Wonder Woman

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

Director: Patty Jenkins

Writer: Allan Heinberg


Whether it wants it or not (and whether it’s fair or not), Wonder Woman has got a lot of pressure and expectation riding on it. Not only is it the first solo movie for one of the most iconic female characters of all time, it is also the single biggest movie to ever be made by a female director. For years studios have been pointing towards flops like Catwoman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl as evidence that female superhero movies don’t work (as if male superhero movies have such a perfect track record). With the MCU so far neglecting to make any female-led movies in spite of having a popular character and marketable star in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it falls onto DC to finally break this glass ceiling. While it’s not up to me to judge this movie from a feminine standpoint, I also cannot ignore what a big deal this movie is or how significant its success will be. And it is by all means a resounding success.

The movie starts off with Diana (Gal Gadot) as a child on the secret island of Themyscria, the home of the Amazonian race. There, as the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is forbidden to partake in training as a warrior, but does so anyway with her aunt, General Antipone (Robin Wright). Years later, having grown into a strong and capable woman, she rescues a downed pilot as his plane crashes nearby. The pilot is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he is an American soldier fighting in the First World War as a spy. He was being pursued by the Germans as he was escaping with a notebook stolen from the infamous chemist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and must return to London as soon as possible. Diana, believing that the war god Ares, whom her people have sworn to oppose, is orchestrating this war in the form of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), arms herself with the Amazons’ ‘Godkiller’ sword and accompanies him. Thus she joins the war to end all wars where she will discover the true extent of her powers and find her destiny.

This film marks the fourth instalment in the DCEU, a franchise that has so far proven uneven in its storytelling. Batman v. Superman for example was a movie that felt messy and overblown because it took on too many storylines and spent too much time on world building. One of the strengths of Wonder Woman is that it tells an entirely self-contained story. There are no forced cameos, no tangential set ups for upcoming titles and no unnecessary subplots. This is Diana’s story and the movie keeps the focus on her. When approaching a character such as Wonder Woman, one might have been tempted to sculpt her simply as a strong, badass warrior woman, essentially a female Braveheart. The movie however is more thoughtful and complex than that. Diana is indeed tough and vengeful, but she is also curious, compassionate, earnest and brave. She is an inspiring hero of a kind that movies haven’t really seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman. When Diana runs into battle to face the enemy, there isn’t a childhood trauma that forces her, no words of wisdom from a mentor that move her, no inner conflict about responsibility and morality that compels her. Diana is a kind, virtuous person who wants to help simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Joining Gadot in her wonderful turn as the DC legend is a strong supporting cast, the best of whom is Chris Pine as the dashing WWI pilot. Whereas Diana is hopeful, naïve even, Trevor is altogether more pessimistic and world weary, a quality to which Pine brings both charm and humour. There is a clear attraction between them on the outset which feels utterly authentic and organic due to the electrifying chemistry they share. Not many superhero movies can make their romances work, but this is definitely one that can. Also great are the Amazonian women, particularly Wright, who are every bit as fierce, steadfast and awesome as a warrior people ought to be. Watching them in action is one of the most thrilling parts of the movie as Jenkins does away with the rapid editing and generic framing we see in most blockbusters. Instead we get to see the warriors in their full glory, fighting in a variety of styles that make the combat feel more like an epic ballet than a punch-by-numbers.

Jenkins is to applauded on more than just the action scenes. Much of Wonder Woman feels unlike anything we might’ve expected from recent blockbusters, including and especially those of the DCEU. For one thing, Wonder Woman has actual colour in it. The magnificent gold of the Amazonian armour and the luscious greens and deep blues of their paradise island can all be seen in their splendour. Even the reds, greys and browns of the Western Front show that dark colours can be dire without being murky and stale. The movie also installs much humanity and humour into its story which, far from undercutting, help to enhance the film’s more serious moments. When we see Diana charging into her battle with her comrades, which include Charlie (Ewan Bremner) the sharpshooter, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) the Native American smuggler, and Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) the Moroccan master of disguise, its all the more affective because the movie has actually taken the time to show these characters bonding. Wonder Woman, being set in 1918, also does a good job of tackling issues of sexism and racism without beating us over the head with it.

