Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Wonder

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and “Hellraiser: Judgment” are also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

“Wonder” is the kind of movie that defies an easy description. If the logline on is to be believed, “Wonder” is the “incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman, a boy with facial differences who enters fifth grade, attending a mainstream elementary school for the first time.”

This is true. It is that story about that boy, who is nicknamed Auggie and played with tug at your heartstrings vulnerability by Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), an impressive child actor. But it’s much, much more than simply his story. It’s also the story of Auggie’s parents, played by Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts, who make their son the center of their universe and worry about how well he’ll do interacting with children his own age after being home schooled. It’s about Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s sister, who graciously accepts that her parents give Auggie the most attention and is refreshingly understanding about it. She loves Auggie, is not jealous, and has worked the situation to her benefit to become self-sustaining and independent.

That’s just Auggie’s family. We also see the story of others involved in Auggie’s life. Namely, we see the story of Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a young boy who befriends Auggie. Jack and Auggie have a brief falling out, and at first we only get to see Auggie’s side of the story. Then we see things from Jack’s point of view and it provides a whole different perspective. Same goes for Via’s best friend Miranda. On the surface, from Via’s point of view, it looks like the friendship is inexplicably strained between the two young ladies. Then we see things from Miranda’s point of view and understand why she’s acting the way she’s acting. I found it to be the most poignant revelation in the movie. This is no small feat considering the main story is about a ten year old boy with a deformed face struggling to adapt to a new environment.

The main theme of “Wonder” is empathy. The classic phrase that we’ve all heard is “don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” We all have struggles and face hardship. One of the biggest lessons for Auggie is that he is not the only one in the world with difficulty. All of the main characters in the movie face a struggle in one form or the other. Part of Auggie’s lesson in stepping out of his metaphorical bubble (or literally taking off his toy space helmet) is that he is not alone. He learns how to give empathy in addition to always receiving it, and to forgive as a path to being happy and fulfilled. Or, as framed in the one of the precepts given by his homeroom teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), when presented with the choice to be right or be kind, choose kind.

This message is an especially crucial one in this modern era of selfishness and ignorance. This is, after all, a time in which guest speakers on college campuses are protested against because fragile-minded students will have a nervous breakdown if they hear an opinion different than their own. They could do with watching this movie. It’ll teach them to be quiet and listen, rather than being loud-mouthed bullies. We can use more of the type of kindness and compassion shown in this movie out here in the real world.

Not that “Wonder” isn’t without bullies. There’s the arrogant rich kid (but of course he is—are rich kids ever portrayed in any other way in these stories?), Julian (Bryce Gheisar). While most of the kids at school stare, look away, and don’t out right bully Auggie, Julian is outwardly hostile toward Auggie for no reason other than the fact that he looks different. He’s a smug little twerp who gets what he deserves. After he gets in trouble, he has the realization that what he did all school year was wrong and gives what is probably a sincere, heartfelt apology to the principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin). But given that this is prompted by the threat of not returning to the school next year, where his friends are, coupled with how he behaves throughout the movie, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him. Yes, kindness, compassion, and empathy are the themes of this movie, but they only go so far. The only way some will learn is to be punished.

“Wonder” is a positive, life-affirming movie with real life applications. It shows how great people can actually be when they get over themselves and actually try to understand someone else’s point of view. It’s also good news for mainstream movie-goers. It shows that the big Hollywood studios and their high paid actors are capable of more than brain dead action movies and by the numbers rom coms. Far from it, this movie shows that emotionally resonant, beautifully scripted, well-acted, and movingly directed dramas are alive and well in Hollywood. A movie like “Wonder” is, in itself, a wonder. Buy it on Amazon: Wonder [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington has a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing the title character in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” The character is a frumpy, highly intelligent, legal savant. He can cite statutes the way priests cite chapter and verse. He’s a former activist who for several decades has worked for low wage in a law firm devoted to the poor and downtrodden, and whose true passion lies in social justice causes.

Sounds good so far. Unfortunately, he is also socially awkward, self-righteous, and stubborn. It doesn’t matter what side of the struggle you’re on, these are unappealing qualities for anyone to have. The persona is not helped by his look, which consists of cheap suits, wild hair, and a protruding gut. I’m sure all of the sugar and refined carbs in his peanut butter sandwich and donut diet is not helping his health—physical or mental.

