22 Nov 2017

At The Movies for 22 November 2017

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 22 November 2017

Simon Morris reviews the blockbuster Justice League, but is rather keener on the unlikely Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. He also checks out festival favourite The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Read the transcript

Look out, Avengers. Look out, Marvel Comics. Here comes DC's answer - Justice League.

'Supe' died for our sins, which is rather over-egging a bit, even for comic-book entertainment.

But enough of these concerns. Let's bring on the big threat that will bring together a Super League to look for, er, justice.

From another dimension, he comes - accompanied by minions who look like giant dragonflies with teeth... his name is Steppenwolf, and he's searching the Earth for three Important Thingies.

Now that Wonder Woman has been fast-tracked to the top table this year, she's the one who knows what's going on.

And on the strength of her superior knowledge, she visits her old Bat-friend, Bruce Wayne - these days played by Ben Affleck - to let him know a gang is required to be put together.

Unlike the Marvel strategy of introducing its stars in ones and twos over several movies, Justice League pretty much throws them all at us at once, with very little preparation.

Like Arthur Curry - the Aquaman from Atlantis.

Aquaman is the gigantic Jason Momoa, whose superpowers seem to involve talking to fish and tossing his hair around.

There's Victor Stone, the Cyborg - half man, half special effect - and a geeky kid called Barry, aka The Flash…

You may have noticed the mood of this movie has lightened up considerably after the gloomy mayhem of Man of Steel and Batman versus Superman.

Attempting to duplicate the appeal of Marvel Comics' successful Avengers entertainments, director Zack Snyder has hired the Avengers crack scriptwriter, Joss Whedon, to do some extensive doctoring.

Suddenly, the body count has dropped enormously - always a good idea - while the joke count has gone up even more.

Jokes in a DC Comics movie? Whatever next?

Many of the jokes go to Jeremy Irons, playing Batman's sardonic butler Alfred. And Jason Momoa has sportingly agreed to make Aquaman the lovable lunkhead in this combination.

But while Joss Whedon has done sparkling work fixing up the characters and dialogue, there's not much he can do about the lumbering plot.

There's altogether too much reverence for the late Superman when it's quite obvious that DC - once known as Superman Comics - is hardly likely to keep their biggest asset off the screen indefinitely.

I mean, Henry Cavill's name is up there in the opening credits!

The presence of star Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and Joss Whedon on joke duty has lifted Justice League above the fairly dismal level DC Comics movies generally hover at.

But it's still very much a try-hard copy of the more confident Marvel. You'd never find DC hiring Taika Waititi for instance.

So has Hollywood started to go a little cold over superhero movies yet? Can we predict that the sight of grown men and women fighting crime in their underwear will soon be a thing of the past?

Certainly stranger things have happened. Often in movies like this, unfortunately.

The rise of Wonder Woman - or her return, depending on your upbringing - has regenerated interest in her creator, one William Moulton Marston.

And he certainly warrants interest, as much for his personal life as for his creation.

Marston was a professor of psychology at Harvard in the 1930s and married to the even more intellectual Elizabeth.

His field of study was the relationship between women and men, and he was about to get a crash course when he spotted one of his students, the lovely Olive, and Elizabeth spotted him spotting Olive.

When the inevitable scandal forces the threesome to look elsewhere for work, Bill has his big idea - to put his extensive research in service to creating - why not? - a comic book heroine.

But unexpectedly, the apparently straight-laced Olive seemed rather more interested in Elizabeth's opinion than in that of William.

In fact we're rather taken aback today, watching Bill, Elizabeth and Olive as they start investigating sorority parties, burlesque shows, even Fifty Shades of Mild Bondage.

The three of them started working on a project together - the invention of the lie detector, no less - while the old sexual tension started activating on all cylinders.

When the members of the establishment find out about the Marstons and Olive's irregular arrangements, they're shocked. It is the 1930s, after all.

Marston's heroine seems to spend an awful lot of time being tied up or tying other people up, and the rest of the time semi-naked with a lot of like-minded girlfriends.

But Elizabeth Marston has over-estimated the scruples of 1940s comic-book publishers, particularly if there's a buck to be made. Bill Marston takes his creation to William Gaines who agrees to take it on, with one minor adjustment.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is engaging and surprisingly charming, given the subject matter.

It's clearly a labour of love for its writer-director Angela Robinson, best known for creating the lesbian TV series The L Word.

It's certainly not an exercise in nit-picking realism. The real-life William, Elizabeth and Olive were certainly not the glamorous trio depicted here.

But in many ways, it's perfectly appropriate that a story like this should be one of imagination rather than prosaic reality.

The trio share an appeal and an innocence that's hard to resist - Welshman Luke Evans, Australian Bella Heathcote and Englishwoman Rebecca Hall.

And - as I suspect it was in the real-life relationship between them - it's Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth who ends up being the Most Valuable Player.

The task - to convince us that this relationship will work and that it can transcend time, custom and society's hostility - is no mean feat.

As Professor Marston and Olive, it's enough for Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote to look happy and pretty.

Representing real life is Rebecca Hall's job - embracing real life, accepting real life, and at the end happily rejecting it. It's an Oscar-worthy performance if there were any justice in Man's World.

A sort of justice is at the heart of the gruelling psychological fantasy The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an Irish co-production with the Greek writer-director of last year's oddest film, The Lobster.

Yorgos Lanthimos has set the bar high, but I'm not sure this one isn't even stranger. It's certainly confrontational.

From the start - loud, grating music over a black screen followed by a seemingly interminable shot of real-life heart surgery - this is clearly a film that plans to challenge us.

We meet the heart surgeon Steven - played by Lobster star Colin Farrell - walking endless corridors and meeting up with 16-year-old Martin.

Is Martin Steven's son? His lover? A friend of his children? It turns out he's none of those things.

But next we meet Steven's attractive family - wife Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, young Bob and teenage daughter Kim.

Attractive they may be, but their relationships seem ever so slightly off. I mean Steven and Anna's love-life involves her playing dead a lot.

But now Martin starts to put pressure on Steven. He arrives unannounced at work, then at his home. The family - initially at any rate - are rather taken by Martin.

But Martin has not only a hidden agenda but also strange, relentless powers.

He also has a particular grudge against Steven, for reasons that soon become clear. And he seems to be determined to hurt Steven's family.

At the time, I thought The Killing of a Sacred Deer was being arbitrarily mysterious and allegorical - in the manner of another film that I found myself at frustrated odds with this year, Darren Aronofsky's mother.

But in fact the parallels with classical mythology were laid early - in particular, the Greek legend of sacrifice and retribution, Iphigenia.

But just because a story has a basis in some ancient myth or legend doesn't automatically make it convincing.

The reasons why the forces of Nemesis are visited on innocent bystanders rather than a guilty party are, I'm sure, clear and obvious to film-maker Yorgos Lathimos. But it didn't mean I had to like it.

No blame should be attached to the courageous cast, incidentally. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman take what they're given and run with it, as good actors should.

The kids are very good too - particularly a genuinely creepy performance by young Irish star Barry Keoghan as Martin.

Is it a tribute to his performance that I wanted to kill him after a while, or is it a criticism of film-maker Yorgos Lathimos that I wanted to kill him considerably earlier?

I hated The Killing of a Sacred Deer and the fact that it picked up a Cannes Film Festival award for Best Screenplay doesn't alter my opinion. I tend to dislike many of those films.

Perhaps it's a film that depends on being brought up on those sorts of myths, just as others are brought up on Wonder Woman or the films of Adam Sandler. All I know is that any conditioning for The Killing of a Sacred Deer was omitted from my childhood.

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