British-born director Asif Kapadia is now best known for his award-winning documentaries Amy and Senna but he ambitiously opted to shoot his first feature in the deserts of Rajasthan and the Himalayas. Kapadia’s influences are immediately evident — the warriors in service of a a tyrannical lord echo the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (an early draft was set in Japan) whilst the stunning desert landscapes draw from Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Blending these styles in a new location feels sufficiently fresh, and Kapadia crafts a meditative and mythic atmosphere around a lone warrior seeking redemption. The titular warrior, Lafcadia, is the role that established Irrfan’s Khan’s career at a time he was considering quitting the profession, and he is perfectly suited to it — with scant dialogue, The Warrior relies on his world-weary face to do much of the storytelling, and Kapadia rarely misses an opportunity to focus on the weight behind Khan’s eyes. This requires the audience to fill in the narrative history and much of his inner struggle. In one scene the sight of a knife and the swell of music seem to incite Lafcadia to violence but what makes The Warrior stand apart is that he is ultimately a man finding his way to peace rather than vengeance.
“After he murdered me, Tony gave my wife and baby his pocket change. But that was much later.”
There are considerable similarities between The Many Saints of Newark and El Camino: both provide an extension to a beloved prestige TV drama, both expertly recreated the tone and visual identity of the series, and both feel somewhat superfluous. At first I gave The Many Saints of Newark a wide berth, expecting banal fan service in a world without James Gandolfini. Although this prequel is filled with younger versions of familiar characters (including Gandolfini’s son playing a teenage Tony), its best decision is the focus on Dickie Moltisanti who never appeared in the show — this affords Alessandro Nivola the freedom to build out the character without paying homage to another performance, as well as delivering a full arc. Despite the 15 years that have passed, the involvement of creator David Chase as well as veterans from the show in directing and production design capacities makes this feel entirely set in the same world, notwithstanding the shift in era, beginning with the 1967 Newark riots. The script explores familiar themes: the dangerous tension between family and mob life, with infidelity and betrayal punctuated by explosive violence without indulging in it. Unfortuantely this is offset by what seems to be a half-hearted attempt to set up future story options, including a black American perspective (something decidedly absent in The Sopranos) that leaves incomplete storylines with thinly sketched characters. The resulting period gangster movie is something that begins to feel more like a Scorcese short film (at “just” two hours), compelling but without the nuanced depth of character and relationships that made The Sopranos such a landmark, an enduring legacy that The Many Saints of Newark neither tarnishes nor revitalises.
Co-written by director Miguel Arteta and star Alia Shawkat, Duck Butter is the story of two women who are disillusioned with the dishonesty in dating and decide to spend 24 hours together in an effort to force a real connection. There is something very modern in the inane idea of speedrunning a relationship but I would also venture that spending 24 straight hours with a new lover is no longer that unusual an experience. What follows between reserved actress Naima and free-spirited singer Sergio feels less like a narrative arc than a series of mood swings between bouts of sex. Cinematographer Hillary Spera captures physical intimacy free of the male gaze through a focus on touch and skin contact with little explicit nudity. However the emotional intimacy feels artificial due to the script and unconvincing chemistry. Laia Costa is no stranger to portraying experimentation in romantic relationships — I first came across her in Newness, which had considerably more to say — but here her character seems to vary wildly from scene to scene. Perhaps the filmmakers intended to show the couple discovering each other’s emotional triggers and inevitable dishonesty in a compressed time period, but it feels hollow. There is considerable irony in an early scene when Naima tells the Duplass brothers (playing themselves) that a scene they are directing feels forced; that is true for most of Duck Butter.
“What’s there in the cabin is our primitive side. It’s never going to disappear.”
Amat Escalante’s Mexican sci-fi horror is a sexually provocative exploration of the self-destructiveness of relinquishing oneself to desire. Its original title La Región Salvaje is literally “the wild region”, referring to both the physical and the interior. The Untamed features a tentacled alien creature (partially revealed in its opening scene) that serves as a metaphor for unrestrained sexual desire, offering an addictively pleasurable experience marred by the risk of harm. This parallels the human relationships we see, particularly a husband cheating with his wife’s brother fulfilling a hidden urge despite the risk it poses. The sexual acts between humans feel distanced rather than intimate, fuelled more by need than by affection with one partner taking a passive role. These are all interesting concepts to examine but The Untamed discharges most of its ideas in the first 15 minutes and is then content to let the meandering plot unfold without developing its ideas further. A foreboding atmosphere and beautiful portrayal of rural Mexico are sufficient to hold attention but the story fails to engage, its mysteries — like the alien’s origins or the couple who keep it — going unanswered.
