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Films I Neglected To Review: Mutt N Jeff: Beyond Thunderdome
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Deep House," "Finch," "The Harder They Fall" and "Spencer."

Horror buffs will recall the sequence in "Inferno" (1980), Dario Argento's surreal semi-sequel to his classic "Suspiria" (1977) in which the heroine plunges into the fully submerged basement of a creepy old house (don't ask why) and discovers all sorts of nasty supernatural surprises lurking in the water. "The Deep House," the latest effort from the French filmmaking duo of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, best known for the notoriously nasty "Inside" (2007), essentially takes that scene and stretches it out into a feature-length narrative. Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Rowe) play a pair of YouTubers who roam the world in search of abandoned and supposedly haunted buildings that they then film themselves exploring--suffice it to say, Tina is far less thrilled with it all than the hit-obsessed Ben. In France, they learn of an entire abandoned town lying at the bottom of an artificial lake but when they arrive, they discover that the allegedly "secret" location is a popular tourist site. It is then that they meet Pierre (Eric Savin), a local who tells them that he knows of another remote location in the area where an entire mansion sits under the water untouched and that he can take them there for a small fee. This might strike you as a dicey proposition at best but since Ben is a.) an idiot and b.) a character in a horror film, he and Tina soon find themselves plunging into the water with an hour's worth of oxygen in their tanks. They do indeed find the mansion--as creepy and forbidding and surprisingly intact as advertised--but as they begin exploring the rooms, they soon make a series of unnerving discoveries and eventually begin to sense that they may not be alone down there after all.

From a technical standpoint, "The Deep House" must have been a fiendishly complicated film to produce and it is too bad that all the considerable effort that went into making it did not result in a stronger final product. The house is certainly atmospheric enough and the underwater locale does offer an intriguing variation on a standard theme, not to mention a "BOO!" moment involving the sudden appearance of a fish instead of the usual cat or dog. The big problem, however, is that extended underwater sequences in films are rarely effective because even the most frantic movements come across as far slower beneath the surface. (Call it the "Thunderball" Effect.) Even though this film essentially turns into a real-time ticking-clock thriller from the moment our hapless heroes enter the drink, there is not much sense of actual urgency to be had in the onscreen action. Another flaw is that even before they encase themselves in the scuba gear that essentially hides them from a proper view for much of the rest of the film, our two heroes are just not particularly interesting--Ben is so obnoxious in his pursuit of YouTube hits that you will be actively wishing for his demise and Tina is essentially reduced to an array of frantic whimpers for much of the second half. Yes, there are a couple of moments of striking imagery to be had here and there but in the end, "The Deep House" is just too shallow to ever really work.

After last year's Dad movie double-header of "Greyhound" and "News of the World," you might have thought that Tom Hanks had finally hit an absolute peak level of cinematic earnestness and might consider lending his considerable talents to something a little grittier in nature. Instead, with his latest effort, "Finch," he has somehow managed to find a script so achingly sincere that it makes those previous efforts look like Abel Ferrara-style grunginess by comparison. In the not-too-distant future, Earth has been ravaged by the effects of global warming and human folly to the point where the only living creatures left appear to be loner scientist Finch (Hanks) and his beloved dog, Goodyear. Realizing that he does not have much longer to live, Finch elects to build a robot (a motion-capture creation portrayed by Caleb Landry Jones) that he dubs Jeff has been programmed to help him on his journeys into the dust-choked world in search of supplies and, more importantly, to take care of the dog after he passes. When increasingly dangerous dust storms threaten the area where they are at, the oddball trio pack into Finch’s fortified RV for a road trip to the West Coast, a journey that is filled with all sorts of dangers but which allows for plenty of opportunities for Finch to teach his inquisitive creation about the meaning of such strange human qualities as love, family and friendship.

Essentially a bizarre cross between the two notable 70s-era post-apocalyptic sagas "A Boy and His Dog" and "Damnation Alley"--minus the various weird and grisly elements that cropped up in those projects---"Finch" wants to come across as both a profoundly moving testament to the enduring power of humanity under the most trying of circumstances and as a tour-de-force performance for Hanks in a film that, save for the dog and the CGI robot, is basically a solo gig throughout. Unfortunately, the film is so goddamned noble and sincere and well-meaning right from the start that it may well drive many viewers up the wall. Hanks is fine, he almost always is, but this is a role that just allows him to coast on his reputation as America's Cinematic Dad (one whose occasional explosions of anger and anguish cannot help but feel forced) and even the technical challenges that he faces here are ones that he has met more successfully in previous films. There are times, in fact, where I found myself beginning to suspect that director Miguel Sapochnik (making his feature debut after helming episodes of shows like "Game of Thrones" and "True Detective") was actually making a sly spoof of post-apocalyptic thrillers by putting Hanks at the center as a sort of Not-Mad-But-Disappointed Max but no, everything about it is supposed to be poignant and sincere and it just makes everything worse. Put it this way--you know you are in trouble when you start to watch a film and one of the first things you hear is "American Pie" on the soundtrack. You know you are in real trouble when the lyrics to that song proves to be the best writing on display in said film.

