The Dig – Review

Rating: 12A
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin and Ken Stott
Directed by Simon Stone
Written by Moira Buffini and John Preston
Length: 112mins

Not too far from Active Spectator Headquarters, a great Anglo Saxon burial site was discovered in 1939 by archaeologist Basil Brown and the landowner Edith Pretty. 2021’s Netflix release, ‘The Dig’, looks to tell the story of the find, and the people who worked to unveil the treasures hidden beneath the ground. 

‘The Dig’ is a really beautiful film, with the flat Suffolk landscape creating the perfect backdrop for the outdoor labour undertaken by the characters. Whether a darker tinge floods the sky, or the glow of a sunset lights a scene, the film captures these moments really well and creates some visually stunning moments. Furthermore, the pre-war costumes and set design works both accurately within the context of the period, whilst also becoming another interesting aesthetic detail within ‘The Dig’. 

At the heart of this story is the actions of Ralph Fiennes’ Basil Brown, as he tries to do what he believes is right after making such a grand discovery. The idea that future generations have a right to know what the lives of their ancestors was like is a recurring theme throughout the film, and is perhaps no better explored than by Fiennes’s character. Furthermore, the actors efforts to accurately pull off a Suffolk accent went as far as learning from those in the local community, and that type of detail comes through really clearly within his character.

Overall, the acting is great from the whole cast, but Carey Mulligan stands out in particular as delivering one of the best performances. Her role as the mother of a young child and someone dealing with a recent loss creates a conflict which divides her character, and highlights how important this particular discovery is, as well as the way in which we individually can influence history and create a legacy.

‘The Dig’ is a fairly simple and easy to follow story, but the messages it explores and the way it presents them to the audience makes it stand out as a particular highlight for the start of this year. Through the performances, cinematography and dialogue, Simon Stone creates a film which lulls you into its environment and characters, and delivers some interesting ideas and themes whilst you’re there.

Darkest Hour – Review

Rating: 12A Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ronald Pickup. Directed by Joe Wright Written by Anthony McCarten Length: 125mins

In 2017 Joe Wright directed this undeniably captivating account of Winston Churchill’s ‘darkest hour’ in 1940 as Hitlers forces were gathering across the channel, poised to invade. While the subject matter naturally prepares it’s audience for a tension-building portrayal of such an important period of Great British history, it’s not only the plot that is worthy of it’s audiences attention. This is not so much a period war drama, rather a detailed political thriller presenting a leader up against not only one of the sheer enormity of Hitlers Nazi Germany, but political swipes within his own Government.

While obviously the key plot points are guided by historical fact, it’s important to recognise that there are moments of fiction written into the film. It’s an interesting opportunity to remind a contemporary audience that big issues did not simply vanish the moment Churchill took over as Prime Minister, and with such a famous outcome it seemed to be a difficult challenge for the filmmakers to really paint the picture wherein the characters didn’t know the outcome of the events of the story. 

Darkest Hour collected a fantastic array of nominations and wins throughout the 2018 awards season, with Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill winning most of the prestigious ‘best actor’ awards. It’s clear that without Oldman this films success may not have been so prolific. He manages to demonstrate Churchill’s courage effortlessly while still presenting the ‘grumpy old man’ with glimpses of humour. While Oldman is the main draw of the film, his co-stars of Lily James and Kristen Scott-Thomas bring a really lovely balance to the other characters on screen throughout.

Joe Wright is a reliable filmmaker with a very impressive list of filmography. You can’t help but notice the large scale features on that list including Anna Karenina, Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, with Darkest Hour fitting in nicely with the aesthetic of some of his previous works. Darkest hour is  a crowd-pleasing historical epic that knows when to keep moving and when to dwell on a moment.

There seems to be a renewed appetite for wartime movies in recent times and this one is an important watch amongst the others. Darkest Hour manages to exhibit Churchill’s daring bravery while not fully absolving him nor idolising him, rather it humanises him. I would suggest that for the sake of history this film is a necessary watch, but even if you have no interest in history it is Gary Oldman giving a masterclass for over two hours and that alone is reason to watch Darkest Hour.

