“Spencer” First Look Promises Oscar Opportunity For Kristen Stewart

Although both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have worked tirelessly to establish themselves in the indie and arthouse scene post-Twilight, and both have garnered widespread critical recognition for their work there, mainstream audiences haven’t been so kind to either actor. Pattinson, ironically, had to take a major superhero franchise role before people were finally willing to accept that he’s matured as an actor. And while Stewart certainly isn’t struggling to find work, she deserves – and is consistently denied – the same generosity that people showed to Pattinson when he was cast as Batman.

Spencer
Spencer | metro.co.uk

But if any non-franchise role can be considered equivalent to Batman, it would be Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Decades after her death, she is still just as widely-adored by the public as she was in her lifetime, and any piece of media that deals with her story inevitably becomes the subject of online chatter, heated debate, and intense scrutiny. So when Spencer was announced, and Kristen Stewart was cast in the titular role, that should have been Stewart’s Batman moment. And…it wasn’t. A lot of people dismissed her out of hand because they only know her from Twilight.

Today, a very brief teaser trailer for Spencer was released. It could arguably have done more to showcase Stewart herself, and the work she’s clearly putting into capturing all the facets of Princess Diana, but it got people talking. And for once, they actually had something nice to say about Kristen Stewart. That could just be the Princess Diana love talking, but it seems to me that general audiences – or at least social media – has caught wind of what many Hollywood insiders have recently started reporting: that with Spencer, Kristen Stewart is well on her way towards her very first Academy Award. And just like that, all her haters are suddenly real quiet.

I mean, Spencer looks like classic awards season fare. The dreamy cinematography and faded color palette give it the look of an old family photo-album; a perfect aesthetic to capture for a film that deals with the breakdown of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage in the early 1990’s, and their eventual separation. It comes from Pablo Lerraín, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated biopic Jackie about Jacqueline Kennedy. I think at the very least, Stewart will be nominated – just as Natalie Portman was for Jackie. But if the Academy feels that she’s waited long enough for the recognition she deserves, this could be the perfect moment for her.

Honestly, Stewart’s waited too long at this point. Although she garnered some buzz for Seberg in 2019, it’s been several years since her last serious awards season campaign with Clouds Of Sils Maria, which did earn her a number of awards nominations (the majority from regional critics associations) and several wins – including the first César Award ever presented to an American actress. Spencer is a strong comeback, especially following a few attempts at more mainstream action movies that, while unsuccessful at the box-office, did get Stewart back into the spotlight – right where she needs to be, heading into awards season. She played the long game, and it might pay off in Oscar gold.

Spencer
Princess Diana | Twitter @thr

Now obviously, we’ll need to see her performance in Spencer before we jump to conclusions – and it’s frustrating that this first teaser is more about setting the mood than it is about highlighting Stewart’s portrayal of Diana. For example, although attendees at CinemaCon who saw a longer trailer are adamant that Stewart’s Princess Diana accent is spot-on, it’s impossible for me to say the same when this teaser only has her speak two words. But I’m a big Kristen Stewart fan, so I’m willing to believe her accent is impeccable and her acting is incredible.

Trailer Rating: 7.9/10

Gods And Monsters Clash In “Eternals” 2nd – And Final – Trailer

There’s been some speculation for a while that, given the unyielding November release date for Eternals, Marvel might be positioning their grand epic of gods and monsters for an awards season run. They got all the way to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars with Black Panther, and won three awards there in other categories, so we know it’s not impossible. But can Eternals match that film’s success in a field where Marvel has traditionally been excluded, or even improve on it?

Eternals
Eternals | Twitter @cineternals

If Marvel’s ultimate goal here is nominations or wins in any of the “Big Five” Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress), then they’ve already got a tried-and-true weapon in their arsenal: director Chloé Zhao, who plowed through the last awards season like a juggernaut, picking up a string of Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Academy Awards for her introspective drama Nomadland. Her signature style and name is all over the second and final trailer for Eternals (somehow we skipped right from teaser to final trailer), which was released today at a time beneficial to the West Coast.

