Monday, September 11, 2017

"Dunkirk" Brilliantly Experiments With Filmmaking Techniques While Still Telling A Worthy WWII Story

In the course of his nearly-20-year career, British filmmaker Christopher Nolan has tackled psychological thrillers, comic book icons, and science-fiction. And now, like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock before him, he tackles war and historical events. Dunkirk recreates the miraculous 1940 evacuation (known as Operation Dynamo) of nearly 400,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk in the early years of World War II.

Nolan's direction puts you right there in the middle of the action and allows you to feel the suspense, the tension and, above all, the experience. Furthermore, the way Nolan structures this story for the screen is unparalleled. Juxtaposing three different perspectives--soldiers on land, civilians at sea, and pilots in the air--the results are unlike anything ever seen on the big screen, and are constantly on-edge-of-your-seat and unpredictable. Nolan even mixes a temporal strata of each of these perspectives--in other words, the time durations of each place (one week on land, one day at sea, and one hour in the air). This theme of time is even echoed in the ticking sounds found in Hans Zimmer's experimental and powerful score (with elements of Vangelis in there as well).

Many viewers have argued that the film lacks character development. While that can be debated, there are still key characters we care about, understand, and see various levels of humanity,worry, grief and tension in. Such include on-land soldiers Tommy, Gibson and Alex (newcomers Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and singer Harry Styles); sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan), and a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy); and spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). Whitehead, Murphy, Rylance, and Hardy, in particular, give standout (and expressive) work.

Nolan's key mission with this film, to reiterate, was to put the audience right in the experience of the battle, and therefore in this story of survival (which one character states is sometimes enough), rescue, and of course certainly heroism. The camerawork and dialogue-limited script add to this successful masterwork of artistic achievement, while honoring the fallen and, most of all, paying tribute to the heroism of regular people willing to answer the call, and not just soldiers. Not since Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) and Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) have I seen a war film very different from its genre. This one arguably leaves them and all others behind.

Just as he did with the Dark Knight sequels and Interstellar, Nolan employs and takes IMAX cameras and 65/70mm film to a whole nother level. For one thing, the filmmakers placed some of these cameras in actual spitfire planes and behind real boats, to add a greater sense of authenticity. The latter format, meanwhile, recalls the way films used to be made and seen. Dunkirk is, in fact, the third film this decade to use the format, following Paul Thomas Anderson's period piece The Master (2012) and Quentin Tarantino's violent western The Hateful Eight (2015). I attended a 70mm screening (which I hadn't been to in about six years) and found myself surprised--and a little distracted--by the loud sound of the projector behind me. (It's amazing what six years can do.)

Nevertheless, Dunkirk ties with Wonder Woman as the year's best film, in terms of an old-fashioned and groundbreaking scope. It may, hands down, be the best moviegoing experience this year (and should be seen in IMAX). It represents the way films should be made, and the way they're meant to be seen.

Nolan stated in an interview about the battle's importance:

"This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the U.S. would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily, it is a defeat; on the human plane, it is a colossal victory" (IMDb).

Monday, August 28, 2017

"A Ghost Story," Pretentious On the Surface, Proves Emotional in Mesmerizing Meditation on Grief, Time and Memory

One of this year's most striking and incredibly-effecting on-screen images (and its most simple yet distinct) is the sight of recent Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck wearing a ghost sheet. But what could've easily been used as a cheap and silly gimmick--director David Lowery has confessed that it is a goofy image--instead becomes (and encompasses) a poetic meditation of loss, love and memory. In fact, Lowery makes the most of A Ghost Story's low-budget filmmaking capabilities (reportedly used off the funds from his live-action version of Pete's Dragon last year) that it's hard not to be mesmerized by the final product.

For one thing, the 4:3 aspect ratio (the image below) is used as if we're watching home movies of forgotten times. The translucent light effects on walls in certain scenes illustrate apparitions. The same goes for flickering lights in certain eerie moments. Quick cuts suggest the passage of time (a Terrence Malick influence, perhaps), including smoke and fog effects suggesting a change of seasons, lighting, and settings. If you pay attention to the credits, they state that Weta Digital was involved with the visual effects of this otherwise low-budget film. More specifically, several shots are very long, intimate and emotion-driven, including a now-arguably-famous scene of Mara scarfing down a pie, tears running down the end of her nose. Overall, this is simple, experimental, and great filmmaking.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck
Affleck and Mara (who both starred in Lowery's 2013 debut feature Ain't Them Bodies Saints) are riveting from frame one. They play a couple living in a small home in Texas. Affleck's musician C dies unexpectedly in a car crash one morning, leaving Mara's book-reading M devastated, but returns in the form of a physical ghost (a traditional sheet used like a costume with black eye holes a la "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"). M eventually does leave the house (with memorial notes left in the walls), while C's "ghost" stays, along with a piano and a neighbor "ghost," until other residents come in (a Spanish family, a philosopher, construction workers and corporate workers).

There is a sense of eeriness at times, in Daniel Hart's haunting score and in the direction of C's "ghost". The way he stares does trigger a certain spookiness a la Michael Myers or any famous horror movie character. But this film is not a horror. It's a drama. And a human one, at that. Many viewers will likely see this as a secular view of the afterlife, on the other hand. But it's more akin to The Tree of Life than, say, Beetlejuice, what with the aforementioned Malick influences of the passage of time, and images of the cosmos and stars. And Affleck (along with Tom Hardy's performance in Dunkirk) has the most challenging and effecting body-language of any film role this year, from the different postures he makes, along with the movements of his arms and hands.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara
There's not a lot of spiritual discussion here, save for one scene where an apparently pessimistic man theorizes and argues logic and science over God and believes everything will be lost and forgotten one. (C apparently reacts against this, what with the flashing lights and the implied rubbled aftermath that results.) In an early scene, C has the option of heading through a door light in the hospital, but chooses to miss it (it closes momentarily) and goes to a different "exit"--his old home.

The way the film plays with time and how it does so is very unexpected and thought-provoking. What is this character doing in this time? Does there seem to be a quick passage of time apart from reality? A quick transition to a 19th-Century pilgrim family building a home finds a little girl writing a note and leaving it under a rock (like M). And a flashback suggests that C didn't want to move, apparently attached to the house's history. Perhaps he was already a ghost before he physically became one? The ghost (no matter how absurd it looks) can poetically represent the memory of a loved one who has passed, and his/her presence in that place they left their legacy at. And if you stay through the credits, you'll hear quiet and misty effects such as winds and fields, suggesting a form of meditation and memory. I haven't seen film credits like this since, perhaps, the 1990 re-release of Fantasia, as well as Cast Away (2000) and No Country For Old Men (2007).

Perhaps no film this year has challenged or provoked me more than A Ghost Story. At its heart, it's a story about moving on. Not just from homes, but also from heartache and from tragedy.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

"The Book of Henry" Tries to Balance Tones and Genres Towards a Divisive and Questionable Conclusion

A title like The Book of Henry sounds like an Old Testament story, or perhaps an untold folklore tale. Nevertheless, it refers to a book with illustrations, notes and details by the film's title character in carrying out a specific plan to help somebody else.

This feature film from a screenplay by Greg Hurtwizz (reportedly twenty years in the making!) and director Colin Trevorrow (2015's Jurassic World and 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed) certainly doesn't lack for ambition and creativity. Yet, a majority of critics and audiences have not been impressed, calling it a "cynical" film.

So, what are we to make of The Book of Henry?

On the plus side, for one, it's incredibly well-cast. The story follows an eleven-year-old boy genius (Midnight Special's Jaeden Lieberher) raising his younger brother Peter (Room's Jacob Tremblay) and single mother Susan (Naomi Watts), and eventually coming up with a plan to help his next-door neighbor and classmate Christina (Sia doppelganger Maddie Ziegler) from her abusive stepfather (Dean Morris).

The opening illustrations in Henry's titular "book" (along with Michael Giacchino's effective piano score) bring us into the wonder, creativity and complexity of his world. Did I mention his bedroom wallpaper looks like it's from outer space, and that he has a massive treehouse in the backyard woods? Imagine if the Baudelaire orphans lived in present day New Jersey. There's even a montage where Henry makes specific notes in his book (which will apparently be important later). These types of elements (along with Henry handling the family's finances) add some incoherence, implausibility, and a strange sense of omnipresence to the story.

But the family is broken in a lot of ways. There's no backstory on Susan and her previous marriage, with no mentions at all of her ex-husband nor on what led Susan to be the way she is. It's easy to understand she's an aspiring storybook illustrator, yet she chooses to work a minimum wage job at the local diner. She doesn't seem to be a very good influence, and neither does Henry, sometimes, considering she plays violent video games and occasionally swears in front of her children.

And yet, she fears going on without Henry, like he's a guardian angel. "You're the best part of me, Henry. . . . I don't know how to be a mother," to which Henry replies, "I never taught you that." If looked at from at certain angle, this is part of what the film is about, at least for Susan's character.

Before this development (and after an unexpected tragedy), life is sad, lonely, and dreary (much like Christina's apparent one, which feels one-dimensional). Peter's influence and wise words cut through, though (much like Linus to Susan's Charlie Brown): "Don't do what Henry would do, Mom. Do what you would do." Is it any wonder Jacob Tremblay is such an admirable and gifted young actor?

Trevorrow considers the film a freedom of artistic expression, as well as an experimental meshing of different genres. In this case, The Book of Henry could be classified as a coming-of-age family/mystery/thriller with a motif of not leaving things undone, including familial and relational issues.

But perhaps the film tries to be too many things at once. For one thing, it takes a critical and unexpected (even traumatic) turn halfway through, regarding Henry's meds, seizures, and his book. There also seems to be a heavy theme of childishness versus being an adult and moving on. (Commendable, as a theme, but exaggerated nonetheless.) And what are we to make of a climactic talent show darkly juxtaposed with an intense (and impending violent) act. The ultimate goal is disturbing, and reiterates why many critics and reviewers have called the film "cynical".

Says Henry during a pivotal scene, "Violence is not the worst thing in the world. It's apathy." What is violence? Google Search describes it as "behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something." On the flip side, the same site describes apathy as a "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern." With that in mind, Henry's concern for Christina and her safety is admirable. But is a lack of interest or concern really worst than physically hurting someone? It certainly makes for great discussion, especially a biblical-related one.

In Safety Not Guaranteed, there are characters who want to fix parts of their past. In The Book of Henry, there are characters who consider what they want to leave behind as a legacy and how they want to affect the future. During a school presentation, Henry proclaims, "Our legacy is not built on how many commas we have in our bank account. It's who we're lucky enough to have in our lives on this side of the dirt." For audiences, that's good inspiration in choosing to be what they each want to be. And as storytellers (and many of us are), there are many ways to tell them, even though they can get muddled and aren't always the best to hear. So, overall, maybe this is not the best way to tell this particular story, at least the finished film version.

Monday, August 7, 2017

"Split" Reestablishes M. Night Shyamalan's Career, But Showcases Disturbing Elements of Abduction, Creepiness and Multiple Personality Disorder

The latest psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan (1999's The Sixth Sense, 2015's The Visit) opens with a girl named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), sitting apart from everybody else at a classmate's birthday party. She catches a ride with two other girls and their dad, only to be abducted in the parking lot by a mysterious and creepy man.

What follows split-screen opening credits is an abandoned room where the girls are held hostage. Everything we begin to understand about Casey is in her eyes and her reactions to the horrors going on. It also shows a difference between what she's thinking and what the other two girls, Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), are thinking. "The only way we're going to get out of this is if we all go crazy on this guy," they say.

James McAvoy
They soon discover their kidnapper has multiple personality disorder (23 different personalities, in fact, if you've seen any trailers or ads for this movie). We only get to see a few of these "personalities," including germaphobe "Dennis," model "Barry," motherly "Patricia" (the strangest of them all), and nine-year-old "Hedwig," all sprouted from the traumatic mind of the real identity named "Kevin". They warn the girls of a mysterious being that is apparently coming for them as "sacred food" (talk about ancient ritualistic fear), and the girls go through many escape attempts involving air vents, hallways, mental games with the childish "Hedwig," "windows," and walkie-talkies, before "the Beast" (whatever it is) emerges.

James McAvoy showcases a masterclass of acting with all of the personalities on display, with surprising levels of wit, cunning, and tragedy--not just creepiness and horror--beneath the surface. Credit equally goes to up-and-coming actress Anya Taylor-Joy (who broke out in the sleeper horror-thriller The Witch a year ago) as Casey. Her character's fears and doubts turn out to mask a childhood family trauma, as well as a growing courage in a fight for survival. "It's about whether you can or cannot outsmart the animal," Casey's dad tells her in a flashback lesson in deer hunting.

Anya Taylor-Joy
The third central character here is psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who also appeared in Shyamalan's The Happening). According to one of her neighbors, Dr. Fletcher treats her patients "like they have supernatural powers or something." Her response: "They are what they believe they are." In other words, she believes that supernatural abilities walk the earth, similar to Elijah Price's belief that superheroes walk the earth in Unbreakable (Shyamalan's sophomoric feature from 2000). At the same time, she does believe "there must be limits to what a human being can become." In a scene where she makes a Skype call to the University to Paris, Dr. Fletcher states, "Have these individuals, through their suffering, unlocked the possibilities of their mind?"

Hence, the two central characters, "Kevin" and Casey, have gone through (and are masking, in their own ways) suffering and trauma, whereas Dr. Fletcher works to help at least one of them understand who they are and to find the humanity that's been "out of the light". Her approach to helping her patients is admirable but questionable (i.e., inviting them into her home, and even visiting one of them at his).

Betty Buckley
The film also touches on what abuse (and self-belief) does to people, and how it keeps them "out of the light," sometimes for long periods of time, whether it's Casey's relationship with her uncle growing up or how Kevin used "the Beast" to both frighten people and cope with his mother's implied abuse. Says "Dennis," "He [the Beast] believes we're extraordinary." He adds, "Only through pain can you achieve your greatness." A twisted, misguided, and tragic worldview, if ever there was one. Plus, the element involving "Dennis" forcing the girls to remove their clothes bit by bit (due to germs) bothers me, as I find objectifying teenage girls very disturbing in itself. And when the Beast finally emerges, it's not cheap or laughable as many would expect, in spite of previous Shyamalan films. It's downright scary, especially when elements of cannibalism and shotguns come into play. (Not really a twist, per se, just a Hitchcockian tool for suspense.)

No, the real twist Shyamalan pulls off here is how he subtly and unexpectedly connects this film to the same universe as a previous film involving people with superpowers and superhuman capabilities (including a surprise cameo from that film's star). It could even set up Casey as a potential new "hero" in Shyamalan's next project that begins filming this fall.

Classic Films: "Misery" (1990)

Two of author Stephen King's bestselling books are being released as movies these next two months, one being this weekend's The Dark Tower (based on the series of western/science-fiction adventures, starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba); the other being It (featuring Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard as a horrifying new version of Pennywise the Clown). Now would be as good a time as any to look back on one of the rare critically-acclaimed features based on King's work, courtesy director Rob Reiner (1986's Stand By Me).

In Misery (published in 1987, and made into 1990 movie), novelist Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) gets in a car accident in a Colorado snowstorm, and is soon rescued and nursed back to health by a local nurse, Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her role), who claims to be his "number one fan". Sheldon has become successful through a series of romance novels. As the film opens, he's finishing his latest novel and decides to kill his main character, Misery Chastain, to end the series to move on to other projects. "I never meant for her to be my life," Sheldon tells us. But when Annie reads the unfinished manuscript, she is less than thrilled and goes from obsessive to psychotic and trigger-happy in an instant.

James Caan

Kathy Bates
The screenplay by William Goldman (1976's All the President's Men and 1987's The Princess Bride) stands as a brilliant example for how to structure an effective story, no matter the genre. The first act establishes the central characters (Paul and Annie) and their motives, as well as who Paul's agent (played by Lauren Becall) is, and who the local sheriff (played by Richard Farnsworth) is.

The first plot point occurs when Annie reads Paul's unfinished manuscript, and crazily goes from loving Paul to hating him. The second act is a game of survival as Annie forces Paul to rewrite the story and its ending, and even creates a writing "studio" for him--a creepy one, at that. (The image of the match and lighter before this act is chilling.) The tour of Annie's home, including her stash of books and newspaper clippings under the scrapbook title of "Memory Lane," reveals chilling revelations and misguided spiritual worldviews, while juxtaposing the subplot involving the police search and investigation as Paul's days of writing pass.

And, of course, there's that famous hobbling scene (possibly the second plot point). This scene, for the record, is one of the few classic movie moments I just can't look at. (It'll scare you for life!) Images of a kitchen knife, typewriter, and matches? That's nothing compared to this scene.

The third act, we'll just say, gets really twisted (and justifies the film's R-rating). What results (and still holds up) is a chilling interpretation of celebrity obsession and fandamonium that carries into the social media age from the last decade-and-a-half. Just don't get me started again on the hobbling.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" Continues Marvel's Shared Universe Without Fully Standing Alone

Within the last 15 years, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee's ever popular web-slinger has been portrayed by three different actors, from Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's critically-lauded films in the early 2000s to Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb's gritty and "ultimate" interpretation in 2012, and now to Tom Holland (who made his scene-stealing debut as the friendly neighborhood hero in "Captain America: Civil War" last year).

The good news is, like Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, Holland (whose previous credits include The Impossible and The Lost City of Z) represents a throwback to the fun and fantastic thrills of the comics from the '60s, while embracing John Hughes films of the 80s as well as today's trends. Director Jon Watts, in fact, had the cast watch several Hughes films in preparation for filming, which comes through in scenes like detection a la The Breakfast Club and the titular dance a la Pretty in Pink. (Even the credits are an MTV-style homage to '80s culture.)

The beginning of the film shows Peter filming a video diary of the central heroes battle in Civil War (a creative and impressive update). Two months later, Peter hasn't heard from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., who reportedly may be hanging his armor up soon) and wants to fight alongside other heroes. And yet, he's held back ("Can't you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?") Thus, Peter continues his regular life as a high school sophomore at Midtown Science with his nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), quirky classmate Michelle (singer Zendaya), while crushing on the prettiest girl in school (Laura Harrier) and sitting through motivational videos from Captain America himself (supposedly before he became an outlaw). His objective throughout the whole movie, obviously, is to prove that he's capable of more than others think, despite being a teenager. Even more, he's portrayed as a real teenager--not a 20-something pretending to be a teen (sorry, Tobey and Andrew).

Here's the good news. The film differs from previous adaptations of Spider-Man by avoiding another origin story route (something the 1989 Batman did really well), another dead Uncle Ben, and another gritty and depressing version of a comic book character (I'm talking to you, Batman v Superman). The fact that Peter is both witty and humorous is pleasing. (After a montage through New York, you'll never hear the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Pop" the same way again.) And when his best friend Ned finds out, we get a different take on "the guy in the chair." The same goes for an unexpected twist involving a central character, Stark's role as a surrogate (and possibly absent) parental figure, and Peter's relationship with Aunt May.

The overall direction of the film is well done, including action sequences that deliver a real sense of vertigo (particularly at the Washington monument), power (when Peter is stuck under massive piles of rubble, echoing what is considered one of the most iconic moments in the comics), and emotional reality. The costume has several technical upgrades via Tony Stark, yet retains the classic look in the comics. In addition, several characters carry a supposed misguided sense of what it means to protect loved ones, understanding how the world works, and what it means when they're "under the radar" and how that affects those closest to them. And the cast is terrific, especially Zendaya as the quirky and sarcastic Michelle, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, and Michael Keaton as the brilliantly-menacing Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture. (Honestly, what is it with Hollywood casting Keaton in bird-like roles?)

Spider-Man Homemade

Michael Keaton


But the fact that this film, while entertaining, is part of a cinematic franchise may also be its biggest setback. I was hoping for a film that would stand on its own and not require any backstory of previous installments or chapters. The opening of the film is a brief backstory on the Vulture, tracing back to the alien war from the first Avengers. And the occasional salty language (which was one of Guardians  of the Galaxy, Vol. 2's biggest weaknesses as well) does dampen the story at times. Still, like "Wonder Woman," "Spider-Man: Homecoming" proves superheroes can still be fun and heroic, and not just conflicted.

"Wonder Woman" Restores Hope in the DC Film Universe

Wonder Woman (2017): After 75 years, DC Comics' most popular heroine finally gets her first big screen solo outing, and shakes up the superhero/comic-book genre with an origin story of the Amazonian fighter who stands for goodness, peace, and justice.

With Marvel's current winning streak of popcorn superhero flicks and DC's former descent into brooding, depressing fare following the success of the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), it's easy to see why audiences have rewarded the former studio with much praise while giving the latter's initial installments in their own cinematic universe the cold shoulder.

As with any great movie, one needs a great story and characters that are identifiable and worthy of rooting for. Especially if it's an adaptation, it has to be respectful of the original source material. The Batman franchise hit an all-time peak with Christopher Nolan's critically-acclaimed and financially-successful films that showcased the Caped Crusader and his alter ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a brooding and complex vigilante hero who seeks to restore balance on the streets of Gotham City from various adversaries. Unfortunately, this trend of making such a franchise dark and serious led many studio executives to believe that making other superheroes dark and serious (whether these were meant to be or not) was a winning box-office formula. Just look at previous installments of Superman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four.

Zach Snyder took directing reigns for a more gritty and grounded version of Superman with 2013's Man of Steel (while Nolan stayed on board as co-writer/co-producer). The result was an intriguing, yet divisive and, at times, devastating, take that left many viewers cold (including yours truly, in retrospect). Following the poorly-received and equally-bleak subsequent installments from last year (Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and David Ayer's Suicide Squad), it was easy to be extremely skeptical of the studio's newest take on Wonder Woman (who made her live-action film debut--and practically stole the show--in Snyder's aforementioned sequel), as well as the otherwise highly-anticipated gathering of the Justice League.

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot
But Patty Jenkins (who directed an Oscar-winning Charlize Theron in Monster), writer Allan Heinberg and current DC president Geoff Johns, had a different direction in mind. Said Johns in a recent interview with The Wrap:

Get to the essence of the character and make the movies fun. Just make sure that the characters are the characters with heart, humor, hope, heroics, and optimism at the base.

That being said (and to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert), while Wonder Woman is only the fourth film in DC's Extended Universe, it's truly the first one to get it right. For many fans, it's simply about time a female superhero had her own feature film. (Attempts in the past included the failures that were 2004's Catwoman and 2005's Elektra.) Wonder Woman stands more in line with classic adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as Richard Donner's unforgettable version of Superman rather than Nolan's influences. It also takes the iconic character back to her roots, from her days as a naive and determined girl on the sheltered island of Themyscira (a thing of magnificence with 300-inspired visuals, headed by Queen Hippolyta) to her unprecedented training as a warrior to her first meeting with American pilot Steve Trevor.

The mythology of the Amazons (strong, intelligent, and fierce women) echoes elements that are Greek, biblical, and ancient, tracing back to the Greek gods Zeus and Ares, and Diana's formation. And when Steve Trevor arrives to warn them of the horrors of the first World War and his mission to help stop it, Diana believes that Ares ("the god of war") is behind it, and insists on journeying out into the world (for the first time) to defeat him and stop the war. "I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves," she insists.

Wonder Woman's alter ego, Diana Prince
The film's production design (including the magnificent island of Themyscira and an early 20th-century Europe) is great, as is Dark Knight veteran Lindy Hemming's costume design, particularly in the scene where Diana figures out a proper real-world disguise (complete with glasses), echoing the era's fashion trends and subtle nods to suffragettes back then. The same goes for the scene with her gala dress (with her sword behind her back). And her armor, from the shield to the lasso of truth to her tiara to her body armor, is incredibly well-done without being gratuitous (surprisingly).

Israeli actress Gal Gadot (a former beauty pageant winner who served in the armed forces before breaking out as Gisele in three Fast and Furious sequels) wonderfully embodies everything about Diana/Wonder Woman: she's intelligent, fierce, fearless, honest, humble, determined, naive, kind, earnest, and courageous. She is also very loving and genuine. Her transition from a trained fighter to a fish out of water and to a developing character who sees the reality of the world without sacrificing her ideals is thoroughly compelling and believable. Sure, she is devastated at times, but she ultimately chooses to do the right thing not because others deserve it, but because of what she believes in. If anything, her belief that good will come again is very admirable. This ultimately makes her (and the film) not only worth rooting for, but somebody who truly stands for and fights for something greater. (Now that beats angst and depression by a long shot.)

Chris Pine's Steve Trevor is an adventure-worthy companion to Gadot's Diana, adding grounded charm, swagger, complexity, and humanity in Diana's growth as a character. Diana questions him many times about what it means to live, what people do, what marriage is, what a family is, and especially the goodness and darkness in everybody, and the choice between both. The same goes for remembering why they fight and what they fight for.

"It's what I'm going to do."
And the action sequences deliver with real substance, even though they do feel comic-book-y at times. Yet, they are intense and gritty without getting polarizing. (Many viewers have criticized the CGI-centered climax as the film's weakest segment. I respectfully disagree, as it fits the overall story and mythology of this character.) And the No Man's Land sequence? This scene alone sells the movie, and gives Diana a now-iconic moment in cinema history. (And let's not forget that awesome electric-guitar theme, courtesy Junkie XL!) This movie is a knockout, as well as a benchmark in cinema--not just for women in film, but for the doors it's now opened for other stories to be told.