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Movie Review: Wonder Woman

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The summer’s big hit, Wonder Woman, features a heroine and certainly has some wonderful moments, though it leaves me underwhelmed. From the start, when the main character, Diana, admits in voiceover that she “used to want to save the world” before delving into the World War 1-set story, the DC Comics-based fantasy hints at an anti-romantic theme.

While it is decidedly mixed with larger than life action, Wonder Woman lands its anti-romanticism on the mark. Girl meets boy but barely has him to lose. They go to war after an extended mythology setup, though it never gets to the roots of war. Conflict never lets up, as is often the case with comics-based pictures, the earliest of which (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor) I’ve enjoyed, though they’ve become bloated, artificial and generic. Wonder Woman is warrior Diana’s origin story, so it’s all about war.

Except that there’s not much war in Wonder Woman. Other than a beach battle, a village countersiege and two protracted military assaults, the long running time doesn’t contain the battle action one might expect. Like Xena the Warrior Princess TV series, and Wonder Woman is episodic and televisionary, it’s focused on woman at war. In this sense, because of the novelty, it’s often involving.

But the goddess-superheroine contemplates, prepares for and talks about war (superficially, I must add) more than she wages it. Diana (extremely fit and sufficiently expressive Gal Gadot as an adult) trains as a warrior thanks to her aunt (Robin Wright, A Most Wanted Man). Diana goes off to war with a downed spy pilot (Chris Pine, The Finest Hours, Into the Woods, Star Trek Beyond) to find the god of war and slay him in a subplot with a resolution that’s not hard to guess. Diana gets a London makeover, enlists, helps and surpasses Pine’s spy and his requisite band of misfits and they go off to stop World War 1’s chemical warfare. Some of the music, photography and scenery is stunning. Gadot’s natural and engaging, especially with snappy comebacks such as “I’m the man who can.” Pine’s well cast, too.

Early on, there are clues that the larger than life mythology and episodic story won’t exactly meld. After all the buildup on the elusive, warrior women’s-only island, where Diana’s queen mother (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) rules, everyone looks fit and fabulous in their skirts, headgear and hairdos but no one appears interested in keeping up with the rest of the world, for self-defense if nothing else. Diana ages from child to young adult and, inexplicably, stops aging after that. The trip to London from the island on a sailboat looks and feels as artificial as it sounds. Being paid to deliver exactly what the boss wants is compared to slavery. It’s easier to overlook these shortcomings because the cast, including David Thewlis as a pacifist and Lucy Davis underused as a secretary named Etta, is spot on under Patty Jenkins’ direction.

Part of an entire Justice League series for Warner Bros. with at least four credited writers — all men, incidentally, not counting the character’s male creator, which I mention because much has been made about the fact that this hit movie is directed by a woman — Wonder Woman is thrilling and fun in spots, such as when Diana steps into the battlefield to lead and inspire others to charge and fight. Diana doesn’t know her own power which I think is intended as the movie’s theme. The world is lacking movies about heroes, though Snowden and Sully are good recent movies about heroes in this regard, let alone heroines. So, a movie about a goddess who fights for peace certainly has enjoyable charms. The way Pine’s spy looks at Diana after she shows her strength and innocence is a welcome twist on the comic superhero genre.

Wonder Woman is not more than that, though, and, when it introduces ideas it never addresses or resolves, such as free will and an undefined conflict between belief and whether humankind deserves to be saved, it’s as lost and fantastic as that island of primitive women somewhere out at sea. That and a mass murderer whom, it’s implied, was a victim of the patriarchy and the lack of suspense inherent to a movie with a plot climax about a world war which some people may know something about mean Wonder Woman is best viewed as another comic book-based movie which entertains with light, occasionally marvelous heroism never made realistic and with flat, bleak outcomes for man and woman alike, if you think about it.

Books: The Pit

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Read and indulge in The Pit: Photographic Portrait of the Chicago Trading Floor to recreate Chicago’s capitalism at its best. Published by Chicago trader Jonathan Hoenig’s Capitalistpig earlier this year, this softcover picture book of traders on Chicago’s trading floor features excerpts from The Pit: A Story of Chicago by Frank Norris (1903) such as this one: “A man gets into this game, and into it, and into it, and before you know he can’t get out…and he don’t want to.”

Inspired by the 1903 book by Norris, hailed by the Washington Post when it was published in 1903 as “one of the best descriptions of the wheat pit”, The Pit is the story of a businessman who begins trading, becomes enthralled and is “ultimately ruined by the Chicago futures markets, a fascination ‘worse than liquor, worse than morphine.'”

Jonathan Hoenig, an OCON speaker and Fox Business analyst whose introduction, dedication and acknowledgements pay tribute to the novel, the photographers, traders, trading pit and, of course, Chicago, worked on the floor, which closed in 2015. With 88 pages of color and black and white photos — several with detailed captions — of downtown Chicago’s pit in action, accompanied by selected prose from the novel, the reader gets a strong sense of the thrill of capitalism in the afterglow of its purest period on earth and what once made Chicago “the city that works”.


Buy ‘The Pit’

Review: OCON Chicago (2013)

Winter in Chicago

Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Ayn Rand in Chicago

Official Web Site for ‘The Pit’

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

Buy ‘Bambi’

This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Related

Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

Pre-Order Bambi

Three Interviews

Dion Neutra (photo by Scott Holleran)

Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles is a uniquely compact and inviting home where I first met Dion Neutra. I had spoken ariwith and interviewed the noted architect, who studied and worked with his father, the late Richard Neutra, a few times for articles about modern architecture. The prospect of an extensive interview had previously been discussed though it hadn’t been conducted. This time, when Dion Neutra suggested that we meet for an interview, it was promptly scheduled. I drove to LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, parked and climbed the steep stairs. I soon met the man who made with his father some of America’s most distinctive and iconic homes and buildings. We sat in a dining room and talked for over an hour. Days later, we would toast to his 90th birthday and, later, talk again about a campaign to restore one of his father’s signature buildings, the Eagle Rock Clubhouse. During our exchange, we managed to cover a lifetime of memories, thoughts and details of his father, meeting Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kun house, World Trade Center, Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and his childhood trauma in Silver Lake. I knew from previous talks that Neutra’s son and heir could be both eccentric and exhausting. This conversation is no exception. Read my exclusive interview with Dion Neutra.

Jim Brown, Ayn Rand Institute CEO

Another inheritance-themed opportunity for an exclusive talk recently presented itself when the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) named a new CEO. His name is Jim Brown and his background is in business, financial analysis and military leadership. Qualifications alone merited my interest and I immediately welcomed him to the ARI and asked for an interview, which he kindly granted at his Irvine office. Though days into the job, he discussed plans, management philosophy and his favorite Leonard Peikoff works. As an Objectivist who first visited the ARI as a teen when I took the bus to its office on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, who has worked and studied with the ARI, I want my readers to read the interview and consider supporting the ARI under Jim’s new management. An edited transcript of my conversation with the center for Objectivism’s chief executive officer—Jim Brown’s first interview as ARI’s chief executive officer—appears on Capitalism Magazine (postscript: read a shorter version in the Los Angeles Times here).

And I am delighted that my favorite filmmaker—director Lasse Hallström—granted to me his only interview about his successful motion picture, A Dog’s Purpose, before returning to making Disney’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. I am often enchanted by Mr. Hallström’s work. I always anticipate whatever he chooses to make. And I am privileged to have interviewed Lasse Hallström before. This time was particularly rewarding.

