Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Life for Wonder Woman and her Peers

As I write this, I don’t yet know what films have been nominated for 2018 Oscars, which are due to be presented on March 4. But it’s a safe bet that the word “Wonder” will appear somewhere in the list of nominees. In one of those curious coincidences that Hollywood is known for, there are five major movies from 2017 whose titles are literally wonder-ful. First of all there’s Wonder, based on a schmaltzy children’s novel about a boy with a grotesquely misshapen face. For the much-lauded film version, adorable Jacob Tremblay (from Room) underwent hours of elaborate makeup, including prosthetics, in order to portray the central character, with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his concerned but loving parents.

This year’s inevitable Woody Allen project, set at Coney Island in 1950s, is called Wonder Wheel, with the title of course referring to the amusement park’s iconic Ferris wheel. This is solemn, sensitive Woody at work: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, and Justin Timberlake are featured in what sounds like a mawkish story of love, loss, and the woes of the downtrodden.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see Wonderstruck, but it has a marvelous pedigree: the director is Todd Haynes; lead actors include Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams; the music is supplied by the always interesting Carter Burwell (the Coen Brothers favorite who has gotten major attention this year for his  gripping Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri score). Writer Brian Selznick, whose 2007 work was adapted into Martin Scorsese’s genuinely wondrous Hugo, wrote the screenplay based on his own novel. The story rotates between two separate quest narratives involving children. The one set in 1927 is shot in black & white, using a number of silent film techniques. Sounds amazing—why was this not in theatres longer?

Then of course there’s the international blockbuster, Wonder Woman, which I finally chanced to see. As I understand it, the sex goddess of the DC Comics universe had a long route to her big-screen debut. Back in the 1970s, of course, she was played by the zaftig Lynda Carter in a kitschy TV show I never bothered to watch. More recently, a number of famous filmmakers (Joel Silver and Joss Whedon among them) wanted to bring her to the big screen. Sandra Bullock, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and others were considered for the lead, but no one could seem to decide if a Wonder Woman movie should be action-comedy or drama, set in a fantasy world, the historic past, or the present day. What’s fascinating about the current Patty Jenkins production is that it contains a bit of everything—and somehow it works. The opening scenes set in the island nation of the Amazons looks like an upscale version of a Roger Corman barbarian-queen flick. Then suddenly we’re in the middle of a World War I movie, played somewhat realistically until we find ourselves in the presence of a super-villain with mythological credentials There’s some sexy banter, some fish-out-of-water humor, and a poignant lost love. And throughout it all, star Gal Gadot retains her dignity and her charm while deflecting bullets  Brava!

But this was also the year of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, purporting to be a real-life origin-story for the Wonder Woman comic character. Who knew that a psychology professor who significantly contributed to the development of the polygraph also came up with the idea of a female superhero? And who knew that he was inspired by the wife and the mistress with whom he lived in a polyamorous relationship? Now that’s a movie I need to see.

Not so wonder-ful update; poor Wonder Woman was left out in the cold (in a very skimpy costume). The only “wonder” on the Oscar nomination list was a nod for Hair and Makeup on the film Wonder.

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