“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 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.
Dear Evan Hansen | Review
In the space of just 2 films, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder, Stephen Chbosky has shown just how great a grasp he has on the minds of the young. He tackled big issues of mental health and self-acceptance in both of these films and now he’s back with another film about anxiety and mental health issues, this time in the form of an adaptation of the Broadway phenomenon Dear Evan Hansen.
Despite being 27 years old, Ben Platt plays 17-year-old Evan Hansen as he did in the original Broadway production. Evan is a high schooler with social anxiety that unintentionally ends up getting tangled in a web of lies after the suicide of one of his classmates Connor. Connor’s parents mistakenly think a letter that Evan wrote to himself (and addressed ‘Dear Evan Hansen’) was their son’s suicide note.
One of the problems with Dear Evan Hansen as a film is this problematic plot. Having not seen the original stage production I can’t comment on if the show also has this problem but there’s something about this plot that just doesn’t sit right. And the more I think about it, the worse it seems to get. A huge part of the plot is that Evan lies about being friends with a boy who just committed suicide and essentially deceives the grieving family members. This just doesn’t feel right, nor does it feel like this should be a character that we’re meant to side with. There is a bit more to it in the film and it makes sense why Evan goes down this route within the context of the film, but it’s not entirely dealt with in the best manner.
In fact, everything to do with anxiety and mental health issues in Dear Evan Hansen is quite on the nose and not particularly nuanced which is very surprising given the film’s director. Unfortunately, the problematic story seems to lead the way for much of the film’s issues. However, whilst watching the films these problems never felt like they were at the forefront of my mind and I did enjoy watching the film for almost all of its entirely overlong 2 hours and 17 minute runtime, but it’s only afterwards that it leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth and the problems start to shine through a bit more.
The film tries to tackle big, but important issues surrounding anxiety in teenagers and suicide, but it struggles to achieve this. Connor’s suicide is washed over in order to focus on Evan’s character but even Evan’s anxiety isn’t handled well and it seems to disappear every time the film is in need of another musical number. The music however is one of the highlights of the film. Some of the songs, in particular some of the more well-known ones from the play, including “You Will Be Found” and “Waving Through a Window” are excellent and really stir up strong emotions inside you, making Dear Evan Hansen an entertaining watch.
As well as the music, the cast are excellent too. Once you see past the fact that Ben Platt doesn’t look like a teenager, you can accept his excellent performance. He sings the songs to perfection and has really nailed the character after all these years of playing Evan Hansen. Of the supporting cast Kaitlyn Dever shines as Connor’s sister Zoe and Julianne Moore is excellent in the role of Evan’s mother. Amy Adams, Danny Pino and Amandla Stenberg help to round off the supporting cast, all putting in worthy performances.
Beyond the plot there are some problems on the technical side with the editing being a little jarring at times but the biggest issue Dear Evan Hansen is faced with is the melodramatic, manipulative and sappy plot that just doesn’t strike the chord it’s trying to. Its heart is in the right place and Chbosky very nearly had another fantastic exploration of mental health amongst teenagers but unfortunately, he doesn’t quite hit the mark this time.
Dear Evan Hansen is an entertaining watch with exciting musical numbers and great performances however upon greater reflection, the story is a complete mess. Certain emotional beats really hit you hard and provide the emotional depth that we’ve come to expect from Stephen Chbosky’s work and the final 45 minutes do redeem the film greatly. But a film about-and this is a slight oversimplification of events- a film about a teenager lying to a grieving family about being friends with their son who’s committed suicide is never going to end well and really isn’t handled with much nuance or sophistication, and ultimately the end result leaves you let down and wanting better despite the uplifiting and joyous songs.
Dear Evan Hansen is released in US cinemas on September 24th and UK cinemas on October 22nd
Dune – Movie Review | Venice Film Festival Review
Before we get started. Word of Advice: See it in IMAX! That’s all.
This was the big one. Literally. Out of all the films at Venice, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was indisputably the big ticket film on this years festival. Not only in terms of (IMAX) size, scale, scope and star-power but also in terms of how much hangs in the balance.
Many have tried before to adapt Frank Herberts’s renowned sci-fi novel before with varying degrees of success. But if anyone seemed like the right fit to take on Herbert’s space epic and do it justice, it was Denis Villeneuve. The man’s CV speaks for itself, with recent sci-fi gems like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 under his belt. But with Villeneuve’s decision to split the acclaimed novel into 2 parts and Warner Bros controversial decision to release the film both in cinemas and on HBO Max at the same time. Many were worried (myself included) that we might see another repeat of what happened to Blade Runner 2049 – raved by critics but poor box office performance. Will Villeneuve’s blend of mainstream grandeur and artistic integrity render Dune part 2 doomed to exist?
Well, fear not. After an uproarious response from critics and cinemagoers at Venice and TIFF. I would bet my first born child that Villeneuve will get to see his vision come to fruition with Part 2. People would riot if he didn’t because the film is simply too damn good. Warner Brothers have offically stated that as as long as Dune’s numbers are strong on HBO Max then part 2 will be green-lit regardless of box office numbers.
I can only imagine what a relief that must feel to the die-hard Dune fans but for someone like myself who had zero knowledge of the books and previous adaptations going into Dune, I too am beyond ecstatic to know I’ll get to see how part 2 will play out.
The added benefit of never having read the book or having seen David Lynch’s 1984 version or the early 2000’s TV series, is I had no preexisting knowledge or expectations for Villeneuve’s film. I had nothing to compare it too so I could go in as a blank slate and judge objectively for myself.
I will admit after reading the synopsis, I was worried that a story so vast as this would be a challenge for me to keep up. Thankfully that was not the case. Not once did I feel lost watching Dune. The exposition is handled extremely well. Villeneuve has taken newcomers by the hand and explained the universe in a way that is very easy to digest. So those worrying it might not be accessible to all audiences – if I can keep up with it, then anyone can.
The year is 10191. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac) of Calden is tasked by the emporer with the stewardship of the deadly desert planet of Arrakis (also known as Dune). Arrakis is home to the most valuable resource in the universe known as spice which can extend a human life span and is the key to space travel. So naturally, whoever holds Arrakis holds the power.
Leto intends to mine the planet for spice but he also takes his Concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) down to Arrakis in hopes of teaching his son how to become the leader he needs to be. By forging an alliance with the native inhabitants of Arrakis known as Fremen his people will know peace and prosperity when Paul becomes Duke.
However, when house Atreides learns of a spy within their rankings Lady Jessica and Paul must venture into the Arrakis desert to find the Fremen for help. Which is no small task as the desert lands are populated by 400m-long burrowing, man-eating Sandworms.
Villeneuve certainly sets the stage for bigger things to come in part 2 but despite being only one half of the story, part 1 completely works as a standalone film.
The praise knows no bound for this film. Every department harmonises succinctly with the next.
The casting alone – while admittedly it’s a tad boastful in it’s star-studded lineup but truly, everybody is exceptional. To go through the cast and effusively sing their praises one-by-one would be a waste of a word-count, so I’ll say everyone fits their role like a glove but I’ll call special mention to a few.
Timothée Chalamet has been a star for years but Dune just solidifies the fact he will be gracing our screens as a leading man for decades to come. As Paul he finds just the right balance of boyish naivety and inner strength. Thanks to his Concubine mother’s lineage, Paul has gifts such as prophetic dreams and mind manipulation but he’s not quite mastered them yet. But where the film leaves us with Paul is tantalisingly teasing.
Rebecca Ferguson does most of the emotional heavy-lifting as Lady Jessica. A mother role that’s pleasantly full of surprises. Ferguson shines here. If the Academy weren’t so genre-biased towards sci-fi I would say she is worthy of best supporting actress nomination.
