Sunday, February 5, 2023

Barbarian

Movie Name:
Barbarian
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Zach Cregger
Starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgaard, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, Kurt Braunohler, Jaymes Butler, Sophie Sorensen, Rachel Fowler, J.R. Esposito, Kate Nichols
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
The low budget "Barbarian" was one of the surprise hits of 2022 and placed actor/writer/director Zach Cregger as a name to watch out for. The film focuses its attention on Tess Marshall, whom we soon witness arriving at a rundown Detroit neighborhood to spend the night, since she's up for a job interview the following day. Her Air BNB however has been double booked, and is already occupied. The current occupant introduces himself as Keith, and is also surprised by the situation. Since it's late he decides to invite her in, and they settle on sleeping arrangements. The next day she goes for her interview and is warned about the area where she's staying. A homeless man also tells her to leave. She becomes locked in the basement and uncovers a hidden corridor which leads to a room with a video recorder, a mattress and a bloody footprint. When Keith returns, he frees Tess and decides to investigate the hidden corridor. When he doesn't show up, Tess goes seek him out, and uncovers a subterranean tunnel which is attached to the corridor, where she finds Keith injured. They are both attacked by a naked woman who kills Keith and takes Tess. A few weeks later AJ, an actor living in LA and the house's owner, is involved in a misconduct scandal, which prompts him to have to rethink his living arrangements and cost management. He flies to Detroit to inspect the house before selling it, and finds Tess and Keith's materials still in it. As he investigates the basement and tunnel beneath the house, he's also attacked by the same naked woman, and is taken as prisoner.
"Barbarian" caught everyone's attention due to the tilts that are contained in the narrative, both with the introduction and addition of AJ's character, and also with the context as to what was the origin of the whole "creature", with the flashback towards Frank's character. However these tilts and changes in direction, while adding interesting layers to the events taking place in the narrative, they can't hide the fact that these characters are rather flimsy in their description and embodiment. Tess and Keith are rather generic constructs, and only Justin Long's AJ actually has more dimension to himself, portraying someone who is rather egocentric and selfish, ultimately only looking out for himself. The director manages to create a suspenseful environment, however the more he starts showing the entity, the less interesting the events surrounding it become. By the end the film becomes rather trivial. The apparent triviality of the premise and the journey it takes its characters on, while peppered with some interesting details, it ultimately falls into the trappings of gory horror films. The cast tries their best with the material they have, and Justin Long is a great addition to the narrative and its best highlight. The production team is effective, with a solid cinematography from Zach Kuperstein, and score from Anna Drubich. It's a watchable film though not necessarily a memorable one.

The Stranger

Movie Name:
The Stranger
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Thomas M. Wright
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Jada Alberts, Steve Mouzakis, Matthew Sunderland, Fletcher Humphrys, Alan Dukes, Ewen Leslie, Gary Waddell, Sean Dealey
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
"The Stranger" which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 is actor/writer/director Thomas M. Wright's second feature, following the well received "Acute Misfortune". The film is based on the true story of the investigation of the disappearance and murder of Daniel Morcombe. The film introduces us to Henry Teague, whom we soon learn has a minor record for assault, or so he discloses. He strikes a friendship with Paul Emery on a bus trip, who mentions he can put him in touch with good people and an Organization which will help him get back on his feet. Henry soon meets Mark Frame, and alongside with Paul, they give Teague the impression that the Organization they work for has heft and ties with all sorts of institutions which can help erase any wrongdoings he has done, as long as he is honest and transparent about his past. Henry is soon made aware Paul is being moved, since he has apparently gotten himself into some sort of trouble. Henry helps getting him a new passport and plane ticket so he can get out of the country. Mark in the meantime starts introducing Henry to the leads of the Organization, with the constant demand always being that he is completely transparent about his past with all of them. As it turns out, Mark, Paul and everyone in the Organization are undercover policemen, and they are trying to uncover the disappearance and murder of a young boy years earlier. As Mark relays what he has been finding out about Teague, who is using a false name, they soon realize they have to procure a confession in order for the case to hold in court. As the pressure mounts, Henry finally caves in and confesses to more wrongdoings. 
"The Stranger" is a meticulous procedural based feature, one that takes its time in revealing who all the players in the narrative actually are. When the narrative starts unfolding, there's a sense of meticulousness to this activity and Organization that Henry is about to join, which builds a suitably enigmatic environment both for the character and for the audience, which persists throughout most of the feature. We never get to learn much about Henry, or Mark and any of the supporting characters, aside from the investigation in which they are involved. And that's possibly one of the less accomplished aspects of the film: the characters are largely cyphers, never showing much of who they are, since they all have secrets (Henry's criminal past and Mark's police investigator role). While there isn't much in terms of characterization of the key players, their interactions are nonetheless always compelling, always strategically tense, where questions are posed and relationships established just to elicit a specific type of reaction/response. The film is very successful in building this universe and context, while also focusing specifically on the relationship of Henry and Mark, without ever making it into some clichéd narrative device. All the cast is impeccable, with highlights going to Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ewen Leslie and Matthew Sunderland. The production team is equally superb, featuring a great score from Oliver Coates, cinematography from Sam Chiplin and production design from Leah Popple. A solid film worth watching. 

