Indie Film

REVIEW: Lone Star Deception

TriCoast Entertainment
Rated: TV-14
Run Time: 106 minutes
Directors: Don Okolo & Robert Peters

Lone Star Deception is a drama film about Tim Bayh who is the first black candidate to run for Governor in Texas’ history, just after the first candidate withdraws due to a prostitution scandal. Bayh has to survive assassination attempts and face down his own demons. The film stars Eric Roberts and Anthony Ray Parker and was directed by Don Okolo and Robert O. Peters.

The Story/The Direction

Bill Sagle (Eric Roberts) finds out that his nephew is being blackmailed. If his nephew doesn’t pull out of the race, a compromising video will be released. Sagle and his wealthy, white colleagues now need to figure out who they are going to replace as candidate to run for governor. Sagle chooses Tim Bayh (Anthony Ray Parker, Dozer from The Matrix), as the new gubernatorial candidate. Bayh is an African American man who works for Sagle but has zero political background or experience; furthermore, Bayh has been a registered Democrat all of his life, clearly demonstrating how well-thought out their plan was… Or not. Bayh agrees to run as a Republican just as long as it doesn’t conflict with his values. The main reason Bayh is chosen by this group of wealthy individuals is based on the premise that his race will “guarantee” them the win because “it worked for Obama.”

The Characters

Eric Roberts is the star of the movie and his dialogue shows it. While this may not be the best film of his career, the film was seemingly written for his character to do fine. The rest of the cast are honestly forgettable or not worth mentioning—at least positively.

Anthony Ray Parker and Eric Roberts appear in a scene of Lone Star Deception | TriCoast Entertainment

The Flaws

Where to begin? First off, this is a terribly written film. Real-estate-developer-turned-writer Ed DeZecallos has this story (or lack of story) full of the cheesiest of cheesy one-liners. In addition, Tim’s candidacy for Governor is compared to Obama’s 2008 presidential run time and time again. It’s really hard to tell if the writer really loves Obama or if he was the only African American politician he knew of. It’s understandable to say Obama was the first African American President and that’s why they want to use Bayh in a similar fashion; however, there are numerous other African American governor candidates and/or actual governors they could have used as examples. Maybe this was done on purpose to show that rich white men in Texas are unfamiliar with these other African American political leaders? It’s definitely not made clear through the writing. In addition to the poor writing, the story makes no logical sense. When Bill’s nephew commits suicide, those involved in the blackmailing still want to go through with it, so Bill tells his governor candidate to “handle it,” which he does through scenes that are seemingly there to push Parker as more of an action star. Obviously this is another problem that could prevent his chances of being elected, but with this type of writing that was not the case.

The postproduction on this film was also terribly orchestrated. At multiple points in the movie the scene switches from normal visuals to some type of a yellow tint and back again to normal. This might be due to how they filmed the movie or the cameras they used, however, it looks absolutely atrocious. To say the acting is bad would be a compliment to the film. Parker stumbles over the dialogue multiple times and pauses awkwardly. This may have been done to add tension but failed to do so. Rather, it was odd and the only explanation is that there was a “no second takes” policy on set.

Overall

This 106-minute film had probably an hour of extra footage. The quality feels similar to a movie put out on YouTube in 2008. Most straight-to-home movies usually have small budgets but there’s some passion that would make the film somewhat watchable—that does not seem to be the case here. If readers have absolutely nothing better to watch during the Coronavirus pandemic, they may enjoy the film as it could fall into the “so bad it’s good” genre, but that’s about it. If they have other films they want to watch, this one is definitely worth skipping all together.

Now, what did you think of the film? Let me know in the comments section, and hit me up on social media.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Ordinary Love

Focus Features
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn

“How do you say to someone ‘don’t die’?”

I saw the ​trailer​ for ​Ordinary Love​ during the previews before ​Emma​ a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t wait to see it. ​​A heartwarming Irish film with Liam Neeson? Count me in! The trailer felt like warm, creamy hot cocoa gently blanketing over my soul. However, what I got was more like a discount dollar store hot chocolate mix in tap water. It wasn’t awful by any means, but it felt like such a mediocre attempt at a much better movie. I am going to forgo my usual division of “My Quibbles/What I Liked” and focus on this movie as a whole while I explain why this movie didn’t stick for me.

