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The Last Duel: Film Review

To be quite honest, a movie with the title The Last Duel doesn’t conjure up images of 14th Century British history. No, in my mind, Tom Cruise pretending to educate Japanese Samurai on how to be more “samurai” comes to mind, with its own barrage of the White savior coming to help a lesser race on how it should act and think and ultimately, live (and if that isn’t American Imperialism at its worst…). However, once I realized this was Ridley Scott’s latest incursion into historical epics complete with sword fights and massive battle sequences, I was sold. If there is anyone who can turn any historical or quasi-historical event and spin it into gold, it’s Scott. Heck–I’ll even watch a bad Scott movie and he’s made a few of them in his six decades as a movie director.

I have a sneaking sensation that Scott has, at one time or another, watched Akira Kurosawa’s movies — notably, Yojimbo, and I’ll get into that in a bit, You see, The Last Duel touches on an obscure piece of history that unless the average person might not know of. In 1386, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenged his squire and former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel to the death following accusations that Le Gris had raped his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the last of a series of insults that could be resolved in no other way. WE later learn, should Le Gris win the duel, then Marguerite will be whipped naked in front of the entire public and burned alive. This is, obviously, not a happy affair.,

Scott then pulls us back — way back — to when Carouges and Le Gris were on more friendly terms. Even then, the movie depicts Carrouges as inherently noble by association and birth (albeit if it is on a lower level). On the other hand, Le Gris seemingly through no fault of his own rises up the ranks to be Count Pierre d’Alençon’s, right-hand man. It is this unlikely series of events that posits both men in increasingly adversarial positions. When Carrouges marries Marguerite, he intends to link himself to a higher position. However, this also gets taken away from him once d’Alençon grants this portion of land. To make matters worse, Le Gris also become a form of a manager to a fort that had been in the Carrouges’ family for generations. The last straw, what pushes Carrouges over the edge, is the claim that Marguerite makes to him that Le Gris raped her one morning while she was alone in their home as he was away on business.

This is a lot to unpack, but Scott makes it easy to understand with the movie’s deft writing and the clear exposition of the situation. Because Scott has divided The Last Duel into three chapters, we do not get to see the rape in the movie’s first third. Marguerite, the reason the duel even happens, remains a somewhat decorative figure in the background. We mainly get Carrouges’ account of the indignities he has been subjected to, and by all means, we do believe him.

Once we get into the second and third chapters, the movie starts to become something of a puzzle. Le Gris tells his own story and places himself as a lovable rogue who through no fault of his own found himself earning the favors of Philippe. When he gets introduced to Marguerite in a diplomatic meeting after he and Carrouges have fallen out of friendship, their kiss becomes a little more than just a kiss, and we see the faintest expression draw itself upon Marguerite’s face. This is a stark contradiction from the movie’s previous segment where she and Le Gris met, yes, but nothing of the nature that might indicate anything more than a polite kiss transpired.

Scott has the difficult task of filming Marguerite’s rape and because this is a movie that gives us three different accounts, we will have two very different accounts of what exactly happened. Le Gris’ account paints a Marguerite who wasn’t herself putting too much of a fight but simply allowed the incident to happen. Marguerite’s version, on the other hand, comes last, and when she begins to tell her story from start to finish, we finally get to see a woman not only diminished because of the times she lived in, but one who gets to stand up, use her voice, even if the very act may condemn her to a horrible death. She doesn’t simply stand by and watch Le Gris and Carrouges become adversaries; she is a strong advisor who knows how to use diplomacy to her advantage. It is telling how, in a dance Carrouges that follows her meeting to Le Gris, he may see a woman flirting with him; she is warning her husband about him the entire time.

And then the rape scene arrives, and it is truly horrifying. Her revelation, instead of instilling a protective nature in Carrouges, inflames his bruised masculinity even more. In Carrouges’ mind, his enemy has taken everything from him–even his wife, the ultimate humiliation. He even goes as far as to blame Marguerite herself, an action that hits closer to home even today. Marguerite, however, will not be silenced, and while the entire confession/accusation becomes a scandal, while her personal life gets exposed down to the last, most intimate details, she remains headstrong and defiant.

The duel of the title is the movie’s highlight. Here is where Scott lets all the anger of his hurt female, and the passive women that pepper the entire movie–Count Philippe’s wife, Marguerite’s sister and mother-in-law, the King’s own wife–echo that. This fight is because one woman stood up when countless others have not. This is no attempt to create a movie conscious of its need to tell a movie where the woman is at the center and thus appease feminists in general. The latter scenes slant heavily towards giving women a voice, no other character voices the acceptance of how women had to allow and withstand being trampled upon by the men of their time than Harriet Walker’s Nicole de Buchard. An evil mother-in-law at the start, she comes out of that shell and reveals to Marguerite how she is one of many women who have been suffered abuse in silence because they simply do not carry any power when power lies in the hands of men. If anything, this is the movie’s central message: to give us a mirror into the precarious position women of all classes had (which sus see how awful the time, and to see how little things have changed despite the march of time and feminism.

