Tuesday, December 22, 2020

REVIEW: News of the World

If you thought the film industry would put a halt to the traditional period epic Oscar contender in the wake of widespread theater closures, think again. Paul Greengrass' 19th century western "News of the World" arrives in the nick of time for the December holiday season. And yet, it could also be appropriate to say that it arrives too late, representing entertaining but old-fashioned filmmaking that feels like an outdated throwback to the prestige films of the past.

Set in the post-civil war South, "News of the World" follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a war veteran who now makes a living from touring through small towns to read the latest newspapers to captive audiences. During one such trip through Texas, he stumbles on a young girl (Helena Zengel) alone in the wild who is unable to speak English. Upon reviewing documents accompanying her, Captain Kidd learns that she is of German descent but was taken by the native Kiowan people after her family was murdered. Further instructions reveal a surviving aunt and uncle, her only remaining family. Feeling obligated to protect her, Kidd embarks on a journey to brave hostile terrain and humans alike to restore her to civilization.

Adapted from a novel and mounted on a grand scale with a lovable movie star, "News of the World" is indeed a throwback to the classic adventures of yesteryear. From Dariusz Wolski's glorious wide shots, to James Newton Howard's heartstring-tugging score, to its unchallenging screenplay, there's a familiarity to its storytelling. And with Greengrass at the helm, the requisite shootouts and environmental dangers are depicted with his trademark intensity.

While the virtuosity of the production values will leave you feeling nostalgic for the Golden Age epics, the film is perhaps even more resonant as another relic of old Hollywood - the star vehicle. In her first American role, Helena Zengel's tenacity will surely be praised as a revelation (despite recalling the same unruliness displayed in 2019's "System Crasher"). But it is Tom Hanks' noble screen presence that will captivate audiences and smooths over some of the screenplay's flaws. Namely, there's a simplistic morality of the screenplay that leads to predictability and a lack of complexity to the film's obvious heroes and villains. Furthermore, it fails to fully reckon with the economic and racial tensions of the time period and setting.

And yet, there's a sense of comfort that comes from witnessing a story so carefully crafted around an actor's persona. From the very first scene, you know he'll do the right thing and win your heart. Heroic westerns may be going out of style, but a good Tom Hanks performance is timeless.

Monday, December 21, 2020

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman

There are some films so original and daring in their concept and execution, that it takes a while to process what you've just seen. Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young Woman" is one such film. In this debut feature from actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell, the #MeToo movement gets one of its most provocative cinematic statements, mixing scathing social critique with irreverent, cheeky wit. 

"Promising Young Woman" is the story of Cassie, a former medical school student with a bright future ahead of her. In the aftermath of a traumatic experience, however, she has left her big dreams behind. But while she is now seemingly drifting through life without purpose - to the chagrin of her parents with whom she lives - she has secretly committed herself to an unusual path to recovery. By day, she works in a humble coffee shop. But at night, she masterminds salacious encounters with men, thus transforming into a conniving femme fatale. 

Indeed, you've never seen Carey Mulligan like this before. After her breakout role as a naive schoolgirl in 2009's "An Education," the diminutive actress has become known for her delicate vulnerability. As Cassie, however, she is force to be reckoned with, weaponizing her beauty to thrilling ends. 

Challenging our expectations is truly the hallmark of Fennell's impressive filmmaking here, as she takes the kind of audacious risks that could make or break careers. In addition to Mulligan's against type casting, the opportunistic men she encounters are a recognizable array of unassuming "nice guy" personalities and nerds, including Superbad's Christopher Charles Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson of "Veep" fame. And as Mulligan's Cassie embroils them in your mysterious plot to right the wrongs of the past, an ingenious soundtrack of boy crazy pop anthems adds a touch of hilarious irony. The costume design further adds to the fantasy, with Cassie donning a slew of disguises like a shape-shifting superhero. 

Keeping us guessing and entertained all the way to its mindblowing ending, Fennell's stylistic choices would seem frivolous if it weren't for the trenchant social commentary embedded within the narrative. Under Cassie's well-adjusted veneer is a woman whose life is forever traumatized as a result of an experience with sexual abuse. And through her interactions with other characters, the script highlights the ways rape culture persists in society in the form of victim-blaming, wilful denial and the silence of women and men alike. Most importantly, it reminds us that the unbalanced power dynamic will almost always favor men, even in the face of formidable women like Cassie and the brilliant writer-director who envisioned her.