November 2021 Roundup

The Card Counter

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Focus Features // Directed by Paul Schrader // Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe

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Following on from 2017’s splendid First Reformed, Paul Schrader returns with yet another deep character study with The Card Counter. Here, we have Oscar Isaac in the role of William Tell, an exacting card counter with a...chequered past, who has been presented with two wildly varying paths in life – one that is smothered in vengeance and the other a simple road to validity. Tell needs card games and the associated lifestyle as a means of balance; at one point he says his need is simply to pass the time, but, in reality, it helps him to suffocate the sins of his past. Through Tell, the movie can broach themes relating to culpability, control, accountability, and redemption alongside a not-so-subtle damnation of the War on Terror and nationalism. The brilliance of The Card Counter comes from how Schrader plays out the suspense of Tell’s situation against seemingly drab backdrops of mid-level casinos and the relationships he forges with Haddish’s alluring stable host La Linda and Sheridan’s lost and vengeance-fuelled Cirk – vengeance that involves Tell’s past. There’s a seething tension whispering across each scene, the lingering feeling that the movie is leading towards something inescapable. Whether that be Tell’s ambiguity in the eyes of the other characters, his dark military background, his paranoia-fuelled motel room routine or Cirk’s sullen mannerisms, Schrader proves again that he knows how to craft a compelling narrative, and, whilst there is less visual flair here than seen in First Reformed, the coldness of the visuals only aids the tone further. The movie also provides three great performances, Oscar Isaac is excellent as the charmingly menacing Tell, Haddish provides some necessary stability and levity whilst Sheridan steps away from large-scale pop culture romps for something more subtle and affecting. The methodical pacing and lack of actual card playing may come as a detriment to some, but anyone familiar with Schrader’s work won’t be surprised with what they see. Powered by Isaac’s excellent performance, The Card Counter is precisely layered and fiercely executed.

 

Eternals

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Chloé Zhao // Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie

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It’s always exciting to discover what the reigning Academy Award-winning Best Director will be following up their prized movie with and in Chloé Zhao’s case, it’s a Marvel movie – specifically, Eternals. The 26th installment in the MCU, Eternals introduces immortal superbeings into the universe, ones that have lived anonymously on Earth for millennia and who now must reteam to fight their evolving and returning nemesis, the Deviants. The plot of Eternals stretches much further than that top-level synopsis and other narrative elements include Celestials, jilted lovers, historical ramifications, and Kit Harington. In fact, one of the key positive aspects of Eternals is Harington being sidelined for the vast majority of the movie. So, the major question is...how successfully would Zhao’s specific and beautiful talents merge with Kevin Feige’s well-oiled but rigid machine? Sadly, the answer is not particularly well, and, frustratingly, the director's stamp isn’t overwhelming. Zhao is known for assuming writing and editing duties for her movies as well as having a large say in the visual feel and the lack of her touch in those areas is noticeable (in fact, some of the editing is simply poor). The drawn-out narrative fails to soar and the attempt to create a slower, pensive, character-driven piece buckles under the pedestrian pacing, heavy exposition, and frankly uninteresting characters - Zhao’s ability to bring real humanity and raw authenticity to her work is absent here which, to be fair, could be expected given the subjects and characters.  Through the vast amount of character interaction and conversations (not an unwelcome addition), Eternals strives to deliver a deep, existential experience when, in reality, there’s nothing here that will trigger any deep reflective thoughts other than to affirm that humans are essentially awful. Another plate to spin for Zhao was the introduction of so many new characters, and, whilst the cast is stacked with talent, only Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Angelina Jolie, and Harish Patel shine – the latter narrowly avoiding some ill-advised stereotyping. The rest aren’t bad but there is no real spark or charisma surrounding them. What Eternals does boast are some dazzling landscapes and expansive shots that create a sense of scope and awe. Whilst some of the CGI is janky, the natural shots look great. Unsurprisingly, Ramin Djawadi delivers a score full of gravitas and emotion, it’s just a shame the movie could not follow suit. With the talents of Zhao and the wonderfully diverse and talented cast, I was optimistic for Eternals (despite not being sold on the trailers) but I came out disappointed having witnessed an imbalanced, slightly messy, uninspiring, and sadly boring slog. How the MCU builds upon this will be interesting, but hopefully, they do it better.

