Cyrano (2021)

Joe Wright | 2hr 3min

The tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th century French cadet, duellist, and writer, is one that is rooted deeply in theatre tradition, with adaptations spanning back to the original staged dramatisation of his life in 1897. There is a classical power to its pure simplicity, telling a fable of unrequited love between the disfigured man and his distant cousin, Roxanne, who longs for Christian, a handsome soldier, while also being sought after by the cruel Duke De Guiche. But Joe Wright has also proven previously that it is in these adaptations of period pieces where his elegant style flourishes, using their archetypal narratives as a canvas for his sumptuous production design and fluid camerawork, calling back to Max Ophül’s swooning mid-century romances.

The differences in this interpretation are strikingly evident from the start, particularly in the casting of Peter Dinklage whose dwarfism replaces Cyrano’s traditionally long nose, and the anachronistic, folk rock musical numbers composed by American band The National. Where Wright’s version falters is in its clumsy attempts to reconcile these songs with its narrative pace, occasionally hitting on pieces of contrived sentiment. Rather than building scenes towards an organic emotional outpouring, many of the songs here rather land in the middle of ordinary conversations and end with awkward deflations, jarringly returning to plain dialogue almost immediately. It isn’t easy handling some of this material without letting it come off a little forced, and it takes everything in Peter Dinklage’s power to smooth over these bumps. His co-stars Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. don’t always fare so well, who in comparison to his weighty screen presence float by without making as much of an impact.

Not just the soft, warm lighting, but the light fixtures themselves playing a role in this gorgeous shot from the theatre.

From a literary perspective, direct comparisons can be made between Cyrano’s traditional narrative and that of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both being rooted in French history and strikingly similar archetypes between its four leads. Perhaps the most significant difference though is in Cyrano’s assistance of Christian, helping him win over Roxanne with his romantic poetry. Much like his Hunchback counterpart Phoebus, Christian is a handsome simpleton, though he uniquely possesses his own insecurities in seeing how Roxanne falls for Cyrano’s words, all the while claiming them as his own. While we wonder whether it is Christian’s looks or Cyrano’s words that Roxanne loves, both continue clinging to her affections, realising that without each other they cannot be the full person she desires.

Wright’s camera gliding through these archways as duellists strike formations with the music on either side – an elegant piece of choreography.

The exquisite style that Wright brings to such a delicate tale of longing very deliberately recalls the graceful long takes he used in Pride and Prejudice, though in his staging of gorgeous dance numbers and even one thrilling piece of fight choreography, there is an added complexity to its movement. As it manoeuvres between rows of duellists fighting in synchronicity to the music and lifts above crowds in sweeping crane shots, Wright plays into his greatest strengths as a filmmaker, exploring this splendidly detailed piece of history with his restlessly intrigued camera.

A bright light diffused through this magnificent set, shining a holy aura upon Cyrano and Roxanne in their final moments together.

As for the period décor, costuming, and lighting which it studies with such fascination, Wright captures a rare sort of Baroque beauty in evoking the painterly mise-en-scène of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The natural lighting of candles spreads through theatres, manors, and hovels with a warm, dim glow, but there is also a striking allure in the way he diffuses sunlight across a cavernous fort of sandstone walls and scaffolding in the last scene too, lending a holy aura to Cyrano and Roxanne’s final interaction. Perhaps the most outstanding visual highlight to be found here comes as our three leads musically swoon and ruminate over Cyrano’s poetry, and Wright sends his letters fluttering down across Roxanne’s bedroom and Parisian streets in a display of aesthetic brilliance.

Maybe the single finest shot of the film, Wright filling the frame with letters fluttering down in slow-motion in the number Every Letter.

The film’s sudden shift to the frontlines of war where Cyrano and Christian both serve within the French military is as harsh as it is devastatingly awe-inspiring, hitting us right away with a gorgeous snowy landscape pierced by dark, rocky outcrops and French camps. Without the delicate splendour of 17th century Paris at his disposal to dazzle us, wintery mountain ranges become the foundational beauty of these war scenes, pushing our male leads to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion. It is also in these severe conditions though that we can feel the sweetness of Cyrano’s love for Roxanne persist even beyond Christian’s, his affection taking on an air of tragic fatefulness in the number Wherever I Fall where we watch the army’s dark silhouettes march from view into the thick, white mist. It is somewhat disappointing given its jaw-dropping style that Cyrano so often falls into forced sentiments, but Wright still at least proves his stylistic flair for handsome period pieces in his ingenious cinematography, using its visual majesty to engage with classical questions of poetry, war, and love.

A march of silhouettes into the mist, these mournful soldiers tragically accepting their fate.

Cyrano is currently playing in theatres.

Being the Ricardos (2021)

Aaron Sorkin | 2hr 12min

Aaron Sorkin hasn’t been doing himself a lot of favours recently in insisting on directing his own screenplays, but for all of the structural flaws that seem to tug Being the Ricardos in multiple narrative directions at once, it is tough faulting the electric dialogue that keeps us glued to Lucille Ball’s behind-the-scenes television troubles. It snaps and crackles with the sort of energy that Sorkin specialises in, revealing an intelligent, cynical wit to the comedienne that underlies her physical slapstick abilities, further lending an acute insight into the construction of each joke that plays out on her hit sitcom, I Love Lucy. In this way, the role she takes is revealed to be much more than a performer – the Lucille that Sorkin captures here is a comedic virtuoso, possessing an instinct for setups, punchlines, staging, and character that might justify her talents as being more directorial than purely performative, much to the chagrin of her crew.

