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.

9/17/2020

Movie Review: H is for Happiness (2020)


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Based upon Barry Jonsberg's award-winning young adult novel “My Life as an Alphabet,” “H is for Happiness” is quirky with a capital Q. With high key lighting and vibrant primary and secondary colors, which are wonderfully captured by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott (as well as Rick Rifici who shot the water photography), the film is as gorgeously rendered as the illustrations in the Little Golden Books series of titles that we read as children at bedtime.

Yet, in blending together Eleanor H. Porter's “Pollyanna” and Roald Dahl's “Matilda,” (both of which were famously brought to the screen by directors David Swift and Danny DeVito respectively), “H is for Happiness” plays best as an exercise in style over substance. 

Following the exploits of a tirelessly optimistic, terribly bright twelve-year-old girl named Candice Phee (played with gusto by newcomer Daisy Axon), this Australian import finds Candice taking it upon herself to try to put her broken family back together again. Essentially ignored by her overwhelmed parents (played by Emma Booth and Richard Roxburgh), Candice tries to cure her mom's depression following the death of her younger sister years earlier and also mend her father's rift with her Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson). 


Initially, she attempts to do this alone but soon Candice finds help in the form of her new classmate Douglas Benson from Another Dimension (Wesley Patten). Becoming fast friends with the peculiar boy who, as Candice's name for him implies, believes he is from another dimension and dreams of falling out of a tree to land back in his correct universe, our precociously bright leads strive to set everything right throughout “H”'s ninety-eight-minute running time.

Inspired after she tries to stop her classmates from ridiculing her disabled teacher (Miriam Margolyes) – whose constantly bobbling eye feels like it came right out of an unpublished Roald Dahl manuscript – Candice goes right to work. From preparing an elaborate Nashville themed evening for her country music loving mom to taking a page from “The Parent Trap” in trying to get her father and Rich Uncle Brian back together again, “H” means well but its endlessly cloying tone ensures that every emotional moment feels like its being shouted at you rather than genuinely earned.


Freely admitting that his feature filmmaking debut was influenced by the work of John Hughes, Wes Anderson, and Pedro Almodovar, although director John Sheedy's approach to “H” sounds thrilling in theory, a large part of the film's problem is that numerous scenes feel like they belong in one of those auteur's movies as opposed to a new confection made up of all three. Moving uneasily from a Hughes-like scene of burgeoning love between the two preteens to the sardonic Andersonesque fear of her friend jumping out of a tree to an odd gag with an inflatable beach ball boob rig that Almodovar would gravitate to in a heartbeat, this self-consciously quirky, inconsistent movie is all over the place.

Set on the stunningly beautiful Australian coastal town of Albany and adapted from the novel by Lisa Hoppe, Sheedy's well-intentioned film is as lovely to look at as a storybook but plays like there was an error at the printer's and three disparate tales were bound together instead of one.


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.

9/14/2020

4K UHD Blu-ray Review: The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection - Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), & The Birds (1963)


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Introduction:

In this dazzling new collection from Universal Studios, four of director Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films – including Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds – have been newly restored and transferred to 4K ultra high definition Blu-ray. Gathered together in one collection, although I just intended to spot check the transfers of a few of the films that I know particularly well, these 4K releases are so pristine that each title seduced me entirely, regardless of how many times I've seen the movies over the years.

Loaded with extra footage, including making-of-featurettes, analytical documentaries, interviews, an alternate ending to The Birds, and the original Hitchcock approved theatrical cut of Psycho (which had been unavailable on home entertainment in the past), this highly recommended box set serves up each film on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and offers a 4K digital code for the titles as well.

When I first received the set, I initially planned to give you a nice short overview of the transfer and bonus features of each movie but I was soon surprised to find myself so invigorated by these films I know so well that I decided to take a closer look at all four works in chronological order. In doing so, I hope to dissect not only what this new 4K box set release is like but also what it is that I find so very compelling about what we see, hear, and are meant to understand in each one of Hitchcock's movies.

Warning: This article contains gentle spoilers. Really, though, can you blame me? Reading about Hitchcock's movies is easily the most fun (and the most valuable) after you know just what the hell is going on. 



Rear Window (1954)

“If you don't pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I'm gonna do something drastic!” At the same time that James Stewart's L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries delivers this ultimatum to his boss by phone in Rear Window, we see through our wounded photojournalist's eyes for the first time the neighbor living in the Greenwich Village apartment building across the courtyard from Jeff who will manage to do both. Played with subtle menace by Raymond Burr, Lars Thorwald quickly becomes the new focus of Jeff's voyeuristic obsession in Rear Window

A creature of habit whose eyes earn him not only a living but also fuel him creatively, intellectually, and body and soul, after six weeks of being sidelined with a broken leg, the wheelchair-bound man has started to go a little stir crazy. Watching his neighbors like they're his new favorite soap opera, Jeff becomes fascinated by the comings-and-goings of those whom he and his dutiful nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) nickname Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts. But none of the residents capture his imagination quite as much as Lars Thorwald, who Jeff fears might have killed his wife.

While, much like Melanie Daniels in The Birds or Gavin Elster in Vertigo, no one believes Jeff at first – which is a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock's filmography – soon even his regal, high society girlfriend Lisa (played by the luminous Grace Kelly) must admit that Thorwald's behavior is so suspiciously puzzling that Jeff might be onto something after all.

Once again working with his frequent 1950s collaborator in the form of screenwriter John Michael Hayes (who also wrote To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, and Hitch's remake of his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much), Hitchcock's Rear Window is one of the filmmaker's most timelessly crowd-pleasing and accessible thrillers. Adapted from the 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder,” by Cornell Woolrich, the cleverly quippy, acerbic, and suspenseful script, which earned Hayes an Edgar Award and an Oscar nomination, might just be the best one that Hitchcock ever committed to the screen.

