“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” Review

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Wonder Woman has had one hell of a cinematic year. Not only did the most famous female superhero in the world get her own solo outing and a major role in Justice League, but now Professor Marston and the Wonder Women delves into the true story of how the character came to be. And this historical drama manages to depict a more interesting narrative than either of the superhero films the character has been involved in this year.

In the late 1920s Professor William Marston and his wife Elizabeth were teachers of psychology at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges who developed an interest in their student and teaching assistant, Olive Byrne. The three eventually formed a polyamorous relationship, and together came to explore kinks such as submission and bondage as Professor Marston developed his own theories on human behaviour. Frustrated by society’s rejection of his lifestyle and romantic interests, Marston created a comic book filled with sexual and fetishist images in an attempt to promote his theories in popular culture.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women explores topics that we’re unlikely to see in a major superhero film anytime soon, and it’s rare to see a positive depiction of a polyamorous relationship in cinema at all. It’s truly fascinating to see how interests that are still viewed as taboo even today were instrumental in creating such an iconic figure, with writer/director Angela Robinson often presenting panels from original Wonder Woman comics to highlight how explicit Marston could be in exploring sexuality in his work. The three leads are also to be commended for making the relationship seem not only believable but completely normal. Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall have such natural chemistry together that it’s easy to accept them as a couple together since childhood. As the third party in this relationship Bella Heathcote’s character ranges from timid and demur to confident and in control, and Heathcote never struggles to show both Olive’s vulnerability and strength.

Robinson’s script is intelligent and often extremely witty, particularly the dialogue cuttingly delivered by Ferguson, but at times I found her direction overbearing. The first love scene between the three leads in particular is laughably explicit, as they ransack a college theatre department for costumes and props under the blaring sounds of “Feeling Good”. An excess of soft golden lighting accompanies other major turning points in the plot, attempting to turn them into something mythic rather than letting the extraordinary nature of the true story speak for itself. It’s an admittedly nit-picky criticism of an overall strong film but I couldn’t help feeling like Robinson didn’t trust her audience to recognise moments from Marston’s life and how they influenced Wonder Woman’s creation, so felt the need to make any references overt.

Overall Professor Marston and the Wonder Women remains an intriguing story with impeccable performances, and after watching it I can’t help but feel a new level of appreciation for what Wonder Woman stands for. I also don’t think I’ll ever look at the Lasso of Truth the same way ever again.

3 and a half stars.

“Train to Busan” Review

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Zombies are everywhere in the media. I was going to say ‘nowadays’ but I honestly can’t think of a time when zombies weren’t popular – from George A. Romero’s genre defining Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to The Walking Dead, currently airing its eighth season, there have been countless depictions of the cannibalistic undead preying on the living. With so much to choose from it’s understandable how South Korea’s Train to Busan went under the radar here in Australia – screening at festivals before being released straight to DVD and streaming sites like Netflix. The story is a simple one and it never feels like director Yeon Sang-ho is trying to reinvent the zombie movie formula, but instead he playfully explores the conventions to bring some much needed life and ingenuity into a genre that can at times feel done to death.

A workaholic recently divorced father (Gong Yoo) who only cares about himself has to accompany his young daughter (Kim Su-an) on the titular train to Busan so she can see her mother. Along the way people start turning into zombies, and some of these zombies end up on the train. That’s about the extent of the story. Like the best high concept films Park Joo-suk’s screenplay fully realises this simple premise with moments that manage to be funny, tense, heart-warming, and tragic. The characters all fit within the familiar roles of potential victims: A selfish businessman, a pregnant woman and her tough but kind-hearted husband, two elderly sisters, and a high school baseball team, but nearly every character gets at least one small personal moment to elevate them beyond a simple caricature. Even Train to Busan’s zombies manage to feel different from the typical shambling threat, with jerkier movements, flailing limbs, and a weakness to darkness.

Train to Busan eschews the hyper-realistic oversaturated visuals of a zombie film like 28 Days Later, as well as the dark and gritty tones of other recent horror films, to instead emphasise the mundane nature of travel. The train is clean, colourful, and brightly lit, and all the passengers are just regular people. There are no real fighters or weapons on board, so the action scenes are more focused on escaping or holding the zombies back. Even when things in Train to Busan are going to Hell it manages to feel grounded through offering something that feels real, be it the believably human characters or just the universally recognisable location of a train station. It’s a minor thing, but it helps make the situation all the more accessible – after all, I catch the train nearly every day.

Train to Busan is a pure, unashamed, zombie flick. It’s tremendously fun, inventive, often feels like it has something to say, and is all the stronger for never pretending to be anything more than it is. If films like this are still being made, it seems that zombie films have plenty of life left in them.

