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Films I Neglected To Review: "Everybody Can Change!"
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Boiling Point," "India Sweets and Spices," "Out of the Blue," "The Power of the Dog," "The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star" and "Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago--The Ultimate Director's Cut."

"Boiling Point" is a relative rarity--a film that is built around a conceptual gimmick but integrates it in such an intelligent manner that there are long stretches where you hardly even notice that it exists. The film is set at a popular new London restaurant during the Christmas season and the conceit is that the entire thing is told in real time and in one unbroken shot as it shows head chef Andy (Stephen Graham) and his crew as they go from the prep work to the chaos that ensues once the doors are opened for the evening, including such hurdles as a racist customer, a marriage proposal, a nut allergy, infighting amongst the staff, diners who do not seem to realize that lamb is supposed to be pink when served and the arrival of Andy's former mentor (Jason Flemyng), who has elected to bring a restaurant critic as his guest. From a technical standpoint, what director Phillip Barantini (who also co-wrote the screenplay with James Cummings) and his cast and crew have accomplished is pretty impressive (apparently they shot four entire versions of the film and went with the third) but what is really impressive is that the film so accurately replicates the tensions and high-wire intensity of working in such an environment that it never becomes a slave to the visual component. I suppose the ending doesn't quite work--it is just a little too abrupt for its own good--but until then, "Boiling Point" is an ambitious and largely interesting film that will definitely make you think twice about what is going on behind the scenes the next time that you go out to dinner.

As "India Sweets and Spices" begins, Alia (Sophia Ali) has just returned from her freshman year at UCLA to spend what she expects to be a relaxing and low-key summer with her family. Those plans pretty much fly out the window when she goes to the local shop in order to pick up biscuits for a party being thrown by her family, one of a series of revolving soirées involving the well-to-do members of the local Indian community, when she meets Varun (Rish Shah), the hunky son of the family that owns the store, and impulsively invites him and his parents to the party. This move causes no small amount of constellation to her upwardly mobile mother (Manisha Koirala), who is hoping to spark a reunion between Alia and her one-time boyfriend, Rahul (Ved Sapru), who she is friendly with but not exactly into anymore. Things get really complicated when it turns out that Varun's mother knew Alia’s when they were both students back in India and recalls a much different person. Writer-director's Gheeta Malik's film is a pretty predictable combination of romantic comedy hijinks involving the Alia-Varun-Rahul triangle and more dramatic elements (chiefly involving a shocking discovery that Alia makes regarding her father) whose one primary distinguishing mark is its ethnicity. That said, the film does still have a certain degree of charm, thanks mostly to the performance from Ali, who moves nicely between the comedic and serious moods and helps to center the narrative when it threatens to spin out of control in a haze of subplots and side characters. "India Sweets and Spices" is nothing new, I suppose, but as leftovers go, it holds up relatively well.

If one was going to compile a list of the grimmest films ever made, the only thing that might keep "Out of the Blue" from qualifying is the fact that it is largely unknown to most moviegoers--Dennis Hopper's third directorial effort (his first since the infamous "The Last Movie" nearly a decade earlier) was acclaimed when it premiered at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival but the producers were unable to secure a decent distribution deal and it sat on the shelf for a couple of years before a very brief theatrical run. Of course, you can hardly blame distributors for being a tad skittish with a film that opens with a horrifying sequence in which Hopper's character, Don, drunkenly drives his truck head-on into a school bus while his daughter, Cebe (Linda Manz), sits next to him. When the story picks up a few years later, Cebe is living with her junkie mother (Sharon Farrell, who has taken up with another man (Raymond Burr), and fending off the advances of creepy older guy Charlie (Don Gordon) when Don is released from prison and returns home determined to make a new start. Although the entire town is still disgusted with him for what he did, Cebe still loves him and hopes that she can reestablish a relationship with him that will help her cope with all of the other miseries in her life. Suffice it to say, this does not quite work out as the film builds to a cataclysmic finale so raw, painful and wounding that it makes the opening sequence seem like a day in the park by comparison.

This was only one of a handful of films that Hopper directed during his career and this wasn't even his production to begin with--originally hired as an actor, he ended up taking over after the original director was fired after a couple of weeks of shooting and transformed what was evidently meant to be a fairly standard drama about a teenager coping with tragedy transmogrified into something far darker than that. He certainly succeeded as the film is a cry from a wounded heart that never tries to comfort its characters or viewers with empty promises of solace. The result is probably the best of Hopper's directorial efforts--it is certainly the most dramatically consistent of the bunch and contains a performance by Linda Manz (one of the last before disappearing from the screen for nearly 15 years) that is arguably even more extraordinary than the justly famous one that she delivered in "Days of Heaven." She and Hopper create a genuine and believable parent-child bond in their scenes together that only serves to make those final moments even more wrenching by comparison. Although it has been difficult to see their incredible efforts for many years, the film has at long last been given a much-overdue restoration and is getting a theatrical reissue. As you might guess, "Out of the Blue" is clearly not for everybody but those who are willing to give it a chance and are able to bear it will be rewarded with one of the most significant cinematic events of the year.

Set in 1925, Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" tells the story of the Burbank brothers, two wealthy Montana ranchers who could not be more dissimilar if they tried. While George (Jesse Plemons) is relatively kind and mild-mannered, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cruel monster whose lives according to old codes about what makes a man and makes his distaste for anyone not living up to his standards painfully clear. One day, the brothers and their ranch hands stop off at a restaurant run by widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose less-than-manly presence triggers Phil in ways that leave Rose in tears. After the others leave, George goes back to apologize for his brother's loutishness and this begins a relationship that results in the two of them marrying and, with Peter, moving into the Burbank home. Needless to say, Phil is less than happy with his brother marrying someone he considers to be a gold digger and goes about a regime of cruelty and humiliation that eventually drives her to drink. At first, he is just as rough with Peter but after a while, he begins to treat him in what for him passes as a kindly manner. The question--has he really softened up a bit or is he just setting the younger man up for something that will truly twist the knife in further?

"The Power of the Dog" marks Campion's return to the cinema for the first time in a decade, a period during which she created the highly acclaimed television series "Top of the Lake," and while I may prefer some of her other films, such as her extraordinary adaptation of "The Portrait of a Lady" and her vastly underrated cult film "Holy Smoke," it clearly demonstrates that she has not lost any of her prodigious gifts as a filmmaker. Although some people may take issue with certain aspects of the story (none of which I will reveal here), Campion's screenplay, adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage, is a powerfully effective work that serves as both a sturdy example of a late-period Western, the kind where people are as likely to ride in cars as on horses, and as a cutting dissection of the toxic masculinity that was often a hallmark of the genre. From a filmmaking perspective, the film is aces--although long and sometimes difficult to absorb, she handles the material as deftly as one could possibly hope and is aided by the impressive contributions from cinematographer Ari Wegner and composer Jonny Greenwood. Her facility with actors remains as strong as ever--Dunst, Plemons and Smit-McPhee are all quite strong and Cumberbatch turns in the performance of his career as Phil, a creature of greed and spite so pronounced that he makes Daniel Plainview seem cuddly by comparison. Granted, Cumberbatch may not exactly strike you as the Platonic ideal of a rough-hewn Montana rancher but his portrayal of Phil, equal parts terrifying and pathetic, is so thoroughly convincing that it may take some viewers a few minutes to realize that it is indeed him. "The Power of the Dog" is now playing in some theaters before arriving on Netflix in a couple of weeks but no matter how you watch it (though you should make an effort to catch it on the big screen if that is a feasible option), it is pretty much a must-see.

