Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2021

Belfast (2021)

© TKBC, Northern Ireland Screen, Focus Features and Universal Pictures

Belfast  – Film Review

Cast: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Lewis McAskie, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Synopsis: Telling the story of the lives of one family living in Belfast during the 1960s…

Review: Irrespective of where we’re born, there’s a universal truth to the saying: “Home is where the heart is.” No matter who you are or where you come from, there’s likely to be a particular place on this Earth that means a great deal to you. Perhaps it is the town where you were born, or perhaps it is the place where you made those first memories that will shape you and who you are for the rest of your life? That special ode to your hometown and the immeasurable impact it can have on your life during your formative years is the heart beating at the centre of this deeply personal film from Kenneth Branagh.

Buddy (Hill) is a young boy living in Belfast during the late 1960s. He’s surrounded by his loving family, which consists of Ma (Balfe), Pa (Dornan), his brother (McAskie), and his paternal grandparents (Dench and Hinds). Like any child, Buddy goes to school, works hard in class, and seeks to win the heart of a girl in school who he has a crush on. Outside of school, playing on the street with his friends, and going to the pictures with his family, all with the carefree innocence that any child would have. It should be the perfect family life, but it’s about to be turned upside down. The country is about to be engulfed in political tension and violence which, will bring much uncertainty to this tight-knit Northern Irish family.

Given that we see the entire film from Buddy’s perspective, there’s a lot riding on Hill’s shoulders. Fortunately, he carries the film beautifully, balancing the naivety of youth, with an acute awareness of the tricky situation that’s developing. Alongside a brilliant leading performance from Hill, the rest of the cast are faultless in their performances. As Buddy’s parents, Ma and Pa are faced with an increasingly difficult choice of what to do and how best to raise their children in the politically charged circumstances that they find themselves in. Pa’s job in England is the main source of income for the family, hence money is tight. It’s a dilemma that puts a strain on their relationship, which is only compounded by the fact that he’s away for so much of the time.

Plus with the ongoing political tension that Belfast is engulfed in, there’s a dilemma as to whether they should leave the city that means so much to both of them behind? Do they want to uproot their two children from the lives that they have built in the city? Special mentions must go to Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, both of whom give career-best performances. They clearly both love one another and care deeply for their children. So, they want to do what is best for them. Furthermore, due to his father’s absence, Buddy’s mother has quite the job to raise both him and his brother, mostly by herself. As such, Ma has a tendency to be quite overprotective of both her sons, but especially Buddy. They’re not on screen together a lot, but when they are, Balfe and Dornan’s wonderful chemistry helps add so much depth and layers to their characters. It’s always the sign of a quality performance that you no longer see the actor, instead, you see the character that they are playing, and this is true across the entire cast.

For a film that’s set in a time where political tensions are on a knife-edge, where violence could erupt at any given moment, it seems unlikely that the story would allow for much humour. Yet, Branagh’s screenplay allows for plenty of humorous moments to shine through. A lot of the humour comes from the dynamic between Buddy and his grandparents. Both of them impart their wisdom and knowledge to Buddy as he negotiates this difficult period in his life. This is where Ciaran Hinds, in particular, really excels. As well as being the kind and gentle grandfatherly figure, be a little cheeky and share a humorous moment with Buddy.

Branagh’s screenplay expertly walks the line between the dark and tense nature of the political tension of the time, with the family dynamic. It would be easy for Branagh’s screenplay to get bogged down by the intense nature of the politics of the time. However, the film avoids this by keeping it focused on seeing the world, and the ongoing situation, from Buddy’s perspective. Branagh has crafted a story that anyone will be able to connect with. No matter where you are from, or no matter how far you go in this world we live in, you never forget your roots.

The most personal film that Branagh has ever made, and quite possibly his best. A beautiful celebration of childhood, the places and the people that make us who we are.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2021

The Power of the Dog (2021)

© Netflix

The Power of the Dog  – Film Review

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy

Director: Jane Campion

Synopsis:  The relationship of two brothers in 1920s Montana is put to the test when one brother settles down and introduces his new wife, and her son, to the other brother…

Review: What does it to be a man? Even in modern times, the stereotype of the masculine man is someone who is expected to be hard, tough, and forbidden from displaying any sort of emotion that might deem them as being “weak” and “unmanly”. While someone on the outside may present themselves as tough and strong, inside they can easily be the polar opposite. They could potentially be hiding some pretty big insecurities. While we have broken down some of those absurd barriers of men being unallowed to express emotions, back in the 1920s, such an idea was unheard of. In her first film for 12 years, Jane Campion explores the concept of toxic masculinity from the perspective of two very different people.

