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Review | The Champion of Auschwitz

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“I don’t know who I will be but I know who I want to be.”

Director Maciej Barczewski’s feature debut brings us the true story of Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski, a boxing champion of Warsaw who was amongst the first prisoners to arrive at Auschwitz during the Nazi regime.

During his time in the camp, the officers learn of his sporting history and recruit him to compete in a series of fights in exchange for extra rations of food and medicine for him and his fellow inmates. ‘Arbeit macht frei’ takes on a different meaning, where Teddy’s work of fighting in the ring is not just to stay alive, but also to free himself and others from the hardship, pain and suffering. At the same time, there becomes a desperate desire by the German officers to not maintain a hero nor produce a martyr.

Indeed, Piotr Głowacki offers an extremely nuanced and layered performance as the central protagonist, a role which demands a strong physical performance and he certainly delivers. Not only must Głowacki provide the expertise of a champion in the boxing ring, he must also simultaneously portray the weariness and weakness of someone in his position. Even beyond the obviously physical nature of his performance, Głowacki shines even more so in the more subtle moments of physical performance, able to convey vast emotions through a fleeting smile or a pointed stare. However, it is a shame that at times it feels as if he was acting within himself; confined by the commitment to realism, Teddy must act within himself as a character due to his situation. His outward performance versus his inner struggle, aided by both external and internal strength.

The cast is composed entirely of Polish actors, even in the roles of German officers and such. Even if unintentional, such a choice reminds of how Taika Waititi – a Polynesian Jew – portrayed Hitler in his film Jojo Rabbit.

Like Głowacki, the film generally strives to achieve a fine balance between action and drama, between horror and beauty, between the external and the internal, and, at times, arguably between reality and fantasy.

The grim realism of Auschwitz is a consistent throughline, illustrated through all aspects of the film’s production, both narrative and technical. The omnipresence of violence is not concealed, but instead the audience is constantly reminded of the grim reality through harrowing depictions that never feel exploitative. The orchestral score is necessarily haunting, yet offers uplifting turns in moments of triumph.

The cinematography, courtesy of Witold Plóciennik, is largely impressive and helps to maintain the reality of the story. Particularly interesting in this regard was the decision to capture the boxing scenes almost exclusively with wide shots and long takes that were not too stylised or edited at fast pace. Such an approach can be typical with fighting scenes but instead, here the actual actor is consistently on screen without the aid of a stunt double, enabling the viewer to feel constantly connected to Teddy. The typical, more rapid approach of boxing scenes in films would likely have overpowered the fundamental themes and undermined the believability of the narrative.

The Champion of Auschwitz [Iron Films]

The colour grade too adds to the darkness of the story, a dim, washed-out look adorns the screen; the only uses of truly warm tones are in a single flashback sequence during the opening scene and then somewhat of an amalgamation of this light with the darkness of Auschwitz during an epilogue. Narratively, comparisons may be drawn to other titles such as Schindler’s List. Yet, where that film uses red prominently and brightly for attention, here the red of blood is merely dark and dirty. Agnieszka Kukulka and Miroslawa Wojtczak from the makeup department provide some truly grisly and brutal work, whilst the costumes too feel real.

Although the film depicts the harrowing events with painful authenticity, there is almost an untapped element of fantasy running under the surface. Prominent symbolism and consistent references to faith and religion – from carvings and paintings of angels, to introspective dialogue and even the camp spotlight taking on an almost angelic presence – remain a consistent presence.

The film does border on being too sentimental at times; more generic elements such as a training montage offer nothing new; and sympathetic sentiments towards some German characters may be undeserved. In addition, some rushed subplots resulted in an emotional disconnect from some characters or situations, but overall this is a tightly woven narrative that would have benefitted from a slightly longer run time than its 91 minutes and could have been slightly more refined, by reducing or even removing some sections entirely.

However, whether you know about Tadeusz Pietrzykowski or not, it is certainly worth checking out The Champion of Auschwitz for yourself.

 

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Comedy

Sex Appeal Review | An Interesting Enough Premise Gets Squandered in Predictable Platitudes

A quasi-R-rated version of “The Kissing Booth” surprisingly works? Color me shocked.

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In a world filled with horrible teen coming-of-age comedies which re-tread John Hughes and other popular 80s comedies, Hulu’s Sex Appeal probably wouldn’t have worked. As it stands, the movie is interesting enough to make a distracting impression upon ourselves, but it’s nowhere near as sharply written as any of the mid-1980s/late-1990s coming-of-age comedies it keeps referencing. 