Spree – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton and Joshua Ovalle
Directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko
Written by and Eugene Kotlyarenko Gene McHugh
Length: 93mins

One of a handful of films in recent years to take a look at the online “influencer” status which many celebrities have attained, ‘Spree’ takes us into the mind of Uber-style driver Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery) as he tries a wide variety of methods to grow his following, until devising his ultimate plan which he only refers to as “The Lesson”. 

As a depiction of the current state of the Internet, ‘Spree’ is pleasantly accurate. The way in which the film’s characters engage with their audience feels both modern and exciting, drawing the audience into the story in much the same way as they would if they were scrolling their own favourite celebrities Instagram or twitter page. The editing remains fast-paced and smooth throughout, further enforcing the realistic presentation of how audiences interact with social media these days. Of course, a couple years down the line we could be looking back at ‘Spree’ and commenting on how dated it looks, but with how quickly the internet grows and changes, I’d be surprised if any film managed to accurately depict both a modern aesthetic and a timeless image.

Joe Keery stars as an unhinged driver who will do anything to achieve online fame, and pulls off the role in both an exciting and engaging way. Unfortunately, the script provides little in the way of character development, and as a result it becomes difficult to take the more sincere or extreme elements of the story too seriously. It’s clear that ‘Spree’ is aiming to work as a social commentary on the current status of social media, but due to the lack of development in Keery and all other cast member’s characters, it’s hard to engage with the film on any level other than simply entertainment, which is ironic given that it’s working so hard to show that the entertainment which audiences crave from their favourite content creators is what’s causing this toxic environment.

Throughout the film there are frequent scenes which take place in the car of the main character, as well as exterior shots as Keery travels through Los Angeles. As the film is able to acknowledge the cameras on display due to them being a key element of the narrative, any scenes which took place in the vehicle felt like they were really well done, which is not something often achieved when it comes to filming in cars. ‘Spree’ doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing specific details of any scene, and as a result these moments can become both thrilling and tense.

Overall, I’d recommend ‘Spree’ as a great evening’s watch where you can either choose to engage with the film on a deeper level, or simply enjoy it as exciting entertainment. Hopefully in the near future, more and more people will be able to have film nights with their friends, and I think ‘Spree’ would be a great choice for such an occasion.

Twist – Review

Rating: 12 Cast: Rafferty Law, Sophie Simnett, Rita Ora, Franz Drameh, Michael Caine and Lena Headey Directed by Martin Owen Written by John Wrathall and Sally Collett Length: 90mins

Martin Owen combines a contemporary setting with classic characters in his most recent release, Twist. Based on the personalities created by Charles Dickens in his famous novel, Owen looks to bring a fresh burst of life to the story of Oliver Twist. Whilst considered a ‘modern take’ on the well loved classic, all that really flows from the original are the character names and similarities in the day to day habits of London criminal gangs…

Twist was advertised as a fast-paced heist movie and with the well known names of Michael Caine and Lena Headey involved, I was pretty excited for this film. It has the components to be brilliant, fusing nostalgia from the classic Oliver Twist with a modern outlook and setting. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t hit the mark. The plot is severely lacking; it’s quite an average heist plan that’s without proper consideration or motivation that is broken up by random little character ‘moments’ that don’t serve the story.

While there are some nice moments in the film, the performances aren’t particularly strong. Headey and Caine are fine, they do a solid job with what they were given, Rafferty Law (son of Jude Law) was quite flat throughout who likely didn’t give his best performance due to the thinness of the material. Sophie Simnett who plays Red (AKA Nancy) is the standout. She gives the strongest performance and helps the audience to stick with the plot that is only 90 minutes long but at times feels like it’s dragging. It feels a bit harsh to critique the actors in this film as the material is just so dull, and the casting was a bizarre mix; again, probably due to the peculiarity of the script requirements. It feels like they weren’t fully committed to a direction for this film so panicked and threw a bit of everything in there.

