Love, Simon

Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Nick Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger


Love, Simon is a teen rom-com like any other. It’s quirky, idealistic, and a little bit schmaltzy. It features a good-looking, charming, and somewhat popular kid who falls for someone online and sets out to discover who they really are. There are parties, love triangles, clueless adults, a high school musical, public declarations, broken hearts, witty banter, and a compilation of catchy pop songs. It uses every cliché in the book and never apologises for it, it is as representative of this day and age as the John Hughes movies were of the 80s and 90s, and it is everything that a lover of sappy high school movie romances could possibly want. And also the main character happens to be gay. This is the first mainstream, major studio release to focus on a gay teenage romance, a milestone so overdue that I kind of feel like the movie might have had a more meaningful impact had it been made around the same time as Mean Girls. But the fact it was made at all is significant, to be sure, and it’s a good enough film to be worthy of the task it undertakes to break new ground in LGBT cinema.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a kid “just like you”. He lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Atlanta with his loving, liberal-minded parents Emily (Jennifer Ganrer) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and his little, Top Chef obsessed sister Nora (Talitha Bateman). He has a healthy social life at school and a crew of close friends he likes to hang out with including lifelong BFFs Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and trendy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Simon is about as normal as a teenager can be. He goes to parties, takes part in the school’s drama club, attends sports rallies, and has even had a couple of girlfriends. But he also has a huge secret that’s he’s never shared with anybody before: he’s gay. Things change when a closeted boy at school, known only as Blue, writes an online post sharing his thoughts and fears about coming out. Simon reaches out to him privately in an email under the alias of Jacques and the two start a correspondence with each other that evolves over time into a romance.

Love, Simon is a refreshing watch for a number of reasons. For one thing, with a cinematic history that includes Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk where LGBT characters have to battle prejudices against their sexuality and find only heartbreak and oftentimes death at the end of it all, it is a sign of progress that a gay character can enjoy a healthy and harmless romance without being punished for it and get his happy ending. For another thing, in a genre where gay characters are often relegated to the role of sidekicks and are seldom given the opportunity to voice their own desires, anxieties, and struggles, it is almost unbelievable how wholly the film focuses on Simon’s gayness. In addition, I was surprised by how thoughtful, complex, and heartfelt this movie actually turned out to be. A part of me was worried that this major studio release that had made such a big deal in its marketing over how inclusive and liberal it would be might turn out to be a work of self-indulgence; a cheap way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for being so ‘woke’. Thankfully (even though the movie is still a little too self-congratulatory for my liking) Love, Simon takes care to tell a real story where you can understand the main character’s feelings and inner-conflict and empathise with him.

Simon’s initial struggle is that he’s afraid of coming out. This isn’t because he fears he will be hated or rejected, in fact he is certain that his family and friends would be fully supportive and accepting of him. What’s stopping him is that he’s not quite ready for his life to change in the way it inevitably will when people learn the truth about him. He’s not prepared to handle the altered perceptions and the confused emotions that his loved ones will develop when they discover that he has been keeping a part of himself hidden from them for so long and just needs time to get himself there. A part of him is also resentful of the way the heterosexuality has been accepted as the default and that LGBT kids are the ones who have to come out, which the movie pokes fun at in an amusing sequence where we see some of Simon’s friends come out as straight to their hurt, tearful, and unaccepting parents. That scene is just one of the ways in which the film is skilfully able to merge humour with pathos, which is a vital part of what makes Love, Simon so watchable. The movie is capable of being both light-hearted and dark at the same time.

Things start taking a dark turn when fellow classmate Martin (Logan Miller), a nerdy and obnoxious guy who makes it so easy for all the characters to hate him it almost seems deliberate, learns Simon’s secret and uses it to blackmail him. Unless Simon helps him win a date with Abby, Martin will release his emails for the whole school to read. The secret will be out and Blue will retreat and be lost to Simon for good. Simon thus gets himself caught in a tangled web of unrequited crushes and manipulated feelings, leading to much emotional confusion, anguish and chaos among his friends as things spin more and more out of control. Simon himself gets increasingly confounded over time not only by guilt, but also by the nagging question of who Blue really is. The movie gives us plenty of suspects in this mystery, and with them comes all of these looks, statements, and gestures that could mean nothing or everything. Maybe Blue is Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) the friendly jock, maybe he’s Lyle (Joey Pollari) the flirty server, or maybe Cal (Miles Heizer) the musical classmate. Or maybe he’s someone else entirely who Simon has never even given a second thought to. It’s a well-developed mystery and the climatic reveal is satisfying.

Still, even though it might be a little unfair to begrudge this of a film that wants to be a mainstream high school rom-com and does it well, there were times when I wished the movie was more willing to take a few risks. The characterisation of gayness in this film, for instance, is so conventional and inoffensive it could almost be called bland by today’s standards. For the most part Robinson plays Simon in a straightforward, normative manner with his typically masculine looks and physique, even when he’s alone and not putting up a façade; it’s a ‘normal guy who happens to be gay’ kind of thing that they’re going for, which is fine except it also would have been fine ten years ago. There’s a scene where Simon imagines the colourful, flamboyant musical his life might become when he’s out and goes to college, which ends with him breaking the fourth wall to say, “Well, maybe not that gay”. It’s a funny punchline, but it also kind of undercuts what I thought to be the most creative, vibrant and memorable scene in the whole movie. If the movie is really set on breaking ground in the representation and normalisation of gay culture in mass media, why not go all the way with it?

I do also wish that the movie didn’t go to quite as many lengths as it did to show how ‘okay’ it is for Simon to be gay and trusted that the audience would root for him themselves and celebrate his victories without any prompting. There are some moments when showing the other characters’ acceptance of Simon is important, as in one scene between Simon and his mother which Garner knocks out of the park (I now want a movie that’s just Jennifer Garner and Michael Stuhlbarg delivering moving and eloquent monologues to their gay children). But there are others where it feels like the movie is celebrating its own open-mindedness and liberalism more than it is Simon’s arc as a character. While it’s great that Simon is immediately accepted by the school en masse when the truth does finally come out, their active, fervent support and encouragement in his search for Blue struck me as so overzealous that when the climax arrived and we finally see the kiss it’s all been leading up to, I felt like the movie was trying harder to convey its affirmation of the moment than it was the culmination of Simon’s journey. For a movie that repeatedly emphasises how Simon is just like the rest of us, I felt that this overcompensation somewhat detracted from his relatability.

