This Is a Movie Review: Mexican Remake ‘Perfect Strangers’ is a Tricky Mix of Farce and Intense Drama

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CREDIT: Noc Noc Films courtesy of Pantelion Films

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: Cecilia Suárez, Manuel García-Rulfo, Mariana Treviño, Miguel Rodarte, Bruno Bichir, Ana Claudia Talancon, Franky Martin

Director: Manolo Caro

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: R for Inhibitions Being Lifted

Release Date: January 11, 2019 (Limited)

Honesty is always the best policy, but that does not mean that you need to be completely open all the time about your secrets. It is stunning that in 2019 humanity is still learning that lesson. But alas, sometimes we act foolishly when we should know better, and people alive today keep re-learning the lessons that our ancestors already learned the past several thousand years. Thus, while the premise of the Mexican film Perfectos Desconocidos (Perfect Strangers in English) sounds like fun (and there are some amusing moments), its participants ought to realize that it is an easy recipe for disaster.

A group of seven best friends are gathered for a dinner party on the night of a lunar eclipse, and they all agree to participate in a game: their cell phones will remain on the table throughout the meal, and any calls must be placed on speaker and any messages received must be read aloud. This is a remake of the 2016 Italian film Perfetti Sconosciuti, which has already been redone multiple times throughout much of Europe and Asia. This is actually the second Perfectos Desconocidos, with Spain’s version having arrived in 2017. It goes to show you that the fear of being found out as a fraud or discovering that those closest to you are frauds is universal.

That insight may not be the most astounding revelation, but its relatability potentially provides the opportunity for a meaningful dramatization. On that score, director Manolo Caro and his ensemble have plenty worthwhile to say, but their approach is a little scattered. There are moments of heavy farce, heartwarming familial bonding, and social commentary that tend to gracelessly crash against each other instead of flowing into each other naturally. Each individual element works on its own merit to a certain extent, at least. One scene of a father offering sage advice to his teenage daughter while she is unaware that everyone else can hear her is especially heartwarming.

Overall, there is a sense that Perfectos Desconocidos has bitten off more than it can chew. Its approach to tackling discrimination is the clearest example (although it is possible that this storyline plays better south of the border). As one character struggles with inadvertently coming out of the closet, there is panic about how gay teachers might influence their students, among other worries. It makes me wonder if mainstream Mexican culture is about ten or twenty years behind the United States on this issue. Indeed, one character even evokes Seinfeld by uttering, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Ultimately, this mix of lowbrow and surprising ambition is enough to give you indigestion, due to ingredients that are not quite compatible or not quite fully cooked. Let’s just chalk up any inconsistencies to the moon making people do crazy things and choose to remember from this night only what we want to remember.

Perfect Strangers is Recommended If You Like: Domestic farce, playing Truth or Dare at any age

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Incoming Messages


This Is a Movie Review: ‘Widows’ is the Best Cinematic Crime Saga in Quite Some Time

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Kunz, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Steve McQueen

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Professional Criminals at Their Scariest

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Sometimes I am at a loss of what to say about a film because of how powerfully it has affected me. Widows is one of those films. Its immediate effect was similar to that of The Dark Knight, in which I sat stunned, not quite sure what had happened, but certain that I had seen something special. Steve McQueen’s massively sprawling saga about Chicago crime and politics is populated by a ridiculously sterling cast, with at least ten, or maybe fifteen, of them receiving the gift of really juicy material to bite into.

Chief among them, in all fairness, are the titular widows, who are left to clean up the very expensive mess left behind by their recently deceased criminal husbands. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to form an uneasy alliance or run the risk of the rest of their livelihoods dissolving away. While each actress is compelling, their characters are not necessarily likable. Do they bear some guilt for benefitting from their husbands’ activity despite not knowing what they were tup to? On the other hand, they are in many ways trapped in a situation with no good options for escape. Their predicament demonstrates the limits of feminism and standing up for a yourself in a world ruled by violence.

Thus far in this review, I have barely touched upon even 10% of this film. It runs just a little over two hours, but it is so stuffed with goodness that I am amazed it is under three hours, yet it is simultaneously so sleek that it feels like it is running for just an hour and a half. There are about six (maybe more) stories running alongside each other and somehow they run seamlessly together. There’s Bryan Tyree Henry as a crime boss trying to break good by running for alderman in a gentrifying neighborhood and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother and terrifying enforcer. His opponent is Colin Farrell, who is struggling with maximal agita as he finds his place as a successor in a long line of Chicago politicians. And we cannot forget Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter/beautician/hustler who also plays a big part in all this. Plus there is plenty more to know about the shadowy machinations of ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s husband. And how is there also room for Matt Walsh to show up for one key scene?! McQueen is dynamite with his clear, effective craftsmanship. If you see Widows, you will likely understand everything that happens plot-wise, and you might also just feel compelled to take part in the exhaustive analysis of every frame that is sure to follow in the years to come.

Widows is Recommended If You Like: Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Aldermen


This Is a Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Take on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Has a Killer Instinct But Not a Killer Execution

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements