Wonder Woman a film by Patty Jenkins. With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright ***1/2
Arrival a film by Denis Villeneuve. With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker *****
A Quiet Passion a film by Terence Davies. With Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff ***
I’m as happy as everyone else that we finally have a movie about an authentic female superhero, and that it has been such a hit at the box office, but not since Charlton Heston walked woodenly through Ben Hur have I seen a movie that opened with such odd costumes, such strange manners on the part of the actors—they’re Amazons, from ancient Greece—and such weird accents. At first I thought they were demonstrating they were Greek by speaking English with Greek accents (as, later in the movie, Germans will speak English with German accents). But we eventually discover that the Amazons, in their role of saving the world from war, actually speak 100 languages. So apparently we were just lucky enough to have arrived on “speak English” day. We caught a break.
The women are training in arts of war that look surprisingly like kung fu, and there is some dispute about whether Princess Diana (Gal Gadot)—the daughter of one of the women, niece of another—should be allowed to participate. But eventually she does, and becomes the fiercest warrior on the island. She could be one of the Seven Samurai. Easily.
What happened next left me a trifle confused, though it wasn’t the only part of the plot that had me shaking my head. An airplane from the era of World War I either broke through a heavy fog, or broke through the veil of time, and crashed into the ocean near the island of the Amazons, which until then had gone undiscovered. It was a British plane, and some German planes soon followed, and pretty soon the Germans, with their World War I weapons, found themselves fighting a bunch of Amazons wielding swords and bows and arrows, and doing various gymnastic maneuvers. What the fuck is this? would have been my response if I’d been one of the Germans, but they kept fighting as if this happened every day. The Amazons, predictably, kicked the shit out of them, despite their disadvantage in terms of weaponry, and found themselves in the presence of a British spy (Chris Pine), though he didn’t have the slightest accent and was as American as apple pie. (The head shaking continued.) If these Amazons want to end all war, they had a golden opportunity here, because this young lad was fighting the War to End All Wars. The Princess absconded with him, onto a great ocean and into some kind of time warp. She headed off to London to become Wonder Woman.
What follows is one of those charming interludes where a Person From Another Time and Culture comes to London, with all the amusing moments that follow. It’s a kind of My Fair Lady situation (“I think she’s got it. I really think she’s got it.”) By the time she finishes she can pass for a lady of London, albeit a tall and powerful one. And those limeys—and the German spies—better not mess with her.
Does the plot sound goofy yet? Hang on. I must admit to a brief bathroom break, and by the time I got back, our Princess was in the company not just of the British/American spy, but also a rogue who speaks a number of languages, a cockney sharpshooter who is terrible at fist-fighting and has a problem with alcohol, and a very tall Native American, kind of like the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Exactly what are these people doing in London during the First World War? The Native American in particular. And what are they doing in this movie? I don’t have a clue.
But off they go to end war forever.
I know I sound a trifle sarcastic and I could continue, but the weird thing is that I was enjoying myself. The kung fu type battle scenes were great—it does make a difference to see a tall strong woman doing these things—and there is something about that iconic image of Wonder Woman, especially Wonder Woman Running to Save the Day, that is thrilling, and that Gal Gadot embodies better than anyone, better at least than Lynda Carter, who I thought was pretty good. Apparently we’ve been Waiting for Gadot, who has never had a starring role before, but she’s perfect for this movie. And if the moment in history where she arrived wasn’t perfect—she didn’t put an end to war, as she had hoped—the moment in our history when this movie arrived is perfect. Women are feeling a new kind of power. And this character embodies it.
Far more interesting to me—though with a plot that’s not much more likely—is Arrival, which was in theaters several months ago but which I’ve just gotten around to seeing. In a way the back story is similar; women have been left out of the world of science fiction as they have in the world of superheroes. But instead of making the protagonist of this movie a female version of a man, some brainy scientist with great powers of mind, this film gives her more typically female virtues.
