2020 Reviews 2020s

Drought Will Bring Smiles

A sentimental and good-natured debut from directors Hannah Black and Megan Petersen, Drought will create plenty of smiles. 

If a film is on a low budget, it’s not going to have elaborate set pieces or scenes that take place in high-scale homes or restaurants. The characters often dictate whether these kind of films will be engaging or not, putting a great amount of pressure on the actors.

With Drought, all of the actors are on their game. Sam (Hannah Black) and Lillian (Megan Petersen) play sisters in the middle of a conflict. Sam resents Lillian for leaving behind her and Carl, their autistic and weather enthusiast brother, played delicately by Owen Scheid. After Carl loses his job at the local grocery store, Sam comes up with the idea of tracking down the storm that is set to end a historic drought in North Carolina. They all leave in their mother’s ice cream truck with their friend Lewis, a likable and grounded comedic relief, played by Drew Scheid (Halloween). 

The actors are well casted and no one actor steals the show. Their chemistry is apparent, particularly between Black and Petersen. You also get the sense the four main actors are having fun together, which is infectious for the audience. Drought is a true ensemble piece. 

Packed with plenty of charm and light comedic moments, Drought should be on your radar.


1960s Oldies

Mr. Topaze (I Like Money) 2020 Restoration

Mr. Topaze is a gray and bland comedy I will more than likely forget. I don’t know if it was due to the restoration or maybe it always looked so muted, but the overall look was visually uninteresting. It reminded me of watching ungraded footage that was shot flat, which is unpleasant to look at.

The film is shot like a play, which makes sense considering it’s based on Marcel Pagnol’s Topaze, but I felt the cinematography hurt the film more than it complemented its stage roots. The blocking was simplistic and the performances felt underplayed to a fault. Mr. Topaze needed way more energy than Sellers and the majority of his actors provided. The film also needed to embrace its absurdity more than it did.

Director Peter Sellers’s film has a boring plot and he didn’t present any of it in an interesting way. Everything is portrayed in such a nonchalant manner that I found myself caring about nothing that was happening in the movie. Topaze is an uncharismatic and non-sympathetic stooge and the other characters are conniving or just as goofy his Topaze. I felt Leo McKern was the only actor to provide satisfying laughs as his character Muche.

I don’t think Sellers ever had a chance at making Mr. Topaze a great movie due to its dull source material, but he definitely could have done more as a director and performer to lift it to higher heights.


2010-19 2010-19 Reviews

Porto (2016)

I have found myself struggling with this film. Porto is a film that I enjoyed a great deal when I was watching it. But now that a distance from it has been established, the film feels like a justification or defense for Jake (Anton Yelchin) stalking and physically hitting Mati (Lucie Lucas). I know that is probably not the intention of the film, but that scene is such a profound moment that is enhanced even more due to the film’s structure. 

The audience is shown both point-of-views (Jake’s and Mati’s) and the film feels much like a “how did they get here” kind of film. I know there is probably a more nuanced way of saying that, but that’s how the film works. The structure is also a little complicated to explain because you see moments and flashes of images from all different time periods. You have moments of Jake and Mati before they met, moments of them together, moments of them right after they were together, and moments in the distant future. Director Gabe Klinger plays with the film’s structure by showing some scenes from different timelines back to back and does it with different point-of-views as well. 

It’s a very well-made film. With beautiful compositions, great acting from Yelchin and Lucas, and its clear love for European cinema, it’s hard not to be charmed and wrapped up in Porto. I can’t help but feel that if the film removed Jake hitting Mati and toned down his stalking, the film would feel way different. I found its structure and screenplay very compelling, although it’s not perfect. Mati feels much less fleshed out than Yelchin’s character, Jake. Porto begins with Jake and he seems to get the filmmaker’s sympathy, but it’s structure suggests Mati and Jake are supposed to equal, which makes it troublesome that Jake is more developed than Mati.

The message I gathered from Porto is people want different things in life and they sometimes make decisions that affect others in negative ways without anticipating the outcomes. It’s all about perspective and without it, it’s hard to understand why another person did what they did. I think this is rather interesting and Klinger’s structure helps sell this point. However, when you have a scene where one character hits another and have that serve as the turning point in the film it’s hard to move past it since it completely reshapes the film.


2020 Reviews 2020s

She’s In Portland (2020)

What would happen if the guys from American Pie and EuroTrip never grew up?

