Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2022

Empire of Light (2022)

© Searchlight Pictures

Empire of Light  – Film Review

Cast: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Monica Dolan, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth

Director:  Sam Mendes

Synopsis: On the south coast of England, a romance develops between two cinema employees…

Review: Where do you go after making what could feasibly be deemed your magnum opus? This would have been the question for Sam Mendes following the magnificent triumph of his captivating war film 1917.  It has been popular among big-time Hollywood directors to focus on films which illustrate the wonders of the big screen, understandable given the COVID-19 pandemic caused cinemas everywhere to remain dark for many months. Therefore, it seems a given a renowned director like Mendes would be able to bring something unique to this increasingly popular cinematic trend. Yet, despite some good intentions, Mendes’ follow-up to his World War I masterpiece is a crushing disappointment.

Set in the early 1980s on the South Coast of England, Hillary (Colman) is the manager of the Empire, a beautiful cinema in a prime location on the seafront. Despite being a consummate professional who is dedicated to doing her job to the best of her ability in spite of the presence of her rather unpleasant boss Mr Ellis (Firth), Hillary’s happiness is beginning to diminish as the job takes a toll on her mental health. However, with the arrival of Stephen (Ward), things initially start to seem a little brighter as the two of them develop a romance. However, it is a brief respite for Hillary as her mental health worsens, especially with the country sliding into recession, putting the cinema at risk, and the foul stench of racism clogging the seaside air.

The film marks Mendes’ first solo attempt at writing a screenplay and it is telling his efforts completely crumble under the enormous weight of the story it is trying to convey. It is all well and good to tackle important social issues such as the stigma which still surrounds mental health and the poisonous presence of racism in society. Yet, it is all rendered utterly meaningless as the attempts to tackle these issues are so hamfisted and underdeveloped, the film feels completely unsure of what it really wants to say. In doing so, it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the issues it is trying to address, even more so considering the film is also attempting to portray a love story between two cinema employees, while also coming across as a moving ode to the magic of the big screen, the latter of which seems to be tacked on as a mere afterthought. There are simply too many different subplots happening at one time and it ultimately proves too much for Mendes to weave these together all by himself.

Since winning her first Oscar in 2019, Olivia Colman has fast become something of an industry favourite among industry and audiences alike, given she has added two further nominations in the last two years. While both Colman and Michael Ward admirably try their hardest to elevate the poor and underdeveloped material they have both been given to work with, it proves to be too difficult a challenge for both of them to overcome. Their romance is by far and away the most developed part of the film, but even then it is not nearly given the attention it needs to flourish due to the numerous ongoing themes the film tries to explore. Furthermore, there is simply not enough chemistry between the two of them which makes it difficult to care about their romance. One of the film’s few bright sparks is the ever-reliable Toby Jones as Norman, the cinema’s resident projectionist.

Frequent Mendes collaborator Roger Deakins’s cinematography is immaculate, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do not disappoint with their score. It is therefore such a shame their fine work ultimately goes to waste on a film which should have been a sure bet in such capable hands. Yet, rather than recapture the feelings of joy and wonder which often comes from seeing films on the big screen in a packed auditorium, this is completely devoid of any charisma and charm, leaving nothing but an empty feeling inside. There will undoubtedly be many more films released in the coming years serving as a reminder of the power this medium can have on audiences, but this is one which misses the mark entirely.

Despite the best efforts of the cast and a very capable director, Empire of Light completely fails to dazzle due to its unfocused script, combining poorly developed social commentary with a half-hearted tribute to the beauty of cinema.

 

 

 

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2022

She Said (2022)

© Universal, Annapurna Pictures and Plan B

She Said – Film Review

Cast: Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Patricia Clarkson, Jennifer Ehle, Angela Yeoh, Samantha Morton, Andre Braugher, Ashley Judd

Director:  Maria Schrader

Synopsis: Telling the true story of the two reporters from The New York Times whose reporting uncovered the truth behind the sexual assault allegations that sparked a worldwide movement…

Review: 5th October 2017, a date that will go down as the day that not just the film industry, but the world changed forever. It is the date when the shocking truth behind the repeated abuse and sexual misconduct committed by numerous powerful men, most notably Harvey Weinstein, against countless women came to light in an exposé published by The New York Times. A story that sparked a global movement of women to come forward to report their own allegations against numerous high-powered individuals who used their positions of power to sexually assault women in multiple industries. However, what is not nearly as well known is the tireless and vital work done by the heroic journalists whose courageous and resolute reporting helped to spark the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns, and ignite a much-needed conversation about sexual harassment and treatment of women the world over.

The film opens in 2016, with investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Mulligan) reporting on the 2016 US Presidential election, the sexual assault allegations made against the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and later when similar accusations against prominent Fox News TV host Bill O’Reilly came to light. Flash forward several months, and the two of them are assigned to investigate allegations of appalling misconduct perpetuated by Weinstein against several women that worked for one of his studios. The two soon uncover a shocking system that protects high-profile individuals committing these horrific abuses by bullying the women into silence, either through cash settlements or non-disclosure agreements and any attempts to publicise the story are derailed by Weinstein and his lawyers. Consequently, Kantor and Twohey become even more determined to speak to victims and attempt to persuade them to go on the record to tell their story to bring down someone whose rampant abusive behaviour had been left unchecked for decades.

Given that the rise of the Me Too and the Time’s Up Movements represent very recent history, it was of critical importance for the film to approach this story and subject matter with the utmost respect. It would have been so easy for the film to devolve into a puff piece where the reporters pat themselves on the back for a report that brought to an end the system abuse by a man who was regarded as one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, but Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay (based on the book: She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Kantor and Twohey) is having none of it. In a similar manner to the Oscar-winning Spotlight, the film expertly walks the line between demonstrating the pain-staking work that went into the investigation, and the effect that such work has on the personal lives of these journalists, whilst paying tribute to these courageous victims who came forward to speak out and help bring down someone who wrought so much devastation on the lives of countless women.

Kazan and Mulligan are both exceptional as the journalists at the centre of this investigation. As their investigation progresses and they uncover more and more evidence through speaking to these witnesses, the emotional weight of the horror that these people experienced, begins to take a hefty toll, especially when it comes to their personal lives. However, they remain undeterred, because they know the importance of the work that they are carrying out and amid the threat hanging over them that Weinstein might bury the story before they have a chance to publish. The supporting performances of everyone most notably Samantha Morton, Angela Yeoh, Jennifer Ehle, and Ashley Judd, the latter of whom plays herself, help ground the film in reality and provide a significant amount of emotional heft as they recount the horrific nature of their experiences.

Nicholas Britell’s stripped-back score captures the gravity of the situation and when necessary shifts gear to the urgency of the reporters attempting to get their story into the public domain. The work of the Me Too campaign is an ongoing struggle, and much more work will need to be done. However, the brilliant work of Maria Schrader and her predominantly female crew represents another timely reminder of the importance of investigative journalism, and the hugely essential stories it can bring to a global audience, stories that may well have never seen the light of day had certain people got their way. But it is much more than that, it is also the essential fact that when it comes to telling these stories, it is imperative that the voices of women come to the fore when telling these stories. It is a testament to those who would not let themselves be intimidated, and who raised their voices when it mattered the most.

Emotionally riveting, with compelling performances across the board in a vitally important film that pays tribute to journalistic integrity and the extraordinary combined with the bravery of those who came forward to spark an incredibly important movement.

a

 

 

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2022

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

© Searchlight Pictures, Film4 Productions and TSG Entertainment

The Banshees of Inisherin – Film Review

Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan

Director:  Martin McDonagh

Synopsis: Tensions arise between two friends when one of them decides to end their friendship…

Review: Friendships can be of tremendous value to us as we navigate this crazy journey that we call life. Yet, sometimes, there can be those situations where a friendship comes to an end, which can be challenging to accept for all the parties involved. What do you do? Allow yourself to accept the situation and move on? Or do you refuse to take no for an answer and make efforts to rekindle the friendship? After setting his last film in the USA, playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh moves closer to home to deliver another hilarious black comedy, set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War.

It is 1923 on the fictional remote Irish island of Inisherin. Padraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson) were at one time in their lives, the best of friends and had been for a number of years. However, one day, Colm decides to abruptly end their friendship, which Padriac has difficulties coming to terms with and demands a reason why, which Colm refuses to acknowledge. Wondering what it was that caused Colm to end their friendship, Padriac becomes determined to make amends but these attempts only cause more tension between the two (former) friends, which threatens to boil over into something much more unpleasant that neither of them will like.

Black comedy is an extremely difficult genre to successfully pull off, yet McDonagh is one of those directors who has proven himself to be one of the best in the business when it comes to writing razor-sharp and hilarious dialogue from the bleakest subject matters you could possibly imagine. His last film was filled with some biting social commentary about racism and police brutality in the USA, set against the backdrop of the murder of a young woman.  By contrast, Banshees is a bit more dialled back in terms of the melancholic nature of the comedy, focusing on the (failed) friendship of two men. That being said, by framing this bitterness and anger, ragainst the context of the Irish Civil War, the film offers an extremely compelling analytical look at themes of nihilism, isolation and loneliness. It is perhaps not nearly as thought-provoking as Three Billboards, but it is not a million miles away.

Reuniting with McDonagh after working together to wonderful effect for In Bruges, it is a sheer joy to see both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson share the screen once more. The pair of them strike comedic gold once again, even if they are not together on screen as much as you would perhaps want them to be. Farrell’s Padraic is by his own admission, a bit of a simple man who enjoys tending to his animals, whilst enjoying a good tipple in the evening. The limelight belongs to Farrell and he is truly wonderful to watch and makes the perfect contrast to Colm. The latter of whom is a cultured man without a doubt but one who makes it quite clear that he simply does not have time or willingness to be in Padraic’s presence anymore, and is willing to go to drastic measures to prove his point. The friendship that has now turned to bitterness and hostility between them gives McDonagh license to craft hilarious dialogue, and he does not disappoint, providing numerous moments that will have you howling with laughter.

While both Farrell and Gleeson are in brilliant form, it is Kerry Condon (who made the most of her small role in Three Billboards) who comes the closest to stealing the show from both of them as Siobhan, Padraic’s sister. She provides tenderness and warmth to the story, which can at times be a much-needed respite from not only the cold and detached nature of her brother and Colm’s ruined friendship but from the island of Inisherin as well. Ben Davis’s cinematography manages to simultaneously capture the beauty of the country, yet at the same time, the unwelcoming atmosphere which hangs over the majority of the island, accompanied by another excellent score from Carter Burwell. A story about two friends falling out might seem like an unlikely vessel for hilarity, but McDonagh proves once again that when it comes to crafting comedy from the dreariest of situations, there aren’t many writers/directors who can do it better.

Boasting brilliant performances from Farrell and Gleeson, combined with extremely witty and sharply written dialogue ensures The Banshees of Insherin is another masterclass of bleak hilariousness from Martin McDonagh. 

 

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

© Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media and Bruckheimer Films

Top Gun: Maverick – Film Review

Cast: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Monica Barbaro, Charles Parnell, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Greg Tarzan Davis

Directors: Joseph Kosinski

Synopsis: After decades of service in the US Navy, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is called back to train some new recruits for a dangerous new mission…

Review: What more is there to be said about Tom Cruise? For over four decades, here’s an actor who has poured his heart and soul into his projects, pulling off death-defying stunts, all to provide the audience with thrilling entertainment, which has cemented his reputation as one of the best action movie stars of his generation. While his most jaw-dropping stunt work has come in the Mission: Impossible franchise, arguably the first of the many iconic roles that he’s provided audiences with over the years was the cocky US Navy Pilot in Top Gun.  Now, somewhat much later than planned due to numerous delayed release dates, Cruise is taking audiences back to the skies once more, for an utterly enthralling sequel that will please long time fans of the original and new fans alike.

After more than three decades of service in the US Navy, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is right where he wants to be, serving as one of the most skilled pilots whilst continuously avoiding the calling of a higher rank that would prevent him from taking flight ever again. However, upon the request of Tom “Iceman” Kazinsky (Kilmer), he’s called back to Top Gun to lead the training of a batch of new recruits, billed as the best that the Navy has to offer, for a highly perilous mission that will test their skills as pilots to the limit. However, whilst training these new recruits, Maverick must contend with the fact that one of the new recruits is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Teller), the son of his late best friend Goose, who died whilst flying with Maverick.

To reprise a role after over 30 years can be a risk, as it can so often be one of two things. It can either tell a story that is worth telling, or it could (especially given Hollywood’s love for using nostalgia) be used as a mere excuse to print money at the box office. While this sequel does walk the line between being nothing more than a nostalgia trip for fans of the original, it does earn its place as a more than worthy sequel. However, while the script by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie certainly weaves some of that nostalgia into the story by immediately blasting Kenny Loggins’s opening song in the opening credits, it is also a story that packs plenty of emotional weight, especially where Maverick, and where he is at this moment in his life, is concerned.

Cruise, as he so often is, is effortlessly watchable. He exudes the swagger, charisma and cockiness that made him such made Maverick such an instantaneous icon of 80s action cinema. However, through all that charisma and extraordinary skill to fly a fighter plane, there’s an overriding sense of guilt that despite being cleared of any blame for the death of Goose, Maverick still feels responsible for what happened. It is a responsibility that he is forced to confront when Goose’s son Rooster becomes one of his pupils. While Maverick has to balance his desire to be the father figure for Rooster that he never had, and his teacher, Rooster continues to harbour resentment for Maverick’s part in his father’s death. The dynamic between the two creates an emotional arc that drives the story forward, whilst giving Teller an opportunity to remind us of what a talented actor he is with an extremely impactful performance.

For the majority of the new recruits, while they are all charismatic presences, any attempt at a backstory or character development for any of them, apart from Rooster, is minimal at best. This also goes for much of the rest of the new cast. There is an extremely emotional moment between Maverick and Val Kilmer’s Iceman. Jon Hamm shines with what little screen time he has as a Vice Admiral who would love nothing more than to ground Maverick for good. For Maverick’s love interest, there’s no mention of Kelly McGillis’s Charlotte. Instead, she is replaced by Jennifer Connolly’s Penny, a past flame of Maverick’s whose only purpose is to give him the motivation to ensure he makes it back home.

Re-teaming with Joseph Kosinski, who helmed Tron Legacy and Oblivion with Cruise, it’s not overstating it to say that these aerial action scenes are some of the most exhilarating action scenes that have ever been put to film. It is estimated that a whopping 800 hours worth of footage inside real-life planes was shot, enough time to watch the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy approximately 70 times over! It is an extraordinary herculean endeavour from all of the crew, from Kosinski’s immaculate direction to the terrific sound work, it puts the audience in the cockpit of these planes like they are in the cockpit with these incredibly skilled pilots as they train for the toughest mission of their naval careers.  When it comes time for the mission during the all-important third act, the tension is dialled to the maximum and never lets up for the rest of the film. After all those delays due to the pandemic, Top Gun: Maverick earns its wings by becoming a rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor in just about every single way.

A spectacular combination of pulsating spectacle, combined with a grounded and emotional story that pulls on the heartstrings, ensures that this is a sequel that passes with flying colours and will truly take your breath away. 