Still, Love, Simon is a movie that Hollywood has needed to make for a long time and its arrival marks an undeniable sign of progress. While recent films like Call Me by Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Colour have already garnered praise for their positive portrayals of LGBT romance, those films were not made for teen audiences nor are they the kinds of films that most teenagers will actively seek out. This film appeals itself directly towards modern teenagers and young adults of all sexual orientations and does so without talking down to them or seeming out of touch. It is a teenage rom-com through and through in that it is sentimental, quaint, and pretty cheesy, which means that those who like those kinds of movies will really like this one. Even those who tend to cringe or roll their eyes when the music starts playing as the lovers embrace each other may very well find themselves moved by what happens between the clichés. For those gay teens and adults who have been waiting for a movie such as this to come along, they, like Simon himself when all is finally said and done, can breath a sigh of relief. This is an enjoyable and heartfelt movie and one that I hope will launch a new wave of mainstream cinema that will feature new and different depictions of LGBT culture.

★★★★

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Ready Player One

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline


When it comes down to it, Spielberg is the only director who could possibly have made this movie, warts and all, and it’s not just because of the monumental role he played in creating the pop culture that the Ernest Cline novel pays tribute to. There is no other director out there who so perfectly personifies the paradoxical ideology at the heart of this film. The central conflict in Ready Player One is that between the ideological artists and fans, united by the passion and regard they share for the cultural icons and artworks of the past, and the soulless, corporate capitalists who seek to exploit those same products and reap the profits. Mr. Spielberg is a champion for both sides. He is a paragon of artistry, a visionary celebrated for his works of sentimentality and imagination that have inspired so much of the nostalgia we feel for 80s and 90s pop culture, but he is also a shrewd businessman, widely credited for inventing the blockbuster and, in turn, the modern, commercial Hollywood machine that systematically recycles familiar, demographically-targeted brands and properties to produce profitable titles. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile this dualism has resulted in his most fascinatingly imperfect film since A.I.

Technically speaking the movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where poor, orphaned kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the stacks’, a district of makeshift towers made up of trailer homes and vans. He spends every waking hour of his day plugged into his VR kit which transports him to the film’s actual setting, the virtual gaming world of OASIS. This is a realm of infinite possibilities where people can be and do whatever they want. You can ski the pyramids, hang out in a casino the size of a planet, or climb Mount Everest with Batman. OASIS is the creation of the late tech genius and pop culture obsessive James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, it was revealed that Halliday left behind a three-part quest to find the Easter Eggs hidden within the virtual world. The first person to find these three keys will inherit full ownership and control of OASIS. Wade, as his avatar Parzival, is one of the hundreds of gamers who have set out to solve Halliday’s puzzle, as are fellow ‘gunters’ Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Another party in the race to find the keys is IOI, an avaricious company led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that wants to gain control of OASIS to exploit its profitability.

Perhaps the single biggest draw this film has is the innumerable crossovers and references brought over from movies, TV shows and video games of the 80s and 90s. The movie is almost like if Wreck-It Ralph were directed by Spinal Tap. It turns everything up to eleven and incorporates so many recognisable characters, items, and sounds that it is impossible to catch them all on the first viewing, never mind to list them. The movie features extended tributes to such films as The Shining and Saturday Night Fever, while other popular titles like The Breakfast Club and Goldeneye (the N64 game) are simply name-dropped. We see such vehicles as the DeLorean and the motorcycle from Akira get used in a virtual race where obstacles include King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, we see the chestburster from Alien and Chucky from Child’s Play get used as weapons, and we get to see more characters than we can count combat each other in battle royales including the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Stormtroopers, the Spartans from Halo and Mecha-Godzilla. These references are all made so abundantly and are featured so prominently, fleetingly, and blink-and-you-missed-it-ly that any viewer who goes simply to enjoy this pop culture edition of Where’s Wally will find no shortage of phenomena to search for.

Therein lies a question though: does the nostalgic amusement park ride through 80s and 90s pop culture ultimately work for the film or against it? Even if we excuse the film for depicting a sanitised, mainstream version of the late 20th century that appeals mainly to the nostalgia of white, American, male ‘nerds’, what do the Easter Eggs actually bring to the film? On one hand, the references are made so indiscriminately and with such little connection to the story that it seems the vast majority are only there for the audience members to point at and say, “I understood that reference”. Even when some properties are given a greater level of focus, little attempt is made to actively explore what it is that fans enjoy about them, which can make its very inclusion feel quite hollow. The counterargument to this however is that the film’s use of pop culture must necessarily be secondary to the story and characters. It’s the narrative itself that we should be paying attention to and the familiar sights that pop up along the way are simply window dressing for fans to enjoy as we get there. Thus when Serenity from Firefly makes its appearance, the film opts not to dwell on it and explain its origin or significance. Instead it trusts that those who recognise it will enjoy it as it is, and those who don’t will simply have seen a cool spaceship. I think both sides are valid, which is partly why Ready Player One is such a mixed bag. While I wish I felt more of an emotional connection to this virtual world, the pleasure of spotting a reference from something you love is undeniable (I could barely stifle my laughter at the appearance of the Holy Hand Grenade).

Another way to look at it is this: does the movie work even if you don’t get 99% of the references featured? Does Ready Player One work on its own terms? Well, it depends on what you want from the film. For those looking for action and spectacle, the movie delivers. If there is one word to describe Ready Player One, it is ‘overwhelming’. Across its two-hour runtime the action is almost non-stop and often mindblowing. There is a thrilling race sequence, a surreal game of cat and mouse through the Overlook Hotel, and an epic, climatic battle that Spielberg masterfully cross-cuts with a chase in the real world. This is one of those cases where the lavish use of CGI is not only excusable, but welcome, since a virtual world such as OASIS is expected to look artificial and the action (at least when it occurs within the game) should be allowed to defy the laws of physics. Spielberg is allowed to push the boundaries of what he can get away with more than with any other film he’s ever made and the scope of his vision (along with trademark cinematographer Janusz Kamiński) is immense. However non-stop action, even when it is exceptionally well done, can only take you so far if there is nothing to engage you on an emotional level (even the two-hour car chase that was Mad Max: Fury Road had to make room for character development and compelling themes). This is where Ready Player One struggles.

As our protagonist the movie gives us Wade Wilson/Parzival, a victim of Harry Potter Syndrome (the movies, not the books) in that he is the least interesting character in his own story. He’s a blandly good-looking, brave and athletic ‘nerd’ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture and of Halliday’s life, which he employs in his quest for the hidden keys. Aiding him is Art3mis, Parzival’s equal in both knowledge and skill who, to the film’s credit, has more of a personality than just that of the love interest even if it still isn’t enough to be worthy of Cooke. With what little she’s given, Cooke proves herself capable of being both badass and sensitive and deserved a much larger role than being the object of a love story that can pretty much be reduced to male nerd wish fulfilment (a beautiful girl with low self esteem who plays video games and falls for the hero). Waithe also does well with her swaggering performance in what could have been a much more compelling role had more time been allowed for her. As an African-American woman playing an ethnically ambiguous virtual man, her character could have provided some genuinely fascinating insights about what it really means to create your own online persona. Halliday, in a strong, (intentionally) awkward and heartfelt performance by Rylance, might be the film’s only fully-realised and fleshed-out character. A subject of reverence and worship in both life and death, the film gradually shows him to be a more tragic and human character in an exploration of his past directly reminiscent of Citizen Kane.

