Wonder Woman (2017) is, if you’ll pardon such an obvious comment, a wonder of a superhero movie, a film that doesn’t transcend the genre but most certainly sets a high bar, especially next to the ponderous, humorless films of the new big screen universe of interconnected DC Comics heroes.
Gal Gadot debuted as Amazon princess warrior Wonder Woman in the turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and brightened the film immediately. The spirit we glimpsed there carries this origin story, which sends us back to the 1910s and the hidden island paradise of the Amazons inadvertently invaded when American pilot Steve Trevor (an earnest yet spirited Chris Pine) flies past the invisibility field and crash lands on the beach, the first man ever to set foot on the island. Diana is intrigued to say the least but more compelled by news of a world at war and, after the inevitable assault by German forces after Trevor, is convinced of her purpose: stopping the god Ares from destroying all of mankind through warfare. She leaves the island against the wishes her mother (Connie Nielsen, commanding and regal). Steve’s not so convinced of that stuff about ancient gods and eternal Amazons but he has no doubt as to her abilities as a warrior or her commitment to justice and he knows a valuable ally when he meets one.
Maleficent (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) does sort of a “Wicked” number on the story of Sleeping Beauty’s evil sorceress, casting her as the tragic figure of a dark fantasy (but not too dark for children—barely) of a revisionist fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a fairy who watches over and defends the natural and supernatural wilds from human assault. With her magnificent leathery wings and curled horns, she has the look of a beautiful demon (even her cheekbones are sharpened to an edge that look like they could cut an unwary lover to ribbons) but is at heart an innocent, a primeval force whose emotions are pure and motives without guile. Her betrayal, at the hands of a human (Sharlto Copley) who was once a friend and lover, is an assault so personal and intimate and disfiguring that children can’t help but feel the transgression as a terrible, horrible wrong while adults see it as a form of rape. It is as powerful a dramatic moment you will see in an American film, let alone a mainstream spectacle, and coupled with Jolie’s committed performance (ripples of personality and conflicted emotions, as well as a playful sense of humor, play under even her iciest moments), it gives the film a power beyond the CGIed-to-monotony fantasy designs and magical creatures.
Not to slight Elle Fanning, who plays the princess Aurora as another innocent whose purity gets under Maleficent’s vengeful shell. Fanning has the ability to radiate pure joy and wonder and does so, but Jolie shows us that the potential for love is still within her, merely buried under rage and hatred and vengeance. It is a righteous revenge film, but with a feminist twist and a redemptive journey. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz: “The movie is a mess, but it’s a rich mess. It has weight. It matters.”
The five featurettes are quite brief (the longest, “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” runs only eight minutes) and there are five deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Disney Anywhere Digital HD copies.
A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) will stand as the final film completed by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his untimely death in February and that alone is reason enough to see the film, adapted from the post 9/11 novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn, a music video veteran who becomes more accomplished with each feature. Hoffman has the ability to lose himself in his roles and as Günther Bachmann, the leader of covert German intelligence agency that monitors potential terrorist activity, he seems to pare down a performance to give us a man who betrays nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling yet radiates a gentle warmth for his team (made up of superb German actors Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, and Franz Hartwig). All we really know is his loyalty to his country and to his crew, and they return that loyalty in spades.
Günther and his team, working outside the traditional government structure (which clearly frustrates the official, traditional intelligence officials), follow the appearance of a tortured Chechen refugee to a possible financier of terrorism and battle bureaucratic interference to stay on mission. This is le Carré’s world of competing agencies within the same country who prize power over efficiency and interests outside the structure working their own interests; support from an American intelligence agent (Robin Wright) raises all sorts of alarms, not the least of which is: what is her endgame? There is idealism at the center (not just Hoffman but also Rachel McAdams as a human rights lawyer) surrounded by realpolitik pressure and compromise. Hoffman’s gift is to communicate the gravity of the stakes, in human and moral as well as in political terms, by the mere force of his commitment. It’s superb.
With two featurettes. The Blu-ray edition also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Dormant Beauty (Kino Lorber, DVD, Netflix), directed by Marco Bellocchio in a return form (or near enough), is a sober look at the collision of politics, religion, and pious protest based on a real life controversy from 2009 in Italy (with echoes our own Terri Schiavo ordeal). A family chooses to remove a woman from life-support after 17 years in coma. The Catholics rise up in protest and Berlusconi (who remains offscreen) orders his party to vote in sympathy with protesters (because it’ll play well in the media, not out of any conviction), which doesn’t sit well with a newly-elected Senator (Toni Servillo). There are a lot of passionate people in this drama (Alba Rohrwacher as the Senator’s religious daughter, Isabelle Huppert as the mother of another girl in coma), but they are as angry, desperate, damaged and/or self-servingly pious as they are committed to the cause. Bellocchio doesn’t pass judgment when Rohrwacher abandons her protest group for a fling with a charming guy she meets in the protest crowds—if anything, he lets us see this from her POV, meeting a possible soulmate and giving in to overwhelming desire with a swoony rush—but he puts it all into perspective. Everyone is so focused on the sleeping dead that they forget about the living. The contradictions in these characters aren’t complex but they are moving and Bellocchio invests them with the weight of faith and honest emotion.
In Italian with English subtitles. Also available to stream on Netflix.
Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s (Cinema Epoch) – Even among film buffs, the Italian “poliziotteschi” is a pretty specialized taste, given plenty of love by Quentin Tarantino (The Italian Connection was a significant inspiration for Pulp Fiction, and he quotes a lot of the music in his films) and almost single-handedly resurrected for American home video by Raro. This documentary, directed by Mike Malloy (an American fan turned genre historian), runs a bit long as such documentaries go (over two hours) s, but in the case of such an obscure genre, that is as much a strength as a weakness. Malloy fills the film with interviews with Americans who made a memorable splash in Italian crime films (John Saxon, Henry Silva, Fred Williamson, Joe Dallesandro, Chris Mitchum, Richard Harrison, and Michael Forest, who also was a dubbing specialist) and Italian from the genre: Franco Nero, Antonia Sabato, filmmakers Enzo G. Castellari, Claudio Fragaso, Mario Caiano, stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua. Malloy provides the history lesson (complete with a checklist of inspirations, copies, and blatant rip-offs of American crime movies) but the personal stories and anecdotes are what make the film fun. A little too enamored of his own low-budget flourishes and of dubious value to anyone not already intrigued by the genre, but if you’re a fan, this is an informative (if a bit pedantic) overview with plenty of clips and some great tales.
The DVD quality is strictly low fidelity, and it features bonus interviews and other supplements.