Sunday, 25 October 2020

Film Review: "On the Rocks" (2020).


From the director of Lost in Translation and Apple TV+ comes On the Rocks. This comedy-drama film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. A young New York mother faced with sudden doubts about her marriage teams up with her larger-than-life playboy father to tail her husband. What follows is a sparkling comic adventure across the city – drawing father and daughter closer together despite one detour after another. Laura thinks she’s happily hitched, but when her husband Dean starts logging late hours at the office with a new co-worker, Laura begins to fear the worst. She turns to the one man she suspects may have insight: her charming, impulsive father Felix, who insists they investigate the situation. As the two begin prowling New York at night, careening from uptown parties to downtown hotspots, they discover at the heart of their journey lies their own relationship.

In mid November 2018, it was announced that Apple had entered into a multi-year agreement with entertainment company A24 to produce a slate of original films in partnership with their worldwide video unit. In mid January 2019, it was announced that the first film produced under that partnership would be a film entitled On the Rocks with Coppola as writer and director, and with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones attached to star. By June 2019, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate, and Barbara Bain rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place in New York City.

The film. stars Jones, Murray, Wayans, Henwick, Slate, and Bain. Murray, playing an extension of himself, fills the role with ease, and Jones is right in step with him. So far as the central relationship goes, the film is almost European in its subtlety and nuance.

Like her Academy Award-winning film, Lost in Translation, Coppola creates a beautiful-looking film with depth and texture, along with a couple of outstanding performances from its lead actors. Coppola's latest film (following the aforementioned film as well as Somewhere) is another exploration of delicate relationships and uncommunicated frustrations, this one in a beautifully composed atmosphere of isolation. Depicts a very specific mental state too shaded and delicate for most movies to feel comfortable approaching it. A relationship picture with elegant connective tissue; it's brittle and real, focused on the nuances of body language and unspoken desire, while indulging in a cheeky bit of knowing absurdity when the mood strikes. The film revels in contradictions. It's a comedy about melancholy, a romance without consummation, a travelogue that rarely hits the road. Very much a mood piece, the film's deft balance of humor and poignancy makes it both a pleasurable and melancholy experience. Transcends its initial culture clash comic riffs to evolve into something altogether more moving by the end. As a result, it's a work of considerable power and pathos. The intensity of the film lies in its smaller, seemingly insignificant, quieter moments. In many ways Coppola's film exhibits marks of classic European art cinema.

Simon says On the Rocks receives:



Also, see my review for The Beguiled.

Series Review: "The Queen's Gambit" (2020).


From the director of Godless and Netflix comes The Queen's Gambit. This coming-of-age period drama streaming television miniseries created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, adapted and directed by Frank, and based on Walter Tevis' 1983 novel of the same name. In a 1950s orphanage, a young girl reveals an astonishing talent for chess and begins an unlikely journey to stardom while grappling with addiction.

In late March 2019, it was announced that Netflix gave a series order, consisting of six episodes, for an adaptation of Tevis' 1983 novel with Frank to adapt and direct. Scott had been involved in attempts to get the book on screen since 1992, when he purchased the screenplay rights from Tevis' widow. Heath Ledger was originally attached to direct a film adaptation with Elliot Page in the lead role before his untimely death. Alongside the series order announcement, it was announced that Anya Taylor-Joy was set to star as the lead. By early September, Bill Camp, Christiane Seidel, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster rounded out the series' cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late December. Filming took place in Berlin, Germany and Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini acted as consultants. Pandolfini had consulted with Tevis prior to the novel's publication some thirty-eight years earlier, even coming up with the title The Queen's Gambit. Pandolfini, together with consultants John Paul Atkinson and Iepe Rubingh came up with several hundred chess positions to be used for various situations in the script. Then Kasparov developed critical moments in the story, such as when a real 1998 game between grandmasters Arshak Petrosian and Vladimir Akopian was improved to showcase Beth Harmon's skill. In an interview, Taylor-Joy said that before taking the role, her level of chess knowledge was "0, none." She went on to say that throughout the filming of the series, she was "invited into a very secret world..." She elaborated, "it was so exciting to be able to have the pressure of 'you have to learn this very complicated sequence, over 3 boards, as quick as you can in 5 minutes'..." She concluded, "it's up there with the proudest I've ever been of something that my brain was able to do because I tricked myself into believing I was a really good chess player." Brodie-Sangster and Melling also admitted that they knew very little about the game prior to filming.

