Monday, December 4, 2017
Hollywood loves to recycle the same old same old, lest we forget some stories are universal to every generation. “Perks of a Wall Flower” director Stephen Chbosky’s family-friendly feature “Wonder” (*** OUT OF ****), about a ten-year old lad with facial deformities, reminds us that physical looks aren’t everything. Movies about people with malformed faces have been around since the days of silent movies. Mind you, this genre of films can be divided into two kinds: those where the disfigured folks have their looks surgically reconstructed and those who endure their abnormality without the benefit of change. Twenty-nine versions of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” about an ugly soul lurking in a church, have been released harkening as far as 1909. At least ten versions of the venerable “Phantom of the Opera” have been produced, as early as 1916. Joan Crawford made “A Woman’s Face” (1941) where she regained her good looks through surgery, and Mickey Rourke recovered his looks in the crime thriller “Johnny Handsome” (1989). Director David Lynch’s celebrated saga “The Elephant Man” (1980), a plea for tolerance for the less fortunate, ranks as probably most distinguished. This biographical, 19th century London, England, epic depicted the travails of a horrifically disfigured adult male, John Merrick, who was an otherwise wonderful person. Reconstructive surgery wasn’t an option for Merrick. Later, director Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” (1985) dealt with real-life, twentieth-century teen Rocky Dennis afflicted with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia from birth that made his face appear misshapen and bloated like a caricature. “The Elephant Man” and “Mask” were far more graphic than “Wonder,” but each reflected the shock that occurred when normal people reacted to abnormal people. Typically, when we see somebody who doesn’t blend in with the rest of us, we tend to alienate and ridicule them. We treat them like circus freaks. Although it boasts a happy ending, “Wonder” doesn’t conclude with our protagonist emerging from surgery with a new face. He had to endure twenty-seven surgeries to look the way he does.
The charismatic hero of “Wonder” suffers from a rare hereditary genetic disorder known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The ears, eyes, cheekbones, and chin are deformed, and it ranges from mild to severe. Indeed, August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”) wears a plastic astronaut’s helmet in public to conceal his countenance as his parents. Auggie’s doting mom Isabel (Julia Roberts of “Erin Brockovich”) has been schooling him at home. Now, she can no longer adequately tutor him, because she lacks the experience to teach him about his favorite subject—science. Reluctantly, Nate Pullman (Owen Wilson of “No Escape”) and she enroll him at Beecher Prep School, but they do so with great trepidation. Isobel fears what lies ahead for her son as she watches him enter the school. “Dear God,” she pleads to herself, “please let them be nice to him.” Auggie has a face that resembles something a demented plastic surgeon assembled from spare parts that didn’t match. Nevertheless, despite his horrific appearance, Auggie is just another pre-teen who shares the same dreams and joys of any normal youngster. “Wonder” reminds us that just because all of us aren’t stamped from the same mould is no reason to estrange those with differences. Initially, when Auggie’s parents brought him to Beecher, the compassionate headmaster, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin of “The Princess Bride”), recruited three students of Auggie’s age to give him a tour.
No sooner has Auggie settled into his fifth-grade class than he becomes the object of derision. “What’s the deal with your face?” one cruel student inquires. “Darth HIDEOUS,” sneers another classmate, while one more compares Auggie with Freddy Krueger. Things reach crisis proportions when Auggie’s teacher discovers a classroom photo that Auggie has been digitally deleted from the picture. A note on the back of the photograph reads ugly people aren’t allowed in the picture. Gradually, Auggie makes friends, but his first and closest pal Jack Will (Noah Jupe of “Suburbicon”) unwittingly betrays him during a Halloween carnival. Jack confides in his obnoxious classmates that were he Auggie he would hang himself. Auggie overhears Jack because our young hero isn’t wearing his astronaut outfit as he had planned but came instead as a “Scream” demon. Jack regrets his treachery. Courageously, Auggie perseveres despite Jack’s duplicity. The gauntlet of insults that Auggie runs strengthens his resolve. After Mr. Tushman discovers the culprits who made the youngster’s life an ordeal, things turn one-hundred-eighty degrees for Auggie. Predictably, Auggie triumphs over his worst adversaries and emerges as the most popular student.
Director Stephen Chbosky and scenarists Steve Conrad of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and Jack Thorne of “A Long Way Down” adapted R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel. According to Palacio’s website, she served as “an art director and book jacket designer, designing covers for countless well-known and not so well-known writers in every genre of fiction and nonfiction.” She had spent twenty years putting off writing her first novel until she realized she could dawdle no more. Ironically, she didn’t create the cover for her own novel as she had for some many other authors! The filmmakers have adhered faithfully to Palacio’s basic premise. We shouldn’t isolate others simply because they don’t mirror our own image. “Wonder” scrutinizes the dreadful consequences of bullying. Ultimately, Chbosby and company pull their punches with their saccharine treatment of the subject matter. Fortunately, “Wonder” doesn’t degenerate entirely into a sermonizing after-school special because Auggie has a self-depreciating sense of humor. The sticks and stones our young hero endures during his anguish transforms him into a resilient person instead of a hopeless cry-baby who capitulates in the face of a crisis. Jacob Tremblay delivers a sensitive, low-key performance beneath the layers of prosthetic make-up that he sports throughout this 113-minute, PG-rated, feel-good feature. Happily, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson restrain themselves, too. Sure, “Wonder” will tug at your heart-strings, but only those with glacial indifference to this little fellow’s labors will leave the theater with a dry eye.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
“Justice League” (*** OUT OF ****) is a slam-bang, smash-up saga, but it doesn’t surpass last year’s “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Mind you, as entertaining as “Justice League” is, it isn’t as exhilarating as Marvel’s most recent “Thor: Ragnarok.” At this point, the cliché about apples and oranges crop up. The DC Cinematic Universe differs from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevertheless, despite their intrinsic differences, comparisons are inevitable. I grew up reading DC Comics and preferred them over Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers hasn’t scored the same critical and commercial success that New Line Cinema, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Walt Disney have with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ironically, Warner Brothers made history when it released the first “Batman” (1989) with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, but the esteemed studio—Warner Brothers introduced sound movies--hasn’t maintained the consistency and charisma that distinguishes the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For the record, the first Marvel property to illuminate the silver screen was “Captain America” (1944), but it was a 15-chapter, black & white, Saturday afternoon, Republic Studios serial. DC Comics still beat its competitor to the screen with Columbia’s release of the 15-chapter “Batman” serial in 1943 and followed it up with a 1949 serial sequel. Later, these serials inspired Twentieth Century Fox’s live-action “Batman” television series, co-starring Adam West & Burt Ward, that aired from 1966 to 1968. Initially, the Marvel Cinematic Universe stumbled at the get-go with “Howard the Duck” (1986) as well as the straight-to-video versions of “The Punisher” (1989) and “Captain America” (1990). New Line Cinema’s “Blade” (1998), Twentieth Century Fox’s “X-Men” (2000), and Columbia’s “Spider-Man” (2000) struck pay-dirt on the big-screen. Disney has since appropriated the MCU from Paramount Pictures, and they have made it a cornerstone of their studio. Ultimately, the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t have anybody like Stan Lee, the venerable Marvel Comics’ publisher and chairman who everybody recognizes and adores with his cameo appearance. Moreover, Warner’s has not been able to duplicate its stunning back-to-back success with “Batman V Superman” and “Wonder Woman.” The biggest problems facing “Justice League” are its $300-million price tag and its $150-million advertising campaign. Meaning, just because “Justice League” is a good movie, doesn’t mean that it will triple its investment like “Batman V Superman” and “Wonder Woman.” “Suicide Squad” was no slouch either with worldwide receipts amounting to over $745-million.
Meantime, any movie that resurrects the Last Son of Krypton can’t be all bad. “Watchman” director Zack Snyder and scenarists Chris Terrio of “Batman Vs Superman” and Joss Whedon of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” have not only brought Superman back from the grave, but they have also ushered the Flash/Barry Allen, Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and Cyborg/Victor Stone into the fray. Some may be disappointed to learn that this Flash (Ezra Miller) isn’t the same Flash (Grant Gustin) in the WB’s television series. Furthermore, Snyder and company shun frivolous romantic subplots since they have more than enough to keep them busy with the newest superheroes. Clocking in at two high-octane hours, “Justice League” doesn’t dawdle Surprisingly, even with Joss Whedon aboard, “Justice League” qualifies as strictly by-the-numbers with few surprises. The first third dispatches Bruce Wayne (former “Daredevil” Ben Affleck) to recruit Barry Allen, Arthur Curry, and Victor Stone because an intimidating the ancient extraterrestrial villain threatening Earth—Steppenwolf (voice of Ciarán Hinds)—is more than the Dark Knight can handle. Says Wayne to Aquaman, “I believe that an enemy is coming from far away. I'm looking for warriors. I'm building an alliance to defend us.” Steppenwolf looks and sounds sufficiently malevolent. This wicked superhuman warrior wields a nasty electro-axe and invades Earth with an army of google-eyed airborne predators called Parademons. Before he sets off in search of the new superheroes, Bruce Wayne reacquaints himself with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot of “Wonder Woman”). She sneaks into his ultra-security equipped Bat Cave without tripping off any alarms. Reluctantly, Allen, Curry, and Stone agree to join up, but Aquaman/Arthur Curry isn’t impressed initially with Bruce Wayne. “What’s your super power,” the oceanic warrior asks. “I’m rich,” replies Wayne.
Unlike “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” confines its humor to clever dialogue quips. At one point, Alfred Pennyworth (Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons of “Reversal of Fortune”) remarks to Wayne, “I miss the days when one's biggest concern is exploding wind-up penguins.” This doesn’t keep the Flash from enlivening the action with his fleet-footed frolics. Ultimately, once the Justice League has assembled, and Steppenwolf has uttered his ultimatum, the second third ensues with the resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill of “Man of Steel”), but he isn’t particularly pleased with the Caped Crusader and what happened in “Batman Vs Superman.” Wayne keeps a secret weapon in his arsenal to lure Kal-El back into the fold. Unless you’ve skipped Superman’s earlier exploits in “Man of Steel” and “Batman Vs Superman,” you should be able to guess what Batman has that can change Superman’s mind. Death hasn’t been too traumatic for Clark Kent. He has managed to preserve his magnificently muscled physique along with his incandescent laser-beam eyes. The final third pits the League against Steppenwolf, and this obnoxious hellion doesn’t go quietly into that good night. Of course, you know that the Justice League will thwart Steppenwolf, but he doesn’t go down with a fight.
The biggest letdown about “Justice League” are the segments that introduce the various superheroes. Surely, Snyder and his writers, particularly Joss Whedon, could have conjured up something more exciting and less generic. The confrontation between Wonder Woman and a criminal gang planning to plunge the world back into the Stone Age lacks the “wow” factor. The same goes for the other superheroes. Batman unveils some impressive gadgets, namely ‘the nightcrawler.’ Snyder relies again on CGI galore, as he did in “Batman Vs Superman,” but this is not surprising considering it depicts larger-than-life heroes and villains who perform the impossible. Altogether, despite its predictable plotting, “Justice League” delivers action aplenty and doesn’t wear out its welcome.