The Elegant Simplicity of Wonder Woman

DC’s latest works not only because it’s fine with being a superhero film, but because it is unashamedly so.

The most striking distinction, the one that separates Wonder Woman from the rest of the DC Extended Universe, is unusually that despite the film’s title, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is not referred to by that title within the film. Lest we forger that prior to their 2017 summer tent-pole, this was a universe that saw both Batman and Superman undergo periods of uncertainty, with the weight of the world thrown at them, in order to question if they ‘be worthy’ enough to protect their cities on opposite sides of the bay.

Not only that, but just ten months ago, this universe revealed itself to be one where the alleged supervillains (and believe me, we were told they were bad guys many times) appear to have been more willing to save a city, one that none of them come from, from an unquestionable evil. Wonder Woman does not trade on the moral queries of the previous entries or this franchise, or at least it doesn’t when it comes to its protagonist. Instead, Diana is Wonder Woman and this is not up for debate.

This simplicity can be seen in individual story beats, like when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) steals the notebook of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). He simply sees it and goes for it. As a whole, the movie trades on this kind of simplicity when it comes to plot –– It does not try to intertwine four/five plot-lines like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, nor does it appear to being going where the wind and mood takes it a la Suicide SquadHowever, I don’t want to imply that this film is basic by any means.

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It’s smart, not in a Whedon-kind of way where the words ‘mewling quim’ end up in the finished product, but in regards to gender roles and the subversion of those within a blockbuster. This should be clear from the fact that Steve Trevor, despite being the romantic interest, is granted a great deal more to do than his respective female counterparts, but it applies to other scenes. Written by Allan Heinberg, there are points, such as when Diana walks in on Steve exiting the bath or later when they depart for London and discuss sleeping, where you might anticipate where these scenes will go, based on similar versions across many other pieces of media. This is primarily due to the dialogue, leaning on low-hanging fruit for these scenarios which can be played as cutesy-awkward, but under the lens of Patty Jenkins, an air of earnestness comes across.

Andrew Sarris considered this to be ‘Interior Meaning’, or the conflict between the text the director works from, and the text that they create. As a result, the joke isn’t on Diana. It might be played as humorous, but not for laughs directed at her because Jenkins understands there’s difference between being a fish-out-of-water and naivety writ large. A similar notion applies to Sammy, Charlie and Chief, played by Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock respectively. They might be stereotypes, a symptom of the script adopting a brisker pace upon arriving in Man’s World, but the qualities that come with these rough character outlines aren’t why they’re funny.

This notion of ‘interior meaning’ was demonstrated last year in Batman v. Superman, when Gadot ad-libbed her smile during the Doomsday fight, before she rejoined the brawl. With the focus now on year, she shines even more brightly than she did there. Present in the actresses that portray a younger Diana, Gadot demonstrates a determination in all of her actions and decisions throughout the film, and as a fish-out-of-water, she plays confusion without an air of vapidity –– the moment in which she becomes enamoured by a baby sees her tap into the same compassion and care for life that takes across No Man’s Land in the second act, the film’s most inspiring and flowing sequence.

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With Chris Pine, the pair demonstrate a chemistry that runs as an undercurrent in most if not all of their scenes even when it is not the focus and without either of them needing to say anything about it. Jenkins’ has a clear talent for non-verbal moments like this, the reason the wonders of the first act shine despite the heavy exposition about the mythology of the Amazons and gods. When dealing with scenes that are explicitly about the duo’s relationship, Jenkins focus on the pair and avoids cutting away to show reactions of others. This is about what they have together and that unity makes them best comic book pairing since Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter, a comparison that would be made regardless, but is ultimately welcome.

If anything, this goes to show that a lot of the film’s problems exist on a script level. in fact the issues present in the film –– exposition, underwritten supporting cast, a third act that forgets some themes previously considered, bad CGI –– are ones present in most superhero films (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad to offer just one possible assortment to fit this particular bill). It’s to the credit of Jenkins that the first two acts, the second most of all, are so strong, that these issues don’t weigh the film down further. In this lead-up to Wonder Woman‘s release, there was a worry that it would seem to similar to Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, but instead it feels fresh, in the way that Deadpool captured the zeitgeist and that’s a matter of new perspective.

