playing as John Miller, Trump’s fake publicist.

But overall, the sketch just feels out of step with the rest of the episode, a bit of normality on a weird one. Nothing too strange, just physical comedy and some fill-in-the-blank jokes.

Who’s Hosting? 

I certainly know that no one would have expected as much musical comedy out of Chris Pine, a guy who’s talented and handsome and desperately trying to differentiate himself from the other talented and handsome actors named Chris that are filling out the ranks of our Genre franchises.

Though, perhaps his SNL appearance shows that differentiation. Besides his go-for-broke goofiness, there’s a real talent there, an acting through the whole body through every bit of weirdness. Pine is the most actorly of the Chrises, but he’s the one who disappears into goofiness the quickest. Also, I can’t reiterate this enough…he just keeps singing. So much singing. It’s kind of great.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“SWAT Recon”

The theme of this night is “Holy shit, this is a weird one, and I LOVE it.”

Perhaps the biggest case in point is this one. A sketch that starts with going for broke, a premise that makes no sense but in the best way, and just keeps spiraling upwards and upwards until its end. Entirely too much fun (Cotton Candy Dance Party actually sounds like a good Saturday night) and reasonably well-structured, this was the sort of bizarre exuberance that made the whole night work.

“World Peace Rap”

I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening here, and I love it. I like that Pine seems to jibe so well with Bennett’s weirder sensibilities tonight, and he plays at each turn. This is definitely a bizarre sketch (that Tommy Wiseau wig) that must be based on SOMETHING, and holy hell I’m just glad to have seen it happen.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

This seems to be a sketch with an obvious direction, so when it takes the turn it does, I’m all the more appreciative. The angle of “men ignorant of women’s problems” is incredibly well-played and the delivery between the actors here is A+, a smarter tear of satire that the standard Trump stuff.

“Star Trek Lost Episode”

Just another big, goofy one that strikes me as one of those sketches that makes it hard to believe anyone managed to come up with it. It’s also a sketch that makes you realize that you’re probably gonna miss Bobby Moynihan when he leaves, there’s a level of sheer fun and interplay with any member of the cast that nobody else does even half as well. No one outside of Kenan can get so much with one bug-eyed look.

Also, fun fact, Leo Yoshimura, SNL’s longtime set designer, is the man playing Sulu, reprising his role from the first Star Trek sketch in 1976.

“Where In The World Is Kellyanne Conway?”

I’m a big fan of “deflater” sketches, where there’s a HUGE wind-up for a deliberately hilarious thud. So this one totally works for me, pulling off a pretty well-done recreation of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, including a pretty good impression of The Chief (though not as hilarious as the one Carl Tart has been doing over at Comedy Bang! Bang!), and then ending in about 15 seconds. Short sketches really do benefit SNL.

“The House w/ Chris Pine”

I’ve missed these Good Neighbor sketches, these chances for SNL to hew closer to anti-comedy and Tim and Eric-esque sketch making, so I’ll praise any time they come back around. The stilted delivery is always a special kind of brilliant, especially out of sketch actors as good as Bennett and Mooney, and the way this one chugs forward is just such a delight to watch.

“Chris Pine Monologue”

Our first signal for how much singing was gonna happen, and also how much fun Chris Pine would end up be in this episode. I kind of love him leaning into the Chris dilemma (by the way, Chris Evans is the only one who hasn’t hosted yet, get on that), and it’s the one time the musical monologue feels of a piece with the rest of the episode. So, points.

What Didn’t Work?

“Couples Game Night”

Cute idea, weird punchline, but it kind of just takes too long to get there and doesn’t find quite enough laughs along the way to justify the length of the sketch.

“Auto Shop”

Again, cute premise, and that lip sync battle at the end is amazing, but the sketch tips its hand too early. You know where it’s gonna go and the pivot doesn’t function like it needs to at all.

Weekend Update!

   Anchors

Che and Jost were in reasonably fine form this week, going in on a week of fairly supreme Trump stupidity and evil. The AHCA passing was the center of the week’s best jokes, with Jost commenting on Trump’s building of a wall “between Americans and their healthcare” and Che noting the overwhelmingly white House Republicans were celebrating like “they had just invented sickle cell.”

Their groove is so established that it comes down to the specifics of the material, and there’s just too much going on this week to not have a few good gags.

Correspondents

Two this week. One is Leslie Jones doing a solid bit of stand-up. I’m never going to protest when Leslie Jones comes on as herself, and she’s killing it as herself here. The other is Dawn Lazarus, played by Vanessa Bayer, who I’d love to see more of. It’s a variation on Kristen Wiig’s travel agent character, taken to an extreme where her nervousness has gone so far that it’s looped past making her unable to perform and has her speaking gibberish with total confidence. Bayer does amazing things with this character, an absolutely tightly controlled performance.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nope, I feel like I should get into LCD Soundsystem at some point though.

MVPs!

Bennett wins it almost solely on the back of the World Peace Rap. In general, he seemed to vibe the most with what has happening this episode, acting through the singing and the musical number, but World Peace Rap is such an insane thing that it’s hard to not give him credit for how well it was done.

Season so far:

Beck Bennett – 4
Kate McKinnon – 2
Bobby Moynihan – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Overall, I like when the show goes goofy, and I like when the show goes weird. This was both in spades, and Chris Pine was a surprising delight to watch. A good week.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Emma Stone
  7. Aziz Ansari
  8. Chris Pine
  9. Scarlett Johansson
  10. Alec Baldwin
  11. Kristen Wiig
  12. Margot Robbie
  13. Casey Affleck
  14. Benedict Cumberbatch
  15. John Cena
  16. Felicity Jones
  17. Octavia Spencer
  18. Emily Blunt
  19. Jimmy Fallon

Next Week: Melissa McCarthy!

Come Hell or High Water, this movie is worth your time.

SUGGESTED SOUNDTRACK:

The Texas of Hell or High Water is a sweaty, mythical place. You can practically feel the heat radiating off it in your theater, taking you to a modern Old West. Anyone who’s ever taken a detour through anything but metropolitan Texas knows what it’s like. More Mad Max than Dallas, Hell or High Water is a Recession Western, a film that uses the death of the American Dream that the Great Recession signified for so many to craft an outlaw world, albeit one we recognize rather than fantasize.

The story of two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who embark on a series of bank robberies to pay back Texas Midlands, the bank that is soon to foreclose on their late mother’s property. Of course, they’ll be paying them back with the money they robbed from each branch of the Texas Midlands Bank. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is the Texas Ranger tasked with bringing the men to justice.

The neo-Western can be a dubious thing, at least in my eyes. The Western as it exists as a genre is about nostalgic metaphor, of piecing together the myths of our past to reveal what they can tell about our present. Taking the genre out of the past loses the nostalgia, becoming more stark reality than fable. In that way, I’ve always really liked westerns which remove us from our past and our reality, and create the same tropes in sci-fi or fantasy worlds. It creates the myth all over again.

That’s what I really like about Hell or High Water. The time and place is not so far removed from our own. It’s under a decade ago, taking place during the throes of the Great Recession and the devastating effect it had on the small town, especially the quiet resignation that many had already being poor. This is a film about the cycle of poverty that time made us all feel, and what it was like for those trying to get out, for those who had experienced it for generations.

Yet it does all that in a setting that feels mythic. Director David McKenzie keeps Texas from feeling like a place that we can recognize. He avoids the big cities, and keeps the iconography firmly in the past. Men in horses and dressed like cowboys abound. There’s something equally modern and decades in the past about this Texas. It’s a place that leans into what we think about when we think about Texas and makes it feel like a part of that history and a part of something grander.

It becomes a part of that struggle. Taylor Sheridan’s script is tight on a narrative level. Wringing out every tension, telegraphing every twist without ever feeling like it’s showing its hand, and keeping the pace tight and thrilling no matter what. The characters he’s created are perhaps the best part, occupying the space between realistic and archetypal in a way that’s fascinating to watch.

But it’s also great on a thematic level. Hell or High Water asks whether or not crime is justifiable in a society that is built on lawlessness. There’s a reason they don’t hit the banks in the bastions of civilization, where law and order might exist. Our robbers exist in abandoned society, where it’s just not worthwhile to keep things together. They exist in the Wild West, the apocalypse. The lawmen here are outsiders, sticking their nose where they don’t belong. And vice versa, the lawmen feel like they’re trying hold onto a place they’ve already lost.

I can gush about the story all I want to, but I want to also sing the praises of the acting in this film. Not necessarily Ben Foster. He does a job any and everyone could recognize as strong, but which hits a note for me he’s been playing too often as of late, which is the “KOOKY AND DANGEROUS” dude. Foster is a chameleonic actor, so it’s a real shame to seem hitting the same thing again. He’s truly fine here, but he simply too often feels like “too much” for this movie.

I can’t say that for Chris Pine here, who I believe gives an all-timer for him, a role he’s always been built for. The shameful of Chris Pine is that he’s a character actor in a leading man’s body. Too objectively handsome to play grimy con-men and small supporting characters, but too good at the details to go really broad. He’s never gonna be Tom Cruise, able to imbue big broad leading characters with enough specific detail to be compelling. Pine needs the details to exist so he can put himself into them.

Pine is phenomenal here, playing Toby as a true outlaw hero, a man who chooses to be outside the law only to do good. He wrestles with the decisions, there is no evil in him. He wants to cure the sickness of poverty that has plagued him and his family the whole of his life. We want to root for him and we know that he is doing wrong. He’s an open book on his face and a closed book in his actions. There’s a phenomenal scene where a prostitute hits on him, and Pine’s eagerness of body language sings, conveying so much with so little. He’s a lonely man, one imbued with a solemn purpose.

Jeff Bridges is also fantastic, essentially playing another version of Rooster Cogburn. He’s a grizzled grandpa, so much fun to watch, but so good when he’s gotta take the character from crotchety to serious. Absolutely fantastic work. A late-game scene between him and Pine is a masterwork of tension and acting and writing.

I would also be remiss to not mention a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, one of my favorite scoring duos and one of my favorite recording artists working. It’s epic and sweeping without ever being overwhelming. Give it a listen, and also give a listen to everything Nick Cave has ever touched.

Hell or High Water is just a damned fine film. The kind of movie that begs to get you out in the theaters to see its impressive vistas and take in the details of their faces.. Howard Hawks said a great film has three great scenes and no bad ones. Even if Ben Foster’s performance leaves me a little cold, this a movie that has three great scenes and no bad ones. This is the kind of movie that begs you to see it, so get out and give it a look.

Grade: A

Star Trek Beyond finally brings us back to Where No Man Has Gone Before

After three Star Trek films, we finally have a Star Trek film.

I believe that the Star Trek franchise is one of the most important that exists, because I believe in the power that media has to elevate. Roddenberry’s vision, and the vision that the best of those who have followed in his footsteps, is that humanity could one day overcome their divisions and prejudices and reach the stars. And slightly for Star Trek and hugely for Star Trek Into Darkness, its greatest sin the dark cynicism it held about future humanity.

In what could perhaps be charitably called a time of need, there’s something immensely admirable about the fact that Star Trek Beyond chose this moment to return the franchise to its optimistic heyday. To boldly go where no man had gone before, to explore strange new worlds, and, more importantly, to understand that the world is better in peace and in unity.

Also, the fact that it actually has the feel of an old-school pulpy The Original Series episode doesn’t hurt.

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