Writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature debut is a strong old-school psychological thriller, freshened by the gender dynamics at play. Emily and Luke are analysts at a Wall Street trading firm with a prohibition on employee fraternisation, forcing them to hide a passionate relationship — Fair Play opens with one of the weirder proposals committed to film — that is destablised by the power imbalance when Emily is promoted. It is plain to the audience that we are watching a doomed relationship unravel even as the characters try to salvage it, but the process is gripping throughout the majority of its two hours, aided by committed performances from both leads. Aside from a supporting role from the ever-reliable Eddie Marsan, the film rests almost entirely on Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. Their characters are travelling inverted arcs, Emily’s compliance gradually developing into assertiveness, whilst Luke begins brashly but is undermined by feelings of emasculation. Fair Play does not shy away from sex, which is an essential part of understanding this relationship, but Domont achieves this without excessive nudity. Domont finds a conclusion to the story but it feels forced in its suddeness, and somewhat trite. Nevertheless, the journey to arrive there is consistently engrossing.
“They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it. Theory will take you only so far.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Based on the book American Prometheus, Christopher Nolan has crafted a Charlie Kaufman-esque biopic that is as much about the concept of political myth-making as it is about Oppenheimer himself, a brilliant physicist whose self-importance was matched only by his actual importance to the war effort in the 1940s. After years of supporting roles, Cillian Murphy finally takes centre stage in a Nolan production and his powerful portrayal of the conflicted scientist is multifaceted and captivating. Nolan presents him as a man who saw beyond the world at a time when it was pivoting, quantum physicists around the globe seemingly drawn to one another by their ideas as they replaced the old guard. This is also an unusual use of the IMAX format, filled with close-ups showing incredibly expressive facial detail rather than grandiose imagery. As is often the case with Nolan, the social aspects are the least convincing: Florence Pugh in particular is ill-used, with Oppenheimer’s popularised quotation from the Bhagavad Gita unnecessarily tied to a sex scene. Although the Manhattan Project provides the meat of the film, Oppenheimer uses a framing device of two committee hearings after the war that sought to discredit him for his communist connections and opposition to the arms race. These provide layers of nuance to the character study, the stark black and white providing an external viewpoint whilst colour presents Oppenheimer’s subjective perspective. This structure is not an unreserved success, leading to repetition and bloat — at first it seems the framing is being used to allow the film to culminate with the Trinity nuclear test; in fact there is a full hour of political machination which follows. The Trinity test itself is perfect for Nolan’s cinematic vision, eking out tension despite our knowledge of its success, and using the medium to transport us to this defining moment — a blinding light and fiery conflagration in silence as time seems to hang before sound rushes in with the shockwave. Oppenheimer casts doubt on US propaganda about the necessity of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, though it is disappointingly indirect. However the far more direct use of haunting imagery intrusively plaguing Oppenheimer is effective in communicating his disturbance by the destructive power he helped to unleash, ultimately wishing to be remembered for the invention but not its use.
“Apex predator… high on cocaine… and you’re going towards it?”
Loosely inspired by an absurd real event, Cocaine Bear is deliberately stupid but unabashedly honest in its intentions — if what you are after is a rampaging wild bear blowing through a remote American community, you will be entertained. Elizabeth Banks’ direction revels in the gore as much as the comedy, and often both simultaneously as the film lines up its victims. Unsurprisingly the bear is a digital effect (courtesy of Wētā) and it bumps against the monster movie rule that the threat is greater than seeing it. Despite a sprightly 95-minute running time, the script swiftly runs out of ideas with cracks appearing around the one hour mark and it hews so closely to the monster movie formula that it becomes predictable despite its inanity. Despite a few flakey performances, most are nothing to sniff at, but only the ever-reliable Margo Martindale’s park ranger is worthy of note. Cocaine Bear is no pearl, then, but it provides enough to enjoy if your expectations are limited to it doing exactly what it says on the tin.
“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.
Beckett’s order may as well have been Disney’s diktat. No one was asking for a Han Solo origin story and, with the beloved character already so well fleshed out by the original trilogy, it is hard to see this as much more than a cash grab. When directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ousted from the project, it seemed the writing was on the wall. Ron Howard stepped in and opted to reshoot three quarters of the film, the requisite for a solo credit. Although the result is actually better than I had feared — with a competently told and occasionally rousing heist tale — like JJ Abrams, Howard plays entirely safe within Star Wars universe. Solo moves at pace so that, as with Rogue One, little time is spent fleshing out the characters, and the only performances that stand out are Woody Harrelson’s Beckett and Donald Glover’s young Lando (an origin story that would have been far more appealing). The film’s strongest element may be John Powell’s score, which plays liberally with a theme by John Williams. Ultimately Solo‘s bland result is another strong argument for seeking out new stories to tell in this expansive universe rather than rehashing the past ad infinitum.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.