Daniel Craig concludes his tenure in his best Bond ever in No Time to Die

All good things come to an end. Daniel Craig has, for 15 years, has come to personify what the concept of Bond signifies to the lovers of the spy genre. He’s come into the part with the baggage of not being “talk, dark, and handsome” enough — despite being 5 feet 11 inches. How dare Craig, fair and up to then not a bona fide star despite his starting role in Spielberg’s Munich, take a part that sacred cows like Connery, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan had made a part of their own image? I recall reading the outrage the Brits were involved in when Craig was, in the early 2000s, involved in once he was the front-runner for the part. You would have thought he had single-handedly assassinated the Queen Mother herself.

However, there he was, starting in Casino Royale, and resuscitating a franchise that had all but become stale, broken, tired. There he was, a new agent in the rough getting trained by M to earn his license to kill, which leads him into the web of corruption heralded Le Chiffre, while falling tragically in love with Vesper Lynd. He would continue his narrative in the somewhat flawed Quantum of Solace, redeem the movie’s slight faux pas in the one-two punch of Skyfall (easily the current’s second best entry) and its immediate follow-up Spectre. Over the course of these movies Craig basically brought the audiences and earned unanimous praise. Here wasn’t just an actor playing the part, this was Bond incarnate: rash and ready for anything in his first appearance, steely and perhaps even out of control by Skyfall.

It was only appropriate that if Craig’s narrative as 007 — a number that, and this is not a spoiler, is just that — the writers would have to come up with not just a thrilling adventure drenched in travelogue and elaborate set pieces but something meaty, heavy. Dense. The plot of No Time to Die has not much different from the plot of every other Bond movie. We get a bad guy (Rami Malek) whom we see right from the get-go paying a visit to a young Madeleine Swann (Coline Defaud as a girl, Lea Seydoux as an adult) and her mother in their remote cabin. The visit is not exactly friendly — after all, he is the bad guy, and he has a mission. Madeleine survives this incident, but it fast forwards her to the recent past when she is now living with Bond, who since the events of Spectre has retired. Still mourning the loss of Vesper, Bond travels to her grave, only to be ambushed by Spectre assassins. Bond suspects Madeleine of betrayal and sends her packing as an act of self preservation.

A few years later, a Russian scientist developing a bioweapon under M’s orders gets kidnapped for (obviously, what else?) nefarious purposes. The goal seems a bit ill-defined, but we all know anyone developing such a terrible technology can only be harnessing it for carnage at a global level. No Time to Die then becomes a race to find the scientist, which leads Bond to Cuba with Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and a new CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) as well as his own replacement, 007 (Lashanna Lynch) to a meeting of the spies.

However, No Time to Die has other plans in store so of course the story takes a few left turns. In doing so, it brings in a much more human element that will definitely surprise anyone who goes to see the movie. Rarely has any Bond movie dealt with Bond’s character as a man who could have a true motive to live — or in this case, to stop — as this movie does. It is a wicked setup that becomes an even stronger factor than the one that has now come to define the series, that of the weapon for Mass destruction. How the movie resolves it is masterful, and all the praise should go to writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge (herself the writers of both Fleabag and Killing Zoe), who brings in a much needed female energy with her dry, comic wit. Fans of her work will be able to spot her influence on the characters, especially in the language, which is sharp as duck and darkly funny.

So, here we have it, the end of the line for Daniel Craig and his version of Bond. All plot lines will get tied up by its end. References to past Bond films going all the way to Doctor No, Goldfinger, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are all over the place. Bond has matured to the point of exhaustion and Craig’s performance never feels tired, but mellowed. Make no mistake — he can still be ruthless, but you do see him take hits and feel the stun. He’s not undefeatable. He’s human. And that is a good thing, especially for a spy movie in which far too often it’s heroes are practically preordained to survive no matter how dire the circumstances. Craig’s version might end here, but the character, the essence of cool, remains.

The Mortuary Collection represents the best in horror anthologies

Horror anthologies have always been a mixed bag. Think of it as when you stream your favorite artist’s latest CD and find that other than the big hits you may not really resonate with any of their other songs. There may be that obscure “B-side” (does that term even qualify anymore?) that might be a sleeper favorite, but after a listen, you’re done, and all you can recall are the obvious favorites.

The same can be said here. If I can recall a good horror anthology it would be Creepshow from 1982 (despite the critics who savaged it). True, it wasn’t exceptionally high quality but it delivered its scares in the way horror comics of old did (and I’m going way, way back to Weird Tales). The only other would be Trilogy of Terror, but for audiences today, its only scare would be realizing that Karen Black’s career, on the upswing in the mid-70s and peaking in Robert Altman’s Nashville, would grind to a crashing halt soon after where she would make bargain basement horror movies that went straight to video (or cable) and died a quick death. [Also, the movie itself is remarkably tame and campy, but that’s the beauty of it.]

