Cinema Dispatch: 2021 Catch Up (Part 1)

Well it’s certainly been a while since I had to do one of these!  The ramp-up of the Omicron virus, the busy schedule of the Holiday season, and the fact that I lost power for almost a week right at the start of January meant that I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to before the year was up and I felt that my viewing history was a bit wanting.  Without at least trying to catch up on some of the big movies of the year, is it even worth putting together a top ten list or try to give some sort of critical evaluation of that year in movies?  Well… yes, I mean I always fall short of my movie-watching goal at the end of each year, but 2021 felt especially undermined by everything that happened, so we’ll be doing a few of these catch-ups to try and fill in some of those gaps!  Let’s get started!!

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Spencer

Spencer and all the images you see in this review are owned by Neon

Directed by Pablo Larrain

The Royal Family gathers together for Christmas, but Diana (Kristen Stewart) has been struggling in recent years to keep up a brave face in the presence of her extended family; especially since the rules and traditions of the Royal Family are not the easiest thing to adhere to, even for someone in the best of mental health.  Her husband Charles (Jack Farthing) is fed up with her change in behavior, and while her sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) are much more sympathetic, even they have trouble reconciling this rift between their mother and the rest of the family.  Will Diana be able to continue on like this, or will this be the Christmas that changes everything?

Every once in a while I’ll see a movie that I should like a lot more than I actually do.  I can see how they approach interesting themes with a great deal of substance and depth, I can tell that the cinematography is very well done while also reinforcing the themes, and I can appreciate the acting as well as the dialogue in the script.  Yet even with all these elements working together, I’m left rather nonplussed; engaging with it on an intellectual level but just not feeling enough passion or excitement to walk away satisfied.  To elaborate on the film’s strengths, we have an excellent performance from Kristin Stewart who has to carry this movie on her shoulders, the overwhelming weight of the literal crown on her head is palpable in the way that she carries herself and how she reacts to situations around her.  The idea of feeling sorry for someone who is literally royalty is not exactly an easy feat, especially with wealth inequality and unrepresentative government indifference being such hot button issues these days, but it makes several smart choices with its narrative and style that it keeps those real-world implications from getting in the way of this one character’s story.  It’s uncomfortable and deeply saddening at points with the machinery of the Monarchy proving impenetrable (no one thing can be blamed for each and every stuffy decision and all the soulless pieces of it perfectly fit to reinforce each other), but it also finds catharsis in Diana’s struggle for freedom and peace and never gets so dark as to be an unbearable tour of misery.  Still, despite all these strong elements to the movie, I still felt detached from it all; so what about it is keeping me at bay?  Well, I think the answer is in what I just said, which is a feeling of detachment.  I don’t know the first thing about Princess Diana other than she died at some point while I was still in kindergarten, and the movie is in no particular hurry to provide answers to that question.  To the script’s credit, they do provide enough context and details for this particular character to work (meaning they could easily have swapped her out for a fictional character in a made-up kingdom) but the script turns out to be a doubled-edged sword as it does a lot more telling than it does showing.  We understand Diana’s ennui and how she is reacting to everything around her, but I still felt like I was observing her from afar instead of getting inside of her head.  This may also just be a flaw on my part, being rather unintuitive or perhaps a bit callous, but the lack of context also left me unclear as to what actual consequences there would be if she just stopped playing along, and the big dramatic ending of the movie kind of loses something when you realize that Diana isn’t actually risking or giving up anything to get to where she needs to go.  Sure, there’s the shame and disdain of her royal family that burrows deep into her psyche and are perhaps just as effective chains around her as the threat of genuine consequences would be, but it definitely feels like a critical piece of the puzzle is missing here.  On top of that, the movie is very sparse with long shots of mundane action and a very straightforward score.  None of it is bad per se, but there’s not a lot to perk your interest as far as spectacle; not in the sense of explosions or CG monsters, but I doubt it would have been too out of place for some dynamic camerawork or even some creative editing.  This means the movie relies almost entirely on its script and performances which, once again are very good, but to me, a movie about someone’s psychological issues should use all the tools at the filmmaker’s disposal and it never seems to want to go past a certain level of offbeat imagination.  I’m still gonna give this a recommendation if for no other reason than Stewart’s deeply heartbreaking performance, but it hews a bit too close to the cliché of the stuffy –drawing-room film than I would have expected from the studio that gave us I, Tonya.  Perhaps expecting that level of creative verve would have been inappropriate for a movie whose themes are about the stifling conformity of the aristocracy (especially one that’s ostensibly based on real people), but a few more flourishes here and there wouldn’t have hurt!

3 out of 5

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Belfast

Belfast and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Taking place in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, we follow nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) as he and his family tries to live their lives while navigating the dangers of The Troubles which have reached their community.  Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) works in London while his mother (Caitriona Balfe), his brother (Lewis McAskie), and his grandparents (Judie Dench and Ciarán Hinds), try to make due with a bad situation, but how long can they avoid the conflict and what does it mean for a young boy to grow up with the threat of violence around every corner?