Visually this film is quite nice. They love a good free running montage but if you don’t mind that, the film makers were quite creative with how they shot a lot of the film and generally it looks nice. Unfortunately though, Twist is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, but hasn’t a clue how to get there. It’s one of those frustrating movies that everyone knows could have been excellent, but didn’t fulfil expectations. It’s an okay watch if you just want to pop something short on in the background, but it’s certainly nothing groundbreaking.

Soul – Review

Rating: PG
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Daveed Diggs, Richard Ayoade and Graham Norton
Directed by Pete Docter
Written by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones
Length: 101mins

The name ‘Pixar’ is enough to bring nostalgia to most people these days, and seems to remain one of the few studios who consistently deliver heart-warming, entertaining and unique stories to the big screen. Unfortunately, ‘Soul’ has been enjoyed by most on a smaller screen this past year, but it doesn’t fail to deliver exactly what you’d hope for, as well as a little more.

The story of Joe Gardner, a middle school Jazz teacher in New York who never feels that he fully accomplished his dreams of being a professional musician, ‘Soul’ draws on themes of loss, love and aspiration. Although the films which Pixar make are definitely not just for children, it’s undeniable that the younger demographic make up a large portion of the audience. As a result, when it comes to dealing with a subject as heavy as loss or death, a filmmaker must be especially creative – to not only bring a vision of life after death to the screen, but to also do it in a way which considers how a child may perceive it and be affected by it. Despite this, ‘Soul’ creates a beautiful and intriguing perception of what this change means to so many people, and uses it to tell their story in a fresh and exciting way.

It’s no secret that Pixar are one of the greatest animation studios working today, with perhaps only Studio Ghibli to rival them. There were multiple times throughout the film when I found myself struggling to believe that some of the visuals – in particular the backgrounds of some scenes – were animated, and not instead just using real footage. Pixar has consistently worked to improve the quality of their visuals since their creation, walking a fine line between remaining true to the wonder which animation can provide, and allowing a greater amount of realism to influence their films. However, ‘Soul’ also demonstrates some of the most abstract use of animation I’ve seen from the studio, and showing signs of inspiration from other brilliant animators such as Don Hertzfeldt, incorporates darker and less familiar visuals when depicting darker moments in the ‘You Seminar’ – a place somewhere after life, and a little before the “great beyond”.

Trent Reznor and Atticuss Ross have once again proved themselves to be competent and exciting composers who are able to adapt themselves not only to the themes which a film carries, but also to the audience who’ll be hearing their score. A far stretch from the lighter sounds of Michael Giacchino’s ‘Up’ soundtrack, or the work of Randy Newman for ‘Toy Story’, the darker and more electronic sounds which Reznor and Ross bring to ‘Soul’ feels like an exploration into new territory for Pixar, whilst also being a great soundtrack which works perfectly with the narrative and themes which the film explores.

Whilst I might not consider ‘Soul’ to be amongst Pixar’s best works, it definitely ranks highly in their filmography, and shows that they’re a studio who are still able to create interesting and exciting work. I’d highly recommend ‘Soul’ to anyone of any age, and if you get the chance to give it a watch, you definitely should.

Blithe Spirit – Review

Rating: 12A Cast: Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann, Emilia Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Judi Dench Directed by Edward Hall. Written by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft. Based on the play by Noel Coward. Length: 95mins

In the latest film adaption of Noel Cowards play Edward Hall brings the famous comedy to life in an explosion of colour and famous faces. The story follows Charles Condomine, a writer struggling with writers block who hires a spiritualist medium to hold a seance in the hope to inspire his writing. When Madame Arcati accidentally summons the spirit of Charles’ deceased first wife, we are presented with an increasingly complex love triangle between himself, his first love and his current wife of 5 years.

