As a high-concept fable about time and aging, Old shows early promise with a group of strangers stranded on a beach where the flow of time means that they will age a full lifetime in the span of just one day. Sadly the writing never comes close to a coherent or thoughtful exploration of these ideas and dialogue is painfully stilted. Instead the premise gets old fast, which would be impressive were it deliberate. Although Shyamalan continues to attract talented actors, there is no depth to characters who are mere cyphers (an actuary worried about future risk married to a museum curator interested in the past) or fodder for the plot, all ultimately hapless victims as the film leans into temporal body horror. Shyamalan remains a victim of early success as — though this is not a film that relies on a grand twist — he does try to cram in narrative complexity at the end, which does little more than highlight an intriguing bioethics angle that might have been more engaging if it were more than an afterthought. Old is a tedious way to lose two hours of your life but at least it is never scary enough to age you prematurely.
“If you want boys to respect you, show them you’re serious. Shoot something, blow it up!”
The flippant tone of Birds of Prey is its greatest strength, a bright colour palette veering deliberately away from the dark tone of the DCEU with a story told, messily, by Harley Quinn. The script weaves a thin plot around the conceit that she is striking out on her own after years under the Joker’s sway, but for the most part it just strings together a series of acrobatic fight sequences. There is some creative choreography, with a few well-observed moments in the hands of a female director like Harley offering Black Canary a hair-tie during a fight, but it is shot predictably in chaotic quick cuts. We never see the level of audiovisual flair found in Harley’s prison breakout in the The Suicide Squad and, whilst comparing Birds of Prey to a later film may seem unfair, Gunn understood what we need to see and feel to get into the mind of one Harley Quinn, which is almost as important as Margot Robbie’s performance. Birds of Prey tries to do that through its use of voice over and colour palette, but it never quite succeeds.
“It’s the little things that are important, Jimmy. It’s the little things that get you caught.”
An unusual police drama in which much of the mystery emerges at the end rather than the start, The Little Things‘ strength is that it doesn’t do things by the Hollywood book. There is, for example, only ever really one suspect. With three Oscar-winning leads, the acting performances add weight to a script that demands some suspension of disbelief. Washington and Malek are both restrained, with emotions that we can read beneath the surface but controlled and professional in their actions. Leto is the weakest of the three, seeming to lean heavily toward his Joker portrayal. The film’s ending is disquietingly inconclusive; I see that as a strength which suits its tone but some viewers will find it dissatisfying. Ultimately The Little Things is made for those who appreciate mood and tone rather than those who want a logically-driven whodunnit.
“We’re all passing for something or other, aren’t we?”
Adapted from a novella by Nella Larsen, Passing is a simple story evocatively elevated by through nuanced parallels and skilful use of cinematic language belying the fact that this is actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut. The overt theme is that of racial identity and the ability for lighter-skinned coloured people to “pass” for white, but Passing is also about identity more generally and the way in which it affects our social interactions and contentment. The primary purpose of shooting in black and white is its alteration of how we perceive skin tone, but its corollary effect fits Hall’s description of the film itself “passing” as being from another era, brimming with the style of 1930s and noir cinema including the now-rare Academy ratio, but maintaining its own identity through anachronistic use of anamorphic lenses that provide a wider field of view and pleasing oval bokeh. The best use of the extra frame height is in making the Harlem townhouses loom over figures on the street. Passing‘s reserved and delicate approach (it would meet the era’s Hays Code) dulls its emotional impact, resulting in an exploration of race that is more quietly thoughtful than deeply moving.
“This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.”
Edgar Wright’s London-based ghost story lavishly conjures Soho in the 1960s but serves as a deliberately stark warning against romanticising bygone eras, exposing coercive mistreatment of women beneath the glossy facade drenched in neon light. We see the entire film through the perspective of Eloise, a modern-day fashion student who experiences visions of the past through mirrors. These reflections provide the film’s best visual flourishes, achieved predominantly through practical sleight of hand and clever choreography (particularly a stunning dance sequence in an exquisite recreation of Café de Paris with repeated Texas Switches, a favourite of Wright). Eloise’s attempt to reinvent herself at university mirrors her visions of Sandie’s grasp at stardom in the 60s . This is communicated through sound design and colour as Eloise crosses to experience Sandie’s world, the coldly desaturated indifference of London suddenly giving way to the vibrant 1960s, with front audio bursting into Dolby Atmos surround. Anya Taylor-Joy is mesmerising, her singing voice adding to her talents. There is also something about former Doctor Who stars twisting their charm into something darker, Matt Smith’s manipulative Jack reminiscent of David Tennant’s Purple Man in Jessica Jones. The horror elements work more through atmosphere than jump scares (though there are some), coupled with Eloise’s concerns about her own mental state. Unfortunately, although the third act reveals are largley satisfying, Last Night in Soho becomes less than it could be when confined to the present day and more conventional horror visuals.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”
Creating an epic space opera without “Star Wars” in the title is a financially risky proposition, and the chief criticism of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is that it tells only half a story if its A-list cast fails to attract a wide enough audience for the second film to be made. I approach the film as a fan of the director rather than Frank Herbert’s novels but the script maintains the rich political intrigue between the familial houses laying claim to desert-planet Arrakis. The scenes of violence and war are always in service to that story. Timothée Chalamet is an excellent choice for Paul Atreides, making him seem vulnerable despite his lineage and skills. This is a man driven by dreams and visions, a storytelling device that I always find less compelling on screen than in writing, an indulgence detrimental to pacing. Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s own uncompromising vision is evident in almost every frame, from the ruggedly realistic clothing and stark geometric sets to the insect-inspired vehicle designs and a desaturated colour palette so tightly controlled that merely seeing green on Arrakis comes as a shock. Indeed the inhospitable world of Arrakis is utterly absorbing (even as the plot slows) in a way I have not felt since Avatar‘s Pandora, but the rest of the galaxy feels strangely empty — we may see large armies on different planets, but there is no sense that these are living, populated places. Dune is beautiful in its detailed grandeur which excels on the big screen but it can also be sluggish and bleak, held back from greatness by an ultimately unsatisfying ending, even if there are thematic justifications for where the line was drawn.