Lasse Hallström

Lightness in his pictures is perhaps the most indelible quality. Think of the French village in Chocolat or Venetian escapades in Casanova. The way he guides an ensemble cast to perfect union for an exalted or higher cinematic goal—around foodmaking in The Hundred-Foot Journey, liberation in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, serenity in An Unfinished Life, healing in The Shipping News, and the power of a dog to align man to what’s here and now in A Dog’s Purpose—should also be known. All of his movies, which began with his film about ABBA, are wonderfully musical including A Dog’s Purpose. But what, besides unity, love and lightness, is more pressing and relevant now than the seriousness with which he films his stories? This unique blend by a Swede who lives in America is often mistaken strictly as sweetness, which one should expect in a circus culture of cynics, celebrities and smears. The interview with Lasse Hallström, the artist who to me best expresses in today’s movies the American sense of life, is one I know I’ve earned and deserve.

I did not plan the pieces as a thematic trifecta, though it occurs to me that these three interviews explore man’s mastery of living in accordance with nature, man’s mastery of advancing the ideal and man’s mastery of recreating both in movies. Read, think and enjoy.

Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana plunges back into water-themed animation courtesy of the same directors of the studio’s 1989 masterpiece The Little Mermaid. This time, Ron Clements and John Musker are saddled with more of everything, including a cluster of co-writers and co-directors and non-essential agenda items such as multiculturalist directives, but the result is an enjoyable movie that’s more cohesive than—and superior to—Frozen if not as human as mermaid Ariel’s tale.

MoanaPosterMythically-driven music booms, setting the tone of the Pacific Ocean-based adventure. The child Moana (Auli’i Cravalho’s voice in most of the movie) is touched by the gods, guided by the ocean and, most effectively, chosen by her grandmother (Rachel House’s voice) to carry the family legacy and restore vitality to Pacific islands, aided by the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), a character the filmmakers do not fully develop as either comic relief or redemptive enhancement.

Lack of character development proves to be a persistent problem in Moana, which sells its best characters short by cramming in too much and doing it too unevenly. Moana is alternately too slow or too fast—it’s usually too fast—and, though the title character is sufficiently set up as fearless and intelligent, she acquires skills and ability too quickly and without a proper sense of context and proportion. Moana is like a superheroine when she needs to be a girl and vice versa. The most adorable character, a happy and carefree little piglet that reminds me of my dog, is jettisoned early in the action (and traded for a pointless and stupid chicken character) and never really seen again.

But the lush, tropical look, the wonder of most of the cleverly composed and rhymed melodies, especially “You’re Welcome”, and several neatly seeded themes in the plot make Moana a warm and entertaining family motion picture.

Among the ideas are lessons in self-reliance, self-education and Moana’s consistently steady use of reason as her guide to life. This girl likes to fix things that are broken and solve problems and the animators really revel in showing that, however briefly. Cravalho fits the role and character, which is beautifully animated down to the natural hair, eyebrows and walk in sync with the music (think teenaged Simba in The Lion King), though it would have been nice to give her a prospective love interest like Disney’s young male characters get in coming of age tales (even Bambi had a crush) to furnish higher values for which to journey far.

Travel Moana does, with voyaging as a key if somewhat remote theme, and having courage to go forth like a pioneer toward a new frontier is part of what anchors Moana and gives it buoyancy.

As Moana and Maui seek to take back an island for good, a fiery, devilish climax taps Disney’s current fascination with villains that are more complex than they may first appear. The dialogue is too rapid and jokey at times. A tune sung by a crab tries too hard to sound like David Bowie or The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula. A pirate battle should have been deleted to reduce the overlong running time. Moana is too matriarchal—though Grandma Tala steals the movie—and, while voyaging steers the plot, it’s rooted in a subtler notion that earth is a supernatural female being and man must humble himself before Her. But if this idea of Gaia or Mother Earth eludes you, complete with a parting of the waters for the Chosen Child, you can easily float on Moana‘s deep blue aquatic beauty, melodic music, written by a team that includes Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and deistic mythology (“no need to pray”, goes one of the songs) and walk out singing one of its cheerful ditties.