Friday, October 13, 2023

Film Review: “Anatomy of a Fall,” Doesn’t Meet Palme D’Or Expectations, “Foe” Is a Fine Replicant of a Terrence Malick Film and “The Burial” Is Enlivened by Jamie Foxx

Anatomy of a Fall (c) Neon

Film Review: Anatomy of a Fall 
In Cinemas 

Sometimes a film’s reputation is its worst enemy. Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it certainly felt like a fait accompli: a well-received French Film (with a lot of spoken English) directed by a woman (Cannes has been criticized for not highlighting the films of female directors). The film, which takes place in a remote, snowy-mountain French town, starts out like many TV series these days: a death, and then either through the work of amateur detectives or a lurid murder trial, we get to see what led to the death, culminating with the mystery being solved by the end of the first season. And while Anatomy of a Fall doesn’t produce a body until about 20 minutes into its 2 ½-hour run time, the rest of the film does follow this formula, which unfortunately reminded me a lot of the much inferior Where the Crawdad Sings. The victim of gravity in this film is Samuel (Samuel Theis), who is working in the attic of the family fixer-up cabin when he falls. The only person in the cabin is his wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), who claims she was taking a nap while their legally blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, breaking the name game) was walking the dog, which just seems like a bad idea in a hilly and snowy landscape. The police don’t buy Sandra’s story, so there’s a murder trial in which the couple’s fraught relationship is brought to light, mainly revolving around Samuel’s envy of Sandra’s writing success as well as his own impotent creative output, although there is also some revelations about Sandra’s infidelity and excess flirting with women. The second most successful part of this film, as it was with the much superior Saint Omer from last year, is showing how differently a trial is handled in France, with witnesses taking the stand and the lawyer being able to ask the defendant to respond to what they heard right then and there. Fascinating stuff. More successful, however, is the performance by Hüller as Sandra. Sandra is German and she defaults to English as she is less fluent in French, and the language barrier, especially in court, is one of the most intriguing parts of the film, although it’s odd that her son only speaks to her in French, even after living in London for most of his life. Sandra is a cool character, rarely showing any emotion, very articulate and direct (which is very much not what you want to convey on trial for your dead husband), and Hüller is simply captivating. The script, however, doesn’t delve into her crumbling marriage until it is brought up in court, which then puts too much weight on the trial and less on Sandra as a character study. This is all perfectly enjoyable and tense, and the last act that revolves around some ingenious detective work by Daniel and their aptly named dog Snoop (excellent woofing by Messi) is quite enjoyable. But winning the Palme D’Or comes with some expectations of gravitas this film can’t bear under the weight of scrutiny. Because of the Palme, there is a lot of talk about Oscars for Anatomy of a Fall, which would be unwarranted, except for Sandra Hüller. And Messi, who’s a good dog. 

Foe (c) Amazon MGM Studios

Film: Foe 
In Cinemas 

Before I dig into what is wrong and frustrating about Foe, the newest film by Garth Davis (Lion), starring Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan, and there’s a lot, I do want to state up front that I really like this movie’s vibe. Imagine if Terrence Malick directed the sequel to Interstellar. This is essentially a love story told within the confines of a mildly sci-fi backdrop. It also reminded me a lot of Tales from the Loop, the excellent and mostly unseen Amazon Prime series (Foe is also produced by Amazon) inspired by the art of Simon Stålenhag in which everyday people go about their lives, occasionally with the intrusion of futuristic forces. In Foe, some time in the future, the Earth has become untenable and is dying (like in Interstellar), so people are being forced … I mean recruited, for the good of humanity, to work on a space station in which humans can thrive. Government guy Terrance (Aaron Pierre) tells Junior (Mescal) he’s the one of the lucky guys to be picked, but not his wife Hen (Ronan), but just so Hen is not lonely when Junior is away in space, they will provide her with a replicant version of Junior. A year later, as the time approaches, Terrance starts to amass info to upload to Junior 2, which includes the good and the bad of their marriage. It is at about this point in the film you realize some salient information has been withheld from you because as it comes to the forefront, like any good Black Mirror episode, there is a twist to this bleak story that tips the scales to what seems to be its main agenda (the film is based on a book by Iain Reid, who co-wrote the screenplay), that unfortunately comes with a lot of credibility problems. Mescal and Ronan are then forced to give rather odd performances from scene to scene – we can guess that one of them has some unnamed secret, but is that why they react to a certain scene in that way? That said, they are such watchable and charismatic actors that I just wanted to see them play off each other, however head-scratching it all may be. There is one tour de force scene in which Mescal seems to be telling an innocuous story before it becomes very serious and important to Junior that Mescal’s face contorts and changes so many different shades of red that I really hope they checked his blood pressure after each take. But, the real star of the film is Hungarian cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (The Nest), who shoots the Midwest landscape (Australia standing in) beautifully and menacing at the same time. Stunning photos come to life. I know I will be in the minority here, but since its world premiere at the New York Film Festival a few weeks ago, audiences and critics don’t seem to be able to make the narrative leap needed to make the film as profound as it wants to be. I made the leap-and it certainly is lonely on this side of the Foe chasm. 

The Burial (c) Amazon Prime Videos

Film: The Burial 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Amazon Prime 

Sometimes a movie with a familiar story can be elevated by one or two elements that make you enjoy the ride, despite yourself. There is nothing, on face value, that lifts “The Burial” out of movie-of-the-week territory “wronged man, with an assist from an unlikely ally, takes on an evil corporation”– like better examples of this genre: Erin Brockovich, The Verdict and The Firm. But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and Maggie Betts’ screenplay is based on a true story, which makes this David v Goliath tale even more poignant as the many distasteful aspects of the case (racism, classism) are so worth rooting for. It is 1994 and Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) owns a chain of funeral homes in Mississippi, but he has fallen on hard times and fears he will have nothing to leave to his heirs. His lawyer Mike (Alan Ruck) suggests he sells some of his homes to the Loewen Group, a big Canadian conglomerate run by CEO Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) to raise money to save the rest of his company. Everyone agrees to the terms, but after a year, the contract is still in limbo as Loewen has yet to sign the contract. Jeremiah’s financial troubles become even more dire, to the point where he decides to sue Loewen. It must be said that up to now, all the characters are white. Race comes into play when Jeremiah starts to listen to his black family friend, Hal (Mamoudou Athie), who recently passed the bar and says they need to hire a black lawyer for a trial being held in a mostly black town. They land on Florida personal injury lawyer, Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx), who has never gone to trial for a contract dispute case. But Gary’s a flashy, rags-to-riches lawyer (he’s been profiled on The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) with an impressive winning streak that is irresistible to Jeremiah, Hal and, of course, the audience because Foxx, who has been good before (he is an Oscar winner), is on a different level here. He has never been this funny, confident and bordering on sleazy, and the minute we see him try a case where he wins millions of dollars for a drunk black man in a car accident (“Hate him as much as you want,” I paraphrase Gary’s summation to the jury, “he had the green light”), we are won over. There are a lot of twists and turns as are usual for these kinds of films, but Foxx is so charismatic as Gary, you can’t help but always be on his side. He also has a worthy opponent in Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) as the opposing black consul for Loewen. Wright and Betts’ screenplay also gives us a good history lesson on the treatment of poor black communities by white corporations that, while not surprising, is certainly stomach churning. Even the title refers to something different from what you would expect. So, if you like a little social commentary with your comedy, this one will fit the bill.

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