Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

Director: Patty Jenkins

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

For as long as we can remember, superhero films have featured protagonists whose motivations consist primarily of a combination of two things: 1) a natural enemy to defeat and 2) someone whose death they feel compelled to avenge. #2 comes around a little less often than #1, but the fact remains that the hero is focused on defeating the villain. #1 is no different in the case of Wonder Woman, as she was born and bred for this purpose. But there is much that is different about her. Apart from Marvel’s Thor, Wonder Woman is unique in that she is the offspring of a god. Having the powers of an immortal god could have easily led to her imposing her will on all of humanity. But that’s not Wonder Woman’s style. She is not the sort who would destroy entire cities to end a threat, or perform a memory wipe on someone just to remove the burden of having to shield them 24/7. What truly helps Wonder Woman to stand out among the crowd is her unwavering desire to save people.

In 2017 Paris, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) stares at an old photograph of herself and others from a century ago, recovered for her by newfound friend, Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. Her memories of a long ago era take her back first to her youth on the island of Themyscira, where she was one among the many of Amazonian warrior women who lived there. The island is obscured from the rest of the world for their (and, more specifically, Diana’s) own protection. Despite the objections of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana begins training for a battle yet to come. That battle, against Ares, the god of war, is one that Zeus (Ares’s father) believed was inevitable, and thus he created Diana through Hippolyta. In Hippolyta’s sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest of all warriors on Themyscira, Diana could find no better teacher. Princess Buttercup is a general, now. How cool is that?!

Trouble arrives when a German plane piloted by American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the water just off the coast of Themyscira. Diana saves Steve, but he was followed, and although the ensuing German assault is soundly defeated, Antiope is killed. The Lasso of Truth forces Steve to reveal the nature of his mission: the theft of a notebook from the laboratory of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), who is developing mustard gas for the Germans, which indicates the plans to start a higher form of warfare. The Amazonians, up to now, had no idea that World War I was going on around them. Diana believes that this is a sign of Ares’ return, that he is posing as German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and that it is her duty to find and defeat him.

Having no experience with the outside world, Diana is unaccustomed to a society where women have no say in any matters of importance. As such, there are many awkward moments, both in trying to assert herself and in trying to look the part of a woman living in the 1910s. Perhaps the best example of this is when Diana attempts to walk out onto the streets of London whilst carrying both her sword and shield. Not exactly the type of thing that would help her to “blend in”! At the War Council, Steve barges in and delivers the notebook, but is barred from taking any further action. An armistice with Germany is in the works, and they don’t want anything mucking it up. Steve is a soldier, and as such is willing to (reluctantly) accept orders once they are given, but Diana (whom Steve has introduced as Diana Prince) sees only foolishness in failing to act. One member of the council, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) agrees to help them covertly.

After putting a team together, Steve and Diana head for Belgium. At the Western Front, the team finds what appears to them to be an impasse. In what has to go down as the movie’s greatest scene… perhaps one of the greatest scenes of ANY superhero film… Diana climbs from the trenches and walks through No man’s land, using her bracelets and her shield to deflect all incoming enemy fire. This moment is as breathtaking as it is inspirational. A village is liberated, and the photograph from the film’s opening scene is taken. Afterwards, Steve and Diana share a moment of intimacy. Alas, though the battle may be won, the war is far from over.

Diana tracks down and attempts to kill Ludendorff, but Steve stops her, believing that their mission to stop the gas attack would be compromised. Ludendorff subsequently orders a test of the gas on the very town which Diana and Steve just rescued. Distraught by the senseless loss of life and beginning to lose her faith in humanity, Diana lashes out at Steve and continues her pursuit of Ludendorff. Finding him once again, Diana does not fail in her mission to kill Ludendorff, yet she is puzzled. If Ares is now dead, why then does the war continue? That question is answered quickly. Out of nowhere, Sir Patrick appears, declaring himself to be Ares.

All along, Diana has assumed that Ares has been controlling the thoughts and actions of the Germans. In an attempt to simultaneously break her spirit and cause his sister to join him, Ares explains to Diana that he hasn’t deprived humanity of its free will, that it is they who choose to be evil. While this is going on, Steve pilots a plane carrying the mustard gas high into the sky where, in an act of self-sacrifice, he can detonate it safely. Despite some cheer-leading from Ares, Diana chooses not to murder a defenseless Doctor Poison, instead reassured and inspired by Steve’s final words to her as well as his final act, both of which were born from love. It is through the power of love… Diana’s love for Steve and for all of humanity… that Diana is able to summon the energy that has always existed within her to ultimately defeat her brother, once and for all.

Wonder Woman was already recognizable as being (easily) the best part of 2016’s Batman v Superman. As the star of her very own movie, the Princess of Themyscira makes 2017’s Wonder Woman one of the very best superhero movies ever made. Apart from the rather timely message of love conquering hate, Wonder Woman also features terrific set design (owing to its World War I setting), a great supporting cast (in which Chris Pine is the standout), and a powerful score by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Not since John Williams’ Superman (1978) and Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) scores has a superhero been blessed with such appropriate music, particularly the track “Wonder Woman’s Wrath.” Incidentally, when Wonder Woman returns in Fall 2017 for Justice League, Danny Elfman will provide the music.

Finally, there’s Gal Gadot herself. A former Israeli model who owes her first big break in Hollywood (2011’s Fast Five) to actor Vin Diesel, Gadot’s hiring for Wonder Woman was widely criticized. So was Michael Keaton for 1989’s Batman, as well as Heath Ledger for 2008’s The Dark Knight. Unfairly, Gadot’s criticism had more to with her body shape than anything else. Gadot turned out not just to be a good choice, but a perfect choice. Like those before her who’ve entered the superhero genre and succeeded as mightily as Gal Gadot has with Wonder Woman, Gadot’s name will forever be synonymous with her character. For as long as Gadot wields the Lasso of Truth as Diana Prince, I will always be appreciative of what she brings to the table.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quale, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

The man, the myth, the legend. I’m speaking of course of the late Peter O’Toole, who departed this life on December 14th, 2013 at the age of 81. I would not presume to speak of O’Toole as though I knew him, nor having ever met the actor, but there are certain actors whose careers we follow with great interest to the point of gaining a sense of familiarity. O’Toole was a rather brilliant screen talent, one that only graces our presence once in a great while. Among his many works, eight of his roles earned him Academy Award nominations. Sadly, he was denied each time, making him the most nominated actor never to win the Oscar. O’Toole’s reputation as a drinker probably hurt him in several of his opportunities, as did bad luck. “Lawrence of Arabia” was the first of those eight nominations, but when your competition is Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you can hardly be blamed for coming up short. O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, like the movie, is quite grand in scale. O’Toole was always good at playing larger-than-life characters, and this was the one that made him a star.

Upon T.E. Lawrence’s rather undignified death by motorcycle accident in 1935, the ensuing memorial service for him serves to demonstrate how much the attendees truly did not know the man. Rather, most of them merely had an image in their minds of the man they believed Lawrence to be. American reporter Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) seems to have some idea, referring to the deceased as a “shameless exhibitionist.” This serves as a great introduction, because you don’t know how much of what these people have to say about Lawrence will actually turn out to be true. He may have been a great revolutionary… or he could have been just another average human being who thought too much of himself. The rest of the nearly four-hour epic is as much our journey to learn who T.E. Lawrence was as it is a series of life-altering events for Lawrence and others in his company.

Perhaps the one character who changes the most is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). When we first meet him, he kills a man of another Arab tribe for drinking out of his well. For this action, Lawrence labels Ali a barbarian. As the movie progresses, it is Ali who represents the audience. We watch the deeds and misdeeds of T.E. Lawrence through Ali’s eyes, and this “savage” is altered so much in witnessing the bloodlust of his friend that he contemplates leaving one “greedy, barbarous and cruel” life for another, that of a politician. One example of Lawrence’s changing morals, and maybe the defining moment of the movie, comes when the two tribes he has brought together are about to wage war on one another. Someone from Ali’s tribe has killed a member of the other tribe. Seeing as he has no allegiance to either side, Lawrence volunteers to carry out the man’s execution. When the man raises his head, Lawrence realizes it is the same person he just risked his own life to save a few scenes earlier. Lawrence shoots the man dead, and then later admits to his British superiors that he “enjoyed it.”

In 1962, we were still decades away from CGI animation. Thus, when you are watching the great battle scenes of “Lawrence of Arabia,” you are looking at large groups of extras. Not something cooked up by a computer, but real actors and stuntmen. This along with the set/costume designs and the unforgettable music score only adds to the appreciation one has for the work that went into the project. The contrast between the Arabian desert and the stuffy military base is another strongpoint. We find, the same as Lawrence does, that the movie is the most fun when we are traversing through the scorching hot, barren wastelands than when we visit the ordinary British officers. We also are reminded of how difficult it can be to establish a democracy in countries which have no experience with it, as in the Arab Council scene in Damascus.

The death of Peter O’Toole does mean the end of a fantastic and extraordinary career. It does not mean that we cannot continue to revisit or discover the best of his films, and there is at least one film still left to look forward to, 2014’s “Katherine of Alexandria.” I am reminded of a scene early on in “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which T.E. Lawrence extinguishes a match with his fingers. A fellow British officer tries the same thing, and reacts in pain. Lawrence responds, “Of course, it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.” If only it were that easy with the extinguishing of a human flame.