I think the most surprising thing about She’s In Portland is that it didn’t come out between 2000 and 2010. With a screenplay packed with a good dose of misogyny, I was shocked that Marc Carlini was comfortable shooting and releasing this in 2020. It attempts to be a more adult version of films like EuroTrip and Sex DriveShe’s In Portland lacks the maturity, self-reflection, and social commentary it desperately needs. Unfortunately, writers Marc Carlini and Patrick Alexander were in love with their lead characters too much. 

The film is more interested in making excuses for its lead characters than having them take responsibility for their actions. These moments of clarity for the two leads don’t really come until the end of the film, which is too late. She’s In Portland‘s two lead characters don’t always seem to make sense as friends and conflict throughout the film in disastrous ways. Wes’s personality overpowers Luke’s, which makes it hard to separate the two. Even though Luke is his own person, it’s hard to defend him sometimes considering he’s friends with Wes in the first place.

Wes (Tommy Dewey) is the main lead of the film and the late-thirties version of the guy you knew in college who only cared about partying and having sex. He’s basically Steve Stifler from the American Pie films. There’s a reason why Stifler isn’t the lead of those movies. He works in the American Pie movies because the other characters are there to condemn and call him out on most of his actions. In She’s In Portland the only person to call Wes out is his friend Luke (François Arnaud), the other lead. He does his best, but it’s hard when Carlini tries to often defend Wes, which isn’t a hill I would want to die on. 

Wes is a douchey womanizer who drags Luke on a road trip to get his “one that got away.” Wes claims the road trip is for Luke, when really he just wants to find a way to get away from his wife, whose crimes are that she’s pregnant and expects him to be responsible. Wes is one of the most unlikable characters I’ve watched this year. He is the film’s disease that spreads and ruins any chance the film had at being good. As a director, Carlini is incredibly committed to his lead. He could have had Wes’s behavior change in order to make some moments less difficult to stomach, but he stays truthful to him and the story he’s telling. 

I think a film like She’s In Portland is only successful if it’s trying to make a point, commenting on the behavior of womanizing men that never grew up, condemning them, and trying to educate the audience. If any of those intentions are there, they’re lost in the misguided sympathy that Carlini spreads. Luke (François Arnaud) is the only male character worth feeling sorry for at times. The film’s worst moment comes in its third act, when it very plainly tries to conjure up sympathy for Wes after every terrible thing he has done has been revealed. I just don’t understand why a writer/director would have a character like Wes as a lead if they’re not going to make a strong statement on his behavior. It comes across as out of touch, which might be the best way to explain She’s In Portland overall.


1930s Oldies

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a weak Best Picture nominee from the 1930s. It lacks any strong spark to bring it out of the dull territory it inhabits for 109 minutes. The film takes place primarily in one room with almost all of the action occurring inside the Barretts’ home. These interior scenes have uninspired staging and are boringly shot. Even if you didn’t know The Barretts of Wimpole Street was based on a play, you can figure it out pretty easily since director Sidney Franklin didn’t hide it very well. It often feels like a recording of a stage play rather than a film itself.

You can add The Barretts of Wimpole Street to the melodrama subgenre, “films with weird and controlling fathers who have uncomfortable relationships with their daughters.” Charles Laughton plays the annoying father to Norma Shearer’s Elizabeth Barrett. He has a very creepy relationship with his daughters and kisses his adult niece on the lips. Based on Edward’s (Laughton) relationship with Elizabeth, one could say it’s a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. He repeatedly tells his daughter that she’s sick and therefore cannot leave her house or bed. At one point in the film, Elizabeth manages to go down the stairs, but then is unable to go up them after Edward repeatedly tells her she won’t be able to. I believe that Elizabeth may have actually been sick at one point before the movie takes place but was “sick” for a long time afterwards because she believed she was, due to her father.

Norma Shearer is one of the very few good aspects of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. In addition to what I said before, the film is fairly predictable. Many scenes set up each other so you know what’s going to happen in the following scene. The film’s plot is minimal, with its only conflict being that Edward won’t let Elizabeth do anything. The majority of the film is essentially Elizabeth talking to people and Edward bursting in to scold her and the people trying to make her life less unbearable. There are better movies out there with similar stories that are more worth your time.

1960s Oldies

The Swimmer (1968)

I’m not quite sure I fully understand why The Swimmer is a cult classic. The cinematography is beautiful and the script attempts to critique the rich, but it doesn’t always do it successfully. I think it’s because the filmmakers liked their lead too much.