That signature style of Zhao’s relies heavily on her affinity for stark, unforgiving natural environments, and her sensitive use of natural light: so from the moment this trailer opens with Salma Hayek’s Ajak traveling by horse across a barren plain with cloud-speckled skies above her, you know Zhao is going to be bringing all of that to the unconventional source material. And this marriage of Marvel’s earth-shattering spectacle with Zhao’s indie filmmaking techniques and stripped-back sensibilities is perfect for the story of Eternals itself; of otherworldly beings accessing the hidden depths of their own humanity, and becoming one with the people of Earth whom they’ve loved from afar for seven-thousand years.

The Eternals, as it turns out, have one job and one job only on Earth – to eradicate a horde of demonic chimeras known as the Deviants. But it seems they may have been a little too good at that: because in the modern day, post-Endgame, the Deviants have been in hiding for millennia and the Eternals have been forced to wait around until they return. Since they’re not supposed to interfere with human affairs that don’t involve the Deviants, that’s forced some of them into an uncomfortable position where they can only watch from the sidelines as humans tear themselves to pieces. Some have already broken the rules entirely and gone to live among the human race, while others have retreated into themselves.

And then there’s Angelina Jolie’s Thena, who I think might secretly be the most important character in the movie. Her mission, as the greatest warrior among the Eternals, was always to lead the charge against the Deviants; but for her, there’s another layer to her internal conflict. While many of the Eternals fell in love with humans and abandoned their divine purpose, Thena is the only one who fell in love with a Deviant – and not just any Deviant, but their leader, a tentacled eldritch being named Kro. I wasn’t sure if this would be carried over from the comics, but the trailer shows Kro lifting Thena into a tender embrace and caressing her face in a way that is equal parts disturbing and…no, actually, it’s just straight-up disturbing. There’s a lot of tentacles going on.

Eternals
Thena | cnet.com

Her teammates have done a bit better for themselves. The matter-manipulating sorceress Sersi is entangled in a love triangle between her Eternal husband Ikaris, from whom she’s now estranged, and Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman – who finally gets to talk in this trailer! We don’t get to see Phastos’ partner, but we know he’s supposed to be Marvel’s first openly gay character, and that he has a husband in the film. As for Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, he’s just living his best life as a Bollywood movie-star. Makkari, Marvel’s first deaf superhero and a speedster who travels by leaping, also seems pretty comfy on Earth, but we haven’t seen much of her lifestyle yet.

On the flip-side, we can see that Ajak mostly keeps to herself and avoids interactions with humans, while the brooding telepath Druig has started a cult in the woods where he mind-controls people – definitely a healthy way of channeling boredom into productivity. Sprite, who is permanently trapped in the body of a child, seems to have entered her gleefully nihilistic phase of wanting the world to be destroyed so that she can finally be released from her humanoid vessel. Even space-gods in the MCU need therapy, it turns out.

But Sprite might be close to getting her wish, since it seems that another group of divine beings known as the Celestials are on their way to Earth to review the Eternals’ accomplishments and pass judgment on the planet as a whole. The Celestials are the gods whom the Eternals serve, and in Marvel Comics lore they’re actually pretty important – but this trailer provides our first good look at them since a flashback in Guardians Of The Galaxy. They’re massive geometrical creatures rendered in vibrant jewel-tones, straight out of the pages of a Jack Kirby comic. I also have a hard time believing they can be killed by mere Eternals, so I suspect the resolution to that storyline will involve the Eternals pleading with the Celestials on behalf of the human race rather than fighting them in some big space-battle.

I can even think of a way to achieve that which would be comics-accurate and visually stunning. In the comics, the Eternals have the power to sync up their minds and become one being comprised of pure light, known as the Uni-Mind. The Uni-Mind embodies all of them at once, and as such would be the perfect vessel for an exploration of the interconnectedness of humanity.

Eternals
A Celestial | cinemablend.com

And I’d be here for it, just saying. Based on everything we know about Eternals, it’s the kind of film where it wouldn’t feel jarring to have it end with a dramatized outpouring of raw emotion, as overly earnest as that might seem on paper. If anyone could pull it off, it would be Zhao, whose love for the planet and respect for ordinary people defines so much of her work. And it would certainly give the film that emotional punch it’ll need if it’s gonna be a serious contender during awards season.

Trailer Rating: 8.5/10

“The Bad Batch” Episode 16 – Clear Skies On Kamino

SPOILERS FOR THE BAD BATCH AHEAD!

