The Shape of Water

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor


Oftentimes when we think of fairy tales today, we think of children’s stories in the vein of Disney; wholesome fantasies about adventure, love, and imagination that teach us a moral. Historically that hasn’t been the case with this genre. Many of the fables we know today as popularised by the Victorian likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen find their origins in frightful folklore originally intended for adults. Indeed, the Brothers Grimm had to revise their original publication of Children’s and Household Tales upon receiving complaints that their stories were too sexual and violent. There has always been a dark heart to fairy tales, and it is one that del Toro has dedicated his career towards exploring in films like Pan’s Labyrinth. He has always been fascinated by the way fairy tales use monsters and beasts to represent the negative qualities of humanity and has often found these creatures to be profoundly human as a result. In his “fairy tale for troubled times”, del Toro seeks to tell a timeless fable for a modern audience in all of its wonder and darkness.

The film is set in the USA in 1962, an idealistic time in American history. The Second World War was a memory, the country was prospering, and the Kennedys were in the White House. However, beneath that glitzy surface of glory, growth, and glamour the reality wasn’t quite as wholesome. The oft-romanticised 1960s was a nightmarish time, a period when two nuclear superpowers were engaged in an ominous staring contest with the threat of global annihilation hanging in the balance. It was a mythological time for the United States where the ideology of ‘greatness’ contributed towards the intolerance and contempt of those who fell short of the All-American ideal, whether it be because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their disability. It was an age of brutality and prejudice where the outcasts who lived in the margins of society had long been rendered speechless, unable to speak out and make their voices heard. In The Shape of Water this sense of voicelessness is represented literally by the central couple, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).

Elisa is a cleaner who has long since lost her voice in an accident that left her neck disfigured. She lives alone above the Orpheum Cinema, an old-timey movie theatre that plays classic films to an almost empty auditorium. The one person she spends any time with when not at work is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an ageing, balding, closeted man whose days consist of black-and-white movies starring Betty Grable and Shirley Temple and fantasies about the young, handsome waiter at the local pie emporium. At night she works shifts at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore where the scientists are laboriously trying to work out how to get to the moon before the Russians. Working alongside her is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a matronly, vivacious African-American woman who speaks more than enough for the both of them. One night the facility receives a delivery in the form of an aquatic, humanoid creature. Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study the creature that was once revered as a god by local Amazonian tribes and see what they can learn from it. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the military official in charge of the facility, however sees it as an affront to both man and God and orders the doctor to exterminate and dissect it.

Elisa encounters the Amphibian Man and sees not a monster or a god, but a forlorn being, as lonely and as voiceless as herself. She reaches out to the creature and shows him kindness, feeding him boiled eggs, playing him musical records, and teaching him sign language. She learns that the Amphibian Man is an intelligent creature capable of thought, reason, and empathy and that her affection for him is reciprocal. They form a bond with each other akin to Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête was clearly a source of inspiration), except that here the romance does not depend on the beast’s transformation into a handsome prince. The star-crossed lovers are attracted to each other as they are, both spiritually and physically. As fairy tales were modernised in the 19th and 20th centuries and targeted towards children, a point was made to remove the sexual content and connotations of such fables as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood so that these stories might reflect the chaste (or, if you prefer, repressive) values of their times. In his contemporary adult’s fairy tale, Del Toro feels that it is more honest to allow the couple’s romantic feelings to manifest themselves as sexual desires and does not shy away from portraying it. Beauty and the Beast consummate their love and it is treated and shot like a romantic coupling between two souls, rather than in any kind of a fetishised or exploitative way.

However, in the midst of this “tale of love and loss” there is “the monster who tried to destroy it all”. This is Strickland, a demonstrative, almost stereotypical, symbol of the toxic masculinity of 1960’s America. He lives in the suburbs with his blonde 1950s wife (with whom sex is silent, dour, and missionary) and has two kids, a military career, and a Cadillac. He is also a sadistic bully who preys on the ‘Others’ and demonises them. He eroticises Elisa’s disability and sexually harasses her, he is unabashedly racist towards Zelda, he viciously dominates the physically inferior Dr. Hoffstetler, and he gets glee and elation from torturing the defenceless creature with his cattle prod. At one point he pushes the Amphibian Man too far and provokes him into lashing out, losing two fingers in the process. As the rotting flesh on his hand deteriorates and spreads with each passing day, so does the rot devour his soul more and more like a cancer until it finally drives him well and truly into a vengeful, furious state of madness. He is a familiar type of villain from the Gothic literature and art that has inspired del Toro throughout his career, a man whose heart is so black that he proves himself the real monster of the story, but an updated one whose outdated yet prevalent values are as relevant today as they are harmful.

Like many fairy tales, The Shape of Water is not a very probable story. As well as drawing on elements of fantasy, it takes illogical leaps in its plot and a lot of what follows suspends belief. But then, that’s why the magic of it all is so crucial. One of the great things about fairy tales as a genre is that their stories don’t have to follow logical plots if the emotions are strong enough to lead the way instead (The Wizard of Oz and La Belle et la Bête are both great examples of this). Part of the reason why this film succeeds is because the actors do such a tremendous job of conveying the emotions driving their actions. Hawkins is so expressive in a role that goes entirely unspoken (save a musical fantasy sequence in the style of Ginger Rogers and an aquatic Fred Astaire) she could have been a Hollywood silent movie star had she been born a century earlier. There were scenes where Elisa spoke more with her eyes than any actress could possibly have said with a hundred pages of dialogue. Opposite her, Jones (who has brought so many of Del Toro’s monsters to life in his previous films) delivers a remarkable physical performance as the Amphibian Man, a creature who speaks through musical cries, expressions, and movement.

