Wonder Woman (2017) – Movie Review

wonder woman

In 2015, the post-credits zinger for Marvel’s Ant-Man had Evangeline Lily’s heroine, the Wasp, promised her own super suit. Her retort: “It’s about damn time.” The world echoed her sentiments. And waited. But alas: you snooze you lose, Marvel. Wonder Woman is here, loud, proud, heartfelt, and almost absurdly fun. Not to mention: in the super-super-saturated cinemas of late, it’s the first female-led superhero film in 13(?!) years? Suddenly Wasp’s pithy barb feels like the understatement of the century.

If we’re going to continue to play the Marvel card (and we should, for Wonder Woman is more akin to the MCU’s bright, mischievously fun fare than any of its sombre, melodramatic, ludicrously unironic DC precedents), director Patty Jenkins magpies the best bits of Captain America and Thor into a robustly satisfying romp. It’s a lot to juggle, simultaneously sating the twin bastions of feminism and fun in the rare superhero film expected to be About Something, but Jenkins, drawing upon nearly 80 years of fandom and iconography, is rightly confident. Her social commentary streak is as hearty as her flair for fun, and she gamely plunges into the film’s WWI setting as a potent vehicle for one of the genre’s most potent explorations of the ethics of action combat. Jenkins juxtaposing the sparkling, saturated sapphire colour scheme of Diana’s Amazon island with the sepia soot on the war-torn outside world (and just when we’d been enjoying a welcome break from the gloomy DC greys…) which succinctly feeds into Diana’s indictment of human cruelty. A superhero film sincere enough to advocate for empathy and benevolent compassion instead of revenge, justice, or simply violence? It’s a core moral streak so puppy-eyed and earnest it would verge on cornball were it not sold with a ferocious fervour heartfelt enough to trigger twinges of guilty reflection in between bites of popcorn. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But, paradoxically, in spite of this effective call for compassion… there’s almost never been a movie where watching someone punch things has felt so goddamn awesome. Jenkins uncorks action interludes with a zippy abandon, as balletic as they are concussively cathartic, so stupendously fun that you shouldn’t be surprised to see audience members unconsciously swept to their feet with the infectious, heady momentum (Robin Wright, in particular, nearly steals the show with a functional cameo just by making ass-kicking in a leather miniskirt look so ferociously cool). Paired with the crisply perfect period wartime décor, and especially when accompanied by her exhilarating and impossibly catchy guitar riff, Wonder Woman is the first superhero film in years where the fight scenes, rather than merely pleasant diversions, are moving, almost overwhelmingly endorphin-flooding experiences. The mere memory of Diana crumbling a clock tower or flattening a roof with single blows, or granted her very own Éowyn moment by storming into no man’s land (get it?) is enough to bring shivers of magnificence.

And that’s when the shoe drops, and the ‘women only Texas screening’-shaped elephant in the room rears its head: we’ve had decades for the exuberance of men hitting things to wear off. Wonder Woman reminds us of how much fun it can be to watch WOMEN hitting things, and how desperately rare it is. Mercilessly scrutinized under the gender policing microscope, Jenkins, cannily, doesn’t oversell her gender politics. Instead, she calmly naturalizes them by steering the film through Diana’s headstrong, take-no-sh*t character, with each feminist beat emerging naturally through her personality. It’s oodles more effective than any polarizing, dogmatic diatribe, and yields many of the film’s moments of sneaky humour. One aside in particular, where an exasperated Diana condemns petticoats and skirts for impeding high-kicks, instantly cements itself as an iconic reprieve of solidarity for women’s dressing rooms for the next century.

Still, a Wonder Woman film would be moot without the right Gal in the lead. Here, it’s indisputably clear that it’s been worth waiting for Godot. Anchored by a tempestuous, fiery charisma, Godot’s remarkable performance is just as unforgettable in her small moments of zealous humanity (her almost childlike indignation at a war counsel willing to abandon soldiers as a strategic coup, or equivalent jubilation when tasting ice cream for the first time) as she is fiercely convincing tossing tanks or bridling enemies with a glowing lasso. Supporting her, Chris Pine is at his most disarmingly hysterical and irreverently lovable here, and provides a welcome anchoring of incredulous realism when the film threatens to topple into being too steeped in mythology. Danny Huston’s Red Skull clone hits all the requisite skulking, ominously pontificating adversarial notes, but he’s nowhere near as interesting as Elena Anayu’s luridly sinister and tragic Dr. Poison, who, disappointingly, is relegated to sidekick status. Thankfully, Diana’s remarkably diverse cabal of ‘Howling Commandos’ pals remain on the right side of fun without overstaying their welcome (though Ewen Bremner is just one bug-eyed nibble of haggis away from belonging in a live action cartoon). Finally, David Thewlis’ droll prissiness perfectly befits Diana’s befuddled ambassador to the human world, even if his range isn’t quite up for the challenge plot twists demand of him.

Wonder Woman isn’t perfect – there are expanses when Jenkins’ juggernaut pacing fumbles (especially an overlong expository origin), and it toes the line of being a touch too derivative, leaning on its superhero predecessors so liberally that key emotional moments threaten to belly flop from over-familiarity. Still, it’s only a fleeting wobble of tentativeness and creative laziness, that only serves to reinforce Robin Wright’s advice: Wonder Woman is at its (/her) best when she truly believes in herself. Still, when Godot is armoured up, flashing her gauntlets and kicking through walls, the film achieves an almost peerless sense of infectious awesomeness. Will its legacy abide? Well, I’ll let the waves of young girls (and boys!) jump-kicking and slamming their forearms together when stampeding out of the auditorium of my screening speak for themselves.

 

3 out of 5 stars

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – Movie Review

wolverine origins

The problem with making a film about the origin of the mutant super-hero Wolverine is that he was never meant to have an origin. He was created as a throwaway character for an issue of The Incredible Hulk, then got picked up as a supporting character for the revamping of the X-Men. No one really thought he was important enough to have his own origin, but he became one of the most popular comic book characters of the last 30 years. That led to a series of attempts to graft a powerful and moving beginning onto a character that was only intended to be a badass with a cool gimmick. But instead of a simple but profound start like “Strange visitor from another planet” or “With great power comes great responsibility”, Wolverine got an origin that became increasingly convoluted and overwrought as more and more was added to it over time. That’s reflected in this movie, which actually crams at least three distinct origin tales into 107 minutes. Throw in the traditional “summer movie” boatload of explosions, gunfire and combat and there’s not much room left for a good story.

I mean, you know that scene where someone kneels over the body of a dead loved one and screams “Nooooooooo!” to the heavens? This movie has two scenes like that. It has a shot of Wolverine walking into the camera as a huge explosion goes off behind him. There’s a character who is clearly established as being a mass murderer, but then the film suddenly decides that being a mass murderer isn’t that big a deal. Not to mention that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a movie that literally stops to explain its own ending 15 minutes before it actually happens.

All that said, this isn’t a bad film. The action sequences are all pretty good, the acting is better than you usually get for this sort of thing and while the story is kind of a mess, it makes enough sense that you’re not left sitting in the theater thinking that every character in the movie is an idiot.

In fact, this is the rare action movie where the acting is probably the best thing about it. Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Durand are legitimately funny as mutants Deadpool and The Blob. Hugh Jackman is brilliant as usual. Danny Huston as William Stryker and Liev Schreiber and Sabretooth give probably the best performances of the film. It’s not always easy to play a younger version of a character already portrayed by a fine actor, but Huston makes Stryker just similar enough to the man from X-Men 2 and is able to give him a little more depth. Schreiber brings real emotion and a sense of legitimacy his furry mutant. His Sabretooth isn’t just a prop for Wolverine’s story, but a living, breathing character in his own right.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine tells a story that was never meant to be told. It doesn’t do it very well, but that it can do it at all without being a total disaster is something of an achievement. This movie doesn’t have a personal element that ever rises above the cliché and it has none of the broader moral or societal points that were found in the X-trilogy itself. This is just a big, dumb, fun “summer movie” and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

6 out of 10 stars

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Big Eyes (2014) – Movie Review

A good bio-pic tells more than just the story of an interesting person. It portrays them in the broader context of their era in ways that offer insight into human nature. Among the most recognisable motifs of the 1950’s are paintings of mournfully cute children with exaggerated large round eyes. They became known as the ‘big-eyed waifs’ created by artist Margaret Keane who is still painting at 89 years old. The film Big Eyes (2014) is a true story of the emotional violence and domestic captivity that lay hidden behind one of the biggest art frauds in history. It is also a moving tale of how these immensely popular artworks started as expressions of the artist’s pain but came to symbolise her personal triumph.

When we first meet Margaret (Amy Adams) she is packing her bags to flee a stifling marriage. She settles in San Francisco and gets a modest job painting pictures on furniture, but her artistic passion is painting children stylised with huge eyes. One day she is swept off her feet by a self- promoting extrovert and painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and they soon marry. His paintings are ignored while her artworks attract attention but the shy Margaret is not good at selling whereas Walter is a natural salesman. On the first occasion, he is mistaken as the artist by an interested buyer and the deception proves profitable. Despite Margaret’s misgivings, the ruse becomes the business model with Margaret secretly painting while Walter claims the credit from an increasingly voracious public who were prepared to pay good money for the ‘big-eyed waifs’. He becomes a celebrity and they enjoy their new wealth, but Margaret is psychologically burdened by the deception. Walter becomes increasingly paranoid and controlling to the point where she must flee again for her safety. Margaret keeps sending paintings to Walter to get his agreement to a divorce, but soon the burden of the lie becomes too much and she goes public. Walther declares that she is mad and the celebrated case was settled in court when the judge issued an impromptu order requiring both Walter and Margaret to paint a ‘big-eyed waif’ right there in the courtroom. The truth was immediately obvious.

This is an interesting and engaging film on many levels. It is a factual account of a multi-million- dollar art fraud that was committed not by professional criminals but by accident and chance. It was perpetuated because a talented woman was seduced by an unscrupulous conman who turned abuser, keeping his wife under lock and key to safeguard the secret. It is also a poignant story of an artist who painted over-sized mournful eyes through which her painful life was seeking expression. It is a bio-pic with little dramatic embellishment. Amy Adams plays the role of domestic-abuse victim with understatement and almost waif-like wide-eyed naivette. Christoph Waltz perhaps is not ideally cast for this role as his signature persona of predictable evil commences at too high a pitch but must keep rising to maintain dramatic tension. By the time they reach court, he plays an unconvincing ranting psychotic in a performance that is almost comical.

Big Eyes does more than tell the story of the Walter and Margaret Keane. The cinematography, period sets and fashion captures the culture and style of the era. It reflects the history of women’s role in the pre-feminist era when they were assumed by nature and law to be possessions of their husbands. In recent interviews, Margaret confessed that going public was a “spur of the moment” act and she never could have imagined wilfully confronting her husband like she did. Since then, many of her big-eyed waifs have shown almost imperceptible hints of a smile.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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