We take a wander down the paths of January’s batch of films, including Wonder Woman 1984, Wolfwalkers, Sound of Metal, Soul, and Another Round. Are they worth the journey? Join us and find out!
Wonder Woman 1984
Before I begin, Scott: how many free “fuck offs” do I get before you have to start bleeping them? Oh. Oh… Then we have a problem here. Can I get an hour to re-write my review? No? Oh well, I’ll do the best I can…
2017’s Wonder Woman was four fifths of a really good film, until the dull, CGI-heavy climax. But it was entertaining, successful, proved (because the harder of thinking apparently required such evidence) that the main character of a superhero action film could be female, and gave its director, Patty Jenkins, a lot of sway. Not all of these things were good, it turns out. But we’ll get to that. What it also did, less positively, was paint itself into a corner, both in terms of character (Wonder Woman, Justice League and I think also Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice having repeatedly established Wonder Woman having withdrawn from view for a century), and by having the final fight be against a god. Not a metahuman, not an alien who gets high on our funky yellow sun, or a being from another dimension or anything. No, a straight-up god. And, as well as bothering me that actual deities were canon in this universe, it raised the not insignificant question of “how do you top that in a sequel?”
Well, apparently what you do is, rather than go big, go stupid. Very, very stupid. And long. So, so long…
The film begins back in our heroine’s childhood, as a young Diana competes in a race against adult Amazons on the island of Themyscira, proving her athletic ability, as well as the ability of her and the other Amazon warriors to be slightly less dreadful digital doubles than in the 2017 film so, y’know, progress. The lengthy sequence exists just to a) set up that there was a super-badass Amazon once who had some nifty armour and, b) to allow Diana’s mother to deliver some bullshit dime-store philosophy about how Diana didn’t win because she wasn’t ready to win (when in fact she just missed one checkpoint and should have been disqualified).
The film begins in 1984 (did I just say “the film begins” again? Why, yes I did, because this film has two openings! So that’s great.) As I was saying, the film begins in 1984 (and why is this film set in 1984? No idea, but I assume because Stranger Things, though the period it’s set in is inconsequential to every single thing that happens in it. That’s also great.). Right. Sorry. 1984. In a shopping mall, in Washington D.C., where Wonder Woman swoops in to rescue a child endangered by the fallout of a bungled robbery. Unlike the opening, the opening is fairly entertaining, but you best make the most of it because it’s comfortably more than an hour, in this action film, until the next action scene. This also is GREAT!
We next move to the Smithsonian Museum, where Diana works, and where we meet Kristen Wiig’s Barbara, a rather lonely gemmologist. She’s been tasked by the FBI to identify one of the pieces recovered from the botched robbery, a mysterious and ancient crystal that is absolutely not Aladdin’s lamp, sans genie, y’hear? Barbara is soon visited by Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord (or, as I register him, Matthew McConaughey in Wolf of Wall Street cosplay), a con man and would be oil tycoon who has been seeking the “Dreamstone”. Using incredible stealth and skulduggery (he reaches behind Barbara), Lord makes off with the Dreamstone and, for some reason, turns himself into it. Or it into him. So he’s now a genie. He then uses his new powers to acquire the oil he had hitherto been claiming to have (understandable enough), but then keeps going, forcing people to make wishes and taking stuff from them…????? (Total effing mystery). ?????
Before Lord got his hands on the stone, though, two significant wishes had already been made with it: Barbara wishes to be like Diana (this woman she’s only just met and knows nothing about, but walks well in high heels), and Diana, the super strong, thousands-of-years-old demi-god, wishes for the return to life of Steve Trevor, the man she knew for a few weeks but has been pining for since his death 76 years previously. Cool.
These wishes work (I want you to please hold on to the word “stupid” that I mentioned earlier, as this will be your anchor point through all of this), and suddenly Steve Trebor Mints is in her house, alive, but inhabiting someone else’s body. And then he stays for most of the rest of the film, with Princess Diana of Themyscira, wise, moral and compassionate heroine, champion of what is right, apparently 100% unfussed by the fact that her dead lover has taken possession of another human being’s body and its ethical and moral implications. As with most things in this movie, this is great.