Another reason The Shape of Water works so well as a fairy tale is the dreamlike atmosphere del Toro and his team were able to create. The film often employs watery imagery from the constant rainfall to the aquatic blues and greens of the sets and costumes to the dim lighting and wavering shadows. We see all this through the lens of a camera that hovers as if it were floating and which flows seamlessly across scenes. It all invokes the feeling of being submerged in the underwater world that we see in the opening scene and watching the film often felt like watching a dream. Accompanying that otherwordly sense throughout is the film’s musical score, a wistful composition that expresses what cannot be said in words. The feelings of melancholy and wonder that emerged were so overwhelming I couldn’t help but be swept away by the magic of it all. The Shape of Water is a beautiful, moving tale of love and loss and of finding your voice. It is a breathtaking, stunning picture that conjures profound emotions and explores the enigmas and ethics of humanity in the way that only fairy tales can.

★★★★★

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Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★

Phantom Thread

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson


Phantom Thread tells the story of an artist with an obsession in his work that dominates his very being. The meticulous rituals that he follows are so strict and the commitment to his craft is so absolute that it becomes impossible to draw a line between his professional and personal lives. The same could be said of Daniel Day-Lewis himself, an actor of such discipline and intensity, his method will not permit any line between the performer and the character. Thus, if this is indeed to be the end of his career, Phantom Thread is the perfect swan song for an artist of Day-Lewis’ disposition; it is a chance to turn the camera on himself and reflect on what it means to devote oneself to one’s art in this way. To that end there is no greater companion he could have asked for than Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who excels at themes of obsession, control, and domination and at exploring the opposing, interconnected forces of creation and destruction. That these ideas are explored through the lens of love tells us something about how they view art.

Here Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a respectable, well-kempt English gentleman who seems prim and proper at first glance but is gradually revealed to possess a dark, sinister edge. He is a character not unlike those that Laurence Olivier used to portray in films like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, emotionally abusive men whose obsessions prove damaging to the women in their lives. Reynolds is a renowned fashion designer who lives his life according to a pattern of total order that does not tolerate deviation, disturbance, or disarray. Every morning he shaves his face methodically, trims the hairs on his nose and ears with precision, and carefully applies his clothes as if he were dressing to meet the Queen of England. We first see him at the breakfast table where a household figure, a younger woman called Johanna (Camilla Rutherford) whose affiliation with Reynolds is a subject of some ambiguity, presents him with a pastry that inspires him with a look of grimace. His routine is thus ruined in a stroke, rendering him unable to focus on his work for the rest of the day, leading him to consult his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville) and requesting her to dismiss the unfortunate woman.

Reynolds decides he needs a break to recuperate and retreats to his country estate. One morning he takes his breakfast in a small-town café and there meets clumsy waitress Alma Espen (Vicky Krieps). Intrigued, he flirts with her in a rather domineering manner, which she receives assuredly, and gives her a large and exact food order, which she remembers by heart. After taking her to dinner and talking at length about his late mother and how he became a dressmaker because of her, he leads Alma back to his studio for what she assumes will be a seduction. Instead he asks her to model for him and immediately starts drawing inspiration from everything about her: her appearance, her personality, even her insecurities. “He likes a little belly”, says Cyril, who arrives presently and takes Alma’s measurements, effectively killing whatever romantic mood had remained in the evening by this point. Later, as they walk hand-in-hand beside a lake, Reynolds invites Alma to live with him, model for him, and be his muse, a proposal to which the enamoured girl agrees. Their relationship and the things they do with (and to) each other is the driving force of the film.

The relationship we see isn’t a particularly happy one. Whether he realised it or not when he fell for her, Reynolds discovers before long that Alma is her own person with her own background, habits, and preferences and she proves quite unwilling to meet his demanding standards and conform to his inflexible customs. She butters her toast too loudly at breakfast, she frequently wants to go dancing, and she arranges surprises for him that, if well intentioned, are not very thoughtful given how unambiguously particular he has unrelentingly been about doing things according to his own routine. In one scene she tries to treat him to a nice spot of tea while he’s working and he is completely blind to the affection behind the gesture because the interruption has disrupted his state of mind, leaving him in a temporary creative limbo that in turn throws his entire day into flux. Even though he quite clearly depends on Alma for inspiration, he insults, ignores, and oppresses her and is staunchly unable or unwilling to show her the intimacy she desperately craves. No matter how caring or adoring she is, she never finds herself able to break down his rigidity and dominance because it is far too ingrained in who he is and what he does. Both characters are perfectly imperfect, meaning that our sympathies alternate between the two with each passing scene.

Drawing inspiration from the filmographies of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Powell & Pressberger (James Mason in Lolita and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes are also clear predecessors of Reynolds Woodcock), Anderson unofficially assumes the role of cinematographer and composes an exquisite composition of light, colour, and movement. He uses tight framing and precise editing to convey a sense of how Reynolds’ strict, severe lifestyle really feels to Alma, suffocating and claustrophobic, and exercises restraint in his camera movements. The colours are as muted and textured as the pale and creamy fabrics that Reynolds uses in the dresses he designs and give the film a pristine and beautiful surface that looks almost too delicate to touch. Complementing these images is Greenwood’s elegant score with its graceful piano themes and rich orchestration, capturing a devastatingly romantic mood akin to the use of Rachmaninov in David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a movie of the bygone era that Phantom Thread takes place in.

