Friday, February 2, 2024

Film Reviews: Daisy Ridley is Quaint as She “Think(s) About Dying,” Genders Are Explored in Provocative “Skin Deep” and the Extra L in Matthew Vaughn’s “Argylle” Is for Loopy

Sometimes I Think About Dying (c) Oscilloscope

Film: Sometimes I Think About Dying 
In Cinemas 

Employers who are eager to have workers come back to the office after the pandemic should avoid showing the quirky little indie Sometimes I Think About Dying at any company get-togethers. The unnamed small office near the coast of Oregon is about as depressing as one can get. Except for the fantastic ocean views (which occasionally gets obscured by cruise ships), nothing about this place stands out, especially not the workers, with the painful small talk of people who only know each other because of their job. Fran (Daisy Ridley) is the quintessential “Fran from accounting” who is glued to her desk doing her job and only pops up for meetings or the occasional cake in the conference room. She barely talks or even exists, and Ridley (who is so dynamic and charming as Rey in the Star Wars sequels) does every acting trick in the book to blend into the background (when she slyly gives us the tiniest polite smile, it’s like she’s sneaking in a Rey of sunshine). Fran grew up on the quiet side of town (is there a noisy side?) and lives by herself with what looks like furniture inherited from her grandmother. She is not lying when she says her favorite food is cottage cheese, with that rare bit of biographical information coming up when new employee Richard (Dave Merheje) starts at the company, and everyone has to introduce themselves and answer the favorite food question (oh so painful!). It’s no wonder that Fran is the “I” in the title, which director Rachel Lambert stages as less serious and more offbeat expressionistic. So, when newbie Richard invites Fran to a movie, Fran’s little cocoon world breaks open a little in an amusing and sometimes cringy way. Ridley is so effectively quiet and still in this film, and this is easily her best work on film. The whole office dynamic will be familiar to anyone who has ever filled out a requisition form, perked up because someone brought in donuts or got excited about a new stapler. Despite its bleak title, Sometimes I Think About Dying is a gentler version of TV shows like The Office and Severance. And there is an inspired event in this small gem of a film when Fran does “die” and it’s one of the happiest moments the audience will ever see Fran. 

Skin Deep (c) Ahmedel Nagar

Film: Skin Deep 
In Cinemas 

There is no way to talk about Skin Deep without giving away what the movie wants to keep as a mystery. I do admit when the film started with an older man (Edgar Selge) walking into a bedroom of a young woman who is obviously dead in her bed, and he says “Papa?”, I was confused. And when the same man is addressed as Stella, I thought maybe that’s a man’s name in Germany, but there’s something more curious afoot. It seems Stella’s father (the dead girl in the bed) has perfected some device in which people can switch bodies. And as a last tribute to him, they have invited friends to go through the ritual one last time, to let them literally walk in the shoes of others. Stella’s friend, the quiet Leyla (Mala Emde) has brought her emo husband Tristan (Jonas Dassler), and while Leyla, who has had mental problems in the past, feels liberated in the body of the stranger she now inhabits, Tristan is a bit more apprehensive and even tells the wife of the man’s body he temporarily lives in that he might be loud because he has a hearing problem. The directors, brothers Alex and Dimitrij Schaad, have fun with all the body swapping and bring up evocative logistical and moral issues that are seldom resolved (which may be frustrating for people who like their quandaries neatly answered). Would you still love someone if they were in the body of someone else, maybe even of the gender you’re not attracted to? Is it cheating if you sleep with your spouse’s body, who is now being inhabited by another person? These questions have been brought up before in such body swapping films like All of Me, Prelude to a Kiss, Heaven Can Wait and Freaky Friday, but never in such a serious and philosophical way here. While Emde effectively gives Leyla the psychological weight as the unhappy woman, it is the other actors who play Leyla in other bodies who convey the joy of leaving one’s baggage behind and start anew that sets up the metaphysical muddle that the movie has to ultimately untangle. The film’s resolution feels emotionally correct but brings up a lot of other questions. Still, movies that require post-screening discussions over coffee are always fun to watch. And Skin Deep, is just that kind of film. You just need to dig deeper past the skin to the soul to work out all the knotty questions it brings up. 

Argylle (c) Apple TV+

Film: Argylle 
In Cinemas 

I’ve seen the trailer for Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle so many times in 2023 because they started showing it about a year before its premiere (the same can also be said for the Bob Marley: One Love trailer). So, every time I go to the cinemas waiting for Nicole Kidman to remind me that “heartbreak feels good in a place like this,” I am bombarded with the question, “Who is the real Agent Argylle?” Now that I’ve seen Argylle (with that cheeky extra l), I have to say the answer is the most ingenious element of the film, although it sort of borrows its answer from a little-seen movie from 2023 with a similar twist. The plot, if for some reason you haven’t seen the trailer, revolves around spy writer Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), now the target of shady international operatives because her latest novel which surrounds the exploits of Agent Argylle (played in her mind by Henry Cavill with a Max Headroom hairdo) is so similar to real-life events they think Elly is either able to predict future events or create them as she writes. This high concept is fun enough, especially when Aidan (Sam Rockwell), a self-proclaimed fan and spy, is assigned to protect her, starting with her train trip to visit her mother (the invaluable Catherine O’Hara), which seems to be full of assassins intent on killing her (which sort of makes no sense if they need her predictive powers). The trailer is essentially the first half hour of the film, so I will leave the rest of the film’s plot unspoiled, but suffice it to say the important characters are the heads of rival spy organizations, played Bryan Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson, and Elly’s support animal, her cat Alfie, whom she keeps in a backpack holder. The problem with the movie is that starting with the train fight, Vaughn films the Elly scenes in a choppy, almost expressionistic style that makes it feel like we’re either in a dream, which would be overkill if it turns out to be so, or deliberately loopy if it isn’t. Throughout all this, Howard is the perfect everywoman to play Elly, although she is not above getting down and dirty by taking off her heels in one scene to join a fight (a fun nod to her Jurassic World character). The other actors never really rise above being stock action movie types with only Catherine O’Hara as Elly’s mother getting anything close to something fun to play. It’s a perfectly easy film to watch, but Argylle plays it safe when a little more creativity is sorely needed.

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