“The choice is an illusion. You already know what you have to do.”
Even with Hollywood’s penchant for the safety of franchise films and nostalgia, resurrecting this long-dormant series that had already steadily declined in quality came as something of a surprise, particularly as a sequel and not a wholesale reboot. The Matrix Resurrections seems equally awkward with this role, its opening act a self-aware, borderline parody as “Mr Anderson” finds himself developing a videogame sequel, complete with focus group survey results exploring the disparate reasons fans have been drawn to The Matrix, above all originality and freshness. It is bizarre but genuinely fun, and seems almost an apology for the turgid mess that follows. To her credit, Lana Wachowski (this time directing solo) does not simply retread old ground and chooses to examine the relationship between Neo and Trinity, exploring the extent to which our choices and identity are actually dependent on others. The first half of the film presents a compelling mystery as we try to understand how Neo and Trinity have survived and where they are, seemingly reinserted into the Matrix but robbed of their memories. Unfortunately the answers are underwhelming, arriving halfway into the film, and the second half is a real slog with the promise of an action-heavy resolution never really materialising. I have also never seen a sequel make such heavy use of previous footage, sometimes as fragmented memories, sometimes literally projected onto a set whilst similar events unfold. This tight link to the past makes reviving Morpheus and Agent Smith without their original actors all the more egregious. Astonishingly, given franchise’s reputation, there is not a single memorable action set piece in the entire film. People shoot a lot of automatic weapons, Keanu throws out protective forcefields from his hands, and a helicoptor hits a building again. The world of The Matrix always felt densely populated, both in the simulation and in Zion. Now it all feels like empty déjà vu.
“Every rejection, every disappointment has led you to this moment.”
Perhaps the most joyful exercise in unleashed creativity since Kung Fu Hustle, the multiverse-bending action comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once deserves to be seen by everyone everywhere. Although the film draws inspiration from all manner of pop culture sources, it is neither derivative nor mere pastiche. Rather, the writer-director duo “Daniels” use these as a common language and as ingredients to produce a unique heady concoction that uses the concept of the multiverse to explore the theme of nihilism and how to counteract it. I am loathe to reveal anything more of the plot which unfolds like a vertiginous roller-coaster ride. Unlike their feature debut Swiss Army Man, the Daniels seem now more confident in the emotional weight of their story rather than continually undercutting its tone with puerile humour. Central to this success is a sublime performance from Michelle Yeoh, a veteran of Hong Kong martial arts cinema who deftly adapts to Everything Everywhere‘s variously comedic, emotional and action beats. Returning cinematographer Larkin Seiple (whose CV blends films like I Just Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymorewith music videos like Childish Gambino’s This is America) delivers visuals that are as much a kinetic assault on the audience as the fight choreography. It can at times be messy and silly, but Everything Everywhere All At Once is, above all, a very welcome breath of fresh air.
“I’m sorry it has to be you. But Greville, it has to be you.”
A cold war spy thriller that itself feels like a throwback to the likes of Le Carré, The Courier succeeds because its trusts the slow burn tension of its script to hold the audience’s attention without the need for superfluous action. Cumberbatch is excellent as the businessman Greville Wynne recruited by MI6 to help infiltrate the Soviet nuclear programme, his superficial salesman’s charm developing into a genuine and more relatable affection for GRU defector Oleg Penkovsky. Much of the tension arises from the fact Wynne is not some suave superspy but an amateur who knows he is woefully out of his depth. The Courier unfolds against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and trusts the audience to be sufficiently aware of its importance whilst the film’s focus is more personal — its overarching theme is personal cost of conflicting loyalties. It is peppered with thoughtful visual choices like the two trips to the ballet — in the first, during Greville’s first, nerve-wracking introduction to Moscow, we never see the stage but only see Greville and Penkovsky’s faces in the darkened theatre; in the second, we see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed to symbolise Penkovsky’s contemplation of his imminent abandonment of his homeland.
“There’s a whole world out there for you, Duncan. Don’t settle. Not yet.”