The series stars Taylor-Joy, Camp, Seidel, Heller, Melling, and Brodie-Sangster. There's great acting to be found thanks to the talented cast led by Taylor-Joy.

The series is a work of confident artistry, casting well-worn clich├ęs and archetypes in a fresh, illuminating light. I'm a sucker for the stories of a talented yet tortured prodigy. And I love it even more when those stories recognize the social realities of the time. The series does all that and more. I can definitely appreciate Frank tackling this particular untouched subject matter.

Simon says The Queen's Gambit receives:



Also, see my review for Godless.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Film Review: "I Am Greta" (2020).


"A force of nature." This is I Am Greta. This documentary film directed by Nathan Grossman. The story of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is told through compelling, never-before-seen footage in this intimate documentary from Swedish director Nathan Grossman. Starting with her one-person school strike for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament, Grossman follows Greta—a shy student with Asperger’s—in her rise to prominence and her galvanizing global impact as she sparks school strikes around the world. The film culminates with her extraordinary wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City.

On 3 January 2003, the internationally known Swedish environmental activist, Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg, was born. She began her activism by missing school to protest what she perceives is the inaction and/or insufficient response of governments and the business sector to the United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change. Thunberg is known for her youth and her straightforward speaking manner, both in public and to political leaders and assemblies, in which she criticises world leaders for their failure to take sufficient action to address the climate crisis. Thunberg's activism started after convincing her parents to adopt several lifestyle choices to reduce their own carbon footprint. In August 2018, at age fifteen, she started spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament to call for stronger action on climate change by holding up a sign reading "School strike for climate". Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together, they organised a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for Future. After Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student strikes took place every week somewhere in the world. In 2019, there were multiple coordinated multi-city protests involving over a million students each. To avoid flying, Thunberg sailed to North America where she attended the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Her sudden rise to world fame has made her both a leader and a target for critics. Her influence on the world stage has been described by The Guardian and other newspapers as the "Greta effect". She has received numerous honours and awards including an inclusion in Time's 100 most influential people, being the youngest Time Person of the Year, inclusion in the Forbes list of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women (2019), and two consecutive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize (2019 and 2020).

This Hulu documentary is a sobering, uncompromising portrait of an extraordinary figure and her fight to educate the world on the effects of global warming on our world. The film should not have to change minds, but perhaps it will change them anyway, or at least make this seem as pressing as it needs to be. Thunberg took a stern, pissed-off tone when she was in the spotlight, grimacing in an anorak in the middle of a field, as though her patience was nearly spent. Watching the film may just be the best use you can make of your time this evening.

Simon says I Am Greta receives:


Film Review: "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (2020).


"In 1968, democracy refused to back down." This is The Trial of the Chicago 7. This historical legal drama film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned into a violent clash with the police. What followed was one of the most notorious trials in history.

In July 2020, in a Vanity Fair interview, Sorkin stated that he first found out about the planned film during a visit to Steven Spielberg's home in 2006. In July 2007, Sorkin wrote the script based on the conspiracy trial of the so-called Chicago 7. Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes, and Laurie MacDonald collaborated on the development of Sorkin's script, with Spielberg intending to direct the film. Sacha Baron Cohen was cast as Abbie Hoffman as early as 2007, while, at the time, Spielberg approached Will Smith for the role of Bobby Seale, and planned to meet with Heath Ledger about playing Tom Hayden. The Writers Guild of America strike, which started in November 2007 and lasted one hundred days, delayed filming and the project was suspended. Sorkin later continued to rewrite the script for Spielberg, and the director intended to mostly cast unknowns to keep the budget down. In 2008, Ben Stiller was reported to be working with Sorkin while considering directing the film. In July 2013, it was announced that Paul Greengrass would direct but he exited the project two months later when a budget could not be agreed upon, and it did not move forward. In December 2018, the film was put on hold due to budgetary concerns, until it was revived and ready for distribution offers, with DreamWorks Pictures' former parent company, Paramount Pictures initially picking up distribution rights, as the film was excluded from Amblin Partners' distribution deal with Cross Creek Pictures' former distribution partner, Universal Pictures. After the release of Molly's Game and after Trump became President, Spielberg suggested to Sorkin that Sorkin direct it. Ultimately, Sorkin agreed. By October 2019, Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J. C. MacKenzie, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, John Doman, Caitlin FitzGerald, Max Adler, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins, and Daniel Flaherty were cast. Seth Rogen was set to play Jerry Rubin until Strong replaced Rogen. Jonathan Majors was set to play Bobby Seale until Abdul-Mateen II replaced Majors. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place in Patterson, New Jersey and Chicago, Illinois.

The film stars an ensemble cast that includes Cohen, Redmayne, Strong, Lynch, Abdul-Mateen II, Harrison Jr., Rylance, Gordon-Levitt, MacKenzie, Langella, Keaton, Doman, FitzGerald, Adler, Sharp, Robbins, and Flaherty. Each member of the cast are aces throughout the entire film.

Based on real events, this tale of a group of seven men trying to fight for justice and refusing to back down gains extra currency in the post-Trump climate. The film is an entertaining and confident sophomore effort for Sorkin, even if it's definitely too slow.

Simon says The Trial of the Chicago 7 receives:



Also, see my review for Molly's Game.

Film Review: "Rebecca" (2020).


From the director of High-Rise and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead comes Rebecca. This British romantic thriller film directed by Ben Wheatley, adapted by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, and based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. After a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo with handsome widower Maxim de Winter, a newly married young woman arrives at Manderley, her new husband's imposing family estate on a windswept English coast. Naive and inexperienced, she begins to settle into the trappings of her new life, but finds herself battling the shadow of Maxim's first wife, the elegant and urbane Rebecca, whose haunting legacy is kept alive by Manderley's sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Published in 1938, English author Dam Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel concerns an unnamed young woman who impetuously marries a wealthy widower, only to discover that he and his household are haunted by the memory of his late first wife, the title character. A best-seller which has never gone out of print, the novel sold 2.8 million copies between its publication in 1938 and 1965. It has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen, including a 1939 play by du Maurier herself, the film Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In November 2018, it was announced a Netflix adaptation of du Maurier's 1938 literary classic with Wheatley as director, and with Lily James and Armie Hammer to star. By early June, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ann Dowd, Sam Riley, Bill Paterson, and Ben Crompton rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and filming took place in Dorset and Devon, England.

The film stars James, Hammer, Scott Thomas, Dowd, Riley, Paterson, and Crompton. The cast, especially James, Hammer and Thomas, represent the characters with uncommon intensity.

The film is so faithful in spirit and detail that the same eerie spell emanates from the screen as from the book. Wheatley's direction is a masterpiece, one of the best that the Netflix screen has seen, and Laura Rose's photography is likewise raveworthy. A meeting of two cinematic titans who made a film that managed to feel like a product of both and neither of them at the same time. The film is a ghost story without a ghost, a murder mystery without an explicit act of murder. In its essence, the film is another entry in the Wuthering Heights school of dour, somber, psychological drama, steeped in ultra-British atmosphere. Though overlong...it is beautifully done. There are so many rich interpersonal relationships. This is not a romance or a history, but a bout of delicious Gothic psychoanalysis. Wheatley's first Netflix film is a sumptuous and suspenseful adaptation of du Maurier's romantic novel. It's an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. The Hitchcock adaptation, however, ultimately prevents the film from living up to its reputation as one of Wheatley's best.

Simon says Rebecca receives:



Also, see my review for Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Series Review: "The Haunting of Bly Manor" (2020).


"From the creator of The Haunting of Hill House" comes The Haunting of Bly Manor. This Gothic romance drama series, created by Mike Flanagan and loosely based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. It is the follow-up series to The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and the second entry in The Haunting anthology series. Dead doesn't mean gone. An au pair plunges into an abyss of chilling secrets in this gothic romance.