The Mortuary Collection piqued my interest after seeing Chris Stuckmann’s video review on his YouTube channel. Had I not seen anything else, I would have completely bypassed it and moved on to the next batch of festival screenings.

Dear reader, I came into this movie with next to no expectations and came out of it pleasantly surprised. Ryan Spindell’s movie spins a cohesive link of four independent stories connected by a creepy, Lurch-like mortician of the name Montgomery Dark, who receives an application to a vacancy at the mortuary where he operates, surrounded by glorious, old school gloom. Each story is more gruesome than the next. One venture deep into the bowels of pure marital dysfunction that I thought was brilliant. However, there are a few twists along the way, one of them provided by a key character, who plays a significant part in the final tale that has strong shades of both Halloween and The Shining and concludes it in a masterstroke of depravity that had me at the edge of my seat.

Spindell clearly loves the horror genre. In a time when jump scares are the norm for most if not all of the major releases (and even some Indies are getting into it), he lets a scene build onto its own sense of dread. His look is that of an experienced director who knows how much to show and not show in a scene. It simply looks and feels like a living comic book in which you may be given a certain amount of information on one scene, but no more than the characters, which makes for an uneasy view. The fourth and final story is in itself a stand-out and probably would make a full feature-length movie on its own (it exists as a 22-minute short). This is where Spindell lets out all of the visual tricks, some worn, some unexpected, and pulls it all together for a bravura fight between the Final Girl and her stalker. [And can I say that I’ve never seen hair move that way in a movie — it looked almost drawn, the way he has Caitlin Custer move during her more violent scenes that feel lifted from both the aforementioned Halloween and The Shining.]

If I had one minor complaint — but I’m nitpicking — is the look of the periods in which the stories transpire. A sequence in the 60s doesn’t once evoke that era, and the third, which takes place in the 70s, feels like it has elements of other time pieces. However, this is so minor I shouldn’t even be addressing it, but it’s been a thorn on my side to see period pieces look half baked and only feel like a vague rendering of what it was like to live in a specific era.

And on an end note, Clancy Brown. I’ve no clue how this actor has somehow bypassed true fame and awards, but aside from being the sole marquee name on this movie, as an actor, he truly embodies his role down to the mannerisms and voice inflections of Montgomery Dark. Some of his movements had a slight whiff of what Fred Gwynne did as Herman Munster, but other than that, this is an actor who on voice alone drives and elevates this movie.

The Mortuary Collection is available on Prime.

At a Glance: Eight More movies, from Minari to Mank

Now that New Director / New Films is over and done with, I can now focus on going back to some of the movies that I watched either right before the festival started, or in the middle of it, but never got to actually have the time to write about them. Here we go:


Somehow I failed to write about this last year when I had the chance in October. Anyhow, it’s no secret to anyone now some nine months after its release that Lee Isaac Chung’s movie Minari is not just a quintessentially American story but a masterpiece of storytelling. It focuses on a Korean-American family headed by Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han), who have moved from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s in an attempt to not only escape the drudgery of their city life but to make some solid roots of their own. From the get-go, it becomes clear that this will be a task easier said than done. Already, there is tension in the marriage, with Monica upset from having left her life behind. Being Asian-Americans with little education leaves both Jacob and Monica to have to work (yet again) in another factory. However, Jacob has big plans to create his own farm and befriends a muttering American named Paul who served in Korea (Will Paxton, as usual, underrated). Coming into the picture is Monica’s mother Soonja (Yoh-Young Youn), a woman with a character all her own who the youngest son David (Alan S Kim) doesn’t accept.

Minari looks like a type of movie that doesn’t get made anymore (and I know, it sounds cliche, but check and see the last time you saw a movie about a family trying to make it in rural America and you’d have to go all the way back to the type of dramas Sally Field was making in 1984, or perhaps, the similar but fantasy-laden Field of Dreams. This is a gentle movie that depicts a family displaced on all ends, trying to hold itself together in a country that at one point fought against them. Chung wisely leaves any racial tensions outside of the picture, although a friendship between David and a young boy, while innocent, seems to be laden with an undertone of fascination with “the other” rather than a true, lasting friendship. Even Paul’s need to serve Jacob’s family seems to stem from some unknown guilt as the man carries a religious weight throughout the entire movie, even when that weight is treated without any sense of an ulterior motive.

If I have one complaint about Minari, it would have to be that come awards season Yeri Han was left without any nomination for her difficult role as the wife. It seems to be a tradition that Hollywood still doesn’t seem to consider the role of the supporting spouse to be that relevant to a story. Monica’s constant sense of displacement added to the fact that she is, alongside Jacob, the glue holding this delicate family unit together, makes for some intense moments whenever she and Jacob throw verbal barbs at each other. Aside from that one complaint, Minari is a wonderful movie to see, not so much because of its cast but despite it. If anything sounds and feels and looks more American, it is a family who comes from a different part of the world venturing into a place they can call their own. This is the closest I can call to seeing the seeds of life grow and its title describes the movie perfectly.

Saint Frances

Kelly O’Sullivan is a force of nature and someone who should be on everyone’s watch list because that girl is Going Places. O’Sullivan writes and stars in Alex Johnson’s feature-length debut, Saint Frances. Here she plays Bridget, a deadbeat thirty-something who seems to be sleepwalking through life while everyone else around her has become settled and grounded. At a gathering, she meets a man who’s going on and on about nothing in particular while she cringes. When he tells her something around the lines of “You’re 24. It gets better,” Bridget flatly replies, “I’m 34.”

That doesn’t stop her from hooking up with Jace (Max Lipschitz), a cute but much younger guy with who she makes a quick connection. Their connection will be fated in more ways than one, but in the interim, it becomes just a chapter that lands her as a babysitter for a lesbian couple named Annie and Maya (Lila Mojekwu and Charin Alvarez) who are expecting another baby and need someone to take care of their precocious 6-year-old daughter Frances. Frances, it turns out, has come to the world fully formed as an adult and has some things to say, plus an attitude to spare. It is inevitable that a bond will form between the two.

Which, suffice it is to say, won’t be enough. Bridget still has a job to do, and a life to live, even as she herself is still figuring things out. Her presence in Annie’s and Maya’s home might not be considered disruptive — Bridget is helpful to a fault — but because Annie works long hours in her law firm and Maya’s postpartum depression has left her swimming in barely contained tears when Annie finally notices that Bridget and Maya have been getting closer as friends, she has a moment. The moment, surprisingly enough, leads to a release of emotion so raw and intense that it left me completely awash in tears of my own.

I love the way O’Sullivan wrote her character as someone simply trying. She’s not worldly, she barely has anything figured out, and even a scene when a former college friend who has become someone famous places Bridget in the position of being humiliated, she takes it all in stride, unaffected (but not completely; she still throws in a jab with Frances help). The movie isn’t afraid to also posit the way women judge other women, and a moment when Maya is breastfeeding her infant. baby slowly turns into a confrontation with a “Karen” who admonishes Maya for simply tending to her child. What O’Sullivan and the child actress playing Frances do to defuse the scene is priceless.

Saint Frances is unique in that it is very well aware that its people, the successful and not so successful don’t have it all figured out yet. Yes, there are cringe-worthy moments like the one I described in the previous paragraph, but eventually, what comes through is the all-encompassing love that Bridget exudes. Hers is a character I wanted to continue to see long after the movie itself was over. On that basis alone, this to me is one of the best movies of 2020.

Ammonite and The World to Come

I’m lumping these two movies together because it seems that lesbian period dramas in which the two female protagonists slowly but surely fall in love albeit the circumstances of their time are becoming the rage since Carol, but more importantly, 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Let me be clear: I’m perfectly happy with these movies, I’d rather see two women falling for each other and surviving into the end credits than something as dismal as The Children’s Hour or anything that came before or shortly after that because in every single one of them the woman (or both women) were harshly punished.

The thing is that where Carol and Portrait both breathed life into the genre, Ammonite and The World to Come arrive a little stale and predictable — so much that it inspired an SNL skit that has to be seen to be believed. Both movies operate on the notion that narrating stories about women giving into their passions even at the danger of being exposed and possibly convicted seems to foster great cinema. Ammonite treads on the concept that perhaps there was a queer attraction between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison (Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan), although no documents survive today that confirms it. Whether or not it did happen, Ammonite simply doesn’t hold that much water in its central romance so anything that happens seems forced. The World to Come doesn’t quite do much better despite the presence of Katerine Waterston and [Oscar nominee] Vanessa Kirby. Theirs is played fairly straight (for lack of another term), but too often it seems to be closer to an anachronism than something that would have actually transpired even if the two women in The World to Come had lived practically on top of each other in super-tight quarters. Both movies suffer from a case of forced drama, and that does not good drama make.


Another trend that seems to be taking place is that of placing an older couple at a crossroads in life in which one of the two has a terminal disease, leaving the other one to have to handle it on his own. Still Alice gave Julianne Moore an Oscar, Two of Us was France’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards, and who can forget 2012’s Amour?

Now we get Supernova, a well-intentioned and superbly acted movie about two older gay men (Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth) en route to a gathering. There is a lot of reminiscing and talking back and forth that happens, and we get that one of them is not doing too well. The disclosure arrives almost immediately, which was never meant to be a surprise. Tucci’s character has dementia, and soon he won’t be able to take care of himself.

