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To the Bone (2017)
Even before it was released to general audiences the think pieces started coming out about Marti Noxon's directorial debut To the Bone. So many think pieces argued over whether the movie had a right to exist and the potential triggers it might have for anyone currently suffering through an eating disorder (and warning, despite Noxon's claim that she was careful not to include anything that might trigger someone with an eating disorder the film does have a few moments that feel gratuitous).
Unfortunately, on every level, it's just not a very good film. Lily Collins plays Ellen, a 20 year old wise-cracking artist with a dark sense of humour who happens to be anorexic. We first meet her as she is coming out of her latest inpatient program weighing even less than she did when she came in. Appalled, Ellen's stepmother pulls some strings and manages to get her to see Dr. Beckham whose unconventional methods are supposed to cure Ellen. He insists on yet another inpatient program which Ellen initially tries to resist, only to succumb when her younger sister pleads with her to go.
The problem is this movie isn't as interesting as it thinks it is. Anorexia is a serious subject worthy of study in fiction and in film, but even though writer/director Noxon and star Lily Collins are both in recovery from the disease their approach feels as clichéd as your average TV movie. Everything from the way that Ellen wears layered dark clothes and makes sarcastic "witty" comments that are supposed to show how great she is and wise beyond her years, to the fact that Beckham's unconventional methods seem to be the pretty conventional method of showing off things of beauty, engaging in therapy and not talking down to his patient are incredibly cringe worthy. The frustrating thing is that there are some interesting moments in the film, like how the supposedly happy go lucky model recovery patient Luke turns out to have a bit of a dark side, but even this is barely covered.
Collins is great and rises far above the material, but it's unfortunate that this passion project, which does take a couple of interesting turns, seems more committed to staying with the paint by numbers typical approach than in offering us anything truly unusual.
A star making performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw
If actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw becomes a full fledged Hollywood star, and I sincerely hope she does, it can be traced back to this film, her first leading role and one she handles with grace and beauty.
The movie Belle itself is a somewhat mediocre film that white washes a lot of unpleasant history. The purpose of this is actually pretty nobel. As the movie itself points out a lot of historical depictions of black people involve them secondary, suffering or in pain. Belle shows a young black woman as fully romanticized and loved as any Austen heroine. To wit: Belle is about Dido Elizabeth Belle the daughter of an unnamed black slave mother and a captain of noble birth. We first meet Dido as a child when her mother is dead and her father has appeared to rescue her. Despite the fact that the two are estranged he reassures her that he loves her very much as he did her mother and takes her from the hovel where she is living to the luxurious estate belonging to his uncle. Despite some objections from his aunt and uncle, Dido is reluctantly welcomed into the bosom of the family estate as a companion for her cousin Elizabeth, another unfortunate cast off family member (albeit one who is white). The movie rejoins Dido again over a decade later when she is a young woman ready to be courted and full of questions as to how she can live in a world where she is privileged over other young ladies and yet discriminated against on the basis of her skin colour.
The script doesn't always flow when making these points but it is saved by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (utterly charming). Sam Reid makes for a handsome and passionate hero. The film is also incredibly luxurious and gorgeous though the editing can't hide the fact some awkward moments that seem to imply that certain scenes didn't get all the coverage they needed.
Still a must see for fans of historical romances.
Night Moves (2013)
Kelly Reichardt isn't a filmmaker for everyone but I like her slow moving contemplative dramas which often give audiences something to really reflect on. Not so with Night Moves her most boring preachy film to date. The film follows Josh and Dena, a young couple who also happen to be passionate environmentalists. Their plan is to hook up with a connection of Josh's who will help them put their beliefs into practice by blowing up a dam.
The acting is good and the film is beautiful as befits a Reichardt movie. The dialogue and plot however are godawful. It's not that I don't believe in what the characters are saying, but they're some pretty awful unpleasant preachy people to spent a couple of hours with. The whole thing is a joke and will only appeal to the kind of granola hipsters that appear in the film.
You're honestly better off watching a documentary on climate change.
Stalker is my favourite type of science fiction: the kind that asks many questions, gives few answers and in which a lot of the magic is based on the imagination and not what is presented on screen.
The film follows a Stalker i.e. a man who works illegally as a kind of sherpa, taking people into the "zone" a site that was hit by a meteor and has since been abandoned. On this visit that we accompany him on, the Stalker has chosen to usher in two men, one a writer, the other a scientist professor. Because what they are doing is highly illegal and dangerous the Stalker insists that they refer to themselves only by their professions. As they enter the zone we learn more about the journey, including why it is considered so dangerous and why so many are willing to take the risk to go there.