4 stars.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” Review

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It’s nearly summer, which means that studios are starting to release their ‘prestige’ films for Oscar season. It’s hard not to know one when you see one – they star A-list actors playing real life people in a story based on true historical events, and almost always end with on-screen title cards about what really happened after the events in the film. Bonus points if the credits include the actual version of a picture recreated in the film somewhere. One of the first of such films this year is Simon Curtis’s Goodbye Christopher Robin. Starring Domnhal Gleeson and Margot Robbie as A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, it’s based on the true story of Milne writing the original “Winnie-the-Pooh” stories and how their success affected his relationship with his son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).

A.A. Milne had an interesting life, so it’s not surprising why screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan wanted to make a movie about him, but it feels like they couldn’t decide which aspect they wanted to focus on. Each act of the film feels like it’s telling a completely different story – his struggles adjusting to normal life after fighting in World War 1, the creation of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, and his relationship with Christopher Robin. These stories all explore interesting concepts but none of them are given the time needed to develop, and the last act has to rely on a jarring time-jump in order to wrap everything up in under two hours. I found this particularly frustrating as the story of Christopher Robin’s complex relationship with his father is easily the most interesting part, yet is rushed over with a tacked-on happy ending.

Although the story and it’s format feels conventional, Goodbye Christopher Robin does distinguish itself through some inventive creative flourishes. Milne’s PTSD is effectively represented by combining everyday sounds with the sounds of battle to demonstrate the psychological scars of war, with balloons and champagne corks popping mixing with gunfire and explosions. Ben Smithard’s cinematography captures the natural simplicity of Winnie-the-Pooh’s original illustrations, at times even turning into living drawings. Yet these two elements never quite work together – the film is too bright and warm to give the darker moments of Milne’s life justice, and the happier moments fall flat with a knowledge of how Milne and Robin’s real life relationship was fractured by his books.

This mismatch of styles carries into the performances, with Domhnall Gleeson underplaying his role while Margot Robbie overplays hers. Newcomer Will Tilston is cute as a button as young Christopher Robin but struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes. Kelly Macdonald delivers the most consistently strong performance as the sympathetic nanny yet gets little to actually do beyond delivering comforting words that sound great in a film trailer but hackneyed in real life. Ultimately that’s the biggest problem I found with Goodbye Christopher Robin – it always felt like I was watching a film based on real events, rather than watching anything real.

3 stars.

“Murder on the Orient Express” Review

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The fourth screen adaptation of a novel over eighty years old, you’d think people would have figured out that the Orient Express isn’t the safest way to travel by now. Nonetheless, a man has once again been murdered on the passenger train speeding its way through Europe, and it’s up to the famed Belgian detective Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot to figure out which of the eccentric passengers committed the crime. Kenneth Branagh both directs and dons the ludicrous moustache of Poirot for this trip, and is joined by an impeccable A-list cast of suspects including Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Daisy Ridley.

Having never read Agatha Christie’s novel or seen one of the previous adaptations I can’t say how well this version matches the tone or plot of the original, but Branagh seems to have opted for a similar style to Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films. The production design is sleek and flashy, with stylised flashbacks and the camera smoothly flowing around the train and its inhabitants, and the story peppered with some action sequences to liven things up. Unfortunately Poirot is even less suited to be an action hero than Holmes is and these moments feel ludicrous and often comical. A good mystery requires the time to slowly and thoughtfully piece together all the clues to narrow down the list of suspects, which doesn’t quite fit with the detective fighting off attackers with his walking stick.

At times Murder on the Orient Express feels as though it was only made so that Branagh could be the hero of his own franchise, particularly with an overt reference to Death on the Nile to tease a sequel at the end. Most of the other train passengers are pushed to the side in favour of exploring Poirot’s own quirks and eccentricities and are reduced to the typical one-note characterisations of a murder mystery. There’s the gangster, the butler, the dame, and so on. Fortunately the supporting cast is strong enough to at least make these characters entertaining if nothing else. Pfeiffer is deliciously camp as the flirtatious widow Caroline Hubbard, and the usually comedic Josh Gad delivers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal as the haggard accountant of Johnny Depp’s gangster character Ratchett. Fans of Depp can take comfort from knowing this is one of his most grounded and believable performances in years, echoing his Whitey Bulger from 2015’s Black Mass, while those who’ve gone off the actor since his domestic violence allegations will be pleased to see him killed off at the end of the first act. Apologies for spoiling an eighty-year-old story.

