Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Promising Young Woman (2021)

© Focus Features , LuckyChap Entertainment and FilmNation Entertainment

Promising Young Woman  – Film Review

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Alfred Molina

Director: Emerald Fennell

Synopsis: After a traumatic event in her past, a young woman goes to bars and nightclubs pretending to be drunk in order to catch out men who try to take advantage over her while they believe her to be intoxicated…

Review: For the the past few years, a number of movements have risen up about urgent topics that have demanded the world to sit up, take notice, and to initiate conversations to enact meaningful changes in our society. As an example, it was thanks to the bravery of those who launched the Me Too and the Time’s Up movements. These movements forced the world to have some much needed conversations about sexual harassment and abuse. For far too long, women were being subjected to harassment and unwanted advances by men, in just about every aspect of day-to-day life. This need for a film, that holds up a mirror to our society, demanding everyone to talk about sexual harassment and rape, plays heavily into the feature film debut of Emerald Fennell.

Cassie (Mulligan) is a 30 year old who earns her living working in a coffee shop. Years earlier, she began med school with much promise about her future. This is until everything changed, as she was forced to drop out, due an extremely traumatic incident involving a very close friend. Years later, having never fully recovered, Cassie goes to nightclubs and bars in the evening, pretending to be totally drunk. This inevitably attracts the attention of men, who initially offer to take her home, which quickly changes to back to their place for a few more drinks and to try and take advantage of her while they believe her to be too drunk to give consent. However, by revealing that she is completely stone cold sober every time, she turns the tables on these men, giving them a revelatory lesson about their predatory behaviour. Yet through every interaction with one of these men, Cassie has one ulterior motive, and it is revenge.

The well known saying “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” could definitely be applied to numerous characters throughout film history. Yet, one could make the argument that it has never been more applicable when it comes to Cassie, and Carey Mulligan’s performance is absolutely electrifying to watch. There are so many layers to her character as to start with, she has to portray the vulnerability of the character given everything she’s been through. She expertly contrasts the scenes where she is pretending to be drunk, with the scenes where she completely turns the tables on the men who were poised to take advantage of her. From that moment on, it is absolutely crystal clear that it is Cassie who’s the one in control of the situation, while these so called “nice guys” squirm with discomfort.

Whenever a film is brave enough to tackle two almost completely different genres together into one film, it’s definitely a risk, and there has need to ensure that the right balance is struck. Through her direction, Fennell pulls this off magnificently. The film dips in and out between being an almost horror film-esque revenge thriller, whilst also being a colourful rom-com as Cassie connects with a character from her Med School past (played excellently by Bo Burnham). Yet, the rom-com element never negates the revenge-thriller aspect, and vice versa.  There is a brief lag in the film’s pacing in and around the second/third act. However, this is definitely a momentary lapse, before Cassie’s endgame comes into view, as the events that set her off on this path of revenge come full circle.

The film is once again a timely reminder of the work that needs to be done when it comes to dealing with harassment, in just about every single walk of life, and how society once again fails to protect women who fall victim to the predatory behaviour that they too often experience at the hands of men. Certain elements of the film may be uncomfortable to sit through, but it’s clear that Fennell’s goal is not to provide comfort to the audience. Her aim is to open their eyes, especially those of men, and remind them of the seemingly never ending barrage of unwanted attention and harassment that women get on a constant basis. In the years since the Me Too movement sparked those much needed conversations, a few films have made efforts to tackle the subject. However, no film has done it such a daring, yet successful manner. Whenever a film comes along that strives to hold up a mirror to the society we’re living in, it must leave a lasting impression, and Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut does not miss.

Boasting a career best performance from Carey Mulligan, thanks to its bold and daring approach to its timely subject matter, Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is perhaps the most important film in the post #MeToo era of Hollywood.