Having successfully combined the more winsome and treacly elements of "The Parent Trap." "The Princess Diaries" and those holiday movies that Hallmark churns out in droves every year over there course of the first two installments of the Netflix franchise, "The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star" goes to great lengths to ensure that the established formula has not been messed with in the slightest, lest viewers be troubled by the potential of a stray story element that cannot be predicted practically from the opening credits. This time around, the kingdom of Montenaro is hosting a display of a rare artifact on loan from the Vatican that is to serve as the centerpiece of a celebration co-hosted by Queen Margaret and her lookalike sister-in-law Stacy (both played by Vanessa Hudgens) when it is stolen. Needing to retrieve the relic before its disappearance causes an international incident, the two decide that the best way to track it down is to enlist someone who actually thinks like a criminal, which leads them to bring in Fiona (Hudgens again), Margaret’s hellion lookalike cousin who tried to pose as her in a plan to usurp the crown in the previous film, to help in exchange for leniency regarding all the bad stuff she did before. This leads, not surprisingly, to low-energy caper-style hijinks, a reunion between Fiona and a former boyfriend who might be able to help with the mission and any number of situations in which Margaret and Stacy find themselves compelled to impersonate the wild child in order to keep various ruses going. Face it, the film is dumb as can be and as much as I like Hudgens, whatever whimsy there was to be had in the sight of watching her stiffly playing scenes against herself has long been exhausted by this point and nothing new or interesting has been put into the mix to pep things up. I cannot in good conscience recommend it, of course, but if you liked the previous films (which would seem to be a given if you are even considering watching this one), you might find it to be reasonably diverting. If nothing else, at least as direct-to-streaming holiday sequels go, it is at least slightly more tolerable that "Home Sweet Home Alone."

Originally released in 1985 at the absolute apex of Sylvester Stallone's reign as a pop cultural icon, coming a mere few months after the release of the equally successful "Rambo: First Blood Part II," "Rocky IV" has always struck me as a particularly inane sequel to the original 1976 Oscar-winning hit that had exactly three things in its favor--the genuinely menacing presence of Dolph Lundgren as the steroid-happy Soviet boxing machine who becomes Rocky’s nemesis, the sublimel beauty of mid-80s Brigitte Nielsen and the fact that "Rocky V" was somehow even worse. Other than that, the film, which is essentially more montage than movie, is little more than a slick and stupid combination of shabby plotting, jingoistic blathers and fight scenes that deliver more devastating punches in a single round than most real fighters endure in an entire career. Nevertheless, when it was announced that Stallone had prepared a new cut of the film, dubbed "Rocky IV: Rocky VS. Drago--The Ultimate Director's Cut," that would clock in at more than 30 minutes longer than its original running time, I was naturally curious to see how he would accomplish that inflation. More scenes charting the relationship between Paulie (Burt Young) and his wacky robot pal? A new subplot in which Nielsen's character runs off to become a backup singer for James Brown? Maybe a new montage or two? The mind, among other things, reeled at the possibilities.

Although my memories of the original version are not exactly pinpoint in their accuracy--this is not a film that I tend to revisit--it seems as if most of the changes occur in the first half and features a largely restructured opening that includes an extension of the opening "Rocky III" flashback, a couple of new scenes and the complete deletion of any reference to the aforementioned robot. Beyond that, most of the changes are little fixes here and there that might not be noticed by all but the most dedicated Stalloneologists. To be fair, the added running time removes some of the rushed, cut-rate vibe that made the original feel like a piece of Cannon Films hackwork and makes it feel more like a real movie. However, the more measured pace does not exactly jibe with the idiocy on the screen, which the late Hunter S. Thompson once described as "a series of horrible beatings climaxed abruptly in a frenzy of teen-age political blather," and the rampant jingoism on display is still as jaw-dropping as ever. Unlike, say, Francis Coppola’s recent restructuring of "The Godfather Part III," this version of "Rocky IV" is probably not going to change anyone's opinion of the film as a whole--those who loved it (and it was an enormous hit back in the day) will probably still get a kick out of it while those who felt it to be a lunk-headed exercise in xenophobic blather that was a complete violation of the gentle and genuine charms of the original film are going to feel the same way. That said, it is still slightly better than "Rocky V," which I suspect no amount of restructuring could possibly save.

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originally posted: 11/20/21 08:26:17
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