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Film Reviews

The Movies in 2021: Where are We Going?

Published December 25, 2020
No Time to Die (at the box office) in 2021

Looking to see what the new year has in store I consulted the on-line oracles and began to feel I’d been far too negative about 2020. Was it really so bad watching streaming services and old movies at home? The cinema screen will always offer a superior experience to the set in the lounge (let alone the laptop), but much depends on the quality of the fare on offer. It may be a romantic delusion to expect movies to be works of art rather than two hours of vain distraction but that’s my line and I’m sticking to it. I do, however, have a very liberal definition of “art”. I’m prepared to accept a lot of B movies, great lashings of Eurotrash (Dario Argento, Mario Bava…), and even the odd tongue-in-cheek subversion of a franchise film such as Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017). What I can’t abide is the big budget formula that builds on a proven track record by doing exactly the same thing, over and over.

And so I’m not desperate to sample Fast and Furious 9, Mission Impossible 7,  Paranormal Activity 7, Ghostbusters 4, Sherlock Holmes 3, or the countless other sequels and reboots that became such a feature of the Pre-COVID world. The reason these franchise films have been scarce in 2020 is that they are market-driven exercises that need a massive box office to recoup costs. In a safely vaccinated 2021 they’ll all be back. We can even look forward to The Matrix 4 (the previous film was in 1999); a sequel called Coming 2 America (previous: 1988); and a new Top Gun (previous: 1986), featuring an aging Tom Cruise and his body double.

The superhero flicks are returning as well, although there has long been a feeling of creative exhaustion about these movies. Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984has just opened, and the studio will be hoping it hasn’t jumped in too early. In a first in the USA the film has been released simultaneously at the cinema and on HBO Max. Normally this would dilute the power and profits of the distributor but after their box office failure with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, WarnerMedia made a calculation that it was better to hedge one’s bets.

In a post-COVID world we can assume the cinemas will get exclusive first rights again but it’s no certainty. I expect there’ll be quite a few movies that explore the dual release option, which may have a lasting impact on our viewing habits and on the theatres.

Get ready for yet another Batman movie, another Spiderman and another Suicide Squad. Two interesting variations will be Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson, and directed by Australia’s Cate Shortland; and The Eternals, with Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington and Salma Hayek, directed by Chloé Zhao. Nothing in Shortland’s back catalogue would suggest her as the ideal director of a superhero film but anyone who watched Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1984) would hardly have imagined that within a decade he’d be helming an Incredible Hulk movie.

Chloé Zhao is an equally puzzling choice as she has made a reputation with earnest, low-budget indies that concentrate on the slow delineation of character. Her film, Nomadland, to be released in February, is a melancholy examination of people who have given up their homes in Trump’s America to become wanderers. It’s the antithesis of everything we might expect from The Eternals but maybe that’s the point. Could it be that by hiring directors such as Shortland and Zhao the studios are looking for a different approach to the superhero genre? I’m not convinced. Unless one is prepared to plunge into full-scale parody like Taika Waititi’s Thor, these big-budget machines tend to resist any attempt to inject subtle nuances into the usual recipe of bad dialogue, absurd storylines and wall-to-wall special effects.

Probably the most anticipated movie of 2021 is the new James Bond, No Time to Die, starring Daniel Craig in his final fling as 007, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga – another left-field choice. A new Bond film is always a bombshell and the fans have been left waiting a long time while the studio worried about how to avoid a virus-induced slump in attendances. We’re currently anticipating an April release, a year later than the original release date. As for what we can expect from the film… same old, same old. It’s a routine that’s far too successful to ever consider changing.

The other would-be blockbuster getting fans excited is Hollywood’s latest attempt at making a movie from Frank Herbert’s epic sci fi novel, Dune. I’ve never understood how this badly-written slab of pulp ever became so popular but it has a undeniable cult following. The trick is to translate that cult appeal into the mass appeal of Star Wars. David Lynch showed he was exactly the wrong director for the job in 1984, and now the task has fallen to Canadian, Denis Villeneuve, who made the excellent Arrival in 2016, and the serviceable Blade Runner 2049 in 2017. If Villeneuve can carve a masterpiece out of Dune he’ll deserve every award that’s going. We may expect to find out at the end of September.

The most audacious remake promises to be Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Why would he do it? A trip down memory lane? A touch of directorial megalomania? Perhaps he knows that no matter what we think, this will be a hard film to ignore.

Beyond box office anxieties there are a few features that should be worth waiting for. In my book anything by Wes Anderson is irresistible, and this year we’ll be getting The French Dispatch, a trilogy set in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, starring Timothée Chalamet (also in Dune!) and the usual cast of celebrities in completely unlikely roles.

Netflix is producing an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s award-winning novel, The White Tiger, directed by the talented Ramin Bahrani, but it remains to be seen whether the movie gets a season at the cinema.

Jordan Peel, who has enjoyed two offbeat hits in Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), has written a screenplay for Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta – which he says is a sequel rather than a remake of the 1992 cult horror movie of the same name.

The prolific Ridley Scott, who jumps from genre to genre in fearless fashion, has two films scheduled for release this year: The Last Duel, set in medieval France, starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck; and Gucci, a tale of murder and intrigue within the famous fashion family, starring Lady Gaga.

Damien Chazelle has a follow-up to La La Land, called Babylon, but all we know so far is that Emma Stone has departed and been replaced by the one & only Margot Robbie. She’ll be co-starring with Brad Pitt, forcing the question, is this another musical in which no-one can actually sing or dance?

Adrian Lyne, responsible for a succession of high profile but shallow films, from Flashdance to Nine ½ Weeks, is back with Deep Water, a psychological thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, with Ben Affleck and the sultry Ana de Armas (also starring in No Time to Die). As anything by Highsmith – or rather, anything apart from her late work – is gripping stuff, I’m feeling hopeful. One can be more confident about Last Night in Soho, by Edgar Wright, who showed us what he could do in Baby Driver (2017). A “psychological horror film” set in the London fashion scene of the 1960s, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, what’s not to like?

This brief summary of the year ahead only includes English-language films, and has steered clear of Aussie product, but as shown by the success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), it’s more than likely that many of next year’s best movies will be coming from places far from Hollywood. It would be nice to believe that a year’s enforced abstinence from blockbusters may have induced even a small percentage of movie-goers to adopt a more global perspective.

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 December, 2020