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March 26, 2022

Spencer (2021)
Director: Pablo Larraín
Actors: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall

For the New Movie 'Spencer,' Turning the Queen's Country Home Into an “Elegant Prison” | Architectural Digest

Synopsis: Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart), already estranged from Charles and the Royal Family, visits Sandringham for the Christmas holiday in 1991.

Review: Very much a companion piece to Pablo Larraín’s masterly Jackie, he once again offers an impression of a famous public figure at a time of significant trauma, and is ingeniously able to project over the already fascinating political tale an even more moving existential one.

As ever with Larraín, he so wryly understands and plays with the conventions of the biopic genre, and he imagines the story through an endlessly inventive and imaginative understanding of the cinematic medium. Where Mica Levi’s score in Jackie uncannily went against the Oscar-bating solemnity synonymous with the genre, so Johnny Greenwood’s score, even more oppositionally here, places the Diana story in the realm of something psychological and even ghostly.

There’s a compelling interiority to the film as Larraín approximates Diana’s dichotomy of vanity and startling vulnerability by having the narrative play out from her almost callow subjectivity – it’s a fairytale-cum-horror scenario replete with all the requisite heroes and villains.

What’s beautiful and so stealthy about the film is how it portrays with progressive subtlety and emotion how Diana gains the necessary sense of self-awareness and agency to leave Sandringham substantially more fortified: ready to become the more rebellious figure she was in the final years of her life. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the story is factually correct; it uses its isolated moment canvas (one persona non grata trip to the royal retreat at Sandringham one Christmas holiday) to speculate on the notion of personal epiphany. Larraín’s almost Malickian documentation of Diana’s buoyancy in the film’s closing moments (somewhat similar to Pocahontas’ finding existential peace amid her de facto imprisonment in England in Malick’s The New World) is beautifully articulated with swooping GoPro cinematography, clever editing, and Greenwood’s moving score combining to honour Diana’s sense of release. (March 2022)

The Batman

March 26, 2022

The Batman (2022)
Director: Matt Reeves
Actors: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano

The Batman': everything we know about the superhero movie | What to Watch

Synopsis: The Batman (Robert Pattinson) is forced to deal with a serial killer, The Riddler (Paul Dano), who is terrorising Gotham City and targeting high-ranking officials.

Review: It must be so hard to do something genuinely new with the Batman saga (and arguably a sizeable portion of fans and casual punters aren’t that fussed about the necessity for it being original anyway), and although Matt Reeves does make attempts to inflect the tired subject matter with some virtuosity, the universe’s over-familiarity and essential stodginess overrides any novelty – to my mind, at least.

Reeves makes many sage choices though: we’re thrown straight into the narrative, there’s no origin story, and Batman is imagined as a fairly realistic character – there’s certainly none of the militaristic-tech fetish of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s also the most fully realised version of Gotham City I’ve seen on screen, and Reeves does make some novel cinematographic decisions (Batman has a voiceover – at least in the first half of the film, and POV is used intelligently to reflect the genuine danger and peril of Batman’s attempts to defy gravity).

Stylistically and in terms of narrative though, The Batman feels just so, so familiar. The neo-noir aesthetic owes more than a little debt to Blade Runner, and the labyrinthine machinations of a criminal mastermind nod explicitly and diminishingly to works such as Seven and even to Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

And reference to Nolan’s Dark Knight films further pinpoints an issue I have with The Batman. Although Nolan’s trilogy was unquestionably earnest and explicit with its thematics, they were operatic, dynamic and sure-footed dramatically. The Batman just doesn’t have the same swoon, if it is a little cooler and a touch more goth emo in aesthetic. (March 2022)

The Power of the Dog

March 26, 2022

The Power of the Dog (2021)
Director: Jane Campion
Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst

Can someone explain to Sam Elliott what The Power of the Dog is about – and what movies are? | Movies | The Guardian

Synopsis: Widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), marries into a cowboy family, but her effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is mocked by Rose’s new brother-in-law, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil’s stance on Peter eventually softens, and he even takes him under his wing when Peter is on a break from his medical studies.

Review: This revisionist western – very much an explicit allegory on masculinity and male sexual politics – reminded me a touch of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent Phantom Thread, with its tale of a preening bully getting his ultimate comeuppance. Much like with that film, though I found the politicking slightly tiresome and didactic, there is still much to admire in its craftsmanship and the little fringes of its story.

It is a suitably painterly work for arguably the most pictorial of American film genres, with Jane Campion conveying the vastness, loneliness and primitiveness of the West so evocatively. With the narrative set compellingly in 1925 – a time when the old western life was becoming ever more marginalised by modernity and the prevalence of the motor car challenging the domination of the horse – Campion gains great mileage out of this dialectic with numerous overhead shots of new highways imprinting themselves on the vast Montana landscape.

