Together


Apparently the pandemic CAN be used as couples therapy.

(2021) Drama (Bleecker Street) James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin

 

The pandemic is, in some ways, a screenwriter’s dream. It is a situation everyone on the planet is affected by, something we all can relate to. As more and more movies come out set during lockdowns and quarantines, the question becomes whether we are exploring the topic too soon (as even now we are suffering through a surge in Delta variant cases) or whether what we have to say at this point is premature.

A brief rant before I commence – I have always found the trope of not naming the characters to be more pretentious than anything. Yes, I get that they are supposed to be “everymen” and “everywomen” for the sake of the narrative, but it’s more or less a cop-out these days. Give your characters names, and not just for the convenience of the critics either – it’s disrespectful to the audience. End rant.

An unnamed couple (grrr!), played by Horgan and McAvoy, are thrown together by the lockdown in England. They are an upper middle class couple who couldn’t be more different; he’s a conservative entrepreneur who doesn’t have much use for what he calls “the chattering class,” while she’s a progressive liberal who is an executive for a non-profit. But they have a young ten-year-old special needs kid named Artie (Logan) together, and – not for nothing – they hate each other’s guts. The only thing keeping them from going their separate ways is Artie.

The movie takes place from day one of the English lockdown into the spring of 2021. Things are divided into chapters which are delineated by what day of the lockdown it is, and how many deaths from COVID have been recorded in England by that date, which seems to be a not-so-veiled swipe at the Boris Johnson administration (it gets not-so-veiled during a Horgan monologue later in the movie).

Most of the dialogue is delivered at the camera, as if you’re a friend or relative on Zoom, and the couple are making their case for why the other one is the reason the marriage is in trouble. That is punctuated with often heart-rending monologues – in Horgan’s case, the absolutely horrific treatment her mother receives in a care home, while in McEvoy’s an encounter with an anti-masker that causes him to rethink things.

The acting here is superb. Given dialogue that is worthy of Aaron Sorkin. There is some snappy repartee and plenty of back-and-forth between the couple, who are often talking over each other in the way that couples do. That gives the film a kind of naturality that brings more authenticity to the movie than it otherwise might have. The screenplay was originally meant to be a stage play, but the practical complications of mounting a stage production during a pandemic led this to be turned into a movie, but it still retains some of its stage-y qualities. You don’t really notice them, however, because the acting and writing are both so damn good.

I’m not sure if this will end up being a time capsule of this period in history, or something that speaks to deeper truths in relationships. I tend to subscribe to the latter; there is a timelessness about the issues between the couple that are only framed by the pandemic rather than are caused by it. I was completely blown away by the emotional resonance that the film brought and recommend it thoroughly as one of the best movies of the year. If ever you needed an excuse to get out to the theaters, this movie is it.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior writing and direction. Natural performances from Morgan and McElroy, who is particularly impressive. A powerful, emotional time capsule of 2020-21.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so sure using a pandemic as couples therapy is appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in only ten days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scenes from a Marriage
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Fatal Raid

Say Your Prayers


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindred


No rest for the weary.

(2020) Thriller (IFC) Tamara Lawrence, Fiona Shaw, Jack Lowden, Anton Lasser, Edward Holcroft, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Natalia Kostrzewa, Chloe Pirrie, Nyree Yergainharsian, Toyah Frantzen. Directed by Joe Marcantonio

 

John Lennon once wrote, quite accurately, that life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. In other words, plan away, but life happens no matter what your intentions are.

Ben (Holcroft), an English veterinarian, and his black Girlfriend Charlotte (Lawrence) have plans to move to Australia. Why? Likely because it’s about as far as they can get from Ben’s rabidly possessive mother Margaret (Shaw) and Ben’s super-creepy stepbrother Thomas (Lowden). When they go to lunch  at the crumbling estate where Margaret and Thomas live and where nine generations of Ben’s family has resided, breaking the news of their impending move doesn’t go well, to say the least.

However, their decision to move is put on hold when it is discovered that Charlotte is pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want. She tells Ben emphatically that she’s not ready to be a mother and doesn’t want to jeopardize their plans. Unfortunately, that all becomes moot when Ben perishes suddenly.

