Blistering Bayhem! We’re halfway through 2017 and, if you’re like me, you may be thinking ‘Where has the year gone? And what have we done with it?’ One thing I have done is enjoy lots of movies, 30 new releases to be precise. It’s been a varied six months with great stuff as well as dross. After intense thought, I have assembled the following as my top six films of the first six months of 2017.
An exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale.
2. Wonder Woman
A dynamic, inventive, witty and diverse superhero adventure of duty, will, evil and love.
A beautiful, haunting folk tale of survival, solitude and transcendence.
A beautifully composed, exquisitely painful, warm, witty and moving portrait of family, grief and community.
A haunting, soulful, beautiful, exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.
An enlightening, compelling and inspiring story of mathematics, race, technology and history.
An underwhelming, painfully obvious franchise set-up that suffers from being literally too dark.
What will the rest of the year bring us? The simple answer is, plenty…
Baywatch is a film of bits. Some of those bits are funny, but the unfunny bits outnumber the funny, so mathematically the film is a failure. And yet, it is a film that’s hard to dislike. The humour comes largely from the mismatched partners in lifeguarding Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and Matt Brody (Zac Efron), whose comedic bantering offers some surges of laughter, while slightly damper laughs come from the schlubby Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass) and his crush on CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) that is the source of much awkwardness. Aside from that, references to the TV show (complete with cameos) are laboured while the drug dealing plot needs more than CPR to make it move. But despite the bagginess of Damien Shannon and Mark Swift’s script, Seth Gordon’s direction has enough straight-faced absurdity to keep the film moving, and every time he is on screen, Johnson’s charisma enervates the potentially soggy material. Baywatch is far from a cresting wave, but its comedic current is diverting enough.
Some films are hard to describe in words because they are purely cinematic. Such is the case with The Red Turtle, a nationally complex production between France and Japan, directed by the British-Dutch Michael Dudok de Wit, and distributed by Studio Ghibli. The film’s folk tale-esque story of a shipwrecked man marooned on an island echoes the isolation and drama of All Is Lost, while the beautiful animation and spiritual resonance recalls Life Of Pi, but it lacks the narrative of either. Indeed, the narrative of the film is slim, following the exploits of this unnamed Man and the (very few) others that he encounters. There is no dialogue beyond shouts of ‘Hey!’ and no wraparound story to explain who, where and when the story involves, let alone why. What we are treated to instead are lush yet simple visuals, animation that carries a suffusive, dreamlike quality, and a plot with ambiguous events. On one level the film is about isolation and solitude, yet it also engages with family and connection. More broadly, it is concerned with humanity’s place within nature, best depicted when the Man encounters the eponymous reptile. Arguably, the film progresses through the five stages of grief, the Man exhibiting denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Beyond all of these potential meanings, however, what the film offers is that finest of cinematic experiences – transcendence. There is a strong sense throughout the film of something beyond, something to believe in, something to put hope and faith in; nothing so tangible as the divine or a higher purpose, but an abstract impression of having a place within a wider pattern. Perhaps the film’s strongest cinematic cousin, therefore, is the work of Terrence Malick, as like The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, The Red Turtle is a sublime and transcendent experience, truly understood only by watching it.
Alex Kurtzman’s reboot of The Mummy franchise is the first chapter in Universal’s new Dark Universe franchise. While it features a narrative concerning Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) and her attempt to rule the world (what self-respecting supernatural despot would do less?), and the attempts of Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), along with the staff of the mysterious organisation Prodigium, to stop her, the reason for the film’s production is the launch of the Dark Universe, and this is also the source of the film’s major problems. References to other films pepper The Mummy, both echoing Universal’s history of horror and foreshadowing the films we can expect in the future, not to mention random others from Raiders of the Lost Ark to An American Werewolf in London. While there can be some pleasure in spotting the references, the references interrupt the dramatic flow of The Mummy itself. Not that there is much dramatic flow anyway, as screenwriters David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman, working from a screen story by Jon Spaihts, Jenny Lumet and Kurtzman himself, have constructed a distinctly non-united plot, with jarring comedic interludes, a contemporary setting that adds nothing, Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll (see if you can guess where that goes) delivering tedious exposition with a wandering accent, an unconvincing romance between Nick and Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), and various set pieces that lack thrill or menace. The cumulative effect is that the film lacks an identity of its own, feeling like various pieces cobbled together from other films past and, weirdly, future. But worse than all of this is the other part of the franchise title – it is literally too dark. The most fundamental aspect of cinema is showing images, and many a talented filmmaker makes great use of the play of light and shadow even in darkness (Zero Dark Thirty and The Descent are recent examples). Kurtzman, it seems, is no Kathryn Bigelow or Neil Marshall, as there were points during malevolent set pieces in dim locations where I was silently yelling in frustration ‘Turn the light on!’ Add to this the thematic darkness being dreary rather than disturbing, and the film lacks any joy or indeed conviction in its material. It feels deeply mechanical, an exercise in box ticking more than anything else. The irony is that the last time Universal tried to reboot their horror properties, the result was Van Helsing, which was widely slated by critics and audiences, and directed by none other than Stephen Sommers. Now there was someone who knew how to have fun with mummies.
Amidst the problems of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, one pinnacle of wisdom, class and super-powered kick-assery stood tall above everything else – Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Despite this appearance and over 70 years of comic book history, the world’s most famous superheroine has waited until 2017 for a solo big screen appearance. Happily, Wonder Woman is worth the wait, as director Patty Jenkins delivers a dynamic, inventive and witty superhero adventure of duty, will, the pervasiveness of evil and the power of love. From the wraparound story in modern day Paris to childhood and training among the Amazons of Themyscira, Jenkins, Gadot and screenwriter Allan Heinberg draw the viewer into Diana’s world, sharing her joys, fears and discoveries.
Rather than following the dour example of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and BVS: DOJ, Wonder Woman is more reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger with its period setting and also Thor with its dramatisation of myth, and shares a sense of fun thus far lacking in the DC Extended Universe. Diana becomes aware of the wider world when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) arrives with WWI German soldiers in hot pursuit. From here we embark on a ride to London and thence to the Western Front, a ride that is jaunty, gripping and at times powerfully moving. Jenkins strikes a fine balance between fish-out-of-water comedy, both for Steve among the Amazons and Diana among the British, grim moments featuring the impact of war on civilians and the ruthless aggression of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and some truly magnificent action set pieces. These set pieces constitute major developments of the drama: the first exhibits the skill and power of the Amazons; the second demonstrates Diana coming into her own as a warrior and had me welling up with emotion; the third begins with a gritty physicality before escalating to truly epic proportions. A common criticism of superhero films is that the final act succumbs to CG overload, but in the case of Wonder Woman the onslaught of visual effects expresses narrative development and the characters’ discoveries.
This climactic sequence also features the film’s greatest strength: acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of evil. Throughout the film, Diana believes that it is her mission to destroy Ares, the god of war, because this will end the Great War, a belief that Steve and the rest of their notably diverse team find naïve. A central villain is common to superhero cinema and often the purpose of the narrative is to defeat him (or occasionally her), but the more challenging entries in the genre such as X-Men, The Dark Knight and Logan do not locate evil quite so easily. Diana’s journey of discovery is also that of the viewer in realising that this film is doing something a little different, and the joy of this difference alongside the electrifying action makes the film into something special.
Furthermore, Wonder Woman makes good on its gender politics. Diana is a superb character, defined not as a woman but as a warrior for justice. The film therefore manages to present that elusive thing called equality, where men and women unite for a common cause because they all care. Furthermore, the absurdities of patriarchy are highlighted, such as when Diana encounters the British high command in London and is dismayed by their lack of compassion, in stark contrast to the nobility of the Amazons. Some might find the romance between Steve and Diana clichéd and disappointing, but it is important to note that their relationship is part of a larger conceit of love that pervades the entire film, from the bonds among the Amazons to those between Steve’s fellow soldiers, and the compassion and empathy that drives Diana throughout. Superhero movies are often concerned with hope, but Wonder Woman goes further, Jenkins crafting a thrilling and moving tale of the compelling and invigorating power of love for all humanity.
American politics. A dramatic landscape where power, corruption, laws, ethics, ambition and manipulation interweave and vie for dominance. In the tradition of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, All The President’s Men and The Ides of March, Miss Sloane focuses on the movers and shakers at the periphery of elected officials, specifically the eponymous Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a lobbyist for a major firm with a ruthless desire to win. Sloane is initially approached by a pro-gun group to aid their cause against firearm restrictions, but after (literally) laughing in their face she goes to work for the supporters of this legislation, an organisation run by Rodolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong). Thus ensues much verbal sparring, scheming and, at times, grandstanding and breaking down. First time screenwriter Jonathan Perera delivers sharp dialogue, a twisty story and some truly amazing sucker punches. John Madden directs with crispness and efficiency, sometimes replaying events to allow the viewer further information that was previously withheld. Wisely, the film is not overloaded with its own politics – corruption is presented as a larger enemy than devotees of the Second Amendment, while the significance of gender is part of the scenery rather than a central focus. Sloane often comes up against entrenched masculinist attitudes but her skill and effectiveness is not specifically tied to her gender. The film offers a powerful brace of performances including those of Mark Strong and Gugu Mthawa-Raw, but make no mistake that this is Chastain’s film. Whether displaying a ‘granite wall’ when facing down a Senate committee, holding team meetings in unforgiving yet jocular fashion, delivering impassioned TV debates on gun control or revealing the vulnerability that lies beneath her seemingly unflappable exterior, Chastain is mesmerising and utterly compelling. There are few performers who can power a film with such relentless pace, but she is certainly one of them.
Show don’t tell. This is the mantra of dramatic presentation, whether it be film, theatre or television, and it is a principle followed in a recent production of Macbeth, staged by Keele Drama Society. Directors Hannah Evans and James Mason give the play a modern setting with the players in suits and ties, and present the eponymous anti-hero (Ahmed El Kady) as a senior politician ascending to the throne. Contemporary events in British politics give the production timely resonance, as Duncan (Callum Ilkiw) sports a blue rosette and tie that echoes with senior members of the Conservative Party. Crucially, though, the production does not labour (no pun intended) the point, allowing the audience to fill in what is implied. The witches (Chris King, Magda Boryń, Polly Harrison) are reporters and cleaning staff, their sudden appearances explained by their clearing meals and meeting the drunken Macbeth and Banquo (Conor Richardson) in the street. In a venue with no wings where any set must be brought on and off by stagehands, these crew members are smartly characterised within the drama, often appearing as servants and advisors to the central figures. Evans and Mason maintain action across the stage, adhering to the central conceit without over-explaining. When Macbeth soliloquises down stage, Banquo and Ross (Teri Duffy, outstanding) speak silently upstage; when Lady Macbeth (Beth McMahon) receives a message from her husband, it is relayed as a voicemail; at several points, Macbeth is left alone to brood on stage while the action continues around him. El Kady demonstrates great presence while being a generous enough performer to not overshadow his fellow performers, such as Lawrence Camm as Macduff who remains on stage during the run up to the play’s climax rather than going off and on again, before the two collide in a brilliantly choreographed and wince-inducing stage combat. McMahon is never less than mesmerising, tinging Lady Macbeth’s ambitious scheming with regret and doubt. Nowhere is this better displayed than in one of the play’s standout moments: the raid on the home of Macduff. Lady Macbeth herself warns Lady Macduff (Emily Manship) of approaching danger, and remains on stage when Macbeth himself enters and gets his hands dirtier than they already are. Lady Macbeth’s continued presence throughout this disturbing scene increases her guilt and culpability – small wonder the ‘damn spot’ will not ‘out’. It is testament to the production’s power that there is little sense of any idea being underdeveloped, which indicates great imagination and attention to detail. I have seen and participated in many productions of Macbeth, and this one is a superb demonstration of the innovation and creativity required for showing rather than telling.