The movie is not for the faint of heart. The short summary proffered above takes over an hour to explain in terms of the movie. Furthermore the shots are incredibly long, often lasting several minutes as we follow these men on their journey. But is it ever worth the ride. Shot mostly in long abandoned locations the film is brutally gorgeous. And the questions, when they come, are fascinating and interesting asking the most of what it means to be human and how that manifests itself in our desires.
The Beguiled (2017)
When women strike back...
Sofia Coppola's latest is a period piece set during the American civil war in Virginia. While wandering through the forest scavenging for food, a young school girl comes across a Yankee soldier. Seeing that the man is severely wounded and thus no danger to her, she brings him back to the private girls school where only a handful of pupils, the headmistress, and one teacher, have settled down to wait out the war. The girls and women, having been left alone for so long without male attention, are quick to throw themselves in the path of such a devilishly handsome romantic man, while the man himself, John McBurney, is all too willing to seduce and be seduced in the hopes that he can wait out the war in this cushy harem of white cotton clad ladies.
Though she has an Oscar for writing I've always found Coppola to be at her best with her directing and that's very true of The Beguiled. You can tell she had a blast with the time period and the costumes because she luxuriates in the atmosphere. No shots are wasted and all are beautiful. The soundscape in the movie also plays an incredible role. There are a lot of things happening off screen (the war for one) but we hear it in the sound of the booming canons that disrupt the girls as they set about their work.
The film is also an ensemble piece, but while there isn't a weak member among the cast, Coppola favourite Kirsten Dunst stands out as a fragile and repressed teacher whose youth is quickly wilting away, and Nicole Kidman is hilarious as the commanding no-nonsense headmistress.
The trailers for this give away too much of the plot in my opinion. If possible it's best to see this blind and let Coppola's slow atmospheric's and dark humour take over.
A short sharp piece, well made and worth seeing.
A beautiful fairytale for adults
Okja is a sort of scifi fairytale, one that is explicit with its very simple messaging but is nevertheless beautiful and heart wrenching.
Bong Joon-ho begins the film in 2007 when the CEO of a food corporation that is heavily invested with GMO's tries to revamp their corporate image by announcing a competition between 26 of their best super piglets. The super piglets are sent across the world to be raised by farmers and in ten years one lucky pig will win the title of Best Super Pig (and then apparently be consumed). Fast forward to 10 years later when a thirteen year old Mija, a country girl living in near isolation with her grandfather, is raising her super pig in the idyllic landscape where they play, forage for apples, and fish together. Things go awry however when she discovers that Okja (her pig) does not belong to her and will be carted off to America. From here on the movie turns into an adventure story as Mija must brave the world in order to be reunited with Okja.
The film is wildly cartoonish in tone, but if you go along with it and let yourself be enchanted by this world you'll find yourself on a wonderful emotional journey. Some cheap CGI made me at first scoff at Okja, but as the movie goes on she seems more and more real till by the end I was near tears watching the film. Great performances by known and unknown actors alike. Just a great movie through and through.
Appropriate Behavior (2014)
Self-indulgent Sundance debut
There's a certain type of movie that Sundance always selects: quirky comedies about lovable oddballs who are in the middle of a crisis and want everyone to know about it. This is Appropriate Behavior. I will say in its favour that there isn't enough bisexual representation in cinema nor is there enough about American- Iranians. This has both, but at the same time writer director Desiree Akhavan doesn't want to examine either aspect in depth. This is both refreshing because these aspects of lead character Shirin's identity are assured aspects of who she is and aren't part of her crisis, and frustrating because aside from these elements there is nothing that makes this movie stand out in any way from the quirky indie comedies that come out every year from Sundance.
Behavior is about Shirin (played by Akhavan). Recently having broken up with the live-in girlfriend her conservative Persian parents thought was her "roommate" the film plays in pieces as we watch Akhavan try to put her life back together without the woman who defined so much of it. As a bonus we are also treated to flashbacks of the rise and fall of her relationship with her ex. It is... not very exciting.
The film is written with so many pithy one liners you can tell it was written to death. This makes for great screencaps and dialogue you can use as gif sets but as an overarching script with characterization not so much. The narrative is fairly elegantly sliced and diced so that you get just the right amount of mix of past and present but at the same time... Just who cares? This feels directly aimed at a group of lost 20 somethings stumbling their way through life, but as a lost 20 something myself I'm sick of seeing these kind of movies (always set in NYC!) and the individual scenes don't really do anything for me. There are still some aspects that make this movie watchable: a threesome that goes wrong (I'm always partial to sex scenes that are good and by good I mean manage to maintain the flow of the story. So many movies just have all plot and emotion stop to get a few thrusts in. Akhavan understands how to continue to build the narrative using the sex scene). The ending of the film is very cathartic and pitch perfect as well.