I feel like I ought to apologize for how inconsistent and unreliable I’ve been when it comes to reviewing The Bad Batch. I’ve enjoyed almost the entire first season – there was a long stretch in the middle where it was slagging a bit, but to be honest the show has been very well-written, blessed with truly stunning animation and great voice-acting, and filled to the brim with the kind of obscure Star Wars lore that I love. And yet I’ve reviewed only a handful of episodes out of sixteen, in no particular order, and with barely any rhyme or reason. I am genuinely sorry about that, and I hope that the recently-announced second season of The Bad Batch will allow me a chance to make it up to my readers properly, with weekly reviews.

The Bad Batch
Crosshair | slashfilm.com

No promises, though. The biggest difficulty about reviewing any Star Wars animated show – be it The Bad Batch, The Clone Wars, or even sometimes Rebels – is when you get into the adventure-of-the-week episodes that are all…fine. Not great, not bad, just fine. And as much as I loved Rhea Perlman’s sassy crime-lord Cid, a lot of the episodes that involved the Bad Batch going on missions for her tended to lean towards being fine.

But as is so often the case with Star Wars animated series’, The Bad Batch gradually started planting seeds for big plot twists and major character choices down the line as it moved into the back-half of its first season. The two-part finale, which started with last week’s episode and concluded today, builds off those little things sprinkled throughout the season to give us something emotionally satisfying, epic, and consequential…and surprisingly dark and intense, as a bonus. Nobody even died in today’s episode, but that didn’t stop me from feeling terrified on behalf of all of my favorite characters.

Before we jump into the action, just a quick refresher on what’s going on since I didn’t actually review last week’s episode (again, sorry about that). The rain-battered ocean planet of Kamino, once home to the galaxy’s great clone armies, has been abandoned by the last of its cloning personnel, its conniving prime-minister has been executed by the Empire, and an Imperial fleet led by the vicious Admiral Rampart (voiced by Noshir Dalal) is currently unleashing hellfire on the planet’s cloning facilities from the stormy skies. Only the members of the Bad Batch are still stuck on the planet’s swiftly-disintegrating surface, scrambling to find a way back to their starship before everything is submerged in the abyss.

That was a great note on which to end last week’s episode and open today’s – wiping such an iconic Star Wars location off the map entirely, and simply because the Empire has no further plans for the clones but still can’t afford to have cloning technology fall into the hands of other buyers, is cruel, callous, and heartbreaking. Thanks to The Clone Wars‘ frequent use of the setting, we’ve grown attached to Kamino over the years, and we can all feel the clones’ pain at seeing the closest thing most of them have ever had to a home thoroughly destroyed. A brilliant touch is having a clone trooper deliver the news of Kamino’s destruction to Rampart, and hearing his voice crack slightly.

Meanwhile, down in the cloning facilities, that overwhelming pain – mingled with the fear of being crushed to death by the encroaching ocean – leads to some raw confessions from the members of the Bad Batch, who have to work alongside their treacherous former teammate, Crosshair (voiced, like most clones, by Dee Bradley Baker), to survive. Crosshair’s claim that he removed his inhibitor chip long ago but still willingly chose to side with the Empire despite the atrocities he’s witnessed them commit (and which he’s now engaged in himself), is horrifying to the Bad Batch, but it helped me finally realize why the Empire would deem human stormtroopers preferable to clones.

The Bad Batch
The Bad Batch | denofgeek.com

Because humans can be brainwashed, and unlike with clones, that brainwashing isn’t achieved via a piece of technology implanted in one’s head. Real brainwashing, the kind of brainwashing that is very much still utilized by fascists and far-right ideologies in the modern day to obtain an aggressive, twisted form of loyalty, can’t be surgically removed like an inhibitor chip, and the effects don’t just wear off on their own. Real brainwashing changes a person from the inside out, and unlearning it requires active participation from that person. That last part is crucial.

