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New films: Wonder Woman (and a requiem for Pirates and Baywatch)

Last week I was out of the country and out of the screening loop. Which was great timing, as “Pirates” and “Baywatch” did about as much to make the ocean unappealing in one week as anything since “Jaws.”

Watching Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, at this point, is like getting stuck next to a drunk uncle who only knows three jokes and insists on telling them repeatedly. And like the recent “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” this is a film that spends far too much time mired in magic rather than simple action or mystery. As a result, it doesn’t just figuratively jump the shark (yet again), it literally provides us with several jumping zombie sharks.

If “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” has an upside, it’s in the two younger actors who are here to breathe a little life into this otherwise rancid corpse of a movie. Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are quite pleasant compared to what’s going on around them, which is a shame in a sense because it demonstrates that you could keep this ride going with new blood while still being reminded just how much you want to get off it.

Meanwhile, “Baywatch” is the latest iteration of a TV drama re-imagined as a film comedy and manages the unlikely task of making two of the most popular male stars of the moment, Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, virtually unwatchable. It’s an odd attempt to parody source material while sticking slavishly to the formula it’s trying so hard to lampoon.

Johnson is playing the David Hasselhoff role from television, and Hasselhoff himself appears (for the second time recently, after “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”) in what could have been the worst cameo of last week, if not for Sir Paul McCartney’s awful and awfully pointless (but mercifully brief) turn in “Pirates.”

Efron is the rookie with a bad attitude who needs to learn the true importance of teamwork, while inexplicably saving the Bay one grifter or drug queenpin at a time. Alexandra Daddario (who was Johnson’s daughter in the catastrophic “San Andreas”) is the only female actor who’s given much more to do than fill out a swimsuit or a caricature but, along with the rest of the cast, she drowns in an ironic riptide of conceptual failure.

Which brings us to this week and the saving graces of the refreshingly wonderful “Wonder Woman.”

This is a comic book movie that neither barrages you with countless witticisms nor has the bleak outlook of recent DC projects. Instead, it simply delivers a sound origin story combined with a first epic adventure for a female superhero who’s allowed to stand and succeed on her own merits, including saving the men rather than being saved by them.

And while Gal Gadot’s costume in much of the movie is only slightly larger than those in “Baywatch,” it’s refreshing to have such skimpy outfits have narrative justification (she comes from a culture based in Greek legend, with tight leather armor and bare limbs) and to not be the focus of lingering cameras or gratuitous poses. This isn’t just a female superhero movie, it’s a female superhero movie made by a female director (Patty Jenkins, “Monster”) and it shows. Ultimately, there’s far more of Chris Pine on display than there is of Gadot – and even that’s played for humor rather than lurid spectacle.

If there are flaws here, they mostly lie in just how long it takes to get the whole thing rolling – we’re 45 minutes deep into the movie before Princess Diana of the Amazons leaves her hidden island dojo and sanctuary, in a quest to kill Aries, the God of War. Also, in moving the action back to the First World War, but also being shown that we’ll be skipping ahead to the present in subsequent films, we’re left wondering what she was doing during all the other conflicts of the 20th Century. She’s wonderful to watch but is she that wonderful as a force for love and good in practice?

Still it’s a pleasure to watch. The early pacing isn’t really that slow, it’s just that it caused me to worry if the rest of the movie would feel rushed as a result – it doesn’t. The pacing seems appropriate and only the final showdown seems slightly bloated. But, throughout, you have to remember that she’s only coming to terms with her identity and powers and so we can’t expect any of the action scenes to launch at full speed, as she doesn’t know what full speed is yet.

Despite Memorial Day’s informal role as the unofficial start of the summer, “Wonder Woman” feels like the unofficial start of the sunny summer season at the multiplex.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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