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

Lancaster Skies


Bombers fill the night of Lancaster skies.

(2019) War (Shout! FactoryJeffrey Mundell, David Dobson, Kris Saddler, Joanne Gale, Vin Hawke, Steve Hooper, Josh Collins, Callum Burn, Steven Hooper, Tom Gordon, Henry Collie, Tony Gordon, Leila Sykes, Eric Flynn, Roger Wentworth, Oria Sanders, Fiona Kimberley, Matt Davies, Bridgette Burn, Elliott Strother, Bryony James, Robert Francis, Tina Hodgson. Directed by Callum Burn

 

I take no joy out of writing a negative review. I know that most people go into making a movie with the best intentions, but things happen – sometimes there’s studio interference, sometimes the cast and crew are inexperienced, other times things just don’t click for whatever reason. I understand that there are human beings behind every movie, some having put all their passion into a project that for whatever reason just didn’t click with me; and that’s not on them so much as it is on me.

Once in a while, though, it is clear that a filmmaker’s reach exceeded his grasp. He or she perhaps had a good story and a decent cast, but budget limitations kept him/her from making the movie they wanted to make. I suspect that’s the problem here.

Lancaster Skies is meant to be a World War II epic about an English bomber crew dealing with the loss of their skipper (Tom Gordon). They are having to cope with the death of a comrade-in-arms, but also the arrival of their new captain, Douglas Miller (Mundell), who is dealing with a tragedy of his own and has become closed-off, stand-offish and generally a bit of a pill. At first, he is oil and water with the veteran crew. Only co-pilot Georgie Williams (Dobson) seems to be friendly towards him at all – well, there’s always comely WAAF Kate Hedges (Gale) who has taken a shine to the handsome but taciturn Miller.

Miller, a former Spitfire pilot, is chomping at the bit to take the fight to the Germans. With the survival rate of bomber crews right around 50% (Williams illustrates that in a bar brawl by flipping a coin a la Harvey Dent), this would seem to be on the surface a little crazy, but slowly Douglas begins to warm up to his crew and they to him. But, at last, they’ve finally gotten a mission to fly. With a tail gunner (Saddler) prone to freezing up at the worst possible moment, and a co-pilot with a devastating secret of his own, this crew will need to pull together if they are to survive their next mission.

I don’t really know how to begin to sort this all out. It is simply poorly done on every level. On a technical level, the color fades into almost black and white but I believe is just washed out color. It does so without warning and goes from color to washed out within even the same screen. I’m not technically proficient enough to identify whether it was a camera thing, a processing thing or a digital thing, but I can say for certain that it was an annoying thing.

The only thing stiffer than the dialogue is the actors saying it; if their upper lips were any stiffer, they would have been shot up full of Novocain. There are a lot of characters in the film and I couldn’t always differentiate between them. At length, I just gave up.

I could go on, but I think that for now, that’s enough. I do give director Callum Burn props for having the moxie to try and make a movie of this scope on a budget that was right around £80,000 – a microscopic amount compared to even most independent films. The movie wasn’t completely without merit and it is a story that deserves to be told, but perhaps Burn should have waited until he could get himself a budget to tell the story properly.

REASONS TO SEE: The title is evocative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff characters and even stiffer dialogue. Inexplicably drops in and out of color.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in five different shooting blocks over a two-year period.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memphis Belle
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Jinn (2018)

Postcards From London


I am young and, oh, so pretty…

(2018) LGBT Drama (Diablo/StrandHarris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King, Alessandro Cimadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Raphael Desprez, Jerome Holder, Leemore Marrett Jr., Silas Carson, Stephen Boxer, Leo Hatton, Emma Curtis, Ben Cura, Lew Hogan, Archie Rush, Richard Durden, Johanne Murdock, Giles New, Shaun Aylward, Rhys Yates, Georgina Strawson. Directed by Steve McLean

 

Steve McLean loves him some art, and that love is really what drives Postcards From London. Starring Beach Bums wunderkind Harris Dickinson as Jim, a stupendously naïve 18-year-old kid from Essex who goes to Jolly London and Soho specifically to chase adventure and mystery, he ends up being taken under the wing of four male escorts (Hauer-King, Cimadamore, Salerni, Desprez) who call themselves “The Raconteurs” and supply older, more discerning male clientele with post-coital conversation about literature and art.

The movie’s highly stylized look features plenty of neon and is all apparently shot on sound stages – not a single scene apparently takes place when the sun is shining. At least, we find no evidence of it. Dickinson did the callow youth thing about as well as anybody at that stage of his career, but he is given little more to work with than that his character is afflicted with Stendhal syndrome, a rare disease that causes the afflicted to lose their consciousness in the presence of beautiful art – weak in the presence of beauty, indeed. While swooning, Jim often imagines himself as part of the art, posing for Caravaggio (Cura) with his friends. These scenes are the most imaginative and notable but sadly, the film too often into pretension over its 90-minute run time.

