Meewella | Critic

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QuickView: Werewolves Within (2021)

“Don’t say Mexican, just standoff.”

Joaquim Wolfson

An unexpected adaptation of the VR social deduction videogame, Werewolves Within shows what can be achieved from a wafer-thin premise with good casting and a light, witty script (by the aptly named Mishna Wolff). Having the new ranger Finn introduced to the isolated rural town of Beaverfield by mail carrier Cecily, editorialising with local gossip, provides an efficient way to flesh out the backstories of its colourful inhabitants, swiftly propelling us to the mysterious attacks. The film shines in group scenes that mirror the game, as acrimonious accusations and increasingly wild theories begin to fly. Unfortunately for a horror comedy, the horror elements are weak, confined to largely predictable jump scares and a little gore, and the humour is inconsistent. Its strongest asset is the sweetly deadpan Milana Vayntrub (whom American audiences will recognise from the long-running AT&T ad campaign but some may know from her offbeat YouTube interview show). Werewolves Within is unlikely to be remembered beyond a few lunar cycles, but it does provide enjoyable light entertainment.

6/10

QuickView: The Power of the Dog (2021)

“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience and the odds against him.”

Phil Burbank

The Power of the Dog is a wonderful slow-burn character-driven Western from writer/director Jane Campion. Phil Burbank is an unusual role for Bennedict Cumberbatch, a man seemingly focused more on the corporeal than the intellectual. He is initially introduced as a misogynistic rancher whose acts of dispassionate and deliberate cruelty are unsettling to watch without the need for physical violence, though we discover that he was not always the brutish cowboy and that this is an intentionally cultivated persona. The film’s inciting incident is his brother’s marriage (of which Phil plainly disapproves) but Campion has structured the film obtusely so that, whilst we know some sort of confrontation is inevitable, the narrative direction is never clear to the audience. This proves an effective way to force the viewer simply to appreciate the character development in the moment, rather than pre-empting the arc. There are clear parallels to There Will Be Blood, particularly in the patriarchal friction between powerfully overbearing men who carved out the frontier and subtler educated people who would ultimately succeed them. Campion’s immersive approach is not entirely without fault, with The Power of the Dog oddly sidelining some characters midway through the film, whilst its abrupt conclusion is simultaneously clever and somewhat dissatisfying.

9/10

QuickView: Don’t Look Up (2021)

“You guys, the truth is way more depressing. They are not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”

Kate Dibiaski

Written pre-pandemic as a satire of human inaction in the face of climate change, Don’t Look Up‘s commentary on scientists and experts being ignored in favour of entertainment and maintaining the status quo feels even more relevant in the COVID era, but relevance does not automatically equate to success. Don’t Look Up is Adam McKay’s bleakest work to date and features fewer creative flourishes, unfolding in a rather straightforward and heavy-handed fashion. Its satirical tone is wry rather than biting, which seems oddly insufficient for its end-of-the-world subject matter; by the end it has shifted more toward farce than insightful social commentary. The failure to skewer its targets more decisively may be necessary to reach the broad audience it desires, its “both sides” approach peaking with the wilful ignorance of a crowd chanting “don’t look up” paralleled with another crowd showering adoration on a pop star singing a vapidly meaningless “just look up” power ballad. The stellar cast produces dramatically and comedically compelling performances, and name-recognition alone should allow the film to meet Netflix’s success metrics, but they are not written with any emotional depth or sympathy. Don’t Look Up is arguably most effective when it broadens its scope to target media obsessed by “engagement” and tech industry billionaires’ self-aggrandisement and control over a political system hopelessly corrupted by wealth and self-interest. Its meandering focus is exacerbated by poor editing that allows the film to run over two and a half hours, when its ideas might have been more effectively communicated in a tighter 90-minute cut. As for reflection on how individuals respond to an apocalyptic crisis, McKay’s perspective is painfully shallow by comparison to existing efforts like Von Trier’s Melancholia or Scafario’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

5/10

QuickView: The Falling (2014)

“I resent this idea that we’re just emotional. This is real.”

Lydia Lamont

Carol Morley’s drama about an apparent mass hysteria event at a strict girls’ school following a tragedy is written with a fluid structure that explores a range of themes. Florence Pugh shows immediate promise in her acting debut, though this is really Maisie Williams’ film as the troubled Lydia who struggles both for attention and support. The primary focus is how a school so focused on discipline is ill-equipped to provide proper care for its pupils in crisis. Lydia’s home life offers scant respite, with a neglectful and neurotic mother and no father. Her older brother steps in as a confusing surrogate; the two are close because they have no one else as well as through shared grief, but their relationship’s unsettling progression into something incestuous works better as an implication than appearing on-screen. The Falling provides best catharsis in Lydia’s relationship with her mother as family truths are revealed. By contrast, much of what happens in the school remains deliberately obtuse, with rapidfire interstitial imagery referencing the occult and past memories. Some of the best character insight is provided through brief personal moments with side characters — these are clear in their intention and unhindered by the messiness of the main narrative. However, none of the narrative shortcomings make this dreamy experience in 1969 any less captivating.

7/10

QuickView: Stalker (1979)

“May they believe. And may they laugh at their passions. For what they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outside world.”