Supernova is a talky affair, but it also manages to imbue its narrative with moments of pause. I was reminded in a way of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend in which his two male leads talked and talked and talked, and none of it was boring — if anything, their time together (which was almost the entire film) was the core structure of the story. In Supernova Firth and Tucci are almost always on camera, together, with few scenes apart from each other. The two share a deep, smoldering chemistry that burns even when their characters fight. Even so, the director, Harry Macqueen, has a non-judgmental sensibility for his characters in that he lets them have their moments without sugar-coating their performances until maudlin takes over. This is a romance that looks lived in, which makes the pain of what must inevitably happen more heartbreaking.

The Vigil

I’ll always have a soft spot for horror films because in their stories lies a deeper template in which grief or darker traumas are expunged in the manner of a haunting. In The Vigil, that template occurs when a young man named Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) receives an offer to be a shomer for a man who has just died. Needing some quick money, Yakov accepts, but as we’ve come to expect in horror movies involving a haunting, nothing will go as expected and before things get better, they will get very, very worse, especially for Yakov.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say other than I enjoyed this short movie. It’s got a great sense of mood and dread that settles in progressively once Menashe Lustig’s character — who hired Yakov in the first place — leaves for the night, leaving Yakov alone in the apartment with a dead man a mere 10 feet away from him. Thomas uses technology and social media to create a sense of displacement in which we as an audience know what is happening but only through Yakov’s earbuds which blast music to a point, it’s a wonder he can even hear himself breathe.

Using the allegory as a means to tell a story about trauma and PTSD is a great way to get through to the meat of the pain. Lynn Cohen, as the dead man’s wife, has a strong supporting character as a woman who knows all too well about demons who refuse to leave a man in pain. On the plus side, while The Vigil does get rather gruesome at times, it never crosses into implausibility and remains firmly entrenched within a man’s fractured psyche. It knows all too well that demons per se do not exist and cannot drag a person to hell. We already live in a hell out of our own making. We just need to find a way to get out of its binding hold. What works for it, is the sense of claustrophobia at every corner plus the sense that something unspeakable is but within grabbing reach of the main character. At 80 minutes in length, The Vigil might be a bit short for its own good but being its mainly a one-man shiver show, it is enough and then some.


I’m coming to truly enjoy these movies in which unlikely folk turn out to be the biggest badasses ever. So far, only older men have played this part — Charlize Theron doesn’t count because her movies don’t focus on her being a pushover turned lethal killing machine. John Wick might not have been the first — he was, in fact, preceded by Hardcore Henry by a few years — but his character is the one most of us including me remember. Now we get Bob Odenkirk stepping out of his attorney in Better Call Saul and into Liam Neeson’s shoes in Nobody, written by the same guy who wrote Theron’s Atomic Blonde and the John Wick movies.

Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a mild-mannered regular guy whom everyone — including his family — seems to both ignore and treat as if he were a nuisance to kick into submission. He accepts it, and goes through the motions, visiting his retired father (Christopher Lloyd, a much welcome presence) at his assisted living home and speaking to his as-yet unseen half brother through CB radio (I thought that went out of style 40 years ago).

One night Hutch finds himself the unwilling and innocent bystander for a group of thugs who enter a bus and basically, unleash mayhem. He quite literally snaps and lets loose whatever he has been holding inside himself, wiping out the entire mob of men with barely a weapon in sight. This leads to a series of events in which the father of one of the men (Aleksey Serebyrakov, last seen in 2013’s Leviathan) demands revenge and payment for whoever did this. That, of course, will be easier said than done.

From here on the movie is exactly what you would expect it to be. Ilya Naishuiller directs Nobody with a muscular hand and offers a few moments for the audience to catch their breath. What I enjoyed the most about this movie is that in no way is Hutch invincible. He can certainly kick ass, and I wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of whatever he may have in store for me, but he also gets hit a lot and in one scene, gets kidnapped, with some grisly results for the kidnappers.

Nobody is a fun movie to enjoy on an evening night and features solid performances by its supporting cast which includes Connie Nielsen, no stranger to action films herself, RZA, and an almost unrecognizable Michael Ironside.


Finally, I have arrived at David Fincher’s incursion into hagiography. If this is what he left Mindhunter — an excellent, deeply disturbing series that is right up his alley — for, I suggest he return to it. Mank will do him no favors, but who am I to pass judgment — I’m sure he made a killing in negotiations and can cut some losses here or there. It’s been lauded by many — not me, sadly — and showered with multiple nominations and awards in major events to include the Academy Awards, and the future will eventually decide whether this was deserved, or the result of a relentless PR stunt to make sure that his work (and his actors) received the attention they should. [Note, I didn’t say “deserved.”]

Eventually, most directors want to make their Citizen Kane. It’s an approach to auteur cinema that ensures he or she will pass through the history books with a movie that will be seen as a pean to cinema and thus, merit its place in movies that you should see before you die or some objective list like that. What not many have attempted is to do something so much in the style of Orson Welles as if to almost follow his filming technique by the book in order to make a movie that seems to be telegraphing at full volume, “This is the seed that created the flower,” or perhaps, “Watch as this real-life story imitates the movie that became the monster that now we know is Citizen Kane.”

Clever approach, to film with low angles, oblique shots, characters bathed in shadows to a point where we can barely see their faces, scenes that foretell scenes in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, and attention to detail that is almost infuriating. [This attention. to detail, mind you, might be commendable to some for its eagle eye approach, but misses the point in others, probably conveniently so, or because when a movie packs so much, there is only so much it can take before it implodes in its own ambitions.]

I wouldn’t have minded all that, but then Fincher and his screenwriters fill the story with so many characters that the movie itself is almost an insurmountable wall of information that has no head, no feet, and is all body. When a movie does this it basically becomes, to me, a Jackson Pollock, Pretty to see with the layers of squiggly lines that tell a chaotic creation, but not much else. So, yes, perhaps this is how life is — a mess of chaotic incidents glued together to form a tapestry so wide you have to stand about 100 feet away from it to capture its intricacy in detail. I, personally, didn’t care who was that character who killed himself, or why Marion Davies was in the story when nothing in Citizen Kane (except that much-maligned reference to Kane’s untalented/exploited/victim wife, Susan Elizabeth Kane) truly references her. The dialogue is excellent — language like that needs to return to movies. It makes characters much more interesting to watch as they conduct their conversations and reveal aspects of either themselves or the narrative. Other than that, Mank is a colossal — but elegant — misfire, an incursion into a time barely remembered, and a story of what can happen when overindulged egos clash.

On Netflix: Pieces of a Woman

I’m sitting here, having finished viewing Kornél Mundruzcó’s ensemble movie Pieces of a Woman, numb as though I’d been splattered with ice-cold water and left outside to marinate in the unforgiving winter temperatures. That was my reaction to having viewed this movie, a picture that I kept putting off precisely because of the topic of a marriage imploding under the black light of a horrific tragedy and no one around to truly save them.

Nothing can prepare an expecting woman and her husband for the loss of a child. There may be therapists at the ready, and well-meaning people, but it’s simply too much pain to process correctly. And is there a “correct” way to even go by this? Vanessa Kirby’s Martha doesn’t know and doesn’t want anyone’s pity. After giving birth to a baby girl who dies soon after going into cardiac arrest, she moves from being what at first seemed to be a rather “in the moment” person to a hard, cold individual who lashes out and never bothers to care where the whip lands.

However, Martha’s family is all around, tip-toeing around her, trying to “be there” for her. Most insidious, for lack of a better world, is Elizabeth (a commanding, imperial Ellen Burstyn) who is aggressively pushing for a lawsuit against the midwife. You see, Martha and her husband Sean (Shia LeBeouf, for once acting and not posturing) were going for home-induced labor. They had their midwife at the ready. When the midwife called out, she sent her replacement Eva (Molly Parker), who arrived with all the bells and whistles of someone who knows her trade. Complications arose during the delivery, and it was never clear if Eva was to blame. Either/or, the result is a dead infant, and a marriage reeling in unimaginable pain.

Mundruzcó’s movie barrels ahead, giving us chapters in which we get to see a couple coming apart at the seams because they can’t move forward (though they do make an attempt of sorts). Every time Sean reaches out, Martha remains aloof and cold. It’s not a shock to see where the movie will go with this divide between husband and wife, but what is a revelation is Kirby’s performance. A walking wound, open and bleeding, she moves about, sometimes cagey, sometimes afraid of her own self, and increasingly angry at the way the cards were delivered to her. Sean has moments of anguish, but instead of letting the camera capture them he prefers to hide them. This may not be the actor’s fault, however. In not letting us completely into his own emotional state and then letting him behave in a less than loyal manner to Martha, we understand that perhaps this is too much for him to handle and whatever he may have had with Martha is over.

Pieces of a Woman is a very theatrical film that mostly takes place indoors, be it at Martha’s and Sean’s house or Elizabeth’s own residence. While family gatherings should be warm, here they get portrayed as battlegrounds for characters to continue to hurt one another. On one end there is Burstyn, who asserts her own self in a smothering manner as the movie progresses. On the other, and at the center, is Kirby, her hair never truly combed, obsessively grabbing apples and keeping the seeds, staring daggers, her at times growling voice choking on the rage she must feel. It is quite the performance that grounds a movie that is devastating to watch from the moment the title card appears until its final resolution.

Grade: A–

An Experiment in Escapism and Capturing one’s Mojo Goes Terribly Wrong in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round

Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) returns to the topic of a group of individuals undergoing a mid-life crisis in his latest movie Another Round (Druk). In a way, Another Round comes dressed in the same sort of angst that colored his 2016 movie The Commune, in which a Danish family, grappling with the blues of ennui borne from normalcy (to use the only word I could attach), make a bold decision: to establish a sort of group living, a collective, in which everyone would be family and a renewed sense of creative liberty would flourish. Like many experiments that have ventured into the unknown and unpredictable, this one was laden with thorns from the onset, and it was only time before the cracks began showing within the foundation, and a long day’s journey into dissolution would take place.  

