Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Bob Marley: One Love. A Review (Review #1796)



It is the rare person who does not like either reggae or its most well-known ambassador, Bob Marley. Bob Marley: One Love is a Marley estate approved biopic on the superstar. That may be the problem. 

Covering the years 1976 to 1978, One Love details certain events in the life of Jamaican Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Amir). We start with the troubles inflicting the island nation, with rival factions vying for power. Amidst the chaos, Marley has decided to host Smile Jamaica, a peace concert to unite the people. Nefarious forces, however, do not want the Smile Jamaica concert to go on. 

This leads to an assassination attempt days before the concert. Bob Marley's wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch) is seriously injured, barely surviving. Bob is hit but not majorly injured. Despite continued protests, Marley rises to the occasion to be the Smile Jamaica headliner.

Still, it is unsafe, so he sends his wife and children to live with his mother in Maryland while he goes to London. Here, he sees the rise of punk music and, while overhearing the Ernest Gold score to the film Exodus, he is inspired musically to create his own work. Marley finds kinship in both Gold's stirring opening theme and the struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland, matching his own hopes for his Rastafarian faith. Out of Exodus the soundtrack, comes Exodus the reggae album. 

While Exodus is a major worldwide hit, Marley still cannot get tour dates to Africa. He also has to deal with shady business practices from Don Taylor (Anthony Welsh), his business manager. Finally, he has a melanoma diagnosis that will ultimately kill him in 1981. He does, however, return to Jamaica and in archival footage, see Bob Marley perform at the independence celebration for the new African nation of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the most curious element in Bob Marley: One Love is how the film failed to make a case as to why anyone would care about Bob Marley. This is especially true for anyone who does not already know Marley or his music. There may be a few people unaware of who Bob Marley, the artist, was. One Love will not enlighten them given that his creative evolution is so haphazardly handled. In a sense, One Love almost expects the viewer to have some background about Marley and reggae. 

A lot of One Love expects you to have at the least a Wikipedia-sized knowledge about the subject. The film spends its first thirty-odd minutes on the Smile Jamaica story. In a lot of biopics, the events leading up to the concert would have been the film itself, with Smile Jamaica being the triumphant conclusion. However, One Love feels oddly rushed to get to what it thinks is a major turning point in the Marley story. 

I do not doubt that getting shot at is a major turning point, but outside of archival footage we do not get a firm background into the chaos in Jamaica or the violence in Kingston. Why are there two opposing camps? Why is Marley in particular targeted? Why does he have this hold among the Jamaican people? Same goes for when creating Exodus. What inspired him to delve into deeper subjects? It is, if not strictly speaking a guessing game at least an unanswered question. 

As a side note, I am dubious that Gold's Exodus score, brilliant and iconic as it now is, did inspire Marley's Exodus album. 

Over and over, One Love fails to make Marley interesting. We do not get the man or the myth. Instead, we get bits and pieces of each, never forming a full portrait of either. That may be due to having four screenwriters: Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green (with story by Winter and Flowers). Having so many people made One Love unfocused, as if unsure of where to go. The decision to focus, or at least hit on, two events (the Smile Jamaica concert and Exodus recording) were curious ones. I figure a whole film could have been made on either. A whole film could have been built around his Zimbabwe concert. One Love could have also been a straightforward birth-to-earth biopic.

Instead, it just went here and there, never building on anything.

Part of One Love's failed efforts to make a case for a Marley biopic may be due to the Marley estate itself. Having the Marley family approve the film (we get Marley's son Ziggy open the film telling us as much). With the Marley family looking over things, we get a surprisingly clean and safe portrait of the man. Very few hints are made about Marley's myriad infidelities. Rita mentions it in passing, and there are two "blink-and-you-miss-them" moments where another woman may be visiting Marley. It is a strange decision to attempt to whitewash Marley's less admirable qualities.

It is stranger to not show us his creativity. Again, we get bits and pieces, but they amount to little.

Some credit can be given to the lead performances. Ben-Adir did his best to capture Marley's accent and body movements. However, that is all he did (and as a side note, I thought he was going to topple over in dizziness after performing War). Part of the blame is the script, but part of it has to be with Ben-Adir. Lynch was slightly better, but not by much. If there was any sense of anger about Marley's womanizing, we wouldn't know it. We also wouldn't know of her own infidelities through One Love

Come to think of it, we do not know Bob and Rita Marley through One Love. Perhaps the 2012 documentary Marley would be more informative (though I have yet to see it as of this writing). Until then, Bob Marley: One Love fails to even be a good primer on what should have been a fascinating subject. As it stands, no one will be Jamming to Bob Marley: One Love.


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Madame Web: A Review (Review #1795)



When is a Spider-Man movie not a Spider-Man movie? 

I was, to be honest, unaware that there was such a thing as a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe where our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man does not actually appear or is even mentioned by name. Instead, we get various characters from his world with the vague notion that he (be it Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland) is hovering about somewhere in Queens. 

All of these films have some connection to Spidey but don't actually feature the webslinger. There were Venom and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, films that proved wildly popular and successful which despite all logic I did not end up hating. There was Morbius, as great a debacle as any in the comic book film genre.  Now we get Madame Web, the newest effort to create a franchise that seems doomed from the get-go. Perhaps it is to the film's credit that I did not end up hating Madame Web, even if I cannot speak for other members of the audience, but more on that later.

Darkest Peru, 1973. Constance Webb (Kerry Biché) is a pregnant scientist searching for a mysterious spider with healing properties. Once found, however, her fellow explorer Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) betrays the group, killing everyone to get the rare spider. Connie is hit in the chaos, but the Arañas, a mysterious people who have been the protectors of the rainforest and have spider-like abilities, manage to save Connie's baby if not Connie herself.