Riveting on multiple levels, because of the very overt way that Hitchcock weaves in voyeurism and scopophilia (which makes it the perfect film to pair with the director's masterpiece Vertigo, also starring Jimmy Stewart), it's arguably one of his most personal pictures due to its both celebration and criticism of a man who – much like Hitchcock and the audience – likes to watch.

Describing the film as a parable, in his 1954 review of Rear Window, critic turned director François Truffaut (who would later conduct in-depth interviews with Hitchcock, which were published in a masterful film reference book) argued that Rear Window was about cinema itself. For example, "the courtyard is the world, the reporter/photographer is the filmmaker, [and] the binoculars stand for the camera and its lenses,” he elegantly surmised in his piece and it's an intriguing assessment of Window's components overall.

Additionally of interest to me given the disability narrative at play throughout, since Jeff is forced to use a wheelchair and feels cut off from the world because of this, his desire to join the others and throw himself in the middle of dangerous, or exciting situations manifests itself in a myriad of ways. From gazing out the window with just his eyes to graduating to binoculars and then moving onto a telephoto lens, the temporarily disabled Jeff tries to get closer and closer to the action with each act of the movie. This openly phallic symbolism (which suggests that he feels impotent) becomes even more curious on repeat viewings. Moreover, we begin to see how bold the film is in its decision to let the women be the ones who actively help solve the Lars Thorwald mystery by throwing themselves into the middle of dicey situations in ways that Jeff – who is left only with his eyes – cannot.

Easily my favorite Grace Kelly performance in a Hitchcock film, followed by the underrated Dial “M” for Murder, and the lovely, lightly entertaining if, especially by comparison to Window, slight To Catch a Thief, even though she's nearly upstaged by her jaw-droppingly gorgeous costumes by Edith Head, Kelly exudes a delightful sense of mischief in Rear Window that's a joy to behold. 

And, fittingly for Hitch, it's only when her character Lisa puts her life on the line – to such an extent that all Stewart can do is helplessly watch – that Jeff becomes the most attracted to her sexually. Less interested in the regal beauty when she's six feet away from him than he is when she's sixty-five feet away and suddenly (slightly) less attainable, this spark of mortal danger lights a fire in their relationship like nothing else. 

Astonishingly, Kelly is even more ethereal in this 4K restoration than I've ever seen her before. The new edition improves each character's skin color and texture and boosts the soundscape to such an extent that we truly feel like we can hear those voices drifting across the courtyard to us in the richly textured DTS sound as though we're sitting in that wheelchair along with our audience surrogate, Jeff. 

Arriving with a plethora of bonus material you can pore over after you finish the film, Rear Window also works as a great gateway movie to new and young film fans looking to discover the work and range of the Master of Suspense. 

Vertigo (1958)

In my eyes, Alfred Hitchcock's most challenging and ambitious film (and also his best), Vertigo takes the voyeuristic behavior of James Stewart's male protagonist several steps further than the wheelchair sleuth he played in Rear Window to paint one of the most disturbing portraits of compulsive scopophilia ever committed to the screen.

Forced into retirement from the San Francisco Police Department when a rooftop chase leaves one officer dead and Stewart's veteran detective John “Scottie” Ferguson frozen with fear, although he's able to get rid of his cane and corset shortly into the movie, vertigo is one disability that might just be permanent.

Asked to do a favor for an old college acquaintance (Tom Helmore) who fears that his young wife (Kim Novak) has become suddenly possessed by a long-dead spirit as she disappears for hours at a time and can't remember where she's gone, Scottie begins to follow the beguiling beauty around the streets, shops, cemeteries, and landmark sites of San Francisco.

Growing increasingly infatuated with Novak's Madeleine Elster with each successive stop, although he's given permission to look this time in Vertigo as opposed to just spying on his neighbors on his own accord in Rear Window, there's something much more disturbing and primal about his desires in this one, which we begin to suspect even before the film enters its sinister second half. 

Drinking her in while committing to memory where every pin in her hair goes or how she sits on a pillow on the floor after he fishes her out of the San Francisco Bay (and undresses her offscreen at his home while he waits for her clothes to dry), while it's clear that Scottie is falling in love with his friend's wife, Hitchcock tries to play off any alarm we might feel in a variety of ways.

Still nursing quite the unrequited crush on her old college fiancé, Scottie's long-suffering best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) becomes something of a red herring in Vertigo. She mercilessly teases Scottie about his obvious attraction to Madeleine and acts out in her frustration by painting a truly creepy portrait of herself in one scene and in another, follows her following friend around herself. Additionally shirking some of the responsibility for Scottie's behavior off on this idea of supernatural possession, it's only after Vertigo switches gears yet again and shows us the aftermath of the first half's twist that we realize that what Scottie has been feeling all along goes far beyond simple love.

Intriguingly, the film is said to be the favorite work in Hitchcock's filmography of the largest number of directors, including Vertigo obsessives Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. When you analyze what the film does, in leading us – like Scottie in his first day of following Madeleine through the streets of San Francisco – around the corner of so many half mysteries before it goes down an altogether different avenue moments later, their affection for the film on a structural level makes complete sense. But when you start to break it down from a psychosexual standpoint, there's much more there to dissect. From the way that Vertigo, like Stewart's Scottie, not only derives pleasure out of watching (which in itself is just like our relationship to film) but also wants to control or “direct” Madeleine's double Judy (also played by Novak) to look and act a certain way in the film's last act, Vertigo is about the role of a filmmaker above all.

