Wondrous History (With Footnotes)

Earlier this year the big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman took over cineplexes, capturing a worldwide gross of over $816 million. It took decades for her to reach the big screen, while the superhero genre stayed the preserve of male heroes. The movie misfires of Catwoman and Electra early in the 2000s didn’t help. But finally Wonder Woman made it onto the screen in all her Amazon glory. And now, with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, we have a decidedly-adult companion piece that looks at the creation of this remarkable character, an icon of the Feminist movement.

The story is told in flashback as Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), is interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a crusader for decency in children’s literature and the executive director of the Child Study Association of America1. The story jumps back to Marston and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), teaching psychology2 at Radcliffe in the 1920s while they try to perfect Marston’s idea, a machine that can detect lies. They take on a teaching assistant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), though Elizabeth worries that Marston will fall in love with the young and beautiful Olive. He does, but Olive confesses that she’s more interested in Elizabeth. Their living together causes a scandal, which they eventually cover by moving to Rye, NY and telling neighbors that Olive is Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. Marston hadn’t patented the research that led to the lie detector, but eventually his life with Elizabeth and Olive leads him to create Wonder Woman3.

Writer/Director Angela Robinson presents a fictionalized though compelling look inside the unconventional family that led to the creation of the first female superhero4. Marston has a four-point theory of interpersonal relationships, which Robinson uses to frame the story. She handles the growing attraction and conflict between the three principle characters with tenderness that makes it understandable to the audience, leading to the climactic moment when their feelings are consummated. Cinematographer Bryce Fortner infuses the flashback scenes with rich Technicolor tones that glow, but for the Josette Frank scenes the screen is dull light with blues and browns.

The interplay of the three main characters is crucial to making the story work, and Robinson is well-served by her cast. Evans had a major success earlier this year as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast after roles in both the Hobbit and Fast and Furious franchises. Here he shows much more sensitivity, as well as presenting Marston’s fascination with bondage in a way the character doesn’t fully understand. The role of Elizabeth is Rebecca Hall’s best role since her breakout in 2010’s The Town. She embodies the frustration of a powerful intellect metaphorically chained and imprisoned by men’s attitudes. It makes her rejection of societal norms not just understandable but inevitable. On the other side, Bella Heathcote’s Olive struggles against the privilege given her by her physical beauty – a struggle for depth against the expectations of superficiality.

Britton is an iceberg of righteousness sent to sink anyone who sets a course outside the norm. It’s a restrained role, but she also lands some telling blows in her dialogue with Marston. Oliver Platt has a small but delightful role as M.C. Gaines5 who effectively started the superhero comic book when he published Superman, followed by Batman a year later.

“Based on a true story” often means that everything except the names have been changed, and much of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is more “based on” than “true story.” But the feel of the central story of their unconventional relationship6 rings true, a relationship that created Wonder Woman. It may have taken over 70 years for her to fully take her place in the pantheon of superheroes7 but now she has. With the campaign against harassment coming front and center in the nation’s dialogue now, perhaps part of it is women claiming the spirit of an unconventional heroine with an unconventional origin.