Move on thirty years, where that baby is now Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson). She's a cynical, emotionally distant EMT in NYC, saving lives but vaguely aware of whom she is saving. Her closest friend is her EMT partner, one Ben Parker (Adam Scott), and even that is not a particularly close relationship. Cassie has a near-death experience that leads to her having visions of the immediate future, though that future is not set. 

Good thing that Sims is not aware of Cassie's clairvoyance or her connection to Connie. He is too busy trying to track down three teenage girls whom he has recurring visions of them killing him when he is older. Sims figures that if he can kill them now, he can avoid his fate. He uses vaguely futuristic technology to track down the three troublemakers. There is sweet-natured Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), sarcastic rich bitch Mattie Franklin (Celeste O'Connor) and timid Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced). 

Cassie eventually finds that they are all connected, and she becomes their unofficial protector when she has a vision of a strange spider-like man hunting them all down. She asks Ben to care for them while she goes to Darkest Peru to uncover the past that binds them all together. Ben, who has his own issues in caring for his pregnant sister-in-law Mary (Emma Roberts), does his best, but they still face great danger. Will our heroines save themselves and bring Ezekiel down? Will Ben Parker be a good Uncle Ben to his new and unnamed nephew?

Is it damning with faint praise to say that Madame Web is not the worst film of 2024 that I have seen so far? Out of the six 2024 film releases that I have seen as of this writing, Madame Web is the second-best. That is not a compliment: Madame Web is so clunky, lifeless and pointless that it is inexplicable as to why Sony and Columbia in association with Marvel continue plunging into films that just do not work. 

Everything in Madame Web is pretty much a fiasco. Right from the beginning, director S.J. Clarkson makes one oddball decision after another that it quickly becomes a fun experiment finding which element is the worst one. The film opens with a very poorly shot sequence, where the camera for no discernable reason zooms all over the place while also indulging in various Dutch angles. One genuinely wondered if the cameraman was having a stroke and they decided to just keep rolling. More bizarrely, this same sequence was essentially replayed later in the film.

Granted, the information Cassie is presented is new to her. However, not once did anyone ask when going over Clarkson's screenplay (writing along with Matt Samaza, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker) why they just couldn't go flashback instead of repeating themselves. Add to that the sheer illogic of it all: Cassie, who is technically a fugitive, leaves three teen girls with her bestie, flies to Peru, goes into the jungle, manages to find the mysterious Spider-People and then returns to New York in apparently a matter of hours? This trip would have taken days if not weeks, with Cassie and the girls being hunted down at every second. You can suspend disbelief for only so long before it becomes too ridiculous.

The screenplay, over and over, appears to go out of its way to be idiotic. What the villain actually does is unclear. Did he gain fame and power with the spider? How does he get visions of his future assassins? How do he and Cassie manage to communicate telepathically? Why insist on killing the three in one blow when killing them one-by-one would have been easier? 

If that weren't enough, having a call-out to a previous Spider-Man film is eyerolling. "And when you take on the responsibility, great power will come," the Spider-King tells Cassie. On a myriad of levels, this does not make any sense. "With great power, comes great responsibility" is from the 2002 Spider-Man film. However, Madame Web cannot tie itself into the Tobey Maguire version because Uncle Ben is already a senior citizen and Peter is a teenager. Madame Web, moreover, is set in 2003 and the unnamed nephew to Ben Parker is born at the end of the film. It can tie in, albeit forced, with the Andrew Garfield version, but again it still would be almost impossible to do so. Forget the Tom Holland version. Neither Garfield or Holland, to my recollection, quoted the "Great Power" line, so why use it here?

Actually, forget connecting Madame Web to any of the "Sony-Verse" films. 

Madame Web's disaster goes beyond the screenplay. Everyone in the film is so blank and emotionless. It is astounding to see such a collection of bad performances. One bad performance, I can understand. Having the entire cast be awful is on the director. 

Dakota Johnson is not even trying. One wonders if she was literally drugged into performing. She recited her lines as if she was trying to figure out what the words meant, bringing nothing to the role. Cassie has no personality, no charisma, nothing that indicates she is a functioning human. The trio of Sweeney, Merced and O'Connor all similarly look expressionless. They never connected to each other, but oddly they never looked like they were in conflict. 

Tahar Rahim is an interesting case. He is French, and as such I do not know how strong his English is. He may be quite fluent, but Madame Web can't show us how. There is a curious disconnect between when he speaks and when we see him speak, like the dubbing is off. At times, I wondered if the film was trying to hide him speaking (hence the strange use of Dutch angles and negative space). Scott and Emma Roberts as Ben's sister-in-law Mary were there to do a job and move on.

Madame Web is a nothing. While I have read and heard the vitriol about it, calling it the worst film they have ever seen or the worst ever made, I thought of it more as an enjoyably bad film. It is not good. It is not even a "so bad it's good" film. It is just that in a world that has Lisa Frankenstein and Argylle, I cannot call Madame Web the worst film of 2024.

The best summation that I can give Madame Web comes not from me but from another audience member at the screening I attended. While he did not shout out his comments, he was audible enough in his succinct review. He said, and I quote, "This movie sucked". That pretty much captures Madame Web perfectly.

The Original Madame (Web)


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Lisa Frankenstein: A Review



I am mercifully not nostalgic enough for the 1980s to want to see something like Lisa Frankenstein. Unsure if it is a comedy with horror elements or a funny horror film, Lisa Frankenstein does have some good elements that push the film hopelessly down.

Our heroine, Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) has some goth girl elements but is not a pure goth. Her stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) is a pleasant, cheerful cheerleader who is genuinely fond of her sister. Taffy does her best to get Lisa to mix with her classmates, but Lisa has her heart only for two people. One of them is Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), the brooding, hunky school literary magazine editor. The other is a dead man, a Victorian buried at a bachelor's cemetery.