This is certainly a work of passion which despite the fact that sex is a large part of the atmosphere, is remarkably coy about showing any. While the homoeroticism may titillate some, it is no more than you would find in the average drag show when push comes to shove. Dazzling to look at, this is indeed a film that takes the adage “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” a bit too closely to heart.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a semi-whimsical sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to be different.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual material, some violence and a fair amount of profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second feature McLean has directed; his first was in 1994 (Postcards From America) marking a 14-year differential between debut and sophomore effort.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trois: The Escort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Working Man

Cotton Wool


Family outings are the best.

(2017) Drama (Cherwell) Leanne Best, Crissy Rock, Kate Rutter, Max Vento, Gemma North, Katherine Quinn, Jason Lamar Ricketts, Emma Charlotte Heyes, Caragh Casserly, Olivia Hargreaves, Megan Grady, Lulu Mann, Will Clay, Edward Buckley. Directed by Nicholas Connor

 

Life can change in the space of a heartbeat. One moment, everything is normal and business as usual. The next, everything is different and our roles have been redefined, not only in regards to each other but in regards to ourselves.

Rachel (Best) is a singe mum in the North of England who works hard to put food on the table and care for her children; nine-year-old Sam (Vento) whom she dotes on, and teenage Jenny (Rock) whom she butts heads with. Remember that moment-to-moment thing? She’s taking laundry downstairs, trying to get her kids shooed off to school and herself to work when she collapses, suffering a massive stroke, Sam begging her to stop being a monster, clinging to the hope that his mum is trying to mess with him rather than think that something is seriously wrong which he knows deep down is true.

When Rachel comes home from the hospital, it becomes the responsibility of Jenny and Sam to take care of her. She has gone from taking care of her kids to being cared for by them. At first, Jenny wants no part of it. She wants nothing more than to be a normal teenage girl, hanging out at the pub with her friends. She abrogates her responsibility, leaving even more of the burden on Sam’s shoulders and fortunately Sam comes through, helping his mum with phonetic exercises trying to get a semblance of speech back for her and more importantly, having the presence of mind to summon help when his mother has a second mini-stroke.

A family friend (Rutter)) sees what’s happening and feels the need to intercede with Jenny, who is absolutely terrified when she realizes how easily her mum could have lost her life. The thought causes Jenny to reconsider her priorities.

The movie is ultimately heartwarming, but it underscores a serious problem with the National Health Service; there are nearly a quarter million caregivers in the UK who are children and of those, a significant percentage is under nine. I’m not sure what the figures are like here in the States, but I can bet that they are just as bad or worse, considering that we don’t have much of a healthcare system.

Best gives an outstanding performance here; the terror in her eyes as she falls to the floor, her last coherent words being “Oh, no!” as she realizes that something terrible is happening to her. Later on, her frustration has to be portrayed largely with her eyes and through tears, reduced to using a speech machine that in a flat operator-like voice says “I don’t feel like a woman anymore” as she confides to the social worker, at last being forced to ask her for help going to the loo.

The movie does get a bit maudlin at times as Sam, well-played by child actor Max Vento, is a bit too good to be true and Jenny a little bit too self-centered to begin with. There is a very real issue here, but the thirty-seven-minute running time isn’t really sufficient time to explore it properly. This is the rare case of a film not having enough time. As a result, Connor (who also wrote the film) is forced to use a cudgel rather than a scalpel.

This short has completed a successful festival run and should be on Amazon shortly. It is well worth seeking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Points out a rather large crack in the NHS that people fall through.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes gets a little maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Best also played the title role in The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Sick
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Robert the Bruce

They Shall Not Grow Old


The Great War, made living once again.

(2018) Documentary (Warner Brothers)  No cast listed.  Directed by Peter Jackson

 

When we think of Peter Jackson, we mostly think of Middle Earth. Some of his fans are aware, however, that he is a World War I buff, a war that his grandfather fought in and who died of injuries sustained in the war before little Peter was born. So when the Imperial War Museum offered to allow him to make a documentary using their film archives he jumped at the chance.

What has resulted is nothing less than an epic documentary, but this isn’t a typical “How the War was Won” informational film with maps and narration. This is the stories of the soldiers who fought the war, in their own words (taken from audio interviews decades after the fact) on footage that has been restored from jerky 18-frames-per-second hand-cranked jerkiness to smooth 24-frames-per-second realistic motion. He has also digitally colored the film, bringing depth to the faces and making the war something less from the dusty history books and more real and immediate for audiences.

Initially released in 3D IMAX, it is available at home now and in a lot of ways, it is less distracting to watch it from your couch than in a big IMAX seat with all the overpowering sound, even though the sound is part of the realism here. To be honest, I got lulled a bit during the middle as the film stretches on. I like to think of myself as a history buff but at times even I found it tedious, although it’s possible that when I saw it I was on the tired side which may have impacted my enjoyment of it.

