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Indie Focus: A hero returns in ‘Wonder Woman 1984'

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The Sundance Film Festival announced its 2021 program this week, a slimmed-down lineup of 72 feature films to be unveiled during an ambitious hybrid event that will be mostly online.

Festival director Tabitha Jackson acknowledged how things may still change between now and the beginning of the festival, and how hard it is to predict their impact on the event. “I think that one of the amazing things about film is that the audience makes the meaning to a large extent. And so even from a month or so out, things might feel different in January. It’s going to be a new year, it’s going to be a new political administration in this country, the vaccines will be further along, it will perhaps be a more hopeful time. And the meaning of these films will change again as we watch them.”

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For this week’s episode of “The Envelope: The Podcast,” I spoke with writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine and star Aubrey Plaza about their collaboration on “Black Bear.” Have you been feeling out of sorts, unsure of your place in the world? “Black Bear” is asking those questions too.

The film’s intense, destabilizing look at creative partnerships and identity struck Plaza from the first time she read the script and left her with questions of her own.

“I think my first reaction was just that it felt so unique and that I had never read anything like it before,” said Plaza. “And of course, I had a lot of questions about just logic and what came first, one or two — or is there an answer to that or are these up for interpretation, and things like that. I think my first question was like, ‘How the hell do you think that I’m going to be able to do this?’ When Larry gave it to me, I was very flattered that he believed in me so much that he felt like I could handle that material.”

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‘Wonder Woman 1984'

Directed by Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman 1984” was originally scheduled as a summer blockbuster but now hits limited theaters and the HBO Max streaming site on Christmas. Reviews came out this week, so we’re including it here a little early. A sequel to the 2018 hit, the film again stars Gal Gadot as the female superhero, with a supporting cast including Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal. And it is indeed set in the year 1984.

Sonaiya Kelley interviewed Gadot and Jenkins and spoke with them about the film’s unusual release. “Before the pandemic, I would’ve flipped out and had a tantrum and fought super hard” for a traditional theatrical release, Gadot said. “But in pandemic times, you just don’t know. I hope that, once the pandemic is over, all these wonderful big movies with great filmmakers and stars will go to theaters. I can’t see studios making tentpole movies just for the streamers, because it’s a 360 experience to go to a theater and experience that. I certainly hope that, once the pandemic is over, things will go back on track.”

Jenkins added, “I’m disappointed that [Warner Bros. is] not waiting and seeing what happens for the other films that they’re doing it with. In our case, we are the most overdue movie, so I really think now was the time to release our film.”

Ryan Faughnder wrote about the movie as a tipping point to finally bring HBO Max to Roku streaming devices. “Both sides were motivated to get a deal done by the Dec. 25 opening of ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’ Having its service available to Roku users significantly increases HBO Max’s reach. Without Roku, WarnerMedia could have missed out on millions of customers who might have signed up to see one of the year’s most anticipated movies. Adding HBO Max, and the content that comes with it, should help Roku keep its customers from departing for competing devices that carry the app.”

In his review of the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The pandemic’s toll on moviegoing, and the temporary suspension of our collective blockbuster fatigue, may account in part for why this picture makes such welcome company. But it also has something to do with Gadot’s Old Hollywood glamour, Pine’s second-banana appeal and the serio-comic elasticity of Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal in key supporting roles. They’re all distinctive parts in a smooth-running narrative engine that channels the buoyancy and big-hearted spectacle of the Richard Donner ‘Superman’ movies, with a few period-appropriate nods to body-swap comedies for good measure.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “This sequel had almost everything going for it. Its empathetic predecessor is likely the most beloved and critically successful of the slate of beleaguered DC Comics films. … Sadly, all that glittered in the franchise’s first outing is gone in ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’ The disappointing sequel highlights not only the dire state of the live-action superhero genre in film, but the dire state of Hollywood filmmaking as a whole.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “‘Wonder Woman 1984’ is, in so many ways, a more ambitious, expansive movie than its predecessor, tackling more in the way of dramatic chaos, big feelings, and convoluted archaeological villainy. But Diana Prince herself, as resumed by Gal Gadot, feels a little less complicated, her personality even more razor-focused, more straightforwardly virtuous, than before. It makes all the excitement that arises in the movie’s button-busting two-and-a-half-hour runtime feel somehow narrow, too, even as the premise expands. “

