Film diary: November 14 – 20, 2022

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Living (2022), directed by Oliver Hermanus. Watched at Odeon Leicester Square.

Finally! A film to use as an example against those with the ever-lame take that all remakes are inherently bad (I wonder how many of those people have a Scarface poster at home and don’t appreciate the irony…)

Sure, adapting Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece about a pencil-pushing bureaucrat who decides to build a park after being diagnosed with a terminal illness seems like an act of almighty hubris on paper. But somehow Living gets away with it.

The reason it works is because of the perfect match of personnel and material. Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro might have been the only person who could have made this work. Born in Japan but with a track record of recording the emotional repression of the British since at least The Remains of the Day, the novelist is the perfect person to find the connective tissue between Japanese manners and the mid-20th century British stiff upper lip.

And who better to keep that upper lip stiff than Bill Nighy? Entire terms of acting school could be spent breaking down how he communicates so much emotion through such small gestures and facial movements. Britain is certainly spoiled for great elderly male actors, but even your Rylances, Caines and Broadbents might tip the story into the treacle. 

In fact, Nighy’s brilliance might even be to the film’s detriment – try as the other actors might, the film loses some energy in his absence, particularly in its middle stretch where Ishiguro messes with the structure and we fear Nighy’s screen time may be over.

Living is not quite on the level of Ikiru. Occasionally, director Oliver Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie Ramsay’s shot compositions seem a little bank advert-y and flashy for flashy’s sake, particularly at the movie’s start. The ending may also prove divisive – it would not have been an Ikiru remake without Nighy on the swing, but we maybe did not need the moving moment to be narrated by a random chatty copper. But Living certainly has enough life of its own to justify bringing the story back from the dead.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Wonder (2022), directed by Sebastian Lelio. Watched on Netflix.

What a shame to watch a film like the Wonder on Netflix. 

It’s good that the streamer continues to support interesting auteur directors. If only they did not use a compression algorithm that makes dark colours look awful. A big problem for a film like this which tries to do such beautiful things with the dark.

After the big misstep of living in a faux-60s computer simulation in Don’t Worry Darling, Florence Pugh is back in a bodice (where she belongs) to play Elizabeth, an English nurse tasked with watching over an Irish girl who has not eaten for four months and claims to be living on “manna from heaven.”

What follows is a tightening screw of slow-building dread which explores the dual nature of stories. Narratives are things that allow us to make sense of the world, but they can also stop us seeing things as they really are. 

The characters are trapped by the stories they have told themselves, and cinematographer Ari Wegner trapps us in there with them in rooms that are mouldering and bleak and yet made beautiful by her camerawork (Netflix’s bad compression notwithstanding).

The film has not been universally praised, as much in the press as in my own house (the husband was not a fan). Others have found The Wonder slow and underwhelming, and found the framing devices which shows us the soundstage the sets are built on distracting. I found the creeping pace gave the film almost a chilling, spooky feeling, with the understatement only enforcing the horrors that are revealed. The framing device, meanwhile, further emphasises the theme of storytelling and its power.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Empire of Light (2022), directed by Sam Mendes. Watched at Mayfair Hotel FYC screening.

What a puzzling film Empire of Light is. It begins as the story of a lonely aging woman working in a Margate cinema who starts a relationship with a younger co-worker. There is definitely a parallel universe where this film starred Celie Imrie or Imelda Staunton and was one of those mid-to-late-life-romance movies aimed solely at the ‘grey pound’ (Finding Your Feet, take a bow). 

And yet, in this universe this is somehow directed by Sam Mendes, with cinematography by Roger Deakins and music by Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross. And tackles big issues like racism and mental illness. And is a film about the glory of cinema that does not care about film for long periods of its runtime.

The result is a bizarre passion project written, directed and produced by Sam Mendes. What exactly drew him to a Margate cinema and the relationship between Olivia Colman’s cinema duty manager and Michael Ward’s young Black usher is baffling – and with its bizarre shifts in the tone, the content of the film does not make much more sense.

