Films I Neglected To Review: Manderley Balls

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/16/20 08:06:39

Please enjoy short reviews of "Evil Eye," "Nocturne," "Honest Thief," "Love and Monsters," "Rebecca," "Totally Under Control" and "White Riot."

Following the debuts last week of the not-uninteresting "Black Box" and the fairly dreadful "The Lie," two more entries in the "Welcome to the Blumhouse" partnership between the production company and Amazon are debuting this week and once again, the results are mixed. "Evil Eye" tells the fairly derivative story of Pallavi (Sunita Mani), a young Indian woman living in New Orleans who is constantly being nagged by her mother, Usha (Sarita Choudhury) back in Delhi for not being married. Before long, Pallavi meets Sandeep (Omar Maskati) and it appears that she has hit the jackpot--he is smart, charming, rich and easy on the eyes. However, Usha seems strangely suspicious of Sandeep and while Pallavi assumes that it is just a ploy by her mother to always have some kind of control of her life, it turns out that Usha is convinced that Sandeep has some strange connection to a dark secret from her own past--one that is treated as some kind of unfolding mystery even though it is pretty obvious from the get-go where this is headed. The performances by Mani and Choudhury are engaging enough but they cannot overcome the inescapable fact that the story is way too familiar for its own good and it has been told in a manner that, aside from a couple of individual moments, is frankly kind of boring. This isn’t the worst of the four Blumhouse/Amazon presentations but it might be the most completely forgettable.

On the other hand, "Nocturne" is one of the better ones, though it too suffers from a certain lack of imagination. Ever since she was a little girl, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) has wanted to be a classical pianist but despite her relentless hours of practice and dedication, she is only good while her minutes-older twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman) is brilliant at it despite her far less intense approach, even winning the admittance into Julliard that her sister craved. Returning to the performing arts boarding school that they both attend, Juliet stumbles upon a music notebook belonging to a genius student who mysteriously killed herself and which happens to contain several creepy drawings suggesting events that begin to transpire that allow her to finally achieve her dreams and step out of her sister’s shadow, albeit at a terrible cost to her and those around her. This effort from writer-director Zu Quirke is basically a retread of "Black Swan" (with a dash of the truly twisted "The Perfection" thrown in for good measure) and while it does offer some good insights about the pressures that prodigies put upon themselves to succeed at their crafts, it is undone by a lack of originality and some clunky storytelling--we are constantly being told about Juliet's radical change in personality but we never really get an actual sense of it. Despite that, Sweeney, who has been a standout in things like "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Euphoria," is quite good as Juliet and brings enough of a genuine sense of poignance to her character to make you wish that it were in the service of a slightly better film.

The release of last year's darkly comedic "Cold Pursuit" seemed to suggest that Liam Neeson was finally beginning to tire of the seemingly endless string of action thrillers in which he played a seemingly mild-mannered man who exacted all sorts of violent revenge on his enemies that had become his go-to genre since the massive success of "Taken" in 2008. No such luck because not only has he returned to the fold with his latest venture, "Honest Thief," the result is perhaps the most blandly anonymous one of them to date. He plays Tom Dolan, the world's most altruistic bank robber (he apparently has not spent a penny of the millions he has lifted in his violence-free heists over the years) who decides to give it all up for love when he meets Annie (Kate Walsh) and even elects to turn himself and the money in to the FBI in the hopes of getting a reduced sentence and a clean slate. Unfortunately for him, the two subordinate agents sent to interview him (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) get greedy and decide to keep the money for themselves, killing both their superior (Robert Patrick) and Tom to cover their tracks. Unfortunately for them, they don't quite succeed with bumping off Tom and when they subsequently go after Annie, Tom is driven to bring them down even as he is being pursued by the dead agent's partner (Jeffrey Donovan), who is just as determined to bring him in even as he begins to suspect that his prey may not be guilty after all.