 

Cry Macho

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Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by Clint Eastwood // Starring Clint Eastwood, Dwight Yoakom, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven

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At the grand age of 91, Clint Eastwood is still going strong in front of and behind the camera, and his latest movie, Cry Macho, sees him take the lead role and direct once again – though this is mooted to be his final role. The movie sees his character, Mike, a grizzled old rodeo star tasked with retrieving his employer's son Rafo (Minett) from his alcoholic mother Leta (Urrejola) in Mexico and returning him back to the US. It is standard modern-Eastwood stuff, not too dissimilar from recent dud The Mule, where his old dog of a character must learn to connect with those around him. Though Eastwood has no problem crafting a beautiful-looking movie with a melancholy atmosphere, there is not a lot else to admire in Cry Macho. The characters are uninteresting, bar Natalia Traven’s Marta who injects a dash of life into proceedings, and Eastwood possibly wasn’t the best choice for the lead role. He is simply fine when emoting or monologuing, but the smatterings of action are painfully shot and edited to hide his limitations to the point of being genuinely jarring. That along with his character being a sex symbol for women a third of his age was just plain weird. It’s not his finest hour. Cry Macho is strongest when it concentrates on the relationship between Mike and Rafo and less so the contrived and uninteresting pursuit from Leta’s goons, a subplot that was present to insert stakes but one that does just the opposite. It’s by no means a bad movie, it’s just painstakingly average and one that proves Eastwood’s talents are now better suited to being behind the camera. Not exclusively bad, certainly not great or memorable, Cry Macho simply exists.

 

Spencer

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STXfilms // Directed by Pablo Larraín // Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry

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Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was great. Featuring a fine performance from Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, it provided a haunting psychological insight of a woman thrust into a startling moment of history. For his latest biographical drama, Spencer, Larraín is tackling another slice of time featuring a similarly iconic woman who spent most of her life in the glare of the public eye and one who faced more than her fair share of hurdles and sadness – the late Princess Diana. With Kristen Stewart in the titular role, Spencer is a self-proclaimed fable telling the story of Diana’s life in the immediate lead-up to her separation from Prince Charles (Farthing). The account takes place from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day in 1991 and we bear witness to the mental and physical anguish that Diana went through as the pressure and scrutiny from the press and, indeed, the Royals themselves piled on. At this point in her life, Diana wanted out of her marriage (Charles’ affair with Camilla is touched upon), she wanted to be the best mother to her children but had to contend with the smothering Royals and their dogmatic, suffocating lust for tradition. That said, Spencer does not act or exist as a ‘hit job’ on the monarchy – they aren’t presented as evil as much as Diana isn’t presented as entirely affable. Instead, Larraín opts for another psychological drama, but, whereas Jackie stumbled at points, it felt accessible enough, Spencer is a much colder movie. The characters are all presented in a very stand-offish manner and, at times, it’s hard to really feel connected whilst being held at arm's length. Some of this is certainly due to the overly lavish and detached existence the Royals lead but there are moments within Spencer that are far more human (the obvious intention) and allow for some excellent moments. Sequences with Diana and the young Princes William (Nielen) and Harry (Spry) provide warmth, humour, and a relatability whilst a wonderfully delivered beach sequence with Sally Hawkins’ Maggie (Diana’s trusted dresser) is another high point in a movie that struggles to break free of monotony and a sometimes-meandering narrative. As Diana, Stewart delivers a good performance. She looks the part and her mannerisms felt genuine, but she didn’t sound like Diana, the dramatic whispering that she adopted certainly matched the fabled nature but was frustratingly distracting at times (special mention to Timothy Spall who was great in a pivotal supporting role.) Unsurprisingly, the era is captured excellently, the early-90s being resurrected efficiently despite the muted visual palette, and Jonny Greenwood once again delivers an intricate and effective score which only furthers the feeling of mild disappointment with Spencer overall. It’s an extremely competent movie with plenty of positives, but, as previously mentioned, the distant atmosphere hinders Spencer. At times it’s touching and at others, it’s very on the nose (a poorly executed metaphor about pheasants and allusions to Anne Boleyn also...) but it never felt truly balanced or enticing.