As a play, Blithe Spirit (which was first seen in 1941 in the West End) proved to be a phenomenon. It drew massive audiences and created a long-run record for a non-musical stage play in the West End at the time and was soon presented all across America. In 1945 the story found it’s way to the big screen with Rex Harrison starring as Charles Condomine. In theory, this fresh take should have been able to use the pull of a genius original text with a decent budget, big names and advanced technology to reignite laughter across the masses in one of the more difficult years in recent times. In reality, the film missed it’s cinema release and headed straight to streaming services which, in hindsight, I think was probably best for this film as it totally missed the mark. 

It’s an aesthetically pleasing production. The location, sets, costume and colour palette all bring a real vibrancy and help lift the elements that some might struggle to get behind, creating it’s vintage feel while keeping the energy high, though you could argue that these aspects were in place as more of a distraction from the underwhelming story. With a cast of such big names you would only expect the highest quality performances. Unfortunately the approach to the film feels very much like a basic attempt at ‘bringing the play to life’ which just didn’t work for me. While the actors all give solid performances it is very dramatised and a bit silly.

I would give this adaption a miss, the play however, I would go to see. It takes truly brilliant writers to adapt such classic writing that is, arguably, timeless and rejuvenate it for a modern audience. In this situation they should have just left it alone. While it’s short run time feels perfect for an easy afternoon watch, the jarring nature of the script means that at times it feels stretched. The plot is altered slightly but offers no new perspective, focus or meaning. It’s just a film for the sake of it that included most of the comedy in it’s trailer.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Written by Ruben-Santiago Hudson
Length: 94mins

The story of blues singer Ma Rainey and her accompanying band, director George C. Wolfe draws the audience into a dramatic and tension-filled portrayal of a recording session in 1927. Covering themes of racism, ambition and power almost exclusively under one roof for the entire runtime, Wolfe’s story may be simple in terms of locations, but it’s wider considerations are much greater.

The winner of a Tony Award for his achievements as a stage director in the 90’s, Wolfe clearly still utilises similar techniques when it comes to his film direction. In the basement of a recording studio, where the band prepares for Ma Rainey’s arrival, tensions rise between leading performers Levee (Boseman) and Cutler (Domingo). Fast-paced and brilliantly written dialogue explodes between the two as their conversation ebbs and flows, with the topic at hand ranging from the way they’ll be playing a certain song to the effects of childhood trauma in what feels like a single breath.This strength is maintained throughout almost the entire runtime, with some great moments of conflict generating primarily as a result of both the dialogue and the performances. 

Speaking of performances, it’s no secret that Chadwick Boseman provides possibly the greatest acting of his career in this film. As soon as we set eyes on him within a scene, the whole film just feels more exciting and interesting. Extensive pieces of dialogue which he tackles with confidence and energy unlike any other performance I’ve seen recently create a clear sense of his character as a real person. Their fears, conflicts and loves all bring themselves to the surface just within his visual performance alone. 

It’s a testament to Boseman’s acting abilities that he is seemingly getting a little more praise than his co-star Viola Davis, as her performance within this film is brilliant as well. The characteristics of her ‘Ma Rainey’ seem to directly oppose that of Boseman’s ‘Levee,’ with the former often appearing more in control of her emotions until moments of sudden energy which reinforce her status as a character who is trying their best to maintain control of their environment.

Despite the strength of the performances in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, as well as the oftentimes well-written dialogue, it doesn’t feel like a film which will go down as one of the greats. In particular, the editing can often feel quite jarring, with a style employed which frequently changes between shots in a way that can feel unnecessary, and only stunts the dialogue which is being delivered. As well as this, moments of the story can feel unnecessary or unmotivated by the scene which it finds itself in. Of course, in real life not everything has a clear explanation, but within ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, particular storylines are sometimes not entirely explored to their full potential, whilst others reach their conclusion without warning. However, this is not to say there aren’t some incredibly thought-provoking scenes, with the final conclusion of the film being simply heartbreaking.

All in all, I would definitely recommend giving ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ a watch. It has some phenomenal performances, the music is great, and sometimes it’s just nice to see a relatively new release and imagine yourself back in the cinema.

Sabrina (1954) – Review

Rating: U Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden and John Williams Directed by Billy Wilder Written by Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehman and Samuel Taylor Length: 113mins

Sabrina is a somewhat archetypal romantic comedy. It tells the story of a young girl, the daughter of a chauffeur who has eyes for the youngest son of her fathers employer. While growing up on the extravagant grounds of the Larrabee family home, Sabrina (Hepburn) longs to gain the attention of  David Larrabee (Holden); the resident wild child and polar opposite of his older brother, Linus (Bogart), who’s focus is purely on maintaining and expanding the family business empire. Sabrina is sent to cookery school in Paris in the hopes that she’ll forget David, but returns an elegant young woman with the ability to turn heads and capture the attention she’s so longed for.

It is impossible to comment on this film without discussing the cast. Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart  are nothing short of phenomenal. Their characters are so wonderfully authentic, drifting through their story and switching between the more serious moments to the more comical  so smoothly. Holden’s portrayal of David matches up to his co-stars just as well, with the only slight blip being the staff at the Larrabee house were slightly heightened which distracts from the more naturalistic telling of the story.

One of the more understated wonders of this film is the script; based upon the play ‘Sabrina Fair’ written by Samuel Taylor in 1953 and adapted for screen by Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor and Ernest Lehman. While eloquently telling the story there is a brilliant amount of dry humour – one liners woven into the script that I hadn’t noticed when watching the film a few years ago, it’s brilliantly funny without the actors making the humour loud or extravagant. A feat that, to me, shows how deeply Wilder trusted both his material and his actors to tell the story and allow the dialogue to land with its audiences. 

On the surface, I’m not sure it’s even possible to mix the likes of Billy Wilder, it’s cast and this script without creating a timeless classic. Everything about it is so watchable. I highly recommend ‘Sabrina’, especially if you would usually write off black and white films; this was the first film I ever saw that wasn’t in colour and it really changed my mind. I had a completely unfounded hesitancy to watch B+W films because I thought I would get bored – if anything, they have to do more to keep a modern audiences attention and in my experience, they do just that!

I would also just add that although this is certified ‘U’ – one of the early scenes is an attempted suicide and, although nothing shocking or graphic it’s worth bearing in mind if you are watching with younger children. 

Malcolm and Marie – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Zendaya and John David Washington
Directed by Sam Levinson
Written by Sam Levinson
Length: 106mins

A lockdown-created film by Sam Levinson, a director who’s best known for his writing and directing on ‘Euphoria,’ – a TV series that brilliantly tells the story of a drug-addicted teenager played by Zendaya, and her battle to get clean for the sake of herself and her family –  ‘Malcolm and Marie’ follows the aftermath of a director and his wife as they return home from the premiere of Malcolms (John David Washingtons) debut film which tells the story of a drug-addicted teenager, which Marie (Zendaya) struggles to come to terms with, as she believes the film is based on her life. Essentially, all you need to know going into ‘Malcolm and Marie’ is that Sam Levinson is telling an autobiographical story of his experiences creating a show like ‘Euphoria’ and releasing it to the public. 

As there aren’t too many good things to focus on with this film, I’ll try and get those out of the way to begin with. Zendaya and John David Washington both give brilliant performances, achieving the wide range of emotions that litter ‘Malcolm and Marie’ with depth and honesty. You can feel their struggle to work things out and express themselves through the way that these two actors visually perform in a more sincere and genuine way than any of the writing allows. The visuals are pretty decent too, I can understand the choice for using a black and white colour tone, but it does little to benefit the film other than to establish that this will be a fairly dramatic story. It also meets the required length of a feature film, which is a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask. 

If you read almost anyone’s reviews on this film, you will probably hear fairly negative things, and for good reason. Abandoning any sense of romanticism, Sam Levinson seems to have only created ‘Malcolm and Marie’ to complain about how critics didn’t understand his previous work, and that his success is entirely independent of anyone else, which is ironic given both how badly this film has been received, and the fact that he’s the son of a Best Picture-winning director, meaning he’s probably not as self-made as he claims. Utilising John David Washington’s character as the mouthpiece for his dissatisfaction, Levinson complicates his complaints by approaching them from a race angle, which just feels slightly strange. Of course, though not entirely advisable, ‘Malcolm and Marie’ is definitely not the first time a white writer has written about the struggles of POC, but when presenting a character that is so clearly a reflection of one’s self, Levinson just comes across as assumptious and ignorant. Perhaps the strangest part of all however, is that the topic of discussion within the film is so clearly made out to be ‘Euphoria,’ and yet that show isn’t a critical failure at all. In fact, I would probably describe it as a masterclass in storytelling around teen anxiety and drug abuse. The cinematography is perhaps the greatest of any show I’ve ever seen, and all twelve episodes push the boundaries of what TV should be. 

‘Malcolm and Marie’ is a film created under the restraints of our current COVID restrictions, which makes sense given that it’s a single-location film with relatively simplistic camerawork and lighting, as well as only two on-screen characters. Essentially just one long conversation, the film is almost entirely unsuccessful in maintaining any sort of interest or emotional investment in either of the characters or their issues. Once again, this seems unusual as only two months ago Levinson wrote and directed an hour long episode of ‘Euphoria’ which took place in almost entirely identical conditions, and was one of the greatest pieces of television made in 2020. If Levinson’s name wasn’t embarrassingly placed on the end credits of this film, I would find it very hard to believe that he had any involvement at all.

All in all, I would say to avoid watching ‘Malcolm and Marie’ There is great acting, but aside from that the gratuitous hour-and-forty-minutes runtime is nowhere near worth it. I’ve barely touched on the story, and that’s essentially because it just isn’t interesting. It’s a story that never needed telling in the way it did, and I can only hope that this is an unfortunate anomaly in Sam Levinson’s career.

Come Away – Review

Rating: PG Cast: Keira Chansa, Jordan A. Nash, David Oyelowo, Angelina Jolie, Reece Yates and Gugu Mbatha-Raw Directed by Brenda Chapman Written by Marissa Kate Goodhill Length: 94mins

Another 2020 release that went largely unnoticed was Brenda Chapman’s ‘Come Away’. A tale that imagines Peter Pan and Alice (of Wonderland) as siblings which mixes the excitement of childhood imagination with the darker issues of loss, family feud and addiction. An unusual combination for a storyline primarily aimed at children. 

It was the trailer that initially grabbed my attention. On the surface it looked like a lovely escapism piece, allowing the familiar fictional characters to be placed in a new situation and using the medium of film to open up the imaginative worlds of these characters. Unfortunately the heavy counter balance of the children’s reality made it feel a bit clunky. While aesthetically it felt like a family film, the deep sadness when a character dies followed by the, relatively realistic, reactions of the others just didn’t fit the ‘magic’ that was set up in the earlier scenes.

The cast were solid, Oyelowo and Jolie played their parental roles well; creating an authentic feel of family and the children were seemingly uninhibited by the A-list actors that surrounded them. 

While in general the plot didn’t work for me; I commend the intentions of the filmmakers. They didn’t fall into the trap of remaking old stories and you can see the heart behind a film that is clearly commenting on childhood imagination and it’s importance no matter what is going on in the real world – the trouble seems to be that other themes and issues were thrown into the mix and it got messy.

I find this film in particular really frustrating to consider, perhaps I had specific expectations when I went to watch it and they weren’t reached but I just hoped for so much more from this film. Instead of escaping from the pandemic during which it was released, I came away feeling a bit deflated. While unusual for me, I wouldn’t actually recommend this film to many people. It’s probably fine to have on in the background but the more serious topics aren’t really dealt with and the prequel elements of Peter Pan and Alice aren’t fleshed out, leaving the film as a whole feeling like it missed the mark.