Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

I haven’t been keeping up to date with the Zack Snyder-led DC universe films, but the criticism around their grim edginess and excessive cynicism is quite well known. Wonder Woman is in many ways a movie about evil, but using that evil to examine the limits and importance of optimism rather than stage a frown-off. Sure, stories about heroes being forced to contemplate the worthiness of humanity for their heroism have been done before. But in allowing that hero to be someone who has never encountered humanity before, Wonder Woman explores a sense of naivete about human nature but stops well short of condemning hope.

But that’s perhaps burying the lede. Wonder Woman had greater expectations and (unfairly) a greater duty to succeed than most of its ilk, which is maybe why it feels less formally risky than the best of its brethren. Wonder Woman has clearly benefited from the MCU films that came before it. It’s fish-out-of-water conceit, golden homeworld, and willingness to just go with the ancient gods angle feel very reminiscent of Thor, and its mixture of superhero conventions and a wartime setting are familiar from Captain America: The First Avenger. But Wonder Woman is a stronger film than either of those entries, particularly in how it uses the wartime setting to exaggerate both the silliness and the impact of superheroic feats. Seeing Diana walk around the streets of London in period garb carrying a sword and shield is maybe the funniest sight gag of the year, but when the bright blue, red, and gold outfit shows up on a battlefield, it’s a beacon of hope to lead the way. Also, its use of World War I rather than WWII is sly. Sure, there’s an evil German general (played by an American, naturally) to contend with, but the central thesis of there being hope for the global community is certainly an easier sell without the Nazi party in the picture.

The action scenes in Wonder Woman aren’t terribly visceral or exciting, filled with excessive slo-mo and playing a little loose with the exact level of power Diana has. At one moment, she can collapse a building with a tackle, and at another, she’s evenly matched with what’s effectively a man on PCP. But the framing of the scenes is worth highlighting. The female characters in other recent superhero movies, such as Catwoman and Black Widow, tend to be filmed as very technical fighters, relying on quick moves to gain the upper hand. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, on the other hand, is certainly choreographed as well trained, but what’s really stark is how director Patty Jenkins frames her as an object of power. As she fights a squadron of soldiers, she isn’t frightened for herself or relying on stealth. She takes charge and simply kicks ass. While the action isn’t tense, it’s the perfect way to handle an action scene with a nigh-invincible superhero. Diana is a figure of awe, and Jenkins makes us believe that.

By the end, Wonder Woman is far from immune to some plagues of most superhero movies. The movie may neglect the invisible jet, but the Golden Lasso of Truth is still plenty silly (played alternatively for effective laughs and ineffective drama). The finale is a mess of mostly impotent explosions with a color palette that consists of grey and rainy grey. Diana’s weaknesses are never clearly outlined, making it difficult to judge when we should worry for her. In place of that worry, we get American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his cadre of military outcasts, whose human vulnerability is emphasized instead. Pine essentially takes the role of competent superhero love interest, occupying more-or-less the same space as Haley Atwell’s Agent Carter in Captain America, but anchors the film as a link to reality and as one hell of a charismatic foil for Diana. Make no mistake though: this is Gal Gadot’s movie, and through Jenkin’s lens, she’s commands the screen. They have the difficult task of believably creating a figure of simultaneous power, wisdom, and naivete, and they make it look effortless. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold the same way is breaks (or at least cracks) the ceiling, but in a vacuum it’s still a solid entry into the upper-middle tier of superhero flicks.

B

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Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, and Robin Wright
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

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Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

Hell or High Water is a living, breathing neo-Western

A distinctive worldview triumphs over worn-down storytelling tropes any day of the week. Hell or High Water isn’t an innovative, twisty piece of storytelling, but it has an eye for its rural Texas setting that sets it apart, populating it with interesting characters top-to-bottom and with a political sensibility that it neither condemns nor condones, but sympathises with. It paints rural Texas as reliving it’s days as the Wild West, abandoned by the country as a whole, a place where most folks carry weapons to settle their own disputes. It’s hard for me, a Canadian who hasn’t seen any of Texas outside of the Dallas airport, to say how close to the truth this is, but it’s specificity creates a vivid world. When someone whose car choice clashes with the idea of the world being somewhat run-down enters the frame, its as a prelude to sudden violence when they mess with the wrong locals. The people here aren’t villains, but they don’t react well to being antagonised either.

Hell or High Water has a fairly classic setup, following two sets of partners. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are taking up bank robbery to make some quick cash.  Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on their tail. There’s no big twist behind this setup. Hamilton is even a couple weeks from retirement. But it’s used to great effect to examine how the plight of the working class has left a vacuum for Wild West tendencies to sprout up again, while also pointing out the limitations of the analogy. The days where you can expect to rob a bank and get away with it are long gone, muses one diner patron, and the next generation won’t be interested in playing cowboy, notes a rancher escorting his cattle from a brush fire. It can be heavy-handed in its musings at times, but it has clearly thought about to how to apply Western tropes to the modern world, and mostly succeeds wildly.

What makes Hell or High Water such a standout is how it takes care to create good, distinctive characters. It’s fringes are an embarrassment of riches, with numerous character actors making one-scene appearances to make tellers, waiters, and citizens pop with charisma (Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, and Katy Mixon all show up briefly). Bridges’ Hamilton is a bit more cantankerous than world-weary, but his chemistry with Birmingham goes a long way, and his less-than-subtle and less-than-appreciated racial jesting towards his Comanche/Mexican partner comes across as more annoying-uncle than heartless-bigot. Ben Foster, about twenty pounds heavier than last seen, hopefully gets a major career boost from this, as his portrayal of Tanner avoids short-fuse stereotypes while still coming across as dangerously unstable. It takes most of its running time to set up its world and its centre foursome, and when it comes time to bring the pieces together, it does so in a way that’s immensely satisfying on a visceral and narrative level. If the Old West is pretty much dead, Hell or High Water shows that the neo-Western still has blood left pumping.

A-

Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016)
Dir. David Mackenzie
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham
Rotten Tomatoes (98%)

Hell or High Water is a living, breathing neo-Western

Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation

Star Trek means many things to many people, and what the brand means to you heavily influences how you react to the direction it takes going forward. I can understand why so many were disappointed with JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but as someone with no real connection to the brand (to the probable minor chagrin of my father, who was well versed in both but raised me a Star Wars kid), I found it to be a perfectly enjoyable popcorn movie. On the other hand, I found the second “new” Trek, Into Darkness, to be a ludicrously dumb, bland, and creatively bankrupt endeavour, clearly trying to mine the success of its predecessors but without any spark of its own. Trek, as my more well-versed friends say often, is better known for big ideas rather than action movie spectacle. Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite as bland as Into Darkness, and toys with the odd idea or two, but still clearly presents itself as action movie spectacle; spectacle which is quickly getting old.

The ideas that lie barely under the surface of Beyond are timely, with the Federation being set up as a stand-in for globalization and Idris Elba’s villain Krall representing all the mistrust that prevents such movements from going over smoothly. Notably, the Federation representative rides in a united vessel (the Enterprise), while Krall’s fleet is a swarm of individual ships, working together but clearly sovereign. Krall, naturally, views the Federation as an enemy that must be crushed, and to do so requires a weapon (read: MacGuffin) currently in the posession of the USS Enterprise.  In a bold move, the Enterprise is destroyed in the first act of Beyond as opposed to being more-or-less obliterated in the final battle, marooning the crew on an uncharted planet. The planet is briefly noted to be the home of many shipwrecked crews, which is an incredibly interesting scenario that is immediately forgotten about. One could imagine a movie about these foreign crews working together against the oppressor who brought them there, but outside of a resourceful lone wolf named Jaylah, the idea that others exist is quietly pushed aside.

Jaylah, played by Kingsman: The Secret Service standout Sofia Boutella, isn’t a particularly well drawn character, but nonetheless is the best part of the movie thanks to Boutella’s screen presence. She is mostly paired with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, and while Pegg is normally a refreshing presence in anything he’s in, he goes a bit over-the-top here, and calls Jaylah the dimunitive “lassy” a rather infuriating number of times. Most of the actors chew scenery in showy ways, especially Pegg, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the normally reliable Karl Urban as Bones. Idris Elba is buried under a mountain of mo-cap, rendering his villain unrelatable and unmemorable. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are once again given very little to do. Chris Pine is at least a decent leading man, with a lot of soul in those baby blues, but not enough to effectively work as the centre of the movie.

The sci-fi ideas of Beyond are mostly half-baked as well. While I’m generally willing to accept nonsense if enough effort or technobabble is inserted such that it feels legitimate, very little is halfway justified in Beyond. A starship jumpstart is among the dumber moments, clearly designed as an insert-thrill-here type of scene, but without the requisite “a-ha!” moment to make it coherent. Ancient alien technology plays a big role, but is never explained or even pondered (for example, why does Krall look they way he looks, and where does his energy-sapping ability come from?). In one great moment, technobabble flies left and right as the crew comes up with a plan, but its deflating by it being an incredibly cheesy, groan-inducing plan (hint: it involves the power of music saving the day). The Federation city of Yorktown is marvellously designed, evoking the geography of Halo or the Citadel of Mass Effect turned up to eleven, but it definitely feels of a piece with the design of other modern sci-fi movies such as Inception and the upcoming Dr. Strange.

These are mostly all problems that were present in the 2009 Star Trek, but here, even the action doesn’t really work. Instead of tactics winning the day (aside from the power of music), pretty much every turning point of Beyond seems to come down to a fistfight, which quickly grows tiring. The climactic action sequence revolves around what is becoming an increasingly familiar blockbuster trope, where our hero must race above a big city to prevent a villain from getting a MacGuffin into a pipe or something like that, and despite the neat city design, Beyond doesn’t do anything new with the format. Director Justin Lin, known primarily for the Fast and the Furious franchise, films the action scenes jerkily, with nary a static shot in sight, trying for a mile-a-minute thrill ride but reducing the narrative thrust to an indecipherable blur.

Star Trek Beyond has more going on creatively than Into Darkness did, but is unable to capitalize on any of its ideas, instead favouring most unsatisfying action sequences. The cast, full of actors who have previously proven themselves time and time again, are either overly hammy or completely ignored, and the sci-fi world building is treated as completely secondary.  There still might be some juice in this crew, but as long as Trek keeps trying to be a top summer blockbuster, I don’t see it producing anything of value.

C-

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Dir. Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Sofia Boutella
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation