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, London Film Festival 2021

Last Night in Soho (2021)

© Universal Pictures, Film4 Productions, Perfect World Pictures and Working Title Films

Last Night in Soho  – Film Review

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, Michael Ajao, Dame Diana Rigg

Director: Edgar Wright

Synopsis: An aspiring fashion student moves to London with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. However, she soon finds herself somehow being connected to a different era of London’s Soho…

Review: It’s a dream that plenty of us have at some point in our lives. Leave the comforts of the homes that we were raised in, and experience the bright lights, the busy streets, and the atmosphere and vibes that life in the big city can offer. Yet, for all the tourist attractions and the appealing allure of the big city life, every city (especially one as vast as London) can be overwhelming for people at first. Additionally, each city has a dark side, and both the celebration and the sinister dark side of London form the basis of the new film from one of the most unique voices in British film-making: Edgar Wright.

Eloise (McKenzie) is a fashion student who is a big fan of the 1960s and the music of that era. She moves from her cosy South West roots to the big bright lights of London to attend the London College of Fashion. She has big ambitions to realise her dreams and become a household name amongst the world’s fashion designers. Shortly after arriving, Eloise discovers that when she is asleep, she can travel back to a point during the Swinging Sixties in London where she mysteriously finds herself intertwined with the life of Sandy (Taylor-Joy), who aspires to become a singer. Initially, everything appears to be fine and dandy in the brightly lit neon streets of 1960s London. However, not everything is what it seems, and there’s a darker side to this city that Eloise is about to discover.

Having established herself with her stunning but subdued performance in Jojo Rabbit, this is another demonstration of Thomasin McKenzie’s extraordinary talents. When you make the move from the pleasant countryside to the big city, it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re a student who’s experiencing the madness that is Fresher’s Week. McKenzie’s performance perfectly encapsulates that feeling in an extremely relatable manner as she initially struggles to adapt to this new life. As time goes on, she develops more confidence, as she sees part of herself in Sandy, which inspires her to be more outgoing in her social life and with her fashion designs. As the woman at the centre of Eloise’s fascination, Taylor-Joy’s performance as Sandy is suitably captivating. Additionally, this film marks the final on-screen performance of the late, great Diana Rigg’s illustrious career, and it’s a wonderful final performance.

In a note from the cast and crew of the film that was posted on Twitter, the urge to keep the mystery surrounding this film intact was heavily emphasised. Or, as they put it “What happens in Last Night in Soho, stays in Soho.” Hence, the mystery that has been crafted by Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns shall not be disclosed here. The film starts very strongly as we see Eloise blissfully experience her favourite time period through this vivid dream, but that blissful dream soon turns into a living nightmare when certain truths begin to emerge. As the mystery that’s at the centre of this film begins to unravel, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. This is down some extremely slick editing. Through this shift, the film descends into horror film territory, a genre that Wright is no stranger to, given that he expertly combined horror and comedy in Shaun of the Dead.

While there’s enough to make audiences jump out of their seat in terror, the scares can get a little wearisome and repetitive. Furthermore, the messages of the film feel a little muddled in parts, especially by the end of the third act. This is extremely frustrating because of the ambitious nature of the story. However, life in the big city can sometimes be overwhelming and too much for the senses. Wright’s love letter to this city, which clearly means so much to him, has much to be admired about it. There are a plethora of ideas thrown at the wall, but not all of them stick the landing. Hence, it does sometimes feel a bit unsure of what kind of film it wants to be and might have just bit off more than it can chew.

You cannot fault the ambition, but even with a committed performance from McKenzie, a slightly muddled screenplay prevents Last Night in Soho from becoming another classic in Wright’s filmography.

 

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review, London Film Festival 2019

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Image is property of Fox Searchlight

Jojo Rabbit – Film Review

Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson

Director: Taika Waititi

Synopsis: When a young lad in the Hilter Youth finds out that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic of their house, he starts to question the ideology that’s been drummed into him from a young age…

Review: Whenever a comedy is pitched to a studio, it’s hard to imagine a premise would the centre of that pitch involve the presence of one of the most evil men of the 20th century and set slap bang in the middle of Nazi Germany. For it to also be pitched as a comedy/satire, it’s a concept that seems so absurd, there would have been a good chance that you’d get laughed out of the room. In the wrong hands, such an idea could have been a catastrophe of enormous proportions in its execution. Yet in the hands of Taika Waititi, the whimsical New Zealand comedian/director, it’s an absolute masterstroke.

When young Johannes (Davis) or Jojo for short, joins the Hitler Youth, his love for his country, and his naïve belief in its ideals knows no bounds. With his imaginary friend, an ethnically inaccurate (and considerably more moronic) version of Hitler by his side, he strives to complete his time at the Hitler Youth with flying colours. However, when he uncovers the startling secret that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (McKenzie) in the attic of his house, it brings Jojo back down to Earth with a jolt, and he must grapple with everything that has been taught to him throughout his childhood.

For his very first acting role, Roman Griffin Davis is nothing short of a revelation. He handles both the comedic elements of the story and the more dramatic moments like a seasoned actor with several roles already under his belt. Alongside him, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in the attic, gives a wounded, but impactful performance, in a role that represents the heart and soul of the film. For the rest of the supporting cast, everyone does their job tremendously well, and there’s not a single performance out of place. From Sam Rockwell’s Nazi Commanding Officer, to Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s compassionate mother. The true scene-stealer in all of this, is writer/director Waititi’s portrayal of the moronic version of Hitler. Any moment he pops into the frame, or opens his mouth, it will be next to impossible not to just burst into fits of laughter.

Adapted from the book Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens, Waititi’s screenplay expertly combines the comedy aspects with the much more dramatic/heavy moments. In Waititi’s signature idiosyncratic style, there’s tonnes of hilarious jokes peppered throughout the film. However, merging comedy with drama is always walking the very finest of fine lines, especially for a film set in this particular time period.  However, through Waititi’s skilled comedic timing and direction, the comedy never overshadows the moments of the film that require the audience to pause and reflect.

In a time when divisions in many societies across the world seem to be more fierce and toxic than ever, this is a very timely film. Poking fun at the absurdity of the Nazis and their ideologies is not exactly anything new and as such, the risk of the gags running out of steam very early on was very high. While the satirical nature of the comedy may not land with everyone, there’s a powerful message at the core of the film. Namely, it serves as a reminder of the power that love can conquer hate. Furthermore, despite any differences we share, there’s ultimately more that connects us, than separates us. Which, in this divisive era, is a message that society can definitely grab on to.

Blending satire with some heavy drama could have gone horribly wrong. Though, thanks to Waititi’s sharp screenplay and superb performances across the board, the end product is side-splitting and simultaneously incredibly poignant.