How Akhavan manages to nail some of the most difficult aspects of filmmaking while flubbing the middle is beyond me. It gives me hope however that she'll continue to improve.
Mosquita y Mari (2012)
A slow, sweet, meditative film on a romance that never quite blossomed
Aurora Guerro's debut is a one of those rare indie gems where the chemistry and beauty override the low budget.
The film is about Yolanda, a nerdy good girl with immigrant parents who burden her with the weight of their expectations that the sacrifices they make will pay off for their daughter. Into her life trips the titular Mari. Mari is Yolanda's neighbour who is also the same age as her. Instead of two protective parents she has a single mom desperate to make ends meet. Yolanda is seen as a burn out by those around her. But Yolanda (dubbed Mosquita by Mari because of the way she hovers around watching Mari) sees something different. The two quickly strike up an innocent friendship with Mari becoming more academically inclined while Yolanda cuts loose a little. Under it all though begins to flirt the feeling that this could turn into a little something more...
It is a beautiful touching film and writer/director Guerrero gets so much right. It's especially rare to see a story about Chicana girls that doesn't devolve into stereotype and lets them be quiet, contemplative and dreamy. The only thing slightly holding Guerrero back is the lack of budget which does make the film feel a little cheap and student-filmish in places. Still a great movie and I eagerly anticipate whatever she does next.
Not really Austen's Persuasion and yet
For any book purist there is much to nitpick about this version of Persuasion. Filled with odd script and directorial choices which include Anne breaking the fourth wall and staring into the camera, a determination to make the film visually dour, and a last minute long-take sequence that borders on the sheer absurd, it is nevertheless anchored by some fabulous acting and chemistry. And isn't that all we really want from an Austen adaptation?
Sally Hawkins plays Anne Elliot, a 27 year old spinster from a wealthy family who was once engaged to the handsome but titleless Frederick Wentworth. Years later Anne is now considered withered, plain and doomed to spinsterhood (Regency England was so harsh to 27 year old women!). On top of it all her impractical and vain father has squandered much of the family fortune. Into this mess ventures Wentworth, as handsome as ever and now graced with a fortune that makes him a very eligible suitor indeed. Everything seems cold between Anne and Wentworth and she resigns herself to watching him marry a much younger woman... but sparks fly between the old lovers and hope grows in Anne again.
The story is one of my favourite Austen books but be warned! If you liked the novel this adaptation eschews huge chunks in order of brevity. And yet I can't help loving this adaptation and it's probably my favourite one. Hawkins is a perfect Anne and Rupert Penry-Jones is an excellent Wentworth. The two of them exchange enough burning glances to light a spark in this rather dour adaptation. With such perfect chemistry it's only a pity that they are surrounded by a better film.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1998)
I first caught this on A&E years ago, back when A&E used to randomly broadcast Masterpiece theatre to fill up their timeslots. It was only at the halfway point but I ended up staying and watching the whole thing. This was in a pre-streaming era so I wasn't able to just hop on a computer and watch the rest... instead I kept my eyes peeled till I A&E rebroadcast it (which thankfully wasn't long, they really had so little content they were constantly showing the same Masterpiece theatre movies over and over again in a loop).
Tess of the d'Urbervilles is based on Thomas Hardy's novel of the same name, a surprisingly progressive piece of late Victorian literature which argues against sexism and for the rights of women. The unfortunate at the centre of the drama is Tess, a lively, blossoming young country girl of 16 when we meet her she is the beauty of her family. Unfortunately this self-same beauty is the cause of all her woes. Her alcoholic father learning that the now peasant class family was once descended from nobility gets ideas into his head that they should be rich still and sends his daughter to the only remaining members of the d'Urbervilles family in order to beg for charity. Her cousin Alec, a predatory lay-a-bout, attracted to Tess's overwhelming beauty treats her as a toy which leads to devastating consequences for Tess.
Whatever happened to Justine Waddell? As Tess she is simply fantastic. I'm not sure she captures the sweet naivete of the character in her early years before tragedy befalls her, but she has such devastating sorrowful eyes that as Tess sinks further and further into misery she tugs at your heartstrings. Jason Flemyng is quite hammy but still terrifying as Tess's cousin Alec and Oliver Milburn (another actor whose career went nowhere) is also pitch perfect as gentleman farmer Angel.
This is just a lovely adaptation of one of my favourite works. Excellent all the way through.