Of course a disconnect from the wider DCEU helps with that. In fact, we don’t receive a definitive answer as to why Diana left Man’s World and the film would be better served without a framing sequence possibly reminding reviews of that. As with those moments mentioned previously with regards to ‘Interior Meaning’, this sense of hopefulness hasn’t been seen in this universe before (even if select viewers found it in Man of Steel) and the sheer desire to do good is frankly awe-inspiring, hopefully a point of refocusing for this franchise.

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With any luck this refocusing will shift away from fights set against green-screens involving all manner of flames and explosions. This is where the film becomes messiest, the bad CGI more noticeable now taking center stage, not helped by the editing. Despite this, Gadot remains a constant, continuing to show that she demonstrates this character in a way that even fans of her previous appearance likely couldn’t have anticipated. Through this it becomes clear that it’s never been Gadot’s acting that’s been flat, but instead that it seems this way when what’s around her, background and elements in the scene, are.

By and large, I think we’d like comic book movies to be something more, which is why so many latched onto Logan because it wasn’t a comic book movie played straight in its first half. At the same time, we have to also recognise that when one wants to be a comic book movie where good stops evil and then goes on to do that exceptionally well then that’s as equally deserving of praise.

Thankfully, Wonder Woman did not end up being a rehash of movies that Marvel made six years ago, but instead a refreshing and joyful experience because of how it subverts those, fighting against the traditions of the genre for as long as it can hold out, and at 140-minutes, it does so for near-two hours. It grants Steve an arc rather than relegating him to the role of romantic interest alone, a lesson which needs to be universally applied to the genre, blockbusters and film at large. When Jenkins is able to place the camera further back, a benefit of filming in real-world locations, and shoot action wide over the industry-standard proximity, the phenomenal blocking and choreography gets shown off, most prominently on Themyscira. It does not get lost in the weeds of what it means to be a hero, postulating if Diana can wield the lasso like they wondered if Steve could with the shield.

Instead, she simply does.

 

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The Grief of Personal Shopper

A study of the people who move forward, and the ones who don’t, following tragedy.

Personal Shopper is not the first of Olivier Assayas’ collaborations with Kristen Stewart to involve a train nor the first to involve messages being exchanged on said train. Clouds of Sils Maria opens on one, finding Stewart’s Valentine mid-conversation on the phone, an assistant to Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders. Maria derides the idea that she will be starring in another X-Men movie, she’s tired of acting in front on green screens.

Clouds of Sils Maria is about how our perspective on art changes as we grow older, how it is possible to see in it a new light with more life experience. Assayas has said before that he sees cinema as ghosts – an intriguing thought. You write a movie, go through the stages of production, produce a cut of the film with which you are satisfied with enough to set it aside for x amount of time, until the press tour comes and you need to get back out there to lavish the movie with praise, but having had time apart from it. Perhaps even seeing it differently.

Personal Shopper is a literal ghost story. Maybe. It might be fair to say that it’s one-third a ghost story, one-third a Hitchcockian thriller and one-third a character study. It might be more than just these three movies. It might not work entirely in every frame, but it’s wholly fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. It invites you to be uncomfortable. I shift around a lot when seated, but here, I realised that I wasn’t shifting to get comfortable. Instead, I was moving to pull myself closer to the screen, perhaps to avoid reaching a point where I felt safe and secure about what was going to happen.

Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper. Someone who’s stuck in the material world when she’s feeling disconnected from the real world. You see, her twin brother, Lewis, died three months ago, from a condition that she shares. Opening on her arrival to the house that he once owned,  it feels appropriate to suggest the nouveau Gothic nature of this. The cast-iron gate secluding the chalet as the carriage of the time (in this case, a Volvo) draws nearer. She’s come here to see if she can feel her brother’s presence, in her own words, she’s waiting.

