Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Robinson; 2017)

My full name is Shaun Ferguson.  I’ve been fascinated with film my entire life, and have intensively studied both screenwriting and acting while also dabbling in nearly every element of film making I can including a rather detailed online study of film editing from a person in the industry, lots of time discussing film criticism with fellow critics, worked with close friends and family who have degrees in cinematography or at least a lot of time in classes behind a camera, and so on.  While my majors in college were in English and Theater, my minor was in psychology and I have had a fascination with it ever since and have continued studying it on my own my entire life.  I have always been enamored with comic books and superhero culture, and while I haven’t collected comic books in a very long time, I still continue to follow what is going on in the worlds of superherodom to some extent and I love studying the genre in regard to sociology, culture, politics, and religion.  Also, I was raised in an extremely sexually repressed environment of very conservative Christians both at home and at the school I attended, and as an adult have turned a near complete 180 degrees away from that upbringing.  I say all this so that when I gush incessantly about how groundbreaking, fantastic, and enlightening Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, we will both understand that I realize this is a film that may as well have been written with myself specifically as the target audience, it all hits that close to my home.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is yet another biopic in this part of the movie season which gives us biopic after biopic about Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the polyamorous trio who created Wonder Woman and made her a household name.  In 1928 he two Marstons were pioneers in the new field of psychology.  He had a doctorate from Harvard and taught at Tufts University, she also had degrees in both psychology and law, though not doctorates because she wasn’t allowed to at the time as she was a woman, and in addition to their work in the psychology department at Tufts they were also developing a brand new machine which they called a lie detector.  Olive Byrne was a student of William’s whom he became quite enamored of largely due to the fact that she seemed to be an exact mirror image of his wife.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shows us the story of how all these factors ultimately weaved together to create the comic book character Wonder Woman.

While the writing of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women definitely follows the beats of the stereotypical biopic formula so closely you can practically predict ahead of time exactly when character introductions will move onto the inciting incident then to the next complication and so on, most everything about the way the film’s story is told is quite unique.  It’s neither a life story nor a focus on one specific event.  It doesn’t chronicle primarily one character, but the relationship between three, and it’s not about one specific event but rather how so many events, interests, and interactions culminated in something which not only still resonates today, but has only become an even greater and more beloved symbol than when Wonder Woman was first introduced.  Yet, despite the complexity of the story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman never confuses nor slows its pace to a crawl always keeping up the perfect balance between making sure the story is told in great enough detail and gripping the attention of its audience.

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The way Professor Matston and the Wonder Women treats its subject matter is also noteworthy.  While the character development is fantastic, the fact that it focuses so vastly on psychology sets it apart from standard character development and makes the writing both insightful and educational simultaneously.   It also treats the polyamorous relationship between its three main characters with an incredibly deft touch, never judging it in either a positive nor a negative way and also avoiding ever making it exploitative nor entirely clinical but rather portraying an unusual sexual relationship and the psychology behind it in the most mature manner I’ve ever seen in a film.

The camerawork in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is nothing spectacular overall, but it is a step above your standard biopic cinematography and the occasional scene, such as when Marston first sees Olive in the outfit which inspires Wonder Woman’s appearance, is a downright work of art.  The costumes and art direction are top notch, though creating a look to the film which is both authentic and gorgeous and the costumes in particular could get notice come award season.

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Any biopic’s success hinges on the quality of the acting particularly by its leads and not only does it not disappoint in this area, but everyone here entirely impresses.  The two women, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, in particular display talent so on point and nuanced that nearly any actor working today would consider what they’ve done in this film a triumph.  Luke Evans despite playing the title character doesn’t have the emotional depth to his Professor Marston that the ladies do, but he still gives an excellent portrayal anchoring the plot and the other characters in what is the best performance of his career.

Final verdict:  It’s rare enough that a film can be complex, emotional, intellectual, educational, and entertaining at the same time, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also has true insight into human psychology and sexual dynamics.  I wasn’t that excited about seeing yet another biopic in a year which seems to be layering them on one after another more than seemingly any other year in at least recent memory, but not only did Professor Marston and the Wonder Women absolutely blow my socks off, it’s one of the best biopics I have ever seen and far and away the best so far of this year.  I fell in love with its characters and its story, and I’m pretty sure I had a personal psychological breakthrough by the time it was over, but the best compliment I can give it is that when Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was finished and the credits began to roll I didn’t want it to end.

Stronger (Green; 2017)

The Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013 is one of those events that will long linger in the collective unconscious of the American public in a “where were you that day?” sort of remembrance.  One of the survivors of the blast named Jeff Bauman gained instant fame when he was not featured in a photograph alongside his rescuer which made its way into national television broadcasts and graced a great many printed publications as well as new websites and also was able to give authorities information which ultimately led to the discovery of the bombers’ identites.  Stronger is Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) story adapted from the book of the same name written by Bauman himself focusing less on the day of the bombing and more on his physical and mental recovery from the permanent injuries he was left with that day.

