Creation Stories


Alan McGee is ignored in his own office.

(2021) Music Biography (RLJE) Ewen Bremner, Leo Flanagan, Richard Jobson, Rori Hawthorn, Tess Rowe, Ciaran Lawless, Jack Paterson, Gerry Knotts, James Hicks, Irvine Welsh, Mickey Gooch Jr., Tom Dunlea, Suki Waterhouse, Elysia Welch, Seána Kerslake, Theren Raufman, Michael Socha, Thomas Turgoose, Paul Gallagher, Thomas Grant, Mel Raido, Siobhan Redmond. Directed by Nick Moran

 

In the late-1980s through mid-1990s, alternative rock was more or less dominated by the United Kingdom. With apologies to Seattle grunge and hip-hop (which was in its formative era back then), American indie music tended to follow trends set in England months and years earlier. It is startling for some American music fans who are interested in the era to discover that several different sub-genres were essentially brought into the limelight by one man and his record label; Scotsman Alan McGee and Creation Records.

As a young boy in Glasgow, McGee (Flanagan) lip-synched and played air guitar to Bowie while his abusive father (Jobson) despaired of his son ever making anything of himself. With the support of his mother (Redmond) and sister (Hawthorn), he managed to survive with ego intact and after seeing the Sex Pistols on TV, determined to move to London and start a punk band. Unfortunately, his timing was bad and he arrived just as the punk era was more or less fading out.

But the now twenty-something McGee (Bremner), while not himself talented as a musician, knew talent when he heard it. He found the Jesus and Mary Chain and became their manager, using the profits from that relationship to pour into a record label that he named Creation, named after a 60s band that he admired. The band was a seat-of-the-pants operation early on but McGee had an uncanny knack of discovering bands and trends – like acid house (Primal Scream), shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine) and indie pop (Teenage Fan Club) before they became huge. But his most notable discovery was Oasis, the band that spearheaded the Britpop craze of the Nineties, and was for a time the biggest band in the world.

But as all rock docs let us know, the success was fueled by excess as McGee became hooked on ecstasy, cocaine and eventually, heroin. After his drug usage got to a point (he famously claims that he doesn’t remember anything about 1993 except signing Oasis) that he had a breakdown, he managed to clean up, but the cost to his personal life was high.

Having been a rock critic during the heyday of Creation, I can testify to the influential status of the label. While they weren’t the only influential label of their time, there really hasn’t been a label like them before or since. Moran’s somewhat fictionalized account of McGee’s life captures the era well, using montages, archival footage and New Music Express headlines. For someone who was in tune with what was going on across the pond, it brought up a lot of memories.

For those who were less in the loop, it might all be a bit confusing – the introduction of since-disgraced British DJ Jimmy Saville late in the movie might not resonate with those who aren’t aware of the reasons McGee despised him so deeply, for example. Bremner plays McGee in a somewhat over-the-top manner which ordinarily might be off-putting, yet is perfect for the task at hand. McGee was (and is) larger than life and it is a tough assignment to get his personality just right and in many ways Bremner’s portrayal doesn’t do McGee justice, but to be fair, nobody could.

Moran’s directorial style seems heavily influenced by Danny Boyle in his Trainspotting days (Boyle is a producer here, not coincidentally) and yes, the hyperactive style that Boyle made famous back then works wonderfully here. There’s a lot of cheeky humor here, some of it of the meme-worthy variety, that seems in tandem with McGee’s personality. It may grate at times, but I found it amusing anyway.

If there is a problem here, it’s just that it feels so much like every other rock biography out there, with enough reverence to be nearly hagiographic, but enough irreverence to make it rock and roll. Moran also uses the hoary old conceit of telling most of the story as a flashback, using an interview that McGee does with a fictional but comely interviewer (Waterhouse) in Los Angeles as a springboard for his anecdotes.

McGee is not as well-known over here in the States as he should be, but thankfully, the music he helped bring to the world speaks for itself and there is plenty of it on the soundtrack. Even so, the movie is definitely all about McGee and his personality which permeates the film. This is isn’t a movie whose innovation will match the music that it chronicles, but it is serviceable enough a story and the music is good enough to carry the movie through.

REASONS TO SEE: A cheeky sense of humor. A great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems a bit too much like most rock biographies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a shit ton of profanity, drug use, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s world premiere at the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival, which is also where McGee was from and where much of the early portion of the movie is set.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC Plus, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Your Friends
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Seobok: Project Clone

Munich: The Edge of War


Neville Chamberlain hopes for peace in our time.