I ended up sharing a lot of the same feelings with this movie and Spencer as it’s yet another movie that I can appreciate on a certain level but doesn’t grip me in a significant way.  I’m slightly less inclined towards this one however because Spencer, despite a significant amount of stuffiness, was about a character that I found interesting in a unique yet still somewhat relatable situation.  This on the other hand is a Coming of Age movie that is happy to snuggle into the tropes of the genre and only occasionally gives us something unique to chew on.  As an ignorant American, the finer details of The Troubles is something that is well outside my wheelhouse, and seeing it from such a small point of view could provide an interesting perspective, but it’s not the focus of this film in the least.  It’s certainly an omnipresent and oppressive force that is felt by all the characters throughout the movie, but when it’s not front-and-center, the movie doesn’t have much of an identity to it beyond the conventions of the Coming of Age genre.  If that’s your jam then I’m sure you could go so far as to call it an exemplar of the genre (at least in recent years) with a strong cast, a solid script, and an interesting historical backdrop that butts its head in at the most inopportune times for maximum dramatic effect, but I found myself simply unmoved by a lot of the movie and was waiting for the more juicy bits to wake me back up.  Some of it may be cultural distance as well as I’m about as ignorant of the finer points of Irish culture as I am about The Troubles, but a lot of this movie manages to have a universal appeal to it that transcends the individual nuances of its principal players to speak to the shared experiences of childhood.  The uncertainty of the way the world works, the distress at the contradictions of the grownups who are supposed to be in charge, even the anxiety of something changing that you’ve gotten used to just being a fundamental truth about your world.  I can appreciate it on that level and I genuinely enjoy the very well-realized black and white cinematography, but I still felt like the movie was speaking past me; trying to tug at my heartstrings but failing to hit the right notes of my particular childlike wonder.  Perhaps I’ll eat up a movie like this in twenty years when the kid spends most of his time playing Pokémon on a cruddy Gameboy screen and trying to find out if Super Saiyan were real, but I think I’m going to leave this one to the previous generation to fond over.

2.5 out of 5

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Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up and all the images you see in this review are owned by Netflix

Directed by Adam McKay

A PhD candidate (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers an asteroid that her professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) determines will strike the Earth in less than a year and wipe out all life on the planet.  In an effort to try and avoid such a clearly terrible outcome, they reach out to the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (Rob Morgan), which is apparently a real thing, and the three attempt to convince the president (Meryl Streep) and her chief of staff (Jonah Hill) to take action against it, but they seem dubious; especially with an upcoming election.  The scientist must instead launch a media campaign to try and get people engaged with stopping such an obvious existential threat, but the task proves much more difficult than any of them realized.

Is it just me, or is Adam McKay turning into the new Oliver Stone?  His turn to more serious fare after making some truly great comedies like Talladega Nights and Anchorman has definitely been a rocky one, but I still hold The Big Short as one of the more interesting movies to tackle the ruinous effects of Capitalism; specifically from a modern American perspective.  Unfortunately, it seems like he’s well on his way to Stone’s later career which certainly had some gems here and there but became more and more insufferable as time went on.  Look, I’ll give the movie credit for simply having its head in the right space, but McKay attempted to make Dr. Strangelove with this movie and instead wound up with… I don’t know, Bullworth I guess?  There are a lot of reasons that this movie simply doesn’t live up to the potential of its premise and the righteousness of its convictions, but I think most of them can be traced back to McKay himself who just can’t separate himself from his work and ends up conflating his own personal grievances of modern culture with the global devastation and misinformation crisis we are facing today.  His continued disdain for social media and the generation that uses it is just as palpable as it is wrong-headed as social media has been one of the most effective tools for generating empathy and organizing movements of the modern age; giving voices to millions of people who before it were never able to be heard.  Of course, I doubt that’s what McKay sees when he’s scrolling Twitter (I’m guessing he mostly gets trolls telling him that Anchorman 2 sucked), and so it undercuts the seriousness and desperation of the situation whenever he goes off and acts like the old man yelling at clouds.  Now that said, it’s worth acknowledging my biases here as I am a mere squishy mortal living through these crises like everyone else, so perhaps a movie like this doesn’t have enough distance for me to appreciate as I do movies like the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove and The Big Short.  On the other hand, I don’t know if this movie CAN work once (or more likely, IF) we get some distance from it, because unlike Doctor Strangelove which feels timeless in its sparse depictions of its crisis, or The Big Short which is clearly set in a specific time about real events, it feels too insular and like one big in-joke for this specific time we are in, so perhaps this is the only time at which it would ever conceivably work.  Aside from all that, even if you’re of the same mind as Adam McKay and find all the satire to be on point and biting, it still doesn’t come together as a cohesive narrative.  It’s too enamored with its own jokes and caustic take-downs of media culture for any of it to feel genuinely important; edging out more and more of the characters to throw in a few more jabs at celebrity breakups and MAGA hats.  It has some solid performances and a weirdly compelling ending, but aside from that; all it really has to offer is the affirmation of your beliefs in the ongoing breakdown of society, and if the last administration taught us anything it’s that always being right about how bad things are going is little comfort in the face of such overwhelming devastation.

2 out of 5

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