3/17/2021

Movie Review: The Courier (2020)


Now Available


Feature films are not documentaries. Regardless of what a title card reads at the beginning of a biopic, period picture, or other work “based upon” or “inspired by true events,” by now most film lovers know that you shouldn't consider a movie historical Cliff's Notes. If you want to know what really happened, it’s best to pick up a nonfiction book instead. 

Discovering this, it becomes harder to judge fictionalized “true stories” for when and where they decide to adhere to or deviate from the real turns of events or players involved. A valuable rule of thumb for me personally, but as the internet likes to say “your mileage may vary,” is that even when minor details are changed or new subplots are added for dramatic effect, it still has to feel true within the cinematic world where the story exists. Namely, any fictional changes made in a movie should not pull you out of the overall narrative. 

Unfortunately, this is one of the major ways where director Dominic Cooke's otherwise superbly acted faux true-life Cold War drama “The Courier” goes so wrong. A film about a British businessman (Benedict Cumberbatch) who's recruited to transport top-secret documents from a Soviet officer asset (Merab Ninidze) back to his MI6 and CIA handlers in the UK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Courier” is utterly fascinating on the page but only mildly successful on the screen. 

Anachronistic at best, the filmmaker’s decision to cast the unquestionably gifted Rachel Brosnahan as a young female American CIA agent working with MI6 to run foreign operatives in Russia in an era where the people doing so were men feels primarily like tokenism. And indeed, in the film's production notes, even “The Courier” screenwriter Tom O'Connor admits that “casting another male wasn't the most compelling version of the story to tell these days."


Reading this acknowledgment is annoying to me for several reasons. As women, we have our own worthwhile stories to bring to the screen and don’t need “The Courier” to shortchange the roles we played in the given period just because we weren't running international spy-rings. 

Yet even if O'Connor and Cooke weren't trying to be overly trendy in the post-Me Too era, which most female filmgoers are quick to see through, Brosnahan's CIA agent in “The Courier” feels so inauthentic that her mere presence – and the talented actress's strong performance – makes her minor character far more interesting than everyone else's. Obviously, this couldn't have been the filmmaker's intention all along or they would’ve centered the film on Brosnahan instead of “The Courier.” As soon as she appears onscreen, she easily overshadows Cumberbatch's rather dry everyday businessman, the woefully underwritten Greville Wynne who is purported to be the protagonist. But when it comes to the film's eponymous courier, in this regard, we quickly deduce that she is far from alone.

A weak main character as written, further research reveals that Greville Wynne is a relatively blank slate. Following the events of the film, it seems that not only did MI6 not thank the businessman or disclose much about his international pursuits but the real Wynne wrote two different memoirs that have been largely debunked, likely owing to a mental decline following his harrowing days as a citizen spy.

Although he’s undoubtedly an unexpected British hero worthy of greater study, Wynne is done a disservice in “The Courier,” once we’re introduced to Cumberbatch's enigmatic counterpart in the form of Merab Ninidze's Russian officer Oleg Penkovsky early on. Immediately engaged in the plight of this man putting his family, career, and life on the line for his principles on his own accord, not only does Penkovsky steal focus from our British courier throughout, it becomes painfully clear that he would've made a much more gripping main character overall. Of course, the stakes are similar for Wynne but being that Penkovsky is mostly in Russia makes his dual role vastly more terrifying.


Imbued with an intentionally dull visual palette, which has a lethargic effect on the film as a whole, despite Cumberbatch's immense range as an actor, whenever “The Courier” follows Ninidze's Penkovsky instead of Wynne, Cooke's work roars back to life. Sadly, however, these moments are as short-lived as they are few and far between.

An altogether underwhelming, workmanlike endeavor, the film marks a disappointing sophomore effort for the director of the impressive '17 sleeper “On Chesil Beach.” Helmed by a man with an extensive background working with actors in the theater, “The Courier” is augmented by the strength of Cooke's ensemble cast, including Jessie Buckley as Wynne's stylish wife who brings a bit of vivacity to the film’s visually dour proceedings.
 
While on the one hand, it's perhaps worth watching for viewers who are curious about Cold War foreign policy and international relations, on the other, what we have here doesn’t really work as a film. Despite being content as ever to look the other way for the sake of artistic license, the faux factual "Courier" just doesn't entertain us enough to warrant being trendy, UK-centric, and safe rather than unapologetic, international, and real.


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.

2/09/2021

A David Morse Reappraisal: Down in the Valley (2005)




Introduction: 

For my latest DVD Netflix actor's spotlight article, I chose five outstanding performances by character actor David Morse. One of the films I analyzed for the piece was this 2005 sleeper but unfortunately, the independent film studio went bust and the DVD is no longer in production or available to rent from Netflix. However, as of this post, "Down in the Valley" is available to stream from a variety of services (check the site/app Just Watch for current details) so I wanted to share this reevaluation of the film here for you today. 


"Down in the Valley"

Writer-director David Jacobson's “Down in the Valley” is as eerily dark yet disarmingly gentle as the potentially dangerous modern-day drifter cowboy Harlan Fairfax Curruthers that Edward Norton plays in the flawed yet fascinating film. A psychologically compelling character-driven contemporary western that plays on the genre archetypes of good and evil, the film focuses on the aimless wanderings of two kids coming-of-age in the San Fernando Valley. 

As a restless teenager on the cusp of womanhood, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) spends most of her days with friends or being followed around by her equally bored brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). A maternal figure standing in for their mother who's out of the picture, in the way that Lonnie gravitates to Tobe, we begin to realize that – although Jacobson barely fills in the details for most of these characters – Wood's Tobe is a girl who has grown up much too quickly. 

 And just like we see in Norton both darkness and light, casting the precocious Wood (who'd first made a splash playing characters thrust into adulthood early), ensures that Jacobson brilliantly uses people as iconography in “Down in the Valley.” 

Ogled by Norton's handsome, much older Harlan as he fills her friend's car with gas, Tobe boldly eyes the stranger back and impulsively invites him to accompany them to the beach. Quitting his job on the spot, he jumps feet first into the ocean and headfirst into a relationship with Tobe. 

Guileless and relatively innocent (at least initially), although it's Harlan who has several years on his new girlfriend, after their first afternoon together quickly escalates into sex, it's surprisingly Harlan who wants to pump the brakes a bit and court her '50s style. Asking her younger brother if it's okay that he dates Tobe, in that moment we sense the “aw, shucks” Jimmy Stewart style nervousness that attracted Tobe to Harlan in the first place. Unfortunately for the kids, however, it takes a man closer to Harlan's age to see right through it. 


An overprotective stepfather to the two children who once again (with his natural “cop's face”) is cast as a man of the law, when Morse's Wade comes home and sees his stepdaughter wearing a dress that the man she's about to leave home with bought her, alarm bells start to go off in his head. Sizing him up but soon backing down, he lets the two go out, which indicates to us that Tobe must be of age (or else he's just that trusting). Things quickly change, however, first when she begins staying out all hours and again when she gets arrested for stealing a horse after former ranch hand Harlan lets himself onto another man's property to “borrow” a white horse and bring Tobe for a joy ride. 

In medieval romantic literature and movie westerns, the chivalrous heroes of the genres are the ones on white horses donning white hats. But even before Jacobson lets us see how white-hatted Harlan spends his days playacting gunfights (with real guns) when Tobe's not around, we start understanding why Wade instinctively knew that when it comes to this cowboy, something is definitely off. Pulled into the melee after the horse's owner (Bruce Dern) calls the cops and tells them that despite Harlan's insistence to the contrary, he's never seen him before in his life, Wade lays down the law that she needs to stop seeing this strange man. 

Soon a standoff develops between the two in the meandering third act when Morse – donning a black hat, clothes, and riding a dark horse as well – forms a posse with others to locate and arrest Harlan for a shocking crime. And the film's genre symbolism truly comes full circle when they wander onto a western movie set. 


Refusing to give us any answers about the drifter's background or mental state as the character of Harlan takes on some De Niro in “Taxi Driver” like properties when he aspires to “rescue” the kids from their domineering stepfather, the film finds its one true moral center in the complex heart of Wade. A cautionary tale about the dangers of fantasy, which – despite offering a sense of escape – can be taken much too far, Morse's Wade is the prickly voice of reason when the kids are charmed and seduced by Harlan. 

Knowing he's too strict with Tobe and frighteningly pushes her away, there's a sense of heartbreak and unease in Wade's behavior throughout the movie. We sense this both when he tells Lonnie not to sleep in his sister's room so much because he wants to toughen the sheltered boy up and also when he struggles to discipline a young woman at her most emotionally and hormonally confusing time. He's ill-equipped for his role as their guardian or single father and he knows it. 

Raising questions about masculinity, which admittedly need additional fleshing out to give Morse more to work with and the audience a better sense of their home life, Jacobson's script weaves in a few key lines of dialogue about Wade that are uttered by the other characters. Wanting to impress and bond with his new friend and sudden role model Harlan, Lonnie describes Wade's background in the service as a war veteran. Showing Harlan Wade's collection of vintage guns that he won't let Lonnie touch until he's at least sixteen, Wade's concern over their deadly intent – even when he draws down on Harlan midway into the movie to scare him off – admirably contradicts the casual, frightening way that Norton's character plays with weapons like they're mere extensions of his hand. 


