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

Days of the Bagnold Summer


So many shoes…so little time.

(2019) Comedy (GreenwichMonica Dolan, Earl Cave, Rob Brydon, Elliot Speller-Grillott, Tamsin Greig, Ony Uhiara, Paul Michael Bradley, Alice Lowe, Grace Hogg-Robinson, Nathanael Saleh, George Wilkins, Alfie Todd, Tim Kay, Gurlaine Kaur Garcha, Sophie Steer, Lesley Harcourt, Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness, Stuart Whelan, Olivia Buckland.  Directed by Simon Bird

 

I suppose there are few tortures for a 15-year-old boy than spending a summer alone with his mom. That must go double if mom is a divorced cardigan-wearing librarian and the boy is into metal in a big way. How do two people so disparate find any sort of common ground?

That boy is Daniel (Cave), who has been anticipating a summer in Florida with his Dad – who has since remarried and has a new baby on the way with his new wife  – but Dad isn’t the most reliable sort to begin with, and the plans fall through. Trust me, Daniel – you are NOT ready for a summer in Florida with pasty white skin like that.

Daniel is now faced with the prospect of summer at home in a dull, boring British suburban existence with his mom Sue (Dolan) who might have been fun once upon a time, but her idea of a good time is going off to the seaside and attending a demonstration on how to make fudge.

Like most boys his age, Daniel knows only that he hurts and doesn’t know how to express it, so he takes out his rage on everyone by being an absolute douche to his mom. She reacts with patience and compassion. Sue has retreated into her own shell and is only beginning to emerge from it, going on a date with Daniel’s history teacher (Brydon, who should be legally required to do the “Man in a Box” voice in every movie he’s in) but he turns out to be a massive jerk.

The more the summer goes on, the more frustrated Daniel gets. His best friend Ky (Speller-Girllott) and he have a falling out. His attempts to join a metal band are frustrated again and again. And his mom insists on taking him shoe shopping for an upcoming wedding he plainly doesn’t want to attend. This is going to be a long summer.

The movie is based on a Joff Winterhart graphic novel and as adapted by Lisa Owens, it captures the nadir of teen angst that only a 15-year-old son of divorced parents can experience. Daniel is not the easiest kid to like, but deep down there’s a decent guy under there; his mom knows it and even though he drives her up a tree, she hangs in there and regards him with a certain sense of droll humor although from time to time she clearly wants to give him a good shaking. Sue isn’t perfect either, but she’s trying and she hasn’t exactly had the easiest time of things, as a poignant conversation with her son late in the film shows. Teens have a tendency to not realize their parents were once like them, full of dreams and aspirations, and trying to fit in, be cool and figure things out. Parents have a tendency to forget what it’s like to be those things in their zeal to have them avoid the same mistakes that they made.

The movie has a lovely bittersweet quality to it, and the dry British humor that tends to get me going every time. Bird further has the soundtrack full of Belle and Sebastian songs which would seem at first glance to be incongruous, but actually turns out to be the perfect fit. As we emerge from a long and difficult winter with the promise of a long and difficult summer ahead, movies like this can be a tonic, reminding us that there is something magic in the warm months. It’s not the memories of good times so much but the love of the people we are with that make the magic. It would do us all well to be reminded of that.

REASONS TO SEE: Great Belle and Sebastian songs. Nice dry British humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the vanilla side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bird is best-known for his work on the British television show The In-Betweeners.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adult Life Skills
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Crisis

Blithe Spirit (2020)


Won’t you look sweet upon a seat…

(2020) Comedy (IFCDan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Judi Dench, Isla Fisher, Aimee Ffion-Edwards, Emilia Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt, James Fleet, Michele Dotrice, Simon Kunz, Dave Johns, Adil Ray, Calie Cooke, Peter Rogers, Delroy Atkinson, James Fleet, Issy van Randwyck, Tam Williams, Colin Stinton, Stella Stocker, James Sygrove, Georgina Rich.  Directed by Edward Hall

 

Noel Coward was one of the most brilliant wits of the 20th century. He plied his trade at the height of one of the most creative literary periods in history, rubbing elbows figuratively if not literally with such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Wofe. While most of his works were pithy and lightweight, they helped set the standard for British humor that endures to this day. I find it absolutely incredible that his work isn’t filmed more often.