The setting is Montana in 1925, and brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Plemons) are very successful ranch owners. Phil is the tough, masculine, and considerably more cruel brother. He regularly likes to throw around insults, especially towards George. George, by contrast, is in every sense, the polar opposite to Phil, who is considerably more friendly, gentle, and hospitable. When George meets Rose (Dunst), he becomes instantly smitten with her, and the two marry. When George brings Rose and her son Peter (Smit-McPhee) home to the Burbank ranch, it doesn’t sit well with Phil at all. Phil becomes determined to do all he can to make Rose’s and Peter’s lives a misery, which will only add further strain to the tense relationship that already exists between the two brothers.

When you picture the average Western, you may picture a scene that depicts cowboys standing outside a saloon with their guns drawn in some rural town in the Wild Wild West. While the setting is sort of the same (substitute the majestic hills of New Zealand for those of rural USA), Campion instead takes a considerably different approach to this story. Adapted from the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, her screenplay takes a considerably slow-burn approach to the story, that’s bathed in the gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner. Campion is clearly not interested in those tense shootouts, and is instead more focused on who the characters are as human beings. This is a personal, emotionally character-driven piece that thrives by taking its time to thoroughly examine the internal conflicts that are brewing inside these characters, and how these can spill over into their relationships with the other characters.

As the man at the centre of this story, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a terrific performance as Phil Burbank. Due to his tendency to willfully bully and insult others around him, he is definitely not the easiest character to spend some time with. He takes great satisfaction and joy in the mistreatment of others. Yet, as the film progresses, that brash and cruel exterior is peeled away, as not everything is what appears to be with Phil, and Cumberbatch’s nuanced performance captures this superbly. There’s an internal struggle within himself, and with some of the other characters that keep you invested as the film goes on, especially between Phil and Peter. Initially, one of the targets of Phil’s cruel insults due to his lisp and some of his mannerisms, it becomes fascinating to see how the relationships change once certainly layers are peeled back. Like Phil, there’s more to Peter than what you see at first glance, and Smit-McPhee’s performance is as equally nuanced as Cumberbatch’s.

As the dynamic between Phil and Peter is the one that is given the most screentime, it does mean that some of the others, most notably between Phil and George and Rose are not given enough screentime as they maybe could and should have. Plemons is severely underutilised once we reach the second half of the film. What’s more, for all of her strengths as an actress, Dunst also doesn’t have much to do except cower in fear whenever she comes face to face with Phil. This fear of her brother-in-law leads her down a dark path of addiction. While Dunst excels with the material she’s given, there was scope for a further exploration of the demons that she’s facing. Nevertheless, Campion’s slow-burn approach to this story and to the characters ensures that the mysteries that are at the centre of the film are extremely compelling to watch as they unravel. The Power of the Dog packs plenty of both bark and bite in equal measure.

A Western unlike any other. Campion’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair bides its time with its story, which makes the film’s atmospheric journey, and the mysteries contained within, all the more enthralling to watch.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

House of Gucci (2021)

© MGM, Bron Creative and Scott Free Productions

House of Gucci – Film Review

Cast: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek

Director: Ridley Scott

Synopsis: Telling the true story of the family behind the iconic fashion brand, and their bitter power struggle as to who will have control over the company…

Review: When it comes to the world of fashion, there are several names that immediately leap to mind that everyone will know as the most iconic names in fashion. Names such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Chanel, Versace, and Fendi to name but a few. When it comes to these fashion houses, there’s likely to be a fascinating backstory as to how they came to be the iconic labels that they are today. This is most certainly applicable to that of the brand Gucci, which as of 2021, is estimated to be worth around $15billion dollars. With his second film of the year, Ridley Scott tackles that fascinating backstory of the Gucci brand, and the family behind the business, with decidedly mixed results.

Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga), who works for her father’s business, meets Maurizio (Driver) at a party. As they strike up a conversation and get to know each other, their romance blossoms. However, it isn’t until Patrizia learns about Maurizio’s status as the heir to one of the biggest names in fashion, that changes everything. Maurizio and Patrizia marry but Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Irons) doesn’t take kindly to Patrizia, as he deduces that Patrizia doesn’t love Maurizio for who he is as a person, but is solely after Maurizio’s money. But Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Pacino) welcomes Patrizia into the family and takes them under his wing. As Patrizia’s influence grows, a bitter power struggle ensues as to who will ultimately take control of the brand, which will have dire consequences.

Adapted from the book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed, by Sara Gay Forden, the title gives you an accurate indication of the shenanigans that are about to go down. A film that depicts all of the above, in the hands of a director with the calibre and experience of Ridley Scott had so much potential. Factor in an extremely talented cast, filled with Oscar nominees and winners, and yet the film falls well short of living up to that potential.  As Patrizia and Maurizio meet and fall in love, it starts off fairly strongly, as the chemistry between Lady Gaga and Driver sizzles. Following on from her breakout performance in A Star Is Bornthis role gives Gaga a chance to really flex her acting chops. To her credit, she easily gives the best performance in the whole film, which is no mean feat given the calibre of the actors around her.

As she marries Maurizio, she begins to exert her influence over the Gucci brand, whilst making moves to consolidate her power and influence on the Gucci brand. The film could (and perhaps should given the director) have soared from here, but instead, it is where the film really loses its way and never recovers. With all the scheming and backstabbing that goes on as individuals duel for controlling stake in the Gucci brand, like a Game of Thrones-style thriller, but instead of swords, dragons, and a battle for a throne, you have a battle for who will gain control over billions of dollars and dominion of high-end fashion. These moments have the odd spark that provides some entertainment, but they are not nearly enough to sustain the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

The screenplay from Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna seems to be two films that have been mixed into one. It flirts between wanting to be that serious crime drama and a much less serious film, with the camp factor dialled up to the maximum. This is an opportune moment to mention the enigma that is Jared Leto. Unrecognisable under a substantial amount of make-up as Paolo Gucci, his performance is mystifying, to say the least. With an accent that is so over-the-top and exaggerated, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was auditioning for a role in a new Mario video game. These moments of campy soap opera-like drama, and all of their over-the-topness are so out of place here, they undercut the very serious crime drama that the film could and probably should have focused on. While Leto is by far and away, the worst offender with the accents, the rest of the cast are not much better. The poor accents are also not helpful when trying to convey the serious nature of the crime drama that that aspect of the film is trying to tell.

The nature of this story is such ripe material for a compelling piece of storytelling. Even though parts of the film dragged on, given the timescale of the story, a mini-series could have been the better avenue to bring this story to audiences. Ridley Scott’s status as a legend of Hollywood is assured, but having said that even with a director of Scott’s experience, the complete mismatch of tones is a baffling style choice and one that ultimately sinks the film. Consistency when it comes to his directorial output has been a recurring problem for Scott. In a year when the veteran director has provided audiences with an extremely compelling and timely drama, it is disappointing that he couldn’t have made it two for two.

With no expense spared for the production design or costumes, Lady Gaga gives it everything she has as Patrizia Reggiani. However, the tonal mismatch of the story, and some of the acting, proves to be the film’s undoing. Style over substance, quite literally.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2021

King Richard (2021)

© Warner Bros. Pictures, Westbrook Studios, Star Thrower Entertainment and Keepin’ It Reel

King Richard – Film Review

Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Synopsis: Telling the true story of Richard Williams, who played an influential role in shaping the early tennis careers of his daughters Venus and Serena Williams…

Review: Whenever anyone talks about the greatest athletes of all time, there are two names whose places in that conversation are absolutely assured: Venus and Serena Williams. Here are two extraordinary women, with an incredible 30 Grand Slam wins between them, whose achievements across their glittering careers will have undoubtedly inspired countless generations of young girls to pick up tennis rackets and to follow in their footsteps. However, there is someone, that the Williams sisters have said that none of their success could have been possible without. That person, is their father, Richard Dove Williams Jr.

As the proud parents of Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton), Richard (Smith) and his wife Brandy (Ellis) are committed to helping their daughters to one day become professional tennis players. With the strong emotional support of Brandi propelling Richard, Venus, and Serena in equal measure, Richard serves as their coach. Both Richard and Brandy work incredibly hard at their day jobs. Additionally, through many hours of training on the tennis court, he’s motivated by his ambition to help his daughters become professional tennis players. He’s a deeply driven and determined man, with a detailed and well-thought-out plan to ensure his daughters become two of the best tennis players to have ever played the game.

Given this is a story about two of the best players to have ever played the sport of tennis, it might seem odd to frame this story mainly from the perspective of their father. Yet, when you watch Will Smith’s performance as this father who will stop at nothing to help his daughters achieve their dreams, it pays incredible dividends as this is Smith’s best performance for quite some time. He’s a man who is fiercely protective of his family and is not afraid to stand up to anyone who is rude towards his daughters. Though while that may paint him as a kind and generous soul, this is not always the case. Richard has some very stubborn tendencies, and he will not be afraid to speak his mind during meetings. His stubbornness and unwillingness to change his methods and approach to how he conducts business threatens to ruin Venus’s and Serena’s careers before they have even begun.

While Smith’s performance is fully deserving of the plaudits, what must not be lost in the conversation is the performances of the women who are just as much at the center of this story as Richard. The most important of which is Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene “Brandy” Williams. While Richard is out there on the court, the part she plays to help Venus and Serena carries just as much importance. She lends the support that both her husband and her daughters need as they strive to make their dreams become reality. Though, she is absolutely not afraid to speak her mind when the situation calls for it and will take action into her own hands when she needs to. As the young Venus and Serena, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton both have very bright futures ahead of them. There’s a genuine sisterly bond between them. They recognise that, in a society where being who they are comes with hardship and obstacles from the off, success for one of them will go a long way towards propelling both of them onwards in their careers.