Where The Favourite lulled viewers into a false sense of security before indulging in Yorgos Lanthimos’ sly humour, Poor Things is open with its weirdness from the start. Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel, Poor Things is at its core a film about a young woman’s discovery of herself and the world, told through a kind of steampunk historic fable with a visual style reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. The opening chapter is steeped in gothic imagery, a scarred Willem Dafoe embodying both Dr Frankenstein and his monster, literally playing God as he shortens his name, Godwin. Lanthimos reunites with Emma Stone as Godwin’s creation, Bella, who begins undeveloped despite her adult body, toddling and prone to tantrums, the puffy shoulders of her costumes creating an unstable, top-heavy silhouette like the strange chimeric animals that fill the lavish house. I opted to see a rare 35mm film screening which faithfully recreated the cinematography choices, like lenses that provided distortion and mismatched sizing to heighten vignetting, replicating the effect of early cameras. Colour arrives as Bella sets off to travel Europe, accentuating the film’s painted backgrounds. Bella’s immaturity grants her the freedom typically commanded by men of the period, freed from societal constraints as she applies logic without understanding. Emma Stone’s performance is fascinating as Bella evolves over the course of the film in both knowledge and capability, whilst the men around her stagnate — it is a rare opportunity for a single actor to take a character from early childhood to realised adulthood. In the abstract many of the intermediate scenes are bizarre and uncomfortable — particularly given the quantity of sex — and Poor Things must have required extreme trust from its actors that Lanthimos would successfully tie this all together. He has always been a director of singular vision but here it seems stripped of pretension, producing something sly yet whimsical, witty yet haunting.
Mark Jenkin’s debut utilises similar experimental techniques to his follow-up Enys Men yet it is not only more accessible in its storytelling but also more successful in tying together its cinematic idiosyncrasies with its themes. Bait follows an irascible fisherman without a boat in a small Cornish fishing village in economic turmoil as its industry gives way to seasonal tourism. It sounds like traditional Ken Loach fare, but Jenkin’s choices in cinematography shroud Bait in thick atmosphere. Shot on 16mm monochrome film with a vintage hand-cranked Bolex camera, the images are filled with strobing and scratchy imperfections, coupled with the slightly dream-like quality of post-synchcronised audio. The dichotomy between Bait’s modern setting and its anachronistic low fidelity reflects the friction between locals and the encroaching city folk, the medium elevating the dramatic tension. Structurally, Jenkin telegraphs early on that some form of violence and arrest must ensue, repeatedly splicing in a handful of flash-forward frames. However, Bait ends with a more poetic epilogue that is slightly less satisfying, but leaves the audience to draw out their own conclusion to the piece. This is the very best kind of experimental cinema that is purposeful with its exploration of the form rather than merely curious.
“You need to start seeing yourself the way others are going to perceive you. The trial is not about the truth.”
Maître Vincent Renzi
Anatomy of a Fall feels like the culmination of a recent obsession amongst French filmmakers with the inherent uncertainty in attempting to understand a moment in the past, a focus of The Accusation and The Night of the 12th. Justine Triet’s film is the most meticulous of these, portraying the investigation and trial which finds Sandra Voyter a suspect in her husband’s death at their remote home. Using France’s inquisitorial justice system, the trial becomes an autopsy of Voyter’s failing marriage, unearthing disharmony rooted in career success and infidelity. Although there is misdirectrion — Anatomy of a Fall addresses the unreliability of memory and witness testimony — Triet respects the rule that what appears on screen becomes fact for the audience. We see the period before and after the fatal fall but there is a deliberate lacuna of around an hour, a hole that the characters try to fill with conjecture and, later, audio recordings that remain subject to interpretation. My primary criticism is that the nature of the film creates a certain distance which can make Sandra Hüller’s performance (and indeed many of characters) feel coldly analytical. The most sympathetic character may be Sandra’s defence lawyer — Swann Arlaud captures the conflict in being instructed by someone for whom he cares while harbouring doubts about her story. Whilst Anatomy of a Fall keeps the audience guessing, it is very much a defendant’s perspective of a trial, including the sense of powerlessness before the process and the hollowness of any outcome. This careful blend of subjective filmmaking with an exercise in determining objective fact is where Anatomy of a Fall derives its power.
“I could cut you out of my life with a snap of my fingers.”