The acting of the three leads meanwhile is note-perfect. Day-Lewis, who is mostly known for delivering elaborate, tour-de-force performances in such films as Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, is more restrained in this role but still remains lively and intense. As Reynolds he is both attractive and cruel, a predatory, almost vampyric, figure whose unbending perfectionism is matched only by his acerbic wit. What’s truly surprising though is how much of the heavy lifting is done by the relatively unknown Krieps. She assumes the typical role of the inexperienced and submissive bride (so to speak, their marital status is never really elaborated) with the right balance of vulnerability and earnestness, but then adds in a gradually increasing assertiveness that manifests itself in her climatic effort to bring Reynolds down a couple of pegs. It is truly a revelatory performance. Manville meanwhile as the older sister, there to keep Reynolds and Alma in check and ensure that the work gets done, is wonderfully shrewd and provides many of the film’s greatest laughs while maintaining an impeccable sense of gravitas and dignity.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Phantom Thread is how wickedly funny it is, given how seriously everything is treated. Much of this humour comes from the farcical conflict between Reynolds’ absurd fussiness and Alma’s infuriating carelessness, eventually leading to a rather bizarre yet fascinating conclusion. It’s one of those endings where we don’t know if we should treat it as oddly uplifting, outlandishly strange, or morbidly dark. The best comparison I can think of is Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, where the central couple reach a status quo that may look weird and unhealthy to us on the outside but which works for them. The romance that Reynolds and Alma share is ultimately a mystery, one that we can never really hope to solve. It brings us back to the title, a ‘phantom thread’ being a hidden message stitched into the fabric of a dress unknown to all save the designer who wrote and hid it. Phantom Thread is a breathtakingly captivating film that surprises at every turn and, if this truly is the last we will see of Daniel Day-Lewis, it is as fine an ending for a prolific career as one could possibly ask for.

★★★★★

Early Man

Cast: (voiced by) Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Writers: Mark Burton, James Higginson


It has been a decade since the release of A Matter of Loaf and Death, Nick Park’s previous directorial work. A year later Disney produced The Princess and the Frog, which failed to secure a sizeable return, leading the animation giant to all but abandon hand-drawn animation as a format and instead focus on creating CGI features like those of Pixar. Such is the nature of the technology-dependent industry of cinema where the old, laborious, time-consuming methods are being left behind for the ease and convenience of the modern digital age. Aardman Animation now remains as one of the few leading producers of mainstream animation to keep one of the old practices alive, that being stop-motion. It is a meticulous, painstaking style of filmmaking where an efficient, productive week by a sizeable, multi-skilled team will result in about four or five seconds of filmed footage. At that rate, one might ask whether stop-motion is even worth it. Enter Early Man, an underdog story about a small community fighting against a new age of technology in order to preserve the ways of the past.

Early Man is set in the Stone Age where a young caveman named Dug lives in a peaceful valley with his rabbit hunting tribe. Bobnar, the chief of a tribe, is a cautious, passive sort who is perfectly content not venturing beyond their own territory or hunting any larger game, whereas Dug is keen to try new things and take a few risks. Their docile lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age army (complete the bronze-clad mammoths). They seize the valley for themselves and exiles Dug and his people into the volcanic badlands. Dug finds his way to Nooth’s city and there learns about the ancient, celebrated ritual of football. Standing in the middle of the stadium with the entire crowd watching, Dug challenges Nooth and his elite team to a football match for the return of his home. Nooth accepts, trusting that Dug and his tribe will prove too inept and dim-witted to prevail. This proves to be exactly the case until Goona, a resident of the Bronze city whose gender excludes her from being allowed to play football despite her clear talent, steps in to help them.

Much like Monsters University, which had an entire extraordinary world at its disposal and squandered it in order to make an 80s college movie, Early Man neglects to explore its own world of possibilities in order to make a British sports comedy. From the opening scene we are introduced to a land of volcanoes, dinosaurs, and prehistoric tribes of differing technology, and yet all it leads up to is a formulaic football match with a few jokes and a foregone conclusion. From the second act onwards the movie devolves into training sequences as Dug and his clan attempt to work out the ins and outs of football with the occasional aside to check in Nooth as he makes his preparations for the climatic game, and at some point the Stone Age setting just felt superfluous. It allows for a few clever visual gags, but this is ultimately a story that could have been told at any time which is why it feels like such a wasted opportunity. The film simply follows the typical beats that generic sports movies tend to follow and the characters you follow along the way just aren’t compelling or charming enough to carry it.

Beyond being an underdog sports movie though, Early Man is first and foremost a children’s comedy and it is one that is not at all embarrassed to be childish and silly. Your enjoyment of the film will therefore depend on whether you’re into that kind of humour. Jokes include animals being used a substitutes for modern-day inventions a la The Flintstones (baby crocodiles as clothes pin, a scarab beetle as a beard trimmer, an actual zebra as a zebra crossing, that kind of thing) and endless wordplay like Nooth ordering his soldiers to “start mining ore”, only for one of them to reply “or what?” For the most part the comedy didn’t really do it for me. I did smile at a few bits like a peasant woman exclaiming sliced bread to be “the best thing since… well, ever” and Bobnar declaring himself too elderly to play football at the old age of 32, but I found most of the jokes to be rather predictable and familiar and never found myself enraptured by the novelty of it all. Still it isn’t really the film’s fault, none of the humour is lazy, witless, or forced, you’re just either into it or you’re not. Still, some things did grow on me like the recurring gag about the message bird and Hiddleston’s unyielding commitment to a French accent worthy of a Monty Python character, but then there are all the football related jokes which aren’t especially funny if you’re not a fan of football.

