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Films I Neglected To Review: Do Your Own Headline This Week
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Alex Wheatle," "Archenemy," "The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," "I'm Your Woman," "Songbird" and "Wander Darkly."

"Alex Wheatle," the fourth installment of Steve McQueen's hugely ambitious and generally astonishing five-part "Small Axe" anthology, is a true tale that is essentially an origin story showing how a young man emerged from a childhood marked by institutional abuse to become an acclaimed award-winning writer. As kid, Wheatle (Sheyl Cole) becomes part of the child welfare system after being deserted by his mother at birth where he suffers at the hands of cruel foster parents, racist classmates and, inevitably, the police. When he becomes old enough, he ends up in a London hostel and is taken under the wing of Dennis (Jonathan Jules), a genial low-level drug dealer who teaches him how to dress and act and also inspires in him a love for music and deejaying. His life takes another radical change in 1981 when he is thrown in jail after being rounded up as part of the Brixton Uprising. In prison, he initially treats his Rastafarian cellmate, Simeon (Robbie Gee), with violent contempt but Simeon eventually breaks through the hate by inspiring him to read and, more importantly, to begin to tell his own story at last. At only 66 minutes, the film cannot possibly begin to give a full accounting of Wheatle's life--it ends before he has even begun to write the first of his 15 YA novels that would lead to him being awarded the MBE--and the combination of the brief running time and the flashback structure may prove to be distracting to viewers who go into it not knowing much about Wheatle ahead of time. However, the driving force behind this installment that makes it worth watching is the powerful performance from first-time actor Cole as Wheatle, who perfectly nails all of the complex and conflicting emotions roiling within him as he charts his way through the experiences that would go on to shape him into the man that he would become.

As "Archenemy" opens, superhero Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) is recounting the story of how his battle with his archenemy Cleo Verntrik (Amy Seimetz), the creator of a weapon with the power to destroy his home planet, led to a dimensional rift that landed him on Earth, where he no longer has his once-formidable powers. As he is telling this tale in exchange for free drinks in a dive bar, there is a fairly good chance that he is nothing more than a helpless drunk with mental issues. However, his stories do intrigue novice crime reporter Hamster (Skylan Brooks), who begins chronicling Max's stories online, where they begin to attract some attention. At the same time, Hamster's older sister, Indigo (Zolee Griggs) runs afoul of the local drug dealer known as The Manager(Glenn Howerton) that she works for (in order to make enough money to put her brother through college) and the two are about to be killed by henchmen when Max arrives to save the day in appropriately messy fashion. Max insists that they should stay and make a stand against The Manager and his own mysterious boss. With nothing left to lose, they agree but as things proceed, even true believer Hamster is forced to face the fact that Max’s stories of his prior superheroics may have just been that and nothing else.

Clearly meant to serve as a rejoinder to the glut of superhero sagas that have hit theaters over the last few years, "Archenemy" is a film that doesn't quite live up to its obvious ambitions to the degree where I could comfortably recommend it. The screenplay has a lot of ideas swimming around but it never quite figures out how to bring them all together into a satisfying whole and the direction by Adam Egypt Mortimer (who previous film, "Daniel Isn't Real," was another ambitious-but-flawed genre-bender) is similarly uneven) while some of the stylistic touches (such as the judicious use of animation at certain points in the story) are quite striking, the action beats (especially the ones towards the ending) are just kind of dull. At the same time, the film has a certain raggedy charm, especially in comparison to the usual big-budget behemoths, that helps to keep things moving along, at least for a while. More importantly, it has the inspired presence of Joe Manganiello, himself a veteran of a couple of straightforward superhero franchises. Although the character does not really afford him the chance to demonstrate the winning sense of humor he showed in films like "Magic Mike" and "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday," he throws himself wholeheartedly into the part of Max to such a degree that he manages to do a better job of propping up the central is-he-or-isn't-he? mystery than the screenplay does. Ultimately, "Alchemy" does not quite work well enough for me to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly but at the same time, I suspect that I will find myself thinking about more often in the future than the majority of the MCU and DC extravaganzas that I’ve see and largely forgotten.