Stalker

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is known for his meditative and poetic style, well-suited to this journey in which a “Stalker” leads two men through the abandoned Zone to find a fabled room that will fulfill the deepest wish of those enter. Stalker first shifts from monochrome to colour upon entering the Zone, suggesting more life exists in this desolate space than within the human society we left. Certainly, the Stalker’s attachment to (and preference for) the Zone is clear, whilst his companions are focused on their destination. Stalker‘s central theme is decreasing spirituality in society, and whether a lack of hope and belief inevitably leads to personal stagnation. Tarkovsky’s approach to science fiction provides a parallel lens through which to view Denis Villeneuve’s recent films: both directors use the genre less for storytelling than to absorb the audience in a world in which they proceed to conduct deep exploration of character and humanity. In this context atmosphere and stillness work together to expand the space for the audience’s mind to wander. As Stalker raises its questions, the camera drifts languidly across the Zone, embracing the dreamlike mist and reflective pools of water, or it processes deeper into the environment whilst isolating individual sounds or embracing silence and the thoughts of its characters. Tarkovsky’s style demands patience and Stalker runs too long for the ideas it has to communicate but, like poetry, its intention is the emotiveness — and not the efficiency — of its delivery.

8/10

QuickView: Die Hard (1988)

“Welcome to the party, pal.”

John McClane

Its status as a Christmas film aside*, Die Hard is a quintessential action film against which others are still routinely measured. Pared down to the essentials, we spend just long enough to develop an affinity with Bruce Willis’ everyman cop John McClane before being thrown into a hostage situtation at the iconic Nakatomi Plaza. The constrained space — confined predominantly to a few floors of the skyscraper — creates a claustrophobic tension that is modulated by cutting to a handful of characters outside. Die Hard is elevated by its suave antagonist, Alan Rickman on top form as the criminal mastermind Hans Gruber, whose enduring popularity as a celluloid villain is impressive for a character who appears in only one film of the resulting franchise. Meanwhile John McClane heralded the end of the 80s’ burly bodybuilders, ushering in an era of heroes who hurt, wincing at gunfire, thinking through encounters and expressing his exhausted frustration.

9/10

* There is a valid distinction between films set at Christmas and those which are about Christmas, but enforcing this line often seems more like arbitrary gatekeeping given the number of romantic comedies that are accepted as Christmas films despite using the holiday for little more than set dressing.

QuickView: The Knight Before Christmas (2019)

“Well, by that logic, only things that you comprehend are possible.”

Sir Cole

My sister jokingly referred to Netflix’s two-year old Christmas movie as a “classic” and she has a point insofar as it typifies the tropes of modern cookie-cutter Christmas films: mismatched romantic leads, a local community drawing together, and a dash of holiday magic. Admittedly, the magic doesn’t usually involve a time travelling medieval knight displaced to present day America but the entire premise was clearly spun from the (excellent) titular pun. Vanessa Hudgens could fuel on these roles with natural charm that doesn’t become overly saccharine. The most bizarre aspect of the production is the utter lack of chemistry between the leads — it would sink any romcom but here the inoffensively sweet individuals are enough to keep us on side. In deploying its low budget to seek generalised broad appeal, The Knight Before Christmas is shooting for mediocrity, a target that it squarely hits. It might make you feel good, it’s certainly unlikely to make you feel worse.

5/10

QuickView: The Green Knight (2021)

“I fear I am not meant for greatness.”

Gawain

Based on a 14 Century poem, David Lowery’s Arthurian fantasy horror The Green Knight is heavy on atmosphere and light on engagement, yet it has the power to linger. From the outset it is clear that this is not mainstream fantasy, its desaturated palette (shot on location in Ireland) and relentlessly oppressive tone make for a gruelling experience. It is not without beauty — in its use of light and shadow, and through its evocative (if disquieting) choral score. Whilst Lowery’s script is at times loose with the source material, it draws from the same central chivalric themes, particularly Gawain’s conflicting desires for greatness and honour — as King Arthur’s nephew, he feels entitled to the former but, by seeking it, he risks losing the latter. Dev Patel’s performance exhibits particular desperation in Gawain’s fear for his own survival, moreso than the temptations he faces during his journey. A dreamlike structure drifts from one encounter to another upon his quest, each a narratively disconnected vignette complete with chapter headings. Lowery’s focus is fixed entirely upon Gawain’s internal struggle, which unfortunately leaves Alicia Vikander underused despite playing a dual role. At first The Green Knight‘s positive critical reception struck me as attributable more to its unusual approach than whether it was successful in its aims, yet I must admit that my immediate discontent with the film mellowed into a residual curiosity as various aspects have continued to play on my mind.

7/10

QuickView: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

“Wait so you’re Spider-Man too?”

Ned Leeds

Where Avengers: Endgame was the result of a decade of carefully curated MCU crossovers, No Way Home uses a freak multiverse fracture to draw ad hoc from the past twenty years of Sony’s Spider-Man movies, delivering perhaps the ultimate in cinematic fan service for those who grew up during that period. Its strength is the resulting character interaction between characters who would never normally have meet, drawing on the parallels and differences between the lives of the various Peter Parkers we have seen. The script uses this for emotional payoff and even to provide some unexpected closure years later. In-jokes abound based on the earlier films and even Internet memes that grew out of them. In all of this, the film can be joyfully playful in a similar way to Into The Spider-verse. No Way Home does place certain expectations on its audience’s knowledge, which leaves it unburdened by the need to explain its position in the MCU or to provide fresh introductions for its rogues’ gallery of villains, whose backstories instead become throwaway gags. The weak link is the action which continues the franchise’s trend for CG-heavy fights and wanton property destruction; even J. Jonah Jameson seems incredulous as he criticises the damage to yet another landmark. The most interesting choreography is a sequence combining Spider-Man’s acrobatics with Doctor Strange’s portals, which shows more creativity in a few minutes than the entire climactic battle.

8/10

QuickView: Old (2021)

“Stop wishing away this moment.”

Prisca

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.

4/10

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"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2022 Priyan Meewella

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