The fatal flaw holding this movie back from greatness is its third act which sadly slips into the more generic territory we’ve seen in recent blockbusters. In starts off promisingly enough with a reveal for the villain that is surprising in its sophistication, suggesting that Ares is not in fact the simple baddie we took him for, and there is an excellent final scene between Diana and Steve that I found moving. Otherwise, unfortunately, the climax is typical of the sort of explosive finales that modern blockbusters like with overwritten, pretentious dialogue and a morally confused resolution. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a weak ending and it certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but it was underwhelming given how strong and fresh the first two acts had been. Still, even if I would have preferred an ending that took a few more risks, Wonder Woman is despite its flaws a great watch. It is gorgeous, exciting and inspiring and is entirely worthy of the comic book icon it has brought to life.

★★★★

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Anomalisa

Cast: (voiced by) David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

Writer: Charlie Kaufman


Trust Charlie Kaufman to make an animated film unlike any other ever made. As a writer and director known for his visual creativity, surrealist narratives and dreamlike atmospheres, one could only have wondered what he could achieve within the realms of animation. However it is also interesting that a filmmaker known for exploring psychological themes and venturing into the depths of human emotion should choose a format that is by its very nature artificial. While Kaufman showed in Being John Malkovich just how expressive puppets could be, placing the whole story within the world of puppetry is a different thing entirely. However, after about five or ten minutes of watching this film, it became all too evident that Anomalisa could only have worked as an animation. While the story itself is surprisingly simple (given the strikingly complex narratives penned by Kaufman in the past), it is a story that thoroughly embraces the world it inhabits.

The film takes place across a 24-hour period and follows the character of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a famed and successful author and expert in customer service going through a midlife crisis. He is unhappy with his work, his family and his station in life and exudes a melancholic air as he drifts aimlessly. He flies into Cincinnati where he is scheduled to deliver a conference and checks into his hotel. Every person to cross his path along the way such as his taxi driver and the bellboy is indistinguishable to him as they all speak with the same inexpressive, monosyllabic voice (Tom Noonan). It isn’t until he hears a voice out in the hallway, an entirely different voice from that possessed by every other character, that he is suddenly awakened from his lethargic state. He discovers that the voice belongs to Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, sheepish woman with low self-esteem who gets embarrassed when receiving any sort of attention. Michael is immediately infatuated and asks her to spend the night with him.

Initially I took this film to be Lost in Translation with puppets, but Anomalisa is actually a very different kind of beast. Although they tackle similar themes of dejection, alienation and romanticism, Kaufman’s is an altogether sadder and stranger film than Coppola’s is. Michael Stone seems at first to be a forlorn soul experiencing a state of estrangement as he traverses this impassive, artificial world. Yet, the more we see, the more one gets the feeling that Michael is the architect of his own misery. After checking into his room he calls up an old flame who lives in Cincinnati, hoping their reunion might lead to something. During their meeting however Michael seems utterly oblivious to the grief he inflicted upon this woman when he left her completely out of the blue eleven years ago. After later meeting Lisa and spending their romantic night together, he readily declares his intention to leave his wife and son for this woman whom he has idealised in his mind only for her to gradually transition into another blank face with that same Tom Noonan voice. Michael shows himself to be less of a crestfallen wanderer than he is a tragically flawed individual doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. His behaviour would be utterly appalling if he weren’t so downright pathetic.

What’s startling about this animation is how it manages to maintain a balance between artificiality and reality. The characters of course look like puppets with their joints and rubber bodies (I should probably mention that there is some puppet nudity in this film that’s handled with a little more artistry than in Team America), but they move and behave like real people. This effect owes just as much to the three actors providing the voices as it does to the puppeteers. So much of the emotion in this film is deftly conveyed through the inflections heard in the dialogue that align perfectly with the carefully crafted facial expressions. The film fully embraces its format as an animation with the use of a collective face and voice being shared by every side character being just one example. There is one particularly great scene following Michael and Lisa’s night of passion that fully demonstrates the effectiveness of this medium in a way that only the mind of Charlie Kaufman could have envisioned.

Just like with any other Kaufman film, Anomalisa is a film that will have to be revisited in order to be fully appreciated. It is abstract in its approach, complex in its thematic discussion and ambiguous in its ending. What resonated most strongly with me however was the emotional weight of it all. This is a tragic film about the agony of mundanity, the strangeness of uniformity and the delusion of an idealised romance. There is a sad beauty to this film, the kind that Charlie Kaufman is so great at depicting. The artificial effect of the puppetry adds an extra dimension to this film that would simply have not been there had it been done in live-action. Anomalisa is just as strange and as fascinating as any one of Kaufman’s other films and is astoundingly unlike any other animated film that I’ve ever come across.

★★★★★