At the disastrous house party where nerd Doug (Bryce Romero) puts his hand on her breast and her hand on his penis, she flees, inebriated and confused, into that cemetery and makes a wish that her Victorian man be with her. As the song goes, lightning strikes and we get The Creator (Cole Sprouse). He is a shambles, even for a corpse, but Lisa hides him out. 

It is not long before Lisa's wicked stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino) threatens to send her away. Fortunately, the Creature is there to save her by perhaps accidentally killing Janet. He can even get Janet's ear to replace his missing one, as Lisa is a skilled seamstress. The Creator is also missing two other body parts: a hand and a penis. Will Lisa find she can kill two birds with one stone. Will others discover her dangerous necrophile liaisons? 

At first, I thought Lisa Frankenstein could squeak by as being slightly better than something like Mean Girls. However, as I thought on it, I think that if given the choice between the two, I would opt for the musical than the non-musical. It is a shame because there are a couple of things in Lisa Frankenstein that do work.

First is Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows. She reminded me of a young Helena Bonham Carter in both look and mannerism. She was doing her best to sell the comedy aspect of Lisa Frankenstein, playing the part as if she were in a quirkier film than the one she ended up in. I do not think that anyone will ever hear REO Speedwagon's Can't Fight This Feeling again in the same way after her overtly bombastic manner. 

While Newton was good, for me the clear standout is Soberano as Taffy. In perhaps the only positive element in Diablo Cody's screenplay, Taffy is not the stereotypical wicked stepsister. She's actually quite pleasant and relatable. Friendly, genuinely fond of Lisa to where she stands up for her to both her mother and her classmates, it is nice to see a film where the stepsiblings are actually good people. It's a credit to Soberano's performance that I ended up wanting the film to be from her perspective: the sweet girl caught up in Lisa's looniness. 

As such, the "twist" involving her and Michael seems forced. Moreover, whatever Michael's flaws, I do not think he merited his fate. Taffy certainly did not merit her fate. Here she is: a pleasant, happy-go-lucky girl who genuinely cares for Lisa (though to be fair, apt to say mildly insulting things). She, through Lisa's actions, unknowingly loses her mother, sees her lover hacked and is left deeply traumatized by the entire ordeal. That she can genuinely grieve Lisa along with her stepfather Dale (Joe Chrest) is a credit to how Taffy was not just the better character but the better person.

Sprouse, I imagine, wants to break more and more away from his Disney days of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Unfortunately, he did not have much to do, as The Creator was inarticulate until the very end. Perhaps to his credit, he did have better facial expressions when he started becoming more human. However, it did not afford him much of an opportunity to show if he could do anything more.

Going back a bit to how Lisa Frankenstein went after people with almost a vindictive manner, I find that Doug too did not deserve his fate. We see him only twice: when he manhandles Lisa and when he is lured to his end. In no way would I endorse Doug's behavior of feeling Lisa up or putting her hand on his penis. However, he was drunk and not in full command of himself. Again, while his behavior is wrong, it does not merit his fate. 

Lisa Frankenstein wants to echo such films as Heathers or perhaps Beetlejuice (the Tim Burton influence being quite strong, especially with the silhouette opening). The difference though is that the people murdered in Heathers were almost all awful, making their ends if not morally right at least not horrifying or cruel. Lisa Frankenstein, conversely, seems to hit people who are not awful enough to celebrate their ends. You cannot empathize with that kind of cruelty, especially if you push your film to want you to like Lisa.

Why Doug says that his actions were "not Christian" seems a strange thing to say given that he was not strictly speaking, apologizing for his actions. 

Lisa Frankenstein might have some good ideas juggling about, but it does not work. This is especially true of the directing. I am at a loss to understand why Zelda Williams was given such a project for her feature film debut. It is hard to imagine that being Robin Williams' daughter did not help in some way. 

Yes, people in the theater that I saw Lisa Frankenstein were laughing when Michael's dick was cut off to On the Wings of Love. I was not. I was not so much horrified or appalled as I was perturbed by that attempt at forced humor. I, again, got lost in logic, thinking that the penis would no longer function even if Lisa successfully sewed it on. I leave it to you to decide if seeing what is technically necrophilia counts as comedy or not.

Lisa Frankenstein could have been good. I did like Newton and Soberano. As it stands however, the film did not win me over. At least it is better than Argylle, so that is a plus in its favor.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Anatomy of a Fall: A Review



It is said that there is more than one side to a story. Anatomy of a Fall, is a well-crafted albeit long film that peels the layers off a potential crime.

An interview between noted author Sandra Voyter (Sandra Huller) and a student is drowned out by music from her husband Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis). Their visually impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) takes a walk in the woods near the Swiss chalet they are staying at. When he returns with his guide dog Snoop, Daniel finds Samuel laying dead on the ground.

What happened to Samuel? Did he accidentally fall, as Sandra initially says to her friend and attorney, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud)? The police do not think it was an accident, especially since Daniel gives conflicting evidence about where he was in relation to his exact location. Sandra remembers Samuel had a previous suicide attempt which they kept hidden. No dice though, as Sandra is now charged with murder.

Did she kill Samuel? Evidence piles up against her. She had an affair with another woman a year before. She had also taken a plot from Samuel's long-gestating novel and crafted a bestseller. Sandra insists that Samuel knew about both and even encouraged the latter. Still, more circumstantial evidence mounts against Sandra. There is a recording of a fight between them, where we don't know who is hitting whom. Her novels could reflect her thoughts, but do those involve killing a man she still resents for being partially responsible for their son's disability?

Only the visually impaired witness can save her, but can he provide the key to solve the mystery?

