No Time to Die (2021)

Cary Joji Fukunaga| 2hr 43min

It has been a long six years since Daniel Craig’s last James Bond film, Spectre, was released in 2015, and it has felt even longer given that No Time to Die was one of the very first films to have its release date pushed back when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In keeping the timeline of this series somewhat parallel to our own (though obviously falling back a year for the aforementioned reason) there is a jump of five years into the future early on – but not until after we get two prologues, one of which is set a couple of decades ago in the past, and a much longer one which picks right up where Spectre left off, with Bond living a paranoid retirement in Greece. No longer a 00 agent, mistrustful of a world brimming with enemies, and living entirely off the grid, this is the most jaded and guarded that we have ever seen Craig’s interpretation of the British spy.

The process of chipping away at these emotional barriers is gradual, but the shift that occurs does end up feeling all the more earned for the time it takes to cover such an expanse of character development. Over the course of the film we watch the man transform, from a lonely, isolated figure cut off from everything that ever brought him happiness, into a domesticated family man – a role that no version of Bond has dreamed of touching before. Though there is some air of sacrosanct mystique that is stripped from the character in the process, it is replaced with something truly refreshing in the canon: vulnerable, humanistic mortality. The wisecracking man of action we met in Casino Royale is still very much present, but No Time to Die presents us with an older, more mature Bond who takes deadly risks not out of a sense of reckless, thrill-seeking invincibility, but out of a selfless understanding of how one small life might be more important than his own.

Cary Joji Fukunaga hasn’t quite proven himself to be at the level of Sam Mendes yet, but he undeniably has a photographer’s eye, crafting some magnificent long shots in both natural and artificial spaces.

Along with the regular Bond crew of Ben Whishaw’s Q, Ralph Fiennes’ M, and Naomi Harris’ Miss Moneypenny are two new allies: one in the form of Ana de Armas’ fresh-faced, bubbly CIA agent Paloma whose brief team up with Craig calls back to their chemistry in Knives Out, and the other being Lashana Lynch’s spiky Nomi, the new MI6 agent who has nabbed Bond’s old code, 007. During Bond’s retreat into the shadows, these associates and their world of covert espionage has kept ticking along without him, and so it is only natural that he takes its continued functionality as a small hit to his ego. What it does still need though is someone who can secure its ongoing safety, and with a new bioweapon on the horizon he is called back for one last mission.

A delightful cameo from Ana de Armas as a CIA agent, recapturing the onscreen chemistry she had with Craig in Knives Out.

In the tradition of casting established actors with a knack for chewing scenery in the role of Bond villains, the addition of Rami Malek to the cast as poison merchant Lyutsifer Safin pays off more in his flamboyantly damaged presence than in giving real weight to the threat he poses. And as he is written, Safin is a nasty villain indeed, particularly given how invasive his key weapon is in binding its victims to their own inescapable genetic code. The body horror which comes as a result of this devastating creation shouldn’t be surprising given the viscerally violent territory this franchise has previously traversed, and yet it does feel even more intimately disturbing than much of what we have seen before, both for its functional implications and its immediate, visual impact. As a scourge which manipulates the closest possible bonds shared between humans, family becomes both a fragile treasure and a saving grace to this re-inspired Bond, providing a devastating friction in his love and fear of such attachments.

The manufacturing plant may be the single strongest set piece of the film, Fukunaga builds a daunting concrete cavern out of expressionistic angles and stark, low-key lighting.

Stepping into the shoes of Sam Mendes. who oversaw the previous two Bond films, is Cary Joji Fukunaga. Even considering the flaws that plagued Spectre, it is hard to argue against Mendes as being anything less than a brilliant director of set pieces, and as such a high bar is set for Fukunaga – maybe a little too high given the heights of cinematic action that Skyfall hits. Nevertheless, his command over thrilling struggles in sinking ships, high-octane chases through the streets of Greece, and the stark beauty present in one vast, concrete compound set is commendable, particularly in the latter where expressionistic angles and low-key lighting setups create a cold, daunting atmosphere around the ultimate test of 007’s duty of care. Craig’s run of Bond has been defined by a gritty innovation in pushing the character archetype in transgressive new directions, not all of which have landed, but it has also been more interconnected than any others which have come before it. Fortunately under Fukunaga’s care, No Time to Die closes it out with an explosive bang, a stirring farewell, and a touch of poignancy that few action stars would be able to pull off with as sincere a tenderness as Craig.

No Time to Die is currently playing in theatres.

Benediction (2021)

Terence Davis | 2hr 17min

It was only inevitable that a writer-director as dedicated to lyrically drawing out the voices of those who live in the crevices of recent British history as Terence Davies would take a real-life poet as his subject of examination. But it is also in moving closer to horrors of war than he ever has before that Benediction becomes his most scathing look into the past. As a decorated World War I soldier, Siegfried Sassoon speaks with first-hand experience of the war effort, particularly condemning the “political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” As much of Benediction explores the troubled drama of Sassoon’s personal life, Davies breaks up the narrative with the poet’s elegiac musings playing out over black-and-white archival footage of the frontlines, filtering this grim reality through the mind of an artist driven to eloquent expressions of anger, melancholy, and heartbreak.

Though Sassoon accepts his position as an outsider, being both a soldier declared unfit for service and a closeted homosexual, he finds great relief in letting his thoughts spill out in the written word, and similarly finds himself drawn to other men who pursue their own forms of self-expression. Early on, he and his poet friend, Wilfred, engage in a tango brimming with sexual desire, and later when he meets actor and musician Ivor Novello playing a cheeky tune on the piano, Davies very slowly tracks his camera forward, like one magnet being drawn into the field of another. As Sassoon continues to move between affairs, Davies’ narrative sprawls outwards in tangential and, at times, messy ways, touching on many lives in a large ensemble which isn’t always as fully fleshed out as one would hope.

