Tuesday 27 April 2021

What I'm Watching: April 2021

Seen anything good lately? Here's a recap of my month in movies and streaming, featuring Best Picture nominee Promising Young Woman, Amazon Prime's Invincible and two new Netflix movies; Run and Stowaway.

Promising Young Woman (In cinemas/VOD)

A thriller comedy about a scorned woman exacting revenge on predatory men doesn't exactly scream 'Oscar bait', which is how Emerald Fennell's film Promising Young Woman differentiated itself this awards season.

Confronting, confusing and ultimately compelling, Promising Young Woman centres around Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old med school dropout who spends her nights in bars, pretending to be a hot mess and catching men in the act when their 'good intentions' are soon replaced with predatory behaviour. 

The tonal shifts in Promising Young Woman are there to unsettle the audience, and fool many into thinking one thing while something sinister is sitting just out of sight – the underlying message is that for many young women, nice men are merely disguising their true intentions, waiting for an opportune moment to make their move. It's a thought-provoking film that definitely won't 'sit right' with everyone; particularly the ending, which zigs when conventional storytelling suggests you should zag. But that's what makes it linger long in the memory; Fennell (who wrote the screenplay as well) clearly isn't here to tell us that, when all is said and done, the world ain't so bad after all. 

Mulligan is excellent in the lead role and would have been a worthy winner over the weekend, had the Best Actress accolade not gone to Frances McDormand. Her character has more complexity than your typical 'scorned woman' trope, and Mulligan is an adept actor who deftly explores those complexities through her performance. While it wouldn't have been my pick for Best Picture (granted, I've still yet to see Minari and The Father), Promising Young Woman is without a doubt one of the most singular and possibly divisive nominees from this year's crop – something that makes it well worth a watch.  

Run (Netflix)

You've likely seen this film before, but that doesn't mean it's not effective. It's a simple story executed cleanly and neatly. Run, directed by Aneesh Chaganty (who also helmed the terrific thriller, Searching), sees a wheelchair-bound, homeschooled teenage girl called Chloe (Kiera Allen), begin to suspect her mother (Sarah Paulson) harbours a dark secret, and hatches a plan for escape. 

All the familiar trappings are there, but Chaganty deftly navigates them. At just a smidge under 90 minutes, Run doesn't run too long – it's taut and sharp, like all good thrillers should be. And what a twist too – who doesn't a thriller with a good twist? 

With her Emmys and her Golden Globe, Paulson is plastered across the thumbnails and posters to draw a crowd – but it's Allen who steals the show. The first two thirds are great, real edge of your seat stuff, but it's the final act, where the truth is revealed, that leaves you feeling a little sick in the stomach. Highly recommend checking this one out if thrillers are your thing.

Stowaway (Netflix)

Stowaway is one of those space movies, like Gravity or The Martian, where there is no villain or enemy to fight – merely the vast emptiness of space to contend with. It's rooted in restrained rational reasoning, with very little showiness to speak of. There is a problem to solve, so the characters set to work solving it – using science and smarts, rather than brawny fists.

This means the film feels a little cold, unsurprising I suppose given the setting, but also a little dull, at times. Starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim, this serviceable sci-fi film sees three scientists grappling with a stowaway (Shamier Anderson) on their mission to Mars. With limited supplies and a damaged life support system, the crew must find a way to sustain themselves and still safeguard their research intended for a Martian colony, which means making some seriously tough choices on what – and who – matters most.

There's a lot to like about Stowaway; Kendrick and Collette in particular a great, with the former playing the crew's sympathetic medic and the latter playing the ship's brusque captain. The production design is slick and functional; the camerawork is neat and tidy. It's the story where Joe Penna's film starts to sag; there's simply not enough of it to sustain itself throughout the runtime (ironic, huh). The emotional crux arrives around the midpoint, and thereafter the film just spins its wheels until it arrives at the flat conclusion. It also lacks the technical wizardry of the aforementioned Gravity and the wit of The Martian; ultimately, it's your standard three-star Saturday afternoon background noise.

Invincible (Prime Video)

Robert Kirkman's animated superhero show Invincible is a series stacked with serious shock-value and sass; think the gore and violence of The Boys meets the look and feel of Archer

With a stacked cast that includes the likes of Steven Yuen, JK Simmons, Mark Hamill, Seth Rogen, Zazie Beetz and Gillian Jacobs, Invincible feels both fresh and familiar at the same time – the 'superhero story with an edge' angle is nothing new for starters, but there's good stuff here if you stick with it past the shaky first episode.

As pilots go, Invincible's is pretty weak – or at least, the first two-thirds. The world and its characters felt rote and derivative, another roster of heroes that are a like-for-like satire of the Justice League. 

There comes a point though, about 10 minutes before the end of first episode, where the show spins on its head and shows its true colours. So, I stuck with it – and I'm glad I did, because each successive episode moves further away from the initial shakiness. The show starts down its own path, with characters that feel distinct and different. The world opens up, the action is varied and colourful, the plot moves along at a fair clip - what's not to like?

A Teacher (Foxtel)

This ten-episode miniseries made its debut Down Under in March, and stars Kate Mara and Nick Robinson as an English teacher and her student who embark on an affair in the latter's senior year of high school.

Succinct storytelling ensures the plot never drags – with the dramatic midpoint where the inventible unravelling begins arriving earlier than expected. Each episode is around 22 minutes, and feels like a self-contained chapter in the broader story – making this easily bingeable in a couple of days.

Something else that audiences might not expect with A Teacher is its tone; there's a sensitive gentleness to how this quote/unquote romance is handled, with Claire (Mara) and Eric (Robinson) almost painted as star-crossed lovers who have simply found each other in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mara and Robinson both give rounded performances – vulnerable and naive, hot and cold in equal measure. 

It's not until the final scene of the final episode that creator Hannah Fiddell truly confronts the reality of the relationship head-on. There's a distinct lack of heavy-handed preachiness, which I appreciated – but some might find the lightness of touch a little inert.  

The Falcon and the Winter Solider (Disney Plus)

Captain America's two boyfriends, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), join forces for this Disney+ original series that picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame.

With six episodes, each about an hour long, the format of The Falcon and the Winter Solider is different to that of WandaVision, which used structure to its advantage whilst paying homage to classic sitcoms. 

In contrast, The Falcon and the Winter Solider lacks a clearly defined structure or narrative thrust; for the first hour, our titular heroes don't even share the screen. It's not until episode three - where Daniel Bruhl's Baron Zemo (from Captain America: Civil War) is reintroduced, that we start to see where this series is taking us. 

As a feature film, I think this could have worked; the pacing would have been tighter, the action would have felt punchier. The novelty of seeing these B-list characters taking the lead in their own story would have propelled the story forward, without overstaying its welcome. But I don't think these characters (even working together) have enough pull for a six-hour miniseries. Interestingly, it's the antagonists and rivals that are most compelling here; as mentioned, Zemo is great, but so is Wyatt Russell as the detestable John Walker. 

So for those of you keeping score at home, Marvel's original work on Disney+ is so far one for two, with WandaVision being a hit and this being a miss. Next cab off the rank: mischief maker, Loki

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