10/23/2020

Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Review: Reversal of Fortune (1990)


Now Available


“I could do anything to you in your sleep.” 

A twisted hypothetical that's played for laughs by Nancy Travis and Mike Myers in 1993's underrated comedic thriller So I Married an Axe Murderer becomes a sinister threat that lives in the back of our mind in filmmaker Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune.

A dramatization of one of the most shocking and notorious court cases of the late twentieth century, the film – based on the book by defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz – puts us immediately off balance. Plunging the viewer right into the heart of the crime (if, indeed, there's been one), within its first five minutes, we start to question just what exactly the ever-shady, emotionally detached Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) did or did not do to his socialite wife Sunny (Glenn Close), that's left the woman in a coma from which she will never awaken. 

The second near-fatal incident to send her to the hospital, almost one year to the day of her first (which might have been an overdose), in its aftermath, Sunny's grown children from her previous marriage hire their own detectives to investigate their stepfather. Gathering enough evidence for a trial, the children and their experts secure Claus von Bülow's swift, thirty-year conviction for attempted murder. 


In nearly every other case – the ones that don't involve the rich, of course – this is where the story would end. Ask any policeman who the first suspect in an attack on a woman is and they'll tell you it's her husband, boyfriend, or ex-lover without batting an eye. But is it that simple here? 

A hypodermic needle encrusted with insulin found in a black medical bag among Claus' possessions was the trial's smoking gun but whose needle is it really? And what about that bag? A sleazy drug dealer to the rich (played with slicked-back yuppie swagger by Fisher Stevens) claims it belonged to Sunny's son, as in the same son who employed the detective who conducted an unlawful search and “found” it among his step-father's things. 

Was he procuring drugs for his mother? Did the hypoglycemic Sunny use insulin just like she used aspirin – which she popped like Tic-Tacs – or alcohol, which she drank like a fish while celebrating Christmas? And what about the timing of Sunny's collapse, which seems to have occurred just when the couple was talking about divorcing after Claus violated their extramarital understanding by having an affair with a woman (Julie Hagerty) who moved in the same circles that they did? 

All of these questions fascinate the brilliant yet morally flexible lawyer Alan Dershowitz (a fine Ron Silver), who Claus contacts to handle his appeal. Initially turning the case down because he thinks it's a no-win and the man is guilty, at the same time, this question of whether or not the wealthy deserve equal due process under the law appeals to Alan on an academic level. What right do the rich have to hire and build their own case with their own police to exact the justice they feel they deserve? Even if he's guilty as sin, was Claus railroaded? And if he can be railroaded, doesn't that mean it's worse for the rest of us or it might be if Alan were to leave him to rot?


Working with his best and brightest legal students, along with his colleague and ex-lover (well played by the criminally underutilized Annabella Sciorra), Alan uses Claus to finance his pro-bono work but then discovers that he not only doubts much of the evidence used to convict his client but also believes the man is innocent.

Fueled by the eerily objective narration from a nearly beyond the grave Sunny (a terrific Glenn Close), director Barbet Schroeder crafts a creepy, biting satire of the amoral, tawdry, and privileged in the '80s. Yet Reversal of Fortune plays with even more sinister nuance, calculated menace, and resigned malaise in today's era of a president who skirts justice at every turn. Furthermore, thirty-five years after Dershowitz wrote the book that At Close Range screenwriter Nick Kazan adapted for the screen that turned him into a complex crusader, now Trump too has the advantage of Dershowitz's legendary defense capabilities for himself.

But while all of that makes the film more meta in this new, immaculate Blu-ray release from Warner Archive, which coincides with its thirtieth anniversary, the biggest reason to watch Reversal of Fortune in 2020 is the same as it was in 1990 when Jeremy Irons walked away with the Academy Award for Best Actor for his astonishingly unnerving performance.

Finding a single vowel in each word to accentuate by stretching it past the breaking point of his British baritone, every syllable that Irons says onscreen as Claus sounds as dazzlingly extemporaneous as it does lived-in and rehearsed. Although some might argue it's too affected, this approach fits von Bülow perfectly. A different kind of villain, in Irons' Claus, we're faced with someone who's as much a devious yet innocent man caught between a rock and a hard place as he is the guiltiest figure who's ever lived. 

Adopting an artful way of holding his cigarette like a sword and leaning back in each scene like a rattlesnake ready to strike, this is an actor at his most masterfully self-possessed. Taking his portrayal of Claus right to the edge of Niagara Falls, Irons cheekily sends him over in a barrel every so often, before he quickly dries off, and climbs right back to the top again. A staggering accomplishment all around, he never lets his performance descend into the realm of caricature. 


Making us more sympathetic towards Claus concerning the question of his guilt at the exact same time that we become even more repulsed by his true feelings about women, once Kazan, Schroeder, and Irons unearth suspicions about previous deaths that have followed Claus to the United States from England, they leave us reeling.

A sardonic, coal-black study of the upper crust, as well as the double standards of the law when it comes to the different economic classes, Reversal of Fortune is an uneasy film about good and evil that we can't easily shake. Angering, delighting, shocking, and frustrating viewers in equal measure (as much for the questions it answers as the ones it doesn't), this movie gets under our skin and attacks the bloodstream. Leaving us obsessed, it takes over like an injection that may or may not have been administered in our sleep.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/21/2020

Film Movement Movie Review: Coming Home Again (2019)


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Nothing nourishes you quite like your mother. Whether it's the time you spend in the womb absorbing the nutrients from her body, her milk when you're a baby, or the meals she makes you with love growing up, you feel sustenance even if the only thing you're faced with is her reassuring smile.

It's this connection that Chang-rae (Justin Chon) wants to forge once again or rather, needs to now that his mother (Jackie Chung) is so close to death. A first-generation Korean American who leaves his job and his life in New York to return home to care for his terminally ill mother in San Francisco, when “Coming Home Again” opens, we watch him begin to prepare his mother's signature kalbi recipe for their New Year's Eve dinner.

Slicing short ribs with care so that the bone begins to fall away but remains connected, in his voice-over narration, Chang-rae explains that the meat needs that link for taste because it borrows its richness from the bone. An obvious metaphor for his relationship with his mother, even though stomach cancer has cruelly taken away her ability to eat, he continues to pay tribute to the recipe that she loved to make, and the one that keeps them connected like flesh and bone.

A quiet, experimental effort based on Chang-Rae Lee's eponymous 1995 “New Yorker” essay, which the award-winning author co-wrote with filmmaker Wayne Wang, “Coming Home Again” is an intensely personal, if not overly successful chronicle of the many stages of grief that come to us in waves as we go from knowing someone is going to die to watching that process play out.

Flooded by natural light, with the film's sparse production design, frames within frames, frequent use of reflective surfaces and elements to signify emptiness, and wide, static shots that go on longer than most contemporary fare, director Wayne Wang pays tribute to the intimate chamber dramas of Yasujirō Ozu, Chantal Akerman, and others who've made this genre their bread and butter. 


A filmmaker with a significant background helming successful studio ventures like “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan” in the '90s and early '00s, in 1995, Wang crafted one of my all-time favorite films in “Smoke,” which, along with its freewheeling follow-up “Blue in the Face,” were made in collaboration with the iconoclastic author Paul Auster. 

No stranger to working with acclaimed creators on personal projects, “Coming Home Again,” finds him back in “Smoke” like terrain once again. An opus that celebrated storytelling and human connection, which is what “Coming Home Again” sets out to do too, although Wang has said he prefers independent filmmaking because it allows him to breathe in ways that stressful studio projects do not, this film pales in comparison to “Smoke.” 

Confusingly edited to the point that I had absolutely no idea that a bulk of the film took place over the course of one day until I discovered so in my research, “Coming Home Again” is filled with conversations and flashbacks that weave in and out of the main narrative in ways that feel more random than purposeful.

Unable to shed its roots as a personal essay brought awkwardly to the screen, “Coming Home Again,” plays like a short film stretched past its breaking point to reach the eighty-six-minute length of a feature. Treating time and memory like a state of mind in flashbacks, this practice extends to the experience overall, making “Coming Home Again” feel nearly twice as long.

Employing a few bold techniques that we usually attribute to the theater, in the film's flashback scenes, we quickly realize that Chon appears to be roughly the same age as Chung, which says something about the way that time moves both forward and backward concurrently as well as the duo's complex dynamic. This intriguing casting decision also illustrates the number of roles a family member can play in our lives. In several poignant flashbacks, Chung feels more like Chon's sister than his mother, especially when contrasted with the actress portraying his sister whose maternal energy is evident as the two argue about whether it's time to give in to their mother's wish to let her, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “go gentle into that good night” or “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Overly reliant on the performance of Chon as Chang-rae, which is at its strongest when the actor has something major to fight against, such as when he goes head-to-head with Christians who've come to pray but offer no answers, “Coming Home Again” shortchanges the rest of its cast to its overall detriment.


Ending the film the same way that Chang-rae Lee did his original essay, which served the print version infinitely better than Wang's film, while our minds keep absorbing and digesting the rhythms of the words of the piece as written, onscreen the sudden final sequence plays as though the film's real conclusion had been left on the cutting room floor. 

Filming many scenes from afar, there's one particularly moving sequence, which finds cinematographer Richard Wong's camera stationed in the base of the kitchen where the New Year's Eve dinner Chang-rae has been preparing awaits offscreen. Using two frames within the frame beautifully, in this affecting mise-en-scene, we sense both the nourishment offered by Chang-rae Lee's mother back when she used the kitchen religiously as well as its absence now that the table in the foreground is empty and she's stuck in the bed located in the background.

Frustratingly, the sequence sums up not only the meaning of the film in one immaculate, painterly shot but also highlights what is missing from the work overall. Feeling less like a film than a collection of occasionally clever frames, performances, and scenes in search of a connective thread, in the end, “Coming Home Again” needs the tender richness of a true narrative the way that Chang-rae needs his mother, his mother needs Chang-rae, and kalbi needs the bone.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/15/2020

Film Movement Movie Review: White Riot (2019)


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Once upon a time, Eric Clapton lost his mind. Stopping a show in Birmingham to ask any "foreigners" in the audience to raise their hands, he told them he wanted them gone, not just from the concert but his country altogether. "I don't want you here," he shouted. "I think we should send them all back...We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man … This is Great Britain, a white country!"

The year was 1976. As shocking as these words were back then and remain to this day, when it came to views like these, Eric Clapton was far from alone. Joined in supporting the new rise of fascism in the UK, David Bowie argued that Britain was ready for a fascist leader and called Adolf Hitler the first rock star in an interview with "Playboy." Following Clapton's lead, Rod Stewart went even further, giving a full-throated endorsement for racist National Front political party member Enoch Powell, saying that he too thought it was time for foreigners to leave. But this position wasn't just coming from those in rock. With punk taking over the music scene in Britain, The Sex Pistols, Adam Ant, and Siouxsie and the Banshees were just three punk groups who openly embraced Nazi symbolism and swastikas in their costumes and performances.


What the hell was going on, you might ask? The short answer is that in the mid to late '70s, England was rampant with anger and hate. Inundated with job loss and scapegoating the problems of the country on immigrant "invaders" with "black, brown, and yellow faces," as the National Front ranted in their rallies, Britain's tide was turning in a horrific direction. Watching this happen in real-time, rock photographer Red Saunders vowed to do whatever he could to stop the impending flood of xenophobia before it was too late.

Writing an open letter to Clapton, whose music, he rightfully charged, was cribbed directly from Black blues artists, Saunders sounded the alarm and offered a solution. "We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music," he wrote. Leaving his contact information in the letter for interested parties, after his missive was printed in music publications across the UK, Saunders was overwhelmed by the response.


Joining forces with gifted graphic designers, writers, photographers, musicians, and artists, they formed the group Rock Against Racism to reach the youths of England in an attempt to educate the younger generation against propagandist hate. Hosting events where they purposely had Black and white bands playing back-to-back, the organization put on more than two hundred shows in its first year and created a fanzine called "Temporary Hoarding," which addressed the real-world problems of racist policing, the Catholic side of the North Ireland conflict, sexual violence, immigration, LGBT issues, and other topics which were ignored by the mainstream press.