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Movie Name:
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Anthony Fabian
Starring: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Ellen Thomas, Rose Williams, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancelor, Christian McKay, Bertrand Poncet, Freddie Fox, Guilaine Londez, Roxane Duran, Delroy Atkinson, Vincent Martin, Dorottya Ilosvai, Philippe Bertin
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
The always stupendous Lesley Manville finally gets a film centered around her, and this lovely fantasy from writer/director Anthony Fabian not only takes her on a fantastic trip, but also surrounds her with some iconic and unforgettable talent. The film, which is an adaptation of the novel by Paul Gallico (originally published in 1958, in what became a series with a few additional books with the same character, adapted to the screen by director Fabian and Carroll Cartwright), follows the story of Mrs. Harris, a widower who in 1957 makes ends meet by working as a cleaning lady (and she has a few regular clients). One of her more affluent clients has some haute couture in her closet, which fascinates Mrs. Harris, who longs to wear an own such a dazzling dress. When she unexpectedly receives a war-widow's pension, she decides she has saved enough to go to Paris, and get a Dior dress of her own. Upon arrival she quickly forges some friendships at the train station, but also at Dior's showing, which she manages to get in, even if she doesn't have an invitation (she manages to do so, courtesy of the gallant Marquis de Chassagne who takes an interest in her). Mrs. Harris hones in on one dress that has been on the runway, but has to settle for another one, since a more affluent client chooses the same one just to spite her. Dior agrees to make a dress for her, since she's paying cash, and the Couture House has fallen on hard times. While she waits for the dress to be made, Mrs. Harris stays with a newfound friend, André, the Dior accountant who in turn is interested in the beautiful Natasha, a model for the house. As Mrs. Harris gets familiarized with a new life in Paris, her joy and practicality start influencing those around her.
"Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris" follows Anthony Fabian's previous directorial efforts, namely "Good Hope" a documentary focused on South Africa and "Louder than Words", a film which featured David Duchovny, Hope Davis and Timothy Hutton. "Mrs. Harris..." manages to capture the central character as somewhat of a radiant beam of energy and positivity, even when she's dealt with some harsh challenges (including the death of her husband, and during her experience in Paris, the realization that the Marquis' interest isn't what she originally thought of). The director smartly focuses on her journey, and giving us her vision of the world, which even though somewhat idyllic, it is nonetheless fascinating and populated with colorful characters (both in Paris and in London). While many of the supporting characters don't get quite as much of a dimension and arc as Mrs. Harris, the director manages to give additional attention to Isabelle Huppert's Madame Colbert, unearthing the vulnerability behind her somewhat icy demeanor, while also giving just enough attention to Jason Isaacs' Archie (as the potential love interest) and Lucas Bravo and Alba Baptista's blooming romance. It's a feature that while not achieving the flow and refinement of some of James Ivory's/Merchant Ivory releases, it solidly creates a vivid and fantastical universe that is centered around a great set of characters. The cast is fantastic, commandeered by Lesley Manville, who gets wonderful support from the iconic Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancelor, and Christian McKay. The production team is equally impeccable, including Felix Wiedemann's cinematography, production design by the fantastic Luciana Arrighi and costumes from the celebrated Jenny Beavan. Worth watching!

