The DC Universe finally lightens up and makes an enjoyable film

Wonder Woman stands out amongst previous DC films like a Pterodactyl in a backyard aviary.

One of my favourite aspects of film reviewing is that rarest of feelings, It is the slow creeping realisation that a film of which you had no interest in actually begins to show signs of quality.

It starts with a few reluctant admissions to yourself; “alright, that was kind of cool, I’ll give it that,” progresses to some slight admiration; “that’s a nicely framed shot,” “This actually feels like a different world,” eventually the film has got a hold of you. You find yourself smiling like an idiot while you watch Amazonian women flipping off of horses and firing arrows. You’re having a good time that you didn’t expect to have. Two hours that you had set aside to watch a film to form an opinion on becomes two hours of enjoyment and engagement that you were not prepared for. It’s like gaining time, it’s a liberating, exciting feeling that reminds you of why cinema is so important.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman is the best film I’ve ever seen but it is so far and above other DC fare that I am having a hard time keeping a sense of perspective in my discussion of the film. Even the smoggy air of a Shanghai industrial estate will taste like the sweetest breath to a man who was close to drowning.

Wonder Woman starts exactly as it should, with the briefest possible connection to the larger DC Universe: here’s modern day Diana Prince, she gets sent an old picture of herself by Bruce Wayne, the old photograph starts a flashback and we hear nothing more of Zach Snyder’s modern day disasterpiece. The film stands alone as a film about Wonder Woman and her exploits in the early twentieth century. The film does not fall in to the usual Super Hero movie trap of clinging to a desperate relevance to the larger cinematic universe.

And it is not just temporally that the film separates itself from its feeble forebears, the film also adjusts its tone to suit the subject. The film has fantastical elements in the form of its hero’s origin and so it fully commits to making this world appear realised, and incredibly fun.

Diana Prince, here is more Superman than the Man of Steel, she is an alien to this world she wants to save, she is naively optimistic and unflinchingly heroic. She does not sit around brooding about the morality of what she needs to do, she simply acts on her simple principles and impulses and saves any lives she can.

A major issue I had with Batman Vs Superman and Man of Steel is that the titular heroes damage the world much more than they fix it. In this case Wonder Woman has been placed into a broken world and goes to work helping anywhere she can. She acts like a hero. People in war torn villagers cheer her, soldiers in the trenches look up to her, young girls and boys can watch the film, be entertained and be inspired. It may sound saccharine to say but, to be fair, this is a character named Wonder Woman we’re talking about here.

The film does not bog itself down in politics, there are no scenes in supreme courts with wheelchair suicide bombers. There is no faux-philosophising villain with mixed motivations, there are distinctly evil villains with whacked out faces and undeniably good heroes with perfect jawlines fighting against evil. There is colour in the costumes, there is fun and lightheartedness in the writing without resorting to Marvel style pop culture references (Remember when Wong listened to All the Single Ladies in Dr Strange?). Where DC films have revelled in grey morals and grey scenery Wonder Woman is crisp and clear, funny in a simple fish out of water way and not trying too hard.

The characters of the movie are exactly that. Characters. They have clear motivations and are understandable in the way they act. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine both assign their respective characters hearts and flaws, their performances are well matched and charismatic. There is something so cinematic about this movie, its classic Hero’s journey structure, its simple romantic sub plot (in which the man is the object of affection) and its unambiguous villains make it endlessly appealing. The film could entertain children, which should be the first box each superhero movie ticks. It has a great soundtrack which is teased throughout the film. It is paced and structured like a film with an end goal, actions lead into each other, it’s an enjoyable and simple film. It could be criticised for being overly simplistic, but superhero films have been missing that clarity as of late, not every super hero movie should try to be as meaningful as The Watchmen, sometimes it just needs to be as fun as The Rocketeer.

Many articles have been written about the power of the feminist ideals that Wonder Woman represents, the truth is that there is hardly any overt feminist ideology in the script. Wonder Woman’s presence as a badass role model for girls is enough of a statement on its own. The film seems to understand that it needn’t bash people over the head with its cause to have an effect.

 

Recommendation

Wonder Woman is head and shoulders above any other DC film since Chris Nolan had control and taps into that superheroic niche in a way that Marvel has been failing to do lately.

Fight scenes are well choreographed and varied and it is one of those epically rare films that uses slow-mo effectively. The villains are fantastically villainous and the heroes brilliantly heroic. It looks the part all the way and embraces its separatism from the DC universe to become a single cohesive story.

Passengers is sleek and polished on the surface but a muddled mess at its core

Passengers’ promising first act is let down by the avalanche of farce that proceeds it

Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a boom lately, no doubt boosted by the power of new Star Wars movies and ever increasing ‘nerd culture.’ But sci-fi is often expensive, CGI heavy and cerebral. Meaning that it can be a difficult genre for a studio to simply cash in on: for every District 9 there are at least ten Battleships. So how can a studio ensure that a generic conglomeration of popular sci-fi tropes and unoriginal visuals makes a sensible profit? Why, of course, by sticking two of the biggest stars on the planet in a spaceship and ensuring that they fuck each other, so they can show it in the trailer. Unfortunately for desperate corporate ploys to capitalise on market research, Passengers has not been the breakout success that was hoped for.

Passengers is a film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as passengers aboard The Avalon. The ship is taking 5000 paying customers to another planet to escape the husk that the Earth has become, the two wake up 90 years earlier than other passengers and cannot get themselves back into stasis, leaving them stranded on The Avalon together. One positive thing to say about Passengers is that it is at least an original story rather than a reboot or a sequel. However, a negative thing to say about Passengers is that there doesn’t seem to be many original ideas in it outside of its premise. The visuals are refined and clean but unfortunately seem to be almost entirely taken directly from previously successful sci-fi films; Alien, Prometheus and 2001: A Space Odyssey being the three main examples. References and inspiration can be a good thing but too many of them and the film just begins to feel like a stale rehash.

It is not only in the visuals that Passengers feels unoriginal. It also borrows several moments almost verbatim from recent films such as Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Martian. Now that is not to say that sci-fi has to be 100% original, in fact in most cases it is common to repeat successful movies’ motifs, but Passengers does this with so much frequency that it becomes a Frankenstein’s monster made up of mostly of other films dramatic beats.

The film is a tonal mess that appears to not know whether or not it should take itself seriously and when humour is appropriate. Starring Chris Pratt means that there will of course be comic elements but the film produces what seem like unintentional moments of comedy through strange editing choices and inappropriate dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora interrupts a sweet romantic moment by stopping mid-laughter and stating in the most deadpan way “for a minute I almost forgot my life is in ruins” and Aurora continues to be an incessant downer for the rest of the movie. The film contains comical pratfalls, facial expressions that would make the Wayan bros blush and a hilariously tactless robot doctor, none of which were intended to be funny. Unless they were, in which case the film should have just been a comedy.

What disappoints me so much about the film is that it is possible that there was at least one good film in there somewhere. There is a heavy theme of isolation a ’la The Shining, blatantly displayed by Michael Sheen’s android bartender, Arthur. This seems to be setting the film up as a psychodrama about a man lost in space slowly losing his sanity. The film jumps straight from this sort of heavy subject matter to a Risky Business/Home Alone style montage and immediately back into goofy comedy. Followed by the introduction of a genuinely tough moral choice and some significant character development the film fails to develop on the ideas and instead turns into a romance before turning back into the most generic sci-fi film possible. The film had set itself up as a combination of Moon and Misery which could have resulted in an interesting film. Instead the second half of the film falls into complete farce, sprinkled with plot holes, Deus-ex-Machina and hilariously bad writing.

Recommendation

There are parts of Passengers that are so bad that they are comical, but not enough to justify watching purely for its shortcomings. The film is a tonal mess with incredibly high production quality, unfortunately poor writing cannot be hidden behind CGI.

There are flashes of three disparate films in Passengers, one a moral dilemma based romance, the second a nervy psychodrama and the final is a by the numbers generic sci-fi. There is enough to like within the film but unfortunately there is way too much space in between it all.

Hell or High Water adds grey clouds to the Western landscape

Hell or High Water feels in love with the western and embraces it’s origins

There’s a fine line between action and saturation, and an even finer line between anticipation and boredom, many films have trouble with this balance but not Hell or High Water. The film drops you right into post-recession Texas, hitting you over the head with exposition and one moment later you are in a bank, and the bank is being robbed. There’s humour in the scene and thrills and an immediate Coen brothers air of people being way out of their depth. It pushes you right off into the deep end and once you’ve gotten your breath back it pushes your head back under the water. It does this for almost two hours straight.

Being, in essence, a road movie, the story moves pretty fast, hopping from place to place and never repeating itself. It presents itself as a series of vignettes and character moments, fleshing out its two power couples organically throughout without ever feeling too try hard. One scene near the beginning is all it takes, in which bank robber brothers Toby (Chris Pines) and Tanner (Ben Foster) neatly lay out their motivations. The scene is wonderfully framed outside of a farmhouse, a large steel windpump loudly creaking behind all the talking. Their relationship is unwieldly and bound for danger. Officers Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Parker (Gil Birmingham) motivations are simple, they’re cops, they’re going to hunt robbers.

The film feels in love with the western and embraces its origins, the settings being of small towns filled with local people wearing cowboy hats and moustaches. It wears its influences proudly, the brothers gain their head start due to a technological fault at the bank, allowing them to engage in the freewheeling banditry of the old west. The cop and his native American sidekick must put into place old school police work and rely on testimony rather than CCTV footage. The robberies are a response to a ploy to steal land. The film harks back to the past thematically and literally, through the mouth of Bridges’ soon to be retired cop and through the stoic Native American mouthpiece, Parker, which brings me to my biggest criticism of the film.

Through all the subtle touches and symbolism in the movie, the film draws nice little parallels to class struggles and the American frontier without feeling too forced or preachy, that is until the point where Parker points to a Texas bank and basically says to the audience “here is the message of the film. Banks are bad, okay?” The scene was jarring and way too on the nose for a film so restraint. That being said I can’t be upset about this, the film is smartly written, funny and stunningly beautiful at times. If my biggest complaint about a movie is my only complaint, then it’s done pretty well for itself.

Recommendation

A rare type of film that feels both nostalgic and current, pulled together by good performances and funny interactions. Jeff Bridges provides the comedic glue and Ben Foster brings the sleaze.

Western fans should love it; its desert towns are the perfect setting for the crime. The action is spread out so that when it hits it hits hard. Not a fast paced thriller, although the 100 minutes did fly by.