(2021) Historical Drama (Netflix) George MacKay, Jeremy Irons, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jannis Niewöhner, Liv Lisa Fries, Raphael Sowole, Sandra Hüller, August Diehl, Ulrich Matthes, Richard Dillane, Alex Jennings, Mark Lewis Jones, Hannes Wegener, Aidan Hennessey, Nicholas Farrell, Rainer Sellien, Abigail Cruttenden, Helen Clyro, Nicholas Shaw, Robert Bathurst, Anjli Mohindra. Directed by Christian Schwochow

 

Students of history will remember the image of a jubilant British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a sheaf of papers in his hand upon his return from the Munich Conference with Adolph Hitler in 1938, exclaiming “I bring you peace in our time,” after getting the German Chancellor to agree not to invade the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia by essentially handing over the territory to him. The policy of appeasement in order to provide “peace at any price” turned out to be tragically wrong, and Chamberlain was excoriated for it by contemporaries, but also by history.

This film, based on a historical novel by Robert Harris, tries to shed a different light on the outcome of the Conference. It opens with Oxford students George Legat (MacKay), Paul von Hartmann (Niewöhner) and Paul’s girlfriend Lenya (Fries) celebrating their graduation. Von Hartmann is particularly ecstatic, knowing he is going home to what he terms a “new Germany,” following the triumph of the Nazi party, taking a country bled dry by World War I and the onerous terms of surrender that was placed upon it. Six years later, Paul is a diplomat in Germany who’s attitude to the Nazi party has taken a serious about-face. Meanwhile, George is now married to Pamela (Findlay) and working as a private secretary to Prime Minister Chamberlain (Irons).

Chamberlain is frustrated at Hitler’s (Matthes) saber-rattling and refusal to negotiate. Europe stands on the precipice of another ruinous war, and nobody has forgotten how long it took to recover from the last one – and in fact, it could be argued that they were still recovering. So Chamberlain puts together a conference in Munich to try and hammer out an agreement that would prevent war. Legat, who speaks fluent German, is brought along to translate. MI-6 also sees an opportunity for Legat to perhaps ferret out some intelligence about Hitler’s plans.

Boy, does he. Paul’s current lover Helen (Hüller) has come into possession of a typed-out document that outlines Hitler’s plans to plunge Europe into a massive war, with Germany eating up territory, shipping undesirables East to labor camps, and resettling their land with good Aryan stock. Paul manages to get George’s attention and George arranges a hasty meeting with Chamberlain, but one of Hitler’s bodyguards (Diehl) who also happens to be an old friend of Paul’s, is keeping a watchful eye on him.

The movie tends to emphasize the espionage aspect of the younger, completely fictional characters, ignoring the opportunity to give us some insight into Chamberlain and the other historical characters in the movie, whose actions in Munich would have such enormous repercussions. To be honest, the espionage content is far less interesting.

Irons portrays Chamberlain as a man absolutely certain that he is right and working for the right end. In an odd aside, the movie seems to indicate that Chamberlain’s actions, far from merely giving Hitler the green light to do what he wished, actually gave the Allies needed time to prepare for the war, which is a bit of an odd way of looking at it.

We never really get a sense of the tension of living in a police state and while the cinematography is fairly nice (particularly in the opening sequence), the score is a bit bombastic and intrusive. Also, the opening and closing credits are done in kind of a weird Sixties Rankin-Bass kind of style which doesn’t suit the film at all.

The trouble with historical dramas is that we generally know how the movie is going to turn out. Nobody needed a spoiler alert to know that the Titanic was going to sink. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to see here, particularly on the occasions when the film looks more closely at Chamberlain and what drove him to the decisions he made. I wish they would have concentrated more on that and jettisoned the ill-advised and not-very-well-executed thriller material.

REASONS TO SEE: There are certainly some modern parallels to the return of authoritarianism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Focuses far too much on the espionage thriller aspect rather than on the historical drama, which is much more fascinating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, period smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lead characters of von Hartmann and Legat are fictional, they are based on real people; the document that von Hartmann risked so much to smuggle to Chamberlain actually existed, although there is no evidence that Chamberlain ever actually saw it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Valkyrie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
American Gadfly

Yardie


“D” Fence.