Such is the case for the scenario in Another Round, which reunites Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen as friends who teach at the local high school alongside two others. The quartet seems to be going through the motions and rather self-aware of it. On a lark, they realize that they need to somehow “spice things up” within their humdrum lives and base their findings on a Norwegian psychiatrist who argues that the blood alcohol level of people is always a bit too low. Should people consume at least one drink a day they would see a marked change in their mood and end depression.   

At first, matters do seem to improve, especially within Martin’s (Mikkelsen’s) marital life. Soon, the men start gathering, listening to 70s funk, recounting how the greatest writers and creative people have always found inspiration in alcohol consumption. [When names like Hemingway and Churchill start to get thrown around my critical eyebrow decided to come alive. While it might be true that Hemingway was and is an important literary figure, the men fail to observe that drinking in excess led to suicide. Churchill may have met a different fate, but it was also customary in society of the early part of the 20th Century to always drink. 

It’s not long before matters start to get out of hand, and Vinterberg spares his main cast nothing in their trip to near self-destruction. He never allows his movie to go via the route of Blake Edwards Days of Wine and Roses – a film that nearly 60 years ago was audacious in showing the ravages of alcoholism – but he still shows enough to makes us worry for the fates of his characters. Another Round shows us careers getting smashed to bits, families being torn apart, and one man ending on a terrible note that could have been averted.  

If the movie stops short of being sublime it’s because it goes into some slight sentimentality, but perhaps that was earned after witnessing four men literally drowning in alcohol addiction. A scene in which one of the teachers coaxes a student to have a drink in order to pass a crucial exam arrives with a note of falsity that didn’t quite gel once it was over. However, Another Round does manage to get saved by Its final scene. Even when it is a bit escapist, it gets acted and danced the hell out by Mikkelsen (a dancer by trade), whose performance gives the movie its glimmer of hope.  

Grade: C+ 

New On Netflix: I Care A Lot

Rosamund Pike seems to be sculpting a career that looks modeled after a certain Bette Davis, and I’ll tell you why. While Davis enjoyed a stellar career during her peak period, she managed to check every box in the book. She could just do no wrong, even when the movie itself did less than good or didn’t live up to certain expectations. And when she played a bitch, boy was she good.

Pike is definitely not Davis, but you get where I’m headed to. Before Gone Girl, the movie that basically brought her out of the shadows, Pike was in all sorts of movies ranging from action-adventure films, bland comedies, or little-seen dramas that didn’t do much to advance her career whether she played the lead or a supporting part. Gone Girl, on the other hand, reinvented her in one masterstroke. It was as though the Pike we had seen — soft voiced, usually non-threatening, Jane to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth in 2006’s Pride and Prejudice — had suddenly revealed vicious pit-bull teeth… and a lethal relentless bite.

That same bite shows up in J Blakeson’s I Care A Lot, a black comedy that tells the story of Marla Grayson. By itself, the name conjures images of an unassuming frump who by day performs the role of a social worker, and by night, continues to do so, undecorated. Under the polished persona of Pike — a smartly dressed woman with reed-straight hair cut in a sleek, geometric bob — Grayson is, to society, the very essence of elegance in the service of selflessness as a legal guardian for elders too weak, or too mentally incompetent to fend for themselves.

Pity you would find yourself under Marla’s supervision. Marla is, from the word go, a shark, and she would take that as a weak compliment if you told her so. She shamelessly preys on the finances of the elderly, placing them under her care to cash in on their bank accounts and live a life of luxury. Into her line of exploitation through an associate comes Jennifer Paterson (Dianne Wiest). Paterson, a wealthy retiree, is practically bamboozled into Marla’s care, placed under lock and key in a facility that Marla presides over under an iron fist.

What Marla and her girlfriend and partner-in-crime Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) ignore is that Jennifer has some pretty heavy connections… and they’re not especially happy to know Jennifer’s home has been repossessed and her whereabouts are nowhere to be found. When a man named Roman (Peter Dinklage) demands that Marla release Jennifer, she refuses. The money that Jennifer can deliver is too much for Marla to refuse it.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I have to say that I Care a Lot is ultimately too silly to be taken seriously. However, it is also solid entertainment that manages even through its wild plot twists to point a finger at an actual, terrifying reality in which corrupt legal guardians have all but destroyed a system for their own financial gain. What seemed to be poised to be one kind of film, in which Marla’s actions would yield a progressive retaliation from Roman, turns into something else, and it’s entirely unexpected.