If I find a fault in Anatomy of a Fall, it is in length. The film runs two hours and thirty two minutes long, and I think that will test more than a few viewers' patience and endurance. It is not exactly a flaw in director Justine Triet's screenplay (cowritten with Arthur Harari). I can see how Anatomy of a Fall builds its case so to speak, in a calm and deliberate manner. 

However, perhaps in this case, it is too calm and deliberate. I found that the film did not pick up interest until we got to the trial. Here are Huller's best moments, where she again in a calm but firm manner attempts to defend herself from the verbal barbs from the Prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz). Throughout the film, Huller is excellent as the besieged Sandra because she does not become histrionic. She does show emotion: anger when we see her fighting with Samuel. For the most part, Huller plays Sandra in a calm but firm manner: aware of the situation but not giving into despair. 

She also has the advantage of acting in at least two languages. Anatomy of a Fall establishes that English is the middle ground between the primarily German-speaking Samuel and primarily French-speaking Sandra. As such, Huller speaks mostly in English, at least at one point stating that the translation from English to French does not accurately state what she said. I do not remember if she also spoke German, but it would fit. This element is used well in Anatomy of a Fall, where Sandra becomes openly flustered at her struggle to make herself understood in French. 

Huller is well-matched by the other cast members large and small. Arlaud is methodical as Sandra's attorney/friend, able to parry with the Prosecutor while being blunt with Sandra about her chances. Reinartz's Prosecutor is sharp and cutting, able to effectively slice her defense with almost malicious glee. Of all the other performances, it is Machado-Graner that holds our attention as Daniel. An innocent who is also wary of people, caught in a terrible situation, he sorts as best he can through this tangled web.

Anatomy of a Fall is a fine film, though I wish it were shorter. Overall, it is a strong film with strong performances, though I would recommend an intermission for the viewer. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Argylle: A Review



Ah, the curse of modern-day filmmaking. Argylle, the new action-comedy from Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn, was crafted to be the first part of a trilogy leading up to a shared cinematic universe with the Kingsman films. Should the teased-at prequel and future Argylle films actually come about, it might signal more than the dearth of current cinematic output. It might signal the End of Western Civilization itself. 

Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is promoting her newest novel of her superspy Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). Her creation, essentially the illegitimate son of Jack Reacher and James Bond, is on his fifth adventure, but Elly cannot find a proper conclusion to her saga. Turning to her mother Ruth (Catherine O'Hara) for help, Elly decides a visit home will help her through the writer's block.

To her surprise and horror, she finds herself in a real spy caper when Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell), seemingly an Argylle fan but in reality a superspy himself, saves her from a group of hitmen. He then tells her that her novels appear to predict future acts of espionage, so a shadowy organization named The Division sent goons to abduct her. Now she must help in solving the mystery of how she can be so accurate and a threat to The Division.

Division Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston) has a few tricks up his own sleeve to not just capture Elly but his arch nemesis, Alfred Solomon better known as Alfie (Samuel L. Jackson). Why does Alfie have the same name as her beloved cat? Well, no surprise: Elly Conway is the Real Agent Argylle! Alfie and Aiden reveal she was superspy Rachel Kylle or R. Kylle from which she subconsciously derived the name "Argylle". 

Rachel had been brainwashed into thinking that Ruth and Ritter were her real parents, with her novels being a way for her repressed memories to reveal information the Division monitored. However, her fifth and final Argylle novel was on the verge of revealing what the Division was after. Now using her emerging skills, Rachel/Elly joins forces with her love interest Aidan and Alfie to bring the Division down. Or does she? More twists and turns emerge until at last, things come to a successful conclusion.

Or do they? We find that at her most recent book reading promoting her concluding Argylle novel, a man looking very much like Argylle appears, with a mid-credit scene threatening an Argylle: Book One: The Movie coming soon.

Argylle is such a disaster of epic proportions that one watches not even in disbelief or shame that people would possibly imagine the public crying out for more Argylle films. Rather, one watches with a mixture of boredom, frustration and downright anger that audiences were bombarded with this abomination. It is not often when one can watch a film collapse before their very eyes, but that is what we got with Argylle.

It is as if everyone involved: cast, crew, perhaps even catering services, was dead-set on making an epic fiasco. Every decision made was so spectacularly wrong, every segment so wildly misguided in every way imaginable that it is a competition as to what element is the most disastrous.

I think the winner of that competition is Jason Fuch's screenplay. At a shocking two-hour-nineteen minute runtime, Argylle goes all over the place and never bothers to make sense. My own sense is that the film is so set on building up a grand cinematic universe that it does not bother setting up a single movie. Argylle thinks it is setting up great twists and turns, but it only ends up being a rambling, incoherent mess. Far too clever by half, Argylle just does not make sense.

There are small things, such as when for unknown reasons Elly calls her neighbor so that said neighbor can pass the phone call to her mother. I do not know how the relationship between Elly's family and the neighbor is to where Elly has his telephone number, let alone be confident enough to know he'd pass on the call to Ruth. Then there are large things, such as how someone could apparently get shot and killed only to pop up very much alive because the assassin hit the target at exactly the right spot so as to not kill them.

From beginning to end, Argylle thinks it is clever and witty when in reality it is stupid to downright insane.

The performances are also not there. The closest to a performance is Rockwell, whom is desperately trying to sell the comedic aspects of Argylle. However, he and Bryce Dallas Howard have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. The idea that these two could be or had ever been lovers is laughable; the vaguely hinted-at romance between Argylle and Wiley's stand-in Wyatt (John Cena) is more believable. As much as Rockwell tries, he cannot make what is meant as witty banter between him and Elly remotely good. 

