Saturday 22 January 2022

What I'm Watching: January 2022

A recap of my month in movies, media and games, featuring Netflix's The Lost Daughter, Paramount's Yellowjackets, Apple's The Tragedy of Macbeth and two popular Disney+ titles: Hawkeye and Encanto

The Lost Daughter (Netflix)

Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut is garnering some glowing reviews, and now that it's on Netflix, hopefully it's getting some eyeballs on it too. 

The Lost Daughter centres on Leda (Olivia Colman), a lecturer who travels to an idyllic Greek island for a solo holiday – but her time abroad is interrupted by a boisterous American family, which includes Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter. When Nina's little girl goes missing at the beach, the trauma causes Leda to recall troubled memories of her own experiences with motherhood. 

In The Lost Daughter, Colman – and the younger version of her character, played by the wonderful Jessie Buckley – is afforded the opportunity to portray a three-dimensional character who is coarse, imperfect and frustrating. As a mother, we see her to be caring and tender one minute, neglectful and spiteful the next. As a holidaymaker, she's both quiet and kind, and abrasive and curt. It's not often that these complex, nuanced female roles crop up – especially ones that aren't exactly endearing to the audience or 'redeemable'. 

Both lead actresses are thoroughly deserving of praise for their frayed, uncompromising performances – Colman is most likely a lock for a Best Actress Oscar nom, but Buckley should be in the conversation for Supporting Actress too. 

There's a lot of overt symbolism in the film and Gyllenhaal's direction is claustrophobic and in-your-face. A confident, intimate and compelling first time at bat that really hinges on extracting performances from the cast. By that metric, The Lost Daughter is mission accomplished. 

Hawkeye (Disney+)

Is Hawkeye, the latest Marvel series to hit Disney+, the best yet? That was the thought permeating through my brain as the credits rolled on this tight, six-episode adventure starring everyone's favourite bow and arrow-wielding Avenger. 

It certainly features one of the best new characters introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in recent years: Hailee Steinfeld's Kate Bishop. Her introduction, character arc and rapport with Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton is far and away the best part of Hawkeye, which sees Kate unwittingly fall into a criminal conspiracy and team up with her idol Clint to both get out of trouble and save Christmas (yeah, it's a set at Christmas). Steinfeld brings her trademark wit and charisma, which pairs well with Clint's weariness and no-nonsense attitude.

Hawkeye doesn't reinvent the wheel; there's a crime syndicate to dismantle, a couple of MacGuffins to chase, a couple of cool cameos that crop up towards the end and at the heart of it all, a great twofer in Steinfeld and Renner. The latter does a great job of stepping up into the lead role, after a decade as a supporting character. We see more of his home life as well as some fun details about all those trick arrows he has stashed in his quiver, which becomes a recurring gag throughout the playful action sequences.

All told, Hawkeye was great. It sees Clint continue to grapple with his past, including grieving Natasha, as well as lay the groundwork for future stuff. Let's hope Steinfeld comes back again down the track.

What If...? (Disney+)

On the flipside, Marvel's What If...? does not scratch the same itch. An animated half-hour show that explores the Marvel multiverse - by pondering the question 'what if?' - the show tries to have some fun with the origin stories that audiences have come to know in the past decade, by remixing different plot points and characters. 

So what we're faced with are little vignettes like 'what if Agent Carter was injected with super solider serum' or 'what if Yondu adopted T'Challa instead of Peter Quill'. This episodic, Twilight Zone structure can be hit or miss – some episodes are great, like the one that centres around Doctor Strange, and others are a bit of a nothingness. 

Look, it's diverting enough, but I didn't find myself glued to What If...? like Marvel's other TV shows. The animation is slick and colourful, the voice acting is great (almost all of the A-list cast are back, save for a couple of notable exceptions) and there's plenty of references, in-jokes and nods for fans of the franchise to enjoy. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Apple TV+)

Few filmmakers have built up the goodwill to flex as hard and as confidently as Joel Coen; but that's exactly where we find ourselves with his adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Shot in 4:3 and stark black and white, The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of the most visually striking films I've seen in a long time. Coen channels 1920s German Expressionism through his use of deep shadows and imposing sets defined by tall walls, askew angles and matte paintings as the backdrop. The production doesn't hide the fact that everything was shot on a soundstage, so much so that it feels like an expensive and vast theatre production at times. 

