In Theaters

The process of self-discovery can be challenging enough in and of itself. But imagine what it might be like to go through that in the midst of trying circumstances in a world you barely understand. If you can picture that, you have an idea of what life is like for a superhero coming into her own, the story that provides the backdrop for the new summer blockbuster, “Wonder Woman” (web site, trailer).

In a secluded land created by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, an impressionable young Diana (Lilly Aspell) pictures herself becoming one of the Amazonian warriors who populate this remote, protected enclave. In this land devoid of men, these heroic women (all of whom were brought to life by Zeus, who sculpted them from the sacred clay of the earth) learn the ways of doing battle for just and noble causes. They train for years under the tutelage of master warrior Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s greatest inspiration. But, despite her enthusiasm, Diana is discouraged by her peers (especially her mother, Queen Antiope (Robin Wright)) not to be too anxious to learn the ways of the warrior. She’s cautioned that this way of life involves skills to be used only when necessary, such as in the event of a challenge from Zeus’s son, Aries, the god of war, who wrought devastation against mankind and threatened to do the same to the Amazons (a prospect that prompted Zeus to create their sheltered homeland, as well as a weapon designed to vanquish the wayward deity if necessary).

Still, despite these cautions, Diana is anxious to get on with her training, first as an adolescent (Emily Carey) and later as a young adult (Gal Gadot). Her skills gradually blossom, revealing her to be a force to be reckoned with. And, as fate would have it, she one day comes upon circumstances that provide her with an opportunity to put her training to use.

While gazing out upon the sea bordering her homeland, she sees a strange flying machine crash into the water. She dives in to save the sole occupant, a being of a nature she had never encountered before – a man. That being turns out to be Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American undercover operative working for British military intelligence during World War I, the “Great War,” which is wreaking havoc throughout Europe. Steve accidentally stumbles upon the Amazon homeland while fleeing Germans seeking to capture him and to retrieve information about the secret weapons technology he stole from them while under cover.

Upon subsequently witnessing the treachery of these evil outsiders for herself, Diana is convinced that they’re doing the bidding of Aries. And so, when Steve announces his intention to return to England to report his findings to his superiors, Diana joins him, determined to do her part to aid in the war effort. Steve places little stock in her contentions about the god of war and whatever influence the mythical deity may be having on the conflict, but, when he sees what she can do when caught in the middle of combat, he’s grateful to have her along for the ride. Before long, this unlikely duo, accompanied by a ragtag band of associates (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock), are off to the war front in Belgium to do battle with German commander Ludendorff (Danny Houston) and his secret weapons developer, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya).

As strange as this experience is for Steve, it’s even stranger for Diana, who finds herself in a truly foreign land, more bizarre than anything she might have ever imagined. She struggles to learn the ways and customs of this strange new world, often with mixed results. But, as she comes to discover herself and her destiny, Diana never loses sight of her training and how she can employ it to a situation where it’s clearly called for. Through this process, she learns her purpose and how to make use of it in what is arguably one of the noblest causes anyone might ever undertake, one with mythic implications.

Diana’s odyssey is certainly an inspiring one, a tale that stirs us and encourages us to embrace our own personal truth and what it means to discover that for ourselves. It engenders the kind of courage needed to move forward with our lives, no matter what challenges may cross our paths. And, as director Patty Jenkins’s film illustrates, it shows us how we can do so with good humor and profound thoughtfulness.

“Wonder Woman” is also a terrific thrill ride, serving up an array of terrific action adventure sequences and excellent special effects, but the film doesn’t rely on these devices to carry the picture; they’re integrated well into a narrative that incorporates other elements not typical of this genre or of a period piece film. And all of this is carried off successfully thanks to the excellent performances of Pine and, especially, Gadot, both of whom are clearly in their element here. Admittedly, the picture drags a bit in a few spots (though not oppressively), and the script is somewhat awkwardly burdened by having to tie this film’s story into that of the movie where Diana’s character was first introduced, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), a shameless (and completely unnecessary) marketing ploy that neither helped that cinematic predecessor nor adds anything meaningful to this offering. But, these minor shortcomings aside, “Wonder Woman” otherwise delivers the goods successfully, providing viewers with a fun, exciting and thoughtful time at the movies.