As Lucille works through gags in brainstorming sessions and table reads, Sorkin lets his film enter her mental processes via black-and-white reconstructions. Out in the “real” world we can see the poise and confidence in Nicole Kidman’s performance, but within these internal worlds she backs it up with a tangible genius, both bound together by Sorkin’s skilful intercutting.

Elsewhere, his sharp style of editing complements his crisp, loquacious dialogue, rhythmically ticking along to the pace that he is constantly challenging his cast to keep up with. We find Kidman to especially be a natural fit for Sorkin’s meticulous writing, bringing a hyper-focused attitude to Lucille’s creative nit-picking and confrontations with conservative television producers.

“I navigate male egos for a living.”

It is in Sorkin’s insistence on spreading his narrative so thinly across so many parts of Lucille’s life that Being the Ricardos begins to tear at the seams. In the lead-up to the live filming on Friday, troubles emerge on set – instability in Lucille and Desi’s relationship, a pregnancy announcement, a struggle with creative integrity, and even an FBI investigation probing into her past ties to communism, planting this story firmly within its Cold War historical context.

Had Sorkin stopped there, then he might have maintained a more present sense of urgency in his story, laying the multiple pressures of fame within a confined time frame. It is in the additional flashbacks to Lucille’s rising stardom and the flashforwards to staged interviews that the strain in his storytelling reveals itself plainly, offering little to the narrative other than distractions and bumps in the pacing.

Flawed as Sorkin’s screenplay may be, Being the Ricardos still at least holds firm to its empathetic understanding of Lucille Ball in all her struggles, from her public reputation to her most personal relationships. His writing often thrives in idealistic settings where integrity is the greatest virtue of all, and in centring this mid-century television icon whose face was broadcast weekly to screens all across America, he frames her as a woman who stands for exactly that, whether she is being questioned on her politics or pushing the creative boundaries of comedic entertainment.

Being the Ricardos is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Flee (2021)

Jonas Poher Rasmussen | 1hr 30min

There is something lost in the reconstruction of old memories that can be difficult to put your finger on, but in Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about the escape of his friend, Amin, from Afghanistan as a young man, it is often what is left missing that evokes more powerful emotions than anything else. The interviews that Rasmussen conducts often look more like therapy sessions, as he asks Amin to lay down and close his eyes to try and piece together the sequence of events that, in the years since, have tangled around each other in threads of confusion, grief, and regret.

The two provide their own live-recorded voices in these scenes, speaking authentically as friends with years of history behind them, though like every other character in this film they are animated, purposefully concealing Amin’s identity. It is this persistent dedication to a hand-drawn style that lets the few glimpses of live-action archival footage hit particularly hard, momentarily lifting us beyond one man’s perspective to ground this piece in the raw, unfiltered reality of 1990s Afghanistan.

Interviews framed almost like therapy sessions between Rasmussen and Amin.

There is an inherent clash between animations and documentaries in their distinctly divergent approaches to depicting truth on film, and as such there is good reason that few filmmakers have attempted to combine the two. Waltz With Bashir is the big one in this niche genre, within which documentarian Ari Folman attempted to recover lost memories from his time fighting for the Israeli Defence Force in the Lebanon War, and in similarly blending both subjective and objective understandings of the past, Rasmussen manages a comparably fluid examination of historical truth.

Contained within Amin’s story are smaller narratives, some passed onto him through second-hand sources, some he has tried to suppress, and others which he fabricated for the purpose of disguising his identity as a refugee. It is in these moments that the film’s dominant graphic-novel style of animation seeps away, and is replaced by rough black-and-white sketches, swirling around as faceless figures and abstract formations that seem to come from a dark, traumatised subconscious. As the frames flip by at a lower, jittery rate and strokes of paint run across the screen, Rasmussen creates a visual evocation of an unsettled psychological state that could never be captured through live-action footage alone, sending us to those same dark places that Amin is verbally recalling.

Formally experimental documentary filmmaking with the two styles of animation distinguishing between which parts of Amin’s memories we are accessing.

As emotionally caught up in his past as Amin often is, we also find a clear-minded perspective in his storytelling when it comes to the process of discovering his own sexuality. Being queer in 90s Kabul was not just considered sinful, but was not spoken of at all, and when he was running for his life there was barely time to consider how his sexual attractions fit into any broader social context. In the present day though, Amin lives openly as a gay man, and even as he recognises the disadvantage that he was put at growing up, he also possesses the ability now to look back and laugh with affection at his younger self’s confusions.

Within the present day, Rasmussen chooses to pick out a very specific section of Amin’s life to follow alongside his personal recounts, eavesdropping on conversations with his partner about house hunting. Their petty squabbles and shared joys become part of our understanding around who Amin has become today, but even more significantly they become the basis of direct narrative parallels between his past and present. Where he was once forced to move as a necessity of survival, now it is entirely his own choice, giving him the sort of power over his future that he once considered unimaginable. Not all memories are depicted as being equal in Flee, though in Rasmussen’s efforts to piece them together through animated reconstructions, we gradually begin to see Amin as a complex accumulation of his stories in all their varying degrees of subjectivity.

A quiet but significant story being told in the present day around the interviews, running with the motif of moving between locations.

Flee is currently playing in theatres.

Benedetta (2021)

Paul Verhoeven | 2hr 11min

According to the 17th-century Catholic Church, it was demonic possession that drove Italian nun, Benedetta Carlini, to lesbianism and unearthly miracles. This is not the version of history that Paul Verhoeven is interested in though, as his demystification of her legacy instead strives to pick apart the shrewd, disturbed mind of a woman who effortlessly disguised her cons behind a façade of piety. Perhaps in the hands of a director with a more sensitive touch, Benedetta might have positioned her as a wronged woman acting out in righteous vengeance, but Verhoeven is not one to glamourise the complexities of history. This is far more akin to Game of Thrones or Luis Buñuel’s surrealist critiques of religion than any traditional historical romance, foregrounding sex, violence, and power plays as the keys to navigating a culture of deep-rooted hypocrisy.

For quite a while in Benedetta, we too are led on by the strange visions and coincidences that seem to hold deeper spiritual significance to the young Catholic novice. When she is confronted by a group of men on the roads of Tuscany as an eight-year-old girl, a bird flying overhead unexpectedly lets its droppings fall in one of their eyes. While admiring a statue of the Mother Mary at the convent she has joined, it appears to dislodge of its own accord and land on top of her without leaving so much as a scratch. Perhaps such incidents would be meaningless to anyone else, but for a young Benedetta, they signify blessings from God. When she is older, dreams begin to plague her through days and nights, most of them depicting Jesus rescuing her from danger, beckoning her towards him, or kissing her, and thus begins the start of what she believes is her romantic marriage to Christ.

Visions of Jesus manifesting as romanticised dreams, Verhoeven drawing heavily on Buñuel’s biting, surrealist critiques of religion.

When another young woman, Bartolomea, arrives at the convent begging to be taken in to escape her cruel father, Benedetta slowly finds herself drawn into her playful flirtations. Soon enough, her spiritual and sexual awakening begin to feed off each other, individually intensifying until both explode in full force. Not long after Benedetta begins to bleed from the hands, feet, and sides in a holy display of stigmata, she submits to her lustful longings, revelling in two separate relationships she views as being roughly analogous, to the point of calling Bartolomea “my sweet Jesus” after having sex.

It is only natural for a provocateur as uncompromising as Verhoeven to take this narrative in such a transgressive direction, following in the footsteps of Buñuel with the use of sex and religion to interrogate the human pursuit of transcendence. Perhaps this is most tangibly captured in one wooden figure of the Virgin Mary, the bottom half of which Bartolomea carves into a dildo, thereby creating a sacrilegious symbol of two conflicting human desires reconciled as one. This item might as well be a stand-in for Benedetta herself, whose embrace of both her lust and faith becomes a destructive confusion rather than a harmonious union.

Between the nuns, a figure of the Virgin Mary carved into the shape of a dildo – Verhoeven’s symbolism is scornfully provocative in binding together sex and religion.

Accompanying Verhoeven’s shocking narrative is a thorough absorption in the natural lighting of its setting, basking in the golden sunrays filtering through church windows, as well as the dim glow of candles, lamps, and torches illuminating the dark rooms of the convent. It isn’t until the red blaze of a comet passing overhead casts its demonic light upon the town of Pescia that his stylistic visuals catch up with his characters, transforming this holy site into an unnatural, apocalyptic landscape. While religious figures point to it as an ill omen, Benedetta takes it as an opportunity to assert her prophetic ability, claiming it as a sign that Pescia will be spared from the plague spreading through Italy.

The red light of the comet breaking up the natural lighting of the rest of the film, bringing about an apocalyptic vision of Benedetta’s rule.

Benedetta goes to some truly wild places from here, and Virginie Efira proves to be more than up to the challenge of capturing every contradictory facet of the nun’s elusive identity. Each time her exposure or defeat seems imminent, it is her guile and charisma that can flip the power dynamic in an instant, often adopting a deep, harsh voice that claims to speak directly from Jesus. Even as we begin to see through her pretence, we still can’t help but side with her in many scenes that expose the equal hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, defined by its own dissonance between vicious brutality and self-important incompetence. It is in this war between two forms of religious corruption that Verhoeven’s irreverent provocations lend themselves perfectly to a compelling piece of Italian history, each one gradually building Benedetta towards an outburst of wrathful vengeance, and violently bringing the church to its knees.

Benedetta is currently playing in theatres.

C’mon C’mon (2021)

Mike Mills | 1hr 48min

There is an invitation built into both the title and story of C’mon C’mon, beckoning us to join a radio journalist and his nine-year-old nephew on a road trip across the United States. At one point in the film these words manifest in young Jesse’s dialogue as he records himself on his uncle’s microphone, putting his own thoughts towards Johnny’s audio project which involves conducting interviews with children from around the country. Their optimistic, cynical, pensive, and unconstrained ideas about the future of the world make up the connective tissue of C’mon C’mon, marking Johnny’s episodic journey from city to city like a path to understanding his own identity in relation to others.

When Jesse’s mother, Viv, finds herself needing to care for her estranged husband, Paul, the responsibility of child-caring is thrust onto Johnny for a few months, the joys and hardships of which are quick to reveal themselves. Even through his fights with Jesse though, the tenderness between them is pervasive. When Johnny briefly loses his temper after Jesse hides from him in a shop, he takes the opportunity to learn from Viv how he can do better, bringing himself to apologise to repair the relationship. These are flawed, complicated people who have suffered through much, but there is also a joy in realising that they are taking this journey together, maintaining their individuality while endlessly learning about others. Reflecting on his mother’s words, Jesse finds comfort in this perspective.

“She says even though we love each other she’ll never know everything about me, and I’ll never know everything about her. It’s just the way it is.”

A breath-taking shot framing Johnny and Jesse beneath the long-reaching branches of oak trees – an image of tender nurture.

It is no coincidence that this is the project Joaquin Phoenix has chosen to move onto after starring in the heavily cynical thriller Joker. In its sentimentality, C’mon C’mon may as well be that film’s polar opposite, and only continues to prove his range in offering him voiceovers and absorbingly naturalistic dialogue to mumble and stutter through. Jesse’s bluntness makes for an excellent and often hilarious contrast to Johnny’s verbal clumsiness, telling him without inhibition that “Mum said you would be awkward.” Later when the boy brings up an abortion his mother had years ago, an uncomfortable silence fills the air, broken only by Johnny’s voiceover.

“What the fuck do I say to that?”

This is not an uneasiness that Johnny will completely overcome by the end of the film, but there is a joy in seeing him accept those moments as demonstrations of Jesse’s unique character. Mills smooths over these bumps with a lyrical elegance in his cutting, bringing scenes to an end by fading out the dialogue, and wandering through flashbacks and cutaways with the same stream-of-consciousness flow as those unscripted interviews interspersed throughout. There is a distinct impression that we are watching a skilled editor and formalist at work here, passing through rhythms with Dessner Brothers’ floating, ambient score, and bringing each piece together to paint a portrait of a relationship as sweet and unhurried as this narrative’s languid pace.

Mills’ picturesque long shots identifying the distinct characteristics of each city, the soft black-and-white cinematography lending a gentle air of nostalgia to each.

There are certainly traces of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in the way Mills gives character to bustling American cities through long shots and montages, setting up the metropolitan bustle of New York streets against the quaint Creole architecture of New Orleans, but the influence becomes even more evident when we escape inside houses, hotels, and stores. There is particular attention that Mills pays to how his actors are blocked against interiors within his black-and-white cinematography, fracturing Johnny and Viv’s connection in one shot that splits them across the room through the precise placement of a mirror. In moments of unity though, they are brought together in tight frames through doors and hallways, emphasising the physical affection between family members living under a single roof.

Superb blocking within interior sets, capturing this family through doorways and mirrors.

In this way Mills finds an emotional vulnerability growing inside each of his characters, but it is especially in Johnny that we see the greatest transformation of all. As a journalist, he feels “a sense of invincibility, a sense of invisibility,” as he passes through others lives, experiences a taste, and then leaves without any major commitments. But just as Jesse quickly learns how to use the microphone, so too does he become an interviewer of sorts, encouraging his uncle to turn inwards with often awkward questions. “Why don’t you and mum act like brother and sister?” he asks. “Do you have trouble expressing your emotions?” It is no wonder that Johnny finds himself overwhelmed, and yet this push from passive observation to actively examining his identity in relation to loved ones and strangers is a subtle but impactful development.

When all is said and done though, it is not Johnny’s words that Mills leaves us with. Instead, he ends on the voices of those children that Phoenix interviewed, playing out over the credits in place of music – each one distinct in its perspective, finding the words to express ideas they have never had to articulate before, and together leaving a sweet, lingering taste of hope for their futures.

C’mon C’mon is currently playing in theatres.

Passing (2021)

Rebecca Hall | 1hr 38min

It isn’t always easy to fully conceptualise what we are seeing in Passing. It is a very deliberate choice from debut director Rebecca Hall to shoot much of the film with an incredibly shallow depth of field, letting everything but the target of her camera’s attention meld into a blur, but then she also takes this a step further in frequently letting her shots drift in and out of focus. The effect is obscuring, taking a dreamy hold over this interrogation of racial assimilation in 1920s New York where two old childhood friends who have taken separate paths find themselves back in each other’s lives. At the core of their relationship are thorny questions of identity, about as blurred as Eduard Grau’s hazy black-and-white cinematography or as fluid as Dev Hynes’ exquisitely jazzy piano score, where both Irene and Clare are uncomfortably pushed to consider the complicated realities that they would much rather avert their eyes from.

A splendid use of soft focus all through Passing, peering down indistinct hallways and looking up at the sun through tree leaves.

The choices these women take in how to present themselves are intrinsically wrapped up with matters of pride and insecurity, as even the decision to not “pass” as white is still inherently active. Irene is granted freedom of expression in choosing to live her life as a Black woman, but this is at least initially a far less tangible liberty than the wealth and class privilege Clare finds in choosing to suppress her African-American roots. Still, both are making sacrifices in following these paths, as we learn that Clare has married a white racist with no knowledge of her true heritage. If he were to discover the truth, the consequences might just be unbearable, and the fear of that hangs heavy over her lie.

In representing Irene and Clare as formal counterpoints, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga put in a pair of superbly mirrored performances, moving around each other like reflections of alternative lives either character could have had. Hall takes the time to capture the subtle glances and movements of both actresses, especially in Thompson’s shaking hands that reveal Irene’s underlying anxiety as a mother of young Black boys. Unlike her husband, Brian, she is reluctant to educate them on the prejudices of the world, and it is also with this sort of denial that she is able to handle her oppression. Clare’s decision to pass as white acts as a similar sort of denial to afford herself certain privileges, though every now and again Negga’s frivolous demeanour reveals small cracks in its façade, suggesting a far more sensitive understanding of the situation than anyone might expect.

A pair of duelling performances, possibly the best we have seen from both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.

In Hall’s delicate framing of these women within an unusually boxy aspect ratio and monochrome palette, there is a stylistic evocation of Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose films Ida and Cold War wrestle with similarly complex relationships subjugated by historical tragedies and divisions. When Irene or Clare are centred in the composition, they will often be surrounded by masses of negative space blurred out by the camera’s focus, or otherwise pushed to the bottom of the shot where this graceful minimalism imposes on their visual presence.

Few directors have revealed such a striking talent for blocking in their debut film, but Hall infuses such an existential sense of isolation in compositions like these.

Perhaps the most sharply captured shots in this film are those recurring parallel tracking shots that follow Irene out the front of her brownstone apartment building, always travelling in the same direction as she returns home. In this formal repetition Hall grounds her character to a specific location, though such clear-cut definitions are not so easy to determine elsewhere as she deliberately destabilises our perception of relationships and events. Irene’s insecurity about a potential affair unfolding between Clare and Brian might seem to imprint itself on a mirror capturing the two standing unusually close to each other, though as she gains a better view it is revealed to be little more than a trick of the light.

A formal use of parallel tracking shots out the front of Irene’s apartment, repeating at least half a dozen times through the film.

Such uncertainties continue to plague this narrative right up until the devastating finale that leaves three separate possibilities in our minds as to how exactly we reached this point, each one carrying implications for different characters as to the extreme lengths they would go when faced with the exposure of one’s true identity. As Irene states matter-of-factly at one point, “We’re all of us passing for something or other,” and it is in these attempts to reconcile who we are and how we wish to be seen that Hall tragically recognises a challenge which may not contain a singular, objectively beneficial solution.

Hall’s creation of 1920s New York through such elegant decor is astounding – the chairs, the indoor plants, the windows letting through bright light, all coming together to form a gorgeous interior.

Passing is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (2021)

Josh Greenbaum | 1hr 47min

At their weakest, those comedy movies from Saturday Night Live alumni will string together sketches showing off little more than the improvisational talents of its actors, certainly entertaining but achieving little more. The pastel-coloured romp that is Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar is automatically a step above most of those simply for not falling into the same trap of flatly shot, disjointed vignettes, but there is also promise from young 22-year-old director Josh Greenbaum that transforms it into a nonsensical visual treat. No doubt there are plot points here which don’t quite cohere with everything else, but with a Marx Brothers-style commitment to absurdly creative dialogue and gags, the collaboration between Greenbaum, Kristen Wiig, and Anne Mumolo pushes the film’s narrative logic in hilariously unexpected directions.

Barb and Star themselves are refreshingly original characters, amusingly naïve yet endlessly talkative. These two middle-aged Midwestern divorcees have never considered a world beyond their small-town retail job and suburban “talking club”, where conversation ranges from such trivial topics as the comfort of wicker furniture to character socks. Both Wiig and Mumolo play them as a pair of identically minded best friends with decades of rapport, effortlessly bouncing off each other’s comedic offers with light-hearted poise. In their introductions, as they move from one menial conversation to the next, we cut between close-ups of their short, coiffed hair, their plain heels, and their simple jewellery, each gently bobbing in time to Shania Twain, and in this playful piece of editing Greenbaum ties these frivolous characters to their meekest, most pedestrian qualities.

Nicely curated colours, with pinks and blues taking over Vista del Mar’s mise-en-scène.

One could point to the flaws in the writing for the villainous Sharon Fisherman, also played by Wiig in a Dr Evil-type double role, as well as some of the scripted jokes which fall flat, but there is no denying the pure comic ambition in Greenbaum’s inventive staging of visual gags, frequently calling back to classic screwball conventions. They are present in those quieter comic beats, in which Barb drifts by on a pool float in the foreground to secretly meet up with the handsomely villainous Edgar while leaving an unassuming Star in the background, as well as in formal repetitions which see both Barb and Star go on virtually identical dates independent of each other, but Greenbaum’s vision especially shines in two musical numbers. The first of these excitingly jolts us into the blue-and-pink utopia of Vista del Mar, delivering an over-enthusiastic welcome much like that which introduces us to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. The second is a soulful power ballad that submits even further to the self-conscious kitsch design of the film, complete with dramatic long dissolves and a hysterically overwrought performance from Jamie Dornan.

Visual gags galore from two talented comedians, Kristen Wiig and Anne Mumolo.
‘Edgar’s Prayer’ is a musical and visual highlight, giving Jamie Dornan a chance to show off his comedic talents.

There is little here that adheres to a singular universal logic, especially as the narrative takes great pleasure in manipulating the laws of probability and physics so that everything aligns with Barb and Star’s ludicrously sunny dispositions. Whenever something vaguely troublesome or problematic is brought up, it is amusingly swept under the rug as a throwaway joke, and it is in this manner that we can accept the co-dependency of both women, which would certainly be addressed with more weight in a more serious film. As it is, Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar is happy to tease us with its dark and bizarre tangents before defiantly snatching them away, aggressively sticking by its relentlessly bright temperament right to the end.

Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Drive My Car (2021)

Ryusuke Hamaguchi | 2hr 59min

In this story of terrible grief and long journeys of healing, Ryusuke Hamaguchi realises the need to take his time, for both himself and his characters. Perhaps there is a tighter, leaner version of Drive My Car out there than the three-hour version he presents us with, but that would simply not do justice to the complex figures at its heart, or their gentle processes of discovery – discovering oneself, discovering the true nature of those who have left us, and discovering others who share the same pain. In teasing out the mannerisms, insecurities, and quiet longings of his characters over such a lengthy period, an impression slowly forms of time being an unlimited resource to these men and women who have seen loved ones pass on, leaving them in a tranquil limbo of endless self-reflection.

Given its foundation within a Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, the compelling, elusive characters that make up the cast of Drive My Car are almost a given, though Hamaguchi’s collaboration with Takamasa Oe on this screenplay isn’t simply coasting by on its rich source material. This is a text just as much in tune with its dramaturgical influences as it is with its literary, centring widowed actor Yüsuke Kafuku as an artist with a sensitive love of the theatre, ranging from the absurdism of Samuel Beckett to the realism of Anton Chekhov.

Maybe the most gorgeous shot of the film is used to open it. Hamaguchi doesn’t sustain this sort of visual beauty throughout but it does make an impact when it appears.

For much of his married life, this artistic devotion has also rested precariously on his wife’s passion for scriptwriting. In an extended forty-minute prologue preceding the opening credits, Hamaguchi teases out their loving but difficult relationship, opening up many questions that we don’t find answers to until the final act of the film. During sex, she will often instinctively find the spark of inspiration to narrate a story, which he will then memorise and relay back to her the next day. For her, sex and stories are not only connected, but are necessary to healing the wounds left behind by their young daughter’s death many years ago. Loss has plagued Yüsuke’s life, and now without Oto by his side, it is not so easy anymore to find that wonder in the act of creation.

It is when we leap to two years later that the meaning of the film’s title finally emerges, as Yüsuke is hired to direct the play Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima on the condition that he is chauffeured in his own car by young driver Watari. It is within this vehicle that Hamaguchi crafts some of the most touching scenes of the film, elegantly underlining the trust that forms between the two. Though initially reluctant to hand his keys over, Yüsuke’s submission gradually becomes a silent acknowledgement of his own powerlessness, while Watari indirectly takes charge. Now whenever Yüsuke rehearses his lines against the tape recorded by Oto before her death, he must first ask Watari to play it, implicitly involving her in the process. She doesn’t ask questions to begin with, and he similarly keeps a distance between them in sitting in the back. But over time as their emotional barriers break down, he moves to the front seat and she begins to probe deeper. Conversely, he starts to learn more about her as well, and their relationship turns into one of equals, both eager to share and listen.

Hamaguchi often emphasising the distance between the driver and passenger, then gradually closing that gap.

The formal construction of this screenplay must be praised, as it is within these car trips and the many theatre plays we glimpse throughout the film that Hamaguchi moves us into a meditative state, considering the profound sorrow of these characters. Perhaps the greatest flaw to be found here is in Hamaguchi’s resistance to offering an equally arresting aesthetic to their emotional journeys, opting instead for a regrettably plain style of shooting which fails to mesmerise us in the same way. Certainly those few splashes of visual style are worth appreciating when they appear, the very first shot of the film being one such moment where Oto’s naked silhouette imprints against a soft sunrise as she begins to tell a story. Another sequence worth noting is a moment of bonding between Yüsuke and Watari after a particularly therapeutic car conversation, both their hands rising up out the sunroof, holding cigarettes in the night breeze. But with such sparseness in this indelible imagery, Hamaguchi offers little cinematically to his particularly lengthy film.

Finally, a unity between Yüsuke and Watari in this wonderful shot.

Ultimately, Drive My Car is a far greater achievement in writing than it is in direction, so it is quite impressive that Hamaguchi is still able to hold our attention for so long without demonstrating a particularly active interest behind the camera. As we discover the vulnerability that lies in mysterious characters who we might have initially deemed unknowable, the film once again returns to a theatre play that speaks for their troubles in its final minutes.

In the multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya that Yüsuke is directing and now performing in, one cast member communicates in Korean sign language, and as she delivers her closing monologue, she stands behind him, signing for both of them. “We live through the long days and the long nights. We patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way,” she tells us. Just as becoming a passenger in his own car has taught him the power in letting others take the wheel on his journey to recovery, so too does he now go forward with renewed humility, recognising how the emotional expressions and stories of others may cut to something deep within himself.

Theatre used throughout this narrative to complement the characters’ journeys in a touching way.

Drive My Car is current playing in theatres.

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh | 1hr 38min

There is a fluidity to the vignettes of Kenneth Branagh’s memoir in Belfast, reflecting on a tumultuous period of Irish history that set the scene for his own coming-of-age. After opening with a colourful montage of the modern city’s industrial sites, he gently nudges us into a black-and-white memory piece of childhood games, bible-thumping preachers, and political riots, gliding gracefully down the streets in superbly blocked long takes. Nine-year-old Buddy is the stand-in for Branagh here, who moves from one lackadaisical tableaux to the next, punctuating his story with bursts of violence from the 1969 Northern Ireland riots. 

It is a loose narrative that Branagh constructs here, prioritising character above all else in building out a close family of working-class Protestants reluctant to involve themselves with the escalating protests. Besides Buddy’s older brother, Will, the rest are given no other names then Ma, Pa, Granny, and Pop, their complex identities filtered through the bright eyes of a child. The long, static takes that Branagh employs to capture shots of the family layered across compositions evokes Alfonso Cuaron’s own touching memory piece, Roma, soaking its tight-knit communities within an air of nostalgia, though tinged with a bitter sadness. Through doorways and windows, Branagh shoots Buddy’s family in secluded frames, dealing with issues the boy can barely comprehend. More than anything though, it is the warmth and care they all hold towards each other that emerges in tender scenes of dancing, watching movies, and nights out at the theatre, through this lively ensemble affectionately invites us into their spirited dynamic.

A dedication to tableaux like these, layering the frame through doorways and windows to create evocative memories from Buddy’s perspective.
Strong performances all throughout this ensemble – so much chemistry between every family member as they dance and play together.

Every now and again Branagh will also let through bursts of colour, transcending Buddy’s black-and-white memories with vivid renderings of his imagination. When watching a play of A Christmas Carol with his family, the golden lights of the stage pierce the monochrome darkness within the audience, bouncing off Granny’s glasses like sparks of wonder. Later, Buddy sits in front of his family’s television and gazes at the awe-inspiring Technicolor of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, swept away by its visual majesty. 

A wonderfully formal use of colour in this largely black-and-white film.

But also included among Belfast’s many cultural and artistic references are two classic Hollywood westerns, both appearing in their original black-and-white. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon are the texts used here, captivating Buddy’s mind in a more thoughtful, considered manner than those other colourful pieces of entertainment. Just as questions of duty and honour test our heroes in both those westerns, so too does Pa face similar trials in Buddy’s world, frequently coming up against local demagogue Billy Clanton, one of the riot leaders. “The Ballad of High Noon” makes more than one appearance here, poignantly underscoring Pa’s reckoning of his own loyalties and identity like so many classical heroes before him.

Branagh’s framing of Jamie Dornan setting him up as a classical hero in Buddy’s eyes, much like those Western gunslingers and sheriffs with strong moral codes.

Moving parallel to Pa’s arc is Buddy’s own pre-pubescent development, defined by his desire to find some sort of recognition and belonging among his own peers. After attempting to steal chocolates from a lolly shop and refusing to dob in his accomplices, he finds acceptance in a secret group, though much like his father this ultimately leads to a nuanced re-assessment of his own values. Tough choices are made between conforming to group ideals versus holding fast to one’s integrity, though it is in such adverse circumstances where character is forged, and eventually Buddy is set on a path to becoming the noble man he sees in his father. The personal self-reflections of Branagh’s own childhood that float through Belfast endows this story with a certain level of authenticity, but it is also the emotional nuance that he finds through his elegant camerawork and staging that fully consumes us in young Buddy’s journey, giving endless thanks to those who planted seeds of growth within such inhospitable environments.

Belfast is currently playing in theatres.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Joel Coen | 1hr 45min

In the very first shot of The Tragedy of Macbeth, three ravens soar through a thick, suffocating fog, their dark imprints set against an ethereal shade of grey that we will soon come to know very well. We might initially believe we are looking up at an overcast sky towards a sun just slightly concealed from our view, but then all of a sudden, the clouds part. As we realise that we are looking down from far above the earth, we are hit with a dizzying spell of vertigo. Below, the shrunken figures of two men trudge through a misty wasteland, diminished beneath the black omens of death that circle above, and which will continue to haunt the rest of this film.

As Joel Coen’s first solo film without his brother, Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth is also no doubt his most austere. The wit and black comedy often found in even their most serious works like No Country For Old Men is entirely absent, though in its existential questions of destiny, chaos, and violence, Shakespeare’s script also proves itself to be a perfect fit for Coen’s philosophical obsessions. After all, if their primary genre of interest can be described as “crime gone wrong”, then how much more classical can you get than Macbeth? Perhaps then we can single out the severe greyscale cinematography and stark production design as an unusual look for a Coen movie, and indeed this is no doubt his most visually accomplished film to date, but stripped-back simplicity isn’t entirely an entirely new choice for him either.

Joel Coen has made attractive films before, but nothing quite like this. He fills his frames with masses of negative space much like Carl Theodor Dreyer before him – not an influence I would ever think to mention in relation to previous Coen movies.
Unembellished sets melding perfectly with the expressionistic lighting. This beautiful composition of arches and shadows wouldn’t look out of place in a Fritz Lang film from the 1920s or 30s.

With all Coen’s usual artistic trademarks kept in mind, it is unavoidable pointing out how much this breathtakingly bleak take on the Shakespearean tragedy probes entirely new spheres of influence besides the usual film noirs, westerns, and screwball comedies that have made their mark on his oeuvre. Most notably, those grim psychological dramas of Ingmar Bergman appear in Coen’s rigorously precise blocking of his actors, and the Gothic minimalism of Carl Theodor Dreyer announces itself all through the unembellished mise-en-scène.

To draw this line of influence even further back than those mid-century European directors, the magnificently imposing sets that tower around Lord and Lady Macbeth on their rise to power would not look out of place in the expressionistic films of Fritz Lang, especially in the perfectly sculpted architecture of square-cut corners and rounded arches. The sound stages may be evident, but deliberately so, as Coen crafts a geometrically insular world of treachery and insanity ruled by its physical boundaries, further mirrored in the narrowed aspect ratio.

The depth of field in Bruno Delbonnel’s greyscale cinematography is excellent. Here he splits the frame right down the middle with a column to separate King Duncan’s court from Macbeth, who remains foregrounded in the shadows. Extremely rigorous staging.
Perfect symmetry in the lighting and mise-en-scène as Lady Macbeth ascends to power.

There is still little relief to be found in the film’s exteriors of overwhelmingly bleak courtyards and desolate fields, withering like those barren men and women at their centre who are now staring down the ends of their own lives. Behind them, backgrounds fade into a ghostly emptiness and walls of impenetrable fog obscure Macbeth’s vision of what lays ahead. The extreme high and low angles with which Coen captures his actors against canvases of negative space continue to lift this eloquent script beyond the realm of theatre and into something strikingly cinematic, where Macbeth’s madness is heightened to an all-consuming yet entirely hollow delusion of immortality. Time seems to fade between each scene with the graceful flurries of mist transitioning from one to the next, and where that does not suffice, gorgeous long dissolves serve a similar purpose in wispily combining multiple images which exceed either in their individual beauty. 

These jaw-dropping ethereal landscapes still feeling completely boxed in by the narrow aspect ratio and ever-present mist.
Low angles peering up at the silhouettes of these immortal, mystical beings, towering over Macbeth like gods of his destiny.

As for Coen’s treatment of the narrative itself, The Tragedy of Macbeth does not shy away from the violent, desperate humanity of these characters, particularly in the depiction of the vaguely titled Third Murderer. Where the original script leaves this ambiguous figure as a minor role, Coen imbues them with the identity of one of Macbeth’s allies, Ross, grounding the evil of the story in a recognisable humanity. Coen’s newly defined character motivations are also evident in the casting of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, who are certainly among two of the older actors to take on the roles of Lord and Lady Macbeth. Both wield a skilful control over this weighty and loquacious material, though it is especially in the simmering, angry ambition of their characters that they transform these antiheroes from upwardly mobile youths into an ageing, childless couple making a last-ditch attempt to create a legacy. 

Washington and McDormand are both accomplished actors with many great films behind them, and The Tragedy of Macbeth will still go down as among their best. Their command over this weighty material is truly impressive.

Underscoring their corruption even further is Coen’s visual depiction of Macbeth’s very first murder in a frighteningly tense and wordless sequence, manifesting what was only left implicit in the original without inventing entirely new dialogue. In emphasising the act of killing, Coen draws out additional layers of subtext to Macbeth’s merciless cruelty, capturing the horrifying recognition on both his and King Duncan’s face of what is about to take place. Just as the casting of Ross as the Third Murderer gives a human identity to evil, so too does the explicit depiction of this assassination accomplish the same objective, revealing the true, hideous face of Macbeth as an elderly man taking the life of others so that he may secure the immortality that he believes he was promised.

As for the source of this belief, it comes from nothing more than a twisted image of supernaturalism which both disturbs and intrigues our senses. Kathryn Hunter may very well deliver the most hauntingly memorable performance in The Tragedy of Macbeth as the prophetic Weird Sisters, divorcing the characters from whatever preconceived images of witches we might possess, and crafting an entirely new interpretation of a single, croaking contortionist, speaking with three voices through one mouth. When she stands up straight, a black cloak encompasses her entire body, associating her with those flying shadows of death that continue to make their presence known all through the film, and when she does finally split into three separate bodies, they remain very much identical parts of one whole.

Kathryn Hunter is another standout. An extremely physical actor with equally remarkable vocal talents, distinguishing between the three witches in that deep, croaky voice.
An inspired take on the witches – three parts of one whole, whether they inhabit a single body, manifest as reflections, or appear as visually identical triplets.

In the constant manipulation of these witches’ physical forms, they effectively transcend all traces of humanity we might attach to them, and thus inspire mortal men and women towards similar unearthly ambitions. As Lord and Lady Macbeth find themselves caught up in the witches’ prophecies, manifesting their destinies in whatever malicious way they see fit, there remains a constant, heavy pounding in Coen’s sound design. It might sound like footsteps, or the steady advance of some unknown fate, but in the way it is often attached to light visual rhythms such as blood dripping from King Duncan’s hand or the tapping of a tree branch outside a window, it also offers a hefty weight to Macbeth’s vile actions.

This is but part of a collection of ominous visual and aural motifs that Coen so skilfully weaves into Shakespeare’s script though, each of which work in tandem to underscore that stark difference between the volatile viciousness of humanity and the unforgiving march of destiny. Through its magnificent performances, delicately wispy editing, and Bruno Delbonnel’s ghostly cinematography, virtually every minute of The Tragedy of Macbeth feels as if it is on the brink of mortality, ready to tip over into a terrifyingly dark and mystical realm. It is a wildly ambitious swing for Coen, and yet rarely has he ever been so in tune with his own fatalistic fascinations, attacking them with an artistic precision that he has spent decades honing.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently streaming on Apple TV+.