Movies of the Week #51 (2021)

The Novice (2021): Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature is what you’d expect to see if you zoomed into those rowing scenes during The Social Network and applied the Black Swan treatment to them. Inspired by Hadaway’s own experiences as a rower, the movie tells the story of Alex Dall, a college student who is driven by ambition close to self-destruction in her attempt to gain a spot on the varsity rowing team. It’s going to feel like your being beaten to a pulp, while traversing flurries of intense montages, frequently contrasted by sweet tunes of the 60s. Hadaway’s experience in the sound department goes a long way to articulate the inner life of the movie and its lead, the latter so vicariously portrayed by Isabelle Fuhrman. Definitely one of the best debuts of the year. 8

Spencer (2021): After a few straight biographical treatments of Lady Di, we’re presented a more polarizing take in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. A semi-fictional reimagining of Diana’s last (?) Christmas dinner with…the folks, it’s a self contained movie that rides completely on Kristen Stewart’s performance. And what a performance it is, turning a potentially obnoxious role into a nuanced, complicated character! I am definitely more partial to non-traditional biopics, which is why it was easy to enjoy Spencer, even if it isn’t quite the masterpiece one might have hoped for. 8

Belfast (2021): One of the front-runners for this year’s awards season, Belfast tells the story of an Irish family in the early days of the IRA. It’s Kenneth Branagh’s ode to his childhood, the difficult days when many-a-family had to make bold choices in search of a better life, or at least a safer one. While unusual in a Branagh-esque way, the movie is rife with fanciful, romantic scenes of otherwise dark times, experienced through the eyes of young Buddy (Jude Hill). It mostly works, but I was never enthralled by it, in a style-over-substance kind of way. 7

The Last Duel (2021): Going back to his successful historical roots, Ridley Scott tries to impress us with a story about love, virtue and perspective. Starring some big names, actors who look rather funny in this one, but act convincingly, it’s got all the traits of an epic – including the 2.5 hour runtime. Unfortunately, retelling the same tale with minor deviations is a technique that feels cumbersome at this length, and it sure loses some of its vigor by the third take. I found it hard to care for the characters, which made it even more of a drab endeavour. So, Sir Ridley, how about another Alien? 6

Silent Night (2021): Camille Griffin wrote and directed this dark, dark Christmas movie, which also happens to star her three sons, especially Roman Griffin Davis (of Jojo Rabbit fame). A strong adult cast, led by Matthew Goode, Keira Knightly and Annabelle Wallis, makes sure this Christmas gathering starts the ball rolling, as a bunch of friends gather for an unusual evening. The chaotic comedy suffers due to its hard-to-like characters, but poses some interesting questions. It’s a shame then that it doesn’t know how to answer them, but doesn’t allow them the dignity of remaining unanswered either. As the comedy turns into a somber, terrifying finale, you can’t help but wonder “why?”. 6