“In life, of course, nothing is nearly as neat and tidy.”
Zach Braff takes a more conventional and less self-indulgent approach to his latest film (he remains firmly behind the camera) and this provides greater space for the central themes of grief and addiction to flourish. A Good Person is not subtle in its writing but is elevated by towering performances from Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman as individuals linked by loss arising from the same car accident. Allison’s grief is masked by painkillers to which she becomes addicted and Pugh’s portrayal is a study in showcasing both the inner pain and how it it muted. Freeman’s portrayal of Daniel is fuelled by anger as a man struggling to be better than he was. Additional connective tissue is provided by Celeste O’Connor as the teenager Daniel is ill-equipped to raise and who forms a connection with Allison. Shot in a more naturalistic style than we have previously seen from Braff, this is a tender film with genuine emotion even if its execution is frequently heavy-handed. If one focuses on the addiction side of the story (which commands an outsized portion of the running time) one will be disappointed by derivative depictions but, taken as a whole with its commentary on grief and the way that those still grieving can aid one another, A Good Person has more to offer than may initially appear.
“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.
Sebastian Lelio’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel is a character study of a Nightingale nurse hired by a remote Irish village to observe a child who has apparently survived for months without eating. At first The Wonder seems set up for a confrontation between rationality and religion, Florence Pugh’s Lib Wright dismissing the claim outright as impossible whilst the committee that hired her have various vested interests in the apparent miracle, be it scientific or religious. In fact, the film is more about the risk of unshakeable certainty (whatever its source) rather than the flexibility that makes communal life possible. Lelio chooses to open the film with a bold Brechtian alienation device (inspired by Goddard’s opening to Le Mepris), drawing the audience’s attention not only to the fact that this is a story, but also that it is about stories — specifically the the fictions small and large which drive us, and the selective facts we choose to craft the story of our identity. Pugh is wonderful as the nurse, initially assured in her knowledge but uncomfortable as an outsider, these facets of her performance becoming inverted the more time she spends around the mistrustful villagers (“What right does a stranger have to come between a child and its people?” she is scolded). The Wonder features a seasoned supporting cast, though only consummate character actor Toby Jones stands out as the village physician. With a limited and straightforward plot, ultimately one’s view of the film will depend on one’s appreciation for the meta-narrative around the power and necessity of stories in our lives, as Lib discovers both the danger and utility of belief in such tales.
“All they ask of us is to stay here. Where it’s safe.”
After the excellent Booksmart, I had high hopes for Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial outing. Sadly, despite its panache, Don’t Worry Darling proves to be a shallow and often repetitive thriller that believes itself to be smarter than it is. The setup is a suitably surreal take on 1960s American suburbia where, like The Stepford Wives, something is palpably wrong. The leads’ idyllic relationship, with excellent performances from Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, is the film’s strength, Wilde’s direction providing eroticism through touch rather than nudity. As Alice becomes increasingly unsettled, the sound mix buzzes around uncomfortably like an insect, reflecting her mental state. Reflections are also a neat visual flourish, with several occasions where mirrors act impossibly. Third act twists are dangerous as they risk alienating an audience and Don’t Worry Darling manages the double sin of being entirely obvious with half of its conceit and entirely out of leftfield with the other. The result is an unsatisfying and disjointed reveal that leaves too little time to explore its ramifications. Chris Pine’s antagonist is overtly based on Jordan Peterson, particularly his obsession with order and chaos, and natural heirarchies, yet the film is content to make this allusion without attempting to debunk or even engage with his ideas. This is the film’s ultimate failure, which is that it never delves beneath the surface in any of its ideas, from cult programming to traditional gender roles to the broader concepts like satisfaction with our reality. There is far more to be gleaned from films with lesser ambitions like The Master or Martha Marcy Mae Marlene.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“I resent this idea that we’re just emotional. This is real.”
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.
“I’ve lived a lot of lives… but I’m done running from my past.”
The first two thirds of Black Widow is a taut globetrotting espionage action movie that explores the character’s secretive past and her childhood family as part of a Russian sleeper cell. Highlights include a tense escape sequence through city traffic with her sister, a Siberian jailbreak, and an incredibly awkward family reunion. Unfortunately the final act falls into formulaic Marvel action territory with a weak villain that all swiftly becomes tedious and leaves an underwhelming overall impression. Black Widow also suffers from being released many years too late. In 2019, I said it was a shame for Captain Marvel only to arrive once fatigue with the Marvel formula was setting in. In 2021, not only has Black Widow already been killed off in the mainline franchise, but — with key actors bowing out after Endgame — we don’t even see Scarlett Johansson’s easygoing chemistry with her Avengers co-stars, just repeated name dropping. Johansson is still the film’s greatest asset, deftly switching between strength and suppressed vulnerability. She is ably supported by the two new character introductions — Florence Pugh as Natasha’s assassin sister and David Harbour as the bombastic Red Guardian — but this attempt to flesh out Black Widow’s backstory now is too little and too late for a character that the MCU has never treated as well as she deserves.
“I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition. Even in fiction.”
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel blends a wonderful cast with modern feminist sensibilities. Where Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version was a direct translation of the novel, Gerwig is more ambitious in her approach. The most obvious change is choosing to tell story out of order, creating a meta narrative in the way scenes are juxtaposed. Introducing the women as young adults also reduces the inclination to infantilise them as children. It works best for those already familiar with the material as the chronology can feel slightly disjointed. Hearing of Laurie’s failed proposal at the start also robs the scene of any power when it finally arrives late in the film, but it also alters the way one views his childhood relationship with the girls. The key casting is Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet (both of whom starred in Gerwig’s Lady Bird). Ronan makes Jo’s proud wilfulness overtly dislikable in some scenes, trusting that we will come to understand her as the film proceeds. Meanwhile, Chalamet’s Laurie is both charming and brusque, with nuanced variation to his relationships with each of the sisters. The ambiguous ending, seemingly introduced by Gerwig as something of a critique, may offend purists, but it is entirely fitting for this adaptation.