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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Cinema Dispatch: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures and Toho

Directed by Michael Dougherty

I may have been a bit cold about the first Godzilla film (no not the one from 1954 and no not the FIRST Hollywood version) which had a tendency to favor human drama over monster punching action, but with Kong: Skull Island being a phenomenal bit of bloody adventure action and the trailers for this film looking absolutely gorgeous, it looks like things may finally be kicking into high gear for the once and future king!  Shoot, they managed to get MOTHRA in this!  What more could you possibly ask for!?  Does the latest Godzilla movie live up to its title as King of the Monsters, or is this further evidence that the big green guy’s day in the spotlight has come to an end?  Well probably not the latter since Shin Godzilla was pretty awesome and Toho isn’t about to give up this cash cow anytime soon, but let’s find out!!

Following the events of Godzilla 2014 (and technically Kong: Skull Island as well), the world is now hyper aware of Kaiju being a “thing” they just have to deal with now, and ever since Godzilla kicked those monsters’ butts the last time more and more seem to be popping up all over the place.  Fortunately Monarch, the secret organization that studies Kajiu, has been keeping them either asleep or in cages so as not to cause further catastrophe, though I do wonder exactly where they get their funding if the government is constantly calling them in for hearings to tell them how bad they are at their job.  Ah, it probably doesn’t matter!  What DOES matter is that one of the Monarch scientist Dr. Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) have been KIDNAPPED by… anti-Kaiju terrorists I guess (led by Charles Dance) and are planning something NEFARIOUS with her research which involves communicating with Kaiju.  Good thing she’s got a self-pitying ex-husband named Mark (Kyle Chandler) who’s off somewhere still brooding about his son who died during the first movie, and Monarch calls him in to… help I guess.  I mean they’ve already got Dr. Serizawa from the last film (Ken Watanabe) as well as Dr. Chen and Dr. Chen (Zhang Ziyi) who are Kaiju experts, Dr. Stanton (Bradley Whitford) who cracks jokes and does science stuff, and even a couple of army people including Jackson Barnes (O’Shea Jackson Jr) who cracks jokes as well, so why are they throwing in a guy who explicitly wants all the Kaiju killed into the pro-Kaiju organization?  I guess to try and figure out how those kidnapping Kaiju-haters think?  So now this rag tag group of scientists and random dudes are off to stop the anti-Kaiju terrorists from waking up all the monsters which I guess will show people that the monsters are bad… or something.  Hey, isn’t Godzilla supposed to be in this movie at some point?

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“I’m only here for one day, so make it count!”

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Cinema Dispatch: The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Did it REALLY have to take this long for the darn film to show up in a theater remotely close to me!?  While EVERY OTHER film critic in the world got to check this out a few weeks ago, I’ve been sitting here on pins and needles; waiting for the studio to begrudgingly bring this film to the wider masses.  There have been a few movies that I’ve been looking forward to quite a bit as we were heading into Award Season, and at the top of the list was this freaky looking cross between Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon from one of the best genre filmmakers out there.  With only slightly waned excitement due to its slow rollout to general audiences, does this manage to live up to the high expectations set up not only by the wonderful looking trailers but by the ceaseless buzz from every other film critic on the planet BESIDES me, or was this a huge misstep that we’re all gonna look back on with less than favorable feelings once the hype has settled down?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who’s one of many janitors in a SUPER SECRET SCIENCE FACILITY that’s somewhere in Baltimore which presumably has REALLY specific NDA agreements as the place has been known to house strange and unusual specimens.  The latest of said specimens turns out to be some sort of Freaky Fish Guy (Doug Jones) who was captured and dragged out of the Amazon Forest by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Said Colonel is now head of security in the SUPER SECRET SCIENCE FACILITY, at least until the government can figure out what to do with the Freaky Fish Guy, and both Eliza and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are stuck cleaning the room that the creature is housed in.  Eliza immediately takes a liking to said creature and the two of them begin an unlikely friendship as Eliza’s mastery of American Sign Language (which she learned due to her being mute) as well as her awesome record collection give the two of them a way to communicate and something to bond over.  Colonel Strickland on the other hand is less inclined to get friendly with the Freaky Fish Guy, preferring to use a cattle prod to get the creature in line, and eventually is dead set on dissecting it before it gets any funny ideas.  Eliza, along with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) hatch a plan to try and save him as does the mysterious Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has his own reasons for wanting the creature to be kept alive.  Will Elisa be able to protect the Freaky Fish Guy from having his internal organs removed and put into labeled jars?  What is Dr Hoffstetler REALLY up to, and how will Colonel Strickland react once he finds out that his own staff is working against him?  Seriously, who can look at that Freaky Fish Guy and NOT immediately fall in love with him!?

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