In late February 2019, Netflix announced a follow-up series to Hill House entitled The Haunting of Bly Manor, loosely based on James' 1898 horror classic. Though it would serve as a follow-up series to Hill House, it is a standalone story, indicating that there would be "no dramatic link between The Haunting of Bly Manor and its predecessor." Although the prominent source for the adaptation is The Turn of the Screw, the season also adapts (some more loosely) multiple James works, some of which had never been adapted previously, including The Romance of Certain Old Clothes and The Jolly Corner. By late September 2019, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Carla Gugino, Rahul Kohli, Greg Sestero, Lynda Boyd, and Alex Essoe were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late February 2020. Filming took place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The series stars Pedretti, Jackson-Cohen, Thomas, Siegel, Gugino, Kohli, Sestero, Boyd, and Essoe. The cast brilliantly showcased relatable characters trying their best to conquer demonstrable villainy inside the house and inside themselves.

A cinematic masterpiece of the small screen. One of the best Netflix original shows out there, and my favorite horror experience in recent years. It's atmospheric, with a nearly consistent undertone of dread, peppered with just the right amount of jump scares to spice things. Yet, at its heart, the series is much more than a ghost story. Another achievement of Flanagan's vision is that the series never really feels overbearing or long - each episode is crafted to keep the audience engaged and on their toes with existential dream looming around every corner. The series rewards those who aren't afraid to confront their own ghosts, those bumps in the past that still linger, and head back to where it all began. It's absolutely worth booking a room. Classical, but innovative, precious in the visual but without more squeamishness than necessary, Flanagan distances himself from the cinematic trends with a series full of interesting details. The show's exploration of collective and individual grief, while often moving, can also feel a little trite and glib. Still, this is an unusually earnest attempt to look at emotional trauma within a horror setting. A really cool concept win which no one ever really talks about what happens to people after the haunted houses, the anxiety and the trauma. It is so cool to watch, and I love the way it bounces back and forth. Flanagan puts together a project that pulses with an eerie but naturalistic vibe, further concurring that horror can not only be great, but it can be fantastic.

Simon says The Haunting of Bly Manor receives:



Also, see my review for The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Film Review: "Dick Johnson Is Dead" (2020).


From the director of Cameraperson comes Dick Johnson Is DeadThis documentary film directed by Kirsten Johnson and co-written by Johnson and Nels Bangerter. As her father nears the end of his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson stages his death in inventive and comical ways to help them both face the inevitable.

Johnson was inspired to make the film after having a dream in which "there was a man in a casket and he sat up and said, 'I'm Dick Johnson and I'm not dead yet'". When she pitched the idea to her father, she asked him, "Dad, what if we make a movie where we kill you over and over again until you really die? And he laughed". The film incorporates Johnson family photographs and home movies, including that of Richard Johnson's wife who died from Alzheimer's disease in 2007.

To explore Johnson's immersive film is to witness a unique, powerful memoir unfolding and unfurling. It is a fascinating and largely successful exploration of a form, a body of work, and of an incredibly talented cinematographer. Utterly captivating. Memories shape who we are as individuals. With that context in mind, the film becomes one individual's noble attempt to capture those unforgettable moments in her life and forever memorialize them. Gorgeous and captivating; full of themes of war, motherhood, and oppression; this is a compelling, moving look at the creative process and the people behind the camera. The film is one of those rare viewing experiences that may really test your patience, and only you will know if that's a good or bad thing. This is a film I won't soon forget, and a big part of me wants other notable documentary cinematographers to make movies just like it, telling their stories in a similar fashion. The film comes alive with possibilities in every scene, mutating and evolving from moment to moment like an engrossing conversation. This is the essay film at its finest, a personalized meandering through ideas and stories, at once autobiographical and universal. It serves as a peek behind the curtain of documentary filmmaking, exposing even more than what's usually shown in the genre. It's a fascinating glimpse into the work of the person behind the camera, composing and fretting, making sure every shot is aesthetically sensible. An autobiography of sorts, the film demands we think beyond Johnson's own extraordinary career and reflect upon our own status as observers, and the ethical and emotional responsibilities that come with it. Slow, subtle, yet ultimately mesmerizing, the film is a very personal testament to one exceptional filmmaker's love affair with her profession. By drawing no distinction between her personal and professional lives, Johnson suggests that she values her work as much as her family. Johnson's film is nothing less than a masterpiece of documentary cinema, one that welcomes the complexities and contradictions of subjectivity. A life behind the lens is examined in the film, a fascinating, purposely disjointed documentary from Johnson.

Simon says Dick Johnson Is Dead receives:



Also, see my review for Cameraperson.