'Spencer' Hopes to Deliver an Oscar for Princess Di
#151: "Spencer," "The Harder They Fall," "Witness," "If Beale Street Could Talk"
Hey movie lovers!
In this week’s newsletter: The swift death of a really good movie has me feeling existential about the future of movies. Somewhere in there we’ll discuss The Last Duel, plus an acknowledgement I don’t really understand the trippy new documentary The Velvet Underground. As always, I’ve got some good streaming suggestions for ya. Then in this week’s “Trailer Watch,” they’ve made a movie out of my favorite video game…ugh.
One might forget, the week after seeing a Wes Anderson movie about magazine journalism and an Edgar Wright noir film, that in fact most movies are not made specifically for me.
I approach Spencer with the clear acknowledgement that I’m not in any way the intended audience for a movie about the emotional reckoning of Princess Diana, and don’t wish to invalidate people’s passions for the British royal family just because I don’t follow their tabloid fodder and have never seen “The Crown,” The Queen, the royal wedding or really any other content fictional or otherwise. (To me, they’re the Kardashians across the pond, and I treat them as such.)
This is a movie which requires its audience to be previously familiar with the specifics of Diana’s story, and preferably to have spent many years reflecting on and analyzing the motives and actions of all stakeholders involved. I checked neither box, but went in with an open mind.
Then I lost all respect for what this movie was trying to do after a simple text card came up before it even started.
“A fable based on a true tragedy.”
That sentence says it all. It’s an admission that the story about to unfold is not the truth, strictly speaking, which is the thing that would make it powerful. AND the substitute of “tragedy” is editorializing to let us know preemptively that the movie is very clearly taking Diana’s side.
The next two hours proved as much. Parsing what the movie got “right” or “wrong” is burdensome and doesn’t correct the feeling that what was shown didn’t matter all that much. Anything meant to be revelatory felt like a total construction, often with a remarkable lack of subtlety — I mean seriously, can it get more on-the-nose than the persecuted Diana reading a book about Anne Boleyn called “The Life and Death of a Martyr” throughout the movie? (I expected better from accomplished writer and “Peaky Blinders” showrunner Steven Knight.)
This kind of dramatized feminist legacy reclamation isn’t necessarily new to director Pablo Larraín, known for his Kennedy biopic Jackie. And it isn’t an altogether unworthy goal, but it’s hardly fresh, considering in the last year alone there’s been an entire prestige TV season about her (“The Crown” season 4) and a new Broadway musical (“Diana: The Musical”).
The over-saturation points to an unceasing interest in Princess Di as a person and a public figure, and to the true reason for the movie’s existence: as Oscar bait for lead actress Kristen Stewart.
It’s working. Stewart is currently the unanimous odds-on favorite to win Best Actress, and now that I’ve seen the performance I can pretty confidently say that the enthusiasm here is actually a groundswell of support for Diana herself, rather than the acting.
The same thing happened with Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, a truly hollow performance that won him Best Actor behind a celebration of the real life and premature death of Mercury, highlighted by literal karaoke of his voice and dancing in the movie. Stewart’s version of this karaoke is the elaborate and true-to-life outfits she wears throughout the movie, playing to one of Diana’s greatest strengths as a fashion icon.
Stewart is a performer I’ve always respected and enjoyed, despite her tendency to pick or otherwise end up in bad movies. I’d like to think, though I don’t know because I hasn’t seen much real life news footage, that she captures some essence of what Diana was like, which people who obsess over her are responding to.
I hope so anyway, because it’s difficult to see what about this performance should be rewarded aside from the imitation. It’s a fairly one-note portrayal, or I suppose two-note if you count an alternating sequence of brooding and pouting. Aside from a few heartfelt scenes with her kids (who royal fans will identify as “Will!” and “Harry!”), that’s pretty much how the entire movie unfolds: brooding and pouting, pouting and brooding. Puking and crying and brooding and pouting.
The affectation comes across as entirely justified, but only within the context of the royal bubble. To the outside world it’s hard, for me anyway, to conjure a ton of sympathy for someone simply because they aren’t allowed to wear the hand-picked designer outfit designated for Christmas Day dinner during Christmas Eve tea. Yes, she may drive her own car with no entourage, but she’s still driving a Porsche.
The movie hints at that double standard, and the most effective parts of the movie play to the upstairs-downstairs duality of upper British society. Sean Harris’ performance as the head chef is the MVP of the movie for me, and I’d rather have watched a two-hour movie about his crew of culinary artisans working under a sign in the basement that reads, “Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you.”