Margaret – who has been informed of Charlotte’s delicate condition by her doctor (Lasser), suddenly aims to be mother of the year, taking Charlotte in to live on the estate. But then, slowly, it becomes apparent that Charlotte won’t be permitted to leave and that Thomas may be drugging her to insure that she doesn’t. Margaret, you see, needs to have an heir to take over the estate and Thomas isn’t a blood relative. As Charlotte is beset by nightmares and images of ravens, she realizes that she is in a very dangerous situation that she must escape from quickly.

I think this is a movie that the filmmakers started out with honorable intentions, but along the way they got distracted. The pacing is slow and methodical which some thrillers can be in an attempt to build suspense; however, the payoff should then be a roller coaster ride and frankly, the climax here isn’t payoff enough. There are some interesting potential subplots going on here – the racial aspects, the supernatural aspects of the ravens, the gaslighting done by Margaret and Thomas, family madness running in Charlotte’s family, but none of these go anywhere. I thought at one point that the filmmakers were going for a metaphor of the control of a woman’s body by external forces, but that doesn’t pan out either.

What does work is Lawrence’s performance which ranks right up there with that of Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, which this film shares some parallel themes with. Her facial expressions are absolutely priceless throughout, as is her body language as new life grows within her character. She also gets the usually reliable Shaw to play off of, although Shaw is curiously overplaying her role here. It’s not one of the better performances by the veteran actress.

I get the sense that the filmmakers were going for something of a mash-up, but one of the pitfalls of doing one of those types of films is that it can end up being neither fish nor fowl, not enough of any one genre to really suck in fans of that genre. Horror fans will be disappointed, thriller fans are likely to be unimpressed and drama fans are not going to really connect. So you have a movie that combines genres but omits the best elements of each. Lawrence is the real attraction here; she is certainly a name to keep an eye out in the next few years.

REASONS TO SEE: Lawrence gives a truly dazzling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film builds very slowly and gets bogged down in soap opera-esque plot twists.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for both director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason MacColgan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Narco Warriors

Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk


A horse as a matter of course.

(2020) War/Sports (Picture Perfect) Sam Gittins, Joe Egan, Jennifer Martin, Chris Simmons, Joel Phillimore, Michael Elkin, Tim Berrington, Jake J. Menlani, Ryan Winsley, Toby Kearton, Antonio Bustorff, Guy Faulkner, Sam Newman, Chris Shipton, Mirsad Solakovic, Sammy Measom, Patrick Capaloff-Fowler, Leo Wherrett, Geir Madland, Adam Braddock, James Haynes, Neale Ricotti. Directed by Ben Mole

From time to time, we’ll watch an old movie and sigh to ourselves “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” On extremely rare occasions, we see a new movie that puts lie to that cliché.

It is 1940 and the British army is being pushed back into the channel, seeking to escape at Dunkirk and facing complete annihilation. A group of soldiers are captured in the countryside of France, including Danny Finnegan (Gittins), who happens to be a world champion boxer. The German commandant, who fancies himself a sportsman, recognizes Danny at once at determines to stage an exhibition match between Danny and one of his men, mainly using the bout as an opportunity to impress his superior officer who also happens to be a boxing fan. Danny is loathe to take part, but eventually relents when one of his buddies is brutally beaten by the man he’ll face in the ring.

In the meantime, the soldiers are aware that the clock is ticking. Soon, they’ll be transported to Germany and where escape will be extremely unlikely. The time to get away is now, with Danny’s bout providing a distraction that will allow them to get to Dunkirk before the entire British army is evacuated, but getting away won’t be so easy. They’ll need help, and there a pretty French farmgirl (Martin) with a grudge against the German commander is their only hope – but it will all be for naught if Danny is unable to stretch the fight out long enough for his mates to get away.

This is an interesting genre mash-up between a war movie that harkens back to some of the contemporaneous “stay calm and fight on” films of the postwar era, and the sports movie that could easily be called Rocky vs. the Nazis. Reading this on paper, I admit it sounds a bit ludicrous but writer-director Ben Mole makes it work.

Gittens, who is best known for a recurring role on the British series EastEnders, has an easy screen presence and carries this low-budget affair on his back, largely. Not all of the supporting cast fares as well, sadly; some accents are known to slip in and out of French and German accents, and a few give some fairly stiff line readings. Given the budget constraints, it’s unlikely there was much time for rehearsal and a likelihood that there is a fairly inexperienced cast behind Gittens.