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, Ranking

Most Anticipated Films of 2021

Goodbye, and good riddance to 2020. What started out like any other year quickly became anything but, as for lots of cinephiles across the world, the sad sight of cinemas being forced to shut their doors was extremely tough to take. The streaming services came to our rescue to deliver some quality films in 2020 which certainly helped with the fact that a lot of the big blockbuster releases that were planned for 2020 were delayed. Yet, with the vaccine for COVID-19 starting to be rolled out, hopefully we will be able to return to cinemas at some point in 2021.

So with that faint glimmer of optimism, let’s look ahead and see what are the films that we will (fingers, and just about everything else, crossed) be seeing on the big screen in 2021. Since many of last year’s films were delayed, a few films from last year’s last will crop up again, along with some new entries. With all those delayed films, let’s hope 2021 can be a big year for cinema. As always with these lists, there are some honourable mentions that just didn’t quite make the list, and these are:

Venom: Let There Be Carnage, If you saw my review of the first film, you’ll know that I hated it and it was one of the worst things I saw in 2018. However, with Andy Serkis attached as director, for this sequel has me intrigued. Given Serkis’s expertise with motion capture work, I hope that he can use that expertise to make something more compelling than that awful first film, and less of the horrendous cheesy dialogue would be great as well.

Godzilla VS Kong, The MonsterVerse hasn’t exactly had the easiest of starts to its existence as a cinematic universe. Both 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island were both beset by similar problems, namely too little screen-time for their eponymous titans, in favour of mostly very bland humans. 2019’s King of the Monsters certainly packed more action, but was bogged down by a problematic script. We go to these films to see giant monsters throw down, so if they can focus more on that and less on the humans, this titanic clash certainly could be an enthralling spectacle.

West Side Story, While I am not the most ardent musicals fan out there, I’m not averse to a decent musical every once in a while, and with Steven Spielberg attached as director of a new adaptation one of the most famous musical films ever made, well that has my attention.

The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s films are almost always eccentric, but that eccentricity doesn’t prevent his films from being wonderfully crafted pieces of art. After making the wonderful Isle of Dogs in 2018, the quirky director makes his return to live action. With another stacked cast including Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, Owen Wilson and Adrian Brody.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The second film in Phase 4 of the MCU that if release dates hold, will follow after Black Widow. While the end of Phase 3 of the MCU saw some beloved characters say farewell, Phase 4 is looking like it will introduce lots of new characters to the MCU. Just Mercy director Destin Daniel Cretton is behind the camera, with a cast that overwhelmingly consists of actors of Asian descent. Given the much discussed “Mandarin” twist in Iron Man 3, fans will be hoping this film sees the genuine article in action.

Honourable mentions have been honoured, and since there’s quite a few films coming out this year, let’s see what cracked my top 15:  (Current UK release dates unless specified)

15. The King’s Man

Release date: 12th March 

How this film must have wished it held on to that initial November 2019 release date. No film has been delayed quite as much as this prequel film to the Kingsman series. This time around there’s no Eggsy or Harry Hart. Instead the film promises to be a look at how the Kingsman agency came to being in the first place. With Matthew Vaughn once again directing, with a packed cast including Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Charles Dance, Djimon Hounsou and Daniel Brühl.

14. Eternals

Release date: 5th November (USA)

The Infinity Saga might have wrapped up 23 films worth of MCU build up, but even after all that, the folks at Marvel are not showing any signs of slowing down. The studio has proved that it can take lesser known properties in their roster of heroes, and make extremely entertaining movies out of them. With an exciting cast, and Chloe Zhao in the director’s chair the studio will be hoping they have another Guardians of the Galaxy on their hands.

13. In The Heights

Release date: 30th July

One of the first of many films on this list that has had its release date delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lin-Manuel Miranda is synonymous with creating stories that have some excellent music, gaving written songs for Moana, as well as his starring role in the Tony award winning musical Hamilton. The latter of which was given a worldwide audience after a recording of the musical was released to Disney+ last year, to much acclaim from audiences that were stuck at home.

With In the Heights, fans will recognise Miranda’s trademark lyricism, but it promises to be a very different type of musical in comparison to Hamilton. With Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu on board, it promises to be a landmark moment for diversity on screen, due to its Latinx cast, and the fact that the film will be set in the Latin Washington Heights district of New York.

12. Malcolm & Marie

Release date: 5th February

John David Washington and Zendaya in a film together. I mean, is there anything more that needs to be said?

11. Nomadland

Release date: 

When you have two time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand in a starring role, that by itself should be enough to capture the attention. Added to the fact that this film has been receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews during its festival run last year, most notably for McDormand’s performance and for the direction by Chloe Zhao, both of whom are heavily tipped to be in the running for awards.

 

Please click on the next page for top 10!

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, Ranking

Best Films of 2020

2020, a year that for reasons that do not need to be elaborated upon, was a rather tough and challenging year, to put it mildly. While it started off like any other year, with new releases aplenty. The COVID-19 pandemic soon brought the industry to a halt, and cinemas the world over were forced to shut their doors for long stretches of the year due to the ongoing pandemic. Though while the big screens went dark, new releases did come through via streaming services. These were certainly helpful to combat the many months of lockdown, alongside all the Zoom quizzes. While the big screen buzz was certainly lacking, there were numerous new releases to watch. So, let’s get down to business and  have a look see at the best films of 2020, per my opinion.

As always, when compiling this list I aim to include films that are listed as 2020 releases on IMDB on this list. However, the staggered nature of UK release dates (at least pre-COVID) that we get here in the UK can make things complicated when it comes to ranking films. Hence, there are one or two films on here that for the majority of the rest of the world, came out in 2019, but not so for us UK dwellers, hence why they will be included on here. Also, due to the pandemic, some of the films listed here haven’t yet made their way into UK cinemas, but since I was fortunate to be able to catch some of these films at the digital edition of London Film Festival this year, they are eligible for inclusion.

Secondly, as always, the placings of these films are not determined by the grade I gave them. Getting the perfect grade is not always going to guarantee that that particular film will be high on the list. As with every year, these lists represent a chance for everyone to be completely and unashamedly biased about the films that we enjoyed the most, and these are the films that I will remember from 2020.  Before I get into the main list, some honourable mentions need to have their time to shine. These films are excellent that you should definitely check out, but they just didn’t quite make the list. These are:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The first film on this list to be adapted from an award winning stage play. It is a little constrained by its stage play roots, but it packs a lot of heart and soul into its 94 minute run time. With a brilliant leading performance from Viola Davis, and a devastatingly emotional final screen performance from Chadwick Boseman, serving a heart-breaking reminder of what Boseman had to offer the world of film and a bitter blow that he is no longer with us.

Soul [review] Pixar films have so often made efforts to answer some deep existential questions across a variety of beings, from toys, to monsters, to even emotions themselves. With their latest film, from Pete Docter, the studio has produced one of their most contemplative works to date, that is while never quite hitting those emotional beats of their previous films, is bold and original.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Pregnancy is a wonderful procedure that after nine painstaking months, gives birth to new life. Yet through a plethora of circumstances, a pregnancy may be unplanned or unwanted. This simple, yet powerful tale of one woman (a brilliant Sydney Flanigan) and her cousin travel to New York to obtain an abortion. The way Eliza Hittman directs this film makes it feel very personal, because there’s every chance that for many young women out there, the situation that is depicted on screen is one that will hit very close to home.

One Night in Miami [review] The Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, a movement that certainly had its fair share of charismatic leaders, determined to bring about meaningful and significant change in US society. Regina King makes her directorial debut in  stunning style, as we get a glimpse of an extraordinary night where four leaders of this movement gathered. The performances of each actor playing these figures from history are stunning, and as with the very next film, the parallels between this time period, and the one we’re living in right now, make this an essential piece of filmmaking

Queen & Slim [review] The release of this film came just a few months before the world had an urgent and much needed conversation on race and police brutality in America, and the increasing necessity for movements like Black Lives Matter to have their voices heard, and protest for meaningful and significant change to a fundamentally flawed society. Focusing on a young couple who are forced on the run following a fatal clash with the police, with devastating performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, given the reckoning the world has had, this is an essential film that needs to be seen.