She Said

Movie Name:
She Said
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Maria Schrader
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton, Ashley Judd, Peter Friedman, Adam Shapiro, Tom Pelphrey, Zach Grenier, Angela Yeoh, Gregg Edelman
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
Director (and also actor/writer/producer, though not in this particular project) Maria Schrader is back, following the well received "I'm Your Man" which went through the festival circuit in 2021 to considerable accolades. This new endeavor is an adaptation of the reporting and book by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (with Rebecca Corbett in the case of the article), which tackled the decades of abuse inflicted by Harvey Weinstein, which also turned out to be a catalyst for the "Me Too" movement that has since occurred. The film follows the story of Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, both investigative journalists at The New York Times. While they're initially not working/collaborating together on the same project, particularly since Megan recently had a baby and is dealing with some issues of her own, they soon join forces, once Jodi receives a tip that actress Rose McGowan was sexually assaulted by well known film producer Harvey Weinstein, and Megan has had experience in writing about such topics. They both start the process of uncovering the latitude and extension of these wrongdoings, by investigating and uncovering other women who have been equally victims of Weinstein. That includes other Hollywood actresses such as Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow, and a series of women who worked directly in the periphery of the producer's arena, namely assistants. The more they probe, the more they realize this is a problem that has existed for decades, and that through a series of settlements and non-disclosure agreements, Weinstein has avoided any legal consequences. They fly out to meet with former assistants of the producer in California and also in London, where they uncover more details to the stories surrounding his wrongdoings. They are also informed Ronan Farrow is writing a similar exposé, but they soldier on with their investigation. As Weinstein tries to discredit the women who have come forward, and by extension the reporting, the more the team at The New York Times perseveres in making sure the article is supported by claims and documents.
"She Said" immediately brings to mind two celebrated films: Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" and the more recent "Spotlight" from director Tom McCarthy. All these films tackle very pertinent and relevant topics, but at the end of the day in order for a narrative to be truly compelling, it has to be anchored in characters who make the feature both riveting and arresting. And that is probably the Achilles' heel of this film: while the topic of the narrative is toweringly relevant and pertinent, the characters who are pushing for it, namely the two central reporters, they both feel somewhat under-developed beyond the typical cliché of what a newspaper reporter is suppose to look and act like (worth revisiting Ron Howard's "The Paper" to be reminded of those clichés once more). Essentially we get a very brief insight into who the reporters are, the same way we get very little insight into the victims of Weinstein. The film focuses on the investigative process, which includes the attempts Weinstein does to bury the exposé, and while the content of the film is indeed potent, some additional color on the characters themselves would have brought the film to another dimension (who are the people behind the reporting). In trying to be objective and respectful towards the topic at hand, the film ends up not having much of a point of view on the characters that exist in it. And while lack of judgment on characters is always welcomed, the film could have benefited of expanding a bit more on who Jodi, Megan and Rebecca are (the same going for some of the victims). The cast is uniformly good, with particular highlight going for Carey Mulligan, who gives her character a range of emotions, from a fraught recent mother to an unassuming yet authoritative news reporter (she alone makes the film worth watching). The cinematography from Natasha Braier is solid, as is the score from Nicholas Britell and costumes by Brittany Loar. Worth watching.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Paycheck