(2018) Crime Drama (Amazon) Ami Ameen, Stephen Graham, Shantol Jackson, Mark Rhino Smith, Fraser James, Calvin Demba, Akin Gazi, Naomi Ackie, Philips Nortey, Antwayne Eccleston, Rayon McLean, Sheldon Shepherd, Christopher Daly, Reshawna Douglas, Alexandra Vaz, Chris-Ann Fletcher, Paul Haughton, Everaldo Creary, Carol Lawes. Directed by Idris Elba

Some of the greatest music ever made came out of the Jamaican reggae scene of the 70s. Some of the most brutal crime lords were also based in Kingston at the time. Dj Jerry Dread (Creary) believes that reggae can bring peace to warring factions, and invites the leaders of those factions to shake hands at a music festival he’s putting together. Instead, he gets gunned down by one of the durg lords for his troubles, witnessed by his little brother Dennis.

Now an adult going by the name D (Ameen), he is working for the other kingpin King Fox (Shepherd) who comes to the realization that D is far too unstable and violent for the island. He sends him to London to deliver a shipment of cocaine to Jamaican-born Rico (Graham), but D, feeling disrespected by Rico, decides to sell the shipment himself. This, as you might imagine, doesn’t go over well.

So D hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Yvonne (Jackson) and reconnects with the daughter that he hadn’t seen since she was a baby. He also means to make something of himself as a DJ (following in his late brother’s footsteps) while becoming a drug lord on his own. Then, when he finds out that the man who pulled the trigger that killed his brother is in London, he has a whole new project to concentrate on.

Ameen delivers a searing performance that will stay with you for quite some time. He’s one to keep an eye out for. In the meantime, he gets to play off of Graham, who doesn’t mind chewing the scenery somewhat. At times, one might be forgiven for wondering if they had tuned in a Guy Ritchie crime boss film by mistake.

The story isn’t particularly inspiring – D is far too volatile and self-destructive to be a protagonist that you’ll want to identify with – and it does drag a little bit in the middle, but it makes up for that with a climax that is bat guano crazy.

REASONS TO SEE: Ameen is charismatic as all hell.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags somewhat in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and violence as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jason has a twin brother Jeremy who is also an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peppermint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Arctic Void

The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Silent Hours


Chick magnet? Or serial killer?

(2021) Erotic Thriller (Gravitas) James Weber Brown, Susie Amy, Hugh Bonneville, Dervla Kirwan, Annie Cooper, Tom Beard, Vicki Michelle, Elizabeth Healey, Alistair Petrie, Indira Varma, Angela Thorne, Caio Sael. Directed by Mark Greenstreet

It’s no secret that the British do mysteries and thrillers better than anybody else. That is likely because they have a voracious appetite for them; their television programming is absolutely littered with the things. This particular film was actually aired on British television in 2017 as a three-part miniseries, albeit likely a premium service, considering the fairly mature and graphic subject matter.

John Duval (Brown) is an ex-Navy man living in the UK naval town of Portsmouth back in 2002. He makes a post-service living as a private investigator, mainly following wives of canning factory owners, naval officers and the like as their husbands suspect them of infidelity. Spoiler alert; they’re usually right. And what’s worse is Duval’s occasional ability to fall in bed with his client’s wives once the job is done.

In fact, a lot of women are falling into his bed, and they seem to all have a thing for what the Brits euphemistically call “naughty underwear,” while Duval has a thing for a certain canine sexual position with a tendency to spank his partner as he does the nasty. Sexual repression is virtually a cottage industry in the UK.

But as the women that Duval sleep with (including his girlfriend (Healey) and a few others) turn up brutally murdered and dismembered with their bodies displayed in lascivious positions, the police in the form of Detective Inspector Jane Ambrose (Kirwan) have painted a bullseye on Duval as their prime suspect. It’s enough to make someone seek therapy, but Duval was already doing that, sharing with his therapist (Varma) his blackouts and dropping baleful hints of a checkered past. The only way out of the situation for Duval is to find the culprit himself – no matter where the trail may lead.

The two and a half hour runtime for this is about an hour too long for this kind of movie, which isn’t helped by pacing more suitable to a…well, British television show than a feature film. It doesn’t help that the final twist is absolutely preposterous, but by the time you get there – if you haven’t switched the bloody thing off by then – you pretty much don’t care whodunit.

There are some fine actors here; Amie and Bonneville are both veterans who perform admirably and Brown, best known for his work on Coronation Street is adequate as the hard-bitten P.I. but the whole conceit of women throwing themselves at him makes no sense. Perhaps I’m not hanging out with the right kind of women, but the ones I know don’t seem to be sexually attracted to a washed-up ex-Navy guy with no prospects, almost no morals, who sleeps around with anyone who has the right plumbing and drinks too much. Rugged good looks can only take you so far and as you hit your fifties, they take you less far than they used to.

