SINGAPORE - The movies reviewed this week include Wonder Woman 1984 and Wife Of A Spy.
WONDER WOMAN 1984
(PG, 151 minutes, opens Dec 17, 5 stars)
The first movie, Wonder Woman (2017), featured Gal Gadot's title character, but there was also an awful lot of Chris Pine's Steve Trevor. In particular, the unearned romance between the two that ignores the rule laid out in Frozen (2013): Never fall in love with the first man you meet. It gave the movie a Diana Prince-shaped hole (Prince being her secret civilian identity), as if she did not exist as a person before she fell in love.
Diana is a DC Comics character who is the female equivalent of Marvel's Thor (2011) - born with godlike powers, she lacks a moving origin story. So in the 2017 film, they gave her a Thor plot: She falls in love with humanity through falling in love with one human, then fights a foe from her "old country".
Just as the Thor movies got more interesting, the same is happening here. The wonderful thing about DC Comics movies involving characters like Joker, Shazam, Aquaman and, of course, Superman and Batman is the relative absence of fan-service mythology that needs to be regurgitated. The story kicks off cleanly and, best of all, quickly.
The movie opens with a brief scene-setting action sequence that shows director Patty Jenkins (who also directed the first film) to be a master of tone-blending. Diana's battle with robbers in a shopping mall combines comedy, breathless action, 1980s scene-setting and, for good measure, her standing as a female role model. That last bit could have been cheesy, but the sense of amazement felt by a girl in seeing a woman toss men around is so slickly done, it is hard not to feel the child's wonderment and pride.
It also becomes apparent why the movie surrounds Diana with a strong ensemble cast. Gadot is an actress of limited range, a beautiful blank, and needs more versatile players such as Chris Pine and Kristen Wiig close by. Wiig, in particular, is a comedy savant who can turn on the pathos.
In this story, a variation of The Monkey's Paw tale in which villain Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) gives out wishes as part of his plot to control the world, Wiig's sad-funny powers and Pine's ability to emote are put to brilliant use.
There has been much said on social media about how this movie speaks to the times (Lord, for example, is a grifting television personality who lies his way to the top) but not enough about its raw emotional power. In a bold move that pays off strongly, Jenkins builds the story to a climax that is less about an all-out battle than having a cathartic cry.
WIFE OF A SPY
(PG13, 115 minutes, showing exclusively at The Projector, 4 stars)
It is 1940. Japanese forces have ravaged China, but war with the Western powers has yet to break out. In the city of Kobe, prosperous businessman Mr Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) is living the good life.
In a time of rising xenophobia, the Europhile wears Western clothes, fills his villa with Western furniture and spurns local whiskey in favour of imported brands. He meets openly with British friends.
Not only is he blithely dismissive of the war paranoia gripping the nation, he uses his resources to make amateur films, casting his wife, Satoko (Yu Aoi), as the fearless heroine. Her childhood friend, police officer Yasuharu (Masahiro Higashide) shields them from official disapproval, but for how long should the couple tempt fate?
The dapper, mild-mannered Fukuhara seems like an unlikely hero at first. Then, in a bold storytelling move, his wife Satoko becomes the focus of the story. Her character growth, from quiet sidekick to someone much more willing to take action, is the chief concern of director and co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose long career has been marked mainly by thrillers.
For this work, exploring the way secrets shape a marriage, Kurosawa won the Silver Lion for Best Director at this year's Venice Film Festival.
This is the work of someone in masterful control of atmosphere. Kurosawa steers clear of the sepia-tinged colour palette and visual softness that seems obligatory for wartime dramas, instead opting for a clean, matter-of-fact look.
The need for frankness becomes apparent when the plot takes a turn. Mild intrigue gives way to something resembling horror after the Fukuharas become embroiled in the activities of the Japanese forces in Manchuria. Without showing gore, yet eliciting real chills, Kurosawa brings viewers into the ghastly secret that binds husband and wife together, one that could end their lives if discovered.
Japan's wartime activities in Asia, much less its atrocities, are almost never mentioned in Japanese films, so this work, in its own quiet way, breaks new ground.
(R21, 133 minutes, showing on Netflix, not reviewed)
Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman star in this musical adapted from a Broadway production. Two self-obsessed actors, played by Corden and Streep, hatch a plan to rehabilitate their public images by travelling to a small town to help high schoolers fight a ban on their prom because one female student wanted to bring a girl as her date.
NOT MY MOTHER'S BAKING
(NC16, 112 minutes, showing exclusively at Filmgarde Cineplexes, not reviewed)
This Singapore romantic comedy was not made by any of the major local labels but by the up-and-coming Studio59 Concepts. Created to send a message of harmony, it details the plight of Sarah, a Malay-Muslim baker who falls in love with Edwin, whose family runs a roast pork stall. It stars Sarah Ariffin, Siti Mastura Alwi, Vincent Tee, Zack Zainal and Christina Hon.