One of the eeriest portraits of single-minded male obsession that I've ever seen, Vertigo is fascinating in the way that Judy is forced to submit to the whims of an aggressively dominant man who essentially breaks her down to get the performance he wants, much like Hitchcock did with Novak on the set. Whether you're watching the movie through a psychological, sex and gender, or purely filmic lens, there's so much in Vertigo to discuss that it's no wonder that, despite opening to mixed reviews in 1958, it's only grown in critical esteem over the years.

I will, of course, freely admit that Vertigo (which was adapted from Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel D'Entre Les Morts by screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor), undeniably plays the best the first time you watch it from a plot perspective alone. Similarly, much like other Hitchcock endeavors, it's a film that inspires a fast rewatch to take a closer look at the things you missed the first time around, now that you know how it all turns out.

Yet, everything else about Vertigo, from the subtleties in the performances (just look at what Bel Geddes can do with an eyebrow raise), to the long takes and dizzyingly vertiginous cinematography, to Bernard Herrmann's sweepingly romantic score, to everything going on just below the surface make it one movie that you can't help but want to revisit again and again.

While Vertigo has been restored and remastered multiple times over the years – and it's the Hitch film I've seen the most times in my life – once again, I became easily entranced by Hitch's masterpiece when I put the disc in to, as I'd intended, simply spot check the new 4K transfer.

Watching it through from start to finish one more time, I couldn't help but notice that this format boosts the clarity of each image like never before, which ensures a better match between shots that were filmed in the studio and those captured on the streets of San Francisco. Rendering the contrast between the formerly high polish interiors and airy, slightly blown out exteriors so that there's less of a jolt between the different textures, this effect is especially apparent in the sequence where Novak and Stewart wander around the woods of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which used to look ever so slightly dated in previous versions but absolutely shines in the new 4K release.

Filling the disc with some of my favorite previously available bonus features, including lengthy behind-the-scenes featurettes and mini-documentaries where everyone from those who worked on the film to others (including some of our greatest directors) share their passion for Vertigo, there's much to obsess over in this one.


Psycho (1960)

The crowning achievement of master composer Bernard Herrmann's career, although most people immediately conjure up the way that he uses the sounds of the instruments in his orchestra as weapons slicing through Janet Leigh's flesh in Psycho's notorious shower scene, the DTS soundtrack of the new 4K transfer has you looking over your shoulder as soon as the movie starts.

Assaulting your senses with fast-paced credits and music that pours out of every speaker in the most startling of ways, as brilliant as Hitchcock's horrific Psycho is as arguably the first mainstream slasher movie ever made, it would be nowhere near as effective without Bernard Herrmann's score. After all, sound is – as Francis Ford Coppola once famously said – at least half the picture. 

Shooting the film quickly, in black-and-white, and on the cheap with his own production company and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV unit at Universal after Paramount rejected his pitch to bring Robert Bloch's 1959 novel – inspired by the shocking case of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein – to the screen, Psycho is Hitchcock's greatest experimental effort.

Bloch's eponymous novel was adapted by relative newcomer Joseph Stefano, who word is was actually in therapy due to issues surrounding his own relationship with his mother when he penned the screenplay, which would go on to win him an Edgar Award.

A film so dependent upon surprises that not only did Hitchcock order that no fans be admitted into the theater after the movie started, he's also said to have asked his assistant to purchase any and all copies of the novel that she could find to keep prospective viewers in the dark.

Beginning like a seedy noir, then flirting with an old-fashioned detective story angle before it moves straight into horror, Psycho is revolutionary in the way that it shifts our sympathies to the man who will be revealed as the murderer (Anthony Perkins) fairly early into the movie, once it kills off its protagonist played by Janet Leigh. Never letting our minds wander or our attention waver, while this is easily the most harrowing comeuppance for one of Hitchcock's famous cool blondes – as Phoenix real estate secretary Leigh makes the reckless decision to embezzle forty thousand dollars from a lascivious, self-satisfied rich man and goes on the run – it also gives us one of the most disturbing misogynists in Hitch's entire filmography. 

Although Joseph Cotten's deceptively charming Uncle Charlie hated women with a gleeful passion in the brilliant, often overlooked masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt and you see various levels of Hitch's own sexual frustration with women throughout his filmography (see especially Vertigo and Marnie), it's presented to the most alarming degree in Psycho. Punishing women who dare turn him on, whether they're aware of this or – as is in the case of Leigh who is observed through a peephole – are not, the meek Perkins is so stunted in his sexual development that he's scapegoated and cast everything off on his “mother” once he dispatches the women who invade his thoughts.

“I don't hate her,” Norman Bates (Perkins) tells the sympathetic Marion Crane (Leigh) about his mother in their longest scene together, before he clarifies, “I hate what she's become.” As it turns out, what she becomes is him. And it's only after we know this that we realize how cleverly Bloch, Stefano, Perkins, and Hitchcock made us hate “her” before we understand that we too are guilty of a little internal misogyny in being so quick to blame this woman – who, by all accounts, might have been a piece of work as well – for all of Norman's problems.

Easily Hitchcock's most famous film, Psycho spawned a controversial shot-by-shot color remake from Gus Van Sant, along with numerous sequels, and TV spinoffs, including the critically acclaimed prequel Bates Motel). Sixty years after its release, Psycho still plays like gangbusters no matter how many times you've seen it but this latest 4K release is especially noteworthy.

Going back to restore the vintage frames and elements in Hitchcock's preferred original theatrical cut of the film, which was unveiled to audiences in 1960, as opposed to only giving us the version of the film that was most widely available on TV, VHS, and DVD over the past thirty years, this edition gives fans their choice of which cut they prefer to watch.