In any case, the best comparison I can give you is that its plot feels eerily (though not completely) similar to Netflix’s The Kissing Booth trilogy, though without any of the cringe and a legitimately compelling “best-friends” relationship. The “best friends” in question are Avery (Mika Abdalla) and Larson (Jake Short), who have had a close-knit relationship since childhood…until Larson decided to “make a move” at the age of 14, immediately rejected by Avery. Our female protagonist narrates the entire story like Joey King’s Elle Evans in The Kissing Booth and has a pretty narrow-minded view of everyone and everything. Basically, she only cares about herself. Avery will register for STEMCON, an annual youth scientist (?) convention, to which attendees will have to build an app that responds to their personal problems. 

Sex Appeal (2022) - IMDb

Avery’s “problem” is that she can’t have fulfilling sex with anyone and forcefully takes Larson as her Guinea Pig to experiment with diverse types of sex on him and her, to which we metaphorically see what happens inside IMAX-like dream sequences. A plot as preposterous as this shouldn’t work, but it kinda does. Of course, it’s a story we’ve all seen before, with the egotistical female character going on a journey of self-discovery and finally realizing that life doesn’t solely revolve around her, and that humans have feelings. By developing the app, she fails to realize the most important human element of all, love, because Avery is incapable of feeling love…until her experiment gets her to realize what love is and how it feels. 

Yes, director Talia Osteen and co-writer Tate Hanyok use sex as the driving force for Avery’s realization that her app should be all about love, and not all about sex. And she’ll learn this by having sex with someone she genuinely cares about but doesn’t want to admit that she has feelings for. Why? Because she had to focus on her studies? That feels like such a BS excuse, but the plot warrants it anyways. So yeah, once you get a gist of Avery and Larson’s “friendship that morphs into a quasi-relationship”, you can tell exactly where this movie is going, without fail. She has a non-existent relationship with her boyfriend (Mason Versaw), and can’t even feel love even if she also uses the app with him as they do it. Doesn’t she know what love is, or is she incapable of feeling it because she doesn’t want to? This is the central question Sex Appeal asks, and it surprisingly works twofold. 

Sex Appeal (2022) - IMDb

Firstly, the chemistry between Abdalla and Short is insanely palpable. In The Kissing Booth, the movie already doesn’t work because the chemistry between Joey King/Jacob Elordi/Joel Courtney feels unbelievable like they all belong in different movies (the writing is also a problem, but whatever). You can relate to Avery and Larson because their relationship feels real. And so it’s easier to get on board with an insanely predictable story if the acting holds the fort, to which it does greatly. Even the smallest supporting roles can bring surprising laughs to the mix, and genuine heart, which this movie has tons of. Its heart is in the right place, and the acting is decent enough for you to care about the characters’ plight, even if we’ve seen it all before. 

Secondly, the film’s aesthetic is original enough for the movie to rise above the platitudes it presents in its script for metaphorical sex sequences that are way more interesting than, say, if Avery and Larson solely had sex. Osteen prefers to open up the 2.39:1 frame to 1.90:1 during these dreamlike sequences to represent how Avery feels during the time she “experiments” on Larson, which ultimately makes her realize all the love she has for him, especially when she tries to do the same thing with Casper (Versaw) and, lo and behold, it doesn’t work. I appreciate the work of filmmakers who try different things than the usual paint-by-numbers coming-of-age sex comedy, without an ounce of creativity in its filmic representation of a protagonist’s state of mind, especially when it works, even if it may be on the nose for some. Sure it is, but it works nonetheless. 

So it’s surprising to see how engaging the movie is when the acting and the aesthetic work together and actually deliver a pretty good time at the movies, even if it’s a movie that we’ve seen before, done better. Where Sex Appeal fails in its story, it more than makes up for it through its creative aesthetics and terrific performances from Mika Abdalla and Jake Short, which in turn makes it a rather transfixing watch. It’s not the greatest movie in the world, sure, but it does its job right and the film’s heart is in the right place. What more can you ask for?

FILM RATING

Sex Appeal is now streaming on Hulu.

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Film Festivals

892 | Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review

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Despite having to go entirely virtual for a second year running, the annual Sundance Film Festival is back and it’s back with a bang. If 892 is anything to go by, it promises to be an excellent festival yet again with plenty of great films to get stuck into.

892 tells the true story of former US Marine veteran Brian Easley (played remarkably by John Boyega) who in his hour of desperation is led to walk into a Wells Fargo bank with a bomb. After not receiving his disability check for $892 he’s now living in a cheap motel in Atlanta on the brink of homelessness and separated from his wife and daughter, meaning that the soft-spoken and kind Brian is driven to desperation and decides to rob a bank and hold hostages with a bomb. After the police and the media descend on the bank it becomes clear that Brian isn’t doing this for the money, he just wants to tell his story and to get what’s rightfully his, whatever it costs him.