*****

  • Josette Frank was a renowned editor of children’s books. The Children’s Book Award, given out since 1943, was renamed in 1997 in her honor. Frank was on the DC Comics advisory board and did, in 1943, speak out against Wonder Woman, but Robinson has used her in the movie as a stand-in for psychologist Frederic Wertham, who in the 1950s wrote Seduction of the Innocent about the effect of comics on the youth of that day. Wertham’s writings led to the imposition of a new code by the Comics Magazine Association of America: “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.”Wertham put Wonder Woman at the top of his list of objectionable comics. Early in the film we see children collecting comics that they eventually burn, but that didn’t happen until Wertham began his campaign against comic books. In 1943, in the middle of WWII, comic books would have been donated to paper drives for the war effort, but never wasted in burnings, especially with the fresh memory of Nazi book burnings before the war.
  • Elizabeth gets shortchanged in the script – she was a lawyer as well as a psychologist, lectured at American and New York Universities, was an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and McCall’s, and assistant to the chief executive of Metropolitan Life Insurance.
  • Much of Wonder Woman’s iconography is shown in their lives. The golden rope that forces people to tell the truth is the lie detector machine, and Marston is given a glass airplane as a gift that becomes Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Through their lives together, Olive Byrne could never wear a wedding ring, so she instead wore golden bracelets on her wrists.
  • While a substantial portion of the movie shows Marston’s developing interest in bondage, which also draws in Elizabeth and Olive, Robinson ignores how bondage was the common visual and physical embodiment of the suffragette and family planning movements. Articles often had illustrations showing women in chains, and a suffragette in England chained herself to the railing at 10 Downing Street during the fight for the vote.
  • Maxwell Charles Gaines figured out the format of comic books in 1933 while working as a salesman for Eastern Color Printing. He later co-founded All American Publications (which eventually became DC Comics) as well as EC Comics. The movie has Marston seeking out Gaines to sell his creation, but in fact Gaines asked Marston to be a consultant after his comics first began to receive pushback from societal watchdogs. He’d read a profile of Marston published in Family Circle magazine that was written by Olive Byrne under a pseudonym. After Gaines’s death in 1947, EC Comics was taken over by his 25-year-old son William. The company was effectively driven out of business by Frederic Wertham’s crusade, but William emerged after that as the publisher of Mad Magazine.
  • The relationship between Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lasted for their lives. Elizabeth and Olive each had two children with Marston. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Olive’s children were middle-aged that Elizabeth finally told them that Marston was their father, on the condition they never ask her about it again.
  • The history of Wonder Woman after Marston mirrors the social attitudes of the country. She’s been in print except for a short period in the 1980s, but she got pushed down into a secondary place in the later 1940s and 1950s. When she joined the Justice Society (the precursor of the Justice League), she was the group’s secretary. Her powers kept being taken from her by writers and editors, and her origin (formed of clay and given life by Zeus) was changed to a conventional one. By the 1960s she was more of a secret agent than a superhero. But then Gloria Steinem reclaimed her as a symbol of empowerment by putting her on the cover of the first edition of Ms. Magazine, with the tag line “Wonder Woman for President.” Her powers were restored in the comics, and the TV series with Linda Carter cemented her superhero status again. With Gal Gadot’s performance, it should never be in question again.

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Still A Battle

As I write this, Harvey Weinstein is out at the company that bears his name – at least it bears that name momentarily, though that will likely change. In the past year Fox News lost its founder and its marquee mouth, both because of sexual abuse accusations, and the company’s paid out millions for allowing a culture of abuse to exist for years. Bill Cosby’s lawyers managed a hung jury last year, but he’ll likely be tried again. We had the sadly well-named Anthony Weiner receive the maximum sentence for showing off his hot dog. On the other hand, we learned last year that a blatant confession of sexually-abusive behavior was not a disqualifying factor for becoming president. These are but the logical end of the culture of paternalism that holds men to be superior to women. The examples above thought they could do what they liked because they were males, and throughout history that has been the case. It’s a continuing battle to progress past the stereotypes that society has placed on gender, race, and orientation, though there have been victories.

Battle of the Sexes dissects one of those early victories. When Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, ups the prize money for the men in its events to ten thousand dollars but leaves the women’s prize at fifteen hundred, the women walk out. Led by tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the women form the Women’s Tennis Association and set up a tour. It’s hard going at first, with the players having to do everything, until Heldman arranges a sponsorship deal with Virginia Slims.

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) was a former number one ranked player who’d won Wimbledon and the US Open decades earlier. By the early 1970s, he was retired from the sport and working for his father-in-law. However, Riggs was a compulsive gambler and tennis hustler, and with the rise of the WTA he saw the chance cash in. He’d play the male chauvinist pig who would put the women back in their pace by showing that, at 55 years old, he could beat a woman in her prime.

