PREVIEW: December 2021

We are now entering the final month of 2021, and I cannot wait for Christmas!!! Having had some weekends away in November, I am playing catch-up slightly – reviews for Drive My Car, Encanto, House of Gucci and Pirates will land within the next few days. I also have some cinema trips lined up for December, including Blue Bayou, Boxing Day, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Final Account, The King’s Man, The Matrix Resurrections, Spider-Man: No Way Home and West Side Story. I will endeavour to publish as many new release reviews as time permits, as well as some festive content and more instalments in my ongoing (and sporadic) series of Apprentice posts.

Thank you as always for visiting this blog, and for the month ahead I – as always – wish you Happy Reading and good health, and for this month I also wish you a Happy Christmas!

FILM: King Richard (2021, Reinaldo Marcus Green)

"Theatrical release poster": A father embraces his two daughters. Underneath them is the tagline: "Venus, Serena and a plan for greatness".

Following its premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, biopic King Richard is distributed by Warner Bros. Set in the early-mid 1990s, the film depicts Richard Williams (Will Smith) of Compton and his efforts to train his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to become great tennis players. After Venus is accepted into Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal) Tennis Academy, it becomes clear that she is ready to go pro, but Richard stubbornly refuses to let the 14-year-old reach that stage as it does not fit with the long-term plan he had drawn up for his daughters, which causes all manner of conflict within his home.

PROS

  • Screenwriter Zach Baylin pens an emotional, character-driven narrative which examines the importance of family and accepting as a parent that, no matter how well-intentioned you are, you will not always get it right, whilst also celebrating the art of tennis and the unifying power of sport that transcends generation, race and social class. Baylin also successfully avoids many clichés of the biopic and sport genres.
  • Whilst Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are natural talents and have excellent chemistry, thereby being believable as sisters, but the real star of the show is Will Smith, who completely transforms into the role of Richard Williams, giving a nuanced and emotional turn that is his best since Ali.
  • The production and costume design departments do a great job of recreating the look and feel of the early-mid 1990s, whilst cinematographer Robert Elswit frames the film very nicely, his deft hand being most visible in the exquisitely shot and edited and intensely directed tennis matches.

CONS

  • Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and Zach Baylin often pull their punches with depictions of gang violence and racism, meaning that several scenes lack the shock value, grit and intensity which they could otherwise have had.
  • There is a noticeable lack of characterisation for the majority of the supporting characters, a number of whom have significant roles to the lives of Richard and his daughters, whilst several supporting cast members do not get utilised to their full potential, including Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn and Dylan McDermott.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Finding Angel (2021, Kim Seong-joon)

Finding Angel (2021) - MyDramaList

Finding Angel is a South Korean festive drama film. For the last 17 years, an anonymous donor has left a donation box in a small town, this supposed angel resultantly becoming a local legend. Investigative journalist Ji-hoon (Park Sung-il) moves to the town to learn more and hopefully get the chance to interview the donor. However, he is not what he claims to be and ultimately has an ulterior motive for coming to the town.

PROS

  • Whilst none of them are outstanding, the cast all do a perfectly fine job and several of them have good chemistry with each other.
  • There are some charming moments of genuine warmth and sincere heart scattered throughout the film, and some good chuckles here and there.

CONS

  • The narrative often has a real soap opera feeling to it and generally lacks focus, resulting in weak characterisation.
  • Director Kim Seong-joon unsuccessfully tries to utilise genre clichés from a plethora of genres, including romantic-comedy and action.

VERDICT: 5/10

FILM: Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021, Jason Reitman)

Lightning cracks from dark green clouds. People get out of a battered 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Sentinel below and look on.

Supernatural science-fiction/comedy film Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the third film in the original film’s timeline/franchise (which does not include the all-female remake). When Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis via archive footage) dies, he leaves farmland in Oklahoma to his long-estranged family, and they move there due to their financial problems and recent eviction. Whilst his daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) resents being there, his science-obsessed granddaughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) discovers all of his equipment from when he was working as a Ghostbuster during the 1980s. As she investigates alongside her brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and friend Podcast (Logan Kim), she realises that Egon had reluctantly given up everything to move to Oklahoma in order to prevent ancient eldritch Gozer the Gozerian (Olivia Wilde) from returning. But with other ghosts about and Gozer being a powerful being, can they ensure that all of his hard work and sacrifice was for nothing?

PROS

  • Despite a slightly rushed and clunky opening, the screenplay makes for a fun and entertaining film as it is suitably fast-paced from there with a good balance between comedy and mystery, and witty gags and clever slapstick concepts, whilst also keeping the focus primarily on the characters.
  • Jason Reitman shows his versatility by directing with a different type of energy to his usual lower-budget projects, whilst his passion comes through in the heart of this film and the genuinely heartfelt tribute to Harold Ramis which he crafted beautifully in the final minutes of the film.
  • An altogether good cast, with Paul Rudd being his usual dependable self where comedy is concerned, but the real star being Mckenna Grace who once again proves to be a natural talent as she brings lots of nuance to Phoebe and makes her a multi-layered character.
  • Very creative designs for the supernatural and non-human beings with good detail levels, whilst the visual effects are very eye-catching and stand out well as they bring real chilling life to these beings (the only ones not chilling or sinister being the countless tiny Stay Puft Marshmallow Men).

CONS

  • The explanations for when Egon sacrificed everything and moved to Oklahoma in relation to his work in New York with the Ghostbusters and when he left Callie is replete with plot holes and inconsistencies.
  • Whilst high energy, the climax does get quite convoluted as Jason Reitman has a plethora of different concepts that he brings to the table. Although they are good, he does not allow enough time for the climax, so all of them are wrapped up in a very rushed manner.
  • Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver have cameos which simply feel shoehorned in for the sake of it, whilst Olivia Wilde and J.K. Simmons are poorly utilised.

VERDICT: 7/10

TELEVISION: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier logo.png

American miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is part of the ever-expanding media franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and aired on Disney+ for 6 episodes. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is devastated when Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) decides that it would be wrong for him to take over the Captain America mantle from Steve Rogers and retire the shield. The American government are on the same page as Bucky and appoint John Walker (Wyatt Russell) as the new Captain America, and when he and his best friend Battlestar (Clé Bennett) team up with Sam and Bucky to stop the Flag Smashers – an anti-patriotism group who believed the world was better during the Blip – it becomes apparent that John is wrong for the role. It also becomes clearer to Sam that Steve was right to want to him to be the new Captain America, but his ultimate reservations ultimately end up stemming from his realistic understanding of race relations in the United States.

PROS

  • Each episode has a number of entertaining moments when the focus is on Sam and Bucky’s dynamic, which is as well-written as ever and takes on interesting new aspects around their views on whether Sam should be the new Captain America.
  • Whilst the political aspects of miniseries as a whole are a mixed bag, the absolutely outstanding one concerns whether an African-American should be expected to symbolise and stand for a country as racially-divided and with a history as problematic as that of the United States.
  • Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are once again great in their now most iconic roles, throwing themselves in with great physicality and have an excellent chemistry with each other. While Wyatt Russell and Clé Bennett throw themselves into it, the standout supporting cast member is Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley, who brings the aforementioned political aspect to the forefront in a truly powerful performance.
  • Kari Skogland directs every episode and keeps a consistent style, and her skills shine the most in the fight scenes, which are magnificently well choreographed and slickly edited, being of the same quality as those of the Captain America films The Winter Soldier and Civil War.

CONS

  • Several of the more political moments are not well written and neither is John’s arc as he goes from arrogant wannabe hero to outright antagonist and then on to a redemption arc in too short a space of time.
  • The Flag Smashers are an underwhelming antagonistic force as they are not realised well, have a rushed arc and the majority of their members receive the bare minimum characterisation.
  • The screenwriters get increasingly distracted as the miniseries progresses as they try to set up plotlines for future Marvel Cinematic Universe projects, whilst also failing to utilise James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), relegating him to a mere cameo appearance.

VERDICT: 7/10

TELEVISION: WandaVision (2021)

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American miniseries WandaVision is part of the ever-expanding media franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and aired on Disney+ for 9 episodes. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and a mysteriously-resurrected Vision (Paul Bettany) start an idyllic new life in West View, New Jersey, which is in the style of classic sitcoms and cycles through different eras at a breakneck pace, but things start to permeate it. This is because the truth is that this new life and world they live in has been created by Wanda’s telekinetic powers in her efforts to cope with her grief, and the West View residents are those she is holding hostage inside a static barrier. Meanwhile, outside the barrier, S.W.O.R.D. works to find a way to end Wanda’s reign of terror and free the citizens, aided by FBI Agent Woo (Randall Park), Air Force pilot Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), but its director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) has his own sinister intentions.

PROS

  • Matt Shakman directed all 9 episodes and keeps a clear focus on characters, but he most truly deserves to be praised for the fact that he used a plethora of different directorial styles to successfully recreate the styles of various sitcoms, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family.
  • The screenwriting team not only do a very good job of recreating the styles of various sitcoms that makes the West View scenes very creative and quirky, and in the early episodes do an excellent job of creating a mystery and presenting a puzzle that viewers piece together with characters. Speaking of whom, they also do a great job of making this miniseries character-focused.
  • Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are excellent co-leads, with the former especially giving a multi-layered turn. They are backed by a good supporting cast, the standouts being Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Fred Melamed and their fellow returning Marvel Cinematic Universe cast members Kat Dennings and Randall Park.
  • The production and costume design departments do an excellent job of recreating the classic sitcoms that the miniseries pays homage to, whilst the visual effects are of the same high standard of those found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

CONS

  • The S.W.O.R.D. scenes lack the creativity of the West View scenes, whilst Hayward’s becoming the antagonist was highly predictable rather than a shock twist.
  • As the miniseries progresses, it becomes increasingly tough to root for Wanda or to sympathise with her, and it is simply wrong to paint her as a tragic hero in the finale.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Petite Maman (2021, Céline Sciamma)

Official poster

Fantasy-drama Petite Maman is distributed by Pyramide Distribution, following its premiere at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. When the grandmother of quiet 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) passes away, she and her parents (Stéphane Varupenne and Nina Meurisse) go to empty the country house. As Nelly processes her loss, her visibly struggling mother goes AWOL. Whilst exploring the woods behind the house, Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and quickly realises and accepts that she is in fact her mother as an 8-year-old. The pair become instant friends, and Nelly grasps that this is her chance to understand her mother better and see her beloved grandmother (Margo Abascal) one final time.

PROS

  • Whilst as ever her direction is incredibly nuanced and has a very intimate focus on character, Céline Sciamma has to be praised the most for conceptualising and creating a film within France’s lockdown restrictions.
  • Céline Sciamma’s screenplay is a beautifully nuanced blend of ghost story, family drama, time travel and exploration of bereavement, and throughout her focus remains on the very multi-layered characters, giving both Nelly and the young Marion clear emotional arcs.
  • It was a masterstroke by Céline Sciamma to use Nelly’s coming to understand her mother to convey to audiences that many adults’ mental health struggles ultimately stem from their childhoods.
  • The story is truly timeless due to its microscopic focus and wonderful sense of childlike innocence which viewers of all ages can relate to, the only thing which could indicate a time era being a car – other than that this film could have been made as long ago as 1950.
  • A unanimously strong cast, with Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz proving to be remarkably natural talents. These sisters were the perfect casting choice – they are highly similar in their mannerisms and personas so one instantly knows that the characters are related, yet have just enough slight differences that the two characters could not be mistaken for twins.
  • Cinematographer Claire Mathon gorgeously captures autumnal colours and shoots everything from Nelly’s eye-level, framing everything for younger viewers’ convenience, and this helps bring all viewers into her world.

NITPICKS

  • The film is only 72-minutes-long, and every single moment is used as near-flawlessly as is possible in the film industry, but because of how good this film is it is impossible to not want more.

ADDITIONAL COMMENT: I cannot emphasise enough how astonished I was that a film so short and innocent could be so nuanced and have such emotional impact.