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

© A24

Everything Everywhere All At Once – Film Review

Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis

Directors: Daniel Kwan and Dan Scheinert

Synopsis: Staring at the looming possibility of her business being forcibly closed down and amid rocky relationships with her family, a woman discovers she has the ability to travel through the multiverse…

Review: Humanity has long had a fascination with the concept of the multiverse, which has often found its way into the media that we consume. Most notably with science fiction and the realm of superhero movies, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It does make you wonder, what if there was an alternative version of you living in a universe in conjunction with this mad world we find ourselves living in? How would their life be different from the one you currently have and how different their world would be compared to ours? The answers to those questions, and so much more, can be found in one of the best explorations of this concept that’s ever been put to film.

Evelyn (Yeoh) is a Chinese-American woman who owns a laundromat whilst living in a tiny cramped flat above the laundromat with her husband Waymond (Quan). Her business is currently under audit by the IRS and Evelyn is up to her eyeballs in paperwork to sift through. To make matters worse, she’s presently enduring some troubled relationships with her family. Her marriage is teetering on the brink of divorce, her ailing father (Hong) is coming to visit and her relationship with her daughter Joy (Hsu) is breaking down to potentially the point of no return. Everything comes to a head when Evelyn realises, whilst in a crucial meeting with the IRS, that she has the power to travel through the multiverse. She’s able to see the various different lives she could have led, and as it turns out, is humanity’s last hope as a grave threat threatens to destroy not just her universe, but every single universe in existence.

If you have seen the previous film from Daniel Kwan and Dan Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, where a farting corpse discovers the meaning of life and friendship, you know to expect the unexpected. But even with that caveat, nothing can truly quite prepare the audience for the breathtaking film that they are about to experience. Effortlessly combining multiversal travel, with flawlessly executed kung-fu inspired action scenes, absurd moments of brilliant comedy and a very sincere heartfelt story sounds like an impossible job for one film to accomplish. It would be very easy for any film dealing with multiverses to get lost in the madness and for things to spiral hopelessly out of control to the point where it’s nought but an incoherent mess that has scrambled your brain. Fortunately, Daniels’ screenplay is extremely airtight. The imagination to have come up with such a brilliantly realised story is beyond impressive. However, to go into much more detail and to give away some of the hilarious jokes and gags would be a disservice to the genius of Daniels’ brilliantly bonkers vision.

Michelle Yeoh has always been a very prominent figure across a plethora of Hollywood movies, from her memorable turns as a Bond lady in Tomorrow Never Dies to her scene-stealing work in Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s usually been from a supporting perspective. So, to see her given her first leading role in a Hollywood film is so immensely satisfying, because it is what an actor of her immense talent truly deserves. Yeoh throws everything she has into this role, doing all of her own stunts, and in turn, gives the many different lives of Evelyn that we see on screen so much depth. She demonstrates just why she’s such a revered actor and Yeoh gives the performance of her career. While the film belongs to Yeoh, the work of the supporting cast must not be discounted.

Having had a very small role in last year’s Shang-Chi, Stephanie Hsu gets her chance to shine as Evelyn’s disgruntled daughter Joy and she seizes that opportunity with both hands. There is so much depth and nuance to Joy and the relationship between Joy and her mother. Ke Huy Quan, who shot to fame with his early performances in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies had been away from the acting game for a while, so it is fantastic to see him return and give such a brilliant performance as Evelyn’s goofy husband Waymond. The icing on the cake is Jamie Lee Curtis’s hilarious turn as the grumpy IRS agent who’s leading the audit into Evelyn’s business.

Regardless of the medium, an exploration of the multiverse offers filmmakers/showrunners so many possibilities. However, the film doesn’t lose sight of its core story about the importance of family and finding one’s place in the world. It gives the audience that and an enthralling ride along the way that they are unlikely to forget any time soon. Films like Everything Everywhere All At Once don’t come around too often, but when they do, they demand to be celebrated and cherished. For as long as the cinematic art form exists, films like this one are a powerful reminder of the wonder that this medium can accomplish.

Taking a plethora of genres and throwing them all into one film could have very easily backfired. However, with a career-best performance from Michelle Yeoh, this cinematic masterpiece fully lives up to its title by being hilarious, exhilarating and heartfelt all at once.

a

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.