Spencer

Written by Taylor Baker

82/100

Neon is seeking to follow up its Parasite success with Oscar 2021 hopeful Spencer. Which details a few days in the life of Princess Diana played by Kristen Stewart over a Christmas holiday. It’s Pablo Larraín’s second project of the year following his 8 episode 400 minute adaptation of the Stephen King novel Lisey’s Story, which starred Julianne Moore alongside Clive Owen, a welcome sight to those fond of Children of Men. Larraín is on the surface repeating the process that led to Jackie, one of 2016’s best films which had arguably the best performance by a lead actress that year. It starred Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy following the death of her husband and president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Spencer, though it omages to the tragedy of Diana’s death, is instead interested in her life, uniqueness, spirit, and maddening situation. Our first glimpse of Diana as played by Stewart shows her lost driving by herself to the Christmas family gathering. At one point she pulls into a Fish and Chips restaurant and asks the cashier and everyone if they can tell her where she is. “There’s no signs.” She says defeatedly. It’s a charming introduction that not only puts us on her side but makes us love her, just a little bit.

The film proceeds forward with an abrasive encounter with Allistair Gregory played deviously well by Timothy Spall, whom most may know as Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail from the Harry Potter films. In which Diana must have her weight recorded before joining the family for sandwiches. We get the sense that Spall’s Gregory is a nefarious force, perhaps one of the many surrounding the royal family that we’ve all heard tell about. Diana’s dresser Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins seems to be a lone voice of friendship in the callous halls of Windsor until she is unceremoniously and without warning sent back to London.

It’s little moments like this and larger ones, such as when her curtains are sewn together or she must put on the same pearls her husband bought for his mistress that we feel frustration and helplessness alongside her. Her very identity seems quashed by the routine and demands of being a royal when all she seems to want is her father’s worn coat and her boys. It’s no wonder to us as an audience as the film continues why she would resort to cutting herself an instance or purging herself in another. She seems to lack control over everything, so she’s asserting order where she can.

Larraín’s team is comprised of top talent working cohesively toward one vision. Jonny Greenwood serves as composer of the film, his score underlays the film with emotionality. Timed perfectly to build anticipation, and where appropriate suspicion. Claire Mathon who recently collaborated with Mati Diop on Atlantics and Celine Sciamma on both Petite Maman and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is cinematographer. Using depth of field and exterior landscapes to enormous effect. And if that wasn’t enough Larraín reteams with editor Sebastían Sepúlveda for their fourth collaboration.

Spencer as Larraín tells us at the very beginning before it starts is “A fable from a true tragedy.” Which cleverly divorces itself of the need to be as accurate and flawless in detail as Jackie had been and audiences would doubtlessly have demanded. Its interest and success lies in watching Stewart turn in arguably her best performance, which enthralls and affects equally. This performance is one of our eras finest, it’s asides with Sean Harris’s Chef Darren and Hawkins’s Maggie are rueful moments of joy that don’t seem cheapened by fictionalization, they instead seem like flourishes that bring Stewart’s depiction of Diana the person to life. Despite all the film’s dourness when Diana comes to mind I’ll think of her as she was at the end of this film, looking into a canal with her boys behind her eating fried chicken.

Spencer Trailer

Spencer is currently playing in limited theatrical release.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Godzilla (2014)

Written by Nick McCann

88/100

I don’t think Roland Emmerich fully understood the gravity of his situation. When he made his own Godzilla movie back in 1998, he not only took advantage of the name for his own gain but left a sore legacy. The box office bombing, critical panning, and fan backlash of that film gave little hope that we’d see another American production touch the property. But as time went on and others tried to get something going, Legendary Pictures finally got a reboot rolling. Although avant garde in many ways, it still delivers immense satisfaction.

Godzilla doesn’t immediately go for the throat compared to other blockbusters. The script loves to twist certain conventions on their head, tease the monsters and build up for massive payoff. Combined with Gareth Edwards’ direction, the film builds suspense and realism the likes of which we haven’t seen much of in monster movies. I would even say it’s got the Steven Spielberg touch of wonder and intrigue(including some fun homages). At the same time, you feel an earnest respect for the character and what he stands for. Some aren’t going to get on board with this rendition of Godzilla wherein he is not constantly in sight or the sparse destruction presented, and that’s fine. But if you’re patient and willing to let it play out, you’ll be well rewarded.

This execution of the familiar Godzilla story finds itself a lot more character focused. I quickly grew to like the characters , they may seem like a typical ensemble but their parts are well defined and performed superbly by the cast. Bryan Cranston is the stand out, throwing it all on the table he’s our solid emotional center. Sadly he isn’t around for too  long but the impression is made and lasting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also makes for a capable protagonist, Elizabeth Olson nails believable reactions, David Strathairn is a refreshingly likable military leader and the always excellent Ken Watanabe fits like a glove. The most important test to the cast’s durability is that they can each say Godzilla’s name straight-faced and not have it be silly.

Which brings us to the king himself. Godzilla! His look retains the classic design while going for something more nature inspired. The special effects team realizes a grounded (and sometimes personable) Godzilla for modern audiences. His two opponents in the M.U.T.Os aren’t too shabby either. Their looks, abilities and overall characterization as a pair give them their time to shine in the wide range of Toho’s monster stable.

Whether alone or all together, these creatures seem to be able to bring the house down. The focus on build-up makes the set pieces feel gratifying and weight. They manage to find ways to have our human characters get suddenly caught up near or in the middle of the monster attacks, further giving the situation a realistic viewpoint. The ace in the hole is the cinematography, making liberal use of street view and the feeling of being someone in the middle of it all. These monsters feel massive and the damage they cause is more impressive because of it.

Sound design shouldn’t go unnoticed either. Godzilla’s new roar, the various combat engagements, buildings crumbling, explosions. Everything has an audible power. Alexandre Desplat delivers a brilliant score. There may be a lack of the classic Toho theme cues, but his music still captures the monster’s enormity and the human character’s marvel. It’s equal parts emotional and hair-raising.

Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla is where I look to when I think of reboot films done right. For all the conventions it does different, it never forgets to deliver on what you want. Again, some will be put off by a character-focused monster movie where the monsters aren’t always turning cities into pebble piles. Trust me when I say it’s all worth it by the end. There are spectacular fights, a great cast, and direction that’s as confident as it is respectful. The King of the Monsters finally got his shining moment in America and it’s only led to further excitement and anticipation.

Godzilla (2014) Trailer


You can watch Godzilla (2014) on HBO Max.

You can connect with Nick on his social media profiles: Facebook and Letterboxd.

Paddington

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Paddington, an immensely huggable young Peruvian bear, ventures to London in search of a family after an earthquake destroys his home in the rain forest. People aren’t quite as nice or welcoming as he thought they’d be when he first arrives, but then he hits the jackpot: enter Sally Hawkins, as irresistible as ever, as Mrs. Brown, an artist who welcomes Paddington into her family’s home with more warmth and kindness than any immigrant could hope for.

Mr. Brown and his children are as skeptical as one might expect them to be about co-habitating with a bear (the daughter thinks Paddington will be an embarrassment, Mr. Brown, who’s hilarious, thinks he’s a liability to the house and kids), but eventually they come around. The whimsical and colorful design of the Brown household and the removal of walls for tracking shots from room to room are evocative of a Wes Anderson movie, but whereas Anderson deliberately distances you from the spaces he builds, Paul King invites you in. The spiral staircase at the center of the house is up against a floor to ceiling wall decal of a tree with pink leaves that you want to reach out and touch, and that you can imagine reminds Paddington of his home and relatives when he climbs the banister (instead of taking the stairs as the humans do).

Paddington’s search for the British explorer who once visited his Peruvian homeland and the threat of a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, delightfully icy) hunting Paddington give the narrative its forward momentum, but its the time spent in the Brown household that gives the film its most memorable charm. There are a handful of fish-out-of-water (or bear-out-of-the-rainforest?) bits that employ comic timing and musical cues to great effect (such as Paddington’s first experience with a human’s bathroom, him snatching a stranger’s dog when he reads a “Dogs Must Be Carried” sign next to an escalator, the entirety of a bank heist-like sequence at a geographical society building), but it’s the image of a cozy attic bedroom that the Browns make up for Paddington, and Hawkins poking her head up through the ceiling to check on him, that distill the movie’s unique loveliness.

Paddington Trailer