Trebor Mints’ arrival is accompanied by one of only a handful of (utterly woeful) attempts at humour in the film, where he dresses up in a bunch of 80s outfits. Ho ho! (This is, no doubt, a call back to a similar scene in 2017’s Wonder Woman, where Diana arrives in London and struggles to find appropriate clothing in a shop. That’s actually quite a charming scene, and it works with her naïveté and fish-out-of-water situation: here, it’s miserable.) Then Steve, the soldier, spy and adventurer who fought in World War 1, is amazed by an escalator (a 19th century invention), and utterly gobsmacked by a subway train (also a 19th century invention, and something that had been operating in one form or another in London, the city he was living in in the first film, for more than 50 years at the time of that film). But then shortly afterwards he hops into a modern fighter jet and can just fly it. Great.
I’m going to stop here, because we’re still only in the early stages of Wonder Woman 1984, and if I listed everything wrong with it (which is everything) then we’d be here a very long time. Not that there’s an awful lot of plot to follow, mostly just a bunch of messy, dumb and inexplicable stuff that happens, up until a comically underwhelming (and underlit) almost-climactic fight (that at least earned itself a minor reprieve by making me imagine Wonder Woman as Batfink, with her wings like a shield of steel), and a finale which largely consists of perhaps the most insipid, hokey, turgid, nonsensical, meaningless and boring speech ever heard in film, which like everything else also goes on too long (and given how long I’ve been talking now, I’m aware of the irony).
How much of this film’s failings are down to Warner Bros./D.C.’s recent mishandling of their properties (there clearly is now only one DC screen hero, and that is Superman, with everything else being simply a palette-swap, bringing us the exciting tales of Lady Superman and Wet Superman), and how much to Patty Jenkins’ misuse of her power I’m not sure, but Jenkins herself writing the script for Wonder Woman 1984 is top of my list of suspects.
The whole thing is an ugly mess, an hour too long, with some dodgy effects (how this is even still possible is beyond me, but DC films in particular have been marked out since Man of Steel by digital doubles barely better than Blade II and numerous terrible green screen close-ups), leaden dialogue and universally wooden acting, especially from Gal Gadot, apart from the wasted Pedro Pascal who is completely over the top instead. Add to that IMAX sequences even more underwhelming than those we recently complained about in Tenet, and numerous other crimes big and small, and we have a film that’s worse than Suicide Squad. In fact, in Wonder Woman 1984 I think we may have a new low point for big budget superhero films. Egads. But I suppose without zero all other numbers are a bit meaningless, so there’s its utility right there. Great.
Whether by flaw or by design most people would probably agree that Apple have so far kept off the pace set by the other big streaming platforms in terms of the quantity (and arguably quality) of their original programming. One thing the Cupertino campus isn’t short of however is cash, and if they can’t or won’t make that content then the option is certainly there for them to buy it. Some interesting stuff is gradually finding its way onto TV+, and of recent note Wolfwalkers certainly stands out as worthy of your time.
The most recent effort from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, who prevously brought you The Breadwinner and Fuds On Film favourite Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers plants its action in the studio’s native Kilkenny within a nebulously medieval fantasy setting, a time and place steeped in rich folklore and magical overtones. Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) is a young English apprentice hunter who has accompanied her father Bill (Sean Bean) to Ireland on his quest to rid Kilkenny of a seemingly antagonistic lupine presence among the woods. This is a problem for the Lord Protector of the occupying English forces (voiced by Simon McBurney) who is sworn to safeguard his townspeople as they clear the woods for agricultural purposes, but arguably becomes an even bigger issue for Bill when Robyn befriends a feral young Irish girl named Mebh. A wild child in more ways than one, Mebh (voiced by Eva Whittaker) is a Wolfwalker; human when awake, transforming into a wolf when asleep, and the daughter of the problematic wolf tribe’s leader Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy).
As Robyn’s friendship with Mebh blossoms it places her at odds with her father, as her determination to seek a peaceful resolution is in direct opposition to Bill’s orders from the Lord Protector, namely that he is to eradicate the wolves promptly or suffer the consequences of failing his master. Things are complicated further by a turn of events detailed in the trailer, but which I’d rather not discuss here in the hope that you haven’t seen that but would very much like to see Wolfwalkers. Which you should. Because it’s very good.
As an example of classic children’s story telling Wolfwalkers is an absolute delight, with another delightful screenplay from Will Collins, and while the narrative is so well crafted that it would no doubt work in just about any medium it succeeds particularly well here in light of Cartoon Saloon’s hand-drawn aesthetic, complete with left-over animator’s pencil marks, which is rich, vibrant, full of character and distinct in style. I found myself particularly surprised by the latter observation, as I suppose in a world flooded by visual media the quest for artists to establish ownership of a style that doesn’t feel contrived must be increasingly fraught, yet I found Wolfwalkers to be visually enchanting and unique in a way that was immediately engaging.
An animated feature can of course live or die by the quality of its voice performances, and again there is good news here in that they range from “entirely decent” at one end of the spectrum to “absolutely excellent” at the other. The former, you may be unsurprised to learn, is embodied by Sean Bean, whose thespian career in general remains an enigma to me, but here delivers a performance that is tonally in keeping with the piece and remains commendably removed from the risk of screwing it up for everyone else. Well done, Sean Bean, you may have a lollipop.
The real value however is to be found in the performances of the two young leads, upon whose diminutive shoulders the lion’s share of the narrative rests, and it turns out we’re in pretty safe hands. Honor Kneafsey does a pretty admirable job with Robyn Goodfellowe, and if at times I felt she lacked a little range I did remind myself that she was frequently bouncing off the performance given by Sean Bean. It’s Eva Whittaker who really shines though, a young woman about whom we know nothing other than her one prior credited performance in a TV short from 2019, with a fantastically engaging portrayal of Mebh that fits beautifully with her character’s visual appearance and avoids the pitfalls of precociousness or self-conscious delivery that younger actors often fall into. We don’t know where she’s from, we don’t know where she’s going, but we do hope to hear from her again.
Directors Tomm Moore, a Cartoon Saloon regular, and Ross Stewart do an admirable job of keeping the storytelling tight. With material this aesthetically rich the temptation to indulge must no doubt be difficult to resist, the discipline essential, and so it speaks well to both parties that the end result is so cohesive and compelling throughout. As Stewart’s first directorial credit this is a pretty good start to a new paragraph of his already burgeoning creative resume, and for Moore it marks another uptick on his path to becoming perhaps the new messiah of traditional animation.
The real litmus test of such things remains, of course, the attentions of a younger audience, and if the feedback from my clones aged seven and four-and-eleven-twelfths are anything to go by then Wolfwalkers gets a big thumbs up from its de facto target audience, but I’d wager it’s appeal will be pretty universal.
Sound of Metal
Drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is part of Blackgammon, a punk-metal duo alongside his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), playing hazardously loud shows every night. Or, as it turns out, catastrophically loud, as Ruben suddenly finds his hearing disappearing, something we experience through the film’s excellent sound design and mixing, with shots from Ruben’s point of view conveying to us the severity of his reduced perception (this is far beyond the sort of “let’s make the sound a bit muffled for a moment” thing you might have experienced in other films).
Ruben consults a doctor, who tells him he has lost between 80-90% of his hearing ability, and that it will likely get worse, especially if he doesn’t avoid loud sound. In denial, or possibly simply at a loss, Ruben nevertheless plays at that night’s gig, but leaves mid-set, before telling a confused and worried Lou what’s going on. Lou, who seems more concerned than Ruben, foresees another problem: Ruben is a heroin addict who has been clean for four years, and she fears this problem could cause him to relapse. She contacts his sponsor, who does some investigation and finds a deaf commune in Virginia where a group of deaf addicts meet, and who are willing to help Ruben.
Here he is met by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam War veteran and recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the war. He aims to help Ruben come to terms with his deafness, and to learn that “deaf people don’t need fixing”. Ruben’s reactions to his condition, his denial and his assertions about getting things sorted mirror the behaviours of an addict, a similarity Joe points out to him.
Separated from Lou (Ruben must enter the commune alone, and surrender his car keys and phone), he finds some inner calm and acceptance, as well as learning sign language, and becomes a popular figure in the community and the attached primary school.
He never lets go of his plan to have surgery for cochlear implants, though, and a video on the internet of Lou performing alone prompts him to sell all of his possessions, including the RV that was his and Lou’s home, to raise funds for the surgery. Returning to the commune post-procedure he doesn’t get the reception he expected, and an angry and upset Joe tells Ruben he must leave the community immediately: this is a place for accepting, not repairing. Ruben is then left to make the rest of his journey on his own.
The key to this film is the sound design, and it’s really going to benefit from a decent sound system (or at least good headphones), and a lack of distractions, to allow you to appreciate the sound and lack of sound, as well as the silence, which isn’t quite the same thing. Ruben’s diminishing hearing; the weird, robotic nature of the “fake” sound created by the implants; the oddness (to hearing viewers) of an entirely silent conversation (the sign language conversations are subtitled for hearing viewers, and the spoken conversations for deaf viewers, which is nice).
The other key (things can have multiple keys, right?) is Riz Ahmed, who is, simply, outstanding. He studied drumming for six months before shooting, and also studied deafness and learned American Sign Language, things which clearly helped make his performance much more real and more empathetic. Necessarily Ruben doesn’t get a huge amount of dialogue (or, to be fair, a huge amount of characterisation – I’d love to know more about him and his past and passions), but Ahmed is acting with everything he’s got: movement, expression, position, and it overcomes that lack. It’s captivating.
A few days removed from Sound of Metal now and my initial appreciation has tarnished a little. While I still think it’s an excellent film, the things that bothered me during the film bother me more, primarily the proscriptive nature of its tone. “Deafness isn’t a handicap” preaches Joe, but of course it is, it absolutely is, especially when it descends so suddenly: there are fewer ways to experience and sense the world, life is necessarily less rich, the world necessarily more dangerous. Not allowing yourself to be limited by the inability to hear, to the greatest extent possible, and certainly not allowing yourself to be defined by its absence, is a great philosophy, and that’s certainly in there, but Joe’s perception of Ruben’s choice as a betrayal is offensive, and suggests an intolerance on director/writer Darius Marder’s part: deaf people don’t need “fixing”, so getting the implants is antithetical to what it is to be deaf, and therefore wrong, rather than it being a choice made by this individual, with this individual’s history, needs and desires in mind.
Despite these reservations I heartily recommend seeing it, for the interesting sound design and especially for Ahmed’s restrained, nuanced performance, which rises above his underwritten character, and in general for being a believable character drama that at every step eschews the melodrama that so often afflicts similar tales.
Soul is the latest from Disney Pixar, or Pisney, or Dixar, in which a New York music teacher, Jamie Foxx’s Joe Gardner, dreams of achieving his life long ambition of being recognised as a Jazz star. So shouldn’t this film be called Jazz, then? Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get to that. It seems that after years of false starts and beseechings from his family to settle down and learn to love teaching, he might be getting his big break, securing a gig with the famed Dorothea Williams quartet.
Then he falls down a manhole and dies. Whoopsie. Or is left comatose, at least. His soul – ah! it all becomes clear – is transported to a carefully non-denominational afterlife holding pattern, but not being ready to enter the Great Beyond, Joe jumps off the Travelator of Souls and ends up in the Great Before, where unborn souls are prepared to plummet to Earth to perpetuate the horrors of humanity upon each other. Due to some confusion or other, Joe ends up assigned as an instructor to Tina Fey’s 22, a soul that needs to find her “spark” in order to fill out her passport to Earth. Thing is, she doesn’t seem to want to leave the comfort of the Great Before, so they work out a deal. Find the spark, complete the passport, trade positions.