At times the budget limitations are detrimental – the sound effects of guns firing sound like little pops rather than the bangs we’re used to in the movies, for example, but for the most part, Mole makes good use of what budget he has. I wish he’d taken the time to choreograph the boxing sequences a bit better; they are often unconvincing and one gets the sense that the actors are winging it a bit.

But don’t let that bother you, particularly if you like movies that appeal to the male of the species. This hits two sets of feels for the movie guy, who sometimes gets underserved these days in our zeal to make filmmaking more inclusive – which is a good thing, by the way, but still there’s a need for these types of movies as well. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service if your favorite guy is moping about the house and is in need of an infusion of testosterone, or if you’re someone’s favorite guy and you need it. In that case, treat yourself, by all means.

REASONS TO SEE: An interesting mash-up of genres.
REASONS TO AVOID: The boxing sequences occasionally are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both war and boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The battle of Dunkirk took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Victory
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Videogame Story

Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

Stan & Ollie


A classic pairing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Joseph Balderrama, John Henshaw, Tapiwa Mugweni, Keith MacPherson, Stewart Alexander, Kevin Millington, Toby Sedgwick, Rebecca Yeo, Stephanie Hyam, Kate Okello, Sanjeev Kohli, Richard Cant, Ashley Robinson, Susy Kane. Directed by Jon S. Baird

The comic duo of Laurel and Hardy have transcended their medium and become iconic. Most people know who they are, even if they’ve never seen them in action. Their bits, born in the traditions of the music hall and vaudeville, still are as enthralling today as they were 80 years ago.

However, this biopic depicts the legendary team in the twilight of their career. Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver “Babe” Hardy (Reilly) have long since passed the zenith of their careers and have been rendered by television and teams like Abbott and Costello as artifacts of a bygone age. Needing cash and hoping to mount a comeback in a Robin Hood-like picture that Laurel is writing, the two mount a tour of England at the behest of promoter Bernard Delfont (Jones) in 1953.

At first, they are playing in dodgy venues to sparse crowds. There is a tension between the two, largely due to a feeling of betrayal that Stan has that Oliver worked with silent comedian Harry Langdon (Cant) on a picture called Zenobia which Laurel dismisses as “that elephant picture” following a contract dispute for Laurel while Hardy was still under contract to Hal Roach. Hardy who had ballooned to well over 300 pounds by that point, had health constraints that affected his ability to perform. Also, their wives Lucille Hardy (Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Ananda) didn’t get on particularly well.

Like most Hollywood biographies, the film does fudge a little bit on the facts but it does get the essence of the relationship between the two right, not to mention the personalities of the two men. Laurel was a thinker, a compulsive sort who did the lion’s share of the writing while Hardy was a more easygoing fellow, a bit of a hedonist and not one for thinking about the future. Even though for much of the film the relationship between the two was frosty, there was still a great deal of affection between them as you would find for any two people who were in close quarters for more than 30 years.

Coogan’s performance won him a BAFTA nomination, but for my money the performance to see here is Reilly’s, which the Hollywood Foreign Press apparently agreed with me on as he was the one who got the Golden Globe nomination. In all honesty, though, both performances are distinctive with Reilly’s being just a little bit more so.

Where the movie kind of fails is that we don’t see what really made them such a wonderful team; sure, we see a few bits here and there, and we get a sense of the chemistry between the two, but you would be hard pressed to explain why the two were so popular in their heyday by watching this film.

Still, that may not have been what Baird and writers Jeff Pope and AJ Marriott were after. This doesn’t give us the sweep of their careers, only a snapshot of a particular time in their career when they were admittedly past their prime. Still, it’s a sweet tribute to a pair of comedians who made an incalculable contribution to motion picture comedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Coogan and Reilly do a fine job of bringing the two beloved comedians to life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t re ally explore the essence of their humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got it’s nationwide American release on Oliver Hardy’s 117th birthday.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic:  75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chaplin
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Trip to Greece

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)


Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

(2018) Biographical Drama (FocusSaoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, Maria Dragus, Eileen O’Higgins, Ian Hallard, Kandiff Kirwan, Adam Bond, Angela Bain, Izuka Hoyle, Liah O’Prey, Katherine O’Donnelly. Directed by Josie Rourke

 

You would think that history is immutable, written in stone; this event happened to these people on this date. History is, however, very much subject to interpretation and particularly to revision. If we don’t like what we know about history, we extrapolate what we don’t know; in trying to give context we often rob history of its own truth.

