Kenneth Branagh has established himself over the years as one of the most prolific Shakespearean actors – both on the screen and working behind the scenes. With Belfast, he opts to tell a story that should bring him closer to home, to how he saw his childhood in Ireland. While it’s easy enough to see that Branagh’s heart is in the right place when telling a movie about growing up during the Troubles, perhaps there’s something missing to supposedly meaningful revisiting of one’s own childhood. Branagh certainly is a well-meaning director, but the reminiscences of the past don’t really add up to all that much in return.
Over his decades long career, Steven Spielberg has made his very first musical. Nonetheless, Spielberg has also established that he had always wanted to try his hands at bringing a musical to the big screen with a second cinematic adaptation of West Side Story, following the 1961 film. It’d be easy enough to express skepticism to the need for a new West Side Story film, but Spielberg establishes that the material is a perfect match for him. Spielberg doesn’t work with creating a pastiche of the 1961 film as much as he does create a new screen life for one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals. In doing so, Spielberg has made what may be his best film in at least fifteen years.
Author’s note: I am not deaf nor hard of hearing. That said, I also cannot help but find it a bit disheartening that many deaf critics are not also put front and center as this film continually makes waves during its awards season run right now unless their views of the film are uniformly positive.
To talk about CODA is to also cover one of the most important reasons why this movie has made waves: it features a primarily deaf cast playing deaf characters. It’s easy to see how this aspect has acquired the film a very favourable tide, but as much as this film has also grown on to become an audience favourite ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I cannot find myself on board with that same wavelength. Which is disappointing to say, especially as this was a film that I had wanted to like on the count of how important it is to see the representation for deaf or hard of hearing people, yet maybe it’s the means of wanting to become an audience favourite that ultimately sets this film back.
Over the years, Paul Thomas Anderson has made a name for himself as one of the best American filmmakers working today, with films like There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread, and The Master all under his belt within recent memory. With Licorice Pizza, Anderson finds himself returning to familiar territory as he brings audiences a coming-of-age comedy set within an era of Los Angeles that he grew up within. Perhaps the labelling of a “nostalgic love letter” to the 1970’s would be the first way of describing the concept of a movie all about growing up in this era of Los Angeles, but the picture being painted here is a much darker and more brilliant one than what meets the eye.
One of the most talked-about films in the awards circuit this year is none other than Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. In the past, Ryusuke Hamaguchi has made a name for himself through beautifully understated, albeit lengthy character studies through films like Happy Hour and Asako I & II, but through this adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s story he creates what may be his best work yet. I find this to be his best because it’s a film that finds unity in something that we all love, with how it intertwines with how we live our own lives. But that’s only the least of what makes Drive My Car so special.
For her third feature film, The Piano, Jane Campion became the first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for very good reason. With The Power of the Dog being her first feature film in over a decade, it is more than just a triumphant return to the screen for her. Throughout her career, Campion has been known for making films that delve into the psychology that fuels desire, spanning many periods of time – but with The Power of the Dog comes one of her most beautiful and highly sensual efforts to date. It’s a statement that I think can only ever be put lightly, but in The Power of the Dog, you’re seeing the more externalized emotions coming forth in what would be one of her most beautiful films to date.
Spencer is a film that tells you it is a true story, albeit a fable – maybe the most fitting way in which it can be set up by way of Pablo Larraín. Much like Jackie, Larraín doesn’t opt for a conventional approach to a biopic, this time choosing to give an idea of what was going through her head. Knowing the image that Princess Diana left behind in the wake of her death, it’s a risky way to have her story told, especially with how the British consciousness can be very protective of the Royal Family. Through this, we finally get to see Diana as a human, and that’s only one aspect to Spencer that allows it to really click with me, more so than most other Larraín films to this date have done.
Telling a story that takes place over a Christmas holiday, Spencer starts with the most fitting manner, we’re seeing Princess Diana being lost and needing to find her way back. This new iteration of Princess Diana’s story features Kristen Stewart in the title role, shows Diana in a cold marriage together with Prince Charles, who is played by Jack Farthing. It would be easy enough to imagine that this fictionalized account of Princess Diana happens some time within the final years of her life, facing constant pressure as a result of her stature imprisoning her. Through this perspective, it allows the audience to connect with Princess Diana like she was one of us and the results are wonderful.
Much of Spencer is built around fantasy as we’re seeing Diana’s life happening right in front of us. Everywhere she goes, she cannot escape the image that being a part of the Royal Family has created for her. We’re seeing her unhappy with the way her life is being controlled, but we also get a chance to see Princess Diana not as another part of the Royal Family – which already made me come on board with how Larraín chooses to tell a story about her. Every moment of Spencer is shot beautifully, through the beautiful camerawork of DP Claire Mathon, but what’s most captivating about Spencer is just how Larraín gives us the inside look at her frame of mind, akin to a horror movie.
But I think what really sells you into the approach comes from Kristen Stewart’s performance; to say that this is a career best is only underselling her efforts here. She’s committed to this role as Princess Diana in a way that I could only ever imagine Stewart could – but there’s a particularly haunting quality to the way she embodies Princess Diana. It’s haunting in the sense that you feel the impending doom coming her way, from simply wanting to be freed, yet we don’t know what from. This isn’t a film about the tragedy we know and associate Princess Diana with, yet it’s knowing this that still gives us a sense of what she wants to avoid. It’s hard enough for me to imagine anyone other than Stewart bringing any of this into such a role, if anything, it just solidifies my belief that Stewart is one among the best actresses working today.
I can’t say that a lot of this always worked for me though – while I admire the way this story unfolds, there’s still something that had always kept me from truly loving this. Much like Jackie, a lot of what doesn’t work for me in Spencer comes down to its screenplay. Written by Steven Knight, whose previous credits include Dirty Pretty Things (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), Eastern Promises, and Locke, what doesn’t work for me in Spencer comes from the way Knight seems to keep things a tad too on the nose. It never really does the movie any favours, especially when it comes to seeing Princess Diana as a person. Much as I enjoyed seeing Stewart playing the role, I found that it became difficult to really become invested in this side of Princess Diana, but Knight doesn’t write her in a way that showcases what’s going through her mind – as all that doom is external. With Larraín choosing to frame this moment in Diana’s life as a psychological drama, Knight’s screenplay never seems to stretch to show her as dynamic.
Nonetheless, I think there’s a whole lot to love all around – because Spencer is an exquisitely crafted film. It doesn’t feel like a movie that’s bound to the romanticize the Royal Family, especially in its portrait of unending doom from being part of such, but that great tragedy before knowing Princess Diana’s fate is what keeps its best moments incredibly effective. This is maybe the most that I’ve found that I was able to connect with a Pablo Larraín film, for like the best biopics should (and many fail to do), it brings you closer to Princess Diana not as a history lesson, but as a person. Together with a career-best role from Kristen Stewart and Jonny Greenwood’s score, Spencer isn’t a film you’ll want to miss.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via NEON.
Directed by Pablo Larraín Screenplay by Steven Knight Produced by Juan de Dios Larraín, Jonas Dornbach, Paul Webster, Pablo Larraín, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris Release Date: November 5, 2021 Running Time: 111 minutes
Not many filmmakers are as eager to show their own love of film through their own work like Edgar Wright can be. In Last Night in Soho, he moves away from comedy completely to make a horror film, yet also an obvious love letter to a city he’s stated that he had fallen in love with over the years. With that in mind, you can only expect that Last Night in Soho would be bound to become maybe Edgar Wright’s most ambitious feature to date, though the result isn’t always successful. Despite this, there’s still a lot worth loving about what Edgar Wright brings to the table in this journey back through London in the 1960’s.
A fitting note for the film to start can be found in Thomasin Mckenzie’s Eloise Turner dancing to Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love.” Her character is an ambitious fashion student, moving to London to pursue her studies, but in her new home she finds herself able to see a vision of London from the 1960’s, where she embodies a new persona. This new persona is none other than Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandy, an aspiring singer, whom Eloise idolizes – and forms the basis of her designs. To Eloise, the 1960’s was an era she evidently obsesses over, as shown from the film’s soundtrack, but the more she sees from Sandy’s perspective the dream she once thought of only reveals a terrifying history.
From looking at a trailer for Last Night in Soho, it’d be easy enough to assume that Edgar Wright would be getting his influence from the giallo films of Dario Argento and the like, but instead what I saw was a portrait of London owing more to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (both of which are among Edgar Wright’s favourite films). While Wright certainly is a filmmaker who knows how to make the most out of his influences, the core of his own works is one that seems somewhat lacking. Nonetheless, together with the work of Chung-hoon Chung (a regular cinematographer of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook), what’s brought out from Last Night in Soho is among the most beautiful that an Edgar Wright film has looked.
There’s a lot that could be done with a premise of this sort, where an aspiring fashion designer travels back in time to see an era where she got her inspiration for what it really is. The horrifying reality of her own dreams is what in turn makes for an interesting turn for Edgar Wright in the long run, but with how Wright delivers on these scares, it leaves his message fumbling onward. As far as Wright’s films have gone, this might be the most he’s ever been able to embrace the gore but there’s only so much to go when talking about what Wright brings out in that regard. For as extreme as he can get with the infliction of violence and its cyclical and traumatic effect upon future generations, its message only finds itself muddled – both in its final moments and the framing of the film as a love letter to London in the 1960’s.
Edgar Wright has never been one to let down with the erratic nature of how his films are put together, although there came a point in Last Night in Soho where I feel like the film would have benefited from having that same energy felt in his Cornetto films. When watching Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead and the like, the core of those films feels so clear in how they are willing to engage with a familiar text yet felt subversive enough in a way that could only be attributed to Wright. But Last Night in Soho lacks that same punch. I say this in the sense that what the film turns into is nothing more than a generic ghost story about a cycle of violence that has targeted women, and exploited them, but to talk about how these moments are framed seems to leave behind an icky aftertaste – especially when talking how it all pays off in its twist ending. The images repeat, continuously torturing its lead character, but they leave little of substance.
I don’t wish to dwell so heavily on the negatives, though, because you’re bound to have fun with watching an Edgar Wright movie in some capacity. Wright brings out great work from both Thomasin Mckenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. But it’s worth noting that in their final performances, the late Margaret Nolan and Diana Rigg deliver with what little they have to show in here. But for as stacked as this cast was, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Matt Smith and Terence Stamp in their just as impactful roles. If anything, what you’re seeing out of them can be enough to leave you thrown off for the many surprises that come along the way. Wright brings the most out of his astoundingly stacked cast, and they all deliver.
It should not be any surprise that Last Night in Soho may turn out polarizing at the time of its wide release. For all the beautiful moments that Edgar Wright dedicates into creating this loving tribute to the city he loves, the message he delivers is one that feels quite messy. Yet maybe that was the goal, because it does its job at putting his viewers in an emotionally difficult spot, which is fitting when you consider Wright’s approach to its gender politics. Wright’s craft is as vibrant as it’s ever been since his collaborations with Simon Pegg, but perhaps his ideas don’t blend well with that aesthetic. I’m interested to see what comes in the near future for Edgar Wright with genre fare, even if my own reservations ultimately keep me from believing this is completely within the right step.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Edgar Wright Screenplay by Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns Produced by Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Edgar Wright Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Terence Stamp, Margaret Nolan, Diana Rigg Release Date: October 29, 2021 Running Time: 116 minutes
The start of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is one that already feels very indicative of an entire culture that’s been enabling men to be at their absolute worst, especially regarding their treatment of women – even after the prominence of the Me Too movement in recent years. But the moment you see Carey Mulligan finally arise to put the supposed “nice guy” back in his place, Fennell’s film starts to show its true colours – and that’s all among the most admirable aspects that shines thoroughly in this new take on the rape and revenge story. What follows from then on, what Promising Young Woman will provide will not leave your head either.
In the starring role is Carey Mulligan, playing Cassie Thomas. We’re introduced to Cassie at a bar, seemingly drunk, before being taken in by a man that introduces himself as a “nice guy,” perfectly setting the tone for this would-be revenge thriller. Cassie, having been traumatized by the rape and eventual death of her best friend Nina, seeks to exact vengeance upon those who have led her down this path. What soon follows is not any other revenge thriller but rather an interrogation of rape culture, taking on that same structure we’ve come to recognize over the years. What’s happened to Nina is thankfully never shown in the film, but in seeing how her tragedy is what pushes Cassie on
Emerald Fennell’s goal is an admirable one; and during its peaks, Promising Young Woman takes such a bold stance with regards to how people are far too willing to cast doubts on an accusation of rape – and ultimately where it leads. From the first moment onward, you’re seeing the perfect way in which a supposed “nice guy” can really have that cover blown off by what they’re ultimately tempted to take upon themselves (as shown again through a brilliant scene with Christopher Mintz-Plasse later on in the film), contrasting the fantasy that many rape-and-revenge thrillers of the past have created. We’ve seen in the film’s marketing, every man’s worst nightmare is getting accused of rape – but why must that overpower the fact that women in Cassie’s position have feared men who take that “nice guy” stance to their advantage?
At the center of this film is a career best performance from the always wonderful Carey Mulligan. In how she personifies Cassie, that vengeful spirit damaged by a person whom she loved so much having been taken away from her so cruelly after what she had undergone, Mulligan puts her all into that role. She manages to be both endearing and intimidating in the best possible ways, like the best-crafted heroes of these revenge films can be, going from Ms .45 or Lady Snowblood, leaving you with that idea she could easily be among those ranks. There’s never a moment where she’s onscreen where you’ll ever find yourself looking away out of fear, but curiosity for what she’ll do to the next man who dares cross her.
Surely enough, this movie will prove itself divisive – with the look of a rape-and-revenge thriller it can’t quite escape that feeling it’ll be exploitative and not enough at the same time. Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing feeling coming out from Fennell not showing Nina’s rape, because it’s something we’d seen too many times but the effect upon which it has left upon Cassie can still be felt. In seeing how it all adds up, Cassie has now turned towards the destructive, towards the people around her – but even to her own self. But there comes a question we ask ourselves about the devastating reality which the film’s ending proposes to its audience. Personally, I cannot say I am sure that it entirely works – but it becomes near impossible to delve into what the film proposes at said moment without spoiling it for those who have not seen it, so I cannot say much at the very moment.
Although I acknowledge my reservations about the direction in which the film had gone ultimately keep me from loving it, I can’t help but feel as if there will be many important talks about the way in which we approach rape culture coming forth as a result of how Promising Young Woman puts many of these positions to the test. In its moments of dark comedy it still flashes you with a more devastating picture, one that combats the culture which has only been perpetuated over the years by constantly buying into the “nice guy” mirage. At its very best, you still have a film that perfectly replicates the look you’d want a film of this sort to take on, but I can’t shake off that feeling that where it becomes too much, it turns itself into too little at the same time. When Emerald Fennell comes out with a new film, I do look forward to seeing how it will turn out.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Emerald Fennell Screenplay by Emerald Fennell Produced by Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton Release Date: December 25, 2020 Running Time: 113 minutes
The latest directorial effort from Aaron Sorkin finds itself within those same lines as Sorkin’s television work compared to his prior film Molly’s Game. It’s easy enough to admire Sorkin for his rapid-fire dialogue because it’s often very entertaining to listen to, but ever since Sorkin started directing his own films it seemed too clear that perhaps his style of writing going out completely unfiltered only hinders him even more. But even as he lets his pen direct his actors, it seems like his own politics take over the real story he wishes to tell – which shows itself all too conveniently in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
In telling the story of the protests that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Aaron Sorkin brings the viewers into a sense of that chaos that could only be felt within the days of unrest at a revolutionary point in American history. Everywhere they go, the chant “the whole world is watching!” follows the viewers, resonating all through the years later and leading into the present, as perfect a time as ever for Sorkin to have released a film of this sort. Sorkin isn’t one to waste time bringing you into the chaos that came forth within the days of unrest that have followed the protests, but there also comes a point where seeing all of this strictly through Sorkin’s eyes feels numbing.
At his best, Sorkin has been able to find a perfect place for his fast-moving dialogue so that it becomes a part of the reason you stick with the characters you see onscreen, but at worst, he doesn’t really seem to let these people onscreen speak the way we feel they would because they’re being run through how Sorkin talk sounds. Which wouldn’t be so much of a bad thing, especially when it feels too characteristic of their mannerisms in a case like The Social Network, but with The Trial of the Chicago 7 it seems to take over how these events unfolded – let alone how these people who were part of that trial had talked, creating a neutered picture of the very ideas that led into what took place then.
With a cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eddie Redmayne among many, Sorkin brings out great work from most players across the board. Mark Rylance and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II are always a thrill to watch in their respective roles, but the more you listen to Sorkin’s walk-and-talk writing style taking over there comes a point where it feels like the performers are reading lines in a manner that also makes them come off as calculated on every frame. This is evident in the performances of Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, and Frank Langella – and while it’s never boring to listen to people speak the way Sorkin writes them, he doesn’t ever let them tell this story in a way that it feels like you were ever part of that chaos.
Though I am not against the dramatization of history in order to create a picture that would be tangible for the viewers, the ways in which Aaron Sorkin seems to embrace that neutered political perspective on these events seem to lead into the film’s biggest downfall. What Sorkin shows as a triumphant moment within the climax only presents itself as a naive view of how things can get better within reality, then it all comes undone by the blocks of text afterwards. With Daniel Pemberton’s music searing at this moment, it seems like a purely Sorkin scene – in the worst ways too. It just feels disingenuous, even for the sake of creating dramatic effect, because by that point it leaves one questioning how much does Sorkin truly care about the impact that this case had on American history in the years to come since.
Part of me wonders if I’ll ever see that same sense of excitement from a new Aaron Sorkin project coming by, but I’m finding that as he starts to go unfiltered behind the camera as the director, his worst tendencies as a writer start to show themselves more and it feels less like listening to his characters as people. It makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 play out like a history lesson that was filtered in such a way that a white liberal audience would tell it, supposedly afraid to take on a stance that might be too “radical” for them now. At worst, you have another Sorkin project that’ll be the talk of awards season, but with him supposedly playing by ways of a Spielberg drama, you know exactly what he’s going for.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Aaron Sorkin Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin Produced by Stuart M. Besser, Matt Jackson, Marc Platt, Tyler Thompson Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong Release Date: September 25, 2020 Running Time: 130 minutes