Pieces of a Woman [review] The most recent film that I watched on this list, and qualifies for this list as I’ve caught it in the first few weeks of the new year. The film is unquestionably a tough watch, but it shines a light on a subject matter that is rarely touched upon in film, that also has an absurd amount of taboo behind it, based on the experiences of some women in the media. Through Vanessa Kirby’s exceptional leading performance, the film presents an honest and unflinching look at the raw and unimaginable grief and heartache that anyone in that situation would experience.

Honourable mentions honoured, now let’s dive into the top 10…

 

10. Supernova

review

When someone receives a devastating, life-changing diagnosis, it is extremely tough to take for them, and their loved ones. This is the reality facing a middle-aged couple as they travel around England visiting friends and family, whilst slowly coming to terms with the fact that this trip may well be the last meaningful time that they spend together as a couple. As the couple at the centre of this heart-breaking diagnosis, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci share wonderful chemistry together, and their performances are incredible.

9. Another Round

review

Lots of us certainly like to have a drink during the weekend, or whilst celebrating a special occasion. Yet it takes a lot of bravery to have a drink whilst working on your day job. Yet, this is precisely what four teachers, stuck in their dead-end jobs, do as they seeking to maintain a consistent level of alcohol in their blood. Simultaneously funny and heart-breaking, with an superb leading performance from Mads Mikkelsen, it pulls no punches into how devastating the consequences can be, if one becomes too dependent on a drug like alcohol.

8. Tenet

review

When it comes to directors who can sell a film based on just their name, Christopher Nolan is certainly right up there in terms of the most prominent. While his films usually have a mind-bending and complex narrative to them, Nolan consistently manages to make his films fascinating, and riveting to watch. After multiple delayed release dates, there was much uncertainty as to whether the film would even be released. It thankfully did make its way onto the big screen in 2020, and all the better for it.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the film is very hard to follow in terms of plot, even with multiple rewatches, it may well leave your brain completely and utterly fried. The sound mixing was a tad overpowering at times, yet in a year that was for the most part starved of those exhilarating and thrilling popcorn blockbusters, this was a thrilling film to experience on the big screen.

7. Da 5 Bloods

review

Spike Lee’s passionate energy against a certain stupidly haired, ridiculous world leader has helped him to create some powerful pieces of filmmaking. After bagging a much deserved Oscar for BlacKkKlansman, he follows that up with a searing and impactful war drama that focuses on 5 Vietnam War vets on two very personal missions: to recover some gold that they were protecting on their mission during the War, and to find the remains of their fallen squad leader. Brilliantly acted by its ensemble cast, it is the heart-breaking performances of Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman that should be bestowed with award nominations. For Boseman in particular, the part he plays as the fallen squad leader to these war veterans is made all the more impactful given his tragic death, a few months after this film was released.

 

6. Onward

review

One of the last films that just about made it into cinemas, before the world shut down. As one comes to expect whenever Pixar put their name on a film, it was a deeply emotional tale. Focusing on two brothers who set off on a magical quest to meet the father that they barely got to know before he passed away. The fantasy/adventure is extremely fun and exciting, but the heart of the film lies in the relationship dynamic between the brothers (wonderfully voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) that really pulls on the heartstrings. Even in the face of such devastating personal tragedy, like the loss of a parent at a young age, the love and support that one can find from a brother can be an emotional and unbreakable bond, especially for an older sibling that they looked up to and relied on during those hard times.

 

5. Trial of the Chicago 7

review

The first of two courtroom dramas to make this list. Having mastered his talents as a prolific screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin’s second stint behind the camera is further proof that he’s as talented a director as he is a writer. Like the other courtroom drama on this list, to deliver an urgent film that spoke volumes to the increasingly bitterly divided nature of politics, especially in 2020.