VERDICT: 10/10

Top 5 Candidates of The Apprentice Series 5

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Continuing my (sporadic) series of Apprentice posts in the (several month…) run-up to the long-awaited return for the UK Apprentice, I am now revisiting the one which saw Margaret Mountford serve as a boardroom advisor for the final time – Series 5 of the British Apprentice, the final one in which Lord Sugar was still merely Sir Alan and before the prize was a business partnership. Gosh, that was a long time ago! Originally airing from March-June 2009, 15 candidates entered to win a £100,000 a year job within Sir Alan’s business empire. Why 15? Because the sixteenth candidate pulled out the day before filming began because he apparently could not face being away from his family (personally I do not think he suddenly remembered that he had a family, rather that one of his friends phoned him and said “You’re going to be on TV? I bet you’ll make a right fool of yourself!”). Of those 15, some naturally stood out more than others and with presences that I liked more than others. It is worth clarifying that these are my favourite candidates rather than the candidates who did best (or showed the most competency). Before writing on my Top 5, there are some who just missed out, so here are the…

Honourable Mentions

  • Lorraine Tighe (4th): an interesting candidate as she had fantastic instincts, but her awkward nature unwittingly rubbed her teammates up the wrong way.
  • Howard Ebison (6th): a genuinely lovely and gentle guy, which is always needed in a programme so full of egos.

5) Philip Taylor (9th)

If ever there was a candidate who should have come with subtitles then it is Philip! The most Geordie man imaginable, estate agent Philip entered the process with bags of confidence and bravado, but he started off well – he designed a fantastic piece of fitness kit in Week 3 (which he patented and sold successfully after the series aired!), stood up for Lorraine when others spoke ill of her and had a wholesome bromance with Maj. Things went downhill after Maj’s firing – he conceptualised “Pantsman” in Week 5, had a fool’s win as Project Manager in Week 6, and let the fact that he was smitten with Kate distract him in Week 7…which contributed to his firing that week. Despite his arrogance, he was enjoyable to watch due to his huge personality and energy.

4) Kate Walsh (Runner-up)

Eventual runner-up Kate stood out very early on in the process as she was a good saleswoman and negotiator, had a good logistical head on her shoulders and to this day remains easily one of the most expressive candidates in Apprentice history. Bringing bags of energy to every task, with the exception of Week 7 where she failed to sell a thing and let Philip distract her, she was a strong contributor on every task and led her team to a well-earned victory in Week 5 (the marketing task)! Even her slip-up in Week 7 was not enough to stop people from considering her a real contender, and by the final she had shown a wealth of skill and business acumen. Kate lost solely because she was less daring than Yasmina, and frankly that was wrong – she deserved to win instead!

3) Ben Clarke (7th)

Northern Irishman Ben undeniably threw himself into every task and grafted with lots of energy, and he did yield some good results, including good quality cleaning work in Week 1, strong sales figures in Week 4, a great branding concept in Week 5, and invaluable use of his initiative in Week 7. He was cheerful and upbeat, but he was aggressive at times and left people feeling especially browbeaten in the boardroom. Furthermore, he was rather arrogant and boasted a lot about how he achieved a scholarship to Sandhurst at aged 16. In fact when Ben brought it up yet again during his fourth and last time in the final boardroom in Week 9, Sir Alan got so fed up that he crossly said “Don’t start banging on about bloody Sandhurst again. I was in the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, Stamford Hill division, trainee bugler, but it didn’t make me sell computers when I got older!” – much to the amusement of us the viewers! Ben was far from a perfect candidate, but he had some good qualities and was great entertainment value!

2) James McQuillan (5th)

Although Ben provided entertainment value, James did so to an even greater extent! James gained himself a reputation throughout his 11 weeks in the process of being a bit of a joker as he did display a lot of wit and made people laugh – for which his teammates generally became very fond of him. James could also be very funny even when he did not mean to be, such as when his team were being grilled after losing in Week 2 and he accidentally insulted Sir Alan in a bumbling manner that was so hilarious that even Sir Alan could not conceal a laugh! Bumbling would describe James quite accurately, but the bumbling joker was a bit of a façade – he was one of the most experienced candidates and was a good Project Manager (despite losing twice, Margaret Mountford was impressed with his abilities both times), showed solid business acumen, had instincts and common sense that others did not (particularly regarding smaller details), and could negotiate and present well. Plus, he was a genuinely lovely guy, and after being fired (with regret) in Week 11, his fellow semi-finalists all cried…that has never happened before or after.

