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Three big new films: two definitely worth watching, one if you have time to waste

“Wonder Woman 1984” (US Rated PG13)

Cast: Gal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal

Genre: Action/Adventure, Fantasy

Dwight’s Rating:

“Wonders never cease!”

Unless, apparently, those wonders involve a certain superhero – literally and figuratively!

Regular readers will recall that the massive 2017 blockbuster “Wonder Woman” didn’t exactly blow me away. Nevertheless, that overhyped and overly-long flick – with not one, but two drawn-out endings – was still amusing and reasonably entertaining, with decent chemistry from stars Gal Gadot, in the titular role, and Chris Pine.

Well, of course, the success of that film guaranteed there’d be plenty more of these. And thus, here we go again with “Wonder Woman 1984”.

Gadot is back and so is Pine, even though his very human character (spoiler alert) died in the previous film, and he’s back playing the same character, even though it’s set nearly 70 years later.

It’s a wonder!

Well, not exactly. It’s all explained. But still!

The film begins with Gadot’s Diana Prince living quietly among mortals in the vibrant, sleek 1980s – an era of excess driven by the pursuit of having it all. Though she’s come into her full powers, she maintains a low profile by curating ancient artifacts, and only performing heroic acts incognito. But soon, Diana will have to muster all of her strength, wisdom and courage as she finds herself squaring off against Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah, a villainess who possesses superhuman strength and agility.

Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) initially starts off with some promise as Cheetah. But it doesn’t last. And Pedro Pascal (TV’s “Game of Thrones”) tries his darnedest as the perverse Maxwell Lord, who comes across as a kind of real life ‘80s Wall Street tycoon Jordan Belfort, even more demented than was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

But whatever “magic” there was in the previous “Wonder Woman” – whether we all agree on the magnitude of that magic or not – it is without a doubt entirely missing from this sequel.

It’s certainly not as amusing. Which is fine. But it’s also not even as compelling. Plus, it’s suffering from major déjà vu, with a storyline as common in superhero comic book movies, as is evil twins and amnesia in soap operas.

Wiig’s character transforming from a wallflower to the captivating Cheetah will no doubt remind you of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “Batman Returns” from 1992. And there’ve been countless superhero movie sequels with the dual “villains” – one who used to be a friend – theme. Yawn!

By the end of the first hour – this thing is nearly a shocking two hours and 35 minutes long (155 minutes) – you’re already exhausted. And yet, nothing’s happened.

And I won’t even begin to get into the questions I have about whether what happens to Wonder Woman in this movie could actually happen to her, based on what we were led to believe in the comics and in the previous film. But anyway…

Making matters worse: Gadot and Pine’s chemistry seems to have evaporated. And while you might have been sad to see him “die” in the previous film, after “Wonder Woman 1984”, I doubt you’ll care if you never see him again in any inevitable sequels.

Thank goodness for streaming (you’ll need HBO Max to see it – legally, at least), because I would have been perturbed to be in a movie theater for this length of time for this very underwhelming picture. (Hopefully you didn’t sign up for HBO Max just for this!)

“Wonder Woman 1984” actually makes me appreciate the original film. Look at what it took to finally make that happen!

Wonders never cease!

“Soul” (US Rated PG)

Cast: Jaime Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett

Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Animation

Dwight’s Rating:

If you could have only one type of food every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

One thing – but it could be flavored and seasoned and prepared differently each time.

If, for example, you say chicken – you could possibly have fried chicken, baked chicken, chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, chicken soup, chicken souse! Anything, but it will be chicken!

There’d be variety in the sensations and tastes, but it’s still chicken – breakfast, lunch, dinner – chicken!

Would that be okay?

One would think that if you’re going to be serving up the same type of food every time, it’s probably best to have a very creative chef in the kitchen.

What does this all have to do with the new animated film, “Soul? Well, in this scenario, Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios is the chef, and the chicken is Pixar’s movies – especially in the last few years.

It’s obvious that since perhaps “Up” of 2009, which had grown adults weeping in their seats in the cinema (and arguably as early as “Ratatouille” two years earlier), there are similar and recurring themes in nearly all Pixar movies: mainly, finding oneself and one’s purpose in the world.

These have seeped in to nearly every production every single year, even into subsequent “Toy Story” sequels. The characters may change, with different time periods, species, talking inanimate objects and worlds, but things have been feeling awfully repetitive for almost a decade.

Thank goodness the chef in the kitchen is still exceptionally skilled and talented.

And thus, “Soul” represents some amazing but also troubling things.

With this chicken recipe, we’ve got an all-star voice cast, including, Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Basset, Daveed Diggs, Graham Norton, Questlove, and many others.

Foxx plays Joe, a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is jazz, and he’s very good. But when he travels to another realm to help someone find their passion, he soon discovers what it means to have soul.

While this is still chicken, it is certainly a very tasty dish. Beautifully animated and with expert performances from the voice cast, “Soul” is definitely a good picture, with lots of heart and spirit and, pardon the pun – soul. It delves deep into some issues one would certainly not expect from such an exuberantly animated film.

And with a primarily black cast – in terms of voice and with the appearance of the animated characters – it presents some of the unique experiences of the race, and some notable firsts for Pixar.

“Soul” is certainly superior to last year’s lackluster “Onward” (which must represent what happens when chicken is barely seasoned and burnt in the oven). It’s also not as creepy as Pixar’s other story about death (other than “Up” – see what I mean about recurring themes), 2017’s “Coco” (which was perhaps overly spicy chicken?).

In any event, all these movies are about celebrating life, and living it to the fullest. But “Soul” is Pixar’s best effort since “Inside Out” (2015).

The problem is, I’m not too sure how much longer we can keep eating the chicken before we get sick and tired and become vegetarian or even vegan.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (US Rated R)

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman

Genre: Drama

Dwight’s Rating:

Fearless prediction: someone’s winning an Oscar for this one!

If it happens, remember I told you so!

The late Chadwick Boseman’s final film performance is indeed an incredibly memorable one. And it would not shock me at all to see him win posthumously this year.

It’s not exactly clear in which category he’d be nominated – whether it’s Lead Actor or Supporting, as a case can be made for either – but the strength of his performance as Levee, along with the sympathy vote after losing his quiet battle with cancer, will be hard to ignore.

His co-star Viola Davis makes a strong case that she deserves a second Academy Award as well.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is producer Denzel Washington’s second film adaptation of a play by the late August Wilson. It follows “Fences” (2016), which Washington directed and starred in, along with Davis. This time Tony Award winning director George C. Wolfe is at the helm.

The premise is simple: tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.

Feeling much less like a stage play like than the film version of “Fences”, “Ma Rainey” is still like a stage play, in that the focus is on conversations and interactions and character studies.

And so, “Ma Rainey” is all about the performances. Even outside of Boseman and Davis, there are some outstanding ones from the supporting cast members who are part of the band – Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Matthew Potts – along with Jeremy Shamos as Ma’s manager and Jonathan Coyne as the recording studio owner.

But whenever Davis and especially Boseman are on the screen, they command all our attention. The two deliver a master-class on acting.

We must continue to treasure the incomparable Davis, and mourn the loss of Boseman, who was clearly well on his way to being one of the greatest actors of our time.

• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email dwight@nasguard.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.

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Dwight Strachan

Dwight is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff.

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