Break out the tissues, because director Stephen Chbosky’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) new film is determined to tug on the heartstrings as much as possible. Wonder is the film adaptation of the 2012 book of the same name about a young boy, August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a severe facial deformity. After being home-schooled by his mother most of his early years, Auggie is now starting fifth grade at a normal school and will have to deal with the reactions from students and staff as he tries to fit in.
There’s a lot of emotional content jammed into a two-hour runtime with this film, and Wonder pulls out just about every trick in the book to get the tears flowing. Room star Jacob Tremblay manages the astonishing task of delivering a sensitive and powerfully expressive performance underneath make-up designer Arjen Tuiten’s full facial prosthetics, difficult enough for adult actors let alone an eleven year old. Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts deliver the best performances I’ve seen from either in years as Auggie’s parents, with Roberts heartbreakingly vulnerable and Wilson much funnier as a regular embarrassing Dad than any of his recent comedic protagonists. I got the sense that the supporting cast of child actors couldn’t always sell the sentiment of their scenes but this inexperience was strangely endearing, as they always feel like real kids behaving naturally. Meanwhile Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs are welcome sources of wise words and support as the school’s principal and teacher.
Rather than just being Auggie’s story, the screenplay also gives side characters such as Auggie’s sister or fellow classmates their own moments of narration and perspective. It’s a nice little twist to what could have been a fairly one-sided story of the ‘inspirationally disadvantaged’ little boy, and supports the film’s overall message of looking at situations from another’s point of view. With such a clear family-friendly moral and an abundance of sentimental moments, Wonder borders on being an overly saccharine at times but is kept from being nauseating by Chbosky’s fun and imaginative direction. Unexpected Star Wars cameos and emotional conversations told within the game Minecraft capture a childhood sense of play and, yes, wonder in moments that could have felt like overdone emotional beats. Don Burgess cinematography is simple but lends a storybook feel to even the most emotional scenes, bringing in much needed brightness and warmth.
I did feel that Wonder was somewhat determined to get one last tear out of its audience towards the end, with about four different endings as things wrap up nicely for each character, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get one from me.
Think back to your worst teacher. Everyone’s had at least one terrible educator, and whether you just didn’t like the subject or felt the teacher had some sort of personal vendetta, it’s amazing how powerless a particularly nasty teacher can make you feel. It’s even worse if she’s the Chairperson of the local communist party and you live in 1980s Soviet ruled Slovakia. This is the story of Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher, with a title character so manipulative and vindictive that it’s hard to believe it’s based on a true story.
Zuzana Mauréry plays Maria Drazdechova, a teacher who quickly determines what the parents of each of her students do for a living and asks them for various personal favours. If the parent doesn’t offer their services to her or challenges her in some way then their child starts to receive failing marks in class. If Drazdechova likes a certain parent, then she starts telling them what their child should prepare before the next day’s test. Hřebejk cleverly utilises a non-linear timeline to jump between Drazdechova bullying the children in her classroom and an emergency meeting between the parents and the school’s Head Teacher to discuss what can be done. While some of the parents are appalled by how the children are being treated, others are more than happy to help out Drazdechova if it means their kids get preferential treatment. And others are too afraid to speak up at all. The arguments between the parents quickly get heated and personal, but throughout it all Hřebejk makes it clear that while the pressure is on the parents it’s the children who will have to deal with the aftermath.
The performances all around this tense, emotional film are excellent, but it’s ultimately Zuzana Mauréry’s picture to steal. Not since Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge has there been a cinematic teacher as easy to despise – they even wear similar pink sweaters. She’s human enough to understand but too despicable to ever sympathise with, playing the victim or spouting hypocritical lessons to constantly reassert her own control over any situation. There’s also a political element to The Teacher that is underlying but ever-present; with both Drazdechova and her allies making subtle threats about how much worse things could get for anyone willing to speak out against her.
Despite these threats The Teacher is ultimately about the need to stand up against injustice and a seemingly all-powerful adversary. Hřebejk’s film can be viewed as a metaphor for fighting against tyranny, or simply an incredible real-life story, but however it’s taken it clearly has a worthwhile lesson to teach.
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.