Finding ourselves can be a rewarding experience, and, when the stakes are high, a successful outcome can be eminently satisfying. “Wonder Woman” inspires us to attain that goal, for the benefit of ourselves and those around us.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

A Meditation on the Power of Love

Who we love is something we should be able to decide for ourselves, but it hasn’t always been that way, especially in many of the world’s traditions-based cultures. With arranged marriages the norm – relationships frequently driven by considerations having nothing to do with love – those who choose to step outside that custom engage in what’s looked upon as radical or even taboo. But, given the power of love, sometimes even tradition can’t withstand such pressure. What it means to take such a drastic step – and the consequences that come from it – provide the focus of the fact-based, Oscar-nominated romance, “Tanna” (web site, trailer), now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

On the Melanesian island of Tanna in the remote Pacific nation of Vanuatu, time seems to have stood still. The ancient tribal nature of the local culture continues to thrive to this day, one of the few places in the world where such a way of life has managed to persist. And, for the Yakel people of this South Seas island, these longstanding traditions apparently suit them just fine. But, in the late 1980s, those customs were called into question when it came to a fundamental aspect of life – marriage.

Having long embraced the tradition of arranged marriages, tribal members learned to live with the practice, hoping that love would emerge out of such arrangements, even if it wasn’t present at the outset. Such predetermined relationships generally had little to do with romance and everything to do with practicality. They were often set up to settle disputes between rival factions, for example, a means of imposing peace by a bond of blood.

So it is in the film, when a young woman, Wawa (Marie Wawa), is offered up by one tribe to Kapan (Kapan Cook), a member of a rival faction, as a means to promote peace between the two groups. The two tribes’ chiefs (Mungau Yokay, Mikum Tainakou) agree to the arrangement and are apparently happy with the plan. But no one ever bothers to ask Wawa, who is deeply in love with Dain (Mungau Dain), a member of her own tribe. And that’s a problem.

The forbidden relationship of Wawa (Marie Wawa, left) and Dain (Mungau Dain, right) threatens the peace among two rival tribes in the Oscar-nominated romance, “Tanna.” Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment.

As plans proceed to hand over Wawa to her new husband, she’s plainly unenthused, showing little interest in the idea, an attitude that concerns her parents (Lingai Kowia, Linette Yowayin) and grandmother (Dadwa Mungau), particularly when she reveals the reason for her indifference. They tell her that they sympathize but insist that she carry through with her responsibility, given the stakes involved. But that pressure has little effect,  especially when she quietly disappears for a tryst with Dain, a gesture that she’s convinced will so offend Kapan that he’ll reject her when he hears of her disgraceful act. But, in the interest of preserving the agreement, Wawa’s family and her tribal leaders seek to keep that development secret. And, to add an extra level of insurance, they banish Dain from the tribe. What they don’t count on, however, is Wawa disappearing, too, to follow her man – and her heart.

“Tanna” clearly demonstrates what it means to be in love and the lengths we’ll go to for it. This innovative production was filmed on location on a shoestring budget with a minimalist crew and drew entirely upon members of the Yakel tribe for the cast, none of whom had ever even seen a movie, let alone acted in one. Nevertheless, the result is an excellent offering reminiscent of time-honored classics like Romeo and Juliet set in a lush tropical paradise, with an array of surprisingly good performances and gorgeous cinematography. To be sure, there are times when the film plays a little like a National Geographic documentary, but, thankfully, those sequences are minimal and don’t detract from the picture’s overall quality. For its efforts, the Australian production earned a very deserving Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, whose dialogue is presented in the native Nauvhal language.

Violating local custom carries serious consequences for a lover who follows his heart (Mungau Dain) in the Oscar-nominated romance, “Tanna,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment.

Sometimes it takes a radical act to bring about change, even when it comes to something as basic as who we choose to share our lives with. Traditions can be challenged and without necessarily incurring undue consequences. But, should we attempt to stifle the heart, we may pay a heavy price, both for ourselves and the community at large. And, in that regard, the lessons of “Tanna” should serve as a potent cautionary tale to us all.

