Meewella | Critic

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QuickView: Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

“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.

9/10

QuickView: Return to Seoul (2022)

“I could cut you out of my life with a snap of my fingers.”

Freddie

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 well 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 magically to settle down, but by seeing her develop the audience comes to understand her behaviours and to appreciate the pain which drives them.

8/10

QuickView: Joyland (2022)

“Sometimes I feel like I have nothing that’s my own. Everything feels borrowed or stolen from someone else.”

Haider

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.

8/10

QuickView: The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)

“Destiny is calling.”

Mario

Where Sega’s Sonic adaptations went 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.

5/10

QuickView: Sick of Myself (2022)

“Narcisists are the ones who succeed.”

Signe

If last year’s Norwegian darling, The Worst Person in the World, was about a woman’s realisation that she has the capacity to be better, Sick of Myself is about the audience realising that there is no depth to which the narcissistic Signe will not sink. She is desperate to be noticed, craving even negative attention, which begins a downward spiral once she discovers that illness will attract sympathy. Naturally she uses this to test her friends’ commitment and we frequently see her fantasies about the future, including a funeral with bouncer turning away those who failed to visit her in hospital. Rather than pair Signe with a downtrodden victim, writer-director Kristoffer Borgli pairs her with a boyfriend who is nearly as self-involved, a smart decision that heightens the cynical worldview that permeates Sick of Myself. A common complaint with dark comedies is that all the characters are unlikeable, but Sick of Myself treats its own characters with an almost visceral revulsion, and the film is unrelentingly committed to seeing their actions through until it becomes disturbing. That will certainly not be to all tastes, but its edge never dulls even as its focus pulls back to cover performative activism (with a modelling agency based around disability) and natural medicine support groups (where one member deplores the “privilege” of Signe’s visible affliction). It is more often bitterly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny but, if you are sickened by the way in which modern society seems to reward sociopathy, Sick of Myself may be just what the doctor ordered.

8/10

QuickView: Broker (2022)

“I know everything. You’re not a family.”

Hae-jin

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s skill, on display here as in Shoplifters, is presenting found families — those cleaved together by choice rather than blood — in a way that feels both natural and intimate, with an excellent cast led by Parasite’s Song Kang-ho. Broker again explores this through good-hearted criminals, in this case a pair who obtain abandonned babies and sell them to families wishing to adopt. The film’s complications arise from two angles: a mother returning to recover her baby and two police officers hunting down the illegal brokers. Kore-eda’s script is compassionate toward the varying reasons for which mothers may make the difficult decision to give up children, whilst exploring the characters’ reasons for having strong views — particularly Dong-Soo upon returning to the orphanage where he grew up. Broker is a gentle, charming film even as the audience knows it cannot end happily for everyone. The dynamic of its makeshift family is not as nuanced as Shoplifters, but Broker is still a highly effective piece of cinema as Kore-eda continues to hone his craft away from the standard fare.

8/10

QuickView: Rye Lane (2023)

“So apparently there are two types of people in this world. The ones who wave at boats, and the ones who hate joy.”

Yas

London romcoms have been synonymous with Richard Curtis for at least two decades, but that has limited their focus to a certain demographic — Rye Lane bursts beyond those boundaries with its young black protagonists walking the streets of Peckham. Opening with an awkward first meeting, Rye Lane uses the walk-and-talk connection of Before Sunrise to excellent effect as Yas and Dom bond over bad breakups. Two thirds of the film unfolds in a single day, resting on Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson’s engaging and sympathetic performances, with a series of amusing cameos as the day plays out. Rye Lane is the feature debut of not only director Raine Allen-Miller but also cinematographer Olan Collardy, allowing them to engage in considerable visual experimentation starting from the opening overhead pan across a series of very different London bathroom stalls. Collardy deploys extreme widescreen with distinctive lens distortion that wraps the characters in the vibrant personality of Rye Lane’s South London locations. He deliberately breaks framing rules, like placing empty space behind each character’s head in certain dialogue close-ups to make them feel closer together. Allen-Miller draws clear inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in the way she presents her neighbourhood as its own character, but also the surrealism of Sorry To Bother You with Yas and Dom physically present as observers during flashbacks. In a year of impressive debuts from British female directors, she is certainly one to watch.

8/10

QuickView: Maestro (2023)

“There are many things stopping me, but fear is not one of them.”