Movie Name:
Paycheck
Year of Release: 2003
Director: John Wood
Starring: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall, Peter Friedman, Kathryn Morris, Ivana Milicevic, Christopher Kennedy
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
After "Windtalkers" failed to elicit much of a reaction both from audiences and reviewers, director John Woo bounced back with an adaption of Philip K. Dick's short story "Paycheck", adapted to the screen by Dean Georgaris, who at the time had also tackled the script for Jan de Bont's "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life". The narrative focuses on the life of Michael Jennings a gifted engineer who works on highly secretive projects for clients, who require extreme non disclosure agreements which manifests themselves in memory wipes he has to go through in order to comply with those. His college roommate James Rethrick offers him a highly lucrative contract, which will last for three years and will require for him to stay at Rethrick's company's campus. Three years later when we wakes up from the memory wipe, he realizes his compensation amounts to 92 million dollars, but when he goes to see his lawyer, he discovers he himself had given all the stocks/funds away just a week ago. He is given an envelope which contains an assortment of items, which he can't fathom what their purpose is. At the same time he is detained by the FBI, who accuses him of having access to classified documents. When the FBI tries to access his memories, they can't see a thing, but Michael eventually escapes and tries to make sense of what is taking place. At the same time, Rethrick and his team go on Michael's trail, which leads him to believe something more sinister occurred during the years of his employment.
"Paycheck" is an economical and prescient short story from Philip K. Dick, who after the successful adaptation of "Minority Report" in 2002 by Steven Spielberg, was once again a desirable intellectual property. For the most part the premise for the film is an interesting one, almost akin to an episode of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone", one that mixes concepts of time travel and corporate greed, but in the hands of John Woo it sadly devolves into a rather bland action film, one that lacks style and substance. Michael Jennings' pursuit of his life for the last three years, lacks a sense of urgency and despair, the same going for James Rethrick's corporate villainy, who more closely resembles cartoon type greed, as opposed to someone who wants to keep power and build upon it ("Succession" style). Uma Thurman's character in the meantime is even more perplexing: the same year she appeared in a complex (and stylized) film such as Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 1", she managed to also appear on this film, where her character literally has no motivation, arc or purpose, aside of being Michael Jennings' "love interest". It's a film where John Woo tries to insert some of his stylistic trademarks (people pulling guns on each other at close range, doves flying in slow motion from doors in climatic moments), but sadly the film feels poorly shot and choreographed (the chase scenes are cringeworthy), and ultimately lifeless. With such a pulpy storyline, one would expect something more energetic and riveting, but the characters lack any real dimension (Paul Giamatti's best friend character is also completely wasted), and the film ultimately feels like it was shot on auto-pilot. The cinematography from Jeffrey L. Kimball fails to create a futuristic scenario, or for that matter, a particularly memorable one, whereas the production design from William Sandell and costumes from Erica Edell Phillips are simply forgettable. This is a film where all the pieces were there, but the director's point of view failed to marry the material and bring out something distinct. It's not offensively bad, but it is forgettable. 

Elvis

Movie Name:
Elvis
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey, Dacre Montgomery, Leon Ford, Gary Clark Jr., Yola, Natasha Bassett
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
After nearly a decade away from the big screen, writer/director Baz Luhrmann is back, with his own unique take on the life of rock icon Elvis Presley. The film focuses its narrative on the relationship that is established between Elvis Presley and his commandeering business manager & agent, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker narrates the story, providing some context on where Presley grew up and where he eventually settled, Memphis, and how be became enraptured by the raw energy and charisma of Presley on one of his live performances. Upon taking management of Presley's career, his rise to stardom is a fast one, taking the family from sudden poverty to considerable wealth. At the same time, the controversy surrounding Presley increases, from his overly unconventional performances, to his sound, considered by the segregationists as too "black". As Parker also comes progressively under scrutiny and following a particularly charged concert, Presley is drafted into the Army as a way to curb his prosecutors, and also remove focus from Parker himself. As the 60s roll on and civil rights movements become increasingly more visible, and even more so after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Presley has a desire to become more politically conscientious in his songs, something that Parker strongly discourages. They come to a halt when Elvis stages a comeback special with a Christmas Special. While Presley wants to go on and start a world tour, the controlling Parker manages to arrange for a long standing contract with the International Hotel in Vegas, which ends up consuming Presley's career and life.
Baz Luhrmann has been able to carve out an interesting career for himself, one where his distinct point of view which includes an eye for baroque art direction, married with modern pop culture references, somehow permeate a lot of his material, even when he adapts classic pieces of literature (case in point, his version of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", two of his best features). His take on what can be considered a "biopic" while being faithful to his point of view, ends up flailing on two particularly relevant aspects: character construction and humanizing the characters he's showcasing on screen. The film has quite a few strong elements to it, namely how it manages to infuse and capture the joy of music throughout most of the narrative, also its illustration of the impact of African-American culture and the "birthing" of rock and roll through the particularly energetic episode featuring Little Richard, and its "Forrest Gump" like manner of showcasing the social upheavals of American society, yet none of these details further cement or gives nuance to all these characters. Baz Luhrmann in this film, probably more so than in any of his prior features, comes across as someone who firstly privileges his brand and aesthetic in detriment of the ability to tell a story and do it so with actual palpable and existing characters. And while abstract exercises in excess can be a rewarding view, the film eventually runs out of energy, since it portrays the characters consistently the same, always through the same lens, never giving them any nuance. That's the case of the puzzling performance of Tom Hanks, who is truly perplexing in this role, giving at times the impression of mimicking Randy Quaid in one of the National Lampoon films. His rendition of Colonel Parker, is always a svengali to Presley, never letting that facade down. The same thing going for Presley, who aside from his relationship with his mother, all others are pushed aside or even barely scraped at (including his relationship with his father and with his wife, Priscilla). Austin Butler has the mannerisms properly captured, but in the end, it feels like a hollowed puppet in a film where lots of visual devises and gimmickry are utilized, without giving him an opportunity to be an actual person. The cinematography, costume and production design are strong as always, but in the end, this film puts on a show but fails to register the humanity of those who are in the limelight. It's a not so interesting exercise from a director who has done better in the past. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