Chronicling the legacy of the group while bringing issues of "Temporary Hoarding" bursting to life through vibrant animation (which filmmaker Rubika Shah acknowledges was inspired by the films of Brett Morgan, including "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck"), "White Riot" is a lively time capsule of a fraught period in England made eerily prescient due to recent events.

Watching the arguments made by the National Front in the wake of MAGA, Trump, the murderous Nazi march on Charlottesville, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the advent of increasing fascism around the globe, "White Riot" plays like one of the scariest horror films you'll see ahead of Halloween. From bullets in the mailbox to assaults against musicians and concertgoers to the open police support for the National Front and their policies, it's a harrowing document of a fraught era in British history and the brave artists, organizations, and youths who dared to join forces to put hate in its place.


Interviewing not only Red Saunders and his colleagues but also some of the musicians who played Rock Against Racism (or RAR) gigs, including The Tom Robinson Band and Alien Kulture, while Shah's film admittedly suffers from a lack of focus as it seems to adjust and expand its thesis every time a vital new issue is introduced, it's an urgent eye-opener, nonetheless. Releasing to virtual cinemas from Film Movement ahead of the U.S. election, it's sure to inspire viewers to get involved, stay involved, and – here in the states, at least – vote.

Featuring amazing archival interviews, photos, and concert footage with bands including The Clash, Sham 69, Matumbi, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, and more, "White Riot," which gets its name from a widely misunderstood Clash song off their first album, is of particular interest to UK music fans. Celebrating the grassroots movement that started in an east London print shop and exploded into a legendary carnival so important that The Clash swallowed their egos and played second to last before event headliner Tom Robinson (who'd been with RAR from the very beginning), the debut feature from Shah promises great filmmaking from the documentarian to come.

Clocking in at a mere eighty minutes, "White Riot," is the film equivalent of a punk song. Frenetically edited, it hits its thematic chords hard to drive home the message, ensuring that, unlike Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff," this is one refrain you'll be glad to get stuck in your head long after it’s done.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/13/2020

Blu-ray Review: Focus Features - 10 Movie Spotlight Collection: Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pride & Prejudice (2005), Brokeback Mountain, Atonement, Burn After Reading, Moonrise Kingdom, The Theory of Everything, On the Basis of Sex, & Harriet (2019)


Now Available



After merging Gramercy Pictures and October Films together to form USA Films in 2000 (the same year the studio released Steven Soderbergh's Academy Award winning Traffic), NBC Universal realized that they weren't quite done making changes with their new label. 

Hoping to live up to the reputation of the acclaimed releases produced by their prestigious acquisitions (which also included Good Machine and Polygram Filmed Entertainment), this new amalgamation of USA Films and Universal Focus became Focus Features in 2002. A serious rival of Miramax first, followed by The Weinstein Company, over the past eighteen years, Focus has produced some of the world's most popular art-house fare, from big moneymakers like Brokeback Mountain to early aught cult favorites like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Oscar winners like Atonement

Known for their particular – or, for lack of a better word – “focus” on matters of the heart, this spotlight collection serves up ten of the studio's most acclaimed and/or original titles released over a sixteen-year period from 2003 to 2019. Packaging together ten Blu-ray discs along with a digital code to give consumers access to the collection in portable high definition format as well, the box set includes the following films (in chronological order): Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pride & Prejudice, Brokeback Mountain, Atonement, Burn After Reading, Moonrise Kingdom, The Theory of Everything, On the Basis of Sex, and Harriet

Newly available in time for holiday gift-giving, as I began watching the movies contained in the Focus Features Spotlight Collection, I realized that it's best to appreciate the set as a whole as opposed to ten disparate parts. Not wanting to write ten in-depth, old-school reviews and bore you senseless, I've opted to take my cue from the company behind the films instead. Focusing on recurring themes, techniques, and/or personnel utilized throughout the collection, I'll work my way through the library of titles by heart, rather than weave my way through each one chronologically from one year to the next.

Note: Some of these films I have much more to say about than others, and in talking about the things that fascinate me most, you will find a few minor Spoilers Ahead


There's something about the hands of a man filled with desire that – to pay homage to an oft-quoted (and somewhat controversial) line from his 2005 Jane Austen adaptation Pride & Prejudice – has bewitched filmmaker Joe Wright body and soul. We see it first in Pride as Matthew Macfadyen's Mr. Darcy helps Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) into a carriage. Still ablaze from the electricity that exists between the two, after their hands touch, Darcy involuntarily flexes his own when he lets go. Revisiting this motif later, once Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the field and she accepts, it's his hand she first kisses and embraces as if to let him know that she had felt it too. 

With chipped paint, slightly greasy hair, and dresses that look like they've been worn many times before, of all of the film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, this is the most lived-in version of Jane Austen's novel we've seen so far. While not as all-encompassing as the 1995 BBC miniseries, which is my personal favorite incarnation of Pride, Wright's adaptation deftly illustrates both the realism of the period and the difference between the classes right from the start and again when we contrast the cozy, messy Bennet home, which has fallen into disrepair with the ornate, museum-like quality of Darcy's ostentatious estate of Pemberley.

Spending more time with the men of Austen's novel than we traditionally do onscreen, in Macfadyen's tender portrayal we see the longing, anger, and frustration of Darcy as he wages an internal battle of what he should say to his love and when. In fact, in this adaptation penned by Deborah Moggach (with additional dialogue by an uncredited Emma Thompson), there's a very funny sequence where Darcy and his best friend Bingley (Simon Woods) retreat from the Bennets' home after a short, intensely awkward visit, only to return less than ten minutes later, and finally follow through with one of their proposals.

A gorgeous first feature from the veteran television director, Joe Wright took the lushest elements of Pride, including its instantly classic score by composer Dario Marianelli as well as lead actress Keira Knightley, among others, and with them, crafted another masterpiece just two years later in 2007's Atonement


Adapted from Ian McEwan's heartbreaking novel by Les Liaisons Dangereuses playwright Christopher Hampton, Atonement tells the story of two would-be lovers – again of different classes – whose burgeoning romance is ripped apart by the overactive imagination of Knightley's young, confused sister, played by Saoirse Ronan.

Once again emphasizing subtle tactile eroticism, which goes a long way in proving to filmmakers that there's more than one way to film a love scene (including scenes that don't even include overt sex), in one swoon-worthy sequence, Knightley's character impulsively strips down to her slip. Diving into a fountain, she retrieves a piece of a priceless pitcher that had been broken in a playful struggle with the college-aged son of her housekeeper (James McAvoy).

Dripping with water, she emerges victoriously, suddenly self-conscious about her behavior, which undoubtedly would've been harmless as a child but is now loaded with sexual tension since the two are adults. Blushing, she dresses in a hurry. And as McAvoy turns respectfully, Wright has his gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey film a close-up of the actor's hand. We watch as his thumb slowly, involuntarily strokes the handle of the broken pitcher, the way we gather he wants to do with the woman he loves, who is in the background of the shot.

Establishing a water motif early on, which returns in a haunting climax in the film's final act, there are no accidents in Wright's exquisitely crafted work. Paying off on everything that has come before it in largely unexpected ways, Atonement plays like an entirely different movie in subsequent viewings. A devastatingly beautiful tragedy of miscommunication and missed connection, from Dario Marianelli's inventive score, which uses a typewriter as a vital musical instrument to a bravura, over five-minute long shot where McAvoy and other WWII soldiers wander through a crowded beach at Dunkirk, Atonement is Wright's finest achievement thus far.

But the delicate desire of a man’s hand in a Joe Wright movie takes on a rougher, tougher, but no-less romantically tortured meaning in Ang Lee's 2005 stunner Brokeback Mountain, which screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana adapted from the Annie Proulx short story. 


Chronicling the decades-long romance between two closeted cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, whereas Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is the more open and optimistic of the pair in his wish that both leave their faux straight lives as married men and instead live together on a ranch, Ledger plays his lead Ennis Del Mar like, as he famously stated, a “clenched fist.”

Closed-off, withdrawn, alert for any sign of danger in being found out, and quick to anger, Ennis speaks with clenched teeth and sits in a crumpled posture. Averting his eyes, he swings that ready fist without warning. Unfortunately, his need to keep it clenched destroys his own chances at happiness in the film as we discover that the person he really wants to hit is himself.

Much like Wright's period pieces, Brokeback Mountain plays up the subtle heat between the two with little sneaked looks out of the periphery. In fact, early on in their relationship, Lee uses the side and rearview mirrors on either of the men's trucks to convey their interest, or the reflection of a knife as Jack peels potatoes and sees a naked Ennis change into his clothes out of the corner of his eye. Much like McAvoy did with the pitcher in Atonement, Gyllenhaal's Jack struggles to keep his hands busy before he can touch his love.

Eventually able to let down his guard enough to let Jack Twist in, in one of the film's most poignant moments, Ennis opens his fist long enough to clench his hand around an old shirt he finds at Jack's later on. Feeling like we're witnessing something incredibly intimate and private, we can hardly bear to look at this affecting sequence head-on. Taking a cue from Lee and the cowboys at the heart of the tale, Brokeback Mountain is a film that you feel like you almost need to watch in little peeks out at the periphery, while trying, of course, not to clench your first in the hope that they get the happily ever after you know deep down isn't coming. 


Equal parts Wong Kar-wai, Michelangelo Antonioni, and that distinctly, intrinsically, indefinable quality that is Sofia Coppola, the dreamlike romanticism of her 2003 art-house favorite Lost in Translation is all about that subtle, unexpected pull you feel towards someone else.

Setting her somewhat autobiographical film in Tokyo in order for both of her lonely, insomniac leads to feel not only adrift in their marriages but also lost at sea without a beacon, once early twenty-something Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) meets movie star in a mid-life crisis Bob Harris (Bill Murray), they find the compass they've been looking for in each other.

Developing a fast friendship – and it has to be accelerated because when you're an outsider in a new land, you're going to connect faster than you would back home – in the film's most exquisite sequence, the two go out for a wild night on the town. Winding up in a karaoke bar (as one does in Japan), under the guise of old pop songs, they're at last able to tell each other exactly what they're thinking and feeling. Using the lyrics that someone else wrote as cover, they sing and emote, sharing sideways glances so intense that multiple times, Charlotte not only blushes but finds herself needing to look away.

Yet Coppola knows that her sophisticated characters wouldn't just embark on some impulsive sexual affair. Hitting a rough patch after Bob's impetuous one-night stand with a lounge singer, our writer-director wisely intuits that sex with someone you care so much about is a far scarier, potentially life-altering, and combustible enough prospect and that, if they were to go there, it could blow up in their faces.

Understanding that we've all felt this way about someone before – since love is all about timing after all – Coppola's movie points out that sometimes when we're pulled with a magnetic force to someone new, there are things in our life that just don't sync up. Yet through Bob and Charlotte, she argues that it's better to have this connection than anything else. And as we follow along on the duo's journey from cinematographer Lance Acord's dizzying, disorienting camera angles at the beginning of the film when they're on their own to the more assured and settled frames when they're together, we quickly realize that we couldn't agree more.

Brought to life by the wildly charismatic Murray and the charming, sweetly mischievous Johansson, the couple's adventures play out against a soundscape of ethereal, romantic alternative songs from bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. And through the combination of their chemistry, the music, and the lyrical imagery of Coppola's film, the incandescent lights of Tokyo burn not only hot but exceptionally, unforgettably bright. 


Unforgettable is the watchword when it comes to Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a thrillingly imaginative endeavor based on an original screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. A freewheeling journey through a relationship that's ended, the film finds a desperate man (Jim Carrey) attempting to free himself from heartache by undergoing a drastic medical procedure to wipe his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) from his brain.

