Nomadland – Review

Rating: 12A
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Gay DeForest
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Written by Chloé Zhao
Length: 108mins

Caught halfway between some of America’s most beautiful landscapes and the oppressive trappings of the modern workplace, Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ reflects on what is truly important in our lives, and seeks to find an answer for how we can put these things first. For Fern (McDormand), a woman in her sixties who lost a great amount to the recent recession, the answer lies in her van. Addicted to the freedom which her new lifestyle as a Nomad provides, she seeks to find a balance between the necessary nature of employment, her relationship with her own family, and the opportunity to escape it all. 

Employing real Nomads to act in the film, Zhao’s work feels as natural as ever. ‘Nomadland’ is a work of fiction, and yet you can feel the sincerity and honesty that each character brings to the screen, which, combined with an incredible performance from Frances McDormand, creates a story you can’t help but believe in. Despite many of the places Fern travels between being extremely far apart, a lot of the characters cross paths multiple times, reiterating this idea that they’re meant to be a part of one another’s lives, and that the life of a Nomad is not as isolating or lonely as audiences may at first believe.

If there’s one thing that Chloé Zhao is known for, it’s her ability to capture the Earth at its most beautiful. ‘Nomadland’ is defined by its breathtaking skylines and hubristic landscapes, creating a sense of both importance and inconsequentiality in the characters’ lives. Compared to the beauty of these natural occurrences, the actions of Fern and those in her life are entirely unimportant, and yet this is what drives them to live their life in whichever way they choose. As a result, the presence of the large corporations which Fern has to work for, such as Amazon, seem powerless in comparison. Their status as an international conglomerate is suddenly reduced when compared to the care which the film provides for such expansive natural features, and emphasises the idea that no one should have to work under inhumane conditions just to live. Although not explicit in it’s beliefs, ‘Nomadland’ is very clearly a film which disagrees with the power large businesses are provided in the modern day, and utilises visual imagery to brilliantly convey such an ethos.

Arguably one of the greatest actresses working today, Frances McDormand’s performance as Fern is both crackling with energy and defined by a weariness for the state of the world she’s found herself in. Her only freedom is in the escape from everything which modern society stands for, and her expression clearly reflects this whenever she’s able to get away for a little while longer. The patience the camera is provided when slowly following Fern through the Nomad’s camp is significantly longer than any shots found in urbanised areas, and as a result, the combination of performance and cinematography works brilliantly to emphasise the feeling of escape experienced by the lead character, and the audience too.

All in all, ‘Nomadland’ is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and important films released so far this year. As soon as cinemas open I look forward to watching it on the big screen, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I definitely recommend getting yourself a ticket booked. Chloé Zhao has already achieved more than any filmmaker could dream of, and still with a wide array of projects in the near future, I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring for her.

The Other Boleyn Girl – Review

Rating: 12a Cast: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas Directed by Justin Chadwick  Written by Peter Morgan (screenplay) and Philippa Gregory (novel) Length: 115mins

In Justin Chadwick’s debut feature film, The Other Boleyn Girl, we jump back in time to a pivotal moment in English history and land in the midst of one of the most notorious monarchs, King Henry VIII. Straight off the bat it’s important to recognise that artistic licence is applied and that some of the Historical facts are debated, but it’s an opportunity to experience an interpretation of one of the Queen famous for her demise.

The plot follows the Boleyn siblings, primarily the two sisters Anne and Mary as they reach adulthood and have set sights set on potential husbands. Through a bit of family meddling and taking advantage of issues with the Kings marriage, the King meets both girls and while initially favouring Anne, becomes captivated with the ‘other Boleyn girl’, who is newly married. The Boleyn’s are summoned to court and thus begins the competition for the Kings attention. It’s not a particularly surprising storyline as Anne Boleyn’s fate is one of the memorable in Royal history, but it’s an interesting take to consider other members of the family. 

From start to finish this film is full of incredible talent. In playing the quarrelsome siblings, Portman and Johansson conjure admirable performances, working as best they can with the dialogue and situations they’re afforded. Portman creates a scheming and flirtatious Anne while keeping the hot headed reactions of a young, inexperienced woman while Johansson leans more to a sweet, innocent sister. Choices that are reactionary to the dialogue, no doubt, and clearly separate the sisters, however there is a slight risk of the characters feeling a bit shallow. It’s easy to criticise these more obvious choices, but there is also plenty to defend. The film is long, the story and it’s characters are very famous and so you could certainly argue that in exploring the focal characters in more depth could mess up the through line of the story and therefore extend the film and throw it off balance. I personally think they made the right decisions within characterisation and the cast were perfect for what they needed. 

Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of incredible actors, there isn’t time to truly analyse all of the performances, but the casting department did a phenomenal job and the outcome was brilliant. 

Aesthetically, the film looks great; the grand settings, beautiful costumes and intricate detail within hair and make up really help transport the audience into a different time and allows the story to be told without a second thought. 