Your typical biopic is an exaggerated version of the events surrounding a person’s life.  While most writers and directors do honestly seek to honor the subject of their film as well as educate the public about someone they admire or at least find fascinating, they also realize that real life is often dull and able to be better covered in a documentary if accuracy is the goal over entertainment.  Look to my latest review of American Made as a perfect example.  While I’m sure most of the events covered in the film happened, I am just as sure that Barry Seal cannot have been the source of constant “What? Me Worry?” witticisms and unfazeable charm which Tom Cruise portrayed him as nor could the events unfolded in such a laugh riotous manner.  While I learned a lot about the contras and the drug trade during the ’80s, I also understand that American Made needs to grab my attention through entertainment because I am not going to theater to take a history course, and so the portrayal of characters and events need to be tweaked to fit the stylings of a film rather than be shown to us in stark realism.  What sets Stronger apart from the typical biopic is that it seems far more authentic than most films of its ilk for better and for worse.

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You can tell that the characters in Stronger come from a specific person’s, in this case Jeff Bauman’s, point of view.  We see the people in his life as a group of well meaning, but ultimately seriously flawed individuals.  They want to help Jeff, and a great many put their own lives on hold to do just that, but all give in to the temptations of procrastination and distraction because helping Jeff adjust to his new life and situation is really difficult on both a mental and physical level.  Some characters turn to drinking all the time, some make excuses for him and for themselves, some plant themselves in a place of denial, but nearly all show a truly authentic dichotomy in their wanting to help Jeff but then coming up with excuses not to, especially Jeff himself.  But, one character, Jeff’s on and off girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) is the long suffering character put high on a pedestal that we all recognize in our lives, that one person we know can rescue us from our travails even if in actuality they can’t and who we come to rely on and take advantage of until we are harshly reminded just how much worse our lives would be without them.

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Stronger also shows wisdom and authenticity in showing that the road to recovery isn’t really about grit and determination or that the most difficult steps take place in rehab.  It shows us people who need to learn about themselves in this new world they have entered, people who are used to things one way and who need to give up that one way no matter how difficult it is.  It’s a film that understands tragedy happens not just to one person, but to everyone around that person whether family, friend, or coworker.  Stronger also shows us that the things hardest for us to overcome are those that are not obvious even to ourselves.  Bauman learning to walk again using prosthetics is barely even an afterthought in the film, Stronger is more about his learning to be in crowds again and recognizing that he even has a problem with it, about not letting other people live his life for him now, and even about the little things we all take for granted that now became entirely different now that he’s lost his legs.  These are the things Stronger decides to show us, and this is why I call Stronger wise.

Since Bauman himself wrote the original book, we can easily understand where the wisdom and authenticity in the screenplay comes from (it comes from an incredible amount of self understanding and introspection – the easily applies to us, not Bauman).  None of that would have played on screen, though, were it not for the absolutely phenomenal performances given by Stronger’s cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal always gives us riveting characters, but here he outdoes even himself in both his physicality and in his character work.  The Jeff Bauman he gives us is a remarkably nuanced character who never falls into any sort of stereotype nor generality and always appears to be the multifacted, often even contradictory personalities we truly are.  Add to that the fact that he has to convince us he is a man who has no legs who once did, and he more than convinces, and you have a portrayal which I can nearly guarantee will be nominated for an Oscar come next year.  Walking down that red carpet with him I could also see Tatiana Maslany in her equally hyperrealistic performance of Jeff’s long suffering on-and-off girlfriend.  She gives us a rock who doesn’t even understand herself why she is making herself into one, who truly loves Jeff, but is also truly constantly disappointed in him, and this is the burden she has to come to grips with.   While Stronger obviously couldn’t have even existed were it not for Jeff Bauman, it wouldn’t have the depth and poignancy it does without Erin, and the title of the film applies just as much to her as it does to him – maybe moreso.

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As fantastic as the characters are and as amazingly insightful the screenplay is, Stronger still has one Achilles’ heel which will turn off many audience members, and that is that with its remarkable realism comes a lack of spectacle and excitement.  Stronger is a character piece and a think piece through and through.  The most exciting events in the movie ever get are the anticipation of the bombing itself toward the start of the film, and the loud arguments shouted between people here and there throughout.  This isn’t a story which features physical struggles nor acts of bravery.  It’s a movie about internal torment and relationships, and thus it’s most often a very slow burn of a film.

Final verdict:  If you are a fan of biopics, then get yourself out to see Stronger sooner rather than later.  This is a shining example of the genre which approaches its subject matter which seems both familiar and entirely new at the same time due to the fact that it tackles its story so realistically.  It’s neither a feel good story, nor is it a total downer, but rather a realistic view of a regular life turned topsy-turvy through unavoidable tragedy.  If you are not a fan of biopics in general, this one is a little tougher of a sell.  You may not want to pay full price in the theater to check it out, but there is so much to take from Stronger, I’d ask that you at least give it a look one day down the line when you can stream or rent it.  You will never be thrilled, but you’ll almost certainly find yourself with new understanding.

A Monster Calls (Bayona; 2016)

We’ve all experienced that story in which the prose is exemplary and the plot intense, but you just don’t connect with the main character.  The sporting event where everyone on both sides plays their hearts out and gives a spectacular showing then the final result is based on a bad call by the referee.  Watching A Monster Calls is very much the same sort of experience.  There is so much which is spectacular, but which then ends up being marred due to flawed technique.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old aspiring artist whose mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.  His attachment to his mother due to her state, and the additional stress in his life makes him a target for bullies, one bully in particular (James Melville), add to this an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an absentee father (Toby Kebbel) and Conor has nowhere to escape to except his art and his imagination.  When a tree monster (Lian Neeson) shows up to help Conor in a fuzzy manner, Conor begins to change in ways that scare those around him.

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This set up and opening of A Monster Calls is handled so well it could be used to teach exactly how to handle the show don’t tell rule of screenwriting.  Not once is the word cancer said out loud nor does anyone talk about Conor being an artist, but all these details come across easily and quickly getting us into the story naturally.  Unfortunately, as the story progresses the skill put into the story telling becomes less and less consistent until by the end the characters are literally just blurting out loud how they feel, what they are doing, and what lessons should be learned.  The ultimate lesson is quite a doozy, too, one that takes some bravery to both tell and to allow to sink in so it’s even more unfortunate that by the time we are having it expressed to us it’s done in the crudest possible way.

One element of A Monster Calls that is consistently great, though, is the artistry on display.  The camera work is wonderful with shots through frosted glass windows to obscure what’s happening behind but still giving you an idea, extreme close up shots of pencils and ink so close that shavings are falling onto the paper and ink spreading out to fill its intended area, the titular Monster often quite literally coming out of the woodwork, and so on.  The camera work, the set design, and special effects are all handled wonderfully and with great care giving us a visual experience on par with films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Amelie.  The special effects are also a large part of the show don’t tell element which while inconsistent is done really well when it is done at all well as we see the Monster mirroring the body language and movement of Conor.  While the Monster normally takes on the dominant role when the two are on screen together, a careful viewer will see that the Monster follows Conor’s every move letting us know that what we are seeing is just a projection on his part, and this is the only way the film makes this absolutely clear aside from the audience understanding that this is a realistic film and monsters don’t really exist.

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To further add to the wonderment of the visuals, A Monster Calls has two sections of film that are done using hand drawn animation.  The animation uses a very rough style, but most certainly a stand out one.  The faces of characters can’t be made out, inks run and blend together forming new images and scenes as they do so, the color pallettes are chosen to express a mood, and in the second of the animated pieces, the “real” world of Conor and the Monster begin to blend in with it making for a very beautiful piece and an additional story element that couldn’t be seen coming.

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The acting in A Monster Calls is well done across the board.  Lewis MacDougall who before this had only played a minor role in the film Pan carries the movie excellently.  We absolutely buy into his pain and even the more subtle aspects of the character’s psychology, and this is very much a psychological study, come across well, at least until the closing parts of the film when the writing gives away too much, too quickly, and too crudely, but that is hardly MacDougall’s fault.   Felicity Jones as Mum does a decent job being pathetic and likable, which honestly is really all she is called upon to do.  Sigourney Weaver nails her role as Grandma giving us another nuanced performance (in everything but her accent, I honestly could not tell if she was supposed to be English or American)  in which she has to show that she loves Conor very much, but that is largely due to Mum being her daughter, and also that she will not stand for his acting out.  It’s often a fine line to walk, and she not only walks but dances along it.

A Monster Calls does so much so well, that it’s a near tragedy that it can’t remain consistent.  Two or three brilliant scenes will go by, tugging on your emotions in just the right way, instilling you with awe from the glorious visuals in front of you, and getting across important information to you without your even realizing it’s done so, and then, the Monster will show up and give a rote speech that he is going to do this, and this is why, and this is when crashing you back down to Earth and reminding you that you are just watching a movie, all your belief in this fantasy shattered, and what hope does a monster have if you don’t believe in it?

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Final recommendation:  If you love film primarily for the visual artistry of it, then this is a must see.  The director Bayona and the cinematographer Faura had a beautiful and creative vision that they portrayed wonderfully.  If story is the primary reason you go to the movies, however, it’s a little harder to wholeheartedly recommend.  The story is excellent for the most part, and I feel it deserves to be seen solely for the bravery of its message, but the fact that that message is delivered far too clunkily much of the time and could be a trigger for people who have recently lost a loved one makes me want to say this is not a film for the more casual movie goer.