Yet the entertaining performances only carry so far, and when the mystery is solved none of the characters feel developed enough to give the final reveal much of an impact. That’s not to say Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a fun enough ride while it lasts, but it’s unlikely audiences will have as much fun as Branagh and the cast seem to be having.

3 stars.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Review

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Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not an easy film to watch. The performances are often monotone and expressionless. The soundtrack is aggressively loud. Vital plot elements are left unexplained. The screenplay directly confronts themes such as filicide, youth sexuality, torture, and religious sacrifice.

It’s possibly the best film of the year.

Colin Farrell reunites with Lanthimos after 2015’s The Lobster and delivers another terrifically unconventional performance as Steven Murphy, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has a strangely close relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan) – the teenage son of a patient of Murphy’s who died during surgery. The relationship turns sinister as Martin starts to integrate himself into Steven’s family and daily life, despite the doctor’s attempts to pull away. When Steven’s son, Bob (Sunny Sulijic), becomes inexplicably paralysed, Martin gives him a choice – kill a member of his own family to atone for killing Martin’s father during surgery, or watch them all die from the same illness now plaguing Bob.

While The Lobster brought Lanthimos to the attention of English-speaking audiences due to its original ideas and distinctive directorial style, Sacred Deer will surely cement him as one of the most notable auteurs of his generation. Influence from directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke can be felt at varying moments throughout the film, but it never feels like Lanthimos is simply copying their styles. Rather, he has learnt from them to create something original and daring. Every aspect of the filmmaking craft is utilised to make the viewing experience as unsettling as possible, even before Martin delivers his ominous threat. Thimios Bakatakis’s cinematography favours the wide lens to make his characters shrink against dull, pale backdrops, and the largely classical soundtrack ranges from religious choirs to screeching violins. Keoghan delivers a boldly unflattering performance as the sociopathic yet strangely innocent Martin, and Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast as Murphy’s elegant and cold wife who will do whatever necessary to understand what is happening to her and her family.

All these elements are constructed to make intelligent characters seem utterly powerless against incomprehensible circumstances, inspired by classic Greek tragedies of mortals struggling to deal with unforgiving and unknowable Gods.

Some viewers will hate Killing of a Sacred Deer. Films as thoughtful and uncompromising as this are rare and should be celebrated, but are often met with objections from those who find them to be of poor taste or unclear. Yet those who won’t turn away will be rewarded with a true piece of art, and filmmaking of the highest calibre.

5 stars.

“Justice League” Review

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Superman is dead! The Earth is in danger! Quick – assemble the Justice League…so they can bring Superman back to life and let him deal with it.

Technically that’s a spoiler, but it’s unclear how much of a ‘twist’ Superman’s resurrection is meant to be…despite dying at the end of 2016’s Batman v Superman (Zack Snyder), much of the marketing for Justice League (Synder again, with Joss Whedon directing some reshoots) features references to Superman. The film even opens with new footage of Henry Cavill back in the blue suit, so there’s no question of whether or not Superman will return to life – simply how it will happen. The answer, unsurprisingly, is really dumb.

While the viewers know that Supes will be back, it appears to the characters of the film that he’s gone for good. Taking advantage of the Earth seeming undefended is the new extra-terrestrial villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), a giant CGI alien who fulfils all the requirements of a superhero-movie villain without a single distinguishing trait. He wants to destroy the world and make it his own, with bland bad-guy dialogue and a character design so forgettable they might as well have just left the footage of Hinds in the motion-capture suit untouched. Yet while Marvel Studios will often have generic villains in favour of more colourful and developed heroes, Justice League struggles to even make that work.

Ben Affleck is back as Batman, who is trying to bring together a team of heroes to stop Steppenwolf’s invasion. Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman is a welcome return, still riding on the wave of success from her solo outing this year, and she’s joined by newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). DC clearly wanted to get as many of its biggest characters in this film as they could, but they don’t seem to know what people like about these characters beyond their iconic natures. As a result it’s hard to care about anything that’s going on, feeling like DC is relying on audiences already liking their characters rather than developing them in any way. Even Danny Elfman’s musical score betrays this motive, utilising snippets of John William’s Superman theme and his own Batman theme to remind you of better superhero movies.

DC needed a win with this film to prove Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman wasn’t a fluke, and it didn’t get one. Joss Whedon’s script attempts to add more humour into the darker world established by Snyder but the jokes fall flat. The CGI is aggressive and cartoony, removing all sense of danger from any of the fights. The story is predictable, and the characters one-note. While it’s better as a whole than Batman v Superman, it also lacks any of the surprisingly effective scenes that its precursor had to make it memorable despite its flaws. Justice League instead ends up a film that’s never quite terrible, but never feels worth remembering.

2 stars.