This movie stirs me in an unusual way. It’s deeply sad to see a family torn apart and as we know the ending is all but happy. It’s an entertaining watch, and in reminding us of elements of History it’s helpful to see how society has progressed and possibly, how it hasn’t. I would recommend watching this film, but it’s not perfect and as with every Historical film it’s worth checking the facts. 

Promising Young Woman – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge and Laverne Cox
Directed by Emerald Fennell
Written by Emerald Fennell
Length: 114mins

A fantastical, yet honest depiction of the fallout from a young woman’s past, ‘Promising Young Woman’ tells the story of Cassandra, a café worker and ex-medical student who looks to take revenge on the predatory men who she encounters on nights out. A debut feature from actress and ‘Killing Eve’ showrunner Emerald Fennell, the film has garnered a great amount of attention from critics and audiences alike.

Firstly, Carey Mulligan’s performance in this film is brilliant, as she brings an intensity which both drives the narrative forward, and hints at something more painful hidden beneath. Within the film itself, her character is constantly putting on a performance for others, and Mulligan shows she is capable of such a range by creating convincing and contrasting changes to her role as Cassandra. Mulligan is the reason why many people will have been drawn to ‘Promising Young Woman’, and once again doesn’t disappoint.

Thematically, the film deals with some heavy ideas surrounding rape, and believing those who have experienced such trauma. There are already a number of films which tackle such a topic, but I imagine in the years to come a great many more will appear in the mainstream, with ‘Promising Young Woman’ showing itself as a step in the right direction for these stories. The film, however, does lean more towards the fantastical side of the way in which such confrontations may play out. It was often difficult to become immersed in a scene because of how one-sided the writing would feel in favour of Mulligan’s character, and whilst there is definitely a place in cinema for indulging in scenarios which are so favourable towards the victims, when it comes to telling a truthful recollection of such events, it must be acknowledged that rarely things play out so easily. This isn’t true of the whole film however, and the writing is at times both thought-provoking and measured, but there are a number of scenes in a short period of time which lack such a balance.

From a compositional standpoint, ‘Promising Young Woman’ doesn’t hold back from developing its exposition through sound. Moments of tension or danger are precisely shown through sudden crescendos in the score. Of course, such a technique is utilised by almost all films, but ‘Promising Young Woman’ in particular applies it to even the smallest moments of drama. Whilst this does mean that there’s a greater amount of tension within these moments, it can also mitigate the overall effect of the score when it comes to larger, and more dramatic scenes later on.

A well-made, if occasionally flawed film, ‘Promising Young Woman’ will hopefully be the beginning of more female-led movies which directly tackle themes of trauma and trust when it comes to sexual abuse. No matter who you are, I would recommend giving ‘Promising Young Woman’ a watch, even if it is just for the strength of Carey Mulligan’s performance.

Letters to Juliet – Review

Rating: PG Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Egan. Directed by Gary Winick Written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan Length: 105mins

Letters To Juliet tells the story of Sophie, a wanna be writer who takes a romantic trip to Italy with her somewhat distracted finance. While he seems to be more interested in sourcing ingredients for his New York restaurant than spending time with her, Sophie finds herself captivated by the local tradition of lovelorn women writing letters to Shakespeare’s Juliet and joins the team of women of whose job it is to write back to these unhappy souls.

When Sophie (Seyfried) finds a letter that is 50 years old, written by a young British girl about a Tuscan boy she met and fell in love with, she writes to the girl and soon Claire (Redgrave) and her grandson Charlie (Egan) arrive in Verona with the hopes of finding her long lost love, Lorenzo. The story is simple and extremely predictable but is connected with some truly beautiful shots of the Italian countryside. The warmth of the friendship between Sophie and Claire is really lovely and makes for a very easy romantic watch. Where a realist might suggest that Sophie help Claire check out the possible Lorenzo by using her phone, Letters to Juliet sends the three of them to visit the candidates in person, leading to a series of false leads and at last, of course, to the real Lorenzo Bartolini. 

This has a very specific audience, the simplicity and predictability of the plot is clearly for a young romanticist. Hoping that the sweet warmth as everything comes together will distract from problems that would almost certainly exist in reality. I remember watching this as a young teenager and thinking it was one of the best films i’d ever seen, but having re-watched it, it seems it just was  a very satisfying entertainment where very little goes wrong. While ‘nice’, it doesn’t have the depth to be considered amongst the best in it’s genre. The characters are broad, comforting stereotypes that are played well – particularly by Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave but it almost seems a waste to have talent such as theirs crawling through a particularly cheesy plot. 

Letters to Juliet is definitely lacking in substance, but the idea at the core is a story of love lost and reunited. While a bit of a soppy melodrama where the ending is predestined from the setup, it’s a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, especially for a PG audience.

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.