Petite Maman (2021)

Céline Sciamma | 1hr 12min

In the wake of her grandmother’s passing, 8-year-old Nelly goes with her parents to her mother’s childhood home to clear it out. Then one night, without explanation, her mother picks up and leaves. It is probable that she just found the process too overwhelming, but through the eyes of her daughter the departure feels deliberately cold. Out in the woods though, there is another 8-year-old girl, Marion. It is no coincidence that she has the same name as Nelly’s mother, nor that she shares the same birthday, or lives in an identical albeit much younger house. Petite Maman follows up Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire with an equally delicate though relatively more fantastical study of young women in the process of self-discovery, thriving in natural environments cut off from the structures of society, where genuine love can strengthen its roots and flourish.

Sciamma does not rely on a great deal of exposition to set the scene. The very first shot of the film tells us everything we need to know, as Nelly finishes up a crossword puzzle with an old woman in a nursing home before ducking in and out of other rooms, farewelling her other elderly friends, and then leaving with her mother. Evidently, she has been there a lot recently, and given the thoroughness of her goodbyes, she won’t be coming back. Sciamma is succinct and to the point in her camerawork, weaving through the building in one long, unbroken take and letting Nelly’s quiet grief gradually sink in.

In encountering a younger version of her mother, Nelly is doubly gifted with the opportunity to see her grandmother one last time, understanding her life from a viewpoint beyond her own. Petite Maman is very much a wish fulfillment in that aspect, giving this young girl the time and space to appreciate her elders whose lives once looked much closer to hers than they do in the present. Likewise, the younger Marion finds fresh perspective in seeing a glimpse of her future. Twenty-three years might seem like a long time away to reckon with her mother’s death, but for Nelly, it is far too soon.

Together, the two girls go about playing make believe, rowing, cooking pancakes, eating cake, and building a makeshift hut out in the woods. In that dainty structure of sticks and autumn leaves, there stands a gorgeous monument to their fleeting friendship, offering a safe place tucked away from the eyes of prying adults where they can revel in childhood together.

Although in the present-day the older Marion recalls building that hut, she never mentions doing it with another girl, and thus the door is left open for some ambiguity. Everything in Petite Maman feels like a tangible reality, but Sciamma does offer small hints in her continuity editing that this may simply be a fantasy in Nelly’s mind. One specific transition takes us from the past house to the current house without us even realising it, blurring the boundaries of where they start and stop, and Sciamma also often cuts from scenes of the two girls sitting together to shots of Nelly on her own.

These two worlds are blended right down to the casting of the two young actresses, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, a pair of twins who might almost be indistinguishable were it not for their colour-coded red and blue costumes. Sciamma effectively taps into the natural rapport between them in their scenes together, drawing out natural laughter as they play and, in more subdued scenes, giving them the space to talk sweetly and deeply.

“Did I want you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m already thinking about you.”

Much like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman is almost entirely free from music until the end, where a pivotal piece underscores significant action. Sciamma enlists the talents of French electronic music producer Para One here to compose an innocent love song for two young friends spending their last morning together before they must both leave, its synths perpetually pounding with both restless excitement and a desire to live in the moment.

Of course though, this isn’t the last time the girls will see each other. Where for Marion it will be 23 years until she meets her childhood friend again, Nelly needs only head back home to see hers. Sciamma chooses wisely not to elucidate how real all of this is, but in the final scene between mother and daughter there does appear to be an acknowledged shift in their dynamic. For a moment, the older Marion is no longer “Mum”, and she reciprocates the authentic openness that Nelly puts forward. There is value in this parent-child relationship, but Sciamma recognises it does not need to be restricted to those roles either. For now, amid all the grief, there are simply two friends sharing each other’s love and pain.

Petite Maman is currently playing in theatres.

After Yang (2021)

Koganada | 1hr 36min

Memories never play out linearly in After Yang, and why should they? They are simply fragments of the past, brought to the surface in moments of deep reflection with the hope that, in connecting them to the present, they might reveal something significant about us. That is at least the purpose they serve for this family of four, consisting of parents Jake and Kyra, their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika, and an older robotic son, Yang. He may have initially been bought to connect Mika to her heritage by delivering fun facts about Chinese culture, but when he breaks down it doesn’t take long for the family’s disappointment to become a melancholy grief. Leaving nothing behind but his memory bank that recorded only a few seconds of footage each day, Yang becomes the subject of Koganada’s poignant meditations, pondering those complex lives that exist just beyond the scope of our periphery.

The quiet, futuristic world that Yang and his family live in is a strangely elusive one. Perhaps a grander scope would have revealed a slightly more utopian version of Blade Runner, but as it is Koganada simply leaves us to dwell in the tender intimacy of homes, shops, offices, and cars, where small pieces of this advanced culture seep into everyday lives. Explanations aren’t given as to why there are pot plants growing inside vehicles, or how video calls seem to transmit through invisible cameras, nor are they needed. The technology of this world is instead broadly underlined by an organic tenderness, seeking to reconcile the cold sheen of glass and metal with gentle humanistic malleability.

Subtle world building through the mise-en-scène – the living plants in self-driving cars offer an enchanting touch.

Perhaps “humanistic” is the wrong word to use though. After Jake wonders whether Yang was happy being artificial, another character disdainfully responds, “That’s such a human thing to ask, isn’t it? You always assume other beings want to be human.” Even as Jake and his wife, Kyra, probe deeper into Yang’s memories and discover pieces of him they might identify with, there also emerge components of his identity that are irreconcilably unique. Where most people live only one life, Yang appears to have lived many, hidden away from his family’s view. Or perhaps the truth was always easily accessible, and they just never asked.

Wonderful editing in these memory montages, match cutting between two low angles of leaves and feathers tossed in the air.
This could be a Kieslowski cutaway – using glass to refract light in these beautiful compositions, much like the prism of subjective memory.

Inside his memory bank, each fragmented recollection manifests as a single tiny star surrounded by millions of others, all of which are suspended within a dark forest. Just as those shining specks of light make up an entire galaxy, so too do these small, mundane moments make up Yang’s entire existence, expanding far off into the distance. When played in succession, they form delicate montages, providing glimpses into the most mundane joys – a rock concert, the rustling leaves of a tree, a toad, Mika playing by herself, and so on.

Each memory fragment is a star in a galaxy full of them. Stunning metaphysical imagery.

When it comes to the flashbacks of human memories, quantity is exchanged for focus. Jake, Kyra, and Mika each take ownership of individual sequences that recall their past conversations with Yang, and although we do not cover nearly as much ground here as we do in the memory bank, we do gain much deeper insight into their individual relationship with the techno-sapien. These are some of the longest scenes of the film, but Koganada still presents them just as abstractly as Yang’s memories. Time doubles back on itself as lines of dialogue repeat over unmoving mouths, and settings also seem to shift unexpectedly, revealing these nostalgic ruminations not as accurate historical renderings, but rather subjective reconstructions, prone to the whims of present-day emotions.

It is Jake’s flashback that is particularly revealing, playing out a conversation about his passion for tea that might as well allegorically stand in for the value of memory, wrapped up in history and culture though with its own distinct flavour. “You can taste a place, a time,” he expounds, while also voicing his admiration for a man he watched in a documentary who was on an elusive hunt for rare teas in China. The metaphor is subtle but potent, especially when Yang expresses a wish that he too could form as deep a connection to something as Jake does. What lingers for us in long, impassioned embraces merely flits by for Yang, covering a broader scope though without the same specific attachment.

Questions of artificial intelligence and humanity probed throughout this narrative, and reflected in the visuals.

As we are reminded though, it is a human trait to pity that which is not like us. There is no reason for us to believe that Yang’s life was half-lived, nor that he was anything less than content. The isolation he feels need not be something shied away from, but something that can be relished for its soothing silence, and Koganada adopts an Ozu-like temperament in visually realising this. Static shots peer through the doorways, curtains, and hallways of the family home, often on the other side of large glass windows which keep us ever so slightly distanced from the characters. In the delicate colours that light up these spaces, whether they are green streetlamps bouncing off car windows or the living room’s dim, golden illumination, Koganada offers a tender balance to his otherwise seclusive cinematography, offsetting any harshness with a calming tranquillity.

Reflections in glass, doubling images to create meaningful subtext.

Even as his characters wrestle with a long, drawn-out grief that evolves through multiple stages, Koganada never falters in weaving in that light stylistic touch. To call it a celebration of humanity isn’t entirely incorrect, though it only paints half a picture of what he achieves here. After Yang is a commemoration of being, human and non-human, studied and savoured through the refractive lens of memory where old ideas find new life in the present.

Characters framed in isolating compositions behind glass windows, kept at a distance from the camera. Very much an Ozu influence.

After Yang is currently playing in theatres.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

The Daniels | 2hr 20min

There is an implicit promise made in the title Everything Everywhere All at Once that is about as equally ambitious as it is precarious. The story moves fast and with little regard for rationality, and yet there is also an absurd, internal logic which holds together this medley of styles, characters, and alternate universes, each one building out the bizarre tapestry of experiences that make up all of human and non-human existence. How exactly an individual can handle a perspective that encompasses what the film’s title suggests is not just the primary question this directing duo, the Daniels, seek to resolve. It is the challenge which they put to themselves as a grand cinematic statement, opting for a bizarre brand of maximalism that loudly announces itself in its editing, genre blending, and massively ambitious structure.

It all starts about as small and mundane as you can get. Evelyn is a middle-aged Chinese-American immigrant running a laundromat, trying to balance the mounting pressures of her father’s visit, her daughter’s growing emotional distance, her husband’s proposition of divorce, and a looming audit by the IRS. In the sound design of chaotic plucked strings that underscore this messy clash of priorities, Punch Drunk Love reveals itself as the first of many films whose influence the Daniels wear proudly on their sleeves. When an alternate version of her husband, Waymond, contacts Evelyn from another universe and tells her the entire multiverse is being threatened by an omniscient, omnipotent entity known as Jobu Tupaki, it might as well just be another trivial inconvenience for her to add to a growing list of errands. Very quickly though, she finds herself sucked into an existential war, at which point Everything Everywhere All at Once blasts off into a wildly outlandish probing of multiversal possibilities.

The science-fiction key to the abundant martial arts scenes driving the film’s action rests on a single, Matrix-inspired concept. By tapping into the minds of alternate versions of oneself, any number of skills can be downloaded into one’s brain, whether that be adopting the lung capacity of a singer or the dexterity of a chef. To get there, one must find the appropriate jumping pad – that is, a completely random action one must take which slingshots an individual across universes to arrive at the correct destination. In placing an emphasis on the small actions from which new universes branch off, the narrative never feels starved for direction, effectively setting a series of mini-objectives for characters to achieve while in the thick of combat.

Again, much like The Matrix, the stunt work itself is a mix of traditional martial arts and transcendent, superhuman feats, both of which are tightly choreographed with jaw-dropping kineticism and resourcefulness. Early on, a bum bag becomes the sole weapon through which a man takes down a squad of security guards, and from there the Daniels go on to make superb use of Michelle Yeoh’s physical screen presence, letting her indulge in different styles of combat inspired by the alternate lives Evelyn could have led.

Expertly choreographed martial arts sequences, with a creative use of everyday objects as weapons.

It is certainly worth noting the skilful use of slow-motion and rhythmic cutting that lines up with the actors’ motions in these action scenes, and yet that would only be scraping the surface of the film’s greatest stylistic accomplishment. Everything Everywhere All at Once would simply not achieve the imposing maximalism it is aiming for without playing to virtually every editing technique in the book, and landing them all with vigour and purpose. It starts with a lightly comical visual style akin to Edgar Wright in its perfectly timed beats, whip pans, and fluid transitions, most notable of all being the very first shot of the film moving us from one location to another through a mirror that might as well be a portal between universes.

An inspired split screen, cracking the lens right down the middle.

Soon, the Daniels begin to weave in creative split screens, depicted as a fractured lens through which a single universe branches off into two alternate paths. What immediately follows might seem like the point that Everything Everywhere All at Once takes the dive into the deep end of its stylistic ambition, and yet the next two hours only continue to ramp up in pacing and absurdity, rapidly firing off montages with sharp nimbleness. As Evelyn’s mind continues expanding to different versions of herself, the Daniels flit through hundreds of close-ups, accelerating until these single-frame portraits morph into a mind-bending composite of each. The effect it has is akin to the strobe lighting we witness in other scenes between Evelyn and Jobu Tapaki, pulsating in disorientating, hyperactive rhythms.

The Daniels bring rapid-fire montages to a new level, flashing through shots that last only a single frame.

With new universes opening up, parallel stories begin to unfold in tandem between them, and the Daniels’ deft intercutting lets the Wright similarities fall away and give way to Christopher Nolan comparisons. It is hard not to think of Inception here, whereby individual characters exist across multiple settings and narrative layers, each one in harmony with their counterparts. Inspired match cuts fluidly move them between prisons, forests, kitchens, offices, theatres, and streets with such remarkably smooth precision, it almost seems effortless, barely waiting for the audience to catch up to the new location before it pulls us into yet another one. It is equally a triumph of staging in these transitions, blending realities through shared motions as simple as a head tilt or a tight embrace.

Graphic match cuts lining up with actions, flipping through settings like changing channels. Certainly one of the best edited films in a few years.

Cinematic influences mount across the subtle and more obvious references (2001: A Space Odyssey gets a particularly irreverent nod), and so the Bong Joon-ho flavour we begin to pick up on in the uncompromising amalgamation of genres feels particularly appropriate. It goes beyond the comedy, action, and science-fiction premise of the film on its broadest level – in one universe the Daniels specifically evoke the elegant neon stylings and yearning romantic dialogue of Wong Kar-wai, setting up a delicate romance between Evelyn and Waymond in a universe where their relationship never worked out.

That these affecting character interactions can play out directly next to scenes that parody Pixar movies and feature a world where evolution gave humans hot dog fingers speaks to the truly peculiar talents of the Daniels to unite such clashing tones within a single film, though this isn’t to say that they consistently and flawlessly pull it off. If Everything Everywhere All at Once is to be faulted, it is for missing the mark on a number of jarring comic beats, choosing to run with expired gags, and on occasion defusing the central dramatic stakes. That is the risk filmmakers take when they throw so many ideas at the wall hoping something sticks, so it is still at least to the Daniels’ credit that much of this chaos lands with a keen precision.

The Daniels don’t hold back with their bizarre comedy – not all of it works, but it is certainly the mark of auteurs.

Certainly the film’s formal segmentation into three chapters (or perhaps two and a bit if we’re being picky) helps it along in its structure, with each division landing on the same frame of Evelyn sitting in her laundromat sorting through messy piles of documents. Each return sees a new colour take over the costuming and décor, subtly suggesting a shift in universes where the red ornaments of one are replaced by the blues of another. Foreshadowing also weaves through scenes where sign spinners and bagels are placed in the backgrounds of shots, vaguely hinting at the directions this wild narrative may head, but perhaps the most powerful visual motif is the menacing, black circle that crops up in hairstyles, on receipts, and behind mysterious, white veils. In that symbol is the simple, nihilistic concept of zero – the relative value which everything holds if all of existence were to matter equally.

Potent symbolism in the “everything bagel”, a black circle that also appears on receipts and hairstyles like a dark, menacing zero.

With the epic philosophical war raging between notions of limitlessness and nothingness, Everything Everywhere All at Once studies its equivalent within the scope of the tiny Chinese-American family at the centre of it all. There, it becomes a study of generational and cultural differences, in which a multi-tasking mother piles too many expectations onto her daughter, inadvertently driving her deeper into an existential despair. Characters travel all along this ideological spectrum through the film, wrestling with that inexplicable relationship between everything and nothing which plagues both heroes and villains of this story.

We find especially profound answers to such questions in one particular universe where life never formed on Earth, and for the first time in the film simply letting us sit in quiet, undisturbed peace. If there was ever a world where the paltriness of existence could be felt on a pure, tangible level, it is here, where we can take a few minutes away from the frantic pace of Everything Everywhere All at Once to reflect on both meaningless of it all and the silly, insignificant love between two rocks. Maximalist excess and crushing nihilism might be weapons wielded by the Daniels to overwhelm us into submission, but there is also a humbling enlightenment present in the midst of it all. Only after we have considered our full potential is it that we can understand what makes up our core essence – not that we are humans with opposable thumbs and free will, but that we are lonely, fleeting entities, endlessly seeking sense and compassion from swirling universes of chaos.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently in theatres.

The Northman (2022)

Robert Eggers | 2hr 17min

The primal, pounding rhythms of The Northman are infused into its cinematic construction on almost every level. They are there in Amleth’s insistent chants, his prophetic words pointing him towards a destiny of vengeance. They are present in the ominous score of throaty vocalisations and percussive beats, hypnotising us into a state of submission. On a structural level, Robert Eggers even weaves them into his division of this narrative into segments, landing each chapter break on black frames with titles written in Scandinavian runes. Even as it embraces the spectacle of mythological storytelling, The Northman is as deeply researched as any of Eggers’ other films, and as such it is this historical authenticity which allows the tempo of his narrative to progress with such organic tactility.

It doesn’t take long into this story to recognise the Hamlet parallels written into the archetypes of murdered kings, evil uncles, and avenging sons, and yet Shakespeare is not the primary source of inspiration for Eggers here. It is rather the other way round – the Scandinavian legend of Amleth the Viking prince is in fact the basis of the Shakespeare play, its origins stretching far back into Medieval mythology. Aside from the emotional depth that Eggers allows both male and female characters equally, there are no major narrative subversions playing out here. Instead, it is in the textured, muddy world which he builds around traditional conventions that the raw essence of this Norse folktale comes alive, seeping through the detailed design of every crude wooden village and animal-skin costume.