Charles Condomine (Stevens) is a feckless crime novel writer who has found great success, but hasn’t written a word since his first wife Elvira (Mann) died young. Now commissioned to write a screenplay adapting his first novel by the father – a producer at powerhouse Pinewood Studios in the UK –  of his new wife, Ruth (Fisher). The trouble is, he is apparently beset by a writer’s block that is the size of a small country.

The Condomine couple and some friends take in the performance of Madame Arcati (Dench), a spiritual medium, as a means of distraction, but the performance goes howlingly wrong. Charles is struck by inspiration; he can work a supernatural element into the plot! Elated by the idea, he asks Madame Arcati to do a private séance at his London home, and while she’s reluctant, after the disaster of that performance she knows she needs the work, so she reluctantly agrees.

To her own amazement, she actually makes contact with the other side and manages to raise the spirit of Elvira, but the trouble is that only Charles can see her. Once she gets over the shock of her own demise, she becomes extremely perturbed that Chares has remarried, and sets out to win back Charles for her own – even if it kills him.

The bare bones of Coward’s original work remains, but the writing team of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth have made some pasing strange updates to the work, demoting the showstopper Arcati to a much reduced role and giving her a backstory that is meant to inspire pathos. Dench, ever the trooper, pulls it off with aplomb and manages to remain the highlight of the show, but the movie needed a lot more zing and the writers fail to deliver any.

Coward is known for his often barbed and acerbic dialogue that might seem a bit dated now. The decision to keep this a period piece might have rendered that less of a problem, but instead the writers chose to make the dialogue more updated – this feels more like a sitcom, with far more slapstick than Coward would ever have tolerated, and a few dick jokes which in 1945 would have been unconscionable but Coward himself might have arched an eyebrow, deftly flicked an ash from his ever-present cigarette holder and said “Well, one must admire a man who doesn’t mind displaying his shortcomings for all to see.” One really needs to understand the source material in order to properly adapt it, and I don’t get the sense that the writers – or the director – could really claim that distinction.

Admittedly, the cast is marvelous and most of them do pretty well with what they’re given, particularly Dench (as previously mentioned) and Stevens, the Downton Abbey vet who shows a flair for drawing room comedies here. Unfortunately, those aren’t particularly in vogue and this effort is unlikely to bring them back. The production looks sumptuous, and the costumes are Oscar-worthy. However, the score sounds like something you’d hear in a Looney Toon cartoon and often distracts from what is going on in the fim which might not necessariy be a bad thing.

I do really admire the work of Noel Coward and I heartily recommend that you see David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Blithe Spirit along with other Coward gems like Private Lives and By Which We Serve. Unfortunately, this won’t go down as a masterful interpretation of his genius, but hope lives on that we shall one day see a new version of one of his plays  that does.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench is magnificent in this droll period piece.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unaccountably diverges from the source material in senseless ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Hall’s first motion picture feature, he has had a long career as a theatrical and television director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Topper
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Me to Tarzana

Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me


Portrait of an artist at work.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockRonnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Peter Grant, Malcolm McLaren, Charlie Watts, Imelda May, Damien Hirst, Mike Figgis, Sally Wood. Directed by Mike Figgis

 

Ron Wood, co-guitarist of the Rolling Stones alongside Keith Richards, stands out in rock and roll history as one of the finest and most influential blues rock guitarists to ever come out of Great Britain. He has been in bands with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, performing in such groups as the Birds (not the American psychedelic band), the Small Faces, the Jeff Beck Group and of course, the Stones – arguably the world’s greatest band.

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) presents Wood in all his working-class glory, the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with at the pub into the wee hours. His dad had the same kind of bonhomie, often falling asleep in random gardens on his way home from the pubs, not quite sober enough to make it all the way to his own door.

