First watches: Discoveries in film | January 2024

A woman with her own baby’s brain, jaunty chocolate snacks, a Hollywood wannabe, and four unwelcome guests.

7 min readFeb 13, 2024

Poor Things (2023)

Her unique perspective produces not only insufferable behavior but incredible wisdom.

This film’s happy just doing its own thing; quirky like a Tim Burton flick but not as predictable. We’re talking big, bold, beautiful sets, enhanced with CGI. It seems Bella (Emma Stone) is tumbling through 3D colouring books. She stumbles, of course, because she’s a science experiment. The product of a twisted genius akin to Frankenstein (played by Willem Dafoe). His unique idea was to replace a dead mother’s brain… with that of her baby’s. I wasn’t entirely onboard, given everything was in black and white for a while and this seemed bleak. But I was won round.

It’s super watchable with a laissez-faire approach to its principles and to its audience. Director Yorgos Lanthimos saw Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (maybe, who knows) and said, “I’ll raise you.” Where that is a feminist’s wet dream, doused in pink, and overt in its political messaging, the characters in Poor Things don’t go to great lengths to spell their feelings out — in fact, this is what separates Bella from her friends and comrades— the point is to have fun. As she grows and learns about herself, her body, the world around her, and emotions (like love, jealousy, and pity) she speaks her discoveries aloud, unthinkingly — much to the disdain of her various boyfriends.

Mark Ruffalo is excellent as Duncan Wedderburn, a renowned sex fiend and womaniser who thinks of himself as the best lover. Bella’s confused honesty crushes his confidence; he resorts to throwing his arms round his face in fits of exasperation. She simply can’t get to grips with “love” being conflated with ownership and ritual. Her unique perspective produces not only insufferable behavior but incredible wisdom. Harry (who’s a whole vibe) tries bringing her down to earth with hard facts — but she still finds a way to draw a line under the very worst of humanity and withstand a truly weird life.

The Mask (2023)

A hyperactive critique of online echo-chambers and digital schadenfreude.

This is a short film, coming in at just 25 minutes, but there’s so much involved that it’s almost like watching something longer on double speed. The Mask — not to be confused with Jim Carrey’s — is a hyperactive critique of online echo-chambers and digital schadenfreude. IT IS DENSLEY PACKED. And honestly, it seems like Conner O’Malley (who directs and stars as Tyler) has uncovered the future of filmmaking. I’m often wondering which directors land on the most convincing techniques for storytelling through social media. Cat Person did well. This hits the nail on the head.

I’ve seen it said elsewhere that the influx of multi-verse films comes as a reflection of our society’s increasingly busy and multi-layered lives. We watch films and scroll our phones simultaneously. None of us can commit to any one thing without multi-tasking, unless we kiss goodbye to modern life and start a farm — which, in 2024, ushers in a whole other host of issues. There are different versions of us that exist online simultaneously — versions we no longer affiliate with. And we all wonder, obviously, what’s going on behind each others’ Instagrams, because we’ve learnt they’re not the whole truth. The Mask captures this chaos.

It takes all of this mental noise and crushes it down into a fast-paced tale about a manic fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, an improvisational comedy gameshow. His ambitions swell and seem a bit farfetched… but he’s full of hope, going so far as to move to Hollywood and perform in the streets to passersby. His roommate takes advantage of his inevitable knocks and bruises and gradually starts to push him away from innocent naivety, towards crazy conspiracies. All of this is told through the social media lens. While you watch, think of how much footage needed to be compiled for this to look so breezy and effortless.

Knock at the Cabin (2023)

I left feeling satisfied, terrified, and wholesome — what a combo!

Disturbing and ominous but also frantic and fun. M. Night Shyamalan is certainly a hit-and-miss director. Signs, The Sixth Sense, and The Village are renowned as brilliant horror-esque entries — but it’s best to avoid the insultingly dumb Old and sci-fi snore-fest, After Earth. Knock at the Cabin, however, is a short, snappy, philosophical thriller at precisely 100 minutes. I was expecting it to have an absolutely dire ending, but actually, it turned out great. I left feeling satisfied, terrified, and wholesome — what a combo! I’m shocked this proved divisive among critics.

I’ll confess the acting seems marginally off kilter at times, but I’d be a bit off kilter myself in this predicament too, so it adds authenticity in a way. The central mystery remains compelling throughout; many little revelations unfurl themselves at just the right time. The pacing’s bang on; no long stretch in the middle of pure confusion like in Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling — rather, we’re given answers and new questions spring up in their place. If this is the end of the world, why are four freaks from a message board wielding axes. What’s the correlation?

None of this would be as fascinating without stellar, desperate performances from the central trio — two dads and their daughter — as well as all four of the maniacs who break in. My favourite maniac is Dave Bautista, who’s as imposing as he is soft spoken, and offers as much clarity as he does confusion. This is a fantastic and rare example of a film that’s not ABOUT being gay but enhanced by using gay characters. It adds an extra dash of complexity and intrigue. A straight couple certainly wouldn’t presume to have been targeted because of their sexuality.

Wonka (2023)

There’s enough of a driving force for it to feel like an important emotional chapter for Wonka.

I wasn’t interested in seeing this at all. I’ve never seen the original movie — something about the way it looks just creeps me out. And the only thing I liked about the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was Danny Elfman’s freakish score. The trailers for this new “origin” story, if you like, seemed dull. Frankly I’ve seen enough of twinky Timothy to last a lifetime. But then I heard someone mention that it’s a musical. Intriguing! Then — sealing my fate — I learned that my favourite artist, Neil Hannon, had written the songs with composer Joby Talbot (who paired, also, for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

So, I had no choice but to watch it. I went in curious, somewhat doubtful, but finished feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s illogical and cheesy (just like a stage musical)… but oh, it’s so irresistibly cheerful! When characters chomp down on one of Wonka’s delicious treats, they roll their eyes back and smile from ear to ear — the film casts a similar spell on moviegoers. It’s oddly, unpredictably beautiful, with magical costuming and set design. And as hoped, the songs are a delight, and if you squint, you can hear echoes from across decades of The Divine Comedy.

The story itself doesn’t have much to do with any factory, but there’s enough of a driving force for it to feel like an important emotional chapter for Wonka. Olivia Colman really impressed me; she plays her part like a Victorian occupant of Albert Square. Tim Davis, with her, offers a fantastic comic performance. And even the Oompa Loompa has a vital role to play. It’s a surprisingly star-studded cast. What’s more, they’re having so much fun — everyone’s turned up to eleven. Clearly Paul King is a dream to work with and, based on this, I’m clamoring to watch the Paddington films, about which I’ve heard nothing but good things.

Poor Things (2023)

Honorable mentions:

  • G♭ (2023) — Only short but very powerful. Huge respect to Richard Wilson, 87 and bringing me to tears.
  • This Is Gay (2023) — Comedy skits about those pesky “Homosexualists”. Offbeat, dark humour. Echoes Brass Eye.
  • Quiz (2020) — A compelling “ITV courtroom drama” recalling the most brazen onscreen *cough*swindle*cough* in history.

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