It doesn’t quite work all in the end, but that’s because Pike’s character is so completely amoral and so unyielding that she becomes an unknowable wall. At first, her dogged refusal to back down when her circle starts to close seems defiant, and strangely fascinating. It’s when she gets into far deeper than she ever planned that credibility starts to strain a bit. Dinklage doesn’t exactly fare better — his part is rather one-note, and too much of Dinklage renders the movie a bit flat. His character and Pike’s are basically the same despite coming from entirely different backgrounds, so it is no surprise when one unyielding force meets unyielding force, leaving it all to an act of poetic justice to carry out its final sentence.

But, as I have said before, this is a silly movie that uses a serious matter to tell a plot full of pulp and retro-80s action. Watch I Care a Lot, and feel both outraged and repulsed by its connection to actual corrupt legal guardians, but think nothing of it once the credits have rolled.

Grade: B

Netflix Finds: The Invisible Guest (A Contratiempo)

Here we have a movie that should have been released formally before getting acquired by Netflix right after its world premiere at Fantastic Fest. It’s a shame, and no offense against Netflix, but had I known of this movie I would have front and center in a movie theater.

But, details, timing, it doesn’t matter. Netflix still holds streaming rights to Oriol Paulo’s The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo), where. it sits awaiting a click and a view. Paulo’s movie arrives drenched in Hitchcockian suspense from its opening sequence in which we get introduced to Adrian Doria (Mario Casas), a high-tech businessman caught in a nasty situation involving his now-murdered girlfriend Laura (Barbara Lennie). Doria stands accused of her murder, and his lawyer has contacted a no-nonsense, high-power attorney, Virginia Goodman (Ana Wagener), to defend him. Goodman, upon arriving at Doria’s apartment, reveals that the prosecuting side has found a credible witness who will testify against Doria, so he must tell his side of the story quickly and not omit a single detail to her.

Doria tells his story to Goodman, who, hawk-like and incapable of missing a beat, listens. We get a delicious cat-and-mouse game of storyteller and witness, but with the stakes so high, The Invisible Guest traverses the gamut of noir and whodunit as it had done this before and then some. It becomes next to impossible to establish a clear identification with anyone since both Doria and Laura become complicit in a horrible act of fate, the “setback” of the title. Through Doria, we see a man trying his best to save the skin from flying off him. However, Paulo has other designs on his story’s and he drops little crumbs to the audience just to see who pays attention, and who is simply watching.

No one does suspense as the Spaniards do, and Paulo’s The Invisible Guest is proof of my statement. His movie unfolds rather straightforwardly until what we are watching, what we are being forced to witness and accept, gets thrown out the window and we are left with a different reality. Savvy viewers might figure most of it out rather around the hour mark, but it doesn’t matter. Paulo’s story veers deep into Agatha Christie filtered through a Brian de Palma lens soon after and never bothers to look back to retrace its steps. And in the maelstrom, we have the accused and his defense attorney, measuring each other with pens that act like knives and glances that act as daggers.

The Invisible Guest is a thriller that oozes high-end, high-concept gloss and boasts strong performances by Casas, Wagener, Barbara Lennie, and Jose Coronado.

Grade: A

P.S.: As a side note, there have been a few remakes made from the ashes of this remarkable film. Just last year The Invisible Witness from Italy made its rounds in virtual release, and Netflix also hosts its Indian remake Badla. My advice: stick with the one that matters. is back, but…

Image by AV Forums

I guess I didn’t plan this accordingly. I got a bit blindsided with the impatience of getting away from my previous hosting site and their Ultimate Plan which was priced a bit too steep for me that I didn’t stop to think about backing up my work. In the end, I lost a total of 400 entries, many which contained multiple reviews as I tend to go to at several film festivals throughout the calendar year. However, on the plus side, it’s not like these writings were at the level of, let’s say, Pauline Kael or Dorothy Parker. [Perish the thought! I think I may have heard them rolling in their graves, the poor dears.] No, many were downright perfunctory and I’d even say borderline awful. I’d blame the fact that I can believably sit down and do movie marathons for both new releases and home video releases as well as what’s playing on art-house apps like MUBI or Criterion, so in the end, unless it’s a classic that requires a bit more analysis, the reviews are kept to the point, concise, and at a word limit of about 500 – 700 per film.

Lesson learned — back up your work. On the bright and busy side, you would think that February would be a dead or slow month for movies but with festival features releasing direct to streaming platforms left and right it seems that the niche is saturated more than ever. Not sure how this one, this Accidental Cinephile, will manage. Opening February 12 — tomorrow, as per this writing — there are a bundle of movies opening, from Lee Isaac Chung’s critically acclaimed Minari (which made its premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last December for a one-week run), Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and the much-anticipated film by Rose Glass… Saint Maud. Still playing on virtual platforms are five entries for Best International Feature Film for the 93rd Academy Awards: Italy’s Notturno, directed by Gianfranco Rosi; Hungary’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time by Lili Horvát (2014s White God); Filippo Menechetti’s lesbian-themed drama Two of Us, representing France; Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!, Russia’s submission, and Denmark’s Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (2013’s The Hunt).

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