The script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Everest) does a wonderful job capturing the era. It helps that King served as a technical advisor to the production. Each principle has their challenges. Bobby’s behavior causes massive strain on his wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) and his adult son from a prior marriage, Larry (Lewis Pullman). Caught up in the establishment of the WTA, Billie Jean’s away from her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), for extended time. It allows her to discover her sexuality with a free-spirit hair stylist, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), but she must keep the relationship secret.

The acting is exquisite, though in different ways. Carrell looks like Riggs, and he plays him as a deeply-flawed but in some ways endearing man. (In real life, Riggs and King stayed friends until Bobby’s death from prostate cancer in 1995.) On the other side, Stone doesn’t look like King, but she capture’s King’s physicality and spirit so perfectly that you believe she’s King. Interesting trivia: Carrell and Stone are each one year younger than Riggs and King when they met.

The supporting actors are like a field of diamonds, each shining brightly in turn, though it’s an inward fire that light them. Special kudos to Lewis Pullman, who communicates the pain that the irresponsible Bobby causes his son, even as Larry wants to love him. Alan Cumming has a pivotal role as Ted Tinling, the openly gay fashion designer who dressed most women tennis champions from the ‘50s through into the ‘80s. Tinling could be the subject of his own movie, since he was a champion tennis player himself, then after his death it came out he’d been an Allied spy during WWII. It likely helps that many of the cast have worked together before. Stone performed with Carrell in Crazy Stupid Love, with Riseborough in Birdman, and did “Cabaret” on Broadway with Cumming. The closest connection, though, would be Bill and Lewis Pullman, who are father and son.

Another connection is the directing team of Valarie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who’d directed Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine. (They’re also responsible for the delightful movie from 2012, Ruby Sparks.) They direct with a feather-weight touch, though it can hit you like an emotional sledgehammer. For instance, a scene at a dance club where Billie Jean and Marilyn first feel their attraction exhibits nothing overt, but it’s crystal clear what they’re feeling. It does help that the scene’s played to the song “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells.

The climax, of course, is the historic match between King and Riggs, played at the Houston Astrodome in front of an audience of over 30,000 and a world-wide television audience of 90 million. It remains the largest audience ever for a tennis match. Faris and Dayton had access to all the videotape of the match, and they recreate it in such a thrilling way that you find yourself watching it as if it were happening at that moment.

King helped put women’s tennis on par with men’s, where it has remained since. It also created parity in purses at matches. But outside of tennis and despite attempts to remedy it, pay for women still lags behind men, and along with it the acceptance of women as just as valuable as men. Virginia Slims used the song, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” in their ads at the time of the Battle of the Sexes. Today, with paternalism still strong and leading to the abuses detailed in the first paragraph, it’s clear there’s still a long, long way to go.

Blow It Up Real Good

Steven Soderbergh has always been an outsider in Hollywood, even when it embraced him. His first feature, 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was a major step forward in popularizing independent film. Over the next nine years his movies were less successful, but then he found that crime can pay off. His stylish yet quirky adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight became one of the best movies of 1998, and he followed it up with The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Oceans 11, winning the Best Director Oscar for Traffic. His cool visual style effectively contrasts the theme of rooting for the outsider. The quote-unquote loser is the typical Soderbergh hero. In the subsequent decade he made highly-successful movies (Magic Mike, the Oceans sequels, Contagion) along with personal films like a two-part biopic of Che Guevera, but was frustrated by the studio system, which had co-opted the independent movie scene by buying production houses like Miramax and New Line, or starting their own pseudo-independents like Fox Searchlight. After Side Effects (2013), Soderbergh announced his retirement.

When it comes to finances, the studio bookkeepers put the Mafia to shame. They can make a successful movie look like a financial dud by layering on studio costs for the production. Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi made over $400 million at the box office off of a production budget of about $40 million, but according to the studio it never made a profit. Writer Art Buchwald sued Paramount over 1988’s Coming to America since it grossed over $350 million but supposedly made no profit. Paramount settled the suit for $900,000 rather than have the court look at their bookkeeping methods. Even Stan Lee and Marvel came to legal loggerheads because of the vanished profits of Sam Rami’s Spiderman. On top of production bookkeeping, the studios put out massive advertising campaigns that can equal or even exceed the cost of the movie’s production, and all that money has to be paid off the top by the film’s gross. It takes an army to make a film, but they don’t share in the profits. It’s the studio that makes the money.