Burt Lancaster plays rich socialite Ned Merrill, the kind of guy to sleep with your wife and ask you not to harsh his mellow when you catch them in the act. He’s a narcissistic and entitled creep that goes on a swimming pool bender. Surprisingly, the bender isn’t the weirdest part. Going from pool to pool, crashing party to party, without a care in the world is the most head-scratching part of Merrill’s actions. It doesn’t take long to realize that Merrill is the kind of man who has gotten everything he’s ever wanted his entire life. He thinks it’s absurd for anyone to think he should have to ask first. Manners are just a formality for him, he never feels sincere. I absolutely detested Ned Merrill.

Almost everything Merrill did made me very uncomfortable. His interactions with women are downright gross. Right from the very beginning he’s being touchy and flirty with the wives of his “friends.” Then he convinces the former babysitter of his kids to join him on his pool quest and tries to put the moves on her. That’s not even his worst moment. Near the end of the film he attempts to sexually assault Shirley Abbott, a woman he had an affair with in the past. Merrill’s behavior toward women in The Swimmer shows he has disgustingly manipulated and seized any woman he’s ever desired his whole life, only caring about himself. The filmmakers seem to want to comment on social classes, racial divide, and the overall behavior of the rich. Instead, Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack weaken the arguments that were on the page by doing everything they can to try to humanize Merrill.

One could read The Swimmer as the story of a man crippling with a mental illness, but it never commits to that approach. Even if it was, which I don’t think it is, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who has lived the life Merrill has. His actions are those of a man who has done them throughout a lifetime, not those of someone who has recently lost self-control. As he continues to interact with people throughout the film you learn of all of the bad things he’s done. I don’t think it’s fair to see The Swimmer as a deconstruction of the rich American man who seems charming and honest, but is actually a terrible person. When the lead character is this unlikable and questionable from the beginning, it’s hard to give any weight to this possible approach.

Maybe everything is a fantasy in Merrill’s mind. Almost all of the characters in the film go along with what he says about his wife and kids even though they know the truth. He could be going through therapy or he’s been committed into a mental institution. Or maybe it was all a dream turned nightmare of his. Regardless, The Swimmer was a fantasy I wasn’t happy to take part in. 

2000s Oldies

L’enfant (2005)

I couldn’t help thinking I had already seen this film. I hadn’t, but there was something all too familiar about it. Films about young couples that are unable to raise newborns together are out there in spades. I’ll be upfront and say I don’t typically like films with this plot to begin with. 

I don’t know if it’s entirely Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s fault for its familiarity. I’m sure that after winning the Palme d’Or many filmmakers were inspired and wanted to emulate this film. I’ve probably watched several of The Child‘s the imitators over the years. The lack of freshness is a result of that. I felt like nothing about The Child really stands out and without that, I should be interested in the characters, but I found Bruno (Jérémie Renier) very unlikable and Sonia (Déborah François) underdeveloped.

I didn’t care for Bruno and Sonia’s relationship and didn’t care about it being successful. Sonia was better off without Bruno and I couldn’t wait for her to distance herself from him. I have to give the Dardennes credit for not trying to string that relationship along for the whole movie with the state it was in. Many filmmakers fall into this trap and it makes for an excruciating experience for me. 

Bruno was not charming and most of our time is spent with him. He’s a man-child, which is entirely the point, but I didn’t need to watch 95 minutes of him being immature for him to figure that out. An issue lifelike films fall into is that they can be predictable and that’s fine, but from start to finish it needs to be engaging enough for the audience to get a worthwhile experience. The Child does have interesting moments, but the overall sum of its parts leaves a lot to be desired.

1950s Oldies

Le Plaisir (1952)

I have to be honest, I had never heard of Max Ophüls until February during TCM’s 30 Days of Oscar. I watched La Ronde as part of my March Around the World this year and was not a fan. From now watching Le Plaisir, they’re very clearly made by the same filmmaker, but the ideas and views expressed in Le Plaisir are less shallow. There is still plenty of cynicism to go around, but there is a touch of optimism in Le Plaisir. Regardless of how I felt about La Ronde, one thing I can say is the two films I’ve watched had me thinking about his ideas.

Ophüls clearly has an obsession with infidelity and I’m unsure if it’s related to French culture around the time of the stories or just his perception of the world and/or monogamy. Just like La Ronde, cheating on your wife or significant other is presented in such a casual manner you would think it was an every day occurrence outside of his films. There’s a comedic undertone Ophüls expresses as well particularly during the second vignette that is rather interesting because of its joyous nature.

Films made up of vignettes can be a recipe for disaster because some may be good and others may be bad. As a result, a film can come off disjointed. All of the stories need to be engaging enough to keep the story going along smoothly. Story One and Three are interesting enough, but Le Plaisir‘s second, “La Maison Tellier,” is where the film truly shines.

Before the second vignette begins, the narrator describes it as a fairy tale and it’s absolutely true. The way the camera shoots the brothel is the way you might shoot a castle. Even though the camera is voyeuristic, it never feels obtrusive and the audience never sees anything private that the parties involved wouldn’t want you to see (except their wives). The countryside is absolutely beautiful. The countryside scenes have a classical Hollywood feel and look.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t normally say this, but I couldn’t help but wonder how beautiful the second vignette would have been in color. The whole vignette, particularly the scenes in the countryside, feel like they’re begging to be colorized. The “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White” Oscar nomination the film received was very well-deserved.

I love the way “La Maison Tellier” is constructed. When I was watching it I was unsure what the story was going to be and who it was going to focus on. Once the film centers on the main characters, it really hits its stride. The story flows so well and is fascinating enough that it doesn’t matter how free the story feels. The story could have gone anywhere and I would have followed it without hesitation.

“La Maison Tellier” is where Le Plaisir truly shines.

2010-19 2019 Reviews

Too Late to Die Young (2019)

Dominga Sotomayor’s film, Too Late to Die Young takes a personal and authentic look into the lives of a close-knit and isolated community in Chile. The events take place in 1990, right before the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It’s a coming-of-age story that focuses on three kids in the community.

A film like this is only as strong as its performances and the young non-actors are excellent. Sofía (Demian Hernández), Lucas (Antar Machado), and Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) are the leads of this ensemble film. In the interview with BFI (on the Criterion Channel), Sotomayor spoke of her directing style and how many of the actors didn’t have any prior experience. She tried to keep the performances as real as possible by guiding them and not having them focus on the script too much. She directed them in a way that in the end, the film follows the screenplay closely. All three of them feel real and you will become attached to them. You might find yourself wanting to know what happens to them next. I would love to get a follow-up film with the three of them.

My favorite performance came from Antar Machado. He wears a boyish sadness that is brutally honest. You can tell how much he loves Sofía (Demian Hernández) just by how he looks at her. Machado and Sotomayor perfectly capture a teenage boy’s first love and the heartache that comes when the other person doesn’t feel the same way. Even when Lucas knows it’s hopeless he still wants to try. It’s heartbreaking.

Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young is a touching and unforgettable film. Her screenplay has some clichés, but her characters are so real that the clichés come off more as stereotypes than lazy screenwriting. I highly recommend Too Late to Die Young. It feels criminally unwatched right now.


2000s Oldies

Japón (2003)

Japón is Carlos Reygadas at his most aimless and self-indulgent. The film begins great and maintains its quality until about halfway through. What starts as a story of a man going to a small village slowly turns into a story of a man who grows affection for an older woman he wants to receive sex from. It takes such a sharp turn thematically it was hard for me to go along with.

The film shifts from being about a man who is unsatisfied with his life, in the middle of a deep existential crisis, to the man being unfulfilled due to his lack of sex life. I realize this may be a crude and elementary way of looking at the story, but when the actions of “The Man” (Alejandro Ferretis) feel one-dimensional I’m more inclined to think that way. To say his actions are due to a natural primal instinct due to his newly acquired isolation only ends up minimizing his initial, complex issues. It’s an arguably pessimistic and unfair interpretation of human beings. I also don’t think you can write off his feelings for Ascen (Magdalena Flores) as love either because he knows almost nothing about her and proposes sex to her in such an entitled and manipulative way.

Japón has this quality of feeling like everything is spur of the moment and the narrative is constantly shifting. I think this could have worked if what was going behind the camera didn’t feel the same way. The film feels unfocused during the second half. Reygadas’s film eventually starts to feel like a collection of images that don’t always flow together seamlessly. After a while the editing starts to feel choppy.

There’s a weird moment where a non-professional actor addresses the camera crew of Japón. I was instantly reminded of the ending of Taste of Cherry. I personally don’t like the ending of Taste of Cherry, but that had more intent behind it. The one-off line one of the workers utters could have easily been removed or even edited around. It’s such a weird moment.

If Reygadas wanted to remind everyone that they were watching a movie, like director Abbas Kiarostami did, more thought should have been put into it. Or, if the line was completely unscripted – which it probably was – he should have found a way to double down later on the line if he knew he was going to keep it in.

You can expect to see the typical Reygadas flourishes you get in his later films: longer takes, minimal dialogue, and beautiful cinematography. Japón is mostly let-down by his hazy screenplay. He might have been able to save the film if he had a stronger conclusion, but it ends in a cheap way.