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December 2020: The Month of the 'Woman' Movie | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
WARNER BROS.//FOCUS FEATURES//NETFLIX

December 2020: The Month of the ‘Woman’ Movie

Back in 2017, when the first Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman movie was released, it arrived the same year as several other movies with the word “Wonder” in the title. There were Wonder, Wonderstruck, and Wonder Wheel, and even Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women, which was an origin story for the creation of the Wonder Woman character. 

With the Wonder Woman sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, arriving last week, it came alongside several other films, not with “Wonder” in the title,” but rather “Woman.” Wonder Woman 1984 is one of four “woman” movies that arrived not only in 2020 but in the month of December (or it would have been, had one film not been pushed back a week). Wonder Woman 1984 is joined by Promising Young Woman, I’m Your Woman, and Pieces of a Woman

Without further ado, reviews of all four: 

Wonder Woman 1984 

Wonder Woman 1984, as you may have heard, is the first film in Warner Brothers’ new strategy of placing first-run movies on HBO Max, at the same time they come out in theaters. 

The sequel to 2017’s massive hit, despite some good ideas, is a significant step down from the original, as it’s significantly overlong while missing a lot of the things that worked so well about the original. 

It is, however, still a much better film than most of what the DCEU put out in its first few years. Returning director Patty Jenkins capably handles the action, but most of the film’s problems are at the level of the screenplay – which is credited to Geoff Johns, David Callaham, and Jenkins.  

When we last left Diana Pierce/Wonder Woman, she had defeated the Greek god of war, against the backdrop of World War I, and also suffered the death of the love of her life Steve Trevor (Chris Pine.) 

The new film is set about 70 years later, in 1984, and because Wonder Woman is immortal, she still looks the same. But due to a loophole involving wishes, Pine’s Steve character returns, and for more than a cameo – he’s in fact in a very large chunk of the movie. It’s yet another example, in today’s blockbuster cinema, of death never mattering, being permanent, or having stakes, and it’s not even the first time with Pine – if you remember the egregious cop-out of an ending to Star Trek Into Darkness

The sequel to 2017’s massive hit, despite some good ideas, is a significant step down from the original

The new Wonder Woman has two villains. Pedro Pascal (from Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian) plays Max Lord, an aspiring oil mogul, while Kristen Wiig plays Barbara Minerva, whose entire character arc is based on the high school trope of the less popular girl being jealous of the more popular one. 

The plot, meanwhile, seems inspired less by comic book canon than by the types of mythical stories that involve genies, although for all I know this is all straight from DC stories I’m not familiar with. 

Both Diana and Barbara work at the Smithsonian, where there’s a Monkey’s Paw-like antiquity called the Dreamstone, which enables anyone to make a wish, while at the same time sacrificing the thing most important to them. Much of the film consists of intensely choreographed battles over the stone, and eventually over different characters convincing each other to renounce their wish. 

What works in the film? The action sequences are well-done, and there are more of them than in the first film. I liked the one early on, in a 1980s-decorated mall, as well as a fine chase scene in Egypt, although the climactic fight has a little too much in common with some of the more excessive DC stuff in the past, while making one of the characters look like something out of last year’s Cats movie. Gadot is a born star, who commands the camera at all times, and Wiig was an offbeat but wise choice for the role of Barbara/Cheetah. There’s a cool moment involving the Invisible Jet. 

On the other hand, the film is way too long, at two hours and 31 minutes (if you’re dreading the Snyder Cut, Wonder Woman 1984 is only about 90 minutes shorter). Wonder Woman 1984 leans heavily on the ’80s iconography in a few sequences but mostly forgets about it the rest of the time, and the fish-out-of-water comedy falls almost as flat as it did in the London scenes in the 2017 film, one of its few missteps. 

Gadot is a born star, who commands the camera at all times, and Wiig was an offbeat but wise choice

Pascal, while a consistently talented actor, never quite finds the right register to play this particular character. I gather Max Lord is supposed to be some sort of stand-in for Donald Trump, although at this point it’s hard to distinguish the soon-to-be-ex-president’s qualities from those of established supervillain tropes. But the way Pascal plays him isn’t much of an approximation of either 1980s real estate Trump or his presidential incarnation. Plus, there’s no way Trump would ever sacrifice any of his power to benefit any of his children. 

Speaking of presidents, we’re introduced to the one in 1984 who doesn’t look or sound anything like Ronald Reagan, which is a weird and unexplained choice; he and Lord mostly just act out a version of General Zod’s Oval Office visit from Superman II. 

The third act is a mess, adjusting the stakes of the story in a massive way with little time left, and leaving lots of great ideas on the table. 

No, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t bad, exactly. But it’s a step down from its predecessor, and will likely be remembered more for being a landmark in streaming exhibition history than for anything that happens on screen. 

