Thursday, 29 June 2017

Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins, 2016
USA | China | Hong Kong | UK | Italy | Canada | New Zealand

The origin tale of Diana of Themyscira (Gal Godot) – or Wonder Woman – an Amazon goddess that finds herself involved with World War I.

So although it’s all lead by women – a female protagonist and directed by Patty Jenkins (director of the Aileen Wuornos film ‘Monster’ [!!]) although written by Allen Heinberg – there is nothing here that truly elevates or criticises the usual superhero origin film format. There is nothing of true originality, just an agreeably lighter and more fun tone than is usual for a DC Universe film. This has won people over, of course, and it’s as enjoyable as you want and as slick as you might expect, but don’t expect any moulds to be broken other than giving the women the same treatment as the guys. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ music often threatens to break out of its orchestral bombast into a metal-ish freak-out, and similarly the film seems like it might break free of the confines of the format, but it never quite does. In that sense, it’s a disappointment even as it’s being fun.

Probably any romantic involvement for Diana was going to be seen as undermining any claims this had to hardline feminism, but perfunctory romances have always typified origin stories (Lois Lane and Mary Jane to name the most famous). However, ‘Wonder Woman’ is in no way beholden to Steve Trevor. Indeed, the most gratuitous flesh is his and whenever he and Diana glance against sex, it is she that is confident and indifferent to his charms. It’s agreeably flirty. And it is in the subtler details that the film elevates her dominance, in the way that she is the only fighting character with true certainty, that she confronts and rebukes the men often and that they soon realise that she is their true power and acts as her shield-leg-up so she can do what she has to do. So as other superhero men want to be dour to be poignant, or just goofy to be cool, Diana is all about getting stuff done, doing what you need to do with others and in that way she’s a positive symbol (which one could see as a quiet rebuke to the narcissism of male superpower fantasises).

The film undermines much of the usual machismo: it’s in the way that Saïd Taghmaoui says he wanted to be an actor but was the wrong colour; in the way that Eugene Brave Rock says he has no home; and most obviously it is the way that Ewan Bremner seems like he is going to be the mouthy one is ultimately in effect useless as he is traumatised by war so that he can no longer be the top marksman he is presented as. Even Danny Huston as the ostensible scenery-chewing super-enhanced bad guy is nothing without the lethal gases invented by Dr Maru (Elena Anaya – nicely creepy). It is Dr Maru that balances the scales of feminine goddess goodness by representing the villainy and cruelty that women are equally capable of. Indeed, until the inevitable super-villain, the men in this enterprise would not be half as effective without women, both good and bad. Some may have criticised that Diana needs a man to hold her hand to become wonderful, but the film could also be seen as giving space to allow Steve Trevor to charm Diana, to allow her feelings rather than just cool. It also gives a platform for Chris Pine’s considerable likeability (as Kirk, he is hobbled by an annoying smugness and self-righteousness). And the film is not above sacrificing Steve to make Diana’s story more poignant.
Of course, as with most superhero tales it seems, there are problems if not hypocrisies: typically, the usual call for peace and nonviolence is shoved aside for a denouement of take-it-or-leave-it CGI fisticuffs and explosions galore and ‘WW’ is no exception. Indeed, Diana underlines “Love” as a redeeming feature even as she lays waste to the surroundings to beat the bad guy who disagrees. Yeah, you aren’t really fooling us - we saw her just murder the bad guy. And the bad guys (“Germans”) are mostly faceless adversaries to be mowed down even as we get dense back-stories for Amazons and others (there is a kind of group-hug at the end, but…). This comes part-and-parcel of the genre and the film doesn’t really overcome its central murkiness of having a warrior woman who initially seems naive about war and seems to think killing one bad guy brings about peace (yeah, but…). To its credit, the film subscribes this more as naivety than stupidity and dwells more on her bafflement that men are so inept at heroism. Of course, all this is easy for her as she is a gorgeous super-powered Amazon, and it probably shouldn’t be underestimated at how good Gal Godot is at maintaining a balance between naivety and warrior. This paradox has always been the issue with superheroes, but after all they are power fantasies.

And to this: if this is all part of giving kids role models of super-empowerment, then at the screening I saw as the end credits rolled, there was a girl who was about four years-old (yeah, she probably shouldn’t have been there) who was running in front of the screen making Wonder Woman power-poses. In that sense then, I guess this girls’ version of the same old superhero tropes is more than equal to the boys’.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Lights Out

David F. Sandberg, 2016, USA

Expanded from David F. Sanberg’s short film whose problems (what, you just go to bed?) is fairly forgivable in a short format. The scares here are fine – there’s a lot of mileage to be achieved from silhouettes with glinting eyes – and it explores the possibilities of multiple light sources well, and it utilises that staple James Wan trick efficiently (now it’s there; now it’s not; now it’s there – but closer (loud music sting)!). Of course, why ghosts sometimes need to squat down (to be scary, presumably), or why Diana is carving her name in the floor and how she can suddenly make doors unopenable or why her footfalls can suddenly be heard (to be scary, presumably) is never quite explained (she’s supernatural mumblemumble) – but we can go with that. But in expanding the short film and a back-story is apparently called for, ‘Lights Out’ establishes how it then means to go on within the first half hour: with weak and ridiculous exposition. Typically, the cast are agreeable enough but they ultimately have scraps to work with. 

The weakness of the script becomes more problematic when it’s obvious that Diana is a manifestation of the mother Sophie’s mental illness. The solution to this then is obvious, and the film goes through with the logical conclusion, but this is also cruel. The solution to mental illness is suicide? Perhaps Eric Heisserer and Sandberg’s script thinks it is being shocking and hard-hitting, but it just comes over as thoughtlessly mean. Enough to be insensitive and therefore offensive.


 John R Leonetti, 2014, USA

Well it’s true that I expected to watch ‘Annabelle’ in a constant state of effrontery, unconvinced and snorting at every jump-scare and laughing at the stupid dialogue. With these cattle-prod  horrors each jump-scare squanders any potential merit the films may have accumulated because since those jump-blare-scares are the ultimate goal, scant attention seems to be paid to the characterisation and dialogue to get there. Those elements grow increasingly thin as the films trade in the most base kind of horror. The idea that these films are “based on true stories” is ridiculous and insulting: the fodder for this franchise is the stories of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but they are little more than scam artists. These films cash in on the scam even more with the introductory and closing text reeking of condescension and manipulation. ‘Hey, they’ll believe anything,’ you can also hear the makers and marketers say. As Mark Kermode has said, these seem to be horrors films for non-horror fans, the kind that think “was it scary?” is the ultimate test of the genre.

And what is offered to the genre fans that are wise but play along?

Well in truth, ‘Annabelle’ is not as bad as ‘Insidious 2’. That is, it’s the usual fare after the opening that repeats the possessed doll’s introduction in ‘The Conjuring’ ends with a close-up of Annabelle’s grimy and scratched (??) face had me laughing – hey it’s meant to be foreboding and scary but I was just thinking that a doll couldn’t pronounce its Inherent Evil more if it tried. Of course, the “true” Annabelle is nothing like in the film: the original’s recognisable nature (see picture) is more sinister for its banality while the film version is surely trying too hard. But yes, Annabelle’s features are somewhat put into context as a trend when placed alongside similar dolls.

But if I expected to be in a constant state of disgruntlement, this wasn’t so for the first two acts: hey, my expectations for this were low so I'll respond to any any competence. the characters were as thin as expected but the actors had natural charm that, over time, is wasted more and more until it’s forgotten that they projected any. It’s just, you know, ho-hum horror. It was the basement scare where I first started to archly go Oh yeah? even if it is probably the best staged moment of the film.

Narrative and characterisation is typically weak, only there as a coat-hanger to hide vaguely corresponding scares. For example: the kids drawing on the stairs subplot goes nowhere but to deliver a laughable punchline that makes no sense. Are they part of the possession? Are they possessed too? What? How? Why? There’s the pounding on the floorboards upstairs that, equally, goes nowhere as a subplot. And the cellar scene: this has nothing to do with the proximity of the doll as the doll apparently doesn’t have a range, it’s just an excuse for scary scenes. It’s faintly amusing but condescending hackwork, offering meagre genre scraps and, again, the idea that this is based on any truth is daft. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017


Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto, 2016, Indonesia

A man (Iko Uwais) who has lost his memory is washed up on a beach into the affections of a nurse; could he have anything to do with the vicious gangster that has just escaped prison? 

‘Headshot’ follows the action template that the bad guys are irredeemable and cartoonish, but the Mo Brothers (Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto) stage and direct with enough flair that keeps things just the right side of trite. Yunus Pasolang's camera circles the fights and sometimes follows people thrown through windows, knowing it is best to stand back and let these guys do their thing. There is a token romantic subplot with Chelsea Islan as Ailin – and the film ends with her face rather than his, implying that this romance is what counts, but what we have come for are the fights. And it is super-violent. 

Due to The Raid’, I am always going to have a soft spot for Iko Uwais who performs and orchestrates the fights, and like that film ‘Headshot’ utilises the idea that, no matter how lethal he is as a fighter, he is essentially a reborn innocent, on the side of the good, even if his backstory is a little murky. Luckily the amnesia will not effect his memory of how to fight. He is just always unlucky that he has a habit of being forced into situations where he has to say, using pencat silat, “Why do you guys keep making me prove I am such a bad ass?” This naturally expressed vulnerability is not a trait of the machismo of many action heroes, but it proves to be a good trick, his seeming defencelessness being easy to empathise with and his fighting skills being the envy of an audience that wants to triumph over all the enemies. Unusually, it does dwell on the toll this finally takes on him, but only to reunite us with his vulnerability and to wring the very last drop of pathos. The success of ‘The Raid’ was to reduce it all just to the fights but to also keep hold of the tension: ‘Headshot’ is a little too baggy with plot and lacks suspense, but the fights take up most of the time and in that it will surely satisfy.