Sunday , December 17 2017

Jenkins saves DC Extended Universe – ‘Exception’ elegant, well-acted

Ten months before “Wonder Woman” was released, an open letter made headlines for claiming the movie was a “mess.” Director Patty Jenkins responded.

“Real lasso of truth, time, will reveal that letter to be false soon enough,” she wrote. “But lame something so transparent in its agenda gets traction.”

Ten months later, Jenkins got her validation. The film won over 93% of critics, and audiences responded too, giving it an A CinemaScore overall. And now, with over $100 million at the domestic box office, “Wonder Woman” has been crowned the largest opening weekend ever for a female-directed film.

“She has a mindset and a vision and just an approach that is so smart and exciting,” Warner Bros. distribution chief Jeff Goldstein said of the director. “She is a great storyteller — fun and innovative.”

It’s a sentiment that’s tough to argue with now, but when Jenkins responded to the open letter in August of 2016, she was fighting an uphill battle; that was before she shifted the narrative of the DC Extended Universe.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the obligatory point of comparison for all DC films, and visa versa) had found a way to appease the critical community with Joss Whedon’s witty “Marvel’s The Avengers” and James Gunn’s joke-dense “Guardians of the Galaxy,” DC Extended Universe movies had earned a reputation for being dark and dour. Earlier that month “Suicide Squad” was panned by critics, as was “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” before it. With “Wonder Woman,” Warner Bros and DC didn’t just need another movie that made a lot of money — it needed a quality film (that also made a lot of money).

Which is what they got, but it wasn’t always a sure thing. For example, Jenkins wasn’t the studio’s first choice. In April 2015, Michelle MacLaren parted ways with the project, citing the cliched “creative differences” that only sparked more questions. “Wonder Woman” also had the added pressure of being the first of 19 films between the Marvel and DC movies universes to be centered on a female character, let alone have a woman at the helm. That made the film inherently political, leading to events like the screening in Austin, Texas that sparked backlash (and backlash to the backlash) for hosting a screening exclusively for women.

But in the end, Jenkins got results. In an interview with Collider, the director said she has no deleted scenes to add as bonus content for the “Wonder Woman” DVD because they don’t exist — the movie that’s in theaters is the movie she wanted to make. That’s more than can be said for “Suicide Squad.” She also knew the movie had to appeal to young girls, who would inevitably see the film. That wasn’t just a creative decision, but a business one as well. When “Suicide Squad” was released, Goldstein told Variety, “We’re resonating with a younger audience. The younger the audience, the higher theScore.” And then there’s that tone. “The thing I think is so important to always keep in mind about her is how positive and bright and shiny she is,” Jenkins told Rolling Stone.

Review

Andrew Barker hit on a lot of this in his review for Variety: “It says quite a lot about the general tenor of the DC cinematic universe that a film set in the trenches of WWI, with a plot revolving around the development of chemical warfare, is nonetheless its most cheerful and kid-friendly entry,” he wrote.

For Warner Bros and the DCEU, “Wonder Woman” represents a shift in tone that might set a precedent for the films to come. Although he emphasized that each movie is treated as an individual entity, and each director is privy to their own style, Goldstein acknowledged the crucial timing of “Wonder Woman’s” success across the board.

“We realized we had issues at the beginning of this process. We were heavily criticized. Some movies work, some movies don’t work. We all hope for movies like this. This, for us, couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said.

“Wonder Woman” — like any super hero movie with over $150 million riding on it, but with more loaded gender politics — could have been a mess. Now there’s almost sure to be a sequel. Thank goodness Jenkins held onto her lasso of truth tight.

 

The Germans may have been the bad guys in World War II, but those we meet in “The Exception” don’t fit the mold at all — which explains the title change in this historically inspired, charitably revisionist adaptation of military veteran Alan Judd’s “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” which marks a tony big-screen debut for British stage director David Leveaux. Elegant, well-acted and a good deal sexier than the material might suggest, “The Exception” pokes fun at Hitler and his lockstep followers, while presenting its German protagonists as charming pacifists who’d rather be feeding the ducks and chasing skirts than waging genocide and world domination.

Mounted in the style of such art-house crowd-pleasers as “The King’s Speech” and “The Last Station” (with which it shares stage-and-screen royalty Christopher Plummer, bookending a career that practically began in uniform as the dashing Capt Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”), “The Exception” takes place far from the front lines, focusing on the romance that upsets a wounded officer’s unusual assignment to protect Kaiser Wilhelm II, who has since been exiled to Holland following Germany’s defeat in the First World War — and whom the Third Reich now fears could be a target for symbolic assassination.

Unlike the bloodthirsty Nazis running the show in Berlin, both the Kaiser and Capt Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, playing an Iron Cross-decorated officer whose battle scars do little to diminish his Aryan good looks) have seen enough of war. For Brandt, no amount of one-night stands can chase away the nightmares of a young girl he couldn’t save, and though he’s too disillusioned to return to the front, there’s virtually no risk in his latest mission, which amounts to a glorified babysitting gig. Meanwhile, elbowed into near-irrelevance, the Kaiser clearly thinks of Hitler as a clown, and doesn’t hesitate to say as much, even if his own wife (a tight-lipped Janet McTeer) is quick to do damage control: “His earlier remark about the Fuhrer was simply a correction of fact, you understand, and in no way a criticism,” she adds.

Such moments just go to show how paranoid Hitler’s autocratic grip on Germany has made the entire country, including its former ruler, who doesn’t much care for the direction things have taken since his forced abdication in 1918. Whatever his misgivings, the Kaiser is basically obliged to cozy up to the little tyrant, as we can see from all the fuss and bother his team makes in anticipation of a visit from Hitler’s right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan, who turns the SS ultra-villain’s ideals into a form of buffoonish obedience).

Bringing a fair amount of humor to the table, TV writer Simon Burke (“Persuasion”) treats Judd’s novel as a sort of 20th-century twist on “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which everyone privately considers the Fuhrer to be a screechy, silly-mustached cretin, but no one dares say it to his face. And yet these characters prove defiant in their own ways, as illustrated by whispers of a British spy who’s infiltrated the Kaiser’s household. (RTRS)

This isn’t the sort of film to exploit such intrigue for long, cutting directly to the mole: a local Jewish girl named Mieke (“Downtown Abbey’s” Lily James), recently hired as a housekeeper. Mata Hari in a maid’s uniform, Mieke uses her sexuality as a weapon, openly flirting with the Kaiser, while indulging in more intimate hanky panky with Brandt back in his quarters, then sneaking behind both of their backs to deliver vital intel to the resistance-minded priest in town.

Though well handled, these espionage elements pale in comparison to the curious dance each of these characters must do with one another, judging just how much of their true selves to betray with each interaction. The first time Mieke enters Brandt’s chamber, he orders her to strip, suggesting a certain power dynamic, but when they next find themselves in his room, it is she who takes the upper hand, and Brandt who bares himself to her. In his own way, the Kaiser also lets down his defenses, effectively putting first his opinions and later his life in the hands of those whose agendas he might do well to question, all for one last thrill at playing the lusty rapscallion.

Although the film feels cinematic enough that few will suspect Leveaux’s background in theater, the director coaxes a masterful performance from Plummer, who brings soul to the Kaiser, when the he needed only to put a twinkle in the eye of his one-dimensional character. While the story centers on the “good German” — Brandt, that rare Nazi captain who defies orders and listens to his conscience (clearly located somewhere between his loins and his heart) — it’s Plummer who steals the show, suggesting that the entire country might have gone another direction had he been left in charge.

By Seth Kelley

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