First, no one can or should say that Liam Neeson or Lesley Manville are bad in this movie—because they aren’t. Lesley Manville actually does a phenomenal job as Joan going from nervous concern at finding a lump in one of her breasts, to acceptance that she has cancer, to pain ridden anxiety, to a quiet dignified perseverance. Her performance was the highlight of this film. Seeing Liam Neeson as Tom in a more quiet, subdued role rather than the elderly action hero was a really nice change of pace as well.

The main premise of this film is a year in the life of an ordinary Irish married couple who go through the ordeal of finding out that one of them has cancer. We are informed that they have been married for many years, have suffered tragedy, and are very comfortable with each other as friends and spouses… Or so we are told.

The film begins with the couple taking their normal morning walk followed by breakfast. We then hear them make playful jabs at each other—over and over and over again. At first, I was amused by how comfortable they seemed with each other. But before the cancer diagnosis, all they do is insult and argue with each other. It was starting to feel like less of a playful relationship, and more like a concealed abusive one. As the film progresses, Joan’s prognosis gradually takes over the couple’s life and puts a strain on their relationship. Joan increasingly thinks that Tom is not taking her cancer seriously, and Tom is frustrated with his feeling of powerlessness, and doesn’t want to accept the seriousness of their situation.

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in a scene of Ordinary Love | Focus Features

This is where the film fails to deliver. We are told that the couple has this loving relationship, but we never see their relationship outside of the “playful” insults and the arguing around the house. In fact, Tom doesn’t seem to even be emotionally invested in Joan or her prognosis outside of a few scenes: one line where he asks another patient’s spouse, “How do you tell someone to not die?”; when he begins to cry after his pet fish dies; and one monologue at his daughter’s grave. We spend almost an hour-and-a-half seeing Joan suffer, and Tom doing the bare minimum of driving her to the hospital and being in the same general area as her. In one major scene, Joan calls Tom out on avoiding her; choosing to watch a soccer game and leaving her in bed alone while in pain. The film seems so preoccupied with being subtle about the couple’s relationship, that they don’t allow for any positive emotion to slip though. Inwardly I was channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, crying “Let me see some tenderness!”

The message the movie was trying to tell was the age-old classic of spending time with the ones we love while we have a chance. But they were also so concerned with keeping it subtle that it sucked all positive emotions right out of it. This is a love drama with very little love, very little tenderness, and very little positivity. What we are left with was an entirely ordinary (pun intended), forgettable, “romantic” drama.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: Emma

Focus Features
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Autumn de Wilde

One of the biggest sources of contention between me and my darling mother is which version of Pride and Prejudice is superior: the Colin Firth version or the Keira Knightly version. I am more partial to the 2005 version due to its cinematography, music, and more modern approach to the dialogue. My mom prefers the more drawn-out version where the dialogue is super book-accurate. It is an argument that has never (and most likely will never) be resolved. Up until a few days ago, Pride and Prejudice and its varying version, was my only exposure to anything Jane Austen.

I knew from the moment of the trailer that this would be a movie that my mom and I would bond over when she eventually saw it, and I leapt at the chance to see an early screening of it at the Broadway Center Cinemas. I’m happy to say that this Jane Austen adaptation combines the best aspects of both Pride and Prejudice adaptations into a film that movie goers from any generation would appreciate and enjoy.

My Quibbles…

Random butt: Near the very beginning of the film, one of the male characters (I honestly don’t remember who) is changed by his servants and we are exposed to his full backside. There is no other overt sexual humor or nudity for the rest of the film, so the unexposed view of this character’s posterior felt really out of place.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in a scene of Emma |Focus Features

What I Liked…

Anya Taylor-Joy: Ever since The VVitch, Split, and Glass I have been carefully watching Anya’s career with great interest. After seeing her in all serious roles, I am ashamed to admit that I was doubtful that she could pull off a comedic role, especially in a period piece. Well, I am glad to say that DING DONG I WAS WRONG. Anya embodies a Jane Austen character; she can go from snarky and quick-witted, to incredibly humbled and repentant in an instant and make it believable. It was refreshing to see her have so much fun and delight in such a different role than what she normally does. Her chemistry with all the actors was super genuine, and I really hope she gains more popularity.

Bill Niighy: I am entirely convinced that Bill Nighy can do no wrong. His character as the Woodhouse patriarch was absolutely HYSTERICAL. Every scene he was in had me laughing; it was his subtle mannerisms and biting commentary that did me in every time. The relationship between him and Emma is beautiful and sweet, and he stole the show every time he was on screen.