1) Debra Barr (3rd)

Debra made her presence very much known in the early weeks of the process as she was an excellent saleswoman and negotiator, conducting herself with a far greater air of maturity than one would expect from a 23-year-old, and won as Project Manager in Week 3. But she could also be very blunt and incredibly argumentative with her fellow candidates…and in Week 6 she even had a go at Nick Hewer in the boardroom, leading to Sir Alan jumping to his old friend’s defence and angrily rebuking her. However, after this she changed her ways and started treating everyone with far more warmth and dignity, whilst displaying far more humility as well – as with Series 3’s Jadine Johnson and Series 4’s Claire Young, it was wonderful to watch Debra go on a real arc, learning and changing through the process, and she proved that she was a serious contender! By Week 10 it became apparent that Sir Alan, Nick and Margaret had become very fond of her and, after Debra was given the most friendly and reluctant firing ever in Week 11, Sir Alan confided to his aides that he may have just made the biggest mistake of his life in letting her go.

FILM: Spencer (2021, Pablo Larraín)

Spencer (film).png

Following its premiere at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, psychological drama Spencer – a self-described “Fable Based on a True Tragedy” – is distributed in UK cinemas by STXfilms. With her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) having become enormously strained in recent months, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is dreading spending Christmas 1991 with the entire Royal family at Sandringham House. During the stay at the grand country estate, Diana’s ongoing struggles with her mental health continue and are exacerbated by the need to follow regulations and formalities, as well as the lack of freedom that she has as a royal family member. Seeing herself as a modern-day Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), Diana longs for the simpler time prior to her marriage when she was a Spencer, a longing which is exacerbated by the fact that her long-abandoned childhood home is next door.

PROS

  • Screenwriter Steven Knight does not romanticise Diana or the Royal family as so many other screenwriters would have, but instead examines some of the more devastating aspects of Diana’s personal life whilst highlighting some of the most difficult aspects of being a Royal.
  • Director Pablo Larraín brings a deft hand and nuanced style as he crafts something rather magnificent, and he shows real maturity as a director as he trusts his viewers to spot the small details which will help them differentiate between reality and Diana’s hallucinations.
  • Kristen Stewart gives a career-best performance which is multi-layered and rich in nuance, her raw emotion and vulnerability being absolutely captivating to watch, as is her accurate capture of Diana. She is well supported, the standouts in the supporting cast being Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins and Sean Harris.
  • Featuring exquisite production and costume designs and having been gorgeously shot on film, Spencer looks and feels like something from the early-1990s, making it an even more immersive experience and far easier to suspend disbelief, and cinematographer Claire Mathon’s deft skills are just as at home with intimate character-focused scenes as sweeping shots of the country estate.

CONS

  • Whilst their performances as Princes William and Harry are good, Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry are too old to pass for ages 9 and 7 respectively.
  • The final few minutes of the film are tonally inconsistent with the rest of the narrative and it simply feels like Pablo Larraín was uncertain as to how to wrap up the film.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Cry Macho (2021, Clint Eastwood)

The film's logo above Clint Eastwood in a cowboy hat and the tagline: "A story about being lost... and found."

Neo-western Cry Macho is adapted from N. Richard Nash’s novel and distributed by Warner Bros. Set in 1980, retired rodeo star Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood) is approached by his former boss Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). Howard asks Mike to travel to Mexico City and bring back his long-lost 13-year-old son Rafo (Eduardo Minett), to which he agrees. After collecting Rafo and his pet rooster, Macho, they end up staying in a village for a little while and befriend local restaurateur Marta (Natalia Traven), with whom Mike begins to bond.

PROS

  • The film has genuine warmth and heart in both its screenplay and direction, with Clint Eastwood’s passion for the project coming through in the latter.
  • A good cast, with Clint Eastwood’s performance feeling age-appropriate with the right amount of gruffness and grit, and he has a good chemistry with Eduardo Minett and Natalia Traven.
  • Excellent use of scenery and good production design give the film period authenticity and is framed nicely by cinematographer Ben Davis.

CONS

  • The narrative has some pacing issues, at times feeling somewhat sluggish, whilst there is also a lack of any real urgency.
  • The film feels very restrained as it lacks grit and intensity, and this includes moments of potential life-or-death situations.
  • While his performance is good, Eduardo Minett looks far too old to convincingly pass for a 13-year-old.

VERDICT: 6/10