The Way Way Back is a delight that has instantly earned a place amongst my favourite coming-of-age films, not because it breaks new ground but because it populates the familiar template with such well-realised characters that I am certain to rewatch it just to spend more time with them. This is perhaps more surprising from a pair of comedian writer-directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Community‘s Dean Pelton), who let the humanity drive the humour rather than the other way round. Our sympathy for Duncan arises not from his adolescent awkwardness but the difficult family dynamic of this summer holiday, coping with his parents’ divorce and the distance he feels from his mother due to her overbearing new boyfriend Trent. Shot with visual sheen of sun-drenched nostalgia, there is a sense of fortuitous absurdism in the ease with which Duncan is taken under the wing of workers at a water park and offered a job. Although the whole ensemble cast excels, Sam Rockwell’s performance as Owen is perhaps the key, acting as a counterpoint to Trent, immature but self-aware and unburdened by ego. The Way Way Back dserves praise for not seeking easy or fantastic resolutions to its more serious confrontation, leaving viewers with hopefulness rather than closure.
Since the underwhelming Bright in 2017, Netflix has been chasing a big budget action film success in vain. Yet, with big name stars drawing high streaming figures, Netflix now seems content with a regular cadence of generic and largely forgettable films instead, and that is the mould for The Adam Project from director Shawn Levy (teaming up again with Ryan Reynolds after last year’s Free Guy). Its loose time travel mechanics are forgivable but its greater flaw is laziness in establishing its sci-fi world. We never really get a sense of the stakes in 2050, or how the existence of time travel has changed the planet, and a direct reference to The Terminator serves only to highlight The Adam Project‘s comparatively weak world-building and derivative story. The action is competently choreographed, with a few memorable moments using futuristic energy and sonic weapons. A more serious tone also allows Ryan Reynolds to deliver a more emotionally nuanced performance than Free Guy, particularly in the regret Adam feels when faced with how he treated his mother as a child. Unfortunately, with the exception of Walter Scobell as his younger self, the excellent supporting cast is wasted on characters that are never developed beyond sketches. The Adam Project is enjoyable but will be forgotten within a few months.
“But even if you think you know someone well, even if you love that person deeply, you can’t completely look into that person’s heart. You’ll just feel hurt.”
Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has crafted a gentle and moving meditation on regret and guilt, explored against a backdrop of storytelling and finding the truth through fiction. I adore Murakami’s writing, but translating his sense of wistful melancholy to the screen is not straightforward. Hamaguchi achieves this by allowing us to spend the first half hour examining the relationship between Yûsuke Kafuku and his wife Oto, before shifting to the time period of the short story in which he converses with the driver assigned to him whilst directing a play. The multicultural production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya provides the film’s texture, its musings about the painfulness of life forcing the actors and director to reckon with their own emotional turmoil. Drive My Car is paced deliberately slowly, its characters reluctant to reveal their motivations (most notably Kafuku’s decision to cast his wife’s younger lover in the play), but its three hour running time demands considerable patience and around half an hour could have been excised without losing any content. However, it is those languid drives that allow the audience — as much as Kafuku — to ponder people and events. It is also during these journeys that Drive My Car reveals its unusual approach to intimacy through the sharing of stories in contrast to sex which serves to distance characters.
“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
Although Her is ostensibly science fiction — one of its central characters is a sentient artificially intelligent operating system — Spike Jonze approaches this ambitious film as a traditional love story in which one of the participants simply lacks corporeal form. Theodore and Samantha’s chemistry rests as much on Scarlett Johanssen’s charm and curiosity through just a disembodied voice (no doubt recorded with a great deal of direction when she replaced Samantha Morton who originally voiced the role during filming) as it does on Joaquin Phoenix’s presence onscreen. Jonze uses the premise of this unusual relationship to deconstruct the loneliness of modern life as we regard one another from an increasing distance and, one decade and a global pandemic later, his vision of how our computer-dominated society is evolving feels eerily accurate. Theodore, sympathetically underplayed by Phoenix, is a kind and creative man struggling with divorce and, although he has friends and colleagues who like him, only his OS seems to understand how to support him. Whatever one’s view of the relationship, its effects on Theodore are tangible, and that is where Her, with its non-judgmental perspective, truly fascinates.
“Beguiling, aren’t you?” Kate is asked early on, and that is an apt description for True Things, with its exclusively female perspective exploring the heady and unsettling experience of being derailed by a toxic relationship. Director Harry Wootliff’s approach is constructed around subjectivism, so we learn very little about Kate’s ex-con lover, only identified as “Blond”. The audience is likely more primed now than when the book was released in 2010 immediately to recognise Blond’s manipulative gaslighting, but Kate is not presented a victim — she has agency in choosing to stay and to pull away, and we know her perspective is unreliable as she uses him to escape her own frustrations. This is clearest as we watch her dance uninhibited in a Spanish nightclub, dancing only for herself, and so we see the dancefloor deserted. Early on, it is achieved through editing, with a week vanishing suddenly since Kate’s life is stagnant when separated from Blond, which is why she finds herself returning to him. Its depiction of female lust is appropriately devoid of the male gaze — both the director and cinematographer are women — instead capturing subjectively intimate moments. Shot in the Academy ratio, the close-cropped square frame is at first claustrophobic but its shifting focus reflects Kate’s own headspace, without the distraction of elements in the wider frame. True Things contains a multitude of wonderful subtleties, carried by Ruth Wilson’s understated realism, which makes its lack of substance all the more frustrating. Wootliff plainly wants the viewer to insert their own experiences but that makes what is actually present more ephemeral.
“Fear is a tool. When that light hits the sky, it’s not just a call. It’s a warning.”
Matt Reeves’ The Batman is the stylish reboot that (non-comedy) superhero films have needed, with their ever-increasing scale and shared-universe homogeneity. The “Year 2” storyline thankfully avoids yet another origin story, though parallels are drawn early on with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Instead, we see an established Batman dealing with street-level crime (emerging from the shadows like Vader to Michael Giacchino’s imposing brass score), already mistrusted by the police though he is called in to investigate crime scenes and track down leads. Grounded in realism with noir and gothic cinematic sensibilities, The Batman‘s greatest inspiration seems to come from another dark, winged creature, Alex Proyas’ The Crow, with its relentless pursuit of thugs through stylised streets soaked in shadows and rain. It seems most overt when Batman removes his mask to reveal a smear of black around his eyes and matted hair, reminscent of Eric Draven’s iconic appearance. The open jawline of the redesigned cowl allows Robert Pattinson to emote far more than recent incarnations, perhaps essential when he spends so little time as a reclusive Bruce Wayne. Despite spending most of the time as Batman, the action is rather limited though it oozes style: a brief corridor fight lit only by bursts of muzzle flash, or a car chase in the rain with near-zero visibility. It is a rare superhero where the climactic set piece is actually the film’s most satisfying. Greig Fraser’s cinematography deploys sharp camera angles, high contrast and often limited colour in a creative interpretation of some of the most striking Batman comicbook art. The ensemble cast excels, with few simple caricatures. Paul Dano’s Riddler is deliberately ordinary, like the Zodiac Killer crossed with Jigsaw, as the film briefly explores Batman’s complicity in inspiring his villains as well as the Internet incubation of rightwing extremism. An unrecognisable Colin Farrell is underused as Penguin, though the stage has clearly been set for him to take a central role in the future. The Batman‘s chief flaw is in editing, running too long with intermittent pacing issues affecting a number of scenes, but that only slightly diminishes the overall accomplishment.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“Here at Capitol Pictures, as you know, an army of technicians, actors, and top notch artistic people are working hard to bring to the screen the story of the Christ. It’s a swell story.”
Even when the humour is broad, the sensibilities of Coen brothers movies tend to appeal to a niche audience. Hail, Caesar! is predominantly an excuse for the brothers to use 1950s Hollywood as a playground, producing their own homages to the era’s musicals, Westerns and epics, evoking humour less through parody than authenticity. With their frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins, creating Hail, Caesar! must have been a rewarding exploration of bygone filmmaking technique, and the film is most enjoyable when viewed as a series of loosely connected vignettes, like Channing Tatum tap dancing through a Gene Kelly number or George Clooney channeling Charlton Heston. There is little weight to the story woven through them, as studio head Eddie Mannix fixes problems that vary from the realistic (an studio star pregnant out of wedlock) to the absurd (an actor kidnapped by Communist writers), all while deciding whether he even wants to stay in the industry. Hail, Caesar! may not be particularly memorable but for those with at least a passing familiarity with 1950s cinema, there is much to appreciate, particularly if you also enjoy the Coens’ verbose and offbeat humour and their stellar ensemble casts they attract.