But within the midst of it all, Jack Lowden’s performance of a young Sassoon remains a powerful force, delivering a humility that at times verges on self-loathing, and yet never loses its sensitivity and warmth that so many others lack. Where the proclamations of Novello that his talents are a gift to his country reveal a toxic, untempered arrogance, Sassoon stands in stark contrast to such narcissistic manners. As he recognises, there is an unavoidable “egotism” which lies at the heart of his desire for his artistic catharsis to be heard. The mere fact that he possesses such self-awareness though reveals an authentic modesty to his endeavours, as he strives to create beauty in a world that he believes is very much lacking it.

Beyond the immediate, rousing impact of Sassoon’s poetry, Davies ensures that such efforts are not in vain either, crafting an impressionistic world around him that seems to spring forth from the poet’s ideals. The graceful camerawork and photography that we have come to associate with Davies’ elegant style is unfortunately toned down here in Benediction, and one might theorise this is a sacrifice he makes to let the ‘important’ subject matter speak for itself. But this is not at all to say that it is gone entirely, as he is still making purposeful choices in letting his images flow along in delicate long dissolves, connecting scenes in effortless match shots as simple as that of a tennis court drenched in rain to Sassoon swimming in a pool. In more significant moments, Davies will circle his camera around to the back of Sassoon’s head as the background morphs around him into a sort of photographic mural of the war, visually manifesting those memories which continue to motivate his poetry.

Indeed, these subjective, personal accounts of history are what fascinate Davies above all else, and towards the end of Benediction in perhaps its greatest shot, his long dissolves literalise the fuzzy intangibility of such memories. We watch an older Sassoon played by Peter Capaldi stand framed in the window of his home of 1940s Britain, the frosted glass partially concealing his expression as he gazes out at the rain. Just off to his right, images of his past loved ones fade in and out, still present with him but ultimately incorporeal, separated by that pane of glass that leaves him just as indistinct as them. As Davies illustrates, it is not his face, but his words that will survive the disappearing decades. Words that carry moving indictments of a war all too heavily focused on “aggression and conquest”, which demonstrated a refined ability to speak for many other Brits who felt the same way, and that restored the world with at least a tiny bit of beauty that was lost in a traumatic, global conflict.

Benediction is out in Australian theatres on 21st April, 2022.

Memoria (2021)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | 2hr 16min

The silences ridden through Memoria could go on for thirty seconds, a minute, or five minutes, but at a certain point during these stretches, time begins to disappear altogether, and a realisation begins to dawn – these are not silences at all. There is an aural effervescence carrying through almost every second of the film, lulling us into a meditative state through the rustling of leaves or the trickling of a creek, and then every so often slapping us out of it with a sudden eruption of noise. Indeed, Memoria is a film obsessed with the dissection, manipulation of, and submission to sound, and its representation of… what exactly?

In the attempts of Tilda Swinton’s Scottish expatriate, Jessica, to trace the source of a mysterious sonic boom that only she can perceive, she is led down an enigmatic path. She describes the noise as “a rumble from the core of the Earth” or “a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater”, trying to connect it to the ground beneath her feet and material objects, much like those archaeologists working on a nearby dig site who pursue tangible, historical truths. Like so many of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films though, such concrete resolutions aren’t so easily attained, as the places we are taken to often remain in some liminal, psychological space that can only be manifested in delicate soundscapes, some depicting natural environments, and others entirely unearthly.

Weerasethakul sets up a fascinating dichotomy in his inclusion of these archaeologists – understanding the past through memory vs studying it through history, intangible concepts vs material artefacts.

And then there is the third form of sound that manifests in Memoria – the artificial type, which is produced by sound engineer, Hernan, as he assists Jessica in determining the source of the loud, disruptive bang that continues to plague her everyday life. Together, the two spend a good length of time in his studio, warping, compressing, and equalising a sound until it is identical to the one Jessica hears. It is a lengthy scene, but it also might be the least challenging of the film, as we all too easily invest ourselves in this manufactured recreation despite it not actually offering any real answers. It is the attempt at taking back control over this sound which we admire in Jessica, and yet as if in response to her assertion of agency, the universe itself shifts around her – or is it perhaps that she is just remembering things incorrectly?

The first sign that something might be off is the discovery that a man she has believed to be dead for a year is in fact alive and well, a fathomable mistake for someone to make given how malleable and tricky memory can be. But then Hernan disappears off the face of Earth with no trace of his existence other than within her own mind. If this shift comes from exterior forces, then perhaps the introduction of another man also named Hernan who offers his own wisdom is a gentle push from the universe towards understanding the sound on a deeper level than mere artificial reconstruction.

Deconstructing sound in such a manipulative manner, before Jessica hands herself over to the ethereality of it.

Despite this being Weerasethakul’s first film shot outside of his native Thailand and his first in English, any notions that this is his grab at mainstream appeal are very quickly dispelled by his languid pacing and inscrutable narrative turns, challenging us to tune into the eerie, introspective frequency that Memoria operates upon. He has always employed long, static shots with such formal rigour, and here whenever he cuts from one of these it feels like its own tiny disturbance in the fabric of Memoria’s peaceful flow, much like the persistent sonic boom.

We still get interiors in the second half, but there are always large, open windows keeping the lush foliage of forests in the background.

Although the story is far removed from the jungles of Thailand, there is still beauty to be found in his urban interiors and overgrown forests, with both aesthetics effectively dividing the film in two halves, separating the material from the spiritual. In the former, Weerasethakul often sets his camera at diagonals in his tiny dioramas, beholding the parallel and intersecting lines which make up these unyielding spaces, and then in one shot he lets us linger on an empty plot of glass inexplicably encased in glass, like a meagre piece of nature left for us to observe, but not interact with. Later, he fully relishes every second spent on a lush, verdant riverbank, the rustic furniture of the ‘new’ Hernan spread out through the intensely green palette made up of thick grass and foliage, providing a soothing setting for Jessica’s great revelation.