That, to be fair, is more on Howard than Rockwell. Her delivery was unspeakably bad at just about every turn. Perhaps she was smart enough to see that the dialogue was dreadful, though not smart enough not to have accepted the role. In both versions: meek Elly and allegedly girl-boss R. Kylle, she is horrendous.

I have long argued that Henry Cavill cannot act. He is beautiful to look at, but has no skills in creating characters. Argylle should be a perfect showcase for Cavill's thorough lack of acting skills. The character is meant to be stiff, dull and totally blank. Somehow, Cavill can't even manage to make a nonentity like Agent Argylle come across as the exaggerated farce he is. I have to imagine Agent Argylle is meant to be dim and pointless, for I cannot imagine the character presented would be interesting enough for one book, let alone a whole series. 

Cranston and Jackson were just cashing checks and not bothering with anything. The most unfortunate person here is O'Hara. She is a genuine talent and brilliant comedienne, so to see her wasted by Vaughn in this is sad. 

Vaughn cannot get past his old tricks, such as staging overblown action/fight scene with music. Why exactly he chose Sylvester's disco hit Do Ya Wanna Funk? for the bullet train fight one can only guess at. He's done this sort of thing before: wild, overblown, frenetic action sequences. However, in Argylle, they were dull and thoroughly fake-looking. Throwing in more smoke that shifts into hearts is not clever or funny. It's just dull and stupid. 

Argylle has nothing to recommend it. Absolutely nothing. No acting. No action. No humor. No heart. The cat is out of the luggage: Argylle is one of the worst if not worst film of 2024 if not among the worst of all time.

God Help Us All if they force another Argylle film on us. If for any reason we do have to endure another Argylle horror, Matthew Vaughn should make as its theme song what the audience is feeling: Pet Shop Boys' What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Friday, February 9, 2024

The Zone of Interest: A Review



How does evil grow? Quite easily. We, separated by almost eighty years from the barbarism of the Holocaust, can ask how it could have happened. The Zone of Interest lays out a very chilling answer: quite easily, without a second thought. 

Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their children live what appear to be idyllic lives. They have a pleasant home, complete with a large garden that Hedwig lovingly tends to; there is even a swimming pool and hothouse for their comforts. They have a few people serving them. Even better for Rudolph, his work is literally a few paces away, the facility just behind their garden wall.

That facility just happens to be Auschwitz, where the smoke from the crematoriums is never ending. The sound of shootings, screams and trains are quite audible, but they do not disturb the Hoss family home. They are not oblivious or even perhaps indifferent to the sights and sounds of the death camp. They just happen to live beside them. Sure, human ashes may suddenly emerge onto the river while Hoss is fishing and his kids are swimming. This, however, is more an irritant than a horror, a sign of ineptness rather than cruelty.

Hedwig is not pleased to learn that Rudolph has been given a promotion that might mean leaving their home. She pushes him to at first fight the promotion, taking up to Hitler if need be. Rudolph at least gets the High Command to allow Hedwig and their children to stay in their lovely home. More good news comes his way when he is allowed back to Auschwitz to head his own operation to transport more people there. There is a celebration for the upcoming operation. Calling Hedwig afterwards, he tells her he was too distracted by wondering how he would gas those attending the event to notice the elegant surroundings. In a flashforward, we see Rudolph descend down a flight of stairs while the sight of the current Auschwitz is seen being readied for that day's visitors. Rudolph continues his descent into darkness.

The Zone of Interest brings to mind the familiar quote from Hannah Arendt about the "banality of evil"; when she covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the creators of the Final Solution. We see that the Hoss family and those friends that drop in are not oblivious to what is going on next door. Far from it: they are fully aware, to where Hedwig's mother wonders if the woman whose house she cleaned is in the camp. She, however, can comment only on how she lost the chance to get her Jewish employer's curtains when she was first sent to the ghetto.

The Hoss family, in fact all those who worked for the Third Reich, have accepted the barbarism of the Shoah that they have successfully dehumanized and "othered" all those who are not like them. Early on, one of Hedwig's friends remarks on a beautiful coat that belonged to "a Jewess". Never did any of them ask or care about that woman's fate. They instead focused on how said "Jewess" was half their size, meaning it required alteration. Near the end of The Zone of Interest, Hedwig snaps at one of the camp slaves who works for her, "I could have my husband spread your ashes across the area". It is chillingly reminiscent of when slaveholders would threaten to sell their slaves down river, a reminder of who was in control. I do not think, as I said, that the people here were oblivious but disinterested, the process of dehumanization complete. 

Director/screenwriter Jonathan Glazer, adapting Martin Amis' novel, takes its time revealing horrors behind the mundane façade. Apart from a few camp prisoners who serve as the Hoss' de facto slaves, we never see inside Auschwitz itself. We hear the sounds of gunfire, of screams, but The Zone of Interest is not about what went on inside the death camp. It is interested in how seemingly normal, even pleasant, people could or would continue life while serving mass murder on a satanic level. 

This is what makes The Zone of Interest so effective: it presents us with a cold, dispassionate view of how monstrosity and inhumanity can be so routine. The Hoss family is not presented as raging antisemites or psychotic fanatics. They are presented as what they are: ordinary people who have not so much compartmentalized the horror they benefit from as accepted it as the natural course of things. 

The performances are equally straightforward, making things more horrifying. Friedel's Rudolph is coldly effective. Seeing him rationally look over plans to have gas chambers and crematoriums run 24/7 is horrifying in its simplicity.  Huller reveals Hedwig to be a hausfrau who focuses on her family and the creature comforts her husband's job has provided. She is also a super-bitch, putting her own interests ahead of everything else. 

That she could discuss her wish to return to Italy for a vacation as people are being slaughtered makes things more grotesque. Yet that is the point of The Zone of Interest, to show how "good people" can not just accept but live comfortably aside unspeakable horrors with no concept that what they are doing is wrong.

