Wonder Woman

Recommendation: YES

Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.

Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.

The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.

I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.

So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.

They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.

But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.

And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.

It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?

Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.

Alien: Covenant… Increasingly familiar

Recommendation: NO

Summary: Colonists find their ship hit by solar winds, leaving their captain toasted and the rest of the crew unwilling to reenter their cryosleep pods lest they befall the same fate. The acting captain, a man who believes his religion makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of the crew a mere 10 years after a devoutly religious person was part of the crew of the most expensive space expedition to that point, gives into popular demand to investigate a much closer, possibly hospitable planet rather than travelling their years long journey to their actual, safe destination. Due to terrible safety protocols, things go wrong.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Alien: Covenant is not a good film
  2. Alien: Covenant is not a good Alien film
  3. I prefer Prometheus to Alien: Covenant

If Prometheus is what happens when you take a slasher film and hurriedly retrofit it into a “thinking person’s science fiction film”, Alien: Covenant is what happens when you go the other way.

Be warned, if you were at all even the slightest bit interested in finding out why the Engineers created us and why they wanted to destroy us, prepare to be disappointed. That plot thread is hurriedly swept aside in a flashback in an attempt to course correct towards being more closely connected with the Alien franchise. But people hated Prometheus! Isn’t a course correction towards the rest of the franchise a good thing? Let’s take a moment to remember what else was part of the Alien franchise:

  • Alien 3
  • Alien Resurrection
  • AVP
  • AVP: R (I don’t remember what the R stood for, but it was probably Requiem or something equally terrible)

And let’s also take this moment to remind ourselves of a slow, ponderous science fiction film that Scott directed that wasn’t looked upon kindly until a few years later:

  • Blade Runner

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that in the grand scheme of things, people don’t know shit; neither the authors, nor the audience.

And that is evident in Alien: Covenant. The ponderous core of Prometheus has been swapped out for that of a sleazy thriller, one that operates in the vague neighbourhood of Alien (complete with a condensed recreation of that first film in what passes for Covenant’s third act) after taking a detour through 80s slasher territory. People do stupid things for the sole purpose of delivering gory kills for the audience to enjoy, there is a lurid sex scene that gets bloodily interrupted, and the alien itself, far from being an unknowable walking metaphor for violation and sexual assault, is nothing but a bad special effect. They even managed to do the alien POV shot worse than it was done in Alien 3. Think on that.

Save for some two scenes of body horror (neither of which entirely approach the heights of the cesarean scene from Prometheus, though the first one gets close), the film is almost always better when the aliens are not on screen. In an Aliens movie. Prometheus at least had the good fortune of being distanced somewhat from Alien so it could be its own weird slow burn thing.

But aside from the aforementioned body horror and some effectively atmospheric gothic production design, Alien: Covenant is a film that puts on a show of being a horror film without actually committing to it. Everything else good about it comes as part of its past life as a Prometheus sequel. And all of its grandiose and “literary” discussions of the relationship between creator and created were better suited by Prometheus’ more consistently considered pacing. Sure, I did not think Prometheus got it right, but it sure as hell was better built to get it right than Alien: Covenant.

The one (two?) saving grace(s) of Alien Covenant is Michael Fassbender. This time playing a new Synthetic named Walter and returning as the creative and unhinged David, Fassbender electrifies the screen with his winning take on the uncanny valley. Affecting an American accent in something of a Lance Henrickson impersonation, Walter is a character that impresses in his coldness and restricted affect. And he is the perfect foil to David, a creature designed with a desire to create and understand. No better is this weird undercurrent of “humanity”, for lack of a better term, seen than in the film’s opening, a prologue introducing us to David’s first few hours. So much of the contempt between creator and created is suggested through reactions and body language as David prods and pokes at Peter Wayland’s insecurities about his mortality to see how far he can push and get away with it.

And then we have the scenes where the two synthetics interact. These sequences are crackling with an uncomfortable yet captivating “Platonic homoeroticism” while the two explore each others boundaries and try to seduce each other to their way of thinking. It really, really makes me wish the movie jettisoned the Alien connection altogether and became its own psychosexual thriller. But the aliens, creatures created out of unconvincing CGI, are the main draw, and Covenant: These Two Gay Robots are Totally Amazing would not a winning investment make.

And so we have part homoerotic thriller, part mad scientist movie (that totally robs the mystery of and defangs the Xenomorph), and part movie that dresses in the discarded skin of a gothic thriller by way of 80s slasher. A movie with no idea what to do with itself for an audience with no idea what is actually good for it. It’s time to put this franchise to bed before anymore damage is done to one of Cinema’s most iconic horror creations.

Monster Fest – Raw

Director: Julia Ducournau

(Yes: Go watch this if you enjoy genre films. Especially if you want to see more great movies directed by women)

Summary: A young vegetarian woman attends the same veterinarian school attended by her parents and currently attended by her older sister. During a hazing ritual, she is pressured by her sister to live up to her family’s legacy and partake in the eating of a raw rabbit liver. Things go wrong.

 

Raw is a striking directorial debut that is hard to pin down. It doesn’t want to stick with any one mood or tone for an extended period of time, choosing instead to wade drunkenly in and out of moments of queasy awkwardness, warm affection, dark humour, and surreal body horror. In the broadest of strokes, you can think of it as a coming of age dramady with a heaping mouthful of cannibalism used as a central metaphor.

And with the specter of cannibalism raised, there’s something I should probably address. I saw Raw at the Monster Fest Travelling Film Festival where it was introduced as a film that made its Cannes audience squirm and mutter with discomfort. There were reports of audience members fainting at a TIFF screening. And yes, some of the Monster Fest audience gasped during our screening. But, and this is important, Raw is not a particularly graphic cannibal movie. Gore hounds do know that whatever gore there is on screen is beautifully detailed and lovingly photographed, but do not go in expecting a splatter film. Most of the gasping occurred during particularly emotionally charged sequences rather than from gory money shots.

What is really impressive about Raw is the assured direction of Ducournau. Her film is an emotionally turbulent one with a keen eye for teasing out horror from mundanity, expressing feminine power and desire, and exploring the awkwardness and hilarity to be found in coming into your own. Whether it be the dark humour in a fellow student offering tips on purging after misunderstanding a traumatic event, the nastiness of verbal sparring between sisters, or the awkwardness and hilariousness of a particular scene involving a disembodied finger, Raw is anchored in a sense of emotional authenticity from the point of view of protagonist Justine. When Justine hungers, the camera leers over the topless body of her attractive room mate, dissecting him through strategic close ups of his muscular flesh, before just as strategically pulling back to show him in his totality. It is a sophisticated use of gaze to comment on a character’s inner conflict.

The film is so anchored to Justine’s POV that beyond making us complicit in her gaze, it makes us subject to her temporal and geographical understanding. When she gets more unhinged the more she indulges, the film gets more unhinged and indulgent. The result is a film that threatens to be coherent before slipping into a bizarre nightmare logic. We lose touch of our surroundings as Justine does. We exist in the moment, blacking out and coming to after some time has elapsed, much like Justine. The film keeps us on the back foot and when it does choose to have things in focus, they are either uncomfortable or surreal. The moments of violence are all the more horrific for how vivid they are. As is the shame that Justine feels after.

 

Raw is a juicy movie. It is rich for dissection, allowing viewers to pick at the scraps of its metaphor. A parable about sexual awakening and sibling rivalry in the vein of Ginger Snaps; a cautionary tale about overindulgence leading one to harm those close to them; a story about the difficulties young women face keeping up appearances in a world that watches and judges their every move; a document of aberrant eating practices such as binging and purging. It feels like a little bit of all these things. And it is all the more powerful for trusting the viewer to stumble into these readings after they’re done cringing.

End of Watch

Yes – with caveats 

End of Watch is a weird movie. It is weird in that it is a conventional genre film that is aesthetically experimental. It is weird in that it goes to really dark places, but has morally righteous main characters. It is weird in best parts are the parts that play least like a film from the genre it is part of. It is also one hell of an (intentionally?) ugly looking movie.

Let’s get this out of the way, if you are not one for found footage, especially if the film half heartedly attempts to justify the conceit, you will not enjoy End of Watch as much as it probably deserves. That’s right, End of Watch is a found footage buddy cop, hang out, police procedural. And if that jumble of aesthetics and genres doesn’t at least makes you curious, at least know that the film holds together better than it has any right to. 