Realizing after the fact that with the pain, he'll soon lose the love and all of the memories of happiness that went with it, as the professionals (including Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst) get to work, Carrey fights to save his relationship with Winslet's Clementine from the garbage bin one last time. Trying to access the deepest recesses of his brain, he leads Winslet's veritable manic pixie dream girl on a long crazy love chase through his subconscious, unsure whether they're destined to repeat past mistakes, get trapped in old baggage and biases, or if there might actually be a positive outcome in sight.

An incredibly personal film that no two people will ever see the same way (which is par for the course of not just every film, but doubly so for those written by Kaufman), it's also one that I feel you should first watch alone. Weirdly cemented in my brain as the official film of my parents' divorce, when I ventured to the theater to see Eternal Sunshine with my mom back in 2004, we stopped to check the mail, only to receive the official confirmation that her marriage to my father was no more. And while this was a very positive development in all of our lives as my parents are both so much happier today, taking my mom to see a film that was advertised like a quirky romantic comedy but – especially with this news fresh in our mind – played more like a kick to the solar plexus with a steel-toed boot was easily one of the dumbest movie-going decisions of my life.

Watching it a second time with a film studies class I attended as a visitor in '05, even though I was able to disassociate enough to focus on the framing, themes, motifs, and other techniques sure to be discussed after the film, it still felt like watching years of intense Freudian analysis suddenly reach a breaking point all at once. Bound to call up things that, much like Carrey's lead ascertains, you either might not want to look at again or thought you forgot, regardless of your romantic background, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will put you through the wringer.

As gorgeously moving as it is excruciatingly haunting, just when you think its spiraled way too far out of control, the cast and crew tether us to the film's humanity in the strangest of scenes and the oddest of times. Although it focuses overtly on memory, Sunshine makes the case that even if you sever someone's romantic attachment to another, one thing that does not change is our nature or that Mr. Darcy-like flicker of attraction that ignites when we're presented with the same human stimuli. In the end, Carrey discovers that you can try to fight love but you can't fight science. As embedded together as they are, the film proves that as much as we'd like to clear something from our mind, on the most molecular or chemical of levels, love, it seems, is as impossible to deny as it is to forget.

Love as a driving force has been a throughline in writer-director Wes Anderson’s filmography from the very beginning, and nowhere does he celebrate that with more innocence, audacity, and verve than in Moonrise Kingdom.



Set on the fictional New England island of New Penzance at the end of the summer of 1965, this sweet and sour ode to young love focuses on a twelve-year-old girl (Kara Hayward) with anger management and impulse control problems who runs away with her orphan pen-pal (Jared Gilman) to live free together on a beach.

Co-written by Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited collaborator Roman Coppola, the film is not only filled with autobiographical details but Anderson's trademark literary and cinematic allusions as well. Drawing a great deal of inspiration from films like Melody, Black Jack, A Little Romance, and – as is often the case throughout Anderson's oeuvre – the work of François Truffaut (most notably The 400 Blows and Small Change), Moonrise Kingdom employs Anderson's favorite visual techniques. Yet while once again, it emphasizes color, symmetry, and actors who are placed dead-center in the frame, this one inherently feels like a product of the period in which it takes place.

Much like Rushmore, although it is ultimately focused on the youth at the center of the storyline, on a second viewing, I found myself particularly entranced by just how much the relationship between the adults serves as a mirrored, somewhat refracted, reflection of Sam (Gilman) and Suzy's (Hayward) romance. And nowhere is this truer than in the film's subplot revolving around a love triangle that's centered on Suzy's mother, Frances McDormand.

Playing the unhappily married wife of fellow lawyer Bill Murray, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom marked the first of three films that the Oscar-winning actress would make with writer-director Wes Anderson, co-starring Murray. And while her role in this one is small, it is undoubtedly significant. For although Anderson immediately endears us to the children right from the start, cleverly, it's McDormand's character's extramarital affair with Bruce Willis' Captain Sharp that not only propels Moonrise's action forward but also gives the romance at the heart of the film more emotional heft in the end.

Regardless of the film, of course, she's always strong. But one thing I admire about McDormand's turn here is that, because of the way it is structured, you don't fully realize just how much is going on under the surface – or the bittersweet way the young lovers' storyline will pay off and bring her own romantic entanglements to a head – until Moonrise Kingdom reaches its conclusion.

The loves and woes of Frances McDormand serve a similar purpose in the 2008 film Burn After Reading. As Linda Litzke, a dizzy yet optimistic Washington D.C. gym employee with a wicked case of body dysmorphic disorder, McDormand's romantic entanglements help connect the A plot to the B plot in the 2008 Coen brothers spy comedy.



Tired of sleeping with the parade of mostly married losers she meets on an online dating site, and convinced that a new physical appearance would change things, Linda is determined to undergo several plastic surgery procedures to fix all of the problems she sees (and largely imagines) when she looks in the mirror. 

Unable to get her insurance to pay for elective surgery, when she and her favorite co-worker – in the form of Brad Pitt's even more dimwitted Chad – are informed that someone accidentally dropped a disc full of “highly classified shit” in the locker room, they take it upon themselves to track down the source. Though Chad is sure that they'll be given a reward for being good samaritans, Linda figures that if he declines, they'll just blackmail the man for all he's got.

Finding themselves at the center of a convoluted web, they discover that the memoirs and data included belongs to a recently fired, alcoholic CIA agent (played by John Malkovich), whose adulterous wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with an even more unfaithful married federal marshal (George Clooney), who unbeknownst to all, is also sleeping with Linda Litzke. Needless to say, things get seriously twisted seriously fast.

An uneven Coen brothers movie that was written at the exact same time they were also working on adapting Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, aside from a terrific McDormand and a hilariously scene-stealing Brad Pitt, I found myself largely underwhelmed by Burn back in 2008. Still, as a filmmaking team, the Coens are often a good ten years ahead of the game in terms of both content and technique. And as was the case with some of their experimental '90s endeavors, when I revisited this comedic poison pen letter to the amoral ineptitude of shady agents and wheeler-dealers today in the Trump era, it clicked into place with more success.

Centered on characters that are completely driven by id and self-preservation, while I still feel like the last half of the film disappoints the viewer by telling us things (particularly in the last ten minutes) that would've been far more entertaining if they'd been shown, Burn After Reading is funnier in 2020 than it was a dozen years ago. Although the gift of hindsight makes me wish that they would've followed through with a Russian embassy subplot, the committed cast salvages and uplifts this one past its clunky hurdles.