What could have been a very generic story about how the Williams sisters became the superstars that they are, is instead played as an emotional family drama and a tribute to the parents who helped shape them into becoming two of the greatest tennis stars have ever played the game. Green gives plenty of time for the family dynamic to flourish, as it is integral to help shape the story. This is expertly combined with immaculately directed tennis matches as we watch the Williams sisters begin on their path towards tennis superstardom. It serves as a reminder that for every superstar athlete, there are parents who sacrifice so much. They work tirelessly to help mold and shape their children so that one day, they can change the world and write their names into the history books forevermore. This is precisely what Venus and Serena Williams have done. They will be remembered, not only as players who changed the face of the sport of tennis forever, but also two of the best athletes to have ever lived.

What could have been your typical sports biopic is anything but. With an ace of a central performance from Will Smith, King Richard is an inspirational and uplifting family drama that will have you punching the air in delight.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2021

The Harder They Fall (2021)

© Netflix

The Harder They Fall  – Film Review

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole

Director: Jeymes Samuel

Synopsis: When he learns that his bitter enemy has been sprung out of prison, an outlaw re-forms his gang to take his adversary down once and for all…

Review: What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says the word “Western”? A shot of a rural town in the USA, showdown duels with guns, cowboy hats/boots, and the familiar sounds of the spurs on the boots, or the doors of a saloon opening and closing. Perhaps there’s also a musical number akin to something that you’d hear from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, is playing in the background, as a Caucasian hero strolls in on horseback to save the day? The Western is a genre that so often has white people at the forefront of the story. Yet too often, black people find themselves on the sidelines when it comes to these types of films. Hence, to see a Western that places the experiences of black people at this point in history at the forefront, with an all-star cast of some of the finest black actors currently working in Hollywood, is extremely refreshing, and long long overdue.

Nat Love (Majors) is an outlaw who has got a burning desire for revenge against Rufus Buck (Elba) after Buck committed an unforgivable crime when Nat was young. Now as an adult, when Nat learns that Buck has been freed from his incarceration as a prisoner, he’s out for revenge. He reforms The Nat Love gang, which includes real-life historical figure Stagecoach Mary (Beetz) and Cuffee (Deadwyler), to take down Buck once and for all. The only problem for Nat Love and his gang, is that Buck has his own gang surrounding him, including Treacherous Trudy Smith (King) and Cherokee Bill (Stanfield), determined to protect him at all costs. With the conflict between the two rival gangs boiling over into an all-out war, the bullets are gonna fly.

When taking one look at the cast that Samuel has assembled, there’s only one word that best describes it: stacked. No matter where you turn, there are actors with glittering careers everywhere you look. The end result is a brilliant cast, all of whom are in scintillating form. This crop of characters are certainly not ones you would want to cross, but that doesn’t mean that they are not extremely compelling and hilarious to watch. Jonathan Majors is someone who has burst onto the scene relatively late, in comparison to some of his cast members. Yet, in the few short years since he rose to prominence, he’s proven himself to be an extremely compelling on-screen presence. This continues with his performance as Nat. It’s quite the unenviable task to take a character like an outlaw, and add an incredible layer of depth and humanity to that role. Yet, with just about every performance he has given in recent years, Majors pulls it off brilliantly.

As Nat’s love interest, the relationship between Nat and Stagecoach Mary could have been very conventional. While the chemistry between the two is most assuredly there, Beetz plays this character as someone who is not subservient to Nat in any capacity, she’s more than capable of kicking Nat’s arse if she wanted to, and likewise for Cuffee. On the other side of this gang war, the character of Rufus Buck is someone who you dare not cross if you value your life, and Elba’s performance is suitably intimidating. Alongside him, Regina King is clearly relishing the opportunity to play an antagonist, and she’s absolutely terrific to watch. However, there’s far more to both their characters than just robbing banks and shooting down anyone in their way. As with Majors’ Nat Love, and indeed every character that you see on screen, there are subtle nuances to these characters that make them far more than just outlaws who are in this business for the money.

It is incredible to think that this is Samuel’s feature film directorial debut. While he has worked on music videos and short films with Jay-Z (who is one of the film’s producers), it’s quite the leap to go from directing short films and music videos, to directing a thrilling Western with some of Hollywood’s finest. Yet when you watch what Samuel, who also wrote the script, has concocted, it’s an absolutely breathtaking achievement. His direction is so confident and stylish, if you had no idea that this was his first feature film, you would be forgiven for thinking that he’s a seasoned director who has been doing this for years. It all translates into an enthralling and compelling story that grabs you from the word go.

Some may well struggle with the thick Texas accents that some of the characters speak with. However, by telling this story from the perspective of people who were not trapped in the brutal institution of slavery, it lends a much-needed new perspective to the people and the lives they led at this point in history. With such a confident and brilliant feature film debut, an exciting new voice has entered the world of filmmaking. No matter what project he chooses to do next, Jeymes Samuel will surely have captured the curiosity and the attention of audiences all over the world, and deservedly so.

