End of 2023 Round Up

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There have been quite a few major releases the last few weeks. So, instead of doing full reviews for each, let’s finish up 2023 (and welcome 2024) by doing mini-reviews for a handful of noteworthy films currently doing the rounds.

Wonka (2023)

Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in Wonka.

Many agreed that a prequel to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) sounded like an awful idea. The original film starring Gene Wilder was wonderfully unique, blending comedy, music, emotional sweetness and occasional scares into a satisfying whole. So, it was slightly worrying to see director Paul King sign on to Wonka (2023), an origin story of the famous chocolatier, starring Timothée Chalamet. However, King has delivered a cinematic delight out of this bad idea. With enjoyable performances, colourful musical numbers, pleasing visual effects and production design, Wonka is a wholesome experience. It’s not quite the achievement King managed with Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017), but it’s close enough.

7/10

Best way to watch it: With plenty of chocolate nearby.

Maestro (2023)

Bradley Cooper in Maestro.

Music biopics are one of the most overdone genres of the last two decades. Many of them follow an incredibly recognisable formula, which is strange because they really should try to realistically explore why the musician was important, as opposed to just following storytelling clichés. Bradley Cooper’s exploration of the famous composer Leonard Bernstein, Maestro (2023), is very aware of this, and goes far out of its way to avoid the overplayed tropes. With stunning direction, beautiful cinematography, and detailed performances from Cooper and Carey Mulligan, Maestro will be a breath of fresh air for many. Sadly, not everyone will be satisfied, as the film barely scratches the surface of what made Bernstein important, culturally relevant or noteworthy. In fact, the main thematic point of the film is frustratingly skin deep.

6/10

Best way to watch it: Maybe going in knowing as little about Leonard Bernstein as possible. You’ll be less disappointed as you won’t know what you missed out on.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023)

Rachel Zegler in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The Hunger Games (2012 – 2014) series was a well intentioned, well produced, very popular, but an ultimately flawed franchise. It is mainly remembered as being one of the better examples of young adult dystopian science fiction, so it was only a matter of time before the series was picked up again. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023) is a prequel set many years before the original story, as it follows the rise of the eventual dictator, President Snow (Tom Blyth). Specifically, the film covers one of the earliest Hunger Games, showing how it transformed from simple Gladiator battles into reality TV. This new adventure contains all of the narrative tropes, themes and ideas of the previous films, compressing it across one, very fast paced character arc. Where the original series made the mistake of drawing this out to unnecessary lengths, this entry has the opposite problem and rushes from tension to tension. While the first two acts are a relatively enjoyable ride, the third act grinds things to an excruciating halt.

5/10

Best way to watch it: Apparently it makes more sense if you read the book first. Which is frustrating, because a film should be able to stand on its own.

The Killer (2023)

Michael Fassbender in The Killer.

David Fincher has a resume many directors envy. Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007) and The Social Network (2010) are only a handful of Fincher’s iconic films, so it’s unsurprising that all of his new releases are held to a very high standard. This is a shame, because The Killer (2023) would be a great achievement if it was done by any other filmmaker. The story follows Michael Fassbender’s mysterious assassin, as he simply hunts down all those who crossed him after a job gone wrong. As it stands, The Killer is a functionally constructed little thriller, but doesn’t have much to say beyond being a metaphor for Fincher’s own directorial meticulousness. That being said, Fincher’s skilled hand does make it exciting, tense and engaging for the majority of the runtime.

6/10

Best way to watch it: Skip to the action scenes.

The Holdovers (2023)

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers.

Alexander Payne has delivered a number of well respected films, yet he is still not a household name. This is because his films have very little rewatch value, despite many of them being interesting, enjoyable and well made. With The Holdovers (2023), Payne has landed on his first re-watchable offering. Set in a boarding school, The Holdovers follows Paul Giamatti’s curmudgeonly history teacher, who is assigned to look after the students without a home to go back to over the holiday period. A nearly faultless comedy-drama, filled with humanity, honesty and emotional integrity. It’s a sobering analysis of fathers, sons and the history they leave behind, in addition to being a delightful Christmas story. With any luck, Payne has created a new favourite for the holiday season.

9/10

Best way to watch it: Christmas Eve.

Rebel Moon (2023)

Bae Doona, Ray Fisher, Staz Nair, Michiel Huisman, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Hunnam, E. Duffy and Djimon Hounsou in Rebel Moon.

A friend of mine once said there are many up and coming directors who would kill for the opportunity to make their own Star Wars inspired space opera. Zack Snyder was probably given that chance due to his iconic status as a visionary filmmaker. However, looking at the finished film, as well as every film he’s made since 300 (2006), and it’s pretty clear that we were too hasty in calling Snyder a visionary. With that in mind, the story kicks off when a peaceful settlement on a distant moon finds itself under threat by an evil empire, prompting a mysterious warrior to round up a band of heroes and save the day. As expected, Rebel Moon (2023) is visually impressive, but is clearly a clichéd mess. With thin characters, boring world building and an exceedingly silly narrative which takes itself too seriously, Rebel Moon is a waste of everyone’s valuable time.

3/10

Best way to watch it: Just rewatch 300 instead if you want your Zack Snyder kick.

Saltburn (2023)

Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in Saltburn.

Emerald Fennell proved her ability to provoke with the magnificent Promising Young Woman (2020), so everyone has been eagerly awaiting her next film. That film is Saltburn (2023), a dark-comedy thriller in which an awkward Oxford student, Oliver (Barry Keoghan) attempts to be close to his crush Felix (Jacob Elordi), by spending the summer break at Felix’s family manor house. As hilarious as it is disturbing, Saltburn won’t be for everyone and it will definitely be hard to watch for the squeamish. For those who can stomach its more risqué content, they’ll be treated to an engaging and frightening analysis of obsession, possession and covetousness.

8/10

Best way to watch it: Not with your parents.

Robert Fantozzi

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