Others are waiting as well, a couple of Lewis’ friends are interested in the house and are waiting on Maureen to determine whether the house is inhabited by a presence which may or not be Lewis’. On the other hand, Sigrid Bouaziz’s Lara, his ex, has come to realise that it’s appropriate to mourn, but that we do so, in order to carry on. As such, she’s found someone new, but it’s impossible for her to do so completely, evident in how she has an interest in carpentry, Lewis’ profession.

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Maureen hasn’t moved on yet. The movie finds her in a unique position of grief. In fact, the camera always wants to find her. In Stewart, Assayas found his muse. The camera floats through the scenes, gradually panning around, then it’ll rush to hold on Maureen and rightly so, because this is Stewart’s finest performance. Much like Jackie, the film hinges on this central performance and it’s so captivating throughout.

If you’re surprised by the notion that Kristen Stewart can act, then it would pertinent to remember that she delivered a striking child performance for David Fincher in Panic Room. Being honest, the time for being surprised that she could act should’ve passed back in 2009 following Adventureland.

Since then, she’s moved past the Twilight movies (although I would argue her androgynous blank slate approach is a smart approach for a YA franchise when teens are looking for protagonists like them) to create a space in which she can operate without anyone trying to encroach on it. A naturalistic approach that feels effortless, you’ll never catch her acting and that’s kinda the point. Other, more showy actresses, could take the role of Maureen and decide that certain beats deserve bigger, more clearly emotional reactions that you can identify as acting. Instead, Stewart encapsulates the character. As much as it’s possible to say this is a movie of Olivier Assayas, it’s perhaps easier to call this Kristen Stewart’s movie. She’s created this brand where she’s cool, but doesn’t care –– where she can drop the f-bomb on live TV and come back from it in three seconds flat –– and this movie is modeled after that in a way. It’s not a standard ghost story and it doesn’t give a damn if you’re not on-board with that.

It’s the tics that become noticeable with how laser focused the film is on her at all times. During the most atypical sequence, set on the Eurostar, she texts with an unknown number. Her thumbs twitch, as if she knows how she wants to respond, but is hesitant to do so. Throughout the movie, it’s the way that she doesn’t always know what to do with her hands, the way that she goes to board the Eurostar and seems to have forgotten that she’s holding the ticket in her mouth, trying to balance the rest of her luggage, the way that she stammers in a way that clearly isn’t like an actor for David Mamet would. The line readings aren’t ones which have the exact number of repeated syllables written on the page, they’re ones from someone in the moment, playing off the spectral energy.

To get to the titular focus of the film, she zips around Paris (and London), picking up clothes for Kyra, her boss. She’s not a fan of this job by any stretch of the imagination, but she sticks with it, even when presented with other prospects. An offer she receives is more glamourous, both in what she’d have to do and where she’d be, not to mention easier. It’s a movie about grief, but also about the inability to do so. Others do their best to move on, Maureen keeps going back to Lewis’ house. She’s not able to move on, but she keeps moving around, running countless errands for Kyra in the hope that filling her time will keep her mind busy as well.

Film Review Personal Shopper

I think my viewing of this movie has been enhanced by the conditions in which I saw it. You see, it wasn’t playing anywhere near me, I had to travel ninety minutes to do so, which meant I had to get the train. Into St. Pancras. The station from which the Eurostar departs for Paris. I didn’t so much walk back through the station, instead I let the balls of my feet carry me to the platform without giving me a moment to properly acknowledge I’d walked through a section depicted on screen not two hours ago. It made me hesitant to get on the train to come home, in the same way a standard horror movie may make you reluctant to turn off the light and go up to bed. I decided to turn off my phone, so I needn’t run the risk of getting a notification.

I found a lot of myself in Maureen. I said that I shift around a lot and that extends to generally, not just in a seat. I don’t know what to do with my hands, I palm at the sides of my hair to push it over my ear, and noticed I was doing it more as I walked back. There were things I noticed, but Personal Shopper made me realise something as well.

I’ve lost relatives, but unlike many, this didn’t really happen until the back half of my teens. Which meant it coincided with depression and familial breakdowns, the pressures of achieving grades to get into uni and the need to display outwards that none of this stuff was having any real impact on me.