And it’s what Omega (voiced by Michelle Ang) realizes, during several powerful encounters and conversations with Crosshair throughout this episode. Omega’s driving motivation throughout the show has been her own fierce and seemingly unconditional loyalty, so it might be strange to some viewers that she doesn’t try to force Crosshair to return to the Bad Batch at the end of the finale, or even force Hunter and the team to go back for him. But that’s what makes Omega’s loyalty so inspiring – because at the end of the day, she realizes that ultimately Crosshair has to take the first step. His issue isn’t an inhibitor chip that they can physically remove from his head; it’s something he needs to work on. She can’t do that for him.

And when Crosshair’s ready, if he still wants to rejoin the Bad Batch, Omega will be waiting for him. I think that’s a pretty awesome message to send. Most importantly, it doesn’t put the onus on Omega to fix Crosshair or save his soul. There was a lot of discourse about this topic in Raya And The Last Dragon, where the solution to a similar problem seemed to be that if you just keep putting your unconditional faith in a person who has repeatedly and unapologetically hurt you, they’ll eventually change. That’s…untrue, and while I enjoyed that movie, I much prefer The Bad Batch‘s approach to this particular topic. That’s why Crosshair and the Bad Batch splitting up will (hopefully) be healthy for both of them in season two.

The strong focus on Omega and Crosshair in this episode does mean that everybody else gets a little sidelined, with the possible exception of the Kaminoan medical service droid AZI-3 (voiced by Ben Diskin). This isn’t the first time AZI-3 has been integral to the story – in The Clone Wars, he and the clone trooper Fives came within a hair’s breadth of foiling the Empire’s plan with the inhibitor chips – but here he proves that he’s downright heroic, sacrificing himself to save Omega from drowning. Crosshair is able to save both Omega and the droid’s body, but it remains to be seen if AZI-3 will get powered up again in season two.

He’s the only character who “dies” in the finale, but as I mentioned, there’s still a lot of suspense. The episode leans heavily into elements and tropes of the survival genre, and at points feels very evocative of the Subnautica video games – which also involve swimming around alien oceans, evading fearsome sea-monsters and exploring subterranean ruins. As someone with a severe fear of the darkest depths of the ocean, I’m (naturally) obsessed with that premise, and seeing it brought to life in today’s episode of The Bad Batch was unexpected, but thrilling. And, yes, a little terrifying. I was glad when they arrived at the surface to discover clear skies on Kamino for the first time ever, but weirdly that and the black smoke still rising from the sea also felt very Subnautica to me.

The Bad Batch
Kamino | thedirect.com

Luckily, Kamino’s wealth of cloning knowledge will live on through the scientist Nala Se (Gwendoline Yeo), Omega’s mother figure, whom we see being transported on an Imperial shuttle to a forested planet at the end of the episode. If/when we rejoin her in season two, I wouldn’t be surprised if her top-secret cloning work with the Empire is directly linked to the events of The Mandalorian. Remember that Dr. Pershing, who was messing about with Grogu’s midi-chlorians in The Mandalorian, was himself a Kaminoan scientist – which means he had to have been one of the medical personnel evacuated from the planet along with Nala Se, which means we might see him in animated form next year when The Bad Batch returns for season two. Keep an eye out!

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

“Katla” Review!

The devastation left in the wake of a volcanic eruption is immeasurable: lives lost, entire civilizations wiped out, ecosystems and weather patterns thrown off-balance, lands left scarred by rivers of lava and falling ash. But over time, our miraculous planet always finds a way to rebuild. The lava cools and hardens into rock, the rocks are broken down into soil, plants take root again, animals return, humans follow, and the cycle continues: faster in some places than in others. Life doesn’t ever go back to the way it was, but it does come back eventually. And Netflix’s Katla takes that simple premise to an extreme only capable through science-fiction.

Katla
Grima | netflix.com

Katla, Netflix’s first original series produced in Iceland, is named for one of the island nation’s largest and most formidable volcanoes, which hasn’t erupted since 1918. Well, at least in real life. The Netflix series imagines a world where Katla awakens in the present day, forcing the citizens of the nearby village of Vík (also a real place) to flee. The few survivors who stick around, whether to monitor Katla or because they can’t bear to leave the only life they’ve ever known, are themselves hardening and/or breaking down, much like the cooling magma which surrounds them.

