Out on Friday June 2
The DCEU delivers old-school thrills. A not-so-typical veggie tale with a big heart. The filmic equivalent of sand in your pants. Hirokazu Koreeda’s slow-burn gem.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Wonder Woman, My Life as a Courgette, Baywatch, The Hippopotamus, After the Storm, The Shepherd, and Daughters of the Dust.
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When DC launched its expanded-universe entry bid with Man of Steel, some die-hard DC-watchers grumbled. Who was this Mr moody-pants? Not Superman, surely. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad drew similar gripes: Batfleck was deemed too murder-y, Deadshot too mawkish.
After lassoing the focus away from Dawn of Justice’s man-spat, Wonder Woman tempts no such non-recognition concerns. Despite fears engendered by a messy route to cinemas, pre-release scuttlebutt over tonal issues and the odd on-screen hiccup, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and lead Gal Gadot have landed a ripping success: a winningly earnest heroine in a straight-up good-time comic book movie that gives good, pomposity-busting quips without ever clouding its headliner’s core values.
After a modern-day prologue, the flashback to Wonders’ origins works by rejecting kitsch self-parody and undue darkening influences. Navigated smoothly between sweeping spectacle, gym-pumped fight practice, mythical backstories and mum/daughter intimacies, the Themyscira sequences brim with scene-setting assurance.
Granted, it’s another origin story. But it’s a fresh one, for a heroine whose origin we haven’t yet seen at cinemas. And there’s a galvanised pulp buzz to the mid-training transition from Diana as a rebellious child to Gadot, whose poise, blazing eyes and sonic-boom wrist-wear issue a resounding message: don’t worry, she’s got this.
That confidence holds as man-shaped trouble visits Themyscira. After the arrow’s-eye shots and shield-surfing tag-team action of a bracing Amazons-v-soldiers beach barney, Gadot’s warm chemistry with Chris Pine’s humble World War I spy Steve Trevor sings; reaching beyond modern superhero settings, their flirty/innocent banter channels 1934 proto-romcom It Happened One Night via the rooftop exchanges of 1978’s Superman. And as Trevor laments war’s horrors, the righteous compassion stirred in Diana fits her character like a scabbard: God of War Ares is abroad, she decides, and he needs stopping.
After a poignant parting from home and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), the ensuing conflicts with spies, wartime officials and leering villains echo rich, rollicking matinee-serial pleasures. Raiders of the Lost Ares, if you like. You get classic nasties in chemical co-dependents Dr Maru (Elena Anaya, oozing mystery) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, off his tits). And, while David Thewlis offers quality anchorage in a key role, any risks of ridiculousness elsewhere get nicely ribbed. As Etta Candy, Lucy Davis kills with a quip about specs; Ewen Bremner, meanwhile, channels Spud as Trevor’s slow but steady pal.
If the jobs of getting Diana and Steve’s gang (Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock) to war can leave Wonder Woman looking more like Woman Wanders About a Bit, at least the pace breathes. And, once we hit the trenches - 12A certificate judiciously pushed in injury detail - the electric cellos start thrashing and the cool shit starts thrilling. Over-reliance on slo-mo aside, Wonder’s powers are exuberantly embraced in rousing blasts of lasso-lashing, shield-flinging extravagance. Suddenly, Hulk isn’t the only tank-lobbing titan in town.
So, a little disappointment kicks in when the last stand-off presents the CG spectacle of two combatants levitating at each other. But it’s only a small burp next to other comic book movies’ half-baked baddies, and while jaded viewers might wince at a Jennifer Rush-ian pay-off, ballast is provided by an emotional twist and the sense of a filmmaker embracing Wonder Woman’s idealism without cynicism.
“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” Hippolyta warns, “they do not deserve you.” That may be true, but she’s delivered the hope-charged blast of purely likeable entertainment that superhero movies might just need.
THE VERDICT: The DCEU’s game gets raised. Gadot is a godsend, Pine charms, and Jenkins delivers old-school thrills with heart and conviction.
