Say Your Prayers


Just a couple of radical Christian assassins out for a drive.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Harry Melling, Tom Brooke, Roger Allam, Derek Jacobi, Vinette Robinson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Matthew Steer, George Potts, Max Upton, Mike Baxandall, Cathy Baxandall, Tiffany Clare, Vivienne Race, Elliot Halidu, Dave Peel, Will Barton, Zach Webster, Jimmy Wilde, Louis Brogan, Helen Simmons, Emily Layton. Directed by Harry Mitchell

 

Sometimes when you read politicians and analysts speak, you’d think that the tribalism that affects modern society is something new but in fact humans have ALWAYS been tribal. If it wasn’t actual tribes, it was country versus country, city versus town, rural versus urban, one religion against another. We have always found reasons to hate The Other.

Tim (Melling) and Vic (Brooke) are two orphaned brothers, brought up by the somewhat obsessive Father Enoch (Jacobi). He has sent them on a mission – to murder noted atheist author Professor William Huxley (Allam), likely no relation to Aldous. He is speaking at a literary festival at a small village in Yorkshire, so he will be far from the safety of crowded city streets.

Tim is a gentle soul and somewhat simple and he bollocks it up by choosing someone (Barton) who looks similar to Professor Huxley – from behind, that is. Vic has anger issues and is much more gung-ho about the whole thing. When Father Enoch gets the word that an innocent man has been killed, he is more than a little miffed.

In the meantime, Tim has met and fallen for Imelda (Robinson), who unbeknownst to Tim has been carrying on a long-distance relationship with the Professor. Meanwhile, on the tail of the bumbling assassins is strident foul-mouthed Inspector Brough (Martin) and her friendlier, long-suffering partner Hodge (Spencer-Longhurst). With Father Enoch now insisting that the boys kill the Professor in a public way and Tim, who once was reluctant to take life until he met the royal arsehole that is Huxley, and Vic not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, will righteousness triumph over self-righteousness?

This is a dark British comedy that skewers organized religion, zealotry (of every persuasion), TV cops and literary festivals all at once and has quite a lark doing it. One of the notable things is that Mitchell (who also co-wrote the movie) does is have a kind of Greek chorus following the boys around – except they are a British choral society of elderly men singing traditional British songs and hymns. They are actually quite lovely to hear and the incongruity of seeing immaculately dressed (in matching blazers) a choir of old men standing in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors is a running joke throughout the movie.

Melling has come a long way from Dudley Dursley, whom he played in the Harry Potter movies. There is nothing of the bully in Tim, who is gentle and simple, with a yearning to love. He is the tragic figure here as he is caught by events that he can’t escape from. He is more or less the straight man here, although he is the spindle around which the entire movie turns. Most of the other main characters (with the exceptions of Imelda and Hodge) are fairly unpleasant or even despicable but in the cases of Enoch and Huxley, are resolute and even passionate about their beliefs.

Allom and Jacobi are both old pros who know how to deliver and do so here, but Melling may well be a rising star with a little more range than some of his other Potter co-stars that have continued their careers in acting since Harry’s saga came to an end. He also has some decent comic chops, although the humor is largely situational here; there aren’t a lot of one-liners.

But the humor is superior to most of the other comedies I’ve seen thus far this year. If you like your comedies bone-dry with a bite, if you like your comedies to tackle big issues, this is the movie you seek, grasshopper.

REASONS TO SEE: Wickedly funny. Not so much a Greek chorus as a British one.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit on the blasphemous side.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of profanity, violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in a television studio were actually filmed at the University of Bradford’s studio which is used for teaching aspiring broadcast students how to set up a set.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Estate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Amber’s Descent

The Believer (2021)


When love becomes toxic.

(2021) Horror (Freestyle) Aidan Bristow, Sophie Kargman, Billy Zane, Susan Wilder, Lindsey Ginter, Robbie Goldstein. Directed by Shan Serafin

 

Sometimes, the person you married isn’t the same as the person sitting next to you at the dinner table. You thought you knew them better than you know yourself, but suddenly you’re not so sure. People change, after all…and not always for the better.

Lucas (Bristow) and Violet (Kargman) are in that kind of a marriage. The two of them are at loggerheads over something Violet did that Lucas is having a hard time dealing with. Then again, he’s an unemployed physicist who following a broken foot has seen his health decline inexplicably. So, too, is his mental health, to the point he is seeing a psychiatrist, the unorthodox Dr. Benedict (Zane) to try and piece together what happened.

What happened, we find out, was an abortion that Violet performed without Lucas’ knowledge or approval. Since then, she has begun to obsess over demons and possession, and the pragmatic scientist she married is having a hard time matching the calm and rational woman he married with the robotic but deranged woman that won’t allow him to touch her anymore.

Then again, Lucas doesn’t appear to be much of a prize either, but we’ll get to that. Right now, Violet’s parents Charlotte (Wilder) and Gus (Ginter) have dropped over for a surprise visit at just the absolute worst time. There’s a problem with that, though – Violet insists that her parents are both dead and these people are not who they say they are. What is going on? Is Violet right? Or has she lost her mind? Or is something far more insidious, far more sinister going on?

Shan Serafin has crafted a psychological horror film that does a good job of keeping the viewer off-balance and heightening a sense of unreality. Lucas is definitely an unreliable narrator, particularly the more you witness his sessions with Dr. Benedict which may or may not be real. Serafin does some moderate borrowing from other films, including Rosemary’s Baby and Misery, both of which, ironically, started out as books.

But borrowing from other sources isn’t the movie’s greatest sin. Kargman is a bit too much the icy, emotionless blonde (although she’s a brunette) to be memorable here, while Bristow flails away but his character has too many unlikable moments to build a viewer connection. Zane is virtually unrecognizable as the therapist, so it falls to Violet’s parents/not-parents to be the characters here you’ll most remember, with their false bonhomie, fake smiles and sinister undertones.

The movie relies too much on jump scares, particularly in the second half, and when things really start to get unwound in terms of Lucas’ sanity, the movie starts to fall apart some. The movie’s final scenes aren’t harrowing enough to really keep your interest. There are some good things here, but overall the movie is unsatisfying and could have used a bit of tweaking.

REASONS TO SEE: Sets up a nice sense of unreality.
REASONS TO AVOID: When things get trippy the film loses cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some sexuality and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serafin in addition to directing and writing screenplays has also written horror novels.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Boss Level

Godzilla vs. Kong


Battle of the behemoths.

(2021) Sci-Fi Action (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Elza Gonzales, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Ronny Chieng, John Pirruccello, Chris Chalk, Conlan Casal, Brad McMurray, Benjamin Rigby, Nick Turello, Daniel Nelson, Priscilla Doueihy. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

In 2021, after everything we’ve been through, after everything we’ve suffered, I think that what we need the most now more than platitudes and pep talks is just a good old-fashioned slugfest between two giant iconic monsters. Who’s with me? A whole lot of you, as it turns out.

Podcaster Bernie Hayes (Henry) is investigating Apex Cybernetics and their shifty CEO Walter Simmons (Bichir), thinking that there’s some vast world-threatening conspiracy going on; when you’re right, you’re right. Plucky Madison Russell (Brown), whose mom was a scientist turned eco-terrorist who died as a result of a battle of Titans (as did her baby brother) and whose Dad (Chandler) is a scientist working for the Monarch Project, a shadowy organization involved with both Godzilla and Kong, thinks Bernie is on the right track and decides to seek him out, aided by her nerdy friend Josh (Denison).

Skull Island was destroyed in a storm, but Kong was rescued by Monarch and put into a dome that is much like the Island, minus the deadly giant creatures. Kong is being studied by biologist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Hall) whose adopted daughter Jia (Hottle) – the last survivor of the tribe that lived on Skull Island and deaf – can communicate with the giant ape via sign language.

Simmons has hired geologist Nathan Lind (Skarsgård) to lead an expedition to the Hollow Earth, the inner part of our planet that his brother had died trying to reach. However, Nathan will be equipped with a modern flying vehicle that can handle the pressure of the gravitational forces. Simmons believes Kong can guide him through to the center, so Dr. Andrews and Jia will be going with them, as will be his daughter Maya (Gonzalez) who has ulterior motives. However, they are interrupted by an inexplicable attack on Apex’s Pensacola facility, but why would Godzilla, who up to now has been a protector of mankind, suddenly turn against them? And how will he react to the presence of Kong, a King in his own right? I think the title of the film gives that one away.

And indeed, if you are looking eagerly for that titular battle, you will not be disappointed. Wingard and company pull off the larger than life spectacle amidst the neon skyscrapers of Hong Kong, in the primitive landscape of Hollow Earth and in the cool futuristic corridors of Apex, whose name should be a hint as to what they are up to – and it’s no spoiler to inform you that they are indeed, up to something.

Reading the plot summation will probably make your head explode if you think about it too much, but then again, if you take this too seriously you’ve probably spent too much of the pandemic reading about politics. It’s daffy and lightweight and essentially an excuse for Kong or Godzilla (or both) to battle lizards, monkeys, insects, robots, dragons, aliens, dinosaurs, or whatever else the evil geniuses at Legendary can come up with. It’s all in good fun.

Henry actually proves to be the most memorable performer here, which is surprising since he’s more or less comic relief – think the Woody Harrelson role in 2012. The heroic characters- Hall, Skarsgård, Brown – do adequate jobs, but the movie really isn’t about them. And it really isn’t about the comic relief, either, when you get right down to it. No, it’s about giant things beating up on other giant things while people scream and run and buildings collapse. Just good clean fun, in other words.

The pandemic has been kind of a petri dish for important, thought-provoking movies because those sorts, let’s face it, don’t suffer much from being seen at home, whereas the big dumb mindless eye candy movies like this one benefit more from having theaters. Now that we’re starting to see theaters reopening all around the globe, the time is right for the movies that the studios have been holding onto until the right time. Well, the time is now and we shall soon be seeing a parade of big, dumb, mindless eye candy films that we’ve been missing other than in reruns on our streaming services. And I’m glad they’re back. I didn’t know how much I missed them until now. And yes, critics have been embracing this movie with uncharacteristic glee which should be taken with a grain of salt; most critics would have excoriated this film had it come out in 2019, and certainly come 2022 they will be back to eviscerating films like this while praising the grim, thought-provoking movies that in the midst of a pandemic seem to be almost anti-climactic. So enjoy the Bizarro-world reversal while it lasts, kiddies. And try to see this movie in a theater if you can; these kinds of movies really are better-served in that environment. But, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated and you have HBO Max and you have a reasonably good home entertainment system, you should be all set in that regard as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Eye candy as far as the eye can see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Character development? Pshaw!
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of creature violence and destruction, some brief profanity and a few terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film earned $122 million over its opening weekend, the largest opening of a film since the pandemic began.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until April 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Godzilla: King of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Believer

The Fever (A Febre)


Justino stands guard.

(2019) Drama (Kimstim) Regis Myrupu, Rosa Peixoto, Johnathan Sodré, Edmildo Vaz Pimentel, Anunciata Teles Soares, Kaisaro Jussara Brito, Rodson Vasconcelos, Lourinelson Vladimir, Suzy Lopes, Erismar Fernandes Rodrigues, Dalvina Pinto Neves, Sandro Medeiros, Ricardo Risuenho, Silvia Pimenta, Josimar Marinho, Gabryelle Araujo Dos Santos. Directed by Maya Da-Rin

 

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian rainforest has endured a record deforestation that has displaced untold numbers of indigenous peoples living in the rainforest of the Amazon basin. As they move into more urban environments, their culture is in danger of being lost forever.

Justino (Myrupu) is one of those displaced people. A member of the Desana people whose native language is Tukano, he has lived for decades in Manaus, a massive port city on the Amazon where container ships stream in and out, leaving a sort of maze-like structure of cargo containers on concrete docks of the port. He is a security guard there, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded gun, but mostly he stands watch, silent, his face expressionless.

He is called into the office of a doncescending HR manager who expresses condolences at his recent widowhood, but then upbraids him for being distracted on the job. He has reason to be, as well – his daughter Vanessa (Peixoto), a nurse in one of the understaffed Manaus hospitals, has been accepted to medical school and will soon be leaving for Brasilia, leaving her father alone in his tiny house on the edge of the rainforest.

The commute from the docks to his home is brutal, requiring two bus rides on which he often naps while standing up, followed by a long walk from the road to his house, where hammocks swing inside although he also has a more traditional bed. As news reports detail animal attacks in the city, he begins to come down with a mysterious fever, which leads to waking dreams that are terrifying and yet illustrate his lack of place in this world.

Da-Rin has both a marvelous visual and audio sense. The visuals have a lovely juxtaposition of light and shadow. In the cinematography of Barbara Alvarez, forest becomes city and city becomes forest. And hen there are the sounds; the clanking of the massive machines that lift the cargo containers from the ships onto the dock, and the natural sounds of insects, leaves rustling and the violence of the frequent rainstorms which become more expressive than the dialogue, which is kept to a minimum. Most of the actors here are given little to say.

And they don’t need to. Myrupu has a marvelously stoic face but he allows a half-smile to betray his bemusement, or his wry disgust. His voice is quiet, but he is eloquent in other ways. While supportive of his daughter going to college, there is a part of him that doesn’t look forward to the loneliness of her absence. He tells a story early on of a hunter who goes hunting despite the fact his family has all the food they need, and is taken by the monkeys of the forest to a land of dreams. And that’s where Justino has been taken, a place between the modern world and the natural one. He retains a foot in each.

He endures casual racism from a white co-worker (Vladimir) and chiding from his brother (Sodré), and brushes off the concerns of his daughter (“I’ll be fine,” he murmurs) even as his mysterious fever grows worse. The movie seems to be a metaphor for what we are losing when we wipe out the indigenous of a region. The United States did much the same thing and the loss of the culture of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country is incalculable. They still exist and retain parts of their culture, but the way of life they had is long gone and so are many of their stories and mythology. These are stories that we will never get back, and Brazil seems to be heading for the same fate. The destruction of the rainforest is an ecological issue, to be sure, but it is also a cultural one that sometimes gets overlooked in our rallying cries to save the rainforest.

REASONS TO SEE: Very straightforward and powerful. A rare look at the indigenous of the Amazon basin and how they cope with modern civilization. Myrupu gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced for American sensibilities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Da-Rin’s first narrative feature film; she has previously made documentaries including Lands and Margin, both of which have partially inspired this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Embrace of the Serpent
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Groomed

Donny’s Bar Mitzvah


The big man gets the big chair.

(2021) Comedy (Circle Collective) Steele Stebbins, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Tardy, Adrian Ciscato, Zemyhe Curtis, Joshua Gonzales, Wendy Braun, Regan Burns, Jennifer Sorenson, Michael Patrick McGill, Adam Herschman, Tricia O’Kelley, John DeLuca, Jessica Renee Russell, Radek Wallace Lord, Isabelle Anaya, Connor Del Rio, Eugene Kim, Judilin Bosita, Noureen DeWulf, Aundrea Smith. Directed by Jonathan Kaufman

 

It’s 1998 and social media hasn’t yet become the force it is today. Donny (Stebbins) is a nice Jewish boy about to become a nice Jewish man, at least in terms of his faith. Looking at the adults around him, it’s hard to figure out who the grown-ups are.