The power struggle at the centre of this narrative – Benedict Cumberbatch’s seemingly traditionalist cowboy, Phil, and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s effeminate and academic teen, Peter – mirrors the macro-thematics of the film. Peter is essentially a conceptual construct – an anachronistic gesture embodying contemporary liberal society reaching back in time to undermine the western romantic mythologisation of masculinity by ascribing it (at least in Phil’s case) as having roots in some form of repressed queerness. It’s a playful thesis if nothing else, but its rhetorical obviousness does drain the film of some subtlety in its second half (especially the Bronco Henry subplot), and undersells what had initially been an intriguingly set-up narrative canvas. (March 2022)

Death on the Nile

March 1, 2022

Death on the Nile (2022)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Actors: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer

Disney's Death On the Nile saga - from costly reshoots to disgraced Armie  Hammer

Synopsis: Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is forced to deal with a series of murders while on ‘holiday’ in Egypt.

Review: Blandly handsome, but unmemorable and lacking any sense of play or innovation, Kenneth Branagh’s second big screen stab at the character of Poirot, Death on the Nile, won’t linger long in the memory.

In its predominant guise as a whodunnit, it is only moderately entertaining and effective. It is inordinately centred around a love triangle – especially in an early contextual scene in a London bar (conveniently containing Poirot himself) – and the dominance of this strand and characters can’t help but overshadow some of the other, more minor, suspects.

The casting is more than a little weird. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders have been reunited for no discernible effect, and Russell Brand is very much neutered and against type (in not a very interesting way) as a stoical, lovelorn medic.

Perhaps the best part of the film is its opening detour that attempts to give Poirot’s character some context and pathos with a scene set in the First World War that accounts for his single status and the origin of his iconic moustache. That said, if I was to be churlish, I might question where all the facial scarring has gone that couldn’t be covered by the tash?! (March 2022)


February 19, 2022

Zulu (1964)
Director: Cy Endfield
Actors: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins

Calls to axe 'racist' Zulu film from Folkestone's Silver Screen Cinema  listings

Synopsis: The story of how a mere hundred British soldiers repelled an attack by thousands of Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift, Natal, in 1879.

Review: Although some aspects of this film have dated substantially in the near 60 years since its release (namely the realism and lustre that now accompanies the depiction of warfare in most modern Hollywood productions), Zulu stands the test of time by uncannily understanding itself as something of a chamber piece and by making atmosphere and suspense the centrepiece of its narrative rather than just the gratification of combat.

Time is one key aspect of the film’s structural success. There is a necessarily long opening sequence that characterises the force and vivacity of the Zulus in direct juxtaposition to the Brits we meet who are beset by illness, ennui and low morale. Once the contextualisation of the Zulus’ inherent strength, then the literal geography of Rorke’s Drift, have both been laid out, the narrative never leaves this small British outpost – emphasising the claustrophobia of the setting, and also making tangible the Brits’ fearful expectation of when the huge Zulu offensive will take place. It’s the film’s sense of its own theatricality that enables it to overcome some of the privations and amateurishness in its presentation of warfare. (February 2022)

Downton Abbey

February 19, 2022

Downton Abbey (2019)
Director: Michael Engler
Actors: Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith

Synopsis: In 1927, the Crawleys receive word that the Royal Family will visit Downton Abbey.

Review: Predicated on a high level of familiarity with the television series, Downton Abbey is a solid enough feature film spin-off, built around the comprehensible commercial conceit of a royal visit to Downton causing excitement and consternation in all the abbey’s associated personnel. In truth though, the royal conceit is a touch silly, culminating (spoiler alert) in the pantomime crowd-pleaser of a development that sees the downstairs Downton staff usurp their Crown counterparts on royal duties.

The series’ ultimate focus on class has always betrayed it as a fundamentally conservative saga at heart. Even here, where some nods to social change are made (more on that anon), the narrative always sides on the finding of something valorous and honourable about both the upstairs and downstairs ways of life.

As with the TV series, the two Toms here are the most interesting characters and get the best storylines. Probably the film’s most moving subplot therefore, is in giving the necessarily-closeted gay character, Thomas Barrow, a first requited moment of affection with another man, in a poignant scene that reminds the audience that homosexuality was still considered illegal at the time (in fact, it wasn’t to be legalised until 1967 – still a whole 40 years after the events of this narrative). (February 2022)

West Side Story

February 19, 2022

West Side Story (2021)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Actors: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose

West Side Story movie review: Steven Spielberg's remake proves the musical  shouldn't be retired.

Synopsis: In 1957 Manhattan, the Jets (a group of white working-class boys) feud with the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) over control of the local area.

Review: Steven Spielberg offers a respectable and respectful re-tread of one of the classic Hollywood musicals, but beyond that proficiency and one or two minor deviations from the 1961 original (mainly around the casting of authentic Latin actors for the Puerto Rican characters), it’s hard to see what attracted Spielberg to the project, and, thus, what he was trying to convey to his audience.

There’s nothing particularly imaginative or idiosyncratic about Spielberg’s vision (a frequent facet of his bland oeuvre of late), and his West Side Story just lacks that sprinkle of magic dust that elevates the better films of this genre. Rachel Zegler is excellent as Maria, and Ansel Elgort is a wonderful singer (if a little dull in his role), but, overall, the ’61 cast were far superior. A case in point is that although I appreciate the casting of David Alvarez as a muscular and convincingly Latin Bernardo (his parents are both Cuban), I miss George Chakiris’s menace and graceful leonine qualities in his 1961 incarnation of the same character. (February 2022)

Hannibal Rising

February 12, 2022

Hannibal Rising (2007)
Director: Peter Webber
Actors: Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Rhys Ifans

Hannibal Rising Production Notes | 2007 Movie Releases

Synopsis: Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) is the sole survivor in his family from a horrific incident at the end of the Second World War in Lithuania that killed his parents, and led his younger sister, ultimately, into the hands of feral collaborators led by Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans). When grown up and studying medicine in France, Lecter conceives of his unique vocation as a killer, and returns to Lithuania to wreak revenge on the men that violated his sister.

Review: Hannibal Rising? More like Hannibal Risible in this truly infantile film that conceives of Hannibal Lector as a superhero in his own origin flick. This tacky, hackneyed idea finds a tacky and hackneyed grammar to boot. Not only is there an unsubtle nod to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in the way that Lector weaponises himself with the help of an Asian mentor, but it also has the whiff of some of the worst Bond movies in the spurious action sequences and Rhys Ifans’ turn as the most cartoonish of Eastern European villains. It’s somewhat instructive of this film’s intrinsic cultural idiocy that it chooses a Welshman and a Scotsman to play the story’s two biggest baddies, and Gong Li is patronisingly cast as an exotic Japanese guru-cum-love interest (she was clearly stereotyped as ‘oriental’) when she is actually Chinese, and there’s a substantial difference between being Chinese and Japanese. The colossally literal use of flashbacks to over-explain what little subtleties the story might have had puts the seal on this most silly of films. (February 2022)

Nightmare Alley

February 12, 2022

Nightmare Alley (2021)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Actors: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Nightmare Alley Has One of the Great Film Noir Endings in Cinema | Den of  Geek

Synopsis: Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man with a murky backstory, becomes a carny on a travelling circus. He slowly ingratiates himself in the strange world of its inhabitants and learns to become a decent psychic-cum-conman. When he leaves the circus with his girlfriend, Molly (Rooney Mara), and starts making big money with his act in the outside world, he gets caught up in the dealings of a classic femme fatale, Lilith (Cate Blanchett).

Review: This passable noir homage has a lot going for it. It’s one of those throwback Hollywood productions stacked with star names giving pleasing performances in the forefront and fringes of its story, and it has this alluring, slow-burn quality to the narrative – especially in its first half.

As I watched it, it felt quite Burtonesque to me, particularly reminiscent of his Big Fish which is another tale about artifice, hucksterism and the American Dream. Rather than Tim Burton though, I almost would have preferred if the film had gone more in the direction of David Lynch, as its second half becomes more conventional in a narrative sense as it ties its central character up in a scam that leads him to an end destination that I, at least, found quite predictable based on key hints from the circus scenes. Even if its fantasy subject matter devolves too neatly into this genre framework, it’s still a pleasurable piece of craftsmanship from del Toro, and hats off to Cate Blanchett for her performance that was a real echo of classic film noir femme fatales such as Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. (February 2022)

The Souvenir

February 12, 2022

The Souvenir (2019)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Actors: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

The Souvenir - EIFF 2019 Review - HeyUGuys

Synopsis: Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a young film student in London, navigating an intoxicating but troubling relationship with the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke).

Review: My issue with Joanna Hogg’s signature previously has been that her slow, allusive style hasn’t really complemented the literary end-goal of her movies’ subject matter. Most of these films have been excruciatingly obvious exercises in subtext as their singular conceit plays out (trauma and depression in Unrelated, familial dysfunction in Archipelago, and the end of a relationship in Exhibition).

Here though, in Hogg’s fourth feature The Souvenir, that style is so much more rewarding because there isn’t a single reductive reading as such. It functions more as a memoir – so Hogg’s watchful and elliptical sensibility works beautifully in documenting how those memories are coloured by the senses as much as they are by clearly determined junctures in time and narrative. At times, the meandering quality and how Honor Swinton Byrne’s character’s travails in work and love dovetail and interweave are actually quite poignant. And Swinton Byrne herself is a major cause for the film’s convincing effect. She has such a gentle, sincere and experiential style, and doesn’t try to sell her character’s ‘journey’ too much. (February 2022)