The score is bombastic and intrusive and often drowns out the dialogue which is annoying. But for those who like the old soft-core thrillers that used to air late night on the Cinemax cable network, this might be the movie you’ve been waiting for. There’s undeniably a hefty amount of sex and nudity, not to mention women in seductive lingerie, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat. Some judicious editing might have floated mine a bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who remember “Skinemax” films with some fondness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way, way, WAY too long for what it is and slow-paced at that.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sex, nudity, sex, smoking, sex, profanity, sex, violence, sex and gruesome images. Did we mention sex?
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Silent hours” is Royal Naval slang for night hours aboard a ship.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Hunter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Emperor’s Sword

The Show (2020)


Not quite a paper moon.

(2020) Neo-Noir Fantasy (Shout!) Tom Burke, Ellie Bamber, Darrell D’Silva, Christopher Fairbank, Siobhan Hewlett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Julian Bleach, Babou Cesay, Alan Moore, Richard Dillane, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Oaklee Pendergast, Ethan Rouse, Eric Lampaert, Sheila Atim, Bradley John, Robert Goodman, Josie Taylor, Daniel Tuite, Stewart Magrath, Gayle Richardson. Directed by Mitch Jenkins

 

Alan Moore, the writer/creator of such graphic novel works as The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke and From Hell, has often been described variously as curmudgeonly, grumpy, cranky, cross, and outspoken. He certainly hasn’t pulled punches regarding his opinion of cinematic adaptations of his work (he hates them, in case you were wondering). Now, he has decided to write a screenplay of his own, following up on a series of shorts he wrote for director Mitch Jenkins, entitled Show Pieces which act as a kind of prequel to this feature. No, you don’t need to see them in order to enjoy The Show although it wouldn’t hurt.

In any case, Fletcher Dennis (Burke) shows up in Northampton, the town in which Moore grew up and which he regards clearly with some fondness. He is looking for a James Mitchum, discovering that he took a severe fall outside a nightclub and has died of his wounds. Dennis shows up at the local hospital where Mitchum was taken, masquerading as his brother Bob, looking for his effects – specifically a necklace with a gold cross on which a jeweled rose is centered.

Not finding it despite a helpful morgue attendant (Bleach) who intones “I see dead people,” to which Dennis responds “You work in a hospital!” However, Dennis heads to the boarding house Mitchum was staying in and arranges to rent his room from the vivacious landlady Becky (Bamber) who doubles as a walking tour guide of Northampton, where I imagine there isn’t much call for walking tours. He also discovers that a young woman named Faith Harrington (Hewlett) was brought in at the same time as Mitchum and may hold some clue to the mystery of the missing cross.

As he digs into the mystery, aided by Faith, he will run into a drug kingpin named John Conqueror (Atim) who uses voodoo as a marketing tool, a dead comedy team that owned a working class pub that burned to the ground decades earlier, but pops up in their dreams, Dennis’ foul-mouthed client (Fairbank) and a couple of gumshoes named Tim (Pendergast, Rouse) who are likely around ten or eleven years old, operate out of a clubhouse, take payment in energy drinks, and speak noir-esque narration (their scenes are filmed in black and white).

Moore shows up as Frank Metterton, one half of the deceased comic duo whose beard and costume gives his head the shape of a crescent moon, and whose sonorous voice seems to imply more than perhaps he actually delivers. He’s actually pretty good in the role, but his arcane and occasionally obscure sense of humor shows up throughout the movie, making the film a good deal more fun than you might expect. Moore has always been, in some ways, has always cultivated the persona of the outsider, and it serves him well here.

This is not a straightforward noir film, although the genre plainly informs the action and Moore is just as plainly delivering his own version of it. Some of the tropes are skewered with sly wit, others are a bit more overt, but this isn’t a spoof so much as it is an homage. It is also, however, willfully weird, wearing its strangeness as a badge of honor with somewhat skewed camera angles, unsettling visuals and dialogue that makes Wes Anderson look like Michael Bay.

The movie is a little long and it definitely takes its time in getting where its going, but there are rewards to be had here. Fans of Alan Moore will no doubt want to rush and see this and as it is only playing for a single night as a Fathom event (locally, it can be seen at the  AMC Altamonte Mall and the AMC Disney Springs) tomorrow (Thursday, August 26th), while others who prefer more straightforward fare might not be in such a hurry to check it out. Nonetheless, I found it entertaining enough so long as you are willing to stay with it and let yourself fall under its spell.

REASONS TO SEE: Willfully weird, but hard to ignore.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing needed to have been picked up a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hewlett’s Faith Harrington was the subject of the first of five Show Pieces shorts, three of which have been collected together under that name and are currently available on Shudder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Scanner Darkly
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Finding Kendrick Johnson

Censor


Some doors shouldn’t be opened.

(2021) Horror (Magnet) Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, Felicity Montagu, Danny Lee Wynter, Clare Perkins, Guillaume Delaunay, Richard Glover, Erin Shanagher, Beau Gadsdon, Amelie Child-Villiers, Matthew Earley, Richard Renton, Bo Bragason, Amelia Craighill, Madeleine Hutchins. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

 
We all have different tolerances for horror movies. Some of us delight in them, loving the thrill ride feeling of being scared. Others may find the feeling uncomfortable and shy away from horror films. Still others, who carry past traumas like demons that are summoned at the flicker of a screen, can find a horror movie to be something of a time bomb.

Enid Baines (Algar) is a tightly-wound British film censor back in the 1980s during an age of horror films that are looked back upon fondly by aficionados of the genre. Called “video nasties” by the tabloid press and right-wing politicians, the moral outcry was because the new technology of VCRs would allow movies like The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave into the home where children could be exposed to them without supervision. It is her task to determine what sort of cuts needed to be made in order to bring a film up to code, or whether to ban a film outright. She takes her job seriously.

Perhaps that’s because her job is essentially all she has. Her relationship with her mum (Holman) and Dad (Havill) is strained at the moment – that’s because they have elected to declare her sister Nina, who disappeared twenty years earlier, dead. Enid sees this as a betrayal, largely because of the guilt feelings that she has because she was present when Nina disappeared and can’t remember any details.

Then, when reviewing a film called Don’t Go In the Church by cult film director Frederick North (Schiller) whose sleazy producer Doug Smart (Smiley) puts the moves on the increasingly agitated Enid, she notices that the actress Alice Lee (La Porta) looks very much the way Nina might as an adult. Also, she notices that the events of the film – in which two little girls enter a deserted cabin in the middle of the woods – mirror the fractured memories of her sister’s disappearance to an uncomfortable degree.

This sends Enid, convinced that the red-headed actress IS her sister, down a spiral as she looks into the films of Frederick North, including the one he’s currently filming, in an effort to rescue her long-lost sister and bring her home. Is Enid right, and is she about to solve a mystery that has haunted her for 20 years? Or has the years of watching massive amounts of violence and mayhem ultimately unhinged her?

First-time feature director Bailey-Bond has a self-assured hand on the tiller, and together with cinematographer Annika Summerson has nicely recreated the look of horror movies from the 80s with neon-glow lighting, earthtoned costumes and dull, drab office spaces. She does a good job building up the tension, aided by the sound designer Tim Harrison whose use of electronic pulses, barely audible screams and loud thumps keeps the viewer off-balance. Although the movie goes a bit off the rails near the end when the director gets, in my opinion, a bit self-indulgent, she immediately makes up for it with an ending that is absolutely amazing, one that left me grinning ear to ear, not something that happens often at the conclusion of a film.

Algar, an up and coming Irish actress, does a mesmerizing job, evolving Enid from a buttoned-down schoolmarm-ish sort and unraveling into someone whose entire world has been shattered and doesn’t know which end is up or down any longer. It’s the kind of performance that bodes well for us seeing more of her in the future in higher profile films.

This is more or less a psychological horror film with a nod to British horror films of the 60s made in the style of the video nasties of the 80s. While there is a good deal of gore on the screen, it largely comes from the clips that Enid is reviewing, mostly from actual films of the era (the Frederick North films are the exception). This is a solid debut that horror fans should be keeping an eye out for when it hits streaming platforms this Friday – until then, check your local listings for the nearest theater in which it’s playing.

REASONS TO SEE: An exceptionally clever ending. The use of sound to create an unsettling atmosphere is masterful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does go off the rails a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and profanity – a true video nasty!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Algar is probably best-known to American audiences as Sue in the Apple TV Ridley Scott sci-fi series Raised By Wolves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peeping Tom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Those Who Wish Me Dead

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