Shot from the point of view of a videographer using a camcorder (the film is even shot in the 1.33:1 ratio standard for camcorders of the era), Donny’s Bar Mitzvah follows several plot lines such as Donny’s brother Bobby (DeLuca) getting his mother’s friend Susie (O’Kelley) pregnant after a quickie in the venue bathroom – a pregnancy which goes through its entire process in the course of the night. Then there’s Donny’s sister who is the beard for gay Gary (Herschman). Or there’s emcee Gerald (Tardy) who has a thing for his co-worker Gigi (Smith) but it turns out that she’s just Danny Trejo (Trejo) in disguise and Trejo is actually a federal agent chasing a nefarious criminal known as the party pooper who it turns out is, umm, aptly named. Also, you get to meet Mr. Wang (Kim) and his wife (Bosita) attending their first bar mitzvah, whose shocked and uncomfortable expressions likely mirrored my own.

There’s Donny and some of his friends trying to learn a dance routine but protesting that Jews can’t dance, or the overbearing mom, the interfering grandmother trying to matchmake or a thousand other stereotypical cliches which were passé even in 1998. And the film is jampacked from start to finish with raunchy, vulgar sex jokes. One gets the sense that Kaufman is trying to go for a cross between the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow with a dash of John Hughes thrown in for flavor.

I have no problem with raunchy comedies, although the more prudish among you might find the humor here overbearing, but I’m not so much a raunch for raunch’s sake kind of guy. I need my comedy to be funny and not merely amusing. Kaufman adopts the “throw as many jokes and bits against the celluloid wall and see what sticks” school of filmmaking founded by ZAZ back in the day. The pacing is a bit haphazard, moving in fits and starts despite the constant barrage of jokes. On the plus side, though, there appears to be some actual ideas in the background, from the concept that parties of this nature are more status symbols for the parents than celebrations of their children. The movie could have used a few more of these.

This isn’t a movie for everybody, simply because Kaufman tries so hard to push the envelope which is unnecessary for a good movie. As this is his first feature, he’ll doubtlessly learn that pretty quickly and concentrate on just making a terrific movie, and something tells me he actually will. But this ain’t it.

REASONS TO SEE: Pokes fun at the “we’re doing it for our kids” culture. There are some profound ideas among all the grossness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing can be compared to a car with carburetor problems. Tries too hard to be outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity and vulgarity including sexual references, nudity, violence and drug use, most involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Jonathan Kaufman cameos as a super awkward bartender under the pseudonym Jonny Comebacks.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superbad
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Fever

Senior Moment


Life begins at 80

(2021) Comedy (Screen Media) William Shatner, Jean Smart, Christopher Lloyd, Katrina Bowden, Esai Morales, Ruta Lee, Valerie Pettiford, Carlos Miranda, Beth Littleford, Don McManus, Maya Stojan, Joe Estevez, Ron Gilbert, Denise DuBarry, Kaye Ballard, Wesley Eure, Jack Wallace, David Shatraw, Jilon VanOver, Luke Massy, Melissa Greenspan. Directed by Giorgio Serafini

 

One of the main indignities of growing old is the loss of abilities; while we have been self-sufficient all our lives, suddenly we need help doing even the basics as various aches and pains and infirmities brought on by living an increasing number of years taxes are bodies well past our wear date. For many, the loss of the ability to drive is the loss of independence and brings us back to the dependency of our childhood. It’s humbling, to say the least.

Victor Martin (Shatner) is a former NASA test pilot (undoubtedly a nudge nudge wink wink at Shatner’s bests-known role) living out his retirement in balmy Palm Springs. A confirmed bachelor, he spends most of his days hanging out with his best buddy Sal (Lloyd) and driving his pride and joy, a vintage Porsche convertible. A man who has the need for speed, he’s not afraid to test his mettle against would-be drag races, but his enthusiasm often gets him making poor choices. After one too many drag races with a friendly rival (Miranda), his license is suspended and his Porsche impounded.

Relegated to public transportation, surly Uber drivers, expensive taxis and his own two feet, Victor is forced to slow things down and in doing so, runs into Caroline (Smart), a café owner who makes a mean strudel as well as an activist concerned with saving the desert tortoise. She and Victor couldn’t be less alike. Therefore, the two fall in love. Victor at last realizes that there is something more to life than fast cars and hot young girls, but does he have the ability, at this point in his life, to be a good romantic partner?

It should be said that Shatner was 86 when this was filmed and turned 90 just a few days before this film was released this past Friday (as this is written) and he doesn’t seem to have slowed down all that much. While nobody is hoping that his shirt rips any longer, he still has the screen presence that made him not only a star but a cultural icon. He has an easy chemistry with Designing Women’s Smart as well as Taxi’s Lloyd. He keeps things pretty much low-key and that serves him well here.

The problem with the movie isn’t so much the actors, who are for the most part accomplished pros who do their best with what they’re given, but in the writing. The movie follows established rom-com tropes and ends up being more predictable than it needed to be. I also thought the hoary old trope of the dirty-minded senior was insulting. Certainly seniors are sexual; that’s been explored in plenty of films and television shows. It just seems condescending to make a joke out of it.

But the worst thing is that most of the humor falls pretty flat. The movie feels like the director really wanted to make a drama and the writer really wanted to write a comedy; at times, the film seems at war with itself as to what it wants to be. I can only imagine that actors were wondering the same thing.

At worst, this is a predictable time-waster that will be viewed once, and then forgotten by the viewer who might have been attracted to see it due to the presence of the leads. At best, though, the charm and sweetness of the cast will be just enough to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO SEE: Generally sweet-natured entertainment.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor often falls flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual innuendo, sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shatner and Lloyd appeared together in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and then again in Just in Time For Christmas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews; Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad

Six Minutes to Midnight


Class dismissed.

(2020) Thriller (IFC) Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent, David Schofield, Carla Juri, Kevin Eldon, Nigel Lindsay, Rupert Holliday-Evans, Bianca Nawrath, Maria Dragus, Celyn Jones, Tijan Marei, Franziska Brandmeier, Richard Elfyn, Nicola Kelleher, Maude Druine, Andrew Byron, Luisa-Céline Gaffron, Toby Hadoke, Harley Broomfield, Evangeline Ward-Drummond. Directed by Andy Goddard

 

In Sussex on the southwestern English coast there was a girl’s finishing school called Augustus Victoria College, named for the last German empress. It existed in the 1930s, and the daughters of high ranking Nazi officials attend there to learn English manners. The school closed down when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, but the idea that such a school existed leads to some interesting theories.

It is the summer of 1939, mere weeks before Europe will erupt into a devastating war. When one of the teachers at Augusta Victoria mysteriously disappears, the ramrod-straight headmistress Miss Rocholl (Dench) needs to replace him in a hurry. She settles on journeyman teacher Thomas Miller (Izzard).

But Izzard isn’t just a teacher – in fact, he’s no teacher at all. He’s a spy, there to investigate the disappearance of the other teacher, who was also a spy. There is some thought that the school might be used to transmit sensitive information back to the Fatherland. Certainly, Miss Rocholl, an apologist for the Nazis (based mainly on her protective instincts for the young girls) allows the girls to listen to speeches from Hitler on the wireless, prompting the young girls to rise and give a good “Sieg, Heil!” in response. Also, one of the teachers – the lovely near-Olympic athlete Ilse Keller (Juri) – is absolutely on board with the Nazi party line.

He overhears a conversation that the girls are about to be smuggled out of England, a sure sign that Germany is getting ready to do something war-like. As he informs his handler, a shot rings out and his handler is dropped. Suddenly Miller has to run – not only from the assassin but from the local police who are convinced he did it and is the German spy. Now it is a race against time to inform his superiors, evade the police, evade the spies, avoid being double crossed by double agents, and protect the girls who may or may not be innocent pawns.

It sounds like that could be a fascinating movie, particularly for those who like spy thrillers set during the Second World War, but this is curiously colorless. Considering the caliber of the cast involved, that is especially surprising. Izzard is best-known for his biting social comedy, but as an action star he makes a fine comedian. But Dench is given a part that left me conflicted; clearly Miss Rocholl is very wrong about the Nazis, but in all other respects she seems to be forceful and forthright, but when it coes to politics she seems almost wishy washy. It’s the most un-Judi Dench-like performance I think I’ve ever seen Dench give, but she still manages to keep the audience attention because, well, she’s Judi Dench. So, too, for Eddie Izzard.

Part of the problem is that the writing here is a bit washed out. The character development is iffy, and the plot points seem culled from movies that have less to do with suspense and more to do with period accuracy. Think Dead Poet’s Society with a distaff student body and a Robert Ludlum bent. Unfortunately, it would have benefitted from Ludlum’s ability to build suspense because that is what is sorely lacking here.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench and Izzard do good work in roles that are less defined than they should be.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bland side, never reaching the level of suspense needed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and anti-Semitic dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Goddard is best known for directing several episodes of Downton Abbey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews; Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle Has Landed
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Senior Moment

Atomic Cover-Up


The serenity of absolute destruction.

(2021) Documentary (Exposed Films) Osamu Inoue, Dennis Predovic, Rob Burgos. Directed by Greg Mitchell

In August, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They remain, to this day, the only places on this planet where atomic weapons have been used. Images of the devastation caused by the bombs have been widely available for decades, but the human toll has never been documented effectively – until now.

Within days of the bombs dropping, cameramen for a Japanese newsreel agency went to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima to film the destruction as a historical document. They also took plenty of black and white footage of the human suffering, of people hideously burned and deformed by the radiation. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army sent cameramen Daniel McGovern and Herbert Sussan to take color footage in both locations, mainly to be used for scientific study. Under American supervision, the footage from both the American and Japanese cameramen were edited into a single 2 ½-hour documentary, with voice-over narration. The Japanese news agency was distressed over the way the documentary was presented and purposely put inappropriately light-hearted music over some of the footage to express their disdain.

While McGovern was eager to have the film seen as a means of impressing that peace was now more vital than ever, the Army decided to go the other way; all of the footage was confiscated and stored away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Despite the efforts of both Sussan and McGovern to get the footage into the eyes of the public, it remained there gathering dust until the late 60s when it was declassified. Eric Barnouw, a Columbia University professor and documentary expert, assembled some of the footage into a documentary that aired on PBS. Bits of the footage were used in the 1959 Alain Resnais film Hiroshima Mon Amour; when the Army had seized the footage, Nippon Eiga Sha secreted a copy of the original film in the ceiling of an editing bay where it sat for years.

Mor recently, author and filmmaker Greg Mitchell (who wrote a book on the history of the footage) has now created a documentary about the cover-up of that footage which premiered March 20th at the Cinequest Film Festival in my old stomping grounds, San Jose, California. The footage has been restored to 4K specifications and looks about as pristine as it did when it was first shot. The documentary is not narrated, but in Ken Burns fashion the words of the various cameramen involved with the footage were read by voice actors over the footage. Some additional newsreel footage was also included.

As McGovern pointed out, most of the film shown to the American public about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of the bombs concentrated strictly on the damage to buildings and infrastructure; the human cost of the radiation sickness and the massive number of deaths from the blast itself were largely hidden by the Army. The reasons for this are not really explored; I get the sense that the Army didn’t want the public upset at the horrific nature of the injuries and illness that followed the bombings, in order to maintain America’s image as white knights, I suppose. Personally, that seems short-sighted to me; perhaps it might have been more effective to show that footage and proclaim “this is what happens when we use these weapons, which we still have. Please don’t give us an excuse to use them ever again.” But again, that might have tarnished America’s image and worse, our self-image.

In may ways this is a distressing film. Some of the images of burns and death are almost sickening to look at; I strongly recommend that those who are sensitive to such things think very hard before viewing this film. The movie, though, is a very important document of footage that has been kept secret from Americans for decades; even though it aired on PBS in 1970, I would wager most modern Americans don’t even know it exists. Now, you do.

REASONS TO SEE: Short (only 52 minutes) but extremely powerful. Historical documentation of one of the most awful events in history. Encompasses both American and Japanese points of view. Uses the words of the cameramen who shot the footage effectively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can be disturbing for sensitive viewers. Could have explored the reasons for the cover-up more thoroughly.
FAMILY VALUES: There are lots of disturbing images of the effects of radiation sickness and of the devastation of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including human remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former president Dwight Eisenhower noted that he felt that Japan was already on the verge of surrender and that the use of atomic weapons was unnecessary.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through March 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message from Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Happily


Married couples red light district.

(2021) Comedy (Saban) Kerry Bishé, Joel McHale, Natalie Morales, Stephen Root, Charlyne Yi, Shannon Woodward, Breckin Meyer, Brea Grant, Al Madrigal, Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Jon Daly, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Billie Wolff. Directed by BenDavid Grabinski

 

It is a truism that as the years go by, passion within a couple cools down. While we are newlyweds, we cannot keep our hands off one another. With age comes wisdom and a settling into a more comfortable relationship as we learn to accept our partners foibles and quirks (or don’t) and get used to the idea that, for better or worse, here is the person we’re going to spend the rest of our lives with – the person we’re stuck with, in other words.

Tom (McHale) and Janet (Bishé) are the exceptions. Fourteen years into their marriage and they still can’t wait to have sex with each other – and do at every possible opportunity, including at parties, in clubs, at home – whenever they can do the bad thing, they do it.

This has taken a toll on their friends. Tom’s ex Karen (Zea) and her husband Val (Scheer), fed up with the lovey-dovey couple, have disinvited them from an upcoming couples’ weekend at a snazzy estate with a spectacular view of L.A. They are shortly thereafter visited by a stranger named Goodman (Root) who informs them that due to a defect in their genetic make-up, they have not done what most couples do and lose that newlywed zeal. However, a quick stick with a syringe full of dayglo yellow goop will quickly put things right and make them both miserable, which is to say, normal.

Janet, however, is not okay with this option and chooses to take action to prevent this. Shortly after, they are re-invited to the couples-only weekend and show up along with the aforementioned Karen and Val, Patricia (Morales) – the only one among them who isn’t uncomfortable with their failure to lose the romance – and grumpy Donald (Daly), snooty Carla (Howell-Baptiste) and shy Maude (Woodward) and newly engaged Richard (Meyer) and Gretel (Yi).

This couples weekend was supposed to be a means of blowing off steam, but it turns out to be therapeutic in a most unconventional and unexpected way. As secrets get discovered, issues get confronted and the dead don’t stay buried, and relationships will be changed.

This is kind of a black comedy that comments on our obsession with wanting more, our refusal as a society to appreciate what we have, and the nature of relationships and what constitutes a happy one, all with a slightly supernatural bent. It helps that there is an outstanding cast, with Bishé, Morales and Root all doing standout turns and McHale nearly stealing the show.

Unfortunately, writer-director BenDavid Grabinski didn’t really develop many of the characters; this was a case of too many roles. He could have probably combined some of the attributes of the supporting cast and reduced the cast by four or more people; it certainly would have made the film a bit more interesting. Certainly he could have worked a bit on the ending, which was a big letdown.

But by and large, this is a solid film that while not spectacular, at least hits most of the right notes. With a few tweaks here and there, it could have been something special. As it is, it’s not bad at all; but it’s not great. Worth a rental? Sure enough.

REASONS TO SEE: Dark and twisted with a nifty soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit pointless at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and lots and lots of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Jack Black is among the producers for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Box
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Atomic Cover-Up

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily