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Harlan Jacobson Reviews Summer Films

Summer movies are about heroes. And in this hyper-sharpened environment of the performance arts, apparently it takes one to know one. This is the season of Hollywood hero movies, which… I mostly skip. What’s Tom Cruise in the Mummy got to say to me? Worse, last week he said he was going to do a Top Gun sequel. He’s 54 now. He was 23 the first time out. What will they call this one, Shogun… or No Gun? Then there’s Transformers: The Last Knight, which I recall vigorously defending first as a toy in 1985 to fellow parents of toddlers and later as a film, 87 installments ago. These guys could have done TransGender Transformer and dove for the finish line, but no they choked. Then there’s 47 Meters Down, which describes all the money two girls trapped in a shark cage on the ocean bottom didn’t make. 

And the doofus movies – doofuses are anti-heroes, after all, that depend on our knowledge of heroes to be funny. Doofuses have mostly crashed and burned this summer. I admit I am curious about Rough Night, which tanked at the boxoffice, with Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon at the center of a group of girl-buddies who accidentally kill a male stripper. I’m curious only because it’s a female remake of Very Bad Things from 1998, about a group of 30-year-old boy buddies-- including Jon Favreau, Christian Slater and Daniel Stern-- who accidentally kill a hooker. That film was misread as a very bad comedy instead of what it was: a fatalistic black comedy about the social pecking order and Anti-Semitism--and what happens when things go wrong. 

If it’s heroes you want, they’re not going to just come whizzing at you in 3-D. Oh, no, wait they are. Wonder Woman, with the drooled over Israeli actress Gal Gadot, is the embodiment of the 21st Century DC comic book hero who comes to the aid of early 20th Century British Tommies in particular and Western Civilization in general during WWI. Along the way, she falls in league with Steve Trevor, a Yank spy played by Chris Pine in the Tom Hanks regular guy mold. Fleeing a posse of Germans, Capt. Trevor (Pine) in a smoking biplane crashes through one of those soupy, invisible barriers that ripples when ordinary mortals piece it. Wow, Brigadoon, sort of, a Greek island of women warriors revved up in a maximum-estrogen state of preparation for the return of the much-dreaded Ares, the God of War, and Zeus’ petulant son. 

Here Diana, princess and heir to the throne, spars with Antiope, her aunt and martial arts trainer, played by Robin Wright, who wears Spartan straps as well as she does those power suits on House of Cards. 

That’s before Diana leaves home with Trevor to stop the Germans, and dressed in raincoat and hat earns obvious points as a naïf by cutely carrying her sword and shield everywhere around central London. Much has been written about director Patty Jenkins giving the film a light touch, and at 2 hr 21 minutes I suppose she has. Yes, Diana doesn’t brood in Nietzschean profundity, as AO Scott pointed out in the Times. In humanity’s continuing failure, however, to differentiate between fantasy and reality, protestors have objected to an Israeli playing a superhero who loves peace above all but lays waste to the Kaiser’s entire Army. She deflects bullets with her shield. She whirls and leaps. She uses chop-socky techniques invented by Bruce Lee, extended by Jackie Chan and co-opted by the guy who leapt tall buildings in a single bound in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. In short, in addition to a woman having what they call Agency these days, as Wonder Woman Gal Gadot apparently had Agent. That’s what this is about. Over-hyped, WW ain’t all that it’s been trumped up to be. 

Better you should see, while you can: 

The Hero, in which Sam Elliott plays a washed-up actor reduced to doing radio voiceover for a BBQ sauce. Then he gets the good news: still no parts but some film festival in flyover country is giving him the Western Lifetime Achievement Award for a cowboy movie he made 30 years ago. And the bad news: he’s got cancer. Not a perfect film, but perfectly executed and aimed at baby boomer guys who watch the hero they missed being by a whisker heroically tie up loose ends with people they neglected for their careers. 

And you can see Elliott’s wife Katharine Ross, playing his ex-wife, both filmed in their Malibu home, where they apparently prefer to film. Why go out, if you don’t have to? 

There’s your choice: wide-eyed young woman as hero cheerfully doing all the comic book stuff guys do with heavy brooding, or an old white guy hero making one last pitcher of lemonade at the 11th hour of lemons.    

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.