Felicia Montealegre

A musician is again the subject of Bradley Cooper’s second directorial outing, a biopic of Leonard Bernstein, the first American conductor to receive international acclaim. Although Cooper plays the titular maestro, it is Carey Mulligan who receives first billing for her powerful performance as his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Cooper uses the couple to explore the multifaceted nature of humans, the complexity of forging an identity from disparate parts, and and the strain that can place on a single partner. In his career, Bernstein refuses to be constrained, retaining his Jewish surname and embracing musical theatre composition in additional to more respected orchestral fare. Montealegre provides Bernstein with understanding and support to explore all of himself but begins to feel isolated by his lack of discretion in relationships with men. Like Oppenheimer, it now seems in vogue for biopics to eschew chronology, and Maestro jumps around repeatedly, using black and white and varied aspect ratios as the primary indicator to the audience. This structure leaves the film feeling fractured, without particularly aiding the underlying themes. Cooper again collaborates with Matthew Libatique (also Darren Aranofsky’s preferred cinematographer), who dazzles early on with his black and white composition like a face shrouded in shadow, only an eye glinting in the light. Cooper’s Bernstein is expressive under Kazu Hiro’s impressive prosthetics, and he embodies duality of the extroverted performance of the conductor (“I love people so much that it’s hard for me to be alone”) and the isolated creativity of the composer.

8/10

QuickView: Rebel Moon: Part 1 – A Child of Fire (2023)

“I am a child of war.”

Kora

The parallels between Rebel Moon and Star Wars — both set in a galaxy ruled by an authoritarian empire challenged by a small band of rebels — are overstated and certainly not the primary issue with Zack Snyder’s space opera, which draws liberal inspiration from the past 50 years of sci-fi movies. This “Part 1” (due to be concluded next year) sets up the pleasantly small-scale stakes of a farming community facing a ticking clock to destruction, but it devolves into a collect-a-thon when Kora leaves to recruit warriors to aid their fight. It turns the film’s second act into a series of extended introductions to cookie-cutter characters, usually involving violence. An amalgamation of these scenes may have made for a bombastic trailer but laid out in full it is barely watchable. Rebel Moon’s most interesting character is the android Jimmy, a contemplative former soldier voiced by Anthony Hopkins, but once established he vanishes (the fact he may be relevant in Part 2 does little to aid this film). A villainous Ed Skrein is at least enjoying himself as a cruel and capricious officer. Disappointingly, much of the world building occurs through clunky expository monologues about Kora’s past rather than emerging organically from the story. The purpose of planet-hopping space opera should be to explore the variety offered by a vast galaxy, but Snyder’s “vision” is a series of grimy monochromatic locations that rarely feel like distinct worlds. The action is rote, save for Nemesis’s twin-bladed fight against a chimeric arachnid, and Snyder’s continuing predilection for slow-motion adds little beyond extending the running time. If Netflix is paying for “content”, there is plenty here but with little depth to any of it. Rebel Moon is not even thematically consistent, with Nemesis warning against revenge immediately followed by Kora enticing her next recruit with a promise of revenge. With the production values on display this is not Battlefield Earth bad, but it does become nearly as ponderous. Snyder recently stated that he was glad he didn’t get his wish to direct a Star Wars movie because it granted him greater creative control in Rebel Moon instead; perhaps we should all be equally glad, if not for the same reason.

4/10

QuickView: Family Switch (2023)

“This is a situation that has never happened before.”

Jess Walker

The only new idea Netflix’s unbearably bland Christmas body-swap brings is that, rather than a pair trading places, this time it’s an entire family. The female leads deliver the most convincing performances though their characters are also better written — most will recognise the expressive Emma Myers as Wednesday Addams’ best friend, whilst Jennifer Garner brings prior body swap experience from 13 Going On 30. In one scene the family members describe their situation by referencing the titles of a dozen other body swap movies, the writers perhaps hoping that by lampshading how hackneyed the concept is, we will forgive their derivative mess of a script. Logic rarely rears its head — Wyatt’s Yale interview is inexplicably held in a classroom at his school rather than at, say, Yale — and often the shenanigans require characters to forget the basic premise, so that we can have adults engage entirely inappropriately at a teenage party or schoolkids instantly forget they think a child is a loser. The less said about the cringe-inducing scene in which the siblings (in their parents’ bodies) are goaded into kissing the better. Eventually the family are required to learn the most basic of lessons — that they do care about one another — which perhaps is an achievement since I certainly struggled to care about this collection of stock characters sketched in the broadest manner possible. Switch this out for any other body swap movie instead.

3/10

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"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

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