The rivalry between Elizabeth Tudor (Robbie), Queen of England, and Mary Stuart (Ronan), Queen of Scotland, was largely a political one, made personal because the two were cousins. In this revisionist version of that rivalry, both queens are manipulated by the venal and fragile egos of the men at court as well as by the tides of religious fervor that was sweeping both nations. Mary was a devout Catholic and was despised by the largely Protestant population of her country, the most outspoken of whom was John Knox (Tenant), founder of the Presbyterian Church. Also whereas Elizabeth chose to forego marriage and children and concentrate on ruling her country, Mary chose to strengthen her grip on the thrown through marriage leading to a series of romances that may have done more to harm her standing than help.

Elizabeth is portrayed here as sympathetic and admiring of her cousin Mary, but forced into a rivalry reluctantly, even though there’s absolutely no evidence in that regard; screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) even dreams up a face to face meeting between the two monarchs even though that never happened in actuality; I suppose it makes for good drama but then again, Hollywood has never been the place to go to for history lessons and generally, I have been okay with that unless the “dramatic license” becomes egregious.

Both actresses do very well with their roles, and why would they not; Ronan and Robbie are two of the most talented actresses in the business and they are given two compelling historical figures to work with. Sadly, both of the women here are portrayed as victims of their time rather than as shapers of it. Often, progressives have a tendency to passively denigrate that which they are trying to portray as worthy; the truth is that Elizabeth was one of the most politically savvy figures of her time or any other time, for that matter. If she was manipulated, it was no more so than any other male political figure including her father Henry VIII; chief of state manipulation has been a human tradition ever since we started putting people in charge.

The film has sumptuous production values with wonderful costumes (Elizabeth’s wigs alone are worth a gander) but I truly wish the film had portrayed both of these figures as the compelling characters that they are rather than using them to make a political point about an era that neither would have recognized or, likely, approved of.

REASONS TO SEE: Ronan and Robbie give wonderful performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Eschews historical accuracy for woke political messaging.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Tennant plays John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His father was the Moderator of the General Assembly for that church.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elizabeth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Grace

Johnny English Strikes Again


Johnny English is virtually real.

(2018) Spy Comedy (Focus)  Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy, Adam James, David Mumeni, Miranda Hennessy, Samantha Russell, Michael Gambon, Edward Fox, Charles Dance, Roger Barclay, Amit Shah, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Matthew Beard, Jack Fox, Noah Spiers, Alfie Kennedy, Jasmine Brightmore, Adam Greaves-Neal, Kendra Mei.  Directed by David Kerr

I don’t have a problem with silly movies. I’m all for silliness, and few actors do silly as well as Rowan Atkinson. But did anybody think this character, created for a series of British bank adverts, would last three films?

The suave superspy Johnny English (Atkinson) is happily retired as an instructor at a snooty boarding school, teaching his charges spycraft and military techniques when he is summoned back into service. It seems that a hacker has “outed” all of Britain’s spies, and is playing havoc with the traffic signals and banking system. The testy Prime Minister (Thompson) is getting ready to host the G-12 summit and she doesn’t want Great Britain humiliated. English, an analogue man in a digital world, seems to be the perfect choice to crack the case.

With the aid of a beautiful Russian spy (former Bond girl Kurylenko) and a trusty sidekick (Miller), English chases after Silicon Valley tycoon Jason Volta (Lacy) in a vintage Aston-Martin but does he still have the stuff to save England once again?

If you liked Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn you will probably like this as well – it’s more in the same vein, although the fart jokes of the latter have given way to Atkinson dropping his drawers with dreary repetition. I suppose that’s a step up.

Atkinson remains a gifted physical comedian but the character doesn’t differ much from faux spies we’ve seen in other spoofs. He has Clouseau-like misplaced arrogance, Maxwell Smart-like dignity and Austin Powers-like indominable resilience. There are tons of Bond references here but let’s face it, Bond did his own self-parody years ago and much better than this franchise.

Fans of Rowan Atkinson will dig this but probably not many else and even they may grouse that he was much better in Blackadder which he was. Then again, the writing in that series was so much better than the lowbrow tripe we get here. Perhaps this would have been better titled Johnny English Wears Out His Welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: Rowan Atkinson is unconsciously funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too been-there done-that for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence and rude humor, brief nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thompson’s husband Greg Wise has a small role as Agent One.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Lone Star Deception

Sorry We Missed You


It’s a grim prognosis for the working class.