Still, this is a document that comes as close to making the viewer a part of history as I think it is currently possible to become. The faces even given the hair styles and period dress, could be anyone you encounter on the street, in church, at your local theater. Or at least, used to. Some of the images of corpses, of dead horses and of explosions disturbingly close by may be a little much for those who are sensitive.

One other thing; we are never introduced to any of the soldiers speaking; we only get a sense of their experience and not who they are. That’s a lot like reading a dust jacket and trying to get a sense of what the book is like. This was deliberately done by Jackson so as not to bog down the film and I understand his reasoning, but I think it backfired. I would have liked to have known these men a little bit better. At least, some of their names.

REASONS TO SEE: The footage is incredible and the technology that brings it to life breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too long, a little too tedious, a little too impersonal.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images from the war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackson was given carte blanche by the Imperial War Museum to use their footage however he saw fit (so long as it was respectful). Some of the footage has never been seen by the public.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

Agatha and the Truth of Murder


“Colonel Mustard, in the study, with the lead pipe.”

(2018) Mystery (Vision) Ruth Bradley, Pippa Haywood, Ralph Ineson, Bebe Cave, Luke Pierre, Joshua Silver, Samantha Spiro, Tim McInnerny, Blake Harrison, Dean Andrews, Brian McCardie, Michael McElhatton, Seamus O’Hara, Derek Halligan, Liam McMahon, Amelia Rose Dell, Clare McMahon, Richard Doubleday, Stacha Hicks. Directed by Terry Loane 

 

In 1926, the great mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared, A great nationwide manhunt ensued with more than 10,000 police officers working the case. She was discovered eleven days later in a hotel, using the surname of her husband’s lover and with no memory of what transpired over those eleven days. To this day, it is a real-life unsolved mystery. This British made-for-TV film offers it’s own explanation.

Christie (Bradley) was at a crisis point in her life. While her career as a mystery author was going well, she was suffering from writer’s block and was tired of writing novels in which her readers simply picked the least likely suspect and solved the crime in that manner. Worse still, her husband (McMahon) was carrying on an affair with a younger woman and was demanding a divorce, one which she didn’t want to grant. Despite his infidelity, Christie was still in love with her husband.

She is in despair when approached by Mabel Rogers (Haywood), a nurse who begs the author to solve the murder of Rogers’ friend (and lover) Florence Nightingale Shore, bludgeoned to death on a train six years earlier. Although at first reluctant, Christie decides that solving the murder is not only the right thing to do but exactly what she needs to get out of her funk. She and Mabel concoct a plan to invite the main suspects in the crime to a country manor under the guise of being an insurance company representative seeing to the disbursement of funds from a will – nothing like appealing to greed to round up a disparate group of people.

Needless to say, things don’t go necessarily the way the great writer planned things and it ends up with her prime suspect (Andrews) being killed. When the actual police, in the person of Detective Inspector Dicks (Ineson), the cat is out of the bag and the game is truly afoot – to quote Arthur Conan Doyle (McElhatton), whom Christie consulted earlier about her writer’s block.

Part homage and part real life mystery, the case that Christie was called upon to solve in the film – the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, a niece of that Florence Nightingale, actually happened as described and in reality, was never solved. That Christie knew about the case is certain; it was big news in Britain at the time and Christie used elements of the crime in her book The Man in the Brown Suit. Mabel Rogers also existed as well.

Bradley makes an extremely engaging Christie. The actress, best known in the States for her work in Grabbers as well as the genre series Primeval and Humans, gives the acclaimed mystery writer a certain amount of pluck. While she is devastated by her husband’s affair, she has enough self-awareness to know that wallowing in misery is not the way to go. I don’t know how close her portrayal is to how the real Christie was but I think she plays Agatha Christie the way we wish she was.

The era is captured pretty well and while the production values aren’t quite as lush as the best adaptations of Christie’s work are, the movie suffices in that regard. While mystery buffs will find nothing particularly innovative here, I don’t think the movie necessarily had to reinvent the wheel in order to be successful. If I do have a bit of a quibble, the dialogue can be stiff and sound unrealistic to my ears. It doesn’t sound like real people conversing at times.

Fans of Christie’s work – my mother is one and I grew up reading many of her novels – will find familiar territory here, from the gathering at a country manor to the somewhat positive light that the police are portrayed here (other mystery writers have tended to write them as bumbling fools). That makes this kind of cinematic comfort food, the sort of thing that is sorely needed in these trying times.

REASONS TO SEE: Bradley makes a wonderful Christie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue tends to be a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was broadcast on Channel 5 in the UK on December 23rd, 2018. It was the first in a series of fictional films about Christie to be shown on television – each featuring a different actress in the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft,  Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald