WONDER WOMAN

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*** (out of five)

Petty Jenkins used Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) as her model for Wonder Woman, her first feature film since Monster (2003), and the influence is clear and astute. Like Donner’s film, Jenkins’ take on the Amazonian warrior is fuelled by goodness, romance, gentle humour and, well, wonder – specifically the wonder a 5,000 year old Amazonian finds when experiencing the “world of men” (and the greater human race) for the first time. Like those first, best adventures of a strong and well-minded alien from the planet Krypton growing up in the wheat belt of the United States, this is a fish-out-of-water story.

Or a princess in deep water. Diana, Princess of the Amazons, having completed her warrior training, finds herself propelled from her female-only island paradise into Europe during World War One. She’s at the side of American spy-soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and on a mission to end the war – and all wars – by killing the god of war, who may or may not be a German commander. Fighting ensues, but so does a more intriguing set of life lessons, such as learning how to flirt.

It’s all more superhero nonsense but Jenkins keeps the story-telling clean, light and buoyant. Most importantly, she has an incredible lead actor. As Diana, Gal Gadot makes the movie. Her staggering beauty is enough to compel you to keep watching the film, but her characterisation is also constantly engaging, full of warmth, delight, sly humour and grace. Her physical approach to expressing naivety and wonder is priceless – it’s to do with a cocking of her head and some big wide eyes, and it melted my heart every time – as is her physicality in her fighting scenes, which is refreshing in its femininity. Gadot has a tall, slender body – she is not buff like male superheroes have become – and her battles are fought with elegance, not anger.

The Amazonian scenes in the first act are naff and the Big Battle at the end is bog-standard, but the bulk of the picture has heart and soul. Gadot makes such an impression that I still felt the warmth of the movie hours later – much as I did after seeing Donner’s Superman for the first time, when I was a child. I’m amazed a “superhero” movie could have that effect on me now.

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Hell Or High Water

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****1/2

Like Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is an elegiac, meloancholic modern-day western in which the strongest element is the milieu. In this case, that is contemporary small-town West Texas, which seems as exotic and lonely to this Sydney-and-Los Angeles based critic as the red desert of Sen’s films.

This is not just a bank robbery movie but one of the subset of bank robbery movies where the robbers really hate the banks. The twist here is that everyone else does too, in a way that couldn’t be more 2016. It’s not that the leather-faced, unironically cowboy-hat wearing, armed-to-a-man denizens of this world are on the robbers’ side; they just hate the banks more.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the robbers with an axe to grind; they’re brothers, and one is calm and thoughtful, the other wild and dangerous (guess which is which and you’ll be right; these two have not been cast against type). Jeff Bridges, in a role I suspect will garner him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, plays the Ranger pursuing them alongside his deputy, played by the always entertaining Gil Birmingham, who has the dryest delivery in movies.

The sad, dusty towns against which this classically-oriented story play out are breathtakingly evocative, as are the bodies and faces of all the Texans we meet along the way. It’s its own universe. Details are tremendously revealed through an almost perfect union of character and dialogue: when questioned by Bridges, one old timer says that the brothers were “lean, like cowboys.” That’s enough of a concept for a movie of its own.

Mackenzie, working from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who also plays a lean cowboy), parses out the main characters on a fascinating slow-drip feed, keeping us in a perpetual state of languid suspense. The story is evocative of classic westerns but offers surprising twists and turns, all built on careful construction of character. There’s a spare but extremely apt original score by – yes! – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who are drawn to dust, obviously.

This is a political film shot through with a quiet but deliberate anger. The banks in these old towns are brighter and cleaner than the wrecks surrounding them: after all, they’ve got all the people’s money. And guns – well, guns are everywhere. Every man in the film has one, mostly concealed. Dramatically, it ties the film to John Ford, John Wayne and the classic American West. Ideologically, it’s terrifying.

This is an excellent film and will probably feature in a few categories at the Oscars – besides Bridges for Supporting Actor, I’m thinking Screenplay and possibly Best Film. See it.

Into The Woods

Into-the-Woods-banner***1/2 (out of five)

For many, many musical theatre aficionados, Into The Woods is a master work, one of the best pieces by the best maestro, being Stephen Sondheim, the anti-populist, intellectual, “difficult” composer and lyricist. Into The Woods is one of his biggies, featuring excellent music and songs, strong characters, and a clever storyline that subverts a bunch of fairytales. Huge in scale – there’s a witch, a giant, a castle or two, a cow, magic beans, a wolf and an awful lot of woods – it’s long been ripe for cinematic treatment.

Rob Marshall’s adaptation is straightforward and respectful. Since the material itself is slyly subversive, there’s no need to subvert it in the transition from stage to screen; all that is necessary is to flesh it out, fill the screen with it, and Marshall’s done that. Thus The Witch (Meryl Streep) can get up to all manner of creepy manoeuvres, the beans can burst skyward as a thundering, towering beanstalk, the giant can look like a giant and her footsteps can cause the shattering of a castle tower.

There is one shrieking element of total theatricality: The Wolf (Johnny Depp) doesn’t look like a wolf, he looks like Johnny Depp with some whiskers. It’s an odd choice and clashes with Steep’s effective witchiness, the giant’s giantism, and the cow, which is mainly played by a real cow. Depp comes and goes early and is pretty much forgotten by the end, which is just as well; his episode is the film’s least compelling.

The best character is Cinderella, and Anna Kendrick is sublime. She’s got a terrific song on the castle steps that is full of humour and nuance. Kendrick is bagging all the great singing-on-screen roles, from her franchise (Pitch Perfect) to her upcoming two-hander The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s excellent musical. She deserves to. She sings beautifully and you believe her singing; even as she sings along to her own recordings (as they did on this one, as opposed to the “live” singing of Les Miserables) you can see her lower lip trembling in vibrato. She’s a perfect Cinderella.

Also terrific is Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife. She outshines The Baker, James Cordon, and fans will be bummed to see one of his big numbers cut. Mostly, though, the songs are all there, unlike the recent Annie, which bombed the Dresden out of its own source material. Meryl’s fine – in that Meryl Streep way of “fine” meaning typically excellent – but my Musical Theatre Expert, who accompanied me to the screening I saw, said that she didn’t own the role – and the singing – as it has been owned by Bernadette Peters on stage and in a famous PBS filmed stage recording. My Musical Theatre Expert did single out young Daniel Huttlestone, as Jack (as in, “…and the beanstalk”) and even applauded after one of his big numbers.

Everything is very competent and it’s all good fun. It doesn’t seem to have any raison d’être except that, perhaps, someone finally got the money together to make it. It doesn’t comment on our age, doesn’t offer a bold new perspective, and doesn’t feature any particular “star” performance. But if it only exists for Sondheim fans, it exists well for them. Supposedly the man himself is happy with it, and so he should be. It treats his work with complete reverence, respect, and love.