Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Minari (2021)

Image is property of A24 and Plan B

Minari – Film Review

Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Synopsis: In the 1980s, a South Korean family who have emigrated to the United States arrive in Arskansas, with the goal of achieving the American dream…

Review: For decades now, the idea of moving to the United States of America, to realise a dream where anyone can accomplish economic success in a society has been sown into the ideals of the country. As the plaque on the statue of Liberty reads “Give me your tired, your poor, yearning to breathe free”. The desire to move to a society where anyone can achieve some sort of economic success is one that many people may have had when emigrating to the USA. Regardless of their circumstances, the notion that people can make it in the “Land of the Free” has been the basis of the American Dream for many decades now. This desire to achieve happiness and prosperity, for yourself and your family, is the basis for this semi-biographical film, recounting the young life of director Lee Isaac Chung.

After moving to the United States a decade ago, Jacob (Yeun) and his wife Monica (Ye-ri) spent many a years working in a chicken factory in California, separating male and female chicks. However, despite him being very good at this job, Jacob finds the work tedious and strives for something more rewarding. Hence, the Yi family have now uprooted from California to live in rural Arkansas. With this move, and with the purchase of his own patch of land, Jacob aims to operate a successful farm business, growing Korean vegetables to supply to nearby businesses. This is where Jacob strives to achieve his own version of the American dream, but his ambition doesn’t fill his wife Monica with the same passion that motivates Jacob every single day.

There’s something that feels very sincere and genuine about Chung’s script, and the performances from the entire cast match are all equally heartfelt and genuine, to the extent that you can it sometimes feels like the events being depicted on screen are real life. Leading the way is Steven Yeun’s heartfelt performance as this family’s patriarch. As the head of this, family Jacob has to walk that line between being the loving father, but has to balance that with the need to to be stern and authoritative where necessary, especially when it comes to his youngest child David. Their father-son dynamic is the heartbeat that drives the film forward, and Alan Kim’s performance is equally special. He is both simultaneously hilarious and mischievous, especially when it comes to his interactions with his grandmother (portrayed superbly by Youn Yuh-jung).

But through all that hilarity, what really makes the audience sympathise towards David is a condition involving his heart that could become a problem in later life. Because of this plight, it makes you really sympathetic towards him, especially as it’s one that proves to be one of the many sticking points between Jacob and Monica. There are plenty of tender moments that he shares not just with his grandma, but his parents, and his sister, as well.  Indeed, the performances of the entire cast match that sincerity but all put in sincere performances that make you care about the plight of the family. Some may find issue with the film’s pacing but while it may have one or two momentary lapses, Chung clearly is taking his time to tell the story of this family, and allow the events to play out as naturally as possible.

The themes of family, and identity have been explored on screen plenty of times throughout the years. Yet, despite this genre being a well worn one, Chung captures these themes in a rich and nuanced manner, that gives Minari its own identity. Furthermore, the score from Emile Mosseri captures the heart-warming and sincere vibe of the film perfectly. It may seem like a simple story, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface that gives the film significant emotional depth. The idea of someone moving to America to achieve their own version of the American Dream might feel somewhat tainted given the treatment that immigrants have received in recent times. Yet despite that, Chung’s film is a hopeful warm embrace that will hopefully bring some much needed warmth and happiness to all who watch it during these unprecedented and troubled times we’re all currently living in.

Filled with sincere and heartfelt performances, Minari tells a universal story that is filled with captured with genuine warmth and sincerity that should resonate with everyone the world over.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Image is property of Warner Bros, Participant and Bron Creative

Judas and the Black Messiah  – Film Review

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith Martin Sheen

Director: Shaka King

Synopsis: After being caught committing a crime, a man is given a chance by law enforcement to become an FBI informant as they seek to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and keep tabs on its chairman, Fred Hampton…

Review: If someone were to ask you about the influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, names like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks may jump to mind.  These are the names of extremely influential individuals who are the subject of curriculums worldwide, and have been the subject of numerous films, so that just about everyone on Planet Earth is likely to know who they are. Yet, there are certain influential figures that may not garner quite the level of attention, but when you learn more about them, it’s a wonder why they are not as well known as some of the the other influential leaders of this movement. This is most definitely applicable in the case of Frederick Allen Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party, and the deputy chairman of the national BPP.

Having been caught committing a crime by the police, Bill O’Neal (Stanfield) finds himself in a very perilous position. If he’s charged, he faces almost certain prison time. However, there’s another option for him, as he’s given a chance to escape a jail sentence by becoming an FBI informant. The FBI are seeking to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the BPP, to keep tabs on the activities of Fred Hampton and do whatever they can to suppress the party and Hampton’s agenda to help the lives of numerous people oppressed by the society they’re living in. Yet in the eyes of the government, and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, they consider Hampton to be a radical figure, and a substantial threat. Having had the most fleeting of appearances in last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, this is 100% Hampton’s story, and, from the very first minute, it’s an informative, exhilarating and extremely maddening chapter of US history that demands to be told.

Daniel Kaluuya is an actor who has been consistently pulling amazing performances over the last few years. From a run that started with his Oscar nominated turn in Get Out, to last year’s Queen & Slim, he has consistently proved why he is one of the best actors currently in the business. With this transformative turn as Hampton, it’s another absolutely magnetic performance to add to that list. Every time he speaks, his words captivate the crowds he’s talking to, which extends to the audience. You see a man who’s passionate about helping people who are oppressed by a government and a society that is built upon systemic racism. While Kaluuya’s performance is absolutely worthy of all the superlatives in the world, the equally impressive work of Lakeith Stanfield must not be overlooked, as it is, and an integral part of what makes the film work. We watch through his eyes as he initially is forced into this role of infiltration, and it’s a role that makes you want to hate him. Yet, as he spends more time by Hampton’s side, it’s plain to see that he’s starting to believe in the causes that Hampton and the Black Panthers are championing.

Alongside the outstanding performances of Stanfield and Kaluuya, are an equally impressive collection of supporting characters that includes, Dominique Fishback’s beautiful performance as Deborah, the most important person in Fred’s personal life. Additionally, there’s a great performance from Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the slimy and manipulative FBI agent who’s keeping tabs on O’Neal as he goes about his task of infiltration. With every word spoken in the film, it is clear what screenwriters, Shaka King, the Lucas brothers, and Will Berson are hoping to accomplish with this film. A clip plays near the beginning of the film of news reels from the time says “Those are not riots, they are rebellions, people are rebelling because of the conditions, and not because of individuals, no individual creates a rebellion.” When you watch the film’s events play out, it is fairly easy to connect the dots between the 1960s and the 21st century.

Given the horrifying events that the world saw in 2020, Shaka King’s film provides an urgent message that demands everyone’s attention. It is a damning indictment that in the decades since Hampton fought against this unjust society, that not nearly enough progress has been made. Furthermore, the events of not just last year, but of many years gone by, have shown that it is infuriatingly plain for all to see that the systemic oppression against people of colour in our society has not been dismantled. The rebellion that people like Hampton fought for, is one that must continue. “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” It is a testament to Hampton that in the years since he uttered those famous words: that they ring truer now more than ever. The fires of revolution are burning stronger than perhaps ever before, and long may that continue.

With a powerful and informative screenplay, combined with its two towering central performances, Shaka King’s film ensures that not only the world will know Fred Hampton’s name, they will never forget it.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Image is property of Disney Animation Studios

Raya and the Last Dragon – Film Review

Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada

Synopsis: In the ancient land that was once known as Kumandra, a warrior princess goes in search of what is believed to be the last dragon….

Review: Throughout the many decades of animated films to emerge from Walt Disney Animation Studios, stories of fairy tales and Princesses have been plentiful. It is after all, one of the many things that they do best. The early Disney Princess stories might have leaned into the more traditional aspects of fairytales and princesses. Yet, from the Renaissance years onwards, the studio’s Disney Princess outings have all had an element of striving to something that does not stick to the norm, and breaks substantial new ground in terms of story-telling and representation. With what is their 59th film, they’ve taken a massive step forward in terms of representation by creating for the very first time, a South-East Asian heroine.

Many centuries ago, in the land of Kumandra, humanity and dragons co-existed in harmony. However, when the land comes under attack from a vicious evil spirt known as the Druun, an all powerful artefact that repels the Druun is created to repel them forever. Flash forward to the present, and with the dragons now believed to be long gone, the people are now divided into five warring tribes, all seeking possession of this artefact. When the conflict boils over, and this deadly evil spirit returns, the burden falls on Raya’s shoulders to seek out the Last Dragon, before this evil spirit consumes the entire world as they know it.

It’s practicality a formality that whenever one comes to watch an animated film from the House of Mouse, that the animation is going to be the best that it could possibly be. It is to the immense credit of the animators, that not only is the animation absolute breath-taking to look at, but it seems to be somehow getting even better with each passing film. For each territory of this civilisation, there’s a considerable change in the terrain, and this shift provides numerous opportunities for the animators to explore the richness and the diversity of the terrain. Through their wonderful work, they do not disappoint as each territory enables the animators to demonstrate their animation wizardry, which helps to bring so much vividness and beauty to this world.

After having endured an absolutely ridiculous and completely undeserved amount of flak for her work in the Star Wars franchise, seeing Kelly Marie Tran given a leading role as a Disney Princess is just wonderful, and she absolutely crushes it with her performance as Raya. Through her excellent voice work, she imbues this character with a sense of courage, honour, and duty to her family and her people. While this may all be familiar beats for a Disney film, what Raya also has in her favour is that she is a fearless warrior who boasts excellent skills with a sword, which should ensure Raya adds her name to the ever growing list of fierce, strong and badass heroines that Disney films have produced.

Alongside her, Awkwafina, an actress who has been excelling in recent years, almost steals the show as the voice of the dragon Sisu. Being the last of her kind, there’s an understandable element of seriousness given how integral this character is to the film’s story. However, the film’s script by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, allows Awkwafina to use her comedic talents to wonderful effect, and through the voice talents of both actresses, the characters form a deep bond that helps to drive the film forward. Furthermore, the cast is further enhanced with excellent contributions from the talents of Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, and Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk, one of the most adorable animal side characters this studio has ever created.

The film can sometimes get a bit bogged down by the sheer amount of lore and backstory that it tries to fill in its runtime. While there’s some familiarity with some of the story’s beats, the film packs plenty of heart and emotional weight. In many ways, Raya and The Last Dragon is a film that feels tailor made for these divisive and troubled times that the world has been living through for the last year or so. As a society that feels broken, bereft of trust and compassion for those around us, as we collectively struggle to deal with a crisis that has shaken society to its very core, leaving a heart-breaking amount of pain, and loss in its wake. In the year 2021, the world could learn a thing or two from a hero like Raya.

Bursting with gorgeous, colourful animation, and a ground-breaking Warrior Princess heroine, Raya and The Last Dragon is another House of Mouse gem that feels tailor-made for the times we’re living in.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Image is property of Netflix

Malcolm & Marie  – Film Review

Cast: Zendaya and John David Washington

Director: Sam Levinson

Synopsis: Following the premiere of his film, a filmmaker and his girlfriend talk about their relationship, their careers, and the life they share together…

Review: The power of film and its ability to creating lasting impressions on us all is something that has perhaps come into sharp focus by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For as long as our cinemas have remained closed, there’s been a desire for all of us who love this art form to be reminded of just why we adore this art form. Irrespective of whether someone works in the industry, or if they are a critic, or just someone who has a passion for watching films, there’s no getting away from one simple fact. Namely, everyone will have their own unique experience about said film, which can in turn influence their opinion on any particular film. The power of film and its ability to leave a lasting impression on not just the viewer but on the creators themselves, which can in turn influence their own relationships, is a powerful and resonating sentiment that beats at the heart of this latest film from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson.

Malcolm (Washington) is a filmmaker who’s just had his film premiere, to much critical acclaim. After a successful evening in the spotlight in the company of his actors, film critics and other people in the industry, accompanied by his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), the couple come home to celebrate. However, throughout the course of the evening, something has been gnawing away at Marie and having kept it to her herself throughout the course of the evening, she cannot stay silent about it any more. Over the course of what is meant to be a celebratory night, a discussion about the evening’s events descend into a heated argument between the two of them, and the sparks begin to fly as they squabble about numerous topics from films, filmmaking, to film criticism, all framed from the perspective of where they are in their lives at this moment in time, and the state of their relationship.

With production of the film having taken place in the summer of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the film’s production was all understandably, fairly minimal. However, this does not prevent writer/director Levinson from crafting a very compelling piece of filmmaking, which is in many ways an autobiographical look at Levinson’s own journey through Hollywood. With it all taking place in one luxurious house seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the stripped back setting and production values could have been a hindrance, since the film is relying on the strength of the screenplay/dialogue, and the performances of the two cast members, and Levinson’s direction. The screenplay has a lot to say about the industry, and while it does have some interesting observations to make, there’s an heir of self-indulgency when it comes to certain aspects. thanks to the performances of his actors, and the gorgeous black and white cinematography from Marcell Rév is gorgeous to look at.

As they are the only actors in the film, everything is on the shoulders of both Zendaya and John David Washington to make the film work. Given the immense talents of both actors, it is no surprise that both give absolutely electric performances. The chemistry that they share leaps off the screen, and the range of emotions that shines through in both their performances is extraordinary. It’s clear that these two people do love each other, yet despite that love, there’s something boiling away inside both of them that is seemingly holding them back. Yet despite that, each time these two actors engage in a verbal bout of topics like the film industry, critics and reviewers, and how society engages with these industries, you just cannot take your eyes off the screen as these two trade verbal blows, putting each other through an intense emotional wringer.