Twelve UFO’s—I don’t know how else to refer to these massive cigar-shaped objects—have settled, or rather closely hovered, around twelve different places in the world, apparently to see what the world will make of them. The one in the United States has shown up near Montana. And in addition to all kinds of military personnel, any number of scientists, our government sends a linguist names Louise Banks (Amy Adams), because the UFO’s seem to be trying to communicate, and Banks is an expert in linguistics.
A few brief scenes as the movie opens seem to indicate that she is a woman with a troubled past, that she had a daughter whom she apparently raised alone but who eventually died of some rare disease. That seems to indicate why she is so alone and therefore available for this mission. She goes off to some kind of military installation, with all kinds of macho military men. And she is one of the people who enters the UFO—in elaborate space age suits, as if they’re handling radiation—to see what’s up.
Adams is a remarkable actress, who can seem exceedingly plain and remarkably beautiful within the same movie, even within the same scene. She seems at first to be lost in this world of scientists and military men. But more thrilling for me than any moment in Wonder Woman is the scene where she, in an effort to communicate, writes a single word on a small white board, takes off the bizarre suit that comes between her and the creatures she is confronting, walks toward them, and touches the wall-like window they have put up, all in an effort to communicate. One sane person in a whole world assumes that they haven’t come to threaten us, but to say something.
There seems to be some relation between those early scenes with her daughter and what happens in the spacecraft; often when she is in touch with these other beings she sees further scenes of her and her daughter. There is an intuitive empathetic side to what is going on. She does have real empathy for these beings, and cares for them. Her attitude shames those of many men around her, though a couple (Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker) appreciate what she’s doing.
It would be unfair to the movie to say much more. There is a major surprise at the end—at least it was major for me—that showed everything in a new light and lifted the movie above its science fiction trappings. I think this movie is more spiritual more than it is scientific. And it finds the true power of women in something other than making them warriors.
I must confess that I was deeply disappointed by A Quiet Passion, which—as a bio-pic of poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon)—I expected to love. The movie is extremely well done, with wonderful acting and direction. But I somehow found it unpleasant to sit through.
The problem may be my own pre-conceptions about Dickinson. I’ve always assumed she was the ultimate artist, someone who took great care to create the best poems she could, and to treat her own work with respect—sewing her collections into little volumes that she created—but didn’t care about wider circulation, other than her own family. I’m not sure that that isn’t the case. But A Quiet Passion presents a rather different Emily Dickinson.
I did appreciate the way she was constantly at odds with her surroundings; even at Mt. Holyoke, which she attended for a time, she refused to buckle under and accept religious orthodoxy, and to behave as she was expected. Her parents encourage her behavior to an extent; they know they have a willful and interesting daughter on their hands. But Dickinson is portrayed as a person who would like a wider public, but is rejected by the male powers that be. She also seemed to want a husband, or a partner of some kind, but was stifled by her weirdness and need for solitude. By the end of the movie, when a perfectly nice male admirer—who genuinely likes her poetry—is coming around, she will only meet him if he will stand at the bottom of their staircase, while she stands at the top, out of view. It’s kind of tough to establish intimacy that way.
There are some scenes that were—intentionally or not—rather funny, like an early evening where the family was sitting around, in a room lit by candles, and you saw the true tedium in the life of a civilized New England family. When it became too much for her invalid mother (who seems to suffer primarily from the fact that she never gets out of bed), Emily struck up a rousing hymn on the piano. And there was a scene where the local minister and his wife came for tea, but she didn’t take tea, apparently considering it an immoral beverage, and wanted only water, at room temperature. Her husband was ready to party and had a cup of hot water. Take it easy on that stuff, big boy.
The movie seemed to suggest that Emily had the hots for this man, despite the fact that he was married, and to a woman of such rectitude. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to fool around in that culture, other than taking a walk around the orchard. How did the screenwriter know all this? I kept wondering. How do we know what Dickinson was like, other than from her poetry? She was portrayed as having scorn for male poets of her day, like Longfellow. I kept wondering if she’d read Whitman.
My only reaction to life in 19th century New England—where your date makes you stand at the bottom of the stairs and her mother is withering away in bed—was, Get me outta here. I’d rather go through a time warp to World War I.
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