A recurring theme when it comes to the three handsomely crafted yet structurally flawed biopics included in the box set, it's ultimately the cast as well as the inspiration of the trio's real-life subjects that holds our interest in The Theory of Everything, On the Basis of Sex, and Harriet from 2014, '18, and '19 respectively.

Anchored by actress Felicity Jones, who stars in not only the Stephen Hawking biopic Theory but also Basis, about the early career of recently departed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of the most troubling aspects of these two films is that, as written in each screenplay, the women she embodies are routinely upstaged by her male counterparts. 


Obviously, one might expect that to be the case when it comes to the Hawking film. Yet, given that the movie is based on the memoir of the theoretical physicist's first wife Jane (played by Jones onscreen), it's a bit strange that screenwriter Anthony McCarten opted to make Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) far more of an innocent teddy bear (and one that's far less compelling to boot) than every account of the brilliant man suggests.

Toying with the chronology of their relationship and life together so that first Jane and then Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake as his controversial nurse turned second wife) become the film's biggest instigators of drama whereas he's just painted as mischievous, it's disappointingly sexist and shortsighted regarding not only the women's roles but Hawking's ability to think for himself all the same.

Although undoubtedly made with love by director James Marsh and played with warmth and sensitivity by both Jones and Redmayne, despite a standout, arresting score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and regal cinematography by Benoît Delhomme, there's not enough here to fully recommend Theory as anything other than a cursory yet flawed overview of the physicist's life.

Still, although The Theory of Everything pales in comparison to other documentaries made about Hawking – most notably A Brief History of Time by Errol Morris – at least that landmark work was made more than two decades before James Marsh first shouted, “Action.” The same cannot be said for Julie Cohen and Betsy West's fascinating documentary RBG, which debuted in theaters just seven months before Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex opened in 2018. 


At the beginning of Basis, we watch as Ruth Bader Ginsberg fights against the sexism she encountered as one of only nine women admitted to Harvard Law School in the 1950s, before she must step up to do double the work at school and home following the cancer diagnosis of her beloved husband Martin (Armie Hammer).

Going on to battle the same gender bias in the workplace until she tackles one big case of sexual discrimination (against a man) all the way to the supreme court, while we are plainly on her side from the very beginning, all too often, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman makes his lovable uncle Martin Ginsberg the hero of what is purportedly Ruth's story.

Largely painted as cold – especially in relation to anyone but Martin – and increasingly single-minded, frequently in the film, it plays as if both Martin and also Justin Theroux's ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf must give Ruth permission or advice to do what she needs to do. And while no law states that every female character in a movie needs to be one hundred percent likable as it's always thrilling to see women get to embrace their dark side, this movie clearly isn't intending to do that with RBG. Of course, we root for her because of the great work she is doing and revere the strides she made for all of us, but in On the Basis of Sex, we don't feel like we truly get to know her on a human level as well as we do Martin, which is understandably a letdown.

And this idea of treating female protagonists more on the strength of their historical myth is one of the biggest reasons why the woefully uneven Harriet disappoints viewers as much as it does. Though artfully made by Kasi Lemmons – who directed one of the most underrated films of the 1990s in Eve's Bayou – this largely episodic film, written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, sets up its villains and conflicts early on and then predictably knocks them down one by one like dominoes. 


Featuring a dynamic turn by Cynthia Erivo (who, in this as well as HBO's The Outsider is quickly becoming an actress to watch) as Harriet Tubman and great supporting work by Janelle Monáe as one of many intriguing figures Tubman encounters throughout, despite some outstanding sequences, which have been exquisitely captured by cinematographer John Toll, this film is all over the place.

Although engaging and inspiring on a human level and as a vital historical account of this country's shameful practice of slavery, in terms of the meandering yet dramatically protracted script, there's something that feels both haphazard and rushed about Harriet overall.

Another lackluster biopic, sadly, Harriet makes the set three for three in titles that – although filled with Oscar-worthy performances and production specs – don't live up to their subjects' lives. Still, in these ten odes to love and courage in its many forms, we discover that what this studio lacks in their fictionalized factual accounts, Focus Features more than makes up for in seven creative tales, which tell us the truth of life on this planet, not with facts, but honest, humanistic fiction instead. And for that, I say we make like Darcy and give them a hand.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/01/2020

Movie Review: On the Rocks (2020)



Now Available


Having just arrived home from the airport, Dean (Marlon Wayans) parks his suitcase in the master suite and crawls across the bed to tenderly kiss his sleeping wife Laura (Rashida Jones) awake. When her eyes flutter open and she says, “hi,” he abruptly stops. Seemingly puzzled, Dean rolls over to his side of the bed and goes right to sleep as if, Laura suddenly fears, her husband thought she was someone else.

An unsettling incident to be sure and one that makes her hyper-aware of other aspects of her relationship with the devoted father of her two young daughters, as she unpacks Dean's suitcase the next day, Laura is shocked to find a woman's toiletry bag among her husband's belongings, complete with body oil inside. Giving in to her fears about men, women, and monogamy, which were hardwired into her brain since birth as the daughter of the charismatic, larger than life, notoriously unfaithful playboy Felix (Bill Murray), Laura consults her father to get a man's perspective on these incidents and Felix immediately lowers the boom. 

“I think we should follow him.” 

Although she resists this impulse for as long as she can, once this idea has been planted, it begins to take root. And soon, Laura finds herself speeding along the streets of New York City at night in the passenger seat of her father's least inconspicuous vehicle, a cherry red Alfa Romeo convertible that backfires faster than it accelerates.


A breezily sophisticated New York comedy of the kind that we used to see so often in the 1980s, the seventh feature film from writer-director Sofia Coppola finds her embracing decidedly different stylistic terrain than we've seen before in her earlier work. Challenged by legendary screenwriter Buck Henry to write more dialogue than she normally does, “On the Rocks,” is chattier than Coppola's other movies. But in centering on an artistically minded woman struggling to find her way in a society that likes to put labels on us, it's once again a very autobiographical work right down to the fact that like Sofia Coppola, Rashida Jones' Laura is a married writer struggling to tap into her creative voice while also mothering two young girls.

Casting an actress who, as the daughter of Quincy Jones, would certainly understand what it must've been like to grow up with a charming playboy father such as Sofia Coppola's own dad, Francis Ford Coppola, "Rocks" feels very intimate, just like all of her films that immediately invite you into the world as she sees it. A terrific straight woman foil to the attention-grabbing Felix (who is sensationally brought to life by Bill Murray), Jones' Laura keeps her father in check when he flirts with literally every woman who crosses his path before launching into a monologue that leads us right back into the '70s or what Coppola calls the “martini generation.” 

Written expressly for her two leads, although she was hesitant to ever cast Murray in another feature film after the smash success of their 2003 contemporary classic “Lost in Translation” (which was later followed by the 2015 Netflix holiday special “A Very Murray Christmas” that co-starred Jones), he's the natural choice to bring Felix to life. Whether he's serenading Laura and his longtime driver with the Johnny Mercer/David Raskin classic “Laura” or belting out John Tenney and Helen Stone's “Mexicali Rose” to anyone lucky enough to be in the largely empty outdoor Mexican bar that he and Laura journey to on their freewheeling adventure to follow Dean, Coppola knows how to weaponize Murray's magnetism like no other.


Taking Laura to 21 on her birthday in one of many scenes shot in and around New York landmarks, Felix lets it slip that they're sitting at the same table that Bogart used when he proposed to Bacall in the 1940s. And, of course, while the film nerd in us is instantly impressed with this factoid, the longer we think about it, the more we realize that Bill Murray is one of those very special people that only comes around a few times in a generation that – much like Bogart – you expect our ancestors will be talking about 80 years down the line as well.

Culling comedy from everyday life, whether that's in the annoyingly self-involved single mother played by Jenny Slate who monologues at Laura daily at school drop-off and pick-up, or the awkwardness you feel when you're watching your significant other at a party hold court with lots of adoring young members of the opposite sex who look at you like you have three heads, the film builds with wry subtlety.

Eventually growing more contemplative as Project Dean calls up long-dormant feelings involving Felix's infidelity to Laura's mother, the film moves from '80s Stillman, Allen, and Ephron territory into something more akin to Ozu, Antonioni, or Rohmer by the end. Unwilling to fully follow through on the natural progression of the father and daughter's journey – which is more about their relationship than Laura's and Dean's – you get the distinct sense that there's another draft of the script lying around somewhere that took a more somber turn than “Rocks” is ready to commit to in the end.


Still, a fine, frothy film that's perfect for autumn when the weather begins to cool, the mood of the piece feels somewhere between a summer comedy and a thoughtful winter family drama. And although it doesn't quite land the same evocative punch that Coppola's last movie “The Beguiled” – which also dealt with gender roles and power plays – did, "Rocks" is much more substantial than I expected it would be going in. 

Likewise, just as Coppola's first three efforts “The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Marie Antoinette” form their own thematic trilogy, “On the Rocks” is a film that would play even more intriguingly in a double feature with Coppola's 2010 drama “Somewhere,” which focused on a young girl trying to connect with her bored, famous, narcissistic father at the Chateau Marmont. A pleasant, mature, and relatable comedy that's much more fun than playing amateur relationship detective with your dad, Coppola's latest film feels like the down-to-earth flipside to "Somewhere"'s airy, yet hypnotizing coin. As distinctly, classically Sofia Coppola as it is quintessentially Bill Murray, "On the Rocks" is one to see.

Note: I viewed a screener of this film – which opens in theaters this weekend – safely from my home. While it's ultimately up to the viewer to decide how they wish to see the movie, I urge you to consider your safety while doing so, as “On The Rocks” will soon be available to all from the comfort of your own home on Apple TV+, starting on Friday, October 23.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Film Movement Movie Review: Once Upon a River (2019)


Now Available


Growing up in central Michigan in 1977 along the fictional Stark River, fifteen-year-old Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) knows two things. A crack shot, after only a few minutes of screen time, we see in Margo a girl who knows how to live off the land – with or without the help of her doting father (Tatanka Means) or flattering uncle (Coburn Goss). Unfortunately, what she also knows is just how much she misses her mom who walked out on her and her father several years earlier. And sadly, her ache for a female role model seems to be at its strongest now that she's on the cusp of womanhood. 

In fact, it's a sentiment that's relayed to us in Margo's opening voiceover, but even without hearing her say those words, we can see this longing both in her body language and her uncertainty as she puts on red lipstick before a party but then self-consciously rubs it off before she leaves the bathroom. A beautiful girl who – as we all did at that age – drinks up the attention given to her by men since she's still testing the waters of her own power and burgeoning sexuality, unfortunately rather than have someone to discuss all of these conflicting feelings with, she is left to navigate this path on her own. 

Ushered into a physical relationship by someone she thought she trusted before she could back up, take a breath, and say no, this startling event is followed by something even more devastating. Soon Margo decides to pack her things and go far away from the only town she's ever known, in the hopes of finding the mom who'd wandered away to find herself so many years before. 


Based upon the eponymous novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, “Once Upon a River” – which marks the feature filmmaking debut from producer, actress, and musician Haroula Rose – belongs to that distinctly American subgenre of adolescent odysseys, best epitomized by Mark Twain's “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” A young adult version of a western and one that feels like it would play nicely in a thematic film festival alongside “The Journey of Natty Gann,” “Lean on Pete,” “Leave No Trace,” “The Cold Lands,” and “Winter's Bone,” to its slight detriment, “River” fails to overcome the genre's biggest hurdle.

Largely solitary efforts – often about young Woody Guthrie types taking to the open road (or the river) – in order to avoid making a modern-day silent movie, films in this category routinely sprinkle in quirky new characters for our leads to befriend throughout. “Once Upon a River,” is no exception to the rule. All too frequently, it feels as though you can set your watch to when it's just about time for Margo to swap one place and/or person for another, including the scene-stealing John Ashton as a kindly old man she encounters early on. 


Yet even though the movie isn't as wholeheartedly successful or emotionally all-encompassing as, say, “Lean on Pete” and “Leave No Trace” (easily two of the greatest films of this type in recent memory), it's quite compelling nonetheless. Especially unique given the fact that it centers on a headstrong young woman who goes searching for one thing but winds up finding herself, "River" rushes through a few pointed turns of events that don't land quite as well as they should without focusing on the why and how our young protagonist is processing them the way that she does.

Still, what it lacks in structure and nuance, it makes up for in its exceptional technical craftsmanship. Well-acted by talented newcomer DelaCerna, and shot with tenderness and a lived-in sensibility by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, which makes the film resemble an old '70s era home movie, “Once Upon a River” is a worthwhile journey all the same.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Movie Review: A Call to Spy (2019)


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Tasked with recruiting female agents for Winston Churchill's secret army – the SOE or Special Operations Executive – during World War II, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) is told to seek out women who'd lived in France, know the language inside and out, and are passionate about stopping Hitler. The last piece of criteria? “Make sure they're pretty,” she's advised.

Overwhelmed in the fight against the Nazis, both on the overt military front and the covert one where at least half of all spies that SOE leader Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) sends out as part of Britain's “new ministry of ungentlemanly warfare” are caught and killed, it seems that attractive and accomplished women are the country's last resort. Deemed far less conspicuous to sexist Nazis who wouldn't think twice about a “French” beauty walking down the cobblestone streets of Paris, Vera Atkins casts her net out wide to locate two ladies who are even more likely to go undetected than your typical Frenchwoman.

An educated, intelligent American with movie star good looks, Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) had dreams of becoming a diplomat. But after a hunting accident left her with gangrene and a leg amputated below the knee, she finds herself denied for the position just as Vera tracks her down. Finding another fascinating recruit in the fastest wireless operator they have on their side – the pacifist, half-American, half-Indian princess Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) – Vera tells the two that she would like them to try out for “a club unlike any other.”


Drawing upon actual files regarding the women's work as spies from SOE, OSS, and CIA records, actress, producer, and screenwriter Sarah Megan Thomas (who plays Virginia Hall) does an admirable job of bringing their heroism to life. Fortified by terrific performances across the board, unfortunately, once Noor (played by the film's scene-stealer Apte) lands in France, she isn't given nearly enough of an arc to pay off on just how much “Spy” endeared her to us in the first half of the movie. Worthy of an elegant John Le Carre style miniseries to track the true scope of their work as spies since the film feels rushed and the last act suffers in its attempt to resolve everything at once, “A Call to Spy” is eye-opening all the same. 

A solid – if workmanlike – effort, that perhaps feels more like a made-for-PBS movie than first-time solo filmmaker Lydia Dean Pilcher was hoping it would, “A Call to Spy” cleverly uses the greater Philadelphia area to double for a bulk of the UK and France set period film, as well as Budapest. Shot by Miles Goodall and “Midway” cinematographer Robby Baumgartner and nicely scored by Lillie Rebecca McDonough, it's a handsomely crafted but ultimately average production. 

Nonetheless, a rousing ode to resistance in the face of tyranny that plays especially well in this era of rising authoritarianism in the United States, even though the film doesn't make enough of an impression to stay with you very long after you've seen it, what does remain is the film's message. Thus, while Thomas and Pilcher struggle to cram everything they wanted to convey into its 123 running time, the movie works as an earnest tribute to these unsung, amazingly heroic, and yes, beautiful Baker Street Irregular female spies, that I for one, am now eager to learn much more about.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

9/24/2020

Movie Review: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


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The modern-day equivalent of turning water into wine, a great chef can walk into a kitchen, survey the ingredients, and turn a bunch of disparate nothings into something divine. But when they're forced to use both new ingredients and technology in foreign lands, even veteran chefs get stuck sometimes, as we learn in Laura Gabbert's eggshell light documentary, “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles.” 

Watching an all-star lineup of international chefs work together to bring the desserts of Versailles to life for an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we experience a few moments of culinary peril in the seventy-five-minute trifle as batters keep separating or machines don't play well with American outlets. Still, with these masters in the kitchen, perfection, we're assured, is just one scene or flick of the whisk away.

A laudatory survey of the talented minds and creative techniques brought together by Jerusalem born, London based chef and influential cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi to dazzle American palates, Gabbert's film is missing a true sense of focus. Beginning with Ottolenghi's call to action as he's invited to the Met to head up the launch of their newest exhibit, Ottolenghi casts the net out wide across the many chefs of Instagram to hire innovators from Ukraine to Singapore and beyond with the most specialized of skill sets.


Meeting innovative experts in their field, including “cronut” innovator Dominique Ansel and Dinara Kasko and more, Ottolenghi's crew delights the senses with ornately textured chocolate walls, complex Crayola bright jello molds, 3D architectural cakes, edible sculptures, and other confections sure to make your mouth water. Yet rather than endear us to each wizard one by one (including Ottolenghi), Gabbert serves them all up to us in a rush buffet style, all but ensuring that her film will play best to true foodies with more than just a cursory idea of who one or more of these figures are.

At its most intriguing when it spends time one-on-one with the chefs we're getting to know through their work, including the brilliant Janice Wong who found herself turning away from entrepreneurial endeavors and toward more artistic pursuits after a car crash left her with a completely different personality, I wish Gabbert would've stayed with the human story longer.

The film does layer in some background information about the palace of Versailles, which was the home to the French monarchy from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century and best personified by Marie Antoinette. However, unsure of the documentary's tone, when Gabbert suddenly starts to question the regal era that she and the chefs had been both celebrating and attempting to make modern once again for museum-goers late into "Ottolenghi," it feels like an ill-fitting afterthought.

Although it's perfectly pleasant, and places quite the emphasis on perfection in its richest and most sugary decadent form, there's just not enough holding this film together to make it a must-see. Culling together the freshest of ingredients, no matter how much Gabbert tries to mix it all up into an appealing pastry, in the end there's nothing to keep the batter from separating once more.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.