The score: My hat goes off to both the composer and the sound editor for this film. They managed to pull off a score that is beautiful, period appropriate, and acts as an amplifier for the humor. There is a term called “Mickey Mousing” or “paralleled scoring” where the music is synced with the action on screen, mostly for comedic timing. (60 Second Guide to Film Music [3] – Mickey Mousing) Emma uses this technique in such a brilliant subtle way that highlights the hilarity of the situations the characters find themselves in. It’s not overt, so it doesn’t seem too cartoony, but it is there, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson-like aesthetic: For most film fans, the name of Wes Anderson is synonymous with symmetry, quirkiness, and a pastel color pallet. Emma has all the makings of a Wes Anderson flick without being as precise and detail oriented, which isn’t a bad thing. Emma doesn’t need to be a Wes Anderson film, but the similarities make for an absolutely beautiful thing to look at. The color choice is simply gorgeous and fits right along with the period production design. The cinematography of Emma comes close to almost perfect Wes Anderson symmetry, allowing the film to have an elegant feel to it, without crossing the boundary to overly quirky. Overall, this is a stunning film to look at.

Mia Goth (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) in a scene of Emma | Focus Features

Final Thoughts…

Emma is a quintessential Jane Austen movie that combines the aesthetic of a modern film with the dialogue from the time period. The film is witty, charming, hilarious, and well acted. Each of the four people I saw it with had the same reaction: “My mom is going to love this movie!” And do you know what? I loved it, too.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Pyramide Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 120 minutes
Director: Céline Sciamma

The first thing that piqued my interest about this movie was the title. And then I learned that it was a French film. But not just any French film, it was an LGBT+ romance. By the time I saw the trailer, I knew that this film needed to be firmly on my radar. Unfortunately, since Cache Valley is relatively small compared to the rest of Utah, the chances of seeing any independent film that wasn’t nominated  for Best Picture at the Oscars at our local theater is pretty slim. Thankfully, Broadway Center Theaters (operated by the Salt Lake Film Society) answered my cinephile prayers by showing all the lesser- known indie movies that I could want. I want to give them a huge shoutout for being awesome, and accommodating film buffs like me!

I was not prepared for this two-hour work of art I was about to experience. This movie was so impeccably crafted that when the credits began rolling, you could see my tear-stained face in the reflection of the screen. Normally when I review a movie, I like to get all the things I didn’t like (my quibbles, as I like to call them) out of the way before moving on to the things I thought were well done. Well, (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) I have nothing to report that I didn’t like! This movie was THAT good. So, this entire review is just going to be me gushing about how good this movie was.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Acting

Noémie Merlant (who plays Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (who plays Héloïse) are absolutely phenomenal as the two leads. All the acting is spectacular, and the two leads really bring their A-game to this movie. One thing I really appreciate about international and independent cinema is the different approaches they have to the way acting and emotion could be conveyed on screen. This film had the potential to be overly-melodramatic, but it is more meditative and thoughtful. Every facial expression has meaning and adds depth to the characters. I became so focused on what their expressions were saying that the first time that Héloïse smiles, I wanted to cheer! Every desire, every confession of love, every heartbreak is written all over their faces without having to ham-fist it down your popcorn-stuffed throat. And the acting is only enhanced by the cinematography…

Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Cinematography

There are certain movies where the cinematography is the main standout of the film. Movies like 1917 or  Birdman, (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)  where the one-shot technique is the device, or like The Lighthouse, where it was filmed entirely in black and white and on a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does not boast of any major achievements or innovations in cinematography. Nevertheless, it is one of the most well-shot movies I have ever seen. Every camera angle and movement is geared toward highlighting the emotion and thoughts of the characters—I hate to use the cliché “every frame a painting,” but that’s what this movie felt like.

The Score (or lack of)

You would think that such a beautiful, intimate movie would have a haunting, sweeping romantic score to go along with it…. Right? I was so engrossed with the movie that it was near the halfway mark when I was shocked to realize that there was no score. Nothing. In fact, there are only two diegetic pieces in the entire film. One is a piece called “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (written for this film) and the other is “Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, ‘Summer’” by Vivaldi from The Four Seasons. Both come at highly emotional significant points in the film, and the lack of any other music (diegetic or non-diegetic) frees and allows the viewer to take in every sound, every gasp, every whisper. By NOT having an intimate score, it allows the movie to feel even more intimate.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Subtlety and Subtext

Like I said in my commentary about the acting, the film could have really hammed up the melodrama and not be subtle about its messages at all. Thankfully, the dialogue and themes of the film are just as well crafted as the rest of the movie. In an interview with The Guardian, Céline Sciamma (the director of this film) said that that the French found this film not to be erotic because “it lacks flesh.” And really, they are right. Unlike another French lesbian romance film, Blue is the Warmest Color, Portrait of a Lady on Fire contains very few scenes of nudity, and no sex scenes at all. The story is not about the two leads’ sexual relationship, but the very real love and affection they have for each other. I found that to be quite refreshing. 

The motive of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the various interpretations of that myth that the characters present, is also quite fascinating. The idea that Opheus “chose the path of the poet rather than the lover” by turning back to look at Eurydice was a fascinating observation and gave the outcome of the plot of the movie weight and clarity.

One other thing I really enjoyed is actually getting to see Marianne paint. There was no montage where the finished product sprung into view. We spent time watching her sketch, telling Héloïse how to pose and position herself, mix the paint to create differing colors, and so much more. It allowed time for us (and the characters) to really know Marianne and Héloïse, and understand their feelings and motivations.

Final Thoughts

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is nothing short of a masterpiece. It was crafted as a living portrait of these two women as they fall in love with the complexities and expectations of the society surrounding them and governing their choices. The acting, cinematography, minimal use of music, and the screenwriting were all masterful. It was announced in December that this film was joining the prestigious Criterion Collection and, in my opinion, it is more than worthy of that honor. If you have the privilege of having this film playing in a theater near you, make this movie one of your top priorities.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: Gretel & Hansel

United Artists Releasing
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 87 minutes
Director: Oz Perkins

Sophia Lillis is on her way to become this generation’s “scream queen,” and that is not without merit.  When I first saw the teaser trailer for this film I was filled with glee. Another art house horror film like The VVitch?  This was gonna be fun! I eagerly awaited the movie and was delighted at the really creepy prologue. The movie proper began and I was instantly reminded of The VVitch. As the movie kept going I just kept getting reminded of that movie, for better and for worse.

My Quibbles… 

Commitment issues: Like The VVitch, this story takes place in the Middle Ages and tries to keep the language and the dialogue within that time frame. However, there are times when the choice of words is very clearly modern, which can take you out of the movie. At one point, a dish falls and breaks on the floor, and the witch literally says “another one bites the dust.” It’s a small quibble though, and I understand that they had to compromise to make this movie more accessible to people. 

The prologue’s connection with the rest of the movie: I won’t get into spoilers here… Just a thought about the witch, and how the movie sets up her character. Her character arc takes a turn in the third act that never felt like it paid off. It left me wondering why the story chose to bring up certain aspects of the witch and her background, only to see those aspects go nowhere.

Too many nightmares – not enough development: During the second act of the movie, Gretel has two nightmares that play out in different scenes. Each nightmare last about five minutes. They are fairly terrifying, but I think one nightmare scene would have sufficed; the extra time could have been used to develop the witch’s background more instead of providing us with clumsy exposition near the end of the movie.

The ending: I honestly believe this was the studio’s fault. They tried to have their cake and eat it too. It felt as if they couldn’t decide on how the movie should end, and what message it would give, so they chose to go with both— happily scary ever after? I really wished they would’ve committed to one or the other.

Alice Krige as “Holda” (the witch) in Gretel & Hansel | United Artists Releasing

My Enjoyments…

Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige: Gretel and the witch made one of the best parts of this movie. Like I said in the introduction, Sophia Lillis is making her mark on the horror genre, and she’s excelling at it. But it was Alice Krige as the witch that carried the movie. She brings actual depth, and even sympathy, to a role that could’ve just been played as another monster role. 

The visuals: Okay. This is where the movie really EXCELS. This isn’t an R-rated film, so it doesn’t rely on blood and gore. It makes incredible use of visual imagery. The movie is shot beautifully, and thankfully, not too dark. The character design is out of this world. They were able to make people and creatures terrifying without much frill. There is a lot of “Halloween costume” potential in the movie. 

Fairy tale nods: There are a lot of little nods to other fairy tales cleverly hidden throughout the film—mushrooms from Alice in Wonderland, the ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz, wolves from Little Red Riding Hood; maybe hints of a larger, shared universe, perhaps? It was fun to notice them.

Final Thoughts…

There were a lot of good things about this film: the atmosphere and visuals were excellent, the two main leads were fantastic, most of the script was really interesting—but the final act felt rushed and poorly written. I wished there was just a little more effort put into the character development and screenplay. Ultimately, if you like arthouse horror movies, I would recommend you see this as a matinee, or wait until it is available streaming.

Recommendation: MAYBE A MATINEE

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