Yes, this is little more than yet another rehash of "The Fugitive," though I cannot readily recall a more lethargic variation of that classic. The film isn't so much bad as it is dead--it pokes along at a pace that makes it seem about four times longer than it actually is and the occasional bursts of action are more perfunctory than anything else.The screenplay by Steve Allrich and Mark Williams (the latter also directed) is as tired of a rehash of familiar cliches as can be and spends more time trying to make Tom seem like the world’s most decent and amiable criminal--the kind that even Dirty Harry might be willing to cut some slack--than in creating anything in the way of tension or suspense. No doubt realizing that this was nothing more than an instantly forgettable potboiler, most of the actors try to coast by on the strength of their own individual personality and charisma--an approach that may work if you actually possess such qualities, like Walsh and Donovan, but not so much if you don't, as if the unfortunate case of Courtney, who continues to come across like the poor man's Sam Worthington. As for Neeson, he literally phones in his performance--it seems like he spends about half his screen time talking into a receiver--and seems almost paralyzed with boredom at times. Trust me--if you somehow make it to the end of this dud, you will know the feeling.

In the not-too-distant world depicted in "Love and Monsters," an attempt to blow up an asteroid heading straight for Earth backfires horribly by inspiring animal mutations that go on to kill off nearly all of the world's population and leaving the few survivors to form underground colonies while foraging for supplies to survive. Seven years after the beginning of the so-called Monsterpocalypse, the awkward Joel (Dylan O'Brien) reconnects over the radio with Aimee (Jessica Henwick), the high-school sweetheart he was separated from after the attack. Still in love with her, he decides, despite a complete lack of even the most basic survival skills, to single-handedly make the 80 mile journey to her colony for a reunion, encountering any number of bizarre creatures--ranging from mutated bugs and frogs to Michael. Rooker--and learning how to fight for himself in ways that happily come into play when Aimee's colony faces a threat from a supremely dangerous outside force. My interest in this title was piqued when I learned that it was co-written by Brian Duffield, whose previous effort was the wonderful "Spontaneous," another film that attempted to blend together dark humor and young love with a hefty helping of gross stuff (albeit in a manner more goofy than grisly). This time around, the combination is neither as ambitious in either its concept or execution, preferring a largely straightforward horror-comedy route in which a goofball type learns to man up and win his dream girl while reducing weird-looking monsters to goo along the way. This isn't to say that the film is bad--leads O'Brien and Henwick are reasonably sweet and charming (though the best performance comes from the dog Joel picks up along the way), the creatures have an old-fashioned Harryhausen-like look to them that monster movie buffs will appreciate and it never quite wears out its welcome. Look, f you want to see a genuinely excellent and deeply subversive horror-comedy-romance right now, do not hesitate to check out "Spontaneous." If, on the other hand, you are looking for an agreeably silly bit of seasonal entertainment aimed squarely at viewers who are perhaps too old for "Hocus Pocus" and too young for "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Love and Monsters" should adequately fit the bill.

Those who feared that filmmaker Ben Wheatley would bring his fondness for heavy-handed grotesqueries--the kind on display in such films as "Sightseers," "Free Fire" and his unrelentingly lousy adaptation of J.G. Ballard's "High Rise"--to his version of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel "Rebecca" can rest easy. As it turns out, there are only two overly obvious connections between this film and his earlier efforts--a luridly shot nightmare version of a party gone wrong that looks like an excerpt from a giallo film and the fact that the whole thing is not very good. The story, whose most famous presentation remains the 1940 film that would be the only Best Picture Oscar winner directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is pretty much the same--an unassuming young woman (Lily James) is swept off her feet by the dashing-but-tortured widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and, after their quick marriage, taken to live at his ancestral estate, Manderley. Alas, it seems as if the spirit of his first wife, Rebecca, is a constant presence in the house, a sensation reinforced by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), who never passes up an opportunity to inform the newcomer that she will never measure up to her predecessor. Of course, it turns out that Rebecca's grip is not merely theoretical as a number of seemingly buried secrets resurface and threaten to destroy both the obsessed Maxim and his new wife.