“Harder to tell the good from the bad, the villains from the heroes these days.”
Typically the Bond films of each actor to take on the role end in a downward trajectory, but the inconsistent films of Daniel Craig’s tenure have culminated in perhaps the best swansong for a Bond actor to date, even if it sits firmly in the middle of the pack when it compared to Craig’s previous outings. Bond is at its best when it reinvents itself and, as I have previously opined, it arguably has less to do with the actor than the direction. Cary Fukunaga’s languid pacing and sombre tone suits the more personal story — even its opening swaps the usual kinetic action for a flashback horror sequence with an endangered child. No Time To Die is considerably too long at 163 minutes, featuring plenty of striking locations but little memorable action (aside from an early car chase and a tense woodland hunt). Ana de Armas brings the most energy to the film, though her presence is sadly restricted to one self-contained sequence. There has been an organic character arc through the Craig era from Bond proving himself in Casino Royale to the seasoned professional in Skyfall and now the introspective retired agent recognising that the politics behind espionage have become increasingly grey. A long-promised and overdue shift in this final outing is the greater depth to the female operatives and to Bond’s relationships. Conversely, Safin is one of the weakest Bond villains to date (through no fault of Rami Malek) and the franchise’s continued reliance on facial disfigurement as a shorthand for “villain” — with three examples in this film alone — is a tired anachronism. No Time To Die may not be Bond at its best, but the franchise continues to mature in a fitting send-off to its most human incarnation.
“There’s no breeze! It could be any one of these tunnels! Take your pick!”
By boiling down a spelunking-trip-gone-wrong into its base fears — the dark, claustrophobia and mistrust of one’s own senses — Neil Marshall is able to wring out an impressive level of atmospheric tension and dread. An entirely female group of thrill-seekers exploring the cave creates a refreshing dynamic, though only the core group of three friends have any real depth. The trick that makes The Descent so effective is a cunning opening sequence that uses and undermines the tropes of horror editing to make the viewer question their own anticipation of events. This makes later sequences more unsettling when the line becomes unclear between reality and characters’ imaginations (particularly in the case of Sarah, whom we know suffers hallucinations) as the group’s literal descent extends to a metaphorical one. My chief criticism is with the action-orientated sequences in the latter half of the film, the darkness and jump-cuts often making it impossible to ascertain what is unfolding. Similarly, the sound levels have a tendency to swallow quieter dialogue, detracting from some (admittedly predictable) interpersonal revelations. It is worth noting that the ending in the English release, though less than a minute longer, is more satisfying than the truncated version released for American audiences.
“It’s lockdown: nobody knows what day it is, let alone the date.”
With an impressively swift turnaround, released just nine months after the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown, Locked Down could have been an excellent observed comedy about the shared experiences of the preceding year but is undone by a weak script and an unnecessary and contrived “heist”. The focus on a recently separated couple provides an added layer of hostility to an already strained environment, with Doug Liman making some creative visual choices like deliberately poor framing to reflect off-centre webcams and leaning into video freezes and lag. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as the furloughed and depressed Paxton is the film’s highlight, coping poorly with the breakup yet witty and theatrical as he orates poetry to his neighbours. The script’s observations are more blunt than profound (“people like me who have spent some time in real prison are thriving in this new reality”) and its privileged tone can become unpleasant at times. As its focus shifts to opportunistic theft, Locked Down‘s relatability and competence plummet further.
“You go ahead and do what you want. Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a Korean immigrant family setting up a farm in Arkansas is light on plot and heavy on character interaction, with the success of the farm itself less important than the fate of the family. The initial tension comes from Jacob’s decision to uproot a stable but stagnant life in California for risk that provides the possibility of growth and, although our initial impression of his wife Monica is unsupportive, the film is unusually even-handed in its portrayal of the couple. The arrival of grandmother Soonja seems like it will provide a one-note antagonistic presence, but she turns out to Minari‘s most multifaceted and fascinating character, portrayed expertly by Korean cinema veteran Yuh-Jung Youn as she shifts between childishly churlish and deeply caring. Steven Yeun, best known from The Walking Dead, is a nominal lead but this is really an ensemble cast, with the entire family being nuanced and fleshed out with sufficient screen time save for the daughter. Aside from half the dialogue being in Korean, there is little racial or cultural focus to Minari — perhaps its most universal immigrant experience is that the parents remain isolated, struggling to form deep relationships outside of the family unit, despite this particular Arkansas community being welcoming. As an amalgamation of Chung’s childhood memories, Minari may not show us anything particularly new but, in depicting the quiet struggle of industrious immigrants, it is both beautiful and timely in an environment of backlash to immigration.