Still, Colman remains one of our greats, even in a performance that seems to have been made in a lab to get her a second Oscar after voters did not go for the subtlety of The Lost Daughter, and hopefully Ward has a bright future ahead of him. Plus, casting agent Nina Gold deserves praise for the perfect choice of casting Toby Jones as a projectionist.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Aftersun (2022), directed by Charlotte Wells. Watched at Odeon Haymarket

Old home movies are inherently melancholic. We watch ourselves frozen in time, unaware of the sadnesses ahead of us. How beautiful we were, how young. Watching them makes us archaologists, trawling through grainy footage to search for clues. Can we see the first signs of the upcoming divorce in the then-happy couple? Or, like Afrersun’s lead Sophie (Frankie Corio as a child, Celia Rowlson-Hall as an adult) can we see the depression in the seemingly happy father?

Paul Mescal is Calum, a young father taking slightly estranged daughter Sophie on a holiday to Turkey sometime in the late 1990s. Theirs is the typical package holiday of the ‘90s. They sit by the pool, go on daytrips to tourist attraction and drink absurdly colored drinks by the pool.

All the while, things are happening below the surface. Strange comments, impulsive behaviours and moments of sadness build up to suggest something is very wrong with Calum. But as we mostly experience thist through Sophie’s point of view, we never get a full sense of what that is – except for the fact that it was perhaps so seriously that adult Sophie is still scouring the camcorder footage she took on that holiday.

The result is an amazingly assured piece of show-not-tell from a firsttime filmmaker, bolstered by a sublime, subtle performance from Paul Mescal.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

A day of due diligence, watching the year’s releases in the build-up to having to make my Dorian Award nominations. Particularly, I’m keen on watching the year’s films directed by women, in the hope that my nominations will reflect in some way the diversity of talent out there. So started with:

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022), directed by Nina Menkes. Screener.

A documentary based on directed Menkes’ lecture tour about the male gaze in cinema, which she believes creates a permission structure for lack of representation for women in the film industry, and for the rampant sexual harassment and abuse in that industry.

Her point is certainly a compelling, well-argued one, and her step by step guide to how the male gaze manifests itself in the framing of films is a revelatory toolkit for looking at movies in a new way. 

Shame that the strength of the ideas is not matched by the strength of the visual documentary filmmaking. It really is our duty as cinephiles to call for an absolute end to talking head interviews in documentaries.


Catherine Called Birdy (2022), directed by Lena Dunham. Screener.

Say what you want about Lena Dunham (and I will), the humour in the writing of the early seasons of Girls means that it is always worth keeping at least one eye on her projects. Saying that, when I heard that the very millennial writer was working on a medieval comedy, I can’t say I was excited.

For one, medieval comedies with a modern sensibility are pretty played out. If even a TBS sitcom has got there before you (shout out Miracle Workers season two) then you’re hardly breaking new ground. 

The best thing I can say about Catherine Called Birdy is that it cleared the very low bar I set for it. Bella Ramsey is charming as a spunky young woman who will do anything to stop her father’s attempts at marrying her off. And a cast that features ever-dependable names like Andrew Scott, Billie Piper (sadly wasted), Sophie Okonedo, Ralph Ineson and Joe Alwyn can never be wholly bad.

Despite this, the film remains fairly meandering, with a weak third act that leaves you with a shrug. Maybe it was for the best that this went straight to Amazon.

Finally, a post-Sunday lunch cinema trip:

Armageddon Time (2022), directed by James Grey. Watched at Odeon Greenwich.

My second film of the week that takes a story and then awkwardly gloms on a subplot about racism. Armageddon Time is the less baffling of the two, but that’s not saying much.

James Grey’s last film Ad Adstra was superb, but now he’s back on Earth with a thud. In this semi-autobiographical story, Banks Rebeta plays a younger version of the director, living in the suburbs (?) of New York with father Jeremy Strong (good), mother Anne Hathaway (better), and with grandfather Anthony Hopkins (on autopilot, but charming with it) close by.

The action of the film, if it can be called that, sees Rebeta’s Paul forced to move from his public school to a private school frequented by the Trumps after he is caught smoking a joint with Black friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb).

(Why Grey gave Johnny the full name of Jonathan Davis, making every Gen Xer and Millennial with a sense of history think of the lead singer of Korn is unknown)

Once he moves schools, Paul gets away with fucking up, while Johnny gets published. Paul learns a valuable lesson about how fucked up the world is, and we feel uncomfortable that this film is more interested in a white kid learning a lesson about systemic racism from his Black friend’s suffering than that suffering itself.

Published by Samuel Spencer

Journalist at BBC Three. Deputy Culture Editor at Newsweek. Formerly at, Press Association, ARTINFO. Lover of film, TV and the actresses it they give work to. Contact me

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