If there are flaws to The Zone of Interest, it may be that it sometimes takes a too artistic take on things. The film opens with perhaps excessively creepy music from Mica Levi and has an almost painfully long black screen that makes on wonder if the film will ever start. The end, with a sudden shift to the present-day at the Auschwitz Museum as Rudolph metaphorically looks on, is a bit much. 

On the whole, The Zone of Interest is a chilling portrait of how comfortable people can be with evil. When people ask how such horrors as the Shoah or slavery happen, The Zone of Interest shows that it can happen because good people are fine with it so long as they do not think on it. Slaveowners and people like the Hoss family worked with evil because they did not see it as evil. "We're living how we dreamed we lived", Hedwig states when Rudolph tells her they might have to move. Traits like human venality, indifference and indoctrination have plagued mankind since time began. The sad truth revealed in The Zone of Interest is that the Holocaust was not a true aberration of the human condition, merely the most extreme variation of it.     

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

All of Us Strangers: A Review (Review #1790)



Praise can be a curious thing. There is much praise for All of Us Strangers, a new film that is meant to touch on grief and loss. How it played to me, though, was a slow, dull and ultimately unintentionally hilarious films of 2023.

Screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) is struggling in more ways than one. He is struggling in that he is currently not working. He is also struggling emotionally. Living alone in London, he is still dealing with the grief of his parents' deaths when he was 12. 

That grief does not stop him from going to his boyhood home and seeing his parents, Dad (Jamie Bell) and Mum (Clair Foy), who look exactly as they did when they died. Adam lives alone, but to be fair his entire high-rise is empty save for one other person. That is Harry (Paul Mescal), who is open about his attraction to Adam. At first reluctant, Adam later changes his mind and a sexual and romantic relationship between them begins. 

Adam now has the courage to come out to his dead parents. Mum does not take it well initially, while Dad, who suspected as much, is more tolerant. Now Adam and Harry hit the clubs, and Adam has strange visions, culminating in Adam taking his paramour to see his long-dead parents. Eventually, Mum and Dad tell Adam that it is time to let them go. Adam does so, only to return to the high-rise and find Harry is himself dead. Now, Adam has exchanged the ghosts of his parents for the ghost of Harry.

As I wrote that, Justin Bieber's Ghost popped into my mind. After all, Adam will now settle for the ghost of Harry. It was at this point that I wanted to howl with laughter rather than tears. Think of it: Adam finally let go of the ghosts of his Mum and Dad but now has the ghost of Harry to love forever. I figure many have seen All of Us Strangers as this beautiful meditation on love and loss. I saw it as Adam being a total nutter. 

The entire "he exchanged ghosts" is simply too laughable for me to accept. This is a man who literally lives with ghosts. How am I the only one who does not find the setup hilarious more than heartbreaking?

Throughout All of Us Strangers, I thought that this would work better as a novel than as a film. I was not far off: All of Us Strangers is based on Taishi Yamata's novel Strangers. Writer/director Andrew Haigh's adaptation did not translate well for me. I think the flaws are that he may have wanted to be too devoted to these large themes of grief and regret to let the present-day scenario play out.

There is a somberness to All of Us Strangers that stifles the film. The heaviness prevents the film from coming to life, an ironic effect given the subject matter. Yes, I understand that it deals with death and pain. However, there is no joy even in the relationship between Adam and Harry. I did not sense any genuine romance between them. I did not even sense sexual attraction between them. The fact that Adam is old enough to be Harry's father does not help matters (Andrew Scott being older than Paul Mescal by nineteen years). 

Jaime Bell is ten years younger than Scott, but at least there is a logic to the age gap in that Dad was metaphorically frozen in time. All of Us Strangers now asks us to accept that Adam is potentially having sex with ghosts of younger men unless Harry died after Adam came back from his last visit to his parents. It is a bit unclear to me whether Harry died after Adam let his parents go or before. If after, it is a bit unclear if it was suicide or perhaps an accidental overdose. If before, then Adam's entire romantic and sexual relationship was a delusion in his mind.

It almost comes across as a strange blend of Patrick Swayze's Ghost and Bo Derek's Ghosts Can't Do It. Either way, it all looks strange to silly, with the efforts to wring great drama out of those scenarios making things more unintentionally amusing.

The best scenes in All of Us Strangers are when Adam is with one or both of his parents. It is a strange thing that Bell and Foy, despite playing dead people, are the most alive of our small cast. They are allowed to be fully-formed people, with conflicting emotions. When Scott is with either of them, the film improves. When Adam tells his Mum about his sexual orientation, she looks genuinely puzzled. "Homosexual? Since when? You don't look homosexual?". I can see it as Adam projecting, but it still works. Same when Bell's Dad talks about how Adam was bullied and suspected that Adam might be gay. 

As much praise as Scott and Mescal have received, I did not see them as a romantic pair, age gap notwithstanding. There is almost a dourness to their affair, one where neither is allowed to be human. Instead, their relationship matches the pseudo-artistry All of Us Strangers is so openly going for. Rather than be a living thing, it becomes ART! par excellence, making things stand out all the more. There is a certain stillness and distance here, as if Adam and Harry are a bit stiff with each other.

That, for me, is one of the film's greatest issues. It is a very quiet film, perhaps too quiet. It is one that focuses so much on the weighty themes that it does not allow for actual human interaction, at least among the living.

Again, my sense is that All of Us Strangers reads better than plays better. It is a film that drags, sometimes slips into tedium and/or parody, and keeps things too artsy for me.  