The film is almost guaranteed to ruffle some feathers from those who work in the industry, and especially for those in the film critic circles. Similarly, the self-indulgent nature of his script, and the obvious nods to Levinson’s own career, may well put some people off. While both these actors are some of the finest of their generation, as well as usually being likeable presences on screen, the same cannot be said for their characters here. There is an heir of sympathy for Marie, and some of the plight that her character has endured, but even with that in mind, it is difficult to imagine wanting to have people like this in your personal/professional life. Yet that doesn’t prevent either actor from giving a tour-de-force performance in a film that is going to generate lots of discussion in the industry in the coming months.

A fascinating character study analysing plenty of deeply personal subjects, while not everything hits its mark, the exceptional performances of John David Washington and Zendaya make Malcolm & Marie an absorbing, if a little too indulgent, piece of film-making.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Image is property of Warner Bros and DC Comics

Wonder Woman 1984  – Film Review

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen

Director: Patty Jenkins

Synopsis:  Having spent several decades quietly living among humanity in Washington DC, Diana Prince must spring into action as Wonder Woman when a nefarious businessman threatens to reap chaos across the world….

Review: Ever since superhero films have enjoyed a surge in popularity from the late 2000s onwards, the number of films that had women at the front and centre of them were few and far between. It wasn’t until 2017, that a major Hollywood studio produced a female led superhero film. That film was of course, Wonder Woman, which brought the DCEU back from a likely early demise, whilst blazing a trail for other studios to follow in DC’s wake. With the same creative minds returning to helm this sequel to its trailblazing predecessor, it’s extremely disheartening to say that that having worked wonders with the first film, these creative minds have returned to offer a sequel that is a colossal disappointment.

Swapping the trenches of World War I, for the bright lights of 1984 USA, Diana Prince has now settled down in Washington DC quietly living amongst humanity. Whilst occasionally suiting up as Wonder Woman, to protect humanity in any way she can, her life is quite a lonely one without her fellow Amazonians for company. However, whilst helping to collect rare artefacts as part of her job working for the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, she befriends Barbara Minerva (Wiig) a shy and awkward geologist. The pair of them encounter a rare artefact that intrigues them both, but also captures the attention of Maxwell Lord (Pascal), a business tycoon who wants this artefact for his own selfish purposes, that threatens to unleash catastrophic consequences for humanity.

One of the few saving graces for this sequel, is that of Gal Gadot’s performance as the titular heroine. Once again, she proves what an inspired casting choice she was to play this role, as she has no shortage charisma and charm to make the audience want to root for her. The dynamic between her and Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor proved to be one of the strongest aspects of the first film, as well as being ripe material for comedy. While it is good to have Pine back in this role, and the role reversal in their relationship is intriguing, the explanation for his return is merely given the most fleeting of mentions, which makes his whole return feel really undeserved and sloppily written.

This feeds into what amounts to be the film’s biggest problem, namely that the film’s script, written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and David Callaham is extremely clichéd and shockingly lacklustre. While the first film, touched on fascinating themes of humanity, and the ugliness and devastation of war, the themes explored here are nowhere near as interesting. The plot goes in such a nonsensical and frankly ridiculous convoluted direction, that it feels like it would be far more appropriate for some kind of low-budget horror film, not befitting for one of the most iconic superheroes in comic book history.  Furthermore, despite the best efforts of talented actors like Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal, the motivations for the film’s antagonists are extremely weak and are not given time to be properly explored and developed. Additionally, while Wiig tries her hardest to make Barbara/Cheetah a compelling villain, Pascal’s performance is so extremely hammy, that it dials the cheesiness to such an absurd degree that he’s more comical than threatening. While he was far from the perfect villain, the shortcomings of the antagonists here make Ares seem like the most cunning and ruthless villain ever seen in a comic book film to date.

While the action is once again competently directed by Jenkins, there’s nothing here that comes anywhere close to recapturing the thrills and the sheer awesomeness that is the No Man’s Land sequence in the first film. While that film’s climax came in for criticism for a overly CGI third act, there was heart to it that made it compelling to watch. That heart is nowhere to be found for WW84‘s anti-climatic third act, which is compounded by some inexcusably poor CGI for Cheetah. While Hans Zimmer doesn’t disappoint with his score, it’s a great shame that the film surrounding it falls woefully short of recapturing the wonder of the film’s predecessor.

