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)

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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.

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