|Films I Neglected To Review: The Docs Are In
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Beau travail," "Measure for Measure," "The Owners," "Robin's Wish" and "Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago."
When I first saw "Beau travail" (1999), Claire Denis's loose updating of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd, Sailor," about 20 years ago, I found myself admiring it on a technical level for things like the exquisite cinematography from Agnes Godard and the canny soundtrack choices (including an oddly effective use of Neil Young's "Safeway Cart") but simply could not get into it from a dramatic standpoint for some reason. Now that it is returning to theaters briefly in a 4K restoration in anticipation of its imminent induction into The Criterion Collection later this month, I elected to give it another look for the first time since my initial exposure and even though it may never go down as one of my favorite films, I certainly found myself responding to it far more positively than I did back in the day. Part of this may be the simple fact that I have seen more of Denis's filmography than I had back then and have a better grasp of her skills as a filmmaker. Perhaps this time around, I knew going in that she was going for more of a cinematic tone poem with this tale of a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant in one of the best performances of his career) who initiates his own path of self-destruction when he becomes irrevocably obsessed with and jealous of an enigmatic new recruit (Gregoire Colin) and was less frustrated with her unwillingness towards following the rules of conventional narrative filmmaking. Whatever the reason, Denis's stew of barely repressed desire and toxic masculinity is an exceptionally potent brew, one that looks and feels just as ravishing as it did when it first came out, and I am just happy that I apparently became smart enough over the course of the past two decades to finally get a grasp of what I somehow missed the first time around.
Over the years, I have seen more than my fair share of films offering up modern-day adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare and while I have certainly seen worse examples of this particular approach than "Measure for Measure," I cannot recall any recent examples that have been as conceptually dubious and awkwardly executed--okay, maybe that bizarre thing where Kenneth Branagh endeavored to transform "Love's Labour's Lost" into a musical.. Originally one of the Bard's comedies, co-writers Damian Hill and Paul Ireland (the latter also serving as director) have inexplicably turned it into a dour Melbourne-set drama featuring commentary on immigration, cultural assimilation and the traumas of war and opening with a sequence in which a psychologically unfit Afghan war veteran shoots up a group of multiracial residents of an apartment block. With the heat on, Duke (Hugo Weaving), the reasonably benevolent crime lord who rules the area, goes into hiding, leaving the hotheaded Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) in charge while he keeps track of what is going on from a nearby location via hidden camera feeds. During that opening attack, local musician Claudio saves the life of Muslim woman Jaiwara (Megan Hajjar) and the two gradually begin to fall in love, much to the consternation of her younger brother, the wannabe gangster Farouk (Fayssal Bazzi). The film certainly has good intentions, I suppose, and the performance by Jajjar is undeniably strong and focused but her work is not enough to save it from coming across as a ponderous bore that seems to have a lot to say but no idea of how to go about saying it.
"The Owners" is a defiantly dumb and derivative take on the home invasion thriller genre that tries to separate itself from the rest of the pack by ramping up both the gore quotient and the ludicrousness of the various plot twists. As the film opens, three boneheaded British lads--the loutish Nathan, the dopey Terry (Andrew Ellis) and the borderline psychotic Gaz (Jake Curran)--are staking out the remote home belong to the elderly Dr. Richard Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his not-entirely-there wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham) and waiting for them to leave so that they can break in and rob the safe that they know is inside and which they are convinced is filled with cash. They are soon joined by Nathan's long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams), who has come to retrieve the car that Nathan took without asking so that she can go to work and is pressed into serving as lookout. When they discover that the safe is not electronic, they decide to wait until the owners come home and force them to open it up and even bring in Mary to wait with them. Suffice it to say, this crackerjack plan quickly goes sideways and it soon becomes apparent that Richard and Ellen are not quite as meek and helpless as they appear to be.
Although ostensibly based on a 2017 French graphic novel, most people who sit through it are going to be thinking of any number of previous home invasion films, chiefly Fede Alvarez's 2016 effort "Don't Breathe." That was an exceptionally nasty film with a couple of plot twists towards the end that flirted with completely insanity but it was made with a certain undeniable style and featured characters who you felt a little bit of genuine sympathy towards as they found themselves getting deeper and deeper into trouble. By comparison, the screenplay by Julius Berg and Matthieu Gompel features a bunch of characters that you do not care about (the closest thing to a sympathetic character is Mary and even she does some barely defensible stuff at times) and a bunch of plot developments that frankly beggar belief and Berg's direction tries to impress with some fairly empty stylistic flourishes (such as a shift in aspect ratio in the final act that is patently unnecessary) and enough bloodletting to possibly convince undiscriminating gorehounds that they are having a good time. Thanks to the presence of Williams, this otherwise extremely undistinguished "The Owners" may indeed attract some interest after all but not even she can make this dismal film worth even a peek.
The essential premise of the new documentary "Robin's Wish" is to shed new light on the last few months in the life of Robin Williams and dispel rumors of what drove him to commit suicide in 2014 by exploring the rare and destructive disease that remained undiagnosed until after his death. This is a noble concept, I suppose, and the scenes in which director Tylor Norwood explores the particulars of Lewy body dementia and how the degenerative and incurable illness wreaked havoc on Williams's mind and body without him ever having a firm idea of what was going on within him are powerful and moving indeed. However, the rest of the film is a scattershot tour through parts of Williams's life via archival clips and new interviews with a handful of individuals ranging from neighbors to collaborators like David E. Kelly and Shawn Levy and his widow, Susan Schnieder-Williams. It is Schneider-Williams who ends up dominating the proceedings to such a degree that towards the end, it begins to feel more like an infomercial selling her unique love for Williams (a notion underscored by the fact that no other family members are included here) and her trips to Washington DC to meet up with power brokers to lobby for research funds. This weird shift ends up undercutting the ostensible point of correcting the perceived record of what happened to Williams and the whole thing begins to feel a bit distasteful towards the end. As a companion piece to "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind," the 2018 HBO documentary that provided a fuller accounting of Willams's life and work but which only provided a cursory examination of his final months, I suppose that "Robin's World" has some value but on its own, there is just too much filler surrounding the moments of genuine interest for its own good.
Although author Barry Gifford is probably best known to film fans for his collaborations with David Lynch--he wrote the novel that "Wild at Heart" (1990) was based on and later co-wrote the screenplay for "Lost Highway" (1997)--anyone going into the new documentary "Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago" expecting to a look at his writing career and his work with Lynch will be disappointed. The focus of Rob Christopher's film is a number of very autobiographical short stories about a boy named Roy growing up with very colorful parents in the Fifties and Sixties, mostly in Chicago, while confronting notions like love, death, crime, and racism for the first time. These stories are illustrated through a combination of archival footage of Chicago, which was itself going through seismic changes at the time, animation and readings from the stories by Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor. For some viewers, the film's refusal to obey the perceived norms of the documentary format may prove to be disconcerting and by the end, they may wonder what the point was to any of it. That said, if you are able to work around its indifference to genre norms, the film proves to be a valuable document--it is wonderful to hear Gifford talking about his very particular childhood and development into manhood, the readings from Dafoe, Dillon and Taylor are all well-done, the animated moments are striking and, speaking as a native of Chicago, I have to say that the footage depicting the era in question is absolutely spellbinding to behold. For fans of Gifford, "Roy's World" is a no-brainer but even those who are unfamiliar with his work are likely to find it compelling viewing as well and may even go out in search of his books once the film has ended.
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originally posted: 09/03/20 14:42:17
last updated: 09/03/20 15:00:05