For more of that sort of thing, I’m told I need to watch “Downtown Abbey.” Frankly, I suggest you do the same, rather than waste your time with this movie. Unless you’re a die hard Diana fan, in which case please reach out and tell me what I’m not understanding here!
The Harder They Fall (Netflix): Across the wide breadth of American history which has been thoroughly whitewashed, movies cannot deny their central influence in homogenizing the wild, wild west. I didn’t even know until the promotional material for this movie that 25 to 30 percent of cowboys at one point in the late 1800s were African-American.
This movie truly surpassed any expectations I had for it because it leaned into its blackness in a satisfying way. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a Third Wave minority movie! We’ve left behind cartoonish caricatures of the First Wave and navigated past plots which only allow for personal experiences in the Second Wave to allow FINALLY for a story which wholeheartedly embraces its diversity without needing to make a statement about doing so. The storytelling is cliché, presenting an almost brazen paint-by-numbers western about a man out for revenge against the outlaw who killed his parents. He’s got a gang, the bad guy has a gang, they meet in an old timey town and shoot ‘em up. We’ve seen it a million times.
But because the style so proudly represents black culture from across the diaspora, all the familiar story elements feel fresh, and in fact feel as if history is being rewritten and corrected on the spot. And yes, the look of the movie is at points an almost identical copy of Quentin Tarintino’s Django Unchained, but fewer people remember that Tarintino learned a lot of his techniques from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Big props to first time feature writer-director Jeymes Samuel.
Fulfilling the roles of these real life cowboy figures is an all-star cast: rising superstar Jonathan Majors as the white hat against Idris Elba as the black hat. Zazie Beetz squares off against Regina King (ehem, that’s Oscar Winner Regina King to you). Lakeith Stanfield is way overqualified for a third banana, as are familiar TV faces Damon Wayans Jr., RJ Cyler and Edi Gathegi.
Westerns have mostly fallen out of favor in modern Hollywood so if it’s been a while since you last watched one, I definitely recommend this Third Wave triumph.
Witness (1985, HBO Max): Wanna see a really good movie that I promise would never get made today? Try this, ostensibly a spy thriller about a police detective (Harrison Ford) protecting a young boy who witnessed a murder he shouldn’t have, but in reality spends most of its run time on Ford’s fish-out-of-water lifestyle in the Amish community with which he’s hiding. You’ve got Kelly McGillis as a love interest, a young Viggo Mortensen, and Danny Glover playing the same role he plays in every movie (a grizzled and grumpy cop). It’s a peak movie star performance from Ford and backed by an Oscar winning script into a perfect 80s-era popcorn classic.
Something to Stream
If Beale Street Could Talk (Hulu): Somehow the lofty praise from my Jan. 2019 review of this movie wasn’t nearly complimentary enough upon rewatch. This isn’t just one of the best movies of that year, it’s one of the best of the decade and maybe even the century. Every aspect of the movie is masterful, from the production design to Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous direction to the fantastic acting performances. This was the type of movie watching experience that just made me happy because I was so overwhelmingly impressed by each passing moment. It’s a story about young love, a surprise pregnancy, and a wrongful arrest and imprisonment, and it’s beautiful, sentimental, romantic, and also hard-hitting when it needs to be. But above all the movie produces a level of empathy that I find really powerful. This is a really special movie, and if you haven’t gotten to it yet you’re in for a real treat.
Trailer Watch: Silent Night
Mark my words, Christmas movies are back on the rise. The success of Happiest Season last year has awoken the industry to the potential of gimmicky news pegs, and there’s nothing movie makers love more than a good gimmick to potentially get butts in seats.
To that end, remember that really cute kid from Jojo Rabbit? He’s back in a movie written and directed by his mother, who to this point has only done a handful of short films. That might leave one questioning the project, but this trailer really won me over with its clever premise — an apocalyptic black comedy about one final Christmas Eve before the world ends — and an extremely impressive cast of female performers: Keira Knightley (who has an insanely high hit rate), Annabelle Wallis, Lily Rose-Depp, Lily Punch, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (who I love in “Barry”). I support the Christmas movie revival!
Trailer Watch: Being the Ricardos
I couldn’t decide which trailer to pick so I did both! There were rumblings that this movie was being pushed to next year, which is why it didn’t show up on my list of 20 must-see movies of this awards season. And yet, here it is, coming to theaters Dec. 10 and Amazon Prime soon after.
Aaron Sorkin is turning into quite the prolific auteur, pulling writer and director double-duties one year after The Trial of the Chicago 7 for this story about Lucile Ball and her marriage to Desi Arnaz. With a heavy hitting cast of Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons and headline with a handful of TV supporting stars, and that signature Sorkin dialogue, I wouldn’t put any ceiling on how good this movie could be.