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Films I Neglected To Review: Fonda Sings!
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Affair," "Boogie," "FTA," "Keep An Eye Out," "Lucky" and "Pixie."

Although "The Affair" is ostensibly based on Simon Mawer's 2009 novel "The Glass Room," which made that year's shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, it feels as if someone unearthed an exceptionally glossy-but-turgid television miniseries from back in the nday--the kind of saga that is usually described as “sweeping” and which generally features dramatic events in world history serving as the background to the personal problems of the various characters--chopped it down to 104 minutes and issued it with a new title that seems designed to make it sound far steamier than it actually is. Beginning in Czechoslovakia in the early 1930s, the story opens with newlywed couple Liesel (Hanna Alstrom) and Viktor (Claes Bang) hiring famed architect Von Abt (Karel Roden) to design their new house, an elaborate modernist sprawl with a room constructed entirely of glass at its center serving as an all-purpose metaphor. For a while, everything is blissful for Liesel as she spends her days with her young son and best friend Hana (Carice van Houten) but things start to go bad when she discovers that Viktor is diddling the nanny and, slightly more importantly, the Nazis arrive. While Liesel and her son are able to flee, Hana stays behind, eventually taking up with the architect and as the years pass, the house finds itself going from one owner to another in much the way that Czechoslovakia itself did during the time as it went from German to Russian rule. Time passes and fortunes rise and fall but the one thing that remains constant is the intense, if often unspoken, emotional bond between Liesel and Hana, leading up to the inevitable tear-jerking climax.

Even in its most degraded and dilapidated phases, the house at the center of "The Affair" comes across as a fairly stunning and ingeniously designed structure. Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said about the screenplay and that is pretty much the key to the film’s problems. As I am not familiar with the original novel, I don't know how faithfully it has been adapted to the screen. However, the screenplay by Andrew Shaw gives all indications of being an awkward job of trying to telescope hundreds of pages of narrative and numerous characters into a two-hour storytelling format--it just lurches from one incident to the next without any real sense of dramatic flow and there are a number of cases where characters appear on the scene with so little sense of explanation that it takes a while to figure out who they are and what their purpose is supposed to be. Director Julius Sevcik's contributions are similarly awkward--the story spans decades but the only real indicator of the passage of time is the increasingly dubious aging makeup applied to the two leads. The only real point of interest in the film, save for the house, is van Houten, who has given better performances before in projects ranging from "Black Book" to "Game of Thrones" but who brings enough sheer movie star personality to her turn as Hana to help liven things up whenever she turns up on the screen. However, not even she can make "The Affair" into anything more than a real drag that cannot decide if it wants to be a serious drama or a slick soap opera and winds up missing the mark on both counts.

"Boogie" is a film that plays like a mashup of "Good Will Hunting," "Hoop Dreams" and every coming-of-age saga that has ever made sure to namecheck "The Catcher in the Rye" as a way of demonstrating its alleged authenticity and the end result is even more awkward and unwieldy than it sounds. The central character is Alfred "Boogie" Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a Chinese-American basketball prodigy living in Queens who has recently transferred to a prep school with an uneven team in the hopes that he can lead them to glorious victory over the rival team featuring the city’s #1 prospect (the late rapper Pop Smoke) and get a scholarship to a top school that will lead to his inevitable NBA career. Although undeniably ambitious to a fault--he alienates his teammates with his ball-hogging tendencies and is openly disrespectful to his coach--he soon finds himself caught in a conflict between his father (Perry Yung), who is the engineer of his current path, and his mother (Pamelyn Chee), who hooks him up with a dubious financial advisor (Mike Moh) to hatch a plan for Boogie to bypass college entirely and sign a contract with a Chinese team that is lucrative but which will preclude him from any hope of joining the NBA. Although outwardly brash and self-centered, Boogie still has a sense of respect towards his parents and is torn between their diverging plans for him--he doesn't want to disappoint either one but knows that he will have to let at least one down, no matter what he chooses to do--to the point where the added pressure on hi threaten to destroy his basketball career before it even has a chance to start.

"Boogie" was written and directed by Eddie Huang, best known for his autobiography "Fresh Off the Boat" and its long-running TV adaptation. One of the reasons that the show succeeded was because even though it was just a sitcom, it contained just enough of a sense of authenticity so that it stood out against the competition. By comparison, practically every aspect of "Boogie" feels deeply contrived with each element lifted wholesale from another source and jammed together in an increasingly unconvincing manner. With one single exception, there was never a time when I found myself developing any interest in Boogie's turmoil or how it might resolve itself. (Then again, it could be argued that the film doesn’t care much either since it turns out to be one of those stories where virtually all of the story threads end up getting resolved by--you guessed it--the Big Game. The only part of the story that works is the romance that develops between Boogie and African-American classmate Eleanor (Taylour Paige)--right from the start, she calls Boogie out on his arrogance but the relationship that develops is refreshingly believable, culminating in a scene in which they have sex for the first time which is one of the most convincing such sequences that I can recall seeing. If the whole movie had been made with that degree of smarts and sensitivity, 'Boogie' might have been the coming-of-age classic it clearly wants to be instead of the cinematic equivalent of an air ball.

In 1971, a troupe of performers, led by 'Klute' co-stars Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, went on a tour of towns located near U.S. military bases along the Pacific Rim, where they performed antiwar skits and songs in the hopes of convincing the soldiers in the audience to voice their own opposition to the war in Vietnam. A documentary chronicling this tour, "FTA" (ostensibly standing for "Free The Army" but feel free to read between the lines) was released in 1972 but had the unfortunate luck to hit theaters just as Fonda was making her still-controversial visit to North Vietnam and the film was quickly pulled from release--rumors suggest that distributor Samuel Z. Arkoff did this after receiving a call from the White House--and has languished in near-total obscurity ever since. Now, presumably to tie in with Fonda's recent career achievement award from the Golden Globes, "FTA" has been given a restoration (funded in part by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) and is returning to theaters, at least in the virtual sense, for the first time in nearly a half-century.

Now robbed of the mystique it once generated because of its unavailability, whatever interest that "FTA" maintains today for contemporary viewers is almost entirely the result of its curiosity value. The material is pretty familiar--a combination of earnestly sincere folk songs and satirical sketches spoofing the military and their approach to fighting in Vietnam--and nothing to write home about. That said, it is both startling and amusing to watch Fonda singing and goofing around on stage with loads of energy and enthusiasm to spare, doing her damndest to bring the material to life. There are also serious moments to be had in the film as well and they prove to be the ones that have held up the best--we see interviews with some soldiers discussing their antipathy towards the war and Sutherland delivers a strong dramatic reading from Dalton Trumbo's antiwar classic "Johnny Got His Gun" (the film version of which he had appeared in a year earlier). At this point, "FTA" is undeniably more artifact than entertainment but those with an interest in the subject, the stars and/or the long-standing controversy surrounding it should find it of interest.

On the surface, the basic concept for "Keep An Eye Out" sounds straightforward enough. Set almost entirely within the confines of a French police station, the story concerns Louis Fuguain (Gregoirre Ludig), a man who has discovered a dead body outside of his apartment building after returning home late one night and contacted the police. While giving his statement, word comes that the dead man was a homicide victim and Louis, now considered to be a prime suspect in the case, has to figure out someway of proving his innocence. However, since the film was made by noted Gallic surrealist Quentin Dupieux, rest assured that things go quickly and definitively askew. For starters, the chief inspector on the case (Benoit Poelvoorde) is both an idiot and pretty much convinced that Louis is guilty of something or other. Then, when the inspector leaves for a while, a situation develops that results in yet another corpse whose death Louis will almost certainly be charged with despite having not done anything. Then things, as they say, start to get really weird.

"Keep An Eye Out" is like a barely feature-length version of one of those absurdist sketches that tend to turn up in the final slot on "SNL" so that the weirdness does not alienate viewers into switching channels. Dupieux mixes together verbal jokes, surreal sight gags (when the inspector inhales from his cigarette, the smoke goes out of hole in his chest, which he deems to be perfectly normal) and pure slapstick and while this is not an unusual approach for him, the end result holds together better than most of his films, which tend to start strong and then slump off considerably. Here, most of the jokes are reasonably inspired and the film only begins to run out of steam towards the very ending, when it becomes painfully clear that Dupieux either could never think of a way of concluding the piece in a satisfactory manner or, more likely, he just didn't care about such narrative niceties. Dupieux may continue to be an acquired taste for most moviegoers but "Keep An Eye Out" may well be both his most satisfying movie to date and a good way for newcomers to become acquainted with one of the oddest filmographies of our time.

At the start of "Lucky," best-selling self-help author May (Brea Grant, who also wrote the screenplay) in the midst of a personal and professional rut--her latest book is not selling well, he publisher is taking a long time to decide about whether to sign her to a new deal and her marriage to husband Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh). One night, she sees a masked figure lurking in the yard of their home but when she informs Ted of this, he casually responds that it is no big deal--he is just the guy who shows up every night and tries to murder them. They manage to kill the guy but the body mysteriously vanishes before the cops arrive and when they do, neither they nor Ted seem particularly concerned. The next night, May is all alone, Ted having taken off following a fight, and the same thing happens again--the attacker arrives, she kills him, the body vanishes and the cops offer little beyond bland platitudes about how lucky she is. With the pattern reoccurring every night and with no one seemingly willing to give her any help or to even listen to her concerns, May begins to take matters int her own hands to finally break the increasingly dangerous cycle.

As you can probably surmise, "Lucky" ends up playing a lot like if someone took the basic premise of "Happy Death Day"--the surprise horror hit that took a number of familiar slasher movie tropes (particularly the ones involving the time-honored custom of the Final Girl) and fused it to the endless time-loop conceit popularized in "Groundhog Day"--and reworked it as part of an assignment for a feminist theory class. The trouble is that the screenplay spends so much time exploring the undeniably potent metaphorical aspects of the concept that it never satisfactorily manages to present them in the context of a compelling narrative. Grant's screenplay is undeniably ambitious and contains a number of strong individual moments--the best of them is a genuinely creepy moment in a parking garage where May realizes to her horror that she is not at all alone in regards to her predicament—but neither she nor director Natasha Kermani quite manage to transform it from a good idea into a good film. That said, Grant (who has become an increasingly valuable player in the genre in the last couple of years) delivers a strong and sympathetic performance as May and if her script is flawed, at least its flaws are borne out of ambition instead of laziness. "Lucky" does not entirely work but it is the kind of near[miss that I can see myself revisiting at some point down the line to see if it plays better the second time around. More importantly, it also makes me curious to see what Kermani and Grant come up with the next time around.

With its combination of sex, drugs, aggressively quirky characters and a tendency to end every third scene with someone being killed off--more often than not in spectacularly gruesome fashion--it would be easy to dismiss "Pixie" as a past-its-shelf date knockoff of the early films of Quentin Tarantino with a heaping helloing of Irish trappings added for good measure. In truth, it feels more like a knockoff of the largely tedious array of Tarantino clones that emerged in the wake of the success of "Pulp Fiction" that copied all of the surface details that were easy enough to replicate but which failed to demonstrate any of the wit, intelligence and audaciousness that made those films so distinctive in the first place. Following a robbery gone wrong that climaxes with a bunch of gun-toting drug-dealing priests getting slaughtered, amiably dopey pals Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) find themselves in possession of 15 kilograms of MDMA. This acquisition soon catches the attention of Pixie (Olivia Cooke), who has a connection to the drugs via her criminal family and who sees it as her ticket to flee their small Irish town--a place that has held only bad memories since the death of her beloved mother a few years earlier--for San Francisco. The three set off on a journey to sell off the drugs for a tidy sum but inevitably find themselves caught in the middle of a long-standing feud between the criminal empire run by her beloved stepfather (Colm Meaney) and her hated stepbrother (Turlough Convery) and a gang of murderous priests and nuns led by the fearsome Father Hector McGrath, who is played, perhaps inevitably, by an especially hammy (or corned beefy, as it were) Alec Baldwin.

Although there are points where "Pixie" is aspiring to be some kind of ironic modern-day take on the Western (right down to the opening title card announcing that it is set "Once Upon A Time In The West (Of Ireland)"), it is Tarantino and not Ford or Hawks that screenwriter Preston Thompson and director Barnaby Thompson (Preston's father) are clearly attempting to emulate with less than satisfying results. The storyline tries to perk up the usual contrivances and too-clever-by-half dialogue exchanges by including such apparently outrageous ingredients as the murderous clergy and the notion of taking the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and giving her a body count. The priest stuff is dumb because the film assumes that if you laughed at the sight of a nun brandishing a gun is funny the first time you see it, it will just as funny the ninth. As for the Pixie Girl stuff, it sounds like a rich source of potential satire and Cooke is certainly talented enough to make it work but nothing really comes of it either—she never really connects with her co-stars despite her best efforts and not even she can do much with the nonsensical final voiceover that tries to transform the whole thing into some kind of feminist manifesto. (As for Baldwin, his presence is more bewildering than anything else, especially since it seems that he was unable to get his accent through customs and had to wing one at the last second.) "Pixie" never comes together to become the inspired Irish stew of comedy and violence that it wants to be--though I suppose it is more tolerable than anything that Guy Ritchie has devised along these lines in a while--but unless you are either an Olivia Cooke completist or a collector of bad big screen accents, there is nothing of note to see here.

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originally posted: 03/05/21 07:40:02
last updated: 03/05/21 09:58:23
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