Wonder Woman

Diana, princess of the Amazons – a race of immortal warrior women created to protect humanity by Zeus himself – has trained her whole life to become the greatest fighter of her people. When US pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the shores of Themyscira in 1918, the hidden island paradise of the Amazons, she learns of the Great War that has been raging across the world and sets out to bring an end to the fighting the only way she knows how: by destroying the god of war himself, Ares.


It’s easy to just describe Wonder Woman as a midpoint between Captain America: The First Avenger, for its period setting, and the mythological roots and sprinkled fish-out-of-water humour of Thor. A fair enough description, if all you’re really looking at are the aesthetics. Wonder Woman, taken in its entirety, is perhaps one of the most unique and awe-inspiring films to have ever come out of the comic book genre. Rarely has a film of its kind demonstrated such an unyielding commitment to substantiating the hero’s journey, and such defiantly patient storytelling in a bazaar of relentlessly quick-fire, breakneck-speed blockbusters. This is a film that breaks the spell of cinematic bloodlust and craving for carnage that has beset this genre for so long (not that Wonder Woman is without its exceptional action set-pieces), and brings the focus back down to earth, to a person who just wants to help people however possible. Director Patty Jenkins has hit it out of the park.


Gal Gadot has now entrenched herself as the definitive Wonder Woman of our time. Her performance is nothing short of sensational, embodying not only every aspect of Diana’s personality but every step of her maturing process to a flawless degree. Diana is woman, and warrior, and both define her just as much as each other without compensation or compromise. Her relationships with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and aunt/mentor General Antiope (Robin Wright) are especially integral in establishing this balance. Arguably more so than most origin stories, Wonder Woman lives or dies on the calibre of its star performer, and so this film truly belongs go Gadot. Chris Pine also is on standout form as the daring and honourable Steve Trevor, charismatic as ever but here imbued with a quiet, war-weary cynicism for his fellow man that clashes with his fundamental faith in humanity. If performance-wise the film belongs to Gadot, then character-wise the film almost belongs to Steve for precisely this conviction that provides the film’s fundamental lesson: that between love and war, there’s trust. (A think-piece by the Nerdist’s Alicia Lutes explores this more fully that’s well worth a read).


What criticisms can be made of Wonder Woman are largely nit-picky: at times, the film can feel somewhat overly weighted-down, so determined to ‘get it right’ that it perhaps overspends time and energy on what really should be minor considerations, an overlong boat scene meant to establish Diana and Steve’s dynamic when alone for example. Also in that regard, perhaps too often dialogue veers into excessive explaining territory, rather than letting performances and actions speak for themselves (a pitfall of the film’s climax especially). The only shortcoming of the film’s spectacular action sequences (truly unleashing the power of Wonder Woman) is a mild overindulgence of slow-motion that can likely be blamed on Zack Snyder’s input, and a case can be made for somewhat subpar CGI in these instances. The greatest misstep of all? An attempt at sleight-of-hand with Ares’ earthly identity that falls short of a ‘twist’, but still delivers a memorable payoff.


Context, so often, is everything. What we make of something depends almost always on not just the thing itself alone, but on ourselves at the point in time we experience it. The brightest, funniest, warmest film in the world cannot guarantee that someone watching it on a dark, terrible, cold day will laugh or smile. To say that Wonder Woman arrives with an abundance of context is to say the least. Stuttered, intensely divisive efforts to establish a shared cinematic universe of DC’s most iconic superheroes. An ongoing international wave of feminism, acting as both umbrella and lightning rod for a plethora of social issues, met with both enthusiastic support and evermore combative opposition.


Should any of this remotely impact the Wonder Woman watching experience, when so many superhero origin films have come and gone in baggage-free luxury? Absolutely not. But like Diana herself discovers upon leaving Themyscira’s waters, the world is not what it should be. Nevertheless, she persists, and the result is a superhero film that earns its place in the league of Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. From the moment Diana steps out into No Man’s Land, to a final shot that we can hope will serve as a rallying symbol for cinema of the future, Wonder Woman sheds all considerations of its context, and in doing so becomes timeless.


Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4.5/5


Hell or High Water

In most people’s minds, a classic Western boils down to a handful of elements: good guy(s), bad guys(s), shootouts, cowboy hats, horses, horizons and maybe the odd ‘Injun’. True Grit, The Magnificent Seven, Red River, The Searchers, these certainly tick all the boxes, but often what people underappreciate is that’s only ever half of the appeal. Like all the best stories, the experience isn’t simply the sum of their genre tropes (by that logic A Million Ways to Die in the West and Once Upon a Time in the West are drinking buddies) but the extent to which they transcend their genre. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water may not simmer with the tension and exhilaration of No Country for Old Men proportions, but make no mistake: it ticks all the boxes, and then rustles up a few more.


When Howard brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) embark on a string of bank robberies in West Texas, soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) throws himself into the chase. But in Texas, justice takes many forms, and sometimes a man has to determine his own choices before they can define him.


If half the appeal of a great Western is its signature elements (the duel, the saloon bar, the stirrups, the Sheriff’s badge), the other half is its ability to resonate with the times, and this more than anything is Hell or High Water’s ace in the hole. Mackenzie creates an atmosphere that feels almost tangibly like the essence of the classics, and transposes it onto a setting and story that is uncompromisingly current.


Pine and Foster are pitch-perfect casting as the Howard brothers, amateurs to their craft but diligent in their method and defined far more by their relationship than their actions. Though they live in a world and lead lives of increasingly unfortunate choices, their fraternity is the one thing neither of them chose, and the one thing neither of them would ever choose to change. Foster is particularly a standout in capturing Tanner’s caution-to-the-wind charisma, but without Pine and the chemistry the actors clearly share the effect would not be nearly so potent.


Indeed, only narrowly does Bridges pip Foster to the ‘Best Performance’ post, but pip him he does nonetheless. Hamilton, in Bridges’ hands, is a man of palpable experience, past his prime but by no means out of touch with his prime, and all the wit and wisdom that comes with it. His partnership with fellow ranger Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker) offers ample opportunity for Bridges to shine, and indeed makes for a few of the film’s highlights, but it’s the ever-self-sustaining magnetism of his solo work that continues to set him apart.


Sensational cinematography, a sharp and tightly focused script and engrossing performances across the board distinguish Hell or High Water as a deserving addition to an increasing body of ‘shoot-em-ups with something to say’. A complex, carefully considered character study into those who act in the name of justice in a time when injustice feels so institutionalized.


Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 3.5/5

Final Score: 4/5


Star Trek Beyond

Since the revival of the beloved Star Trek franchise in 2009, a certain degree of division has taken root amongst its audience. Moviegoers in general and fans of science fiction embraced wholeheartedly the first outing of the perfectly cast Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and co. It was grand, fantastic, operatic, and it introduced the ongoing mission of the Starship Enterprise to a whole new generation. But whilst acclaim for those in front of the camera spanned Earth to Kronos, ‘purist’ audiences criticised those behind it for their approach to, and vision for the mythology as misinterpreting the true spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s creation. This didn’t stop the reboot from being a runaway success, nor did it four years later with Star Trek Into Darkness, but that doesn’t mean to say such criticisms are invalid. Whilst a social agenda was very much a part of the DNA of the original show, an agenda it presented and discussed in adult terms, spectacle + homage seem to form the heart of the franchise’s appeal today. However you might feel about it, the fact is that Star Trek today is very much a blockbuster. Now, with Fast & Furious director Justin Lin at the helm of Simon ‘Scotty’ Pegg’s story and script, can Star Trek Beyond prove the spirit of the show continues to live long, and prosper?


Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise are attacked by a literal swarm of star fighters under the command of the mysterious and menacing Krall (Idris Elba). With the Enterprise utterly destroyed, Kirk and what’s left of his crew are scattered and crash-land on an uncharted planet. But as the Starfleet officers struggle to survive, let alone regroup, they come to understand just how great a threat Krall truly is, to them, to this planet, and to the entire Federation.

Having a director most known for big blockbuster action like the Fast & Furious films, and written by one of geekdom’s greatest heroes (from the real world anyway), on paper this film really should have the best of both worlds. Jaw-dropping visuals and vibrant action wedded to careful characterization and a fundamental sense of intelligence in the film’s story. And, to an extent, that’s what we get. This is easily the most visually spectacular of the rebooted franchise, from its depiction of an alien world to a city in space reminiscent just as much of Inception as Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels. This is also possibly the best balancing of screen time for Kirk’s crew we’ve ever seen in a single instalment. Practically every character we know and love is allowed a moment to shine and a journey to go on, making this film less another ‘Kirk, Spock (Quinto) and everyone else’ setup and more a truly ensemble story. The prize for show-stealing however truly belongs to the pairing of the iconic Vulcan First Officer and Dr Bones McCoy (Karl Urban), their interplay both relentlessly hilarious and allowing for some truly fresh fleshing out of their characters. Had the jokes fallen flat though, the prize would certainly have been Sofia Boutella’s (Kingsman: The Secret Service) in the role of crash-landed scavenger Jaylah, not only for her own interplay with Scotty but for the fact that simply seeing her in the line-up already feels so right, like she’s always belonged in this franchise.


Tragically, we have to acknowledge the fact that the film marks the final performance of Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov, following his sudden and shocking death only a few weeks prior to the film’s release. The film is dedicated to him during its closing credits, and so to see Chekov enjoy so much greater a presence in the story this time around is truly a fine, if bittersweet, thing. And of course, following his death in 2015, Star Trek Beyond also pays a heartfelt tribute to the passing of Leonard Nimoy. Unlike its two predecessors, homages and call-backs to the franchise’s beginnings have been substantially reduced, no doubt in part due to the criticism that Into Darkness was too much simply a reworked Wrath of Khan. What tributes to times past there are however are all the more meaningful. Nimoy was an American cultural icon. As if his passing in the real world could not impact the world he helped create.


Star Trek Beyond’s strengths are undoubtedly rooted for the most part in the effectiveness of its characterizations, but whilst the story itself isn’t exactly a disappointment and is by no means lacklustre, there remains something faintly unsatisfying in the overall effect. Elba brings Krall to life with palpable ferocity and menace, but ultimately he feels somewhat lacking as an antagonist. The logic behind his motivation, whilst making sense upon reflection, is a little hard to piece together, and at times it does feel like the film resorts to haphazard delaying tactics for the sake of postponing the ‘big twist’. Also, with a major summer film on a budget of such magnitude, could they really not afford a few hundred more extras for Krall’s army? The result is a bit of a leap from seeing a few dozen of his warriors engaged in a shootout to literally thousands upon thousands of manned starfighters swarming into space battles. And one more thing; the shaky-cam. Try not to go all Hunger Games on us.


Star Trek Beyond is undeniably a belter of a summer blockbuster. It’s fun, it’s sharp, it’s engrossing, and frankly being able to deliver anything remotely refreshing despite being technically the thirteenth film in the franchise is an achievement. In these terms, it’s a must-see. To the ‘purists’ out there who fear the spirit of Roddenberry being defaced…honestly, does anything ever really compare to the original? Beyond does its best to be what constitutes a successful summer film in today’s world, and it works hard to keep in touch with its roots. Compelling, rich characters. Bold ideas. Heart. These are the things that made Star Trek what it was, and what went on to make the entire genre. Sure, maybe this current iteration of the brand name may not completely champion what you valued about the mythology, but sci-fi should have taught you more than most genres about evolution.