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.