As far as themes go, it’s clear that Ready Player One is not meant to be regarded simply as an entertaining and harmless trip down pop culture memory lane; Spielberg and Cline are trying to say something about the world as it is today and as it might be in a couple of decades. There is a message here about the internet’s capacity to bring us together but also the disconnect it can create between us and the outside world with all its problems. This is conveyed very well in one scene where we see Wade climbing his way down the trailer tower he lives in past all his neighbours whom, as we can see through their windows, are living their own virtual fantasies oblivious to everything that’s going on outside. Still, despite concluding that it is healthy and important for us to spend more time outside in the real world, the film nevertheless seems reluctant to explore the deeper flaws of the OASIS – the darker possibilities of unfiltered content and fantasies, issues with privacy and security, the toxic side of the fanboy culture that this movie so enthusiastically celebrates. The whole idea of this gamer revolution against corporate greed and authoritarianism also feels rather unconvincing coming from a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster, but might have worked had the movie been more willing to explore its own hypocrisies and contradictions.

I really did enjoy this film, all things considered. It is a fascinating film to watch, critique and discuss with others and it’s also an intriguingly relevant film for both the right and the wrong reasons. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to consider how and why it doesn’t work. Some viewers will love it for its epic expression of adoration for nerdy pop culture while others will hate it for its hollow use of 80s and 90s references to score nostalgia points. Some viewers meanwhile will enjoy Ready Player One for the thrilling blockbuster that it us while others will deride it for the empty CGI spectacle that it also is. The movie isn’t any one thing and that is both its strength and its weakness. When it comes down to it, I think Ready Player One can be looked at as an experiment in nostalgia and storytelling. Having seen the result, I think it’s a failed experiment, but an experiment that had to be made and a fascinating one all the same.

★★★

Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★

A Wrinkle in Time

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writers: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell


A Wrinkle in Time is a noble, well-intentioned film with a lot to root for. It marks the first instance of a female African-American director helming a $100 million fantasy blockbuster, it boasts a richly diverse cast, and its central message is about love and acceptance of yourselves and others. Good intentions however do not a great film make, and those intentions can even work against the film when they take precedence over story, character, sensation, and everything else that makes for great cinema. So strong is this film’s desire to celebrate liberalism and to be inspirational that it cannot help but lead its viewers by the hand at every turn and ensure that none of the morals get lost on them. The film is quite clearly targeted at a young audience of 6 to 12 year olds and isn’t embarrassed about it (nor should it be), yet it doesn’t seem to trust them enough to rely on their own imaginations and to learn the lessons through inference. The movie spoon-feeds us its rhetoric so forcefully that its message of empowerment and affirmation loses all power and meaning, making for an unfulfilling watch.

The film tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid), an introverted teenage girl with low self-esteem. She possesses a curious, inquisitive mind and an unfathomable fascination with the world around her that she shares with her scientist father Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared without a trace four years ago. Since then Meg has lived a withdrawn and lonely life; she underperforms at school, has no friends to speak of, and she lashes out when attacked by her bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). While Meg and her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) continue to mourn their loss, her prodigious, six-year-old adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), relentless in his optimism, provides a source of joy and comfort for them both. These early scenes are the most affective in the whole movie as we get a strong sense of the affection that Meg shares with her family and of her adolescent troubles.

Meg soon learns that his father is still alive and that he has been lost in space ever since solving the mystery of the tesseract, a mode of travel that can cross dimensions. She, Charles Wallace, and would-be boyfriend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) are invited to help search for him by three celestial beings. These are Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatter-brained, unearthly woman who hasn’t quite mastered keeping her thoughts to herself, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations attributed to such great thinkers and artists of the world as Shakespeare, Buddha, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who towers over everybody else and looks as regal as a deity played by Oprah ought to look. She reveals that Meg’s father is trapped on the planet Camazotz, home of the dark force known as the IT, and that it is up to Meg to find and rescue him in a journey across time and space.

The adventure that follows however doesn’t feel very adventurous. Meg doesn’t so much set out on a quest as she does get carried along one (by a flying lettuce creature no less), get told what to do, and be reminded at every turn about how special and extraordinary she is. Even when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must make it on their own in the third act, the conclusion still feels far too easy considering the universe-shaking, existence-threatening stakes that were set up. It would be like if Frodo simply flew to Mordor on the back of an eagle with Sam and Gandalf showering him with praise and support the whole way and then ultimately defeated Sauron by learning to love himself. I get that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that in order for a story with a quest to feel like an adventure, a journey with obstacles and trials has to actually take place. There is no sense of urgency propelling them from place to place and no tension in the tasks they must complete. The movie is instead so focused on validating Meg as a heroine and making sure that the children who relate to her are empowered by her victory that it neglects to make the journey itself all that interesting.

If the intention was for Meg to be a passive participant in a fantastical voyage like Alice or Dorothy that would be one thing, but here she is built up to be a chosen one upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. “Be a warrior”, says Mrs. Which, obviously not intended in a literal Joan of Arc sense but rather in an emotional sense, yet still a role that requires Meg to be more assertive and active than she’s allowed to be. The film doesn’t seem to trust that Meg’s positive qualities will make themselves evident to the viewer if displayed through actions and instead must assure us whenever possible that she is a great person capable of great things. Even when her wits and scientific know-how actually help to get them out of a spot when they’re caught up in a twister, the movie still has to stop for a second so that Calvin can remark on how incredible Meg is. Reid for her part delivers a remarkably confident performance and does a terrific job of showcasing Meg as the complex and flawed character that she is. I wish this film showed half as much confidence in depicting her arc.

What’s equally as disheartening is that the film’s visuals and style are shockingly weak given what DuVernay has proven herself capable of crafting as a director with films like Selma. There are some neat looking visuals such as the designs of the three Mrs. Ws and the orange corridor where Dr. Murray is trapped, but then there are others that just look bland and unoriginal. The dark forest where the kids wind up upon reaching Camazotz looks like any other foreboding forest you’ve ever seen. The use of CGI in the cave in the scene with the balancing stones and with the aforementioned flying lettuce creature is so fake looking that they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Disney Channel TV Movie. Even when we get a nice-looking setting like on the planet with the resplendent grass, shimmering lake, and colourful flowers, we don’t get to appreciate them much because DuVernay makes continuous use of tightly framed medium and close-up shots with seldom an establishing shot. The staging of each scene is often so awkward that it almost seems like some of the performers are acting in different films. It was only in the creepy, nightmarish neighbourhood scene where we see a row of children bouncing their basketballs in unison that I was reminded of what a great director DuVernay can actually be.

I really did want to like this film because I like what it’s trying to be. I like the message that it wants to convey, I like that it takes chances and risks and tries to do something a little different, and I like cast and crew involved. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are still fun to watch even in their roles as glorified exposition spouters, Pine continues to prove himself the most versatile of the Hollywood Chrises, and Reid is a star in the making. There’s even a fun Zach Galifianakis cameo to enjoy. I did find Charles Wallace pretty insufferable, but a lot of people seem to like him so maybe that’s just me. A Wrinkle in Time however is simply not a good film. The story is incoherent and not compelling, there isn’t nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance, and the liberal ‘believe in yourself’ rhetoric is so constant, generic, and is hammered in so much that the ultimate lesson loses whatever power it might have had in the original L’Engle novel (which I have not read). I suppose the film is fun enough that it might work alright for its target audience, especially those who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented on screen, and maybe for them that’ll be enough. All that I, a 25-year-old white guy, can really say is that it didn’t work for me.

★★

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons


In the two and a half decades that Hollywood has been attempting to adapt video games into movies, the results have been mixed to say the least, ranging from weak to underwhelming to awful to batshit insane. There are a few in there that are pretty fun to watch despite (or maybe because) of how flawed they are (I would cite Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft as one example of this), but so far there still hasn’t been an all out success. However, I think that Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider has brought us one step closer to realising that dream. It has its flaws, but for me this movie felt life the most competently made, narratively engaging, emotionally affective adaptation so far. The bar is admittedly very low, but I walked from Tomb Raider feeling like I had watched a good, exciting movie that had more thought and creativity put into it than anyone could have expected. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.

Based in part on the 2013 game that rebooted the franchise, the movie follows Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) a young Englishwoman with a privileged upbringing who stands to inherit her father Lord Richard Croft’s (Dominic West) business, wealth and estate following his disappearance. Believing her father to still be alive, Lara refuses and makes a living on her own as a bike courier. In the film’s first action scene we see Lara racing on her bicycle through the streets of London in a ‘fox hunt’. As she navigates the winding streets and dodges all the cars and lorries in her way, her stamina, quick-wittedness, and endurance are put on full display, as is her reckless nature. This incident gets her into trouble and she is bailed out by her father’s business partner Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas), who reasons that the time has come to let her father go.

Upon gaining access to a puzzle box left by her father however, Lara is led by a breadcrumb trail of clues to a secret chamber in the family tomb. There she finds a message from Richard detailing his research into Himiko, a mythical queen who was said to possess extraordinary powers over life and death. Richard, anticipating that this expedition may get him killed, warns Lara to destroy his findings and not to come searching for him. There are no prizes for guessing what Lara does next. She sets out for Hong Kong in search of her father and hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), captain of the Endurance, to escort her across the Devil’s Sea to the island of Yamatai. On the way there, the ship gets caught in a violent storm and Lara is swept away and washed ashore. There she is found by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the leader of the expedition to locate Himito’s tomb and the man responsible for her father’s disappearance. Lara escapes and, lost and alone on the forbidding island, she must survive the perils of the jungle and learn the truth of what lies within Himito’s tomb.

In the game that provided the basis for this film, a greater emphasis was placed on Lara Croft’s character than in previous games and Vikander does a wonderful job of bringing her to life. This Lara is a more emotional person than action heroes are usually allowed to be. The affection she feels for her father is strongly evident, as is the pain she feels in his absence. She is both intelligent and sensitive and those are both sides of her character that the film is as keen to explore as it is her strength. The first time we ever see her kill a man, it is a moment that upsets her on a deep, personal level and she isn’t able to shrug the deed off the way that a more standard, one-dimensional action lead would be able to. It’s fairly typical of action films with female leads to try and make their protagonists stronger and tougher (i.e. more masculine) by giving them the clichéd personality traits we’d expect from a strong and silent killing machine like those Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to play. This movie however puts more thought into its main character’s emotional experience and presents the act of killing as an event that actually matters to someone who feels empathy.

Vikander also delivers an intense and committed performance, making you feel the physicality of every blow she’s dealt and every muscle she strains. What sets Lara Croft apart from, say, Wonder Woman is that she doesn’t have the strength or the constitution to overpower her opponents with ease. The movie thus has to devote much deliberation into figuring out how a woman can plausibly win the upper hand against foes who are physically bigger and stronger than she is and finds the answer in her speed, tactical thinking, endurance, and grit. This is indicative of the level of thought and the attention to detail that the previous Tomb Raider movies lacked and makes for a more compelling film where the physical and emotional experience of its main character is more visceral and more deeply felt. There are a ton of great action scenes that follow, the best of which for me was when Lara gets swept away in a river and narrowly avoids going over a waterfall by clinging herself to a rusted Second World War fighter jet hanging precariously over the edge. Her delivery of “Really?” as she sees the plane start to fall apart is worthy of Indiana Jones.

The movie does have its shortcomings here and there. There are a number of supporting characters who show promise in their first scenes but who never really get the chance to shine. Goggins, who is usually irresistibly enjoyable and wildly charismatic when he plays villains, is pretty forgettable as Vogel. A man who has spent years away from his family in search of Himito’s tomb and has lost his humanity somewhere along the way, there is a tragedy to the character that the movie never finds the time to explore. Another is Lu, a character who suffers from the same abandonment issues as Lara (having lost his own father in that same expedition) and who forms a non-romantic relationship with her built on shared experiences and mutual respect. He is pretty much sidelined in the film’s third act. There are also issues with plotting as the film takes a while to get going and is wont to drag when there isn’t some action taking place.

Still, even putting aside the standard set by video game movies, Tomb Raider is an overall well-made and often thrilling film. It has an emotional core in Lara’s journey as a character and her relationship with her father, and that gives the movie a point of focus that is so often lacking in these adaptations. The absentee father is no stranger to films of this type (even Indiana Jones tackles this theme), but it feels fresher here for having a daughter as the protagonist rather than a son. The efforts of Vikander and West also play no small part in making the story feel that little bit more affective. There is more effort at work in this film than was needed and it pays off not only in Lara’s character and story but in the action scenes as well. While there is still a ways to go before video game movies cease to be a cinematic punch line, Tomb Raider shows that the potential is definitely there. It is compelling, action-packed and surprisingly touching and it also brings to life one of pop culture’s most iconic and badass heroines.

