HISTROIA DE UN CRIMEN: MAURICIO LEAL
(Crime Diaries: The Celebrity Stylist)
(Colombia 2023) ***
Directed by Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
When the celebrity stylist Mauricio Leal is found stabbed to death next to his mother, a young female detective is given 20 days to solve the case. The film is inspired by true events.
Written and directed by Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, the film states very early at the beginning that it is based on a true story but the film is a work of fiction. In other words, the whole film is a reenactment, but with liberties taken with the story. This was a high profile case in Colombia and also stated so in the film, many Colombians would be familiar with the case and with the whodunit. For others, the film plays not like a documentary but as a crime suspense thriller. The thriller is simply made and short at only 90 minutes and director Jacques Toulemonde Vidal cheats a bit in the telling of the story. For example, he moves his film from the present towers or days before the present where the characters ninth story interact with each other, and with nothing to do with the detective. The ploy is a bit confusing as the film shifts many times between the present and the past. When it switches to the present no notice is given to the audience, only when it shifts to the past.
The director devotes some time in the film to establishing the young detective’s character and her daily routine at home. Of course, this has little to do with the case, and one wonders if all this is made up by the director to enhance the interest of the storytelling. The detective is shown to be smart and always too busy, with little time spent at home for her daughter. Her daughter is asking for purple tights for her talent show but she is told that she has enough tights. The father screams at the top of his lungs at her, showing an abusive relationship somewhat, in which the husband does not support his wife in her career.
Director Vidal tries a few tricks with the camerawork as well. He slants his camera into the bedroom scene with the detective and her daughter but the ploy appears too obvious.
The film is clear to list the usual suspects. Though a note is left by Leal at his death, foul play is suspected. The immediate suspects are those who’ve found the body, Leal’s jealous brother and the driver. The driver thinks it is the brother who murdered him. This part feels similar to Justine Triet’s ANATOMY OF A FALL, my 2023 best film of the year and the Cannes Winner of the Palm d’Or for Best Picture. The detective figures out that the note was written to cover up a murder. The date stamps on the notes confirm this. It appears quite obvious that brother Yhonier did it, but could this be a deliberate misleading ploy? Before the closing credits, the film reveals to the audience what really happened in the real-life case. Not the best whodunit but executed well enough with fair emphasis given to the story’s characters and the plot itself.
The film is a Netflix original and opens for streaming this week on Netflix.
DREAM SCENARIO (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli
Yet another Nicolas Cage vehicle, the actor who loves playing seemingly madcap roles, DREAM SCENARIO sees Cage serving as a producer alongside horror meister Ari Asher (BEAU is AFRAID, MIDSOMMAR and HEREDITARY) while starring as an inconspicuous academic who is thrust into the limelight after he starts inexplicably appearing in people’s dreams. Here, Cage’s character Paul Matthews, an ordinary man at first, grows crazier as fate turns against him in ways he cannot control nor understand,
Paul Matthews is a listless family man and tenured professor with an affinity for evolutionary biology and anxiety regarding his own anonymity. One day, he discovers he has begun to appear in other people’s dreams at an exponential rate. As in life, his presence in these dreams is banal and non-intrusive — he’s simply there, staring indifferently at the fantasies and nightmares of strangers. Nonetheless, he becomes an overnight celebrity and is soon showered with the attention he has long been denied. But when Paul encounters a dreamer whose visions of him differ substantially from the norm, he finds himself grappling with the Faustian bargain of fame as his dreams start inexplicably becoming violent within their respective unconsciousness.
Dream Scenario proceeds as a kind of comedic reversal of A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Paul in the proverbial striped sweater terrorizing the populous, but, here, facing real-life consequences for actions he does not control. Cage is brilliant as the pitiable Matthews, and outright terrifying as some of his manifestations, which feature an iconic intensity not seen in a Cage part since Mandy (incidentally shot by this film’s cinematographer Ben Loeb). Buoyed by a terrific cast that features Julianne Nicholson and Michael Cera, this dryly hilarious satire-cum–social horror affirms writer-director Kristoffer Borgli as an astute critic of influencer culture and societal groupthink and a gifted purveyor of the absurd.
The film bears similarity and demands comparison with producer Ari Aster’s recent horror drama BEAU IS AFRAID. In both films, far takes a nasty turn against the protagonist and forces him to take control of his life, in any way he can, whether successful or not. In DREAM SCENARIO, Paul keeps telling everyone that what has happened is beyond his control. He cannot help entering people’s dreams, less control what he does to them.
Initially, Paul is just an innocent bystander in the dreams while accidents happen. A car accident just happened in someone’s dream and Paul just happens to stroll by. Or a person is a levitation and Paul happens to be the gardener who approaches. All this is ok and gives Paul, a shy and quiet zoologist who teaches at a university some fame. But when the dreams start changing. meters take a turn or the worst. Paul is no longer the innocent bystander in people’s dreams. He now strangles, kills and apes his people. All of what happens is shown tongue0-in-cheel and Paul feels as if all this is not happening. He tries to analyze or make sense and talks aloud to himself and his wife. At several posts, the film feels like a Wood Allen movie, where Paul, like Cody Allen in the title role, becomes a victim of some universal plant (SLEEPER, LOVE AND DEATH, BANANAS) that he cannot control.
Intriguing and compelling that the film is, writer/director Borgli’s film takes an unexpected and odd turn at the end with an ending that introduces a dream travelling invention. All the entrances Paul makes into people’s dreams suddenly disappear. Though difficult to imagine a more satisfying or subtle ending, the climax is the best that it could be.
DREAM SCENARIO premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and opens on November the 24th.
FALLEN LEAVES (Finland/Germany 2023) ****
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki
A love story of sorts between two lonely working-class people in Finland showing that love can still be found, no matter what age or no matter the dire circumstances. This theme is what makes Kauriosmaki’s latest film such the delight of the critics at Cannes this year and at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), spend their waking hours in drab workplaces, bars full of stone-faced patrons, and sparsely decorated homes in which a radio is the height of modern technology.
FALLEN LEAVES is simply wonderful because of all the little details and observations Kaurismaki inserts in his film. His distaste for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is made loud and clear as a message from the radio broadcasts heard throughout the film. The film pays tribute to lots of oldies, particularly David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the Finnish poster seen in the background, both films share similar stories of lost love opportunities. Even the dog in the movie is called Chaplin, another tribute to another Master of film.
FALLEN LEAVES though a delight, is not the Master’s best, the category reserved for his earlier films DRIFTING CLOUDS and A NEW HOPE.
FRYBREAD FACE AND ME (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Billy Luther
FRYBREAD FACE AND ME is a Navajo Indigenous entertaining coming-of-age story of a pre-teem named Benny who is sent to the reservation to spend the summer with his grandmother. A city boy with long hair so that he looks like a girl, he loves Fleetwood Mac. A lifelong city kid, Benny is a fish out of water in the rural northern Arizona community. Grappling with feelings of abandonment, his initial isolation is enhanced by not being able to communicate with his loving, Navajo-speaking grandma (who has refused to ever learn English). Making matters worse is his bullying uncle Marvin, who sees Benny’s sensitivity as a weakness. But Benny’s summer takes a new twist when Dawn (a.k.a. Frybread Face), his bold and brashly confident cousin, is also unexpectedly dropped off at Granny’s. A refreshing look at a coming-of-age story in a different Navajo setting as Benny learns about rodeo, driving and sheep herding. Director Luther goes for more humour than drama though Benny does lose it a few times. The film opens in select theaters and exclusively on Netflix November 24 | Native American Heritage Day.
LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (USA 2023) ****
Directed by Sam Esmail
A family vacation on Long Island by a white family, a husband and wife and two kids is interrupted by two (black) strangers bearing news of a mysterious blackout. As the threat grows more imminent, both families must decide how best to survive the potential crisis, all while grappling with their own place in this collapsing world.
In the Bible, Jesus made the statement that a child will lead them. The littlest of the family, the young daughter is the most perceptive of the four, first shown when she notices what looks like a ship on the horizon. “It seems to be coming towards us,” she says. As the minutes tick away, the ship turns out to be a runaway tanker heading straight towards the shore and then running aground scattering all the beachcombers running for their lives. The daughter also says “No one ever listens to me.” and ends up disappearing near the end of the film with the family desperately searching for her. She ends up delivering the climax of the film.
What is marvellous are the visual special effects of the film, many done with the aid of CGI. CGI works best when it is best unnoticed and the CGI is done to complete many of the ordinary scenes like the one where the four of them are in the car. The car had to be taken apart for the continuity shot, as explained by the film’s visual effects supervisor in the preview screening that this reviewer attended. Other notable effects include insuring the forests and greenery in many scenes that were actually shot in late fall and winter when no greenery was present. And there are the animal segments like the deer and flamingoes in the pool that are done magnificently using CGI.
The film plays like a Hitchcockian suspense thriller where the audience is never sure what is happening. The effect is echoed many times in Julia Robert’s words when she demands to know what is happening. The strange events occur a bit at a time - from the grounded tanker to the disturbing and loud sounds to the tornado of leaflets to the appearance of hundreds of deer to the explosions seen from the distance. The explanation is finally given, whether satisfactory is up to the individual audience to decide but what explanation occurred could be very well true. References are made to past world hacking events like the Filipino teenagers responsible for the “Love you” email hacking.
Racial issues are thankfully not omitted. The intruders who are black feel it unfair that they have to sleep in the basement while the white folk in the main house,
Performances are top notch and the characters’ personalities are complex. Robert’s character is the caring bitch, the advertising executive who she confesses hats people. She is forced to trust strangers as a result of the dire consequences that occur. In contrast, Ethan Hawk’s character is more trusting. The strangers are initially painted vague so no one can guess their true colours. All these different personalities add to the story’s suspense. The fear of the unknown is the true fear experienced by the characters which are effectively portrayed in the film.
The film will be released in limited theatres on November 22, and by Netflix on December 8, 2023.
LEO (USA 2023) ***1/2
Directed by Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel and David Wachtenheim
LEO (voiced by Adam Sandler) is one of two classroom pets in a Grade 5 classroom.
Leo (Adam Sandler) is a jaded and desperate lizard who is looking for something different after a visitor to their class suggests he is old. So when the opportunity to explore the world presents itself as a take-home assignment for students, Leo jumps at it. However, his plan to go home with a student is disrupted when the student discovers Leo can actually talk. It also helps the story to be more easily told to an audience. Pretty soon, Leo learns that while the world has something to offer him, he has things to offer his elementary class, as each student who takes him home, he finds a new way to help them cope with the pains of growing up
The film takes a while to get its footing, Humour and interest pick up when the Grade 5 regular teacher Mr. Salinas (cannot have white teachers here, even female ones; must be a minority or trans female - the trend now in films) has to take a leave of absence when she is about to have a baby. Enter older Mrs. Malkin who believes in teaching and discipline, the old way, which means not only trouble for the kids but for the classroom pets. The first shock comes during the weekend when a kid is forced to take the pets home for the weekend and return them in good health and condition. “We don’t do that anymore,” is the remark that of course, goes ignored. LEO is taken home for the weekend and attempts an escape. Leo is 74, according to his arithmetic and thinks he can only live to 75. So, he wants to live it up, and not be in a tank in a classroom any longer.
The humour is very slight during the first third of the film. The one-liners, about various subjects ranging from classroom issues to pet animal issues, are just fairly amusing at best. Until Mrs. Malkin (voiced by Cecily Strong from Saturday Night Live) appears, forming the catalyst for laughter. Fortunately, the film really picks up during the last third, super-surprisingly with many laugh-out moments during various segments like the runaway school bus driven by a kid, a chase involving a gym hunk teacher and Mrs. Malkin and Leo frozen out of fear in the Everglades.
The film contains a few songs, though it can hardly be termed a musical. The songs are fairly amusing though one of them is quite catchy and memorable. The film's score was composed by Geoff Zanelli.
LEO is the typical Adam Sandler vehicle not groundbreaking animation or film, but it is solid entertainment, Sandler style. Even the fart and poo jokes (yes, they are there, are minimal, and actually in not-so-bad taste - like the one Leo cracks that his food is dumped on the tortoise’s poo, not his.)
Bill Burr last seen in the rather awful Bill Burr Netflix comedy OLD DADS, does the voice of Squirtle, Leo’s pet buddy. Through named Squirtle, the animal is not really a turtle as there is no water for it to swim. The pet is more a tortoise than a turtle. Perhaps the kids in the audience can make the note to the adults. Burr is a comedian with humour quite similar to Sandler’s.
LEO is the second animated feature from Sandler's production company Happy Madison Productions. Can Adam Sandler's animated LEO compete with Disney's WISH this week of opening? LEO certainly is funnier, less assuming and more fun. LEO is open for streaming on Netflix this week, Tuesday. Solid Thanksgiving fare!
NAPOLEON (UK/USA 2023) ***½
Directed by Ridley Scott
NAPOLEON is the long-planned project for Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, THE DUELLISTS), an epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).
The most entertaining part of NAPOLEON and the most spectacular and entertaining are the battle scenes, especially the beginning battle at Toulon and the climactic battle of Waterloo at the end. In the former, the storming of the fort in the darkness of night while the British are still clamouring in their night clothes. The battle scene reminds one of the old blockbusters like SPARTACUS and BENHUR that were done, without the aid of CGI. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski will be hard to beat at the next Academy Awards.
The film also details the coup in France where Napoleon and his troops take over the government. It is established right at the beginning of the film the problems facing the French Republic. Most of the citizens were plagued by poverty, hunger and rising costs. France was on the verge of a revolution.
One basic problem of this epic film on French history is language. It would be best if all the French including Napoleon speak French, but that would be a problem with American audiences. As such, all the French, Napoleon included speak with an American accent while the enemy, the British speak with a British accent. The only trouble is British actress Vanessa Kirby playing Josephine. Her British accent comes through in her role, causing some confusion regarding the consistency of the accents.
Joaquin Phoenix makes a marvellous Napoleon Buonaparte, all brooding and pensive, always thinking out military tactics while serving France the best way he can. He meets his match in Josephine, who he calls a slut when she betrays him and sleeps with other men. Phoenix has the look of pride and power while also satirical when making remarks after losing the Battle of Waterloo to the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett).
The film is mostly serious in nature. The sight of hundreds of men battling out in war is not a pleasant sight. The humour in the film is mostly black or satiric. Humour is displayed in the warring couple of Napoleon and Josephine. The inability of Josephine to provide Napoleon with a son - the heir to the throne is played to the hilt. The British breakfast given by the Duke of Wellington to Napoleon in Plymouth after his final defeat is complemented as one reason for their success in battles. In the end, his exile at St Helena seems to be a blessing for Napoleon to retire in peace.
NAPOLEON premiered at Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 14, 2023, and and will be released in the United States and the United Kingdom on November 22, 2023 Wednesday, by Columbia Pictures and Apple Original Films, through Sony Pictures Releasing and Apple TV+ respectively, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date. Best to watch NAPOLEON in iMAX.
SALTBURN (UK/USA 2023) ***½
Directed by Emerald Fennell
SALTBURN, the following feature to her promising Academy Award Winning PROMISING YOUNG WOMEN arrives with as much fanfare as its outrageous depiction of love and relationships. The film opens this year’s BFI London Film Festival. Fennell, who won both the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and BAFTA for PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, and also currently be seen starring alongside Robbie in Barbie, has remarked that her films caput excess and indeed it is, a fact that will offend some and dismiss the excess might just be a [loy for attention-grabbing.
“I love him. But I am not in love with him,” says Arthur Quick (Barry Keoghan, Academy Award Nominee) at the beginning of the film of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). The same sentences are repeated at the end of the film, and what has transpired during the film between the beginning and end gives a different meaning. If that is the aim of the film, then SALTBURN succeeds admirably.
Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family's sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten. Oliver is the outsider that the family finds amusing but eventually is affected by the boy. The film has been compare to THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY but it actually bears more similarities to SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE, a little-seen film darted by Harold Prince in which a dashing and young Michael York enters the household of German aristocracy held together by Angela Lansbury and toilet destroys the family. Where SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE is sinister, wicked, camp and sexy, SALTBURN bears a very much more serious note. The destruction of the family comes about in a very different way.
Director Fennell tells a tale of British access. The Catton family pokes fun at Oliver, a man too ashamed of his drug-affected family so much so that he lies about them. Felix forces a visit to their home and learns the truth, which is the catalyst of the things that are to happen.
But it is the relationship between Oliver and Felix that is the main focus. The obsession and infatuation of Oliver over Fleix is clear from the very beginning. Oliver is about to drop everything and anything to gain favour with Felix. This is demonstrated by his loaning his bicycle to Felix when he had a flat, even offering to fix his tire and bring it back for him. He even abandons his only other friend, Michale he has at the college.
Director Fennell pushes her characters to the limits, with Oliver in one scene desecrating Felix’s grave by masturbating on it and in another where he prances naked around the house. Keoghan is an actor, used to weird roles, as in THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER pulls this role off with equal oddness and flair.
SALTBURN might be to everyone’s taste and could be argued too that it might have tried too much in excesses with the result in a muddled narrative. But credit to director Fennell who is brave enough to experiment and deliver a film that is at least exciting and different.
WISH (USA 2023) ***½
Directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
At a cost of $200 million, this big-budget musical fantasy WISH hopes and wishes to be the FROZEN of 2023.
It boasts a story right from the Bible in which King Herod destroys all the bases for fear of the threat of his throne being taken away, just as King Magnifico (Chris Pine) in the story seeks to destroy ‘the star’ that believes is his own threat.
Many years ago, the Kingdom of Rosas was founded by King Magnifico and his wife Queen Amaya on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Having studied magic and sorcery, Magnifico gained the ability to grant the wishes of his subjects. When each resident turns 18, a ceremony is held where they give up their wish to Magnifico, who keeps them sealed in his observatory. Once a month, Magnifico selects one of the residents' wishes to be granted before the city.
In the present day, 17-year-old Asha prepares to interview for the role of Magnifico's apprentice along with her pet goat Valentino. It is her grandfather Sabino's 100th birthday and Asha hopes Magnifico will grant his wish in commemoration. Her best friend Dahlia, who runs the castle bakery alongside their six friends Simon, Gabo, Bazeema, Safi, Dario, and Hal, advises Asha to be honest about her weaknesses. The interview initially goes well with Magnifico and Asha expressing a shared desire to protect the wishes of Rosas. However, when Asha requests for Sabino's wish to be granted, Magnifico refuses. A heated argument ensues. It is revealed that Magnifico erases the memories of the citizens' wishes when they are made and never returns the ungranted wishes to their owners. In doing so, the populace is rendered docile and free of aspirations, and thus dependent on Magnifico.
At the wish-granting ceremony that evening, Magnifico makes a point of not granting Sabino's wish and dismisses Asha as his apprentice. Asha tries to tell her family the truth about Magnifico, but they do not believe her. Frustrated and out of options, Asha wishes to the heavens and a ball of light drops from the sky, which is revealed to be a physical manifestation of the star she wished for.
The film bears a nod to Disney’s classics like THE MAGICIAN’S APPRENTICE with Asha interviewing for the position of the apprenticeship of the King who is also a sorcerer. The classic song “Wish Upon a Star” can be heard in the background soundtrack. Disney plays safe and does what they do best in their new animation feature, no groundbreaking filmmaking here nor does it tackle controversial issues, but re-hashes a formula in which dreams and wishes come through in a magical Kingdom, in this case, the kingdom of Rosas. The songs and animation are magnificent and should be given the $200 million budget. As the Disney saying goes: There is nothing more powerful in the Universe than a child’s wish, this is a film about wishes coming through, with a twist. The script actually contains a fresh and imaginative story with a cutesy original ‘star’ character (voiceless).
WISH has a Thanksgiving opening on Wednesday, November the 22nd.