Soderbergh’s retirement lasted about 3 months. Instead of film, he produced and directed two seasons of “The Knick” for Showtime, where he also had executive producer credit for the TV version of one of his films, “The Girlfriend Experience.” He also executive produced “Red Oaks” for Amazon, now going into its third season. Soderbergh couldn’t completely turn his back on movies, but when he decided to come back he also decided to re-write the rule book for making films.

In an interview with GQ, Soderbergh says he first became aware of the script for Logan Lucky when he was asked to help find a director for the production. In the end, he decided to do it for himself. The script, though, has a bit of mystery surrounding it, since the credited screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, apparently doesn’t exist. No one knows the actual writer behind the movie who used the Rebecca Blunt psuedonym.

It’s fitting that Logan Lucky has a country twang. From 1976 to 1981, SCTV (Second City Television) parodied television production at an incredibly low-budget station. One of their regular segments was “Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up” that featured the great John Candy and Joe Flaherty as two farmers who combined their love of movies with their love of explosions. They’d have on a celebrity, with a dead-on impersonation by Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, or Catherine O’Hara, then blow them up at the end of the segment. With Logan Lucky, Soderbergh has blown up the studio system and created a blueprint for others to follow. He sold the foreign rights to raise the movie’s $29 million production budget, including a million to pay the independent studio Bleeker Street to do the wide release of the film. Then he sold the broadcast rights to HBO, Netflix, and VOD to raise the publicity funds. The cast and crew worked for scale, but they will get to share in the film’s gross, which currently stands at around $28 million.

The script is textbook Soderbergh, with a cast of losers who aim to make themselves winners by pulling off an impossible crime. Rather than a fancy location like the Oceans movies, this is set in Red State South where West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee all come together. Soderbergh knew the set-up would cause comparisons to the Oceans movies; he even has a TV commentator in the film refer to the crime as “Oceans 7-Eleven.” But rather than the smooth heists in the earlier films, the only polish to the crew in Logan Lucky is on their cars and their boots.

The Logan clan in southern West Virginia is known for its lousy luck. Jimmy (Channing Tatum) is faced with losing easy access to his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) when his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) plans to move out of the state with her new husband whose family owns a series of car dealerships. He also loses his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when a manager notices him limping to his truck and has him fired out of liability concerns. His two siblings are his biggest supporters: sister Mellie (Riley Keough), who’s a hairdresser, and his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost an arm while deployed in Iraq. After an obnoxious race car sponsor (Seth MacFarlane) and his lackeys have a fight with the brothers, Jimmy decides to steal the weekend receipts from the Speedway. But to do it, they’ll need the help of a backwoods bomber, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who’s currently in jail.

The twists and turns of a caper film are its greatest strengths, and Logan Lucky has plenty of them, but it also has a wonderful light touch and a true love for the characters. The cast has a ball with their roles, and Soderbergh has assembled one of the best casts of the year. In addition to those previously mentioned, the film also features Sebastian Stan, David Denman, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, and Hilary Swank. Luminaries from NASCAR are also on hand, including Darrell Waltrip, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon. (Edwards and Busch have cameos as state troopers who pull over a speeder.) I wouldn’t be surprised to see Craig nab some nominations during award season for his performance as Joe Bang.

Logan Lucky is a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. If it inspires other filmmakers to bypass studios to make their films, then that would be the biggest caper ever in the history of Hollywood.

Getting His Due

I discovered Vince Flynn’s thrillers a couple of books into the series starring his hero, Mitch Rapp. Rapp was Jack Ryan on steroids, a better version of Jason Bourne than in the Robert Ludlum books. After I finished that book, I went back and read all the previous books he’d written, then continued to read Flynn’s new novels. As an author, Flynn’s personal story resonated with me. He hadn’t set out to be an writer; his degree was in economics, and he’d been hired by Kraft Foods after graduation as a sales and account specialist. Two years later he gave up his job for a chance at a commission as a Marine aviator, only to be scrubbed because of concussions he’d had as a child that cause seizures. Back he went to sales for another company.