Part of the reason why Abi Damaris Corbin’s debut feature is so impactful is because of Boyega’s pitch-perfect performance and the way in which he just completely sinks into the role. He plays the role with such sensitivity and sincerity, drawing us into Easley’s character so well. He doesn’t want to rob the bank, nor does he want to hurt anyone, but this is the only way he can get what’s his and to tell the whole world how he’s been denied the disability check that he needs to survive. As well as Boyega, the late Michael K. Williams shines in his last screen role playing the negotiator talking to Easley on the phone. The conversations between the two hit hard as they’re supposed to and only engross us in the film even further.

892 is incredibly tense right from the get-go and it manages to hold this tension all the way through until the very end. And the tension is the driving force behind it all, but it’s remarkably balanced with the intimate emotions coming from Boyega’s Easley. We really get a true feel for why he has to do this and what it means for him. To have been let down by his country, the country he served, and it only gets more shocking as the film draws towards its conclusion. 892 is an edge of your seat thriller that will have your heart racing the entire time and is continuously heightened by the truth behind it all. This being a true story makes it all the more staggering.

The film takes place almost entirely in the bank, but it never lets up and it never drags. Boyega carries the entire film along with it hooking you right away and never letting go. It’s nail-biting stuff that claws right at your heart. 892 is a film that reminds us of the responsibilities that we have to the people in the world, whether they’re soldiers or someone we’ve only just met before, we’re all people.

892 premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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DC

Peacemaker Delivers Brutal Violence While Being Incredibly Funny And Goofy At The Same Time

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Note: This review is based on the first seven episodes (of eight)

Following on hot off the heels of 2021’s The Suicide Squad James Gunn strikes again with more hilariously entertaining superhero shenanigans. Originally Peacemaker would seem like an interesting choice of the squad to be getting his own series, especially after the final act of The Suicide Squad revealing him to be a complete asshole, but very quickly the show establishes itself and manages to make Peacemaker, AKA Christopher Smith, just a little bit more likeable.

The show opens with John Cena’s Peacemaker busting out of prison and he unites with some new teammates to defeat a bunch of alien creatures known as butterflies. On the team are leader Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), John Economos (Steve Agee) and Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) two characters that we briefly met working for Amanda Waller in The Suicide Squad, rookie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) who’s by far the most interesting of the team behind the Peacemaker, as well as Peacemaker’s wisecracking friend Vigilante (Freddie Stroma). It’s a completely different sort of team to who we last saw Peacemaker with in The Suicide Squad but it allows for a much greater exploration of the eponymous Peacemaker.

HBO Max

John Cena is absolutely perfect for the character and James Gunn’s sharp writing and direction makes the show stand out. Right from Peacemaker’s ridiculous pitch-perfect opening titles up until the end of each episode it’s filled to the brim with stupidity and the sort of gags we come to expect from Gunn. It’s remarkable that the cast can perform it all with a straight face. Everything about the show has this air of stupidity to it, whether that’s in the dialogue, Peacemaker’s bald eagle pet named Eagly, or even just Peacemaker’s costume. But the show somehow perfectly balances this stupidity with seriousness as it provides a great look at Peacemaker’s character and actually gives a reason as to why he’s getting this show.

There’s far more to Cena’s character beneath the surface and beneath what we’ve seen of him previously and there’s something that deserves exploration and that’s what the series does. He’s willing to get peace at all costs no matter how many men, women, and children he has to kill to get it. The main plot line of the show about tackling the alien species of butterflies that take over a host body seems a little similar to Project Starfish from The Suicide Squad -and in fact the show even jokes about this similarity- but the show also delves into deeper issues as we experience the relationship between Peacemaker and his white supremacist dad Auggie played by Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick. There’s so much more to Peacemaker as a person and what he’s been through that The Suicide Squad just doesn’t touch on at all so this show is a good chance to really connect with him on a deeper level and it provides us with reasons to actually sympathise with this character.

We’re inundated with superhero content at the minute and Peacemaker feels distinct enough from much of what Marvel are doing, even Gunn’s own Marvel projects, however there is an easy comparison to be made between this and Amazon’s The Boys. Peacemaker isn’t quite as sharp or as smart as The Boys is, nor are any of the other characters in Peacemaker anywhere near the high quality of Amazon’s show but nonetheless it’s a delight to watch and a break from the many Marvel series we had in 2021.

HBO Max

As the show runs on a lot of the humour starts to drip away with Gunn’s juvenile style of comedy getting a bit repetitive. In particular the novelty of Stroma’s quippy Vigilante, who initially seems like DC’s version of Deadpool starts to wear off. Very quickly his stupidity and lack of awareness gets boring.

Peacemaker delivers with its heavy and brutal violence along with being incredibly funny and goofy at the same time. James Gunn shows us once again that he can make something fun and vibrant that feels like it’s been ripped straight out the pages of a comic book. It’s entertaining as hell and a great start to the year for DC.

The first three episodes of Peacemaker premiere on HBO MAX on January 13th with new episodes releasing each week.

FILM RATING
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