“Just like my dad used to say, ‘What’s remembered, lives.’ I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering.”
Straddling an inchoate space between documentary and fiction, Nomadland explores those who have adopted a nomadic lifestyle travelling around the USA, living in vehicles and picking up work as they go. Powerful, understated performances from Frances McDormand and David Straithairn provide a narrative arc, but most of the characters with whom Fern interacts are real-life nomads playing fictionalised versions of themselves. This provides not just verisimilitude but palpable poignancy to the discussions about the reasons they found themselves in this lifestyle — they are typically older people, unattractive to the job market, but also dealing with grief that perhaps prevents them from laying down new roots. Zhao’s approach to her subjects is gentle and without judgment, a lingering camera that searches for poetry in simplicity and trusts the viewer’s curiosity to understand this way of living. There are beautiful American landscapes but this is not a travelogue and the people are always the focus over the places. Nomadland is a work that feels necessary for its time in the same way as Up In The Air did during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis (with parallels in their rootless protagonists). This is slower and more ephemeral, with limited plot, but its ideas will linger with those who engage.
“It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask permission.”
Since Independence Day, Roland Emerich has carved out a niche in big budget disaster porn, effects-heavy extravaganzas that imagine swathes of the world being obliterated. If 2012‘s climate disaster thesis (“the neutrinos have mutated”) was bad, surely we have now reached a nadir with the moon suddenly crashing toward the Earth. That Moonfall is dumb — the stupidest film I have seen in years — was obvious from the premise, but what surprised me whilst I felt my intelligence ebbing away was its laziness. It is generic almost to the point of parody, with its plucky astronauts, the smart guy struggling to be taken seriously, and the military intent on bombarding the problem with nukes. Films like this don’t need absolute scientific rigour but, when the source of suspense is supposed to be the effect of the moon’s gravity, sudden inexplicable revelations that the moon has spontaneously increased in mass or contains a superdense white dwarf that was never previously detected are senselessly self-sabotaging. Similarly confounding are astronauts who seem to have no concept of what devices might generate electromagnetic fields. Once we realise there are no rules beyond what the script finds expedient in the moment, all tension evaporates. The most baffling thing about Moonfall is that it was made at all. The cast plainly have zero interest and, with the dialogue they are required to spout (“The moon is rising” / “Gravity’s gonna go crazy”), one can sympathise. Game of Thrones‘ John Bradley feigns some enthusiasm, though it only makes his accidentally correct conspiracy theorist more unbearable. Even the CG destruction is underwhelming, not helped by characters abandoning any pretence at urgency to watch things unfold. Ultimately, Moonfall is too banal even to be entertainingly awful. One of the film’s many exposition dumps contains a brief glimmer of an interesting origin story for the moon; sadly, we have this instead.
“I’ll show you the everyday life of a Finnish family and how lovely it can be.”
The best horror uses metaphor to allow us safely to explore genuine anxieties through a layer of abstraction. Whilst Hatching‘s use of bird-related body horror and the pressurised environment of competitive gymnastics has strong visual parallels with Black Swan, its focus is on the nature of adolescence, interpreted as the literal birthing of a new identity. Siiri Solalinna is captivating as Tinja, a girl struggling to deal with an overbearing mother, the discovery that her parents’ marriage is not as idyllic as it seems, and the confusion and rage this produces in the hormonal body of teenager. Most affecting are the scenes in which Tinja tries to comfort and care for the angry creature, soothing it after expressing her disgust at something it has done — it is a wonderful depiction of puberty and the sense of shame at the uncontrolled outbursts it can produce. Director Hanna Bergholm clearly wishes to make a separate point about the artificiality of lifestyle blogs through the character of Tinja’s mother but, whilst accurate, it feels rather on the nose when compared to the nuance of Hatching‘s central adolescence metaphor.
“There is a particular sad beauty… well-known to the companionless foreigner as he walks the streets of his adopted preferably moonlit, city. In my case, Ennui, France.”