Early Man is one of those movies where you can take it or leave it. Anybody who watches the trailer will know instinctively whether this film is for them or not, and I for my part wasn’t very optimistic (even with the mind behind Wallace & Gromit attached). Having said that, it is film that clearly took a lot of care and effort to make. The craft and attention to detail that went into the creation of the sets and models is to be applauded and the movie incorporates so much movement and visual comedy, from the elaborate to the blink-and-you-miss-it, that I cannot even imagine how many man hours went into putting it all together. I do wish they’d dedicated that effort towards a more worthwhile story, but I’ll take sincerity and care for one’s work where I can get it. Stop-motion is such a laborious process, it’s pretty much a guarantee that any movie that follows it all the way through will be a labour of love. Early Man pales in comparison to Aardman Animation’s greatest achievements, but it’s fun and harmless enough for kids and it at least tries to offer them something inventive and creative even if it doesn’t fully deliver.

★★

Downsizing

Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier

Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor


This is an ambitious film for Alexander Payne. In the past his films, including Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, have tended to focus on average people in common, familiar situations with a slight satirical edge. He is a writer and director who thrives on the ordinariness of suburban America and its discontented individuals. Downsizing isn’t much of a departure for him; it retains his realist style, sense of humour, and focus on story and character over plot. Still, never before has Payne told a story where the themes have reached so far beyond the individual. As well as a film about one man’s search for belonging, happiness, and meaning, Downsizing is about environmentalism, the American culture of wealth and leisure, and white privilege. It’s a movie that starts off with a simple premise in Payne’s typically quirky manner but then gets more serious towards the end until it’s completely overwhelmed by the larger, apocalyptic implications of its story. The first half works well. The second half doesn’t.

Our everyman is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He lives a pretty aimless life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in Omaha where he works as an occupational therapist (not a doctor). He’s in that state where he’s realising that this isn’t the life he hoped he would have, that things just got away from him and now he’s stuck in a rut looking for some kind of change. At a high school reunion he and Audrey come face to face with Paul’s old buddy Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) and his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe), who both got downsized (shrunken to a minuscule fraction of their original size) and seem happier for it. Downsizing is a recent phenomenon that was devised as a solution to the environmental crisis being caused by humankind, but for Dave and Carol it was a chance at a second life where they get to live in luxury with their inflated wealth. Paul discusses the matter with Audrey and together they decide to just go for it and get downsized.

The scenes where we see the downsizing process in action make up the best part of the film. Payne’s imagination and attention to detail help to sell the idea to the audience and make for an amusing sequence as we see everything that is involved with taking the plunge in stature. The process only works on living tissue, therefore participants must have every inch of body hair shaved, every filling in their teeth removed, and must be completely nude. The facility has a team of normal-sized dentists on hand to work on everybody’s teeth before the process and a team of downsized dentists to work on them after. Once the process is done and the humans have been shrunk down to five or so inches, we also get to see the nurses carefully lift their sedated and now fragile bodies from their beds into boxes using spatulas. One can only wonder how the trial and error phase of the programme’s development went and what would happen if something went wrong (although we do learn later in the film why exactly the tooth fillings need to be removed). Paul wakes up at the end of it all to learn that Audrey backed out at the last second, leaving him little and alone.

Thus we follow Paul to Leisureland where he’s just as miserable as he was before getting downsized. His divorce from Audrey has sapped him of his expected wealth meaning that, far from living in luxurious paradise without a care or worry in the world, he must work a similarly menial job as he did in his old life to make ends meet. His social life in mostly non-existent, save his interactions with his noisy upstairs neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz), an Eastern-European party animal who feels it is his duty to teach Paul that life can still be fun. Paul however is more drawn to Dušan’s Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an activist who caused an international incident, barely survived fleeing her country, and was downsized against her will. Seeing her limp around on her ill-fitting prosthetic leg, Paul tried to help her and gets drawn into the plights of the downtrodden and overlooked residents of Leisureland.

This is where the film ventures beyond Paul’s story as an individual and starts exploring the bigger picture themes. On the one hand this should be a welcome change of course given what a dull character Paul has been. As the everyman Paul is a nonentity; he’s our way in to the surreal world of Leisureland but there is nothing compelling about his character or his arc to make him worth getting invested in. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie surrounds Paul with other characters who turn out to be much more interesting and entertaining than him, from the smarmy Dušan to the high-strung Ngoc Lan to the absent Audrey. On the other hand, the bigger picture never quite comes into fruition because Payne cannot really decide which way he wants to go. It’s never clear just how seriously the film takes the questions being raised and yet the film gets so caught up in those questions that it loses sight of what the original premise was supposed to be, leading to a conclusion feels largely unsatisfying.

The premise was an interesting one to start with; it fell right under Payne’s usual shtick of everymen looking for changes in their lives with an interesting sci-fi twist. Somewhere along the line however the film just lost me. The nondescript protagonist ends up in quite a generic story about learning to care for the less fortunate and along the way the movie diverges towards themes of ecological preservation, racial segregation, and materialism and gets so mixed up in them all that I couldn’t remember what the original point was supposed to be. I was enjoying this film quite a bit until I wasn’t and in the end I found myself feeling more disappointed than I was outraged, irritated, or uninterested. There’s a very good film in here somewhere but Payne lost sight of it. It’s still an interesting film and there is some good humour along the way, but ultimately Downsizing is an unsatisfying watch.

★★

The Post

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer


Although it tells the story of an event that occurred over four decades ago, The Post was made very much with today’s political climate in mind. In this day and age where the President of the United States has embarked on a campaign to undermine and antagonise the media and to render the very concept of ‘truth’ irrelevant, Spielberg set out to make this film in order to illustrate the vital role that a free press plays in a democratic society. Through this story, The Post champions journalistic integrity and free speech and demonstrates the necessity of a free press to hold those in public office accountable for their actions. Its weakness is that it can feel a little on-the-nose and self-important at times. The pressure and perhaps even obligation the crew felt to make a statement is very apparent, and as a result the movie often feels more like a commentary then it does a movie. It says the right things, but not with as much feeling as I would have liked.

The Post tells the story behind the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of documents detailing the government’s secret intention to enter what they knew would be an unwinnable war in Vietnam and the truth of the disastrous progress made in the years since. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a disillusioned military analyst, leaks these documents to The New York Times who immediately begin reporting on the contents. When the courts rule that the Times must cease their reporting, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) of The Washington Post tracks down Ellsberg and gains access to the Papers. His editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to run the story despite the court ruling, but the Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is worried that doing so will lead the company to ruin. It also doesn’t help that one of the figures revealed as one of the perpetrators of the great deception is her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defence under the Johnson administration. It is up to Kay to decide whether to back down and ensure the safety of her paper and employees, or to stand up for the freedom of the press and publish the government’s secrets.

For the roles of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, Spielberg could not have picked two more beloved stars if he tried. Both Streep and Hanks are paragons of liberal Hollywood and are the perfect pair to deliver an idealistic appeal for truth, duty, and liberty. Streep comes into her own as the beleaguered Kay, the publisher of the Post who struggles to reconcile her concern for her friends and her company with her responsibility to the readers of the paper and who faces pressure from the patriarchal board that doesn’t believe her capable of doing a man’s job. She brings a quiet dignity to the character as she tries to make her critical choice pragmatically, knowing full well what others expect from her and what the consequences will be should things go badly. As far as Bradlee is concerned there is no question about publishing and Hanks plays him with grit and gravity. He believes more strongly than anyone that what they do is vital to the country whatever the price, but the film grounds him just enough so that his ideals don’t come across as naiveté. He understands full well the ramifications of what they have discovered and it takes as much of a toll on him as it does anybody, but nonetheless it is still too important to be kept secret from the public.

The Post can be a chore to sit through at times. The film is sometimes so self-indulgent in the way that Aaron Sorkin can sometimes be, so certain in its own rightness and in the absolute truth of its rhetoric, that some scenes almost feel preachy and pretentious. However, whenever the movie feels like it will become too ostentatious, it is saved by the talent of the cast and crew. Spielberg has a talent for storytelling that few other directors possess and the fluidity and focus he displays here is on par with All the President’s Men and Spotlight. His expertise in creating engaging narratives comes through and he is able to make the story feel cinematic in a non-distracting way through subtle uses of the camera and sound. The long take during Streep and Hanks’ first scene together, for example, invites us to pay more attention to the dynamic between the two than a simple back-and-forth would have done. He is aided in his tight storytelling by a superb ensemble, including the likes of Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who make every second count in their strong, concise performances.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that the attention The Post has received can be credited more to the timeliness of its message than to its individual merits, but that doesn’t mean the attention is undeserved. Although it’ll be interesting to see whether the film will remain relevant or even regarded ten years from now, that’s not for anybody to say today. We can only judge a film as it stands in the present and, at this time, The Post demands a place in the public conversation. The story it tells was made to reflect on this modern age of ‘Fake News’ and it is intended as a direct response to the attacks on the American news media over the past year. The fact that the story it tells reflects so strongly on the world as it is today nearly fifty years afters its occurrence shows that the questions it raises are far from settled. Personally I would have liked this film to speak of the world today with a little more force and bite and to have left a more lasting impression, but if The Post is fated to be remembered as a film of its moment, then it certainly chose the right moment.

★★★★

Coco

Cast: (voiced by) Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos

Director: Lee Unkrich

Writers: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich


Coco marks a bigger departure for Pixar than usual by virtue of telling a story that is decidedly not American (or, rather, not of the USA). While some of their films have depicted foreign settings before (Ratatouille is set in Paris and Brave is set in medieval Scotland), their films have nevertheless always been Western in their morals, attitudes, and personalities. Coco, far from coming across like an Americanised take on Latin American culture, feels genuinely non-American in its values and viewpoint. It tells a tale of family and spirituality that draws heavily from Mexican folklore and mythology, the music is fully imbued with flavours of Mexican genres such as mariachi and bolero, and the cast is almost entirely made up of Latin American talent, most of whom were unfamiliar to me (the only caucasian name I noticed in the end-credits was Pixar’s trademark John Ratzenberger). It is also one of Pixar’s finest films; a wonderful, moving ode to the power of stories and memories, the importance of family and legacy, and the ability of music to bring people together.

Our hero is twelve-year-old Miguel who lives in the small town of Santa Cecilia with his shoe-making family. His greatest dream in life is to become a musician just like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz, a long-dead but still popular and beloved singer. Music however has been an unspoken word in Miguel’s household ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his family to become a musician, never to return, an experience that had a profound effect on his daughter Coco, Miguel’s 99-year-old great-grandmother. On the night of Día de Muertos, the annual Day of the Dead where the residents of the town gather together to remember their ancestors and help them on their spiritual journeys to the Land of the Living, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead and there meets his actual ancestors including Mamá Imelda, Coco’s mother. Miguel needs his family’s blessing to return to the Land of the Living but discovers that they will not give it unless he agrees to renounce music. Rejecting their demand, Miguel runs off in search of de la Cruz, whom he suspects is his forgotten great-great-grandfather, with the help of Héctor, a vagrant spirit who needs Miguel’s help to reach the Land of the Living.

