The Lovebirds (2020) — Review

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The Lovebirds is a run-all-night crime caper romantic comedy that may not quite have the lungs to run a marathon, but it is really effective in short sprints. Having two likable leads, a few tricks up its sleeve and a runtime of under 90 minutes do help.

Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) play a couple who find themselves at each other’s throat after having fallen in love in the span of a short but sweet montage and then been abruptly yanked to the present in a matter of a scene transition that (in caps) says FOUR YEARS LATER. If that happened to me, I wouldn’t be muttering sweet nothings into my partner’s ears either. Jokes apart, I am sure you must have seen similar openings in rom-coms, and you know how the rest of the story goes — a couple on the verge of a break-up is caught in an adventure or misadventure, during the course of which they relearn to trust and appreciate each other. This basic structure has been and is common to most stories, irrespective of the genre, where two protagonists with a largely common goal are involved. Stories with the ability to make the audience care about the characters and the outcome of their undertaking or suck the audience into the adventure are able to distinguish themselves. The Lovebirds has most of that going for it, for the most part. However, at times it becomes too obvious that the movie is trying hard to get things right, the way it shows in a performance when you can see the preparation distractingly visible on the face of the performer. 

When Leilani and Jibran accidentally get mixed up in a murder, they decide to take it upon themselves to prove their innocence because being people of color, they conclude they wouldn’t have much luck with taking the matter up with the police. As they solve one puzzle after another, they find themselves falling out of the frying pan and into the fire, with each situation being more or less funny than the previous one.

This inconsistency in delivering funny scenes is one of the main problems of the movie. Some of the scenes are genuinely funny, while some seem a bit forced (thankfully, the latter kind are few). The effectiveness of humor aside, the jokes, from dorky to droll to dark, at times feel a bit random but not entirely inconsistent, with dark and dorky mostly confined to situations involving threats and other characters and the droll humor largely making up the arguments between Leilani and Jibran. While on the topic of humor, I must say that one of the major winners in the movie is its “woke jokes”. Consider this example: a young couple mistake Leilani and Jibran for murderers and call 911; the girl almost apologetically tells the operator that the suspects also happen to be “colored” individuals.

Every time the humor seems to start to lose its bite, the screenwriter and the director turn in a sweet moment between the two characters. That is another positive about the movie. These moments are staged and acted with sincerity, and I found them more believable than anything else happening in the movie. Even if the movie didn’t suck me completely into the adventure like Game Night (2018) did (I could not help the comparison), these tender moments told me more about the characters than the hasty, tactless exposition and foreshadowing could.

Even though subtlety isn’t a strong suit of the script, I would like to commend the screenwriters for not being too overt with the self-awareness the movie undeniably has. It helped the movie focus more on the relationship of the characters (Issa and Kumail do a really good job, and they share great chemistry) as they come to terms with their insecurities, overcome miscommunication and understand each other a little more — it is called The Lovebirds, after all. To sum it up, the movie is inconsistently funny, thoroughly sweet, a little short of delightful but definitely worth a watch. In fact, I think I might like it more on the second viewing.   

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Time to Hunt (2020) — Review

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A small-time hustler gets out of prison after serving a three-year sentence for robbery and he has a new plan to make a ton of money and leave South Korea for the sunny beaches of Taiwan. He ropes in two of his friends and another who owes him money to rob a local gambling house. Not everything goes as planned.

That is the basic outline of Time to Hunt. If one were to judge movies by their story outlines, one would never want to watch another after watching maybe the first two or three of its kind. But thankfully, there are elements to story such as characters, motivations, situations, themes and storytelling that make them different. The above outline could be fleshed out into anything from a crime drama, a dark comedy, a horror movie to a wall-to-wall action flick. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

So, what kind of movie is Time to Hunt? Well, the title does not leave a lot of room for guesswork — it is a crime thriller. And does it work? Yes, it does. A lot of credit for that goes to the movie’s ability to shift gears and morph into a different beast altogether almost seamlessly.

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The movie opens with a shot of two friends — Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi-Woo-shik) bickering over clothes — branded or designer — in a grocery store. The banter continues even as the transaction ends and they step out of the store. The camera follows them and reveals a dystopian South Korean city. What was just a normal conversation between two friends a moment ago gets a different context with smog in the air and the homeless on the street. This opening shot establishes at the outset that these young boys, no matter how street-smart, aren’t really prepared for the world out there. When their friend Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), somewhat hardened by three years of jail time, joins them, we get to know that the present condition of the country and its people is not so because of any war or outbreak of disease, it was caused by economic meltdown. As the movie gradually starts painting the picture of a failed economy and the impact it has had on the people, especially the young, for whom escaping this bleak reality is the only way to move forward, even if it means taking great risks.

While the socio-political angst still simmers underneath, the movie continues to explore the three characters, their fears and their dreams and what they would not do to preserve the sanctity of the bond they share. And before you even get to say, “Hmm. A coming-of-age crime drama! I like where it is going,” it becomes a game of cat and mouse with a hint of a slasher.

The performances are on point, with the three leads bringing the just about the right mix of innocence, anxiety and boyish charm and ably complemented by the sinister, although underdeveloped, villain (they did try to flesh him out through his actions, which lead to some really tense moments). Although the movie begins to become predictable as it moves closer to the climax, director Yoon Sung-Hyun’s ability to create tense scences, which are ample in the movie, keeps the eyes glued to the screen. Even when you know how a scene will play out, you want to watch it for the sheer craft on display, supported by really good cinematography and sharp editing, which help bring out the director’s vision of this bleak world the protagonists must escape for a better future. This little crime thriller scores big over Netflix’s bigger release Extraction.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) — Review

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma is a period romance set in France in the 1770s and it is destined to be a classic. The movie tells a tale of love, desire, art, and memory through the eyes of two women, who find each other through art, challenge their roles as artist and muse, and choose to perpetuate their love through art.

At a time when history was reserved for the rich, grand, and male, the personal history of the marginalized and women in love could survive only in memories that occasionally cropped up in grand exhibitions through a sleight of hand, meant only for the pleasure of that one person. Unlike men, our protagonists cannot freely express their love through art, and unlike Shakespeare, cannot hope to perpetuate their love or immortalize the beloved — “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” They do not have the luxury of such ambitions. Art for them is not a vanity project to be exhibited or collected, it is deeply personal, existing in personal spaces such as on an unprinted page of a book — artifacts that they would probably take with them to their grave — meant only to stoke the memory of a happy moment. Art is intimate.

In fact, it is the titular painting that triggers a memory and takes us down Marianne’s memory lane. Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young French painter, is commissioned to paint a rather elusive subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel), a woman of an aristocratic French family. Upon reaching the estate of the family located on an isolated island, Marianne learns that Heloise had previously foiled an attempt to be painted by another painter. The painting is for a Milanese nobleman whom Heloise is betrothed to. Heloise’s mother suggests that Marianne pretend to be Heloise’s walking companion, memorize her features, and paint her without her knowledge. Marianne agrees. Soon, between furtive glances and guarded conversations, they begin to develop an attraction towards each other. However, what begins as furtive attempts to capture the physical features of the subject soon ends up being an act of deception not just toward the subject but to the artist herself. It is then the story becomes a meditation on the artist and the muse.

Historically, the relationship between the artist and the muse has heavily been in favor of the artist — the creator — with the muse being marginalized as merely an object. The great works of art that have stood the test of time are hardly ever recognized for their muses, except perhaps for a few, although the paintings are supposed to be collaborations between the two parties. Even before the movie hits the half-time mark, this tradition is challenged by Heloise, which eventually sets in motion a collaboration destined to become something more, as both the women find the liberation they sought for in love.

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The movie is strikingly minimalist, and it is so by design. A film that is set in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the extravagant grandeur of the Baroque and Rococo styles had given way to a bit more austere, but in no way less majestic, Neoclassicist style, feels more Romantic in spirit (it also has a touch of the gothic in some scenes). It is more focused on exploring the emotions of the characters as individuals without imposing classical archetypes on them. Even when it does relate to mythology, the characters choose to mold it according to their own impulse, instead of accepting the traditional narrative. For instance, towards the end of the movie, a person at an art exhibition thus expresses his surprise at a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Usually, he’s [Orpheus] portrayed before he turns or after, as Eurydice dies. Here, they seem to be saying goodbye.” The Orpheus story becomes analogous to their love’s fate, but its reinterpretation as presented in the painting becomes an act of defiance of the traditional order.

Sciamma’s direction and Claire Mathon’s cinematography convey the uneasiness of the protagonists’ budding attraction for each other through long stares, often interrupted by Marriane and Heloise catching each other stealing glances. The two leads ensure that every emotion their characters are going through comes out clearly. As so much of the acting is done through the eyes, it is impossible to hide any insincerity or lack of commitment. Their eyes become the windows to the souls of the characters they play, which is to say they become the characters. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel do a phenomenal job.

On a field at night during a festival when the attraction does overpower their inhibitions, they share an unbroken gaze. Mathon’s camera captures the moment with such brilliant use of perspective, which is intensified by a folk song. Sciamma chooses to show the gradual progression of the song as it catches on from one vocalist to another, quite like a fire, until we see its effect on Heloise through Marianne’s eyes. At this moment, Heloise is both literally and figuratively touched by fire. The moment is engraved in Marianne’s mind and it becomes the Portrait of the Lady on Fire.

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