I Came By

Movie Name:
I Came By
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Babak Anvari
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Kelly Macdonald, Percelle Ascott, George MacKay, Franc Ashman, Varada Sethu, Yazdan Qafouri, Max Mindell, Antonio Aakeel
Genre: Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Another release hailing from Netflix, this thriller hails from writer/director Babak Anvari (who collaborated on the script with Namsi Khan), following his work on the Hulu film, "Wounds". The film focuses on a series of characters surrounding Toby Nealey, a graffiti artist with a social agenda, who breaks into homes of upper class individuals, always leaving behind his trademark, a message stating "I Came By" on their walls. His latest target is Hector Blake, a retired judge. When Toby invades his house, he discovers a pottery studio and also an imprisoned man in the basement. Shocked by his findings, he quickly reports on them to his friend and former accomplice Jay, who doesn't do much, since he has problems of his own, namely his girlfriend just found out she's pregnant. He also reports the situation to the police, who find nothing. When Toby goes back to release the man in the basement, Hector murders him and disposes of the body using the kiln he has in the studio. Toby's mom Lizzie becomes preoccupied with his lack of news, and starts following Hector since he mentioned him to her. She eventually witnesses an Iranian man escape from Hector's house, a man he had brought home and drugged with the promise of helping him secure a more permanent immigration status. Hector eventually tracks this man once again, and the allure of his position and influence, convince the young man to come back to his home, where he's killed. Lizzie desperate due to the lack of news from Toby, suspects the worse and wants Jay to help her anyway he can. He refuses to do so, due to his fear of losing his relationship with his girlfriend. Lizzie goes back to surveilling Hector, and finds a way to get inside his residence. However she doesn't realize Hector has known of her trailing all along.
"I Came By" tries to be a thriller with a conscience. A morally and socially relevant feature, one that tackles some of the injustices in modern society, how the status (and affluence) of a few gives them somewhat of a free reign when it comes to getting away with murder (in this case, literally so). Toby comes across as a slightly more intrusive and less talented version of Banksy, and while the film depicts his intentions as somewhat noble and fair, the character is never given much dimension beyond this particular aspect, the same going for all the remaining characters. The female characters in particular get a very limited and cliched perspective and characterization in this feature, oscillating between manipulative/shrill, desperate or in the case of the law enforcement one, conscientious but less than effective. The main villainous character is also never given enough room to be forceful or menacing, or for that matter, be portrayed with enough nuance and detail in which the character truly comes to life. There's some echoes here from David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", but they're very faint and not as effective and clinical as that film. The cast tries their best with the material they have, particularly the always fantastic Hugh Bonneville and the underrated Kelly Macdonald, who both bring edginess and emotion respectively, to a film that is rather under-developed. Not a particularly memorable film. 