★★★★

Peter Rabbit

Cast: James Corden, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley (voices), Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill

Director: Will Gluck

Writers: Rob Lieber, Will Gluck


Peter Rabbit, a modern adaptation of a beloved British children’s literary classic, is inevitably going to draw comparisons to Paddington. The latter is a charming, enjoyable film that was able to depict an updated version of the Michael Bond stories while retaining and respecting what people loved about them in the first place and that offers something for children and grown ups alike. Peter Rabbit is none of those things. Not only is this film entirely devoid of charm, wit, and wonder, it unapologetically flies in the face of everything that made the Beatrix Potter stories so appealing. The movie is so obnoxiously deaf to the quaint, pure, profusely British tone of the source material that those who made it ought to be ashamed that they had the audacity to attach this mockery to the same name. If there is one things that disgusts me about this clueless, insufferable travesty above all else, it is the thought of young children being taught that this abominable caricature is an accurate representation of what Potter’s original stories stood for.

Here Peter Rabbit is irritatingly voiced by James Corden (although it would be more accurate to say that the character is James Corden as James Corden as Peter Rabbit as James Corden). He plays Peter as a smart-talking, troublemaking rascal but comes across less as the Artful Dodger and more as Alex DeLarge, a nasty, deceptive, narcissistic sociopath committing juvenile acts with reckless abandon. We first meet him as he and his posse, made up of his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley respectively) and their cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), hatch a plan to sneak into Farmer McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden to steal his vegetables. While there Peter cannot resist the urge to try and insert a carrot into the unsuspecting farmer’s exposed rear end, a prank that ends up triggering a fatal heart attack. McGregor dies and Peter, celebrating his victory without an inkling of remorse, invites all the woodland animals into the empty house before the unfortunate old man’s corpse is even cold to run rampant and feast on vegetables all day long.

Their revelry is brought to an end however by the arrival of Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), the distant nephew who inherited McGregor’s estate not long after losing his job at Harrods. Thomas is a neurotic city boy who cannot abide chaos or messiness and hates everything about the countryside. His sole intention is to clean up the house, sell it, and use the profits to start his own toy shop to rival Harrods. He reinforces the estate’s security to keep intruders out, leading to an all out war between himself and the woodland creatures involving electric fences and dynamite. The neutral power in this war is Bea (Rose Byrne), presumably a surrogate for Beatrix Potter considering that she is an artist whose work evokes the watercolour illustrations of the books. She lives next door to the McGregor farm and simply adores Peter and all the other animals, but she soon develops a bit of a soft spot for Thomas as she gets to know him and they start spending time together. A jealous Peter thus devotes himself towards destroying Thomas and banishing him from the land.

I wish this film could have just been about Bea and Thomas because Byrne and Gleeson actually work really well together. Both actors try their utmost to bring some layer of appeal to this film and they almost succeed in the brief moments when they are alone together without this detestable CGI pest butting in to make everything about him. She is a compassionate, nurturing figure with a talent for seeing the best in everybody and he is a rigid, obsessive buffoon whose heart is gradually warmed by her presence. Both actors put real feeling and effort into their performances and their chemistry is undeniable. I daresay the two could even have made a half-decent film together about the lives of Beatrix Potter and her husband William Heelis were they not too young. Their quirky countryside love story however is trapped in a crass, abhorrent, shamelessly puerile farce with digital animals and there is nothing either actor can do to save it.

I shudder to think what Potter might have thought had she seen this incarnation of her most beloved character. Peter Rabbit, a mischievous but lovable creature, resilient and brave but also impulsive and childish, a boy who gets wiser as he grows older and learns from his mistakes, and a model of the Edwardian morals and sensibilities of Potter’s generation, is reduced here to an amalgamation of James Corden’s personality and 21st century millennial tropes. This is a Peter who twerks, sings a song written by the guy from Vampire Weekend (because James Corden can never not sing under any circumstances whatsoever), and makes leaves of lettuce rain as if he were a rapper in a strip club. He’s also utterly loathsome from start to finish; he is one of those characters who simply has to be the centre of attention no matter what, is unbearably full of himself, and is indiscriminately horrible to all around him, friend and foe alike. He manipulates and exploits his loved ones, looks out for his own interests above all else, and is incapable of empathy and reason. The final straw for me was the film’s infamous allergy scene, not because allergies are off limits in comedy, but because it’s the scene that truly shows this Peter for the irredeemable piece of trash that he is.

Peter Rabbit is just an awful, awful film. It has an attractive duo in Byrne and Gleeson and there is the occasional laugh, but the pros don’t even begin to make up for the cons. For every decent joke, there are five that range from obvious to crude to stupid. Even then, I feel I could have gone along with more of those jokes were Peter himself not so excruciatingly horrible. Anytime I feel like I’m about to be drawn in by Bea and Thomas, Peter rears his ugly CGI head in and kills the moment dead. Never before have I wanted to punch a rabbit in the face so badly. The film is gaudy, low-brow and obnoxious and is nothing less than an insult to Potter’s memory. There is one scene in the film where we see a flashback recounting the deaths of Peter’s parents which adopts the style of Potter’s illustrations and matches her tone. It is the only scene in the entire film that I liked and, by showing me just a glimpse of what this movie could have been, it made me accordingly hate the rest of the movie even more. The adults who grew up with Potter’s timeless works and the children who have yet to be introduced all deserve better than this.

Call Me by Your Name

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Writer: James Ivory


As I was watching Call Me by Your Name, an Oscar winning film that has been almost universally lauded as a landmark of LGBT cinema, one of the things that struck me the most was how far the movie transcended the same-sex quality of its love story. The fact that the two lovers are men is significant and plays an important role in defining their relationship, but the story is ultimately a coming-of-age romance and that simple distinction allowed for a movie that defied what I’ve come to expect from gay cinema. For example, as this film progressed I spent a good deal of time anticipating the obstacle that would inevitably conspire to drive the two lovers apart. Maybe it would come in the form of disapproving parents, a spurned and jealous ex-girlfriend, or maybe an intolerant culture and community. But that never happens, because that’s not what this movie is about. Call Me by Your Name is really a story about self-discovery, sexual awakening, and first love.

Another way that this film subverts expectations is that it doesn’t really have a plot. The movie progresses at a leisurely pace that Guadagnino advances bit by bit with the meticulous patience of a sculptor as it transitions between scenes without appearing to drive itself along any clear narrative line. There is no tangible objective, journey, or force pushing things along, the film simply moves from moment to moment and lets them play out in their own time. The scenes more or less blend into one another the same way that long summer days often do and the cuts between them are motivated more by emotion than they are by events. The movie is set in the summer of 1983 in an idyllic, eternally sunny region of northern Italy and mainly follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). Elio often finds himself bored by the summer and tends to spend his days reading, playing the piano, and picking fruit. He lives with his Jewish-American father (Michael Stulhbarg), a professor of archaeology, and Italian mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their country home. Despite his youth, Elio is well-read and a musical prodigy and possesses an intellect and wit beyond his years. He is also awkward and insecure, but has learnt to hide his anxieties behind a mask of sophistication.

Every year his father invites a student to spend the summer with their family to assist him with his academic research. This year he invites 24-year-old American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver is tall, handsome, confident, and charming; he is everything that Elio isn’t (or doesn’t believe himself to be). Oliver also has a largely carefree personality. He is effortlessly likeable and attractive to many of the Perlmans’ friends and he has a typically American habit of abruptly ending conversations and leaving the dinner table with a nonchalant, “Later”. He and Elio, finding that their personalities somewhat clash and that they haven’t got much in common, are initially prickly towards one another. Nevertheless they are drawn to each other: testing each other out, pushing out against one another, and wondering what the other thinks of them. Elio at first doesn’t know what to make of Oliver with his casual demeanour and may not even realise at first that what they are doing is flirting. There are looks and caresses that he doesn’t know how to interpret and feelings that he seems reluctant to confront. Over time however Elio does become acutely aware of his attraction to Oliver, thinking of him while he masturbates and sneaking into him room to smell his clothes. Before long Elio and Oliver confess their feelings to each other and embark on a sexual relationship for the remainder of the summer.

The chemistry that Chalamet and Hammer share is electrifying. With the help of Guadagnino’s direction, the two are able to convey a clear attraction that grows and develops over time without ever actually speaking about it until around an hour in. It’s in the way that Oliver’s touch triggers a sensation throughout Elio’s entire body. It’s in the tension that emerges between them as they chat by the pool or on their way into town, as in one scene where Elio relates a night-time rendezvous with his (sort of) girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) in order to gauge Oliver’s reaction. It’s in their exchanged glances and expressions. When we see Oliver with Elio, the way that he looks and composes himself suggests that the 24-year-old understands what is happening better than the 17-year-old, but is hesitant to do anything about because of some unspoken taboo (in this case the taboo has less to do with being attracted to a young man than it does with being attracted to an inexperienced 17-year-old virgin). When they do finally speak openly about the attraction and start acting on it, it is the culmination of all the pent-up emotions they’ve felt to this point and it feels organic and earned.

The love they share is tender and intimate and there is an agonising beauty to the way that these two characters, who have both kept a part of their true selves hidden from even the most important people in their lives, are able to be truly open and free when they are alone together. This is best encapsulated in the moment that gives the film its name when Oliver lies in bed with Elio, looks deeply into his eyes, and says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine”. It is a bittersweet love they share, not only because they have to keep it a secret, but also because they both realise that it cannot last. Again, this isn’t something either of them says out loud, it’s something that they just feel and we feel it as well in the long takes and the moments of silence. It is a romance that makes itself all the more intensely felt to the viewer because Guadagnino and Ivory do not shy away from showing Elio and Oliver in their most erotic and vulnerable moments, most notably in the film’s controversial and remarkable peach scene.

The beauty of it all is complemented perfectly by the setting and the way it is shot; seldom a close-up is used in this film because Guadagnino wants us to appreciate the scenery and its relation to the characters. The images he and cinematographer Mukdeeprom create are utterly sensual. The sound of leaves gently rustling in the breeze, the look of the water and sweat on everybody’s bare bodies, the warm reds, oranges, and yellows of the Italian sun; all of these are captured with such realness and intensity that it’s almost like we’re actually there. It manages to look sublime and picturesque without also looking artificial. The sights, sounds, tastes, odours, and textures, they all feel tactile, which in turn combats any sense of idealisation or inauthenticity. What we are essentially watching is a memory of a summer long since past and what we see is supposed to be an embellishment of that time, but not to the point that everything seems too perfect. This is a memory that evokes as many feelings of pleasure as it does pain and sadness, and the film’s visual style matches that perfectly.

The romance does ultimately reach an end, as it must, and it is as heartbreaking and poignant an end as one could imagine. When it all seems like it might be too much for Elio, his father reaches out to him with an exquisite monologue that Stuhlbarg delivers eloquently and heartrendingly. The sentiments he shares with his son are as beautiful as anything else we’ve seen or heard in this film and could have been the ideal way to conclude the story if not for the epilogue that follows. The final image we see of Elio is allowed to linger for several minutes as the credits roll and it allows for a full summation of all the emotions that have been felt by him throughout, the deep effect that whole summer has had on him, and the impact his relationship with Oliver has had on the man he will one day become. Call Me by Your Name is an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of love and growth and is one of the most profound and moving films of 2017.

★★★★★

Red Sparrow

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons

Director: Stephen Lawrence

Writer: Justin Haythe


With the recent explosion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the subject of feminism has never been more public and pertinent. A greater demand is being made for the increase of female representation in cinema, for more stories about female empowerment, and for more honest depictions of patriarchal oppression. Wonder Woman is one recent movie that pulled this off wonderfully with its inspirational story and strong, compassionate protagonist that brought a distinct and heretofore lacking female perspective to the Hollywood blockbuster. The inevitable downside is that some of the films that rise up to champion the feminist cause will end up being either bad films, bad feminism, or both. Red Sparrow is such a movie; it has marketed itself as an erotic feminist thriller about how female sexuality can be used both as a weapon against men and as a means of emancipation and it falls short of the mark.

Red Sparrow is set in modern-day Russia, where it is somehow simultaneously 2018 and 1962, and depicts the physical and psychological ordeals of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a former prima ballerina whose career has come to a sudden and gruesome end, leaving her alone and unable to provide for her ill mother Nina (Joely Richardson). She is approached by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking member of the Russian secret service, who offers her work as a spy. After agreeing to what was supposed to be a one-time job that ends up going badly, Dominika is faced with a harsh choice. She must give herself completely to the Russian state and become their tool, or else she’ll be executed. Thus Dominika is sent to the Sparrow School where she is taught the ways of seduction and espionage.

Her instructor is the pitiless Matron (Charlotte Rampling) and her classmates are all young men and women who were similarly hand-picked for their cunning, resourcefulness, and physical attractiveness. They are told that their bodies now belong to their country and that they must use them to seduce those who hold the secrets that the government desires. Dominika is made to endure humiliating trials and traumatising attacks, including exposing herself before the class, watching hours of violent pornography, and being prepared to sexually service men of all deviancies and perversions such as paedophiles and rapists, in order to become the perfect spy. Her first assignment is CIA agent Nick Nash (Joel Edgerton), an operative with an asset, code-named Marble, in the Russian government. Dominika is to seduce Nick and learn the identity of the mole.

The movie is graphic and violent by design but too much of it feels sordid and exploitative. Obviously the point of portraying such ordeals is to demonstrate Dominika’s fortitude and it does so on the logic that the more uncomfortable the movie can make us feel, the more we will want to root for her. To the film’s credit, it is very good at making these scenes uncomfortable. I remember wincing at least twice, once during the opening ballet performance where Dominika’s leg is broken and again in a later scene where a character has their skin flayed. The problem however is twofold. For one thing, the movie is so unrelentingly and blandly violent that these scenes become monotonous and gratuitous. Secondly, there is something deeply unsettling about the way the movie lingers on the violence as it is committed on women, as opposed to men. There is one scene where Dominika sneaks up on a man and woman in the shower and attacks them with a blunt object. The man is dealt with promptly, relatively cleanly, and with little attention brought to his nakedness. The woman is fully exposed and her beating is brutal and prolonged. It’s not the violence itself that’s disturbing but the way that the violence is so specific to the female victims and their bodies, as in another scene where we see the mutilated corpse of a woman lying in a bathtub.

I cannot help but think that this is the result of having a male director at the helm. While I don’t agree with the notion that men are incapable of creating great feminist cinema (I would cite Mad Max: Fury Road as a recent example), it seems to me that Stephen Lawrence was unable to escape the male gaze he possesses and that it has proven detrimental to the story he was trying to tell. This is evident in the film’s use of nudity as well, as in one scene which is supposed to be empowering for Dominika and humiliating for one of the male characters. Here Dominika is completely nude while the man remains fully clothed and, even though the man is the one who is supposed to be totally vulnerable and defeated in this moment, the camera cannot help but fixate on Lawrence’s nudity, keeping one of her breasts in view the whole time. Once she gets to work on her target, Dominika sports some skimpy clothing, including an absurdly revealing swimsuit, which makes sense given that she’s trying to make herself look irresistible to Nick, but the way that the camera leers at her, inviting the audience to ogle her, tells us that the film is more interested in her body than it is in her experiences.

Even with the movie’s problematic relationship with feminism taken out of the equation, Red Sparrow is by all means a dull, uninspired film. Its 140-minute runtime is exhausting given the sheer banality of the plot and punishing given the unyielding prominence of its violent content. Lawrence and Edgerton have so little chemistry in their scenes together that they could both have been played by mannequins. Whatever intrigue there is between them at the start dissipates as soon as the masquerade between them is dropped, which happens far too soon, and the romance that follows is as passionless as it gets. When the question is raised over whether either of them will betray their country for the other, neither can muster enough affection to justify their seeming vacillation. Occasionally there is a British star with a vaguely Russian accent to liven things up such as Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling or Ciarán Hinds, but there is only so much any of them can bring in their limited screen time.

This was a difficult film to get through and not for the intended reasons. There is clearly some kind of feminist statement being made as we watch this woman use her sexuality to combat the misogynistic adversity she faces and to create an identity for herself to replace the one imposed on her by the patriarchy, but it gets lost in a movie that has no idea how to portray physical and sexual violence against women in an introspective, tactful way (and I say this as a man; I cannot even imagine how grotesque these tortuous scenes must feel for a woman). The movie is as soulless as the hackneyed caricature of Soviet/Putinist Russia it portrays; all we get is viciousness, misery, and the barrenness of a harsh winter. It is a consistently unpleasant film throughout and it offers no reward or fulfilment for those who manage to endure it.

I, Tonya

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writer: Steven Rogers


I, Tonya has a well-chosen title. It evokes a phrase that one might hear in a court of law when a statement is given (“I, Tonya, do solemnly swear…”). It suggests a declaration that the testimony we are about to hear shall be given in the named party’s own words and will be the truth as they understand it. That right there is pretty much the premise of this movie. It is a construction of the major events in Tonya Harding’s life based on a series of contradictory, self-serving, irony-free interviews conducted with herself, her ex-husband, her mother, her trainer, and her bodyguard. Somewhere between their varying accounts, the film suggests, is the truth behind the ‘incident’ that ruined Harding’s career and reputation but the film is less interested in learning what that truth is than it is in giving each key player a chance to tell their version of the story and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion.

We meet Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a young girl (played by McKenna Grace) who is compelled to ice skate by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney). As she grows, she is trained exclusively by her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and is poised to pursue a career as a competitive figure skater. As a young woman she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and, much to her mother’s disapproval, marries him. Tonya comes to regret her elopement as the marriage soon becomes abusive. It isn’t long before Tonya distinguishes herself as a professional skater, becoming the first American woman to complete the triple axel jump in competition, but finds that the judges disapprove of her ‘white-trash’ persona. After a humiliating loss at the 1992 Olympics, Tonya prepares to give it one more shot at the 1994 games. This leads to the so-called ‘incident’ where Tonya’s main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) suffers an attack organised by Jeff and his friend, Tonya’s incompetent bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser).

Gillespie has managed to capture this very particular tone with I, Tonya that could very easily have backfired, one that is able to accommodate both dark comedy and profound earnestness without seeming inconsistent. He allows these characters to speak about what happened in their own words, cutting between dramatic re-enactments and footage of the interviews (albeit, recreated with the actors in their place) and manages to be funny and serious in all the right places. There is a lot of mocking, so much so the film almost borders on parody, as the movie takes shots at the ostentatious, superficial standards of competitive figure skating, the incompetence of those who take part in the ‘incident’, and the fashion and culture of the early 90s. Yet, when the film wants us to feel sympathetic for Tonya, for her difficult upbringing and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, for the uphill battle she had to fight to be taken seriously as a professional sportswoman, and for the way the press and the world at large turned so antagonistically against her without knowing the full story behind the ‘incident’, it does so with complete sincerity.

Robbie is a force of nature as Tonya. She plays the role with the grit and attitude of a scrapper who has had to fight for everything in her life and has had obstacles thrown at her at every step of it. She has the confidence of a champion who is the best at what she does and is at the top of her game and the steeliness of someone who learnt at too young an age that she would need a thick skin to make it. Beneath all that is a buried layer of wretchedness and self-hatred that comes from the years of physical and emotional abuse she has suffered. Matching her blow for blow is Janney as Tonya’s curt, ruthless mother who decided long ago that her daughter would be a champion and is prepared to push her there even if it kills her. She is constantly insulting her daughter (as well as anyone foolish enough to cross her) and manipulating her to get her into the right competitive mindset. The character is a little one-note, but when that note is being played by a pro like Janney that’s alright by me. The comic highlight for me though was Hauser as Eckhart, a man so impossibly delusional that I refused to believe he was a real person until they showed his actual interview over the credits.

One of the interesting things the film reveals about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is how little Nancy herself had to do with any of it. She barely features as a character in this story and, once the whole ‘incident’ starts to take shape, it becomes clear that she was neither the first, second, third, nor the twentieth reason why the attack actually happened. There were other factors at work, some spontaneous and some years in the making, that led up to this moment. There was the pressure that Tonya felt to become a champion in a sport that was biased against her. There’s the impulsive nature of her husband, his emotional hold over her, and his tendency to solve his problems through aggressive means. There’s the truly inspired stupidity of Eckhart and the goons he hires and their extraordinary ability to screw up their tasks to such a remarkable degree that even Mr. Bean would blush with shame. There’s the way that the press and public, hungry for a sensational story, tried to pit the working-class, uneducated, trailer park girl from Oregon against her pristine, princess-like adversary in a rivalry that neither competitor really felt. The movie does such a good job of bringing all of these different elements together, it is able to make the eventual result feel somehow unpredictable yet inevitable.

I, Tonya is also a wonderfully structured film that is constantly jumping between timelines, changing perspectives, and cutting to talking head pieces without slowing down. There are quirky transitions, fourth-wall breaks, and narrative-stopping digressions, kind of like The Big Short, but the movie never feels like it’s being gimmicky for the sake of being gimmicky. All of these devices play into the idea that this a story being told in the words of those who were involved. In one scene Jeff is describing an incident where Tonya chased him out of their house with a shotgun, an incident that plays out in front of us only for Tonya to pause halfway and say to the camera that this never actually happened. In another the movie takes a moment to take explain to us exactly how the triple axel jump works and why it’s such a big deal, then it allows us to appreciate the moment that Tonya actually performs it in slow-motion. The ice-skating scenes are quite riveting to watch, largely due to the film’s decision to cast a professional skater to perform the challenging routines and pasting Robbie’s face over hers. This means the movie never has to resort to distracting editing or camera tricks in order to compensate for the actress’ limited skills. We get to see these feats performed in clear, unbroken shots.

You wouldn’t think that a movie like this could be that emotionally effective, but by hearing Harding out and depicting her story in her own words without irony, without judgement, and without hostility, the movie was able to bring everything together into a sympathetic portrait of a woman who has suffered her own share of injustices. What we see may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but that’s not really the point. The movie is really about things like competition, class, abuse, sensationalism, and scandal. It’s about a woman who had the odds stacked against her because she came from the wrong background and was unfairly maligned and cast as the villain in the story that unfolded, not because she was guilty or culpable it what happened, but because that’s what the people wanted her to be. Here you see what the whole affair was like from Tonya’s perspective and in the end when she bursts into tears upon being banned from professional skating, it’s as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll see in any other sports movie.

★★★★

Lady Bird

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig


Lady Bird has a note-perfect opening scene that accomplishes more than some movies do in their entire runtime. It features the titular Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sitting together in a car. They are on their way back to their home in Sacramento after visiting a state university and are both in tears as they listen to the final seconds of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath audio book. In that brief moment they are emotionally in sync with one another, but that changes as soon as they start talking about Lady Bird’s future. Despite her mother’s wish that she go to an affordable in-state college, Lady Bird is impatient to leave Sacramento and travel to someplace like New York, “where the culture is”. This erupts into an argument that Lady Bird ends by jumping out of the running car. It sets exactly the right tone, packs so much humour and conflict in the mother-daughter exchange, and ends in such a jarringly unexpected way that if Lady Bird had ended up being nothing more than a five-minute short film, I still would have been satisfied.

There’s plenty more to come though. We next see Lady Bird being fitted with a cast on her arm and proceed to follow her as she completes her final year at school. Over the course of that year Lady Bird joins the school’s theatre programme with her best friend Julie (Beannie Feldstein), she dates two guys, good-mannered Catholic boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and rebellious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and loses her virginity, and she conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to Columbia behind her mother’s back. She also learns a few things along the way, like how much her family is struggling financially ever since her father was laid off, forcing her mother to work double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, and how much she still has to learn about life, love, and herself. This is not a plot driven story; it works more like a chain of short episodes in the life of 17-year-old Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, on her passage into adulthood, detailing the lessons, troubles, and pleasures she experiences along the way.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and based largely on her own experiences as a Catholic teenager in California, there is a definite sense of time and place to this film as well as a strong authentic voice. The film is set in 2002, where people are still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it’s just one of many reasons why Marion is so apprehensive about her daughter moving to New York City) and where the modern digital age hasn’t quite fully arrived yet. By setting the film in her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig is able to create a backdrop that feels both lived-in and intimate, partly through her use of impeccably-cast character actors such as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leave sound, memorable impressions in their few minutes of screen time, and also through the investment in detail that could only have been provided by one who has lived this life. From the subsiding middle-class lifestyle that the family lives to the Catholic rituals practiced at the school to the specific atmosphere of the city of Sacramento in 2002, the film is filled with features from Gerwig’s life that she is able to depict in a personal and familiar way with a few little touches.

The key relationship at the heart of this film is that between Lady Bird and her mother. Far from the docile Irish girl she played in Brooklyn, Ronan is utterly boisterous as the restless, defiant Lady Bird. As a character who is impatient for her life to begin but still doesn’t quite understand that she doesn’t yet know what she doesn’t know, Ronan hit that perfect balance between acuity and naiveté and is able to be sensitive and vulnerable while still being impulsive and imprudent. Metcalf meanwhile plays her exasperated passive-aggressive mother with a truly profound sense of world-weariness and maternal affection in equal measure. That she loves her daughter is never in doubt, but she doesn’t always know how best to express it and oftentimes doesn’t have the patience for her teenage angst on top of everything else she has to deal with. There is a scene near the end that focuses squarely on Metcalf’s face for a prolonged, unspoken take in which her performance reaches a moving, heartbreaking peak. In their scenes together the mother and daughter are constantly playing jump-rope with the line between familial harmony and antagonistic quarrelling, as in one moment where they go shopping together and switch from having a heated argument to cooing over a pretty dress in one second flat.

Lady Bird is a thoroughly enjoyable film full of humour, insight and heart. It can occasionally be a little too repetitive and is sometimes a little evasive when faced with a moment that threatens to be too hard-hitting or upsetting. But then that evasiveness is pretty characteristic for a film where the main character throws herself out of a moving car in order to escape an argument with her mother. While I cannot fault a film for being true to its own character, there were still one or two moments where I would’ve liked to see Gerwig follow a moment through and see where it led. Anyway, none of that is a slight against the many things that the film does well. Lady Bird treats its story with much honesty and authenticity, Ronan continues to shine as one of the best young actors working today and brings much humanity and warmth to what is often an unlikeable character (and ditto to Metcalf), and the film at its best is irresistibly funny and affective. I hope this will be the first of many films in Gerwig’s career as a director.

★★★★