Whilst there has always been a literary chic aesthetic to Wes Anderson’s films, The French Dispatch is an ode to the art of long-form journalism — rather than being divided into chapters, this is really a collection of short films masquerading as articles. The fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally “boredom on apathy”) is fittingly named, and even the colour palette eschews the bold saturation one expects from Anderson; yet within this disaffected community, the writers seek out — and perhaps manifest — absurdly colourful tales. The quality is distinctly uneven, Anderson seeming to have little to say with the content of the stories so much as their loquacious delivery. The most creative is also the most entertaining, a food review that morphs into an unpredictable heist. Although that earns the film a strong closing, it cannot resolve the disconnected narrative of a vapidly kitsch tale of student protest or a bizarrely aggressive travelogue. Fans of Wes Anderson will find plenty of details to enjoy, together with the de rigueur stellar ensemble cast, but The French Dispatch does not rank amongst his strongest work.
“It knows how to hunt. But I know how to survive.”
Despite the enduring success of Predator, the subsequent entries in the franchise have all underwhelmed. Prey succeeds by hewing close to what made the original work (with several direct callbacks) but transplanting it into another era entirely. A Comanche tribe in 1700s America is a surprisingly effective choice for a cat-and-mouse hunt across the Great Plains, simplified weaponry making every action count. The film is paced well with a slow start allowing for deeper characterisation, actor Amber Midthunder developing Naru’s ambition to be a warrior whilst her experienced brother shows concern over her recklessness in attempting to prove herself to the tribe. This sibling dynamic keeps the audience more engaged in the action-heavy latter half. Prey is the latest unfortunate casualty of the streaming wars, missing out on a theatrical release that would have suited its blend of action and natural beauty. Director Dan Trachtenberg is known for 10 Cloverfield Lane but his small screen contributions have flown under the radar — the excellent “Playtest” episode of Black Mirror and the pilot episode of The Boys. Prey solidifies his ability to provide a fresh perspective on existing pop culture.
“I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”
Amleth, The Northman
The Northman‘s thin plot takes the barest bones of Hamlet — a son sworn to avenge his father and kill his usurper uncle — but succeeds in transplanting this revenge tale into a compellingly foreboding world of Norse mythology. Robert Eggers seeks verisimilitude not only in bringing to life Viking reality but also their mythology and ritual practices. Atmospherically akin to The Green Knight, the pacing requires patience though Viking violence provides more action. The budget and scale may have increased dramatically from Eggers’ previous projects like The Lighthouse, but The Northman retains the same intensity through personal conflict. Alexander Skarsgård is a brooding presence, hulking and animalistic, humanised through his gentler interactions with the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy as an understanding counterpoint. The characters are (or feel themselves to be) pawns to the whims of fate, and the cinematography reflects this with vast Icelandic vistas that dwarf individuals in the frame. It may be difficult to find joy in the world Eggers has created but the uncompromising experience is more gripping than most big budget modern cinema.
Bullet Train is a Tarantino-esque crime story that unfolds within the confines of a single train, populated by an ensemble cast of colourful assasins in the vein of John Wick. The ensemble cast excels in bringing these thinly sketched assassins to life, undermined only by some very dubious accents. Central to this is Brad Pitt’s charmingly hapless hitman-in-therapy, though Bryan Tyree Henry and Joey King are likely to be the most memorable. David Leitch’s action credentials are beyond reproach, having spent several decades as a stunt performer and coordinator (including as Pitt’s stunt double) before turning to direction with John Wick. He was apparently reluctant to direct this project because of the constraints in choreographing action confined in a train, but those restrictions can also breed creativity as we have seen previously in Snowpiercer and Train to Busan — such is the case with Bullet Train, and there is little sense of repetition in the kinetic hyperviolence until very late in the proceedings. The neon visuals of Leitch’s spy thriller Atomic Blondealso fit more naturally into the Japanese setting. The final element to holding the audience’s attention is the twisting story that gradually links the backstories of these assassins as they hurtle toward an ominous final stop in Kyoto. Along with Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022 seems to be a welcome return for franchise-free action films and, in a quiet summer less dominated by superhero movies, hopefully Bullet Train will find the audience it deserves.
“This is why I must trust my shamanic instincts as a thespian.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Nicolas Cage in possession of massive talent must be in want of a movie. Leaning into the speculation around his often-surprising career choices, Nicolas Cage plays a fictionalised version of himself, desperate for a hit as much to impress his daughter as for the money. This sets the tone of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, amusing rather than satirical, as it shifts to espionage and action involving a Mexican arms dealer and the CIA. There are two keys to its success: firstly, that Cage largely plays the role straight, though keenly aware of comedic timing and self-referential overacting; and secondly, Pedro Pascal’s awkward charm as the criminal who seems more interested in screenwriting. The most fun is had when the two actors play off one another, their characters equally anxious as they build a rapport. Although the rest of production is competent, were it not for the “Nick Cage” gimmick, this would not be a noteworthy film. Ultimately, it is a homage that will predominantly attract and entertain Cage fans (it is littered with references to his past films), and it comfortably rides the wave of goodwill from Cage’s recent strong performances.
“When you love something, you protect it. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
A millenia-spanning epic about immortal beings sent to Earth to shepherd humanity and the growth of civilisation, Eternals is one of the most experimental films within the MCU to date, handed to critically acclaimed independent film director Chloé Zhao. Although it a flawed film, I think it is unfairly maligned by those who criticise the limited plot, when Eternals is deliberately written in a more thematic manner. The greater structural flaws are in pacing and in the manner that characters are introduced: the bulk of the film occurs as the Eternals reunite in present day, but these reunions are robbed of weight when we have to guess at the relationships which existed before, helped little by disjointed jumps through the ages to flesh out their familial conflicts. Time is spread thinly across the large ensemble cast. Eternals may be the most visually cohesive Marvel film to date, with its intricate golden art design and costuming, complementary visual effects for their powers, and beautiful cinematography — cinematographer Ben Davis was also responsible for the previous title holder, Doctor Strange. This extends to compellingly choreographed fight scenes — when the Eternals fight it often feels like a physical manifestation of differences of opinion. The most compelling concept is the idea of ageless beings searching for purpose amongst mortals, yet we see only glimpses through where they have ended up, some prioritising a dynastic career or family, whilst others find themselves inescapably isolated. Eternals‘ timing closely following the Infinity Saga is unfortunate in that it retreads Thanos’ quandary as to the justification of sacrifice life in order to allow more to flourish. I cannot help but feel that the film would have fared better unshackled from the expectations of fitting into a shared universe, particularly one in which they drastically escalate the power level as street level heroes become increasingly inconsequential against the likes of Celestials.
“I have sex with strangers because I’m incapable of doing it with someone I actually like. I can’t even ask anyone out on a date because if it doesn’t end up in a high speed chase, I get bored.”
Although Fight Club became an enduring success on home video (notwithstanding its misguided adoption by incels), to date Choke is the only other Chuck Palahniuk novel to be made into a film, and it’s safe to say it has not reached a similar status. In many ways Choke exemplifies the difficulty in adapting modern literature to the screen, where so much relies on knowledge of the characters’ perspectives, mental states, and thought processes. This often results in the lazy crutch of voice overs. Our inability to connect with the characters is no fault of the actors — all the leads are good — but rather a rapidly-paced script that never allows us the time to understand these individuals in more than the cynical overtones that drive the narrative and satire. Writer/director Clark Gregg is able deftly to shift tone between sombre and comedic without it feeling jarring, and Choke fully commits to both its cynicism and raunchiness. This provides the viewer with something to enjoy, even if the film struggles to elicit an emotional reaction.