At the centre of Return to Seoul is a fascinatingly unlikeable character for whom we develop sympathy and understanding, crafted by French writer-director Davy Chou and wonderfully portrayed by Park Ji-min. The adopted Freddie has travelled from France to South Korea on a whim, and it is only whilst in Seoul that she decides to try contacting her biological parents. This is in some ways an inversion of Past Lives, as Freddie has no connection to the country at all, save for a single photograph. Chou revels in cultural blending — an early opening scene mixing French, Korean and English as Freddie draws together tables of diners — as will as the inevitable clashes. Freddie is impulsive, with a lack of inhibition that swiftly becomes abrasive in a culture like Korea’s, but Chou explores how this can be emergent behaviour for foreign adoptees in search of their identity and plagued by a sense of abandonment. By contrast, Freddie becomes withdrawn in the presence of her family, distanced by language and reliant on a friend who reinterprets her words to be more socially palatable. Meanwhile, Korean expressions of sorrow are unfamiliar and suffocating to Freddie, who pushes away as a result. Halfway through the film it emerges that this first trip is only part of the story, the second half featuring a number of time jumps that allows Return to Seoul to provide a broader and more meaningful examination of Freddie’s journey of self-discovery. The script remains impressively true to Freddie’s identity, not moulding her to magically settle down, but by seeing her develop the audience comes to understand her behaviours and to appreciate the pain which drives them.
“Sometimes I feel like I have nothing that’s my own. Everything feels borrowed or stolen from someone else.”
Pakistani writer/director Saim Sadiq’s Joyland is on its surface about a young married man who becomes involved with a trans woman. In fact the scope of Joyland is far wider: this is a film about freedom and the various ways that its characters are confined, whether physically or emotionally, by the patriarchal structures of their society. Shame forces Haider to conceal his job as a dancer and his sexuality, his wife Mumtaz finds herself forced to give up a career and stuck at home, and even his overbearing father rejects potential companionship out of a sense of duty. Biba, a trans dancer, seems to have broken free (despite mistreatment by others) but even she demonstrates internalised homophobia. The subject matter initially led to Joyland being banned from release in its home country before its artistic merits were properly appreciated, ultimately being embraced as Pakistan’s official entry to the Academy Awards. Although its themes are bold, Haider is too passive to provide an engaging protagonist, and often seems more like a vessel through whom others’ lives are impacted. Lebanese cinematographer Joe Saade captures some beautiful night-time scenes, evoking intimacy through lighting and shadow — a warm yellow glow at Haider’s home, and the exotic greens of Biba’s bedroom. As humour gives way to tragedy, the most nuanced performances are Alina Khan as Biba, by turns powerful and suppressed, and Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz, whose loyalty shifts to dreams of escape. The titular “Joyland” is a funfair, an artificial means of temporary escape that parallels Haider’s daliance with Biba, both providing a brief respite from the familial duties of the world outside.
Where Sega’s Sonic adaptationswent live action, The Super Mario Bros. Movie remains entirely animated, perhaps an unsurprising decision given the questionable 1993 adaptation starring Bob Hoskins. Taking as little creative liberty as possible with the property, Illumination have created as blandly safe a version of the Mushroom Kingdom as one could imagine, further diluted by no less than four credited directors. Although the vibrant animation is of perfectly serviceable quality (generally on par with high end videogame cutscenes), it rarely feels like we are experiencing unseen detail in these faithfully recreated characters. The backlash to Chris Pratt’s casting proves unwarranted — it is just one of many safe choices the filmmakers made (including ditching the iconic Italian accents in favour of standard American) — and although the main cast consists of high profile actors rather than professional voice actors, only Jack Black’s rock anthem-singing, incel Bowser is particularly recognisable (which also adds the most fresh characterisation). Anya Taylor-Joy’s Princess Peach is thankfully modelled on the capable Super Marios Bros. 2 Peach rather than a damsel in distress, though she is the film’s only notable female presence. The primary concession to adult viewers is the soundtrack, with unexpected choices like the Beastie Boys and a reference to Kill Bill, but the story is unlikely to engage beyond the nostalgia value of the IP (and a deeply cynical Lumalee). Younger children will likely be sufficiently entertained but older children, who will not even benefit from nostalgia, are likely to lose interest. It is understandable that Nintendo might be risk-averse with Mario’s first cinematic outting since having their fingers burned 30 years ago, but but avoiding “bad” has left The Super Mario Bros. Movie stranded in mediocrity.