What Movies or Shows Have You Seen Recently?

It’s awards season and I am watching all the nominated ones…

I read nothing about Aftersun (2022) and went to the cinema because I enjoyed watching Paul Mescal in Normal People. I came out shaking my head, feeling totally underwhelmed by the movie. Then I popped into a used CD shop just outside the theatre and the guy manning the store was particularly chatty. He asked me what I have just seen and how I felt about it. I told him what I thought. He replied that I was not the only one. Apparently, Eric Khoo, a local director (Mee Pok Man, Tatsumi) also found it unsatisfying. But like an elusive virus that refuses to die, the movie continues to whirl in my mind for many days and then I got it. Aftersun is an unusual narrative in that it doesn’t focus on the huge emotional beats but on the spaces between them, amplifying them in a defiant way. Then it happened… I fell in love with it. It took me a while but I got there eventually and appreciated the unique storytelling. I think it helps to understand what the writer-director Charlotte Wells is attempting here before you check this out. The story is about Sophie trying to reflect on the shared joy and private melancholy of a holiday she took with her father twenty years earlier. Memories real and imagined fill the gaps between as she tries to reconcile the father she knew with the man she didn’t. So essentially the story is told from Sophie’s point of view, but yet there are scenes where she isn’t present. There is one that is particularly interesting - the father carries an asleep Sophie and puts her to bed. Then he goes to the balcony to do some stretching and smokes. The scene goes on for longer than necessary and on hindsight I now understand that it is an adult Sophie trying to fill in the blanks with a particular memory. Memory is a theme of the movie and so is empathy. The scene resonates with me because that’s how I think about my dad who has passed away, not through a shared experience but through an imagined sequence. Mescal gave an understated but resonant performance but I don’t think he stands a chance against the “loud” performances by the other actors nominated in the Best Actor category. The revelation here is Frankie Corio as Sophie. Their chemistry is lovely and palpable. This is a great movie but it seeks a particular type of matured audience. I am so glad I got it in the end and I am definitely watching this again once I get my hands on the blu-ray. There are movies that compel you to see it again after you get the whole picture; Aftersun is one of them. There are also brilliant movies that you can only see once. The next one is one of them.

The Whale (2022) is about a reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher attempting to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter. This is very much a chamber piece and feels very much like a one-locale play. Darren Aronofsky’s even chose an aspect ratio that makes Brendan Fraser filled almost the entire screen. Don’t shoot me please, but I don’t think this is a great film. It is a film filled with a few outstanding performances but the message is lost somewhere inside the blubber. It is content to put the spotlight on an extremely obese man, making him look like a “monster of the week” sideshow, but it offers little in terms of a redemptive arc. This is a movie that just wants to press all the hot-button issues, but has nothing to say. However, the movie soars on the wings of a couple of stupendous performances, namely Hong Chau’s and Brendan Fraser’s. To me, Fraser’s performance doesn’t court pity but shows you a side of a man who eats his way to get himself out of a bout of misery and melancholy till a point he can’t stop. This is a superb comeback film for him and he has gone for broke here. How I wished the film is a better one with a central message that rings true and I particularly find the daughter annoying and undeserving of anything good. To me, she is the devil incarnate. This is a movie that one watches to appreciate Fraser’s sensitive performance.

Elvis (2022) chronicles the life of American music icon Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), from his childhood to becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The first time I saw this I gave up after 15 minutes. Then I had to watch it again because it is a Best Picture nominee. My complaint isn’t with Austin Butler, the actor totally disappears into his role and he is a dead ringer for Presley in terms of his looks, mannerisms and speech patterns. My complaint is two-fold - I couldn’t stand Tom Hanks’ thankless character and for once he couldn’t garner any positive sentiment from me. I found his character grating, the equivalent of scratching your nails on a blackboard. My other complaint is with Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic stylistics. He just doesn’t allow any scene to breathe with authenticity and his stylistic signatures are everywhere. His brand of operatic excess cinema can work on the right project like Moulin Rogue! (2001) but with a story about a music icon I find his bombastic approach distracting, but I take nothing away from Austin Butler’s performance; this is a sit up and see me performance and he will go on to great things. But my money is on Brendan Fraser for Best Actor because what a fairytale that would be.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) is about two lifelong friends who find themselves at an impasse when one abruptly ends their relationship, with alarming consequences for both of them. The movie is measured and richly layered, offering sharp wit in one instance and in a heartbeat switching to heartrending melancholy. The gorgeous Irish scenery works as brilliant counterpoint to a friendship going thermal nuclear and the explosions happening across the channel works a superb metaphor to what is happening in the foreground. There is zilch false note in this film and even the casting is marvellous. We already know the remarkable chemistry between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson from In Bruges (2008), but Kerry Condon as Padraic’s long suffering sister and Barry Keoghan as a mentally challenged kid are spectacular. Farrell, especially is exceptional in a career best performance. A wonderful film I will want to see again in the comfort of my home. At first, I was sure this would be my choice for Best Picture but my logical brain informs me that the Academy seldom rewards films like this with the big prize, but that isn’t a slight against it.

Tár (2022) is set in the international world of Western classical music, centring on Lydia Tár, widely considered one of the greatest living composer-conductors and the very first female director of a major German orchestra. Todd Field’s Tár is a brilliant character study of a narcissistic music conductor. Field’s skill in withholding information and trusting the audience to fill in the gaps and connect the dots is a lost art in a world where audience are constantly spoonfed by expositional dumps. The movie demands focus and patience from the audience and you will be rewarded if you demonstrate the two pre-requisites. In the theatre I was in, a woman walked out and didn’t return. She didn’t know what she missed. I have always loved narratives where the storyteller respects the intelligence of the audience but frankly it isn’t a tough job to concentrate here because Cate Blanchett is phenomenal. To witness her performance is to see magnificence. The movie didn’t need to beg me to give it 100%, I was practically kneeling in front of the screen, completely mesmerised by Blanchett’s stupendous performance. Watch out for a single take of a scene of her berating a music student in Juilliard - that scene is practically a teacher-student scene in Whiplash but done in killer poetry. If there is a false note for me, it has to be the final act where some crucial scenes are withheld and with it some of the catharsis was lost for me. It is going to come down to Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett for Best Actress and my money is on Blanchett but my heart is on Yeoh.

The Fabelmans (2022) is loosely based on Spielberg’s childhood growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen. A young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret, and explores how the power of movies help us see the truth about each other and ourselves. This is a very personal film and you will definitely come away with the feeling Spielberg is at times laying his heart bare. But I find myself kept at a distance from the story and it took me till the middle act to get behind the story. The sudden discovery of filmmaking is quite magically portrayed and there are many grace notes peppering the entire film, the best for me has to be the last scene. I turned to Choo and excitedly whispered we saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) recently, but I doubt she remembers. In the great pantheon of films about the love for cinema, The Fabelmans won’t be one of them but it just might land up a great film about the love for filmmaking.

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Continuing my journey through the Oscar nominated films…

Women Talking (2022) completely skipped the theatres here and for good reason. The cinema chains probably thought it wouldn’t sell. The women of an isolated religious community grapple with reconciling their reality with their faith. Through the backstory, we see a community of women come together to figure out how they might move forward together to build a better world for themselves and their children. Stay and fight or leave. They will not do nothing. The synopsis sounds exciting, but this is essentially a talking heads movie, with lots of them debating their place in a world dominated by men. It sounds dry and boring; it isn’t. The skill on display is evident - a superb sense of place and time with a propulsive pace littered with witty humour throughout. These women laugh as hard as they cry. I love the dialogue and the screenplay handles so many hot-button issues like gender identity, religious freedom and even sexual liberation without feeling like it’s an information dump. This is testament that a densely themed movie can be exciting. I can see why this is nominated as Best Picture - it is woke with a pulsating pulse and it screams importance. I doubt it stands a chance against the favourites but it has a strong chance for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Triangle of Sadness (2022) is social hierarchy turned upside down, revealing the tawdry relationship between power and beauty. Celebrity model couple, Carl and Yaya, are invited on a luxury cruise for the uber-rich, helmed by an unhinged boat captain. What first appeared instagrammable ends catastrophically, leaving the survivors stranded on a desert island and fighting for survival. I have followed Ruben Östlund’s career since Force Majeure (2014) to The Square (2017) and he has been sharpening his cinematic skills and I am glad to say Triangle of Sadness is him at his zenith. This Palme d’Or winner is a damn funny movie and I laughed till my eyes were tearing up. The hilarious thing is that at some point you will realise you are laughing at human behaviour that you see every day and perhaps you are even guilty of. This is a satire of the highest class. Great satire knows how to draw laughs in the most unusual ways and suddenly makes you realise you are laughing at yourself. The last act does lose some momentum but I was still guffawing like nuts at the reversal of the roles in the social hierarchy. At first the ending felt like a slap to my triangle of sadness (the first scene will tell you which part of the human anatomy this is - I thought it was somewhere else :laughing:), then when I let it simmer I realise the director was letting us complete the ending. It’s audacious and very clever. A worthy Best Picture nominee but it will not win the big one. One advice - it’s probably not a great idea to watch this with a full stomach. You will understand why in the second act.

Close (2022) is a nominee in the Best International Feature Film category. Leo and Remi are two thirteen-year-old best friends, whose seemingly unbreakable bond is suddenly, tragically torn apart. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Lukas Dhont’s second film is an emotionally transformative and unforgettable portrait of the intersection of friendship and love, identity and independence, and heartbreak and healing. The sensitive movie is buoyed by two outstanding performances by two boys. Their friendship feels so precious and palpable. I find myself rooting for them and it harkened my mind to think of some of my childhood friends and how precious those friendships were. You wouldn’t realise at that moment but years later you will dawn on you that you have never known friendship like this. So it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see the boys’ friendship starts to disintegrate, not for any major reason but mere peer pressure and the cruel rites of passage. I find myself mapping out the plot and then it lays on a surprise in the second act. From that moment onwards the movie goes on a straight path with no surprises or twists. That’s not a slight against the movie but I was in the mood for something that would surprise me. Interestingly, a friend of mine likes this and he is the only friend I know who watches more movies than me. I am guessing he was watching this movie through the eyes of a father and that can most certainly give you an big emotional wallop.

That’s it for the Oscar nominated films and normal transmission will transpire from this point onwards…

She Said (2022) tells the story of New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor who broke one of the most important stories in a generation - a story that helped ignite a movement and shattered decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault in Hollywood. Boy do I love investigative journalism stories. When done well like Spotlight (2015) and All the President’s Men (1976), they can inspire you and make you goddamn pissed at the system, but She Said moves like a frigid and insipid mess when it should be cracking and angry. This is the story that practically moved the objectified women of the world to speak up against sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, but the movie moves with little sense of urgency, place and time. Information dumps occur every few minutes that feel so contrite and I never got the fist-pumping catharsis I wanted. Really… all the brave women who came forward to speak up against Harvey Weinstein needs a better film that this.

Bergman Island (2021) revolves around an American filmmaking couple who retreat to the island for the summer to each write screenplays for their upcoming films in an act of pilgrimage to the place that inspired Bergman. As the summer and their screenplays advance, the lines between reality and fiction start to blur against the backdrop of the Island’s wild landscape. If you are Ingmar Bergman fan, this movie is practically a special feature for the humongous Bergman boxset by Criterion. I wouldn’t mind making a trip to Faro for a tour of Bergman’s inspiration for his movies. The premise is cool but it doesn’t know where to go from there. It starts to flounder amiss all the Bergman worship, then much later on it hinges on an idea where the woman starts to tell her husband her idea for a story. The lines of reality are blurred as we see an enactment of the story idea she thought up. It had elements of a Bergman film but it doesn’t quite become one. It eventually hits an ending that doesn’t feel earned and simply ambiguous. Choo wasn’t sold on this when I told her what the ending meant. This is a story with a cool premise but it needed to be cooked longer before it’s served.

Clerks III (2022) is about how Dante, Elias, and Jay and Silent Bob are enlisted by Randal after a heart attack to make a movie about the convenience store that started it all. I watched this on a blu-ray and before going into the main menu it actually shows an appreciative Kevin Smith selling the idea that buying a disc beats streaming it. If you ever need an impetus that buying physical media is still relevant in these times, this is the video you should see. His arguments are absolutely valid. I will always have fond memories of watching Clerks (1994) at the defunct Picturehouse. Went in with no expectations and I came out with a silly smile. With a shoestring budget, Kevin Smith managed to break cinematic taboos and came out with something so slice-of-life, so irrelevant and yet so heartfelt. Clerks II (2006) couldn’t hit the same spot and Clerks III (2022) doesn’t come close too with jokes that feel off and simply unfunny. However, it’s an ending that feels earned and generally heartfelt. Underneath all the side characters that took too much runtime, Smith finally zeroes in on Dante and Elias’ friendship which has always been the heartbeat of the movies.