Figgis assembles a pretty impressive array of interview subjects, including three of his fellow Stones (although, oddly, there is very little footage of Wood performing with his current band, a rendition of “When the Whip Comes Down”) and Stewart, accomplished blues singer Imelda May (who performed with Wood early on in her career), alongside artist Damien Hirst (Wood is an accomplished painter as well) and, curiously, notorious Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant who had little if anything to do with Wood’s career, although he asks after Wood during an archival interview with Figgis and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (both Grant and McLaren have since passed on). Wood’s third wife, Sally, briefly appears to admit that she prefers her husband sober, although he is a pretty good drunk – Wood had the reputation of keeping things together even when sloshed. Wood’s first two wives and six children aren’t mentioned, nor is his session work.

Which is where the film falls down. We are given broad brush strokes, but few details, so overall the work looks a little bit like a house painter interpreting Manet. One wonders if there were logistical concerns here that prevented further participation from ex-wives, kids, or perhaps a rock historian or two to assess Wood’s place in rock and roll history, which is considerable. The movie is a scant 82 minutes and it felt like Figgis could have added another 20 minutes comfortably. This is one of those rare films that doesn’t overstay its welcome but quite the opposite; it leaves before you’re ready for it to go.

There is some terrific archival footage which is really the main reason some of his fans will want to check this out; the interview between Figgis and Wood is clearly a couple of old mates getting together and reminiscing, although Wood doesn’t spend much time in self-reflection. His philosophy of life is summarized in a Yogi Berra quote – “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Wood has led an interesting life and a charmed life – after having lung surgery following a half century of heavy smoking, his doctors told him he essentially had lungs that were as good as if he had never smoked at all. Wood’s delighted refrain was “It’s like a get out of jail free card – somebody up there must like me.” Plenty of people down here like him too, and for good reason; you just wouldn’t know it in this curiously uninformative documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: A chronicle of an interesting life.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little disjointed and curiously incomplete.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wood was invited to join the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones passed away, but his manager turned down the opportunity without informing Wood (until much later) because he already had a gig with the Small Faces, so Mick Taylor took the job. When Taylor decided to leave, the invitation was once again offered and this time Wood accepted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Who: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Social Dilemma

Benjamin (2018)


Netflix and chill.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (ArtsploitationColin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Phénix Brossard, Jack Rowan, Jessica Raine, Joel Fry, Mayo Simon, Mark Kermode, Gabe Gilmour, Arnab Chanda, Robin Peters, James Bloor, Jessie Cave, Mawaan Rizwan, James Lailey, Michele Belgrand, Ellie Kendrick, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alex Lowe, Laura Matassa, Kriss Dosanjh, Joanne Howarth. Directed by Simon Amstell

 

We all have a tendency to be our own worst enemies, saying the wrong thing at exactly the worst possible time, or overthinking a project and thereby ruining it. Our insecurities have the unsettling knack of getting the better of us.

That’s true for Benjamin Oliver (Morgan), an indie film director who won a BAFTA for his first film – “the best thing I could have done is make that film and then died,” he quips – but has been struggling mightily to avoid a sophomore slump with his second film. However, in true Benjamin fashion he has taken a simple relationship and rendered it a gauntlet of pretension by adding odd clips of Buddhist monks mouthing pithy aphorisms that ultimately sound smart but don’t make the film any better, a meta conceit that one has to applaud the filmmaker for recognizing and poking fun at.

Benjamin has a group of friends who are about as messed up as he is; his acerbic producer (Chancellor) who spends much of her time propping up Benjamin’s insecurities; Stephen (Fry), a stand-up comedian whose depression sometimes turns his act into the worst therapy session imaginable; Billie (Raine), the publicist who tries in vain to mitigate Benjamin’s instincts.

Add into this mix Noah (Brossard), a fey French musician trying to make an impact on the extremely competitive London music scene who becomes Benjamin’s romantic interest, despite the fact that Benjamin is certain that he is incapable of love.

To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with the work of comedian Simon Amstell, although to be fair we Yanks have had a lot on our minds lately so following the careers of comedians across the pond hasn’t been high on our list of priorities. Still, judging from I can see here, it isn’t going to be long before he’s as well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s got that droll British sense of humor down, but tempers it with observational humor that is at times uncanny; while there are some barbs directed both at London’s art underground and at the state of romance in England in general, much of what is commented here is pretty universal. Everyone has been guilty of blurting out that one conversation-killing remark in a room full of people that you may or may not be trying to impress. I know I have.

I have this categorized as a romantic comedy, but that really isn’t precisely right. It’s not like the rom-coms you might be used to; it’s more accurately a comedy that involves romance. The movie really isn’t about Benjamin’s romantic issues, although they play a part. This is about Benjamin’s relationship with himself, and his self-destructive flaws. There’s some poignancy, but it’s not a downer of a fiilm; nor is it a life-affirming celebration either. This is the kind of movie that exhibits how life is for certain people in particular circumstances, while giving those circumstances and those people a bit of a poke in the backside.

The movie is a bit on the twee side, sort of like Belle and Sebastian covering all of Morrissey’s greatest hits and if you understand that reference, this is the movie for you. There’s enough of the jaded romantic in Amstell to make the humor biting at times, but not enough to drown the movie in ennui. There are a few false steps here and there, but not as many as you might think; The only thing that keeps me from giving this a higher score is that there is a sense that this is aimed at a certain niche of indie film buffs that might not resonate as clearly with the mainstream, but that’s quite all right – not every movie needs to appeal to the crowd that awaits the next Marvel movie with breathless anticipation.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very droll humor that fans of British comedy will love.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the twee side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on director Simon Amstell’s own experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kino Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Thing
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rent-a-Pal

The Unfamiliar


Not destined to be a new dance craze anytime soon.

(2020) Horror (Vertical/Dark MatterJemma West, Christopher Dane, Rebecca Hanssen, Harry McMillan-Hunt, Rachel Lin, Tori Butler-Hart, Ben Lee, Guy Warren-Thomas, Beatrice Woolrych. Directed by Henk Pretorius

 

Unlike my wife, I love horror movies. I love a good scare, a terrifying creature, a malevolent poltergeist, a deliciously evil demon, a skilled slasher, whatever the case may be. I even love those psychological horror films where the main character may or may not be going insane. This is one of those.

Dr. Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (West) is recently returned to England from Afghanistan, where she was a British army medic. She returns, like many of her peers, loaded with PTSD, but she’s happy to be back in the bosom of her family – husband Ethan (Dane), a collect professor of anthropology, son Tommy (McMillan-Hunt) and daughter Emma (Hanssen). But, as with most horror movies, the idyllic homecoming doesn’t last.

Izzy notices that her family is acting a bit strange and distant. There are also pictures that fly off the wall of their own accord, and strange sounds during the night lead Izzy to believe that she’s either being driven mad by her post-traumatic stress, or there is something supernatural going on in her house. People who hear about her issues are wondering if she’s taking her pills. At last, Ethan decides to take his family on a vacation to Hawaii, where he first began studying the culture of Hawaiian myths. And if you think Hawaiian folk tales have anything to do with what’s going on with Izzy, well, you’d be right.

This might be the most mis-named horror movie in history because everything in the film is likely to feel familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few horror movies. From the jump scares to the creepy psychic to the haunted house tropes (although this isn’t strictly speaking a haunted house movie), there is nothing here that is terribly original. It IS nice that the hero here is a woman and an army veteran; she’s the one who takes the fore, directs the husband to stay with the kids and goes out to face down the villain herself. That’s a nice change.

But there’s little to no character development going on here. Sure, there are a few good scares, particularly in the final act, but for the most part this is ho-hum horror. With so many good horror movies out there (and more coming out all the time), it’s hard to give a movie like this much love. It isn’t that the movie is bad – it certainly is no worse than anything else out there – but it’s just more of the same. If that’s what floats your boat, then by all means give this one a shot.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not particularly memorable.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the death of Barry Kramer, the magazine went through a number of different hands; by the 21st century there were legal disputes as to the ownership of the CREEM name and archives. By 2017 the litigation had been settled with JJ Kramer (son of Barry and Connie) taking control of the brand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 17’% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hole in the Ground
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Epicentro

Summerland


A brief respite before the war.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Dominic McGreevy, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, David Horovitch, Aoibhine Flynn, Amanda Lawrence, Casper Allpress, Toby Osmond, Joshua Riley, Sally Scott, David Ajao, Nina Beagley, Sian Phillips, Daniel Eghan, Ty Hurley, Marie Hamm. Directed by Jessica Swale

We are increasingly reminded, in these days of pandemic and political divisiveness, that there was a time when everybody was expected to Do Their Bit. People made sacrifices for the greater good. Oh, how times have changed.

Cranky author Alice Lamb (Wilton) despises children. She types away on her “academic treatises” on British and Celtic mythology in her cottage in Kent. However, the Alice of 35 years earlier (Arterton) was….still in the same cottage and still despised children and still typing away at her academic treatises. That’s when Frank (Bond) shows up at her door. He’s an evacuee from London in need of a temporary guardian while his RAF pilot father and Ministry of Defense mother are busy fighting the war, each in their own way. Alice is flummoxed; she had no idea that a kid was coming to live with her but she is gently reminded that she volunteered, even though she doesn’t remember volunteering. In fact, she wants the boy taken somewhere else at once. The authorities promise to look into finding him a place to live, but it will take about a week and she needs to suck it up until then.

Alice is obviously not fond of people in general, and perceptive Frank realizes that there is something that caused this self-imposed solitude. He is not necessarily a brilliant child, but he has a good heart and keen observational powers and soon he begins to thaw out the chilly Miss Lamb, whom is thought to be a witch by the village kids and maybe even a Nazi spy. As such, she is often the butt of childish pranks, which further makes her despise the younger set.

But Frank is so genuine and so willing to please that eventually Alice begins to care for him – so much so that she begins to open up about her past, and the relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw) that dare not speak its name, but which was nevertheless the love of Alice’s life. Unfortunately, Alice is terribly inexperienced at the whole parenting thing and makes a huge mistake when faced with a terrible situation and ends up making a discovery about the identity of Franks’ mother that will shock her to her very core and nearly lose her relationship with Frank in the bargain.

One of the first things you will notice about the film is the absolutely lovely cinematography of Laurie Rose – although I am of the considered opinion that it is nearly impossible to make an English village look ugly. Nearly every shot is picture perfect, from the wild seaside to the snug interiors to the waving fields of wheat. You may end up considering a vacation to Kent somewhere down the line after seeing this.

The second thing you’ll notice is the strength of the performances here. Gemma Arterton is one of those actresses who seems to always turn in a strong performance but never gets the kind of credit she deserves. She certainly has the talent of an Anne Hathaway or an Emma Stone and those are the sorts of roles and movies she should be getting. It’s a shame that she isn’t. As for veteran Tom Courtenay, I could be perfectly happy of an entire film of him reciting the collected works of William Wordsworth; he’s the kind of actor that you fall in love with each and every performance. He has a small but important role here and he makes the most of it.

The flaw here is that the twist, when it comes late in the movie, is jaw-dropping and not in a good way. It will leave veteran cinema buffs shaking their heads and muttering “Really? You went there? REALLY?!?” However, getting to that point is so enjoyable and so beautiful to watch that at least in my case, I was in a forgiving mood by the end of the film.

Although available on VOD at present, it will be playing at the Florida Film Festival on Saturday, August 8th at 5:45pm at the Enzian. Tickets may be purchased here. It is not a part of the Virtual Festival selections, so if you are planning on only attending the Festival this year by remote viewing, you’ll have to pay the additional rental fees to your streaming platform of choice. It is, however, worth it. For those outside of Florida, it is also playing at selected theaters as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent performances by Arterton and Courtenay in particular. Goes to unexpected places occasionally. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is somewhat preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has no relation to the 2003-2005 TV series of the same name that starred Lori Loughlin, Zac Efron and Ryan Kwanten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77/100, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guernsey Literary and Eel Pie Society
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Apollo 11

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Mnemophrenia


The revolution will be digitized.

(2019) Science Fiction (Indie Rights) Freya Berry, Robin King, Tim Seyfert, Tallulah Sheffield, Jamie Laird, Robert Milton Wallace, Dominic O’Flynn, Angela Peters, Anna Brook, Michael Buckster, Gary Cargill, Steve Hope Wynne, John Morton, Cally Lawrence, Lisa Caruccio Came. Directed by Einni Konstantinidou

 

What is real? Is it what we perceive it to be? Experts will tell you that memory can’t really be trusted; we tend to remember things through our own peculiar filters, often changing the nature of those memories or omitting important context to them altogether. So if memories are unreliable at best, would artificial memories and the inability to tell that they were artificial be such a bad thing?

Mnemophrenia is a portmanteau of mneme and schizophrenia; it is a condition posited by writer-director Konstantinidou (an academic at the University of Essex making her feature film debut) in which memories made in virtual reality environments take on the status of living memories, even though we didn’t experience them in the real world.

The story is told through three different time periods. The earliest takes place in the near-future in which Jeanette Harper (Berry) has memories of a summer with a nearly perfect man named Douglas (Seyfert) which only occurred in a virtual reality environment. Nevertheless, she fell in love with him and held all other relationships to his standard, which led to a failed marriage and a feeling of emptiness. She is engaging in group therapy for other sufferers of the condition, and making a documentary about the process.

Her grandson, Nicholas Morgan (King) is developing a next-gen virtual reality environment called Total Cinema, which will allow a much more complete VR experience. He and his assistant Will (Laird) have some misgivings that the system seems to trigger mnemophrenia in those not generically pre-disposed to the condition. Nicholas, who was born with the condition, is acutely aware that others will perceive that should the product be released to the marketplace (and the release date is hurtling towards them with terrifying speed) that he will be accused of creating the condition on purpose, since he is on record as believing that mnemophrenia is not a condition to be feared but embraced, which goes largely counter to society’s disdain of those who suffer from it. However, the corporate bigwigs are having none of it, not caring what the potentially catastrophic effects of releasing this product to market would be so long as they get return on their investment.

The third story takes place in the far future when terminally ill academic Robyn (Sheffield) is studying the effects of an implanted chip that would allow her to experience the memories of both Nicholas and Jeanette as an “empathy study,” while her husband Charlie (Wallace) has misgivings that this would change his wife into another person entirely.

Considering the budget the film had to work with, the visuals are impressive. The mid-period story of Nicholas utilizes impressive graphics that give the viewer the experience of viewing the world through the Total Cinema environment. The film stands up with science fiction films with budgets many times larger than this one must have had.

The concept is a thought-provoking one as we enter an era in which VR is becoming increasingly prevalent; there are many who foresee it as the medium of the future, replacing film, television and gaming entirely. Are those memories that we create in virtual environments any less real than those we create outside of them? Will we be able to distinguish between the two? This is no less a study of the war that is waged between technology and naturalism. Even the score reflects that dichotomy, blending the real with the synthesized.

The acting is above par for an indie feature; there are no “name” actors to anchor it, but all of the cast do their jobs well and to a certain extent, the relations Jeanette, Nicholas and Robyn even have a faint resemblance to one another.

This is the kind of science fiction that academic sorts love; it explores the possibilities of the human experience and forces us to confront what makes those experiences real to us. While we haven’t gotten the technology to the point where VR avatars seem real to us, that day is coming and soon. One wonders if living in a virtual reality might not be preferable to existing in the real world.

REASONS TO SEE: An imaginative, intelligent concept. Nice special effects for an indie.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the film was improvised, Konstantinidou believing that would make the characters more realistic. To facilitate that, she shot the film in chronological order, so that characters in succeeding time periods would have the “memories” of previous time periods to use as a base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Vice

How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse