Wonder Woman

When a film is highly anticipated, it can become bigger than itself. Wonder Woman is more than just another comic blockbuster. It offers a rare opportunity for women to become fangirls for something besides a clichéd rom-com or chick flick like 50 Shades or Magic Mike. There’s a comic book movie for US and it feels legit, not like a placating watered-down gimmick. Marvel is more consistent, but score one for DC Comics, because Wonder Woman is a winner.

Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince was born Diana, Princess of Themyscira. Themyscira is home to the Amazon people, a class of warrior women created by Zeus. Not quite human, but not exactly gods, the Amazons are superior physical and intellectual beings. Diana is chief among them, portrayed wonderfully by Gal Gadot (Triple 9). It was refreshing to watch these warrior women train in hand-to-hand combat with nary a man in sight. So much of what we as women do (consciously and subconsciously) is for the male gaze, but Amazons had no such constraints. Diana’s isolation from ordinary society rendered her immune from the trappings of conventional patriarchy and paternalism. The iconic character is the brainchild of writer and psychiatrist William Marston, who wanted to craft a hero modeled after feminists of the day. Diana is compelling, an inadvertent feminist, a woman who doesn’t know she’s supposed to be inferior. Equal to a man? She doesn’t even know any men; they are not within her frame of reference. When she finally meets a man in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond), he’s the one who needs saving – not her.

As a child, Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson, The Runner) regaled her with tales of the gods, particularly Zeus and Ares, god of war. She knew that Ares would return to avenge his defeat at Zeus’ hands, and that wherever Ares was found; conflict and war were sure to follow. So when Steve crashes on Themyscira after being shot down by German fighter pilots (the movie is set largely during WWII), Diana feels compelled to join him in battle, as surely Ares is to blame. Diana leaves “paradise island,” never to return. In this iconic moment she sets on the path that would give her to the world, a hero for all. Steve explains that they must stop one General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, Big Eyes) from unleashing poison gas on the populous, and by all appearances it sounds like Ludendorff and Ares are one and the same. The movie follows Diana, Steve and a ragtag group he cobbles together, as they hunt Ludendorff and his accomplice, the sinister Dr. Maru.

Diana is a feminist, not by design but by nature. When she accompanies Steve to plead his case to his superiors for military action, it never occurs to her that she literally doesn’t belong in the room. She’s not a trailblazer; she simply knows no other way of being. The fish-out-of-water trope is a familiar one, but it didn’t seem like a hackneyed device here, rather it was a vehicle by which the character challenged convention. Likewise, Diana is beautiful, but oblivious to whatever that means. She doesn’t need to rely on her beauty to disarm a man, because she can just kick his ass without all the pretense. It’s always a good psychological exercise to question oneself, and I liked the way the character challenged our default ways of thinking with refreshing sensibilities.

Few films are flawless, and neither is Wonder Woman. Most superhero movies have a degree of predictability and campiness, so there’s that. I also thought some of the dialogue was a bit cringe-worthy at times, especially the obligatory scene where Diana gets a glimpse of Steve’s anatomy *insert size joke here* Furthermore, the action scenes were effective, but I could’ve done without all the slow-mo freeze frame type of shots. It’s like the director wanted to signal to the audience that something cool was about to happen instead of just letting it happen.

I don’t usually do the whole “Girl Power” thing because more often than not it reads as corny. But this movie made me feel strong and inspired, and I was not alone. The women next to me in the theater were on their second showing. The movie marks the highest grossing film with a woman director, and I think that’s just great. Maybe one day these types of accomplishments won’t be considered noteworthy, but for now I’m just glad girls have a hero to call their own. Grade: A

Logan

There are two approaches to comic storytelling, in my humble opinion. On the one hand there’s the campy, corny perspective popularized in the 1980s and exemplified by the Superman franchise. These kid-friendly tales espouse the virtues of truth, sacrifice and justice. There’s always a ‘moral’ to the story, and the protagonist always strives to do the right thing. However, if you examine some of these other heroes’ backstories, you’ll see that they have rich, dark, troubled pasts that lend themselves to more layered, complex storytelling.

I admit that I was ignorant about Wolverine’s super powers. I thought Logan, the venerable X-Man, was invincible and immortal, but I was mistaken. He has healing powers, which have significantly slowed his aging process – but he is not ageless. This was readily apparent when the film opens and I see Hugh Jackman’s weary, lined face and salt & pepper hair. In his sixth reprisal of Wolverine, Jackman (Pan) is at his hulking, menacing best. Set in the near future, Logan is a far cry from previous X-Men movies. The tone is bleak, with director James Mangold (The Wolverine) depicting a dystopian future for mutants. Logan is off the grid, living in the shadows. His health is ailing, each step a lumbering effort.

Logan works as a chauffeur of sorts, if you could imagine Ray Donovan as an Uber driver. He’s fine flying under the radar until a woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez, The Drop) approaches him asking that he drive her and her little girl Laura (Dafne Keen) a few states over. He’s reluctant, but there are some nefarious corporate types in pursuit of the wayward pair. Gabriela and Laura are privy to some damning information that could prove costly for an international pharmaceutical company. The company’s actions have deadly ramifications for mutants, who have been driven underground. It turns out Laura is not your average kid, inheriting special abilities from her long lost father, none other than Logan.

Logan’s plot was a solid one, not overly complicated or nonsensical, as is oft the case with comic book movies (see the last Avengers installment). X-Men’s mutants and the response to them have always served as a proxy for our own societal ills, and that theme remains present in Logan. To that end, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, Christmas Eve) makes an appearance, but in keeping with the bleaker tone, this time his benevolence is couched in grizzled cynicism. Like Logan, he’s seen better days, as he deals with his own failing health and the emotional aftermath of a catastrophic mutant event to which he and Logan allude. Their bond is unwavering though, and together they try to get Laura to safety while evading her pursuant goons.

I have no real criticism of Logan. The plot was simple yet effective, and the role is a familiar one for Jackman, the quintessential embodiment of Wolverine. As he sliced and eviscerated his way through foe after foe, I was reminded of why I go to the movies. To feel this rush of excitement. Laura made for an even more impressive adversary than Logan, and their scenes together were amazing. This movie is not for the faint of heart, and it would be a mistake for parents to ignore its R rating. Comic book movies are best when they depart from the cheesy mass appeal and opt for a darker turn, as Marvel has done here with Logan. You won’t feel happy after this movie, but you sure will have enjoyed it. Grade: A.

Get Out

Watching horror films requires a certain degree of masochism, if you think about it. Why would anyone want to experience pure fear and terror? Yet something about that sensation is so deliciously awful. The first horror movie was released in 1896, and we’ve been paying people to scare the crap out of us ever since. When I saw the trailer for Get Out I wasn’t sold, but eventually the collective groundswell of enthusiasm swayed me and I began to look forward to it. Comedian/actor Jordan Peele (Keanu) does not disappoint, crafting a smart, unsettling film that taps into an undercurrent of fear unique to the Black experience.

Get Out features a young interracial couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, Sicario) and Rose (Allison Williams, Girls). They are still in the honeymoon phase, and their differences haven’t caused any problems…yet. However, trouble looms when Rose decides it’s time to introduce Chris to her family, who is unaware that he is Black. Chris is sort of an everyman figure for Black audiences. His fears and vulnerabilities are our own. His experiences are relatable, both on a small and large scale. In one scene he is peppered with ignorant questions from Rose’s family and friends, as they expect him to speak on the entire Black experience rather than for himself. It’s clear that he is on display, regarded like an animal in a cage in one moment and like wild game in another. An insidious air of foreboding hangs over the film, creating a palpable sense of tension only heightened by the realism of Chris’ dread.

Why does this movie work? Quite frankly because White people can be scary. There are still parts of the country where the color of your skin can be a deadly liability. I know that Black men still have to be cognizant of their surroundings if they are in certain areas with a mate of a different race. I like that Get Out depicted many of the micro-aggressions with which we have to contend so often. Whenever Black folks attempt to engage in thoughtful discourse on such topics, we are often accused of playing the “race card,” and I think Peele deftly avoids this charge with tight, cogent writing, dramatizing these situations in a palatable yet jarring fashion. I hope that White audiences’ curiosity is piqued, as some are perhaps taken aback at the notion that they are the scary ones!

Horror isn’t my favorite genre, but good writing transcends category. Get Out didn’t resort to cheap thrills; instead Peele expertly tapped into the realism of his setting and subject matter. It reminded me of the classic horror films of the 70s and 80s, very atmospheric, complete with a perfectly disturbing score. At one point the film had notably garnered an astounding 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is well deserved. I say that not because Get Out is the Movie of the Year, but because it works extremely well as a cinematic experience, and its structure and pacing were flawless. I’ve been fortunate over the past several months to have seen many diverse representations of Black film, and I hope the trend continues. The strength of any great movie starts with the story, and Peele’s got a winner on his hands. Grade: A.

 

I Am Not Your Negro

Politics are an inescapable aspect of our lives, now more than ever. It would be rather difficult not to have an opinion on any number of prevailing issues. Therefore, when celebrities weigh in on social and political topics, I don’t begrudge them their opinion. The collective public response is often an admonishment to “stay out of politics” or “stick to acting,” etc., but do art and politics mix? I Am Not Your Negro answers yes, and quite beautifully.

James Baldwin – for the uninitiated – was a 20th century luminary noted for his writings and political activism. He rose to prominence in the 1950’s, espousing a political consciousness that captivated the White intelligentsia and paragons of Black history alike. Baldwin did not separate artistry from politics; they were part and parcel of his very being. I Am Not Your Negro begins with Samuel L. Jackson’s resonant baritone, his familiar voice a befitting conduit for Baldwin’s poignant musings. Awash in color, the film had an uncommon beauty not typically found in documentaries. Its rich aesthetic was a provocative contradiction of the brutality it depicted, as the film highlights the abject cruelty of a not-so bygone era.

Baldwin’s consciousness was awakened on foreign soil, as he observed the violence visited upon Black Americans from afar while living in France. Disenchanted with a racist America, he’d long since fled to Paris where he found the same artistic refuge as fellow wayward expatriates Josephine Baker and Nina Simone. While he missed nothing about America, he longed for his mother and siblings, and he missed the soul of Harlem. Ultimately it was a photo that brought Baldwin home, the image of a young Black woman being heckled mercilessly as she integrated a school in North Carolina. We can see why the photo struck Baldwin so powerfully: the girl’s face is pained but stoic, her slight frame surrounded by a sea of faces seething with rage and hate. This theme is the foundation of I Am Not Your Negro, an unabashed revelation that hypocrisy is as American as apple pie.

The film is loosely intended to carry forth Baldwin’s untold artistic vision intertwining the stories of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medger Evers. The film dances around these three narratives in disjointed fashion, splicing current events throughout the film. Director Roul Peck brilliantly draws a parallel between the police brutality of the Jim Crow era and the impetus of the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Baldwin was Black and he was proud, but he was accessible to White America because he did not hate them. He explored the way Blackness had to be packaged to make it palatable, and Peck masterfully uses cinematic examples to underscore Baldwin’s profound speech. Hollywood is rife with the stereotyping and marginalization of which Baldwin spoke, and the film was comprehensive in its discussion of film and media’s effect on the collective psyche of Black and White Americans alike.

Art inspires, but at times it can make us uncomfortable. Let me state the obvious that this film is not for everyone, and the title alone is enough to keep some viewers away. It is not a call to arms, but rather an attempt to rouse the consciousness and to demand that White America to take an unflinching look in the mirror. Powerful and provocative, I Am Not Your Negro is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen. Grade: A.

 

 

Live by Night

Bless his heart. Ben Affleck really tries, but he just doesn’t have it in him. The highest praise I can give him is to say that occasionally his films don’t disappoint (see Argo and The Town). He was serviceable in last year’s The Accountant, and he doesn’t bring an otherwise good movie down with his presence – but that’s about as complimentary as I can be. Live by Night looked to be a decent enough bit of escapism, but ultimately its mediocrity rendered it wholly ineffective.

Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a petty thief who finds himself unwittingly caught between two warring criminal factions in Prohibition era Boston. Irish boss Albert White and Italian kingpin Maso Pescatore are rival bootleggers who are at a virtual stalemate after mounting casualties on either side. Both men take a run at Joe, who prefers to remain neutral and above the fray. All along Joe has been having an affair with White’s girlfriend, his lover and accomplice. This never turns out well, and just as White closes in, Joe is nabbed on a botched heist, landing himself in prison on a three-year sentence.

He emerges from prison with a fresh mindset. Seeking to insulate himself from the lurking White, he aligns with Pescatore, agreeing to oversee his rum running operations down in Tampa. In Florida he meets Graciela (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond), sister to a local bootlegger with whom he partners. Joe and his best friend Dion soon corner the market; not so much avoiding the war in Boston as moving it to a sunnier locale. Joe’s business isn’t built for longevity, and if his foes don’t bring about his demise, the changing political climate may prove just as fatal.

Live by Night had potential, but ultimately it was clichéd and derivative. Visually it was slick, with a lush, glamorous setting but there was little substance. I’ve seen better episodes of Boardwalk Empire and Magic City. Affleck wrote and directed the movie, and for the first time I can say that I think he’s had a misstep in those roles. The aforementioned Argo and The Town were very good, but the trend does not continue here. It felt like Affleck inserted obligatory elements gleaned from other films of the genre and time period, leaving us with something thoroughly unremarkable. Zoe Saldana’s indistinct accent faded in and out, a detail right on par with the rest of the movie. Not a horrible movie, but not really worth seeing in theaters either. Perfect for Redbox. Grade: C

Hidden Figures

There’s been a lot of talk of “making America great again.” At this point I’m sickened at the mention of the phrase, which is nothing more than a dog-whistle for white nationalists and racists. America has always been comprised of great people, even if their shameful treatment at America’s hands did not reflect their greatness. Making America great again mustn’t involve returning to an era where diversity and equality were completely ignored. Films like Hidden Figures are necessary now more than ever, a reminder of how far we’ve come in our recognition of things like wage equality, and an example of art as an informative teaching tool. The climate fostered by the new administration is not one conducive to artistry, but as long as we make our voices heard and support films like Hidden Figures, these stories will continue being told.

The film gives a biographical account of pioneering African American mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, No Good Deed), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Bad Santa 2), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, Moonlight); three women who were integral to NASA’s early efforts at putting a man in space. Now we have terms like ‘intersectionality’ to describe the ways in which multiple forms of discrimination conflate with one another, but during the Jim Crow era in which these brilliant women found themselves – no one particularly cared about the disparities they faced. They were more likely to be resented than valued for their intellect, but still they pressed on.

Visually, the film was vibrant, its cinematography harkening back to a dichotomous time in our history, the bright veneer and genteel wholesomeness of poodle skirts and milkshakes belying an ugly reality of discrimination and brutality. Pharell’s score grounded the film and kept it humming along, while supporting turns from Kevin Costner (Criminal) and Kirsten Dunst (The Two Faces of January) rounded out a notable cast. I don’t typically go for the “feel good” movies, but for once I enjoyed a heartwarming story.

The three stars have wonderful camaraderie and chemistry with each other, and themes of sisterhood and solidarity are prevalent throughout the film. I was inspired by the protagonists’ unapologetic confidence and brilliance.Through sheer excellence Katherine forced a seat at the table, her calculations proving critical to NASA’s quest to put an American in space. Their story is a thoroughly American one, an inspiring example for girls and boys alike. Boldly resilient, these women forged a path for all women and represent the best of America – which doesn’t need to be made great again. Grade: A

Fences

Oscar Bait. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, which refers to movies that transparently use trite ploys in an attempt to snag that iconic gold statue reserved for Hollywood’s best. As perfect example, look no further than a film like The Butler, which was shamelessly littered with a host of notable actors, from Robin Williams to Jane Fonda. While Fences also boasts a laudable cast, it is not to be mistaken as Oscar bait. Adapted from playwright August Wilson’s critically acclaimed play, it features actor/director Denzel Washington (The Magnificent Seven) in a starring role and behind the camera for the third time. The part is a familiar one for Washington – a reprisal of the Broadway turn that earned him a Tony. Perhaps it was his comfort in the role that resulted in a tour-de-force performance, one of the best of Washington’s career.

Fences is set in the 1950s, giving a glimpse into the small world of Troy Maxson, a hardworking family man who thanklessly toils away as a sanitation worker to provide for his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis, Suicide Squad) and their teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers). Troy’s simple, salt-of-the-earth nature belies a brash, booming personality that consumes any space he occupies. He is a constant source of joy and begrudging amusement for Rose and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, Two for One), who also works on the garbage truck. Troy has an adult son Lyons from a previous marriage, and he and Rose care intermittently for his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, The Purge: Election Year), who suffered a head injury during the War and became subsequently disabled. These players set the stage for the story and establish the foundation for Troy’s life.

Fences cannot be dissected thoroughly enough in this space, so I will just touch on the themes from the film that struck me as most memorable. When we first meet Troy it’s clear that he feels boxed in by life. He has frequent joy, but overall he feels frustrated and bitter about his current station, particularly when he ponders the lack of opportunity for growth at work or any prospect of financial prosperity. Home is a source of contentment because he loves his devoted wife, but home also represents the confining reality of missed opportunities. Sometimes life is a result of things you’ve made happen, and sometimes life seems like something that just happens to you whether you like it or not. Troy, who once had aspirations of playing baseball in the Negro leagues, is filled with bitterness and regret at the dreams that never came to fruition.

The better the film, the more I feel that I can write about it, so I’m forced here to give short shrift to many aspects of Fences that are worthy of further discussion, including the dynamic between father and son, selfishness and its resultant betrayal within a marriage, and the emotional, psychological underpinnings that give rise to it all. Ms. Davis has already won a Golden Globe for her performance, and she is in excellent company here. Washington seems to reserve his directing talents for only the richest African American stories (see Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and Fences continues that trend. This is a must-see for Denzel Washington fans, and doesn’t that include just about everyone? Grade: A.