It is aesthetically bold (let’s put it that way) in its approach to film making and delivering narrative. End of Watch operated part of the time as a found footage film being made by one of the two main cop characters for a film class, intercut with found footage shot by gang members and “traditional” third person coverage. The traditional coverage adopts as much of the aesthetic properties of the found footage as possible, with zooms, handheld camera works for what appears to be a deliberate attempt to imitate autofocus. This does increase the intimacy between audience and characters by reducing our distance from them, but it is kind of surreal and disorienting, not entirely being sure whether we are watching from a character’s perspective or not, except for noticing a bump in image detail from time to time. 

Coupled with the use of found footage is a breaking of rules and conventions you would expect from traditional coverage. Shots are framed at odd angles, the line is broken, and temporal continuity between cuts is played with, lending the film a jittery energy in high tension moments. It’s a kind of raw, punk feel that makes me feel it could have benefitted Suicide Squad. At least in part, not for a whole movie. A particular segment of note is a fire rescue that is dazzlingly disorienting, and rather tense as a result. Shot primarily from point of view miniaturised digital video cameras, frantically cutting between the two characters, low to the ground as they are crawling through a smoke filled house. It is immediate, nauseatingly so. So much so that when the characters exit the house, the relative stillness and space afforded by the exterior location is rendered just as surreal as the disjointed interior shots. 

And it is when things slow down and switch gears to hang out flick that things actually start going from interesting aesthetic experiment to good time at the movies. This film lives and dies on the performance of its two central characters, and their chemistry is so electric and genuine, it feels like you are on a ride along with people who have been friends for years. They bond through playful teasing, recounting stories from their youths, and talking about their better halves. There is a sense of warmth and humanity present here that speaks to a commitment to its characters first and foremost, only then building tension and adding wrinkles to the narrative after we have become invested. 

 There is a degree of character truth in this movie completely absent from a lot of other genre fair, and it really elevates Ayer’s macho-men doing macho things raison d’être. When the macho-men are these fun to hang with and have humanity threatening to burst out from under their braggadocio, it really makes you want the primary plot line that is running through the film (one you don’t particularly notice is there until the film nears its third act) to just drop away and leave us alone with these two. 

It is all the more impressive to note that a number of these scenes were shot within the confines of a squad car. Gyllenhaal and Peña are that engaging that looking at them dead on from what is effectively an inwards pointed dash cam is one of the highlights of the film. Likewise it is impressive that given a lot of the film is disconnected “day in the life” moments, that there is a rising tension and a narrative that develops in plain sight, but isn’t noticed until the climax.

It is a bit of a shame that the peripheral characters don’t feel as developed, nor are given much to do than to remind the viewer that there are other people in the lives of these two cops. In pareticular, their love interests are wasted. Moments with them are sweet and hint at even more humanity, but there isn’t enough of them to get much more of a sense of what they are like and what life with them is all about. For a movie about the life of an LAPD officer on and off the job, it spends too little time developing the off the job side of things.

All up though, End of Watch is an energetic, intimate movie that largely succeeds because of the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña. A genre experiment with real emotional heft, and one that promised good things to come from Ayer. These good things have yet to materialise, but the potential is there.

Something to dwell on:

As good as the film’s strengths are, its treatment of criminals leaves something to be desired in these #blacklivesmatter, “let’s build a wall” days. They are nothing but violent vessels for conflict. Not human being, just plot devices. Ayer himself makes note of this as a device to strengthen thenfilm’s narrative thrust and avoid confusing the audience’s sympathies. It is a film about good cops doing good things, after all, and having richly sketched gang bangers would get in the way of the film’s purity of intent. But Ayer has gone further to acknowledge that this is definitely not the case in real life, that he is sorry for selling them out and making them look like nothing more than evil violence machines. But 1) that was in a director’s commentary track, 2) cinema is a force for influencing and strengthening one’s beliefs, as much as it is about all the other things it achieves. You only need look at the Twitter response to Olympus has Fallen to see that racists having their racist views, not only unchallenged, but seemingly validated and legitimised by mainstream cinema is an honest, real world problem that we cannot ignore.

Batman v Superman

No, not worth it. Too long, not enough good.

Two for two misses in the “DCEU” thus far. Batman v Superman is not a good film. It is, however, an interesting one with something it is trying desperately to say. And it does so with pomp and circumstance. The score is grand and at times gothic. The shot compositions are gorgeous and often times evoke comic book panels, without the rampant use of speed ramping a la 300 and Watchmen. And it does actually try to address the massive collateral damage from the climax of Man of Steel. 