What looks like a complicated premise full of complex mechanisms on paper is actually comprehensively simple on screen because that’s how good Pixar is at visual storytelling. When we are taken to the Land of the Dead, we understand perfectly the laws of this universe (the relationship between the living and spiritual world, the system by which the spirits can travel from their plane to the other (and Miguel vice-versa), what happens to Miguel and the spirits during their time in Land of the Dead, etc.) because they are communicated to us in visual terms and tie directly into the emotions and motivations of a given scene. For example, Héctor is desperate to get to the Land of the Living so he can see his one living descendant before he is forgotten. What happens when a spirit is completely forgotten by the living? We find out when we meet a character voiced by Edward James Olmos. The visuals tie strongly to the plot as well with simple images like that of a torn photograph or a glowing petal conveying what would take mountains of dialogue to get across. While the central mystery of the story isn’t difficult to predict, the reveals are satisfying none the less because the film has done such a great job of engaging the viewer with the picture.

What makes Coco a particularly enjoyable watch though is that it’s a story told through song as well as images. This movie isn’t a musical in the same way that Frozen is, but it fully understands the ability music has to set a tone, define a character, and underscore the emotion of a moment and employs it to wonderful effect. When Héctor sings ‘Everyone Knows Juanita’, it marks a moment of unexpected compassion from a character we took to be a low-life hustler. When he and Miguel sing ‘Un Poco Loco’ together, it allows us to appreciate the bond that the pair have formed in their journey. In a climatic scene where the folk song ‘La Llorona’ is performed, the music is used to create both comedy and tension. The original songs are all absolutely delightful and best of all is the Oscar nominated ‘Remember Me’, a song that we hear thrice in three different contexts and that gets more poignant with each rendition. The music’s effectiveness is naturally aided in no small part by the wonderful voice cast, from experienced pros like Gael García Bernal and Alanna Ubach, to astonishing discovery Anthony Gonzalez, who is as much of a revelation in this role as Auli’i Cravalho was in Moana.

It wouldn’t be a Pixar masterpiece of course without some tearjerking moments and Coco doesn’t disappoint. The emotional crux of the story is built around family and the way in which we choose to honour and remember our ancestors. Although the film takes place in a culture that places more spiritual significance into ancestry than Euro-American Western culture, the themes are nevertheless resonant and universal. Any adult or child (of a certain age at least) from any part of the world watching this film can understand the tragedy of an ancestor being forgotten by his or her descendants and can relate to Miguel’s conflict between following his loving family’s wishes and pursuing his greatest passion. Even for those children who are too young to grasp those nuances, there is so much to this film for the whole family to enjoy. The character and set designs are breathtaking and the colours are sublime (I cannot imagine any child beholding the rainbow-coloured albrije and being struck with anything but awe). Coco is thrilling, funny, moving, and positively enchanting on every level and ranks amongst Disney and Pixar’s best.

★★★★★

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

Director: Martin McDonagh

Writer: Martin McDonagh


With all the acclaim and awards love his film has received so far, Three Billboards seems all but set to triumph at the Academy Awards this year. However some have come down so heavily against this film that it’s potential Oscar victory has drawn comparisons to Crash, a film often cited as the worst Best Picture winner of recent years. In either case Three Billboards is certainly one of those films that was destined to receive awards attention. It features a strong cast delivering explosive and quirky performances, the writer/director McDonagh is well-liked and respected, and its story speaks vividly about the world we live in. When a subject this topical is portrayed with such confidence as this movie displays, I think there often comes with that a certain presumption of truth that leads some viewers to accept what’s presented without scrutiny. Clearly there is something about the film that rings true to many viewers and feels timely but, the more I think about what it depicts, the more off it all feels to me.

The film takes place in the fictional Ebbing, a rural, southern town which some months prior saw the brutal murder of a teenage girl. Her grief-stricken mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), angry over the lack of progress in the police investigation, rents three billboards near her home which read, “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The billboards cause uproar in the town, especially with Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the well-liked police chief recently diagnosed with cancer, and James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a drunken, racist officer extremely prone to violence. While Willoughby resents the attack on his character, he nevertheless sympathises with Mildred’s grief and takes the whole thing in stride. Dixon, on the other hand, lashes out against Mildred and those who helped her, leading her to lash back in return. The conflict soon spirals out of control as Mildred and the residents of Ebbing become more and more consumed with anger.

While the film has proven divisive, most people seem to agree its strongest aspect is the portrayal of Mildred as a rage-filled, grief-stricken woman whose anger towards the town for its indifference towards her tragedy is released in a divine fury. In the wake of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement where it looks like the tide is finally turning on the perpetrators of sexual misconduct, there is certainly something glorious in Mildred’s wrath as she instigates an all-out war on the deep-seated misogyny of Ebbing. Although the town understands all too well the loss Mildred has suffered, there still remains an unspoken rule that she must remain silent and not allow her suffering to rock the boat. There is a clear status quo that ‘good men’ such as Willoughby, a mostly respectable man with a beautiful young wife (played by Abbie Cornish) and two cute kids but whose tendency to overlook the wrongdoings of his other officers enables the culture of rampant police brutality, have benefitted from and it is a status quo that the town wants to maintain (even if that means a teenage girl gets raped and murdered every now and then). Enough is enough, says Mildred, who has decided that she will not allow her daughter’s murder to become another sad episode in the town’s history for the residents to forget about; she is going to make sure that the extent of her grief is known whether the townspeople like it or not.

It is a powerful arc and McDormand sells it wonderfully. Her performance is raw and intense as a character who no longer has the patience to contain her pain and anger. Her bitterness has given her a hostile demeanour and a sardonic sense of humour, as we see when she baits the dim-witted Dixon and parries every insult thrown her way with something even more vicious and biting. I don’t think I was as blown away by McDormand as others were, in part because I’ve seen her play a deeper, more fully-realised version of this embittered, wretched, forlorn character in Olive Kitteridge, but it is a great performance none the less. I’m just not sure the story did justice to her character or what she’s supposed to represent. In previous projects like In Bruges McDonagh has had no qualms about writing politically incorrect characters behaving in politically incorrect ways, and in that film at least it works. But with Mildred a lot of these provocations seem like provocations for their own sake. She, just like many of the other characters, drops words like “nigger”, “faggot”, “retard”, and “midget” very matter-of-factly and all it serves to do is get a rise out of the audience. There is no introspection, no attempts to engage with the effect those words have when she uses them.

Things are even more problematic where the Dixon character is concerned. This is someone who we are quite clearly supposed to think of as deplorable; he is a pathetic, idiotic drunkard, an unabashed racist who is known to have tortured a person of colour in police custody, and an impulsively aggressive man whom we see commit acts of brutality. The film makes an attempt to adds layers to this character, establishing that some of his worst qualities come from having grown up with a bigoted and unaffectionate mother and maintaining that Willoughby sees Dixon as a good man deep inside (what leads him to think this, we never find out). The disinterest the film shows in engaging with the prejudices that Mildred may or may not hold extends to Dixon who becomes more central to the story around the half-way point and, even when he experiences a reckoning, it doesn’t happen in a way that challenges his bigotry. While I don’t agree that he is supposed to have redeemed himself by the end, there does seem to be a sense that his past transgressions such as the racially-motivated torture (we never actually meet the victim in question) do not ultimately matter. In fact the few characters we meet who fall victim to these prejudices (Amanda Warren and Darrell Brit-Gibson play the only two black residents of Ebbing we get to meet and Peter Dinklage plays the dwarf who has a soft spot for Mildred) barely amount to characters in their own right. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a hate-filled man like Dixon is incapable of redemption, but he doesn’t get to earn that redemption if the movie cannot muster the same level of empathy for his victims.

I got the sense that McDonagh was ultimately trying to tell a story about justice and retribution in a more spiritual than political sense, but his mistake was picking a setting that was completely alien to what he knows and tackling so many different hot-button issues that he didn’t have enough time to portray any of them adequately. The movie is about sexual violence, then it’s about police brutality, then it’s about miscarriages of justice, domestic abuse, racism, public defamation, and (in one scene) the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. I’m willing to believe the McDonagh did not intend to marginalise the suffering of people of colour in order to humanise a white man, but with a plot this overstuffed the unavoidable result is that something is going to be side-lined or trivialised, and in this case it ended up being matters of race. The missteps in this film’s handling of its subject matter can probably be attributed to McDonagh’s Irish origins. It’s quite clear that he chose this setting without fully understanding or appreciating its history of racial tension and it has seriously backfired on him. Maybe if the story had been set elsewhere (Three Billboards Outside of Galway?) it might have worked, but what we got instead was a misguided mess.

★★

Darkest Hour

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Anthony McCarten


It’s interesting that Darkest Hour ended up coming out the same year as Dunkirk. Both films take place at exactly the same time and are more or less centred on the exact same event, the defeat and evacuation of the British army in Nazi-occupied France, but both from very different perspectives. Dunkirk takes us right into the action in the most astoundingly visceral way and is so focused on the emotions of the soldiers in that moment that it says practically nothing about the larger historical context. Darkest Hour reveals some of that context, detailing the crisis in leadership that emerged in the wake of what looked like imminent defeat and the dire mood that dominated Parliament. Unlike Nolan’s quasi-silent epic, this story is told not in images but in dialogue as it directly engages with the larger meaning of the events that unfolded which in Dunkirk had been simply implied. The way that these two films inform each other is fascinating and, the more I think about the sensational, intense experience of watching Dunkirk, the less impressive I find Darkest Hour to be.

It is 1940 and Great Britain is at war with Germany. The disgraced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has resigned as Prime Minister for his failure to contend with Hitler’s ambition and a new Tory leader must be found who will have the support of both the people and the opposition party. Chamberlain’s preferred successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) rejects the offer and so Parliament turns to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a divisive figure with a poor war record but the only man who understood the threat Hitler posed from the start. Thus King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), despite his personal dislike of the man, invites Churchill to form a war government. Churchill gets to work immediately, forming a war cabinet that includes Halifax, Chamberlain, and the “sheep in sheep’s clothing” Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and making clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating peace terms with Germany. As the situation in France worsens and the party’s confidence in their leader decreases, Churchill feels more and more the weight of history on his shoulders.

In the role that will almost certainly win him an Oscar, Oldman delivers a fine performance indeed. Working through make-up and prosthetics, Oldman is as forceful and expressive as he’s ever been and is able to build a compelling portrait of the man. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill was a contentious figure, disliked by many for his controversial opinions, uncouth humour, and bad judgement, particularly with Gallipoli and India. The man may very well never have won the support to become Prime Minister had he not happened to be absolutely right about Hitler at this crucial time. Oldman thus embraces the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll winner’s boorish, impetuous side and brings much humanity to an unrefined figure who effectively lucked into the highest office in government and suddenly held the fate of the British Empire in his hands. The weight of the responsibility is never lost on him, but there is a question of whether Churchill’s decision to fight on to the bitter end is truly in the people’s best interest or if he’s allowing his passions and prejudices to drive Britain into ruin. Oldman displays all the strength, wit, and vulnerabilities of Churchill’s character and is more than worthy of the acclaim he has received.

Sadly the rest of the film isn’t as strong. Wright is able to convey a definite sense of urgency and immediacy to the few days where Britain’s fate hung delicately in the balance, but not in a way that felt truthful to me. The film is historical fiction, so naturally liberties have to be taken in the interest of creating an engaging, efficient drama. Accuracy is therefore all but irrelevant, what really matters is truthfulness; the events don’t have to perfectly match what actually happened as long as we believe in what it shows us instead. Darkest Hour didn’t work for me in this regard because the story often felt contrived to me. Through stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and certain scenes that felt theatrical in their arrangement and performance, I never honestly believed that I was there the way I did with Dunkirk. Even allowing for the fact that Darkest Hour was not made with the intention of being as cinematically overwhelming as the Nolan film, the film just felt too much like a reproduction to me than it did a story. The one scene where this is most apparent is when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and talks to some of the people, a preposterous scene that feels as cheap as it feels fake.

It is a competently told story at any rate. There are enough decent performances to support Oldman in his tour-de-force from Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clemmie, to Dillane as the calculating Halifax whose pragmatism serves as a foil to Churchill’s idealism, to Lily James as the determined, doe-eyed secretary. The film also does a pretty good job of highlighting what exactly it was that made Churchill not just a great leader but also the right leader for Britain at this time. His greatest asset as Prime Minister was not his intelligence, strength, or authority, it was his charisma and the film places a strong emphasis on the critical role his rhetoric played in building the morale of the British people. While I don’t think the way the film did this always worked (e.g. in that Underground scene), it was fine when it did. There is also a convincing sense of sincerity to the character, in large part due to Oldman’s acting. The seriousness with which he treats his task and the passion with which he delivers his speeches convinces you that this is a man who will absolutely give his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to see Britain through this dark hour. Dunkirk this film is not, but Darkest Hour is fine for what it is.

★★★

All the Money in the World

Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: David Scarpa


It would be easy to watch All the Money in the World and assume that the story is essentially about the inhumanity and immorality of greed, but I think that would be a mischaracterisation. Although the Getty we see in this film is a tight-fisted miser whose heartless resolve to keep hold of his money while his grandson suffers defies any sense of empathy, I don’t think calling what he does simple greed gets to the heart of what this movie is really about. What this film is ultimately asking us to consider is what exactly it is that money does to a person and it chooses as its subject Getty, who at the time was not only the richest man in the world, he was the richest man in the history of the world. How does possessing that kind of wealth affect the way one thinks and sees the world? What kind of person does one have to become in order to manage the power, status, and exposure that come with it? How does someone with ‘all the money in the world’ value everything else in their life? Those are just some of the questions at the heart of this story.

Based on his biography Painfully Rich, the film focuses on one specific chapter in the life of J. Paul Getty (Kevin Spacey Christopher Plummer), the kidnapping of his grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973. A ransom of $17 million is set, an amount that the 16-year-old’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) cannot even begin to pay. Having never asked her former father-in-law for a thing since divorcing his son John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), her only hope is to appeal to Getty for the ransom. Getty, despite being fully aware that the amount is mere pocket change to a man of his calibre, flat out refuses to pay so much as a penny. He does however employ Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative and one of Getty’s top negotiators, to accompany Gail and investigate the matter to help secure his grandson’s release. As the media picks up on the story and the whole matter turns into a sensation, Getty III is kept hostage in a remote location in Italy where his precarious situation gets worse with each passing day.

In his portrayal of Getty, made all the more remarkable with the knowledge that he had mere days to prepare and play the role, Plummer holds nothing back. He is utterly ruthless and repugnant in his refusal to pay the ransom, but with just enough humanity that we can see where his pitiless, cold-hearted mind is coming from. There is a cruel, business-like logic to Getty’s decision as he argues that if he were to pay the full ransom without question, it would set a precedent that would make himself and possibly his family even more vulnerable. That doesn’t mean Getty is coming from a place of regard or nobility though, far from it. It comes from the unfeeling outlook he has accrued from having built his fortune. To him money is not money, it is power and influence. It is an extension of who he is and what he represents and it affects every deal, every relationship, and every interaction in his life. Getty’s understanding of the world, of people and of society has been shaped by his wealth and it has instilled within him this mind-set that everyone else is constantly after what it his. If he gives away as much as an inch, it will open the floodgates. Thus he guards his riches and status the way a dragon guards its treasure.

It’s for that exact reason that Getty was taken aback years before the kidnapping when Gail left her husband and walked away with the kids and nothing else. Having long believed that anybody who interacts with him is always working some angle or holding some agenda and is always trying to get something from him, it is a mystery to Getty in a way that is perfectly obvious to the rest of us how this woman could possibly walk away from his empire with no conditions save to be left alone with her children. Because Getty is the better known character and the meatier role in the film, it’s easy to overlook the stellar work Williams delivers as the frustrated, desperate mother trying to rescue her son. She exhibits a remarkable degree of restraint in her dealings with the icy Getty that is only just able to contain her clear loathing of the man, knowing full well that scolding and pleading with him will get her nowhere and that he must be handled tactically. It is a balance that Williams pulls off wonderfully, creating a character whom we entirely believe will do anything to save her son, including making a deal with the most greedy, ruthless businessman alive.

Scott has shown before that he can make a story as cinematic as anybody else, but here, apart from a couple of elaborate set-pieces, his directing style is restrained, perhaps in order to draw more focus on the actors and allow them to carry the story. In the hands of Plummer, Williams, and a couple of others (like Duris who is very good as one of the kidnappers) the story works well. Wahlberg is the weak link, playing the former CIA operative in a performance that is competent and nothing else. He says his lines and delivers his reactions well enough, but ultimately his character is a nonentity who fails to leave a lasting impression. The film also suffers from a monotonous middle act that plays some of the same beats a little too often and the balance between believable realism and Hollywood fantasy gets a little uneven towards the end with the way that the film places Gail and Fletcher in a precarious situation that they probably got nowhere near in real life (I had the same issue with the car chase at the end of Argo). Still All the Money in the World is all in all a solid film that’s well worth the watch for the fascinating character studies of Gail and Getty and for the intriguing insights offered about money, power, and compassion.

★★★★