Weerasethakul has always had a great knack for crowding out his characters in these wild, green spaces. This composition here on an overgrown riverbank is particularly attractive, and may be the longest shot in the film.

And yes, there is indeed an answer to the great mystery at hand, though it doesn’t come easily. It isn’t just surprising because of its genre-bending implications, but because so much of Memoria is spent focused on what lies beneath the Earth, that we hadn’t even begun to consider turning our eyes upwards. As for why this noise seems to be contained within Jessica’s own mind, it would be no great spoiler to point to the title of the film itself. Traces of the past manifest as echoes in the present, and Weerasethakul delights in immersing us even further into a soundscape where the soft patter of rain fades into the first true bit of silence we have heard in this film, before giving way to the aural evocation of a memory previously recounted in conversation. The second Hernan, the man who assists her along this road, is simply another enigma in this story, becoming a pure representation of memory in his rejection of new experiences, and his ability to recall everything that has happened in his life.

As Memoria hands itself over to a mesmerising montage of Columbia’s dense jungles and canopies in its final minutes, there is some relief to be found in the relative simplicity of these images compared to everything that has come before. Weerasethakul’s touches of magical realism are sure to mystify and perplex viewers, though the true test of patience is his slow-burn narrative, which simultaneously invites us into its quiet rhythms and challenges our desire for to keep leaping forward to the next big plot point. It is the past, not the future which he sets his sights on here, and in these delicate reflections our minds are lifted away from the artificial progress and constructions of the material world, and dropped into a serene sea of memory.

Untamed weeds and shrubs growing over manmade structures.

Memoria is coming soon to theatres.

Eternals (2021)

Chloé Zhao | 2hr 37min

It isn’t Terrence Malick, but it is about as close to Terrence Malick as Marvel will likely ever get – Eternals is what happens when studios relinquish a tiny bit of control to a director as dedicated to the artistic side of filmmaking as Chloé Zhao. Auteurs such as James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, and Taika Waititi have also been granted such freedoms before with resounding results, and though the critical reaction to Zhao’s effort has been a little more dampened, it surely belongs up among the most ambitious efforts by Marvel to reinvigorate the mega franchise with a fresh, exciting voice, this one bringing a certain sensuality and expressiveness to its stylings.

Tasked with the heavy duty of introducing ten new superheroes, each with distinct personalities and powers, Zhao fittingly turns the entire Earth and all of its history into her massive canvas upon which the relationships between these immortal beings explode into fights, arguments, and yes, sex. The Eternals were sent here some millennia ago by the mysterious Celestials to defend us from demonic monsters known as Deviants, though these creatures unfortunately prove to be little more than superficial CGI threats that consume nothing but valuable screen time. As it turns out, the most compelling conflict of the film emerges between the Eternals themselves. This fragmentation may, on some levels, bear similarities to that which drives the tension of Captain America: Civil War, but clear-cut sides of “us vs them” are not a luxury which these aliens can afford. Each of them come at the same crisis of faith from entirely different perspectives, having spent the last few hundred years relating with humans in their own ways.

There’s no wasting Zhao’s flair for shooting landscapes here.
It isn’t just the landscapes though, but there is beauty in the production design of so many interiors too.

For Druig, the mind-controller, the potential to pacify humans into a forced peace is a real temptation, while the engineer of the group, Phastos, only finds devastation and heartbreak in humanity’s squandering of his gifts. Such variation in poignant experiences leads them to separate corners of the world, where some integrate into society, others set themselves up as idols to be worshipped, and the remainders go into hiding. As they reunite, hard decisions with world-ending stakes must be made, but even then there remains an uncertainty, as they come to accept that siding against humanity need not necessarily come from a place of evil.

Malick is certainly there in the natural lighting, but the Eternals’ spaceship is directly referencing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The complexity and scale of such questions of utilitarianism and faith could only be explored in an ensemble of this size and against a setting this epic, spanning from ancient Babylon, through the Gupta Empire, and on to World War II. Zhao commands an intimidating narrative structure in her frequent flashbacks to these epochs, with each one posing an ethical quandary that hammers the wedge between the Eternals just that little bit deeper, but the most impressive achievement here is exactly what one would hope from the director of the gorgeous Nomadland – quite simply, her mastery over natural lighting, landscapes, and wide shots are unrivalled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Malick influence is palpable. Perhaps the Eternals’ ship is more evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the tranquil adoration which she heaps upon shots of the sun set against the pitch black vacuum of space might as well have been drawn from Malick’s The Tree of Life, and when we linger on a shot of Angelina Jolie’s Thena standing waist-deep in a lake reflecting the golden light of a sunset, Zhao’s love of The New World seeps through.

Stunning golden light filtering through doorways and latticework.
How many other Marvel directors would choose to light a shot like this?

Such brilliantly elemental imagery erupts at the climax of the film in an explosive battle of lava, water, sand, wind, and ice, though one can’t help but feel that even as Zhao has appropriated the Marvel formula to a setting that plays to her strengths, she is still effectively bound by some conventional comic book plotting that she isn’t quite comfortable with. How many other directors though would cut away to a shot of the sun peeking from behind drifting clouds in the immediate aftermath of a battle though? It is evidently in these quieter, more pensive moments where she relishes the artistic freedom granted to her by the studio, and she makes each one count.

The polarising reaction with which Eternals has been met is baffling in the sense that there are aspects of Zhao’s filmmaking which are clearly leagues above so many others modern blockbusters, but it shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise given the massive swings she is taking here. Perhaps some complaints about lengthy exposition dumps aren’t too far off the mark, even if those sequences are still brilliantly rendered visually, and there are some forced gags where Zhao’s voice is momentarily lost. But if those flaws are the price we pay for Marvel films which are little more experimental with narrative structure and cinematography, or more ambitious in balancing several character arcs at a time, then one would hope that these are the risks the studio might take more of in the future.

One of the greatest shots in the film – Gemma Chan’s Sersi retreating to a tree in the Australian outback to commune with the Celestials. Deeply spiritual imagery with the heavy natural backlight and silhouettes.

Eternals is currently playing in theatres.

The Green Knight (2021)

David Lowery | 2hr 5min

There many not be too many hardcore fans of Arthurian legends hoping that David Lowery’s adaptation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ remains faithful to its source material, but right up until the film’s final few minutes, this is surprisingly the case. It is no easy task maintaining secrecy around what exactly unfolds in this dénouement where the two stories part ways, especially given how much it represents the zenith of his stylistic and formal achievement of filmmaking, but this much can be said without risk of spoilers – his narrative’s eventual surrender to the creeping power of time and nature is far more in line with its pagan influences than its Christian.

The medieval kingdom of The Green Knight is built on fragile foundations of ego and pretence, with even its royal crowns radiating outwards like metallic imitations of iconographic halos. The sombre spirituality which can be found within these castle walls is not a bright beacon of faith, but is rather represented as a dark, deathly decay, pierced only by light pouring down from above like heavenly blessings. This is but a small taste of the transcendent, otherworldly power which Gawain will discover on his journey across the beautiful rolling landscapes of England, where encounters with scavengers, lords, and supernatural creatures gradually temper his ambitions of glory and honour. As he comes to grapple with the dark and mystical beauty of the world beyond King Arthur’s castle, so too does Lowery in his visual artistry, relishing the poetic fantasy and dreamlike imagery of such a grand, chivalric quest.

Handsome costuming, framing heads with saintly halos like those of medieval Christian icons.

There is a sizeable difference between the medieval world which Lowery constructs here versus those grittier representations of the era from more historically-minded films. This is a setting which seems to spring forth from the oral tales of ancestors, as a visual sense of delicate impressionism emerges from within every set piece. Matte paintings are used early on during the Round Table scenes, effectively turning its backdrop of gaping arched hallways into a canvas upon which Lowery stages his ensemble of knights and nobles. Later as Gawain approaches the end of his journey, a supernatural orange mist engulfs the final trek, as if to tempt him away from the inverse colours of the Green Chapel. Such evocative imagery rejects any perceptions of this narrative as a piece of pure history, but rather establishes it as a tale that has been pulled apart and reconstructed thousands of times over centuries, distilling its core down to a pure expression of humanity’s total insignificance.

Stunning images aren’t hard to find in The Green Knight. A mixture of superb staging and production design makes for perfection in Lowery’s mise-en-scéne.
Creativity in the camerawork and colour palette, making for such remarkable compositions that place Gawain at their centre.

The destiny which the young knight Gawain finds himself bound to comes not from religious prophecies, but is instead foolishly created by his own hand. “Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I might know thee,” King Arthur implores him at a Christmas feast, and yet unlike those other great men of the Round Table, he has none. As if summoned by this request, a man made entirely of bark and leaves rides into the dining hall. He offers a challenge: anyone who shall land a blow against him must have the exact same blow delivered back to them one year later. Tempted by the glory, and feeling the pressure to prove himself worthy, Gawain steps forward and beheads the Green Knight. It is a show of superficial strength, but also of foolish arrogance, as he thus sets in stone a fate which will see him reap what he has sown.

Given its lyrical musings, cryptic symbolism, and enchanting monologues, The Green Knight is certainly a film built for multiple viewings. The threat of Gawain losing his head lies as a persistent undercurrent beneath his quest, especially as he is met along the way with the task to retrieve another’s from within a spring. But as he searches for greater significance, it also comes to signify something more personal to our hero – a spiritual chastening, through which he loses his ego and accepts the presence of greater natural forces at play. The ravages of time specifically wreak great devastation upon human delusions of power, and in formally recurring visions of alternate futures seeded throughout the film, Lowery continues to posit either one of two ideas – either we meet the consequences of our actions in the present, or we meet it further down the road. Twice do we see such visions paired with slow-moving, 360-degree camera pans through which he evokes the steadily pivoting hands of a clock, visually manifesting the glacial encroachment of nature and time upon the realms of men.

A ghostly interlude in Gawain’s quest, accompanied with an ethereal mist and gnarled trees.
Lowery slowly tilts the camera upside-down here as Gawain enters a new world.

And indeed, these two forces are often bound together in the film, fusing both physical and metaphysical worlds within the representation of the Green Knight himself. He is patient, but also inevitable. He does not seek out Gawain, and yet he doesn’t need to. Most importantly, he is no villain. He encourages those at the end of their lives to not experience death as a terrifying epiphany, but rather a great humbling. As for when exactly one meets their end – that is merely a reflection of their own actions towards the world at large. Such delicate poetic justice instils The Green Knight with a cyclical structure, not so much within Gawain’s immediate story, but within the hypnotic rhythms and repetitions of the world around him, and consequently pulls us ever deeper into its mystical, foreboding heart.

Openings in the scenery always offering a sense of intrigue and discovery.

The Green Knight is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

The Last Duel (2021)

Ridley Scott | 2hr 32min

It is crucial to the form of The Last Duel that its first act introduces us to what seems like a relatively standard medieval tale of love, betrayal, and vengeance, all told through the perspective of the noble French knight, Sir Jean de Carrouges. A hostile rivalry with his disrespectful squire, Jacques le Gris, is the driving force upon which his story progresses, especially when this entitled subordinate commits an act of treachery that pushes the knight to seek righteous justice. Though Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener’s screenplay intelligently draws out a complex power struggle between our main players in the first act, it is the turn that the film takes in its second which lifts its narrative up to a new level of intrigue, revealing an entirely different set of priorities altogether.

In this act, de Carrouges is not the honourable hero we were led to believe, and Marguerite, his beautiful wife, longs to escape their unsatisfying marriage. Or at least, this is truth according to le Gris, the playful womaniser who finds himself constantly covering for de Carrouges’ errors and shortcomings. History is written by whoever is in control of the narrative, and by traditional accounts, these are usually the men who win battles. As for those who aren’t men, and those who do not win battles – these are the alternate points-of-view which The Last Duel turns its attention to when de Carrouges’ version has run its limited course. They aren’t always grounded in reality or entirely comprehensive, but then again, neither is our conceptualisation of “objective” history which we so happily accepted without question at the start.

The Akira Kurosawa influence looms large here, certainly in Ridley Scott’s direction of exhilarating medieval battles and hierarchies, but most palpably in the Rashomon-style narrative structure which moves in chapters between three perspectives of a single story. Just as a court case becomes the centrepiece of Kurosawa’s 1950 psychological drama, so too does the trial of The Last Duel become a device through which Scott untangles the three messy accounts of the crime that has taken place – the rape of Marguerite, committed by le Gris.

It is the perfect canvas for a director as formally meticulous as Scott to examine our ever-shifting perceptions of history, as he goes about repeating the same events twice or thrice over with slight, barely perceptible variations between them. A modest kiss, shoes flying off in a frenzied panic, and desperate cries for help don’t just take on different meanings each time we witness them, but the perceived intent creates an adjustment in the action itself. In the mind of le Gris, that kiss lingers for a split second longer, those shoes are deliberately removed as an invitation, and those screams are sensual sighs, holding back a burning desire.

Such subtle discrepancies between each version pose great challenges for our main cast, as Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer essentially play three different versions of the same characters, and pull each off with flair. But this formal attentiveness goes beyond the performances, also becoming a showcase for Scott’s camerawork, which continues to refresh the same plot beats in its detailed alterations. A low-angle hanging on le Gris in a dominant position versus a close-up levelled with Marguerite’s distraught face makes all the difference in how we read both sides of the rape, as does the choice to let le Gris’ gaze pick her out in a crowd from a distance, when this same scene has played out elsewhere with both leading men at its centre.

Solid performances all round, but especially from Jodie Comer as Marguerite.

As for the complete exclusion of key moments from certain accounts, these are absolutely telling of how much import each narrator attaches to them, whether out of conscious or subconscious biases. Most significantly, the holes in de Carrouge’s perspective, initially assumed to be the “default”, only fully come to light when we have finally considered Marguerite’s version of the truth. It is here that her husband is exposed as a man not so invested in seeking to defend the vulnerable, but who has rather taken the rape of his wife as a slight against his own ego, and who now pursues personal vengeance out of blind, self-centred bitterness. The question of rightful ownership over material wealth has been a long-running feud between the men, and in Marguerite being given the opportunity to express herself, the addition of the rape to that list of superficial quarrels is revealed as the act of dehumanisation that it is, inevitably altering our judgement of every other character that suppressed her voice.

Such superb narrative form is not always matched by astonishingly beautiful compositions in The Last Duel, though Scott is by no means slouching off when it comes to his mise-en-scène either. There is a dedication to the sheer abundance of candles lighting up studies, dining halls, and throne rooms of medieval France, but it is in the exterior landscapes where we cower at the vast battlefields, castles, and grimy streets of this society that his world-building truly flourishes.

Consistent lighting through candles in so many of Ridley Scott’s interiors.

As promised, there is indeed a duel that takes place in this film, bookending its narrative with the pivotal moment upon which the fates of all three main characters rest. In building such tension to its lead-up, Scott makes ambitious assurances that this will pay off not just on the conflict between de Carrouges and le Gris, but Marguerite’s own struggle as well. Then, as it finally arrives, it is evident that this is a set piece entirely from the creative mind behind Gladiator. As the physical defences of each man are torn away, Scott’s exerts a fine control over his action editing and slow-motion, following this battle of horses and swords while it brutally descends into a visceral, muddy wrestle. Yet all throughout this physical violence, The Last Duel does not once lose sight of the female struggle and trauma perpetrated by the same men who then attempt to claim as their own through bombastic displays of strength and skill. In offering great empathy to these perspectives, Scott crafts a formally astounding interrogation of history as it is lived from moment to moment, and the inherent unreliability of any one account as the sole vessel of truth.

A muddy, high-stakes clash of swords and daggers to end the film, one of Scott’s best set pieces.

The Last Duel is currently playing in theatres.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Destin Daniel Cretton | 2021

The efforts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to keep refreshing itself by dipping into different genres at times seem more evocative of greater films than aiming to become one, and though there is certainly no shortage of artistically transcendent Chinese wuxia films to put Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in its place, there is an authentic delicacy to its style one doesn’t often find in typical comic book fare. At its centre is our newest superhero, the titular Shang-Chi, a Chinese immigrant whose shady family history remains largely secret from even those closest to him. After an attempted assassination on his life, he quickly finds himself drawn back into a world he had hoped was well behind him. Yet as his story progresses deeper into the devious Ten Rings organisation and the mystical village of Ta Lo, director Destin Daniel Cretton also turns up the elegant beauty of his landscapes and martial arts choreography, bringing a sensuality to Shang-Chi’s personal journey of self-discovery.

A series of beguiling settings form a backdrop to this story of family conflict.