The Vanishing

Movie Name:
The Vanishing
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Kristoffer Nyholm
Starring: Peter Mullan, Gerard Butler, Connor Swindells, Soren Malling, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Emma King, Gary Lewis, Ken Drury, Gary Kane
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
After an extensive career directing various television shows and made for TV films, "The Vanishing" is Kristoffer Nyholm's feature directorial debut. It is based on an actual event which took place in 1900, where three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared. The film adaptation written by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone (both with fairly extensive careers as performers, more so than as writers), focuses on the narrative of three men who are hired for a six-week shift on the remote Flannan Isles Lighthouse. Donald, the youngest is also the most inexperienced and is learning the trade from his colleagues, James and Thomas. The robust and strong James has a family whereas the slightly older Thomas is mourning the loss of his wife and children. As they all get settled, and following a particularly harsh storm, they discover that someone has washed ashore, alongside a wooden chest. When Donald descends from the cliff to go and help the individual, he spurts to life and viciously attacks him. Donal barely manages to survive, but kills the man in self-defense. While initially against checking what's in the chest, they eventually check it, and discover gold bars, which they all agree to split amongst each other. However, soon enough another boat shows up, with two men who identify themselves as crew mates of the man Donald killed. Thomas makes up a lie, and while there's some tension, the men leave, until they realize they've been had. When they return to the lighthouse, things quickly escalate. 
"The Vanishing" has the benefit of being a film where there's considerable restraint in what is staged (in the sense there's no hyperbolic violence for instance) and where the director focuses on illustrating the narrative by simultaneously leveraging his talented cast, but also the remoteness of the locale itself. There's almost a stage play/theater aspect to this narrative, where these three men living in isolation, and at different points in their lives, get to know each other slightly better, until an extraordinary event forces them to deal with both their survival instincts, but also brings to light their darker and greedier sides. It's a fairly competent film, in the sense that the director economically captures the distinction between these three main characters, even though the script itself doesn't provide much in terms of the journey in which they find themselves in (they're nearly much blank canvases before the events of the Lighthouse). The cast vividly brings the narrative to life, particularly the always stupendous Peter Mullan who is one of the most underrated British actors working these days, with solid support from Gerard Butler (always nice to see him in films that are not part of the sub-par roster he produces and releases almost on a yearly basis) and Connor Swindells (who is one of the revelations of the Netflix show, "Sex Education"). The cinematography from Jorgen Johansson is solid, as is the production design from Jacqueline Abrahams and costumes from Pam Downe. Worth watching. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

She Hate Me

Movie Name:
She Hate Me
Year of Release: 2004
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Ellen Barkin, Dania Ramirez, Woody Harrelson, Monica Bellucci, John Turturro, Jim Brown, Lonette McKee, Brian Dennehy, Bai Ling, Ossie Davis, Jamel Debbouze, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Bennent, Isiah Washington Jr., Joie Lee, Sarita Choudhury, Savannah Haske, Chris Tardio, Rick Aiello, Alison Folland, Paula Jai Parker
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon Prime

Synopsis and Review
Director Spike Lee followed the stupendous "The 25th Hour" with a not so interesting film, one filled with many ideas, but where the restraint and his unique and unapologetic points of view on topics of race, relationships and this time around, corporate malfeasance seem to have been poorly rendered. The film follows the story of Jack Armstrong, a young and successful man, currently a VP for a pharmaceutical/biotech company that is about to uncover a powerful new drug which will revolutionize HIV/AIDS treatment. Things start to spiral out of control when Dr. Herman Schiller, the main scientist at this company and a friend of Jack's commits suicide, leaving behind documentation which attests to the company's corruption. He is soon falsely accused of securities fraud, and fired from his position, alongside all of his assets getting frozen. His boss in the meantime also sabotages whatever other opportunities he applies for, by painting him in a negative light to everyone who will listen in the industry. An unexpected revenue source comes forth when his ex-fiancée Fatima shows up with her partner Alex in tow. Fatima we soon learn, cancelled their pending nuptials when she discovered she wanted to pursue relationships with women (and their break up was a painful one when Jack found Fatima with another woman). She and Alex both want to get pregnant at the same time, and instead of going down the road of artificial insemination, want to pay him 10K to get the job done. Fatima soon proposes this as a reliable hustle for Jack, where he impregnates lesbians for 10K each, giving up his parental rights, and herself taking a small commission. While he initially goes along with it, particularly since he still harbors feelings for her, things start getting complicated soon enough.
"She Hate Me" is a film brimming with ideas, and as is typical of Spike Lee, with interestingly specific episodes which typically add further dimension to the story he's narrating (they all come back to sustain the main narrative thread he is putting forth). The problem this time around, is the fact that the film tries to tackle white collar corruption and profiteering, mixed with gender roles and sexual dynamics, relationship and familial issues, on top of further discussing issues related to expected roles and race in society. All very lofty ambitions, and sadly just a melange of ideas and threads that don't necessarily merge in a very successful manner. There was (and there is) indeed something to be said about the corporate corruption thread, that is briefly illustrated in the film, and perfectly embodied by Woody Harrelson. However, as the story evolves and also becomes a take on sexual roles, and the whole aspect of the central character actually impregnating lesbian women, that's where the quality and even taste aspect of the narrative starts going in a downward spiral. Even if that thread of the narrative is being positioned as a satire, it mostly feels like a clichéd, heteronormative view of what homosexuality actually is (aka, as if lesbian women spend their time waiting for a heterosexual man to impregnate them, as a means to avoid artificial insemination). This aspect of the narrative, married with Jack's unresolved relationship with Fatima ends up taking away much of the actual credibility the narrative tries to establish. And while people's sexuality is a richly layered topic, here it mostly comes across as something that Fatima needed to experience once again from having sex with Jack, to suddenly realize she was actually something else. Ultimately, there's a lot of diverse threads happening in this feature, and they simply don't successfully work together. Most characters have absolutely no dimension (John Turturro's character is one of them), and while the cast is populated with terrific actors, including Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, the film simply doesn't make a good showcase for them. Ellen Barking, Jim Brown and Woody Harrelson end up walking with their reputation unscathed. It's a miss from a very talented film maker. 