 

Red Notice

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Netflix // Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber // Starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Ritu Arya, Chris Diamantopoulos

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As the world’s largest streaming service, Netflix probably has a few quid to burn in their back pockets so why not spend some on assembling an expensive trio to head up your latest attempt at creating a decent movie? Well, in terms of assembling an expensive cast, it turns out this is just what they have done for Red Notice – a heist comedy starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. On the face of it, the trio and the premise seemed like a good fit but then, most things can seem great early doors. The truth is the three leads make the whole effort worthwhile because, without their charm and magnetism, Red Notice would have been awful. Instead, it is simply average. Everyone looks like they are enjoying themselves, safe in the knowledge that their bank balances received a sizeable increase for participating in what would be labelled an ‘exhibition’ in sporting terms. Johnson’s burly cop John Hartley and Reynolds’ art thief Nolan Booth gel effectively and Gadot is bubbly and competent as Booth’s equal/competitor, however, Ritu Arya’s Interpol agent Urvashi Das was frankly terrible. Given the talent, of course, there are some good gags but one of the fundamental issues is that they are smothered in throwaway improv jokes. This can work in smaller doses but there were times when Red Notice simply felt as if it were being made up on the fly. When you combine this with the fact that there are far too many attempts at twists, shocks, and reveals, the movie spends a lot of time suffering because of its strange writing process (or lack of). ALSO factor in that it looks cheap as hell and...well...you get the picture (the poorly dressed sound stage in the climactic scenes barely attempted to disguise itself). Inversely, some of the action is well choreographed and the first half is arguably very solid before it crumbles under the weight of its own silliness and overreach. Red Notice isn’t quite the success Netflix would have been banking on for one of their biggest releases of the year even if it isn’t entirely awful. It isn’t far off though, and it can thank its lead trio for barely keeping it afloat.

 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

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Sony Pictures Releasing // Directed by Jason Reitman // Starring Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O'Connor, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts

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I’ll start this off by saying I’m a big Ghostbusters fan. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that bustin’ makes me feel good. My hopes were high for Ghostbusters: Afterlife and this comes from someone who doesn’t dislike either Paul Feig’s 2016’s version or Ghostbusters II - I didn’t approach this as a last throw of the dice for a dying franchise. Directed by Jason Reitman (son of the original two movie's director, Ivan), Afterlife takes place in present-day Oklahoma, far from the streets of New York, and sees the descendants of Egon Spengler (the late, great Harold Ramis) inherit the former Ghostbuster’s derelict farmhouse following his demise in order to obtain much-needed funds required to kickstart their lives. Callie (Coon) bears no love for her estranged father whilst her children, Phoebe (Grace) and Trevor (Wolfhard), know nothing about the man who once saved New York City...twice. When strange earthquakes begin and bustin’ is required, the kids, alongside local podcaster...Podcast (Kim) and diner-worker Lucky (O’Connor), must band together to prevent the ultimate evil from returning. After the wait and anticipation, I was relieved that Afterlife delivered and, in fact, over-delivered for me in most areas. It acts as a pure love letter to the 1984 movie and that’s not a bad thing at all - however, the cries of many that fan service destroys the movie is folly, I’m a fan, I felt serviced, and that’s OK...nostalgia isn’t a dirty idea. For a film that is dealing with legacies, why not honour the series legacy? The story functions well enough to pay homage to the old and introduce the new which Afterlife does effectively but with some exceptions. Trevor and Lucky feel very much like bit-players against the terrific Mckenna Grace and great supporting roles from Coon and Rudd. The first half takes its time to introduce the characters and the new Spielberg-esque setting and the restraint is welcome for a movie that could have gone in full throttle from the get-go but decided to allow for a build-up. Things ramp up when the ghosts need bustin’ leading to the also-restrained finale (another welcome choice) and it would be foolish not to acknowledge the similarities to the 1984 version but it’s also necessary to state that Afterlife isn’t a reboot or carbon copy. It serves as an homage as mentioned but there’s enough here to stand alone (moving from New York City was a major change). Returning characters are treated with respect and don’t feel as if they are peddled out cheaply - if the movie is good, as Afterlife is, then the surprises/fan moments feel like treats - which only adds to the warm tone of the movie. Afterlife also pays tribute to Ramis in a way that felt well-handled but also emotionally satisfying (tears were shed) and a lot of that is due to the fact that Reitman, Gil Kenan, and crew allowed the movie to grow and develop to afford these moments greater weight. The score from Rob Simonsen helped in that respect too, however, at times it did feel as if it leaned very heavily on the original score. Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t a perfect movie, it has bumps along the road that Ecto-1 must navigate, but it delivered so much to this fan. The story is solid, the performances are mostly great, the majority of the comedy clicked, visually the movie is appealing and the fan moments were fist-pumpingly good. Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, call it whatever - Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a fun, fan-pleasing, and surprisingly emotional ride. It’s an endearing tribute to what came before and I loved it.

 

King Richard

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Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green // Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal

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* COMING SOON *

 

Tick, Tick...Boom!

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Netflix // Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda // Starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Vanessa Hudgens

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Lin-Manuel Miranda has been a busy boy over the past few years. The phenomenal success of Hamilton allowed for Miranda to leave his scent all over 2021 - his production In the Heights receiving a cinematic adaptation alongside him taking the lead role in Vivo and various writing credits on Encanto. However, Tick,Tick...Boom! represents his first foray into film direction as he depicts the story of prodigious playwright Jonathan Larson in all its triumph and tragedy. Larson was a man with a furious focus and determination and TTB doesn’t shy away from showing him at his most destructive, how his linear vision affected his relationship, life and, indeed, career - and it's portrayed by a terrific leading performance from Andrew Garfield (who knew that guy could sing?!). Garfield plumbs the depths of his emotions to deliver a performance racked with depth and nuance whilst capturing Larson’s passion excellently and it may just be his finest work to date. Not to be overshadowed, Robin de Jesús as Michael delivers the emotional heartbeat of the movie and the reveal surrounding him late on was a devastating rug pull that fuelled Larson’s thematic and societal writings that included Tick, Tick...Boom! and Rent. For what she has to work with, Alexandra Shipp is very decent and lends her voice to one of the movie's better songs and performances (alongside Vanessa Hudgens). Miranda has a knack for writing and staging great songs and TTB is no different. Not all of the songs are great (looking at you Sunday and Therapy) and not all of the choreography is stellar (...looking at you Sunday and Therapy) but bangers such as 30/90, Play Game and Why far outshine the efforts that don’t quite hit the heights. By presenting the narrative in a slightly unconventional manner, Miranda allows for the gonzo spirit of the story and Larson himself to really come to life whilst still permitting for moments of genuine emotion and sadness (of which there are surprisingly many) - there’s a real Broadway feeling to the movie in terms of structure, settings, framing and performance which will delight those with a penchant for the theatrical. Tick, Tick...Boom! is another example of the talent Miranda possesses and also provides an exquisite showcase for the abilities of Andrew Garfield. Toe-tappingly good.

 

House of Gucci

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Universal Pictures // Directed by Ridley Scott // Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jared Leto, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Irons

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Sordid. Filthy. Controversial. Criminal. OK that’s enough about the accents unleashed throughout House of Gucci, Ridley Scott’s bio-drama on the life and murder of Gucci majority shareholder Maurizio Gucci orchestrated by his estranged ex-wife Patrizia. The chequered history of the Gucci brand is anything but conventional and it’s fair to say that House of Gucci follows suit. It’s pure soap opera madness at times, highly entertaining for the most part, but there are lulls scattered throughout it’s overly-stretched runtime - it’s Ridley, it’s going to be long, we know that, but it doesn’t need to be. The story begins with the fated lovers first meeting, through their marriage and eventually messy divorce as Patrizia’s lust for money and power distorts the company hierarchy and mentality of Maurizio (who is no saints, either) and the evolution of the two central ‘characters’ is highly intriguing. Lady Gaga plays the villain of the piece deliciously, full of seduction and death stares whilst Driver is reliably excellent as the self-effacing heir who harbors no desire to take up the mantle. It’s Jared Leto’s pantomime turn as the eccentric sibling, Paolo, that stands out horribly. There is an element of camp permeating every scene, however, Leto cranks it up and it’s frankly distracting. Additionally, the era-appropriate music lends a helping hand to the camp aspect sitting alongside dramatic operatic pieces that amplify the theatrics of it all. It’s that tonal mismatch which, at times, threatens to derail the movie. There’s a lingering feeling that Scott couldn’t quite land on a tone that he fancied so instead just went for broke - you could say that the extravagance and bizarreness surrounding Gucci required a similar narrative feel, however, House of Gucci does suffer from that lack of required vision. A special mention must go to the movie’s editor Claire Simpson who elevated many scenes and had some fun with some mischievous editing. House of Gucci is by no means a bad movie because of its flaws, in fact, it’s very good mainly thanks to Gaga’s brazenly big performance and the seedy machinations that unfurl throughout with just a hint of winking to the audience. It may not be Ridley’s best but it certainly is entertaining.