Thursday 17 August 2017

Film reviews: Wonder Woman - Batman and Superman need to shape up

Cert 12A; Now showing

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Hilary A White

The critical mauling of Batman Vs Superman somehow penetrated the din of its huge box-office take, as if many went along to the cinema solely to witness how bad DC Comics' attempts to build its own Marvel-style cinematic universe could actually be.

A scant mercy, however, was Israeli actress/model Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Ever since, the promise of the whip-wielding icon getting her own outing seemed far more interesting than muscle-bound mummy's boys wearing bat ears or hair pomade.

Wonder Woman was the archetypal superheroine. She had the guts, power and beauty of a demigoddess - which was precisely what creator and feminist psychologist William Moulton Marston intended back in the early 1940s.

Lynda Carter fitted the bill for the 1970s TV show - and those knee-high boots have been only waiting for Gadot.

It's a relief to find her so at home as Amazonian princess Diana, being trained in battle by auntie Robin Wright. Although their matriarchal paradise is cloaked from the world, a plane carrying a US spy (Chris Pine) crashes there one day.

After hauling him ashore, Diana beholds the handsome Pine visage adorning the first man she's ever laid eyes on. He, in turn, must contend with having come to on a sandy cove only to find Gal Gadot smiling back at him. Small talk of World War I and his mission to foil a chemical weapon attack by Danny Huston's German general spark Diana's thirst for justice, and off they go.

Top action choreography, a fine cast (bolstered by David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner and an hilarious Lucy Davis) and a side order of fish-out-of-water camp that director Patty Jenkins serves next to wartime derring-do and Diana's gritty grace is why it succeeds.

Batman and Superman need to shape up.

 ★★★★

My Life as a  Courgette

Cert 12A; In selected cinemas

Icare is nine years old when he is sent to a foster home for troubled children following the death of his alcoholic, abusive mother. His nickname is "Courgette", something the other children initially use as a stick with which to tease him. Not everyone, though, in this small new environment is a menace to poor Courgette. He is treated with kindness and sensitivity by the police officer who handled his mother's death, as well as the caring staff of the home.

He soon bonds with the other children too, all of whom are the victims of horrific domestic abuse and strife. One day, a girl called Camille arrives and Courgette is smitten. Although she, too, has not had it easy, she improves life for everyone and could provide Courgette with reason to construct a brighter future in his head.

On the face of it - a simple plot, interestingly odd stop-motion characters - this Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee looks like the kind of gently persuasive arthouse animation that transmits worldly themes via clay (think 2009's Mary and Max), and it is.

But there is a purity and an unreconstructed sophistication about Claude Barras's feature debut that delivers an emotional knock-out blow without it ever looking apparent. The characters' tragic shadows are softened by primary colours, rounded features and the huge heart that slowly erupts to the surface in Celine Sciamma's screenplay. Hankies at the ready.

 ★★★★★ Hilary A White

After the Storm

Cert PG; Now showing IFI

Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has a dedicated following who will see, in this his perhaps most accessible film, a return to themes he has visited in the past like the effect of divorce on children and how children process the weight of other people's expectations. The theme of parental expectation came up in Still Walking and the actors who played mother and son in that film appear, again, as parent and grown-up child. So, there are many touchpoints for existing Koreeda fans, but there is a lot to like for any fans of family drama in this bittersweet and surprisingly light Japanese delicacy.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) brandishes his 15-year-old literary success like a piece of armour, but he seems to have long since lost faith in ever recreating it. He claims his work as a fairly seedy private detective is research for his next novel, but really it is just a means to fund his true passion, gambling. He steals from his mother (Kirin Kiki), borrows money he will never pay back and fails to pay everything that matters, like rent, bills and child support. But he does love his son, and cannot get over his ex-wife (Yoko Maki) who had little choice but to move on. Then a typhoon means the ex-family and Ryota's mother spend a night together, that, although fraught with potential trouble, or dramatic cliche, is none of that. All of the characters are relatable and the frequent flashes of humour makes this beautifully observed piece heart-warming and lovely.

★★★★ Aine O'Connor

The Shack

Cert 12A; Opens Friday

When confronted by angry Christian rednecks after a blasphemous stand-up set, the great Bill Hicks famously shrugged: "Then forgive me."

What a shame Hicks isn't around to lambast this self-righteous spiritual drama, whose only achievement may ultimately be to put the noses of some US evangelical types out of joint.

Based on William P Young's 2008 self-publishing hit, it finds Sam Worthington (Hugh Jackman) playing Mack. Mack is in a depressive, God-hating stupor after the murder of his youngest daughter during a camping holiday.

A mysterious note beckons him to revisit the woodland shack where her body was found. There, he finds God (Octavia Spencer) baking, Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) doing woodwork and the Holy Ghost (Japanese star Sumire) gardening. How long will Mack resist the three-way charm offensive and trite platitudes of the cheery Trinity? When will the next plot hole open? Will Worthington's shaky US accent collapse entirely? Which way is the exit? Unforgivable.

★ Hilary A White

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