Wonder Woman (2017) dir. Patty Jenkins

 

Two years ago, the Wonder Woman film had been announced, a leading lady cast, and I wrote one of those self-important, attention-seeking open letter to DC. I implored them not to use the New 52 storyline (turns out I’m still not a fan), to consider the character, and make a film worthy of the woman…

Fast forward to 2017.
Present day bookends the main flashback narrative as Diana Price, currently residing in Paris, receives *that* photo from Bruce Wayne. We are then introduced to a very determined eight-year-old Diana (the captivating Lilly Aspell) who is desperate to train with her fellow Amazons, including Artemis (Ann Wolfe), Menalippe (Lisa Love Kongsli), Epione (Eleanor Matsuura), Philippus (Ann Ogbomo) et al under the watchful eye of her aunt, General Antiope (a tremendous Robin Wright) and the revered leadership of Queen Hippolyta. In an attempt to quell her daughter’s thirst for combat training, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) recounts the story of their people accompanied by some rather impressive baroque visuals all within the premise of a bedtime tale, and then forbids her curious child from learning to defend herself. This only instigates the girl’s secret training but through Antiope’s teaching, Princess Diana’s potential is revealed.

Predictably, the Amazons exposure to the outside world arrives in the form of one Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who crash lands his plane into Themysciran waters, hotly pursued by German soldiers. Diana, of course, saves his life, intrigued at the sight of a man. One thing leads to another and soon she is grabbing the Golden Lasso of Hestia (one-time the Lasso of Truth of Aphrodite forged from the golden girdle of Gaea), a pretty impressive shield, and the “God-killer”, a bronze-gilded sword before setting sail to “The War” with Trevor. Not before a pretty impressive showdown between the Amazons and the gun-wielding soldiers. Surely, as per Hippolya’s history lesson, these men are controlled by Ares, the God of War who was sent packing long ago by his father Zeus.

Ah, Zeus… that’s my biggest gripe. The New 52 began circulation in 2011, during the DC relaunch and offered a version of Wonder Woman that claimed to be close to the character’s classical roots and told a story of Gods, Goddesses, heroes and prophecy. Ancient myths provide archetypes that can be appropriated and a mythology which can be repurposed, sure okay, but gone is the fatherless child moulded from clay and given life by Aphrodite, and in her place, a daughter of Zeus. This iteration challenges the definition of family, and not least William Moulton Marston’s original idealised matriarchy. Just how many angry siblings will turn up in the future and reign havoc? There are also some dubious gender politics which are often at odds with the beloved 76-year-old character.

Did it need challenging? Not remotely, but DC films since Nolan (and the relaunch) have proven, it’s all about the dark, oppressive, depressing, grounding-in-reality adaptations. This feels so new in comparison to all those other heroes who have seen several versions come to fruition, despite only having one or two years on WW. They have been afforded some screen evolution and a film history where she has not. Even the war depicted was changed in this cinematic outing. Wonder Woman was always the symbol of women’s contribution to the WWII resistance and the women’s movement. Now, she is placed within the confines of the First World War, and lovely visuals aside, a nice nod to Superman (1978) and one mention of suffrage, makes little difference to the overall plot, other than to contain the thematic critique of war and patriarchy. Something that still would have worked if set during the forties. Now, we have to believe that our compassionate and caring Diana turned her back on humanity during WWII…

Origin niggles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Patty Jenkins’ film, more so with each viewing. There is action, levity, and warmth, Diana even gets to try her first ice-cream, which is wonderful. Gadot exceeds expectations as the Warrior Princess. Her Diana Prince is driven, yet her naiveté is so well measured; for all her innocence and misunderstanding of how man’s world works, she is no passive wallflower. She has agency and a voice and is unafraid to use it. She doesn’t require rescuing but is only too happy to rescue anybody who needs her. She is intelligent, brave, resourceful, humble, and kind. Love is the impetus and becomes integral to her strength.
When she leaves Themyscira and ventures out into the destructive world of men, Diana believes that she is seeking Ares; who may now be in the guise of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston). He, with his masked partner-in-crime Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) at his side – dubbed Dr. Poison for her penchant for making toxic concoctions – intend to prevent armistice and cause as much death, destruction and suffering along the way. Only by destroying Ares will peace be restored, Diana states earnestly, Steve nods along, wishing he could believe in her myth.

While the villains (at least one in particular) are somewhat underdeveloped, the ‘good guys’ fare a little better. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) and Charlie (Ewen Bremner) are all deeply flawed men and products of their environments but their loyalty is commendable. They make an unlikely band of brothers, led by an affable Pine, who are more than content to fight alongside a woman. In yet another change, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) is no longer the brash American we know and love, but British and despite their close friendship in print, she and Diana are not afforded enough screen-time together. I would have loved more Etta, Lucy Davis is utterly charming in the role. 

Wonder Woman is not perfect, there are a few filmic flaws, however, there is more than enough magic within a handful of scenes to make it memorable, captivating and awe-inspiring. While it would have been nice to have stayed on Themyscira a little longer, the fight sequences are a sight to behold. Women: gracefully fearless, bold and brave, handing male derrières back to their owners certainly has a desired effect. The colour palette is, at times, stunning and makes the most of Paradise Island and the blue-grey landscapes of London only serve to make Lindy Hemmings’ work on the iconic red, gold and blue costume and armour pop. Diana had already declared “I am the man for the job” and an hour or so further in, she proves it physically with the crossing of No Man’s Land. This is where Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score reaches its epic aural beauty, moving from that piece of music to Wonder Woman’s Wrath, which incorporates Zimmer’s theme, is perfectly executed and a real highlight. The crossing of No Man’s Land and the subsequent scenes in Veld make the film; throat lumps were swallowed and tears leaked. This is the character I have loved and adored since I was a child: selfless, strong and fearless.

Yes, there is emphasis on the female form but it is a source of power and not necessarily pleasure. On Themyscira, these are women of differing ages, sizes and of colour. These are active bodies and not merely for titillation, Jenkins really steers the camera away from what could have been deemed salacious shots in another pair of hands. Diana represents a vision of warrior qualities that are equal to or greater than men’s and exemplifies a mix of gender qualities that adult men and women recognise as necessary, and yet never loses her femininity. Wonder Woman is powerful, not in spite of her femininity but because of it. Marston believed that young women (children and men too tbf) needed to see a heroic image of themselves, and it has been a long time coming but she’s here, at last, off the page and in the flesh; for us all to see, believe in, and realise our own capabilities via her.

This first attempt may lack polished visual effects, suffer occasionally from pacing issues, the odd bit of dubious dialogue and the final third, specifically the end fight, does feels like a misstep. However, Wonder Woman proves that a big budget can rest upon the shoulders of a woman director – not a “politically correct token” or a “gamble” – and that a female superhero and feminist icon can front a film and be a box office draw whilst being caring and altruistic. Her strength lies not only in her indestructibility but her heart and capacity to love, and to me that is far more important than the overuse of slow-motion. It may not be the film deserved but it’s one you can believe in.

So, when’s the sequel?

The Congress (2013, dir. Ari Folman)

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Robin Wright (the actress playing a version of herself) has made some lousy choices when it comes to her film career and men, or so she is forcefully told by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) at the beginning of Ari Folman’s The Congress.

the-congress-robin-wrightHer son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has health problems, her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) thinks she should ‘do’ a Holocaust film as she can perfectly encapsulate ‘Nazi and victim’. These chalk-and-cheese children are just two of the reasons listed why character Wright ultimately chose life over the film offers and now Miramount Studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston) wants to offer her the chance to sign away the pressure. They wish to own “[the] thing called Robin Wright”; to create an image they manipulate and render in any filmic form as long as she retires from acting altogether. Any initial reluctance is given way to an affirmative and Wright is scanned; every emotion , every line, twinkle and wrinkle (a sequence that is particularly breath-taking, if completely isolating). The viewer is then transported twenty years into the future and the pension-age Wright is thrust into Abrahama City – the animated zone where she meets a 2D Disney-fied Jon Hamm. congress

The Congress, based upon a Stanislaw Lem story, is relevant, provocative, thematically rich – often to its detriment – and is almost impossible to categorise; part sci-fi, fantasy, family drama, there’s even some speculative dystopian fiction thrown in for good measure. However, what begins as a stinging critique and almost sly satire aimed primarily at the commodification of celebrity disappointingly loses its anger and gestates into something else entirely. The animated world is hallucinatory and disconcerting, a sinister Disney World™ where eagle-eyed viewers can spot Michael Jackson as a restaurant waiter, Grace Jones as a nurse or an exaggerated toothsome caricature of Tom Cruise. It is exhilarating, mesmerising and a little tiresome but perhaps this is the point in a post-avatar, digital-obsessed world? The questions of mortality our protagonist faces are replicated in our own manipulated interpretation; we should beware of the image. While its plethora of ideas and ambition feels relentless and even a little confusing, The Congress finally finds its humanity amid an existential denouement.

congress2In any other actor’s hands, The Congress could have been a huge failure but the luminous Robin Wright delivers a stunning performance thanks, in part, to an excellent supporting cast of Keitel, Hamm, Huston and Paul Giamatti but mainly due to the fact that she is just that damn good. There is one scene in which the forty-plus Wright gazes at herself as Buttercup on a Princess Bride film poster, perhaps nostalgic for youth or the career she might have had, yet aside from the hair and the odd wisdom line, she appears exactly the same. If this film is one of her lousy choices, let’s hope she keeps on making them.

This review was originally published here:  Cinetalk: The Congress