Amazon Prime: ‘Wonder Woman’ & ‘City Of Z’ Explore Uncharted Territory

This just in: WOMEN can direct MOVIES.

Despite their menstruation and inability to lift heavy things, females are either as capable or even more capable than men at making films that involve punching and kicking!

Still with me? Okay! As it turns out, women, who are not historically known for either punching or kicking, can make action blockbusters just like men, who are statistically more likely to punch and kick.

At this rate, who knows? We may even get a female president someday!! I’ll pause to let you wrap your head around that impossible concept for a second.

After unloading Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Suicide Squad into theaters recent years, Warner Bros. apparently decided to switch things up this summer by offering filmgoers an actual movie rather than a flaming pile of nonsense garbage.

Here’s another newsflash: it turns out that audiences prefer a well-written story and heroes we actually like to an incomprehensible, emotionally numb dumpster fire.

Even when it is directed by a woman, and not a man. Hollywood, take note!

(Forgive my sarcasm, but the biggest wonder surrounding Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman is that we still need to be astonished that women can, like, accomplish things.)

Okay, now for the real review. At long last, a Wonder Woman feature film has lassoed its way into theaters. The fact that it centers on a woman is only a small miracle — we’ve seen “superhero”(-ish) films like Elektra and Catwoman… that just so happened to suck (independently of the fact that they were about women, of course — lots of male superhero movies at that time sucked, too!). More recently, hit blockbusters like The Hunger Games and recent Star Wars offerings have also made a killing off of worthy heroines. It’s not news.

But I guess it is news that Patty Jenkins is the first female to direct one of these movies, and that Wonder Woman is the first Marvel or DC offering in the current canon to center on an action heroine. The Marvel movies have been relatively female-friendly — Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is arguably the emotional centerpiece of the Avengers films — but did we get a Black Widow movie? No. Instead, Black Widow was second banana in movies named after men, as in the sequels to Iron Man and Captain America, even while being one of the most dynamic and relatable characters in the entire franchise.

The case has already been made for female action heroes. Go back to Ellen Ripley in 1986’s Aliens, or Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for a couple prime examples. It should not surprise anyone that Wonder Woman performed comparably to other recent superhero titles. Nor, after Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win for The Hurt Locker, should it be news that a woman can direct an aces entry in a traditionally male-dominated genre. Are we meant to be shocked that Wonder Woman marks the biggest opening weekend for a female director, ever? Well, that’s dumb, because Wonder Woman is a superhero movie, and superhero movies make lots of money. A woman could have directed a successful superhero movie at any time, and it didn’t need to have “woman” in the title for it to work.But it did. Wonder Woman‘s success seems especially obvious given how dismal the DC “universe” has been in its latest incarnation, (no) thanks to Zack Snyder, whose bone-headed take on these beloved characters defies logic. Last year’s one-two whiff of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad gave us the two worst movies I saw in 2016. The movies have all been box office hits, but that’s inevitable. Audiences were lukewarm, and critics seriously hated them. Short of setting fire to the entire Warner Bros. lot, Jenkins could have done anything with Wonder Woman and it’d still look good in comparison.

Wonder Woman really only had to be halfway watchable to be declared a success, and to be the biggest femme-helmed film of all time. It’s a little better than that, though.

Early on, Wonder Woman feels like a Disney princess tale on steroids — what would happen if Moana decided to fight in World War I? The all-female Amazons in Wonder Woman evoke a fun, Xena: Warrior Princess-esque vibe, with Robin Wright providing the gravitas as the badass general Antiope, Diana’s aunt. This world is rich enough that it could sustain an entire film on its own — it’s almost a shame when Steve Trevor, the spy played by Chris Pine, drops in and beckons Diana to the outside world.For a spell, Wonder Woman becomes an Amazon-out-of-water comedy as Diana adjusts to polite society in the “modern” world, and interacts with Etta, Steve’s wryly amusing secretary (Lucy Davis). Then the film introduces us to a ragtag team of sidekicks and gets back into superhero mode, with some James Bond-esque spy hijinks along the way. (The climax takes a page from the Season 5 finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, by the way.) It all moves along nimbly, and hangs together merely because we like Diana and Steve and their friends, and believe in what they’re hoping to accomplish. This would seem obvious, except that it’s been entirely missing from Wonder Woman‘s three DC predecessors. Did anyone truly like Henry Cavill’s Superman, or Ben Affleck’s Batman, or anyone in Suicide Squad besides Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn?

Gal Gadot was the only watchable presence in Batman V Superman, and Margot Robbie was Suicide Squad‘s saving grace. So, again, let’s not register too much surprise that women are the sole saviors of DC’s lineup. I’m not ready to declare that Wonder Woman bests any Marvel movie thus far, but it’s up there. Jenkins gifts the film with both heartfelt resonance and a nimble comedic touch, which only the top tier of Marvel’s offerings manage to balance. The emotional beats in Wonder Woman land in a way that is rare in blockbusters these days. (For all the heavy-handed sobriety of, say, Batman V Superman, we don’t actually feel a thing as that dreadful, dumbfounding story unfolds.)My preferred brand of superhero movie will probably always be Tim Burton’s Batman, but comparing the delightful gothic camp of Batman Returns to what DC is serving up these days is pointless. As far as today’s comic book superhero adaptations go, Wonder Woman is as good as it gets — it’s hard to imagine a major studio letting Jenkins (or anyone) take greater narrative risks. (As much as I’d love to see a superhero drama with the complexity of Monster.) In Wonder Woman, Jenkins knows exactly what kind of movie she’s making, and she does it better than just about anyone in the past decade. It’s all the more impressive that a credible Wonder Woman film is not an easy thing to make — skimpy costume, golden lasso, invisible jet? This character has major cheese potential. The fact that this Diana is a certified badass is all the more commendable.

Wonder Woman has a slew of compelling female characters, from the Amazons to Etta to the creepy Dr. Poison, played by Elena Anaya. The male villains are boring, but the good guys are a pretty solid bunch, too. Though he’s not a superhero, Steve Trevor is as developed as Marvel’s Steve Rogers is. Wonder Woman is not a great film in its own right — it is still too beholden to the tropes and ticks that have plagued every single Marvel and DC movie after 2008’s Iron Man and The Dark Knight. The script by Allan Heinberg is more serviceable than transcendant — the fish-out-of-water scenes are amusing, if a bit obvious (and reminiscent of gags in Thor and Captain America), and the more earnest stuff is par for the course. Wonder Woman has its over-the-top touches, particularly in the flashy, effects-heavy third act. It falls victim to the same climactic pomposity all superhero movies these days succumb to, though Wonder Woman sticks the landing better than most.

Remember six months ago, when Deadpool had Best Picture buzz? That was ridiculous, but Wonder Woman has a shot at getting there. (I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s better equipped than any other DC or Marvel release in recent memory.) Wouldn’t it be kind of great to see Jenkins do what Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder could not? If any superhero film since The Dark Knight deserves Oscar lovin’, it’s Wonder Woman. Compared to others of its kind, it may as well be a masterpiece.

While Wonder Woman centers on an Amazon exploring the world of man during World War I, another recent film takes the reverse approach — centering on a man exploring the world of the Amazon during the same period. (It is also released by Amazon Studios, for some added Amazon oomph.)

Based on the bestseller by David Gann, The Lost City Of Z is the true story of explorer Percy Fawcett and his belief in a lost civilization in the Amazon rain forest. At the time of Fawcett’s first foray into the woods, Machu Picchu had not yet been discovered and there was severe doubt from Britain’s “Royal Geographic Society” that anything greater than savages could exist in the region. Fawcett, in turn, believes these people were more capable and advanced than turn-of-the-century Brits are giving them credit for.

I entered The Lost City Of Z knowing only that it was based on a nonfiction bestseller and took place in the Amazon. I knew nothing about Fawcett himself, nor how his quest concluded. This turned out to be a very good thing for my enjoyment of the film — it contained more suspense for me than it might to someone who read even a brief description of the film or book its based on. I was surprised, for example, that The Lost City Of Z depicts not one, but several journeys into the jungle, returning with Fawcett back to England between quests and exploring how his lengthy intercontinental jaunts are affecting his wife and children.The Lost City Of Z is reminiscent of Heart Of Darkness, of course, particularly in its theme of obsession with an unknown, untamed jungle. Gray doesn’t get too caught up in the ensuing madness like Francis Ford Coppola did in Apocalypse Now, however. Fawcett is preoccupied with his pursuit, but the movie isn’t so tunnel-visioned, remaining at a distance that is more reminiscent of classical Hollywood stories than most contemporary ones. The film uses visual symbolism and fantasy sparingly, presented with a stiff-upper-lip reserve that feels appropriate for the setting and period (early 20th century and beyond World War I). The Lost City Of Z has learned many things from great man-versus-nature adventure stories that preceded it, without being too beholden to any one of them.

There’s a hint of Jaws in the relationship between Fawcett (played with maximum Brad Pittness by Charlie Hunnam) and Henry Costin (a very bearded and distinctly un-heartthrobby Robert Pattinson). Brody’s belief in the killer Great White that is initially ridiculed and ignored by the higher-ups certainly feels like the cinematic model for Fawcett’s quest, and though Hunnam sells it, the reason why this particular fixation hits this particular character is vague. We know Fawcett seeks the glory that a major discovery like this could bestow upon his name, but Fawcett’s fascination grows more urgent and we never quite learn why. It feels like the answer should have come up in the bond between Fawcett and Corbin, which is more suggested by the screenplay than felt. Costin’s character is underdeveloped — the dynamic between these two men is never as compelling as Brody and Hooper’s partnership in Jaws. The story might have been even more poignant if we believed more that this fixation on the City of Z was a shared madness of both men, and then one of them gradually woke up from the spell while the other succumbed further to fantasy, eventually substituting his son as a replacement for Corbin. (That is the story we get, more or less — but we have to dig a little to get to it.)

This isn’t so much a flaw of Gray’s film as it is an afterthought about how it might have been even more gripping than it already is. Gray doesn’t seem to want us to feel or identify with Fawcett’s Amazon obsession. At many points, it asks us to pause and reflect whether Fawcett’s quest is worth the sacrifices he’s making at home. As Fawcett’s wife Nina, Sienna Miller gets a meatier role than we expect from the wife of an adventurer. Fawcett’s lengthy trips into the wild frustrate Nina and their children, but rather than make Nina the naggy spouse begging her hero to “come home,” both she and Fawcett’s son Jack long to become a part of Percy’s adventures — a far more compelling choice. (Jack is played by Marvel’s once and future Spider-Man, Tom Holland.) This focus on Fawcett’s family is another Spielbergian nod to Jaws, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind even moreso. The story is at least as much about what Fawcett is giving up back home than it is his adventuring.

The Lost City Of Z might have been a pointed “be careful what you wish for” tale, but neither the film nor its characters condemn Fawcett for his quest. We are left to conclude for ourselves whether or not these pursuits are worth the perils they put us in. Like David Fincher’s Zodiac, another masterful tale of men’s shared obsession with an enigma, The Lost City Of Z both does and does not solve its central mystery, presenting us with a likely answer while raising enough doubt in our minds that we question such easy answers. Gray’s film is deceptively simple and straight-forward in its storytelling, but thematically gnarled and complex. The final shot alone demands that we pause and reconsider what this story is really about.

The film sheds little light on what actually does await these explorers in the Amazon, and doesn’t instruct us how to feel about that. The jungle and its inhabitants remain as ethereal and unknowable at the end of the film as they are in the beginning. That’s the right choice, even if it’s a rather unsettling one in terms of Hollywood epics. Gray’s daring in concluding this film in such an abstract way — more Malick than Spielberg, more Lynch than Lean in the end — elevates the film above what could have otherwise been just another sturdy historical drama. The Lost City Of Z is both episodic and epic, with a reach that exceeds its grasp in the best way possible, suggesting themes that linger in the mind, even though they’re barely nodded to in the film’s text. Though it came and went from theaters with little fanfare, I hope Amazon Studios finds a way to get the film the attention it deserves.



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