Detailed compositions setting masses of extras against bitter, unforgiving environments.

Cinematically speaking, Eggers carries on the epic ambition of classical filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog, both of whom spent months shooting in unforgiving wildernesses to capture equally unrelenting directorial visions in Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Just as those films tell tales of men coming to terms with their own humanity while on legendary quests through cruel environments, so too does The Northman set Amleth on a path of self-realisation, shrinking him against rocky Scandinavian mountains and heavy, overcast skies that weigh down upon low horizons. It is amid these fierce landscapes that he discovers an innate connection to the land, adopting the instincts of wolves and ravens through which he learns to survive.

Eggers relishes these devastatingly bleak Scandinavian landscapes, basking in the epic imagery that far outsizes anything he has done before.

Alexander Skarsgård absorbs this animalistic behaviour into his performance on a viciously carnal level. Even when he isn’t running on all fours, howling, and biting his enemies, he menacingly saunters through muddy battlefields with tightly hunched shoulders, standing out in crowds with his furrowed brow and dark, unsmiling eyes. “You are dogs who wish to become men,” growls Willem Dafoe’s court fool, and in Skarsgård’s ferocious transformation we believe every word of it. So too does he evoke Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting masterclass in The Revenant, as survival and revenge become all-consuming ideals for a man bearing the brunt of his mission psychologically just as much as he is physically.

The Northman is a monumental achievement for Alexander Skarsgård – he embodies pure animal instinct, but can also carry the dramatic weight of Amleth’s destiny.

The Revenant’s influence continues to make itself known in Eggers’ long tracking shots through astoundingly choreographed battles of flying arrows and swinging axes, crafting a visceral authenticity consistent with the painstaking sensory details that pervade his rugged production design. Whether softly illuminating desaturated exteriors or casting silhouettes of naked bodies against blazing fires, Eggers’ natural lighting brings an awe-inspiring majesty to both action and drama. Additionally, there is an even greater transcendence to those scenes which take place beneath the pale moonlight and Northern Lights, where fantasy doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.

Natural lighting running all through The Northman, especially beautiful in these scenes of burning villages and ritualistic bonfires.

The Northman flourishes in such depictions of magical realism, manifesting the ambiguous potential of Amleth’s destiny to be either a self-determined mission or a genuine prophecy. A cameo appearance from Björk as the mysterious soothsayer who foretells his fate makes for an especially brilliant piece of casting, emphasising her ethereal presence in her first role since Dancer in the Dark 22 years ago. It is her words which stick with us through Amleth’s journey, and which motivate further introspection on his part to reckon with his spirituality. It is left deliberately obstruse as to whether a haunting battle with a draugr, an undead Scandinavian creature, takes place in reality or simply in the mind of a man seeking religious purpose to his quest, and divine cutaways to a Valkyrie riding up into the Northern Lights similarly serve to underscore the glory which may lie on the other side of his quest.

Björk’s return to the screen after a 22 year absence is very welcome. Even it is just a cameo, the role carries a lot of weight.
Valkyrie riding into the Northern lights – Eggers is just as well-versed in his Norse mythology as he is with the tangible historical details of this setting.

Conversely, there is also the threat of Hel as the afterlife to which Amleth may be damned should he fail to avenge his father. Literalised as an erupting volcano upon which the final battle takes place, the set piece is a wonder to behold, filling the air with orange smoke and lava. Eggers knows when to hold a shot, and once again he brings great weight to the climactic moment by simply basking in its heated violence, refusing to cut until necessary. This aspect of his filmmaking may as well belong among those others mentioned above which pulse with fervent adrenaline, as these characters clash swords and let out guttural roars like primal orchestrations. The Northman may only reference horror cinema tangentially, and yet its thick, overpowering atmosphere is as potent as anything Eggers has directed before, delivering an awe-inspiring, sensory venture into Norse mythology.

A final struggle at the gates of Hel, lit up by orange lava and softly diffused through the smoky air.

The Northman is currently playing in theatres.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

Richard Linklater | 1hr 38min

Stan was born in 1959 on the cusp of the Baby Boomers and Generation X, and at age 10 ½ this makes him just old enough to be drafted into NASA’s secret space program for children right before the moon landing. He is a proto-astronaut of sorts, testing the waters for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to clear up any technical issues that may arise. The fantasy element is obvious to us, but to Richard Linklater it might as well be a part of history. Above its whimsical dreams of traversing the cosmos, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a loving memory piece based in the late 60s Texas of Linklater’s youth, drawing heavily from the details of its entertainment, education, scientific industries, food, music, and politics to paint out a cultural landscape filtered through the eyes of a child.

The style of rotoscoped animation that Linklater experimented with in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly makes a return here in the creation of this intricate setting, offering an uncanny authenticity to the facial expressions and movements of its characters. When Apollo 10 ½ turns to reconstructing archival footage, it shifts slightly into a more minimalistic style with a boxy aspect ratio, reserving the finer details and widescreen format for Stan’s first-hand memories. The complexities of political movements and affairs simply do not linger in our young protagonist’s mind. Instead, the film unravels like a continuous stream-of-consciousness, carried along by a ubiquitous voiceover from an older Stan who, while played by Jack Black, might as well stand in for Linklater himself.

It is often Apollo 10 ½’s editing which entrances us more than its visual beauty, flitting through montages that bridge one thought to the next with relative ease, densely packing in the idiosyncrasies and mundanities of Stan’s childhood. His mum’s resourceful reinventions of Sunday’s leftovers into dinner for the next four nights, his siblings’ cruel jokes about him being adopted, his disappointment with his dad’s unexciting low-level position at NASA, his nan’s regular trips to the cinema to watch The Sound of Music – for the first fifty minutes of Apollo 10 ½, Linklater exhibits little interest in plot, forgoing traditional narrative to bask in the authentic reconstruction of a cherished time period, much like he has done before in Dazed and Confused and Boyhood.

With this easy-going setup dominating the first fifty minutes of the film, the progression into Stan’s childhood fantasy barely feels like much of a shift at all. His obsession with NASA is all-encompassing, feeding his aspiration and wonder at what the future might hold, and its manifestation in his imagination carries about the same level of detail as anything else, with Black’s voiceover breaking it down to its most basic, humdrum details. In reframing the space race as part of an everyday routine, Linklater discovers a universal experience within it – the thrill of progress and discovery, not being reserved for scientists and astronauts on television, but rather being shared by every living being in a single moment of unity.

From Linklater’s perspective, these pioneers travelling to the Moon may as well be children given their tiny size within the grand scope of the universe, and with helmets blocking out their faces and identities, he happily indulges that prospect. Through Stan’s half-awake eyes, we see this hazy dream being born on the precipice of sleep. In that world, it is his face that looks out from behind the astronaut’s reflective visor, seeing mankind’s giant leap open up a whole universe of possibilities. If Apollo 10 ½ isn’t a fantasy, then perhaps it is Linklater’s alternate history, reflecting on the innocent ambition of the past and constructing a version that justifies its own naivety. For as idealistic a filmmaker as him, the future has never looked brighter than it does in the hands of a child.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is currently streaming on Netflix.

No Sudden Move (2021)

Steven Soderbergh | 1hr 55min

It starts with a small, simple job – send a businessman to retrieve an important document from his boss’ safe at the office, and keep his family hostage back home in the meantime. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro are the contractors, Curt and Ronald, though the identity of whoever is hiring them remains suspiciously elusive. Bit by bit, No Sudden Move spins out into a wild, sprawling caper across 1950s Detroit, as Steven Soderbergh calls in Bill Duke, Julia Fox, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, and Matt Damon among other stars to fill in his ensemble of low-level criminals, high-flying gangsters, business executives, and police officers. The narrative itself is a gripping labyrinth of double-crosses and power plays, all pointing towards an inevitable conclusion – it’s the big guy that will always get the last say.

Comparisons might reasonably be drawn to Coen Brothers films where carefully planned crimes descend into chaos and perpetrators wrestle with questions of fate, though the dark irony of No Sudden Move is rarely so farcical. For the most part, Soderbergh plays his thrills and drama straight, leading us through a frenzied first act before taking his foot off the pedal and letting his plot unfold at a milder, though no less engrossing pace. Ed Solomon’s dialogue moves rhythmically, and with this in mind Soderbergh exerts a fine control over his suspenseful atmosphere, deliberately running it up against the fast pacing of his editing and at one point shrilly ringing a telephone in the background, building the scene to a panicked crescendo.

As Curt and Ronald navigate their way to the top of corporate and criminal ladders beyond their understanding, Soderbergh slowly builds an underworld of shady business secrets hidden within the quiet, conservative suburbs of Michigan. His characteristic yellow lighting is put to superb use in this setting, complementing the mustard-coloured 50s décor ridden all through seedy motels and wallpapered living rooms.

In his skilful camerawork, Soderbergh lends a paranoid edge to these lavishly designed sets reminiscent of Alan Pakula’s political thrillers in the 70s, especially as Soderbergh’s high and low angles turn patterned carpets and ceilings into visually sumptuous backdrops. Every so often this world is tipped off-kilter with the occasional Dutch tilt, and if that isn’t uneasy enough, Soderbergh’s slightly fish-eye lens distorts his shots just that little bit more, compressing the edges of his frames in such a way to throw this familiar, all-American setting into a permanent state of agitation.

Of course, Soderbergh’s visual flair always works to underscore how out-of-depth Curt and Ronald are in their journey to find who is pulling the strings at the top. With a large sum of money waiting for them on the other end, and an ensemble of gangsters, police, and businessmen blocking the way, the stakes are nail-bitingly high. To think that the little guy ever stood a chance against the total sum of these forces though is foolish. While low-level crooks are fighting among themselves, there is a dry irony to the ease with which the money is claimed back by those holding real power. As one wealthy executive puts it:

“It’s money, and I have lots of money. I will continue to have more still. It’s like a lizard’s tail. Cut it off, the damn thing just grows back.”

It is almost frustrating seeing this character give in so easily to blackmail. The stakes that have been set so high for us are minuscule to him. Such is the way with virtually every narrative thread in No Sudden Move though. In Soderbergh’s carefully crafted world of greed and treachery, victory only manifests when it is granted by the elite, and it is snatched away just as easily.

No Sudden Movie is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

The Souvenir Part II (2021)

Joanna Hogg | 1hr 46min

It isn’t long after Anthony’s death that Joanna Hogg picks Julie’s story back up in The Souvenir Part II. If its precursor was an examination of her first love, then this counterpoints that with a thoughtful study of her first major loss, and with a significantly larger emphasis on the young director’s professional life, the parallels between both women are closer than ever. We see the comparison in Julie’s efforts to make a film inspired by her troubled relationship with Anthony, but we also witness it in her increased confidence and emotional insight. Perhaps this mental shift is a result of Anthony’s influence beyond death, but it may just as well be her own messy, existentialist grief that gives way to such rich character development. Like the flowers we open on and frequently cut away to in her mother’s garden, she is still learning and maturing, gradually becoming the person that Hogg is today.

Julia’s family house and garden become the new settings to Hogg’s home scenes, dispensing with the modern apartment of the first film to make way for a quainter aesthetic.

It is harder to parse The Souvenir Part II out from its predecessor in terms of style though, as Hogg remains remarkably consistent in her use of static wide shots dramatically narrowed by interior corridors and doorways to build oppressive frames around her characters. Perhaps the greatest visual shift here though is in location – there is no feasible way Julie can continue living in that apartment that is so full of Anthony’s overbearing presence. When she first returns to it, idly touching its walls and furniture, the space feels like a foreign world she no longer belongs to. It is her parents’ large home in the countryside to which she escapes, and its nourishing green gardens where we see her at her calmest.

Film sets turned cinematic – superb framing in doorways and mirrors as Julie enters this shoot.

The organic rapport between Honor Swinton Byrne and her real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, is even more present in Part II with the increased time they spend simply talking through their heartache. The latter gets a particular affecting scene in which she speaks of experiencing love and pain through her daughter, offering a soothing presence to an ensemble that is otherwise full of hyper-critical film students and professors. Richard Ayoade is back once again and is thankfully given even more screen time than the first film as Patrick, a delightfully hipster filmmaker whose response to Julie’s positive feedback to his direction is a flippant “That’s marvellously generic.”

Though the challenges of film school are still present, there is a distinct contrast between the way Julie pursues her creative ideas between both films, and it is especially notable in her discussions with university mentors. While they savagely pick at her script for its messy presentation and threaten to withdraw the school’s support, she speaks with a more direct passion than we have seen before. Perhaps the lack of precision they accuse her of is a result of her own chaotic state of mind following on from Anthony’s death, but even then, there is still a fresh self-assuredness to Swinton Byrne’s line deliveries.

On set, Julie aggravates crew members by deciding in the last second to change the camera’s placement, offends old collaborators in choosing not to cast them in her project, and patiently weathers complaints that she doesn’t know what she is doing. Hogg’s dialogue is entirely true to the realism of the piece in these scenes, overlapping characters trying to be heard in the heat of arguments and delivering the sort of amusingly ego-driven conflicts recognisable to anyone who has been on a film set.

A strong composition when Julie first meets Jim, another director and one-time fling.

As troubled as Julie’s film production is, it also acts as a healing process, helping her work through her memories of Anthony and questions of how much a problematic person should be venerated after their death. In basing a character directly off him though, Julie runs up against the difficulty of giving his actor an idea of who he really was, rather than her concept of him. Perhaps to address this tension between fiction and reality, Hogg denies showing us the products of Julie’s efforts on the night of her film’s premier. Instead, she digs deep into the fantasy and plays out the purest representation of her mind that she could not bring to the screen – a surreal collage of dreamlike settings, costumes, and symbols that she runs through, while Anthony’s words echo in voiceover. Within this break from the film’s reality where hallways of mirrors lead her through a dark funhouse, Hogg hits on cinematic gold, deconstructing her own artistic and grieving processes by merging them into a singular representation and naming it The Souvenir.

Stunning, surreal imagery in this short film within a film, also titled The Souvenir. Costumes changes and sound stages shift from scene to scene, loaded with symbols.

Up until the very last scene of Part II, there is still the question of whether Hogg would consider building on Julie’s story further with another sequel. If we were to compare the final seconds of both parts though, it is evident that there is far more closure here. Not necessarily because of the characters or narrative, which could theoretically keep spinning out beyond Julie’s university years, but because of Hogg’s pointed decision to move her camera beyond the walls of the soundstage upon which it is shot. This Brechtian swing at the fourth wall is far removed from anything we saw in the first film, and yet in Part II’s meditations on cinema as a filter through which reality is processed, it feels like a strangely natural conclusion. That the actual painting The Souvenir only makes a brief appearance here is negligible – the actual “souvenir” in question emerges from the memories we wish to hold onto, and the loving mementos that are crafted from their remnants.

Julie turning her camera to Anthony, but also Hogg’s own camera – a meta moment of self-reflection.

The Souvenir Part II is currently playing in theatres.

Bergman Island (2021)

Mia Hansen-Løve | 1hr 53min

The rocky isle of Fårö is laden with the cultural weight of renowned Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, and for those artists who come to the island looking to follow in his footsteps and the residents who can barely go a day without hearing his name, his impact is inescapable. It is evident in Bergman Island that director Mia Hansen-Løve is no exception, and neither are Chris and Tony, the foreign filmmaking couple at its centre. Their pilgrimage to Fårö may be motivated by Bergman, of whom they are both admirers, though for Chris it also possesses a light beauty which is not always present in his dark, psychological examinations of humanity.

The local populace here has at least capitalised well on their claim to fame, with Bergman Safaris whisking tourists around the island and historical shooting locations being turned into guesthouses. As Chris and Tony settle into the famous bedroom from Scenes From a Marriage, complete with an identical gold-and-white queen bed, they share a half-joking acknowledgement that staying there may not be healthy for their own relationship. And indeed, troubles do emerge along the way when Tony neglects to assist in Chris’ writing and she stands him up for a scheduled tour, though this does not motivate some magnificent artistic epiphany for her as it did for Bergman. Instead, Hansen-Løve uses this relationship to sketch out a divide in filmmaking methodologies between the tortured artist and the hopeful creator, both of whom struggle to understand the other.

It is when Bergman Island takes a dive into the film imagined by Chris during this retreat at the one-hour mark that it steps up to a new level, not necessarily for the pure power of its narrative, but rather for its formal interaction with the main storyline. As she narrates her ideas to a disinterested Tony, Hansen-Løve cuts straight to the imagined film in her mind, where two Americans, Amy and Joseph, travel to Fårö for a wedding and incidentally rekindle an old romance. Though this starts as a diversion from the main story, it eventually grows into a full act on its own, dominating a good forty minutes of this two-hour film, until Hansen-Løve begins to lightly toggle between both realities at once.

This may be the most Bergmanesque aspect of a film that is otherwise questioning how any Fårö-inspired piece of art could possibly escape from beneath the shadow of a director whose legacy has taken over the entire island. Objects and costumes begin to crossover between Chris and Amy’s respective worlds, until a collision of sorts unites them both into one, blurring boundaries in such a way that feels distinctly evocative of the Swedish auteur, though not entirely imitative. To point out those places where Hansen-Løve falls short of reaching the same stylistic or formal heights as Bergman is to neglect her statement about true originality in art, but regardless – one must wonder whether this might have been a little more even had its alternating structure been set up earlier on.

The history of art weighs heavy on Bergman Island, and it is evident that even in trying to defiantly escape its shadow, Hansen-Løve’s admiration and distaste for the European director is built into her artistic DNA. By endeavouring to peer past his creations and find that which inspired him in the first place though, fresh perspectives begin to emerge. In the lilting harps, bagpipes, and pan flutes that permeate the film, she also imbues this stony, Baltic island and its Nordic architecture with an expressive texture, building on her search for a new kind of sensitive appreciation. Where Bergman saw severe austerity in the landscapes of Fårö, Hansen-Løve discovers optimism and fantasy, and once Bergman Island hits its stride in its second half, she effectively weaves it deep into the layers of its storytelling.

Bergman Island is currently playing in theatres.

The Hand of God (2021)

Paolo Sorrentino | 2hr 10min

There is a Christian sort of mysticism woven very lightly into this coming-of-age memory piece, rising above the nostalgic realism which is often more present in other films of this kind. Roma had its fair share of transcendent scenes, and Belfast found wondrous flashes of colour bursting through its monochrome photography, but within Paolo Sorrentino’s gentle reflections on his adolescence in The Hand of God, fate and folklore are both just as real as anything in Italy’s rich, tangible culture. Fabio is our stand-in for the young director here, passing time in 1980s Naples listening to music, cheering for soccer player Diego Maradona, and dreaming of one day working in the film industry. Perhaps the clearest shared trait between the director and character though is their equal reverence for Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, evident in Sorrentino’s exquisite compositions that add touches of spiritual surrealism to the boy’s otherwise ordinary life. The Hand of God is patient, joyful, and tragic, threading a theological sense of destiny through the vignettes that lead Fabio to adulthood.

We are initially introduced to Fabio via his family, but even before then Sorrentino sets the scene with a magnificent helicopter shot flying us along the gorgeous coastline of Naples in an unbroken three-minute take. Aunt Patrizia is the first character we meet, and right away she is whisked away from a street corner by a mysterious chauffeur claiming to be San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, to a grand palazzo where a magnificent, shining chandelier lays on the floor. Here, San Gennaro introduces her to the Little Monk, a sprite in Neapolitan mythology who may either bless or curse those who encounter it. When Patrizia returns home recounting her experience and claiming it has granted her a child, the rest of her family brushes her off as crazy, save for young Fabio.

An excellent opening with a three minute helicopter shot flying along the coastline of Naples, setting a scene for Fabio’s coming-of-age.
The chandelier fallen to the ground, yet still alight – perhaps one of the film’s strongest images in the lighting and surrealism.

Within this boisterous Italian family, Fabio is the only one who still holds onto some empathy for Patrizia, who among the others is consider an outcast for her erratic behaviour. Surrounding them is a huge ensemble of amusingly provocative relatives, many of whom don’t hold back in their vindictive judgements and taunts. They will happily call their overweight sister a “whale”, and merely hours after meeting someone’s disabled fiancé, they cruelly toss the battery of the electrolarynx device he uses to talk into the ocean. There is also an implied acceptance of each other’s iniquities though, as in sweet moments of fondness they all share lunch together along a table in the beautiful countryside, and idiosyncratically whistle to each other in an affectionate call-and-response.

An extensive family of distinguished personalities. Their strange mannerisms and conflict drive a lot of this narrative and always keep it engaging.
The detail in Sorrentino’s mise-en-scène paired with lighting and an excellent framing of his actors – a superb combination of many of his strengths.

Fabio himself is an image of idealistic youth, quieter and more observant than most of his family, and constantly wearing tiny headphones around his neck. The actor who plays him, Filippo Scotti, even bears a slight resemblance to Timothée Chalamet, and through this lens it is hard not to draw comparisons with Call Me By Your Name, which similarly follows a laidback coming-of-age narrative in 1980s Italy. Like Chalamet’s Elio, Fabio even has sex for the first time with someone many years his senior, experimenting sexually before being left to move on. But where Elio pursues music and academia as his primary interests, Fabio actively attends movie auditions and worships at the altar of soccer player Diego Maradona.

Period decor in the patterned tiling on the walls, building out a visually detailed world around Fabio.

It is from Maradona’s legendary goal at the 1986 World Cup quarter final that The Hand of God takes its name, the scoring itself being an unpenalised handling foul. With seemingly all of Naples behind him, this goal sends Fabio’s entire neighbourhood of apartment blocks into a joyous uproar, every family pouring out onto their balconies to celebrate in unison. It will go on to be an unforgettable day for many Italians, but for Fabio, the “hand of god” also comes to represent what might as well be divine intervention. While he watches the game with his extended family, his parents fall asleep on their couch, unknowingly succumbing to a gas leak that will soon prove lethal to them both, and which might have killed him too had he been home. Sorrentino half-jokes in interviews now that when this happened to him in real life, Maradona was the one who saved his life. To Fabio though, his survival was no accident.

A shot of pure tragedy, relegating Fabio to the background in the confines of this doorway the moment he becomes an orphan.

As we witnessed in the first scene, Christian mysticism isn’t entirely out of the question for these characters. It is present in both the narrative and Sorrentino’s transcendent visual artistry, especially in his tracking shots that move with quiet deliberation, like an invisible entity wandering alongside Fabio in his journey. Even more stylistically impressive though is Sorrentino’s ability to capture picturesque beauty across such a wide variety of Italian geography and culture, from its open coastal landscapes to the Mediterranean architecture and period-specific décor of 1980s interiors. He also stages his actors in quietly powerful formations in these spaces, using one such composition to mark the film’s tragic midpoint when Fabio breaks down at the hospital and is caught by the camera within the narrowed gap of a doorway.

The coastline of Naples continuing to serve as the foundation of Sorrentino’s stunning panoramas.

Given how much spirituality seeps into the small crevices of this film, we shouldn’t be surprised by the eventual return of the Little Monk at the end. It effectively bookends this narrative with two blessings, sending Fabio on his way to adulthood at the same point in time that Maradona’s team wins the World Cup, once again marking his journey with a parallel to the soccer champion. The surreal mysticism that subtly underlies The Hand of God is not just a private, spiritual treaty for Sorrentino, but a shared experience of community driven by the stories people share, whether those be historical sporting events, culture-defining films, or ancient Italian legends.

Seascapes, interior decor, and Italian architecture – Sorrentino wields steady control over every location in his film, whether natural or artificial, and always finds the most striking shots in his lighting and composition.

The Hand of God is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Batman (2022)

Matt Reeves | 2hr 56min

The line drawn between the identities of Bruce Wayne and Batman has rarely been hazier. There is an inherent dissonance built into the character between the rich, orphaned billionaire and the justice-seeking street vigilante, and although Matt Reeves certainly takes the time to explore this aspect in The Batman, there is often the sense that between the two, it is the quiet, floppy-haired recluse living up in Wayne Tower who feels more uncomfortable in his own skin. Robert Pattinson barely even changes his voice when slipping into his crime-fighting persona, as with this rendition of Batman comes a brutal explosion of fury that is only barely contained beneath Wayne’s angsty demeanour. Forget about quippy, tension-diffusing one-liners – Reeves’ vision of The Batman is one of the darkest comic book movies in years, both thematically and visually, landing with the sort of psychological weight we haven’t seen since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

But where Nolan took Michael Mann’s sprawling urban crime dramas as his source of inspiration, capturing epic establishing shots of Gotham and crowds of extras with crisp IMAX photography, Reeves opts for a far more oppressive, grimier vision of the city, illuminating it with the dim, yellow glow of street lamps and headlights. David Fincher is the major influence here in both narrative and lighting, and cinematographer Greig Fraser deserves a good amount of the credit as well for capturing that noir-tinted visual flair which similarly defines the dingy aesthetic of such crime procedurals as Seven and Zodiac. It is through that angle which Reeves thrillingly teases out the mystery-solving detective side of Batman, leading him along a nocturnal trail of puzzles and ciphers left behind at grisly murder scenes by the enigmatic serial killer, the Riddler.

Matt Reeves constructs a thoroughly defined aesthetic in The Batman with real impact – dim, yellow lighting looking straight of a Fincher film like Seven or Zodiac, with a sizeable narrative inspiration there as well exploring the rot at the core of humanity.

It is with these mysteries in mind that Reeves and Fraser resolve to obscure our view of this city even further, letting backgrounds and sometimes even entire scenes disappear from the camera’s focus. With an incredibly shallow depth of field, our vision often only extends so far as to make out the vague, hazy outline of silhouettes and objects in the background, at times even moving them across layers of the frame to come into view or alternately fade away. This effect gives the same impression as those shots that Reeves masterfully captures through dirty, rain-glazed windows, obfuscating our perspective with a gritty filter that keeps the answers we seek just slightly beyond our grasp. Even when the camera does pull back to reveal massive set pieces or the Gotham cityscape, there is still a sense of claustrophobia or intimacy between smaller ensembles. Perhaps this is just the impact of filming during a pandemic, but the impact is still tangible – The Batman is contained and surprisingly patient for an action film, taking the time to investigate each new mystery and examine the internal lives of its clandestine characters.

Noir-tinted imagery in the silhouettes and architecture – cinematographer Greig Fraser is having a very good run of films with Dune and now this.
Reeves’ camera peering through grimy windows, obscuring our view of Gotham City and its inhabitants.

On this level, Reeves’ interpretation often nods in the direction of Martin Scorsese thrillers like Taxi Driver, giving Wayne a voiceover and numerous point-of-view shots that turn him into an uneasy, Travis Bickle-like icon. One of his foes, bigwig mobster The Penguin, even bears striking similarities to Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, with an unrecognisable Colin Farrell plastered in lumpy, scarred prosthetics drawing heavily from Robert de Niro’s loud, boisterous performance.

Though he remains behind a mask for much of the film delivering unhinged monologues over online videos, Paul Dano’s wild envisioning of the traditionally camp Riddler takes a drastic turn into toxic internet culture, and as the film progresses a unique three-way relationship between him, Wayne, and Batman emerges. We have frequently heard other villains wax lyrical about that inextricable bond between them and Batman, but in the Riddler’s disturbing methods of exposing the corruption in Gotham’s wealthy elites, a compelling contrast is set between the two vigilantes, equally steadfast in their vengeful convictions.

Because as terrifying as the Riddler is at times, Reeves doesn’t hold back on setting up Batman as an equally frightening figure, lurking in shadows like a horror monster. Michael Giacchino contributes to this with one of the greatest superhero movie scores in years, driving home a minimalistic, four-note theme for Batman that pounds each beat with ominous force as he furiously advances towards his targets. He is relentless in his pursuits, particularly thriving in the darkness of one thrilling, pitch-black fight lit only by the blast of his enemies’ point-blank gunfire. At his most menacing, Reeves goes on to flip the camera and gaze fearfully upon Batman’s upside-down silhouette closing in on his trapped prey, backlit by a bright, yellow blaze.

A corridor fight in a pitch-black hallway, lit purely by the flashes of gunfire. Batman thrives in these dark spaces, emerging from the shadows and taking down enemies with ease.
Maybe the single greatest shot in the film. This is huge for Matt Reeves as an auteur – the visual spectacle in this film is stunning, and goes to show the heights that these studio movies can reach when they grant creative freedom to visionary directors.

There is something far creepier, or perhaps even spiritual about the Riddler’s justice-seeking ideals in comparison to Batman’s, rooted in his childhood at a rundown orphanage. Giacchino attaches the operatic ‘Ave Maria’ to this narrative thread, playing it diegetically a few times before weaving it into his score with subtle, minor variations, often in eerie anticipation of the Riddler’s murders. In these two primary musical motifs, he effectively captures two sides of violent retribution driven by deep-rooted beliefs, both of which form the basis of Reeves’ primary thematic concerns. And it is ultimately in those thoughtful examinations drawn out in a magnificently gloomy visual style and gripping narrative that The Batman emerges not just as a cinematic landmark of its franchise, but of the superhero genre in its entirety.

It is only March, and The Batman is already looking like it will be one of the best-lit films of 2022. Beyond the dingy yellow hues of the streets, sirens and flares are put to superb use in loading high-stakes set pieces with tension and release.

The Batman is currently playing in theatres.