Director: Patty Jenkins; Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright; Theatrical release: June 1, 2017
My Life as a Courgette
A French 66-minute stop-motion animation about children in an orphanage, My Life as a Courgette is an unexpected delight. Claude Barras’ film arrives here on a wave of awards success, including Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. It lost out on both to Zootropolis, whose expansive spectacle it feels far removed from.
With UK distributor Soda releasing both the subtitled, French-voiced original and the English dub, the choice is yours; both versions do the story justice. In the English version, Erick Abbate voices ‘Courgette’, a blue-haired, wide-eyed youngster living alone with his mother (who gave him that cute nickname) in a home littered with empty beer cans. Animated or not, there are few sadder sights than watching a child clear up after their alcoholic parent.
When Courgette drops some of the discarded tins, his furious ma storms up to his attic room. He accidentally shuts the trapdoor on her and… well, we never see what happens. “I’m here because I think I killed my Mum,” Courgette later tells Simon (Romy Beckman), his friend at the rural orphanage where he ends up.
If that misplaced guilt is heartbreaking, it’s no worse than some of the other stories these kids carry around with them: we learn of parents who are drug addicts, criminals or mentally ill. One was deported. Another is a paedophile. “We’re all the same – there’s no one left to love us,” concludes Simon, in yet another moment of intense sadness.
Adapting from Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette, Barras and his team made the wise decision to bring Céline Sciamma on board as screenwriter. Her live-action films as director (Girlhood, Water Lilies, Tomboy) have all dealt with growing pains, and she brings the same sensitivity to this adaptation.
There are moments of joy, too. Courgette’s friendship with football-loving new girl Camille (Ness Krell), or the kindness shown by Raymond (Nick Offerman), the policeman who first takes him to the orphanage. Everyday beauty is celebrated often, whether it’s a trip to the mountains, touching the belly of pregnant teacher Rosy (Ellen Page), a ghost-train ride or a party where Courgette dresses up like a superhero.
Emotively designed, the stop-motion visuals are marvellous – simple and melancholic, rather like the accompanying music by Sophie Hunger. Quite whether children will take to this story remains to be seen; it deals with some tough themes after all. But Courgette proves that the biggest surprises can come in the smallest of packages.
THE VERDICT: Beautifully animated, scored and written, Barras’ little movie has a big heart. C’est fantastique.
Director: Claude Barras; Starring: Erick Abbate, Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page; Theatrical release: June 2, 2017
On paper, Baywatch sounds ripe with guilty pleasure: an update on one of the most popular, and cheesy, TV shows of all time, played for giggles and filled with beautiful people, wearing little. On screen, Baywatch flounders. If you’re hoping for the meta-yet-mainstream smart-stupid fun of the Jump Street movies, lower your expectations. Better still, re-watch the Jump Street movies instead…
It starts slickly enough, with an extended homage to the show’s signature slo-mo style. An all-in-a-day’s-work sea rescue climaxes in the movie’s title rising with tacky grandeur from the ocean, behind the rippling bod of alpha lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson).
Oddly, such OTT flourishes turn out to be few and far between. A couple more might’ve eased the overstretched plod of the plot, which has two strands: one centred on a drug-trafficking op masterminded by slinky villain Victoria Leeds (Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra); the other on drafting and moulding new recruits to the squad.
The ‘thriller’ side of the story is sub-CSI stuff whose mysteries are resolved with feeble ease, while the character-driven scenes don’t have much character, or drive. For all the prattle about the importance of working as a team, Baywatch is really a bromance between Mitch and bad-boy newbie Matt Brody (Zac Efron); no one else gets much of a look in. There’s an almost-endearing beauty-and-the-geek flirtation between C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) and ‘tech guy’ Ronnie (Jon Bass) – but they, like several others, flit in and out so much that you almost forget who they are.
Alexandra Daddario’s earnest Summer gets a slightly better deal – or at least more screen time, though she mostly just tags along with Mitch and Matt, offering wide-eyed reaction shots at their exploits.
Daddario’s presence alongside Johnson conjures the spirit of San Andreas, a disaster flick defined by its inadvertent hilarity. Alas, Baywatch isn’t a film to be laughed at, let alone with. Any flair for comic timing director Seth Gordon flexed on Horrible Bosses is awol here.
It hardly helps that the script (from the writers of, um, Freddy Vs. Jason) is awash with zingers with no zing (“Bathtime, shithead!”), clanging in-jokes (“Sounds like an entertaining but far-fetched TV show!”) and lines that aim for ‘edgy’ but are just in poor taste: “You’re like the Stephen Hawking of swimming, without the paralysis part.” Similarly off-colour is a strain of casual homophobia that reaches its nadir in a morgue set-piece.
So, are there any signs of life here? Well, there’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Get Down) as a cop whose exasperation at Mitch’s antics is Baywatch’s best – only – running joke. He belongs in a better film – with ‘Jump Street’ in the title.
THE VERDICT: Unfunny, unthrilling and unsexy, this doesn’t even reach the low bar set by the source material.
Director: Seth Gordon; Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario; Theatrical release: May 29, 2017
If ever there was a film ideally pitched for a Sunday evening spent indoors with a plate of crumpets, it’s this. Based on Stephen Fry’s novel, it follows a perfectly cast Roger Allam as Ted Wallace, a cantankerous and whisky-drenched former poet reduced, as Withnail would have it, to the status of a bum (well, theatre critic, but he sees it as very much the same thing). The joy with which he rolls the English language around his tongue before spitting it out, as if it was a fine wine at a tasting session, is a glorious thing to behold.
Wallace is on a mystery-solving case, of sorts, when his long-lost goddaughter reunites him with old friends at a stately home to get to the bottom of a strange healing force within the family. It’s an excuse for characters to be drawn in broad, Cluedo-esque strokes – the over-dramatic teenage wannabe poet; the camp actor (Tim McInnerny, bringing back the ghost of Blackadder’s Lord Percy); and the visiting Frenchwoman mercilessly bullying her daughter.
It’s bawdy, rude and terribly, terribly English. Trouble is, despite Fry’s fine source material, it feels a little flimsy in the plot department. Maybe that Sunday evening TV special would have been a more natural fit after all.
THE VERDICT: An old-fashioned romp through the eccentricities of the upper classes, it’s a fun mystery with a nicely filthy mind.
Director: John Jencks; Starring: Roger Allam, Tim McInnerny; Theatrical release: May 28, 2017
After the Storm
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest drama is a typically slow-burn gem. It follows Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe) – gambler, private detective, failed novelist – as he reconnects with his family during a typhoon.
The characters are unfailingly polite, whatever their grievances, and there isn’t a single false note in this generous, affectionate portrait of people making the best of their situation.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda; Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yôko Maki, Satomi Kobayashi; Theatrical release: June 2, 2017
A hit at last year’s Raindance Film Festival, this stripped-back, quietly powerful Spanish drama pits a principled shepherd (Miguel Martín) against the developers who want to buy his land.
Writer/director Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s obvious tight budget mirrors his central character’s minimalist lifestyle, but still allows for some impressive flourishes. The result is a striking, well-composed modern western.
Director: Jonathan Cenzual Burley; ¬Starring: Maribel Iglesias, Miguel Martín, Alfonso Mendiguchía; Theatrical release: June 2, 2017
Daughters of the Dust
Julie Dash’s pioneering African-American historical drama gets the digital restoration treatment for its 25th anniversary. Set in 1902 on an island off South Carolina, it concerns three generations of Gullah women.
Drawing on their traditions of oral storytelling, it’s lushly photographed and costumed, plus dreamily confusing, yet it vividly brings a past to life.
Director: Julie Dash; Starring: Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Barbarao; Theatrical release: June 2, 2017