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “Gleason”

What makes a hero? Many of us probably think of comic book figures or first responders or other sorts of courageous rescuers. But, as the documentary “Gleason” (trailer) illustrates, heroes sometimes come in the unlikeliest of forms.

Former NFL player Steve Gleason didn’t really fit the profile of your typical football star. He was a little undersized, and the quiet, unassuming, thoughtful gentleman didn’t come across like the prototypical gridiron hero. But what he may have lacked in stature he made up for in tenacity and drive, giving his all to the game and making quite a mark on the field.

As a safety for the New Orleans Saints, Gleason is best known for having blocked a punt that led to a touchdown in the first home game held at the Louisiana Superdome in 2006 after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina a year earlier. The play was seen as a symbol of New Orleans’ rebirth, and it has since been immortalized in a statue outside the stadium. But, despite the impact of this accomplishment, the mark Gleason has left since his football career ended makes this achievement pale by comparison.

In 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron disease that leads to the degeneration of the muscles while leaving one’s mental faculties intact. The disease, which has affected such others as Lou Gehrig and Stephen Hawking, leaves its victims unable to walk, talk and eventually breathe. The typical life expectancy from the time of diagnosis is two to five years. So, when faced with such a prognosis, Gleason chose to make the most of the time he had left.

Gleason and his wife, Michel Varisco, decided that his illness was no reason to prevent them from becoming parents. Nine months after his diagnosis, Michel gave birth to their son, Rivers. Steve wanted to be involved in his son’s upbringing as much as possible. But, knowing what the future held, he realized that he wouldn’t be able to do many of the typical things that dads do. So, to help ensure that Rivers knew who his dad was, Steve began making a series of video blogs to share his thoughts. The blogs, many of which are featured in the documentary, cover a broad range of topics, from love to spirituality to the meaning of life. That’s quite a gift to one’s child, something we all could learn from.

Former NFL star and ALS patient Steve Gleason cradles his son, Rivers, in director J. Clay Tweel’s candid, heartfelt documentary, “Gleason.” Photo courtesy of Open Road Films.

Gleason’s efforts at squaring things in his life didn’t stop at becoming a father. He consciously made an effort to settle his accounts with others, particularly in his personal relationships, such as with his own father, Mike. Through a series of candid, heartfelt exchanges, the documentary depicts how father and son come to terms with years of issues left unsaid and unresolved.

With time for fully appreciating what life has to offer running out, Steve also chose to pursue long-cherished experiences while he was still able. He took an extended road trip to Alaska, seeing sights beyond description. That journey, in turn, inspired Steve to undertake his biggest venture. He went public about his illness and created Team Gleason, a foundation aimed at helping ALS patients by making long-held dreams come true and by improving the quality of their lives through technology and other supporting means. The effort quickly garnered the enthusiastic backing of others, including former teammates Scott Fujita and Drew Brees, fellow NFL players Kurt Warner and John Elway, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Pearl Jam members Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder. Team Gleason’s efforts have since expanded, leading to such accomplishments as the enactment of federal legislation guaranteeing Medicaid coverage of technology enabling ALS patients to communicate when they can no longer speak and the wildly successful ice bucket challenge aimed at raising funds for ALS research. And who says a football player’s heroics only occur on the gridiron?

For all of its inspiration, though, the film has its share of heartbreaking moments, such as its depiction of the decline of Gleason’s physical state. It also shows the stress and hardships placed on the marriage of a couple whose partners obviously love one another but who must also contend with changes and challenges far greater than what either of them probably envisioned. But, as a clip from the couple’s wedding aptly illustrates, the true strength of a marriage comes through not when things are good but when things are difficult. And, from what this film illustrates, this is obviously a couple committed to that ideal.

Available on DVD and video on demand, “Gleason” is an excellent, compellingly candid documentary about a remarkable man on a remarkable journey. The raw honesty and uplifting inspiration showcased in this offering from director J. Clay Tweel are astounding, portrayed with an uncensored frankness rarely depicted on screen. Even though the film is at times hard to watch, its celebration of personal heroism and the spirit to carry on despite the odds is touching, enlightening and mesmerizing.

A full review is available by clicking here. 

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.