The main difference between the two versions is that the newer cut removed some of the film's more erotically charged moments to slightly sanitize it for everyday audiences watching today, which is kind of amazing when you consider the fact that it was even more sexually disturbing back in 1960. Yet either way that you watch Psycho, it will undoubtedly inspire goosebumps, sustained as much by the performances and what Hitchcock chooses to reveal when with clever camera angles as it is driven by Herrmann's nerve-shatteringly evocative score.


The Birds (1963)

Most likely owing to a childhood fear of wrongful persecution that developed after his father reportedly had him locked in a jail cell overnight when he was a young boy, almost as ubiquitous as the wrong man motif used throughout his filmography is the recurring Hitchcockian theme of nobody believing his protagonist when trouble arises.

From assuming that Iris Henderson is lying about the vanished Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes to L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries trying to get his friend at the NYPD to investigate his suspected murderer neighbor Lars Thorwald in Rear Window, Hitchcock movies are full of characters who could've prevented harm, if only someone had taken their dubious yet credible warnings more seriously. Sure enough, these instances are most memorable when coupled with a protagonist's innocence of a crime in Hitch's popular wrong man movies like North By Northwest. But beyond the two films that I cited earlier, one of my favorite examples of this intriguing dilemma is in The Birds, which uses internal misogyny and a woman's reputation against her to such an extent that otherwise intelligent characters refuse to believe their own eyes because it matches this "undesirable" woman's warnings that something very wrong is happening in the sky.

Of particular interest to viewers watching today in a post Me Too society where predominantly women (but also some men) still struggle to be believed when they recount the shocking actions that they've endured to bring their truth to light, The Birds stars then-newcomer Tippi Hendren as the mischievous daughter of a wealthy newspaper owner. Known for playing practical jokes, some of which have resulted in legal action, Tippi Hendren's heroine Melanie Daniels is a classic “woman with a past.”

Attracting the attention of a lawyer (Rod Taylor) who'd seen her in a recent court appearance, shortly into the movie, Melanie drives out to Bodega Bay, California to deliver two lovebirds to the eleven-year-old sister (Veronica Cartwright) of Taylor's Mitch Brenner, with whom she meets cute in a pet shop early on in the film.

Seeing the two size each other up in the store amid the backdrop of swarms of birds kept enclosed in cages, we can't help but wonder if the birds who will soon treat Melanie – and indeed everyone else – like prey are getting revenge on us for daring to try to corral and control them. And although we see and/or hear birds whenever Hedren is onscreen, Hitchcock waits an extended amount of time to deliver the first attack when – after she's delivered her small birdcage to Mitch's home – she rows back across Bodega Bay and a seagull swoops down to swipe her forehead, almost accidentally.

“That's the damndest thing I ever saw,” Mitch observes as he helps her out of the boat and brings her to a local cafe to clean the cut. But even though the birds draw first blood in Hitch's film, that action won't be their last by a long-shot as birds of all feathers begin to flock together and hunt down Bodega Bay residents in packs.

Trying to warn everyone – including her newspaperman father – to take her seriously after the next big assault, every woman watching can recognize the frustration in Melanie as we listen to her explain that no, she is not hysterical and is in fact telling the God's honest truth. Suddenly the object of ignorant suspicion by townspeople who start wondering if they're in the midst of a plague and if she – perhaps the embodiment of evil – has somehow brought this to them all, watching average citizens shamefully begin to embrace a ridiculous conspiracy theory makes The Birds especially timely in this era of 2020, COVID, and Trump.

Hitchcock's first film after Psycho, The Birds works exceptionally well as a double feature with its predecessor, given the way it seems to weirdly foreshadow the terror to come in the eerie sequence with Norman Bates where he discusses his love of not only taxidermy but especially of stuffing birds, whom he describes as passive creatures, while also likening them to his “harmless” mother.

Loosely based on Rebecca author Daphne du Maurier's titular 1952 short story, which was adapted for the screen by “Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine” contributor and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television writer Evan Hunter (who would go on to publish mystery novels under the name Ed McBain), The Birds was Hitchcock's first and only “creature feature.”

A monster movie Hitchcock style, and one that was made largely with real live birds as well as over two hundred thousand dollars worth of mechanical ones which were created specifically for the movie, the film was so intricate from a technical perspective that it required various departments to complete their work at other studios, including Fox, Disney, and MGM. Made without a conventional score, although he used source music occasionally throughout, the film's soundtrack mainly consists of the sounds of birds chirping, hooting, and flapping their wings as they soar through the air looking for their next victim.

And when you factor in the hell and injuries that Hitchcock allegedly put Hedren through on the set after she spurned his lustful advances (in an account that was released after the filmmaker's death and also backed up by her co-star Rod Taylor) as well as its horrific attack sequences, The Birds remains just as disturbing as ever. Cleaning up some of the dated effects evident in the old home video editions of The Birds, this flawless restoration and transfer to 4K makes the film look light-years better than I'd ever seen it before, particularly during the agonizing sequence where Melanie runs with the schoolkids away from both a murder of crows and murderous blackbirds, who've begun to flock together.

Taking horror in a different direction after he broke a new mold in Psycho, The Birds afforded the man – who famously said he hated actors – the ultimate opportunity to work with as few of them as possible to create one of his most uniquely suspenseful works, where one town refuses to listen to a woman they're prejudiced against . . . until its too late.


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.

9/03/2020

Netflix Movie Review: Love, Guaranteed (2020)



Like a recipe for sugar cookies that you follow and enjoy, despite finding it in every single cookbook you come across, the ingredients for contemporary romantic comedies have become so easily identifiable that even those who don't follow the genre very closely can break down each element as if separating the liquids from the powders.

Of course, this isn't always a bad thing. Much like cookies, there's nothing like a delectable dessert-like rom-com to bring a smile to your face. Yet sometimes what we're left with feels less like an overall confection than it does just a handful of ingredients that taste great individually but don't work all that well together. And when it comes to Netflix's latest comedy about love, this is precisely what happened.  
Looking to stack the deck with an adorably daffy rom-com premise – partially conceived by its affable leading lady Rachael Leigh Cook – and a script penned by genre veterans Hilary Galanoy and Elizabeth Hackett, the film revolves around a man (played by Damon Wayans Jr.) who sues his online dating service because it hasn't made good on its promise to deliver “Love, Guaranteed.”


Having failed to make a romantic connection in nearly a thousand dates, which would've left most men physically and emotionally exhausted as well as incredibly broke, Wayans Jr.'s inexplicably independently wealthy physical therapist Nick hires Cook's idealistic civil litigator to take on the dating service run by Heather Graham's clueless lifestyle guru.

Even without the witty repartee of a sparkling legal comedy like “Adam's Rib,” fueled by Wayans Jr. and Cook's genuinely charming chemistry, these elements alone could've easily led to a fun, if predictably formulaic, Hallmark Channel level rom-com. But in "Love, Guaranteed," Galanoy, Hackett, and, as evidenced by the production notes, Cook and director Mark Steven Johnson, kept filling the pot with new ideas.

And while one – based on a true incident in Cook's life where she became so disturbed by the miscarriage of justice in “The Fugitive” as a young girl that she had to stop watching – is introduced in the film to hilarious effect (but then never develops into anything more), another idea from Johnson wears on viewers' nerves right away.

Similar to the way that on TV's “Stumptown,” actress Cobie Smulders' character Dex drives an old car with a broken tape deck that plays the same '80s cassette over and over again, in “Love, Guaranteed,” Cook's Susan drives an old orange rust bucket that spontaneously plays Tiffany's “I Think We're Alone Now” repeatedly at will. As a woman roughly Cook's age in real life who also remembers Tiffany in the '80s, this sounds comically winning in theory but by the time we watch Cook have an over-the-top romantic breakdown in the car to Tiffany's song, we have long been ready to hit the mute button whenever we hear its opening notes.


From not understanding that people lie on their online profiles to being thoroughly unfamiliar with most dating behavior in the 21st century, as warm and wonderful as Cook is, Susan feels almost less real than Nick's physical therapist who's able to blow tens of thousand dollars on bad dates and also somehow works for free by donating his time. Still, a much better character than her stereotypical co-workers (a flirtatious gay guy and a generic gal pal), besides her scenes with Wayans Jr., Cook's best moments are the ones that her character shares with her pregnant sister who lives in the condo next door.

Less successful than last year's similarly gimmicky but much sweeter Netflix rom-com “Falling Inn Love” penned by Galanoy and Hackett, this film doesn't work nearly as well as a majority of the made-for-TV rom-coms crafted with assembly-line efficiency on The Hallmark Channel, including those that have starred “Love” producer and actress Cook.

Counting at least three toilet references in the first act alone, which, although never explicitly gross just don't really go with the otherwise warm, sophisticated world those behind-the-scenes are trying to create, “Love, Guaranteed,” is never quite certain just what kind of romantic comedy it truly wants to be.


Established early on, one recurring gag in the movie is that Nick – who has weirdly kept diligent notes on every single date that went wrong – has named each bad match he's endured as though they're rejected episodes of TV's “Friends.” And while Susan might be “the one I didn't see coming,” according to Nick, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film. 

Following the recipe we know by heart to a “T” before trying to spice things up by sprinkling in numerous other ingredients that just don't blend well together, if this movie were a date, I'd probably dub it, “the one I wish I would've fallen more in like with (but really should've been rewritten).” 


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.

Netflix Movie Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)



Writer-director Charlie Kaufman's “I'm Thinking of Ending Things,” begins with the words “I'm thinking of ending things.” Spoken in voice-over by the unnamed female protagonist (Jessie Buckley) at the center of the surrealist helmer's third feature film, in the lines that follow, we quickly deduce that she's pondering taking not her own life but herself out of her sparks-free relationship with the otherwise nice, unassuming Jake (Jesse Plemons), whom she's dated for seven weeks. 

Resigned to taking a road trip with the man nonetheless, the two embark on an unusual journey home to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at the farmhouse where he was raised. The couple is as polite as they are awkward with one another. Misreading each other's signals and on different wavelengths about not only their relationship but everything else as well, they have parallel arguments that only occasionally intersect.

Colliding most notably when he cajoles her into sharing one of her poems, Buckley's soulful recitation of the complex, deeply affecting “Bone Dog” by Eva H.D. (which is presented as though she wrote it) is one of the high points of the movie. Touching on certain themes and elements that recur throughout the film, the seductive sequence engages us completely. 

Yet even before Jake responds by saying that he identified with the piece and felt like she was writing it about him, the antennae of any literature majors and film buffs watching is already up, listening and digesting Buckley's words as a bit of self-conscious signposting or foreshadowing about their journey ahead. Knowing this, of course, the erudite Kaufman treats the poem like a tease and one that's as much about their quest to go home to meet his parents as it is just the first of many pieces of art, music, film, literature, culture, and criticism references to eventually follow.

“I'm Thinking of Ending Things” returns once again to the same questions of whether or not we are what we do and/or consume that have plagued Kaufman from the beginning of his career. Evidenced in his brilliant existential screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” when its characters were most themselves in the body of another or the charge that Kate Winslet's manic pixie dream girl in his script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” relied on hair dye to compose her personality, all of these ideas get filtered into “Ending Things” to positive and negative effect.


Inserting a faux romantic film (fictionally directed by Robert Zemeckis) in the second act of the movie before its plot and characters spill over into the personalities of our young couple, Kaufman goes a bit further later on. Using a more subtle approach in the film's intentionally maddening second half, the pair debate and momentarily seem to embody the leads from “A Woman Under the Influence,” as well as Pauline Kael's review of the Cassavetes classic in a blistering sequence.

A poet in the car who becomes a painter in the house but also a college student studying quantum physics and a waitress, just as the biographical elements of Buckley's “young woman” change in Kaufman's film so does everything else, including the ages of both of our protagonists as well as his enigmatic, affable, yet slightly creepy parents. Then again, I should probably put the word parents in quotations because while we're initially led to believe that Collette and Thewlis are playing the parents of Jake, an argument could also be made that they're not.

In fact, that's the main thrust of this movie overall. We're never quite sure if we're seeing things the way they are or if these are daydreams or shifts backward or forward in time. The latter, we find, is explicitly referenced in the dialogue at one point and taps right back into the issue of quantum physics. 

(Over six hundred words in and I'm probably no closer to describing or making sense of the film that has still stayed with me since I screened it, but moving on...) 

Playing like a magical realism version of “Our Town” as directed by Federico Fellini, “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” is a stream-of-consciousness movie that grows more unwieldy as it continues. Weaving in ballet in just one of a handful of sequences inspired by “Oklahoma,” Charlie Kaufman's film, which was adapted from the acclaimed novel by Iain Reid, is unquestionably enhanced by having seen not only Kaufman's “Synecdoche New York” (which I really didn't like) and “Anomalisa” (which I really did) but the films he wrote for other directors as well.


In my eyes, he's at his best when he lets others – including Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry – interpret his mad artistic visions in such a way that, as dizzying and dense as they are, they become far more universal in scope. Without this vital human filter of another creative mind behind the camera, there's something about Kaufman's work as a director that keeps most mainstream audiences at not just an arm but the state of Oklahoma's length away. 

It's telling that of the three films I've seen that he's made, it's “Anomalisa,” which he shared directorial duties with Duke Johnson, that I liked the best. Perhaps needing that valuable cinematic translator or just someone who can take a look at his work and pare some of it down to only what is absolutely essential, the more he packs into the otherwise mostly excellent “I'm Thinking of Ending Things,” the messier it becomes. Still, as a treatise on relationships, aging, identity, and mortality, Kaufman's latest is far more relatable, in my eyes, than “Synecdoche New York,” which I actually watched again to prepare for this review and was disappointed to see that I still dislike. 

In addition to his many existential obsessions, which manifest in the strangest of ways throughout his work, however, one constant in every single one of Kaufman's films as both a screenwriter and director is that they're brought to life by an extraordinary cast. “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” (which arrives on Netflix on September 4) is no exception to this rule and features dynamic turns by all of its leads, most notably Buckley and Plemons.

A movie you'll undoubtedly want to discuss with others if, that is, you manage to make it all the way through since it was even a challenge for me (and I was hugely on board with it for at least the first 90 minutes), “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” should have ended things a little sooner than its 134-minute running time.

There's an old adage that because we all approach things differently and with our own experiences, attitudes, and backgrounds, that no two of us ever truly “sees” the same film. This movie proves that philosophy true better than any academy essay ever could. At the same time, it also seems to use it as a challenge to not only ensure that we all see something different in the same metatextual heavy text but also reminds us that what we think of something at one time might not be the same belief we have just five minutes later. In the end, it's all a matter of physics after all.  


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.

8/20/2020

Movie Review: Tesla (2020)



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One of the most difficult things to convey onscreen is human thought, particularly what happens when an epiphany washes over us. We do, of course, have an accepted shorthand for these moments in animation. Most commonly depicted by the image of a lightbulb going off above a character's head, we watch as their eyes widen, perhaps a finger is raised, and then they run to go put their ideas into motion. Taken together, these actions are easily understood; we know we've witnessed intellectual serendipity. 

And while we've all seen actors attempt to externalize the internal onscreen – usually with the camera closing in on their faces before pulling back to see them start working on a new, grand opus – there are only a precious few actors who we routinely believe we are seeing think in character. It's a short list, to be sure, but one man who is definitely on it is Ethan Hawke.

One of those actors whom you believe that – for both good and bad, depending upon the project – has the soul of a philosopher, a musician, and an inventor, we've seen Hawke triumph when he collaborates with a filmmaker who knows how to "play" him like Chet Baker played his trumpet . . . or Hawke played Baker playing his trumpet in Robert Budreau's "Born to Be Blue."

Still, while he's worked so well with iconoclastic writer-director Michael Almereyda in the past – most notably on his controversial "Hamlet" adaptation in 2000 – their latest effort "Tesla" feels more like a jam session played on rusty instruments by an out-of-practice jazz band than it does the smooth, rich, wrap you in velvet sound of musicians who are perfectly in sync. 

It's a damn shame, too, because if anybody knows how to bring a lightbulb moment to life, it's Hawke, so when it was announced that he was going to be playing a man who literally played with electricity, expectations for "Tesla" were set unbelievably high.

The first time we see Nikola Tesla (Hawke) in Almereyda's unconventional biopic, he is wobbling around on roller skates, which is an apt metaphor for the film overall. Awkwardly trying to keep his balance in formal wear, Tesla skates along with his friend, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), who wishes she could be so much more to the shy inventor. So undone by the sight of pearls on a woman's neck because it reminds him of his mother back in Serbia, (who, for all intents and purposes is the only woman he ever loved), their relationship is doomed long before he ever put on those skates.


Wedded to his pursuits and only very casually intrigued by women from a platonic perspective, Tesla puts everything he has into his work with alternating currents – a practice which alienates his first big American employer, Thomas Edison (a sublime Kyle MacLachlan) – before he eventually finds a patron and financial champion in George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan).

Coming off the heels of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's underrated 2017 film "The Current War," which chronicled the same three figures (with Nicholas Hoult, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Shannon playing Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse respectively) and was finally released to little fanfare last year, I was somewhat familiar with "Tesla"'s turn-of-the-century electrical terrain.

And while the first act of the film is very engaging – especially with a surprisingly vulnerable turn by MacLachlan and moving supporting work by Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tesla's best friend from overseas, the hard-working but creatively stymied Anital Szigeti – it's a bad sign when your film happens to be called "Tesla" and the least compelling character in the film is also named Tesla.

As subdued as he is single-minded in his quest, Nikola Tesla is on paper, at least, a perfect character for Ethan Hawke. A highly verbal actor, Hawke sometimes gives his most affecting performances when he's limited by how much he can say since it's in such a stark contrast to his most famous onscreen alter-ego as Jesse Wallace in Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. 

Yet whereas Paul Schrader knew exactly how to balance the pathos and conflict just below his reverend's collar in "First Reformed," he flounders in this film so much that he nearly blends in with the scenery. And in "Tesla" this is a feat in and of itself considering that, in paying homage to Derek Jarman's minimalist production design in "Edward II" (and other films) and Denmark's Dogme 95 filmmakers, "Tesla" frequently opts for basic projected backdrops you might find surfing the web instead of artfully decorated spaces.


An experimental biopic that (shockingly) isn't weird enough to break any new ground, save for a truly puzzling performance by Hawke as Tesla of the Tears for Fears song "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" toward the end of the movie – which made me wonder why we hadn't seen that level of innovation before – Almereyda's film is an overall yawn.

Struggling to hold our attention as it drones on and away from Edison, who is the most fascinating figure in the film, I found myself fighting to stay awake even though I watched it the very first thing in the morning. A long-gestating passion project from the director, who penned his earliest version of the script in the early 1980s, regrettably the 2020 filmed version of "Tesla" is sorely lacking the same level of youthful enthusiasm that Almereyda had for it nearly forty years ago.

The first onscreen reunion of MacLachlan and Hawke since they played Claudius and Hamlet in Almereyda's 2000 film, the two crackle with electricity in the few scenes they share here, whether they're sparring verbally or with ice cream cones (don't ask). And while it's always hard to showcase creative thought, when it comes right down to it, no matter how hard Almereyda tries to flick the switch for Hawke in "Tesla," this is one bulb that never lights up.


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.

Short Takes: The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) - Blu-ray Review


Now Available



A stark 180 degree turn from the kind of material that she'd been hired to write in 1926 as the first female comedy gag writer for Universal Studios, screenwriter Frances Hyland's 1933 pre-Code tragedy "The Sin of Nora Moran" was initially intended as a straightforward chronicle of the events leading up to the execution of its twenty-one-year-old titular main character.

Over the course of a (then-shocking) five-month production schedule, director Phil Goldstone's small poverty row studio picture was shot and chopped as "Woman in the Chair" in one early incarnation before it was shot and chopped again into its experimental final cut.

Not content to color inside the lines of the B grade productions being made at the time, Goldstone and company wove everything they shot into a nonlinear tapestry of flashbacks within flashbacks, designed to shake up the novel-on-film style status quo. A decidedly new approach to storytelling, the unorthodox techniques used in layering together multiple plotlines and points-of-view help hide the otherwise pretty standard depression-era formula about a woman who's led astray by happenstance, misfortune, and of course, love.

Brought vibrantly to life by the acclaimed Austrian-American Broadway actress Zita Johann, who used a spiritual, pre-Stanislavski Method like process to get into character, which called on mysticism and the occult, Johann's performance as a woman who becomes something close to a martyr for love is utterly riveting. 

Taken in tandem with Hyland's strong female-centric narrative as well as the then scandalously sexual image of a slip-clad woman curled up in a ball as if getting ready to be thrown in the trash (which was captured for the poster by Peruvian painter Alberto Vargas), Johann's complex portrait of a woman still fascinates. Caught between a rock and a hard place halfway between hypocrisy and contradiction, Johann never loses our interest, even though the same cannot be said for the movie overall.

Still, ideally suited to film scholars curious to dissect Hyland and Goldstone's adventures in nonlinear storytelling as well as those eager to explore the range of the '30s star perhaps most famous for her role opposite Boris Karloff in "The Mummy," "Nora Moran" has never looked better than it does in this new Blu-ray Film Detective presentation of the UCLA restored pre-Code.


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.

8/13/2020

Film Movement Movie Review: A White, White Day (2019)



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According to eight-year-old Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), when the composer Robert Schumann found out that his wife Clara had had an affair with Johannes Brahms, he jumped to his death. And while the facts surrounding classical music's most enigmatic love triangle are a bit more complicated than the young girl's description, the story hits her beloved grandfather Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) harder than she ever could have imagined in “A White, White Day.”

Introduced to the widowed Icelandic police chief after his wife dies in the opening sequence of the movie when her car plows off a mountain road and she plummets to her death, in Ingimundur, we meet a man that is trying his best to keep his head down and get by from one day to the next.


Bringing this to life in a vivid montage where he tries to distract himself from his loss by building a home for his daughter and granddaughter, writer-director Hlynur Palmason's film focuses on the sunlight of one day that fades into the darkness of the night again and again as he uses this technique to illustrate the passage of time.

The first of many dialogue-free sequences which use images, body language, and behavior to bring us deeper into Ingimundur's world, we soon learn that beneath his quiet exterior exists an ocean of rage below the surface that begins to rise when just like Schumann, he realizes that his beautiful younger wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir) may have been involved with a Brahms of her own. Sorting through a box of her belongings that an old co-worker drops off at his house, he's shocked when he discovers not only his wife's old Mini DV camera but a cassette which shows her in a romantic tryst with another man whom he is determined to track down.

Less a conventional thriller than a psychological portrait of a man caught between the planes of heartbreak and scorn, while I'd be fascinated to see what somebody like Paul Schrader might’ve done with this material, it's clear that Palmason is less concerned with telling a palatable story than he is just eager to spend time in the same space as his lead overall.

A somewhat frustrating, meandering, and at times, unfocused film, in “A White, White Day,” we spend nearly a full hour watching Ingimundur drive around, shower, and breathe in and out, until Palmason, at last, decides that it's time to follow through on the dilemma he presented early on.


More in love with his own technique than he is truly able to deduce what he needs to make the best film that he can, Palmason moves from ambiguous scenes to overt sign-posting most evident in a bizarre sequence that fills the screen with images from a faux experimental children's TV show where he spells out the film's larger themes in the weirdest of ways. 

Buoyed by a tremendous turn by Sigurdsson and a second-half that is light years better than the first, while the film is beautifully made and the score by composer Edmund Finnis is as gorgeous as Maria von Hausswolff's cinematography, in the end, it's no match for the story of Schuman and Brahms as distilled down to its very essence by an eight-year-old. 


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: Sputnik (2020)



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“Sputnik” is a work of Russian space horror that takes place in 1983 – it has to be 1983. Not only is that, as the film's director Egor Abramenko acknowledges, the “golden age” of science fiction as “Sputnik” shares a direct lineage to Ridley Scott's masterful “Alien,” but it's also the ideal time for its allegory about the complexities of identity to pay off on the upcoming fall of the Soviet Union. Additionally, 1983 was the peak time after the rise of astronauts in the space race – both in Russia and here in the states – where kids grew up dreaming of being one of those chosen few, the heroic explorers who represented their country and the entire planet as they journeyed into outer space.

This was before the devastation of the Challenger explosion in 1986 and before kids were old enough to see some of the (then) contemporary works of space horror from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (before its director Philip Kaufman would go on to make the brilliant, flag-waving space docudrama “The Right Stuff”) to “Alien” and beyond. Not only brilliant works of existential science fiction, these films serve as cautionary tales, warning us that perhaps not all of the life forms that awaited us in space were as friendly as the one in “E.T.”

In setting his film in 1983, Abramenko taps into all of these contradictions, including the desire to answer that childlike call in all of us to be a pioneering national hero and the body horror that occurs in its protagonist as a result that is so perfectly suited to '83. 

Written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev (and inspired by Abramenko's short film “The Passenger,” penned by Roman Volobuev, which played at Fantastic Fest), “Sputnik” tells the story of the sole survivor of a space wreck. Chronicling the crash of the Orbita 4 spaceship at the start of the film, after the ship lands, Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (played by Pyotr Fyodorov) is held under observation in a secure facility in Kazakhstan while scientists work to deduce exactly what happened and what if anything might be wrong with the man who walked away. 


Having traveled to Moscow to recruit risk-taking neuro-psychiatrist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to evaluate the man with promises that he'll take care of her ethics board inquiry from the health ministry, Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) listens to Tatyana's cursory diagnosis that the cosmonaut is suffering from PTSD, knowing full well that the riddle that is Konstantin becomes far more complex by nightfall. Left in the dark right along with Tatyana, we soon discover that although the cosmonaut arrived back on Earth alone, he is very much not alone in a truly shocking reveal that's as disturbing as it is a genuine throwback to the type of space and/or body horror fare we saw in the late 1970s through the early '80s.

An intelligent puzzle that grows progressively scarier as it continues, while the film lays on some of the psychoanalysis regarding the root of the man's troubles a little heavily (and far too early, when it could certainly use one more twist before its thrilling climax), “Sputnik” is still one sophisticated scarer, overall. 

Exceedingly well-crafted and featuring chilling antiseptic production design that's heavy on barriers, mirrors, glass, and mazes – all of which become, in Abramenko's hands, an effectively symbolic motif – "Sputnik" benefits from its uniformly excellent cast, particularly Fyodorov and Akinshina who ably carry the film. Infused with an intense, percussion-heavy score from composer Oleg Karpachev that feels at once both well-suited to this film as it also does very reminiscent of the scores of 1983, “Sputnik” is a damn strong calling card for Abramenko in an assured feature filmmaking debut.

The latest in a long line of films that were inspired by “Alien,” from a quality standpoint, “Sputnik” belongs to the upper echelon of these movies and I appreciate just how much it paid tribute to and deviated from the blueprint that is the Ridley Scott classic. 


Frustratingly never paying off on a twist involving one of our main characters that it foreshadows but then abandons, “Sputnik” admittedly does start to run out of gas in the last half of the film. Polished and unrelenting nonetheless, it remains gripping enough to hold your attention as we watch the scientists try to figure out who the real Konstantin is deep down and how to separate the “passenger” from its host for good.

Trying (and at times struggling) to juggle both horror and allegorical satire, Abramenko's film is intriguing from a historical perspective as well. Watching its leads question the ethics involved in their work as they wonder if they should report their superiors when things fall apart (just like the Soviet Union would eight years later), Abramenko's “Sputnik” plays especially well to kids who remember the '80s and dreamed of going to space, before Hollywood informed them that the greatest risk might come from within. 


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.