But a year after the eruption, as most of the world is too preoccupied with which way the wind will blow Katla’s ash-fall to worry about the people of Vík who stubbornly choose to live in its shadow, the looming mountain sends a new kind of devastation down its slopes and into the village – a quiet, intensely personal devastation that affects each individual differently, as they’re confronted by mysterious strangers who appear to have stumbled out of the volcano’s heart, covered in ash and without any memories of how they ended up that way. These strangers are people from Vík’s past: some are recreations of Katla’s casualties; a few are younger, seemingly happier doppelgangers of people still alive and unwell; one is a murderous child. All are united by a single purpose which is slowly and delicately unfolded over eight episodes.

For a town so depleted by the volcano and its aftereffects, Katla has a surprisingly large ensemble cast – and once the doppelgangers start arriving in droves, that cast quickly becomes so sprawling that it’s a miracle the series is able to maintain its sense of intimacy. The decision to refrain from exploring its most outlandish science-fiction concepts proves a wise one from a purely thematic standpoint because the sci-fi is ultimately only in service of Katla‘s plot, not the plot itself, although I’m sure that will disappoint some viewers who tuned in specifically for the supernatural elements. Similarly, the “cliffhanger” ending can be read as either a thematically satisfying conclusion to the entire story that acknowledges the cyclical nature of life, or an invitation for a second season that’s more akin to what most viewers probably thought they were in for, which is a larger-scale epic. I’d be down for that too.

Katla
Katla | theguardian.com

Katla isn’t exactly small in scope as it is, however – certainly not when the series puts its entire location budget onscreen, with stunning shots of southern Icelandic scenery including Katla itself, the towering prongs of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, and the stark silhouette of the Víkurkirkja. The show’s overwhelmingly bleak cinematography tries to further accentuate the natural beauty of the land and its encircling ocean, although I still felt neither was shot with the dignity they deserve and indeed command. I felt this again when the show finally takes us into the cavernous heart of Katla – yet never gives us a moment to marvel at the mountain’s very real and very beautiful cave system. You know that shot from literally every documentary about speleologists ever, where our human protagonist stands in the pinpoint light from their helmet, dwarfed by the scale of the caves illuminated around them? Yeah, that’s what I was missing.

In contrast, the town and its variety of interior locations are small, bleak, and untidy – reflecting the general malaise that has settled upon the survivors, reducing them to bleary-eyed, weather-beaten shadows of their former selves…former selves who, mind you, come wandering out of Katla looking youthful and radiant once they’ve scrubbed off the ash that coats their bodies. Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð Jóhannesdóttir, who has a vibrant pop-music persona under the stage name GDRN, is here at her most mellow and understated, playing the central character Gríma – a first responder whose grief over losing her sister to the volcano is the impetus for much of what follows, although she has only a tangential connection to the first doppelganger who appears; a Swedish woman named Gunhild (Aliette Opheim) who was involved in an affair with Gríma’s father Þór (Ingvar Sigurdsson) twenty years earlier.

Gríma is an interesting character, albeit very guarded, but Opheim is phenomenal playing two sides of the same coin – the wide-eyed ethereal vagabond Gunhild who walks out of Katla under the assumption that it’s still 2001, and the rigid, world-weary, older version of Gunhild who is still alive and living in Sweden, and is both shocked and shaken to her core when she discovers that her younger self is back, stirring up memories of the traumatic events that shaped her. Although a couple of characters meet versions of themselves, Opheim and Sólveig Arnarsdóttir – playing the once effervescent Magnea, whose arc seems distanced from the rest until near the very end, where it becomes the highlight of the show’s finale – are the best at distinguishing these doppelgangers while subtly emphasizing their similarities to the versions we know in ways I found fascinating.

Katla
Gunhild | paudal.com

Again, this is a slow-burn, suspenseful, character drama – one which masterfully uses the building blocks of good sci-fi, but which never indulges in the sci-fi to the point where it overwhelms the story. If that sounds interesting to you, and you either understand Icelandic or simply don’t mind subtitles (I usually watch non-English media with subtitles, but pick a few scenes to test out the English voice-dub – Katla‘s is better than some, but not good enough to warrant missing out on the beautiful undulating sounds of spoken Icelandic, an endangered language that needs shows like this to remind people why it’s worth speaking), then this series will make an excellent addition to your Netflix watchlist.

Series Rating: 8.5/10