The Western genre has been given a much-needed revitalisation. Impeccable performances from its all-star cast, combined with slick and stylish action, and the end result is a breath-taking feature film debut from Jeymes Samuel.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

The Last Duel (2021)

© 20th Century Studios, Scott Free Productions, Pearl Street Films and TSG Entertainment

The Last Duel  – Film Review

Cast: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck

Director: Ridley Scott

Synopsis: In Medieval France, following an accusation of rape against his wife, a Knight challenges his former friend to a trial by combat…

Review: For as long as humanity has been around, our society has been a patriarchal one, with men more often than not in positions of power. At numerous points throughout history, and even in modern times, such men try to exhibit control over the lives of women and dictate the choices that they should be allowed to make with their own bodies. The Me Too Movement has forced us as a society to bring about change to the systemic belittlement, and sometimes ridicule, women get for coming forward when they’ve been a victim of sexual assault. While progress has been made, enter Ridley Scott with a powerful medieval drama that demonstrates that is a centuries-old problem that still exists in our society.

The setting is 14th century France, Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is an esteemed knight in the French army. He offers his hand in marriage to the beautiful Marguerite (Comer). Despite her marriage to Jean, Marguerite has another admirer, the squire Jacques Le Gris (Driver). When Le Gris’s attempts to woo Marguerite are unsuccessful, he brutally forces himself upon her. When Marguerite bravely stands up to accuse Le Gris of rape, it is determined that the matter will be settled in a trial by combat between Jean de Carrouges and Le Gris. There’s added pressure too for Marguerite because if her husband loses, she will be sentenced to death for false testimony.

Set in three distinct acts, each act recounts the events from three perspectives: Jean de Carrouages, Jacques Le Gris, and most importantly of all, Marguerite de Carrouages. Each act breaks down the person’s perspective on the events that preceded the horrendous crime, the crime itself, and the aftermath. The first act from Jean’s perspective, written by Damon, shows Jean as a very courageous, likable, and loyal man. Yet his efforts in battle are not well rewarded, with Le Gris getting the plaudits and the rewards that Jean clearly feels should be bestowed upon him. Despite his grievances at these slights, Jean initially refuses to hold a grudge against Le Gris.

The second act, from the perspective of Le Gris (written by Affleck), paints Le Gris as a man who is studious and good at numbers, which helps him favourably with his commander, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). As well as his studiousness, he clearly sees himself as a handsome chap who is popular with the ladies. Consequently, because of his bewitching good looks, all the ladies must surely want him as well. Not even a married woman like Marguerite could possibly turn down his advances. So when she does exactly that, he forces himself upon her when Jean is not at home. While there’s no attempt to deny or downplay what he did, in his mind, it is completely inconsequential due to the belief in his mind that Marguerite is unhappy with her marriage, and must have secretly yearned for it.

It isn’t until we arrive at the third and final perspective, that of Marguerite’s, that the film truly soars. This segment, written by Nicole Holofcener, is by far the strongest of the three acts. It puts us from the perspective of the person who matters the most in this tale. We see Marguerite as a woman who defies what society expects of her, playing an active role in the maintenance and upkeep of her husband’s properties while he is off fighting in wars. And crucially, we see from her perspective, the character flaws that exist in both Jean and Le Gris, that they are both completely oblivious to. While all of the performances around her are strong, Jodie Comer is, quite simply, head and shoulders above everyone else. Though, by telling this from two different perspectives, be warned, we are forced to watch this heinous crime a couple of times.

However, as uncomfortable as it is to watch such an unspeakable act of violence a couple of times, it feels integral to the plot to do so. The reason being is that it emphasises the contrasting emotions of both parties concerned. While there’s no pain for Le Gris, there’s a tremendous amount of pain, both physical and emotional, that is inflicted upon Marguerite, and by extension for Jean as well. To add insult to injury, at this time in history, rape was incredulously not considered to be a crime against a woman, but rather a crime against a man and his property. Hence, at a time when women were expected to be silent and to be subordinates to their husbands, it is incredibly courageous for Marguerite to speak out and level this accusation against Le Gris, which sets the stage for the titular duel.

Ridley Scott is no stranger to a medieval, swords and lances battleground. Given everything that has been established in the events leading up to it, the stakes could not be higher for these characters. As you would expect, Scott’s direction for this bloody battle to the death is marvellous and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Though as important as the duel is, what is of far more importance is how Marguerite’s story is still relevant in the society that we live in. Too often, after being subjected to unspeakable acts of male violence, women are powerless or are unable to bring the perpetrators to justice due to our patriarchal society. But, as this centuries-old tale proves, when women have the courage to speak out, they demand our attention as a society every time. Their words are powerful and must never ever fall on deaf ears.

Thought-provoking and enthralling in equal measure, with an outstanding Jodie Comer performance, this medieval epic is an important story that shamefully connects the dots to our present-day society.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

In the Heights (2021)

© Warner Bros

In The Heights  – Film Review

Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits

Director: Jon M. Chu

Synopsis: In the Washington Heights area of New York City, the owner of a bodega aspires to one day relocate to the Dominican Republic to fulfil a childhood dream…

Review: Whenever someone mentions the name Lin-Manuel Miranda, many will undoubtedly immediately think of his work with the hugely popular musical Hamilton. Winner of an incredible 11 Tony Awards, thanks to a release of a recording of the show on Disney+ last year, it gave those who hadn’t had the chance to see it revel in its wonderful performances and irresistibly catchy tunes. Yet, Hamilton was not Miranda’s first foray into the world of musicals. Before he enjoyed phenomenal success with his adaptation of the life of one of the founding fathers of the United States, there was In the Heights, a musical penned by Miranda about the place where he grew up. Now, in the hands of director Jon M. Chu, comes an adaption that, it will not shock you to learn, is an absolutely euphoric blast of sun-soaked joy.

For any musical, the opening number is arguably the most important one of them all, as it has the task of setting the scene and getting the audience in the mood. Through this absolute bop of an opener, we meet our protagonist Usnavi (Ramos) the owner of a bodega in the Washington Heights area of New York City. Usnavi has fond memories of his childhood and the beach bar in the Dominican Republic that was once run by his father. With the bodega, and a handful of other businesses in the area at risk of going out of business, he becomes determined to raise enough money to leave New York behind and return to the Dominican Republic to reopen his family’s bar. But over the course of one summer in this vibrant Latino community in Washington Heights, as Usnavi meets with old friends and makes some new connections, there’s every chance that this will be a special, unforgettable summer.

The opening musical number introduces us to an array of the people and their livelihoods in this particular neighbourhood in the Big Apple. From Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Diaz) who helps him run the bodega, Abuela Claudia (Merediz), the neighbourhood’s matriarch who played an integral role in raising Usnavi, Kevin the owner of a nearby business and his daughter Nina who’s returned to the area after a year in college, her relationship with Benny (Hawkins), to finally Vanessa (Barrera) an aspiring fashion designer, who Usnavi has developed a massive crush on. For each and every single person in this neighbourhood, they are all motivated by their own “sueñitos”(little dreams).

As the film’s central character, Usnavi is immediately a very charming and likeable presence. Following on from his role in Hamilton, this is Anthony Ramos’s shot at a leading role, and he does not throw it away. He’s constantly thinking about his sueñito, to run that beach bar that was such an integral part of his life growing up. Yet he’s reminded of just how special this area of New York, and the people who make it home are to him. Chief among these people is his crush Vanessa. For her, her sueñito is to become a fashion designer, and Barrera’s performance is equally impressive and emotionally heartfelt in a terrific cast. There is not a false note to be found anywhere in any of their performances.

As one comes to expect when Lin-Manuel Miranda pens the music, the soundtrack is packed to the brim with irresistibly catchy and joyful songs that will be filling your eardrums for weeks afterwards. As well as the irresistibly catchy music, what is equally impressive is the choreography that accompanies each and every musical number. Furthermore, each song and musical number has its own unique vibe, which comes from the variety of backdrops for each song, and the excellent use of lighting and camerawork that director Jon. M. Chu utilises. The screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes touches on a number of very topical themes like family, identity, aspirations, and what it means to be a part of a community. Given that the original musical was written in 2005, Hudes’s screenplay has made some important changes to the plot that makes it in tandem with modern day events, such as the aspirations of the Dreamers. This crucially lends an extra weight to the stories of the people that are being brought to life on screen, because they will undoubtedly reflect many of the hopes and dreams of the people in this community.

While each and every song here are certified jams, the film is just ever slightly let down by some pacing issues in and around the middle act of the film. However, if you’re going to pick a soundtrack to be the music to your summer, you’re unlikely to find a more vibrant, soulful and downright joyous than this one. It might have taken a while for this adaptation of this musical to lift our spirits and infect our eardrums with its joyful tunes. After the difficult time that has been had by all over the last year or so, this is the perfect blast of euphoric enjoyment that we all need and deserve, and it was certainly worth the wait.

Filled with a plethora of wonderful characters, and some certifiable bops jammed packed throughout, In The Heights is the positive, life-affirming blast of joy that the world needs right now.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

The Father (2021)

© Lionsgate, Film4 and Canal+

The Father  – Film Review

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams

Director: Florian Zeller

Synopsis: An elderly man suffering from dementia refuses any assistance from carers or his family as he ages. As his condition begins to worsen, he tries to make sense of his situation…

Review: As human beings, we go through our lives so often surrounded by our loved ones, and for many, nothing can beat the warm embrace that family and friends can provide for us. But, what if one day, someone who you’re very close to, suddenly turned around had no idea who you are, or what they used to do for a living? There’s no getting away from the fact that dementia can have a devastating effect on a person’s mind. It is estimated that around 54 million people around the world currently living with dementia. Through his directorial debut, Florian Zeller provides a unique look at this disease can have on not just the sufferer, but their closest relatives as well.

Anthony (Hopkins) is a man who is suffering from dementia and is slowly starting to lose his grip on reality. His daughter Anne (Colman) tries to plead with her father to get him a professional carer to help him with his condition. However, Anthony point blank refuses, as he believes there is nothing wrong with himself, and is determined to live his life on his own terms. Consequently, by rebuffing her offers of assistance, it begins to erode Anne’s patience with her father, which has a knock-on effect on Anne’s relationship with her husband, especially as all is not what it seems in Anthony’s mind. As his grip on reality slowly starts to dissipate with each passing day.

Adapted from the play “Le Père“, approaching a film that deals with such delicate subject matter is always a challenge for the filmmakers. However, the screenplay by Zeller (who also wrote the play) and Christopher Hampton takes an extremely innovative approach in how it tells its story. Namely, it chooses to frame the film entirely from the perspective of its lead character. By doing this, it lets the audience into the mind of Anthony himself, to see how living with this disease can have such a debilitating effect on the person’s day to day life. Day-to-day conversations are continuously changing. One minute, there’s someone on screen informing Anthony (and the audience) as to who they are. Yet in the very next scene, they might be someone completely different. Through Zeller’s brilliant direction, you wonder are they who they say they are? And crucially, the audience gets a glimpse of what living with this disease must be like.

Anthony Hopkins is an actor who needs no introduction. With his distinguished career whose career is now in its seventh decade, he has given so many brilliant performances across a lifetime of wonderful work. Yet with this heart-breaking performance, it’s easily the best performance he has given in a very long time. He starts off the film in a very buoyant mood, but with each passing scene, it becomes clear that this disease is taking an immeasurable toll on his well being. Given that his character shares his name with the actor portraying him, it is evident that Zeller had Hopkins in mind when bringing this performance to life, and it pays off massively with an astonishing performance. Alongside him, Colman’s role of Anne is more subdued, but we sympathise with her as she tries to show love towards her father, even if that is starting to wear extremely thin as Anthony’s condition takes hold, and his stubborn refusal to accept her help.

This is far from an easy watch, but what Zeller has accomplished through this study of this disease, is an emotionally powerful film that will hopefully be extremely effective in increasing awareness about this disease. Given that it is estimated that the number of people suffering from dementia across the world will rise to 130 million by 2050, this is fast becoming a very serious issue that demands our increased awareness as a society. For the simple reason that it is entirely possible that we, or that someone we love, may well suffer from this disease at one point in our lives.

A careful approach to its subject matter, extremely innovative direction, and an absolutely heart-breaking lead performance from Hopkins, all combine to make The Father an extremely moving, and unforgettably devastating drama.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Nomadland (2021)

© Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland  – Film Review

Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells

Director: Chloé Zhao

Synopsis: After the death of her husband and the loss of her job, a woman purchases a van to live as a modern day nomad…

Review: Home, is where the heart is. Yet, for each and every one of us, this is a word that can mean many different things. For some, it could be that place you grew up, or a place that’s significant in your lives, or it could be where a person’s family resides. No matter what this word may mean to each and every one of us, there’s a moment early on in this beautiful film from director Chloe Zhao that perfectly captures the essence of this story. As a character is talking with Fern (McDormand) about a tattoo she has:”Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you?” With just this one simple song lyric, from “Home is a Question Mark” by The Smiths, it encapsulates the heart that is beating at the centre of the film.

Years prior to the events of the film, Fern lived and worked in Empire, Nevada, with her husband. They both had jobs working in a US Gypsum plant, and it’s immediately apparent that these were joyful years for Fern. Yet, times have sadly changed. As a result of the Great Recession of 2008, the plant that was essentially the glue that held together Empire’s economy closed, and Fern has lost her job. But the most devastatingly blow of all, is the death of her husband. Following the collapse of the town’s economy, Empire has become a ghost town and all of the residents have since moved on. With all the attachments she once had to Empire now gone, she sells most of her belongings and purchases a van and starts a new life for herself as a modern day nomad roaming the heart of the American West, taking seasonal work wherever she can find it.

Adapted from the non-fiction novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, the premise of the film is simple, but sometimes there is beauty in the simplicity of life, and the film celebrates this. Thanks to the absolutely stunning cinematography from Joshua James Richards, the film shines a light on a way of life that many will no doubt be extremely unfamiliar with. There will be many who are no doubt accustomed to the metropolitan lifestyle of a city that never sleeps. The bright lights and the constant noise of the urban metropolis. A world where chatter is constant, life is almost always continually moving. There is none of that in this nomad lifestyle, just the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the open road. Although such a lifestyle does come with its challenges, most notably the isolation.

It’s in no small part down to the extraordinary performance of Frances McDormand that pulls you into this story. Having won an Oscar a few years for her portrayal as a fierce and pissed off mother on the search for justice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this is a very different kind of role for the veteran actor. It’s much more withdrawn and subdued, and yet like the great actor she is, McDormand rises to the challenge in spectacular fashion. Aside from McDormand’s wonderful work, and an equally sincere performance from David Strathairn, as Dave, a fellow nomad who strikes up a close friendship with Fern. The rest of the film’s cast consists of real life nomads, and what could have been a somewhat risky move, instead turns out to be a masterstroke by Zhao. By choosing to have real life nomads, most of whom are portraying a fictionalised version of themselves, it lends an air of authenticity to the events that are being depicted on screen, which consequently helps you to sympathise with the people in this community, and the lives they lead.

The story does sometimes feels a bit aimless, and the pacing does stutter in one or two places. Yet, there’s a touching moment of poignancy throughout the film, that signifies the importance of remembering someone. An importance which is especially emotionally resonant for a community that could feel like it has been left behind by our modern day Capitalist society. In a similar vein to The Smiths lyric that is mentioned at the beginning, there’s another quote that feels especially emotionally resonant. “what’s remembered, lives.” Due to these emotionally trying times that we’re living in, where lots of people may have been feeling isolated and lonely, there’s a lot can be learned in being kind to one another, especially for those who may have a different lifestyle than what most people do.

Poignant and quietly moving, with a subdued but touching leading performance from McDormand, Nomadland is an emotional and celebratory study at an underrepresented way of life.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Sound of Metal (2021)

© Amazon Studios

Sound of Metal  – Film Review

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci

Director: Darius Marder

Synopsis: A drummer in a death metal band has his life thrown into disarray as he begins to lose his hearing…

Review: Touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste, the five senses that we have as humans that we use to make sense of this crazy world and everything that goes on around us. Many of us will go through our lives with all of our five senses intact. However at some point, for any number of reasons, some of us may end up losing one or more of these senses. How does one cope when faced with such a tumultuous and life-changing event, especially when the sense that you’ve lost is intrinsically linked to your profession or the thing that you love doing the most? The answer to that question, and so much more, can be found in this thought-provoking, extremely moving directorial debut from Darius Marder.

Ruben (Ahmed) is the drummer and one half of the death metal band Blackgammon, along with his girlfriend Lou (Cooke) the band’s vocalist/guitarist. The two of them travel across the USA playing out gigs wherever they can find them, all the while living out of an RV. For deeply personal reasons, these two have formed a close bond, having been an integral part of each other’s recovery from addiction, and the chemistry between them is evident of just much they mean to each other. Yet one day during a gig, everything changes for Ruben when he suddenly finds that he’s starting to lose his hearing. This threatens to put his whole music career, and indeed his whole life with Lou by his side, in jeopardy. Determined to do whatever she can for him, Lou arranges for Ruben to visit a centre that helps people who are deaf, led by a very compassionate recovering war veteran Joe (Raci).

Ever since he burst onto the scene with his stunning breakout performance in 2014’s Nightcrawler, Riz Ahmed has been consistently putting in excellent performances. Yet his role as Ruben, is a stunning, career best central performance that has solidified Ahmed’s reputations as one of the best actors in the business. Listening to music is an experience that generates waves of emotion, and the same is almost certainly true for anyone who creates and plays music. For a musician, it is incomprehensible to think of the prospect of a future of being unable to hear the music that you are playing to the world, and the sudden loss of one’s hearing, especially in that field of work, is almost guaranteed to cause some anxiety and pain. Right from the moment he feels his hearing starting to fade, Ahmed portrays with heart-breaking authenticity the horror and devastation that someone in that situation would find themselves in, especially when music is Ruben’s life, and it is all he’s ever known.

While the first half of the film is resting on Ahmed’s shoulders to bring the emotional weight of this massive moment in his life, the performance of Paul Raci as Joe, the deaf former war veteran who is offering to help Ruben find his place in the world, is considerably more understated. Yet crucially, it is just as effective. The first half of the film as Ruben and Lou grapple with this, captures the drama and anguish of the situation. Yet the second half of the film is where the heart of the film lies as Ruben slowly but surely comes to terms with his ordeal. Through his own personal experiences, Joe teaches Ruben that while he may have lost a significant part of what made his life so enthralling in the creation and the playing of the music that he and Lou created and shared with the world, there is a whole other world that is opened to him as a result of his deafness. Or, to borrow a well known phrase, as one door closes, another must open.

When a film has “Sound” in its title, focus is inevitably going to turn towards the sound work, and the work done by the sound team of: Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortes, and Philip Bladh, is truly outstanding. Through every aspect of their incredible work, they fully immerse the audience into Ruben’s world. Right from the opening shot of the thrum of the music that Ruben and Lou are creating, to the distortion and muffling that Ruben starts to experience as we watch his hearing disappear before our eyes, to the sound of total silence that follows once Ruben’s hearing has completely disappeared. It all puts the audience in Ruben’s shoes and makes us understand his perspective. There’s been no shortage of films in the past year or so that have brought powerful and urgent messages, and Sound of Metal offers a powerful and meaningful message that deafness is not a handicap, or something that needs to be fixed.

With a career best performance from Ahmed, Darius Marder’s directorial debut is passionate film-making that, quietly and effectively, communicates a very powerful message that the demands to be seen and heard across the world.