There is a visceral impact to casting stuntman Simu Liu in the lead role, as his ability to carry fight scenes without the manipulation of rapid-fire editing allows for some truly impressive choreography to shine through. The first we see of him in combat is on a moving bus, a set piece which, while being a thrilling exertion of bombastic visual effects and choreography, is later topped by more emotionally loaded hand-to-hand contests of precision, strength, and manoeuvring. Eventually, these martial arts encounters transform more into cooperative dances than vindictive, bitter clashes, each combatant working in unison to craft beauty from the collaborative motion of their bodies.

Dance-like fight scenes, bringing personal tension through the physical coordination and friction between characters.

This tension between conflict and coordination is the key to unlocking the complex nuances of Shang-Chi’s relationship with his absent father and master of the Ten Rings, Wenwu. It takes a lot of effort on Liu’s part to not be blown off the screen every time Tony Leung appears alongside him as the family patriarch, providing a performance that certainly makes for one of the most compelling, nuanced Marvel villains we have seen. What could have been a rather dull objective for Wenwu, to recover his deceased wife from another dimension, takes on extra poignancy in the consideration of his entire, centuries-spanning life. Here is an immortal who had effectively given up all power and world-dominating ambition to start a family, only to lose that hope and blame himself when that new life was shattered.

Tony Leung, one of the greatest actors of his generation, makes his Hollywood debut late in his career and delivers a compelling performance as the troubled villain, Wenwu.

Cretton’s frequent flashbacks bring a real sense of historical weight to the world being built in Shang-Chi, but they also offer Wenwu more depth and empathy than the traditional comic book supervillain, revealing a man whose journey to treachery isn’t as clear-cut as one might expect. Carrying a dangerous mixture of grief, shame, regret, and rage, Leung turns Wenwu into the sort of unpredictable antagonist who isn’t quite sure whether he wants to protect or exact vengeance on his own son, and as such can’t find peace in his internal conflict.

And therein lies the power of this film’s use of martial arts – the paradox of cooperative movement and friction is echoed predominantly within those fights between Shang-Chi’s core family members, as we first witness during the opening prologue where Wenwu meets his future wife, Ying Li. With him dressed all in white, her in a flowing green dress, and their elegant combat set against a gorgeous backdrop of vivid red leaves, an alluring connection emerges between them, underscored even further by the glimpses of eye contact we receive in moments of stunning slow-motion. Cretton calls back to this later in a fight between father and son, this time using the same aesthetic techniques to reveal a mutual recognition of their broken relationship, and which can now only be expressed through a collaborative act of violence, regret, and every so often, a display of genuine compassion.

Superbly choreographed combat scenes and slow-motion, turning this conflict into a gradual seduction.

At a certain point, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does turn into the sort of predictable, weightless CGI-fest one might expect from a superhero movie fixated on world-ending stakes. Immediately preceding this though is another epic battle of sorts between two rivalling factions of fighters, one side dressed in black, the other in uniform, deep reds, and it is just slightly disappointing that this striking display of ambitious, large-scale combat made up of awe-inspiring stuntmen and women doesn’t play out for longer.

It would be a disservice to simply label this movie as “beautifully shot” and leave it at that, as the level of attention which goes into the colour palettes and designs of the ancient Chinese village where this battle takes places deliberately evokes the style of more traditional wuxia films. In a particularly exquisite shot towards the end, Cretton lets us linger on an array of glowing, golden lanterns floating atop a lake at night, as the red-clad villagers stand in the background and watch these spirit-like lights drift away. There may be patches of weakness here which keep Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings from transcending its comic book movie trappings, but when it comes to using precisely choreographed action as a means to develop character arcs and relationships, the emotional resonance is powerful.

This climactic, excellently choreographed battle between opposing sides is worth savouring, even if it is brought to a premature end.
Beautiful lighting in the lanterns sent out across the lake towards the end of the film.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

Lamb (2021)

Valdimar Jóhannsson | 1hr 46min

Through a dreary, snowy landscape somewhere in an Icelandic mountain range, a herd of bedraggled horses wander an open field. We approach them from a distance in one long take, though the sound of heavy breathing clues us in that we are perhaps not a neutral observer in this situation. The horses buck and whinny, spooked by our presence in this expansive, rural region, though the mysterious figure whose identity we have briefly adopted is kept largely offscreen for much of the film.

This description of the opening scene may not help any argument that Lamb is not, in fact, a horror film as it has been advertised, but what it may help to illustrate is just how much first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson is following in the footsteps of Bela Tarr, the Hungarian filmmaker whose name is essentially synonymous with bleak, arthouse cinema, and who is credited as executive producer on this film. Like Tarr, the use of eerie, repetitive sound design to create the impression of silence is one of Jóhannsson’s greatest tools, letting us tune into the audible breathing of sheep, the whirring engine of a tractor, or the bitter wind blowing through valleys. Dialogue is sparse, but what little there is simply conveys the bare facts of María and Ingvar’s cold, lonely lives.

It takes the supernatural arrival of a semi-horrific, semi-adorable creature on their farm to bring about a sudden shift in mood, and after drawing out the details of what exactly makes this infant so odd for a long time, the reveal comes in an ever so brief glimpse sure to draw a couple of double-takes. It belongs neither to the world of humans, nor to the animal kingdom, yet all it takes is a fleeting period of shock for María and Ingvar to adjust before readily taking on the responsibility of raising it as their own. As they bring out a cot from the shed and set up a nursery, the existence of some past heartbreak is hinted at, letting us in on the emptiness present in their lives. Just like that, Lamb takes a small step away from the horror genre, and more into that of a psychological family drama, probing questions of how parenting instincts overlap with the welfare of such a unique, irreconcilably “different” child.

Though the arrival of Ingvar’s brother, Pétur, in this narrative initially serves to underscore the tension in this messy family dynamic, his presence ultimately does little to sway the emotion of the film one way or the other. Explicit references to a past romance that he and María once shared do serve to instil tension in this family’s unaddressed, repressed emotions, but this touch of relationship drama does end up feeling more like an irrelevant footnote tacked onto everything else we watch play out.

Jóhannsson has a great command over long shots like these, using cold weather conditions to imprint textures on each scene.

Beyond this, there is a lot to be said about the way Jóhannsson finds such unexpected moments of humour in an otherwise merciless film. While combinations of snow, fog, wind, and rain leave us cowering at the beautiful terror of such an unforgiving environment, the ridiculousness of this family’s situation is never forgotten. The tittering one might hear from a theatre audience in certain parts is not at the expense of the film’s tension, nor is it an unintended consequence of some tonal mishandling. When forced to look at Lamb’s bizarre, folklore-tinted body horror, and then simultaneously faced with such desperate attempts by María, Ingvar, and Pétur to incorporate it into the pleasant image of a traditional, nuclear family, the straight-faced absurdity of humanity’s desire to tame the wildest, most incongruous parts of the world can be overpowering. In such situations as these, an exasperated laugh of disbelief directed at our own instinctual need for rigid, sanitised social structures might suffice just as well as anything.

Lamb is currently playing in theatres.

Annette (2021)

Leos Carax | 2hr 19min

There is a glossy sheen to the bizarre, theatrical world that stand-up comedian Henry McHenry lives within, and yet by the end of Annette, Leos Carax raises the question of just how much its peculiar details are simply the warped perceptions of an egomaniac unable to confront a reality that doesn’t place himself at its centre. Carax is no stranger to pushing the conventions of narrative and good taste, and here he channels these fascinations into a movie musical swinging for the exact opposite of what more traditional representatives of the genre set out to achieve – using songs to repress emotions, rather than spilling them out into beautiful, lyrical expressions.

“We love each other so much,” is the phrase which Henry and Ann, his famed opera star wife, sing in mind-numbing repetition, as if they might convince themselves of its truth by attaching a melody to it. Later, Ann’s accompanist is relegated to singing “I’m an accompanist” in an effort to remind himself of his own subservient status, and when Henry’s mental state spirals into self-destructive habits, he is only fooling himself in repeating “I’m not that drunk.” These lyrics are contrived by design, typing out in heavy-handed text the straightforward ideas which each character is trying to manifest in their struggles against reality. In draining the emotional conviction from much his screenplay though, Carax also walks a tricky line he often stumbles along, at times failing to find the authenticity in moments which do finally call for it.

A ghost story emerges within this narrative, and along with it, Carax’s Gothic, expressionistic lighting.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard display immense restraint in playing these roles as awkward, contrived beings, incapable of expressing genuine emotions beyond those which they summon in a stand-up routine or opera performance. This disconnection only further manifests with the birth of their baby daughter who, in an eccentric, Caraxian twist, is played by a marionette, and appropriately named Annette. “This is my baby,” Henry tells himself, though once again his use of such plain language is just a weak attempt to force emotions which aren’t there. As Annette grows up and starts to display a prodigious talent, the pretence of the parent-child connection disappears, and instead Henry’s visualisation of her as a puppet informs the new relationship which forms between them – that of a manager and his exploited worker.

Green in the lighting at his stand-up performances, but also in the dressing gown he wears at every show, cloaking himself in his own envy.

In spite of the material success Henry finds along his path to fame, he still finds himself bogged down in the envy of others who possess something he lacks, and an ethereal green lighting setup emerges whenever those feelings surface. From the lamps sitting in the audience of a stand-up show, to the pool set piece where his jealousy pushes him to the edge of sanity, it follows him like a ghost, haunting him with reminders of his own corruption and mediocrity.

And indeed, much of Annette plays like a ghost story, as Carax relishes the opportunity to play into the theatrical, Gothic expressionism of his imagery. A recurring emphasis on Henry’s hands stretching towards Ann from behind isolates them from the rest of his body, giving the sinister impression of a soulless, zombie-like creature reaching out for its prey. Meanwhile, as Henry stews in his resentment towards her, she finds herself surrounded by clean, blue hues, especially in her opera performances where she finds far more critical success than her partner.

Anne swathed in blues, from the lighting to the production design.

These motifs come to a head atop a rocking boat on a dark, stormy ocean, where Henry’s disembodied hands lead into an intensely confrontational waltz between the two spouses. The artifice of this soundstage is evident, as waves crash in slow-motion on a rear projected backdrop, and real water is simultaneously splashed up at them from below. Though the film sometimes plays a little too heavily on its inexpressive lyrics, Carax’s commitment to the disorientating effects of Annette beautifully isolates the theatrical hubris in the bitter, selfish ambition of Henry McHenry, who is only allowed to escape that spotlight when it is already far too late to repair the rest of his life.

A disorientating waltz against a dark, stormy backdrop.

Annette is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

The Underground Railroad (2021)

Barry Jenkins | 10 episodes (20 min – 1hr 17min)

It is a worthy conversation to have regarding where the line between movies and television sits, but when it comes to film directors bringing their unique voices to a miniseries it is hard to argue that the art they create is anything but cinema. As for The Underground Railroad, it is tough to imagine any serious discussion of Barry Jenkins’ greatest artistic accomplishments that doesn’t touch on this 10-hour epic. 
On one hand, the bleakness of the antebellum South is horrifyingly realised in the executions, massacres, and torture scenes ridden all throughout this series. But in Jenkins’ re-invention of the “underground railroad”, which was actually a network of secret routes and safe houses to help African Americans escape slavery, he injects a dose of magical realism into the setting. Rather than undercutting the authenticity of the Black struggle, the historical revisionism of the railroad manifests as a retro-futuristic gift of modern-day resources to those who worked in secret to free slaves. The curated selection of contemporary pop and hip-hop songs which close out each episode emphasise these anachronisms, further drawing the connection between the past and present of America’s Black innovators and artists.

Harsh, desolate landscapes. Jenkins has created powerful character drama before, but nothing as sprawling as this.

Where so many miniseries fall into the trap of stretching out a feature-length narrative into a multi-hour marathon, Cora’s escape from Joel Edgerton’s black-clad, drawling slave-catcher, Ridgeway, takes on appropriately epic proportions that could only ever be recounted in a project of this size. There are a couple of episodes which sag in their middle acts as they hit similar plot beats a few too many times, but these are minor given the ten hours of pure cinematic ambition and storytelling. In fact, certain episodes which divert from the main narrative and delve into the backgrounds of supporting characters often end up being among the strongest. Rather than feeling like interruptions, these allow us insight into Jenkins’ world beyond Cora’s immediate point-of-view, giving depth to the lives and experiences of several supporting players. 
One notable flashback episode strives to understand how Ridgeway became the rotten, empty man he is today, and in a remarkable subversion we come to realise that his own corruption was not born of cruel parents or a difficult childhood, but of his own inherent weakness. His father employs freedmen on his farm and preaches about the “Great Spirit”, which he believes holds the universe together. Where Ridgeway fails to understand the concept, Mack, a young African-American boy, becomes invested in keeping it alive through a small, lit match. Even when Ridgeway’s envy and cruelty sends Mack to the bottom of a well, that flame still burns strong, lighting up the darkness with its tiny, warm glow. 
Evoking images of the railroad in in its gold-and-black colour palette, this shot looking down into the well represents a mere microcosm of the underground network stretching across the southern states – a system of people who, like Mack, believe in some version of the “Great Spirit”, shining brightly even in the most smothering shadows. Jenkins has previously proven his flair for lighting in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, but his warm illumination of the trains, tunnels, and lamps in the underground settings are entirely unique in his oeuvre, seeming to exist in a fantastical alternate world separated from the brutal reality above.

The warm, golden lighting of the railroad lends a tone of magical realism to this setting, offering a reprieve from the bleak horrors of the surface.

Jenkins effectively plays right into the surrealism of this imagery, at his most direct plaguing Cora’s sleep with uneasy dreams of her deceased mother and a flourishing underground station, and in quieter, subtler moments, cutting away to portraits of supporting and minor characters standing in open plantations, houses, and stations, staring down the lens of the camera. He calls this motif the “gaze”, and in these Dreyer-like tableaux we are given the chance to look right into their open, honest eyes, the fourth wall entirely non-existent. These aren’t quite flashbacks, but rather memories of people removed from time, acknowledging the presence of an audience looking back at their stories. While they remain motionless, Jenkins’ camera is constantly tracking in, out, and around his subjects, restlessly intrigued by their silent expressions. 

The “gaze”, as Jenkins calls it. It is a haunting visual motif, inviting but also implicating, evoking a connection to those who lie just outside the periphery of this narrative’s boundary.

This dynamic camerawork doesn’t draw attention to itself in many insanely long takes, but Jenkins frequently makes the choice to move through scenes without cutting. In quiet moments, he will drift from face to face, underscoring the austere tension between characters. His framing of close-ups in intimate scenes is like so few others of his generation, at times peering right into the souls of characters with front-on angles, and at other times letting them peer right into ours. In more epic sequences the camera will rise off the ground in unbelievable crane shots, capturing the devastating scope of a village on fire, or a blooming vineyard stretching across acres of land. Wherever it moves, Jenkins’ powerful imagery is sure to be present, often sharply pinpointing a specific subject in shallow focus while everything else melds into soft, painterly backgrounds.

Few directors have been able to capture close-ups like Jenkins. A perfect combination of framing, shallow focus, lighting, and background scenery.

Despite its aesthetic beauty The Underground Railroad is far more confronting than Jenkins’ previous works, not just in its depiction of a grim era fuelled by foul beliefs, but in its sharp indictments of white folk whose “helpful” attitudes mask insidious intentions. Cora moves from town to town across southern America, each one governed by its own set of rules regarding the rights of African-American people, and each one thus posing a different, unique danger. In a South Carolinian city, freedmen are encouraged to “perform” their persecution as education for white people. In North Carolina, a cult-like village executes any person of colour who sets foot within its borders. Even an all-Black community which abides by self-determinist politics relies on the protection of a white judge living in the next town over. You can’t blame Cora for wondering whether there really is such thing as a safe space in this world. The only times we truly believe she is ever free from harm is when she is in the dark, sunken tunnels of the railroad. 

The camera moves smoothly from the ground into this overhead shot of a burning village.

It wouldn’t be right to discuss The Underground Railroad and ignore the consistently excellent work of Nicholas Brittell, whose collaborations with Barry Jenkins have always brought out his most mature, affecting scores. His melodies here are as tenderly moving as ever, but the dominant motif of the series is a descending sequence of four notes, often rendered with intense tremolos on string instruments. It is usually tied directly to the railroad, musically painting out a descent into the unknown, though its versatility allows for lighter renditions to reveal its more fantastical side, offering an escape from the horrors of the surface. 
And indeed, the railroad itself is a complex concept to fully wrap one’s head around. At times it seems to be a perfect, dreamlike utopia, existing completely separate to the white people above. At other times it is lonely and dark, and the only way through it is by a handcar that must be manually operated. Barry Jenkins’ vision of a world where a phenomenon such as this needs to exist is chilling, but even at the lowest points of Cora’s journey, there remains the hope that an opening into the underground network is near enough for her to reach safety again. This metaphor for supportive Black communities stands strong all throughout The Underground Railroad, and with this as his central tenet Jenkins crafts an immense, era-defining cinematic epic.

The Underground Railroad is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.