(2019) Drama (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberKris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Irons, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Collard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg, Darren Jones, Nikki Marshall. Directed by Ken Loach

 

It has likely never been harder to be a working man now than since the Middle Ages. Making ends meet is nearly impossible; wages have dropped sharply while the cost of living continues to rise. Jobs are not plentiful, certainly not of the kind that pay well enough to live decently. Cutting corners has become a way of life as people traverse the gig economy with tentative steps, knowing that they are much like people walking in a minefield with steel-toed boots.

Ricky Turner (Hitchen) has just lost his job in the construction industry and frankly, he’s sick and tired of working jobs that can be taken away from him at a moment’s notice. He wants to be his own boss and make a wage that will allow his family to have the things they need. However, jobs are particularly scarce in Newcastle, where he and his sweet wife Abbie (Honeywood) live with their teenage son Sebastian, or “Seb” as they call him (Stone) and their brilliant tween daughter Liza Jae (Proctor).

One of Ricky’s mates links him up with PBF, a parcel delivery service who is run by the bullet-headed bulldog-like Maloney (Brewster) who runs his business like a drill sergeant. In the parlance of PBF, they don’t hire employees, they onboard independent drivers. Drivers must supply their own vans, or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate. However, if Ricky works hard and delivers his parcels on time, he will be making more than he ever did in construction, maybe enough so after two years they can save enough to put a down payment on a house, the dream of many renters.

isn’t quite so enthusiastic. In order to buy a van, they’ll have to sell the car that she uses to get to her job which is as an in-home caregiver to the elderly. She goes to their homes, cooks their meals, bathes them and tucks them into bed. She’s ideally suited for the job, but her clients are all over the map and getting to her appointments on time required a car. Taking the bus will cause her to be late more often. However, in the interest of family harmony, she gives in.

At first, things are sunshine and roses. Ricky does well on his route and becomes Maloney’s fair-haired boy, but there are some troubling signs. For one thing, the constant murderous pace of delivering parcels means drivers never get breaks and must learn to pee in a bottle rather than stopping anywhere for a bathroom break. For another, missing delivery windows and deadlines can lead to a system of demerits, which cost the drivers fines which put them in debt to PBF, forcing them to work more.

To make matters worse, Seb is indulging in some hooligan-ish behavior, skipping school, spray-painting graffiti along the roadsides and eventually getting into more serious trouble, forcing his parents to miss work in order to attend meetings with school headmasters and eventually police officers. Ricky is often so exhausted that he can barely see straight when he drives his van and taking the bus has forced Abbie to work longer hours as well. And despite the promise of better pay, the family is barely holding their heads above water as it is – it will take only the slightest of bumps to drown the lot of them.

Loach is one of the finest English directors of the past four decades and when I say that this is one of his best ever, keep in mind that he has films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake on his filmography. Like many of his films, this is a taut, no-frills productions – there’s no score, and few special effects. The brisk pace keeps the story moving and whereas lesser directors might get bogged down in subplots, Loach and his longtime collaborator writer Paul Laverty keep their focus throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets fantastic performances from the entire cast, some of whom are non-professionals and Hitchen and Honeywood exhibit some marvelous chemistry and screen presence. The dynamic for the entire Turner family feels organic and realistic; this could be the family living in the flat (or apartment) three doors down from yours, Ricky the guy down at the pub (or bar) rooting for his favorite team (in Ricky’s case, Manchester United).

The accents are very thick here, as they are in that part of England and so subtitles are necessary; some of the phrases may not be familiar to American audiences, so it might be frustrating to those who aren’t familiar with English idioms. Still, this is a marvelous film that is a triumph for the 83-year-old director who shows no signs of slowing down. This is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing the working class, so much so that it may cut a little too close to home for some. Even so, it should be required viewing for economics and business students who should see what the human toll of the current profits-at-any-cost mindset of business worldwide really is.

REASONS TO SEE: A grim portrayal of the working class circa 2019. The family dynamic feels very realistic. Hitchen and Honeywood do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: The heavily-accented English requires subtitles and some of the idioms used may be difficult to follow for the layman.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The license plate number for Ricky’s van is AK65 JFX.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: DriverX
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band