"The Harder They Fall" is not the first Western made with a predominately African-American cast, of course, but there is a definite possibility that this bloody, brutal and thunderously exciting film may be the most rousing and exciting example of that particular sub-genre made to date. Having been scarred for life, both physically and emotionally, by the gang of outlaws who murdered his parents before his eyes when he was a child, the now-adult gunslinger Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) has just dispatched the last of those who did him wrong back then and has elected to hang up his guns and settle down with his tough-as-nails girlfriend Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beats). He then learns that the leader of the gang who did him wrong all those years ago, the fearsome Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), has been broken out of prison by his associates, Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) and decides that he must reunite his group and go after Buck’s people for one final confrontation. Things get a little more complicated than that--at one point, Love and his gang find themselves compelled to commit an audacious daytime holdup of a bank in an all-white town on the orders of Buck--but it does eventually lead to the inevitable final confrontation between Love and Buck, complete with a final startling revelation that helps to complicate things even further.

Directed and co-written by Jeymes Samuel, "The Harder They Fall" is such a stylish and assured piece of filmmaking that I was a bit startled to discover that it marks Samuel's feature filmmaking debut. Visually, the film is a knockout, both in its flashy and colorful evocation of the Old West to the elaborate action set-pieces that Samuel stages in ways that feel surprisingly fresh and inventive and which pay proper homage to the classics of the genre without being fetishistic about it. The cast is also highly impressive as well as all of the key performers tear into their characters with undisguised glee and gusto, especially King, whose presence may seem strange at first but who proves to be fearsomely convincing as Buck's brutal right-hand woman. (The one exception to this approach is Elba, who takes a more restrained, slow-burn approach to his part and is all the more frightening because of it.) The only real hiccup with the film is that in his attempts to give the film the kind of epic size and scope usually associated with the likes of Sergio Leone, Samuel tries to stretch his narrative a little too far for its own good and this results in some degree of narrative slack in the middle section. That flaw aside, "The Harder They Fall" is a blast, one so compulsively entertaining that it could well breathe some much-needed new life into the entire Western genre while introducing its pleasures to a new generation of moviegoers.

From the moment that it was announced that Kristen Stewart would be playing Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain's latest film, "Spencer," people have been confidently predicting that the performance would inevitably put her in the running for an Oscar, which has tended to favor nominating acting turns from people playing real-life figures in recent years. Granted, she does not exactly look or sound like Diana to any startling degree but those qualities are not necessarily that important in the long run--Naomi Watts certainly bore a closer resemblance to Diana when she played her in a 2013 Oscar-grab biopic and the success of that endeavor can probably measured by the fact that hardly anyone remember the existence of that particular film. However, it is clear from the opening moments that Stewart, who has herself spent a considerable amount of time in the public eye, understands Diana and what she went through on a level that is deeper than the merely cosmetic and delivers an interpretation of the woman that is so nuanced and perceptive that it may take some viewers a while to realize just how good it really is. Unlike a lot of performances from actors playing famous people, this is less an impersonation than it is a possession and even though she may not look precisely like Diana, she embodies her in a manner that is thoroughly convincing from start to finish and which is even more impressive for how you never get the sense that she is acting. For those moviegoers who still tend to write off Stewart as a performer based on her increasingly disinterested turns in those dreadful "Twilight" films, this should finally awaken them to the fact that she has used the clout and financial security brought by that franchise to make the kind of riskier projects that have made her one of the best actresses working today.

As he did with his previous look at the life of an enormously famous woman who lived her life in the public eye, "Jackie," Larrain eschews the traditional biopic structure to focus on a few days during which the main character finds herself struggling to deal with intense scrutiny from both the public and members of her extended family. In this case, the period is the three days spanning Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day 1991 in which Diana, already bearing the brunt of publicity over the slow implosion of her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is nevertheless obligated to join the royal family in celebrating the holidays at Sandringham Estate, a time that is stressful enough under normal circumstances and which proves to be almost too much to bear when the only people who seem to be on her side are her two young children and her loyal maid (Sally Hawkins). At times, Larrain does an effective job of suggesting the horror that Diana must have felt in the situation and there are times when the film feels less like an episode of "The Crown" and more like "The Shining" sans the warmth and good cheer. At the same time, there are times when the script seems to be flirting dangerously close to exploiting Diana's well-documented mental health struggles in order to score cheap dramatic points and some of the dialogue and situations are a little too on-the-nose or overtly symbolic for their own good. However, even when the film threatens to go completely off the rails--especially when the ghost of Anne Boylen (Amy Manson) begins to pop up--Stewart's wonderful work brings it back into focus. In the end, "Spencer" may not be quite the movie that Princess Diana ultimately deserves but Stewart's performance certainly is.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4323
originally posted: 11/05/21 08:17:43
last updated: 11/05/21 12:46:53
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