The latest in a seemingly endless string of rock music documentaries, "The Bee Gees: How Deep Is You Love" finds director Frank Marshall trying to reclaim the artistic legacy of the once-popular British group from the pop culture scrap heap that they were consigned to when disco music, which they became synonymous with as a result of the massive popular and iconic soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever," fell out of favor with the listening public at the end of the Seventies. With the help of Barry, the sole surviving brother, and the Gibb families, Marshall recounts their story with a treasure trove of interviews from the brothers themselves (the ones involving Robin and Maurice date from 1999), tons of behind-the-scenes footage of them recording and performing their hits and testimonies from current stars like Chris Martin and Justin Timberlake attesting to their genius and continued relevance. The film does effectively argue that their music was more innovative and interesting, both musically and lyrically, than the usual disco fluff of the era, though one could argue that this is a sentiment that many music observers have come around to in recent years, judging by the accolades that they have received for their recordings and the songs they have written for artists as varied as Dolly Parton, Diana Ross and Celine Dion. The problem with the film, perhaps the inevitable result of getting the all-important cooperation of the Gibb family, is that when it gets to the darker moments of the group's up-and-down career, Marshall either rushes through them (such as their sudden drop in popularity in the wake of the massive backlash to disco) or ignores them all together. (Yes, this is a Bee Gees documentary that manages to include a mention of the 1978 cinematic debacle "Moment by Moment," which they had nothing to do with, but not a word about the 1978 big screen bomb that they were all over, the infamous musical flop "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.") As an attempt to make the case for the Bee Gees as genuine artists whose considerable output is more than deserving of reconsideration, "How Do You Mend A Broken Heart" sort of works, though the milage will obviously be a little better if you are already a fan before going in. As a film that tries to make the case for itself as the definitive document on the history and legacy of the group, it cannot help but feel as if it comes up just a little bit short.

Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), the woman at the center of the Seventies-set crime drama "I'm Your Woman," knows that her husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), is a criminal to some degree but either has been kept in the dark regarding the full extent of his involvement or has willfully turned a blind eye to that information in exchange for her comfortable lifestyle. That all changes one night when one of Eddie’s cohorts turns up in the middle of the night and brusquely tells her that Eddie has disappeared and that she and her baby--a child that Eddie just brought home one day and gave to her as if it were another bauble--need to hit the road immediately before the people looking for him can find her. Along with the kid, about $200,000 in money that was hidden in the house that she was aware of, and no idea about anything that is going on, Jean takes off with Cal (Arinze Kene), an associate of Eddie's who has been charged with sneaking her off to someplace new to live. Inevitably, Eddie's troubles catch up with her and as she goes to heretofore unthinkable lengths to protect herself and her baby, she finds herself transforming from the semi-vapid housewife she once was into her own person.

"I'm Your Woman" was directed and co-written by Julia hart, who previously made "Fast Color," another film that took what has typically been regarded as a male-centric film genre--the superhero saga, in that case--and subverted the usual tropes while giving the whole thing a feminist spin as well. In that case, the results were fascinating (if you haven't seen "Fast Color" as of yet, drop everything and do it right now) but anyone hoping that lightning would strike twice here will come away feeling kind of disappointed. Although Hart does make a point out of removing most of the narrative conventions that one might expect to find, she doesn't replace them with anything interesting, stranding viewers in the middle of a lot of needlessly muddled exposition in which viewers are often left as in the dark as Jean. Speaking of her, she is just not a particularly interesting character to hang a film of this type around. She starts off as a borderline vapid uber-housewife and pretty much stays that way throughout--even when people are dying right in front of her (at her hands in at least one instance--and Brosnahan brings such little energy to the character that it into only ruins the conceit of her being forced to become her own person for the first time in her pampered life but it becomes hard on even the most basic of levels to care much about what happens to her. Considering the combination of talents involved here, "I'm Your Woman" unfortunately cannot be considered anything more than an odd and ultimate ineffective misfire.

When the trailers for "Songbird," a pandemic-related thriller that shot on the fly on the streets of Los Angeles last July during the lockdown, first hit, some people were outraged over the idea of a film that seemed to be nothing more a tasteless attempt to exploit real-world fears for the sake of a trashy movie. Frankly, I am less offended by that--this is essentially the kind of thing that Roger Corman might have done back in the day--than I am by the fact that it doesn't do anything of interest with the subject. Set in 2024, the fourth year of the ever-mutating Covid pandemic, most people are still forced to stay inside and those who become infected are dragged off to so-called Q-Zones—the less said about them, the better. One of the lucky immune ones is Nico (KJ App), who works as a bike messenger and who spends his spare time flirting over the phone and through closed doors with girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), who lives with her aunt. When the aunt dies and it appears as if Sara may have been exposed, Nico launches into a desperate race against time to acquire a valuable wristband stating that she is immune before the authorities (led by Peter Stormare in a deeply unhinged scenery-chewing turn) can take her away to the Q-Zone, leading him to a wealthy and unhappily married couple (Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore) who sustain their lifestyle by making counterfeit wristbands for big money. Meanwhile, the husband is carrying on an affair with a young singer (Alexandra Daddario) who is trapped in her motel with nowhere to go while the singer carries on an online friendship with a wheelchair-bound veteran (Paul Walter Hauser) who works for Nico’s courier service as a drone operator.

Although there is an undeniable sense of frisson in the opening moments of "Songbird" as it cannily exploits the sight of the empty streets of L.A. to eerie effect, that can only last for a few minutes and then it has to stand on its own merits. This, alas, is where director Adam Mason (who co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Boyes) badly stumbles. The screenplay is a thin and oddly disjointed affair that expends so much time and energy into trying to tie all the various narrative threads together that there is none left for the slightly more important task of making them interesting. Not helping matters much is the fact that the most obviously extraneous of the storylines--the one involving the online relationship that unexpectedly develops between the Daddario and Hauser characters--is the only one that makes any real impression. By comparison, the romance between Nico and Sara that is supposed to be the film's beating heart comes off as tepid and unconvincing while the stuff involving Whitford and Moore’s domestic troubles is frankly annoying. Out of necessity, much of the film has been filmed utilizing phones and screens and the result is very tedious from a visual standpoint. The strangest thing about the film is how lethargic it is--considering the ticking clock factor of the story and the rapid manner in which it was made, one wouldn’t think that the results would be as poky as they are. Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding its creation, my guess is that "Songbird" will no doubt earn itself an asterisk in the annals of film history. Beyond that, it is little more than an eminently forgettable gimmick film that proves that one can actually make an entire feature film in the middle of a pandemic--making a good one, on the other hand, will have to wait for another time.

Although it may have taken a while for many observers to recognize it due to the distraction of her extraordinary good looks, Sienna Miller has long since shown that she possesses considerable acting skills as well. She is easily the best thing about ]"Wander Darkly" but not even her efforts can quite bring clarity to writer-director Tara Mieler's muddled meditation on grief and emotional trauma that is undeniably ambitious in its emotional scope but which is ultimately nowhere near as haunting, mysterious or provocative as it wishes itself to be. She plays Adrienne, a recent mother whose strained attempt at a date night with her longtime companion, Matteo (Diego Luna), ends with her evidently dying in a car accident. However, she appears to be moving throughout the physical realm as a spirit of some kind and flits back and forth between recent events in her life with Matteo. Before long, however, Matteo himself pops up to inform her that she is not a spirit after all and together, they try to make sense of what has happened to them and how their once-strong relationship began to crumble. The film is trying to be some kind of hallucinatory heartbreaker but it never quite works--Adrienne's story is not especially interesting, the fractured structure is more distracting than edifying and the big gut punch final revelation turns out to be a glancing blow at best. Unlike the film as a whole, however, Miller finds a clear and direct line to her character that cuts through all the forced nonsense and stilted dialogue and at times comes close to actually making it work."Wander Darkly" is ultimately a mess, one not nearly as wise or profound as it believes itself to be, but Miller's work is so good that there are stretches--though not nearly enough of them--when it almost seems to work after all.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4280
originally posted: 12/11/20 06:45:23
last updated: 12/11/20 06:53:37
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