Like his work in “Dancer in the Dark,” Morse's role in “Down in the Valley” is a relatively small one compared to co-stars Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood (whose portrayal of a young woman under the spell of a dangerous older man at a time that she actually was makes it quite harrowing). Still, via Morse, Wade's new stateside war between wanting to protect his stepchildren from potential harm but not drive them away in the process becomes one of the film's most underdeveloped yet subtly moving plotlines. So caught up in Tobe's relationship was I the first two times I saw the film, this reading of Wade only came to me recently in a rewatch. Intriguingly, although he has a fraction of the screen time, Morse's Wade is the one you'll find yourself contemplating much more after it ends, even though he's far less mysterious than Harlan. 

And while the film's insistence to put a bow on the ending as two characters reflect on Norton's troubled cowboy takes something away from “Down in the Valley”'s overall ambiguity, it's a curious film that's elevated by its talented quartet of stars. Likewise, it's one where the innate goodness of Norton and Morse's screen personas in other movies make their work here even richer and more subversive than it is on the page.

Read About 4 More David Morse Films & Performances on DVD Netflix here.


Text ©2021, 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.

1/06/2021

The 30 Best Films of 2020

The 30 Best Films of 2020
by Jen Johans



An Introduction

For me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that while I love reading lists, I hate making them. Coming up with a quick and dirty Top 5 in the company of friends can be a fun conversational tool to stir debate among film geeks but the prospect of actually sitting down to make a definitive ranking of titles is about as appealing as deep cleaning my refrigerator. 

No two lists are alike, just like no two “three-star” movies are alike. I'd much rather champion or critique films in longer pieces throughout the year to inspire greater thought than rely on the quick stars I slap on a film on my Letterboxd account for record-keeping.

It all boils down to taste and criteria, both of which differ wildly from one person to the next. Should you choose your favorite films or the ones you think of when you hear the word best? When asked to explain the difference between the two, the example I always give is Martin Scorsese, whose “Raging Bull” I consider to be his greatest masterpiece yet “Goodfellas” is the picture of his that I watch the most. But when it comes to best, is the technical side of filmmaking more important than the theme of a movie if its cinematography and editing aren't quite where they should be to match the film's script and performances? When should you let the shortcomings of a film slide and when should you more harshly judge another one?


As I began to look at the rather unscientific list I made in 2020 of my favorite new films, I thought about what I looked for in end-of-the-year lists back when I was just a casual fan signing onto “The New York Times” or Roger Ebert's site each December. I realized that while I knew that the more times I came across titles like “Yi Yi” or “In the Mood for Love” on the web, they moved higher up on my list of films to seek out, the thing I loved even more than anything was discovering something new that represented an individual critic's personality in a stance that broke away from the pack.

Some films are, of course, objectively great, and that is the first criteria I used when compiling my list. Starting with the query to list the films that I consider the best of the year, I went with that “Raging Bull” vs. “Goodfellas” dynamic in listing unequivocally excellent films first but once those were out of the way, I started to play. I moved them to various locations in the rankings, by considering other questions as well.

Namely, which films spoke to me the most on a personal level as a 39-year-old disabled woman with my particular worldview and set of experiences? Which ones perhaps meant more to me in 2020 than they would've just one year earlier? If I'd never seen any of the films from 2020, which ones would I want a friend to tell me to see first? 


I meant to make a Top 20 of '20 list but my first draft went well past 50 films so I arrived at 30 as a means of compromise. The last movie that I saw in a theater was nearly a year ago and while I miss that communal experience, even without the theater, some truly amazing films were released last year. There are a handful of titles on this list that I watched more than once, including the top film, which I loved so much that I watched it twice in one week. Similarly, there are others you will see here that I found so hard-hitting that I know it will be a long time before I'm able to revisit them. I'm limited to the works that I have access to and/or have seen so far so this list might be right for today but it will inevitably shift with time and greater access to more movies. And as my whims change, something I currently have in my Top 5 or 10 might drop to my Top 20, and vice versa, and others might fall off this list completely.

While working on this project, I quickly realized that I shouldn't write about each film on this list individually for two reasons: the first being that I'm so passionate about these movies that it would be several thousand words long, and the second is that I want you to have that same sense of discovery that I had when I finally sat down to watch, say, 2002's “City of God” for the first time.

