I can say with some confidence now that I’ve witnessed Kristen Stewart’s enchanting performance as Princess Diana in Spencer – the race for next years 2022 Best Actress Oscar has officially begun. And Stewart is out with a comfortable lead.
Spencer is directed by Pablo Larraín best known for his similarly-themed biopic about a notable female historical figure; Jackie. The script has been penned by Steven Knight (Locke) and Kristen Stewart stars as the titular Diana Spencer. While you might be thinking this is a biopic about Diana, Larraín has labelled the film as a “a fable from a true tragedy”.
Oddly enough Spencer joins the likes of Die Hard, Iron Man 3 and Carol as an unconventional Christmas film. Set over 3 days during the festive season, the film opens on a shot of a dew-kissed Sandringham estate where the Windsor family will be spending their Christmas together.
We watch as a cavalcade of staff roll into the grounds to set up the mansion for the royal familiy’s pending arrival. Everything runs like clockwork; the chefs, servants and security march in unison to their stations with military precision. Large carriers containing the most opulent foods are popped away in the fridges of the grandest of kitchens. The grandeur of this scene can not be overstated. It immediately tells us that even though the Royals may celebrate Christmas like everybody else – they aren’t like anything us.
We then cut to the Princess of Wales exclaiming “where the fuck am I?” Lost somewhere in the countryside, she pulls into a dingy little roadside café – the kind no royal would be caught dead in. She shyly walks up to the counter to a gawping worker and asks for directions.
This opening sequence is quite frankly genius. Not only is it intoxicatingly shot and paced but the everyday-relatability of Diana stopping to ask for directions cleverly juxtaposes the lavish, pre-planned, chauffeured lifestyle of the royals. This time we’re thinking she is one of us.
Jonny Greenwood seems to be everywhere at this years Venice Film Festival. Not only did he provide the score for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog but he’s also produced the score for Spencer too which aches with melancholy. There’s a notable tinge of tragedy in the strings. However when Diana finally arrives at the estate, Greenwood infuses his score with some jazzy trumpets. Jazz by its nature is surprising, spontaneous and disruptive – so it makes total sense that when Diana walks through the hoity-toity entrance to the manor, that she herself is disrupting the status quo.
The keeper of the house Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) insists that Diana follows the strict regiment that has been laid out for her over the Christmas period. Everything has been set. From the food she eats, to the clothes she wears to the traditions she must upkeep; such as the yearly weigh-in before and after the 3 festive days. Everyone is expected to have gained 3 pounds as proof of just how much festive frivolity they’ve had. However a buleimc Diana is petrified of the notion of being weighed. But as Major Gregory insists not even the Queen is exempt from tradition.
This strict adherence to systemic tradition is what is causing Diana to feel like she suffocating. The family she has married into has removed so many of her individual freedoms that it’s squelched all semblance of who she once was. Her life is now so intensely planned out for her right down to the second. It’s why she insists on driving herself to the Sandringham estate because her car is one of the few remaining places where she feels like she has control.
I seriously believe that her turn as Diana Spencer will be the role that finally swings public opinion on Kristen Stewart as an actress. And rightfully so.
Think back to a decade ago during the Twilight years. Stewart had long been on the receiving end of public criticism about her acting style. The infamous stuttering and mouth-breathing became the source of many-a-meme. But much like her co-star and former Paramore Robert Pattinson, they’ve both slowly shed the stigma of wooden Twilight acting away.
Stewart has been taking on meatier roles in smaller projects like Camp X-Ray, Personal Shopper and Seberg – and earning herself a lot of critical clout in the process. She even became the first American actress to win the Cesar award for her supporting performance in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria.
And now she’s taken on the role of arguably the most famous woman who ever lived – mere months after Emma Corrin captured the worlds heart in the 4th season of The Crown. And yet Stewart still manages to come into the Oscars race with the full force of a wrecking ball.
Not only does she look like Diana from the signature blonde bob to the ballet-dancer frame. But she’s also nailed the mannerisms that were quintessential Diana. Like her posture as she posed for photographs; Stewart raises one shoulder, tilts her head down and flutters her eyelashes while letting the coyest smile curl around her lips. It’s perfection. And of course she gest the accent spot on too. Stewart really did her homework.
Not only can I foresee her winning the Best Actress Volpi actress in Venice but she’s sure to ride the wave of momentum all the way to the Oscars. It’s a role too irresistible for the Academy to overlook. It ticks many of the criteria they gravitate towards; tragic historical figure, the actress has 95% of the screen time, it touches on challenging topics such as Bulimia and the scrutiny/mistreatment of female celebrities in the media. And ultimately it feels like the right role, for the right actress at the right point in her career to celebrate. I can see the Academy choosing Stewart as their Best Actress champion.
But it’s not just Kristen Stewart who will be acknowledged come awards season. Spencer is likely to be a major player with potential supporting nominations for Spall and Sally Hawkins. A Best Picture nomination seems highly likely along with a screenplay nomination for Steven Knight. Jonny Greenwood’s painfully beautiful score is likely to be favoured and we mustn’t forget about Jacqueline Durran’s exquisite costumes. I’m convinced the montage sequence of Diana dancing was only added just so Durran could show off the dozens of fabulous outfits she had picked out for the film.
Larraín’s direction is thoughtfully evocative. It’s often been said that Diana’s life was like a fairytale; an ordinary girl who became a princess. Larraín utilises a lot of trucking shots to symbolically suggest a storybook unfolding before our eyes.
The tracking shots which stalk Diana down the bellowing corridors help us to empathise with Diana’s headspace – the walls are closing in and all eyes are constantly watching her. The mansion maybe huge but there’s no space for her to hide.
The only creative step that won’t be to everyones taste is the repeated motif of comparing Diana to King Henry the Eighths second wife Anne Boleyn. Camilla Parker Bowles is even compared to Jane Seymour in one scene. While the execution is a little on-the-nose, Larraín’s astute grasp of his surreal fairytale makes this creative choice feel justified. There were some derisive sniggers in the audience audience of my screening – particularly when Diana at one point morphs into Anne but it didn’t feel overplayed or out of place.
Spencer is magnificent achievement for everyone involved. A career highlight for Kristen Stewart that’s sure to be on everyone’s lips once they’ve seen it. it’s lusciously shot and has an intoxicating atmosphere thanks to Greenwood’s tremendous score.
Spencer will be released in Cinemas internationally from November 5th but is also screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
If you want to follow more of Luke’s coverage from the Venice Film Festival be sure to check out his Youtube channel.
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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