Of course, anyone attempting to do a new film version of "Rebecca" is inevitably doomed to suffer the same problem faced by its central character--the enormous shadow cast by a predecessor that seems to have been loved and cherished by all. A new iteration could have worked around this problem if it had elected to go off in a bold new direction. However, outside of restoring a couple of plot points that had to be changed in the Hitchcock version because of the Production Code, Wheatley has elected to present a relentlessly straightforward take that practically begs to be compared to the earlier version and comes up wanting in practically every area. Wheatley and screenwriters Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse handle the material in a flat and unimaginative manner that sucks out all of the dramatic and romantic tension from the narrative. An even bigger problem is the central miscasting of James and Hammer as the leads--to compare them to Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier would be grossly unfair, of course, but they fail to generate any convincing sparks of personality, either together or on their own. The only two aspects to the film that really work are the design of Manderley, which is admittedly spectacular and which has every nook and cranny presented in loving detail through cinematographer Laurie Rose, and Kristin Scott Thomas, whose scene-stealing turn as Mrs. Danvers hits just the right note of barely suppressed Gothic madness that is otherwise lacking here. “Rebecca” may be Wheatley’s least objectionable film to date--he doesn't shit the bed as he did with his version of "High Rise"--but compared to the eternal greatness of the previous film version, his take dissipates like a wisp of smoke.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has never been accused of not being prolific but with his latest effort, "Totally Under Control" (which he co-directed with Ophelian Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger), he has broken his own land speed record by making a film about the coronavirus pandemic and the Donald Trump administration's mishandling of it as it was unfolding. (The result is so up-to-date that an end title card informs us that the day after production officially wrapped, Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19.) What it lacks in technical finesse, it more than makes up for in terms of raw anger and laser focus as it chronicles the astonishing combination of ignorance, deliberate downplaying, ego and borderline criminal behavior that marked the Trump coronavirus response through a combination of news footage and damning new interviews with a host of who saw what was happening and whose warnings and advice were consistently ignored. (To get these interviews in this new environment, cameras were sent to the homes of interviewees so that the talks could be dome remotely.) There is not much of anything here that will come as new or especially shocking to anyone who has been following the story but it lays the whole sorry saga out in such clean and concise detail that when the histories of this period are written, it will probably be utilized as a primary source. Of course, spending two hours inside watching a movie centered specifically on the reasons why you cannot got out may not exactly strike a lot of people as a good time and I get that. However, if you want a penetrating and informative look at those reasons--one arriving about three weeks before

The story contained in the documentary "White Riot" may not necessarily be new but the issues that it raises and the anger that it contains prove to be almost frighteningly timely and relevant in today’s world. In England in the Seventies, far right-wing extremism was on the rise via political parties like the National Front and fascist imagery was beginning to appear in the emerging punk rock scene. During a concert in 1976, Eric Clapton went on a tirade claiming that England was in danger of becoming a "black colony" and publicly endorse anti-immigrant political candidate Enoch Powell. As someone who built his career on playing the blues, this outburst seemed inexplicable (he would later apologize and admit to being drunk at the time) but he was not the only one--stars like David Bowie and Rod Stewart made similar statements--and these development inspired photographer and political activist Red Saunders to call out in the local music press to form a new group that would be called Rock Against Racism. Bringing together members of the Anti-Fascist League with more progressive punk rockers, they created a movement that would make its major public debut in April, 1978 with a massive march through London that culminated in a concert featuring such bands as The Clash and Steel Pulse. Using archival footage and current interviews with participants, the film recounts the history of the movement, which would grow in size and scope into the Eighties, leading up to some killer performance footage from the concert. The film is no great shakes from a cinematic standpoint but the rough visual aesthetic works here as it fits in nicely with the rough & ready feel of the punk scene at the time. Of course, many of the political and social issues raised by the Rock Against Racism continue to resonate today and this gives "White Riot" an edge and energy that gives it life and makes it into more than just another look at an episode of a bygone era.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.