Monday, February 5, 2024

FairyTale: A True Story. A Review



"I do believe in fairies, I do, I do". That, I understand, is how Tinker Bell is saved by children when they watch the stage version of Peter Pan. Never having attended such a performance, I cannot say for sure if this does happen or continues to. FairyTale: A True Story is very loosely based on a real-life case. It is, however, more about faith than facts, and a surprisingly deeper and sadder film than people might think.

In World War I Britain, young Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl) goes to stay with her cousin Elsie Wright (Florence Hough) and her aunt and uncle, Polly (Phoebe Nicholls) and Arthur (Paul McGann). Frances' father is missing in action, and while Francis herself is not dwelling on that, it is Polly who is more anxious. Polly is still struggling with the grief of losing her son Joseph, keeping his room exactly as it was.

Also grieving the loss of a son is celebrated writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole). He lost his son in the war, and has found comfort in a firm belief in spiritualism. His friend, celebrated magician Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel) does not believe in spiritualism and sees it as a way of defrauding vulnerable people. However, Sir Arthur will not be dissuaded from his beliefs. He is more convinced when, through the work of Theosophical Society speaker Edward Gardener (Bill Nighy), Sir Arthur sees pictures of fairies.

Frances and Elsie are firm believers in fairies who live near a brook. To prove that fairies are real, they use Arthur's camera to photograph them. Polly and Sir Arthur believe the pictures are genuine. Arthur and Houdini do not. However, the girls are too young to know anything about faking images, and a photographic analysis shows the pictures themselves are genuine. 

However, are the fairies themselves genuine? While Sir Arthur champions what became known as the Cottingley Fairies, others are convinced the whole thing is a scam. Stratford Argus reporter John Ferret (Tim McInnerny) ferrets out the Wrights while fairy seekers swamp the private land. Will the fairies reveal themselves? Are Frances and Elsie pulling a fast one over everyone? Will skeptic Harry Houdini and true believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle find who is right?

What I found in FairyTale is that in reality, the veracity of the Cottingley Fairies is secondary to the theme of the film. FairyTale is really about faith and grief. So many of the people in FairyTale want to believe in something outside the observable world. Almost all of them are desperate for there to be an afterlife, something in the great beyond, something that cannot be seen. The adults in particular, save perhaps for Houdini, are going through some great grief that finds an outlet in something both supernatural and sweet. Fairies, therefore, would be the perfect beings.

Early on in FairyTale, we see the belief in fairies almost as a coping mechanism. The shadow of young Joseph hangs over the Wright home. Elsie has dealt with the loss in a matter-of-fact manner save for her continued use of a fairy palace Joseph had made. Frances, more guileless and more believing, might have found in the fairies a way to not deal with her father's disappearance and potential death. Only Gardner, whose faith is not based on any grief but genuine belief, comes across as a bit looney.

It is a credit to director Charles Sturrige that he got some wonderful performances out of his cast. Nighy's Mr. Gardner comes across as comically crazy, someone who sounds rational but who can have children genuinely making him believe that he has accidentally disturbed a fairy ring. Harvey Keitel and Peter O'Toole, despite both having small roles, do quite well individually and together as the doubtful Houdini and the faithful Doyle. O'Toole in particular has such a wonderful way of delivering dialogue. His monologue about his belief in the supernatural to Houdini is an especially effective piece of acting. One might not consider Keitel the first choice for Houdini, but he does well in FairyTale as the more doubtful of the two. McGann, sadly underused, also did well as the more loving but doubtful father.

The two girls, Elsie's Hoath and Earl's Frances, were pleasant without being insipid. They played the parts correctly: as two girls who truly believe the fairies are real, even if Hoath was meant to be slightly more doubtful.

It is also a credit to Ernie Contreras' screenplay (with story by Contreras, Tom McLoughlin and Albert Ash) that it gave room for doubt. Granted, not much, as we saw the fairies interact with the girls. However, it brought a certain plausibility to both the reality of fairies along with those more skeptical. FairyTale does lean in perhaps too much into the former. The film does have a scene where Ferret, having discovered what appears to be the accepted truth about the Cottingley Fairies (they were cutout figures posed for the camera). However, when we see a literal ghost pop out and the evidence fly off into the wind, we sense that FairyTale does lean in too much on the "fairies are real" side.

I imagine that, while well acted, the final scene would trouble to infuriate Houdini. In the film, he does not denounce the girls while not accepting the reality of fairies. He exposes frauds, but he sees no deliberate effort to deceive or take advantage of others with the girls. Are fairies real?, he is asked. "As real as you wish them to be," is his answer. This seems a slightly strange idea for the skeptic to state.

Moreover, the real story of the Cottingley Fairies is more complicated. In reality, Elsie was sixteen years old, not the child she was presented. FairyTale never goes into exactly how they managed to photograph fairies. To be fair to the film, FairyTale was not interested in historical accuracy or in revealing the truth about the fairy photos. It aims to be a fantasy, one that appeals to children while still grappling with more adult subjects like grief and coping with that. 

FairyTale: A True Story is anything but. A better film could be made of how adults were so easily taken in. The motives of Elsie and Frances is never explored, though given how it wants to be more wholesome, they weren't going to be. On the whole, with generally well-acted roles, it may not be a true story but it is serviceable 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Book of Clarence: A Review (Review #1788)



Is there such a thing as black blasphemy? The Book of Clarence, I figure, thought of itself as a more inclusive representation of Scripture by having an almost all-black cast. However, it ended up playing like a spoof of Biblical films that was in turns bizarre, silly and downright offensive.

Separated into three Books (The 13th Apostle, The New Messiah and The Crucifixion), we start in Jerusalem, 33 AD. Street hustler Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and his little buddy Elijah (RJ Cyder) are doing their best to survive the rough streets of the Roman occupied Judean capital. Clarence is dismissive of the newest Messiah to come through Jerusalem, even if one of His disciples is Clarence's own twin brother Thomas (Stanfield in a dual role). Clarence has gotten into trouble with local boss Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) and needs to come up with a lot of shekels to pay back his debt.