Many were concerned due to the early trailer footage of Jason Momoa, that he would be coasting on his Aquaman charisma but his Duncan is sincerely heartfelt.
And Stellan Skarsgård is frighteningly good as Baron Harkonnen. He might be caked in makeup and buried in a fat-suit but his stunning performance beams through.
On the technical side, every single department hits the bullseye. There’s a visible fusion of Eastern inspiration between Patrice Vermette’s production design, Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s costumes and Greig Fraser’s cinematography. They all should be receiving Oscar nominations next year.
But not only do Villeneuve’s dazzling visuals cascade off the screen. They’re complimented perfectly by Hans Zimmer’s immaculate score. For the past decade Zimmer has been synonymous with the Bwom-heavy soundtracks of the Tenties thanks to his game-changing score for Inception. Now he will be known as the man who pulled off the impossible; the man who made bloody bagpipes sound epic as fuck. For real. His majestic score is nothing short of astonishing.
One really has to go searching for faults with Dune and the only thing that might be concerning to some viewers is Dune is not a particularly funny film. The two humorous lines from the trailers are essentially all you get in terms of comedic relief. But I personally found the lack of snarky Marvel-esque humour refreshing. The truth is, the film simply doesn’t need it – not when the characters are this interesting and the world building is so immersive. Villeneuve’s preference to shoot as much on location rather than green screen sound-stages helps to make Dune one of the most transportive films of late memory. You can practically feel the Arrakis sand beneath your feet.
Dune is the reason we go to the cinema. It’s movies like this which is why I do what I do – to get lost and absorbed in story. Many considered the source material unadaptable for the big screen but in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, he’s truly made the impossible possible. Much like what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings, Villeneuve has made a film for the fanboys (and the critics) but he’s also made it completely accessible to newcomers. Dune is cinema at its most ambitious, boldest and most beautiful.
Dune is having a staggered worldwide release over late September and October. It will be available on HBO Max regionally as the same time as cinemas. But please, I cannot stress this enough; go see Dune in the cinema. IMAX if possible. THIS IS CINEMA! No home theatre system can do this film justice.
For more of Luke’s coverage from the Venice Film Festival be sure to check out his YouTube Channel.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye | Review
After having her own documentary in 2000 that was directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and featured narration from RuPaul, controversial televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker has now got another film made about her, only this time she’s played by Jessica Chastain.
Directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye takes a close look at the astonishing rise and fall of Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). The film documents how the pair rose from their humble beginnings in the 1970s and how their journey led to them creating the world’s largest religious broadcasting network. They became so big that they even created their own Christianity inspired theme park.
The film works as a very impressive display of the acting abilities of the two leads Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, especially for the latter since he hasn’t been in much lately. But unfortunately, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is one of those films where the performances are better than the film they’re in. It’s proficiently made and it’s enjoyable enough to sit through but nothing about it beyond the lead performances stand out. There’s no wow factor to it or anything to make it especially memorable.
Tammy Faye is an interesting character to follow, especially given I didn’t know anything about her going into the film. From her idiosyncratic singing to her indelible eyelashes she’s a very peculiar yet fascinating character and she’s brought to the big screen so well thanks to Jessica Chastain, who also serves as one of the film’s producers, in one of her best acting performances to date.
There are, however, too many times when the story just seems to simmer and ponder about with nothing too motivating going on. At a little over two hours long the runtime doesn’t fly by but it feels at its best during the quick and breezy montage sequences making you wish for a slightly snappier and faster pacing throughout the rest of the film. The film sits somewhere in-between comedy and drama although it never quite delivers huge laughs or breathtaking drama leaving it somewhat vapid.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye boasts impressive lead performances from both Chastain and Garfield as well as excellent work from the hair and makeup team but beyond that it doesn’t provide anything too noteworthy and ends up as a rather average awards fodder.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is out now in US Cinemas
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