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Films I Neglected To Review: Dazed And Very Confused
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Driven," "Gwen" and "Where'd You Go Bernadette."

For decades, people have been trying to get a movie about the strange case of John DeLorean, the one-time auto industry titan who, in a desperate effort to save his own company, got caught up in a massive cocaine deal that turned out to be a sting orchestrated in part by an FBI informant, without anything to show for it other than announcements in "Variety" that would add up to nothing. Inexplicably, 2019 has now seen not one but two DeLorean-related projects hit the big screen at long last. Earlier this summer saw the release of "Framing John DeLorean," a bizarre hybrid that fused together a documentary look at DeLorean's life and work with a number of staged scenes featuring Alec Baldwin in unconvincing makeup playing DeLorean. (To make things even more confusing, there was also behind-the-scenes sequences of Baldwin, still in makeup, musing on what goes into playing a person like DeLorean.) By comparison, "Driven" is a far more straightforward stab at narrative filmmaking that looks at the case through the eyes of Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudekis), a small-time hustler who gets popped by the FBI for smuggling drugs and becomes an informer in order to stay out of prison. To the frustration of his handler (Corey Still), Jim has little to offer while living comparatively high on the hog but when he meets his next-door neighbor, John DeLorean (Lee Pace), and eventually learns of the financial problems he is having producing and marketing his revolutionary new car, the idea of doing a big cocaine deal to score the needed money comes up. Desperate, John decides to go along with it, not realizing that Jim is setting him up in the hopes of getting a big payoff from his new employers.

Because it is not constantly switching back and forth between genres, "Driven" is clearly a smoother cinematic ride than "Framing John DeLorean" but it still proves to be a meandering and ultimately unsatisfying trip in the end. This is a saga of greed, envy, power and self-serving behavior writ extra-large but the resulting film feels curiously small and underwhelming. Director Nick Hamm has gone to no small lengths to recreate the coke and money-mad era of the early 80s but once you get past the surface details, there is nothing else there that gives you any sense of the mad and messy reality of the situation. The screenplay also makes a key narrative mistake by structuring the story as a series of flashbacks triggered by a framing device showing Jim testifying at DeLorean's trial--these scenes disrupt the flow of the story and only seem to have been included as a way of making absolutely sure that the slower viewers are able to keep up with everyone else. The three lead actors all deliver technically fine performances but they are showing viewers anything that they haven’t already seen before from them. Frankly, the biggest point of comparison between this film and "Framing John DeLorean" is that, like that earlier effort, it is just interesting enough to suggest that there is a great movie to be made about DeLorean and his legacy, even if this one misses that mark by a mile.

Set in a remote village in North Wales in the mid-19th century, where the Industrial Revolution has not quite hit, "Gwen" tells the story of the titular heroine (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a girl maybe in her mid-teens, and when we first see her, she playing in the fields with her younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes) in a bit of revelry from an existence that might otherwise have no less a figure than Job thanking his lucky stars. With her father off at war and her mother, Elen (Maxine Peake), increasingly caught in the throes of what we might now recognize as some kind of mental disorder, it has fallen largely on Gwen's shoulders to keep their meager farm running. She and her family are soon beset with one misery after another--Mother is getting sicker but they cannot afford the medicine she needs, the potatoes they grow are beginning to rot and their sheep have mysteriously died. Outside the farm, things are not much better--their nearest neighbors have died, the quickness with which they are told that it was due to cholera suggests that it might have been something even worse and the owner of a nearby mining company seems determined to drive her and her family off their land in order to grab it for himself. The question--are Gwen and her family just suffering from a cataclysmic strain of bad luck or is there another explanation for their misfortune, perhaps one of a more supernatural nature?

This is the question that drives the film from debuting director William McGregor and for a while, he keeps this decidedly slow-burning work moving along thanks to his sure hand with creating a palpable sense of atmosphere and giving viewers a central character who is determined not to succumb to the despair and casual sexism she experiences on a daily basis. Worthington-Cox is quite good in the role.) The problem with the film is that while it constantly flirts with genre expectations through out--for much of the running time, there is the real possibility that it is going to transform into a full-on horror presentation--the story begins to sputter out in the last third and the final scenes don’t come close to living up to the promise of the earlier ones. Essentially a less interesting and less successful version of the great "The Witch," "Gwen" is a film that has been made with no small amount of skill and has interesting individual elements that unfortunately never come together into a fully satisfying whole. Still. it is not entirely without interest, I suppose, and those who have found any of my description of "Gwen" to be interesting might want to give it a chance for themselves.

Since making his breakthrough in 1990 with the indie cult favorite "Slacker," Richard Linklater has gone on to become one of the most reliably excellent filmmakers of the era--his best films (including "Dazed and Confused," "Boyhood" and the trilogy consisting of "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight," to name just a few) have been among the finest films of their time and even his lesser efforts (such as "Fast Food Nation" and his "Bad News Bears" remake) have proven to be more interesting and ambitious than the best works of most directors that you and I could mention. Alas, that impressive extended artistic streak comes to a crashing halt with "Where’d You Go Bernadette," an adaptation of Maria Semple's 2012 best-seller that is such a colossal mess that when it finally came to a merciful conclusion, I was at a total loss of how to process what I had just witnessed.

In it, Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette Fox, a one-time architectural wunderkind who, following a professional disaster 20 years earlier, abandoned the business for good and moved to Seattle, where she lives with her tech billionaire husband EG (Billy Crudup) and 15-year-old daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and spends nearly all her time within the walls of her rambling, run-down house complaining to her digital assistant about how everyone else in the world, ranging from her nosy next-door neighbor (Kristin Wiig) to the poor fan of her work that she runs across during one of her infrequent journeys into the real world, are vain, stupid, self-centered, materialistic and wasteful. Thanks to a series of bizarre circumstances, Bernadette goes further out on the edge than usual and ends up being the center of an attempted intervention but before that can happen, she bolts and sets off on a journey that leads her to the South Pole in an attempt to find herself with her husband and daughter in hot pursuit.

There is the germ of an interesting idea at the center of "Where’d You Go Bernadette"--what happens to the creative mind when it no longer has the opportunity to create?--but while the film is constantly restating that notion so that everyone in the audience gets it, it never actually gets around to exploring it in any meaningful way. One of the biggest problems with the film is that while Bernadette is, quite frankly, a bit of a monster. She is just as vain, annoying and self-absorbed as everyone else that she criticizes and if you were standing behind her in line at a coffee shop, you would not only leave, you would swear off drinking coffee for good. If the movie had some real insight into her behavior--it is clear that she has some unacknowledged mental issues that have just been overlooked or excused--she might have come across in a more sympathetic manner but thanks to a rare off-key performance from Blanchett, she comes across more along the lines of a hideous synthesis of Auntie Mame, Bartleby the Scrivner and the similarly strident character that she played in "Blue Jasmine." As for Linklater, he is just the wrong filmmaker for this material--the comedic and emotional beats are way too broad for his normally subtle touch and his open-minded and humanistic approach to storytelling clashes with the half-hearted stabs at social satire. (I found myself feeling more sympathetic throughout towards Bernadette’s scolding neighbor than towards Bernadette herself.) Having not read the original book, I cannot say for certain whether another fine book was wrecked on the journey to the silver screen or if it was just as cloying and irritating when it was on the page. All I know is that when future scholars make up their lists ranking the films of Richard Linklater, the lowest rung is now a lot easier to name than it was before.

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originally posted: 08/17/19 01:09:17
last updated: 08/17/19 01:17:14
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