A dyslexic, Flynn struggled with reading when young. He fought the condition by forcing himself to reading novels, including both Clancy and Ludlum. After he washed out of the Marines, Flynn had the idea for his own novel that he worked on while keeping his regular job. After a couple of years, he decided to go all in on writing. He left both his job and his native Minnesota to move to Colorado where he wrote full-time while supporting himself on part-time jobs like bartending. Five years passed. He finished the novel, but he received over 60 rejections of the manuscript from agents and publishers. Frustrated with the traditional publishing route, he decided to self-publish the book, years before Amazon and the internet made self-publishing common. In this, he followed a similar path to John Grisham’s start as a writer, though he didn’t have Grisham’s law practice for support. The book “Term Limits” became a bestseller in the Twin Cities and helped him land an agent and a contract with Pocket Books. Their edition of “Term Limits” became a New York Times bestseller. In his follow-up, “Transfer of Power,” Flynn introduced his signature character: CIA operative and covert warrior Mitch Rapp. All of Flynn’s books hit the NYT Bestseller list, and the 9th book, 2007’s “Protect and Defend,” became the first of his regular appearances at the top of the chart.

By 2007 the Jack Ryan movie franchise had already been through one attempted reboot with Ben Affleck, while that year saw the third Bourne movie released with a domestic gross of over $200 million. CBS Films optioned the Mitch Rapp series, but like the first book it took years for Mitch Rapp to appear on the big screen. It’s strange, since the first Rapp novel, “Transfer of Power,” dealt with the White House being taken over by terrorists. It would have made a better movie than either White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen.

Originally a later book was planned as the source for the first movie, but in 2010 Flynn published “American Assassin,” a prequel that told Rapp’s origin story. It gave producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura the chance to start at the beginning. The highly-respected team of Ed Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz were brought on to do the script, with Zwick directing, but that attempt didn’t get off the ground. Another director was recruited and the script was revised by Michael Finch, a more pedestrian screenwriter (Predators, Hitman: Agent 47). Again, the production didn’t gel. Finally, with the movie option about to expire, a fourth writer took a crack at the script: Stephen Schiff, a producer and writer for the outstanding FX series “The Americans.” The directing assignment was given to  Michael Cuesta, who’d begun his career with the well-received 2001 movie L.I.E. and subsequently produced and directed episodes of “Six Feet Under,” “Dexter,” “Elementary,” and “Homeland,” among other projects.

Early on Chris Hemsworth was attached to play Rapp, but that fell through. Instead, when the production finally came together, Dylan O’Brien was cast. O’Brien’s in his early twenties, which matched Rapp’s age in the book and would allow him to play the role convincingly if it became a franchise. O’Brien came to prominence in a supporting role on the MTV series “Teen Wolf,” then landed the main role in the Maze Runner trilogy. He suffered a serious injury that landed him in the hospital during the filming of the final installment, which pushed back that movie’s release date to next year. He came to the American Assassin production after recuperating. In fact, the beard he wears early in the movie was grown while he was recovering.

The movie opens with a moment of happiness for Rapp as he proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) in the surf at a Spanish resort. The happiness is blown away by a brutal terrorist attack on the vacationers that leaves Mitch wounded and Katrina dead. A year and a half later, Mitch, obsessed with killing those behind the attack, has honed his skills with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. His attempts to gain access to a terrorist cell as a supposed recruit brings him to the attention of the CIA, in particular deputy operations chief Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). She convinces CIA Director Stansfield (David Suchet) to let her recruit Rapp for a black-ops unit run by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Soon Rapp’s drawn into the field and paired with a female Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar) in an operation to take down an arms dealer. But the mission changes when they learn the dealer’s client is a former operative of Hurley’s, Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who’s gone over to the dark side.

Vince Flynn’s devotees have been hoping for a movie for years – I know I have – so the question is, does American Assassin satisfy that hope? The answer is, sort of. The script is a bit of a mishmash after all the different versions its gone through. Kitsch handles the physical action but isn’t compelling as a villain. It’s a role where you need the menace of Jarvier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall, and that’s far beyond Kitsch’s ability. On the plus side, the script does capture some of the feel of the Rapp books. The set pieces are thrilling and sharply filmed, and the movie makes good use of shooting on-location in Europe.

But the best part is the acting of O’Brien, Keaton, and Lathan. O’Brien does well as Rapp, who on the surface is a blunt instrument but who also has depth, and Keaton is dead-on as the ice-Cold Warrior Hurley. After pretty much disappearing from movies for years, Keaton has come back with a vengeance with Birdman, Spotlight, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now American Assassin. In the books, Kennedy is pure Ivy League spy, but Sanaa Lathan makes you forget that and completely accept her in the role. Shiva Negar is compelling in the role of Annika, and I was delighted to see David Suchet in the role of Stansfield. It’s a small role, but Suchet always makes his roles memorable.

Personally, I hope they continue the series. Even with Bond, it took three times for the series to strike gold with Goldfinger. The film did a bit better than expected at the box office for its opening weekend, making about $16 million including early showings on Thursday. That was enough for a solid second-place at the box office, behind the juggernaut of Stephen King’s It, and in line with the opening for John Wyck.

Sadly, Vince Flynn can’t share in the pleasure of seeing his creation adapted for the movies. He passed away from prostate cancer in 2013 at the age of 48. But the character he created is living on, both on the page with new novels written by thriller author Kyle Mills, as well as with American Assassin. After the struggle to get his voice heard, it’s fitting that Flynn’s stories go on.

The Miles Between

Taylor Sheridan is on a roll. After two decades as a supporting actor in Hollywood, including long-running roles on “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy,” he switched to writing in 2015. His first screenplay was for one of the best thrillers that year, Sicario. He followed that up with Hell or High Water, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Now he’s also taken over the directing chair for his third screenplay, Wind River. Where the first two movies were action flicks with a strong emphasis on character, Wind River flips the equation. It’s a character drama with searing explosions of action along the way.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a hunter for Fish and Wildlife Service who eliminates predators such as wolves and mountain lions when they attack herds of sheep or cows in the central Wyoming area. It is rough, untamed country where there are miles between houses, and the Wind River Reservation takes up 2.2 million acres outside the towns of Lander and Riverton. Lambert picks up his son from his estranged wife Wilma (Julia Jones), who’s headed to Jackson Hole to interview for a job, and takes the boy to see his maternal grandparents on the reservation. Lambert’s former father-in-law, Ben (Apesanahkwat), shows Cory a cow killed by a mountain lion and its two cubs. Lambert goes hunting, but what he finds in the snow is the body of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the daughter of his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham). She had run barefoot through the snow until her lungs burst from the cold.

Lambert and the reservation police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), meet an FBI agent dispatched to investigate the death. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is literally dropped into the wrong season; her regular assignment is in Florida, but she was attending a conference in Jackson which made her the closest agent. The medical examiner can’t call the case a homicide based solely on the cause of death, which would allow for the deployment of FBI agents. Instead, Jane’s on her own, and she recruits Lambert to help her discover why Natalie died as she did. She doesn’t know that Lambert is haunted by his own tragedy that closely mirrors the case.

Renner and Olsen have shared the screen twice before (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). They have a mature chemistry together underlying their characterizations in this film. Renner’s Lambert reflects the stoic fatalism found on the surface of the residents, but beneath there’s a roiling ocean of emotions. Jane Banner could have been a comic fish-out-of-water character, but between Sheridan and Olsen they’ve created a character of intelligence who knows what she doesn’t know and seeks to compensate. The supporting cast is outstanding, in particular Gil Birmingham (who played Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water) as the father who can only grieve in private.

The story slides to tragedy as we learn what happened, though the movie has more hope than you usually find in such a film. Hope is needed in real life, since Native American women are the only population group for which figures on disappearances are not kept. While the movie was being filmed at the Wind River Reservation, tribal leaders visited Sheridan and told him at that time there were 12 unsolved murders of young women on the reservation, out of a population of 6000. Tribal police were stripped of the right to arrest and prosecute non-tribal people for crimes committed on the reservation in 1978. The jurisdictional mess caused by this has led to many perpetrators going undiscovered and unpunished.

As often happens, art reflects real life.

The Name is Blonde…Atomic Blonde

For years there have been rumblings that it was time for a female to inherit the role of James Bond. 1995’s GoldenEye caused shock for some when Judi Dench took over as M, even though in real life MI-5 already had its first female Director-General, Stella Rimington, since 1992. Dench became one of the best parts of the series for the next 20 years.

We’ve seen a renaissance for the female hero. Wonder Woman has spent the last few months in the top 10 at the box office, and Jodie Whittaker will take over the most iconic role in British Science Fiction as the 14th Doctor. The most compelling characters in the powerhouse “Game of Thrones” are the women, particularly the lethally evil Cersei, her nemesis Daenerys, and the assassin Arya. (They’ve also survived, where most of the men have not.) Daniel Craig remains as 007, but progress has a way of building a better road if the old path is closed. So we have Charlize Theron out-Bonding Bond in the spy thriller Atomic Blonde.

Theron not only stars but produced the film. She’d bought the rights to the graphic novel “The Coldest City” before it was published. Kurt Johnstad, hired to adapt the story, is best known for adapting another graphic novel to the screen: Frank Miller’s 300. Directing duties were given to David Leitch, the former stuntman/actor who helped make John Wick a sleeper hit. In fact, Theron trained with Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2. But what helped launch the filming of Blonde was Theron’s visceral performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. While Tom Hardy had the title role, the movie revolved around Furiosa at its heart. Theron delivered in the role, and showed she could handle the action.

Rather than use Bond as a template, Blonde’s DNA goes back to the hard-edged spy movies of the 1960s that were a reaction against the camp of 007. Blonde has the blood of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File (among others) spilling across the screen. It also has the violent action turned up to eleven, including a ten-minute ballet of bullets and blood that’s cut to look like one continuous shot. The camera twists through 360 degree turns as Theron fights her way down a staircase and out of a building.

The story is set in November 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s told in flashback as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is debriefed by her superior Eric Gray (Tobey Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), while the head of MI-6, C (James Faulkner), watches through one-way glass. She was sent to Berlin to recover a miniaturized file hidden in a watch that has information about agents around the globe. A Soviet agent took it off a British agent, killing the Brit in the process, but rather than submit it to Moscow, he’s gone rogue and aims to sell the file to the highest bidder.

The mission’s compromised from the moment Broughton steps off her flight to Berlin. Representatives of a KGB arms dealer try to kidnap her at the airport, but she manages to escape and makes contact with the British station chief in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). Percival covers his spy activities as a black marketer in East Berlin, though it’s an open question as to which job has his loyalties. Also in the mix is a beautiful though inexperienced French agent, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who wants to defect.

The plot of Atomic Blonde is a dizzying trail of double- and triple-crosses. You may find yourself wishing for a score card to help keep track of everything. Boughton is almost constantly in peril, but those who go up against her find themselves to be the ones in danger. With her background in dance, and after working with eight trainers in preparation for the movie, Theron shows herself to be a match for any male action hero. But don’t mistake the physical action for the cartoonish version seen in many films. Leitch shows the physical and emotional drain of the fight sequences. When characters get hit, including Theron’s Boughton, there’s pain to pay, and the audience itself is out of breath by the end.

On the other hand, Theron can out-sex-appeal any secret agent in any movie, which creates an interesting dichotomy to the film. McAvoy is effective as the dissolute Percival so you’re never sure which game he’s playing until close to the climax of the film. It’s good to see Sofia Boutella play a realistic and sympathetic character here, after her Odd Job with legs role in Kingsman: The Secret Service, her heavily-made-up turn in Star Trek Beyond, and of course her mummy-issues with Tom Cruise.

While James Bond remains a bastion of unrepentant paternalism, the old “weakest sex” trope is dying away (albeit slower than it should). I think if Bond and Broughton went up against each other, my money would be on Broughton to walk away the winner.

An End to the War

A movie trilogy is a different animal than a series. Rather than an on-going story with repeat characters, a trilogy focuses on a story too large to fit in one movie. It’s closer to a three-act play in construction. The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies are good examples, and there’s a good chance the current Star Wars series may accomplish the feat as well. I’d also make the case that the special edition of Godfather I & II, cut into chronological order, fits as a trilogy: Vito, Vito & Michael, Michael alone. (We’ll forget about Godfather III; Please, let’s forget about Godfather III!)

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the series begun in Rise and continued in Dawn now fits as a trilogy – and a stunning third chapter it is! The accomplishment is all the more amazing in view of the origins of the series. The original Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic, with its script adapted by Rod Serling from a book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai). With the mammoth success of the movie, Twentieth Century Fox ordered a sort-of sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its climax being the total destruction of the planet. Not the best move if you want another sequel, but Fox did the time warp again and went back to show how Earth became the Planet of the Apes. The movies were schlocky after the first, but were embraced by fanboys before Hollywood realized there was such a thing as fanboys. Tim Burton’s remake of the original kept the schlock without the grace of Serling’s script, and it had one of the worse endings ever stuck on a movie. But it was a financial success, grossing nearly $200 million.

At the same time as Burton’s movie with its made-up monkeys, Peter Jackson was revolutionizing character animation by using motion capture (mocap) technology to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Animation is originally the artist’s creation, with an actor adding their voice. Mocap technology works more like virtual make-up to support the actor’s performance. It’s the actor’s expressions and physical movements that control the animation, and because of that mocap performances should be considered along with all other performances during awards season. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in War is definitely Oscar-caliber.

War takes place fifteen years after the experimental drug augmented the intelligence of Caesar’s band of apes and led to a pandemic that wiped out most of the humans race. But pockets survive, including a military regiment under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). At the end of Dawn, the human survivors in San Francisco had contacted the regiment, and the Colonel led his men south to battle the apes. War begins with a skirmish between the two groups, with Caesar defeating the Colonel’s men. Rather than killing or imprisoning the surviving soldiers, Caesar sends them back as a peace offering. All he wants is to be left alone by humans. But the maniacal Colonel blames the apes for the destruction of society, and in a horrible attack he comes close to destroying Caesar’s world.

Caesar sends the rest of his apes to where he believes they’ll be safe, while he heads out to have his revenge on the Colonel. Some apes accompany him, including the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konaval). Caesar is also haunted by the spirit of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose anger and obsession precipitated the confrontation with the San Franciso humans in Dawn. Along the way Caesar’s band picks up two new members: the mute human child Nova (Amiah Miller) and the elderly chimp from a Lake Tahoe zoo who thinks his name is what the humans kept calling him, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).

War for the Planet of the Apes has as part of its DNA the westerns of John Ford, with Caesar coming close to the obsessive Ethan Edwards played by John Wayne in The Searchers. He’s matched by the Colonel, who echoes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But War creates its own powerful story, and the interaction between Serkis and Harrelson crackles with electric energy.

While Zahn’s character is called Bad Ape, he is anything but, and Zahn injects a beautiful humanity (it’s the only word that fits) into his character. Humanity also flows from Amiah Miller’s Nova, who is adopted for all intents and purposes by Maurice. She has an assurance in front of the camera that is far beyond her years, and though she only signs a few lines in the film, her eyes speak volumes.

Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns to the director’s chair for War, and he again collaborated with Mark Bomback on the script. As with the screenwriters of Rise, Reeves and Bomback both play with and pay homage to the original series. Yet War is far superior to any of the original five movies, including the first. War rises to a Shakespearean level of drama, even as it tugs on your heart.

There’s been some talk of a fourth film, but I really hope the studio will leave well enough alone. The story of Caesar in Rise, Dawn, and War is fulfilling, and deserves the grace of an ending.