It doesn’t go quite to plan, though, with 22 continuing to be unable to find that spark. However they’re helped by, of all people, Graham Norton’s dreamwarrior hippy sign dude Moonwind and his pan-dimensional Soul Galleon, heading to Earth but Joe comes back… wrong. Which is to say that he possesses the body of a passing therapy cat while 22 is slapped into Joe’s body. As such, I’m afraid to say Tina Fey is now cancelled due to performing in digital blackface. #Blackfeyce. The rest of the film chronicles the attempt to get the souls back into their respective correct homes, while keeping Joe’s career on track, and avoiding the wrath of Terry, Heaven’s Accountant, voiced by Rachel House. And, hey, they just might realise a few things about the human condition along the way.
Contrary to expectations raised by my tone in the preceding, I quite enjoyed Soul. Look at me, subverting things like Rian Johnson. It has a charming visual style, or styles to be more precise, both the lovingly caricatured New York and the stranger soulscapes of the Great Before. It’s asking more meaningful questions than media primarily for children would – to be fair, also a standard Pixar strength, but this certainly executes it much better than Onward, if not so well as Coco. But then, what could?
If there’s a disappointment to be found – and frankly this is a stretch – it’s that the vocal performances, or maybe the script, are just good. Either the cast isn’t leaning in to the material or the material isn’t adapted to the casting, which perhaps leads into a rehash of the “cast professional voice actors over Hollywood stars” argument again, but this does not feel like Jamie Foxx or Tina Fey playing a character, it feels like them showing up and reading their lines. That’s even more prevalent but less important with the supporting cast, but based on the high opinion I generally hold of Foxx and Fey I thought they were maybe a touch below par here.
Still, not enough to take me out of the film while watching it, only while writing about it, so I recommend that you don’t do that and just watch it instead. Also, seems weird that Trent Reznor did the music for this. It’s like finding out that Louis Armstrong invented K-pop.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (the original Danish name is Druk, which translates to English as “binge drinking”, which is certainly more direct than the rather euphemistic English title) tells the tale of a small group of high school teachers. During a birthday dinner for one of their number, the group discuss the idea proposed by the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud (Finn Skor-de-rooood) that human beings naturally have too little alcohol in their bloodstream, and that maintaining a blood alcohol content of 0.05% leads to increased happiness and creativity.
The next morning, one of the members, Mads Mikkelsen’s Martin, decides to experiment with the concept, bringing some vodka along with him to school. Martin, who had been depressed and flailing, if not failing, in both his marriage and his job, finds himself liberated and re-energised. Martin and his friends – Nikolaj, Tommy and Peter – make a pact to all attempt the experiment, with the goal of writing a paper on the results (oh, and they’ll never drink after 8pm, a limit inspired by Ernest Hemingway, someone for whom things worked out really well).
Experience with being human will tell you that this is not likely to end well, with the alcohol experiment causing some problems, masking other problems and revealing others still. And maybe – just maybe, mind – teachers drinking while at school isn’t a brilliant idea.
Another Round definitely has some comments to make, beginning as it does with teenagers getting drunk in a park (in Denmark you can buy beer or wine from the age of 16), and the observation by Martin’s wife’s, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), that “this whole nation drinks like maniacs anyway”, but what might surprise you to learn is that this is really a funny and at times uplifting and feel-good movie. It’s tragicomic, and certainly bittersweet, but it’s warm and made me laugh a lot. It’s driven by an excellent central performance by Mads Mikkelsen (who I’m not sure I’ve ever seen act in Danish before), with a small, solid supporting cast, including the aforementioned Bonnevie (incidentally, Bonnevie played the hotel receptionist in Insomnia, making this one of those weird coincidences where you see someone in nothing ever, then in two unrelated films almost back to back) and Tim Key’s Danish cousin.
While I mentioned that Another Round has something to say, it’s not much as it’s quite a flippant film, with a premise based on what could charitably be called questionable science, but it’s just a lot of fun, and that’ll do me nicely.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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