But Snyder’s ability to juggle all the competing plot lines and motivations leaves something to be desired. There is too much going on with too many holes and too little room to breathe, and this is not something necessary fixed with the extended cut. 

BvS raises and drops so many plot threads it could have comfortably been a three movie arc. Lois Lane feels more like a reporter this time around, but her role is still “thing what Superman wants to protect”. Wonder Woman exists in this movie because justice is dawning and we need to be made aware of this fact. There is a scene in which she watches what amounts to short adverts for the remaining justice league characters, with ready made logos, and it adds nothing to the plot. It could have easily been a stinger. And seriously, why would LexCorp design their super hero sigils for them? There is an entirely different movie’s climax stapled onto the end of the BvS arc involving a surprise Doomsday, who is sadly wasted in an attempt  to fit The Death of Superman onto The Dark Knight Returns.

Also Superman gets framed for murder and war mongering and Batman has been busy branding people who then get killed by their fellow inmates. And there are three dream sequences. Bruce Wayne has all of them. The most significant one serves as franchise building rather than a thing that drives the plot along. 

There is a lot going on and it doesn’t feel like a cohesive narrative. It is more like a series of vignettes, and some of these vignettes are quite effective at creating tone, addressing character, and showcasing performances. It is really in these moments when interesting things happen. 

It is where we learn Batman is a pathetic mess of a man driven by the death of Robin and repeated failures to improve the state of Gotham City. It’s where we learn that Bruce believes killing Superman may be the only significant thing he could potentially achieve. It’s where we begin to question whether Bruce is really in it to strike pre-emptively at an alien super being for the benefit of mankind, or if it is an ego thing. And it is where we see a world react in various ways to the actions of a seemingly omnipotent entity that acts across borders and is beholden to no state. 

Affleck does well as an exhausted an damaged Batman who has taken to lethal force after the death of his Robin. This is probably the most nuanced and emotionally truthful take on modern Frank Miller Batman we’re going to get. Take that as you will. 

Holly Hunter does all she can to breathe life into Senator Finch. She really does sell her character’s belief that Superman should be held to account for his stateless foreign intervention. It is almost as if BvS is a different film when she is on screen. 

Superman gets shafted by his own movie again. There are brief snippets of him saving more people this time around, but Cavil plays Superman as some bored and put upon saviour. It’s like he can’t stop looking irritated by humanity. This coupled with the messianic imagery and all the references to Superman as God and you could just as accurately refer to him as Cranky Space Jesus. 

Ultra Nihilist Billionaire v Cranky Space Jesus doesn’t quite have the same ring to it though. 

It really is fair to say that BvS is a structural mess. It was hacked down by 30 minutes to get it to a reasonable running time and a PG-13. But all that cutting left holes…

And this is where the Ultimate Edition comes in. Those 30 minutes are back, blood effects are added in, and it gets so unfathomably dark and mean spirited, you begin to wonder what anyone was thinking. It does plug the holes though.  So is it better?

Yes and no. 

BvS now makes narrative sense in that there is cause and effect, and that in itself goes a long way towards making it more than marketing, sound and fury. But curiously, it loses something in the process. Where the original film was about people’s reactions to a superhuman vigilante, and whether he should continue acting without governmental oversight, the added narrative clarity makes Ultimate Edition about Lex Luthor being omniscient and pulling all the strings. Africans being afraid of Superman’s actions in their countries? Luthor’s doing. Witnesses tearfully recounting the chaos that lay in Superman’s wake during hearings? Plants organised by Luthor. Prisoners killing prisoners branded by Batman? Luthor pays them to do it. And why? Just because. Of all the things the film clears up, it doesn’t flesh Luthor’s motivations out beyond his father used to hit him as a child and he now wants to kill a god. It is no longer asking questions about whether an alien of immense power can be trusted to uphold American values, about who is responsible if he acts in foreign countries, and if his mere presence poses a danger because other “meta humans” may come out of the woodwork.  It is now a movie about punching things in the face when you’re not busy pimping out your next few movies. 

It is also unjustifiably long. 

Here’s hoping Wonder Woman turns out good because that Justice League trailer did not inspire much confidence.