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The DC Universe gets the blast of fun it sorely needed with Wonder Woman, a film that gets it right in almost every way—including a performance from Gal Gadot that makes it seem like the role is her birthright.

Gadot lights up the screen and commands the camera on the same level as Christopher Reeve and Robert Downey Jr. She simply is Wonder Woman; I can’t picture another actress even attempting to play the character. She owns it. It’s hers. Game over.

There’s always a faction of fans who bitch about superhero-origin stories, who want films to jump straight to the hardcore action, but I love a good origin story done well. The movie starts with young Amazonian princess Diana running around her island paradise, practicing her fight moves and yearning to be trained as a warrior. After butting heads with her sister, Antiope (Robin Wright, rightfully cast as an Amazonian badass), Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, yet another piece of great casting), relents, and allows Antiope to train her niece—as long as Antiope doesn’t tell Diana about the true powers Diana possesses. For those who don’t know the Wonder Woman back-story (I was a little rusty on it myself), it’s a sweet piece of mythology and mystery, and director Patty Jenkins (who made the Charlize Theron Oscar vehicle Monster) perfectly paces all the revelations.

Diana eventually winds up in Europe during World War I along with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a wartime spy who crash-lands on her island. Diana is convinced that the German military leader who Steve is fighting (Danny Huston) is the war god Aries, and she intends to take him out. This all leads to miraculously cool scenes of Wonder Woman leading soldiers on the battlefield against the Germans, and it’s nothing short of exhilarating.

Gadot has the best superhero smile since Reeve flashed his pearly whites in the original Superman (1978). When Reeve smiled, he drove home the fact that he was the sweetest, best darned guy running around on planet Earth (you know, back when Superman was generally happy rather than constantly moping about). Gadot has that same kind of smile superpower.

It says a lot that Gadot and Jenkins make you feel good in a movie with a lot of violence and villainy. Huston is a super-creep, and his evil sidekick, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), likes making poisonous gas—and there are moments when her evil-doings are flat-out terrifying. Yet no matter how dark the film gets, it remains an overall upbeat experience.

However, the film is not perfect. There are some occasional terrible CGI special effects, although there are enough stellar effects to balance things out. Still, maybe this movie needed a few more months in post-production, because the shoddy moments are glaringly obvious. They don’t come close to spoiling the movie, but they keep it short of excellent.

Pine is a total charmer as the confused spy who winds up romancing a goddess—a love story handled in a way that is surprisingly convincing and quite adorable.

Perhaps some of the joy in this movie will make it into November’s Justice League, or future Superman movies. (Hey, Batman can mope … that’s his lot in life.) Wonder Woman gives the DC superhero crew a new lease on life, and offers the summer movie season the adrenaline boost it needed after the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie stunk up the place.

After all these years, and all sorts of failed attempts, Wonder Woman has finally gotten her chance to rule on the silver screen. Gadot takes that chance and soars. May she have many more adventures as fun as this one.

Wonder Woman is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Ari Folman, the director behind the stunning animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, has delivered something altogether different with his latest, The Congress.

It’s two sort-of-connected movies in one. On one hand, it’s an effective satire of the current and future state of movies and acting. On the other, it’s an existential (and animated) meditation on identity, technology and life.

Both parts are good, but I was a little more interested in the first, live-action part, which deals with an aging actress getting a very strange offer.

Robin Wright, playing a fictionalized version of herself, is in her mid-40S, an age at which Hollywood normally starts turning its back on “B-grade” female stars. She’s never truly blossomed into the bona fide movie star her agent (Harvey Keitel) and studio head (Danny Huston) thought she would become based on her work in The Princess Bride.

The studio comes up with a plan that will return her to her youthful glory—and ensure that she will never need to truly act again: The executives offer Robin one final contract, which requires that her body and emotions get scanned for future use. The contract guarantees that she will never be portrayed as older than her early 30s, and that she won’t appear in porn, along with a few other conditions. In return, Robin can no longer appear in movies, plays, commercials, game shows, etc., unless they are Miramount projects. Her whole being will become the property of Miramount Studios.

Wow, right? This is a great premise for dark comedy, in which Wright is placed in all sorts of strange movies beyond her control. She rides off into the sunset with some big paycheck, and the acting profession, as we know it, dies.

Ultimately, that’s not where The Congress takes us. Instead, the film is more interested in messing with one’s brain regarding the overall state of humanity and identity, rather than just telling the story of actors and actresses losing their gigs.

After a mind-blowing sequence in which Robin is scanned into a computer, the action jumps forward 20 years, when her contract requires an extension. We see Robin in an action/sci-fi film in which she is blowing up robots. (Films at this time play on blimps in the sky rather than in theaters.) A trip to the studio now requires her to snort a hallucinogenic drug and become animated. She does this—and the movie delves into trippy, deep animation mode.

She attends some sort of bizarre, gigantic rally—sort of like an Apple event on animated steroids—during which the audience finds out Robin’s likeness can be consumed via their favorite beverages the next day. In other words, fans can actually become Robin rather than just watching her on big screens. She has become nothing but a product.

All of this is interesting, even when the film tries to go spiritually deep. In some ways, Folman can be faulted for passing up an opportunity for biting satire—but he actually does achieve biting satire for a good portion of the film. He just lets it go in favor of a more universal subject in the ambitious, animated second half.

Robin interacts with a bunch of virtual images, including those of Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. She also gets a love interest who looks a bit like Clive Owen, but is voiced by Jon Hamm. In both Robin’s “real” and animated worlds, the one constant presence is her ill son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his special kites. It’s hard to explain; you just need to see it.

Wright is extraordinary and positively luminescent in a film that questions her relevance in not only the acting world, but the world in general. Huston and Keitel provide good, nasty humor before the film goes animated/existential (although Huston’s likeness does appear as a villainous presence in the animation).

The Congress might be a bit of a head-scratcher, but it’s successful in much of what it attempts. It’s also the kind of showcase Robin Wright richly deserves.

The Congress is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

Although it is being pushed as heady Oscar fare, Hitchcock is a little too bizarre and too goofy to find itself seriously in the running for Best Picture. I'm not complaining; I am a fan of bizarre, goofy movies, and I like this one. I just don't think it's going to take home a bagful of awards.

As this film explores the making of Psycho—Alfred Hitchcock's biggest risk as a filmmaker—Hitchcock takes a few enjoyable diversions. It contains a blast of a performance from Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, with Helen Mirren perhaps outpacing him as Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. The film has a surface sheen to it, seemingly placing more of an emphasis on Alma's possible love affair with a fellow writer (Danny Huston) than on the making of Psycho.

Still, when it's dealing with Psycho and the mechanics of making a movie, Hitchcock is a lot of fun. Hitch and Alma must mortgage their house to finance Psycho themselves when studios pass on the project. That really happened.

Sacha Gervasi (the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil) directs from a script by John J. McLaughlin (which, in turn, is based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho). McLaughlin takes on some factual angles, such as Hitchcock's running problems with Vera Miles (an excellent Jessica Biel) and his struggles with his weight.

Then there are the slightly oft-kilter embellishments, like Hitchcock's imagined discussions with real-life serial killer Ed Gein (a perfectly cast Michael Wincott), on whom the book Psycho was loosely based. Seeing Hitchcock and Gein in the frame together having a conversation is welcomingly bizarre. Had the two ever spoken, I imagine it could've gone the way it does in this film.

Scarlett Johansson captures the allure and sweetness of Janet Leigh, who withstood the torturous shower scene and was back to smiling shortly thereafter. It's no secret that Hitchcock had troubles with his leading ladies. (HBO's recent The Girl chronicles this fact with Tippi Hedren.) Johansson's Leigh treats the job like nothing but a job, and shares little beyond gratitude and candy corn with her boss.

Hopkins—wearing a decent-looking fat suit and makeup, and employing just enough of Hitchcock's nasally voice—delivers work that captures enough of Hitch's characteristics without being a full-blown impersonation. His Hitchcock is obsessive, funny and sometimes a little sad and lonely. Hopkins does a remarkable job of delivering myriad Hitchcock moods without really changing the expression on his face.

Mirren brings a nice, dry wit to Alma, who reportedly helped rewrite and direct Hitchcock movies without screen credit. When Alma and Hitch risk it all to make a slasher movie nobody seems to want, Mirren delights in portraying the rush Alma must've felt when throwing all caution to the wind.

James D'Arcy provides a convincing Anthony Perkins, who, of course, played Norman Bates. D'Arcy gets Perkins' mannerisms just right, to an extent that I wish there were more of him in the film. According to the Internet Movie Database, Andrew Garfield had been considered, but couldn't take the role due to scheduling conflicts. That would've been interesting.

This isn't a flattering picture of one of cinema's most influential and masterful directors. It isn't a smear job, either. He's seen as a relatively insecure man who maintains his sense of humor while obsessing over blonde female leads and occasionally stuffing his face to get back at the wife. Some of that is probably stretching the truth. Did Hitchcock hallucinate about Ed Gein while filming Psycho? Did he peer at his female stars through a hole in the wall, as does Norman Bates in Psycho? Did he need to hide his wine-drinking and snacking from his domineering wife? I don't know. I do know that it makes for a moderately fun movie.

For such a hefty subject, Hitchcock is surprisingly lightweight. It is also undeniably enjoyable.

Hitchcock is now playing at Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs), UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City) and Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert.

Published in Reviews