Packed to the brim with outstanding performances with Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II the standouts. The film is an urgent message about the power of using your voice to protest, and to stand up for what you believe in, especially in the face of a Government that wanted to punish the Chicago 7, simply for using their right to protest. This is something that that also felt very topical and relevant given the protests and demonstrations that took place one of the most turbulent years in American history.

 

4. The Invisible Man

review

After their Dark Universe died an ignominious death, Universal Studios were left to wonder where to go in terms of bringing their series of classic monsters back to the big screen. Instead of the grandiose cinematic universe, they’ve gone back to basics with a reboot of the classic HG Wells novel.  focusing on a woman that is being obsessively stalked by an invisible presence, that she is convinced is her abusive ex-boyfriend, in spite of the fact that he supposedly committed suicide.

In a world that has been forever changed by the Me Too Movement, writer/director Leigh Whannell grounds the film in the all too real horror and abuse that many women will have likely experienced at the hands of abusive partners. Tense from the off, and in Elisabeth Moss’s leading performance, she brilliantly captures the emotional trauma of the situation that she finds herself in. Performances in horror films are so often ignored when it comes to awards season, but Moss deserves to be in the conversation for awards for her stunning performance.

 

3. Mangrove

review

Alongside Queen & Slim and Da 5 Bloods, the work of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series demonstrates that much like the US, the UK has its own problematic past with institutionalised racism and police brutality. Focusing on appalling racism that the Metropolitan police inflict on the Mangrove restaurant and the owner of this establishment, the Mangrove community take a stand against the disgusting treatment they experience at the hands of the police, which leads to a very highly public trial.

While the first half sets up the Mangrove as a vibrant place for the local community that comes under constant attack, the second half is a powerful courtroom drama. Undeniably difficult to watch at times, but it is nonetheless essential viewing. It will leave you fuming at the conduct that you’re witnessing on screen by those who are in a position of power that they should be using to protect, and equally at a justice system that is fundamentally flawed. Filled to the brim with absolutely incredible performances, the shining lights of which are Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright, the latter of whom gives the performance of her career.

2. Wolfwalkers

review

For all the praise that audiences bestow upon animation powerhouses like Disney, Studio Ghibli, or Pixar when it comes to their animated films. There are a handful of studios who do equally great work that perhaps doesn’t get the same amount of recognition. This very much applies to Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon. With their latest, it’s another excellent addition to their filmography. Telling the story of a young girl living in 17th century Ireland who encounters a mysterious group of people rumoured to have magical abilities.

Expertly combining 17th century history with a wonderful sense of magical and mythical intrigue, packed with beautiful animation, stunning voicework, and a wonderful soundtrack that will have Aurora’s beautiful song “Running with the Wolves” in your head for days. This is a superb achievement, and will provide stern competition in the race for the Best Animated Feature in next year’s Awards season.

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1. Parasite

review

It legitimately doesn’t feel like that it was this year that history was made and Bong Joon ho’s masterpiece took home the big prize at the Academy Awards in February. Having caught this film at a press screening at the end of 2019, I almost included it on my best of 2019 list, but opted to defer it for my 2020 list, where I knew it would feature.

While the majority of the rest of the world got to see the film in 2019, it took until literally two days before the film made history for it to open on UK shores, and it was certainly worth the wait. Packed to the brim with stark and biting social commentary about the capitalist society that many of us live in, with a superb script that constantly leaves its audience second-guessing where it’s going to go next. A film that is funny, intense and horrifying all rolled into one, a feat that is incredibly hard to pull off, but Parasite nails it. The pandemic might have caused many of this year’s big blockbuster films to be delayed, but even if all of those films that we were anticipating this year had been released, I’m confident that nothing would have come along to dethrone Parasite as my favourite film of 2020.

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And that brings the curtain down on my list of the best that film had to offer in 2020. Thank you for reading, especially if you read all the way through! Let’s hope that it won’t be long before the cinemas reopen and we can witness more films on the big screen. What were your favourite films of 2020? Let me know in the comments below or you can find me on the following platforms: TwitterFacebook or Letterbox’d.

For my picks for my most anticipated films of 2021, please click here (coming soon).

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.