My advice to you is don't read too much about these films ahead of time before you push play. My friend, the veteran critic, and screenwriter Drew McWeeny argued on my podcast Watch With Jen that reading film criticism should be saved until after you've watched a movie and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I love and respect film writing and do my best not to spoil any plot points in my pieces but I know that as a consumer in my own right, I do the same thing as Drew. I save the reviews I want to read until after I've seen the movie and have sat with it for a while. 


It's incredibly valuable to bring other points of view into my relationship with a movie, whether I agree or disagree with their critique. Honestly, back in the "before times" when press screenings were safe to attend, I opted not to discuss new films very much with fellow critics and chose to instead think about it privately for at least twenty-four hours before I wrote my piece to avoid hyperbole or a rush to judgment. I didn't start out like this of course, because it took some time for me to learn that it's okay not to know what to think about a film right away.

It's said that the legendary critic Gene Siskel would leave the theater rather than see the trailers for upcoming features back when he was writing for “The Chicago Tribune.” While I've never gone that far, I do find myself only watching thirty seconds or so of a YouTube trailer to get the feel of a movie I might agree to review without the disappointment of inevitable spoilers. I love going into a movie knowing little to nothing about it.

Now that we're all home during the pandemic and so much great cinema is available with the push of a button, I encourage you to try something new. Check out films from genres you normally don't embrace and be sure to explore titles from other countries as well. View movie-watching as a new adventure. After all, it's a way to safely travel in the comfort of your own home in 2021. I know that having the ability to go to Greece and swim in the sea with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is a big part of the reason that I ranked their newest “Trip” film so highly on this list. Yet even though the rest of the movies I included aren't comedic travelogues, they do offer you the chance to escape reality for a while by going back in time or walking in the shoes of someone you'd never expect to meet in your everyday life. 


Like seeing a “you are here” sticker on a map, a majority of the best movies of the year opted for a neorealistic approach to storytelling. They aim to drop you directly into the world of their protagonist and lose you for a while. From blue-collar workers going wherever they need to go for work as modern-day nomads to heavy metal drummers or farmers doing the same, most of these films use blisteringly compelling first-person or small ensemble narratives. Concentrating on individuals living their lives on the fringes, we encounter the uncelebrated souls of people just getting by, the un-Coogan and Brydons, if you will.

When writing about what these movies have in common, some critics preferred to zero in on the Me Too aspect apparent in many of 2020's best features and it is definitely there. The popularity of this vital theme, along with the fact that over a dozen of the films in my unedited list of '20 favorites were made by women cannot be understated when evaluating the year's best works. However, I think the real story here is that in a largely (and thankfully) superhero-free year, filmmakers have argued that the real superheroes are the ones who are not “the best” genetic specimens but rather, the ones who get up and do the best they can, regardless of race, gender, or ability. 


Navigating wrongs as they're able while also knowing that they still need to put food on the table, in many of these movies, there's a recurring question of who has and what it means to have power. Many of our main characters are backed into a corner and forced to reconcile what it is that they need in this life with what they want. The desire to simplify, to make a connection, and to find meaning even in a world where things aren't fair is felt throughout all of these works, regardless of who the film's subjects are. We see this when we tag along with guests to a 1980s West London dance party, when we watch a Czech artist find a new friend and muse in the Norwegian thief who stole two of her paintings, and in a thinly veiled autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker in Italy trying to come to terms with his own demons and desires.

A combination of “best” and “favorite” movies, including the ones I immediately recommended to others and the ones that kept me up nights, when given the impossible task of making a list, I took a cue from these films and found my own meaning as well. In the end, don't ask me to explain it. Just enjoy the movies because then it’s time for you to decide. 


Jen's 30 Best Films of '20

1) “David Byrne’s American Utopia” 
2) “Sound of Metal” 
3) “Minari” 
4) “The Trip to Greece” (full review)
5) “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” 
6) “The Nest” (full review)
7) “I’m Your Woman” (full review)
8) “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” 
9) “The Assistant” (full review)
10) “A Sun” 
11) “Nomadland” 
12) “Another Round” 
13) “Babyteeth” (full review)
14) “The Painter and the Thief” (full review)
15) “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” (full review)
16) “Black Bear” 
17) “One Night in Miami” 
18) “Saint Frances” 
19) “First Cow” 
20) “Herself” 
21) “News of the World” 
22) “The Burnt Orange Heresy” 
23) “Da 5 Bloods” 
25) “Time” 
26) "The Vast of Night" 
27) “Driveways” 
28) “Alone With Her Dreams” (full review)
29) “Tommaso” 
30) “Corpus Christi” 
Note: I will continue to update this list on Letterboxd as I see more movies and/or revise the order of the titles. You can visit the list in progress here.


Text ©2021, 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.