Even with a stellar leading performance from Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman 1984 is an incredibly disappointing sequel falling far below the standards set by the first film, due to a messy script, and extremely nonsensical plot.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Pieces of a Woman (2020)

Image is property of Netflix

Pieces of a Woman – Film Review

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBoeuf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails

Director: Kornél Mundruczó

Synopsis: After a young couple experience unimaginable tragedy following a home birth, the devastation and grief of their loss begins to fracture their own relationship, as well as the relationship between their friends and family, in the days and months afterwards…

Review: There are no two ways about it, pregnancy is an incredible, yet simultaneously lengthy and arduous process, especially for the pregnant woman who is heroically bearing the heaviest of burdens. If everything has proceeded as expected after nine months, there will be brand new life at the end of it. Yet, sometimes tragedy can strike, and devastating heartbreak for the couple and their families ensues. For all the trauma that would follow in these particular circumstances, it seems incomprehensible that there’s a stigma/taboo that comes with such unimaginable heartache and tragedy, yet as two high profile examples from last year demonstrate, that stigma is very much apparent.

Therefore, it is to the great credit of writer Kata Wéber, and her partner Kornél Mundruczó, that they’ve made a film that shines a light on this difficult subject that is rarely touched upon in film. Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBoeuf) are an expectant couple, eagerly excited about becoming parents for the very first time. Within the first few establishing shots of the film, it’s established that Martha is heavily pregnant, expecting to give birth at any given moment. When the time comes for Martha to go into labour, the couple are dismayed when their midwife is unavailable, but are comforted when an assured and professional replacement midwife arrives. All appears to be going well for the couple, until the joy that they’re experiencing soon turns to devastation and unbearable sorrow.

Playing the woman at the centre of this devastating drama, Vanessa Kirby’s performance is nothing short of absolutely phenomenal. She embodies the incomprehensible feeling of anguish that continues to linger even many months after what was meant to be one of the best days of her life, but ultimately ended in devastating heartbreak. Initially, as she tries to return to her day-to-day life, Martha finds herself completely shut off and detached from her family and co-workers, and the relationship between her and her partner Sean (LaBeouf) is no exception. Yet as the months go by, the feelings of loss and anguish are just as raw, but the difference is that Martha is no longer cold and grief-stricken. Instead, she channels that heartache into fury against certain family members that try to goad her into things she has absolutely zero interest in wanting to be a part of.

LaBoeuf’s Sean, self-described as “boorish”, is definitely not the most likeable of presences. Like Martha, he finds himself stricken by the agony that his character finds himself in. Despite some questionable life choices in the aftermath of the tragedy, it is hard to not feel sympathetic towards his character in this situation. Through everything that’s going on, the presence of Martha’s domineering mother Elizabeth (Burstyn) looms over them both. The dynamic between mother and daughter in this situation is a crucial aspect of the film in the months following the tragedy, and alongside Kirby’s stunning work, Burstyn’s performance is equally phenomenal.

The film’s crowning directorial achievement however, is unquestionably, the birth sequence. Taking place in one, uninterrupted 24 minute take, the scene is undeniably tense, and extremely harrowing to watch, especially for anyone who will have found themselves in this situation. The camerawork, Mundruczó’s direction are both exceptional. Through the extraordinary performances of the three actors involved, the sequence captures the range of emotions that these characters experience throughout. As this is undoubtedly the most tense scene in the film, the film struggles to maintain the momentum that is built during the opening sequence, and as such, the rest of the film’s pacing does suffer at a handful of moments.

Yet, it is a credit to all concerned that a film exists that has taken on these topics with unflinching honesty. No matter how many months or years pass, the pain for those that have been through this situation will never subside. The couples that experience this go through unspeakable trauma, and they do not for one moment deserve stigma and or abuse. Hopefully, through films like this, we can as a society initiate a conversation with the goal of hopefully one day ensuring that that the frankly ridiculous stigma that surrounds miscarriage and child loss is eradicated once and for all.

 Presenting its heavy subject matter with raw honesty, Pieces of a Woman is a powerful and unflinching analysis of unbearable grief and loss, anchored by an exceptional leading performance from Vanessa Kirby.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Soul (2020)

Image is property of Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios

Soul – Film Review

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton

Directors: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Synopsis: When his soul is separated from his body after an accident, a passionate about jazz musician finds himself in a mysterious realm called the Great Before, a place where new souls get their personality traits before heading to Earth.

Review: As each and everyone one of us goes through life, we will have undoubtedly asked those many existential questions. Questions that we can spend a considerable portion of our lives striving to find the answers to. For instance, what is the meaning of life? Or what is the the thing that we feel like we were put on this Earth to do? The films from animation giants Pixar, especially those from Pete Docter, have attempted to pose some answers to those existential questions. These questions have been posed to a whole range of beings, from monsters, to humans, and even to emotions themselves. Yet with his fourth film with the animation powerhouse, this could well be the most profound look at life, and existence that studio has produced to date.

Joe Gardner (Foxx) is a passionate jazz musician, who earns his living as a middle school band teacher. However, he dreams of being a full time jazz musician, but the opportunities to make that possible are becoming increasingly rare. However, when the chance to play for a prestigious jazz band fronted by Dorothea Williams (Bassett) opens up, Joe is given a shot and is determined to land the permanent gig. But before he has the chance to perform, and to do what he loves the most, an accident separates Joe’s soul from his body. His soul lands onto the path to the Great Beyond, a destination for souls to go once they have lived their lives on Earth. Believing he still has more to give, Joe escapes and instead finds himself in The Great Before, a place where new souls go before heading to Earth.

It’s here in The Great Before that he gets paired up with Soul #22 (Fey), a fledgling soul who is completely disinterested about leaving the Great Before to have a life on Earth. Joe must do all he can to help #22 realise that a life on Earth is worth living, whilst trying to return to his own body before it is too late. The screenplay, by co-directors Docter, Powers and Mike Jones is perhaps the most contemplative screenplay that the studio has brought to fruition. While they’ve never been afraid to attempt to answer those burning questions that many of us have about our existence, they take it a step further with some deep probing about the lives we lead, what our passions are, and is this thing that we call life really worth pursuing in the first place?

Marking the first time that a Black character has been the lead in a Pixar film, Foxx’s voice work is excellent. He gives Joe Gardner a distinct personality and a desire to achieve his dream that anyone watching, no matter what their hopes and aspirations are, can easily connect with. Alongside him, Tina Fey lends her brilliant comedic talents to tremendous effect as the soul that couldn’t be less interested in what it means to have a life on this world. They are complete polar opposites, which gives the dynamic that they share ample opportunities for some excellent comedic moments. However, for all the strength of the voice work, and the significant step forward for representation on screen, the majority of the supporting characters don’t have a great deal of screen time. Furthermore, there’s one aspect of the film that could be seen as problematic and a hindrance to the film’s attempts to make positive, forward strides in terms of representation.

With Pixar, it is practically a sure bet that the animation is going to be outstanding. While this is once again the case, the work done for this film is something truly exceptional, and some of the best work that the studio has produced. Not only is the vibrancy of New York City and the atmosphere (at least pre-pandemic) brought to life in such rich and incredible detail. Furthermore, the imagination and the vivid colours of the places like The Great Before are also absolutely stunning, and they are perfectly complemented by ethereal score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. While taking on such fundamental aspects of life, there’s only so much that can be tackled over the course of one feature length film. Yet, as they have proved through their previous films, Pixar have delivered another bold and profound piece of storytelling.

It might lack the emotional punch of some of the studio’s previous work, but with gorgeous animation and a bold and contemplative look at the lives we lead, Soul is another splendid addition to Pixar’s filmography.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2020

One Night in Miami (2020)

Image is property of Amazon Studios

One Night in Miami – Film Review

Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr,

Director: Regina King

Synopsis: Over the course of one night in Miami, four icons of the movement meet in Miami to discuss the movement and their influences over the movement…

Review: It was the movement that defined a generation. From its beginnings in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement rallied against the segregation and the oppression of a society that was (and still is) built upon racism and prejudice in the United States. It was an integral, galvanising force that inspired people all across America to take a stand and protest against the oppressive nature of a society that was built against them. Like every influential movement, there were numerous charismatic and powerful leaders who were looking to make the world a better place, whether it be through their arts, sports, or campaigning against social injustice. While many of these leaders will have undoubtedly met at numerous points throughout history, what might have happened had four members of this movement got together over the course of one evening has been brought to life in an emotional manner, through the directorial debut of Academy Award winner Regina King.

The year is 1964, and Miami, Florida is the backdrop for this extraordinary meeting. A number of influential figures of the movement have gathered in the city: Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Odom Jr) and Jim Brown (Hodge) have all gathered to witness Cassius Clay (Goree) participate in a boxing match. As the match ends with Clay victorious, the four men gather in a hotel room to celebrate. Over the course of the evening, they discuss their lives, careers, and the roles and impact that each of them are having in the Civil Rights movement, with particular focus being on an imminent announcement that Malcolm X and Clay are poised to make.

For a film that predominantly is set in one small confined space, there’s a limited amount of room for these actors to express themselves. However, thanks to the immensely powerful screenplay from Kemp Powers, and the incredible performances that these actors give, that the confined space of the hotel room setting, for the most part, doesn’t hinder the film. Furthermore, it is no secret that in 2020, vital conversations and protests have taken place concerning race and equality. Powers’s screenplay draws striking and essential parallels between the two time periods. For each one of these actors, playing someone so connected and deeply rooted in the history of the United States, is far from an easy ask for any actor. It is a substantial challenge that every actor takes on, and it is to their immense credit, that each of them meets this challenge in truly spectacular fashion.

Taking on the role of Malcolm X, a role that was performed so memorably by Denzel Washington, was perhaps the hardest ask for any member of this cast. Yet Kingsley Ben-Adir, makes the role his own, playing Malcolm X with sincere belief and conviction. Cassius Clay was a man and an athlete that certainly had no shortage charisma and confidence, and Eli Goree imbues his portrayal of this legend with these qualities in abundance. Yet at the same time, there are moments where there’s a hint of doubt creeping in. Leslie Odom Jr’s talents as a singer and a performer have certainly been demonstrated by his work on Hamilton, and he replicates that with his excellent portrayal of Sam Cooke, bringing a suave charm to the role of iconic musician. While his role may not be as showy or vocal as those of his counterparts, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, brings a coolness and level-headedness to the conversation.

Having shown numerous times what a force to be reckoned with she is in front of the camera, Regina King’s makes that transition from actor to director seamlessly. The small confines of the hotel room in which the most crucial part of the film takes place could have been a hindrance to King as she tells this story. However, as the conversation between the men flows, and passions rise, she finds clever ways to use the camera to illustrate the power struggle that is going in the room between these charismatic individuals. They may be extremely powerful individuals in their own respective fields, but each one of them are facing struggles, struggles that are shaping not just their lives, but the lives of all the people in the Civil Rights Movement.

As they talk about the movement, and how each of them is doing what they can to bring about significant change. It’s a striking and powerful conversation that goes beyond the movement at the time, as it continues to have ripple effects in today’s society. Fictionalised though the events of this film maybe, it’s a credit to each and every one of these excellent performances, and the strength and emotional weight of what’s being told on screen, that one can easily connect the dots between the era of the Civil Right Movement, and to the movements of the present day that also have no shortage of charismatic and powerful leaders who are resolute in their belief to bring about substantial and meaningful change.

Though it takes its time to find its feet narratively, Regina King’s directorial debut packs a powerful punch thanks to the outstanding performances, and an emotionally powerful screenplay.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2020

Another Round (2020)

Image is property of Nordisk Film and StudioCanal

Another Round  – Film Review

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Synopsis: With their work and social lives all seemingly going nowhere, four high school teachers take part in a risky experiment where they maintain a consistent level of alcohol in their blood…

Review: When many of us reach the end of our working weeks, we may well celebrate with a little, or a lot of alcohol. Similarly, when a special celebration such as a birthday, a wedding or Christmas comes around, chances are that alcohol will be consumed. Many of us will have undoubtedly experienced the instance where on such occasions, we’ve overindulged ourselves and had a little bit too much to drink. Save for any naughty/illegal intoxicated acts, drinking heavily is unlikely to have major ramifications, apart from a hangover the following day. However, it would be considerably more risky, if people were to have a drink whilst during their day job working during their workday, but that is precisely what four high school teachers decide to do in an intriguing social experiment.

Martin (Mikkelsen) is a high school teacher along with his friends, Tommy (Larsen), Peter (Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Millang). The four of them are all finding little enjoyment in their work, struggling to motivate their students, leaving them all deeply unsatisfied with their lives. This deep starts to have knock on effects for their personal lives. However as the four of them gather to celebrate Nikolaj’s 40th birthday, they come up with an experiment of maintaining a consistent level of alcohol (0.05%) in their blood. Initially, the experiment produces positive results as the four of them receive a boost to their confidence, and they start to enjoy their jobs again. Yet, as their dependency on alcohol increases, the more they all drink. The experiment dictates that they even drink whilst on school grounds, running the risk of major consequences if they are caught.

Much alcohol was likely consumed that night….

Following on from their work together on the Oscar nominated The Hunt, Mads Mikkelsen reunites with Vinterberg, and as he so often does whenever he’s on screen, Mikkelsen delivers an extremely charismatic and layered performance. Of all the four teachers at the centre of this story, Martin’s arc is given the most screen time. We see initially how his marriage, and his relationships with wife Trine (Bonnevie), and their two sons are breaking down pre-experiment, which is causing tensions between the two of them. However, his relationship and his job are given new leases of life when the experiment initially begins. This is also applicable for each of Martin’s friends. Right from their first appearance together on screen, it definitely feels as though these four men have been friends for a great many years, as the chemistry between them all is very strong.

However, when you’re making an experiment with something as addicting as alcohol, there may be a high for a period of time, but with every high, there will likely be a low. Namely, there will come a point there where the experiment starts to have severely adverse effects on not just their lives, but those of their loved ones. Much like how the wrong mixture of alcohol in a beverage can be lethal, mixing comedy with serious drama can be a dangerous concoction if the comedy negates the serious drama. Yet, Vinterberg walks this line expertly, as he uses the camera to ensure that the audience feels the relief and euphoria that these men experience at the start, which offers ripe comedic material. Though, when things go south, the laughter dissipates pretty quickly, as the consequences of what happens when a dependency on this drug, become painfully clear. Simultaneously, reminding us all, that like many things in life, moderation is key.

Bolstered by an extremingly charismatic leading performance from Mads Mikkelsen, Another Round presents a fascinating look at the midlife crisis, and the wave of emotions that one can experience when battling an addiction.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Image is property of Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures and Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Film Review

Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Synopsis: In the run up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the organisers of several protests at the time, who later became known as the Chicago 7, are put on trial by the Government…

Review: It’s hard to get away from the fact that in this most chaotic of years, that the world of politics, especially in the USA, is a very fraught and bitterly divided arena. As politics becoming increasingly partisan in nature, society has been reeling from the riots and civil unrest that has stemmed from senseless brutality from law enforcement, and a fundamentally flawed judicial system that significantly disadvantages ethnic minorities and people of colour. The parallels between the current situation and the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are extremely hard to avoid, lending increased relevance to the second directorial effort from seasoned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. To say this is “timely” is practically doing the film a disservice, for the simple reasons that right from the start, there’s a real sense of urgency about the film, with a message that needs to be heard around the world, because as they say in the film: “The whole world is watching.”

With the 1968 Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago, several different groups of people, with numerous leaders, converge on Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. With the Civil Rights Movement of the time in full swing, a tense atmosphere exists between the protestors and the police/National Guard who quickly arrive on the scene. It doesn’t take long for the situation to escalate into brutality and violence, leading to the arrests of the leaders, who would go on to become known as the Chicago 7. The Government, under President Richard Nixon, is eager to make an example of these protestors. Hence, they appoint a top prosecutor Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt) to seek prosecutions and lock these protestors up for allegedly inciting violence. The stage is now set for one of the most politicised trials in the history of the United States.

As he demonstrated with his slick and stylish debut feature Molly’s Game, Sorkin’s proved himself to be a confident director to combine perfectly with his skill as a master screenwriter. It’s to his great credit that he made stories about about numbers and baseball, and the social media company that would change the world, extremely compelling watches. It raises the possibility that Sorkin could craft something extremely riveting based on the most ordinary of tasks. Though, the events being depicted here are given extra significance by the politically charged nature of this story. There’s no holding back when it comes to its subject matter, and how these events that are being depicted over fifty years ago, are starkly relevant in today’s society. A society where those in positions of power seek to use the political and justice systems as weapons to punish those who dare to have a dissenting opinion. The dialogue, as you would expect from Sorkin, is sharp and engaging throughout, and he effortlessly blends the urgent and important drama, with some brilliant humour.

With a massively stacked cast, there’s always a risk that not everyone will get their moment in the spotlight, and while Sorkin does his level best to give each of the Chicago 7 a moment, some use their opportunity better than others. One of the brightest spots by far is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. On first glance he might seem like nothing more than an eccentric hippie, but don’t let that fool you, for he is a man with razor sharp wit, with his finger on the pulse. While his accent wobbles in a few places, Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden is another who uses his screen time effectively. He might seem like a more quiet and reserved individual, but he has his moments where he exhibits fierce passion for the cause that all of the defendants stand for. While there are clashes within the ranks of the Chicago 7, they remain committed to their goal of exposing this trial for what it is, a sham and politicised trial.

On the other side of the courtroom, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz is a little concerned about the Government’s position, but is determined to do his job to the best of his abilities. By contrast, Frank Langella’s Judge Hoffman is one character who will infuriate every time he’s on screen. The sheer contempt he exhibits for the defendants, their legal representatives, and the fact he fails to be impartial throughout illustrates how he’s unequivocally unfit to be a judge in this situation. Through his clear disdain for the defendants, it makes for some fiery (and sometimes entertaining) clashes between the Judge and the Chicago 7, as well as their legal counsel William Kunstler (a truly excellent Mark Rylance). Additionally, while they’re not in the film for sufficiently long enough, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Leader of the Black Panther Party Bobby Searle and Michael Keaton’s, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, both leave lasting impressions with their performances.

In this politically charged era that we’re currently living in, battlegrounds are being drawn between those on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Furthermore, as they were in 1968/69, those in power today are using the flawed justice system and the courts as a means of achieving their own ends. This powerful and urgent drama is an important reminder of the power of protest, and how people should use their voice to speak out and should not let government intimidation bully them into silence. Like they were fifty years ago, the whole world is watching, and it is essential to stand up for democracy, and ensure that people make themselves be counted.

Signature sharp Sorkin dialogue throughout, this urgent drama is a sharp and stinging look at social, legal and political issues that even after a generation, continue to be deep-rooted thorns in today’s society.