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “Maybe it’s time to consider just how workaday the superhero-movie version of saving the world really is. Gadot is a charming, vital presence: You’d have to be made of concrete not to respond to her. Yet even though she looks stunning in her red-and-blue Wonder Woman garb — and at one point shows up in a suit of golden armor that transforms her into a glorious art deco bird — Gadot is most engaging as Diana Prince. Her human weaknesses are her most compelling feature. But just being a woman is never enough for anybody.”

Kristen Wiig shakes hands with Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman 1984.”
Kristen Wiig, left, as Barbara Minerva and Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in “Wonder Woman 1984.”
(Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

‘Funny Boy’

Directed by Deepa Mehta, “Funny Boy” is Canada’s submission for the upcoming international feature film Oscar race. Based on Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel (Selvadurai and Mehta co-wrote the adaptation), the film tells the story of a young man coming to terms with his gay identity against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. Released by Array, the film is streaming on Netflix.

For The Times, Tracy Brown wrote, “It’s both precious and refreshing when queer characters in coming-of-age stories fall in love without having to overcome any inner turmoil over their identities, so Arjie and Shehan’s story is plenty heartwarming. But as ‘Funny Boy’s’ narrative weaves in the escalating violence between the Tamils and Sinhalese in their town, the comparative lack of urgency (outside of familial disapproval) makes their love story almost secondary by the end.”

For IndieWire, Jude Dry called the film “a luminous coming-of-age tale seen through the eyes of a relatable yet entirely unique experience. Any queer person can see themselves in Arjie’s romantic yearnings; anyone who’s faced discrimination will feel his pain and confusion at being forced from his home. As if with the breezy wave of a hand, Mehta has woven these intricacies with a painterly touch, stacking the opposing forces of sexual and cultural identity into a whirl of color and emotion and memory. ‘Funny Boy’ is heavy but never burdensome, lighthearted but never lightweight. In sweet Arjie, we find a joyous portrait of awakening, reckoning, and holding onto oneself.”

Brandon Ingram and Rehan Mudannayake look at a book in "Funny Boy."
Arjie (Brandon Ingram), left, and Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake) in director Deepa Mehta’s “Funny Boy.”
(Array)

‘Farewell Amor’

Written and directed by Ekwa Msangi, “Farewell Amor” tells the story of a family reunited, beginning with a man (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) picking up his wife (Zainab Jah) and daughter (Jaime Lawson) at the airport after they have been separated between Angola and New York City for 17 years. They struggle to come together again as a family, as they all continue to grow as individuals. Released by IFC Films, the movie is available on digital and VOD.

For The Times, Kevin Crust wrote, “Though the film is shaped by big topics such as immigration, race, identity and religion, its power lies in its universality achieved through the small human details that tell its story of love and family. Its beauty lies in its empathy — something currently in short supply and therefore very welcome in the stories we consume.”

For the New York Times, Devika Girish wrote, “Msangi employs a neat trick to capture the family’s coming-together in all its complexity. Split into three chapters, the film depicts their reunion from each character’s perspective, switching from the wide shot of the opening to a more intimate, point-of-view style. Each version deepens our understanding of the characters by highlighting new details: a strained smile; the hesitation before a hug.”

For rogerebert.com, Monica Castillo wrote, “In ‘Farewell Amor,’ distance sets the scene and gives each character some sort of secret to cope with. Walter drifted to a new lover, Esther found community elsewhere, and Sylvia is becoming her own person independent of her parents. Distance has become a shared trauma, one they will each have to work through if they want to be a family once again. While distance brings about the end to any number of relationships, the characters of ‘Farewell Amor’ don’t let years of separation have the final word on what happens next.”

A family reunites in an airport in the movie "Farewell Amor."
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, left, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson in the movie “Farewell Amor.”
(IFC Films)


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