Roman’s counterpoint is another lawyer named George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Pierce is the epitome of the slick, high paid lawyer. He is well groomed, well spoken, well dressed, and drives a luxury car. After the man who employed Roman for so many years is sent to the hospital, the decision is made to close down the practice. Roman then goes to work for Pierce’s firm. To say that his holier than thou attitude doesn’t mix well with the higher end lawyers in the firm is an understatement.

The most amazing thing about “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the fact that all of the events in the movie happen in a three week time frame. It feels, however, like months are going by. This is a very jam-packed three weeks to have all of this occur. This isn’t the only numbers problem in the movie. As it opens, Roman is writing out a statement that he was employed at his former law office for twenty-six years. Later on, he says thirty-six. Which is it? At one point Roman comes into one hundred thousand dollars. He goes on a bit of a splurge, then looks at a high-rise apartment to move into. Even with one hundred thousand dollars, there is no way he can afford that place unless he got a substantial pay raise from Pierce. Did he? He might have, I don’t know—the movie never tells us.

These issues aside, I appreciate “Roman J. Israel Esq.” for providing a well-rounded character piece. Roman has a lot of virtue and wants to do the right thing. He also has a lot of flaws and at one point makes a major miscalculation that puts his life in jeopardy. The movie doesn’t ask us to agree with Roman’s decision, or like it, or like him for that matter. It only asks that we see this man in all of his glorious imperfection and understand him. I will say that by the time the movie was over, my opinion of Roman hadn’t changed, but I at least understood him better than when it started. Rent it.

Hellraiser: Judgment

Does anyone else remember the good ol’ days when the “Hellraiser” movies used to be about…hell? Back when iconic horror villain Pinhead (then played by Doug Bradley) would physically and psychologically terrorize someone, and that was the story? I’d say that describes the first three “Hellraiser” movies.

Then starting with the fourth installment, “Hellraiser: Bloodline” (fun fact: it’s one of those infamous “directed by Alan Smithee” movies), there was a shift. Pinhead and his leather-clad cenobite minions became secondary to another story. The movies were about something else (cops, journalists, video games), with Pinhead and company shoehorned in as an afterthought. In spite of an intriguing--albeit disturbing, gross, and weird--opening that looks like it will harken back to the glory days of the series, “Hellraiser: Judgment” continues the trend of “Hellraiser” movies that barely count as “Hellraiser” movies.

The first ten minutes or so provide context for the judgment mentioned in the title and introduce us to characters such as the Auditor (Gary J. Tunnicliffe, who also wrote and directed), the Assessor (John Gulager), the Butcher (Joel Decker), and of course, Pinhead (Paul T. Taylor). We see what happens during a judgment from start to finish. It’s shocking and repugnant, but not totally pointless. It shows us what’s to come for anyone who is strapped to a chair to be judged. Let me tell ya, it ain’t pretty. Then again, this is a “Hellraiser” movie, so if it was pretty, that would be an even bigger disappointment.

No, the big disappointment is that “Hellraiser: Judgment” is basically a low budget rip off of “Se7en” with a little bit of “Silence of the Lambs” thrown in. It stars Randy Wayne and Damon Carney as David and Sean Carter, two brothers who also happen to be detectives, and who also happen to be assigned to work together to catch a sadistic serial killer. They team up with one other detective assigned to the case (Alexandra Harris), and work out of what looks like a private eye’s office that is supposedly in the middle of a police station.

While I appreciate that Tunnicliffe tried to incorporate the hell/Pinhead/cenobite aspect of the story a bit more than the last few installments, I couldn’t help the feeling that I was first and foremost watching a crime thriller rather than a “Hellraiser” movie, or even a horror movie. Maybe I’m just jaded from so many previous entries being so meh, but I want more Pinhead. Even if his screen time is less, he should at least be the driving force behind the story, like in the first three movies. As it stands, another factor—in this case the hunt for a serial killer—drives the story and Pinhead is relegated to the side. This has to change.

On the bright side, in spite of an incredibly unbelievable conclusion to the serial killer plot, there is an interesting development at the end of “Hellraiser: Judgment” Pinhead-wise. This could potentially mean that the next installment will be more Pinhead focused, which I view as good news. It’s been way too long since Pinhead was an integral part of a “Hellraiser” story, and he is due for a comeback. Stream it.

More New Releases: “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” about a frontier lawman named Lefty Brown who avenges the death of his slain senator friend, starring Bill Pullman and Peter Fonda; “Monolith,” about how having the world’s safest SUV can backfire into a nightmare situation, starring Katrina Bowden and Jay Hayden; and “Don't F*** in the Woods,” a movie whose title sums up the main point of at least half of all slasher movies.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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