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Movie Name:
Lady Chatterley's Lover
Year of Release: 2022
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Starring: Emma Corrin, Jack O'Connell, Matthew Duckett, Joely Richardson, Faye Marsay, Ella Hunt, Anthony Brophy
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Another release hailing from Netflix, this is yet another adaptation of the novel by D.H. Lawrence, with the script adaptation this time around coming from the authorship of David Magee, who is well known for his scripts for Marc Forster's "Finding Neverland" and Ang Lee's "Life of Pi", to name but a few. The narrative focuses on the story of Constance/Connie Chatterley whom we first encounter getting married to Sir Clifford Chatterley. He is soon dispatched to war (World War I), where he sustains serious injuries which render him paralyzed. Upon his return, he and Connie move to his family's estate. Their relationship is however fractured, since he is unable to be intimate with her. Connie initially tends to all of Clifford's needs, but eventually and following her sister's intervention, additional help is hired, so that Connie's challenges and pressures subside. In the interim she also ingratiates herself with the population of the county, and becomes aware of the challenges facing the miners who work for her husband. She also becomes acquainted with the game keeper of the family's property, himself someone who returned from War, only to find his wife gone with someone else. They share a sexual tryst, which soon evolves into an amorous affair, which threatens to destroy the relationship Connie has with Clifford.
This particular literary property has seen a fair amount of adaptations before. The most notable one is of course the celebrated "Lady Chatterley" directed by Pascale Ferran, featuring Marina Sands and Jean-Louis Coulloc'h as Constance and the gamekeeper. That film was greeted with great reviews and a plethora of awards, since it managed to portray the relationship between those two characters without sensationalism, but with the right amount of realism and romanticism. This new version from Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, in her sophomore feature directorial effort, isn't necessarily a poorly executed film, as it is more of an easily forgettable one. For all of the ample duration of the film, this adaptation never truly sheds much light as to whom Constance actually is and what she wants out of her life, the same going for Oliver, the initial object of her lust that becomes her romantic lover. While the original novel from D.H. Lawrence trailed his topics of regeneration in relationships, and also issues of class and industrialization, some of these are very lightly touched upon in this adaptation. Ultimately the issue with this adaptation, is the fact that it doesn't really bring a distinct point of view to the material. It's not as hermetically positioned and polished as a Merchant Ivory film, and not as daringly transgressive as the work of say Lars Von Trier or even the feminist & humanist perspectives from Sofia Coppola or Jane Campion. It comes across as a polished made for TV adaptation, one that never truly soars. The cast tries their best with the material, and while Emma Corrin fares fairly well, there's a certain lack of chemistry with both Jack O'Connell and Matthew Duckett (both of which play their characters in a very limited range). The remaining supporting characters have very little opportunity and screen time to make themselves visible, with the always wonderful Joely Richardson being the most underutilized talent of the group (she played Lady Chatterley herself in a Ken Russell directed mini series in the early 1990s). The production team is solid, including the beautiful cinematography from Benoit Delhomme and costume design from Emma Fryer. Watchable but forgettable.