There was a time shortly after my Granddad died that I was in History. We were split into groups, it was something about the Berlin Wall. I finished whatever I had to do pretty quickly and I just did the work tasked to everyone else in my group. This extended outwards, I kept, and keep filling time, I’m at uni as I do two podcasts a week, one of which I edit, as I hold down a job as a comics critic as I read to keep up in order to do so as I consume pop culture at a rate which can’t seemed to be matched by the people around me as I write this post as I plan to have a movie, which could easily be one hundred and fifty pages, written the end of the month as I don’t, and haven’t, grieved for any of the losses of the past four years, minimum.

Personal Shopper does it’s best to offer a distinction between the material world, the physical and the spiritual. I’ve avoided discussing the ending, but it doesn’t provide definitive answers to some of the questions that the movie, and the audience, will posit, but I think it can provide answers to questions we ponder regardless. It is so strikingly different from everything I’ve ever seen, that over the course of the screening, it dawned on me that I was watching my new favourite movie, art is at it’s best at it’s most ambitious, even if imperfect. Were a movie to present these ideas in a more conventional fashion, it would likely not have the same effect on me. The unconventional nature of this magnificent film eschews the turns of phrase that conventional movies, and people in general, rely on, in order to talk about grief and mourning – there’s no stressing of “take your time”. Due to this, I listened instead of brushing it aside and finally heard, in a way that didn’t feel part of the motions in the wake of tragedy, that it was okay for me to grieve.

Silence Speaks Volumes in ‘Astonishing X-Men’

The art of letting the art speak.

[Warning: This is talking about Astonishing X-Men. #4 specifically, but it will also be discussing moments later in the run. You have been warned.]

Brian K. Vaughn wrote an introduction for the first OHC of Astonishing X-Men. He states that your first X-book is “a drug”, not a comic. One that you find in your youth, shows you outcasts that find a place in the world and do some good. One that’s never as good as that first hit.

Joss Whedon, John Cassaday, Laura Martin and Chris Elliopoulos created my first hit and while BKV was lucky enough to have Astonishing remind him of his first hit, I’m still waiting for another Marvel book that compares to their phenomenal 25-issue run.

It’s feels weird writing about this run, because everyone knows it, it’s part of the modern X-trinity (along with Morrison’s New X-Men and Remender’s Uncanny X-Force). There are moments that should instantly spring to mind [we’ll be talking about what I think is the biggest in the book today]. The homages to Claremont’s run sprinkled throughout, the red page when the Sentinel attacks, when Emma tries to break Scott’s psyche in a way that gives off Restless from Buffy vibes, “Astonished, Ms Pryde”, the final monologue of the run and basically everything with Kitty and Colossus.

Many of these are powerful for Joss’ dialogue, but they’d just be words on a page if not for Cassaday whose work here and in Planetary proved him to be one of the truly great dynamic artists of the modern age. What’s most impressive about his art is how his chooses his angles of framing, but always keep them clean.

In Planetary, Ellis utilised a decompressed style of writing that allotted enough time to the action beats so Cassaday could gradually push in or pull out to find the focus of the scene all the while showing off his expert blocking and choreography with grand fights and there’s no shortage of beats like that present in AXM.

I mean there’s a giant bullet, a Sentinel and a room of terrorists that need to be taken down with precision to minimise casualties. But Joss is a man who loves his back and forth banter, so Cassaday takes this opportunity to let his camera go anywhere.

Screw the shot/reverse shot and minimal coverage approach that’s the go to in any form of media, here Cassaday steals Baz Luhrmann’s camera and lets it weave through the players in the scene, creating a dolly shot that can arc, pitch, crane, reverse and push in. And today we’re going to look at his finest moment.

X-Books are already Context Heavy, So I should probably Set the Scene

Cyclops decides the X-Men need to be superheroes again. There’s a cure that can apparently make mutants normal. Kavita Rao made it. She works for BeneTech. Beast goes to see her. Gets a sample. When he tests it, there’s a DNA match, Cyclops assumes he’s talking about Jean Grey. They infiltrate BeneTech, Kitty breaks off from the team and heads further down. The rest of the team finds a body, it’s not Jean. Meanwhile Kitty touches down on solid ground as seen below.

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[Thanks to Mathieu Dubé for providing screenshots of the pages]

This is a sequence that had X-fans elated when the issue came out and for good reason. Colossus had died a few years prior when the Legacy virus was a thing. And now he got a triumphant return. But like I said, AXM was my first X-book, I’d never seen him die previously, I didn’t know how he and Kitty were linked and then I saw the third and fourth pages and got everything.

Okay… So?

So it conveys everything in a pair of pages that when Joss saw it, he decided that they didn’t need the words, they were perfect as is. You can notice how Kitty’s monologue is consistent until that point and then it’s minimal dialogue from there. Those first two pages slowly drop out how many words are in each panel then it’s silent. Then, Kling! An X-Fan can guess what that means. The third page shows Kitty and Colossus, right behind her. They share a brief look before he looks (and runs) straight through her as she stands in place. She touches her heart, the flame has been re-lit. It juxtaposes the fight with Kitty processing the moment. On pages 5 and 6 Colossus is the focus, Kitty’s trained on him and we are as well. Time seems to slow for the couple – Colossus throws a goon in the third panel on the left page and it finds its mark in the second panel on the right. All the while, Kitty’s calling for him to stop. When she tells him “You’ll kill them”, he sheds his metal skin and becomes human. To him, it looks like he can finally stop fighting. He’s died and now gets to live in peace with Kitty. To her, this sequence started with her looking down into the unknown, something that wasn’t on the map. The sequence ends in the same way, one new unknown.

Now taking a look at Cassaday’s framing; those first two pages consist of mainly close-ups on Kitty making her our focus. When there are other elements in the frame like in Panel 6 with the guards, she’s still on the closest plane to us. A nice touch is that when the soldiers spot her on Page 2, that panel is practically on the same level as Page 1’s sixth panel so we can tell it’s the same group of guards. Then you get the big splash page of Kitty and Colossus, followed by that look on Page 4. Kitty’s still closer to us, but Colossus occupies just as much, or even more of the frame which establishes him as a major element of the scene in an instant. Page 4 then pulls them apart when Colossus rushes out of the fixed frame to take on the guards. The final half of the scene then gradually overcomes them being pulled apart. There’s a lot of close-ups that isolate them from each other, on Page 5 when Kitty is rushing over, she’s now the one furthest away in the frame, at the end of Page 6 they finally occupy the same space, but the camera is pulled back which we then expect will push back in as they finally reunite and that starts to happen. The first panel pushes in closer, but doesn’t show them both, the second panel is looking up at Kitty which lets us know despite the display of Colossus’ strength over the previous couple of pages, she’s in control. Then the camera pulls out again when he seems broken and surrounds them with darkness. It establishes that this isn’t the happy reunion you were hoping it was – there’s still a lot of distance to overcome.

Words could state this outright be it dialogue or Annie Hall style subtitles that reveal our real feelings, but sometimes they’re not needed. Sure, a picture is worth 1000 words, but a look can say everything when we don’t know the words to say what we want to say.

Thanks for reading.

PS. Apologies for this being short, I’m ill and rushing about to move back to [REDACTED] for uni and I’m living in a house this year, not campus accommodation so there’s work to be done, and then I’ve got a big piece planned so I want some lead time on that. Anyways, next week – Darwyn Cooke. Auteurs. Stories. I promise that’s more in-depth than this was. Then the week after, the big piece. Hopefully.

Link Dump

https://www.comixology.co.uk/Astonishing-X-Men-2004-2013-4/digital-comic/418?ref=c2VyaWVzL3ZpZXcvZGVza3RvcC9ncmlkTGlzdC9Jc3N1ZXM

Link to the issue on Comixology, the rest of the run is available on there in single issue and trade form. The run is also on Marvel Unlimited. If you want to read it physically then it’s available in 4 regular sized trades, two ultimate collections, two oversized hardcovers or the omnibus. The latter two formats are out of print, but you may be lucky enough to stumble across a copy.