Wonder Woman 1984 is currently on HBO Max, and in select theaters. 

Promising Young Woman 

Here’s one that has already set off angry arguments among critics, that I expect the debate to get even more intense once more people see it. Put me down firmly on the “it’s great” side. 

Promising Young Woman is just a rollicking, fantastic film, featuring Carey Mulligan in her best performance since Shame. It makes great choice after great choice, from a candy-like color scheme that clashes brilliantly with the film’s subject matter, to fine casting choices top to bottom, to the way it slowly reveals information. 

Mulligan plays Cassie, an aimless woman in her 30s who we know dropped out of medical school years earlier. We also know she had a friend named Nina, that something bad happened to her, and Cassie has both generalized and specific plans for revenge. 

It’s pretty clearly the best film yet to engage with the ideas of the #MeToo movement

I will not say much more, because the film is full of surprises, along with wildly audacious choices. It’s pretty clearly the best film yet to engage with the ideas of the #MeToo movement, although this film is far from a lecture or a political jeremiad. Either way, this film is going to get people arguing in a way that way too few 2020 movies have. 

Promising Young Woman was directed by Emerald Fennell, an actress best known from The Crown. She was previously the showrunner of the not-especially-good second season of Killing Eve, but I’ll chalk that up more to that show having no good ideas left after its first year than anything she did. Fennell shows uncommon promise in one of the year’s best first features.

The cast is full of familiar faces performing well, including Bo Burnham (playing a shy suitor who, with this woman, has no idea what will hit him), Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Adam Brody, Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, and Alfred Molina. 

But the star here is Carey Mulligan, who I haven’t always loved in her roles; in some of her movies, she seems always either in tears or on the verge of them. But she gives a commanding performance here, one of the year’s best. 

Promising Young Woman is available through VOD. 

I’m Your Woman 

I love the idea of Rachel Brosnahan playing a leading role in a movie, and I love the premise of I’m Your Woman, I just didn’t love the execution of it. 

Brosnahan, best known forThe Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, also for Amazon, stars in this ’70s-set noir as Jean, the girlfriend of a low-level criminal, and one who’s forced on the run when her husband goes missing. Also, there’s a baby, one of mysterious provenance delivered to their home by the husband prior to his disappearance. 

Yes, this makes the film sound a lot like Raising Arizona, but it’s not nearly that fun. 

I love the premise of I’m Your Woman, I just didn’t love the execution of it

The one great idea here, which is that it takes a stock character from crime films – the gangster’s girlfriend, who usually ends up not figuring much into the plot – but putting her at the center of it instead. 

Brosnahan is good and carries the film, and there are also fine supporting turns from Marsha Stephanie Blake and Arinze Kane. The execution though, just isn’t there, and I found it kind of boring. As for the crime plot, the movie doesn’t really care that much about it, and neither did I. 

Julia Hart (best known for Fast Color) directed the film, which she co-wrote with her husband, Jordan Horowitz, the La La Land producer who was accidentally mis-handed the Oscar a few years ago. 

I’m Your Woman is streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Pieces of a Woman 

If you can get through the first half-hour of Pieces of a Woman and stay with the movie long enough to enjoy it, god bless you. 

The film tells the story of a couple named Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) having a baby, which ends in tragedy. And that tragedy is depicted in a nearly 30-minute, unbroken take, depicting their home birth (which is one of the most harrowing movie sequences in recent memory). It’s a lot of screams, a lot of pain, and even more dread. 

The remaining hour and a half deals with the aftermath, and it’s not nearly as harrowing. Both parts, though, are extremely well-acted by Kirby, who’s a revelation here. 

Pulls in controversial ideas about midwives, but the film doesn’t seem to have its heart in that part

A dynamic soon emerges in which the relatively bougie Martha is married to the more blue-collar Sean, and he’s therefore looking down upon by Martha’s overbearing mother (Ellen Burstyn, doing fine work despite clearly being old enough to be Kirby’s grandmother, rather than her mother). 

The film, in the end, turns into something of a courtroom drama, which also pulls in controversial ideas about midwives, but the film doesn’t seem to have its heart in that part.

Pieces of a Woman was directed by Kornél Mundruczó, the Hungarian director best known for White God, a fantastic film from 2016 about dogs rising up against their human masters. Pieces of a Woman, written by the director’s partner Kata Weber, is certainly much more conventional, and more human. 

The recent revelations about LaBeouf being accused of abuse by multiple former partners certainly doesn’t have great timing for this movie, although the actor is playing kind of a surly asshole, so it’s not like he’s playing against type. 

While technically a 2020 release, Pieces of a Woman lands on Netflix on January 7, despite a previously announced release date of December 30. 

CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.

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