Now, during a marijuana-induced hallucination where the smokers literally get high, Clarence hits upon two good ideas (at least good to him). First, he will join Jesus' crew and become the 13th Apostle. After that causes the other apostles to break out into laughter, Clarence decides he will become a rival Messiah. He does become successful in his Messiah hype, aided by Elijah and a gladiator slave Clarence managed to free, Barabbas (Omar Sy), who claims to be immortal save for his heel.

Clarence becomes so intoxicated with his growing wealth and influence that he can afford to dismiss the claims of Jesus' mother Mary (Alfre Woodard) and adoptive father Joseph (Brian Bovell) about Jesus' miracles, such as bringing clay pigeons to life. He can romance Jedediah's sister Varinia (Anna Diop) but cannot escape the wrath of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy). Will Clarence end up showing he can rival Him? What of Benjamin (Benedict Cumberbatch), the dirty unkempt beggar who comes through the story and finds himself alongside Clarence? Will he look like a literal white savior?

The Book of Clarence is for those who thought Monty Python's Life of Brian was too reverential towards Christ. In many ways, The Book of Clarence plays like a whacked-out parody of Biblical epics, with a little representation thrown in. After all, isn't it time we had black Hebrew Israelites? 

You can read the casting in The Book of Clarence one of two ways. One is to have the Jewish characters played by black actors because for some reason people just assume Jews in the time of Christ were not black. This line of thinking also allows for the Judeans in The Book of Clarence to be reflective of our times, as the oppressive Romans are all played by white actors. It might have been daring to have a literally all-black cast and had the Romans also played by black actors. However, since The Book of Clarence appears, in part, to try and "reflect the modern world", it was not about to suggest black people were anything other than oppressed.

As a side note, it is interesting that representation via casting black actors in historic films and television applies only to white historic figures (Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn, Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph 2018's Mary Queen of Scots). To my knowledge, there has never been a call for LaKeith Stanfield to play Cesar Chavez or Jodie Turner-Smith to play Anna May Wong. I am curious as to what the reaction would if Turner-Smith were indeed cast as Wong. Yet, I digress.  

The other way of looking at things is to see The Book of Clarence as being about the Black Israelite movement, which then makes the film closer to propaganda. The Black Israelite movement maintains that black people are the true Jews, and that is one of their less eccentric ideas. They have been labeled anti-Semitic, racists and Holocaust deniers. I do not know if writer/director Jeymes Samuel had that in mind when crafting that film. However, having literal black Israelites does leave him open to accusations as such.

I have no way of looking into Samuel's soul. I can look at The Book of Clarence and declare it simply awful separate from any real or unintended propaganda elements. In many ways, the film plays like a joke, and an unoriginal one at that. Certain times, Samuel's music plays like Miklos Rozsa's Ben-Hur score on steroids. Other times, the hip-hop soundtrack makes things look even odder than people literally floating after smoking weed.

Perhaps a little leeway can be granted when you have Elijah's sole character characteristic be smoking joints. However, The Book of Clarence's determination to be simultaneously of its time and of our time makes the dichotomy look nutty.

What is one to take when your performances are all over the place? David Oyelowo's John the Baptist is playing things for laughs, slapping Clarence for trying to fake his way to baptism (which John does anyway). Cumberbatch too seems to think the film is spoof until he meets a grisly end, one filled with bitterness. One moment he's camping it up (I think he did the "Buddy Christ" from Dogma meme), the next he's going on about how humans are "God's only mistake". 

The worst is McAvoy, who is so hammy as Pilate to where one could see he isn't bothering to try and make this remotely serious. That may be the point, and perhaps The Book of Clarence is meant as a spoof. If so, no one informed Stanfield, who is so stoic for most of the film. With an affected theatrical accent, Stanfield thinks he is in a serious film. Everyone else appears to think they are in a comedy, intentional or not. 

I will touch briefly on the theological aspects of the film; limited as my knowledge of Scripture is, I am aware that the story Mother Mary told about the clay pigeons is from the gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which was seen as heresy even in the third century after Christ, though apparently is accepted as fact in the Koran. The story of the woman caught in adultery (the Gospel of John 8:1-11) is similarly far off from actual Scripture. For reasons unclear, the wanton woman being stoned was Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), whom was condemned as "that whore who sexes the Romans". In a more bizarre twist, the woman was saved when Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) literally raised His hand and stopped the flying stones midair.  

Granted, Biblical knowledge may not be strong among even self-proclaimed Christians, but why add these elements when they are not needed?

Clarence is rejected by the Apostles, in part, because he rejects the Immaculate Conception. The Apostles literally use the term "immaculate conception". It is the laziness of The Book of Clarence to confuse the doctrine of The Virgin Birth (Christ being conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit to a virgin) with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the Roman Catholic belief that Mary herself was conceived free from sin). They are not the same. Moreover, if we go by The Book of Clarence, Clarence is theologically correct to reject "the Immaculate Conception" as it is about Mary, not Jesus.

I think The Book of Clarence, far from being about representation in Biblical films, is a comedy. It is unclear if it was meant to be a comedy. I do know the audience was laughing at various points in the film. It is not well-acted. It is not well-directed. While one song, Nights Over Egypt, is good, it feels so wildly out-of-place even in the hip-hop soundtrack. As a side note, referencing King Tut is so out-there since it would not make sense on any level.

Those who would look upon The Book of Clarence as blasphemy might miss something entirely. Yes, it is blasphemous. It is also idiotic, boring and a waste of everyone's time: cast, crew and audience.