In the lead role we have the dependable Denzel Washington, a veteran of stage and screen who brings gravitas and hunger to Macbeth in the first half, followed by an unhinged delirium in the second. Frequent Coen collaborator Frances McDormand plays Lady Macbeth and is great, as you would expect.

I wouldn't say Shakespeare is really my thing; I've studied a little bit at school, but I'm not an expert by any means. But I enjoyed The Tragedy of Macbeth a lot; it's not a run-of-the-mill adaptation that plays it safe, which makes it worth a watch. Coen is using considerable career clout to bring this rich vision to life, and there's a lot to like here. 

Yellowjackets season one (Paramount+)

Yellowjackets is one of those shows that popped up out of nowhere, from zero buzz to seemingly everyone waxing lyrical about it overnight. The show is about a team of girls who are flying interstate for a soccer tournament, when their plane crashes in the Pacific Northwest and they find themselves stranded in the wilderness for months on end. Basically, it's like Lost – if the cast of Lost were all teenage girls and immediately resorted to killing and eating one another. 

Meanwhile, in the present day, some of the survivors – played by great character actors like Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis – are simultaneously haunted by their past and grappling with marriage, infidelity, depression and addiction, amongst other things. 

Across the 10-episode first season, Yellowjackets delivers a lot of intrigue and incident – of the two timelines, the 1996 storyline with the teenage cast is easily the more interesting of the two, as the tribe of teens comes to terms with the fact that help isn't on the way and infighting soon erupts. Ella Purnell, who plays team captain Jackie, is the star of the show, but there's talent and terrific performances across the board. 

I found that the show doesn't really hit its stride until a particularly intense and upsetting episode four; the first episode hooks you on the premise, with some coy flashforwards to some gnarly and horrific endpoints, but after that some of the groundwork takes a while to bed down. After the halfway mark, there's twist after twist – and the show starts to ramp up the intensity. Definitely give it a watch if horror or grisly teen drama is your jam.

Encanto (Disney+)

Charming, colourful and with some jaunty Latin tunes courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda (you can hear the Linny Manny influence, same as Moana), Encanto is another pleasing piece of bright, warm animation from Disney. 

The film is about the sprawling Madrigal family – three generations who live under the one roof and are each blessed with their own unique magical ability. All except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) of course. 

Unlike your Frozens or your Tangleds, Encanto is looser and less conventional – the actual thrust of the plot isn't plain as day, there isn't a bonafide villain to speak of, and our protagonist isn't a glamorous princess with magical powers and a handsome duke on her arm. The film more or less all takes place inside the Madrigal's home too. 

Which means Encanto feels different and new in comparison to other Disney animated films, with the same polish, fluidity and vibrancy that their output is famous for. Kudos then, for applying the same quality to new cultures, stories and characters, and bringing them to the mainstream. Safe to say, kids and families are going to love it – and putting it on Disney+ will ensure it stays on rotation for days, weeks and months.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PlayStation 5)

Between Deathloop and Guardians of the Galaxy, I revisited Respawn's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, a single-player game set in the Star Wars universe from a few years back.

I really liked this game the first time through, going as far as to pop it on my Top 10 PS4 games list. I mean, I'm a sucker for Star Wars at the best of times, but Respawn wisely sought to piece together a game that basically borrows all the best bits and bobs from other games. There's the puzzle-solving of Tomb Raider; the traversal mechanics and platforming of Uncharted; and the punishing parrying of Dark Souls, all wrapped up in a glossy Star Wars package.

But second time around, the cracks started to appear. I don't know if this is just because I was playing the PS5 'upgrade' or if the issues were there in the vanilla version and I just didn't notice, but I ran into all sorts of glitches and performance issues this time. The frame rate would dip, the dialogue wouldn't sync during cutscenes, sometimes the HUD would disappear entirely and photo mode was just straight-up broken.

But I weathered the storm and stuck with it. The storyline is still one of the best 'Extended Universe' things that we've seen since Star Wars' Disney revival, and I'd be keen to see where the rumoured sequel will go.

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